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Birds of Prey (2020)

Not really a Birds of Prey movie, not really a Suicide Squad sequel (see you in 2021), this is really more of a Harley Quinn solo spinoff that’s fun, colorful, bonkers, edgy, and a smile-inducing delight… when Margot Robbie is onscreen as Harley. Robbie is a charming, hyperactive live wire that commands your attention, and giving her the reigns of the storytelling, quite literally in some Deadpool-esque meta storytelling tweaks, is the best decision the filmmakers make. I enjoyed the frivolity, visuals, and narrative trickery, but I noticed something whenever Harley took a powder off screen. None of the other supporting characters are that interesting. I don’t know anything about Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Bosco), the plot device that everyone is after because of the prized diamond she swallowed. She’s more attitude than person. There’s also Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) who doesn’t do much and has a super power she doesn’t use until the end. Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) provides the police angle and references to cop movie cliches (a hat on a hat). Huntress (Mary Elizabeth-Winstead) is almost a self-parody as the young girl growing up to be an elite assassin to avenger her murdered family and the movie treats her like an also-ran. The only other person of interest is the villain, Roman Sionis a.k.a. Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), because the performance is campy while also being menacing. Birds of Prey suffers absent Robbie because its additional pieces cannot carry the movie on their own. The vacuum of charisma is too noticeable. The fight choreography is impressive and with plenty of longer takes to fully appreciate the cool moves. I enjoyed how every action sequence was different from the last and director Cathy Yan makes excellent use of her environments; a police lock-up is a fantastic place for an action scene with all the evidence/props to utilize. A romp inside a fun house also keeps things fresh even though the goons never bring guns to their big fight. Birds of Prey works very hard with quirk and narrative shuffling, and it feels like a decided attempt to dazzle as well as distract, because there’s not much to this movie. It’s style and personality over substance, and that’s fine, but it does make the second half feel a bit like coming down from a sugar rush. I know there will be plenty that celebrate a group of strong women taking ownership of their own stories and fighting together against toxic men. I know there will be plenty of my friends that love this movie. For me, it was an enjoyable experience that made me realize just how much I enjoy Robbie as an actress, as this character, and when given extra room to roam with an R-rating. Birds of Prey is the kind of tasty junk food you just crave from the cinema every now and then, but without Robbie it’s decidedly less flavorful.

Nate’s Grade: B

Argo (2012)

The reinvention of Ben Affleck as movie director took a big step forward with the critical and commercial success of the 2010 Boston cops-and-robbers thriller, The Town. While I’d argue Affleck’s first outing as a director, 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, is still his best, The Town won over plenty of doubters. Here was an actor-turned-director who could deliver smart drama, intense suspense, and coax Oscar-caliber performances from his brilliantly assembled casts. Have you seen Blake Lively half as good in anything as she was as a tragic junkie single mom in The Town? She’ll be able to get work for years just from the demo reels of that performance. But with two sturdy, complex, taut genre movies under his belt, Affleck still had doubters. The political thriller Argo takes Affleck far out of his Bostonian comfort zone. The creative stretching proves fruitful because Argo is a stirring, fascinating, and engrossing true-life story that should at last silence the remainng doubters concerning Affleck’s talents behind the camera.

In 1979, The U.S. embassy in Tehran was overtaken by a storm of Iranian protestors. Fifty-two Americans were held hostage for an exasperating 444 days. During the takeover, six Americans escapes through a back alley and found asylum with the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). There they waited for months, trying to work out a plan to escape. If caught by the mob, it’s very likely they would be deemed spies and executed. Enter CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) and his scheme. His idea is to pretend the six American hostages are part of a Canadian film crew scouting locations in Iran for their sci-fi movie. His superiors seem dubious but Mendez gets the green light. He heads to Hollywood and puts together his team, a veteran makeup artist (John Goodman) and an established producer (Alan Arkin) on the outs with the industry. They settle on the screenplay “Argo” and have to build a credible cover story. From there, Mendez travels into Iran to meet with the hidden hostages to sell them his scheme. They were all coming out together or nobody was getting back home.

Argo is a fascinating story that seems like it could only exist in the movies, and yet it’s a true story and one hell of a story. It’s a mission movie, so we know the familiar flow of the film even as the details seem fresh (unless you’re Canadian). The very idea is one of those “so crazy it might work” plans; one State department official asks, “You don’t have any better bad ideas than this?” Even though we know it was a success, that doesn’t stop the movie from being engrossing. Argo flies by like a caper film as the CIA gathers the resources and experts to try and put together a ramshackle rescue mission. There’s feeling out the Hollywood angle, gathering the pieces to create the illusion of an actual film production, and the urgency of the façade. Even though it’s a bit outlandish, the fake movie plot seems worlds better than the other possible plans being pitched by the government agencies (smuggling in bicycles and maps?). I thought it was genuinely interesting just to be granted access to a room where people where debating rescue options and picking them apart. The film is consistently intriguing watching smart people come up with smart solutions to challenging problems.

