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Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019)

It took nine movies but we can now put the Fast and Furious franchise to rest, and that’s because we now have Hobbs & Shaw, the spinoff that took the best parts of the franchise and ran away. What started as a film about underground street racing in 2001 has morphed into an over-the-top superhero spectacle where their superhuman power is being really good with cars, as well as not adhering to any laws of physics. Now they’ve cordoned off The Rock and Jason Statham, attached the director of Atomic Blonde and give me Idris Elba as the villain, who openly proclaims himself to be “black Superman.” Why do we ever need to go back to Vin Diesel and his pit crew ever again? Hobbs & Shaw is a big blast of action overkill fun. It’s not without its flaws and limitations but it’s exactly what it set out to be.

Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) is trying to enjoy some rest and relaxation with his daughter but the world isn’t going to be save itself. He’s recruited to team up with the wily Deckard Shaw (Statham) to recover a missing sample of a super virus that can be programmed to kill anyone on the planet. The key is finding MIA MI6 agent Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), accused of killing her team and absconding with the virus. She also happens to be Shaw’s estranged sister. The real villain is a super mercenary Brixton (Elba) who is engineered to be a superior killing machine. His mysterious employer wants to recruit Hobbs and Shaw to the cause, but in the event of their refusal, death is always an option. The Shaw family reunion makes the majority of the movie a three-person chase film that ultimately pushes Hobbs to go back home to the Samoan family he left behind decades ago and they haven’t forgotten their prodigal son.

Once again, the main draw of a Fast and Furious movie are the eye-popping action set pieces, and Hobbs & Shaw has its fair share of excitement and satisfaction. There are a couple standouts, notably a climactic helicopter face-off involving a chain of racing vehicles and the concept of lift, but really none of the action will displace the top moments from this increasingly insane franchise. Director David Leitch (Deadpool 2) doesn’t have any signature moments that stun like that extended, fatigued fight sequence in Atomic Blonde, but he definitely taps into the moment-to-moment fun and absurdity. A chase down the side of a building is not remotely realistic, but with Leitch there’s an added sense of comedy by making it another contest between Hobbs and Shaw. That macho posturing can liven up an already enjoyable scene and give it a personal edge that ties into the charisma of the stars. So even when the action is cooking at a lower level, focusing on that charisma elevates the sequence. The action pumps at a constant pace with plenty of explosions, tumbles, and powerful fists. The movie follows the latter Fast and Furious mold by not even trying to resemble reality. When Brixton’s super hands-free motorcycle acts more like a living Transformer, it doesn’t matter because the movie isn’t building a reality where something like that would seem like an exaggeration. I laughed more at moments like that and smiled rather than scoffing at its disconnect from crafting some kind of baseline sense of reality.

I will say the action beats could be shaved down, especially as the movie teeters to 135 minutes long. It’s not exactly the kind of action cinema like Mission: Impossible where the set pieces are so brilliantly constructed with organic complications. These aren’t quite at the level of spectacle or immersion of a Fury Road or even the Justin Lin-era of Furious land. There are few sequences that couldn’t be pared down because often the beats are the same beats just with more of them. I wished there had been a greater variety of action sequences or at least an interesting series of complications, the lifeblood of great action movies. There are a few standout moments with larger-than-life imagery but mostly the action has a very same-y quality that can feel repetitive. That’s where the comedic perspectives can help. A hallway fight is enjoyable but lacks impressive fight choreography, but what saves the scene is the comedic exasperation at the end for Shaw and again tying it to the ongoing competition with Hobbs.

Beyond the explosive action, the real draw is the cast and they are overloaded with charisma. There’s a reason somebody at Universal decided to slice off these two characters because they are clearly the only characters many people ever cared about, because both actors have an innate charm that pops off the screen. Watching the two of them butt heads and trade insults and glares is an ongoing pleasure. It reminds one how big personalities can effortlessly carry big Hollywood action movies when you have the right stars together. They do form their own sort of combative bond and understanding by the end, but one wonders if their banter will get old if it doesn’t evolve over the inevitably commissioned assembly of sequels. The Rock and Statham get some big laughs and hearty entertainment squaring off and working together for even bigger destructive power.

Kirby (Mission: Impossible – Fallout) is a terrific addition as a strong-willed, kickass heroine first and a potential love interest for Hobbs second, which amusingly upsets Shaw. Kirby has an above-it-all air to her that makes her seem like a natural match as a sister to Statham. Elba (Molly’s Game) is settling into a groove as a go-to heavy (Star Trek Beyond, The Jungle Book) and even while threatening a global pandemic he can’t help but be smooth and charming. This is the best cast ever assembled for a Fast and Furious movie, and you throw in unexpected comedy cameos, Helen Mirren, and an extended Samoan family, and the movie begins to stake out its own claims on a world separate from Diesel’s boring “family.”

