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Entourage (2015)

entourage-movie-posterWhen Entourage first aired on HBO in 2004, it felt like a fun peak behind the glamorous world of Hollywood. A group of four friends were doing their best to navigate the land of dreams while staying true to themselves. For the first four seasons, Entourage felt fresh, fun, and engaging. And then it kept going for another four seasons, overstaying its welcome and proving to have worn out all credible story material several seasons before it went off the air in 2011. Creator Doug Ellin just didn’t want to leave the party, enough so that four years after finally leaving he’s back with his boys, co-writing and directing an Entourage feature film, answering all of the burning questions left unanswered. Does Ellin justify the move to the big screen, especially when you realize that the TV show already had gratuitous nudity and celebrity cameos?

Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier) is nine days removed from his honeymoon where he and his wife decided they really weren’t meant to be, so they amicably split but not before having awesome sex one last time (oh yeah!). Back on the scene, Vinnie is hungry to direct and his debut is a $100 million adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde starring Vinnie and his older brother/desperate actor, Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon). The problem is that Vinnie feels he needs more money to finish his masterpiece before he can show it to the studio. Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven), formerly Vinnie’s agent and now the head of the studio, has a lot on the line if this movie is a hit or a flop. He checks in with a financier for more money but the Texan moneyman insists his son Travis (Haley Joel Osment) go along to Hollywood and act as go-between. It’s not long before Travis is demanding drastic changes to Vince’s movie (oh no!). Here to help is Turtle (Jerry Ferrara), who works a business and a romantic angle with MMA fighter Ronda Rousey, and Eric (Kevin Connolly, who is weeks away from becoming a father with longtime girlfriend Sloan (Emmanuelle Chirqui). Can Vinni save his movie? Can Ari save his job? Can Turtle seal the deal with Ms. Rousey? Can these bros get any bro-ier (oh yeah)?

The plot of the movie is almost insulting with how little conflict there is and when there is any how easily it all wraps up into lazy wish fulfillment. The main conflict of the film is that Vinnie wants more money for his directorial debut, even after blowing through $100 million. He needs just a pinch more for his movie to be able to be complete. Rather than having a disaster on their hands, which would be far more interesting and provide a wealth of conflicts with how to salvage what is there, the biggest perceived problem with Vinnie’s debut is whether it will be a box-office blockbuster and earn awards. Everyone sings the movie’s praises, though the concept sounds ridiculous and the little footage we see looks ridiculous as well. A Jekyll/Hyde DJ who fights “the system” and spreads his magic elixir at his club concerts… does that sound like the formula for Oscars? If Entourage were still functioning as an industry satire, there might be added commentary on how something so flatly terrible would be hailed as an awards darling, but entourage stopped being a satire midway through its television run. It’s just a consistent reward system for characters that stumble from one good thing to another. Even though Vinnie has never directed before everyone can’t help themselves but talk about what a superstar he is and how great the movie will be. Will he get tons of money, acclaim, and have sex with an attractive woman, or will he get tons of money, acclaim, and have to wait to have sex with another attractive woman? What a pressing conflict for a feature film. With that established, it’s no wonder then that Travis makes such an ineffectual antagonist. I was actually enjoying his hostility toward Vince and his dumb movie. Eric might have wanted to punch him in the face but I wanted to pat him on the back.

Another significant problem is that these guys are just too old to be going through these same tired arrested development routines. I think it says everything about Entourage the TV show that after eight seasons the characters were basically the same people except each had become more successful. Their shtick was already getting tiresome on TV. Flash forward four years, though the movie takes place months after the end of the TV show, so that means we’re in 2012 I think. Anyway, these guys should have accumulated some sort of personal growth as characters and they just haven’t. Except for Turtle’s weight loss, which becomes a running joke, it feels like they’re all the same. This is also featured in the Eric/Sloan relationship, which was an exhaustive subject on the TV show. As the series ended, they were together and having a baby, and as we pick up with the movie they’re, shocker, apart again just so they can get back together. The inevitability of this storyline offers a glimpse at what Ellin felt he had to squeeze in for Eric, which amounts to sleeping with two hot women and having a crazy mix-up. When it appears like there will be actual conflict here and Eric will be held accountable for his behavior, the movie instantly shrinks away and lets him off the hook. Every character’s interaction with women is regrettable, as women are served up as easy comforts. Ronda Rousey at least takes a stand but then retreats yet again under the supposed charm of these dolts.

