SHOCK AND AWE (2018)

July 12, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The film begins with a Bill Moyers quote about the importance of a free and open press, has a line about ‘reporting stories for families who send their kids to war’, and is directed by liberal activist Rob Reiner … who labels the film as a true story. So it’s no surprise that the approach is to paint the folks at Knight Ridder News Service as the sole saints on an island of integrity … even as it is blessed with perfect vision in hindsight.

Written by Joey Hartstone, who also collaborated with Mr. Reiner on LBJ (2016), which also starred Woody Harrelson, the film continues the recent cinematic trend of placing the media on a pedestal of righteousness and beacon of truth as it serves the role as a check on political process and power. In this case, the ‘spotlight’ is on the Bush administration and the questionable decisions that led to the war in Iraq. The film begins with a 2006 Veterans’ Affairs Senatorial committee hearing where a wheelchair bound soldier ends his statement by asking the committee members a fair and legitimate question, “What the hell went wrong?”

We then flashback to September 11, 2001 and the aftermath of the bombings. Patriotism, pride, activism, volunteerism, and charitable contributions all increased, as did the Bush administration’s focus on going to war. Was it a war to get those responsible for the bombings or was there another agenda? Knight Ridder reporters Warren Strobel (James Marsden) and Jonathan Landay (Woody Harrelson) are dedicated to finding the truth, and are led down the path of discovery by D.C. Bureau Chief John Walcott (played by director Rob Reiner).

This is presented as a time more extreme than the mainstream media not often questioning the administration, but the film actually labels The New York Times as a shill or puppet of the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Powell/Rice regime.  Only these two courageous Knight Ridder reporters (Strobel, Landay) were questioning the administration’s efforts to turn the focus from Afghanistan and Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to Iraq and Saddam Hussein. My how times have changed since the most recent election. Though it could be argued that rather than questioning the current administration’s policies, it might better be described as written and verbal attacks.

The preaching here is relentless, especially by Reiner’s Walcott, who is posed as something of a truth guru. Missteps abound in the presentation, and the film is crushed under the weight of the obvious and necessary comparison to ALL THE PRESIDENTS MEN (an influential era noted by the characters). The banter between Strobel and Landry often seems forced like what we see in buddy flicks, and the needless and distracting romantic interlude plays like a meager attempt by director Reiner to humanize the message with a grinning Jessica Biel. The same could be said for Tommy Lee Jones’ curmudgeonly portrayal of respected military reporter Joe Galloway.

We really want to commend the filmmakers for bringing light to inexcusable government actions, but the manner in which it does this is so aggravating that kudos can’t be justified. The incessant patronizing wears thin quickly. The story deserves to be told without the sermonizing. Somehow we and the reporters are supposed to be stunned that political corruption, misleading statements from government officials and power struggles even exist. With this discovery, the reporters seem as ‘shocked’ as Captain Renault (Claude Rains) in CASABLANCA when he is told gambling is occurring (even as he pockets his winnings). With a stated emphasis on truth, we should never forget that politicians and the media are both selling something … and it’s still caveat emptor.

watch the trailer:

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ZOOLANDER 2 (2016)

February 12, 2016

zoolander2 Greetings again from the darkness. Here comes yet another write up where I am out of step with the majority of film critics. While most are heaping hatred on it for idiocy and self-obsession, my response is … isn’t that the point of a sequel to Zoolander, itself a tribute to idiocy and self-obsession? Maybe the difference stems from my not being a big fan of the 2001 original. Granted, the sub-plot of child labor from the original was (and remains) a real world issue, while this one is fuzzy-focused on a plot to kill the beautiful people in hopes of finding the fountain of youth … less real world tragedy and more like holding a mirror up to society’s insecurities.

The fashion industry was skewered in the original, but couldn’t wait to embrace this sequel. In the 15 years since that first Zoolander, a symbiotic relationship has formed between TV – Movies – Music – Fashion. The lines are blurred now that actors have become models and models are acting. TV shows are built around fashion and fashion shows boost music. And all of these elements are tied into the explosion of social media outlets. The greatest impact yet is probably the fact that most every person has a camera (phone) attached to them at all times and in every environment … we have a citizenry of selfie-taking models.

What can’t be denied is that the sequel is a smorgasbord of celebrity cameos (some might call it overkill). There are times the cameos pop up so fast that it’s challenging to keep up. Spotting the celebs, following the sight gags and catching the one-liners … that’s the tripod on which writer/director/star Ben Stiller has built his Zoolander second home. Though it’s not as quotable as the original, the production value is much improved. Never is this more evident than the slick looking opening chase scene that sets the stage for national narcissism being attacked for the next 90 minutes.

Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson return as male models Derek Zoolander and Hansel, though when we first see them, they have been in years-long hiding … Derek claiming to live as a “hermit crab”. The film begins by catching us up on why they are in hiding (it’s related to Derek’s Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good), and what’s up with others like Mugatu (Will Ferrell), Derek’s wife Matilda (Christine Taylor), and Billy Zane (Billy Zane). The gag is that Derek and Hansel are now “old and lame” … literally out of fashion in fashion.

As with most comedies, it’s best to avoid the trailer and any details or punchlines before walking into the theatre. You need only know that the old favorite characters are still here and an army of new ones (including Penelope Cruz and Kristen Wiig) arrive – some for a few scenes, others for only a few seconds. Satire is still the name of the game and the biggest fashion icons are front and center: Marc Jacobs, Tommy Hilfiger, Valentino, Anna Wintour and “both Wangs”. A big assist goes to Kiefer Sutherland who joins in the fun of poking fun at his own image. There’s even a jab at celebrity political endorsements with the line “She’s hot. I trust her.”

Justin Theroux is back as Stiller’s co-writer and also plays a role in the sub-plot involving Derek’s son, and the script proudly plays homage to the original (as it should) while still moving into contemporary themes (as it should). So “Relax” (nod to Frankie) and take in the fun. It’s the type of fun akin to riding a roller coaster … fun while it lasts, and over when it’s over. To paraphrase Derek, it’s a ‘really really ridiculously’ good time.

No trailer posted (it’s for your own good!)

 

 


CYMBELINE (2015)

March 9, 2015

cymbeline Greetings again from the darkness. The writings of Shakespeare are certainly timeless and it’s often quite fun to watch filmmakers or stage directors bring The Bard’s stories into a contemporary setting. A fine example is director Joss Whedon’s modern and quite enjoyable twist on Much Ado About Nothing a couple of years ago. Director Michael Almereyda had success with his modern day Hamlet in 2000, and here he re-teams with his Danish Prince from that one (Ethan Hawke) to bring one of Shakespeare’s lesser known “problem plays” to screen.

This modernization turns King Cymbeline into a Biker gang leader (Ed Harris) as he battles not the Romans, but rather a corrupt police force led by Vondre Curtis-Hall. As one would expect there is no shortage of deceit, violence and love of the “wrong” person. There are numerous sub-plots intertwined with the desire of the King and his Queen (Milla Jovovich) to marry her daughter (Dakota Johnson, 50 Shades of Gray) to his son (Anton Yelchin). Before your stomach turns, it should be pointed out that both kids are from previous marriages. It’s not surprising to discover that the daughter is really in love with someone of whom the Royal parents don’t approve – a brooding skateboarder (Penn Badgley).

The assembled cast is quite impressive. In addition to those previously mentioned, we also have Peter Gerety, Bill Pullman, Delroy Lindo (always great), John Leguizamo, Spencer Treat Clark (the kid from Gladiator) and Kevin Corrigan. The issue here is not the acting talent, but rather that some seem more comfortable with Shakespeare speak than others. Hawke, Yelchin and even Ms. Johnson seem to embrace the dialogue, while Leguizamo, Harris (in his shiny new leather jacket) and especially Badgley are fish out of water. And for some reason, Ms. Jovovich is mostly wasted despite adding much appreciated spirit to a couple of scenes.

Describing this as Shakespeare’s “lost masterpiece” is quite a stretch, but there is always some pleasure in hearing his words spoken. It’s just a shame when the project lacks energy and is lethargic in pacing … two elements that prevent us from ever connecting with any character. Still, any film that features a sky blue AMC Pacer can’t be all bad.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE THREE MUSKATEERS (2011)

October 25, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. The trailer told me all I need to know, but my life-long interest in all things related to the Alexandre Dumas novel had me ignoring my movie gut instincts and heading out to catch this latest version of the Muskateer saga. Since then, I have been telling myself “I told you so“.

Logan Lerman (Percy Jackson & the Olympians) plays the young, brash D’Artagnian, son of a former Muskateer. Lerman may develop into a fine actor someday, but right now he is as bland on screen as Orlando Bloom, who happens to play rival Duke of Buckingham. Athos, Aramis and Porthos are played, respectively, by Matthew Macfadyen (Pride & Prejudice), Luke Evans (Tamara Drewe) and Ray Stevenson (Volstagg in Thor). No need for me to go into character detail as none make any real impression thanks to a lackluster script.

 The boys are a bit out of sorts after being tricked by double-agent Milady, played by Milla Jovovich, who apparently is really working for the conniving Cardinal played by Christoph Waltz. Mads Mikkelsen plays Rochefort, the evil army leader and master swordsman, but somehow even with Waltz and Mikkelsen, this film is just lacking in bad guy substance.  How does that possibly happen?

Director Paul W.S. Anderson is known best for his Resident Evil film series and his love of special effects is on full display here. There were scenes that reminded me of Will Smith’s Wild Wild West, and others that looked like Robert Downey, Jr’s Sherlock Holmes. If you love the Dumas novel, you just cringed after reading that sentence. The key to the Muskateers is swashbuckling and sharp, sarcastic wit surrounding wild and athletic sword play, all performed for an honorable mission.  There is just not much wit to enjoy and that’s compounded by a dearth of swords clinking.

 In addition to a more colorful script, some suggestions for improvement include casting Charlie Sheen (he is a Muskateer alum) as the Duke of Buckingham, easing up on the buffoonery associated with King Louis XIII, and more evil-doing from Waltz and Mikkelson.  It’s not the first movie in which I have disappointed, and it certainly won’t be the last. It’s just frustrating because … I told me so!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the Muskateers and, like me, have a genetic need to see every film version of the Dumas story.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: the idea of a lead actor matching the Bloom blandness is just more than you can possibly take.

watch the trailer:

 


STONE (2010)

October 24, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Psychological thrillers have long been my favorite genre of film. The best ones cause us to examine our own thoughts while analyzing the actions of others we probably don’t quite understand. Unfortunately, most scripts fall short in complexity and stimulation, and leave us with a half-empty character study. Director John Curran (The Painted Veil) and writer Angus MacLachlan (the superb Junebug) offer up a just-miss.

Robert DeNiro plays a parole officer on the brink of retirement. He is the guy that lives and works by the book to suppress his inner demons of which we get a glimpse in the film’s opening. Despite the horror, he and his wife stay married for decades … the relationship is built on a false worship of scripture and plenty of nerve-deadening booze. DeNiro decides to finish out his current files, one of which belongs to Edward Norton. He is an 8 year convict, serving a sentence for a crime that ended with the death of his grandparents.

The real fun begins when Norton enlists his schoolteacher wife, played by Milla Jovovich, to invade DeNiro’s cold facade. So really what we have is: DeNiro trying not to feel anything, Norton trying to pull one over on DeNiro either by himself or with his wife, and Jovovich trying desperately to obey her husband while playing evil mind and body games with DeNiro. This is the point I like to call “the table is set”.

Unfortunately, none of these story lines really go deep. The best seems to be Jovovich and DeNiro, but even that falls short of real grit. So much potential here and the actors all seem up for anything. It’s just the script lets them off way too easily.

Frances Conroy is excellent as DeNiro’s wife who had had her soul locked away. We never really get the full scoop on the Norton/Jovovich connection, but by the end, that doesn’t seem to matter. Is the film watchable? Yes. Could it have offered more deliciously evil interaction between these characters? Absolutely.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you have been patiently waiting for Edward Norton to put his hair in corn rows OR swigging whiskey while reading biblical scripture is a family tradition you could embrace

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you get frustrated when a promising premise of intellectual battles fizzles right in front of your eyes OR if the mere thought of a Robert DeNiro / Milla Jovovich hook up causes you to reach for the Pepto Bismol.