BRIAN BANKS (2019)

August 8, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. With the momentum of the #MeToo movement, and the attention being paid to harassment and discrimination in all walks of life, there really is no better time for a film that tells the story of Brian Banks. We are counseled to believe women as they recount their heart-breaking and life-altering stories, and it’s Mr. Banks’ story that reminds us what should matter in all situations … truth and justice.

Brian was a 16 year old football star at Polytechnic High School in Long Beach, California when Wanetta Gibson (renamed Kennisha Rice in the movie) accused him of rape on school grounds. Banks was expelled from school, lost his athletic scholarship to USC, and poor legal advice led him to a plea bargain that resulted in his serving a 5 year prison sentence and another 5 years on restrictive probation. From day one, Brian Banks never wavered in the proclamation of his innocence.

In his situation, the only way for Brian to get some semblance of his life back was exoneration by the judge; and the only way that could happen would be new evidence or a recant of testimony by the accuser. Justin Brooks (played here by Greg Kinnear), the founder of the California Innocence Project, was touched by Brian’s story, but just couldn’t find a way to help. Surely the film offers some dramatization of actual events, but Brian Banks and his story are fascinating on many levels … and it makes for a though-provoking and inspirational 99 minutes.

Banks was a convicted man whose own conviction of his innocence is proof of just how strong the human spirit can be. Director Tom Shadyac (PATCH ADAMS 1998, ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE 1994) had his own life-altering event, and it’s partly why this is his first narrative feature in more than a decade. It’s likely the “second chance at life” hit home, and the script from Doug Atchison (AKEELA AND THE BEE, 2006) manages to hit the high and low points experienced by Banks and his single mom (played by Sherri Shepherd), who never lost faith.

Aldis Hodge (“City on a Hill”) is outstanding as Brian Banks. He perfectly conveys the multitude of feelings of a man so confounded by a life gone wrong – yet so dedicated to staying on the right path despite all obstacles. In addition to the aforementioned Greg Kinnear and Sherri Shepherd, Melanie Liburd shines as Karina – Brian’s new romantic interest (who shares her own story of past sexual abuse), and Xosha Roquemore performs admirably and memorably in the thankless role of Kennisha Rice. It should also be noted that Morgan Freeman has a cameo as a prison counselor who makes an impact on Brian.

The film begins with Brian explaining that he never really knew what “freedom” meant until it was taken from him, and then he re-gained it. That’s a powerful statement, and it nicely corresponds to another lesson the film provides: “All you can control in life is how you respond to life.” The film may be a bit glossy at times, but its message and its central character are inspirational … and a source for further important discussions.

watch the trailer:


LAST KNIGHTS (2015)

March 31, 2015

last knights Greetings again from the darkness. Medieval action films seem to be hit and miss. The best have complex sub-plots and power struggles punctuated with large scale sword-fight sequences, while the lesser films typically offer little more than clanking sound effects and faux castle settings. (Of course this is discounting the classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail)  Falling somewhere in-between is this latest from director Kazuaki Kiriya (Goeman, 2009). For whatever reason, the massive sets and timely costumes don’t make up for the slow pace and scarce action sequences.

The cast is very strong and includes Clive Owen, Cliff Curtis, Morgan Freeman, Axsel Hennie, Shohreh Aghdashlo, Peyman Moaddi, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Sung-Kee Ahn, Noah Silver and Ayelet Zurer. Mr. Freeman narrates a slightly confusing opening that sets the stage for a multi-racial time period that is generically referred to after the “great wars”. We soon enough learn that Freeman’s Lord Bartok is one of the good guys under the Emperor’s (Moaadi) reign of extortion being carried out by the weasely Minister Gezza Mott (Hennie). Refusing to kowtow to Gezza’s game, Bartok is disgraced and, umm … relieved of his duties – in a manner befitting the period. Bartok’s loyal Commander Raiden (Owen) and the other followers are cast out of their homes.

