Monthly Archives: July 2012
I think it’s about time we all conduct an intervention for actress Katherine Heigl, whatever it takes to stop her from starring, and producing, such middling junk like One for the Money. Heigl plays a novice bounty hunter, a Jersey girl on hard times who is tracking down her ex-boyfriend for a big payday. Yes, it’s essentially a gender reversal of the loathsome Jennifer Anniston movie, The Bounty Hunter, but at least this movie doesn’t foster a forced romance. I give the movie some credit for presenting two potential love interests for Heigl and by film’s end she’s still on her own. Bravo. The rest of the movie, however, is all strictly by the book, including the colorful characters that Heigl seems to collect. One for the Money isn’t particularly funny or particularly good. It also isn’t particularly offensive; it’s just the standard pap you expect from Heigl at this point. Here’s a confession: I really, truly enjoy Heigl as an actress. She’s terrific at comedy and has star-power charisma, and even in junk she’s still effortlessly enjoyable to watch. This woman has talent, she just doesn’t have taste when it comes to picking movie roles. Or maybe she’s content with churning out a mediocre rom-com every year or so for her fans. I just wish Heigl would gain some confidence and bounce from the ghetto of rom-coms, or at least poorly written, blandly formulaic ones. She’s taken the rom-com crown that once belonged to Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, and Sandra Bullock, but look to them as example. You will have to adapt or die, because eventually Hollywood will find the next Katherine Heigl and supplant the old one.
Nate’s Grade: C
Let’s be honest, The Dark Knight Rises movie was never going to meet fan expectations after the high-water mark between superhero movie and crafty crime thriller that was the pop-art masterpiece, The Dark Knight. Whatever director/co-writer Christopher Nolan put together was fated not to match the pulpy big blockbuster alchemy that he worked so well in 2008. Minus Heath Ledger’s instantly iconic performance, a role that set the film on fire whenever he was onscreen, there is going to be a certain void to this capper to the trilogy. Now having seen the movie twice, including once in sphincter-rattling IMAX, I feel that I can truthfully state the most obvious: The Dark Knight Rises is not as good as the previous movies. While a fine finale for an ambitious series, this is definitely the weakest movie of the trilogy.
It’s been eight years since Gotham City last saw the likes of Batman. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is an older man, hobbled by age, and living as a recluse in his mansion. His trusted friend and butler Alfred (Michael Caine) keeps encouraging Bruce to seek a life outside that of Batman. In those eight years, Gotham’s police have cracked down on organized crime thanks to the Dent Act, a law named after the late district attorney Harvey Dent (a fallen idol that only a handful know the real truth about). Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) is growing sick with the secret of Harvey Dent and looks to retire from the force. Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) is a businesswoman eager to restart Wayne’s clean energy project, and a woman interesting in getting Bruce back on his feet. There’s also Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a.k.a. Catwoman, a master thief who gives Bruce a new challenge. But then along comes Bane (Tom Hardy), a master terrorist and figure of brute strength. His goal is to fulfill the League of Shadows’ plan and destroy Gotham City and expose its rampant corruption. He sidelines Batman and takes over the city, unleashing criminals and hordes of the downtrodden upon the wealthy. There is no escape from Bane’s plan, his wrath, but Bruce Wayne must rise to the occasion and be ready to sacrifice the last of himself for the people of Gotham.
Firstly, Bane is no Joker. The bad guy lacks the fiendish charisma of Ledger’s Joker and he’s not as well integrated thematically into the movie. The Joker was an anarchist that wanted to tear down the pretensions of society and watch people “eat each other.” And we watched a city come unglued. We explore the notion of escalation and what the blowback would be for a man fighting crime in a costume. With Dark Knight Rises, Bane wants to take up the mantle of Ra’s Al Ghul (Liam Neeson) and wipe Gotham off the map. He’s got moments of being a master planner but really he’s just a big heavy. He’s the big tough guy that beats up old man Bruce Wayne, and Bane is continuously diminished in the film as it goes. A late revelation with the character completely diminishes his role and turns him into the equivalent of a mean junkyard dog. His big plan is simply to rile up the masses and wait for the inevitable. Hardy (Bronson) is a great actor prone to mesmerizing performances. This isn’t one of them. He’s super beefy but the facial mask, looking like some sea urchin, obscures half his face. It’s all physicality and eyes for his performance, along with very amped-up dialogue that you can tell was rerecorded after filming. Every time Bane speaks it’s like he has a speaker system installed in his face. And then there’s the matter of his sticky accent, which to me sounds like German mad scientist but to my friends sounded like drunken Sean Connery.
Bane keeps espousing about the corruption of Gotham but you really never get a strong sense of what that corruption has lead to. Catwoman talks about the Gotham elites living large while the rest of the city struggles; but rarely do you get a sense of this. So when Bane flips the tables, and the elite and wealthy are stripped of their decadence and put on trial by mobs, it feels improperly set up. Just because you have characters talk about wealth disparity and the city’s corrupting influence doesn’t mean it’s been established. Nolan’s Batman movies are a reflection of our modern-day anxieties in a post-9/11 world, so I wasn’t surprised to see a society rotting away from the sociopathic greed and wanton excess of the 1%. But rather than serve up a wealth disparity parable of class conflict, the movie simply turns to mob rule, a far less nuanced and interesting dissection of current events and fears. It’s like the French revolution took a trip to Gotham City (Gordon even quotes from A Tale of Two Cities). It’s a society built upon a central lie, the idol of Harvey Dent, but the movie fails to make the corruption felt. In the end, this is all pretty weak social allegory. And would it have killed Bane to be a little more brutal to stock exchange short-sellers?
