2011

The Raid (2011, Gareth Evans), the international version

For the first forty-five minutes or so, The Raid is able to keep going on the idea lead Iko Uwais is going to be the most kick ass fighter in the movie. There a handful of short expository scenes throughout the film, plus a prologue, where Uwais prays, does some martial arts workouts (it’s all Indonesian martial arts in the film), kisses pregnant wife Fikha Effendi goodbye, has plot twist foreshadowing moment with dad Henky Solaiman, and is off to work—but otherwise it’s all action. For a while it’s shooting action, as Uwais and his fellow SWAT team members infiltrate a high-rise tenement run by drug lord Ray Sahetapy. Once it goes to martial arts action, however, it’s all martial arts action, finally letting Uwais deliver on what the prologue promised.

Except by then we’ve already seen Yayan Ruhian and the movie doesn’t even pretend Uwais is going to surpass Ruhian. When Uwais does finally get around to fighting him, it’s Donny Alamsyah teaming up with Uwais to fight Ruhian. Director Evans knows no one’s going to think Uwais can handle this one on his own, which sort of leaves Uwais an awkward action hero. He starts the movie a renegade—because he’s the only caring SWAT cop, which we know because they were ready to kill civilian Iang Darmawan for being around and Uwais steps in to save the guy—ends up doing the action scenes out of a couple different buddy cop movies, then ends it all solo, even though he’s with a literal cop buddy for it. But it never feels like Uwais is getting short-changed, at least not in the second half; the hero of the first half is Joe Taslim. He’s the sergeant and the only one who knows there’s something shady about the raid because he knows Pierre Gruno is a shady guy. Meanwhile Gruno doesn’t want cannon fodder like Uwais getting in his way, even though Gruno’s not a martial arts bad ass like everyone else in the movie.

The Taslim as lead thing is just weird because director Evans just assumes the audience is going to go for it. The Raid has some beautifully executed action sequences and some great fight choreography, but Evans’s best instinct is for what works with the cast. The movie starts with Uwais, sticks with Uwais—introducing Taslim as the leader and quickly establishing his relationship with Gruno—but when it’s time for Taslim to take on Ruhian, it’s not a supporting character’s fight scene. It’s the big hero’s fight scene.

Uwais’s arc sort of stalling out probably doesn’t help him maintain the spotlight. After the first big action sequence, Uwais has a whole “help wounded comrade” survive arc. Tegar Satrya’s the wounded comrade. The movie’s only ever established he’s a dick, which makes Uwais saving him somewhat more dramatic maybe, but no more entertaining to watch. Plus Satrya’s unlikable. Only he and Gruno are unlikable. Everyone else, good or bad, is enjoyable to watch. Like Alfridus Godfred, who’s basically just “Machete Guy,” because everyone gets their hands on a machete. Godfred’s terrifying, just a walking embodiment of probable dismemberment. But you want to see him, you want to see him more, as the film builds to whatever fight sequence he’s going to participate in. Again, Evans has great instincts for rising action scene tension.

The drama stuff, involving Uwais, Alamsyah, Gruno, Darmawan, and Sahetapy? Eh. Sahetapy’s is the best because Sahetapy’s a very evil hoot of a villain. Evans also knows how violent to get and not to get, when to show, when to tell, when to imply. But the drama? It’s take it or leave it. It’s not bad, just pedestrian and superfluous. Or should be.

See, while everyone who’s got a big fight scene—Taslim, Uwais, Alamsyah, and, obviously, Ruhian—is great at the fighting… Evans isn’t great at the directing. He’s good enough at it for a while, but when it’s the marathon Ruhian vs. Uwais and Alamsyah fight? It gets boring. Evans can showcase his actors’ skills but he can’t keep them compelling. Evans also edited the film and most of the editing is excellent, but the longer fight scenes—usually when there’s not scenery around to damage—the cuts are just between not great shots. It’s a bummer.

Nice photography from Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono, great music by Mike Shinoda and Joseph Trapanese (which is the difference between this international version and the original, plus an added subtitle, Redemption, because of rights issues). The Raid is about as good as you can get for an all-action martial arts movie with the barest hints of a real story and flat direction on the martial arts themselves. It’s very impressive work from Evans and company.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written, directed, and edited by Gareth Evans; directors of photography, Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono; music by Mike Shinoda and Joseph Trapanese; produced by Ario Sagantoro; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Iko Uwais (Rama), Joe Taslim (Jaka), Donny Alamsyah (Andi), Yayan Ruhian (Mad Dog), Pierre Gruno (Wahyu), Ray Sahetapy (Tama), Tegar Satrya (Bowo), Iang Darmawan (Gofar), Eka ‘Piranha’ Rahmadia (Dagu), Verdi Solaiman (Budi), and Alfridus Godfred (Machete Gang #1).