Argo really is three movies expertly rolled together into one; a Middle East thriller, a Hollywood satire, and a D.C. procedural. It’s a bonus that every one of these segments works but it’s even more surprising, and rewarding, that the different segments all snap together without breaking tone. Credit Affleck the director for making sure his movie parts don’t overpower one another. We can go from a tense Middle East sequence where the hostages might have just risked exposure, and then we’ll cut to Hollywood and laugh at the cantankerous Lester. It’s a delicate balancing act that Affleck superbly handles. The humor of Hollywood doesn’t detract or minimize the seriousness of the Middle East chapters; it allows room to breathe, to let off steam. The D.C. segments are the biggest expository moments but they give scope and meaning to the danger. Each of these segments is compelling and each one could have been a captivating movie all its own. We’re fortunate that Argo gives us all three.

Audience ignorance aside, we may know how this story ends but that doesn’t stop the film from being completely nerve-wracking. Affleck showed remarkable skill in The Town when it came to building exciting sequences that felt like they would explode with tension. When it came to Argo, there were moments that literally kept me on the edge of my seat, a rarity with action films. The beginning sequence of the American embassy is rapt with suspense, as the security system deteriorates and the people inside realize the inevitable. They start destroying classified state evidence but really they just have to sit and wait, hearing the footsteps, knowing what is near. The sharp screenplay from Chris Terrio (Heights) does a tremendous job of developing clear suspense sequences. There’s the tension of the precarious subterfuge, of the hostages hiding behind enemy lines, so to speak. If one wrong person were to discover their identity, it could quickly unravel. There’s a whole team of children being paid to piece together shredded documents and photos like they were jigsaw puzzles. Knowing this, it makes the scenes where the group ventures out of the embassy thrilling. The group has to visit a marketplace as part of their cover and it’s terrifying.  We know the steps of escape, and each one could easily blow up and get everyone killed. Just when you think you can breathe a sigh of relief we’ve moved onto the next challenge and the tension washes over you again. The climax is so tense that your audience will likely erupt in applause when the hostages eventually escape, relieved and proud of the accomplishment.

The maturation of Affleck as a bonafide directing talent continues. There’s a growing confidence in his direction. The man doesn’t have to rely on flashy visual artifice nor does he seem to be hewing to one notable style. He’s directing each movie as its own beast, be it crime thrillers or true-life suspense story. The man knows where to put his camera in the thick of the action. Affleck also eschews the popular shakycam docu-drama approach that too many filmmakers automatically does all the work of establishing realism. Docu-drama visuals can work when properly utilized, but too often I find it to be self-consciously arty and an annoying distraction. Affleck’s camera remains steady but holds on his actors, giving them space to emote. Three movies into his directing career, Affleck has established himself as one of the best men to direct actors. He’s already lead two actors to Oscar nominations and might just earn a third for Arkin. Plus there’s the fact that Argo, top to bottom, is cast with great character actors. You have people the likes of Michael Parks (Red State) who are there for one line. It also helps Affleck the actor to have Affleck the director.

The only nagging problem with Argo is that it’s rather light when it comes to character development. The caper is the star of the movie and sucks up most of the screen time. The film does an excellent job of recreating the anxiety that the hostages felt. I can’t say we get to know any of them well as people. I can’t say we get to know much about Tony Mendez either, beside the de rigueur parts of being a CIA agent like divorce, child custody, and long nights of loneliness. The best-developed character in the movie is Lester Siegel, and while he’s terrifically entertaining, it’s something of a misstep for the cranky Hollywood producer to win that title. He’s a man who knows his value in the ever-changing currency of Hollywood; bitter, crabby, but hopeful of making a difference. Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine) is a natural fit for the character and brings more dimensions to the role. I wish the same care were given for the other people in the story, particularly those in harm’s way. The nuanced approach to character with Gone Baby Gone and The Town is just absent. Thankfully, the story is so engrossing that it’s not a mortal wound, but you do wish there was a greater emotional involvement in the film rather than a generic empathy of rescuing those in danger. Also, the Canadian involvement seems curiously downplayed even though their ambassador was the one hiding them for months. His role in the movie plays like he’s Guy #8. I know we tackle the CIA’s involvement but Canada could use more recognition for their integral contributions.

