(On Cable TV, December 2018) I take no real pleasure out of reporting that The Yards is much duller than I hoped for. Movie reviewers, contrarily to some perceptions, usually hope for the best—otherwise, why bother? At the same time, I’m favourably inclined to tales of protagonists fighting against corruption, stories where characters try to get themselves out of the criminal life, and semi-realistic dramas at an age where we’re saturated with superhero blockbusters. Then there’s the respectable real-life factor of the movie being based on events having involved writer/director James Grey’s father. But The Yards is not how to do it. Taking place in lower-class Queens, The Yards is about an ex-con stuck in-between small-time businessmen, institutionalized corruption, blue-collar labour and complex family drama. The result is not meant to feel good: Everything’s dark and dreary, characters get killed accidentally, lifelong friendships are destroyed and there’s little hope for the protagonist in the middle of those powerful corrupt forces. Boasting of a great cast but directed with little distinction, The Yards often doesn’t quite know what to do with its leads Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix and Charlize Theron, not to mention living legends such as James Caan, Ellen Burstyn and Faye Dunaway in supporting roles. The result is procedurally wearying, a description that can be applied surprisingly well to many of Gray’s later works. The Yards may have echoes of On the Waterfront somewhere in its working-class corruption DNA, but that’s not enough to make it feel alive.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) Once you’re settled Daddy’s Home‘s daddy-versus-step-daddy conflicts in the first film (with Mark Wahlberg battling it out with Will Ferrell), what’s left to do? Bring in their fathers, of course. Following a surprisingly similar course to Bad Moms 2, this sequel brings in veteran comic actors to act as the fathers to the first film’s protagonists, while moving the story to the Christmas season to heighten the stakes. Of course, the fathers are even more extreme version of their sons, meaning that there’s a whole new level of embarrassment to be achieved. As far as family comedies go, Daddy’s Home 2 is pretty much the living embodiment of the usual formula. The situations are generic, the characters are superficial and while there is some fun to it all, it’s very familiar material throughout the entire film. While Mel Gibson and John Lithgow do get their moments, John Cena once again ends up stealing every scene he’s in. Otherwise, there isn’t much more to say about it—if you’ve seen and enjoyed the first film, then this is the same with added complications.
(On Cable TV, August 2018) Some movies become famous because of the actors that are in it, but All the Money in the World is a rare reverse example, famous for who’s not in it. Namely Kevin Spacey, whose sexual misconduct became widely publicized in the short span of time after his important supporting role in the film as J. Paul Getty was shot but before the film was released. Rather than shrug their shoulders and release the film as-is, the producers, along with veteran director Ridley Scott, decided to take another riskier path: Recast the Getty role with Christopher Plummer and reshoot all the scenes involving the character. This isn’t quite as insane as it sounds, considering that the character is mostly confined to mansion rooms in one of the film’s subplots. And it worked: Not only was Scott able to replace one significant actor in a ridiculously short amount of time while the film was nearing its release date, but you really can’t tell in the finished product: It’s as if Plummer had been there the entire time, and his performance is rock-solid enough that he ended up nominated for an Oscar. In comparison to the production drama, the story in All the Money in the World seems almost pedestrian, portraying the kidnapping of the grandson of one of the richest men in the world back in the 1970s. There’s an intriguing re-creation of mid-seventies Italy, dark machinations by an incredibly rich man not inclined to negotiate with kidnappers, and some funny business between the kidnapped man’s mom (Michelle Williams, better than usual) and the specialist hired to get him back (Mark Wahlberg, rather ordinary). The drama is solid even though the film itself feels sombre, ponderous and overlong in the middle. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the finished result is a demonstration of the way excessive wealth alters the world around it, twisting human relationships, corrupting individuals (the Getty patriarch is really not a nice person) and inviting predators to make their moves. Alas, not quite enough time is spent on this idea, as the film flirts with romance and spends a lot of time kidnapped by its own subplots. (It doesn’t help that the film has numerous deviations from the historical record.) It’s not a bad movie, but it could have benefited from a lighter and shorter touch. But then again there’s Plummer delivering yet another great performance.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) It’s too easy to point out that after Sole Survivor and Deepwater Horizon, this is Peter Berg’s third Mark Wahlberg-starring movie in a row tackling recent events in American history. It’s true, and kind of amusing, and so what? It does help that for all of its right-leaning American-uber-alles posturing and warm-headed rewriting of history toward a common safe consensus, Patriots Day is really well made and has its share of strong moments. It is about, obviously, the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, concatenating events of a particularly tense week into a coherent storyline spearheaded by Wahlberg’s composite character. (It’s a bit much to ask for him to be there at every significant event in the chronology, but once you accept that conceit the film becomes easier to enjoy.) As you may expect, there’s a strong “you messed with the wrong city” attitude in the final results, which can be inspiring considering that it doesn’t mutate into jingoism or xenophobia. The film is, by most accounts, remarkably accurate once you forgive the lead composite characters, which makes some late sequences appear even more amazing, such as the western-style shootout set in suburban Watertown. J. K. Simmons doesn’t have a lot of scenes, but he makes every single one of them count. The same goes for Khandi Alexander, a favourite of mine who gets a terrific one-scene presence as a canny interrogator. Downplaying Wahlberg’s there-at-every-moment role, perhaps the most stirring element of Patriots Day is seeing a city, a system, an attitude rally behind a common violent intrusion and dealing with it adequately. (And I say this with incredible fondness for Boston, the American city I’ve visited more often than all others.) The crisis response is reasonable, effective and free of petty rivalries. But beyond re-creating the event more faithfully than most Hollywood movies, Patriots Day also benefits from solid filmmaking—while it’s by no means an action movie, it has a few suspenseful sequences and manages to re-create an intensely surreal period (such as seeing all of Boston empty for a few days) with some skill. Patriots Day can’t escape justified accusations of taking place too soon after the events, but I suspect that its appreciation will grow over time as one of the few early takes that wouldn’t necessarily have been better had it been completed later.
(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 Wahlberg 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.