Skyscraper

Release: Friday, July 13, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Rawson Marshall Thurber

Directed by: Rawson Marshall Thurber 

There’s no ignoring the fact the star of Skyscraper, a veritable homage to one of cinema’s greatest action reels, once donned a sacrificial lion’s head as battle gear in a movie directed by Brett Ratner about the god Hercules. Earlier this summer, he also starred alongside a giant albino gorilla with an affinity for rude gesturing. These are things that happened, and yet there is this other thing called redemption and that’s what movies like Skyscraper are good at providing. Not that I’m growing increasingly concerned about The Rock’s role choices; at worst they’re palatably cheesy, not stale and rancid like Bruce Willis circa Die Hard 7000.

In Rawson Marshall Thurber’s new film Global Icon Dwayne Johnson™ plays Will Sawyer, a U.S. war vet and former FBI hostage negotiator who now assesses the security of buildings all over the globe. His latest assignment has brought him to Hong Kong, where he is to evaluate the integrity of the fire prevention and security measures of the world’s tallest superstructure, The Pearl. A bad day on the job 10 years ago prompted him to change careers and in one fell swoop introduced him to combat medic and future wife Sarah (Neve Campbell), with whom he starts up a family and tries to move beyond the days of firing heavy weaponry — much to the chagrin of his old friend Ben (Pablo Schreiber).

Falling in love on the operating table is up there with trying to use animal hide to gain style points, but if you’re experienced at all with his brand, you know you’re better off accepting these things and as soon as possible. If anything, the love-at-first-sedation scene is great practice for what this simply structured yet still ridiculous action event is going to throw at you later. (Hint: lots of on-fire things and leaps of faith.)

It actually makes sense that Thurber spends just as much if not more time establishing a building as an integral role player as he does his human actors. The film is called Skyscraper, after all. The Pearl, a 3,500-foot tall marvel of modern engineering, is undoubtedly the film’s most unique asset. And the sleek, spherical penthouse at the 240th floor is its own crowning achievement. A character unto itself, this monstrosity is the brainchild of wealthy financier Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han) and is the ultimate manifestation of supreme wealth and ambition run amok. Of course one doesn’t rise to this level without making a few enemies and just before Zhao is to open the building in its entirety to the public, along come some pesky terrorists to burn his ambition down. Literally.

It makes sense because while the camera doesn’t ogle over what Zhao modestly describes as “the eighth wonder of the world” as much as I (certainly no architect) would have liked, when the building finally starts to burn it’s pretty damn cinematic. There is a sense of dizzying scale that threw me right back to the best bits of Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk and Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest. The acrophobic should be put on notice. This thing gets pretty atmospheric, and in that way the effort pays off because even as the convenient plot turns become more egregious the action feels increasingly larger than life.

Skyscraper builds just enough human drama to earn our sympathy. This time around Johnson, sporting a prosthetic leg, trades in his all-American good guy swagger for a quieter stoicism. This is a film that effectively expands the actor’s range into the dramatic, though granted this is more toes-in-the-water than a full plunge. The prop isn’t what makes the role dramatic — it’s the way he expresses concern for the well-being of his family. But it isn’t just The Rock doing the ass-kicking and name-clearing. Because his family has made the trip to Hong Kong with him, they find themselves conveniently situated within the drama. Call their problem convenient or even silly — just don’t call the Sawyers helpless victims. Sarah, in particular, proves herself when push comes to shove and she shoves the hell out of the opposition. That’s before setting about subverting other major genre clichés, too.

Moving past the adults, the children are another pleasant revelation. They aren’t given big speaking roles but these are two of the most agreeable movie kids I have met in some time. Together, these actors comprise a wholly natural family that’s easy to root for. Still, it’s a shame we are ultimately robbed of more screen time devoted to just The Rock and Neve Campbell as the two have solid chemistry. As for the villains, they’re not so impressive. They simply exist to provide generic conflict. Their motive is convoluted, but suffice it to say Kores Botha (troublemaker-turned-actor Roland Møller) is being pressured by some even worse people to put a major dent in Zhao’s soaring stock.

Skyscraper is a breezy summer escape told in an economic fashion — a sleekly designed throwback to classic action movies, and one that slots in among Johnson’s better efforts. Will Sawyer is no John McClane, but then again he doesn’t need to be. Skyscraper finds the former wrestler polishing his new craft (well, relatively new — this is his 15th film) while updating the male badass archetype. Sometimes being the badass means maybe not being able to find a way out of this mess on your own. Sometimes it means being completely vulnerable and owning up to that.

Recommendation: Skyscraper offers up another round of The Rock doing Rock things but in a decidedly more straight-faced manner. The action is fun and visually stunning at times. Don’t look to it for the best villains of 2018 or some profound statement about where technology is going or how crazy rich people are just crazy people in nice clothes or anything like that, but when it comes to picking which Dwayne Johnson you should see sooner (or at all) the choice is pretty obvious. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 102 mins.

Only in the movies: In order to make the jump from the crane to the building featured in the trailer Sawyer would have to run and leave the platform at 28.4 mph. For comparison, Olympic Champion Usain Bolt’s fastest recorded speed is 27.4 mph.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Ant-Man and the Wasp

Release: Friday, July 6, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Chris McKenna; Erik Sommers; Paul Rudd; Andrew Barrer; Gabriel Ferrari

Directed by: Peyton Reed

You’ve read it everywhere: Ant-Man and the Wasp is a refreshingly lightweight summer adventure that offers up more laughs than big character moments. It’s more of a superhero side dish than an entrée. But that’s okay for viewers like me, whose stomachs are starting to get pretty full with all the superhero shenanigans.

Is it me, or does “quantum entanglement” sound more like the way scientists fall in love rather than an actual problem they must solve? (“Hey everyone, I’d like you to meet my Scientist Girlfriend — we just recently got quantumly entangled.”) Alas, this isn’t a joke. Getting stuck in the quantum realm is quite serious, I assure you. Granted, not as serious as what we all went through a few weeks ago when Thanos snapped his decorated little fingers and turned half the audience into a sobbing mess. Mercifully, this is a new, pre-war chapter that gets away from all of that and returns us to a time when the superhero stakes weren’t so tiresomely dramatic.

The follow-up film to the Phase 2 finale finds Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) growing restless under house arrest. On the one hand, this has provided him an opportunity to spend some quality time with his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). On the other, his careless actions at the airport two years ago (you know, when Steve Rogers blamed Tony for losing his luggage) have created a rift between him and his mentor, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and love interest Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). They’ve gone on the run in an attempt to keep their miraculous shrinking technology a secret.

Scott has only a few days left to finish out his sentence, but that’s a large enough window for him to find trouble. But the interesting thing is, he doesn’t go looking for it; it finds him. He spends his time trying not to go insane in isolation, kept on a short leash by his parole officer (Randall Park, enjoying himself immensely). When Scott experiences a vision of Hank’s wife/Hope’s mother, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) still stuck in the quantum realm, his former allies seek him out in an attempt to retrieve her from the abyss to which they believed she had been forever lost.

It’s a ridiculous leap of faith following a simple voicemail but hey, there are worse plot mechanizations out there. Solving the problem of returning safely from the microscopic world isn’t the only challenge ahead of them, however. Because Scott in effect went public with his little stunt in Captain America: Civil War, a number of competing third parties are coming out of the woodwork in an attempt to benefit in some way from Pym’s genius.

There’s the black market dealer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), who sees the potential profit that can be made from getting into the quantum business. He gets into a little bit of a struggle with Hope over a parts deal that sours just as Ava Starr/”Ghost” (Hannah John-Kamen) appears out of nowhere. Ava is a young woman who seeks a cure for her gradually weakening physical state as a result of — and let’s not get too personal here — her unstable molecules. On top of that, we are introduced to a former colleague of Hank, a Dr. Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne), whose life work blahdee-bloodee-blahblah. He has a few reasons to make things more difficult for Ant-Man and the gang.

If anything, Ant-Man and the Wasp is about a family coming back together. That’s kind of the perfect scope for a film following one of the most financially successful (and costly) cinematic events in history. Like the incredible shrinking Pym lab, the drama is very self-contained; there is almost nothing linking this film to the Avengers narrative at-large, with the exception of the constant berating the ex-con receives from Hank and Hope. This sense of family extends to Scott’s friends over at X-Con Security, a consulting firm he and his ex-con friends — Luis (Michael Peña), Kurt (David Dastmalchian) and Dave (T.I. Harris) — started up in an attempt to go legitimate. Though these personalities don’t get much time to do their thing, you still feel the support system they provide for their perpetually-in-trouble pal Scott.

Of course, Ant-Man and the Wasp can’t really achieve any of these things without Rudd anchoring the movie. Never mind the fact he offers up a pretty wonderful example of fatherhood, he is just so effortlessly likable in the suit that he has quickly become a favorite of mine, in spite of how minor that role really is in the grand scheme. For my money, he’s right up there with Robert Downey Jr. and Ryan Reynolds in terms of infectious personalities. You have to squint to see him but he’s there, standing on the shoulders of giants while slowly but surely becoming one himself.

“Honey, I shrunk everything I cared about.”

Recommendation: Ant-Man and the Wasp is the beneficiary of Paul Rudd and a really likable all-around cast of characters. In a time when browsing through the back catalogue of the ever-expanding MCU feels a lot like shopping for flavors of Gatorade, it’s nice to have a superhero film that is not quite as preoccupied with furthering, deepening, expanding, extrapolating, implicating, duplicating, redacting, whatever-ing that all of the other chapters seem to be about. The more I think about the simplicity of this film the more I like it. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 118 mins.

Quoted: “Well, the ’60s were fun, but now I’m paying for it!”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

The Magnificent Seven

the-magnificent-seven-movie-poster

Release: Friday, September 23, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Richard Wenk; Nic Pizzolatto

Directed by: Antoine Fuqua

Try as they might, Antoine Fuqua continues falling well short of the benchmark set by his 2001 smash hit Training Day and Chris Pratt can’t quite make this the Guardians of the Galaxy of the ole wild west. Despite bear-dressing-like-people jokes he is merely one silly pawn in a story that doesn’t deserve them. Not even the all-star roster can lift this generic western crime thriller from the dust of its superiors. The title is The Magnificent Seven, but for me that really just refers to the number of scenes that are actually worth remembering in Fuqua’s new shoot-’em-up.

Here’s all I really remember:

Magnificent Scene #1: The ‘badass’ that is Bartholomew. Billed as a drama, the film opens promisingly with robber baron Bartholemew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) besieging the sleepy mining town of Rose Creek circa some month in the late 1800s. The film’s dramatic thread for the most part sags like a dilapidated tent between two strong points, and the dramatic opening is one of those strong points. Tension is palpable as Sarsgaard’s cold, lifeless eyes survey the room. Haley Bennett‘s Emma Cullen becomes widowed by his murderous spree (or, to be brutally honest but more accurate, her husband’s foolish actions that do nothing but further incense Bartholomew), an act that supposedly establishes the film’s emotional foundation.

Magnificent Scene #2: The Actual Badass that is Denzel. Introducing Denzel Washington is something that needs to be done sooner rather than later and his swaggering cowboy/”dually sworn peacekeeper”/bounty hunter Sam Chisolm walks in at just the right moment (i.e immediately). A fairly typical stand-off inside Rose Creek’s saloon ensues. Everyone in the scene puts on their best ‘Not To Be Fucked With’ face. Rah-rah. Guns. Liquor. Seconds later Chisolm walks out of an empty saloon leaving everyone but a semi-impressed, semi-drunk loner for dead. That loner is none other than Peter Quill Josh Faraday. Chisolm is soon approached and persuaded by a desperate Emma Cullen to gather together some men to take a stand against Bogue and his men to avenge the death of her beloved Matthew and reclaim the town.

Magnificent Scene #3: The Avengers this ain’t . . . but this is still fun. Movies in the vein of Fuqua’s adaptation, those that spend more of their bloated running time assembling rather than focusing on the ensemble itself, are really more about that journey of coming-togetherness than they are about the destination. It’s too bad The Magnificent Seven really only offers one or two strong first impressions. One is a shared introduction between Byung-hun Lee’s knife-wielding assassin Billy Rocks — a name that somewhat confusingly belies the actor’s South Korean heritage — and Ethan Hawke’s sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux, with whom Chisolm shares some history. Billy and Goodnight come as a packaged item, apparently; one never goes anywhere without the other and they are swiftly drafted into the ranks without complaint.

Magnificent Scene #4: There’s always at least one crazy. Vincent D’Onofrio also qualifies as one of those memorable introductions. He plays a vaguely mentally unstable (or perhaps he’s just a simpleton) tracker named Jack Horne, a physically imposing presence who clearly hasn’t had much human contact in a long time. His soft, nervous line delivery initially gave the impression the actor wasn’t comfortable in the role and/or that he was about to deliver a career-low performance but the character really ended up growing on me. Of course it would have been nice if he had more to do but when there are seven actors competing on screen I suppose sacrifices must be made, especially when one of them is Denzel Washington.

Magnificent Scene #5: Preparations not reparations. Heeding the warnings of Chisolm and his band of misfits, Emma and her fellow townsfolk prepare for the return of Bogue and what is likely to be many more nasty men on horseback in an obligatory, if not genuinely fun, fix-it-up montage. Rose Creek becomes retrofitted with all kinds of booby traps and hideouts that are sure to give the enemy fits and a mixture of excitement and dread for the bloodbath that is to come starts to build in earnest. Granted, the end results are all but a foregone conclusion: some will survive the ordeal and others will not. We know almost for a certainty that the Magnificent Seven will be reduced in number after this fight. And we also know that ultimately this last battle is just another good excuse for directors who like to blow stuff up, to go ahead and blow a quaint little set right the fuck up.

Magnificent Scene #6: Say hello to my little friend! For all of the film’s lackadaisical pacing and story development from essentially the 20th minute onward, The Magnificent Seven seems to wake back up again at the very end with a rousing gunfight that will demand every rebel’s sharpest wit and shot. It even comes close to earning our empathy as numerous dead bodies hit the ground à la Fuqua’s goofy assault on the White House. The editing becomes frenetic but remains effective and while Fuqua shies away from excessive blood-splattering the violence is still pretty confronting as a gatling gun makes its way into the mix. Ultimately this is the same kind of joy I get out of watching Macauley Culkin outwit the nitwits in Home Alone every Christmas.

Magnificent Scene #7: The end credits. A movie that runs about 30 minutes too long and that fails to make any real emotional connection is finally over. (Though not for a lack of trying: Fuqua awkwardly asks us to pity the lone woman in the group because she has lost her husband — she’s not there because of her individual strengths and in fact many of the rebels can’t or refuse to take her seriously; likewise Hawk’s last-minute cowardly act feels cheap and fails to make us care deeper about him.) I enjoyed the famous faces in by-now-familiar roles and their natural gravitas cleaned up some of the script’s blotches but there is only so much goodwill I can show towards something that feels so well-trodden, so ordinary, so un-magnificent.

the-magnificent-seven

Recommendation: A superb cast barely manages to keep The Magnificent Seven from being a totally and utterly forgettable and disposable movie. The people who you expect to shine, shine — those on the roster you don’t recognize as much don’t turn up as much. Simple as that. Some delicious scenery to chew on, though, and the soundtrack is hilariously overcooked. So all in all, I don’t really know what to make of this movie. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 133 mins.

Quoted: “What we lost in the fire we found in the ashes.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.esquire.com 

Don’t Breathe

'Dont Breathe' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 26, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Fede Álvarez; Rodo Sayagues

Directed by: Fede Álvarez

Don’t Breathe, the sophomore effort from Uruguayan director Fede Álvarez, is what you’d get if you expanded into a full-length feature that scene from The Silence of the Lambs in which Buffalo Bill stalks a terrified Clarice Starling with night vision goggles while his prey helplessly fumbles around in the pitch black. This is, of course, to say that Don’t Breathe is relentlessly intense almost start to finish, marking it as one of the most effective thrillers to hit theaters this year.

In it, a trio of burglars are scraping together enough money so they can flee the dying suburbs of Detroit by looting homes and getting cash for valuable possessions pillaged. When they discover a rundown home belonging to a war vet rumored to be sitting on $300k in settlements from an accident that claimed the life of his daughter, they assume they’ve hit the jackpot. Especially when they figure out the dude is blind. But we all know what assuming does, don’t we?

Small-time crooks turn into big-time prey as they casually waltz into a trap thinking the job is a done deal. It is in this suffocating space of decrepitness and unpredictability where we more or less remain for the duration. We’re briefly (and just barely sufficiently) introduced to the gang in the opening twenty minutes, right before Álvarez flips the switch and plunges us all into the depths of a home invasion gone horribly wrong. Front-and-center is Jane Levy’s Rocky, who’s desperate to leave behind an abusive home for the sun-kissed beaches of Califor-ny-yay with her younger sister. Then there’s her main squeeze “Money” (Daniel Zovatto), a terribly nicknamed character who doesn’t at all make for a subtle metaphor or, quite frankly, a memorable character. Dylan Minnette rounds out the crew as the slightly more likable Alex.

It isn’t really their movie, though. Don’t Breathe inarguably belongs to a man and his dog. Stephen Lang plays The Blind Man, an unsuspectingly agile old git who can navigate the interior with his other, much keener senses — sound and touch, most notably — and who keeps a Rottweiler handy in case of such emergencies. (Puppy credits go to three separate, extremely well-trained animals, each getting their moment to shine. And I’m assuming their Cujo-like presence is what earns the film its horror label; otherwise that classification is something of a misnomer. Kind of like me calling these big boys ‘puppies.’) Indeed the kids become a lot more interesting once we see them forced into action against a trained killer — better make that plural — and pressured into taking drastic measures to ensure they not only escape with their lives but with the money as well.

Don’t Breathe simmers in a stew of sociological, economical and psychological ingredients. It’s a morality play involving characters whose chance for survival is perpetually undercut by their own actions. Greed, selfishness and desperation invariably imprison characters we weren’t ever supposed to “like” in this fortress, even magnetizing them to it. And it’s Lang’s full-on committal to a relatively silent role — in fact the best bits of the film languish in the choke of dead air — that simultaneously rebuffs the invaders and causes us, the anxious voyeurs, to question just what we would do in such a situation. Utterly compelling stuff.

Stephen Lang in 'Don't Breathe'

Recommendation: Think of it less as a true horror film and more of a thriller, the likes of which made me, personally, feel like I had chugged one too many cups of coffee. I watched my hand on the steering wheel as I drove home from my local theater. My knuckles were all jittery. What the fuck man. It’s just a movie. Granted, a very, very good one. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 88 mins.

Trivia: Stephen Lang has a total of 13 lines of dialogue, the majority of which are reserved for the ending moments. 

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Infiltrator

'The Infiltrator' movie poster

Release: Wednesday, July 13, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Ellen Brown Furman

Directed by: Brad Furman

Brad Furman wasn’t looking to infiltrate more elite groups of directors who had earlier tackled the gritty but ever fascinating subject of the drug trafficking epidemic in America when he paired up with Bryan Cranston. That much is clear just based on the relative nonchalance with which The Infiltrator plays out. Things certainly become tense, but it’s nigh on impossible believing our beloved Walter White is ever in any real danger.

That’s probably because we’ve already watched that character endure five seasons of pure adrenaline-fueled drama. Everything we watch U.S. Customs Service special agent Robert Mazur (alias ‘Bob Musella’) go through here as he gets cozy with high-ranking members within the Colombian drug cartel only to bust them in the end, is accompanied by echoes of Breaking Bad, some of which are really loud. In that way The Infiltrator does feel less threatening, and it loses even more leverage given just how strictly it adheres to formula to get the job done. Just don’t call the film uninspired because you know as well as I that Cranston would never let such a thing happen.

The actor manages to convert what ends up being by and large predictable into a fascinating study of character. Mazur enjoys his job even with the danger it brings, but he doesn’t commit to high-risk jobs as a way to escape the doldrums of his home life — he’s happily married with Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey) and dearly loves his daughter Andrea (Lara Decaro). He enjoys what he does for a living because he’s also very good at it. The movie, his “last assignment,” keeps the perspective limited to his own, making all the mingling and consorting and bribery a devoted family man finds himself so naturally doing all the more unsettling.

Also adept at faking the hustle is Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), a stark contrast to Mazur’s poker-faced professionalism. He’s a loose cannon who embraces the potential thrills offered by new assignments. This one could be the mother of all thrills: a take-down of high-priority Colombian drug traffickers working for the one and only Pablo Escobar, ‘El Zar de la Cocaina.’ Their target is Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt), Escobar’s main merchandise handler. Leguizamo is a nice touch as he adds a vulnerability that often veers into comedic relief but the funny is never oversold. Lest we forget, there’s little time for laughter when you’re neck-deep in people who have made careers out of making other, usually more innocent people disappear, often in horrible ways.

The story is fairly straightforward and there will be no surprises for those even moderately well-versed in crime dramas. And those who are probably know that these kinds of movies are only as good as the threat that our good guys are up against. The Infiltrator comes heavily armed with Bratt’s quietly brutal Alcaino and a whole assortment of unstable, varyingly psychotic drug-addicted personalities. Villains are more than just caricatures; the seedy side of life is depicted matter-of-factly and bloodshed isn’t shown to up the thrill count. It’s there to shock and shock it does: the “auditioning” scene is a particularly blunt and cruel microcosm of the world into which Musella has stepped.

The Infiltrator is universally well-acted. On the home front, Aubrey’s Evelyn is a fiercely strong woman who must confront the realities of her husband’s unique profession. Not knowing what kind of a person she’s going to be greeted at the door with night in and night out evolves into a narrative of great concern and Aubrey sells that anguish well. Mazur/Musella reports regularly to Special Agent Bonnie Tischler, played by a possibly never-better Amy Ryan who clearly relishes the opportunity to play the golden-gun-carrying, tough-as-nails U.S. Customs special agent who takes no bullshit from anyone. And Diane Kruger rounds out a strong ensemble playing Kathy Ertz, an agent who’s never gone undercover before and finds herself helping Mazur keep his own story straight.

Stylish, genuinely gripping and sensationally well-performed, Furman’s exploration of the American drug trafficking epidemic can’t escape familiarity but it doesn’t have to when it’s so successful proving why certain well-traveled roads are the ones to take. I loved this movie for its complete and utter lack of pretense. It never tries to be anything it’s not.

Bryan Cranston gets mean in 'The Infiltrator'

Recommendation: Fun might not be the best word to throw around when talking about the escalating drug trafficking crisis but The Infiltrator makes the experience . . . shall we say, worth the while. As if there were any doubt, the performances are what make this movie a must-see for anyone who enjoys what the former Malcolm in the Middle dad is doing with his career these days.

Rated: R

Running Time: 127 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

The Night Before

The Night Before movie poster

Release: Friday, November 20, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Jonathan Levine; Kyle Hunter; Ariel Shaffir; Evan Goldberg

Directed by: Jonathan Levine

I was enjoying, for the most part, the latest incarnation of the Seth Rogen and Friends Show, finding myself more than a little amused by their storming of New York City in an effort to live it up one last time this Christmas Eve; finding comfort once more in the familiarity of their crassness and the simplicity of the mission: let’s get wasted and have a blast, maybe even learn a thing or two about each other in the process. (Yes, people actually get paid millions to do this.)

Then suddenly, from out of nowhere, Jason Mantzoukas shows up, dressed as one of two drunken Santa Clauses and wipes the smile from my face. This I don’t call a Christmas miracle. This I call a threat to a movie’s enjoyability. Seriously, this guy is the worst. Is this his talent, being a buzz kill? If the name’s not familiar, you’re either lucky or you haven’t caught many episodes of The League. In which case you are also lucky. Mantzoukas doesn’t appear for long in The Night Before but apparently it’s enough to cause me to go off on a rant about how much I dislike the characters he plays.

Where’s my egg nog? Ahh, there it is. Right. Now we can actually talk about the film.

It’s no secret Seth Rogen isn’t a man of great range. A few weeks ago he managed to impress me with his dramatic turn as Steve Wozniak in Danny Boyle’s intriguing examination of the late Apple CEO and he also played it somewhat straight as Ira Wright, an up-and-coming comedian in Judd Apatow’s underrated Funny People. However, nine times out of ten you know what you are going to get in a film bearing his name prominently on the poster.

The Night Before, in which he plays Isaac, a mild-mannered (when sober) thirty-something, is the long-lost lovechild of This is the End and Knocked Up. It’s a film that knows when the party should stop and embrace important life events like childrearing, relationship-building and aggressive product placing. While it will never be as good as vintage Rogen-inspired raucousness — I refer to the likes of Pineapple Express and Superbad — this collection of Yuletide yucks offers a suitably raunchy alternative to the saccharine stories about family and togetherness we’re about to be hit with in the coming weeks.

We’re introduced to Isaac and his buddies Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) via a cringe-inducing voiceover that plays upon the titular poem, explaining how Ethan had lost both parents several Christmases ago and has since spent the holiday with his pals. Despite the support, he has found himself stuck in a rut while constantly running into obstacles in his personal and professional life. He’s no longer with his girl Diana (Lizzy Kaplan) and he works odd jobs, most recently as a miserable little elf.

The others take it upon themselves to make this Christmas the best one ever, as Chris’ NFL career is starting to take off and he finds himself with less time to spend hanging out, consumed ever more by social media and the associated vainglory. Betsy (Jillian Bell) hands her hubby (Rogen) a bag of drugs before they hit the town, reassuring him he’s earned himself a night of recklessness before properly settling down. Say no more, we know where this is all going. Mostly.

Along the way we bump lines, ingest psilocybin by the ounce, hallucinate in a manger, buy pot from Michael Shannon (can this guy do any wrong?), take relationship advice from Miley Cyrus, play some Goldeneye (yes, on N64!), promote Red Bull and even find time to reconcile past and present tensions in a subway car. All of this farce ultimately leads us to the Nutcracker party, the party anyone who’s anyone finds themselves at after midnight on Christmas Eve. That includes Ethan’s ex, which means you know the guy is bound for redemption sooner or later.

The Night Before settles on tried-and-true Rogen/Goldberg formula, simultaneously  mocking and embracing the spirit of Christmas by developing a none-too-surprisingly wholesome bromance between a never-more-stoned Rogen and his cronies. ‘Tis the season to be giggling uncontrollably, although I couldn’t call you a grinch if you wanted to take a pass on this hit.

JGL is a Wrecking Ball with Miley Cyrus in 'The Night Before'

Recommendation: The Night Before doesn’t rank amongst Rogen’s best but it’s a perfectly satisfying blend of juvenile humor and sight gags as well as heartfelt relationship building. (Interestingly it manifests as only the second time Evan Goldberg wrote a script without Rogen.) Save for a few questionable cameo appearances, this still manages to offer the quota of amusing supporting roles and it is nice to see Rogen reunited with Gordon-Levitt.

Rated: R

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “You have been such a Rock throughout this whole pregnancy. You are like my Dwayne Johnson.”

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TBT: Behind Enemy Lines (2001)

. . . and just when everyone thought this thread was dead uhhhh-gain, it makes a triumphant reappearance. Well, semi-triumphant. I finally watched a war film I had been wanting to see for many a year and as it turned out, well . . . phooey on all that anticipating. It wasn’t really worth it! Oh well. It’s still a decent romp. You could do a lot worse as far as cheap-looking war movies are concerned, things that fail to succeed to even entertain on some basic level, such as what can only be presumed to be the case for the disastrous direct-to-VHS sequels to 

Today’s food for thought: Behind Enemy Lines.

