CHIPS (2017)

March 23, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. In a Hollywood self-congratulatory world that considers sequels, reboots and remakes as creative projects; and imitation as the most sincere form of flattery … not to mention the safest hedged bet … it’s not in the least surprising that we now have a film version of “CHiPs”, a lightweight and popular TV show that ran from 1977 through 1983. What should be surprising is that a studio entrusted Dax Shepard with the ultimate slash role of Director/Writer/Producer/Actor for this contemporary version.

Of course, as with film versions of “21 Jump Street” and “Starsky and Hutch”, the target audience isn’t really those who watched the original TV series, but rather the group of big-spending millennials who seem to thrive on raunchy humor, while placing minimal value on a coherent or interesting story. Buddy cop films that blend tense drama, wise-cracking partners and eye-widening action have long been popular, with the jewel of the genre being Lethal Weapon. This latest entry does nothing to threaten the now 30 year reign of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover.

Dax Shepard stars in his own film as Jon Baker, now reinvented as a former X-games motorcycle champ who is attempting to save his long-fizzled marriage by becoming a cop. The rookie’s partner is undercover FBI Agent Frank “Ponch” Poncherello played by Michael Pena. Each has their own personal issues: Jon is addicted to prescription painkillers, and Ponch struggles to control certain urges … and unfortunately for viewers, the two spend an inordinate amount of time discussing these issues.

The crime wave they are attempting to bust involves a corrupt cop. Seeing that Vincent D’Onofrio is in the cast immediately takes away any mystery about the bad guy’s identity, but were there any doubt, the film exposes him in the first action sequence. After that comes the onslaught of verbal sparring, explosions, gunplay and one especially gory moment.

With Dax Shepard at the helm, we understand going in that the raunchy humor faucet will be fully open. Topics covered in one-liners, gags and recurring themes include: homophobia, sexting, masturbating, bowel movements, marriage therapy, d**k jokes, prescription drugs, paparazzi, and yoga pants. But seriously, how many “eating a**” jokes does one movie need? It’s a topic that goes from uncomfortable to unnecessary pretty quickly.

Cars and bikes are vital here, though it seems that the motorcycle stunts could have been jazzed up a bit, and we certainly expected more cameos than the mandatory one near the end. The original series thrived on being ‘tongue in cheek’, and Mr. Shepard’s version brings new meaning to the phrase. The opening credits state “The California Highway Patrol does not endorse this film. At all.” It’s an understandable stance.

watch the trailer:

 

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THE MARTIAN (2015)

October 4, 2015

martian Greetings again from the darkness. With this week’s NASA announcement of the discovery of water on Mars, it seems necessary to point out that director Ridley Scott’s latest was not actually filmed on the red planet, but rather in the Jordan desert. OK, maybe not necessary, but it does serve as a reminder that the film (based on the popular book from Andy Weir) may be filled with science … but it’s also fiction – hence the label Science-Fiction.  If you were one of THOSE who actually paid attention in science classes and read the optional material, then you will probably find much fault in the details. For the rest of us, it’s a pretty fun ride.

Space has long been a popular movie topic, and a key to such favorites as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, Aliens, The Right Stuff, Contact, Space Cowboys, Armageddon, Moon, and most recently Gravity and Interstellar. And of course there are the immensely popular franchises of “Star Wars” and “Star Trek”, which both chose a different path than the “grounded” nature of the others. This latest film may actually have as much in common with Cast Away as it does with any of the space-based films, and while many movies these days seem to be advertisements for Apple, this one is owed a debt by the duct tape company.

Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) and her crew (Matt Damon, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Askal Hennie) are hard at work on their Mars mission when a severe storm causes them to evacuate in panic mode. When the storm hits, Damon’s astronaut Mark Watney is lost and presumed dead. Once it’s realized that Watney survived and has every intention of being rescued, the film kicks into gear.

There are three separate stories we follow: the ingenious and spirited survival mode of Watney, the politics and brilliance of the NASA organization, and the crew who now believes Watney’s rescue is their responsibility. The NASA group is led by director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and includes support work from Chiwetel Ejiofar, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, MacKenzie Davis, Donald Glover and Benedict Wong.

Taking the approach of an adventure film with the MacGuyver of all Botanists, Damon’s charm and humor stand in stark contrast to the annoyances of the two leads from Gravity, and provide a mass appeal that should make this entertaining for most any viewer. This approach allows us to imagine ourselves stranded on Mars, and whether we would panic or consider ourselves Space Pirates. There is also a lesson here for all students out there … pay attention in Science class! For the rest of us … “get your a** to Mars”!

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FURY (2014)

October 18, 2014

fury Greetings again from the darkness. When a filmmaker takes on WWII, he better have something new to say or a new way to show it. Director David Ayer (highly recommend his End of Watch, 2012) literally takes us inside a Sherman tank with its crew of 5 men, including their leader played by Brad Pitt.

