Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Get Out (2017) * * *

Get Out Movie Review

Directed by:  Jordan Peele

Starring:  Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener, Stephen Root, Keith Stanfield, Marcus Henderson, Betty Gabriel, LilRel Howery

Get Out is a suspense thriller coupled with sharp racial satire.    There is an obvious Stepford Wives influence at play here, but it all fits together nicely.    Writer/director Jordan Peele isn't making a sendup of horror films with Get Out.    He is serious, but carefully inserts racial politics into his story, which fuels the tension and ultimately the dastardly plot hatched by the villains.     One of the joys of watching Get Out is the eerie feeling that anyone in the film could be a villain...or a friend to our hero Chris (Kaluuya).

As Get Out opens, Chris is living with Rose (Williams), who is loving, sweet, and who can't wait to introduce Chris to her ultra-liberal parents upstate.    Things get off to a gruesome start when Rose hits a deer while driving.     The interaction between the responding police officer and Chris sets our spidey senses off.     The cop isn't being overtly racist, but we can't help but feel tense at the exchanges.

Rose's parents are Dean (Whitford), a neurosurgeon and Missy (Keener), a psychiatrist with a heavy interest in hypnosis.    They are welcoming, to be sure, but something about them is off.     You can't put your finger on why they seem off.     Chris should be warmed by the fact that Dean would have voted for Obama a third time if he could.    Maybe it is the Stepfordish Georgia (Gabriel) and Walter (Henderson), who work on the property but behave so properly that it causes Chris to be skittish.    It's like they are pod people.    Chris' friend Rodney (a funny LilRel Howery) warns Chris against meeting Rose's parents so soon.    When Chris tells Rodney about the weird things he is seeing, Rodney theorizes that the white people in the suburbs kidnap black people and turn them into sex slaves.      Such a thought is preposterous...or is it?

I wouldn't dream of revealing the details of what is afoot.    You have to know that something is.    Otherwise, why would there be a movie?     Get Out isn't schlock and doesn't go for cheap scares.    Its strengths lie in the suspense.     What exactly is going on here?     We find ourselves quickly absorbed.    The performances all serve the film well, especially Kaluuya as a sympathetic hero who only wants to get along, but soon finds that impossible.    Veterans Keener and Whitford are great at suggesting the malevolence that lies just beneath their welcoming exterior.   

Fortunately, the payoff is worth the buildup Peele creates.    Peele's atmosphere is of genuine eeriness.    There is an efficient coldness to the master plan that depends on racial stereotyping in almost a Nazi-like manner.     Because of this, the human stakes are high.    If Peele, who has appeared with his comedic partner Keegan Michael Key in their own show, Fargo (the first and best season), and 2016's underwhelming Keanu, wishes to forego his career in front of the camera for one behind it, he is off to a very promising start.  

89th Oscars: A Review of a Crazy Night

I thought shortly after Faye Dunaway announced La La Land as Best Picture that I went a perfect 8 for 8 in predicting all of the major categories for this year's Academy Awards.     It was refreshing to be uncertain how some categories would pan out.     However, I figured La La Land
was a Best Picture certainty, especially after it received 14 nominations and picked up a Producer's Guild Award win in late January.    All signs pointed to a big night for the musical.

In the most bizarre sequence in recent Oscar memory, La La Land was the Best Picture of 2016 for all of two or three minutes...until the ecstatic producers and cast gathered on the stage were told a mistake was made.     Moonlight was the actual winner for Best Picture, so La La Land's Oscar win tally stayed at 6, while Moonlight's cast and crew celebrated a belated win.     Beatty seemed genuinely puzzled by what was listed on the card.   He hesitated before reading the name.   He even checked inside the envelope itself to see if there were any other cards.    Nope.    Faye Dunaway giggled; thinking Beatty was just trying to create false suspense.     It turns out he wasn't.    It turns out he was accidentally handed the duplicate envelope for the Best Actress winner, which was awarded to Emma Stone moments earlier, and he and Dunaway assumed despite their misgivings that La La Land was the winner.    

There was an error all right.     An unprecedented error.     It would be easy just to bash Beatty and Dunaway, but there is plenty of blame to go around.     It is not unreasonable for Beatty to trust that the envelope given to him was the right one.    Still...Beatty could have at least asked for assistance.     I know such a thing would look bad, but announcing the wrong winner's name is ten times worse.    And no one would have blamed Beatty for averting potential controversy rather than having to explain away an actual one.  

