Two Surprise Winners
The films that I have picked out for this month’s Instant Gratification both surprised me—I honestly did not go into them thinking that they would be movies that I would want to recommend, at least not based on their directorial pedigrees. I have an appreciation for a few of Quentin Tarantino’s films, but (especially lately) haven’t been able to say that I love his work, and well, Michael Bay? I have some latent affection for Bad Boys and The Rock, but there isn’t really anything else on his list that is even remotely interesting to me. I’m completely aware that both Tarantino and Bay are extremely popular in their own circles, and for what I imagine are very different things, so I understand if you are put off by my…being put off by them. But, regardless, I checked out these two movies and I was more than pleasantly surprised. Interestingly enough, I’m a huge fan of John Carpenter, and it is one of his more recent offerings that makes it into the discard pile, so go figure.
Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997)
If I was ever going to love a Tarantino flick, at least more than I already appreciate Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, it would have always been Jackie Brown. I’m incredibly disappointed that I never checked out this movie earlier, and I highly recommend it. Not only does it do all of the things that Tarantino is already good at—it is tightly constructed, cleverly shot, and filled with interesting, well-rounded, and downright memorable characters—it is also devoid of a lot of the over-the-top shenanigans that have made films like Django Unchained fall to the side of flash, rather than substance. The violence in this film is organic; rather than working from a shock-value quotient, Jackie Brown feels coherent, and anything that does end up seeming shocking is also earned by the story and the characters’ motivations. Adapted by Tarantino from an Elmore Leonard novel, I have to contend that this is Tarantino’s best film to date. The basic bones of the plot are as follows: Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) is a flight attendant whose side job helping arms dealer Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) gathers some unwanted attention from FBI agents Nicolette and Dargus (Michael Keaton and Michael Bowen). The agents enlist Jackie to help them bring down Ordell, and Ordell has designs to take out Jackie, and the plot thickens from there. Also look for stellar character turns from Robert De Niro, Chris Tucker, and Bridget Fonda.
Much of what makes this particular film work so well is the knock-down-drag-out performance of Pam Grier. The film hinges entirely on Jackie’s relationships with the troubling characters she is faced with, and her manipulations of their machinations, and Grier grounds Jackie as both an empathetic character—I find it impossible not to root for her throughout—but also a force to be reckoned with. Grier is sexy as hell, and at turns timid and resigned and bold and confident. I think that most people think that the Oscars aren’t really given to the best performances, and the 1997 Best Actress award goes on to prove this; that Grier wasn’t even nominated is all the proof I need that the Academy Awards should just be abolished. Tarantino, by way of Leonard, creates an incredible character in Jackie, and Grier makes her so very real. I kind of want to go watch it again, and if you haven’t seen it, I’d recommend that you stop everything and give it a go—even if you don’t really like Tarantino all that much.
Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain (2013)
Now this one legitimately surprised me, and even though it isn’t perfect—in fact, I think it falls prey to its own charms towards the end—it was a lot more enjoyable than I had initially expected. Pain & Gain is based on the true story of Miami bodybuilder Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), who has a fundamental misunderstanding of the American Dream (or perhaps he understands it better than anyone). His hard work on his body isn’t paying off in the ways he had imagined, so he enlists the help of his good friend Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and an ex-con-turned-born-again Christian Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) to help him extort millions from former client Victor Kershaw (Tony Shaloub), who Daniel views as undeserving of his wealth. While many parts of their scheme go right, other parts go horribly, hilariously wrong, and the trio find themselves faced with more money than they could ever imagine, and the prospect of everything crumbling down around them. There are also great turns by Rebel Wilson as the woman Adrian woos, Ed Harris as a private investigator, and Rob Corddry as the scheming gym owner who helps Daniel justify his plans. This film also has one of the best uses of first-person voice over narration that I have seen in a while—frequently this technique can grate, but here it is used sparingly, and divvied up among the incredibly charismatic cast.
This film is also very pretty; part of that is due to the beautiful footage of Miami, which is itself a sun-drenched pastel playground, but Bay also infuses the film with a liveliness that makes it sometimes look like a music video (and I mean this in a good way). The plot is well paced and (unlike some of Bay’s other films) the action sequences are earned by the plot, and are incredibly well-deployed. There is one explosion, and only one, and the film needed it. (I’m not sure I can say the same about many of Bay’s other movies.) The charm of the Wahlberg-Mackie-Johnson triumverate also goes a long way; their characters are both positively sympathetic and utterly ridiculous at the same time, and even though they are infuriating, you can’t help wanting to see what happens to them, even if you know you can’t ever root for them either. And in a lot of ways, the film starts out as a really generous and thoughtful critique of the American Dream narrative and how it can be misunderstood by someone who thinks of achieving the perfect body as the “hard work” touted by this particular storyline. In my opinion, somewhere towards the 2/3rds mark the film starts to believe its own hype, just enough to loose sight of the critique and push the film into action-film territory; this in part has to do with the fact that the last third of the film is dealing with the fallout of the trio’s actions, but there is something about it that struck me as starting to see these three as more sympathetic than I was perhaps willing to see them. But even as I type that, thinking back to the point where things took a turn for me, it is also the place in the film where Lugo et al are doing their worst, so I’m not entirely sure what it is that put me off about this particular sequence. My recommendation? Watch it and report back, tell me if I’m crazy. I don’t know anyone else who has seen the movie, so I need someone to talk to!
Avoid Instantly: John Carpenter’s The Ward (2010)
This movie has so much going for it—a decent cast of young actresses and the weight of a great veteran actor, a fantastic premise, an actually interesting twist, and the direction of one of the masters of contemporary horror—but it just cannot get its shit together. It is 1966, and Kristen (Amber Heard) burns down a house. She is then immediately placed in a terrifying asylum under the care of Dr. Gerald Stringer (Jared Harris) and his nurses (Susanna Burney and D.R. Anderson doing their best to Nurse Ratched-up the place), and sharing her space with probably the prettiest, willowiest mental patients imagineable (Mamie Gummer, Danielle Panabaker, Lyndsy Fonseca, and Laura-Leigh). And of course, strange things begin to happen. While the movie tries to strike that time-tested balance of asking if the weird and dangerous occurrences are actually happening or if they are all in Kristen’s head, but it can never quite get there, always marching into “this is real but stupidly unexplained” territory. There are a ton of missed opportunities in the plot, the jump-scares are weirdly utilized (they are there, but none of them work the way you want them to), and the special effects are abysmal—I have the sense that if a younger director with a smaller budget and less pressure had been handed this script, we would’ve been in for a real treat. And therein lies the wasted potential of The Ward.