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Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

It is no disservice when I say that Bad Times at the El Royale joins the ranks of the finest of Tarantino imitators. It’s packed with twists and turns that keep an audience glued to the screen and continually re-evaluating the characters that we thought we knew. Because of that dynamic the movie invites the audience into becoming more involved, dissecting the information available and waiting for the next clue or plot revelation. It turns watching the film into a game and makes the experience that much more active and thrilling.

In the summer of 1969, the El Royale hotel is in for one hell of a night. The old fashioned hotel sits on the border between Nevada and California, allowing its dwindling customer base the opportunity to choose which state they would like to stay in. A group of strangers cozy up for the night including a priest (Jeff Bridges), a chatty vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), a hopeful lounge singer (Cynthia Erivo), a skittish bellhop (Lewis Pullman), and a mysterious woman (Dakota Johnson) who happens to have a hostage in her trunk. As the night progresses and the characters uncover one another’s secrets, sometimes with deadly results, menacing cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) comes swaggering to the El Royale to reclaim by force what he feels is rightfully his.

There are Act One twists and reveals in El Royale that would have been the Act Threes of other movies. Writer/director Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, The Martian) has packed his movie full of sinister intrigue as he establishes the hotel, the main characters, and an immediate impression of each in the first 15 minutes. From there, the movie is divided into chapter titles (another Tarantino motif) where we follow different room inhabitants who get 20-minute-vignette spotlights. Once in private, the characters shed their false faces and begin to reveal who they really are, or who we think they might really be, and the movie starts to resemble Tarantino’s own hidden identity parlor game, 2015’s Hateful Eight. The vignettes begin to overlap, ending on cliffhangers and then circling back with a new character as our focal point, re-watching prior scenes but from a different perspective. Goddard’s script is wonderfully clever, layering in questions and answers and a constant desire to upend audience expectations. Even though some segments will repeat, Goddard doesn’t waste time on redundancy. A character will be seen prying loose floorboards searching for something desirable, and we never have to relive the before or after of this moment from that character’s perspective because we’ve been imparted the necessary info and can put the pieces together with the next jump. I appreciated Goddard’s faith in the intelligence of his audience. The pleasure of El Royale is watching it deftly unfold as a fun, funny, startling, appealing mystery.

The characters must also be worthy of our attention, and Goddard does fine work teasing out his colorful cast of criminals and lost souls and deepening most. Everyone has something to hide at the El Royale, and finding out his or her true intentions and motivations is part of the film’s fun. I won’t spoil any of the big surprises or which characters are really putting on a show. Despite all the many plot machinations intertwined, Goddard still finds time for his film to breathe and let the characters talk, opening themselves to one another, sometimes with the assistance of dramatic irony. Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo play the best characters and deliver the best performances. Both of them are haunted by pasts they don’t feel like sharing, both are under some element of disguise to embark on finding their happy ending, and both form a sort of bond throughout the film as kindred spirits, even if they can’t fully trust one another. Bridges has the most complicated back-story but it actually links with a very real and emotional condition: memory loss. His character is (legitimately) going through early dementia and he’s losing full control of his sense of self, occasionally blanking and forgetting who he even is and how he got where he did. For a character pretending to be someone else, there’s a cruel irony to this malady. The seven main characters aren’t all on the same level (some are more plot devices than people) but Goddard knows this, making sure his 142-minute movie spends the most time with the best of them.

The actors given the best characters are also the ones that deliver the best performances, if you can imagine that. Bridges (Hell or High Water) brings a strong sense of pathos to his memory-addled priest trying to assess his life and his choices. He seems genuine in every moment, which is a feat considering his character has his share of secrets like anyone else. Erivo is a Broadway star making her film debut here, and she steals the show with her bruised sense of optimism. She’s the heart of the movie and a proven survivor, especially from a rigged system that protects predatory men. She brings a quiet power to her character as well as a believable vulnerability that makes you care. Hemsworth (Avengers: Infinity War) is all shaggy, scraggly charm as a cult leader who gets off pitting his followers, and captives, against one another. Really he likes to listen to himself speak, and Hemsworth is having a grand ole time with the part. Another actor exhibiting clear joy is Hamm (Baby Driver) who is, if you’ll pardon the pun, hamming it up with great gusto. He does a far majority of the talking for the first twenty minutes. He’s practically bouncing all over the place as an unchecked extrovert, but when alone, Hamm demonstrates an additional layer to his outlandish character. Another strong impression is from Pullman (Strangers: Prey at Night) as the lone employee eager to find absolution for his part in the El Royale’s history of sin as well as his own personal demons. The weakest of the ensemble ends up being Johnson (Fifty Shades Freed) who gets lost in her femme fatale archetype and can’t seem to find her way out again.

