Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Pain & Gain

 
The stigma attached to Michael Bay, especially in the last decade, is not without merit. He's a hack. His trilogy of Transformers movies could barely pass as art, and instead served as platform to utilize words such as "franchise," "branding" and "shit sandwich." I'm sure scholarly papers will be written in film school about Bay's run from 2001-2011 that question whether his schlock, which was universally eaten up by the masses, is directly related to the decline of Western civilization. It probably is. 
 
That stigma is forever. His newest film, the modest and lowest of low-key Pain & Gain, has been savaged simply because Bay is at the helm. I can imagine cool film school kids, sitting in a dorm saying, "A Michael Bay film with Wahlberg and The Rock? No fuckin' way --now put Begman back on!" I admit, I had these same feelings. I can't stand the herky jerky shots or the stupid slo-mo or the general disregard for a competent narrative that Bay is infamous for. 
 
But, my God, was Pain & Gain fun. 
 
It's being sold on the fact that this story is true, but it wouldn't have made a difference anyway because the script is disaster -- calling for no less than half a dozen narrators and unlikeable characters no matter how much levity is used. The third act is essentially a recreation of a scene from Pulp Fiction and there's some blatant homophobic and sexist themes that don't seem entirely intentional.
 
What really did it for me is the cast(ing). It's an ensemble of actors starring in a Bay movie about bodybuilding, kidnapping criminals and, pardon, the cliché, everyone BRINGS THEIR GODDAMN A GAME. While Tony Shaloub steals every scene he's in as the sleazy millionaire who is the blight of the meathead's existence, the movie belongs to The Rock. He's oversaturating the marketplace with his alpha male roles in shitty action movies, but here, here he's acting (Jon Lovitz voice). He plays a born again Christian, fresh out the pen, who doesn't want to fall back into the arms of the Devil, but inevitably starts doing blow and going crazy. The Rock is funny, notably during a neighborhood watch scene where he's geeked out of his mind, and it's probably his best role to date. Wahlberg's good as the leader, but the complementing cast of Ed Harris, Anthony Mackie, Rebel Wilson, Rob Corddry and Michael Rispoli heighten the already insane hyper-reality of mid-nineties Miami.
 
It's dark. It reminded me of Very Bad Things. You're supposed to feel comfortable laughing at despicable people doing despicable things. Sometimes I did. Sometimes I didn't. An old lady coming out of the show warned the people in line "It's a horrible movie, don't waste your time!" As I truly dislike Michael Bay, I truly enjoyed Pain & Gain. Maybe, just maybe, if this is any indication of him stepping away from CGI aliens in favor of something simpler, he can, in some sort of reverse osmosis, crossover from the mainstream and make a simple indie with Greta Gerwig and Paul Dano, or something.
 
But probably not. Pain & Gain is an anomaly and the exception to the rule.
 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Oblivion



 
Oh, you know, Tom Cruise is crazy. It's been nearly a decade since the couch-jumping incident and he's still been as close to the top as a movie star could possibly get. His choices are sometimes weird (Rock of Ages, Knight And Day), but when he comes on the screen, he still commands every frame he's in. He looks the same as he did 25 years ago and his name above the title, although damaged, still means something.
 
Oblivion, the second film from the (maybe too) visionary Joseph Kosinski, is a low-key piece of post-apocalyptic science fiction that is prettier and smarter than most of its contemporaries. There is a certain fetish with this genre right now. Maybe it's because of all the goddamn video games. Maybe it's foreshadowing. But with such an oversaturation, Kosinski takes a minimalist approach. His breakthrough with Tron: Legacy was bursting with visuals we've never seen before that probably made James Cameron's mouth water. In Oblivion, there's still plenty of trippy aqua-hued CGI, zap guns, drones, spaceships, motherships and motorcycles, but it's less grandiose. No Daft Punk. No weird Jeff Bridges. While there are many memorable scenes in an abandoned Meadowlands Stadium or a fight that Cruise has been waiting for his whole career, the most vivid is when Kosinski films an Olympic-sized swimming pool -- crystal clear water, transparent walls, thousands of feet above the Earth's surface. He's mastered the art of creating moments.
 
The story is messy, with probably many loopholes and lingering questions. It seems familiar. Comparisons have been made to WALL-E because of it's environmentally-friendly message. Sometimes, it just doesn't make sense and the jolting twists make it harder to earnestly love it. But I trust Kosinki, insofar as despite the easy ability to nitpick, I marveled at T.C., in a weird spacesuit, do his thing for 2 hours. Oblivion is a sight to behold, but stare too long and you'll start second-guessing yourself.  
 

