Back With Black

Shane Black might as well be an urban myth in Hollywood. He broke out by writing the buddy-cop classic Lethal Weapon in 1987 (along with the sequel two years later) but then only popped up in the credits of random 90s action movies with “L” in the title (The Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero, The Long Kiss Goodnight). He hit a second career peak in 2005 with his widely-praised but little-seen directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang but again, he’d disappear until co-writing and directing Iron Man 3 in 2013. It’s as if every time he gets the break that’ll put him in the mainstream, he steps out of sight and out of mind just as fast. But don’t let his reputation (or lack thereof) sour the fact that anytime Black makes a movie, it’s a sure bet. Case in point: The Nice Guys.

 

It’s 1977 in smog-filled Los Angeles and if you’re being beaten down by creeps or bullies, you call the brutish but kind Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) to rough up your enemies. If you’ve got issues that need some evaluation, you don’t call the alcoholic, thick-headed scam artist/private investigator Holland March (Ryan Gosling). Nevertheless, Healy and March cross paths while looking for a missing girl (Margaret Qualley). They run into a ruthless killer (Matt Bomer), a stressed head of the Department of Justice (Kim Basinger), March’s wise-cracking teen daughter (Angourice Rice) and the pair’s own vices in pursuit of the truth.

 

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Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling and Angourice Rice in “The Nice Guys”

 

Whereas most mainstream releases are franchise fodder, The Nice Guys feels like such a blessed oddity: a mostly original idea that relies entirely on an interesting mystery and the talent of the lead actors to be memorable. SPOILER ALERT: it really works. The atmosphere of 70s L.A. is one that grooves like a buddy cop movie but has shades of noir. What ties it all together is the tight screenplay from Black and Anthony Bagarozzi. Everything is littered with tough-guy bravado and sharp comic timing. It helps that the actors look like they enjoy every minute they’re on-screen. The main mystery is more of a motivator for the actions of the characters than something to get invested in. By the time the audience realizes who the bad guy is and what the endgame is, it wouldn’t be surprising if everyone in the theater went, “Oh yeah, there’s a plot here.” Whereas Black had the advantage of adapting Brett Halliday’s novel into Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, he and Bagarozzi don’t have a story deeper or more complex than an acceptable Chinatown imitator (this time the California Water Wars is swapped out for air pollution and the Detroit/L.A. auto fair). To be honest, Black is a much better writer than he is a director. Not to say that he’s bad behind the camera (far from it), but there’s nothing that stands out about his directing. He could be described as an “actor’s director,” a guy who doesn’t show off with camera tricks and simply lets the camera roll while the actors do the heavy lifting. To Black’s credit, he and editor Joel Negron cut together some great gunplay and timing between dialogue. Everything about the movie echoes “cool.”

 

That cool comes from the two leads who are both at the comedic peak of their careers. Crowe is the growling straight man to Gosling’s screwy antics and the pair have amazing chemistry together. The comedic timing the two have is impeccable and their own character arcs make for nice snapshots of the washed-out machismo of the 70s. Sure Gosling looks great in a suit and mustache, but that doesn’t help him but down the bottle or put any effort into his investigative work. Crowe wants to be the Robin Hood of Los Angeles if he wasn’t so desperate for money and carrying a chip on his shoulder. He’s good, but good golly God is Gosling goddamn great. He looks like the coolest guy in the room (even with all of his suitcoat sleeves ripped open for his arm cast) yet so oblivious to his own stupidity and incompetence. No matter how many times the movie knocks him down by having him get ripped on booze or chasing porn stars, Gosling keeps bringing on the laughs with his unbridled confidence. The duo have great backup from the likes of Rice as the Penny Gadget to the wacky mystery, seemingly being the smartest of the good guys. But again, it’s mostly the Ryan Gosling comedy block and after his turn in The Big Short, it’s clear he’s as much a funny man as he is a serious actor.

 

 

If there’s a main fault with The Nice Guys it’s that it takes a while to find anything wrong with it when it’s all over. You’ll probably be too busy laughing and riding along with the smooth atmosphere the movie gives off. The Nice Guys reestablishes Black’s aura of top notch dialogue in a time where special effects drive mainstream blockbusters and roll of the dice experimentalism drive indie flicks. The Nice Guys feels classic all by itself, something untouched by the time it in and proud of being a violent vulgar guy film without succumbing to the stupidity of said genre. Now someone please give Shane Black more money to make movies so he can’t leave us again.

