Zhang Yimou’s “The Great Wall” – A grand effort

Still from "The Great Wall"

There’s something to be said for effort. It’s usually an attribute for which one gives a semi-sarcastic “A”, meaning that they liked the subject’s work ethic or moxie despite whatever objectively crappy result they managed to churn out. That’s not what I mean here. But when I hear that Zhang Yimou, the director of Hero, is about to make an American-Chinese co-production in which Matt Damon fights monsters on top of the Great Wall of China (from a concept by the writer of World War Z and the head of Legendary Pictures), my expectations plummet to roughly Dracula Untold levels. I expected a perfunctory genre exercise in which a bankable action star was handed a simplistic studio premise that appeals to both East and West in an effort to return a strong box office both globally and in a burgeoning marketplace. What I was not expecting was to be wearing a big, stupid grin for quite so much of it, and to experience a persistent sense that everyone in the film was really trying their darnedest to create something worth watching. I don’t exaggerate when I say that this film delivers a battle sequence in the first twenty minutes that is easily as well-made as the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers‘ Battle of Helm’s Deep, and after watching a trio of sub-par Hobbit films, I’m comfortable saying that that doesn’t occur by accident.

The film starts its focus on William (Damon) and his buddy Tovar (Pedro Pascal), on the run from some bandits in Mongolia, on a mercenary Marco Polo effort to reach China and steal some black powder. They’re in rags, have long scraggly beards, and are immediately baffled when their chase leads them to the base of an architectural marvel staffed by a professional army in incredibly elaborate costumes/armor and corresponding castes. There is infantry, with armor styled like black bears, archers, like red birds, and “Crane Corps”, a blue-uniformed, all-female, close-quarter combat troop that is even cooler than it sounds (pikemen on pulleys!). This is the Nameless Order, under the leadership of Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian), General Shao (Zhang Hanyu), and strategist Wang (Andy Lau), sworn to defend China from the hell-mouth just north of the Wall, which spews forth monstrous creatures every 60 years to attack the wall and devour the north of China.

“Have you ever seen an army like this?” William sycophantically remarks to Tovar as they sit with their hands tied while the Chinese deftly fend off the several thousand monstrous creatures that choose that exact moment to attack. This critic’s answer is…not since Lord of the Rings, and it wasn’t nearly this colorful.

Jing Tian in "The Great Wall"

The inclusion of Andy Lau brought another film to mind as I was evaluating this setup: Iron Man 3. Lau – a major Hong Kong action star with a career spanning decades – was originally offered the part of a heart surgeon (eventually played by veteran Chinese actor Wang Xueqi) who has a minuscule bit part that solves a huge problem for the title superhero. That subplot was some trite nonsense, and essentially contributed nothing except for a brief Mary Sue persona whose sole purpose is to provide a sounding board for the American actors to talk about how cool China is for a couple of minutes, in an effort to bypass China’s foreign film importation restrictions through sheer toadying. This is a phenomenon I’ve remarked upon before – and while I’m not concerned in the least by China’s rise as a film market (the more the merrier), I’ve almost invariably found these “China cameos” to be a bit superfluous and condescending – and by some reports, critics in China felt the same way. Damon’s inclusion in this film almost feels like an inverse of Iron Man 3‘s debacle – the inclusion of a popular American actor playing a skilled mercenary who is present throughout the film, but largely along for the ride as the Chinese characters (and organization, and technology) actually drive the plot. But overall, the balance feels much cleaner here. Yes, having a European trader randomly show up on the occasion of China’s once-every-sixty-years monster invasion is a bit convenient, and his motivation for being there is quite flattering to China itself. But it helps that both Damon and Jing’s characters (who essentially become the co-leads of the film) are every bit a combat and charisma match for each other, even if their accents are both a bit odd and inconsistent. The end-result feels like a true international film – a bit like Pacific Rim, with the slight improvement of having the confidence to showcase its CGI monstrosities during daylight hours.

