REVIEW: Patriots Day

15 04 2017

The narrative elements of “Patriots Day” show Peter Berg at the top of his game. As a film that recreates the terror of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the frenzied search to catch the perpetrators, it’s every bit as taught and harrowing as “Lone Survivor.” Critique ideology all you want – and I had my fair share of issues with the comforting yet alarming deployment of the surveillance state – but objectively speaking, Berg and his technicians know how to edit for maximum tension around an event whose outcome we already know.

Now, you might have noticed that I specified “narrative elements.” That was intentional. “Patriots Day” ends on a lengthy postscript of talking-head style documentary footage with survivors of the bombing. It’s stirring, sure, but it left me wondering – why not just make a non-fiction film? The appetite for documentaries exists now thanks to platforms like Netflix and HBO.

In “Patriots Day,” fictionalization began to feel like trivialization. If the words of real people are powerful enough to end a film, they ought to be powerful enough to sustain a film. Why does Berg think we need Mark Wahlberg sermonizing from the back of a truck bed over sappy, inspiring music to care about the heroism of Boston’s finest? Why does he feel the need to compress the valiant actions of several police officers into one composite, Teddy Saunders, for Mark Wahlberg to play?

Berg tries to have it both ways in the film, leaning on both the authenticity of the survivors’ pain while also shoehorning reality into a convenient narrative device about one police officer who cracks open the case with a hobbled leg. (At times, his lickety-split reactions don’t even make logical sense!) If recent yanked from the headlines stories are going to continue to serve as fodder for cinema, we need to have a larger debate about how filmmakers can and cannot rely on actual participants. B+

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REVIEW: Black Mass

15 09 2015

A movie like “Black Mass” is essentially the cinematic calendar whispering, “Winter is coming.”  It’s a gentle reminder that we are inching ever closer to a glut of prestige dramas filling screens across the country but that the best is still yet to come.  (Of course, if you read this in 2016, the last paragraph probably means nothing.)

Director Scott Cooper’s film works fine as a tiding over of sorts.  Most 2015 films so far that have provided this level of drama were low budget indies, and anything with this amount of violent bloodshed must have been a giant franchise flick.  “Black Mass,” made from a well-structured script by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, boasts a thrilling experience packaged in some remarkable production values.  It all just feels so Scorsese lite.

And for the most part, that made for an entirely satisfactory evening at the movies.  I got a film that was perfectly good.  It just never approached greatness.

The marketing of “Black Mass” makes the film look like The Johnny Depp Show, and to a certain extent, it is.  Anyone who slithers around a film with such amphibian-like eyes and a Donald Trump combover just naturally draws attention, even when not playing a notorious gangster like James “Whitey” Bulger.  But, at heart, Bulger is just a boy from South Boston (“Southie”) trying to rule its biggest business – organized crime – by any means necessary.

That involves cutting a strange deal with a former childhood acquaintance, FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton).  According to Connolly, Southie is the only place where kids go from playing cops and robbers in the schoolyards to playing it on the streets, and he gets into Bulger’s racket just like some sort of game.  As a part of their deal, Bulger goes on the Bureau’s books as an informant yet essentially gets carte blanche to take out his competition.

Depp might get the more ostensibly interesting character to play, and he certainly plays up just how intimidating and downright creepy a figure Bulger truly was.  But its Edgerton who steals the show, essentially playing a Beantown rendition of Bradley Cooper’s Richie DiMaso from “American Hustle.”  Connolly is the inside man who gets played like a harp by a key asset meant to bring him professional glory.  What motivates him to continue helping Bulger even when the jig seems up proves the heaviest and most complex part of “Black Mass,” and it certainly kept weighing on me after the film ended.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: Cop Car

14 08 2015

Cop CarJon Watts’ “Cop Car” opens with a familiar scene for anyone who escaped lower school: two kids tossing around swear words like a hot potato.  They do it not as an organic reaction to any sort of stimulus; they do it just to wield the power of the taboo.  This is the first of many examples that demonstrate just how well Watts and his co-writer Christopher D. Ford understand the mindset of kids.

Their two pint-sized protagonists, Travis and Harrison (James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Wellford), hardly fit the bill of the typical precocious on-screen youngster.  They are just pre-pubescent pinheads engaging in the same dumb stuff everyone does around the age of ten.  Here, they take it one step too far when they decide to go joyriding in an apparently abandoned police cruiser.

Because “Cop Car” is a movie and not the punchline of a Jeff Foxxworthy “redneck” joke, the vehicle obviously has an owner.  Unfortunately for them, that man is the crooked Sheriff Kretzer, who is played by Kevin Bacon, the prolific actor perhaps best known for the “Six Degrees of Separation” game often played with him at the center.  This is the first time Bacon has really cashed in on his iconography like Liam Neeson has in recent years, and he does it here to play gloriously against type.  This role sees him sporting a full-on porn star ‘stache and a protruding gut that undeniably comes from convenient store beer.

Sadly, Kretzer gets precious little time to menace.  At under 90 minutes, “Cop Car” never really lets him develop as a dynamic force.  The film is meant to be told from the kids’ perspective and from their eye-level, to be sure.  But that simplicity of spirit ultimately winds up working against the film as the childlike viewpoint just becomes little more than a downright childish caper.

