Thursday, May 2, 2013

Pain and Gain (2013) Review

“Pain and Gain”

Michael Bay is tough to like. He makes the kinds of movies I like (crazy action movies), and yet with a few exceptions I don’t like most of his movies. I found the first “Bad Boys,” first “Transformers,” and “The Island” enjoyable, but the only one I could say was good was “The Rock.” All his other movies ranged from average (“Armageddon”) to painfully terrible (“Transformers 2”). With a stroke of luck though, his new movie, “Pain and Gain,” overcame the trepidation that comes with him and came out as easily his best movie since “The Rock.”

Much of this can be attributed to the fact that “Pain and Gain” is based on a true story, and one that proves to be an engagingly loopy one filled with muscle-bound protagonists and pitch-black comedy. Three bodybuilders, fed up with being on the outs, decide to rob a millionaire whom they believe doesn’t deserve his success. For the ringleader, Daniel Lugo, his rationale is that this man doesn’t care much about exercise while him and his cohorts Paul and Adrian do.

These three are perhaps the most self-absorbed, narcissistic and dim-witted main characters to come by in a long time. The key difference here, and why this one works better than many of Bay’s previous movies, is that we aren’t supposed to like them. One of big problems I have with Bay’s movies is that we are supposed to like characters that are doing horrible/annoying things (the cheeriness that Marcus and Mike have while driving over dead bodies in “Bad Boys 2” for instance). Here, there isn’t that pretense. Daniel, Paul and Adrian are terrible people, and we laugh at their antics, not with them. When they cross the line from the already bad extortion and torture into flat-out murder, these guys have what’s coming to them.

Even with though their actions are reprehensible, “Pain and Gain” finds plenty to laugh at in their general boneheaded nature. In this regard, The Rock (sorry Dwayne, you will always be known as The Rock to me) completely steals the movie as the Jesus loving, coke-snorting maniac that is Paul. His mannerisms and ways of speaking, especially when coked out of his mind, frequently got some of the best laughs out of me.

Still, this not to disregard Mark Wahlberg and Anthony Mackie’s work as Daniel and Adrian respectively. Mackie unfortunately gets the shaft compared to Wahlberg and Johnson, although he gets his moments to shine every now and then. Wahlberg, meanwhile, is lucky enough to not only have good comedic timing, but also many of the scripts more memorable lines. In fact, surprisingly for a Michael Bay movie, the script by “Captain America” writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely is the best thing about it. I was shocked at how many hilarious quotes were sticking in my mind after the movie finished.

While “Pain and Gain” definitely contains more good than bad, its weaknesses are familiar to those in other Bay movies. The most obvious is that it is much too long. Bay still hasn’t learned that not every movie needs to push its way over the two-hour mark, especially when it’s a comedy with scenes that don’t add to the movie in any significant way. One where Wahlberg heads up a neighborhood watch could have easily been just an amusing Blu-ray deleted scene. Also, the multiple scenes of damaged millionaire Kershaw dealing with a diarrhea-prone patient mate in the hospital were not only unnecessary, but just plain gross when the movie didn’t need to rely on such low-brow material.

There’s also the matter of an overabundance of narration. It would have been fine had it only been used for Daniel, Paul and Adrian, but other minor characters get their own scenes too when they would have been better without it. Narration can be a useful storytelling tool, but an overreliance on it can be a cheap crutch, and giving it out to too many characters is erratic and jarring.

Still, even with this unevenness that is typical of Bay’s other movies also, “Pain and Gain” mostly succeeds because of the fine cast assembled here (I’ll give this to Bay, he knows how to put together a great cast of character actors, including Ed Harris and Tony Shalhoub) and the absurd story that provides it with so much material to mine. A word of warning, the trailer makes it look like an action comedy, whereas it really is just a super dark comedy with small bits of action. And as a no-boundaries type of comedy, it largely works, even some bloat and excess keeping it from totally soaring.


42 (2013) Review


Everyone has seen at least one inspirational sports movie in their lifetime. I mean, this entire last generation practically has “Remember the Titans” engrained in their heads from the numerous times they’ve seen it on TV (additionally in my case for all three years my middle school put it on in the auditorium). Sometimes with these movies, there is also a theme of racial prejudice that serves as the backbone of the story, such as “Glory Road” and the aforementioned “Titans.” With that in mind, it’s odd that it took this long for a biopic about Jackie Robinson, one of baseball’s most famous and important players, to come along, but it’s here at last with “42.”

Rather than take the birth-to-death route that many biopics do, “42” instead zeroes in on the start of Robinson’s career with the Brooklyn Dodgers thanks to executive Branch Rickey’s insistence on breaking the barrier for non-white baseball players in the M.L.B. Being the first African-American to play in the major leagues excites Robinson, even to the point of proposing to his girlfriend once he signs the contract, although the road to being accepted isn’t without its obstacles. Even without taking into account the opposing teams trying to rile up his short temper during games, Robinson has to deal with prejudice from his own teammates despite his skills on the diamond.

