All the Money is the World used to star Kevin Spacey as the prolific oil billionaire John Paul Getty, that is until director Ridley Scott elected to reshoot the part, replacing Spacey with Christopher Plummer after Spacey’s unsavory history of sexual assault came to light. In only ten days, Scott changed his movie with only a month to spare before its release. It’s an amazing feat, especially when you consider Plummer is in the film for at least a solid half hour. He’s also the best part as the mercurial, cruel, penny-pinching magnate who refuses to pay his grandson’s ransom even though he’s the richest man who ever lived. In 1973, John Getty III (Charlie Plummer, no relation) was kidnapped by Italian criminals. With the miserly grandfather offering no help, Gail (Michelle Williams) tries to negotiate with the criminals and her father-in-law to secure the release of her son. I didn’t know anything coming into this film, but afterwards I felt like it focused on the wrong characters. The mother stuck in the middle is not the most interesting protagonist here and seems like a go-between for the two more immediate and intriguing stories, the elder Getty and the youngest Getty. Williams (Manchester by the Sea) is acceptable as the strong-willed, put-upon mother, though her mid Atlantic accent made me think I was watching Katherine Hepburn. Mark Wahlberg (Daddy’s Home 2) is completely miscast as a former CIA agent that helps Gail. He succeeds in converting oxygen to carbon dioxide and that’s about it. The central story is interesting enough, though there are points that scream being fictional invented additions, like a last act chase and a kindly mobster who undergoes reverse Stockholm syndrome. John Paul Getty is an interesting character, and Plummer is terrific, though I am quite curious what Spacey’s performance would have been like under octogenarian makeup (Plummer already happens to be in his 80s). All the Money in the World is an interesting enough story with decent acting but I can’t help but entertain my nagging sense that it should have been better even minus Spacey.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Unlike many of my critical brethren, I do not view Michael Bay as the devil incarnate. I think the man has definite talent and is one of the finest visual stylists working in the realm of film. I’ve enjoyed about half of the Transformers franchise and don’t consider it the end-all-be-all of modern American cinema. Transformers: The Last Knight is exactly what the detractors have railed against from the start: a cacophonous ejaculation of incomprehensible nonsense. The charge has often been made against Bay’s long filmography that his stories are unintelligible, but Transformers 5 proves to be the new measuring point for incensed incredulity. This isn’t only the worst Transformers entry in a seemingly never-ending franchise (thanks product placement, merchandising, and toy sales) but an early contender for worst film of 2017.
Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) is hiding out with other Autobots in a South Dakota junkyard awaiting the return of Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen). Prime ventured into space to find the remnants of the Autobot home world, Cybertron. Once found, he’s brainwashed by the Cybertron goddess Quintessa (Gemma Chan) into being her servant. She’s after an ancient staff that will prove to be the key to restarting Cybertron. It was last seen on Earth during the Dark Ages and rumor has it was given to Merlin. Cade is enlisted by a centuries-long secret society to help find the staff before the evil forces at bay get hold of it.
It feels like the Transformers 5 writers were on a week-long cocaine bender when they cobbled together this impenetrable narrative. Let me give you but a taste of the confusing, muddled, and overall mind-numbing plot as it exists. There’s a magic staff from the robot world that will recharge the robot world, and it just so happens 12 robot knights, which form a giant robot dragon, landed on Earth and gave it to Merlin, played by a soused Stanley Tucci who was already a different character in the fourth Transformers movie, who then established a secret order that would keep the giant alien robots secret even as they were doing things as high-profile as literally killing Hitler, and the members of this secret society include Frederick Douglass and Queen Elizabeth and Shia LeBouf, and this staff needs to be retrieved from an underwater spaceship under Stonehenge by Merlin’s blood progeny and will be aided by an alien talisman that forms an alien sword that does something, and the evil alien robots are going to recharge their planet by scraping the Earth’s crust, which has horns protruding from it that once aligned with Pangaea, and there’s an evil alien robot goddess who brainwashes Optimus Prime to retrieve her magical items on demand and then Megatron is being hired the U.S. government and a team of special ops are trailing him to get to the staff and… I’m sorry; did your brain start bleeding out your ears? I looked over to my friend Ben Bailey during the screening and saw him slumped over in his chair and thought, for a fraction of a second, that the movie had literally killed him (he had just fallen asleep for the third time). What an ignoble end.
The movie is a nonstop barrage of yelling and movement, an assault on the senses that leaves you dumbfounded and dazed, and without anything to moor onto. Almost every single actor is on screen for one of two purposes: quips or exposition. These are not characters but devices for words that ultimately don’t make sense. Wahlberg has two different female sidekicks. For the first half, he’s got a plucky teen that serves as a surrogate daughter figure. Izabella (Isabella Moner) is a kid with attitude and carefully arranged strands of hair that always fall over her face in every single shot in the entire movie. Izabella’s introduction actually might be the highlight of an otherwise soul-crushing experience. Then Wahlberg leaves for England and he adopts a new sidekick, this time the hot smart woman who changes into a more comfortable outfit but literally keeps her heels. Vivian (Laura Haddock) is pretty much the next in a long line of highly sexualized, tawny female characters under Bay’s alluring gaze (I wrote about the second film: “Women don’t seem to exist in the Michael Bay world, only parts and pieces of women.”). Her mother doesn’t care about the end of the human world, or her daughter’s many academic credentials, and instead pesters her about getting herself a man. This leads to one of the film’s worst comedic moments, as Vivian’s mother and friends giggle and eavesdrop on her and Wahlberg trashing a library as a spontaneous bout of sexy time. Wouldn’t it be weird for anyone’s mother to take pleasure in listening to your escapades and offer a play-by-play?
