THRILLS BOTH CHEAP AND EXPENSIVE: Cheap Thrills and Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Cheap_Thrills_39320In the 2012 drama, Compliance, Pat Healy played a sociopath pretending to be a police officer who manipulates the workers at a fast food restaurant into do some pretty disgusting things (and I don’t mean to the food, though from what I understand, fast food workers wouldn’t need much manipulation for that in the first place).
In his newest movie, Cheap Thrills, he’s on the opposite side of the fence, playing a poor schnook being manipulated into doing disgusting things by a pair of sociopaths.


And he does a rather impressive job of playing both sides of the coin. He has a kind of everyman face, somewhat rubbery, and a kind of voice quality that I can’t really describe (syrupy maybe) that seems to work well in both situations.


But beyond that, how you feel about Cheap Thrills, the new psychological mind fuck cum movie thriller written by David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga and directed by E.L. Katz, will probably depend on how much you buy into the premise and how much empathy you can raise for the hapless central character Craig, played by Healy.


Craig is somewhat of a 1960’s guy. He’s the sort of husband who won’t tell his wife when their lives are going down the toilet. He’s lost his job, he’s $4,500 in debt and has received an eviction notice, but for whatever reason, he makes the decision to keep it all to himself.


There was a time when such a character would gain immediate sympathy. He would even be seen as heroic, someone trying to live up to what was defined as the male’s responsibility in society—take care of the family and don’t tell the wife anything because she’s only a woman and doesn’t have any business knowing anything and if you do, then that means you’ve been castrated and aren’t really a man (and since she’s a woman, she wouldn’t have the capability of understanding or doing anything about it anyway).


But as suggested above, this sort of character doesn’t automatically gain the same kind of sympathy he once did. He’s sort of seen as an outdated model and that what happens as a result of an attitude like this is his own fault and no one else’s. Such a character is even more than a tad annoying.


Craig’s situation doesn’t even quite make as much sense as I would have liked it to. The implication is that the $4,500 is for rent. Based on the somewhat modest one bedroom apartment in a rather unimpressive complex in an even less impressive section of L.A. that he, his wife and newborn live in, that’s three months in arrears, and since he has a job at the beginning of the movie, it may be unclear not only how he got into it for three months, but how he did it without his wife being none the wiser.


But after getting fired, and being the 1960’s guy he is, Craig goes to a bar to tie one on where he runs into old “friend” Vince (Ethan Embry), someone he hasn’t seen for five years and the two almost immediately attract a couple, Colin and Violet, who are out celebrating Violet’s birthday. And this couple starts manipulating Craig and Vince into doing more and more outrageous stunts, paying them hundreds of dollars if they do it.


The party then moves to Colin and Violet’s house where the wagers and competition becomes stiffer and more and more outrageous (finger sandwiches anyone) and the money exchanging hands becomes much larger until it all ends with a couple of twists.


But don’t worry. As is quickly set up at the beginning, there is no gay for pay action here. No, the authors, through the characters, are very clear to point out that breaking into your neighbor’s house and shitting on their floor; cutting off your pinky Yakuza style; eating your neighbor’s dog (and all that’s just the beginning), well, that’s okay. But man on man action? C’mon, now that’s just perverse.


Again, how you feel about the movie will depend on how much you buy Craig and the premise. For me, the further the story went along, the less and less believable it all became. The more the plot unfolded, the less and less believable it became that Craig wouldn’t just leave. And the greater the attempt by the authors and Craig himself to paint himself as a victim, the less and less of a victim he felt.


There are a few reasons for this. One is that Craig’s existence may not be painted in as quite the dire terms it may have needed to be. $4,500 is not chump change, but in this economy, it also isn’t as impressive an amount as it once was. And again, by not exploring all the possible ways of resolving his situation (like talking it over with his wife), Craig’s actions become less realistic and less believable, with less sympathy connected to it.


In a reverse to this, Colin and Violet’s situation may not also feel quite as believable as it may need to be. The movie plays out as some sort of metaphor of the 99% and the 1%, a parable on what grotesqueries the haves can get the have nots to do just for money.


But Colin and Violet may not seem to be all that much of a haves. They live in a nice little house in the hills with a nice little view of L.A. and a nice bit of change in the safe, but overall they actually seem more middle class comfy rather than Koch brothers decadent. So just where did they get al that money to play games with?


In addition, some of the tension arises from a shared history of Craig and Vince. But this shared history is only vaguely revealed in hazy spurts here and there, spread out over a long evening of fun and games. Because of this, their dysfunctional relationship is never concrete enough for me to believe that it is driving some of what they do.


This is often what happens when a screenplay begins in the middle of act one. We never really get to know these two old friends enough to have that much of an emotional stake in how they act. Their relationship is never that fully defined (though Healy and Embry’s acting does help us feel that some of these gaps are being filled when they really aren’t) so we always feel like we’re playing catch up.


Finally, there is no real build in tension. The whole thing starts on a very high note and pretty much stays there the whole time. The wagers, the bets, get bigger and more outrageous. And it must be said that Chrichirillo and Haaga do a nice little job of coming up with a series of toppers that lead to a couple of neat, though not all that surprising, twists.


But Katz’s direction seems to work against this build. If a wager of $100 is made to be as important as a wager of $150,000, then there really is no rising action and the various scenes then begin to feel redundant and the same.


And in order to make their twists work, the authors have to cheat. For a short period of time, they have to switch the central character from Craig to Vince. It’s a bit clunky, but I empathize with them. I’m not sure how else one could write it without giving the endings away whole hog. But it does mean that Craig’s major character changes have to be made off screen which also waters down the effectiveness a bit, making Craig even less believable than he was at the beginning.


