Monday, July 31, 2017

Nocturnal Animals (2016) * * * 1/2

Nocturnal Animals Movie Review

Directed by:  Tom Ford

Starring:  Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Armie Hammer, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber, Karl Glusman, Laura Linney, Michael Sheen

Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals is stylish and mysterious, with its characters' emotions tightly bottled up.    It tells two stories, one real and one fictional, but the symbolic parallels between the two stories grow more evident to us until the sad final frame, when all is made clear.    We understand what the fictional story was about and how much it impacts what happens in reality.     Ford directed the sad, haunting A Single Man (2009), in which Colin Firth played a closeted gay man who loses his lover of many years and now has to face the world without him.     Like Nocturnal Animals, Ford chooses to express his characters' pain against the backdrop of sleek homes which don't really seem lived in and an almost fetishistic eye for style.  

The images over which the opening credits run are unlike any I've ever seen.    They are disturbing shots of naked obese women dancing as if they were auditioning to be strippers.    Their faces are fuzzy, but they seem to be enjoying themselves.    This is not a gratuitous opening sequence done for shock value.   It instead is an art exhibition opening at a gallery run by Susan Morrow (Adams), who seems to have lost her appetite for such shows.     Susan can barely hide her disgust for what she calls "junk", even though the public congratulates her on another successful opening.    Susan lives in a multi-million dollar glass house (seemingly in California) with a wealthy, distant husband (Hammer), who is rarely home because he has to fly back and forth to New York to "close a deal."   We learn the Morrows are living beyond their means and their marital woes are more desperate than we first realize.

A manuscript arrives in the mail from Susan's ex-husband Edward (Gyllenhaal), who dedicates his book titled "Nocturnal Animals" to her.    Susan suffers a paper cut trying to open the package, which is not a foreshadowing of pleasant things to come.     The manuscript which rivets Susan from the outset is the fictional story of a family man named Tony (also played by Gyllenhaal) traveling late at night with his wife and daughter on an unlighted, empty West Texas highway.    No later than Tony muses how much he loves West Texas because there are no people, he encounters a car driven by psychotic Ray (Taylor-Johnson) which runs them off the road, terrorizes the family, and then kidnaps Tony's wife and daughter in one car while forcing Tony to follow them in another.    Tony is ditched in the desert and the next day, with the help of police lieutenant Bobby Andes, the naked bodies of Tony's wife and daughter are discovered in the middle of the West Texas desert.    The images haunt Susan, forcing her to put the manuscript down numerous times.

Susan reflects on her past with Edward.   We see how they meet, fall in love, and marry over the objections of Susan's rich mother (Linney), who tells Susan, "All of the things you love about him now are the things you are going to hate in a few years,"    Susan learns this is correct, and coldly moves on from Edward while he is struggling as a writer.     She wants financial security and a career trajectory more than Edward, which is practical, although not so much to the person whose heart she breaks.     But such decisions take their toll on Susan in the present and it shows in every fiber of her being.   

We know the Tony story is fictional, but we are immersed in it anyway.    We don't guess the immediate connections to Susan's past or even Edward's, until they powerfully hit us.     The fictional story of Nocturnal Animals has much relevance to the reality of Susan and Edward.     Ford doesn't bash us over the head with these parallels, instead he subtly, yet straightforwardly allows us to discover them.     The performances in Nocturnal Animals are memorable, especially Adams whose eyes and body language betray the pain of poor, selfish decisions which felt right at the time.     Gyllenhaal plays both Edward and Tony, both men (one real, one fictional) are like the other, but in some ways are not.     Shannon received an Oscar nomination for his work here.     Because it is Shannon playing Andes, we know there is some madness on the fringes of the character, but here he is a lawman who wants to see justice done for Tony, even if it means bending the law or outright trashing one's civil rights.    He is the most sympathetic to Tony's plight and may be the only character whose cards are all out on the table.     I can't say I was ever bored watching Michael Shannon on screen.  

Without revealing spoilers, it can be said that both the real and fictional story ends unhappily for its main characters, but isn't that the way it should be?     Ford's theme is how decisions of the past pile up to create the misery of the present and perhaps the future.     We know that, no matter how much we care about Susan and Tony, they get the endings to their respective stories that they more or less deserve. 

Friday, July 28, 2017

Atomic Blonde (2017) * *

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Directed by:  David Leitch

Starring:  Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Toby Jones, Sofia Boutella, Eddie Marsan

Charlize Theron is the perfect choice to play the sleek, lean, and mean British agent Lorraine Broughton; the Atomic Blonde of the film's title who can kill with the creativity of John Wick while staying as cool as James Bond.     The trailers promise plenty of mayhem and the movie delivers.    However, there is historical perspective to the film's events by placing it against the backdrop of 1989 Berlin; with the imminent fall of the Berlin Wall days away as the Soviets and the west execute their last-ditch power plays before the Cold War ends.    It is like a fire sale of espionage tricks and killing in the name of country.    The trouble is the low energy and a reason to become emotionally invested.     Like the first John Wick movie proved:  you can kill hundreds of people and still be boring.     There needs to be a tug to pull us through to the other side, one which Atomic Blonde does not provide.      

Atomic Blonde is a triumph in providing ample civic tension amidst the spy games these people play.    The resistance to the Berlin Wall is forcing the hand of the Soviets and numerous news reports track the historic story, which provides the movie with some sort of deadline...I guess.     The film takes place under cold neon signs which pierce the chilly nights with 80s hits pulsating on the soundtrack of nightclubs and hotel rooms, in which people dance and screw the night away with little regard to what is happening just outside the club doors.     The days are gray with the smell of freedom in the air.    Lorraine's mission is to go to Berlin and retrieve a list of, I don't know, every agent who works for the CIA, MI6, and whatever other agency you can think of.     A double agent known as Satchel is in the mix, as is a Russian defector (Marsan) who knows the whereabouts of the infamous list.  

About these lists, which spies in not only Atomic Blonde, but nearly every other spy film since the inception of spy movies. want to get their hands on.     Can't these agencies, with their top-of-the-line security gadgets and the latest computer technology, stop creating lists of agents and their biographical information which can fall so easily into enemy hands?    And if you are going to create a list, can you not put their home addresses and past mission histories on there?    The agency superiors in Atomic Blonde are worried more about their respective agency's notorious deeds coming to light than they are about the exposure of their agents.      You mean the CIA and MI6 did some pretty horrific things in the name of God and country?     Don't stop the presses.     The British Secret Service seems to know how to get a hold of James Bond without checking their computers to see where he lives.   

With that mundane objective aside, Atomic Blonde gets down to business moments after Lorraine arrives in Berlin.     She doesn't exactly dress inconspicuously.     Her wardrobe and platinum blonde hair make her look like a tall dominatrix in town to meet a client.     Subtlety is not Lorraine's strong suit.    She escapes KGB attempts to kill her with help of another British agent, David Percival (McAvoy), whose own past and loyalties are murky.    You never know where any of these agents really stand.     Like Joe Pesci says in JFK, "Everyone is switching sides all the time.   It's fun and games, man, fun and games,"    Those who wind up with broken bones and bullets in their heads would think otherwise.    Even Lorraine herself takes enough of a beating to soak herself in an ice cube-filled bathtub just to keep the swelling down on her bruises, cuts, scrapes, and shiners.    Or is this just a character trait thrown in for good measure?

