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Rough Night (2017)

As the girl power counterpart to Very Bad Things, the rowdy comedy Rough Night follows a group of broadly characterized friends through a night of mishaps, but the strangest development is that the funniest moments all center around the men. Jess (Scarlett Johansson) and her gal pals (Jillian Bell, Kate McKinnon, Ilana Glazer, Zoe Kravitz) are celebrating her bachelorette party when they accidentally kill a stripper. From there the ladies have to try and dispose of the body while not getting caught. The movie is rather slow to get started, establishing broad character types for each of the bachelorette partiers. It’s once things get criminal that the movie enters more solid comedic ground. The acting ensemble is rife with terrific comedy stars that know how to hit their material in stride, in particular the boorish Bell and the goofy McKinnon. And yet it’s the asides with Jess’s fiancé Peter (Paul W. Downs, co-writer) where the movie hits its highest marks and delivers inspired comedy. At first the wild atmosphere of the girls’ night out is contrasted with the quaintly tame boy’s night out. Soon after Peter is worried something troubling has happened and is determined to travel nonstop to reach Jess. His traveling moments produce the most unexpected comedy, like a badass montage about something very uncharacteristically badass. It just kept going, trying to maintain the same demeanor, and I was almost in tears from laughing so hard. There’s a sequence at a gas station that could be taught in comedy classes for how well structured and developed it plays out, tying together characters and conflicts and even ending on a sweetly jocular moment. It got to the point where I wanted to check back more often with Peter. I chuckled throughout Rough Night and the energy level of the actors keeps things eminently watchable but it plays it too safe for something so apparently transgressive. The sentimental moments don’t feel earned and the dark comedy doesn’t feel dark enough. Still, when it gets to be weird and unpredictable, Rough Night can be a delight.

Nate’s Grade: B

Finding Dory (2016)

9213755_origVictims of their own meteorically raised expectations, there’s still never been such a thing as a “bad Pixar” movie, and yet that doesn’t stop a growing lower tier from emerging, mostly the non-Toy Story sequels. I was wary about their latest, Finding Dory, mostly because I wasn’t completely enamored with its predecessor and also because it felt like writer/director Andrew Stanton was resorting to safe territory after helming the high profile flop, John Carter. It’s an amusing, cute, and effortlessly beautiful movie to watch but the threadbare plot reminds me of those direct-to-DVD sequels that were born from many a Disney animated classic from the 1990s. This is simply a story that didn’t need telling, much like Monster’s University, Cars 2, and The Good Dinosaur. This narratively fishy fish tale is firmly in that lesser league of Pixar cinematic adventures. I laughed here and there and there are some emotionally resonant moments as Dory looks for her missing parents, but so much of the plot feels transparently utilitarian, moving pieces around, and without the imagination and wonder the original provided. Hank the octopus feels less like a fully defined character and more a merchandizing opportunity. The majority of the plot takes place at a marine park, which limits the discoveries. Where are the narrative payoffs and economical storytelling of Stanton’s masterpiece, WALL-E? There’s an emotional lesson during the third act that would have hit harder had the filmmakers had the courage to see it through. I was picking up a heavy parallel with Dory and raising children with special needs. I would imagine much like the brilliant Inside Out that parents might get more out of the film’s emotional relationships than children. Finding Dory is fun and difficult to dislike, what with its loveably optimistic lead character; however, it does too little thematically to separate itself from a sea of imitators.

Nate’s Grade: B

Muppets Most Wanted (2014)

Muppets-Most-Wanted-PosterThe Muppets are back, though their new film seems to vaguely be recreating the amusing if somewhat slight Great Muppet Caper. The same blend of Muppet-staple sweet goofiness and anarchy is still a pleasure to watch, causing me to laugh throughout; it’s just that there are more leaden stretches between the laughs. The side stories have more interest and humor than the main storyline where Kermit has been replaced by a nefarious Russian doppelganger. Ricky Gervais is wasted as a criminal sidekick and he doesn’t bring much energy to the film. Fortunately Tina Fey, as a gulag prison guard, and Ty Burrell, as a Pink Panther-like Interpol agent, rise to the occasion. Burrel, teamed up with Sam the Eagle, made the movie for me. Their comic interplay and rivalry is the best and gives way to the best use of sight gags. It’s an amusing and agreeable film but there’s a noticeable spirit missing, possibly from the departure of living Muppet Jason Segel as an actor and a co-writer. I was shocked that Bret McKenzie, who won an Oscar for the 2011 movie, was the same man behind these new tunes. With the exception of maybe two songs, the remaining majority of the songs are downright dreadful. Within minutes of leaving my theater I could not for the life of me remember one of the tunes. The celebrity cameos are also less fun, many poorly integrated into the film, just the actors appearing and then vanishing. James McAvoy just walks onscreen to deliver a package. Is that the best use of everyone’s time? Still, while a noticeable step down from 2011’s The Muppets, the movie still has enough of the Muppet charm and silliness to entertain. It’s just missing some of the magic that made their return so special.

