Friday, January 31, 2014

Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas (1998) 1/2 *

Directed by:  Terry Gilliam

Starring:  Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro, Cameron Diaz, Craig Bierko

Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas is a rambling, incoherent mess of a movie about two rambling, incoherent people.     Perhaps its only objective was to show its two main characters in varying states of intoxication, but if you're looking for entertainment, you've come to the wrong place.     Fear and Loathing is a film without structure or insight.     Being asked to follow along with these two characters for two hours is sadistic.     I can't imagine what director Gilliam and his stars thought audiences would gain from the experience.    

Based on a novel by Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing follows the misadventures of Raoul Duke (Depp) and his attorney Dr. Gonzo (Del Toro) as they trash Las Vegas while ingesting enough drugs to kill a small horse.     What plot I could gather was that Duke was sent to Vegas to cover a dirt bike race and he doesn't much like such assignments.     Duke narrates the proceedings, but trying to understand what he's talking about is a fool's errand.     He says nothing that is funny, interesting, or intelligible.      Depp's voice sounds a whole lot like his Tonto voice from 2013's The Lone Ranger, which is not a good thing.    It's distracting.    

Duke and Dr. Gonzo aren't developed into people we should care about and therefore want to follow into their drug-induced hazes.     Watching them is like, well, hanging around drunk or stoned people when you haven't been drinking or using drugs.    If I encountered them, I'd look for the nearest exit and slip away quietly.     Perhaps those who have been in such states can relate to Duke and Dr. Gonzo and laugh.     I pity them.

The situations, setups, and payoffs are all about the same here.     We never get the opportunity to see or understand what drives these men to ingest dangerous quantities of drugs.     There is no humor or point of view like Cheech and Chong would provide.     Say what you will about whether Cheech and Chong movies are successful, their mission is to show drug use in a humorous light.    They are the butts of the joke and understand that.     Fear and Loathing doesn't explore, it simply shows these guys destroying themselves.      Nothing is fun and we don't care what happens.    We only hope that the movie will soon be over.  

What a shame.    There are many talented people who worked on this film whose careers ultimately survived, but it's hard to pinpoint what drew them to it.     There are no people with any depth to care about, no story, no coherence or structure.     Duke parades around wearing hats which conceal his baldness and walks like someone trying to walk erect for the first time.     His relationship with Dr. Gonzo isn't explained.    I'm guessing they are just two guys who find they have one thing in common and do that to excess.     If Hunter S. Thompson consumed drugs like this daily, it's astounding he lived as long as he did.     Perhaps the book explains more and looks at these events with insight, but I'll be damned if I could find any of that here.   

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Sex and the City (2008) * * 1/2

Sex and the City Movie Review

Directed by:  Michael Patrick King

Starring:  Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Cynthia Nixon, Kristin Davis, Chris Noth, Mario Cantone, Willie Garson, Jason Lewis, David Eigenberg, Evan Handler

I enjoyed the HBO series Sex and the City very much, but after viewing both movies a few times, I believe the girls may be better in small doses.     My enthusiasm for both Sex and the City films has waned over the last couple of years.     There was a time when I find these characters frank, fresh, and likable.     They retain some of their likability, but perhaps two-plus hours of Carrie and company is too much of a good thing.

Sex and the City picks up approximately five years after the ending of the series, in which Carrie and the very rich Mr. Big (Noth) reunited in Paris.     They are engaged and all set to move into a very large Park Avenue apartment which has more than enough closet space for all of Carrie's shoes.     But because Mr. Big is Mr. Big, the wedding will not be without dramatic complications.     He gets cold feet and calls off the wedding at the last minute, which forces Carrie to go to on her Mexican honeymoon with her three galpals.    And what a nice honeymoon suite!   Carrie says, "I have to go, I put it all on my credit card."    But she is depressed for obvious reasons, while Charlotte (Davis) gets an attack of the runs by accidentally drinking the water (uh huh) and Miranda (Nixon) is busted on for having too much bush.

Once the Mexican honeymoon is over, Carrie goes back to New York where she hires a nice assistant (Hudson), who is looking for her true love and helps Carrie get organized.     Some of the mysteries of Carrie Bradshaw is how someone who writes a weekly column in a New York magazine can a.) afford to live there even in a rent-controlled apartment and b.) can afford an assistant or c.) can afford such fashionable clothes and a shoe collection to rival Immelda Marcos.    Such things are not explained and are not supposed to be asked in a movie like this.

The other girls have issues of their own.    Samantha (Cattrall) lives in L.A. with her TV-star boyfriend (Lewis), but feels suffocated in the relationship.     Miranda's husband Steve cheated on her and they go through a separation, while Charlotte is happily married but can't get pregnant.     Each of these issues are resolved to everyone's satisfaction, only it takes over two hours to do so instead of a half-hour.    The men take a back seat in each of the subplots, especially Mr. Big. 

