The reason we typically watch crime/action movies is for the slick style, the gonzo action, and the over-the-top characters cutting loose in the most violent of manners. We watch these movies to capture that whiff of cool, something flashy and entertaining with its eye-popping combo of sight and sound. Think Snatch, and Drive, and Atomic Blonde, and what appears to be the upcoming James Gunn Suicide Squad sequel. By these standards of stylized violence and colorful anti-heroes, Netflix’s Gunpowder Milkshake falls too flat to be duly satisfying.
Sam (Karen Gillan) is a hired killer working for the secretive order, The Firm. Her handler (Paul Giamatti) has accidentally assigned her the son of a commanding mobster who now demands vengeance. Her lone way to keep the protection of her employers is to kill a man who robbed them, which she does, but then regrets her actions. The troubled man had stolen the money to pay the kidnappers ransoming his daughter, Emily (Chloe Coleman). Sam decides to get involved and save this girl, and in doing so loses protection. The scornful mobster sends teams of goons to track Sam and kill her, forcing her to find refuge with her absentee mother (Lena Headey).
The problem with playing in this stylized sandbox is having little to back up the attitude and style. Admittedly, those two aspects go far in a sub-genre dominated by appearances, but if you just have tough-looking shells of characters posturing and acting tough, it doesn’t matter how much style you dump onto the screen, it will only distract for only so long. The characters in Gunpowder Milkshake are so powerfully bland and all adhere to the same lone character trait. They’re all glib and badass and brusque and smug and fairly boring. It’s like somebody took the John Wick universe of clandestine killers and copied and pasted the same default personality.
If everyone is super cool, and super deadly, and super nonchalant, then you need to put even more work into making the characters stand apart. They’ll need specific quirks, competing goals, faults and obsessions, some key nub of characterization even if its superficial (a guy with one eye he’s insecure about it, etc.). With Gunpowder Milkshake, there’s nothing to work with. The screenwriters made this so much harder on themselves. I guess we’re merely supposed to be won over by the casting and the imagery of these bad ladies holding powerful weaponry. The protagonist is boring. She is the familiar hired killer who grows an inconvenient conscience. That’s an acceptable starting point but the moral growth is hindered when her young charge, the little girl that forces her paradigm shift, wants to be her apprentice to learn to kill people. The fraught mother/daughter relationship resorts to a lot of “I didn’t want this life for you,” “It’s the only life I’ve known” roundabout conversations, and neither furthers our understanding of either side.
With all that being said, there are moments of bloody fun that can be enjoyed. There’s a middle portion of the movie that gave me hope the film had transformed. At one point, Sam is indisposed and unable to use her arms, which dangle without any muscle control. She’s about to be beset by angry if bruised bad guys and must plan what to do. The resulting clash is a burst of creative choreography and an excellent demonstration of Sam’s resourcefulness and drive. Watching her dispatch a dozen armed men so indifferently, always knowing where and when to turn and dodge is not nearly as entertaining or engaging as watching her struggle and solve a problem. This sequence is extended and makes clever use of its location and the elements that would be available. Then we go a step further, as Sam and her youngster must drive a car to flee except the uncontrollable arm problem persists. Sam will pump the pedals and give directions while Emily sits on her lap and turns the steering wheel. This made me excited. We had organic complications and potential solutions that involved both characters having to rely upon one another. That is solid screenwriting and finding a way to spice up an ordinary parking garage chase sequence. By the end of this sequence, my hopes started to dwindle because Sam reverted to her earlier super cool, impervious version. She knew every exact move to make, and the small-scale car chase started losing my interest even with the extra driving dynamic. I wish the filmmakers could analyze how these sequences differed to better harness that creative surge.
The concluding act of Gunpowder Milkshake is a deluge of false climaxes and waves of bad guys that never pose any discernible threat. It all feels too repetitive and like a video game. This group of people need to be killed, and then this next group of people need to be killed, and then this next next group of people need to be killed, and I just started getting bored. There is the occasional fun burst of violence and style, but the enemies are stock and dispensable, so it doesn’t feel like it matters what the numbers are. Whether it’s a dozen or a thousand, nothing really seems to matter because our super team of badass women will never be stopped. If you’re going to establish the protagonists as so far ahead of their competition, then work needs to be done to provide another outlet for audience interest. Use that time to explore the peculiarities of the cracked-universe world, like in the John Wick franchise. Use that time to meaningfully push the characters toward personal confrontations with one another. Alas, it’s all slapdash style with the same dead-eyed cool stare from start to finish (with the noted exception above). The entire final act could have been five minutes or fifty. It’s filler violence until the director tires out.
The cast is blameless and eminently watchable. I’ve been a fan of Gillan’s since her early Doctor Who days, and it’s been fun to watch her come into her own with the major spotlight afforded from franchises like Guardians of the Galaxy and Jumanji. She’s more than capable of kicking ass and looking cool doing so but this is the thinnest of characters. Once Sam chooses to put her safety at risk to save an innocent girl, it’s the end of her character growth. I suppose you can argue everything she does from there further proves the lengths she will go to solidify this important choice. Gillan deserves a worthy star vehicle. It’s fun to watch Angela Bassett, Michell Yeoh, Carla Gugino, and Headey push back with a grin against the misogyny of the overconfident wicked men who wish to do them harm. I wish they were better integrated into the world to have more significance other than as old allies who double as a weapons depot. There’s only so many guns-in-books jokes you can have before it too feels overdone.
