Friday, February 28, 2014

Runner Runner (2013) * * 1/2

Runner Runner Movie Review

Directed by:  Brad Furman

Starring:  Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck, Gemma Arterton

The plot:  A Princeton student, Richie Furst (Timberlake), going for his Masters degree loses his savings on a rigged internet poker website, causing him to travel to Costa Rica and confront the site's filthy rich owner Ivan Block (Affleck), who in turn offers Richie a job and the spoils that go along with it.   Richie unwittingly finds himself involved in a racketeering scam with the FBI hot on his trail.

Runner Runner is an adequate thriller that does things by the numbers fairly well, but never truly extends into greatness.    Perhaps it doesn't want to.    It never crackles with tension the way a strong thriller should, but there are enough entertaining moments to get your money's worth at Redbox.

After his star-making turn in The Social Network, Justin Timberlake has shown repeatedly that he has the stuff to be a good actor.    He is at-ease and has a strong screen presence.    He carries enough weight to be a hero who finds himself in very,very deep with Costa Rican mobsters, corrupt police, and his own boss-who doesn't mind breaking laws and bones to get his way.    Affleck is at first smooth and charismatic, but later is revealed to be a not-so-nice guy.    Most guys who run gambling websites and are hiding out in Costa Rica to avoid the feds usually aren't very nice.    It's a shame more isn't done with his character.    In his opening scene, he reflects on his homesickness and his desire to be free enough to watch a Steelers game at Heinz Field, but this depth isn't explored again.    He becomes the slick, rich villain with a cold heart.    I would've liked to have seen the apparent inner conflict played out.

Brad Furman, who directed the superior The Lincoln Lawyer, moves the action along as well as can be expected, but after a while I felt I was watching a remake of The Firm, with the smooth youngster trying to come out ahead when confronted by an evil employer and an FBI agent who wants to bust Block, but doesn't really care about what happens to his star witness.    Same premise, but not quite as smoothly executed.   

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Wag The Dog (1997) * * *

Directed by:  Barry Levinson

Starring:  Dustin Hoffman, Robert DeNiro, Anne Heche, Woody Harrelson, Craig T. Nelson, Denis Leary, Willie Nelson

I wonder what a PR specialist like Conrad Brean does when he is not bailing his clients out of seemingly insurmountable trouble.     11 days before Election Day, Conrad (DeNiro) is brought in by the White House to do some serious damage control.     The President, days before his hopeful reelection, is accused of groping a teenage girl in the Oval Office.     The stories of the scandal flood TV news stations all over the country and things are looking bad.    How does the President spin his way out of this mess?   By starting a war, of course.    According to Conrad, the 1983 invasion of miniscule Grenada was done in hopes of distracting people from a U.S.-led Beirut bombing that went horribly wrong.     It did.     Conrad believes nothing makes people forget quicker than a good, old-fashioned war. 

Who do we go to war with?   Conrad settles on Albania.    Why Albania?   Because no one knows much about it and no one cares about it.    Some people may remember that John and Jim Belushi are of Albanian descent, but that's the extent of their knowledge of the Eastern European nation.    Conrad believes many people wouldn't even realize it's in Europe and he's probably right.    All he needs to do is invent a war and make it last long enough so people forget about the teenage girl.     Conrad is cynical enough about people to make such a thing work, otherwise he's in the wrong line of work.

Conrad enlists the help of a Hollywood producer named Stanley Motss (Hoffman), who lives in a large Hollywood home, but yearns for some work which will make people forget his recent flops.    The trouble is, Motss can't take credit for the invented war despite his overwhelming desire to do so.     Motss believes producers make movies happen, but don't get any credit.     "You know there are no Academy Awards for producing," he tells Conrad.     Best Picture Oscars are awarded to producers, but for guys with egos like Motss' that is of little consolation.     "All people could talk about on my last picture were the costumes.    The costumes got more coverage than me."

Motss, on a soundstage, is able to create a fictitious terrorist bombing in Albania with an American actress posing as an Albanian refugee holding a small cat running around the ruins.     (The cat is digitally superimposed over a bag of Doritos the actress is holding).     This footage sparks enough public outrage to go to war with Albania.     No one asks questions.     The media is swept up in patriotic fervor and practically does most of Conrad's job for him.      When the Albanian war peters out after about two days, Motss and Conrad develop a scheme in which a U.S. soldier is trapped behind enemy lines and people throw their old sneakers around telephone lines all over the country to show support.    Think that sounds ridiculous?   You probably don't remember ribbons tied to oak trees in the early 80's.  

