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Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 (2017)

If Marvel was ever going to have a dud in its near historic run of blockbuster success, it should have been Guardians of the Galaxy, a movie that asked audiences to care about a talking raccoon and a tree creature who could only say three words. And yet that movie had me in tears by the end, and I was not alone. Writer/director James Gunn (Slither, Super) graduated from Troma to demented indie films to the Big Time with studio tentpoles. A sequel was fast-tracked and is definitely one of the most highly anticipated films of 2017 not named Star Wars. Can Gunn still deliver fans what they want without falling into the morass that is fan service, a sticky trap that can sap big-budget sequels of differentiation and make them feel more like product?

Set mere months after the events of the first film, the Guardians are enjoying their newfound celebrity and taking lucrative for-hire jobs. Star-Lord a.k.a. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) are still going through their will-they-won’t-they sexual tension. Gamora’s sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) is still looking to gain the upper hand. Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) is growing up and still cute. Drax (Dave Bautista) is still mourning his family and trying to better fit in. And Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) is still making rebellious, self-destructive decisions, like stealing valuables from The Sovereign, a race of genetically bred golden snobs. The leader of the Sovereign, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki, looking good in gold), declares a bounty on the Guardians for their disrespect. The Ravagers are hired to collect the Guardians, though Captain Yondu (Michael Rooker) is hesitant to go after his surrogate son, Peter. Complicating matters further is the arrival of Ego (Kurt Russell), a mystifying man who happens to also be a living planet and Peter’s biological father.

Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 is highly enjoyable with great moments, great action, and great characters but I was left feeling like it was a step or two behind the original and I’ve been trying to articulate just why that is. I thought perhaps it was better to be upfront. I think it all stems from the fact that it’s not as fresh the second time, it doesn’t quite have the same blast of attitude and personality to disarm and take you by surprise, and I’ll admit part of this is just due to the fact that it’s a sequel to a hugely popular movie. However, also because of this there are now a set of expectations that Gunn is leaning towards because audiences now have acute demands.

We have an idea of what a Guardians of the Galaxy movie can provide, and from those demands spur creative decisions that don’t fully feel as integrated this go-round as they did in the first film. It feels like Gunn is trying to also work within a box he’s created for himself, and for the most part he succeeds admirably, but it still feels slightly lesser. The standout musical moment occurs during an opening credits that involve an action sequence from a Baby Groot-eyed point of view. As the Guardians are flying and falling to destroy a ferocious alien blob in the background, Groot is strutting and dancing to “Mr. Blue Sky” by ELO. It’s a moment of unrestrained pleasure and it also undercuts action movie conventions by having a majority of the events obscured or implied. It’s the moment that feels the most like that electric feeling of discovery from the first film. There are also 80s pop-culture references and cameos and some off-kilter comedy again. Much of it is fun, especially one cameo in particular as it relates to Peter’s father, but they also have the noticeable feel of boxes to be checked, expected items that now must be incorporated in what a Guardians of the Galaxy feature should be. Expectations can lead to fan service and then that leads to less chances and originality. Hey, I loved the 2014 original and consider it my favorite Marvel movie so I don’t want them to simply chuck out everything that worked just for something one hundred percent different. You want what you loved but you don’t want it exactly the same, which is the creative bind. Gunn leans into what the audience wants and I can’t fault him too hard. It’s still a really good film.

What Guardians vol. 2 does best is remind you why you love these characters. It even elevates a group of supporting players from the first movie into characters you genuinely care about, chiefly Nebula and Yondu. Both of these characters were slightly defanged antagonists in the first film, problems but problems you didn’t want to see go away. Yondu gets the biggest boost thanks to the thematic bridge of Peter’s search for his father. The notorious leader of the Ravagers has a definite soft spot for the scrappy human and it’s finally come to a head with his tempestuous crew. They mutiny on Yondu and declare him to be an unfit leader, unable to do what is necessary. This direction allows for a lot of introspection for a character that was essentially just Michael Rooker in blue paint. He has a history to him and he makes a moral deviation from his expected path, one that bears ongoing consequences. He’s Peter’s real surrogate father, and his acceptance of this reality brings a snarling secondary antagonist into the realm of a full-blown character that earns our empathy (a Mary Poppins joke also had me in stitches).

The same can be said for Nebula, who is working out some serious daddy issues. She is the stepsister to Gamora and holds quite a grudge against her green sibling. It seems that their father, Thanos, would constantly pit them against one another, and Nebula would always lose, and with each loss came a painful consequence. It’s the kind of back-story that’s given more time to breathe and develop. It opens up an antagonist into another person who is dealing with trauma and pain and who doesn’t play well with others, which seems as good a job description to join the Guardians as anything. Nebula has a fearsome sense of competition with her sister, and that parlays into some fun over-the-top action sequences. When the movie allows the two women to talk, as surviving sisters of rather than enemies, is where Nebula comes into her own.

Gunn makes sure there’s a grounded and emotional core to his characters, which makes these appealing underdogs and antiheroes ever easier to root for. Guardians vol. 2 doesn’t really move the overall plot forward too much but it does explore the relationships and their personal lives with greater depth and clarity. The characters are spread out into smaller pairings for a majority of the extended second act, which allows interesting connections and developments due to the personalities. Drax is paired with Ego’s assistant/pet Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and it’s an instantly winning couple, a man who only speaks literally and a woman who is able to channel the feelings of strangers through touch. They’re both relied upon for the greatest amount of comic relief and they routinely deliver. Klementieff (Old Boy) is a wide-eyed delight. Rocket and Yondu being stuck together allows for both to come to realizations that feel organic though also too fated by Gunn’s hand. Their general disregard for decorum leads to some great action sequences. Gamora and Nebula are working through their family issues and it makes both more interesting. When they come to a form of resolution it still feels awkward but earnest and right. But the biggest personal exploration is Peter and his own lingering space daddy issues.

Another fantastic addition to the movie was the character of Ego because of the wonderfully charming Russell (The Hateful Eight) and also because of what the character allows for. The very fact that Ego is a millions-year-old living planet is a clever curveball for the Peter Quill “who’s your daddy?” mystery sweepstakes. It also opens all sorts of intriguing questions that the second act wades through, like the exact mechanics of how Ego exists, projects a Russell-looking avatar, and what is his ultimate purpose. I’m going to steer away from spoilers but fans of the comic will already have suspicions where this whole father/son reconciliation may lead, and you won’t be disappointed. Russell radiates paternal warmth and it goes a ways to cover up the purposeful obfuscation of the character. Because Gunn has to hold back on certain revelations, some of them gasp-worthy, he can’t open up the father/son dynamic too fast or too unambiguous. As a result, the latent bonding relies upon more familiar touchstones, like throwing the ball out back with your pops or sharing a love of music. Russell makes even the most ridiculous thing sound reasonable, which is important considering we’re talking about a planet boning ladies.

Gunn also takes several steps forward as a visual filmmaker with the sequel. He has a great feel for visual comedy and how to undercut the more boilerplate heroic moments in other superhero fair. He fills his screen with crazy, bight, psychedelic colors and has a Tarantino-esque instinct for marrying film with the right song. The sequel doesn’t have as many iconic moments set to music but it will play most agreeably. The special effects are pretty terrific all around but I appreciate that Gunn doesn’t allow the movie to feel overwhelmed by them, which is important considering there are fundamentally CGI-only characters. Gunn’s action sequences, chases, escapes, and breakouts are presented with plenty of dazzling style and witty attitude to spare without feeling obnoxious. The comedy is consistently funny and diverting. There’s a bit with the need for tape that just keeps going and actually becomes funnier the longer it goes, undercutting the end-of-the-universe stakes with the search for something as mundane as tape. My screening was presented in 3D and I was worried about the film being set in space and being too dark. This is not the case at all, and while the 3D isn’t a high selling point like it was for Doctor Strange, it is a nice experience that doesn’t dilute Gunn’s gonzo color scheme. The level of thought put into his novelties can be staggering, like an end credits series of dancing clips that also manages to play upon a character note for Drax. Gunn manages to further comment on characterization even during the freaking end credits. The final showdown goes on a bit longer than necessary and is the only section of the movie that feels consumed by CGI spectacle, but the fact that only the end feels this way can be considered another small triumph of Gunn fighting through a corporate system.

Marvel knows what it’s doing to a molecular level. Almost ten years into their system, they know what works in their criss-crossing franchises and how to calibrate them for maximum audience satisfaction. At this point after Guardians, Ant-Man, and Doctor Strange, they’ve more than earned the benefit of the doubt no matter the premise. However, entrenched success has a way of calcifying audience expectations. Guardians of the Galaxy was so funky, so different, so anarchic, and so wildly enjoyable. It should only be expected that the things that made it different would now be folded into audience expectations. The misfits can only be misfits for so long. It may not be as brash and fun or memorable as the first edition but it does benefit from the strong rapport of its cast and the deeper characterization, tackling some serious subjects while still slow motion stepping to a murder montage set to the golden oldies of the 1970s. The movie matters not because of the action, or the funny one-liners, or the adorableness of Baby Groot. It’s because we genuinely love these oddball characters. The first one introduced them and brought them together, and the second film deepens their bonds and widens their scope of family. Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 is a sequel that provides just about everything that fans should want. If it feels slightly lesser it’s probably just because it can’t be fresh twice, but Guardians vol. 2 still dances to its own beat and it’s still a beautiful thing.

Nate’s Grade: B+

War Dogs (2016)

wrdgs_tsr_1sht_vert_2764x4096_dom_masterAs I watched War Dogs, the darkly comic true-life story of war graft, gunrunning, and bro-tastic bravado, I kept wishing to copy and paste other characters into what was an interesting plot. A pair of neophytes was awarded military arms contracts from the Pentagon during the Iraq War, and their schemes to skirt U.S. laws to import guns across borders, illegal and faulty munitions, and uneasily work as a go-between with a client (Bradley Cooper) on the U.S. terrorism watch list are filled with perplexing yet juicy details. The biggest problem is that the two main characters, played by Miles Teller and Jonah Hill, are so powerfully archetypal to the point of unrelenting blandness. We have the naïve everyman pulled into a life of big bucks, big risk, and big power only to have it all come crashing down. Hill’s character is the loud, uncouth part we’ve come to expect from the Oscar-nominated actor, and I defy anyone to tell me anything about Teller’s character other than occupation and his relationship to other people. These parts are so thinly drawn that I didn’t care about them once they finally got into deep trouble. I believe that director/co-writer Todd Phillips, he of The Hangover series, has the right qualifications to make a flinty neo-noir thriller, but War Dogs is more his half-hearted version of a glib Scorsese movie, or a David O. Russell version of a Scorsese movie. The voice over narration is dull and doesn’t help illuminate Teller’s character at all, and the other stylistic flourishes, from pointless inter-titles to a non-linear plot, add up to very little. Half of the movie’s scant jokes are the ongoing sound of Hill’s off-putting wheeze of a laugh. I’m not kidding, after an hour the movie still treats his laugh like it’s a potent punchline. There is entertainment value to be gleaned from War Dogs chiefly from its larger-then-life story and the intriguing, shadowy world of war profiteers. It’s a movie that made me wish I had read the magazine article it’s based upon instead, which would have also been shorter.