Atomic Blonde tells the story in flashback, with Lorraine facing a debriefing with her boss (Jones) and a CIA bigwig (Goodman) on hand along with lots of recording equipment and one of those two-way mirrors which have really become clichéd by now.    We see how Lorraine arrived at this point.     We also meet a French novice agent (Boutella), who has the hots for Lorraine and the goods on all of the players in the game.     She and Lorraine exchange information and possibly bodily fluids during a lesbian sex scene which isn't nearly as hot as you would expect.   

Maybe the trouble with Atomic Blonde is that, despite the chases, killings, and double crosses, it simply isn't much fun.     A pall hangs over everything like the endless gray skies which stay in a holding pattern over Berlin.     Theron has the icy blonde thing down pat, but she does allow for glimpses of humanity behind her façade.    The most effective performance is Boutella's, who is naively shocked to learn that earning a living as a spy isn't the fun and games Pesci promised.    Atomic Blonde does not have the benefit of hindsight that we possess.    The Cold War took place over 40 years with, it seems, no clear objective.     Neither side was keen on all-out nuclear war which would grind their spy vs. spy battles to an abrupt halt.      Information was stolen, agents double and sometimes triple-crossed each other, people died, and the U.S. and the Soviet Union forever engaged in a tiresome and futile game of one-upmanship.     After all was said and done, what exactly was all that about? 

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) *

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Directed by:  Luc Besson
Starring:  Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Herbie Hancock, Ethan Hawke
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets cost $177 million to make, but it still looks cheesy.    Why not go lower on the budget?    The results couldn't be much worse.    Valerian assaults your senses with unrelenting CGI images, overcrowded sets, and a plot that needed not one, but two different explanations to become even coherent.     The actors perform as if they were sentenced by a judge to star in it.    I can't imagine a movie studio watching this finished product with the belief that it is actually finished.     Where was the studio execs' flop-o-meter on this film?
I've read other critics' reviews of Valerian and one thing that struck me is how they were able to describe the plot so thoroughly.     I'm thinking the plot description came with the PR kits, because trying to explain what goes on here is a Herculean task.    But, I'll try.    The Valerian of the title is an interstellar cop (DeHaan), who along with his partner Laureline (Delevigne), scour the solar system for criminals.     DeHaan has a playboy's reputation, so Laureline is reluctant to fall for him even though he professes his love for her.     Delevigne's eyebrows could use some softening, as could her acting technique.    She delivers her lines to the other actors as if she is angry with them.     DeHaan (who played the Green Goblin in The Amazing Spider-Man 2), exhibits as little energy as possible.    Did director Luc Besson direct his actors this way intentionally? 
No matter.    I will trudge on with the plot.    The two are in pursuit of a converter and some pearls which are being hunted by members of an extinct civilization whose past existence is doubted to ever have happened.     Some other criminal types are after the converter and pearls as well, as is Valerian's boss played by Herbie Hancock.    Yes, that Herbie Hancock.    For readers who may not know, Hancock is an Oscar-winning composer and musician who hit the pop charts with Rockit in the early 80's.     Did Besson even think the audience intended for this film would even know who Herbie Hancock is?    Other in-jokes, such as references to Taken and Besson's own The Fifth Element are introduced.     If your attention wanders, you may miss them.    If your attention doesn't wander, you are to be commended. 
Rihanna also pops up as a shape-shifting exotic dancer who helps Valerian out.    Also on board are Ethan Hawke and Clive Owen, two reputable actors who were probably happy to only be in a few scenes and still get paid handsomely.     The City of a Thousand Planets of the title is more like the offspring of Blade Runner and your local farmer's market.    The peoples of various cultures and planets all live there in peace, but since there is so little room even to move, it is a wonder the overcrowding doesn't lead to some rising tensions every now and then.     In a universe in which spaceships can travel at twice the speed of light, aren't the ideas of virtual reality and a guy hawking his intergalactic tchotchkes in your face a bit passé?     The City of a Thousand Planets itself is a dark, depressing place with more in common with Amsterdam and Times Square than the brainchild of supposedly more advanced civilizations eight centuries into the future.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a mess.    Writing its title is as laborious as recalling my experiences watching it.    Oh, yes, I did nod off once, but I did awaken and watch most of the film's nearly two-hour overindulgent running time.    Perhaps I get too much sleep after all.

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Cable Guy (1996) * 1/2

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Directed by:  Ben Stiller

Starring:  Jim Carrey, Matthew Broderick, Jack Black, Leslie Mann, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, George Segal

The Cable Guy is a colossal miscalculation.    It made me squirmy and uncomfortable, while failing to make me laugh.    There aren't many unpleasant characters in movie history than Chip Douglas (Carrey), a menacing cable TV installer who stalks and bullies poor kind-hearted guys like Steven (Broderick) into befriending him.    We learn Chip just wants to be loved, but what we feel (and certainly the other characters must as well) is repulsion.     Yes, it seems Chip was neglected as a child, but we feel no sympathy for him.     We want him to go away.    If the movie thinks we should feel otherwise, than it is dead wrong.

We learn Chip was raised by television since his mother just plopped him in front of the TV instead of interacting with him.    If the movie is intended as a satire of the effect TV has on a child's mind and connection to the world, then it fails there also.    The only thing The Cable Guy doesn't fail to do is make me loathe Chip.    Even as far as movie villains go, Chip is difficult to stomach.    As played by Carrey, he is over-the-top to the point of overload.     Carrey expends so much energy trying to be funny that we sense director Ben Stiller simply planted the camera and told Carrey to just do his thing.     It is quite sad when Ace Ventura is more tolerable than Chip Douglas. 

With films like The Cable Guy, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Liar Liar, and The Mask, Carrey assaults us and himself at times with his special brand of humor, which wasn't funny.    I find the more you try to be funny, the less successful you are.     At the height of his popularity, Carrey made $20 million a movie and the box office dictated that.     People saw Jim Carrey and laughed and I felt sorry for them.    Carrey is not good when he is playing "Jim Carrey", just like Robin Williams wasn't successful playing "Robin Williams".    A role tailor-made for Jim Carrey isn't a role at all, but just a stage for Carrey to show up to work and throw whatever he can at the wall to see what would stick.    In The Cable Guy, none of it does.

I pity the other actors in the film and admire their selflessness at the same time.     Matthew Broderick is forced to stand by idly while Carrey eats the scenery and somehow not the camera.     Carrey runs roughshod over everyone else in the movie, who seem grateful even to have lines.    In between all of the early Carrey starring roles from the 90s was Dumb and Dumber (1994), in which Carrey actually stuck to within the confines of a character and allowed himself chemistry with co-star Jeff Daniels.    It was a funny movie and gave me some hope that Carrey can play someone other than himself.    He also was very good in movies like Man on the Moon (1999), in which he played Andy Kaufman, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).     Movies like The Cable Guy sacrificed any notion of being any good and instead is content on letting Jim Carrey be Jim Carrey and watch the box office bucks roll in.     The trouble is:   It didn't do particularly well.   

