Thursday, February 22, 2018
Directed by: F. Gary Gray
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Gerard Butler, Bruce McGill, Leslie Bibb, Viola Davis, Colm Meaney
Clyde Shelton (Butler) is a Philadelphia family man driven to extreme measures for vengeance after his wife and daughter are killed in a home invasion and only one of the perpetrators is executed. The other does jail time, thanks to a plea deal orchestrated by attorney Nick Rice (Foxx), but is not sentenced to death. This does not sit well with Clyde, who years later returns to knock off not only his family's killers, but the attorneys involved in what he perceives to be a miscarriage of justice.
Directed by F. Gary Gray (Friday, The Negotiator, The Italian Job), Law-Abiding Citizen delivers the goods on the action and suspense at the expense of plot holes two miles wide. I will leave you to discover how Clyde, imprisoned for killing the two men who offed his family, somehow manages to kill his other targets while in a jail cell. Is he acting with an accomplice? Is he Houdini's grandson? Is he a supernatural being? I'll never tell.
Clyde surely manipulates Nick and the rest of the Philadelphia legal system with his stunts and exposing loopholes in the law. His mission is not simply to kill, but to show the legal system how easily it can be duped and how laws seem to benefit killers more than victims. He is likely correct, but since he is the villain, he must be stopped by Nick and his staff which always is one step behind Clyde. It would've been more interesting to have Clyde behave as not simply a villain, but as a wronged man with whom we can sympathize with a little. Because he behaves so viciously, we forget what brought him to these actions, and thus Law Abiding Citizen is simply a good vs. evil cat and mouse movie.
On that level, Law Abiding Citizen gets the job done, but try not to let these questions bother you while watching it and you will enjoy it gleefully:
* When one or more of the murders occurs in which Clyde is a suspect in at least planning even though he is in jail, wouldn't the first order of business be to retrieve Clyde right away and question him? Maybe this would've ruined the surprise ending, but oh well.
* How does the explosion which Nick walks away from know to have its flames and debris stop just short of him and not hit him?
* If a building is on lockdown because a mad bomber is on the loose in the city, why would they allow an office cleaner by to have unfettered access to the place? The place is on lockdown. Can't the building's cleanliness wait at least one night? Did you ever notice how easily a hero or villain can pose as an office cleaner to gain access to the building or office they need to investigate? (See The Fugitive or Wall Street)
* How do they gain access to the cleaning supplies cart by the way?
Logic flies out the window often in Law Abiding Citizen, but on its intended level it is effectively made. My curse in life is letting plot logic deter my enjoyment sometimes. It's an occupational hazard.
Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Directed by: Woody Allen
Starring: Jason Biggs, Christina Ricci, Woody Allen, Danny DeVito, Jimmy Fallon, KaDee Strickland, Stockard Channing, Adrian Grenier
"I never thought I'd fall in love with a smoker," Jerry (Biggs) says to Amanda (Ricci) when they first begin their drama-filled, one-sided relationship. Jerry, a fledgling comedy writer, is the one in the relationship, while Amanda doesn't give him sex for six months and sleeps around with other men "to prove I can still enjoy sex," Jerry is so in love he justifies this behavior, or is he more in love with the drama? I say more the latter, but he doesn't see it that way and likely needs a frying pan to the skull to wake him up.
Woody Allen's Anything Else is mostly about Jerry's inability to extricate himself from bad situations and even more toxic people. His best friend is David Dobel (Allen), a schoolteacher and conspiracy theorist who dispenses world-weary advice about love and stocking up on weapons for a coming government takeover. His shrink rarely speaks and his agent, Harvey (DeVito) is a show business joke. Jerry would have better luck landing gigs on his own than having Harvey, who charges an absurdly high 25% on the rare occasions he actually lands Jerry a job. Jerry is a nice enough guy who doesn't need these albatrosses around his neck, but there they stay.
Dobel gives Allen an opportunity to point out the obvious to Jerry, which is that Amanda cheats on him and he should dump his agent. In those cases, he is astute, but the whole "build up an arsenal" thing makes you wonder just how full of a deck he is playing with. Years ago, Allen would've played Jerry, who refuses to see anything other than his romanticized version of Amanda, who anyone with any sense would steer clear of, but it seems she has an ability to lure men in with her supposed innate sexiness. In a way, Dobel is the elder statesman of neurotic nebbish men who kvetch about, well, anything. It is refreshing to see Allen in this type of role.
We also see Stockard Channing as Paula, Amanda's equally dramatic mother, whose every syllable uttered is simply a way of saying, "Yes, I'm here," Paula crashes at Jerry and Amanda's apartment and is yet one more person to suffocate poor Jerry. She is the type of woman who meets a guy half her age at AA and brings him home to snort coke off of Jerry's laptop. Jerry hardly utters any words of protest, and Amanda has him so turned around he questions whether he is too much of a stick in the mud for not doing coke.
