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The Equalizer 2 (2018)

The Equalizer 2 is lucky that the threshold for entertainment is just low enough to cover even middling affairs where Denzel Washington dishes out righteous justice to the cocky criminals and ne’er-do-wells of the world. This is very much a strict formulaic second entry for 2015’s original movie, based on the TV series. It’s lesser in just about every regard although it returns Washington, director Antoine Fuqua, and writer Richard Wenk. It’s hard not to feel like a paycheck venture where everyone went on some autopilot. The plot takes a bit long to get into gear and it’s desperately missing the first movie’s lead mob investigator to create an enticing game of cat and mouse. I miss the gradual escalation, as Washington’s character gets in worse and worse trouble as he moves up the ranks of the Russian mafia. I would actually say Equalizer 2 is a movie that peaks in its first act (my favorite moment was an episodic dishes of violent retribution with a group of arrogant sexual assaulters). There just isn’t anything truly memorable here. The action can often feel murky with how it’s been photographed, and there is the occasional questionable quirk that would take me out rather than fully engage (baking flour is combustible now?). There is a satisfying storyline where Washington reaches out to an at-risk youth to dissuade him from joining a gang. It has some nicely drawn character moments that feel meaningful, but then it’s back to the grind of whatever an Equalizer movie means in the twenty-first century. I enjoyed the first Equalizer as a modern-day Canon action vehicle with some pretty sickly entertaining deaths and taut action/suspense sequences. It was a movie that made its presence felt beyond Washington’s cool charisma. With the sequel, all we’re left with is Washington’s charisma performing the heavy lifting.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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The Big Short (2015)

3463_the-big-short_8FFAAdam McKay is not exactly the kind of name you associate with a prestige picture that’s building serious Oscar heat. McKay is best known as the director and co-writer of Will Ferrell’s best movies, from Anchorman and its sequel to Talladega Nights and the underrated 2010 buddy cop movie, The Other Guys. If you stuck through the closing credits for Guys, you were treated to an animated education lesson on the size of Wall Street’s greed and accountability in regards to the 2008 financial crisis. It was impassioned, angry, and an interesting note to end an otherwise goofy comedy. The Big Short is based upon Michael Lewis’ (Moneyball) best-selling book and it’s a disaster movie where the biggest disaster is the world economy. The movie McKay co-adapted and directed is bristling with intelligence, indignation, and a clear purpose. He wants to make you very angry, and by the end if you’re not, you haven’t been paying enough attention.

In the wake of the financial collapse in 2008, the fallout was so tremendous that many people felt nobody could have seen this coming. There were a few and they made out like bandits while trying to warn others about the impending doom. In the early 2000s, Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is a hedgefund manager who sees warning signs that the housing market is a bubble ready to burst. He sees the toxicity of the majority sub-prime mortgages wrapped together and sold as a seemingly safe security, a CDO (collateralized debt obligation). His bosses think he’s mad and they’re furious when they discover Burry has gone from bank to bank making big bets against the housing market. The banks are eager to take what they believe to be easy money from a sucker. How could the housing market burst? Other Wall Street investors take notice of Burry, notably Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) who pitches the plan to “short” the housing market. Nobody takes him seriously except Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his small team who works for Goldman Sachs. Baum is curious how something so large could go unnoticed, so he and his team fly to Florida and Vegas to investigate the realities of the market and what they find does not match the rosy cheerleading from Wall Street. A pair of wannabe traders (Finn Witrock, John Magaro) stumbles across Burry’s analysis and try to make their own bets, except they need a bigger name to make the trades. They reach out to an ex-Wall Street trader (Brad Pitt) who agrees to shepherd them on this quixotic quest. Are these men righteous defenders of fraud or just people trying to get their own cut of the pie?

bigshortbale900The brilliance of The Big Short lies in its accessibility and the virulent passion that McKay has for the subject matter. The movie is structured like a heist and an underdog story, suckering in the audience to root for the upstarts trying to fleece the big banks and profit off their greed and stupidity. For the first 90 minutes or so, the film comes across like a caper and we follow our group of misfits as they fight against the conventional wisdom that the housing market could never topple. These guys see the signs and the risks that others could not or would not see, especially since the flow of money was rich and the good times could be shared, which lead to collusion from the very same agencies designed to regulate and enforce the financial laws. For those 90 minutes the movie flies by on its sense of whimsy and are-we-getting-away-with-this good fortune, putting our band of misfits in position to win big on the losses of the ignorant and fraudulent. And then, in one swift move, it all comes down and you’re reminded, rather indignantly by Pitt’s character, that what they are benefiting from is the meltdown of the U.S. housing market and by extension the American economy. What once felt like a celebratory caper now starts to feel queasy, and it’s in the last act that The Big Short reminds you just how awful the events of the 2008 financial crisis were and how these guys did nothing more than benefit from mass misery. These are not heroes, though Mark Baum is given plenty of moral grandstanding moments that present him as the closest thing we have in the picture. These were a bunch of guys who got rich betting on a lot of other people’s bad bets, bets that almost destroyed the world’s economic systems. The concluding half hour feels like a sudden stop after a sugar rush, where you’re left to question your decision-making but also come to terms with the reality of what seemed like a fun time. McKay lures his audience in with the guise of a heist/underdog story, appealing and accessible avenues of cinema, and then serves the cold hard medicine in the concluding moments.

McKay is admirably trying to educate and advocate while he entertains, but he truly wants the audience to understand why they should be sharpening their pitchforks. At several points, characters will break the fourth wall and talk directly into the camera, admitting that certain events didn’t happen exactly as we saw, or occasionally they’ll remind us that what we watched was exactly how it happened. It’s a measure that isn’t overplayed and helps juice the spirits of the movie, becoming something of a confidant in the schemes with the onscreen participants. When things gets a little hard to understand with the mountain of Wall Street lingo, McKay will cut to celebrity cameos to help explain the more arcane instruments of the financial system. Margot Robbie luxuriates in a bubble bath and explains sub-prime mortgages, Anthony Bourdain explains CDOs, and Selena Gomez, in a rather cogent analogy, explains synthetic CDOs as an endless chain of side bets being made off one hand of blackjack. The movie goes pretty fast and a viewer might experience information overload but McKay knows when to slow things down and provide a well-timed assist so that his learned audience will see the true extent of the corruption and greed rampant in how Wall Street handled its business.

big-shortOf the three storylines, I found Mark Baum and his team easily the most interesting and I think McKay and co-screenwriter Charles Randolph (The Interpreter) agreed, which is why he’s the biggest part of the movie. Burry gets things started but he recedes into the background after the first act, and that’s where Baum and his financial team step into the spotlight to further explore how unstable the housing market just might be. I think this is Carell’s best dramatic performance to date (I wasn’t wowed by Foxcatcher). He’s playing perhaps one of the angriest people seen on screen but that’s because he has a moral center and the bad business practices, let alone the sociopathic greed of his “peers,” constantly enrage him. He’s something like a flabbergasted crusading journalist who keeps shaking his head in stupefying revulsion at just how deep this whole thing goes. Having Baum as our entry into the moral morass of Wall Street allows the audience to feel a sense of ethical superiority, and then like Pitt’s character, it can all go away with one perfectly articulated retort. There’s a moment where Baum is lambasting a mortgage ratings officer (Melissa Leo, her only scene too) after she admits that if they don’t rate bad mortgages as good, the banks will just go to their competitor, and then she accuses Baum of being a hypocrite. His reason for the office visit is not his outrage at the fraud but the fact that this fraud is holding up his winnings. He’s not the crusader he may wish to be. Bale (American Hustle) and Gosling (Only God Forgives) are perfectly cast and provide strong supporting work in small doses spread throughout. Pitt is in 12 Years a Slave producer mode where he knows he needs to appear in the movie to better sell it to audiences, and so he’s here and rather unremarkable. There is a bevy of familiar faces (Marisa Tomei, Rafe Spall, Max Greenfield, Karen Gillan) appearing in small moments as if everybody in Hollywood wanted to get in on McKay’s party.

There is one annoying misstep in the movie and it occurs about halfway and it’s made to stretch out the stakes in a haphazard manner. The Big Short is a disaster movie where the audience knows exactly when the disaster is coming, and yet there’s a section in the middle where the characters are all left in doubt whether their big bets will pay off because of the ratings fraud. Burry is threatened with losing his job. It’s silly because we know the economy is going to crash in 2008, but the movie throws out a weak obstacle that, hey, maybe it won’t crash. It reminds me of the Hinderberg movie from the 1970s. There were several moments where it looked like that zeppelin full of hydrogen was going to go up in flames… except students of history know that moment is fated in New Jersey, so all the close calls were foolish fake-outs for a major event that was well anticipated. We all know the economy is going down so there’s no need for the manufactured doubts.

McKay and company want to wake up a fairly apathetic general public about the crimes and negligence of the Wall Street robber barons that risked the world’s economy and then managed to skip out on the tab. The tones can juggle wildly, and I’d credit McKay’s background in comedy for his ability to maintain a reliable and firm comic footing for the film without losing the significance of his message. It’s hard to nail down a genre for the movie; it’s a dark comedy, a drama, a true crime picture, and a wake-up call. You have moments that feel like a heist flick and moments that feel like a sickening journalistic expose. It’s got highs, lows, laughs, groans, and plenty of human emotions, though the most prominent would be disgust and disbelief. The Big Short is advocacy populism as pop-entertainment, and it succeeds ably. It’s an economics lesson for the public. At the end of the movie, the closing text informs us about “bespoke tranches,” which are investment opportunities that banks are flocking to ($5 billion in 2013 to $20 billion in 2014). It’s just another name for CDOs. Unless an informed public demands action from the system, it seems that Wall Street is doomed to repeat its same high-risk mistakes and that same vulnerable public is doomed to clean up the mess.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Prisoners (2013)

105270_galOne rainy Thanksgiving day, two little girls go missing. Keller and Grace Dover (Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello) and their neighbors, Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard, Viola Davis), discover their two young daughters have gone missing. A manhunt is underway for a suspicious RV, spearheaded by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal). The RV is found with Alex Jones (Paul Dano) inside. The problem is that there is no physical evidence of the missing girls inside the RV and Alex has the mental capacity of a ten-year-old. He’s being released and Keller is incensed. He’s certain that Alex is guilty and knows where his missing daughter is being held. One night, Keller kidnaps Alex and imprisons him in an abandoned building. He beats him bloody, demanding Alex to tell him the truth, but he only remains silent. Loki has to deal with finding the girls, finding a missing Alex, and trailing Keller, suspicious of foul play.

This is a movie that grabs you early and knows how to keep you squirming in the best ways. The anxiety of a missing child is presented in a steady wave of escalating panic. The moment when you watch the Dover and Birch families slowly realize the reality of their plight, well it’s a moment that puts a knot in your stomach. Prisoners is filled with moments like this, that make you dread what is to come next. The crime procedural elements of the case are generally interesting and well handled to the point that they feel grounded, that these events could transpire, including police mistakes. The central mystery sucks you in right away and writer Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband) lays out clues and suspects with expert pacing, giving an audience something new to think over.  At 153 minutes, there is a lot to chew over in terms of plot developments and character complications. It’s a compelling mystery yarn and shows such promise, though the last half hour cannot deliver fully. Fortunately, Prisoners is packed with terrific characters, a real foreboding sense of Fincher-esque chilly atmosphere from director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies) and greatest living cinematographer Roger Deakens (Skyfall). The film’s overall oppressive darkness is also notable for a mainstream release. The darkness doesn’t really let up. It’s hard to walk out feeling upbeat but you’ll be thankful for those punishing predicaments.

