Wednesday, December 30, 2015
Directed by: Harley Cokeliss
Starring: Burt Reynolds, Cliff Robertson, Kenneth McMillan, Cynthia Gibb, Lauren Hutton, Scott Wilson
Burt Reynolds was once the biggest box office attraction in the world. His presence in even the poorest of films would boost the grosses. By 1987, the year Malone was released, this was no longer the case. Like Sylvester Stallone, Reynolds was a charismatic actor who chose mindless action films over films which could display his true acting chops. No one faults him for it. Who among us would turn down $20 million per movie for the sake of art? But after a string of flops, even the action film roles dried up. A movie like Boogie Nights (1997) gave Reynolds the chance to show his stuff and it resulted in an Oscar nomination. Those roles, however, were few and far between.
Malone was a theatrical release, but it felt like a made-for-TV movie, albeit a violent one. Reynolds plays the title character: a former CIA operative who opts for a less complicated life and stumbles across a small town under the thumb of a guy named Delaney (Robertson). Delaney is a powerful man who is building up a network of baddies in an attempt to overthrow the government---I think. At least, that is what it sounds like, although Robertson doesn't exactly spell that out in his numerous speeches he gives to Malone. Reynolds was undergoing health issues at the time of filming (it was feared he had contracted HIV) and he simply looks and sounds exhausted. His character is supposed to have a weariness about him brought on by years of killing for the CIA, but Reynolds is a bit too weary. In some cases, he can barely muster up enough strength to string two sentences together. He comes alive when there are fistfights or shootouts (or was that simply his stunt double). It has sad to see an actor with such natural charisma and charm struggling so mightily.
Malone's car breaks down and he befriends the local auto shop owner (Wilson) and his very pretty daughter Jo (Gibb) who obviously has a crush on Malone. He fends off her advances, although it seems to me he would hook up with her if he had more energy to do so. There was certainly a vibe. Instead, the shadowy character named Jamie (Hutton) is introduced to give Malone a hook up closer to his age. She plays a current CIA agent assigned to kill Malone, but she winds up in bed with him with no further explanation. I am guessing she is a former girlfriend, so whomever assigned her to kill him clearly was asleep at the wheel.
The effect of blood spurting out on people's shirts after they have been shot looks like a ketchup packet exploding. Malone is another of those movies in which the baddies fire dozens of rounds at the hero and miss badly, while Malone simply has to fire once to take them down. This is also the type of action movie in which the hero walks away from a building that explodes into a giant fireball. Debris and flames fly everywhere, but the hero simply continues to walk toward the camera without looking back or even being jarred by the noise. How do they always know how to be just far enough away from an explosion so they don't get hit by anything? And has Malone blown up so many other buildings before that he can simply ignore the loud noise? I guess you get used to it after a while.
Malone is predictable and by rote. I guess it is the best possible film that could be made with this material, but it clearly demonstrates a decline in the Reynolds mystique. He would have brief respites with Evening Shade and Boogie Nights, but his days as a box-office giant were clearly over. It's sad to see it unfold on screen like it does in Malone.
Tuesday, December 29, 2015
Directed by: James Foley
Starring: Jerry Barone, Al Pacino, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Alec Baldwin (narrator)
Two Bits is a "you had to be there" type of story. It focuses on a 12-year old Depression-era South Philly kid named Gennaro who spends a long, hot summer day trying to scrounge together 25 cents (or two bits) to go to the palatial movie theater that just opened in town. The film was shot in South Philly and seems authentic in its depiction of the Depression, but why should we care if this kid goes to the movies or not? For Gennaro, going to the movies is his dream, but what does it mean in the long run to the rest of us? Or even to his dying grandfather or his cash-strapped mother? I guess you had to be there.
There is nothing about Two Bits that cried out for the story to be told. It is based on an autobiographical screenplay by Joseph Stefano and it certainly carried meaning for him. This, however, does not translate to a compelling film. Not even Al Pacino's presence can save it from being mundane at best.
Gennaro (Barone) is a determined kid with a loving relationship with his family, especially with his ailing grandfather (Pacino), who has the quarter Gennaro needs to buy a ticket. Grandpa does not want to give it up so easily, although I can not imagine his use for it considering he doesn't have long to live. Pacino starred in director Foley's Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), which was a superb film. He was likely doing a favor to Foley by appearing in this film. So was Alec Baldwin, who also appeared in Glengarry Glen Ross and narrates the proceedings. Pacino spends so much time hacking that I wanted to call the ambulance for him.
Gennaro spends the day trying to scrounge up the money and falls into different adventures with strange people trying to do so. His grandpa reveals later that he has unfinished business with a local elderly widow whom he once wanted to marry. If Gennaro can relay grandpa's message to her, if she is even still alive, then Gennaro can earn the quarter. If this sounds less than riveting, that is because it is less than riveting.
I admired the pluck of Barone and Mastrantonio, who tries her best to care for her family in a trying period. The film has the look and feel of what 1933 South Philly must have been like. The movie theater is appropriately framed as an oasis in a sweltering city. I find no fault with the technical aspects. A lot of hard work went into a story that can not keep up its end of the bargain. It is slight, but told earnestly, so I will not be a churl about it. It is not a terrible movie, just one in which you shrug and kind of forget about.
Directed by: Steve Rash
Starring: Gary Busey, Charles Martin Smith, Don Stroud, Maria Richwine
Buddy Holly died in plane crash on February 3, 1959 in Clear Lake, Iowa. Like Ritchie Valens, who also died in the crash, Holly's career was blossoming and we are only left to wonder what would have been. Holly recorded a string of hits that have stood the test of time, but also was an innovative musician who produced his own records, which was unheard of at the time. Today it's commonplace. "How can I tell someone to create what's in my head?", he tells a record executive and it is a sound argument. Even if Holly's songwriting dried up, he still likely would have become a powerhouse producer. We will never know.
Holly, who died at age 22, is played by the then-33-year old Gary Busey in a career-defining performance. Busey even sings Holly's songs, which gives them a sense of urgency and freshness. Busey is a pretty good singer. Even though he was 11 years older than the age in which Holly died, Busey looks the part, complete with a wide-eyed enthusiasm for "his" music. Make no mistake, the music was Holly's own and he fought tooth and nail to keep it that way. The Buddy Holly Story works the strongest when we see Holly working his hardest to maintain his vision of what his music should be.
