Playing Catch-Up: The Nice Guys (dir by Shane Black)


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Last night, along with seeing Trainspotting at the Alamo Drafthouse and watching The BFG at home, I also rewatched The Nice Guys.

Now, I saw The Nice Guys when it was first released last May and I absolutely loved it.  However, before I started rewatching it, I was a little worried .  I remembered that The Nice Guys was a stylish and often hilarious action film, one that featured a great comedic turn from Ryan Gosling and a performance from Russell Crowe that showed why he deserves to make a comeback as a leading man.  I also remembered that, for all of its graphic violence and often profane dialogue, The Nice Guys was also an unexpectedly sweet-natured movie.  I loved not only the rapport shared between Gosling and Crowe but also the relationship between Gosling and Angourie Rice, the actress playing his daughter.  In fact, I remembered enjoying The Nice Guys so much that I was worried that it wouldn’t hold up to a second viewing.

It often happens when you love a film the first time that you see it.  On a second viewing, you start to notice all the little flaws that you didn’t notice the first time.  Lines that you remembered as being brilliant are no longer impressive, largely because you know they’re coming.  All too often, the films that blow you away fail to hold up over time.

(Anyone tried to rewatch Inherent Vice lately?)

But you know what?

The Nice Guys is not one of those films.  I watched the film for a second time and I loved it even more than the first time.

The Nice Guys takes place in Los Angeles in 1977.  It’s a time of wide lapels, leisure suits, tacky interior design, porno chic, and concerns that the L.A. air is so full of smog that not even bumble bees are willing to fly around in it.  Ryan Gosling is Holland March, a well-meaning if somewhat sleazy private investigator who has been hired to track down a porn star named Misty Mountains.  Of course, Holland know that Misty is dead.  Everyone knows that she’s dead.  She died in a car crash, one that made all the headlines.  But Misty’s aunt swears that she saw Misty after Misty’s supposed death.

Holland thinks that Misty’s aunt may have mistaken her niece for Amelia Kutner (Margaret Qualley), the daughter of Judith Kutner (Kim Basinger, whose presence is meant to remind audiences of L.A. Confidential), an official at the Justice Department who has been leading a crusade against pornography.  Holland starts to search for Amelia which leads to Amelia paying Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) to intimidate Holland.

Who is Jackson Healy?  Well, he’s not a licensed private investigator, though he’d certainly like to be.  Instead, he’s a professional enforcer.  If you pay him enough money, he’ll beat people up for you.  Usually, he beats up stalkers and ex-boyfriends.  When he discovers that Holland is a private investigator, Jackson is intrigued.  Jackson would like to be a private investigator.  Of course, that doesn’t stop Jackson from breaking Holland’s arm.  Jackson’s a professional, after all.  As Jackson leaves Holland’s house, he runs into Holly (Angourie Rice), Holland’s twelve year-old daughter.  She gives him a bottle of Yoohoo.

Later, Jackson is confronted by two men.  Keith David plays Older Guy and he’s intimidating because he’s Keith David.  His partner is a giggly sociopath played by Beau Knapp.  For reasons that are too much fun for me to spoil, he is known as Blue Face.  The two men demand to know where Amelia is.  After Jackson manages to chase them off with a shotgun, he teams up with Holland to try to track down Amelia and find out what’s going on…

Got all that?

The mystery — which eventually expands to involve everything from porn to political protest to the Detroit auto industry — is deliberately and overly complex but at the same time, it’s actually rather clever.  And, as I can now say after rewatching the film, it actually holds up quite well.  But, to be honest, the mystery is not as important as the whip smart dialogue, the frequently over the top action, and the chemistry between Gosling, Crowe, and Rice.  As good as the action may be, the film’s best scenes are simply the ones that feature the three leads talking to each other.

(Upon discovering that Jackson both broke her father’s arm and that he beats people up for a living, Holly immediately asks how much it would cost to have one of her friends beat up.)

And you know what?  As played by Gosling and Crowe, they really are the nice guys.  Holland tries to be cynical but, for the most part, he’s just an overprotective father.  Jackson may beat people up for a living but he’s not a sadist.  He’s a lot like the film, violent but with a good heart.

The Nice Guys is full of wonderful set pieces, like when Gosling, Crowe, and Rice infiltrate a sleazy 70s party or the film’s explosive finale.  For me though, I love the little details and the quieter moments.  I love the fact that even one of the worst people in the movie responds postively to having someone innocently hold his hand.

(I also love that Matt Bomer shows up, playing a totally terrifying hitman.  It’s a small role but Bomer does so much with it.)

It’s a shame that The Nice Guys came out as early in the year as it did.  It’s also a shame that it didn’t do better at the box office.  The Oscars could use a little action and a little comedy this year, don’t you think?

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #118: The Kids Are All Right (dir by Lisa Cholodenko)


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Dare I admit to thinking that the 2010 best picture nominee The Kids Are All Right is overrated?

The Kids Are All Right tells the story of Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore), married lesbians in Los Angeles.  The pragmatic Nic is an obstetrician while the more flighty Jules has a landscaping business.  They also have two children, Laser (Josh Hutcherson) and Joni (Mia Wasikowska).  When Laser and Joni decide to track down their anonymous sperm donor father, the trail leads to Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who owns an organic restaurant.  (Of course, he does…)  After Paul meets Nic and Jules, he eventually ends up having an affair with Jules, which threatens the family’s stability.

It’s been five years since the film first came out and, as a result, I think it’s easy to forgot what a big deal The Kids Are All Right was back in 2010.  It got a lot of attention for being both a film about a lesbian couple and a box office success.  To a certain extent, every LGBT-themed film to come out since owes a debt of gratitude to The Kids Are All Right for proving that audiences are willing to see films with LGBT characters.  As well, the film’s box office success was an early sign of the growing support for the legalization of gay marriage.  The Kids Are All Right can make a very valid claim to being a landmark film.

But, once you look past the film’s historic importance, it doesn’t hold up as well as you might hope.  The performers are all good, especially Annette Bening.  The film’s script also has a lot of good lines.  However, it also has a lot of lines that feel just a little bit too glib and obvious.  It’s not surprising that HBO considered turning The Kids Are All Right into a TV series because the entire movie really does feel like an above average episode of an hourly drama.  Lisa Cholodenko’s visually flat direction also feels more appropriate for television than for the big screen.

As much as I hate to admit it, I’d probably be more into The Kids Are All Right if the characters were a little less wealthy.  If you can look past the fact that this is a movie about a happy lesbian marriage being threatened by a clueless straight guy, you discover that The Kids Are All Right is essentially just another movie about rich white people with problems.

I guess my problem with The Kids Are All Right can be summed up by the scene where Jules fires her Mexican gardener because she suspects that he’s seen her with Paul.  The scene is largely played for laughs and, after the gardener has lost his job, he’s never seen again.  At one point, Jules does say that she feels guilty for firing him but again, the scene is played for laughs.  The film asks us to laugh with the rich white characters and to laugh at the one non-rich non-white.

The Kids Are All Right is a historically important film but that’s not necessarily the same thing as being a great film.

What Lisa Watched Last Night #110: Whitney (dir by Angela Bassett)


Last night, I watched the latest Lifetime biopic, Whitney.

Why Was I Watching It?

A movie about Whitney Cummings!?  How could I not watch…

Okay, okay — I knew, before I started watching, that it was a movie about Whitney Houston.  But I have to admit that my motives for watching were not exactly pure.  You see, after watching the Saved By The Bell movie, the Aaliyah movie, and the Brittany Murphy movie, I had every reason to believe that Whitney would be another unfortunate Lifetime biopic.  I was watching expecting the film to be a snarkfest, the type of thing that I could write a really sassy review about.

But — no.  Actually, it turned out to be pretty good.

What Was It About?

Whitney Houston (Yaya DaCosta) meets, falls in love with, and marries Bobby Brown (Arlen Escarpeta).  Many drugs are done and many songs are sung.

What Worked?

Whitney was probably a hundred times better than anyone was expecting.  Angela Bassett kept the story moving, Yaya DaCosta and Arlen Escarpeta both gave good performances as Whitney and Bobby respectively, and Deborah Cox — who provided Whitney’s singing voice — sounded great.  The final scene of Whitney singing while Bobby watched was surprisingly moving.

One thing that I did like was that Whitney did not indulge in any sort of tawdry or melodramatic speculation about Whitney’s death.  Even the film’s postscript stated that, even after her death, Whitney Houston continues to inspire new artists but it didn’t go into the details of her final days.  And why should it?  This film was about talent, music, and love.  It wasn’t about tabloid rumors.

What Did Not Work?

I’m sure some people were probably frustrated by the fact that Whitney did turn out to be a good, competently directed and acted film.  All the people who were watching specifically because they wanted to see an Aaliyah-style fiasco (and there were quite a few of them) were undoubtedly left disappointed.

And, of course, I’m sure some people really were hoping for a Whitney Cummings biopic…

On a more serious note, I did bother me a little that, though the movie was called Whitney, it actually seemed to be more about Bobby Brown than her.  Considering that the film basically presented Bobby as being a drug-free saint before he met Whitney and that it was followed by an hour-long interview with Bobby Brown, it was hard not to feel that Lifetime was basically presenting only one side of the story.

(Then again, Whitney Houston’s family refused to have anything to do with the movie so it’s possible nobody was around to present the other side.)

“Oh my God!  Just like me!” Moments

Well, unless I’m drunk and there’s a karaoke machine nearby, I can’t sing to save my life so I can’t really claim to be able to relate to Whitney’s talent.  However, I do have a weakness for guys who share my taste in movies.  For Whitney, it was Sparkle.  For me, it’s Suspiria.  So, I was able to watch that part of the movie and go, “Oh my God!  Just like me!”

Lessons Learned

Despite snarky rumors to the contrary, Lifetime can make good biopics.  (Of course, you and I already knew that, right?)