Hobbs & Shaw is a combination of 80s action movie attitude, 90s bombast, and 2010s outrageous set pieces, lead by two of the more charming men Hollywood has at its punching-kicking disposal. That’s actually a pretty good word, “disposal,” because the movie is designed as nothing more than a breezy two hours at the movies with your biggest tub of popcorn. Of course the studio has larger plans and envisions it as a way to keep the Fast and Furious franchise alive and diversified. Hobbs & Shaw has little more on its mind than giving its audience a good time, and it easily achieves that aim. I may not feel the need to watch Fast and Furious movies again like I do other action franchises that provide more emotional investment, practical stuntwork, and structural brilliance, but that doesn’t mean I won’t happily consume the next entry. As long as The Rock and Statham are in place and feeling good, so too will the eventual audience.

Nate’s Grade: B

Vice (2018)

If Oscar-winning funnyman Adam McKay can take the arcane, convoluted world of finance and spin it into one of the most entertaining, accessible, and enraging films of that year, then just imagine what he could do with the life of Dick Cheney?

We follow Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) from his early days as a college washout, to Washington intern to Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), to youngest chief of staff in a White House administration, to Wyoming Congressman, and eventually Vice President to George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) where Cheney redefined the VP role as a defacto second president. This is the story of his 60 years shaping the annuls of political power.

If you have one reason to watch Vice, it’s the staggering performance by Bale (Hostiles). As is custom, the man completely transforms himself into his subject, gaining weight, building muscle in his neck to simulate the Cheney shoulder hunch, and going unrecognizable in startling older age makeup. He doesn’t just look the spitting image of Dick Cheney but he sounds like him too, exhibiting his cadences and mannerisms, and fully inhabiting the man every second he’s onscreen. It’s a compelling, captivating turn that ranks up there with Bale’s best. He’s beyond great but strangely nobody else is. Amy Adams (Arrival) plays Lynne Cheney, Dick’s wife and shrewd political partner, and her worst acting moment is her introductory scene where she lays into the young Cheney. It’s like an audition where the actor is hitting the wrong notes too strongly. Adams regains herself as the film carries on but never has a standout scene. Nobody else other than Bale is given the material to stand out. Rockwell (Three Billboards) and Carell (Beautiful Boy) are enjoyable and aided by impressive makeup, especially old Rumsfeld, but they’re given one note to play. Their roles become more impression than performance and both men drop out of the movie for long periods of time. The next best actor might by Tyler Perry (Gone Girl) as Colin Powell, and maybe that’s because Perry is used to brokering nonsense with his own array of nonsensical characters. He’s already the weary adult.

The meta interludes and fourth wall breaks that helped The Big Short succeed conversely are part of the problem with Vice. Most Americans know a decent amount about the Iraq War and its documented fallout, so there’s less need to have celebrities interject and explain complex scenarios and institutions (the absence of Margot Robbie in a bubble bath will always be felt). The narration by Jesse Plemons (Game Night) doesn’t feel necessary, and his ordinary identity becomes a guessing game for most of the film, trying to link him with Cheney. I was thinking he would be an Iraq War soldier and get killed later on, that way establishing a stand-in for the thousands of men and women who are no longer walking this Earth as a direct result of Cheney’s misguided action. Nope. When his identity is finally revealed you’ll go, “Oh,” and that’s it. Because he wasn’t really a character, he was a narrative device and one that didn’t stand for anything larger. The visual metaphors can also be very, very obvious. There are consistent cuts to Cheney fly-fishing in a river, meant to evoke him luring others into his desired machinations. Even the end credits feature fly-fishing imagery, in case you had forgotten about this enduring metaphor. The conclusion literally involves a heart being removed and the sequence cut along a more figurative betrayal, and you can feel McKay vigorously pointing at the screen and yelling, “See, it’s because he’s heartless, get it? Do you get it?” We get it. The documentary-style and comedic techniques that allowed The Big Short to be as entertaining and accessible, and one of the best films of 2015, are paradoxically the things that seem at odds with Vice.

The meta breaks are meant to provide a degree of comedy to the picture, which is generally absent comedy otherwise, unless you count the rise of Cheney’s reign as the darkest of comedies. I suppose Cheney’s nonchalant recognition of his heart attacks (he’s had five) could be a potential comedic lifeline if you’re being generous. One second we’re told people don’t speak in Shakespearean soliloquies in real life, and the next second the Cheneys are talking in Shakespearean verse. When it looks like the Cheneys will drop out of public office to spare their gay daughter Mary (Alison Pill) the inevitable storm of harassment, the movie has a fake-out end credit sequence to sum up their hypothetical lives. To demonstrate Cheney’s knack for making the most ridiculous statement sound statesmen, he recommends that the Oval Office team put miniature beards on a part of their anatomy and perform an adult puppet show, which draws solemn nods of approval from the others. It’s a joke that feels too glib, like the intended point is being lost by the lewd nature of the comedic aside. The only meta aspect that feels earned is the final one, where Cheney turns to the camera and directly addresses the audience, acknowledging he can feel their contempt but refuses to apologize for his actions in order to keep people safe. Because he’s having the final say, because he’s offering a rebuff to his movie, it feels more earned and fitting, and it would have had even more power if it were the only break in the movie rather than the last. It’s hard to call this a comedy; it’s more an incredulous indictment looking for its mob.

