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Kicking the Tweets
Friday
Aug292014

The November Man (2014)

A Serbian Flam

Life is weird. Immediately following a Tuesday night screening of The November Man, I fell into a co-interview situation with Lori Granger--the widow of Chicago novelist Bill Granger, who wrote the spy series on which the film is based. Ms. Granger said the adaptation bore little resemblance to its source material, but that she was happy with the outcome. Based on the resulting film, I can only imagine that part of her contentment has to do with not being able to pin such shabby storytelling on her dearly departed husband.

Pierce Brosnan stars as Peter Devereaux, a CIA spy who left the agency shortly after an incident in which his hotshot young trainee, Mason (Luke Bracey), mistakenly killed a child. Years later, Devereaux's former boss, Hanley (Bill Smitrovich), unofficially reactivates him to protect an old flame, Natalia (Mediah Musliovic), who's protecting old secrets. A former Russian general named Federov (Lazar Ristovski) aims to bury his dirty past on the path to the presidency, you see, and Natalia's high on the list.

Simple enough, right? Not so fast. Writers Michael Finch and Karl Gajdusek then introduce a rogue CIA element (of course), which uses Mason (double of course) to kill Natalia so she can't spill the beans on someone in its own ranks. And we haven't even met Alice (Olga Kurylenko), a social worker with a dark past; or the American journalist she confides in; or Federov's silent assassin; or the pimp who used to be a military officer; or Mason's comely neighbor with the annoying cat.

We're also a good ways away from our heroes' disturbing schizophrenia (which led to my having used the plural apostrophe instead of the singular). Are we supposed to root for Devereaux? Of course! The actor playing him was once James Bond! Wait, why is James Bond gunning down federal officers and threatening to slit an innocent woman's throat?

So, then, Mason must be our man. Hold on. What was that about not giving a fuck about all the people he's killed? And why would he endanger that nice neighbor girl by going out with her in public, when he knows full well the guy who trained him in spyhood is most likely surveilling his every move? Hey, did he just betray his country? Or is he playing both sides? Or no sides?

Hey, look! Pierce Brosnan's in this movie! He played James Bond once, you know.

The November Man may not be a good film, but it's highly entertaining. That has to count for something--even if that "something" is a drinking game. Submitted for your viewing pleasure are just a few shot-worthy gems:

  • Every time a new sub-plot is introduced
  • Every time "Serbia" or "Belgrade" appears on the screen to indicate a new location ("American Embassy, Serbia", "Imperial Hotel, Belgrade", "CIA Black Ops Site, Serbia", "Belgrade International Airport", "American Embassy, Serbia"--again)
  • Every time Olga Kurylenko gets a close-up (not complaining)
  • Every time Luke Bracey gets a closeup (complaining a lot)
  • Every time someone gets punched/shot/body-checked from around a corner (Have 9-1-1 on speed dial for this one. Seriously, it's out of control.)

I appreciate Donaldson and company's attempts to bring something new to the spy thriller. But at the end of the day, multi-layered plots without cohesion are just vignettes in search of a movie. The actors bring everything they've got to their roles, but each scene is from a different film in a diametrically opposed genre. You know what an hour-and-forty-four minutes of crosses, double-crosses, triple-crosses, and double-dog-dare-crosses will get you? A cross audience--assuming they're engaged enough to care.

If you're like me, The November Man will prove to be a hilarious fascination--a journey into a world where military geniuses don't recognize key people from fifteen years ago; where political leaders hang out in hotels guarded by five dudes who don't believe in bullet-proof vests; and where spies-on-the-run spend way too much time hanging out in front of exposed windows. On the broadest level, this is the worst kind of entertainment. Look closer, though, and you'll find a chuckle-worthy class in poor decisions that someone could write a book about.