This is only Goddard’s second directing feature and his best directing aspect is that he knows when to linger on the written page. There are several segments that dwell in a certain emotion, elevated by Goddard’s tracking shots to continue the predicated unease. There’s one early moment where the bowels of the El Royale are revealed as hidden viewing areas to secretly record the guests doing their seemingly private illicit good times. The lead character of this vignette walks along the corridor, studying other characters and slowly realizing the implications of what he or she is finding. The scene is given a beautiful and eerie soundtrack thanks to Darlene practicing her singing, belting out “This Old Heart of Mine” like her life depended upon it, the tune taking on a sinister edge as it echoes through the dark hallway along with the tick-tock of the metronome. There’s another terrific singing suspense segment in this very same location, except with a different character spying on Darlene as she and another character work in conjunction to coordinate their movements, timing striking sounds in the room to her claps. Goddard has an adequate eye for visuals but he benefits from the gorgeously conceived and constructed El Royale setting, allowing the quirks of the rundown hotel to serve as another character to his ensemble. I enjoyed little touches, like only the Nevada side having a liquor license and the bright red line that runs down the middle of everything.

And yet there are some lingering doubts that halt me from a full-throated endorsement of El Royale, and I’ve been trying to articulate them better in the days since I watched the film. It frankly doesn’t fully come together by the end in a way that feels suitably climactic. Once Billy Lee enters the third act, the movie stabilizes and we spend time with the remaining characters assembled together to be terrorized by the cult leader. After seeing everyone else’s story in smaller vignettes with some slippery non-linear perspectives, we’ve finally come to our big confrontation and summit with everyone. Except it doesn’t feel as big as the movies needs it to be. Characters will be dispatched swiftly, and instead of it feeling shocking it feels abrupt and contrived, devaluing the character arcs that had been shuffling forward to that point. The deaths feel too ho-hum, and the final confrontation and melee too chaotic and random. The sacrifices feel wasted and sloppy rather than the payoff from some long established setup. It’s here where Goddard cannot hide his narrative trickery anymore and the machinations are exposed. I couldn’t help but feel that the final act was slowly losing the momentum and excitement that had been built carefully over the course of two hours. Billy Lee isn’t quite the force that his whispered presence has been made out to be, no fault to Hemsworth, who impresses me more and more with every new performance. It’s like by the end of his movie Goddard has realized that certain characters were inevitably just more interesting than others and he saves room for them to get a climax and brushes off the rest. Thematically I don’t quite know if it comes together with any sort of final statement about the 1960s, the dichotomy of good and evil, or anything else. It’s a final act that left me a little disappointed and realizing the end wasn’t nearly as fun as the journey.

Bad Times at the El Royale is a movie jam-packed with twists, plot turns, and colorful characters played by great actors who are clearly enjoying themselves, given the room to roam and stretch their muscles as exaggerated and dangerous criminal cohorts. Goddard’s film is impeccably structured up until its final act where it feels like the answers and confrontations cannot match the mysteries and setup that had been laid before. If you’re a fan of the top level of Tarantino imitators, like Things to Do In Denver When You’re Dead or Lucky Number Slevin, or enjoy unpacking a good mystery, then check into the El Royale, a hotel where maybe the cockroaches have the best chance at survival.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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Tag (2018)

Tag is based on the true story of a group of grown men who continue to play a highly competitive game of tag for 30 years. There are even real clips of the real men before the end credits, raising the hope for a potential documentary on the subject. The Hollywood version is a sprightly ensemble comedy that’s not afraid to go silly or dark in its pursuit of laughs. Given the nature of its premise, there is a lot of slapstick to behold, but it was cleverly staged, routinely netting some big laughs from me. This is a definitely adults-only R-rated venture and the movie proudly wears this identity on its sleeve, finding strange and exciting comic detours that can walk a fine tonal line, like an ongoing bit about miscarriages that had me wincing as much as I was laughing. The main characters are all relatively familiar types; Ed Helms is the high-strung dweeb, Jake Johnson is a sarcastic stoner, Jon Hamm is a smarmy exec, Hannibal Buress is as laconic as his standup persona. There are a string of supporting characters (often female) that add very little, including a rekindled love triangle with Rashida Jones, a journalist who tags along on the game and adds nothing, and Isla Fisher as the grating, always-yelling, intense wife to Helms. Surprisingly, the funniest member of the movie is Jeremy Renner, an actor who heretofore had never shown much comic ability in movies. He’s a formidable opponent, and every time he went into his Sherlock Holmes-styled voice over detailing the steps and mistakes of his friends, I loved it. Also, strangely, Renner’s arms are actually CGI arms since he broke them days into filming. You would never be able to tell. I appreciated that Tag is directed as a comedy even during its action set pieces. It looks at action through the lens of comedy and taps into the absurdity. Overall, Tag is a fun, rambunctious comedy with some dark impulses yet it still finds room for sentiment that doesn’t feel entirely out of place. 2018 is shaping up to be the year of the hearty, enjoyable R-rated comedy with Tag joining the ranks of Blockers and Game Night. Catch it while you can if the prospect of men behaving like overgrown children appeals.

Nate’s Grade: B

Baby Driver (2017)

Car chases are one of the greatest things in movie history. The visceral sensation, the speed, the urgency, the thrills, the syncopation of edits to carry out the escalating collateral damage and stakes, it all works to seamlessly create one of the pinnacles of the moving pictures. If you’re going to create a musical where car chases are the chief instrument, then you could do no better than having director Edgar Wright as the maestro. Baby Driver is being hailed by critics as a blast of fresh air, an eclectic wild ride of an action movie with style to spare. That’s true. Unfortunately, this is the first movie of Wright’s career where it feels like the gimmick is all there is to be had.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is the getaway driver for Doc (Kevin Spacey) and his crews. Baby was in a car accident that killed his parents when he was a child and he was left with tinnitus (a “hum in the drum” as Doc dubs it). To drown out the ringing, he listens to music at all times, including during those high-speed getaway chases. In his downtime, Baby romances Debora (Lily James) a diner waitress eager to hit the road without a map. Pulled into one more job, Baby is paired with a hotheaded group of dangerous criminals (Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez) that could threaten his future plans with Debora.

Baby Driver is a gimmick movie, but this isn’t exactly unheard of from Wright. Each of his movies has a strong genre angle that can tip over into gimmicky, so a gimmick by itself is not an indictment. This is, by far, the least substantial film of Wright’s career. Let’s study his previous film, 2013’s The World’s End. Like the other entries in the Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), that film has a clear adoration for a certain genre and its styling, in this case alien invasion/pod person sci-fi. It didn’t just emulate the style and expected plot trappings of its genre. It spun them in a new direction while telling an engaging story on the strains of friendship over addiction and stalled maturity. It’s the heaviest and most emotionally grounded film in the trilogy. Every single moment in that movie adds up, every line, every joke, every plot beat, it all connects to form an inter-locked puzzle that would make Christopher Nolan whistle in appreciation. It wasn’t just clever plot machinations of genre parody. It was a layered and heartfelt story. It all mattered. With Baby Driver, what you see is pretty much what you get.

It’s a car chase musical, a novelty that certainly entertains with Wright’s visual inventiveness and ear for music. The film has that alluring quality of wondering what will happen next, especially with its extensive collection of songs on the soundtrack. A trip to get coffee can become a long take perfectly timed so that graffiti and prop placement along street windows lines up with lyric progressions in the song. Some sonic standouts include “Bellbottoms” and Queen’s “Brighton Rock” during the climax. There’s a fun sense of discovery with the movie and each new song presents a new opportunity to see what Wright and his stunt performers do. The car chases are impressively staged and the stuntwork has dynamism to go along with Wright’s high-level energy output. The emphasis on physical production goes a long way to add genuine excitement. This isn’t the ricocheting CGI car chase cartoons of the Fast and Furious franchise. As far as gimmicks go, it’s at least an amusing one. Perhaps I’m just a musical philistine, or more likely my brain just isn’t as accustomed to sound design idiosyncrasies, but I actually wish Wright had done more with his central gimmick. I’m fairly certain I missed half of the connections with the music. If this is the film’s calling card then it needs not be subtle; rub my face in all the clever edits and how the gunshots equal the percussion, etc.

The ceiling imposed upon Baby Driver is because of its characters. Wright and his collaborators have done effective work shading depth to genre characters in the past, even Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which examined unhealthy usury relationships and entitlement. The characters in Baby Driver are defined by their archetype designations and often behave in unbelievable ways just because the plot necessitates them. The worst offender is Baby’s love interest, Debora. Her initial scenes with Baby are sweet and work on their own, but when she’s ready to abandon her life for a guy she met days ago, Debora comes across like one of those people who write engagement proposals to incarcerated felons. Her decision-making leaps don’t feel plausible. I don’t think she’s acknowledged her lingering co-dependency issues. The problems are magnified when so much of the second half involves Debora being put in harm’s way or needing to be rescued. Then there’s Baby, a kid with a conscience who uses music as an escape figuratively and literally. He’s too bland and uncomplicated for the lead. Baby takes care of a deaf foster father. He surreptitiously records conversations to remix them into Auto-Tune cassettes. Yes that really is as dumb as it sounds especially when those conversations involve criminals. All we know about Baby is he’s nice, he wants out, and he’s good at driving. Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars) doesn’t have the space to do anything but look cool and springy. The supporting characters are assorted hardasses and nincompoops. Foxx (Django Unchained) seems like he’s there always to push contrived conflict.

As a genre movie with above-average execution, Baby Driver is going to be a suitably enjoyable time at the movies for most. Wright couldn’t make a boring movie if he tried. However, it doesn’t feel like he tried hard enough with Baby Driver, at least to make a full-fledged movie. It’s an admirable assemblage of music and visuals but after a while it feels like a collection of music videos, albeit with highly impressive stuntwork. The movie suffers from overblown hype because it doesn’t have the characters or story to balance the action. There isn’t much of an attachment to what’s going on beyond the surface-level thrills of Wright’s central gimmick. As a result, you may get restless waiting for the next song selection to kick into high gear to provide another pert distraction. It feels like the gimmick has swallowed the movie whole and Wright was too busy timing his precise edits to notice the absence of appealing, multi-dimensional characters. Baby Driver is a fun movie with plenty of sweet treats for your senses but it’s too devoid of substance to be anything other than a rapidly dissipating sugar rush.

Nate’s Grade: B

Bridesmaids (2011)

To refer to the bawdy new comedy Bridesmaids as a “female Hangover” seems disingenuous and a facile comparison cooked up in some marketing laboratory. This is nothing like The Hangover, a conceptual comedy that, can we all agree, was a funny movie but not the funniest movie of all time? Bridesmaids is a byproduct of the Judd Apatow comedy factory, and that’s what it feels like. This is no mere concept comedy built around a madcap premise. This is a magnificent character-based comedy that lets the women finally be in on the joke rather than the butt of it. Bridesmaids proves that the ladies can do everything their gender counterparts can do and better.

