Jay Baruchel

Million Dollar Baby (2004, Clint Eastwood)

Million Dollar Baby has a somewhat significant plot twist. Well, it actually has a couple of them. And neither comes with much foreshadowing. A little in Paul Haggis’s script, which director Eastwood visualizes appropriately, but they’re in the background. The film has its larger than life story to worry about–Clint Eastwood as a stogy old boxing trainer taking on a female boxer, played by Hilary Swank. Except she’s not a kid. She’s a grown woman.

The film opens without cast title cards. Immediately, it’s very smooth. Eastwood has a gym, Morgan Freeman runs it for him. There are assorted goings-on at the gym involving the guys training there. It’s a great supporting cast at the gym–Jay Baruchel, Mike Colter, Anthony Mackie–but the gym is initially just where Eastwood hangs out, not where he interacts. So instead Freeman is telling him the goings-on, which does fantastic setup for their relationship throughout the film. Only when Swank arrives does Eastwood get forced to participate and only after prodding from Freeman.

It’s great character development, funny, sweet, sincere. Eastwood’s very careful not to push too hard on any emotional buttons. He makes sure the actors’ emotions are authentic and doesn’t lay it on with the filmmaking. Tom Stern shoots Million Dollar Baby with crispness for the daytime scenes and sharpness with the nighttime. It works as to how the performances come across, how Joel Cox edits them. If it weren’t for how well Haggis’s script works, especially how it integrates Freeman’s narration, Million Dollar Baby might just be one of film’s finest melodramas. Well, if Eastwood–who does a lot in Million Dollar Baby as an actor and a director–wanted to make a melodrama.

He doesn’t though. Instead, he makes this strangely small, while still big, character study of three people and a location and shared experiences. Most of the film takes place in the gym. It’s the touchstone for the characters and the audience. Eastwood and Haggis never wax on about the hopes and dreams of the boxers at the gym–or even Swank’s. It’s not a meditation on the sport of boxing. It’s this devastating human condition piece, with characters revealing depths the entire length of the film, both through scripted dialogue and the actors’ performances. All of the acting is great; Swank is the best, but Eastwood’s the most surprising. You never once get the feeling Eastwood ever has an idea of what he’s going to say to Swank.

Freeman is great too, in the film’s most “of course” sort of way. He gets to be a bit of a mystery and has some fun with it. He narrates and he’s never untrustworthy or anything, he just isn’t telling his own story and it turns out–thanks to Freeman and Haggis–it adds to the film.

Eastwood also did the music, which is sort of unsurprising and also fantastic. The music is perfect. It’s such a strange film, this gentle American Dream rumination, celebration, and condemnation. It’s always sincere, never cynical, never defeatist, but never hopeful either. Eastwood’s filmmaking is focused character study. The music is restrained and minimal.

So many different things are going on in the film at any moment–whether it’s Swank’s Rocky story, Eastwood’s aging one, Freeman’s supporting mostly wry one, Eastwood and Haggis rely heavily on that Freeman narration. He never disappoints. Million Dollar Baby is kind of a love letter; all of a sudden I’m wondering how the script was written with the narration or if it was cut together later.

Eastwood, Swank, and Freeman don’t reinvent the melodrama; they just perfect the melodramatic character study. Ably assisted by Haggis, Stern, and Cox. Million Dollar Baby is phenomenal.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Clint Eastwood; screenplay by Paul Haggis, based on stories by F.X. Toole; director of photography, Tom Stern; edited by Joel Cox; music by Eastwood; production designer, Henry Bumstead; produced by Eastwood, Haggis, Tom Rosenberg, and Albert S. Ruddy; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Clint Eastwood (Frankie Dunn), Hilary Swank (Maggie Fitzgerald), Morgan Freeman (Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris), Brían F. O’Byrne (Father Horvak), Jay Baruchel (Danger Barch), Anthony Mackie (Shawrelle Berry), Mike Colter (Big Willie Little), Lucia Rijker (Billie “The Blue Bear” Osterman), and Margo Martindale (Earline Fitzgerald).