I honestly think a straightforward biopic might have been the better route for Cheney. The first half of the film is more interesting and successful because it is the more illuminating half. I never knew that Lynne Cheney’s father likely killed her mother. That’s a pretty bold charge on behalf of the filmmakers. The early Cheney years are the moments the majority of Americans don’t know about, whereas the later years have been well documented by a slew of hard-hitting documentaries, books, and journalistic exposes. There are whole movies about topics like the Valerie Plame leaking (Fair Game), the mounting mistakes after the invasion of Iraq (No End in Sight), the administration’s policy on torture (Taxi to the Dark Side, Standard Operating Procedure), the drumbeat to the war and snuffing out of critical journalism (Shock and Awe, Lions for Lambs), the missing WMDs (Green Zone, Body of Lies), the Bush deferment memos (Truth), the long-term consequences for those servicemen who survive (The Hurt Locker, The Messenger, Stop-Loss, Last Flag Flying, In the Valley of Elah, American Sniper, Thank You For Your Service) and anything that Michael Moore sets his sights on. This list is not exhaustive by any means. Because of that the film seems to become a rudimentary montage once the Iraq War kicks off, sprinting through the rest as an intended tableau of hubris as Cheney’s star and influence falls. I would rather have learned more about Cheney’s early years in the Nixon, Ford, and H.W. Bush administrations and gleaned more personal insights into the man before he becomes this shadowy, mythic figure that seems downright Machiavellian in his control of government. It’s interesting to watch Cheney and his cohorts plot their unchecked executive power behind the back of President Bush, but then what?

It’s the “then what?” question I keep revisiting with McKay’s film, trying to figure out the larger intended message, themes, and dire warnings. I feel like because of the expanse of time covered, and the meta quirks applied, that the film too often feels like it’s just scratching the surface of Cheney, providing a slight gloss to a political caricature. The biggest takeaway is the slippery slope of the “unitary executive theory,” a term you’ll hear often, that basically follows Nixon’s own words: “If the president does it, it’s not illegal.” This questionable interpretation of Article II of the Constitution gives the president powers that approach a monarch, which seems antithetical the Founders’ intents. McKay warns that any president could take advantage of this theory to do whatever he or she (sad trombone noise… sigh) desires. This is clearly meant to draw a line right to President Trump, but it’s not like the 45th president needs sketchy legal cover to do his misdeeds. The idea that the Justice Department memos would be a lurking danger is quaint. A bad man with power is not going to look for the rules to allow him or her to break them. The idea that a president could be above the law is also a legally specious argument and one I don’t believe our courts would readily back, even with the “unitary executive theory” (at least I hope so). With that in mind, Vice becomes a cautionary tale about the expenditure of power but lacks the adequate follow-through.

Vice is a tricky biopic for a tricky subject and I wonder if it would have worked better being stripped of its prankster, meta interjections and tricks. It’s a condemnation of Dick Cheney but it doesn’t feel like it goes far enough if McKay’s eventual thesis is that the current world problems began, or were grossly exacerbated, by the actions of Cheney. Climate change warnings going unheeded, ISIS formations going ignored, the generational consequences for unsettling the Middle East, and laying the foundation for an authoritarian strongman to be an acceptable political position for millions of Americans. These charges are clearly intended to be a denunciation of Cheney’s legacy, but the end results play out somewhat differently, like a slap on the wrist. I think Dick Cheney could even watch this movie and nod in appreciation. That seems like a mistake. McKay is still a talented writer and filmmaker that knows how to keep his movie flowing and entertaining, buoyed by an outstanding performance from Bale. It’s a movie with great components but seems to clumsily get in its own way with its presentation. If you’re going to expose Dick Cheney as a heinous manipulator of power that has wrecked havoc for billions, then maybe you don’t want to dilute your message.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Atomic Blonde (2017)

atomic_blonde_ver3Atomic Blonde is based on a 2012 graphic novel called The Coldest City (by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart), a title I doubt many were that familiar with. Charlize Theron was. She snapped up the option rights before it was published and saw it as a vehicle for herself to cut loose, have fun, and show off her affinity for fight choreography thanks to her background in dance. If you don’t walk out of this film with an uncontrollable crush on Theron, then I don’t know what movie you saw, my poor friend.