Annie (Kristen Wiig, who co-wrote the screenplay) is a woman down in the dumps. She lost her bakery due to the crummy economy, she lives with a pair of cretin roommates, and she’s a sleazy creep’s (Jon Hamm, wonderfully douchey) number three choice whenever he needs some casual sex. Her lifelong best friend, Lillian (Maya Rudolph), has just gotten engaged and asked Annie to be her Maid of Honor. Annie is threatened by Helen (Rose Byrne), a rich socialite who has grown close to Lillian in Annie’s absence. Helen is also apart of the bridal party and is always at the ready with a classy alternative when Annie stumbles. Annie gets pulled over by state patrol Officer Rhodes (Chris O’Dowd) who takes pity on her but warns her to get her taillights fixed. She continues to meet Rhodes at different spots and the two seem to be circling something romantic. Annie’s life seems to be unraveling just as Lillian’s is coming together.

Apatow himself has been accused of making overly guy-centric comedies about rude adolescent man-children (I wouldn’t agree fully with that statement), and people have been rightfully asking when do the girls get a chance? When will the ladies be able to be something other than “love interest” or “device that triggers male character’s metamorphosis into maturity” (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, even from a clear male POV, was rather charitable and empathetic with its feminine characterizations). Well here it is, folks. Bridesmaids let’s the ladies are just as rude, crude, crass, and sexual as the men in the comedy universe. Bridesmaids is a terrific gross-out adult comedy told from a distinct feminine point of view. They can be just as crude as the dudes. But what really sets it apart is that it’s even more so a story about the dynamics of female friendship and the pain of growing apart due to the circumstances of life. Much like the joyous male camaraderie as one of the hallmarks of an Apatow film, we get to witness an entirely female dynamic that feels authentic. These women, their troubles, their friendships, all feel real and deeply felt. Even the supporting characters get a chance to be fleshed out with added dimension rarely seen in mainstream comedies, like Becca (Elli Kemper) and Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey) confiding in each other about their disappointments with married sex. In other movies these ladies would just be “Bridesmaid #3” or “One-note Bridesmaid,” and while Becca and Rita could both be designated as types, they transcend classification when the script allows them to become rounded out as people. Another hallmark of an Apatow production, this is a true ensemble work.

You really do care for these people because of how relatable they are. I’ve never been the operator of a uterus, but that doesn’t stop me from being able to greatly relate to the anxieties of the female characters on screen. I know how significant female friendships are, and that is the central focus of the movie. You buy the relationship between Lillian and Annie, the comfort level they have with one another, the importance, the history, and you feel the pains of Annie’s plight. You feel like the entire bridal party could actually be a group of friends instead of a collection of wacky caricatures. These feel like real people, and people you want to see experience good times. Even the treatment of Helen feels thoughtful. She’s not this shrewish antagonist, but a trophy wife trying to impress the one person she could call a friend in her own life. For Helen, her friendship with Lillian means the world to her. She comes across as another real person, albeit a fabulously looking one. Annie’s romance with Officer Rhodes is indelibly cute and the duo has a warm, charming interaction. You pull for their union. Their relationship spawns a very funny sequence where Annie tries an assortment of illegal driving activities to get his attention. A romantic subplot is expected but that doesn’t mean it has to feel like rote, and in Bridesmaids the romance feels just as authentic and charming as the female friendships.

But don’t let my adoration with its character-work fool you into thinking this is some sort of “chick flick,” a divisive term tragically slapped onto anything female-centric or female-led. Just because there is rarely a Y chromosome on screen does not mean that this is some frilly, frothy sentimental fantasy replete with a “trying on clothes” montage and some sequence where the main characters break out into song in a bar. A wedding central to the plot should hopefully not be disqualifying for male audiences (men don’t get married too?). This is not a story about a crazed, jealous woman who wants to shiv another pretty lady in her pretty lady ribs because she stole her Maid of Honor duties. The cinema is littered with plenty of awful movies that revolve around women battling over petty squabbles. This is not that movie. It is not about who wields the title of Maid of Honor. It is a tale about your friends making new friends, entering new phases of their lives and possibly leaving you behind in the process. It’s about insecurity and holding onto those important people in your life, despite a gradual pulling apart. Relationships change over time, and it’s terrifying to have to adjust to the people closest to you taking lesser stations. It’s terrifying to feel like you’re being pushed out by new people. That sounds fairly universal to me, not some chick flick pabulum.

There were several spots where I laughed so hard I was crying; the film kept me in fits of laughter throughout. The fact that a great majority of the comedy is character-based and not situation-based makes the jokes richer and more satisfying. Even a hard-to-top gross-out sequence where the girls are trying on bridal dresses at a chic store and all start losing control over their bodies due to food poisoning is related to character. Annie took the bridal party to a cheap restaurant to save money, because she’s too proud to admit her own penniless nature and too stubborn to allow Helen to swoop in and claim another victory. So the women all get terrible bouts of food poisoning, which causes them to spew vomit and forces Megan to make one very unfortunate decision with a sink (“Don’t look at me!” she bellows). The movie doesn’t shy away from the gross-out goods but doesn’t overly rely upon them for surefire gags.

