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Going in Style (2017)

If seeing Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin pal around and bicker for 90 minutes is enough reason to see a movie, then Going in Style offers that and precious little else. This is a movie that offers little more than three great old codgers doing their schtick as they plan to rob the bank that is cheating them out of their hard-earned pensions. The old-guys-acting-up routines vary from mildly amusing to sad and desperate, like a sequence where the trio inexplicably decide to practice their criminal impulses by robbing a convenience store. It’s all so broad and obvious and lackluster. There’s a scene where they get high and the mere utterance of the word “munchies” seems like it’s intended to be a comedic payoff. Going in Style is a remake of a 1979 movie where George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg take to a life of crime to animate them from a forgotten existence. It was strangely serious and had pockets of depth about the kind of care the elderly were receiving and how invisible their needs became to our country. This update loses any seriousness for exasperated and hollow hijinks. One-time indie darling Zach Braff (Garden State) takes his turn as a hired gun directing for the studio system. I don’t know if he was easily cowed by the acting veterans or the studio, but his comedy instincts honed over several seasons from Scrubs feel muted here. My theater was packed with people old enough to get their social security checks and they were barely chuckling politely. It’s predictable every step of the way and ginned up with contrived conflicts. Still, if all you want to see is a group of octogenarians crack wise and act foolish and you have no other pressing demands, Going in Style may be just enough to get by.

Nate’s Grade: C

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Now You See Me 2 (2016)

Now_You_See_Me_2_posterThe first Now You See Me was a pleasant surprise that took a simple concept (magician heist) and injected enough sly fun, style, and humor and made a memorable action thriller. As success demands, a sequel was commanded, but I had hopes considering the blueprint of its success could be repeated because those core elements were strong. We all love heist movies, we all love to be fooled, we all love to watch a smart people befuddle those in power, and the reveals made it even more enjoyable. I wasn’t expecting Now You See Me 2 to drop much of what made the first film appealing and shamble through its set pieces with a disinterested sense of sequel duty. The magic is gone.

The Four Horsemen magic act (Jessie Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Lizzy Caplan) has made quite a few enemies. They’re a group that attacks the fraud, exploitation, and greed of those rich and powerful who feel untouchable. This merry band of Robin Hoods is transported against their will to Macau, China by Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe). Walter lost a lot of money from the Horsemen’s antics in the first film and demands they steal a super microchip that will allow him to erase his identity and stay private permanently. Meanwhile, the Horsemen’s handler, Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), is blackmailed by famous and currently incarcerated Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman). Bradley has a score to settle with the Horsemen and uses Rhodes to escape from prison. All forces are headed to Macau and much more will be learned of the Horsemen’s behind-the-scene organization, The Eye.

Now-you-See-Me-2It feels like the filmmakers aren’t even trying to keep one foot in reality this time. It’s not like the first Now You See Me was a deeply grounded movie but it took pains to at least offer varying explanations for how these illusions were accomplished. Some of the answers were clever and some were preposterous, but at least they tried to show you their work, which made the Horsemen even cleverer, in my book. Understanding the preparation for the illusions and the execution of them adds to their impressive aura. The characters in the sequel don’t even attempt to explain the far majority of their tricks, and it’s simply not as fun. The opening job is a fun refresher because we see the different characters working together but also because we can see how they’re getting away with their shenanigans. As the movie continues, those magic acts get bigger and bigger and more ludicrous and harder to explain and then the movie just stops trying to explain. At this point magic might as well be real and the Horsemen are wizards. There’s suspension of belief and then there’s simply obliterating all connections to reality. When Eisenberg can control the direction of rain itself without any explanation, it cheapens the thrill. Because if there isn’t some level of limitations, requiring the tricks to be based in reality, then the on screen efforts lose their appeal because it doesn’t matter. It’s like haphazardly just writing, “The Horsemen do some magic junk and get away.” It’s just not as satisfying when it feels like the trick is ultimately on the audience.

