The Rhythm Section (2020)
I like Blake Lively as an actress. I like spy thrillers. I think Reed Moreno has real talent as one of the signature directors of TV’s Handmaid Tale series. So where did The Rhythm Section go wrong, besides its clunky title (it’s a reference to different parts of the body working together like an orchestra so…. yeah)? I think it’s because the movie, based on a book by Mark Burnell, is stuck in a tonal middle ground between spy escapism and spy realism, and it doesn’t quite work. The movie is filmed with the herky-jerky docu-drama camera movements of a Paul Greengrass Bourne flick, which when done well creates a visceral sense of immersion, but here it just creates an unstable atmosphere that makes it hard to settle on what is important. The story has Lively as Stephanie, whose family died in an airplane crash that may have been a terrorist bombing. She is trained by former MI6 agent Jude Law and then sets off on a messy path of vengeance tracking down the suspected perpetrators. Stephanie’s actually really terrible as a killer and it makes for an amusing, and confusing, batch of run-ins, as Lively’s character is far more vulnerable than the famous names of spy fiction. It should make the missions and fights more exciting but The Rhythm Section is drained of most excitement. It’s so suffocating and dreary. The characters aren’t well developed or even given memorable personalities. Stephanie, once she is set off on her mission, fails to grow as a character or, really, as an assassin. It makes the entire movie feel hard to engage with emotionally or intellectually. There are some interesting moments of combat or suspense but nothing that carries over into a sustained sequence. A car chase shot entirely within Stephanie’s vehicle should be exciting but it just felt underdeveloped too. The plot is packed with needless flashbacks and obtuse to the point I had to read a Wikipedia summary after the movie was over. It’s not fun spy hi-jinks with interesting characters to draw our appeal, and it’s not really a twisty John le Carre thriller (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) that’s dense in its plotting, character ambiguities, and the realities of actual spycraft. It’s just a non-invigorating mystery with blandly developed action and suspense sequences, when you can make out what’s going on, and very minimal characterization. It’s a thoroughly mediocre bore.
Nate’s Grade: C
The Shallows (2016)
Let me take a moment to dispel an expectation amplified by the movie’s first trailer: The Shallows is not the Blake Lively Butt movie you may have imagined. It would not be uncommon for this kind of setup to indulge in the forays of exploitation cinema, but aside from a few shots of Lively on her surfboard, The Shallows is surprisingly free of anything that would constitute leering T&A. Lively even wears her swimming vest to stay warm for the far majority of the movie. I cite this because I want to congratulate the movie on its accomplishments but also assure those wary from the trailer that The Shallows is much more than a tawdry genre movie with a bikini-clad blonde in sexy peril.
After losing her mother to cancer, Nancy (Lively) drops out of school and runs off to Mexico to retreat from her cruel reality. She finds a hidden beach few others know about but was a special place to her dearly departed mother. Nancy takes her surfboard out and happily soaks up the beautiful scenery. Her respite from reality is broken when a shark bites her in her thigh. Panicked, she finds refuge on a small rock sticking out of the water, though vulnerable to high tides. Nancy has to use all her strength and wits to observe the shark and her surroundings and make an escape before her injury gets too bad.
The Shallows is an excellently paced and plotted survival thriller that keeps its audience involved from the start. I greatly enjoy survival thrillers that think step-by-step with the characters in their on screen predicaments, and every move made in The Shallows follows a logical progression that is intellectually satisfying. It helps that Nancy is a med school dropout and thinks through how best to keep herself alive with the tools that she has. She uses a pair of earrings as sutures. She uses her swimming vest as a tourniquet. She uses her watch to time the seconds it takes for the shark to swim in a perimeter. She is a smart and able heroine who assesses the situation in a manner that makes her a strong protagonist we root for until the very end. It’s also a smart device to have her calmly narrate her desperate medical improvisations as if she were treating a patient, a role-playing exercise meant to make her more objective and to ease her fear. It also provides a credible reason for Nancy to talk out loud. There’s also a seagull that Nancy bonds with, an injured bird marooned on the same small strip of rock. The bird deserves second billing as it has more screen time than any other human short of Lively. It’s not exactly a Wilson-kind of relationship necessity but if you’re like me you’ll feel enough bouts of dread and distress whenever that dumb bird is placed in dangerous scenarios.
Screenwriter Anthony Jawswinski (Kristy) makes every part of his story in play, and he even provides acceptable answers when plot holes do seem to appear. Take for instance my biggest initial question: why is this shark so obsessed with Nancy when it has a massive whale carcass to feast upon? I have a similar complain in all sorts of movies where the predator gives up the larger meal for the possibility of the smaller meal (the new King Kong and Star Trek both come to mind). Why give up a guaranteed food source? I could successfully ignore this plot hole for the most part since it’s essential to the conflict of human vs. shark, and then the script produces an answer. She’s in its feeding ground; this isn’t about food, this is about territory. That’s fair. I felt a similar quibble when this one seagull never flew away from Nancy’s rock. It makes sense to give her a companion to at least allow some one-way dialogue. Then it’s revealed the bird as a separated shoulder and is flightless, stranded too like its new friend. This presents a mini-goal for Nancy to accomplish and provides an accomplishment to carry her over. The only plot hole that stuck was Nancy explaining she’d just hail an Uber to get home from this secret beach in Mexico. I don’t think hey have many drivers in the area, lady. I was impressed with Jawswinski’s ability to develop his conflicts and utilize his surroundings. Every item introduced in this small location will be used at some point. Making use of previously introduced materials produces a string of payoffs, ensuring more fun.
