Tuesday, September 30, 2014
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Denis Leary, James Woods, Bernard Hill, Isiah Washington, Michael McKean, Diane Venora
To describe True Crime makes it sound like formula: A washed-up reporter grabs for a last shot at redemption by preventing an innocent man from being executed at the 11th hour. Eastwood, as star and director, turns the film into an exercise in human drama and ratcheted-up suspense. How exactly does it feel to be a condemned man seeing his wife and daughter for the final time? There is so much emotion and truth in these scenes that it sure feels like Eastwood has firsthand knowledge. Juxtaposed with these powerful scenes are a journalist procedural in which Steve Everett (Eastwood) believes a black man named Frank Beachum (Washington) due to be executed at midnight is innocent and gathers evidence to prevent the execution.
If only Beachum were Everett's only issue. His affair with his editor's wife is discovered, his wife is about to leave him over the seemingly numerous infidelities in their marriage, he is warned off the story by his publisher, and he is teetering on the edge of sobriety after being on the wagon for two months. Oh, and it's his day to take his daughter to the zoo. True Crime is successfully able to juggle these points without seeming crowded or trying too hard to touch all the bases. Everett is wounded and hardly a hero, but we root for him because he is pulling up his bootstraps to make one more run at doing the right thing.
True Crime feels emotionally true as we follow Everett's hectic day. We see him bascially run through the zoo with his daughter in order to avoid being late to lunch with a witness who said he saw Beachum kill a store clerk. This tricky scene is well handled. The witness is not a racist and sticks to his story despite all of Everett's best journalistic ploys, but there is an undercurrent of racism. We see Steve's editor (Leary) giving him the evil eye all day, trying his best to control his hostility. We meet the warden (Hill) and prison chaplain, who are preparing for the execution in adherence to their duties. It's not pleasant, but it must be done. We even hear radio news broadcasts explaining how exactly a lethal injection is administered. Knowing Eastwood as we do, this information is not just superfluously delivered for no good reason. It leads to an extraordinary payoff.
We have seen many films in which a lawyer/journalist/family member works tirelessly at the 11th hour to prevent an execution. True Crime is the best of them, mostly because Eastwood took the time to make an old theme feel fresh and new. It is also very emotionally draining. Watch the scenes involving Beachum's last visit with his wife and daughter. That is something I wouldn't wish on anyone.
Monday, September 22, 2014
Directed by: Nick Cassavetes
Starring: Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann, Kate Upton, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Nicki Minaj, Don Johnson
Sometimes after watching an abysmal movie, I think about the scripts that were passed over in favor of the one that was made into the wretched film. I think that at least some of those scripts have to be better. They likely just couldn't follow a formula or were not "marketable" to certain audiences which guarantees them at least a strong weekend or two before showing up on DVD a few months later.
The Other Woman no doubt is pitched at female audiences who get to see the lying, cheating weasel guy get what's coming to him. The concept is better than the execution. The Other Woman is a dead, flat comedy. The actors try to inject life into it, but once you see a guy shit his pants after drinking a laxative-laced drink, you've seen it a thousand times. Without sounding too sexist, the brief scenes of bodacious Kate Upton running on the beach in a bikini isn't enough to make up for the other 1 hour, 45 minutes one has to endure just to see those brief scenes.
There are actually two (or maybe more) women who would qualify as "the other woman". The man they all covet is a slick, handsome Wall Street type named Mark (Coster-Waldau) who runs pyramid schemes with investors' money. His wife Kate (Mann) unwittingly partakes in these schemes by blindly signing whatever papers he asks her to sign. Kate has other issues with her husband, who has carried on an affair with a corporate lawyer named Carly (Diaz) for over a year. Oh, and he neglected to tell Carly that he is married. Carly discovers this tidbit when she travels blindly to his Connecticut home for a rendezvous and the wife answers the door. Carly breaks off the affair, but Kate tracks her down at her office and, in an ungainly plot twist, the two become friends.
Kate, as played by Mann, is fingernails-scraping-across-a-blackboard annoying. Her dialogue consists of bouts of verbal diarrhea which would drive any sane person to drink. The two do bond over cosmopolitans (which I suppose is the female bonding drug of choice these days). There is even a scene in which Kate's giant dog squats on Carly's floor. Everything about this friendship is ungainly and that is even before the plot takes over.
The two gain another ally in Amber (Upton) who is discovered to be the third woman in Mark's life when they follow him to the Hamptons one weekend. Amber has no idea Mark was married either and the three plot revenge. How Mark is able to juggle these women plus keep up on his pyramid schemes should be the subject of a different movie, or maybe even take the place of the plot of this one. We know how things will turn out. There is not one plot development that surprises or challenges us. There are no laughs at all. Actually, there may have been more laughs in Diaz' and Cassavetes' last collaboration, My Sister's Keeper (2009), and that is a tearjerker drama.
Friday, September 19, 2014
Directed by: Michael Roskam
Starring: Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini, Noomi Rapace, John Ortiz
I enjoyed The Drop despite the fact its main character is malleable and undefined. Is he smart? Dumb? A killer? An observant bystander? He is all of those things and none of those things. He is whatever the script needs him to be at that time. The Drop is a crafty piece of film noir for the most part despite its faults. The performances, including Gandolfini's final screen performance, are top-notch. They create flawed, desperate people. What are they desperate for? Love, money, or perhaps both.
