JUST MERCY (2020)

January 9, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. 2019 movie year brought us BRIAN BANKS, CLEMENCY, and now JUST MERCY. Three movies centered on death row and racism in the justice system. Being imprisoned for a crime one didn’t commit is simply something most of us can’t fathom. Add in the death penalty, and it truly becomes a horrifying tragedy. Bryan Stevenson is a Harvard Law graduate who founded Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization whose mission is to get innocent/wrongly convicted people off of death row.

Filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton (SHORT TERM 12, THE GLASS CASTLE) brings Mr. Stevenson to the screen through the story of Walter “Johnny D” McMillian. Mr. McMillian was so obviously not guilty, that the road block set up to stop him on his way home from work speaks to the deep-rooted racism embedded in an Alabama police force so desperate to solve the murder of a white woman. Oh, and the town is Monroeville. The same town where Harper Lee wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Cretton’s script, co-written with Andrew Lanham (THE GLASS CASTLE) follows attorney Stevenson’s efforts to unravel the racism and miscarriage of justice.

Michael B Jordan plays Bryan Stevenson, and Oscar winner Jamie Foxx plays Walter McMillian. Their shared scenes are extraordinary, and bring out the best in Mr. Foxx. Oscar winner Brie Larson (Mr. Cretton’s good luck charm) plays Stevenson’s assistant Eva Ansley, a hard-working idealist, who unfortunately is given little to do here. Tim Blake Nelson makes quite an impact as Ralph Myers, a convicted murderer with a twitchy delivery – and the state’s only witness against Walter. Rafe Spall is the corrupt DA with a southern accent that is painful to our ears, and Karan Kendrick plays Walter’s wife Minnie. In an all-too-brief turn, O’Shea Jackson plays death row inmate Anthony Ray Hinton, whose story could just as easily be at the center of movie like this one.

The film opens in 1987 and continues through McMillian’s re-trial in 1992. Along the way Mr. Jordan effectively portrays a man that realizes things are much worse than he anticipated. The film is based on Stevenson’s 2014 memoir “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption”, but it’s Mr. Foxx who excels here. He conveys the feelings of resignation that the man has for his situation … a situation so beyond his control, and one that he understands is biased against him. Watching McMillian come to trust Stevenson through actions rather than words, is exceptional acting by Foxx. We’ve seen how hope can be a dangerous thing on death row, and it’s certainly an emotion that Foxx’s McMillian is slow to embrace.

Bryan Stevenson is now a world renowned Civil Rights attorney and his foundation has made a difference for many convicts. He continues to fight against a racially-biased system, and it does seem that the attention is causing a change in attitudes. The movie comes across a bit slick and formulaic for the message it carries, but perhaps that’s by design so that more people will give it a watch. The intent is certainly admirable.

watch the trailer:


BABY DRIVER (2017)

June 29, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. If his movies are any indication, writer/director Edgar Wright would be fun to hang out with. He thrives on action and humor, and seems committed to making movies that are entertaining, rather than philosophical life statements. Many know his work from Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End), while others are fans of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. High concept, high energy and a creative use of music are identifiable traits within Mr. Wright’s films, all of which are crucial to the success of his latest.

Ansel Elgort (excellent in The Fault in Our Stars) stars as Baby, a freakishly talented getaway driver paying off a debt to a no-nonsense crime boss Doc played by Kevin Spacey. Baby has an unusual movie affliction – a childhood accident killed his parents and left him with tinnitus. He compensates for the constant ringing in his ear by listening to music through ear buds attached to one of his many iPods (depending on his mood). In fact, his insistence on finding just the right song for the moment adds a colorful element to each escape route.