Then there’s the typical Nolan origami plot with the myriad of subplots intersecting. This is the first time in the series where the plots felt poorly developed. Rewatch Batman Begins or The Dark Knight, as I recently did, and you’ll see there is not an ounce of fat in those movies, not one wasted scene or one wasted line. Sure they got secret super ninjas and Katie Holmes, but those movies were well built blockbusters. I could have done without Bane entirely and certainly would have loved more of Catwoman. Hathaway (Alice in Wonderland) is terrific in the antihero role and brings a very interesting dynamic relationship with Batman. She may be the only person who understands him. I wanted more Catwoman, the movie needed more Catwoman, but alas she is just a plot device to connect Wayne to Bane. She has a larger role in the concluding melee but essentially becomes Batman’s reluctant wingman. The whole theme of the 99% vs. the 1% could have been generously explored with this character, and her spark and charisma would certainly be enough to get Bruce Wayne out of bed again. Then there’s the regular cop (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) doing the unheralded good deeds that so easily get overlooked. Here is an interesting character that, due to some leaps in logic, connects with Bruce Wayne on a unique level. He presents a counterbalance to all the souped-up superheroes, a recognizably regular human trying to do good. It’s then a shame that he gets entirely relegated during the third act so that the superheroes and their super toys can make some noise.
For a Batman movie there’s hardly any Batman in it. The caped crusader has been in retirement for eight years, so it takes some time before Bruce puts the suit back on. But then he’s also sidelined for a good third of the movie, stowed away in a far-off prison. The entire Indian prison sequence really could have been exorcised. It essentially becomes a Rocky training moment for Bruce Wayne to recover and a plot device to explain why there needs to be a time gap in the story. But this part of the movie just feels like it goes on forever, and we all know where it will go so we just keep waiting for the movie to get there. No one wants a Batman movie where Batman sits the middle out. The end feels relatively fitting but any fan of The Iron Giant will recognize some similar key elements.
And while I’m on the subject, let me do some estimates here. The timeline between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight is about a year, as the Joker notes to a congregation of mobsters. I’ll be generous and say that the events of The Dark Knight last two months. We learn that Batman never appeared again after the death of Harvey Dent, and now we flash to eight years later with The Dark Knight Rises. So you’re telling me that we only really got a solid year of Batman being Batman? That over the course of nine years he was Batman for only one of them? That’s very little Batman-ing for a Batman franchise.
But even with these flaws in tow, The Dark Knight Rises is still an exciting, stimulating, and mostly satisfying close to a trilogy of unprecedented ambition and scope for a modern blockbuster. The action sequences in this movie are huge and exhilarating. I loved Bane turning Batman’s armada of weapons against him. The Bat fighter plane is a nice addition that gets plenty of solid screen time. The sheer scope of what Nolan produces is epic; from a plane being hijacked in mid-flight and torn apart, to a city being leveled by explosives, to a face-off between a bevy of armored Batmobiles and the Bat plane through the streets of Gotham, the movie does not disappoint when it comes to explosive, large-scale action set pieces. This is also the first Batman movie where the climax is the best part of the film. The last half hour is solid action but also a fitting sendoff for a beloved character. Some will grumble with certain hat-tipping moments at the end, but I found it entirely satisfying. It all comes back to the central thesis of Nolan’s Batman films about becoming something more than just a man, becoming a symbol, and that symbol is meant to inspire others. By the end, you feel that the inspiration has been earned as so has our conclusion.
I want to single out Caine (Harry Brown) who has very few scenes but absolutely kills them. He’s the emotional core of the movie, perhaps even the series, and has always been hoping that his charge, Bruce Wayne, would never return to Gotham. He’s the voice of reason in the movie, the man that reminds Bruce about the costs of a life spent seeking vengeance and sacrificing his body. I wish Caine was in the movie longer but his scenes are pivotal to the plot, as is his absence.
The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t rise to the level of artistic excellence of its predecessors, but it’s certainly a strong summer blockbuster that works as an agreeable finale to the premier franchise of the era. It’s not quite the knockout we were expecting from Nolan but it still delivers where it counts. I wish it had give a fuller, richer portrait of a city corrupt from the inside out, a society rotting away and ready for revolution, and plus I also wish we had plenty more Catwoman and plenty more shots of Anne Hathaway in her Catwoman cat suit (Michelle Pfeiffer still has nothing to fear), but these are the things of dreams. Nolan’s aim has always been to place Batman in a world that is recognizably our own, and with that comes the responsibility of bringing a stolid sense of realism with all the blockbuster pyrotechnics. This artistic ethos has given us some extraordinary movies, though some Batman purists would object that Nolan’s hyper-realism is not the Batman they grew up with. It’s hard to really get a sense of the accomplishments that Nolan and his team has been able to pull off over the course of three bladder-unfriendly movies and seven years. He’s taken the superhero movie and redefined it, brought it unparalleled psychological depth and philosophical analysis, and given a human quality to what normally gets dismissed as escapism. The Dark Knight Rises isn’t as revelatory as its previous entry but it sticks the landing and puts to rest what is indisputably the greatest superhero trilogy of all time.
Now get ready for the reboot in three years.
Nate’s Grade: B
After months of rapturous praise from Sundance and Cannes, allow me to be the wet blanket of the critical community, because Beasts of the Southern Wild is one big helping of “meh.” I didn’t enjoy this movie at all and its mixture of strange fantasy elements and a hellish childhood reminded me of another misfire, 2009’s Where the Wild Things Are.
Six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) lives on a spit of land off New Orleans and below the levy. This tucked-away land is nicknamed by its colorful, besotted residents as the Bathtub. Hushpuppy lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) in large shacks elevated high off the ground. This comes in handy because after a disastrous flood, Hushpuppy and her father have to navigate the waters to find others and scramble for some return to their life and culture. The residents must also make sure to be cautious because the U.S. government, which is evacuating all flood-devastated areas, is looking for survivors to forcibly remove. Wink is sick and has to impart the ways of his family and culture to young Hushpuppy, who sees herself as one piece in a big puzzle.