The humor is low-grade and often missing, substituting references and celebrity cameos for well-developed comedic scenarios. There’s some humor in how self-deluded these guys are, especially the increasingly unhinged antics of Johnny, but they’re far too bland to generate consistent laughs. Except for Johnny, the other guys aren’t even given opportunities for comedy, which makes their storylines all the more painful. Do we really need to see Turtle’s courtship of Rousey, and what does she see in this guy? None of the cameo appearances are even used beyond just a ten-second-reference point with no greater impact than on the ten seconds of that very scene. Take for instance the cameo of Mark Wahlberg and his hometown buddies. He’s an executive producer on Entourage the TV show, based upon his own experiences coming to Hollywood. He’s shilling his own reality TV show he produces in the move based upon his old HBO show. That’s like product placement/plug inception. The problem is that Ellin has confused cameos as punch lines, which was also an issue with the original show. Just because I see someone famous doesn’t mean there’s a joke attached. Oh look, it’s Pharell and he’s wearing that big hat. Thanks for showing up, Pharell. Now go cash that check, you won’t be required for any other work on this set. Scene to scene, it feels like some sort of party that the filmmakers expect you to be grateful for attending. It’s not even a fun party.

ronda-rouseyThe most entertaining person is the movie is still Ari Gold and Jeremy Piven has always played him to the hilt, winning multiple Emmys in the process. I desperately wish this was more Ari’s movie, or told more from his studio perspective, because he’s the infinitely more interesting and entertaining character than the super relaxed and super boring Vince. Even though Ari’s vulgar outbursts have grown tiresome, he’s still the most exciting character because he’s transparent about his passion but also, more than any other character in this expanded TV universe, he works for his goals. Ari doesn’t just sit by and let good stuff fall into his lap, he’s working all angles to get the desired outcome, and that’s always more interesting than watching the life of a vacant actor go from great to even better. The subplot with Ari’s former assistant Lloyd getting married feels like setup for a comic set-piece that never materializes. It does, however, provide a cameo for George Takei to officiate the wedding. Hooray, more cameos.

If you were a fan through all eight bro-tastic seasons of the TV show, chances are you’ll probably find the movie easy-going and enjoyable. If you’re like me and grew tired of their boorish antics, the repetitive humor and plotting, and the casual misogyny, then a big-screen version where the boys get to continue their ways and get more rewards, where everything works out for everyone, will be highly fatiguing. Entourage the movie doesn’t aspire for much but its stunted ambitions and minor conflicts never allow the movie to be anything other than a particularly meandering and dull extended episode. Much like the main characters, it has confused mediocrity with success and being amiable with being interesting. Ellin said in interviews that he hoped this would be the start of an Entourage trilogy of movies. Thanks to the low box-office returns, at least I can credit America with stopping that plan. If this is indeed the last ride for Vince and the boys from Queens, well they went out pretty much like they did four years ago, and isn’t it great to still be a rich white guy in Hollywood? Oh yeeeeeah. Oh yeeeeeeah.

Nate’s Grade: C

RocknRolla (2008)

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 Kingdom (2007)

Now that summer is but a hazy memory, get ready for a roll out of serious minded movies Hollywood hopes vie for serious award attention. It may be five years into the current war, but the movies are now cranking out Iraq-themed dramas that will dominate the release schedule for the approaching months. Things are about to get heavy and somber. First out of the gate, though, is The Kingdom, a film about the nebulously termed War on Terror set within the confines of an action movie. Actor-turned-director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, The Rundown) knows how to create a stylized movie that feels organic to its genre, and The Kingdom is another example of his growing cinematic pedigree.

In Saudi Arabia, a housing enclosure of American contractors and their families is brutally attacked by terrorists that have infiltrated the Saudi security. Two hundred American lives are lost and FBI agent Ronald Fluery (Jamie Foxx) is intent on leading a team of experts (Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman) to the soil of the Saudis, otherwise known as The Kingdom. The State Department refuses to authorize an investigation citing the jurisdiction of the Saudis as well as the danger of violent reprisals if agents are within reach of the perpetrators. Colonel Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom) is assigned to baby-sit the American agents and keep them stuck in red tape during their five days allotted to them. Fluery refuses to take a subservient role and works with Al Ghaazi to get some answers.

The animated opening credit crash course in Saudi history is fun and informative, however, it really doesn’t relate to The Kingdom even though the damn movie is set in that country. Curiously, the movie only makes cursory statements on the wary relationship between the Saudis and the United States, but otherwise this movie could have been dropped in any nondescript Muslim country in the Middle East. If The Kingdom was relocated to, say, Yemen, I doubt the script would need that much fine-tuning; snip some references to royalty here and there. This is a story about the balance between a moderate Middle East regime and radical elements within the country willing to buck Western influence by any destructive means necessary. I’m measurably disappointed that the movie didn’t tackle more about the unique and tenuous Saudi-U.S. relationship, but then I accepted the fact that The Kingdom wasn’t so much about a country but an ideology that knows no borders.