Nate’s Grade: C

American Sniper (2014)

American-Sniper-Poster1When killing is a man’s gift, what effect does that have on the man? American Sniper follows the real-life heroics of the most prolific sniper in United States history. With director Clint Eastwood attached and awards buzz building, you’d expect that the film would get at the heart of a complex man who placed himself back into danger by choice. For a biopic on Chris Kyle, the man seems to get lost in the fog of war (movies).

Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) enlisted in the military right before 9/11 and served four tours of duty in Iraq. He served as cover for many missions, protecting thousands of soldiers. The troops just felt better knowing that Kyle had their back. Kyle got married and had several kids with his wife (Sienna Miller) but he kept leaping back into the fight, the place he felt he belonged.

american_sniper_stillFrom the opening sequence on, American Sniper is often a gripping suspense piece. The opening moral dilemma sucks you right in. Should Chris shoot the mother and child? Are they a threat or is there just a misunderstanding? Will they change their minds and turn away? Is there time to debate all this with advancing U.S. troops? Eastwood does a great job of drawing out the tension with shot selections and the precise editing. The bulk of the movie hews closer to a conventional action movie, with Chris and his team clearing out Iraqi insurgents. We get to know a bit about the mechanics of sniper warfare. But Kyle gets restless being the guardian angel of death for the ground troops, and he goes down to their level and clears neighborhoods. This causes some conflict with his superiors because Kyle is far more valuable as a sniper. His reputation for killing is also getting him notoriety with his enemies. There is a price on Kyle’s head and skilled snipers are seeking him out for the prize. This is a natural way to build suspense as Kyle keeps returning back into Iraq with multiple tours, every tour increasing his personal danger. It allows for real consequences for the increasing prowess of our super sniper. There’s a sense of collateral damage to every kill, as every dead body creates more enemies and those enemies grow more incensed to take him out. Even if you know how exactly Kyle met his untimely end, there’s still plenty of suspense and well-orchestrated action sequences to please casual fans of the genre and true-life military thrillers.

It does feel like the complex story of Kyle, as well as the Iraq War, are being simplified into action movie fodder. There’s a steady supply of interchangeable supporting players, soldiers and spotters and the like, all of them without much to distinguish them as characters. They’re here to be sacrificed, to watch the splatter of red, and to increase the sense of loss because we know that Chris Kyle will not be taken down so we need other expendables. As expected, Miller gets rather short shrift as Kyle’s wife who gets to alternate between worry and unease. The screenplay by Jason Hall sets up some excellently harrowing suspense sequences but seems better engineered like its establishing video game stages of combat than complex people. As a result, when we lose characters it doesn’t feel like we’ve lost people we care about. It doesn’t have an impact beyond sudden shock, and even that is tempered in time with the sniper angle. You start expecting characters to get popped in mid-sentence.

1412258342001-XXX-AMERICAN-SNIPER-MOV-jy-2898-Where the film leaves you lacking is at its center with the man who is supposed to be the focal point of American Sniper. At the start we’re told that Kyle is the deadliest sniper in U.S. history and by the end that’s about all we know about the guy. He’s an ace killer. The movie has some top-notch suspense sequences with Kyle killing people. The early scenes with Kyle’s family do the bare minimum to establish a sense of pride in not backing down from a fight. There’s a scene where his girlfriend explains to him and the audience exactly why he’s difficult. It’s pretty transparent exposition but it’s also the last bout of clear characterization you’ll get until the end. There’s a slight nod to the mounting PTSD that is transforming Kyle into a man who feels whole only on the battlefield, but these are notes of characterization that are only cursory. It’s only at the very end does the movie remember to flesh out Kyle as a person rather than as an action hero, and by then there’s only enough time to hint at elements we’ve seen explored better in other war movies, particularly The Hurt Locker. As an action film, the movie works and works quite ably, but as a biopic on Chris Kyle it forgets what makes him human, instead focusing on his superhuman killing ability.

Cooper (American Hustle) bulked up a considerable amount of muscle to portray Kyle. He fits the part well and has the acting ability to communicate the troubled psychology of a man making sense of his old world after the trauma of war. It’s then a shame that he’s not given more opportunities to use those acting muscles. There is one phone call where Cooper wordlessly finally breaks down, allowing all the scar tissue to finally be seen on his haunted character, but it’s a moment rather than a culmination.