This movie is awash in all sorts of tones and storylines, failing to cohesively gel together or form some kind of meaningful message. I could have sworn that the fantasy elements, namely the giant thundering pack of large boars, were just going to be a visual metaphor for Hushpuppy’s journey. And then they actually show up and every person can see them. So, now what? The boars are one of many ideas that the movie just sort of toys around with before losing interest. This is not a film of magic realism. This is not a film about the escapes from a hard reality. In a way, this movie plays out like if Terrence Malick had made Gummo, and if you know me, you know I loathe both Gummo and Terrence Malick movies. Beasts constantly flirts with pseudo-intellectual pabulum, trying to reach something profound but instead settling for confounding. Hushpuppy’s curlicue unnatural narration talks about being a little piece in a big universe and the interconnectedness of all things, but by film’s end you get no dynamic sense of this. What I got was a little kid’s poor life getting worse, and that’s about it. If the film has anything larger to say about the world, Katrina, human connection, then I’m at a loss as to explain what that may be. Beasts offers half-formed ideas, strange, conflicting imagery, and characters that are rather thinly written and barely register. I never found Hushpuppy an engaging protagonist and felt like her very age and the heavy burdens she is forced to carry were manipulative substitutes for actual characterization. I cannot understand the love here.
The movie is something of a wild stew of Southern folklore and coming-of-age tropes and plenty of indie trappings, like weak political allegory, roaming handheld camerawork, and sacrificing story to the altar of realism. So much of this movie feels like it was made to give a sense of how an overlooked life in poverty is lived. From that standpoint the film does a commendable job of showing everyday life and the struggle to feed and survive. There’s a certain sense of ingenuity at work. 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 of the Bathtub and their lot in life, but I never felt attached to any of them. That’s because, as mentioned before, 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. The Bathtub feels real, got it. So now what?
Hushpuppy lives in squalor and the movie has a disquieting romanticism of abject poverty. To the residents of the Bathtub, they are living in some forgotten paradise away from the concerns of the mainland. They refuse to leave their homes and their lives, even though there isn’t much of a home to call one’s own. We wade in this horrible existence and are meant to pretend like it’s an idyllic lifestyle, you know, with all the creature comforts of child abuse thrown in for extra measure. While Beasts looks entirely authentic with its impoverished, junkyard-esque production design, the overall mood and atmosphere hardly seems worth celebrating. Now, I’m not saying that characters can’t make the most of whatever life has given them and meet the implacable with fearless optimism. These characters would likely shun our pity; they reject any government assistance after the great flood and just want to sneak back to their simpler lives. This is not an enviable life, and the fact that the movie tries to romanticize it feels deeply irresponsible. At least with a film like Winter’s Bone, where you felt the crushing existence of systemic poverty, the filmmakers didn’t try and put a smile on all the drudgery. In that movie, you felt the trappings of poverty and how it can sink into your soul. On some level perseverance in the face of adversity is noble, but so would escaping poverty. Regardless, this is not worthy of romanticizing or fetishizing.
Little Wallis is certainly getting her fair share of attention for anchoring the film. She’s six years old so it’s hard to assess her full acting potential, but the kid looks to have some fire in her. However, it is not a performance that leaves a lasting impression. I realized that much of her performance was long reaction shots and that ponderous voiceover narration. True, she does get some dramatic sequences and lets loose a few tears, but it feels like the movie didn’t want to push her too far and settled on a barrage of shots of Hushpuppy being stoic. I was more impressed with Henry, he too an acting novice making his debut. His character is more complex than an innocent naïf we have as our protagonist. He’s clearly dying and trying to quickly get his daughter prepared for a life of independence. He’s also quick to anger and you can feel the heavy weight of his life and his fledgling mission. In fact, I think Beasts would have been better if it had been told from the father’s perspective rather than our child trying to understand the great big scary world. There’s certainly a lot more drama and an easier route for sympathy, even if he could be accused of being cruel and neglectful.
I’ll admit that Beasts of the Southern Wild is different, daring, and fitfully imaginative, as well as benefiting from strong production design and special effects work. But “different” and “daring” doesn’t always mean good. I cannot in good faith say I enjoyed this movie, especially with its freeform plot, messages, tones, and occasional garish imagery. The plot seems desperate for some form of greater meaning, defaulting to ponderous poetry rather than supply a workable narrative and characters that are developed. Then there’s the whole romanticizing of systemic poverty that I find off-putting and wrongheaded. This is just a swampy mess of a movie, one that sinks under the weight of its own pretensions. It’s admirable from a technical standpoint but as a movie, Beasts of the Southern Wild is an exercise in eclectic navel-gazing.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Savages has been described as a “return to form” from prolific director Oliver Stone, who has spent the last decade making straight biopics (W., Alexander) and safe feel-good movies (World Trade Center). The less said about Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps the better. You never thought one of the world’s edgiest filmmakers would follow such a square path. I can’t fault people for getting excited by Savages, hoping this drug-addled crime thriller can revive the gonzo sensibilities of the man. Well, Savages isn’t going to satisfy most people, especially those looking for a cohesive story, characters that grab your interest, and an ending that manages to stay true thematically with the rest of the movie. In short, Savages is a savage mess of a movie but not even an entertaining mess. It’s just a boring mess, and that is the film’s biggest sin.
Best friends Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson) are living the American dream. They began farming their own marijuana plants, using the best seeds form Afghanistan while Chon was on tour with the military. Together, the guys have produced a product high in THC that blows away the competition. They have flourished in California. Now a Mexican cartel, lead by Elena (Salma Hayek), wants in on their business, and they won’t take no for an answer. The cartel kidnaps the boys’ shared girlfriend, O (Blake Lively), and promises to hold her ransom for one year unless the boys agree to their terms. Chon and Ben decide to use their considerable resources to put the squeeze on Elena and her team of scumbags, all the while looking for a way to rescue their shared love of their life.
It’s a lurid movie all right. Plenty of sex, drugs, and violence, but man oh man is it all just empty diversions because the movie cannot survive its trio of unlikable, uninteresting, and painfully dull characters. O, Chon, and Ben have a dearth of charisma; light cannot escape their black hole of charisma. What sinks Savages is the realization that it’s just a shoddy movie filled with a lot of skuzzy characters but hardly anyone that merits genuine interest. We’ve got skuzzy good guys, skuzzy bad guys, but where are the personalities? Where are the quirks or the hooks to drive our interest? Just having Benicio del Toro (The Wolfman) act weird and mumbly is not enough to cover the shortcomings of his character. I’ve read reviews where critics cite del Toro as “hypnotic.” I have no idea what they’re talking about. He’s just your average skuzzy bad guy you’d find in any mediocre crime picture; he just so happens to be played by Benicio del Toro. The DEA Agent John Travolta (From Paris with Love) plays is your typical skuzzy desk weasel; he just so happens to be played by John Travolta. And that’s where the movie falters. We have all these characters on all sides of the law but we couldn’t give a damn for any of them. O comes across like an annoying, privileged, faux intellectual. Chon is a meathead. Ben is an amorphous do-gooder. I don’t care about their problems and I especially don’t care about them retrieving O so they can return to their vague polyamorous lifestyle. She wasn’t worth all the effort, nor where these men worth dying over. At any point in the film, I wanted these characters to hastily die so that I might, just out of chance, come across a more interesting figure. I received no salvation.
Our trio of bland characters is made flesh by a trio of bad performances. First off, people have got to be realizing that the kind of lived-in, edgy, and compelling performance Lively pulled off in 2010’s The Town is more the exception than the rule. Stop casting her in gritty parts unless they are directed by Ben Affleck. As O, our zombie narrator, she does little to make us sympathize with her dumb plight. Then there’s Kitsch (Battleship) who is just having a record year of high-profile flops. He’s done fine acting work before, but as Chon he’s just another ramped-up hothead with little else on his mind. Johnson (Kick-Ass) has the most “flavor” of the trio, acting granola-y and with philanthropic ambitions, but he’s still just another meathead just in different clothes. All three of these characters are idiots and the young actors don’t find any way to redeem them.
Actually, I found Salma Hayerk’s character the most interesting and would have enjoyed a movie based around her dilemma. Elena’s husband was the head of a drug cartel. He was assassinated, so the duties would have fallen to her son, but in order to protect him she assumed power. She has an estranged relationship with her youngest daughter, Magda (Sandra Echeverria), who is ashamed of her mother. This, Elena tells us, makes her produ; she is proud that her daughter is ashamed. Now just look at all those contradictions and complexities inherent with this character. She’s assumed a duty she did not want, something she knows is morally wrong, but she does so in the interest of protecting her children, even if it means pushing them away and having them despise her. And because she’s a woman, any wrong move and her competitors would be ready to pounce. Plus you add the day-to-day anxieties of a life of crime, the threat of betrayal or some upstart wanting to make a name for himself, and you have the makings of a great character drama. But do we get even a little of this? No. Instead, Elena’s just portrayed as another colorful villain. The supporting cast is peopled with what should be seen as “colorful” characters, but really these people are just as skuzzy and boring and personality-free as our loser ménage a trois.
I suppose there is a certain pleasure seeing Stone return to his blood-soaked, violent, gonzo self. The man has a certain enviable madness when it comes to composing a movie, a mad fever of images and sensations. From that standpoint, Savages is at least watchable even though you would rather see most of the characters get hit by a car. I just wish if Stone was going to go nuts that he committed and went all the way, bathing this movie in his lurid predilections as we tumbled down the rabbit hole of the underground world of organized crime. If you’re going to assault my senses with excess then at least have the gall to be excessive. How can you make a lurid movie but EVERY woman onscreen engaging in sex is clothed? That seems unrealistic even for a movie this stupid. Stone seems to have no problem dragging out uncomfortable rape scenes, so who knows what the further implications of that are. There are several grisly torture scenes and some random brutality, so you’ll at least be kept awake in spurts by people screaming.
Too much of this supposed crime picture is caught up in the oppressively irritating soap opera between O, Chon, and Ben (a little part of my soul dies every time I have to type “Chon” as a main character name). The script, based upon Dan Winslow’s novel, adapted by Shane Salerno, Stone and Winslow as well, is a mess but not even an enjoyable mess. Some of this dialogue is just laugh-out-loud bad. O opens the movie saying she has orgasms but Chon, you see, has… “wargasms.” Oh ye God, that one hurt. Every time we’re subjected to O’s protracted, monotone narration the movie loses whatever momentum it may have had.
She keeps saying, “Just because I’m telling this story, doesn’t mean I’m alive at the end.” Can you promise me that? Then there’s the very stupid ending, where the movie tries to have it both ways. It gets its bloody, operatic, tragic lovers ending…. and then in the next breath a happy ending as well, a ridiculously inappropriate happy ending. At least bloody and dead would have been satisfying. It’s a cop-out, a cheat, and a mystifying way to end a movie.
I wanted Savages to be a wild thrill ride. I never expected to be bored. Even when things go off the rails, the movie struggles to keep your interest. Blame the inane screenplay that eventually resorts to a cheap, cop-out of an ending, one that barely rises above the “it was all a dream” blunder. Blame the pathetic character and their lack of personality. Blame the strange feeling that Stone is holding back. Blame the bad performances. Blame the lack of fun. Blame the overwrought nature of the title the movie twists into knots trying to give some philosophical meaning. And finally, you might want to blame yourself for thinking that this movie would be any good in the first place. When movies are this mediocre, this lacking in intrigue, you almost wish they had tipped over completely into irredeemable garbage just so you’d at least have something worth watching. Savages is a strange crime thriller that manages to assemble all sorts of exploitation elements and then fumbles them all. If this is Stone in a “return to form,” I weep for what that entails.
Nate’s Grade: C
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A corrupt L.A. cop (Woody Harrelson) makes bad choices, alienated and frightens his family, and looks to be on the way out as a career of taking the law into his own hands is at long last catching up with him. Yeah, you probably stopped me after the third word in that sentence. This dour character-study showcases Harrelson nicely as a cocksure cop who’s so self-destructive and paranoid that he pushes everyone away. Co-written and directed by Oren Moverman, who made the terrific and searing drama The Messenger, this movie just about turns into high-gloss navel-gazing. The plot is quite loose and there’s very little traction. We get to see scene after scene of Harrelson behaving badly or violent, but what does it all add up to? We already know he’s a bad cop tortured by his own sins and the demands of the job. In a way, there’s an intriguing connection between law enforcement and soldiers who are often called to bear incredible burdens and just deal with it, forgotten by a public complacent with being safe. But really this movie is just one long trip with an angry man who keeps everyone, including the audience, pushed away. He’s complex but I can’t say we ever got to know him better. The film is well acted with plenty of recognizable stars, but why should I care? The central message about the prevailing influence of corruption is a bit heavy-handed as well; at one point Harreslon’s wife says, “You made us dirty.” Rampart is a disappointing venture for Moverman despite Harrelson’s best efforts. In the end, when you’re stuck with a dirty cop he better be worth the time.
