I recently watched two movies this holiday season that could not be any more opposite, so naturally I decided to pair them together as a joint review. 6 Underground is a chaotic and bombastic action-thriller that cost $150 million dollars, is directed by maestro of the machismo Michael Bay, and is widely available for streaming through Netflix and its bottomless pit of money. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a small, subtle French film depicting a reserved love story that takes its sweet time and is as much a repudiation on how women are commonly portrayed in art. One of these two movies is an obnoxiously arduous enterprise that many have dubbed represents the worst in movies, and the other is a hard-to-find foreign indie that is one of the best films you will see in 2019. Two very different uses of cinema, and I’ll let you decide which is which by the end of this double review, dear reader.
The mastermind of the special forces team of “ghosts” is billionaire inventor “One” (Ryan Reynolds). He’s assembled a team of specialists that have faked their own deaths to work as an elite team taking out an elite array of bad guys, tyrants, and war criminals. That’s the plot of 6 Underground. What follows is a collection of loud noises, colorful explosions, blood splatter, and mainlined madness pumping through all of your demolished senses.
6 Underground is like a direct pipeline into Michel Bay’s childhood brain. It’s Bay at his most unfiltered, which means that the tone isn’t just over-the-top, it destroys the top, establishes a new higher top, and then obliterates that designation as well. Watching the movie is like a descent into juvenile hysteria and I couldn’t help laughing at the excess. It’s the kind of action movie where cars don’t just fly and career off the road, they split in two and smash just so the driver’s dead body plops out in the camera angle. It’s the kind of movie where the bad guys don’t just get shot but get shot in lovingly disgusting ways, like a bullet going through a cigar and a pimple-popping setup leading to brain explosions. It’s the kind of movie where a dangling eyeball is played for giggles. It’s the kind of movie where people aren’t just getting hit by cars, they’re getting propelled into other objects from the blunt force. It’s the kind of movie where the bad guy names his generals The Four Horsemen. It’s the kind of movie where a character removes a bullet-proof helmet right before re-entering a firefight for… reasons. It’s the kind of movie with 100 needle-drop music selections, including, by my count, five Muse songs (but not one use of the Sneakerpimp’s “6 Underground,” which is an egregious oversight). It’s the kind of movie where someone unleashes a crashing crate full of metal poles and they launch like heat-seeking projectiles, filleting bad guys and bad guy cars. The opening twenty minutes is a non-stop car chase through the streets of Florence, Italy that must lead to billions in damages and, in one moment that screamed the only self-aware flash in the entire two-plus hours, the cars are racing through museums and laying waste to precious works of art. It’s like Bay is winking at his critics and saying, “This is how you see me, a gleeful provocateur that destroys the very concept of high art, so here I am, doing it for real.” To say this movie is crazy is a disservice to the word itself.
6 Underground is pure, testosterone-pumping id, and it can become exhausting without any foundation to hold it all together. The plot is extremely generic and fees like a relic from the 1990s, a billionaire assembling an elite team of criminals/killers/spies to go undercover and take out the world’s bad guys. They’re “ghosts” in the fact that they’ve faked their deaths, but what exactly is gained from this process beyond, say, going off the grid? The idea of them being dead is meant to be freeing, but their friends and family are still living and can be used to apply pressure on these still-living people. Except this never happens. The plotting is incredibly sloppy and elects to skip around in time in a misplaced attempt to seem cool. The entire opening twenty minutes feels like it’s one-upping itself out of naked fear that somehow an audience will be bored, like the viewer is somehow building a tolerance to the mayhem and will walk away unless it just keeps going up up up. The opening sequence has a florescent green sports car spinning through the streets, chased by armed vehicles, while bullet-removal surgery is being performed in the backseat, while an eyeball is being dangled to open a security code, while the narrative jumps back and forth in time to present whose eyeball this belongs to and what happened, and that’s even before the art museum smash-up and a slow-mo spin that twirls into absurd self-parody, where someone screams not to hit a woman with a baby, which we narrowly miss, followed by someone screaming not to hit a dog, which we next narrowly miss. Then there’s nuns on bicycles knocked onto the ground who respond with raised middle fingers. It’s so much, all the time, with Bay’s hyper edits and swirling camerawork that you feel beaten down. It’s all the outrageous spectacle we’ve seen in other Bay films but now it’s condensed to its essence and splashed into your eyeballs.
There aren’t so much characters in this movie but action movie avatars or, even simpler, Person-Shaped Entities Who Hold Guns or Drive Fast. Reynolds is playing the same variation we’ve seen for the last few years since his success in Deadpool, which makes me think this is the only Ryan Reynolds we’ll be getting in movies from now on. The plot even provides completely frivolous flashbacks to provide answers to the non-burning question of how the crew was gathered together. I suppose it’s an excuse to squeeze in more action sequences but that only ever happens with the parkour Brit member. Speaking of which, the parkour action sequences are, by far, the best parts of this movie and it made me wonder what a parkour action movie under Bay’s command could be like. Every character has three modes: Badass, Quippy, and, least convincing, Self-Serious. These are not recognizable people, and the female characters are even less versions of not-people. The movie thinks it’s being cool by assigning code names that are just numbers, like they won’t get close to one another without the convenience of names. It’s just another sign of how disposable every character is and how little thought was given to character arcs beyond redemption. There’s one mission in Hong Kong that utilizes them as a team but even that is fleeting as far as developing a more cohesive camaraderie. They’re basically like distaff superheroes that have been forcibly crossed over for some special event and are waiting to return home for solo adventures. You could create a sequel with a brand-new team and not miss a beat.
