Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Sixth Sense (1999) * * * 1/2

Directed by:  M. Night Shyamalan

Starring:  Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette, Olivia Williams, Donnie Wahlberg

The Sixth Sense tells the story of an 11-year old boy named Cole (Osment), who is haunted by visions of ghosts.     He is terrified of them, yet they will not stop appearing to him.     What do they want?     Child psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Willis) tries to help him find out, but he has issues of his own, including a wife who appears to have grown cold and distant toward him.     Malcolm does not know why she acts as if he is not even there.    

I will write this review to avoid spoilers in the off chance that you may be the one person who does not know the film's big revelation.      I would not want to spoil it for you.     The Sixth Sense is not so much about that anyway.     It is about how Cole and Malcolm help each other cope with their respective problems.     There are no exorcisms or tidy conclusions.     They learn to live with their fates.     The movie is not made to provide cheap scares, although it does sprinkle some in.    It is about how Cole can reconcile the fact that ghosts, for whatever reasons, seek to communicate with him.     Through this, Malcolm can help himself and understand his true nature.

Because the movie stars Bruce Willis, I expected the film to steer towards a conclusion in which he pulls out weapons and becomes an honorary Ghostbuster.     Thank goodness he does not.    He is as confused, helpless, and perplexed as the rest of us would be in this situation.       As the film opens, he is shot in his home by a troubled youth he once treated.     Months later, appearing to be recovered physically, but not emotionally, he begins working Cole's case.     He knows Cole is an outcast at school and has no one but his hard working mother Lynn (Collette) to love him.    He sees an intelligent boy trying his hardest to fit in, but how could he ever truly fit in?

Cole tries his hardest to hide from the ghosts and hide the fact that he sees them from his mother and Malcolm.     Soon, he trusts Malcolm enough to reveal his secret in the famed "I see dead people" scene.     After processing this secret, Malcolm suggests to Cole that he should listen to the ghosts to see what they want.     How can he help them?    Is Cole a conduit to help them find peace and move on to the afterlife?      Cole is soon confronted with a ghost of a young girl who is vomiting and instead of running away, he chooses to listen and help.     The truth about how she died is soon made clear, with Cole's help.     For the first time, Cole sees the light at the end of the tunnel or at least a way to work through his visions.  

The big revelation at the end is what many people remember the most about The Sixth Sense, but to me the best scene is the penultimate scene in which Cole finally shares his secret with his mother.     He says, "Grandmom says hi,".    Lynn thinks he is being cruel, but Cole tearfully proves that his story is not bunk by telling a story that only Lynn and his deceased grandmother would know.     It is a truly remarkable scene in which these two people finally see inside the other and begin to bring healing to their distant relationship.     I do wish Shyamalan could have written a better line for Cole than, "What you thinking, mama?" however.     He does it twice in the film and it is awkward both times.

When I think child psychologist, I do not think immediately of Bruce Willis.     I can not tell if he was a good or a bad one, but it is refreshing to see him put aside his action hero persona to play a person who does not have all the answers for Cole or himself.     Osment was nominated for an Oscar for his performance and it is the anchor for the film.     He allows his fear to shut himself off from the rest of the world, but soon convincingly learns how to help himself and Malcolm indirectly.     Toni Collette was also nominated for an Oscar and she has a few pointed, powerful scenes as well.     

Why Shyamalan was able to surprise and challenge us with a story is his ability to play with our perceptions.    We think we know where it is heading and we are happy to see we are wrong.   If there are two people sitting in a room alone, we naturally assume they each know the other is there.     We assume they probably were speaking.    If a character is present in a room full of people, we naturally assume everyone knows it.   Shyamalan does not toy with us, but uses these assumptions to further his story.    The end is not a cheat.    It was there all along.      If only we saw it.  

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Life of David Gale (2003) * 1/2

Directed by:  Alan Parker

Starring:  Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet, Laura Linney, Gabriel Mann, Matt Craven, Rhona Mitra, Leon Rippy

The Life of David Gale throws all sense to the winds in the final thirty minutes or so.     There is suspension of disbelief...and then there is this movie.      I will tread lightly so as not to spoil anything for those who have not gotten around to seeing this film in the last thirteen years.     But be prepared for some of the dumbest developments you may see in many a moon.     They unravel any goodwill built up in the first ninety minutes.     A lot was made of the liberal view of capital punishment when the film was released, but regardless of what side of the argument you represent, you will likely agree the direction the film takes is inexplicable. 

The David Gale of the film's title is played by Kevin Spacey.    He is a death row inmate days away from execution who tells his story to a national magazine reporter named Bitsey Bloom (Winslet).     The irony here is that Gale is a famed anti-capital punishment activist who now finds himself facing execution for the rape and murder of fellow activist Constance Harraway (Linney).     He claims to be innocent and framed.    Bloom believes him and attempts to unearth evidence to stop the execution.     Ok so far.     The flashbacks to what brought Gale to this point harbor a certain power as we see the once respected philosophy professor/activist's life fall apart at the seams.     He is in a loveless marriage, drinks too much, and one night has sex with a former student and is accused falsely of rape.   It is sad to see.   The murder comes later.

Spacey brings a world-weariness to the film which we may not have seen in some of his previous performances.     He excels at playing the smartest guy in the room who doesn't shy away from telling you all about how smart he is.     Here he doesn't appear to have the answers and has resigned himself to the fact that his execution will go on as scheduled.     He doesn't expect to be saved, even though he is confident in Bloom's abilities as a journalist.     The performances are solid, as you would expect from Spacey, Winslet, and Linney.     They are at the service of this movie though, which is a pity. 

The victim, Constance, is a vigorous, outspoken opponent of the death penalty who has some secrets herself.     She was found handcuffed with a bag over her head, bruises and welts all over her body, and David's semen in her.     He is convicted of her murder.     And now come the plot twists which will leave you aghast for all of the wrong reasons.  

Bitsey and her intern Zack (Mann) are followed around by a mysterious man in a pickup truck.    He is an ominous presence.    Does he want to stop Bitsey from exposing the truth or does he hold a key piece of evidence which could shift the nature of the entire case?      Yes and no.     After her last interview session with David, she returns to her motel room to find a videotape showing Constance with a bag over her head fighting for her last breath.    Bitsey studies the tape, sees something unusual, and uses this to recreate what may have actually happened. 

How do I say this without giving away a spoiler and make sense at the same time?     We discover the purpose of the videotape and later the nature of what really happened.    The motives, as ridiculous as they seem, become clear at the 11th hour.     Why the parties involved would ever agree to do something like this is farfetched and unrealistic, but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and say they are passionate about what they believe.     With that being said, why would they even risk Bitsey discovering the truth by leaving her teasing videotapes?     If she discovers everything in time, she could blow the whole operation.      This is done so the audience can have a last-minute race against the clock, but it makes zero sense in hindsight.    

It turns out there are two more videotapes to be seen, each divulging a bit more information so by the end the full truth will be known and we shake our heads at its stupidity.    Why, why, why would one of the characters agree to go through with the consequences of this?     It is so extreme, even by extremist standards, that we can not accept it.     The answer is because The Life of David Gale is at its heart a thriller and wants to provide a cheap thrill at the end without ever really thinking about how silly it is.    The audience will be so taken by the swerve that the filmmakers believe it won't be questioned.     By the way, how many copies of this videotape are lying around?    And who did the editing on them?   