Another complaint I have is that the scattered script seems littered with missed opportunities. One of the bigger misses that comes to mind is Harrelson’s twin brother, an obvious Matthew McConaughey impression from his True Detective costar. The character isn’t nearly as funny as Harrelson or the producers believe. He isn’t particularly memorable or necessary to the plot at all, but that’s not even his biggest offense. In a movie about magicians playing sleight-of-hand trickery, how in the world do we not have a switcheroo with the twins? That would justify his existence for the plot. I was shocked this never happened because it seemed so obvious. Why is he a twin? What does being a brother to Harrelson have to do with anything related to the plot? The script also gets overcrowded with antagonists, introducing Radcliffe and then bringing back Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman. The characters don’t so much compete with one another as they operate in separate spheres until a “twist” reveals more about their connections. Their agendas are too opaque. Radcliffe wants them to steal a super microchip so he can fully be “off the grid.” A man of his means shouldn’t have a problem with this. It’s not like he’s hiding out from the law for some kind of corporate espionage. It’s a convoluted reason to bring the Horsemen to his hiding spot in Macau. It’s just one in a long line of ideas that never feel fully developed. Even the magic set pieces don’t feel as fun. Seriously, one of the climactic magic set pieces is a human game of three-card Monty.

thumb_NowYouSeeMe2_ExclTrailerDirector John M. Chu (G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Jem and the Holograms) has worked with action before and certainly knows his way around choreography, but he feels too hesitant this time. The action scenes are rare and the chase sequences are muted. Outside of the tricks, there isn’t a standout action scene in the whole movie. In the first film we had a pretty fun magic fight that was wild and surprising and loaded with small payoffs. In this movie we have a motorcycle chase that plays out as expected. We have a foot chase that plays out as expected. You have professional illusionists at your disposal; action set pieces should not play out as expected. The most fun sequence is fairly straightforward but easily the best developed, and that’s the Mission: Impossible-esque heist of the microchip that is outfitted onto a playing card. It’s also clearly the most visually inventive sequence as the Horsemen play a game of keep away and the camera literally at times tumbles into their clothes. I think what makes this easily the best sequence in the movie is because it’s moderately grounded, the stakes are explained, and the audience is in on the trick, enjoying all the flimflam obfuscation. It also means when there are complications to the plan the sequence generates suspense. When you don’t know what’s going on and don’t know when things are going wrong, or how they could go wrong, it’s hard to generate genuine suspense. Being involved in the action is much more fun.

The actors all seem on autopilot, falling back to the broader descriptions for their characters. Eisenberg is a smug and cocky. Harrelson is smooth and shrewd. Franco is awkward and insecure. Isla Fisher is replaced by the capable Lizzy Caplan (TV’s Masters of Sex) as the requisite Female Horsemen. She makes a good impression but part of it is that Capaln seems to be the only member allowed to be comedic. It feels like there are three straight guys to her comedy cut-up. She’s good but without variation it also starts to lose its appeal when only one character seems to be trying. Ruffalo (Spotlight) seems too often unrelated the Horsemen story as he discovers more info about his father. He’s the only character that actually has something of a storyline, though his playing of both sides and attempts to hide his role to the FBI is just another ludicrous element. I miss Melanie Laurent too.

Now You See Me 2 (how could this not be called Now You Don’t?) is a lackluster sequel that seems to have forgotten what made the first film the enjoyable caper that it was.

Nate’s Grade: C+

London Has Fallen (2016)

london-fallen_post_1200_1778_81_sYears after the events from Olympus Has Fallen, Secret Service agent Mike Banner (Gerard Butler) is escorting President Asher (Aaron Eckhart) to London to attend a funeral. It’s there where chaos strikes and Muslim terrorists, disguised as British agents and local police, unleash a series of attacks and explosions throughout the city. Mike is able to rescue the president but the two are essentially in enemy territory looking for an escape, and the terrorists have seized London and plan on executing President Asher live on the Internet for his drone strikes in the Middle East.

The first mission for an action movie is to entertain with its action sequences, and it is here where London Has Fallen falls. The budget has been reported as high as $100 million dollars, and if this is true it may be the biggest waste of $100 million dollars I’ve ever seen on film. The movie just looks cheap. The locations (Bulgaria often doubling for London) look too vague and interchangeable with empty streets. Also, for a city that has over ten million inhabitants, why are these streets so empty? There were people milling about outdoors after 9/11, and the president wasn’t rumored to be somewhere on the streets in that scenario. Another sign of the movie’s cheapness: I’m certain that the shots of the emergency vehicles in London were stock footage. Now this wouldn’t be the first film to pad its establishment scenes with purchasable B-roll footage, but the offense is simply how poorly the movie is at hiding this fact. The footage is clearly from a lower video/film quality and not referenced as a media perspective, so the quality of the movie will suddenly drop for a brief few seconds to watch a cadre of ambulances race off. But back to these lackluster action sequences. There are very few variations on the standard run-and-shoot variety with little regards to geography. The initial escape from the first attack has some sizzle but it devolves into a series of chases and stands being made in small locations. The final assault on the bad guy’s compound unfolds as a tracking shot to kick things off and it’s here that you get a full sense of the movie’s limited ambitions. The action isn’t accelerated or given a visceral kick from the long take; it’s just guys shooting off screen, walking, shooting, with the occasional explosion. There’s no added benefit from the tracking shot, and yet somebody must have thought it would be so cool to do so and patted themself on the back.