The technical elements are stunning, adding extra impact to the well-crafted suspense. Director Jaume Collett-Sera (Non-Stop, Run All Night) really draws out the tension, letting an audience simmer in discomfort. I know a movie has me when I start nervously tapping my leg, anticipating something bad at any moment. I was tapping often with The Shallows. The initial first strike is chaotic and frightening, leaving Nancy the morbid option of climbing atop a rotting whale body for momentary safety. Then there’s timing the shark’s laps to determine how much time she has retrieving floating items from her rock. We’re given the setup and Collett-Sera nicely goes from there. Even the requisite “chatting with the family” scene meant to impart enough exposition for our character’s starting point is given some flash thanks to onscreen graphics. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, especially the prolonged underwater sequences. If it wasn’t for the perturbed killer shark this could work as a vacation ad for this Mexican beach (it was really filmed in Australia). The editing, the music, the special effects, it all blends seamlessly together to construct a thrilling and stylish summer movie.
I’ll admit that there was a long dry spell for Lively after her mesmerizing turn in 2010’s The Town, enough so that I wondered if she was just coasting for good. Then with last year’s underrated Age of Adaline she reminded me there’s a capable actress here. It’s a one-woman show and Lively does a terrific job of anchoring her character while playing to all the shrieks and startles of the genre requirements. Her depleted mental and physical state is effectively communicated and her surge of purpose in Act Three is infectious. Her tearful “final message” in case she didn’t make it had me almost dabbing my eyes. It’s heartfelt and sorrowful without being too corny. There is an actual character here and a performance that treats her seriously and not merely as a tasty afterthought. There are far worse people in Hollywood to be stuck on a rock with than Bake Lively.
In a summer of disappointments, I’ll gladly take the simple pleasures of a contained thriller that’s as well developed, exciting, and as satisfying as The Shallows. It’s smart, often suspenseful, and boasting great technical accolades to make this harrowing survival drama all the more immersive and enjoyable. There is an escalation of tension and director Collett-Sera keeps the audience oriented throughout the terror so we know exactly what the stakes are of every life and death decision. It taps into a primal fear of humans versus Mother Nature in a way that feels smothering. Lively anchors the film and provides a thinking heroine who can also get the job done when the action calls upon her. The ending confrontation gets a little extreme and curiously vindictive for an animal, but by that point I was enjoying the movie far too much to argue. The Shallows isn’t too deep but it’s the kind of slickly produced and developed B-movie that I’ll happily indulge.
Nate’s Grade: B+
The Age of Adaline (2015)
What happens when you mix the films of Douglas Sirk with a heavy dose of magic realism? The results might just look like The Age of Adaline, a throwback with a science fiction twist that’s surprisingly appealing and intelligently developed. The titular Adaline (Blake Lively) has a freak accident in the early twentieth century that stops the aging process. The premise and the trailer had me scoffing about how hokey it all seemed, and yet I found myself retracting most of my prejudicial broadsides. While focused primarily on the topic of romantic love, the movie credibly explores Adaline’s hardships and how she must keep reinventing and moving to a new home so often, lest people suspect. She’s purposely stopping herself from making deeper human connections. She’s afraid of being abducted and experimented on but she’s also afraid of her cursed condition harming those she cares about. Her daughter (Ellen Burstyn, now playing two consecutive daughters older then their parent) poses as Adaline’s “grandmother.” They have conversations dealing with end-of-life care. The film doesn’t duck the more grueling aspects of immortality and it provides a degree of substance to go along with the more fleeting fairy tale aspects of the plot. It’s the third act where the movie gets even better, when Adaline unexpectedly reunites with an old boyfriend played by the unexpectedly great Harrison Ford. He’s convinced he’s seen her face before. It’s driving him mad, and even though it’s decades hence, he still has yet to fully get over Adaline. Lively gives her best performance since 2010’s The Town. She has a beautiful melancholy that she carries with the character that doesn’t overplay the tragic elements. It’s clearly a melodrama, but it’s far more measured and tame that the larger elements feel grounded and sincere. Not everything works, including the superfluous narration from a future historian and the all-too-neat ending. There are probably more interesting stories that can be told with this premise since much of it is Adaline hiding from the world, and the specific focus on her romantic entanglements feels a little myopic for the material. And yet, I found myself engaged and wanting to see what happened next, appreciating the earnestness and the focus on the consequences of choices made and choices avoided. If you have to choose one Age of movie this summer, maybe try Adaline instead of Ultron.