Monday
Aug252014

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)

Shades of Great

If you're like most Americans, you didn't see Sin City: A Dame to Kill For last weekend. It failed spectacularly at the box office, and is on track to be one of Summer 2014's biggest bombs. Whether due to poor marketing, a critical clobbering, or nine years having passed between predecessor and sequel, moviegoers stayed away in droves. That's a damn shame, 'cause there's more to love here than in the original.

Based on the comics series by Frank Miller, who wrote the screenplay and co-directed with Robert Rodriguez, both films are chronologically challenged anthologies that take place in the world's most corrupt town. The high end is run by a dynasty of scumbag politicians and clergymen, and the low end bows to a cabal of costumed assassins who moonlight as prostitutes (or is it the other way around?). In the middle is Kadie's Bar, where a big, ugly brute named Marv (Mickey Rourke) drinks, ogles strippers, and welcomes excuses to bash people's skulls in.

Like the comics, 2005's Sin City used Marv as our gateway into Miller's neo-noir universe. The best parts focused on a bloody revenge mission against the powerful entities that murdered his would-be girlfriend. Unfortunately, Miller and Rodriguez rounded out their run-time with two lesser adaptations from the canon--resulting in a feature-length technical and narrative exercise that, as a story, came off as repetitive and too long by at least thirty minutes.

It didn't help that almost every actor involved had trouble distinguishing between the high camp of a "comic-book movie" and the down 'n dirty noir delivery Miller captured so effortlessly on the page. The women either lacked affectation or impersonated Betty Boop; the men mostly strived for seen-it-all detachment but came off as third-rate Batman impersonators Sure, Bruce Willis and Clive Owen have the right look, but their delivery was flatter than day-old root beer.

In the nine years since Sin City bowled over critics and comics fans, the comic-book movie has been seriously upgraded in the public consciousness. With camp-free heavy-hitters like The Dark Knight and Guardians of the Galaxy proving that relatable characters navigating multi-layered plots are as important (if not more so) than dazzling special effects, the stakes couldn't be higher for Miller's style of storytelling--which faces the added challenge of being a throwback to art forms (pulp novels, black-and-white movies) that modern audiences either despise or can't accept as having ever been real.

I was relieved to find that A Dame to Kill For ups the ante in special effects, screenplay, and performances. The movie is far from perfect, and would benefit from the axing of a superfluous prologue and a downright snoozer of a third segment. But the centerpiece--a flashback involving private investigator Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin, taking over for Owen) and his ex-girlfriend-turned-millionaire's-wife, Ava (Eva Green*)--is one of the coolest, most effective pieces of entertainment I've seen this year. Another story, in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a gambler whose luck changes when he takes on Senator Roark (Powers Boothe), offers a pristine example of the tragicomic tapestry Miller weaves in his comics.

These segments work for a few reasons. The first is Green. Never mind that the actress spends more time out of clothes than in them, her real triumph is painting Ava Lord as the quintessential temptress and manipulator. She's the smartest person to have ever appeared in a Sin City film--a calculating and self-aware genius in a town overrun by impulse-driven savages whose survival instincts invariably skew towards mere violence. Ava enjoys playing with men to get what she wants; the evil intelligence and flashes of madness in Green's eyes make it easy to understand how so many guys could make so many stupid decisions while trying to please her.

As her counterpart, Brolin nails the archetypical Sin City man's man, which, I'd wager, Miller and Rodriguez had hoped to bring to life a decade ago. His narration evokes the precise voice I heard in my head when reading Miller's comics in high school--all gravel, regret, and pent-up savagery. Even when Dwight's storyline heads south (following facial-reconstruction that makes him look like an action figure mash-up of Clive Owen and George W. Bush), Brolin's commitment to treating the character as a character--and not a plaything between "serious" projects--makes this chapter indelible.

Another stand-out is Dennis Haysbert, filling in for the late Michael Clarke Duncan. He's a leaner actor than his predecessor, and his face doesn't immediately scream "trouble". This works in his character's favor, as he plays Ava Lord's brutish bodyguard with the understated calm of a man quietly comfortable in his own lethality. The change-up of performers actually works perfectly considering how, story-wise, the character becomes a different person between films.

Sadly, A Dame to Kill For unravels in the third act, as we catch up with Nancy (Jessica Alba), the stripper who fell in love with Bruce Willis' character in the first movie. He killed himself to throw Roark off her scent, and now she harbors an alcohol-fueled vendetta against the seemingly untouchable senator. For starters, Alba is simply not well-rounded enough as a performer to pull off the heartbroken, hearing-voices lunatic type. She's more movie star than actress, and that's perfectly fine--except when I'm asked to watch her stretch and fall short at the end of an otherwise stellar showcase.

Second, Nancy's story dredges up the worst aspects of the series: how many times must we watch people sneak through the woods to attack what should be a fortified compound, in order to assassinate the Big Bad? Miller tries to imbue Nancy with some modicum of character growth, but no one cares whether or not she'll win battle with booze and kill Roark. Of course she will. This is Sin City. No need for twenty minutes of Black Swan crazy talk.

The film ends abruptly, with another CGI spin-out of buildings that forms the Sin City logo. Unlike the striking red opening credits, the closing letters are dim and gray--as if Rodriguez and Miller ran out of juice to power the lights. I know, this began as a somewhat glowing recommendation. Now you're probably wondering how I can justify asking you to see A Dame to Kill For in the theatre. I'll go you one further, and endorse seeing it in 3D.

Just as most people stayed away from Dredd a couple years ago, and subsequently kicked themselves when word of mouth made it a home-video sensation, A Dame to Kill For really benefits from the big-screen, multi-dimensional experience. Rodriguez and the gang at Troublemaker Studios have outdone themselves this time. From the layered, perspective-enhanced translation of Miller's black-and-white drawings in the opening credits; to the steam that envelopes a hot-tubbing Ava Lord like Medusa's snakes; and Dwight's nasty fall out an apartment window, there's no shortage of detail to appreciate. I could tell that the filmmakers were invested in making these stories tangible for audiences, just as Miller is with his readers.

We can probably agree that most sequels are unnecessary. In the case of Sin City, its follow-up is essential. Miller and Rodriguez burst out of the gate nine years ago with a comics film that, collectively, we didn't know could be outdone in the genre. Its groundbreaking digital artistry booted panels off the page, and the nearly unprecedented violence helped reassert that some comics weren't just not for kids--they were positively child-restricted.

But it was a silly movie, a macho cartoon with aspirations of weight. A Dame to Kill For, by contrast, is a study in lessons learned--a film that could not have existed as a rushed sequel half a decade ago, despite ardent calls from fans. Like the titular town, the picture has its awesome parts, its bad parts, and its unspeakably dreadful parts. There are no shortcuts through Sin City, but some of its attractions are more than worth the trip.

*Oddly enough, this is the second long-in-the-tooth sequel based on a Frank Miller property to come out this year. The first was 300: Rise of an Empire. Both starred Green, and she is the driving, charismatic force behind both films.

Friday
Aug222014

Sin City (2005)

Hardly Boiled

That familiar feeling pours into my gut. A warm front of nostalgia tangles with the ice-cold perspective of adulthood, and all I can feel is embarrassment while I watch Sin City for the first time in half a decade.

You're a cruel mistress, ain'tcha? As a graphic novel, you blew my teenage mind wide open, surer than a .57 Magnum to the eyeball. Hell, even when Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez showed up at Comic Con that time, parading their impossibly gorgeous eye candy on-stage to show footage from their upcoming masterpiece--no one in that room could contain themselves. It was a grand, a geek madhouse if there ever was one.

But now, look at you. Nine years later, being watched by what some might call a "wiser" old man. A man who's seen things. Done things. Who writes about movies as a calling. Look at you. What a mess you are.

