Barely Lethal (2015)

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twohalfstar

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Sometimes the most frustrating films aren’t the ones that fail outright, but rather the ones that show a great deal of promise but still fall short of success. I really wanted to enjoy the teen-girl-assassins action comedy Barely Lethal despite the mountain of negative reviews warning that I wouldn’t, but the movie at no point makes an effort to distinguish itself as a unique property worthy of praise. Even though I’ve never seen D.E.B.S. (I should fix that soon), I recognize that Barely Lethal has distinct origins in that film’s premise. It wants to be the next link in the Heathers-Clueless-Mean Girls high school clique comedy chain, but even The DUFF from earlier this year is more deserving of that honor. As far as being a female-led spoof of the superspy genre goes, Spy is a much better example from 2015. Hell, it’s not even the worst film featuring Thomas Mann from 2015 thanks to Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl (alternate title Me, Me, Me, and Me). Even the pun in the film’s title (a winkingly violent play on the porny idiom “barely legal”) falls short of establishing any kind of significance as it ends up meaning that the the girls are incompetent as killer spies, which was not at all the intended effect. Similarly, the film itself is barely lethal in its compromised tone, which is unfortunate given the possibilities in its killer teen girls premise.

Early in the proceedings I was willing to buck consensus on this one. The film begins by profiling a “top-secret, government-run school that turns little girls into killing machines”. Samuel L. Jackson (once again proving that he will star in anything) is fairly amusing as the top instructor at this trained killer production facility. His darkly comic commands that toddler age girls (or “Double 0 7-year olds”, if you will) operate machine guns & flamethrowers and to remember that while stabbing combatants”It’s all about putting holes in the subject. Ladies, spring some leaks!” are pretty damn amusing, but the feeling is fairly short-lived. The film mostly follows the story of one trainee instead of the institution as a whole, detailing the life of a teen assassin’s decision to fake her own death & attempt to lead a normal life as an American high school student. There is a lot of promise in this set-up, touched on just a tad when the protagonist complains that the cruelty of high school teens is far worse than being beaten or drowned, but it’s mostly wasted. Because she uses past high school clique comedies teen gossip rags as “intel” for “Mission: High School” (ugh) the film devolves into mostly empty, self-conscious references to films like 10 Things I Hate About You, The Breakfast Club, and (duh) Mean Girls. Even worse, it wastes a vicious rivalry between two teen girl assassins – a concept that should register as a super cool take on the genre – on a climactic catfight over a boy.

Like I said, the worst part about Barely Lethal is that it’s barely unenjoyable. I liked that it worked within the traditional high school rom com plot structure – in this case staging both a Big Party and a Big Dance climax – but it rarely took the opportunity to show its teeth within that frame. The exchange “I’m viral?” (referring to Internet fame, of course) “Like HPV”, a montage of two teens girling  out over guns instead of a traditional dress-up sequence, and a conversation about how they “want the first time [they kill a man] to be special” are all a great start for a first draft, but they’re isolated moments in a film mired in wasted opportunities. Barely Lethal mostly felt like an underutilized cast (including Rob Huebel, Jessica Alba, Sophie Turner, and Rachel Harris) aching for a better movie to emerge in the editing room. With an R-rating instead of PG-13 & a harder edged re-write I could see Barely Lethal enduring as a cult classic As is, I’d suggest that you ‘d skip this one & watch D.E.B.S. instead. And again, just to be clear, I’ve never seen D.E.B.S..

