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The Counselor (2013)

counselor-2The magnitude of author Cormac McCarthy’s involvement should not go understated in discussions over The Counselor. The acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize-winning author has written modern classics often exploring the darker side of humanity. McCarthy’s first screenplay must have seemed like a hot commodity for all of Hollywood. It attracted director Ridley Scott (Prometheus) and a score of A-list actors. The anticipation was that McCarthy could match the brilliance of his prose. The Counselor, a dreary and lackluster thriller in every conceivable way, proves that McCarthy still has an uphill learning curve when it comes to serviceable screenwriting.

The titular Counselor (Michael Fassbender) seems to have a nice life. He’s just proposed to his girlfriend, Laura (Penelope Cruz), and their sex life is vigorous. Then an old client, Reiner (Javier Bardem), invites the Counselor in on a shady drug transportation deal. The allure of easy money is too much for the Counselor to resist. Naturally, things do not go according to plan. A Mexican cartel intercepts the transport truck, bodies pile up, and the stakes get very personal for the Counselor.

Cameron-Diaz-and-Penelope-Cruz-in-The-Counselor-2013-Movie-Image1To be blunt, if McCarthy had submitted this script under a different name, it never would have made its way to the big screen. This is the award-winning author’s first screenplay and it shows. The pacing is shockingly slack, with the film rarely having any sense of life onscreen. I’m not a slave to the standard three-act structure of Hollywood screenwriting, but you need to produce something that keeps pushing the film forward, heading to a finale that seemed inevitable. McCarthy’s script is bogged down with pointless scene after pointless scene, little arias that get away from him, indulging his characters to monologue at length about philosophical nonsense. There are lengthy conversations about diamond shapes, the very nature of existence, and all sorts of Matrix Reloaded-like lingual excesses. These characters talk round and round; it feels like there aren’t even other characters in the room. Their lengthy, pretentious conversations also do little to push the narrative along or reveal essential bits of character. You get to hear one crime kingpin talk about his favorite poet. Great, but what can you say about him beyond the fact that he’s well read? Every character in this movie, from top to bottom, is a vapid space. Some of them have interesting aspects/quirks, like owning cheetahs or masturbating on car windshields, but not one character can be described as interesting. Beyond the terms “ruthless,” “pragmatic,” and “naïve,” I cannot even fathom a way to describe anyone in this film. They don’t even really work as plot devices because that would imply causality. When you couple the void of characterization with ponderous, rambling dialogue, then you’re already sabotaging your entertainment chances.

The plotting is muddled beyond all comprehension. I like to consider myself a pretty sharp moviegoer, but I was left scratching my head far too often. With a paucity of characterization and some idle pacing, I was confused as to what exactly was going on, sometimes even just at a literal level. What was this plan? How do all the players fit in? Why are the betrayers acting as they do? Who works for whom? Why should I be shocked about revealing the identity of a betrayer when it was made all too obvious in a previous scene (note: this is so directly transparent that it cannot count as foreshadowing)? Why does the appearance of a DVD signify finality after a previous phone conversation already did the same thing? And most of all why should I care? Watching this movie is like traveling through a long, impenetrable fog. There are serious, ongoing clarity issues, which make those florid digressions and overall pointless character nattering to be even more maddening. There are well known actors that come in just for single scenes, and then those scenes amount to little to nothing on the overall bearing of the plot. The Counselor doesn’t feel like a fully formed story; it feels like a collection of 30 scenes served as disposable sides for actors during preliminary auditions.

Even worse, for a film about drug deals gone badly, murder, and Cameron Diaz masturbating on a windshield, The Counselor is deathly boring. I grew restless before the halfway mark and just kept hoping beyond all evidence that the film was going to find some direction and pick up the intrigue. It did not. The film’s essential story structure, criminals getting in over their heads and paying a price, is a familiar one. This structure can work to marvelous results both grand (Goodfellas) and small (Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead). Hell, even McCarthy’s own novel lead to the brilliant, Best Picture winner No Country For Old Men. Look at how the Coen brothers approach the macho, nihilistic material as opposed to its author. They created a sense of all-consuming dread with efficiency, elegance, and their characteristic macabre sense of humor. Watching The Counselor, it’s like the turgid knockoff of a McCarthy novel. When I got home I felt like I had to watch a Quentin Tarantino movie to wash the bad taste out of my mouth. Tarantino is given to long indulgences of elaborate dialogue as well, but he makes his characters interesting, with personalities that grab you and stand out, and listening to his dialogue is a pleasure unto itself.

McCarthy’s brand of ruthless killing has its peculiar intrigue, but again it only functions as morbidly fascinating little asides. The use of tripwire is given high priority by the killers onscreen, decapitating a speeding motorcyclist and cutting into the jugular with another character. It’s a strange, harrowing, and gruesome manner of death, but is it at all practical? I know I’m treading dangerous waters bringing the concept of reality to a murky film, but what killer decides to set up a wire approximately neck high across a road? It seems likely that another car would travel that same road in the hours of buildup. It also seems highly lucky to adjust the wire to the exact height to cut into the neck. I’m no professional killer but it seems like a lot of setup and guesswork. I have to imagine there are far easier ways to kill a speeding cyclist or a man walking along the street. Attention professional hit men of the movies: stop making your job more difficult than it has to be. Nobody is awarding you a ribbon for Most Inventive Kill.

new-images-arrive-online-for-the-counselor-141250-a-1374829476-470-75There are plenty of pretty faces in this movie, genuine acting talent, and to strand them with precious little characterization is an outrage. Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) is a little too sly to play naïve, and his later actions lack a necessary sense of desperation to sell his emotional plummet. Cruz (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides) is so effortlessly sensual but is put on the sidelines early and stuck in the damsel-in-distress box. Brad Pitt (World War Z) is the slick snake charmer we’ve seen plenty of times before. But the worst lot goes to Diaz (Bad Teacher). She’s supposed to be mysterious and threatening as Reiner’s sexually adventurous girlfriend but Diaz plays things so stone-faced serious. This poor woman is given the most unerotic, bizarre sex scene in modern history to enact, and I don’t know whether to applaud or pity her. Sure she gets to uncork some meaty monologues about Malkina’s trenchant world perspective, but this is the movie that will be defined by Diaz humping a windshield. At least the movie plays this out somewhat realistically, with Reiner more horrified than aroused. What did that outrageous scene add up to? Also, Penelope Cruz plays a “Laura” and Cameron Diaz a “Malkina”?

I know it’s a petty thing but it really irritated me how often people refer to Fassbender’s character as “Counselor.” The end credits do reveal this to be his name. If you thought it got irksome hearing Leonardo DiCaprio say “ole sport” after every other sentence in The Great Gatsby, then enjoy the repetitive declaration of Fassbender’s lone job title. “What do you think, Counselor? I don’t know, Counselor. I’d think things over, Counselor.” Do people really refer to somebody by this title as their name, and so frequently? He also doesn’t seem to be a competent lawyer at all.

The Counselor is such an unforgivably boring slog, languid and rudderless when it should be thrilling and complex. The characters are nonexistent, the plotting is muddled and confusing, the dialogue often laborious and roundabout, and the overall film is too meandering to properly engage an audience. Even talented people can produce bad movies, and here is further proof. With this cast, with this crew, there is no excuse for The Counselor to be overwhelmingly stilted and tedious. I cannot fathom what attracted the talent to this film beyond the cache of working on “Cormac McCarthy’s first screenplay.” If the results of The Counselor are any indication, I don’t know if we’ll be seeing too many McCarthy screenplays in the future, or at least McCarthy scripts that haven’t been vetted by other writers who better understand the contours of the medium. His florid arias and abstract, directionless plotting can be forgiven on the page but not on the screen. Scott doesn’t help matters, taking great care to film the luxury of the lifestyles on screen. What we’re left with is a tepid movie about bad people meeting bad ends, with little entry for an audience to care or even find entertainment. The art direction is given more care than the characters. In the weeks leading up to its release, The Counselor adopted a tagline from a quote by Laura: “Have you been bad?” It was turned into the Twitter hashtag promoting the film. Well, Counselor, you’ve been very bad.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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Green Hornet (2011)

Unassuming, impetuous, and with a lowbrow sense of duty, The Green Hornet gets by on its self-aware, campy, chummy tone thanks to co-writer/star Seth Rogen. The slimmed-down comedian plays a news media playboy who tries to right his life by becoming a super hero with his deceased father’s assistant, the kung-fu connoisseur Kato (Jay Chou, making a very poor English acting debut). Where the movie works best is when it upends formula convention, like making every character insecure about their personal standing, including the villain (Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz), who is aggravated that the “Green Hornet” is dazzling criminals with his digital age marketing. When the film thumbs its nose at convention, it plays like a mischievous prank on super hero/crime fighting tales. Green Hornet is a movie that at times is too busy, too childish, bordering on a bromance between Rogen and Chou. But with director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) at the helm, there are enough quirky visuals to keep things interesting to the noisy climax. Rogen and his film can never be accused of being too serious, and given the material that’s a blessing.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Bad Teacher (2011)

The teaching profession sure is taking its share of beatings lately. After the critical documentary Waiting for ‘Superman’, the loss of collective bargaining in several states, and the continual belief that teachers, despite having to take college courses and/or pass content tests routinely for license renewal, know nothing (full disclosure: I work in the teaching field), along comes the crude comedy, Bad Teacher. This is a comedy that wants a passing grade without showing its work.

Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) is a figure that lives up to the promise of the film’s title. She drinks, smokes pot, sleeps, and all while in class. She looks down on her peers who actively attempt to be engaging to students, like the high-energy Miss Squirrel (Lucy Punch). The school’s gym teacher (Jason Segel) keeps trying to chip away at Elizabeth’s surly, apathetic demeanor, but she continues to shoot him down. Elizabeth’s attention is focused squarely on the handsome substitute teacher, Mr. Delecorte (Justin Timberlake). Not only is he handsome, he’s from a wealthy family. The only thing standing in her gold digging way is Miss Squirrel, who also has an interest in courting the studly sub.

Let’s analyze the bounds of having an unlikable protagonist. There’s a difference between an anti-hero and a generally disreputable lead character. An anti-hero usually has some interior good, or at least a relatable core. An anti-hero generally finds some small measure or redemption or change for the better, even if met through unorthodox means. An anti-hero doesn’t beg to be liked, but the trick is that the audience eventually does like this nontraditional lead. We do not have to agree with the values or behaviors of our lead. You do want to care and desire the character to reach some measure of happiness or whatever their goal is, perhaps an inkling of personal change. Examples include Bad Santa, Goodfellas, Jack Sparrow and Alex DeLarge, nearly every Clint Eastwood character, and take your pick from Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez’s oeuvre. A wholly unlikable protagonist is another concern. If you are so turned off by the protagonist you could not care less what befalls them. Whether they reach their goal, get away with their plot, or even risk life and limb, you do not care.

Bad Teacher suffers from having an unpleasant, obnoxious, selfish, greedy, churlish twit as its lead. Elizabeth is no dashing rogue, no charming cad, no subversive combatant against a corrupt system, nor is she is she a vulnerable individual lashing out to mask her pain or insecurity. All of those qualities would help make for a complicated but ultimately likeable hero or heroine. Instead, what Bad Teacher gives us is a woman that is so thoroughly unpleasant that you tune out early, severing all connection to a comedy. Bad move. Elizabeth’s one goal is to collect enough money through whatever means necessary to afford a boob job. And if she can bring other people down that annoy her, never mind if they are actually good people or teachers, then victory is all the sweeter. Bad Teacher‘s problem is that you don’t want Elizabeth to succeed, you want her to be punished. Elizabeth isn’t likable bad or truly nasty enough to be memorable. She’s the adult version of the popular girl that got away with everything. I never felt an ounce of pity for this person. There is no redemption for this woman, even if she starts treating a small handful of people mildly better. Acting 2% more like a human being does not qualify as progress. How did this woman get into teaching in the first place and for what purpose? There are a lot less strenuous ways to earn a paycheck.

I started feeling for Elizabeth’s rival, Miss Squirrel. Sure, she’s that hyperactive, goody-two-shoes, incredibly cheerful personality that can become grating in large doses, but she’s the only figure in the movie that displays a genuine interest in teaching. Everyone else just seems to be walking around. Elizabeth gets through months of teaching by showing inspirational teacher movies (Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds – no School of Rock?) and sleeping off her hangovers at her desk. Miss Squirrel is a bit obsessive about her job but she cares, and in the film’s void of having a likeable center I gravitated to the spastic, alternative foil. I began rooting for Miss Squirrel to root out her rival’s lies, expose her bad/illegal behavior, and earn some vindication. It was she that I latched onto sympathetically. I rooted for the character that was served up for ridicule by the filmmakers. What does that say about the movie? It also helps that Punch (Dinner for Schmucks, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger) gives the strongest comedic performance. In the realm of Bad Teacher, the good, competent, idealistic, passionate educators are the ones unjustly punished by film’s end.