The film opens with what may be its best car chase scene and the hyper-kinetic approach sets the stage for something a bit different than what we usually see. There are no car drops from airplanes or train-jumping (I’m looking at you Fast and Furious franchise). Instead these are old school chases in the mode of Bullitt, or more precisely, Walter Hill’s 1978 The Driver (Mr. Hill appears briefly here as a courtroom reporter). A heist-romance-chase film with a diverse and truly remarkable selection of songs, high energy, more than a few comedic moments (the Mike Myers mask sequence is brilliant) and a recurring Monsters, Inc quote requires a strong lead, and young Mr. Elgort aces the test. Baby is the DJ to his own life, and possesses a moral compass that others on his jobs can’t comprehend. It’s a heart of gold in a bad spot.

Spacey plays Doc with his chilling dead-eyed stare, and even has his own moment of action sporting an automatic weapon during a violent shootout. Spacey’s various crime teams (he varies the pairings) include psycho-lovebirds Buddy (Jon Hamm in his continuing effort to distance from Don Draper) and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), Jon Bernthal, Flea, and an aptly named Bats (Jamie Foxx), who is not the clearest thinker of the bunch. Other supporting work comes courtesy of the rarely seen songwriter/actor Paul Williams, musician Sky Ferreira (as Baby’s beloved mother), young Brogan Hall as Doc’s talented nephew, and CJ Jones as Baby’s foster father. Mr. Jones is one of the few deaf movie actors and he adds much to Baby’s life outside of crime.

The crucial role of Baby’s love interest goes to the very talented and likable Lily James (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) as singing waitress Debora, who introduces him to Carla Thomas’ “B-A-B-Y” song, while he plays “Debora” from T.Rex for her. She and Baby share the not overly ambitious life plan: “to head west in a car I can’t afford and a plan I don’t have”. They are good together and that helps make up for the always cringe-inducing red flag of “one last job” prior to the lovers running away together.

Buried in the Miscellaneous Crew is Choreographer Ryan Heffington, who deserves at least some of the credit for the most unique and creative aspect of the presentation. This appears to be a movie fit to the music, rather than music fit to the movie. There are some astounding sequences where the drum/bass beats are right on cue with the action – gunfire, driving, and character movements. “Harlem Shuffle” plays as Baby playfully dances past graffiti and sidewalk obstacles that perfectly match the beat and lyrics. We see what is likely the best ever movie use of “Bellbottoms”, and without question, the most creatively brilliant use of “Hocus Pocus” by Focus. At times exhilarating to the senses, the infusion of comedy shots and new love help offset the tension of crime jobs and the thrill of the chase.

watch the trailer:


THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 (2014)

May 11, 2014

spider 2 Greetings again from the darkness. This follow-up to The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) seems to have the mission of throwing as much onto the screen as possible. There are not one, but three key villains, a teenage love story, a deathbed scene, numerous moments of soul-searching, a stream of wise cracks and puns, the most outrageous laboratory setting, a cartoonish evil doctor accent, the constantly furrowed brow of Aunt Mary (Sally Field), flashbacks and video of the mysterious father, teasers for future movies, and of course, enough action and special effects to ward off any thoughts of peace.

Personally, I find Andrew Garfield to be a nice fit as Spidey, but I just can’t buy him as ultimate science geek Peter Parker. He bumbles about and bats his eyes too much for my tastes, and can’t stand toe to toe with Gwen Stacy (real life squeeze Emma Stone) in scientific banter. Still, the original story is interesting enough that any minor issues are easily overlooked.

At its core, this entry is a story of revenge. The foundation for Peter Parket’s troubles all stem from Oscorp, so we are treated to some behind the facade sets that will keep viewers on their toes. After an initial face-off with bad guy Aleksei Sytsevich (a maniacal Paul Giamatti), we see the transformation of goofy Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) into the shocking (get it?) Electro. If that’s not enough, childhood buddies Peter Parker and Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) are reunited to set the stage for more good vs evil.

The story would have benefited from more concentration on any of these three stories, while dropping one altogether. The viewer would have benefited from a slower jolt (one more!) in the transformation of Max to Electro. We needed to find the humanity, rather than just desperation. The same goes for Peter and Harry. The dots are a bit too far apart for connection, though DeHaan (so good in Lawless and Chronicle) is a striking contrast to the doe-eyed, beautifully coiffed Garfield.