Dunkirk (2017) * * *

Dunkirk Movie Review

Directed by:  Christopher Nolan

Starring:  Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Harry Styles, Kenneth Branagh, Fionn Whitehead, Cillian Murphy

Dunkirk is among the most frustrating good movies I've seen.     It is masterfully made on a technical level; capturing the confusion of such an unprecedented situation.     The evacuation of nearly 400,000 British soldiers stranded on the beach of Dunkirk, France was, as Winston Churchill called it, "a miracle of deliverance," while also quick to point out how the entire episode was "a colossal military disaster,"    Fortunately, Hitler made a grave tactical error by not devoting the Luftwaffe to wiping out the stranded men, save for a plane or two.    Hitler's assumption was once the British left France they would never return.    

However, while Dunkirk is superbly handled in a technological way, it is missing the human element to pull it through.     Say what you will about the romance between Jack and Rose in Titanic (1997), the device gives the disaster human dimensions and a vested emotional interest.     Dunkirk gives us anonymous soldiers who don't even have names or distinct personalities.     As the film opens, the camera follows one soldier making his way through the town of Dunkirk while avoiding enemy fire.    He soon joins the hundreds of thousands of men on the beach and we barely see him again; he is lost in the sea of humanity, boats, planes, and battle. 

The subplot which has the most drama involves the civilian boat requisitioned by the British navy owned by Mr. Dawson (Rylance), who bravely steers his boat towards the inferno with the mission of rescuing as many soldiers as his boat could hold.    He brings along with teenage son and his son's friend, both of whom want to help despite Dawson's warnings.     They pick up a shell-shocked soldier (Murphy), stranded on some plane wreckage in the middle of the sea, who is not keen on returning to Dunkirk.    Rylance powerfully and matter-of-factly states, "There is no hiding from his, son.   We have a job to do,"    There were many more boat owners like Dawson who were untrained in military evacuations and evading enemy planes and gunfire, yet they pressed on in service of their country.     Dawson is sensitive to the feelings of the soldier, mind you, but doesn't allow them to refrain from his patriotic duty, which we learn has personal roots. 

Dunkirk's best moments occur when the very unpredictability of the rescue mission itself rears its ugly head.     Soldiers who board a ship thinking the worst is behind them soon have to swim away from danger after the ship is destroyed by a torpedo (and may not be rescued again).   Are there two German planes ready to pick them off from the air, or ten?     The British have, from my count, two planes to track and destroy the German planes, one flown by Farrier (Hardy), who except for a moment or two, is hidden behind a mask and battling Germans while flying dangerously low on fuel.     The air battles are not like Top Gun, which had a video game feel to the fights, but are filmed in a mass of confusion and dread.     If there was CGI used in Dunkirk, it is difficult to spot.     Much of it seems very real.     The reason for the lack of air support is explained as the British needing its planes and pilots for the impending Battle of Britain.    

We witness Commander Bolton (Branagh) standing at the edge of the pier wishing for a mass evacuation while realistic about its success probability.     The tantalizing, yet disheartening truth known to everyone in Dunkirk is how close home is, but yet they cannot get to it.    "You can practically see it from here," Bolton says and we sense the despair in his voice.     But, there is a mission to be accomplished, and the men must be made to feel as if getting home is simply a formality.   

Therein lies the rub.     The human insight is only sporadically explored because the film chooses to exhibit the physical hell of the evacuation.     The men who die or are in imminent danger seem like a mass of nameless, faceless souls and thus their perishing doesn't hit us so hard.     Perhaps that is Christopher Nolan's intent; to show us the hows and whys of the mission with the belief that we may not be able to handle the emotional impact.     This may even be correct, but I would've liked to see Nolan try more.    Then again, maybe Nolan realizes, as do we, that even though many of the soldiers were ultimately rescued, it is early into a war which would last another five years.     It is more than likely these same men would soon be pressed into battle again and even more likely many of them would not come home again. 

Friday, July 21, 2017

I.Q. (1994) * * *

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Directed by:  Fred Schepisi

Starring:  Tim Robbins, Meg Ryan, Walter Matthau, Gene Saks, Joseph Maher, Lou Jacobi, Stephen Fry, Tony Shalhoub, Frank Whaley, Charles Durning

I.Q. is a sweet, slight romantic comedy in which the characters' hearts and brains battle until the heart ultimately wins.     Auto mechanic Ed Walters (Robbins) falls in love with Princeton mathematician Catherine Boyd (Ryan), whose uncle is Albert Einstein (Matthau).    Ed has obstacles in his path to winning Catherine's hand, such as her snobbish scientist fiancé which Einstein and his genius friends can't stand, and the inescapable truth that Ed is a mechanic while Catherine is an intellectual.     Ed isn't dumb, but how can he compete intellectually with his rival?     Einstein and his friends devise a devious, mischievous way to make this happen.   

I.Q. takes place in the early 1950s on sunny fall days perfect for motorcycle riding.     Ed is fascinated by science and reads up on it, but Einstein sees the guy has a good heart and would be a much better match for his niece.     Einstein creates a web of fibs (let's not dare call them lies) in which he passes off one of his old, lesser-known theories as Ed's, thus stirring the interest of Catherine and the scorn of the fiancé James (Fry), who is not affectionately referred to as "the rat man" by Einstein and his friends. 

Through some deception and finagling, Ed is soon seen as an intellectual genius while Catherine slowly falls for him.     One of the pleasures of I.Q. is how Catherine is not a pushover.     She likes Ed well enough, but her own insecurities and class warfare cause her to pause.     Could she really be the wife of an (gasp) auto mechanic?    She approaches her engagement as a duty which will subject her to falling into 1950s societal norms in which the wife takes care of the children and the house.     It is not something she is exactly looking forward to, but she feels trapped.     This isn't the best way to start a marriage.      

Robbins relies on effortless charm.    Sure, he is being deceitful, but he is still a better guy than the stodgy James, who is more at home in his lab full of rats.    We forgive him his trespasses because his heart beats so fiercely for Catherine.     Walter Matthau may not be the first actor you think of to play Einstein, but he plays the genius with a glint of mischief in his eye.     His friends, all geniuses themselves, aid Einstein in his quest to unite Ed and Catherine, mostly so they can do something other than debate each other.   

I.Q. may keep some at arm's length because it takes place in a world of science and intellectualism.    The milieu doesn't matter as much as the warmth the characters exude.     They do some wrong things for the right reasons and when the outcome occurs as expected, it is genuinely touching.    As Einstein says, "Don't let your brain interfere with your heart."    Fortunately, the people in the film take his advice. 

An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) * * * 1/2

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Directed by:  Taylor Hackford

Starring:  Richard Gere, Debra Winger, Louis Gossett, Jr., David Keith, David Caruso, Robert Loggia, Lisa Eilbacher, Lisa Blount

An Officer and a Gentleman is the story of how a Naval officer candidate learns to be both an officer and a gentleman with the help of a local woman he falls for and a stern, but not unfeeling drill sergeant.     From the outset, we are not entirely confident he can learn to be either.    Zack Mayo (Gere) is the son of a drunken career Navy man who enlists himself in hopes of becoming an officer himself.    But, as Drill Sergeant Foley (Gossett) puts it, "Why would a slick hustler like yourself want to sign up for this sort of abuse?"    Mayo says he wants to fly jets.    Foley doesn't buy that reason.     He is suspicious of Mayo's character, believing his selfishness will betray him and the country at the worst possible time.   

