Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Gods of Egypt (2016) * *

Gods of Egypt Movie Review

Directed by:  Alex Proyas

Starring:  Gerard Butler, Brenton Thwaites, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Chadwick Boseman, Courtney Eaton, Geoffrey Rush, Rufus Sewell, Bryan Brown

My expectations were not high going into Gods of Egypt.     It does not do much to distinguish itself from other sword and sandal epics, but it has some charm as a CGI B-movie.    Director Alex Proyas has made dark, futuristic films such as The Crow and Dark City, both with striking visuals.     Gods of Egypt is a strange bird indeed.     Nearly every scene looks to be acted in front of a blue screen, yet I think this is a deliberate style choice.     Is Proyas paying homage to sword and sandal epics of the 1950s and 1960s using CGI?     Possibly.     The movie is no better or worse than similar movies released in the last few years.     I expected a lot worse. 

In Gods of Egypt, the rulers of Egypt are in fact gods themselves.     As the film opens, the evil Set (Butler) usurps control of Egypt after killing his brother and removing his nephew's eyes after a hand-to-hand combat battle.      The gods do shape-shift into large, fierce dragon-looking thingies, but prefer to go mano a mano.     I would assume this would keep its human actors onscreen longer.     Horus (Coster-Waldau), the nephew, is cast into exile after Set exhibits a rare bout of mercy.     Set uses the mortals as slaves to build a tall, tall tower in tribute to his father, Ra the Sun God (Rush).     When Set asks his father if the monument was tall enough, Ra replies, "Any taller and it would be in my way."   

A mortal named Bek (Thwaites) meanwhile plots the overthrow of Set after his underling mortally wounds his love Zaya (Eaton).    He needs a god to help him and finds the exiled Horus, but not before eluding a bunch of obstacles to retrieve Horus' missing eyes.     The vengeful Horus agrees to help Bek and promises to somehow restore Zaya to the land of the living.      In Gods of Egypt, the afterworld is a big thing and dead people do not return from it.     However, in movies like this, you know these rules forbidding the resurrection of the dead will be bent, broken, or changed at the whims of the script.   

Bek and Horus form an uneasy alliance because Bek is a mortal, while Horus is a god.     It is amusing when Horus attempts to pull rank on Bek but is rebuffed.     You have to admire the balls on this kid.    Set learns of Horus' attempts at vengeance and tries to destroy anyone who stands in his way.     Set at least follows my advice which other super villains in other movies have ignored.     Instead of just going for the gusto and trying to take over the universe in one shot, Set is content to rule Egypt for starters.     He has goals and since he is a god, he will theoretically have lots of time to make good on his other goals if Horus does not get to him first.

The gods can kill other gods in this movie.     In some cases, it is relatively easy, involving stabbing with a sword through the stomach.      I think this happens to Ra at some point, but he is there at the end in full force.     Poor Ra is supposedly the greatest of all Egyptian gods, but his headquarters above the Earth are underwhelming.     He actually has to physically fight off a humungous monster with rows of sharp teeth every single night so the world is not swallowed whole.     Why is the head honcho of the Egyptian gods doing this himself?    Why does he not have an army at his disposal so he can kick back?     His entire existence is drudgery.     He should find somewhere else in the universe to retire to.

The actors do not condescend to the material.     They gamely perform their roles, which lends some gravitas to the proceedings.     They may know the movie is ridiculous, but they seem to be enjoying themselves.      Gerard Butler's role is not a million miles removed from his work in 300.    He even gives a pep talk to his minions whom he sends out to be slaughtered.     One of them should have spoken up and said, "No way dude.    You said the Spartans would be alright and look what happened to them."     Coster-Waldau and Thwaites are earnest heroes, while the women in the film dress scantily, but not scantily enough to earn and R rating.  

Gods of Egypt is inherently silly and at least it's not irretrievably boring.    Since CGI technology is seamless these days, Proyas made a choice to make it look cheesy, but in a way that the sets in 1930's Flash Gordon serials or epics from the 50's looked equally cheesy.     Gods of Egypt almost plays like a CGI throwback to its early days.     You would expect that sooner or later, a director would choose to pay homage to the dawn of CGI.     Twenty years from now, we will likely be referencing those Avengers films from the 2010s as "the good old days" also. 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Private Parts (1997) * * *

Directed by:  Betty Thomas

Starring:  Howard Stern, Robin Quivers, Fred Norris, Jackie Martling, Gary Dell'Abate, Mary McCormack, Paul Giamatti

Private Parts is based on Howard Stern's autobiography of the same name.     It chronicles his story well known to Stern fans (like myself), but also makes it palatable to those new to Stern's world.     We see his rise from geek to radio god.     He transformed himself into the self-proclaimed, "King of All Media"  by basically transforming ordinary radio into a forum for him to editorialize and discuss his favorite topic....himself.      Since this film's release, his radio career has only escalated.     He now earns roughly $80 million a year on Sirius Satellite Radio where his show has brought in millions upon millions of new subscribers.    At age 62, he is still king.   How many in any form of media can say the same thing?

Stern plays himself from college on, where he couldn't get a date except for Alison Berns (McCormack), who would soon become his wife.     (Update:  Stern and Alison divorced and both are remarried).     They love each other and she supports his career as a DJ.     His voice is not exactly made for radio initially.     He speaks with such poor pitch control he sounds like he is about to run out of breath any second now.     Once he relaxes and finds his rhythm, we hear the confident, deep bass voice his listeners have grown accustomed to.     Stern jumps from city to city and catches on in Washington, DC, where he meets his sidekick of now 30-plus years Robin Quivers.     She doesn't know what to make of his off-the-cuff style that breaks all of the radio rules, but she soon finds her niche and they work well together.     Despite his growing audience and ratings, management is forever trying to reign Stern in and force conformity upon him.     In their minds, he must announce the time every 15 minutes on schedule and not talk over records or the radio gods will strike the station with lightning bolts, I suppose.

Stern and his crew, which also now consists of Fred Norris, are lured away to WNBC in New York in the early 80's and his life becomes a living hell.     Stern has discussed this horrid period in his life and career in the book and on the radio, but now we get to see it for ourselves.     His boss is nicknamed "Pig Vomit" (Giamatti), who fecklessly tries to tame Stern by having him pronounce the station's call letters "correctly" and chastising him for his risqué bits.     Stern broke new ground by interviewing naked lesbians, getting around the FCC's "Seven dirty words" by playing Match Game where he uses the words in different contexts, and discussing his personal life.     Sometimes this angers or embarrasses his wife, who assures herself and others, "it's all an act."

Stern and his crew members all play themselves well enough.     Stern balances himself between the radio guy who pushes the envelope and a perhaps misunderstood romantic.    He does enough shenanigans to satisfy his fans, while also being likable enough to those who may not have open to liking him before.      Of course, Private Parts is not immune to the biopic treatment of playing loose with the truth or introducing fictional characters.     There are other stories I would have liked to have seen put in, but that may have alienated a segment of the audience Stern was trying to reach.

The supporting cast also contributes positively.    Giamatti is memorable as the back-stabbing Pig Vomit who draws the ire of Stern.     Richard Portnow and Kelly Bishop play Stern's parents.   His father calls him a moron almost daily while his mother embarrasses Howard by telling his friends the family is half-black.    Both Portnow and Bishop capture the essence of how Stern recalls his parents in his book, which is comical bordering on insane.          

All turns out well for Stern as history proves.     Despite his over $1 million in fines by the FCC for supposed indecency, his career flourished and he turned Sirius into a media giant.    He never made another movie, although it would have been interesting to see how he would fare in other roles.     Maybe we're better off.     He made a good movie with Private Parts.     Why not quit while you're ahead? 