107713_galBy introducing the vigilante torture angle, Prisoners is given a dual storyline of suspense and intrigue. How far will Keller go? Will he get caught? What will his friends think? Will they be supportive or will they crack? How does this change Keller? That last question is the most interesting one. Others tell us how Keller is a good man, and he’s certainly a devoted family man, but does a good man imprison and torture a mentally challenged man? Does a good man take the law into his own hands? If it meant the difference between your child being dead or alive, how far would you go? These are the questions that bubble up and the movie makes you deal with them. The torture segments are unflinching and challenge your viewer loyalty. You will be placed in an uncomfortable moral position. Then there’s just the what-would-you-do aspect of the proceedings. Could you torture someone, possibly to death? Fortunately most of us will never have to find out. I do wish, however, that the movie had gone further, complicating matters even more severely. It becomes fairly evident halfway through that Alex is innocent. It would have been even more interesting to intensify Keller’s legal troubles. If the police have their man, what does Keller do with Alex? Does he let him live after everything Keller has done? I think it would have worked as a logical escalation and put the audience in an even more uncomfortable position, forcing us to question whether Keller deserves to get away with what he did or pay a price.

What separates Prisoners from other common thrillers, and what must have appealed to such an all-star cast, is the raised level of characterization on display. Jackman’s (Les Miserables) intensity is searing, as is his character’s sense of pain and futility. By all accounts, this is the best acting work Jackman has done in his career. Keller’s determination is all consuming, pushing away his doubts with his reliable pool of anger. Everyone is failing him so he feels he must take matters into his own hands, and the film does a fine job of relating his frustrations and urgency. But Keller is also in danger of derailing the ongoing investigation, becoming a liability to finding his daughter. This predicament pushes Loki into the tricky role of having to defuse parental intrusion, pushing him into a role he loathes, having to tell a harrowed father to back off. Loki is also consumed with the case, causing plenty of internal tumult and chaffing with the inefficiency and miscommunication of the police force. Gyllenhaal (End of Watch) doesn’t play his character big; he keeps it at a simmer, with hints of rage below the surface. His character is certainly richer than the Driven Cop we’ve often seen. His character is given less moral ambiguity but you feel his frustration working within the system and hitting dead ends. These two performers are both ticking time bombs.

The rest of the supporting cast has a moment or two to shine, though the characters are given less to work with. Bello (Grown Ups 2) is hastily disposed of from a plot standpoint by making her practically comatose with grief. Davis (The Help) knows how to make the most of limited screen time (see her Oscar nominated performance in 2008’s Doubt as evidence), and she’s heartbreaking in her moments of desperate pleading. Howard (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) is meant as the foil to Keller, a voice of moral opposition, but Howard lets the gravity of his involvement in horrible acts hit you hard. Dano (Ruby Sparks) has the toughest part in many ways because of his character’s brokenness and the fact that he’s being tortured so frequently. It’s hard not to sympathize with him even if part of you suspects his guilt. Naturally, Dano is adept at playing weirdos. Melissa Leo (Olympus Has Fallen) is nearly unrecognizable as Alex’s older aunt caring for him. She’s prepared for the worst from the public but has some nice one-on-ones where she opens up about the difficulty of losing a child herself.

107719_galPrisoners is such a good mystery that it works itself into a corner to maintain it, ensuring that no real answer or final reveal will be satisfying, and it isn’t. I’m going to tiptoe around major spoilers but I will be delving into some specifics, so if you wish to remain pure, skip ahead. The culprit behind the child abductions, to put it mildly, is underwhelming and rather obtuse in their wicked motivation. The specified reason is to test people’s faith and turn them into monsters by abducting their children. This comes across as an awfully nebulous philosophical impetus, and it’s a motivating force that I find hard to believe even in the grimy, dark reality the movie presents. It just doesn’t feel grounded, more like a last-ditch conclusion to a TV procedural. However, what makes this ending worse is the false turns and red herrings that Prisoners utilizes. Every mystery requires some red herrings but they need to seem credible, and if executed properly, the characters will learn something useful through the false detour. The issue with Prisoners is that it establishes a secondary suspect that is so OBVIOUSLY the guilty guy, compounded with plenty of incriminating evidence including the missing children’s clothing covered in blood. When this suspect comes undone, his sketchy behavior starts to become a series of contrivances. They introduce a character that is too readily the guilty party, and then they just as easily undo him. And here’s another character of questionable motivation. Plus, there’s the central contrivance of having two characters that remain mute under all torturous circumstances unless the plot requires them to say something that can only be interpreted in an incriminating manner. These mounting plot contrivances, and an ending that wants to be ambiguous but in no way is, rob Prisoners of being the expertly crafted thriller it wants to be. It still hits you in the gut, but you’ll be picking it apart on the car ride home.

Grisly, morally uncomfortable, and genuinely gripping, Prisoners is a grownup thriller that isn’t afraid to go to dark places, with its characters and its plot. It hooks you early and keeps you on the hook, pushing its characters to make desperate decisions and asking you to think how you would perform under similar pressure. It’s a fascinating meta game and one that also adds extra intrigue to a rather intriguing mystery. It may not be revolutionary, but Prisoners is an above-average thriller with strong suspense and characterization. Where Prisoners stumbles is how it brings all this darkness to a close. The ending is rather perfunctory and not terribly satisfying; perhaps no ending would have been truly satisfying given the setup, but I’d at least prefer an alternative to the one I got, especially since it feels less grounded than the 140 minutes or so beforehand. It’s an ending that doesn’t derail the movie, but it certainly blunts the film’s power and fulfillment. Then again perhaps a word like “fulfillment” is the wrong term to use on a movie that trades in vigilante torture and the cyclical nature of abuse. In pursuit of perceived justice, what are we all capable of doing? The answer is likely surprising and disheartening for many, and Prisoners deserves credit for pushing its audience into uncomfortable positions and reflections.