The movie's three producers each had a chance to make a speech while commotion was going on behind them.     A representative from Price Waterhouse Coopers, the accounting firm that tabulates the Oscar votes, informed all on the stage that the wrong winner was named.     Moonlight's cast and crew must have thought this was all a surreal dream.     Imagine having your hopes and dreams for a Best Picture win crushed only to have them resurrected moments later.    Imagine being the cast and crew of La La Land and having your elation turn to despair in the matter of a few minutes.     Hollywood couldn't have scripted this.     Host Jimmy Kimmel cracked a joke about Steve Harvey and asked Beatty, "What did YOU do?".    Beatty explained the blunder and said he wasn't trying to be funny.     He looked mortified.    I can't say I blame him.   

Beatty and Dunaway look foolish in front of millions.     La La Land's cast and crew had defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.    Moonlight's cast and crew were denied a true celebration of an upset win.     Their speeches seemed like an afterthought after the chaos that just ensued.     Barry Jenkins, the writer and director of Moonlight, will take the win surely, but probably wouldn't have anticipated this roundabout way of receiving it.    I can imagine it would not be his first choice of learning how his movie won Best Picture.     But, La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz is to commended for being gracious and composed in the face of such colossal disappointment.  

So instead of a perfect 8 for 8 in the major categories, I had to settle for 7 for 8.    Still, a very good night for my predictions, if not for Beatty, Dunaway, and La La Land's producers.     Here are some observations about this controversial night in Oscar history:

*  Jimmy Kimmel was sharp.     He delivered his zingers, many aimed at President Trump, with confidence.     I also enjoyed his dissing of his "enemy" Matt Damon.    I don't watch Jimmy Kimmel Live so I don't know the full depth of this running joke.    I could have done without the candies parachuting from the ceiling in tiny bags and a tour group which supposedly was unaware they were being led into the Dolby Theatre during an Oscar telecast.   Uh huh,    These brought the show to a grinding halt.     Kimmel, however, was pretty spot-on and would be welcome to return as host. 

*  Did we need to have the show come to another grinding halt by watching Charlize Theron pontificate on why she loved The Apartment and Shirley MacLaine?    Or Seth Rogen with Back to the Future?   Or Javier Bardem with The Bridges of Madison County?     However, this led to a funny parody later on as Jimmy Kimmel expounded facetiously on Matt Damon's performance in We Bought a Zoo. 

*  After keeping the number of standing ovations under control last year, the standing ovation-happy audience was back in full force this year.    I frankly lost count.    Standing ovations don't mean anything if you are going to stand and clap for everybody except for the Documentary Short Subject winner.    I did like Kimmel referring to a "sitting ovation".   

*   Viola Davis' speech after her expected Best Supporting Actress win was too intense for younger viewers.    And this slightly older one.     Talk of exhuming bodies from the graveyard?     Is this an Oscar acceptance speech or a zombie apocalypse movie?  

*   The telecast's ratings once again declined this year, although millions upon millions still watched.    Each year, I gently make my suggestion to the Academy to scale down the show to a reasonable length.     There is no reason the producers of Best Picture should be making their acceptance speeches on February 27 for a show that started at 8:30pm EST on February 26.    I say broadcast the 10-12 most important categories live and provide a separate telecast for the smaller technical awards.    Or if you must broadcast these awards, then cut out the skits and montages which do little other than deaden the show.    This will never happen because the advertising revenue is massive and ABC will squeeze out every opportunity to cash in on it.    I know I am fighting an uphill battle here.    If the network is truly concerned about dwindling ratings, then they should take these suggestions into account.    I'm sure someone with more clout than I has also thought of these.

*    Will they ever get the In Memoriam segment right?    Each year, someone of note is left off the segment in favor of a script supervisor no one has ever heard of.    This year, it was Jon Polito, veteran of many Coen Brothers films.     Also, Alexis Arquette, a member of the famed acting family, was also overlooked.   You can look up on the Internet what the weather was in your area on February 26, 1982, but the research team at the Oscars can't find a complete list of famous people who died in 2016?    This year, the show upped the ante on In Memoriam screw ups.   How?  By listing "Janet Patterson-Costume Designer" on screen but showing the face of a living film producer.     Wonderful.     Jennifer Aniston, the segment presenter, paid tribute to Bill Paxton, who died the day before the ceremony.   It was a nice touch. 














Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Ladies' Man (2000) * *

 
Directed by:  Reginald Hudlin
 
Starring:  Tim Meadows, Will Ferrell, Karyn Parsons, Tiffany Thiessen, Billy Dee Williams, Julianne Moore, Lee Evans
 
I confess I haven't seen much of SNL in the last 25 years, but I caught the Ladies' Man segment featuring Tim Meadows as Leon Phelps aka The Ladies' Man, a radio talk show host who dispensed  the most unenlightened, sexist advice imaginable.    Judging by his clothes, attitudes, and afro, you would assume he was a time traveler from the 1970s.    The segments were funny.    The 90-minute feature length version is not as funny, mostly because stretching out this idea to feature length results in a lot of filler.    This includes an overlong song-and-dance routine by a group of men who want to kill Leon because he slept with all of their women.    You can just sense the movie marking time.
 