 

3 1/2 out of 4 stars

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Marvel’s Collision Course

So……Captain America: Civil War may be both the best Marvel film to date and yet the dumbest. Sure, it has some of the best action and acting in Marvel Studios’ canon, but the motivation behind this epic showdown is just dimwitted enough to not have it be entirely erased from one’s conscious. The parts of a great Avengers-like spectacle are mostly there (hell, it’s easier to call this whole thing Avengers 3), but it has trouble coming together. It’s like trying to smash an Ferrari and a Lamborghini together to make a super car: you’re only getting a car wreck.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Captain America: Civil War is the 13th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the kickoff to the MCU’s Phase Three of flicks. Meant as a follow-up to the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: The Winter Solider, the movie sees Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and his fellow Avengers (sans Thor and Hulk) dealing with their greatest enemy to date: The United Nations! After realizing that the Avengers’ world-saving battles are causing too much collateral damage for comfort, the U.N. drafts a bill that requires the Avengers to go public and be monitored by the governments of the world. Some, like War Machine (Don Cheadle), Black Widow (Scarlett Johannsson) and Vision (Paul Bettany) think the bill is necessary. Others, like Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Steve think it’s too extreme. The one really pushing everyone to sign is Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), still riddled with guilt over the events in Sokovia and trying to compensate for his increasing lack of control over what happens to the Earth. Things get even more complicated when Cap’s buddy Bucky Barnes/Winter Solider (Sebastian Stan) is held responsible for a bombing at the U.N. meeting signing the bill into law. Steve believes his friend is innocent, but Tony is ordered to bring Barnes in. With that, the two Avengers and co. collide.

 

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Robert Downey Jr. in “Captain America: Civil War” Photo Credit: Marvel Studios

 

Said company brings their A-game as Civil War may be the most emotionally driven Marvel movie to date. Downey Jr. in particular brings Stark to his most interesting arc in the films because he clearly doesn’t have it all together. Stark is dour, stressed and desperate to keep the Avengers together because he’s well aware that the danger has increased while he only knows how to make fancier Iron Man suits. The consequences of his actions are hitting him now more than ever and Downey makes it show. It makes Stark look incredibly flawed and all the more interesting. However, the MVP of the stacked line-up is one of the newcomers: Chadwick Boseman (Get On Up, 42) as Black Panther. Boseman proves himself worthy of the cast with a stern charisma and the unaltered morals of his character. There’s a real heart and passion to the way Boseman portrays the noble son of Wakanda trying to keep himself removed from the egos of the other heroes. It just adds to the anticipation of Panther’s upcoming solo movie and further establishes Boseman as a born movie star. The other ace is the film’s actual villain: Daniel Brühl (Inglourious BasterdsRush) as Zemo, a reserved and welcome break from giant robots and aliens to fight. And of course there’s the debut of Marvel Studios’ Spider-Man, played with a pitch-perfect amount of teenaged geekiness by newcomer Tom Holland (The Impossible). Despite looking like Jamie Bell if he drank youth formula, Holland may be the most faithful interpretation of Spider-Man to date despite being in only ten minutes of the film. For those complaining that Holland comes off as too awkward or wimpy, guess what: that’s actually who Spider-Man is supposed to be (not a twenty-something Abercrombie model). It’s clear Holland’s presence is to tease a future Spider-Man movie, but the filmmakers wisely keep his appearance brief since he contributes nothing to the actual plot.

 

The rest of the cast all remember how to play their roles right and manage to fit into the picture just the right amount. Everyone else know they’re in a supporting role and they all manage to compliment the story. War Machine reminds Tony of the casualties of superhero war, Vision and Scarlett Witch are the overpowered outsiders trying to find their place on the team, and Black Panther and Hawkeye are the removed characters sticking to their own morals during the big fight. Strangely enough, the weakest element of the movie is the one that kicks the movie into gear. Without the political conspiracy story from The Winter Soldier, the Winter Solider/Captain America relationship is very uninteresting. The main story is the divide between the Avengers, but the movie gets in motion after Winter Solider comes into the movie and it feels mostly unnecessary. More so, Evans and Stan don’t show a lot of chemistry or connection together until the end of the film. Winter Solider kicks off a lot of the action in the movie, but every character besides Winter Solider are what make the scenes stand out. Martin Freeman stands out more despite him being in the movie almost the same length as Stan Lee’s obligatory cameo.

 

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(Left to right) Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Chris Evans and Sebastian Stan in “Captain America: Civil War.” Photo Credit: Marvel Studios

 

Civil War is a darker affair than most Marvel movies, but not by much. Unlike that OTHER superhero showdown, Civil War doesn’t overdo the gloom and doom. There’s the overarching atmosphere of seriousness that occasionally gets broken by quips of comedy (some of it lands, some of it doesn’t). The thing is that Civil War looks more realized and alive. In fact, Civil War appears much more realistic and affective than Zack Snyder’s depressing vision. Under the direction of The Winter Solider directors Anthony and Joe Russo, the action set pieces combine fist-fights and effect-driven power play very well. There are some moments of shaky-cam and rapid editing, but the Russo brothers know when to make the audience pay attention. The final showdown between Iron Man, Winter Soldier and Captain America is surprisingly brutal with Iron Man using blinding rage as motivation and Cap just trying to protect his friend despite bleeding profusely from the mouth. The real main event is the advertised showdown at the airport between Team Iron Man and Team Cap. It’s gigantic, ridiculous, stupid yet incredibly pleasing to see everyone show off their powers against one another. Every time you’ve smashed action figures together and made sound effects to it as a kid has manifested onscreen. Whereas Marvel’s Daredevil had the most grounded and realistic fight scene, Civil War is at the opposite end of the spectrum with its over-the-top nature, but both represent the best Marvel has to offer. It might even be worth the price of admission alone.

But what keeps Civil War from matching the miracle that was 2012’s Avengers? Well for one, Marvel has a hard time keeping a straight face. They’re clearly going for a more serious tone but there are moments with serious dramatic heft that get interrupted with witty quips or Vision cooking in a pullover sweater (no, seriously). Sure it’s funny, but takes the audience out of the entire experience and creates near-tonal whiplash. The real problem is the entire main plot (or plots) of the movie. As mentioned, the entire involvement of Winter Solider in the movie feels shoehorned in and merely acts as a greater catalyst for Captain America’s involvement. He’s conflicted enough on the bill after the events of the opening action scene, so having Bucky be thrown in seems more like a distraction from the more interesting conflict between Tony and Steve. On top of that, it’s actually easy to pick a side on this battle. The main reason Tony backs the bill so heavily is a rather blunt scene where a woman blames her son’s death in Sokovia on Tony. Sure there have been many forms of collateral damage throughout the Avengers’ world-saving fights, but the alternative of keeping Earth’s Mightiest Heroes waiting for political red tape to let them save the world seems incredibly dumb. Tony’s motivations seems to be out of desperation rather than thought out logic, the same goes for those supporting the bill. It’s certainly something that political debate can be featured in a superhero movie where Paul Rudd laughs it up for yucks, but it’s not much of a debate to get invested in. If the choice is to let the Avengers do what they do and learn from their mistakes or tighten the leash on them in the hopes of possibly lessening the damage, I say AVENGERS ASSEMBLE! You know who doesn’t care about collateral damage? Thanos, Hydra and Zemo. You know who’s been proven to be hopelessly unprepared to fight these enemies? The entire human race. You’d think there’d be a thoughtful conversation about these issues, but the only way superheroes can solve problems is through punching, and that’s mostly what Civil War has to offer.

 

 

Taken as big, dumb blockbuster spectacle, Civil War comes so damn close to reaching the scale and emotional heft of The Avengers and that should be more than enough to recommend this movie. But it’s just too hard to ignore the fact that Marvel isn’t willing to pull the trigger on the Watchmen-like question of “who should superheroes answer to?”In fact the more I think about it, that big question is almost entirely tossed aside for Tony’s emotional breakdown and Steve’s buddy rescue, not to mention more Winter Soldier backstory that isn’t worthy of a subplot let alone a feature film. So like I said, Civil War is like a sports car demolition derby: it’s awesome to see these impeccably crafted works collide with each other, but the final product is a mess the more you look at it.

 

3 out of 4 stars