REVIEW: Deepwater Horizon

28 09 2016

deepwater-horizonPeter Berg has a knack for directing blue collar dialogue in a convincing manner. For films like his 2013 survival drama “Lone Survivor,” such exchanges lent the film an authenticity and humanity before its Navy Seals face life-threatening trials. In Berg’s latest directorial outing, “Deepwater Horizon,” the commonplace banter feels more like a counterweight to some of the complex oil industry jargon taking place on a Gulf Coast rig.

For much of the film’s first 40 minutes, the screenplay from Matthew Sand and Matthew Michael Carnahan overloads with technical terms explaining the operations on the Deepwater Horizon. And even with blatant expository scenes, they still have to dole out some more details in subtitles. It’s wasted air space in the film, which foreshadows the well-known explosion with obvious harbingers of doom. Be it an exploding Coke at the home of protagonist Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) or a BP big wig wearing a tie in the color of their worst level alarm, there’s no denying what’s coming.

Berg sets up “Deepwater Horizon” as an disaster flick, yet he fouls up some key ratios in establishing tension and connection. His energy goes disproportionately to setting up the crisis (roughly 50 minutes), which in turn makes the escape (roughly 35-40 minutes) feels like getting short changed. There’s some decent tension as wounded crew members navigate their way through a literal enactment of the burning platform metaphor, but Berg undermines it with weak characterization and pointless cutaways to Kate Hudson as Mike’s grieving wife back at home.

The film takes an interesting turn in the coda where surviving workers from the Deepwater Horizon rig are greeted in their grief by robotic crisis management professionals. Rather than seeking to ease their pain and embrace the souls who survive, BP adds a thin coat of dehumanization on top of a devastating loss of human life by locking them away from the world in anonymous hotel rooms. These scenes of the battered, tattered employees struggling to cope with the events that just occurred frustratingly dangle the potential “Deepwater Horizon” had in front of us. Were the critique of corporate malfeasance not so toothless, or were the rising action of the film built around developed characters, this lack of resolution might really sting. Instead, it just replicates the numbness of the setting. C+2stars

REVIEW: Penguins of Madagascar

21 07 2015

As far as I can tell, 2016’s “Sausage Party” (written by the people who gave us “Superbad” and “This Is The End“) can lay claim to the title of the first computer animated movie for adults.  While that could stand up to truth in advertising claims, I would like to humbly float the suggestion that DreamWorks Animation designed their “Penguins of Madagascar” film to appeal primarily to older audiences, even as it targeted younger crowds with its marketing.

These kinds of movies often get slapped with the moniker of “kids’ movies,” which is partially a misnomer.  They are really “family movies,” at least when released theatrically, because children lack the physical or financial means to attend on their own.  They must drag along their parents or some other generous benefactor who holds the keys to the car and the strings to the wallet.

Many family films, particularly ones made by DreamWorks, acknowledge that oft-forgotten half of the audience with clever jokes designed to fly way over the heads of kids in the crowd.  They started in the “Shrek” series, started to push the boundaries with “Puss in Boots,” and have now reached a glorious zenith in “Penguins of Madagascar.”  The kids have the TV series on Nickelodeon and Netflix; the grown-ups have this movie.

Had I been seven years old and sitting in the crowd with my parents, I would probably feel a slight resentment towards “Penguins of Madagascar.”  After all, why should they get to laugh more than me?  Sure, the film has a fair share of child-appealing antics like slapstick comedy and general silliness.

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REVIEW: Cut Bank

17 04 2015

Cut BankIn Matt Shankman’s “Cut Bank,” a tiny town has to deal with baby’s first murder investigation.  The young Dwayne McLaren, played by Liam Hemsworth, just happens to film his girlfriend Cassandra (Teresa Palmer) when a Native American pulls out a gun and shoots a postman (Bruce Dern).  The murder threatens to unravel and disrupt a number of co-dependent facades necessary to maintain a sense of peace in the small Montana locality, apparently the coldest in the country.

These implications involve a sheriff (John Malkovich), a shop owner (Billy Bob Thornton), a strange visitor (Michael Stuhlbarg), and an eager postal inspector (Oliver Platt).  The cast is far more impressive than the characters they play, though.  With little development of their personalities and far too many cooks in the kitchen, “Cut Bank” never quite finds its center of gravity.

There’s nothing wrong with an ensemble thriller so long the filmmakers are dedicated to giving each component a fair oiling, and that is definitely not the case in “Cut Bank.”  All these mechanical flaws only find themselves amplified by the lack of conspicuous artistry to distract from the uninspired execution.  This is a pretty standard, cut-and-dry crime flick with little out of the ordinary to offer.  C2stars


26 01 2011

There’s more to the fun of “Red” than Helen Mirren firing away like a madman with a machine gun.  It’s an action movie not afraid to flash its AARP card, which makes its rather typical action and plot feel a lot fresher than it probably is.  With Bruce Willis finally embracing his age, rather than doing movie after movie that’s one “yippee-ki-yay” away from complete implausibility, it’s a nice change of pace for the action star that could signal better days ahead.

As Frank Moses, the retired and extremely dangerous (hence the acronym RED) former CIA agent, Willis is having a rough time adjusting to life after his time in black-ops.  He’s trying to do the whole suburban thing, but the only thing that gives him real joy is chatting with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), a federal pension phone customer service representative.  Of course, at 55, main street Americans only wish they could be receiving retirement benefits as opposed to unemployment benefits.

But whatever normalcy he built in suburbia is shattered as he’s drawn back into the bullet-ridden world by an attempt on his life.  Frank discovers that thanks to being part of a Guatemalan mission back in the ’80s, he’s being targeted for death.  Gathering up a gang of other Baby Boomers including the incredibly paranoid conspiracy theorist Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich), Frank’s terminally ill mentor Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman), and Victoria (Helen Mirren), a former assassin with class and grace.  Yet the best part of all is that Frank brings Sarah, oblivious to the perils of the, along for the ride.

The trigger-happy travelogue through the United States is a wild romp that excites and entertains at surprisingly high octane and high thrills.  At 110 minutes, the premise ages quickly and begins to drag a little bit.  Yet the entertainment is always solid as the bullets fly and bombs explode, even as the trek through the plot gets a little … dare I say it, old.  But it has a plot, and that’s more than I can say for most action movies nowadays.  B

REVIEW: Secretariat

13 10 2010

If you had a checklist of everything that a sports movie should have, “Secretariat” would have a check in every box.  One might think that with every t crossed and every i dotted, this would be the perfect entry into the genre.  However, for every reason that it should be great, it winds up being completely average.

For two hours, the movie manages to have the same vitality as the dirt that the horses kick up while running – which is to say that it’s lifeless and boring.  Perhaps the biggest problem “Secretariat” faces is that the same dirt has been trod so many times before.  Face it, the race has been run.

It’s not just in horse movies, either.  Sure, there’s the very similar “Seabiscuit,” but it bears a resemblance to any movie that goes by the playbook.  The same formula meant to bring about buoyant inspiration now manages to incite a completely averse reaction.  There’s only so many of these movies we can have before they all just run together to create white noise, and “Secretariat” is just another also-ran destined to play late nights on the Lifetime and Hallmark channels.

Perhaps the filmmakers thought that the movie was original because it technically doesn’t fit the bill of the underdog story.  Secretariat is a horse bred to win.  His parents are both champions, and everyone who knows anything about horses could predict that he would be something special.  In a somewhat clever twist, the underdog is not the horse but the film’s protagonist, Diane Lane’s Penny Chennery.  Facing financial difficulties around the inheritance of her ailing father’s estate, she banks on one horse to do the nearly impossible: win the Triple Crown.

Yet it’s hard to rally around Lane’s performance because it feels about as fresh as a can of creamed corn.  A strong, independent woman acting independently (and even against at certain times) her husband was unheard of in the 1970s, but Lane deems this unworthy of any sort of attention or importance.  Hidden behind her perfectly settled hair and dolled-up face, Chennery is always incredibly emotionally distant, and in those rare instances that she does show some outward feeling, it feels about as genuine as a slab of fool’s gold.

Sports movies always offer plenty of opportunities to turn a good metaphor, and “Secretariat” has enough to fill an entire motivational speech.  Much of them come courtesy of wasted narration from the mouth of Diane Lane, as if the filmmakers thought they would add something to her character.  They come in excess, in a quantity deserving of the term of endearment gluttony.  I have no problem with employing the simple yet complex art form of metaphors to cater to Middle America, but there’s only a finite amount that can be packed into two hours.  (And for all the Biblical references, they missed the most obvious one in Hebrews 12.)

To bring a movie to life where the ending is already spelled out, there really has to be some element so highly elevated that it can make the sacrifice of time worthwhile.  Despite two Oscar nominated stars, Diane Lane and John Malkovich, and a plot that could really be a winner, watching “Secretariat” is like watching the Kentucky Derby in an empty Churchill Downs.  C

Oscar Moment: “Secretariat”

21 07 2010

“Secretariat” – it looks like a mix between Best Picture nominees “Seabiscuit” and “The Blind Side.”  Translation: someone kill me NOW!

I have now begun to hold the inspirational sports movie genre in the same regard as the romantic comedy genre, which is to say not highly.  They are so incredibly formulaic that they only serve to inspire groans now.  There’s really no way to spice up the whole “underdog comes out of nowhere and becomes a champion” storyline.  And if “Secretariat” is anything like its trailer, we are in for a story so improbable we can see the ending a mile away.  The thing about movies based on highly publicized true stories is that they don’t really have the chance to build any real suspense.

