Red 2 (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
Though Frank (Bruce Willis) and Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) are attempting to live a life of normalcy by playing everything safe, both of them are not exactly happy with where their relationship is heading. Sarah wants a bit of adventure and Frank has not killed anybody in months. It is most opportune that Marvin (John Malkovich) appears at a Costco aisle and informs Frank that an international ruckus is about to occur. It involves Nightingale, a project they had been involved in back in ’79. Sarah is thrilled to join the elite CIA operatives but Frank would rather have her stay in a safe house.
Based on the screenplay by Jon and Erich Hoeber, “Red 2” accomplishes very little despite its characters gallivanting across the world while being hunted by assassins. While it retains some of the charm of the predecessor, the story needs to be cleaned up a bit. Perhaps it would have been better if one less city was visited or two supporting characters were written out. Make room for more or extended friendly banters or show more serious moments to suggest there is something more to the characters than being good at wielding weapons. Since it fails to go behind its skeletal framework, the twists and turns end up disorganized and unfocused rather than being genuinely surprising.
The revolving doors of several characters’ loyalties grate the nerves. Since it occurs too often, every time our protagonists are pushed to a corner, it becomes near impossible to feel like they are in any sort of real danger. While light entertainment is the film’s main purpose, changing the tone once in a while would have done it good—especially since it is a sequel and many of us already know what to expect. Its unwillingness to take a risk or try something new is a problem.
I still adored watching Helen Mirren fire guns and beat men into unconsciousness. She does it with so much verve and charisma. She commits to the character without being cartoonish. The right decision would have been to give her character, Victoria, and Ivan (Brian Cox) more substance. The older couple could have been an interesting contrast to Sarah and Frank—which feels too much like two teenagers falling in love or what they consider to be love. We get only a glimpse of the potential sounding board and it is played too cute.
The chases are visually stimulating but standard as a whole. On foot, guns are used too often but there is an entertaining sequence involving Frank being stuck in a file room. Though using a gun from an enemy becomes available eventually, he becomes resourceful in disarming those who wish to capture him.
“Red 2” is an unnecessary but harmless sequel. It offers nothing special but it is nice to see seasoned performers clearly enjoying themselves. Anthony Hopkins, playing a patient in a mental institution, stands out because he does not create a character around the lightness of the material. Bailey has his share of quirks but he is not defined by them.
★ / ★★★★
Nick (Ryan Reynolds), a former cop, is dead, finds himself sitting in front of Proctor (Mary-Louise Parker), director of the Rest in Peace Department stationed just above Boston, and faces a decision: to join the department and hunt Deados, spirits that somehow managed to escape Final Judgment, back on Earth or to embrace the possibility of being sent to hell. Nick chooses the former and he is paired with Roy Pulsipher (Jeff Bridges), an older gentleman who died during the Old West. Though the new duo are off to a rocky start, their bickering is set aside when they discover strange goings-on involving Deados and chunks of gold.
“R.I.P.D.,” written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, offers nothing but special and visual effects. It lacks the imagination, wit, and comic timing that made the likes of Ivan Reitman’s “Ghostbusters” and Barry Sonnenfeld’s “Men in Black” so rousing and entertaining. Thirty minutes in, one realizes that the film is unable to move on from the first act. One waits for something—anything—to happen. It remains stagnant even way past the one hour mark and it turns into a great struggle to sit through.
Part of the problem is Roy and Nick’s partnership. Though the actors perform their parts with appropriate verve, the writers fail to turn the characters into people with substance. There are only two sides to their interactions: they get into shallow disagreements—which is supposed to be funny, maybe in an alternate universe—or they are on the same page, temporarily, while being in the same room as a Deado. Because their relationship is only two-sided, it gets predictable real quick and one gets no enjoyment watching them.
More painful are the scenes in which Roy and Nick are forced to connect with one another, supposedly in a meaningful way. I did not buy it for a second. It is easy to see through the script and the lack of effort put into it. Why bother to insert such a phony scene when it further cheapens an already weak material? Did it not once occur to the filmmakers that it wasn’t working, that it was better off to leave the sentimentality out the door? Maybe they felt the picture needed to hit the ninety-minute mark.
The monsters are not interesting. All of them are made out to be ugly, bad, and they do nothing other than to function to as figures to be shot at. There are a few chase sequences in the streets of Boston and one does not need spectacles to see through the obvious CGI. There is simply too much thrown on screen for us to be able to appreciate any level of artistry put into the work. I looked up the budget of the film and, to my surprise, it is over one hundred million dollars. This is the best they can come up with?
Directed by Robert Schwentke, “R.I.P.D.” is bottom-of-the-barrel fluff. I found no magic, inspiration, or delight out of it. Sci-fi action-fantasies should be more thrilling. In the least, it should feel alive—vibrant—even if the story involves the dead.