The plot of the Ladies' Man is similar to the SNL skits, only we see Leon lose his radio gig for giving out one piece of profane advice too many.    He and his long-suffering producer Julie (Parsons) land at a Christian station, where Leon can't help but deliver his patented advice to a nun over the airwaves.    With his job prospects dwindling, Leon ponders his future while possibly falling in love with Julie and avoiding the aforementioned group of cheated-on men led by Lance (Ferrell).     Lance is entirely too into wrestling with other men (and oiling up) to be straight.    The others brainlessly follow Lance in his quest to cut off Leon's balls.  
 
The Ladies' Man has some funny moments.    Leon's guileless charm is infectious and he is at heart a kind soul with misguided views on women which we know he can set straight.    But, despite his sexism, he scores regularly leaving a bunch of angry (and some happy) women in his wake.     One moment that isn't funny is Leon's eating contest against Julie's boyfriend in which the men wind up eating unspeakably nasty items.    This is gross, not funny.    Julianne Moore shows up as a former conquest who likes to get it on dressed as a clown in full makeup and wig.    This is funnier in theory than in practice.  
 
I can't say I've seen many SNL-inspired movies since Wayne's World, which was decent if not totally successful.    Superstar, A Night at the Roxbury, and Coneheads have all gone unseen by me.    Also, throw It's Pat into the mix, which was mostly unseen by everyone.    The Blues Brothers (1980) found numerous ways to improve and build upon the SNL skits on which it was based.    The Ladies' Man isn't entirely terrible, but you witness it dragging itself across the finish line.   
 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Snowden (2016) * *

Snowden Movie Review

Directed by:  Oliver Stone

Starring:  Joseph Gordon Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage, Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, Tom Wilkinson, Scott Eastwood

Oliver Stone is no stranger to stories involving people who come to question their governments in the search for truth and justice.     Edward Snowden, a government whistleblower who blew the lid off illegal U.S. government surveillance, fits the mold of a Ron Kovic (Born on the Fourth of July) or a Jim Garrison (JFK).     He is at first a true believer in all the nation stands for.   Over time, though, his belief in the system erodes to the point in which he performs a loud and meaningful act of protest against the government he once served without question.     For Snowden, he turned over evidence of illegal government surveillance against everyday citizens to documentarian Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald, which formed the basis of the Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour.  
He is also living in Russia under political asylum and the threat of extradition, an ironic reversal of the Cold War days in which Russian citizens would defect to the U.S. 

All of this sounds like it would be powerful and moving like Born on the Fourth of July or JFK, but Snowden is muted.    Joseph Gordon Levitt looks and sounds like the real Snowden, who shows up in a cameo at the end, but we don't see who is inside.    We don't feel his internal struggle.    In fact, the only we can determine if he feels anything is when he tells us.    Rarely has a Stone hero been so devoid of personality or juice.    It's as if Levitt didn't want to disturb his nearly perfect imitation of the real man.

We pick up Snowden's story in Army basic training circa 2004.    Due to a broken leg and a degenerative bone condition, Snowden is unable to continue his military career, but he is a wiz with computers and begins working for the NSA and later as an independent contractor.     He begins a long-term relationship with Tiffany Mills (Woodley), which has its ups, downs, breakups, and reconciliations.    Her primary function is to complain to Edward about how his job is killing him, he keeps too many secrets, we don't communicate anymore...etc.     Edward learns about the NSA's various surveillance programs keeping tabs on ordinary citizens.    This shocks him (I think), but the only time he springs into action and arranges a meeting with Poitras and Greenwald in a Hong Kong hotel is when the government not so subtly implies that they spy on he and Tiffany.

While it is possible Snowden's reasons for his whistleblowing were caused by a deep outrage against the government, Stone's version of events seems to suggest that if that dummy boss of Edward's didn't open his yap about Tiffany, then Snowden would have gone right on being a programmer with a lot of information at his fingertips.     Maybe this is why Snowden's sudden conversion from loyal NSA employee to moralistic whistleblower isn't convincing in this film.    It seems he only cared when it became personal for him.   

Because of this, Stone's film doesn't carry the gravitas of his angrier, more powerful films.    We are expected to be outraged because we are told to be more so than we are moved to be.     Edward Snowden is simply too stoic and passive to be a true purveyor of change.   When Ron Kovic finally joins the anti-Vietnam war effort after years of soul searching, we understand how his journey led him there.    When Jim Garrison finally declares "I've been sleeping for three years," and openly questions the Warren Report findings of Kennedy's assassination, we see how nagging questions became truths he simply couldn't ignore anymore.   