Having the tank as a centerpiece brings a level of claustrophobia to the treacherous German war front. The battle scenes are excruciatingly tense, and actually beautifully filmed. This may seem an odd description for a war movie, but bouncing from inside the tank to the German countryside is done with such style that it provides contrast to the brutality and violence of war.

Pitt’s crew is made up of Shia LaBeouf, Michael Pena and Jon Bernthal (especially good). They are forced to take on a rookie with no tank training … but he can type 60 words per minute. Logan Lerman plays the rookie and he brings the natural sensitivity we’ve come to expect from his roles in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Noah. We buy off on the difficult transition since the others have fought campaigns together in Africa, Belgium and France. Jason Isaacs is also well cast as an Allied forces captain.

What works here are the battle sequences. What doesn’t really work are the numerous moments of personal drama injected to help us understand how war can change a man … no matter how hard he tries to hold on to his humanity. The sequence with the two German women, a piano and fried eggs seems especially drawn out and unbelievable. We understand the point pretty quickly, but the extended sequence becomes downright awkward.

The most interesting question the movie asks is whether a soldier can be so disgusted and sick of war, yet somehow addicted to the action. Mr. Ayers previously wrote U-571 (2000), so he is clearly interested in the mentality of soldiers in a claustrophobic setting. More of this approach would have been welcome here.

***NOTE: The film uses actual WWII tanks, and it’s the first time a Tiger I tank has been used in film.

***NOTE: Just a personal note here, but every time Brad Pitt said anything, I flashed back to his role in Inglourious Basterds. A change of inflection would have helped.

watch the trailer:

 


UNDERWATER DREAMS (2014, doc.)

July 18, 2014

underwater dreams Greetings again from the darkness. Documentarian Mary Mazzio presents an inspirational and terrific human interest story … in the first half of the film. The second half veers off into a one-sided socio-political editorial that, as frustrating as it is, doesn’t dim the light from the magical first half.

Narrated by Michael Pena, we learn the story of 2 teachers and 4 students from Carl Hayden Community High School located just outside of Phoenix. The students are sons of undocumented immigrants (illegal aliens) attending a school with 92% of families living below the poverty line (90% Hispanic). The area is riddled with gangs, drugs and depression, making the journey and accomplishments of these four all the more impressive.

The group enters a high level Underwater Robotics competition sponsored by NASA and Naval Research … in the collegiate division. If this were a Hollywood script, it would be outlandish and unbelievable. Instead, it’s true and fascinating. Two amazing teachers (Fredi and Allan) lead the four boys: Lorenzo (the funny one, driven by a Hooters dream), Oscar (a natural leader in any group), Luis (the quiet dependable one, the muscle of the group), and Cristian (the brainiac computer geek who is a loner). With a total budget of $800, the group proceeds to work together to design, build and test their entry (affectionately known as “Stinky”).

When they arrive in California, they realize they are competing against colleges … in particular, the team from MIT (with Exxon sponsorship). Simply competing should have been victory enough, but we see actual footage of the awards ceremony which nets the team much more than a participation ribbon. Their spirit and drive was no longer just inspirational, but now they had results to go with it.

The talking head approach works here because we get to know the four boys and the teachers. We also get plenty of face time with the MIT team and some judges. The insight from all of these people helps put this in perspective. Quite enlightening is the 10 year reunion between the MIT team and the boys who beat them a decade earlier. The life paths of these 8 display a clear distinction between the economic haves and have-nots. This is where the film’s focus should have remained post-competition.

Unfortunately, we are taken on a trip of activism and the movement for undocumented students known as the Dream Act. Too much time is spent on the politics and protests, and not enough on the positive aspects of the legacy these boys and the teachers left for the high school, and a generation of students that followed. We are told that of the 2 million undocumented students in the U.S., 49% will drop out of high school. This leaves the impression that all 2 million are similar to these four, never once providing a mention of those who choose gangs or drugs. Focusing on one segment of this, is an injustice to the issue as a whole.

The best message here is that determination and drive and teamwork can accomplish a great deal, and that it would be wonderful if every student could explore their own talents and interests. It does make one wonder if this economically disadvantaged group can accomplish this, what limitations is the impact of the rigid structure within public education imposing on other students. If a group of ESL students in the middle of the desert can build an underwater robotics that competes against the work of the brightest engineering students at MIT … all students should know the possibilities are endless.

watch the trailer:

 

 


AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013)

December 21, 2013

american1 Greetings again from the darkness. Over the years, there have been some very entertaining con artist films, and they range from outright comedy (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) to cheeky (The Sting) to dramatic (The Grifters). My personal favorite is David Mamet’s House of Games, a very quiet and subtle look at the con. The stylistic opposite of Mamet’s gem is the latest from director David O Russell. It’s like comparing Duke Ellington to Donna Summer – both of which are featured on this soundtrack.

For the past few months, I have said that this film’s trailer is one of the best I have ever seen. The energy and visuals were enthralling and have had me anxiously awaiting a chance to see the film. So please understand when I say that american2the movie does not quite match the expectations, it’s not really a criticism … more of a tip of the cap to the marketing efforts. This is one showy, flamboyant, often frenetic wild ride that is also a bit messy and sometimes even clunky.

