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‘Breaking In’ Never Really Breaks Out

Jeremiah

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Few moments are as depressing as the realization that the movie you’re watching hasn’t got the guts or the spine it believes it has. James McTeigue’s Breaking In is a toothless PG-13 exploitation thriller that is afraid of its own shadow. Which is a shame, because I quite liked parts of it.

Breaking In starts out promising, but quickly we begin to suspect the opening scene was a ruse. The movie starts out with an old man meditating in what looks to be a very expensive walk-in closet. We see him grab a watch and then leave his luxury apartment building for a morning run. We follow him as he crosses the street only to be hit by a truck at a four-way stop.

As the man lies in the road the driver gets out. We never see anything but his black cowboy boots. He walks over to the prone man, who is still alive. The stranger raises his foot and brings it down to the old man’s head—cut to the title card. All of what I described has been in slow motion with an underlying hypnotic beat to it. It’s a gruesome setup, but it never goes anywhere near that level of gruesomeness for the duration of the movie.

Which, on one hand, is fine. Except Breaking In wants to be an exploitation thriller. We know this by the way it asks us to stare luridly at our heroes as they are put in constant danger. But they are not in danger. Time and time again Breaking In pulls its punches.

As the credits roll we meet Shaun (Gabrielle Union) along with her two children Glover (Seth Carr) and Jasmine (Ajiona Alexus). We learn the man in the opening scene was Shaun’s father. The three are going to his lake house to sell it. Shaun hasn’t spoken to her father in years and what’s more hasn’t been to his house in even longer.

It’s alluded to throughout the movie that Shaun’s father was a criminal—what kind is never revealed. Upon arriving at the house, the three discover her father had the house retrofitted with a new security system. The new system locks down the house and turns it into a veritable fortress.

It’s not long before Shaun and her two kids start noticing weird things around the house, almost as if they are not alone. Of course, they are not; three men have broken into the house to get at Shaun’s father’s safe that contains four million dollars. The three men consist of the same stock villains that all gangs of this sort normally have.

We have the squeamish and nervous pretty boy with dyed blonde hair, Sam (Levi Meaden). He’s the one who slept with the old man’s assistant and got her to spill the beans about the safe and the money. If this movie had come out in the nineties his role would have been played by Ethan Embry. In fairness to Meaden, Embry probably wouldn’t have played this part any better.

Then, of course, we have the resident unhinged psychopath Duncan (Richard Cabral). A wild-eyed man who wields a knife and whose body is covered in tattoos. Finn enough, the laziest drawn archetype, is the one character who seems to realize what movie he’s in. The leader Eddie (Billy Burke) is the brains of the operations. I use that term reluctantly because for all his talk, Eddie is no smarter than anyone else. After all, anyone can tell after only a few seconds that someone like Duncan is not the person you want if you want a smooth bloodless operation.

The three men lock Shaun out of the house when she goes outside to order pizza. A fourth man is sent out to kill her. She outruns him and in one of the few clever moments of the movie utilizes her surroundings to defend herself. Still, she never kills him.

The premise of the movie is Shaun is a Mother who is pushed to her limits to defend her children. But much like the bad men holding her children hostage, she’s all bark and no bite. At least the bad guys kill a couple of people. Shaun does not, except by accident.

Some of you might be screaming at me that I need to lighten up. Turn off my brain as it were. I hear you. But it’s hard to suspend your disbelief when you have trouble believing the movie even knows what it’s doing. The script by Ryan Engle is a shameful waste of Gabrielle Union’s abilities. It never tells us enough about Shaun. Throughout the film, Eddie taunts Shaun with lines like, “I get it. All your life people have underestimated you.” Which, by itself, is an odd thing for a man holding her children hostage to say. But we don’t know anything about Shaun’s past so we can’t say for sure.

Early on in the film, Shaun calls a man to let him know she is at the house. We know the man’s name is Justin (Jason George). We assume he is either a friend, an ex, or a boyfriend. When he shows up at the beginning of the third act and the kids call him Daddy, it’s a twist I’m not sure the movie meant to have. At no point in time during all their conversations do either Shaun or the kids mention a father.

It’s things like this that make it hard for us, the audience, to get behind the heroine. Breaking In has the audacity to give us a scene in which Shaun goes into a garage and lightly caresses a circular saw. Dear reader, nothing happens involving that saw. The curse of the PG-13 rating.

