Tuesday, September 29, 2015
Directed by: Randa Haines
Starring: William Hurt, Marlee Matlin, Philip Bosco, Piper Laurie
When I first saw Children of a Lesser God upon its release in 1986, I all but genuflected in its presence. I thought it was so moving, so romantic, so awesome. Years later, I watch the film again and wonder what movie I was looking at back then. Time does that. Some movies hold on to their power even years after I first saw them. Others, like Children of a Lesser God, are films that do not retain their original magic and become ordinary.
My biggest complaint is how its deaf female lead Sarah (Matlin-in her Oscar winning role) is not allowed to emerge as a true individual. She can not read lips or speak, but communicates through sign language. Her once and future lover James (Hurt) teaches at a school for the hearing impaired and uses new methods to help his students communicate in the hearing world. One of his students learns how to curse out loud, which is at first amusing, but quickly becomes an old joke. James is fascinated by Sarah, who works as a janitor at the school. Her boss (and James') gives James the rundown on her. "She isn't hard of hearing, she's completely deaf."
James thinks he can reach her and teach her how to speak. She refuses, mostly because she fears rejection and being hurt, but she does not refuse to become James' lover. Hurt has quite a load to carry here. He not only has to handle his own dialogue, but he interprets Sarah's signing for the audience. It is quite a feat for Hurt, but it detracts from Sarah as a person. We see her through his eyes and she never really has a chance to speak in her own language. Subtitles would have been completely understandable in this situation, but instead we hear Hurt when we should be listening to Sarah.
Matlin, though, emerges still through her facial expressions and her anger towards the hearing world. Her refusal to come out of her shell is her middle finger to a world she felt turned its back on her. We see this and it would have been more powerful if we did not have to hear Hurt speak for her. The romance between the two feels obligatory. We know they will fight, form a truce, become friends, fall in love, break up, and then reunite at the end. I do not think I gave away any spoilers. This is a movie where a romance was unnecessary. I would have preferred a friendship or a teacher/student relationship in which each learns about the other and leave the sex out of it.
Hurt's big emotional scene occurs when he demands to Sarah: "Speak to me." I think that underlines why the film ultimately does not work despite good performances. I was reminded of Iceman (1984), in which a caveman was found frozen in a block of ice and thawed out so he could live again in the modern world. (No, this isn't Encino Man I'm talking about). The scientists in the film make the mistake of attempting to teach the caveman how to speak English. But if a caveman from thousands of years ago were suddenly resurrected, wouldn't we be more fascinated to learn his language?
Monday, September 28, 2015
Directed by: George Miller
Starring: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Nathan Jones
Mad Max: Fury Road is a relentless assault on the viewer's senses, but to what end? It is filled with wall-to-wall action, fury, and violence, but no reason to care about the outcome. We have already seen three Mad Max movies from the 80s which more or less adequately covered the possibilities of life in a post-nuclear war apocalyptic wasteland. The threat of such a thing becoming a reality was more real then, thus the films took on a more contemporary urgency. Why do we need another trip back to this endless Outback desert?
Mel Gibson is replaced in the title role by Tom Hardy, who is rugged and is a convincing physical presence. His Max speaks less than any main character I've seen in many a long day. I am glad Hardy wasn't paid by the word. The plot focuses more on Furiosa (Theron), who serves as a driver for a powerful warlord and attempts to escape with the warlord's concubines, including a pregnant one, during a supply run. She envisions returning to her home and family from which she was kidnapped as a child.
Assisting the warlord in the chase is Nux (Hoult), a psychotic, physically ill follower who sees the mission as a chance to die for his warlord, which to him would be an honor. He is a futuristic version of a Hitler Youth member. By this time, Max had been captured by the warlord's thugs and is used as a human blood bag for Nux. Pleasant thought.
Theron provides as sympathetic a heroine as Mad Max: Fury Road can provide under the circumstances. Nux undergoes interesting changes with a seemingly one-dimensional character. The film tries its hardest to provide some human dimensions to people who forgot what it was like to be human. They all are sucked up into the blur of violence that is Mad Max: Fury Road. I also find it interesting that people who are reduced to eating geckos for sustenance and fighting for drops of water look rather healthy considering the dearth of such items.
Mad Max: Fury Road is not about realism, but about people who have no alternative but to somehow survive. Max is a former cop who is haunted by the visions of family and friends he was unable to save. We see the visions, but it doesn't resonate with us. We see the carnage that transpires during a film that is a two-hour chase through uninhabitable land. Even those that survive still have to eke out an existence in this hell on earth, so we almost feel relief for those who are killed and don't have to anymore. The stakes simply aren't high enough to engage our interest, which means the skill that went into this production is for naught.
P.S. Gasoline is supposed to be such a rare commodity in this world that people kill each other over it. Yet, all of the vehicles driven seem to be able to travel hundreds of miles in the middle of nowhere without having to refill or even run low.