Watching Owen fall into a drunken slumber oblivious to society goes against all instincts we have for the noble warrior who is so dedicated to “The Code”, but it is the most fun offered by the film outside of the two main fight sequences. Mr. Owen and his constantly furrowed brow seem a bit too high class for this film, only because everything else should be stamped with the “Acme” logo made so popular by Wile E Coyote. Despite the best efforts of the cast, the story lacks real emotion and the spectacularly elaborate plan for revenge is not given the attention it deserves … although I so was hoping someone would scream “Have fun storming the castle, boys!”

The opening fight scene is well staged and leaves us wanting more, but the wait is well over an hour … screen time filled with bleak, gray scenes of not much happening. Gezza Mott’s lead henchman (Ihara) does get a very spirited duel with Raiden, but the final showdown between Raiden and Mott is a significant letdown and a minor payoff for remaining hopeful through two hours.

Reclaiming the honor of one’s mentor may be a worthy cause, but the guts of the story are skimmed over and the quick cut explanations remind of the strategy used in Ocean’s Eleven since the filmmakers believe movie watchers could never keep up with the actual details of strategy. So follow the code if you must, just know that a generic story and setting cannot be salvaged by stellar swordplay from Clive Owen.

watch the trailer:

 

 


LUCY (2014)

July 28, 2014
lucy Greetings again from the darkness. Writer/Director Luc Besson has a track record of mixing stylistic visuals with more traditional action: La Femme Nikita, Leon: The Professional, The Fifth Element. This time he tries to mix those components with fantasy, sci-fi and neuroscience. His hope was that Scarlett Johannson in a snug t-shirt and Morgan Freeman as an on screen narrator (guiding us through the maze of info) would sufficiently distract viewers from the international drug-muling mess.  Scarlett’s new found expertise as action hero (thanks to The Avengers) has her cast here in a role that previously would have gone to Anjelina Jolie.
We have all fantasized about expanded brain power, and many films have touched on this: Transcendence (Johnny Depp), The Matrix franchise, and Limitless (Bradley Cooper) to name a few. Omnipotence may not be everyone’s goal, but it sure seems to be difficult to pull off in in movies. This time around, there is a Korean drug syndicate led by Choi Min-sik (Oldboy) who has synthesized a drug that takes the human brain to a new level. To buy into this, you have to accept the premise that humans only use 10% of their brain … a claim long ago disproved.  Still, it’s a movie, so let’s roll with it.
There are some nice moments in the film, but the pieces just don’t fit smoothly together. Circumstances are such that Scarlett finds herself experiencing the effects of the drug – first by dancing on the ceiling ala Lionel Ritchie or Linda Blair (your choice), and then with the most awkward phone call to mom in film history. Soon enough her telekinetic powers are so advanced, she mows down the heavily armed bad guys with a flick of the finger. If that makes no sense to you, you’ll have to follow along with Professor Morgan Freeman’s charts and graphs. His lecture spells out each of the steps that Scarlett will go through and the interconnected scene cuts makes sure all movie goers can keep up … even those who don’t use 10% of their brain.
My biggest complaint is that if a movie about extraordinary intelligence is to be made, then the movie itself should at least be  smart … or witty. What the movie tells us is that expanded brain access allows us to medically diagnose our friends through a hug,  instantly change hair color while strolling through the airport, and create invisible force fields to trap our enemies. We also learn that really smart people drive the wrong way on one-way streets. In Dallas, we typically refer to those people as idiots … or at least horrible drivers. Evidently the joke is on us – those are the enlightened ones!
This movie should have been a lot more fun than it was. A tip of the cap to Mr. Besson for casting Choi Min-sik and Amr Waked (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), and for the global trek from Taipei to Berlin to Paris to NYC … and finally two things rarely seen in the same movie … a dinosaur and a flash drive. It was kinda nice to see the script attempt to make the point that smart people use their minds, while lesser beings resort to violence … though it could have been interesting to see good vs bad while ON this fancy new drug. Although Scarlett’s character remembers the taste of her mother’s milk, I expect the memory of this film will fade quickly.
SEE THIS MOVIE IF: a couple of impressive Scarlett action sequences and some Besson visuals are enough to carry you for 90 minutes
SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have difficulty buying Scarlett’s vacuous facial expression as an indication of extraordinary brain power
watch the trailer:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MVt32qoyhi0


LAST VEGAS (2013)

November 9, 2013

last vegas1 Greetings again from the darkness. I’ve been writing about “Gray Cinema” for the past few years and the understandable desire of Hollywood to capitalize on the aging population. Take that trend and mix it with new-age buddy pictures like The Hangover and Bridesmaids, and you can at least imagine what director Jon Turteltaub (the National Treasure movies) and writer Dan Fogelman (the very entertaining Crazy Stupid Love) were attempting to create.

The film’s poster recalls the glory days of the Rat Pack, so taking this foursome of sixty-something year old childhood buddies to Las Vegas presents many possibilities. There is no shortage of enthusiasm from the four leads: Michael Douglas as Billy, the smooth-talking lifelong bachelor who proposed to his thirty-ish girlfriend at a funeral; Morgan Freeman as Archie, suffocating in a cocoon of family over-protection; Robert Deniro as Paddy, the isolated widow wallowing in grief for the past year; and Kevin Kline as Sam, the stir-crazy Florida stereotype bored with 4:00 dinner parties and his marriage.

last vegas2 These top notch actors give it all they have, but there is just no rescuing such fluff and lack of substance. The script is frustrating throughout and just gives no credit to an audience that might appreciate even a gag or story line that wasn’t obvious from the opening credits. Mary Steenburgen‘s character provides a brief respite, but the developments are so absurd that neither her character or the story line can be taken seriously.

Toss in a bar fight, bikini contest, mandatory viagra jokes, a world class Casino penthouse, an inconceivable party that would be shut down by fire code, and a wasted cameo from 50 Cent … and you get a lame, flat, mostly unfunny story that barely skims the surface of an endless stream of possibly interesting topics.  It’s certainly not at the level of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel … or even Space Cowboys.

I’ll end by stating that I am a huge fan of Gray Cinema, but my request is that some effort go into the script and production so that viewers are provided with an entertaining and intelligent and respectful experience. There is no need to dwell on the bits of culture that have passed them by or the physical ailments that plague their activities. Luckily, the stellar cast prevents this one from flopping to the level that the script deserves.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can appreciate the novelty of a cast of leading men all in their sixties and seventies OR you get a kick out of knowing the punchline of every joke before it actually happens

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you expect a certain level of “smarts” in movies … even comedies.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IMnr-R7BkkU

 


NOW YOU SEE ME (2013)

June 4, 2013

now you see1 Greetings again from the darkness. Come on … who wouldn’t get excited about a movie that mixes magic with the heist genre, and fills the cast with stars old and new? Director Louis Leterrier (The Transporter) is clearly engaged with the material, and maybe his vision of “just one more twist” is what keeps it from reaching the next level.

Magic is inherently a very difficult subject for movies. Why? Because with magic, human nature is such that we are always trying to “catch” the sleight of hand. With movies, we have come to accept the fact that any special effect is possible. We rarely ask “how”. That kind of takes away the mystique, eh? Maybe the best magic movie to date is The Prestige, but even that movie was made stronger by the story of its characters … something this latest lacks.

now you see2 Heist movies, on the other hand, have historically produced some of the most fun and thrilling times on screen. Ocean’s Eleven and The Italian Job are just two examples of clever, almost light-hearted heist films that are also thrillers.  Everyone loves a clever caper … so long as we aren’t on the wrong end. What doesn’t work in either genre, and especially when they are blended, is a story that defies logic. We don’t mind being tricked. In fact, it’s kind of fun getting to the end and realizing you are part of the “gotcha”. What we don’t like is being cheated.

This premise is terrific. An unknown benefactor secretly assembles The Four Horsemen – a hand-picked (by a hoodie dude) group consisting of Jessie Eisenberg, the smug super-illusionist; Woody Harrelson, the wise-cracking mentalist; tart escape artist now you see4(think Houdini with piranha) Isla Fisher; and street-hustler pickpocket (Artful Dodger type) Dave Franco. The group is bank rolled by industrial tycoon Michael Caine, and is soon enough headlining a giant Las Vegas extravaganza. Their first trick is to rob a French bank vault by transporting an audience member, video streaming the job, and showering the audience with the stolen cash. They do this under the watchful eye of magic naysayer Morgan Freeman, a huckster who earns a buck exposing the tricks of magicians.

