Category Archives: ★★½

Superbad (2007, Greg Mottola), the unrated version

Superbad is exceptionally funny. In terms of how often you lose your breath from laughing, it’s hard to think of a better movie than Superbad. Watching Superbad probably burns between 118 and 315 calories. This unrated version anyway. The rated version would burn about four minutes less. Next time I watch it I’ll have to try to measure it on my Apple Watch. It’s one of the funnier films ever made. A smartly done, utterly obscene teen male virgin comedy. It’s a peerless success in terms of those laughs, a combination of script, actors, and material. Utterly obscene teen male virgin comedies—the kind screenwriters Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg apparently grew up watching—needed the Internet and culture to hit 2007 to fully realize the genre’s potentials.

But it’s just a smartly done, utterly obscene teen male virgin comedy. The script’s got an amazing first act, plotting-wise; the rest of the movie doesn’t. Director Mottola takes a hands-off approach, not really showing much personality until the last shot when you get the feeling he wishes he were making a different, less utterly obscene teen male virgin comedy, but maybe even smarter. Lead Jonah Hill (playing “Seth”) loses his first act protagonist role once the second act hits. By the third act he’s even more reduced. Instead, it’s more about Hill’s best friend, Michael Cera (playing “Evan”), and their awkward third wheel, the hilarious Christopher Mintz-Plasse. They’re all high school seniors. It’s the last two weeks of school. They’re going to a party.

Mintz-Plasse’s side plot is all about his fake ID, liquor, and two party animal cops (Bill Hader and Rogen—who are playing older analogues to the teen boys, but not generally, it’s not one-to-one). It’s the even funnier stuff in the extremely funny movie. Because even though Hill and Cera have a lot of humor in their own liquor hunt (Hill promised dream girl Emma Stone he’d bring all the booze for her party, Cera promised dream girl Martha MacIsaac he’d bring her a special bottle of vodka), they’ve also got their “best friends since the fourth grade who go to different colleges and can’t be joined at the hip anymore” arc. For all their excellent insights into the male psyche, Rogen and Goldberg can’t crack that arc. Meanwhile Mottola is focused on the “boys finally learn girls are people they want to spend time with” arc, which is really awkward because Hill, Cera, and Mintz-Plasse are way too old for that arc.

Their being too old for it does provide a decent backdrop for some of the jokes, but the only time it gets directly referenced is with dream girl Stone. She’s too wise for Hill; he’s been intentionally confusing maturity and vulgarity his whole life and it won’t work with Stone. Meanwhile Cera gets this strangely paternalist arc with MacIsaac, which—given how shallow Cera’s performance schtick gets as the film goes along—is really bad for her. MacIsaac gets a little more screen time than Stone (it feels like a lot more; Stone’s forgettable) and somehow even less character. They’re both dream girl caricatures (albeit 2007 ones). The film never even hints at them being anything more. MacIsaac’s got friends, Stone’s got parents out of town. Done.

Other big problems include the progressive gay jokes. It’s lazy writing more than anything else. Superbad’s got a really big anti-toxic masculinity statement it hints around making without ever having the balls to make it. Also interesting is the lack of teen male virgin shaming, which sort of breaks the genre.

I also don’t understand how the Richard Pryor shirt Hill wears through the first act didn’t become the Garfield-in-the-car-window of the late aughts. Pryor’s expression gets laughs of its own, like he’s offering commentary on the surrounding events. It’s awesome.

Lots of Superbad is awesome. It’s peerlessly funny. It’s also astoundingly not ambitious.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Greg Mottola; written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg; director of photography, Russ Alsobrook; edited by William Kerr; music by Lyle Workman; production designer, Chris Spellman; produced by Judd Apatow and Shauna Robertson; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Jonah Hill (Seth), Michael Cera (Evan), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Fogell), Seth Rogen (Officer Michaels), Bill Hader (Officer Slater), Kevin Corrigan (Mark), Martha MacIsaac (Becca), Emma Stone (Jules) and Joe Lo Truglio (Francis the Driver).