But the strangest characters are Anthony Hopkins’ Sir Edmund Burton and his 4-foot robot ninja (voiced by Jim Carter). You can clearly tell that Hopkins didn’t care at all what he was saying. He uncorks ungainly monologues with relish and then transitions into strained comedy as a doddering old man. The robot butler begins as a C3PO-esque prim and proper servant with a disarming fighting ability, and it works. However, as the movie progresses, the robot butler gets downright belligerent and seemingly drunk. It’s truly bizarre, as if this robot is acting out to be seen like he’s one of the cool kids, but whom exactly is he trying to impress? At one point, he tells Wahlberg that he is “on my shit list” and torpedoes out of a submarine, brings back fish, prepares a sushi dinner for the humans while supplying ingredients that were totally not found on a WWII-era sub that was parked as a tourist locale up until 20 minutes ago. The character makes no sense and seems to bounce around behavioral extremes. Take this passage late into the film:
Robot Butler: “Of all the earls I’ve served-“
Me: “You were the greatest?”
Robot Butler: “-You were the coolest.”
Another confusing part of the film is the setting of its story. We’re five movies in to an alien civil war taking place on Earth, so you would assume that normal life shouldn’t feel normal after so many catastrophes. Egypt was destroyed in the second film (only Six Wonders of the World left in your punch card, Bay), Chicago was decimated in the third film, and China was blown up in the fourth film. It’s about time that people started paying attention to these things and behaving differently. A new government agency is tasked with hunting down Transformers and there are war zone portions of the world that are quarantined, but that’s about it. I initially thought this fifth movie was going to take place in a somewhat post-apocalyptic Earth where human beings have to struggle to survive. That’s not Transformers 5 at all. It seems all too easy to ignore reality; Wahlberg’s daughter is away at college. After four movies, the world of this franchise needed a jump in its stakes. Bay’s films have always possessed an alarming sense of urgency but it rarely feels earned. Characters yelling, running, and explosions going off like fireworks isn’t the same thing as genuinely developed stakes.
Another confusing aspect of Transformers 5 is Bay’s jumbled aspect ratios (i.e. how wide the frame of the movie is presented). Sizeable portions were shot on IMAX, which has become all the rage for action movie directors since Nolan’s The Dark Knight. I expected that. What I didn’t expect was three different aspect ratios that jumped from shot to shot. Two characters will be having a conversation and the aspect ratio will cycle and it rips me out of the movie every time (there are SIX credited editors). The Dark Knight’s IMAX sequences worked because they were sustained sequences. I expect the higher-grade IMAX film stock for the expansive action or picturesque landscapes to take in the natural splendor. What I wasn’t expecting was measly interior conversations to be filmed in IMAX. Did I really need to watch a conversation with Vivian and her mother in IMAX to fully appreciate their bookshelf? Like much else in this perfunctory movie, this game of pin-the-tail-on-the-aspect-ratio makes no sense.
I don’t normally like to quote myself, but reading over my concluding paragraph of 2011’s Dark of the Moon, I was struck by how much of my assessment could equally apply to the fifth film, even down to the exact running-time: “Transformers: Dark of the Moon is likely everything fans would want from a franchise built around the concept of robots that fight. There’s wanton destruction, a plethora of noisy explosions, and plenty of eye candy both in special effects wizardry and pouty, full-lipped women. But at a colossal 150-minute running time, this is a Transformers film that punishes as much as it entertains. There’s really no reason a movie about brawling robots should be this long. There’s no reason it should have to resort to so much dumb comedy. There’s no reason that the women should be fetishized as if they were another sleek line of sexy cars. There’s no reason why something labeled a ‘popcorn movie’ can’t deliver escapist thrills and have a brain too.” Take this assessment and times it by ten for The Last Knight. The incomprehensible plotting, infantile humor, nonchalant misogyny, empty action bombast, and dispiriting nature of the film are enough to suck the life out of you. I was bored tremendously and contemplated walking out on the movie (I stayed for you, dear reader). It feels like the screenplay was put into a blender. Transformers 5 is exhausting and exhaustively mechanical, and if this is the first start in a larger Expanded Transformers Cinematic Universe (ETCU?) then resistance may be futile. Still, it’s worth fighting against brain-dead spectacle that only moves you to the exits.
Nate’s Grade: D
Peter 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
When 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.