Nate’s Grade: B
Savages has been described as a “return to form” from prolific director Oliver Stone, who has spent the last decade making straight biopics (W., Alexander) and safe feel-good movies (World Trade Center). The less said about Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps the better. You never thought one of the world’s edgiest filmmakers would follow such a square path. I can’t fault people for getting excited by Savages, hoping this drug-addled crime thriller can revive the gonzo sensibilities of the man. Well, Savages isn’t going to satisfy most people, especially those looking for a cohesive story, characters that grab your interest, and an ending that manages to stay true thematically with the rest of the movie. In short, Savages is a savage mess of a movie but not even an entertaining mess. It’s just a boring mess, and that is the film’s biggest sin.
Best friends Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson) are living the American dream. They began farming their own marijuana plants, using the best seeds form Afghanistan while Chon was on tour with the military. Together, the guys have produced a product high in THC that blows away the competition. They have flourished in California. Now a Mexican cartel, lead by Elena (Salma Hayek), wants in on their business, and they won’t take no for an answer. The cartel kidnaps the boys’ shared girlfriend, O (Blake Lively), and promises to hold her ransom for one year unless the boys agree to their terms. Chon and Ben decide to use their considerable resources to put the squeeze on Elena and her team of scumbags, all the while looking for a way to rescue their shared love of their life.
It’s a lurid movie all right. Plenty of sex, drugs, and violence, but man oh man is it all just empty diversions because the movie cannot survive its trio of unlikable, uninteresting, and painfully dull characters. O, Chon, and Ben have a dearth of charisma; light cannot escape their black hole of charisma. What sinks Savages is the realization that it’s just a shoddy movie filled with a lot of skuzzy characters but hardly anyone that merits genuine interest. We’ve got skuzzy good guys, skuzzy bad guys, but where are the personalities? Where are the quirks or the hooks to drive our interest? Just having Benicio del Toro (The Wolfman) act weird and mumbly is not enough to cover the shortcomings of his character. I’ve read reviews where critics cite del Toro as “hypnotic.” I have no idea what they’re talking about. He’s just your average skuzzy bad guy you’d find in any mediocre crime picture; he just so happens to be played by Benicio del Toro. The DEA Agent John Travolta (From Paris with Love) plays is your typical skuzzy desk weasel; he just so happens to be played by John Travolta. And that’s where the movie falters. We have all these characters on all sides of the law but we couldn’t give a damn for any of them. O comes across like an annoying, privileged, faux intellectual. Chon is a meathead. Ben is an amorphous do-gooder. I don’t care about their problems and I especially don’t care about them retrieving O so they can return to their vague polyamorous lifestyle. She wasn’t worth all the effort, nor where these men worth dying over. At any point in the film, I wanted these characters to hastily die so that I might, just out of chance, come across a more interesting figure. I received no salvation.
Our trio of bland characters is made flesh by a trio of bad performances. First off, people have got to be realizing that the kind of lived-in, edgy, and compelling performance Lively pulled off in 2010’s The Town is more the exception than the rule. Stop casting her in gritty parts unless they are directed by Ben Affleck. As O, our zombie narrator, she does little to make us sympathize with her dumb plight. Then there’s Kitsch (Battleship) who is just having a record year of high-profile flops. He’s done fine acting work before, but as Chon he’s just another ramped-up hothead with little else on his mind. Johnson (Kick-Ass) has the most “flavor” of the trio, acting granola-y and with philanthropic ambitions, but he’s still just another meathead just in different clothes. All three of these characters are idiots and the young actors don’t find any way to redeem them.
Actually, I found Salma Hayerk’s character the most interesting and would have enjoyed a movie based around her dilemma. Elena’s husband was the head of a drug cartel. He was assassinated, so the duties would have fallen to her son, but in order to protect him she assumed power. She has an estranged relationship with her youngest daughter, Magda (Sandra Echeverria), who is ashamed of her mother. This, Elena tells us, makes her produ; she is proud that her daughter is ashamed. Now just look at all those contradictions and complexities inherent with this character. She’s assumed a duty she did not want, something she knows is morally wrong, but she does so in the interest of protecting her children, even if it means pushing them away and having them despise her. And because she’s a woman, any wrong move and her competitors would be ready to pounce. Plus you add the day-to-day anxieties of a life of crime, the threat of betrayal or some upstart wanting to make a name for himself, and you have the makings of a great character drama. But do we get even a little of this? No. Instead, Elena’s just portrayed as another colorful villain. The supporting cast is peopled with what should be seen as “colorful” characters, but really these people are just as skuzzy and boring and personality-free as our loser ménage a trois.
I suppose there is a certain pleasure seeing Stone return to his blood-soaked, violent, gonzo self. The man has a certain enviable madness when it comes to composing a movie, a mad fever of images and sensations. From that standpoint, Savages is at least watchable even though you would rather see most of the characters get hit by a car. I just wish if Stone was going to go nuts that he committed and went all the way, bathing this movie in his lurid predilections as we tumbled down the rabbit hole of the underground world of organized crime. If you’re going to assault my senses with excess then at least have the gall to be excessive. How can you make a lurid movie but EVERY woman onscreen engaging in sex is clothed? That seems unrealistic even for a movie this stupid. Stone seems to have no problem dragging out uncomfortable rape scenes, so who knows what the further implications of that are. There are several grisly torture scenes and some random brutality, so you’ll at least be kept awake in spurts by people screaming.