Conrad, Motss, and company encounter what seems to be one insurmountable challenge after another keeping their lie afloat.    But through ingenuity and desperation, they keep a lot of balls juggled.    Barry Levinson, who co-wrote the script, is playing Wag The Dog for satire and like a lot of satire it stays just ahead of the facts.    Like Dr. Strangelove or even Bulworth (released about a year later), Levinson's comedy throws a lot at the wall and some of it sticks.     Hoffman (Oscar-nominated for his role) creates an ego-driven Hollywood producer who would trade all of his past successes and riches for some sort of recognition for this; his masterpiece.    Motss is always reassuring, even in the face of catastrophe, "When we filmed The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse, three of the Horsemen died two weeks before the end of principal photography.    This is nothing."   

Motss is a tanned, slick producer, while Conrad is disheveled, unkempt, and has clothes that look slept in.    Joining them is Winifred Ames (Heche), who is the textbook defintion of harried, and no wonder.     "Wag The Dog" has entered the lexicon.    It refers to wars or police actions that seem to pop up in the middle of political scandal.     Some people look a little closer at wars and wonder why they are being fought.     Others simply get swept up in patriotism and hope that we kick Iraq's ass, even though they have no real idea why we would want to do so. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Rainmaker (1997) * * * 1/2

Directed by:  Francis Ford Coppola

Starring:  Matt Damon, Danny DeVito, Jon Voight, Mary Kay Place, Danny Glover, Virginia Madsen, Mickey Rourke, Claire Danes

It has been said that there are more law students in America now than there are working lawyers.    That seems to be the case for Rudy Baylor (Damon), who graduated near the top of his class at tiny Memphis State and can only find work with a slick ambulance chaser named Bruiser Stone.    Rudy's daily duties include camping out at the local hospital looking to sign up clients, one of which is a battered wife with whom he falls in love.     Meanwhile, the feds are closing in on Stone for his dubious business practices, forcing Rudy to open his own office. 

But these are mere subplots.    The main focus of Rudy's energy is with a case in which a poor woman named Dot Black (Place) sues a large, wealthy insurance company that denied her son, Donnie Ray, medical care even though he is dying from leukemia.     She bought an insurance policy from a door-to-door salesman, but the company's standard practice is to deny many, many more claims than it pays out on.     One of those claims is for her son, who is now dying because the insurance company refused to pay for his treatment.

Courtroom dramas are inherently suspenseful and The Rainmaker's is no exception.    What makes it better than most is its eye for human detail.     Rudy is a smart, resourceful attorney who feels stuck in a morass of slime.    He begins to understand why people tell lawyer jokes.    He knows he has to play the game in order to win the case, but he's not thrilled with it or some of its players, especially lead defense attorney Leo Drummond (Voight).     Drummond is a smooth-talking charmer who can't wait to try his case against the rookie Rudy.    He figures with his client's limitless resources that he should be able to overpower the novice, but Rudy has a strong case and with help from his paralegal Deck Shifflett (DeVito), he is able to come up with damaging evidence.

Deck Shifflet is a ball of energy who flunked the bar exam six times, which doesn't seem to faze him.    He wheels and deals and knows all of the angles that Rudy misses.     It's a natural role for DeVito, who despite his diminutive size tends to overpower other actors with his energy.     Deck's rules for his clients include, "Try to tell the truth."    When the son eventually dies from his illness, the first words out of Deck's mouth are, "It's now a wrongful death case.   Gazillions."  

Director Coppola also focuses on other events, such as Rudy falling for a battered wife named Kelly (Danes) whose husband continues to abuse her.     Rudy signs her up as a client, but soon becomes entangled in the domestic disputes and even is an accomplice of sorts when Kelly beats her husband to death with a baseball bat.     Rudy also helps out the kindly old lady he rents a room from when her estranged children wish to get their hands on her money.     These are satisfying scenes, but they thankfully don't distract from the main event.

The movie, released in 1997, seems even more timely today because of Obamacare and the controversy of health insurance.      The son, Donnie Ray Black, died because his health insurance company wouldn't pay for necessary treatments which would've saved his life.    It's amusing to hear Drummond in his closing arguments attempt to convince the jury that a large award for the plaintiff would lead to "Universal, government controlled health coverage."    After what the insurance company did to Donnie Ray Black, does that sound like a bad thing?

Friday, February 7, 2014

Bulworth (1998) * * *

Directed by: Warren Beatty

Starring:  Warren Beatty, Halle Berry, Oliver Platt, Jack Warden, Sean Astin, Laurie Metcalf, Christine Baranski, Don Cheadle

Senator Jay Bulworth sits in his office watching loops of his re-election campaign commercials, each starting with, "We are on the verge of a new millenium in America".   He hasn't slept or eaten in days.    He is sickened to his soul and fed up with politics, so much so that he secretly hires a hitman to whack him during his visit to California so his daughter can receive a large life insurance payout.
Feeling free for the first time in years, he insults his constituents and supporters at various fundraisers and begins telling his truth, which is not always good for a re-election campaign.