Nate’s Grade: C
Seth MacFarlane has become an industry powerhouse. The man has three animated TV shows on air (Family Guy, American Dad, The Cleveland Show) and essentially carved an entire niche of modern comedy. His brand of irreverent, offensive, tangential humor has turned the man into a demigod among young audiences and helped him rake in millions. A journey to the movies seemed inevitable, and so comes Ted, which MacFarlane directed and co-wrote with two of his Family Guy scribes. The best assessment I can give is that if you enjoy MacFarlane’s brand of humor on TV, you’ll probably enjoy Ted. If not, then you’re in for a prolonged, obnoxious two hours.
One day when young John Bennett was a young boy, he wished his teddy bear would come alive so he’d always have a best friend. And as a narrator tells us, nothing is stronger than a young boy’s wish (curious gender is specified and then never touched upon for some kind of joke). The next morning Ted (voiced by Seth MacFarlane) comes alive. Flash forward 30 years and Jon (Mark Wahlberg) works at a rental car company, has a stunning girlfriend in Lori (Mila Kunis), and regularly gets stoned with his best pal, Ted. The two guys are inseparable, which causes friction between John and Lori. After another notorious incident of Ted behaving badly, Lori insists that he move out. John has to start acting more responsible and treating Lori like she deserves, but Ted’s influence usually leads to trouble. Both Ted and John are in desperate need of growing up.
It was no surprise for me that Ted was exactly what I expected from Seth MacFarlane. It’s just a bigger, raunchier version of the style of humor he’s patented on television: tangential non-sequitors, scenes that go on far too long, obscure pop culture references, pointless shock material, and the basic premise that the jokes hinge around some creature merely doing things. Like Brian the Dog, or Roger the alien, Ted is a creature that shouldn’t necessarily exist, and thus so much humor is built around just seeing Ted exist. Is it supposed to be hilarious watching him drive? How about hit on women? Do bong hits? Far too often the only joke the movie seems to offer is that Ted is a teddy bear doing stuff. If you replaced him with, say, a normal human being, would any of those jokes work? Would it be funny watching a normal person drive, hit on women, and do bong hits? Maybe but probably not. It’s all one joke: look at something unnatural doing natural things. And that’s my issue with MacFarlane’s brand of humor. These jokes are not given proper attention, setup, and development. The film rarely subverts your expectations with how every joke will play out, and if you already know the jokes before the movie delivers them then what’s the point? The one joke I did laugh at, and a good guffaw at that, was Ted’s boss who kept responding to Ted’s screw-ups with good words and promotions. That was a surprise. But here’s the thing: once it’s established, you know what will happen the next time. So the second time it’s still funny but not as much. By the third time, his nonplussed reaction is completely expected and thus all traces of funny have been squeezed dry. In comedy, it’s all about surprise, and I find with MacFarlane that he rarely strays from his routine.
As far as jokes going on too long, let’s talk about a myriad of subplots that seemed to go on forever. There’s an entire storyline where an obsessed fan played by Giovanni Ribisi (Contraband) kidnaps Ted. This storyline makes up almost the entire third act and occurs after the reconciliation between John and Lori, so the movie already feels like it should be over. And then it keeps going. And it keeps going longer. And then there’s a car chase and a foot race through Fenway Park, which serves no purpose other than to probably fulfill a childhood wish of MacFarlane’s to film on said hallowed grounds. And it’s during this final act where the crass movie tries to become… sentimental? It just doesn’t work. You can’t have 100 minutes of rude, offensive, vulgar humor and then try and then try and go all gooey and soft and make people feel something akin to emotion. The reason that the Judd Apatow films can work with emotion is because from the get-go they make you care about the characters and their relatable conflicts. But there’s a difference between emotion and cheap sentiment, and Ted hasn’t earned genuine emotion. I didn’t like any of these characters. They all seemed like louts and jerks and dolts, none of them charming. Thus the end and its wish-upon-a-star conclusion are cheap sentiment and the kind of conclusion that you believe without a doubt that the characters in Ted would mercilessly mock.
Let me specify for the moment that there is a distinct difference between gross-out gags and gags that are just gross. There is also a difference between jokes that are shocking but funny and jokes that are just desperate to offend. In my experience with MacFarlane’s brand of humor, as well as McFarlane’s fratty devotees (if I was rushing a fraternity, I have no doubt Ted would be my favorite movie, bro), that difference is not understood. Watching an over-the-top racist Asian stereotype is merely offensive without proper context to draw out humor beyond the odious and obvious. Just punching a child in the face isn’t funny. Just having someone defecate on the floor isn’t funny, though the panicked removal of said feces was humorous in flashback. I may have chuckled and giggled from time to time with Ted, but most of the time I was just saddened by how desperate McFarlane and his writers were to shock rather than to entertain.
Thank God Wahlberg (The Fighter) was in this movie. While Ted is best left in small doses, the boorish best friend archetype, Wahlberg has been sharpening his comedic muscles (the only muscle in need of work it seems) and has become a terrific straight man. Anyone who remembered 2010’s The Other Guys knows that Wahlberg can be flat-out funny when given great madness to play off of. With Ted, Wahlberg’s commitment to the innate absurdity of the movie goes a long way. His breathless rendition of an exhaustive list of white trash girl names had me laughing harder than anything else in the movie, and I admit I was also impressed by Wahlberg’s speedy delivery. The character of John is a pretty standard role at this point in American comedy, one of arrested development. However, it seems to take so long, blown chance after blown chance, for John to finally find some sense of responsibility. Just like everyone else, he is at the mercy of Ted’s corrosive influence.
I probably wasn’t the ideal specimen for MacFarlane’s first foray into movies. I’ve never been more than a mild fan of his TV work and its hit-or-miss-but-mostly-miss brand of tangential humor, though I admit American Dad has grown on me (the only MacFarlane show where the jokes seem related to the story situations). MacFarlane unleashes the vulgar material he’s been holding back from TV, which makes for some laughs. The obviously stoned guys sitting in front of me thought the movie was hilarious, even during quiet moments where nothing was going on. I’m disappointed that a MacFarlane movie is pretty much exactly as I would have suspected, essentially a MacFarlane TV show blown up to a bigger screen. The jokes here are so limited, mostly deriving from Ted the teddy bear just doing things a teddy bear normally doesn’t. I wish the comedy were more developed, more nuanced, more concerned with doing something other than shock. The most shocking aspect of Ted is how utterly forgettable the whole enterprise is even with a magical talking teddy bear.
Nate’s Grade: C
It’s only been a mere ten years since Marvel’s signature web-shooting, wall-crawling super hero leaped onto the big screen and smashed box-office records, and yet he’s already getting the reboot treatment. Usually we reserve reboots for movie franchises that ended in colossal artistic failure. I don’t know anyone that will ardently defend director Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, but I know of no one that puts its in the same vicinity as the atrocious, franchise-slaying Batman and Robin. Spider-Man 3 suffered in comparison to its predecessors, which formed the gold standard of super hero films (even in my review I called out for some new blood if this was any indication what we had left to expect). But then in 2010, Sony decided that it would rather start all over with its billion-dollar franchise, so Raimi was out, so too were stars Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, and 500 Days of Summer director Marc Webb was tapped to direct. The (rebooted) Amazing Spider-Man swings into theaters with a serious case of déjà vu attached. Are we far enough out to forget about Raimi’s accomplishments? My spider sense is telling me we’ve been here before and better.
Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is a geeky high school student living with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field) ever since his parents had to vanish mysteriously one night. Peter is picked on at school and crushes on cutie-pie Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) but all that changes when he’s bitten by a genetically engineered spider. He gains super spider-like abilities including improved dexterity and the ability to stick onto surfaces. He designs his own webbing devices that allow him to shoot long tendrils of super-strong spider webbing he can swing around with. Peter is trying to unravel the mystery of what happened to his parents and he seeks out Doctor Connors (Rhys Ifans), a notable genetics scientist who worked with Peter’s long lost dad. Peter supplies his father’s secret math formula and gives Connors the breakthrough he was hoping for in genetic replication. When injected with a serum, creature should be able to regrow lost appendages. Connors turns himself into a human guinea pig because he’s desperate to grow back his amputated right arm. But the serum causes Connors to transform into a hideous lizard creature for periods of night and only Spider-Man can stop him.
Simply put, I liked Spider-Man when it was made the first time and called Spider-Man. I understand the desire to reboot after the disappointing mess that was 2007’s Spider-Man 3, but did we need to start completely from scratch? Could we not have just eased into a Spider-Man 4 and replaced the original actors? Though I personally had no problem with Bryce Dallas Howard as Gwen Stacy (yum). I don’t need to see another version of the Spider-Man origin tale because it was already covered just ten years ago. The worldwide public is familiar enough with Spidey’s back-story that I don’t understand why we couldn’t just start with our hero already doing his business. I don’t need another hour of setup for the guy to become Spider-Man. This “sameness” seems to sap much of the energy out of Amazing Spider-Man, a competent and occasionally thrilling superhero flick. It does plenty of things well enough but you just can’t shake the feeling that the movie, at its core, is unnecessary or at least tripping over redundancy. Do we really need to see Peter Parker discover his powers again? I understand that we want to experience part of his joy at discovering his fantastic new abilities, but it just feels like all too familiar. I don’t think we would have missed anything by simply condensing all the back-story and doling it out as a series of concise flashbacks.
Despite some serious déjà vu, The Amazing Spider-Man has some other serious issues. Firstly, the tone just seems like a bad fit. This is a much darker, somber, and angsty tone for a character that was never intended to be as brooding as, say, Batman. Just because the dark tone worked for Christopher Nolan’s Batman films doesn’t mean it’s the right fit for every comic character. I’m not saying that Peter Parker doesn’t have his issues and plenty of guilt to struggle with (more on that in a moment), but this movie feels like the fun has been squeezed out. It’s a kid who was abounded by his parents, bullied at school, and he teems with repressed frustration. Peter Parker is not meant to be a brooding antihero. He’s supposed to be the high-flying jokester. Regardless, you can interpret the character however you’d like, I just don’t think this darker, gloomier incarnation works despite the best efforts from Garfield. The spirit of the movie feels like it’s being suffocated at times. Raimi’s films had their dramatic material but they never lost a sense of fun. It’s hard to tell if anyone is enjoying himself or herself for much of Amazing Spider-Man.
Now let’s talk about one of those areas of Parker’s guilt, namely his guilt over the murder of dearly beloved Uncle Ben. Peter chooses not to get involved and from that action Ben is murdered by the same criminal Peter could have thwarted earlier. In Amazing Spider-Man, it’s transformed into an inane example of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Ben just so happens to run into the same guy and he stupidly wrestles for the man’s gun. It’s hard to make any real connection for Peter to blame himself. Spider-Man 3 did something similar by rewriting the back-story so that the Sandman was responsible for Uncle Ben’s death. I wrote: “By introducing a new killer it means that Peter has no responsibility for his uncle’s death. This completely strips away the character’s guilt and rationale for what compels him to swing from building to building to fight crime.” Now, this new Spider-Man, since he’s so edgy and dark, is only hunting for bad guys who bear a likeness to the robber who killed Uncle Ben. Yes, Peter Parker has become a vigilante defined by his all-consuming sense of vengeance. And guess what? He never finds the guy. Get used to all sorts of storylines being dropped or forgotten throughout the film (I guess we’ll have to wait for future films to explain what happened to his parents).