Too much of this supposed crime picture is caught up in the oppressively irritating soap opera between O, Chon, and Ben (a little part of my soul dies every time I have to type “Chon” as a main character name). The script, based upon Dan Winslow’s novel, adapted by Shane Salerno, Stone and Winslow as well, is a mess but not even an enjoyable mess. Some of this dialogue is just laugh-out-loud bad. O opens the movie saying she has orgasms but Chon, you see, has… “wargasms.” Oh ye God, that one hurt. Every time we’re subjected to O’s protracted, monotone narration the movie loses whatever momentum it may have had.
She keeps saying, “Just because I’m telling this story, doesn’t mean I’m alive at the end.” Can you promise me that? Then there’s the very stupid ending, where the movie tries to have it both ways. It gets its bloody, operatic, tragic lovers ending…. and then in the next breath a happy ending as well, a ridiculously inappropriate happy ending. At least bloody and dead would have been satisfying. It’s a cop-out, a cheat, and a mystifying way to end a movie.
I wanted Savages to be a wild thrill ride. I never expected to be bored. Even when things go off the rails, the movie struggles to keep your interest. Blame the inane screenplay that eventually resorts to a cheap, cop-out of an ending, one that barely rises above the “it was all a dream” blunder. Blame the pathetic character and their lack of personality. Blame the strange feeling that Stone is holding back. Blame the bad performances. Blame the lack of fun. Blame the overwrought nature of the title the movie twists into knots trying to give some philosophical meaning. And finally, you might want to blame yourself for thinking that this movie would be any good in the first place. When movies are this mediocre, this lacking in intrigue, you almost wish they had tipped over completely into irredeemable garbage just so you’d at least have something worth watching. Savages is a strange crime thriller that manages to assemble all sorts of exploitation elements and then fumbles them all. If this is Stone in a “return to form,” I weep for what that entails.
Nate’s Grade: C
Green Lantern (2011)
To quote that sage Kermit the Frog and his words of wisdom concerning Green Lantern: “It ain’t easy being green.”
Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) is a cocky pilot working for his ex-girlfriend, Carol Ferris (Blake Lively). Hal never takes anything too seriously and seems to freeze up in moments, recalling his own father’s crash. Then one day a purple alien crash-lands on Earth and seeks a replacement. This alien belongs to the Lantern Corps, a group of intergalactic policemen for the universe. He was mortally wounded by Parallax, a creature that grows stronger on fear but looks like a big rain cloud. The alien’s ring chooses Jordan as the replacement. Next thing you know, the guy is training on the alien world Oa and meeting lantern officers from all over the universe led by Sinestro (Mark Strong). Jordan is unsure of his heroic destiny, though we are reminded many times “the ring does not make mistakes.” In the meantime, Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard) is dissecting the dead purple alien and gets infected with the fear cloud/Parallax. He lashes out at his father (Tim Robbins), at Jordan, and signals to the giant evil rain cloud that Earth is an all-you-can-eat fear buffet ready for the binging.
For starters, he power is a bit silly and hard to explain. I fall in with the majority of the public when I say, “Green Lantern who?” So the guy’s super duper power is to channel his imagination into green-tinted reality? It’s a bit vague and hard to quantify. So when a helicopter is falling to earth, instead of, say, picking it up or steadying it, Jordan creates a green Hot Wheels racetrack for it to zoom around to a stop. When the evil rain cloud fires its energy projectile, Jordan conjures a catapult to catch the projectile and fire it back. And of course at some point he materializes a green gun to use in combat. I’m sorry but for me this just seems silly. It’s one thing to say, “His strength is the power of his imagination,” and I can see where young kids would gravitate to this stuff, but when it’s realized on the big screen is seems infantile. What are the rules here exactly? It just seems dumb. I can better accept a magic ring that allows Jordan to fly or shoot sparkly lasers. If a healthy imagination is key, then the rings should be choosing some of the world’s greatest living authors and artists. Can you imagine Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) with a lantern ring, or Neil Gaiman (Sandman)? Surely those guys would come up with something more interesting than catapults and racetracks. But you see, the rings, and the lantern world itself, runs on the power of will. Will power is their energy resource (talk about going green). The enemy, the cosmic rain cloud, runs on the power of fear, which is represented by yellow energy. What are the other colors of the rainbow? Is the power of love red? Is the power of envy a darker green? Is orange the color of hunger? Is brown the color of painful bowel movements? Is the power of apathy… forget it.
