Deepwater Horizon (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★
Peter Berg’s telling of the largest offshore oil spill in United States history translates into a compelling watch because sentimentality is kept at a minimum, it offers just the right amount of disaster movie elements without sacrificing realism and intelligence, and the director makes a smart choice in spending some time to allow the viewers to understand, and appreciate, what the disparate jobs in the oil rig entail.
We get the impression that we are simply watching people respond to a terrifying, life or death situation. Although there are numerous acts of heroism once the oil rig begins to fall apart, humanism is highlighted behind and despite such actions. The picture makes a point in the first half that these are men and women who have and must have strong professional relationships even though they pull one another’s leg from time to time. Thus, when someone’s life is in danger, it is not about simply saving a stranger. It’s about saving one’s friends who also have lives outside of what they do at sea.
Special and visual effects are highly convincing to the point where it is difficult to discern between, for instance, what is actual fire versus one produced using a computer. One of the standout scenes involves Chief Electronics Technician Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) and Drill Crew Floorhand Caleb Holloway (Dylan O’Brien) making their way to the other side of the rig in order to shut down a certain mechanism with the hope of avoiding to risk more lives. The seizure-like shaking of the ground they can barely stand on, the blasts of fire seemingly wanting to engulf their bodies whole, and the metallic debris falling all around them work together to create top-notch suspense, thrills, and engagement.
A director who does not understand how to helm an action film might have turned such a sequence, and others like it, into an incomprehensible mess where camera shaking is gravely mistaken as a proper substitute for timing and execution. Berg has an eye for framing movement—the characters in relation to the objects around them—and so our eyes always tend to focus on what we should be paying attention to, thereby avoiding confusion and, worse, headaches. It is easy to take for granted moviemakers who understand how to control nearly every element in seemingly pandemonium-packed action scenes.
But the best scenes, arguably, are the ones that simply take place in a room and there is a war between ideas. Kurt Russell, playing Offshore Installation Manager Jimmy Harrell, and John Malkovich, portraying BP Executive Donald Vidrine, have a solid handle on the dialogue. Nearly every look, body movement, and intonation of words are purposeful. So when the two men clash on how to proceed with their jobs, it is quite enthralling. Sure, we are supposed to take the side of Harrell, but we believe that Vidrine is convinced that what he knows, and therefore the path of action he wishes to take, is right. The script treats everyone as intelligent and so we wish to know what they have to say and why they think that way.
“Deepwater Horizon” is not for viewers must see an action sequence every ten to fifteen minutes. The movie, however, is for those who want to see a realistic interpretation of what did or might have happened during that tragic night on April 20, 2010 that could have been avoided altogether if greed had not gotten in the way of following protocol, if corporate monetary gains weren’t valued over human lives.
Happening, The (2008)
★ / ★★★★
There are many things wrong in “The Happening,” written, produced and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, but the casting of the leads, Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel, is perhaps the most salient misstep. The story being a hybrid of science fiction and mystery, it is a basic requirement that the performers be able to emote the deepest and most sincere emotions. Wahlberg and Deschanel are far from the most versatile actors. For instance, Wahlberg has this annoying habit of sounding disingenuous when trying to make others interested in what his character is talking about. Take note of the classroom scene during the first fifteen minutes. Meanwhile, Deschanel’s facial expression does not change. She always looks wide-eyed and innocent even when the occasion does not call for it.
A strange event begins in Central Park, New York City. It appears to be just another morning at the park: Health-conscious people are jogging, pets are being taken for a walk, men and women in professional attires are headed to work, others are sitting on benches chatting with friends. There is a gust of wind. Everything stops. A select few start walking backwards. Then they start to hurt themselves. At a nearby construction site, workers jump off buildings. The news claim it must be some sort of a terrorist attack.
The central character is Elliot (Wahlberg), a science teacher whose wife, Alma (Deschanel), is currently wrestling with her conscience. She had went on a date with another man. This could have been a potent human conflict amidst a most bizarre phenomenon if the screenplay had been more probing into its subjects’ thoughts, feelings, and actions. Instead, an attempt at comedy is utilized time and again for the sake of “entertainment”—in quotations because the so-called jokes and funny bits do not work at all. These scenes come across as though they were from a completely different picture.