To that end, The Kingdom is one part CSI: Saudi Arabia, one part political thriller, and one part gung-ho Hollywood action extravaganza, and none of the parts seems to work well together as a whole. The film doesn’t work as a cohesive unit and perhaps tries to do too much. Now, this does not mean that any of those parts are not entertaining. The criminal investigating is rather interesting because of all the cultural barriers between the U.S. agents and the Saudi governing system (a miscast Jeremy Piven, as an ambassador, admonishes Janet, in a very Ari Gold way, to “dial down the boobies”). The central mystery of who is responsible is pretty thin and easy to solve, which may be why the film spends so much time finding obstacles to delay our FBI team from getting their hands on the evidence. The political thriller elements are expressed with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and yet they feel like thoughtful counterpoints to any rah-rah jingoism that The Kingdom may instill in an American audience. The climax provides plenty of fist-pumping violence but it also ends on a note about the futility of violence as well as the durability of hate. I even appreciated devoting time to interdepartmental jockeying and watching agency heads seeing who will blink first in a public relations-dominated world. The Kingdom doesn’t have a desire to become Syriana 2: No Blood for Oil, but it does possess a greater deal of intelligence and relevance than most of what big budget Hollywood is spewing out (I refuse to believe the FBI would send an agent, with a personal family tie to Israel, into a Muslim country).

Strict action fans, however, are going to have a lot of downtime on their hands. The Kingdom opens with an action sequence and closes with an action sequence, and there’s a wide gap in between those bookends. The final 20 minutes are devoted to a nail-biting ambush and rescue that transforms our FBI agents into improbable action movie warriors. Berg’s restless camera isn’t as well honed as Paul Greengraas (The Bourne Ultimatum), and sometimes you just wish the jittery cameraman would allow you to see what’s going on. I don’t know if the docu-drama emphasis is fully needed, especially when the movie jumps between shots of just two people having a conversation. Berg is a terrific director and the action sequences hit hard; I just hope he doesn’t become trapped trying to fit himself into one style.

In truth, the most intriguing part of The Kingdom is the relationship between Fleury and Al Ghazi. They begin frustrated and fighting for control, but soon, in true buddy cop genre fashion, a mutual respect forms as they search for the bad guys. The script offers helpful examples of good Movie Arabs and bad Movie Arabs, and the audience is able to easily identify the two sides. The interplay between Fleury and Al Ghazi leads to some humorous exchnages as well as some reflective opportunities, like where the men recount their families and declare they do not care why such dastardly acts were done, they just want to inflict some punishment on the rightful parties.

The acting, like the film, is a bit all over the place. Foxx seems to be on autopilot. Foxx has bunkered into his acting troupes; intense, penetrating stare, whispery dialogue recitations, and a cocksure attitude. Cooper is cranky and incredulous older timer along for the ride. Garner does her best with a character that was written for the sole purpose of concocting culture squabbles over the role of the opposite sex. She does unleash a torrent of anger and power in one very hard-core and frighteningly extreme fight scene. Bateman is playing comic relief and does sarcastic quips with great ease, but his character also gets unexpectedly thrown into a very harrowing experience and Bateman makes you feel every drop of his fear. Barhom (Paradise Now) gives a convincing performance of a man torn apart by his moral compass and the path of his country. He feels a sense of duty to protect the innocent but at the same time he is scoffed at by colleagues for helping “them.”

The Kingdom is an action movie with more on its mind than blowing up the enemy real nice like, though that also plays a key component. The pieces don’t fully add up to a whole and the film’s politics are a little tricky to get a bearing on; is this a red state movie, a blue state movie, or something for both audiences? Berg’s ambition is admirable and his film never drags out a soapbox to preach. The Kingdom is a topical movie aimed at planting seeds of debate among a mainstream audience in between their handfuls of popcorn and gulps of soda.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Smokin’ Aces (2007)