Zack is a complex guy; defensive and unable to express positive emotion well.    Because he grew up living from naval base to naval base, he learned to avoid connection with people.     He isn't an unpleasant man, but someone who keeps his emotional distance.     That changes when he meets a local factory worker named Paula (Winger).    He sees her as someone who can occupy his time on weekend passes, but she is able to touch his heart and elicit a change in him.     But, she is no pushover and is only able to handle Zack's standoffishness for so long.    

The other accelerant to Zack's changes is Sgt. Foley, who promises his class, "I will use every means necessary, fair or unfair, to trip you up.    To expose your weaknesses,"    Foley's professional standards are unrelenting and for good reason.     His job is to ensure the right people are in the cockpits of the Navy's planes.     Some members of the class clearly don't have what it takes.    Others like Casey Seeger (Eilbacher), try their hardest but can't seem to get over the hump.     Mayo can physically handle himself, but does he have the character to see things through?     A lesser movie would make Foley the heavy, but he is written and acted intelligently and makes it clear to us why he has to do what he does.    He maybe even feels for some of the candidates, but he must weed out the pretenders.    Gossett won a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar as Foley and the best scenes in the movie involve his ever-evolving relationship with Mayo.   

Another intriguing subplot involves Zack's friend and fellow candidate Sid (Keith), a gregarious Oklahoman who falls in love with Paula's friend Lynette (Blount), who is willing to trap him with a pregnancy scare to get him to marry her and take her away from her humdrum existence.     Sid is deceived into thinking she loves him and he makes a decision which reveals the truth of their relationship and also its consequences.      Winger received an Oscar nomination for her work.    She is spirited, believes in Zack, and willing to risk losing him so he can find out who he is.     Her chemistry with Gere is not the strongest, but maybe that is part of their characters.     They approach either cautiously and with preconceived notions about the other, which are slowly broken down.    Maybe a mite too slowly.

Richard Gere's best performances are those in which he is a slickster on the outside while hiding great emotional hurts underneath.     At times, we sense Zack would rather die than expose his soft side.     He learns to eventually reconcile this and it comes near the end, when he realizes that after graduating from basic training, he has no one there waiting to congratulate him.    His body language says it all.    This leads to the famed ending, in which we see Zack and Paula together and he smiles widely for the first time in the movie.     It was a long journey for him to get to that smile, one which we were happy to witness. 

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Friday (1995) * *

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Directed by:  F. Gary Gray

Starring:   Ice Cube, Chris Tucker, Bernie Mac, Tiny Lister, Nia Long, John Witherspoon

Friday depicts one Friday in the life of residents of a South Central LA neighborhood.    Or, more specifically, a group of oddballs populating one its streets.   The sun is shining, but there is tension in the air.    Friday, unlike dramas like Boyz 'n the Hood (1991), deals with the desperation these people must feel every day in comedic fashion.    There is no plot to speak of, unless you count one of the characters attempting to wrestle up the cash he owes a drug dealer he ripped off, but one is not necessarily needed.     What is lacking is someplace to direct all of the actors' energy.    Friday plays like a series of unrelated vignettes with no particular thread to string it together.    It feels like it is making itself up as it goes along and we are lost in the shuffle.

Friday opens on a Friday morning with Craig Jones (Ice Cube) waking up one day removed from being fired on his day off.     He doesn't appear to be in any hurry to find another job.    He lives with his working parents, including a father who holds frank discussions with Craig while sitting on the toilet moving his bowels.     Craig's best friend is the motormouth Smokey (Tucker), a small-time drug dealer who ripped off a bigger-time drug dealer and is scrambling to pay him back.     Smokey smokes weed almost non-stop, so it is no surprise to see a Cheech and Chong poster on his bedroom wall.    I will once again express my view that smoking weed in and of itself isn't funny.     Not even the delusions and highness are funny either.     Cheech and Chong added a satirical element to it.    It wasn't the smoking that was funny, but their attitudes toward it and the hell they put themselves through just to smoke a joint.     See a Cheech and Chong movie and you will see what I'm talking about.   

During the day, Craig and Smokey encounter many strange denizens of their block, including a bullying hulk (Lister) who rides around on a stolen bike and pounds anyone who looks at him crooked into oblivion.     There are women who fall into the categories of a.) women either Smokey or Craig are currently screwing, b.) Women who want to screw Smokey or Craig, or c.) Women whom Smokey or Craig dumped who keep coming around looking for more.  

Craig and Smokey live in the kind of neighborhood where an open window is an invitation to a robbery.    The events in Friday are executed at a breakneck pace, but we still find our attentions drifting.     It is hard to fault the performances.     Tucker is, of course, the loud motormouth wiseguy we can't help but like anyway.     Ice Cube is gruff and no-nonsense; the quintessential Ice Cube performance.   You decide whether that is good or bad.   John Witherspoon has some funny moments and some words of wisdom when some are sorely needed.  

Friday is not misogynistic or overtly violent.     It has almost a sweetness to its view of the neighborhood, which is refreshing.      But, I wish it came together as a coherent, cohesive film that has occasional, but not frequent laughs.     It has energy, but spent on nothing in particular. 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Risky Business (1983) * * * 1/2

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Directed by:  Paul Brickman
Starring:  Tom Cruise, Rebecca DeMornay, Curtis Armstrong, Bronson Pinchot, Nicholas Pryor, Janet Carroll, Joe Pantoliano
Risky Business launched the now decades-long superstardom of Tom Cruise with the iconic scene of Cruise dancing in his underwear to Bob Seger's Old Time Rock and Roll.    The scene is significant because it allows us to see Joel Goodson (Cruise) as a teenager should be; free, irresponsible at times, and letting loose after his folks go away on vacation for a week.    Joel is a straight A-student with his eye on Princeton and a bright future ahead.     Then, he encounters a call girl named Lana (DeMornay), who teaches him a little more about life than he expected.    
Joel didn't intend to have the events that unfold in Risky Business happen to him.    He is content to have his buddies over for poker and hang out, but after a pep talk from his buddy Miles (Armstrong), ("Sometimes you have to say 'What the fuck'), he decides to be a little more daring.     He gets horny one night (who wouldn't under the circumstances) calls a call girl and finds Lana at his doorstep.    She is not much older than high school senior Joel, but she is more worldly and mature.    She knows cynically knows how the world works, but she likes the kid.     "Go to school, Joel, learn something," she tells Joel the morning after.     He learns something all right.
Joel runs afoul of Lana's pimp, Guido (the indispensable Pantoliano), who isn't fond of the fact that Joel takes up so much of Lana's time without paying for it.     Lana thinks Joel can make some cash turning his house into a one-night brothel where her co-workers and his horny friends can hook up.    Joel surely needs it, especially after his father's Porsche winds up at the bottom of Lake Michigan.     We see Joel and Lana not exactly fall in love, but certainly fall into heavy-like.    Assuming Joel doesn't mess up his future during his week of freedom, he will be off to college in the fall and Lana will continue down the road of eking out a living as a call girl.    It is a pity because Lana has a head for business, and to quote Working Girl (1988), "a bod for sin".    She is as street smart as Joel is book smart and it is fun to see them play off each other.     Cruise and DeMornay have undeniable chemistry.    We see Joel gain an edge while Lana softens hers somewhat.     Cruise is immensely likable and has kept on being likable for three decades.   
Risky Business is slick filmmaking with a heavy-synthesizer laden score by Tangerine Dream.    It is about the pursuit of sex, money, and security, not necessarily in that order.     The movie is certainly cynical, but it is also tender and sweet in its depiction of two people; one from a plush, protected suburban world and the other from a grittier, urban background, learning to understand and relate to each other.    This is the heart of Risky Business, which sees sex as an opportunity to make some quick cash, while seeing love as an opportunity for a longer term investment.  