The material asks the viewers to use their imagination. This is a good thing. The problem is that the film does not provide anything of value that inevitably engages us. There are shots of the wind caressing leaves of trees, tall grass, and bushes. This is almost always accompanied by a mysterious or creepy score. But what is the point when there is no payoff? By the end, the explanation is that there is no explanation because we do not yet understand nature completely. This is lazy and insulting.
There is no third act. The first act, which takes place in NYC, sets up the story. The second act involves a migration, running away from the reported terrorist attacks. And then it just ends with a subtitle claiming that three months had passed. This is most curious because Shyamalan is highly attuned to having three well-defined arcs. This is why “Unbreakable,” “The Sixth Sense,” and “Signs” feel like complete, well-told stories. By the end of these aforementioned movies, we want to know more about what would happen to the characters even though there is nothing more to say.
One walks away from “The Happening” feeling cheated because the mystery offers to intrigue or depth, the characters are one-dimensional, and it fails to offer anything new or exciting to the various sub-genres it embodies. Its level of creativity is bone dry.
Lone Survivor (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★
A four-man reconnaissance team (Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster) is assigned capture and kill Ahmad Shah, a Taliban leader known to have murdered U.S. Marines. Though the four manage to reach an area in the mountains where they are able to track the person of interest, they learn that comms are down and are eventually discovered by goat herders—an old man, a teenager, and a little boy. The group is divided when it comes to what to do with them, but Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy (Kitsch) decides to let them go as he and his brothers in action race to the peak of the mountain to establish communication and request rescue.
Peter Berg’s “Lone Survivor” is a success in that it highlights rather than glorifies what soldiers do by showing the ugly, the messy, and the painful. In this case, first impression proves misleading. I found the expository scenes to be too shiny and beautiful with typical exchanges of tough males bonding and men racing to the finish line as the sun rises. It all feels too much like a commercial or a recruitment video and I was expecting the worst. But once it reaches somewhere near the twenty-minute mark, it gets the tone just right. Finally, it is on the right track with what it wants to show.
The picture is at its peak during the action sequences. When it is silent in the woods and the crosshairs of a weapon search for a kill shot, sans distracting score meant to amplify already tense moments, it is most magnetic because only one of two things can happen: the shot is either going to hit the target or it is going to miss. Either way, his friends are going to know that their enemy is near so that bullet better make contact because it would mean one less person shooting back. Odds do not look good when it comes to four against twenty or more—even if the former are highly trained.
The environment is alive. Yes, the Taliban is the enemy but so are sharp rocks, great heights, and slippery gravel. In one of the most harrowing sequences, Murphy and his men decide to jump off a cliff. It is impressive because the terrifying sounds are able to match the intense images. Bodies rolling down a slope as limbs and faces hit tree trunks, branches, smaller boulders, and their own weapons invoke horror—not horror in terms but fear but horror in terms of shock. To escape from their enemies, these men are willing to jump off a cliff without even thinking twice about it. Because so many hazards are on the way, they could have died even before hitting the bottom.
The title reveals the inevitable and so each of the three deaths must count. And they do. Despite the screenplay not offering much in terms of subtle characterization, the men that will fall are easy to distinguish physically and in general personality. Since Murphy is the leader, I expected him to get most of the attention. On the contrary, his men—Marcus Luttrell (Wahlberg), Danny Dietz (Hirsch), and Matt Axelson (Foster), arguably, get a bit more opportunities to shine. That is a small but nice surprise.
“Lone Survivor” does not set a standard by any means but it is engaging, entertaining, and sad once one is reminded that it is based on a true story. Though liberties are likely to have been taken in order to dramatize certain accounts, I could not help but think of real sacrifices that real soldiers make out there.