Nate’s Grade: B

Oblivion (2013)

oblivion-poster-Cruise-Golden-Gate-BridgeIt’s late in the twenty-first century, decades after humanity battled an alien species in a war for the planet, and while humanity won the war Earth is desolate. The moon destroyed. The remaining members of humanity live on a starship around Saturn’s moon, Titan, and the oceans of Earth provide the energy resource. Jack (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are the team stationed with repairing drones, the flying machines that protect the energy plants. There are still pockets of alien scavengers that need to be dealt with. Jack and Victoria make a great team, and dip into romantic companionship, until Jack meets a mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko) professing to be his wife. Jack begins to doubt the purpose of his mission and wonder if the alien scavengers are the enemy.

If you’ve been keeping up with sci-fi cinema in the last couple decades, you’ll likely recognize more than a few elements with Oblivion. From its themes to its plot points to its revelations, there’s little here to designate as original. So the real question remains how derivative can we take? I think when the execution is nimble then it’s one of the easiest sins to remember. Especially in the realm of sci-fi cinema, it’s hard to put together a new story, let alone one set up as a Hollywood star vehicle, without borrowing from other established movies. This in itself is not an issue. Tarantino is a master borrower but he always recontextualizes his artistic influences into something new and different, and while we critics lament his less original career path of late, the man’s box-office profits have never been better in his career. I think when we feel like we’re getting a good story we don’t care when that story has been told before in other manners. Star Wars, after all, has many cultural fathers, but it was a rollicking good time with characters we cared about, so nobody seemed to mind. Likewise, Oblivion has many forbearers from Independence Day to I Am Legend to 2001 to an indie film from a few years ago I shall refrain from mentioning because even the very mention will spoil key plot points. Some will decry the film as a rip-off of superior, headier fare, but I never minded. I was having too good of a time and found the movie too satisfying to quibble.

oblivion3I won’t say the movie is smart per se but it’s far more measured than I would have expected. The advertising makes it look like Cruise fights a bunch of aliens and robots, and while there is that aspect, it’s almost an afterthought to a slow-burning mystery that patiently parcels out its revelations, even to the very end of the film. I’m trying to be cagey about certain plot points to avoid spoilers. It’s a film that has more on its mind than explosions, but when it goes into explosion mode, director Joseph Kosinski (TRON: Legacy) makes it count. The larger action elements are well staged and polished with some above average special effects. The sight of the moon dashed across the sky is definitely an evocative image. I love the overall look of the film, Kosinki’s clean, spare, bubbly Apple-esque aesthetics. The drones themselves manage to have personality even with a limited, streamlined design and some choice sound design. The man knows how to hold onto an image and when to keep pushing. The action is suitably thrilling and the drama suitably suspenseful. Actually, better than suitably. I enjoyed the details of this world. It’s probably the spiffiest post-apocalyptic landscape you’ll ever see. This is an entertaining movie that finds nice ways to satisfy, and given the particulars of its sci-fi plot, finds a way to have its cake and eat it too. As a result, Oblivion is a sci-fi flick that offers enough to engage the mind and audience demands for big effects and big thrills.

-1I’ve never been a Cruise hater. I even thought the man tried his damndest to make a movie like Rock of Ages worth watching (a valiant effort but not enough). His character is pretty affable at first and we get to watch as everything he knows comes undone. It’s a role that would lead to overacting, but Cruise underplays the part, more alarmed naïf than flinty action hero. I’m not expecting Oscar-caliber performances in every role but Cruise does a fine job of anchoring the audience and selling his character’s journey. He also has good chemistry with not one but two ladies. Kurylenko (Seven Psychopaths, To the Wonder) is an actress of great beauty and questionable talent, but perhaps being paired up with a genuine star like Cruise brings out the best in her. They’re good together, though my preference was for Riseborough (W.E., Never Let Me Go), an actress who brings a tremulous vulnerability to an otherwise underwritten and confused character that’s more a plot device. Riseborough makes the character so much more than she is on the page. She’s still a relatively new actress so I look forward to her future performances. There are other familiar faces, like Morgan Freeman and an especially unsettling Melissa Leo, but it’s really a three-person acting exercise.

Oblivion is a visually alluring sci-fi thriller that also manages to have enough heart and smarts to leave a satisfying impression. The pacing is more deliberate but offers plenty rewards, doling out revelations up until the end, unpacking its mystery with finesse. The first twenty minutes or so, establishing the particulars of this world and the routine of our protagonists, is downright exceptional. The rest of the film doesn’t quite live up to that start but it continues to be an engaging and entertaining movie with some top-notch visuals. The musical score by electronic band M83 also provides a stirring counterpoint to the glossy, clean visuals (the band’s song “Outro” was also very effectively used in that lovely five-minute trailer for Cloud Atlas). You may figure things out as you watch, but you won’t mind, at least I didn’t. The more I step away the more I think back with renewed enthusiasm for the film. It’s smarter, slicker, and just a more satisfying film than we’re accustomed to with this kind of budget and from Hollywood.

Nate’s Grade: B

Olympus Has Fallen (2013)

1948Remember in the late 90s when studios seemed to develop similar projects every few months? In 1997, we had two volcano movies (Volcano, Dante’s Peak), and in 1998 we had two animated bug films (Antz, A Bug’s Life) and two asteroid action flicks (Deep Impact, Armageddon). With the wealth of unproduced screenplays, there’s definite merit to different writers coming up with similar concepts independent of one another. Now in 2013 we have two action movies that, boiled down, are essentially Die Hard in the White House. The first out of the gate, Olympus Has Fallen, is an entertaining action vehicle that reminds me of the 90s Jerry Bruckheimer era of big explosions, big body counts, and irony-free pleasures.

Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) is a top Secret Service agent still reeling from his inability to save the President (Aaron Eckhart)’s wife (Ashley Judd) in a freak accident. He now provides security at the nearby Treasury Department, the President afraid to see Mike’s face and be reminded of his loss. Then one sunny day, a cargo plane fires on D.C. citizens, armed terrorists assault the White House, and North Korean nationalist Yang (Rick Yune) has taken the President and his cabinet members hostage. The Speaker of the House, Trumbull (Morgan Freeman), has ascended to America’s Commander in Chief and he has to navigate tricky issues like how to save the president. Luckily, they have a man on the inside. During the firefight, Mike scrapped his way inside the White House. Now it’s one man versus a bevy of terrorists and nationalists.

100030_galThe overall execution reminds me of the heyday of mid 90s action cinema, with its mixture of the ridiculous played completely sincere. It doesn’t really matter that North Korean terrorists are able to take down the White House so easily. Sure we can nitpick the very prospect of a large foreign aircraft getting so close to D.C. before getting intercepted, and only with two fighters at that. But if you can tuck away that nagging voice reminding you of the implausible nature of everything, then Olympus Has Fallen is a serviceable action thriller. Every fifteen minutes or so our hero has a new mini-goal to accomplish. It keeps things fresh and holds your attention away from analyzing the sillier elements (Gatling guns atop the White House?). The debut script by screenwriters Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt follows the Hollywood blockbuster blueprint down to the smallest detail. Of course there’s another blueprint it mirrors, namely that of Die Hard. Beyond the premise of one man left to his wits in a hostage standoff, there’s also the moment where the bad guy poses as a good guy to the ignorance of our hero, there’s the failed outside tactical use of force, and the bond forged between the man on the inside and the link outside, whom isn’t given the level of respect deserved. That’s not just an application of the Die Hard premise to a new setting (like Air Force One or Under Siege), but a sampling of the very plot beats from Die Hard. Then again if you’re going to steal then steal from the best.

There’s a certain throwback bravado vibe going on here that makes it all easier to swallow. It’s got big silly action sequences and some in-your-face jingoism (a character, when faced with the notion of execution, literally starts reciting the Pledge of Allegiance), enough that Michael Bay would be misty-eyed, but treating the subject matter with such thoughtless swagger makes the reality easier to accept. Having D.C. attacked, civilians mowed down, national monuments crumbled, and the White House in ashes, well you’d naturally think back to the very real horrors of 9/11, and you may shudder. By embracing the implausible nature of the action and achieving a tone that prioritizes popcorn thrills, Olympus Has Fallen dances around pitfalls of exploitation and simply becomes another big, dumb, but enjoyable action movie. I say this without a hint of derision or irony.

I haven’t been a fan of Antoine Fuqua as a director. He can compose a good looking movie, but Shooter, Tears of the Sun, and King Arthur were enough to convince me the man could not properly stage exciting action. I think perhaps the limitations of the setup brought out the best in him because there are some genuinely gripping action sequences on display here. Also, the man does a fine job of establishing the geography of his action and presenting a surprising variety. Fuqua, aided with the shifting script, makes sure that the audience never gets bored. Sure there are storylines that don’t exactly work, like Mike finding the First Son, a character never heard from again, but the movie keeps changing shape, getting bigger, and finding enough satisfying payoffs. This is an effective, serviceable “turn off your brain” action movie, and it does enough right that you don’t fret about turning that brain back on until the end credits. The R-rating also ups the ante, providing bloodier and brutal escalation to what should be life-and-death stakes.  If you’re going to give me “Die Hard in a…” then you best make sure your movie doesn’t wuss out. You’ll recognize plenty of action movie tropes and clichés, but the action is worthwhile and the plot constantly moving that you simply don’t mind.

100033_galIt’s nice to see Butler (Playing for Keeps) find a role that plays to his, admittedly limited, strengths. His character is your standard tough guy with a tragic past, haunted by the life he couldn’t save, looking to make amends and forgive himself. It’s probably the fact that the role has so little to it that Butler is able to slide effortlessly into gruff action star mode, a preferential place (though I prefer the man to be bearded as well). The rest of the movie benefits from actors who are far better than the material: Freeman, Eckhart, Melissa Leo, Radha Mitchell, and Angela Bassett. They all provide better-than-average performances for this type of movie. Even Dylan McDermott (TV’s American Horror Story) gets room to shine. Rick Yune (Ninja Assassin, The Man with the Iron Fists) makes for a very sinister bad guy. The part is Generic Antagonist #301, but Yune finds fun ways to enjoy the menace, soak it up without hamming it up. He transforms a generic villain into a dude you want to see righteously toppled.

After last fall’s updated Red Dawn (scrubbed free of invading Chinese forces) and now this, I must ask if North Korea has become the go-to military enemy for American action movies. Olympus Has Fallen takes the added step of never having the government of North Korea involved or approve, like the terrorists are acting on their own. We wouldn’t want to upset the government of North Korea; that’s what Red Dawn is for. But does anyone really view North Korea as a credible military threat? They are seen as a rogue nation, yes, and they claim to have nuclear arms, so they should be taken seriously, but does anyone realistically think we’ll wake up tomorrow and be conquered by North Korea? I suppose this criticism lies more with Red Dawn than Olympus Has Fallen, a movie that only needs a handful of dedicated foot soldiers rather than an invading army. I also find it laughable that the only thing holding back North and South Korea from war, in this fictional scenario, is the presence of about 28,000 U.S. troops. Also, if these events played out as they do, who doesn’t think that the U.S. would respond with military action against North Korea?  We started a war with Iraq and they weren’t even responsible for the actions of a handful of terrorists. I guess the North Koreans are the new Hollywood Boogeymen.

With a hook of a premise, some exciting action, and more than a few borrowed plot beats from Die Hard, it’s still a pleasant surprise at how entertaining Olympus Has Fallen works. It’s a movie that simply does enough right to justify watching. Its action is good enough, its plot is familiar enough but offers enough forward momentum, its actors are good enough, and it does enough right to quell potential boredom. I appreciated its throwback feel to the mid-90s action movie, a time of elevated popcorn thrills and powerful bravado, all without a hint of irony no matter how ridiculous things got. It lands on shakier ground when it tries to become a rah-rah kind of patriotic rally, but I’d be lying if I denied the certain pleasures of watching a Secret Service agent take out the bad guys on his turf. Time will tell how the second Die-Hard-in-the-White-House movie will fare, but if you’re looking for big and dumb but enjoyable, Olympus Has Fallen is like a summer popcorn film only in March.

Nate’s Grade: B

Flight (2012)

The advertising for Flight has highlighted the sexier elements, the star wattage of Denzel Washington and director Robert Zemeckis, and the thrills of the air disaster. What you get is a different matter. The first thirty minutes prepares you for one movie, and then Flight takes off in a different direction, a path that fails to capitalize on the potential of the subject matter.

Whip Whitaker (Washington) is one hell of a pilot. He miraculously lands a downed airplane, limiting the loss of life to six. He is also a hell of a drunk. Whip also happened to be drunk and high on cocaine at the time of the crash. As the airline investigation searches for the causes that lead to the crash, Whip and his team, longtime friend and union ally (Bruce Greenwood) and high-priced ethically sketchy defense lawyer (Don Cheadle) try and protect their own. The media is agog in hero worship with Whip, but they don’t know about what awaits in his blood test drawn at the scene of the crash. As Whip prepares for possible criminal charges, he meets a recovering addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly) and the two form a connection. He hides out at his father’s old estate, invites her along, and they struggle to stay clean and fly right. But temptation is too powerful a beast for Whip, and he will continue to make poor decisions.

It’s really a modern-age version of The Lost Weekend or The Days of Wine and Roses. It is an alcoholism story. We’re all familiar with them at this point in the movies. A part of me thinks addiction stories are some of the easiest ones to write; you take a flawed character, introduce the addiction, have them determined to get sober, and then provide temptation after temptation. And that’s kind of what Flight feels like. The compelling elements of the movie, notably the legal ramifications of the crash and the political maneuvering, get too often sidelined by a repetitious mélange of Whip getting drunk or thinking about getting drunk or trying not to get drunk. There are many ups and downs, but the cycle of addiction and abuse starts to grow weary, especially when the movie offers more interesting and unique story avenues worth exploring. The airplane sequence is a taut, horrifying, intense sequence. The legal wrangling resulting from it seems like the stuff of good drama. The airline is trying to limit its monetary damage, the lawyers are trying to cover for their clients including having the dead crew stripped from the fatality numbers, and all the while the investigation is getting closer to uncovering Whip’s secret. That’s the movie I wanted to see with Flight. The majority of what I got was a by-the-books addiction parable with some good actors. The movie seems to be going in too many different directions.

Zemeckis’ return to live-action is welcomed and long overdue, and it’s great seeing him direct real people in real environments again, even if the finished film is flawed. His interests seem more with the special effects-laden crash, a harrowing sequence for the ages. When it gets to the addict stuff, it seems like Zemeckis goes on autopilot himself, bowing to the strength of his charismatic star sucking everything into his orbit. The movie becomes an acting showcase for Washington’s abilities at the expense of a completely coherent plot or tone. At times the film seems cavalierly comic, particularly with John Goodman’s character that gets treated like an endearing figure. He’s Whip’s chief source of drugs and his chief enabler and his casual nature with hardcore drugs, and the film’s noncommittal stance, gives the movie a strange, unsettling quality. Then there’s the religious aspect that feels like it flew in from a whole other screenplay (I can’t tell whether the film is dismissive of religion or just flippant). Plus Zemeckis just can’t help himself when it comes to on-the-nose literal music selections (after Whip gets high due to his compatriots, the elevator plays the Muzak version of the Beatles’ “Some Help from My Friends.”). It’s at this point I’m so happy for Zemeckis to be back making live-action movies, I’m probably giving Flight an even bigger pass than it may deserve.

I’m not sure the Nicole character provides anything substantial to this movie, let alone the movie treating her as a co-lead for the first thirty minutes. In between our moments of watching Whip on the plane, we have scenes of Nicole going about her sad day. I’m wondering how in the world these storylines are going to connect and why we have to leave the drama of the plane for the mundane life of an addict eeking out a desperate life. These should not be parallel storylines; the audience interest is not divided here. Nobody is complaining about spending too much time with Whip and the plane crash. No one is saying, “I wish I could see that woman’s sad life some more.” Why did we even need to see Nicole before she meets Whip in the hospital? Were all of those early scenes just too essential to lose in a movie over two hours? Thematically, I can understand that Nicole presents a romantic possibility but also a reward for Whip if he stays clean and sober. Seeing him screw up this pseudo-relationship is another example to convey the self-destructive nature of Whip. I get that. But if this woman were really integral to the plot, she wouldn’t vanish for the entire final act.

It’s easy to see why actors are always attracted to addict roles. They’re usually showy parts that allow for many opportunities to bottom out. Rest assured, Washington (Safe House) is uniformly excellent, portraying a deeply flawed individual prone to grandiose self-delusion and justification for his behavior. We’re so used to seeing Washington play the calm, cool, collected men of dignity, men who seem preternaturally gifted at leading others. With Flight, he becomes far more vulnerable, a self-destructive character that pushes others away and betrays the trust and faith of others. He’s not fighting some larger external force; he’s battling his internal demons that continually lead him astray. He can be petty, mean, weak, delusional, and downright unlikable at turns. It’s a strong performance that anchors the film. The other actors all provide admirable backup duties, from Cheadle to Greenwood to a brief appearance from Melissa Leo (The Fighter) as an airline investigator. I want to single out James Badge Dale (HBO’s The Pacific) for the impression he makes with a part that amounts to one single scene in the movie. He plays a gaunt cancer patient sneaking away for a stairwell smoke (“Wouldn’t want to give my cancer cancer”), joined by Whip and Nicole. He’s so good with the gallows humor and surprisingly poignancy that I wanted the camera to just start following him.

I want to point out one quirk during my movie going experience with Flight. I was easily the youngest person in my theater by 20 years minimum. I don’t enjoy seeing movies with a predominantly elderly crowd because they do not follow the agreed-upon rules of movie decorum. They often engage in conversations or provide a running commentary. A man two rows behind me had his watch beep for a solid minute to inform him, and the theater, it was now seven o’clock. Either he didn’t hear it beeping (which defeats the purpose) or couldn’t figure out this new-fangled 1980s watch technology to turn it off (which also defeats the purpose). Anyway, what I really enjoyed then was the audible reactions when Flight’s beginning, its very opening images, was a pair of naked breasts. The first scene features Whip and flight attendant Katerina (My Name is Earl’s Nadine Velaquez) getting dressed after a wild night of booze, cocaine, and sex. Whip talks to his ex-wife on the phone, and in one ongoing camera shot, we watch Velaquez walk around completely naked. Then she leaves off screen… and comes back still completely naked. Now I mention this not to reconfirm my red-blooded heterosexuality but because it delighted me to no end to listen to the grumbling of the older audience members. And yeah, the nudity is fairly gratuitous but I’m happy Zemeckis was able to rankle my elder audience before the second second of film.

Flight is also unique in the sense that it may be the only film I know of to posit that drugs and alcohol could save lives. Will is drunk and high while flying, but he saves the day because of his impairment. Ordinarily in the event of a crash or a dive he would revert to his training; every pilot in a flight simulator recreating the events crashed and killed all passengers. Instead, Will goes by instinct, thinking outside the box, and saving the day. And what enables him to do this? Booze, sweet life-saving booze! He’s so calm and relaxed in the moment that he’s able to think straight and discover unorthodox solutions in limited time. Flight never makes this fact explicit but I think it would have made a more interesting film if this debate had been given more airtime. Yeah Whip was drunk, but not every drunk is impaired the same. I’m not excusing driving while intoxicated, but the movie presents a strange situation, fictional yes, where drugs and alcohol saved lives. Then in the end, and our lead is in trouble, what does it look like will save the day? Cocaine! Seriously, the white knight in the final act is the white powder.

I think audience might be in for a rude awakening while they sit through Flight, advertised as an airline thriller. It’s still a competent, occasionally compelling movie with strong acting from Washington and others, but are audiences really interested in another alcoholism drama even if it has Big Stars? The most frustrating part of Flight is that it has so much potential, so many intriguing storylines or angles to choose from, and it settles on the most mainstream one, the familiar arc of an alcoholic coming to terms with their addiction. How is that more dramatic than an airline crash or the later investigation and legal witch-hunt to find a culprit to blame? The movie prefers to focus on the minor rather than the major, following the familiar formula to the very end when our lead has to make a grave moral decision. It’s a character study but the character and his path are the familiar. All the stuff that makes Flight different (the airline disaster, the investigation, the politics of blame) is the stuff that gets relegated so we can watch Whip screw up time and again. There’s an interesting study on hero worship buried somewhere in all this. I enjoyed Flight more in the moment but it has been crumbling under further reflection and analysis. I’m dearly glad Zemeckis has stepped back to the land of the living but Flight has too much baggage to go anywhere new and exciting.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Red State (2011)

Kevin Smith, love him or hate him, you can’t deny the man is a natural promoter. Earlier in the year, the indie filmmaker self-distributed his first foray into horror films, Red State, on a nationwide tour of screenings. I first saw Red State way back in March when Smith visited Springfield, Ohio to screen the film and then answer questions afterwards. I’ve been trying to wrestle with my critical opinion in the ensuing months. Fortunately for me, Smith has made it extremely easy to revisit my thoughts. Red State eschewed the traditional theatrical release pattern for a new digital-age model. It was available on demand through cable systems, available for download, and even broadcast in special theaters for a one-night only event. A month later the film hit DVD. In its better moments, Red State is the unholy union of Quentin Tarantino’s love of language, and penchant for jolting violence, and the Coen brothers’ nihilistic, cock-eyed sensibilities. This is strange new territory for the man. I wish I could say Red State is worthy of all the attention, though this sinister, messy, gritty little movie can work its wicked mojo, at least for a while.

The Five Points Church is a notorious family-operated cult. Under the guidance of their shepherd, Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), this fundamentalist Christian group pickets the funerals of dead soldiers, haranguing the grieved that their loved ones are dead because “God hates fags” (excuse me for failing to put two and two together). A group of teenage boys (Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner, Nicholas Braun) is lured to Sara’s (Melissa Leo) trailer with the promise of sex. The middle-aged woman plies her young bucks with drinks and they are knocked out. The boys awaken to find they are inside the Five Points compound and witness to Abin Cooper’s solution to sinners. Rather than railing with signs, the family has decided to take a more hands-on approach and execute them. While this is going on, a sheriff’s deputy alerts the authorities and the ATF rolls up to the compound. Lead by Agent Keenan (John Goodman), the government agency engages in a firefight with the rightwing cult. Ordered to take down the compound, and all witnesses, the various characters will try and escape with their lives, never knowing when that fateful moment of atonement may drop.