Save Me (2011, Lena Waithe)

Save Me is the story of a kid (Jaheem Toombs) whose house burned down and the rest of his family died and he goes to ask the man who saved him (Sam Bologna) why he saved him and the man doesn’t tell him so the kid lies about it to his new best friend. There are some ostensible layers to it—Toombs’s Black, Bologna’s an old White man—they’re artificial. Waithe’s giving the impression of raising questions, ones she can’t bother even imagining the answers for.

The photography—by Matthew H. Sanders—is about the only solid part of the short. Waithe’s direction is hyper-focused on the actors, who—at best—aren’t very good and are often worse. Save Me occasionally feels like Waithe’s out to embarrass Toombs, who’s been living in foster care since his family burned to death and he’s got a kindly social worker (Stacy Lutz). They have this game where he gives her a quote and she tells him who said it. The gimmick becomes important later on.

Shame Toombs doesn’t seem to have any idea why he’s saying the quote or who and why he’s quoting the person, other than Waithe thinks it’ll be a good detail.

When people use “workshop” as a pejorative, they’re talking about the script to Save Me. Cultural references are more important than the flow of the dialogue, which is fine because the musical accompaniment is more important than the scenes. Despite being in every scene, Toombs’s the film’s least defined character. Waithe’s doing a character study where she’s avoiding character as much as possible. So what should be a great showcase for Toombs is instead a series of opportunities for him to fail.

Then there’s the cloying finale, which has Toombs forgetting how to skateboard; though I suppose that plot hole is a great metaphor for the short itself.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Lena Waithe; director of photography, Matthew H. Sanders; edited by Justin Simien; music by Darnell Levine; produced by Nikki Love.

Starring Jaheem Toombs (Kenya), Stacy Lutz (social worker), Malcolm Williams (shop owner), and Sam Bologna (Mr. Wilkey).


Source Code (2011, Duncan Jones)

Source Code is very much MacGuffin as movie. Numerous plot details exist solely to justify (and qualify) certain creative decisions; the film takes a bunch of familiar and somewhat familiar—depending on the viewer’s preferences—sci-fi tropes, devices, and gimmicks, streamlines them, then combines them in those spared-down states. For example, a time traveller in the future “jumping” into the past to learn from it; someone jumping into the past while aided by someone in the present giving direction. The time traveller not having as much information… I mean, okay, basically Source Code functions like it’s “Quantum Leap,” just with different technology and rules.

The film avoids going too deep on those rules and—especially—the technology because director Jones only wants to keep the viewer engaged and engaged enough to forgive the various logic problems. And until the overwrought ending, Source Code does an excellent job of keeping one engaged. Jones is working against a lot of constraints—the ninety minute runtime, the budget, Ben Ripley’s script; most of the film’s cheaper creative decisions come from that script. Like lead Jake Gyllenhaal being a decorated but soulful soldier with a really macho name. The soldier bit doesn’t actually play into the movie besides lip service—including unironic uses of both “War on Terror” and “Thank You For Your Service”—which maybe is required in a movie about a terrorist attack on Chicago not involving giant robots or flying men post-9/11.

Or it’s just the script. It’s entirely possible Ripley’s script’s bad elements are just Ripley’s writing. There’s plenty of evidence of his other bad writing, why not give it all to him.

Jones does a fantastic job taking the mundane and making it incredible. It helps for the action, it helps with the comedy, it helps with the pseudo-hard sci-fi elements.

The film starts with a series of wonderful shots of Chicago, drilling down on to a single commuter train—even if Source Code isn’t your bag, if you’ve ever ridden the Metra in Chicago, you should see it. On this train is Jake Gyllenhaal. He wakes up sitting across from Michelle Monaghan and has no memory of how he got there. In fact, it’s impossible for him to be there—he’s an Army helicopter pilot and he was just on mission in Afghanistan. Monaghan’s calling him a different name, his face is different in the mirror, it’s a very strange situation. But it only lasts eight minutes because then the train explodes.