For fans of stylized violence, there may be enough cooking with Gunpowder Milkshake to meet out its near two-hour investment. The neon-infused, candy-colored production design and cinematography can enliven moments. The actors are fun to watch. Some of the fighting is brutally choreographed and cleverly executed, like the sequence where Gillan has no control over her arms. It’s got slow-mo violence set to wailing pop music tracks. If you’re looking for a pretty movie with some style, then it might be enough. If, however, you’re looking for a movie with interesting characters with memorable personalities, well-developed action with variance, and a story with a nice array of twists and turns and payoffs, then maybe look elsewhere.
Nate’s Grade: C+
In 1987 in Compton, Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) was selling drugs, Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) was spinning records in a club, and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is writing lyrics in the back of a school bus (the movie significantly downplays DJ Yella and MC Ren). The guys have grown up in an environment of suspicions and harassment by the Los Angeles police. Their response was to compose angry and defiant songs illuminating their world. After a few early performances, the group is approached by record producer Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) who wants to get them signed and touring. Their music and their perspective catches on and soon NWA is awash in big shows and groupies. Heller puts more of his efforts onto Eazy-E, and Dre and Cube feel marginalized and doubtful that Heller has their best interest at heart.
It’s hard to reconcile the brash and challenging men responsible for NWA and this sanitized and rather rote rags-to-riches biopic that asks curiously little of its subjects when it comes to depth or reflection. Not every biopic needs to be as faithful as the most excoriating documentary on its subject, but we have become accustomed over the last decade to the warts-and-all approach, where the central biographical figures are celebrated for their achievements but care is taken to tell their lives with measured accuracy, not to hide anything that challenges our concept of who these people were. Imagine if Walk the Line had sanitized its portrayal of Johnny Cash, or worse, devoted most of its running time to his stint as a revivalist Christian musician? What if Ray had eliminated his womanzing? What if The Aviator said that Howard Hughes was the model of human sanity? A biopic doesn’t need to tell us every facet of its subject’s life because that is an impossible demand that only the densest of books can truly achieve, however, a biopic must instill the spirit of its subject in an honest representation, because that’s at best what you’re going to get when you apply a human life to the realm of narrative. Straight Outta Compton comes across as far too gentle with its core subjects, portraying them as underdog anti-heroes who were pushed around by those trying to exploit them and their message. Of course this would be the approach when Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and the widow of Eazy-E produce the film. At this point it’s about protecting the legacy, protecting the brand, and so the members of NWA become far less interesting.
Nobody probably gets the biggest revision than Dr. Dre, especially his violent history with women. As depicted in the film, Dre is a talented and frustrated music producer who is trying to do his best to live up to his dreams but falling short and feeling the pressure of not being the support system for his brother, his girlfriend, his daughter. When the money starts rolling in, Dre embarks on a successful solo career and reconciles with Eazy-E. That’s about all there is to his character arc, a series of creative struggles and trusting the wrong people. There is one very brief moment that hints at Dre’s history with women, when his girlfriend expresses caution about getting too involved with Dre because she doesn’t want anything negative to happen to her young son. This woman doesn’t appear to be Michel’le Toussaint, a best-selling Ruthless Records artist who was with Dre for seven years and gave birth to their son in 1991. Toussaint has spoken about consistent physical abuse, including an incident where Dre shot at her through a bathroom door. Then there’s the glaring omission of Dee Barnes, a journalist who Dre brutally beat inside a nightclub in 1990 (Dre has finally come forward and apologized for this incident but only after the Apple overlords or Universal execs probably applied some pressure to make the bad PR from the press tamp down). Director F. Gary Gray (Friday, Law Abiding Citizen) has gone on record saying they had to focus on the “story that was pertinent to our main characters.” About that…
Straight Outta Compton has a renewed relevancy due to the increased attention in the news concerning police brutality, profiling, and harassment. It was from this combination of oppression and negativity that NWA honed their provocative message. The lyrics of gangster rap reflected the reality of their living conditions, and so they were bleak, angry, violent, and they spurred a sense of relatability across the country from others. It was a reaction against a system that had cataloged them as suspects from birth. The story structure of Straight Outta Compton shows the birth of gangster rap through a select sample of personal experiences. From there we see the rise, the backlash, and I suppose a “we told you so” moment with the aggravation over the Rodney King case turning into the volcanic anger and destruction of the L.A. riots. The aside highlighting the L.A. riots only really serves to underline the idea that NWA’s message of the beaten-down growing increasingly weary of their denigrated treatment. After that, the greater message of what NWA meant to the world of music and culture is lost midst the squabbles of the former friends. This is a missed opportunity at creating a stronger message and adding needed complexity to the main characters. What if Straight Outta Compton had explored the violent life of its stars after they had achieved their dreams? It creates a more damning theme about the consequences of a life under oppression; Dre grew up being harassed and antagonized, which is reflected in their music, but even when they escape that environment the consequences can still follow and entrap them. As it plays, the guys strike it rich, get waylaid by outsiders, and eventually find their footing again. It’s a narrative structure that places all the problems as external threats, be it Heller or Knight or HIV itself, and strips the main characters of their own agency. The movie doesn’t let them account for their own action and finds excuses when able. An incident where they brandish high-powered guns to chase off an angry boyfriend is treated as an unearned and questionable moment of levity. Gray said they could only focus on the “pertinent” stories, but I don’t see anything more pertinent than exploring the psychological trauma of brutality and oppression and how, even as an adult with seemingly the world at your fingertips, it still manifests in your life and personal relationships.