Still from "The Great Wall"

The plotline of this film, even for its simplicity, doesn’t make a lot of sense, but the film does make some visual and practical effort to suggest that the monsters are evolving greater intelligence, with the army and monsters alike forced to adjust their tactics as the film goes on. It’s a great deal of fun to watch, although why all of this escalation would occur along the most fortified and well-manned hundred-yard section of the 5,500-mile Wall is a mystery best left unpondered, as there’s no good answer for it, and it didn’t particularly bother me during the film. What did bug me were the film’s tepid ambitions beyond the Wall. The stakes of the film are world-ending – if the monsters are allowed to reach the Chinese capital (which has a population of two million, but looked virtually empty whenever we saw it), they will consume the entire population and reproduce in sufficient numbers to destroy the world. Did I buy these stakes? Largely yes, even if the final battle relies on the same “Take out the [central thing] and you’ll vanquish the entire army” nonsense as every sci-fi exhibition film from to Star Trek Beyond to The Avengers. At a certain point, I’ll probably have to stop regarding swarms of CGI whatevers as a credible threat if they’re as easy to destroy en masse as the Death Star, but it appears that I haven’t reached that point yet. The final action setpiece is outstanding, featuring Jing and Damon performing exhilarating fantasy acrobatics worthy of Cruise and Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow, always feeling like they’re mere seconds from being devoured alive. Ramin Djawadi‘s score (which includes diegetic taiko drums used to direct the army’s tactics) is marvelous – and as a point of comparison, I just watched a Marvel Studios film yesterday, and was (once again) underwhelmed by its fade-into-the-background generic score. Marvel is good at many things, but scoring superhero antics with memorable themes is not one of them. Djawadi has done some truly breathtaking work on Game of Thrones and Westworld last year, and I’m quite pleased to see him pushing back against the tide of bland superhero music on the silver screen.

Astute readers may note that I haven’t remarked much on Matt Damon playing the white hero of a Chinese film from a standpoint of “whitewashing” or a lack of minority representation in film. That’s mainly because after seeing the film, I neither agree with that characterization, nor particularly have much to say on the subject. To me, The Great Wall only superficially resembles white savior films like The Last Samurai, and I honestly haven’t read many actual complaints on this subject outside of members of the American left who made up their minds about the film months before it came out. I don’t wish to be dismissive of an important and persistent issue, but politics is a target-rich environment at the moment, the US has just put a Captain Planet villain in charge of environmental protection, and for the moment, I’d rather focus my attention on issues where I can meaningfully contribute to the discourse. Including, for instance, goofy monster battles.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

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Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” – The fault is human, but the stars deliver

Poster for

The first thirty minutes of Christopher Nolan‘s Interstellar are downright oppressive. They depict an earth saturated in dust storms and failing corn crops, struggling against agricultural blight to feed a starving and dwindling population. And the film conveys all of the details of this new reality with some unsubtle, but effective touches, including a school curriculum that now teaches that the Apollo program was merely a brilliant hoax perpetrated by 20th century propagandists in order to bankrupt the Soviet Union with futile dreams of progress beyond the stars. My only depressing note of incredulity at this detail was that even in our real-life, present-day world, with all of its vast resources and promise, we can already conjure plenty of excuses not to extend mankind’s reach into space – it’s hard to imagine that such propaganda would be necessary in a world in such dire straits. As a stark contrast to most other end-of-the-world disaster films, mankind soldiers on, but purely to maintain the status quo for just a bit longer. There is no Bruce Willis wrangling to save the world by nuking something – at least as far as the public is concerned. The remaining population is an agrarian “caretaker generation” – a designation that this film unambiguously condemns. Proverbial deck-chair wranglers on the Titanic.

This necessary, claustrophobic environment is broken up when astronauts Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi) leave Earth aboard the starship Endurance in a last-ditch attempt to save the human race. Their trip is designated “Plan B” in two ways – first, a series of previous missions have already been sent to find habitable planets, and the Endurance has been sent to find any survivors. And second, because Professor Brand (Michael Caine), a NASA scientist (and Amelia’s father), believes he can crack an equation that will allow the human race to conquer gravity – a necessary hurdle in order to evacuate the remaining population and enough materiel to support them. Structurally, this film closely resembles Danny Boyle‘s Sunshine, and in many ways, the characterization and interpersonal dynamics are inferior in comparison. Once the mission begins, Brand, Doyle, and Romilly are pretty ill-defined presences, and at one point, the crew engages in an important – but surprisingly puerile – debate over which potentially habitable world the ship should head for, made so by the out-of-nowhere revelation that Brand is in love with one of the previous astronauts, Dr. Edmund, who may still be alive on his planet. Edmund never feels like much more than an off-screen instrument for generating conflict, and it leads to Hathaway delivering a preposterous speech about love potentially being a force that transcends space-time. Transcending space-time is a rather crucial concept as the film goes on, and to introduce it in such a clunky manner nearly derailed it. And despite any dramatic irony eventually provoked by Brand’s speech, the concept never feels earned or justifiable, and did some serious damage to the character’s credibility in the process.

