Friday, May 27, 2016

The Nice Guys: Reluctant Heroes Shoot Off Their Mouths, Their Pistols

Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling in Shane Black's "The Nice Guys"
Shane Black loves misfits. His screenplay for Lethal Weapon spawned countless derivative buddy-cop movies, but its heart lay in the fragile eccentricity that made Mel Gibson's Martin Riggs such a dashing and dangerous hero. His script for The Last Boy Scout paired two fallen losers—a disgraced ex-Secret Service agent (Bruce Willis) and a former football star (Damon Wayans)—then watched with glee as they stumbled into a ludicrous plot involving illegal sports gambling. And Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, his directorial debut, starred Robert Downey Jr. as a hapless unemployed actor whose motor-mouthed speech was exceeded in speed only by the bullets whizzing past him. All three movies indulge in hard-boiled genre thrills—double-crosses, overbaked conspiracies, larger-than-life villains—but they're elevated by a writer's true love for his characters and his words. Now, Black is back with The Nice Guys, a caper-comedy that both exposes the director's worst tendencies and showcases his unique brilliance.

The flaws of this disposable, delightful film are obvious. It's too long, its action is dull, its violence is pointless, and its plotting is simultaneously overcomplicated and undercooked. With a different director, these deficiencies might be crippling, but with Black (who shares scripting duties here with Anthony Bagarozzi), they're trivial. You don't watch The Nice Guys to see what happens next. You watch The Nice Guys to hang out with the nice guys.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Money Monster: Angry Investor Wants Answers, or Else

Jack O'Connell and George Clooney in Jodie Foster's "Money Monster"
Money Monster is a fanciful parable rooted in a real-life catastrophe. In December of 2007, the U.S. economy crashed, and the Great Recession began. People lost their homes, their jobs, and a whole lot of their money. The financial markets have since rebounded, but for many, the acrid scent of the collapse still lingers. Attempting to capitalize on this continuing bitterness, Money Monster paints a portrait of Wall Street as a rotted abscess, festering with corruption and venality. You've never seen America's big banks depicted in such an unflattering light. Well, unless you've seen The Big Short. Or Margin Call. Or Too Big to Fail. Or Inside Job. Or a newspaper article or blog post that was written at any point in the past eight years.

You get the picture. This movie, which has been directed by Jodie Foster from a script by a trio of screenwriters, isn't saying anything new. But topicality is hardly a requirement of cinematic worth, and while Money Monster isn't remotely insightful, it is rarely uninteresting. Some of this is to its benefit: It sports a decent premise, it's surprisingly funny, and it features excellent actors who take their craft seriously. But the real fascination surrounding this silly, vacuous, ultimately disastrous thriller is of the morbid variety. Watching it, you are compelled to wonder just how a picture of such pedigree could disintegrate into such a puddle of idiocy. Perhaps it's all a clandestine metaphor designed to mirror the tumultuous nature of the recession itself. It raises your hopes through bluster and recklessness before it crashes—hard.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Captain America: Civil War—Dissension in the Superhero Ranks

A host of heroes charges the field in "Captain America: Civil War"
Early in Captain America: Civil War, a character called Vision (Paul Bettany) muses on his brethren's tendency to antagonize. "Conflict breeds catastrophe," he gloomily intones. Maybe so. But at the movies, conflict is the engine of drama. Yet while the Marvel Cinematic Universe comprises films that feature plenty of fighting, they're largely lacking in genuine excitement. The Avengers sequel had its Whedonesque charms, but it ultimately amounted to a bunch of costumed warriors trading blows with an army of faceless flying robots. Ditto for Iron Man 3, except there, the robots were the good guys. Ant-Man was fitfully funny, but it was still an absurd movie about a dude who talked to bugs. Thor? Please.

The recent exception to this institutional lethargy—setting aside the terrific Guardians of the Galaxy, which was literally a universe removed from the rest of the MCU—was Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, it was less a superhero movie than a paranoid thriller, and its stripped-down quality lent it a rare spark of intrigue. Now the Russos are back with Civil War, a far more unwieldy but no less thoughtful superhero extravaganza. Like all Marvel movies, it's large and loud, with special effects and action sequences galore, but it nonetheless feels rooted in its characters rather than its gee-whiz battle scenes. Every comic-book film has combat; Civil War has actual conflict.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Green Room: Beware of Dog and Neo-Nazis

Anton Yelchin, Joe Cole, and Alia Shawkat, trapped in "Green Room"
"When you take it all virtual, you lose the texture," Pat says early in Green Room, Jeremy Saulnier's lean, nasty, uncompromising new thriller. Pat, played by the squirrelly actor Anton Yelchin, is speaking about his band's grass-roots approach to music, but he's also serving as a mouthpiece for his writer-director. A roughneck at heart, Saulnier doesn't so much defy cinema's technological advances—like most low-budget filmmakers, he shoots in digital, a relatively newfangled technique—but exploits them to make movies that are primal and proudly unpolished. His previous feature, Blue Ruin, embraced a popular genre (the revenge picture) while simultaneously upending that genre's conventions, but it was most noticeable for its atmosphere, a queasy aura of sweat, grime, and helpless panic. Now he brings us Green Room, a terror film about a handful of people locked in a tiny space, desperate to escape. Its setup is familiar, but its execution is marvelously visceral. The result is both exhilarating and oddly strangulating—you cannot help but enjoy this movie's assaultive body blows, even as its hands begin to tighten around your neck.

Pat is the bassist for the Ain't Rights, a punk-rock four-piece also featuring lead singer Tiger (Callum Turner), guitarist Sam (Alia Shawkat, miles from her iconic role on Arrested Development), and drummer Reece (Joe Cole, from the BBC's Peaky Blinders). They're touring the Pacific Northwest, though "touring" is a generous term for their ritual, which consists of scrounging for gigs at sparsely populated clubs and siphoning gas from parked cars to keep their rundown van moving. After plowing through a particularly humiliating performance that nets them six bucks apiece, they get wind of another opportunity outside nearby Portland, which they accept eagerly. When they arrive at the venue—a backwoods bar just east of nowhere—they discover that they've been mislabeled "The Aren't Rights" and, more disconcertingly, that the place is populated by skinheads and is adorned with Nazi paraphernalia. Being iconoclasts, they settle on a special number for the opening song of their set: a cover of Dead Kennedys' "Nazi Punks Fuck Off!".