Jennifer Garner

Pearl Harbor (2001, Michael Bay)

Pearl Harbor is a couple things. It’s a breathtaking historical visualization of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. And it’s a patronizing, cynical, disinterested war melodrama. The big problem with the melodrama is Randall Wallace’s script, which is vapid at best. It also barely factors in to the attack sequence. The attack sequence is all director Bay, for better and for worse, along with some unfortunate digital blurring to keep the rating down.

The Pearl Harbor sequence comes about halfway through. The movie runs three hours, the attack is at eighty minutes. Before the attack, there are some scenes with the Japanese (led by Mako and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, who are both great) planning the attack and the Americans worrying about an attack. The Americans are mostly Jon Voight as FDR, Dan Aykroyd as the Naval Intelligence guy who can’t convince anyone to be worried, and Colm Feore as the Pearl Harbor base commander. But even if Aykroyd did get boss Graham Beckel to listen, the Japanese plan was too good. The Americans are just unprepared, which actually brings in the closest thing to a political statement the film makes. It makes various implications regarding the American military brass, as opposed to guys on the ground like Feore or Alec Baldwin’s Doolittle; Voight’s FDR isn’t with the brass either. It’s… interesting.

It’s probably what happens when history fails the politics of the filmmakers.

In other words, the film does a terrible job essaying how 1941 felt to the average person. Because Wallace does a crappy job in general and Bay’s really not interested in doing anything with regular people, not when he gets to do a special effects heavy war movie. As for the melodrama… the only person more disconnected from the melodrama than Bay is leading lady Kate Beckinsale, who doesn’t even get a caricature to play. Wallace’s script is, actually, quite interesting when you realize Beckinsale doesn’t just have less character than practically every other nurse (who are all man-starved caricatures, the slutty one, the sweet one, the fat one, the nerd), but her lack of character is what obliterates the film’s potential. Not just Beckinsale’s performance, which is… fine, given the circumstances. It’s vaguely believable she’s interested in Ben Affleck, but they—Wallace and Bay—can’t figure out how to get Beckinsale interested in third love triangle leg, Josh Hartnett.

See, Affleck and Hartnett are childhood best friends from Tennessee—the accents are better than you’d think; maybe not authentic, but better than you’d think. Affleck’s the alpha, Hartnett’s the beta. Though Affleck’s still fallible, he’s got dyslexia in 1941.

So let’s talk about the melodrama.

The movie opens with a flashback showing Hartnett’s character has a bad but sympathetic dad (William Fichtner in a flashback-redeeming cameo—or at least flashback-evening cameo) and sets Affleck up as his protector. Only Affleck’s about to ship out to England to get in the war because he’s getting old and still wants to be a war hero. He lies to Hartnett about volunteering and breaks new girlfriend Beckinsale’s heart, but she’s going to wait for him. Coincidentally Navy nurse Beckinsale and Army flier Hartnett both get posted to Pearl Harbor, where they see each other to say hello but don’t hang out. Or maybe they do. Because their supporting casts hang out but the film doesn’t do anything with Harnett or Beckinsale’s character development. What you’ve got with Pearl Harbor is a film wanting a beta to alpha arc for Harnett, but resenting Hartnett for being a beta, and then accidentally coming to the conclusion the alpha and beta labels are a bad way to think about masculinity. Only it can’t recognize that possibility because… dudes. There’s nothing more painful than the scenes when Affleck and Hartnett try to bond after Affleck gets back to find Hartnett and Beckinsale together. Much like when Beckinsale’s character is so exceptionally shallow you have to wonder how she made it through the scene without just defaulting to an honest answer and then when she becomes literal background in the third arc, you eventually welcome Hartnett and Affleck just standing around looking pensive as opposed to trying to talk about their incredibly complex situation.

Even though there are a couple times they’re supposedly going to have a hard talk. And there are a couple times Beckinsale’s going to get real with someone. Only she doesn’t have enough agency to do it. And Wallace doesn’t know how to write men talking about anything not military or war expository-related except Affleck and Hartnett’s buddies trying to figure out the best way to manipulate the nurses into bed. But they don’t mean it in a bad way—come on, it’s 1941, no one knew women were people yet.

Not even women.

So, spoiler, no, Beckinsale doesn’t have some kind of empowerment arc.

In fact, even though she gets the ill-advised, poorly written, and awkwardly placed end narration… Bay cuts her out of the end of the movie because she’s not a dude.

I guess to simplify the problem with the melodrama plot—it’s about Hartnett having a man-crush on Affleck because Affleck’s a square-jawed superman only to realize he’d rather have a lady, something Affleck seemingly wanted for himself but wasn’t ever going to tell puppy dog Hartnett about, and then Beckinsale—the object of their affections—doesn’t have enough of a character to react honestly to either, but with Affleck there’s at least movie romance cuteness; with Hartnett it’s a chemistry-free, erotic-free, erotic affair. It’s wholesome. With shtupping. Is it wholesome shtupping? Eh? Bay’s really bad at directing sex scenes.

Really, really, really, really bad. You’re surprised the actors aren’t blushing red from the stupidity.

Not like the canoodling, which Bay does somewhat well. Hartnett and Beckinsale’s romance is mostly short montage sequences where they cuddle and breath heavy on each other and it looks like a perfume commercial.

But the Pearl Harbor attack sequence is awesome filmmaking. Editors Roger Barton, Mark Goldblatt, Chris Lebenzon, and Steven Rosenblum don’t get jack to do before it and about twice that amount after it, but the attack is breathtaking thanks to them. Their cuts are so good the digital vaselining of the frame to insure the PG-13 doesn’t matter. It doesn’t work, but it doesn’t matter. John Schwartzman’s photography is great throughout, especially on the attack. Even an uncaring bastard like Bay is able to make each death tragic. It also reveals if Cuba Gooding Jr., who’s shoehorned into the movie to give it a single Black character with a story arc, is Bay’s real hero. Gooding’s a cook who ends up shooting down Japanese planes; Bay’s a lot more interested in the ground action than the flying action. Pearl Harbor doesn’t reinvent any wheels (or even try), but it definitely gets a lot less interest when it’s “leads” Affleck and Hartnett hitting the sky to avenge.

But getting them to the planes to go into the sky? Bay’s all about their (ground) trip to it. It’s a problem. Bay’s a problem.

Other great crew contributions? Nigel Phelps’s production design is fantastic. Hans Zimmer’s score is fine. Nothing special, but nothing bad. It’s all about that editing though. All about that editing.

Now for the acting. Lots of good supporting performances. The film has a bunch of sturdy character actors giving sturdy performances in bit parts. In the bigger ones, Aykroyd’s pretty good. Voight’s no qualifiers good. He’s really able to turn FDR into an action hero. It’s something. Baldwin’s great as Doolittle. Gooding’s fine. It’s a shallower performance than it’s the part because Wallace does a crap job with it. Bay and Wallace believe in institutional racism in 1941 but not person-to-person racism. The movie’s patronizing as hell.

Of the main cast—Hartnett’s flying sidekicks and Beckinsale’s nursing sidekicks—Michael Shannon is a revelation, Tom Sizemore’s good, Ewen Bremner’s able to get over his stutter, which is only there to get sweet nurse Jaime King to fall for him. Jennifer Garner’s bad but likable as the nerdy nurse. Some of the better glorified cameos are Feore, Leland Orser, and Kim Coates.

Affleck’s a really good lead. He’s able to do it all. He’s not able to give he and Beckinsale enough chemistry to give their romance depth, but its all so disingenuous it’d be a miracle. And Pearl doesn’t have any miracles.

Hartnett’s got some really good moments and some potentially good scenes. It’s hard to wish for more because it’s so clear the film’s disinterested in him. Hartnett and Beckinsale start their flirtation just as the Pearl Harbor attack preparations subplot really gets going and, again, it’s not like Wallace and Bay are actually interested in how anyone existed in fall 1941 in Pearl Harbor and definitely not with a girl.

Beckinsale’s… never bad. She’s never… wholly unconvincing. Though she has an utter lack of chemistry with Hartnett, who she needs some with because they get so little in the script, and still not quite enough with Affleck to get over the silly romance stuff. You’d say she was miscast but she’s good with the straight nursing stuff.