Gyllenhaal wakes up in a flight suit, strapped to some kind of machine, in a spherical cockpit thing with Vera Farmiga (in a military uniform) on a video monitor talking at him. Gyllenhaal can’t remember how he got there, which kicks off Farmiga trying to get him back in sync. It takes Source Code most of the first act to establish the rules of Gyllenhaal and the time travel, but there are some big secrets the film’s keeping for later reveals. Source Code always has something else to reveal, though usually only because Ripley can’t figure out a way to be honest with the viewer (or Gyllenhaal).

Gyllenhaal’s worried about his fellow soldiers, worried about his dad, but a very rude Farmiga doesn’t care—he’s got to get back in time to figure out where the bomb is located on the train, who placed the bomb. They’re trying to prevent the second attack, so back in time Gyllenhaal goes again for another try. Subsequent tries has Gyllenhaal making some progress with the investigation and getting to know Monaghan. Now, while Monaghan’s part is sort of romantic comedy lead, it’s still stunning how fast Gyllenhaal falls for her. She’s polite to one person and he’s hooked.

But then Gyllenhaal gets the idea to investigate himself during his time in the past, which causes some conflict with Farmiga, who has to bring in her boss, Jeffrey Wright. Jeffrey Wright is a standard slime ball civilian military scientist. He’s the Samuel Beckett of Source Code but it would never occur to him to try the machine himself. Why bother when you’ve got soldiers. A little Wright goes a long way; the point where he starts getting more screen time is when it’s clear the present day stuff is never going to be very good. And not just because Ripley didn’t even come up with a reason for Farmiga to be assigned to the unit. She’s in the Air Force, not the practical application of quantum mechanics and string theory department. It wouldn’t matter if the film gave the impression there’s an answer, but it’s pretty clear there isn’t one. Not a reasonable one anyway.

Source Code stays away from answers, what with its spaghetti on the wall approach to quantum mechanics and whatnot. It does not want to engage with its audience. Engagement means consideration. And since it’s all about a MacGuffin and a poorly developed MacGuffin… consideration’s out.

Gyllenhaal’s great in the lead, able to do the sci-fi, the drama, the action. Source Code, the script, doesn’t ask for much from him, but Gyllenhaal and Jones manage to turn it into a decent role. Monaghan’s really likable and she’s solid, even if her part manages to be an eighth of a real one; she does make an impression, which is something given she’s one of fifty possible suspects Gyllenhaal has to investigate in just ninety minutes.

Excellent editing from Paul Hirsch helps a lot with Gyllenhaal’s Groundhog Days. Pretty good music from Chris Bacon. Perfectly serviceable photography from Don Burgess; I mean, it mixes well with the CG action sequences.

Farmiga’s fine. She’s got even less of a character than Monaghan but probably ought to have the most important part. Shame about that script.

Not allowing any subplots but encouraging the expectation of them is another of its problems; it hurts Farmiga.

There’s also a lengthy racial profiling scene where Gyllenhaal targets a Brown person for being Brown—which Monaghan calls him on—but the movie just goes ahead with it because threat of terrorism; sci-fi apparently allows for some meta-bigotry, which doesn’t seem out of place given the film’s jingoistic posturing.

Also the title is bad. It refers to the “Quantum Leap” machine Wright makes and Wright’s nowhere near good enough not to make “Source Code” sound stupid whenever he uses it as a proper noun.

Source Code’s a solid rollercoaster ride; who knows what they’d have been able to do with another twenty minutes, some good rewrites, and another ten million or so in the budget.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Duncan Jones; written by Ben Ripley; director of photography, Don Burgess; edited by Paul Hirsch; music by Chris Bacon; production designer, Barry Chusid; costume designer, Renée April; produced by Mark Gordon, Philippe Rousselet, and Jordan Wynn; released by Summit Entertainment.

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal (Colter Stevens), Michelle Monaghan (Christina Warren), Vera Farmiga (Colleen Goodwin), Jeffrey Wright (Dr. Rutledge), Michael Arden (Derek Frost), Cas Anvar (Hazmi), and Russell Peters (Max Denoff).