45 Years (2015) * *

45 Years Movie Review

Directed by:  Andrew Haigh

Starring:   Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay

What we have with 45 Years is two terrific performances in search of a compelling dramatic thread.    Rampling and Courtenay, two wonderful British veterans, play Kate and Geoff, a couple married 45 years who receive troubling news which threatens to tear the foundation of their marriage to shreds.    Sounds really juicy, right?    It isn't.    As the film slowly progresses with the speed of molasses in January, I simply was not convinced a couple could be so easily fragmented over the news.    Perhaps their union isn't as strong as they thought, and this development simply speeds up the inevitable decline of the marriage.     But this development?    Really?

The childless couple lives a content, well-off life in the London suburbs.    They are planning a 45th anniversary party since Geoff's health issues forced a cancellation of the 40th.    Kate and Geoff are still comfortably in love until a letter from Switzerland arrives in the mail which changes everything.     Years before Kate and Geoff even met, Geoff was hiking in Switzerland with his girlfriend Katya, who perished after falling through a fissure in a glacier.    Her body was found 50 years later preserved in the ice with her youthful beauty still intact.     Since Geoff was listed as a next of kin, he received the letter and now arranges travel to Switzerland to identify the body.  

Kate had vague knowledge of Katya, but now, after persuading her husband to openly discuss his past, learns more about Katya then she would have liked to know.     She can't say she didn't ask for it.     Did the unearthing of Katya's body also unearth Geoff's long buried feelings about his dead love?     He becomes moody, begins smoking, and behaves very un-Geoff like in the days leading up to the party, which was supposed to celebrate a marriage but now has a pall hanging over it.  

I don't know.    I feel Kate unreasonably expects that her husband would feel nothing after the body of his long-deceased girlfriend who died so horrifically is found.     He needs time to process and to heal.     Kate is besieged with doubt about how much Geoff ever loved her, even though he always seemed to be a more-than-loving husband.     Because the movie tries so hard to shoehorn Geoff as the party in the wrong for, gasp, being upset at his unexpected bump in the road, I found myself pushing back.     Just because the movie tells me to see Kate as the wronged party doesn't mean she actually is.    I feel she is being a little shortsighted and selfish, possibly because Katya's memory might throw a monkey wrench into her ability to enjoy her party.    If I were Geoff, I would be mortified by Kate's behavior.  

Rampling was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her work and she surely puts herself through the emotional wringer while trying to appear supportive at first, but soon almost obsessive in her jealousy of a long-dead woman.     Geoff had a life prior to Kate that is suddenly no longer buried in the past.    Kate becomes icy (no pun intended) towards Geoff when she really has no sane reason to be.    Courtenay comes off as the more sympathetic of the two, even if he makes covert arrangements to fly to Switzerland and see Katya one last time.     I don't blame him, considering the way Kate is acting.    Maybe if the movie showed how Kate and Geoff manage to work past this and support and understand each other's emotions, 45 Years might have worked better.    Instead, the movie stays on the narrative that their marriage is now irreparably harmed by something out of both persons' control.     I found the whole thing silly.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Baby Driver (2017) * * *

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Directed by:  Edgar Wright
Starring:  Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez

Baby (Elgort) is a getaway driver extraordinaire with a knack for speeding and maneuvering his way out of police chases while listening to music blasting on his iPod's earbuds.      We learn he was involved in a car accident as a child which killed his parents and left him with permanent ringing in his ears.     The music, which he listens to most of the day, drowns out the ringing, but not the trauma.     His criminal cohorts find him very odd and not unreasonably wonder if Baby can safely do his job while listening to loud music.     He can.     But, the criminal life is not for him.     He is kind of an indentured servant to crime lord Doc (Spacey), who caught a teenage Baby stealing from him years ago and forces him to drive the getaway car for various heists in order to repay his debt.    After a successful, ingenious elusion of the police in the opening minutes, Baby has one heist left to square things with Doc and begin life anew.

If only it were that simple.    Baby Driver is a slick entertainment which moves as fast as Baby drives.    It is not a simple caper movie, but for most of its length, it's a taut, crisp thriller with fascinating people populating the story.     The ending falters a bit, mostly because the movie saddles itself with shopworn clichés such as The Killer Who Won't Die and Roger Ebert's famous Fallacy of the Talking Killer, in which a guy simply needs to pull the trigger and eliminate the hero, but he decides to give a sermon and give the hero a chance to escape.   

Doc's crew for his latest heist are Bats (Foxx), who may be batshit crazy, but is also a cunning, trigger happy time bomb of a human being.     He is forever on edge with suspicions about his cohorts and this is Foxx's best performance in years.     There is also the lovey-dovey couple of Darling (Gonzalez) and Buddy (Hamm), who are more willing to trust Baby.     But don't let their public displays of affection fool you,  they are just as deadly as Bats, but conceal their sociopathic tendencies better.    The leader, Doc, is played by Kevin Spacey as only Kevin Spacey can.    He can verbally dress down his crew without raising his voice and yes, he does have a bit of a soft spot for Baby while possessing a total admiration for his skill.

Baby, despite his eccentricities and baggage he is saddled with, is unfortunately the least interesting member of the cast.    He simply can't amp up the wattage the way Foxx, Hamm, and Spacey can, which isn't to say Elgort does a bad job.    Even his love interest, the sweet, innocent Debora (James) has a way of intriguing us with her straightforward manner of reaching the closed-off Baby.     Baby is more the steady force to which all of the others react.     He has a stretch of decency, especially in the way he cares for his deaf foster father, and we sense this life of crime is killing him.     He just wants to hit the road with Debora and never look back.    

I admit I've grown weary of car chases and shootouts in movies, but Baby Driver presents them in a fresh way.     The action sequences are scored to the rhythms of the action, with beats of percussion underscoring the gunshots.     The chases and the music are how the troubled Baby expresses himself.     His actions dictate who he is more than his words or personality.    I was almost on the cusp of a three-and-a-half star review, but then the action spills over into the land of ridiculousness, and thus the three-star review.    Characters who are shot several times not only don't die, but manage to correctly anticipate where another character will be next and drive there.    They obviously read ahead in the script.   


Friday, July 14, 2017

The Big Sick (2017) * * *

The Big Sick Movie Review

Directed by:  Michael Showalter

Starring:  Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff, Adeel Akhtar

What we have with The Big Sick is a cute beginning, morphing into an engaging middle, and then an ending that runs about 15 minutes too long.     Once I read Judd Apatow was one of the film's producers, I can't say I was stunned that the movie ran long.     I've said previously (and it appears I will for the foreseeable future) that the easiest job in Hollywood is an editor on a Judd Apatow project, because the running time tends to outlast our desire to stay planted in our seats.