In case anyone’s wondering, Pearl Harbor intentionally and utterly fails Bechdel. I suppose it’s technically exempt when they’re talking about the wounded but… the rest of it? This group of nurses moves from rural U.S.A. to paradise Hawaii and has no reaction other than “boys, boys, boys.”

When Wallace and Bay are bad at something… they’re real bad at it.

It’s shame the movie’s not better. But it’s far from a failure; Bay lacks narrative instinct and interest, he’s indifferent to his actors’ performances—which nicely doesn’t matter because most of the parts are thin and the performances grand—but he’s ambitious to the nth with the attack sequence and he’s at least willing to acknowledge it does need some kind of bookends. Unfortunately for the actors, the audience, the film, Wallace is writing those bookends. Because he’s inept. You’d expect more from an intern who watched a week of History Channel. Some of its Bay’s fault—if he’d cared about the melodrama, it’d be fine….

As is, thanks to the cast and crew’s work, Pearl Harbor is tolerable when it’s not phenomenal, which isn’t bad at all.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Bay; written by Randall Wallace; director of photography, John Schwartzman; edited by Roger Barton, Mark Goldblatt, Chris Lebenzon, and Steven Rosenblum; music by Hans Zimmer; production designer, Nigel Phelps; produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Bay; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Ben Affleck (Rafe), Josh Hartnett (Danny), Kate Beckinsale (Evelyn), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Miller), Alec Baldwin (Doolittle), Ewen Bremner (Red), Michael Shannon (Gooz), William Lee Scott (Billy), Tom Sizemore (Earl), Jaime King (Betty), Jennifer Garner (Sandra), Catherine Kellner (Barbara), Sara Rue (Martha), Mako (Yamamoto), Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Genda), Dan Aykroyd (Thurman), Kim Coates (Richards), Leland Orser (Jackson), Colm Feore (Kimmel), Raphael Sbarge (Kimmel’s Aide), and Jon Voight and the President of the United States.


The Invention of Lying (2009, Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson)

The Invention of Lying is a 100 minute exploration of a gag. In a world without lying–or any fictive creativity whatsoever–co-director, co-writer, and star Ricky Gervais one day spontaneously mutates and lies. He lies for personal gain, only to discover exploiting people doesn’t make him feel good, so he lies to make himself and others feel good, but it gets him into trouble. It doesn’t get him what he wants and it just ends up making him rich, famous, and miserable.

The film opens with Gervais on a low point. He’s about to lose his job and he’s out on a date with his dream girl, Jennifer Garner, only she thinks she’s too good for him. Because, objectively, his genetic material isn’t good enough to mix with hers. So the other thing this world doesn’t have is any relatable version of love. Gervais and co-writer Matthew Robinson aren’t even comfortable getting into the lust questions, because once they start down any problematic avenue, they run away as fast as they can. It’s like they release they can’t make the joke funny and hightail it away. So why do the joke in the first place?

The film takes place in a small New England town where there is, inexplicably, a movie studio. Except movies are just filmed lectures of history lessons because there’s no fiction and there’s no concept of it. Gervais and Robinson entirely ignore how the world would function and how history would have progressed without imagination or creative ambition. For a while, they just keep falling back on the gimmick–what if everyone just says what they’re thinking, no matter how awful. There are a lot of flashy cameos–Ed Norton is the best–but they can only distract so much. Eventually, the film has to reconcile itself, because Gervais is in love with Garner and Garner doesn’t want him because of his genetic material.

There’s this scene where Gervais explains how he imagines peoples lives upon seeing them and Garner just sees them as fat, bald, nerdy, losers. It comes right after Gervais telling Garner she’s the kindest, best person he’s ever met, which makes absolutely no sense, but whatever, she’s supposed to be angelic.

Eventually, Garner’s part contracts and the movie moves ahead an indeterminable time, becoming just Gervais moping with buddies Louis C.K. and Jonah Hill. By this time, Gervais has increased the scale of his lying, making up God. That subplot is the best one in the film; Gervais and Robinson don’t have to be subtle about their jabs yet still manage subtely in said jabs. It operates on two levels, something the film never does otherwise.

Sadly, it’s not about Gervais inadvertently becoming a messiah, it’s about him pining for Garner. Conveniently, Gervais’s first act nemesis (Rob Lowe, one note as a successful bully) also has eyes for Garner so there’s a love triangle thing towards the end.

It’s a yawn, partially because Garner and Lowe are extremely limited in their roles, partially because Invention can only handle so much emotion. If people can’t have creative expectation, their emotions are stunted. And even when they aren’t, Gervais and Robinson are focused entirely on characters on hand, not this world they’ve ostensibly created.

Gervais drops out during the third act way too much too. He’s the only relatable character in the film; everyone else is a caricature to be mocked. He’s a caricature too (maybe the thinest one), but he’s not supposed to be mocked.

Okay photography from Tim Suhrstedt covers for Gervais and Robinson’s lackluster directing. There are a lot of songs and song montages–including a criminally atrocious Elvis Costello cover of Cat Stevens’s Sitting–and they don’t make any sense since there’s no music in Lying’s world.

Gervais’s performance is fine. Garner ranges from inoffensive to miscast. Hill is an overblown cameo, while C.K. is an underdeveloped sidekick. Besides Ed Norton, Martin Starr’s probably the funniest cameo. Others are earnest but with limited material.

The Invention of Lying would’ve made a great six part sitcom or something, but Gervais and Robinson don’t have a full enough narrative for 100 minutes. It’s not funny enough to make up for all the laziness.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson; director of photography, Tim Suhrstedt; edited by Chris Gill; music by Tim Atack; production designer, Alec Hammond; produced by Lynda Obst, Oliver Obst, Dan Lin, and Gervais; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ricky Gervais (Mark Bellison), Jennifer Garner (Anna McDoogles), Rob Lowe (Brad Kessler), Louis C.K. (Greg), Jonah Hill (Frank), Tina Fey (Shelley), Jeffrey Tambor (Anthony), and Fionnula Flanagan (Martha Bellison).


Daredevil (2003, Mark Steven Johnson)

I like Ben Affleck. Even his early phase–the self-aware, “Bruce Willis doing a Harrison Ford” impression thing actually worked out on occasion. It helped he kept the persona between pictures. Of course, Daredevil comes after Affleck decided to do his own thing. He gets an incomplete in Daredevil. You couldn’t hate watch it for his lousy essaying of the role of blind, gymnastic ninja lawyer but you also can’t say he came anywhere near making it work. It’s not his fault, it’s a terrible script, terrible direction, terrible everything, but he still didn’t make it work.

So while I can hope Affleck doesn’t embarrass himself, Daredevil is another story. Watching the film, for long, boring portions, there’s nothing to do but hope for it to fail a little bit more. Just to make things interesting. Director Johnson tries to do Batman meets Spider-Man meets The Matrix meets “extreme sports.” It’s awful. Though it does look a lot like a low budget, serious attempt at Joel Schumacher Batman movie. Even the crappy Graeme Revell music fits that vibe. It’s got enough budget to attempt effects sequences, but no idea what to do with them. It gets outrageous enough, it seems like Daredevil is actually going to break into absurdity. Little CGI Ben Affleck chasing little CGI Colin Farrell. Like they’ll stop and ask the audience how they can be believing anything so silly.

Farrell gives the most forgivable performance. Not even Joe Pantoliano (I miss Joe Pantoliano’s “stunt casting” phase) does well. No one does well. Jennifer Garner manages to adequate but unlikable. She’s even sympathetic during the cheesy romance montages, which Johnson certainly shows more aptitude for directing than anything else in the film.

However, the third act has a surprisingly decent pace. Daredevil overstays its welcome, but seems to realize it and make reasonable amends. Until the idiotic epilogue sequence, which has way too much CGI and way too little imagination. Oh, look, I unintentionally ended on a metaphor for the whole movie.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Mark Steven Johnson; screenplay by Johnson, based on characters created by Stan Lee and Bill Everett; director of photography, Ericson Core; edited by Dennis Virkler and Armen Minasian; music by Graeme Revell; production designer, Barry Chusid; produced by Gary Foster, Arnon Milchan and Avi Arad; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Ben Affleck (Matt Murdock), Jennifer Garner (Elektra Natchios), Colin Farrell (Bullseye), Michael Clarke Duncan (Wilson Fisk), Jon Favreau (Foggy Nelson), Scott Terra (Young Matt), Joe Pantoliano (Ben Urich), Leland Orser (Wesley Owen Welch), Erick Avari (Nikolas Natchios), Derrick O’Connor (Father Everett) and David Keith (Jack Murdock).


Butter (2011, Jim Field Smith)

Jennifer Garner plays a Sarah Palin-type evil Republican woman in Butter. There’s her character. She does a Sarah Palin in Iowa impression; nothing else. It’s easily the most useless performance in the film, but the film’s otherwise filled with good, rounded performances so it’s even more glaring.

And Garner produced the film too so she really just didn’t get it. It’s not all her fault, of course. Director Field Smith and writer Jason A. Micallef maybe should’ve understood you don’t make a wholly unlikable villain a main character, especially not such a real one. It’s not even possible to be sympathetic to Garner’s husband (an underused Ty Burrell) tomcatting around on her. Because his hooker of choice (Olivia Wilde) is human and not an evil monster.

On the flip side, Butter is also the story of a ten year-old black girl (Yara Shahidi) working her way through the all white foster care system in the state. She ends up with some well-meaning liberals (played by Rob Corddry and Alicia Silverstone) and they have all these profound, wonderful moments.

Shahidi’s half of Butter is amazing. Silverstone doesn’t have enough screen time, but Corddry does and he’s great in the muted comic role.

Wilde and Burrell are both good. Ashley Greene’s good as Garner’s stepdaughter. Hugh Jackman’s hilarious in an extended cameo….

But Butter can’t have it both ways. It should be a great film about race and family and belonging; Garner’s political spoof ruins it.

It’s a shame.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jim Field Smith; written by Jason A. Micallef; director of photography, Jim Denault; edited by Matt Garner and Dan Schalk; music by Mateo Messina; production designer, Tony Fanning; produced by Michael De Luca, Jennifer Garner, Juliana Janes and Alissa Phillips; released by The Weinstein Company.

Starring Yara Shahidi (Destiny), Jennifer Garner (Laura Pickler), Ty Burrell (Bob Pickler), Rob Corddry (Ethan Emmet), Olivia Wilde (Brooke Swinkowski), Alicia Silverstone (Julie Emmet), Ashley Greene (Kaitlen Pickler), Kristen Schaal (Carol-Ann Stevenson), Hugh Jackman (Boyd Bolton) and Phyllis Smith (Nancy).


Arthur (2011, Jason Winer)

My Thin Man affection aside, I’m not against sobriety. However, Russell Brand movies integrate the glory of AA to the point it hurts the film (Get Him to the Greek made a similar move at a similar time). The development hurts Arthur, somewhat significantly. It’s good the film has Greta Gerwig, as she pulls it through.

The film is a very pleasant surprise; Brand has shown he can be endearing while still being raucous, but this film is the first I’ve seen where it suggests he might actually be able to act as well. He’s mostly acting opposite Helen Mirren or Gerwig, so he definitely has a lot of support.

The approach helps. Of course it’s nowhere near as good as the original, but it doesn’t compete. Between Brand, Gerwig and Mirren, it engenders a totally different response.

A lot of the film is Mirren’s show—it’s funny because of her responses to Brand. Her career’s gotten so much more interesting as she’s taken these varied roles.

Gerwig’s excellent. Since I’d never seen her before, I was pleasantly surprised, but Arthur has two other big surprises. First, Jennifer Garner’s fantastic. It’s like she was born to play a (realistic) heartless harpy. The other surprise is Nick Nolte (in a small role as Garner’s father). He’s atrocious. I’m not sure they even bothered making sure he was awake.

Winer’s direction is good, very calm and self-aware.

I was hopeful for Arthur, but it’s better than I thought it could be.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jason Winer; written by Peter Baynham, based on the film by Steve Gordon; director of photography, Uta Briesewitz; edited by Brent White; music by Theodore Shapiro; production designer, Sarah Knowles; produced by J.C. Spink, Russell Brand, Larry Brezner, Kevin McCormick, Chris Bender and Michael Tadross; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Russell Brand (Arthur), Helen Mirren (Hobson), Greta Gerwig (Naomi), Jennifer Garner (Susan), Geraldine James (Vivienne), Luis Guzmán (Bitterman) and Nick Nolte (Burt Johnson).


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