Writer/director Joe Carnahan (Narc) wants to impress an audience so bad with his muscular and macho gangster flick, but his Smokin’ Aces is vapid, nihilistic, and opines not to simply be a Tarantino rip-off, but a rip-off of a Tarantino rip-off. The premise seems ripe enough as we follow a rogue’s gallery of hitmen and killers trying to be the first to knock off a mob snitch/Vegas magician (Jeremy Piven) for a million dollar bounty. The colorful characters are introduced and some are quickly and unexpectedly taken out, but Carnahan never fully knows what to do with his bushel of baddies after he establishes their character quirks. The killers don’t really interact that much with one another and some of them hardly have any screen time at all; perhaps less would have been more in this jumbled stew. Carnahan throws out a few nifty visual tricks but it’s all superfluous and empty. Smokin’ Aces moves quickly, doesn’t make much sense in the beginning and end, and little to any of the characters have satisfying conclusions. So much of the writing feels like lame macho posturing without anything new or interesting to add to an overstuffed shoot-em-up. There are cops, robbers, plenty of gunfire, lesbians, and all sorts of convoluted twists, but it never holds together. Carnahan throws a lot of different elements together but they never extend beyond the elemental stage, so every storyline and character feels like an introduction that?s never capped off. The man has no idea what to do with what he’s started, and a karate kid on Ritalin is all the proof I need. Guy Ritchie did this territory far better service with the marvelously entertaining 2001 film Snatch. Rent that instead and save yourself the headache.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Old School (2003)

There’’s something to be said for stupid comedies. Not necessarily the ones that are centered on large men getting hit in the head or crotch. Or films that climax with pie fights. Or any film where a wild animal plays some kind of pro sport. Or any film where Rob Schneider transforms into something and learns that life is indeed tough from a different perspective. As you can see, the stupid comedy has a very dubious history but when it succeeds at creating those hearty belly laughs, the kind where your face is sore afterwards from laughing so hard, few movies are as entertaining. Billy Madison is every bit as perfect in its humor as the more critically lauded comedies Rushmore and Raising Arizona. So then, is the crass college comedy Old School funny, stupid or both? It’’s safe to say its makers did their homework and admirable achieve an unrepentant uproarious stupid comedy.

Mitch (Luke Wilson) is a real estate numbers cruncher who catches an early flight home from a business retreat only to discover his girlfriend (Juliet Lewis) blindfolded and ready to engage in an orgy. Mitch moves into a house on a local campus with the help of his two friends, smooth talker Beanie (Vince Vaughn) and man-child Frank (Will Ferrell). The trio of thirty somethings comes up with the idea to start their own fraternity and relive their youth. Their rebellion from adulthood leads to wild parties, underage girls, KY Jelly wrestling, drunken streaking, birthday party tranquilizers, eulogies featuring White Snake songs and, of course, taking it to the man that just won’t let these kids have their fun.

Wilson is relegated to the role of the straight man, which means he pretty much gets to make faces at the antics of Ferrell and Vaughn. Wilson is the “nice guy” of the film, which in comedy terms means he’s the individual tortured by others. And in other terms, means he’s normally quite bland. Consider both checked with Wilson in Old School. Wilson is a very capable actor but he’’s more or less backdrop.

Ferrell is like instant comedy, just add water and he can make anything funnier. Much has been made of Kathy Bates strutting around in her 54-year-old birthday suit (which may have led to a Best Unsupported Actress nomination) but Ferrell equally jogs around jiggling his goods with glee. Ferrell is hysterical as the film’s biggest party animal. He takes everything to another level of comedy. Stick around during the end credits just to see him kick some woman’’s shopping cart. I’’m telling you this simple action is one of the funniest things in the movie.

Vaughn has made a career of playing fast-talking louts that would normally incite people with his caustic remarks if he weren’’t so damn charming. What happened to ole’ Vince and his oodles of sex appeal? Circa 1998 or so he was going to be Hollywood’s next leading man, especially after massive exposure from Spielberg’’s Lost World. Yes, starring in the very ill conceived remake of Psycho (now with masturbation at no extra charge!) was a bad career move but it shouldn’’t have been a killer. I mean, Anne Heche went on to other films after it and this was before she was communicating with aliens with her made up language. Hell, I’’m just kind of glad to see Vaughn in films again. His running gag with a bread maker is great.

The plot of Old School is really nothing more than a paper-thin device for the jokes to spring forth from. There are only stock characters in these kinds of films. There’s the nice girl (Ellen Pompeo) that will eventually get together with our protagonist in the end. There’’s her smug boyfriend played by the smug Craig Kilborn. Jeremy Piven is a stuffy dean trying to shut the boys down to settle old grudges with them.