Braveheart (1995) * * * 1/2

Directed by:  Mel Gibson

Starring:  Mel Gibson, Patrick McGoohan, Catherine McCormack, Sophie Marceau, Angus Macfadyen, Brian Cox

Braveheart is passionate, bloody, rousing, and thrilling.    Based on myths and legends about its hero, William Wallace (Gibson), the movie tracks his quest for revenge that grows so large that it results in Scotland's independence from England in the 13th century.     Once English noblemen kill Wallace's wife (McCormack) after he marries her in secret, Wallace's rage can not be squelched.     His rampage inspires a nation of Scotsmen to rise up against tyrannical Edward I (McGoohan), known none-too-affectionately as Longshanks.      The movie sweeps us up in Wallace's story.     And yes it is violent.     Wallace wouldn't have it any other way.

Gibson won a Best Director Oscar for this film, which also won Best Picture.    He choreographs the battle scenes expertly, so we know what is going on and why.    We are not lost in a sea of men, swords, blood, and mayhem.     It plays like a live chess match with real people as the pawns and the king.    James Horner's score captures a triumphant Scottish note.     Wallace's legend grows so large that people soon begin to describe him as eight feet tall.     The legend says Wallace was actually near that height.     It is tough to dispute or confirm this information because anyone who witnessed it is long dead.  

Longshanks is the perfect villain for this film.     He is forever impatient, put-upon, and disdainful of most.     His homosexual son, next in line for the throne, marries a French princess (Marceau) for political reasons, but they can not conceive a child.     Longshanks laments that he may have to do the job himself.     Maybe laments is the wrong word.     More like observes.     The princess is soon sent to meet with Wallace and discuss a truce.     She is powerfully attracted to him, so much so that she gives away battle plans to aid the Scots.     Longshanks is not the type of king who fosters loyalty.  

Wallace and his warriors wear face paint and give pep talks similar to a coach pumping up his players before a game.      We don't know if this was such a custom, but it is powerful and we accept it.    Gibson's film may take place in the 13th century, but its views and methods are contemporary.     Soon Wallace urges his fellow Scotsmen to fight for their freedom from England.    Was this actually the case?     Gibson fills in the holes to make a compelling story. 

Wallace soon gains an admirer in Robert the Bruce (Macfadyen), next in line for the Scottish throne who originally prefers not to upset the apple cart, but soon is swayed to fight with Wallace.     Sort of.     He is a key player in a betrayal of Wallace that absolutely stuns and crushes Wallace spiritually...for only a little while.     Wallace is soon captured and put to death by Longshanks' cronies in a scene where he is drawn, quartered, disemboweled, and dies a slow, agonizing death before ultimately being beheaded.     The good news is, unlike Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004), this long, drawn-out execution is left to the imagination since we don't actually see the acts occurring.     But man it must've hurt.

Braveheart is a superior example of a historical action epic.    It runs nearly three hours and only drags momentarily in the beginning, but once Gibson appears, the energy level rises and the passions are ignited.     Since Gibson plays Wallace so convincingly, we are apt to follow him and it is moving to see how his successor Robert the Bruce picks up the sword and continues to fight for Scotland.     I know the English weren't expecting it.     


The Empire Strikes Back (1980) * * * *

Directed by:  Irvin Kershner

Starring:  Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker, James Earl Jones (voice)

The Empire Strikes Back is darker, deeper, and more thoughtful than even its brilliant predecessor.    This film continues the saga, introduces more memorable new characters, and gives us a revelation that shifts the nature of what has gone before and will happen in the future.      There are now different layers to these characters than before and different conflicts.     Star Wars did a masterful job of introducing us to this world.     The Empire Strikes Back pushes the story forward.  

The title pretty much tells us that the next film, The Return of the Jedi (1983), will be the rubber match in the ongoing battle between The Empire and The Resistance.     The Empire took a big loss in Star Wars when its Death Star was obliterated and Darth Vader had to lick his wounds and regroup.     The opening sequence is a new battle involving giant walking machines that not only shoot lasers, but could step on things.     The Resistance loses the battle and Luke Skywalker is marooned on a nearby swamp planet.     Here, he encounters Yoda, the almighty Jedi master who trained Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader before he was Darth Vader.     Yoda is a puppet, but he is convincingly real.     We never think of him as a puppet, but as a full-fledged, three-dimensional character.      Voiced by Frank Oz, Yoda is wise even at 900 years of age (or so).    It is on this dark, swampy planet that Luke learns how to be a master Jedi.     We see Luke's evolution during these scenes.

We also witness a blossoming romance between Han Solo and Princess Leia, if you want to call it out.   Both are fiercely independent and fighting is their foreplay.     Another major player is introduced in Lando Calrissian (Williams), a gambling buddy of Solo's who can't be completely trusted.    Or can he?    Lando is accommodating on the outside, but may just be laying a trap.     The Empire is omnipresent.     Their evil permeates everywhere.     Everything points to the physical and mental showdown between Luke and Vader.      This where The Empire Strikes Back becomes more than just a good vs. evil conflict and becomes something more.    

If you have managed to escape the news that Darth Vader is indeed Luke's father, then I'm sorry to have penetrated your seclusion in that comfy cave you have lived in for the past 36 years.     A lesser film would have simply had the two duke it out with light sabers.    We see Vader's complexity here.    He urges his son to join him on the dark side.     He truly does not want to kill Luke.     Underneath the blackness, there may be a faint remnant of humanity in Vader.     For many years, people misquote this scene to have Vader simply blurt out, "Luke, I am your father."     The script handles this tricky sequence much more deftly.

Vader:   "There is something Obi-Wan didn't tell you about me and your father."

Luke:     "He told me enough.    He told me you killed him."

Vader:    "No.   I am your father."   

We see the horror on Luke's face and he chooses to jump into the abyss instead of living to be the son of Darth Vader.    He survives and after his escape, he feels his father reaching out to him.    The stage is set for Return of the Jedi.     There is now a heart in the series as well as raging inner conflicts.    Things are no longer simple.    Characters and situations are usually more intriguing when they are not black and white.    Star Wars told this saga in black and white terms and it was awesome.    The Empire Strikes Back adds the gray and the shadows.  

Star Wars (1977) * * * *

Image result for star wars movie episode IV pics

Directed by:  George Lucas

Starring:  Mark Hamill, Alec Guinness, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Peter Cushing, James Earl Jones (voice), Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker

Star Wars was called Star Wars when it was released in 1977.    Over the past 20 years, the title has morphed into the monstrosity, "Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope".    It's Star Wars, the original which spawned a series of now seven films (and counting).     Its impact on pop culture and the movies themselves is undeniable.     It was the dawn of the big-budget space adventure.     There were imitators, but they missed the magic that Star Wars contains in its heart and its very structure.     We are sucked in by this tale of good vs. evil and find that such a story works wonders if it is told right and with great care.     Call me stubborn, but I will never agree to refer to this movie as anything but its original title.      Did they retitle Casablanca as Casablanca: Play It Again, Sam?    

Nearly all of the civilized world knows the story of Star Wars.     The Empire rules "a galaxy far, far away".     There is a Resistance, led by Princess Leia (Fisher), who is taken prisoner by Darth Vader, the de facto leader of the Empire.     There is an emperor, but he is not seen until later films.    Vader is among the most menacing villains in movie history.     Voiced by James Earl Jones (although the actor who physically wears the black costume and cape is David Prowse), every syllable he utters is foreboding and threatening.      In between the words is the breathing which is amplified from under his mask.    Even that is scary.   

Leia summons the help of Obi Wan Kenobi (Guinness) via a hologram.     Surrounding everything is The Force, which has a good side and a dark side.    Consider Obi Wan the leader of the good side and Vader as the leader of the bad side.     They have a history, these two, which is later fleshed out during their epic light saber showdown.      The light saber is the weapon of choice, which is like a laser sword that can pierce through people and objects, but the lasers can "block" one another if they make contact.     I never could quite figure out why this is.  

