How to train your expectations for the concluding chapter in the How to Train Your Dragon franchise: step one, lower them. I was dispirited to discover what a disappointing final chapter The Hidden World comes across, especially considering the previous movies, including the 2014 sequel, are good to great. At its core it’s always been a tale of prejudice and family, dressing up a simple boy-and-his-dog story with fantasy elements. It also presents a world with danger and cost; even the fist film ended with the main character, Hiccup, losing a freaking foot. He loses his father in the second film. It’s a series that has grown naturally with heart, imagination, and a real sense of stakes. This is why I’m sad to report that the third film feels like a different creative team made it. The villain is a repeat of the second film, a dragon hunter with little to be memorable over. The plot is very redundant, stuck in an endless loop of capture, escape, capture, escape, etc. The addition of the new lady dragon is a perfunctory means to drive a wedge between Hiccup and toothless, his dragon. The lady dragon has no personality and needs rescuing too often. Her inclusion relates to a rather regressive emphasis on the need for coupling and marriage. The titular Hidden World amounts to a grand total of five minutes of screen time. The action starts off well involving the various colorful side characters but misses out on that sense of danger that defined the other movies. It feels goofy and safe and listless. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is a sizeable disappointment and coasts on the emotional investment of the first two movies. You’ll feel something by the end, sure, but it’s because of the hard work of others and not this movie.
Nate’s Grade: C
Years after the events from Olympus Has Fallen, Secret Service agent Mike Banner (Gerard Butler) is escorting President Asher (Aaron Eckhart) to London to attend a funeral. It’s there where chaos strikes and Muslim terrorists, disguised as British agents and local police, unleash a series of attacks and explosions throughout the city. Mike is able to rescue the president but the two are essentially in enemy territory looking for an escape, and the terrorists have seized London and plan on executing President Asher live on the Internet for his drone strikes in the Middle East.
The first mission for an action movie is to entertain with its action sequences, and it is here where London Has Fallen falls. The budget has been reported as high as $100 million dollars, and if this is true it may be the biggest waste of $100 million dollars I’ve ever seen on film. The movie just looks cheap. The locations (Bulgaria often doubling for London) look too vague and interchangeable with empty streets. Also, for a city that has over ten million inhabitants, why are these streets so empty? There were people milling about outdoors after 9/11, and the president wasn’t rumored to be somewhere on the streets in that scenario. Another sign of the movie’s cheapness: I’m certain that the shots of the emergency vehicles in London were stock footage. Now this wouldn’t be the first film to pad its establishment scenes with purchasable B-roll footage, but the offense is simply how poorly the movie is at hiding this fact. The footage is clearly from a lower video/film quality and not referenced as a media perspective, so the quality of the movie will suddenly drop for a brief few seconds to watch a cadre of ambulances race off. But back to these lackluster action sequences. There are very few variations on the standard run-and-shoot variety with little regards to geography. The initial escape from the first attack has some sizzle but it devolves into a series of chases and stands being made in small locations. The final assault on the bad guy’s compound unfolds as a tracking shot to kick things off and it’s here that you get a full sense of the movie’s limited ambitions. The action isn’t accelerated or given a visceral kick from the long take; it’s just guys shooting off screen, walking, shooting, with the occasional explosion. There’s no added benefit from the tracking shot, and yet somebody must have thought it would be so cool to do so and patted themself on the back.
Another issue is that Butler’s character is nearly indestructible and without any vulnerability. Olympus Has Fallen didn’t wow me but it hewed closed to the Die Hard plot points and that’s a great formula to model your action movie after. In that scenario, Mike Banning was outnumbered and had to rely upon his stealth to be most effective. In the sequel, Mike has to protect the president but it’s really just the story of two buds running from place to place, having the occasional chat, and then Mike easily murdering any slew of bad guys, then repeat until the climax. It doesn’t make use of locations enough to cast out the sinking feeling of redundancy. Repetitive action sequences rely upon the concept of “more is better” when what we really demand is “more but different.” The best action movies are the ones where each sequence can stand on its own, push the story forward, makes smart use of its geography, and develops organically. There just aren’t enough of these in London Has Fallen. Our lead character is boring because he is never seen in a vulnerable position. He is told how outnumbered he is and his quippy reply is a trailer-ready line: “You should have brought more men.” This guy doesn’t sweat and only growls and stabs (lots of stabbing in this) and the R-rated violence does little to give this man anything resembling a personality. Mike is a dullard, and his personal arc of whether or not he’ll turn in his resignation from the Secret Service is one of the least believable moments of indecision you’ll ever witness. Gee, I wonder if Stabby McLoves to Stab is going to step away from his stab-heavy vocation.
With the action failing, it becomes even more apparent, and shockingly so, just how unpleasantly xenophobic and grotesque the movie’s overall political message becomes, so much so that you’d have to imagine a contingent of Trump supporters watching with baited breath and cheering mindlessly. It’s not uncommon for the bad guys in Hollywood action films to be darker-hued foreigners, so that wasn’t exactly something shocking, and the movie opens with a stab at creating a legitimate and politically pertinent grievance, a drone strike with unexpected collateral damage that obliterates a wedding party. The bad guys here have a cause that at least goes beyond blind ideology, though perhaps vengeance is actually a lesser motivation than something larger akin to ideology. They aren’t really fleshed out beyond this simple concept of vengeance or given anything larger to play with because they’re simply just villainous cardboard cutouts. And yet, most of this is expected with the territory of a typical action thriller. It’s when London Has Fallen decides to go the extra ugly mile when the movie starts becoming something far more unseemly and uncomfortable. I’m not expecting the most culturally nuanced portrayal of geo-politics, but this movie is practically a campaign ad for anti-Muslim nationalism. Our hero brutally stabs a nondescript bad guy and definitely enjoys inflicting pain. He kills another guy while screaming, “Go back to Fuckheadistan” (note to the geographically challenged: not a real standing nation as of this writing). Then it’s not enough that our hero is beating our secondary villain, he also has to deliver a speech about America’s standing and just what these pesky terrorists will never understand: “100 years later, we’ll still be here, and you’ll be dead.” What highlights these moments is that there aren’t any other political aspects in this movie, even a scant dismissive comment on something like gun control, so it feels like London Has Fallen has purposely chosen to highlight this anger and distrust of foreigners with its hero. It comes across like giving voice and credence to your crackpot uncle who, naturally, is voting for Trump to sweep them illegals and dusky-faced folk from the borders of ‘Merica.
There’s an ongoing subplot in London Has Fallen that answers the question of how many Oscar nominees can you cram into a room and waste their talents. The answer, it would appear, is four, folks. Interspersed between Mike and the president on the run is Vice President Morgan Freeman (yes he has a character name but it’s really VP Morgan Freeman) deliberating in the White House with the assembled cabinet. There’s Melissa Leo (The Fighter) returning as the Secretary of Defense, Robert Forster (Jackie Brown) as a general, and Jackie Earl Haley (Little Children) as DC… something. Every time the movie has to cut back to this room full of wasted talent you’re reminded just how sad this movie is becoming. These characters don’t even have any larger bearing on the plot or any agency into the ongoing conflicts. Instead they are presented as exposition devices and reaction shots. These are some terrific thespians, including two Oscar winners, and here they are barking exposition or delivering forlorn reaction shots. We have four Oscar nominees and they’re stuck in a room, looking horrified into the camera lens, and slowly uttering lines like, “My God.” I do not begrudge actors taking paycheck roles (everybody’s got bills to pay) but this entire scenario is just an insulting waste of time.
Nobody is going to argue that Olympus Has Fallen was one of the greater works of cinema but it was a mildly enjoyable action thriller that was diverting enough to remind its rowdy audience of the Cannon genre films of the 80s. It was bloody, brutal, and fitfully entertaining (my preference was the other 2013-Die–Hard-in-a-White-House flick, White House Down). It was good enough, mostly because it hugged Die Hard closely and repeated the same plot mechanics to success. Now on its own, the sequel has to manufacture its own plotline and it doesn’t fare as well. Director Antoine Fuqua didn’t want to return for the sequel after reading the script, and this is a guy who made King Arthur and Shooter. Shooter, people! His replacement is an Iranian-born filmmaker, which just adds another level of questions for the finished product, and make no mistake, London Has Fallen is just that – product. It’s not really meant to be savored or enjoyed so much as it is processed and consumed and forgotten. The action doesn’t work well and is poorly orchestrated, often repetitive, the characters are boring, the villains are one-note, the capable actors are wasted, the overt political messages that continuously emerge are ugly and pointedly xenophobic, and the end even turns a drone strike, the same tool we saw wipe out an innocent wedding gathering to open the movie, into a crowd-pleasing climactic moment of payback. London Has Fallen is a misguided nationalistic action movie and then some.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Remember in the late 90s when studios seemed to develop similar projects every few months? In 1997, we had two volcano movies (Volcano, Dante’s Peak), and in 1998 we had two animated bug films (Antz, A Bug’s Life) and two asteroid action flicks (Deep Impact, Armageddon). With the wealth of unproduced screenplays, there’s definite merit to different writers coming up with similar concepts independent of one another. Now in 2013 we have two action movies that, boiled down, are essentially Die Hard in the White House. The first out of the gate, Olympus Has Fallen, is an entertaining action vehicle that reminds me of the 90s Jerry Bruckheimer era of big explosions, big body counts, and irony-free pleasures.
Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) is a top Secret Service agent still reeling from his inability to save the President (Aaron Eckhart)’s wife (Ashley Judd) in a freak accident. He now provides security at the nearby Treasury Department, the President afraid to see Mike’s face and be reminded of his loss. Then one sunny day, a cargo plane fires on D.C. citizens, armed terrorists assault the White House, and North Korean nationalist Yang (Rick Yune) has taken the President and his cabinet members hostage. The Speaker of the House, Trumbull (Morgan Freeman), has ascended to America’s Commander in Chief and he has to navigate tricky issues like how to save the president. Luckily, they have a man on the inside. During the firefight, Mike scrapped his way inside the White House. Now it’s one man versus a bevy of terrorists and nationalists.