As a standard rags-to-riches biopic, Straight Outta Compton is consistently entertaining and well acted, though it can’t help but feel like we’re rushing through the events. A significant disappointment is the underdeveloped nature of the friendship of Dre, Eazy-E and Cube. There’s an early scene where they’re teasing one another and working out the beginnings of “Boys in the Hood” and this is the lone moment where we feel the dynamic of the trio. The early glimpse at the creative process is a high-point. After that, sadly, the only examination the movie affords on the relationships of the three is the jealousies and divisions. Strangely, the most interesting character relationship is between Eazy-E and Heller, which despite the predictable dissolution is the most heartfelt relationship on screen. Think about that: the most involving relationship depicted in the movie is between a former drug dealer-turned-musician and a Jewish music producer. It’s their opposites-attract dynamic that helps to make them so much more intriguing to watch.
Straight Outta Compton treats Heller as a greedy predator who was cheating NWA out of their rightful earnings, though I’m still a bit skeptical as to these accusations. The movie even gives me a reason to support my skepticism. Once Cube goes solo, a record producer (Tate Ellington) promises to support him on his next record if the first is successful. Obviously Cube is a hit and he comes back to this producer, who explains that he can’t simply just write a check then and there and that it’s more complicated. Cube responds by trashing the guy’s office and the moment is treated as a strangely triumphant moment that the exec even awkwardly jokes about later when Cube returns. This moment made me think maybe, just maybe, the people in the industry weren’t explicitly cheating out NWA but the margins of the recording industry are a bit harder to explain.
While the characters themselves can be a tad boring, the actors do everything in their power to make them feel fully felt. The three lead actors impressed me. Mitchell especially wows in his greater emotional moments, like the discovery of being HIV-positive and only having a few reaming months to live. Jackson Jr. gives an eerily accurate portrayal of his father, and Hawkins (Non-Stop) hits his stride when Dre is most ambitious. The three of them have an easy-going camaraderie that adds to the authenticity. The actors are so good that the deficiencies in characterization are all the more frustrating. The talent was there but the characterization was not. I also want to single out R. Marcos Taylor for his strikingly imposing portrayal of Suge Knight. As soon as Taylor starts eating up more screen time, I couldn’t help but wish the movie’s focus jumped ship to the ruthless Death Row Records impresario.
Straight Outta Compton is already the highest-grossing musical biopic of all time, so surely the wider moviegoing public greeted its safe approach to its subjects with some level of approval. Enough time has passed to add a layer of nostalgia to the early days of gangster rap, as well as political relevancy with the increased media spotlight on overzealous police provocations and the growing Black Lives Matter movement. The time was ripe for this movie and it’s an undeniable hit. I was entertained throughout and found the performances to be involving, but I can’t shake off the feeling about what is being left out. It’s by no means a biopic’s requirement to include everything about its subject, but with the living members of NWA aboard and approving their movie versions, the sanitization of a complicated and contradictory reality is the best we’re going to get. The film doesn’t hold the band up for their behavior, whether it’s promiscuous sex that leads Eazy-E to getting infected (a plot point with no setup beyond some movie-friendly knowing coughs) or Dre’s violent history with women. The move doesn’t have to portray the members of NWA as villains but by treating them as misunderstood underdogs who were exploited by outside forces feels like a (forgive the term) cop-out. These guys didn’t ask to become spokemen for a generation of antagonized and discredited black men, but surely there’s something more interesting and deeper to explore than band in-fighting. Straight Outta Compton is a slick and entertaining film but ultimately just another product.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Sometimes all you want with a movie, especially a disaster movie, is some good dumb fun, and sometimes that fun is a little too dumb. Such is the case with San Andreas, chronicling massive earthquakes shredding California. After a slightly clever opening, the film goes rapidly downhill as we’re stuck with one-note stock characters. The Rock and Carla Gugino as a divorced couple who will, naturally, be brought back together over the course of events. They also have to travel to San Francisco to save their daughter (True Detective’s GIF-exploding Alexandra Daddario). I have to admit, that is one hell of an attractive family. There is no loser in that gene pool. From an action standpoint, San Andreas does a serviceable enough job with a few memorable images of Mother Nature’s fury. The script is definitely an excuse to just get from one big falling thing to another. I’m not expecting Shakespeare but the story shows very little effort. Oh no, the record-breaking earthquake is going to broken by another newer record-breaking earthquake. Oh no, a small child is huddling in a corner and needs to be saved. Oh no, a character is deprived of oxygen for like five minutes onscreen but magically comes back to life. If that doesn’t cause brain damage this script will. One of the problems with San Andreas is that it doesn’t have any real disposable characters. These kinds of movies thrive on having meat for the grinder, but from the first act onwards there’s nobody we truly fear will bite the dust. There was one major missed opportunity: the cowardly step-father (Ioan Gruffudd) abandons others, narrowly escapes disaster, and he should have continued doing so, avoiding another near-certain demise just to intensify the audience’s demand for his end. It would have been a satisfying payoff. Oh well. San Andreas starts to become a lot of hollow PG-13 carnage. Watching this gave me a further appreciation for Roland Emmerich (2012, Day After Tomorrow), who has such a better handle on large-scale destruction. That man knows how to make good dumb fun disaster movies peppered with all sorts of visually arresting images. If you’re desperate for disaster, you could do worse than San Andreas and its onslaught of CGI thrills, but you could certainly do better.