But, there is plenty to like about The Big Sick, which was co-written by Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon and depicts a semi-fictionalized version of their relationship and how it triumphed over cultural differences and a severe medical issue to evolve into marriage.     Kumail is a Pakistan-born, American-raised stand-up comic looking for a big break/Uber driver who meets the perky Emily (Kazan) during a set one night.     She shouts "Woo-hoo" at one of his jokes, which sparks an immediate attraction even though, according to Kumail, she is technically heckling him.

They sleep together, they fall in love, they hang out together.    Kumail, however, comes from a family steeped in Pakistani tradition of arranged marriage.    Whenever Kumail visits for dinner, Kumail's mother (Shroff) arranges for an available Pakistani woman to come by and make her case for marriage.     This happens numerous times, to the point that the family can time down to the second exactly when the knock on the door will come.    The potential brides come prepared with a headshot and a resume as if they were on an audition.     Instead of telling his family he is in love with Emily, he passive-aggressively humors his family in order to avoid confrontation.     There is a moving payoff to Kumail's deception later on which has serious consequences on his relationships with Emily and his family.

Soon, Emily, sensing that Kumail will never be able to marry her because that would mean estrangement from his family, breaks up with him and a short time later is hospitalized for a severe lung infection.    The doctors place Emily in a medically-induced coma to stabilize her and figure out how to treat her.     Kumail waits with her and contacts her parents, Beth and Terry (Hunter and Romano), who show up and make it known they would rather Kumail leave the scene.     He is the ex-boyfriend after all and the parents know the whole ugly backstory anyway.

Kumail chooses to stay and support Emily and her struggling parents, who are faced with the prospect of losing their daughter.     Kumail  and Emily's parents approach each other at first defensively, then settle into détente, followed by understanding and friendship.     We also see tension between Beth and Terry which goes beyond the stress of dealing with Emily.     Beth and Terry are a study in opposites.     Terry is a likable lug who only wants to keep the peace, while Beth is a firecracker who finally has someone (or something) in which to direct her energies and anger.     Hunter and Romano excel in their roles.    I wouldn't be surprised to see Hunter nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.  

Kumail is playing himself and he is the correct person to play the role.    He understands his life is a juggling act between embracing American ideals of love and appeasing his family's wishes to maintain Pakistani culture.    Kumail uses humor to hide his emotions and deflect from potentially troubling situations.    Sometimes the humor causes further issues, including a 9/11 joke that is among the funniest things I've heard in a movie in a long time.    Mostly because of Kumail's deadpan delivery but also because it was unexpected. 

Kumail can keep the balls in the air for a while, but soon the weight of trying to please everyone becomes too much to bear.     He asks his parents, "Why would you move to America if you wanted us to be Pakistani?"    They don't have an answer.     In a way, Kumail's parents take on the same personality traits as Beth and Terry.    Kumail's father Azmat is the more reasonable, while Sharmeen is more rigid.     In both cases, the parents are loving, tender when need be, and lash out when they are hurt.     In other words, human.

Many scenes in The Big Sick reveal rich human truth.   We can surely understand Emily's reaction when she awakes from her coma to find Kumail, whom she broke up with, standing at her bedside.    The people in The Big Sick are allowed to be flawed.    They don't always have the right answers and they always have the wrong ones either.     We know how things will turn out (since Kumail and Emily are now married), but The Big Sick isn't as interested in the events as it is about being engaging and allowing its people to be uncertain, scared, funny, happy, and even any combination of these emotions.   

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Negotiator (1998) * * *

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Directed by:  F. Gary Gray
Starring:  Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Spacey, Regina Taylor, John Spencer, David Morse, Ron Rifkin, Paul Giamatti, Siobhan Fallon, J.T. Walsh
The Negotiator is a film that works in the moment.    We are absorbed by the drama and the tension as it unfolds.    After the film is over, we realize it doesn't hold up under logical scrutiny.    Fair enough.    But as we watch it, we are drawn in to the high human stakes involved.  
Danny Roman (Jackson) is a decorated Chicago PD hostage negotiator who, as the film opens, successfully deals with a hostage situation and shares some beers with his police buddies at a local bar.    Within 24 hours, Danny's partner is murdered and the blame falls for the murder and for the looting of the police pension fund falls on Roman's shoulders.     He is soon to be arrested and disgraced.     Danny maintains his innocence and insists he is being framed.   In a desperate, last-ditch effort to prove it, takes over a federal building and holds some of the people in it hostage.     One of them is an inspector (Walsh), who may know more about the possible frame-up then he lets on. 
Danny does not want to go to jail, although even if he manages to prove his innocence, he still created a showdown with the Chicago police and the feds while holding people hostage AND putting lives at risk AND causing untold amounts of property damage.     The guy will surely go to jail for something, even if it isn't for murder.     No matter.    Danny demands to have the showdown negotiated by fellow negotiator Chris Sabian (Spacey), who doesn't work in Danny's precinct and who only knows Danny by reputation.     Sabian's reputation as a negotiator is as famous as Danny's.   We see early on how Chris controls the situation and keeps track of all of the information available for use later on.    He and Danny are experts and it is fun to see them try to out-negotiate each other.
I won't reveal much more, since the plot twists and turns in much the same way as the character's perceptions of what is really happening.     Sabian is at first a neutral party only interested in bringing the crisis to a swift resolution, but he soon realizes there may be a plot against Danny afoot, which brings a whole other element of suspense.     Jackson is at his raging best.     It is wise to take him seriously when he makes threats.     Spacey is cool, but assertive and won't be pushed around.     He is usually the smartest guy in the room who knows all of the angles, but here there are some things he doesn't know and it is refreshing to see him trying to figure it out like the rest of us.
Perhaps Danny is using a shotgun to kill a mosquito by starting up the hostage crisis, but then again we wouldn't have a movie if he didn't.    The Negotiator is skillfully directed and nearly relentless in ratcheting up the tension.    The movie doesn't depend on the outcome of fist fights and gun fights, but instead on characters trying to outthink one another and use their brains instead of their brawn.     The ending is satisfying, if not a little farfetched, but overall The Negotiator is intelligent and suspenseful, although I would have liked to have seen how Danny could possible manage to avoid going to the slammer.

