REVIEW: Pain & Gain

20 06 2017

Michael Bay’s “Pain & Gain” features characters who misinterpret “The Godfather,” “Scarface” … and “Pretty Woman.” So is it any surprise that the film on the whole has no idea what it’s talking about when it comes to the American Dream? The concept gets so much lip service throughout that it becomes bludgeoning. Most high school juniors could write something more insightful from their American history classes alone.

Its idea of upward mobility is really just commodity fetishism and capitalistic greed masking itself as aspiration. With their synthetic, steroid-enhanced hardbodies, the would-be Robin Hoods of South Beach feel like Reaganite heroes washed up in the wrong era. Some elements of stealing from an undeserving, coddled elite have resonance in a post-Occupy world; as one gym rat puts it, “I don’t just want everything you have, I want you not to have it.” But the political considerations feel ancillary at best.

“Pain & Gain” is at its best when Bay just embraces the physical comedy of his bulky Goliaths. Some decent humor arises from their ignorance and impotence – as “swoll” as Mark Wahlberg’s Daniel Lugo and Dwayne Johnson’s Paul Doyle may be, their common sense as men is almost entirely absent. It’s too bad that screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, rather than standing outside and sizing them, choose to drop to their level and assume their intelligence level. C+

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REVIEW: Rules Don’t Apply

15 11 2016

rules-dont-applyPoor Warren Beatty. The man has been trying to make a passion project about Howard Hughes for the better part of four decades. The film faced significant challenges, including 2004’s biopic collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio that nabbed double-digit Oscar nominations.

12 years later, Beatty’s “Rules Don’t Apply” finally makes it to the big screen only to have the misfortune of opening in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential victory. The timing doesn’t exactly feel right for a mostly breezy, old-fashioned tale about an eccentric and potentially deranged billionaire who wants to control women’s bodies and limit their personal freedoms. (A remark where a young actress declares, “I think Howard Hughes should be president, there’s no one else like him” is sure to inspire some nervous laughter.) To be clear, none of this is Beatty’s fault. He has no control over the circumstances under which his movie gets released.

But he did have control over what kind of movie he made. Beyond the unfortunate parallels to the man dominating global news headlines, “Rules Don’t Apply” is not a film built for the long haul – it is certainly not the kind of project that clearly evinces forty years of thought and development. After all that time, it feels like Beatty should have figured out the story’s protagonist – Hughes, his latest starlet prospect Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), or the married company driver Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) who falls for her against his better judgement. The film plays out as a series of loosely connected, scarcely progressing scenes involving these characters – nothing more.

Of the key trio, only Ehrenreich’s Forbes is a character deserving of his own film. Beatty plays Hughes as a slave to his obsessive-compulsive disorder, turning his neuroses into a joking psychosis. Collins, meanwhile, dashes through her lines with such speed that she delivers them without seeming to understand what any of them mean. Or, at the very least, she doesn’t feel them with any strong sense of purpose.

Ehrenreich, meanwhile, recalls the unflappability and easygoing cool of a ’90s Leonardo DiCaprio. As a corporate pawn torn between his show business attraction and his familial commitments, Forbes is the only person in “Rules Don’t Apply” whose path does not seem predestined. Too bad that Beatty did not line up the heft of the movie fully behind him. C-1halfstars





REVIEW: The Adderall Diaries

23 04 2016

The Adderall DiariesIf there were some prize to honor the busiest movies of the year, Pamela Romanowsky’s “The Adderall Diaries” would definitely be an early contender. In just over 80 minutes, the film juggles storylines like a poorly trained rodeo clown juggles clubs. That is to say, it does well for a while and then just kind of collapses to slightly humorous effect.

“The Adderall Diaries” is adapted from the memoir by Stephen Elliott, which served as a partial exorcism for the demons of his past, including a toxic relationship with his estranged father (Ed Harris) and just general malicious teenage tomfoolery. As such actions are wan to do, they carry repercussions for Elliott into the present that make him unreliable to meet publication deadlines, reckless in personal relationships and inexplicably drawn to a murder trial in which a husband (Christian Slater) supposedly killed his wife.