Friday, September 25, 2015
Directed by: Scott Cooper
Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Dakota Johnson, Peter Sarsgaard, Corey Stoll
Black Mass tells a tragic story. Not about its subject James "Whitey" Bulger (Depp), who acts incorrigibly according to this pathology. He is a career criminal and killer. Nothing could or would change that. Bulger wouldn't want to anyhow. The tragedy is in the form of FBI agent John Connolly (Edgerton), who flushes his career and ultimately his life down the toilet by forming "an alliance" with his childhood friend Bulger. The alliance allows Bulger to serve as an FBI informant in exchange for the FBI turning a blind eye to Bulger's crimes. The FBI is more consumed with taking down the Italian Mafia in Boston, acting as Bulger's defacto private army in his war against the Italians. Connolly tells Bulger not to murder anyone because the FBI would refuse to cooperate then. Bulger agrees to this stipulation with his fingers crossed behind his back.
Connolly's proposal to align with Bulger is self-serving payback for Bulger's friendship as a child. Connolly rises in the bureau while Bulger becomes the organized crime leader in Boston. The alliance is mostly one-sided, with Bulger providing very little useful information while Connolly covers up Bulger's dealings and continually goes to bat for him. It is obvious to everyone but Connolly that he stands the most to lose in this partnership. Yet, Connolly justifies his relationship with Bulger since, "Jimmy protected me when we were kids." It is hero worship taken to the extreme.
Black Mass begins as the FBI is investigating Bulger and Connolly. The "vice is closing in" says Connolly's partner, who knows the end is near. The FBI is able to turn key Bulger associates who witnessed and participated in various acts of murder, extortion, conspiracy, etc. What is amazing is how long Connolly was able to keep this up. The FBI reluctantly agreed to Connolly's proposal to begin with, but Connolly is able for years to convince the FBI not to prosecute Bulger. It is only the arrival of a no nonsense federal prosecutor that causes the scheme to crumble. Bulger has the run of the country, but yet can't help but draw attention to himself by murdering enemies and friends alike.
Johnny Depp plays Bulger. Behind the heavy makeup, colored contact lenses, and receding hairline, we see his Bulger as a man at peace with being a criminal and murderer. He has enough charisma to keep people loyal to him, but is quick to dispose of those who cross him. We see a sensitive side to him when he deals with his mother and his state senator brother Billy (Cumberbatch) as well as with his son, who dies at an early age from Reye's syndrome. His relationship with his brother is a close one, buoyed by the fact that each stays out of the other's business.
Connolly is every bit the opportunist Bulger is, but wears a suit and tie to work. What was the motive behind his partnership with Bulger? Career? Loyalty? Friendship? We see a man who takes an awfully big and unnecessary risk aligning himself with the gangster. Bulger takes advantage of the situation, seeing the FBI as "doing the work for us." Connolly is a fool with nothing to gain and everything to lose. It is amusing to see Connolly bend over backwards and sideways to protect Bulger, who anyone can see isn't holding up his end of the bargain. His balls are bigger than his foresight. To him, the FBI shutting down the Bulger operation would be a fate worse than death. He would no longer be able to associate with Bulger, which would be unacceptable to him. What makes things worse is how Bulger hardly reciprocates in this supposed friendship. Connolly is just another guy he can use.
Black Mass is a well-made film with solid performances. It never escalates into classic mob fare like The Godfather, The Departed (you can't help but see the similarities between Bulger and Jack Nicholson's Frank Costello), and Goodfellas. Does it even intend to? It is content with showing Boston bathed in clouds and cold. I don't recall if any scenes take place in summer or in warm temperatures, even the ones in Florida, where Bulger invests in a corrupt jai alai organization. Black Mass doesn't achieve that level of greatness that Scorsese and Coppola approached. We never truly see inside Bulger so he isn't as compelling as a Corleone or a Henry Hill. Black Mass doesn't allow us inside. It is a film about atmosphere and coldness filled with mostly selfish, vicious characters. There is little emotional tug, but still I think it is paced well and envelops us in its myopic world.
Thursday, September 24, 2015
Directed by: Randall Wallace
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Gabriel Byrne, Gerard Depardieu, Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich, Peter Sarsgaard, Judith Godreche, Anne Parillaud
The Man In The Iron Mask has an A-List cast and is a swashbuckler adventure that does the job, but never takes the leap into heedless joy. It is missing the silly fun which accompanies swordfights and a plot to substitute a sitting king with his twin brother who was imprisoned for six years wearing an iron mask. I could not help myself but think of History of the World, Part I (1981) which features a similar plot no doubt inspired by the Alexandre Dumas novel that inspired this film too. Harvey Korman's Count De Money suggests that the king "looks like the piss boy." The king retorts, "And you look like a bucket of shit."
No such dialogue exists in The Man in the Iron Mask, but I would have preferred that over the countless recites of "All for one and one for all." The Man in the Iron Mask features The Three Musketeers as older, but still respected and feared men who vow to protect the king with their lives. This is a tall order with the reigning king Louis XIV (DiCaprio) being such a decadent prick who could not care less about his subjects starving in the streets. At least he doesn't use his people as skeet target practice like Mel Brooks' king in History of the World.
The king develops an eye for the comely Christine (Godreche), who is seen at the palace accompanied by her fiancée Raoul (Sarsgaard), who is the son of retired musketeer Athos (Malkovich). Louis orders Raoul sent to the front of an ongoing war and Raoul is soon killed, leaving Christine vulnerable to the king's seduction. An enraged Athos calls on his former comrades Porthos (Depardieu) and Aramis (Irons) to help him overthrow the king. The only holdout is D'Artagnan (Byrne) who remains loyal to the king for reasons later revealed. Aramis concocts a plan.
Aramis knows more than he should about the titular character who languishes in prison. The musketeers spring the man, remove his mask, and after cleaning him up sees he is Philippe, the twin brother of the king. He was locked away in prison after years in exile in order to provide unfettered ascendency to the throne for Louis. He seeks revenge and undergoes training to pass as Louis, who will be kidnapped and thrown into prison as the iron mask guy. Why they wouldn't just kill Louis remains a mystery. It would help the plot succeed with no loose ends, but I'm not paid to be a musketeer and I was never consulted anyway.
DiCaprio is perfectly capable as the cruel king and his feckless twin. It is good to see the veterans Malkovich, Depardieu, and Irons doing their thing. Byrne has the more complicated role and stands to lose more than his cohorts. He is torn between his duty and his loyalty to his friends. His relationship with the Queen mother Anne (Parillaud) further confuses things. Byrne is an accomplished actor who is more than up to the task and provides the only emotional tug in the entire movie.
The Man in the Iron Mask is technically sound with fine performances. It is not a special film. Substituting kings will satisfy the musketeers' objective, but how much will it help the starving masses? These matters are not important. And how exactly did the musketeers survive the hailstorm of bullets fired at them in the film's final scenes? Just curious.
Wednesday, September 23, 2015
Directed by: Joel Edgerton
Starring: Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton
Even in the photo atop this review, you sense two things emanating from the character Gordo (Edgerton): a. A winsome yearning to belong b. deep rooted hostility. The trailers for The Gift scream "Fatal Attraction" or any number of films involving a stalker and the stalked. However, The Gift is deeper than you might think and the truth is not as evident as it would seem. By the film's conclusion, what we thought we knew about these people has been altered. Who is the hero? Who is the villain? Are they one in the same? One of the pleasures of watching The Gift is its ability to surprise us and no one even has to pull out a gun or a knife.
Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall play Simon and Robyn, a married couple who move to Los Angeles so Simon can start a new job. They are approached while shopping by a meek, unassuming man named Gordo, who awkwardly reminds Simon that they went to high school together. Simon feigns interest and gives Gordo his number, promising emptily that they will get together sometime. Gordo takes it a step further by dropping by Simon's and Robyn's home while Simon is out and giving Robyn nice gifts like wine. Robyn, who seems nice, but lonely, enjoys the gifts and thinks nothing of Gordo's forwardness.
The three have dinner, which goes awkwardly. Simon writes off Gordo as the nut that everyone made fun of in high school. Robyn thinks of Gordo with affection like one feels with a lost puppy. There is tension in Gordo's scenes with the couple because we suspect he is up to something. He makes Simon feel uneasy, but can't put his finger on why. Gordo seems harmless, but we know there is more than meets the eye.
I won't tread much further into the plot except to set it up. One of the joys of The Gift is how our expectations are challenged. Why does Gordo want to friends with Simon, who clearly is creeped out by him? Is their something lurking underneath? Does Robyn even want to know the history here? And how deep is she willing to dig to find out the truth? It is so compelling how Gordo's presence allows Robyn to question her husband for the first time in their marriage. She trusts him implicitly, but then there are seeds of doubt planted. What is Gordo's endgame? What is Simon's?
Joel Edgerton wrote and directed The Gift and directs with a sure hand. Whenever Robyn is alone in her house, she (and we) feel ill at-ease. The camera stalks her. We want to warn her of a danger that just she doesn't see coming, and not from whom she expects. Edgerton takes a story we think we have wired, shakes it up, and lets things play out to their inevitable conclusion. Gordo tells Simon, "You think you're through with the past, but it isn't through with you." In a lesser movie, Simon's past would be quickly forgiven as he and Robyn unite to thwart their would-be killer Gordo. The Gift is more thoughtful and is interested in presenting questions that the audience will have to figure the answers to.
Bateman is normally seen as a comic actor, but in The Gift we see shades of him we hadn't before. He is assertive, confident, and a take-charge kind of guy, but is he necessarily a good guy? He takes on condescending tones with others that may be mistaken for assertiveness when it may be something else entirely. Rebecca Hall takes a character who in a different movie would be helpless victim or a prize fought over by the two men. In this movie, she is allowed to make choices, ask questions, and determine her own fate. What a tightrope Edgerton walks. His Gordo is someone we think we can make easy decisions about, but then we find out differently about him. In just a few scenes, he goes from being a creepy guy to someone who may have been wronged and we feel sorry for.
When everything plays out, and I know I'm being maddeningly vague about the film's story, we ask ourselves who exactly we think was correct and who got the short end of the stick. This is a great film.
Thursday, September 17, 2015
Directed by: Stephen Hopkins
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Tommy Lee Jones, Suzy Amis, Forest Whitaker, Lloyd Bridges
Blown Away contains scenes of mild interest which are islands onto themselves. A story of a Boston bomb squad cop tracking a mad bomber from his past should be crackling with suspense and tension. It never achieves liftoff. Jeff Bridges and Tommy Lee Jones are very talented and accomplished Oscar-winning actors. They deserve better than to be in a film that feels so generic. Blown Away isn't awful, but just ordinary and sometimes ridiculous.