Writer/director Lucas pays homage to the space adventures he enjoyed as a child by making a high-budget one with the same sense of awe at its core.     The "non-human" characters are vividly realized.     You have never seen creatures quite like these.     Even the ones in later films do not match what you see here.     Some of them are threatening, some friendly, and some just mind their business while imbibing at a local saloon.     Gun play and saber fights are common, so much so that when bounty hunter Han Solo (Ford) kills rival bounty hunter Greedo in a cantina, the patrons scarcely seem to notice.

The characters are carefully drawn while being painted in broad strokes.    Luke Skywalker (Hamill) is the young hero who epitomizes good, Vader personifies evil, Obi-Wan is Luke's willing mentor, Han Solo looks out for number one, but joins Luke in the fight, Princess Leia is not a helpless captive, but smart, sassy, and takes no guff from the guys.    And then you have the droids C3P0 and R2D2, who are robots with personality, plus the large hairy creature Chewbacca; the loyal sidekick of Han Solo.    These characters live on in our memories and in pop culture.     They are known even to those who don't sleep out on the sidewalk six months in advance to buy tickets for the next Star Wars installment.

Besides the hand-to-hand combat, light sabers, and laser guns, we also see aerial wizardry in the form of the Millennium Falcon, X-wing fighters, land cruisers, and Y-wing fighters.     They are space planes that do battle like the RAF battled the Luftwaffe in World War II.     Maybe that was Lucas' intent.     Future films introduce technologically superior machines used to further the ongoing war.    The Empire wants to rule the galaxy, but with all of the pushback and headaches they receive, maybe they shouldn't bother.      Lucas' allusions to The Empire and the seemingly endless numbers of storm troopers that carry out the destructive orders of Vader are no doubt intended to remind us of the Nazis.     Notice how the storm troopers all look the same, with no distinguishable personalities.    They are strictly targets or obstacles to overcome.     Five die, five more seem to take their place.  

The first three Star Wars movies, including this one, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi are masterpieces which form a complete, satisfying trilogy.     Lucas pushed his luck with the three prequels from 1999-2005.      Episode I and II were boring chronicles of the rise of the Empire.    They played more like intergalactic C-Span.     The most recent Episode VII was the first Star Wars film in a while to capture the fun spirit of the original films.     Star Wars is the one that started it all and does so in spectacular, imaginative fashion.    

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Ocean's Twelve (2004) * * *

Directed by:  Steven Soderbergh

Starring:  George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Bernie Mac, Andy Garcia, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Julia Roberts, Bruce Willis, Eddie Jemison, Vincent Cassel, Elliott Gould, Eddie Izzard, Carl Reiner, Don Cheadle

The Ocean's Eleven guys and girls are back for another caper, this time in Europe, because after the heist in Ocean's Eleven, Vegas is off limits for a while.     Oh, and Terry Benedict (Garcia) is looking to recoup the $150 million Ocean and crew stole from him.     He is not the type of guy to take losing lying down.   

Benedict gives Ocean three weeks to come up with the $150 million (plus interest).     The crew has spent most of their shares on floundering businesses and leisurely lifestyles, so they will have to pull off another job before Benedict has them all killed.     What can they steal that could be worth at least that much?    They attempt a job in the Netherlands in which they have to somehow raise a house a few inches so they have direct access to a safe.     Don't even ask.    The job fails, thanks to the interference of a mysterious thief called The Night Fox (Cassel).    This thief has a beef with Danny also, stemming from a reputed slight by one of Danny's friends.      Talk about egos run amok.

The Night Fox has a challenge for Ocean.     Whoever steals the famed, priceless Faberge Egg on display in a Rome museum first wins the challenge.     If Ocean wins, he agrees to pay Ocean's debt to Benedict.     If the fox wins, well, that's all folks for the Ocean's Eleven.    As if matters weren't complicated enough, also on Ocean's trail is an Interpol detective (Zeta-Jones) who was the once the former lover of Rusty Ryan (Pitt).     Things indeed become entangled and that is part of the fun.

Ocean's Twelve is all about the twists, turns, and things seemingly going horribly wrong for the guys.    Danny's wife (again) Tess (Roberts) is sprung into action because she looks like, well, Julia Roberts and could help the guys gain access to the museum.    The plot nearly works, except for the unexpected presence of Bruce Willis (playing himself), who just so happens to be in the one place on Earth the Ocean's Eleven crew wishes he wasn't.    Complications after complications arise and it looks for a while like Ocean and his crew will lose.    But, we know better and the payoff and conclusion are well-handled.     There is even a nice emotional tug involving Zeta-Jones and a retired thief who plays a behind-the-scenes role in all of the shenanigans.

Clooney, Pitt, Roberts, and company all return in this sequel having a good time while visiting beautiful locales in some of the world's greatest cities.    By my count, they are in London, Paris, Rome, and Amsterdam in the span of three weeks.    It's good to see they have enough money left over to pay for the travel and hotel rooms.    Ocean's Twelve is a fun, light caper comedy.    It does not transcend into greatness like its predecessor, but very few caper comedies will.    You will, however, have a good time.     

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

All The Way (2016) * * 1/2 (shown on HBO)

All the Way Movie Review

Directed by:  Jay Roach

Starring:  Bryan Cranston, Anthony Mackie, Melissa Leo, Frank Langella, Stephen Root, Bradley Whitford

Being President of the United States is a thankless task, yet there are people willing to step up and assume the office every four years.     President Lyndon Baines Johnson inherited a shit storm when he assumed the Presidency after Kennedy's assassination on November 22, 1963.     The Vietnam War was in its infancy, pressure came from Martin Luther King to enact a meaningful civil rights bill, and the 1964 election was fast approaching.     These are only three of the issues encountered by LBJ in All The Way, which despite its wealth of material and its fascinating performances, manages just to be ok.    It lacks power and loses focus because it tries to cover too much ground in its over two hour running time.     A movie about the civil rights bill enactment in itself would be sufficient.     Much of All The Way feels like it is racing to touch all of the bases.

Bryan Cranston won a Tony Award for this role which he now brings to this HBO movie.    He is barely recognizable behind the makeup and he immerses himself completely in the role.     Cranston captures the straight-talking, informal Johnson right down to holding meetings while squatting on the toilet.     We feel Johnson from the inside out.     How many actors could really get to the heart of such a historical figure?     Daniel Day-Lewis surely did in Lincoln and now Cranston does here.   

Johnson raises eyebrows in his first speech after assuming office by promising the passage of a civil rights bill.     The "Dixiecrats", Southern state Democrats opposed to desegregation, are led by Sen. Richard Russell (Langella), Johnson's best friend and mentor.     At first, Johnson assures Russell his speech was all talk to quiet the King faction, but after meeting with King, he plunges in to get the bill passed.     Johnson's meetings with King are tricky, with a lot of quid pro quo happening especially in relation to future legislation King promises to back.    The voting rights section is such a sticking point that Johnson realizes he may have to pass the act without the section.     We see deft political maneuvering here and it is among the best parts of the movie.

Mackie may not resemble King physically, but he captures the spirit and determination of the slain civil rights leader.     He too feels the pressure from his people to get the bill passed.     King himself has to walk a tightrope and compromise in order to achieve his objectives.     I recall Anthony Hopkins in Nixon (1995) stating, "I've learned politics is the art of compromise."     All The Way truly understands this.

But once the civil rights bill is passed, All The Way tackles Vietnam, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, an arrest of LBJ's closest advisor, the upcoming 1964 election in which LBJ may not even be his own party's candidate, dealings with Russell, and the Democratic National Convention where the South promises to walk out if black delegates are recognized and seated.      It is a lot on Johnson's plate, but it is too much for the movie to navigate through.     Some of the issues are tackled and discarded without payoffs.     We feel a true sense of the pressure on LBJ during this tumultuous time, but the movie relegates Lyndon's wife Lady Bird (Leo) to the sidelines, nodding approvals and standing by her husband.     I don't recall one scene in which the husband and wife actually talk, which is a letdown.     Lady Bird was well-educated and smart.     She certainly lent credible advice to her husband during his Presidency, but in All The Way she is muted.