What Smith does well for a genre novice is to keep his audience constantly upended. Just when we think we’ve settled on a protagonist and a plotline, suddenly Smith switches gears. The surprises are sudden and often merciless, leaving the audience little room to adjust. In a genre usually beholden to formula, the consistency of Smith’s surprises makes for a darkly satisfying viewing. Watching Red State demands due attention. Naturally, not all of these tonal shifts work to the movie’s best interest. The final shift, to all-out action thriller, is the most leaden. The Ruby Ridge/Waco-style standoff allows for a lot of gunfire but very little action. We mostly just cut back and forth between the two sides firing and, inexplicably high numbers, being shot in the face. It can get repetitive and seem like all the mounting tension gets squandered. There is a nice storyline within of one family member, Cheyenne (Kerry Bische), forming a plan to save the compound’s children and escape. Bische (the lead on the last season of TV’s Scrubs) makes fantastic use of her limited screen time to render the anxiety and fear of her character. She’s second only to Parks in the performance department as far as I’m concerned. Then the climax comes along and Smith teases being audacious, going in a fire-and-brimstone angle that would completely obliterate audience expectations. And just when it seems like we’re about to get something radical… Smith falls back to what he knows – dialogue. For the final five minutes, Smith concludes his narrative with two government officials explaining what happened in florid detail. It’s a fairly big letdown.

The setup of luring teens to their doom is an old horror staple, though usually the ones doing the sacrifices are card-carrying Satanists. And when exactly would a Satanist be in a situation needing to prove their validity with a membership card (“I’m sorry Mr. Darkseed, but we can’t give you the ten percent discount on all those goat skulls unless we see some valid photo ID.”)? Smith flips the switch religious allegiance. Instead of Satanists or some other misunderstood fringe religion, the cult is a group of pious Christians. There’s plenty of room to work here and Smith refrains from making easy associations; the Five Points nutjobs aren’t meant to represent Christians as a whole or Christianity. They are extremists, and they will go to extreme measures. Ostensibly based upon the Westboro Baptist Church and Fred Phelps, you keep waiting for Smith to satirically carve up the clan, but this never really occurs beyond the superficial. Smith’s writerly instincts give Abin Cooper a ten-minute sermon/platform where the guy just unloads a hate-filled diatribe against homosexuals and progressives. For many, this will be the make it or break it point of the film. There are some genuinely tense moments to the first half of Red State. There’s one scene where the camera holds on Gallner (The Haunting in Connecticut) inside a wired cage. He rattles and screams and generally comes unglued, and we too piece together what he hears, dreading what is to come. The many escapes and narrow calls are also harrowing and finely edited to ratchet up suspense.

It seems, though, that Smith’s bleak screenplay does not present any characters we can truly root for. Horror has been shifting this way for the past twenty years. Thanks to the rise of the slasher flick, audience empathy has shifted from being with the running/screaming victims to being with the gruesome yet personable killers. Red State has a high body count but you won’t feel much when those bodies hit the floor. You’ll feel a jolt of shock, but from an empathy standpoint the needle barely registers. Sure, we don’t want people to be tortured and we want the abused to escape torment, but that’s not the same as characterization. The closeted sheriff (Stephen Root) feels like the start of an idea more than anything else. The trio of teen boys is presented with as little care as any other throwaway slasher flick. They are but meat for the grinder, our entryway into this hidden and spooky fundamental world. These aren’t so much characters as bodies waiting to be slain. The people are set up so they can be knocked down. This issue can become troubling when Smith wants us to rethink our loyalties, especially once the siege has begun. He wants us, dares us, to start feeling empathy for members of the Five Points Church. The problem is that the plot’s adherence to shock value and the underbelly of human nature has desensitized our empathy. When the ATF starts firing most in the audience will probably just cheer, not reflectively question the moral relativism. I doubt anyone will be switching allegiances midway through.

Cults are usually held together with a charismatic leader, and Red State has that in spades with Parks. The man just dissolves into his twisted character, a preacher that uses the Word of God to indoctrinate and arm for his own holy war. Parks has done fine supporting work before in the stable of Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez movies, but Red State is the actor’s biggest modern showcase yet. The man makes your skin crawl the way he can wrap hate into a honeyed, easily digestible product. Abin holds sway over his flock and likewise Parks commands the screen. He provides grandeur and menace to Smith’s words. It’s not a scenery-chewing performance; Parks doesn’t go for the obvious notes when he can hit something deeper and more unsettling. You get a sense that this man fully believes the dogma he teaches, and that makes him all the more terrifying. The other actors peopling Red State are fine, though Leo (Oscar-winner for The Fighter) seems a bit unrestrained especially in contrast with Parks. Goodman (TV’s Treme) gets to talk on the phone a lot to his unseen superiors. The end of the film just descends into frenzied yelling on everyone’s part.

Credited as a horror movie, though I view it more of a survivalist thriller but I suppose genre specifications are subjective, regardless, Red State is miles away from Smith’s usual output. The movie has its share of creeping dread and menace, thanks to Parks’ transfixing performance. The screenplay is unrepentantly dark, cruelly cutting down lives with shocking acuity. The constant surprises and upheavals are a way to keep the audience guessing, though the shock value starts to wear off by the noisy, repetitive gun battle climax. It’s hard to nail down exactly what kind of commentary Smith is presenting. Obviously he doesn’t side with the hateful fundamentalists (this is probably why he pulls back at the end), but he also shows the government’s reaction to religious zealots to be morally queasy at best. It’s hard to get a read what the commentary is, and with horror, if you don’t take a stab at commentary then you’re just watching high-gloss snuff films. Red State resembles a snuff film in several ways and not just in its grimy aesthetics. You feel a little dirty after it’s over, and you can’t help but question your motives for watching it. Plus you can’t help but think it could have been better done (note: I have never watched an actual snuff film, you sickos, but the point remains).

Nate’s Grade: B-

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