I haven't seen Citizenfour, but maybe I should.    Perhaps it will grant me some greater insight into Snowden that this film doesn't really provide.    Perhaps it will connect the dots for me and show me more what led Snowden to become ground zero in the worldwide discussion of what people will give up for their security.     It turns out quite a lot.    The post 9/11 world is all the proof you need.  



Bridget Jones's Baby (2016) * * 1/2

Bridget Jones's Baby Movie Review

Directed by:  Sharon Maguire

Starring:  Renee Zellweger, Colin Firth, Patrick Dempsey, Jim Broadbent, Gemma Jones, Emma Thompson

I enjoyed the first two Bridget Jones movies, although I never saw the need for the 'S to be added after Jones in either title.    The third installment follows a lot of the same formula as the first two films, in which the lovable Bridget stumbles her way through more unchartered territory.    This time, she is pregnant, and in typical Bridget fashion the father's identity is not clear.     Seems she had two one night stands within one week of each other, one with her ex Mark Darcy (Firth) and the other with near saintly billionaire American Jack Qwant (Dempsey).    Let the shenanigans begin.

Bridget Jones's Baby (yes, I will add the 's because it is the movie's officially spelled title) goes a long way on Zellweger's charm and the likable men in her life who are game for everything she can throw at them.    There is a sweetness here which was also present in the preceding films.    We know everything will be ok in the end for everyone involved and we're happy for the most part.     But more so in Baby do we witness the grinding gears of its contrived plot working overtime.    Do we really believe three people as nice and intelligent as Bridget, Mark, and Jack would wait until after the baby's birth to determine paternity?    Bridget declines having amniotic fluid drawn after having Jack's hair and fingernails surreptitiously obtained to perform a DNA match.   

Bridget Jones's Baby prefers to go the Ebert's Idiot Plot route, thus letting Mark and Jack both attend all of the prenatal classes and doctor visits.    Is it really funny to have Mark and Jack pretend to be a same-sex couple with Bridget acting as a surrogate to avoid embarrassment in the prenatal training?    No, because I couldn't help but wonder why they would put themselves through these situations that are more at home in a sitcom.     I can sort of understand Mark's motives, since he and Bridget have a history from the first two films.     Jack had a drunken one-night stand with Bridget and surely doesn't need this headache.     He is too nice a guy to have this situation thrust upon him.

As the movie opens, Bridget celebrates her 43rd birthday alone listening to Celine Dion's rendition of All By Myself and then Jump Around by House of Pain.    With Bridget, her love life is feast or famine.    When she is unattached, she appears to be doomed to a life of spinsterhood.     But, when her sex life gets cooking, she has no fewer than two men wanting to win her at any one time.    In the first two films, it was Colin Firth and Hugh Grant.    Here, Dempsey plays the Grant role.    In the previous film, Bridget even had a female admirer.

Despite her lapses into slapstick and occasional pratfalls, Bridget remains someone you just want to hug.   We even like Mark, who is as reserved and stodged as Bridget is friendly and outgoing.    Smiles and romantic words emit from his lips as if there isn't any more where those came from.    Firth's resistance to admitting his feelings creates a charm of its own.    Jack is naturally the opposite of Mark.    He is a wide-eyed true believer that an algorithm can match someone with his/her soul mate.    His fortune was seemingly made from his Match.com inspired website, but we all know he will likely be the odd man out.    Dempsey has previously played a likable guy who gets dumped in Sweet Home Alabama (2002), so this isn't new territory for him.

I wish I could say I enjoyed Bridget Jones's Baby as much as the first two films, but I was too aware of the plot mechanics working and the characters' avoidance of the obvious to really allow myself to recommend it.     Let's not even mention Bridget's total incompetence in her job as a TV-news show producer.    She messes up so bad, so often, the only question is why it took her bitchy boss so long to can her.    Probably so we can be granted more scenes in which Bridget shits the bed professionally.    This includes a scene in which she gives a presentation to her boss and her superiors about the direction of the show.    Things naturally go kablooey and her boss is appalled.     Only in the movies does the boss not know exactly what the presentation will be so he/she can be stunned by its ineptitude. 





    



Sunday, February 19, 2017

Fist Fight (2017) * 1/2

Fist Fight Movie Review

Directed by:  Richie Keen

Starring:  Ice Cube, Charlie Day, Jillian Bell, Dean Norris, Tracy Morgan

I suppose I never know if a movie will be a hidden comedy gem until I watch it.   Nothing ventured, nothing gained.   Sadly, I understood fairly early on in Fist Fight that there would be nothing to gain from this venture.   The plot is similar to Three O'Clock High (1987), a movie most people might not even remember, but it also dealt with a tough bully challenging a meek opponent to a fight after school.   In Fist Fight, the participants are teachers, not students, so the movie fails to tap into the adolescent fear of being humiliated and getting the crap kicked out of you in front of your peers.   Instead, we have two grown men who should know better, but the movie insists on heading towards its inevitable climax and following Three O'Clock High's playbook.    The wimp will try every trick in the book to avoid fighting the bigger, scarier bully, only to man up at the 11th hour and go toe-to-toe with his nemesis.    Anyone expecting anything else is watching the wrong movie.

This wouldn't be a bad thing if Fist Fight were funny or if we cared anything about the two guys who are about to pound each other into oblivion.    There are a couple of mild chuckles, including Ice Cube's lament that students think the Civil War was between Batman and Superman.    If I could think of the other laugh, I could share it with you now and thus you wouldn't need to plunk down your hard-earned money to see this movie.    However, there was a lady in the audience who laughed so hard when Day attacked Cube by spraying a fire extinguisher in his face that she had to leave the theater to compose herself.    Really?

How did Andy Campbell (Day) and Ron Strickland become after-school opponents?   Well, it is the last day of school at Roosevelt High and the students engage in a series of nasty pranks which makes the school Joe Clark shaped up in Lean on Me well-behaved by comparison.   Strickland's face is a perpetual sneer and he is not above breaking a student's desk with an axe if that student is messing with him.    Why would an axe be in a classroom?    I don't know and asking would not get us any closer to a reasonable explanation.  

The school is cutting back on staff, so Andy, fearing for his job under threat by the principal, rats out Strickland and gets him fired after the whole axe incident.    Strickland challenges spineless Andy to a fist fight at 3:00 and Andy goes into damage control mode trying to get out of the fight.    You would think most schools on their last day would let the students out early instead of at 3:00, so maybe their pranks are a reasonable protest.    Actually, this oversight exists so the suspense can be dragged out longer as Andy tries more desperate measures to avoid his fate.    Oh, and Andy's wife is about to give birth any second now and his daughter is performing in her school talent show (again on the last day of school.    Man, these schools are heartless).    Strickland is not permitted to have any backstory.    He is just the menacing, sneering tough guy whose job is to grow more and more pissed off as the day progresses.  

Andy is able to touch all the bases, work through all of the detours, and still show up on time for the fight, with the news going viral to the point that a church would display on its sign, "Pray for Andy Campbell."   Apparently, everyone but the police has caught wind of this fight since there are none to be found when it commences.    I know, I know.   I should just stop analyzing and just enjoy the movie.    After all, Fist Fight isn't meant to be plumbed for depth or meaning,   It is simply a goofy comedy not meant to be taken seriously.    Fair enough, but shouldn't comedies be funny or pointed satire?   I read a review of the movie praising it as a satire shining a light on the troubled educational system in the 21st century.    I'm not sure the writers put that much thought into it, but they will surely take the praise.    There isn't exactly a lot to spread around.

Then again, just watch the fact that the Trump administration's Secretary of Education is someone who has never set foot inside a public school, but calls for their banishment, and maybe that is satire writing itself.








Split (2017) * *

Split Movie Review

Directed by:  M. Night Shyamalan

Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula,
Brad William Henke

Split has stretches of some of the best work M. Night Shyamalan has done since Unbreakable (2000), but in the end the movie is simply overlong and just a tad too preposterous to pass muster.    There are questions I tried to set aside as Split unfolded, but they nagged at me.    More on those later.    As Split opens, three teenage girls: Casey (Taylor-Joy), Claire (Richardson), and Marcia (Sula) leave a party at the mall and are kidnapped by Kevin (McAvoy), who knocks them out with spray gas and the three wake up in what appears to be a basement.  

Kevin, however, isn't just Kevin, but, as the girls learn soon enough, a man with multiple personalities.    23 to be exact.    We never see the real Kevin, but personalities such as Barry, an effeminate artist; Patricia, a proper British woman, Hedwig, a wounded 9-year old boy, and Dennis, an OCD-afflicted sociopath which is the personality Kevin assumed when he kidnapped the girls.   Two of the girls talk tough about overpowering him, while Casey actually takes the time to talk to and understand Kevin and the situation.  

Casey, in a way, understands Kevin's pain and trauma due to her own history of abuse by her uncle, which is seen in eerie flashbacks that create a menacing atmosphere.    She wants to escape, of course, but realizes that is a tricky errand here.    Kevin also regularly sees a compassionate psychiatrist (Buckley), who believes Kevin's personalities are not a sign of mental illness, but the potential power of the human mind.    She even speaks at international conferences about the matter, but with that being said, shouldn't she err on the side of caution and have Kevin committed?   Especially when she learns of the possibility of a 24th (and possibly the most frightening) personality emerging?   I couldn't determine if the shrink was the world's best or the world's worst.   There are two of the questions that stayed in the back of my mind which I tried to dismiss and simply enjoy the movie, but alas I could not.