Diaz (Knight and Day, The Green Hornet) can do the salty, spunky stuff in her sleep, and often in Bad Teacher she seems to be on autopilot, dispensing with the vulgarity without a true glint of madness or enjoyment. She just seems to be irritated by everyone, including the audience. Timberlake (The Social Network) is playing aloof but could have easily been replaced by any decent-looking comic actor. Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I Love You, Man) gives the film a much-needed jolt when he appears onscreen. Too bad his screen time amounts to about 10 minutes and ends in a rather trite fashion with his gym teacher miraculously taming the shrew. Several other comedic actors are wasted in one-bit parts including John Michael Higgins, Molly Shannon, Phyllis Smith (TV’s The Office), Matt Besser (TV’s Upright Citizen’s Brigade), David “Gruber” Allen (TV’s Freaks and Geeks), and Eric Stonestreet (Emmy-winner for Modern Family).

All of this would be marginally forgivable if the film were just funnier. The jokes are stuck in the same gear, mainly Elizabeth being rude or outrageous. It’s a recipe that gets repeated too often, only altering clarifying details. The school has a car wash and Elizabeth dresses provocatively, scrubbing dirty automobiles with a nubile and sudsy devotion not seen since 1980s heavy metal music videos, the heyday of car washing imagery (there sure were a lot of filthy cars in Reagan’s America). The men are agog. It’s the same joke on repeat. She drinks. She says something inappropriate at school. She gets high. People are agog. Bad Teacher is set up from a comedic front to be 100 minutes of reaction shots. It’s like director Jake Kasdan (Orange County, Walk Hard) has to rely on a glut of reaction shots to sell the gags. Why are the kids so meaningless in the comedy? Surely you would think the screenwriters would want to have some students as main characters as well, if nothing else than as a gauge for their lead. Elizabeth does give some advice to a lovesick dorky kid, but her advice is more of a tough love. When Elizabeth discovers there’s a bonus for whoever’s class has the highest state testing scores, you’d think this would be a rally the troops moment. She actually starts teaching and utilizing her skills to get her class to learn, albeit for a personal financial incentive. You would assume then that this might be a changing point for the character, where she actually discovers that she may like teaching or that she does in fact have some aptitude for the profession. Nope. She just resorts to cheating and blackmailing the maker of the state test (Thomas Lennon). I would applaud this narrative pivot, avoiding the expected, if it led to a funnier series of jokes.

The teaching profession is ripe for an astute, mordant satire exploding the politics of the position. Bad Teacher is not that movie. It’s not even close to that movie. It is, however, a comedy that is weighed down by an abhorrent lead character. Diaz’s heroine is unlikable to the point that she turns you off from the whole movie. I suppose there’s a certain measure of bravery having a mainstream studio movie with such an unpleasant main character that doesn’t give a damn about redemption. In the end, watching an appalling egotist get theirs in the end can lead to some sliver of satisfaction, but when that same detestable character gets away with their dastardly deeds? You feel robbed. That’s Bad Teacher in a nutshell. It robs you of laughs, money, and time.

Nate’s Grade: C

Shrek the Fourth (2010)

By taking a page, or even the entire script from It’s a Wonderful Life, Shrek tackles a mid-life crises and wonders how life would be if he had never saved his lovely wife Fiona from her tower (hint: it sucks). He wants his life back and makes a deal with the devious Rumplestiltskin. Except Shrek wakes up in a world where he was never born. While generally better than the third feature, this is still a noticeable step below the first two Shrek features. The tiresome plot device feels more like material for a lazy direct-to-video sequel rather than the (supposed) final chapter to the series. The film wants to be reflective and tap into our inventory of attachment to these characters, but time and again the movie doesn’t go far beyond the “don’t know what you got until it’s gone” cliché. Gags still feel too safe, the energy feels too loose, and the overall feel of Shrek 4 is casual. The novelty is gone. This is a rather middling trip to that big happily ever after. The story, with its reflexive moralizing, just makes the whole film feel slight; Rumplestiltskin is a villain of wasted potential, the characters feel poorly incorporated, and the general time-travel concept implies that the filmmakers have run out of stories to tell. As expected, Shrek 4 looks great, but that’s the only thing great about this once vaulted fractured fairy tale franchise. If this is the final chapter, then let it go with some fading sense of dignity.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Knight & Day (2010)