Along with his backup band, The Crickets, Buddy Holly's demo "That'll Be The Day" became an unexpected hit in the Northeast as Holly was struggling with short-sighted radio stations and record producers who do not want him to play "the devil's music." Rock and roll was in Holly's blood, heavily influenced by the black artists of the day, so much so that Holly and the Crickets were hired to play the Apollo sight unseen by a promoter who thought they were black. "Thank you very much," was Holly's response when he is told, "I thought you guys were black." They become the first white artists to play the Apollo Theater and are an immediate hit. The guys are soon part of the tour featuring Clyde McPhatter, Sam Cooke, and other prominent black artists of the day. They fit right in.
The whirlwind marriage of Holly to a Puerto Rican record company receptionist named Maria Elena Santiago is also documented. The makers of the film came under fire by depicting a fictional conflict in which Buddy had to convince Maria's aunt to allow him to date her niece. The aunt is opposed to Maria dating musicians, but Holly wins her over with his sincerity. There is also a nice payoff at the end of the scene. So what if it is made up? It works nicely. Most biopics create fictional conflicts and invent things that did not happen in order to further dramatic impact. The real story of Maria Elena's marriage to Buddy is not nearly as interesting. In the film, Buddy tells his wife that he chartered the ill-fated plane because the tour bus broke down, which was true. Holly also wanted to get to the next town so he could get his laundry done and rest before the next gig in Moorhead, Minnesota. This is not mentioned in the film, but those who got all up in arms over this slight change in motivation are merely splitting hairs.
The Buddy Holly Story takes the time to examine what made Holly special and convinces us of this as well. We see he had so much more to offer, but his life was cut short, so we will never know the extent of what he could have given us. As mentioned, Busey captures the spirit of Holly in the live performances, but I do have a quibble with how many full songs are played. While it is essential to show Buddy Holly the performer in his milieu, is it necessary to play three or four full songs in a row? I start to think I'm watching a concert, or the filmmakers are merely filling screen time. This is likely just a pet peeve of mine, but I would have like to have seen more of the behind-the-scenes Buddy Holly. We know the songs already and they are part of history. I would have enjoyed seeing a few minutes more of what went into creating them. But that's just me.
Monday, December 28, 2015
Directed by: Alejandro G. Inarritu
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter, Domhnall Gleeson, Forrest Goodluck
The Revenant trudges toward its inevitable outcome and there is no way the payoff can equal the amount our patience was tested. While The Revenant is beautifully crafted and technically sound, it is simply boring and repetitive for long stretches. It takes over two and a half hours to tell a story it could have easily told in half of that time. It is public knowledge by now how difficult the shoot was for the actors and crew involved due to the elements and a hectic schedule. I hope for their sake there was plenty of hot coffee and warm blankets available after Inarritu yelled "Cut!"
The action and plot take place in 1820s Montana and South Dakota amidst a frigid, glum winter. Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) and his crew of fur trappers under the direction of Andrew Henry (Gleeson) are under constant attack by Native Americans who do not approve of the trappers killing their food sources for fur to trade to the French. The initial fifteen minutes remind us of a 19th century version of the D-Day battle depicted in Saving Private Ryan. It is brutal and bloody, with arrows and bullets flying everywhere and little sense to the chaos. It is effective action.
Once Henry orders the crew back to their fort to regroup, this news is met with disdain from crewman John Fitzgerald (Hardy), who would rather keep trying to gather more fur for greater profit. Fitzgerald doesn't like or trust anyone, especially Glass and his Native American son Hawk (Goodluck). Glass is soon mauled by a grizzly bear and left barely alive. Fitzgerald wants to put Glass out of his misery, but is ordered to stand down. He feels carrying the severely injured Glass around will hinder their safety and the speed in which they can return to the fort.
Fitzgerald and his cohort Bridger (Poulter) take matters into their own hands and bury Glass alive while killing Hawk as he attempts to save his father. Glass is left for dead, but despite broken bones and severe wounds, he crawls out of his grave and claws his way toward the vast, cold, desolate frontier with revenge as his motivation. Using only his wits and survival skills, plus an assist from a sympathetic Native American loner, Glass recovers from his injuries and illness to continue his quest for Fitzgerald.
I probably made The Revenant sound more exciting and potentially explosive than it actually is. We see Glass shiver, fall into what had to be frigid rivers and streams, and put himself through the worst pain imaginable just to survive another day to do it all over again. We certainly can sympathize with Glass, but we are not much moved. The payoff to all of this is an eventual showdown with Fitzgerald, so there is little doubt Glass will survive long enough to battle Fitzgerald. The Revenant is not fun to watch. It is even more difficult to endure. Who wants to spend a Saturday night watching this poor guy suffer and nearly freeze to death?
The Revenant is beautifully shot. The frontier is cold, unrelenting, and menacing. There are only so many ways we can see Glass battle before it soon becomes repetitive and dull. Soon, we are tapping our foot and checking our watches wondering when Glass and Fitzgerald will duke it out already. We know it's coming, so let's get to it. We get the idea about all of the other stuff.
DiCaprio's performance is being touted as his long-awaited Oscar winning performance. He went through hell with this movie and I suppose he will be rewarded for that. But, his character is shallowly defined and DiCaprio himself has had more challenging performances than this one. However, a good-looking guy getting ugly is one way to win an Oscar. Same for a woman too.
The award, if he should win it, will seem more like a lifetime achievement award.
Hardy has more lines than any other actor in the film, but his long, meandering speeches do not substitute for an actual character. He is there to be the villain, but he never comes off as truly villainous, just scared, distrustful, and selfish. I don't blame Hardy for this. He does what is required and does it the best he can. His Fitzgerald, like most of the roles here, are underwritten.
Inarritu is more in love with the gloominess of the snowy wilderness and mountains than he is in the human element. Dances With Wolves also had stretches of quietness and isolation, but we cared about the people so we understood it and related to it. The Revenant is certainly not Dances With Wolves.