Argo establishes Ben Affleck as a dependable, versatile, actor’s director; someone along the likes of a Sidney Lumet or Sydney Pollack (I swear I don’t have a “Sydney” key lock in my brain). Affleck has proven to be a director who immerses himself into his stories, and his fingerprints are on every frame, every performance. He just nails it. The pacing is tight, the suspense builds to near unsustainable levels, and the tones are expertly juggled to prove complimentary rather than distractions. Best of all, Affleck lets Terrio’s terrific script take center stage. The incredible true-story of Argo is the biggest selling point for the movie, and Affleck doesn’t try to gussy up a whopper of a tale. The film has even more unexpected resonance given the recent spur of violent protests in the Middle East, notably the deadly attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi. Argo doesn’t sensationalize the hostage crises for cheap popcorn entertainment. Nor does it glorify or denigrate the Iranian’s outrage over the U.S. giving sanctuary to the deposed Shah. For a very political subject, the movie takes a very muted political stance, relying on the facts of the situation. The movie finds a rare poignancy in its appeal to the power of international cooperation. By the end of the movie, you might even tear up when you hear the actual hostages and government officials recount their struggle and ultimate triumph. Argo is that rare breed of a movie that seems to have everything. While it’s not perfect, it’s clear that Affleck is here to stay as a top-level director.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Celeste and Jesse Forever (2012)

Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Sandberg) have been best friends ever since high school, the couple everyone admired. They’ve been married for six years but now they are in the middle of divorce proceedings. Why? Celeste loves her longtime best friend but worries he’s not maturing or stable to be her marriage partner. During their separation, Jesse admits he’s found another woman whom he cares about. Celeste professes to be happy but deep down is troubled, second-guessing her decision now that there’s a real threat she might lose Jesse. The two buds act like nothing has changed, goofing around and paling it up, but how long can they keep up this façade? Eventually, someone is going to get hurt because divorce cannot be shrugged off. Reality has a way of outliving ironic detachment.

Can you remain best friends with someone you once loved? How about someone you once knew as your spouse? Celeste and Jesse are certainly trying but their idealistic “BFF” status seems destined to meet a harsh reality. Celeste and Jesse Forever is labeled as a “loved story” and I think that’s a pretty apt description. These two characters clearly have a deep affection for one another, but after six years the feelings just aren’t enough. What happens when you marry your best friend but that just isn’t enough?  I was hoping for some greater answers from the movie, or at least a harder examination on why some relationships fall apart when things look like they should work. That’s not exactly what the movie offers. For a film with an aim to be more realistic about the fallings out of love, the movie follows a familiar formula. There’s the cute guy at yoga (Chris Messina) into Celeste, but first she has to get settled. I think I wouldn’t have minded this character if he didn’t feel so much like a plot device, a hasty happy ending meant to be put in a holding pattern until called upon. The “Jesse” half of the title will be gone for lengthy chunks of the movie. His portrayal also borders on simplistic. I wish we got more of his side of the relationship, especially since he’s going through sudden change himself. After seeing the trailer, I thought I was going to find the movie immensely relatable. Maybe I just got all the recognizable personal drama out of my system with The Five-Year Engagement (double feature for bitter lovers?).

Fortunately, the movie is also fairly funny. The comedy can feel a tad sitcomish at times with misunderstandings and catching people in embarrassing situations. The screenplay by Jones and co-star Will McCormack (TV’s In Plain Sight) is routinely amusing, settling with soft chuckles rather than anything histrionic. It fits the subdued tone of the movie, since it’s about people coming to terms with messy emotions and not whacky mishaps. Then there’s a whole subplot involving a teen pop star (Emma Roberts) that feels recycled from a whole other movie. This storyline leads to a few good jokes but it doesn’t seem to add anything of value to the plot. The comedy doesn’t overpower the dramatics, and Celeste and Jesse Forever finds a nice tonal balance between the heartache and humor. I wouldn’t say the film is necessarily quirky but it certainly operates to an offbeat comedic rhythm. There are a few cringe-worthy editions but the characters and the actors make it worth any personal discomfort.