It’s nice to see Stone’s Gwen portrayed as a smart, ambitious young woman who also understands how demanding a relationship is, and the responsibility that goes with dating a superhero. Speaking of responsibility, the lack of Uncle Ben’s influence here is disturbing, though probably necessary given the exploration of backstory on Peter’s parents (Campbell Scott, Embeth Davidtz).

When Paul Giamatti reappears near the end as Rhino, it’s a bit difficult to not think “enough is enough”. And oddly, this fight sequence ends abruptly, evidently setting the stage for future Spidey. And speaking of the future, the end credits scene plays as nothing more than a teaser trailer for the next X-Men movie, while robbing us of any details to the Sinister Six.

Admittedly, I feel somewhat overdosed on Superhero and Comic book adaptations, yet the action and effects are still quite fun to watch, even if director Marc Webb (Ok, that pun is just too easy) seems to jumble up too many story lines.

***NOTE: I find humor in the fact that both lead actors from Sideways (2004) have now played villains in Spider-Man movies. Paul Giamatti in this one and Thomas Haden Church in Spider-Man 3 (2007)

***NOTE: fans of The Matrix will experience deja vu as Peter Parker discovers his father’s laboratory

watch the trailer:

 


WHITE HOUSE DOWN (2013)

June 30, 2013

WHD1 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Roland Emmerich loves destroying buildings. In Godzilla, he crushed Manhattan. The Statue of Liberty was trashed in The Day After Tomorrow. Independence Day saw The White House explode, and, as you would expect by the title, The White House gets pretty banged up again in his latest. We have come to expect summertime big, slightly dumb, action-packed popcorn movies, and this one certainly fits the bill (emphasis on dumb).

Relased just 3 months after Olympus Has Fallen, the plot is similar, but the approach is diametrically opposite. Emmerich seems to think he gets a free pass thanks to a steady stream of punchlines … spread amongst most every character. Hey, it’s a parody of action films so if you don’t like it, you must not “get it”. Unfortunately, we do get it and it’s just not that funny … the action is weak … the CGI appears shortcut … and the characters ring hollow. Through it’s numerous similarities and tips of the cap, Emmerich seems to beg us to compare it to the class of this genre … Die Hard (1988). WHD2We’ve all seen Die Hard, and sir, this is no Die Hard.

Channing Tatum takes on the lead action role, though he is working with a safety net … the buddy picture element supplied by Jamie Foxx. Unfortunately Tatum has neither the acting chops or the screen presence to pull off the lead, and Foxx’s President Sawyer is simply a poorly conceived character. Tatum’s daughter is played by Joey King, who was so good in Crazy Stupid Love.  Here she plays the role of smarter-than-adults kid and is clearly designed to be the patriotic heart of the film.

For these type of films to work, we need a nasty bad guy. James Woods is fun to watch as he chews scenery as the Secret Service Director. He holds one of the numerous personal grudges against the government and the faceless “Military WHD3Industrial Complex”. Woods’ number one guy on the assault team is Jason Clarke, who was last seen in a key role in Zero Dark Thirty (no coincidence, I’m sure). The rest of the supporting cast is pretty much wasted, including a miscast Maggie Gylenhaal, Richard Jenkins, and the always fun Michael Murphy (where has he been?).