London has Fallen(3)Another issue is that Butler’s character is nearly indestructible and without any vulnerability. Olympus Has Fallen didn’t wow me but it hewed closed to the Die Hard plot points and that’s a great formula to model your action movie after. In that scenario, Mike Banning was outnumbered and had to rely upon his stealth to be most effective. In the sequel, Mike has to protect the president but it’s really just the story of two buds running from place to place, having the occasional chat, and then Mike easily murdering any slew of bad guys, then repeat until the climax. It doesn’t make use of locations enough to cast out the sinking feeling of redundancy. Repetitive action sequences rely upon the concept of “more is better” when what we really demand is “more but different.” The best action movies are the ones where each sequence can stand on its own, push the story forward, makes smart use of its geography, and develops organically. There just aren’t enough of these in London Has Fallen. Our lead character is boring because he is never seen in a vulnerable position. He is told how outnumbered he is and his quippy reply is a trailer-ready line: “You should have brought more men.” This guy doesn’t sweat and only growls and stabs (lots of stabbing in this) and the R-rated violence does little to give this man anything resembling a personality. Mike is a dullard, and his personal arc of whether or not he’ll turn in his resignation from the Secret Service is one of the least believable moments of indecision you’ll ever witness. Gee, I wonder if Stabby McLoves to Stab is going to step away from his stab-heavy vocation.

With the action failing, it becomes even more apparent, and shockingly so, just how unpleasantly xenophobic and grotesque the movie’s overall political message becomes, so much so that you’d have to imagine a contingent of Trump supporters watching with baited breath and cheering mindlessly. It’s not uncommon for the bad guys in Hollywood action films to be darker-hued foreigners, so that wasn’t exactly something shocking, and the movie opens with a stab at creating a legitimate and politically pertinent grievance, a drone strike with unexpected collateral damage that obliterates a wedding party. The bad guys here have a cause that at least goes beyond blind ideology, though perhaps vengeance is actually a lesser motivation than something larger akin to ideology. They aren’t really fleshed out beyond this simple concept of vengeance or given anything larger to play with because they’re simply just villainous cardboard cutouts. And yet, most of this is expected with the territory of a typical action thriller. It’s when London Has Fallen decides to go the extra ugly mile when the movie starts becoming something far more unseemly and uncomfortable. I’m not expecting the most culturally nuanced portrayal of geo-politics, but this movie is practically a campaign ad for anti-Muslim nationalism. Our hero brutally stabs a nondescript bad guy and definitely enjoys inflicting pain. He kills another guy while screaming, “Go back to Fuckheadistan” (note to the geographically challenged: not a real standing nation as of this writing). Then it’s not enough that our hero is beating our secondary villain, he also has to deliver a speech about America’s standing and just what these pesky terrorists will never understand: “100 years later, we’ll still be here, and you’ll be dead.” What highlights these moments is that there aren’t any other political aspects in this movie, even a scant dismissive comment on something like gun control, so it feels like London Has Fallen has purposely chosen to highlight this anger and distrust of foreigners with its hero. It comes across like giving voice and credence to your crackpot uncle who, naturally, is voting for Trump to sweep them illegals and dusky-faced folk from the borders of ‘Merica.

