JERSEY BOYS (2014)

July 2, 2014

jersey Greetings again from the darkness. Two upfront disclosures are in order. I have never seen the mega-smash Broadway show, and I’ve always been a huge fan of The Four Seasons’ music. These are pertinent because they impact one’s reaction to the film version.

Director Clint Eastwood says he knew immediately he wanted to bring the Broadway show to the movies. In fact, his decision to cast 3 of the 4 main stage actors proved crucial in this successful transition. The rags-to-riches story of four guys from New Jersey is not only true, but it’s believable because they scrap and battle just like we would expect. The mob ties are on full display, as is the struggle to maintain any semblance of normal family life while on the rocket ship to stardom.

John Lloyd Young is spectacular as the great Frankie Valli. While I fully anticipated cringing during the songs, his voice never once faltered. He is clearly the main reason the Broadway show (he won a Tony award) and the movie work. Erich Bergen plays songwriter Bob Gaudio and Michael Lomenda plays bassist Nick Massi … both are solid. The only crack was in the casting of Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito. Piazza is well known from “Boardwalk Empire“, but he is just a bit too slick as the guy who scammed the other band members, digging a massive hole of debt – mostly to a mob loan shark named Norm Waxman (played by Donnie Kehr in an excellent performance).

Other support work is provided by Mike Doyle as record producer and all-around flamboyant guy, Bob Crewe; Renee Marino starts strong as Mary (Frankie’s future wife) but is given little to do (other than booze and yell) as the story progresses; Joseph Russo captures the quirks of a young Joe Pesci, who introduces Gaudio to the band; and the always entertaining Christopher Walken slightly underplays local made guy Gyp DeCarlo who is instrumental in protecting Frankie in those early years … proving that in Jersey, Talent = Respect. It should also be noted that the band’s accountant is played by Barry Livingston, who you might remember as Ernie from “My Three Son’s“.

Eastwood is now 84 years old and he wisely takes a pretty conventional route with the film version. In fact, the argument could be made that since it doesn’t have the edge of most R-rated movies, taming the language could have resulted in a PG-13 rating, making it more accessible to families.  The screenplay is from Marshall Brickman (Annie Hall, Manhattan) and Rick Elice,  also co-wrote the book for the musical. This movie has not been popular with critics and it’s probably because of this relatively safe approach to an entertaining and fun story. It’s not cutting edge cinema, but if you enjoy The Four Seasons music, you will enjoy the movie.

***NOTE: Two surprising notes on cameos: Clint Eastwood makes a brief appearance on a TV set showing an episode of “Rawhide” where he portrayed Rowdy Yates; but the bigger question is WHERE WAS FRANKIE VALLI?  After numerous appearances on “The Sopranos“, and being listed as here as an Executive Producer, it seems working Mr. Valli into a scene would have been a nice tribute … or, as reader Goldy suggested … how about showing actual Hall of Fame induction footage at the end?

***NOTE: If you are in the mood for a different type of Christmas song this year, check out The Four Seasons version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” … always one of the more challenging sing-alongs!

watch the trailer:

 

 

 

 


STAND UP GUYS (2013)

February 3, 2013

stand up Greetings again from the darkness. Any movie lover with a sense of history has to get at least a little excited hearing about a star vehicle featuring Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, and Alan Arkin. These three screen legends together prove the adage … worth the price of admission. And that’s a good thing, because there is little else that works for this movie.

The movie unfolds like a tribute to its three stars. That’s not a compliment. First time screenwriter Noah Haidle and character actor-turned director Fisher Stevens simply lack the chops to provide material worthy of the cast. So we get Pacino doing a Tony Montana growl and A Scent of the Woman dance; Walken doing his deadpan delivery and even a quick little soft shoe; and Arkin falls back into his half-crazed,moment-seizing act. What we don’t see is a story line that pushes any of them to a “wow” moment.

