(On Cable TV, January 2015) If I was in a better mood, I would probably have something nicer to say about The Place Beyond the Pines, its savvy use of Ryan Gosling, its unusual generation-hopping timeline, the quality of its images, the profound exploration of the meaning of fatherhood, the unexpectedly dramatic performances by Eva Mendes and Bradley Cooper, and a number of other meaningful factors. It’s a quality film, one that has a lot on its mind, and one that takes time to invest in its characters. But if writer/director Derek Cianfrance seems to be directly inspired by the artistic moviemaking of the seventies, he isn’t particularly interested in snappy storytelling or even base entertainment: The Place beyond the Pines tests everyone’s patience at 140 minutes, wallows in a somber tone and never again reaches the heights of its first act. I may not be in the mood for moody films these days, and that’s not the film’s problem. But it becomes my problem in trying to report on it, as the dominant impression I keep from it is having lost quite a bit of time watching something underwhelming. Not recommended for people with only the patience for light entertainment.
(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 theaters, April 2007) Let’s name names, shall we? Writer/director Mark Steven Johnson, you are the one responsible for the insipid waste of time that is Ghost Rider. The failure isn’t all that surprising after the barely-better Daredevil: the only thing worth pondering is how Johnson was able to get another studio directing job after that train-wreck. Like its predecessor, Ghost Rider wastes every promising element it has, and compresses handily in a moderately interesting trailer that pretty much says everything worth knowing about the film. (The film itself is worse than anything you could imagine from the trailer.) Even the combined appeal of Nicolas Cage and the curvaceous Eva Mendes can’t rescue this turkey as it loses itself in a deeply predictable morass of clichés. The special effects are sub-standard, but it’s really the dull story that fails to engage. Save yourself the trouble: re-watch the trailer again and let this one go.
(In theaters, June 2003) Cars, crime and chicks in sunny Miami; what else could you ask for? Okay, so Vin Diesel is missing and so is a lot of the energy of the original The Fast And The Furious. But it doesn’t matter as much as you think: This time around, the cars look better, and if no one can outfox Michelle Rodriguez, Eva Mendes and Devon Aoki are totally appropriate eye-candy. Paul Walker doesn’t have to struggle under the shadow of Diesel, and he emerges as a mildly engaging protagonist. (The homo-erotic subtext of his character’s relationship with buddy Tyrone can be a little ridiculous at times, though; how many jealous glances can we tolerate before bursting out laughing?) It’s a shame that about half the car chases don’t really work; dodgy camera moves, overuse of CGI over stunt driving and over-chopped editing don’t help in building a gripping action scene. At least the two highway sequences are nifty. The last stunt is weak and so are many of the plot points before then, but 2 Fast 2 Furious goes straight in the “guilty pleasures” category; a fine way to spend a lazy evening.
(Second viewing, On DVD, March 2004) Fast cars, curvy women and sunny Miami: Even the second time around, it’s hard to be angry at this film even as the dialogue is painful, the action scenes aren’t particularly successful and the ending is lame. At least the DVD offers some consolation through a series of interesting making-of documentaries and a few extra car-related goodies. John Singleton’s tepid audio commentary does much to demonstrate the uninspired nature of the film’s production. Competent without being particularly commendable, adequate without being particularly satisfying. This one goes out straight to Eva Mendes fans and car buffs. Not that there’s anything wrong with being either.