Yet I must say, the movie has several good horses in the gate for an Oscar run.  First and foremost is Diane Lane, playing the tenacious sports-loving housewife role that won Sandra Bullock an Oscar last year.  The Academy may not fall head over heels for a one-year-old rerun, but they do love Lane.  She has a prior nomination (for 2002’s “Unfaithful”), and Bullock did not have any sort of history with the Academy.  I don’t think the “she deserves it” factor will be very high with only one nomination, yet they could surprise us.

There’s also John Malkovich, the three-time nominee who is overdue for a statue.  He’s been known for his more powerful characters, and it would be strange to see them reward him for a fairly docile performance as Secretariat’s trainer.  But the ways of the Academy are strange, and if there’s a weak field, Malkovich could always squeeze in for Best Supporting Actor.  The category tends to be pretty sentimental; past years have seen winners like Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin.

And then there’s the movie itself, which probably wouldn’t have a great chance without ten nominees in the Best Picture category.  Yet out of nowhere, the box office hit and mildly well-reviewed “The Blind Side” stunned on nomination day with a nomination.  That movie overcame its mediocrity by playing well with middle America, who doesn’t want to “get” the pompous artsy fare, and becoming a true word-of-mouth phenomenon.  It did help balance out a field of nominees that included “A Serious Man,” “Precious,” “An Education,” and “The Hurt Locker,” to make the list seem to represent the whole of 2009’s cinematic landscape.  So if “Secretariat” manages to garner good reviews and play well all over America, we can’t count it out.  (And hey, “Seabiscuit” did it with five nominees back in 2003 with half the money, although it did have slightly better reviews and a weak field.)

Then again, after “Seabiscuit,” we saw “Dreamer” with Kurt Russell and Dakota Fanning, another horse racing movie which bombed financially and critically.  So there is by no means a steady pattern in Academy taste for sports or horse racing movies.  Let’s just hope they don’t start a trend this year.

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Actress (Diane Lane)

OTHER POTENTIAL NOMINATIONS: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (John Malkovich)

F.I.L.M. of the Week (May 7, 2010)

7 05 2010

Prepare yourselves emotionally before diving into the “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” Clint Eastwood’s true-life story “Changeling.”  You might remember the movie as a blip on your radar in 2008 for one of two reasons: Angelina Jolie or the Best Actress nomination that Angelina Jolie received for this movie.  If you are one of Angelina’s detractors who argue that she’s good only for adopting babies and saving the world, you need to see this movie.  I have yet to see “A Mighty Heart,” so I’m not in a position to classify it as her best work since “Girl, Interrupted.”  However, it’s a reminder of why she has an Oscar sitting on her mantle.

Jolie takes on the persona of Christine Collins, a woman pushed to the brink in late 1920s Los Angeles. After the kidnapping of her son, the LAPD returns a boy who is supposedly her child in order to produce a positive headline for the department that had been marred by corruption.  Christine knows instantly that the boy is not her son, and she demands that the investigation into her son’s disappearance continue.  The police, not wanting to admit an error, dismisses her as crazy.  She obtains credible letters supporting her story, but the police won’t tolerate her vocal criticism.  They find a silencing method that evokes anger from people in high places, particularly a radio preacher, Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich).

In the meantime, the police also uncover a series of horrifying acts committed by Gordon Northcott (Jason Butler Harner).  The Northcott storyline may seem like a tangent at first, but it ties into Christine’s story in unexpected and brilliant ways.  It also helps that Harner gives a startling and disturbing performance as the deranged criminal, one that has hauntingly remained with me since I have seen the movie.  It’s unforgettable the way he mixes the calm surface with a tumultuous and unstable mind.

Jolie’s forceful and commanding presence is a major part of the success of “Changeling.”  But it’s also director Clint Eastwood, who portrays these horrifying events with realism mixed with a comforting sensitivity.  A very delicate balance had to be struck to be able to really digest this movie, and Eastwood found it.  However, even with this approach, it doesn’t change the fact that this is an absolutely brutal and heavy movie.  It may not be for you if you cannot handle disturbing depiction of atrocities, including ones committed on children.

Fun fact: this movie isn’t based on a true story.  It is a true story.  Screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski took all of the movie based on evidence that can be corroborated by documents.  Thus, what we see on the screen is as close to what actually happened in “the strange case of Christine Collins” (an original title of the movie) is as close as Hollywood can ever show us.

I’ve heard from many smart movie speculators that “Changeling” is a film that was met with a mild reception but will eventually be embraced as a truly great movie.  I wholeheartedly espouse this belief, and I have been convinced that this is one of the most emotionally powerful movies that I have ever seen since I first saw it in 2008.  As for you, why wait until the rest of the world discovers it?  See it now and say you knew about it before it became so popular.