There is nothing wrong with pure escapism, but rather than compare this to the classic 1988 Die Hard, it really has more in common with this year’s mediocre A Good Day to Die Hard. If you prefer your White House terrorist attack movies to be serious and full out action, then Olympus Has Fallen is the better call. Instead, if your preference is strained one-liners, an awkward buddy-film and hazy bad guy motivation, then White House Down might do it for you.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: three months is the maximum amount of time you can go without a new attack on the White House action flick OR you just need some pure escapism with a stream of punchlines during what should be a high-tension event

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your action flicks to focus on action and not slapstick comedy OR you are already convinced Channing Tatum is less talented than Jason Statham despite his appearance in most movies these days (admitted exaggeration)

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4AXbiCdmXgw


DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012)

January 2, 2013

django Greetings again from the darkness. Well, after two viewings and endless analyzing, it’s time to commit thoughts to the page. Over the years, it has become very clear that a Tarantino movie generates a first reaction, and then proceeds to slither through your mind and morph into something else entirely. It would be very easy to accept this latest as an outrageous peek at slavery disguised as a spaghetti western. For most filmmakers, that would be plenty. The “whole” here is exceedingly impressive, but the real joy for cinephiles is in the bits and pieces.

One need not be a Quentin Tarantino expert to enjoy his movies, but there are a couple of things that help. First, he is at heart, a true lover of cinema and quite the film historian, showing sincere respect to the pioneers of this art form. Second, he loves to bring visibility to issues (large and small) by poking a bit of fun at the evil doers who wield unnecessary influence and control over weaker parties. Morality, vengeance, revenge and come-uppance invariably play a role in django4his story-telling … a bonus this time is the inclusion of the Brunhilde/Siegfried legend from Norse mythology and the Wagner operas.

In his two most recent films, QT has been on a kick for creative revisionist history. Inglourious Basterds made a strong statement against the Nazi’s, while this latest goes hard after slave owners. As you might expect, historical accuracy is less important to him than are the characters involved and the tales they weave. And to that point, it seems quite obvious that where in the past, Tarantino would center his attention on crackling dialogue and searing one-liners, he now offers up much more complete characterizations … these are people we understand, even if we don’t much like them.

The obvious love he has for Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Leone, the driving forces behind spaghetti westerns, is plastered on the screen. We even get the beautiful camera work through the snow as a tribute to Corbucci’s The Great Silence (1968). While this is not a remake or sequel or prequel, Franco Nero’s “I know” response to “The D is silent” generates a laugh and memories django2of a 25 year old Nero in the titular role of Django (1966). The Blaxploitation genre plays a significant role here as well since Jamie Foxx plays Django, a freed slave who buddies up with a German dentist-turned-bounty hunter, so that Django can get revenge on those responsible for the torture and mistreatment of his wife.

The details of the stories will not be exposed here, however, I would encourage you to pay close attention to the moments of film brilliance. There is a running gag with townspeople and slaves alike struggling to accept the sight of Django on a horse. You’ll laugh again when Django is offered the opportunity to pick out his own clothes and we next see Foxx in a velvet Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit straight out of The Blue Boy painting from Gainsborough. There is hilarious banter django5between Big Daddy (Don Johnson) and Betina as he tries to give guidance on how to give Django a tour of the plantation.  The phrenology sequence is not just unusual, but an incredibly tense scene and fun to watch.  Watching the final shootout reminds me of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch … only ten times as violent!

Some of the best moments occur when we recognize the actors in the vital foundation scenes. Don’t miss: bad guy Bruce Dern, Don Stroud (the drummer in The Buddy Holly Story) as the ill fated sheriff, Tom Wopat as a patient Marshal (“Dukes of Hazzard”), father and daughter Russ and Amber Tamblyn, Jonah Hill who struggles with the eye holes in his “bag”, the eyes of Zoe Bell, Ted Neeley (Jesus Christ Superstar), “Dexter” dad James Remar in two roles, Walton Goggins as a gunslinger, Michael Parks (multiple roles in Kill Bill and Grindhouse), and of course, Mr Tarantino himself (as an explosive cowpoke from down under).