Is any of this bombastic silliness genuinely entertaining? Much of Bay’s popular works exist in that strange space where you willingly shut off your brain for the popcorn thrills. I like half of the Transformers movies (though quite dislike the other half) and think Pain and Gain showed real promise, before it wore out its welcome, that Bay hasn’t been able to better tap into. I’m not an automatic hater of Michael Bay as a filmmaker; he’s a born cineaste when it comes to style. Even when his movies are running off the rails, they’re never truly boring. With the unlimited freedom of Netflix, Bay was able to unleash his full chaotic imagination, and the results can prove to be entertaining in spurts. I found more bafflement just trying to process everything. Bay’s advertising instincts are part of his style, so every over-saturated moment of 6 Underground looks like it could be a commercial for the military, cars, perfume, or some expensive watch. It’s a world of wanton excess and disposable thrills, and that relates to its portrayal of women too. Women become another interchangeable object to be fetishized and commoditized by Bay’s roving camera. It’s the male gaze cranked up on high, lovingly depicting fast cars, sexy women, and human carnage. Even the brains and blood being blown apart feel fetishized (bad guys don’t just get shot; they ooze goop for several seconds from gory head wounds). It’s a movie that wants to overpower you by every means available, with the excessive trivialities of action movies, with aggressive style that desperately wants to be seen as cool, and with its exaggerated concepts of hyper masculinity.
At the complete other end of the movie spectrum is France’s gentle, understated period drama, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Set in 1760 on a remote island, Marianne (Noemie Merlant) is commissioned to paint the portrait of Heloise (Adele Haenel) for the purpose of snagging her a husband. Heloise had been planning to become a nun but her family pulled her from the convent once she became their only living daughter, a.k.a. hope for the family to secure prosperity through marriage. Marianne must hide her true intentions and grow close to her subject, memorizing her face enough to paint it in secret. An intimacy builds between the two women that will change both of their lives even long after the fateful painting is finished (spoilers?).
Writer/director Celine Sciamma has primarily worked with contemporary stories (Girlhood, Tomboy, Water Lilies) but, in stepping back in time, she has tapped into something elementally beautiful and poignant. It is very much a slow-burn of a movie but, in essence, that is the most relatable form of love, a feeling that builds, transforms, and can eventually consume. There’s a liberation for the characters in the time they share together, first as companions and then as lovers. This is a transitory time, one locked in isolation and free from men, though the presence of the patriarchy is unavoidable as it limits their life choices. For Heloise, she had no desire to become someone’s wife and then it was no longer her choice. Her greatest value lies in marriage, and a portrait during this era was essentially someone’s dating profile picture. It’s on Marianne to paint an accurate depiction that can ensnare this woman a husband, which gets even more complicated when Marianne falls for her. The movie tenderly moves along with guarded caution, as two women explore their feelings for one another in a time that didn’t care about their feelings. This is a love story that feels alive but also realistic in how it forms and develops. It’s about halfway through the movie before the ladies finally make their intentions known. I can understand why this might be too slow for many viewers but the movie never came across as dull for me, and it’s because I was so drawn into this world, these characters, and their yearnings being unleashed.
When it comes to movies exemplifying the difference in the female gaze, allow Portrait of a Lady on Fire to be one of the prime examples. This is miles away from the crass objectification featured in the likes of Michael Bay’s oeuvre and his very explicit definition of sexy. This is a movie where the only nudity casually happens after the sex (and body hair isn’t a big deal). There’s more ASMR action for the senses (lots of loud lip-smacking sound design) than ogling naked bodies. The emphasis isn’t on the contours of lithe feminine forms but more on the emotional and physical impact of a person as a whole. There’s one scene that is tremendously affecting and quite sexy, and it begins with the painter telling her subject every small physical response she has studied while painting her. It’s little observations that are romantically relayed. The subject then turns around and says, “Who do you think I’ve been looking at as I’ve posed for hours?” and proceeds to unfurl her own richly earned romantic observations about her painter’s physical responses. It’s such a wonderful scene bristling with palpable sexual tension and infatuation, so much more being said in glances than in declarative speeches. The movie also opens up a larger discussion of the male gaze as it pertains to the world of art. They must play into the established conventions driven by a rigid patriarchy designating how women are best represented in media, and the implications to modern cinematic portraits are clearly felt. Funny enough, Heloise is chastised for not smiling enough in her portraits to woo a worthwhile suitor.
I assumed this love story wasn’t going to have a happy ending given the confines of its era, but I want every reader to know that Portrait of a Lady on Fire just absolutely crushes its ending. You may expect it coming, in a general sense, but the resolution to this love story floored me. There are two consecutive scenes that each elicit different emotions. The first is a winsome feeling of being remembered, of having a sense of permanence after the fact, of a moment in time that will long be fondly recalled and celebrated for its fleeting perfection and lifelong significance. Then the next scene involves a payoff of great empathy that almost brought tears to my eyes. It delivers a long-desired payoff to a character’s lifelong request, and the camera simply holds for over a minute while we watch the indescribable impression this woman is experiencing. It’s so joyous, so heartfelt, and so luxuriously earned that I felt like my heart was going to burst. The fact that both of these emotional conclusions happen without a single word being uttered is even more impressive.