Still from

Nonetheless, the various “alternate Earths” are a real sci-fi treat. While they don’t stray too far from the Star Wars/Avatar convention of a single, vast ecosystem per planet, they incorporate several details that are both visually and conceptually stunning. One planet is so close to an adjacent black hole that time dilation becomes a factor, and each hour spent on its surface will translate to seven years passing back on Earth. Given the stakes involved for these characters, both at the personal level and for the entire human race, the film makes superlative use of this concept. Where the Nolans’ temporal manipulations in Inception served only to heighten the physical action, they serve in a similar way to heighten the emotional action in Interstellar, forcing its characters to feel the weight of years in an instant, and McConaughey’s performance particularly shines in this moment.

Back on Earth, Cooper’s daughter Murph (played as a child by Mackenzie Foy, and as an adult by Jessica Chastain) weighs the impact of years upon herself, as she is forced to deal with the unresolved conflict she and her father began when she was just 10 years old. Is Cooper coming back? Did he ever intend to? And regardless of his intent, is there any hope of him coming back? Much of the film’s plot hinges on her collaboration with Professor Brand on “Plan A”, to crack the theory of gravity so the remaining people can evacuate the earth – and the continuing influence of Cooper’s childhood betrayal hangs over the film throughout. More on this below.

Interstellar is, in many ways, one of the most ambitious sci-fi films ever made, containing all the style and visual splendor of sillier films like Prometheus, but with a substantially smarter script and some convincing exploration of the big ideas of sci-fi to back it up. A better comparison is 2001: A Space Odyssey, from which it takes a few obvious visual and thematic cues. Its use of practical effects and models provides a great sense of realism to the scenes set in space, from the rotating ring ship to a magnificent column-based robot named TARS (voice of Bill Irwin), whose “humor setting” allows him to land one of the film’s best zingers during take-off. The film never quite transcends its reliance on characters that aren’t nearly as well-drawn as the actors playing them, but it is still a must-see space opera for the 21st century.

Still from


***

 

Spoiler warning from this point on.

***


So what, then, do we make of the third-act appearance of Matt Damon as haggard, solitary astronaut Dr. Mann – the architect (and apparently sole survivor) of the previous missions? Like a similar third-act revelation in Sunshine, Dr. Mann is more concept than character, although Damon successfully imbues him with some complex psychology in a short space of time. If each of the astronauts is a sacrificial lamb for mankind, Dr. Mann is surely Judas, derailing and misdirecting the mission in order to save his own skin. He opted into a life of selflessness, but then found himself unable to follow through on it. Shame on him, for he is us – his name is even “Mann” (*sigh*). As much I enjoyed Damon’s brief performance, this is some pretty weak material, and ends far too quickly to have as much of an impact as the film’s five-dimensional mind-fuck of an ending.

Indeed, there is a multi-layered, Terminator-style “future creates the past” temporal paradox at work here. Future-humans save their predecessors from extinction by creating the singularity and a reality for Cooper to interact with, and future-Cooper ensures that past-Cooper will end up exactly where he is – in an indescribably beautiful nether-space – a five-dimensional reality rendered in three dimensions, conceptually explained earlier in the film, when astronaut Brand speculates that fifth-dimensional beings might be able to descend a canyon to visit the past, or climb a mountain to visit the future. There are a few curious details here. There’s the obvious question of why the future-humans can’t simply explain their plan to Cooper (perhaps transcendent fifth-dimensional beings no longer speak 21st century American English), but I actually found it more fascinating that Cooper’s first inclination is to try to change the past and prevent his younger self from leaving his daughter back on Earth in the first place. It’s unclear if he is doing this because the mission has gone so thoroughly awry, or if, like Dr. Mann, he has simply lost all will to continue, and will do anything to undo his mistakes, even at the cost of all mankind. McConaughey plays with this ambiguity nicely, even as Cooper quickly realizes this is futile, and instead switches tactics to making sure that the past proceeds exactly as it did. He gives young Murph the location of the the NASA remnant, setting the film’s events in motion in the first place. Yeah, I didn’t mention the “gravity ghost” earlier – sue me. Pretty hard to discuss it without spoilery context. This becomes a predestination paradox – the fifth-dimensional reality allows Cooper to view and influence the past, but he doesn’t seem to be able to change events substantially except to nudge them into proceeding exactly as they did the first time. As the sequence goes on, it’s fascinating to ponder what would have happened if Cooper had simply done nothing upon entering the nether-space. Did he even have that choice? Would he have simply floated there forever?

