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MacGuber (2010)

Far far worse than I was expecting, this is what happens when you expand a 30-second Saturday Night Live sketch to a full-blown movie. MacGruber, a one-joke parody of MacGyver, becomes a one-joke movie. It’s about an inept special agent who has to save the world from a criminal madman (Val Kilmer, why?). The flimsy plot would be acceptable if the movie had any sort of comedic momentum, but the jokes are sloppy and uninspired, often confusing naughtiness with humor. Just because something is brash or raunchy or shocking doesn’t necessarily mean it’s funny. Will Forte, as the title agent, tries too hard with material that doesn’t work hard enough. Villains with naughty sounding names? Sight gags a plenty? This movie makes the Austin Powers franchise look cutting edge. There isn’t enough focus for this to work as parody. MacGruber feels like what a bunch of 12-year-old boys would throw together if left unattended for a weekend with their parent’s credit card. The sketch was never meant to last over a minute by design, so you can expect what 87 more dreary minutes would produce.

Nate’s Grade: D

Breach (2007)

Chris Cooper is masterful in an unnerving and deeply contradictory role as a man of God, country, patriotism, and family. He was a respected FBI expert eventually discovered to be the biggest mole in U.S. intelligence history, directly responsible for the deaths of U.S. spies and interests in Russia during the Cold War. Writer/director Billy Ray infuses the film with the same stoic, controlled calm of his exceptional earlier effort Shattered Glass, and the movie unwinds like a great political thriller from the 1970s. The story is smart and engaging but it is Cooper that turns Breach into one of the best films of 2007. His performance is as varied and complex as the man he is portraying; frightening and intimidating but also empathetic and bound by a sense of honor, Cooper gives a performance that plays upon ambiguity and understatement. Watch the way he even drives people into walls when he walks alongside them in hallways. It’s that kind of intense, highly focused, and morally challenging work that deserves an Oscar nomination.

Nate’s Grade: A

Flags of Our Fathers (2006)

Clint Eastwood’s WWII epic is all about scaling down legend, deconstructing myths, and illustrating how truth can become hazy in the name of the greater good. It’s very well made, noble, reverent, intelligently written but somewhat empty at its center, feeling far too mechanical to become one of the great war movies of modern times. The structure is needlessly scattered into three interconnected storylines: 1) the ongoing battle of Iwo Jima between Japan and the United States, 2) the stateside bond tour by three of the six men responsible for raising the flag in the iconic photograph, and 3) a son in present day writing a book about his father’s war experiences in the Pacific. I really don’t feel that splintering the narrative added anything to the story; in fact, there’s a late segment that’s a barrage of character deaths that would have been far more powerful had it not been assembled into an afterthought of a montage. The battle moments are tense and bloody, with just a tinge of Saving Private Ryan familiarity (shaky cam POV, washed out colors, chaotic editing, graphic gore). I would have actually preferred more battle action but oh well.

Most of the film focuses on our three soldiers (Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach) dealing with the pressure of a spotlight they feel is undeserved. You see, the raising-the-flag picture, perhaps the most famous war photograph of all time, was a group of men replacing a flag. There were no bullets buzzing over heads, no bombs blasting; it isn’t even the first flag. The men wince at being called heroes. They’re made to become U.S. military shills, encouraging the nation to keep buying those war bonds. This segment provides lots of moments of interest by illuminating a chapter few know — the story behind the story. These moments of insider info have some juice to them, led by a suave SOB performance by John Slattery as the man in charge of drumming up dollar signs.

Phillippe is an actor I’ve been keeping tabs on ever since 2000’s Way of the Gun, and he is the moral center of the movie, showing grit and humility. It’s mostly a performance of stoic silence, but he has a very strong scene when he confronts a war widow wanting the truth and he lies between his teeth to comfort her. Beach (Wind Talkers) gets the best role as a solider of Native American blood that is still seen as a second citizen in his own nation. There are plenty of revealing moments of casual racism (people call him “chief” more than his actual name) that explain why he took to the bottle with such ferocity. Beach is an emotional wreck and deeply haunted by the disturbing memories of war. He has to be practically pried off of a widow he is clinging to and crying uncontrollably. The cast is full of young Hollywood actors and it might due some good to become acquainted with their faces before stepping into a theater. It can get confusing. Yet another reason a disjointed narrative is a bad idea.