Truth be told, “42” doesn’t break any new ground in regards to the sports movie genre. Yet, the movie has just the right amount of earnest sentimentality and intense drama to make it work. There are certainly times where it threatens to overstep itself in the emotional manipulation, such as randomly switching a few times to the perspectives of young boys who look up to Robinson, but don’t have any bearing on the plot itself.

In a similar vain, sportswriter Wendell Smith, who seemed like he would be used as a framing device as he follows Robinson on this journey, is mostly window dressing in the grand scheme of things and isn’t developed beyond sidekick tag-along. He felt like a part that writer/director Brian Helgeland saw more as a historical checkbox than an integral part of the story being told aside from his initial actions that get it all started.

With that said, it’s hard not to be swept up in the events that categorized this year in Robinson’s life. When Phillies manager Ben Chapmen (played against type by the usually affable Alan Tudyk) berates him nonstop during a game, we really feel the anger and frustration bubbling within Robinson. When he goes back into the dugout and releases it all in a fit of bat-breaking rage, it’s an emotionally powerful moment to witness, all the more impressive given this is Chadwick Boseman’s first major acting role. An episode of “Law and Order” and “ C.S.I.” isn’t exactly the calling card for undertaking a part as daunting as Jackie Robinson, but the decision paid off greatly as Boseman steals the movie from his more experienced costars with inner turmoil and charisma to spare.

It can understandably take a few minutes to get used to Harrison Ford’s heightened performance as Branch Rickey. With the rest of the movie and actors being played with earnest seriousness, he might seem like a caricature. As time goes on and the relationship Rickey and Robinson is given some screen time, the character settles into a groove and shows some of Ford’s more inspired acting after recent years of phoning it in for a paycheck.

Big star Ford aside, Helgeland was wise to fill out the rest of the roles with recognizable character actors. While he isn’t in the movie for too long, Christopher Meloni gets one of the more memorable parts as trainer Leo Durocher, who satisfying puts the rest of the team in its place when they create a petition to stop playing as long as Robinson is there. John C. McGinley gets an amusing bit as broadcaster Red Barber, and Lucas Black has a nice part as Pee Wee Reese, one of the few team players who openly sticks up for Robinson. One of the neat and more fulfilling things about the movie is that although Robinson is certainly the central focus, the supporting characters get enough dimension and definition to make them stand out and the movie feel more complete.

That’s why “42” works as well as it does. On the outside, it looks and unfolds like many other inspirational sports movies, hitting the right audience pleasing notes of rousing excitement without really taking risks with the material. If this can be overlooked, the movie yields very gratifying results, and the breakout performance from Boseman will most likely win you over even if the rest of the movie doesn’t. In this age of darkly cynical movies, having one come along that is unabashedly feel-good and made so well is quite refreshing.


Evil Dead (2013) Review

Evil Dead (2013)

The “Evil Dead” trilogy from “Spider-Man” director Sam Raimi is one of the more famous in the horror genre, not the least of which is because each installment is so different from the last. While the starter is a straightforward brutal horror movie, its sequels would play up comedy in increasing amounts until the concluder “Army of Darkness” contained very little traces of horror anymore. Now, as much as I love the first one, and it is still a great little B-movie, the crudeness of its appearance makes it riper for a reimagining than many other hallowed horror classics. With that in mind, the prospect of young blood coming in to rejuvenate the original in remake form had me excited, particularly because newcomer Fede Alvarez was determined to return to the horror elements that begin the trilogy.

After a prologue that establishes the grim mood, Alaverz and his co-writer Rodo Sayagues admirably avoid the cliché of kids going to a cabin in the woods to party. There is a real reason for this group to go there: their friend Mia is attempting to kick a drug habit cold turkey with the help of them and her estranged brother David. This provides a bit more of a backbone to the characters than I expected, and I appreciated that there was an attempt at creating actual characters we can care for.

From there, as is expected in an “Evil Dead” movie, they find the book of the dead, someone reads it, and then it all hits the fan. Or at least it should have. The largest problem here, and one that looms over the whole movie once the demons are unleashed, is that every time the movie feels like its gearing up to the next level by building momentum it stops dead in its tracks. There is a pervasive start-stop-start-stop feeling to the pacing that often kills the excitement and tension that previously looked like it was building, leaving only the dread-induced atmosphere to carry it along when the thrust lets up.

Taken as individual parts and scenes, the set pieces are fairly impressive on their own. If there is one thing that is unquestionably great about this remake, and boy is it incredible, is the gore factor. Raimi’s first two “Evil Dead” movies certainly let the blood flow liberally (to put it mildly), but they look restrained in comparison to the torrent of violence and gore on display here. Alvarez achieves all of this almost entirely through practical effects, and the hard work put into them pays off with their startling shock value and cringe inducing moments. Once the climax draws closer, it only gets more and more over-the-top until reaching a final kill that is spectacular in its gleeful abandon.