The film has several terrific comedic set pieces that connect back to the fractious relationship between Annie and Helen. The two get into a competition when it comes to party toasts. They must upstage the other, asserting who has the closest relationship with Lillian. Just when you think it’s done, one of them grabs the mic again and takes it to another level. Bridesmaids has several comic set pieces that carry on longer than you would expect for a comedy. Director Paul Feig (director of episodes of Arrested Development, The Office, and co-creator with Apatow of Freaks and Geeks) has the resolve to keep the situation alive, steadily building the comic momentum as situations get more and more out of hand, but pulling back before we reach farce levels. The movie goes one step further, convinced that the audience would be there to follow. The movie expertly lays out setups, finds satisfying payoffs, and ties up its storylines in worthwhile ways.

The dialogue is sharp and jokes work on a very fundamental level of context and defying expectation. Annie is terribly nervous to fly. She sits next to a passenger (Wiig’s co-screenwriter, Annie Mumolo) who is also deadly afraid of flying. “I had a dream last night. This plane went down,” she sys. “You were there.” That last part just turns an okay joke into a great joke. There’s a great visual gag where people keep assuming that the unkempt men standing behind Annie at a party is her husband or boyfriend. And then there’s a conversation between Annie and Officer Rhodes about being born for a profession. He encourages her to get back to baking, relating that if he were not a police officer he would still “patrol the streets and… shoot people.” These are just a few small examples I wanted to share that illustrate that, to its core, Bridesmaids is a funny story and knows the fundamentals of comedy.

Wiig has been a comic that I have found grating due to her ever-present dominance of Saturday Night Live. Her stable of wacky characters grew tiresome, but now she gets to play someone who has three dimensions. Annie is often as big an antagonist in the story as Helen. She can be self-destructive and stubborn and when she finally decides to stop being quiet is when people get hurt in her wake. You give her some latitude because, like many comedies, Annie begins as a put-upon character and has to regain her dignity and put her life together. Her life hasn’t turned out as she’s hoped, and how relatable is that? Wiig is a tremendous center for the film. Her rapid-fire eyes communicate so much nervousness and indecision, as well as her crinkly defensive smiles. But she’s also funny, tremendously funny as she loosens up and becomes more aggressive. The film is impeccably cast from top to bottom, another Apatow hallmark.

What Melissa McCarthy does in this movie is incredible. You’ve never seen a person steal a movie at this high degree of theft. McCarthy, best known from the TV show Gilmore Girls, is Megan, the sister of the groom and an unapologetically brash woman with limitless confidence. She’s built like a linebacker but, thankfully, no attention is made to the fact that McCarthy is an overweight woman. That’s not significant to her character, though it does provide for a nice character moment as she confides to Annie late about the horror of being fat in high school. It’s not funny because she’s overweight; she’s just a brash woman without a filter who happens to be overweight. The fact that nobody cracks a joke at her expense or even comments on her weight is refreshing, and a reminder that character is not confined to outward appearance. With all that said, McCarthy is flatly hilarious. There won’t be a scene that McCarthy doesn’t get in one solid belly laugh out of. She is consistently funny from scene to scene, but stays true to her character at the same time. I would love for Megan to have her own spin-off movie much like what Russell Brand earned after his scene-stealing work in Sarah Marshall.

Bridesmaids is a comedy and it is one hell of a comedy. It may no be the best movie under the ever-expanding Apatow banner, but it is easily the funniest film yet. Yes, I said it. Bridesmaids is funnier than Knocked Up, The 40-Year Old Virgin, Superbad, and all the rest. Wiig deserves to become a star and so does McCarthy. This movie left me sore from laughing and giddy with happiness. It’s funny, touching, and genuinely entertaining, and destined to become a modern classic worth revisiting. I foresee this becoming a word-of-mouth sensation this summer, particularly from appreciative female ticket-buyers who feel like they finally have a worthy, relatable, very funny comedy that they can call their own. It’s kind of like the old slogan for female deodorant: strong enough for a man, made for a woman. That may sound too flippant, so I’ll just put it like this: do yourself a favor and RSVP ASAP for the funniest film of 2011 and one destined to charm members of both genders.

Nate’s Grade: A

Sucker Punch (2011)

Director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) has been drubbed in many circles for being an empty visual stylist, someone in the Michael Bay camp that worships at the altar of style. Snyder is a nearly unparalleled visual stylist. If only he would use his considerable talents for the purposes of good. I’m not a Snyder basher by trade, and have enjoyed all three of his previous films to some extent, but it’s obvious that Snyder spends much of his time scribbling down imagery he thinks will be cool, and then figuring out how to connect it all at the last minute. So Sucker Punch gives us a bevy of highly stylized, anime-influenced imagery complete with a posse of full-lipped ladies with heavy fake eyelashes operating heavy weaponry in fetish-style clothing. If you were expecting much else, then you’re the one who’s been suckered.