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Place Beyond The Pines

★ 1/2
 
 The three separate, linear arcs in The Place Beyond The Pines caused a gasp among the senior citizens in the theater. Each segment -- is it even proper to call these standalone pieces segments? -- builds to a draining climax and we are expected to take a deep breath and start all over again. It's an effective, if ultimately risky, gimmick from the talented Derek Cianfrance.

And yet, while those old people, smelling of eucalyptus and expecting a little something more popcorn friendly from movie stars like Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, grimaced, I was left awestruck. My eyes were wide nearly the whole 140 minute runtime. Scene after scene crescendos with such conviction. Motorcycle chases. Bank robbery. Dirty cops. Murder. Love. Drugs. Family. There's an unrelenting momentum that never lets up, despite it's pauses in-between each fleeting story. Cianfrance uses symbolism with a wink; making use of the foliage of Schenectady, New York and Maneater by Hall & Oates. It's a much more ambitious film than his brilliantly devastating Blue Valentine, but he treats his characters the same. Do we like they because they look like James Dean or are a good family man? Do we hate them because they exploit the American dream? Cianfrance is a real sunuvabitch when it comes to endings -- it speaks more about the viewer than it does of the work itself. I don't know. I left the theater with the old people in a state of stasis. The last scene still plays vividly in my memory, as if it were lifted from a great American movie of year's past that is indiscernible. Then I decided: this is a scene from a great American movie.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

G.I. Joe: Retaliation




I may have been one of a dozen or so people over the age of 12 that liked G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra when it came out in 2009. This was a different time in our lives. Channing Tatum was ascending and still not a beefcake superstar. Marlon Wayans was still an applicable sidekick. People still knew who Sienna Miller was. The big screen adaption from Hasbro, riding the super hot wave of Transformers, was campy fun that brought out a childlike ignorance of me, playing with Destro and Sgt. Slaughter on long car rides.

The sequel, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, which is not so much a sequel as it is an attempt to reboot an infantile franchise, was supposed to come out last June. The excuse for its delay was a conversion to 3D. Skeptics suggested that Tatum (on that hot streak of The Vow and 21 Jump Street) who is killed early in the movie, prompted the studio to reshoot scenes. It's obvious. After a clunky intro, Tatum has a goatee, doesn't have a goatee, then has a goatee again. 

That's a testament to the movie; these dudes are too stupid to even notice a dude's facial hair.

Let's be realists; I ain't expecting a movie based on a toy to be filled with beautiful soliloquies and whatnot, I just want some semblance of clarity. There are three different movies going on in Retaliation. The most direct one is that all but 3 G.I. Joe's were murdered and framed as enemies of the country. Roadblock (Rock) and two uninteresting partners, who no way in hell are bad ass or interesting or charismatic, fight to reclaim their good name!

Story number 2 involves The President (Jonathan Pryce), who is not the President but a shape-shifting villain who plans to nuke the entire world, or some shit, with the help of Cobra Commander and Firefly (Ray Wise). Story number 3 is about some tale of redemption regarding Storm Shadow as a kid in the mountains and RZA is there and whatever -- I didn't know WTF was going on. They all connect, vaguely, and not in a cool Tarantino-esque way, either. I'm still not even sure if any or all conflicts were resolved. 

This movie has camp and cheese and stuff and gimmicky stuff for kids and adults alike. There is a charm in seeing men in costumes, say the Cobra Commander outfit, walk around like they are in some Gucci get-up. But yo, Retaliation kinda sucks. There's this scene in the beginning where Tatum and The Rock are bantering back-at-forth to an almost flirtatious level. It's like they watched Bad Boys 2 the night before and were like "Ay, let's do EXACTLY this, but more homoerotic."

While the fault mainly rests with the script, Retaliation is too much of an ambitious project from Jon M. Chu? Who is Jon M. Chu, oh just the dude behind TWO Step Up movies AND the Justin Bieber concert movie. Beside one scene, an amazing ninja fight scene in the mountains on wires that is worth calling "BREATHTAKING," but in a non-cliched, really genuine sense, the action scenes suck. They are just eh. Everything feels claustrophobic and cheap -- from the set design, to the CGI to the cheesy post-Wachowski camera tricks -- for a $150 million movie.

15 minutes into the movie, I knew it was gonna be not bad, but not good. If they truly delayed it for 3D conversion, there's about two instances of legit utilization of the technology. The Rock surprisingly sucks because he's playing a role with the sole trait of "Dur, I'm a tough man." And Bruce Willis, poor Bruce Willis. One month he's headlining the fifth installment of an iconic franchise and the next he's that old guy doing 2 weeks of scenes for a nice paycheck as he enters twilight. 

