“THE NICE GUYS” (2016) Review

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“THE NICE GUYS” (2016) Review
The 2016 summer movie season proved to be not as impressive as I had originally thought it would be. I cannot recall a remake of television or previous movie with an original twist. Worst, many of the movies seemed to be nothing more than sequels. And if I must be brutally frank, not very good ones. But I have only come across two movies that struck me as completely original. One of them is the period action comedy, “THE NICE GUYS”.

Co-written and directed by Shane Black, “THE NICE GUYS” told the story of a down-on-his-luck private investigator and an enforcer investigating two cases that might have a connection with each other – the death of a fading porn star and a missing young woman, who happens to be the daughter of a U.S. Justice Department official. Set in Los Angeles circa 1977, “THE NICE GUYS” began with a young boy witnessing the death of fading porn star Misty Mountains in a car crash in the Hollywood Hills. Later, Misty’s aunt, Mrs. Glen, hires private eye Holland March to find her, claiming that she is still alive. Despite feeling skeptical of Mrs. Glen’s claim, Holland takes the case and discovers that a young woman named Amelia Kutner is connected to Misty. Unbeknownst to him, an enforcer named Jackson Healy has been hired by Amanda, who does not want to be found, to intimidate March into staying away from her. But when two thugs try to coerce Jackson into revealing Amelia’s whereabouts, he teams up with Holland and the latter’s young daughter Holly to find Amelia before the thugs do. The duo’s investigation lead them into the world of Los Angeles’ pornography industry and a scandal surrounding the automobile industry.

“THE NICE GUYS” was not a major box office hit. It barely made a profit, if I must be brutally honest. This is a pity, because I believe Shane Black not only directed, but co-wrote – with Anthony Bagarozzi – a first-rate action comedy. There were a few aspects of “THE NICE GUYS” that I found unappealing. One, I was a little taken aback that the main villains behind the murders committed in the movie and involved in the automobile scandal did not face any justice. Perhaps I should not have been surprised, considering that the main villains were a cabal of businessmen in the Detroit automobile industry. I mean, honestly, Black and Bagarozzi could have provided the movie with a more distinct main villain and saved an ending like this for a drama like 1974’s “CHINATOWN”, instead of an action comedy. And two, for a movie set in the late 1970s, one aspect struck me as anachronistic – namely the Judith Kutner character portrayed by Kim Basinger. What else can I say? Basinger looked like an early 21st century woman who had time traveled back to 1977, thanks to her anachronistic hairstyle. Visually, the actress stuck out like a sore thumb.

Thankfully, there was a lot more to admire about “THE NICE GUYS”. Shane Black and Anthony Bagorozzi really did themselves proud. Who else could write a comedic story about a group of people in the porn industry, using the power of film – a “porn” flick called “How Do You Like My Car, Big Boy?” to expose the shady dealings of a cabal of Detroit automobile makers; toss in an alcoholic private investigator, a burly and somewhat violent enforcer, the former’s 12 year-old daughter; and set all of this in 1977 Los Angeles? By all of the laws of nature (and writing), this should not have worked. But it did . . . beautifully. This movie featured some interesting and off-the-wall scenes that included Jackson and Holland’s first violent meeting, their search for the missing Amelia at a wild party held by a pornography producer in the Hollywood Hills, and that crazy finale at the L.A. Auto Show.

“THE NICE GUYS” also featured some first-rate action sequences. Among my favorites are the screen fights that featured Russell Crowe, Keith David and in the first one, Beau Knapp. I would include Ryan Gosling, but his character did not strike me as an effective brawler, just a person who falls from high places, while in a state of intoxication. The movie also featured a first-rate scene in which the Jackson Healey and Holland March characters have a deadly shoot-out in front of the March home with a psychotic hit man named John Boy (a name that requires a photograph of actor Matt Bomer and an article on its own). But once again, the auto show sequence tops it all with some first-rate action that include a major brawl and an intense shoot out.

Being a period piece, “THE NICE GUYS” is a colorful movie to look at, thanks to contributions from the crew. I love sharp color in my films, especially if they are period pieces. And I am happy to say that Philippe Rousselot’s photography not only satisfied me color wise, but also gave the movie a late 1970s sheen that I have not seen in a long time. I noticed that some of his exterior shots were filmed in close-ups. And I cannot help but wonder if he had done this, because the movie was partially shot in Atlanta, Georgia. Also contributing to the movie’s late 1970s look was Richard Bridgland’s production designs. Speaking as a person who remembered that era (and location) very well, I have to give Bridgland kudos for doing an excellent job in re-creating that era. I also have to say the same about David Utley’s art direction. I was also impressed by Kym Barrett’s costume designs. As shown in the images below, I found them very colorful and spot-on:

I cannot help but wonder if Russell Crowe’s character had become attached to that faux leather jacket. The actor wore it throughout the film. Although David Buckley and John Ottman provided a solid score for the movie, I really enjoyed the variety of songs from the mid-to-late 1970s that were included. This especially seemed to be the case during the porn producer’s party that featured a band playing Earth, Wind and Fire tunes. Be still my heart!