As things tend to do in Allen comedies, things turn a corner and Jerry begins to assert himself and get rid of these losers who populate his life, but almost feels guilty doing it. We see he is just as addicted to drama as the others, but just doesn't have the balls to admit it. Anything Else is a mostly sunny, harmless comedy which doesn't necessarily distinguish itself in Allen's filmography, but it is still nonetheless funny and we feel good for Jerry as he takes a taxi to JFK Airport in hopes of starting a new life in LA. It does what it intends to do.
Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Directed by: Jake Kasdan
Starring: Colin Hanks, Schuyler Fisk, Jack Black, John Lithgow, Catherine O' Hara, Harold Ramis, Kevin Kline, Lily Tomlin, Chevy Chase, Leslie Mann
Shaun Brumder (Hanks) makes a life-changing decision one day while hanging at the beach in sunny Orange County, California. He discovers a book buried in the sand which causes him to immediately scrap his surfer dude lifestyle and get serious about becoming a writer. The writer of the book is Marcus Skinner, whom Shaun learns is a professor at Stanford University, and thus Shaun makes it his life's mission to get into Stanford to meet his idol. His family and friends, unintentionally, do not make this easy for him. Orange County is the affable, breezy film about Shaun's quest, which encounters obstacles because he trusts his goofball, couch potato half-brother Lance (Black) to help him out. He would've been better leaving Lance home, but the movie would not have been as funny.
Shaun's loved ones mean well. They really do. They try to help, but can't stay out of their own way. If these people were malevolent, selfish jerks, then the movie might've been intolerable, but they, just as Shaun and his girlfriend Ashley (Fisk), are sweet and well-meaning. Ashley is fully aware Shaun getting into Stanford might end their relationship because she is only a high school junior, but she supports him anyway. A lesser movie might have the girlfriend try and sabotage him.
Shaun's grades are surely good enough to get him into Stanford, plus being class president, but a daffy guidance counselor (Tomlin) attaches another student's poor grades to Shaun's profile and he is rejected. Shaun decides to take Lance and Ashley with him to Stanford and convince the dean of admissions (Ramis) that a mistake was made and he would be admitted. If only it were that easy. Circumstances arise which make this much more difficult than it has to be, but without these, there would be no movie. The obstacles aren't contrived and out of thin air, but follow sort of a logical progression and realism. Only one building burns down in the process, but by the end everyone is happy.
We meet Shaun's pot-smoking buddies, his divorced parents who still carry torches for each other, and his father's trophy wife who may be screwing the help. They are allowed room to breathe and create their own pockets of insanity while still being touching and sweet. The movie spends time with these characters also, convincingly giving us an absurd world for Shaun to write about and send the manuscript to Skinner (Kline), who understands Shaun's love/hate relationship with them as well as Orange County itself.
Hanks is the son of Tom Hanks from his first marriage, while Fisk is Sissy Spacek's daughter. Much was made about their casting, but they are adept, likable comic actors. There are moments when Colin channels his father, especially when expressing his outrage to the guidance counselor who refuses to admit she messed up. Orange County doesn't transcend into great comedy, but it warmly observes its people and we find ourselves rooting for them.
Directed by: Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Benny Safdie, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Taliah Webster, Barkhad Abdi, Buddy Duress
Connie Nikas (Pattinson), the "hero" of Good Time, is one guy who should never have attempted a life of crime. He is spectacularly bad at it; the kind of guy who would pick a guy's pocket on an airplane and make a run for it. The only thing worse than botching the bank robbery is trying in vain to weasel his way out of trouble over the course of one long winter night. The opening scenes of Good Time are presented with a vibrant intensity and we wish the entire film was as watchable as the first half hour, but the film soon grows wearisome as we witness Connie foul one thing up after another. This is the stuff of comedy, but Good Time is a deadly serious film noir crime picture, with a digital score harkening back to those Tangerine Dream scores of the 1980s. The score can't be too good if you begin to notice it, the music should underline the scene and not take center stage.
Pattinson's performance is very good. He is a desperate loser hoping to steal a lot of money from a Queens bank in broad daylight with the unwitting help of his special needs brother Nick (Safdie), whom we are introduced to in the opening scenes undergoing a session with a therapist. We learn a lot about Nick in that scene, including his childhood of abuse and violence, but Connie soon barges in and steals him away to assist him in the ill-advised, ill-fated bank robbery. Al Pacino's Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon, which echoes throughout Good Time, would shake his head at some of Connie's moves. Connie seemingly learned how to be a bank robber while watching Dog Day Afternoon, which is not the place to learn. Dressed in bright high visibility vests and posing as black men (don't ask), Connie and Nick get away with the money and change clothes, but once the dye pack explodes all over them things start crumbling. The cops quickly locate them on the street and catch the slow-witted Nick, who winds up being pummeled in jail while Connie tries to scam his sometime girlfriend (Jason Leigh) into loaning him $10,000 for Nick's bail. Like everything else, it doesn't work out.