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In a Lonely Place (1950, Nicholas Ray)

Watching the opening titles of In a Lonely Place, I wished the design had allowed for it to appear like it was saying “Humphrey Bogart in A Lonely Place.” Just because. But it doesn’t. And wouldn’t really be appropriate either as it’s unclear, some ninety minutes later, if Bogart was indeed in a lonely place. There are hints at it, including singer Hadda Brooks’s number. But how much does Bogart’s life and demeanor change once romantic interest (and second and third act lead) Gloria Grahame enter his life? Not clear. He’s more productive at work—Bogart’s a screenwriter; Lonely Place is a Hollywood story, though it ends up not really mattering. None of the details end up mattering much in Lonely Place. One of the film’s more lacerating issues.

To get the other more lacerating issue out of the way early on (saving director Ray’s indifference to supporting performances)—cinematographer Burnett Guffey. Lonely Place looks very much to be on a budget. Limited locations, limited cast, definite but inexpensive location shooting; the only thing Guffey shoots well is the exteriors. Otherwise, it’s flat lighting. Ray lets George Antheil’s music do all the emoting, even though the lighting could do just as much if not more. Antheil’s music gets a little much, but it’s fine because it’s got to do all the drama—see, what if it turns out Bogart’s not just an alcoholic, violent, egomaniac, but what if he’s also a killer. What if Grahame’s life’s in danger (even though Bogart’s apparently never functioned as well with her literally managing his life)? Grahame’s suspicions take a while; Lonely Place—even at ninety minutes—has a draggy second act. Once she gets them, the movie gets going for a bit, including bringing Jeff Donnell back into the movie because Grahame needs someone to share her fears with. Donnell’s great. She’s Frank Lovejoy’s wife. Lovejoy’s the copper investigating Bogart who knows him from during the war, when Bogart was his awesome CO. And presumably killed a lot of Germans with his bare hands and probably some rocks because, wow, does Bogart like getting in fights.

Carl Benton Reid is Lovejoy’s boss and he thinks Bogart’s good for the murder. He sees through the war hero bit; actually, only Lovejoy fawns over Bogart for it. Everyone else sort of things he maybe is a killer.

Even his agent, Art Smith. Smith’s likable but not very good. He and Robert Warwick (as a now drunken silent film star pal of Bogart’s) are the supporting actors whose performances Ray doesn’t care about. Occasionally they have really bad comedic moments, which might add to Lonely Place’s plodding. I can’t exactly remember because I wanted to forget them; the timing’s all off from Ray, leaving the actors with eggy faces.

Warwick’s similarly likable, except then it turns out he’s a pig.

Morris Ankrum is great as Bogart’s next project’s director. Shame he’s only in two scenes. He pushes back against Bogart, which the film needs. It’s not a good enough part for Bogart to take up all the air, which is why it’s so nice—and the film improves so much—when Grahame takes over the lead.

Andrew Solt’s screenplay (of Edmund H. North’s adaptation of Dorothy B. Hughes’s novel) doesn’t balance its leads well. When Bogart’s the lead in the first act, Grahame’s material is wanting. When Grahame’s the lead in the second and third acts… Bogart’s material is wanting. It’s too bad. But seems like a surmountable problem, only for the film’s deflated, predictable finish to take a safer route.

All the movie about the killer screenwriter needed was a… better screenwriter.

And cinematographer.

And for Ray to care equally about his actors’ performances. Speaking of which, I forgot to mention Martha Stewart. Better just leave it.

But Lonely Place does give Grahame a rather solid part for most of the movie. It even hints maybe she’s in the lonely place, only not really because she only gets a trouble sleeping scene to herself. Because problems. So many problems.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Nicholas Ray; screenplay by Andrew Solt, based on an adaptation by Edmund H. North and the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes; director of photography, Burnett Guffey; edited by Viola Lawrence; music by George Antheil; produced by Robert Lord; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Humphrey Bogart (Dixon Steele), Gloria Grahame (Laurel Gray), Art Smith (Mel Lippman), Frank Lovejoy (Brub Nicolai), Jeff Donnell (Sylvia Nicolai), Carl Benton Reid (Capt. Lochner), Martha Stewart (Mildred Atkinson), Morris Ankrum (Lloyd Barnes), and Robert Warwick (Charlie Waterman).


This post is part of the Noirathon hosted by Maddy of Maddy Loves Her Classic Films.

The Swindlers (2017, Jang Chang-won)

The Swindlers is all about being all about the con movie. No one in the film is meant to be trusted, though some of the characters are more sympathetic than others. The film is full of twists—the titular Swindlers aren’t a well-functioning unit, but a collection of blackmailed con artists and their corrupt district attorney boss—so someone is always either about to screw over someone else or has just gotten screwed over. How much screwing over everyone can take… well, the characters are meant to end up on a collision course. The sandbox they’re in is so small it’s inevitable, though sometimes for unrevealed reasons.

Those reveals aren’t exactly surprising, because the film invites an examination of its subterfuge; without the fun of unravelling the cons, The Swindlers wouldn’t work. More than not working, it wouldn’t exist. Writer and director Jang is very directly out to entertain, ditto his cast.

The film opens in flashback. South Koreans have just fallen victim, en masse, to a Ponzi scheme. The perpetrator escapes, with millions. Jang moves between various victims (and various kinds of victims) before settling on ostensible lead Bin Hyun. Bin’s a small-time crook, son to a world-class forger; turns out dad (Jung Jin-young) is also involved with the Ponzi guy. Bin gets a little bit of character development, mostly reactionary, then the movie jumps ahead to the present. And Bin disappears.

Instead, the film follows con artists Im Jin-ah, Ahn Se-ha, and Bae Seong-woo. Im is the gorgeous con woman who apparently likes jewelry (none of the three get any actual character details after their first two scenes). Ahn is the computer guy. Bae is the straight man. Yu Ji-tae is their boss, a corrupt district attorney who’s on a mission to shutdown the Ponzi schemer’s collaborators. Sometimes he uses his team of con artists, sometimes he uses the cops and his staff, sometimes he uses a street gang he’s also blackmailing. The film never really pauses to dwell on Yu’s villainy. But it’s considerable, especially as the film progresses, as he adds greed to his list of sins. Once hundreds of millions of won are in play, Yu becomes even less trustworthy.

Of course, the alternative is to trust Bin, who eventually aligns himself with Yu and team to take out the Ponzi schemer, who’s too smart to come back to Korea so instead he sends straight-edge stooge Park Sung-woong. Im ends up with the job of gaining Park’s trust, leading to some rather amusing sequences. Park and Im work well off each other; no one else in the film really has the opportunity to work up any rapport. So it’s nice they’re so good together.

Though it’s never clear how Ahn and Im, in particular, operate in such a dangerous world. Bae’s a brute and Bin and Yu are dueling masterminds, but Ahn and Im are kind of just nice people. Sure, they’re con artists, but they lack the temperament for all the potentially perilous situations they’re in.

Again, Jung doesn’t really care. He just wants Swindlers to amuse and he succeeds. Ahn and Im are both perfectly good. Bae’s good. Bin’s really likable. Choi Duk-moon’s hilarious as one of the marks. Yu’s not likable, but he’s a pleasant bad guy to follow around. He’s always got to be on guard with his team, which somehow gets him some sympathy. For as long as the movie needs it before things get more intense, once the money score aspect of it gets introduced. Because everyone’s got a different agenda they’re trying to achieve.

Because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be Swindlers.

The film’s technically solid. Jang’s not a great director by any measure, but he’s competent at directing the actors through the various plot twists. Their general likability makes it work. Nice editing. The music is a little much but composer Bang Jun-seok seems to understand the film needs help and goes all out to provide it. If Jang were a better director, the music would be way too much. But its enthusiasm is good, given the circumstances.

The Swindlers is slight. It’s also consistently amusing and has a great pace. It’s cute. Not in a pejorative sense at all, but like many of its cast members (Bin, Im, Ahn, Park), it’s just cute.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jang Chang-won; director of photography, Lee Tae-yun; music by Bang Jun-seok; produced by Sung Chang-Yeon; released by Showbox.

Starring Bin Hyun (Hwang Ji-sung), Yu Ji-tae (Park Hui-su), Im Jin-ah (Choon-ja), Bae Seong-woo (Ko Seok-dong), Ahn Se-ha (Kim), Park Sung-woong (Kwak Seung-geon), Choi Duk-moon (Lee Kang-suk), and Jung Jin-young (Hwang Yoo-suk).


Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019, Jon Watts)

Spider-Man: Far From Home spends so much of its runtime being a constant delight, the first sign of trouble passes. Something where director Watts needs to connect doesn’t connect, only it doesn’t really matter because it doesn’t seem like it needs to connect too hard. Then the third act is this massive, impersonal action sequence where the sidekicks get a better action finale than the hero and the mid-credits sequence entirely changes the stakes of the film. And then the post-credits sequence entirely changes how the film plays. It’s like there’s a surprise ending then there’s a twist ending but the twist should’ve come in the regular ending… It’s also too bad because neither of the additional endings let lead Tom Holland act.