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REVIEW: Super

30 07 2014

SuperJames Gunn’s “Super” plays like a stubborn sidekick to Matthew Vaughn’s 2010 revisionist comic book action flick “Kick-Ass.”  Perhaps it should have adopted a name defining itself better in relation to that film: “Half-Ass.”

Gunn’s film is made in good fun, but “Super” is a little too footloose and fancy-free for its own good.  The off-kilter antics follow cuckolded sad-sack Frank Darbo (Rainn Wilson), who dons the costume of “The Crimson Bolt” in order to win back his wife (Liv Tyler) from the clutches of a drug lord (Kevin Bacon).  The material is wacky enough for Wilson to dive into head first, but it feels a bit like an abandoned pilot for a Dwight spinoff of “The Office.”

Frank works as a quirky, peculiar character to follow, but the same could not be said for Ellen Page as his wannabe partner-in-crime “Boltie,” also known as Libby.  Page goes balls to the wall in her performance, though it winds up feeling rather sloppy, especially in her chemistry with Wilson.  She’s so unhinged that I wondered if she simply stopped taking her Adderall during the filming of “Super.”

Gunn’s total package resembles Page moreso than Wilson in the end, unfortunately.  The tone in the film fluctuates from over-the-top hum or to downbeat drama and then to a teenager’s wet dream of gory violence.  By the end, I found myself wondering if I was watching the scribblings of a deranged comic book devotee who’s been to one too many Comic-Cons.  C+2stars





REVIEW: Crazy Stupid Love

29 07 2011

I sit through way too many romantic comedies each year hoping that one of them will wind up being something like “Crazy Stupid Love.”  Coming at the tail end of summer 2011, this genre-pic manna tastes way too sweet.  But it’s not worthy of exaltation just due to the sea of flops surrounding it or praise just because it wasn’t bad, it’s actually just a good movie, one with heart, humor, and insight.

Take away the Christmas setting and it’s actually reminiscent of a small-scale “Love Actually.”  The movie provides perspectives on love from Generations X, Y, and Z, stories that are told with an uncanny sincerity that overpowers their slightly hackneyed development.  Written by Dan Fogelman, who had previously only dabbled in light kiddie fare like “Tangled” and “Cars 2,” delivers a work full of maturity and scope, one that winds up being surprisingly clever.  The movie has a few tricks up its sleeves, and it makes the movie a great deal more engaging than any other movie dealing with this subject matter.

Fogelman’s best maneuver, however, may be reminding us to expect the unexpected when it comes to something as complicated (or crazy and stupid) as love.  While Hollywood may require a certain ending point, the journey to get there doesn’t have to be formulaic or predictable.  The characters of “Crazy Stupid Love” make that voyage fun because they are hardly conventional romantic comedy archetypes, save perhaps Emma Stone’s insecure burgeoning career woman.

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REVIEW: X-Men: First Class

9 06 2011

I’m not quite sure how “X-Men: First Class” fits in to the universe created by the other 4 films (like “Superman Returns“), or if it’s supposed to create a whole new universe in itself (like “Batman Begins” or “Star Trek”).  This confusion makes it hard to write about the summer superhero tentpole movie.  However, rather than worry myself with such fanboy concerns, I’ll review it like I chose to watch it: as a fun, entertaining reintroduction to the mutants that provides some interesting background on their origins (as well as shining some light on the REAL events of the Cuban Missile Crisis).

Matthew Vaughn makes it easy to forget your worries about the movie’s place in the series by keeping a smooth pace through a script that balances big explosions with character development.  It’s like a two hour pilot that introduces you to a fantastic ensemble while also fleshing out the conflict between its two biggest stars.  He’s no Christopher Nolan behind the camera, but he’s certainly much better than Michael Bay or whoever made the horrific “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” (which I still think was just an excuse for Hugh Jackman to prance around naked on camera).

Vaughn also makes some very savvy casting decisions; rather than filling out the large cast with marquee names or falling stars, he casts up-and-coming stars who make up for what they lack in marketability with their impressive acting chops.  James McAvoy (“The Last Station“) and Michael Fassbender (“Inglorious Basterds“), Xavier and Magneto respectively, are two incredibly reputable actors who bring drama and dynamism to the roles that Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen made campy and stale. Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence (“Winter’s Bone“) brings soul and heart to Mystique, two things Rebecca Romjin did not endow her character since she was too busy being sexy.  Nicholas Hoult (“A Single Man“) is a warm-hearted and lovable big-footed scientist.  January Jones provides some nice eye candy for those who might miss Halle Berry, although she will always be Betty Draper of “Mad Men” for me, while fans of Rose Byrne (“Bridesmaids,” “Get Him to the Greek“) will also rejoice to see her featured as mutant protector Moira MacTaggert.

It’s like he’s trying to have the 25 year reunion of this cast be on the cover of “People” with the title LOOK HOW FAR THEY’VE COME in big bold letters (while Lindsay Lohan is arrested for the 30th time in the sidebar).  Vaughn uses these superheroes to create superstars, many of which will be touting above-title billing after this movie.  His choice not to overload with actors who we already associate with other roles makes us more drawn in to the characters and less distracted by the people portraying them.

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