Monthly Archives: May 2016
Ever since I heard about its production, and especially after watching the first trailer, I have been intensely anticipating The Nice Guys, mostly because of my fervent and undying love for 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. That gem was writer/director Shane Black’s manic and deliriously entertaining comedy noir that reinvigorated star Robert Downey Jr.’s career. The Nice Guys looked very much like a spiritual successor or predecessor given its swanky 1970s setting. While an enjoyable and funny caper, there is a significant gap between KKBB’s genius and the altogether amusing though lesser escapades of The Nice Guys. Perhaps it’s unfair of me to have had my expectations too high, to be hoping for another magical onscreen alchemy like KKBB. Whatever the case, I was slightly let down by The Nice Guys around the time I realized that the best jokes were in the trailer. They are admittedly great jokes but what was left too often hit lower registers of funny. Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe have great chemistry together and Gosling especially showcases a talent for physical comedy that has been underutilized. When the movie finds ways to undercut detective movie tropes, like Gosling cutting his hand badly after a failed attempt to break into a locked window, that is when it feels most alive and fun. The action elements don’t feel as significantly connected, like a bunch of washout villains like a hitman named John Boy who has no memorable personality. The shaggy dog mystery has some entertaining detours but once again the real draw is the comic interplay of the two male leads and Black’s razor-sharp dialogue. The man perfected the buddy cop interplay at some point, and often the casual conversations and one-liners are more highlights than the set pieces. The Nice Guys is a funny, smart, and diverting detective action-comedy that is a solid effort from everyone involved. It’s just that I was hoping for a touch of the divine again and had to come back to Earth.
Nate’s Grade: B
The first Neighbors was a pleasant surprise, a gross-out comedy with heart, cross-generational appeal, and a surprising degree of sincere attention to round out its cast and supporting characters. For my money it was a comedy that checked all the boxes. Now two years later comes a sequel that looks to repeat just about all the plot mechanics of the first except with a sorority replacing the fraternity. It looks like it’s checking the standard more-of-the-same sequel boxes. I was again pleasantly surprised, especially how little Neighbors 2 repeated the comic setups and jokes of the original (the malignant comedy disease known as Austin Powers Sequel Syndrome) and how much I still enjoyed these characters. Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne are now expecting their second child and trying to sell their house. They have to pass a 30-day escrow period without their buyers rescinding their purchase. That’s when Chloe Grace Moritz transforms the next door home into an off-campus sorority. She’s appalled at the gross and derogatory nature of fraternity-hosted parties and an unfairly arbitrary rule that sororities can’t host parties. She and a couple one-note stock fiends throw a female-friendly party house (Feminist Icon parties and bawling your eyes out to The Fault in Our Stars) where they won’t cotton to uncheck male ego. I was laughing throughout the movie with some big laughs at key points. Rogen and Byrne maintain a wonderful comic dynamic and the warring generations premise can still produce plenty of entertaining set pieces. The jokes can be sly and come at you from different angles, taking you be surprise (a “bun in the oven” joke had me almost spit out my drink). There are some things that don’t quite work, mostly how listless and self-involved the female coeds come across and some of their hollow arguments in the name of feminism. I guess equality does mean that women can behave as badly as men. Neighbors 2 replaces a bit of the heart of the first film with an excess of slapstick. There’s also a weird corporate synergistic tie-in with Minions that never quite settles. Still, Neighbors 2 is a satisfying sequel that reminds you what you enjoyed about the first film while not being indebted to what made it succeed.
Nate’s Grade: B
Jodie Foster hasn’t acted in a movie since 2013’s Elysium, and if you saw that movie you might have some sense why she’s taking time away. As a director, she has few film credits to her name, which makes each new Foster directing effort raise the question, “Why this one?” I would assume her last effort, 2011’s The Beaver, was her desire to work again with her Maverick co-star Mel Gibson and perhaps give him a career boost. Money Monster is a would-be hostage thriller with a socially conscience message about the greed and recklessness of Wall Street; however, the Bernie Sanders faithful, let alone anyone mildly educated on the excesses of Wall Street, will find this movie surely lacking, as will anyone looking for a competent and engaging thriller.
Lee Gates (George Clooney) is the host of Money Monster, a financial entertainment show where he provides stock tips to his loyal viewers. One day and angry man, Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), wanders onto the set brandishing a gun. He demands Lee strap on a bomb vest. Kyle lost his life savings on a bad stock tip and he demands justice. Lee agrees to hear the guy out and get to the bottom of why this stock dramatically fell of a cliff, which leads him to suspect internal manipulation from the CEO (Dominic West). Lee’s director Patty (Julia Roberts) stays put through the duress and remains the voice in his ear, coaching him to safety and running research to discover the truth.
While I was watching Money Monster I had to remind myself that this wannabe message movie existed in our reality, because the brunt of its ire against Wall Street criminal shenanigans is targeted specifically against one bad trader instead of the system. It’s like this movie exists before the 2008 financial meltdown, before the Oscar-winning movies Inside Job and The Big Short, but it doesn’t. It’s borderline insulting that the screenplay myopically focuses all of its attention on one bad actor and lets the rest of the Wall Street elite escape blameless for criminal misdeeds. The bulk of the movie after Kyle begins his hostage standoff is tracking down this bad trader and digging through archives to pin the blame for a stock fall on this guy, all the while keeping him away from the news so he doesn’t get suspicious. It’s a ludicrous turn of events that manages to take a big picture story with relevancy and find the smallest, most insignificant way to tell its tiny story. The condemnation should be for the system and not one guy, and not one character breaks from this preposterous thinking. It feels like they exist in a different time and place. If you didn’t know anything about Wall Street before this movie you would still be left clueless. Is there supposed to be a happy ending when they bring this guy to justice? The movie sets up an ending that doesn’t exactly feel like anyone learned a lesson or even that the villain was properly punished (oh no, he suffers the scorn of Internet memes!). The final line is so glib and self-satisfied that I groaned. By the end of Money Monster I was wondering what any character had learned from the experience except, maybe, to have better locks on the studio doors.
The other debilitating problem is that Money Monster is a movie that cannot find a character for you to care about. The setup should be so obvious and elicit audience sympathy and a natural underdog to root for against a corrupt system. Instead Kyle is a moron. First off he invests all of his money into one single stock based upon one tip from Lee’s TV show. That’s a pretty big risk. Next he takes hostages and makes demands, and yet none of those demands are for the return of his money but rather a simple apology. There’s also the fact that he’s more a ranting and raving angry lunatic than somebody who has targeted ire against the body of Wall Street, making for a pretty uninteresting hostage scenario. You also have to factor in that there will be no good outcome for Kyle, and so he’ll be leaving his girlfriend and unborn child left to fend for themselves after he blew away all their money on a bad gamble. This is not a sympathetic character nor is he rendered in a fashion to make him that interesting. He’s an angry and impulsive man whose actions are almost always about himself and his sense of being wronged. The other two primary characters, Lee and Patty, are completely absent personalities beyond staying cool under pressure. If you put a gun to my head I would not be able to tell you anything about either of those characters as people. Lee doesn’t seem to go through any sort of introspection over his own culpability with his TV show, and Patty is so laser focused on the problem at hand that we know nothing about her other than her capability. Spending 90 minutes with this trio of lackluster characters is a waste of 90 minutes.
Despite the brisk pacing, I was bored mercilessly with Money Monster. I just didn’t care and Foster and company gave me no reason to care. The pacing made it hard to develop these characters; they felt like chess pieces being randomly assembled across a board, moved when the plot required it, and inert without these manipulations. When the movie goes outside is another example of nothing feelings believable. The will-he-be-shot suspense sequences are hackneyed and dumb. There are a couple of moments of solid comic relief at the expense of character egos, with Emily Meade (That Awkward Moment) serving as the highlight of an otherwise monstrously mediocre movie. Here is a list of other actors that are wasted in do-nothing parts: Caitriona Balfe (TV’s Outlander), Giancarlo Esposito (TV’s Breaking Bad), Christopher Denham (Argo), Lenny Venito (TV’s The Sopranos), and Chris Bauer (TV’s True Blood).
Money Monster is a disappointment in just about every stripe, from its perfunctory performances from it’s a-level movie stars, to the development of its characters, from its suspense sequences, and especially from its frustrating and laughably short-sighted vilification of Wall Street misdeeds on one culprit. It’s like this movie was pulled from a time capsule from the 1990s. Foster’s direction is perfectly acceptable though indistinct from any other journeyman. I cannot say what attracted her to this project as a director except for the opportunity to work with Clooney and Roberts. Otherwise, Money Monster is a thriller that keeps butting heads against reality, reminding the audience at every turn of its airless artificiality and stark superficiality.
