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Deepwater Horizon (2016)

cpbdmd7wgaafqfs-1-jpg-largePeter Berg is becoming the go-to director for inspirational true-life thrillers following the heroic exploits of everyday Americans thrust into danger. It began with Lone Survivor, it will continue this year with the Boston bombing drama Patriot’s Day, and in between there is Deepwater Horizon about the oil rig drillers and the culminating explosion that lead to the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. It’s a sober and reverent movie, with Berg and his screenwriters taking great care to educate the audience on the science of drilling, the technology, the geography of the floating rig, and just exactly why things went as badly as they did that fateful night. The windup lasts about half the movie but that’s because when the explosion hits there isn’t much plot left (the movie is barely 100 minutes). Deepwater Horizon becomes a full-tilt disaster movie by that point with Mark Wahlberg stalking hallways and looking for injured survivors. The tension prior to the blown pipeline can get genuinely powerful, and the action that follows is suitably rousing as the rig resembles a snapshot of hell. Flames and heat consume the rig and escape seems nigh impossible. The sound design is sensational. The characters are mostly stock roles, with Wahlberg as our blue-collar everyman, Kurt Russell as the irritable boss fighting for his workers, and John Malkovich as the villainous penny-pinching BP representative. Malkovich’s campy performance almost needs to be seen to be believed. It’s like he’s visiting from another planet, the garbled Cajun representative. The lack of politics and curiously narrow focus (nothing about Halliburton, nothing about BP consequences, no environmental effects) does hamper any greater impact the film could have had. It’s a respectful slice-of-life drama that humanizes some of the lives lost that day but only by keeping to formula and stock action character development. It’s like a Towering Inferno-style Hollywood disaster movie, except one that treats its subject with stiff-lipped seriousness. In this new docu-action sub-genre, Berg and Wahlberg are kings.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Killer Inside Me (2010)

This is an unsettling thriller that takes us into the mind of a psychologically dangerous deputy policeman (Casey Affleck). He patrols the small Texas city by day and kills for pleasure by night. The movie runs into a problem because the character doesn’t have a semblance of any moral code, which sounds contradictory for a serial murderer. He doesn’t kill for profit or to cover a secret or anything that would come across as identifiably rational. He kills because he feels he has to; he’ll even kill the mistress he loves because he can’t control himself. It’s an upsetting premise that keeps the audience at a controlled distance throughout the film. There’s an ongoing theme of extreme sexual brutality, and director Michael Winterbottom (A Mighty Heart) seems to linger on extended sequences of sadomasochistic sex and ugly violence against women. There’s some ugly stuff here, like watching Jessica Alba get her face pummeled for a solid two minutes. You just feel sorry for what Alba and Kate Hudson go through (“voiding a full bladder” is amazingly low on the list of awful these women endure). Eventually Affleck has to keep killing to cover his tracks, and the threat of getting caught provides some moderate tension, a relief from wallowing in cruelty. All of this ickiness would seem worthwhile if it felt like we were learning something about our disturbed lead. Affleck plays his opaque character rather flatly, making him free of charisma, empathy, and sadly, insight. He’s just the same as a masked killer in a slasher movie. That’s the worst disappointment in a film with so much ugliness.

Nate’s Grade: C

Nine (2009)