Nate’s Grade: C
The Ides of March is that rare political thriller that pulls the curtain away to come to the stolid conclusion that our entire political system is incontrovertibly stuck in the muck. This is a deeply cynical movie that posits that politicos are just about spinning truth, cutting backroom deals, attaining power and influence, and living to fight another day. Even the ones who champion integrity have plenty of salacious skeletons in their closet. So while Ides of March is in one way a liberal reductive fantasy, casting co-writer and director George Clooney as an Obama-style change agent, and Clooney can assert all the rabble-rousing missing from the current occupant of the White House, it still sticks to its deep-seated cynicism. There is nobody that looks good by the film’s end. Ryan Gosling stars as a magnetic campaign director trying to push his guy over the top by winning the all-important Ohio Democratic primary. As the primary gets closer and the race gets tighter, Gosling has to cover up potential scandals while skillfully using his intimate knowledge of them for opportunistic deal making. The film moves at a great clip, the dialogue is intelligent, the characters are rich and ambiguous, and every one of the sterling thespians gets at least one big scene to stretch their acting muscles. The film has plenty of intriguing twists and turns, as the pieces all fall into play for one final power play. If you’re a fan of smart political thrillers, then do not beware The Ides of March.
Nate’s Grade: B+
When you’re responsible for the highest-grossing R-rated comedy of all time, a film that grossed over half a billion dollars worldwide, then you don’t want to tinker with a winning formula of a surprise hit. Naturally, with that kind of money, a sequel was inevitable. Director/co-writer Todd Phillips (Old School, Due Date) is back and so is everybody and everything else. You’ll get a strong sense of déjà vu watched The Hangover: Part II. That’s on purpose. This calculated, rather soulless cash-grab sequel wants to recreate the organic experience of the first film. If you played The Hangover and The Hangover: Part II on simultaneous TVs, I would not be surprised if the same plot points happened at the exact same minute-marks. It might even be like a Pink Floyd/Wizard of Oz experience. I paid twice to see the same movie two years apart.
Stu (Ed Helms) is about to get married in Thailand to Lauren (Jamie Chung). Our favorite wound-up dentist is apprehensive about any sort of bachelor party shenanigans after the events of two years ago in Las Vegas. His pals Phil (Bradley Cooper), Doug (Justin Bartha), and the socially inept Alan (Zack Galifianakis) make the trek to attend the festivities. For Alan, it’s a reunion of the Wolfpack and an excuse finally to venture out of his parent’s home. Stu has some ground to make up with his bride-to-be’s father. Her father seethes about the prospect that his beautiful daughter is going to marry Stu, a man he compares to watered down rice. Lauren’s younger brother, Teddy (Mason Lee), a pre-med student and concert cellist, is left to the Wolfpack’s care the night before the wedding. They’ll just have one drink on the beach. What’s the worst that could happen? Flash to the next morning. The guys awaken in a strange apartment. Teddy is missing and missing a finger as well. Stu, Phil, and Alan must once again retrace their steps and solve the mystery of their hard-partying antics before the wedding ceremony.
The Hangover: Part II is a carbon copy of the original. Because the same joke is just as funny the second time around, right? This empty enterprise gives its audience exactly what they want, which is precisely the same experience they had with the first film. But so much of comedy is predicated on surprise, so how can you recreate the experience of discovery that people so heartily enjoyed with the first film? The Hangover: Part II is like a cheap comedy Mad Libs game: it reuses the same gags and just fills in the blanks. Hey, if Joke A worked before, why couldn’t we just have Joke A in this different location (instead of two guys walking into a bar, they walk into a different bar)? It’s like somebody copied and pasted the screenplay from the original movie, changed the locations and minor details, and cashed a check. Let me get into how stunningly indolent the screenwriting is (small spoilers to follow). Once again a person in their group goes missing before a wedding. Once again Stu has some self-inflicted wound to his face. Once again the guys have stolen someone else’s unorthodox pet. Once again they find themselves with a ward (baby in first film, Mr. Chow in second). Once again Stu has gotten involved with a prostitute. Once again Alan was secretly responsible for their drugging. Once again Justin Bartha gets left out of the escapades. Once again Mr. Chow shows his junk for shock value. Once again Mr. Chow jumps out of a locked container attacking the guys. Once again the guys have to return money to a gangster. Once again Stu plays a song of his own creation bemoaning their situation. Once again they have to race to the wedding minutes away. Once again we have a Mike Tyson cameo. Once again the guys find pictorial evidence of their debauchery and they play over the credits. Even directing touches like a time-lapse high-rise shot passing the time before they wake up is reused.
That’s what kills the movie is the lack of surprise. It throws the guys into a different setting, gets darker and meaner, but it’s rarely funny. I was surprised how many jokes left me in stony silence. Phillips and his screenwriters have gotten into the trouble of having to top themselves, so they rely on the “bigger is better” approach to match the outrageousness of the original. If Las Vegas is Sin City, then what would be even seedier? Bangkok, of course. Where would they go for a third film? What gets seedier than Bangkok (The Hangover 3 to be set in Rep. Anthony Weiner’s office). Yet the film curiously ignores much of what makes Bangkok the world’s preeminent hotspot in the sexual trades. The payoffs are darker and lack the bemusement of the original. Knowing some guy is missing a finger is not as whimsical as somebody missing a tooth. The movie has an unpleasant homophobia to it thanks to male genitalia being used to shock and horrify and humiliate. The horror of being involved with transsexual women made my theater audience groan with extra relish, like the presence of a penis or homosexual content makes everything automatically more disgusting to the common people, as if anything gay is the worst thing that could possible befall a man. Mr. Chang is an odious and fairly unfunny stereotype, and Jeong (Role Models, TV’s Community), so funny in just about every other role he’s ever had, is a braying, high-pitched annoyance. This go-round the jokes feel stale, the characters feel tired, and the payoffs seem too mean-spirited to be satisfying.