The 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
Four movies in, at this point you can either fall back on the old criticisms of Michael Bay as a filmmaker or simply let down your guard and look for any simple pleasures offered by the Transformers franchise, a series mostly known for chaotic plotting and action. Age of Extinction is probably the best Transformers film since the first one (take that for what you will) but it still has all the hallmarks of the obtuse and convoluted plotting, absurd and obnoxious characters, juvenile humor, intense product placement, and often incoherent action. Gone are the characters from the first three films and in their stead is Mark Wahlberg (upgrade) as a Texan inventor named, get this, Cade Yeager. He and his teen daughter come into contact with Optimus Prime and are on the run from multiple forces. Apparently a bounty hunter is looking to target Prime. The U.S. has a black ops team tracking down Transformers in hiding. And Stanley Tucci plays a business tycoon who wants to make his own Transformers via their magic substance “Transformium.” Reading all of that, you realize the pieces still don’t really make sense, and that’s before the robot dinosaurs come into play. And yet Bay and his team have fine-tuned the entertaining aspects of the franchise and better consolidated them in the fourth film. A badass alien bounty hunter/collector is a great addition, adding the government as an adversary, Titus Welliver (TV’s Lost) as a cocksure special agent, Tucci as a corporate blowhard, and robot dinosaurs, it all sort of works on its own terms. Again, if you try and logically connect the pieces, it won’t happen. By this point, if you’re not a fan of the series, there’s no real reason to continue watching, but if you’ve found any semblance of enjoyment then there should be enough to keep your attention with the fourth film, robot dinosaurs and all.
Nate’s Grade: C+
What do you do when the title of a movie is a spoiler? That’s the question with director Peter Berg’s reverential military action film, Lone Survivor. It’s the true story of a team of Navy Seals who had their mission compromised by a pair of unlucky Afghan goat herders. After deciding to set them free, rather than snuff them out, the Seals retreat to an extraction point, with a hundred Taliban fighters hot on their heels. When the action is firing, Berg is right at home, placing the audience in the middle of a visceral firefight that’s bloody and hardcore and pulse pounding. The rocky terrain of the country is just as deadly as the Taliban, as the Seals bounce around like ragdolls. The performances are all grizzled and finely attuned to keeping the terror of the moment at bay. Ben Foster (The Messenger) is the standout, which is a statement that’s been said with most Foster performances. At the end, I’m left wondering what is the film’s greater message. It’s retelling a military episode few people know about, illuminating the courage and bond between soldiers under fire. But in the end, all of these lives were lost because of one moral though arguably bad decision. Couldn’t they have just tied up the goatherds and gotten a better head’s start? Will the movie convince an audience that those innocent Afghan goatherds should have just been collateral damage? Does the movie critique the futility of America’s ongoing presence in Afghanistan? The futility of war itself? I doubt it, especially with Berg’s fervent appreciation of the armed forces putting their lives on the line (the opening credits themselves glorify the toughness of the Seals while also setting up an explanation why they could survive so many gunshots, injuries, etc.). Lone Survivor isn’t the heedless jingoistic propaganda piece that others critics have feared, but in the end it’s simply a sober and respectful tribute to the fallen, and that’s it. For many, this will be enough. For me, I was thrilled by the heroics but looking for more.
Nate’s Grade: B
I think the audience for Pain and Gain is going to know exactly who they are, and I count myself amongst that number. The latest from director Michael Bay, often treated tantamount to Satan in many critical circles, has the based-on-a-true-story hook but really it’s the big stars, stylish violence, peculiar criminal antics, and overall overflowing machismo of the picture that will draw its audience. I knew after one watch of the trailer that I wanted to see it, though I was somewhat ashamed of the level of my interest (don’t want to taint your critical credentials with too much sympathy for the devil, after all). Pain and Gain is a trashy and entertaining jaunt, just as I hoped it would be, but it overstays its welcome and may leave you fatigued and possibly dejected (so… a typical Michael Bay movie? Still got it).
In 1995, three Miami, Florida goons enacted one of the most bizarre and sordid criminal schemes, a story that could supply a tabloid with enough juicy exposes for a year. Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) and his co-worker Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) are personal trainers at Sun Gym. Their days consist of pumping iron and hitting on ladies. One of Lugo’s clients is Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a wealthy businessman with a nasty temper. Lugo and Doorbal, with the help of an ex-con and ex-junkie (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), kidnap Kershaw, hold him hostage for weeks, torture him, and eventually get him to sign over his assets to them. Afterwards they try to stage his “accidental” death, though like most things, it does not go according to plan. Penniless and broken, Kershaw seeks out help from a retired private eye, ED DuBois (Ed Harris), to provide validation for his case. The Miami police are laughing off his claims. Kershaw is concerned that the Sun Gym gang will strike again when their lavish lifestyle dips, and he’s right. Lugo and company get into even more trouble and the body count rises.
The results on screen are often entertaining in an over-the-top fashion, sustaining a rubbernecking captivation much like a horrendous car wreck. You just have to see how much crazier this thing gets, all the while muttering to yourself, “This was a true story?” It even gets to the point where the movie will remind you, via onscreen text as a man barbecues a batch of severed hands, that yes this is still a true story. Naturally there have been fictional inventions, character composites, and some details have been dropped to fit into the confines of a film narrative, but online research shows me that most of the larger plot beats are accurate, thus making the film even more compelling and disturbing. When the film is on, it feels manically alive with intrigue and absurdity. The problem is that it cannot keep this manic tone alive forever especially when actual innocent bodies start piling up (more on that later). There’s a certain uncomfortable tonal incongruity as the film develops and the comedy picks up a distasteful resonance. I love a well-executed dark comedy but just because something is macabre or unexpected does not automatically make it funny. Still, the movie has enough high-energy antisocial antics to keep you planted in your seat, laughing through bafflement.
