Monthly Archives: February 2013

Snitch — 7/10

SNITCH (2013, Ric Roman Waugh): 7/10

The three most important things in storytelling: details, details, details. One of my takeaways from the came-out-of-nowhere greatness of FELON, director Ric Roman Waugh’s 2008 prison drama, was how good the details were. The plot wasn’t exceptional and the filmmaking a bit more workmanlike than artistic, but it was so specific and 100% dedicated to itself that it won me over, big time. Finally, Waugh has returned to the director’s chair and the results are almost as strong.

On the outside it looks like another action-packed B-movie star vehicle for Dwayne Johnson, but SNITCH is — while certainly a star vehicle — concerned with taking its subject matter very seriously. Part expose on unfairly harsh laws for drug convictions, part family film, and part tense crime drama, Waugh’s film wastes very little time getting the audience invested in its characters and carrying out the story with lean and well-paced propulsion. Whenever it stops down for some slightly corny domestic drama (both Johnson and Jon Bernthal have crying wives begging them not to do anything dangerous), writers Waugh and Justin Haythe (who adapted REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, speaking of domestic drama) puts as much emphasis on that dialogue as they do on the drug deals that make up the meat of the film.

Visually, Waugh lets his camera react to his characters’ motions, using a lot of handheld in the way a show like Homicide did, or a film like Joe Carnahan’s NARC. The effect is one of authenticity, not manipulation. In the third act, as the plot does veer into slightly hard-to-believe territory, the visuals also give themselves over to blow-em-up car chases and fast cuts, but for the most part this film is much smarter than it needed to be and even makes a social point (which is driven in once too many times with an end-credit statistic). My biggest problem with the film is Johnson’s performance — he’s not terrible, but there’s something a little too earnest and doltish about him. But if Waugh needs a big star like that to get movies this good off the ground, by all means: use The Rock.

 

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Short Takes — Feb 21, 2013

The first in what is hopefully a series of posts I’ll venture to make instead of not writing at all. The point is to say a few words about movies I’ve caught up on recently, but which are too old, outdated, or inconsequential (or some combination of the above) to turn into full reviews or posts. Thanks to the library of titles on Virgin America (and being seated in Main Cabin Select, giving me free reign to watch whatever) and a 6-hour flight back from the East Coast, I got a chance to watch three movies. I decided to choose films I wasn’t interested in giving a ton of attention to (like END OF WATCH, which was available — but I’d rather wait for Netflix to deliver me the Blu-ray where I can watch it at home with proper equipment and circumstances) but was still curious about. Yes, this involved an Andy Samberg double-feature.

 

TO ROME WITH LOVE (2012, Woody Allen): 4/10

It seems like we get “minor Woody Allen” a lot more often than major Woody Allen these days, and this is — much like YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER — a forgettable, loosely connected group of tepid stories Allen has trotted out so often before. The setting is no longer Paris or London, but titular Rome — but the beats are the same. Allen himself is starting to look a little lost on screen, even speaking his own dialogue as if it no longer makes sense to him. Not sure he was ever a very good actor, but he’s standing out now as a below average one. Jesse Eisenberg proved in ROGER DODGER he would be a great Allen surrogate, but when finally given the chance he doesn’t get any good material. There are a few good laughs and everything moves along in an amiable, Allen-ish rom-com way, but if Allen is going to keep dumping movies like this onto us, just to get one out every year, he may as well save the time and money and wait until he has something good again.

 

CELESTE & JESSE FOREVER (2012, Lee Toland Krieger): 6/10

Starts off perfectly fine, but then sinks bit by bit into a fairly lame emo-drama with a creepy subtext. At first there’s great chemistry between Jones and Samberg, but when they split up, Jones’s character becomes fairly unlikable quickly. And as the story delivers its arbitrary plot machinations to all characters, Jones gets the short end of the stick — almost as if the movie is trying to teach The Women of the World something: imagine that this movie is a dude who just got dumped, and the dude is saying “You fucked up, and here is everything you lost by making that choice and how miserable you’ll be until you change and hopefully get a second chance.” But it’s Jones who wrote the script, so is this some sort of weird self-punishment? Maybe I don’t get it. But that said, all the performances are great — even small ones like Elijah Wood’s uncomfortable-being-gay journalist — and the film is expertly edited (by Yana Gorskaya, who seems to know every single frame to cut on and which ones to linger on). It’s no FRIENDS WITH KIDS, but it could be worse.

 

THAT’S MY BOY (2012, Sean Anders): 5/10

Maybe it was my low expectations, and maybe it was the cabin pressure of the airplane, but I laughed A LOT during this movie. It is irredeemably vulgar in many ways, and hard to defend on intellectual grounds given how stupid the premise and proceeding scenarios are, but this is probably the best of the shitty “wacky Adam Sandler” comedies I’ve seen (and I haven’t seen a lot of them; e.g. no way am I going to sit through JACK & JILL). Director Sean Anders (who wrote HOT TUB TIME MACHINE and directed the also better-than-it-should-have-been SEX DRIVE) is a step up from Sandler staple Dennis Dugan, and maybe it’s Anders who should be directing all of this crap — perhaps ZOHAN and JUST GO WITH IT would have been more watchable with Anders behind the lens. And the script is credited to David Caspe, who created what is currently the funniest sitcom on network TV in HAPPY ENDINGS (now that COMMUNITY is Harmon-less and 30 ROCK is history). Together their comic sensibilities keep Sandler from relying on stupid accents and people being hit in the balls for laughs (not that those things are absent from this film — but Sandler’s Boston accent is fine here and more people get hit on the head with empty bottles than suffer groin shots). It’s hard to believe how misogynist this film is; it goes out of its way, it seems, to have no realistic, redeeming, or remotely likable female characters in it. On those grounds alone it’s impossible to recommend. But there’s only so much resistance I can put up when Anders directs an entire New England island of yuppies to re-enact the Budweiser “WAZZZZUUUP!!!” ads in the hopes that “it’s back.” Plus there are entertaining supporting turns from Will Forte, Milo Ventimiglia, and of all people Vanilla Ice. Yes, it’s retarded, yes I laughed. Sue me.

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Mama — 4/10

MAMA (2013, Andy Muschietti): 4/10

Starts off okay, with gentle chills and a nice sense of foreboding, but then it never finds a better gear. As things get more and more wild, it gets less and less scary. By the climactic scene on the cliff I was pretty much laughing at it. Unlike Del Toro’s previous THE ORPHANAGE (which he produced for J.A. Bayona, a more promising director than Muschietti, despite Bayona’s stumble with THE IMPOSSIBLE) this one can’t manage a deep sense of emotion in its family-horror concept. Chastain does the best she can with the material, but her character isn’t written with enough nuance to bother with. And the rest — ugh. Her boyfriend is a carboard box, the psychiatrist guy looks like Tony Shalhoub’s unemployed stand-in, and the evil aunt character is just insulting. Relies on too many sound effects and not enough story-generated scares. Definitely one of those efforts that only made its way into theaters (well over a year after filming, I think) thanks to Chastain’s ZERO DARK THIRTY momentum.

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Side Effects — 6/10

SIDE EFFECTS (2013, Steven Soderbergh): 6/10

I don’t think Soderbergh really wants to retire. Part of him must be sick of the business, and part of him must be exhausted (I don’t think any American other than Woody Allen can say they’ve directed 24 theatrical features since 1989, right?) but judging by his recent output, he definitely looks like a director eager to still play in the sandbox.

With HAYWIRE, he got to do an action movie, but an action movie Soderbergh’s way — long takes, slender story, jazzy editing etc. And with MAGIC MIKE, he turned a male-stripper comedy into a sobering look at American business mindsets and the relationship between sex, romance, and commerce. Now with SIDE EFFECTS, he tries his hand at a Brian De Palma/Alfred Hitchcock-style lurid pulp thriller. I know what you’re thinking — the trailers make it look like a Message Movie about the dangers of pharmaceuticals, and our culture’s over-reliance on pills to treat depression. And granted, there is some of that in there — in fact, one nice little shot shows a close-up of Jude Law’s character Jonathan Banks (a little nod to BREAKING BAD by writer Scott Z. Burns, maybe? Nah, probably just a coincidence) cracking open a Red Bull in order to stay energized for work while saying “Better living through chemistry.” But as it chugs along, the film (refreshingly, in my opinion) reveals that it’s really just a shallow, twisty, aiport-bookstore-paperback novella.

In fact, the story gets so ludicrous (and fairly difficult to swallow, once you leave the theater and parse it out) that you wish Soderbergh had gone all the way with it — turning on his full De Palma. (Though, can anyone but BDP himself really handle that)? Instead, there’s an air of seriousness about it — especially in the first half — that dampens some of the fun. I enjoyed the back half a lot more, especially the immensely satisfying final 20 minutes, despite the fact that these pleasures were existing merely on the most superficial possible level. It’s just that Soderbergh is such a good craftsman that I like seeing him playing in the Pulp Sandbox more than the Message Sandbox.

For her part, Rooney Mara turns out to be pretty strong here; at first I was deeply unimpressed and almost annoyed by her performance, but as the film goes on and I realized what she was doing with her character, a lot of things made more sense. She’s smart — maybe not as good as her older sister Kate (who first popped on my radar during season 1 of AMERICAN HORROR STORY and then came up with a tremendously mature and nuanced turn in HOUSE OF CARDS) — but strong nonetheless. I can’t say the same for Channing Tatum or Catherine Zeta-Jones, who seem to be sleepwalking through a film that doesn’t know how to treat their characters as anything other than cogs in a plot machine. I would say it’s really Law’s movie, except even he takes a back seat to Soderbergh himself, whose retirement with this film is not a quiet one breathing heavy final gasps. Instead, this swan song is the work of someone with too much to do and evidently not enough time to do it.

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