The Mr. Big character (real name John Preston) is a puzzle.    Although he's ruggedly handsome, he doesn't bring much to the table.    Most of his conversations with the other characters involve no more than a few sentences.     Does he have anything of interest to say?    In all of the years he has been a part of Sex and the City, I don't recall anything that stands out.    He seems to regard Carrie as cute and lovable like a kitten, but there isn't much heat there.    Maybe Carrie has been spared years worth of silent dinners.

The girls don't really stretch much from their series days.    Samantha is still all about sex, even at 50.   It's amazing she can get any work done.     Charlotte is a naive true believer in love, while Miranda approaches her life and marriage with plenty of logic but little passion.     Like most of the series, the other three girls don't seem to share much time with each other unless Carrie is around.    

My opinion of Sex and the City about six years ago was much more enthusiastic than it is now.    Back then, I felt that seeing these characters was like seeing old friends again.    After a recent viewing, I'm starting to believe that everything should've been left alone when the series called it quits in 2004.     I like certain aspects of this movie, mostly because of my familiarity with the series and some funny moments born out of its natural frankness, but is it entirely necessary?

Monday, January 27, 2014

12 Years A Slave (2013) * * * 1/2

Directed by:  Steve McQueen

Starring:  Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Paul Dano

One day, Solomon Northrup was a free black man making a good living as a violinist in 1841 Saratoga, New York.    He had a wife and two young children, all of which having never known what it is like to be a slave.   After joining a circus for a lucrative two-week tour, Solomon is drugged by the promoters and wakes up in chains in a dark cell.     His protests that he is a free man go unheard by his captors and he is sold to a slaveowner in New Orleans.     His identity is stipped from him and he is now referred to as "Platt", a slave with no past and no future except to serve his masters.

Kidnappings like these were apparently common in the pre-Civil War United States.    With slavery as part of the landscape, even free men like Solomon could have their freedom taken from them.     12 Years A Slave taps into a universal fear of losing freedom at the whims of others.    Why was Solomon kidnapped and forced into slavery?    Mostly because his captors could get away with it.

12 Years A Slave is based on Solomon Northrup's 1853 autobiography depicting his life as a slave after being abducted.     He naively believes that his protests will somehow touch the hearts of those who see him as mere property.     He plays a violin at a slave auction where he is chosen by Ford (Cumberbatch), as if such talents will get him better treatment.     Master Ford, however, is delighted by his new slave's intelligence, especially when he leads a project which will allow Ford's boats to make their way through a murky swamp and reducing Ford's shipping costs.    Ford admires his new slave, but not enough to grant him his freedom.    

Solomon's fortunes change when he gets on the wrong side of a plantation foreman (Dano), who tries to hang him and is spared by Ford.     Because Ford can't protect him from the vengeful Dano, he sells Solomon to Edwin Epps (Fassbender), a cruel master who quotes the bible as justification for his treatment of his property.     Epps reminded me a lot of Commandant Goeth from Schindler's List, who like Epps was insane and treated his prisoners based on his arbitrary whims.    Epps delivers savage whippings instead of killing his slaves, mostly because killing his workers will hurt him financially in the long run.  

Solomon certainly dreams of escape, but knows that his chances of surviving as a runaway in the Deep South are non-existent.      He attempts to keep himself strong mentally and physically, while "not giving in to despair."    He befriends Patsey (Nyong'o) who is Epps' favorite not just because she picks nearly 500 pounds of cotton a day.     Patsey draws the wrath of Epps' jealous wife (Paulson), who clearly sees her husband's attraction to his best worker.

12 Years A Slave feels authentic in its sense of time and place.    It sees Solomon as a man who is trying courageously to deal with a situation no one could ever foresee happening.     Ejiofor is a powerful screen presence, possessing intelligence and invoking sympathy for his plight.     His naivete is his initial weakness, but perhaps his greatest strength.    It allows him to believe that someone will come along one day and free him.     That person comes in the form of Bass (Pitt), an abolitionist traveling the South who, despite danger, promises to deliver Solomon's story to his family and win his freedom.    

The pity is that many other slaves had no such hope and were condemned to live and die as someone else's property.    They gave up and accepted their destiny.    That is what makes 12 Years A Slave so heartbreaking.    It shows Solomon's deliverance from evil, but we see those like Patsey who can only watch as Solomon is taken away to freedom.     12 Years A Slave is sometimes brutal in its depictions, but even more brutal in its understanding of a slave's reality. 

86th Annual Academy Awards Nominations & Predictions

This year is one of the toughest years to call in certain categories in a long time.    Considering that last year I went 4 for 8 in major categories, I probably can't do much worse this year.

Best Actor in a Leading Role

Christian Bale (American Hustle)
Bruce Dern (Nebraska)
Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street)
Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave)
Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)

Prediction:   Matthew McConaughey.   He has won a Golden Globe, Critics' Choice, and SAG award for his performance.    Don't ever discount the Academy's love for an actor who loses a lot of weight and puts himself through hell for a role.    Christian Bale gained a lot of weight for American Hustle, but that won't fly, especially since it's a lot more fun to pack on the pounds than it is to keep it off. 