Yeah, you're still pretty to look at. Even now, it's hard to believe all the swirling cityscapes, car chases, and seedy locations are all just expensive bedazzlements--a bag of CGI tricks lined with green cloth. Every once in awhile, I see catch a glimpse of the sexless sound stage behind your skirt. Mostly, though, I'm lost in your weird reality. You breathe, and you take my breath away. Mostly.

Then you talk. Goddamn you, you talk. And all I can hear is actors play-tending 'cause they're in a "comic-book movie". Michael Madsen should be damned to hell of my choosing for his first-read-through line delivery. And don't get me started on Jessica Alba. Yeah, she's iconic here, a 4-D mirage of glistening, gyrating sexual energy with that lasso and those chaps. But her mouth opens, and my groin falls victim to one of those goddamned Internet ice-bucket challenges.

Your voice-over narration makes me want to cut out every tongue in America. Miller's writing kinda works on the page, but on the road to utterance becomes more Mickey Mouse than Mickey Spillane. It's infectious. I gotta give it that. Like the first cough in a sickness-bound city. My city.

See what I mean?

Thank God for Mickey Rourke and Powers Boothe. They make characters while everyone else draws cartoons. Rourke's Marv is a towering, vengeance-minded lug with a big heart and a pea brain. In the comics, he's even flatter than Miller's grayscale-free aesthetics. But on film, the actor gives him dimension, a sadness bordering on bloody grace.

Boothe slimes it up real good as a crooked senator (coincidentally named Roark). He almost proves that Miller's sophomoric, hard-boiled writing can work in the real world--but he doesn't stick around long enough to make a case either way. A damn shame.

Like the best lovers, you try to push me away. You tell the same story over and over and over, daring me to call your bluff after the first thirty minutes:

1. Noble, yet flawed guy meets vulnerable and impossibly attractive girl.

2. Girl runs afoul of gangsters/bad cops.

3. Guy goes on a bloody rampage to defend/avenge girl.

4. Guy winds up dead and/or narrating from behind dead eyes.

5. Rinse.

6. Repeat.

You tell your story. Then you tell it again. By the third time arterial spray is Steadman-ed across the screen, it takes everything in me not to tell you to shut up and show some more leg. I focus instead on the little things. Like that sexy, sax-heavy score. Or the way Rosario Dawson makes Clive Owen look like the tree in a grade-school play. My jaw drops when I notice Nick Offerman in a bleach-blonde cameo as a thug. Picking it up off the floor, Benicio Del Toro's turn as a mumble-mouthed cop scurries back to its hiding place under his resume.

I start to lay into Brittany Murphy, and you stop me just short of libeling the dead.

We used to be in love, Sin City. I stood up for you once as a visual revolutionary--which you surely were. Still are, in lotsa ways. But I see now a hurriedness that your comics counterpart wouldn't have stood for.

Your characters speak and move so unnaturally, so hell-bent on capturing key frames from the page that everything else is either sped way up or slowed way the hell down. You're a pretty collection of overly articulated action figures--puppeteered by a punk who filters tough-guy dialogue through the kid-brain of someone who's never kissed a girl. Never been in a fight.

You're a mixed-up directionless broad, alright. But I'm the crazy one for giving you a second chance. And a third. I still respect you, old girl. But our love bled out long ago, poisoning the neon strets of this cold, broken city. My city.

Thursday
Aug212014

Let's Be Cops (2014)

Clubbed Footing

Let's start with what Let's Be Cops is not. It is not a high-minded comedy that seeks to upend the buddy-cop sub-genre by exploring racial dynamics on police forces and in communities nationwide. Neither is it a commentary on the horrific events playing out in Ferguson, MO (which happened four days prior to the film's release). The greatest crime co-writer/director Luke Greenfield's action farce commits is not being particularly funny, exciting, or original. That it has landed, flaming, on our collective doorstep at this moment in history is both unfortunate and largely irrelevant.

Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. play two L.A. losers named Ryan and Justin. They moved to Hollywood eight years ago to pursue their dreams (football/acting for Ryan; video game design for Justin), but have barely moved the needle, career-wise. On receiving an invitation to a costume party hosted by their college alumni association, they show up wearing cop outfits from Justin's failed first-person-shooter pitch. Cue the slide whistles, kids, 'cause it turns out the invitation was for a masquerade party! Whoops! Check that banana peel!

Humiliated and directionless, the guys walk home--only to discover people giving them Moses-like space. They randomly tell pedestrians to stop, and watch as citizens freeze in place. Justin and Ryan have discovered the non-mutant superpower of uniformed authority, and find it to be pretty awesome. During the next several days, the almost willfully unemployed Ryan ratchets up his involvement in this fake persona by purchasing a cop car on eBay and watching all the police-procedure YouTube videos he can find. Justin, meanwhile, reluctantly tags along to avoid thinking about the 9-5 theft of ideas at his day job.

Of course, they run afoul of local Russian mobsters, led a scar-faced, psychotic animal named Mossi (James D'arcy). I found him to be the most unique part of his crew, but that's only 'cause I spent the entire film wondering if he was, in fact, Rodrigo Santoro or the result of a genetic experiment between Santoro and Ethan Hawke. I still can't believe my eyes.

There's also a girl involved, a waitress named Josie (Nina Dobrev). In a refreshing twist, she doesn't get kidnapped by the mobsters (thus allowing would-be boyfriend Justin to swoop in with guns-blazing courage at the end). That scenario would have given the actress something more to do than serve as slinky-skirted eye candy, though. Dobrev has anchored a highly successful TV series for several years, but you'd never know it based on this disposable role.

All the familiar beats are here. The guys fall into a weapons-smuggling ring and get way over their heads. They have a falling out over which one has made the least of their sad lives. The villains kidnap one of them, forcing the other to team up with real...

Look, audiences don't come to these movies for dynamic plots. I mean, they could, but Let's Be Cops has nothing more on its mind than raunch and circumstance. These are vignettes strung together by comedy and cop-movie tropes, which have been either parodied to death or executed with genre-defining grace. On one end of the Classics spectrum we have Lethal Weapon; on the other, Hot Fuzz21 Jump Street is somewhere in the middle, I guess. Let's Be Cops exists on another scale entirely, clustered at the far end that no one likes to talk about (though I hear it has cozied up with 22 Jump Street for warmth).

On whatever passes for a bright side here, Greenfield and co-writer Nicholas Thomas make up for their lack of creativity with a fantastic and utterly squandered cast. Johnson has done some great work in recent years, playing (relatively) understated and acerbic in movies like Drinking Buddies and on TV's The New Girl. This movie feels like it's either several steps back, or the first thing he'd ever filmed, finally released. Though Ryan is a nigh unrepentant jerk, Johnson's infusion of clueless, devilish glee makes his character compelling to watch. Wayans has a bigger mountain to scale, partially because he appears to ape his father half the time, and partially due to playing the straight man in a cast of cartoon characters. I'll call this one a wash, and hope that he gets more of a chance to prove himself in the future.

The movie also makes great use of Rob Riggle, who explores more serious territory here, to great effect--in addition to expanding his macho-goofball repertoire.

Sadly, I don't know that Luke Greenfield will get a Strike Three. After flops like The Animal (his debut, which doesn't really count), The Girl Next Door, and Something Borrowed, Let's Be Cops may be his feature-film swan song.* We catch glimpses of promise during the spotty twenty-minute climax, in which the movie forgets to be a dumb comedy and wanders into legit action movie territory. Had Greenfield either pushed (or been allowed to push) for greater substance or more deft non-substance throughout, maybe the end result would have been gratifying instead of grating.

Note: Another underused performer here is Keegan-Michael Key, who shows up as a Dominican smuggler. Seeing him reminded me of the upcoming Police Academy reboot (which he's slated to produce with Key & Peele co-creator Jordan Peele). How great would it be if Jake Johnson's character stepped between films, co-starring in Police Academy as the power-obsessed Officer Tackleberry? If there is justice in the cinematic cosmos, Let's Be Cops may someday prove to have served a purpose. 