The film also ends with a grand sense of possibility – and a big question – what became of Brand? When Cooper is rescued aboard “Cooper Station”, a vast cylindrical habitat that was constructed, launched, and sent to the edge of the singularity in the ensuing 60 years since Cooper’s disappearance (thanks, time dilation!), his daughter (now played by Ellen Burstyn) sends him away from her deathbed (and many children and grandchildren) to head through the wormhole and find Brand, who is surely waiting for him. The cheeriest possible read on this ending – which I daresay is supported by dialogue from the film – is that Cooper and Brand were in the time dilation field around the black hole for exactly the same amount of relative time, causing another 60 years to pass on Earth while the same (smaller) amount of time passed for each of them. Cooper took his timeline-altering dive into the singularity – and Brand landed on Edmund’s planet – at exactly the same point in history relative to Earth. And inside the singularity, Cooper existed outside of space and time, so he emerged without any additional time passing.

I’m laying all of this out for two reasons. First, because I suspect that many will regard Interstellar‘s final ambiguity with the same kind of Nolan-induced side-eye as Inception‘s spinning top, prompting endless debate and nerd-rage, and I’m eager to get my own interpretation on the record now. But the second reason is because it is only such a smart and well-drawn piece of sci-fi that can invite this kind of reflection. Interstellar may make a few missteps on the human side, but it is a smart, timely, and internally consistent space opera. And it’s absolutely gorgeous on film.


 

Spoilers over.


FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium” – Fakery in lieu of satire

Poster for "Elysium"

In the distant future, Earth is a polluted, overpopulated wasteland, no longer capable of supporting human life. A privileged few have managed to escape into the only place left for them – outer space. But something is amiss. Humanity is stagnant – out of balance. All of its resources benefit a privileged few. But soon, a lone hero will venture forth from his ruined home planet to save humanity from itself. And that hero…is a cute little robot named Wall-E.

I made the profound mistake of rewatching District 9 the day before seeing Elysium. The former, Neill Blomkamp‘s 2009 feature film debut, posits an alternate present-day in which aliens landed 20 years ago, and now exist in a beleaguered slum in South Africa. District 9 revels in cynicism, and does so quite effectively. As a viewer, I patted myself on the back in smug self-assurance that – yes, that’s exactly how terribly that situation would play out. In fact, it would probably be a lot worse. Elysium posits a similarly broken and unjust world, but does so in a manner that feels completely derivative (see Wall-E) and isn’t particularly effective at world-building or satire. The viewer must either accept Elysium as a straightforward piece of populist propaganda – without an ounce of self-awareness – or simply enjoy it as a film in which Mecha-Matt Damon blows a few things up. I tried to enjoy the film on one of these levels, but found each of them to be lacking.

Many of the film’s action beats felt like pale shadows of things I had already seen in District 9. This included a few identical weapons, but let’s face it, rail guns are cool enough to include twice. Unfortunately, in several cases, the action direction and cinematography have gotten noticeably worse. The moment Damon put on his cyborg exosuit, all of his fights turned into fast-cutting, incomprehensible blurs. Whatever blend of physical and virtual effects was in play here, it clearly didn’t work well enough that they felt comfortable showing it for more than a half-second at a time.

Much of the world building of the earthbound slum (or slumbound earth) worked fine, and some of it even approached decent satire. The overwhelming reliance on automated law enforcement (including a hilarious parole droid) definitely hits a few familiar notes for American audiences. The problem is that the satire is basically non-existent on Elysium – the titular space platform. There is no allegory in place here. Elysium is America, or at least the most wealthy Americans. And this isn’t the future – this might as well be now. This attitude is readily apparent from the film itself (and the director has confirmed as much himself), and it might have even succeeded as a passable allegory if not for the one crucial detail- the most alluring amenity of Elysium is a medical bed in every home that effectively and instantaneously cures any disease or injury. You read that correctly. The MacGuffin in this science fiction film…is a magical healing bed that grants immortality.

elysium-jodie-foster-photo

That’s it, folks. That’s when I checked out of this movie. Because if you’re the person who is withholding the magical healing bed from the rest of the world, you are evil, you are irredeemable, and you are utterly boring. Saddling strong performers like Jodie Foster and William Fichtner with such one-note villainy feels like a waste, despite both of their passable performances. And the less said about Sharlto Copley the better. He plays a neat (if slightly incomprehensible) psychopath, but he feels like a bearded retread of David James‘ psychopathic soldier from District 9. He likes killing, he’s good at it, and he’s in gleeful service of a corrupt regime. If the regime itself had been a bit more believable, I might have enjoyed this performance a lot more. Copley is clearly having a good deal of fun with it.

Elysium should have worked as a concept. There was much about this world that made me intrigued, made me curious… I wanted to know more about how the government of this place operated. I wanted to know more about its relationship with Earth. The platform clearly possesses either the military might or political capital to exert force on the planet below (at one time locking down the airspace of Los Angeles through sheer force of will). There is enough implied substance here that the film could easily have built out that relationship further, peppering in the small details that would have made it a credible world. Science fiction (or at least its marketing) used to be about making the audience “believe” something. You’ll believe a man can fly. You’ll believe a spaceship can fly to Mars. As a film intended to make me believe in an orbital platform for the super-rich, the film was a total failure. All it really made me believe in was a world broken so badly that the film’s pretense of a happy ending provoked nothing but a mirthless chuckle.

FilmWonk rating: 3 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #30 – “Promised Land” (dir. Gus Van Sant), “Django Unchained” (dir. Quentin Tarantino)

Poster for "Django Unchained"

This week on the podcast, Glenn and Daniel take on a surprising double-header. First comes Promised Land, a reunion between Matt Damon and Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting), along with newcomer John Krasinski (from “The Office”), featuring salesmen trying to convince a small town to let them drill for natural gas in their backyards (a process known as fracking). Then comes Django Unchained, an escaped-slave revenge romp from Quentin Tarantino starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, and Leonardo DiCaprio. The biggest surprise? After declaring Inglourious Basterds the FilmWonk favorite of 2009, we had a very different experience with Tarantino’s latest (1:09:22).

May contain some NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (Promised Land): 7.5/10
FilmWonk rating (Django Unchained): 4/10

Show notes:

  • (0:00) Review: Promised Land
  • (13:06) Spoilers: Promised Land
  • (26:00) Review: Django Unchained
  • (46:01) Spoilers: Django Unchained
  • Music for this episode comes from Luis Bacalov‘s original theme song to the 1966 Sergio Corbucci film Django, which also appears in Tarantino’s film.
  • While we certainly don’t attempt to settle the fracking issue on this podcast, you can read more about it here.
  • CORRECTION (from Glenn): Upon reflection, I must retract my comment about Spike Lee. While he did attack Django Unchained for depicting slavery in the context of a spaghetti western, and has criticized Tarantino about his use of racial epithets previously (NSFW), he has not (to our knowledge) ever stated that Tarantino’s race is a factor in his ability to make a film about slavery. Read his exact position (in brief) on Twitter. We apologize for the error.
  • While Glenn adored Inglourious Basterds, Daniel was definitely not a fan. Revise history in his presence at your own peril!

Listen above, or download: Promised Land/Django Unchained (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser).

George Nolfi’s “The Adjustment Bureau” – All according to plan

When I saw the trailer for this latest Phillip K. Dick adaptation, I was intrigued, but mostly disappointed. To see the film squander its high-minded concepts of fate, free will, and strangers in suits in the service of what seemed to be just another “us against the world” romance seemed like a profound waste of time. We see Matt Damon, an able presence in any film, once again showcasing his four-minute mile, this time with an out-of-breath Emily Blunt in tow, and the film seemed like little more than a chase thriller saddled with superficial overtones of meant-to-be amour.

It’s the story of New York State Congressman David Morris (Damon), who meets the girl of his dreams in ballet dancer Elise (Blunt), but never gets her last name or phone number. The besuited members of the Adjustment Bureau, guardians of fate the world over, go out of their way to ensure that the two never meet again. And why? Because “the Plan” says they’re not supposed to be together. But when Adjuster Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie) dozes off on the job, the two star-crossed lovers meet and form an instant and irrevocable attraction, prompting higher-ups Richardson (Mad Men‘s John Slattery) and Thompson (Terence Stamp) to come in and set the world back on track.