I nearly neglected to mention J. Edgar Hoover's (Root) involvement in All The Way.    There is an entire subplot (based on fact) in which Hoover attempted to blackmail King from accepting his Nobel Peace Prize with recordings of his extramarital affairs.     This is crammed into an already crowded movie as well.     I read the Broadway play on which All The Way is based contained a handful of characters and the events depicted in the movie are only discussed, but not shown.     Because film is a more visual medium, the actual events were depicted here and filling in blanks where none were needed.     When All The Way works, it really works.     But it is not sustained, mostly because the filmmakers didn't want to leave out anything.

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Prince of Tides (1991) * * 1/2

Directed by:  Barbra Streisand
Starring:  Nick Nolte, Barbra Streisand, George Carlin, Blythe Danner, Melinda Dillon, Kate Nelligan, Brad Sullivan, Jeroen Krabbe, Jason Gould
If The Prince of Tides stuck primarily to its main plot instead of splintering off into various subplots that distract from the film, then it would have been a remarkably emotional achievement.     Anchored by Nick Nolte's strongest performance of his career, The Prince of Tides works best when dealing with the deep wounds suffered by Tom Wingo (Nolte) and his siblings caused by years of physical and psychological abuse from their childhood.     The movie also shoehorns in a lifeless romance between Tom and his psychiatrist (Streisand), Tom coaching football to Streisand's spoiled son, Tom's home woes with his estranged wife, and plenty of violin playing.     It is at least thirty minutes too long, with the inevitable, dull romance between Nolte and Streisand taking up most of that time.   
The Prince of Tides begins with Tom, an unemployed former South Carolina teacher, receiving news of his sister's latest suicide attempt.     She survives, but is catatonic and her psychiatrist Susan Lowenstein (Streisand) asks Tom to come to New York and assist in her therapy.    In his sessions with Susan, Tom reveals deep pain from years of physical and psychological abuse caused by his parents and even outsiders.      We see the abuse take place in flashbacks which generate great power.     Tom's father Henry (Sullivan) is a low-class fisherman with a temper, while his mother Lila (Nelligan) looks to trade up and snag a rich, high-society husband.     Nothing will stand in her way, least of all her children.     Other events occur and are slowly revealed to provide the full picture as to why Tom is miserable and estranged from his family.     On the surface, Tom is friendly and outgoing, masking his pain as he has done since he was a little boy.     Nolte expertly shows us this duality with a cheerful exterior and hurts bubbling just under the surface.
Tom's sessions with Susan are the best parts of the movie.     Once we accept that the leggy Streisand, who never met a short skirt she didn't like, as a psychiatrist, then we are able to proceed on.     We learn Susan is in a loveless marriage herself and has a resentful son who is forced to play violin like his father, a famed violinist (Krabbe).     Tom agrees to coach football to the uncoordinated son and they learn to like each other, but how much does this really add to the movie?     Susan's son, Bernard, is played by Streisand's real-life son Jason Gould.   
Tom is attracted to Susan and vice-versa, leading to the perfunctory romance that takes place long after the movie should have been over.     Throughout the film, Susan prods Tom to learn to show his emotions by crying, as if a long, cathartic weeping will forever cure him of his ills.     The scene in which he finally breaks down is touching, but is that all it takes to fix Tom?     Is he suddenly a happier guy?    The movie's pop psychology would have you think so.    In real life, such a breakthrough would be a beginning, not an end of the therapy.
Perhaps the Pat Conroy novel on which The Prince of Tides is based had all of these needless subplots, but the movie would have been better off without them.     Streisand is an able director and the movie is lovingly shot and scored (even if the score is a mite overwrought).     The performances, especially Nolte's and Nelligan's as his cruel, cold mother are strong.     Sullivan may appear one-dimensional and cartoonish in the early going as the father, but he has a quiet scene with his son later on in which he connects with him while discussing baseball.     They exchange looks of love and forgiveness.     The movie could have benefited from more of that.  

The Nice Guys (2016) * * *

The Nice Guys Movie Review

Directed by:  Shane Black

Starring:  Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Margaret Qualley, Kim Basinger, Matt Bomer

Los Angeles, 1977.    Smog alerts are a daily news item.    Lines for gasoline become violent.    Porn is flourishing.     Or as some would refer to it as...the good old days.     Anyone who longs for the times like these when life was "simpler" should take a look at The Nice Guys if not just for the true sense of time and place the movie offers.      It is more fun than just a trip down memory lane.     The Nice Guys is a comic action thriller in which the actors are clearly having a great time and their joy is infectious.    

As the film opens, Russell Crowe is Jackson Healy, muscle for hire whose greeting is usually a punch in the face with brass knuckles.     He makes sure you get whatever message the person who hired him wants you to get.     A young woman named Amelia (Qualley) pays him to beat up on private eye Holland March (Gosling), who is looking for her.     Healy punches the hapless private eye and then breaks his arm, warning March (in as nice a way as possible under the circumstances) to back off.     Soon, thugs attack Healy in his apartment looking for the same Amelia, and Healy decides to hire March to help him track her.   

March drinks a lot and takes cases from people like a confused elderly woman who hasn't seen her husband "since the funeral."    March looks on the mantel and sees her husband's cremation urn, but takes the money anyway.     Times are tough and you gotta pay the bills.      The search for Amelia is aided by March's loving daughter Holly (Rice), who may just be smarter than her father if not more sensible.     Healy and March come across clues and persons of interest, sometimes through ingenuity and sometimes through sheer dumb luck.   

One such instance occurs when Healy and March crash a Hollywood party complete with mermaids, porn screenings, drink, and drugs.     March drunkenly slips from a balcony and rolls down a hill, stopping right next to the dead body of a porn producer they were seeking.      It is quite obvious from March's reaction that he hasn't seen many dead bodies before.    Then the duo looks to dispose of the body and throw it over a fence.     Not the best idea either, as you'll see.

Each actor plays well off of each other.    Crowe is the born straight man.     Gosling, an actor who doesn't play dumb usually, is very good as the type of guy who would say, "Do you know who else was following orders?    Hitler," and then wink at his cohort like he just said something brilliant.     March is the Los Angeles version of Jacques Clouseau, someone who solves cases in spite of himself.     Angourie Rice is not only brighter than these two sometimes, but a voice of morality and reason.     She knows there will be violence and mayhem, but doesn't want Healy to kill anyone.     Sometimes, he finds he just can not abide.    Rice reminds me of a teenage Brie Larson. 

The Nice Guys has some fistfights, chases, and shootouts.     These are to be expected and they are no better or worse handled than in countless other films.     The plot becomes more entangled with the introduction of Kim Basinger, who plays a justice department bigwig looking for Amelia also, since she is her daughter.     Her motives are murky and her involvement in the plot becomes even murkier.   We just don't know what side she is on.     L.A. Confidential fans will be quick to recognize the reunion between Crowe and Basinger, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work in that film.     You could almost say Crowe plays a version of his Bud White character, circa twenty years later.   

There is enough action to satisfy action fans, but I like the parts the best when Crowe, Gosling, and Rice were having fun and doing their thing.      I would even like to see this trio return for a sequel.  

Keanu (2016) * *

Keanu Movie Review

Directed by:  Peter Atencio

Starring:  Keegan Michael-Key, Jordan Peele, Method Man, Nia Long, Will Forte, Luis Guzman, Tiffany Haddish, Anna Faris

I never watched Key & Peele, so I went into Keanu cold without any predispositions or expectations.    Keanu has an adorable kitten, is sporadically funny, and does not make me want to binge watch past Key & Peele episodes.     Some of the jokes are initially funny, but then are repeated until they are beaten into the ground.      I suppose the idea of a black man listening to George Michael on his iPod is meant to be funny.     Or the idea of a kitten dressed in street gear.    Or watching Anna Faris whacked out of her mind on drugs.    Or all of this violence over a kitten, no matter how cute he is.    Most of the gags miss.   