I have been accused of overthinking and analyzing certain movies too much and that I should just go with the flow and enjoy them.     There are movies in which I can do that with relative ease.     But movies are art and sometimes art needs to be investigated beyond the surface to reveal the motives of those who created it.     You can either accept The Life of David Gale without analysis, or you can come to the conclusion that it is just ludicrous.     

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Out Of Sight (1998) * * *

Directed by:  Steven Soderbergh

Starring:  George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez, Ving Rhames, Albert Brooks, Don Cheadle, Dennis Farina, Michael Keaton, Steve Zahn

Out Of Sight is a pleasant crime drama.     I could not think of any other word for it.    Its attitude towards itself is one of cool detachment.     This makes things light and breezy, but the story itself contains few surprises.     It gets by on the strength of George Clooney's charm and some good supporting players.     But Ocean's Eleven it is not.

Clooney plays Jack Foley, a career bank robber who robs another bank as the story opens.    He does so without even brandishing a weapon.     He politely tells the teller she is to put the money in a bag and if she gets out of line, the man sitting at the manager's desk will begin shooting.     There is a nice payoff to this as Jack is arrested because the getaway car won't start.

Flash forward to two years later, in which Jack escapes from prison and takes a federal marshal hostage who was there to deal with a different prisoner.     She is Karen Sisco (Lopez), who is kept at bay by Foley in the trunk of the getaway car driven by Buddy (Rhames)-a born again Christian who may or may not feel bad about things afterward.      Did I mention Foley is spooning her in the trunk and engaging in polite conversation?    And that Foley and Karen feel instant attraction?     It is likely the quickest case of Stockholm Syndrome you will ever see,

Karen escapes thanks to her ability to charm Jack's other getaway driver at their rendezvous point.    Jack and Buddy go on the lam, with Karen soon on their tail.    The issue for Karen is:  She wants to catch Jack, but is not opposed to sleeping with him also.     They meet up again in a hotel bar.    Jack calls for a "time out" for one night, which Karen agrees to.     Jobs be damned.    They can wait for another day.

In the mix also is Maurice Miller (Cheadle), a former con/pro boxer who spent time in the joint with Jack and agrees to team up with him to rob a multi-millionaire financial swindler Ripley (Brooks), whom also did a stretch with Miller and Jack.    The teaming is anything but solid as each side dreams of taking all the cash for themselves.    The distrust is palpable.    Who can trust whom?

Out Of Sight works well when its characters are in a rhythm with the dialogue by Scott Frank, based on the Elmore Leonard novel.     The actors volley back and forth smoothly and makes more some amusing scenes.      The budding romance between Jack and Karen is less appealing and perfunctory.     Lopez is physically attractive to be certain, but we don't really see inside.     She is just not super convincing as an FBI agent.     It does not seem natural for her to brandish a weapon.    The Jack and Karen doesn't lead to a satisfactory payoff.     Maybe it is a be continued type of thing. 

I can say I enjoyed most of Out Of Sight without loving it.   Soderbergh and Clooney fared better with the Ocean's Eleven series, but Out Of Sight was a decent start to their partnership.   

88th Academy Awards Nominations and Predictions

Here are the nominees and my predictions for who will win Oscar gold on Sunday February 28.

This is a tough year to pick because other than Best Actor, I think many categories are not as clear cut.

Best Picture

*  The Big Short
*  Bridge of Spies
*  Brooklyn
*  Mad Max: Fury Road
*  The Martian
*  The Revenant
*  Room
*  Spotlight

Prediction:    The Revenant.    Here is one out of left field.    The Big Short won the Producer's Guild Award last Saturday and only 6 times out of 24 did the Producer's Guild Winner and Best Picture not match.     However, I don't see The Big Short as coming through here.    The Revenant carries more nominations and gravitas, so I'll go with that with about 70% confidence.    Spotlight was said to be a favorite when awards season started, but did not win a Golden Globe or the Producer's Guild.    I think its chances are slimmer by the day. 

Best Actor in a Leading Role

*  Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
*  Matt Damon, The Martian
*  Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
*  Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
*  Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

Prediction:    Leonardo DiCaprio.   His fifth acting nomination will net him the Oscar.    He had to endure a tough shoot and ugly himself up, two things which can earn an Oscar.     This is as close to a lock as can be.   Redmayne won last year, but it is difficult to win in consecutive years. 

Best Actress in a Leading Role

*  Cate Blanchett, Carol
*  Brie Larson, Room
*  Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
*  Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
*  Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

Prediction:  Brie Larson.    Won Golden Globe for Best Actress-Drama.    Blanchett and Lawrence are recent winners, but buzz has surrounded Larson for a long time prior to awards season.   

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

*  Christian Bale, The Big Short
*  Tom Hardy, The Revenant
*  Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight
*  Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
*  Sylvester Stallone, Creed

Prediction:  Mark Rylance.    Stallone won the Golden Globe and Critics' Choice Award, but not nominated for a Screen Actors' Guild or BAFTA award, two awards in which actors vote for the winner.      Perplexing.     I anticipate Rylance to win the SAG award and then carry momentum to the Oscar.    It would be odd to give Stallone ostensibly a life achievement Oscar for role he has played seven times now.   

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

*  Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
*  Rooney Mara, Carol
*  Rachel McAdams, Spotlight
*  Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
*  Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

Prediction:  The toughest pick, but Kate Winslet.    She has won the Golden Globe in this category and this is her seventh nomination (with one win for 2008's The Reader).    Unless Vikander wins the SAG award this weekend, Winslet's second win will seem more of a foregone conclusion.  

Best Director

*  Adam McKay, The Big Short
*  George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
*  Alejandro G. Inarritu, The Revenant
*  Lenny Abrahamson, Room
*  Tom McCarthy, Spotlight

Prediction:   George Miller.    A veteran director whose film garnered 10 Oscar nominations.    I personally never could have predicted Mad Max: Fury Road as an awards season darling, but here we are.    This will be third time in the last four years in which Best Picture and Best Director will not match up.    Inarritu won for Birdman last year, but again consecutive wins are hard to come by in this category.   

Best Adapted Screenplay

*  The Big Short
*  Brooklyn
*  Carol
*  The Martian
*  Room

Prediction:   The Big Short.    If it has any hope of winning Best Picture, The Big Short must win this category.    It is up for only 5 Oscars so there aren't a lot of wins to be found.    I think this will be the consolation prize.

Best Original Screenplay

*  Bridge of Spies
*  Ex Machina
*  Inside Out
*  Spotlight
*  Straight Outta Compton

Prediction:   Straight Outta Compton.     Before the outrage over the lack of diversity among the Oscar nominees, I would have picked Spotlight.    But since then, Straight Outta Compton is the only film that represents any semblance of diversity and it will be the Writers' branch of the Academy's choice to right this wrong.    

We will see how I do on Oscar night.  