If you go into American Sniper hoping for an elevated thriller with some well-wrought suspense, then you’ll mostly be pleased with the film as a slice of entertainment. As a war commentary or a psychological study of the horrors of war, it comes up lacking, falling back on the action tropes of its genre and neglecting to properly build around its characters. The action is often biting, and a late sequence involving an oncoming sandstorm is an intense climax. However, it’s also emblematic of the shortfalls of the film. While it’s a sequence of action entertainment, it also reduces war into a video game and reminds you that the characters onscreen are not so much portrayed as people but holders of weapons. Kyle was a complex man who was more than his uncanny ability to kill, but you won’t get more in American Sniper. The nature of his death demands a more insightful exploration of the lasting effects of PTSD and what kind of treatment, or failure of treatment, many servicemen receive once they come home.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

imagesWho would have guessed that a movie that featured a talking tree and an anthropomorphic raccoon would be one of the best films of the year and one of the top grossing films of the summer? At this point for audiences, the Marvel name can do no wrong, but really it’s the degree of latitude given to Guardians of the Galaxy, an admittedly weird movie with strange characters, that allows this unique film to shine. Attaching offbeat director James Gunn (Super, Slither) to be writer and director was a risk that paid off tremendously, as Guardians is the Marvel film most entrenched with the particular personality of its creative director. This is a gleefully imaginative film that enjoys wading deep into weirdness, dancing to its adventurous Star Wars throwback beat, always with its focus set on comedy but not at the expense of quality drama or character development. Really, the characters are the focus of this entry into the franchise, and Gunn and his actors do a bang-up job of gathering the team and getting you to care about each and every one of them. Each one of these characters has a goal, several payoffs, and each is given their proper attention. In an ordinary superhero film, the archetypes would be ironclad. With Guardians, the tough guy made of muscle can also be a source of unexpected comedy with his literal-minded speech patterns. With Guardians, the talking raccoon can also be an emotionally disturbed victim of genetic experimentation who doesn’t know how to play well with others. These are damaged characters and their formation of an unconventional family unit is deeply satisfying and rather touching. I have seen the film twice and gotten teary-eyed both times. The real star of the film is Chris Pratt (TV’s Parks and Recreation), and what a breakout role he is afforded; he’s like Han Solo’s more juvenile nephew. But like the others, the part is surprising in its depth, with a well of sadness and displacement he still hasn’t processed while he scavenges the galaxy. The plot can be a bit unwieldy at times but pays off better for repeat viewings. This is a world I want to spend far more time exploring and with these characters as my merry prankster guides. With a movie this action-packed, thoroughly entertaining, and gratifying, why come back to Earth?

Nate’s Grade: A

American Hustle (2013)

american-hustle-poster-2With two movies, writer/director David O. Russell has vaulted to the top of Hollywood. Previously known for his own difficult behavior, Russell’s last two films, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, were both critical and commercial hits (Silver Linings made over $230 million worldwide). Both brought a bushel of Oscar nominations as well, making Russell one of the hottest directors for actors and producers. But a new side seems to have emerged over these last two movies, one less of Russell the domineering director and one of Russell the open collaborator. It feels like he’s just hitting his stride too. American Hustle is Russell’s latest and it’s sharply written, engrossing, lively, surprisingly comic, and readily entertaining.

In the late 1970s, the FBI set up an undercover sting to nail political corruption, ultimately nabbing several U.S. congressmen and one standing U.S. Senator. Richie  DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) is an FBI agent who snags the perfect assistance. To catch a crook you have to think like a crook, and so Richie has strong-armed a pair of lucrative con artists into helping him. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a professional down to his elaborate hairpiece. He’s used to fleecing desperate people and selling phony artwork to the gullible, but he’s been too shy about making too much noise. If you stay small, you go unnoticed. Irving’s partner in crime is Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a kindred spirit who has reinvented her self. She and Irving are in love, and now they’re trapped by Richie to set up New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). The one unpredictable element is Irving’s young wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who could blow up the whole operation with her careless and self-involved tantrums.

105643_galRussell has once again given audiences one of the most entertaining films of the year, this time allowing them to participate vicariously in a con game, trying to anticipate the twists and turns and assessing everyone’s personal angle. This is a fictionalized rendition of the Abscam case (the opening text drolly says, “Some of this actually happened”) and it gives us a slew of meaty characters that have something going on. The central point elaborated in this pop crime caper is that we’re all cons, we’re all pretending, on some level, to be different people; Russell’s film just takes this notion to the extreme. Irving and Sydney are trying to escape lives of ordinary malaise, of being victims, of the more powerful dictating their options for them. With Sydney, she’s pretending to fall for Richie, but we don’t fully know which side she may choose to end up on. Richie is trying to also escape his dull life of desk jobs and lower middle-class dinners. His ambitions get hold of him, and with Irving’s aid, he catapults himself toward achieving those oversized dreams of his, never mind the ethical lapses in nabbing the bad guys. For Carmine, he’s so fiercely devoted to his community that you don’t doubt his loyalty for a second. He’s a man who sincerely wants to help others and is knowledgeable enough about how the world works, knowing he may have to grease some wheels to get the progress started. He is the most moral figure of the five main players and you may find yourself rooting for him to escape the snare closing in on him. Then there’s Rosalyn who has her hooks in Irving, looking for a sense of stability for her and her child. She’s a volatile cocktail of emotion but she knows what she needs to do to keep Irving anchored to her needs, though she’s also cognizant enough to latch onto a better provider if one materializes. Mixing and matching those characters, you have an eclectic mix of personalities clashing, many at odds with one another as far as goals, and the conflict stirred up is delicious.

Russell also attaches on his Martin Scorsese filter, delivering a freewheeling film about criminals from their wizened point of view, explaining the ins and outs of their hustle with flamboyance, style, and vigor. While the opening is a tad slow, including an opening minute watching Irving work his almost breathtaking comb over hairstyle, we plow right along into this world of hustlers and con men, learning tricks of their trade (hint: desperate people are desperate) and the tools to stay ahead of detection. We’re awash in multiple perspectives, each with voice over, a frenetic camera, and emboldened editing. It’s the Scorsese approach given studious application to the Abscam affair. It’s a great thing that Scorsese is the finest living filmmaker and devoting a two-hour-plus homage to the man’s most stylized crime pictures is a plus. Russell’s movie feels alive but also hungry, like many of his characters, restlessly searching for something. The scenes land but they don’t feel like they’re standing still; everything is propulsive in this movie. The small operation of Irving and Sydney is taken to the big leagues thanks to Richie’s ego, and the FBI’s desire for splashy headline busts, but wider exposure also exponentially multiplies the danger. Once the gambling scheme attracts the investment of the Mob, that’s when everyone has gone too far. I was clenching my fists in suspense toward the end, worried that our fictional cons may be too far in to survive.

105641_galRussell hasn’t lost his magic touch with actors. His last two films have netted seven acting Oscar nominations and three wins, and the cast of American Hustle meets that same level of excellence. Perhaps even more so than The Fighter, the characters are given a very broadly comic brush, easily and routinely stepping into a carnival row of over-the-top behavior. It provides plenty of entertainment of the mishap and absurd variety, but there are also lone piercing moments of great empathy with these messy people. Mostly, the various actors all seem to be in a great syncopation, each one contributing where the other left off, building a great and compelling picture. When this ensemble is firing, it’s hard to beat. Special mention to comedian Louis C.K. (TV’s Louie) making the most of every scene he’s in as an FBI party pooper. His running gag involving a personal ice-fishing story is one of the film’s best jokes.

Bale (Out of the Furnace) is our guiding voice in this world, a flimflam man of the first order who fools maybe even himself. He’s got his own code of ethics and a heart behind that pot belly (another physical transformative performance by Bale the chameleon). He’s briskly entertaining but my only complaint is that, by being so suave and slick, he seems a tad too low-key at points given the risk involved. I know it’s part of the act, but from an audience standpoint, it makes him seem a tad too modulated. His equal is Renner (The Bourne Legacy) who is so earnest that it practically breaks your heart when he oversteps into morally murky territory.

However, Bale’s performance is compensated by the sheer craziness of the Silver Linings co-stars, Cooper and Lawrence. Cooper (The Place Beyond the Pines) is a lawman but also the film’s biggest antagonist. He gets drunk with power and the credit he’s receiving at the FBI. He’s also a deeply insecure man who is trying to style himself like Irving and Sydney as a posh reinvention. Cooper gives him a manic energy and taps back into his reservoir of eager-to-please egotism. Lawrence (Catching Fire) is the most unpredictable character. She acts on impulse, flirts with sabotage, and soaks up the spotlight she’s so rarely afforded. Lawrence is having the time of her life playing a loud, shrewish, vampy housewife who has a noticeable habit of starting house fires.

Beforehand, I would have thought that Lawrence and Adams should have swapped roles (still an interesting experiment), but having now seen the film, each suits them well. Adams (Man of Steel) is the saddest character of them all to me because she’s the bruised dreamer anxious to be anyone but who she really was. She relishes the con, more so than Irving, and ties much of her self-identity to her shyster skills. But two aspects of Adams’ performance especially surprised me: 1) she speaks with a fake British accent for nearly the whole movie, and 2) the copious amount of side boob on display. As per the 1970s fashions, Adams takes full advantage of the plunging necklines, giving her fans a lot to observe from scene to scene, and not just her formidable acting talent on display.

105642_galI’ve been dragging my feet writing my review and I’ve been trying to determine why, beyond, obviously, holiday-related sloth. American Hustle is readily a good movie that provides plenty of entertainment, meaty characters, and fun, but why do I keep feeling like it’s missing one undetermined ingredient? I can’t even articulate what at the moment but after having seen the film two times now, I feel like perhaps my emotional involvement was stunted. It’s a finely tuned script that delivers big performances for big-time actors, with a dandy ending that manages to dish out satisfying conclusions to its bevy of wheeler-dealers. But why didn’t I care more, why didn’t I feel more resonance by the time the end credits landed? The best theory I can surmise at this time is that we’re caught up in the con game, where everyone is pretending to be somebody else out of necessity or desire, that when it’s all over, we reflect on what a fun ride it’s been with fun characters but do we feel like we’ve gotten anywhere? I feel like I was more interested in the characters than attached to them. Again, American Hustle is still a sensationally entertaining movie and this paragraph is but a quibble, but it’s enough to thwart me from fully embracing and celebrating Russell’s film (confession: having already seen Scorsese’s brilliant Wolf of Wall Street, this could be coloring things for me with Russell’s Scorsese homage).