Set in 1989 Berlin, on the eve of the wall going down, Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is working undercover for her Majesty to uncover who is killing British agents in East Germany. Her local contact is David Percival (James McAvoy), a black-market kingpin and popular mover and shaker. One of his contacts (Eddie Marsan) has committed secret spy files to memory and wants an escape to West Germany. He’s even gotten the attention of other spooks, including French intelligence agent Delphine Lassalle (Sofia Boutella), who gets intimately close to Lorraine. The smuggling of the contact goes bad, lives are lost, and Lorraine has to explain to her superiors (Toby Jones, John Goodman) what went wrong and who is secretly the murderous traitor.

This film could have just as easily been re-titled Sexy Charlize Theron: The Movie. It is a two-hour celebration of the actress and her many formal gifts. Watch her look sexy in this sexy outfit (i.e. every outfit Theron wears or doesn’t wear). Watch her look sexy strutting down a hallway in slow mo. Watch her bathe in ice. Watch her dispatch bad guys with ease, sexily. And then there’s the sapphic romp with Boutella (The Mummy), which is just an explosion of sexy that might be too much for the weaker-hearted audience members to handle. A female friend of mine used to refer to Angelina Jolie in the early 2000s as “walking sex,” a woman that simply oozed sex appeal with her every glance and movement. I think that term deservedly applies to Theron in Atomic Blonde. The surface-level pleasures are rampant, from the 80s chic clothing, to the pumping New Wave soundtrack, to the very stylized way people take long dramatic drags from their cigarettes, the movie exudes a sense of cool with every frame. There is plenty to ogle, and that includes the casual nudity of a 41-year-old Theron, who has plotted this showcase role for years as an unapologetic badass statement and maybe the nonchalant nudity is part of that (“You think women over 40 are unattractive? Well take a good gander at this, Hollywood”).

The film has style to spare but thankfully it also has enough substance to match, and by that, I mean its depiction and development of action. Coming from David Leitch, one of the co-directors of the John Wick franchise, I expected very fluid and well-choreographed action sequences, and Atomic Blonde delivers. I am happy that we have moved away from the Bourne-style docudrama approach of the jangled edits and gone the other direction, treating action sequences like the dance routines they are and allowing an audience to fully take them in and appreciate the skill and artistry. The showstopper everyone will be talking about is an extended fight sequence that closes out the second act. Lorraine ducks into a tenement building and gets into a bruising fight with several goons. This sequence goes down several floors, careens into empty rooms, and eventually ends up in the middle of a speeding car trying to make a desperate escape. It’s filmed to be one long take and the sequence is exhilarating and only becomes more so with every passing minute.

atomic-blonde-movie-charlize-theron-sofia-boutella-2Admirably, Atomic Blonde also brings a sense of realism to all its action. As the fight continues, Lorraine becomes understandably fatigued, as do the baddies. She is not impervious to their attacks. She’s gutsy but still vulnerable, still human. You feel the blows and the intense duration, which makes me marvel all the more at Theron’s sheer balletic grace when it comes to her ass-kicking capabilities. Having an experienced, accomplished fighter opens up the complexity of the action sequences. The stunt work is a consistent joy in this movie and what will make it stand out amidst the pack.

The only major gripe I have with the film is its rather convoluted spy plot. The Cold War as well as East Berlin is just a backdrop for the cool shenanigans. The movie toys with spy movie pastiches but clearly it only amounts to genre window dressing. It’s almost on par with the music, used to evoke a mood and not much more. It feels like even Atomic Blonde recognizes this and just blurts out more nonsensical “who can you trust?” plot mechanics to get to the next sexy set piece. If you don’t already know who the eventual traitor will be by the end of the first act, you haven’t been doing the math. The communist bad guys are an unremarkable lot but they do make for solid punching bags.

The opening scene sets up the death of a British spy as a personal blow to Lorraine (she kept a photo of the two of them in her dresser drawer) but he’s quickly forgotten and never mentioned. His assassination doesn’t even stir any simple impulses of revenge. The non-linear framing device also seems designed just to skip ahead to the good stuff or provide a break in the action where Lorraine’s superiors can provide disapproving, fuddy-duddy commentary about her blasé behavior. The plot is a bit too needlessly complicated and muddled for what the film needs. It’s as if screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (300) was given the edict to make things obtuse with paranoia and intrigue just long enough. There’s an extended coda that feels like a reshoot; however, it also has several significant plot revelations that completely change your understanding of the characters.

atomicblondethumb-1489171817898_1280wAtomic Blonde is the kind of movie that knocks you around and overpowers you with its spiky attitude. At its best, the movie pulsates with a buzzy rush of adrenaline, setting up dangerous dilemmas for Lorraine to take out with her fists, feet, and any old thing lying around. Her ingenuity during the fight sequences adds a welcomed degree of unpredictability and satisfaction, and it makes the locations become an integral part of the fight choreography as well. There’s a reason I’ve been expending most of my review on the action sequences and sense of style, because there isn’t much more to Atomic Blonde. It’s all retro fashions, stylish artifice, an overeager soundtrack, and lots of too-cool bravado, but unlike say Suicide Squad, it actually pulls it off. It’s not posturing when it works. Theron is a absurdly convincing as a super sexy super agent, and it feels like they dropped her into a James Bond story (with Sofia Boutella as the Bond girl). The added realism and long takes allow the film to feel even more viscerally kinetic. If this is the start of a Charlize Theron franchise then I say we are living in the sexiest of times.