Monday, January 25, 2016

Be Cool (2005) * 1/2

Directed by:  F. Gary Gray

Starring:  John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Christina Milian, Steven Tyler, James Woods, Cedric The Entertainer, Harvey Keitel, Vince Vaughn, Dwayne Johnson, Andre Benjamin

Be Cool is the sequel to Get Shorty (1995) and follows Chili Palmer (Travolta) from the movie business to the music business.     Those looking for the same energy and sly fun in Be Cool that existed in Get Shorty are in for a disappointing time.     Travolta's Palmer in Get Shorty was able to remain unflappable and cool as Hollywood bigwigs and criminals attempted to outmuscle him, but in Be Cool this unflappability is taken to unrealistic extremes.      Palmer has zero reaction to a gun being pointed at his head.      Maybe he thinks it's a water pistol or he has looked at the script in advance and knows the guy pointing it won't pull the trigger.     If he doesn't take it seriously, why should we?      Come to think of it, Chili does not seem to have a reaction to anything.     He could be made an honorary Blues Brother.

Looking like he spent the 10 years between Get Shorty and Be Cool under a tanning lamp 24-7, Palmer starts out having lunch with Tommy (Woods), an executive for a failing record company who is shot dead by a Russian mobster with a bad toupee.    Palmer's car is shot up too, but he doesn't express even the slightest dismay over his friend or car getting shot in front of him.      Life goes on for the ever-cool Palmer, who along with Tommy's widow Edie (Thurman), attempts to save the record company from financial ruin and pay off guys like Sin LaSalle (Cedric The Entertainer) to whom Tommy owed $300,000.      Edie does not seem much moved that her husband was killed either.     They may be crying on the inside types.   

To save the company, Chili befriends an up-and-coming singer stuck in a bad 5-year contract with a sleazeball manager named Nick Carr (Keitel) and his partner Raji (Vaughn), who is most definitely white but speaks, walks, and dresses hip-hop.     This may sound funny in theory, but in practice it is not.     Raji's bodyguard is Elliot (Johnson), a seemingly gay man who would rather be a movie star than a bodyguard and is easily swayed by Chili's attempts at flattery and promises of an audition.     Chili unilaterally terminates the singer's contract and within 48 hours books her as the opening act for Aerosmith.     This prompts a cameo appearance by Steven Tyler as himself.     The singer, Linda Moon (Milian) performs an onstage duet of Aerosmith's Crazy with Tyler and becomes a star quicker than Neil Diamond did in The Jazz Singer.     Who needs American Idol when you have Chili Palmer?    

There are alliances and feuds formed between Chili and Nick, Chili and Sin, Sin and the Russians, Sin and Nick, Raji and Chili, etc. etc.    It is all just boring.     Linda belts out a few numbers just enough to show what all the fuss is about her, but she is more like a human pinball being bounced around between all of the players involved.      Be Cool is a movie crowded with stars, subplots, and plenty of in-jokes that worked better in Get Shorty.     It is busy and noisy, but goes nowhere.     Vaughn, Johnson, and Andre Benjamin as Sin's dopey right hand man try to inject life into things, but they are swimming against the current.      Travolta and Thurman try to rekindle the chemistry from Pulp Fiction, but they can't.     They become lovers (only days after Thurman lost her husband mind you), but I think she and Elliott might be a more convincing couple.    

Other than a few quick reminders and a cameo by Danny DeVito, Get Shorty is mostly forgotten in Be Cool.     Gene Hackman, Delroy Lindo, James Gandolfini, Dennis Farina, and Rene Russo did not return for the sequel.     But even their presences might have been more excessive than welcome in a movie that is already stretched way too thin with nonsense.      And someone ought to tell Chili that cigarettes are expensive.     He has taken on the Andrew Dice Clay method of smoking, in which he lights up, holds the cigarette gingerly, inhales once, and then throws it away.     Cigarettes are an even more expensive habit when you chuck them after one puff.    


Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Get Shorty (1995) * * *

Directed by:  Barry Sonnenfeld
Starring:  John Travolta, Gene Hackman, Danny DeVito, Rene Russo, Delroy Lindo, James Gandolfini, David Paymer, Dennis Farina
Chili Palmer (Travolta) is a Miami loan shark who stumbles into the world of Hollywood moviemaking and finds he's a good fit.     He already has the skill set.     The question is whether Hollywood is ready for him.   Get Shorty is a light comedy that understands Hollywood well enough to create a plausible satire.     We figure such things happen every day in Hollywood.      Get Shorty allows us to be a witness.
Get Shorty begins with Palmer in Miami under the employment of a new boss named Ricky Bones (Farina), who does not want any entries in Chili's book showing an uncollected debt.     The $300,000 debt belongs to a supposedly deceased dry cleaner named Leo (Paymer), who Chili discovers is very much alive after collecting life insurance money on himself.      Leo was supposed to be a plane that he exits at the last minute which then crashes later.     Since his name was on the passenger list, he fraudulently collects the insurance and goes to Las Vegas.
While Palmer is in Vegas to track Leo, a casino head asks him to track down Hollywood movie producer Harry Zimm (Hackman), who has yet to repay at $200,000 gambling debt to the casino.     Chili jumps at the chance, mostly because he is a fan of Zimm's C-grade horror films that likely would have been made by Ed Wood back in the day.

Palmer breaks into Zimm's home in the middle of the night, not to shake him down, but to propose a story to be made into a movie.     It is one not a million miles removed from Chili's own life, and Zimm likes it.     Zimm's girlfriend is actress Karen Flores (Russo), who was used often in Zimm's film as a scream queen.     Her most famous credit is Bride of the Mutant, or something like that.    It turns out she is the former girlfriend of megastar Martin Weir (DeVito), who Chili thinks would be perfect for his movie.     One of the movie's best scenes involves Chili giving Martin lessons on looking menacing.     "Give a look that says, "You're mine,' but you don't feel any sort of way about it,"  Chili instructs and Martin delivers.

I have given you the set up, but there are other players who want to muscle in on Chili's and Harry's movie or simply get the money they feel is owed them.     Travolta projects utter cool and directness in the face of liars, cheats, and weasels he encounters.     He says what he means and means what he says, but doesn't lose his cool.     Chili is an apt name for him.     I liked DeVito expounding his usual undeniable energy as Weir, who seemingly needs motivation before ever uttering a line of dialogue.
There is also interesting byplay between Chili and Bear (Gandolfini), who is hired muscle for local criminal Bo Catlett (Lindo) and a former stuntman.   

Get Shorty has A-list actors clearly having fun with the increasingly preposterous story and dialogue.     There are numerous characters in the mix, but it is easy to follow and doesn't try to outsmart itself.     It is a satirical look at Hollywood and the crime world, which we soon discover have very much in common.    


Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Carol (2015) * * *

Directed by:  Todd Haynes

Starring:  Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler, Jake Lacy

Carol is a drama focusing on a taboo lesbian relationship between well-off housewife Carol (Blanchett) and timid, shy department store clerk Therese (Mara).    The film, directed by Todd Haynes, covered similar ground in 2002's Far From Heaven.    In Far From Heaven, the focus was on its protagonist Cathy's burgeoning relationship with a black man while coming to terms with her gay husband.      The backdrop is the early 1950's, where seemingly perfect suburbia covers up a wide range of secrets, lies, and pain.    The homes are spotless, but the lives of the inhabitants are far from it.     The reason such a relationship was considered taboo were based on puritanical beliefs.     Homosexuality was seen as a behavior that could be "cured" through psychotherapy and willpower.  