For instance, take the moment when Eddie screams at Duncan for killing the real estate agent Maggie (Christa Miller). “What the frick is your problem?” Now, I’m not for a moment suggesting profanity is needed to make someone scary. What I am saying is that of the thousands of words and millions of ways in which the English language can phrase things, the word “frick” is the least threatening among them.

Breaking In a dumb movie filled with characters that are not much smarter than the movie itself. The leader of the gang, Eddie, continually attempts to psychoanalyze Shaun. He knows less about her than we do. Shaun repeatedly finds, takes, or is given a weapon, only to toss it aside a few seconds later. The kids are actually pretty smart. At one point the daughter sneaks out of the room they’re being held in to go back to her room to use the cellphone to call for help. Of course, she doesn’t find it and goes back to being held captive.

Breaking In repeatedly puts Glover and Jasmine in harm’s way and has the bad guys constantly threaten to harm them, but nothing happens. Most movies will flirt with the notion once or twice but Breaking In can’t shut up about it. It gets to the point that whenever Eddie threatens the kids, we the audience roll our eyes. Sure Eddie, whatever you say.

Union has enough charisma that we are on her side almost automatically. But Engle’s script causes our loyalty to waver throughout the movie. It’s a shame, as Union salvages what she can from the lazy script and presents us with what could be a terrific badass Mother.

Last year’s Kidnap, starred Halle Berry as a mom who relentlessly chased down the people who kidnapped her child. She too made stupid decisions. But the director, Luis Prieto, infused Kidnap with a kinetic energy. We howled as Berry’s character made one bad decision only to make a good one a few scenes later. Prieto never alluded to any other part of the mother’s past outside of a custody dispute with her ex-husband.

I’m not advocating heroines should make the right decision all the time, but they should make some smart decisions. McTeigue and Engle never manage to get us on Shaun’s side. McTeigue sets up a nice slow methodical pace but it never builds toward anything. The big showdown between Eddie and Shaun is tiresome because we know both of them don’t have the temerity to back up their words. Worse yet, characters we believe to be dead come back like something out of a slasher movie.

In another movie, we might have cared. Here, we are only annoyed because the only thing standing between us and the end credits is this man who refuses to stay dead.

Breaking In is a hodgepodge of different, and quite frankly better, movies. From Die Hard to the other Bruce Willis movie Hostage. Union is a fine replacement for Willis and had either Engle or McTeigue given her something to play with, this movie would have been breathtaking.

There are a couple of moments that had me cheering and whooping with glee. Sadly, they came towards the end. By then I was just desperate for someone to do something, anything, resembling a definitive action. Luckily besides Union, Cabral, the actor who plays Duncan, is wonderful in his over-the-top performance. I wouldn’t call him menacing, because the movie utterly fails at making anything or anyone menacing. But I will say he was, next to Union, the best thing about Breaking In. What little unpredictability there was came from Cabral’s performance.

Movies like Breaking In are sort of depressing. Likable stars in an idea that would be perfect for them. Few things are sadder than seeing a movie waste a star’s talent or never realize it’s potential. I wasn’t utterly bored and the camera work by Toby Oliver is pretty to look at times. But it’s never as fun as it could or should be.


Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Jeremiah lives in Los Angeles and divides his time between living in a movie theatre and writing mysteries. There might also be some ghostbusting being performed in his spare time.

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‘First Man’ Struggles to Break Free From the Atmosphere

Jeremiah

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Damien Chazelle’s First Man is two movies; one impeccably crafted and breathtaking while the other is dull and repetitive. The result is for the two and a half hours we find ourselves in a roller coaster of emotion. I vacillated between being enraptured and on the edge of my seat to, while not bored necessarily, but definitely not caring.

First Man is based on the biography of Neil Armstrong, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong. I haven’t read the book by James R. Hansen but I have to believe we learn more about Armstrong than anything Josh Singer, who wrote the script, seems interested in telling, To see Singer and Chazelle tell it, Neil Armstrong’s life consisted of grieving for his daughter,  Karen (Lucy Stafford) who died when she was four of a brain tumor; and getting to the Moon.

Ryan Gosling’s Armstrong is a taciturn, steely-eyed, stoic man who keeps his emotions to himself. In a way, it’s an act of incredible bravery to make the focus of a story about the first astronauts to the Moon about the least expressive one. If you’re looking for an actor to portray elusive, enigmatic, and unexpressive, then Gosling is your man. Though I wish he wasn’t.