django3 While each of these provide wonderful moments, the real bingo occurs courtesy of the main performances of Jamie Foxx (Django), Christoph Waltz (Dr King Schultz, bounty hunter), Leonardo DiCaprio (Calvin Candie, plantation owner), and Samuel L Jackson (Stephen, Candyland house slave). Any combination of these characters in any scene could be considered a highlight. It’s especially enjoyable to see DiCaprio cut loose after so many uptight characters recently. Samuel L Jackson has long been a Tarantino favorite, and his delivery as the diabolical Uncle Tom house slave who has some secrets of his own, will bring the house down when he first sees Django and, in a much darker way, when his suspicions are confirmed. Power is a big player in the story, and even as a slave, Stephen knows what to do with power when he has it. Mr. Waltz won an Oscar for his Inglourious Basterds performance, and his dialogue here is every bit as rich. It’s obvious how much Tarantino enjoys hearing his words spoken by Waltz. Foxx’ performance could be easily overlooked, but it’s actually the guts of the film. He is quiet when necessary and bold when required.

django - dj We must also discuss the soundtrack. Franco Migiacci‘s original “Django” theme is featured, as are classics and a new song from the great Ennio Morricone. If you doubt the originality of the soundtrack, try naming another western that utilizes a mash-up of James Brown and Tupac Shakur. How about a spot-on use of Jim Croce’s “I’ve Got a Name”? The film is beautifully shot by Robert Richardson, and Fred Riskin takes over for Tarantino’s long-time editor Sally Menke, who sadly passed away in 2010.

It should also be noted that the script puts hip-hop to shame by using the “N-word” more than 100 times. It is a bit disconcerting, and you can google Spike Lee’s comments if you care to read more on the topic. Otherwise, dig in to the latest gem from Tarantino and appreciate his approach and genius … either that, or stay away!

**NOTE: I have purposefully avoided the scandal associated with the film.  If you are interested in reactions from the African-American community, there is no shortage of published reports on those who support the film and those who are outraged.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rC8VJ9aeB_g


VALENTINE’S DAY (2010)

February 13, 2010

 (2-12-10) Greetings again from the darkness. Really no need to offer commentary on the story. If you have seen the preview (how could you have missed it?), you know it’s a major chick flick with a long list of Hollywood celebrities who come together and display the trials and tribulations that we have come to celebrate as Valentine’s Day – surely a concoction born of greeting card companies, florists and confectioneries.

For most of the movie, one song kept popping in my head – Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People”. I have never seen so many beautiful people in one film. As you have noticed, the word “actor” has purposefully been avoided – celebrities and beautiful people are a more accurate description of what director Garry Marshall has delivered.

Thankfully, he tossed in Hector Elizonda, Shirley Maclaine and George Lopez or the movie might have done for plastic surgery what Urban Cowboy did for C&W dancing. On top of the beauty, we are subjected to an endless stream of downright SKINNY people! Everyone has noticed Taylor Swift is rail thin, but she doesn’t even stand out here. Jessica Biel, who once had a real-life body, looks cadaverous. Even her character exists on candy and treadmills. Throw in Ashton Kutcher, Topher Grace, Jennifer Garner and Jessica Alba, and one can make the argument that the cost for this cast was offset by the lack of necessity for an on-set lunch buffet.

Look, I realize this is just a chick flick comedy that is designed to poke a bit of fun at our need to love and be loved … or rather just not be alone. But a touch of reality could have helped. Raise your hand if you believe Julia Roberts might be miscast as the soldier returning home on leave from the front lines of war. Or that a brilliant doctor (Patrick Dempsey) might be a little more careful in covering his tracks of indiscretion? Or that Anne Hathaway couldn’t find a slightly more rewarding way to earn a living than her “phone entertainer” job?

Couldn’t help but notice the Pretty Woman connections with Garry Marshall, Julia Roberts, Hector Elizando and Larry Miller. Ms. Roberts even gets in a funny little jab over the closing credits. Some attempt was made to interconnect the multiple story lines and I do appreciate the struggle to show intimacy in the mess of Los Angeles … just too many obvious skits and stereotypes to make this anything more than a half-hearted effort by all involved.  And by “all”, I am including the 10-12 other “stars” that I have not named here.