Carol has moments of intense power and it captures the look and feel of the period just right, but where it falters is in its core relationship,  in which poor Carol has to carry the emotional load and the conversation.     Therese is an attractive girl, but she is a monosyllabic dolt way out of her league with Carol.     I understand she is shy, but if she can loosen up enough to engage in rumpy-pumpy with Carol, then she can also figure a way to string two sentences together.      Carol's more natural soulmate is Abby (Paulson), her best friend/former lover whose job is to sit on the sidelines and be there for Carol as best she can.    Abby is smart, knowing, and has the unfortunate fate of not being played by Rooney Mara, so she is relegated to driving Carol around and undertaking huge impositions to help her.    

The story, much like Brokeback Mountain, has built-in, satisfying drama.    Carol's relationship with Therese is full of pitfalls, but neither can deny the intensity of their feelings.     When the two first meet, a bored Therese waits at her counter for anything to happen.    Something does.     She sees the blonde, elegant Carol dressed in a fur coat.     Carol sees the lonely Therese and they are instantly attracted.      Their behavior toward each other is businesslike.     Carol wants to buy a toy for her daughter for Christmas, but we sense the attraction beneath the surface.    Carol accidentally leaves her gloves on the counter, Therese mails them to her and the romance begins.  

This is not a romance full of outward displays of affection in the early going.     Each senses attraction from the other, but they are unsure.    They live in a society in which open affection towards the same sex is considered immoral and grounds for Carol's estranged husband to seek full custody of their daughter.      Once Carol hears this awful news from her lawyer, she decides to take a road trip.    She asks Therese to come along and Therese agrees to do so.

Therese's love life is equally disoriented.     She has a boyfriend of sorts that she keeps at arm's length.    He wants them to travel to Paris and marry.    Therese is reluctant to marry Richard (Lacy), but certainly not reluctant to tag along with Carol.     Richard observes correctly that Therese has a crush, but neither fully comes out and admits what is happening.     During such a period, Richard would cruelly try to force Therese into marrying him as if her feelings towards women would ever change.     The men in the film do not understand that homosexuality isn't a learned behavior, but is based on emotion and love.     One can not force someone to be straight any more than one than force someone to be gay.

Therein lies the tragedy of Carol.    These two women know where their happiness lies, but will have to go through hell to achieve it, if they ever do at all.     Carol understands this more than Therese, who may not be as willing to put herself through the pain.     This is understandable given the pressures society imposes.      Blanchett carries the emotional weight in Carol and of course is more than up to it.     She reeks of elegance and sophistication with every flick of the hair or puff of a cigarette, but inside she is full of fear, love, and hope that maybe she and Therese will work out.     The power of the performance lies in things Carol doesn't say more than what she does say.      She is steady outwardly, but trembles inside.

I can't blame Mara for how underwritten her character is.    She is as shy and introverted as Carol is outgoing and extroverted.     We see many shots of their hands.    Carol's fingers are perfectly manicured and polished, while Therese's are not.     Therese is pretty in an understated way, which is consistent.     I just wish writer Phyllis Nagy (based on a Patricia Highsmith novel) gave Therese more personality and more to say.    She and Carol sit quietly in the car in numerous scenes.     Are they smoldering in their attraction or did they run out of things to say on the turnpike?

Despite my objections, Carol is well-made and, unlike numerous dramas covering repression in the same period, ends on a happier note.     This is refreshing.     I read stories of same-sex couples that were together 50 years before marrying.     They had to start someplace, even in a such a difficult and complex time for them. 

Friday, January 15, 2016

Kate & Leopold (2001) * * *


Directed by:  James Mangold

Starring:  Hugh Jackman, Meg Ryan, Liev Schrieber, Natahsa Lyonne, Breckin Meyer, Bradley Whitford

Kate & Leopold is a sweet combination of two genres of which I'm a sucker:  Romantic comedy and time travel fantasy.     In this case, Leopold, the third Duke of Albany (Jackman), follows another time traveler through a portal from 1876 Manhattan to present-day Manhattan.     How does the portal exist?    Do not even try to figure that out.    Your head will explode.    Just go with it. 

Leopold is a rich nobleman fascinated by science and progressive ideas.     When he wakes up in 21st century Manhattan, he is absolutely aghast at the inventions that have come along, while puzzled by the informality in which people lead their lives.     When fed a meal of chicken and tater tots, he asks when the second course will commence and is stunned to discover there won't be one.     His Leopold carries himself with dignity and manners, but everyone else is in too big of a hurry to pause to observe such things.     One of those people is Kate McKay (Ryan), an advertising executive who is the neighbor/ex-girlfriend of the time traveler, named Stuart (Schrieber), that Leopold followed through the portal.    

She thinks Leopold is odd and thinks he dresses like "Sgt. Pepper", but he is charming and handsome.    The scales begin to fall from her eyes when she witnesses him chase down the thief who stole her purse on horseback.      She also sees him as the perfect pitchman for a margarine campaign she is spearheading in hopes of landing a promotion.     Never mind that the stuff, "tastes like saddle soap," per Leopold.    Kate explains in her own world-weary way that ethics must sometimes be put aside in favor of earning a living.   

Also in the mix is Kate's brother Charlie (Meyer), an actor who thinks Leopold is also an actor who is deep, deep into character.     "You are so method," he tells Leopold with utter reverence.      Despite all of the fun everyone is having and the potential romance blossoming between Kate and Leopold, Stuart knows Leopold will have to return to 1876 in order to set the universe right again.

Kate is a challenging love interest for Leopold and this is one of the film's strengths.    She is still hurting from her breakup with Stuart and focusing on a promotion at work.     She is dog-tired and doesn't know if she has another relationship left in her.     Kate is not a mark simply waiting for Leopold to sweep her off her feet.     She provides some pushback for very practical reasons.  

The actors jump into the material with zeal.     They buy it, and therefore so do we.    Romantic comedies and time travel fantasies are indeed fantasies that, if done well, continue to work.    This one does.    If you are the type of person who will point out all of the improbabilities in the time travel subplot, then Kate & Leopold is not for you. 

Friday, January 8, 2016

A Fish Called Wanda (1988) * * * *

Directed by:  Charles Crichton
Starring:  John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, Michael Palin, Maria Aitken, Tom Georgeson, Patricia Hayes
A Fish Called Wanda remains one of the great comedies in film history.    I do not normally subscribe to hyperbole like that, but it is remarkably funny.    Like Bad Santa, it does not mind rolling up its sleeves and getting dirty.     The characters are selfish, sometimes mean, and yet we like watching them try to worm their way in and out of trouble.      I can not think of any other movie which combines the comic elements like A Fish Called Wanda does and never loses its way.      It does not throw things against the wall at random to see what will stick.    There is a well-executed method to all of this madness.   
The plot centers around a jewel heist pulled off by two British guys George and Ken (Georgeson and Palin) and two American cohorts Wanda and Otto (Curtis and Kline), who are lovers but pose as brother and sister.    The Brits hide the jewels in one place, the Americans double cross the Brits by calling in an anonymous tip to the police, and the Americans are then stunned to learn the Brits moved the jewels anyway.    This quartet has never heard of honor among thieves.    
The two sides scheme against each other.    The Brits want to keep the jewels' location secret.    The Americans stoop to whatever means necessary to find out where they are.    How?    Wanda concocts a plan to seduce George's barrister Archie (Cleese) into giving up the jewels' whereabouts.    This inflames Otto's jealousy ("Touch his dick and he's a dead man") and on more than one occasion nearly blows the whole plan out of the water.   One way is by Otto hanging Archie out of a fifth floor window after Archie calls him stupid.   Otto is convinced without any proof of his own intellectual superiority and his superiority to the British.     This leads to numerous comic payoffs in which his stupidity is put on full display, including one in which Wanda tells him, "The central message of Buddhism isn't every man for himself."     Kline's Oscar-winning performance remains one of a kind.     His Otto has no doubt whatsoever about his intellectual prowess despite all evidence to the contrary.     He has a classic argument with Wanda:
Wanda:  " I know sheep that could outwit you.   I've worn dresses that have higher IQs.    But you think you're an intellectual, don't you. ape?"
Otto:  "Apes don't read philosophy."
Wanda:  "Yes, they do.   They just don't understand it."
Otto is her own setup and his own punch line, all in one character.    The same can be said for Cleese, whose Archie is in a loveless marriage and whose libido is suddenly awakened by Wanda simply wearing a low-cut dress for him.     He sets himself up for public embarrassment more than once trying to keep his desires under wraps.     He naively has no idea he is being played, yet Wanda develops a certain affection for him.     This is not to say she would give up the jewels for him.  
The movie contains many delicately balanced scenes which are hilariously mean-spirited.   There are three occasions in which Ken, a stuttering animal lover, accidentally kills a dog belonging to a key witness.    He is heartbroken, but the ultimate payoff to this sequence is an exercise in hilarious inappropriateness.    You'll see what I mean.     A Fish Called Wanda is not a movie in which animals are unharmed.     I count the dead dogs and then the fish eaten by Otto as he attempts to force Ken to tell him where the diamonds are.     Context is everything.     ( "What's this one's name?   I'll think I'll call him lunch." )
A Fish Called Wanda doesn't play nice and has no desire to.    Sometimes a comedy can only work if the cast and crew are fully committed to showing the tawdry, disdainful side of people.     Otto insults the English every chance he gets.    ("They get rigor mortis in the prime of life in this country."). but yet his character remains beloved by American and British audiences alike.     It is this willingness to go all the way that sets A Fish Called Wanda apart from other less successful comedies.  

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Bad Santa (2003) * * * 1/2

Directed by:  Terry Zwigoff
Starring:  Billy Bob Thornton, Lauren Graham, Bernie Mac, John Ritter, Tony Cox, Cloris Leachman, Brett Kelly, Lauren Tom
It is a bit after Christmas, but Bad Santa is hardly a "Christmas" movie.    Those expecting good cheer and joy have come to the wrong movie.     The "bad Santa" of the title is an alcoholic safecracker who, along with his diminutive partner Marcus (Cox), works every holiday season as a department store Santa in order to case the place and rob it.      The duo has done it eight years in a row at different stores around the country, but Marcus is tired of Willie (Thornton) showing up at work drunk, banging women in fitting room stalls, and being just plain unreliable.     Marcus and Willie find themselves in the office of the mall manager (Ritter) more often than not explaining why Willie threw up on one of the kids.     The two criminals also catch the eye of the mall security manager (Mac), who may not be as interested in stopping them as he is by enriching himself via blackmail.
Bad Santa is a funny movie.    It does not mind being vulgar or crass.    Willie is a drunken, selfish lout through and through.     He befriends a young boy (Kelly) who we first see coming off the bus with snot running down his face.     Their friendship is one of mutual convenience.     The boy has a friend (of sorts) and Willie has a place to crash since the boy's father is away on business and is being cared for by a mostly comatose grandmother (Leachman).
Comedy is tricky.    It is a very fine line between good and bad taste.    Sometimes you laugh despite yourself.     Bad Santa does that to me.    When Marcus tells Willie, "You shouldn't be digging in your ass like that," or Willie promises a girl he's having sex with, "You won't be able to shit right for a month," I laughed.     Crude?   Yes.    Rude?   Most definitely.    But, it's all in the delivery.     What else would you expect two lowlifes like Willie and Marcus to say?    Having them recite Shakespeare would seem a bit out of their league.
Willie does not undergo a change of heart, although he kinda likes the kid who relentlessly hurls questions at him.     Bad Santa does not go soft and gooey at the end.     The characters get what it is rightly coming to them, even Willie.     A change of heart would not have been believable anyway.    Thornton fearlessly goes all the way with Willie.    It is rare to see him without a drink, bottle, or smoke in his hand.     You would think he was homeless, which in a way he is.     Cox gets some big laughs trying in vain to keep Willie focused and under control long enough to pull off the heist.     But even he has his limits.     This was also the final feature film of John Ritter, Thornton's co-star in Sling Blade and the TV show Hearts Afire.     He puts up with Willie and Marcus out of fear of a lawsuit for wrongful termination of a "black midget and a middle aged white guy."    
I enjoy comedies that find a way to stretch the boundaries of good taste and create laughs.     Bad Santa enjoys being exactly what it is.     It does not look for phony redemption or paint Willie as a crook with a heart of gold.     Here's a guy who would drink the coal he puts in bad children's stockings if he could. 

Ishtar (1987) 1/2 *

Directed by:  Elaine May

Starring:  Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty, Isabelle Adjani, Carol Kane, Charles Grodin

Yes, the rating is 1/2 of one star or 1/2 *.    I so rarely see a movie with so little redeeming value that it is possible you may not have seen me award such a rating (if award is even a proper term).     The last movie I recall giving such a rating is Kick-Ass (2010), which was an appalling film.    Ishtar is appalling in a different way. 

Ishtar stars Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, two legendary actors, as Lyle and Chuck, two delusional, talentless songwriters and singers who aspire to be Simon and Garfunkel.    They see a Simon & Garfunkel album cover in a storefront window and say, "Our song is definitely better than Bridge Over Troubled Water."    Their stage performances leave audiences in stunned silence, and not the good kind of stunned.     Their agent offers them a paying gig in the fictional North African country of Ishtar, which unbeknownst to them is in the midst of potential civil war. 

If the stage performances reflecting the duo's complete lack of talent were funny, we might have been able to forgive the film for swerving into the civil war business.      They are not funny, they are  embarrassing.      I cringed as Beatty and Hoffman were trotted out in front of the camera to belt out lousy renditions of "That's Amore".      Then, the civil war business, which involved dueling CIA agents and international intrigue, was introduced and all hope and any marginal interest was lost.   

I recall the scathing reviews the film received in 1987.    I could not imagine a film starring Beatty and Hoffman and directed by Elaine May would be so bad.     The critics were right and audiences were right to stay away.    Fortunately, both actors recovered nicely.    Dustin Hoffman won a Best Actor Oscar the following year for Rain Man, while Beatty scored with Dick Tracy and Bugsy.     Their careers were far too established to be ruined by Ishtar.  

I can not imagine how Elaine May pitched this premise to the studios.     I understand she had clout, but when does clout expire?    Probably after Ishtar bombed.    I can not imagine what appealed to Beatty and Hoffman enough to star in it, except perhaps their friendship with May.     Beatty and May co-wrote the much more successful Heaven Can Wait (1978).      I supposed they were too blinded in their loyalty to May to realize they were in a dud film.     Or maybe they realized it after shooting started and by then it was too late to back out.    They march along with the enthusiasm of soldiers on a death march.     Even other talents such as Adjani and Grodin as the dueling CIA agents are adrift in a sea of nonsense.    Ishtar earned its very bad reputation.  