The women of Old School are really left with nothing to do. Either they are there to have sex with the men or, when older, marry and control them. Lewis is the opposite of the good girl as the oversexed former flame of Wilson. Leah Remini has a very brief role as Vaughn’s wife who knows when to lead him by a chain. 24‘’s Elisha Cuthbert is a naughty schoolgirl that could get Wilson in trouble after one unexpected night. The ladies of this world are really tools for the guys, but what kind of feminist analysis is needed for a film that features Snoop Dog and not one, but two correspondents from The Daily Show?

Old School is from the director and co-writer of Road Trip, a crude yet very entertaining and lively comedy. Old School is kind of a big brother companion to Road Trip, and while not rising to the level of Animal House (as every college comedy wishes to be now) the film is indeed a pristine example of a gloriously stupid comedy aided by a very game cast. See it and be prepared to laugh a few pounds off.

Nate’s Grade: B

Black Hawk Down (2001)

In the fall of 1993 Somalia was a nation being torn by civil war with feuding warlords and slowly being crippled by rampant hunger. The UN intervened to try feeding the starving nation but warlords like Mohamed Farrah Aidid cut off many of its shipments of food. The United States had plans to capture two top lieutenants of Aidid’s in the capital of Mogadishu. Over 100 Delta units and Army Rangers were sent into the heart of the Mogadishu market to execute the operation.

Things didn’t go well from the start as casualties began to pile up and first one, then two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down from ground fire. Medical vans and Humvees were continually blocked access to help the stranded soldiers by civilian roadblocks consisting of smoldering debris. It wasn’t supposed to take longer than 45 minutes. It ended up lasting over 15 hours. In the end 18 American lives were lost, over 70 were wounded, and over a 1000 Somalian lives were lost. What’s truly amazing is the courage the men displayed, and the fact that being surrounded by a sea of armed Somalians that more lives weren’t lost.

Black Hawk Down is essentially a two-hour action sequence. The emphasis of the film is on the stark recreation of the Somalia skirmish and it is indeed an achievement in grueling realism. You truly feel like you have been thrown into the middle of this firefight. With all the gunfire and chaos it leaves little time for getting to know characters. This is probably why they have names written on their helmets so the audience can attempt some semblance of who’s who.

The film is by no means for the faint of heart. Saving Private Ryan had some intense violence, but it was mainly condensed for the opening and closing 20 minutes. Black Hawk Down, on the other hand, is two straight hours of non-stop blood and gore. The violence and the intense realism are not gratuitous but indicative of the horror these men faced. If you can’t stomach a soldier plunging his entire forearm into the chest cavity of another to cut off a bullet wound – stay at home and read a good book.

Ridley Scott is on an ultra-violent hot streak after directing big name Hollywood tokens like Hannibal and Gladiator. His handling of Black Hawk Down is masterful, just for the simple fact of keeping the audience free from confusion. Throughout the duration we know who is where, where they want to go, and the general geography of the hot spot. The staging of the entire battle is beautifully filmed and the recreation of the Mogadishu market place is amazing in its fine detail. Some criticism has been projected at the film for portraying the Somalians as basically black people with guns. This is entirely true, but one must remember that the film is told from the American point of view.

The acting, as expected in a war film, takes a back seat to the heroic histrionics and the fireworks. Josh Hartnett is sullen in his duty as Staff Sergeant Matt Eversmann but always a comfortable figure to see on screen amidst the chaos. Ewan McGregor plays a soldier promoted to action instead of desk work and adds some touches of humor to the fray. Tom Sizemore is the most recognizable person as the often-frustrated Lt. Colonel Danny McKnight who fearlessly strolls across the battlefield while bullets whiz by.

Black Hawk Down for some will be the right movie at the right time, though it was never intended to be. The riveting action is more than entertaining and worth admission price, but you might leave pondering on the sacrifice few know the full details. Just make sure to go to the bathroom before the film starts.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Serendipity (2001)

There’s a universe somewhere populated entirely with down-on-their-luck lovable sweethearts and good-hearted friendly buffoons operated under the physics of romantic comedies. In this universe there is no such thing as chance, even if one leaves it up to it, and in this place what would seem like frustratingly idiotic behavior seems romantic. So is Serendipity revolving in this universe. Kate Beckinsale is a gal that leaves everything to fate, possibly even her taxes, and John Cusack is the smitten man running all over the place trying to find this mad woman. In our world Beckinsale would seem foolish or even mean-spirited, but because the two will definitely end up in each other’s arms before the credits roll we allow her to continue her ridiculous behavior. She puts Cusack in a seemingly cruel obstacle course of chance to win her heart. These people operate outside of our known world. Eugene Levy has a brief and funny part in the movie but otherwise Serendipity takes itself as being much cuter and smarter than it is.

Nate’s Grade: C

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