Bridges stars as Jimmy Dove, a Boston bomb squad cop who can expertly disarm even the most complex bombs. In the first thirty minutes alone, he has to disarm two bombs by figuring out which colored wire to snip at just the right time. It is usually the red wire, it seems, which follows a certain logic. However, haven't mad bombers figured out that if they install wires or paint wires all the same color, it would make things very hard on the poor bomb squad guys?
On the loose in Boston is a bomber with an ax to grind with Jimmy, so he threatens to blow up or blows up people that are close to him. The Troubles in Ireland play a part in this backstory, since the bomber Ryan Gaerity (Jones) is Irish. Jones can play villains with the best of them. Despite his shaky Irish accent, he is still a good villain. Bridges plays a sympathetic hero whose past has come back to haunt him. There are no issues here with the performances.
Some of the bombs and triggers Gaerity constructs are agonizingly and needlessly complex. It is as if he built them just so the cameraman could follow a pinball down endless chutes and ladders just to ignite the flame that will detonate the bomb. How does Gaerity test this mechanism to see if it will work? What if the ball's path is detoured slightly by even a fraction of an inch? I picture him driving himself batty if, after all the bells and whistles, the freaking flame doesn't light. "What a pain in the arse," he mutters as he tries to figure out what went wrong.
Gaerity's other bombs are equally as complicated, including the one which blows up under an overpass. Jimmy deducts that the trigger lit this, which triggered this, shot a ball over to the opposite wall, and then blew up the whole area. It is Gaeity's good fortune that no one saw him setting up this contraption. He could respond like Doc Brown did in Back To The Future, "It's a science experiment." Again, how does he know if the bomb will work as intended?
Jimmy has a wife and stepdaughter who become targets, as does his Uncle Max (Lloyd Bridges) who was Jeff's real life father. Their last scene together is poignant, but once again how is no one around to see Gaerity tying an old man to a statue on a playground...with a bomb attached to him? I have been accused of looking too deeply into movies and analyzing them. I have been told that I should just enjoy a movie and not think so much. Those are fair points, I suppose, but I'll remember that when they start goofing on the implausibility of the next Taken movie. Or even this one if they should see it again on cable.
Directed by: Paul Haggis
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Catherine Keener, Winona Ryder, Jim Belushi, Alfred Molina, Bob Balaban, Peter Reigert, Jon Bernthal
Show Me A Hero contains great performances, especially by Oscar Isaac, in search of a film we can sink our teeth into. The elements are here for a story which never takes flight. You would think a story about a heated citywide war over public housing in Yonkers is a firecracker. It is a dud instead. Sad.
Show Me A Hero is based on true events in the late 1980's-early 1990's Yonkers. The story focuses on councilman Nick Wasicsko (Isaac), who wins election for mayor and inherits the public housing issue from embattled former mayor Angelo Martinelli (Belushi). A federal judge (Balaban) orders the city to build 200 units of public housing under threat of daily fines which would bankrupt the city within a month. Despite the court order, the city council refuses to follow it and attempts to fight it in court. No luck.
The issue is soon a major political football. With the financial welfare of Yonkers in mind over public sentiment (which is mostly and vehemently against the proposal), Wasicsko uses his deft political acumen to win the votes necessary to approve the measure. This makes him unpopular with the vocal majority. He is spit on and yelled at, but he stays the course. When someone calls him and asks, "Why are you trying to abide by the court order when everyone is against it?' His perfect reply is, "Because I'm trying to be a leader."
Oscar Isaac is proving to be a special talent who can elevate even bad material. He is perpetually interesting. He says more with a look, a glance, or body language than other actors can with full speeches. We sense and empathize with the man who is holding himself together under nearly unbearable pressure. What makes Isaac special is how much we feel the pressure for him. His ability to relay his frustration internally is something not all actors can do well. It is quite a performance and, without it, Show Me A Hero would be barely watchable. His ability to make us empathize is remarkable.
The performances by the top notch cast are all strong. Catherine Keener as Mary, a Yonkers woman who is at first against the housing, but becomes an activist in favor of it, arrives at her change subtly. We sense that the scales will fall from her eyes eventually, but it is still an interesting transformation. Alfred Molina makes a bombastic and bravado-driven Hank Spallone, who replaces Wasicsko as mayor on an anti-housing platform, only to find he made promises he can't keep. Thus is with politics. As Judge Sand, Bob Balaban plays a judge at the end of his rope listening to excuses as to why his ruling can't be implemented. Yet, he is not a hanging judge, just one who doesn't like when his rulings are ignored.
Wasicsko is the focus of the story. He has a love for the danger and drama of politics. It is almost an addiction for him. When he is voted out of office, he hangs around the house killing time until he can get his name on the next ballot. He loves politics because he believes, perhaps foolishly, that he can make a difference. He tries, fails, and tries again. His ultimate fate is based on the possibility that his reputation will be tarnished forever due to an investigation that may kill his future in politics. He can not live with that and pays the ultimate price. Watch the scene in which Wasicsko shuffles around in a vacant room in his house. He is distraught and confused. He does not which way to turn, but figuratively and literally. We see the tragedy behind F. Scott Fitzgerald's saying, "Show me a hero, and I'll show you a tragedy." Now we know what he means.