The Golden Child (1986) * * *

Directed by:  Michael Ritchie
Starring:  Eddie Murphy, Victor Wong, Charlotte Lewis, Charles Dance, J.L. Reate
Eddie Murphy has so much fun with the cheerfully ridiculous The Golden Child that he can barely contain himself.     He spends the bulk of the movie with a mischievous grin.    As in Beverly Hills Cop, The Golden Child, and later Metro, Murphy shows he is not just a brilliant comic actor, but a plausible action hero.    Murphy jumps headlong into The Golden Child and makes us care about it a lot more than we should.
Murphy plays Chandler Jarrell, a private detective specializing in finding missing children.    One nasty case puts him on the trail of the Golden Child, who was abducted from his palace in Tibet and held captive by evil forces wishing to destroy him.     A mysterious young woman named Kee Nang (Lewis) tells Chandler he is "the chosen one" to find and rescue the Golden Child.     He doesn't necessarily believe it, but goes along on the journey because there is a child in danger and also because he is attracted to Kee Nang.   
Chandler's quest takes him to Tibet, where he must retrieve a special knife to kill the leader of the dark forces Sardo (Dance) and save the child.    "Why can't someone ask me to go to the Bahamas?" Chandler not unreasonably asks.     The film is more adventure than comedy, but Murphy peppers in some funny liners and refreshingly not one f-bomb.      Why The Golden Child manages to work is its spirit.     It knows it is ludicrous, Murphy knows it is also, but yet we find ourselves involved while director Ritchie milks Murphy's considerable charm for all it is worth.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

In the Line of Fire (1993) * * *

In The Line Of Fire Movie Review

Directed by:  Wolfgang Petersen

Starring:  Clint Eastwood, Rene Russo, John Malkovich, John Mahoney, Dylan McDermott, Fred Dalton Thompson

Clint Eastwood has an uncanny ability to suggest a multitude of deep hurts, wounds, and emotions with minimal expression.    He may twitch his eye or purse his lips or his voice may turn into a low growl, but we understand fully when he is pissed.     In the Line of Fire is a superior example of the Eastwood persona, which also translated to a multiple Oscar-winning career as a director also.    There is rarely a wasted motion or emotion in Clint Eastwood's world.   

Eastwood's Secret Service agent Frank Horrigan is perfectly matched up against a dangerous adversary in Mitch Leary (Malkovich), who calls Frank one night and informs him of his intent to assassinate the President.     Why did Mitch contact Horrigan?     Because thirty years prior, Horrigan was on car detail in Dallas when JFK was shot.    Frank blames himself for the death.    Mitch knows this and plays straight to it.    He taunts Frank with threats and reminders of his failures.    He may even sympathize with Frank somewhat for reasons made clearer later on.    

This puts Frank on Mitch's trail, but Mitch is much more clever than anyone Frank has encountered before.    Using the latest telephone signal scrambling technology, disguises, and phony social security numbers, Mitch keeps his identity concealed as he plans the assassination of the President, who is campaigning for re-election.     Part of Frank's issue is the Chief of Staff (Thompson), who wants the President to be as visible as possible while Frank recommends the President cancel events and limit his exposure.    Mitch plays mind games with Frank, forever working over his guilty psyche which in turn springboards Frank attempts at professional and personal redemption.

The cat-and-mouse game between Eastwood and Malkovich is at the heart of In the Line of Fire, which also stars Rene Russo as Lily Raines, Frank's sometime partner and love interest, who is capable at being both.    The love interest angle is unnecessary in my estimation.     I enjoyed the film better without the obligatory detours into romance.     We witness Frank's home life, which is a barely lived in DC apartment where Frank has a drink and is held hostage by his doubts.     Mitch's intervention into his life can go one of three ways for Frank:   He stops the assassination, he fails to stop the assassination which would add a second intolerable professional failure to his resume, or he could die himself.   

Eastwood is gruff and no-nonsense, while Mitch is verbal, eloquent, and emotionally cold.    Most of their scenes are over the phone and we watch the tense games of verbal volleyball unfold.    Malkovich received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his work and it was well-deserved.    It set the stage for later portrayals of subdued, calculating, yet no less insane villains he would undertake in films such as Con Air (1997).    Eastwood is always Eastwood, so we know where we stand with him and thus a built-in empathy for Frank.    The thriller unfolds convincingly, owing as much to detective work as it does to chases and gunfights.    I prefer seeing Frank solve the unsolvable mystery of Mitch than chasing him all around the country.    In the Line of Fire is not a by-the-numbers thriller.   It is intelligent and has considerable depth.    

The House (2017) * *

The House Movie Review

Directed by:  Andrew Jay Cohen

Starring:  Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, Jason Mantzoukas, Ryan Simpkins, Nick Kroll, Rob Huebel, Jeremy Renner

Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, and the rest of the game cast of The House try mightily to infuse some spirit into the film, but eventually even they are crushed by the film's desire to strain for any kind of laugh.    The actors put forth a superhuman effort to draw a few laughs out of the material and they occasionally succeed.    Only occasionally, but not nearly enough to save the ultimately irrelevant comedy I forgot about ten minutes after leaving the theater.

Ferrell and Poehler play Scott and Kate Johansen, who are suffering from severe separation anxiety as their daughter Alex (Simpkins) plans to go to Bucknell University.     Scott and Kate plan on spending as much time with Alex over the summer before she departs, which means watching The Walking Dead while scrunched together on the bed.    It is borderline creepy and it shows Alex is far more mature than her parents.  Then a snag, a scholarship provided by the town is rescinded due to budget cuts and Scott and Kate realize they don't have the money to pay for even a semester of school, let alone four years.   

Fortunately their down-on-his-luck friend Frank (Mantzoukas) has a brainstorm:   Turn his nearly empty house (courtesy of his wife leaving him) into a casino with table games, fights, and a neighborhood clientele who seemingly has endless disposable income.     The house always wins, in their estimation, so they sit back and watch the money flow into the coffers.    Of course, we never learn where the three seemingly broke adults find the money to purchase the games and remodel the house in the first place. 

All of this money grabbing isn't necessarily as easy as it sounds.    Word gets around about the casino and causes problems, including a card counter whose finger is accidentally chopped off by Ferrell in a Casino-like attempt to intimidate him.    It turns out the counter is connected to a powerful local mobster.    Blood squirts all over Scott and everyone screams a lot.    None of it is actually funny.    Inexplicably, Scott, Kate, and Frank begin to act like bad-ass casino bosses.    Scott wears female sunglasses (he calls them Italian and this is pretty funny), Kate begins smoking weed daily, and Frank struggles to win his wife back.     (Memo to filmmakers:   Characters smoking weed is not funny.    You have to add something to it to give it an edge).     By this time, The House has swerved off the rails after maintaining some decent comic energy and a few laughs for the first 45 minutes.

The House runs about 80 minutes and barely has enough story to cover that minimal length.    The film has a gag reel before the closing credits, but I admit I bailed on it quickly.     Gag reels are presented to show us what a wonderful, fun time everyone had making the film.     I have no doubt they did.     I don't doubt the actors' energy level, just the material they found themselves in. 

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Memories of Me (1988) * * *

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Directed by:  Henry Winkler

Starring:  Billy Crystal, Alan King, Jobeth Williams

It is easier to accept Abe and Abbie Polin as a comedy duo rather than father and son.     They approach each other with one liners ready to go, but what is really going on underneath?     That conflict is at the heart of Henry Winkler's Memories of Me, co-written by star Billy Crystal, which takes a hard look at a "show biz" family.

As Memories of Me opens, New York surgeon Abbie (Crystal) suffers a heart attack and begins to reassess his estrangement from his father.    We learn Abbie's parents split up years ago and Abe (King) moved out West to become an actor.    Abbie hasn't seen his father in five years, but decides to take time off and visit him.     Abe has worked consistently in Hollywood over the years on TV and in movies, but as an extra.    His talent:  "Being a face in the crowd," he tells Abbie, who frequently asks his father, "Don't you feel like a putz?"   Abe does not.    He is the self-proclaimed "King of the Extras" and we soon see Abe is indeed the quasi-leader of a group of professional extras that hang out in a Hollywood bar, waiting impatiently for their next gigs. 