His campaign manager (Platt), stodgingly wants to keep Bulworth on a tight schedule and an even tighter leash, but this turns out to be a fool's errand.     Once he tastes freedom and a young black woman named Nina (Berry) catches his eye, he can't be restrained.    Bulworth follows Nina to an all-night hip-hop club, where he takes to rapping and smoking weed while dirty dancing with Nina.    His advisors are horrified, but what can they do?

Bulworth, directed and co-written by Beatty, is a risky comedy that doesn't always work, but you admire the effort Beatty displays in pushing the envelope.    If you've ever wanted to see Warren Beatty dressed like a hip-hop star and rapping his speeches to gobsmacked onlookers, this is your movie.     There is also the business of Bulworth putting the hit out on himself, which he attempts to call off once he falls for Nina, but getting a hit called off even on yourself is apparently a tough thing to do.    Nina herself is mysterious and deceptively intelligent, played by Berry as a sexy woman who may not be showing us all of her cards.

Beatty as a star and director has made a career out of taking chances with his material.     Heaven Can Wait was a superior romantic comedy, while Reds, Dick Tracy, and Bulworth show Beatty's love for challenges.     Like Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Johnny Depp, and Leonardo DiCaprio, Beatty isn't content on falling back on his good looks.    He likes to stretch himself.     It's little wonder he has been nominated for 14 Oscars for acting, directing, and screenwriting over his long career.  

Bulworth isn't quite as successful as Reds or Dick Tracy because it sometimes seems all over the map.     It's a biting political satire that tells harsh truths, but at times it's a study of race relations and a study in poor vs. rich.     Some of this works, some of this doesn't.     Plus, there is also the subplot in which Bulworth is trying to evade hitmen.      Beatty may have tried to cram too much into his movie, but it isn't boring.     I would've love to have eavesdropped on the pitch meeting for Bulworth.   

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Coming Home (1978) * * *

Directed by:  Hal Ashby

Starring:  Jon Voight, Jane Fonda, Penelope Milford, Robert Carradine, Bruce Dern

Coming Home was one of two 1978 films to deal with the negative effects the Vietnam War had on those who fought it.    The other was The Deer Hunter, which won Best Picture that year.     Coming Home works strongly for the most part, but trips up somewhat at the end because it doesn't quite know what it wants to say about Bruce Dern's character.     What happens to him, like his character, is left ambiguous.     

The film opens in 1968.     Sally Hyde (Fonda) sees her husband Bob (Dern), a career Marine, off to another tour of duty in Vietnam.     She is loyal and dutiful, which pleases Bob because he is someone who doesn't appear to like being questioned or second-guessed.     However, during Bob's absence, the lonely Sally volunteers at the local VA hospital.      She wants to give back to those who served and live with some sort of purpose.     This is not something Bob would agree with.     "I don't want you to work!" he protests when she later visits him in Hong Kong.   

There she meets Luke Martin (Voight), an angry Veitnam Marine paralyzed from the waist down due to shrapnel in his back.     At first he is bitter and acts out, but soon begins to focus his energies more positively and with purpose.     He sees too many Americans returning from war wounded physically and, in the case of his friend Bill (Carradine), mentally.     He falls for Sally, who he vaguely knew in high school, and upon release is determined to take some sort of stand against the war that crippled him.   

After Bill's suicide in the VA hospital, Luke chains himself to the local Marine Recruiting Office gates so no one could enter or exit.     He gets TV coverage before his arrest, where he explains his reasons for his actions and his anger towards the war.     Sally bails him out and falls for him, mostly because she would not dream of committing such an overt act of defiance.     He has the passion that she has repressed over years of being a wife of a Marine.

Luke's acts, however, cause him to be surveilled by Army Intelligence, which causes the affair to be exposed to Bob when he returns home with a wounded leg.    How Bob got the wounded leg is something that causes him shame as a proud Marine.     Distant and emotionally stunted even before the wound, the injury forces Bob to go over the edge mentally.    

Up until Bob's return home, Coming Home is a powerful character study of Luke and Sally, who learn to be different people than when the war started.     They are compassionate people who care for others.    Both are also realistic, knowing full well that their affair will be over when Bob returns.     Neither wants to hurt Bob.     These are good people caught up in a bad time.     But what exactly are Bob's feelings toward the affair?    When he first meets with Luke, he doesn't confront him about the affair, but about the fact that he's under surveillance.     Bob's further explanations of his feelings don't illuminate much either.     What exactly is angering him?    The film skirts around this for some unknown reason.     Regardless, Dern's performance is still effective as almost the antithesis of Luke.   Voight and Fonda won Oscars for their performances and they were well-deserved.     It's especially moving to hear Voight's argument to high schoolers as to why they shouldn't go to Vietnam.     It has more to do with the pain in his heart than any physical pain he suffered.