Filled with beautiful stars, beautiful Italian scenery, and beautiful cinematography, Nine has some significant sure-fire flash, but it’s missing the dazzle (or is it razzle?). The movie based on the 1980s Broadway musical based upon the Fellini movie, 8 1/2, is a pretty hollow enterprise. It’s all about writer’s block, and unless you’re the Coen brothers this is not a very interesting conflict to watch on screen. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Guido, a famous Italian director feeling overwhelmed by the impending start of his ninth movie, a movie he hasn’t written a script for yet. He tries to find inspiration from his wife (Marion Cotillard), his mistress (Penelope Cruz), his muse/lead actress (Nicole Kidman), his dead mother (Sophia Loren), a magazine journalist (Kate Hudson), and just about anybody else. The film is structured much like director Rob Marshall’s Oscar-winning musical Chicago, where the song-and-dance numbers are little mental asides inside the characters’ minds. So most actresses get one big number and then it’s arevaderche. Day-Lewis is good but his character is hard to emphasize with, especially as he bounces from woman to woman, whining about the duress of creativity while anybody minus a Y chromosome (and who isn’t Judi Dench) throw themselves at the guy. Despite the lackluster story and characters, Nine still could have succeeded from its musical numbers. Too bad then that the songs are instantly forgettable. Seriously, if you put a gun to my head mere minutes after I heard these tunes I wouldn’t be able to hum a bar. The dancing is lively, and Cruz and Cotillard prove to be infinitely and tantalizingly flexible, but the songs are truly unimpressive. I never would have guessed that in a movie filled with so many Oscar-winners that Fergie would be the highpoint. She plays a lustful figure of Day-Lewis’ youth, and her number exudes a vivacious sensuality. The playful choreography incorporates sand on the stage, which makes for several great images and dance moves. The song is also by far the catchiest, “Be Italian,” and the only thing worth remembering. The trouble for Nine is that there’s another hour left after this peak. I’m astounded that people thought, at one time, that Nine was going to be a serious awards contender. This has the “parts” of an awards movie but no vision or verve to assemble them.

Nate’s Grade: C

Bride Wars (2009)

In early 2007, it seemed like Eddie Murphy was destined to win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Dreamgirls. The funnyman was racking up honors for his fiery portrayal of a fallen Motown singer. Then came ads for the atrocious Norbit where Murphy played three roles, including a grotesquely overweight woman and a racist portrayal of an old Asian man. Was it much of a surprise then when Murphy lost out to Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine) whose character died halfway into the film? I suppose Academy voters took long looks at those appalling Norbit ads and said, “Academy Award-winning star of Norbit? I don’t think so.” Earlier in 2008, Anne Hathaway starred in Rachel Getting Married and became a surefire Oscar contender with her bitterly funny portrayal of an ex-druggie released for her big sis’ wedding. Hopefully the Academy will ignore the awful comedy Bride Wars or Hathaway will be doomed to follow Murphy’s lead (personally I think this is Kate Winslet’s year).

Liv (Kate Hudson) and Emma (Hathaway) have been dreaming of getting married since they were little girls. Both girls were at New York City’s Plaza Hotel and witnessed a wedding reception. They both swore that day to get hitched at the luxurious hotel. The girls grow up and Liv works as a hotshot attorney and Emma is a schoolteacher. Both get proposed at the same time and the high-pitched squealing ensues. Emma wants Liv to be her maid of honor and vice versa. The ladies seek the services of Marion St. Claire (Candice Bergen), the greatest wedding planner in the city. She delights the duo by booking them for two June wedding dates at the illustrious Plaza Hotel. Then comes the bad news. The booking dates got mixed up and the weddings are booked on the same day. The next open date at the Plaza is in three years time. Both women refuse to budge. Then a bridal arms race begins. Each would-be bride tries to sabotage the other’s wedding preparations.

Bride Wars is indulgent and tiring and occasionally obnoxious, much like the main characters. These characters are one-note and the movie drills that one note repeatedly; Liv is domineering and Emma is a pushover. I don’t care about these characters, and when the movie ramps up the sentiment in the final 20 minutes it doesn’t work because I feel no emotional attachment, and waning interest, in these people. Hudson’s Liv serves as the real antagonist for like half the movie’s running time. She comes across as brash, pushy, unlikable, narcissistic, and overbearing, and her unflagging desire to win is what pushes the conflict. Emma and Liv view their husbands-to-be more as accessories to their collective Big Days, and the movie seems to treat them the same way. The three bland male leads (Bryan Greenberg, Chris Pratt, Steve Howey) even look vaguely the same, and Bride Wars just allows them to slowly fade away. Like the Sex and the City movie, the women come across as deeply shallow and petty, people more worried about ceremony than every day after that fairy tale wedding. The film’s comedic focus is on uninspired slapstick and the pranks that the ladies play. Bride Wars practically excuses the bridezilla bedlam because it eventually makes Emma a stronger person who can stand up for her self after long last.