*That's a shame. I loved The Girl Next Door. Yes, it lifted heavily from Risky Business, but the film was contemporary, heartfelt, weird, and, most importantly, very funny. 

Monday
Aug182014

Maleficent (2014)

Hell Hath No Faerie

Summer's almost over, and I've finally gotten around to seeing one of its biggest blockbusters. Maleficent may not have the smash-bang pedigree of Trasformers, Godzilla, or Guardians of the Galaxy, but it has been a steady box-office juggernaut for months. Now I understand why. 

Like Snow White and the Huntsman, Maleficent is Disney's live-action re-telling of one of its classic animated films--with an "Untold Origins" twist to make it worthwhile. Angelina Jolie stars as Maleficent, the winged faerie ruler of a magical kingdom that exists next to the realm of humankind. Fans of Sleeping Beauty know her as the Christening-crashing witch who places a curse on the king's daughter, damning her to permanent unconsciousness upon her sixteenth birthday. Screenwriter Linda Woolverton complicates things with a scorned-lover back story that makes Maleficent's actions relatable, if not entirely excusable.

There's real magic in Maleficent, and I can't recommend it highly enough to children of the 80s who've longed for the days of The Neverending Story and The Dark Crystal. Special effects artist Robert Stromberg's directorial debut is a nostalgia filmmaking in the best sense: rather than copying aspects of classic films, he's captured a genuine, hard-to-define mood with his storybook fantasy. Older moviegoers may scoff at some of Maleficent's CGI subjects, but this wonkiness is in keeping with the good-for-their-time puppets of our youth.*

The main reason I waited so long to see the film was because of its ad campaign's similarity to other live-action, empowered-princess movies that've popped up in the last few years. Though I enjoyed Snow White, I couldn't stand Alice in Wonderland (also written, strangely enough, by Woolverton)--and the fighting, demon-faced trees reminded me of The Lord of the Rings (not that that's a bad thing; just more unwelcome familiarity in an alleged realm of imagination). Maleficent looked like more plodding, pixel-based whimsy, leading to an inconsequential showdown between knights and monsters.

One of this movie's many fun surprises is that Stromberg gets his big battle out of the way early. The climax is a more intimate showdown involving Maleficent, the twisted King Stefan (Sharlto Copley) and a dragon--who's also sometimes a bird, and occasionally a man (Sam Riley). A revived Sleeping Beauty (the radiant Elle Fanning) is also involved, but she's mostly just a catalyst in the antihero's journey. Sure, I saw some of the story beats from several steps ahead, but the filmmakers crafted such an immersive experience that I didn't notice some very clear "tells" until after leaving the theatre.

Despite my unexpected enthusiasm for the film, I'd be remiss in not point out my crushing disappointment with its final ten minutes. I'll let slide the climactic story beat that recalls Frozen's surprise resolution (each movie was obviously developed along different timelines), and focus on one of the most rushed endings I've ever seen. Not to spoil things too much, but from the moment Maleficent bursts out of the castle with Stefan dangling precariously from a chain, it's all downhill. From a more-choppy-than-necessary bit of editing (meant to, I guess, soften a key character's demise) to the Sesame Street finale in which absolutely everyone shows up in the exact location for their goofy-smile closeup, Maleficent ends with a hurried and generically commercial air that belies most of what had come before.

But that's all adult-perspective nonsense. Any little kid that picks up on these problems is doomed to life as a film critic (and we all know there's no saving them). I'd expected Maleficent to be a disposable cash-in, starring a slumming-it Angelina Jolie. This is a real movie, though, and one I'm sure to revisit on home video--which is more than I can say for most of the tentpoles that've taken up time and space at the multiplex this summer.

*It's a moot point either way, as I'm sure the target audience in both eras accepted these dodgy monsters as completely real.

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