Abbie resents his father for leaving he and his mother years ago.    Abe retorts with, "Who put you through medical school?"   Abbie replies, "Uncle Dave,"    Abe fires back, "Well, he could afford it."   Abe and Abbie's conversations are a lot like that, with Abbie mostly playing the straight man setting up lines for Abe to knock out of the park.    But, sooner or later, the two men must come to terms with their relationship, especially as another medical emergency befalls Abe, who smokes, drinks, and eats tacos for breakfast.     As Abbie puts it, "I came here to get you in or get you out of my life."

Memories of Me depicts a father-son relationship that is friendly, but distant.    Abe and Abbie don't hate each other as much as they don't understand what the other feels.     They were involved in too much distracting banter to reveal the truth of their feelings towards each other.     There is clearly love, but also bitterness.    Abbie's on-again, off-again girlfriend Lisa (Williams), also a doctor, visits LA to cheer up Abbie, but soon finds herself in the middle of the ongoing Cold War between Abe and Abbie.    She intuits how much the two men are actually alike, which Abbie is quick to deny, but soon understands this is probably more true than he cares to admit.

The key to the film's success lies in the performances.    Crystal and King have a relaxed, unforced rapport which serves the film well, even when Abe and Abbie's relationship is anything but relaxed.    Williams is not merely a romantic interest for Abbie, but an outsider who quietly observes the dynamic between the two men and refuses to play referee.    She tells Abbie, "You are great in bed, but then you are barely able to hold my hand."    A few days with he and his father shed light on why that is. 

The ending is more or less what you would expect, but it isn't overly schmaltzy or sentimental.    There are laughs, tears, reconciliation, and one of the great closing lines I've seen in a movie.    Too bad it is on a tombstone.   

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Bodyguard (1992) * *

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Directed by:  Mick Jackson

Starring:  Kevin Costner, Whitney Houston, Gary Kemp, Bill Cobbs

Frank Farmer (Costner) is a former Secret Service agent hired as a bodyguard for Rachel Marron (Houston), a singer/actress receiving threatening letters from a kook.    The bodyguard is more Rachel's manager's idea, so Rachel isn't thrilled with Frank lurking around cramping her style.    Frank makes terse suggestions on how Rachel can better be protected, which may include not putting herself out in public during the height of Oscar campaign season.    This doesn't sit well with Rachel's publicist (Kemp), who resents Frank also.    No wonder Frank seems so morose all the time.

The best scenes in The Bodyguard in which we see Frank ply his craft.     He is an expert and knows his stuff, which is usually interesting to watch.     The worst scenes are the ones in which Frank and Rachel inevitably fall in love...if that is what you want to call it.     There isn't much chemistry between them, so we wish the movie never went there.    The big erotic scene involves a samurai sword, which is not the first item I think of in the world of erotica.

In her film debut, the late Whitney Houston sings two songs which earned Oscar nominations ("I Have Nothing" and "Run to You").     She was a much better singer than actress.    There is something about her screen presence which is too restrained and too invulnerable for us to care much about her.      She is so strong-willed and combative that we can't transition when she turns into a frightened target of a would-be killer.     Poor Frank seems like he is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.     It seems he can't forgive himself for not being on duty the day Ronald Reagan was shot and the explanation as to why he wasn't there is more than understandable.     The guy just seems so solemn for such a silly reason.

The movie perks up briefly when Frank discovers the true nature of Rachel's stalker and we learn of the family dynamic which caused it.    But then Rachel is nominated for a Best Actress Oscar and everything flies off the rails.    The Academy Awards ceremony is so unintentionally funny that it derails the film at what is supposed to be its most suspenseful point.     This is the Oscars for C-listers.    Robert Wuhl (who co-starred with Costner in Bull Durham) is the host, while presenters include last year's Best Actor Oscar winner Tom Winston from "South of Waco".    At least Debbie Reynolds deigned to show up for a cameo so brief that if you blink you will miss her.    And what about the big-busted hottie who won the Oscar for Sound?     Even Wuhl couldn't pass up the opportunity to remark on her.     Yes, the Oscars are a howl and the movie ends happily enough, which means Rachel and Frank don't get together.    

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) * * *

John Wick: Chapter Two Movie Review

Directed by:  Chad Stahelski

Starring:  Keanu Reeves, Ian McShane, Common, Laurence Fishburne, Lance Reddick, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ruby Rose

I approached the viewing of John Wick: Chapter 2 with little enthusiasm.    The first film had some admirable qualities drowned out by mind-numbing, gory violence.    I didn't expect much different from Chapter 2, but sometimes movies can surprise you.     I found myself much more involved this time around.    We learn more about the underworld John Wick (Reeves) inhabits and how it fits him like a glove.    This underworld is a network of exclusive hotels and professionals that cater to assassins like Wick with strict policies on violence within their walls (ironic, isn't it?).     The people abide by strict professional codes and "professional courtesies".     They are, dare I say it, polite even as they are trying to whack each other.    It isn't any wonder Wick can't stay retired.    He is addicted to the violence and the ultimate goal of revenge he will never truly fulfill.    He is like an underworld celebrity, or maybe even a legend. 

As Chapter 2 opens,  Wick is taking another go at retirement after killing hundreds of people in his quest to avenge his dead dog and damaged car from the first film.    He doesn't get much time to relax.    An acquaintance from long ago named Santino (Scamarcio) knocks on the door with an army of men dressed in black suits behind him.     Santino asks John to honor a favor owed to him, which John initially refuses.    Santino's men firebomb John's house and burn it to the ground, forcing John out of retirement to do Santino the favor and wipe the slate clean for good.   

In this world of treachery masked by handshakes and politeness, nothing is as it seems.    John travels to Rome to carry out his mission, which is the murder of Santino's sister in order for Santino to gain her seat on the board which governs this underworld...I suppose.     After completing the mission, Santino seeks revenge and places a $7 million bounty on John's head because, hey, John  killed his sister.     No one said this code between criminals was logical.      Those who appreciated the gruesome violence of the first film from 2014 will get what they came for as John survives attack after attack and killing his enemies in sometimes frenetic, choreographed fashion.     Unlike the first film, there is less attention to gore and sensationalistic killings (although there is some of both still) and more attention to the creative ways John avoids getting killed.    It is ridiculous that dozens of people can't seem to kill Wick, but this is not a film in which realism is a priority.

The undercurrent of dread fills the air as Wick seems to dig himself deeper as he tries to escape what may be his ultimate fate.     Keanu Reeves is determined and taciturn, although as the story progresses, we wonder what life he is determined to get back to.    It is fun to see Reeves and Laurence Fishburne, who plays an underworld kingpin, together again two decades after The Matrix series.    Fishburne is loud, booming, and laughs with sinister intent.    He fits right in with this world. 

What makes John Wick: Chapter 2 more successful than its predecessor is its focus on the world in which Wick is truly at home.    The beautiful buildings, the dark halls, the art which adorns the walls of the buildings suggesting civility while hiding such painful violence underneath.     There is such irony between the civil professionalism the criminals exude and their terrible deeds done in the name of such professionalism.     John Wick is part of it and in many ways, cannot rise above it.