Alvarez’s heart is in the right place, and his intentions to diversify his iteration from the 1981 original (when he isn’t referencing or recreating specific bits) are mostly successful, although even he can’t escape many of the tired tropes of the genre. Some of the more effectively done jump scares are often overshadowed by hackneyed ones, and the movie has a couple look-away-look-back scares too many, as well as another predictable bit with a mirror. Also, and skip to the next paragraph if you want to avoid a minor spoiler, the black character is once again the first to die. Come on, this is 2013, we should be over this by now.

Even with these issues, this remake of “Evil Dead” can be enjoyed if entered with the right mindset. There are certainly many callbacks to the originals, although this definitely feels more like Alvarez’s “Evil Dead” than Raimi’s “Evil Dead.” The gore and violence is very extreme, so the faint of heart (and stomach) will want to skip out. Additionally, the tone is one of dark horror, so don’t go in expecting the slapstick humor that was injected into “Evil Dead 2.” This is a hardcore effort in mainstream horror, where horror movies are usually toned down for mass audiences, that is often fairly entertaining even though it doesn’t all come together into an unrelenting stream of suspense.


Trance (2013) Review


The thing about director Danny Boyle is that he never ties himself down to one particular genre. Every single one of his films is vastly different from the last, whether it is drug addiction in “Trainspotting,” zombie horror in “28 Days Later,” science fiction in “Sunshine,” etc. After going through a short phase of (great) award winning films with “Slumdog Millionaire” and “127 Hours,” Boyle’s new film “Trance” is a return of sorts to the pulpier material found in his early films, but it eventually begins to feel more like a step backwards than a fun throwback.

Simon (James McAvoy) is an art auctioneer pulled into a group of thieves concocting a heist to steal the Francisco Goya painting “Witches in the Air” at the latest auction. The heist goes off fairly well, with the exception of a moment where Simon pulls a taser on ringleader Frank (Vincent Cassel) to make it look more genuine when he gives over the painting. In retaliation for the unplanned act, Frank knocks Simon out with his gun before making off with the art…or so he thinks. It turns out Simon hid the painting for himself, but because Frank knocked him out he can’t remember where he put it. In order to get the information out of Simon, he sends him to hypnotherapist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), which complicates things in more ways than one.

Viewers expecting another feel-good inspirational Boyle film will want to turn away now, as “Trance” is much more in line with the mean and lean “Shallow Grave” than “Slumdog Millionaire.” Completing the cycle is the return of his old screenwriter John Hodge, whose blend of twists and shocking violence comes back in full force here. Unfortunately, his storytelling is more like the messy “The Beach” than the well-oiled thrills of “Grave.” Everything starts out very well, pulled together with entertaining snap and ease. And once Elizabeth is introduced, the hypnotherapy scenes have a uniquely soothing effect as she peels back the layers in Simon’s mind.

What makes these scenes so interesting to watch is that they actually feel like how dreams really are: small in scale but often filled with details and occurrences that can’t be explained. There are no massive special effects like snow mountains or folding cities, just seemingly normal yet unexplainable events that play with the audience’s perception and hold on the film’s established reality. Guiding them through the dreamlike happenings is the talented trio of actors carrying it all on their own. McAvoy and Cassel are as good as they’ve ever been, but this is really Dawson’s film to shine as she navigates the tricky role handed to her. She is successfully able to play the part of innocent outsider while at the same time showing a level of command and control when interacting with these thugs.

It’s a shame then that even with such an intriguing setup and follow-through, the film slowly begins to succumb to it’s illusive intentions, where the mysterious soon shifts to muddled. Reality and imagination become intertwined, but not in that compelling way that others like “Inception” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street” are. And as with other heist films, there are plot turns that reveal the trick behind the magic, and neither of them are particularly well done.

They represent a complete tonal shift that suddenly turns the film into something it was not before (kind of like a few other Boyle films). The intention is to flip the plot on its head, and instead it feels abrupt and misguided. There are clues to them placed throughout the beginning and middle, so it’s not like they weren’t planned out with that in mind, but the end result just feels like a jumble. There was actually a point near the end when things turn very grim regarding a tertiary character that I asked myself, “I thought this was about a painting?”

As the years go by, I can see “Trance” becoming an interesting curiosity simply on the fact that it is a Danny Boyle film. From a technical standpoint, from the cinematography to the visual palette, it’s impeccably done. The sleek, shapely and colorful set design adds to the entrancing mood and atmosphere, and the film moves at an entertaining enough pace even as it steamrolls into very over-the-top territory. “Trance” is much like a dream itself, when it’s done you’re not sure what to make of it, and it will most likely fizzle away quickly, but it held your attention even as it lost your comprehension.