The action ebbs and flows from one story thread to the other, all reflecting back on the mess that is Elliott’s life. At its best, “The Adderall Diaries” recalls the impressionistic editing of Jean-Marc Vallée in “Wild.” More often, however, it recalls the kind of work produced by someone who forgets to take the titular medicine if prescribed. Not only is the sum less than the total of its parts, but those parts just never get the space to develop. C+2stars





F.I.L.M. of the Week (December 12, 2014)

12 12 2014

WalkerThe end of the year is drawing near, which means plenty of “great man” biopics that paint flattering portraits of “important” men in history.  (Rarely are these ever about women, I feel.)  2014 brings with it “The Imitation Game” and “The Theory of Everything,” just to name two, that fit this description.  To the surprise of very few, both those movies are predictably pretty good.

But it is time for someone to take a radical approach to the biopic once again.  These formulaic, color-by-numbers films are getting too safe for their own good.  So, in order to revitalize the sagging genre, I would highly recommend that all daring filmmakers brush up on Alex Cox’s “Walker.”

This is tied for the oldest movie I have featured in my “F.I.L.M. of the Week” column, but this 1987 release feels completely fresh.  Cox does Tarantino’s style before Tarantino made it famous, and he even has the guts to apply his eclectic, anachronistic, and oftentimes outright bizarre technique to real people and events.  Can’t imagine the family of Cornelius Vanderbilt was too thrilled about a cinematic portrayal of the business magnate where his most prominent feature is his flatulence…

Cox, working from a script by Rudy Wurlitzer, can certainly have more liberty with his subject given his relative obscurity.  “Walker” follows Ed Harris’ William Walker, a soldier of fortune who somehow ends up in Nicaragua doing the bidding of businessman in overthrowing their government.  Eventually, in a turn that no one who understands the effects of power will find surprising, Walker seizes what is essentially dictatorial control of the country.  And yes, this is a true story.

There is no inside baseball, political calculation, or dreary historical tedium to be found in “Walker” – only awesomeness.  Every turn of the film brings a new and unexpected joy in the form of a bold risk taken by Cox.  Whether it is in the characterization of Walker himself or in the gratuitous flow of blood in a battle, “Walker” constantly elicits the response, “I can’t believe he just did that.”  And it works practically every time, too!

Furthermore, “Walker” is not just style for style’s sake, a trap into which Tarantino far too often seems to fall.  What better way to show the connection between the factual past and controversial present of the film’s release, the Iran-Contra scandal, than to literally merge them within the movie itself?!  This is a work of pure, mad genius.





REVIEW: The Way Back

5 07 2011

Long, grueling journeys requiring great endurance can make for great cinema.  Peter Weir, the director of the fantastic Best Picture nominated “Master & Commander,” does a great job portraying the struggle of man against a hostile environment in “The Way Back.”  However, following on the coattails of 2008’s “Defiance,” the Edward Zwick helmed film about survival in the Polish forests after World War II, the movie feels like it’s treading tired ground.

Sometimes movies are all about the timing, not just in regards to what’s on the screen but also in regards to when it comes on the screen.  “Defiance” took a genre that can be a really hard watch and made it a rewarding and meaningful in a way that I hadn’t seen in quite some time.  I didn’t judge “The Way Back” right out of the gate, but given that it too followed an eclectic group of people escaping a totalitarianist regime in the 1940s and fleeing into the forests, the comparison was inevitable.  In the end, they just feel too similar – and I only want to watch “Defiance” once.  Like a “Schindler’s List,” these movies show human beings dropped to sickening lows to survive.  While good ultimately triumphs, the journey there is so painful that I rarely want to relive it.

So perhaps if “The Way Back” was a 2007 release, I would respond much more positively to it.  Weir’s film is certainly not without its merits, however.  It boasts two very nice performances from Ed Harris and Saoirse Ronan, although Jim Sturgess and Colin Farrell just didn’t really do much for me.  The below-the-line elements are superb, including some captivating cinematography and marvelous makeup work that was very much deserving of the Oscar nomination that it received.

The script is also nicely done and captures the triumph of the human spirit and will over any obstacle.  However, Weir’s insistance on filming on such a grand scale hampers the movie, making it slower and more prolonged.  We end up feeling less because he wants to give us so much more.  “The Way Back” can’t be on an epic level with a movie like “Master & Commander” because it has to rejoice in the little moments of human strength and dignity that can be found trudging through the wilderness.  Given that the movie was based on a true story, I probably should have felt a lot happier that they triumphed, but dealing with such subject matter is difficult.  I’m not going to pretend like I could have done any better making the movie.  B / 





Oscar Moment: “The Way Back”

16 11 2010

We won’t be seeing “The Way Back” until 2011, but since it has a nice little qualifying run in December, it is considered for the 2010 Academy Awards.  Frustrating for average bloggers like me who won’t have the slightest chance of including it in year-end favorites and predictions, perfect for the studio to offset fan reaction if it could be toxic.

I personally can’t get very jazzed about this movie, particularly after seeing the National Geographic logo among the production financiers.  It looks very much like a high school history class documentary, which doesn’t exactly have me brimming with excitement for Oscars.  Add to that the fact that the movie almost went straight-to-DVD only makes it worse.  The subject matter, avoiding oppression in Russia, got the cold shoulder from the Academy in 2008 through “Defiance.”  Oscar bait in general seems to be on the decline, with the trend over the past decade to support more “movie of the moment” types.

But nonetheless, the movie seems to have some critical support.  Kris Tapley at In Contention is fully on board, writing that the movie is “quietly profound, epic, bold filmmaking at its very best…unconventional in its depiction of a long march by Siberian Gulag escapees out of Communist Russia. But rather than becoming repetitive or aimless, the film’s series of vignettes depicting the mundane particulars of survival (be it physical or psychological) is incredibly moving and consistently engaging.”

Says Sasha Stone of Awards Daily, “There is no doubt that ‘The Way Back’ is a difficult sit. Is it an important movie? It will be to some groups, no doubt. Is it Weir’s best? Probably not. Is it one of the best of 2010? Most certainly.”  (The movie isn’t without its critics, as Eugene Novikov of Cinematical calls it “sadistically intent on making you feel as much of its subjects’ physical agony as possible.”)

So what does the movie have going for it?  For starters, there’s director Peter Weir, an immensely likable industry figure who has six Academy Award nominations to his name: four for directing, one for writing (“Green Card”), and one for producing a Best Picture (“Master and Commander”).  Stone calls this movie Weir’s “labor of love,” something which could help out in a competitive year for Best Director.  I can’t help but feel that Danny Boyle has the grueling visual experience slot for this year with his incredibly affecting “127 Hours,” and Darren Aronofsky, another powerful visual filmmaker, could find his way into the mix for “Black Swan.”

There are also some very respected performers in the movie.  Ed Harris could shake up Best Supporting Actor race, which is only vaguely defined as of now, given that he has been nominated four times before, three here and once in leading for “Pollock” back in 2000.  The “overdue” argument could easily be applied for him since it’s being shoved down our throats for Annette Bening, who has one less nomination.  Saoirse Ronan, nominated at 13 for her role in “Atonement,” could definitely factor into the race.  If they recognized her once at a young age, why not recognize her again for a much grittier role?

Apparently, the big surprise and standout of the movie is Colin Farrell.  According to Stone, “watching Farrell here I was suddenly aware of how good he really is,” and according to Tapley, “it’s one of his best performances, hands down, one of his most organic and believable portrayals.”  Farrell has had a rough personal life littered with sex tapes and alcoholism, and it’s definitely distracted from his acting.  He has, however, won a Golden Globe for Best Actor (Musical/Comedy) for his turn in “In Bruges.”  This category is getting less competitive by year, but it’s still a sign that he has some respect.  An intense, dramatic role in “The Way Back” could be the perfect inroad to Academy glory, although I expect Harris to be the movie’s contender.

However, there’s also the money issue.  “The Way Back” is being distributed by Newmarket, a fledgling studio in the Oscar campaigning industry who might not have the cash or the connections to play the politics of the Oscars right.  Face it, being a good movie is the basic prerequisite for Best Picture in the same way that being in the House of Representatives makes someone a Presidential candidate.  It takes money and influence to move a representative into serious consideration for the nation’s highest office, and the same goes for movies.  “The Way Back” could easily be droned out by bigger, flashier studio campaigns.

But let’s hope it really comes down to quality.

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Supporting Actor (Harris), Best Cinematography

OTHER POSSIBLE NOMINATIONS: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Farrell), Best Supporting Actress (Ronan), Best Film Editing