The biggest misstep is all the time the screenplay squanders on boring old Earth. Just like Thor, the alien worlds are the best part of the movie. But in Green Lantern, we see the training home world (Oa) and the thousands of weird, fun-looking aliens staffed to police the universe. We get a taste of the lantern life and the heavy responsibilities. We get a sense of the powers. And… then… Hal… quits. He up and quits. He says, after about five minutes of training, “You got the wrong guy,” and we head back to Earth. What the hell? We then get to spend the majority of Act II with this guy moping over whether he should or shouldn’t be a superhero. Memo to Hollywood: no one spends this kind of money on a movie where the main character can’t be bothered to accept being a hero with amazing super powers. I can’t be bothered with a hero who can’t be bothered. The screenplay structure should have been: Act I spent on Earth, Act II spent on Oa and in space, Act III return to Earth to save the day. Instead we get about ten minutes spent on Oa. And while I’m on the subject, whenever we see this alien planet it’s like a non-stop Green Lantern convention (does Oa host other conventions? Is next week the semi-annual gathering of amateur ornithologists?), so who is left policing the universe? I understand that a majority of the universe is empty space, but if the lanterns keep getting together for pep rallies on Oa, what’s to stop a universe full of criminals from stealing everybody’s car stereos? Also, lanterns intervene in the universe when evil is afoot, but nobody seemed to give a damn about planet Earth until we got lantern representation with Hal Jordan.
So the bad guy here is a semi-formless rain cloud with a head that sucks people’s fear. It feeds on fear. That is its energy source (get a job in the media, son). Like much else in the film, the rules concerning the villain are never fully explained. At times, this rain cloud thing seems invincible. Most of the time it’s never explained what exactly this thing could do. See, if you explain things then you box in your characters. So if you don’t establish rules for your villain, your heroes, their respective powers, the history of the universe, etc., then they are limitless. It also means that everything onscreen lacks any sort of logic, internal or otherwise. So the villain is really just a fuzzy concept of fear. Hal Jordan and the lanterns have nothing to fear but fear itself. That means that the screenplay falls prey to a plethora of hackneyed messages that feel ripped out of some Saturday morning cartoon series. Everyone feels fear. Accept your fear. Courage means rising above. It’s the same patter that’s been rehashed for hundreds of episodes of people in tights teaching schoolchildren it’s okay (take a drink every time a character utters the word “afraid” or “fear”). The simplistic moralizing on fear and courage made me yearn for a ring so that I could imagine a better villain. Lastly, there’s a scene where our dastardly cosmic rain cloud descends to Earth and starts sucking away people’s fear/energy/souls. There’s a shot of a school bus screeching to a halt and children dashing away. I imagine children’s fears are more heightened since their healthy imaginations and lack of world experience would exaggerate scary things that adults would try and simply deny. Their fear has to be like a delicacy. I guess what I’m getting at is, if I were a giant space cloud that fed on people’s fears, I’d go for the children first.
Director Martin Campbell has crafted some truly spellbinding, breathless action sequences in movies like Goldeneye and Casino Royale, but you can tell that he seems to be straining against the onslaught of computer effects. Campbell is more at home with the open world of practical effects and the tangible. Being confined to the realm of green screen and CGI seems like a shackle for this guy’s own imagination. He constructs solid action sequences, admittedly, but nothing worth bearing the name of Campbell. It’s a special effects bonanza without a hint of realism, like a computer start vomiting onto the screen. It feels weightless and formless, like a giant evil rain cloud. The film reportedly cost over $200 million, which is a high figure for a movie that spends so much freaking time on Earth! Here’s an example of a costly filmmaking expenditure – the suit. Hal Jordan has a skin-tight green suit that is complete a computer effect. That means that every second Reynolds is seen onscreen in his signature outfit, it’s another effect that people labored over for months. Why? I’m pretty sure that in this day and age we have the technology for clothing. Campbell succumbs to the limitations of the material and Green Lantern ends up feeling more like a TV pilot with a runaway budget than the beginning of an epic franchise for its parent company.
Reynolds (The Proposal) is an extremely likable actor whose biggest drawback is that he rarely seems serious, last year’s Buried a notable exception. He’s got this carefree attitude, practically bobbing his head and winking to the audience, and you like the guy even when he’s being a cad or a wimp. His character’s arc is supposed to be the guy who accepts responsibility, learns to accept and move beyond his fears, and it’s a character track that has been long journeyed and will continue to be. It makes for a simplistic hero’s journey storyline that seems to do the least work necessary to move things along. The movie did not fail on Reynolds’ shoulders; you can blame the four screenwriters and a ballooning budget for that one. Lively showed that she really could act in The Town. She shows no proof of this ability in Green Lantern. She speaks every line in a flat, monotone delivery, so much so you start to think she has like an inner-ear infection and can’t hear her own modulation. Her character is the weak love interest/damsel in distress role that regularly peoples these kinds of movies. Her monotone delivery does nothing for the lukewarm chemistry between her and Reynolds. Only Sarsgaard (An Education, Orphan) comes away mostly unscathed. His underwritten villainous character undergoes a monstrous transformation that would elicit sympathy from the Elephant Man.
Green Lantern is a movie that will thrill twelve-year-old boys and few others. It’s full of special effects, noise, and little clarity or wit. It’s not even a particularly fun movie. It repeatedly tells the audience things it should be showing, and it can’t help showing the audience character points (like Hal’s dead dad) that could have been handled with smoother nuance. The movie never feels like it can trust its audience for anything subtle. This is the kind of movie that needs to spell out everything. Green Lantern is muddled, tonally disjointed, the rules are not established, the villain is abstract, the messages are simplistic, the powers are ill-defined and also silly, the action is lackluster and overly dependent on often needless CGI, and the hero can’t even be bothered to accept his super powers. Apparently Green Lantern has about 60 years of comic history and a rich sci-fi universe, and this is the best four screenwriters could come up with? This is the best stuff they pulled from? Green Lantern is a movie that feels dimmed from start to finish.
