SELMA (2014)

January 7, 2015

 

selma Greetings again from the darkness. Historical dramatizations can be a tricky business, as delivering both truth and entertainment value is quite challenging. There is always an expert quick to point out any artistic license taken at the expense of historical accuracy. Of course, most movie lovers have come to accept that even the best-intentioned Hollywood looks at history will be at least as focused on selling tickets as educating the public. Because of this, the swirling controversies for this film are neither surprising nor overly distracting from its message.

March 7, 1965 is known as Bloody Sunday and marks one of the most despicable moments in U.S. history. It was also a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement and can be viewed as shrewd strategy from Martin Luther King, Jr. and his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The movie makes it clear that MLK had a full understanding that Selma, Alabama and it’s racist, redneck Sheriff Jim Clark provided the perfect opportunity for a violent reaction to King’s demonstrations and protests. It also makes it very clear that there was boundless ignorance, hatred and racism on the part of many southern whites.  If the subject matter is somehow not enough to grab your attention, the startling event that occurs 5 minutes in will surely leave you shaken.

The film does an outstanding job of focusing on two pieces of this most complex puzzle: 1. the boots on the ground – the grass roots movement of the people, and 2. the ongoing political debates occurring between MLK and LBJ, between LBJ and his staff, and between MLK and his lieutenants.

The Civil Rights Act had already been passed, so the efforts were in hopes of overcoming the obstacles faced by southern blacks who wished to vote. One of the film’s best scenes has activist Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) trying yet again to have her voter registration processed, but being rebuffed by a county clerk through an impossible Q&A session. These intimate moments are where the film excels: Coretta questioning MLK on his love for her, MLK speaking with grandfather of Jimmie Lee Jackson outside the morgue, and MLK turning down the proposal of US Attorney John Doar (Alessandro Nivola).

In an odd twist of casting, four of the leading characters are played by Brits: David Oyelowo as MLK, Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon Johnson, Tim Roth as George Wallace and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King. All four are excellent, but it’s Mr. Roth as the racist-beyond-belief Alabama Governor Wallace that is the most slitheringly evil, while Mr. Oyelowo gives what can only be described as a towering performance of the man many of us know only from history books and news reels (and a January holiday).

The supporting cast is vast and talented, and because the story spends so much time on the individuals, many of these spend little time on screen. In addition to Andrew Young (Andre Holland), Reverend Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), J Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker), and Lee C White (Giovanni Ribisi), we also see activist Diana Nash (Tessa Thompson), CT Vivian (Corey Reynolds), John Lewis (Stephen James), and Judge Johnson (Martin Sheen). The most bizarre moment has Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) in a quasi-Mr Rogers depiction as he discussed his new found approach with Coretta.

The original King speeches are owned by another studio so those delivered here by Oyelowo have been re-written and revised, yet the words and Oyelowo’s powerful oratory deliver the message loud and clear. While it can be argued that the film delivers only one point of view (the FBI was no friend to the movement), it can just as easily be argued that previous films have done the same thing – only from the “other” perspective (Mississippi Burning, Ghosts of Mississippi).

In what can be viewed as the first serious movie on Martin Luther King, director Ava DuVernay announces her presence with authority. She will have no need to return to her career as a movie publicist, and we will be watching to see what type of projects appeal to her after this. In a brilliant move, the story focuses on a period of just a few months in 1965, rather than tackling the MLK legacy. She presents him as a man with strengths, flaws, doubts, and determination. It’s clear why so many followed him, and it’s all the more painful to know that so many resisted.

watch the trailer:

 


GANGSTER SQUAD (2013)

January 9, 2013

gangster Greetings again from the darkness. Admittedly, I am one of those who take movies very seriously. Good movies make me happy (even the sad ones), and bad movies make me sulk. Every now and then, one comes along that I find myself enjoying despite the warning buzzers blasting in my film snob brain. Such is the latest from director Ruben Fleisher (who also directed the entertaining Zombieland).