After hearing word that Nick was hospitalized following his jail fight, Nick hatches a plot to sneak his brother out of the hospital and hole up somewhere until he can figure his next move. That doesn't go as planned either, mostly because of a plot twist which doesn't ring true, but instead feels like a plot swerve. Connie is dumb and drugged up, but is that dumb and drugged up? Maybe, maybe not, but you begin to ask how he could have made the mistake he made instead of focusing on the long and winding plot. Good Time starts to unravel after that and soon becomes an exercise in delaying the inevitable ending as long as possible.
Pattinson is to be admired for taking on challenging roles which expand his acting range following the mainstream success of the Twilight series. In Good Time, he isn't likable and isn't supposed to be, but we are still carried along for a little while before the film loses steam. There are only so many different ways we can see one man screw up and try to rely on his lack of intellect and resourcefulness to fix them. Other characters being populating the film, including a 16-year old named Crystal who is the closest thing to a love interest for Connie, and Ray (Duress), who is as stupid as Connie, only without any real hope. Barkhad Abdi (Oscar nominee for Captain Phillips) shows up briefly as a security guard who thwarts another of Connie and Ray's schemes to find hidden money in an amusement park.
From the opening titles fresh out of 1970's action film to the over-the-top score, Good Time is an homage to films like Dog Day Afternoon, but without the media circus which served as a remarkable subplot in that film. Good Time takes place in the cold of night and in the shadows, but it doesn't bode well for the film when we wish Connie would get caught or turn himself in already.
Directed by: Martin Campbell
Starring: Jackie Chan, Pierce Brosnan, Charlie Murphy, Katie Leung
Those expecting a Jackie Chan actioner showcasing his normal exuberance will be sorely disappointed with The Foreigner. Here, Chan plays a grieving father of a teenage girl killed in a terrorist bombing in London. He doesn't take the death lying down. He wants justice, and not in the courtroom, but in his own Rambo kind of way. It turns out he has a Past, in which he was somehow trained by U.S. Special Forces in Vietnam, and even though he is now in his 60s, he can kick butt with the best of them and create bombs seemingly at will. He is supposed to be a London restaurant owner, but he seems to have more bomb ingredients than cake ingredients handy.
I guess The Foreigner represents a change of pace from the typical Chan performance, in which he famously does his own stunts and has a really good time doing them. He is a tireless killing machine in this movie, kind of like the Rocky Balboa of vengeful fathers, but he doesn't smile much, which I suppose is understandable considering his daughter's death and his Past. You will see what I mean on that. The pity is how The Foreigner rushes so quickly into its plot it doesn't take time to establish Quan (Chan) as a hero we can sympathize with. The bomb goes off soon after the opening credits end, and we now are immersed in Quan's quest to locate the bombers.
Quan gains a lead in an Irish Deputy Minister to something or other named Liam Hennessy (Brosnan), who was once an IRA member and no stranger to conducting violent bombings. But, now he is British government appointee and wishes to maintain a tentative peace accord in Northern Ireland. It is amusing to hear Brosnan, an Irish actor himself, give us such an exaggerated Irish brogue, in which he sounds friendly even when issuing ultimatums to find the conspirators. He isn't much interested in helping Quan, but is instead protecting his posh life and career in the British government. Hennessy's hollow words of sympathy and feigning having no knowledge of the bombers' identities forces Quan to track Hennessy like a bloodhound.
In between Quan killing two, three, or four men at a time, slinking around people's homes undetected planting bombs, and running away from his enemies, Quan just sits around looking intense and undaunted. The Foreigner is a film in desperate need of a sympathetic hero, but we simply don't have one, and thus no real reason to care. Director Campbell directed Casino Royale, and Brosnan as Bond in Goldeneye, so he surely knows his way around an action scene, but the movie bogs itself down with too much political intrigue, too many bombs, too much incredulity, and not much human element.
Monday, February 19, 2018
Directed by: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Daniel Kaluuya, Andy Serkis, Martin Freeman, Sterling K. Brown, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright
Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) was first introduced in Captain America: Civil War and stood out as particularly bad ass. He was played with a smoldering intensity by Boseman, who before then was mostly known for playing Jackie Robinson and James Brown in wheezing biopics 42 and Get on Up. (He has since added Marshall to that list). When news of a Black Panther standalone film was announced, I was eager to see it to find out more about this intriguing hero. The film doesn't stand out as anything special. It is well-made, with plenty of fights, CGI, and interesting gadgets, but you have to wonder why a nation as technologically advanced as the one which Black Panther hails from still uses spears to fight with?