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Trumbo (2015) * * *

Trumbo Movie Review

Directed by:  Jay Roach

Starring:  Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, John Goodman, Louis C.K., Michael Stuhlbarg, Elle Fanning, Alan Tudyk

 Dalton Trumbo was jailed for contempt of Congress for his refusal to "name names", which became a popular term during the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings which occurred from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s.     For as strong a nation as the United States claims to be, it is scared easily.    After winning World War II, the United States and Soviet Union became enemies, resulting in a decades-long Cold War.    Communism was suddenly the next big threat to America, and the committee chair J. Parnell Thomas believed potential subversion was festering in Hollywood.      So he trotted out movie stars, directors, studio executives, etc. to be interrogated under intense scrutiny.    Failure to answer questions or name other known Communist party members resulted in blacklisting.     This fate befell Dalton Trumbo, who was a rich, famous screenwriter who was blacklisted and spent the next decade of his life punching out scripts under assumed names.    He even won two Oscars but naturally could not show up to accept the statuettes.    

What exactly did the hearings solve or fix?    The Communist party was more fearsome in reputation than actuality.    It did not have a large membership, but that didn't stop the committee from flexing its muscle in what were basically publicity stunts disguised as investigations.    The trouble is, many people lost their livelihoods and had their lives altered forever based on fear and ignorance.     America is quite famous for that.    Being a member of the Communist party was not and never has been illegal, yet the committee (later to be run by Senator Joe McCarthy) treated it like it was.   

Trumbo represents a dark time in America.     It shows simply how fear can ruin lives and how some people, like Dalton Trumbo, are willing to sacrifice to stand up to it.     I sometimes complain how movies feel like TV movies and this usually means the film is superficial and lacks quality.    Trumbo has the same feel, but in this case it works.     It is told simply, but not simplistically.      It does not show Trumbo as a blowhard, but a man with deep beliefs who is willing to give up his freedom for them.     History has shown Trumbo and the other many blacklisted writers, directors, actors, and other film industry workers were wronged.     Trumbo himself was awarded his Oscar for Roman Holiday properly one year before his death.     His widow Cleo received Trumbo's Oscar for The Brave One in 2011 shortly before her death.   

Trumbo ingeniously worked while being blacklisted by at first writing scripts for a B-movie studio and then creating a network of pseudonyms and aliases to fix other writers' scripts.    He worked tirelessly, even typing while bathing in the tub.     This eventually presents problems for his understanding family which proves even their patience was not unlimited.       The blacklist was eventually broken thanks to director Otto Preminger and star Kirk Douglas, who had enough muscle and moxie to stand up to Hollywood and openly employ Trumbo.     They knew how to throw their weight around.  

Trumbo is played by Bryan Cranston, who plays him as a brilliant writer who walked the talk when it came to standing up for the First (or even Fifth) Amendment.      Cranston, complete with hoarse voice, never reaches for effect.    He loves the riches Hollywood provided for him, but is willing to sacrifice it all in the name of principle.     It is a courageous decision that many would not make.    Yet, he is never played as a self-righteous bore.     This is important in Trumbo's effectiveness.

Cranston is aided by a top-notch supporting cast, including Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper, the gossip columnist with a lifelong ax to grind with Trumbo and John Goodman as the B-movie studio executive who breaks the rules to keep Trumbo working.      Hopper writes her columns to ostensibly stand up for America, but is she truly doing so?     Was the committee standing up for America when it was sending people to jail and ruin because they had beliefs that were contrary to their own?    I say no.   

My favorite scene in the movie is when Trumbo runs into John Wayne (David James Elliott) at a fundraiser in which Wayne speaks about his hatred for Communists and his love for America.     Trumbo, whom Wayne naturally did not like, asks a simple question, "Where did you serve in World War II?    I was a wartime reporter in Okinawa."     Wayne's credibility is shot right there and Trumbo never even has to raise his voice.  

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

What Planet Are You From? (2000) * 1/2

Directed by:  Mike Nichols 

Starring:  Garry Shandling, Annette Bening, Greg Kinnear, Linda Fiorentino, John Goodman, Judy Greer, Richard Jenkins, Ben Kingsley

What Planet Are You From? is a romantic comedy that never feels right.     The romance isn't romantic, the changes of heart aren't moving, and the film isn't very funny.     Any laughs occur outside of the plot.     With the talent assembled and Mike Nichols directing, much more is expected.    Instead, we are given a comedy any B-movie director could have made.     Heck, maybe Ed Wood would have given this a shot.

Shandling plays Harold Anderson, who is really an alien sent to Earth by a distant planet populated by men with shrinking genitals.    There are no women on the planet, so his mission is to impregnate a woman and bring the baby with him to be studied.     I think the mission is to figure out how to reproduce or something.     It sounds like the lame plot one would see in a porno.    It is an understatement to call this a contrived setup.     I picture the screenwriters (one of whom is Shandling) laboring trying to explain this to the studio execs.  

Harold's spacecraft intercepts an airplane and beams him aboard along with his boss (Kingsley).    Kingsley bails and Harold is suddenly aboard amid the chaos that ensued.     This incident is investigated by FAA agent Roland Jones (Goodman), who becomes convinced correctly that Harold is an alien.     This news is met with little enthusiasm by his superiors and even less by his wife who is convinced he is having an affair.     Couldn't the aliens think of a less conspicuous way to arrive on the planet?   

Since Harold has no real feel for women, he repels most of them with his blunt proposals for sex.    He becomes a bank vice-president with a fake resume and pals around with the lecherous Perry (Kinnear), who doesn't do much work because he is always gawking at, banging, or talking about women.    One woman who likes Harold is recovering alcoholic Susan (Bening).   Her alcoholism has nothing to do with the price of tea in China, but I suppose it was thrown in for background.     Harold and Susan quickly marry, mostly because she says that is the only way she would have sex, and soon enough she is pregnant.      There are emotional and logistical issues that rear their ugly head which are to be expected.    

One gag that is repeated endlessly while generating zero laughs is the whirring sound that occurs when Harold becomes aroused.    His manufactured private parts sound like an engine whirring out of control during arousal.     The women who hear it don't seem very curious about it.    If I were a woman, I would be rather alarmed or at least casually suspicious.     Yet, we see intimate scenes complete with the whirring sound.     This concept is not funny for one second.     It is an insurmountable distraction.     Here is one idea:    Harold's penis could have been constructed way out of proportion in a way that would put Dirk Diggler to shame.     It would have been amusing to have Ben Kingsley question the minion who goofed up.     )"I'm sorry sir, my calculations were slightly off.")    That has to be funnier than the mechanical, noisy genitalia.  

Shandling is not an obvious choice for a romantic lead and for good reason.    He is not a good one.   He looks extremely uncomfortable and flashes his giant white teeth a lot, just like Ross did on the Friends episode where he got this teeth whitened.    He does everything but hide from the camera.     I do not believe anyone has approached Shandling about playing a romantic lead again since this film.    Bening and the rest of the cast dutifully carry on and can make just about any silly thing sound plausible.    No one said being an actor is easy.