-Brandon Ledet

The Hateful Eight (2015)

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fourstar

One of the first things that will always come to mind with Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, The Hateful Eight, is the William Castle-esque pageantry of its release. Framed as an Old Hollywood-style Road Show, the film was released one week earlier than its digital-version wide release date as a 70mm film print (a strip twice as large as was standard when film prints were standard) complete with an overture, intermission, and a full-color playbill. The Hateful Eight Road Show was a three hour long experience. Purchasing tickets more than a week ahead of time I got the distinct feeling of when you’re anticipating a band you love coming to town instead of a film. To tell the truth, though, the Road Show wasn’t as flashy or as exciting as you would expect, not even as over-the-top as the Grindhouse gimmick attached to Tarantino’s Death Proof release. The overture & intermission were blank spaces accompanied by music. The “extra footage” was, presumably, a collection of extended exterior & detail shots that helped establish mood. Watching the movie unfold on projected film was a nice touch for an homage to old-fashioned Westerns, but it’s a detail that could be forgotten once you’re immersed in its story. The best part of the Road Show was not how it punched the film up & made it more exciting, but how it slowed the proceeding down & let it breathe.

At one point in The Hateful Eight, Samuel L. Jackson’s balding, ex-military bounty hunter says, “Not so fast. Let’s slow it down. Let’s slow it way down.” That seems to be the film’s M.O. in general. Tarantino is, of course, known to luxuriate in his own dialogue, but there is something particularly bare bones & talkative about The Hateful Eight. It’d say it’s his most patient & relaxed work yet, one that uses the Western format as a springboard for relying on limited locations & old-fashioned storytelling to propel the plot toward a blood-soaked finale. Depicting a (jokingly) self-described Bounty Hunter’s Picnic, the film follows the transport of a dangerous criminal (played by an especially feral Jennifer Jason Leigh) in the company of eight potentially dangerous men who are all snowed-in in in a small Wyoming cabin during a blizzard. Among them are Kurt Russell’s weathered bounty hunter, desperate to see her hang; Sam Jackson’s similarly-minded bounty hunter with his own payday to protect; Bruce Dern’s cantankerous Southern Rebel general who refuses to let go of the Civil War; Tim Roth’s “jolly good” rapscallion of a Brit; and the list goes on. As the plot unfolds it becomes apparent that one or more of the strange men are determined to set the prisoner free by leaving behind a trail of dead, which makes for a Western version of a mystery film like Clue or John Carpenter’s The Thing. Tarantino’s no stranger to genre mashups or liberal borrowing, but there’s a relaxed, unrushed pacing that started to emerge in his films sometime around Inglourious Basterds that’s getting its full due in The Hateful Eight.

Watching Tarantino’s films with the general public is always a little nerve-racking for me. The mashup of comedy & violence in his work builds a lot of nervous tension that leads to much-needed laughs, but I find a lot of audiences will laugh at disturbing moments designed to leave you more in abject horror instead of knee-slapping amusement. The Hateful Eight provides a wealth of opportunities for this discomfort. The audience around me laughed during shots of Jennifer Jason Leigh being beaten half to death by the men in charge of her transport. I found that more horrifying than amusing (despite her playing a cruel, heartless character herself), but Leigh’s immediate response to of spitting, shooting snot rockets, and licking up blood with a smirk were all very funny to me in a Jerri Blank kind of way and fell onto a silent room. Similarly, the copious amount of utterances of the word “nigger” in a post-Civil War America setting & an extended fireside tale of a rape & murder left me chilled to the rest of the room’s bizarre reactions. At least we could all agree on the excellent physical comedy gag of a door that wouldn’t stay latched? Tarantino knows exactly what he’s doing with this tension, something he plays up with decisions like ending the rape tale with a silent intermission or having characters puke blood in a grotesque practical effects display that alternates from funny to horrifying to funny to you get the picture.

So many details complicate the background & history of The Hateful Eight that it’s difficult to separate them from the film proper. The film’s screenplay was leaked online prior to production, so an infuriated Tarantino cancelled the film outright, then doubled back & staged a table reading before deciding to actually begin filming due to an overwhelmingly positive response. I mention this backstory because it bleeds into the film not only in its dialogue-heavy vibe, but also in the way Tarantino himself acts as a narrator, reading stage directions aloud during the film. The Thing vibes are inescapable in its snowed-in, no-one-can-be-trusted plot structure, but are also backed up & complicated by unused segments of Ennico Morricone’s score for John Carpenter’s The Thing. Then there’s the experience of the Road Show & the 70mm print, two features I cannot separate from the movie as a finished product. I also found myself thinking of its “Spend the holidays with someone you hate” tagline in the trailers, especially in Michael Madsen’s cowboy’s interrupted plans to spend Christmas with his mother & in a particularly uncomfortable rendition of “Silent Night”. It’s difficult to know when you’re enjoying The Hateful Eight or when you’re enjoying the experience & the lore of watching The Hateful Eight. It’s a confusingly engaging film in that way.