Pacino plays Val, and we meet him on the day of his release after 28 years in prison. He’s picked up by Doc, his old partner in crime, or crime partner if you prefer (played by Walken). There are a couple of not so secrets twists that try to keep it interesting, but the best part comes when they spring their old driver Hirsch (Arkin) from his nursing home and oxygen mask.

stand up4 The night on the town allows for plenty of female interactions: a brothel run by Lucy Punch, a nurse played by Julianna Marguiles, another brothel visit, revenge for a female victim played by Vanessa Ferlito, and multiple chats with a young diner waitress (Addison Timlin). Unfortunately, this big night also provides entirely too much consumed alcohol, numerous penis jokes, an extended (so to speak) Viagra sequence and attempts at laughter thanks to hyper-tension and insurance co-pays.

The old guys do their best to uphold the code from the good ol’ days – both as gangsters and actors. It’s just inexcusable that the script wasn’t improved to take advantage of this talent. Despite that, there was a certain sense of nostalgia that proved enjoyable watching these guys on screen together.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: for no other reason than the nostalgia of seeing Pacino, Walken and Arkin on screen together.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you don’t share my sense of nostalgia and prefer movies that have a script worthy of the cast and your time

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NApJNjPTqZs


A LATE QUARTET (2012)

November 13, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is one of those little indie flicks that will probably get lost in the shuffle. Director and co-writer Yaron Zilberman delivers a twist to the familiar life lessons and substitute family story lines, and is wise enough to let his outstanding cast do what they do best.

It is by no means a great movie, but there are some terrific and wonderful moments thanks mostly to some top notch acting. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Mark Ivanik and Christopher Walken make up a famed string quartet who are approaching their 25th year together. All heck breaks loose within this group that thrives on precision when the patriarch (Walken) is diagnosed with Parkinson’s. This announcement is followed immediately by a battle of egos between the two violinists (Hoffman and Ivanek), a falling out between the married couple (Keener and Hoffman) when he has an affair, and a break in trust when Ivanek starts a relationship with the much younger daughter (Imogen Poots) of Keener and Hoffman.  It’s kinda like Peyton Place with classical music.

If this sounds like a dysfunctional family, that’s a very accurate description. These four people are outstanding musicians who made the decision to forgo solo careers and build something even better with the quartet. It’s a life lesson that four people working in harmony are both much stronger and more fragile than any one person going it alone. The music is what drives these four despite their other issues. Watching them battle through the challenges is quite similar to any film based on familial shenanigans, but the actors are so good that a few moments really resonate.

The chamber music is a joy to listen to, though the plot devices are often quite familiar and predictable. Christopher Walken has a couple of scenes that are alone worth the price of admission. Ivanek expertly captures the ego-maniacal first violinist, and Keener is perfectly cast as the one who can’t help but wonder how her life turned out so. Mr. Hoffman may be up for an Oscar thanks to his performance in The Master, but it’s these “small” roles which I find so complimentary of his talent.

Kind of off topic, there is a scene featuring Wallace Shawn drinking wine as he converses with Walken. Wallace Shawn drinking wine will forever remind me of The Princess Bride and the lesson of going up against a Sicilian when death is involved! To summarize, the individual pieces here are much stronger than the overall film … just the opposite of a world class quartet.

**Note: that’s the real Nina Lee (world class cellist) who steals the scene near the end

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy “little” films with great acting

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: a soap opera disguised as top notch chamber music has you longing for the next Bond film

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NX66lRnNmqs

 


SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS (2012)

October 14, 2012

Greetings again from the darkness. When a writer/director sets a standard with a film like In Bruges, the anticipation for the follow-up is palpable, especially from those of us with the demented sense of humor necessary to watch that film over and over. Martin McDonagh is a writer firs (shorts, features and plays), and a self-taught filmmaker second. He again shows his talent for interesting characters in unusual situations, and an extraordinary blend of black comedy, violence and personal struggles with morality.

This film is a smart (but dark) comedy about characters who aren’t nearly as smart as they see themselves. It’s quite self-referential and at its best is a self-parody. Colin Farrell plays a writer who is blocked after creating the perfect title … “Seven Psychopaths”. Sam Rockwell plays his best friend who runs a crafty little dog-napping business and feeds Farrell possible story lines. He even goes as far as to run an ad asking real life psychopaths to come tell their story. Yep, this plan is just running smoothly until Rockwell kidnaps the dog of a local gangster played by Woody Harrelson.