Pain and Gain isn’t subtle in the slightest and yet it’s easily the most nuanced film of Bay’s career. Of course there are still the sleek cars, sexy babes, emphasis on style, and wanton destruction that are hallmarks of the man’s career, but the perspective is given a satirical prism, dropping us into the deluded, sub-American Psycho perspective of Lugo, a man with a very cracked view of the American Dream. The moral message reminds me of Marge Gunderson’s concluding musing in Fargo, telling a captured criminal, “There’s more to life than a little money, you know.” There’s some slight social commentary on wealth and the dirty tricks of capitalism, but really it’s the narcissistic delusions of a jacked-up criminal who believes he can succeed because he’s “seen a lot of movies.” You may even find yourself sympathizing with some of these knuckleheads, that is, until things get way out of hand. The screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Captain America: The First Avenger) is briskly paced and packed with bizarre details and even jumps into six different characters for voice over (Wahlberg, Johnson, Mackie, Shalhoub, Harris, and Bar Paly). For some characters it works as a great insight into their twisted logic but for others it’s just an easy set up for ridicule. The juvenile humor (did we really need a visual pubic hair joke?), candy-coated film palate, and sugar-rush, roid-rage plotting feel like a suitable match for the talents of the bombastic Bay.
The last thirty minutes of the movie will test your sensibilities of good taste. I’m all for having unlikable central characters just as long as the writer makes them interesting (what good is likeable but boring, the “friend zone” of characterization?). Some of movie history’s most fascinating characters have been scumbags and psychos. However, with that being said, I need my unlikeable characters to at least progress. When I’m stuck with a bad dude who keeps making the same bad mistakes, it can grow tiresome, and that’s where Pain and Gain ultimately lost me. Bay can’t quite keep up the charade of ironic bemusement forever, and a saggy second half starts to tread water, forcing the characters to act even more outlandish and inept. Did we need The Rock losing his big toe and then inexplicably giving it to a dog? It feels like the movie is filling time until the accidental murders come into being, raising the stakes. For a movie that’s 130 minutes, there should not be any need to fill time. During that long sad stretch, you start to feel disquiet, like the movie has lost its sense of perspective and the jokes have gotten too mean, too ugly, too outlandish. It doesn’t feel funny any more, and maybe that’s ultimately the point, but by the end Pain and Gain has soured. It overstays its welcome and then some.
Its tone and connection to the real world raises an interesting and thorny question over whether something like this is appropriate. Should a story that involved the murders of innocent people end up becoming an over-the-top, stylized, lavishly glamorized Hollywood crime comedy? It has been over 15 years since the events of the Sun Gym gang, but is there a statue of limitations on good taste? Are we eventually destined for a vulgar film tackling the poor lives of the victims of 9/11? The answer is almost certain. What is off limits, or more pressingly, should anything be off limits to a comedic narrative? Is anyone really furious with Trey Parker and Matt Stone over their first film, Cannibal the Musical, transforming nineteenth century murder into song and dance? I doubt it, and yet there was something very off-putting about 2011’s 30 Minutes or Less, an unfunny comedy based around the true story of a pizza guy strapped with a bomb and ordered to rob a bank. The guy was blown to bits in real life (ha ha?). I guess I, as well as audiences, would have been more forgiving if the movie had been funny. I’m sure there would be fewer objections if Bay’s film had been more of a sober, contemplative drama on the sad acts of a bunch of desperate criminals, but with all the hyperbolic elements, machismo, and so-crazy-it-must-be-true plot turns, how could you turn this story into a serious drama? Not from the perspective of the nitwit criminals, at least. I don’t think the movie is ever positioning these guys as anti-heroes or excuses their excess.
Wahlberg (Ted) broke out as an actor thanks to a similar role as a wannabe star whose ambitions exceeded his grasp, and the man does dumb as good as just about anyone in Hollywood. It’s a specific kind of dumb, the angry, arrogant, pissy, self-involved kind of dumb that makes it acceptable to ridicule his character to no end. Johnson (G.I. Joe: Retaliation) gets to explore some interesting range as an actor, pacing around the demons of his character before just going hog-wild with the excess. Mackie (Gangster Squad) is arguable the most sympathetic of the group but also with the most to lose. Compared to his peers, he’s practically mild-mannered even though he takes injections into his penis. Shalhoub (TV’s Monk) is amusingly apoplectic and just enough of a jerk that you excuse his misfortune, at least for a little while. Ken Jeong (The Hangover) and Israeli model-turned-actor Bar Paly give the exact performances you would expect them to deliver. The best actor in the whole movie, though truth be told there isn’t a stinker in the bunch, is Emily Rutherford (Elizabethtown, TV’s The New Adventures of Old Christine) who plays Dubois’ wife. She has this calming, down-to-earth presence that seems to bring a small sense of peace to the madcap antics. She doesn’t have a lot of screen time but you’ll wish she had lots more.
