BROKEN CITY (2013)

January 20, 2013

broken Greetings again from the darkness. The best Political crime dramas are complex films with multiple intersecting sub-plots, filled with stylish mis-direction and intense wordplay and back-stabbing between good guys and bad. What doesn’t work is “obvious”. Especially obvious to the point where the audience is way ahead of the earnest, but clumsy protagonist. Luckily for director Allen Hughes (working solo without his twin brother Albert for the first time), he has stacked the film with a wonderful cast which makes it somewhat entertaining despite its major flaws.

Mark Wahlberg plays (what else?) a streetwise guy/cop/detective who tries to do the right thing but always seems to end up with the short straw. Russell Crowe is in fine form (though a bit too tan) as the megalomaniac NYC mayor who plays dirty, but knows how to sell his stuff to the people … even as he schemes to do great wrong. Their paths cross twice and broken3neither time turns out so great for Wahlberg.

As for the rest of the cast, Barry Pepper is miscast as Crowe’s mayoral opponent; Jeffrey Wright is intriguing as the Police Commissioner seemingly playing both sides against the middle; Catherine Zeta-Jones is Crowe’s most unhappy and disloyal wife; Kyle Chandler plays Pepper’s campaign manager (and evidently more); and Griffin Dunne is a rich Crowe supporter and knee deep in the evil scheme. Also interesting is Alona Tai as Wahlberg’s wise-cracking and bright-eyed assistant.

broken2 While no details will be spilled here, there is a fun exchange during the debate between Crowe and Pepper, and well, the movie is just at its best when Crowe is on screen. Wahlberg’s character is pretty much the same he has played a dozen times prior, but it seems the real issue is with first time screenwriter Brian Tucker. He is just overrun with ideas and because of that, most go undeveloped. A script clean-up from a screen veteran could have turned this one around. Still, if you have seen all the Oscar nominated films and are looking for a watchable January release, you could do worse. Just try not to think too much!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you are caught up on the December rush on late 2012 releases OR you want to see another fine Russell Crowe performance

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you get frustrated when a “smart” thriller isn’t so smart

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q3HgYu1atOo

 

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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 FIGHTER (2010)

December 15, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Don’t let the hype or the fear of just another “boxing” movie keep you from this one. Yes, it is based on the true story of “Irish” Micky Ward, a boxer from Lowell, Massachusetts, but this is every bit as much a story of family and commitment and tenacity as any story you know.

Directed by David O Russell (I Heart Huckabees), the film does a terrific job of dumping us right smack into this blue collar community and this oh-so-colorful family. Mark Wahlberg stars as Micky Ward, the younger brother of former boxer Dicky Ecklund (a no-holds-barred Christian Bale). Ecklund’s reputation lived for years off his fight against Sugar Ray Leonard, where Leonard either was knocked down or slipped down. Either way, Dicky is as close to a local legend as it gets. In the mid-80’s, younger brother Micky joined the fight game – with Dicky as his trainer and his mother (Melissa Leo) as his manager.

As realistic and believable as the boxing is in the film, the real trick was in presenting Micky’s family. The first impression of his mother and gaggle of sisters is that it’s a cartoonish presentation. In fact, it’s a very realistic portrayal! When local bartender Charlene (Amy Adams)becomes involved with Micky, she tries to set him straight on exactly what his family is doing to his career.

 Oh, did I mention that Dicky was a crackhead? Did I mention that his mother pushed him into fights against upper weight classes because she needed the money? Did I mention that Micky tries to remain loyal to the family … even to the extent of nearly costing him a shot at a legitimate career? There are some real emotions going on all over this well-paced film. Thanks to the Amy Adams character, we really get to see how an “outsider” views the family, and vice versa. It’s not a pretty sight!

I can’t say enough about Bale’s performance as Dicky. He has the movement and gait of both a boxer and a crackhead. His mannerisms mirror that of the real Dicky, as seen over the ending credits. This is crazy good acting. Melissa Leo is fast becoming the hardest working actress in Hollywood. This is the third film I have seen her in this year! Her performance, when combined with Jacki Weaver in Animal Kingdom, really generates terror for any kids with creepy mothers! Amy Adams is totally convincing as the pretty, tough love interest and guiding light for Micky. As for Wahlberg, he is quite convincing as a boxer. His physicality is without question. The only thing I didn’t like was the couple of times he slipped back into his mumbling, whiny persona. Luckily that effect was minimal.

This is a film I would recommend to most. The only word of caution is the language is quite realistic for working class Lowell, Mass. In other words, the “F” word is utilized in every conceivable manner throughout. It’s just part of the community fabric. Also, be warned that the boxing is also quite realistic … it’s a violent sport and that comes across very well. I loved how the boxing matches were filmed digitally for effect. Just a wonderfully well made film with terrific performances … and actually quite uplifting!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy uplifting films based on a true story OR you have always wanted to see someone punch Marky Mark in the face

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: the overuse of the “F” word with a Massachusetts accent gives you nightmares OR those nightmares intensify when you see Christian Bale after a 40 lb weight loss


THE OTHER GUYS (2010)

August 8, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Much of Will Ferrell’s box office success has occurred thanks to his collaborations with writer/director Adam McKay. This includes Step Brothers, Talladega Nights, and Anchorman. McKay’s long history at Saturday Night Live is often on display in his movies, but never more than during The Other Guys. While there was some effort put towards a story, the film often has the feel of individual skits.

The first skit revolves around two supercops played by Samuel L Jackson and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Of course, the kicker is that they really aren’t great cops, but masters of Public Relations. Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg are partners and the titular ‘other guys’. We get minimal background on each but quickly understand that Ferrell’s cop comes from accounting and is obsessed with regulations and safety. Wahlberg was a former rising star until an unfortunate accident involving Derek Jeter snuffed out his promotions.

Obviously, there needs to be a super case that these two solve and it involves a corporate financing scheme with Steve Coogan. The story itself is really unimportant (luckily) and the humor is derived from individual moments between Ferrell and Wahlberg, that same duo and Eva Mendes, or scenes with Michael Keaton.  As a baseball fan, I got a chuckle out of Keaton’s character name – Capt. Gene Mauch.

There are a couple of running gags that work (hot girls are always hitting on Ferrell, Wahlberg’s dancing, Keaton and TLC), and the best visual gag is an extended freeze frame montage set in a pub. It is pure comic genius. On the downside, I was really baffled as to the over-the-top approach taken by Mark Wahlberg. His anger and bitterness were so exaggerated that it has to be considered a spoof of his role in The Departed. However, if you try to view the film as a spoof, it just doesn’t work (outside of Samuel L Jackson).

Overall, this one has the laughs you would expect but is certainly not at the class of Anchorman. Comedy remains one of the most difficult film genres, and McKay remains one of our best hopes.


DATE NIGHT (2010)

April 12, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Most married couples can probably relate to the grind of a life absorbed with work and parenting. Sometimes the fantasy turns into having a quiet moment of solitude. Heck, even “date night” can devolve into just another responsibility tacked on at the end of a long week. This is the premise for director Shawn Levy’s film. The best part? It doesn’t matter at all.

The reason this film works is not the plot or script, but rather the talents of the two funniest people in showbiz today: Steve Carell and Tina Fey. The two seem to have an exceptional comedic connection that brings out a timing that reminds of the best comedy teams of all time.

Sometimes what makes for the funniest comedy is putting “normal” people into exceptional situations and let them react. Here, Carell and Fey are just a typical suburban couple trying to re-ignite the luster of an all too comfortable marriage. The motivation comes when their friends (Mark Ruffalo and Kristen Wiig) announce they are splitting. This starts Carell and Fey off on a series of skits that would make Seinfeld proud.

The nightmare begins when the couple “steals” a reservation in a hot new restaurant and assume the identity of, what turns out to be a couple of low level thieves. The multitude of skits that follow include supporting work from dirty cops (Common and Jimmi Simpson), the real reservation holders (funny James Franco and Mila Kunis), a mob boss (Ray Liotta), a corrupt city official (William Fichtner) and a “security expert” in the eternally shirtless Mark Wahlberg.

The approach of the film reminds me of After Hours, Adventures in Babysitting and The Out of Towners. Some of the best comedy occurs when the main players aren’t tossing out incessant one-liners. Think back to Cary Grant’s screwball comedies. He was not a bumbling idiot or a stand-up comedian walking through life. His characters were reactionary to the odd-ball situations in which he was placed. That is the approach of Carell and Fey, and I hope they pursue future projects together.


THE LOVELY BONES (2010)

January 23, 2010

 (1-23-10) Greetings again from the darkness. With the uproar from fans of Alice Sebold’s novel, I am actually glad I have not read it yet (though I will). I found director Peter Jackson’s take to be interesting, attention-grabbing and well filmed, though at times a bit sloppy in story structure.  The fact that the actual murder and rape are not shown did not affect my ability to connect.

Certainly not a who-dunnit, the viewer instead is exposed to the many forms of grief after a family tragedy. I found myself quite angry at Rachel Weisz (the mom) for deserting her kids, though I understand the clash with Mark Wahlberg’s (the dad) approach. Not only was I angry at her as a parent, but as a viewer, her running away meant more screen time for Susan Sarandon, which is rarely a good thing.

Saoirse Ronan (excellent in Atonement) plays Susie, the victim of neighbor Stanley Tucci’s crime. Tucci is my favorite kind of movie villain … non-descript and blends right in. I find that to be the creepiest possible monster – the one that lives amongst us. Some of Jackson’s camera work with Tucci is fascinating and frightening, especially around the dollhouse. We can’t wait to see this guy burn.

Again, I consider myself lucky in that I can appreciate the film for what it is rather than comparing to a great book. Oh, and don’t miss Peter Jackson as the customer playing with the video camera in the store when Wahlberg picks up the first roll of developed film.