American Hustle is a fun ride with arresting performances, oodles of style, energy, and comedy. It’s a crime caper of the first order, easing you into this world and watching people play all sides. Even better, we’re given a volatile mix of personalities that clash, forming new and lasting conflicts, some of which could endanger the entire operation. These are interesting people to spend time with and so we can excuse the indulgences of a 140-minute movie that offers even more with this fantastic cast. Russell with a Scorsese filter is an even more improbably entertaining filmmaker. This is a crowd-pleasing sort of movie, much like Silver Linings, that doles out punchlines and payoffs with aplomb. It’s easy to go along for the ride, laugh uproariously, and then by the end sort of wonder whether it was all worth it. The emotional detachment to the characters may be a minor complaint for a film this largely satisfying, but since we’re spending so much time on our characters, I think I would have preferred something a tad more substantive by the end. It’s a great ride, with great characters and great humor, but there is a nagging concern that it may have been a better ride than a story. Regardless, American Hustle is an enjoyably alluring con that mines the absurdist fashions, personalities, and political overreach of the 1970s, painting a tale of criminals who may be the real heroes of the American dream.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

MV5BMjc1OTEwNjU4N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzUzNDIwOQ@@._V1_SX214_Ambitious filmmaking is welcome, but usually ambition leads somewhere, which is the main problem with co-writer and director Derek Cianfrance’s unwieldy 140-minute multi-generational crime drama, The Place Beyond the Pines. First we watch Luke (Ryan Gosling) as a traveling motorcyclist enter a life of crime to support his infant son. Next the focus shifts to Avery (Bradley Cooper) as a cop with a conscience running into corruption on the force. Last, we jump ahead into the future and watch the dramatic irony unfold as the children of Avery and Luke interact, waiting for them to learn their paternal connection. I believe Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) and his team was attempting to tell a meditative, searching drama about children paying for the sins of their fathers, the lingering fallout of bad decisions and moral compromises. Except that’s not this film. By the end of the movie, while some secrets have been laid bare, there really aren’t any significant consequences. The film does an excellent job of maintaining a sense of dread, but it doesn’t come to anything larger or thought provoking. The entire structure of this film is geared toward a tragic accumulation, but it just doesn’t materialize. That’s a shame because it’s got great acting through and through, though I have grown weary of Gosling’s taciturn antihero routine that seems like a rut now. Avery’s portion of the plot was the most interesting and anxiety-inducing, but I found the movie interesting at every turn. The characters are given pockets of nuance and ambiguity as they traverse similar paths of desperation and conciliation. The Place Beyond the Pines is a perfectly good movie, albeit disjointed, that cannot amount to the larger thematic impact it yearns for.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Hangover Part III (2013)

245649id1i_HO3_Final_Rated_27x40_1Sheet.inddI was no huge fan of the first Hangover movie and I cited its 2011 sequel, a carbon copy of the original, as one of the worst films of the year. The supposed final chapter ditches the blackout formula, which on its face seems like a step in the right direction, but now we have a Hangover movie with no titular hangover and at heart this is a movie for no one, even hardcore Hangover fans. I became quite cognizant how little I was laughing, not just because the jokes were badly misfiring, which they were, but also because there were so few jokes. You’d be hard-pressed to label this a comedy. It’s really more of an action thriller. What humor does arise is usually mean-spirited, curdled, or just off-putting, particular the reoccurring theme of animal cruelty (maybe opening your film with a decapitated giraffe is not the best idea). The other major hurdle is that annoying supporting characters played by Ken Jeong and Zach Galifianakis are elevated to co-leads. Both of these characters are best when reacting to others rather than being the main actors in the story. This movie is so abysmal as a comedy that you start to think director Todd Phillips should try his hand at a straight action thriller; the guy has a strong eye for visual composition. The actors all look extremely bored. Could Justin Bartha, the character who always gets sidelined, just get murdered and they have to hide his body? Oh no, I think I just came up with The Hangover 4. I apologize already.

Nate’s Grade: D

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

I am in love. It’s been days since I watched Silver Linings Playbook and I’m still under its spell. It’s a movie that gave me such rapturous emotional peaks, a deeply satisfying crowd-pleaser that doesn’t just nail the big moments, it crushes them. This is a movie that works so well with just about every facet of storytelling, from acting to writing to directing, that you’re liable to be in awe as I was.

Pat (Bradley Cooper), a high school history teacher, came home one day to find his wife in the shower with another man. He admittedly lost it, beating the man bloody, and has been remanded to a state psych ward for the past eight months. It’s determined that Pat is an undiagnosed bipolar case, and the court orders him to stay on his meds and stay 500 feet away from his now ex-wife, Nikki. Having lost his home, Pat is living with his parents (Robert De Niro and Jackie Weaver), both of whom don’t know how to help their troubled son. Pat is convinced he can win back his wife. He starts conditioning by running, wearing a garbage bag to better sweat off the pounds, and meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). She’s been fighting through depression after coping from the sudden death of her police officer husband. She agrees to help Pat get in contact with his ex, passing a letter, but at a price. He must compete with her in a dancing competition. They spend hours practicing their routine, getting to know one another, and stabilizing one another, providing a foundation for healing and success.

The story itself isn’t anything groundbreaking; you could glibly label it as the “bipolar rom-com” and it does adhere to that structure for the second half. But this is David O. Russell we’re talking about, the man behind 2010’s The Fighter, yes, but also offbeat dysfunctional family comedies like Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster. The man has a way of working within the framework of conventions and finding the rough edges, to make stories at once familiar and excitingly new. Is there anything groundbreaking with Silver Linings Playbook? It’s your boy-meets-girl formula at heart, but the execution is so extremely sure-footed, so exceptionally handled, that the movie leaves you buzzy and beaming. Once it ended, I wanted to run around, shouting from the rooftops for people to run out and see this movie. You want others to share in something so special and affecting. I felt a similar passion after seeing the unconventional romance Safety Not Guaranteed, and I’d advise any fans of Safety to certainly check out Silver. Being a rousing, crowd-pleasing sort of movie is not necessarily a yoke to weigh down its artistic integrity. As if enjoyment and creative accomplishment are opposing forces. I freely admit that Silver Linings Playbook is a masterful movie that knows what it takes to get an audience cheering, and I was thrilled to be part of that cheering throng. Here is a movie that just makes you feel good, and when was the last movie you saw that made you feel glowing with happiness?

This in an emotionally rich film; I was so happy after my screening that it felt like a high I didn’t want to come down from. To engineer a reaction that enhanced, that enlightened, that potent, well I must sing the praises of Russell and his actors. I bought into the love story and family drama big time. The payoffs are meaty and numerous, and I often found the film to be sincerely moving. There’s a great satisfaction in watching two oddballs find their special someone’s, and when the characters are this interesting, this human, and so well portrayed, it makes every stop along the journey that much more engaging and emotionally triumphant. It’s got an ending that pulls it all together in spectacular fashion, giving us exactly what we want while feeling earned and on its own eccentric terms. This is a deeply felt and compassionate film, one with as much uplift as acerbic rebellion. You feel like these people really do love one another. Silver Linings Playbook has memorized the playbook on how to win over an audience, but it always comes down to the same Xs and Os: strong characters, a compelling story, and people we genuinely care about, and that includes distaff supporting characters too.

The characters are so interesting and beautifully flawed, and the actors are so in tune with one another, delivering bar-raising performances that take the movie into another realm of enjoyment. When actors are given plum roles about people with mental illnesses or disabilities, it must be very enticing to overindulge in tics and self-conscious mannerisms. That doesn’t happen with Silver Linings Playbook. Beyond an uptick in tempo, the actors portray their parts as characters rather than ailments. If anything, the acting in this movie is practically restrained given the circumstances. What’s more, Silver Linings Playbook is a fine example of what can happen when the cast works in tandem, challenging one another to up their game. It’s like every actor felt revived from all the talent on display. Russell knows how to push his actors like few other directors, and while this has lead to notorious Internet videos of his actors losing their cool, it’s also given way to raw performances that burn in your memory. Russell gets his actors to bring their A-game and then some. The Fighter got three Oscar nods for acting and I wouldn’t be surprised if Silver Linings Playbook gets three as well (I think Lawrence and De Niro are locks).

Cooper (The Hangover) has always had a certain smirking, leering quality about him, a guy used to portraying louts with charisma. I have never seen him tackle anything nearly as challenging as what he does with Pat. He’s unpredictably combustible, ready to explode at any moment, but also empathetic, trying to do better. Pat isn’t meant to be seen as a loveable loser. This guy has serious problems he’s working through. Cooper is simply incredible, showcasing skills and nuance you didn’t know the man had, radiating with an intense outpouring of spontaneous energy that doesn’t ever feel forced. Cooper is not bouncing off the walls here as some wild-eyed loony, playing upon codified ideas of what a bipolar person behaves like. He’s a deeply complicated guy, processing challenging and contradicting feelings in a brain that doesn’t necessarily follow the rules. He has so many impulses leading him in different directions. Pat is obsessed with his goal of impressing his wife, so much that he seems blind to the tangible connection he’s formed with Tiffany, and we yearn that he realizes the catch in front of him. I was won over completely by Cooper’s committed, attentive, anxious, and lively performance.

Readers will know that I harbor a serious crush when it comes to the talented actress, Lawrence (The Hunger Games). I was expecting her to be great in this movie, as this is pretty much my default setting with the actress at this point. I was not expecting what she delivered, a performance that is so enthralling, so astonishing, that you’ll be left stupefied that a woman at only the young age of 22 could be this phenomenally gifted. Lawrence had several scenes that just left me speechless. Lawrence is in elite territory now as far as I’m concerned. Her command of the character is just about impeccable, and you perk up every moment she’s onscreen. She’s a damaged woman recovering from her own powerful grief, but she’s so many things at any one moment. She can be lusty, provocative, angry, sullen, commanding, vulnerable, and hurtful. There are scenes where she will bounce around a plethora of emotional states, but each one gradually shifts to the other, making the transformation genuine and another layer to the character. If she were just some crazy girl we wouldn’t care if she eventually got her happy ending with Pat. With Lawrence’s talents, and Russell’s sharp writing, Tiffany becomes a figure worth fighting for, a bruised romantic that finds her rare kindred spirit who accepts and appreciates her messiness.

