Saturday, August 30, 2014


Argo is funny and gripping and altogether successful.

Ben Affleck directed and starred in the thriller, a (reasonably) true story about the spiriting of six American diplomats out of Iran in the wake of the 1979 revolution.  It seems like the man hasn't taken a misstep since Hollywoodland, and his is becoming a name I increasingly associate with quality filmmaking.  With Argo, he assembles a top-notch cast and production team, hands them a solid screenplay, and polishes their work with the collaboration of editor William Goldenberg.

But wait - how can a movie about getting six Americans out of Iran be funny?  It's all in the writing.  While Argo is a thriller first, Screenwriter Chris Terrio wrote snappy, sharp dialogue for its Hollywood-based characters.  A cast including Alan Arkin and John Goodman bring that dialogue to life, and Affleck and editor Goldenberg make it pop with perfectly arranged compositions, perfectly timed reaction shots, and a sense of momentum that allows levity while keeping the audience keyed in on the seriousness of the situation [Side note: Goldenberg won the 2013 Academy Award for editing for his work on Argo.  Learning stuff like that while conducting basic research is part of the fun of writing this blog.].

That editing is also what makes the movie gripping.  How do you make watching a phone ring interesting?  By cutting footage of a lonesome phone in an empty room with footage of the man making the call, of the men racing to answer to the call, and the people whose lives depend on the outcome of that call.  Argo is filled with this kind of stuff, taking the mundane aspects of the operation at hand and lending them urgency through top-notch editing.

In short, Argo is a testament to the value of craft, to polishing a script and casting the right people and getting the hair and makeup just so and editing the footage with a perfect blade.  The result?  Another winner for Ben Affleck.  May he bring us many more.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Pain & Gain

I've never been a fan of Michael Bay's movies, but I've never thought of him as a bad person.

Until now.

Pain and Gain is a bad movie made by a bad person who operates under the assumption that his audience is full of bad people who enjoy laughing at other bad people.

Pain and Gain is a bad movie because it's a thuddingly unfunny comedy. Not one funny thing happens during its entire run time, and I didn't so much as grin from the opening credits to the close. Pain and Gain was made by a bad person because only a bad person thinks that a true story of kidnapping, torture, and multiple murder can be played for laughs. This bad person assumes that his audience is full of bad people because it is, simply, wrong to laugh at stupid people for being stupid: they can't help it.

Here's the story: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, and Anthony Mackie are stupid bodybuilders who, motivated by a stupid get-rich-quick schemer, go in on a stupid plan to kidnap and torture a rich guy until he gives them his money.

Yes, there's some commentary on materialism and confusion between wealth and happiness, but it's slight. Mostly, the film serves as an opportunity for its audience to spend ninety minutes feeling superior to a bunch of morons.

You know who finds that entertaining? Bad people. I regret reneging on my resolution never to see another Michael Bay movie. Bad decision.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

After a brief prologue, Guardians of the Galaxy kicks off with likable star Chris Pratt basically re-creating the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark while boogieing to '70s soft rock. So far, so good. Then, Michael Rooker shows up as a blue-faced alien scoundrel. This you must know: while the presence of Michael Rooker is not a guarantee of quality, it is a guarantee of awesomeness. Boom. I'm in.

Soon enough, here comes Zoe Saldana, reigning queen of the big-budget science fiction adventure, put into immediate conflict with Doctor Who's Karen Gillan. We are cooking.

Guardians of the Galaxy doesn't squander its early goodwill. It takes its simple MacGuffin chase of a plot and layers it with yet more endearing characters; clever homages to films as diverse as Pulp Fiction, Slither, Footloose, and Howard the Duck; and loads and loads of well-played banter. All of this adds up to a light, fun, and exciting space opera that had my whole family laughing out loud and rocking along for a solid two hours.

As I write about it, however, I find that I'm having trouble sinking my teeth into it.  It's bouncy.  It's fun.  I'll enjoy seeing it again when it hits Netflix.  But it doesn't give me much to think about.  It's the cotton candy of movies.

That said, I like cotton candy.  Guardians of the Galaxy worked for me.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Robot & Frank

When someone goes out of his way to recommend a film to me, I hesitate to see it. What if I think it stinks and I hurt that person's feelings?

Someone went out of his way to recommend Robot & Frank to me. 

Here's the story: it's the near future. Dracula (Frank Langella) has given up his vampirism and is now a sad, lonely old man with dementia. The highlight of his week is walk to the local library, where he flirts with librarian Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon). Oh, to be young and living in a castle again!

Anyway, Langella's son (James Marsden) worries about him, so he buys him a semi-anthropomorphic robot to help out around the house. Langella regains his vigor and decides to reembark on a previous career (with the robot's help): high-end jewel thief.

That's about the time I fell asleep. When I woke up, the third act was getting started. I gutted it out, but I never got into the film.

I fell asleep because Robot & Frank never gave me a reason to care about Frank, beside the fact that he was played by an actor who had once delivered one of cinema's greatest Transylvanian counts. Since I didn't care about him, I didn't care about what happened to him. When I returned to the film after my short doze, nothing happened to change that fact.

Sorry, buddy. I wish had liked it.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Seven Psychopaths

Seven Psychopaths is violent, funny, and a great time at the movies.

Here's the setup: screenwriter Colin Farrell has a deadline and no screenplay. I know – this sounds like every bad Creative Writing assignment that begins with “The writer sat at his desk, staring at the clock and wiping flop sweat from his brow.” But what if the next paragraph read, “Then Sam Rockwell turned up. He was the writer's best friend, and he ran a Hollywood dognapping operation with small-time crook Christopher Walken. They had a problem?”

Your reaction to that last sentence was predicated on your appreciation for Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken, both of whom Can Do No Wrong (CDNW). Each of these guys are usually the best thing about whichever movie they're in, and they're both great here. That said, Seven Psychopaths is really the “How Awesome is Sam Rockwell?” movie, so Walken only dials it up to ten in this one. This is one of Seven Psychopaths' many smart moves: by giving Rockwell space to do his thing, it actually makes us appreciate Walken more. Further, Seven Psychopaths makes Farrell a straight man in service to Rockwell's over-the-top performance, and the former shows a remarkable gift for subtle comic timing.

[Aside: It has taken me a while to warm up to Farrell. He was fine in a pretty straightforward role in the odious Tigerland, then someone in Hollywood decided he was going to be the Next Big Thing and got him cast in travesties like Daredevil. He disappeared for a while, then came back strong with InBruges, Fright Night, and Seven Psychopaths. The man has a long way to go to claim CDNW status, but he's back on my radar.]

Of course, this is a film called Seven Psychopaths; so psychopaths do turn up, operatic volumes of blood do get spilled, and a good time is had by all. All this, plus a clever script, terrific performances, and laugh-out-loud moments make Seven Psychopaths my biggest and most pleasant surprise of the summer.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Four Brief Takes

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Hey do you like movies which invite you to spend 90 minutes laughing at (rather than with) their characters? Me neither. Unfortunately, that's The Incredible Burt Wonderstone in a nutshell. Despite a real knowledge of and fondness for magicians and their craft, the film can't overcome its fundamental mean-spiritedness.

Incredibly, Burt Wonderstone couldn't pull so much as a chuckle out of thin air. I should have cleaned out my house's raingutters, instead.


Elysium is Matt Damon's shot at a Big Concept, Big Budget science-fiction adventure. Unfortunately, the Big Concept is that Rich People are Bad, which is laughable coming from a studio owned and run by rich people.

Sanctimony, however, isn't Elysium's greatest flaw. That honor gets divided between dullness and ugliness. Elysium is dull because its hero takes so long to get from “self-absorbed jerk” to “hero” that we've lost empathy by the time he's made the transition. It's dull because its villains are so villainous that they aren't even interesting. It's dull because its internal contradictions glare so brightly that they keep the audience from suspending disbelief. And it's dull just because it drags. Elysium is ugly because – heck, I don't know, maybe director Neil Blomkamp (of the remarkable District 9) just likes ugliness.

This is a tedious, dull, annoying, ugly film.  Pass it by.

The Wolverine

I saw The Wolverine about a week ago, and I've already forgotten nearly everything about it other than a ridiculous hand-to-hand battle with a cyborg samurai.  It's as if the movie had never even existed.

Taken 2

If you liked Taken, you'll like Taken 2. It's an unapologetic rehash of the first film, set this time in Istanbul. Hey, I liked Taken. I like Istanbul. I got my money's worth.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Bridges at Toko-Ri

The Bridges at Toko-Ri is the best movie I've seen this summer.

Adapted from the novel by WWII Sailor James Michener, The Bridges of Toko-Ri tells the story of LT Harry Brubaker, a Reservist called to active duty to fly and flight in the Korean war. It's a serious film, one that grapples with the realities of family separation, mortal peril, and profound loyalty that are the weft and warp of naval aviation. The Navy cooperated in its production, granting access to USS ORISKANY and USS KEARSARGE, as well as extensive opportunities to film its mighty F9F-2 Panthers in flight. Its star, William Holden, had a personal link to the material: his late brother, a naval aviator, had given his life in the Pacific.

Pedigrees, however, don't guarantee a great film. The Bridges of Toko-Ri succeeds not because of its authenticity, but because it's a thrilling and gripping tale. It begins in the best possible way, with a helo bubba (played by Mickey Rooney) pulling a jet bubba (Holden) out of the water following an ejection. As a former Navy helo bubba, I could have spent the next ninety minutes watching Rooney rescue people. That's not the way the world works, however: the world cares about jet bubbas.

This particular jet bubba has a beautiful wife (Grace Kelly), two charming daughters, and every reason to get home alive. The Bridges at Toko-Ri is built around the early warning, planning, execution, and aftermath of a mission that puts that eventuality very much in doubt: an airstrike on a cluster of North Korean bridges deemed vital to the war effort. Because the film walks us through all the steps in the runup to and execution of this mission, we in the audience get time to bond with its characters both at sea and ashore. Because the film takes pains to achieve maximum authenticity in its depiction of life afloat and airborne, we get to live vicariously in another world at another time. Because the mission itself is so hazardous, and filmed so well, we get to spend the last half-hour of the film on the edges of our collective seats, rooting for Holden's character to make it back to Grace and the girls.

This is a great film. It's close enough to real life to stand in for historical footage (though the F9F-2 wasn't flown in the Korean War – the filmmakers had to work with what they had). Its characters are compelling enough to make us care about them. Its story is tight enough to keep us on the hook for two hours and reel us in at the climax. The Bridges at Toko-Ri belongs at the top of your queue.