Nate’s Grade: C
Think you were disappointed by last summer’s Avengers: Age of Ultron? The pressure-packed experience broke writer/director Joss Whedon who swore off being the creative shepherd of the Marvel cinematic Universe (MCU). Enter the Russo brothers, a pair who were widely known for their work in eclectic TV comedies like Community and Arrested Development before blowing away all modest expectations with 2014’s Captain America: Winter Soldier. I can say that the Russos are more than capable for the challenge. My simplistic blurb for Captain America: Civil War is thus: everything Batman vs. Superman did wrong this movie does right.
After the cataclysmic events of multiple movie climaxes, the world governments are wary of the power wielded by the Avengers. Secretary Ross (William Hurt, the lone returning element from 2008’s Incredible Hulk) is pushing the superheroes to sign the Sokovia Accords, which would put them under the control of a U.N. joint panel. This panel would decide when and where to deploy the Avengers. Captain America, a.k.a. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), is worried about a group of people taking away their choice. Iron Man, a.k.a. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), believes that they need to accept limitations and that agreeing to these terms staves off something worse later. This division becomes even more pronounced when Rogers’ old friend the Winter Soldier, a.k.a. Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), reappears as the chief suspect in a U.N. bombing. Black Panther, a.k.a. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), swears vengeance against Barnes for the bombing. As the assembly of heroes squares off over the fate of the Winter Soldier, Baron Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) is tracking down classified Hydra documents to uncover pertinent information that will topple an empire.
While I don’t want to turn every new film review as an opportunity to beat a dead horse, I cannot help but draw immediate and stark comparisons between Civil War and the earlier titanic superhero slugfest, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Let’s take this case point by point so there is no reasonable doubt left for the jury of ticket-buyers.
“Batman vs. Superman doesn’t set up its conflicts with enough time to develop them and it lacks real emotional stakes.”
With BvS (I’m saving my fingertips some drudgery), we hadn’t known these characters for more than one movie at best, and in the case of Bruce Wayne less than one. When they fought there wasn’t any real stakes despite the apoplectic marketing because we hadn’t built relationships with these characters. In the case of Henry Cavill’s Superman, many were turned off entirely by the guy (not necessarily by Cavill’s physique, though). Did anyone really care who won? The filmmakers relied on the audience to supply their pop-culture good will for the characters instead of proper characterization and development. In the case of Civil War, we’re dealing with the cumulative effect of having twelve movies to build up storylines and character relationships. We’re invested in these characters and their friendships, so when they fight it actually does matter. You feel for both sides and multiple characters and the movie does a good job of providing each side a credible motivation. It’s a political thorny issue but it’s kept very streamlined, focusing more on the characters. If the MCU has had one nagging problem throughout its history it has been a dearth of good villains. There’s Loki and… Loki. One solution is to just pit the heroes against each other and this produces as many fist-bumps as winces. My audience was gasping at reveals and twists and turns. They weren’t doing that with BvS. And wouldn’t you know Civil War actually has a climax that’s more than just an increasing series of punches and kicks (though plenty of those are featured); the climax is an emotionally grounded confrontation that cuts to the core of the group. The events of this movie matter and while obviously it can’t follow its divisions to an irrevocable end, I appreciated that not everything is resolved. These storylines and the conflicts between characters will carry onward when we pick up the pieces in 2018.
“Batman vs. Superman is too burdened with setting up an array of other film franchises that it loses badly needed focus and momentum.”