Nate’s Grade: C
The Town (2010)
There are many people who think they can direct. It just looks easy to people. You get to tell everybody what to do all day. Who wouldn’t want that, right? And actors always think they know everything already, so there’s a litany of actors who feel like they can make the jump from in front of the camera to behind it with ease. Not everybody is going to be a Clint Eastwood, or a Robert Redford, or even the best of the current crop, a George Clooney. Every now and then you’ll find a true surprise, like Todd Field (In the Bedroom, Little Children) or Sarah Polley (Away From Her), but most actor/director projects come across like indulgent one-time pet projects (see: Drew Barrymore’s Whip It). Ben Affleck has easily endured his slings and arrows as an actor, though I’ve always found the man to be likeable, charming, and intelligent. Even so, nobody can excuse Gigli. When Affleck tried on the director hat for 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, it was easy to be skeptical. But then critics and audiences saw the film, which Affleck also co-wrote, and realized that this guy might have some serious chops after all. The Town, Affleck’s second directorial effort, proves that Affleck has found his rightful place in movies.
Doug (Ben Affleck) is a lifelong criminal living in the working class Boston neighborhood of Charlestown. We learn that this one-square mile produces more bank robbers than anywhere else in the world. It is a neighborhood seeped in the lifestyle of crime, the silent omissions of sin. Doug and his crew’s latest heist went according to plan except for one detail. Jem (Jeremy Renner), fresh from doing a nine-year prison stint, has taken the bank manager hostage in a moment of panic. The men blindfold Claire (Rebecca Hall) and deposit her along the Boston shoreline. Doug and his guys then become alarmed when they spot Claire in their neighborhood. She lives in Charlestown. Will she recognize them? FBI Agent Frawley (Jon Hamm) check up on her and requests interviews. Is it only a matter of time before she discovers the truth? Jem wants to handle it quick and dirty, but Doug insists that he take the lead. He watches her from afar and can’t help but feel sorry for the trauma he has caused her. He asks her out for a drink after meeting her and Doug can’t stop himself from falling for her. Jem is incensed and convinced she’ll give them all away. Doug must reconcile his life?s choices and Claire now gives him a reason to finally walk away from the only life he’s known.
It didn’t take long for me to know I was in for something good. The pre-title opening sequence sets the tone and informs you that Affleck will be firmly settled in the director’s chair for some time. The opening bank heist crashes your attention. It’s filmed in quick cuts, swift camera movements, mimicking the ambush of the criminals as they throw people to the ground, upturn desks, and smash general office supplies. Then the scene cuts to a security camera footage of the same scene, and it’s static, and eerily silent and the contrast is fantastic. Then we smash right back into the fray and the chaos. Affleck refrains from the film turning into senseless genre junk. The violence in this film hurts. You feel its impact and wince at its approach, and you already get this sense before the credits even show up. Affleck wants his visceral violence to mean something, and these men of violence become more intimidating. Then there’s a scene about an hour in that had me gnawing my hand in anxiety. It all revolved around the possible reveal of an identifiable neck tattoo, where the only character who knows all the particulars of danger is Doug. He’s trying to nervously watch the eye line of the conversation, and I was physically trying to instruct the characters onscreen. The fact that I could get so caught up in a sequence of stellar tension that doesn’t involve cars, guns, or even overt threats of violence is a testament to the abilities of Affleck the director.
Doug’s crew is not a fly-by-night operation. They are honed professionals, knowing the timing codes for bank locks, how to dismantle security camera systems, and splash bottles of bleach all over the premises to eliminate usable fingerprints. And yet, when is enough enough? It feels like only days before Jem is pushing everybody for another job. They’ve barely had time to launder the money through drugs and gambling, given a cut to the local crime boss (Pete Postlethwaite), and they?re anxious for another score. Doesn’t anybody want to lie low for a while before the heat dissipates? Either this is just a conceit of only being able to work in a two-hour narrative or indicative or what a consistently dangerous life these men lead. These men know exactly where they?re headed; in fact, they seem resigned to their fate. Perhaps the expedited schedule is just another form of self-destruction or an impatient death wish, or perhaps it’s just an inflated sense of invincibility by guys who are good at what they do.
The area where The Town could have been better is with its higher ambitions. The Town dutifully delivers the goods when it comes to a crime picture. The three holdups are all satisfying, taut, well paced, and the action is choreographed in a manner that’s easy to comprehend. The middle holdup creates some dynamic images as the men speed through Boston dressed in plastic nun masks and armed with machine guns. There are several standout moments and images that prove Affleck knows how to frame an exciting action thriller. The climax is great, though the denouement leaves something to be desired. You pretty much anticipate what beats the movie has to hit as a genre piece. These brothers in arms will likely follow the path of doomed protagonists. But Affleck clearly wanted his second feature to be more than a slick genre flick. He had his sights set on examining systemic and cyclical nature of crime and abandonment. The opening informs us that bank robbing is a trade passed down in Charleston from fathers to sons. Doug’s crew are all second-generation criminals, their long absent fathers serving sentences in federal prisons. Affleck wants to explore the nature of what separates good people who make bad decisions, digging into the limited lifestyles afforded to these blue-collar lugs who have lived in brutality. The Town doesn’t quite succeed in this regard. The somewhat saggy middle touches upon these ideas but fails to spend enough time for anything substantial to stick. Gone Baby Gone was a better study of class and moral ambiguity. With The Town, you readily identify who the good bad guys are and who the bad bad guys are.