The acting from the leads is phenomenal and the nuances they navigate are so precise and subtle. This isn’t a movie about grand gestures and big dialogue exchanges. It’s a romance in that genteel fashion of furtive movements and words encased in subtext. We’ve seen this kind of restrained love story before in other period pieces, as well as gay cinema with its socially forbidden love. The intimacy between these two women must start slow and, like a fire, be given the right amount of oxygen to allow it to spread. There’s an understandable bitterness that this love will not be allowed but this cannot abate the desire to proceed anyway. These women are more than just tragic figures coming into one another’s orbit. They’re fleshed-out and multi-dimensional characters with their own goals and imperfections. They feel like real people, and while disappointed by their limitations within a patriarchy, they will continue to pursue their personal dreams. The portrayal is so empathetic that your heart can’t help but ache when it isn’t swooning from the sumptuously understated romance of it all.
6 Underground is a hyper-edited, hyper-masculine, and hyper-tiresome action vehicle that exhibits every unchecked impulse of Bay as a filmmaker. The plot is inconsequential because it’s all just gristle for action sequences, which aren’t even developed scenarios as they are (occasionally literal) eye-popping moments of excess. Someone in those Netflix suites really should have second-guessed giving Bay a blank check and little-to-no supervision. At the other end of the movie spectrum is an intimately felt and intimately developed forbidden love that feels natural, nuanced, and enormously engaging. It reminds us that movies only need compelling characters or a compelling scenario to grab us good. I’m fairly certain Bay’s music licensing budget was more than this French indie. Portrait of a Lady on Fire isn’t a revolutionary movie. We’ve seen variations on this story before, but what makes it unmissable is the degree of feeling and artistry crammed into every breathable moment. I know there’s an ample audience that will enjoy 6 Underground, especially with its wider availability, and that’s fine. Netflix paid a pretty penny betting there are enough people looking for the film equivalent of a drunken, disheveled one-night stand. If you’re looking for something more authentic, deeply felt, and, let’s face it, generous to women, then look for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a beautiful indie romance that warmed my heart, broke it, and then fastened it back together.
6 Underground: C-
Portrait of a Lady on Fire: A
This may be my least useful review in my career as a critic but I’ll try my best when it comes to Detective Pikachu. I’m not a Pokemon fan. It came to popularity as I started high school and was generally after my time. I can state unequivocally that this movie is not made for people like me, and that’s fine. I imagine fans of the long-running television series and games will be delighted to see this world brought to life with great care and top-notch special effects. I sat through the 105 minutes slightly amused but feeling no strong feelings one way or another. It’s a pleasant enough movie with decent world building and a predictable plot (taken verbatim from the game of the same name apparently). It’s charming enough for an outsider but offers not much else. It feels like a PG-Deadpool Ryan Reynolds attached to a Who Framed Roger Rabbit?-style universe where Pokemon and humans interact normally. No one ever seems to fully articulate how the Pokemon battles are essentially dog fighting and that they’re enslaving these creatures for blood sport, but it’s not like I was expecting that commentary either. In a world of living monsters, the human characters are a bit boring. Justice Smith’s character is annoying and inconsistent. He seems a bit oblivious to how much he remembers about his missing father, which is more curious with some end reveals. Bill Nighy appears as the most obvious villain. Suki Waterhouse is here as a shape-shifting hench woman. The real draw is Reynolds as the voice to a Pikachu looking to pick up the pieces of its lost memory. The humor is brisk and has more hits than misses, even if the aim is somewhat low. Detective Pikachu is a family-friendly comedy that will likely please the hardcore legion of Pokemon fans and leave the rest of us shrugging our shoulders and saying to ourselves, “Well, that was a thing.”
Nate’s Grade: B-
The Hitman’s Bodyguard feels like a 90s Tarantino knockoff remake of Midnight Run, and I don’t mean that in any pejorative sense. This is a movie that knows exactly what it aims to be and strikingly new and original isn’t one of those qualities. When you deliver a late summer movie that has this much depraved entertainment and energy, I don’t mind.
Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) is a disgraced bodyguard-for-hire who lost a high-profile client to an out-of-nowhere sniper. Stuck shielding coked-out white-collar traders, he still knows more than a thing or two about keeping a client safe. His former flame, Interpol agent Amelia Roussel (Elodie Yung), is tasked with getting notorious contract assassin Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson) to the International Criminal Court at The Hague. Kincaid is the only living witness who can testify against Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman), a former Belarus military dictator. Coincidentally, all of the witnesses and evidence against him seem to always disappear. Roussel’s team is ambushed and she reluctantly seeks out Bryce for assistance. He has 24 hours to keep Kincaid alive and transport him to The Hague, but Kincaid has some ideas of his own, like arguing, escaping, and visiting his wife (Salma Hayek). It’s a battle of wills and a healthy deployment of the versatile F-word.