When you have a movie where the comedy is situation-based, then those situations better be funny because the characters are only serving as a means to an end. The premise allows the filmmakers to have it both ways. They can fulfill the hedonistic spectacle that will make people blush, and at the same time they can have button-uped, likable, relatively relatable nice characters that an audience will root for. If we watched these characters acting like irredeemable morons, then audience sympathy would wan. But having the guys investigate their previous dirty deeds, and react in horror, does not lessen audience sympathy. I enjoyed how the main trio played off each other in the first Hangover, and the central mystery was a solid glue to hold together a loose collection of mostly worthwhile gags. Just as the first film fell short of its potential, so too does the second movie. A monkey serves little purpose other than to get it to do things that seem outrageous just because it’s a monkey (it smokes, it mimes oral sex – hilarious!). But the second time around, the amusement of seeing Stu fly off the handle, or listen to Alan’s moony non-sequitors, doesn’t have the same draw. Galifianakis (Due Date) made the film watchable for me despite the fact that the screenplay makes his character a petulant and highly irritating character rather than a man-child doofus. And the women are once again relegated to the sidelines when it comes to being in on the comedy.
For The Hangover‘s legions of fans, more of the same will likely be exactly what was desired. But without the cheeky element of surprise, the comedy just seems like it’s hitting pre-ordained stops according to its formulaic cheat sheet. For the original Hangover I wrote: “Let’s face it; once you know the solution to the mystery and all the surprises, will this movie still play out as funny? …But once you knew who was behind what, and how the whole game was staged and operated, could you even watch the movie a second time? Would it still work now that a repeat viewer knew all the secrets? Does this comedy have a built-in expiration date?” Well, The Hangover: Part II is the answer. If the first film was a comedy with an expiration date, then The Hangover: Part II is one comedy that’s gone rancid.
Nate’s Grade: C-
After two stellar movies (The Station Agent, The Visitor), writer/director Thomas McCarthy has proven that he may be one of the greatest humanist voices working in cinema today. He writes wonderful stories about people who find connections via unorthodox family units. McCarthy can spin bizarre elements into deeply felt human dramas. Win Win is another hodge-podge of storytelling elements. It follows the life of Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), a midwestern lawyer and high school wrestling coach struggling to get by. Then a sullen teenager (Alex Shaffer in his acting debut) lands on his doorstop looking to see his grandfather in Mike’s guardianship. The kid also happens to be a gangly wrestling phenom. Things are going great for Mike, that is, until the kid’s mother comes looking for him and wants him back. Win Win assembles a great group of flawed, empathetic, relatable characters that make conflicted choices that they then have to abate. Giamatti is reliably fantastic as the center of McCarthy’s humanist universe. He can communicate so much despair and relief just with his expressions. Teamed up with a cast that includes Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Burt Young, and Jeffrey Tambor, the movie works best when you can just sit back and take in great actors relishing playing great roles. Win Win doesn’t all come together in the end like other McCarthy films; there’s definitely a missing ingredient feeling to the movie. Shaffer’s limitations as an actor hamper some of the later dramatic moments. The end is satisfying, but I felt like I should have felt more. While it doesn’t strike the same seamless balance of comedy and drama as The Station Agent, this is certainly a film that should be winning for most audiences.
Nate’s Grade: B+
This is the kind of slick, breezy fun that Hollywood seems to have forgotten how to make, or at least forgotten to make well. Writer/director Tony Gilroy has concocted an entertaining movie headlined by movie stars clearly having a blast. Gilroy’s narrative routinely folds back on itself with plot reversals, supplying new perspectives to the ongoing con/heist involving Clive Owen and Julia Roberts as ex-spies and current lovers. The movie itself is one long, pleasing con that manages to stay a step ahead of the audience without coming across as too confusing or dull. The tricky, twisty plot means that the audience must constantly reevaluate the movie, meaning that watching Duplicity can be described as less involving and more like an assignment. Gilroy is a sophisticated wordsmith and he has been knocking out crafty, intelligent adult movies, from the Bourne franchise to 2007’s Michael Clayton. The man probably spent too much effort trying to keep an audience on its toes. The audience becomes keenly aware of the plot structure, and we know it’s only a matter of time (usually 10-15 minutes) before another flashback reveals something else that will change the rules of the game. Still, the movie benefits from fantastic character interplay between Owen and Roberts and a superb supporting cast lead by Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti as scheming corporate scoundrels (the opening credits slow-mo fight between the two men is delightful). Duplicity is an enjoyable romp with snappy dialogue, sizzling stars, and little re-watchability once all the plot machinations play out.
Nate’s Grade: B+
The Illusionist is a satisfying, well-staged period piece con game. It’s set in 1900 Vienna (though everyone’s accents sound British to me) and revolves around Eisenheim (Edward Norton), a magician that truly dazzles the crowds and leaves his skeptics guessing. He becomes a monstrous hit with tricks like making an orange tree grow from a seed and having butterflies carry handkerchiefs. The city’s Chief Inspector (Paul Giamatti) is a fan but also inquiring on counts of fraud. Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) is planning to marry the beautiful duchess Sophie (Jessica Biel). Little does the prince know that Eisenheim and Sophie were childhood friends forbidden to see each other because of class differences. It’s been 15 years since they last saw one another but they’re making up for lost time. The Prince sets the Inspector to ensnare the lovers and shut down Eisenheim.