Baby Doll (Emily Browning) is a 20-year-old sent to live the rest of her days locked away inside a dilapidated mental ward thanks to her wicked stepfather. He even makes arrangements with a dastardly orderly (Oscar Isaac) to lobotomize Baby Doll to shut her up for good. Then step dad can swindle the family estate for all its worth. While in this asylum, Baby Doll imagines she’s inside a different world to survive. Her fantasies offer her a world to escape to. Inside, she plots with a group of other patients, including Rocket (Jena Malone), her feisty take-charge sister, Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung). Together, along with the sage advice from a mysterious mentor (Scott Glenn) in her visions, they will collect four items to secure their escape. But time is of the essence. The lobotomy doctor, known as the “High Roller” in the fantasy (played in a major surprise by Mad Men‘s Jon Hamm), is scheduled to come do his needle through the brain trick in a matter of days. It’s up to Baby Doll to utilize the therapeutic techniques of Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino) and retreat into her mind to find the key to save herself.

You can tell Snyder was trying to crowbar in a meek message about female empowerment, but I ask you: is it female empowerment when the women have to be reduced to pretty play things that still operate in the realm of male fantasy? Just because women fight back does not mean that you are presenting a feminist message. Baby Doll’s mode of power is erotic dancing? And her main outfit looks like a grown replica of Sailor Moon’s, which should be a dream come true for just about every male fan of the animated series. You think having characters in short skirts and names like “Baby Doll,” “Sweet Pea,” and Sucker Punch is no more about female empowerment than some ridiculous women’s prison movie where they all fall into long lesbian-tinged shower sequences. That’s female empowerment, right? It’s got women loving women, so what could be more empowering to women?

After Sndyer’s kitchen sink approach to storytelling, the one thing that Sucker Punch lacks, in abundance, is sense. There is no real connective tissue to anything happening onscreen. Snyder employs two different framing devices before slipping into the metaphorical delusions of a third. I felt like I was tumbling through the Inception dream levels without a roadmap or a competent guide. Considering that the first framing device, Baby Doll being locked away in a mental ward, is only featured onscreen for ten minutes, Snyder could have exercised the bit completely. The second framing device, that Baby Doll has imagined her institutionalized imprisonment into a vaguely 1920s-esque burlesque theater/brothel seems just as unnecessary, but whatever. But it’s the third metaphorical level that gave me a headache (more on that later). The premise alone, girls use fantastic imagination to escape from a cruel prison, is good enough to tell a compelling tale. But there desperately needs to be a connection to those images, a relationship between the fantasy and the movie’s reality. In Sucker Punch, there is no substantial relationship to anything. It is a barrage of images meant to arouse and entertain but little more. The different metaphorical levels are only metaphors for, well, hot girls kicking ass, which isn’t so much a metaphor as it is a literal translation. And when the girls are at play in those fantasy sequences, the movie drops all pretenses of any purpose. It’s not just reality defying, which is what movies were meant for, but it defies its own narrative. If I can just cram whatever cool junk I want then what purpose do I even need to set up characters or develop a plot. When the ladies are off on their fantasy tours, they’re invincible and no law of physics, or man, applies to them. It zaps all danger from the screen, and with that, all tension. They all become superheroes who just run around doing super heroic things. And I might have cared if I felt there was any real purpose for what I was watching other than Snyder wanting to scratch a few cinematic itches.

The girls’ quest to attain their needed items for escape is laid out in the most shockingly lazy manner. Snyder uses the power of dance, yes dance; you see, when Baby Doll starts movin’ them hips of hers, she plunges into a fantasy world of her own doing. And then we witness all sorts of crazy things, and she returns back from the fantasy and the mission is complete. The girls have stolen whatever item they were after. I was expecting the fantasy binges to have some direct correlation with the makeup of their world, so that, say, if they have to cross a massive bridge to gain their item, in the brothel they have to cross some massive barrier. It’s the height of indolence for Snyder to simply type “character dances” and then we get an indulgent fantasy sequence and the job is done. We don’t see the steps the girls had to do to win their freedom, the relationships between fantasy and reality, or any clever plotting along the way. There’s no cleverness at all to be had. The fantasy is not just an escape for the characters; it’s an escape from having to do any thinking when it came to storytelling. Imagine what would happen to other works of cinema if they followed this same approach. Why watch the back-and-forth arguments of a courtroom thriller when we could just have “prosecutor dances” and cut to the case being over? Or why bother watching the complicated struggles of a relationship drama when we can have “guy dances” and just cut right to the shot of the camera spinning around the couple kissing? It’s like a fast forward button that eliminates all plot development. Isn’t that much more satisfying? What, you mean it isn’t because it’s a self-indulgent diversion that has no connection to the main storyline and fails to add anything?

I think ultimately Snyder just really wanted to make the most expensive music video of all time. The dialogue is clipped and kept to a minimum, mostly of the expository “you need to do this now” variety. There are long stretches of full-length musical interludes by Tyler Bates (300) and Marius De Vries (Moulin Rouge). The duo orchestrates some uninspiring fuzzy alt covers of alt songs, so familiar tunes like Bjork’s “Army of Me” and the Pixies’ “Where is My Mind?” get a polish they didn’t need (how many times is that Pixies song going to be covered?). Worst of all is a bizarre mash up of Queen’s “I Want It All” and “We Will Rock You” with a rap track. And of course no film that aimed to ape the tropes of Alice in Wonderland would be complete without some version of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” this time covered by talented Icelandic singer Emiliana Torrini. The entire musical oeuvre is a bunch of distorted, loud, blaring guitars meant to amplify the visual noise.