Directed by: Adam McKay
Starring: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Finn Wittrock, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Hamish Linklater, Marisa Tomei, John Magaro
There are no heroes, per se, in The Big Short. There is the handful of guys who know what's going on and then there are the rest of the poor suckers. I am not even referring to the average people who bought homes with shaky credit and with help from poor banking practices. I am referring to those who profited off of those people and loans without really even knowing (or caring) that it will soon crash and burn. Men like Dr. Michael Burry (Bale) and Jared Vennett (Gosling) predicted a housing market crash three years before it happened because they saw the numbers and extrapolated the figures out. The rest just saw the money flowing in and just kept doing what they were doing. They are not necessarily bad guys for doing it, just blinded.
Burry and Vennett, along with hedge funders Mark Baum (Carell) and a few others saw the future. How did they respond? They "bet against" the market by taking out bond insurance policies against the shaky mortgage loans. These policies or "shorts" did not exist prior, but were instead created with their own rules. If the loans fail, the banks pay the policy holders a lot of money. Until they fail, the policy holders had to pay a lot of money in premiums to the banks. The banks happily conducted the transactions, and why not? They did not see the bubble was soon to burst. They did not even know there was a bubble. They saw this as yet another way to make easy money.
Based on the book by Moneyball writer Michael Lewis, The Big Short begins in 2005 with socially awkward hedge fund operator Burry studying default trends and predicting a terrifying outcome. Because the banks became lax in their loan approval processes and with interest rates soon to skyrocket, many homeowners will default on their mortgages and lose their homes. Many of these people should never have received home loans in the first place, but the banks found ways to bundle up these loans with good loans and sell these bundles to other banks. So why not keep up essentially giving away home loans?
The Big Short shows the housing market, which infamously crashed in 2008 and caused the world economy to enter a tailspin, was built on a foundation of sand. It was a high-risk, temporarily high profit house of cards. The reason the prophets like Burry, Vennett, or Baum are not heroes is because they discovered a new way to profit from this. Sure, it exposed the financial industry's idiocy for what it was, but they still profited from others' misfortune. Baum, played with ferocity and self-righteous anger by Carell, decided to buy the shorts partly to say "I told you so" to the amoral finance industry. But in the end, he still walked away with $200 million. That is not exactly the most painful way to earn a living.
We know through history what will happen. We can not look away. We see get-rich-quick money lenders gleefully telling anyone who will listen how easily they sign up people with crappy credit scores for loans they can no way afford. "Why are they confessing?" Baum asks his associate. "They are not confessing, they're bragging," his associate replies. And he's correct.
Sooner or later, such lenders find themselves attending job fairs applying for jobs at IKEA.
The Big Short takes a bitter, angry, satirical look at the banking industry. It knows how silly the rules are and we do also. Thankfully, McKay uses cameos by Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez, and chef Anthony Bourdain to explain to us what exactly a sub-prime loan is. The message comes across more smoothly when Robbie is explaining while submerged in a bubble bath. Characters break the fourth wall often to tell the audience what they are doing and why. The one who does this the most often is Vennett, played by Gosling with equal amounts vapidity, arrogance, and of course knowing what the hell he's talking about. We can more identify with Baum and Burry, who do their best in their own awkward, uncomfortable, human way to warn others about what they know. And also to get a piece of the action. Why? Because they knew down deep that no one will learn from what happened.
Nobody learned anything the Stock Market crashes of 1929 and 1988 or The Great Depression. The financial industries simply apply the old methods in newer, high-tech ways and create even more complex schemes that will ultimately fail. The chickens always come home to roost. History proves that time and again. It is the textbook definition of insanity, which is doing the same wrong thing over and over expecting different results.
The Big Short, which almost functions like a documentary, is not a warning or a historical document. It is a mirror.
Wednesday, December 23, 2015
Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Peter Mayhew, Andy Serkis
The Force Awakens (I'll abbreviate the title for my own sanity's sake) returns the Star Wars series to what it was intended to be: an adventure that has you grinning from ear to ear. The first three films in the Star Wars series (Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi) were glorious space operas populated with imaginative worlds, even more imaginative creatures, and good old fashioned good vs. evil conflicts. There were also conflicts within the characters themselves, which added an extra level of suspense. J.J. Abrams understands what makes Star Wars so enduring and special and he made the film to fit that vision.
The Force Awakens begins roughly 30 years following the end of Return of the Jedi. The Empire was seemingly destroyed, but small factions grew into The First Order, led by the masked Kylo Ren (Driver), General Hux (Gleeson), and the Supreme Leader Snoke (Serkis- who has made a career of playing animated characters). The storm troopers have been assembled to carry out The First Order's attempts to retake the galaxy from the Republic and locate the missing Luke Skywalker, who went into hiding after one of his Jedi recruits turned on him to join the dark side. That recruit was Kylo Ren.
The First Order raids the desert planet of Jakku in order to locate the map leading to Skywalker's whereabouts. The map is in the possession of pilot Poe Dameron (Issac), who hides the map inside his trusted droid BB-8 just before his capture. The storm troopers commit atrocities against innocent people, which causes a crisis of conscience within one of the troopers (Boyega), who will later be nicknamed Finn after he rescues Poe from the First Order's clutches.
Rey (Ridley), an orphaned scavenger on Jakku, is also introduced when she saves BB-8 from being kidnapped and turned into scrap metal. She and BB-8 soon hook up with Finn (who crash landed back on Jakku with Poe after escaping) and the three journey on to return BB-8 to the Republic.
Characters from the original series also return in major roles, including Han Solo (Ford), now General Leia Organa (Fisher), and the ever hairy Chewbacca. Without spoiling anything, let's just say that Solo and Leia have a personal interest in Kylo Ren and part of their mission is retrieving him alive. Kylo Ren himself is at war with the Republic and his good side. He speaks to the mangled, aged helmet of Darth Vader as a quasi-pep talk to continue to evil ways. His youth works against him as he found himself betraying his family and turning to the dark side. Kylo has great mind control powers, but finds he is unable to control Rey. "The force is strong with her," he tells Snoke, who is a giant hologram. When we see Ren without his mask, his eyes are watery and bloodshot, as if he were crying. He responds to bad news by destroying things with his light saber, which looks like flames and is not your mother's light saber.
