Aisle of the Damned: 11/21/16- Strange(r) Things

Don't talk to strangers

Sorry for the lateness. You know how it is when turkey is involved. But here’s one Thanksgiving leftover you won’t want to leave in the fridge.

Kent and Bryan discuss the films Arrival and Doctor Strange, two pieces of pulp that seem to be trying harder than usual to engage your brain. We also say goodbye to Robert Vaughn and discuss our DC-flavored recommendations of the week, both of which are revivals of a TV series in one way or another.

All this and less in Aisle of the Damned!

Music:
The Aquabats- Stuck in a Movie
Echo and the Bunnymen- People are Strange

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: American Hustle

Do the hustle

The con movie, like its close cousin the heist movie, is a weird animal. As long as you present a protagonist that is somehow charming or likable, you can get people to follow complete scumbags and root for them to pull one over on whoever they are trying to rob or scam. In David O. Russell’s newest film, Christian Bale is the con man that becomes our loosely-defined hero, and his odyssey through an ever-escalating sting is at turns humorous and uncomfortable. To call American Hustle Russell’s Boogie Nights is not accurate and a bit reductive, but not completely out of line, either. They’re both a strange mix of comedy and explosive drama, often in the same scene and they both involve outsiders from the weirdest era in American history.

Since the film is loosely based on actual events, it makes sense that it is set in approximately the same era that the original “Abscam” scandal occurred, aka the 1970s. But there’s more to it than that. I have always seen the 70’s, despite being born in them, to be the decade that America was lost in sleaze and ugliness. And not so much even the good kind of sleaze like corny porn films and grindhouse movies. But more that everything about it seems unpleasant. The clothing and general sense of design and style went against all common sense in the broadest terms of even the most basic rules of taste. Music was by and large awful (thank God for The Ramones coming along as an antidote to disco and arena rock) and sex lost the icky but playful naivete of the 60s free-love hippies and just became kinda icky. And that’s not even getting into the political arena. So it makes sense to set such a sleazy (but goofy) story of crime, sex and political expediency in this period. When your most virtuous character is a bribe-taking politician, you know that things will get worse before they get better.

And when the first shot in your movie (following the nice touch of an era-accurate Columbia logo) is a fat, bald Bale navigating an incredibly complex technical ballet to set up his comb-over, it expertly sets up that the whole film will be about people building huge facades to fool the world, but most importantly themselves.

It’s a film with a very nihilistic point of view; everyone lies to everyone, but they especially do it to themselves. Some people are just better at it than others.

Thankfully, that depressing thought is wrapped in some very broad but very good performances, beginning with Bale playing far against the type that he established with the larger budget fare he’s been in like the Batman films. It’s the kind of physical transformation that we saw from Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder, but more startling because it isn’t just some make-up job for a gag. He commits to and embodies the character. Opposite him is Amy Adams as his partner in crime and Bradley Cooper as an FBI agent that conscripts them into his service and slowly seems to lose his mind as he sees more and more opportunity for glory. While I think he’s the wrong choice for the voice of Rocket Raccoon, I’ve liked Cooper ever since his days on Alias. I would say without a doubt that this is some of his best work. The tightrope he walks as he goes around the bend is taut through the film and, despite chewing scenery like a beaver, he never quite falls off. Also, I am convinced that he and Louis C.K. could be a comedy superteam.

You’ve also got Jeremy Renner doing something new as the Conan-haired New Jersey mayor that gets swept along in their schemes. He represents the old ways and the older generation. The family-style backbone of New York from the earlier part of the 20th century. There’s a fantastic juxtaposition in the film using music, swinging from a disco tune accompanying Cooper’s next-gen, drug snorting fed to Renner and Bale singing along to Tom Jones’ mega-hit crooning of Delilah that works to show the difference between the new guard and the small-time folks caught up on the new mechanisms emerging, about to be caught under the wheels of ‘progress.’

That said, the best work in the film may belong to Jennifer Lawrence’s manic housewife that is equal parts self-destructive narcissist and manipulative sociopath that lashes out to hurt everything she cares about.

Set against a set of super-hits from the 70s that K-BILLY would give a stamp of approval, these characters seek to screw each other over at every turn and the point seems to be seeing who truly does end up coming out on top. The finale is suitably satisfying without glamorizing any of these amoral Looney Tunes too much. They take themselves very, very seriously, but thankfully we can laugh at their delusions. And possibly some of our own. If we happen to see them there.

(Four damns given out of five)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: The Bourne Legacy

Bourne

One of my favorite reviewers described The Bourne Legacy as “Flowers for Algernon with a body count.”

I doubt I can do better than that.

But it is my duty to soldier on and explain what he means by that and tell you why Legacy is a decent, if unaffecting film that manages to build off the Damon films without completely copying them in every way.

Of course Matt Damon is absent for the duration of Legacy, not even bothering to put in a requisite cameo appearance, showing up only in a widely circulated photo that looks like it was taken right before he was in Good Will Hunting. His character’s name is all over the place, however. His replacement is the Hurt Locker himself, Jeremy Renner. After being the duct tape slapped onto existing franchises like Mission Impossible and the Hawkeye role for Thor and Avengers, Renner does a servicable job trying to hold together the aging series, making his performance different enough from Damon’s that it helps keep away the “been there done that” for at least a short time. (Though intercutting bits directly from The Bourne Supremacy serves as a cheesy reminder that the film is happening concurrently with the third film in the franchise.)

In Legacy we find Renner is a member of a side-program to the one that created Bourne. He is not seeking answers about who he is and where he comes from. He signed on for what he does and he is only too happy to do it, as he feels he’s doing right and serving his country and his people. It doesn’t hurt that he had an IQ approximately the same as Forrest Gump’s and they gave him some magic pills to turn him into a spy version of Bradley Cooper from Limitless.

When Bourne’s exposure of the CIA’s main program to build a better spy hits the public, the agent in charge of Renner’s division decides the risk of exposure towards himself and his people is worth razing every shred of evidence that this, apparently more successful, version exists, including the agents under their command. In charge is Ed Norton who isn’t especially menacing, but considering the main bad guys in this series always seem to be morally gray, middle-management, government bureaucrats, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Anyway, Renner escapes their initial blitzkrieg of his fellow uber-agents, but has his smart-pills taken away, dooming him to grow dumber and dumber. Enter Rachel Weisz as Generic Scientist Character and through a fun action sequence, she ends up his hostage/confidante and can help him attempt to hold onto his artificial smarts.

Bourne Legacy is not a movie full of surprises, nor does it add much originality to the formula. While Renner’s motivations are refreshingly different, the set pieces and feel of the movie are comparable and well done, but direct carry-overs,though strangely, the shaky-cam in this film feels slightly less stomach-churning than the last two. The actors are all top notch, but perhaps it is out of necessity that the film just feels like a phantom appendage to the main Bourne body. It’s enjoyable enough to watch that you’ll like it if you have liked the previous Bourne movies to this point, but it’s just extraneous. It’s a sugary confection that will not stick with you, but it doesn’t take a nose-dive into idiocy. Oddly, the most harrowing part doesn’t even involve Renner’s character, but is that way because of headlines we’ve seen over the last few years. There’s nothing patently offensive about the film, nor is there anything special about it. There just doesn’t seem to be much reason for it to exist other than to possibly line Universal’s pockets.

(I guess time will tell if the next film in the francise will “Fast and Furious” the sequels by having Renner and Damon join forces.)

(Two and a half out of five stars)