RoboCop (2014, José Padilha)

RoboCop is terrible. It’s long, it’s poorly directed, it’s badly acted. One almost doesn’t want to acknowledge it because then it has to be discussed. At least in how it does contain some subjects ripe for discussion. Like how a badly doctored script can create frustration at missed potential. Missed potential, however, being a euphemism for “a little better than excruciatingly bad.”

Because RoboCop manages to outdo itself. It’s worse in its whole than in its parts, which is quite an accomplishment given the fractured script styles. The film is so disjointed, so cobbled together, it’s like no one bothered writing bridging scenes. Because it can’t be a stylistic choice of director Padilha; he’s got zero personality (unless he’s the unlikely reason for the film’s multiple Tron and Tron 2 nods). The action scenes in the film are exceptionally unimaginative. It’s like Padilha is directing video game cut scenes; he’s entirely divested in the film’s sets. Though a lot of it appears to be green screens, which doesn’t help any of the actors.

The film has a lot of actors I like. Michael Keaton, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jackie Earle Haley, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Jennifer Ehle, Zach Grenier, Jay Baruchel. Yes, Jay Baruchel. With the exception of Ehle, all of them are terrible. The film’s script, as far as dialogue goes (because it does have better plotted sequences), is awful. All of it. There’s not a single good moment. It’s Keaton as Steve Jobs and they fumble it because the script with the political stuff doesn’t get to overshadow the script with the “man wakes up a robot cop” script. It’s like watching multiple television pilots, all shot with the same cast and the same bored director, cut together.

It’d be hilarious if there really was a tortured history to the RoboCop remake, full of reshoots and weird test screenings, but there isn’t (at least not according to IMDb). Someone intentionally made a movie this crappy. Here we go. Let’s do a synopsis.

Joel Kinnaman plays a Detroit cop, he talks like he thinks he’s Vin Diesel and struts like he thinks he’s Paul Walker. Yes, I just made that statement. I just referenced The Fast and the Furious and my unlikely familiarity with the franchise. Does Orson Welles get a lot of callouts? No. I just called out Fast and Furious. RoboCop: The New Movie has brought me to that low point. But RoboCop rides a lightcycle from Tron in this movie. How can anyone possibly take it seriously? It’s a guy in a rubber suit. The RoboCop suit is inept. It doesn’t just look like rubber, when Abbie Cornish hugs RoboCop (she’s his wife), her head leaves an impression on the rubber. It’s all so incredibly lazy.

Though if Luc Besson had made it with Bruce Willis as RoboCop, Gary Oldman playing his role with some enthusiasm and camp (it couldn’t be worse than his Robin Williams impression here), Milla Jovovich as Jackie Early Haley, Chris Tucker as Samuel L. Jackson (he’s awful), maybe Ian Holm as Williams (I’m starting to stretch) and Luke Perry as Keaton’s tech visionary… well, it’d be awesome. If Besson had turned a RoboCop remake into a Fifth Element rehash, it’d be awesome.

But RoboCop isn’t sort of a success where you can see the potential for more success. It’s a zero. Paul W.S. Anderson would’ve turned this thing down. It’s not even competent enough to be a Lifetime movie (and a Lifetime movie about a woman who signs away her husband’s rights so he can become a man-cop robot, but who the film treats like he’s not just a few chunks on the coroner’s table, except one hand so he can touch his family and really feel again, would be amazing).

Kinnaman and Cornish are terrible. Padilha’s direction of them is terrible, but their performances are terrible too. Kinnaman’s entirely miscast, entirely out of his depth. Cornish doesn’t have a good part, can’t even do the scenes she does get.

RoboCop is that wonderful, rare animal. It’s so commercial, it won’t try anything. It thinks doing Samuel L. Jackson as Bill O’Reilly as Samuel L. Jackson will be seen as edgy. It’s not even committed enough to try to be edgy.

I can’t even say I “hate watched” it; it’s immediately not worth any investment whatsoever.

Oh, and one more thing. Guns, guns, guns. Action movies with questionable philosophies about fascist police states can’t be action movies with questionable philosophies about fascist police states without loving guns. It’s true. You can do a war movie without loving guns and many have, but you can’t do a movie about “super cops” shooting up the bad guys without gun fetishization.

It’s a no brainer and Padilha drops the ball on it, just like everything else in the film.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by José Padilha; screenplay by Joshua Zetumer, Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, based on the film written by Neumeier and Miner; director of photography, Lula Carvalho; edited by Peter McNulty and Daniel Rezende; music by Pedro Bromfman; production designer, Martin Whist; produced by Marc Abraham and Eric Newman; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Joel Kinnaman (Alex Murphy), Gary Oldman (Dr. Dennett Norton), Michael Keaton (Raymond Sellars), Abbie Cornish (Clara Murphy), Jackie Earle Haley (Rick Mattox), Michael Kenneth Williams (Jack Lewis), Jennifer Ehle (Liz Kline), Jay Baruchel (Tom Pope), Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Chief Karen Dean), Zach Grenier (Senator Hubert Dreyfus), Aimee Garcia (Jae Kim), Douglas Urbanski (Mayor Durant) and Samuel L. Jackson (Pat Novak).


Just Buried (2007, Chaz Thorne)

It’s a terrible thing to say, but I can’t figure out why Rose Byrne did this movie. Not to knock it with a generalization, but Just Buried‘s a Canadian production. Even though Jay Baruchel’s on the rise, besides her, everyone in the principal cast is Canadian. For a while, I thought I had it figured out–why Byrne would do the film. For the first half, it’s a black comedy about she and Baruchel accidentally killing people and their funeral home profiting. Her character’s interesting, she and Baruchel have chemistry, the script still seems like it might develop somewhere. The script’s the most disappointing thing about Just Buried–it’s so full of potential and Thorne wastes all of it. Instead of doing a peculiar black comedy–the film’s still a black comedy in the end, but it’s a cheap farce of one, a TV movie black comedy, the kind USA would do in the mid-1990s after To Die For. It goes from being a pleasant surprise to a dismal failure, with Byrne’s presence somehow being its greatest setback. Seeing her–she’s excellent throughout, even in the end–essaying the crappy parts of the script… it’s depressing. It maddens.

Here’s what Thorne wastes. There aren’t really any spoilers, but I need to get the list down. He wastes a loser moving from a city where he flounders to a small town where he prospers. He wastes a son getting it on with his father’s trophy widow. He wastes a priest who drinks, plays poker and eyeballs girls. I’m trying to think of what else, but maybe I don’t want to remember it. Thorne flushes away all that potential, instead using each of them for a couple or three jokes. Instead of embracing what makes Just Buried unique, he goes with what makes it common. He turns more than the film into a farce, he turns the viewer’s experience into one as well.

Oh, I just remembered what I forgot (and, yes, it does depress me to recall). Just Buried has some of the finest people hanging out and drinking scenes I think I’ve ever seen on film. Baruchel and Byrne go on a couple of late night benders and Thorne beautifully captures the reality of it, each person’s relative solitude. These scenes happen in the first half, when Just Buried still has a bunch of potential.

Thorne obviously thinks he’s pretty witty with the conclusion, because he’s put clues in the film throughout. Sure, they require people not being able to hear what people whisper to other people, no matter how close they are, but whatever. Once the inevitable conclusion becomes clear–Thorne’s camera sits calmly for too long, like he forgot what they were shooting and just kept rolling–Just Buried just gets boring. Thorne has abandoned his characters, leaving the actors to drown.

Byrne’s great. Graham Greene’s pretty good. Baruchel’s very good in the first half, with his big transition not coming through so well. Sergio Di Zio is hilarious as the priest brother and Reagan Pasternak is funny as the stepmother. Nigel Bennett, Thomas Gibson and Brian Downey all appear to be sleepwalking through their performances, letting their costumes (two cops and an ex-clown) do the heavy lifting.

After Just Buried leapt off its cliff, I kept hoping Thorne knew what he was doing. He apparently does not.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Chaz Thorne; director of photography, Christopher Porter; edited by Christopher Cooper; music by Darren Fung and Scott Loane; production designer, William Fleming; produced by Nigel Bennett, Pen Densham, Bill Niven, Thorne and John Watson; released by Seville Pictures.

Starring Rose Byrne (Roberta Knickel), Jay Baruchel (Oliver Whynacht), Graham Greene (Henry Sanipass), Nigel Bennett (Chief Knickle), Sergio Di Zio (Jackie Whynacht), Reagan Pasternak (Luanne), Thomas Gibson (Charlie Richmond), Brian Downey (Pickles), Slavko Negulic (Armin Imholz), Jeremy Akerman (Rollie Whynacht) and Christopher Shore (Wayne Snarr).


Tropic Thunder (2008, Ben Stiller)

Tropic Thunder is one of those nice movies where most of the cast is phenomenal–here, while Nick Nolte and Steve Coogan are less than amazing, they’re both good. Only Ben Stiller lacks. The script’s full of good one-liners and some knowing Hollywood references. When, for the third act, there’s an attempt at honest characterization, it stumbles. Instead of amping up the absurdity, the movie strangely sidesteps it. The last couple scenes totally ignore that sidestep, going for an ending one half Soapdish, the other Austin Powers. It’s a weak move, but it’s hard to get too upset–the Austin Powers half is Tom Cruise in a fat suit and a bald cap dancing to hip hop.

Cruise’s performance, which I thought was more a cameo, says a lot about where Tropic Thunder works well. It gives the opportunity for good actors to essay crazy roles in the “real” world. There is a certain air of unreality about the movie, if only because it’s a movie made about “Access Hollywood” type reporting using “Access Hollywood” as a narrative tool. There’s a certain conflict of interest, particularly given Cruise’s presence.

Of the three leads–and calling Jack Black one of the leads is a courtesy, Black’s absolutely fantastic, but he’s not one of the leads–Black is the only one without a recognizable real life analog. Even though Robert Downey Jr. picked his character’s nationality (Australian)–a change from the original Irish–the result, a multi-Academy Award winner who does Oscar bait, results in rather obvious Russell Crowe comparisons. Stiller’s playing a combination of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Cruise. Imagine Cruise’s career downturn but without the prestige projects and a lot of dumb, Arnold-sounding action movies. It makes Cruise’s appearance all the more amusing, but it feels–like the “Access Hollywood”–not like punches are being pulled… but they aren’t connecting.

The result is a measured success. Tropic Thunder is really funny, but never genuinely witty or intelligent. There’s a pretense it is witty and intelligent, which just makes it a little sad. Thank goodness for that Tom Cruise dance number.

As far as the acting goes… Downey is–technically–the most amazing. Until he has to play it straight, it’s just fantastic. But Jay Baruchel and Brandon T. Jackson, as the non-superstar supporting cast members in the movie’s movie, steal it in terms of actual human performances. These characters exist to remind the viewer the main characters are unbelievably loopy, which really cuts into the reality factor. Baruchel has more to do in the plot, more people to interact with (Jackson basically gets scenes–good scenes–with Downey).

In much too small roles, both Danny R. McBride and Matthew McConaughey are good.

Stiller’s direction is nearly as passive as his performance. There’s some funny references to war movies–Baruchel starts the picture in glasses in what I’m hoping is a silent Full Metal Jacket reference–but in terms of actual craft, Stiller comes up empty. The movie’s strength are in the script’s dialogue and its characters (certainly not its plot) and the actors. And Stiller seems aware of it.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ben Stiller; screenplay by Stiller, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, based on a story by Stiller and Theroux; director of photography, John Toll; edited by Greg Hayden; music by Theodore Shapiro; production designer, Jeff Mann; produced by Stuart Cornfeld, Eric McLeod and Stiller; released by DreamWorks Pictures.

Starring Ben Stiller (Tugg Speedman), Jack Black (Jeff Portnoy), Robert Downey Jr. (Kirk Lazarus), Brandon T. Jackson (Alpa Chino), Jay Baruchel (Kevin Sandusky), Danny McBride (Cody), Steve Coogan (Damien Cockburn), Bill Hader (Rob Slolom), Nick Nolte (Four Leaf Tayback), Brandon Soo Hoo (Tran), Reggie Lee (Byong) with Matthew McConaughey (Rick Peck) and Tom Cruise (Les Grossman).


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