“THE NICE GUYS” also featured some solid and outstanding performances. Murielle Telio, Beau Knapp, Ty Simpkins (who had worked with Black in “IRON MAN 3”), Lois Smith, Margaret Qualley, Jack Kilmer, and Gil Gerard (“BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY” anyone?) all gave some pretty solid performances. I can also say the same about Kim Basinger, who portrayed a very pragmatic, yet emotionally intense Federal prosecutor named Judith Kuttner.

But I was really impressed by the likes of Matt Bomer, who gave a really intense performance as the rather scary hit man, John Boy. It was nice to see Bomer portray a character so completely different from what he usually does. Yaya DaCosta was equally intense, yet very seductive as Tally, secretary to Kim Basinger’s Judith Kuttner. I thought she did a great job in conveying all of the interesting traits of Tally – friendly, sexy, intense and dangerous. Keith David had the unenviable task of being one of the few sane characters in this crazy film, while portraying a Detroit-born hit man nicknamed “Older Guy”. However, I nearly fell off my seat, while laughing at one scene in which he expressed dismay to Holland for allowing young Holly’s presence in the case. Speaking of Holly, the filmmakers cast young Australian actress Angourie Rice to portray Holland’s pragmatic and brainy daughter, who also served as the leads’ conscience. Not only did she give a first-rate performance, Rice managed to keep up with the likes of Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling with ease.

Russell Crowe’s Jackson Healey more or less played straight man to Ryan Gosling’s zany Holland March; and I have to give him kudos for being up to the task. It is not an easy job playing straight man to the clown, considering that people are more inclined to pay attention to the latter. But Crowe not only did his job, he also beautifully brought alive a very interesting character in his own right, enforcer Jackson Healey, a dependable guy who has this little penchant for unnecessarily using excessive violence to solve certain situations. And he really clicked with Ryan Gosling, who had the good luck to portray the hapless and alcoholic private investigator Holland March. The interesting thing about Holland is that he is not dumb at all. In fact, he is actually a perceptive investigator who is good at his job, when he is not inebriated, not trying to cheat his clients, wallowing in his infatuation of the mysterious Tally or too intent on saving his own skin. I have to say that Holland March has become one of my favorite Ryan Gosling roles of all time. And one of the funniest I have ever viewed on the silver screen. What else is there to say?

What a shame that the public did not embrace “THE NICE GUYS”. But it does not matter in the end. At least for me. I can think of numerous films that I loved, but were not exactly box office hits. Right now, “THE NICE GUYS” has become one of those films. It is sooooo fun to watch, thanks to a great, but not perfect script; sharp direction by Shane Black; and a marvelous cast led by a very talented duo, Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling. This movie will go down as one of my favorites from 2016.

 

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“CLOUD ATLAS” (2012) Review

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“CLOUD ATLAS” (2012) Review

The year 2004 saw the publication of author David Mitchell’s science-fiction novel called “Cloud Atlas”. Consisting of six different stories with subtle connections, the novel won two literary awards and was nominated for a series of other awards, including the 2004 Booker Prize. But when the Wachowskis (Lana and Andy) and Tom Tykwer decided to make a film adaptation of the novel, the trio had trouble finding financial backing. 

Eventually, Grant Hill and Stefan Arndt agreed to co-produce the film and Warner Brothers Studios agreed to release it. The screenplay written by the Wachowskis and Tykwer closely followed Mitchell’s novel, with the exception of a few changes. As stated ealier, the movie consisted of the following six stories:

1849: American lawyer Adam Ewing arrives at the Chatham Islands in the Pacific, to make a business arrangement on behalf of his wealthy father-in-law, now living in San Francisco. His father-in-law is involved in an agriculture business that involves the use of Moriori slaves. After witnessing the whipping of a slave named Autua, Ewing and a Dr. Henry Goose return to San Francisco, via clipper ship. During the voyager, Ewing discovers that Autua has stowed away aboard the ship. However, he is unaware that Dr. Goose is slowly poisoning him in an effort to steal the chest of gold in Ewing’s possession.

1936: English musician Robert Frobisher, who is gay, is employed as an amanuensis to famous composer Vyvyan Ayrs, allowing Frobisher the time and inspiration to compose his own masterpiece, “The Cloud Atlas Sextet”. Ayrs wishes to take credit for the piece, and threatens to expose Frobisher’s homosexual background to the authorities if he does not comply.

1973: San Francisco journalist Luisa Rey meets by chance, Frobisher’s former lover Rufus Sixsmith, in a stalled elevator. A nuclear physicist, Sixsmith tips her off to a conspiracy regarding the safety of a new nuclear reactor, but is killed by a hitman named Bill Smoke before he can give her proof. Another employee at the power plant named Isaac Sachs becomes attracted to Luisa, eventually gives her the information, but is killed by Smoke. Luisa has find a way to expose Sixsmith and Sachs’s employer before she can be killed.

2012: British publisher Timothy Cavendish has a windfall when gangster author Dermott Hoggins, whose book he has published, infamously murders a critic and is sent to jail. When the author’s associates threaten Cavendish’s life to get his share of the profits, Cavendish turns to his brother Denholme for help. However, the brother tricks him into hiding out in a nursing home, where he is held against his will and treated poorly. Cavendish and a few of his fellow inmates plot to escape.

2144: A genetically-engineered clone server at a fast-food restaurant in Neo Seoul, Korea named Sonmi-451 is being interviewed before her execution. She recounts how one Hae-Joo Chang, a member of the local Resistance, helped to release her from her life of servitude. Chang and other members of the Resistance reveal that clones like her are “recycled” into food for future clones. Sonmi-451 becomes determined to broadcast this information to world.

2321: A tribesman on the post-apocalypse Hawaiian Islands named Zachry lives a primitive life after most of humanity has died during “The Fall” and is plagued by guilt for not interfering in the murder of his brother-in-law, Adam, at the hands of the Kona Chief, leader of a tribe of vicious cannibals.  Meronym, a member of the last remnants of a technologically advanced civilization called the “Prescients” visits his tribe. In exchange for saving Zachry’s young niece from a near fatal bite, he agrees to guide Meronym into the mountains in search of Cloud Atlas, an outpost station where she is able to send a message to people who have left Earth and now live on other planets.

When I first saw the trailer for “CLOUD ATLAS”, I thought it looked beautiful. My opinion of the film’s visuals have not changed one bit. However, I had no desire to see the movie. I took one look at the trailer and knew it would be a faux profound and self-righteous piece of claptrap that I suspect I would find confusing. A member of my family literally had to drag me to my local theater to see the movie. Recalling my disappointment in “THE MASTER”, I decided that a nice long nap would help me overcome the movie’s 164 minutes running time.

To my surprise, I did not fall asleep, while watching “CLOUD ATLAS”. Even more surprising, I enjoyed it. Very much. I cannot explain this phenomenon. I could see that it was not the type of film that would appeal to a lot of people. The movie’s technical aspects struck me as very impressive. In that regard, the Wachowskis have never disappointed, as past movies such as “THE MATRIX” and “SPEED RACER” have proven. “CLOUD ATLAS” featured some beautiful photography from cinematographers Frank Griebe and John Toll. I was especially impressed by their work in the 1973 San Francisco, 2144 Neo Seoul and 2321 Hawaiian Island segments. However, a part of me suspect that the visual effects team supervised by Lucy Ainsworth-Taylor and the special effects team were mainly responsible for the outstanding look of the segment set in 22nd century Seoul. But one also has to account for Hugh Bateup and Uli Hanisch’s production designs that beautifully re-created six different period in time, starting with the year 1849 and ending with 2321. Kym Barrett and Pierre-Yves Gayraud provided equally beautiful work through their costume designs – especially for the 1849, 1936, 1973 and 2144 segments. And I cannot say enough for the makeup work that allowed the cast to portray characters at different ages, cultures, genders and even race. I realize there was some controversy over the latter, but I will come to it, later.

Those who did not care for “CLOUD ATLAS” claimed that the screenplay failed to provide any connections between the six stories and the characters. Some believe that “CLOUD ATLAS” is simply about reincarnation, accepting the film’s official synopsis:

“An exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.”