There are a few things that are remarkably clear about The Hateful Eight to me right now, though. It is an incredibly violent, misanthropic, lushly-photographed tale of a collection of vile ruffians murdering each other in such a flippant, nonchalant way that it leaves you with both nervous laughter and total disgust. In that way it’s classic Tarantino, so mileage may vary depending on how you already feel about his work. In this case, though, the pacing is slowed way down to allow the violence & the nervousness to soak in even deeper than before, leaving you with a particularly nasty, hateful feeling at the end credits.

-Brandon Ledet

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: Iron Man 2 (2010)

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Superhero Watching: Alternating Marvel Perspectives, Fresh and Longterm, Ignoring X-Men, or S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X., is a feature in which Boomer (who reads superhero comics & is well versed in the MCU) & Brandon (who reads alternative comics & has thus far seen less than 25% of the MCU’s output) revisit the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the perspective of someone who knows what they’re talking about & someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue.

Boomer: After the somewhat surprising success of Iron Man and the mostly tepid response to The Incredible Hulk, Marvel Studios allowed their product line to lie fallow for 2009. Instead, they spent most of their behind the scenes time conceptualizing and drafting the growing interconnected universe and putting forth just enough information to whet the appetites of the general public. Iron Man 2 in 2010! Thor and Captain America (which would later have the silly, unwieldy subtitle The First Avenger added to it) in 2011! Avengers in 2012! Iron Man 2 was heavily marketed in the U.S., but there was a distinct decline in the attention from film and comic trade papers compared to the whirlwind of publicity that surrounded the first picture. If anything, most of the hard copy from trade journals was less about the film itself and more about notable lunatic Terrence Howard’s exit and replacement by prestige performer Don Cheadle. Howard has claimed on separate occasions that he left the film of his own volition and that he was let go, the former statement having only recently become part of his repertoire of stories. Lately, his claim is that his departure was due to a vast pay discrepancy between himself and Robert Downey, Jr., but Howard is also infamously difficult to work with—just look no further than the madness that was his September Rolling Stone interview for proof. Imagine what it must be like to work with someone whose conceptualization of mathematics makes Time Cube seem straightforward in comparison. I would prefer working with class act Don Cheadle, too.

There’s not as much backstory about the history of this film, but the expansion of the cast is noteworthy. Of the four main actors appearing in the first film, only Gwyneth Paltrow and Downey reprise their roles, due to Howard’s exit and the death of Jeff Bridges’s character. Samuel L. Jackson’s role was expanded, and Mad Men actor John Slattery was cast to play Tony’s father Howard Stark in file footage. Sam Rockwell joined the cast as rival weapons mogul Justin Hammer, and Mickey Rourke, of all people, was cast as unrepentant Russian ex-con Ivan “Whiplash” Vanko. Even stranger, likable comedian Garry Shandling was brought on board to play blowhard politician Senator Stern. Most notably, the film introduced Scarlett Johansson as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow, in a role that raised the profile of both actress and character significantly. Director Jon Favreau returned to helm the film and appear as Tony’s driver, “Happy” Hogan, and screenwriting duties were handed over to Justin Theroux, who is more recognizable as an actor in films like Mulholland Drive and American Psycho (and as the current Mr. Jennifer Aniston) than a writer. He also played the villain in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, following on the heels of Rockwell’s villainous turn in the first Angels film. Can the two of them working together make a decent Iron Man film? Read on for our reviews!

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twohalfstar

Brandon: Are we back to this dude already? Seems like just two films ago I was complaining about Tony Stark’s obnoxious rich boy D-bag fantasy fulfillment horror show of a personality. And here we are again, watching The Last of the Famous International Playboys work the crowd in his expensive suits & Guy Fieri sunglasses/goatee combos. As much as I would love to say I hated it even more the second time around, Jon Favreau’s second Iron Man film wasn’t nearly as bad as the first. Despite insistent warnings from friends that this would be the worst entry under the MCU brand to date, I found myself enjoying a great deal of the film, especially in moments where Mr. Stark was nowhere to be seen. Even though I could feel myself being won over, though, I think it’s much more that the MCU is growing on me & coming into its own than it is that this individual property is worth anything more than mixed praise.

The major improvement in Iron Man 2 is in the strength of its cast. Don Cheadle was a huge get in replacing Terrence Howard as Col. James Rhodes & it was super cool to see him fly around in a spare Iron Man suit, effectively establishing himself as the MCU’s first non-white superhero. Jon Slattery is as amusingly smug as ever in his role as Iron Dad. Gary Schandling & Sam Rockwell are always-welcome faces, even if the latter was asked to do such undignified things as blabbering about super-“cool”, super-deadly weapons to an obnoxious blues rock soundtrack. Scarlett Johansson is a refreshing glimpse into a better, future MCU in her kickass performance as the (undercover) Black Widow. Even the much-complained-about Gwyenth Paltrow gets a couple great moments in there, especially in her delivery of a particularly passionate line-reading of “ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND?!”

The real MVP here, though, is Mickey Rourke. I suspect that Rourke’s performance as the oddly grandmotherly supervillain Ivan “Whiplash” Vanko wasn’t universally beloved by fans, but I was personally won over. I can’t be too objective about Rourke in this film because I’m pretty much on board with everything he’s done on film in the past 15 years or so. Even in dire properties that I have no patience for like Sin City & The Expendables, Rourke’s weird, hardened, subdued energy is a breath of fresh air. It’s hard to tell how much of this is leftover goodwill from how much I love him in Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, but it’s true all the same. Rourke’s softened, heavily tattooed Russian terrorist of a villain is easily the most deliciously over-the-top aspect of anything I’ve seen in the first three MCU entries. I loved everything about him, from his dumb girl’s-first-year-at-Burning-Man dreds to his fetish-inspiring lightning whips. When the film opens with Rourke’s oddly gentle brooding I was expecting to fall for Iron Man 2‘s charms . . . a feeling that lasted only briefly, as it was promptly interrupted by Iron Man flying around to AC/DC dad jams & my Iron Man 1 deja vu kicked in.

The problem with Iron Man 2 is not in the villains, but in Iron Man himself. I wasn’t convinced that Tony Stark’s reformed bad boy act in the first film outweighed his more unpalatable impulses as a rakish dick & he indeed dismisses his moral salvation in that film (an interest in renewable energy sources instead of military grade weapons) as a “liberal agenda” that he now finds boring here. I guess his new path to salvation is in his evolving romance plot with Pepper Potts. I’ll admit that I find the characters’ chemistry fairly compelling (way more than Ed Norton & Liv Tyler’s chemistry in The Incredible Hulk, at least), but there’s too much else working against Stark’s personality for it to save the movie for me. It’d be one thing if Stark’s go for broke narcissism were played as villainous, but it’s largely celebrated in the film. He’s applauded for “successfully privatizing world peace” without a trace of irony. He sexually objectifies the MCU’s first female superhero at first glance, joking “I want one of those” in ScarJo’s first scene, and the audience is supposed to think “Heh, heh me too”. And then there’s his love of a expensive-looking version of European NASCAR, Iron Gams chorus girls, and – worst yet – scratching records like an idiotic RoboDJ. Ugh. I’m surprised they stopped short of giving him a backwards baseball cap & a skateboard.