Best Actress in a Leading Role

Amy Adams (American Hustle)
Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Sandra Bullock (Gravity)
Judi Dench (Philomena)
Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)

Prediction:   Amy Adams.    A tough one, mostly because although Blanchett has won a Golden Globe, Critics' Choice, and SAG Award, but has not faced off with Golden Globe winner Adams (for comedy role) in direct competition yet.   I think American Hustle won't win much overall, but like last year, a David O. Russell directed film will take home Best Actress.    This is Adams' fifth nomination against four other women who have won Oscars previously.     She's not going anywhere and an Oscar win will happen eventually.    Why not now? 

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips)
Bradley Cooper (American Hustle)
Michael Fassbender (12 Years A Slave)
Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street)
Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)

Prediction:   Jared Leto.   Leto's first film role in six years has netted him the Golden Globe, Critics' Choice, and SAG awards for his role as a transgendered AIDS patient.    He has won these awards in direct competition with the other actors here, so I can't see him losing the Oscar now.    Overall, this group is pretty strong.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine)
Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)
Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years A Slave)
Julia Roberts (August: Osage County)
June Squibb (Nebraska)

Prediction:   Lupita Nyong'o.    She is making her film debut and it's a two-horse race between Golden Globe winner Lawrence (who also won a Best Actress Oscar last year) and Nyong'o.    June Squibb is 85 years old, but she won't win because, well, who the hell is June Squibb?     I enjoyed Lawrence's performance more so than Nyong'o's, but I'm making predictions not providing reviews.  

Best Director

David O. Russell (American Hustle)
Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)
Alexander Payne (Nebraska)
Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave)
Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street)

Prediction:   Alfonso Cuaron.    The Gravity director has won the Golden Globe, DGA, and Critics' Choice award, so an Oscar win is all but assured.    However, I'm not entirely sold that Gravity will win Best Picture, so it's a possibility of a split director/picture award this year.    I felt coming into awards season that McQueen would rack up awards, but he has yet to win any major directing honors.

Best Original Screenplay

American Hustle
Blue Jasmine
Dallas Buyers Club

Prediction:  Her.   Spike Jonze has been nominated previously for directing Being John Malkovich.    This futuristic romantic drama won a Golden Globe and Critics' Choice award.    It's original enough to spark a win in this category.

Best Adapted Screenplay

12 Years A Slave
Before Midnight
Captain Phillips
Wolf Of Wall Street

Prediction:   12 Years A Slave.   If the film has any hope of winning Best Picture, it must win this category.    Wolf Of Wall Street may receive backlash because of its alleged "glorification" of its characters.   

Best Picture

12 Years A Slave
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
Wolf of Wall Street

Prediction:   12 Years A Slave.    This is the toughest Best Picture to pick in quite a while, mostly because other awards shows have been all over the map.    This film won Golden Globe-Drama, Critics' Choice, and tied for the Producer's Guild Of America award with Gravity.    American Hustle won Best Ensemble Cast in the SAG Awards and Golden Globe-Comedy.     Gravity will likely win Director, but do voters really think it has enough gravitas (no pun intended) to win the big prize?    12 Years A Slave deals with history and race relations and has plenty of gravitas.     In a squeaker, I like 12 Years A Slave, but I'm by no means completely confident.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Bowfinger (1999) * * * *

Directed by:  Frank Oz

Starring:  Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Heather Graham, Christine Baranski, Robert Downey, Jr, Jamie Kennedy

Z-movie film producer Bob Bowfinger (Martin) is a desperate man.    He's the type of guy who charges naive, hopeful young actors $25.00 to audition for one of his movies.    His accountant has written a screenplay called "Chubby Rain", about aliens that invade earth via raindrops.    Bowfinger tells his staff of followers that he has important meetings with important people and promises the movie will be made.    They believe him and why not?    Without him, they would have no place in show business at all, so they cling to gullible hope.

Bowfinger manages to procure a table in a restaurant next to studio bigwig Jerry Renfro (Downey) and, with a disconnected car phone, loudly pretends to have a conversation with Hollywood-types over "the new Kit Ramsey movie".    Downey is intrigued, even though he clearly sees the dangling wire from the phone, and agrees to finance the movie if Kit Ramsey will star in it.     Getting Ramsey (Murphy) to star is a far more difficult task.    The paranoid and super-rich Ramsey throws Bowfinger out of his car, but Bowfinger can't return to his hopeful crew and tell them he didn't close the deal, so...

In an ingenious, tenuous plan, Bowfinger decides to make the movie with Kit Ramsey as his star, even though Ramsey will have no idea he's in a movie.     "Tom Cruise didn't know he was in that vampire picture until two years later," he rationalizes to Dave (Kennedy), who becomes his cameraman and co-conspirator.     He tells his actors and crew that Ramsey prefers not to mingle with his co-stars and prefers one take for realism.    They buy it and Bowfinger ventures out to make "Chubby Rain", featuring a Midwest-born blonde fresh off the bus named Daisy (Graham), who sleeps with whichever person will be able to get her a bigger role in the movie.

It is helpful to Bowfinger's cause that Ramsey is terrified of aliens and consults a local cult named MindHead (led by Terence Stamp), to "keep it together".     When Ramsey is approached on the street by actors screaming about an alien invasion, Ramsey is truly terrified.     During the proceedings, Bowfinger hires a body double named Jif (also played by Murphy), who lists being a frequent Blockbuster renter as "movie experience" and has braces.    Jif is asked to do things like run across an expressway full of speeding cars and is assured by Bowfinger, "Don't worry, these are all stunt drivers."

I've explained plenty of the plot, but also what makes Bowfinger incredibly funny are its jabs at Hollywood and its wicked satire.    It pokes fun at Hollywood, Scientology, filmmaking, and of course its own goofy, but lovable characters.     This is Eddie Murphy's best film work.    He creates two completely separate, yet equally hilarious characters.     They are so different, we sometimes forget it's Eddie Murphy playing both parts.     Steve Martin (who wrote the script also) is part desperation, part ego, part schemer, and isn't a thousand miles removed from big studio chiefs.    He knows a lot, which means he knows what he can get away with.     His keeping Chubby Rain afloat is a high-wire act that could come crashing down at any second.  

Bowfinger keeps the right note the entire movie.     As a satire, it works better than The Player or other films skewering Hollywood because it isn't mean.     It knows, sees, and finds things funny.    We wind up finding them funny too.     I wouldn't dream of telling you how Bowfinger ends, but it's interesting to see Kit Ramsey's reaction when he's watching his "performance" on screen.    He's slyly amused, as if he admires Bob Bowfinger's devious ways as much as we do. 

The Deer Hunter (1978) * * *

Directed by:  Michael Cimino

Starring:  Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken, John Savage, George Dzundza, John Cazale

The Deer Hunter overcomes a shaky first half and works much better in the second half, which is actually a lot better than what I thought on my initial viewing some years back.     Some of my original issues with the film remain intact (it easily could've been a half-hour shorter if Cimino didn't decide to show us practically the entire wedding reception), but I found quiet power in other scenes.    Most of these scenes involved DeNiro, who gives one of the best performances of his career here.    He goes to Vietnam gung-ho about serving his country, almost obnoxiously so.    After being captured by the Viet Cong, he is forced to play Russian roulette along with his fellow prisoners and lifelong friends Nick (Walken) and Steve (Savage).   

All three are damaged either physically or mentally by the horrors of the war.    Steve loses his legs, Nick stays in Vietnam and takes up Russian roulette professionally, certainly with the realization that he won't live long.     DeNiro's Mike returns home and retreats into awkward silence.     He can not properly verbalize his emotions and his attempted affair with Nick's fiancee Linda (Streep) proceeds awkwardly, mostly because Vietnam has left him emotionally barren.     Also bothering him is his promise he made to Nick to never leave him in Vietnam, which was made on the night of the wedding reception and done so as a form of drunken idealism.   

Unlike DeNiro's Travis Bickle, Mike is not a repressed loony or a ticking time bomb.     He is quiet and finds comfort in solitude, maybe because the people he left behind couldn't possibly understand the horrors he survived.    Will he ever find a way to move on and rebuild himself?    The final scenes hint at the possibilities for him and for others like him.  

Originally, I felt that the relationship between the friends wasn't very strong, but I realized that their friendships are so long and familiar that they act towards and love each other like fighting brothers.   There may be arguments, but they love each other in the end.     This is likely what forces Mike to take action and go back to Vietnam to return his friend, who managed to stay alive.     Is Mike doing this for himself, Nick, or Linda?  Or a combination of the three?   What he's likely looking for is closure to wounds left gaping by his experience in the war.  

The Deer Hunter is far from perfect, but it played a lot better for me the second time than the first.    The wounds our nation suffered from the war had only just begun to heal back in 1978 and The Deer Hunter reflects that more than anything else.   

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Freedomland (2006) * *

Directed by:  Joe Roth

Starring:  Samuel L. Jackson, Julianne Moore, Edie Falco, William Forsythe, Ron Eldard, Anthony Mackie

Freedomland is a tense thriller for the first hour and then unravels with a ridiculous payoff in the second half.    What went wrong?    I think back to Marge Gunderson in Fargo who tells her deputy, "I don't agree with you 100% on your police work there, Lou."    That line could apply to a lot of why Freedomland ultimately fails.

Samuel L. Jackson's character deserves some sort of medal for remaining calm and sane despite having to endure more plot swerves than a character should have to endure.    He plays a detective named Lorenzo who is assigned a carjacking case after a woman named Brenda (Moore) enters the hospital ER with severely cut hands.     She claims she was cutting through a bad neighborhood when she was carjacked by a black man.     After Lorenzo's interrogation, she reveals her four-year-old son was asleep in the back seat, which now makes the case a kidnapping as well.

Local police decide to quarantine the projects near where the carjacking took place in hopes that the residents will give up the carjacker.    This leads to mounting tensions as residents are not permitted to leave their homes.     They sense a double standard, especially when it is pointed out that black kids have been killed in the projects before but never received this type of police attention.     With a violent showdown looming between projects residents and the police, Lorenzo is under pressure to find the carjacker and the young boy. 

So far, Freedomland works well, but then it flies off the rails.     Because Brenda generally acts like a deranged lunatic, we know there is more to the story than she is telling.     A group of local mothers, led by Edie Falco, offer their assistance to find the missing boy, despite Falco's suspicions that Brenda knows how their search will end.      Once this piece of the puzzle is solved, what happens in the projects defies credulity.     Considering the information the police discover about the crime, why do they continue to lock down the neighborhood?    Because the police act so carelessly, we can only groan when the inevitable riot happens.     Cue Marge Gunderson.

Jackson hits all of the right authentic notes as the caring Lorenzo, who has the patience of a saint when dealing with the hysterical Brenda.     Their one-on-one confession scene consists mostly of Brenda's long, meandering tale which surprisingly didn't have Lorenzo zoning out.    Lorenzo seems to exhibit more compassion to Brenda than any cop likely would given the circumstances.     And what's with Brenda's angry brother (Eldard), who is also a cop and acts so angry and bitter that surely he's hiding something....or is he?    His character is ultimately unnecessary, as is Falco's, although Falco has a convincing heart-to-heart with Brenda in a crucial scene.

Freedomland ends rather unconvincingly and things unravel just as they should start revving up.    Too many characters behave in too many unconvincing ways to allow Freedomland to grow into the strong thriller it could've been.   

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Her (2013) * *

Directed by:  Spike Jonze

Starring:  Joaquin Phoenix, Rooney Mara, Amy Adams, Olivia Wilde, Chris Pratt, (voice of ) Scarlett Johansson

I went into Her with a fully open mind awaiting touching discoveries that could be made when a lonely man falls in love with a voice on a computer.     I suspended my disbelief as much as humanly possible, but soon the fact became inescapable:   The movie is about a guy who falls in love with a voice on a computer.     Sure, she's voiced by Scarlett Johansen, but considering the guy's living, breathing alternatives are Rooney Mara, Amy Adams, or Olivia Wilde, I simply couldn't buy it.

I understand completely that the computer (or Operating System or OS and self-named Samantha) represents the best of all worlds for Theodore (Phoenix).    She knows all of the right things to say and can hold her own in a conversation with Theodore, but since she has no body, no flaws, and isn't real, he can idealize the OS (or Samantha) as the perfect woman.    She, of course, isn't and sex becomes a logistical problem which she hopes to overcome by introducing another woman into the relationship who acts as a sexual surrogate.     Things like this get very confusing.

Essentially, having a relationship with Samantha is like having a relationship with a high-tech phone-sex operator.    Nonetheless, Theodore finds fulfillment in having long nightly conversations with her and taking his OS to a remote cabin in the snowy woods.      None of Theodore's friends seems to think this is odd behavior, especially his boss (Pratt) who invites Samantha and Theodore on a double date.     But because Theodore is so smitten with Samantha, could he ever really function with a woman in the flesh?    His blind date with a sexy friend of a friend (Wilde) goes awry after starting off great.    Does he even see his friend Amy (Adams) as a possible lifemate even though it becomes obvious that she would be a good fit for him?   Does he still have feelings for his soon-to-be ex-wife Katherine (Mara), who knows plenty about Theodore's intimacy issues?

I admired the performances, especially Phoenix', who disappears into the lonely soul that is Theodore.     He's a shy, quiet, nice man who loves, but perhaps doesn't handle it well when things get messy...and human.     Amy Adams has wide-eyed love which is written all over her face.    She is a natural beauty and we just want to hug her.     The same could be said for all of the female leads, or even Samantha, who does sometimes drone on and on.

As ambitious as Her is, it ultimately doesn't work.    We become too aware that Theodore is having existential conversations with his computer and soon enough the thing he bought the OS for in the first place becomes neglected.   (Primarly organization).     Her takes place in a futuristic Los Angeles where emails and other computer activity can be conducted via verbal directions.     What's odd about this future Los Angeles is that only about 600 people live there.     The city looks intact, so it appears no nuclear war or alien invasion happened recently, but why is the city so desolate?   Is that Spike Jonze's way of coming in under budget because he doesn't need to pay extras?   

And consider for one moment the penthouse with a gorgeous view overlooking the city where Theodore lives.     His job is working as a clerk for a company that sends computerized handwritten love letters.    He dictates the prose, it is handwritten on a card, and then emailed.     He sounds like a glorified, high-tech greeting card writer, yet he makes enough to pay the rent in that spacious, gorgeous apartment he lives in?

And I thought a man falling in love with his computer would be the most absurd thing about Her.   

2 Guns (2013) * *

Directed by:  Baltasar Kormakur

Starring:  Denzel Washington, Mark Wahlberg, Bill Paxton, Edward James Olmos, Paula Patton, Fred Ward, James Marsden

Watching Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg make movies like 2 Guns is like watching a classical pianist play Chopsticks.    We know he can do it, but it's pointless and well beneath his skill level.     It's a tribute to Washington and Wahlberg that they don't mail it in here and try their best to breathe life into 2 Guns, but we're dealing with a tired cop-buddy movie no matter what way it's sliced.

Without giving away too much of the plot, (and there is an abundance of one here) Washington and Wahlberg play two criminals setting up a bank robbery as 2 Guns opens.     Things are Not As They Seem, of course, and again without giving away too much of the plot, the two men find themselves reluctantly teaming together to outwit a Mexican drug lord, the CIA, and the US Navy.     There is a lot of strain on them, but judging by the way they deliver one-liners in the midst of explosions and gunfire, they seem to be having a pretty good time.    

Cop/buddy movies aren't made for their realism, but after 30-some years of such movies, the idea of guys taking time and energy to wisecrack each other under a hail of gunfire is played out.    It has become a tired cliche.   Instead of laughing along with them, we begin to wonder how they can be so calm with all of the fighting going on.    

Because 2 Guns is made practically on autopilot, watching it on autopilot should be expected.     Most of the standards of such movies are present:    The guys walking away from an explosion without any fear of shrapnel, flying parts, or being hit by flames, the guys captured and held in precarious positions (but still find enough time to argue), the killer who has the hero at gunpoint but, instead of pulling the trigger, taunts the hero allowing him to escape, and guys with bullet wounds and injuries that walk away from the scene without any pain or fear of bleeding to death.

Washington and Wahlberg, as well as many of the supporting cast, are capable of doing much better.    They can do this stuff in their sleep, but having seen Washington's powerful performance in Flight and Wahlberg's strong work in The Fighter, isn't it time for these two for forego films like 2 Guns and keep doing more challenging things?     Then again, I'm sure they pay well and you can never have too much financial security. 

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Jobs (2013) * *

Directed by:  Joshua Michael Stern

Starring:  Ashton Kutcher, Josh Gad, Matthew Modine, JK Simmons, Dermot Mulroney, Ron Eldard

Jobs seems to end just as it about to really get started.     It is a rags-to-riches biopic of the late founder of Apple Computers who created game changing technology such as Mac, IPod, IPhone, IPad, and ITunes.      The film focuses primarily on the founding of the computer empire in 1974 up to 1996, when the ousted Jobs returned to become struggling Apple's CEO.      There is also a brief prologue from 2001 with Steve Jobs (Kutcher), tall and hunched over, introducing the IPod to enthusiastic approval from his staff.  

Steve Jobs began Apple in his adoptive parents' garage along with Steve "Woz" Wozniak (Gad), who builds most of what Jobs dreams up.     The fledgling Apple Computers (named because of Woz' love for The Beatles) gains needed capital investment from local businessman Mike Markkula (Mulroney) and soon enough, Apple is one of the biggest computer manufacturers around.     Jobs is now rich, but not satisfied.     He wants to create Something Big and devotes all of his energies into creating Mac, a home computer which runs overbudget and misses key deadlines due to Jobs' perfectionism.      How much of a perfectionist is Jobs?    For starters, he fires a programmer who doesn't share his passion for font creation.     He becomes a borderline bully in his quest to create the next big thing.

Part of the issue with Jobs is that it only focuses on what was surely only one aspect of Jobs' personality, and not the pleasant aspect.    Kutcher plays Jobs as written and as the filmmakers wanted him to:  Angry, sullen, intense and then angrier, more sullen, and more intense.     He lets off steam by speeding down empty highways at night screaming at the top of his lungs.     Certainly the real Jobs was able to develop rapport with others, but he's depicted here as an angry loner.     This is illustrated during key struggles with his Board Of Directors, who unanimously vote for his ouster.    You can't blame them.     Who wants a malcontent like Jobs hanging around?

Jobs doesn't really develop a point of view on its subject.    Does it want us to appreciate him as a visionary despite his personality flaws?    It's difficult to sympathize with him because he's just too obtuse for his own good.    We see little of the people skills that Jobs must've certainly possessed in order to create his empire.     What we do see is a guy whom people couldn't have been too thrilled to work for.    The film also leaves us feeling that there was more story to be told.     Did Jobs learn to be a better man?    What went into the creation of the technology that has defined this century so far?    How did he handle his battle with cancer before his death in 2011?     Unless there is a Jobs 2, it is likely we won't know.    


Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Cape Fear (1991) * * *

Directed by:  Martin Scorsese

Starring:  Robert DeNiro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, Juliette Lewis, Robert Mitchum, Joe Don Baker

Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear is a remake of the 1962 film of the same name with some notable plot changes.    The original was a more simple tale of good vs. evil as Mitchum's Max Cady tracks Gregory Peck's Sam Bowden because Bowden put him in jail as prosecutor.     Scorsese muddies the water by turning Bowden into Cady's defense attorney, whom Cady wants to destroy because Bowden buried crucial evidence that would've likely kept him out of prison.    Cady is a slimy rapist, but Bowden is also guilty because he violated his ethics by failing to provide Cady with an adequate defense.     While Cady is indeed evil and nasty, we can still understand his beef with Bowden, who is also depicted as a philanderer who has made life miserable for his wife and daughter.     Who to root for?    Is there anyone to root for?    Or do we all live in a world where good and evil are seen through blurred lenses?

Robert DeNiro plays Cady as an iron-pumping, tattooed redneck who oozes sleaze.    His body is littered with tattoos of bibilical passages and sayings such as "Vengeance Is Mine".     "I don't know whether to look at him or read him," one character quips.    He is also a cunning criminal who harrasses Bowden and his family by staying on just this side of the law, making it harder for any charges against him to stick.     Frustrated by the police's inability to put Cady away, Bowden hires a private eye (Baker) who doesn't mind hiring goons to rough Cady up.    Cady survives the beating and continues in his quest to destroy Bowden, almost Terminator-like in his will.     It's more than likely that such a beating would put Cady in the hospital for months, but Cape Fear isn't built for realism.   

Scorsese is more interested in portraying the blurred lines of ethics and morality.    Cady feels entirely justified in his mission because he served 14 years in prison when evidence could've freed him.    Bowden buried the evidence after a bout with his conscience over his client's guilt, so can we entirely blame him?    And what of Bowden wife Leigh (Lange) and daughter Danielle (Lewis), who both become unwilling pawns in the battle between Cady and Bowden?    Are they somewhat swayed by Cady simply because he is tormenting the man who has cause them both so much grief?     Danielle's encounter with Cady at a local high school becomes more of a case of Danielle's excitement over Cady's perverse attention to her.   

Cape Fear is at its heart a thriller and it comes to a conclusion aboard a houseboat during a hurricane.    It is here where DeNiro's Cady becomes the would-be killer who appears to be dead but keeps coming back, a la Michael Myers.     Scorsese seems to get his inspiration here from slasher films and it ends as satisfactorily as it could considering the setup.    But Cape Fear doesn't quite measure up to Scorsese's great films, mostly because it is a tweaked remake instead of an original work where Scorsese can truly reflect on his favorite themes of religion, guilt, and violence.   But it's still good enough and works better than many thrillers. 


Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Wolverine (2013) *

Directed by:  James Mangold

Starring:  Hugh Jackman, Tao Okamoto, Svetlana Khodchenkova

Logan/Wolverine seems to go through all of the trials and tribulations that most superheroes put themselves through.    Wolverine fights as much with his guilt and inner demons as he does bad guys.     There is no joy in being him and thus there is no joy in the movie starring him.     The Wolverine is a slog through a silly plot.     It's sad to see the very talented Hugh Jackman trudge his way through this dreck.     No wonder he never, ever smiles.     You wouldn't either if you had to deal with his problems.

The film opens in 1945 on the very day Nagasaki is decimated by the atomic bomb.    Logan is a prisoner of war (I think) imprisoned in a deep well.    After the POW camp is liberated, Logan saves the life of a prison guard by shielding him from the blast.    The guard then repays him by tracking him down years later from his deathbed to participate in the silliness that follows.     If Logan knew then what he knows now, he would've let the guy vaporize.    Then again, how could he (with blades that can extend from his knuckles at will and the ability to heal himself quickly) have not escaped from the camp whenever he felt like it?

Maybe he's doing penance for killing his lover (Famke Janssen in a cameo role), whose job is to show up in his dreams and beg him to come join her on the other side.    There is likely a backstory there that requires catching up on previous X-Men movies, which I won't do anytime soon.   But boy is she a nag.    Anyhow, Logan starts off in present day Canada or Alaska (I think), or someplace where there is snow and giant bears roam the forests.     His is tracked down by a mysterious Japanese woman who has power to see the future and is the granddaughter of the guard whose life he saved.    The old man runs the "most powerful company in Asia" and enlists Logan's help in exchange for the possibility of....mortality.     Yes, Logan/Wolverine is immortal and it seems to weigh on him, although once he is stabbed and shot and the wounds don't heal, he seems to realize that being immortal has its advantages.