The Keanu of the title is not Keanu Reeves, but a kitten who escapes from a bloody shootout at a drug lab and shows up at the door of Rell (Peele), a man who lies on his couch and smokes weed because his girl recently left him.     It is not made clear whether she left and then he started smoking weed, or did she leave because he lay on his couch and smoked weed all day?     Nonetheless, the kitten becomes Rell's reason to live and the center of his universe.      One night, Rell and his cousin Clarence (Key), (the guy with the George Michael tunes on his iPod), come home from a movie to find Rell's home ransacked and Keanu gone.     Their investigation leads to a strip joint run by a gang leader named Cheddar (Method Man), who mistakes them for two ruthless hitmen while assuming ownership of Keanu and dressing him in gold chains and a sports jersey.

Clarence and Rell have to keep up the façade of being ruthless gangsters, including changing their voices, attitudes, and bullshitting their way through one hairy situation after another.     Drugs are consumed, primarily by henpecked Clarence, who sees this adventure as just what the doctor ordered to break free from his mundane life.     Clarence has one of those drug visions movies insist are funny, but they are not.     Keanu, the kitten, speaks to Clarence in the voice of Keanu Reeves himself and then Clarence is in the middle of Michael's "Faith" video.   (Hardy har har).   

The guys go through a lot of near-death situations, car chases, and shootouts just to get Keanu back.     A running gag is how every person who comes into contact with the kitty falls instantly in love with it.     Is Keanu meant to be a parody of violent movies?     I don't know, but the shootouts and car chases feel like the real thing.     There is no exaggeration or twist put on them.     Guys get shot and they're dead.     Cars crash into things and bodies go flying.     Keanu could be an honorary Taken sequel.

Key and Peele are likable actors.    The gag here is that their characters aren't "black" enough and are forced to act "more black" in order to survive their ordeal.     This is a slippery slope in any respect.    The n-word is tossed around a lot too.    Is Keanu an examination of racial politics even within one's own race?     I've read the Key & Peele show focuses its humor on such topics.    Perhaps on TV it was funnier and more enlightening, but I'll take the SNL skit from the early 1980s in which Eddie Murphy masquerades as a white man and discovers, "When you're white, people give you things."   

Rock the Kasbah (2015) 1/2 *

Rock the Kasbah Movie Review

Directed by:  Barry Levinson

Starring:  Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Zooey Deschanel, Kate Hudson, Scott Caan, Danny McBride, Leem Lubany

You know a movie is bad when it reminds you of Ishtar.    You know it is awful when you wish you were watching Ishtar instead.     Rock the Kasbah is a colossal miscalculation that not just steals ideas from other movies, it steals from bad ones.    It is a dreary slog.     Poor Bill Murray is left shouldering this heavy load.     His co-stars walk on and then have the privilege of disappearing for long stretches before being forced to show up again.     He is stuck in nearly every frame, trying desperately to add something to this dead zone.    Murray's appearance in Rock the Kasbah makes me wonder why he resisted making Ghostbusters III.    It can't be much worse than this.  

Murray stars as Richie Lanz, a burnt-out, name-dropping, has-been talent manager reduced to signing up talentless clients in his Van Nuys apartment.    Consider him the West Coast version of Broadway Danny Rose.     He dubiously claims he suggested to Jimi Hendrix to play Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock and "discovered" Madonna.      Ronnie (Deschanel) is one of Richie's no-talents singing covers at a dive bar when the owner books her to play for the troops at a base in Afghanistan.     Richie and Ronnie are on the next plane and land in war-torn Kabul with their luggage missing.     Ronnie is zonked out of her skull, but soon steals Richie's wallet and flies the coop.     Richie is now broke with no passport, but shady gun runners offer him $30,000 to facilitate a simple gun deal to a local warlord. 

The plot veers off in a strange direction when Richie discovers the warlord's daughter Salima (Lubany) can sing Cat Stevens' Wild World like an angel and dreams of appearing on the Afghani version of American Idol.    Because of the country's restrictive attitudes towards women, Salima's appearance causes great controversy and apoplexy in her father.     The plot thickens and meanders, but all points lead to a dead end.     Also clogging up the works is a hooker with a heart of gold (Hudson), looking to retire off of the money she makes in Kabul.     She may want to pick another locale that is more hospitable and lucrative.     Bruce Willis shows up as a mercenary with dreams of writing a book.     And Richie has a daughter he rarely sees.      All of this contributes nothing but a longer running time.    

Rock the Kasbah is lifeless from the first frame.     I had no idea Barry Levinson was the film's director until I saw the opening credits.      He is a brilliant Oscar-winning writer and director, which leaves me completely baffled as to why he chose to helm this project.     I cannot imagine what drew anyone to it.    Is Bill Murray such a great guy that established talents will throw away weeks of their lives to work with him?     I couldn't say, but I hope he is for their sakes.     I feel sorry for Murray having to appear in the whole film, while his co-stars appear putting forth the least amount of energy possible and then skedaddling.     Whatever Zooey Deschanel stole from Murray's wallet, it was well worth it to get out.   

The plot is eerily similar to Ishtar.     In both films, losers are booked to play in a remote hellhole halfway across the world only to become involved in a local war.     Rock the Kasbah adds Salima, which only makes it more insufferable.     Truth be told, she (or whomever is singing Wild World) is an ok singer at best; certainly not worth the effusive praise Richie bestows upon her.     Rock the Kasbah seems to add plot elements in hopes that these would somehow make it funnier or more palatable.    I don't think this movie would be tolerable even as a short film.  

Friday, May 20, 2016

National Lampoon's Animal House (1978) * * * *

National Lampoon's Animal House Movie Review

Directed by:  John Landis

Starring:  John Belushi, Tim Matheson, Peter Reigert, Bruce McGill, Stephen Furst, Tom Hulce, John Vernon, Donald Sutherland, Karen Allen, Verna Bloom, Mark Metcalf, Kevin Bacon

Animal House is full of spirit, energy, and big laughs.     However, it is not a free-for-all.    Co-written by Harold Ramis and directed by John Landis, there are actual characters here and a controlled madness.     In between the partying, beer drinking, and general anarchic behavior these guys exhibit often, they also create memorable people who live in our minds to this day.     There is a method to their lunacy, directed at the other snobby fraternities and a dictatorial dean at fictional Faber college circa 1962.

Yes, the Delta House throws loud parties where "Louie, Louie" is sung in unison as the group's anthem, but when you compare their antics to those of the ROTC fraternity in which pledges are paddled in the ass, you side with the Deltas.     The Delta House is forever a thorn in the side of Dean Wormer (Vernon), who takes extreme measures to kick the group off campus.    In a normal movie, we would applaud the dean for doing his job.     In the world of Animal House, things are skewed because we just like these guys so much.

The Deltas consist of guys like D-Day (McGill), who drives his motorcycle up the frat house stairs and plays the William Tell Overture while flicking his throat.     Words don't adequately describe this.     Also on board is Otter (Matheson), a ladies' man out to seduce the dean's wife, Flounder (Furst), a guy to whom Wormer advises, "Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life," and Boon (Reigert), who makes no bones about his desire to get drunk every night as a rule.   Then, we have Bluto (Belushi), who guzzles a fifth of whiskey and says, "Thanks, I needed that" and inspires the gang to throw a toga party.    Oh, and he can wolf down an entire hamburger in one fell swoop without chewing.     It is quite a talent.    He has others too. 

Animal House doesn't rest on its laurels.    It builds on itself with a road trip in which the guys find themselves in an unfriendly all-black nightclub, a disciplinary hearing in which Boon and Otter try to act like civilized attorneys, a Delta pledge deciding whether to bang a passed-out girl with an angel and devil materializing on his shoulders to give advice, a fabulously failed mid-term exam, and a horse who dies as the result of a gunshot, but not in the way you would expect.      Is this in borderline bad taste?    Yes.    Is it funny?  Absolutely.    Great comedies know how to take difficult material and somehow make us laugh despite ourselves.     You hear about a horse dying and you would be appalled, but if you see the events leading up to it, they make a certain amount of sense and the payoff is even funnier.    

The Deltas do not back down when facing expulsion and hatch a scheme to win back their place at school by invading the annual town parade.     Only they can cause the mayhem that ensues and dare ask the dean for one more chance.     Wormer looks at the camera tired and defeated, saying, "I hate those guys," as if resigned to the fact that he just can't get rid of them.      The villains here operate under a façade of civility and decency, but they are basically just pricks we are happy to see get their comeuppance.    

Animal House takes place before Kennedy's assassination and the Vietnam War.     The world had not yet been engulfed in the controversies and struggles which would define the decade.     The Deltas are fighting their own personal war against Faber College and against growing up.      It was ingenious to set the film in this period before everything went to hell.      There is a certain innocence about the Deltas fighting for their right to party just before the terrible events occur that would change the world forever.     Which is not to say that the movie ignores them.     Before the end credits roll, we get "where are they now" updates on some of the key participants.      One of the villains becomes a Nixon staffer involved in Watergate and soon after raped in prison.     The other, the leader of the ROTC, is shot and killed in Vietnam...."by his own troops."     Are we the least bit surprised? 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Top Gun (1986) * *

Directed by:  Tony Scott
Starring:  Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer, Kelly McGillis, James Tolkan, Tom Skeritt, Anthony Edwards, Meg Ryan
A lot of hoopla has surrounded Top Gun this week because it was released 30 years ago.     By my recollection and subsequent viewings, is this something worth commemorating?    It was a box office hit and the soundtrack sold very well.     It is a slick production, with convincing aerial battle scenes and it is strongly made on a technical level.     There is also an obligatory romance between Cruise and McGillis which has zero chemistry.     McGillis acts as if a force greater than her is compelling her to hook up with Cruise.    There is and it's the screenplay.     I understand the movie isn't meant to be anything more than a popcorn action film, but couldn't the characters have been given a little bit of depth?   
Cruise is Pete "Maverick" Mitchell, a Navy flying ace with a bad reputation among his superiors for taking unnecessary risks with multi-million dollar planes and lives.      His first encounter with a Russian plane involves Maverick flying upside down above the Russians and flipping them the bird.    His sighting is rare among Navy pilots, so he becomes a mythical figure despite his recklessness.      You know the plotline from here.    The brash, immature Maverick will encounter a series of events which will force him to take stock of himself, grow up, and begin playing by the rules.      Oh, and you know he will be seeing the Russians again.     Or at least I think it's the Russians.   
Maverick and his flying partner Nick "Goose" Bradshaw (Edwards) are sent to "Top Gun", the top naval flight academy in the world to hone their skills.   Although if a pilot can fly upside down and position himself close enough to give the other pilot the finger (remembering the planes are likely traveling at the speed of sound),  I'd say his skills don't need honing.      Maverick begins an awkward romance with his flight school instructor Charlie (McGillis), an icy blonde dressed usually in short white skirts.     She kind of likes him too and then soon falls for him.    It is not made clear what exactly Charlie's qualifications are to teach aeronautics to experienced Navy pilots, but we'll take it on faith that she is qualified.
Maverick has a rival of sorts in Tom "Iceman" Kazanski (Kilmer), who calls Maverick unsafe and not a team player.     They don't like each other much, but not enough to the point where they can't participate in team building activities like a volleyball game.     The volleyball game is shot as borderline gay porn, with the muscular guys playing with their shirts off and their bodies oiled up while a pop song plays on the soundtrack.      Kilmer is the quasi-villain, I suppose, but to me his opinion of Maverick seems pretty rational.    
Top Gun did not exactly plumb the depths of Tom Cruise's acting range.    Rain Man, Born on the Fourth of July, Jerry Maguire, and Magnolia were still ahead of him.     He does what is expected of him here:  Flash a smile, make wisecracks, romance Charlie, and come out of it at the end a better man and pilot for it.     This was Cruise the box-office star, but we would later see how good he can be.     These days, he seems to have retreated to his action film persona, which is well done, but limiting.    I would really like to see him take more chances with challenging roles befitting an actor in his early 50s.   
Those who watch the film for the action sequences won't be disappointed.     The aerial scenes are well-produced and you can mostly follow the action.     The sound, music, and sight of planes whizzing by do not overwhelm the viewer.      Everything turns out well in the end for mostly everyone.      Iceman and Maverick reconcile and Maverick walks off into the sunset (of which there are plenty in this film) with Charlie.     I would give it another week before they break up because there just isn't anything between them.     

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Letters (2015) *

The Letters Movie Review

Directed by:  William Riead

Starring:  Juliet Stevenson, Max von Sydow, Rutger Hauer

Mother Teresa deserves a better biopic than The Letters, a painfully boring slog through her years teaching and helping the poor in Calcutta, India.      There is a good biopic to be made about Mother Teresa, I'm sure, but The Letters is not it.     There is no juice here.     It approaches its subject with such solemnity and lack of insight that it simply bores, not edifies.      Her story is approached with the depth of a Wikipedia page.   

There are good talents wasted here.    Juliet Stevenson plays Mother Teresa and is an accomplished British stage and screen actress.     The film captures the essence of poverty-stricken Calcutta during India's independence from Great Britain and beyond, but the Mother Teresa of this film is not given much of a personality.     She is too quiet, timid, and passive to be the nun who defied Hindu suspicions and hostility to become the world-renowned helper of the poor.      She is written as someone who exudes too much humility and has the body language of someone who would like nothing more than to disappear from the screen.      She does not speak nor act like a person who is carrying out God's will with great passion and desire, but more like someone who lost a game of rock, paper, scissors.  

The Letters of the title refers to the series of letters Mother Teresa wrote over the years to her spiritual advisor Father van Exem (von Sydow) expressing her doubts and fears.     These letters are read to a Vatican priest (Hauer) who is investigating the late Mother Teresa as a candidate for sainthood.      In the Catholic faith, a person must be responsible for at least two verifiable miracles in order to be canonized.      The first miracle take place after Mother Teresa's death in 1997, in which a woman dying from a tumor finds it has disappeared after holding a picture of the late nun.      To me, Mother Teresa's life work and sacrifice should make her a saint automatically, but they're not my rules.

van Exem reads passages of the letters to the priest.     Mother Teresa feels strongly sometimes that God had abandoned her.     He compels her to abandon her calling as a teacher in Calcutta to venture outside the school walls to live among the poor, according to her testimony.     She believed it, so it was what it was.    I suppose after living in squalor that many would have the same doubts.     The resistance she received from the locals is reason enough to have doubts.     Yet, perhaps because of the storytelling device, her troubles do not resonate with us.    We hear about them without actually feeling them.   

The Letters does not carry the power of Mother Teresa's story, in which she sacrificed a life of relative safety and comfort to pursue her true calling as told to her by God.     We see a general outline, Vatican politics, and historical perspective, but nothing underneath.     In one bizarre sequence, two reporters are discussing India's independence from Great Britain by asking, "So, do you think India is going to suffer under the burden of its birth as a modern nation?"    I have been involved in many political discussions over the years.     Not once did I encounter someone who spoke like that.     It sounds like an essay question on a college exam, minus the informal "so".  

Mother Teresa's life and work should be the subject of a better, more comprehensive study than The Letters.     The trouble is, Hollywood executives might shy away from another Mother Teresa biopic because this one was made and look how it turned out.     We have had two Steve Jobs biopics in the last three years, plus two documentaries made since his death in 2011.    I think another shot at a Mother Teresa biopic isn't asking too much.  