When it comes to genre filmmaking, especially in action or horror, the level of entertainment is much more related to the singer and not the song. Sure a well developed script with interesting characters, organic complications, and memorable set-pieces connected with payoffs are still desired, but often it’s execution that separates the brashly fun bombast from the dreck that dots late night cable. The selling point of this movie is its central pairing of Jackson (Kong: Skull Island) and Reynolds (Deadpool). Hell, both of them aren’t straining too hard from their familiar big screen personalities, Jackson the gleefully stubborn badass and Reynolds as the incredulous smart-alleck with the quick wit. Some critics will chafe and say that the actors are stuck in stale riffs and acting on autopilot. I look at this as a certain virtue of the film. They hired Jackson and Reynolds and let them do exactly what we demand that Jackson and Reynolds do. They were hired for a specific reason. Their crackling repartee keeps the movie alive even as the first half feels too sludgy getting everything going. The comedy can be a tad forced (riding on a bus with chirpy nuns! Gatorade bottle of pee?) and exaggerated at times (really, a fart joke, sound designers?) but this isn’t a film for subtlety, and Jackson and Reynolds, who can outdo just about every working actor for sarcasm and volume, are at their best when they’re big and broad. The rapport elevates even moments that would otherwise be redundant.
I thought the action scenes were going to take a backseat to the Jackson/Reynolds buddy road trip, popping up here and there to move things along and kill off an antagonist or two. To my great surprise, the action in The Hitman’s Bodyguard is uniformly great. Director Patrick Hughes (The Expendables 3) makes each action scene its own story and he thankfully varies the scenarios so they nicely stand out. There’s a terrific motorcycle chase through Amsterdam’s canals and streets, smashing things to bits in the most exciting ways. The action is often divided into two parallel points following Jackson and Reynolds, which allows the film to pair the right sequence for the right character. There’s a late foot chase that’s filmed in refreshing long takes (newest Hollywood action trend?) that stops into the back kitchen of a restaurant and then a hardware store. Each location is well utilized to provide a unique opportunity for the fight choreography and use of props. The movie does a very successful job of approaching action by thinking how to use geography, character, and purpose to plot. Hughes also has a solid inclination when to punch for humor with visual gags, including a few gems involving a minivan. When the comedy wasn’t completely working, I knew I could rely upon the dependable thrills.
The movie also has one of the dumbest attempts at injecting urgency into a story. The plot hinges upon Darius Kincaid arriving at The Hague at an exact time to testify against Oldman’s dictator. In a moment that made me blurt out laughing, an expositional device/news lady informs us that if nobody comes forward to testify then The Hague has to drop all charges, Oldman’s dictator goes free and apparently becomes the president of Belarus immediately again, and probably the end of democracy. First, this false sense of urgency requires witnesses to arrive at a court. That’s not how testimony works. You can give a sworn statement anywhere. You can appear in court via teleconference. The location is not the problem here. And then his testimony is aided by (slight spoilers) photographic evidence of the dictator’s genocide… except it’s all digital pictures. This entire movie hinged on the mad rush to get Jackson to The Hague when he could have just made an email attachment with the incriminating pictures at any wifi spot. There’s also the factor that if it was one second after five or so the court would not accept any testimony. I don’t think courts work that way, especially when it’s a decision over dictators and due process. And yet a wall clock is treated like the ticking clock on a bomb detonator. It’s so dumb I question whether the filmmakers were self-aware and making a satirical riff.
While being an enjoyably profane experience, The Hitman’s Bodyguard doesn’t know when enough is quite enough. It has problems walking away and routinely falls upon overkill in several elements. There’s almost way too much plot here. Every character has a back-story that nabs a lengthy flashback with an ironically chosen pop song. There are obvious betrayals that the film thankfully doesn’t belabor in revealing the culprits, but did we need them anyway? Hayek seems to have said yes just to be a vulgar badass that would attract Jackson. It’s fun but her shtick gets old quickly. She’s all unchecked exaggeration. Hayek’s character is just here to provide a counterpoint for Kincaid to wax poetic about romance and relationships, to nudge Bryce to “man up” and realize what he’s let slip away. The romantic elements are presented on the same wavelength as the comedy, meant to be a shoulder-shrug of cocksure cool. When they try and get earnest on their own terms it doesn’t quite work out tonally. The movie also runs rampant with false endings, going from one escape to another just as it should be winding down. It’s like the filmmakers were having so much fun they didn’t know when to walk away from their story.
I think every ticket-buyer knows what they’re getting when they walk into The Hitman’s Bodyguard. It’s two actors doing what they do best, in an action vehicle that cribs from Midnight Run, and with a sense of style and attitude that resembles a bluntly ironic return to 90s R-rated action excess. Fortunately, the execution of these genre tropes and elements lead to one of the more profanely entertaining popcorn flicks this summer season. It’s a movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously, coasts on above average action and the charged comic chemistry of its two loud-mouth leads. It’s a movie that doesn’t require much thought and rewards you for the effort. The Hitman’s Bodyguard is everything you want it to be, and if that’s good enough for you, then you’ll find satisfaction here.
Nate’s Grade: B
The most surprising thing about Self/less occurred approximately 115 minutes into the film itself, when it revealed that Tarsem Singh was the director. Tarsem is known for lavish visual cinematic canvases such as The Cell and Immortals, and to realize that this is the same man responsible for an otherwise disappointing and visually mundane sci-fi thriller, well it was a shock. Why hire a visual stylist and then restrict him to such a limited palate? Self/less is an intriguing premise (borrowed a tad from Seconds) and it keeps all the interesting ethical and psychological questions at bay to follow a generic thriller formula. There’s not one real surprise in this film; even the reveals and surprises will be easily telegraphed. Ben Kingsley plays Damian, a dying rich man who undergoes a risky experiment to live longer, having his consciousness transferred into a younger human host played by Ryan Reynolds. It’s another chance to be young, party, enjoy sexual relations with women who are more likely to go home with somebody who looks like Reynolds. There’s a catch: if he stops taking his special red pills, the host’s brain will take over control. That’s because, surprise, the bodies aren’t grown in labs but are human volunteers. Here could be some topical class exploitation and social commentary, but Self/less ignores the more intriguing direction at every point to play it safe. Damian finds his host’s family and from that point on it’s a series of chases with bad guys. One of those chases is actually fairly entertaining, utilizing a conjoined automobile in a clever and devastating way. It never feels like Reynolds and Kingsley are playing the same character. Reynolds’ charm is subsumed by this role and he feels adrift. I’ll admit that this movie is efficient and each scene pushes the story forward; it’s just the direction of that story I’d like to alter. Alas, Self/less is a competent but fairly underwhelming thriller that squanders its premise.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Seth MacFarlane has become an industry powerhouse. The man has three animated TV shows on air (Family Guy, American Dad, The Cleveland Show) and essentially carved an entire niche of modern comedy. His brand of irreverent, offensive, tangential humor has turned the man into a demigod among young audiences and helped him rake in millions. A journey to the movies seemed inevitable, and so comes Ted, which MacFarlane directed and co-wrote with two of his Family Guy scribes. The best assessment I can give is that if you enjoy MacFarlane’s brand of humor on TV, you’ll probably enjoy Ted. If not, then you’re in for a prolonged, obnoxious two hours.
One day when young John Bennett was a young boy, he wished his teddy bear would come alive so he’d always have a best friend. And as a narrator tells us, nothing is stronger than a young boy’s wish (curious gender is specified and then never touched upon for some kind of joke). The next morning Ted (voiced by Seth MacFarlane) comes alive. Flash forward 30 years and Jon (Mark Wahlberg) works at a rental car company, has a stunning girlfriend in Lori (Mila Kunis), and regularly gets stoned with his best pal, Ted. The two guys are inseparable, which causes friction between John and Lori. After another notorious incident of Ted behaving badly, Lori insists that he move out. John has to start acting more responsible and treating Lori like she deserves, but Ted’s influence usually leads to trouble. Both Ted and John are in desperate need of growing up.
It was no surprise for me that Ted was exactly what I expected from Seth MacFarlane. It’s just a bigger, raunchier version of the style of humor he’s patented on television: tangential non-sequitors, scenes that go on far too long, obscure pop culture references, pointless shock material, and the basic premise that the jokes hinge around some creature merely doing things. Like Brian the Dog, or Roger the alien, Ted is a creature that shouldn’t necessarily exist, and thus so much humor is built around just seeing Ted exist. Is it supposed to be hilarious watching him drive? How about hit on women? Do bong hits? Far too often the only joke the movie seems to offer is that Ted is a teddy bear doing stuff. If you replaced him with, say, a normal human being, would any of those jokes work? Would it be funny watching a normal person drive, hit on women, and do bong hits? Maybe but probably not. It’s all one joke: look at something unnatural doing natural things. And that’s my issue with MacFarlane’s brand of humor. These jokes are not given proper attention, setup, and development. The film rarely subverts your expectations with how every joke will play out, and if you already know the jokes before the movie delivers them then what’s the point? The one joke I did laugh at, and a good guffaw at that, was Ted’s boss who kept responding to Ted’s screw-ups with good words and promotions. That was a surprise. But here’s the thing: once it’s established, you know what will happen the next time. So the second time it’s still funny but not as much. By the third time, his nonplussed reaction is completely expected and thus all traces of funny have been squeezed dry. In comedy, it’s all about surprise, and I find with MacFarlane that he rarely strays from his routine.
As far as jokes going on too long, let’s talk about a myriad of subplots that seemed to go on forever. There’s an entire storyline where an obsessed fan played by Giovanni Ribisi (Contraband) kidnaps Ted. This storyline makes up almost the entire third act and occurs after the reconciliation between John and Lori, so the movie already feels like it should be over. And then it keeps going. And it keeps going longer. And then there’s a car chase and a foot race through Fenway Park, which serves no purpose other than to probably fulfill a childhood wish of MacFarlane’s to film on said hallowed grounds. And it’s during this final act where the crass movie tries to become… sentimental? It just doesn’t work. You can’t have 100 minutes of rude, offensive, vulgar humor and then try and then try and go all gooey and soft and make people feel something akin to emotion. The reason that the Judd Apatow films can work with emotion is because from the get-go they make you care about the characters and their relatable conflicts. But there’s a difference between emotion and cheap sentiment, and Ted hasn’t earned genuine emotion. I didn’t like any of these characters. They all seemed like louts and jerks and dolts, none of them charming. Thus the end and its wish-upon-a-star conclusion are cheap sentiment and the kind of conclusion that you believe without a doubt that the characters in Ted would mercilessly mock.
Let me specify for the moment that there is a distinct difference between gross-out gags and gags that are just gross. There is also a difference between jokes that are shocking but funny and jokes that are just desperate to offend. In my experience with MacFarlane’s brand of humor, as well as McFarlane’s fratty devotees (if I was rushing a fraternity, I have no doubt Ted would be my favorite movie, bro), that difference is not understood. Watching an over-the-top racist Asian stereotype is merely offensive without proper context to draw out humor beyond the odious and obvious. Just punching a child in the face isn’t funny. Just having someone defecate on the floor isn’t funny, though the panicked removal of said feces was humorous in flashback. I may have chuckled and giggled from time to time with Ted, but most of the time I was just saddened by how desperate McFarlane and his writers were to shock rather than to entertain.
Thank God Wahlberg (The Fighter) was in this movie. While Ted is best left in small doses, the boorish best friend archetype, Wahlberg has been sharpening his comedic muscles (the only muscle in need of work it seems) and has become a terrific straight man. Anyone who remembered 2010’s The Other Guys knows that Wahlberg can be flat-out funny when given great madness to play off of. With Ted, Wahlberg’s commitment to the innate absurdity of the movie goes a long way. His breathless rendition of an exhaustive list of white trash girl names had me laughing harder than anything else in the movie, and I admit I was also impressed by Wahlberg’s speedy delivery. The character of John is a pretty standard role at this point in American comedy, one of arrested development. However, it seems to take so long, blown chance after blown chance, for John to finally find some sense of responsibility. Just like everyone else, he is at the mercy of Ted’s corrosive influence.
I probably wasn’t the ideal specimen for MacFarlane’s first foray into movies. I’ve never been more than a mild fan of his TV work and its hit-or-miss-but-mostly-miss brand of tangential humor, though I admit American Dad has grown on me (the only MacFarlane show where the jokes seem related to the story situations). MacFarlane unleashes the vulgar material he’s been holding back from TV, which makes for some laughs. The obviously stoned guys sitting in front of me thought the movie was hilarious, even during quiet moments where nothing was going on. I’m disappointed that a MacFarlane movie is pretty much exactly as I would have suspected, essentially a MacFarlane TV show blown up to a bigger screen. The jokes here are so limited, mostly deriving from Ted the teddy bear just doing things a teddy bear normally doesn’t. I wish the comedy were more developed, more nuanced, more concerned with doing something other than shock. The most shocking aspect of Ted is how utterly forgettable the whole enterprise is even with a magical talking teddy bear.
Nate’s Grade: C
Safe House is an an action movie that has some nice above-average action sequences strung together by a very sub-average plot. Tobin (Denzel Washington) is a rogue CIA agent being hunted down by shadowy forces. Or is he? A young agent (Ryan Reynolds) was responsible for the safe house in Cape Town that was breached and now takes it upon himself to bring Tobin in for the agency. Or does he? If you’ve seen any spy thriller in the last few years then you’ll recognize the glut of clichés and be able to ably predict the traitorous higher-ups using the economy of characters. Here’s a clue to the villains of the picture: don’t keep all your villainous deeds together on one computer file (and don’t label it “All Our Evil Deeds,” try instead, “Vacation Photos.”). Washington and Reynolds are appealing actors even in ho-hum parts. Washington never seems as devilish or as clever as his character is billed to be. While the plot is bland, director Daniel Espinosa (Easy Money) knows how to shoot some thrilling action sequences. The style is a bit of a Bourne rehash, what with the jangly camera angles, but the movie has a surprising level of verisimilitude; when two guys fight it really feels like a couple guys beating the crap out of each other. The chase sequences are well staged and find smart ways to make use of its South Africa location, like a chase through the levels of a soccer arena or a race atop the rooftops of shanty homes. It’s when the movie stops to catch its breath and the plot reemerges that Safe House becomes a snoozer.
Nate’s Grade: C+
For once, I’d love somebody to construct a body-swap movie where the characters realize the tropes and clichés of the body-swap pictures, a parody of the genre. It’d be nice if the characters instantly accepted their situation and knew that they would each have to learn some form of a life-lesson before changing back, and they tried to falsely engineer these saccharine life-lessons. Then it would be fun if they rented all the body-swap movies to write down notes and pointers on how best to deal with their unusual situation. Then, and here’s the best part, both body-swap participants realize that they prefer their new situations. They reject turning back and simply enjoy the whims that come with their new existential home. They reject learning life-lessons and simply make the best of things. For a brief second, I thought The Change-Up might be that very movie but no such luck.
Dave (Jason Bateman) is a business-obsessed lawyer working his way to make partner in his firm. His wife, Jamie (Leslie Mann), and his three children, including twin babies, are neglected at home. Mitch (Ryan Reynolds) is a struggling actor/womanizer who inexplicably is best friends with Dave. After a night at a bar, the fellas relieve themselves in a public fountain. The fountain lady statue obviously has taken offense and thus curses the both of them. The next morning, each awakes to discover they are in different bodies. The business guy has to act like a jerk! The jerk has to act like a business guy! And then there’s the matter of Jamie, who Dave/Mitch has strictly forbidden Mitch/Dave from sleeping with. Complicating matters further, the fountain has been moved by the Atlanta parks department and lost in bureaucratic limbo.
I knew I was in trouble by the first minute of the grossly unfunny Change-Up. Not only do we suffer a poop joke so early, we have to witness a baby firing a stream of fecal matter into Dave’s open mouth. That’s just a taste of the unpleasantness that follows. The movie plays like an exaggerated, sophomoric cartoon written by children. It seems to exist in the same broad universe of 2009’s abominable rom/com The Ugly Truth. What I wrote for that movie could easily apply to The Change-Up: “It’s questionable whether the comedy even reaches juvenile levels. It’s tasteless and piggish, but the weird part is that it comes across as knowledgeable on the subject of sex as a ten-year-old kid who just discovered his dad’s secret stash of Playboys. It talks about the right stuff but does so in a clueless manner. It’s like an exaggerated randy cartoon that chiefly plays to a male fantasy.” I’m not opposed to raunchy sex comedies. However, I am opposed to sex comedies that can’t figure out how to be funny without relying on easy gags. There’s a difference between gross-out humor and simply being gross, though I don’t believe this film knows what that difference is. So we’re treated to an over-the-hill porn star, some anal defilement, a voraciously sexual nine-months pregnant lady, even more poop jokes, and 90 minutes of penis discussion. There’s one actually interesting section where the guys debate the moral ambiguity of body-swap sex. Is it really cheating if Dave/Mitch is in somebody else’s body? What is Mitch/Dave to do if his wife wants to have relations? Sadly, this lone moment of interest is crushed to death by more penis jokes and then forgotten. Reynolds (Green Lantern) and Bateman (Horrible Bosses) try to stay above the fray, fighting the good fight, but even they succumb to the unfunny script and disjointed direction.
After being a distasteful cartoon for so long, the film wants to be dramatic. It wants to be emotional. Tough break, Change-Up, because you cannot have it both ways. The dramatic parts ring resoundingly false, a last-ditch attempt to class up what is a deeply unclassy picture. The tonal shifts are jarring and land with crashing thuds. It’s mostly because these characters are deeply unlikely, particularly the Mitch persona. He’s not just some brash, rude individual who sidesteps social mores, no this guy is downright sociopathtic. He’s egotistical, mean-spirited, and constantly boorish to every person in Dave’s life. He’s cruel to the daughter, he tells Dave’s wife that she’s not attractive, and then there’s the babies whom he treats like a couple of rag dolls to toss around. At one point, Mitch/Dave is on the phone and the kids are left to get in trouble with the kitchen. We’re not talking about getting messy with food, we’re talking sticking their tiny hands in a spinning blender, throwing knives, and licking electrical outlets (it’s like the Roger Rabbit cartoon that opened that flick). Instead of getting off the phone immediately, he continues talking and casually tends to the troubled tots per potential disaster. He teaches Dave’s daughter “violence is always the answer.” Mitch is an unrepentant jerk, and even when Bateman plays Mitch he’s still irredeemable. Am I supposed to feel sorry for this obnoxious guy just because his dad thinks low of him? I think low of him. I detest him. Therefore, when Mitch/Dave is having his Big Emotional Catharsis, it seems facile and hollow. We can generally find a point of likeability for uncouth characters, but not Mitch. As presented, this character has no introspection and few redeeming qualities, so why do I want to spend nearly two hours with this person? You’d think Dave would be the “nice guy” alternative, but he’s smarmy and neglectful too. Besides the “family man/pussy” and “playboy/prick” designations, the characters aren’t different enough to warrant a change of scenery.
The Change-Up has the single most bizarre moment of any film this calendar year, and it has nothing to do with the metaphysical mechanics of body swapping. Wilde (Cowboys & Aliens, TRON: Legacy) at one point gets rather frisky and takes off her clothes, the last piece her brassier. Mitch’s hands cover her breasts for most of their onscreen freedom except for a handful of side angle shots where Wilde’s breasts are out and ready to greet the audience. Except those are and are not Wilde’s breasts. The in-demand actress was topless but had pasties to cover her nipples. The pasties were then digitally removed in post-production and replaced with CGI nipples. Let me repeat that for the slower among you – CGI nipples! It was some guy’s job to spend weeks painting nipples onto Olivia Wilde’s breasts. That’s the greatest assignment for an animator ever since a breast fondled itself in 2000’s Hollow Man. Jessica Alba started this “digital nudity” trend by in Machete, but how far does this madness go? To make matters even worse, Mann (Funny People) has hinted that her own nudity in The Change-Up was also digitally altered, giving her a larger set of breasts. My libido doesn’t know what to trust anymore. When I see nudity, can I trust that it’s real, or was it doctored by some computer technicians who are laughing at me the whole time? What is happening to this world when it makes me distrust the very sight of breasts?
The Change-Up is a mean-spirited, objectionable, nasty, classless, clueless comedy that’s tonally all over the place. The characters are unlikable, the comic setups are cartoonishly drawn, and the dramatic shifts are flatly false. What’s even worse is that the movie just seems downright hostile toward women. Just because it has a scene where Mann gets to vent the frustrations of the put-upon wife/mom doesn’t mean women are given a fair shake. I’d be more forgiving if the vulgar comedy was ever funny. The Change-Up erroneously believes that having characters say dirty words or inappropriate remarks is the same as comedy. It can be a component of comedy but rarely does it work as a whole substitute. The jokes fall flat, the drama feels forced, and the characters range from nitwits to jerks to deviants and back to jerks once more for good measure. Why would anyone subject themselves to nearly two hours with these people? I just felt bad watching this movie. The Change-Up makes humanity look like a species that deserves an extended time-out.
Nate’s Grade: D+
Spending 90 minutes trapped in a cramped space with a sweaty Ryan Reynolds? Doesn’t sound like a bad start for large swaths of the population. Buried is a small indie experiment that places Reynolds in exceedingly tight quarters. Paul is an American contractor driving trucks over in Iraq. Insurgents ambushed his convoy. He awakens to find himself trapped in a coffin and buried under the earth. Packed away inside with him are a lighter, a pen, and most importantly, a cell phone. Can your carrier get you coverage buried under the Iraqi desert? Time to switch, my friends.
For those left curious, yes, it really does take place entirely within a coffin. The entire 95 minutes are spent inside the small space. There is nary a flashback or even a visual insert to be had. You are trapped in that box just like Paul. The film is effectively claustrophobic. Director Rodrigo Cortes (The Contestant) gets terrific mileage out of his ultra confined space. The creative combination of angles, lighting, and nimble camerawork ensure that audiences do not grow tired of seeing the same 6 x 3″ of set. You can practically taste the sweat and dank air on screen. Buried has the most inspired camerawork I’ve seen in a film since 2006’s Children of Men. Cortes has only so much space to room to work and yet he does a magnificent job of manipulating the space to accentuate Paul’s fears and isolation. There are a few shots where the camera seems to keep zooming out, further and further, much further than the ceiling of that box would allow, like Paul is sinking below the sand.
The script by Chris Sparling is agile and resourceful and keeps finding news ways to keep your eyes glued to the screen. The movie is consumed by that nerve-wracking sense of urgency. The first minute and a half of the film is in darkness, and we awaken to the terror of the situation just as Paul does. Including a cell phone seems like a necessary screenwriting plot device. If Paul awoke by his lonesome, the movie would turn into 90 minutes of watching a guy screaming himself hoarse and clawing away at the wooden walls. A cell phone opens up the narrative. Now Paul has something of a fighting chance to survive. It gives him the motivation to survive and adapt to his surroundings during his limited last moments. The cell phone also allows the bad guys to terrorize Paul over and over. They can make increasingly hostile demands even with their hostage lodged six feet under ground. The demands for money get more and more aggressive, leading to one-sided negotiations, like Paul filming a plea for help that terrorists can exploit and upload to the Internet. The people that Paul does get through to offer little in assistance. To them, it’s just another day going through the same motions, taking down the same messages. Cries for help may not rise above the fray.
The political commentary is, in a word, indelicate. The Iraq War commentary can feel a tad ham-fisted at times in how it wants to boil down and extrapolate Paul as a symbol of the war’s untold hidden human costs. Paul is a contractor paid to ferry supply along the dangerous roads of Iraq. He’s supposed to be seen as “just any guy,” that is, any American Joe. He symbolizes the lost lives that don’t manage to make the news because they don’t have stars and stripes on their uniforms. The Iraq War made use of hundreds of thousands of privet industry contractors, supposedly easing the burden of the U.S. military. Paul is intended to represent the forgotten casualties of war, the people who were merely punching a clock in a foreign land to help their families. The officials that Paul does get through seem more concerned with personal agendas then retrieving an entombed man. The military is concerned, sure, but more interested in locating and killing the terrorists/insurgents that ambushed Paul’s convoy. The State Department is more concerned about containing Paul’s story and ensuring media outlets don’t find out. They’re really worried that any ransom video Paul records will become an Internet sensation, particularly in the dry, dusty part of the world, and become a recruitment tool. Paul’s company is more worried about weaseling out of paying his insurance policy. The movie aims to ask what is the price of one life. Is it just a numbers game? Is losing an American contractor every few weeks worth the price of freedom? What is the definition of an acceptable loss?
The movie is really a one-man show, so it’s fortunate to have an actor of Reynolds capabilities. He’s used to playing charming, self-effacing, fast-talking rascals; he has an innate ability to command your attention and interest. Reynolds gives a deeply empathetic performance. He goes through different stages of emotions, from shock and horror to anger and frustration, to impotence and self-pity, and all the way back again. You will think step-by-step with him as he tries to assess his situation. It’s a performance rooted in manufactured seclusion, something akin to the one-man show that Tom Hanks shared with a scene-stealing volleyball. Except Reynolds’ commitment seems even greater than what Hanks endured; Reynolds face is in every frame of this film. It would have been very easy for an actor to use the situation as an excuse to bounce off the walls, chewing scenery as an effective means of escape. But Reynolds dials down the histrionics. His character feels awkwardly real under the extreme circumstances.
I really enjoyed the concept, execution (the ending is note perfect), but I also found many of Buried‘s smaller moments to be more than worthwhile. When Paul begins to doubt he’ll ever be found in time, he mentally prepares himself for the inevitable. He films a last will and testament to be found with his corpse, whenever he is eventually unearthed. He leaves messages trying to reach out to love ones one last time. And perhaps most heartbreaking of all, Paul tries to reach his elderly mother, an Alzheimer’s patient in a rest home. He desperately wants to hear one last “I love you” from his mother’s voice, but the woman’s brain is a mental carousel and she is unable to comply. I thought about my own acceptance process if I was in Paul’s exact situation, and I know how much significance I would place on achieving some form of saying goodbye. In order to let go I would need to speak to the people closest to me and tell them how important they were, how much they meant to me. To be denied something so vital to acceptance is cruel. And Paul is denied his one last meaningful goodbye, and I found it to be aching and emotionally terrifying.
If you have any minute fear of tiny spaces or being trapped and helpless, then Buried will get under your skin big time. Add the general race-against-time nature of the script and the flick hums with nervous tension. This film is taut like a drum. It’s ridiculously tense. You may start to feel your feet moving, as if you’re trying to push away the space and dig your way out. It’s hard to believe but a movie that takes place entirely inside a box is one of the most inventive, visually appealing, and enjoyable films of the year.
Nate’s Grade: A