Nate’s Grade: B

Their Finest (2017)

Their Finest (not to be confused with Their Finest Hours, even though this is based on a book called Their Finest Hour and a Half) is a disarmingly sweet and poignant true story that resonates with empowerment and the power of creativity. Set at the start of WWII, the British film industry is trying to make ends meet as well as provide morale boosts to the public. Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton, her best performance yet) goes in for a copywriting job and walks out a hired screenwriter, pegged to write the “women’s parts.” Thanks to the depleted workforce, Catrin has an opportunity she never would have otherwise and she blossoms under the crucible of creative collaboration. This was one aspect of the movie that I was very taken with, as a writer and screenwriter myself, the natural progression of creativity, solving a problem, finding a solution, and the elation that follows. The complications keep coming, first from the British film office who need the movie to be inspirational, then from the divergences from the true story of a pair of French girls who stole their uncle’s boat to rescue soldiers at Dunkirk, then from working with American producers who insist on an American hero who can’t act, and then from natural calamities of scheduling, casting, and oh yeah, the bombing and blitzes that could obliterate everyone. The movie is alive with conflict and feeling and the sweet story of a woman finding her sense of empowerment in the arts. The movie-within-the-movie is filmed to period appropriate techniques, and Bill Nighy is effortlessly amusing as an aging actor still fighting for some scrap of respect in an industry ready to forget him. The insights into the different stages of film production were fun and illuminating. I appreciated that the war isn’t just something in the background but a constant. It upsets the order, takes lives, and is a striking reminder why these people are doing what they’re doing. The film also rhapsodizes the power of the arts, and in particular cinema, in a way that feels reverent without being overly sentimental or self-congratulatory. A great collection of characters is assembled as a ramshackle sort of family with a mission, and the movie drives right into one payoff after another, lifting your spirits and warming your heart. There is a sudden plot turn that will likely disappoint many in the audience eager for a simple happy ending, but I almost view it as industry satire on the difference between American and European cinema tastes. Their Finest is a small gem with sympathetic characters trying their finest and achieving something great. It’s a rich story that deserves its moment in the spotlight and I’d advise seeking it out if possible.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Concussion (2015)

concussion2015Concussion wants to be a hard-hitting drama exposing the dangers of repetitive head trauma in football and the lengths of the cover-ups and collusion within the NFL, except that movie already exists and is the Frontline documentary League of Denial that was too controversial to air on ESPN. Concussion, in comparison, is an adequate but hopelessly underwhelming film on the Nigerian-born Dr. Omalu (Will Smith) who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brains of deceased NFL players. The resistance and denials are soft-pedaled, though the movie treats them with heightened dramatic stakes that are unearned. There’s one threatening anonymous  phone call but for the most part it feels like Dr. Omalu is just being ignored, and “being ignored” is a hard thing to turn into outstanding dramatic stakes at the movies. The movie doesn’t let the NFL completely off the hook but its critiques have been softened by studio interference (as revealed through the Sony email hack). As a straightforward drama, Concussion is easy to watch and Smith gives an authentic performance that doesn’t have to go to histrionic lengths to communicate his internal struggle. There’s a nice subplot with Omalu courting his eventual wife played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Albert Brooks and Alec Baldwin are strong supporting players. David Morse gets a show-stopping part to show off his acting skills. By the end, it all feels just a little too nice, a little too polished, and a little too easy, both in how it presents a complicated medical discovery and its implications but also the NFL’s response. For an awards-season drama that’s meant to shock and inform, being “easy” is the wrong call.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Note: “League of Denial” is currently available on Netflix streaming and I encourage people to check it out.

The World’s End (2013)

worlds-end-poster-250x350The third in the Cornetto trilogy, the series of loving homages to genre films that end up transforming into those films, written by star Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), is so self-assured, so witty, and so stylish, but it’s also the best film Wright has done. While my heart will always bleed for 2004’s Shaun of the Dead, it’s something of a revelation how everything comes together so magically in The World’s End. Every joke, every sight gag, every offhand reference, it somehow is all tied up together or has some greater narrative connection, like the names of the 12 pubs on a pub crawl reunion that discovers an alien invasion. The dialogue is packed with layered humor, with choice bon mots like, “That’s why I drink out of a crazy straw. Not so crazy now, huh?” and, “Or selective memory like that one guy… who? Oh yeah. Me.” Given the previous films, Shaun and 2007’s Hot Fuzz, I knew this would be a funny movie, but I was unprepared for how emotionally adept it is. The characters are given surprising depth and pain and anger, mostly stemming from Pegg’s screw-up alcoholic character desperately trying to relive the good times. The writing is so textured that the characters come across like actual people, and the twists and turns, while entertaining, are far more emotionally grounded than in any previous Wright movie. There is real pain and atonement for these fallible characters, which makes us root for them even more against the robot invaders. Pegg and Nick Frost are terrific again. The action is frenetic and inventive, the laughs are frequent, and the characters are so fully realized that The World’s End isn’t just the best film in a stellar, pop-culture savvy trilogy, it’s also one of the best movies you’ll see this year.