Haywire (2011, Steven Soderbergh)

Haywire’s plotting is meticulous and exquisite. And entirely a budgetary constraint. It’s a globe trotting, action-packed spy thriller with lots of name stars. The action in the globe trotted areas, for instance, is more chase scenes than explosions. Haywire doesn’t blow up Barcelona, lead Gina Carano chases someone down the streets. She doesn’t land a 747 in Dublin, she has a chase scene on the rooftops. And director Soderbergh does phenomenally with those sequences. While Carano’s in real danger and Soderbergh’s shooting realistic DV, David Holmes’s music riffs back to sixties spy movie music and contextualizes things. You still get to have fun watching the spy movie. You’re supposed to have fun. It’s just a different kind of spy movie.

One where the action set pieces are what Carano does, whether it’s stunts or fight scenes, she’s the action. Soderbergh and writer Lem Dobbs space out the action sequences, sometimes not actually going with a big Carano sequence in the situation. Sometimes the film focuses on her adversaries or allies. Soderbergh and Dobbs do a lot of action thriller without a lot of money.

The film starts with Carano–former Marine and spy-mercenary–is on the run. We don’t know from who, because when Channing Tatum shows up to bring her in, they don’t say the character’s name. It becomes obvious pretty soon, but Soderbergh and Dobbs go through all the motions to give Haywire a conspiracy thriller foundation. They don’t have time to engage with it–or, presumably, money–but it’s part of the film’s texture. Some creative decisions in Haywire just plump up the film. Soderbergh’s not trying to make a low budget spy thriller, he’s making a spy thriller with a low budget. He’s not… chintzing.

So after the first Carano action sequence, the film gets into flashback and explains Barcelona and Dublin, which keep coming up in dialogue. They seem less destinations for major spy intrigue and more stops on a tour group’s European vacation. Nicely, both sequences really pay off. They live up to the hype, even if the hype was really nonspecific so Dobbs and Soderbergh could up the mysteriousness.

Then it’s the flashback catching up to present and the film resolving. Ninety-three minutes of not entirely lean–though subplot-free–narrative. Carano works her way through various other spies and government officials. They’re sort of in glorified cameos, but it never feels like it. The magic of the pacing. Bill Paxton, for example, is in a cameo role. He’s in two scenes. One on the phone. But Dobbs and Soderbergh pace it where Paxton feels like an active supporting player. It’s impressive to see executed. Paxton’s fine–it’s a cameo, he’s got nothing to do–but the feat is how the filmmakers pull it off.

Paxton’s Carano’s dad. Ewan McGregor is her spies for hire boss, Tatum is a fellow spy for hire, Michael Fassbender is a fellow (but British) spy for hire. Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas as government guys who hire spies for hire. Anthony Brandon Wong and Mathieu Kassovitz are the guys the spies for hire go after. No one trusts anyone else. Something Dobbs and Soderbergh take their time addressing, which shifts the film from spy action to spy thriller, both for the film itself and Carano’s understanding of her situation.

So Carano.

As dubbed by Laura San Giacomo.

Yes, really.

Physically she’s great. The stunts, the fighting. It’s all nearly silent–trained killers don’t exchange banter in the seedy international spy ring underbelly of Dublin–so it’s just the fight, just the choreographer, just Carano and the actors and the stunt fighters. The fights are excellent. Soderbergh’s editing and photography, the fighters, Carano–great.

Carano dramatically? She’s really likable. Sympathetic. But the performance is hinky; the dubbing explains it. Carano’s dialogue is already terse so San Giacomo doesn’t really build a character. And the comedy moments are a little off. But it’s fine. Carano does well. The physicality of her performance is spot on. Soderbergh builds the movie–tone-wise–around her action sequences. The chase in middle flashback informs how something in the first act present was done. Exquisite. Always exquisite.

The cameos are all good. Bandares and Douglas have the most fun, though different kinds of fun. Tatum’s good. McGregor’s good. Fassbender’s more just effective. He’s a glorified cameo too. The movie’s Carano, Tatum, and McGregor.

Under pseudonym, Soderbergh also shot and edited Haywire. Technically it’s great. There’s great editing, there’s great photography, seperate sometimes, together sometimes. He does some excellent work in Haywire. With Holmes’s music an essential support. Holmes gets to foreshadow the slight change in tone for Haywire; how the filmmaking, narrative, and music shift gears–the music goes first.

There’s a lot of awesome to Haywire. It’s just an action movie on a budget with a problematic lead performance. The film does well not drawing attention–or even acknowledging–its constraints. But they’re there nonetheless.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Edited, photographed, and directed by Steven Soderbergh; written by Lem Dobbs; music by David Holmes; production designer, Howard Cummings; produced by Gregory Jacobs; released by Relativity Media.

Starring Gina Carano (Mallory Kane), Ewan McGregor (Kenneth), Channing Tatum (Aaron), Michael Fassbender (Paul), Michael Douglas (Alex Coblenz), Antonio Banderas (Rodrigo), Anthony Brandon Wong (Jiang), Mathieu Kassovitz (Studer), and Bill Paxton (John Kane).


Super 8 (2011, J.J. Abrams)

Sometimes special effects are just a little too much, especially with CGI composites letting director Abrams set so much of Super 8 in gigantic action sequences. The film’s about a bunch of tweens in 1979 Ohio making a Super 8 zombie movie when they witness a train crash. The train crash, with train cars flying through the air and the kids running through showering debris, is the first time it seems like Abrams might have a little too much confidence in CGI composites. Especially when cinematographer Larry Fong can’t match the kids in the foreground. Actually, other way around, the CGI compositers can’t match Fong’s lighting of the kids pre-composite.

Then Abrams takes a little break from it and concentrates on the story. He’s already got most of the ground situation done. Abrams’s script is real good at brevity when it needs to be (which makes all of Noah Emmerich’s evil Air Force colonel a little much). By the train crash sequence, Abrams has established lead Joel Courtney (his mom has just died), his sidekick Riley Griffiths, the girl they both think is cute (Elle Fanning), and their second tier pals (Ryan Lee is the pyromaniac in training, Gabriel Basso is the scared one, Zach Mills is the one you forget is in the movie). Kyle Chandler plays Courtney’s dad; he’s a sheriff’s deputy who eventually has to take charge in a crisis situation. Abrams spends some time establishing the strain between Chandler and Courtney because the mom died. It’s effective stuff without ever being particularly… good. Both Chandler and Courtney give good man tears.

Fanning’s dad is town drunk Ron Eldard, who Chandler hates. Eldard doesn’t want Courtney around his daughter. Fanning’s outstanding and Courtney’s likable, so their gentle tween friendship stuff is nice. It’s not so deep it should take over the plot, which Abrams lets it for a while, but it’s nice. Abrams and Fong know how to go for emotional gut shots and they deliver, lens flares and all. And the emotional gut shot music from Michael Giacchino is a lot better than his eventual action and thriller music. Giacchino’s score by the third act is like a TV movie version of John Williams. Oh, right–Steven Spielberg is one of Super 8’s producers. The movie plays like an homage to some of his seventies and eighties films, most often Close Encounters.

The homage, while unnecessary, is kind of cute.

Turns out the Air Force is shipping something top secret and monstrous on the train and they come to town trying to reclaim it. Enter evil colonel Emmerich. None of the Air Force guys are good, however. They’re variations of evil.

For a while, the movie’s about Griffiths trying to integrate the train crash into his Super 8 project while Chandler deals with Emmerich. Then dogs start running away and people’s electronics are getting stolen. Then there’s a quarantine–sorry, not a quarantine, an evacuation. Abrams checks way too many homage boxes on his list, letting Super 8 get away from its stronger elements.

The kid stuff is good. Besides Fanning, not of the performances are great–Courtney’s good, but he’s got fairly predicable narrative tropes to work through–and Abrams’s banter material is what makes Griffiths and Lee’s performances.

Chandler’s investigation stuff is okay, not great, but it mostly runs concurrent to the better kid stuff. Their Super 8 movie, which runs over the end credits, is awesome.

When the evacuation hits, however, is when Super 8 slips. Abrams’s direction is all right just never quite good enough to get the action stuff done. Especially not with all the composited action nonsense going on around the kids. Everyone has a somewhat chill reaction to misfiring tanks, broken legs, and giant monsters, kids, adults, and soldiers alike. There’s this tedious crashed bus sequence at the beginning of the third act; it ought to be excellent, instead it’s artless. There’s no choreography to the frantic action, just CG tying everything together.

Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey’s editing, seemingly to keep things as PG–13 as possible, doesn’t help in that one bus sequence. They’re choppy instead of frantic. Otherwise the editing is undistinguished, sort of like Fong’s photography, or–at its best–Giacchino’s score. The film’s technically competent without ever excelling at anything. Abrams doesn’t need anyone to excel to get Super 8 done.

The finale is a little long, with Abrams going from set piece to set piece to set piece–not forgetting to tug at the heartstrings when he can. The heartstring tugging is the most effective–next to the humor–because the cast is so strong. Super 8’s biggest problem is Abrams not being able to balance between the characters and the plot. It’s too bad.

But Super 8’s still pretty good. It’s just nothing special… which Abrams seems to understand. His enthusiasm, for something he’s writing, directing, and co-producing, is a tad too muted.

Artificial lens flares aren’t enough.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by J.J. Abrams; director of photography, Larry Fong; edited by Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey; music by Michael Giacchino; production designer, Martin Whist; produced by Abrams, Bryan Burk, and Steven Spielberg; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Joel Courtney (Joe Lamb), Kyle Chandler (Deputy Jackson Lamb), Elle Fanning (Alice Dainard), Noah Emmerich (Colonel Nelec), Ron Eldard (Louis Dainard), Riley Griffiths (Charles Kaznyk), Ryan Lee (Cary), Gabriel Basso (Martin), Zach Mills (Preston), David Gallagher (Donny), and Glynn Turman (Dr. Woodward).


Newlyweds (2011, Edward Burns)

Newlyweds is an exceptional disappointment. Not really because of the concept–upper upper middle class New Yorker whining–or the execution–Burns has his actors speak into the camera, the characters giving interviews–but because it’s always shaking and Burns, as writer and director, always takes the worse path. Newlyweds is a what happens, at least as far as Burns’s script, when you make bad choices. Every single time.

The film opens with titular Newlyweds Burns and Caitlin FitzGerald out to brunch with her harpy sister, Marsha Dietlein, and her sister’s miserable, sexually frustrated (all because of Dietlein) husband, Max Baker. Burns goes out of his way to make Baker as gross as possible, and Dietlein as mean possible. The audience is supposed to be annoyed with Baker’s whining, but they’re supposed to hate Dietlein. She’s such a prude she doesn’t want to listen to Burns’s comic retellings of he and FitzGerald’s problematic sex life (it’s all FitzGerald’s fault, of course).

No slut shaming though, because they’re prudes. All the slut shaming is for Kerry Bishé, who shows up immediately following the introduction, as Burns’s long lost little half sister. Burns, writing himself possibly the shallowest role in the film–he really uses those into camera interviews to sidestep narrative responsibility–and Bishé had a bad dad, which has nothing to do with the film. It’s just there for immediate sympathy (not for Bishé, because she’s always being slut shamed, but for Burns). Bishé’s exceptionally traumatic visit all gets to serve to make Burns into an even better guy. Bishé’s shit out of luck.

Along the way, Baker hooks up with a twenty-three year-old girl (Daniella Pineda), Bishé hooks up with FitzGerald’s ex-husband (Dara Coleman), and chaos ensues. But it does give Burns the chance to write FitzGerald as a harpy in training and himself as a male savior. A sensitive male savior to some degree, but not much of one.

The worst thing is how much FitzGerald and Bishé appear willing to try to make this movie work, Bishé especially. And her performance is a mess. Burns and editor Janet Gaynor cut magic with every other actor in the film–Burns berating Baker is legitimately hilarious, regardless of Burns’s irresponsibility as a writer, and the walking shots (everyone basically walks from scene to scene Newlyweds, in William Rexer’s nicely lighted Manhattan) have great cuts–but Bishé’s editing is awful. Once the script gets around to revealing all her secrets, it’s like the editing is designed to make the audience sympathize less and less.

But, to some degree, everyone’s pretty good. Dietlein has a terrible, shameful part, but she plays the hell out of it. Burns has to double down on her being awful because otherwise it means he’s got the film wrong. And he does have it wrong. FitzGerald’s good, Coleman’s kind of great, Baker’s a cartoon (as opposed to everyone else’s caricatures). Even Burns, as an actor, is really pretty good. He’s mugging a little, but the rest of his cast isn’t, which provides an interesting contrast.

He just can’t seem to figure out how to direct his script, because it’s a bad script. He can make the movie–the actors work, Rexer and Gaynor are great, P.T. Walkey’s music is solid–but he can’t direct this script. There’s no relationships. Burns intentionally starts the film with these characters having no apparent foundation.

I wish Newlyweds were more pedestrian, because then it wouldn’t be such a disappointment. Burns really should’ve worked a little bit harder on the writing, because everything else is there.

I mean, if he’d actually been able to sell Baker as a legitimate character… the sky’s the limit. Though he probably wouldn’t have been able to sell him wearing a golf cap–Burns, not Baker–the whole movie. Did Burns have a golf cap company he was promoting or something?