Nate’s Grade: B

Mr. Peabody & Sherman (2014)

Mr_Peabody_&_Sherman_PosterSurprisingly adroit, Mr. Peabody & Sherman might just be more fun for adults, especially fans of the original 1960s cartoon, than for little kids. It’s under the “family film” banner, a dubious one historically, but I was laughing consistently and good, snorting laughs, long chuckles; the whole gamut. With The LEGO Movie, the wide release of The Wind Rises, and now this, 2014 is shaping up to be a stellar year for animation aficionados. The movie between a genius dog and his adopted son is given the right amount of reverence before all the cheeky irreverence through history. The hops through time, notably the French Revolution, ancient Egypt, and the Trojan War, are fast-paced and clever without stooping to provide much context for the jokes; you either get them or you don’t. Even the necessary character building components between father and son are treated smartly, coming together for an ending that approaches poignancy. The plot can get a little complicated toward the end, what with opening a space-time paradox, but I respect the movie for being complex and tricky and scientific and trusting its audience to play along. The animation looks a little scruffy compared to other big screen efforts, but the script just flat-out works. The comedy, the drama, the relationships, but especially the comedy. If you’re on the fence, please, do yourself a favor, and go see Mr. Peabody & Sherman, especially if you appreciate history and those who love it. I saw it with my father and we both laughed ourselves silly. Needless to say, this blows 2000’s Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle out of the water.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Dawn of the Dead (2004)

For many, any notion of a remake of George Romero’’s 1978 zombie classic Dawn of the Dead would be heresy. There are only two things this remake has in common with its predecessor: 1) The characters are holed up in a mall for survival, and 2) There are zombies. That’s it. The social commentary of Romero’’s Dawn is stripped away, and in its place is a slick, lean action film with lots of very effective and suspenseful set pieces. Instead of thoughtless and lumbering zombies of Romero’’s film, these zombies have taken a cue from Danny Boyle’’s 28 Days Later brood and run, don’t walk, to nibble their meat. First time director Zack Snyder creates a movie rich in gruesome thrills and dark comedy but overloaded with characters, some of which you don’t even remember until they are eventually picked off. Indie stalwarts Sarah Polley and Ving Rhames nicely anchor the cast. Dawn of the Dead is light on characters (except in numbers) and plot, but it starts with a cataclysmic bang and doesn’’t let up until the lights go back on. If you want the film to end optimistically leave immediately upon the end credits, and if not, then stick around for some more goodies.

Nate’’s Grade: B+

Black Hawk Down (2001)

In the fall of 1993 Somalia was a nation being torn by civil war with feuding warlords and slowly being crippled by rampant hunger. The UN intervened to try feeding the starving nation but warlords like Mohamed Farrah Aidid cut off many of its shipments of food. The United States had plans to capture two top lieutenants of Aidid’s in the capital of Mogadishu. Over 100 Delta units and Army Rangers were sent into the heart of the Mogadishu market to execute the operation.

Things didn’t go well from the start as casualties began to pile up and first one, then two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down from ground fire. Medical vans and Humvees were continually blocked access to help the stranded soldiers by civilian roadblocks consisting of smoldering debris. It wasn’t supposed to take longer than 45 minutes. It ended up lasting over 15 hours. In the end 18 American lives were lost, over 70 were wounded, and over a 1000 Somalian lives were lost. What’s truly amazing is the courage the men displayed, and the fact that being surrounded by a sea of armed Somalians that more lives weren’t lost.

Black Hawk Down is essentially a two-hour action sequence. The emphasis of the film is on the stark recreation of the Somalia skirmish and it is indeed an achievement in grueling realism. You truly feel like you have been thrown into the middle of this firefight. With all the gunfire and chaos it leaves little time for getting to know characters. This is probably why they have names written on their helmets so the audience can attempt some semblance of who’s who.

The film is by no means for the faint of heart. Saving Private Ryan had some intense violence, but it was mainly condensed for the opening and closing 20 minutes. Black Hawk Down, on the other hand, is two straight hours of non-stop blood and gore. The violence and the intense realism are not gratuitous but indicative of the horror these men faced. If you can’t stomach a soldier plunging his entire forearm into the chest cavity of another to cut off a bullet wound – stay at home and read a good book.

Ridley Scott is on an ultra-violent hot streak after directing big name Hollywood tokens like Hannibal and Gladiator. His handling of Black Hawk Down is masterful, just for the simple fact of keeping the audience free from confusion. Throughout the duration we know who is where, where they want to go, and the general geography of the hot spot. The staging of the entire battle is beautifully filmed and the recreation of the Mogadishu market place is amazing in its fine detail. Some criticism has been projected at the film for portraying the Somalians as basically black people with guns. This is entirely true, but one must remember that the film is told from the American point of view.

The acting, as expected in a war film, takes a back seat to the heroic histrionics and the fireworks. Josh Hartnett is sullen in his duty as Staff Sergeant Matt Eversmann but always a comfortable figure to see on screen amidst the chaos. Ewan McGregor plays a soldier promoted to action instead of desk work and adds some touches of humor to the fray. Tom Sizemore is the most recognizable person as the often-frustrated Lt. Colonel Danny McKnight who fearlessly strolls across the battlefield while bullets whiz by.

Black Hawk Down for some will be the right movie at the right time, though it was never intended to be. The riveting action is more than entertaining and worth admission price, but you might leave pondering on the sacrifice few know the full details. Just make sure to go to the bathroom before the film starts.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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