The overall execution reminds me of the heyday of mid 90s action cinema, with its mixture of the ridiculous played completely sincere. It doesn’t really matter that North Korean terrorists are able to take down the White House so easily. Sure we can nitpick the very prospect of a large foreign aircraft getting so close to D.C. before getting intercepted, and only with two fighters at that. But if you can tuck away that nagging voice reminding you of the implausible nature of everything, then Olympus Has Fallen is a serviceable action thriller. Every fifteen minutes or so our hero has a new mini-goal to accomplish. It keeps things fresh and holds your attention away from analyzing the sillier elements (Gatling guns atop the White House?). The debut script by screenwriters Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt follows the Hollywood blockbuster blueprint down to the smallest detail. Of course there’s another blueprint it mirrors, namely that of Die Hard. Beyond the premise of one man left to his wits in a hostage standoff, there’s also the moment where the bad guy poses as a good guy to the ignorance of our hero, there’s the failed outside tactical use of force, and the bond forged between the man on the inside and the link outside, whom isn’t given the level of respect deserved. That’s not just an application of the Die Hard premise to a new setting (like Air Force One or Under Siege), but a sampling of the very plot beats from Die Hard. Then again if you’re going to steal then steal from the best.
There’s a certain throwback bravado vibe going on here that makes it all easier to swallow. It’s got big silly action sequences and some in-your-face jingoism (a character, when faced with the notion of execution, literally starts reciting the Pledge of Allegiance), enough that Michael Bay would be misty-eyed, but treating the subject matter with such thoughtless swagger makes the reality easier to accept. Having D.C. attacked, civilians mowed down, national monuments crumbled, and the White House in ashes, well you’d naturally think back to the very real horrors of 9/11, and you may shudder. By embracing the implausible nature of the action and achieving a tone that prioritizes popcorn thrills, Olympus Has Fallen dances around pitfalls of exploitation and simply becomes another big, dumb, but enjoyable action movie. I say this without a hint of derision or irony.
I haven’t been a fan of Antoine Fuqua as a director. He can compose a good looking movie, but Shooter, Tears of the Sun, and King Arthur were enough to convince me the man could not properly stage exciting action. I think perhaps the limitations of the setup brought out the best in him because there are some genuinely gripping action sequences on display here. Also, the man does a fine job of establishing the geography of his action and presenting a surprising variety. Fuqua, aided with the shifting script, makes sure that the audience never gets bored. Sure there are storylines that don’t exactly work, like Mike finding the First Son, a character never heard from again, but the movie keeps changing shape, getting bigger, and finding enough satisfying payoffs. This is an effective, serviceable “turn off your brain” action movie, and it does enough right that you don’t fret about turning that brain back on until the end credits. The R-rating also ups the ante, providing bloodier and brutal escalation to what should be life-and-death stakes. If you’re going to give me “Die Hard in a…” then you best make sure your movie doesn’t wuss out. You’ll recognize plenty of action movie tropes and clichés, but the action is worthwhile and the plot constantly moving that you simply don’t mind.
It’s nice to see Butler (Playing for Keeps) find a role that plays to his, admittedly limited, strengths. His character is your standard tough guy with a tragic past, haunted by the life he couldn’t save, looking to make amends and forgive himself. It’s probably the fact that the role has so little to it that Butler is able to slide effortlessly into gruff action star mode, a preferential place (though I prefer the man to be bearded as well). The rest of the movie benefits from actors who are far better than the material: Freeman, Eckhart, Melissa Leo, Radha Mitchell, and Angela Bassett. They all provide better-than-average performances for this type of movie. Even Dylan McDermott (TV’s American Horror Story) gets room to shine. Rick Yune (Ninja Assassin, The Man with the Iron Fists) makes for a very sinister bad guy. The part is Generic Antagonist #301, but Yune finds fun ways to enjoy the menace, soak it up without hamming it up. He transforms a generic villain into a dude you want to see righteously toppled.
After last fall’s updated Red Dawn (scrubbed free of invading Chinese forces) and now this, I must ask if North Korea has become the go-to military enemy for American action movies. Olympus Has Fallen takes the added step of never having the government of North Korea involved or approve, like the terrorists are acting on their own. We wouldn’t want to upset the government of North Korea; that’s what Red Dawn is for. But does anyone really view North Korea as a credible military threat? They are seen as a rogue nation, yes, and they claim to have nuclear arms, so they should be taken seriously, but does anyone realistically think we’ll wake up tomorrow and be conquered by North Korea? I suppose this criticism lies more with Red Dawn than Olympus Has Fallen, a movie that only needs a handful of dedicated foot soldiers rather than an invading army. I also find it laughable that the only thing holding back North and South Korea from war, in this fictional scenario, is the presence of about 28,000 U.S. troops. Also, if these events played out as they do, who doesn’t think that the U.S. would respond with military action against North Korea? We started a war with Iraq and they weren’t even responsible for the actions of a handful of terrorists. I guess the North Koreans are the new Hollywood Boogeymen.
With a hook of a premise, some exciting action, and more than a few borrowed plot beats from Die Hard, it’s still a pleasant surprise at how entertaining Olympus Has Fallen works. It’s a movie that simply does enough right to justify watching. Its action is good enough, its plot is familiar enough but offers enough forward momentum, its actors are good enough, and it does enough right to quell potential boredom. I appreciated its throwback feel to the mid-90s action movie, a time of elevated popcorn thrills and powerful bravado, all without a hint of irony no matter how ridiculous things got. It lands on shakier ground when it tries to become a rah-rah kind of patriotic rally, but I’d be lying if I denied the certain pleasures of watching a Secret Service agent take out the bad guys on his turf. Time will tell how the second Die-Hard-in-the-White-House movie will fare, but if you’re looking for big and dumb but enjoyable, Olympus Has Fallen is like a summer popcorn film only in March.
Nate’s Grade: B
William Shakespeare’s little-known play has a surprising amount of cultural relevance: attacks on the border, suspension of civil liberties, political scheming, populist uprisings and riots, and a military elite arguing against the principles of appealing to the uneducated, mob-ruled masses. Plus Ralph Fiennes, taking on the hat of director for the first time, sets the play in modern-day. It seems like a struggle between Scotland and England, judging from the two mortal enemies, Coriolanus (Fiennes) and Tulius Aufidus (Gerard Butler). So it’s the Scotland/England struggle, termed ancient Rome, but set in what looks like the war-ravaged Balkans. Hey, at least Fiennes gets to have a nose in this film. The Shakespearean verbiage is certainly beautiful to hear, especially coming from the mouths of excellent thespians, notably Fiennes, Brian Cox, and Vanessa Redgrave. The actors achieve that synergetic level of excellence where it feels like they were always meant for the parts. Butler acquits himself well though his character sort of disappears unless needed by the plot. The elements that work best reside in Coriolanus’ refusal to play the game of political optics, neither serving a crowd of ignorant peasants he feels should remain out of the political process or the wily, double-crossing, self-serving politicians inflaming populist unrest. The movie sets itself up for some serious wrath to befall Rome, and besides the Greeks (and Koreans), nobody does revenge like this guy Shakespeare. We’re chomping at the bit for a cataclysm of death, but then the plot just sort of skips to a hasty conclusion, ditching the wrath. It makes you realize that, except for the intriguing title character, this isn’t one of the bard’s better plays. The characters are hard to empathize with, their conflicts too repetitive without deeper insight, and an ending that would be best described as a bit of a rush job. Still, even Shakespeare’s lesser work towers above most writers’ best material. Fiennes does a fine job as director, choosing lots of disorienting close-ups to communicate the rage of his character. Coriolanus is an interesting stab at something more, it’s just that sometimes it swings and misses.
Nate’s Grade: B
When a woman runs out of a trunk and is chased down by a man who then tackles her and drags her back to said trunk, how would you react? Horror, right? This scenario is the opening minute of The Bounty Hunter, an abhorrent romantic comedy that fails in every regard. The opening scene is supposed to be funny because it’s two stars and we learn, via onscreen text, that the guy and gal are formerly married. Somehow this knowledge makes the scene… funny? Because in real life no spurned ex-spouses inflict punishment on their former halves. This disastrous and bizarre opening clued me in that The Bounty Hunter was going to be one hell of a slog to sit through. It made me want to put a bounty on the filmmakers who made this mess possible.
Milo (Gerard Butler) is an ex-cop who currently pays the bills as a bounty hunter. Nicole (Jennifer Aniston) is an investigative reporter looking into a series of suicides that might not be what they seem. She’s also due in court for hitting a police horse with her car (the reveal of her actual crime is intended to be a payoff; you?re welcome for having it spoiled). Nicole gets too close to a crime conspiracy that has connections inside the New York City police force, so goons chase her down to kill her. Naturally, she misses her court date and becomes a wanted fugitive, which brings her ex back into the picture. Milo is elated that he gets to drag his ex-wife to jail and get paid for doing so. Along the way, the couple improbably rekindles their old romance while being chased by hordes of goons with guns.