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Edward Burns; director of photography, William Rexer; edited by Janet Gaynor; music by P.T. Walkley; produced by Aaron Lubin, Burns, and Rexer; released by Tribeca Film.

Starring Edward Burns (Buzzy), Caitlin FitzGerald (Katie), Kerry Bishé (Linda), Marsha Dietlein (Marsha), Max Baker (Max), Dara Coleman (Dara), Daniella Pineda (Vanessa), and Johnny Solo (Miles).


Take Shelter (2011, Jeff Nichols)

Take Shelter is relentless; sort of an anti-Field of Dreams. Michael Shannon is a husband and father, respectable, employed member of a somewhat rural community. There’s not tons of money (wife Jessica Chastain pays for their summer vacations by selling her sewn goods) and daughter Tova Stewart has lost her hearing and needs expensive implants, but things are all right.

For about six minutes. Take Shelter runs two hours. By minute seven or eight, it’s clear there’s something really wrong. Shannon’s dreaming about the apocalypse and is compelled to build out his home’s existing storm shelter (the title’s a little cute).

It also turns out Shannon’s mom–Kathy Baker, who’s only in one scene but she’s great in it–is a paranoid schizophrenic and Shannon’s worried he’s similarly afflicted.

Director Nichols, who also wrote the script, gives Shannon a whole bunch to do. Almost eighty minutes of the film is entirely driven by toxic masculinity. During the second act, Chastain barely gets anything to do except react to Shannon. It’s too bad, because she gives an entirely solid performance in an underwritten role. Nichols gives her just enough to do to be taken seriously, then stops giving her stuff to do.

It’s the Michael Shannon show, which makes for two hours (or so) of excellent acting, but not necessarily the best way of telling the story. In the third act, Nichols has to put up or shut up as far as the MacGuffin. He doesn’t exactly forecast where it’s going–the film’s beautifully made–but there’s a real reductiveness to how he finishes it out.

Excellent photography from Adam Stone, editing from Parke Gregg, music from David Wingo.

There’s a lot of great stuff in Take Shelter (like Shea Whigham’s supporting performance), Nichols just fumbles the third act. Right after giving Shannon and Chastain an amazing scene together. It’s frustrating.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols; director of photography, Adam Stone; edited by Parke Gregg; music by David Wingo; production designer, Chad Keith; produced by Tyler Davidson and Sophia Lin; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Michael Shannon (Curtis), Jessica Chastain (Samantha), Tova Stewart (Hannah), Shea Whigham (Dewart), Katy Mixon (Nat) and Robert Longstreet (Jim).


Fast Five (2011, Justin Lin), the extended version

It’s almost embarrassing how well Fast Five is made. Director Lin can’t do two things–which might be important for the film if the story mattered at all–he can’t direct heist sequences and he can’t direct car races. He doesn’t care how the heist works or how the car race works, he cares about the scene looking good. And he and cinematographer Stephen F. Windon make Five look really good.

Is there any depth to that appearance? Not much, but it’s smooth and keeps the film moving at a good pace between action sequences. And there are lots of action sequences. Whether it’s car chases or fight scenes or gun fights, Lin puts together some amazing stuff. There’s no depth to it, but who cares… there’s pretend depth.

Chris Morgan’s script goes overboard acknowledging all the Fast and the Furious movies and their characters. Only there’s no depth to any of the characters. Gal Gadot and Sung Kang flirt. Is it cute? Sure, she’s an affable supermodel and he’s likable without much acting talent. Is it good? Not really. But it passes the time.

Until an action sequence. Or the promise of one (both Lin and Morgan very carefully build expectation for a fight between Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson).

Speaking of Dwayne Johnson. He’s terrible. Laughable. But it’s actually immaterial to the film.

There’s some male bonding between Diesel and Paul Walker, but not much.

And Lin again gets a decent Walker performance.

In between amazing action scenes.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Justin Lin; screenplay by Chris Morgan, based on characters created by Gary Scott Thompson; director of photography, Stephen F. Windon; edited by Kelly Matsumoto, Fred Raskin and Christian Wagner; music by Brian Tyler; production designer, Peter Denham; produced by Neal H. Moritz, Vin Diesel and Michael Fottrell; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Vin Diesel (Dominic Toretto), Paul Walker (Brian O’Conner), Jordana Brewster (Mia), Tyrese Gibson (Roman), Ludacris (Tej), Matt Schulze (Vince), Sung Kang (Han), Gal Gadot (Gisele), Tego Calderon (Leo), Don Omar (Santos), Dwayne Johnson (Hobbs), Elsa Pataky (Elena), Michael Irby (Zizi) and Joaquim de Almeida (Reyes).


Perfect Sense (2011, David Mackenzie)

Perfect Sense goes out of its way to be an atypical disaster movie. Director Mackenzie and writer Kim Fupz Aakeson’s only significant acknowledgement of genre standards is having one of the protagonists pursue a solution. Except it’s never clear what epidemiologist Eva Green actually does–her job is clear, but what she does in pursuit of a solution is never clear.

Because, instead, Perfect Sense focuses on her relationship with the guy who works at the restaurant near her apartment, Ewan McGregor. Aaekson’s script uses the restaurant as the metaphor for what’s going on in the world as everyone slow but surely loses their senses. Literally.

Mackenzie and editor Jake Roberts do these montages, narrated by Green’s character (but not her), to show world events. They’re beautifully cut, precisely presented. Everything in Perfect Sense is precise. Its ninety minute run time is also essential–so much information is presented, but every small moment needs to carry weight. The viewer can’t be left to wander. Mackenzie controls the experience.

The film simultaneously has to be a Green and Macgregor’s romantic drama while still taking into account these apocalyptic plot points. Only those plot points can’t be overdone because Perfect Sense can’t appear constrained. The meticulousness of the film starts long before Mackenzie’s avoiding action set pieces.

The photography from Giles Nuttgens is fantastic–and Roberts’s editing on the other scenes is great as well. Max Richter’s music is spot on.

And Green and Macgregor are wonderful.

It’s deliberate, considered and successful.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by David Mackenzie; written by Kim Fupz Aakeson; director of photography, Giles Nuttgens; edited by Jake Roberts; music by Max Richter; production designer, Tom Sayer; produced by Gillian Berrie, Tomas Eskilsson and Malte Grunert; released by IFC Films.

Starring Ewan McGregor (Michael), Eva Green (Susan), Ewen Bremner (James), Stephen Dillane (Stephen), Denis Lawson (Boss), Anamaria Marinca (Street Performer), Alastair Mackenzie (Virologist), Katy Engels (Narrator) and Connie Nielsen (Jenny).


Immortals (2011, Tarsem Singh)

The best thing about Immortals is probably Stephen Dorff. He gives the most consistent performance and has something akin to a reasonable character arc. No one else in the film has that courtesy.

The film, which has the Greek gods reluctantly influencing the life of mortals, makes a big deal out of freewill and the ability for people to develop. Luke Evans–as the worst Zeus outside of a car commercial–wants mortal Henry Cavill to rise to lead his people. Of course, these people are a little unclear. The script’s not just awful in terms of dialogue and character–evil villain Mickey Rourke has more moments of tenderness than anyone else in the picture, which is intention and utterly misguided–it’s also moronic in terms of plotting. There are useless characters (Joseph Morgan in a terrible performance as a traitor) and useless plot twists.

Of course, director Singh doesn’t do much good either. He concentrates on the physical beauty of the film (whether a oil slicked, shirtless Cavill or Freida Pinto–whose eye shadow never comes off–as his love interest) because it’s Greek gods, right? Things should be beautiful. Only not a lot of them are physical. It’s all CG and it’s okay CG but it’s clear these actors aren’t moving in these spaces.

Maybe if Singh could direct action or if he could direct for spectacle (he goes in way too close). Or if Trevor Morris’s score brought some grandeur.

Immortals is a terrible big, little movie.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Tarsem Singh; written by Charley Parlapanides and Vlas Parlapanides; director of photography, Brendan Galvin; edited by Wyatt Jones, Stuart Levy and David Rosenbloom; music by Trevor Morris; production designer, Tom Foden; produced by Gianni Nunnari, Mark Canton and Ryan Kavanaugh; released by Relativity Media.

Starring Henry Cavill (Theseus), Mickey Rourke (King Hyperion), Stephen Dorff (Stavros), Freida Pinto (Phaedra), Luke Evans (Zeus), John Hurt (Old Man), Joseph Morgan (Lysander), Anne Day-Jones (Aethra), Greg Bryk (The Monk) and Isabel Lucas (Athena).


Scroll to Top