The movie has a very interesting character relationship between Eisenheim and the Chief Inspector. They have a friendly, respectful relationship, with the Inspector pleading with Eisenheim not to force his hand. The Inspector enjoys magic and showmanship, but he also knows what backs he has to scratch to keep his title. I found the frustrating friendship and admiration between Eisenheim and the Inspector to be meatier than the forbidden love angle that drives the story. The Illusionist has the air of a historical romance, but it’s really more about these two men and their bond.
Giamatti has a very strong role and plays all the different shades of his well-trodden man who still keeps hold of his ethics when he’s told to look the other way. He’s just as an important a character and Giamatti has completely wiped my memory of Lady in Water (not that he had to atone for it). Norton is easily one of our greatest actors, but in The Illusionist he underplays too much, slightly smiling his way through an altogether stale performance. I know part of his acting requires a reserved knowledge, since he is setting up those around him. I just felt that anyone else could have played the role the same, with or without a teenage goatee. Biel holds her own, which is something I never would have thought possible amongst celebrated Oscar-nominees. Her role is pivotal but small and doesn’t require much speaking, but all things considered she does pleasantly surprise. Maybe there is an actress somewhere in that pinup body.
The Illusionist, like its title practitioner, knows that an audience loves to be fooled, but only for so long. A magician is the perfect profession to showcase a con game, and writer/director Neil Burger crafts an intriguingly enjoyable tale where we do want to know how they did it. Burger knows how to misdirect but also how to stretch a small budget to create a rich dramatic environment. I don’t know if the explain-a-lot-in-a-minute ending does a disservice to the film or not, but I was happy to get some answers even if they were a tad predictable. That’s the whole thing with magic — we want to know but we love being confounded.
This is an extremely well made indie period film. The production design is astute and often times foreboding, like the Prince’s hallway completely filled with deer heads whose antlers form a really creepy canopy. The special effects are used judiciously and have more impact than the mega budget Hollywood summer spectacles. The Illusionist is a nice example of a character driven mystery that seems to be overlooked all too often today. This is an engaging, satisfying, and handsome movie that entertains by hooking into our curiosity to know how the trick is done.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Writer/director/twist-abuser M. Night Shyamalan must have been smarting from the cool reception to his last high-concept thriller, 2004’s The Village. Shyamalan has built a reputation for smart, eerie, complex movies, as well as forced twists and endings that leave the films in shambles. He went back to basics. Lady in Water started as an ongoing story he told his kids at bedtime. His kids participated in the creation of the story. If we didn’t learn from last year’s The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lava Girl, movies where children helped shape the story should be left as bedtime stories. Lady in Water is further proof of this.
Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) is the fix-it man at an apartment complex. Someone?s been swimming in the pool late at night and clogging up the filter. The unexpected culprit is Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), a waif of a girl. She says she is a “narf,” a sea nymph who’s crossed from her world, the Blue World, to ours. Her purpose is to plant the seed of change by finding a special individual. When her mission is complete a giant eagle will carry her back to her world. Cleveland accepts being her guardian and protector and assists her on her quest. He mingles with the apartment complex’s eclectic residents, trying to figure out who fits what role to help Story. There is one hairy problem. A scrunt, a wolf-like beast with twigs and long grass for fur, is after Story. An evil monkey creature is overseeing the whole weird affair.
Early on, Lady in Water was advertised as “a bedtime story by M. Night Shyamalan,” and just like your typical bedtime story, the thing feels entirely made up on the spot. The story sounds like a little kid making up a book report: “There’s this grass wolf, see, and it’s after this sea lady, and there’s these evil monkeys that oversee everything, and an eagle carries her away when she’s done, but she’s like the unknown Queen of the sea ladies, and she has helpers but can’t say who they are, and they all have special abilities, except some of them can only do stuff, and no one can see her leave.” What? Was Dio an unaccredited co-writer for this? Lady in Water feels like Shyamalan is haphazardly throwing spontaneous obstacles and rules into his story, hoping something sticks when it just muddies up the story.
Naturally, there are many unanswered questions brought about by the supernatural subject matter. Why is it an eagle that plucks Story away to safety when she?s fulfilled her mission? Wasn’t part of the schism between man and the Blue World because man moved to land? Wouldn’t something aquatic make more sense to rescue her? What about the entirely unnecessary evil monkey judge? Why is it even there? Why does it just sit there idly if the scrunt breaks the rules (and if the scrunt is a rule-breaker then why not just bust inside Cleveland’s home and eat the chick)? For that matter, if the monkey judge is so evil then why does it even respect the rules? Why don?t the evil monkey judges side with the already evil scrunts? Why do the scrunts hate the narfs so? Who established these systems of rules for narf contact and scrunt hunting? Do the monkey judges allow the narfs to get killed as long as it’s during the right time? Is it like a boxing match (“Touch gloves, to your corners, and no biting after the bell”)? And of course everyone believes this tripe. Shyamalan could fall back on the excuse that his tale is a bedtime story and not meant for extensive examination. Sure, not everything needs to be explained but that doesn’t mean Shyamalan can get away with being lazy.