“Inspired by true events” should always be interpreted as a disclaimer that the movie will play fast and loose with history and the details of the story. Sean Penn plays Mickey Cohen, a renowned Los Angeles gangster from the late 40’s. Due to widespread police corruption, Police Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) authorized an “off the books” team to take down mob operations (gambling, prostitution, etc). This much was gangster4documented in Paul Lieberman’s book. How this story is presented by Fleisher and screenwriter Will Beall (signed on for the Justice League movie) has more in common with a comic book than actual history.

The movie is extremely beautiful to look at. It’s slick and stylish with a glamorous color palette, and the production design is top notch – capturing the look and feel of a booming Los Angeles. If you are expecting the next L.A. Confidential or even The Untouchables, you will be disappointed. It’s more in line with Dick Tracy, Scarface, and Hoffa. In other words … it looks great and the action, characters and dialogue are all way over the top!

gangster3 The cast is superb, but most are underutilized. Josh Brolin is the tough leader of the squad that features Ryan Gosling (the token cool womanizer), Robert Patrick (the token dead-eye gunslinger), Anthony Mackie (the innercity, knife-wielding token black cop), Giovanni Ribisi (the token geeky electronics expert), and Michael Pena (the rookie and token Hispanic cop). Unfortunately, my crude descriptions are just about as in-depth as the movie goes with any of them. In fact, Yvette Tucker playing Carmen Miranda, gets almost as much screen time as any of these cops as she sings “Chica Chica Boom Chic”.

The violence is cartoonish in its fervor. The aim of these gangsters is among the worst in movie history, and that’s quite an accomplishment. Using Tommy Guns and pistols, my estimate is that one in every 167 shots actually hits an intended target. Many elaborate set pieces are destroyed in the process. The exception is Robert Patrick’s character, who is actually featured in a detective serial. He never misses … even after being wounded. Penn plays Cohen as a ruthless mob boss, unwilling to accept any failure from his crew. And you know what that means. No pink slips here … just ugly death via power drill, burning elevator or classic car tug-of-war.

An interesting note is the presence of three actors from recent cult TV shows. Holt McCallany (Lights Out), Mireille Enos (The Killing) and Troy Garity (Boss) all have key roles in the film, as does Jon Polito, whose face gangster2and voice make him a must-cast in any gangster film.

If you are able to turn off the logical and reasoning part of your brain … just sit back and enjoy Emma Stone smoking a cig while wearing a red evening gown, an understated Ryan Gosling with an odd speech pattern, Sean Penn wearing a prosthetic nose and spewing hilarious bad guy lines, and the creepy feeling that Josh Brolin is just 25 years away from looking and sounding exactly like Nick Nolte … then hopefully you can take this one for what it is – a guilty pleasure.

**NOTE: the closing credits are a work of art … a tribute to the classic postcards from early Los Angeles

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you’re up for a rollicking good time … bullets flying, tongue firmly planted in cheek

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you expect historical accuracy and pure drama in your gangster flicks

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bRVvEHk7xOs

 


TED (2012)

July 1, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Upon watching the trailer, it would be easy and understandable to simply write off this movie as a ridiculous piece of junk produced merely to capitalize on the popularity of Seth MacFarlane (“Family Guy” creator). That would be a mistake. While much of what Ted has to say will burn your ears, the insight that goes into his lines is often unmistakeably brilliant.

The movie opens with terrific narration from Patrick Stewart. It’s done in A Christmas Story style, only with a caustic and deadpan irreverence that will jolt you before the opening credits have even rolled. We learn the story of 9 year old John Bennett, a social outcast who receives a teddy bear for Christmas. First, what parent buys their 9 year old a teddy bear??? Anyway, that night, under the covers, young John wishes that he and Ted could be lifelong friends. In the morning, he awakes to find a sweet, lively teddy who startles everyone.