The mini-series cuts away often from the political maneuvering and meetings and gives us glimpses of projects residents who will ultimately live in the housing. They are flawed, hopeful, and trying to get by. We see both sides of the issue, which is commendable by Haggis.
However, Show Me A Hero lacks juice. It is also documentary-like while holding us outside. The series depicts what's happening, but never conveys a feeling about it. It is almost like watching the story on the news. We see it, we are witnesses, but yet we feel detached because it's really someone else's problem. Show Me A Hero mixes race relations and politics in an uneasy bag. While we hear the reasons for and against the housing, the stakes just don't seem to be high enough to engage us. Show Me A Hero never shows us why we should care and we don't feel it either.
Tuesday, September 15, 2015
Directed by: Doug Ellin
Starring: Adrian Grenier, Kevin Dillon, Kevin Connolly, Jerry Ferrara, Jeremy Piven, Haley Joel Osment, Billy Bob Thornton, Rex Lee, Perrey Reeves. Emanuelle Chirqui
Throughout the eight season-run of the HBO series and now the feature film of Entourage, my main beef still is: What is all the fuss about with Vincent Chase? I thought maybe the film version, fleshed out over two hours, might show us some semblance of why everyone makes such a big deal out of him. Not the case. We see a clip of a futuristic thriller in which Chase stars and directs. Based on that clip alone, it seems like the type of movie to which I would attach a one-star review.
In this movie, the film is nominated for multiple Golden Globes. We see more acting out of Johnny Drama (Dillon) than we ever do out of Vincent Chase.
It is pointless to argue this issue and I suppose I have to take it on faith that Vincent Chase (Grenier) is talented enough to deserve the hype. With that said, Entourage is pretty much paced and written like the series. I enjoyed the series for the most part, so the movie is satisfactory, albeit not inspired entertainment. The characters aren't any deeper or more complex. We see the parties with hundreds of nearly naked women hanging around like window dressing. Do they all think they're going to sleep with Vincent that night? If Vincent can somehow master that, at that rate, he will demolish Wilt Chamberlain's claim of having slept with 20,000 women.
Entourage opens a short time after the events of the series finale. Vincent is married and divorced all within a nine-day span. He is very, very over budget on the aforementioned film called "Hyde", which is set amongst the pulsating beats and lasers of a nightclub. It looks like the love child of Blade and The Matrix, which is how it was pitched I'm sure. There is a lot of shooting. Heads explode and blood flies everywhere. John Wick has a better shot at a Golden Globe nomination than Hyde. I recommend that Vincent and company sleep in on the morning the Oscar nominations are announced.
Vincent's former agent Ari Gold (Piven) is now the head of the studio financing Hyde. He is talked into becoming a producer as well. It is quite a suspension of disbelief that Piven would look at this film and not immediately scrap it. The film's financiers, a father and son (Thornton and Osment), aren't nearly as impressed. They ask for a re-edit and for Johnny Drama's scenes to be cut. This presents a mild crisis for Vincent, who of course would love to give his older half-brother his break.
Osment provides the closest thing to a villain in the movie. He is a smarmy weasel who doesn't want to finance a crappy picture. He even locks Vincent out of the editing room. Based on what I saw of the movie, he may be doing the audience a favor. There are also plenty of cameos, including Liam Neeson, Ronda Rousey, and Mark Wahlberg (who is the executive producer and continues his streak of starring in every movie released in the past two years). The cameos, like the ones on the show, did not portray the stars in a flattering light. Rousey agrees to go on a date with Turtle (Ferrara), if she can survive for thirty seconds in the ring with her. She breaks his arm, but hey people have done worse in the name of love.
Despite the above misgivings, Entourage rolls along quickly and keeps us entertained enough. Kevin Dillon remains a guy we hope will one day get the chance to escape his brother's shadow. Piven is at his wicked best as Ari, the studio head with a very short fuse who explodes into colorful diatribes against the poor guy on the other end of his phone. He remains loyal to Vincent and proves he is the agent with a heart...sort of, when he agrees to be the best man at his friend Lloyd's gay wedding. We also become involved in Eric's (Connolly) entangled love life. Vincent, at least, seems like a pretty cool guy despite his elite Hollywood status, so we don't begrudge him success.
The thing I can definitively say about Entourage is that if you liked the show, you will like the movie. Watching the previous eight seasons episodes is not a prerequisite for those coming in cold. The film is not too inside, so those not familiar with the Entourage universe won't have to fret about not being able to follow along. Was Entourage necessary? I say probably not, because the show concluded more or less satisfactorily. But necessity is definitely not needed to be the mother of invention in Hollywood. All you need to do is observe the number of sequels and remakes spit out by the studios each year.
Monday, September 14, 2015
Directed by: Andy Fickman
Starring: Kevin James, Neal McDonough, Raini Rodriguez, Daniela Alonso
Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 is entirely unnecessary. The filmmakers should have quit while they were ahead. The original Paul Blart: Mall Cop (2009) was appealing and sweet with a likable hero we rooted for. None of those things apply to part two. The sequel moves the action to Las Vegas and makes the tragic error of turning the likable Blart into a jerk. The cocky kind that forgot his humble beginnings. Part 2 went against everything that made the first film work. There is nothing in it that is original or funny.
Kevin James reprises his role as Blart, the North Jersey mall security guard who has endured some personal setbacks since the last film. His girlfriend leaves him, his mom is run over by a truck (don't ask how this is funny), and his daughter will soon be going away to college (although she has yet to share that information with her father). Paul flies to Vegas to attend a security guard's convention. In a painful scene, he arrives at the front desk expecting lavish treatment and getting quite the opposite. The nice hotel manager (Alonso) takes a liking to him, although it is difficult to see why. He comes of as an obnoxious jerk for reasons still unknown. Maybe his mom's untimely death has something to do with it. Shirley Knight reprises her role (albeit very briefly) in this film. My guess is she wanted out as quickly as humanly possible.
Meanwhile, a slick criminal named Vincent (McDonough) is masterminding a heist that Blart is unwittingly snared into trying to stop. My advice to those attempting Vegas heists: Don't try it if you're name isn't Danny Ocean. He even finds a way to ride around on a Segway again, which is the cornerstone for Paul Blart humor. Why is Blart riding around on this thing funny anyway? McDonough has played a slick villain so often I'm surprised his picture isn't hanging in post offices across the country. He should branch out, but I guess you go where the roles are.
What we have is a remake of the first film with a more unlikable Blart. His scenes in which overprotects his daughter paints him as an insecure creep more than a concerned dad. His relationship with Maya (Rodriguez) worked in the original film. She was always in his corner and it was touching. Is this how dad repays her kindness?
Paul Blart 2's biggest flaw is that it didn't need to be made. It took six years for a sequel to be released. Maybe the filmmakers should have waited a lot longer or not bothered. Paul Blart 2 smells like, walks like, and talks like what it is: A cash-in on the popularity of the first film, which I'm sure surprised even the most optimistic of studio executives.
Directed by: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Starring: Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Kelly MacDonald, Barry Corbin, Gene Jones, Woody Harrelson, Stephen Root
No Country For Old Men sets itself up as a traditional good guy vs. bad guy showdown over $2 million in drug money found by a Vietnam vet named Llewelyn Moss (Brolin). Moss is hunting one day, circa 1980, and stumbles across a grisly crime scene in the middle of the Texas desert. He sees dead bodies, running trucks, and $2 million in a small briefcase. He takes the money and leaves the rest to the vultures. Little does he know the $2 million is wanted by not only Mexican drug lords, but a relentless hitman named Anton Chigurh (Bardem).
Anton is unlike any movie villain I've ever seen. He is scary, but in a quiet, menacing way. He never raises his voice or runs after people. He kills people based on the results of a coin flip which somehow plays into his demented sense of fair play. His weapon of choice is a cattle stun gun which shoots a cylinder into someone's head and retracts. Is he demented? Or just a ruthless, relentless stalker who won't quit until the job is done? Maybe a little of both. See how he verbally toys with his would-be victims (or even those who aren't). He speaks to them in a way that is not over-the-top threatening, but boy do you feel it. His job is to recover the money for a Texas millionaire (Root) who used the $2 million to transact a large drug purchase. He also makes it his mission to kill Moss and even Moss' wife (MacDonald), who is in the dark about how her husband is suddenly $2 million richer. She just knows she has to stay with her mother in El Paso right now.
Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Jones) investigates the scene and in his own calm, reassuring way recreates the incident the way Marge Gunderson did in Fargo. "Is this a mess?" his deputy asks. Bell replies, "No, but it will do until the mess gets here." Bell is not prepared for what is in store. He is soon to retire and will come across people who are more fearless and ruthless than anyone he has encountered previously. As No Country opens, Bell narrates a story about an unrepentant convicted murderer who is on the way to the electric chair. This is his first hint that criminals operate on a different level now. He is used to criminals behaving with a sort of code of ethics. He believes that there are boundaries even criminals don't cross. He is wrong and soon sees he is out of his league.
No Country For Old Men is not really even about the events depicted anyway. It is about a changing time for lawmen and criminals alike. They used to play by an unwritten set of rules. No more. Chigurh represents the new world order, if you will, as do the Mexicans. Bounty hunter Carson Wells (Harrelson), who is dispatched also by the businessman to track the money, knows Chigurh and insists "he has principles." He does, although they are not principles based on anything civil or decent.
You think you know how No Country will unfold. As the movie progresses, you realize that it can not unfold that way. There is a feeling of doom in the air. A key scene which establishes Chigurh involves his conversation with a gas station owner in the middle of nowhere. It starts as meaningless, ambling conversation which takes on a sinister tone after the owner asks Chigurh about where he is from.
Owner: Will there be anything else?
Chigurh: I don't know. Will there?
Owner: Sir, is there something wrong?
Chigurh: With what?
Owner: With anything?
Chigurh: Is that your question? Is there something wrong with anything?
The tension escalates and yet neither party raises his voice. Chigurh senses he may have to kill this poor guy, who was only trying to be friendly. Soon, Chigurh presents a coin dated 1958 and says:
"The date on this coin says 1958. It has travelled 22 years to get here and now it's here. And you have to call it heads or tails."
