Anna Rose Holmer’s directorial debut, The Fits, is a look into a young girl entering a new social group. Toni (Royalty Hightower) is an 11 year old girl who trains with her older brother’s boxing team at the local community center. In another wing of the building, there is a successful dance team filled with girls her age. To Toni, the dance team occupies a different world and she is curious. After some coaxing from her brother, she tries out and joins the group. The film explores her gradual assimilation in the face of a sickness that begins soon after she joins.
Holmer does a great job of portraying Toni’s outsider status. Even as the other girls are fairly welcoming, the distancing effect created by repeated shots with only Toni in focus show how foreign this new world is to her. She has only experienced the social dynamics of her brother’s friends and doesn’t know what to do when faced with the gossip, nail painting, and ear piercing of the girls dance team. Hightower’s stoic but wide-eyed stare convey her genuine confusion at the accepted customs of her team members. Her performance successfully balances her unfamiliarity while still charming through flashes of her youthful naivete.
The film attempts to create tension using techniques most commonly seen in the horror genre. Holmer dials into the slow tracking shots, the muffled chatter, and the high pitched audio feedback found in a James Wan film. While these techniques establish a creepy atmosphere, the film isn’t able to build tension over time because of how the fits are depicted. Despite being the supposed center of the story, the fits themselves feel like background events. Toni’s detachment from the other girls prevents these episodes from feeling like credible dangers. Even as other characters begin to fear for their safety, Toni is never worried and this complacence extends to the audience. We too have little interest in the symptoms, effectively preventing any true fear from being created because we can’t be afraid of something that isn’t important.
Toni’s alienation and desire for acceptance into this new group mirrors the spread of the fits. The leaders of the dance team are the first to contract the issue and it slowly works its way down the food chain. The fits become an initiation rite as the kids start to divide themselves based on whether or not they have experienced them. The metaphorical implications of the fits during an exploration of gender roles alone would have made a compelling narrative, but the adherence to horror trappings without being able to produce the desired dread create a promising film with divergent goals that never reach fruition.
Dheepan is a realistic portrayal of the refugee immigrant experience undermined by a third act tonal shift towards the melodramatic. The film opens on wartorn Sri Lanka, where bodies are being cremated en masse as families are broken and the individuals remaining struggle to survive. A woman searches the camp for a girl without a mother and we soon find out why as she takes a girl to a tent with a soldier and another man. The three civilians are going to adopt the names of a recently deceased family. Forget their previous lives, the man, woman, and child are now Dheepan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan), Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), and Illyaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) and will be migrating to France with their newfound passports. When they arrive, they are placed into housing and attempt to start a new, better life.
Jacques Audiarad (A Prophet) is known for directing films with uncompromising detail. He continues that trend here as he probes the personal struggles of those escaping a conflict and assimilating into a new culture. The main characters are not just escaping their homeland, they are strangers posing as a family using passports of the deceased, inventing fake backstories along the way. They are desperate and not necessarily virtuous. Audiard does not spare any of the characters from his gaze. Dheepan and Yalini turn blind eyes to the activities in their neighborhood to ensure their safety and Illayaal reacts violently when rejected by other schoolchildren. The director isn’t interested in a clean tale of redemption or upwards mobility, he wants to portray the grim sacrifices made to survive in a foreign land.
This continues until the latter portion of the film clashes with the initial intent. As tension increases between rival factions within their apartment complex, Dheepan makes a sudden, bold move. Without revealing too much, this action is supported by his past but, in light of the earlier tone of the film, is a drastic and unnecessary change. In a Hollywood production, this type of ending would be typical if not welcome, but here it breaks the established immersion. Audiard’s goal with this decision was probably to show how the experience of living through a conflict remains long after the danger has passed, as evidenced by brief foreshadowing flashbacks, but the bravado it is presented with almost glamorizes the violence that takes place.
It’s a shame that the strong setup is wasted by the action set pieces because the progression of the characters provided a compelling story. We were able to watch as they scrapped their way to a better life, moving from a barren apartment to a furnished home, from individuals using each other for personal benefit to a family unit, and from strangers in an alien world to a gradual incorporation into their new milieu. Instead of steadily gaining speed with the naturally escalating tension, Audiard’s examination of the complexities of immigration is gravely injured by his changing interests and only hobbles to the finish line.
Filled with professional intellectuals and set in New York City, Maggie’s Plan initially comes off as a misplaced Woody Allen comedy but soon reveals itself to be a much kinder film than most of Allen’s body of work. Maggie (Greta Gerwig; Frances Ha) is a university faculty member intent on having a child, regardless of her current relationship status, until she enters an unexpected relationship with anthropology professor John (Ethan Hawke; Before Midnight). Unfortunately, John is married to Georgette (Julianne Moore; Still Alice), a needy and career focused fellow professor at a different school. As a result of their affair, John divorces Georgette and marries Maggie which leads to the child Maggie had been hoping for. After a few years of marriage, it becomes clear that Maggie and John are no longer working out, but instead of leaving like a sane person would do she creates the titular plan. Maggie notices that he still spends hours talking to his ex-wife and realizes that Georgette was indeed right for him. Together the two women create a scenario for Georgette and John to meet and hopefully rekindle their feelings for one another.
In a film with otherwise solid acting, Moore delivers one of the most hamstrung performances of her career. She has proven herself consistently reliable in a wide range of roles from an adult film star in Boogie Nights to a professor in Still Alice, but here she crashes and burns underneath a repulsive accent. Where is she supposed to be from…England? France? Germany? Is it just a speech impediment? Depending on the specific scene it could be any of those choices. Director Rebecca Miller (The Private Lives of Pippa Lee) was likely aiming to make Georgette appear more sophisticated but the gimmick is entirely unnecessary. Moore’s acting alone would have been convincing enough, but saddled with an accent that would make Tommy Wiseau jealous, her delivery detracts from an otherwise well-written character.
Conversely, the character of Maggie is always enchanting. Her attempts at almost Machiavellian manipulation are softened by Gerwig’s performance as she imbues Maggie with a well-intentioned naivete. Maggie is not scheming to absolve herself of latent guilt about entering a relationship with a married man, but rather she’s genuinely trying to create what she perceives as the best outcome for him. Even as things go awry, she never blames anyone, never holds grudges, and instead compensates by taking charge of other people’s responsibilities. As she sacrifices her own desires to help others, it becomes clear that Maggie’s problem isn’t that she is too controlling, it’s that she cares too much about others.
Her empathy, even at her own expense, carries the film. The other characters are each selfish in their own way, but Maggie never has any personal goals beyond a strong relationship with her daughter and every scene with her toddler further exemplifies her affection for those around her. Just as a mother restructures her life for the betterment her child, Maggie adapts herself to take care of her loved ones. She doesn’t always have the most logical methods, but her heart is in the right place as she suffuses the film with her blissfully unaware charm.
At the end of last year, 2016 looked like it would be the year of the video game adaptation. Beloved franchises from PC to mobile to console were being brought to the big screen in ways that seemed like they could actually work. This year we have Angry Birds, Ratchet & Clank, Warcraft, and Assassin’s Creed. The first two are animated films, Warcraft is live action with significant motion capture, and AC is live action. Before we discuss this year’s lineup in detail, let’s revisit the history and background of these films.
Video game movies are bad. That’s not an opinion, until now it’s been an accepted fact. The track record of video game adaptations has become a running joke to the point that fans of either medium groan whenever news breaks that a franchise has been optioned. In theory, it shouldn’t be abnormal for a video game movie to be good. Games have great, imaginative settings and, like blockbuster movies, they’re often driven by spectacle. The problem behind this sub-genre can be answered with two simple questions: “Why?” and “Who?”.
Whenever a work is optioned, it is usually done for either love of the source material or potential for financial returns. In the case of video games, it has mostly been the latter. Instead of viewing a game as an individual piece of content, producers and executives have been making video game adaptations based on the built-in fan base. Everyone played Super Mario Bros. growing up so why not make a movie? If even a small percentage of people who played the video game buy a ticket, the movie will profit. But what they’re not thinking about is what makes these games popular. People don’t play Mario because they love bipedal mushrooms or a giant turtle-dragon thing. They’re fans because of the interactive element and how it makes them feel. In Mario, it’s the tension created by barely landing on a platform, but this doesn’t translate at all to a film. You can’t adapt gameplay.
Instead, producers use their regular toolkits. They take successful video games with outlandish premises and try to shoehorn in a generic script. Was there anything about the Need for Speed movie that reflected the actual game? No. It was a heist movie made because The Fast & the Furious is popular and Need for Speed is a recognizable brand. It didn’t matter that the franchise had almost no storyline or greater world development, because financiers were only looking at the large box office potential given the sales of the video games and the success of similar films. They took the existing name and forced in a basic plot so bland that no fan would have been able to guess that it was an adaptation without being told.
Video games don’t easily conform to standard storylines. This is true on multiple levels. On one hand, video games can be long. A retail game can sustain between 8 and 100 hours of playtime, depending on the title. Telling a story across this kind of timeframe not only allows for more plot points, but gives the player a chance to live in the setting and understand the characters in a way no regular film can. After spending 40+ hours playing Mass Effect 2, the side character Mordin Solus wasn’t just a character I liked, he was my friend. The mere constraints of the medium prevent single films from forging these kinds of relationships between the audience and the characters or settings.
Video games are not only story-based. If someone were to recommend a book and say “Just ignore the story” that would be a ridiculous suggestion. Unlike books, video games aren’t solely defined by their writing and unlike films, they have an additional layer beyond their visuals. The key to video games is interactivity. There is a tension created by the collision of prewritten narrative and player agency. As a character grows, the player is not just a viewer of the change but an active participant. They feel ownership over the events that have taken place.
It is the interactive element of video games that those adapting them to film most often miss. Anyone adapting a video game needs to look beyond the surface level a franchise’s features. Yes, the Prince of Persia series’s signature move is wallrunning, but shots of Jake Gyllenhaal scampering along a wall won’t have the same impact. It’s not just what a character does in a video game that matters, it’s how it makes the player feel. Wallrunning is about agility, power, and resourcefulness. You, the player, were able to outwit the precarious architecture and the feeling that results is one of nervous relief, satisfaction, and pride. These adaptations need to target the core feelings produced by playing, not watching, the video game.
Much of the issue stems from the types of people making these films. As stated earlier, there are some that look at a video game and only see the guaranteed fanbase, but there are also issues of familiarity, both with the particular franchise and with video games as a medium. A successful director would need to understand filmmaking techniques as well as the language of video games. In most adaptations so far this hasn’t been the case. Often times the director has failed on both accounts, neither being an accomplished filmmaker, nor having any understanding of video games.
The best examples of how to make a successful adaptation come from a different medium – comic books. Pre-2000s there were many comic book film adaptations that were unsuccessful. This happened for very similar reasons to video game adaptations. The people making the films did not have the understanding needed of both mediums. It wasn’t until this century that the comic book era we currently live in began. Unlike previous films, these were being directed by talented filmmakers who grew up with comic books giving them a deep understanding of the medium and how it was both similar to and different from film. Video games have not been around nearly as long as comic books. If we want to start counting with the Nintendo Entertainment System, it’s only been a bit over 30 years. Most higher ups in the film industry tend to be over 50, so the people in charge now likely didn’t grow up with the medium. They’re trying to understand something foreign to them and fumbling the adaptation in the process.
However, soon the kids that grew up on Zelda and Final Fantasy will be in charge of directing or producing feature films. Once that happens, I expect the abysmal results of video game adaptations to improve significantly. Will there be a Nintendo Cinematic Universe? Probably not, but as video games diversify and grow there are more franchises that are ripe for optioning and more people qualified to take full advantage of them. Each of this year’s adaptations showed promise. Angry Birds lacks any story as a video game, but as an animated feature, it wasn’t a hard sell to think that someone would be able to tell a decent story using those characters. The Ratchet & Clank franchise on the other hand has always felt like a playable animated movie so the adaptation seemed completely natural. Unfortunately, the film was unable to capture the charm of the games and by all accounts was generic and forgettable.
Warcraft represented the best chance at a good, perhaps great film. The lore of the franchise had been developed for over a decade and was expansive with many individual plotlines that would function well in a film. That combined with the rising star director, Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code), should have created unprecedented enthusiasm, but it didn’t. Despite Jones’s filmography, the consensus prior to release never rose above cautious optimism. When it finally debuted after a long post-production, Warcraft was panned by most critics and bombed at the US box office (although it did well in China). In reality, it was an enjoyable, but flawed film. Jones is a fan of the video games and was able to bring the appeal of the large-scale battles. Sadly, the overall quality was undercut by the burden of establishing a Warcraft film franchise. It wasn’t a giant leap forward, but did move in the right direction.
The next shot at true vindication is Assassin’s Creed in December. Directed by Justin Kurzel (Macbeth) and starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, the film has a good pedigree. Furthermore, the franchise has an intriguing premise and plenty of opportunity to tell a contained story without requiring the greater world setup that Warcraft did. Whether or not the film succeeds, it is only a matter of time until the right team, with an understanding of both films and video games, gets behind the right franchise to produce the adaptation we have been waiting for. Until then, the unique style and presentation of video games will continue to seep into films, like Hardcore Henry, and fans of both mediums will patiently wait for the day we can watch Commander Shepard’s signature dance moves on the big screen.
Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code) may be the first talented director to adapt a video game to film. His first two films proved he could readily handle sci-fi stories on a small scale and with complicated plotlines. With Warcraft he has had his chance to use a huge budget and high end special effects to bring one of the most popular video game franchise (and a favorite of Jones’s) to the big screen. Obviously, video game adaptations have had a track record that ranges from mediocre to awful so expectations were low. I’m happy to say that while not revolutionary, Warcraft is an enjoyable ride.
The larger lore of the franchise is expansive, but the film focuses on the central conflict of orcs versus humans (also the subtitle of the first game). Azeroth, the human land, is at peace until rampaging orcs come through an interdimenionsal portal searching for a new homeland. They are led by Gul’dan (Daniel Wu; Europa Report), a shaman orc, who uses a wicked type of magic called the fel that requires life as a resource. He intends to capture enough humans to reopen the portal and bring the entire orc horde to Azeroth. Durotan (Toby Kebbell; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), an orc chieftan, begins to doubt Gul’dan after seeing the effects of his dark magic. On the other end of this conflict, the humans are unsure of how to deal with their new enemy. The orcs are hulking beasts capable of defeating a dozen men each. The ruler of a nearby land, King Llane (Dominic Cooper; Captain America), works with his brother-in-law and trusted knight Lothar (Travis Fimmel; Vikings) to quell this dangerous disturbance. They are assisted by a young mage Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer; Pride) and the Guardian Medivh (Ben Foster; 3:10 to Yuma), a wise and powerful wizard sworn to protect Azeroth. Together they capture a half-orc Garona (Paula Patton; Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) who works as their translator as they form a plan.
If that all sounds difficult to keep track of, it is. Yet it’s not as confusing as it could be. Jones and his co-writer Chris Metzen (a lead writer at Warcraft‘s video game developer Blizzard Entertainment) do their best to not overwhelm the audience with the expanded fiction. There are several named characters and locations, but each has distinctly different designs. You may not be able to remember their names but by the half hour mark the characters are easily recognizable and the hurdle of introducing the deep Warcraft lore to a new audience has been overcome.
The script keeps the external details simple and instead focuses on subverting expectations of the genre. The minute orcs and humans are shown in the same movie, the plot can be immediately inferred. Orcs are assumed to be the bad guys, but the writers have added extra dimension to their motivations. As Durotan loses trust in Gul’dan and his deadly magic that slowly destroys the land, he attempts to forge an alliance with the humans to overthrow him and live in peace. These aren’t bloodthirsty beasts that kill humans for sport. They are families fleeing their desolate world in search of a better life. They want a home in a land that can be sustained, not just a new place to pillage. The internal conflict within the orc tribe effectively deconstructs their brutish appearance to explore their sympathetic goals.
Like the plot details, the special effects also have an adjustment period. The early scenes that only feature computer generated imagery are impressive in detail. The towering orcs are animated down to the shifting of skin and muscle over bone, giving their movements a physicality rarely seen in special effects. The trouble comes when they are placed alongside human characters. The modeled orcs fall into the uncanny valley when adjacent to the live-action actors, making the humans appear as if poorly superimposed onto an animated film. Fortunately, this disconcerting effect eventually wears down allowing the narrative to come into focus.
The narrative, however subversive, falls prey to the larger goals of the franchise. There is an overabundance of establishing shots. These vistas are clearly being forced into the film both as fanservice and to reinforce the grand nature of the greater Warcraft lore to unfamiliar audiences. While seeing locations rendered in such high fidelity will surely delight some fans, it will likely not have any effect on newcomers. Furthermore, Jones does not do enough to differentiate this story from other high fantasy. The standard tropes are present (mages, dwarves, elves, and plenty of british accents) but, unlike other successful fantasy like Game of Thrones, Warcraft‘s larger world appears derivative.
Blizzard’s goal with Warcraft is more than box office profits; they want to bring a declining franchise to new markets as evidenced by the free copy provided with each ticket. Yet, nothing about the film implies the expanded universe is unique enough to inspire such interest. There may be some new converts, but those will largely be attached to the movies, not to the games. It’s also clear that they plan to continue the films if possible. After a climactic moment, the story concludes abruptly, clearly skipping the needed denouement in order to allow for sequels that may or may not be made. This is an unfortunate development as the action scenes and overall story are well directed. The sight of massive orcs squashing humans like a game of whack-a-mole is thrilling and the characters, both orc and human, have relatable desires. While the goals of establishing the Warcraft fiction to create a new film franchise and entice new players to the video game are mostly unsuccessful and often detract from the overall product, Jones has delivered an action film that will satisfy longtime fans as well as entertain the uninitiated.
What are all moms best at? Everyone knows the answer to that question: forcibly inserting themselves into your life. The Meddler features Susan Sarandon (Thelma & Louise) as Marnie, a widow that was left with a large sum of money after her husband passed. So, she did the only natural thing and moved from Brooklyn to LA to be closer to her writer daughter Lori (Rose Byrne; Neighbors). Still reeling from a recent breakup, Lori is depressed and only wants to be alone. She goes to great lengths to avoid social events with her friends but unfortunately can’t avoid her mother who has a key to her house
Director Lorene Scafaria (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) accurately captures how ingratiating a mother’s unwanted help can be, despite good intentions. Everyday Marnie calls repeatedly and leaves meandering voicemails that aren’t actually about anything. She asks her 30 something daughter to text her each time she leaves the house and does things after beings specifically asked not to. As Lori tries to set boundaries, Marnie uses her free time to become a part of other peoples lives. She attaches herself to Lori’s friends and other strangers she meets, offering unsolicited advice at every turn. Marnie starts driving an Apple store employee to night school, planning (and funding) a wedding for Lori’s friend, and helps a bedridden woman at the local hospital. She fully occupies herself with financially and emotionally helping others.
Marnie creates relationships with others to fill the hole left by her late husband. After she starts seeing Lori’s therapist and gets approached by interested men, she exposes how fragile she is. Any mention of his passing and she’ll change the topic. It’s clear that both she and Lori are still grieving their loss, but the film does not fully explore its effects. It gestures towards these deeper feelings but barely skims the surface before reverting back to comedy.
The few glimpses into her true emotional state occur when she meets Zipper (J.K. Simmons; Whiplash), a retired cop who raises chickens. Simmons, for his part, is thoroughly charismatic as her Harley-loving suitor. His gentle approach and understanding of her behavior only serve to further endear him. As their romance grows, there are telling moments when Marnie deliberately pulls back. He invites her over, but she declines even though she is interested. She is still connected her late husband and isn’t ready to move on to someone else.
Despite her antics, Marnie never becomes unlikable. Even as she tries to steer Lori’s love life or uses salt bagels as a form of mental and emotional help, her deep affection for her daughter is always apparent. However, the film focuses too much on this behavior without thoroughly examining her and Lori’s grief. It sticks to the easy laughs and misses the opportunity to provide insights into the emotional aftermath of a losing a loved one. Without this added depth, The Meddler remains an agreeable comedy, but falls short of its potential and lacks the dramatic heft needed to give it staying power.
In a small village outside Seoul local policeman Jong-Goo (Kwak Do-won) is called to a crime scene. A previously normal man has viciously killed his family through repeated stabbing. The trend continues as more crimes occur featuring average people suddenly going on murderous rampages and losing their minds. All of these events began soon after a Japanese man (Jun Kunimura) moves into town and rumors spread in the village that he is somehow connected to the murders.
The Wailing starts out as a standard police procedural but soon hints at a supernatural bent. The culprits of these horrific crimes have a feral quality, growling and convulsing as if possessed. Some are seen prowling naked in the night before the crimes are committed. When people begin indicting the Japanese man for these horrendous happenings, they claim he has cast some sort of spell…literally. This is a setting where demons and witchcraft are very serious concerns.
The film establishes several potential sources of unnatural intervention. The Japanese man, a Christian priest, and a shaman all have their own rituals and beliefs. Whether it’s holding a cross, sacrificing animals, or dramatic rites, each custom is portrayed in the same alien fashion. As the film progresses Jong-Goo must decide who to believe, but there is no clear answer. They all seem strange in their own way and the confusion only adds to the heavy dread already present.
There are strong resemblances to Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece Memories of Murder. A somewhat competent cop, a series of murders in a small town, and near constant rainfall. Director Na Hong-jin (The Yellow Sea) uses the torrential precipitation to demonstrate the hopelessness of the situation. He also contrasts the idyllic countryside filled with lush forests against the gruesome murders. Like Bong, Na skewers the desire to describe complex issues with clear, understandable principles. The townspeople try to attribute the crimes to religious beliefs as a method of deflecting reality. What is the better conclusion, that a person has been cursed or that they knowingly committed a heinous crime? As Jong-Goo navigates this spiritual struggle, director Na expertly balances the human fears with the magical possibilities.
Whit Stillman’s fifth feature in 16 years and his first period piece proves to be one his strongest efforts. Adapted from a novella by Jane Austen, the film follows Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale; Underworld), a once wealthy widow, navigating the circles of high society in late 1800s England. Her high lifestyle is provided by the friends and family members she moves between as she uses her social skills to secure a better life for herself and her 16 year old daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark).
Calling them social skills is putting it lightly. Lady Susan has the gift of gab and is fully aware of her powers. She lies, feigns emotions, and uses every form of manipulation possible. With a few exceptions, she is able to cast a spell over her acquaintances to have them do her bidding. Her plan to maintain her posh life is to wed her daughter to the wealthy, kind, but clearly idiotic man, Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett; PhoneShop), and seduce her young, wealthy brother-in-law, Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel; Twilight Saga: Eclipse) into marrying her. Unfortunately for Lady Susan, the rest of her in-laws are aware of her methods and do everything possible to prevent her engagement to Reginald.
Stillman has always been interested in high society. In his debut film, Metropolitan, he explored the lives of what he called UHBs (Urban Haute Bourgeoisie), young wealthy aristocrats, and his characters even spent time discussing various pieces of Austen’s oeuvre. It’s clear that he and Austen share a love of the inner circles of the upper class. He takes full advantage of the setup from Austen’s book in creating his own vision. Stillman hones in on the minutiae of his character’s lives. He mines the excessive formalities of the time for full comedic effect. Characters often are polite to the point of laughable awkwardness. Their desire to remain polite leads to overlapping pleasantries that always entertain.
The best example of this is with Sir James. Like the character Thor from Damsels in Distress (a college student who still doesn’t know his colors), Sir James repeatedly fails to understand even the most basic concepts. This combined with his jovial demeanor and desire to please cause several unnecessary – and hilarious – misunderstandings. He’s a moron, but he’s a sweet lovable moron that steals the show every time he’s onscreen.
Lady Susan on the other hand couldn’t be more different. Like Greta Gerwig’s character from Damsels in Distress, she is a crafty manipulator. “Facts are a terrible thing”, she tellingly says to her confidant played by Chloë Sevigny (American Psycho). She is so bought into her own lies that it becomes difficult to tell fact from fiction, but Beckinsale makes the character’s pathological dishonesty believable. Just as Lady Susan manipulates the people around her, she is also able to entrance the audience. We know what she’s doing, but she’s too damn good at it for us to care.
Whit Stillman and Jane Austen have shown themselves to be the perfect pairing for a comedy of manners. Her wheelhouse of high society England melds seamlessly with his signature humor. He takes the prim, proper idiosyncrasies of the time and his lead’s habitual chicanery and exaggerates them to the point of ridiculousness. Stillman uses Lady Susan’s verbose, elaborate lies to keep everyone spinning, but the tailspin – and the continuous laughs that come with it – are just too enjoyable to stop.
Director Shane Black has now made a name for himself as a creator of buddy action comedies, starting with writing Lethal Weapon and later directing Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and more recently Iron Man 3. Here we have Russell Crowe (A Beautiful Mind), a bruiser for hire, teaming up with Ryan Gosling (Drive), a private detective, he hired to find a missing girl who is in danger. After being contracted to “send a message” to Gosling, Crowe decides to go back in order to hire him to help find one of his previous clients. The two make a deliberately odd couple with Crowe playing the efficient pragmatist and Gosling as the inept screw-up.
Above all else, Black’s goal here is comedy, but he is mostly unsuccessful. There were a few good laughs but the jokes miss more often than they hit. The humor can be divided into two broad categories: dialogue-based and physical. The dialogue-based humor, which is where the majority of jokes come from, mostly fails. Gosling’s delivery is often overconfident and dismissive, making his character slightly repulsive. Crowe’s jokes are based on his practicality, but instead of appearing curt, his rarely changing facial expressions just make him seem bored in the situation. Black’s strength is clearly with physical comedy. The best laughs involve Gosling falling and the gag only gets funnier with each tumble. It’s too bad that the director was not able to emphasize his slapstick skills as it would have created a much better film.
Part of the problem is that neither of the leads is likable. Crowe comes off as cold and, due to his profession, cruel. Gosling on the other hand is shown as somewhat incompetent and sleazy. He systematically extorts additional money from each job and takes advantage of confused elderly clients. We’re supposed to care about Gosling because he is a single dad, but the father-daughter connection is never established. The majority of the film has him sending his daughter (Angourie Rice; These Final Hours) to stay overnight at a friends house because he has to work. Her presence, or her mother’s absence, alone is not enough to create sympathy for an otherwise low-level, unscrupulous investigator.
Additionally, the attempts to create moral dilemmas are never fully fleshed out. The is a recurring motif where Gosling and Crow are asked if they are bad people. Gosling’s daughter easily answers yes for him, whereas Crowe isn’t sure what he is. During his violent encounters, he tries to stop before delivering a killing blow, especially when Rice is nearby. Yet, to the audience, the answer is obvious. He beats people up for money so there is no doubt that he is a bad person, which makes the central plot of the movie less believable. Why would Crow care about a former client enough to look out for her? He has never cared about his clients or victims before which makes this character turn unconvincing.
While plausibility or even sympathetic characters have never been requirements for a successful comedy, the humor needs to overcome these details. With The Nice Guys, Shane Black has been unable to beat these obstacles. There are just too many jokes that don’t produce any amusement. The physical humor does have its moments, but the frequency of laughs isn’t enough to sustain the runtime.
With recent releases like The Huntsman and Frozen, fairy tale adaptations are becoming increasingly common. Tale of Tales is also an adaptation of three mostly unrelated stories set in medieval Europe intercut together. The first story is about a Queen (Salma Hayek; Frida) who desires a child above all else. The second is about a King with a daughter who is interested in finding a husband while he is more interested in his pet flea. The final story is about two old sisters who try to fool the lustful King (Vincent Cassel; Ocean’s Twelve) into thinking they are young.
The stories are heavily inspired by the works of Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm, but incorporate their own blend of metaphors and surrealism. Magic, ogres, and monsters are all present but they are portrayed in an atmosphere of desperation – one of the running motifs of the film. The characters focus on their goals to the point of obsession. The Queen desires her son’s love more than his own happiness, the King pays so much attention to his pet flea that he marries her to the wrong person, and the old sisters care more about their place in life than each other. In their fanatical pursuit of their desires, they damage the relationships they have for the unneeded ones they want.
All of this is presented with superb period detail. The cinematography is stunning with real castles and landscapes filmed on location and CGI used only sparingly. The dresses are immaculately designed and when characters are placed within the towering stone buildings, the film creates a believable medieval world with fantasy elements that feel right at home in the setting.
Unfortunately the grand total of the film is not greater than, or even equal to, the sum of its parts. Director Matteo Garrone has brought these fables to life and added his own layer of realistic gloom, but has not elevated them above their simple origins. The morals of each tale are clear, but not particularly profound or original. The stories are well told and beautifully framed, but their impact is ultimately fleeting.