Sucker Punch is not so hot. The same, however, cannot be said of Browning (The Uninvited). The rosy-cheeked, pouty-lipped lovely young actress a stunning beauty. I am not immune to the charms of a pretty face. And for those who know me, it’s a huge revelation for me to say that Thora Birch (American Beauty) may just have some competition for my ultimate affections (it’s been a long drought since Ghost World, Thora). Browning doesn’t particularly act well in the movie, but then again nobody does, especially Gugino’s awful accent. But this isn’t a film about acting so much as it’s looking the part. And Browning is resplendent geek fantasies come to life, samurai swords, pigtails and all. She makes for a great moving poster. At one point, apparently Amanda Seyfried (Red Riding Hood) was going to play Baby Doll, but then that familiar roadblock known as scheduling conflicts came into being. We may have replaced one saucer-eyed actress for another.

Expect nothing more from Sucker Punch than top-of-the-line eye candy. Expect nothing to make sense. Expect nothing to really matter. In fact, go in expecting nothing but a two-hour ogling session, because that’s the aim of the film. Look at all those shiny things and pretty ladies, gentlemen. This is the perfect film for a 13-year-old kid fed on anime, comic books, and horror films and who don’t give a lick about things like plot, character, or substance. It’s like somebody combined One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with every single damn videogame cut scene in the history of time. I was waiting for the next dance/trance sequence where Baby Doll was going to start jumping on turtles and collecting coins. It’s a series of vignettes that have no connection whatsoever. Sucker Punch is really a live-action Heavy Metal, except with even less plot. This isn’t a fairy tale. This is a meth-fueled explosion of a Hot Topic store, captured in Snyder’s signature slow motion. Everyone is entitled to their own fantasies, and Browning will certainly produce plenty, but not everyone gets a $100 million dollar check to throw them all together on screen.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Town (2010)

There are many people who think they can direct. It just looks easy to people. You get to tell everybody what to do all day. Who wouldn’t want that, right? And actors always think they know everything already, so there’s a litany of actors who feel like they can make the jump from in front of the camera to behind it with ease. Not everybody is going to be a Clint Eastwood, or a Robert Redford, or even the best of the current crop, a George Clooney. Every now and then you’ll find a true surprise, like Todd Field (In the Bedroom, Little Children) or Sarah Polley (Away From Her), but most actor/director projects come across like indulgent one-time pet projects (see: Drew Barrymore’s Whip It). Ben Affleck has easily endured his slings and arrows as an actor, though I’ve always found the man to be likeable, charming, and intelligent. Even so, nobody can excuse Gigli. When Affleck tried on the director hat for 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, it was easy to be skeptical. But then critics and audiences saw the film, which Affleck also co-wrote, and realized that this guy might have some serious chops after all. The Town, Affleck’s second directorial effort, proves that Affleck has found his rightful place in movies.

Doug (Ben Affleck) is a lifelong criminal living in the working class Boston neighborhood of Charlestown. We learn that this one-square mile produces more bank robbers than anywhere else in the world. It is a neighborhood seeped in the lifestyle of crime, the silent omissions of sin. Doug and his crew’s latest heist went according to plan except for one detail. Jem (Jeremy Renner), fresh from doing a nine-year prison stint, has taken the bank manager hostage in a moment of panic. The men blindfold Claire (Rebecca Hall) and deposit her along the Boston shoreline. Doug and his guys then become alarmed when they spot Claire in their neighborhood. She lives in Charlestown. Will she recognize them? FBI Agent Frawley (Jon Hamm) check up on her and requests interviews. Is it only a matter of time before she discovers the truth? Jem wants to handle it quick and dirty, but Doug insists that he take the lead. He watches her from afar and can’t help but feel sorry for the trauma he has caused her. He asks her out for a drink after meeting her and Doug can’t stop himself from falling for her. Jem is incensed and convinced she’ll give them all away. Doug must reconcile his life?s choices and Claire now gives him a reason to finally walk away from the only life he’s known.

It didn’t take long for me to know I was in for something good. The pre-title opening sequence sets the tone and informs you that Affleck will be firmly settled in the director’s chair for some time. The opening bank heist crashes your attention. It’s filmed in quick cuts, swift camera movements, mimicking the ambush of the criminals as they throw people to the ground, upturn desks, and smash general office supplies. Then the scene cuts to a security camera footage of the same scene, and it’s static, and eerily silent and the contrast is fantastic. Then we smash right back into the fray and the chaos. Affleck refrains from the film turning into senseless genre junk. The violence in this film hurts. You feel its impact and wince at its approach, and you already get this sense before the credits even show up. Affleck wants his visceral violence to mean something, and these men of violence become more intimidating. Then there’s a scene about an hour in that had me gnawing my hand in anxiety. It all revolved around the possible reveal of an identifiable neck tattoo, where the only character who knows all the particulars of danger is Doug. He’s trying to nervously watch the eye line of the conversation, and I was physically trying to instruct the characters onscreen. The fact that I could get so caught up in a sequence of stellar tension that doesn’t involve cars, guns, or even overt threats of violence is a testament to the abilities of Affleck the director.