First off, The Bounty Hunter is one of the more unpleasant, tone-deaf comedies I’ve seen in years. It assumes if two people, with obviously zero chemistry, will bicker long enough in shrill voices, eventually comedy will emerge. This is the comedic equivalent of the faulty scientific theory of Spontaneous Generation. The comedy just isn’t coming. I never laughed once during the entire painful 115 minutes. I failed to crack even a smile. I sat dumbfounded, looking back and forth between the screen and my wife’s reaction, to gauge if I was truly missing something, mainly the “comedy” part. These people are unlikable and not once do you ever believe that they are capable of even expressing a realistic human emotion. These are people that shouldn’t even exist in a crummy romantic comedy. These are the background players in a crummy romantic comedy, given starring roles and proving with every exhalation why they should have remained Angry Dinner Couple #2. Milo is a jackass who’s full of himself and Nicole is whiny and annoying and they both have massive egos. Butler and Aniston have various acting abilities, though both seem to be in rapid decline, but their hammy acting is trying to overcompensate for the film’s numerous shortcomings. They’re playing broadly, but now they’re just broad, unlikable idiots rather than unlikable idiots. The only way anybody could like these characters is imagining that they’re completely different people.
The premise itself routinely destroys any plausible sense of believability. Milo chases down his ex-wife in scene after scene, taunting her, spitefully laughing at her misfortune, harassing and threatening her. At NO POINT WHATSOEVER in the entire movie does a single person look at this ongoing relationship and cry foul. Nobody calls the police, nobody intervenes, nobody notices what explicitly looks like a woman being stalked and kidnapped by a creep. At no point does Milo flash a badge to at least provide some context or explain his actions, so scene after scene looks like a blatant kidnapping with the female captive kicking and screaming. There is nothing wacky or amusing in watching a world of apathetic rom-com extras ignoring what is obviously somebody in trouble. The fact that Milo can get away with this behavior in a gala of public venues only makes the movie, and every living being within it, infinitely dumber.
The very nature of the comedy oddly results in plenty of cruel slapstick. Nicole has an officemate, Stewart (Jason Sudeikis), who is smitten with her after a drunken bout of making out. He follows her to Atlantic City and eventually gets hijacked by the goons after Milo. There are several astonishing scenes that just involve the goons torturing Stewart. They hit him in the leg with a golf club, they inject a horse tranquilizer into his neck, and all of this is somehow supposed to be funny. It’s really just mean and rather distasteful. The fact that The Bounty Hunter thinks that this situation is a comedy goldmine speaks volumes to me. Watching a dweeby character repeatedly get injured is not funny on its face, and it’s even less funny when the film just lets it keep happening without comment. Stewart doesn’t deserve his pain and neither does the unfortunate audience watching this garbage.
Director Andy Tennant (Hitch, Fool’s Gold) and screenwriter Sarah Thorp (Twisted) wouldn’t know comedy if it chained them to a car door. Tennant’s idea of comedy is to stretch the comedy, play things as big and as long as possible. There are plenty of moments that have a rather slipshod comedic setup (oh look, they’re chasing a guy on a golf course in a golf cart! This has to end well right?), and then the movie just keeps going and going, long after what was designed to be funny crashed, burned, and had its ashes scattered at sea. His visual style also leans on bright pastel colors that heighten the cartoonish atmosphere. The comic set-ups are along the lines of? Milo chains Nicole to bed. She crawls over him to reach for gun. Sexual dialogue about a “gun.” Milo chases a guy on stilts. Stilts! How could you resist that? And then at one point Nicole tries to make a break for it in a rickshaw. I’m already not laughing. And then the movie wants to be an action caper and lo does it fail miserably at this as well. Nicole is being chased by a bevy of goons because she knows too much. Milo is also being chased by his own bevy of goons that want to collect on his gambling debts. Then there’s a mutual friend/cop who may be dirty or might not be, but it’s just way too many extraneous characters chasing after the likes of Milo and Nicole.
Thorp lacks an ear for dialogue. She seems to have some basic grasp on the ingredients of funny, but she can’t make them come together and work. Every line alternates between being clumsy, obvious, or clumsily obvious. We’re supposed to be amused by Milo and Nicole’s banter. It’s grating, like you’re stuck in someone else’s miserable family vacation. There’s a moment in the end where Milo has distracted the bad guys and come to save his ex-wife, and then instead of bolting they sit and glumly talk about the failed state of their relationship. Could that not have waited until you were safe? The tone is decidedly uneven and the second half of the film feels like an eternity. The comedy completely gets smothered in the last half because now the movie wants to be taken seriously and we’re supposed to care about the characters getting back together, as if their reconciliation was ever in doubt. Thorp’s screenplay feels like a pastiche of 1000 different movies. There isn’t an original thought anywhere inside this movie. Even worse, there isn’t anything funny. This is the kind of movie that you say, “Well, it had its moments,” except The Bounty Hunter doesn’t even have those “moments.”
The Bounty Hunter is a colossal miscalculation on the part of everyone involved. It is neither funny nor romantic in any sense, it’s weirdly cruel and very casual about it, and the entire movie exists in some contrived, sketchy realm of reality that only exists in the furthest reaches of the rom-com universe. I find it funny (much funnier than anything in this movie) that Butler and Aniston were rumored to be dating after filming this movie. They have no screen chemistry whatsoever, though they can argue in annoying tones effectively. As the film neared its merciful end, I thought about calling somebody to round up those responsible for such an egregious waste of time and money. It’s not just that The Bounty Hunter is a bad movie; it’s a woefully clumsy and excruciating movie even considering the depths of romantic comedies. And if anybody sat through The Ugly Truth, or Over Her Dead Body, or anything with Freddie Prinze Jr. in it, then you know exactly how alarming that statement is.