Where Flags of our Fathers cannot make the leap from good to great is in the area of character. After two hours, you don’t really feel like you know anyone better. There’s a distance that stops the audience from fully investing. I think Eastwood and the film have such noble aims that the movie becomes more of a statement than entertainment. There isn’t any conclusive climax; the film seems to directly go right into a voice-over heavy resolution. On a technical front, Flags is very impressive and Eastwood has created his most visually lush film to date. From a human standpoint, it falters and flags. It’s admirable and attractive but I doubt come Oscar time that this war-weary ode to heroism will have many followers.

Nate’s Grade: B

Crash (2005)

A searing look at race relations and a powerful human drama at that. This flick has some of the sharpest memories I’ve had from any movie all year, particularly the relationship between a Hispanic locksmith (Michael Pena) and his daughter and a special invisible cloak. Their first scene, where he talks her out of hiding under her bed, is one of the most beautifully written short scenes I have ever witnessed. A late scene involving the two of them knocked the wind out of me completely and is the most vivid moviegoing moment of all 2005 for me. Every character has at least one great moment, though time is not spaced equally amongst this large ensemble. Crash has the intriguing practice of introducing near every character spouting some kind of racist diatribe, and then the movie spend the rest of its running time opening you up to these characters and getting to like them. Writer/director Paul Haggis has such a natural ear for terse, realistic dialogue that can really define characters with such brevity. A fine movie, despite the overarching coincidences.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Way of the Gun (2000)

Way of the Gun is screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie’s follow-up to the twisty smash who-dunnit The Usual Suspects. This time he takes the reigns of directing himself and establishes that he is a born man behind the camera and in the chair.

Gun unfolds its tale through the center of two antisocial hoodlums “Parker” (Ryan Phillippe) and “Longbaugh” (Benicio Del Toro), two men brought to the point of selling plasma and sperm to pay the bills. One afternoon they overhear a conversation in the doctor’s office about a wealthy couple paying a woman (Juliet Lewis) to act as the surrogate mother for their child. It seems the real mother just doesn’t want to be burdened with a child hanging on her for nine months. The two men use this information to plot what should be their big break and their big score. After a scheduled doctor’s visit they get into a heated shoot out with the bodyguards (Nicky Katt and Taye Diggs) protecting her for their wealthy employer. Parker and Longbaugh kidnap their impregnated prize and hold her to squeeze a fat ransom.

The story-telling Way of the Gun plays is a mix of older mature films where they would have room to breathe as well as Quentin Tarantino flicks. This is a story of characters and their devious multiple back stabbings, crosses, secret affiliations, and ultimate intentions. ‘Gun’ moves methodically with an armada of gaunt twists and turns keeping the audience alive and awake.

James Caan comes in mid-way to play a conniving intermediary in the exchange. His character is the wisest of the bunch and knows more then he’s always telling. It’s also quite a perplexing site to see Caan’s nipples through his shirt in an interrogation scene. Up to this point I never thought about James Caan having nipples.

The action in the flick is pulse-pounding. The shootouts are probably the best on film in a long while. You see and hear every effect a bullet has. The final climax which involves a drawn out gun battle in an empty Mexican brothel is a scene of sheer excitement and relentless entertainment that it may well be my favorite 10-15 minutes of film all year.

There can be a word to describe Way of the Gun and that word could be “ugly.” This is not a film for everyone. The violence and its after-effects can be gruesome at times, as I heard just as much groans and shrieks in my theater than anything else. There’s scenes of picking shards of glass from one’s own arm, performing stitches on one’s eyebrow, and even an impromptu hand done C-section. This will not be something to take grandma to.

Way of the Gun pacing is also a problem. There are moments of drag as we wait and wait. The languid pacing works for the story and the characters but the double-edge sword creates dry spells of interest. The score uses tympani to full extent, sometimes beyond that which it reasonably should.

McQuarrie has sold me with his re-spinning of tired cliches and familiar elements into gold. Way of the Gun is a flick I’ll see with my friends time and again.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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