Imagine a James Bond movie from the point of view of the Bond girl. That’s the premise for the curiously titled Knight and Day, a mostly breezy action movie that really resembles a romantic comedy with guns. It works thanks to the chemistry between Cameron Diaz (Bond girl) and Tom Cruise (super agent). She’s engulfed in a sketchy international spy caper that is replete with typical stock characters (sleazy agents, kooky scientists, angry authority figures). The movie, under the direction of James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma), tried too hard to be lighthearted and can veer from confidant to indifferent. The film is told from Diaz’s point of view, which means there are chunks of the movie where the action occurs off screen, which will naturally disappoint people. There’s one montage where Diaz has been drugged and she keeps going in and out, waking up to a different dangerous situation. It’s meant to be satiric but it might also frustrate. The action sequences, on whole, are well paced and make use of their exotic locales. Knight and Day doesn’t fully work due to its leaps in tone from satire to sincere romance, the on/off switch for the law of physics, and introducing a secondary antagonist far too late in the film. Cruise lays out a full-on charm offensive. You’re reminded that this man is a movie star, and Cruise has fun tweaking that image as well as the public perception over his mental state. His character may be crazy after all, but Cruise is having serious fun and you might too watching the man with the million-dollar smile.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Box (2009)/ Capitalism: A Love Story (2009)

Both films on the surface seem so radically different and yet I found lots of common ground between a sci-fi conspiracy and a muckraking documentary about the biggest financial meltdown of the modern era. Both are centered around the concept of greed and whether humanity can forgo selfishness for empathy of their fellow man. Would you kill a stranger for a million bucks? Would you rig a financial system so that the richest one percent can gamble the life of a nation? Both movies also bite off more than they can chew and both movies exist as interesting yet dispirit elements that could use more cohesion and resolution.

You have been given a box with a button. If you press the button tow things happen: somebody you do not know will die and you will receive a million dollars. Do you press it? That’s the hook of writer/director Richard Kelly’s sci-fi morality tale based upon a short story by Richard Matheson. The Box is a messy and outlandish conspiracy sandwiched between two moral tests, the second a consequence of the first and a means to wipe the slate clean. There’s plenty of weird unsettling moments, including the horrendous wallpaper of the 1970s, but not everything really hangs together. Kelly’s intergalactic conspiracy can get readily outlandish with all the variables and needed participants, but like in Donnie Darko, he lays out enough tantalizing info to keep your attention and then keeps the narrative vague enough for personal interpretation. However, unlike Darko, this movie needed to cleanup its loose storylines. It just sort of ends in perplexing rush, and I sat in silence through the end credits waiting for some kind of scene to help tie together dangling storylines that were left to dangle for an eternity. The Box has a nicely tuned foreboding atmosphere, and it certainly keeps you guessing, but it will also keep you scratching your head to try and make sense of everything from button boxes to teleportation pools to Mars probes to sudden nosebleeds to Satre’s No Exit. Kelly, as he has done with his previous movies, packs a lot in two hours. Whether or not it all formulates is up to the viewer’s wearying patience. I’d rather have more movies like The Box than more thoughtless drivel from the Hollywood assembly line.

After 20 years, you pretty much know at this point what you’re going to get from a Michael Moore documentary. There’s the anecdotal evidence, emotional interviews of the downtrodden, the one-sided arguments, the nods to the depressive state of Flint, Michigan, and Moore trying to bully his way to see the powers that be that have no interest seeing him. In a way, Capitalism: A Love Story is like a greatest hits collection for Moore that reminds you of his better moments and better films. Despite all the outrage, Moore wants to throw the baby out with the bath water. He cites capitalism as an evil that needs to be eradicated. His thesis isn’t very cohesive and consists of a series of related and unrelated anecdotes, some of them grossly offensive like companies profiting from the death of employees thanks to “Dead Peasant” life insurance policies. But at no point do you walk away thinking, “Let’s start from scratch. What has capitalism gotten us?” Several of his points are easy to agree with. There is a flagrant disregard for the well being of others on Wall Street, who carelessly gambled the nation’s fortunes and then got the taxpayers to cover the loss. The bailout is a crime of pure capitalism and in a true capitalistic society there is no such thing as “too big to fail,” there is only fail. It’s not following an ideology built upon greed that has hurt the U.S., it’s unchecked greed, capitalism run amok without any oversight or regulation that has endangered the nation’s livelihood, and I’m surprised Moore didn’t emphasize the process of deregulation from Reagan to Bush more. The story of our financial meltdown is too large for a confined two-hour narrative window, and it’s too important a lesson for a man like Moore to use it as fire to ignite a people’s revolution.