Also in the mix is a sexy villain named Viper (Khodchenkova), who is immune to poison and can deliver a few deadly doses herself.    There are other shadowy people about looking to kill Logan and the old man's granddaughter who is the heiress to his fortune.      A robot reminiscent of Johnny Socko's Giant Robot (for those who watched the reruns on TV in the late 70's) also appears and is such a big, hulking, awkward looking thing that you have to wonder why someone spent so much time working on it.    What exactly is its function?    The mind boggles.

Wolverine is an underwhelming, uncharismatic superhero.     Jackman has played the role in four X-Men movies and two spinoffs (plus one more X-Men sequel at least), but what exactly attracts him to the role?     It's possible that he gets a big payday while exerting very little energy, which is a double whammy for him.    The role, however, is very limiting.    He says little and whatever he does say is either monosyllabic or just above a grunt.    Sometimes Jackman expends just enough energy to be audible.

It appears we will see more of The Wolverine in future movies, but unless Jackman is allowed to sing and dance, I highly doubt those movies will be much more entertaining than this one.  


The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013) * * * 1/2

Directed by:  Martin Scorsese

Starring:  Leonardo DiCaprio, Margot Robbie, Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Jean Dujardin, Rob Reiner

"I made $49 million last year, which really pissed me off because it means I made just under a million a week."   Those words come from Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio), a brokerage firm founder who flourished in the 1990's only to be undone by an FBI investigation and his refusal to cooperate in it.    What led to such poor judgment was the ludicrous amount of drugs Jordan either ingested, snorted, or smoked daily simply to function.     The Wolf of Wall Street is a story of what happens when an unquenchable need for power and money collide with insatiable drug use.    Jordan Belfort's trouble is he was unable to keep up with neither.

We follow Belfort's story from his beginnings as a Wall Street broker in the late 1980s.    He is mentored by Mark Hanna (McConaughey), a senior broker who tells him how to make money in the stock market and how to stay sane in such a world by partaking in drugs and alcohol.    "This is not a job that anyone can do straight," he advises Jordan.    Then comes the 1987 stock market crash which forces the now unemployed Jordan to take a job at a lowly Long Island storefront stock brokerage firm trading in penny stocks.    He wows his fellow brokers by landing big orders and even bigger commissions.    Soon, Jordan forms his own stock brokerage firm with a group of goofy, but loyal locals including Donnie Azoff (Hill), who quits his job at a diner after one meeting with Jordan and becomes his devoted right-hand man.

The firm, named Stratton-Oakmont in order to sound more prestigious, grows by leaps and bounds thanks to Jordan's sales wizardry and his ability to motivate his employees with sales meetings which could easily be mistaken for Nazi political rallies minus the racist content.     Jordan prospers even more when an unfavorable magazine piece on him is published calling him "The Wolf Of Wall Street".    Instead of ruining Jordan's firm, it creates a wealth of hungry and amoral job applicants willing to fly through a wall for their emperor.    The article's depiction of Jordan's dubious sales tactics catches the eye of FBI agent Denham (Chandler) and the SEC, which sets off an investigation.       

Jordan's drug use and lifestyle spiral out of control.    His scheme to hide money in a Swiss bank  falls apart spectacularly.    One night he overdoses on time-release Quaaludes which take effect all at once and render him unable to walk, or even crawl.     The physical humor in this scene is something you likely have never seen before.     When cornered by the FBI, Jordan becomes even more bold by refusing to honor his agreement to be an informant.    He has to know this will all end badly, but ego, drugs, and money have clouded his thinking. 

Scorsese tells Jordan's story with manic energy and style, almost like it is on a drug binge itself.    The performances follow suit.   In order to evade the inevitable drain drugs put on them, the people in Jordan's circle simply take more drugs.   Jordan proudly narrates the story.    He doesn't allow himself introspection or slowdown.     He lost touch with his humanity long ago, which is detailed in a funny scene where he and his cohorts are planning how to use midgets as human darts in an office party.    His first wife leaves him because of his partying and cheating.    His second wife, a beautiful model (Robbie) who elicits reactions from guys such as, "I'd let her give me AIDS," soon enough grows weary of Jordan as well, mostly because he is an absentee father and cheats on her with hookers almost daily.

It becomes apparent that no amount of money, power, or sex will curb Jordan's insatiable hungers.    Jordan's never-ending quest for more lands him in jail and costs him money and his family.    I would say it costs him his soul, but how much soul does even have to sell in the first place?

Dicaprio allows us to be a witness to the depravity that is Jordan Belfort.    We don't like him, but we sure are interested in him, much like many of the other characters in the film.    Ever since Titanic, Dicaprio chose to take risks with tricky, challenging roles.     Instead of coasting on playing pretty boys, he stretched his talents to transform into a wonderful actor.    His work with Scorsese has only enhanced his skills.   He is at-home and confident and in The Wolf Of Wall Street, he never takes his foot off the accelerator, which could be said for the movie itself.     Does Jordan learn anything or take away any life lessons from all of this?  Probably not.     What would you expect from a guy who extolls the virtues of greed in a way that would shame Gordon Gekko?