The Drop takes place in Brooklyn, where bars sometimes function as "drops" for Chechen mob money. The mob collects their money at closing and then the next night another bar handles the money. Bob (Hardy) is the bartender at Cousin Marv's, a small bar once owned by Marv (Gandolfini), but now in the hands of Chechens. One night the bar is robbed of its $5,000 till and the mobsters want their money back. Bob and Marv can't give too many details on the masked thieves, although Bob helpfully tells the police that one had a stopped watch on his wrist. For reasons explained later, Marv isn't happy with Bob for telling the police that piece of information.
Bob stays quiet and keeps his head down. He goes to mass, but doesn't take communion, which is noted by the detective on the robbery case who has seen him there every day at 8am. He stumbles across an abused dog in a woman's trash and soon adopts the dog and falls for the woman (Rapace), a waitress with issues of her own. Then, there is the business of the missing $5,000. Who stole it and who knows more than he or she is letting on? Marv has his own issues, including a father on life support whose care is sucking him dry financially. Gandolfini proves what a versatile actor he was. His Marv is weary and desperate. He, like Terry Malloy in On The Waterfront, was once a contender. "I used to be respected. I used to be feared," he tells Bob. Now, he is under the thumb of the mob who took over his bar as repayment for his gambling debts.
As if all of this weren't enough, there is a lingering missing persons case on a man last seen at Cousin Marv's before his disappearance. All of this links together without seeming gratuitous. Naturally, Bob and Marv are more involved than suspected. Hardy is able to keep up with Bob's ever-changing persona, quite a feat here. At first, I thought Bob was supposed to a nitwit bartender. He reveals his smarts later, but it doesn't mesh with what we saw earlier.
The Drop was written and directed with the word "gritty" in mind. Its characters and the world they inhabit is seedy and cold. The film takes place right around Christmas and the events culminate on Superbowl Sunday, but this Brooklyn seems colder, more desolate, and lonely. The characters plod through life as if it were a duty rather than a pleasure. We begin to wonder if all of the money in the world would change that.
Monday, September 15, 2014
Directed by: Tate Taylor
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Jill Scott, Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis, Dan Aykroyd
James Brown surely had to be more charismatic and likable than the guy presented in Get On Up, which presents Brown mostly as an egomaniacal, belligerent a-hole. The premise is we should forgive Brown his trespasses because, boy, could he sing and dance. There is no denying Brown's influence on music. The epilogue of Get On Up tells us he is among the most "sampled artists of all time." He was unique and there won't be another one like him. If the movie is to be believed, then thank goodness. But, there had to be more sides to the man than Get On Up represents.
The film opens in the early 90s with a very high James Brown pulling a gun on a group of real estate class trainees. Brown owns the building and was very upset that one of the trainees used the bathrooms. This awkward scene sets the tone for the rest of the film, which shows Brown as an arrogant bully who makes life rough for anyone who loves him. In real life, Brown was jailed for the gun incident and for leading cops on a high speed chase while high on PCP.
We follow Brown through his poor childhood in Georgia, where he was bounced around between his mother, father, and an aunt who ran a brothel. He is jailed for stealing in this teens, but discovers a talent for singing and dancing that he uses when he is released to form a band. Brown, however, isn't a lead singer for long. He is signed to a record deal as a solo act, retaining only the loyalty of his friend Bobby (Ellis), who becomes Brown's right hand man, backup singer, and occasional doormat. When Bobby expresses a desire to become a solo act himself, Brown behaves like a scorned creep thus ending their friendship for a number of years.
Maybe the real James Brown was this way all the time and thus we are presented with a one-dimensional look at the "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business." The performances are spot on. Boseman is much more charismatic than he was in 42, where he played a lifeless Jackie Robinson. He supplies energy and his moves are certainly Brown-esque, so we can't blame him for acting as the material suggests he should. Director Taylor made 2011's The Help, which was a look at racially-torn Mississippi during the early days of civil rights. Get On Up is a biopic which doesn't cover much new ground. We have seen Brown's story in countless other musical biopics. I have sometimes criticized some biopics for not showing why the subject was so lauded in the first place. Get On Up shows so many musical numbers that the film seems like it is just killing time.
I use Behind The Candleabara, Steven Soderbergh's biopic of Liberace, as a counterpoint to this film. It wasn't afraid to show Liberace as touching, tender, vicious, spiteful, and human. He is presented three-dimensionally. Get On Up focuses on the vicious, spiteful stuff. There is not one scene involving Brown's wife in which he is seen as anything but an abusive creep. His son dies from a drug overdose, causing Brown to get high and lead the cops on the chase, but to my knowledge he has no scenes involving him interacting with this children. They are around, like the wife, but hardly given anything to do.
We say some biopics show its subject "warts and all." Get On Up is only interested in the warts part. There is a good film to be made about "Mr. Please, Please, Please," but this isn't it.