The initial conflict seems trite and readily negotiable. So the girls have their weddings scheduled on the same day, and they can’t work this out? Why such drama if they’re both lifelong best friends? They couldn’t just have a double wedding? Here’s what I don’t understand. Marion tells our ladies that the Plaza has three June openings, two on the 6th and one at the end of the month. Liv gets one date and Emma gets the other date, and then a third woman (co-writer and Saturday Night Live actress Casey Wilson) grabs the final June 6th slot. So when Marion announces that her assistant switched the dates, why wouldn’t the third woman want to swap back? She’s been planning for her wedding to be on June 6, so why wouldn’t she want to keep the date she already agreed upon? Likely this woman has begun to plan around the specific date and it would make much more sense to maintain continuity. And it is this contrived conflict that sets Bride Wars loose.

The script is lazy and the PG-rating all but neuters the bitch fest. This setup was begging for the claws to be unleashed but the filmmakers play it safe. It can’t get too messy because everything must be made nice and tidy by the conclusion. The acts of sabotage never get too out of hand. This is less a war and more of a scuffle. Bride Wars trades in nothing but stereotypes and stock characters (including the late addition of Liv’s brother who obviously has a decade-long crush on Emma), and I expect that from chick flick fluff, but the movie just misses so many obvious comedic opportunities. The girls have a group of friends that offer no commentary on the situation. One of their friends is unhappily newly married and could offer plenty of sarcastic quips. Liv has her hair dyed blue at a salon and nobody in the movie makes a single joke about the wedding staple of wearing something blue? How is this even possible for a movie about weddings? That’s just a glaring oversight.

Hudson and Hathaway are far better than this material, though Hudson is credited as a producer. Perhaps she can explain why she chose a haircut that makes her head look humongous. Seriously, her head looks gigantic, especially when she stands beside the coltish Hathaway who has quite a cylindrical noggin. Hathaway comes across the better of the two. Hudson has proven adept at goofy comedy but she just comes across as a bully. Kristen Johnston (TV’s Third Rock from the Sun) looks alarmingly thin. Somebody should check up on her.

To dismiss Bride Wars as a chick flick is to miss the point. Women deserve better than this mediocre comedy that showcases women as harpies worshiping marital materialism. The characters are annoying and vapid, the conflict is boneheaded and contrived, the comedy is watered down, and the lead actresses are wasted. Because something is a chick flick does not excuse it for being poorly manufactured. Bride Wars does not reflect well upon anyone involved, from the actors, to the director, to the writers, to the people that got people coffee. The movie isn’t monstrously bad but it is a banal piece of entertainment. Women, men, and all people deserve better no matter the genre classification.

Nate’s Grade: C

Fool’s Gold (2008)

This may be the most boring film about treasure hunting I’ve seen in a long time. Clearly the filmmakers were intending to strike the comic/romance/adventure balance of Romancing the Stone, but boy does this flick flounder. It progresses but it never builds any sense of momentum; Fool’s Gold works almost entirely in lateral moves so no scene feels any more important than the other. It’s like the film succumbed to Matthew McConaughey’s foggy, stoner spirit and decides to just shrug its shoulders through gunfights and explosions. The characters are grotesquely annoying and yet the supporting characters keep elbowing into what should be a combative romance between Kate Hudson and McConaughey. It’s like the filmmakers thought exotic locations, sunny skies, and extremely tan lead actors would take care of the rest. Nothing in this movie ever crosses over into intentional comedy. The treasure angle is so contrived that it requires extensive sit-downs to just go over the convoluted exposition. Fool’s Gold is an empty-headed errand that takes far too long to go absolutely nowhere. For goodness sake, the movie has a puffy Malcolm-Jamal Warner (Theo from The Cosby Show) as a dreadlocked Caribbean gangster. You tell me if you think that sounds like a good idea.

Nate’s Grade: C-

The Skeleton Key (2005)

The marketing said it was horror (voodoo, creepy kids), but it’s less a horror movie and more a Twilight Zone tale. It has its share of jump scares and tries to draw out an atmosphere of dread. You see a lot of how doors work from inside locks. The Skeleton Key tries to be overly clever despite its plot holes, but at least the film runs its course. It wasn’t trying to throw out a contrived ending. Kate Hudson needs better roles than these do-nothing parts; she’s far too cute to languish. And how many times did she inspect late-night noises in her underwear? The most entertaining aspect of The Skeleton Key may be gazing at a pre-Katrina New Orleans.