Both movies: C+

My Sister’s Keeper (2009)

How could a movie about dying children be so schlocky? The best-selling Jodi Picoult novel, My Sister’s Keeper, is awash in drama but it never tipped the scales into absurd and tone-deaf melodrama. How does one botch a tear-jerker? You need only watch the big screen version of My Sister’s Keeper for a primer on how to turn a complicated, challenging book into maudlin mush (hint: make sure to have a sizeable budget for obtaining music rights for endless montages).

Kate (Sofia Vassilieva) is dying from cancer. Her little sister, Anna (Abigail Breslin), was conceived by her parents, Sara and Brian (Cameron Diaz, Jason Patric), to be a genetic match. Anna was born so that she might be “spare parts” for her ailing big sister. Jesse (Brennan Bailey), is the oldest child, and his needs have been overlooked because of Kate’s illness. Anna’s life has been one of prodding and pricking and testing and operations. Then one day, Anna consults with high-powered lawyer Campbell Alexander (Alec Baldwin). She wants to sue her parents for the rights to her own body. She’s tired of undergoing numerous medical treatments. She wants a life of her own, something more than being “spare parts.” Needless to say, Sara and Brian are horrified. Anna clearly loves her sister but by refusing to donate a kidney she is signing her sister’s death notice.

The movie strikes one false, heavy-handed note after another. There is rarely a moment that feels authentic or genuine; everything comes across as powerfully manipulative and cloying and contrived and like a tuneless melodrama. Things are cranked to such a high degree of overkill. I swear to you that, no joke, at least seventy percent of the scenes in this movie involve somebody crying. People don’t argue, they flail and shout until they go hoarse. There is nothing subtle to be found here. I didn’t feel emotionally invested in these characters and one of them is a freaking teenage girl suffering with cancer! The first half of the movie feels far too rushed, and the majority of scenes last under two minutes, meaning that the plot lurches forward but the film fails to round out and establish its central characters. The movie’s idea of covering up its screenwriting shortcomings and lackluster character development is to produce an extended music montage. There are over five music montages (I lost count) and it possibly takes up a fifth of the movie’s total running time. I don’t know about you, but watching characters smile and laugh set to music that is so painfully on-the-nose literal does not make due. After so many matching lyrics, I was waiting for a song to literally describe everything I was watching on screen, like, “Heaven/We’re all gonna go/You’re gonna go sooner/Because you’re a little girl with cancer/Don’t you think your mother’s crazy?/So what’s on TV?” Is it better drama to hear a somber cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”? It’s just one of several flimsy filming decisions that rip you out of the story and make it perfectly obvious that you are watching a movie, and a poor one at that.

There is just way too much material here for it to succeed as a streamlined, two-hour weepie. There are complicated moral issues here about exploiting one child in efforts to save another. Grief can transform the nucleus of a family in small ways. This requires a delicate adaptation and this movie is certainly not it. This is an adaptation that alternates between syrupy music montages and falling anvils. My Sister’s Keeper is beset with convoluted flashbacks, and I often was confused as to where in the timeline several of the scenes were taking place. Is this before or after Sara shaved her head in solidarity? Is this before or after she Katie starts chemo? There are multiple characters that share voice over duties, often just offering up a line or two. What’s the point of having Jesse announce in voice over, “I wondered how much trouble I was gonna be in,” when he sneaks into his house late at night? Could we not communicate this effectively without the added voice over? And only for a single line? This is just shockingly lazy writing and proof that the filmmakers have no trust in their audience. In fact, Jesse as a character is entirely pointless. He adds nothing to the story except to make things more confusing. Why does he sneak out at night to drink milkshakes in downtown L.A.? Why are judges unclear why a lawyer of such fame and stature as Campbell Alexander has a helper dog? There are intriguing dramatic setups that just get overlooked. What kind of life goes on in a family home when one child is suing their parents? Show me this stuff.