I could probably get behind Tony Stark’s persona if he were played as a villain, but he’s just too openly celebrated in the film for it to work for me. When he jokes about a beautiful woman standing next to his ride, “Does she come with the car?” we’re supposed to think “What a cool dude!” instead of “What a vile pig!”, which is the film’s main problem in a nutshell. Perhaps as his relationship with Potts develops the more grotesque aspects of his personality will soften, but for now I mostly find Stark to be a source of embarrassment. This isn’t helped at all by director Jon Favreau’s now-extended glorified cameo as Stark’s personal driver, since it confronts the viewer with the film’s oddly conservative power fantasy looking us in the eye, desperately hoping some of his creation’s supposed cool will rub off on him.

There’s so much going on in Iron Man 2 that had me rooting for the film – mostly in the superhero/villain antics of ScarJo, Rourke, and Cheadle. It’s just a shame that Iron Man had to get in the way of what makes Iron Man 2 work. When one character warns Stark, “The device keeping you alive is also killing you” I found myself thinking, “Would his death really be so bad for this franchise?” I doubt that was the desired effect.

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three star

Boomer: When Brandon told me that he had watched this film, I expressed my sympathies and referred to IM2 as the nadir of the MCU. Upon rewatch, however, this film was a lot better than I remembered, and outpaces The Incredible Hulk easily. The problem, I think, is that I had never actually sat through the entire film from beginning to end without commercial interruption, which bloats the already overlong film out to an interminable three hours and exacerbates the film’s pacing problems as well. It’s not great, but there were a lot more fun elements present than I remembered. Unfortunately, those moments are buried under a mountain of bizarre acting choices, miscast roles, and about 50% more subplots than any film should try to support.

How many subplots are there? Do we define the main plot as “Tony Stark attempts to find the cure for the blood toxicity problem caused by his arc reactor,” given that this would presuppose that “Tony faces off against the son of a man from whom his father may have stolen ideas” is not also the main plot? Of course, that would also further presuppose that “Tony faces off against the spoiled, rich weapons manufacturer who he could have been (and kinda is)” is not also the main plotline. Right away, the fact that all three of these ideas are primary narratives in their own right means that the film is overloaded. Then there are all the subplots: the Senate subcommittee hearings, the tension between Tony and Rhodey as the latter is pressured by the government to obtain an Iron Man suit, Pepper’s promotion to CEO of Stark Industries, the introduction and integration of Black Widow and the reveal of her true alliances, the uneasy alliance between Vanko and Hammer, Tony coming to understand his father’s real legacy and accept their emotional distance, and Tony forging a new element (“LOL” -everyone who paid even the barest minimum attention in high school chemistry). Every time the film changes scenes, you find yourself thinking “Oh, right, these people are doing things in this movie too; I forgot.” There are too many sequences in the film, and by the final act, there’s such a sense of narrative fatigue that you can hardly bring yourself to care.

A lot of the performances are flat and, frankly, terrible. ScarJo’s Black Widow had a lot of presence in the first Avengers film, and her appearance in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is far and away one of the best things in an inarguably fantastic film, but here, she’s wooden and unlikable. There are a few moments in which her emotionless seems like a façade (the way she drops her smile when Happy makes dismissive and sexist assumptions about her physical prowess is a nicely underplayed moment, actually), but it’s obvious that she had a hard time finding this character. Of course, given that her character seems poorly thought out on paper as well, this is hardly a surprise. Paltrow’s Pepper is also more of a damsel in this film than she was in the last, which is a disappointment, and Cheadle’s Rhodey is written as decisive in his actions but easily swayed in his motivations; both of them feel like they were written down in this installment in praise of the almighty Tony Stark.

