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+





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+





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: The Gambler

23 12 2014

In Rupert Wyatt’s “The Gambler,” Mark Wahlberg plays Jim Bennett, an English professor by day and a high-stakes better by night.  When he gets himself into a tight situation with creditors coming to collect a big debt, Bennett resists help from his put-out mother (Jessica Lange) and a prodigious student (Brie Larson).  Instead, he responds by digging his hole deeper to vault himself out on an even larger scale.

Wahlberg plays the character with a vulnerability and self-deprecation when spitting out screenwriter William Monaghan’s rapid-fire dialogue.  Yet when his lips are still, Wahlberg imbues Bennett with a staggeringly ambivalent sense of hubris.  Viewing a week in his quickly disintegrating life is a strange experience because so much about him seems contradictory.

Bennett is best understood by not trying to understand him at all, simply watching and observing rather than identifying or analyzing.  Monaghan, working from a forty-year-old New Hollywood flick of the same name, harkens back to the era of the characterization’s conception.  Bennett exemplifies the ’70s-style impenetrable antihero, but Monaghan cleverly reassembles him for relevance in the time of TV’s current “difficult men” like Don Draper and Walter White.

Bennett cannot be explained by nor reduced to a few biographical details. Nothing indicates some massive familial implosion. His condition does not appear to have any psychological roots at all, in fact. Bennett has simply shed all illusions about life and convinced himself that the only game worth playing is one where the stakes are all or nothing.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Lone Survivor

29 01 2014

There’s no sugar-coating or sanitization of the conflict in Afghanistan to be found in Peter Berg’s “Lone Survivor.”  His adaptation of Marcus Luttrell’s memoir of pulls no punches in its visceral portrayal of the unlikely triumph of one man over relentless enemies and harsh earth.

Despite the film’s ultimate resolution being implied in the title, the action is always gripping and engrossing.  Berg’s riveting handheld camerawork ensures that we’re buckled in to feel every moment leading up to the climax.  Every fall down a cliff, every bullet entry wound piercing flesh, and every last dying breath lands deeply in the gut with tremendous force.  When coupled with masterfully precise sound mixing and editing, “Lone Survivor” has the impact of a film like “127 Hours.”

It’s not all about the action, however.  Perhaps the biggest testament the effectiveness of Berg’s multifaceted approach to “Lone Survivor” is that the film’s most nail-biting scene comes not in combat but in a moral debate.  As Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) and his SEAL recon team (Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster) weight the respective merits of killing three of their prisoners to save their own hide or letting them go and risking their own lives, a quintessential problem for America in contemporary geopolitics becomes an immediately necessary quandary to mull over.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Ted

4 08 2012

For better or for worse, “Ted” is a product of Seth MacFarlane through and through.  In other words, the film plays out like one of those five-part “Family Guy” story arcs.  It also doesn’t help that the comedic pairing of semi-serious Mark Wahlberg and a wildly inappropriate talking teddy bear, aptly named Ted, are essentially performing the same functions as straight-shooting dog Brian and the indecent infant Stevie.

And since “Ted” bears such an uncanny resemblance to the comedic stylings of “Family Guy,” the optimal way to consume it is the same: as a set of stand-alone YouTube clips that make you roar with laughter and cut out the story that connects the jokes.  MacFarlane, absurd metaphor-spawner that he is, has never quite figured out how to tell a story that compels anywhere near as much as his cut-away humor does.

Granted, his borrowed, trite plot is merely there to string together the laughs.  Yet it also winds up depreciating the value of the entire film because eventually you forget all the jokes.  But the story is something that sticks in your head.  For instance, I could recite one or two funny lines from “Ted” off the top of my head, but that creepy and unnecessary subplot involving Giovanni Ribisi as a sexually disturbed adult willing to kidnap a talking teddy bear will always haunt my memory.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: The Fighter

22 12 2010

As Mena Suvari’s teenage temptress Angela Hayes told us in “American Beauty,” there’s nothing worse than being ordinary.  In the ring of boxing movies, it’s all too easy to become ordinary.  While the latest contender to take a punch at the reigning champions, David O. Russell’s “The Fighter” is a little too lightweight to compete, it’s got some nice heart.  And as practically all movies about the sport have taught us, soul is all that really matters, right?

However, this isn’t really a boxing movie so much as a movie involving boxing.  It’s mainly a story of brotherhood, family, and pride that’s made all the more fascinating because it’s true.  As many cinematic boxers preceding him have, Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) works a low-paying, labor-intensive job to make a living since his boxing career won’t exactly pay the bills.  In his corner, he has his brother, former prize fighter Dickie Ecklund (Christian Bale) who became the pride of their hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts after triumphing over Sugar Ray Leonard.  Now, he’s an unreliable mess so addicted to crack that HBO is doing a documentary on him.

Micky is in many ways inexorably tied to his family with Dickie as his trainer and his tenacious mother (Melissa Leo) as his manager.  She performed the same role back when Dickie was in the ring and often still acts like his manager as opposed to Micky’s.  She puts an emphasis on family unity, which is tough for Micky to swallow as his many trashy half-sisters are often very overbearing.  Micky’s familial concerns lie with his young daughter being raised by his bitter ex-wife and her husband, neither of which want him to have any part in her life because of his lifestyle.

Read the rest of this entry »