Solitary Man (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Six and a half years ago, Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas), a successful and influential man in the car business, had a physical examination. His doctor expressed concern about his EKG and recommended that he returned for further tests. Ben never went back. Fast forward to the present, the man pretty much lost everything: he is no longer a magnate of his profession, he has lost all his money in order to avoid jail for being a grifter, and his relationship with his ex-wife (Susan Sarandon) and daughter (Jenna Fischer) has essentially fallen apart. Ben has a girlfriend (Mary-Louise Parker), very rich and loyal, but he just cannot help but sleep with women in their twenties. Ben leads a life not worth living—a life of unhealthy addictions and bad decisions—only he is unaware of it.
Directed by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, “Solitary Man” takes an aging character who is difficult to like, despite his smooth words, due to his overconfidence and bouts of overcompensation and convinces us, even just a little bit, that he, too, deserves a bit of happiness. The many dramatic elements avoids in drowning the film in syrupy romance or possibility of family reconnection. Its positive messages about redemption, or least an attempt at redemption, are in small, sometimes muted, ways.
Douglas’ performance is hypnotic. I enjoyed the way he carries his character with pride when Ben is surrounded by people, especially young adults (Jesse Eisenberg, Olivia Thirlby), but he is a complete mess when there is no one around to impress. In some ways, he is a bit like you and me, only more exaggerated to the point of emotional self-destruction.
The best scenes involve Ben taking Allyson (Imogen Poots), his girlfriend’s daughter, to her college interview in Boston and the two of them having to spend the night together. Their flirtation over drinks feels so wrong, obviously because of the wide age difference and, more importantly, that they are potentially each other’s step-father and step-daughter, but I wondered and was excited about how far the filmmakers will be willing to go to explore their relationship, whether it be physical, emotional, or both.
The way it plays out is handled with a satisfying balance of elegance and sadness. Poots does a great job holding her own. She looks like a French fashion model who is completely aware that she looks good and that she can have it all, but she injects her character with many insecurities like feeling the need to get back at her mother for reasons so vague, I could not help but wonder if she, too, has the makings of becoming a vindictive and very unhappy adult—a female version of Ben.
I wished, however, that the protagonist is given more time to interact with his girlfriend and ex-wife. Both women have less than three scenes each which is unfortunate because knowing them a bit more is necessary to understand why Ben feels the need to go back to them and, since they have known him for some time, what they saw in him in the first place. His relationship with the two women and how he is with them might have provided us different information compared to when he is with much younger women.
Though Ben has successfully avoided prison for committing fraud, he has allowed himself to become a prisoner of his own age. With some, like Ben’s wife, aging is a freeing experience. But for him, aging is a constant upstream battle and he is deluded enough to think that he can win against time if he tries just a little bit harder.
★★★ / ★★★★
Retired agent of the CIA, Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) began to flirt with Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker) over the phone. The pair seemed to make a genuine connection. But when assassins came sneaking into Frank’s home, after disarming them with relative ease, he had no choice but to meet Sarah in person because he believed that they were after her, too. Reluctant at first, she eventually realized that maybe this was the kind of excitement and danger she needed–feelings she only encountered in books she so often enjoyed reading. “Red,” which was actually an acronymn for “Retired: Extremely Dangerous,” was a slick action picture that made the smart decision to not reveal its aces too early in the game. Frank and Sarah traveled across America but we, like the dynamic duo, didn’t exactly know why they were being hunted by the CIA which was led by a young agent with a blind ambition and a nice haircut (Karl Urban). The action sequences offered nothing particularly new but they were inspired because the filmmakers and the actors injected a certain hyperkinetic energy to such scenes. I noticed that during the intense violence, the film would often cut to Parker’s brilliantly executed bewildered and sometimes utterly confused expressions. She may not be able to fight but she was charming and we always knew why she was perfect for Frank. We were supposed to relate to her because she represented ordinary folks plucked from the mundane and thrown into extraordinary events. The film benefited from strong and very colorful, to say the least, supporting characters. John Malkovich was excellent as the paranoid former agent with a penchant for hilarious sneak attacks. Morgan Freeman was sublime as the gentle aging man but could easily kill men half his age when pushed to a corner. Helen Mirren was fantastic as the British lady who enjoyed overkill. I’m used to seeing her play roles where she had to be soft and elegant so it was refreshing to see her wield gigantic machine guns. They had individual spark but the real magic was in their interactions. However, the weakest part of the film was how the revelation of the mystery was handled in the end. Questions involving the hit list and the cover-up were answered, but it wasn’t perfectly clear how that was related to a certain politician. The last-minute twist about the identity of the real “big bad” felt forced and unnecessary. Nevertheless, “Red,” directed by Robert Schwentke, was highly enjoyable because it had a balance of suspense, action, comedy, and wit. Similar movies with a younger cast fall on the wayside because the actors either lacked chemistry or the filmmmakers attempted to do too much. Those movies could learn a thing or two from here.