We learn Black Panther (alias T'Challa) is soon to be crowned king of Wakanda, an African nation which to the outside world appears to be a poor African nation, but its vast jungle hides a technologically superior near-utopia, with futuristic weapons and modes of transportation made with a metal called virbanium, which is stronger than any other metal on Earth. I'm guessing the metal is pretty lightweight also. The evolution of Wakanda is described in the prologue as the beneficiary of a vibranium-rich meteorite which struck central Africa. Wakanda keeps its vast resources secret by not accepting any outside aid from other nations and not offering help either. Black Panther begins shortly after the events of Captain America: Civil War, with T'Challa still grieving the loss of his father in an explosion at the UN building. On the day of his coronation, T'Challa follows the longstanding Wakandan ritual of allowing those from other tribes to challenge him to a mano y mano battle. One does and T'Challa wins, but this sets the stage for a later battle with an outsider nicknamed Killmonger (Jordan), who we learn has a connection to Wakanda first established in the prologue during events in 1992 Oakland, and wishes to possess the throne of Wakanda. I will leave for you to discover what they are, mostly because recapping them here would take an extra couple of paragraphs and cause you to zone out.
Killmonger, refreshingly, isn't out to rule the universe, but to make Wakanda's vast secret resources available to the oppressed all over the world. He isn't a nice guy, he marked his body with unsightly bumps each time he killed someone during his tours of duty in Iraq and has enough marks to make Chris Kyle envious. He is a malignant ruler, setting fire to (literally and figuratively) to Wakanda's traditions, and of course defeating T'Challa in hand-to-hand combat and leaving him for dead, but that is what happens in superhero movies. The hero loses the first battle, only to regain his strength and come back with guns blazing for the finale.
Black Panther follows the traditions of a superhero movie, but fortunately allows for some standout supporting characters, including his right-hand general Okoye (Gurira), who is at times more bad ass than the Black Panther, and doesn't wear a costume. And she doesn't have to drink all of these potions which at various times give the drinker Black Panther abilities while at other times taking them away. Do they have these different liquids stored in separate vials and labeled properly? During so many instances in Black Panther, I was reminded too strongly of James Bond, The Dark Knight series, and Superman II. The film borrows from these perhaps a bit too heavily.
Boseman returns with the same intense approach he brought to Captain America: Civil War, but at times he doesn't outshine his supporting players, making him probably the third or fourth most interesting person in the movie. Jordan is a suitably hateful villain and the movie perks up when he is onscreen, but I think he was shortchanged after he becomes the new ruler of Wakanda. The movie doesn't present life changing under his oppressive rule. He is a mere placeholder until T'Challa can recover from his wounds and return to reclaim his title, kind of like Rocky in any Rocky movie you can think of.
Coogler also directed Creed, which like Black Panther was a critical darling even though there was nothing remarkable about that film either, other than Sylvester Stallone finally copping to the fact that he is near 70 and shouldn't be boxing anymore. Black Panther feels the same way. There is little to it that doesn't instill a "been there, done that" attitude from the viewer. Much has been made of Coogler being a gifted filmmaker, but so far his only gift is his ability to make an average genre film and somehow convince film critics it is truly special. Black Panther has flashes in which it seems like it will transcend its genre, but those are islands unto themselves. It's as if Coogler plays the Jedi mind trick on critics.
Thursday, February 15, 2018
Directed by: Jon Lucas and Scott Moore
Starring: Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, Kathryn Hahn, Susan Sarandon, Cheryl Hines, Christine Baranski, Peter Gallagher, Jay Hernandez, Justin Hartley
This sequel was thrown together so fast you wonder if the script was previously rejected, only to be resurrected after the surprise 2016 hit, Bad Moms was released. I don't know, but while it isn't as enjoyable as its predecessor, it has some moments of tenderness, a few laughs, and some Christmas spirit.
A Bad Moms Christmas doesn't necessarily need you to view the first film to watch this one. It seems to have almost forgotten the initial film altogether. We see Amy (Kunis), once again trying to be the perfect Christmas mom, but finds she is exhausted and wants to dine on Chinese takeout with her family on Christmas. Not so fast, says Ruth (Baranski), Amy's domineering mother who drops by at a moment's notice to spend Christmas with a daughter who is less than enthusiastic to see her. Ruth believes Christmas should be about garish decorations which would rival Clark Griswold's, haughty parties, and having Kenny G. perform as the house act for said party. Amy and Ruth immediately clash because, they've been clashing all their lives.
Kiki (Bell) seems to have her house in order when her uber clingy mother, Sandy (Hines) drops in to spend Christmas with the daughter she all but wishes would be her Siamese twin. Usually children are the ones afraid to cut the umbilical cord, but here it's Sandy, who is not above emotional blackmail and flat out lying about having any number of diseases to keep her daughter close. Carla (Hahn) is still looking for a party and Mr. Right Now instead of Mr. Right, but her shameless schnorrer of a mother, Isis (Sarandon-and couldn't they use any other first name besides that one?) comes by unannounced to spend the holidays because, well, she needs money again.
Only Ruth is accompanied by a husband, the feckless Hank (Gallagher), who is henpecked and barely says a word, but would you be at all surprised to see him dispense crucial wisdom about his wife to his daughter in a moment of need? Hank is a nice guy and far too much of a mensch to have to put up with Ruth. Baranski draws the most laughs as the uptight, sometimes fascist Ruth, who believes her way is the only way to celebrate Christmas., but of course we know there are issues underneath. The same with the other moms of moms, who figure out numerous ways to exasperate their daughters who only want to get through Christmas in one piece.
Yes, this sequel is a quick cash-in on the success of Bad Moms, but it isn't half bad as far as quick cash-ins go. Yes, the daughters and moms complete dizzying 180 degree about faces in their attitudes toward each other, which is expected in a comedy like this, but that doesn't mean a few of the scenes aren't at least a little sweet if not totally credible. Who knows? Maybe this will become a staple of Christmas viewing in the coming years. OK, maybe that's pushing it.
Sunday, February 11, 2018
Directed by: Mimi Leder
Starring: George Clooney, Nicole Kidman, Marcel Iures, Amin Mueller-Stahl
What we have in The Peacemaker is a post-Cold War thriller without many thrills as the heroes race against time to thwart a villain. In this case, the villain has stolen a bunch of nuclear warheads and helpfully wrote his plan down so the heroes can determine what he plans to nuke, where, and when. I know it was written in code, but doesn't he knows there is always that one character in a movie who can deduce code in nanoseconds?
The Peacemaker has a few things going for it, including George Clooney and Nicole Kidman in standard roles who nonetheless make them as engaging as possible under the circumstances, and a villain whose motives are understandable and we can somewhat sympathize with him...if he weren't planning to nuke Manhattan. But, the rest is standard stuff, including the "Rum Dum a Dum" music (I learned that term from Roger Ebert) which populates military movie soundtracks and an elongated final act which involves practically every government agency tracking the villain as he walks around Manhattan with the nuclear bomb stuffed in his backpack. There are so many orders being barked on the radio, it is amazing they can keep everything straight. We even have the obligatory shots of snipers perched on roofs asking his superiors, "Do I have a green light?" as he views his target through a rifle scope. Naturally, just as he's ready to pull the trigger and end the chase, a tree branch or another person inadvertently gets in the way and the sniper mutters in frustration.
The Peacemaker opens with a horrific train crash in Russia's Ural Mountains. The train was carrying nuclear warheads to be dismantled, but the crash was an elaborate ruse to disguise the theft of the warheads. Government bureaucrat Julia Kelly (Kidman) explains her theory of the crash to a roomful full of military and government types when Col. Tom DeVoe (Clooney) interrupts the speech and discredits her theory while Julia stands by inertly. DeVoe and Julia are soon teamed up to find out who stole the nukes and stop the plans for the stolen warheads. After watching the mess in Julia's meeting unfold, I would have been less than confident in her abilities if I were her bosses, but because Julia is played by Nicole Kidman, she will carry on.
Clooney is intelligent and confident, so he occupies the role well. I even enjoyed Iures as the villain, whose family was killed during a terrorist attack in Bosnia and hopes to draw attention to the Bosnian plight by destroying New York and beyond. The performances aren't the problem, just the by-the-numbers movie they're in which doesn't contain many surprises. We have our share of fistfights, car chases, and shootouts, including several shots of Clooney running through Manhattan holding his gun while chasing the villain on foot. What if someone mistakes Clooney for a shooter and offs him? You know, like pro-gun activists who just wish they could encounter a shooting so they could be a John McLane-like hero and save the day? In this case, such a thing would have been very bad for New York.
The Peacemaker is skillfully made with plenty of star power, but it is indistinguishable from numerous like thrillers we've seen before and since. It is also another of those movies in which the heroes manage to run away just far enough from an explosion to avoid any serious injuries, even though they jumped through a window to do so. How did they not get cut to ribbons? And how did the flame know to stop just short of our heroes? I would mention the Red Digital Readout, another cliche from bomber movies in which the hero has to dismantle the bomb before the Red Digital Readout counts down to 0:00, more in depth, but I can't take credit for the term or the discovery of the cliche. I again had to learn that from Roger Ebert.