★ / ★★★★
If I had to name one thing I especially liked about “Ted,” based on the screenplay by Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, and Wellesley Wild, it is the surprising move that not one scene is dedicated to keeping the bear–human in every way that it is able to speak, move around, and has self-awareness–a secret from anyone. However, the creativity stops there. The majority of the film is a tired plot surrounding Ted’s thirty-five-year-old owner, John (Mark Wahlberg), and his inability to act like an adult. Since the film is juvenile from start to finish, the jokes–more foul-mouthed than inspired–quickly grow tiresome.
The script targets everybody: racial minorities, gays, people who carry extra weight, forgotten celebrities, celebrities best forgotten as soon as possible, the rich, rape survivors. The fact that they are offensive or are politically incorrect is not the problem. On the contrary, a few lines are clever, but they seem to almost always occur outside the scope of a scene. When a joke draws attention on itself too much, it does not work. Instead, it comes off self-serving and trying too hard to sound smart or witty. What we have here is not a movie but a sketch comedy with one running gag–a teddy bear that behaves badly–and everything else is barely cobbled together.
Let us take the romance between John and Lori (Mila Kunis), his girlfriend of four years. It is mercilessly repetitive: John fails to provide what Lori needs, simple things like a little bit of maturity and respect, Lori expresses her disappointment, John tells her, “I love you” in every way, shape, and form, they start over, and the cycle continues. It stops only when it is convenient for the plot. In other words, when many minutes have trickled away and it is time to get into the syrupy business of John having to choose between his best friend and a potential partner in life.
Here’s a litmus test to determine if a gimmick is simply in a movie to serve as flowery wallpaper: take it away or make a substitution and see if there is a significant change. I argue that if Ted had been a human being, we would still sit through yet another bad movie about a man-child with nothing new or interesting to say about what it means to have an obsessive attachment to a person or thing.
In reality, there is a difference between being childish and being childlike and it is a shame that the screenplay does not bother to tackle them head-on. Instead, many people will be lost in the shuffle, faulting the girlfriend for giving her beau too many chances, that maybe she is also a reason why the relationship is the way it is. The way I saw it, Lori is attracted to John because of his childlike tendencies: his directness; when he knows something is important to her, he gives her his undivided attention; he is tender; he makes her laugh. What she can’t stand is his rampant childishness: mainly his lack of ambition, being far too unmotivated, and always being up for hanging out and getting high. But the comedy, especially this type of comedy, should be simpler than psychoanalysis. We have a talking bear! It is not asking too much to actually do something with it.
“Ted,” directed by Seth MacFarlane, has, at best, fifteen minutes of good material. I did laugh out loud but they are far too sporadic. Some of the later sequels of “Child’s Play” which feature Chucky the killer doll offer more humor than this. And those are slasher films.
★★ / ★★★★
Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) was supposed to deliver ten pounds of cocaine to Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi), a sleazy drug addict who was more connected than he seemed, but the young man threw the package overboard because U.S. Customs were closing in. While Andy and his friend were sent to the hospital due to the failed delivery, someone had to pay Tim hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of drugs. Kate (Kate Beckinsale), Andy’s sister, was married to Chris (Mark Wahlberg), who happened to be involved in the smuggling business before he decided to live a straight life with his wife and two sons. Feeling that his family would never be safe as long as the debt remained unpaid, he volunteered for one last job. “Contraband,” based on the screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski, was most enjoyable when we were given a chance to watch Chris attempt to wiggle out of increasingly difficult situations, but the picture’s pace came to an uncomfortable halt every time the focus was not on the man desperate to keep his family safe. Specifically, when Kate and Chris spoke on the phone to check in on each other’s safety and say the requisite “I love yous,” nothing much was left for the imagination. It became so repetitive that during the phone conversations, I began to think of alternatives. It didn’t help that Kate was a typical damsel-in-distress which made the character