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The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

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

Nate’s Grade: B-

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Holy Motors (2012)

I like movies that are different. I like movies that can be hard to understand. Holy Motors, a surreal French film, is both very different and very hard to understand. The movie follows a man as he goes about transforming into nine different characters, each with their own bizarre mission. Is he performing? For whom? Who is behind all this? Does he ever stop assuming false roles? Questions such as these hardly matter in movies such as this. You’re either transported by the lyrical weirdness and unpredictability, or you find it tiresome and much ado about nothing. After a while, I just gave up with this movie. I’m not a fan of weird for weird’s sake and I felt like that was all I got with Holy Motors. I’m sure you could write a doctoral-level thesis decoding this movie, but why waste valuable hours of your life? This movie is nothing but strange imagery that adds up to precious little. I thought the concept of playing roles/manufactured realities was better explored in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. When a Kaufman movie is more accessible than your film, your name better be David Lynch or you’re in trouble. I’m sure several fans of the obscure and outrageous will find amusement at the sheer randomness with Holy Motors. It’s got martial arts acrobats, Kylie Minogue breaking out into song, magical resurrection, spontaneous band performances, talking cars, and for good measure chimpanzees. I hope you get more out of it than I did. I found the enterprise to be more tedious than titillating, more frustrating than fascinating, and not worth the trouble of fashioning meaning from the discarded puzzle pieces.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Other Guys (2010)

Surprisingly consistent in its belly laughs, The Other Guys proves that Will Ferrell is at his best when he re-teams with his greatest collaborator, co-writer and director Adam McKay (Anchorman, Step Brothers). The duo takes on the cop genre with a loving parody that manages to send up the genre while celebrating its excesses. Ferrell and his partner (Mark Wahlberg) stumble onto a mostly convoluted financial scam with banks, traders, and the police. The movie takes scene after scene and gives it a little twist for the self-aware characters to comment, usually to great comedic effect. There were some stretches that I was near tears from laughing so hard (the tuna vs. lion argument is an instant classic). I expected to be amused by the movie since nobody does silly smarter than Ferrell with McKay, but I was not prepared for how much I genuinely liked this movie. From scene to scene, I found something different to laugh at. There’s an undercurrent of rage from McKay concerning the economic stickup Wall Street got away with in 2008. The end credits are an animated statistics presentation on how large Wall Street firms screwed over the American public and are still profiting off of pubic misery. It’s a bit odd tonally to cover at the end of the film, like McKay wanted his legions of fans to get some morsel of education by the end of a film with goofy action and juvenile sex gags. The joke is on us all.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

This is a crazy movie. It is not weird, it is not bizarre; it is not silly. Werner Herzog’s whacked-out movie is a remake of a 1992 movie that wasn’t that good to begin with. This certifiably crazy movie mostly involves Nicolas Cage as a corrupt cop playing all sides and snorting everything that isn’t bolted down in the Big Easy up his nose. For a stretch during the middle, he starts to sound like Jimmy Stewart with lockjaw. The central murder investigation plot is pretty much an afterthought in an environment like this. You want the crazy, and with Cage and Herzog, it is in no short supply. There’s Cage threatening an elderly woman at gunpoint, crawling reptile POV shots, a man’s “soul” break-dancing after the man lies dead, and neon iguanas that may exist only in Cage’s drugged-out mind. The film has been described as a trippy parody of standard cops-and-robbers fare, or as a seriously demented anti-drug message, but I think the best description is just “crazy-ass movie.” It has moments that make you do nothing but shake your head and laugh, like when Cage is about to hit rock bottom and EVERY case/storyline gets solved in a matter of seconds to his bemused disbelief. The comedy is straight-faced but it is definitely there. Cage harnesses his eccentricities and delivers an insanely entertaining performance that reconfirms that there is indeed an actor underneath his Hollywood veneer. He is compulsively enjoyable and the movie is compulsively watchable, every crazy freaking second of it. Iguanas!

Nate’s Grade: B

The Spirit (2008)

This is the last time someone will let Frank Miller direct. Astoundingly bad, The Spirit is borderline camp for every absurd and bizarre second. It careens all over the place, never settling on a tone. So one minute it will be hard-boiled noir and the next it will break down the fourth wall and amp up the goofy slapstick to Looney Tunes levels. The story is threadbare, the characters are half-developed ideas, and each scene almost exists in its own five-minute world before Miller barrels forward. Sure the flick has some appealing visuals, but even those are derivative of the superior Sin City. As a director, Miller doesn’t cut it. He will shoot scenes with nothing but close-ups, giving no point of establishment for the audience, and he’s too prone to random diversions. Miller displays zero ability, or a complete disregard, for directing actors; they are terrible in different ways. Gabriel Macht, as the back-from-the-dead crime fighter The Spirit, sounds like Paul Rudd doing a Harrison Ford impression. Samuel L. Jackson, as the nefarious criminal/mad scientist/also semi-immortal The Octopus, overacts to a degree not even seen by Samuel L. Jackson. Scarlett Johansson, as an evil assistant, can’t even hide her disdain and boredom. This stuff just becomes unchecked lunacy, but it still manages to be boring through and through. The hero is a stiff, all the women are sex objects, and the conflicts are pointless when the combatants can’t be killed. The only thing worth mentioning is that Eva Mendes is still a gorgeous looking woman. Even Miller couldn’t fumble that one.

