THE BEST OF ENEMIES (2019)

April 4, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s easy to complain (and many do) about how Hollywood usually explores racism. Sometimes the stories seem a bit over-simplistic, as with THE HELP, GREEN BOOK, and HIDDEN FIGURES; however, rather than criticize, perhaps we should be thankful for any effort to prod. Often getting the conversation started is the best first step. That’s really the message from Robin Bissell’s directorial debut of a script he adapted from Osha Gray Davidson’s 1996 book “The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South”. Mr. Bissell has previously been Executive Producer on THE HUNGER GAMES and SEABISCUIT, and Mr. Davidson’s book was previously adapted for a stage production.

Based on a true story that took place in 1971 Durham, North Carolina, the film portrays the remarkable events that led to the integration of public schools and a stranger-than-fiction friendship. Taraji P Henson stars as Ann Atwater, an African-American activist and community organizer, while Oscar winner Sam Rockwell co-stars as Claiborne “CP” Ellis, the Exalted Cyclops (basically the Chapter President) of the Ku Klux Klan. It seems the previous stranger-than-fiction description is aptly applied here when an aggressive black woman known as “Roughhouse Annie” can effectively sway the long ingrained beliefs of a KKK leader, and forge a friendship that would last 3 decades.

A school fire that partially gutted the elementary school attended by the black children in the community was the proverbial spark that kicked off the chain of events. When the white folks refused to share their school, the black children were forced to hold classes in the areas least affected by the fire … while demolition and renovation was being carried out. This led to the NAACP getting involved, which resulted in a judge ordering a “Charrette” – a blend of a committee and a civic debate – to determine how the community would move forward. Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay, FREE FIRE, 2016) was charged with organizing the Charrette, and he named Ms. Alexander and Mr. Ellis as co-chairs. Keep in mind this was 17 years after Brown vs. Board of Education ruled in favor of school desegregation, but many pockets of the south were slow to come around.

The story structure offers synchronicity between the lives of Alexander and Ellis, as they each struggle with poverty and family challenges. It’s just one of the ways of trying to show they were more alike than different, and much more of the time is devoted to how the transition slowly occurs for Ellis. Of course, even though each side dislikes the other, it’s Ellis whose eyes must be opened as he clings to the only way of life he’s known. Because of this, Mr. Rockwell has the meatier role, but it’s Ms. Henson (and her fat suit) who draws the most laughs and nods of approval from the audience.

As you would expect, it’s a strutting Mr. Rockwell and boisterous Ms. Henson that dominate the film, however, some tremendous actors fill the supporting roles: Wes Bentley (as a Confederate soldier hat-wearing Klansman), Anne Heche (as Ellis’ wife), Nick Searcy, Bruce McGill, John Gallagher Jr, and Caitlin Mehner.

The film is a most entertaining (though a bit lightweight) look at an historic chain of events, and it’s right up there with a black cop infiltrating the Klan in Spike Lee’s 2018 film BLACKkKLANSMAN believe-it-or-not points. In 1980, Studs Terkel conducted an interview with Mr. Ellis, and it’s worth a read to gain a bit more insight into a man that truly changed his evil ways. The ending of this film leans heavily on the “feel-good” and “can’t we all just get along” approach, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. The end credit sequence features some tremendous clips of the real Ms. Alexander (who died in 2016) and Mr. Ellis (who died in 2005), making it a bit easier to understand how the two opposites connected for the greater good.

watch the trailer:

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WILD CARD (2015)

February 8, 2015

wild card Greetings again from the darkness. Most of us know what to expect when we hear “it’s a Jason Statham movie”. However, when you add to that “written by two-time Oscar winner William Goldman”, it generates a bit more excitement and higher expectations than normal. This becomes slightly complicated when the Jason Statham part stretches his acting, but it’s the script that is essentially a letdown.