David’s inadvertant glimpse at the Adjusters in action has cosmic consequences, leading to a multitude of lengthy deliberations about fate and free-will. These discussions are probably where Dick and Nolfi’s carefully-crafted dialogue is at its strongest, striking just the right balance between existential technobabble (“We’re seeing some shifting confluence tides!”) and adept worldbuilding. In addition to the discussions, there are plenty of foot-chases wherein the Adjusters show off their uncanny ability to flit between any two locations via doorways. This is a mechanic we’ve seen before, in both Pixar’s Monster’s, Inc, as well as The Matrix Reloaded. I regret to invoke that first Matrix sequel, but The Adjustment Bureau feels in many ways like a spiritual successor to that film. It has a similarly controlled and constructed reality (complete with its very own Agents), but unlike Reloaded, manages to philosophize without becoming overly self-indulgent. The foot-chases increased in length and complexity, and I actually found myself getting bored with them as the film went on. Its parallels to Reloaded became so striking at this point that I thought the only way the film could end was with David and Elise pleading their romantic case in front of the Architect (or “The Chairman”, as he’s known in this film).

I won’t spoil how the film ends, but I will say I found it mildly satisfying. It was a brave choice to focus on such a seemingly conventional romance (and give us not one, but three meet-cute scenes), but the undeniable chemistry between Damon and Blunt managed to justify it even as each leap forward in time made it less and less coherent. Blunt’s performance is striking, but her character exists as little more than an object of beauty and desire, her appeal explained solely as a product of her masterful skill in the art of ballet. Damon, meanwhile, is given a great deal more to work with as a would-be politician as well as a romantic. He delivers a speech that the film’s fictitious journalists rightfully refer to as “electrifying”, and has a number of fantastic scenes debating fate and free-will with the always enjoyable Terence Stamp. If the film’s romance offers one great disappointment, it’s that Elise is never given any say in the matter- indeed, she’s never even given a chance to understand what’s going on, and pays a great emotional price for it. While David knows he’s risking his life and defying his fate to be with her, Elise is simply caught in an on-again, off-again romance with an unreliable politician, and comes along for the ride simply because it feels right.

The romance aside, the film’s most fascinating character might just be Harry (Mackie), the Adjuster who’s had just about enough of manipulating people’s lives. Mackie gives an adeptly understated performance. Even as he delivers the bulk of the film’s exposition, he remains aloof and otherworldly while clearly feeling a measure of compassion for the people he’s manipulating.

In the end, The Adjustment Bureau is an adept rendition of unoriginal ideas, and that might just make it worth watching. Its grand questions about fate vs. free will are doled out at about the right pace – just as I began to wonder how the present world (or indeed, the past century) can be explained as a delicate web of clockwork predestination, the film offered what can at least be deemed a plausible excuse. In this world, God (or “The Chairman”) appears to be quite fallible, or at least willing to indulge in the kind of experimentation that inadvertently brings about the Dark Ages or the Holocaust. The film sidesteps the contradiction between omnipotence and omnibenevolence by never quite presuming either. The Adjusters aren’t all-seeing or all-knowing (despite their frequent claims to the contrary), and film’s resulting deity is neither a hands-off Deist type nor an ever-present micromanager that makes everyone’s dreams come true. The Bureau’s specific interest in David is never quite explained, but any success he might achieve will come at a significant personal cost.

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10

2010 Glennies, Part 2: Best Supporting Actor

#5: Jonah Hill – Cyrus, Cyrus

In this film from Jay and Mark DuPlass, most of the film’s dialogue was improvised by the actors, and I can only imagine what kind of direction the brothers gave to Jonah Hill as the title character. Creepier… Wider eyes… Like you’re boring into my soul with a searing fireplace poker… This film presents an utterly bizarre, almost marriage-like relationship between Cyrus and his mother (Marisa Tomei), and an instant antagonism for her budding romantic interest, played surprisingly straight by John C. Reilly. All three actors boast a fantastic chemistry, but it’s Jonah Hill’s performance that is easily the most memorable and comedically disturbing.

#4: Armie Hammer – Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, The Social Network

I don’t generally give credit to an actor simply because of the likely-difficult circumstances of production (I’m sure Sam Worthington’s Avatar shoot was no picnic), but Armie Hammer managed to navigate the movie-magic vagaries of playing composited crew-rowing twins while simultaneously imbuing each of them with a distinct and memorable personality. The level of sympathy for these characters will likely depend on your feelings on the Facebook/Harvard Connection litigation (ongoing as of this writing), but Hammer’s take on the brothers Winklevi never waivers from portraying them as consummate and forthright “gentlemen of Harvard”. Even as they seem determined to bring down the ostensible antihero of the tale, they never quite seem like true villains – they are honest, self-conscious, and perhaps a little naive. Hammer manages to convey all of the dimensionality and noticeably distinct personalities amid Sorkin’s signature rapid-fire dialogue, turning in two of the most memorable performances in an equally impressive cast.