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos, Jenna Fischer, Judy Greer, Ray Corasani, Jaleel White
There is a riveting movie to be made of the August 2015 real-life heroic story of three Americans who thwarted a Moroccan shooter aboard a train bound for Paris. This is not that movie. The 15:17 to Paris spends roughly ten total screen minutes on the heroic sequence itself and the rest of the 90-minute running time on next-to-nothingness. These were three ordinary young men thrust into an extraordinary circumstance and lived to tell about it. The movie spends an inordinate amount of time trying to find a gripping backstory for these men which simply isn't there. We are bored out of our skulls waiting for the inevitable main event, which swooshes by so fast you wonder why Eastwood didn't spend at least a bit more screen time on a suspenseful buildup.
We learn nothing about the motives of the would-be shooter. If you want to know anything about him, you will have to Google him. But, we learn more than we will ever need to about the three Americans. The Americans: Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler all play themselves, which isn't lethal in and of itself, but unfortunately the three men are not professional actors and it shows. I'm not saying they should not have appeared in the film, because next to nobody would turn down an opportunity to star in a Clint Eastwood film (or any film), but an acting coach should have been nearby. They have the screen presence of guys on a YouTube posted video. I don't fault the men for that.
In some cases, the hiring of non-professional actors in major roles paid off. Dr. Haing S. Ngor (The Killing Fields) and Harold Russell (The Best Years of Our Lives), both won Best Supporting Actor Oscars. It just doesn't here. But the actors are only part of the reason why Eastwood's film is such a dud. We start at the beginning, in which we meet Spencer, Alek, and Anthony as pre-teens in a Sacramento middle school. Spencer is a rebellious teen with a military fetish who reminded me way too much of Chris Kyle, the late sniper of Eastwood's American Sniper (2014). He wears camouflage shirts everywhere, has a camouflage comforter, and a poster of Full Metal Jacket adorns his bedroom wall; not to mention an arsenal of BB guns which frankly isn't healthy.
Alek is his best friend and the two soon meet Anthony during one of many trips to the principal's office. We meet Spencer's mother (Greer) and Alek's (Fischer), who oddly attend parent-teacher conferences together and the teacher or principal discuss Alek and Spencer as if they were one unit and not two separate individuals. They also storm out in unison when the teacher or principal expel them or promote the use of medication. The principal suggests to Alek's mother that Alek go live with his father because "the Lord says it's what should be done". Alek's mother protests, but in the very next scene, Alek is seen riding off with his dad to live in Oregon. It's the dramatic equivalent of a character in a comedy protesting vehemently when his boss tells him to do something and then, of course, the next scene has the character doing exactly what he said he wouldn't. Then, we have Jaleel White (formerly Steve Urkel) as a history teacher whose appearance drew snickers from the audience in the screening I attended. He is onscreen roughly thirty seconds and does what a lot of teachers in the movies do: They wait until the dismissal bell rings and belt out "there will be a quiz and read chapters 1 through 4 tonight" in vain while the students gather up their things and likely are paying no attention to him. Why don't these teachers explain the homework assignments before the loud, shrill bell goes off?
The moms are given barely any screen time to establish any sort of relationships with their children, while Anthony's home life is not shown at all. We don't know until the final scene that Anthony even has parents. We just thought he journeyed back to Parts Unknown every night. Fast forward a few years and we see Spencer, Alek, and Anthony again attending college. Spencer longs to join the Air Force paratrooper ranks, but he keeps messing up, although he learns jujitsu which will help him immensely in his attempts to take down the train gunman. Alek does a tour of duty in Afghanistan, although puts his mission in danger when he leaves his backpack behind in a village and the group has to go back to retrieve it. Anthony attends college, but we don't see him doing anything except watching college football games and Skyping with his buddies.
In case we forgot the date with destiny will soon arrive, Spencer says at least twice (and I'm paraphrasing) that life has a bigger meaning in store for him. Spencer and Anthony soon book a trek through Europe with the two visiting all of the sights Rome has to offer, take gondolas in Venice, take a ridiculous amount of selfies, party with Alek when they meet up in Amsterdam, and the three then board the train hung over which will soon be terrorized by the gunman. The first part of The 15:17 to Paris plays like a military recruitment film, the second part like a European travelogue. It is terribly dull.
Then, there is the attack itself, which doesn't resonate like it should because (and here is one reason why casting the three men as themselves doesn't work), the men seem to react as if they already knew what was going to happen. It doesn't feel in the moment. Instead, it feels like what it was for them: a recreation of events and for them, there is no way to recapture the emotions of the event itself. There was a fourth person, an Englishman, who supposedly aided the Americans in subduing the gunman, but in the film he barely registers. He is kept off to the side as Spencer chokes the man into unconsciousness while the other two punch and belt the gunman with the butt of a rifle.
The film ends, as in real life, with the French President awarding the three men (and the Englishman) with their highest civilian honor and while the music swells and the President gives his impassioned speech about courage and heroism, the moment is curiously flat. The entire movie is the same way, and while Eastwood's novel approach to casting may have seemed like a good idea at the time, it frankly would've been better if it were given the Hollywood treatment more. There are those who complain that biopics play loose with facts and react with disgust that scenes were embellished or take dramatic license. Well, watch The 15:17 to Paris and tell me the movie couldn't have used a lot of embellishment.
Friday, February 9, 2018
Directed by: Joel Schumacher
Starring: Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Andrew McCarthy, Ally Sheedy, Mare Winningham, Demi Moore, Judd Nelson, Martin Balsam, Andie McDowell, Jenny Wright
We see seven Georgetown University graduates in caps and gowns walking toward the camera and ready to take on the world. Months later, the world will have taken on them. St. Elmo's Fire is one of the many 80s films starring various combinations of the "Brat Pack", actors such as Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, Emilio Estevez, etc. These characters are entitled and shallow, placed into formulaic situations in which we get to see them all grow up at long last. I first saw it as a teen in 1985 and it didn't resonate much with me then, probably because these were people in their 20s encountering issues I had yet to deal with. 33 years later, I watched it again and it still didn't strike a chord with me. I am relieved to discover my judgment wasn't so off the charts in 1985 that I mistakenly believed St. Elmo's Fire to be a deep, powerful film.
The seven Brat Packers all have problems which need to be neatly resolved in about a 100-minute running time. Alec (Nelson) is a Congressional aide who can't help but cheat on his loving, patient girlfriend Leslie (Sheedy), who can't decide between marriage and a career. (A word of advice, Leslie: Choose the career). Kevin (McCarthy) is a would-be writer who mopes around chain smoking cigarettes because of unrequited love. He had better publish something soon in order to pay for the cartons of cigarettes he must go through each day. Kirby (Estevez) is a law student in love with an older doctor (McDowell), who won't give him the time of day. Kirby's intense behavior towards Dale should have her wanting to get a restraining order. Billy (Lowe) is a saxophonist with a drinking problem who can't hold a job and longs to return to the frat house days of college he left behind a mere four months prior. He is married with a child, but he spends more time hanging around his friends and Wendy (Winningham), than he does his wife. Wendy is trying to get out from under the thumb of her domineering businessman father (Balsam), who wants her to settle down with a nice Jewish guy.
Finally, there is Jules (Moore), who has a drug problem, a money problem, and allegedly having an affair with her boss which can only end in disaster. Her money issues are so severe she has taken two months' worth of advances on her paychecks and is always trying to angle for a loan or another advance. We now have the players straight and their superficial problems, but how bad can things be when they are able to buy drinks at will and have enough free time to conveniently gather together as a group whenever they are needed? The character who inspires the most sympathy is Billy, mostly anchored by a Lowe performance which is perceptive. He wants to be the life of the party, but has enough wherewithal to realize he is drowning and even more to realize he started a family way too fast. The other characters and performances fluctuate between somewhat likable and flat. Leslie is coveted by two men and we are at a loss to determine why. She doesn't have enough personality of her own for us to care much about her romantic tribulations. Kevin is insufferably morose, narcissistically calling attention to his romantic issues through world-weary cynicism which doesn't wear well for a 22-year old. The dude needs to lighten up and stop smoking so much.
By the end, all of these characters will have mostly satisfactory resolutions to their plotlines, and one leaves the group behind altogether to strike out on his own in New York. Apparently, New York is the only city in which you can become a star playing a saxophone. Such 80s thinking.
Tuesday, February 6, 2018
Directed by: Andrew Fleming
Starring: Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener, David Arquette, Marshall Bell, Skylar Astin, Amy Poehler, Joseph Julian Soria, Elisabeth Shue
Yes, the title is Hamlet 2, and I must explain for the sake of clarity that it is not a sequel to Shakespeare's tragedy. How could it be? As one character points out, everyone in Hamlet dies, but that doesn't stop a Tucson high school drama teacher from writing a sequel himself which will be the final staged play for a drama department about to be slashed from the school budget. The play itself is a rambling mess and the movie follows suit. The film is irreverent without being amusing, which is a shame because it wastes an intriguing lead performance by Steve Coogan.
Coogan is Dana Marschz, the recovering alcoholic whose drama class has been relegated to being held in the school cafeteria and then the gymnasium (while gym classes are being held simultaneously). Why the goofy last name? Who knows? He was once a wannabe actor who turned into a neverwas, but that doesn't stop him from reciting his paltry film and TV credits to his disinterested class. Dana is the epitome of the expression, "Those who do, do. Those who don't, teach." When Dana learns the drama department is being eliminated due to budgetary cutbacks, he writes Hamlet 2 in desperate hopes of uniting his class and putting on one last production.
It is true the major characters in Hamlet die in the end, but Hamlet 2 brings them back with help of a time machine. We also see a "sexy Jesus" and a hodgepodge of other characters which are strangers to the Hamlet universe. Word of a bi-curious character and sexy Jesus gets out and the community is in an uproar. If they think they are in an uproar now, wait until they see the production, which is incoherent and looks expensively staged for a department which is supposed to not have any money. Oh, and there is also a gay man's chorus which I'm sure didn't come cheap either.
Since the play is the focus, the movie pulls out all the stops to show it even if it isn't presented realistically. Dana himself plays Jesus, but isn't it unusual for a drama teacher to star in the play which was supposed to feature the students? Dana's problems aren't just professional. He and his wife can't conceive and soon she leaves him for the boarder living in their home. His boss, the angry principal (Bell), despises him and wants to shut down the production, causing Dana and the students to stage the play in an abandoned airplane hangar. How much did it cost to renovate the hangar and install what look to be theater seats?
Coogan gives a superhuman effort to present us with a goofball teacher looking for redemption and looking to help his kids believe in themselves. Coogan is fearless, willing to try anything for a laugh, but that leaves his character without boundaries. We don't gain a sense of who he is because, like a chameleon, he is willing to be whatever the script wants him to be at any particular moment. The movie itself feels the same way. It doesn't have a consistent tone. It is cerebral one minute and silly slapstick the next.
Elisabeth Shue also shows up as herself. In Hamlet 2, she is now a nurse after leaving Hollywood behind. If appearing in movies like Hamlet 2 reflects her film role prospects, she might want to consider possibly becoming a nurse for real.
Monday, February 5, 2018
Directed by: Paul McGuigan
Starring: Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, Stephen Graham, Vanessa Redgrave, Kenneth Cranham
The problem with dating an actress like Gloria Grahame is you don't know when the performance ends and the real Gloria begins. Maybe that is the case with dating actors in general, but surely the more famous ones present trickier emotional dilemmas. Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool is about such a relationship. Peter Turner (Bell) is a struggling Liverpool actor about thirty years younger than the fading Gloria Grahame (Bening), who languishes in starring roles in Liverpool plays circa 1979. She goes where the work is and actors must act, but it seems a long way to fall for the blonde actress who in her prime co-starred with Jimmy Stewart and Humphrey Bogart on her way to winning the 1952 Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
Gloria continues to maintain an air of the femme fatales she used to play which hides her insecurity about her age and career options. This is both captivating and frustrating to Peter, who loves the idea of dating a movie star, even a fading one, but has to navigate some muddier waters as Gloria's health deteriorates and the realities of their age and career trajectories rear their ugly heads. Gloria and Peter are opposites, but they make a convincing couple, thanks to the sweet, rich performances by Bening and Bell. Gloria attempts in vain to portray the blonde bombshell she played in so many movies in the 1940s and 50s. As the film opens, she is preparing for another Liverpool play when she collapses from stomach pains. She chalks it up to gas, but we all know better, especially since she is rarely seen without a cigarette. Ego and vanity would not allow her to recognize the gravity of her condition, which is touching and tragic all at once.
Peter is a local actor whose career doesn't seem to be going anywhere. In his late 20s now, he does not look to rise above performing in local plays for the duration of his career. In the spring of his relationship with Gloria, he can't believe his good fortune to be dating Gloria, but dating Gloria comes with a lot of Gloria baggage. She is a four-time divorcee, including a scandalous marriage to her stepson, the son of her second husband, which may have something to do with why she is acting in Liverpool and not New York or Hollywood. Her envious mother and sister gleefully point out these flaws upon meeting Peter in California.
Gloria tries to maintain the façade of being a movie star, but she knows she is all but forgotten by the movie business which chewed her up and spit her out. Now, she is frightened, insecure, and sick. Peter is her rock, but soon Peter learns being a rock is too much to bear when Gloria won't tell him her cancer has returned. She prefers to allow Peter to believe she is having an affair than tell him the truth, which leads to their estrangement. She and Peter reconcile after she falls ill, and Peter has her stay with his working class Liverpool family which treats Gloria like one of their own.
Peter's family are caring and loving, especially Peter's mother Bella (Walters), who plans to cancel her long-awaited trip to Australia to care for the ailing Gloria. They all know what is happening, even if Gloria tries to downplay it, and are genuinely concerned with Gloria's physical well-being and Peter's emotional stability. They don't see Gloria as a movie star, but as a member of their family.
The film maintains a gentle tone, with McGuigan installing his trademark style of flashback in which we see the same scene from different points of view in order to see the full picture. What appears to be cold behavior by Gloria is later seen to be something else entirely. McGuigan employed this tactic in Wicker Park (2004) and Lucky Number Slevin (2006), both of which were effective romantic noir films. When Peter weeps at the end as Gloria leaves him for the final time, the emotion is earned because Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool isn't just a May-December romance, but it is about people we care for.