Nate’s Grade: D
Taking a few lessons from the grisly Saw franchise, this revenge thriller follows Clyde (Gerard Butler) track and kill the men responsible for murdering his wife and child. Except that pretty gets resolved in 15 minutes. The rest of the movie is Clyde’s misguided, morally queasy assault on the justice system; the judges, lawyers, police officers that keep a dying system going, letting guilty murderers walk. Clyde is specifically targeting the prosecutor (Jaime Foxx) that made a plea bargain instead of risking his conviction percentage at a trial. This is a violent vision that wants to rewrite our very Constitution, questioning giving accused murders the same considerations as soccer moms. The movie can come across as a conservative, Death Wish-style fantasy against the judicial system and those pesky civil liberties afforded to everyone. While shrouded in the guise of being a bloody thriller, the movie’s idea of moral ambiguity is pretty thin. Its ethical arguments don’t stand a second line of questioning. Sure, director F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job) can put together an exciting and tense sequence, and the film is filled with surprise, and Butler arguably gives his best performance since 300, but while I was entertained I was also offended at being expected to cheer every time Clyde knocked off another innocent citizen.
Nate’s Grade: C
Can’t a woman ever catch a break in romantic comedies? The genre occasionally just comes across as contemptible against women. On screen, female figures will fight against misogyny, but then how often do they usually just give in? How often do the female characters change to suit the male characters? Usually, the male romantic lead has some kind of boneheaded secret, but it’s really the women that do all the changing and the man is left off the hook. It’s somewhat appalling and amazing that the unappealing romantic comedy The Ugly Truth was written by three women and produced by Katherine Heigl. I guess they wanted to prove that women could be just as capable of self-sabotage.
Abby (Heigl) is a career-driven TV news producer who’s a bit unlucky when it comes to love. She has a steep checklist of qualifications for a prospective mate. She is aghast when her boss hires Mike (Gerard Butler), a rude public access host of the dating advice show “The Ugly Truth,” to shore up ratings. Mike is an uncivilized shock-jock who dispels pearls of wisdom like, “No man wants to date a fattie.” Abby and Mike bicker from an ideological divide. But when an attractive doctor (Eric Winter) movies in next door to Abby, she agrees to follow Mike’s dating advice. He coaches her on how to win over the doctor, and it generally seems to be working. Of course now Mike thinks he may have fallen in love with Abby as well. Oh what complications await.
The humor of The Ugly Truth doesn’t even aspire to be sophomoric; it’s questionable whether the comedy even reaches juvenile levels. It’s tasteless and piggish, but the weird part is that it comes across as knowledgeable on the subject of sex as a ten-year-old kid who just discovered his dad’s secret stash of Playboys. It talks about the right stuff but does so in a clueless manner. It’s like an exaggerated randy cartoon that chiefly plays to a male fantasy. The movie feels that the height of comedy is when Abby wears a pair of vibrating panties to a business dinner, and oh no, some little kid is playing with the remote. So Abby is writhing and convulsing while trying to deliver a business speech. It’s the female orgasm turned into a cartoon. I won’t even get into the icky implications that Abby does not even get to control her orgasm, that she is held hostage by the whim of a child (a boy, no less). It just comes across as morally queasy if you think more about it, which may be why Heigl is practically rolling around on the table and chirping like a dolphin. Meg Ryan has nothing to worry about in the world of public displays of an O-face. At least in that movie, the joke was on the audience, and the man, and the woman was in a position of control. I even saw this routine already with a vibrating egg in the 2006 hard-core sex drama, Shortbus.
It doesn’t get much better. There’s a moment at the ballpark where Abby spills her drink onto her date’s lap, so she furiously tries to rub it out, which in crazy movie world means the man instantly attains pleasure. If that wasn’t enough, the movie then takes another step and displays this ordeal on the ballpark’s Jumbotron. And if even that isn’t enough, the movie takes yet another step to obscure what Abby is really doing, so all you see is her bobbing head by the crotch of her date. It’s not really funny because it’s so forceful to the point of being unpleasant. Abby is the butt of most jokes and after awhile it just seems cruel. The jokes recycle the same lousy observations about the differences between men and women. Men want sex. Women want relationships. Men are cretins. Women are crazy. Men like boobies. Blah, blah, blah. This time there’s just more bad language. There’s nothing truly adult here, either in wisdom or comedy. Just because you imply oral sex and throw out a few F-bombs doesn’t mean that your romantic comedy is any more sophisticated and relevant. The Ugly Truth just reeks of desperation.