Ren's internal conflicts cause poignant moments when facing Han Solo. On a personal note, having recently lost a child, these scenes take on an extra level of meaning for me. Their confrontation on the long walkway which stretches from one side of the First Order's much larger Death Star to the other, takes on an epic scope. It is technically not the Death Star, but for my money it is. It houses a new weapon which can vaporize whole planets. The Republic's mission is to destroy the weapon, which involves dogfights with X- wing, Y--wing, and any other flying space fighter ships.
The most recent Star Wars trilogy, beginning with The Phantom Menace (1999), was more interested in the politics that created the Empire. The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones (2002) were boring and disengaging. They played more like intergalactic C-SPAN. The Revenge of the Sith (2005) was much more satisfying, but each film was bogged down and gloomy. The Force Awakens, even with its various conflicts and subplots, is as light as a feather and fun. The 135 minute running time zips by. Abrams creates the correct tone for this installment of the Star Wars series, which is its heart a throwback to silly space adventures from the 1930's and 1940's. Abrams is more intrigued by the personalities of his characters. Without characters to care about, then why would invest our time in what they are fighting for?
There will be two more installments in this latest Star Wars trilogy. The Force Awakens set things up very nicely for the next one, which is only titled Episode VIII right now. I hope the makers continue to follow the roadmap Abrams laid out. Notice I did not mention much about the technical aspects of the film. The visuals are well done, but to me, they take a back seat to the people. That is how it is supposed to be.
Tuesday, December 22, 2015
Directed by: Tom McCarthy
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Rachel McAdams, Len Cariou, Brian D'Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup
Spotlight is a gripping story of the pains of investigative journalism. This is a career I thought I wanted when I started college, but I am glad I shifted to another direction. Journalism is a job for people willing to deal with rejection, criticism, being under the microscope, getting hung up on, and having doors slammed in their faces. I am not among those people. The Boston Globe reporters in Spotlight endured months of these obstacles before finally breaking an eventual 2002 Pulitzer-prize winning story of the Boston Archdiocese's complicity in covering up for priests who molested children. Not just one or two priests, or one or two children, but nearly 100 priests and over 1000 victims. "The problem is systemic," says Globe editor Marty Baron (Schreiber). He has no idea how right he was.
The cover up not only served the church's interests and coffers, but enriched local attorneys who secretly bartered settlements for the victims that were tantamount to hush money. The pain of the victims endures regardless. Years pass until the victims, at long last, win the opportunity to tell their stories to the Globe reporters. The reporters, part of the "Spotlight" team of investigative journalists, are not cynical people looking for a great story. They care and want to do good. They hope the story will put an end to the darkness for the victims. They want to see justice done at long last, even if the statute of limitations ran out years ago.
Throughout the film, I recalled the 2012 Alex Gibney documentary Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God. That was a heartbreaking film, which depicted a group of deaf men who were molested as children by predatory priests. The film also widened its scope to worldwide abuse cases in which the Catholic church powers as high as the Vatican were complicit in covering them up. The 2002 story by the Globe helped break the silence and the church rightly suffered. They were forced to pay billions in restitution to the victims and endure a backlash that continues today. There was also a rift in the trust between the communities and the church. Priests were no longer seen as God, but as potential predators, even those who did not engage in such practices.
The Globe, like many newspapers even today, began to realize the effects of the internet on newspaper circulations as the film opens in June 2001. New editor Baron arrives from Florida in an effort to turn around the Globe's waning fortunes. He is so out of tune with Boston that he reads up on "The Curse of the Bambino" to learn the local culture. What he soon discovers is the community's seemingly unquestioned trust in the Catholic church, even amidst allegations of abuse that go back decades. The children were convinced that they imagined the abuse and the parents mostly bought it in order to hide their shame. In this backwards scenario, the victims would be seen as the ones who ought to be ashamed. After all, who are they to impugn God like that? They surely most have brought it on themselves.
The Spotlight team is led by Walter "Robbie" Robinson (Keaton), a veteran, raspy Bostonian tired of being assigned boring stories about police corruption. When Baron discovers a tiny article about possible priest abuse in one of the back sections of the paper, he assigns the Spotlight team to dig deeper. This invigorates the reporters, Michael Rezendes (Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (McAdams), and Matt Carroll (James), who begin to seek out victims, leads, and something to blow the lid off of this thing. The church has many powerful political and financial allies. Many are unwilling to talk or go on the record. Rezendes tracks down eccentric local attorney Mitchell Garabedian (Tucci) who has been representing victims for years. Garabedian is at first hesitant to trust Rezendes, but soon they are allies. Rezendes also finds an invaluable resource in an author who wrote about the abuse phenomenon long before the cases ever saw the light of day. He sees the abuse as part of a systemic problem which has plagued the church for decades, maybe even centuries.
The church, in a short-sighted unwillingness to deal with the problem before it spiraled out of control, would habitually move offending priests to different parishes under the cover of leaves of absences and sick leaves. All of this is discovered slowly and painstakingly over the course of many months. 9/11 also intervenes, temporarily forcing suspension of the story to pursue the much larger story.
Spotlight is refreshingly not about crusading, self-important reporters with an ax to grind. They are horrified discover the abuse going on right under the city's noses. They care about the community, even if the community doesn't want to hear the news. It is in the tradition of All The President's Men (1976) in which reporters discover a story they feel is of vital interest to the community and refuse to let it die. In President's Men, the story is vital to the nation. The Globe story will soon become that important as well. The reporters work tirelessly, eschewing leisure time and in some cases even basic needs, to deliver the goods on time.
There are no leading roles in Spotlight. Each actor plays a significant part of the team. They do not engage in "look at me trying to win an Oscar" acting flourishes, but instead deliver solid performances. Director McCarthy briefly touches on the personal lives of the reporters, but mostly they discuss unseen spouses and family members. The focus is intense. Thank goodness there were no obligatory scenes of neglected spouses having come to Jesus arguments with the reporters over the endless hours put in at the expense of their families. In some cases, spouses are mentioned once and then never again.
Spotlight delivers a powerful story because it focuses equally on the plight of the victims. Yes, the story will sell papers and keep the wolves away from the door for the Globe, but the greater good is also being done finally after years of being forgone. I do have to wonder about how Rezendes was able to uncover the seemingly lost documents which basically revealed the church's wrongdoing. Garabedian says they were lost thanks to the church, but Rezendes was able to come up with them without much effort. The sequence puzzled me, but aside from that, Spotlight is an engrossing film.
Monday, December 21, 2015
Directed by: Roland Emmerich
Starring: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, James Woods, Richard Jenkins, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Joey King, Jason Clarke
White House Down is a routine action film with good actors trapped inside it. What elevates it (or de-elevates it- if that is even a word) is the relentless CGI. Not only is most of the action CGI, but the exterior sets as well. It is not even CGI done well. It looks phony and it looks like the actors are clearly performing in front of a blue screen. This detracts from what little the movie has going for it. I recently watched Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) again and the all CGI backgrounds set the proper tone for an adventure film set in the 1930s. White House Down was released nine years later, but somehow the technology has regressed. Or was it simply not appropriate for a modern day action movie?
White House Down stars Channing Tatum as John Cale, a Washington DC cop who interviews for a coveted Secret Service job. The White House is abuzz with President Sawyer's (Foxx) promise to withdraw all troops from the Middle East in order to promote peace. This does not sit well with the military-industrial complex. Soon enough, the White House is under siege by well-armed mercenaries, the Capitol building is blown up, and the President is taken hostage by Secret Service chief Martin Walker (Woods) who has a personal beef. Cale, who accompanies his politics-loving daughter Emily (King) on the White House tour, soon finds himself battling the bad guys and trying to save the President and his daughter.
The baddies are led by Emil Stenz (Clarke), whose sneer will likely condemn him to a career of playing villains. He is sufficiently hateful. Woods, as Walker, is sufficiently slimy and full of motives of his own to kidnap the President. The plot unfolds and one layer after another of the crime is unearthed, but the villains could have truly made things easier on themselves by shooting the President during any one of the seemingly dozen opportunities they had to do so. Keeping him alive at any point would be detrimental, if you consider the scope of their objective, which I will not reveal. I am hardly of a criminal mindset, so I feel strange giving these guys pointers.
Tatum is a likable enough guy and looks the part of a hero. Foxx is a President with everyman appeal. I have no fault with the performances. They try their best to stay afloat as an increasingly silly plot tries to drag them down. However, despite the bullets flying everywhere, bombs detonating, and generals grimly ordering the White House to be annihilated (even though there are about 70 innocent tourists held hostage along with the others), White House Down doesn't build any tension. We have seen five Die Hards and Die Hard imitators enough to know White House Down does not stand a chance to be original, but there is a lack of energy here regardless. We see it all going by rote. Its goals aren't lofty. It wants to be an action thriller. There is nothing wrong with that. But it seems oddly deflated and the CGI White House exterior shots look ridiculous.
Wednesday, December 16, 2015
Directed by: Ronald Neame
Starring: Albert Finney, Michael Medwin, Dame Edith Evans, Alec Guinness, Laurence Naismith, Suzanne Neve, Kenneth More, David Collings
The Scrooge soundtrack and movie were staples at my house during the Christmas season. It took me years to decipher the lyrics to "Thank You Very Much" due to the singers' Cockney accents. But I did, by God. One could easily assume a musical based on Dickens' A Christmas Carol would be a surefire disaster. However, the songs are good and the actors play the material with spirit. The rest takes care of itself.
Scrooge's plot and themes are so universally known by now that I don't need to recap the finer plot points. What a relief. And if you do not know A Christmas Carol because you have been trapped in an underwater cave for most of your life, then read the book before reading one more sentence of this review. Ebenezer Scrooge is played by Albert Finney, who is pictured above. It is mind boggling to realize he was only about 35 when the movie was made. His makeup and mannerisms ensure a convincing performance as the old, mean miser. Alec Guinness is a Jacob Marley complete with very heavy looking chains and a load of regret in his soul. I read on imdb.com the weight of the chains injured Guinness and forced him to undergo surgery. I wasn't aware they were so authentic.
The songs by Leslie Bricusse are enjoyable. "Thank You Very Much" is the highlight, but there are some nice quiet numbers underscoring Scrooge's regret (You, You) and even loud, bombastic celebrations (December the 25th). They work well and they don't force you to fast forward to the scenes in which the characters aren't singing. Not every musical can claim that.
Scrooge is a faithful adaptation of the Dickens classic. It does take liberties with the story by having Scrooge reveal exactly how much he donates to the charity he initially shunned and by identifying himself as the turkey donor to the Cratchits. The scene in which Cratchit receives an unexpected raise the day after Christmas is gone too, mostly because Scrooge takes care of all of that business when he delivers the turkey. This is a big-scale musical that succeeds.
Tuesday, December 15, 2015
Directed by: Nima Nourizadeh
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Walton Goggins, Bill Pullman, Connie Britton
I do not know what audience American Ultra wanted to reach. It is a relentless bloodbath with a comic tone, which means the tone is all screwed up. Did the filmmakers think it was funny to have its stoner, slacker lead Mike Howell (Eisenberg) suddenly find himself as Rambo? I'm at a loss. Did they think people would appreciate the reteaming of Eisenberg and Stewart from 2009's Adventureland? Do they think people even remember that movie? I don't pretend to know what the purpose behind the making of American Ultra is, but I know the end result is a mess.
Mike and his girlfriend Phoebe (Stewart) live together in a quiet West Virginia town. In between his shifts at the local convenience store, they smoke a lot of weed and Mike is unable to find the right time to propose to Phoebe. Mike is unaware that he is in fact a sleeper CIA hitman whose skills can be summoned after he is activated by a CIA agent named Victoria (Britton) who wants to keep him alive. It seems Mike was part of a now abandoned CIA program and the program leader Adrian Yates (Grace) wants all remaining operatives killed. Victoria has a conscience and wants to stop him. I am puzzled by Yates' endgame here. After all of the loss of lives, property damage, and bloodshed, was it worth it to kill one man who was not even aware he was part of the program to begin with? Wouldn't have been better to just let him be? I suppose there would not have been a movie then, but that would have been fine by me.