When it becomes clear where the girls are stashed, I had to ask:  Doesn't anybody else occasionally roam the same halls and could perhaps stumble onto the girls?    And why doesn't the person firing a shotgun just shoot at the head?    No doubt James McAvoy (the young Professor X in the X-Men movies) relishes the opportunity to in essence play multiple roles.    He is quite creepily effective at it too; never giving in to the temptation to overact, making his performance(s) all the more subtly scary. Taylor-Joy is an effective foil, a teenage loner who actually empathizes a bit with her captor, knowing the damage abuse can heap upon its victims.     She is the only one who truly stands a chance.

But then Split overstays its welcome with a long chase and ending so dragged out that it loses any realistic effect.    We see all of the suspense Shyamalan carefully built up dissipate before our very eyes.   The movie loses its taut edge, although when compared to past Shyamalan letdowns like Signs, The Village, The Visit, and The Happening, the fact that Split actually had a chance until the final 30 minutes makes this film something of an improvement for him.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Comedian (2017) * * *

The Comedian Movie Review

Directed by:  Taylor Hackford

Starring:  Robert DeNiro, Leslie Mann, Charles Grodin, Harvey Keitel, Edie Falco, Danny DeVito, Patti Lupone, Billy Crystal

Jackie Burke is a stand-up comic whose act and real-life personality are mostly edges and elbows.    He starred in a hit TV sitcom called "Eddie's Home" a thousand years ago and he is reduced to playing small clubs where audience members want him to recite the show's famous catchphrase.    He may as well change his name to Eddie.    Jackie isn't thrilled with his situation and after punching out a heckler who was video recording his show, he is sentenced to 30 days in jail and community service at a soup kitchen.     Instead of ruining what is left of his career, the footage of his fight goes viral and Jackie becomes an internet sensation.  

Jackie's standup act is a high wire act between humor and degradation of his audience.    He offends half of the audience while the other half laughs.    His personal life isn't so great either.    But at the soup kitchen he meets Harmony (Mann), a 40ish woman performing community service for an assault charge as well.     She is miffed to learn Jackie received 100 hours of community service while she was sentenced to 250, but they soon become friends and companions.    They sleep together one night before she relocates to Florida, which provides the sometimes irascible Jackie with more drama than expected.

The Comedian is not Mr. Saturday Night for 21st century audiences.    Jackie is many times divorced and has children that won't speak to him, so we are spared those perfunctory family quarrels and resolutions.    Jackie's only family willing to speak with him is his brother (DeVito) who runs a deli with his wife and is not thrilled with the fact that Jackie only comes around when he needs money.    Jackie's sister-in-law (Lupone) doesn't hide her disdain from him.    Jackie is asked to attend his niece's wedding and, after being pushed into performing, delivers his trademark polarizing standup act. 

The Comedian is not a love letter to show business, but a study of its fickleness.    One minute you are the hot name and the next you are clearly forgotten because you haven't produced a hit in a while.    Standup comedy is forever touting the next Jerry Seinfeld, but fame and career longevity like Seinfeld's are the exception instead of the rule.    The next Jerry Seinfeld winds up, more often than not, being the next Jackie Burke.     DeNiro played fledgling comedian Rupert Pupkin in Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy (1983).   Pupkin was so desperate to appear on a late night talk show that he kidnaps the show's host and asks to perform as the ransom.     Jackie's career arc is likely what would have happened to Pupkin if we checked in on him 34 years later.

Jackie's standup act isn't funny as much as it is cringe-inducing.     The movie doesn't make the mistake of trying to convince us that Jackie is a misunderstood comic genius.    Some people find his act funny, while others are openly horrified and others laugh uncomfortably just to avoid being singled out for insults by Jackie.     Jackie's delivery is more like an assault on the audience, but the audience doesn't seem to mind.     It is a testament to DeNiro that he can play Jackie as all edges, but we still care about him and his troubles.   

It is also fun to see DeNiro sharing the screen again with previous co-stars Billy Crystal (playing himself) and Charles Grodin, with whom DeNiro was masterfully paired in Midnight Run (1988).    And don't forget Harvey Keitel, with whom DeNiro co-starred in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and the unfortunate Little Fockers.    Their scenes are played with easy familiarity and are amusing, even though the characters they play are antagonizing each other.     Leslie Mann is more dialed down here than in previous flops like The Change-Up, This Is 40, and The Other Woman, where she was expected to carry the day in awkward comic scenes.    She plays a nice foil to Jackie and will only put up with so much from him.  