The central characters don’t even come across as believable for a romantic comedy. Abby is an intelligent professional woman who will stand up to rampant misogyny in the workplace. She resents Mike’s attitude that the only value women serve is to please men. So then it would only be natural that she follows Mike’s coaching to win the heart of the hunky doctor living next door. She clearly believes that she must become a sexed-up twit to win over a doctor. What? Excuse me, come again? The characters are at the mercy of whatever contrivances the plot requires. Predictably, this is yet another movie where two characters hate each other for two acts only to finally realize in the last act that, surprise, they’re really in love. Because we know the inevitable coupling, an audience likes to pick up on moments that might help explain how we got to our final romantic destination. Will the crude dude really have a mushy heart deep down? Will our icy businesswoman be able to let her hair down and enjoy the messiness of life? Have you ever seen a romantic comedy before and therefore know the answers to these questions? In The Ugly Truth, I could not explain why either of these people would fall in love with the other. I’m sure there are plenty of great backstories where people realized their true love in the basket of a hot air balloon. Seriously, the climax takes place in a hot air balloon and Abby asks, “Why do you love me?” to Mike. “Beats the shit out of me,” he replies. This is intended as a moment of romantic clarity. I view it as the screenwriters giving up, having failed to establish even a remotely credible relationship in a genre replete with easy choices.
I’m actually a fan of Heigl (27 Dresses) and think that she seems like a natural fit within the romantic comedy universe. She’s expressively comedic, has good timing, and she knows how to hit her jokes hard. She can wait until she’s older to do a family drama because right now there’s gold in them thar genre pictures (practice the finer points of singing into a hairbrush and dancing around a coffee table). But The Ugly Truth is a waste of her ability. Abby is a tightly wound control freak and Heigl plays her without an ounce of warmth. Butler (300) can still come across as likeable even if his character is cheerily boorish. He doesn’t hide his natural Scottish brogue too well, though. He’s got more comic firepower and he openly mocks himself, which makes him more appealing as a character. However, there isn’t much in the way of chemistry between Heigl and Butler, only combativeness. Their fighting is the only emotion that seems real.
So what is the ugly truth of The Ugly Truth? I suppose if you’re a woman, you better not be successful, talented, smart, or slightly overweight. And your dating failures are completely your own fault. And you better be willing to put out or at least dress a little provocatively. And don’t expect your man to change any of his ways, simply lower your standards. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the concluding wisdom from our trio of female screenwriters. Heigl and Butler squander their talents in such a charmless battle of the sexes cartoon. There’s little in the way of wit or insight or even properly executed comedic payoffs. The Ugly Truth needs to be atoned for. It’s rarely funny and it’s insulting and unflattering to both sexes. It exists squarely in the world of exaggerated male fantasy, peculiar for a genre defined by female wish fulfillment. At my screening, there was a family who brought their adolescent kids with them. I could hear pre-teen giggling at the more slapstick-heavy jokes and heard lots of questions whenever something sexual was discussed. At one point, Heigl covers the eyes of a child and says, “This is not for kids,” and I guess that family finally got the message because they left shortly after. Except this movie isn’t intended for anybody. Everyone in the theater should have followed suit.
Nate’s Grade: D+
I’m a fan of Guy Ritchie’s convoluted cockney comedic crime capers (wow, check out that alliteration), but this movie is just plodding and dull. The trouble is that Ritchie works best when he has one foot in the fantastic, with comically over-the-top and menacing underworld personalities. A Ritchie movie usually involves a lot of crisscrossing characters, but this is his first film where I couldn’t keep the folks straight, I couldn’t understand much of the personal connections, I couldn’t understand the purpose of the various characters and their various interplay, and frankly, I never bothered to care. RocknRolla has maybe two colorful characters (all hail Tom Wilkinson as a sleazy real estate gangster), but the rest of the movie is overstuffed with bland and forgettable toughs. What the hell are Ludacris and Jeremy Piven doing here? You could eliminate half of the cast and the movie would barely be affected. This movie is just way too straight and square for its own good. Ritchie is still a top-notch visual stylist, and the movie has a terrific deep focus digital video cinematography, but there are very few moments or visual flourishes in this flick that prove to be remotely memorable. I hope Ritchie does not make good on his promise to continue telling more stories with these characters and in this style because this many needs to get back to what he does so well, and that is telling the darkly comic escapades of larger than life Dick Tracy-esque villains and scoundrels.
Nate’s Grade: C
The story of the 300 is the story of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C, 150 years before Alexander the Great. Xerxes (Rodrigo Santiago) has deemed himself a “God king” and his Persian army has been conquering Asian nations and acquiring the most massive military force of its time. He sets his sights on conquering Greece, and to do so must go through the narrow passage of Thermopylae.
King Leonidis (Gerard Butler) assembles 300 of his finest Spartan warriors to thwart the Persian invasion. The Spartans were the super soldiers of their time, a society that valued brute strength and the honor of combat. Children born with imperfections were cast onto the rocks to perish; the society couldn’t afford a weak link in its protection. One day a Persian emissary rides into Sparta carrying the skulls of other kings and princes and a message from Xerxes: submit or you’re next. Well, after the emissary insults Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), he refutes the message and kicks the emissary down a giant black pit in the middle of town (is this where they dump their garbage?). Thus, as they say, it is on. The Greek city-states have no sense of nationalism, so Leonidis commands little support to thwart the advancing Persian hordes. The Spartans have discipline and superior equipment, and because of these advantages they are able to hold back overwhelming numbers from the Persian army.
Back at the home front, Queen Gorgo is wheeling and dealing behind the scenes to state her case to the Spartan assembly. She needs to shore support for more troops to help her husband. Theron (Dominic West) is a member of the priesthood that looks to sexually charged Oracles for guidance. However, he’s willing to drop his pacifist stance if the queen drops her robe and grins and bares it.
Xerxes is not a happy “God king.” He tries appealing to Leonidis, insisting that if he will simply bow down and relent than he will be spared. “Imagine what horrible fate awaits my enemies when I would gladly kill any of my own men for victory,” he threatens. Leonidas replies, “And I would die for any of mine.” The two men (well one man and one God king) go back to their corners ready for another round of this epic slugfest.
The action sequences are intense and director Zack Snyder (2004’s Dawn of the Dead) heightens their realities with surreal touches. He fondly gives life to the bloodshed and exaggerated combat popularized from Frank Miller?s graphic novel. The Sin City author has created another testosterone-soaked hyper-real adventure. The movie doesn’t even flirt with the notion of rigid historical accuracy (I doubt the Spartans fought rhinos, giant mutants, and were done in by a disgruntled hunchback); the film uses Miller’s artwork as a jumping point, which means that the Spartans fight in leather codpieces and red capes and that combat is more one-on-one even after we learn about the important of the phalanx. But quibbling over inaccuracies is a waste of time, because 300 is a pumped-up, super cool action movie that plays out in a vivid dreamscape. The movie was filmed with extensive green screen, much like Sin City was, and it feels like a direct transition of Miller’s pulpy comic book. Even the farewell sex between the King and Queen is stylized and seems to be snippets or panels from a comic book.
Let’s all be honest, there’s something undeniably homoerotic about 300. The movie worships the male form, with rippling abs and bulging biceps lovingly showcased in glowing, sweaty, fawning detail. The movie also focuses on manly men primarily spearing one another with phallic weaponry while the spurting blood dances across the camera in balletic CGI spasms. There?s a definite gay appeal to this film, not that there’s anything wrong with that. However, 300 also manages to curiously be homophobic at the same time (I swear this came to me independently, Phil). Xerxes is designed very as being very fey even at a massive height of eight feet. He lays his hands against Leonidis’ shoulders and asks for him to submit, and you can’t help but wonder what the teen boys in the audience are thinking. Xerxes also has a party tent filled with whores, the disfigured, transvestites, and the overall effeminate opposite of all those Greek macho muscle men the film postures as elite specimens.
The acting is set to one tempo and that’s a mesmerizing use of yell-speak; it’s part guttural and part long-standing bellow that makes any piece of dialogue sound macho. King Leonidis growls, “SPAAAAAAAARTANS! TONIGHT WE DINE IN HELLLLLLLL!” After two hours of this primal style of speech, it becomes somewhat infectious and you want to try it in everyday situations in your life. Next time you’re out with friends at a fine dining establishment, I suggest asking for the salt thusly: “DINING PAAAARTNAAAAAH, COULD. YOOOOOOOOOU. PAAAAAAAAASS. THE SAAAAAAAAAAAALT?!” You’ll be guaranteed to get a reaction. It strains my throat even writing about the 300 yell-speak.
300 is a rousing movie going experience that plays out in a beautiful, pristine dreamscape that closely resembles our planet. The action is highly stylized and frenetic. It’s just that when the film stops to take a breath you start to look elsewhere, and when you do you realize there isn’t much below the blood-caked eye candy shell. 300 is grand spectacle that elicits thrills and chills, but the movie fails to touch on emotions beyond loyalty and courage. Both are essential for a soldier, and one as dedicated as a Spartan warrior, but the lack of substance keeps 300 from being anything other than a visually arresting, if ultimately disposable, two hours at the movies. There’s nothing wrong with a movie whose sole purpose is to quicken the pulse for a short supply of time, and 300 succeeds smashingly with this singular ambition. It is an ass-kicking history lesson that makes me wish I could learn more about Persian executioners with blades for hands at my local library.
Every culture has their own account of a last stand, a small group that heroically held off seemingly superior forces (remember the Alamo?). Snyder and Miller present an entertaining hack-and-slash primer through history that’s rarely dull and often enchanting to the senses. Deep down, there may not be much more to 300 than a lot of pretty pictures and a bunch of chiseled hunks, but that?s enough for most carnage fans with a free afternoon.
Nate?s Grade: B