By far, the only believable part of this mawkish mess is a lengthy flashback to Kate’s boyfriend, Taylor (Thomas Dekker, sporting a good-looking dome if you ask me). This is the only segment that’s allowed to breathe and feel naturally developed. It is during this tender sequence where Kate feels like a character instead of a broadly drawn sketch of Cancer Girl. The interaction between Kate and Taylor is sweet and relaxed, until an obvious conclusion that has to spoil Kate’s small hold on happiness. The supposed twist ending is predictable and nullifies the court battle, which makes the ethical struggle of bio-engineered babies just a plot gimmick. In the end, I got the overwhelming impression that the screenwriters, Jeremy Leven (The Notebook) and director Nick Cassavetes, are projecting. We conclude on one character’s voice over, remarking, “I don’t know why she died. I don’t know why what happened happened. I don’t know why we did the things we did.” It’s like a thinly layered confession by the screenwriters that they were clueless. Any tears that manage to squeeze out are unearned and are only the byproduct of such gloomy material.

The acting is typical of such hyperactive melodrama. Diaz fares the worst as the overprotective mom who fights tooth and nail to save her daughter at the expense of everybody else. She’s abrasive and grating even when the movie tries to make her sympathetic. Diaz can do drama and can even manage understatement, as she showcased in the criminally underappreciated 2005 film, In Her Shoes. Cassavetes only knows how to direct actors when they’re being histrionic and unrestrained, as Alpha Dog and John Q. prove. The rest of the cast slogs through the overwrought material with plenty of tears to bailout the Kleenex industry. The lone bright spot amongst the cast is Vassilieva (TV’s Medium) who makes you feel her pain and manages to, at times, cloud your mind that you’re being shamelessly manipulated.

My Sister’s Keeper is supposed to be one of those moving, heart-tugging episodes that allows us all to re-evaluate life. The movie, in actuality, is a maudlin and overstuffed melodrama (cancer kids, dysfunctional families, court disputes, secret schemes, last wishes, etc.) that is so poorly executed that it manages to make Lifetime movies look like grand art. Cassavetes grounds down all the tricky ethical questions and tortured feelings down into simplistic soap opera gunk. Nothing feels genuine or honest, everything comes across as incredibly forced and contrived, and enough with the music montages. Hitting the soundtrack button does not erase screenwriting deficiencies. My Sister’s Keeper is a malformed, overwrought, clunkily insensitive excuse to empty audience tear ducts. I suppose indiscriminate fans of the weepie genre will find the material forgivable, though fans of Picoult’s novel will find the changes to be unforgivable. I like my emotions to be earned and not strangled to death.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003)

More of the same, except this time all the verve and invention seems stale and reheated. This sequel subscribes to the bigger-better train of thought, so as it continues to get more and more outlandish and the girls become invincible super heroes on par with Neo, the movie tanks hard. Much has been made about Demi Moore’s “comeback” but apparently she wasn’t sharpening her acting muscles during her hiatus. No one said the first Charlie’s Angels movie was within the realm of reality, but in the sequel apparently the Witness Protection Agency has decided to store all their valuable information not in a computer mainframe, a system of files, no, on two magic decoder rings. What the hell? McG returns as director and cranks the style into overkill, set to a radio-friendly soundtrack, but it all seems so ho-hum and excessive at the same time. Quite an accomplishment. No more please.

Nate’s Grade: C

Gangs of New York (2002)

Watching Martin Scorsese’’s long-in-the-making ‘Gangs of New York’ is like watching a 12-round bout between two weary and staggering prize fighters. You witness the onslaught of blows, see the momentum change several times, and in the end can’t really tell which fighter is victorious. This is the experience of watching ‘Gangs of New York’, and the two fighters are called “Ambitions” and “Flaws.”

The film begins in the Five Points district of 1840s New York among a vivid gang war over turf. Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) witnesses the slaying of his father, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), at the blade of William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his “Native” Americans gang. So what does this son of a dead preacher-man do? Well he grows up, plots revenge by making a name under the wing of the Butcher becoming like a surrogate son. But will vengeance consume him?

Watch Leo DiCaprio assemble toughs, rake heels, and ne’’er do wells to his Irish gang of rapscallions with facial hair that looks to be tweezed! Witness a one-dimensional Leo suck the life out of the film like a black hole! See Leo become the least frightening gangster since Fredo. Watch the horribly miscast Cameron Diaz play pin-the-tail-on-an-accent! Witness as she tries to play a pickpocket with a heart of gold that falls hopelessly and illogically in love with Leo! Marvel how someone looking like Diaz would exist in a mangy slum! See the brilliant Daniel Day-Lewis upstage our stupid hero and steal every scene he inhabits! Witness one of the greatest villains in the last decade of movies! Watch Day-Lewis almost single-handedly compensate for the film’s flaws with his virtuoso performance! Admire his stove-top hat and handlebar mustache!