And Far From Home is usually really good about letting Holland act. He’s great, even when he’s going through the same hero arc he went through in his last solo outing. Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers’s script has a lot of good jokes and nice moments for Holland (his romance arc is at least different this time) and his costars—as well as an almost great scenery chewing part for Jake Gyllenhaal—but it’s fairly thin. The film’s able to deliver some real emotion, not just from the film’s events but also from all the weight hanging over the world post Avengers 4, which seems kind of light actually but it’s set at least nine months after that film so maybe people are just emotionally fast healers and whatnot. Plus Holland and romantic interest Zendaya have oodles of chemistry so their high school romance but with overachievers on a school trip to Europe arc is wonderful. Lovely even, which is why its treatment in the additional endings is such a boondoggle.

Enough about the endings. I think.

The film has Holland and his high school classmates touring Europe while Samuel L. Jackson (in a shockingly humorless turn; not bad, just shockingly humorless) tries to get him to help save the world. Jackson’s got a new hero—Gyllenhaal, who’s from an alternate Earth and has ill-defined magical powers—but he wants Holland along for some reason. It makes even less sense once the film gets through the main plot twists, not to mention the additional end ones. See, I’m still on the endings. Sorry.

The reasons don’t matter because Gyllenhaal is really good. He’s earnest but mysterious. He and Holland have a good rapport, though it might be nice to see Holland not desperately needing a mentor. Or at least getting a funny one; Martin Starr and J.B. Smoove are comic relief as the high school teachers. Might not have hurt to give them something more to do. Far From Home has an excess of talent and doesn’t utilize enough of it. But, again, it doesn’t matter during the smooth sailing period of the film because just so long as nothing goes too wrong, nothing can screw it up. Cue ginormous third act action finale. The bad guys in the movie are these giant weather monsters (sans Flint Marko) so all the action is big. Great combination of action and landmark destruction (the monsters go after all the big European cities). There’s no way the film can top it for the finale and instead just puts more people in imminent danger. The film closes on iffy ground and then the additional endings—even if the post-credits sequence is inessential (it isn’t), the mid-credits one is the whole show—just cement the problems.

It’s a bummer because Holland, Gyllenhaal, Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, and Jon Favreau are all great. Watts does a fine job directing. Europe looks great. Fun soundtrack. Competent if impersonal score from Michael Giacchino. Matthew J. Lloyd’s photography seems a little rushed on composite shots but whatever. Dan Lebental and Leigh Folsom Boyd’s is a little rushed though, especially during the exterior night sequences, which are already problem spots for Lloyd and Watts.

Speaking of Watts, despite that fine directing he does, he’s got no interest in the special effects visuals. He’s got no time for them. It’s okay for the giant weather monster fights because it keeps the focus on Holland. But when the film’s got this lengthy hallucination sequence? It’s okay. It gets the character from point A to point B, but the character doesn’t have any reaction to what they’ve seen. It’s a terribly missed opportunity. In so many ways. Including a great Empire Strikes Back reference.

Oh. Marisa Tomei.

The movie completely wastes her, while still managing to celebrate her awesomeness in the role and her chemistry with Holland.

For a while, Far From Home is such a grand European (superhero action) adventure with a wonderful—and likable—cast and fun attitude, it seems like there’s nothing it can’t get away with. The movie’s self-assured and justifiably so for most of the runtime, but those two additional endings just make it seem like… it was all bravado and not actual confidence. Hence a bummer. A weird one, wonderfully acted one.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jon Watts; screenplay by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, based on the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; director of photography, Matthew J. Lloyd; edited by Dan Lebental and Leigh Folsom Boyd; music by Michael Giacchino; production designer, Claude Paré; produced by Amy Pascal and Kevin Feige; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Tom Holland (Peter Parker), Zendaya (MJ), Jacob Batalon (Ned), Jake Gyllenhaal (Beck), Jon Favreau (Happy Hogan), Tony Revolori (Flash), Angourie Rice (Betty), Remy Hii (Brad Davis), Martin Starr (Mr. Harrington), J.B. Smoove (Mr. Dell), Marisa Tomei (May), Cobie Smulders (Hill), and Samuel L. Jackson (Fury).