Nate’s Grade: A

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

Delivering pretty much more of the same, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows isn’t exactly an improvement over the classic detective’s first foray into out-and-out Hollywood action cinema. The real treat of the budding franchise is the comic interplay between Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Watson (Jude Law). Their harried banter makes for the best moments. Once again the plot is overwrought, the side characters underdeveloped (poor original dragon tattooed girl, Noomi Rapace, given absolutely nothing to do but run in a gypsy skirt), mysteries that you give up and just wait for Holmes to explain, and a villain that proves to be lackluster. For Moriarty (Mad Men’s Jared Harris) to be the nemesis, the intellectual equal of Holmes I’m going to need to see much more than this. There is a fine sequence at the very end where Holmes mentally envisions the steps of his attack and then Moriarty joins in: “You think you’re the only one who can do that?” They hold an entire duel fought step-by-step in the imagination. I wanted more experiences like this, but director Guy Ritchie (Snatch) falls back on his signature stylized action sequences of fast whooshing and quick spinning. The action is a step up from the first Holmes, and that will be enough for most ticket-buyers. I’ll admit there is a certain meta-literary charm at watching Arthur Conan Doyle’s signature detective fighting his way through an armed body of baddies. Whatever your feelings were for the 2009 Sherlock Holmes, I’m fairly certain you’ll revisit them in their entirety with Game of Shadows. I know I did.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Sherlock Holmes as a gritty pub-brawler? Before you dismiss the big-budget Hollywood retooling of the literary detective, look back at author Arthur Conan Doyle’s source material. Appearing in over 50 stories, Holmes was a bit of a rude rapscallion who would get into brawls and recreationally use cocaine. It was only until Dr. Watson stepped into his life that Holmes cleaned up and became a proper, respectable gentleman and the figure we know. With stylish director Guy Ritchie (RocknRolla) attached, it appears that this Holmes for a new generation is actually a throwback to his roots.

Famous detective Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and his assistant, Dr. Watson (Jude Law), are at an impasse. Watson wishes to leave Holmes establishment and start a new life with a woman he loves. Holmes is also threatened by Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), an aristocrat in prison for killing women in ritualistic manners of the dark arts. He’s about to be executed when Lord Blackwood promises he will return from the dead, and his murders will continue. Sure enough, after Blackwood is hung by the neck and pronounced dead by Watson, the murders resume and the dead man himself is seen walking among the living. Holmes is on the trail of his resurrected foe when he meets Adler (Rachel McAdams), the woman who broke his heart. She’s employed by a mysterious stranger and becomes mixed up in the deadly hunt to stop Lord Blackwood.

As is quickly becoming commonplace, Downey is the best part of the movie. His combative relationship with Law makes the movie worthwhile. They have a feisty, squabbling chemistry that generates a lot of humor, and they interact like a 1980s buddy cop movie. Their verbal jousting practically saves the movie from collapsing due to the overwrought plot. At its best moments, Sherlock Holmes feels like a buddy cop movie transplanted to Victorian England. Downey is having a hoot as the character and brings a vibrant energy to his role, turning Holmes into an eccentric who gets buggy if he cannot obsess over a case, taking several cues from the Monk playbook of eccentric detective genius. Downey is cocksure and a charming cad, enjoying every moment he can outsmart the competition. Law is more equal than sidekick and plays the straight man to Downey’s neurotic detective. I’m not usually one to bemoan foreign accents, but this is one movie that would benefit from subtitles. The actors don’t necessarily talk in thick accents but they speak so fast that it begins to sound like an unintelligible mumble.

The romantic subplot is a non-starter as Holmes reunites with both The One That Got Away and his Crafty Equal. McAdams is a fine actress with a luminescent smile, but her involvement is really an afterthought. She’s the old flame that always re-enters in those 1980s buddy cop movies. She stays long enough to rekindle some old feelings and provide a figure in need of rescuing. Her storyline is one of several that could have been completely eliminated. The same could be said for Watson’s girlfriend, the steamboat accomplice, the put-upon maid, and many of the conspirators.