Witness a wonderful supporting cast including John C. Reilly, Jim Broadbent and Brendan Gleeson! Wish that they had more screen time to work with! Wonder to yourself why in all good graces this film took nearly two years of delays to get out! Speculate away!

‘Gangs’ has the sharp aroma of a film heavily interfered with by its producers. The whole exercise feels like Scorsese being compromised. ‘Gangs’ is a meticulous recreation of 1860s New York that often evokes an epic sense of awe. The story has more resonance when it flashes to small yet tasty historical asides, like the dueling fire houses and the Draft Riots. But all of these interesting tidbits get pushed aside for our pedantic revenge storyline with Leo front and center. You know the producers wanted a more commercial storyline, which probably explains why Diaz has anything to do with this.

The script is credited to longtime Scorsese collaborator Jay Cocks, Steven Zallian (Academy Award winner for ‘Schindler’’s List’) and Kenneth Lonergan (Academy award nominee for ‘You Can Count on Me’). So with all these writing credentials, don’t you think one of them would realize all of the dumb things going on with the story? The ending is also very anticlimactic and ham-fisted. Just watch as we segue from a graveyard to present day New York, all thanks to the Irish rockers of U2!

I know this much, Day-Lewis needs to stop cobbling shoes and act more often. ‘Gangs’ is his first visit to the big screen since 1997’’s ‘The Boxer’. He spent part of this hiatus in Italy actually making shoes. I don’’t know about everyone else but this man has too much talent to only be acting once every five years. Somebody buy his shoes and get him a script, post haste!

Scorsese’’s ‘Gangs of New York’ is at times sprawling with entertainment in its historic vision and at other times is infuriating, always dragging behind it a ball and chain called “stupid revenge story/love story.” I’’m sure the film will get plenty of awards and Oscar nods in prominent categories, and this seems like the Academy’’s familiar plan: ignore a brilliant artist for the majority of their career and then finally reward them late for one of their lesser films. So here’’s hoping Scorsese wins the Oscar he deserved for ‘Raging Bull’ and ‘Goodfellas’.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Vanilla Sky (2001)

Talk about a film’s back story. Tom Cruise signed on to do a remake of the 1997 Spanish film Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes) which was directed by Alejandro Amenabar. During the filming the romance between Cruise and Penelope Cruz (no relation) got a little hotter than expected onscreen and broke up his long-standing marriage to the luscious Nicole Kidman. At the time she was finishing filming The Others which is the second film by Amenabar. This, by the way, is much more interesting than Vanilla Sky unfortunately.

Cameron Crowe’s remake starts off promising enough with Tom Cruise running around an empty Times Square like a Twilight Zone episode. Afterwards the film begins to create a story that collapses under its own weight. David (Cruise) is a rich boy in control of a publishing empire inherited through his dear old deceased dad. He has the time to throw huge parties where even Spielberg hugs him, and even have crazy sex with crazy Cameron Diaz, whom he tells his best friend (Jason Lee) is his “f*** buddy.” David begins to see a softer side of life with the entrance of bouncy and lively Sophia (Cruz) and contemplates that he might be really falling in love for the first time. But this happiness doesn’t last long as jealous Diaz picks up David in her car then speeds it off a bridge killing her. Then things get sticky including David’s disfiguration, his attempts to regain that one night of budding love and a supposed murder that he committed.

Crowe is in over his head with this territory. His knack for wonderful exchanges of dialogue and the perfect song to place over a scene are intact, but cannot help him with this mess. Vanilla Sky is an awkward mish-mash of science fiction. The film’s protagonist is standoffish for an audience and many of the story’s so-called resolutions toward the end are more perfunctory than functional. The ending as a whole is dissatisfying and unimaginative. By the time the wonderful Tilda Swinton shows up you’ll likely either be asleep or ready to press the eject button yelling “cop out!”

Seeing Vanilla Sky has made me want to hunt for Amenabar’s Abre Los Ojos and see what all the hype was about, because if it is anything like its glossy American counterpart then I have no idea why world audiences went wild for it. I mean, it’s not like you can’t see a nude Cruz in other movies. She’s like the Spanish Kate Winslet.

Nate’s Grade: C

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