Speaking of which, Tony Stark is a self-important blowhard who lacks humility, not entirely unlike Downey (who’s basically a white Kanye with an ego that the general public doesn’t police as heavily because of his whiteness); in order to make him more likable, his villains have to be utterly devoid of any redeeming features that could accidentally render them sympathetic. Ivan Vanko can’t just be a prodigal son seeking revenge on the child of the man who he believes stole his father’s legacy, he has to be a criminal who sold uranium to terrorists, and his father must also have been involved in wartime espionage. Senator Stern can’t possibly be presented as someone with reasonable objections to Tony Stark’s self-described privatization of worldwide peacekeeping; he has to be a barely-competent parody of fear-mongering, war-hungry senatorial arrogance. And Justin Hammer can’t just be a rival industrialist who wants to experience the successes that seem to come so easy to Tony Stark; he has to be a spoiled brat infatuated with his own decadent lifestyle and possessed of the misconception that he is capable of being intimidating, with occasional bouts of impotent rage.

Everyone in this movie feels like they’re slumming it, and the bad performances I mentioned earlier really show through in regards to the villains. Sam Rockwell is particularly terrible. I mentioned above that this movie has a longer running time than is necessary or warranted, and the film doesn’t have to be as long as it is, either. It’s unusual to feel a film’s length because of performative choices, but a good five percent of this film consists of Rockwell (and, to a lesser extent, Downey) repeating and repeating their lines, not for emphasis but as filler. Every scene that Rockwell is in feels interminable, and it only gets worse once he breaks Vanko out of prison and enlists him to make Hammer’s failed experiments moderately functional, with Rourke’s choices as the Russian criminal/mechanical genius almost (but not quite) working based purely on their sheer audacity. Without these two characters, almost nothing of substance would have been lost (less the Monaco racing/action sequence, which was a better set piece than the overloaded finale and a highlight of the film). Further, more time could have been spent focusing on the way Tony’s self-destructive behavior pushed his friends away, rather than abbreviating that plot point.

Overall, Iron Man 2 is a film that is overburdened by too many ideas, only half of which should have made it past the first draft. Returning characters are marginalized in lieu of introducing two major villains, when the plot of Tony’s poisoning and his completion of his father’s legacy would have been sufficient to carry a grounded and compelling film. Instead, those interesting narratives become so lost in the shuffle that by the time Tony invents his new element (LOL) you’ve already forgotten why he needs to. Still, I’d put it on nearly the same level as the first film, even if it doesn’t come together as coherently in the end.

Lagniappe

Brandon: Iron Man 2 feels like the MCU finally coming into its own. I get frustrated when the individual movies include references to other MCU properties with no in-the-moment consequence besides promoting The Next Big Show. There are indeed a few MCU calling cards left on the table here with no purpose for the task at hand – Captain America’s shield, Thor’s hammer, an envelope that reads “The Avengers Initiative” – but they’re isolated moments in a more general push to truly get the ball rolling. The biggest change here is that the characters of Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury & ScarJo’s Black Widow are given more to do than just to pop in & acknowledge their own existence. A move away from brief cameos toward active involvement is an important one. When Black Widow gets her hands dirty kicking nameless goons’ asses towards the film’s climax the crossover potential of MCU properties finally, excitingly sees some payoff. If it weren’t for Mickey Rourke’s lightning whips weirdness it would’ve been my favorite moment in a film that almost worked for me (when its titular “hero” protagonist wasn’t getting in the way).

Boomer: This film is really the first one in which a larger universe feels like it’s beginning to unfold, as evidenced by Nick Fury’s exasperation at having to deal with Tony Stark’s emotional problems when he has bigger fish to fry. Hammer and Vanko are distinctly disposable villains in a way that Obadiah Stane was not, which makes the decision to kill him off in the first film even more shortsighted; theoretically, we could see Hammer reappear, but it hasn’t happened yet, and I’m glad for it. Johansson will have solidified Natasha’s character by the time of her next appearance, and she definitely goes on to be one of my favorite things about the MCU as a whole. Even though I complained about the paper-thin characterization of Senator Stern above, I’m looking forward to his later appearances. Finally, one of the things that I really disliked about this film is that Tony, even when he is staring his mortality in the face, never seems to feel the weight of his impending death in a way that matures him; I’m looking forward to rewatching Iron Man 3, which I remember having the most depth of character of all three, despite its poor reputation.

Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Iron Man 2 (2010)

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three star

-Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.