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Beaver (2011) * *

The Beaver Movie Review

Directed by:  Jodie Foster

Starring:  Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Jennifer Lawrence, Anton Yelchin

Jodie Foster is nothing if not a loyal friend.     She cast her friend and Maverick (1994) co-star Mel Gibson in the lead of her film, The Beaver, while he was persona non grata in Hollywood due to drunken anti-Semitic tirades and vicious leaked phone battles with his ex-girlfriend.     He is an extremely talented actor and an Oscar-winning director.     He is the best thing about The Beaver, which was a tenuous idea that flies off the rails.     Let's face it, how much can be done with a story about a man who wears a beaver puppet on his left hand and speaks to people through it?      What starts out as serious drama ends up as a quasi-horror film akin to Child's Play.    

Gibson stars as Walter Black, a businessman so depressed that he has alienated his family and allows his business to go in the toilet.     One day, he winds up with a beaver puppet on his hand and he can suddenly communicate with others, but only as the beaver (who picks up an English accent).      To his wife Meredith (Foster) and his children, this is a welcome respite from the silent, depressed Walter.     Hey, at least he's talking.     Soon, he is taking the beaver everywhere with him and even to bed with Meredith.     It's about as awkward as it sounds.     His business thrives to the point where he is a Today Show guest with beaver firmly entrenched on his left hand.     I'm sure it began to stink after a while.

Gibson and Foster take this material seriously and make a go of an odd premise.     It may have sounded better on paper than fleshed out on screen, but I don't see how.     The fact that it was made with Mel Gibson starring is something of a minor miracle.     This is mostly because of Gibson's lack of marketability which is still true today.     How many movies has Mel Gibson starred in within the last five years?     Especially in a leading role?    

It is a pity how Gibson's battles with alcoholism has derailed his career.     The Beaver proves that he can elevate even material as shaky as this..    He is still filthy rich, but no longer an A-lister.    He won the Academy Award for Best Director for Braveheart and fifteen years later was starring in The Beaver.    The movie would most likely not have been made if not for Foster's (and Gibson's) participation.   

The Beaver takes an even stranger turn when The Beaver persona (and the puppet itself) threatens to engulf Walter and he must battle it in order to regain his grip on reality.     Walter's family is happy at first with The Beaver, but soon things become creepy and they are alienated again.     The battles with The Beaver are not just figurative.     Walter has to physically stop the puppet from trying to kill him.    This is resolved in such an extreme fashion that we just throw in the towel on the movie's credibility.     Our happiness can only be limited when we see Walter in the final shot on a rollercoaster minus a body part.   

Money Monster (2016) * *

Money Monster Movie Review

Directed by:  Jodie Foster

Starring:  George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O'Connell, Giancarlo Esposito, Dominic West, Caitriona Balfe

Money Monster is two different movies ungainly meshed together.     It starts out as a vibrant behind-the-scenes look at a high wattage Jim Cramer type of financial news program, but ends up as another movie about a tense hostage standoff.     The former movie would have held my interest longer.     The movie Money Monster becomes is an obvious expression of outrage by working class folks against corporations that make money while they lose everything in stock price drops or pension raids.     Think of it as Occupy Wall Street without the protesters blocking traffic.  

I enjoyed the first ten minutes immensely.    George Clooney plays Lee Gates, who hosts a daily show where he gleefully throws out stock tips using colorful screens, songs, and gadgets to propel the shtick.    Make no mistake,  it is shtick.    Bates is at heart an entertainer first, which doesn't resonate with those who take his advice as gospel and invest based on that advice.    One of the stocks Gates recommends recklessly to viewers is Ibis, which loses $800 million in one day thanks to a "computer glitch", which is of little comfort to those who lost their life savings.  

One of the people who lost everything is Kyle Budwell (O'Connell), who easily infiltrates show security and holds Gates and his crew at gunpoint on national television.     He forces Gates to wear a vest that holds a bomb and Kyle keeps his finger on the detonator.     Kyle wants to know why the company lost $800 million, or more importantly to him, his life savings of $60,000.     Ibis CEO (West) is AWOL aboard a corporate jet, so his PR director (Balfe) is left holding the bag.     Her explanations do not inspire understanding or confidence in Kyle.

Now, we have a movie where Gates (with help from his director Patty Fenn (Roberts) behind the glass) tries to calm the gunman down while trying to figure a way out of this mess.     Kyle makes empty threats to shoot or let go of the detonator while Gates bargains for his life and the life of his crew.     Gates begins his own undercover investigation of Ibis, which uncovers predictable results.    You mean the CEO embezzled $800 million under the guise of a computer mathematical algorithm in order to finance a scheme that would enrich him somehow?     Don't stop the presses.    This is not a job for Lee Gates, but for Captain Obvious.    

Whatever little tension is provided by the initial standoff evaporates when Gates and Kyle walk several blocks (with police and the world watching) keeping up the façade of hostage/kidnapper to confront the CEO before a press conference.     Everything unravels and Money Monster becomes silly.    I think the direction the movie chose involving Kyle's pregnant girlfriend was meant to inspire sympathy for Kyle, but it succeeds only in making him look like a clueless putz.    

Clooney plays charismatic slicksters with the best of them.     He is the only thing Money Monster really has going for it.    Jack O' Connell, the English actor from Unbroken, lays on a thick Noo Yawk accent, but undergoes so many character swerves from the writers that we realize he is just a creature of the plot.     When was the last time Julia Roberts looked like she was having any fun in a movie?    Years ago, people fell in love with her radiant smile.     These days, she looks unhappy to be forced to learn her lines.     She and Clooney worked together in the first two Ocean's Eleven movies and Clooney's Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, but besides initial glimpses of chemistry, Roberts looks like she would rather be elsewhere.    Clooney carries a heavy load, but he is up to it.

Money Monster is Occupy Wall Street about three years too late and taken to the extreme.    The best the movie can manage is contrived outrage with an unsympathetic perpetrator representing the screwed-over masses.      This makes me wonder how Donald Trump, a callous billionaire who represents corporate greed and cold excess to the nth degree, is somehow a Presidential candidate whom many people think is a working class hero.     In Network (1976), Howard Beale led a mass movement against the system by proclaiming, "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore."     Beale would be stunned to see that forty years later, people not only continue to take it, but do so eagerly.     Or maybe he wouldn't be.  

The Night Before (2015) *

The Night Before Movie Review

Directed by:  Jonathan Levine

Starring:  Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie, Jillian Bell, Lizzy Caplan, Mindy Kaling, Michael Shannon

I blame myself.     I know Seth Rogen's (and his various buddies) MO by now.     Weed, drugs, bodily fluids galore, and homoerotic jokes rule the day.     He has been recycling this for a decade now.    It is past tired.    It is sheer laziness.     Sure, other actors star in these Rogen movies, but he is the common thread and serves as producer here.    Yet, I rented it somehow expecting something fresh or original.   I am the epitome of the definition of insanity, "Keep trying the same thing and expecting different results."   I hope one day soon he grows up and challenges himself.     He was effective in Steve Jobs and he didn't have to smoke a single blunt.  

Until Rogen finds himself, he will continue to drag himself and his friends down in lame comedies like this one.     No matter how he repackages the plot, the themes are the same and we will not be surprised when a.) characters spend half of the movie stoned  b.) a bodily fluid shows up where it shouldn't   c.) Rogen will flirt with the idea of performing a gay act with another male character or d.) he simulates gay vibes under the guise of "it's all a joke".     None of this is funny.    Never was.    Especially the fifth or sixth time around.     

Rogen, Gordon-Levitt, and Mackie play longtime friends who meet every Christmas Eve for a night of partying, karaoke singing "Christmas in Hollis", and visiting the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center.     This year's will be the last.     Isaac (Rogen) is soon to become a father, while Chris (Mackie) is coming into his own as a pro football star.    Ethan (Gordon-Levitt) is stuck in a rut and recently broke up with his girlfriend because he refused to meet her parents.     The clock is ticking on the trio's party days, so they promise this last bash which will end up at the fabled "Nutcracker's Ball".    More on that later.    