#3: Andrew Garfield – Eduardo Saverin, The Social Network

Minor spoilers for the film, and to a lesser extent, real life, will follow.
The effectiveness of The Social Network hinged on a great many things, but easily the most important aspect of the film is the erstwhile friendship of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and Eduardo Saverin. Without Zuckerberg, there’s no Facebook. Without the relationship with Saverin, there’s no movie. Garfield and Eisenberg had a great comedic chemistry (a scene in which Saverin explains to Zuckerberg his treatment of a pet chicken is easily one of the funniest in the film), but Garfield also played the character with such earnestness and emotionality that this relationship and its inevitable dissolution were utterly captivating to behold. What happens to Saverin is business, to be sure, but the film manages to also sell it as a significant personal betrayal. While this owes a great deal to Sorkin’s writing, it is Garfield’s heartbreaking final scenes that make it succeed so masterfully.

While Garfield is receiving this award for The Social Network, I was also impressed by his turn in Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go. I can’t imagine what sort of Spider-Man he’ll be, but I’m a lot more interested in finding out after such a remarkable year of introductory performances.

#2: John Hawkes – Teardrop, Winter’s Bone

While Jacki Weaver may have played my favorite villain this year, it is John Hawkes who beats her out for the most terrifying screen presence. Given his unassuming and light comedic performance in 2005’s Me and You and Everyone We Know, and his thoroughly likeable run on HBO’s Deadwood, I was completely blown away by Hawkes’ transformation into the heroine’s wiry meth-addict uncle. From my original review:

His physique was more or less unchanged (except for a slightly graying beard), but his demeanor was something new and thoroughly intimidating. Every word Teardrop says seems to carry a simmering threat of violence, and although the character actually perpetrates very little, Hawkes brings a fiery intensity that makes him downright terrifying to watch.

He and Jennifer Lawrence match each other’s grit quite nicely, and their unlikely alliance was crucial to the film’s effectiveness.

#1: Christian Bale – Dicky Eklund, The Fighter

As I noted in the podcast review, Christian Bale has mostly approached his last few years’ worth of roles in a gruff and humorless fashion, and the resulting performances have not been too impressive. The moment Dicky Eklund steps into frame in the film’s opening street scene, I forgot all of that. This character is such a firecracker. As Eklund saunters down the streets of Lowell, Mass. greeting every inhabitant he comes across, Bale utterly oozes with charisma. His physical and verbal commitment to this character is unparalleled in this cast or any other film this year.

This is the self-destructive crackhead you’d love to be friends with. At the outset, he’s wiry, twitchy and completely high in every scene, but just a load of fun to be around. He plays the most dysfunctional member of a severely dysfunctional family, and yet every one of his early scenes is an absolute pleasure. Minor spoiler, revealed in the trailer: When the character detoxes in the second half of the film, Bale manages to make the personality change believable, and yet still keeps the character completely engaging even without hopping uncontrollably as he did in the first half. This is the best Bale performance in several years, and easily boasted enough screentime to rightfully be considered for Best Actor. But the Academy has spoken

Honorable Mentions:

  • Justin Timberlake as Sean Parker in The Social Network
  • Ewan McGregor as Phillip Morris in I Love You, Phillip Morris
  • Jeremy Renner as James Coughlin in The Town
  • Matt Damon as LaBoeuf in True Grit
  • Mark Ruffalo as Paul in The Kids Are All Right

Click here to see the rest of the 2010 Glennies.

Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus” – Wish I could have been there, instead of seeing this.

Poster for Clint Eastwood's "Invictus"

Spoiler Warning: This film is based on true events, and as such, this review will contain more spoilers than usual.

Oh, what can I really say about this film? Clint Eastwood has spun me the inspiring and true story of Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) and his leadership of the newly post-apartheid South Africa. How he asked the leader of the national rugby team, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), to lead his team to victory in the Rugby World Cup in order to unite the nation. How Pienaar and his team rose to the great leader’s challenge, and went on to an underdog victory against the highly rated New Zealand All Blacks. He has shown me all of this, and yet he has also shown me how saccharine, overlong, and utterly unsubstantial a film can be made of it.

