(On Cable TV, April 2018) Frankly, there isn’t much worth remembering about The Basketball Diaries than its cast and one dream sequence. One of those hard-hitting yet undistinguishable scared-straight stories of teenage drug addiction, this is a film that takes place in low-rent apartments, high-school classes, New York streets and basketball courts. It does have the good fortune of starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Wahlberg, plus Juliette Lewis, Lorraine Bracco, Michael Rappaport and Ernie Hudson—a cast that ensures that interest in the film will remain as long as they are known. The other claim to fame for the film is the dream sequence in which the protagonist graphically commits a high school shooting—you can bet that in the years since, that kind of material is ever controversial. Otherwise, unfortunately, there isn’t a whole to note about The Basketball Diaries. It is a powerful anti-drug movie. It does talk about what teenage boys talk about. It is, in other words, not particularly unique in a world where dozens of those movies appear (and disappear without a trace) every year. But, OK, if you want to see a black-clad DiCaprio mowing down classmates, then this is the film for you.
(Netflix Streaming, May 2017) Perhaps the most remarkable element of Deepwater Horizon is how it constantly teeters at the edge of understanding. The dramatization of the 2010 disaster that contaminated so much of the Gulf of Mexico, Deepwater Horizon takes us deep in the oil-drilling trade, letting loose with a constant stream of jargon, high-tech equipment and specialized knowledge. We, civilian viewers, barely understand what’s going on, but we do just enough to follow. It’s in that strange twilight zone between befuddlement and cognition that, paradoxically, Deepwater Horizon earns its patina of authenticity—it’s convincing in its portrayal of what’s going on, but not so much as to perceptibly dumb down the material to everyone’s perfect understanding. It certainly helps to have archetypical blue-collar avatar Mark Wahlberg as the star of the film—he may play an electrician with a thorough knowledge of his field, but he still comes across as a relatable protagonist. It also helps that the film squarely takes aim at corporate villains in an attempt to create antagonists, and that the last half of the film is one succession of hair-raising sequence after another. Once the stuff starts blowing up (and it does blow up real good, as some would say), who cares about the finer details of negative pressure testing? Knowing what we already do from historical events, much of the film is a buildup to a terrible event and the suspense actually work well—when will it all happen? Is Kurt Russel’s character going to make it out of that shower? While there’s quite a bit to say about Hollywood’s long-running tendency to transform disasters and defeats into uplifting movies increasingly starring Mark Wahlberg and directed by Peter Berg, Deepwater Horizon actually works well on its own terms as a disaster movie. Never mind the unstoryable aftermath in which an entire ecosystem was disrupted for years—at least the initial events are spectacular enough to be shown on-screen with a decent amount of craft.
(Netflix Streaming, November 2016) There’s something to be said about screen personas, and one of the most amazing aspect of reading about the development of Daddy’s Home after watching the film is finding out the pairs of actors once considered for the two main roles of the film and how drastically they would have changed the film. On-screen, Will Ferrell has no problem becoming the semi-naïf good-natured dad, while Mark Wahlberg is immediately credible as a blue-collar macho type. Seeing them square off to gain their affection of kids is almost immediately funny, and it doesn’t take much for their personas to clash. Now trying to imagine Vince Vaughn instead of Wahlberg, or Ferrell as the macho guy facing against Ed Helms suggest entirely new movies. Now, the corollary about the power of typecasting is the accompanying caveat that much of Daddy’s Home script is almost disposable. Stringing along half a dozen recurring gags, the film pretty much goes through the expected motions, leaving just enough time to showcase the actors doing what they do best. Points are awarded for a conclusion that leaves everyone happy, and a coda that even manages an ironic flip of the situation. While Daddy’s Home doesn’t have many surprises, it does execute what it wants to say reasonably well, and makes Ferrell far more tolerable than in many other movies.
(Video on Demand, June 2015) There’s a fundamental miscalculation in casting blue-collar persona Mark Wahlberg as an academic, let alone a novelist teaching English Literature. Fortunately, The Gambler is about, well, a gambler: someone so addicted to the thrill of gambling that he has embarked on a one-way trip to self-destruction. That’s the part of the role that Wahlberg seems to be interested in playing. Never mind the ominous hints that this is a thriller – The Gambler is best understood as a character study, with mild threats and unsolvable debt problems thrown in. Is it successful? Partly so: It’s often interesting to watch, features a great scene-stealing turn by John Goodman, coasts a long time on the inherent tension of being indebted to unsympathetic people, and some of the cinematography is quite nice. Still, there are a lot of parts to The Gambler and they don’t necessarily fit together very well. The protagonist goes out of his way to be self-destructive, which doesn’t help in establishing audience sympathies. The romantic sub-plot isn’t handled particularly well, as are the familial complications of the story. The ending abruptly remembers that there is a semi-criminal thriller element to the film and wraps up quickly (followed by a semi-ridiculous run out of downtown Los Angeles). It’s hard not to feel that, as interesting as The Gambler can occasionally be, it could have been made stronger and more memorable with a few changes.
(On Cable TV, November 2014) It may or may not be interesting to note how many relatively-recent American war movies (The Alamo, Black Hawk Down, etc.) have been about disastrous engagements with high casualties. Lone Survivor follows in that tradition by following a minor Afghanistan operation in which a team is practically exterminated in the ensuing carnage (this isn’t a spoiler: it’s in the title.) The focus, here, is obviously on the nobility of being a warrior against terrible odds. Lone Survivor clearly courts military-minded audiences, reassuring them that their sacrifice is necessary, that everyone involved is a hero and thus spends much of its energy nailing down the details of the fighting rather than try to make it fit in any broader context. While that’s sure to annoy anyone with even the slightest doubts about the usefulness of the Afghan effort, it does help Lone Survivor feel quite a bit more grounded than other movies taking recent American military adventures as a springboard to overly-broad philosophical questions. In this case, it’s clear that Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch (surprisingly credible) and Ben Foster do pretty well in bringing life to underwritten characters, and that director Peter Berg is hyper-focused on the details of his centerpiece firefight. Even the blood spurts look realistic. Still, Lone Survivor operates in a void of meaning. Despite the film’s sometimes heavy-handed worship of its characters, the third act is fit to make anyone shrug: to what good the sacrifice? As much as the film will try to claim that it’s not really interested in the wider context, it does exist in a wider context and its punishing centerpiece action sequence does frame the film as something worth showing every Veterans’ Day. Some audiences will be satisfied by this simple quality. Others will bemoan that Lone Survivor could have been much better.
(Video on Demand, January 2014) Sometimes, subtlety or originality be damned, simple and straightforward is the way to do it. So it is that 2 Guns doesn’t need much more than a premise re-using familiar genre elements (in this case, two undercover agents teaming up against drug cartels after accidentally stealing far more than they expected and discovering that the other is not a hardened criminal) and two solid actors doing what they know best. Mark Whalberg is up to his usual average-blue-collar-guy persona as a Navy agent caught hanging in the breeze, while Denzel Washington is all effortless charm as a DEA agent close to going rogue. Both actors work differently, but here they get a good chance to play off each other, and the result feels more than entertaining. They really don’t stretch their persona, but 2 Guns is a breezy film that doesn’t requires brave performances. (Case in point: Paula Patton looking good and Bill Paxton acting bad, stretching a bit but not too much.) Director Baltasar Kormákur ably follows-up on his previous Contraband by delivering an average but competent criminal action thriller with clean set-pieces and straightforward narrative rhythm. It’s hard to say much more about 2 Guns: Who needs a new classic when the same-old can be done so well?
(Video on-demand, September 2013) Anyone with an interest in director Michael Bay’s career was eagerly anticipating this film: While Bay usually works with stratospheric budgets, wall-to-wall explosions, wild chases and omnipresent special effects, how would he deliver a low-budgets crime drama? Fortunately, the result turns out to be interesting: Filmed with a relatively-paltry 22$M, Pain & Gain is a high-energy, low-morals crime thriller that harkens back to Bay’s Bad Boys films more than anything else. Set in Miami, the film ends up playing like of those Florida-noir comedy-crime novels, with stupid criminals, reprehensible victims, duped collaborators and misguided law-enforcement officials. Everyone is a bit crazy in Miami, and as our idiotic bodybuilding antiheroes get seduced into a life of crime, the plot gets loopier and loopier. Mark Wahlberg is effective as a hustler (over-)taken by a self-improvement mindset; meanwhile, Dwayne Johnson is also remarkable as a self-destructive ex-con periodically restrained by his faith. The film, however, really belongs to Bay, as he uses his usual glossy rapid-fire style to enliven an already-colorful story. Pain & Gain moves quickly, seldom bores (although it occasionally disgusts) and is frequently hilarious as well. There’s even a critique of the “American Dream” rhetoric if you look closely enough, which may be the deepest intellectual content in a Michael Bay film so far. It won’t take much to make viewers regret the fiercely amoral thrust of the story (Bay is more likely to celebrate excess than to reign in good taste, and the gory excesses of Pain & Gain are similar to those in Bad Boys II), something that may weaken the film’s crazy-Florida-noir appeal. While based on a true story, Pain & Gain takes a lot of liberties with the material… so don’t trust everything you see on-screen. Heck, Bay even gets to throw in a car chase and an explosion. The film is a bit long, which becomes a bit of a problem with Bay’s in-your face brashness: the second half isn’t quite as much fun as the first. Still, the result is interesting, making anyone welcome Bay’s efforts whenever he gets a break from his mega-budgeted special-effects epics.
(On Cable TV, September 2013) After seeing many comedies so grounded in realism that they only qualified for the genre label by virtue of not killing off anyone, it’s almost refreshing to see a comedy so unapologetically dedicated to letting big laughs as Ted. From the high-concept opening (boy wishes for his stuffed bear to become alive; bear obliges), Ted is shameless in trying for the maximum number of laughs in the time it has. Alas, this usually means going for the lowest common denominator, so don’t be surprised at the film’s crass and unsubtle humor: Much of Ted is about seeing a cute teddy bear swear and behave badly, and while that works for a while, it’s a strategy with limited potential. Mark Wahlberg is quite good as an ordinary guy trying to find a way between adult life and the remnants of his childhood, with a good voice performance by writer/director Seth MacFarlane and a fine supporting performance by Mila Kunis. (Nora Jones’ cameo is also pretty funny.) Some of the jokes work well (ie; the hotel room fight), and when they don’t (ie; much of the specific pop-culture references –who else can be so fascinated by Flash Gordon?) there’s usually another mildly-funny gag a few seconds later. Boston also has a nice role playing itself, with enough picturesque checkmarks to make the local tourist board happy. Still, this is a film aimed at blue collar guys, and those with low tolerance for penile jokes (some of them bordering on homophobia and others on misogyny) may want to lower their expectations. While Ted definitely has some thematic potential in the way it literalizes the process letting go of one’s immaturity, it’s not in itself mature enough to commit to a satisfying conclusion: I was actually disappointed at the feel-good no-changes conclusion, mostly because the film demands otherwise (and tries to have it both ways as well.) While Ted is well-made enough, and occasionally charming in its relentless attempt to be funny, it’s not quite the film it could have been with just a bit more wit and depth.
(Video on Demand, May 2013) A corrupt politician. An ex-policeman detective with a dark past. An election. Mega development projects. Allegations of infidelity. Murder. Standard stuff when it comes to municipal political thrillers, and perhaps the most disappointing thing about Broken City is how it simply plays along with familiar tropes, delivering them with some competence but never quite going the extra mile for something more interesting than a straightforward script brought to life with capable actors. Mark Wahlberg is his usual blue-collar protagonist self as said ex-policeman with a dark past, whereas Russell Crowe is deliciously slimy as a mayor without scruples. They’re surrounded by good character actors (Barry Pepper, Jeffrey Wright and Catherine Zeta-Jones, who seems to have taken on a lot of smaller roles recently) but all have to contend with a script that goes through the usual motions and sometimes not even doing that (such as with the end-of-relationship subplot). There’s a bit of an interesting character choice at the very end, but otherwise Broken City is the kind of standard fare that you see and soon forget. This isn’t to say that it’s bad –just that it’s without big surprises, and seems content to deliver on basic assumptions. The New York that the characters inhabit may have been more believable at a period piece rather than the somewhat cleaner image the city now has. Still: While Broken City may be unremarkable, it has enough narrative momentum to keep things interesting… which isn’t half-bad when compared to many similar films.
(In theaters, January 2012) January is often a Hollywood dumping ground for average genre efforts, but that’s not necessarily something to hold against smuggling thriller Contraband, a film that manages to find enough interesting things to do with a stock premise to keep viewers intrigued. Mark Wahlberg once again stars as a blue-collar hero, in this case an ex-smuggler brought back for "one last job" in the hope of saving family members from harm. The bulk of the film is spent following him as he boards a ship from New Orleans to Panama City and back. Procedural thriller fans will love the inside look at the operations of a modern cargo ship as Contraband spends just enough time describing how everything works. Panama City is an under-used locale, and the film is credible in its depiction of smugglers working under the radar. Otherwise, there’s quite a bit of plot to digest and a triumphant conclusion for the heroes. None of this amounts to something new or even particularly enjoyable, but Wahlberg is instantly credible as a working-class hero and the look at container shipping is something you don’t see all that often. Solid genre pictures work in part because they follow plot templates that practically ensure viewer satisfaction, and Contraband certainly does much to ennoble the notion that even average genre pictures are sometimes work a look.
(In theaters, December 2010) I have no specific interest in boxing movies or family dramas, but even I can recognize that The Fighter is about as good as those kinds of films can ever be. Based on the true story of boxer “Irish” Micky Ward, the film focuses on a period during which family problems and lack of focus are threatening to derail his career. Part of the appeal is the film’s unusual message of reasonably distancing oneself from one’s family in order to succeed –a far cry from the usual family-at-all-costs message in American films. While the film does end up with a happy reunion… it’s suitably nuanced by sacrifices and bad personality traits from everyone involved. Although Mark Wahlberg is credible as a boxer, he doesn’t have much to do dramatically here but portray a solid hero; Christian Bale gets a far more interesting role as a washed-up addict waking up to his faults, whereas Amy Adams throws herself in a role that could have easily gone straight to cliché. David O. Russell’s direction is often documentary-style; more-so at first, and then later on during the boxing sequences. Those boxing scenes are solid enough to actually catch the nuances of who’s winning and why (which turns out to be essential once the protagonist starts winning fight unexpectedly). Given the film’s close ties with the real people it portrays, don’t expect to see Ward’s true story (read the news clippings instead). Still, even if The Fighter doesn’t have any surprises and plays with clichés, its portrayal of lower-class characters is honest, its payoffs are earned and its blend of sports and family drama is satisfying.
(In theaters, August 2010) I don’t usually enjoy Will Ferrell’s brand of semi-retarded adolescent-grown-old comedy, so my expectations going into The Other Guys were as low as they could be. That explains my surprise at this generally successful buddy-movie cop comedy. Of course, everything will look great after the disaster that was Cop Out earlier in 2010; still, The Other Guys has a lot of fun cataloguing, tweaking and subverting an entire list of action movie clichés. It starts with a treat of a cameo, as Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson play bigger-than-life parodies of the action-movie cops we’re used to see on-screen. Then it’s back to “the other guys” who fill the paperwork and do the actual investigation that goes on behind the usual action sequences: Will Ferrell as a nebbish cop with a wild past and normally-staid Mark Wahlberg as a competent policeman held back by a mistake. The film comes with half a dozen of respectable action sequences, and a steady stream of hilarious moments. Of course, it doesn’t always work: The danger is subverting conventions that exist given their storytelling power is that the subversion often robs the film of its story. At times, The Other Guys is too scattered and less satisfying than it should have been. Another problem is that the material is so broad that it’s often uncontrolled: a number of scenes run too long and feel too dramatic in the middle of so much silliness. (The credits, for instance, wouldn’t feel out of place in a Michael Moore film.) Those tonal problems can be annoying: While the film generally takes place in a recognizable reality, it also occasionally slips up and spends a few moments in a far more fantastical Simpsonesque universe, and the shifts between both tones only reminds us of realism’s dullness. But the advantages of such a scatter-shot approach are that sooner or later, another good moment will come along to make everyone forget about the latest dull sequence. A number of eccentric characters all get their moment in the spotlight (few more so than Michael Keaton’s father-figure captain or Eva Mendes as a supposedly-plain wife), much as a few standout sequences really pop, such as a bullet-time sequence of wild debauchery tableaux, continued abuse of the protagonist’s poor Prius and a purely indulgent slow-motion boardroom shootout. The Other Guys isn’t focused and runs out of laughs toward the end, but bits of it are clever and its overall impact is surprisingly charming.
(In theatres, April 2010) There’s something refreshing in seeing a comedy for adults that delivers entertainment while avoiding the crassest demands of teenage audiences. It’s not that Date Night is short on violence, profanity, sexual references and overall bad behaviour, but it refuses to indulge in them for their own sake. The result is, for lack of a better expression, well-mannered. Date Night is seldom mean or meaningless; it features two mature comedians (Steve Carell and Tina Fey) at the height of their skills and it’s obviously aimed at an older target audience of long-time married couples. Date Night has too many plotting coincidences to be a perfect film, but it does end up better than average, and that’s already not too bad. If the script logic is often contrived, it’s far better at making us believe that the lead couple’s reactions are what bright-but-ordinary people would say or do in dangerous situations, rather than what the Hollywood stereotypes may dictate. There are even a few particularly good sequences in the mix, including a deliriously funny car chase through the streets of New York City, and a thinly-veiled excuse for Carell and Fey to dance as badly as they can. A bunch of recognizable character actors also appear for a scene or two, from the sadly underused William Fichtner to an always-shirtless Mark Wahlberg and a pasta-fed Ray Liotta. Add to that the somewhat original conceit of involving a bored married couple in a criminal caper (rather than using the thriller elements to make a couple “meet cute” as is far more common) and Date Night is original enough, and well-made enough to be noticeable in the crop of films at the multiplex. A few laughs, a few thrills and a few nods at the difficulty of staying married; what else could we ask from a middle-of-the-road Hollywood action comedy?