The film is a remake of the 1986 film HEAT with Burt Reynolds, and both movie versions are based on Goldman’s novel of that title. This time it’s Jason Statham as Las Vegas security expert Nick Wild, who possesses a particular set of skills … to go along with a drinking and gambling problem. Known for such films as CON AIR (1997), THE MECHANIC (also with Statham, 2011), and THE EXPENDABLES 2 (also with Statham, 2012), director Simon West is no stranger to action sequences and cool guys with baggage. There are a couple of outstanding fight scenes that capitalize on Nick Wild’s preference for non-traditional weapons, including a huge finale at The Silver Spoon Diner where he utilizes, well, silver spoons.

Statham gets an opportunity to do something besides fight and drive, as he is cast as the emotionally handicapped warrior with a big heart. He protects his friends and does favors for those who are weaker. In fact, the banter between he and Michael Angarano (as Cyrus) is some of the best work of Statham’s career. The noir-speak dialogue allows Statham to have some fun with vocabulary words, but the script never really lets him connect with anyone other than Cyrus. Instead we get too many scenes of guzzling vodka and an extended blackjack scene that is so predictable, it’s actually kind of annoying to watch.

The biggest downside to the film is the steady stream of recognizable and pretty well-known actors who pop up for only a brief scene or two. The list includes Sophia Vergara sporting a sweater that flaunts her assets, Max Casella as her conniving boyfriend, Jason Alexander as an office-sharing attorney, Hope Davis as a blackjack dealer, Dominik Garcia-Lorido (Andy Garcia’s daughter) as Nick’s call girl friend in need, Milo Ventimiglia as bad guy Danny DeMarco, Anne Heche as the supportive diner waitress, and a wonderful, but all too brief, Stanley Tucci as a hotel/casino owner modeled on a few real life owners and mobsters.

Although the film skips the traditional Statham car chases and love-making, we do get many flashy shots of him driving a classic Pontiac GT. The old school Vegas setting is a welcome diversion from the glitzy new Vegas we more often see in movies. Keeping with the retro feel is Dean Martin crooning “Blue Christmas” in the opening moments, and other classic songs carefully coordinated throughout the story. Statham’s struggles with alcohol and gambling, and his stated intent to leave Vegas forever provide the film with an incredibly disjointed and lightweight story from the pen of someone as decorated as William Goldman.  It’s nice to see Statham sport a bit of emotional depth, but the film likely doesn’t offer enough fight scenes for his true fans. The dark and humorous moments provide enough entertainment to encourage those fans to give it a shot, but please be careful with those spoons.

watch the trailer:

 


RAMPART

February 9, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Dirty cops happen in real life sometimes, and in the movies quite often. It can be an intriguing subject to explore … psychological demons, ego, power-mongering, etc. Typically we see it presented as a cop torn between doing the right thing and feeling like he is owed something. Rarely do we see a cop portrayed as beyond hope … so far gone morally that redemption is no longer even a possibility.

Writer James Ellroy (LA Confidential) and director Oren Moverman (The Messenger) present to us Officer Dave Brown, known to his fellow cops (and even his daughter) as “Date Rape” Dave. The moniker stems from a vice incident where Brown supposedly dished out street justice to a serial date rapist. With no proof of his guilt, Brown remained on the force and his rogue manner has now escalated to the point where he is a constant danger to himself and others. This guy has no moral filter for everyday living.

 Officer Brown is played with searing intensity by a Woody Harrelson you have never before seen. As loathsome a character as you will ever find, you cannot take your eyes off of him. He is hated by EVERYONE! Somehow he has daughters by his two ex-wives (who are sisters) and they all live together in a messed up commune where ‘hate’ is the secret word of the day, every day. Most of the time no one speaks to Dave except to tell him to “get out”. He spends his off hours drinking, smoking, doing drugs and having meaningless sex. Heck, that’s just about how he spends his time while on duty as well.  Dave’s behavior and the theme of the movie seem to be explained in a scene when he tells the IA Detective (Ice Cube) that he is not a racist because a he hates “all people equally“.  