London-Has-Fallen-Movie-Review-Image-3There’s an ongoing subplot in London Has Fallen that answers the question of how many Oscar nominees can you cram into a room and waste their talents. The answer, it would appear, is four, folks. Interspersed between Mike and the president on the run is Vice President Morgan Freeman (yes he has a character name but it’s really VP Morgan Freeman) deliberating in the White House with the assembled cabinet. There’s Melissa Leo (The Fighter) returning as the Secretary of Defense, Robert Forster (Jackie Brown) as a general, and Jackie Earl Haley (Little Children) as DC… something. Every time the movie has to cut back to this room full of wasted talent you’re reminded just how sad this movie is becoming. These characters don’t even have any larger bearing on the plot or any agency into the ongoing conflicts. Instead they are presented as exposition devices and reaction shots. These are some terrific thespians, including two Oscar winners, and here they are barking exposition or delivering forlorn reaction shots. We have four Oscar nominees and they’re stuck in a room, looking horrified into the camera lens, and slowly uttering lines like, “My God.” I do not begrudge actors taking paycheck roles (everybody’s got bills to pay) but this entire scenario is just an insulting waste of time.

Nobody is going to argue that Olympus Has Fallen was one of the greater works of cinema but it was a mildly enjoyable action thriller that was diverting enough to remind its rowdy audience of the Cannon genre films of the 80s. It was bloody, brutal, and fitfully entertaining (my preference was the other 2013-DieHard-in-a-White-House flick, White House Down). It was good enough, mostly because it hugged Die Hard closely and repeated the same plot mechanics to success. Now on its own, the sequel has to manufacture its own plotline and it doesn’t fare as well. Director Antoine Fuqua didn’t want to return for the sequel after reading the script, and this is a guy who made King Arthur and Shooter. Shooter, people! His replacement is an Iranian-born filmmaker, which just adds another level of questions for the finished product, and make no mistake, London Has Fallen is just that – product. It’s not really meant to be savored or enjoyed so much as it is processed and consumed and forgotten. The action doesn’t work well and is poorly orchestrated, often repetitive, the characters are boring, the villains are one-note, the capable actors are wasted, the overt political messages that continuously emerge are ugly and pointedly xenophobic, and the end even turns a drone strike, the same tool we saw wipe out an innocent wedding gathering to open the movie, into a crowd-pleasing climactic moment of payback. London Has Fallen is a misguided nationalistic action movie and then some.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Lucy (2014)

lucy-scarlett-johansson-posterIf you’re looking for one of the more fun summer movies that have no intention of taking itself seriously at all, might I suggest Lucy, which is one part superhero origin tale and one part wonky French existential drama. It starts off quickly, with the titular character being forced into a being a drug mule. The substance breaks in her bloodstream and the concoction transforms her from meek to a kickass vigilante of science. Lucy can now access far more of her brain’s potential, not just that meager 10 percent we plebs utilize, and who knew that we could all be superheroes if we really put our minds to it? Despite the presence of Morgan Freeman as really a talking head to let us know about the potential of the human brain, none of this really makes any sense, and thankfully the movie doesn’t pretend that it should. Lucy literally gains a new superpower every time we see her, from telekinesis to manipulating radio waves to eventual manipulation of matter and time travel. Yeah, it gets weird, but thankfully it’s also relatively entertaining, funny, fun, and short and sweet at a briskly efficient 90 minutes. The plot doesn’t exactly feel fully developed, more a gallop between events as we charge up the percentages from 10 to 20 to 30 percent, and so on. The criminals don’t seem like much of a threat despite their numbers. I’m shocked nobody assessed what happened to Lucy and said, “Hey, maybe I should ingest this drug into my bloodstream and become a super powerful being too.” While the action is well orchestrated, there is less of it than advertised, as Lucy spends a good amount of time adjusting to her new self-actualized human superiority, played by a detached yet amusing Johansson. I can’t even explain the bonkers ending except to note that maybe there’s a very good reason why human beings were not capable of using a maximum percentage of their brain’s capacity. It doesn’t make much sense but it’s pretty, entertaining with its messiness, and short enough not to waste your precious time.

Nate’s Grade: B

The LEGO Movie (2014)

MV5BMTg4MDk1ODExN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzIyNjg3MDE@._V1_SX214_Highly creative, cheeky, frenetic, and bursting with visual splendor, The LEGO Movie will likely surpass all expectations you had for what was assumed a 90-minute LEGO commercial. I cannot even tell if it’s actually a commercial or a subversive consumerist satire, or perhaps a blending of both. Writer/directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller take their same anarchic, comic rambunctious absurdity exhibited in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street and produce another movie so fast-paced, so freewheeling in energy, and so comically alive that you feel rejuvenated by the end. These are gentlemen who fully know the storytelling power with animation and they create worlds that are astounding to watch. While completely computer generated, the world looks like it was stop-motion. In fact, the detail that everything in the physical world is made of LEGOs was a nice touch, including fire, water, and smoke. The story of an unremarkable guy (slyly stupidly voiced by Chris Pratt) mistaken for The One, and the complications that arise, is a fitting satire of superhero fantasy mythos filmmaking. The social commentary on conformity and the media is cutting without distracting from the plot’s ongoing mission. The characters are fun, the jokes land assuredly, and the action sequences are mesmerizing. But then it takes a meta turn in the third act that gives the movie a whole other prism that helps define its previous outrageousness while leading to a poignant message about the inclusiveness of play. It’s a movie that celebrates imagination and individuality, and while it will more than likely also sell a crapload of toys, it’s an animated film with more on its mind. To paraphrase the top radio hit in the world of LEGOS, everything is just enough awesome.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Now You See Me (2013)

now_you_see_me_xlgEverybody loves magic, right? At least the prospect of being surprised and delighted. Now You See Me takes something everybody loves (magic) and mixes it with a genre everybody loves (heist movie) and has already profited from the results at the box-office. Mix an ensemble of actors, though all of them white, and look over in this direction for a diverting, entertaining, and ultimately frustrating film that is too breezy to hate.

Four different magicians (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco) have teamed up to form a super team, The Horsemen, and they’ve taken Vegas by storm. A year into their reign, the insurance magnet and casino owner, Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), is sitting pretty with his investment until the Horsemen turn their targets on him. With each new fantastic trick, the quartet fleeces the shady businessman of his money, returning it to wronged parties and the public at large. FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol Agent Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent) are tasked with finding the magical fugitives and figuring out their greater scheme. Just as one of the magicians notes, every time they think they’re one step ahead, they’re actually three behind.

Now-You-See-Me-FIREBALL-TIMLet’s begin by admitting that the premise of a group of magicians performing heists is excellent. Seriously, on that alone I’d be hooked. Wouldn’t an Ocean’s 11-style movie about a group of magicians working a big score just be awesome? There’s so much fun to be had with such a breezy premise and for the most part Now You See Me lives up to its breezy potential. It works in segments, presenting a magical set piece, watching it unfold, and then unpacking it, sort of like a reverse heist sequence. It provides a bite-size moment of satisfaction, and then the movie goes off and repeats the process. The Horsemen elude the police and we start to get a broader sense of their aims, namely a slice of class warfare vigilante justice. There’s a genuine thrill to watching smart, talented types outfox their antagonists, and Now You See Me is no different. Under Louis Leterrier’s (Clash of the Titans) direction, the results are fast-paced, constantly shifting and surprising, and so cheery in tone that it’s hard to fault the movie for its lack of substance. Here is an example of a summer movie that’s just fun to watch. It taps into the desire we all have to be fooled, the same willful disbelief we process when watching magic or movies themselves, the modern artistic equivalent of magic. For a solid hour-plus, Now You See Me is a diverting and entertaining action thriller.

There are only a handful of traditional action sequences in the movie as most of the thrills are comprised of the illusions and some foot chases. I do want to single out a great moment, namely a magic fight where Jack Wilder (Franco) runs al over an apartment subduing police officers with magic. At first he relies on stealth to get the drop on them, but then the guy resorts to what is practically magic kung fu, using his sleight-of-hand to disarm his attackers. He then uses playing cards and flash paper at his disposal. I only wish that Rhodes, Wilder’s main adversary in the scene, tried to fight fire with fire, so to speak, and make use of the magical accessories in comical matters. The scene’s imagination reminded me of the final confrontation in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? where a selection of toon-specific tools were brought back for a unique showdown.

But with most magic acts, the good times start to fade once you find out how the trick is done. What hampers Now You See Me from being a stronger movie is a convoluted third act that goes to great preposterous lengths to explain the source behind the Horsemen. It’s pretty much who you’d assume it would be but I’ll still refrain from spoilers. Suffice to say, it’s an ending that doesn’t really work especially since it’s one of those reveals that makes you think back and question ordinary scenes. The movie muffs the landing, relying on twists to satisfy what was really just a high-concept heist movie. Another issue I had with the film is how quickly it marginalizes our would-be Robin Hoods of magic. After about the 45-minute mark, the Horsemen get sidelined as supporting characters and the movie is almost entirely told from the perspective of Rhodes. I understand there’s got to be some narrative discipline so that we don’t know the protagonists’ tricks before they perform them, but if I’m going to stuck with the dogged cop then make it his movie from the start. Compounding this problem is that the Horsemen, through no fault of the actors, barely register as characters. The actors are given one-note, and in the case of Fisher (The Great Gatsby) it was Woman, and that’s it. We see them as they perform their tricks and their daring escapes, but that doesn’t count as character development. In this regard, it’s less bothersome that these poorly conceived people get sidelined but then you stop and think that the only character you actually feel some interest in is Laurent’s Interpol agent.

now-you-see-me-600x423My suggestion for any possible future installments (Now You See Me Again? Now You Don’t?) is to focus more on our core team of magicians rather than their mysterious benefactor. I would also stress less time spent talking about The Eye of Horus or whatever through-the-centuries secret club of magicians the film was hinting at. I liked that, while completely elaborate and with endless fortune in preparation, that the illusions still had some tenuous foot in reality, that the magic tricks could be done in a somewhat recognizable world of ours (ignore the hologram junk). I strongly feel that even hinting about secret magical orders is just a step too far, breaking the film’s credulity, and taking what was fun and making it silly. I was worried before seeing the movie that the magic, as advertised, was going to be too supernatural. I was relieved that there wasn’t going to be a late reveal where some character rolls their eyes, probably Eisenberg, sand says, “Well, yeah, magic is real. Stupid.” When you’re playing around with larger-than-life figures that deal in theatricality and misdirection, I think it’s paramount not to get too carried away, failing to ground your movie for the audience.

If you’re looking for a fun time out at the movies, Now You See Me will serve its purpose well enough until it begins to fall apart by the end. You may find yourself looking back and the earlier mystery and thrill of the unknown will dissipate upon reflection, leaving you with little. It’s fun while it lasts but when it’s all over you’re left with substandard characters and an overly convoluted plot that doesn’t satisfy in the clinch. Magicians-plan-heist is such a juicy premise that I hope someone else makes better use of it. I would still love to see that movie, only well developed and giving me characters to actually care about. Now You See Me is as substantial as a magic trick itself but it’s an inoffensive, carefree, and mostly fun ride at the movies, though I think so much more could have been done with this concept and this budget. For a $75 million dollar magic trick, I want a better result.

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

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Let’s be honest, The Dark Knight Rises movie was never going to meet fan expectations after the high-water mark between superhero movie and crafty crime thriller that was the pop-art masterpiece, The Dark Knight. Whatever director/co-writer Christopher Nolan put together was fated not to match the pulpy big blockbuster alchemy that he worked so well in 2008. Minus Heath Ledger’s instantly iconic performance, a role that set the film on fire whenever he was onscreen, there is going to be a certain void to this capper to the trilogy. Now having seen the movie twice, including once in sphincter-rattling IMAX, I feel that I can truthfully state the most obvious: The Dark Knight Rises is not as good as the previous movies. While a fine finale for an ambitious series, this is definitely the weakest movie of the trilogy.

It’s been eight years since Gotham City last saw the likes of Batman. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is an older man, hobbled by age, and living as a recluse in his mansion. His trusted friend and butler Alfred (Michael Caine) keeps encouraging Bruce to seek a life outside that of Batman. In those eight years, Gotham’s police have cracked down on organized crime thanks to the Dent Act, a law named after the late district attorney Harvey Dent (a fallen idol that only a handful know the real truth about). Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) is growing sick with the secret of Harvey Dent and looks to retire from the force. Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) is a businesswoman eager to restart Wayne’s clean energy project, and a woman interesting in getting Bruce back on his feet. There’s also Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a.k.a. Catwoman, a master thief who gives Bruce a new challenge. But then along comes Bane (Tom Hardy), a master terrorist and figure of brute strength. His goal is to fulfill the League of Shadows’ plan and destroy Gotham City and expose its rampant corruption. He sidelines Batman and takes over the city, unleashing criminals and hordes of the downtrodden upon the wealthy. There is no escape from Bane’s plan, his wrath, but Bruce Wayne must rise to the occasion and be ready to sacrifice the last of himself for the people of Gotham.