boring. Perhaps the film would have been far more involving if Chris and the audience had no idea of the specific happenings at home. Maybe if Chris were to receive a text message, a picture message, or a voicemail once in a while, it would’ve been acceptable. In my experience, while out at sea, getting a proper signal could be a hassle. Upon his inevitable return, the people who he thought could be trusted–who may or may not turn out otherwise–would come as a genuine surprise for him and for us. I liked the action sequences because the protagonist was more complicated than a man who could handle a gun. While he was more than capable of wielding such a dangerous weapon, we instead saw him using his hands a lot. For instance, altering the ship’s machinery while on the way to Panama, using a vacuum to keep the ship’s captain (J.K. Simmons) off his back, and carrying important objects from one place to another before time ran out and an official saw what was really going on. Wahlberg was interesting in the role not because he was given complex material to wrestle with but because he injected humanity into Chris. I was amused that he used different voices when talking to his wife and children, his friends, his enemies, and those who were downright being stupid. The script could’ve used more of that playfulness. There was one very good exchange where Andy told Chris that he should stop pretending that he didn’t enjoy being back to smuggling. It was surprising that Chris was so open to admit that it held a certain level of excitement for him. The admission was important because when things got tough, the way in which the protagonist solved problems was believable; we felt that he really did have experience in something like this before, that deep down perhaps he was even enjoying the process. Directed by Baltasar Kormákur, “Contraband,” a remake of Óskar Jónasson’s “Reykjavik-Rotterdams,” showed potential that it might have worked as an action-thriller with a convincing character arc. Unfortunately, much of the exploration had to be watered down for easy denouements, like how far people were willing to go for drugs and money and their impending comeuppance.
Other Guys, The (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Detectives Danson (Dwayne Johnson) and Highsmith (Samuel L. Jackson) were the kinds of cops we often see in action movies. They were tough, hard-bodied, and unaffected by explosions and flying bullets around them. Not necessarily likable, they were considered as heroes. But when they jumped to their death, Detective Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg), dragging reluctant Detective Gamble (Will Ferrell) along, aimed to take the celebrated detectives’ place. Much of the humor of “The Other Guys” stemmed from exaggerations. Whether it be a character quirk, a stylized action sequence, or just an embarrassingly awkward situation, the picture milked a scene for all its worth. It worked in some ways, but it didn’t work in others. I laughed at the scenes when Hoitz would always yell at his partner, but Gamble was like a wall of sound. Great partnerships often have opposite temperaments; the latter was happy with his safe desk job but the former craved more excitement and danger. One particularly hilarious scene was the lion versus tuna tidbit. It was creative, strange, and had a sense of manic energy which gave Ferrell a chance to show how funny he could be given the right material. A few scenes that aimed to satirize C-level action movies fell completely flat. When our protagonists were about to enter an accounting office only to have seen it blow up in front of them, the scene felt forced because the one of the characters kept going on about how–in the movies–characters don’t flinch when something explodes behind them, how he needed to go to the hospital, that perhaps he had gone deaf, and so on. It wasn’t any better than the projects they wished to tease. There was a case in which Hoitz and Gamble aimed to stop a multibillion fraud involving a capitalist named David Ershon (Steve Coogan). Other than the scene in which the criminals used a giant wrecking ball to break into a jewelry store, possibly a spoof of hyperbolic superhero villains’ plans, it failed to keep me interested. Instead, I wished there were more scenes with the underappreciated Michael Keaton as the captain of the police force with a penchant for quoting TLC, referencing to his bisexual son, and holding a second job at Bed Bath & Beyond. Out of all the actors, I thought he was the only one who was funny every time he was on screen. Directed by Adam McKay, “The Other Guys” had a good sense of humor but it felt too bloated. It needed to know when to pull back and let the audiences decide which scenes were worthy of laugh-out-loud funny instead of always throwing the jokes in our faces. It trusted us to spot its allusions, but it didn’t treat us like we were smart.
Boogie Nights (1997)
★★★★ / ★★★★
17-year-old Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) was spotted by a pornographic film director named Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) while working as a busboy in a disco. Eddie, after running away from home, decided to work for Jack, changed his name to Dirk Diggler and instantly became an adult film star in the late 1970s. At first, everything seemed to be going well: Dirk’s well-endowed tool skyrocketed him to stardom, he made some good-natured friends (Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Heather Graham, Philip Seymour Hoffman), and the ideas he shared with Jack in order to make the exotic pictures they made together even better earned Dirk awards, money and recognition. But in the 1980s, everything came crashing down as he chose his pride over people that took care of him when he was at his lowest, became addicted to drugs and resulted to prostitution to finance his addiction. I was impressed with writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s elegant control over his material. It could easily have been sleazy because of its subject matter but I was happy he treated his subjects with utmost respect. Anderson may have highlighted his characters’ many negative traits but he made them as human and relatable as possible. His decision to underline the negative aspects of the pornographic industry not only was the driving force of the drama but it also prevented the picture from glamorizing its many lifestyles. It made the argument that the porno stars were sad, desperate and that most of them wouldn’t choose the industry if they knew how to do anything else well or if they had the means to reach for their goals. For instance, Don Cheadle’s character did not have the financial means to start his own business so he used the industry to have some sort of leverage. Details like that made me care deeply for the characters. Their careers didn’t have to be honorable but, like us, they did what they have to do in order to get by. However, I wished the movie could have at least acknowledged the role of sexually transmitted diseases in the industry. I know that the idea was not yet popular at the time but some hint of it could have added another dimension to the script. Furthermore, I found William H. Macy’s character to be one of the most fascinating of the bunch but he wasn’t fully explored. With a wife that so openly cheated on him (she had a penchant for having sex in public), we saw that he was a pushover. But what else was he? I felt like he was merely a joke, a punchline and that stood out to me because, even though others had something peculiar about them, they had layers and complexity. “Boogie Nights” surprised me in many ways because I didn’t expect it to have so much heart and intelligence. It certainly changed the way I saw pornographic material and, more importantly, the people that starred in them.
Fighter, The (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) were half-brothers who had a talent and heart for boxing. Dicky was the older one who spent his time reliving his former days of glory. His family, led by Melissa Leo as the matriarch and manager, believed Dicky could make a comeback as they turned a blind eye toward his drug addiction. Mickey, after his family guilt-tripped him into fighting a boxer much bigger than him and being beaten to a pulp, began to think about accepting an offer for a year-round training, with pay, in Las Vagas. This didn’t rest well with the rest of the family except Mickey’s father (Jack McGee) and new girlfriend (Amy Adams) who offered full support. Directed by David O. Russell, “The Fighter” had all the elements to make a truly inspiring film about a man eventually overcoming all odds, but it fell short because Mickey was overshadowed by those who surrounded him. With such spicy personalities offered by Bale, Leo, and Adams, Wahlberg’s character was simply there instead of shining above the rest. He played the mediator, someone who held his tongue just in case someone would get offended by what he had to say, so he ended up boring. He was a bland wall; everyone else were colorful spots on it. I wasn’t convinced that Wahlberg had found a way to make Mickey’s silent suffering relatable or endearing. Some critics’ comparisons to Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” in terms of the intensity and realism of the boxing matches were hyperboles. I suggest the same critics watch Manny Pacquiao’s boxing matches if they want to experience first-rate edge-of-your-seat entertainment. The boxing sequences in this film were commercial and the emotional impact was diluted by quick cuts and obnoxious soundtrack when it should have been primal. I kept waiting for the many distracting elements to subside, especially during the key final match, but the director opted to assault our senses. Sometimes less really is more. I thought the drama behind the scenes, particularly the mother’s increasing awareness that she could no longer manage (or control) her son’s career, were far more interesting. Furthermore, I found Adams’ performance magnetic as she tried to stand up for herself and Mickey against the family matriarch and sisters who had a pack mentality. I’ve never seen her so edgy, so stripped down. Lastly, Bale was excellent as someone who was torn between his addiction and complete adoration for his brother. He was perhaps the most complicated character because there was no doubt in our mind that he wanted the best for Mickey, yet the decisions he made were not always smart. It’s too bad his addiction was more often played for laughs. “The Fighter” was very good in terms of acting but it desperately needed to find focus on the themes it wanted to tackle. It didn’t feel like a complete work.
Lovely Bones, The (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
“The Lovely Bones,” adapted from Alice Sebold’s novel and directed by Peter Jackson, was about a fourteen-year-old girl (Saoirse Ronan) who was murdered by a child predator (Stanley Tucci). As years went by after her unsolved murder, the protagonist watched over her family (Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon, Rose McIver, Christian Thomas Ashdale) and the monster who killed her in cold blood. I’ve read a plethora of reviews claiming that this was a mediocre picture and was underwhelming. Maybe they expected too much considering Jackson’s power as a director but I thought the movie was above average. It felt painfully personal. I was moved when Ronan realized that she was dead but she was stuck between the real world and heaven. I thought it was very sad when she realized that her family was slowly being ripped apart after her death. Those dramatic elements worked for me because the exposition was consistently strong. It immediately made me care for the lead character because she wanted to do so many things in life. I couldn’t take my eyes off the fantastic imagery when Ronan lived in “the in-between.” I thought the images were magical, inspired and intelligent because the images she encountered almost always related to the things that were happening back in the real world. As great as the images were, I argue that they didn’t overshadow the picture’s emotional resonance. In fact, the imagery took the emotions to the next level. As for the villainous creepy neighbor, I thought Tucci was electrifyingly effective. Tucci excelled with his character’s eccentricities and the way he lured Ronan to her grave gave me the shivers. However, I thought the film came up short when it came to consistency. The last third lacked the momentum of the first hour and twenty minutes. About two-thirds into it, I started questioning when it was going to wrap itself up. Essentially, I think the movie would have benefited from a shorter running time. The scenes of Weisz’ struggle with the loss of her daughter (an emotional breakdown?) felt like it didn’t need to be there. I understood right away that everyone in the family was impacted by the tragedy so it didn’t need to hammer that point again and again. Luckily, Sarandon had a good amount of screen time to alleviate some of the seriousness by means of perfect comedic timing. If I were to describe “The Lovely Bones” in one word, it would be “misunderstood.” A lot of people thought that the CGI became the main focus and not the characters. I would advice those same people to watch the movie again and do what I did: ignore the fact that Jackson directed the film and swallow it as a “regular” film from a not-so-popular director. It may not have been as consistent as I would have liked but I thought it was able to deliver when it needed to.
Date Night (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Steve Carell and Tina Fey star as a married couple who decided to go to the city on their date night to get away from the ennui of their busy schedules which mostly revolved around work and their kids. To spice things up a bit, they decided to go to an exclusive fancy restaurant which required reservations months in advance. Since they didn’t make one, Carell and Fey decided to pretend to be another couple–a couple involved in theft and currently being pursued by corrupt cops (Common, Jimmi Simpson) who seemed to work for the mob of some sort. When I saw the trailers for this film, I knew I had to watch it because casting arguably the funniest people in Hollywood right now is genius. What I loved about this movie most was not because of the story–mistaken identities, a couple feeling like their marriage lacked spark; I’ve seen it all before–but because of the chemistry between Fey and Carell. They matched each other’s awkwardness and both had great comedic timing. The two actors managed to pull off genuinely tender moments between them where I couldn’t help but feel touched. They were a believable couple and that’s why I cared about their characters. Written by Josh Klausner and directed by Shawn Levy, the script and the filmmakers allowed the two leads to play on their strengths and let the awkwardness linger to the point of saturation. But “Date Night” was as funny as it was exciting. The scene when the two cars (one owned by constantly shirtless Mark Wahlberg, a conceit I was glad that the actor embraced) couldn’t uncouple from one another was a definite standout. It was so much fun to watch, I wished that I was in that car with them. However, I did wish that the side characters had more screen time. For instance, Leighton Meester as the babysitter, Kristen Wiig and Mark Ruffalo as the couple about to get a divorce, Taraji P. Henson (who I love in those “Tyler Perry” movies) as the honest detective, and James Franco (doing his “sparkly eyes” thing that I’m always impressed with) and Mila Kunis as the weird but hilarious couple involved in blackmail. Nevertheless, the movie was so much fun and the adventures all over New York City reminded me of “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.” Those who are in the mood for good-natured comedy with a spice of action will definitely enjoy this movie, while fans of Fey and Carell will undoubtedly be happy with it.