The supporting cast is phenomenal, though most aren’t given but a scene or two. This includes Robin Wright (who nearly matches Dave in the tortured soul department), Sigourney Weaver, Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon, Ned Beatty, Ben Foster, Ice Cube, and Steve Buscemi. The first hour feels like an Actor’s Retreat as most every scene introduces another familiar face.

 Still, as terrific as Harrelson is, and as deep as the cast is, the film is just too one note and downbeat and hopeless to captivate most viewers. Some of Moverman’s camera work is quite distracting and the sex club scene was pure overkill and unnecessary. Downward spiral is much too neutral a term to describe this character’s path and ultimately, that prevents the film from delivering any type of message. Harrelson had been mentioned as a possible Oscar candidate, but it would not be surprising if the film itself worked to his detriment.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see a fantastic performance by Woody Harrelson OR you are just looking for a way to kill that pesky feeling of joy that’s been following you around lately

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you need to like at least one character in a movie

watch the trailer:


CEDAR RAPIDS

February 21, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. I have said many times that comedies are the most difficult of all film genres since no two people have the same sense of humor, and everyone considers themselves to be funny. While many people laughed til they cried during The Hangover, others walked out of the theatre or simply had no interest at all. The same can be said for just about any Mel Brooks movie, as well as his contemporary, Judd Apatow. What we do know, is that a comedy’s chance for success comes down to its characters, and in this area, Cedar Rapids works like a charm.

Ed Helms (Andy in “The Office”) stars as Tim Lippe, the most sheltered, naive mid-western insurance agent ever captured on film. Lippe lives and works in Brown Valley, Wisconsin … the most sheltered, naive mid-western town ever captured on film. He truly believes insurance salesmen serve a higher cause.  His only real excitement is found through his “pre-engagement” to his 7th grade teacher played  well by Sigourney Weaver (probably the most worldly person in Brown Valley). When an embarrassing accident claims the life of their hot shot agent, the agency owner (Stephen Root) sends Lippe to the annual convention in Cedar Rapids. His mission: to win the coveted 2-Diamond Award presented by industry legend Orin Helgesson (a pious Kurtwood Smith).

 Since a lone character can’t generate many laughs, circumstances at the convention cause Lippe to find himself roommates with a very noble Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock, Jr from “The Wire”) and fast-talking poacher Dean Ziegler (John C Reilly). These 3 are joined together by Nebraska agent Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche). Lippe is quickly introduced to the “real world” (heavy drinking, sexual inneuendo, pranks, etc) by his new friends and after the first 20 minutes of set-up, the lines and settings get funnier and funnier.

As with most comedies these days, the trailer gives away much more than it should; but, unlike most, it leaves plenty of laughs and situations for the film. What really makes this work is that all characters are actually very nice people … they are just a bit exaggerated in their traits. Lippe is a bit too naive. Wilkes is a bit too uptight. Ziegler is a bit too obnoxious, and Fox is just a little too lonely and adventurous. Still, their earnestness is what keeps the film grounded.  One of the best parts of the gag is that somehow Cedar Rapids, Iowa is cast as sin city!  We aren’t talking Vegas, NYC or Paris … but CEDAR RAPIDS!

Mr. Helms is really a comic force. He has the extraordinary ability to never hold back or worry that he might not look cool. Even as the lead character, he knows when scene-stealer John C Reilly should have the spotlight. This is a tremendous asset for a comic.  Mr. Whitlock spouts some funny lines in homage to “The Wire” and Ms. Heche refuses to overplay the lonely wife out for a good time.

I won’t give away much, but will warn that some of the humor is crude … especially most of Riley’s rapid-fire zingers. If you appreciate a balance of outlandish one-liners with humorous real people, then you might want to check this one out. I have only previously known this director, Miguel Arteta, as the guy responsible for Jennifer Aniston‘s best screen performance (The Good Girl). Now I look forward to his next project.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you could use a few good laughs here in the middle of winter

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your comedies to be a bit more highbrow