G.I. Joe: Retaliation is a badass movie for little kids who have stupid parents that won't them let them see Olympus Has Fallen. I'M A GROWN ASS MAN. I WANT HEADS BLOWING OFF OR MORE MEN IN COSTUMES OR MORE MARLON WAYANS.   

Monday, April 1, 2013

Spring Breakers




Spring Breakers is Harmony Korine's Days Of Heaven. The sandy hedonism of Florida replaces rural Texas. Voicemails left by Selena Gomez replaces young Linda Manz's narration. The promise of a better life with a drug-dealing thug replaces the promise of a better life with a wealthy farmer. If Terrence Malick knew that dubstep and molly existed, he could have made this exact same movie. What I'm getting at, in this grandiose comparison, is that Spring Breakers, like Days Of Heaven, is a masterpiece.

It's no secret that the hipster director of Trash Humpers and Gummo loves Malick and  it's evident most of all in Spring Breakers. While Korine loves, or loved, direct cinema, he pays total homage to Malick here whether it was a conscious effort or not. It's beautifully shot. The drab, beige-toned monotony of college is contrasted with the purple sunsets, neon mansions and rap video backdrop of bubble butts and bikinis. Stylistically, Korine films a robbery from the getaway car, parties with VHS-fuzziness and montages with Adderal-snorting jolts. And that narration! Jesus Christ, that narration! Several characters take turns in the form of phone calls, inner monologues and repetitive lines whispered in ears. It becomes hypnotic and tranquil, not unlike Laura Dern's wonderful voiceovers in Englightened. 

To get linear, Spring Breakers is about three bad girls and one good girl (Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine and Gomez) who rob a diner for money to go to Florida for spring break. While there, they get arrested on a coke charge and are bailed out by part-time rapper and full-time baller, Alien (Franco). 

To get non-linear, Spring Breakers is about this insane demoralized culture that America, specifically its kids, has become. The only thing that matters is smoking blunts and where is my next blunt coming from? To most people, the idea of spring break is that you get one week and one week only in order to go nuts. To these four girls, spring break is why life is worth living. Why have 7 days of hedonism when you can have it the rest of your lives? To Alien, spring break is a state of mind. He repeats, no less than a dozen times throughout, "Spring Break forever." He lives, day in and day out, with guns, cars, clothes and ho's, spring break.  

I'm a 24-year-old man who can relate to this artificial utopia because I was that person who desperately wanted it to never end, but like everything, it has to at some point. I don't know if it just comes with age, because there are certainly older people wearing Senor Frogs shirts in the middle of Winter, but since I came of age, the next generation to do so seems doomed. And I'm sure that has been going on since the beginning of contemporary society, except now we have designer drugs and Skrillex.

I can regale you with how great Franco is and how he should get an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Or how Gomez sheds her Disney image not by doing blow, but by actually, genuinely committing to her character, Faith and doing a helluva job. Or how a sequence superbly blurs the lines between consensual sex and rape and how important it is for people to recognize the difference. Instead, I will tell you that an interaction between Franco and Gucci Mane regarding who the better trapper was almost made me cry.   

Spring Breakers started as a film that gained sooooo much blogosphere buzz because of Disney stars/boobs/cornrowed James Franco/Riff Raff. I think the ignorant (of cinema, and in general) youth of America was expecting a silly comedy because spring break is where we get fucked up and have hella fun! I don't know whether Korine is implicitly indicting those kids by giving them an art film, but I'd like to think so. Spring Breakers ended as a culturally and artistically significant achievement that, in 1000 years, the aliens will view as a time capsule of America, 2013.

When I was in the theater, on a crisp Friday morning, consuming what Korine has described as a "fever dream," I got deeply introspective. I've not stopped thinking about this for 10 days. This is the kind of movie I have and will romanticize about forever.

Forever.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone



As a product of the late 80s, when I was a kid, Jim Carrey was THAT DUDE. That stretch between 1994-1996, when he had two Ace Ventura's, The Mask, Dumb & Dumber and Batman Forever, he was my God. Him hosting Saturday Night Love is still a watershed moment in my life.

I'm sure, to a certain extent, the kids of today feel that way about Steve Carrell. Granted, he hasn't had the massive and genuine movie star success of Carrey in the 90s, but he's one of the faces of post-Frat Pack comedy. People were saying "I love lamp" at the same rate of "I'm Rick James, bitch."