Owner: I need to know what I stand to win.
Chigurh: Everything. You stand to win everything. Now call it.
The owner becomes painfully aware that Chigurh may kill him. Chigurh is sadistically leaving the man's fate up to chance. I won't say what happens, but I'm sure the owner won't start too many idle conversations any time soon.
This scene establishes Chigurh in a way one hundred explanations could not. It is exemplary screenwriting. No Country runs neck and neck with Fargo as the Coen Brothers' best film. Both are about police officers who fail to understand why criminals act as they do, but solider on because it is what they do. Javier Bardem won a well-deserved Oscar for his performance. He creates a true original in the annals of film history and that is not hyperbole.
No Country For Old Men is a film which surprises and challenges the viewer. It is to be treasured.
Directed by: George Gallo
Starring: Anthony LaPaglia, Danny Aiello, Lainie Kazan, Frank Pesce, Robert Forster
After believing for years that 29th Street was the story of Frank Pesce, I learned that Frank Pesce did not win the first New York state lottery. He was a finalist, but did not win. Does that taint my opinion of the film? Absolutely not. Many films "based on true stories" take dramatic license with the stories. Rudy (1993) was almost a work of fiction based on a real Notre Dame football player. Argo's ending was more dramatic than the real thing. I could go on. This is such a common practice that American Hustle (2013) satirically displays in the prologue, "Some of this actually happened."
How much of 29th Street actually happened doesn't matter anyway. This is a truly funny and warm film, populated with people we can't help but love. They are real and true, adorned with personality touches that sure seem like they were based on real life. Can you really make this stuff up?
29th Street opens with a visibly distraught Frank Pesce Jr. (LaPaglia) screaming at God, "Why did you do this to me? I don't bother nobody. I'm a nice guy." He then throws snowballs at a church statue and is arrested. Why is he so upset? It turns out he won the New York state lottery and has his reasons. On its surface, this baffles the on-duty detective (Forster). "You win the lottery and you go get arrested for throwing snowballs at a church. What are you? Some kind of mamaluke?"
Frank tells his story to the cops and, without giving away too many important plot developments, his feelings make a certain amount of sense. He was born in New York and all of his life was blessed, and cursed, with good fortune. His luck is so good that when he is stabbed in the stomach as a young man, it reveals a tumor which would have otherwise gone undetected and killed him. His father Frank Sr (Aiello) has the opposite luck. His business goes belly up and he is now indebted to a local mobster. He plays the lottery and never wins. And cats are forever sitting on his perfectly manicured lawn of Kentucky bluegrass. "Their body heat will kill the grass." If one considers how small this section of grass is, does it really qualify as a lawn?
Frank Sr both admires and resents his son's good fortune. Frank Jr. purchases a single ticket which places him in the finals to win the first New York state lottery. He bought it because the cashier at the local pawn shop was unable to break a $10 dollar bill. Imagine that. Frank's colorful family consists of an older brother Vito (played by the real Frank Pesce) who is a cop, a doting mother (Kazan) who always calls her husband out when he attempts a get rich quick scheme. When Frank Sr. lies to her about going bowling, she replies, "You ain't been bowling since Christ left Chicago."
29th Street contains big laughs based on the personalities of its people. They are seen lovingly, with all of their foibles and creative ways of expressing themselves. George Gallo, who writes and directs, handles the material with a light touch. We see Frank Sr. decide to make pizza himself rather than order out because, "I'm a man of principle and I'm not going to pay for something 27 times what it's worth." His attempts at making pizza create something the family pets wouldn't dream of eating. It resembles no pizza I've ever seen. Aiello is wonderful as usual as the loving, confused patriarch. Frank Jr, for the most part is the straight man, except of course when he signs up for the Army and is rejected because he protests about not having time to study for a urine exam.
Little scenes like that may be throwaway in other comedies, but 29th Street is more about its people than what actually happens to Frank Jr. The film's ending is something that seems dreamed up by a Hollywood screenwriter, but it is so goofy that it may have actually occurred. I've rarely seen a film in which the characters surprise me with what they do or say next. Whether it's based on real life or not, 29th Street is full of life and energy you don't see that often. I had a grin throughout the entire film.
Wednesday, September 9, 2015
Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Curtis Jackson, Oona Laurence, Miguel Gomez
The outlines of Southpaw are familiar, but it works best when it deals with the angry side of Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal), a champion boxer who, like Rocky Marciano, knocks opponents out only after absorbing punishment even Rocky Balboa might consider excessive. We see him in the film's opening bout, scowling and screaming at the camera and his opponent like a wild animal. The more punches he takes, the more he seems to use them to fuel his rage. This fight worries his longtime spouse Maureen (McAdams) more than the others. She sees the toll the years of punishment to his body has taken on him. He walks around gingerly for days after the fight in excruciating pain. And this is a fight he WON.
Southpaw is a story of the events which cause Hope's downfall and rise from the ashes. After the opening fight and for days afterward, he is taunted publicly by rising contender Manuel Escobar(Gomez) who wants to take his title. This soon gets personal, which leads to a brawl and the accidental shooting death of Maureen. Billy soon loses everything due to bad investments and grief. His manager (Jackson) and trainer soon jump ship to work for Escobar after Billy's next fight ends disastrously. The fight reminded me of Oliver McCall basically giving up in the middle of his bout with Lennox Lewis and allowed Lewis to hit him. His daughter is placed in state care after he drunkenly rams his car into a tree.
Unable to box after being stripped of his license, Billy finds a job at a local gym run by Tick Willis (Whitaker), who trained a fighter Billy believes gave him his toughest fight ever. Tick is instinctive and intelligent. He realizes that Billy's weakness isn't his skills, but the anger which consumes him and triggers his bad decisions in and out of the ring. Tick teaches Billy to punch, but not to knock a guy's head off. He teaches restraint and focus above animalistic brutality. Billy learns how to live and be a father through becoming a more disciplined fighter.
Gyllenhaal built up his physique and transforms himself into a brutal ring warrior. More impressive than his boxing skills is his acting. He takes chances by showing us the tender, loving family man and enraged animalism within the same person. This is the first boxing movie I've seen in which a fighter really feels the beating he took for days, maybe weeks on end. There is little doubt Billy was headed for a lifetime of health issues. We see it all and we grow to care for him.
For my money, I think I was a tad more impressed with Whitaker in the less flashy, but perhaps more important role as Tick. He is a man who never rose to Billy's level of success in the boxing world due to injuries, but possesses great knowledge and instincts. He is tough, wise, and has boundaries when dealing with Billy. This is Whitaker's best work since his Oscar-winning role in The Last King of Scotland (2006).
Because Southpaw is at its core a boxing movie, it ends in the big fight. There is only so much inspiration that can drawn from this material before we have to accept that it is a film about a boxer and the fight game. The final fight is action-packed, but contains few surprises. Billy's scenes with his daughter contain some raw power, but we know they will reconcile. The more fascinating aspects of Southpaw occur in the middle rounds, when Billy and his own demons are still feeling each other out. I almost wish we didn't even get to see the big fight, but I know I'm in the minority.
Friday, September 4, 2015
Directed by: Peyton Reed
Starring: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Anthony Mackie, Bobby Canavalle
Ant-Man knows it is silly and has fun with that fact. When Dr. Hank Pym (Douglas) asks recently paroled convict Scott Lang (Rudd), "Are you ready to be the Ant-Man?", it sounds really goofy, but it is par for the course. This is a Marvel film about a superhero I had no idea even existed until I heard the film was being made. Ditto for Guardians of the Galaxy and Iron Man. Ant-Man is cheery, while some other Avengers films wallow in the Meaning Of It All. I hope future Ant-Man movies do not become infected with whatever ailed the last Avengers movie.
Ant-Man opens at SHIELD headquarters in 1989, in which Dr. Pym resigns from the organization rather than reveal his secret weapon, a suit which would shrink a human being to the size of an ant and all of the pros and cons that entails. He fears his weapon, in the wrong hands, would be devastating. Years later, Pym's protégé Darren Cross (whose name certainly is an apt description of his character) has modified Dr. Pym's weapon to create Yellowjacket, which is to be used for military purposes and all of the pros and cons that entails.
Dr. Pym recruits a recently paroled thief named Scott Lang (Rudd) to be the human guinea pig in the Ant-Man suit. The suit, which could be mistaken for Iron Man's to the unenlightened moviegoer, allows the wearer to shrink himself to the size of an ant in order to sneak into places and commandeer an army of ants as his fighting force. Fortunately, one press of a button will also allow the wearer to return to normal size. It would suck for Scott if he were stuck as an ant forever.
Scott goes through a slow learning process in the suit. His attempts to shrink himself through a keyhole at just the right time create laughs. Guided by Dr. Pym and his daughter Hope (Lilly), Lang fulfills his destiny as Ant-Man. Hope is a woman who resents her father because she feels he is not truthful about the death of her mother. She acts as a double agent pretending to be aligned with Cross while secretly working for her dad. How Cross trusts her enough to reveal his secrets to her is one of those things you just have to take on faith.
Ant-Man is a simple film by Marvel standards. There is one villain, one or two impregnable fortresses for Scott to break into, and one goal, which is to steal the Yellowjacket suit. It doesn't bog itself down with excess. However, Ant-Man's treatment of Cross is interesting. He feels a certain attachment to Dr. Pym even though he is planning to destroy him. This inner conflict gives Cross some unexpected depth.
I enjoyed Rudd in this role. He approaches it with almost giddy glee, but is smart enough to be a convincing hero. His everyman quality really works here. Dr. Pym is not a smooth operator that Douglas normally plays. He is smart, principled to a point, and carries around regrets about how his family nearly fell apart as he perfected the Ant-Man suit. Evangeline Lilly is sexy and resentful of Scott. It seems Dr. Pym took a liking to him faster than he ever did her.
Ant-Man almost sounds like the title of one of those schlocky horror films from the 1950's, in which a normal guy is turned into an ant via a nuclear explosion. If I remember correctly, the 1993 film Matinee was about the screening of a film called MANT, which promised a half-man, half-ant creature. We don't get a MANT here, but the most unusual superhero this side of Darkman. That's a good thing.