Just like Gone Baby Gone, Affleck’s second feature excels with a glorified group of actors all given room to find their characters and show off their skills. Each actor kind of gets their own space to work and they all, from top to bottom, give stirring performances. The standouts among the cast include Renner and Lively, both barely recognizable in their parts. Renner (The Hurt Locker) is channeling James Cagney from his 1930s gangster pictures. Renner is a live-wire and creates bundles of nervous tension whenever he enters a scene. He doesn’t even have to say a word. His intensity radiates and keeps all the other actors on their toes, rightfully wary of the short-fused Jem. He’s magnetic, steals the film, and even gets a slightly touching sendoff that has managed to stay with me. Lively, best known as the fabulous face of the fabulous high-end TV show Gossip Girl, is going to open plenty of eyes about her potential. She plays Krista, Jem’s sister and damaged love interest to Doug before Claire comes onto the scene. Lively has levels of makeup and hard living coating her magazine-friendly good looks. Lively just doesn’t rely on makeup tricks to stand in the way for her character. She feels like the most tragic soul in the film. She has a kid, likely destined to be removed from her at some point, she operates as a drug mule, and she’s hitched her wagon to Doug as the man that will save her. When that comes apart, Lively herself disintegrates as well, but it’s never in a showy style. She barely conceals the pain consuming her very being. Her eyes are dead of life. Plus, her accent is spot-on.
The other performers give strong work just at a level slightly below Renner and Lively. Directing himself, Affleck gives a fine if overly whispery lead performance. Hall (Frost/Nixon, The Prestige) is effectively broken as she works through the post-traumatic stress and uncertainty her character suffers from. She’s highly empathetic, though you’re left wondering what she sees in Doug. Hamm (TV’s Mad Men) is so damn handsome but I wish he had more to do than running around and barking orders. His character always seems to be a mouth for exposition and chews over his righteous indignation. Chris Cooper (Breach) has one total scene in this movie as Doug’s imprisoned father but he nails it. His antipathy for his son and his late mother spills over but the moment never screams what can be expressed with subtlety. To Affleck notable credit, nobody in a movie about cops and robbers gives a performance that could be labeled as over-the-top or campy. These are genre roles but they are treated like real, muscular characters.
The Town cements Affleck’s status as a director. This is a more accessible, streamlined yet sturdy genre picture that has real reverence for working class Boston neighborhoods. I love the faces Affleck peoples his films with, real people. It’s small touches that add to the authenticity and visceral nature of the movie, touches that help make The Town more than just another run-of-the-mill crime movie. While there may not be anything groundbreaking on display (though I think Renner may get remembered when it comes time for awards season), Affleck’s directing credentials are only strengthened. This isn’t as good a movie as Gone Baby Gone, but what this film showcases is Affleck’s ongoing journey as a director, the shaping of his Michael Mann-esque style, and his intent to marry great drama with great characters played by great actors. I can genuinely say that I look forward to whatever Affleck picks to be his next feature. He?s here to stay, baby.
Nate’s Grade: B
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 (2008)
The ladies that inhabit The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 are not the same group of gals that charmed the pants off of me in the 2005 original film. This time the foursome is feeling some strain because they’ve all graduated and moved onto insanely ludicrous positions. Tibby (Amber Tamblyn) is making movies at NYU; Lena (Alexis Bledel) is studying art at the Rhode Island School of Design; Bridget (Blake Lively) is assisting with an archeological dig in Turkey; and Carmen (America Ferrera) is at the Brown theater department where she gets the lead in a summer production. Let’s face it, these are not the down-to-earth girls that were presented before. Was it too much to ask that one of the girls have a modestly plausible scenario? The drama is again split into two camps, the petty and comedic (Lena must choose between boyfriends, Carmen has to practice her lines) and the melodramatic (Bridget still has to deal with her mom’s suicide, Tibby has a pregnancy scare). The movie doesn’t work this go-round because every beat of the plot is wholly predictable (of course the guy Lena flirts with in art class will end up being the nude model), and much of the conflict is just inane. The characters act in stupid and contrived ways because the plot demands it. Sure the condom broke but can’t Tibby get the morning after pill at least? Sisterhood 2 also packs a baby birth, reunion between granddaughter and the grandmother she never knew existed, and a climactic trip to Greece for some serious girl power. It’s drama overload and lacks the notable sincerity of the first film.
Nate’s Grade: C
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2005)
I had no real intention of ever seeing The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. It looked to be a competent movie, horrifically clunky title aside, but I really didn’t have any interest in seeing another movie where four young girls become four young women. Then my then-girlfriend says she wants to see it. I think we all know what happens next. Even though I was the only male in my theater (I kind of expected this), I found Sisterhood to be a sweet and heartfelt film I was glad I experienced. It had far more emotional truth to it than I ever would have expected.