David Koechner acts the role of Colin and plays the character with all the joy and bon vivant he can muster, tearing into the part like a rabid dog. Sarah Paxton plays Violet. That’s about all one can say for her, except that I don’t think it’s her fault. While the authors work hard to bring a fire and vibrancy to the male characters, they don’t seem to have any idea of how to give life to the only significant female role in the story.


I really believe that the story had more potential that the results show, and by the time it’s over, one realizes just how clever in many ways it is. And it’s not that the movie doesn’t show a certain amount of skill on the parts of the writers and director. It does. So even if this movie may not really work the way one would want, there is some indication that their next one might.


Captain-America-the-Winter-Soldier-trailerCaptain America: The Winter Soldier begins with a big set piece in which Cap A jumps from an aircraft to a pirated ship sans parachute (natch; after all, this is Steve Rogers we’re talking about) to start taking out twenty-five bad guys. It’s all in a night’s work for him. But the twenty-five are so obviously outnumbered by our singular hero, all I could was think was, gee, what a bully our hero is, why can’t he pick on someone his own size?


Of course, he eventually does. And it’s a pretty neat villain, The Winter Soldier. His face is covered, like Bane in that Batman movie, but unlike that aforementioned bad guy, Winter Soldier has incredibly expressive eyes and he never speaks, so we never have to worry about understanding what he has to say.   He’s pretty frightening and someone we can cheer on as a worthy opponent to our all American hero.


(As a side note here, the scoundrels in the opening scene all speak in French, and I thought, hmm, interesting choice for a villain de jour and a clever way of sidestepping politically incorrect ethnic stereotypes while possibly making some beau jests at the expense of our Francophile allies—until someone carefully points out that they are actually Algerian, which shot my theory all the hell. I kept waiting for a punch line, but none came.)


Anyway, the mask eventually comes off, of course. And though it results in a pretty neat twist (unlike the others which are so obvious one wants to send the writers Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely and Ed Brubaker back to screenplay 101—I mean, c’mon, are you really trying to tell me you didn’t see those other two big plot turns coming a mile away? Really? I almost want to reveal what they are right here, right now, because, let’s face it, they are so transparent the revelations wouldn’t rise to the level of spoilers…but I digress)…


Yes, though the reveal is a pretty neat twist, when the mask comes off, it also shows one of the problems with the movie that stop it from being as successful as say, Iron Man.  The villain, played by Sebastian Stan, is not particularly impressive when fully sans mask. He’s a fairly bland presence that doesn’t bring anything to the table.


But so is our star, Chris Evans, as Cap A. He brought some edge in his role as The Human Torch, but here, he’s just more, well, good looking—okay, great looking—than anything else. Like Stan, he doesn’t really seem to have much of a personality to bring to the situation. He’s no Robert Downey, Jr., Jeremy Renner, or Mark Ruffalo.   There’s just not a lot of there, there.


No, in this movie it’s really up to the distaff side of the cast to bring any real vibrancy to the roles and these are some of the strongest female characters to be found in this, or any, sort of movie in some time.


Almost every one of them, Cobie Smulders, Emily Van Kamp and oh, that Scarlett Johansson (who is the real stand out here, saying every one of her lines as if it’s a come on, with the comic timing of Mae West combined with the seductive purr of Marilyn Monroe, while dispatching baddies with a slight flick of the wrist), would make Emma Peel proud (Cap A may take out more of the bad guys, but somehow the Black Widow seems to do it easier and with more fun and more wit).


When it comes to the story…well, there’s plenty of action, and I mean good and plenty. And it’s the usual kind of well done sort of stuff we’ve come to expect. These sequences are often a lot of fun (direction is by Anthony and Joe Russo), with the best probably being in a crowded elevator which has a brilliant build up and opening line.


But for me, their breadth and length got in the way at times. Because once the whole thing was over, I didn’t feel like I fully got an idea as to what SHEILD was and how it worked (I stopped reading the comic book at the time when SHEILD was just an intelligence agency without all the superheroes attached) and how Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, always a welcome addition) managed to allow things to get so out of hand in a company he seemed to manage or something (I wasn’t quite sure).   And this was with at least three scenes where all forward momentum came to a full stop for a long expositional sequence.


Certainly the central idea is intriguing. It’s so hard to tell the difference between SHEILD and a fascist organization that HYDRA, a neo-Nazi group, has managed to fully infiltrate it. But like I said, I never really bought Fury’s letting things go as far as they did, not interfering until the whole thing reached a crisis point. He just seemed too intelligent for that.


However, in the end, I should say that though I’ve been ragging more than a bit on the movie, it’s perfectly fine and certainly entertaining enough. I was never bored (well, maybe during those long expository moments and when Evans tried to emote), but, no, I can’t say you’ll be in any way disappointed in seeing it. It delivers, no matter what else it may not do.


But when all is said and done, after all the big fight scenes and action sequences, with all the plot twists and turns, with all the CGI and millions of dollars spent on the technical side of the story, the emotional high point of the movie is a small one—when a nerdy computer specialist who is never given a name, a character so frightened you think he’s going to wet his pants, stands up to the head of Hydra’s security forces and refuses to launch the deadly ships at the risk of getting a bullet blasted through the back of his head.


With Anthony Mackie making a pretty neat super hero flying around in artificial wings (some of the most exhilarating SFX of the movie) and Robert Redford as the owner or CEO or a member of the government who overseas and controls SHEILD (I was never quite sure). Redford has his moments and its fun to finally see him play a part like this. At the same time, his line readings can be a bit enervative.

So tell me what you think.

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