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, “Howl” explored Allen Ginsberg’s (James Franco) poem of the same name in three fronts: the public reading of “Howl” at San Francisco’s Six Gallery on October 7, 1955, the courtroom scenes in which a prosecutor (David Strathairn) wished to censor the poetry in question because of its obscene language, and an interview with Ginsberg in his home after his work had been published and gotten critical acclaim. Three of the strands were highlighted by freewheeling dream-like animation with excerpts of Ginsberg’s words heard in the background. I don’t have much passion for poetry but I found myself completely fascinated with this film because it bravely took the biopic formula upside down, inside out, and shuffled the familiar variables as if it was a deck of cards. The risks it took had great rewards because I thought it was refreshing without sacrificing insight and relevance to modern publications and aspiring writers. To be perfectly honest, if the film didn’t provide clues as to what Ginsberg could possibly be talking about or referencing to in his poem, I would have been at a loss as to how to nagivate myself through the barrage of images and words. But since the picture had elegantly constructed a bridge on how to possibly interpret the poem, I eventually found myself focusing on the rhythm and flow of Franco’s words, Franco’s odd but magnetic mannerisms, and the understated themes among the three strands. The poetry, like life, was about all things. It traced Ginsberg’s trauma of his mother being sent to a mental hospital and getting electroconvulsive therapy to no avail, the men he fell in love with, New York’s gargantuan buildings, its putrid scents and shrill sounds, as well as the homeless faceless faces as a source of his inspiration. He loved to talk about sexual acts and the more sensitive meanings behind giving a crucial part of oneself to another and how sometimes it could be a difficult and painful thing to do. I found “Howl” to be fully engrossing because it felt personal but was unafraid to embrace its experimental roots. The sudden color shifts felt exactly right because there was a big question, particularly in the courtroom scene, whether or not Ginsberg’s work would stand the test of time. The supporting actors’ performances, which included Jon Hamm (who gave an excellent delivery of the closing statement from the famous trial), Jeff Daniels, Mary-Louise Parker, and Treat Williams, gave the material depth and meat that audiences could sink their teeth into. “Howl” was successful in asking and answering why counterculture is a necessary weapon against those who want to take away our rights. It made me want to learn more about its fascinating subject.
Angels in America
★★★★ / ★★★★
Since this film runs for six hours, Netflix divided the movie into two discs. I will review the first half and then the second half because I saw the latter a couple of days after I saw the former. I admire the first part of this picture because it’s not afraid to fuse realistic and fantastic elements that share one common goal: to show how the AIDS epidemic, pretty much unknown at the time, impacts those people who have been infected and those they care about. But it actually rises above its main thesis: it also manages to tackle issues like denial of one’s homosexuality, what it means to be a lover and a friend, power struggle in the business world, relationships by means of convenience…
On top of all that, the performances are simply electric, especially Al Pacino, Patrick Wilson, Meryl Streep, and Emma Thompson. We don’t see much of Streep and Thompson in the first half but whenever they’re on screen, they completely involve the audience because they know how to balance the obvious and the subtle so well. They have a certain elegance that no ordinary actor posesses. As for Pacino, he’s a master of reaching one extreme to the next without ever having to sacrifice his character’s believability. I can argue that he’s one of the most complex characters, out of many, that this film (which is based on a play) has to offer. As Pacino’s protégé, I think this is Wilson’s best performance that I’ve seen. As a closeted Mormon homosexual, he tries so hard to hide who he really is to the point where his emotional pain becomes physical. In most of his scenes, I could feel his sadness, anger, frustration, and (eventual) relief–all at the same time. He has such a poetic face that’s so expressive; I couldn’t take my eyes off him. His relationship with his wife, played by Mary-Louise Parker, is complicated, to say the least, because Wilson considers her as more like a friend but she considers him to be a husband. Other noteworthy actors include Justin Kirk as an AIDS patient who is abandoned by his lover, played by Ben Shenkman. Jeffrey Wright is amazing because he speaks the truth without apologies. He plays multiple characters like Streep, Thompson, and Kirk but Wright is the one that I can relate with the most. The idea of escape is crucial ranging from experiencing hallucinations to doing or saying the opposite of what the person actually means to do or say.
As for the second half, the idea of interconnectedness is more prevalent. Since the characters are finally established, they are allowed to interact and play with each other a bit more. This means that strong acting is at the forefront. But what I found most frustrating was the fantastic elements overshadowing reality half of the time. Even though those fantasy scenes do contribute to the overall big picture, they are so cheesy and slow to the point where I found myself checking the time. I was more invested with the reality because the characters that we care about are dealing with things that have something to do with reality like disease and acceptance. Faith is merely the background and focusing on it too much is distracting at best. I thought the way the film ended was handled well; not everything is neatly tied up and the way the actors looked into the camera to convey their last messages was, strangely enough, effective.
This film has such a huge scope but it delivers on more than one level. I found it consistently interesting because it is character-driven and the characters behave like real people. In end, pretty much all the characters have changed in some way. Even though this was released back in 2003, I still consider it to be one of the most important films of the 2000’s.