Hair, clothes, cars, music … the best and worst of the 1970’s … are on full display. Christian Bale sets a new standard for worst (and most elaborate and labor-intensive) comb-over in film history. Bradley Cooper’s perm wins the contest for tightest curls over Emma Thompson in Saving Mr Banks. Jeremy Renner’s pompadour would make any rockabilly performer envious. And let’s not forget the women. Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence provide a steady stream of flowing and floppy locks that would keep any shampoo or blow dryer american3company in business. The soundtrack, usually coordinated to story events, also includes Steely Dan, Jeff Lynne, Elton John and many others.

Director Russell’s most recent films include The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. He is obviously infatuated with odd characters who are slightly off center from society. What better topic than con artists so desperate to be liked that they spend all effort trying to rip off the gullible types? Now mix that trait with the overly ambitious persona of Bradley Cooper’s FBI Agent and the US Attorney played by Alessandro Nivola, and you have a collision of worlds that results in a fictionalized account of the ABSCAM events of the late 70’s and early 80’s. I say fictionalized because the film starts with a banner that states “Some of this actually happened”. What did or what didn’t really doesn’t matter here.

Who is playing whom? What is real and what is part of the con? Those are the questions that we as viewers ask, and oddly enough, these are the same questions the key characters ask. If they can’t tell, we certainly have little chance.

american4 This one is all about the characters. Mr. Bale (40 lbs heavier) bears no resemblance to Batman, or even Bruce Wayne. He embodies the falsely confident con man. Cooper is a bit over-hyped in his role, while Adams is at her best in a role that is the film’s most diverse. The real explosion comes every time Jennifer Lawrence is on screen. Not only do things blow up in her kitchen, but she jolts the film in each of her scenes. Some may be tired of Ms. Lawrence’s recent success, but as a film lover, I put her screen presence very near that of Marilyn Monroe. She grabs our attention and squeezes like a vise. That’s talent that very few possess.

Supporting work that should be noted includes Louis CK as Cooper’s reluctant supervisor, Michael Pena as a fake sheik (can they do that?), Jack Huston and Shea Whigham (both from “Boardwalk Empire“), and the great and rarely seen Anthony Zerbe (one of the all time TV villains). There is also a high profile cameo that seems right in line with Russell’s adoration of Scorcese’s Goodfellas.

If you are looking for a film to analyze and dissect, you will be most disappointed in this one. If you are looking for a fun, wildly visual and very entertaining retro film, this one should fit the bill. Just keep your hand on your wallet and don’t be one of the suckers.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you are up for a wildly entertaining movie OR you want to see some of the craziest hairstyles packed into a single movie

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: scary hairstyles, bizarre characters and exemplary acting aren’t enough to distract you from an inconsistent script

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ST7a1aK_lG0


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

 


END OF WATCH (2012)

September 24, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Hands down, this is the best cop movie in quite awhile. Not only that, it’s about street cops, not flashy detectives wearing $600 suits. This is no good cop/bad cop dance. These aren’t rebellious, power hungry cops run amok flashing their badges. Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Zavala (Michael Pena) are simply dedicated cops who are committed to serving the mission and surviving another day.

This film works for two reasons: the performances of Gyllenhaal and Pena, and the amazing writing and directing from David Ayer. Mr. Ayer is best known as the writer of Training Day, but also wrote Dark Blue and S.W.A.T, and directed Street Kings. He grew up in south central Los Angeles, and clearly has a talent for bringing real lifecop action to the big screen.

 Taylor and Pena are long time partners who have familiarity and banter down to a science. These are guys who become brothers based on spending every day together and trusting the other with their lives. These two scoff at the department mandate to write more traffic tickets, and instead find themselves smack dab in the middle of a Mexican drug cartel. That’s not a good place for two street cops and they soon wind up on the wrong list of some really bad people.

We see shootouts, car chases, chases on foot, rescues, traffic stops, house searches and just about anything else that these heroes are subjected to on a daily basis … just trying to maintain some sense of civility on their beat. No matter how frustrated you get with your job, put yourself in their “comfortable footwear” and imagine rolling up on “Big Evil”, who wants nothing more than to make you suffer.

 There is a really interesting thing going on with video cameras. Taylor is filming his daily activities for a class he is taking, while this group of bad guys is also seen filming their nightly crimes against humanity. Also, the supporting cast doesn’t play a huge role, but David Harbour, Frank Grillo, America Ferrera, Natalie Martinez and Anna Kendrick are all solid. The exception is Cody Horn who is way out of her element, and quite a distraction.

Pena and Gyllenhaal are a joy to watch and strike the necessary bond required for this movie to work. We never once doubt that these guys are brothers and fully trust worthy. Good guys doing a tough job in a bad part of the world. This is a gritty, realistic film that, at times, has a documentary look and feel to it. More of this, please.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you don’t want to miss the best cop movie in years

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your idea of a Buddy Flick is The Other Guys

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mf2K9GzgiF0