 The talking bear becomes an instant celebrity and is even booked on the Johnny Carson show … the first of many 1980’s pop culture references. As in the case of Corey Feldman (pointed out by the narrator), celebrity often fades. Flash forward 25 years and John (Mark Wahlberg) and Ted are living together with John’s girlfriend (Mila Kunis). The boys spend most of their time smoking pot and watching TV re-runs and worshiping the 1980 Flash Gordon cult movie. It’s a typical man-child existence except that one of them is a vile, 4 letter-word spewing teddy bear, and there is no logical reason that the beautiful Kunis hasn’t walked away from the four year relationship with the hapless floater John.

 Mr. MacFarlane’s true talent lies in laughing at our societal norms and encouraging us to laugh at ourselves. He does this through Brian, the pet dog on “Family Guy“, and now here with a talking teddy bear. He holds little back in ripping our obsession with celebrity, our near-clinical anxiety towards all things Politically Correct, and the villainous ways of entitled corporate types (played here by Joel McHale). Luckily the same rules don’t apply for talking teddies, so we hear things that we aren’t even allowed to think. Because he can, MacFarlane mixes in his love of the 80’s with numerous references and we even get odd cameos from Tom Skerritt, Nora Jones and Ryan Reynolds. The most bizarre reference takes up a substantial part of the movie … Sam Jones, the star of Flash Gordon, appears as an aged party animal, teaching the boys some new tricks. Most of this will be dead time to those unfamiliar with the 1980 movie … and evidently few of us have been impacted by it like MacFarlane.

 Ted is a mash-up of John Waters, Bad Santa, Jackass and just about every stereotypical slacker-buddy movie from the past 25 years. It’s all of that and none of that at the same time. Depending on your viewpoint, Ted is either a crass, irreverent, totally inappropriate waste of movie time, or it’s a comical, insightful observation on where we are as a society right now. Only you can decide … just please don’t take your kids.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you always wished your teddy bear would come alive OR you have a freakish attraction to Flash Gordon

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your preference in comedy leans towards the sweet and innocent (two words that have no place near this movie)

watch the trailer:


THE RUM DIARY

November 5, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. I suppose we are to give Hunter S Thompson the benefit of the doubt. Some of his writings are historically invaluable and models of brilliant writing. I doubt many would include The Rum Diary in that category. Director Bruce Robinson (Jennifer Eight, Withnail and I) does the best he can with enormous help from Thompson’s friend and biggest cheerleader, Johnny Depp.

The film plays as an autobiography supposing Thompson’s character Paul Kemp (Depp) would have been employed in 1960 at the San Juan Puerto Rico STAR, a newspaper run by English speaking Americans trying to report in Spanish speaking land. The editor is Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) who just wants simple human interest stories that the tourists will enjoy. When Kemp arrives, Lotterman asks him what kind of drinker he is. Kemp replies “the high end of social“. A greater understatement may never have been uttered. Kemp, and of course, the real life Thompson, ingested liquor at a pace and volume greater than a marathoner takes in water.

 Kemp finds a drinking buddy in Sala (Michael Rispoli) who is the paper’s photographer. He is drawn into a shady land development plot by Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), an American looking to capitalize financially by raping the undeveloped beach front land. He needs the help of Kemp to “sell” the project to investors, tourists and locals. Not surprisingly, Kemp’s vision is a bit cloudy and he screws this up while also turning the head of Sanderson’s lady, Chenault (Amber Heard).  All the while, a shady, oddball figure played by Giovanni Ribisi is ALWAYS around.  Ribisi’s character is the guy who, if in prison, other inmates would come to for “supplies”.  Somehow, though, this character is free to roam about San Juan.

 Depp does a standout job as Thompson again (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) with his speech pattern and ever present sunglasses. The feel of the 1960’s is on display with fashion and autos, but this one just didn’t do it for me. I suppose the message from Thompson here is that he did what he always envisioned himself doing … he went hard after the establishment bad guys and brought them down hard. However, this story rings a bit hollow and there are just too many missing pieces and too many holes.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you never miss anything with Johnny Depp or written by Hunter S Thompson … there is really no other reason.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for a real introduction to the Gonzo Journalism that Hunter S Thompson was best at

watch the trailer: