Monthly Archives: September 2012
I became a Rian Johnson disciple the second that 2006’s Brick ended. I was floored by the originality, the artistic vision, the intelligence, and the creative voice. This was a unique filmmaker and I instantly knew this writer/director would be a man worth following. His follow-up, 2009’s The Brothers Bloom, was three fourths of a great movie, but a bit of an overdose on whimsy. Then I read that Johnson was next going to try his hand at time travel, and I could not contain my excitement. One of my favorite film genres and one of my favorite up-and-coming indie filmmakers together. I was expecting Johnson to do for time travel what he did with film noir (Brick) and the con movie (Brothers Bloom). How could Looper disappoint? Well, sadly, the movie found a way. It feels like Johnson smashed two halves of two different movies together, one good and one not so good.
In 2072, time travel is invented but instantly made illegal. The only people who have access to time travel are the mob. They have a surplus of dead bodies that need to disappear, so the mob sends them back 30 years. In 2042, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is employed as a looper. He kills the guys the mob sends back in time and then disposes of the bodies. He’s paid well, and he and his fellow loopers live it up as privileged members of the Kansas City social sphere. Abe (Jeff Daniels) runs the show in town; he’s a mob guy from the future. There’s a catch to all the looper riches. The mob also wants to protect them in the future, so they send back the looper’s future self to be executed. It’s called closing the loop. And if you don’t kill your future self, bad things will definitely happen, just ask Seth (Paul Dano), a looper hacked apart to lure his future self back.
The day comes where Joe is tasked with executing his future self, Old Joe (Bruce Willis). Old Joe escapes and goes on the run. Younger Joe is now under extreme pressure to kill his guy, or else the mob might just find him and start slicing body appendages. Old Joe is looking for the Rainmaker, who in 30 years will become a criminal tyrant responsible for much death. But in 2042, he’s only a child. Old Joe’s mission is to kill the child before he becomes the Rainmaker, and before he murders Old Joe’s eventual wife. While fleeing the mob, Joe takes refuge on a farm outside of the city. Sara (Emily Blunt) and her young son Cid (Pierce Gagnon) warily take in Joe but they’re also hiding a secret, that Cid has powerful telekinetic powers that can be put to great damage.
The film’s premise is compelling and allows for plenty of mind-bending possibilities, and Johnson has a fresh take on the sci-fi genre. Hunting down your future self is a grabber of a concept and I loved the scenes where Joe and Old Joe would sit down and converse. There’s the natural tension of Joe’s mission to eliminate his future self, but there’s also a flurry of ideas, ones that make the film better developed. Old Joe has an edge in foreknowledge but Joe has his own edge. He can change Old Joe’s memories by choosing different actions. He swears if he ever sees a picture of Old Joe’s wife that he’ll do everything in his path to alter fate, to make it so he never finds her. As a result, Old Joe is hobbled by headaches and fuzzy memories because the order of events is no longer concrete. “This time travel stuff fries my brain like an egg,” Old Joe admits. That, my friends, is a fascinating struggle for dominance and a refreshing take on time travel. Then you throw in the mob chasing after both Joes and you got an extra sense of urgency. Looper is playfully heady but easy enough to follow. It’s a thriller that doesn’t get bogged down in time travel logistics but it doesn’t pander to its audience either. If it did, I’m fairly certain Joe (addict, criminal, selfish) and Old Joe (eventual child slayer) would have taken turns to be more likeable. For a solid hour, Looper is alive with narrative jujitsu, a nice balance of action, drama, dark humor, intelligent plotting, stylish direction, the occasional startling visual, and strong acting from Gordon-Levitt and Willis.
And then the Looper becomes a completely different movie. Once the action shifts to Sara’s farm is where this movie completely unravels. I just couldn’t believe what was happening. The first half was so intriguing, intellectually stimulating, and thrilling, and then I got stuck on a farm and the movie turned into a lame version of Children of the Damned. I didn’t come for a telekinetic kid movie; I came for a time travel movie. The second half of this movie is practically wall-to-wall telekinetic kid stuff. The action slows down to a crawl and the flurry of ideas turns to a trickle as we introduce Strong Single Mom and Weird Son. I may have a cold heart but I didn’t care about these characters. I found the romance forced and Sara to be poorly developed. I found the kid annoying, and when he got mad and made his stupid mad face, it irritated me. Mostly I was irritated that the promise of the first half of the film had stalled out, and that this was where the movie was choosing to spend its dwindling time. It’s like the movie has been swallowed inside out by this stupid telekinetic subplot. The climax is fine but why did we have to travel through Dumb Farm Rest Stop to get there? Is it so that Joe can learn to be a better person? I didn’t buy that growth, especially with a kid as annoying and obviously dangerous as Cid. I suppose one night of sex with Emily Blunt (The Adjustment Bureau) could do the trick.
Besides the whole farm deal, there are other nagging questions I have that devalue Looper in my eyes.
1) So in the future the mob is the only entity with access to time travel, but all they use it for is to dispose of bodies? That’s it? Biff Tanner used a sports almanac from the future to become king of the world. Are you telling me an organization that has historically profited from gambling would make no use of foreknowledge for personal gain?
2) Why would the mob have the loopers kill their older versions of themselves? This seems like a natural conflict of interest that could readily be avoided. Instead of having that particular looper kill his future self, thus closing the loop, why not assign that future version to a different looper? That way you don’t have to run the risk of the past looper letting his future self go. Or you could just never tell them what happened. For that matter, why does the mob have to send the guys back alive? Could they not simply just kill them and send the dead bodies 30 years back in time? This seems like an easier solution that also minimizes risk.
3) If you’ve just uncovered the power of time travel, why are you even bothering to send back your dead bodies 30 years into the past? Why not send your dead bodies back BILLIONS of years where the Earth is still forming, hot, and uninhabitable? I find this to be a better solution (I also wrote this solution in my own time travel screenplay, so there’s that too). Why can’t the mob feed dead bodies to dinosaurs? I’d love to see that.
4) You have a mob guy from the future, and you do nothing with that? Abe has one wisecrack about being from the future, and it’s a good one, but otherwise this guy could have just been from the present. The movie does nothing with the juicy element of a mob boss from the future. Maybe he doesn’t do as he’s told and arranges for his own rule. Or maybe he utilizes a sports almanac and makes some prescient bets, huh?
5) The movie takes place almost entirely around the confines of Kansas City. I find it hard to believe that a criminal organization would be sending all its bodies to Kansas City. Perhaps the mob also sends people across space and time, otherwise this means that we’re only following the future evil masterwork of the Kansas City mob.
6) I suppose you have to ask at what point do you really start to nitpick the whole butterfly effect of cause and effect paradoxes. With all time travel movies, there’s going to be some degree of suspension of disbelief, because changing one action can have wide-ranging consequences. However, with Looper there are several instances that gave me pause. Firstly, there’s the central idea of killing the Rainmaker as a child, which would negate the killing of the loopers, which would negate Old Joe seeking out the Rainmaker to kill. I’ll look beyond that. So Old Seth, in the film’s most horrifying sequence, starts noticing his fingers are disappearing, then his nose, and then his legs, etc. The mob is torturing young Seth to lure back the missing target. It’s an amazing visual sequence, but are you telling me that cutting off young Seth’s body parts would not have altered his future to a greater degree? I’m fairly certain when you start removing fingers and legs that Old Seth’s timeline would have been dramatically altered and he would cease to exist or follow the exact path to wind up in the past again. For that matter, why even bother luring the older Seth back? Could they not just take care of him by killing young Seth? What are they going to do with young Seth? If they’re just going to kill him then they should have just done that to begin with.
Johnson has plenty of thought-provoking questions he’d like to address within the bounds of a sci-fi action thriller. Would you kill a child if that kid were going to grow up and be a monster? Is redemption possible after doing horrible things? Could you kill your future version of yourself? Would you sacrifice everything to prevent future misery? These are legitimate questions and Looper deserves credit for spending time to ponder them, but I just wish Johnson could have gone back in time and chosen a different path.
Coming off of the stupendous Brick and the perfectly enjoyable Brothers Bloom, my expectations for Johnson’s third film were astronomical, especially given this crafty man’s take on time travel. I love the premise, love the actors involved, and love the ideas toyed around with, but the movie completely falls apart at the halfway mark. The pacing gets slack, the story becomes forced, and Looper transforms into a different, unwelcome movie. I can’t help but feel disappointed, partly from my expectations but also from the knowledge that Johnson could do better. The story just isn’t as well developed as it carries on, and the telekinetic subplot feels like a dull leftover from another movie. After an invigorating first half, Looper crumbles under the weight of a weak subplot that consumes the movie. There’s a good amount of thrills and intellectual stimulation aboard, but it’s all concentrated in the first half of the movie. I can’t recommend one half of a movie. I’ll still eagerly anticipate Johnson’s next project, but Looper is a sci-fi thriller that unravels at an alarming rate, turning a possibly great movie into a mediocre one.
Nate’s Grade: C+
In 1995, Sylvester Stallone starred in Judge Dredd as the titular law enforcer. This big budget sci-fi action flick was goofy and violent and had the added punishment of Rob Schneider as pained comic relief. No wonder it failed at the box-office. I was never a fan of the comics so I can’t say how close the movie was to the source material, but given the presence of Rob Schneider, I’d say it’s doubtful. Because the 1995 film was such a flop, nobody wanted the rights to the character when they went back up for sale. That’s what allowed screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later) to swoop in and write a new version. Dredd is an attempt to resuscitate a franchise that never got started. I don’t know if it’s particularly a good Judge Dredd movie, but as an action film it’s viciously entertaining and it has 100 percent less Rob Schneider.
Dredd (Karl Urban) works for the police of Mega City 1, one of the last metropolises of the irradiated waste land that is the United States. Crime has taken over and crime lords rule neighborhoods. Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) is the leader of a gang pushing Slo-Mo, wa drug that alters people’s perception of time. She controls the 20-story high rise that serves as her base of operations. Dredd is partnered with a young cadet, Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), who also has psychic abilities. She could be an asset to the force, but first she needs to be field tested. They get called to arrest Ma-Ma, but this prostitute-turned-ruthless drug kingpin isn’t going quietly. She locks Dredd and Anderson inside her high rise and orders her inhabitants to take care of the pesky officers.
I had my doubts, but when it comes to action Dredd delivers. As soon as I saw the trailer, I screamed that this film was little more than a Hollywood remake of the awesome action film from Indonesia, The Raid: Redemption. The plots are identical but I’ll give Garland the benefit of the doubt that he came to his story independently. Whereas The Raid was heavy on martial arts and different fighting styles, and creative weapons, Dredd is really all about the firepower, the gunplay, the blowing up of material, the riddling of bodies with bullets. Each floor presents a new challenge and gives another opportunity for Dredd to outgun or outsmart the competition. This plot model feels like a video game come to life, clearing stage after stage, awaiting boss battles, collecting power ups. Readers will know I am not a strong believer that video games will ever give birth to a solid movie, but I’m ready to concede that this specific plot structure can allow for kickass action. The plot is simple but when given enough attention to geography and organic consequences, then great action can be unleashed, and Dredd is great action unleashed. It looks great, it’s constantly offering something new, raising the stakes, bringing in new elements to contend with, and it’s more than just things going boom. There are some genuinely suspenseful sequences to go along with all the stylish shoot-em-ups.
And the gunplay is vicious and bloody, reveling in the gory display of bodies being blown apart. There are slow-mo bullets traveling through people’s faces, all the better to see the care CGI artists put in to the gore. The ruthless violence is practically casual, and we’ll just see character walk by and fire into the backs of downed characters, giving us another explosion of blood to marvel upon. It would be really easy to call this movie sick, except it works so effectively as an action thriller that the bloody violence feels like a constant jolt. Our introduction to Ma-Ma is her hurling three men off the roof of her 2000-foot high penthouse, watching them splatter below. These are some nasty people and Dredd is dispelling some nasty justice, but because we recognize the antagonists are ruthless, and a real threat, then the violent dispatching of them doesn’t feel exploitative. It feels like keeping pace with some bad folk. Maybe that’s just a contrived way for me to justify that I found the brutish violence entertaining. Simple pleasures.
As far as a Judge Dredd adaptation, the Dredd elements almost feel grafted on, inconsequential. The screenplay could have been completely wiped of the Dredd elements and the plot would essentially be the same. It’s a dystopian world where crime has run amok and the police have resorted to become ruthless enforcers of justice. Dredd as a character, his worldview, his rookie partner who needs to prove herself on the mean streets, all of this is boilerplate cop movie stuff. It has some sci-fi stylizing but the content is still the same. I enjoyed the advanced gun that follows voice commands but nothing in the plot hinged on this element. Dredd just as easily could have been Cop #1 running from room to room, floor to floor, taking out the bad guys. So in this regard, Dredd works really well as a confined action movie but it’s questionable whether this is an effective adaptation of the comics.
I’m surprised that with a drug called Slo-Mo that the movie didn’t make more use of this plot device. We get sequences of people blissfully on the Slo-Mo; the world looking like it was filmed through a glistening soap bubble. It’s neat but it can really become something cool for the sake of cool, ultimately superfluous except for a snazzy visual that plays into the 3D. It doesn’t appear like the drug lasts long either. But if time slows down for the people on this drug then wouldn’t you think somebody would want to make use of this when fighting Dredd? Perhaps it would sharpen their reaction time by making the world seem to slow to a crawl. However, if this is just an altered state of the drug, I think there could have been a fun moment where a Slo-Mo user tried to take on Dredd and we get differing points of view. For the user, time seems slow and they seem at an advantage. For Dredd, the user would just be acting slow and stupid. It’d punctuate the illusion of the reality-altering drug and explain why none of these gang members spark up before battle.
The acting in Dredd is competent and hardly dreadful (forgive me, it had to be done). Urban (Star Trek) goes the entire movie with his helmet screwed on. You never see the top half of the man’s face, presenting an interesting acting challenge (just ask Tom Hardy how tricky it is to act with your face obscured). The man has a permanent grimace carved into his face, grumbling his line throughout. Dredd is supposed to be a grim, no-nonsense enforcer. He’s not exactly got a lot of dimension to him. Urban inhabits the role well but you get the impression anybody could have been in that suit and the film would roughly be the same. Dredd also answers the question of what Olivia Thirlby (Juno) has been up to since 2008. She acquits herself well in all the bloody business and she’s not a bad blonde either. Headey has got the sneering villain act down cold thanks to TV’s Game of Thrones.
Dredd is your best bet when it comes to action movies right now. You’ll get the biggest bang for your buck. The action is brutish and routinely entertaining. It pulls no punches and the bloody melee is full of beautiful carnage. It’s a simple story with pretty simple characters and relatively shallow depth, but where Dredd succeeds is in execution. The emphasis is spent on constructing thrilling actions sequences that build, that change, that impress. It’s not for the faint of heart but for those hungry for a hard-R, bloody, sci-fi thriller, the likes of Paul Verhouven, then I suggest checking out Dredd. And you better hurry, because this version of Judge Dredd is also failing at the box office. Maybe Rob Schneider has been vindicated after all.
Nate’s Grade: B
End of Watch (2012)
David Ayer has written seven movies and directed three, and almost all of them have followed the Los Angeles police department. The man wrote a character that got Denzel Washington a Best Actor Oscar, and from there it’s been all cops all the time, some dirty, some noble, but all residing in the LAPD. I suppose Ayer knows what he does best and is sticking to his wheelhouse. End of Watch is Ayer’s newest tale featuring one of the protagonists recording his activities on the force to put together for a documentary. And with that flimsy excuse, we have ourselves the first found footage cop drama.
Officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena) are two young police officers patrolling the mean streets of Los Angeles. Rather than dark and brooding, these guys are often quick with a joke and get along peachy. That doesn’t mean they don’t take their jobs seriously, and we watch them take down suspects, save children from burning buildings, and discover horrible mass slayings by Mexican cartels. During their off duty time, Taylor is dating a spunky woman (Anna Kendrick) whereas Mike has a wife (Natalie Martinez) and children of his own. The guys are honorable cops and run afoul of the local gang leader Big Evil (Maurice Compte), a man with connections to those dangerous cartels.
The best reason to watch End of Watch is the ebullient yet natural chemistry between Pena (World Trade Center) and Gyllenhaal (Source Code). These guys really come across like partners that have been through thick and thin. Their interaction is arguably the best part of the movie, watching two guys who defy cop movie stereotypes. First off, neither is naïve or world-weary; they’re idealistic but grounded. Both men get to be complex individuals, each funny, each warm, each flinty when called upon, each dealing with the heavy toll of protecting and serving, each an honorable police officer trying his best. These guys feel like real-life partners and not just Movie Partners, and that is a great testament to Ayer’s script and the performances by Pena and Gyllenhaal. I also appreciated that the guys are presented as co-leads; I would have assumed Gyllenhaal was going to anchor the movie. These guys really love one another and you understand their camaraderie. The actors went on ride alongs for a solid five months before shooting, and that must have been an invaluable tool for an actor because these guys are so natural with one another. They can bicker but it’s mostly playful, and the dialogue feels authentic and crisp. The performances are measured and meaty and we emotionally invest in these characters and fear for their welfare. These guys are great together and so you worry that we may not see them both live by the end credits.
These guys are such pals, you’ll start to ask yourself, “Hey, shouldn’t there be like some conflict some time?” For almost tow full acts, we are immersed in police procedure details, routines, mundane realities, with the occasional burst of action. Except it takes until the very end of Act Two before there’s a real conflict, one that lasts beyond an individual sequence. These guys are so chummy, so lovingly buddy-buddy, so there’s no tangible conflict between the two of them. The LAPD seems mostly supportive despite some paranoid warnings that do not bear fruit. Even the local thug, Big Evil, doesn’t prove to be an active threat until the Mexican cartel pays him to kill our lead cops (the cartel also wants an expense report of the hit). But this threat doesn’t emerge until well into the film, so much so that the plot feels rather aimless, like we’re on one eternal ride along with our boys in blue. It’s a good thing I enjoy their company.
Here’s why I speculate why Ayer chose to tell his story through the guise of found footage. I don’t out rightly see it as a cash grab, Ayer’s attempt to repackage something old with something new (that is quickly becoming something old). Ayer is not particularly dogmatic about the found footage approach; often we’ll get first-person angles, gun POV angles, or just general angles that could not have been captured through the found footage mechanics. I think Ayer chose this route because he felt it afforded him greater latitude to craft a realistic depiction of the daily grind of the embattled LAPD officer. This approach allows Ayer more freedom to flout cop movie clichés we’ve become well accustomed to. There are no wildly mismatched partners, no long gun heroics, and no long-suffering personal relationships. Though I find it extremely unbelievable that the LAPD would be so casual and blasé about an officer recording his activities and internal workings. That seems like an open invitation for a lawsuit or a subpoena especially if a criminal attorney gets wind. To a degree, the found footage edict works and the authenticity of End of Watch is never in question, but it also seems like Ayer’s convenient go-to excuse when you’re looking for that missing conflict. It is a fictional movie after all.
The visceral nature of the camerawork, and the extra emotional attachment we feel for the leads, makes for some pretty nail-biting suspense, though only after the cartel issues their hit. The movie teases you with a gutsy ending, one that exemplifies the men’s sense of brotherhood in arms and the fatalistic prospect of protecting the City of Angels. It felt fitting and poignant. I was surprised that Ayer was taking an audience in this direction… and then he didn’t. The film chickens out and gives us a miraculous plot turn that also reinforces the Hollywood pecking order of racial significance. It’s a misstep and one that costs End of Watch from being more emotionally resonant.
As a side note, I’m not a prude when it comes to the use of salty language. Films that reflect certain realities should not curtail the way people genuinely speak. Some people just have filthy mouths. However, the profanity level in End of Watch is off the chart, notably concerning the character of Big Evil. I am dead certain that every second or third word out of this guy’s mouth is some variation of the f-word. If you catalogued all of his dialogue, I bet over 75% of total words would be profanity. It starts to get ridiculous and even funny when you hear nothing but the same three words during an angry outburst. And this is no David Mamet or Kevin Smith poetic composition of vulgarity and the profane; this is just lazy dialogue, like Ayer told his actor that, when in doubt, let loose a litany of f-bombs. Perhaps Big Evil would be less evil if people just helped him with his limited vocabulary.
End of Watch is an involving police procedural with some gripping moments of tension thanks to the stellar performances from its pair of police officers, Pena and Gyllenhaal. Ayer’s found footage motif gets some visceral excitement out of an old story, but what really sucks us in are the emotional bonds we’ve forged with these two men over the course of an hour. That makes the danger feel very dire. The movie feels like a bromance at times. I wish Ayer hadn’t pulled back from his more dour ending but it’s not enough to spoil what is an above average genre film with a spiffy new visual polish. I don’t know how many films Ayer can keep cranking out about the LAPD but as long as he pays due attention to character, and gives us the occasional break from the ubiquitous antihero with a badge, then at least he’ll keep making compelling genre cinema.
Nate’s Grade: B
Robot & Frank (2012)
It’s the age-old story about an elderly man (Frank Langella) suffering from Alzheimer’s who teaches his robot helper to be his partner in jewelry heists. While that sounds a lot more fantastic than the movie we eventually get, Robot & Frank is a mellow, sincere, and overall nice movie that treats the particulars of its world with a wry sense of whimsy. The movie is really a mismatched buddy film as Frank is hostile to being forced to live with robotic help, but soon the two of them form the basis of a friendship, and when things get dangerous it’s heartwarming the lengths they’ll go to save the other. Give the Alzheimer’s subject, expect some twists in the final act concerning Frank’s world. The movie wants to hit us emotionally but I felt mostly remote, smirking at some of the fun of the old codger back in the burglary business of his youth. But the film just stays at a very even-keel level of emotional resonance, drawing us in but not exactly taking us anywhere. The ending is curiously without any sort of comforting resolution that could have put a solid piece of punctuation on the film’s emotional drama. Langella, it should be said, is excellent. Robot & Frank is a high-concept buddy film, fairly pleasant and entertaining but when it comes to a close you may wish that the film had relied less on chaste understatement.
Nate’s Grade: B
The Expendables 2 (2012)
The Expendables was a surprise hit two years ago. Sylvester Stallone collected an all-star team of aging AARP action stars and they kicked ass, took names, and didn’t apologize. It was a fitfully amusing throwback to the burly, macho action movies of the 1980s and the early 90s, a time where many of these men were kings. The nostalgia trip worked box-office magic for Stallone. A sequel was commissioned and these men of action were put back to work. There was already preliminary talk about the possible stars that could sign up for a third Expendables (Nicolas Cage and Clint Eastwood are on a wish list). Maybe people should see The Expendables 2 before getting too excited plotting out the future of this franchise. This is not a good movie even by Stallone’s standards.
Barney Ross (Stallone) is back with the best team money can hire. No, not the A-Team, the Expendables. There are also the preposterously named team members Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Ying Yang (Jet Li), Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), Toll Road (Randy Couture), and Hale Caesar (Terry Crews). The over-the-hill gang also has some new blood, namely Bill(y) the Kid (The Hunger Games’ Liam Hemsworth). The gang runs afoul with Vilain (Jean Claude Van Damme), a terrorist mining for plutonium to sell to the highest bidder. Barney swears to thwart Vilain and calls in help from other living action legends like Chuck Norris, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
What made the first Expendables enjoyable, at least for sustainable spurts, was its over-the-top nature comingled with a lack of irony. The movie felt often like a satire of the genre but you knew that Stallone was never winking at the camera. Stallone was never in on the joke. That changes with The Expendables 2, which often resorts to self-aware humor to poke fun at itself. This approach simply does not work. There’s an entire sequence where Chuck Norris even makes a Chuck Norris Internet joke, merging reality with irony. The bad guys are lousy shots and the good guys are the world’s greatest marksmen, but I don’t even know if this is intentionally self-aware or just par for the genre. Having Arnold repeat other people’s famous one-liners and quips (“Who’s next? Rambo?”) are not funny. The self-awareness never rises to the level of commentary or intentional satire, like say the underrated Last Action Hero. It’s just the same mindless violence but with the slightest of nods, the bare minimum to say, “Hey, we get it.” Except the movie feels shackled to this flawed approach and often the action fails to gestate into something larger than old guys shoot guns and make occasional wisecracks. The action sequences are really disappointing here. Little attention is given to geography, short of a climax set amidst an abandoned airport. I kept hoping for more of the gonzo, hyperbolic touches that the first film had in abundance. The best ridiculous moments this go-round are Van Damme roundhouse kicking a knife into a guy’s heart, and the piece de résistance, Norris shooting a guy onto an airport security conveyer belt where we then see the body full of lead on the x-ray machine.
Most of the Expendables teammates simply have nothing to do. Granted with a large cast the ratios of screen time are not going to be equal across the board, but I’d expect that Stallone and crew would at least give these people some reason to exist in the plot. Jet Li vanishes after the twenty minute mark and never returns. There’s truly no reason that Randy Couture and the great Terry Crews couldn’t have been Guy #5 and Guy #6. Lundgren is setup to be a chemistry genius, and then when trapped inside a mine, it looks like he’s about to utilize his chemistry knowledge to save the day. Nope. Then why would you even set this ability up if you weren’t going to do anything? Even Statham is pretty mitigated and he’s the number two guy. If you’re going to have a team-oriented action movie, then make use of the team and their unique skills. Part of the joy of these kinds of movies is watching the crew work together, like in The Avengers. With this film, we just get rapid-fire shots of the good guys shooting the bad guys, sometimes separately, sometimes together. It gets boring plenty quick.
The plot is fairly bare-bones even more an action movie. It’s a rote revenge movie where Stallone and the boys are out to get Van Dame after he killed one of their guys (the only expendable Expendable, it seems). The plot never gets much more complicated than that. The gang encounters a group of terrorized villagers who want to rescue their husbands from Van Damme’s forced labor. Our bad guy even has a name that is a single letter away from spelling “villain” in case you needed the help. You know how he’s one evil man? He wears his sunglasses at all times even underground inside a mine. Of course this may also be a stylistic choice to hide Van Damme’s horribly Botoxed face. The Muscles from Brussels is actually the second best actor in the movie (Crews easily remains the best), good enough that I wouldn’t mind seeing the older Van Damme in more movies. Sadly his big showdown with Stallone is pretty short, with Van Damme resorting to the same roundhouse kicks before being subdued.
Stallone sat out the director’s chair and instead Simon West (The Mechanic ) takes the reins. I suppose this freed up Stallone to… focus more attention on the script? Emoting more? The visuals are fairly muddy and lack the polish of West’s other hyperactive action movies like Con Air. The opening assault sequence, where Barney and the Expendables roll through an enemy compound, literally busting through walls, is the visual highpoint for the movie. I credit the filmmakers for sticking with the R-rating and not toning down their violence. It would seem like hypocrisy to have a movie about a bunch of crusty old-timers lamenting how soft the world has gotten and then wuss out to a bloodless PG-13 rating. At least this wrecking crew doesn’t hold back when it comes to their specialty: mayhem.
The Expendables 2 should have been more than just Stallone and his peers patting themselves on the back. I’m glad Willis and Schwarzenegger graduated from cameos to supporting roles, but I wish the movie just had something for these men of action to do. There’s far too much repetition with its action, which becomes a formless montage of people shooting guns in slightly varying locations. The self-aware humor kills the development of the action and it’s simply not funny enough. It’s the kind of sad humor of old men trying to still look hip, like they’re in on the joke. Hey, they can make fun of themselves too. It’s just not a fun movie. There are only so many tried wisecracks you can endure, only so much redundant action, plotless excess, and crowbarred cameos. The Expendables 2 takes the little merits of the first film and completely loses touch, all to try and make a joke. In the end, the real joke is still on Stallone and the filmmakers. They wanted to make a movie that knew it was stupid. Instead they just made a stupid movie.
Nate’s Grade: C-
For a Good Time, Call (2012)
Given the success of the female-centric mega hit Bridesmaids, it was only a matter of time before we got a slew of girls-behaving-naughty R-rated sex comedies. Enter the phone sex comedy For a Good Time, Call, which has the distinction of being co-written by Seth Rogen’s real-life wife, Lauren Miller, who also stars in the film. It advertises a good time and mostly delivers, though you might not think as much about the movie in the cold light of day.
Lauren (Miller) has just been dumped by her self-involved boyfriend and fired from her job. She’s looking for a new place to live when a mutual friend sets her up with a huge New York City apartment. The catch: her roommate is Katie (Ari Graynor), an acquaintance from college she has despised ever since a very horrifying party foul of seismic proportions. Katie’s going to lose her posh home unless she gets a roommate, so the women reach a mutual understanding. Then one day, listening to Katie’s hyperactive sexual noises, Lauren discovers how her roommate really pays the bills. She’s been running a phone sex line and getting guys off for $3.99 a minute. Lauren decides to get involved in the business end, and before long the ladies have become a professional outlet and roll in their riches. Invigorated, Lauren starts experimenting herself, letting her freak flag fly, and before long she’s also getting in on the calls.
Graynor is no stranger to stealing a movie, as she did perfectly in the sweetly unassuming 2008 teen romance, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. This girl has had the markings of a star for years and finally she’s found the vehicle to showcase her comedic vivaciousness. To say Graynor makes this movie is an understatement to her talents. Graynor is this movie’s pulse, its lifeblood, its font of energy, its wickedness, its exuberance, its very soul. This woman is amazing. She can take a simple line and with an effortless dose of comedic verve, it can become a gut-buster. I could watch twelve movies in a row with Graynor playing at this level of exciting excellence. The part is pretty familiar, the dirty girl who has problem with a filter, but Graynor makes the most of every opportunity. I loved her adorable theatricality, like a foxy, younger, brassy Bette Midler (God, did I ever think I’d string those words together?). I loved her enthusiastic hip shake, wearing large body stockings, while singing, “I’m ready to beat date rape!” Naturally, Katie gets all the best lines but her interplay with Lauren also works well. When the movie focuses on Lauren, and by extension the unremarkable performance by Miller, you start to feel things slag. Lauren is passive becoming active, but really even by the end she can still be cited as boring. Katie is active, hungry, brash, charming, and wonderfully portrayed by Graynor, and when she dominates, you’ll ask for more.
Except for the lively theatrics from Graynor, the movie can often feel hung up on generic sitcom plot devices and character generalities. The premise itself is perfectly fine, but the movie seems to exist in some randy fantasy world. We still have a main character in the world of publishing that will obviously be offered the Big Job at an inopportune personal time (as movies have shown, every human being on the planet either works in publishing, advertising, or theater). And then there’s the Bad Boyfriend, who breaks up with our heroine in the opening moments of the movie because they are “boring” together. Any guesses whether he shows up late as well, begging her back? I’d probably be more forgiving of these contrived plot turns if the movie did more to present Lauren and Katie as real characters. As written, they are pigeonholed into opposites (prude/wild woman) and rarely do we learn more about them. Lauren loosens up, Katie gains some self-respect, and they girls becomes BFFs. That development I found rather unconvincing, probably because there was little development. All of a sudden Lauren has an interest in joining the business, and one montage later, the girls have buried the hatchet. It feels like everything changed overnight. The attempts to ladle in some forced sweetness feels, in some regards, more crass than the sex jokes. I’ll credit the movie for keeping me amused while watching, but upon further reflection, the girls and their relationship feels rather slapdash and rote.
The comedy itself gets too easily complacent with all those naughty words bandied about. Oh sure there’s plenty of effective jokes about sexually frank conversations, and the inherently awkward nature of phone sex mechanics, but For A Good Time, Call seems too easily satisfied. I wish that Miller and co-writer Katie Anne Naylor had pushed their comedic setups further, had taken a few more left turns rather than settling for the familiar sex gag. Here’s an example: Lauren’s prissy parents make an unexpected visit and the girls have to hide their business particulars. That’s a fine starting point, but where else does it go? The comic tension is too easily resolved instead of escalated. Then, surprise, the parents make a SECOND unexpected visit. This time the sex decorations are prominently displayed. We’re waiting for some good comedic tension, some squirming, but again, it’s over before the good stuff can even get going (am I right, ladies?). The Justin Long (Going the Distance) flamboyantly gay friend is never as funny as the movie thinks he is. There’s a scene where Lauren is interrupted while masturbating, but we only realize after the fact when the joke is already over. Why introduce such a scenario if you were just going to settle for a weak “smelly finger” joke? Perhaps I would find the material funnier if I was a woman, relating more to the female dynamic on screen, but do you see how condescending that line of thinking gets? I unabashedly adored Bridesmaids (my #3 film of that year). I don’t think anyone needs to grade a comedy on a curve for any reason, especially if they think they’re trying to be polite.