Nate’s Grade: B-

How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003)

How to lose a guy in ten days? I can think of two things a girl can say to lose a guy that second: 1) “I’m pregnant.” 2) “I can explain your newfound burning sensations.” Can I expect anyone to utilize these fool-proof dating tactics?

Andie Anderson (Kate Hudson) is a fashion magazine writer with the juiciest column of her up and coming career. She will catch herself a man then torture him for ten days by subjecting him to mistakes women make in relationships (calling too much, tampons in the medicine cabinet, asking if you look fat). Benjamin Barry (Mathew McConaughey) is a hotshot ad exec convinced he can make any girl fall in love with him. His confidant colleagues put him to the test and select a girl he has ten days to fall in love with him. Any guesses which lucky lady gets picked?

Hudson and McConaughey have a weirdly effective chemistry that seems to grow on you as the film continues. The over animated and cutesy antics of Hudson gel nicely with McConaughey’s sly charm and syrupy drawl. Their battle of the sexes doesn’t really reach the simmer and zip of classic screwball comedies but the journey along the way to the predictable coupling is rife with healthy gender crossing doses of humor.

How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days plays its proceedings very close to the chest, following the well-worn path of romantic comedies that have come before. I guess it’s what to be expected when the source material is a picture book. Seriously, look into it. The movie even ends with the Man running against time to stop the Woman leaving on some vehicle set to a moderately upbeat, Top 40 pop song. Yes, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days has its formula down: initial clashing and trashing leads to lip mashing that’s just smashing. This is the kind of film where they hold the leads apart as long as they can and then let ’em at each other.

Bebe Neuwerth plays Hudosn’s mercurial boss and is made to look way older than she is. Why did they put so much make-up on to emphasize her crow’s feet when this very attractive woman is only like 45?

How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days is a decent date for you and your honey, especially if romantic comedies are really your bag. For me, the lack of surprises gave me much time to think and three things kept circulating in my brain: 1) Aren’t too many romantic comedies today built upon some premise of deceit? Isn’t this a bad idea to start a relationship?, and, 2) Does Mathew McConaughey always act this stoned?

Nate’s Grade: C

Almost Famous (2000)

Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical 70s rock opus is like a gigantic hug. It’s warm, engrossing, feel good, and leaves you with a smile wishing for more. Almost Famous may be the best movie going experience of the year. You likely won’t have a better time from a movie.

Fresh-faced newcomer Patrick Fugit plays the 15 year-old version of Crowe who is a budding writer for Rolling Stone. He’s tapped to tour and send in a story on the fictional band Stillwater fronted by singer Jason Lee and guitarist Billy Crudup. Stillwater is everything the typical early 70s rock band was and should be: long hair, tight pants, and continuous inner turmoil and squabbling. Little Fugit captures all of this with wide-eyed exploration as he stretches away from his overprotective mother played by the lovely Frances McDormand. Phillip Seymour Hoffman also pops in to do a brilliant portrayal of music critic Lester Bangs. Kate Hudson shines in a break-out performance as a “band-aid” to Stillwater; which is an uncertain mix of naive groupie and musical muse. She’s together with fellow “band-aids” Anna Paquin and Faruiza Balk.

The writing of Almost Famous is textured and fully satisfying. The turns it takes down the road are expert and you know you are in the hands of a true artist. Crowe’s direction again makes leaps and bounds in improvement with every new feature. He and his wife wrote all of the songs the fictional band performs and it sounds like, to my ears, he had a few more job offerings he could have easily been suited for.

The acting is phenomenal with every cast member contributing nicely to the fold. Crudup is the anchor, Hudson is the gleaming star, Fugit is the tender surprise, Lee is the emotional lightening rod, and Frances is the mother that we all would love to have deep down inside. She is at the level that is most difficult for a parent: she must begin to let go so they live their own life, yet she’s raised him from harm since he could spew mashed carrots. Surely, if the world had justice Frances will be winning her second Oscar.

Almost Famous is a breathing work that borderlines perfection. It’s a great time to be had just sitting and experiencing what the movie has to offer.

Nate’s Grade: A

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