While I think a darker interpretation of Spider-Man is mislead, I wish the movie would see it through rather than keep having moments to break the reality of this more grounded approach. I’ll buy that Dr. Connors turns into a giant lizard creature from the magic DNA serum whatever. I’ll even buy that he goes mad with power because of it. However, what I won’t buy is that this guy, all of a sudden, decides to relocate his lab into the sewers. What? The guy has everything he needs in a giant scientific tower, and he says he “gave the staff the week off.” Well then do your crazy mad scientist science stuff in your lab. Why the sewers? Do you know how many trips this guy would have to make to haul all that equipment down into the sewers, and remember he’s only got one friggin’ arm! The entire character of the Lizard feels so poorly developed and adds no greater thematic message to the movie. And then there’s the case of Peter Parker being a world-class dweeb mocked in high school. As presented, he’s a pretty hunky, smart, athletic kid who has fabulous hair. It makes no sense that he has absolutely zero friends and that there wouldn’t be girls crawling all over this guy. Are there no alternative-style girls in this school besides the one girl with glasses we keep cutting back to for reaction shots? And how many times is Aunt May going to watch her nephew come home at odd hours and covered in bruises before she says anything?
Then there’s just the forehead-smacking number of coincidences in the movie. With most movies you accept that the characters exist in a small universe where they will regularly continue to run into one another, but in Amazing Spider-Man it’s absurd. As my pal Mike Galusick noted, you have Peter who just happens to have the last steps needed in a formula who just happens to go to Oscorp and poses as another student with shocking ease who just happens to wander off a tour and much up with lab stuff because security cameras do not exist in this universe and who just happens to meet the same scientist who is responsible for his parents missing and the guy also happens to have a head intern who just happens to be Peter’s crush and she just happens to be the daughter of the police captain (Denis Leary) trying to hunt down Spider-Man. Phew. I haven’t even mentioned the construction worker dad (C. Thomas Howell, for real) whose kid was saved by Spider-Man so he makes sure to rally all his fellow construction workers to synchronize their beams for Spidey. It is moments like this that undermine the filmmakers’ grounded approach.
It sounds like I really disliked this film, and I didn’t. Amazing Spider-Man is a completely serviceable superhero tale and the cast does a great job of covering up for many of the narrative shortcomings. The action, what there is, seems a little too rushed and missing that spark that Raimi had in abundance. There is one nifty sequence that Webb deserves credit for: in the foreground a librarian listens to classical music, which drowns out the background action as the Lizard and Spider-Man smash through shelf after shelf of books. This was the only moment in the movie where it felt fresh and exciting and I wanted to see where it would go. It’s just that the movie cannot capitalize on its potential. Take for instance a late incident where the Lizard unleashes his mutant gas and transforms a cadre of police officers into giant lizard creatures. You’d naturally expect that if you were introducing a lizard army that we’re upping the stakes and that the movie would do something with this new team of antagonists. Wrong. No ramifications. Webb’s film does benefit from advances in computer wizardry as the CGI is far more advanced and Spider-Man doesn’t resemble the cartoon character he often did in Raimi’s trilogy. The brief moments swinging through the city, feeling the rush of exhilaration with the character, are the movie’s visual highpoint. I found the Lizard’s face eerily similar to the goombahs in the reviled Super Mario Brothers movie.
Garfield (The Social Network) and Stone (The Help) certainly feel like a step up from before. Even though Garfield seems a bit old for high school, he does a more than credible job of being a super smart kid who slowly grows in confidence and demeanor. He can do it all, handle the comedy, the emotional angst, the formation of courage. Garfield is a great addition and he gets along wonderfully with Stone; the actors have great chemistry, which may explain why they started dating after the production ended. Stone brings a comedic zeal to the part and seems far more approachable and les standoffish than Dunst’s Mary Jane ever did. While the movie seems to indicate a fully formed romance for its stars, what we see on the screen plays out more like a nervous flirtation. The actors are cute when they seem to be stammering in awkwardness and mutual attraction. I wish the movie gave us more development rather than skipping ahead, but hey, these kids are great together.
The Amazing Spider-Man, when you get down to it, is less than amazing. It’s a capable super hero movie with some fancy effects and stunt work, but the mounting plot holes, incongruities, tonal conflicts, and overwhelming sense of sameness prove to be a foe even Spider-Man cannot topple. This aims to be a leaner, more emotionally engaging, realistically grounded Spider-Man, but it just can’t pull it off. Garfield and Stone are great but it’s impossible to erase Raimi’s original trilogy from your memory. His films weren’t perfect, though Spider-Man 2 came closest, but they were loving odes to the character and knew how best to link action with character for maximum impact. I can’t think of any real memorable moments in this movie, which is troublesome given its hefty budget and its hefty mission of supplanting the Raimi films. I didn’t have a bad time while watching The Amazing Spider-Man but my involvement and enjoyment was very limited. Even with a glossy reboot, I guess The Amazing Spider-Man is proof enough that sometimes it’s better to go forward rather than reliving the past.
Nate’s Grade: B-
A man puts a classified ad in the newspaper asking for an unusual companion. No, it’s not some weird sex thing. Kenneth (Mark Duplass) intends to travel back in time to correct a few regrets. He’s looking for a partner, though he specifies his traveling companion must bring his or her own weapons and that safety is not guaranteed. This quirky ad grabs the attention of Jeff (New Girl‘s Jake Johnson), an egotistical writer for a Seattle magazine. He takes along a pair of interns, the surly Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and the nerdy Arnau (Karan Soni). Together, the gang heads out of town to seek out Kenneth and determine whether or not he is for real. However, Jeff’s real intention for this “work vacation” was to travel back to his hometown and try and score with Liz (Jenica Bergere), an old high school flame he is horrified to discover has… aged. Darius is the only one who can get close to Kenneth, but what starts as an opportune assignment into investigating a weirdo becomes something more. The guy, sweet if a little off, may be on to something… big, and Darius may be falling for him despite her own misgivings.