The supporting cast from top to bottom may not be at the same level as Cooper and Lawrence, but their output is also impressive. De Niro (Limitless) hasn’t been this good in ages, delivering a few monologues that will hit you square in the gut. Weaver (The Five-Year Engagement) is something of an enabler for the family, but she also gets her moments to shine and reassert her strength and dignity. Chris Tucker (in his first non-Rush Hour movie since 1997) is the least Chris Tucker I’ve ever seen him. He’s downplayed his motor mouth tendencies completely, and he’s a wonderful presence as he ducks in and out. He even teaches Tiffany how to “black up” her dance, a fact that most heterosexual males in the audience will be thankful for this time of year.

Russell deserves serious credit for portraying mental illness in a manner that doesn’t dance around the seriousness of the condition. Statistically one in three people suffer from a mental illness at some point in their life, and I’ll even admit that post-divorce, I too fell amongst those ranks (I’m a statistic!). In the case of Pat, He’s not just some unfeeling jerk who says inappropriate things or has problems reading social cues. He’s a guy going through serious personal struggles, same with Tiffany. These are not jokes. They are not send-ups of mental illness; they are people. At no point does the humanity of these characters get lost. We will laugh at their inappropriate comments, sure, but we are never laughing at them from some cushy sanctuary of superiority. I also think Russell examines an interesting, more socially-acceptable form of mass mental illness, namely the OCD-nature associated with sports superstitions. Smart and capable people can get caught up in the allure of superstitions, and when it concerns sports in general, groupthink overpowers. I consider myself a sports fan as well (I’m a double statistic!) and fully accept the ridiculous nature of fandom, but I thought it was a clever move for Russell to hold the mirror up to our own cracked community and its irrational behavior. And as any Philadelphia sports fan will acknowledge, they take fandom to a whole other level.

At this point, I don’t know what more I can write about this movie without coming across as a complete, frothing madman. Football, mental illness, ballroom dancing! I’m smitten big time with Silver Linings Playbook. I’m completely in the tank for this film. Future viewings (already planning one soon) will probably highlight certain minute flaws I’ve failed to notice the first go-round. And even if those flaws become more apparent (yes the final dance is something of a contrived climax) I simply do not care. The movie’s many virtues far exceed any shortcomings that could potentially arise. It plays to some familiar rom-com elements but it goes about its business with its own funky charm. The acting, writing, and directing are all on such a heightened level of excellence, it’s amazing just to watch all the parts work together so masterfully. I wasn’t just won over by this movie; I’ve become its disciple. I preach the gospel of Silver Linings Playbook. Here is a rapturous feel-good movie that doesn’t feel like it’s pandering or dulling its edge even after it takes some conventional turns. Cooper is terrific, Lawrence is astounding, and together they form the couple you cheer for. Silver Linings Playbook is everything you’d want in a stellar movie. I can’t wait to watch it again and get caught up in its wondrous spell once more. It took a long ten months but The Grey has finally been knocked off the perch. Silver Linings Playbook is nothing short of the best film I’ve seen this year.

Nate’s Grade: A

Hit and Run (2012)

Hit and Run was a labor of love for actor Dax Shephard (TV’s Parenthood). He wrote the script, co-directed the film, did plenty of his own car stunts, edited the film, and got his longtime girlfriend, the irascible Kristen Bell (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) to co-star as his love interest. I just wish the movie were better. It’s something of a strange mix, a road chase that zips along to loping comedic rhythms, spending as much time having characters engage in self-aware conversations about a variety of topics. It’s like a rom-com with car chases. Shepard and Bell are terrific together and have a natural comedic chemistry to them, an ease that befits both of their acting styles. Then there’s some of the more troubling comedic moments, like when the villainous Bradley Cooper (The Hangover) literally ties a leash around a black man and forces him to eat dog food. It’s one uncomfortable scene to watch. Then there are sudden bursts of violence and nudity, to go along with the bizarre conversational tangents. The plot is a loose collection of near-misses and digressive asides. It wants to be one of those 70s car chase comedies, something along the likes of a raunchier Smokey and the Bandit. This movie does keep you guessing, but it rarely adds up to anything worth all the trouble. Car enthusiasts will probably enjoy all the vehicular eye candy, and I’m happy to see Bell tackle a meatier role than she seems to be offered at this time, but I can’t work up more than a half-hearted shrug for Hit and Run. It looks good but just has nowhere to go.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Limitless (2011)

With a dream premise for a pill-popping culture, Limitless is a visually fervent thriller that manages to stay a step ahead of the pack. Bradley Cooper takes a pill and can unlock full potential of his brain, which involves, obviously, scoring big paydays and women. It’s a silly fantasy but a universal curiosity of what we could do if given full access to our noodle. Director Neil Burger (The Illusionist) uses every visual trick in the book to represent the new brainpowers, as we watch words, numbers, and memories drift through a colorful explosion of imagery. It’s all very pretty to look at. Burger’s visual prowess elevates the more pedestrian moments of Limitless, but the film has a way of surprising you. The Mob takes an interest in this wonder pill, operating at a new peak of production. A woman being hunted down takes the magic pill and is able to quickly formulate an escape. So what if the profound existential questions regarding human capacity and possibility are thrown aside, we got some nifty visual flourishes and foot chases here people. The pacing is relentless and the plot manages to find intriguing ways to keep a superbrainiac in danger. Limitless is a perfectly enjoyable movie with enough juice to forgive its lamer moments and contrived ending.

Nate’s Grade: B

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