Perhaps that is the truth. I did not bother trying to guess the movie’s main theme, while I watched it. I believed I would not be successful. Instead, I simply treated all six stories as separate and enjoyed them as they unfolded. In doing so, I managed to find similar themes of truth, inspiration and freedom of tyranny without any heavy-handed narratives. I was also surprised by how the main character of each successive story was inspired somehow (many times unknowingly) by experiences of his or her predecessor. Robert Frobisher read part of a book on the life of Dr. Adam Ewing. Luisa Rey read Frobisher’s letters to his lover, Rufus Sixsmith. And it was the latter who led her to investigate the power plant’s illegal use of nuclear energy. Timothy Cavendish read a unpublished manuscript for a novel based on Luisa’s investigation, which was probably written by her young neighbor. Following her escape, Sonmi-451 watched a movie about Cavendish’s ordeal at the elderly home. And Zachry recalled a statuette of Sonmi-451 and saw an orison (future recording device) featuring a speech from her. By the film’s final scene, I was surprised to find myself in tears. If there is nothing I love more is a movie that can take me by surprise in a positive way. And “CLOUD ATLAS” certainly achieved this.

Earlier, I had pointed out a controversy that emerged about some of the Wachowskis and Tykwer’s casting decisions. Someone noticed in the movie’s trailer that European actors like Jim Sturgess, James D’Arcy and Hugo Weaving portrayed Asians – namely Koreans. The Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) officially criticized the movie’s producers for allowing non-Asians to portray Koreans in the film. They also criticized the movie for allowing cast members of African descent – Halle Berry, Keith David and David Gyasi – to portray Pacific Islanders. Of course, they failed to point out that Tom Hanks, Sturgess, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, Bae Doona and Zhou Xun also portrayed Pacific Islanders in the 2321 segment. And it was pointed out that the movie’s two Asian cast members – Bae and Zhou – also portrayed Westerners. I suppose this is a topic that will never be resolved. However, I had assumed that each actor portrayed a series of characters that possessed the same soul . . . and that was the message the filmmakers were trying to point out.

Since the major actors/actresses portrayed multiple characters in six different stories, I decided to point out the performances I really enjoyed. I was impressed by Jim Sturgess’ transformation of the Adam Ewing character from a mild-mannered personality to one who had the courage to defy his father-in-law and become an abolitionist. His hilarious portrayal of the Scottish soccer fan in the 2012 segment had me in stitches. Hugo Weaving portrayed a series of villainous characters in the movie. But the two characters that really impressed me out were his performances as the murderous hit man Bill Smoke in the 1973 segment and Old Georgie, an evil manifestation of the negative aspect of Zachry’s subconscious in the 2321 segment. Halle Berry’s Luisa Rey proved to be one of the film’s more inspirational characters. And I enjoyed how she injected a bit of sly humor in her performance. Doona Bae gave a very memorable performance as the Korean fast-food clone, Sonmi-451. And she was hilarious as the Latina woman who ended up helping Luisa Rey in the 1973 segment. Hugh Grant really impressed me in his portrayal of Denholme Cavendish, Timothy’s vindictive, yet witty brother. James D’Arcy was excellent in both the 1973 segment, in which he portrayed the elderly Rufus Sixsmith and the Korean archivist that interviewed Sonmi-451. Ben Whishaw gave an excellent performance as the English composer Robert Frobisher, who found himself caught in a moral trap. And David Gyasi provided another inspirational performance in his portrayal of Autua, the Moriori slave whose bid for freedom ended up inspiring Dr. Ewing.

If I had to pick the two best performances in the movie, they came from Tom Hanks and Jim Broadbent. First of all, Hanks did an excellent job in his portrayals of the Scottish hotel manager that blackmailed Frobisher into giving him the latter’s waistcoat. Hanks’ performance as the Hawaiian tribesman Zachry was poignant. And I found his performance as the British gangster Dermot Higgins both astonishing and hilarious. But his portrayal of the murderous Dr. Henry Goose was probably the best performance in the entire movie. Frankly, he was even more scary than any of Weaving’s array of villains. Jim Broadbent portrayed two characters that really impressed me. One was his portrayal of the venemous composer Vyvyan Ayrs. Broadbent’s transformation of Ayrs from an enthusiastic music lover to a vindictive blackmailer really took me by surprise. But his best performance turned out to be the funniest in the movie – that of the self-indulgent publisher Timothy Cavedish, who found himself a victim of his brother’s vengeful nature.

I realize that “CLOUD ATLAS” proved to be a box office flop. Most people found the movie either too complicated or uneven to enjoy. I honestly thought I would end up sharing these views before I saw the film. I really did. But like I said, I found myself surprised at how much I enjoyed it. I heard rumors that author David Mitchell enjoyed this adaptation of his novel. And I am happy for his sake. Especially since I enjoyed it myself. Lana and Andy Wachowski, along with Tom Tykwer, really outdid themselves.