What we quickly figure out is that we are watching Farrell’s writing process unfold on screen. The bigger challenge is trying to figure out which parts are really happening and which parts are fantasy or part of the creative process. The writing and acting are very skillful. Christopher Walken plays Rockwell’s partner and delivers what may be his best performance in years. It’s very offbeat and irregular … in other words, typical Walken.  Though there are many excellent scenes, the best ones involve Walken.

The script pokes fun at the weak female characters – Abbie Cornish as Farrell’s girlfriend, and former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko as Harrelson’s less-than-loyal girlfriend. The film also features some of my favorite character actors. In addition to Walken, we get the great Tom Waits as a bunny loving psychopath, Harry Dean Stanton as a Quaker, Zeljko Ivanek as a henchman, and an opening scene with “Boardwalk Empire” alums Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg.

 As wonderful a writer as McDonagh is, we can’t help notice the influences of Quentin Tarantino and the spaghetti westerns – especially The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. His comedic tendencies wrapped in violent sequences really challenge us as viewers. Trying to find the good in those who aren’t necessarily so good adds an element and complexity as the film throws violence in our face as the characters are confronting their deeper feelings on morality. Since Farrell’s character is a writer named Martin, we are probably safe in assuming that McDonagh is working through some of these same issues himself (especially the unnecessary violence and weak women characters).  McDonagh proves again to be one of the most intriguing and talented filmmakers working, and even though this one is a tick below his last one, I anxiously await his next.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you saw In Bruges and appreciated the dark comedy and philosophical nature OR you don’t want to miss a classic Christopher Walken performance

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your comedy to be light-hearted in nature OR you can’t appreciate the character who brings a flare gun to the final shootout in the desert

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OOsd5d8IVoA

 

 


DARK HORSE (2012)

September 11, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Todd Solondz is the master of film uncomfortableness. If you have seen his Happiness or Welcome to the Dollhouse, you won’t debate whether that’s a real word or not. Mr. Solondz has a way of finding the worst in his characters and then taking it even darker and more negative. And yet, somehow, his latest (and maybe his simplest film to date) could be called a comedy.

We are first introduced to Abe (Jordan Gelber) and Miranda (Selma Blair) as they share a table at a wedding, though obviously aren’t remotely together. He is oblivious to her near silent attempts to nicely avoid providing her phone number to him. The film moves quickly to provide proof that Abe is the epitome of arrested development. A mid-thirties something who not only “works” for his dad, but still lives with his parents (Mia Farrow, Christopher Walken) in a bedroom decorated with action figures. It’s difficult to look at someone who takes up as much space as Abe and categorize them as a kid, so I believe the better term is “not an adult”. He stalks Miranda and doesn’t seem to mind/notice that she is a heavily medicated depressed individual who looks at him like he’s a circus act.

Abe’s work environment is no better than his personal life. He brings nothing of value to his dad’s company, yet somehow thinks he is always being mistreated. This carries over to his feelings toward his brother Richard (Justin Bartha), who is a doctor. Abe, who dropped out of college, believes the only difference is that Richard was the favorite son and received special privileges. It’s very easy to label Abe a “loser”, but somehow Solondz manages to maintain our interest with small sparks of hope (very small).

 The hope quickly fades and Abe’s life heads on a fast downward spiral. There are some bizarre fantasy/dream sequences that involve the quiet, much older co-worker Marie (Donna Murphy), and a conversation in the car with his mother and brother that plays like something directly out of a Woody Allen movie (made even creepier with the presence of Mia Farrow), plus another odd sequence featuring Miranda’s ex (Aasif Mandvi) and the source of her Hep B.

There are some funny moments, but as Mr. Solondz would prefer, the laughs are tainted with guilt. We can’t help but wonder why we laugh at a guy for whom we have such little respect … actually bordering on disgust. I must admit to being pretty tired of Abe by the end of the movie, and couldn’t help wondering if it might have been more effective as a short film. Still, the acting was superb, and unfortunately Abe isn’t that much of a stretch from someone you probably know in real life.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you don’t mind a dose of guilt mixed with some humor

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer to avoid the depressed and the losers amongst us.

watch the trailer: