Deepwater Horizon

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Release: Friday, September 30, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan; Matthew Sand

Directed by: Peter Berg

Peter Berg’s dramatization of the BP oil spill in April of 2010 is a decidedly solid account of human bravery but it is an incomplete picture. Curiously, a film that spends time hashing out all the gory details never manages to open up a dialogue on the ecological damage caused by BP’s alarming two-month long, three-million-gallon whoopsie. Instead it remains a run-of-the-mill survival story that fails to ask bigger, more provocative questions.

Of course, it was probably a conscious decision not to take a firm moral stance on the issue of man’s impact on the environment. That should be a red flag for activists hoping this major Hollywood film will share in their outrage over the largest oil industry-related debacle in American history. In fairness, Berg effectively conveys the terror and the tragedy of being aboard this doomed oil rig and there’s a palpable rage over the recklessness and general interference of Big Business Execs who had grown tired of waiting for results. It’s a distinctly human experience that will be warmly embraced by anyone who enjoyed Berg’s previous collaboration with star Mark Wahlberg in the 2013 war drama Lone Survivor.

Marky-Mark finds himself operating in a similar capacity here as the quiet hero Mike Williams, Deepwater Horizon’s chief electronics technician. He’s the quintessential American good-guy with the big smile and even bigger heart. Williams not only ended up contributing to the rescue efforts considerably but the manner in which he had to abandon the rig apparently was tailor-made for the movies. Wahlberg is perfectly suited for the job — not so much for the (many) physical stunts but for providing the film its stoicism; he’s a stand-up guy who is passionate about his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson), supportive of his precocious young daughter, and well-liked by the crew.

Mike is one of three we see leaving behind their ordinary lives for another stint off the Louisiana coast. Kurt Russell‘s rig manager Jimmy “Mr. Jimmy” Harrell and Gina Rodriguez’ Andrea Fleytas, rig navigator and the crew’s sole female member, are also seen departing for what might later be described as a bad day at the office. One of the worst, in fact. By the time they would return home, 11 crew members would have lost their lives, many more would be left with horrendous injuries and BP’s would-be profits would have started to leak into the Gulf of Mexico and would continue to do so for the next 87 days.

The bulk of the first half closely follows Williams around the ship as he prepares for another typical shift. As a director Berg seems to really be able to inspire camaraderie amongst his cast, while a collaborative script from two Matthews finds a nice rhythm interweaving the casual conversations with technical mumbo-jumbo. With actors as convivial as Wahlberg and as accomplished as Russell it’s not hard to get the good times rolling. (As good as they can be if you’re working a job like this, I guess.) The initial slow pace engages surprisingly well considering we are watching what can only be described as routine operations proceeding . . . routinely, but it’s not long before tensions are rising and things stop working so smoothly.

A group of BP execs, led by the slimy Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich), decides to muscle its way in and Vidrine insists on expediting the process as they are already 43 days behind schedule. He also doesn’t mind overlooking safety protocols, like making sure there’s enough of a concrete base established around the drill to counteract the pressure that comes with drilling at historic depths of 30,000 feet. The experienced TransOcean crew believe the suits are pushing their luck, but of course there’s nothing they can do about it. Soon enough it’s drill, baby, drill — and, well . . . yeah. You know what happens next. Deepwater Horizon goes from 0 to 60 in the span of a minute as bolts and various chunks of metal are converted into missiles as oil and mud come spewing up from below at an alarming rate. The ensuing half hour is pure pandemonium . . . and loud. Very, very loud.

I still find it difficult even today to shake those images of the aftermath, and yet they are notably absent in Berg’s film. Aerial photos depicting a molasses-colored snake slithering through the once-crystal clear blue of the Gulf of Mexico drew an eerily artistic parallel to the smoke rising out of Manhattan in the weeks following 9/11. This disaster was similarly of human design. Deepwater Horizon has nothing but picturesque pans of the wide open water, and only in the latter half of the film do we become consumed by the fireball that was apparently visible from 40 miles away. If there’s anything approaching iconic or even significant about the film, it’s the Michael Bay-esque explosions that light up the night sky, an inferno of orange and red caused by immense pressure surges and greed.

From an entertainment standpoint the film finds modest success, though maybe it’s awkward describing Deepwater Horizon as an “entertaining popcorn thriller.” I’ll stop short of calling it a thrill ride, even though ultimately that’s what this is. This is no message film and it really should have been. Despite how gripping it truly becomes, some part of me can’t help but feel Deepwater Horizon is a lesser film for not considering the sheer scope of the situation. This was much more than a miraculous survival tale, this was a blight on our planet; a disgusting and sticky mess that took far too long to be resolved. Never mind the fact there was no real-world ‘happy ending’ to all of this, the big bad BP guys got off scot free. There’s the reality we should be appalled by, should be moved by — with all due respect to the heroic actions taken by this crew, of course.

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Recommendation: The events of April 20, 2010 get a dramatic and noisy overhaul in this suitably heart-pounding spectacle. It is a film that had much potential to be more and I sound like I’m really down on it but I did enjoy most of it. In the end it is a bit too formulaic and basic and it doesn’t send much of a message but good performances and a sense of panic and doom heightened by some frenetic camerawork help make the strong parts of the film really memorable. Recommended in the big screen format for sure. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 107 mins.

Quoted: “Dad, I want you to get me a fossil. I wanna hold it up and say my daddy tames the dinosaurs.”

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

Ted 2

Release: Friday, June 26, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Seth MacFarlane; Alec Sulkin; Wellesley Wild

Directed by: Seth MacFarlane

Ted 2 turns out to be ridiculous, which in itself is ridiculous. . .because it’s ridiculous to think the first was ridiculous enough to justify something ridiculous like a sequel.

Everyone’s favorite foul-mouthed stuffed teddy is growing up in the follow-up to Seth MacFarlane’s surprisingly successful debut about a child who wishes for his favorite cuddly toy to one day come to life. Now Ted’s getting married to his bear-boo, Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth) — who barely gets to show any, boo!

As predictable as an episode of Family Guy, a conflict materializes out of rather contrived circumstances, where we see their relationship falling on emotional hard times only shortly after nuptials were made official. Desperate to make Tami-Lynn happy again, Ted suggests they have a child, reasoning that if they learned to love a kid they might remember how to love each other again. Of course the epiphany has probably come right on the heels of what may presumably have been Ted’s fifth or sixth Bud Light. Still, it’s . . . it’s whatever. It works, leave it alone and let’s move on.

When finding sperm donors proves to be more of an issue than the couple expect, they turn to adoption as their last resort. Sadly it’s a move that brings the crushing blow of reality down upon them when their applications draw attention from the state government. Ted and Tami-Lynn’s marriage becomes annulled when officials declare Ted isn’t human, rather just a piece of property. He then finds himself enlisting the help of his thunder-buddy-for-life John (Mark Wahlberg) in his quest to prove both his status as a human being and a citizen of Boston, and that his marriage should be recognized as legal. It may not be a voice many are expecting to hear, but MacFarlane does contribute something to the conversation surrounding marriage equality and it’s welcomed.

What the film lacks in MacFarlane’s signature, perfectly choreographed musical interludes it makes up for with a surprisingly sensitive story. Suffice it to say, there have been far worse comedy sequels before; MacFarlane could have also chosen to build upon his western comedy concept. He shows restraint by not going that route. Not that this film is going to go down as a particularly memorable comedy. MacFarlane still can’t help but sketch outlines of supporting characters who do nothing more than function as signposts, convenient for when you inevitably get lost in this meandering little tale. Amanda Seyfried, while likable enough, seems to be twiddling her thumbs with her throw-away role of a pot-smoking attorney. Morgan Freeman is all but wasted as a more reputable civil rights attorney they all hope will help them after failing to get the courts to rule in favor of Ted and Tami-Lynn in the first of several courtroom scenes.

Beyond failing to justify such big names in such insignificant roles MacFarlane struggles to shape all the events into a cohesive whole. Although it feels slightly less episodic than the last outing, and certainly less so than A Million Ways to Die in the West, this narrative does its fair share of aimless wandering as Ted and John befriend Seyfried’s Samantha Jackson. As their legal representative she has the appearance of being book-smart, but then she smokes a ton of weed in her office so she’s obviously not too street smart. Do we need a 10-minute scene to get that point across, though? Freeman gets to have his moments (hearing him deliver the line “After I’m finished fucking myself. . .” is for some reason very satisfying), even if they, too, contribute far more to a bloated running time than to this campaign for emotional resonance. Indeed, the first time we even meet Freeman’s character it turns out to be nothing more than a wild goose chase. But hey — more time spent with this adorable teddy bear and his likable Bostonian pothead friend, the better, right?

There’s plenty of time to spend, too. At five minutes shy of two hours Ted 2 runs a risk of overstaying its furry little welcome. There’s this whole other subplot involving Hasbro toys and the company’s evil underbelly — John Carroll Lynch’s money-hungry executive and a creepazoid janitor named Donny, played once again with unbridled enthusiasm by the one and only Giovanni Ribisi. These men are after the teddy bear, determined the court will rule against Ted and declare him property, thereby making it legally safer for Hasbro to abduct the toy and use him in experiments to see if they can recreate his lifelikeness in other bears. It’s up to, who else, the stoner lawyer and her newfound friend John to save the bear from danger and then also get him legally declared a person before the film reel runs out. Ted 2 stuffs a lot in and not all of it works, but on the whole this sequel charms just as much as the stuff(ing) upon which it is based.

Recommendation: I never would have thought I’d be here justifying another round of teddy-bear-related hijinks but here I am doing just that. Ridiculous. On that ground alone, MacFarlane’s third feature film directorial effort should be labeled a success. If you laughed at the first one, you’ll likely have a good time with this, even though it in no way demands to be seen in theaters. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “Did you hear that? You’re covered in rejected black men’s semen. You look like a Kardashian.”

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

Guestwriter: Mark Wahlberg gambles on Jim Bennett role

Today I’d like to share with you an interesting guest article that was proposed to me courtesy of Christine Lindon, representing an England-based marketing company, Wise Marketing. Earlier this year I had posted a review of Mark Wahlberg’s then-latest film, the Rupert Wyatt-directed drama The Gambler. Given that Wahlberg is currently promoting a brand new comedy this weekend, Ted 2 (an important sequel, right. . . ?) this spotlight on Wahlberg is perfectly timed. I’d like to thank Christine for reaching out to me, and Amanda Cole for the write-up.

For actors that are renowned for being typecast in action movies and slapstick comedies, getting the proverbial monkey off their back can be challenging. Arguably, some don’t help their case but in Hollywood, nothing is as pleasant as it may seem.

When Mark Wahlberg made his screen debut in the 1995 film The Basketball Diaries alongside Leonardo DiCaprio he was already trying to shed his previous Marky Mark moniker that he acquired from his days as a model and rapper-of-sorts. Regardless of a sterling performance alongside a stellar cast of fledgling actors, it was evident it would take a lot of time for Wahlberg to leave his past behind.

Fast-forward 20 years and the Hollywood mainstay is still struggling to convince critics of his validity as a serious actor. However, if you dig deep and sift through the many films he’s featured in, there are notable performances in there: Lone Survivor, Shooter and his most recent The Gambler. But unfortunately industry hacks always remind the common reader of films such as 2 Guns, Planet of the Apes, Three Kings and the risqué Boogie Nights.

He’s also made forays into work behind the camera most notably co-producing the phenomenally successful Boardwalk Empire, which received a multitude of awards during its 5 seasons on network television. Though he seldom receives the praise he should.

However, probably his biggest gamble of late was with the remake of the 1974 classic The Gambler, which originally starred the revered James Caan. Wahlberg adopted the role of suave yet ultimately flawed English professor Jim Bennett. Rolling Stone reveals that he prepared for the role by eating less than usual and playing a lot of Texas Hold‘em, which Betfair describes as one of the most action-packed and prestigious poker variants. It was a different role than we’ve become accustomed to Wahlberg taking on, yet he executed it with consummate ease.

Paramount Pictures invested heavily in the film and also forecasted sizeable revenues from the film – something that never materialized. The film cost the production company a reported $25 million to make with it only recouping $33 million globally. Paramount had originally projected that they would make $25 million in the first week of the film’s release but this didn’t happen due to stiff competition at the latter part of 2014 from The Hobbit and Into the Woods.

So, with The Gambler being deemed a flop due its Box Office ratings, how did Wahlberg fare after the film’s release? Surprisingly well, and this praise was duly warranted. Wahlberg’s portrayal of the wistful and charismatic Bennett was a splendor to watch among an altogether lackluster performance from his supporting cast that included the portly John Goodman.

It was a role that Wahlberg was able to flex his acting muscles as opposed to his physique for once. A role that director Rupert Wyatt thought was ideal for Wahlberg and he proved his peer right.

Mark Wahlberg and Michael Kenneth Williams in ‘The Gambler’

But why didn’t the film live up to expectations? It’s strange because there’s obviously a market for it as gambling on a whole is still widespread even in the United States. Although online casinos don’t operate in all 50 states because of the Black Friday closures, it still commands large revenue streams. Although many are now prohibited in the United States, the online industry is still worth $9.3 billion annually. Poker is as popular as it has ever been, as is Las Vegas jaunts with Sin City welcoming 41 million people in 2014 to visit.

The stats don’t lie that there’s a market for a film like The Gambler but the films that have been released in this niche pose the issue. Casino films haven’t performed well at the Box Office for a considerable amount of time. Ben Affleck’s Runner Runner or the indie Poker Night featuring Ron Perlman are all examples of this. There’s even the 2015 flick, Wild Card, featuring Jason Statham that made a meager $3,000. So, it’s not a surprise that producers and actors like Wahlberg are thinking twice about venturing into this niche of films.

So, did the gamble pay off for Wahlberg? It definitely didn’t win him any fans at Paramount because of the poor return on investment. But you could definitely lodge a serious argument that the sniggers from industry critics could be put on ice for a while.


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

The Gambler

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Release: Christmas Day 2014

[Theater]

Written by: William Monahan

Directed by: Rupert Wyatt

Huh. So that’s what it feels like to be completely ripped off by a movie.

I mean, completely. Like, I know it’s dumb to go all-in on a movie that has received so little attention and marketing for something that features the likes of Marky-Mark, the great John Goodman and a rising star in Brie Larson, but come on. Am I this much of a sucker? I just bought into a game that keeps on taking without ever giving back. I hate the dealer. Dealer always wins.

The lovable Mark Wahlberg drops 61 pounds (!) in order to get into the depraved character of Jim Bennett, some twit who spends his nights gambling and his days professing his love for literary genius in front of a bunch of disinterested college students. The legit job is the one he enjoys less, though he does enjoy holding this appreciation for elite novelists over his students, wielding his intellectual superiority as if it were some shield designed to protect him from the stabbings of his accusers, those who don’t give a shit about English lit. But as Rupert Wyatt is about to explain, there are better tools for Jim to rail against society with.

Like a gambling addiction! In my mind, shelling out one’s salary on a game of Black Jack on a regular basis, only to lose more often than win, constitutes a legitimate disease, and Wahlberg’s Jim is very sick. For nearly two hours he seems to acknowledge all the ways in which this lifestyle is wrong for him and yet continues to revel in it as he sinks into almost insurmountable debt, eventually having to be staked by the shadiest player in the room, some crazy named Neville (Michael Kenneth Williams) just so he can play his way out of his predicament. His actions throughout this entire film reveal a man who is not only incapable of change, but immune to it. I openly embrace characters who are severely flawed; there’d be virtually no entertainment business (or compelling literature) without them. I also don’t much mind when they aren’t dealt detailed development, so long as the lack of character development doesn’t take away from the ultimate experience.

Jim Bennett could have gotten into a three-way with Brie Larson’s Amy Phillips and his own mother (Jessica Lange) and still failed to find the motivation to change his ways. And that scene might have actually been interesting. But The Gambler insists on impressing (I’m wondering if depressing is an appropriate synonym here) those who have gambled their way into the theater with how much it enjoys the smell of its own stagnation. Jim goes from owing money to the charismatic Neville, to convincing Asian mafia — there’s always a higher power to answer to — that he’s worth their trouble, to taking a trip to the bank with mom for a casual $240,000 withdrawal. That’ll be in cash, please.

And that’s of course before he comes up against the film’s actual threat, a nakeder-than-life John Goodman as Frank and his tough-guy “cabbie”/right-hand man Big Ernie (Domenick Lombardozzi). Excluding Larson, who is woefully neglected in a role that reduces her to eying Marky-Mark’s character rather than becoming a flesh-and-blood character (Larson is far more effective as a texting addict in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s amusing Don Jon), supporting performances feel inspired. Inspired to the point where the supporting roles outweigh Wahlberg’s. When you have supporting roles more memorable than that of your lead, particularly when the lead comes in the form of a major player like Mark Wahlberg, you have a problem.

So I came out on the losing end here. That’s alright; the dealer wasn’t my type anyway. I’m sure there’s a lesson to be learned here, and I know for a fact there are a few things to become fixated on in Wyatt’s overhauling of the apparently far superior 1974 thriller with James Caan. Things like the fact that while Jim Bennett remains a perpetual screw-up, he attracts the attention of beautiful women like April. Nonsensical. The phenomenon of how we always buy into the star power of Mark Wahlberg without thinking for a second about the material that will surround him.

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Naked & sweaty man-date with John Goodman

2-0Recommendation: The Gambler turns out to be a thriller without the thrills; merely a good-looking production lacking much in the way of originality, enthusiasm or particularly strong acting. Though the latter is much less of an issue, the repetition of Jim Bennett’s gambling problem becomes more than a little wearisome as this story doesn’t force any action or compelling reason to stick by his side. Wahlberg is likable, sure, but this character — and this very disappointing film — are not so much. I do not really recommend.

Rated: R

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “You’re born as a man with the nerves of a soldier, the apprehension of an angel.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

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

TBT: The Basketball Diaries (1995)

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The fourth and final installment in the NBApril segment of Throwback Thursday is already here. Well, goodbye April. Sorry you couldn’t stick around for longer. . . . . . . . . . . And also, apologies that this month could not have ended on a better note. I guess this is just going to be one of those times where a little bit of forethought or organization to the list of movies I was planning on watching this month might have helped. A little secret: not all of the films on this feature are ones I have seen before and technically speaking they are brand-new films to me, and therefore some reviews may be different than the ones I might or could write if I had memories about the film in question. Therefore, I kind of am breaking my rules for the TBT set-up a little bit, but I’m young and unruly and get out of my way or you’ll pay, listen to what I say. And with that attitude in mind, let’s jump right into blabbering on about 

Today’s food for thought: The Basketball Diaries. 

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Release: April 21, 1995

[Netflix]

Less about basketball than it was about addiction to hard drugs, The Basketball Diaries was a tough film and an even tougher film to appreciate, much less enjoy. Though it boasted a thoroughly gripping performance from an incredibly young Leo and saw Markie-Mark transitioning nicely from hip-hop headphone to the grainy celluloid of the mid-90s, the film ultimately failed to amount to anything more than an aggressively anti-drug public service announcement.

The Basketball Diaries is the kind of movie I imagine would function fairly effectively as a freshman and/or sophomore phys-ed or wellness class educational film. The St. Vitus Cardinals might have gone down in high school legend as the definitive cautionary tale of students pondering a life road less traveled. . .for damn good reason. I

Granted, this was a fact-based adaptation — a loose one at that — of the autobiography written by Jim Carroll, who had later gone on to become a published writer after a brush with death when he fell into a serious drug addiction at the age of 13, quit his basketball team and dropped out of school.

Clearly, the film had no commitment to presenting any sort of crowd-pleasing elements considering it was charged with depicting such terrible and alarmingly commonplace poor decision-making in the underprivileged youth. This was (and remains) a disturbing reality for millions, though after sitting through The Basketball Diaries just one time, one wished they had had just a little more time to prepare themselves for the unexpected sermon that was to come.

An in-diapers DiCaprio was tapped to portray 12-to-16-year-old Jim Carroll, who’s first seen as part of an unstoppable high school basketball team in New York’s Lower East Side. Twenty-one-year-old DiCaprio imbued Jim, a young boy with few healthy outlets or interests, with an aggressive and voracious appetite for finding trouble. Jim’s refusal to play by the rules was impressive work considering it was little Leo’s fourth or fifth big-screen appearance. Jim’s friends were perhaps even worse, particularly the loud-mouthed and brutish Mickey (Wahlberg). A quiet kid named Pedro (James Madio) and the comparatively level-headed Neutron (Patrick McGaw) — ohhh!!! I get the nick-name now! — rounded out the rat-pack of tragic city-bound gadabouts.

The Basketball Diaries made one simple but glaring error in its harrowing depiction of several lives corrupted by narcotics. It forgot to create empathetic characters. Equally possibly, it refused to. Mark Wahlberg’s Mickey in particular was impossible to care about as he remained a character with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. (Rare is it in a film when one finds themselves so turned off by the characters they wind up rooting for their demise.) Jim and company fall so hard the punishing scenes later on became redundant.

The film’s sloppy, underdeveloped writing didn’t help matters either. While the stalwart performances from Leo and Markie-Mark managed to make up for whatever character depiction was also probably missing in the script, the two budding actors couldn’t save the film’s lack of true suspense-building as every step of the way was one predictable fall from grace to the next. Slumming it through The Basketball Diaries felt akin to playing a game of Mario where all you do is fall down the levels, never able to catch a break and ascend back up.

Well-intentioned, The Basketball Diaries was frustratingly one-note and challenges the viewer to the extreme in terms of offering reasons to empathize, provided the obnoxious characters and the cold indifference of their self-created realities. The script made stabbing attempts at making Jim three-dimensional at the very least, using the occasional voiceover by DiCaprio to instill some sense of passion for life that the boy still clung to, even during his most desperate days. The rest, meanwhile, remained helpless as the script damned them to their predictable fates. Since getting close to these people wasn’t possible, it felt more like good riddance than it did good-bye.

Unfortunately, the film failed to go to the more thoughtful, reflective places more often. Jim’s ability to write about his world offered fleeting moments of lucidity and even hope, though wallowing in darkness and despair was favored more often, as was relying on the cold calculations of the world to provide answers to whatever it was these lost people were looking for in life. A largely unsatisfying yet jarring film experience.

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2-5Recommendation: The Basketball Diaries is an effective piece of D.A.R.E. propaganda (with which I have no arguments against, death at the hands of hard drugs like heroin is a terrible tragedy) but it borders on being too heavy-handed and monotonous. Leo DiCaprio fans should probably see it for another good, early performance but for anyone out of the loop on this, they aren’t missing much by not venturing down this dark avenue.

Rated: R

Running Time: 102 mins.

Quoted: “You’re growing up. And rain sort of remains on the branches of a tree that will someday rule the Earth. And it’s good that there is rain. It clears the month of your sorry rainbow expressions, and it clears the streets of the silent armies… so we can dance.”

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

Lone Survivor

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Release: Christmas Day 2013 (limited)

[Theater]

Before we dive into an analysis of this film, let’s first get one thing straight: this is no Saving Private Ryan. The critic who made that comparison probably made it in the (understandably) dizzying buzz after experiencing an early screening of Peter Berg’s war film and felt compelled to give it the highest of accolades to kick off the onslaught of promotional efforts that was to come. In so doing, he was pretty successful in spreading the fire. There has been almost no end to people calling this a modern Spielbergian masterpiece.

Here are a few things the two films have in common: blood. Bullets. Blood. Excessive swearing. Blood. Gut-wrenching deaths. Blood. Blue skies. Blood. Americans and their red blood. But there the commonalities run out.

Lone Survivor is a grisly look at the botched Operation Red Wings, a mission undertaken by four Navy SEALS in an effort to track down and eliminate a high-priority member of the Taliban in the hostile hillsides of Afghanistan. Over the course of roughly 72 hours, the fates of Navy Lieutenant and team leader Michael P. Murphy (here portrayed by Taylor Kitsch), Petty Officers Second Class Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster), and Hospital Corpsman Second Class Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) would be decided by a combination of poor communication and even worse luck. As the film’s title blatantly informs the masses, only one would be living to tell the tale of these extraordinary days. That man was Marcus Luttrell.

Director Peter Berg (Battleship, Hancock) bases his film off of the written accounts penned by Luttrell in 2007. He apparently benefited from the technical support of former Navy SEALS, including Luttrell, to stage a good chunk of the action sequences. The director set a precedent by becoming the first civilian to become embedded with a Navy SEALs team in Iraq for a month while he wrote the script. As a result, Lone Survivor is more than likely technical perfection. But taken as a filmgoing experience, there is simply something missing from the equation that would have earmarked his film for not only inspirational but educational purposes. For reasons that are about to be explained, and though it’s far more graphic, Saving Private Ryan still seems like the go-to option for classroom use.

This really isn’t intended to be a compare-and-contrast review; it’s coming across that way because the claim that this is “the most extraordinary war film since Saving Private Ryan” is an overly sensationalized marketing strategy for Berg’s picture — one that needs to be put into perspective.

The first thing that should be noted in the differences column is that Lone Survivor severely lacks character development and enough chemistry between these Navy SEALS to make the circumstances truly horrific. In the line of fire they call each other brothers but that word is in the script, not in their hearts. We enter the field with machines, not distinct human personalities that we easily can attach life stories to. However, Berg believes its possible to empathize with the performances since this is based on a real occurrence. Based on his direction, the patriotism on display should be more than sufficient to make an audience care. In actual fact, it’s just barely enough. There’s no denying the emotional impact of the film, yet the question still lingers. If we got to know these soldiers as more than just the rough, gruff American heroes that they most certainly are, the aftermath would be even more devastating.

Berg also can hardly be described as the master of subtlety. Lone Survivor ultimately feels like a blunt instrument with which he may bludgeon us over the head, and the lack of character development makes the proceedings even more numbing. During the protracted (read: violent) sequences of confrontation with members of al Qaeda, bullets and bodies fly at random, and often times it’s not the fact that 180 cajillion bullets pierce through flesh that’s painful to watch so much as the environment is unforgiving. Several times over watch in agony as the four guys tumble down the mountainside, smacking into trees, rocks, animals — you name it.

During any one of these excruciating slow-motion edits it wouldn’t be completely surprising to see Berg pop out of a bush, break the fourth wall and ask those in the audience who are still dubious about our presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, “Well what do you think of our soldiers now?!” We get it — war is hell, and the sacrifices these people make are enormous. If that’s the main take away from the film it’s hardly an original one. We can get the same effect by watching the news. More often than not live footage of what’s occurring is more affecting than a movie can ever hope to be.

A third, and lesser flaw revolves around the casting of Mark Wahlberg. The marquee name is just large enough to ensure the others get shoved to the background and that as many tickets to this event are sold. Marky-Mark’s a likable enough actor, but where Spielberg’s epically sprawling film can get away with so many big names (Hanks, Sizemore, Damon, etc.) Lone Survivor‘s disinterest in developing characters or even a great deal of camaraderie between the guys makes Wahlberg’s presence seem awkward and misjudged. Contrast him to Hirsch, Foster and Kitsch — still relatively known actors but at least these three are relegated to the tragic roles that they play.

This is not a terrible film, but it’s not going to end up being the definitive story about what happened during Operation Red Wings — although that may not be possible. There was so much chaos on this mission, as evidenced by Berg’s storytelling here. Truth be told, it’s probably impossible conceiving a film that truly renders the nightmare experienced by this lone survivor. Though Luttrell was on set, often providing advice to Berg on how to best depict what he saw over these few days, the others sadly weren’t able to offer their input. It’s realistic, sure. But a classic film it most certainly is not.

Film Title: Lone Survivor

2-5Recommendation: Though patriotism bleeds through the film reel, there’s not enough here to show why this disastrous mission really mattered. For those who haven’t heard about this mission (or anyone still undecided about seeing this film), the best route to take would be to track down Luttrell’s written account (of the same name) where, presumably, no detail should be spared. There’s detail aplenty in Berg’s film, too, but much of that pertains to the gruesome way in which some of our beloved soldiers have fallen. That’s not noble; it’s just sickening.

Rated: R

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “You can die for your country, but I’m gonna live for mine.”

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

Don Jon

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Release: Friday, September 27, 2013 

[Theater]

Joseph Gordon-Levitt goes for broke here, starring in his big screen directorial and writing debut. He’s Jon Martello, a confident, handsome twenty-something born and raised in New Jersey, first introduced as a club regular, ladykiller and porn addict. Or, well . . . as someone who prefers porn to having sex with someone.

Indeed, Don Jon winds up becoming an unusually revealing and provocative experience. It’s also refreshingly honest. I can’t recall the last screening I attended in which there was quite so much nervous laughter and so many outbursts of it, moments in which you get the “haha, oh yeah that’s totally me” kinds of laughs intermixed with genuine bouts of uncontrollable hysteria. This is what’s known as the Joseph Gordon-Levitt Effect.

All I can say for that is, thank goodness someone approved of JGL’s idea to write, direct and star in his own film. As it turns out, not only is his debut a thoroughly entertaining one, it manages to balance its overt sex appeal with a healthy dosage of decency and maturity. Don Jon scrubs the Paganism from the subject of talking hot and heavy sex. When Jon meets the woman of his dreams at a club, his life might well be heading in a new direction. Set on a collision course with finding true love, will she be the one to make his life better, and thus that of his mother as well? (Are grandchildren so much to ask for??)

First off, JGL does a great job of not really caring what a certain portion of his fanbase may or may not think of his creative choices, as there is many a debasing moment with him shirtless, hunched over and alone by his laptop, his naked despair (or despairing nakedness, whichever) occupying the center of the screen. There’s a good bit of narration as well, most of which serve as explanations as to why Jon prefers watching sex to actually engaging in it. In short, JGL puts it all out there, and the film benefits.

At the core of the very-nearly-sappy story is a man who’s so good at being one-dimensional he hasn’t ever stopped to think twice about settling down and starting a family, though that’s surely what his parents — the great Tony Danza, and a hilarious Glenne Headly — want and expect from him. They have no idea about his relationship with his computer. Jon doesn’t much care; life is working for him perfectly well as is. But when he comes across Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), the young man’s suddenly finding himself having to rearrange his daily life . . . and maybe even his priorities?

The skeletal framework of the film is hard to ignore — arguably the only major crack in its composure. Splicing scenes of ‘the Don’ at the gym, doing his “thing” at home, going to confession, and combing the clubs, all in equal measure, the routine becomes somewhat predictable, and likely will be even more obvious upon repeat viewings. That said, it works just fine for a debut film from someone as young as Levitt. It’s an effective, albeit conspicuous, story-building technique that prompts laughs perhaps more often than the sight of ridiculous clips from various pornos.

The most fascinating aspect of Don Jon has to be the personal growth, the progress of maturity as the story unfolds. While attending classes (at the request of Barbara, in order for him to actually “make something of himself”), Jon comes across an older woman (Julianne Moore) in the same class. His first encounter with her is more than awkward and seems dismissive yet, what JGL does next (from a directorial standpoint) is one of the few developments in his film that’s unpredictable, and quite frankly, one which gives the film a great deal of credibility — if only also slightly threatening mawkishness.

Jon’s situation is really just a contemporary version of a man in denial; in 17th Century Spain, Don Juan roamed the Spanish hills, conquering women, slaying men, and later boasting about it. The bigger the challenge, the bigger reward, in his eyes. Eventually, the great misogynist would find his soul depraved, and denied salvation due to the unconscionable nature of his sins. The amiable native Angeleno cleverly adapted the basic qualities of the fictitious lothario for a modern audience. Then he managed to attract the attention of some of the most beautiful people working in the industry today. The result is a very satisfying mixture that is far more poignant than might first be assumed.

Don Jon is as successful as one might expect from a virgin director. It would seem the young actor has a bright future ahead of him, now in multiple aspects of the art form. He’s got a few areas to develop on as a director, but seeing as though this is his starting point, it should be fascinating to see what might come next from one of Hollywood’s fastest rising stars.

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3-5Recommendation:  Don Jon finds JGL at his most exposed — literally and figuratively, of course. I think the trailers do their job quite well with this one. And, if you like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, then you’re already there, aren’t you?        

Rated: R (for risqué)

Running Time: 90 mins.  

Quoted: “They give awards for porn, too. . .”

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

TBT: The Italian Job (2003)

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Okay, so as we all know by now, this upcoming weekend is a doozy. First, the release of Don Jon, the brand-new film that’s directed, written by and starring the multi-faceted Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Secondly, and with all due respect to JGL, more importantly, Ron Howard’s new biopic, Rush, finally gets the green light to be released before worldwide audiences. All September long I have been taking some (brief) trips back in time by revisiting some flicks that feature cars and/or racing in some major way. Ranging from the slapstick/comedic to the more atmospheric and dramatic, this month’s entries have been a ton of fun to compose, and it has really helped to build some momentum as we head into the next Howard masterpiece (fingers AND toes crossed here, peeps). So with the appropriate formalities behind us, let’s dive into the fourth and final entry in this month’s TBT thread. 

Today’s food for thought: The Italian Job.

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Release: May 30, 2003 

[Theater]

That the Italian Job remake would involve Mini Coopers was a concept I at first was slow to respond to. I felt that the cars were silly-looking in a movie, though this was probably another ill-begotten impression I had acquired as an angst-riddled, pimply teen in high school. I also had no idea what to look for in movies then, either. Sixteen-year-old me, the fool.

The more I think back on it now, the cooler this movie seems and the more those tiny but speedy little shopping carts seem like characters themselves. They’re certainly crucial to the story.

Charlie Croker (Mark Wahlberg) heads up a team of master thieves to reclaim what’s rightfully theirs after being robbed at gunpoint and left for dead by a traitorous inside man. After the most recent job has gone without a hitch, the gang — John (Donald Sutherland), Handsome Rob (Jason Statham, repping probably the best character name he’s ever been given), Lyle (Seth Green), Left Ear (Mos Def) and Steve (Edward Norton) are en route to split the $35 million they just lifted from a safe in Venice into their own personal shares when they are betrayed suddenly by Steve, who’s been apparently waiting a long time for this moment.

Thanks to some unfortunate developments, Charlie has to crawl back to old acquaintances for help in his new mission to retrieve the gold from Steve, and enlists the help of expert safe cracker Stella (Charlize Theron), who happens to be John’s daughter. A tried-and-true, formulaic plot has her character reject the offer at first, but as sure as eggs are eggs she eventually comes around. Also predictably, the rest of the gang doesn’t exactly take kindly to the presence of a woman on the job, and despite her obvious beauty she finds it difficult to fit in immediately.

When the gang finally seem to be functioning like a tight-knit unit once again, they make their first moves on Steve, who is living luxuriously in a heavily-guarded estate in the Los Angeles area, and appears to have accrued a number of items that some of his former colleagues had said they were looking to buy once they had the money. Indeed, Ed Norton manages to pull off the highly dislikable role of Steve Frezelli with ease. He’s a sniveling, hot-tempered man who doesn’t appear all that intimidating right from the get-go.

In essence, he’s the perfect villain here — the quintessential action-movie bad-guy-as-Benedict-Arnold — a man who is on par with the rest of the cast in terms of having the same kind of intuition, the same levels of emotion and a shared personal history to make the showdown(s) more compelling than it/they rightfully should be. This remake, which comes nearly 35 years after the classic Michael Caine version, certainly ups the ante with respect to the violence and other suggestive themes (for those who are unaware, the 1969 movie is rated G), but it  still maintains a fun, energetic atmosphere that gives this new version a reason to exist.

The Italian Job dances around familiar themes and despite a lot of high-tech gadgetry and thoughtful planning, this plot’s combination isn’t exactly a tough one to crack, though it’s easily digestible and the film overall is a total blast. The ensemble cast convinces us they are at least having one. It’s reflected in their respective roles with the way everyone gels as a group as they turn the tables against Steve and his henchmen. Wahlberg and Theron make for a highly likable pairing, and his crew — particularly Mos Def and his dog phobia — succeed in bringing forth the laughs.

With several memorable car chase sequences — who doesn’t want to take their Mini Cooper down a flight of stairs? — this film makes for a nice exit from the ‘Movies that Really Move’ theme this month. It’s a constant reminder of my needing to seek out the original, as well. I maintain a healthy skepticism of every remake ever done (Robocop, let’s see if you can be an exception) so I’m fully expecting the enjoyment level to increase greatly when I sit back and experience the material upon which this highly-amiable adventure is based.

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3-5Recommendation: A fast-paced and decidedly more Americanized heist film, F. Gary Gray’s version may not be the superior one, but it’s both a good example of a remake treated with respect and is simultaneously a riveting little outing that’s filled with entertaining characters and some fun in Mini Coopers. And Ed Norton is always great to watch. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 104 mins.

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

2 Guns

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Release: Thursday, August 1, 2013

[Theater]

Gleefully tongue-in-cheek, 2 Guns is a mostly-successful buddy-cop action film that delves into the heart of a Mexican drug cartel while revealing surprising truths about the clientele it conducts business with. One could sense the lack of seriousness a mile away with this film. Fortunately, though, one gets exactly what one expects (and pays for) in this humorous account of two crooked trigger fingers, played by Marky-Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington as they get caught between the cartel and several nefarious American government officials, including those within the Navy and the CIA.

Wahlberg’s Marcus “Stig” Stigman is a former Naval employee who went AWOL awhile back, and now finds himself “partnered” up alongside the smooth-talking, shady DEA agent Bobby Trench (Washington). The two make a satisfyingly comedic pair, and even when the events surrounding their story include plot holes and cliches galore, one cannot deny that the pairing of Wahlberg with Washington is the main reason you go to see this film from Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur.

The film, set ostensibly near the Mexican border, opens with the duo planning a bank heist in which they stand to gain something like $3 million in cash. The bank they plan to rob — Tres Cruces Savings & Loan — is situated across from a diner with apparently some of the best donuts you’ll ever eat. Or so Bobby thinks, anyway. However, when the act goes down after some editorial backtracking to bring us all up to speed on what has occurred over the week prior, the two walk away with a hell of a lot more than the $3 mil they were expecting. It turns out they become $43 million richer, but a hot-tempered, rough-and-tumble CIA agent named Earl (Bill Paxton) quickly catches on to the scent of these pseudo-expert bank robbers and soon starts blazing a trail to find them and, presumably, kill them.

One of the main issues with this film is the lack of seriousness in any and all aspects of it. Well, excluding the violence. There are certainly a few moments that are shocking and which don’t seem to fit the bill of a movie that tries to be more light-hearted than dramatic. It is a little difficult to buy into the fact that Stig and Bobby are this good when they shoot their mouths off at each other, as well as several more serious-looking Mexican drug dealers. Aside from Stig’s demonstration of his accuracy (by shooting the heads off of several partially-buried chickens in a backyard — all the while eating a plate of fried chicken, no less), and the same applying to Washington’s character in other contexts, this is a film that insists you wholeheartedly accept these characters based on the actors’ reputations alone. That’s all well and good, except for the final scene where they manage to avoid a torrential downpour of bullets. It’s perhaps one of the most egregious scenes of Hollywood magic, and would make Keanu Reeves in The Matrix look like a newbie in his bullet-dodging scene. Still, it’s best to accept things at face value here and leave it at that.

An appealing aspect of 2 Guns, which may be misconstrued by more bitter critics as being dumb or confusing, is the fact that identities are never really clear virtually until the very end. We are not even sure for half of the time whether Bobby and Stig are working together or working against each other. Their relationship is certainly one of love-hate — perhaps more of the former than of the latter — and is a real treat to watch unfold. The two prove here that they could carry at least another movie together — not a sequel as such, but I’d love to see them pair up again as the leads of a similarly toned movie. They are simply too much fun to watch, and again, this is in spite of the fact that their backdrop is extremely familiar and steeped in cliche.

Paxton makes for a suitably villainous and corrupt CIA agent whose only intent is to reclaim what’s his. Edward James Olmos plays the despicable drug lord Papi Greco; James Marsden as Naval Officer Quince as well as Fred Ward, as Admiral Tuwey, prove that not even the Navy is free of corruption. Unfortunately, by the time you get around to meeting the latter character, the whole business of literally everyone on screen being a crook has become old news and any credibility that was barely established at the beginning is more or less evaporated by the desert heat (and somewhat abecedarian writing). Even the enticing Deb (Paula Patton), the would-be girlfriend of Bobby, turns out to be nothing more than femme fatale. The double-crossing gets to be a little too much, admittedly, but it’s not quite enough to turn the movie from a ‘two guns up’, to ‘two guns down.’

An explosive finish predictably pits mob boss, American government officials (represented of course by Paxton, Marsden and a few others), and the two rogues in Bobby and Stig all together in the ultimate showdown where bullets fly, bodies drop, bulls run rampant and $43 million in cash erupts in one of the funniest “makin’ it rain” sequences I’ve seen in a while. As cliche as it is going to sound, Bobby and Stig indeed stumble off into the desert sunset together, and, well. . . that’s that.

On the whole, this movie is nothing special. It is boosted exponentially by the fun interplay between well-matched leads in Washington and Wahlberg, and although it may sound repetitive saying that, I honestly couldn’t get enough of it. To me, seeing them together was well worth the price of admission. The story line needs little to no explanation (other than a warning notice about all the confusing betrayals and such) since it’s so well-worn and not entirely thought out well. But it’s just enough to justify 2 Guns‘ existence. It may be surprising to think of the fact that this film will be far from anyone’s mind when it comes Oscar season when you consider the star talent on display, but it proves that you need more than just great actors elevating an average script to make a great movie. This one is purely for entertainment purposes only, and I’m quite alright with that.

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3-0Recommendation: Come in with low expectations and you’re sure to have a good time. It’s capably acted, decently paced although it plods around a bit in the middle, and the conclusion can be seen coming a mile away, but if all you’re looking for in a movie is a great escape from your real-life drama, be sure to check in on these guys’ movie life drama. I’m sure it’ll be worth it in the end. And honestly, who DOESN’T like Mark Wahlberg. . . ?

Rated: R

Running Time: 109 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

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