Four very close friends are about to depart for the summer. Bridget (Blake Lively) is the confidant sports star and going off to soccer camp in Mexico. Lana (Alexis Bledel) is the demure artist and is going to visit her grandparents in Greece. Carmen (America Ferrera), a bigger girl with big ambitions, is traveling to South Carolina to spend time with her long-absent father (Bradley Whitford). It seems the only one staying put is Tibby (Amber Tamblyn), an angsty nonconformist stuck stocking shelves at a Wal-Mart-esque store and working on her documentary, which she has deemed a “suckumentary.”
Before they set off on their adventures the girls discover a magical pair of pants. It seems that this one pair of jeans fits each to a T, even the curvier Carmen. The girls form a sisterhood around these magically one-size-fits-all pants. They promise to send them back and forth to each other all summer and write down any luck the jeans have imbued them with.
In Mexico, Bridget sets her sights on a hunky soccer coach (Mike Vogel). She’s brimming with confidence and flirts like a champ. Overseas in Greece, Lana meets Kostas (Michael Rady), a hunky fisherman attending university in Greece. Sparks fly but Lana’s grandmother forbids her to see Kostas. Carmen is shocked to discover that her father is planning on getting remarried to Wasp-y Lydia (Nancy Travis). It seems dear old dad has not told her everything. And Tibby is befriended by a dogged and precocious 12-year-old, Bailey (Jenna Boyd), who wants to be her assistant on the “suckumentary.”
The best part of Sisterhood is the excellence of the lead actresses. All four give well-rounded, warm, enlightened, and exquisitely affecting performances. They each get a good weepy scene and each actress nails it. Bledel has mastered the nervous stammer. She’s adorable as we witness her wallflower character coming out of her shell. Tamblyn mopes and sneers but grows the most thanks to the intervention of Bailey (Boyd is a scene-stealer if ever there were one). Ferrera was a terrific find in Real Women Have Curves, yet another intelligent and charming teen movie. In Sisterhood she gets to display tremendous anger and heartache and she sells every second of it. She is going to be a lovely actress to watch in the future. Lively is a newcomer to film even though she looks like Kate Hudson’s lankier cousin. She’s a girl that knows what she wants but doesn’t necessarily know why she wants it.
One of the smartest things director Ken Kwapis does is to keep the different story threads together. I first thought that Sisterhood would become a vignette movie, meaning that we’d get like a half hour of each girl’s adventure and then we’d travel to the next. It would have worked. But by keeping the girls’ stories intertwined we’re reminded of their bond and we can connect with them all. Kwapis even fits in some nifty scene transitions in his mostly unobtrusive direction. He lets the film’s focus rest on the characters and the performances, which are the strengths of Sisterhood.
The film seems to diverge into two storylines: the summer romances (Bridget and Lana) and the more dramatic (Carmen and Tibby). The summer romances are fun but the real meat of the movie is in Carmen and Tibby’s teary adventures. Carmen is devastated to feel that she’s been replaced and forgotten by her father. It all comes to head in a marvelous scene where Carmen cannot fit into a bridesmaid dress that fits Lydia’s rail thin daughter. She explodes in anger and pain against her father’s new family and runs off. Tibby, on the other hand, is your typical dour and rebellious teen (though in PG-land that means nose ring, colored hair, and thrift store attire). Her relationship with Bailey opens her up and the audience falls in love with both of them. The last half hour of Sisterhood hits an emotional crescendo with both storylines that will leave plenty reaching for the Kleenex.
Sisterhood sure doesn’t lack melodrama but the film is played so earnestly that you really won’t mind. In other teen girl films, the inclusion of dramatic elements like suicide, abandonment, and even leukemia might cause the casual rolling of eyes. The difference is that Sisterhood respects both its characters and its audience. This is a sincere, unpretentious movie that has a genuine sweetness that won?t give you a toothache. In fact, the most unbelievable moment of the movie is that a pair of pants would fit them all. Again, pretty good for a flick rife with melodrama.
Sisterhood is unabashedly sentimental but it walks a fine line without ever getting truly sappy like some Nicholas Sparks tale (A Walk to Remember). Usually movies of this ilk whitewash over reality and oversimplify complex issues and emotions. Not so with Sisterhood, which deals with tough issues in an admittedly soap operish way but also forces its characters to endure tough resolutions. I am clearly not the intended audience for The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (I do by all accounts have a Y chromosome) but I enjoyed it all the same.
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is an old fashioned, good-hearted family film that won?t make you cringe. It’s respectful of its audience and doesn’t take easy shortcuts with its story. It’s also respectful of teenagers and their experiences. The acting by our four leading ladies is uniformly outstanding. In a summer fueled by male-driven high-octane action flicks, something a little low key and sweet is always appealing when done right. This won’t exactly be a movie that will appeal to everyone, but Sisterhood is an above average and earnest take at all-too-familiar territory. Despite the clunky title, this teen-targeted weepie is a good fit for any audience wanting to feel good.
Nate’s Grade: B
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