It's a damn shame they both chose the massively tepid The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. Given the talent, it's a shock that it's both a flop comically and critically. I didn't understand it. But when I saw it -- realizing that Carrey was not in it enough, Carrell has been playing the same man-child for years, most of the jokes are DOA and the tone of the film is constantly shifting from micro-gags to gooey sentimentality -- I got it. This is an incredibly average film and nearly a total waste of everyone's talent.

Magicians Burt Wonderstone (Carrell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi, ugh) have been a hot ticket on the Vegas strip for years. Clad like Siegfried and Roy, their act, which is based upon their lifelong friendship, is fading away. Maybe it's because Burt is an insufferable douchebag off stage, bedding all of the unsuspecting women he plucks from the crowd. Maybe it's because Steve Gray (Carrey), a David Blaine/Criss Angel/Jesus Christ street magician, and host of the TV show "Brain Rapist" is stealing their demographic. Dude is sleeping on hot coals and holding his pee in for days and the Vegas strip is eating it up.

Burt Wonderstone goes from gag-to-gag-to-gag-to-gag held together by a thin tale of redemption. Some of them work. Most of them don't. Aside from Carrey's commitment to his character, the magic tricks are funny and everything else is not. Alan Arkin plays the same Alan Arkin character he's been since Little Miss Sunshine. James Gandolfini and Olivia Wilde are on the peripheral and used only as plot devices. Buscemi is a wonderful foil to Carrell, but his screentime is a real disappearing act (haha lol).      

It's written by the cool bro's who wrote the cultish-turned-mainstream hit Horrible Bosses. That movie had a hard R-rating and was about murder. It contained no "Aw, gee, shucks, that's so heartwarming" moments. Burt Wonderstone does gleefully and without remorse. It hammers this virtue of being BFF's forever, no matter what, but when you counter that with Carrey cutting his face open to reveal a playing card, it just doesn't work.  

When they first appeared together on screen in 2003's Bruce Almighty, Carrey was in the middle of one of his many comebacks and Carrell was merely in a supporting role; That dude from The Daily Show. A scene-stealer. A decade later, the roles are reversed. Carrell is our man and Carrey, with acid-washed hair and a goatee, is the scene-stealer. It's a shame, a damned one, that they both chose the banal Burt Wonderstone. Is it because a PG-13 comedy won't fly anymore in the jizz infested realm of R-rated ones? Is it because the movie simply isn't that funny? Is it because this would have been more relevant a decade, no, two decades ago?

Yes.  

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Factory



There are two things inherently more interesting than the straight-to-DVD banal cop flick The Factory. The first is John Cusack is venturing into scary territory. This is his first of two consecutive non-theatrical releases, both within the span of a few months. That's Christian Slater realm. Val Kilmer's land. Although he was great in The Raven and The Paperboy, the movies themeselves weren't particularly good. He doesn't sleepwalk through this role like other B-movie stalwarts, but he damn sure comes close. Not Lloyd Dobler. Not this way. 

The second is why Jennifer Carpenter accepted this role. She has been on Dexter for seven long seasons playing a cop and detective. Her memorable work on the big screen is limited to White Chicks  and Quarantine. So, why, Lord, why, would she play a character that's so similar to one she's been playing for almost a decade? Not Detective Debra Morgan. Not this way.

There's a serial killer (Dallas Roberts, who is really weird/cool) in Buffalo, New York. He's going around during the Winter months and killing prostitutes he picks up. Natch, there's a hot-headed detective (Cusack) devoted to the case, spending more time on crime photos than with his family. Double Natch, his daughter (Mae Whitman -- who has been playing daughter for 10 years now) is a rebellious teen who listens to Avril Lavigne and somewhat dresses like a hooker. TRIPLE natch, after a series of highly coincidental events, the serial killer picks-up cop's daughter and locks her in his basement. Why there's two other girls down there is slowly uncovered and hey, maybe this murderer is weirder than we thought!

The Factory is a movie that feels straight outta 1993. I envision David Caruso and Linda Fiorentino in the lead roles. It's a somewhat thrilling thriller that gets about as interesting as procedural as an episode of Law and Order: SVU, but there are some neat twists in here (I CALLED FROM 20 MINUTES IN!) that oddly payoff.

I always say on this here blog that there aren't any good cops movies anymore. As evidenced with The Factory and 50 Cent's last dozens films, they all go straight to the Redbox. I think it's because you can get the same shit on TV, on hundreds of channels, for free. The formula hasn't changed. Tweaks have been made; more gore, more twists, more semen -- but it's the same movie over and over again. Even when the genre did evolve in the Fall with the fantastic End of Watch, no one went to see it.

The Factory isn't a really bad movie; It's not even a bad movie. It's just a movie that will slightly pique your interest for 90 minutes and then you'll forget about it by bedtime.