Mike is attacked by two men outside of the convenience store and he kills them. He will kill many more in brutal ways. There is a lot of blood, bones breaking, and things blowing up. There was once a time long, long, long ago where this may have been passable entertainment, but now I think I have seen every possible way someone can be shot or killed. It is depressing to watch. Simply lining up guys for Mike to mow down is boring, no matter how creatively it is framed.
The nature of Mike and Phoebe's relationship changes amid plot twists and surprises. It adds only minimal interest to them and the proceedings. Eisenberg and Stewart do what they can, but there isn't a lot to work with here. The other actors are skilled to be certain, but as much as they try, we simply do not care about them or anything else going on in American Ultra.
I am about as tired of pot smoking in movies as I am of shoot 'em ups and relentless violence. It seems to be a fallback personality trait anymore. At least Cheech and Chong made funny faces when they inhaled.
Monday, December 14, 2015
Directed by: Jonathan Demme
Starring: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer, Rick Springfield, Sebastian Stan, Audra McDonald
Ricki and the Flash runs about 95 minutes and at least 20 of those minutes show Ricki (Streep) and her band performing cover songs. Full songs. The Springsteen number goes on forever. The musical performances felt like filler for a movie that is ultimately thin. There is a better film in here somewhere, I know it. But Ricki and the Flash takes the easy way out in nearly every frame. All of its conflicts are handled neatly and, wouldn't you know it, a couple songs at a wedding can make everything better.
The Ricki of the title is played by Meryl Streep, who despite her decent singing voice is simply too old to play this part. She was known in her previous life as Linda, a housewife who abandons her husband and three children to chase musical stardom in California. It is said she had a hit, but her dreams stopped at a dingy club where she and her band The Flash play to small, but adoring audiences of barflies. The songs, including American Girl by Tom Petty, Drift Away by Dobie Gray, etc. do not sound overproduced a la Purple Rain, which is refreshing. The Flash's lead guitarist (and Ricki's love interest) is Greg, played by Rick Springfield. Springfield handles himself with aplomb in his scenes with the iconic Streep. He is tender and caring, with a touch of regret on how he handled his previous domestic life before playing nightly at this dive bar.
Ricki soon receives a disturbing phone call from her ex-husband Pete (Kline), who asks Ricki to come back to Indianapolis to help her daughter Julie (Gummer-Streep's real life daughter) with a heartbreaking divorce from her unfaithful husband. "I think she needs her mother," Pete says, which is a refrain echoed at least one other time in the film. Ricki hops on the next plane to Indy, but it isn't surprising that Julie is less than excited to see her. Pete, who is remarried, forever plays the arbitrator trying to keep things on an even keel. His house is really nice by the way.
Poor Julie is heartbroken beyond words. Ricki's initial attempts at comfort don't go over well. ("Sometimes people have starter marriages.") But after a day out in which Ricki takes Julie for a haircut and a mani-pedi, Julie starts to feel better about her mother. Their initial conflicts over Ricki's leaving are glossed over once Ricki confronts Julie's shameless ex one night in a bar. The payoff is not satisfying, but after the confrontation Julie's ex is never mentioned again. It is on to bigger and better things. All is well.
Ricki's presence proves to be a distraction that Pete's wife Maureen (McDonald) can no longer tolerate. She asks Ricki to go back to California, but later does a 180 degree swerve and invites Ricki to her son Josh's (Stan) wedding. She did more than just invite her and her plus-one, as you will read later. The wedding itself is one of those movie weddings which takes place outdoors on perfectly manicured grounds that would shame Buckingham Palace. There are only a few rows of guests at the wedding, so why do they need all of the extra space? Yet there is an entire banquet hall full at the reception. Who is paying for the wedding and how?
In between Ricki's return flight home and the wedding, she and the Flash perform two full songs showcasing Streep's singing acumen. She's pretty good. The band sounds pretty good. But is she truly happy knowing she left her family to become the lead singer in a dime-a-dozen cover band? She also has a day job as a cashier in a supermarket. This whole dream thing wasn't well thought out.
Ricki and Greg attend the wedding, but in a surprise move, the wedding band is replaced by the Flash. The other members and their equipment were flown in also. I'm sure that wasn't cheap. Ricki sings the aforementioned Springsteen song which has nearly everyone at the reception on the dance floor. The dance floor is large enough to accommodate them, thank goodness. Everyone is happy. Life is good. The movie is over. Huh?
The movie introduces numerous potential conflicts and tidies them up all within 95 minutes. Ricki herself wears leather pants, stiletto boots, and braided hair extensions nearly everywhere she goes. Add in the heavy makeup and you could easily mistake her for an aging prostitute. Streep and company are to be credited here for their effort. They make the most of things even though their isn't much to the film. Ricki and the Flash begins as at least potentially juicy melodrama and forsakes it all for some cover songs. Somehow a few songs will make everything better for everything involved. If you consider the director is Oscar-winner Jonathan Demme and there are two Oscar winners in the cast, Ricki and the Flash could have been a gem, but it doesn't aspire to be anything more than a showcase for Streep's vocals.
Directed by: James Wan
Starring: Kevin Bacon, Kelly Preston, John Goodman, Aisha Tyler, Garrett Hedlund, Matthew O'Leary, Stuart Lafferty
I wish Death Sentence delved deeper into the mindset of Nick Hume (Bacon), a well-off insurance executive whose life changes forever after his son is brutally slain by vicious thugs. The killing was part of a gang initiation and Nick's son Brendan (Lafferty) was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nick witnesses the killing, but is unable to stop it.
Sadly, Death Sentence is only interested in being a blood-soaked revenge fantasy. It is a sad, dark, depressing film. Body parts are blown off and others die in increasingly horrible ways. There is no relief or insight. It is all gloom. The odd part is the final disposition of the main villain is kept off screen. Did Death Sentence suddenly decide that showing the villain get his head blown off would be too gratuitous? I suppose I will never know the answer to that question.
Death Sentence never convincingly traces Nick's path from grief-stricken father to a vigilante not a thousand miles removed from Charles Bronson. The killer is caught, but the DA flippantly tells Nick that he would only be able to put him in jail for a few years. "You stopped at the only gas station in America that didn't have a security camera," he tells Nick. Nick recants his testimony that he was able to ID the killer and decides to take the law into his own hands. He roots around his garage and finds a knife that would make Crocodile Dundee proud to begin his mission.
Nick fails to realize that his killing of the punk would lead to an all-out war against the gang the kid belonged to. He is identified quickly and soon enough he is being chased through a parking garage by tattooed creeps with automatic weapons. The gang is led by Billy Darley (Hedlund), whose tattooed neck and trimmed goatee guarantee that he would not be able to find suitable employment in the private sector. Darley is irredeemably hateful and cruel. He and his crew are without a human bone in their bodies. They are destined to be targets for Nick.
Nick transforms from mild-mannered executive to an indestructible Rambo in the blink of an eye. He can outrun the thugs and defeat them in hand-to-hand combat as if he were channeling James Bond. Without any evidence that he has ever even held a gun, Nick can suddenly fire at the baddies with accuracy that would make a sniper envious. Oh, and he survives bullets that would kill an ordinary man and falls from great heights without breaking any bones. He is no longer Nick Hume; he is The Terminator.
There is no point in discussing the film's performances or script. The goal of Death Sentence is established early. I will say John Goodman's turn as an uber-creepy arms dealer/father of Billy Darley is unique, but we don't see enough of him. It is not clear why he decides to let Nick go at a crucial point in the movie. Were more scenes with Goodman edited out? Did director Wan decide there would be too much dialogue in between the bloodbaths to leave Goodman in the film more?
Where are the cops in all of this, you ask? A sympathetic detective (Tyler) issues hollow warnings to Nick about taking the law into his own hands, but generally stays on the sidelines to let Nick do his thing, even after two cops watching Nick's house have their throats slashed. It is inconceivable that the police would not take the lead and go after the gang themselves, but Death Sentence is first and foremost a fantasy of one man taking on his son's killers alone. The war escalates and more members of Nick's family are affected, but what happens to them becomes an afterthought that is explained away by throwaway dialogue at the end.
Death Sentence is likely to appeal to audiences that love their action bloody and brutal. It is shown without any point of view or insight into human nature. We get the sense that Nick always had it in him to become Rambo, but just needed a terrible thing like the murder of his son to bring it out. We do not feel Nick's pain and how it transforms him. His transformation happens quicker than you can say "Death Wish". The film will likely act as propaganda for those who think everyone should be armed with guns because that would somehow reduce gun violence. These people can not watch Death Sentence and agree this would be the case.
Friday, December 11, 2015
Directed by: John G. Avildsen
Starring: Ralph Macchio, Noriyuki "Pat" Morita, Elisabeth Shue, William Zabka, Martin Kove
The Karate Kid is a Rocky-type of movie with Rocky's director John G. Avildsen at the helm. An underdog overcomes his enemies and wins out in the end, but it is also about the sweet friendship between the underdog and his karate teacher/apartment complex janitor, Mr. Miyagi (Morita- Oscar nominated for his work here).
The movie begins with Daniel LaRusso (Macchio) and his widowed mother moving from Newark, NJ to Los Angeles for a new job. His mother is a nice lady with a big heart, but not equipped to handle it when Daniel soon finds himself being bullied by high school kids who look at least 20 and are black belts in karate. Daniel begins dating the ex-girlfriend of Johnny (Zabka), the hateful leader of the black belts. He and his cohorts take out their displeasure on Daniel's face regularly. After fighting off the teens during one particularly brutal attack, Miyagi, a karate expert himself, agrees to teach Daniel karate.
Johnny is a California blonde with contempt oozing from every pore. His cohorts follow him around and do his bidding, which usually involves tormenting Daniel in some way. Their function is simply to receive their comeuppance in the end. The black belts, who are students of the malicious Kreese (Kove) of the Cobra Kai dojo, are one-dimensional, but we don't mind seeing them get their butts kicked.
The Karate Kid taps into the daily anguish of someone who is bullied on a daily basis. Every day for Daniel becomes an exercise in eluding the Cobra Kai, until he learns karate and enters a local tournament which Johnny usually wins annually. It is sad to see Daniel forced to dress as a shower stall (curtain and all- it's actually pretty inventive) to attend the Halloween dance with his girlfriend Ally (Shue) in order to avoid detection. Ally is pretty, sweet, sincere, and rich. Daniel is scorned by her parents because he is from the San Fernando Valley. They seem to like Johnny, who must pull one heck of an acting job to even pass as approachable, let alone likable.
Miyagi is a wise, elderly Japanese-American who can back up his talk. His initial training includes Daniel sanding the floor, waxing the car, and painting the fence. ("Wax on. Wax off") Daniel feels like free labor until Miyagi reveals the method to his madness. Morita brings warm humor to Miyagi and thus creates one of the most memorable characters in recent memory. People respond to his strength and eternal goodness, which carried him through three other sequels. His relationship with "Daniel-san" turns out to be exactly what the doctor ordered for each.
The fighting in the tournament is well choreographed and by now we know who wins. Avildsen knows how to push the underdog angle without pushing too far. It does not retain all of its original power, mostly because I am not 14 anymore, but The Karate Kid is still a good entertainment which you can watch on cable and not feel like you just wasted two hours.
Directed by: Sam Mendes
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Chris Cooper, Jamie Foxx, Dennis Haysbert
Jarhead is a war movie that follows Marine recruit Tony Swofford (Gyllenhaal) through the hell of basic training only to find him serving in a "war" that does not require him to use any of that training. He is an expert sniper who never has the chance to fire his rifle at the enemy during the brief military exercise that was Operation Desert Storm. "Four days, four hours, one minute. That was my war," he narrates regretfully. He arrived about a decade too early to be American Sniper.
I realized at the end of Jarhead that there was little payoff, but the movie isn't about a payoff. It documents the mounting frustration of a Marine who is trained to kill and then is forced to wait on the sidelines for a war that was over before he knew what hit him. Is this a bad thing? To me, it wouldn't be, but for Tony it was.
The dawn of Tony's military career wasn't promising. He is screamed at by a drill instructor who sounds as if he studied and memorized Sgt. Hartman from Full Metal Jacket. Then, he is hazed and branded by more veteran Marines including Troy (Sarsgaard), who would later become his best friend. After serving time in sick bay, he falls under the tutelage of Staff Sgt. Sykes (Foxx), a career Marine who has not modeled his mannerisms after Sgt. Hartman. But, Sykes is tough, assertive, and somewhat practical under the circumstances. Tony soon falls in line and becomes a machine who can't wait to practice his skills on live targets.
It is Tony's misfortune to be deployed to Saudi Arabia during Iraq's occupation of Kuwait in late 1990. He was part of Operation Desert Shield, which was a fancy name for soldiers standing around awaiting an eventual conflict. Tony and his fellow Marines are stationary for months, trying in vain to relieve their daily boredom and avoid heatstroke. When war finally does break out, the Marines find most of the battles involve air strikes on key targets with little to no ground battles. One mission involves watching over oil fields that have been set on fire by Iraqis. For Tony, his experience is one of mounting frustration and bottle-up aggression. When Tony and Troy finally get their chance to use their sniping skills, they are ordered to stand down because the killing may blow the opportunity for an impending airstrike. Troy is nearly court-martialed after his frustration boils over. "Let him take the shot!," he screams to no avail. In Tony and Troy's minds, why train them to be snipers only to never utilize their skills?
The focus of Jarhead is to depict the Marines' slow descent into madness caused by inaction. They release their frustration with frequent parties and bouts of drinking. Tony's long-distance relationship with his girlfriend hangs by a thread. He learns of a potential rival through letters and there is little he can do to stop it. Tony's time in Iraq is one giant exercise in futility. He begins to regret not going to college instead.
Men like Tony signed up for the Marines for reasons they can't even fully understand. "They were the first to get me to sign a contract," he tells a television journalist. He learns a skill and becomes an expert at it, but what a bummer to not be able to brag to the world that he killed someone. For someone like Tony, the military was meant to serve as an ego trip. He instead has four months of desert and little else.
Jarhead is unlike most military-themed movies I have seen because it does not end with a battle or extended gunplay. It was refreshing. I would like it if boxing movies did not always end with a big fight also. The movie is geared towards seeing the bureaucracy of the military at work and men like Tony and Troy as simply tiny cogs in a very large machine. They served their country, but in reality, they did not receive the opportunity to serve their egos. This may be a blessing in disguise. Most war movies are either patriotic propaganda or statements that "War is hell". I have not seen a movie before in which was war is boring.
Thursday, December 10, 2015
Directed by: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Phylicia Rashad, Tessa Thompson, Tony Bellew, Graham McTavish
Creed reminds me of the plot of Rocky V (1990), in which Rocky laments the presence of a self-serving promoter trying any means necessary to lure Rocky back into the ring for one last fight. Creed feels like one more attempt to have Rocky Balboa appear on movie screens yet again. Why? Rocky Balboa (2006) was pretty good, even though the climactic fight between 60ish Balboa and a heavyweight champion 30 years his junior was implausible at best. The film tied up loose ends pretty nicely, so why drag Rocky out again? Creed never fully answers the question. It is serviceable, but Adonis Johnson (Jordan) is the surrogate Rocky. The now-70ish Rocky can not plausibly step into the ring again, so Adonis does it for him. Is there anything about Creed that convinces me that it needed to be made? No.
The "Creed" of the title is Adonis, the illegitimate son of the late Apollo Creed, whose head was crushed by Ivan Drago in Rocky IV back in 1985. This would make Adonis roughly 31, which is hardly a spring chicken in the fight game. For those who don't know, Apollo was Rocky's opponent in the first two Rocky films. They split the first two fights, which led to a private third fight at the end of Rocky III between the two in which the winner was never revealed. It is here and I wouldn't dream of telling you who won.
Adonis' life starts out as an orphan in a series of juvenile halls, but is soon adopted by Creed's widow Marianne (Rashad). She raises him in comfort and wealth, but like his father he is attracted to boxing. He fights in Mexico and then leaves a cushy corporate job to travel to Philly and seek out Rocky, who still runs his South Philly restaurant Adrian's and visits his deceased wife's grave and his best friend Paulie's grave almost weekly. If you consider how much Paulie drank, it shocked me he lived as long as he did.
Adonis convinces Rocky to train him, which Rocky does despite his advancing age and declining health. It is refreshing to Sylvester Stallone is playing his age. He reminds us that he still possesses the power and raw acting he displayed in the original Rocky. In recent years, Stallone has been involved in vain action films which tried to distract from the fact that he is pushing 70. It is honest to see him cop to his age and play it accordingly. Jordan is an appealing actor who does what he can, but is his character interesting enough to carry a film without Rocky at his side? His relationship with his neighbor Bianca (Thompson), a fledgling singer, contains little sizzle. It does not possess the awkward sweetness of Rocky courting Adrian. Adonis himself is a man living personally and professionally in his father's shadow. Rocky tells Adonis of his son's relocation to Vancouver to escape his father's shadow. This provides context as to why Rocky agrees to train Adonis and sets up a quasi-father/son relationship.
Creed, like all of the Rocky films, ends with a Big Fight. In this case, Adonis' opponent is light-heavyweight champion "Pretty Boy" Ricky Conlan (Bellew), whose physique reminds me of the pot-bellied Damon Wayans in The Great White Hype. ("I'm in shape. I'm round.") Bellew talks trash, but he is not the imposing physical presence of an Apollo Creed, Clubber Lang, or Ivan Drago, which detracts from the fight's credibility. There is a back story of Conlan soon having to relinquish his title to serve a seven-year prison sentence, but this is unnecessary exposition.
It is difficult to justify why Creed needed to be made except to make a few more bucks for the Rocky franchise. The ending of the film promises an eighth installment, but we have seen all of this before. The training sequences which play like music videos (remember those?), the fights which do not at all resemble real boxing matches, and the usual trainer/fighter blowup and eventual reconciliation are all here. There are echoes of scenes from Rocky II involving chasing a runaway chicken and running through the streets of Philly with admirers following not too far behind. Most of Creed reminds you of things that were done better in previous Rocky films.