(On Cable TV, June 2018) A social critique executed as a home invasion horror films, Detroit takes us back to the not-so-long-ago 1967, at a time when Detroit was wracked by the racially fuelled 12th Street Riots. Against this backdrop, we get a tale of innocent people terrorized and sequestered by racist policemen who invade a private home and threaten all occupants at gunpoint. The white women aren’t necessarily treated any better than the black men, and the theme of police brutality has an uncomfortably loud resonance. Katheryn Bigalow directs the thriller with her usual nervous energy, taking dry historical facts and making them as raw and frightening as any other horror movie. It’s really not an entertaining movie—it confronts us to abuses of power that still occur regularly, especially in racially divided 2018. Actors John Boyega and Will Poulter (unfortunately getting typecast as a villain) give rough performances, with notables as diverse as Anthony Mackie, John Krazinski and Jennifer Ehle in supporting roles. Still, this is Bigelow’s show, proving once again her standing as one of the finest directors working today. While Detroit often feels too much like a lesson, it’s a worthwhile lesson.
(On Cable TV, September 2017) Had I seen Half Nelson back in 2006, I may have snapped out of my unfortunate “Ryan Gosling has a punchable face” phase (largely driven by Murder by Numbers) well before 2007’s Fracture. While I’m no big fan of Half Nelson’s gritty naturalistic drama, Gosling is quite good as a competent history teacher by day who turns into a crackhead by night. Half Nelson does grapple with a number of issues about class, race and power relationships, but its biggest asset is Gosling’s ability to be charming or pathetic at will. Shareeka Epps is also quite good as a student who discovers her teacher’s biggest failings, while Anthony Mackie has an early turn as a neighborhood drug dealer. Half Nelson is as far removed from glossy entertainment as you can imagine, and while this obviously has some appeal, it can make the viewing experience draining, especially as it drags on and there is only the barest hint of a redemption at the end, following a demoralizing rock bottom. The film does get better once you compare it to the heroic-teacher subgenre in which white people teach lessons to black students from the ghetto—the clichés are completely upended here, and the film delights in refusing a redemptive arc. Most notably, a subplot with Monique Gabriela Curnen is positively infuriating in refusing an upbeat closure. If Half Nelson doesn’t feel like your cup of tea, that’s OK—it’s not meant for everyone, but it certainly remains a must-see for anyone digging into Gosling’s filmography.
(On Cable TV, July 2016) By this time in his career, Seth Roger has such a defined persona that “Seth Rogen does a Christmas movie” is enough to suggest a fairly accurate picture of The Night Before. We’re going to see crudeness (especially penile jokes), copious drug use, dumb jokes, a paean to male friendship and some anxiety about (finally) growing up. Roughly half of Rogen’s movies in the past ten years have played variations on the same themes and this latest one isn’t any different. For all of the emotional scaffolding about three friends wondering whether their Christmas traditions are holding them together or holding them back, this is really an excuse for Christmas-themed drug jokes and assorted shenanigans. It does work reasonably well, but usually thanks to the actors more than the jokes themselves. Joseph Gordon Lewitt, Anthony Mackie, Lizzy Caplan, Michael Shannon, and, yes, Seth Rogen all bring something extra to their roles even when they’re just doing what they usually do best. (Well, that’s not exactly true for Michael Shannon, who seems to be enjoying himself in a coarser role than usual.) Mindy Kaling, Ilana Glazer, James Franco and Miley Cyrus also show up in small but striking roles. Some of the comic set-pieces work well enough, and the film’s conclusion is just as gooey-reassuring as we’d like in a Christmas movie. As far as holiday classic go, The Night Before aspires to a place alongside Harold and Kumar’s 3D Christmas and Bad Santa, which isn’t terrible company when the syrupy nature of year-end celebrations becomes a bit too much to bear. “Seth Rogen does Christmas movie” it is, then.
(Video on Demand, October 2013) Marvel Studios sure has been on a roll lately; exception made of the dull Thor movies, their last few films haven’t merely played the superhero-blockbuster movie theme as well as it could, but they’ve started playing around with the formula in ways that could be considered risky. So it is that Captain America 2 goes well beyond its predecessor, taking on the style of a contemporary techno-thriller, destroying some of the foundations of the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far and piling up revelations about the entire Marvel series. It’s standard superhero stuff, but it’s so exceptionally well-made, and takes such unnecessary chances that a less confident studio would have avoided, that it can’t help but earn a lot of sympathy. Making fullest use of Chris Evans’ enduring charm, Captain America 2 also gives bigger roles to Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanov and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury: both prove equal to the greater scrutiny. (And that’s without mentioning the plum role given to Robert Redford, in a nod to his place in 1970s political thrillers, or Anthony Mackie once again making full use of his limited time in a supporting role.) (Oh, and George St-Pierre bring a welcome –if incongruous- French-Canadian accent to the film.) The title character adapts well to the current era, but the dilemmas of the contemporary surveillance/intelligence state aren’t a good match for someone forged in 1940s idealism, and it’s those themes, even cursorily tackled, that give interesting depths to Captain America 2 as more than just an action film. Still, even on a moment-to-moment basis, directors Anthony and Joe Russo show a really good eye for what makes great action sequences: fluid camera work, movement with weight, solid sound design and clever moments all contribute to making Captain America 2 one of the best-directed action movie in recent memory: the extended car chase is particularly good, as is the elevator fight sequence. (In-between the other Phase 2 films, let’s give credit to Marvel Studio for its choices as it picks lesser-known directors for major movies.) Other fascinating bits and pieces pepper the film, from a deliciously mainframe-punk Artificial Intelligence reprising a character from the first film, to the big and small details tying this film to the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s an impressive piece of work, whether it’s considered on a moment-by-moment basis or as part of a series that now sports seven other entries. At a time where DC can’t manage to complete even one fully satisfying superhero movie, it’s a bit amazing to see Marvel so successfully achieve the insanely ambitious plan they forged years ago, at a time when even planning a trilogy was a bit crazy.
(Video on-demand, January 2014) I may not have any measurable interest for gambling in my own personal life, but I’m certainly a sucker for films that revolve around the subject. So it is that even a disappointing thriller like Runner Runner can get me smiling even as its shortcomings are obvious. Justin Timberlake stars (and doesn’t do badly) as a bright young man who gets sucked into the seductive lifestyle of an online casino operation headquartered in sunny Costa Rica: the initial allure of his new job quickly turn sour when he discovers the web of secrets masterminded by the business’ shady owner (Ben Affleck, in a role that could have been played better by many other actors). The narration-heavy script is initially pretty good with the details, but those get scarcer as the film advances and accelerates, much to the audience’s detriment: As the protagonist’s life-saving machinations get more intense, our glimpse into what’s happening gets narrower and narrower, and the rhythm of the film seems to push aside much of the detail that initially makes Runner Runner so interesting. It also runs roughshod over some of the essential connective tissue of the story: The romance between our hero and the initially-unattainable heroine (Gemma Arterton, looking good but stuck without much to say) is developed without depth, to a point where no one really cares if she’s truly loyal to the protagonist or not. Timberlake isn’t too bad as the lead, but it’s Anthony Mackie who gets the most of his supporting role as an FBI agent, with a few good monologues to project an adequate amount of menace. (Mackie’s been seen in a few supporting roles so far, and he usually manages to impress in them.) Director Brad Furman doesn’t have as good a script as the one he had for his previous film The Lincoln Lawyer, and if the result may be a serviceable way to spend 90 minutes, Runner Runner is not quite as interesting as it should have been.
(On-demand video, August 2012) There’s a comforting familiarity to genre exercises that makes it easy to forgive them for, well, being genre exercises. Man on a Ledge may benefit from an unusual premise (man goes on a ledge as a diversion for a heist), but it quickly becomes just another thriller with the usual palette of elements: clever virtuous thieves, corrupt cops, framed hero, rapacious journalists, and so on. To its credit, Man on a Ledge plays its thriller cards well, especially in the first act of the film while all of the plot strands are being set up. It’s the second third that hits a bit of a lull as the same situation is re-threaded for about 15 minutes: thrillers live or die on narrative energy, and there’s a sense, as the thieves goof around their target, that time is being wasted. At least the last act of the film speeds up again, leading up to a nice appropriate moment of stunt-work. Some dynamic camera work helps keep up interest throughout, but some thanks must be given to the good cast assembled here for the film: Sam Worthington as a scruffy protagonist, Ed Harris as a rail-thin villain, up-comer Anthony Mackie as a partner working at cross-purposes, Elizabeth Banks as a damaged police officer and Genesis Rodriguez as a wise-cracking rogue. It plays reasonably well as a genre thriller, and that’s fine if that’ all you really want to see. Where it falters is in comparison with other better movies of this kind –specifically Inside Man, Spike Lee’s far-better “New York crime thriller” entry which felt as if it had some connections to contemporary reality rather than just being a somewhat showy thriller. The far-fetched nature of Man on a Ledge’s plot could have used a bit more grounding (so to speak, ahem) and that’s probably when genre exercises can go astray, by being more focused on their own plot convolutions rather than spending just a bit more time on making it feel even more credible.