Nate?s Grade: D

Ghost Rider (2007)

Nicolas Cage’s career has been flaming out, so what better role than a burning skeleton biker who serves as a bounty hunter for the Devil, in this case Peter Fonda. A cliché-riddled script, laughable performances, cheesy effects and dull villains doom any entertainment prospects this movie might have had. Cage, as the titular rider, gets to fight a group of escaped demons who all have one connection to an element; one has the power of fire, another the power of wind, etc., it’s like a hellish Captain Planet squad. But what’s the point when Ghost Rider simply vanquishes them so easily? It’s repetitive and goes nowhere. There’s one moment Sam Elliot “turns” into an older ghost rider/bounty hunter and rides along with Cage to save the day. But then he says, “Well, I could only do that once more, so good luck.” What? You could only turn into a flaming ass kicker one more time and you wasted it on riding a horsey through the desert? Eva Mendes is awful as her role of “girlfriend from past,” and why, if she and Cage grew up as childhood sweethearts, does he look over 15 years older than her in the present? I guess working for Satan can really take a lot out of you.

Nate’s Grade: D

Hitch (2005)

Isn’t it peculiar that most romantic comedies are written or directed by men? Sure you’ll have your occasional Nora Ephron or Nancy Myers, but it seems that the vast majority of people behind these popular, simplistic, romantic fantasies are men. Is it all a conspiracy? Is Hollywood keeping a nation of women docile with a slew of movies aimed at their soft, gooey middles (no, not the love handles)? We may never know. Hitch is written and directed by men too. Will it be any different from other rom-coms?

Alex “Hitch” Hitchens (Will Smith) is New York City’s most popular love guru. He’s got the methods and the advice to turn any zero to a hero in the dating world. His latest client is Albert (Kevin James), a mild-mannered attorney lacking the confidence to ask the beautiful Allegra (super model Amber Valletta) on a date. Hitch agrees to assist Albert in learning the fine art of impressing women, behavioral signs, and the proper steps to insure a fantastic first kiss (Hitch believes 80% of women can tell all they want from that first kiss). Meanwhile, Hitch is also trying to woo Sara (Eva Mendes), a prickly gossip columnist distrustful of most men, especially the ones that show interest in her. Hitch persists and sets up elaborate dates that seem to misfire one after the other. His sure-fire rules and methods aren’t working on Sara, so Hitch will have to dig deep to discover the true meaning of love.

Will Smith the actor was put on Earth to do two things, save the world and woo the ladies. Hitch focuses more on the later. Smith oozes charisma and is a natural charmer. He’s all but tailor-maid for the romantic comedy genre as an affable, sly, and lovable lead. He’s an actor that can truly connect with an audience, for better or worse.

James (TV’s The King of Queens) gives the film its biggest laughs and its best moments of heart. His geek chic dance sequence (involving Q-tip wiping, spinning a pizza, and hiney shaking) is a gut-buster, and James plays it with bravado. He’s the doughy everyman and his courtship of Allegra provides some tender moments, like that first awkward kiss. James doesn’t overplay the nervous tics or the low self-esteem but lets Albert feel like a real schmo coming alive.

The lone sour note in this well-cast fable comes from Eva Mendes. I’ve never been impressed with Mendes as an actress so far. What almost kills Hitch is that Mendes is stuck playing a wholly unlikable character. Sara is whiny, mean-spirited, and short-sighted in her actions. When she tries to get revenge against Hitch she ends up rashly destroying innocent lives. She’s supposed to be guarded, the one nut Hitch can’t crack with his dating axioms, but instead she comes off as a rather terrible human being. After a while I started rooting for Hitch to lose because he’d be far happier without being saddled to this insufferable, egotistical, close-minded, bitter human being.

What saves Hitch is that the film wisely decides to put more time and energy on Albert dating Allegra. Albert serves as the underdog, the rooting point for the audience, and he’s true to what he believes. This is quite a contrast to a gossip columnist unafraid to rip people on unsubstantiated assumptions.

Another element that can make a romantic comedy sink or swim is the chemistry of its stars. Here Hitch presents an intriguing dilemma. You see, Mendes and Smith have no connection whatsoever, which is fine because Hitch is just as much a buddy film as it is a rom-com. Smith and James have terrific chemistry and play off of each other with an excellent comedic give and take. This is where Hitch separates itself from the usual rom-com fluff. It’s a tale of three couples, Albert and Allegra, Hitch and Sara, and Albert and Hitch. The film’s about male relationships as much as male-female relations (and the pursuit of male-female relations), and there are hints of truth behind the comic desperation. There is something romantic to Hitch but it cannot be found whenever Mendes steps onscreen.