I liked the darker, biting tone of The Comedian.    It understands show business and standup comedy, both of which chews people up and spits up more often than not.    It takes a certain type of person to even try to eke out a living in those professions let alone become a star.    Even in an age where stardom can be attained from a YouTube video, we need someone like Jackie Burke to make us understand that one video (or hit show) does not a career make. 




Suicide Squad (2016) * 1/2

Suicide Squad Movie Review

Directed by:  David Ayer

Starring:  Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Viola Davis
Carla Delevingne, Jared Leto

Suicide Squad gives us a plot and people we couldn't care less about.    We don't get a real sense of the action when the fights break out and it inexplicably rains a lot.    It is an ugly film.    I felt worse for the actors who, on top of starring in a slog of a movie, also had to act in a good deal of it soaking wet.     The movie leaves open the possibility of a Suicide Squad 2, but please don't put these actors (and us) through it again.

The movie is based on DC Comics characters and is tied into Batman v. Superman (2016), which is a Best Picture Oscar winner compared to this film.     It seems any comic book character that has ever graced the pages of comic books is having a movie made about him/her.    This strategy also works because the movies make beaucoup bucks at the box office, even if the audience leaves disappointed and sad.    So as long as the marketplace keeps buying tickets, there will be movies based on even the least known comic book characters.  

Aside from The Joker (Leto), who appears in a few scenes here before disappearing for the bulk of the movie, and Batman (cameo by Ben Affleck), I can't say I ever heard of Deadshot (Smith), Harley Quinn (Robbie), Boomerang (Courtney), or any of the other Suicide Squad members.     I wasn't a reader of comic books, true, so maybe this movie wasn't made for me.     With that being said, shouldn't the filmmakers at least make a movie that isn't terrible?  

The first 20 minutes or so of Suicide Squad showcases the characters, who are all either criminals, insane, or both.    Most have extraordinary powers, although while Harley Quinn is hot, I can't say I know what powers she possesses.    A government agent named Amanda Waller (Davis) brainstorms an idea to gather this miscreants up and form an elite team which can deal with the worst situations now that Superman is dead (at least until Justice League arrives in theaters).     One such situation rears its ugly head as a witch named Enchantress (Delevingne), who was under Waller's control, escapes her confinement and unleashes an army of people turned into ugly, nasty, freakish monsters with faces and bodies that look like they are covered in moles and blackheads.    

Enchantress plans to take over the world in a way that isn't explained very well, but it doesn't much matter anyway.    We know she wants to do evil and the Suicide Squad is forced into action under threat of death from Waller and their handler Col. Rick Flag (Kinnaman), who starts out as a hard-ass but we know will soften towards the Squad.     The movie tries desperately to humanize the Squad members, but fails to make us care about them either individually or as a group.    Deadshot is the closest to having any scruples at all.   

I mentioned The Joker earlier and he is Harley Quinn's lover, which is enough evidence to convince us she is truly insane.    She was once a respected psychologist who had the misfortune of having The Joker as a client.    She falls for him and becomes Harley Quinn, with an on-again, off-again Noo Yawk accent and the snuggest pair of short shorts.    Because she is played by Margot Robbie, she is gorgeous, but there isn't much else there.     Her love story with The Joker is unconvincing, mostly because we can't buy this incarnation of the villain once played by Heath Ledger would be a lovelorn Romeo.   

This version of The Joker looks like The Grinch's uglier brother and unlike Ledger (who will forever be the standard by which past and future performances of this character will be based), Leto expends superhuman effort to be creepy and scary.    He is trying too hard to outdo Ledger and it shows.    When he cackles, he isn't doing so to mask deep psychological scars.    It just seems forced.    There were stories that Leto went so deep into character that the other actors claim not to have met the real Leto until well after shooting wrapped.    He shouldn't work so hard next time.

The movie's budget was no doubt high, but it doesn't really translate to the screen.    The various fight scenes are so muddled that we don't know exactly what is happening.     And why all the rain?    Did the filmmakers think the movie needed to be even more depressing than it already was?     Suicide Squad is a movie that needs less atmosphere, less inexplicable action scenes, and pretty much less of everything, including running time. 









Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Bustin' Loose (1981) * * 1/2

 
Directed by:  Oz Scott
 
Starring:  Richard Pryor, Cicely Tyson, George Coe, Robert Christian, Bill Quinn
 
Richard Pryor has enough natural charm and charisma to pull off some of the dramatic moments Bustin' Loose has to offer.     The comic scenes fall flat.    What is left is an uneven comedy that wants to give us the funny Pryor and the serious Pryor all in one ungainly package.     Many of the comic scenes are cringe-inducing, while some of the dramatic ones are moving.    

