The Spectacular Now, 2 Guns, and The Canyons

Really good, almost good, and not completely worthless.

The Spectacular Now is a coming-of-age teen romance that’s so near-perfectly pitched, it transcends its genre. Based on Tim Tharp’s young-adult novel and scripted by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber -- who also wrote the excellent (500) Days of Summer -- the movie presents youthful confusion in all of its desperate hopes and true terrors, and will likely ring bells of recognition in viewers of any age. The cast is ideal right down to the smallest parts, and the two leads, Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, underplaying with impressive assurance, give knockout performances.

Teller (of Project X and the recent Footloose remake) is Sutter Kelly, a high-school senior whose glib charm masks a secret yearning -- to reconnect with the father who disappeared from his life years earlier. Sutter feels no need to move on to college: he’s content in his Georgia hometown, where he has a comfortable after-school job in a clothing store and maintains his hearty façade with frequent nips from a pocket-flask of whiskey he carries around at all times. He’s a guy who just wants to live in the moment, and the moment, right now, is pretty good.

Sutter also has a girlfriend, a popular blonde named Cassidy (Brie Larson). Cassidy loves Sutter and all, but as the movie begins, she has reluctantly decided to cut him loose. She is moving on to college, and as she tells her aimless boyfriend, “I don’t want a moment. I want a future.”

Early one morning, after a night of drinking, Sutter awakes on a suburban lawn with no idea where he is. He has just been discovered, flat on his back, by Aimee Finicky (Woodley), a girl in Sutter’s class who’s so mousy and unmemorable that he can barely place her. Aimee isn’t the sort of high-school goddess to whom Sutter would normally be attracted, but she’s…interesting. She agrees to tutor him in geometry, a subject that Sutter is currently failing, and she introduces him to the manga comics she loves. She’s never had a boyfriend, and she doesn’t figure Sutter would want to be her first, but he’s drawn to her: she may be no great beauty, but as they continue hanging out together, he slowly realizes that, in a special way, she actually is beautiful.

The plot conflicts are nicely interwoven. As Sutter’s search for his absent dad (Kyle Chandler) nears fruition, we begin to really wish it wouldn’t. And when Aimee gets accepted by a college in Pennsylvania, and asks Sutter to come with her, he’s forced to confront his deepest fear – moving out of the moment and into real life.

The movie is rich in specific character details. In its one brief sex scene, Aimee’s first-time insecurity (“Should we take our shirts off?”) and tentative surrender to the union she desires are depicted with a breathtaking delicacy:  anybody who’s ever been here will be transported right back.

Teller and Woodley -- who was so good as George Clooney’s conflicted daughter in The Descendants -- are stars. They disappear into their characters and they bring us all the way along with them. It’ll be interesting to see them together again in next year’s Divergent. But whatever happens with that film (it’s being positioned as a franchise-launch), they’re already pretty spectacular right now.   

2 Guns

At this very late date, the thought of sitting through a wise-cracking buddy-cop movie is unlikely to set anyone’s pulse pounding. 2 Guns is based on a graphic novel by Steven Grant, and the Icelandic director, Baltasar Kormákur (Contraband), brings to it a mad enthusiasm for bullets and bombs and chattering aerial gunships -- the action never stops, even when you so wish it would, even for a moment. The picture is blithely generic, but not…how to put it…entirely unentertaining. 

Which is to say it’s a raging mess that’s redeemed by the presence of Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg, playing two drug outlaws who are each unaware that the other is an undercover federal agent. Imagine the complications -- and, oh Lord, the confusion. Washington’s Bobby Beans, with his gold-grill smile under a slouchy fedora, is with the DEA; Wahlberg’s Stig, a sharpshooter with an unblinking eye for the ladies, is -- oddly, I thought -- with Naval Intelligence. Their target is a brutal Mexican cartel boss named -- for reasons utterly mysterious -- Papi Greco (Edward James Olmos). Papi has $3-million in ill-gotten cash stashed in a small Texas bank. After an introductory scene involving some really good doughnuts (a recurring motif), Bobby and Stig burst into the bank, head straight for the safe-deposit boxes -- and find more than $40-million awaiting them. Whose money is this? The boys have no idea, but they haul it off anyway -- which is as bad a move as you might imagine.

The script, by TV veteran Blake Masters, provides Washington and Wahlberg with an unending line of snappy banter, and their virtuoso delivery of it is, in fact, very funny. Also on hand is Paula Patton as an improbably hot DEA operative -- although I think we can set her aside, since whenever she’s not slinking around in her underwear, that’s what the movie does. More pertinent to the action are James Marsden as a shady intel guy, Fred Ward as an iron-willed military officer, and, best of all, Bill Paxton as a cornpone terminator with a caterpillar mustache. None of these characters is exactly what they seem to be, and in trying to determine who’s really who, Bobby and Stig come perilously close to being blown up, mowed down or, in one odd scene, being ripped apart by the horns of a bull.

Along with its many shamelessly colorful Mexicans and flirty women, the picture also finds time for one egregious scene that nearly brings the whole enterprise to a halt. It’s set at Papi’s Mexican headquarters, where some of his hulking thugs have set arranged a line of chickens, buried them up to their feathery necks in the ground, and are using them for target practice. Watching these luckless birds getting their heads blown off -- in close-up -- is something I’ll not soon forget, as much as I really, really want to. And the fact that the guy wielding the gun is also chewing on a grilled chicken leg in no way qualifies as the edgy irony it was stupidly intended to be.

The movie is surprisingly enjoyable for a while -- Washington and Wahlberg are famously likeable performers, and they have a jaunty chemistry. But the plot is twisty beyond our ability to keep caring about it, and the endless action finally collapses into mindless uproar. Well before the conclusion heaves into view, the movie has lost its way -- it’s racing around like a chicken with its head blown off. 

The Canyons

The Canyons isn’t the worst movie I’ve seen this year. It’s not even the worst movie I’ve seen this summer. It has a pronounced lean-and-hungry look (it was shot in three weeks on a budget of $200,000, much of it Kickstarted), and the story -- a slice of Tinseltown noir cranked out by Bret Easton Ellis -- is almost laughably lurid. But the picture marks a striking debut by porn star James Deen, who’s convincingly depraved as a nasty trust-fund brat; and it’s laced with real-life psychodrama of a sort rarely seen in any kind of film. It’s balky and muddled, but it holds your attention almost in spite of itself.

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  • Nando||

    No review of The Butler?

  • KL||

    "The Butler" will be released on August 16th....

  • ||

    But the centerpiece sex scene...isn’t entirely gratuitous.

    I've tried a variation of that line many times.

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  • mr simple||

    Teller and Woodley -- who was so good as George Clooney’s conflicted daughter in The Descendants -- are stars

    I suppose it's possible. I've seen a couple episodes of The Secret Life of the American Teenager, in which Woodley stars, and was struck by how terrible she, and everyone else in the show, were. I know kids in general are usually terrible actors and maybe it was just the writing and/or directing on that show, but I will be very surprised if she's now not just a good actor but one of star quality.

  • R C Dean||

    The boys have no idea, but they haul it off anyway

    Dead giveaway that they are civil forfeiture veterans. Should have tipped them each off that the other was a fed of some kind.

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