Perhaps I’m being unfair to a movie that clearly isn’t intending to be anything but naughty, tacky, and gleefully excessive. In a way Pain and Gain reminds me of Tony Scott’s Domino, loosely based upon a true story but crushed to death by narrative kabuki and Scott’s characteristic excess. If I wanted to defend the much maligned Michael Bay, I’d argue what the real difference is between his excess and the excess of the more critically lauded Scott? Bay doesn’t have a slate of movies to his credit the likes of Top Gun, Crimson Tide, or True Romance. But isn’t flashy, artistic excess all the same when in the name of empty storytelling? Domino is also an apt comparison because it’s ultimately tiresome and far overstays its welcome, losing its audience with an endless array of odd sidesteps and moronic, deviant characters. While Pain and Gain has enough quirk and style to justify consideration, you may not respect yourself once it’s over.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Seth MacFarlane has become an industry powerhouse. The man has three animated TV shows on air (Family Guy, American Dad, The Cleveland Show) and essentially carved an entire niche of modern comedy. His brand of irreverent, offensive, tangential humor has turned the man into a demigod among young audiences and helped him rake in millions. A journey to the movies seemed inevitable, and so comes Ted, which MacFarlane directed and co-wrote with two of his Family Guy scribes. The best assessment I can give is that if you enjoy MacFarlane’s brand of humor on TV, you’ll probably enjoy Ted. If not, then you’re in for a prolonged, obnoxious two hours.
One day when young John Bennett was a young boy, he wished his teddy bear would come alive so he’d always have a best friend. And as a narrator tells us, nothing is stronger than a young boy’s wish (curious gender is specified and then never touched upon for some kind of joke). The next morning Ted (voiced by Seth MacFarlane) comes alive. Flash forward 30 years and Jon (Mark Wahlberg) works at a rental car company, has a stunning girlfriend in Lori (Mila Kunis), and regularly gets stoned with his best pal, Ted. The two guys are inseparable, which causes friction between John and Lori. After another notorious incident of Ted behaving badly, Lori insists that he move out. John has to start acting more responsible and treating Lori like she deserves, but Ted’s influence usually leads to trouble. Both Ted and John are in desperate need of growing up.
It was no surprise for me that Ted was exactly what I expected from Seth MacFarlane. It’s just a bigger, raunchier version of the style of humor he’s patented on television: tangential non-sequitors, scenes that go on far too long, obscure pop culture references, pointless shock material, and the basic premise that the jokes hinge around some creature merely doing things. Like Brian the Dog, or Roger the alien, Ted is a creature that shouldn’t necessarily exist, and thus so much humor is built around just seeing Ted exist. Is it supposed to be hilarious watching him drive? How about hit on women? Do bong hits? Far too often the only joke the movie seems to offer is that Ted is a teddy bear doing stuff. If you replaced him with, say, a normal human being, would any of those jokes work? Would it be funny watching a normal person drive, hit on women, and do bong hits? Maybe but probably not. It’s all one joke: look at something unnatural doing natural things. And that’s my issue with MacFarlane’s brand of humor. These jokes are not given proper attention, setup, and development. The film rarely subverts your expectations with how every joke will play out, and if you already know the jokes before the movie delivers them then what’s the point? The one joke I did laugh at, and a good guffaw at that, was Ted’s boss who kept responding to Ted’s screw-ups with good words and promotions. That was a surprise. But here’s the thing: once it’s established, you know what will happen the next time. So the second time it’s still funny but not as much. By the third time, his nonplussed reaction is completely expected and thus all traces of funny have been squeezed dry. In comedy, it’s all about surprise, and I find with MacFarlane that he rarely strays from his routine.
As far as jokes going on too long, let’s talk about a myriad of subplots that seemed to go on forever. There’s an entire storyline where an obsessed fan played by Giovanni Ribisi (Contraband) kidnaps Ted. This storyline makes up almost the entire third act and occurs after the reconciliation between John and Lori, so the movie already feels like it should be over. And then it keeps going. And it keeps going longer. And then there’s a car chase and a foot race through Fenway Park, which serves no purpose other than to probably fulfill a childhood wish of MacFarlane’s to film on said hallowed grounds. And it’s during this final act where the crass movie tries to become… sentimental? It just doesn’t work. You can’t have 100 minutes of rude, offensive, vulgar humor and then try and then try and go all gooey and soft and make people feel something akin to emotion. The reason that the Judd Apatow films can work with emotion is because from the get-go they make you care about the characters and their relatable conflicts. But there’s a difference between emotion and cheap sentiment, and Ted hasn’t earned genuine emotion. I didn’t like any of these characters. They all seemed like louts and jerks and dolts, none of them charming. Thus the end and its wish-upon-a-star conclusion are cheap sentiment and the kind of conclusion that you believe without a doubt that the characters in Ted would mercilessly mock.
Let me specify for the moment that there is a distinct difference between gross-out gags and gags that are just gross. There is also a difference between jokes that are shocking but funny and jokes that are just desperate to offend. In my experience with MacFarlane’s brand of humor, as well as McFarlane’s fratty devotees (if I was rushing a fraternity, I have no doubt Ted would be my favorite movie, bro), that difference is not understood. Watching an over-the-top racist Asian stereotype is merely offensive without proper context to draw out humor beyond the odious and obvious. Just punching a child in the face isn’t funny. Just having someone defecate on the floor isn’t funny, though the panicked removal of said feces was humorous in flashback. I may have chuckled and giggled from time to time with Ted, but most of the time I was just saddened by how desperate McFarlane and his writers were to shock rather than to entertain.
Thank God Wahlberg (The Fighter) was in this movie. While Ted is best left in small doses, the boorish best friend archetype, Wahlberg has been sharpening his comedic muscles (the only muscle in need of work it seems) and has become a terrific straight man. Anyone who remembered 2010’s The Other Guys knows that Wahlberg can be flat-out funny when given great madness to play off of. With Ted, Wahlberg’s commitment to the innate absurdity of the movie goes a long way. His breathless rendition of an exhaustive list of white trash girl names had me laughing harder than anything else in the movie, and I admit I was also impressed by Wahlberg’s speedy delivery. The character of John is a pretty standard role at this point in American comedy, one of arrested development. However, it seems to take so long, blown chance after blown chance, for John to finally find some sense of responsibility. Just like everyone else, he is at the mercy of Ted’s corrosive influence.
I probably wasn’t the ideal specimen for MacFarlane’s first foray into movies. I’ve never been more than a mild fan of his TV work and its hit-or-miss-but-mostly-miss brand of tangential humor, though I admit American Dad has grown on me (the only MacFarlane show where the jokes seem related to the story situations). MacFarlane unleashes the vulgar material he’s been holding back from TV, which makes for some laughs. The obviously stoned guys sitting in front of me thought the movie was hilarious, even during quiet moments where nothing was going on. I’m disappointed that a MacFarlane movie is pretty much exactly as I would have suspected, essentially a MacFarlane TV show blown up to a bigger screen. The jokes here are so limited, mostly deriving from Ted the teddy bear just doing things a teddy bear normally doesn’t. I wish the comedy were more developed, more nuanced, more concerned with doing something other than shock. The most shocking aspect of Ted is how utterly forgettable the whole enterprise is even with a magical talking teddy bear.
Nate’s Grade: C
January at the movies has long been a time for two kinds of releases: 1) award-worthy films expanding into wider release, and, 2) crap. That’s about it. I’ll let you figure out which category the action thriller Contraband belongs in.
Paul (Mark Wahlberg) was once the best smuggler in the business. He’s since gone legit, starting a family and his own private security business. His brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones) gets into trouble with some bad men. He tosses a load of smuggled drugs to elude Customs ships, but now Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi) wants the value of the drugs or else. Paul knows he has no choice but to put together one last job to save Kate’s (Kate Beckinsale) brother. Paul leaves his family in the hands of Sebastian (Ben Foster), a trusted accomplish on many missions. John puts together a team and plans to board a ship headed for Panama City. While there, the team will load large sums of confederate money. The sale of the fake currency should square things between John and Briggs. However, little goes according to plan.
Contraband is a lousy heist picture that feels like it’s making it up as it goes. First off, the premise of John having to go back into his art of smuggling to settle a debt has been overdone, and the fact that John’s idiotic brother-in-law is as fault makes it hard to care that something might happen to the idiot. But why God do they bring this screw-up, the brother-in-law, along with them? He’s already proven to be a poor decision maker and a moron, and, surprise surprise, when in Panama the guy gets them into more danger. So irritating is this character, always foolishly making things worse for John, that you wish they had thrown this dolt overboard. This is a movie structured with a small beginning, a small end, and a great big fat middle, and it’s that middle that involves our destination to Panama. With heist movies, as well as most thrillers, we don’t want things to go according to plan. We want to see organic complications and watch our team of characters adjust. With Contraband, the complications don’t feel natural so much as like careening plot elements from other movies. John’s quick visit goes out of control, with the team losing their payment money for the confederate loot (guess who’s responsible for that? Guess?), and they have to go find a budding crime lord, Gonzalo (Milk’s Diego Luna), and then this crime lord just happens to be plotting a heist at THAT EXACT MOMENT and John and his team should come along and then the heist goes bad, as always, and the team ahs to get away, but Gonzalo demands to be taken to a hospital by gunpoint, and then the cargo ship is going to leave port, and, and, and, and, etc. There are so many breakneck plot turns thrown in that it feels like a broken blender spewing half-formed plot residue everywhere. It’s the film equivalent of the If You Give a Mouse a Cookie story (“If you give a smuggler a deadline, he’ll need a contact. If you give him a contact, he’ll need to do the contact a favor. If he does the contact a favor, he’ll have to do this one job for him. If he does this one job for him, he’ll need a crew. If he needs a crew, he’ll need… etc.).
Let’s take a moment to analyze the peculiar masks Gonzalo and his team choose to utilize. They literally wrap duct tape around their faces. That’s got to be the dumbest mask in the history of cinema, and there have been some stinkers. They couldn’t afford pantyhose? Anything? They had to use tape? First off, you can’t conceal key features, like your eyes and mouth, and lastly, isn’t it going to be something of a bitch to rip those things off? The only person who could properly wear a duct tape mask would be someone suffering from alopecia (condition that leaves a person hairless). Otherwise you’re sacrificing your eyebrows. Maybe this is just how things are done in Panama.
So much of this movie feels like it’s on autopilot, just drifting like that cargo ship. At this point, I don’t even think Wahlberg is trying to hide his indifference to the material. He’s a man with a shady past who went legit and has a family now, but in order to protect that family he is drawn back to his shady past. How many times has this plot device just been used in the last few years? The rest of the characters fill out the crime thriller cheat sheet: young screw-up who serves as plot catalyst, parent in prison to provide cautionary tale, best trusted pal that ultimately proves to be untrustworthy, and the harried, often victimized wife. Poor Beckinsale (Underworld) who gets beaten, threatened with a gun in her face, and victimized to a degree that it feels like exploitation. This woman can never catch a break. She gets few moments in the film where she is free from being terrorized with violence. I have no idea what would attract an actress like Beckinsale to this part other than the allure of a paycheck. Contraband stalls when it comes to thrills, and part of this is because the villains seem so lame. Briggs just comes across as an inept criminal, like somebody’s own screw-up brother-in-law that tagged along to play with the big boys. He’s routinely beaten and bossed around. It’s hard to take his threats seriously, so the movie cuts its losses and just has him threaten Kate some more. It becomes old quick. The only thing that keeps Contraband going is the great distance between Paula and his family, a divide that keeps Paul vulnerable. Too bad that the movie can’t think of anything thrilling to do with this scenario and settles, all too frequently, on scaring the wife. Wouldn’t the film have been more engrossing if Paul’s wife had been kidnapped this whole time? Would that not cause a better sense of urgency than the vague threat that a character we don’t care about might get offed for being stupid?
From an action standpoint, the thrills rarely materialize, relying on a contingent of blunders and coincidences to provide the thrills. There wasn’t a moment where I worried for a character on screen. This may be because I didn’t care for a person on screen, thanks to workmanlike characterization, but it’s also got to fall on the feet of Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur (who starred in Wahlberg’s role in the original Icleandic version of this flick) and his nascent camerawork. There will be moments where his camera does stutter-step zooms, mimicking the docu-drama camerawork that’s been en vogue with action cinema. And then he’ll never repeat it. There’s a shot of Gonzalo blowing the armored car up and it’s filmed in a high-speed, stylized shot to distill the strange beauty of the force, and then this never happens again. It’s like Kormakur is sampling all 31 flavors of action movie styles and can’t decide on a visual tone. The action is too dependent on arbitrary coincidences for it to be satisfying of thrilling; we’re just waiting for the next out-of-nowhere plot turn to move things along. The ending attempts to tie up things nicely but feels asinine and laughable in how John can take out three villains in one well-orchestrated, tidy swoop. Don’t even get me started on the impracticalities of John hearing a lone cell phone ringing to be able to trace his wife in an entire construction site. The resolution feels ludicrous and a stroke of dumb luck.
Contraband is a convoluted, knuckleheaded thriller that drags because of arbitrary maneuverings, poor characterization, a fat middle section plot-wise, and pedestrian action. The movie feels like it’s being made up on the spot. As a result of all this tiresome lateral plotting, Contraband feels like it’s going nowhere and spinning into oblivion. I found myself nodding off at various points, my brain bored by all the generic goings-on. The constant victimization of Paul’s wife is a rather ugly development for a movie that confuses salty language and furrowed brows for toughness. The movie is devoid of any sense of fun. It just becomes an empty enterprise of actors going through the motions to work of genre pap. Even by the dirt-low standards of January cinematic offerings, Contraband isn’t worth a cent of your hard-earned money.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Somewhere along the line, the boxing film became the perfect metaphor for the underdog story. Two men at battle with only their fists and iron wills. Somehow this match up has come to symbolize man’s eternal struggle against himself and society. From Body and Soul to Rocky and Raging Bull, it’s hard to imagine the filmic landscape without the tropes of boxing. It’s also a pretty staid and tired genre, where filmmakers often rely on those tropes to fill in the gaps for lazy storytelling. The Fighter is a true story that star Mark Wahlberg has been nursing for years trying to get it off the ground. It’s the knockout acting and attention to character that separates The Fighter from the competition. Rarely has such a sedate formula felt so freshly presented.
In the mid 1990s, Mickey Ward (Wahlberg) is a man trying to come to grips with his life. His welterweight boxing career has stalled thanks primarily to his trainer, his unreliable half-brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale). Big brother used to be the pride of Lowell, Massachusetts, once fighting Sugar Ray Leonard and boasting about knocking the giant down (this claim is in dispute as replays show that Leonard may have simply tripped). Dicky’s boxing career went away about the same time that Dicky became addicted to crack cocaine, spending long hours inside Lowell’s many crack houses. An HBO documentary crew is following around Dicky, which he mistakenly believes is a ticket to his comeback. Mickey’s mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), also serves as manager to both her boys. Dicky is clearly the apple of her eye and Alice enables his destructive behavior. Mickey is pushed into fights to feed his extended family (eight siblings), and the thrill is gone. Then one day he’s approached by a promoter who will give Mickey one more chance. The only catch is that Mickey has to cut his family loose.
Truth be told, The Fighter isn’t really much of a boxing movie. Sure that’s the selling point and it allows for a rousing, crowd-pleasing finish, but Mickey could just as easily be striving to open a deli or striving to go back to school. The real story is the family. The boxing is only a backdrop, and if it weren’t for the true-story basis I would say it serves as little more than a metaphor for the punishment Mickey has taken in life. The Fighter is about a man working up the courage not to step into the boxing ring but to break away from his self-destructive family weighing him down in misery. This is a dysfunctional family drama disguised as a Rocky-style boxing redemption picture. The boxing aspects are small, mostly contained to the final act as Mickey’s career finally begins to gain some traction. For some, this will be disappointing news. But for me, I loved the family drama stuff. This is a fractured family with deep lines of division, nursing grudges, resentment waiting to boil over, all the marks of meaty drama. The focus is on Mickey trying to break away from the pull of his harmful older half-brother and his boorish mother. His mother enables Dicky, her favorite child, to the detriment of the rest of her brood. Her relationship with Dicky is fascinating and complicated, like a mother sacrificing the rest of her clan to help her most damaged child. You can catch some of the invisible ripples from these decisions, like the seven sisters all forming one unified hive-mind to survive. They’re like a block of cheerleaders for mother, only able to get attention and some form of affection by doing so. The extensive family unit revolves around Leo’s matriarch, fiercely protective and fiercely myopic. She refuses to remove herself from Mickey’s management team, and thus Mickey and his career suffer. It’s downright Oedipal. If only he can escape the clutches of his family, perhaps Mickey can taste success that has eluded him so long. The family drama makes up a good majority of The Fighter, and that’s just fine with me when I get characters this damaged and complicated.
And all of this is blissfully entertaining. Director David O. Russell is miles away from his other films like Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees. This is different kind of redemption story where the main guy winning a title is nice, and we can all celebrate, but it’s really his separation from a harsh family dragging him down. The film also produces an engaging romance for Mickey, which gives him a renewed sense of purpose to finally break free of his family. Amy Adams (Enchanted, Doubt) is a bartender at a local hangout with some college under her belt, a point that irritates Mickey’s family. The Eklund sisters lash out at Mickey’s squeeze in childish ways. Adams, playing Charlene, shies away from the daffy or genteel roles of her past. She gets to spit profanities with glee. Her relationship with Mickey serves as a foil to his family, showing what strength a positive, healthy relationship can achieve. But while the family is presented in an antagonistic sense, they are not blithely demonized. Russell and his team of writers and actors use humor to find surprising pockets of warmth amidst all the darkness and shattered dreams. This isn’t an addiction story that plumbs the depths of human weakness. The production feels bathed in authenticity and the city of Lowell, Massachusetts and its lived-in, blue-collar culture feels like another vital character. When the HBO documentary finally airs, you feel the cloud of hurt that covers the entire town in shame. Nobody wants to be known as a town famous for crack addiction (you can watch the 1995 doc online for free).
The acting is also some of the best you’ll see all year. Wahlberg is a sturdy center, used to the abuse and underplaying his character’s transformation from punching bag to assertive human being. This is Wahlberg’s home turf, and he’s been shopping the story for years in Hollywood, so it’s no surprise that everything comes so natural for the Beantown kid. But his understated work is going to get obscured with the flamboyant performances from both Bale and Leo. Bale (The Dark Knight, Rescue Dawn) has long been considered one of the finest actors of his generation, his Method devotion and versatility a godsend. In The Fighter, he’s a live wire, a bundle of energy in a haunting skeletal frame. He’s a figure of lost promise, of tragedy and bruised ego, trying to live vicariously through his younger brother. He’s deluded himself into thinking that this HBO documentary will launch a comeback at 40. Bale excels with the bombastic bits, practically bouncing off the walls, but then he nails the quieter, smaller moments of his character, where Dicky realizes that he’s wasted his gifts. Leo (Frozen River) could easily fall into an outsized monster of large hair and nicotine-stained fingers, but the Oscar-nominated actress finds exciting ways to tap into her character’s humanity. She fully knows that her beloved child is a crack addict, but watching her rationalize and justify her actions is exciting.
The Fighter is a meaty family drama, stirring tale of redemption, and a showcase of superior acting. In an awards season where it feels like many films are missing some secret ingredient, The Fighter has it all together. It’s an underdog story of a different flavor that manages to be authentic, entertaining, charitable, and engrossing even while staying within the boundaries of a predictable framework. We all know that Mickey will triumph in the ring; otherwise his tale would never have caught the notice of Hollywood producers. This is a fresh take on old material. The focus is on the fractured family dynamic and the many characters, not on a simplistic rising through the rankings of sport. It’s because of the tremendous acting and character work that the first half of the film easily outshines the second. Once the family is sidelined, and Mickey’s boxing career takes off, The Fighter turns into a more conventional genre picture, though still engaging. The movie ends on a satisfying note of uplift that feels fully earned without a twinge of naiveté. This Oscar season, expect audiences and voters alike to find something to cheer about in this return to the ring.
Nate’s Grade: A-