The plot for Sherlock Holmes feels like three screenplays were crudely sewn together. There are so many junky side stories and characters that need to be eliminated. It’s just far too busy without anything making real traction. The story is weighed down with expository dialogue and mounting subplots. There are a few sequences that jump forward in time but don’t inform the audience, so we’re left a tad discombobulated. The film jumps immediately into the fray without any pertinent flashbacks or setup, daring the audience to pay attention. At some point in the middle I gave up, having disengaged from the plot and determined to simply wait it out for Holmes to explain what I was missing. I think at one point I was even starting to nod off to sleep, which is a deadly sign for an action movie. The central occult conspiracy has a lot of men in cloaks but no discernible outcome. The movie is littered with conspirators and locations and details that all seem meaningless until Holmes can tie all the jangled pieces together. The script is overloaded and half-cocked and bides its time waiting for Holmes to provide relative clarity. It gets old after a while when only Holmes knows the clues and he won’t share.

You don’t usually think of the intellectual detective in the deerstalker cap as a man of action, but this brash reinterpretation would be acceptable if Holmes found himself in some action sequences that would befit his legendary stature. Ritchie?s hyperbolic shooting style makes for a lot of fast whooshing and quick spinning but it doesn’t add up to many satisfying sequences; the best is probably a battle with Holmes and a giant that destroys a shipyard plank by plank. Ritchie introduces an intriguing action device for this beefed-up Holmes; he mentally envisions the steps of his attack, going from punch to counter punch. This technique is a fun peek into the mind of Holmes and it makes the action easier to follow for the audience. The fact that this narrative action device is used twice in the 30 minutes made me alert. Surely this cool little stylish flourish would come into play during a climactic moment. Nope. This visual quirk is done twice and then curiously never resurfaces. Instead, the movie ends in a climax dotted with the tired routine of atop high places. The showdown is rather weak. Watching Holmes and Watson beat their way through thugs has its meta-literary appeal but Ritchie and his screenwriters fail to summon entertainment amidst the cluttered chaos.

I am a self-described Ritchie fan, though he hasn’t made a good movie since 2001’s Snatch. He lathers on the style right from the opening studio titles being integrated into the cobblestone streets of London. The production design is impressive and the actors seem to be having a game go with the literary legend, but it all comes back to the murky story. Sherlock Holmes could have succeeded on a crackerjack story or on being an entertaining thrill-ride, but it fails in both areas. The nonsensical conspiracy plot feels like a leftover from a bad Dan Brown novel (redundant?) with secret societies and mystic orders and blah blah blah. The characters feel less than real because they aren’t given time to be fleshed out, so they resort to being stock archetypes locked into well-defined place by the fact that the plot gallops from the start. The action is uninspired and occasionally incoherent. Sherlock Holmes as a man of action is an acceptable premise but he needs to be placed in strongly constructed, inventive action sequences. I like Downey and Law, and I especially like their time together, but the movie lets them down. Maybe I was just holding out hope that Holmes would come back and explain the whole movie, providing compelling evidence for mass entertainment that I had been missing. It was never to be.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)

I wanted to turn this movie off for the first 30 minutes or so and that’s because of Poppy (Sally Hawkins), the deranged optimist that the movie follows. Writer/director Mike Leigh’s latest semi-improvised tale following the English working class centers on a primary school teacher who makes the conscious choice to be happy in life, no matter what life throws her way. Her presence is somewhat exhausting, like a customer who doesn’t know when making jokes has gone from fun to downright annoying. But you know what? Poppy eventually won me over, and I’m all but positive it was the scenes of her and her raging, pessimistic, tightly wound driving instructor (Eddie Marsan) that did it. Before their first driving lesson, I felt like the movie was giving me a slice-of-life that I was hesitant about; Poppy, like anyone who is insanely happy, can be grating. The humor is extremely dry and most of the clever dialogue exchanges will likely go by unnoticed because the actors aren’t delivering big punch lines. Hawkins goes all-out as the unflappable Poppy and she will make you smile through sheer force of will. This was a film I liked more by the time it was winding down, perhaps because Poppy might be easier to take knowing that time is coming to a close much like spending time with a distant relative during the holidays.

Nate’s Grade: B

Hancock (2008)

Hancock is perhaps the first movie that looks at the consequences of being a super-powered do-gooder. I’m not talking the self-doubt or placing your loved ones in danger. I’m talking about money. A super hero can rack up super amounts of damage to a city, and the titular character often causes millions of dollars in destruction as he sloppily combats crime. In some ways, the super hero is more costly than the criminals. As you can imagine, the public at large isn’t too taken with Hancock (the film misses the opportunity to have neighbors worry their property values will plummet if Hancock moves into town). It’s too bad that Hancock, the film, doesn’t stay as original.