There’s no finesse in the writing. Shyamalan seems to have taken his frustration with the dwindling critical reception of his works hard. The movie critic character, Mr. Farber (a droll Bob Balaban) is one of two items, either the embodiment of his ire, a figure out of touch with human emotion and the public’s trust, or Shyamalan making a preemptive strike. The critic complains there are no more original stories left in Hollywood; well, Mr. Smarty Pants, what do you think of a tale of narfs and scrunts? The problem is that the film critic is not unlikable, just cynical, and despite how dismissive Shyamalan may wish to be, the critic’s complaints and observations about the film industry are solid. In Lady in Water, characters do speak their feelings so casually. People explain back-stories and motivations like it was written on foreheads. The critic character is so inconsequential as well, so the notion that Shyamalan spends so much energy on him makes it feel like a score being settled.
What?s more irritating is how self-involved the movie comes across. The whole purpose of Story’s venture to our world is to inspire a gifted writer, a writer whose work will be seen as unchecked genius that will cause great change throughout the world. Nations will renounce war, men and women will greet each other as brother and sister, and the world will be a profoundly better place to live, all thanks to one artistic genius that changed the world. And who plays this artistic genius lying in wait? M. Night Shyamalan. In conjunction with the critic character, perhaps Shyamalan is proclaiming that his movies will stand the test of time, despite what those fuddy-duddies at their typewriters say. Lady in Water is either an intense example of artistic insecurity or an unflappable, monstrous ego.
Shyamalan is too gifted a filmmaker to make outright bad movies. However, he is prone to making very misguided choices. The addition of the monkey judge just mucks things up and more unanswerable questions. Are the monkeys like the regional overseer? Is there a tri-state office run by a giraffe with twigs on its head? Shyamalan’s plot is too formless and relies on some garish ethnic stereotypes, like the nattering Jewess and the screechy, rail-thin Korean teen. His sense of direction takes a back seat to his writing. Many moments are filmed out of focus, or the camera bounces around trying to capture whoever?s talking, always seemingly just out of reach. His visual aesthetic feels noticeably simpler. There’s a certain unapologetic yearning in Lady in Water to be a Steven Spielberg film, from the John Williams-like score, to the assembly of characters wanting to believe again, to the heaping helping of schmaltz. Lady in Water is proficiently crafted (special thanks to cinematographer Christopher Doyle) but the movie is an unmistakable artistic misfire.
Giamatti is a dependable sad sack, and he deploys an array of stutters and tics to convey how damaged Cleveland Heep is. He’s good but then he always is, no matter how stupendously awful his material may be (he did survive Big Momma’s House). Howard is one of the more beguiling and intriguing young actors in the movies right now. She bewitched me in The Village, but in Lady in Water she befuddled me. It’s hard acting as a made-up creature. Howard relies on lots of vacant, supposedly, ethereal staring. She comes across as less supernatural and more like a club kid on ecstasy.
Lady in Water is not an unmitigated disaster but it’s definitely not good by any stretch of the imagination. M. Night Shyamalan seems to fray with every new movie, and Lady in Water is by far the man?s most ridiculous and self-involved flick. He’s too great of a talent to write off, even during his misfires, but we can’t be expected to iron out his narrative kinks every time. Shyamalan’s films generally center on broken people looking for their place in the universe and finding a grander plan for their pain. Hopefully, after the birth pain of Lady in Water, Shyamalan can find his place in the artistic landscape and spare us more half-baked bedtime stories.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Let’s talk a little about screenwriter Akiva Goldsman. This is the man responsible for travesties like Lost in Space and the franchise killing, pun-crazy Batman and Robin. There’s plenty of junk writers in Hollywood and plenty of good writers just saddled by junk to make a living, and either might apply to Goldsman. How in the world did he become a Hollywood go-to guy?It probably has something to do with Ron Howard. Goldsman adapted the screenplay for Howard’s film A Beautiful Mind and both walked away with Oscars. Suddenly the man who wrote Mr. Freeze saying, “You’re not sending MEEE to the COOLER,” had an Oscar on his mantle. Goldsman and Howard, in retrospect, seem like a match made in heaven. They both enjoy big Hollywood event movies that spoon-feed an audience and shave off the gray areas. Cinderella Man serves as the duo’s second collaboration and it’s exactly what you would expect a big Hollywood event movie to be from them.
Jim Braddock (Russell Crowe) is an up-and-coming New Jersey boxer who’s on a warpath to the heavyweight title. His wife Mae (Renee Zellweger) loves him dearly and he dotes on his three kids. Life seems so perfect in 1929 America. And then the Depression hits. Braddock breaks his hand in a fight and his skills slip tremendously. The boxing commission revokes his license and Braddock is forced to take a dock job to provide for his family. Times are tough and there doesn’t appear to be a way out, until Braddock’s old boxing manager (Paul Giamatti) offers him a one time only bout in the ring. Braddock is seen as a has-been but he knocks his opponent flat out. More fights come and so do more victories, and Jim Braddock seems destined for a remarkable storybook comeback. But then there’s the reigning champ Max Baer (Craig Bierko), an arrogant playboy. Baer also is a ferocious fighter and has actually killed two men in the ring. The championship leads through him and Braddock is unafraid. Mae is terrified she’ll become a widow and pleads with her husband not to fight. But now that he’s been through the gutter, Braddock knows what he?s fighting for: the survival of his family. To do that, he?s headed for a title match with Baer.