Firstly, Bane is no Joker. The bad guy lacks the fiendish charisma of Ledger’s Joker and he’s not as well integrated thematically into the movie. The Joker was an anarchist that wanted to tear down the pretensions of society and watch people “eat each other.” And we watched a city come unglued. We explore the notion of escalation and what the blowback would be for a man fighting crime in a costume. With Dark Knight Rises, Bane wants to take up the mantle of Ra’s Al Ghul (Liam Neeson) and wipe Gotham off the map. He’s got moments of being a master planner but really he’s just a big heavy. He’s the big tough guy that beats up old man Bruce Wayne, and Bane is continuously diminished in the film as it goes. A late revelation with the character completely diminishes his role and turns him into the equivalent of a mean junkyard dog. His big plan is simply to rile up the masses and wait for the inevitable. Hardy (Bronson) is a great actor prone to mesmerizing performances. This isn’t one of them. He’s super beefy but the facial mask, looking like some sea urchin, obscures half his face. It’s all physicality and eyes for his performance, along with very amped-up dialogue that you can tell was rerecorded after filming. Every time Bane speaks it’s like he has a speaker system installed in his face. And then there’s the matter of his sticky accent, which to me sounds like German mad scientist but to my friends sounded like drunken Sean Connery.

Bane keeps espousing about the corruption of Gotham but you really never get a strong sense of what that corruption has lead to. Catwoman talks about the Gotham elites living large while the rest of the city struggles; but rarely do you get a sense of this. So when Bane flips the tables, and the elite and wealthy are stripped of their decadence and put on trial by mobs, it feels improperly set up. Just because you have characters talk about wealth disparity and the city’s corrupting influence doesn’t mean it’s been established. Nolan’s Batman movies are a reflection of our modern-day anxieties in a post-9/11 world, so I wasn’t surprised to see a society rotting away from the sociopathic greed and wanton excess of the 1%. But rather than serve up a wealth disparity parable of class conflict, the movie simply turns to mob rule, a far less nuanced and interesting dissection of current events and fears. It’s like the French revolution took a trip to Gotham City (Gordon even quotes from A Tale of Two Cities). It’s a society built upon a central lie, the idol of Harvey Dent, but the movie fails to make the corruption felt. In the end, this is all pretty weak social allegory. And would it have killed Bane to be a little more brutal to stock exchange short-sellers?

Then there’s the typical Nolan origami plot with the myriad of subplots intersecting. This is the first time in the series where the plots felt poorly developed. Rewatch Batman Begins or The Dark Knight, as I recently did, and you’ll see there is not an ounce of fat in those movies, not one wasted scene or one wasted line. Sure they got secret super ninjas and Katie Holmes, but those movies were well built blockbusters. I could have done without Bane entirely and certainly would have loved more of Catwoman. Hathaway (Alice in Wonderland) is terrific in the antihero role and brings a very interesting dynamic relationship with Batman. She may be the only person who understands him. I wanted more Catwoman, the movie needed more Catwoman, but alas she is just a plot device to connect Wayne to Bane. She has a larger role in the concluding melee but essentially becomes Batman’s reluctant wingman. The whole theme of the 99% vs. the 1% could have been generously explored with this character, and her spark and charisma would certainly be enough to get Bruce Wayne out of bed again. Then there’s the regular cop (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) doing the unheralded good deeds that so easily get overlooked. Here is an interesting character that, due to some leaps in logic, connects with Bruce Wayne on a unique level. He presents a counterbalance to all the souped-up superheroes, a recognizably regular human trying to do good. It’s then a shame that he gets entirely relegated during the third act so that the superheroes and their super toys can make some noise.

For a Batman movie there’s hardly any Batman in it. The caped crusader has been in retirement for eight years, so it takes some time before Bruce puts the suit back on. But then he’s also sidelined for a good third of the movie, stowed away in a far-off prison. The entire Indian prison sequence really could have been exorcised. It essentially becomes a Rocky training moment for Bruce Wayne to recover and a plot device to explain why there needs to be a time gap in the story. But this part of the movie just feels like it goes on forever, and we all know where it will go so we just keep waiting for the movie to get there. No one wants a Batman movie where Batman sits the middle out. The end feels relatively fitting but any fan of The Iron Giant will recognize some similar key elements.