Hitch has appeal but it can’t help but get caught in the clichés of romantic comedies. As always, misunderstandings loom and push people away when one good level-headed conversation could clear everything up. The climax even involves people chasing after their loved one to stop them from getting on that bus/train/boat/plane/you name it. The climax to Hitch feels way too drawn out, like the film is stubborn to tie up its characters despite a horrendously long running time of two hours. And am I alone on this, or are the majority of romantic comedies now built around some premise of deceit? That doesn’t sound like a good way to start a relationship to me.

Romantic comedies play on our love of the familiar. What makes Hitch work are the characters and the performances. Smith and James make an excellent mismatched team and both men are charismatic, funny, and relatable. Hitch is sweet but not too sappy. This isn’t anything groundbreaking but it is pleasant and good-natured. Hitch is your typical rom-com, a fine buddy flick, and a showcase for the near irresistible charms of Smith. It’s hard not to fall under Hitch‘s spell despite Mendes’ character’s best efforts to sabotage your viewing pleasure. This is one date movie not to dread.

Nate’s Grade: B

Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)

Robert Rodriguez (From Dusk Till Dawn, The Faculty) wrote, directed, produced, photographed, edited, and scored Once Upon a Time in Mexico. I’’m sure if you look further this jack-of-all-trades also provided coffee and donuts. Coming off his third Spy Kids feature, Rodriguez seems like the hardest working man in showbiz. Mexico, a sequel to 1995’’s Desperado, is one tasty burrito of stylish action, vigorous energy and the immensely appealing Johnny Depp.

Depp stars as Sands, an amoral CIA agent who calls Mexico his beat. Through the help of a one-eyed flunky (Cheech Marin), he recruits a mysterious gunman, El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas), to thwart a coup being lead by Marquez, a military general, and paid for by a drug cartel run by Barillo (Willem Dafoe, a.k.a. the Creepiest Man Alive). Then there’s also a retired FBI Agent (Ruben Blades) looking to settle a personal score with Barillo, a Federale (Eva Mendes) looking for some action, a nasty hired gun (Danny Trejo) itching to off a certain Mariachi, Mickey Rourke with a Chihuahua, Enrique Iglesias with a mole, and also the fact that Marquez, who Banderas has been assigned to kill, murdered Banderas’ wife (Salma Hayek) and daughter. I’ll stop so you can catch your breath. Ready? Okay.

You better think ahead and bring a second pair of pants because Depp will charm them right off as he plays yet another oddball. We are delighted with Sands and his multitude of fake mustaches, tacky T-shirts (one actually says “CIA”) and method of paying people through cash-filled nostalgic lunch boxes. Despite plotting near a Machiavellian level and shooting innocent chefs, the character settles into a lovable anti-hero that transforms into a blind reaper of vengeance. Depp is one of the best, if not the best, actors on the planet. Once again as he did in Pirates of the Caribbean, Depp gives life to a character and nourishes the film every time he’s onscreen. This is Depp’’s show. Mexico does have a noticeable lull whenever Depp is absent. I don’’t know anyone else that could actually become cooler AFTER what he goes through. Possession is nine-tenths of the law, and Depp totally owns this movie and the 2003 year.

Banderas is smooth and has never looked better than playing the role of the silent-but-deadly musician. Hayek’s role amounts to little more than a cameo. She’s witnessed through flashbacks, but she still has a healthy smolder to her. Blades has the most integrity of all the characters. Most of the actors have fun with their roles, especially the ones that are bad (which accounts for most everyone), but you can’’t help but get the feeling that they’re being wasted for the most part.

Rodriguez’s overstuffed film is so delightfully over-the top and loopy that it crackles with an infectious kind of energy. Once Upon a Time in Mexico is a wild and lively cartoon of an action movie with a very healthy sense of humor. Its action relies low on CGI and high on inventive, if slightly self-aware, camera angles and furious gun fights. A sequence involving Banderas and Hayek chained to the wrist and swinging one-by-one down the levels of a building is breathtaking.

What this spaghetti western below the border could have used is a little less of its myriad of twists, double-crosses, triple-crosses, and character subplots. By the time the Day of the Dead rolls on, you might need note cards to keep everything straight. Rodriguez’’s earlier Mariachi films were lean on plots which allowed for fun and grandiose action sequences. Perhaps Mexico could have shaved some of these needless characters (cough, Eva Mendes, cough) from its convoluted plot and drawn out its sometimes too quick bursts of stellar action.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico is a bloody good time. Depp amazes yet again in this bombastically silly yet undeniably fun south o’ the border shoot-em-up. If Rodriguez has any plans for an additional sequel (and he might given his insane work ethic) I’’d recommend following Depp’’s Sands character wherever the sands take him. To witness this incredibly cool, whip-smart character cut up in any land would certainly be music to my ears.

Nate’s Grade: B

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