What elevates Cinderella Man from an “okay” film into a “mostly good” film is the singular brilliance of Russell Crowe. This man is simply one of the most amazing actors we’ve ever seen, and he’s been on an incredible hot streak since 1999’s The Insider (forget 2000’s Proof of Life, please). Yet again mastering another accent, Crowe excels at playing a noble man with guarded emotions and honest intentions. He’s an actor that can display such an intense wealth of emotions in the same moment. When he visits his old boxing bosses, hat in hand, begging for enough money to turn the electricity back on, Crowe has laid a sucker punch to your emotions. It’s getting to the point where I will go out and see any movie Russell Crowe stars in just to soak up his brilliant performance. He can throw a phone at my head anytime. Crowe’s stellar and resonant acting will hopefully be noticed come Oscar time; however, I doubt much else of Cinderella Man will be remembered.
Crowe’s sparring partner doesn’t fare as well. I’ve liked Zellweger in a lot of her roles (even the sappy One True Thing), but she’s entirely miscast as Braddock’s underwritten stand-by-your-man wife. She scrunches her face too much and squints for most of the movie.
Two great actors make the most of their meager roles. Giamatti serves as Braddock’s growling pit dog of a corner man and works up a good froth. Bierko almost transcends the film’s one-note villain caste and becomes a figure of showboating sensuality. He struts in the ring with a gallant pride that’s fun to watch, even though you know Howard?s whispering in your ear, “Booooo. Don’t like him. He’s the mean man. Booooo.”
The production design on Cinderella Man is great and really recreates the look and feel of the 1930s in all walks of life. The cinematography, on the other hand, seems washed out and overly dark in spots, though it may have just been my theater?s projection. I miss Roger Deakins, DP on A Beautiful Mind. Deakins knew how to beautifully light a scene and capture the audience with a precise, eye-pleasing angle. In contrast, Cinderella Man seems to think that sepia tones defined the time period of the 1930s.
Howard still has little to no trust in his audience. He can’t rely on the performances of his actors to express their motivation. We know why Braddock is fighting during the Depression, Howard. We don’t need split-second cuts of his family for reminders. It’s almost like Howard wants to point to the screen and tell the audience what to feel. It should be obvious by now but ambiguity doesn’t work here. That’s why Braddock is seen as almost saintly (never mind the connections to organized crime). That’s why Baer is seen as dastardly (never mind that in 1933 Baer heroically wore a Jewish star and knocked out Hitler’s favorite prize fighter, Max Schmeling). It seems that the details just get in the way when Howard wants to turn true-life stories into calculating crowd-pleasers.
At the docks, just in case we don’t get how tragic the Great Depression is (you know, in case you forgot what either the words “great” or “depression” meant), Howard has to bend over backwards to show someone stepping over a newspaper declaring how high unemployment is. When Braddock finds a friend in Hoovertown (Central Park turned into a neighborhood of shanties) we see him run over by a horse and buggy as another man crushed by the system or a runaway metaphor. When Baer fights in the ring Howard makes sure to get that sneering close-up of our villain. And surely anyone who’s a womanizing playboy must go down for the good of the nation. Howard is aggressive in his pandering.
Thanks to Goldsman and Hollingsworth’s mawkish script, Cinderella Man has the myth of complexity to it when it’s really content to go the easy route. It plays this story too close to the rules: embittered hero with humanity intact, stalwart wife, cocky villain, the grumbling manager. Cinderella Man is stripped of complexity and Goldsman and Hollingsworth want to lead the audience by the nose. When Braddock promises his son in a heart-to-heart that he’ll never split up the family, we know it’s only a matter of time before it happens. Their script is also full of workmanlike dialogue that does enough to just push the story forward but give little shading to its people (Zellweger’s, “You are the champion of my heart, Jim Braddock” is particularly not great.
Cinderella Man really is a film more about the Depression than boxing, except for its pummeling and gritty final act of non-stop boxing. The script paints an almost insulting idea that the Depression was good for people to learn important life lessons, like family comes first, hard work will be rewarded, and one man can heal a nation. Seabiscuit fell into this same trap with its depiction of the Depression but at least Gary Ross’ film dealt with characters that weren’t tired genre archetypes. Cinderella Man could be described as “Seabiscuit in a boxing ring,” as yet again the triumph of an underdog pulls the country back together and gives the common man something to believe in. What I’d like to see is Braddock vs. Seabiscuit in a ring or even on the horse’s turf. Then we can finally decide once and for all who is responsible for getting America out of the Depression (somewhere FDR is spinning in his wheelchair-accessible grave).
The film does come alive when Braddock steps into the ring. The boxing matches are finely choreographed and pack a real wallop. You can practically feel the bruises and taste the sweat during the 15-round bout between Braddock and Baer. These scenes give you a good understanding of the progression of a boxing match and the real strategy that can turn a loser into a winner. Howard also has a smart visual cue during these lively moments. Whenever a bone gets broken, like Braddock’s hand, we cut to an X-ray shot of that scene and see the bone snap. It might seem old in a CSI-drenched landscape of entertainment but it’s effective and neat.
Cinderella Man is a rousing, heartstring-tugging crowd-pleaser that will inspire hope and redemption. Until you look at it more objectively. It?s easy to get sucked into Howard’s underdog tale and that’s because it’s been tailored to satisfy your emotions. Crowe rises above this heavy-handed yesteryear yarn with a riveting performance. I’m positive most people will walk away from Cinderella Man feeling uplifted and touched and would view me as being overly cynical. But with a maudlin story by Goldsman that simplifies the details, Cinderella Man feels like a feel-good-movie that’s been rigged. These people have no trust in their audience, so why should you put your trust in them?
Nate’s Grade: C+