The late Mike Nichols has made The Graduate, Biloxi Blues, Carnal Knowledge, and Primary Colors, all of which are proof that he was a great director of different types of material.      What Planet Are You From? is a woeful film to attach your name to.     Fortunately, he made Angels In America for HBO three years later and restored his good name.      This is a film likely omitted from his obituary.    

Burnt (2015) * * *

Burnt Movie Review

Directed by:  John Wells

Starring:  Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Daniel Bruhl, Omar Sy, Alicia Vikander, Uma Thurman, Matthew Rhys, Emma Thompson, Sam Keeley

Burnt tells the story of a master chef looking for redemption.     He was once the head chef at one of the most prestigious restaurants in Paris, but fell victim to drugs, women, alcohol, and his inflated ego.     After leaving Paris, he serves his penance shucking exactly 1,000,000 oysters in New Orleans.    Once he hits his goal, he flies to London to make one last attempt to gain the elusive "third star", which is the equivalent to a 5-star general in chef terms....I think.   

I thought I had Burnt pegged as a predictable redemption drama, but it throws in a few surprises that make it special.    We know that Adam Jones (Cooper) is troubled by the demons mentioned above, but will find a way to pull through at the end.      Adam is not always a likable guy.    His tantrums directed at his staff border Gordon Ramsay's in their intensity.     At first, his quest is simply ego-driven and selfish, but he actually learns a few things along the way.    He learns he can't do it all by himself and to trust his staff to share in his vision.      You would be surprised how moving it can be. 

We learn Adam made plenty of mistakes in Paris and made some enemies.     He became estranged from his mentor, fell out of favor with the owner's son Tony (Bruhl), and was vicious enough to his sous-chef Michel (Sy) to cause him to chase Adam through the streets of Paris.    The resolution of this chase is among the surprises Burnt has to offer.  

Adam is able to convince Tony to reopen the Paris restaurant in London.     We see the food being prepared and everything in the restaurant put in just the right place.     Adam is looking for perfection, which causes distress to his staff which includes an apprentice named David (Keeley) and single mom Helene (Miller), who does not take kindly to Adam's insults and rants, but not enough to rule out being a potential love interest.     Also in the mix is Dr. Rosshilde (Thompson), a therapist Adam must visit as a stipulation of his investors.     She senses he is only halfway dedicated to treatment, which could take a dangerous turn if things go south.     Oh, and there are drug dealers lurking around to whom Adam owes a substantial amount of money.     They are not above causing bodily harm.  

Burnt successfully conveys the pressures of running a high-end restaurant.    The clientele pay top dollar for dishes they can't get anyplace else.     I'm not sure I would want to.    The portions are so small that I wouldn't be shocked if the diners then go someplace afterward to fill up on a burger.      If Burnt was not a good movie, it at least it made me hungry.    But, thanks to the performances by Cooper, Miller, and especially Bruhl (who slyly presents Tony's hidden motives for helping Adam), Burnt is pretty good.     I enjoy movies watching experts do their thing.    Adam is brilliant, but irascible.   Troubled, but with redemption not far out of reach.     You think you know exactly how Burnt will play out.    It basically plays out like you'd expect, but I like the human touches along the way, including a tender scene involving Adam's rival which goes a bit against movie convention.  

Monday, January 4, 2016

Joy (2015) * * *

Joy Movie Review

Directed by:  David O. Russell

Starring:  Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Bradley Cooper, Edgar Ramirez, Virginia Madsen, Diane Ladd, Elisabeth Rohm, Isabella Rossellini

Joy feels more like a dream than a biopic.     It is rare that I openly admire the set designs in a film, but they are unique in Joy.     They add to the atmosphere.     The story of inventor Joy Mangano (Lawrence), who invented the Miracle Mop (which I use today or at least a version of it) and became a fixture on QVC and HSN, is not one that screams to made into a movie.    But David O. Russell found value in it and brought along his strong cast from his previous films to bring it to life.

The cast from Lawrence to Rohm came along from Russell's previous outings Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle.    Edgar Ramirez has not appeared in any previous Russell films, but is a welcome addition.     The film belongs to Lawrence, playing the underachiever with a heart of gold who one day creates the unique design for the "Miracle Mop".   She turns her father's body shop into a manufacturing plant and lands an audience with QVC head Neal Walker (Cooper) to create 50,000 units.     The capital is supplied by her father Rudy's (DeNiro) new wealthy girlfriend (Rossellini), to whom Joy falls further and further into debt even as the mop sales take off.  

Joy herself becomes a celebrity by selling her own products on QVC, which was unheard of but agreed to by Walker, who likes Joy and wants to see the order number rise on a digital readout next to the set.     However, the business world is cruel and Joy finds herself at odds with her family and her manufacturers who are squeezing the profit margin ever tighter.      Lawrence is never less than convincing as she ages twenty years in the film.     She is feisty, resourceful, and compassionate.    Who else would allow her ex-husband of two years to stay in her basement alongside her recently displaced father?     She is a mother of two with a depressed mother of her own who lies in bed watching soap operas all day.      Her ex-husband Tony (Ramirez) is not riding the gravy train, but acts as a caring confidante as Joy's business career booms.    He even has a few contacts of his own which help her land at QVC. 

This is the third film I've seen this December with lots of snow on the ground.    The Revenant and The Hateful Eight are the others.     The snow adds to the mystique of the proceedings.     Joy's house, Rudy's body shop, and the QVC headquarters all appear as islands onto themselves with no civilization around for miles.     Even Los Angeles and Dallas seem quaint and desolate.     Russell didn't spend a lot of money on sets, but yet this creates a hypnotizing, less distracting effect.     Russell's previous two films were more in love with characters and dialogue.    Joy is in love with one character (Joy) and its minimal number of sets and buildings.    

Joy is not as profound or peppered with memorable people as Silver Linings Playbook or American Hustle.     The characters other than Joy (except maybe for Tony) seem to have agendas of their own and keep their emotional distance.    Maybe that was the intent, as we discover later that even Joy's own family sued her for a larger piece of her empire.    In true Joy fashion, though, she still took care of her father, even as his greed got the better of him.  

Concussion (2015) * * *

Concussion Movie Review

Directed by:  Peter Landesman

Starring:  Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Albert Brooks, David Morse, Luke Wilson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw

Concussion begins in 2002 as the life of Hall of Fame Steeler Mike Webster's life is quickly falling apart.    He lives out of his pickup truck, trying desperately for relief from his eroding mental and physical ailments.     He knows something is wrong, but he can not explain it.     He rambles like an unkempt homeless man.     A teammate and former team doctor both try to help Mike, but he soon dies of cardiac arrest. 

Webster's body is assigned to Dr. Bennet Omalu (Smith) at the county coroner's office, who wonders aloud why Webster died at 50 without any apparent physical health issues present.    His patient and exacting method of research flusters his superiors, but it is this method that allows Dr. Omalu to discover a frightening truth.     "Football killed Mike Webster," he tells his superior Dr. Cyril Hecht (Brooks).     Dr. Omalu believes, with sufficient scientific knowledge to back up his findings, that the human body has no mechanism in which to soften the blow when the brain is jarred within the skull.    The brain is a free-floating organ immersed in fluid.    When there is a blow to the head, the brain bounces off the skull violently.    In his words, "repeated physical trauma chokes the brain," because the brain releases proteins which begin to slow brain function.    