I’m not going to make more or less of its sexual politics than what is presented. I think there is genuine merit when women take ownership of their sexuality. Why should women feel judged for wanting equality when bedroom activities and impulses are concerned? Whatever helps people build a healthy self-image should be championed, as long as it’s between consenting adults. Watching Katie and Lauren personally grow based upon their unique entrepreneurship is welcomed. However, I can’t help but shake my feelings that there is something lurking, some deeper sub current that is not worth celebrating because the movie seems to play into male fantasy. Even though I adored Graynor, I think it would have served the film better if the more sexually-liberated character, the pro when it comes to working the phones, was actually a less attractive woman, perhaps a mousy gal you’d never expect such lurid behavior from. I think that would offer more comedic potential as well. I think this would also puncture some of the airbrushed fantasy of the film’s cheescake world of a phone sex line.
I have my complaints but I was laughing fairly regularly and enjoyed the experience, so if you’re just looking for a good time at the movies you can consider For A Good Time, Call. Watching Graynor sink her teeth into her role and go full gusto is a rowdy pleasure, and it’s easy to see that this woman is a star. The smutty jokes are fun and offer plenty of ribald laughs, but I always felt like the movie was too complacent, too settled, and curiously clumsy when it came to comic payoffs. The film is pretty flatly directed by Jamie Travis. The characters are pretty thin, and the plot feels ripped from a flimsy TV sitcom, but I laughed aplenty and found the movie difficult to dislike. It’s not the most nuanced sex comedy, or the most ribald, but For a Good Time, Call delivers enough big jokes and Graynor is too sensational to miss.
Nate’s Grade: B
The bootlegging drama Lawless certainly has all the right elements to be an enjoyable movie. It’s by the men who gave us the great noir-Western The Proposition (director John Hillcoat, writer Nick Cave), it’s got a star-studded cast, plenty of bloody action, and a handsomely recreated production of the Prohibition era. But as I watched the Bondurant boys struggle against those who would like to put them in jail and/or murder them, I kept noticing something odd. I wasn’t that engaged. There was plenty of life-and-death drama, but why wasn’t I involved in the story more? Lawless feels like a series of scenes rather than a movie. Even when the plot changes it doesn’t feel like the movie is advancing. Even when things are more desperate it doesn’t feel like the momentum is building. The characters are somewhat sluggish as well, Shia LaBeouf as the scared youngest brother, Tom Hardy as the grumbly big brother who talks like his mouth is full of molasses. Jessica Chastain as the abused Good Woman who opens herself up to our Strong Hurting Man. Then you got a plot with a mobster (Gary Oldman) that weirdly climaxes with an hour left in the movie. He’s ignored for the remainder. Then there’s Guy Pearce as a colorfully fiendish and foppish special deputy that terrorizes the town. I am a Pearce fan but this guy is acting like he’s in his own weirder personal movie; it’s the kind of stuff Marlon Brando did. I appreciated that Lawless kept things gritty and bloody for realism, but I kept finding moments that ripped me out, namely the indestructible nature of Tom Hardy. Seriously, this guy has to be the Terminator. When he miraculously survives yet another seemingly fatal injury, all you can do is laugh. Lawless is passable entertainment but with its pedigree this should have been better.
Nate’s Grade: B-
The gorgeously animated stop-motion film ParaNorman is a terrific sight for the eyes. There’s a certain magic to stop-motion, the tangible nature of it all, the knowledge that these intricate worlds actually existed. Like Coraline, the previous film by the same animation house, I thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in this handcrafted world. The animation is so fluid, so sprightly, and displays a rich artistic tone. The story, about a kid who can see ghosts, is noticeably less ambitious. The characters are a tad one-dimensional (bratty older sister, dimwitted jock, socially awkward chubby best friend, etc.) and the plot is fairly predictable, but what really elevates ParaNorman is its sense of humor. I was laughing heartily throughout the movie, not just a giggle or a chortle but good, solid laughs. ParaNorman has an irreverent sense of humor with some surprisingly adult-oriented gags (nothing to worry about parents). With these virtues, the movie becomes an entertaining horror comedy aimed at young teens and older adults. It’s a fun movie, short of a saggy second act, and the animation is aces.
Nate’s Grade: B
Celeste and Jesse Forever (2012)
Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Sandberg) have been best friends ever since high school, the couple everyone admired. They’ve been married for six years but now they are in the middle of divorce proceedings. Why? Celeste loves her longtime best friend but worries he’s not maturing or stable to be her marriage partner. During their separation, Jesse admits he’s found another woman whom he cares about. Celeste professes to be happy but deep down is troubled, second-guessing her decision now that there’s a real threat she might lose Jesse. The two buds act like nothing has changed, goofing around and paling it up, but how long can they keep up this façade? Eventually, someone is going to get hurt because divorce cannot be shrugged off. Reality has a way of outliving ironic detachment.
Can you remain best friends with someone you once loved? How about someone you once knew as your spouse? Celeste and Jesse are certainly trying but their idealistic “BFF” status seems destined to meet a harsh reality. Celeste and Jesse Forever is labeled as a “loved story” and I think that’s a pretty apt description. These two characters clearly have a deep affection for one another, but after six years the feelings just aren’t enough. What happens when you marry your best friend but that just isn’t enough? I was hoping for some greater answers from the movie, or at least a harder examination on why some relationships fall apart when things look like they should work. That’s not exactly what the movie offers. For a film with an aim to be more realistic about the fallings out of love, the movie follows a familiar formula. There’s the cute guy at yoga (Chris Messina) into Celeste, but first she has to get settled. I think I wouldn’t have minded this character if he didn’t feel so much like a plot device, a hasty happy ending meant to be put in a holding pattern until called upon. The “Jesse” half of the title will be gone for lengthy chunks of the movie. His portrayal also borders on simplistic. I wish we got more of his side of the relationship, especially since he’s going through sudden change himself. After seeing the trailer, I thought I was going to find the movie immensely relatable. Maybe I just got all the recognizable personal drama out of my system with The Five-Year Engagement (double feature for bitter lovers?).
Fortunately, the movie is also fairly funny. The comedy can feel a tad sitcomish at times with misunderstandings and catching people in embarrassing situations. The screenplay by Jones and co-star Will McCormack (TV’s In Plain Sight) is routinely amusing, settling with soft chuckles rather than anything histrionic. It fits the subdued tone of the movie, since it’s about people coming to terms with messy emotions and not whacky mishaps. Then there’s a whole subplot involving a teen pop star (Emma Roberts) that feels recycled from a whole other movie. This storyline leads to a few good jokes but it doesn’t seem to add anything of value to the plot. The comedy doesn’t overpower the dramatics, and Celeste and Jesse Forever finds a nice tonal balance between the heartache and humor. I wouldn’t say the film is necessarily quirky but it certainly operates to an offbeat comedic rhythm. There are a few cringe-worthy editions but the characters and the actors make it worth any personal discomfort.
If Jones (TV’s Parks and Recreation) needs a good boyfriend I will gladly volunteer my services. My God this woman is beautiful. I don’t want to set off any alarm bells, but this woman is a goddess. She’s also extremely talented and a naturally charming presence. Her chemistry with Sandberg (That’s My Boy) is out of this world. They are so relaxed together, so amiable, so enjoyable, that it really does come as a shock when their unamused friends have to sternly remind them they are getting a divorce. They have a wealth of in-jokes and secret couple codes, and they’re so cute together that you wonder if maybe, just maybe, they’ll reconcile by the end. Sanberg is better than I’ve ever seen him, giving a strong, heartfelt performance as a nice guy trying to make sense of his eroding situation. But this movie is Jones’ movie, and she shines. While her facial expressions can get a little overly animated at times (TV-ish mannerisms?), this movie is a terrific showcase for her dramatic and comedic talents. This woman will excite you, frustrate you, break your heart, make you laugh, but you’ll be glued to the screen.
The tricky part is that Celeste is both our protagonist and antagonist. She is the root of her own unhappiness, and coming to terms with the fact that she was wrong is a big moment of personal growth, however, it’s not exactly the direction audiences may be happy with. It’s harder to root for a character that is sabotaging her own progress. Jessie, especially as played by Sandberg, is pretty much an adorable puppy dog throughout the whole movie; it’s hard to stay upset with him, and occasionally Celeste will lead him on and then punish him for following. She tells him to move on but then pulls him back to her when he threatens to do just that. She chastises him for not being serious enough, for not having direction, yet you get the impression throughout the movie that Celeste bares some responsibility in this situation as well. Jesse is laid back, though hardly the arrested development slackers dotting most of modern comedy these days. As one character notes, perhaps Celeste enjoyed keeping her husband grounded, limited, stuck. I don’t chalk it up as malice, more a comfortable situation that Celeste is afraid to disrupt. She’s the overachiever, he’s the underachiever, they compliment one another, that is, until Celeste decides they don’t. Then when it looks like Jesse’s growing up, she wants him back, or thinks she does, at least this newer version of Jesse. As you can see, it’s complicated. At no point would I dismiss Celeste as a callous person, but the movie is tethered to her personal growth of being able to admit fault. Her window with Jesse has passed. The movie is about her journey to realizing that.
Celeste and Jesse Forever feels like a movie of small waves. It doesn’t have the Big Declarative Moments of most rom-coms or indie romances, and that’s because it’s not a romance as much as an autopsy on why a romance went down for the count. It’s melancholy without getting mopey. It has certain hipster tendencies but nothing that rises to an insufferable level of twee; it’s routinely adorable and rather heartfelt in places, though I wish it had offered more potent insight into its characters. This isn’t going to be a movie that people build up great emotion for. By nature it’s pretty low-key, choosing to handle its emotional pyrotechnics with delicacy and the occasional comedic set piece. For a comedy about divorc,e this si surprisingly sensitive. These are nice people, good humored, and you sort of wish the movie would just scrap any indie ambitions and substitute a happy ending. You want to shout at the screen, “Just reconcile already!” Maybe that was me just using the movies as good old therapy again (see: The Five-Year Engagement review, or don’t). Celeste and Jesse Forever is an agreeable, affable, bemusing movie, with enough laughs and emotion to justify giving it a chance.
Nate’s Grade: B
Hit and Run (2012)
Hit and Run was a labor of love for actor Dax Shephard (TV’s Parenthood). He wrote the script, co-directed the film, did plenty of his own car stunts, edited the film, and got his longtime girlfriend, the irascible Kristen Bell (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) to co-star as his love interest. I just wish the movie were better. It’s something of a strange mix, a road chase that zips along to loping comedic rhythms, spending as much time having characters engage in self-aware conversations about a variety of topics. It’s like a rom-com with car chases. Shepard and Bell are terrific together and have a natural comedic chemistry to them, an ease that befits both of their acting styles. Then there’s some of the more troubling comedic moments, like when the villainous Bradley Cooper (The Hangover) literally ties a leash around a black man and forces him to eat dog food. It’s one uncomfortable scene to watch. Then there are sudden bursts of violence and nudity, to go along with the bizarre conversational tangents. The plot is a loose collection of near-misses and digressive asides. It wants to be one of those 70s car chase comedies, something along the likes of a raunchier Smokey and the Bandit. This movie does keep you guessing, but it rarely adds up to anything worth all the trouble. Car enthusiasts will probably enjoy all the vehicular eye candy, and I’m happy to see Bell tackle a meatier role than she seems to be offered at this time, but I can’t work up more than a half-hearted shrug for Hit and Run. It looks good but just has nowhere to go.
Nate’s Grade: C+
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