Safety Not Guaranteed is a modest film but does it ever sneak up on you and deliver an emotional wallop. I’m a romantic at heart, and so I’m generally affected by seeing two lonely people find their special something in the world reserved for them, and it’s even more affecting when these people are oddballs, and thus it’s even more resonant and meaningful for them to find that connection so elusive before. At its heart, Safety Not Guaranteed is a quirky yet naturally developing love story, and those are my favorite kind. I found my heart melting every time Darius couldn’t help herself and smiled. Perhaps it’s because Darius is our outside heroine or that Plaza is best known for her stone-faced deadpans on TV’s Parks and Recreation, but every one of those smiles felt so richly earned and rewarding. These aren’t the typical rom-com characters that are going to lapse into great speeches about love at key clichéd moments; while dabbling in some fantastical elements, Safety Not Guaranteed exists in our own recognizable world. And with that established, the unguarded moments of genuine happiness for characters we care about translates into a surprisingly touching experience. My heart felt so full at different points, melting and swelling and doing other non-medically accurate things. I honestly had tears in my eyes at different points. By the perfect end, I was so hopeful and overjoyed and left the theater soaring on my good vibes. I can’t guarantee everyone will find the same level of engagement in the romantic relationship, but I believe that the movie is inspired, clever, and authentic enough to deliver a crowd-pleasing finish. It’s earnest without being hokey.
I’m trying to tiptoe around spoilers, though for those critical readers out there I’m sure you can infer a thing or two about the end of the film given my positive, beaming response. I’m sure my reaction would have been quite different if, say, Darius and Kenneth died in a horrible fireball because he was criminally insane from the start. All I’ll say is pay attention to certain discrepancies and see if they might prove to be a conversation-starter when you leave the theater.
Have I mentioned how truly funny this movie is? I’ve been talking all about the “rom” portion of the equation, but Safety not Guaranteed is a consistently funny movie, with a few big laughs. The movie’s sharp sense of comedy is more than everyone simply derisively laughing at the nutball. To be sure, Kenneth provides plenty of comedy in his super serious demeanor, and the movie doesn’t overplay the idea that he may be mentally unbalanced. The jokes come from the character interaction more than any contrived set piece, and the pleasure is in watching conflicting personalities bounce off one another. Every character contributes nicely to the comedic rhythms of this picture, adding a line here, a reaction there, to assemble one very funny movie. In movies where one character enters a relationship under initial false pretenses, usually you just keep waiting for that particular shoe to drop. You wait for the truth to come out and then deception reconciliation dominates the third act. Thankfully, the movie speeds over this narrative trap and gets us to the good stuff. We don’t need an entire act for people to be contrite and prove their love when what we see onscreen is obvious enough.
What elevated Safety Not Guaranteed for me was that beyond the oddball romance, there’s careful and compassionate attention paid to a slew of supporting characters. Now with a scant 80-minute running time, and the attention-grabber of a guy who thinks he can travel through time, naturally the supporting characters have minimized roles, but what I enjoyed was that they were not just relegated as stock players. The film has two stock roles, Nerd and Jerk, and fleshes them out further (though, to be assured, those are still defining characteristics). Arnau is a guy who is convinced any interaction with girls will ultimately lead to personal embarrassment. He’s only focused on the future and what he needs to get there, barely living in the present. It’s nice to watch him grow some confidence, albeit a small amount, and find some degree of enjoyment. And then there’s self-described asshole Jeff, who only submitted the story so he could come back and bang his old high school girlfriend. Some will find Jeff’s minimal personal growth to be disappointing and stagnate, but I thought anything substantial for this character over a three-day period of time would be unrealistic. Jeff is chasing his past memories, a faded time that had so much possibility when he was a stud in high school. The movie explores this notion of returning to a period of innocence as well. Going back to a time before overwrought cynicism, before settling, before compromising, before life became work, it’s something of a wish that the characters seem to be chasing. Jeff realizes how truly empty his life is, yet he’s probably too set in his ways to alter his path, which is a shame because Liz certainly seems like a lovely, caring, and capable romantic opportunity. Hey, she bakes, too (Bergere is great and easy to fall for). The unlikely friendship that emerges between Jeff and Arnau is also quite enjoyable and disarmingly sweet.
I also need to single out the score from first time composer Ryan Miller, the lead singer and guitarist for one of my favorite alternative rock bands, Guster. The music has a lilting, dreamy quality to it but then follows a steady melodic rock path, reminiscent of the melancholic score for Little Miss Sunshine. The strumming guitars, plinging pianos, and swelling violins come together in harmony with little sci-fi touches. The score gives the film another sense of enchantment. I’ve been listening to “Big Machine,” the song Kenneth plays for Darius, on a loop for over an hour, if that gives you any indication on how much I enjoyed the original tune. The fact that “Big Machine” plays over the end credits when the movie meets its perfect end has got to account for some of my positive association. I think Miller has a bright future in crafting film scores.
Plaza (Funny People) deserves to break out in a big way after this film. She’s the heart of the movie and deeply vulnerable, covering it up with nonchalant cynicism. Darius is well within her surly comfort range so it’s no surprise that she excels with the hipster character, but the moments of dramatic weight are not given flippant treatment. Duplass (TV’s The League), just about everywhere in 2012, delivers a committed performance, though it seems mostly committed to the goofiness of his character. Yet when Duplass is able to show you some of the edge to his character, that’s when the performance walks a line between dangerous and exciting. The movie hinges on the two actors working together and they have good chemistry; the goofball and the cynic.
It’s so nice to discover a movie that lifts your spirits, that touches your heart without reaching for the treacle, and delivers a funny experience without compromising its modest aims and modest tone. Safety Not Guaranteed obviously plays a deliberate dance with the audience, vacillating between moments that make Kenneth seem crazy and moments that make you question whether he’s legit. The movie reminded me in a lot of ways of the underrated 2000 flick Happy Accidents, which featured Vincent D’Onofrio as a romantic suitor who also might be a time traveler or just plain nuts. Safety Not Guaranteed is a charming movie that seems to work a spell on you while watching; you get so invested in watching lonely people find meaningful human connections that you are compelling the movie to end under some happy scenario. Director Colin Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly deserve to make waves in Hollywood with what they’re able to accomplish with a tidy budget and some clever yet earnest writing. This beguiling love story is all about stretching out of your comfort zone and taking a plunge into the unknown. Just like Kenneth, we’re all looking for a partner worthy of that plunge (not necessarily a romantic partner, mind you). Take the plunge and go see Safety Not Guaranteed, one of the best movies of the year. Not bad for a movie potentially based upon an Internet meme, huh?
Nate’s Grade: A