Doug’s crew is not a fly-by-night operation. They are honed professionals, knowing the timing codes for bank locks, how to dismantle security camera systems, and splash bottles of bleach all over the premises to eliminate usable fingerprints. And yet, when is enough enough? It feels like only days before Jem is pushing everybody for another job. They’ve barely had time to launder the money through drugs and gambling, given a cut to the local crime boss (Pete Postlethwaite), and they?re anxious for another score. Doesn’t anybody want to lie low for a while before the heat dissipates? Either this is just a conceit of only being able to work in a two-hour narrative or indicative or what a consistently dangerous life these men lead. These men know exactly where they?re headed; in fact, they seem resigned to their fate. Perhaps the expedited schedule is just another form of self-destruction or an impatient death wish, or perhaps it’s just an inflated sense of invincibility by guys who are good at what they do.

The area where The Town could have been better is with its higher ambitions. The Town dutifully delivers the goods when it comes to a crime picture. The three holdups are all satisfying, taut, well paced, and the action is choreographed in a manner that’s easy to comprehend. The middle holdup creates some dynamic images as the men speed through Boston dressed in plastic nun masks and armed with machine guns. There are several standout moments and images that prove Affleck knows how to frame an exciting action thriller. The climax is great, though the denouement leaves something to be desired. You pretty much anticipate what beats the movie has to hit as a genre piece. These brothers in arms will likely follow the path of doomed protagonists. But Affleck clearly wanted his second feature to be more than a slick genre flick. He had his sights set on examining systemic and cyclical nature of crime and abandonment. The opening informs us that bank robbing is a trade passed down in Charleston from fathers to sons. Doug’s crew are all second-generation criminals, their long absent fathers serving sentences in federal prisons. Affleck wants to explore the nature of what separates good people who make bad decisions, digging into the limited lifestyles afforded to these blue-collar lugs who have lived in brutality. The Town doesn’t quite succeed in this regard. The somewhat saggy middle touches upon these ideas but fails to spend enough time for anything substantial to stick. Gone Baby Gone was a better study of class and moral ambiguity. With The Town, you readily identify who the good bad guys are and who the bad bad guys are.

Just like Gone Baby Gone, Affleck’s second feature excels with a glorified group of actors all given room to find their characters and show off their skills. Each actor kind of gets their own space to work and they all, from top to bottom, give stirring performances. The standouts among the cast include Renner and Lively, both barely recognizable in their parts. Renner (The Hurt Locker) is channeling James Cagney from his 1930s gangster pictures. Renner is a live-wire and creates bundles of nervous tension whenever he enters a scene. He doesn’t even have to say a word. His intensity radiates and keeps all the other actors on their toes, rightfully wary of the short-fused Jem. He’s magnetic, steals the film, and even gets a slightly touching sendoff that has managed to stay with me. Lively, best known as the fabulous face of the fabulous high-end TV show Gossip Girl, is going to open plenty of eyes about her potential. She plays Krista, Jem’s sister and damaged love interest to Doug before Claire comes onto the scene. Lively has levels of makeup and hard living coating her magazine-friendly good looks. Lively just doesn’t rely on makeup tricks to stand in the way for her character. She feels like the most tragic soul in the film. She has a kid, likely destined to be removed from her at some point, she operates as a drug mule, and she’s hitched her wagon to Doug as the man that will save her. When that comes apart, Lively herself disintegrates as well, but it’s never in a showy style. She barely conceals the pain consuming her very being. Her eyes are dead of life. Plus, her accent is spot-on.

The other performers give strong work just at a level slightly below Renner and Lively. Directing himself, Affleck gives a fine if overly whispery lead performance. Hall (Frost/Nixon, The Prestige) is effectively broken as she works through the post-traumatic stress and uncertainty her character suffers from. She’s highly empathetic, though you’re left wondering what she sees in Doug. Hamm (TV’s Mad Men) is so damn handsome but I wish he had more to do than running around and barking orders. His character always seems to be a mouth for exposition and chews over his righteous indignation. Chris Cooper (Breach) has one total scene in this movie as Doug’s imprisoned father but he nails it. His antipathy for his son and his late mother spills over but the moment never screams what can be expressed with subtlety. To Affleck notable credit, nobody in a movie about cops and robbers gives a performance that could be labeled as over-the-top or campy. These are genre roles but they are treated like real, muscular characters.

The Town cements Affleck’s status as a director. This is a more accessible, streamlined yet sturdy genre picture that has real reverence for working class Boston neighborhoods. I love the faces Affleck peoples his films with, real people. It’s small touches that add to the authenticity and visceral nature of the movie, touches that help make The Town more than just another run-of-the-mill crime movie. While there may not be anything groundbreaking on display (though I think Renner may get remembered when it comes time for awards season), Affleck’s directing credentials are only strengthened. This isn’t as good a movie as Gone Baby Gone, but what this film showcases is Affleck’s ongoing journey as a director, the shaping of his Michael Mann-esque style, and his intent to marry great drama with great characters played by great actors. I can genuinely say that I look forward to whatever Affleck picks to be his next feature. He?s here to stay, baby.

Nate’s Grade: B

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