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Coco (2017)

Taking a cue from Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, Pixar’s newest animated wonder is a leap into a fantasy world with a young protagonist trying to get back to his family through trials of courage. A young boy wants to be a musician but his older grandmother forbids it, blaming music for luring away her grandfather and almost ruining the family. He steals a famous celebrity’s guitar from his crypt and is transported to the world of the dead on Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). The boy is able to meet his departed family members but if he can’t make it home by the end of the night he’ll stay there forever. This is a pretty dense film with a lot of rules to remember and yet the movie’s wonderfully structured story doesn’t give you more than you can handle. One rule leads to another organically, and you’re fully invested in the world and the characters. The Mexican culture and heritage is portrayed with extreme reverence while still being playful. This is a movie about death that treats it seriously but can still have fun when it counts. It’s lively, joyful, and sneaks up on you emotionally, as all great Pixar movies seem to do. I was wiping away tears by the end, and I’m sure fathers will be wiping away even more. The screenplay takes staid concepts (power of dreams, importance of family, respect for elders) and finds meaningful ways to personalize them. It’s ultimately a story about sacrifices and relationships between generations, how we honor and remember those we cherish. The visuals are colorful and gorgeous, though I didn’t feel the world of the dead was as memorable in its various locations and developments as the characters. Coco is a funny, charming, heartfelt, poignant, and vastly entertaining movie that soars with great imagination, story development, and an enrichment of characters to fall in love with.

Nate’s Grade: A

The Infiltrator (2016)

the-infiltrator-infiltrator-1sht_reflection-v2_rgbIn the mid 1980s, Pablo Escobar and his cartel were responsible for billions of dollars worth of narcotics filtering into the United States. It’s the kind of work that can fill up Robert Mazur’s (Bryan Cranston) career. He works as a Florida Customs agent but his specialty is going undercover for his assignments. He’s called out of retirement with the promise of striking high in the ranks of Escobar’s ring of lieutenants. Mazur’s partner, Emir (John Leguizamo), uses an unreliable informant to start the new identity, and so Mazur poses as a money laundering expert who offers his sundry services to the Colombian cartel. After blurting out that he has a fiancé in lieu of accepting a prostitute’s services as a very 80s way of saying “thank you,” the agency must now provide him with a fake wife, played by rookie agent Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger). The two have to rely upon one another in a world of criminals and murderers who would have no gutting them.

My main feeling once The Infiltrator had come to its natural conclusion was that everything about this movie should have been better. It’s a terrific premise as we follow the undercover travails of a man trying to stay one step ahead and keep his dual lives separated, invariably having them bleed into one another especially as danger escalates and his cover may be blown. Then you add an untrained partner and the conflict magnifies from there. Then you have Mazur work his way up the food chain to the major lieutenants of Pablo Escobar. This movie should be exploding with dramatic irony, weighty decisions, and magnificent suspense, but it’s really not. So why not?

infoOne reason is that the movie whiffs with its modest ambitions, namely in its shallow character study of Mazur and the lingering effects of pretending to be a very bad man. Going undercover has to be one of the most stressful jobs in law enforcement, and living two different lives has to have a noticeable psychological impact, eating away at our protagonist and affecting his relationships and sense of self. That doesn’t happen with The Infiltrator as the few glimpses we get of Mazur’s home life are mostly harmless check-ins. A red light is installed in his home to mean a secret special phone line. You would assume that some family situation has to draw out conflict from this scenario, maybe Mazur’s little girl answering the phone before he can reach it. Nothing of consequence happens with daddy’s special red light phone. The family, absent anything important to do but wait at home, becomes a drag on the narrative and doesn’t even fulfill what you would assume would be its primary service: contrast. In the world of The Infiltrator, sex, money, and drugs are rampant, but our protagonist is unaffected. He remains the same character from the beginning of the story to the end. We don’t really learn more about him other than he is skilled at going undercover. We don’t see any particular toll on him psychologically. We don’t feel the threat of what he’s going through because the movie doesn’t pretend it matters enough.

Going undercover with the Medellin Cartel should provide endless suspense scenarios. This movie should be rife with conflict, and yet it consistently finds deflating, coincidental outs to save its characters. As a good screenwriting rue of thumb, it’s acceptable to use coincidence to put your character into greater danger. It’s not a smart idea to use coincidence to save your character from danger. Example: in Donnie Brasco, a man approaches Johnny Depp’s character and clearly refers to him by his agency name, implying working together with the FBI. That’s a good use of coincidence. With The Infiltrator, Mazur’s secret recording in his briefcase is discovered by a mid-level cartel operative, for once it feels like Mazur is vulnerable. Then the movie quickly dispatches with this guy for a rash explanation and so he takes his secret to his grave. There’s another moment where Emir’s informant is about to squeal to some very bad people, with Emir in the room sweating bullets, and he too is wiped out before sharing his privileged information. The movie is filled with these frustrating solutions just when it seems like tensions is developed. The entire appeal of the undercover mob movie is the twists and turns to hide the real identity and make it out alive. I’m genuinely dumbfounded how much of this movie just skates by with little regard to drawing out effective tension.

I think I can crystallize just how poorly The Infiltrator handles its many threads of conflict with one great example. Kathy and Robert Mazur are fake getting married according o their cover stories, so what else does a fake bride-to-be do but seek out her fake husband’s tuxedo that he wore decades prior upon his real wedding to his real wife? Why does Robert need to wear the exact same tuxedo? Can his office not afford to rent a new one that likely more accurately represents his fitting size? Even if this cost-cutting measure was plausible, why must Kathy be the one to pick it up, and from Mrs. Mazur? It’s contrived and forced conflict to shove these two characters together, so that Mrs. Mazur can ask pointedly, “Are you sleeping with him?” Rather than say nothing, or dismiss the assertion, Kathy provides what has to be the most irritating and obfuscating answer: “I think you know the answer to that.” Does she? The film seems to think there is a simmering sexual tension between Kathy and Robert Mazur, but it never materializes. I guess we’re just supposed to assume a sexual tension. This scene is a pristine example of characters operating at a sub-level of intelligence because the movie wants to force contrived drama when there is already plenty of organic drama being ignored.

The last third of the movie is built around the relationship that Mazur and Kathy form with Robert Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt). With an actor of Bratt’s stature, you’d be lead to assume his character will have a significant amount of screen time; however, The Infiltrator also boasts blink-and-you’ll-miss-them performances from Amy Ryan and Jason Isaacs, so maybe not. Bratt’s character is a family man and we’re treated to several scenes with him and his wife. It’s meant to engender sympathy so that when the end comes around we can feel some conflicted emotions. Except this is another area where the screenplay cannot live up to its aims. At no point did I feel sympathy for this mobster. He’s a “family man” and we even see him with his daughter… in one scene who asks to sleep over at a friend’s. Robert preaches about the importance of trust and family in that typical way that all thinly veiled mobsters do in movies, and he even cooks, which is another personality trait I’m sure we’ve never seen in a film about mobsters. The entire last act is predicated on our undercover duo feeling guilt over setting up Robert and his family in an eventual sting, and this guilt feels entirely manufactured.

infiltrator-movie-bryan-cranston-diane-krugerCranston (Trumbo) is the real draw here and it’s easy enough to see how alluring the undercover gig is for an actor of immense talents. In the opening scene we get a sense of Mazur on the job, digging deep into a seedy drug dealer lounging in a bowling alley and making passes at the waitresses. It’s a meaty introduction that whets your appetites for the different personalities that Cranston will have to draw from on his next assignment. Cranston is routinely entertaining to watch but I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed at what the film was asking him to do and what I fully know he’s capable of delivering. It’s like hiring a world famous chef and asking him to fix your plumbing. The other actors don’t distinguish themselves in their fleeting scenes except for Kruger (Inglorious Basterds) and Joseph Gilgun (TV’s Preacher) as a convict that Mazur likes to have pose as his driver/muscle. In the case of both actors, you wish that more had been made with their dynamic to the mission.

The Infiltrator is based on a true story and I assume that what I see on screen closely echoes Mazur’s real exploits and predicaments, but somewhere along the way the filmmakers lost track on what made this story tick. The psychological aspects are barely touched upon, the family conflicts are given careless lip service, the suspense sequences are clipped, under developed, and often solved by convenient coincidence, and the characters are too shallow to grow out from their stock roles. I know these are real human beings for the most part but they don’t feel anything more than genre archetypes. The Infiltrator does enough at a serviceable level of entertainment that it might pass some viewers’ lower threshold to fill an empty two-hour window. With all of its ready-made suspense possibilities and internal and external conflicts, this real-life story should be far more compelling than the one we’re given, which settles too often. It’s a genre movie masquerading as a character study except it’s blown its cover.

Nate’s Grade: C

Catwoman (2004)

Halle Berry has not exactly followed up her 2001 Best Actress Oscar with the wisest choices. There was a starring role in a James Bond movie, Die Another Day, there was Gothika, a spooker that didn’t scare anyone, except studio executives who saw the final gross. Now there’s Catwoman, a big-budget superhero film that’s got such a ripe odor to it to smell from miles away. It’s not good when a studio pulls a trailer because fans laugh at it, and it’s certainly not a good sign when the studio hires reshoots a month before the film is released. Catwoman’s looking for a big chunk of the superhero money out there, but will it land on all fours?

Patience Phillips (Berry) is a frazzled, down-on-her luck graphic designer at Hedare, a giant cosmetics corporation led by husband and wife team George and Laurel Hedare (Lambert Wilson and Sharon Stone). Patience is described as being “fun-deficient,” and lets people walk all over her. She tries saving a cat from a ledge one morning, and Officer Tom Lone (Benjamin Bratt) jumps out of his car to intervene, thinking she’s a jumper. He rescues her, though she doesn’t need it, and then asks to go out some time for coffee, the universal first date without it having to be a date.

Patience is returning her designs late one night and overhears that Hedare’s newest product has the unfortunate side effect of making people’s faces melt if they discontinue use. The Hedare goons chase her down a water drain and flush her into a river. She’s revived somehow by the same cat she tried saving from the ledge. Patience reawakens with superhuman powers, heightened sense, and expert agility. There are some kinks, though. She sleeps in odd places, gobbles tuna by the handful, and loves to swing a whip. Who knows what she does to go to the bathroom. The new Patience is a bit confusing to Tom, but he goes along for the ride. He’s also on the hunt for the Catwoman, a mysterious leather-clad woman responsible for some jewelry theft. Patience unravels Hedare’s cosmetics conspiracy and aims to stop George and Laurel from mass production, all the while staying one step ahead of her boyfriend’s investigation. But Laurel is also experiencing some growing pains of her own. Unsatisfied with being pushed out her company’s advertising spotlight for being “too old,” she begins using heavy amounts of their newest beauty product and makes her skin as tough as living marble. With this new power, she schemes to retake power from her husband, as well as eliminate a pesky Catwoman.

Let’s not mince words and get directly to the elephant in the room: Berry’s hideous, trashy costume. This is, by far, the worst costume ever in a superhero movie, and possibly the worst costume in cinematic history. It’s so overwhelmingly ridiculous that perhaps the filmmakers felt Catwoman’s ultimate weapon against evil was having it die from laughter. It’s a bizarre combination of a mask with large mouse ears, leather bra, criss-crossing belts, gloves with diamond-tipped nails, and leather pants that look like they were mauled by a bear. Oh, and then there’s also the open-toed shoes. What? A superhero who wears open-toed shoes? All evil doers would have to do is step on her feet. The only purpose the outfit serves is to make Berry look sexy, but you didn’t need a stupid, tacky outfit for that.

The story of Catwoman takes a giant leap into weird mythology. Apparently, possibly immortal cats decide someone will become a Catwoman, a woman we’re told is not bound by our foolish rules. There’s no explanation why the cats choose who they do, what the purpose of this is, or what is even expected in return. We do get a montage of Catwomen through the ages dating back to ancient Egypt. Apparently, Catwomen follow the same lines of mythology like Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “Unto each generation, a Catwoman is born.” It’s also kind of funny that a film called Catwoman, about mythic Catwomen, has a crazy old cat lady (poor Ruth Fisher).

The villainous scheme in Catwoman is awful. I can’t imagine the FDA not having some grumblings when their test bunnies start having their faces melt off. More importantly, what company would EVER release a product that melts your face in our litigious society? Just think of the mounting class action lawsuits that could very likely bankrupt that company. So, right there the villain’s plot is moronic for two big reasons. Don’t even get me started on Stone’s superhuman strength aided by the beauty cream we learn melts faces.

The acting is what you would expect. Berry is a beautiful woman, no doubt, but her performance is split between flighty wallflower and naughty dominatrix, neither of which is convincing. Bratt is the worst police officer ever (he can’t identify Catwoman even though only a tiny part of her face is obscured) and tries valiantly to hold his own amongst the ridiculousness. Wilson was such a stock corporate villain that they could have erected a cardboard cut-out of him and gotten the same performance. I never thought I’d say this, especially after The Muse, but Sharon Stone is the best thing about this movie. She’s an ice queen, but an entertaining one until she goes overboard on her beauty cream.

Catwoman is the first superhero film for Warner Brothers since their disastrous franchise-killing Batman and Robin in 1997. It’s hardly a coincidence that Catwoman is the also the worst superhero film since Batman and Robin. The film is trying really hard to be Spider-Man. Before her feline transformation, Berry is a frumpy dweeb, and afterwards she gets heightened senses, a new jolt of self-confidence, and the love of her man. Catwoman even has the guts to rip-off Daredevil, an amusing but fairly flawed movie itself trying to be Spider-Man. There’s a scene where Patience and Tom play a competitive game of basketball surrounded by chanting children. This is a direct rip-off of the scene in Daredevil where Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner play fight on a playground. I don’t know about you, but when you’re ripping off Daredevil of all movies, you have problems.

This film has five credited writers, which works with my Rule of Five for films: if there are five or more people responsible for the script, then there was no script. Who amongst the five wants to take credit for all the dreadful cat puns in the dialogue, like Catwoman saying, “What a purrr-fect idea.” There’s also this wonderful repartee where Laurel says, “For you, Patience, it’s game over.” Then Catwoman responds, “It’s overtime!”

Catwoman is director Pitof’s (perhaps short for Pitof-ful?) first real break as a director. He began his career as a visual effects artist on films like Alien: Resurrection, City of Lost Children, and The Messenger, but can anyone recount a visual effects artist that went on to become a decent director? (If you bothered to answer with Joe Johnston, then I don’t think you understood the question)

Movie Director Pitof has a love for cheesy CGI shots, but what’s more harmful is his penchant for confusing quick-cut edits. After watching Catwoman, I had to pop some Advil when I got home because the film’s editing had actually caused me a headache. It became so annoying that I started counting “one Mississippi, two Mississippi, etc.” to gauge the average length of a shot. Let’s just say that we didn’t make it past “one Mississippi” about 95% of the time. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with quick-edits; The Bourne Supremacy used them effectively to keep a lively, unpredictable experience. Catwoman’s editing is just jarring, especially during action sequences where you’d be hard-pressed to figure out what’s exactly going on.

The effects work is also rather pathetic. Pitof adores zooming exterior shots that become tiresome after the eighth or ninth time. Worse are all the scenes where Catwoman jumps and leaps through the city like she’s Spider-Man’s long-lost sister. The film is bending over backwards to try and ape Spider-Man, and these joyless, silly sequences of CGI Halle Berry crawling and jumping around the city don’t help the comparison. I do suppose that making a CGI Halle Berry flex and bend in her leather outfit was probably the most rewarding work for an animator since digitally making a breast grope itself in Hollow Man.

Who exactly is this movie intended for? If the filmmakers were going for fans of the Catwoman character, then why did they break away from the comic’s history and create something distant and different? If the filmmakers were strictly making an action movie, then why all the visual fluff, idiotic romance, and headache-inducing editing? I suspect that the producers felt that the names Catwoman and Halle Berry would be enough to put butts in the seats. So, then, I deduce that the selling point of Catwoman is, “Wanna see Halle Berry in a sexy leather outfit?” Now, most males will say, “Sure thing,” but why would they pay seven to ten dollars to see sexy non-nudity when they could go online. The short answer to who this film is intended for is, of course, no one.

Catwoman is derivative, incomprehensible, dumb, and just plain boring. The only people who will get a kick out of Catwoman are either hormonal teenagers aroused by Berry’s outfit, or those who enjoy jeering a terrible movie. I can’t even recommend seeing Catwoman because of its ineptness. It’s bad, oh boy is it bad, but it’s not insanely idiotic like Bulletproof Monk or Dungeons and Dragons to the point where the lunacy is a must-see. It’s just boring bad, enough that it almost put me to sleep.

Perhaps the funniest thing of all, Berry has publicly stated in interviews weeks after Catwoman’s release that she’d love to don her leather outfit and do a sequel. Maybe she needs to talk to the producers who lost a bazillion dollars and inadvertently created a midnight movie howler. Catwoman will certainly get delegated to the litter box, but how many lives does Berry have left in Hollywood?

Nate’s Grade: D

Miss Congeniality (2000)

I’m finding the equation “Sandra Bullock = wait for video” truer every day. The flick takes on the already beaten to death and then some subject matter of beauty pageants. There are a couple of funny moments, mainly due to Michael Caine and his quest to be in EVERY movie ever, but the rest is horrible slapstick. This film has the WORST forced romance I’ve ever seen between Benjamin Bratt and Bullock, it’s not just bad it’s insultingly bad. The film also has this very unsettling misogynistic tone through out the duration, even more odd when you figure in Bullock as a producer.

Nate’s Grade: C-

The Next Best Thing (2000)

The Next Best Thing offers viewers the chance to see an off-kilter romance and drama about the raising of children through standards alternative to modern society. Whatever. It sounded good on paper.

Madonna and Rupert are the best of buds, but he’s gay. So of course it’s only nature and a matter of time before they sleep together and get pregnant. They decide to disclose the identity of the daddy and raise the child together. Why they never went with the virgin birth angle is beyond me. So they raise it. And they do. Then the Material Girl wants said child for herself and it pretty much veers further into absurd soap opera from there on out.

The premise is a rip-off of the earlier The Object of My Affection, which in turn was a rip-off of Chasing Amy. Get prepared for countless scenes of Madonna and Rupert gallivanting about like they’re in a perpetual slumber party. Rarely has a more awkward film been so preachy. It’s a never-ending soapbox of sermons about family values and gay rights. Wonderful but if I’m not mistaken wasn’t there supposed to be a story somewhere?

The movie resides as one half comedy (?) then one half drama, neither of which is consistent let alone entertaining. Somewhere there’s a violent jolt into an out-of-place Kramer vs. Kramer courtroom battle royale. If the audience is supposed to feel for Madonna’s character then nothing like a selfish child custody battle to win the hearts of everyone. Who’s the victim in this? Not the child. It’s the audience.

Rupert Everett may be the only redeeming part of this uneven and mushy dramedy of lapsed judgement. His charm is evident and his leading-man ability carries the film as long as he can until it implodes on itself. I could clearly hear sighs around me of “If only he weren’t gay.” in the theater.

Madonna is clearly the biggest hindrance in The Next Best Thing. Whenever she speaks it’s like she’s reciting lines into a mirror. Madonna has some mysterious British accent she seems to have picked up and is as wooden as a board. If you call what she does in this movie “acting” then you’ll have to register some national parks with the Screen Actors Guild.

If The Next Best Thing really is the next best thing for Madonna’s struggling film career, I’d suggest reconsider her options. And pray to the other Madonna while doing it. At least she would have enough sense not to do a silly remake of “American Pie.”

Nate’s Grade: C-

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