To be fair, this charge can also be laid at the feet of Age of Ultron, which buckled under the heavy weight of setting up multiple other future movies rather than telling a completely satisfying movie in its own right. Once the franchises gave birth to mega-franchises, the wheels-within-wheels of moneymaking, now the studios require a lot of heavy lifting from our entertainment. They’re investments in futures and if done improperly can easily crumble under the failed execution like the Amazing Spider-Man series (R.I.P. 2012-2014). Miraculously, Civil War finds ways to involve every member of a large ensemble cast into the story in ways that matter. The movie finds small character moments that make them feel better rounded, like Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and it introduces featured supporting players with great care. Black Panther is a terrific addition and brings a quieter intensity that contrasts nicely with the more colorful characters. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) introduces himself and Black Panther curtly says, “I don’t care” and goes back to fighting. Boseman (ageless I tell you!) is smooth and magnetic. Then there’s everyone’s favorite neighborhood Spider-Man (Tom Holland), or whom I’m already referring to my pals as “best Spider-Man.” It’s another incarnation of Peter Parker but the first that feels like an actual teenager, a bundle of adolescent energy and excitement. He’s the voice of the fans and during the big battle he can’t help but gush that he gets to be involved alongside the big names. Spidey’s a fanboy too. He also has a few choice meta one-liners that had me cackling. Holland (The Impossible) makes an immediate impact and, unlike BvS, finds new ways to make us care. I’m genuinely excited for solo Black Panther and Spider-Man adventures with these characters. Even the more traditional villain of Civil War, Baron Zemo, is handled in a way that provides an emotional motivation for his character that is sincere rather than mustache-twirling villainy. In a lot of ways this feels like a third Avengers film just with the size and scope alone. The dozen characters are juggled skillfully but the emphasis is always on Rogers and Stark and their significant personal conflicts.
“Batman vs. Superman’s action sequences are repetitive, joyless, and dank.”
I challenge some enterprising soul to even try and decipher what is happening during the climactic three-on-one monster battle in BvS. I was sitting in the theater and just gave up. I wasn’t having any fun and I couldn’t even literally tell what was happening onscreen with all the confusing CGI obfuscation. The action droned on and on with little variation and was at pains to include certain members and storylines (Lois, maybe don’t get so hasty with that kryptonite spear). It was all just one big overwrought mess that made you question whether anybody on that film production actually liked these superheroes. With Civil War, the action sequences are smartly conceived and choreographed, making excellent use of geography and adding organic complications. The standout is the 20-minute superhero-on-superhero brawl at the Leipzig airport. It is nothing short of nerd nirvana. The characters use their powers together in exciting ways and it further helps them feel like an actual team taking proper advantage of their resources. It’s the culmination of a child’s imagination at play, the living embodiment of smashing action figures against one another and flying around the room. I was thrilled that the Russo brothers found ways to incorporate all the heroes into the action. The specific powers are taken advantage of in fun and surprising ways. The action changes as the stakes keep getting more complicated as more heroes enter the fray. It’s a set piece that will become legendary within film geek circles and it provides payoff after glorious payoff.
“Batman vs. Superman is devoid of all fun and takes itself far too seriously. You feel beaten down, exhausted, and punished by film’s end.”
The Marvel movies have earned a reputation for their brisk and breezy nature, which has unfairly been labeled as “weightless” and “silly.” I challenge someone to watch Civil War and tell me just how weightless and silly it is. The Russo brothers and the screenwriters take these characters seriously and their care shows. While there can be plenty of rapid-fire quips and one-liners, the movie’s sense of humor does not detract from the emotional weight of its dramatic shifts. There are political and thematic overtones, mostly the costs of vengeance and culpability, that provide extra depth to the onscreen derring-do. However, Civil War understands that an audience wants to be entertained as well with their heavy-handed messianic imagery. There are payoffs galore in this movie. Some are several movies deep from set up. It all comes together to make a thrilling and highly enjoyable movie experience that plays to its audience in the best way possible. It’s an expert summer blockbuster that packs its own punch. There’s a reason I have already seen Civil War three times already. There is so much to enjoy and it’s so tightly packed and structured that you can jump right in and go for the ride. This is the movie fans were hoping for. This is the movie that washes out the bad taste of the dreadful BvS. If one of my lasting disappointments with BvS was how it made me lose hope for future DC movies, Civil War has cemented my anticipation. The future creative direction of the MCU is in good hands with the Russo brothers. This is the movie that reminds you just how damn good superhero movies can be when they’re at the top of their game. I’d place Civil War right up there at the top of the MCU, though at this time I’m still holding Guardians of the Galaxy as the apex. They’re still achieving this high level of quality after a dozen movies, people. I would not have thought that Captain America would become the gold standard of the MCU but there it is. I felt beaten down by the merciless end of BvS. I felt the elation of an adrenaline-rush from Civil War.
I’ll conclude this unorthodox film review with my in-summary blurb: everything Batman vs. Superman did wrong Captain America: Civil War does right. Do yourself a favor and start the healing process from BvS and enjoy Marvel’s latest cinematic gift to its fans.
Nate’s Grade: A