Isaac is given a Christmas Eve gift of a box of drugs by his pregnant wife (Bell) for the group to party with.     She runs into Isaac later while he is so stoned he thinks a nativity scene is really talking to him.     She is not happy that he is fucked up while they attend midnight mass, but what did she expect?     She gave him the drugs!!!    Another subplot involves the guys buying weed from a far-out high school janitor (Shannon), who seems omnipresent and omnipotent.      It is an interesting performance and the best thing in the movie.     Shannon takes chances and we wish his cast mates would follow suit.

But, alas, they don't.    The movie is a "wacky adventure" in which the guys run into one hairy situation after another.     Most of these could have been avoided, but I suppose if they weren't then there would not have been a movie.     Fine by me.     The movie runs slightly over 90 minutes, but boy does it drag.     Roger Ebert wrote often that you know a movie is bad when you find yourself checking your watch a lot and then you check it again because you think it stopped.     The Night Before is that type of movie.

Back to the Nutcracker's Ball party.    There is nothing special about it.    People dance, drink, do drugs, and hook up.    It is no different than a garden variety movie nightclub.    James Franco and Miley Cyrus show up in cameos which don't do much to enhance their Q ratings.     Franco and Rogen flirt with each other and nearly hook up.    I will never understand how this is funny.    This is a common theme in Rogen films.    Does he think the idea of homosexual tendencies is funny in and of itself?    There is no joke or point of view.    Does Rogen think he is somehow pushing the envelope with this?     Or being a wild and crazy guy?     There is also a scene after Rogen snorts coke; his nose bleeds and a drop of "cocaine blood" drips into a friend's drink.     How can it be funny when our repulsion overrides anything else about the situation?   

The Night Before is a tiresome enterprise that also tries to get all gooey at the end.     Everyone parties, but hey we also learned something too.   There is also some phony Christmas cheer thrown in.    Give me a break.    Comedies involving partying seem to think that a character smoking weed or snorting lines is funny all by itself.     These are movie drug users who don't become addicted or ruin their lives.     They can seemingly confine their use to one night, while remain straight for the remaining 364 days of the year.    Cheech & Chong covered this ground decades ago, but they were funny because they allowed themselves to be the butt of the joke.     It was satire and it was fresher then.   Most of their better jokes occurred when they weren't high anyway.   

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Gladiator (2000) * * *

Directed by:  Ridley Scott

Starring:  Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Derek Jacobi, Richard Harris, Oliver Reed, Djimon Hounsou

Gladiator won the 2000 Oscar for Best Picture and also notably a Best Actor Oscar for Russell Crowe.     It is an action movie that does its job well and satisfies the masses, but Best Picture?    Gladiator is a People's Choice Award Winner to be sure, but in a normal year, Gladiator might not have even made the cut as a Best Picture nominee.     In 2000, the other nominees were Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Traffic, Erin Brockovich, and Chocolat.      I think Traffic was better, but Gladiator won and that's that.     The other three films were fair at best.     It was a lean year.

Gladiator is a bit more brooding and downbeat than other action films.     This is likely because its hero Maximus (Crowe), a general in the Roman Empire turned gladiator/slave,  lost his wife and child in an attack ordered by the vengeful Commodus (Phoenix).    Commodus is the son of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Harris), who favors Maximus over his own son to be the next ruler of the empire.    An incensed Commodus murders his father then leaves Maximus for dead, who is soon sold into slavery.     A slave in this era is doomed to fight as a gladiator versus other gladiators in the Roman Colosseum.      Maximus, with victory after victory, wins the crowd over and sets up a quandary for Commodus, who learns the gladiator's true identity as the man he left for dead.      Does Commodus simply kill the vengeful Maximus at the risk of upsetting the masses?     If he did, this would be a much shorter movie and there would no impending showdown between Maximus and Commodus, which is the only satisfying conclusion one would expect.

A lot of Gladiator's visuals involve CGI in its infancy.     Even then, the lion Maximus and his crew must contend with in one battle looked pretty fake, but still the visuals get the job done.     The fight scenes are bloody and violent, naturally, but director Scott makes them rousing.     Maximus' plight and desire for revenge is one an audience can get behind and Crowe is a strong enough actor to allow us to see Maximus as not just a fighting machine.      There are plenty of politics afoot also in the film.     Now Emperor Commodus is at odds with his Senate because Rome is battling plague and poverty.     Commodus prefers resources to be used for the gladiator battles, while the Senate wants to make civic improvements.      The Senate leader Gracchus (Jacobi) hatches an overthrow of the emperor using Maximus as his point man.      Commodus' sister Lucilla (Nielsen) falls for Maximus and assists in the plot.     My guess is she doesn't care for her brother because he would love nothing more than to sleep with her.  

The actors are strong here.    Phoenix was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role and provides Gladiator with a snaky enough villain.      Crowe is physically imposing and sufficiently vengeful.     A Best Actor Oscar might have been a stretch, but I still admired the performance.     The actors and director Scott take what could have been a routine revenge picture and took care to make a good one.     It never transcends into greatness, mostly because nothing about the material would elevate it to such lofty heights.     But, it's worth a couple hours of your time.     That should be endorsement enough.  

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Extraordinary Measures (2010) * *

Extraordinary Measures Movie Review

Directed by:  Tom Vaughan

Starring:  Brendan Fraser, Harrison Ford, Keri Russell

Extraordinary Measures is the story of John Crowley (Fraser) whose two children are diagnosed with a fatal childhood disease and teams up with a gruff doctor (Ford) to find a cure.     It is based on a true story, although the facts are fudged considerably, and very similar to Lorenzo's Oil (1992) which was also based on a true story.     Lorenzo's Oil is much better.     Extraordinary Measures wants to be a feel-good film with every fiber of its being, but boy did it step wrong when it introduces Dr. Robert Stonehill (Ford). 

The real cure for Pompe disease, which afflicts Crowley's children and others, was discovered by an Asian doctor who I'm sure was not as tempestuous as Stonehill.     Since Stonehill is a fictional character, couldn't he have been written with fewer edges?     Sure, he deals mostly in chemistry and not with patients, but why make him an asshole that we have to suffer with until he undergoes his obligatory change of heart?     I guess he is supposed to be the eccentric with a heart of gold, but as played by Ford he is simply too obtuse for his own good.

Poor John Crowley goes through the wringer in his attempts to find a cure and save his children's lives.     He is an executive at a pharmaceutical company who creates a startup firm solely dedicated to patenting and selling the cure for Pompe.     It is risky, but time is of the essence.     Forming a new company with venture capitalists will cut through lots of red tape, even though the egotistical Stonehill nearly derails the project on numerous occasions.     What is this guy's problem?

Is he bitter because he invented a possible cure that was rejected by the medical establishment?     Does he want all of the credit?     Can he not work well with others?     The answer to all three is yes.    Of course, in each instance, he decides to lighten up and change for the common good, but dealing with Stonehill must be exhausting.      There is only so much gruffness we can tolerate.

There is enough intrinsic interest in a story about racing for a cure that will save people's lives.     Lorenzo's Oil did it with much more emotional weight and less like a TV movie.     In Lorenzo's Oil, a grief-stricken father and mother come up with their own cure for the disease that afflicts their son.     We sense the emotional and physical strain the two lay people undergo as they ask questions and research a disease that "six months ago didn't even have a name."   

Even the title Extraordinary Measures sounds more at home on the Hallmark Channel than it does as a feature film.     It is nice that the cure is found and lives are saved, including Crowley's kids, but there is no way for this movie to end in any other manner.      It is not designed to entertain the possibility of failure.     Lorenzo's Oil had a poignant scene in which the boy's parents played by Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon grow to understand that the cure they find may not be able to save their own child, but will save other children.     Extraordinary Measures has no such thoughts.    We know everything will turn out ok, which robs it of its power.     I realize that I spent as much of this review discussing Lorenzo's Oil as I did the movie I set out to review.    That should tell you something.