John Hancock (Will Smith) is a disgruntled man. He likes to drink, sleep, and keep to himself. Unfortunately, people keep bugging him for help. This may have something to do with the fact that Hancock is a man with the abilities of a super hero. He can fly, has incredible strength, and appears to be physically impervious, but that doesn’t stop criminals from emptying their guns at him. One gang learns firsthand the anger of Hancock when they destroy his whisky bottle. The city doesn’t know what to do with the world’s lone super being because he causes so much destruction. Ray (Jason Bateman) is a PR man fighting a losing battle to convince major corporations to donate supplies to needy countries for free. Hancock saves his life one afternoon and Ray decides to use his skills to give the irritable super hero an image makeover. He’s going to use Hancock to help change the world for the better. The plan to reform Hancock involves sending him to prison and waiting until the city begs for his assistance with rising crime. Ray’s wife, Mary (Charlize Theron), is wary of her husband’s super hero project. She just wants to live a quiet life with regular meatball madness dinners with her family.

I think I’m already starting to get sick of super heroes and there’s still more to come this summer. There are several good ideas rolling around inside Hancock, but at a scant 92 minutes there’s little time to develop them. The movie takes off in a mildly satisfying manner but then botches the landing.

Smith’s considerable charms at put at odds with a character that resembles an ornery bastard. It’s a bit of a wink to the audience because no Hollywood studio would let the most popular international movie star release a super expensive summer movie where he begins and ends as a total jackass. The film seems to be tailor-made to Smith’s strengths, which still include his ability to naturally command attention and likeability. The idea of a lone super hero who drinks heavily, destroys personal property, and whom the public vocally dislikes is a sound idea and allows Smith and the filmmakers to explore certain realities not seen in other super hero flicks. The public griping over the methods Hancock chooses to save the day seems rather believable, especially when those methods usually involve heavy-duty collateral damage consequences. I like the idea that every time Hancock lands from flying he takes chunks of concrete or tar with him. There are several interesting ideas that come from the conflict between society and a super hero who would rather sleep off a hangover. I think the idea of paring a disgruntled super hero with an idealistic PR man is a great concept, benefited by Bateman’s sterling comic abilities fine-tuned from Arrested Development (where he also romanced Theron). I really enjoyed the interaction between Hancock and Ray. For a decent 60 minutes, Hancock is a passable super hero excursion lifted by Smith and Bateman’s chemistry.

Hancock starts with some promise but then goes in a completely different direction for its third act (let me just say this: there’s a reason they’ve been hiding Theron from any advertisement). The film also overplays its hand early. When Hancock and Mary first meet they hang on to each other, then she looks at him suspiciously and continues to, then she says some very leading dialogue that is a bit on-the-nose. All an audience needs is one award, penetrating look to understand that something is up. Hancock ends up feeling pulled in too many directions. It begins as a sly satire on super heroes and is mostly confined to jaunty comedy, but then the movie gets dramatic and grim and a bit hard to follow. The film begins as a jokey riff and then gets gritty, finding room to fit in mythology, religious questions, age-old racism about interracial dating, and a terribly clunky villain (Eddie Marsan) who breaks out of jail so that he can seek improbable vengeance against an immortal. Hancock’s origin is muddled and as preposterous as most other super heroes. The third act shift seems to drain all the fun out of the movie and it gets too serious, too confusing, and too convoluted (what’s the distance rule here between super people?). Hancock ultimately has too many chefs in the kitchen and becomes a mess.

I’m sad to say but director Peter Berg really whiffs with this movie. His visual style is a hindrance to the film. I recently re-watched his first action film, 2003’s The Rundown, and Berg was able to craft stylish, highly playful action sequences without shaking the camera all over the place. A tripod served the film’s best interest and Berg tailored his visual style to the material. I expressed worry with his previous film, 2007’s The Kingdom, that Berg has become locked in to his handheld docu-drama style that bobs and weaves around his actors and employs numerous quick cuts and odd angles. His erratic style can improve and assist narratives but it can also hamper the storytelling. Nothing is really gained by Berg filming his tender moments at obtuse angles, extreme asymmetrical close-ups, and a hovering camera. It feels like a style completely unsuited for the material. I would have liked to fully watch the action sequences and enjoy the clever tweaks on the genre. Berg is an imaginative and underrated director, but his jittery docu-drama style he has embraced can also make his films seem cobbled together and overly rushed and, potentially, half-assed.

Hancock is much like the title character. It means well and wants to help but an audience can’t help but grumble about its methods. The concept of a super hero that is rejected by the people he saves is a subject ripe with subtext that could explore meaningful and insightful glimpses about guilt, the weight of expectation, the desire for human affection and acceptance, the frustration to be understood, the questions of personal responsibility and loyalty, and rejecting or heeding the call to do better. Hancock does not delve into any of these potent psychological areas. That’s fine, as long as the film delivers top-notch popcorn thrills and makes me forget about its wasted potential. Sadly, Hancock fails to deliver. The special effects are generally sub-par, the story misfires, and the whole film begins with promise but ends up turning into a mundane mess. Berg’s aesthetic doesn’t square with the material. Smith is still as charming as ever and will always be a genial presence onscreen, but Hancock turns into a movie that feels like a super hero hangover itself.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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