And while I’m on the subject, let me do some estimates here. The timeline between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight is about a year, as the Joker notes to a congregation of mobsters. I’ll be generous and say that the events of The Dark Knight last two months. We learn that Batman never appeared again after the death of Harvey Dent, and now we flash to eight years later with The Dark Knight Rises. So you’re telling me that we only really got a solid year of Batman being Batman? That over the course of nine years he was Batman for only one of them? That’s very little Batman-ing for a Batman franchise.

But even with these flaws in tow, The Dark Knight Rises is still an exciting, stimulating, and mostly satisfying close to a trilogy of unprecedented ambition and scope for a modern blockbuster. The action sequences in this movie are huge and exhilarating. I loved Bane turning Batman’s armada of weapons against him. The Bat fighter plane is a nice addition that gets plenty of solid screen time. The sheer scope of what Nolan produces is epic; from a plane being hijacked in mid-flight and torn apart, to a city being leveled by explosives, to a face-off between a bevy of armored Batmobiles and the Bat plane through the streets of Gotham, the movie does not disappoint when it comes to explosive, large-scale action set pieces. This is also the first Batman movie where the climax is the best part of the film. The last half hour is solid action but also a fitting sendoff for a beloved character. Some will grumble with certain hat-tipping moments at the end, but I found it entirely satisfying. It all comes back to the central thesis of Nolan’s Batman films about becoming something more than just a man, becoming a symbol, and that symbol is meant to inspire others. By the end, you feel that the inspiration has been earned as so has our conclusion.

I want to single out Caine (Harry Brown) who has very few scenes but absolutely kills them. He’s the emotional core of the movie, perhaps even the series, and has always been hoping that his charge, Bruce Wayne, would never return to Gotham. He’s the voice of reason in the movie, the man that reminds Bruce about the costs of a life spent seeking vengeance and sacrificing his body. I wish Caine was in the movie longer but his scenes are pivotal to the plot, as is his absence.

The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t rise to the level of artistic excellence of its predecessors, but it’s certainly a strong summer blockbuster that works as an agreeable finale to the premier franchise of the era. It’s not quite the knockout we were expecting from Nolan but it still delivers where it counts. I wish it had give a fuller, richer portrait of a city corrupt from the inside out, a society rotting away and ready for revolution, and plus I also wish we had plenty more Catwoman and plenty more shots of Anne Hathaway in her Catwoman cat suit (Michelle Pfeiffer still has nothing to fear), but these are the things of dreams. Nolan’s aim has always been to place Batman in a world that is recognizably our own, and with that comes the responsibility of bringing a stolid sense of realism with all the blockbuster pyrotechnics. This artistic ethos has given us some extraordinary movies, though some Batman purists would object that Nolan’s hyper-realism is not the Batman they grew up with. It’s hard to really get a sense of the accomplishments that Nolan and his team has been able to pull off over the course of three bladder-unfriendly movies and seven years. He’s taken the superhero movie and redefined it, brought it unparalleled psychological depth and philosophical analysis, and given a human quality to what normally gets dismissed as escapism. The Dark Knight Rises isn’t as revelatory as its previous entry but it sticks the landing and puts to rest what is indisputably the greatest superhero trilogy of all time.

Now get ready for the reboot in three years.

Nate’s Grade: B

R.E.D. (2010)

I can watch Helen Mirren fire high-powered weapons all day. RED is a jaunt throwaway that manages to be far more entertaining than it has any right to be. This isn’t excess on the level of The A-Team, nor is it all cynical and emotionless like Wanted. RED is the film that The Expendables could have been with a bit more polish and a little less muscle flexing. The premise almost seems worn out by this point in 2010: retired CIA agents are being hunted down and killed for some mysterious reason. Thus Bruce Willis must travel across the country and recruit his former spooks like Morgan Freeman, a daffy John Malkovich, and dame Mirren. He also gets a rather charming romance with Mary-Louise Parker (TV’s Weeds) as a pension customer service rep that Willis dials up for small talk. She gets whisked along this madcap adventure and enjoys it for the ride that it is. And I think that’s the best summation of the film. What other movie of this sort has actors of this caliber? Four Oscar winners, one nominee, plus solid work from Karl Urban (Star Trek) and beloved character actor Brian Cox to boot. The film definitely has a style, slick enough to please without being heavy-handed to rip you out of the film. The plot may be full of holes, the characters aren’t fully drawn, and certain action sequences are derivative, but thanks to the charms of its golden cast, RED is fun while it lasts.

Nate’s Grade: B

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