Being ridiculously jingoistic since: November 30, 2001

[DVD]

Behind Enemy Lines is an awkward blend of entertainment and information. Or maybe misinformation would be a better term. Director John Moore’s fictionalized account of American involvement in the final days of the Bosnian War isn’t so much irresponsible as it is lazy. This is too easy of a film, quickly digestible and dispensable. But at least it was . . . fun?

Owen Wilson played Navy flight officer Lieutenant Chris Burnett, an intelligent but rather undisciplined young man who gets deployed on a holiday mission by Admiral Reigart (Gene Hackman). Joining him in what was supposed to be a routine reconnaissance mission is pilot Lieutenant Jeremy Stackhouse (Gabriel Macht). During the flight Burnett suggests they make use of their “shiny new digital camera” — since they’re missing the Christmas dinner onboard the ship they may as well make good use of their time. They end up taking aerial photos of a site that is decidedly outside of their lawful flying route, a demilitarized zone that just so happens to contain a mass grave, an operation being conducted secretly by Bosnian-Serb paramilitary General Miroslav Lokar (Russian actor Vladimir Mashkov). Of course they are spotted and subsequently shot down.

The Americans eject and avoid death by pine tree at Mach 3, though Stackhouse suffers a leg injury and stays behind while Burnett searches for higher ground to radio back to the USS Carl Vinson for help. Unfortunately Serbian forces appear over the horizon and gasp, spoilers! are quick to interrogate and then execute the lone Stackhouse. Burnett goes on the run, but not before he accidentally exposes himself (no, not in the Lenny Kravitz in Sweden kind of way). So ensues an hour and a half of cat-and-mouse across the frozen and rugged mountains of Bosnia-Herzegovina. How long can a sole American Naval officer survive behind enemy lines? If this film’s questionable historical basis (that of U.S. Air Force Captain Scott O’Grady) is anything to go by, apparently it’s six days (or as long as the running time says).

To provide the drama at least some depth, Moore injects his production with the typical political farce. Burnett’s survival hinges upon whether Hackman’s Reigart can convince the dispassionate NATO Commander — who is overseeing the peace talks between American and Serbian forces — that it will be worth his while to rescue this one guy. While the concerns of Admiral Piquet (Portuguese actor Joaquim de Almeida) are valid, there’s very little to justify how long it takes for Admiral Reigart to finally disobey orders by taking matters into his own hands.

Plot holes and predictability notwithstanding, Behind Enemy Lines is, at its best, exemplary of that ‘good-old boys’ huzzah that was clearly gunning for the viewer not as concerned with more accurate, less video-gamey war depictions in the vein of Saving Private Ryan, Enemy at the Gates and Black Hawk Down. Though its can-do spirit feels more like faded glory now as the special effects are profoundly poor, chaotic and overly dramatic. Added to which a script that has the typically excellent Gene Hackman stuck between a rock and a hard place delivering, visibly hesitant, corny lines that are intended to motivate Burnett. The blue wash of light from the ship’s command center on Hackman’s face offers some concealment of an actor in discomfort. And as refreshing as it is to see Wilson in a dramatic role — this, mind you, being in retrospect given his upcoming career — he doesn’t fare much better when his final dozen lines devolve into a festival of “goddamnit”‘s.

Behind Enemy Lines has almost innumerable issues, from the technical to the practical. Portrayals of Serbs as the obvious bad guys and Americans as the unquestionable do-gooders make the film ripe for parody. It’s not much of a surprise to learn the filmmakers were unable to hire any Serbian actors for those particular roles. That wasn’t enough to stop Moore from creating a silly, slight but still somewhat enjoyable slice of American action.

Recommendation: Behind Enemy Lines is far from the best war film you’ll see but the cast do a thorough enough job getting into character so believing in the situation isn’t as absurd as it might have been with less experienced actors. That said, the special effects and general clumsiness of the script (particularly the dialogue) leave too much to be desired to warrant anything but a shaky recommendation from me. All that said, this has got to be legions better than anything else that has proceeded it in the so-called “series.” 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 106 mins.

TBTrivia: Director John Moore was nearly killed in the scene where the tank busts through the wall. He was pulled away by a stuntman just in time.

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