First Man is essentially two movies. Armstrong, the man, is the first movie. Arguably it’s the least interesting. But the second movie is where the real show is at. Chazelle has spared no expense, which at a reported budget of just under sixty million dollars is paltry by modern Hollywood standards. First Man despite its faults is so well crafted from a production design standpoint it borders on wizardry.

We follow the space program, almost from its infancy; from Gemini 1 to Apollo 11. Chazelle and Linus Sandgren, the cinematographer, allow an intimacy in the cockpit. The claustrophobia is visceral and palpable. Rarely has a film made us empathize with a historic act of bravery and lunacy so completely. It helps to underline the amount of sheer fortitude to keep a level head while you are both making history and recording it all for science.

Tom Cross, the editor, pulls off a feat of making much of the two and half hours barely noticeable. Cross and Sandgren combine their talents, along with the composer Justin Hurwitz, to create a scene of stunning anticipatory wonder. I have seen my fair share of movies and documentaries about Apollo 11 but the blast off in First Man raises the bar for likely a whole generation of film-goers and filmmakers.

It reminded me of the scene in Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece, Woman In The Moon. Lang uses melodrama as an excuse to give us a spectacle. The likes of which, many at the time had never seen. Lang builds the launching of the rocket in a scene that seems to go on eternally, with each passing second more and more climactic. Until finally it lifts off, the music swells, and the crowd cheers.

Chazelle and company have no cheering crowds but they do just as good a job. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say I was enthralled by the sheer majesty and artistry as Hurwitz’s score dominated the theater while just under it Phill Barrie, the sound editor, uses the groans of wrenching steel, the flames from the exhaust, a cacophony of exhilarating sound demonstrating the euphoric power of sheer spectacle of the movies.

I feel as if I should simply sit and list the names of the countless men and women who brought First Man to life. The sound design is exquisite, the art and production design is pristine, the costume departments choices were vivid-everything. It’s a damn masterpiece.

Or at least it would be, if not for the characters. Again, I haven’t read the book and I have no doubt that the loss of Armstrong’s daughter haunted him throughout his life. But I couldn’t help but wonder how Janet, Armstrong’s first wife, felt about the loss of her daughter as well. 

In the beginning, First Man appears to be a daring departure. A big studio Hollywood docudrama that shelves the spectacle and instead explores grief. Chazelle opens with Armstrong in the cockpit of a jet as he flies above the clouds. It is exhilarating as Cross, Hurwitz, and Sandgren, give us a taste of what we can expect. But then Chazelle cuts to Armstrong’s home. We see he and Janet caring for their sick daughter.

We cut to a dimly lit sterile room where Karen is strapped to a gurney. A giant monolithic drill hovers above her. It seems like something from a science fiction pulp magazine. It isn’t. It’s modern medicine. Armstrong, an engineer, pours over his notes, not of his flight into the stratosphere, but the notes the doctors have given him. He solves problems and fixes things. But he can’t solve his daughter’s tumor.

The first thirty minutes or so are pure cinema. Chazelle is a talented and skilled craftsman and his abilities are on full display. But Gosling is wooden on a good day and here he seems like a robotic refugee trying to fit in amongst the Hu-Mans. His normally closed lipped and laser like intense stare usually elevate whatever role he’s in. Here though, Chazelle turns what is meant to be an enigmatic and haunted man into a boring one note jerk.

Foy has already turned in a marvelous performance in this year’s stellar Unsane. Whereas Steven Soderbergh gave Foy a seemingly impossible range of emotions which she captured perfectly and expertly; Chazelle and Singer have her as merely the wife. She has a couple of nice moments, such as when she all but demands Neil say goodbye to his sons before he goes to the Moon.

Kyle Chandler as Deke Skelton, one of the original Mercury Seven, and who is essentially the Chief of Astronauts, is reliable as always. Chandler is rapidly becoming this generation’s answer to Kevin Costner. Character actors are a dying breed. But actors like Chandler remind us why they are a gift to filmmakers. Why waste a line of pointless exposition or shoot a needless scene to illustrate who the character is? When all you need is the type. It’s a shortcut both for the filmmakers and the audience and it cuts down on the clutter. I can’t help but smile and relax a little whenever I see Chandler show up on screen.