If Jones (TV’s Parks and Recreation) needs a good boyfriend I will gladly volunteer my services. My God this woman is beautiful. I don’t want to set off any alarm bells, but this woman is a goddess. She’s also extremely talented and a naturally charming presence. Her chemistry with Sandberg (That’s My Boy) is out of this world. They are so relaxed together, so amiable, so enjoyable, that it really does come as a shock when their unamused friends have to sternly remind them they are getting a divorce. They have a wealth of in-jokes and secret couple codes, and they’re so cute together that you wonder if maybe, just maybe, they’ll reconcile by the end. Sanberg is better than I’ve ever seen him, giving a strong, heartfelt performance as a nice guy trying to make sense of his eroding situation. But this movie is Jones’ movie, and she shines. While her facial expressions can get a little overly animated at times (TV-ish mannerisms?), this movie is a terrific showcase for her dramatic and comedic talents. This woman will excite you, frustrate you, break your heart, make you laugh, but you’ll be glued to the screen.

The tricky part is that Celeste is both our protagonist and antagonist. She is the root of her own unhappiness, and coming to terms with the fact that she was wrong is a big moment of personal growth, however, it’s not exactly the direction audiences may be happy with. It’s harder to root for a character that is sabotaging her own progress. Jessie, especially as played by Sandberg, is pretty much an adorable puppy dog throughout the whole movie; it’s hard to stay upset with him, and occasionally Celeste will lead him on and then punish him for following. She tells him to move on but then pulls him back to her when he threatens to do just that. She chastises him for not being serious enough, for not having direction, yet you get the impression throughout the movie that Celeste bares some responsibility in this situation as well. Jesse is laid back, though hardly the arrested development slackers dotting most of modern comedy these days. As one character notes, perhaps Celeste enjoyed keeping her husband grounded, limited, stuck. I don’t chalk it up as malice, more a comfortable situation that Celeste is afraid to disrupt. She’s the overachiever, he’s the underachiever, they compliment one another, that is, until Celeste decides they don’t. Then when it looks like Jesse’s growing up, she wants him back, or thinks she does, at least this newer version of Jesse. As you can see, it’s complicated. At no point would I dismiss Celeste as a callous person, but the movie is tethered to her personal growth of being able to admit fault. Her window with Jesse has passed. The movie is about her journey to realizing that.

Celeste and Jesse Forever feels like a movie of small waves. It doesn’t have the Big Declarative Moments of most rom-coms or indie romances, and that’s because it’s not a romance as much as an autopsy on why a romance went down for the count. It’s melancholy without getting mopey. It has certain hipster tendencies but nothing that rises to an insufferable level of twee; it’s routinely adorable and rather heartfelt in places, though I wish it had offered more potent insight into its characters. This isn’t going to be a movie that people build up great emotion for. By nature it’s pretty low-key, choosing to handle its emotional pyrotechnics with delicacy and the occasional comedic set piece. For a comedy about divorc,e this si surprisingly sensitive. These are nice people, good humored, and you sort of wish the movie would just scrap any indie ambitions and substitute a happy ending. You want to shout at the screen, “Just reconcile already!”  Maybe that was me just using the movies as good old therapy again (see: The Five-Year Engagement review, or don’t). Celeste and Jesse Forever is an agreeable, affable, bemusing movie, with enough laughs and emotion to justify giving it a chance.

Nate’s Grade: B

Julie & Julia (2009)

Meryl Streep is as she always is, which means to say she’s terrific as famous jubilant chef Julia Child. She’s got the sing-songy voice down cold, and Julia comes across like a spigot of joy, yelping with delight like a child. It’s hard to not find it adorable, and her husband (Stanley Tucci) is a kind, caring man who complements her well. The scenes between the Childs can be heartwarming and delightfully comic. However, for some weird reason, the Julia Child section is only half of this movie. Writer/director Nora Ephron decided to frame the movie with the biography of Julie Powell (Amy Adams) writing a blog in 2002. Huh? Powell wants to prepare all 500 recipes from Child’s best-selling book on French cuisine in one year. As you might expect, this whole section turns into a lot of narration over food preparation and Powell becoming increasingly narcissistic about her blog fame. The only real purpose this modern storyline serves is to add perspective to the Julia Child storyline, giving historical context to what we see Streep and Tucci struggle over. The real resonance is with Streep as the larger-than-life cooking personality and her upward climb to be taken seriously as a chef and as an author. I don’t care about Julie Powell. She keeps interrupting a better storyline. Apparently the real Julia Child didn’t care for Powell either, because late in the movie Powell discovers that the real Child (who died in 2004) thinks the whole blog thing is a gimmick. And isn’t it? Then again, isn’t having Streep as Julia Child a gimmick of casting? Julie and Julia would have been better served if it had completely carved off the Julie section.

Nate’s Grade: B

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