Pryor plays Joe Braxton, a lifelong criminal serving probation under the watch of a cold, by-the-book probation officer (Christian).     Joe is strongarmed into driving a dilapidated bus full of delinquent teens to Washington State because their city-operated home is closed down.    Vivan (Tyson), who runs the home, wants to move the kids to her childhood home for a fresh start.     The probation officer is Vivian's boyfriend, and not exactly thrilled that his woman is moving across the country.    The kids seem to cover all of the archetypes of delinquency, including a firebug, a girl who carries around a large teddy bear, a blind kid who wants to learn to drive, and another teen girl who frequently propositions the boys (and eventually Joe) for sex.  

The bus is so run down it looks like it won't make it out of the garage, let alone across the country.    Joe at first doesn't take much interest in the lives of the kids, but, not surprisingly, he warms up to them.    Yet, this change of heart isn't as unconvincingly obligatory as it sounds.    I was touched by the way Joe masterfully handles the teen who wants to have sex with him.    However, for every one of those well-handled scenes, there are ones in which Joe plays strip poker with the kids and later encounters the KKK after the bus breaks down.     These sequences don't arrive at satisfactory payoffs.    They just sort of hang out there on the vine.     The idea of Joe playing strip poker with kids is creepy and in another movie might get Joe thrown back in jail.   

The kids, and eventually Vivian, grow to love Joe, who learns to finally look out for others for the first time in his life.    Pryor is adept at handling the transition, although there isn't any chemistry between he and Tyson.    Their romance seems forced and by rote.    The probation officer also undergoes an expected change of heart, even if we really don't buy it, especially after all that transpired before.

Bustin' Loose makes the kids likable enough.    Sure, they cause problems, but they aren't incorrigible lost souls.    So, we like them the same way we liked the Bad News Bears and we root for them to have a better life.    There is plenty about Bustin' Loose to like, and enough to dislike to consider it a near miss. 

 

Monday, February 6, 2017

Lion (2016) * * * *

Lion Movie Review

Directed by:  Garth Davis

Starring:  Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, David Wenham, Rooney Mara, Sunny Pawar

Maybe it is sort of a blessing that Saroo was only five years old when he mistakenly boarded a decommissioned train which took him a thousand miles from home to Kolkata, India in 1986.    He is unable to express fully who he is, where he is from, and how he got into this predicament.     His situation is a nightmare, the kind in which no one can understand you no matter how clearly you speak.    He wanders the streets, scrounges for food, and avoids kidnapping by adults with devious intentions.    Months pass, but he remains resourceful and determined.     His mind can't fully grasp what has happened to him and this maybe the only thing that prevents him from crumbling in the face of such danger.     Then, he is taken to an orphanage and his life turns for the better when he is adopted by Australians John and Sue Brierley (Wenham and Kidman), who bring him to his new home on another continent.

Circa 2008, Saroo (Patel) grows up to be a loving son and seemingly well-adjusted man ready to go to hotel restaurant management school in Melbourne.    He falls for his classmate Lucy (Mara), but one day he is reminded of the family he left behind in India and goes on a quest to locate them with help from Google Earth.    We learn Saroo, despite the love of his adoptive parents, never truly felt whole.    He wonders what happened to his mother and brother, whose accidental actions led to Saroo's predicament.    He imagines seeing them everywhere.     He feels their pain in losing him.    One of the many aspects Lion gets right is that it takes the time to understand the loss from his original family's point of view also.    It isn't simply Saroo's loss.   There is a whole other side to the story.

Lion is an emotionally gripping film, mostly because it sees the situation from all sides.    But, we also think Saroo has left his old life behind, until we learn differently that he has a hole in his heart that can only be filled by finding out the whereabouts of his original family.    He is torn between his desire to locate his old family and feeling guilty that he is somehow disloyal to his adoptive family.     Sue is also dealing with Saroo's younger brother, who is battling his own demons.      Saroo and Sue have a powerful scene in which we learn the reserves of strength and kindness Sue possesses.    Viola Davis is a shoo-in to win this year's Best Supporting Actress Oscar, but I would vote for Nicole Kidman myself.    

Dev Patel has played mostly wide-eyed optimists in films like Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and both Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films.    In Lion, he shows his extraordinary range as the sad, unsettled adult Saroo.    The emotional payoffs are earned.    Patel's Best Supporting Actor nomination is well deserved as well.    However, I don't think he will win, mostly because he is coming up against another tremendous performance by Mahershala Ali in Moonlight.    Both performances are equally adept in giving us people with astonishing reserves of depth and feeling.    

The ending, which I will not give away, is touching and bittersweet.    It closes a chapter in Saroo's life while answering his questions, and ours, such as why the movie is titled Lion.    That nagged at me, until the film explained it.    It is simple, yet tells volumes as to how Saroo was unable to escape his predicament in Kolkata.     Lion is a uniquely moving movie experience.