First Man may be a technical and cinematic marvel but when it comes to Armstrong or any of the characters, no matter the talent involved, it stumbles. The effects may leave the likes of Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 in the dust. But I can’t help but feel as if we underestimate the value of an actor who can express recognizable human emotion. Take a more recent example, Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures. Janelle Monae, Octavia Spencer, and Taraji P. Henson contain more humanity in a press junket than the majority of the scenes between the Hu-Mans in First Man.

I admired Chazelle’s attempt to subvert audience expectations, my own included, and deeply loved the clear love and joy of space exploration. It takes a brave soul to lure people into a theater with a promise of a rousing historical reenactment of a great human achievement, and instead have it be a thesis on grief. But that’s just the thing, it’s a shallow exploration of grief.

Armstrong never discusses Karen’s life or death with anyone, including his wife Janet. What Chazelle is looking at isn’t grief so much as an obsession. Even that’s not true because when Armstrong is at NASA, Karen is the furthest thing from his mind. Some of you may be yelling, “That’s the point!” To which I say, “I know! It’s still dull in its single mindedness.”

Someone once asked Gene Siskel how he judged a movie was worth seeing. “Is this film more interesting than a documentary about the same actors having lunch?” First Man transports us to the sixties and revels in the attention to detail. Chazelle and company make it known the toe curling dangers these brave men and women were facing in their quest to push mankind forward; just sixty years after we had mastered flight.

But when it’s actually about the individual people I half hoped that Gosling would break character. Yes, I’ll say it. Seeing Ryan Gosling ordering a ham on rye with a side of pickles and a small coffee-two creams-no sugar; is preferable to the slice of life scenes in First Man. Still, I can’t in good conscious tell you not to see First Man. The artistry and craftsmanship is too great to not see it as it was meant to be seen: on the big screen. Just know that when First Man switches back to the Armstrong household, that’s a perfect time to use the bathroom. You’re welcome.

 

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First Look at Disney’s Live Action Aladdin is Here

Seher

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Aladdin reaching for the lamp

It’s here! It’s here! We finally after what feels like years of waiting have the first real teaser trailer for Disney’s live-action Aladdin coming next May! (The 24th to be exact.)

The teaser premiered during Thursday Night Football on FOX which was a great choice considering TNF has the best ratings on broadcast TV currently.

Since news broke of this film’s development, I’ve been watching closely. In July as casting news first came, I wrote how the movie was already behind considering the original’s racist and truly questionable choices. People were and are still feuding over whether or not all the cast should be South Asian or Middle Eastern with Mena Massoud’s Aladdin and Naomi Scott’s Jasmine.

September brought more news and a second article on the film. Now it’s exciting to finally see more than one behind the scenes filming photo! Here it is in its one minute and twenty-eight seconds of Disney giving us just enough to want more, glory.

I made a joke earlier to a friend about it needing to be more substantial than just sand. Well, we got the sand, and the cave, and the scary voice, and Aladdin himself!! For approximately 2.5 seconds!! For a teaser trailer, it did exactly that. Teased me and everyone who has been waiting for it all day, but I’m so excited. And the few moments we get to see Jasmine’s palace?!?!?!

The musical cues (Friend Like Me) evoking the original movie leading to a glimpse of Aladdin going to touch the lamp…amazing. I know folks will complain that there isn’t much else in the teaser, which is true. But it’s a teaser y’all and I can’t wait to see more promotional material in the months to come!


Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

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Great Expectations (Chill With the Trailer Overreactions)

Jeremiah

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I don’t mean to harp on an issue but can we all just take a step back? When did seeing one trailer grant us the definite knowledge of a film’s quality? It seems that before we’ve even put money down for a ticket we’ve already decided the film’s place in the cinematic canon. 

I’ll admit I went a little far when I’ve said trailers are lies told by liars who have never seen the movie. Most people who make trailers are not purposefully out to deceive you. Trailers by design, are meant to get you excited, to gin up audience anticipation. That is the extent of what a trailer is. No more or less.

To some degree, there is some inherent value to trailers. It allows us some idea of an approximation of what the film might look like. If the trailer is honest, it will give us a clue to as to what to expect. Personally, when it comes to trailers I remain a hard-bitten cynic. I don’t trust them, not a one. Which is not to say I don’t get excited or squeal with fanboy glee from time to time. But those moments are usually followed by a cold hard reality: it’s a toy commercial, not the movie.

It’s one thing to post or write about a reaction to a trailer. Or, depending on the trailer, trying to suss out little easter eggs and clues hidden in the corner of the frames. But by no means do trailers justify near the amount of oxygen and digital space we spend on discussing them. Though, much like old commercials, old trailers are interesting in a historical context.