Dr. Omalu coins the condition as CTE (I won't attempt to spell out the medical term) and soon other former players are diagnosed with it after committing suicide or suffering an untimely death.     Dr. Omalu naively believes the NFL will be happy to hear about this information so they can protect its players.     He finds the only thing the NFL wants to protect is the bottom line.    "This is a corporation that owns a day of the week.   The day churches used to own,"  Dr. Hecht tells Omalu.    He is not incorrect.  

The more accurate the science, the more the NFL wants to sweep it under the rug.   The NFL conducted previous studies on the long-term effects of concussions and head trauma, but concluded that there were no substantial issues stemming from them.   They were either very, very wrong or chose to value dollars over player health.    However, as the number of former players dying from CTE complications increases, the league is soon forced to do something.    It takes years for the league to even meet with Dr. Omalu in person.  

Will Smith plays the Nigerian-born Omalu with equal parts compassion and passion.    He "speaks" to the bodies of the dead, asking for their help in discovering how they died.    As his terrifying diagnosis becomes more apparent, he almost wishes he didn't know.   "I wish I had never met Mike Webster,"  he tells his wife.    The NFL puts its own not-so-subtle pressure on Omalu to drop the whole thing.    He refuses, which leads to temporary disillusionment with a country he once believed was just below heaven in the universal pecking order.

Concussion works the best when it presents the science of CTE and Dr. Omalu's increasingly frustrated efforts to persuade the NFL to do the right thing.     The NFL would rather possibly spend billions later covering medical costs for former players than actually do something to make the game safer now.     They feel it would dilute their product.     Judging by the money and TV ratings football generates, they were foolhardy in their thinking.      Dr. Omalu's courtship with his future wife (Raw) tends to slow things down.    We learn enough about Omalu by how he conducts himself and how he respects his profession.     The domestic scenes act as a needless detour.

The film's most powerful scenes involve the tragic disintegration of the lives of Webster, Andre Waters, Dave Duerson, and others who are trapped within their own minds by this crippling illness.    They can no longer function properly, but are cursed with the knowledge that something is definitely wrong, but don't know what.     It is beyond sad that they did not live to find out or be treated.  

The Hateful Eight (2015) * *

Directed by:  Quentin Tarantino

Starring:   Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Channing Tatum, Bruce Dern, Demian Bechir, James Parks, Walton Goggins

Tarantino's latest film, The Hateful Eight, was able to hold my interest for a while, but soon I despaired as I realized he was simply trying to push the envelope again.     How much blood, body parts being shot off, racism, and sheer ugliness can we tolerate before we cry uncle?    This stuff is very tiresome and wearying.     I understand from the title that we are not in for a movie involving pleasant people, but where is the payoff to reward us for hanging in there for almost three hours?     This is a film where M. Night Shyamalan should have been flown in to provide a last-minute plot swerve.     I am not against violence in movies per se, but violence for the sake of excessive violence is not my idea of entertainment.   

The Hateful Eight opens in snowbound, freezing, and desolate Wyoming circa 1880.    A stagecoach is on the way to Red Rock, Wyoming.    A man named Marquis Warren (Jackson) stands in front of three dead bodies and stops the stagecoach in hopes of hitching a ride to town.     The stagecoach traveler is "Hangman" John Ruth (Russell), who is handcuffed to a prisoner named Daisy Domergue (Leigh) being taken to Red Rock to stand trial for murder.    Ruth and Warren met previously months before so they at least somewhat trust each other as they make their way to Red Rock.    A fast-approaching blizzard derails their plans and they (along with the new town sheriff they also pick up along the way) are forced to spend at least a night in Minnie's Haberdashery in the middle of nowhere.

The first half-hour contains plenty of dialogue (a Tarantino standard), but sets up what seems to be an interesting premise.     The haberdashery is populated by a dutiful Mexican helper named Bob (Bechir), a former Confederate general (Dern), a British hangman (Roth), and a loner named Joe Gage (Madsen).     Ruth believes someone, or even many, are in cahoots to free Daisy from justice, so he takes precautions to limit risks.     Is he paranoid?    Maybe, but he has a $10,000 bounty he wants to cash in for Daisy and does not want to lose it.    

Alliances are formed and then unformed as Ruth attempts to find out which (if any) of the guests are hiding something.     Warren has the same suspicions, since he and Ruth are familiar with the haberdashery owners who are conspicuously nowhere to be found.     Then, Warren tells the general a tale of how he forced his son to perform fellatio on him before killing him, people get shot, and the ugly business begins.     This includes poisoning of a pot of coffee which causes those who consume it to vomit gallons of blood. 

Any early intrigue quickly dissipates when the unfortunate souls who drink the poisoned coffee puke up blood and shootings begin.    Blood is everywhere, body parts including arms and testicles are shot off, and The Hateful Eight becomes a depressing mess.    My heart sank when I realize Tarantino was once again showcasing violence to the extreme.     Someone isn't just shot in the head, his/her face is blown off.     We see the blood gush and Tarantino lovingly documents it.    The title credit suggests an homage to the bloodier 1960's spaghetti westerns, but even they had their limits.     These films have been copied, borrowed from, parodied, and are now paid homage to by QT.    Can't we leave these films buried in the past where they belong?

Tarantino's dialogue contains excessive N-words and swear words of the 4 and 12-letter variety.    It is a welcome respite when a line or two does not contain these words.     They have lost their dramatic impact.    Did 1870's outlaws speak like 1970's mobsters one would find in a Scorsese film?     I pity Samuel L. Jackson, who must have very thick skin to be able to put up with someone calling him the n-word every minute.     Jackson is a QT veteran and handles things with smarts and ferocity as only he can.     He and Russell are the closest things to heroes in the film, which upon retrospect is sort of sad.   

The person who receives the worst physical abuse is Daisy.    By my count, she is punched in the face at least 20 times, elbowed in the nose, has blood and guts spurted all over her face and hair courtesy of a head being blown off in front of her, and does not even bother to wipe off her face which has become a crimson mask.     In her first onscreen appearance, she already sports a black eye.   Daisy is not the kindest soul.    She is as mean and nasty as the rest, but the abusive treatment of her is excessive.     I feel sorry for her even if I am not supposed to.     There is also juggling with the film's timeline so we see the entire story.     A built-in prequel if you will, but this contains no surprises.     Tarantino may have created a monster with this timeline thingy.    Many directors and writers have done it to death in their films, so Tarantino's method is old hat by now.   

I am beginning to wonder why I am even giving the film two stars.    I think because the opening scenes were strong and set up a premise that never delivered.     The actors are skilled and deserve credit for surviving the onslaught of violence and vicious dialogue.     The scenes flow mostly like this, "Talk, n-word, f-bomb, mf-bomb, someone is shot, repeat. "    Why does Tarantino think we want to be subjected to this endless cycle?    For nearly three hours?      I think QT is a writer/director who has been given passes based on his reputation as a critical darling.    Of the eight he has made, I believe Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill Volume 2, and Inglourious Basterds are very good films.     The rest simply do not live up to the advanced billing.     It is time for him to move on and try different material.     How about a romantic comedy?    Or simply a comedy?    One in which no one dies?    Can Tarantino even stretch himself that far anymore?     I would like to see him try.