While Eastwood has continued to show his prowess as a filmmaker in recent years, he has never been one for subtlety (as shown by his last treatment of racial issues, Gran Torino). But while Invictus is at least a pleasant-looking and well-composed film, there’s really not much else to it. And because of its grand scope and drawn-out runtime, the film just plays out like an endless cavalcade of missed opportunities.

It could have been a film about rugby, but it wasn’t. Apart from some convincing physicality and camaraderie by Damon and company, the players don’t do much to differentiate themselves, and we really don’t learn anything about their strategy or gameplay. Likewise, it could have been a film about South African politics, but to hear this movie tell it, the only two issues facing the country are race and rugby (the latter being the solution to the former). A dark and unintentionally funny moment ensues when Mandela assures his adviser that if they sort out rugby, then they will be free to sort out “the rest” (e.g. the failing economy). Riiiight…

But rather than focus on sports or politics, Invictus tries to be a film about both, and still fails to evoke any interest. Mandela’s support for the team is largely a political maneuver, and his advisers challenge him several times on this point. But even this mildly interesting aspect of the story proves fruitless for two reasons. First, Mandela’s political shenanigans are completely pure-hearted. And second, his strategy for ensuring the rugby team a win appears to consist of interrupting every one of their practices to shake their hands and tell them how much their country is counting on them. On the eve of the quarter final match, as the team feverishly practices, another hilarious moment ensues when Mandela swoops over them with a helicopter, landing in the middle of the pitch, then assuring them that he doesn’t want to interrupt their practice. But hey, they gave him a team hat. So it’s all good.

Still from Clint Eastwood's "Invictus"

I’m going to interrupt my rant here and say… I really wanted to like this film, and there are a few things to like in it. Morgan Freeman absolutely looks and sounds the part, and let’s be honest…he could play this part in his sleep, and of course he does a fantastic job. Matt Damon clearly bulked up and trained like a madman for this role, and continues to prove himself one of the finest and hardest working actors in Hollywood. In addition, Tony Kgoroge gives a fine performance as one of Mandela’s bodyguards (who ultimately gets a more interesting arc than Damon’s character). And how can I argue with the events? This was a great and inspiring moment in both sporting and South African history, and I wish I could have been fortunate enough to see it in person.

But instead, what I’m presented with is an expensive imitation, and it plays more like a parody of inspiring films than a genuinely inspiring one. At the game’s end, we see a montage of celebrations, as blacks and whites the country over embrace each other in the newfound (and instantaneous) harmony of the Rainbow Nation. One particularly incredible sequence involved a pair of white police officers and a small black boy who hangs out near their car in order to listen to the game on their radio… While he is understandably wary of getting billy clubbed early on, the cops eventually let him stick around. But at the end of the game, the scene just goes too far. The officers hug him (okay!), hoist him into the air (less likely, but okay!), and finally put a police hat on his head (sorry, but I just don’t buy it).

Most of the later scenes play in this way, and as a member of the audience, I just felt manipulated. In another semi-plausible sequence, the rugby team visits Robben Island and is awed by the site where their president was wrongfully imprisoned for 27 years. But once again, the film takes it too far. Pienaar locks himself in Mandela’s former cell, and several apparitions of Morgan Freeman fade variably into view… Sitting in the cell…lying in the cell…reading poetry…Chopping rocks outside… Chopping rocks…in another part of outside…

And again, I have to concede that if I were really on Robben Island, I might well have a similar reaction. But this film attempts to convince us of an intensely personal moment for Pienaar, based on a relationship between him and Mandela that is not particularly well fleshed out.

For a historical tale to be inspiring, we need a little distance from it. We need perspective. We need some sense that the inspiring effect has lasted. Fictional films like Remember the Titans work precisely because of their confined scale and believable effect. At the end of that film, I can really believe that a small town’s racial tensions could be resolved by the intense interracial brotherhood that develops amongst a high school football team.

But stories like this work in fiction precisely because we have to take the filmmaker’s word on the story’s end. I would do South Africa a disservice to discount the impact of this great man and glorious moment for their nation, but as I watch South African politics a decade and a half later – the crime, the violence, the economic strife…the corruption and leadership struggles between Thabo Mbeki – Mandela’s successor – and Jacob Zuma – another former political prisoner of Robben Island… I’m reminded that history encompasses much more than just great moments and great men.

The story goes on. And a simple and languidly paced freeze-frame of a single shining moment of that story just doesn’t inspire me.

FilmWonk rating: 4 out of 10