I’m not one of those people who think trailers are art. I’ll admit there is an art to making trailers but I won’t go so far as to say they are art themselves. Trailers are commercials for a studio’s product. Somewhere along the way we’ve forgotten that and instead have pledged either our fealty or opposition to a film even before the reviews are out.

When McDonald’s advertises a new sandwich, no one sits down and examines the commercial for clues for what the sandwich might taste like. We understand what McDonald’s is trying to do. They want us to buy their sandwich. Whether or not we do will depend on how hungry we are and how much money we have.

Movies are a mass art. But they are also a product made by companies that desperately want your money. I’m not saying trailers can’t be fun or that I don’t find myself forming an opinion based off one trailer. It’s human nature. But I also don’t go into a movie hoping the movie is going to be the best or the worst movie of the year.

I go in hoping for a good movie. That’s it. I just want the movie to be good. If it leans one way or the other then so be it. But you have to let the movie be what it wants to be and not what you were promised. People who get mad at a movie because a trailer lied to them seem to misunderstand the purpose of an advertisement. It’s not meant to be truthful, it’s meant to get you to give studios your money.

Venom is a movie that I held out very little hope for. I saw the teaser when it first dropped and frankly it took me an embarrassing amount of time to realize it wasn’t just a Funny Or Die skit. Those who listen to my podcast or follow me, know that I spent a large amount of time trash talking Justice League before it came out. Both movies turned out to be wildly enjoyable.

It’s natural to have expectations. But we can’t be a slave to those expectations. A co-worker of mine was talking about the Aquaman trailer. He seemed disappointed. I asked him why. “It looks like it’s just Black Panther underwater.” Nevermind that said co-worker loved Black Panther, but isn’t it odd that based off one trailer he’s already surmised what the movie is about and even its tone. Granted, on the surface, the purpose of the trailer is to tell you those things.

Except, it’s not really. Again, on the surface, a trailer’s job is to tell you the basics. What is the movie is about? What will the tone of the movie be? Who’s in it? Who made it? Yet, in actuality, the purpose of a trailer is none of those things. The purpose, much like Sam Elliot narrating commercials for beef, is to merely let you know what’s for dinner. You don’t get to go around bragging about how much you know about a movie nobody has even seen yet and get to call yourself credible.

“But Jeremiah,” you may ask, “how do I know if a movie is good? How do I know what’s playing? Aren’t trailers necessary?” Well, you could, if I may be so bold, read your local critic. Sites like Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB have coming soon lists.

As to are trailers necessary? Not to court controversy, but no, they’re not. Do you know what I do when I go to the movies during the trailers? I take a light nap. Few things beat going into a movie cold.

Remember when I said expectations are only natural? Well, a good way to counter those expectations is to not have any. Not to sound too zen but too often we hate movies for being something they were never going to be. The idea of what we were told as opposed to what we watched. It’s not fair to us and it’s unbearably unfair to the movie.

Trailers do a fantastically effective job of brainwashing us. I’ve heard people complain that one trailer gave away too much while another trailer too little. Adam Mckay’s Anchorman had a trailer made up entirely of scenes not in the movie. Their reasoning was simple, “People always complain that the best scenes were in the trailer. So what if we save the best scenes for the movie? What if we film scenes just for the trailer?” Believe it or not, people were furious.

Movies aren’t the truth; trailers even less so. Like poetry, the truth lies in the spaces between the lines. If you come out of a movie angry that the movie didn’t have any scenes from the trailer, perhaps it’s time you explore other ways to spend your time.

Roger Ebert once said, “Trailers are advertisements for the movie the studio wants you to see.” With any movie, you have a myriad of versions that could be edited and released to a mass audience. The trailer is merely the one the studio thinks is the easiest one to sell. The movie itself, oftentimes, gets the short shrift.

It’s hard enough to get a movie made without audiences already passing judgment on something they haven’t seen or read about. Oh, sure countless YouTube channels have people reacting to trailers followed by what they hope the movie does. Yet, I can’t help but notice people don’t watch commercials for the new Maxi-Pads with bated breath.

In case I wasn’t clear, yes, I’m comparing movie trailers to commercials about menstrual pads. They both serve the same purpose, to let you know the product is either out or coming out. In fact, I would argue, there’s more truth in the Maxi-Pad commercial.


Image Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

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