Soon enough, an FBI agent (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol agent (Melanie Laurent, so stunning as the theatre owner in Inglourious Basterds) are working together trying to stop the next job, which Morgan Freeman has warned them is really a set-now you see3up for a huge finale. The movie has some really fun moments, but with all of Morgan Freeman’s warnings that we (and Ruffalo) are always a step behind, we can’t help but think ahead … and there is only one super twist that makes all of this click.

In fact, I would argue that there are too many twists here. The basic story was enough and the movie would have benefited from us getting to better know the main characters. Instead, they are merely chess pieces who spout one-liners in order. In particular, the characters of Woody Harrelson and Melanie Laurent could have gone much deeper. But that clashes with what the filmmakers were after … big, fast, wild, glitzy, cute, clever, and twisty. Just don’t be tricked into thinking. Turn off your brain and take in the wild, twisty ride … even if it does defy logic, and remember … “it’s all part of the show”.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can sit back and enjoy a wild cinematic ride without thinking too much OR you’ve always wanted to see Common play air-violin

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy solving the movie mysteries before the solutions are revealed OR in these tough economic times, you are looking for real bank heist tips (sorry to disappoint)

watch the trailer:

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


OBLIVION (2013)

April 27, 2013

oblivion1 Greetings again from the darkness. Here we have Exhibit Number One in proving the theory that no quantity or quality of movie special effects can overcome the lack a good story. Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy) directs his own graphic novel, and the result is a beautiful and impressive looking film that lacks substance and fails to develop any characters for us to care about.

This almost plays as a sci-fi tribute with tips of the cap to at least the following: The Matrix, Moon, Total Recall, Inception, Planet of the Apes, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 2001: A Space Odyssey … and even Top Gun! Unfortunately, it falls short of all of those except for the stunning visual effects of the patrol drones (George Lucas oblivion2would be proud) and the beautiful photography of Claudio Miranda (Life of Pi).

The most obvious comparison is with Wall-E. This time, Tom Cruise plays the “mop-up crew” along with his assigned spouse played by Andrea Riseborough (very good as Wallis Simpson in W.E., and recently seen in Disconnect). We learn from the initial voice-over (by Cruise, not Morgan Freeman) that Earth was left in ruins after a long battle with aliens. Now the last bit of Earth’s resources are being harvested before it is deserted forever.

oblivion3 The cast is pretty deep with an extremely upbeat Melissa Leo showing up in the “Hal” role on a low-res video screen, Morgan Freeman and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as leaders of the underground surviving humans, Olga Kurylenko (a Bond girl in Quantum of Solace, and currently in To The Wonder), and even stunt-woman extraordinare Zoe Bell making an appearance.

All the wonderful toys are present, the look and feel are really something to see, the Jetsons-style home is kinda cool, and we get the ever-present Cruise sprint … this time in a space suit! Despite all the goodies, this one just seems to fall flat in the ability to draw us in. If you are a sci-fi visual type, you’ll get a kick out of it. Otherwise, look elsewhere for an effective team and another day in paradise.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a huge sci-fi fan and enjoy new effects (see the patrol drones)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you need a good story, no matter how advanced the effects

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vGpjlfCfe2Y

 


OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN (2013)

March 25, 2013

olympus Greetings again from the darkness. Gerard Butler doesn’t always make wise decisions when picking his projects. In the right role, men admire him for being cool and tough, while women are enchanted with his charm. The role of Secret Service Agent Mike Banning is just about perfect for Butler. He not only gets to be an action hero, but he also has a solid relationship (with Radha Mitchell) and is a role model for the President’s young son. Butler is so nearly perfect here, he should be cast in the next Old Spice commercial.

The movie starts out with the backstory on how Agent Mike Banning (Butler) fell out of grace with the President and was reassigned to a desk job at Treasury. Pushing paper is like Siberia for a man of Banning’s make-up. A terrorist invasion on the White House tosses Banning right smack in the middle of a violent and explosive act designed to leave the entire United States decimated. Circumstances being what they are, Banning is the only hope.

olympus2 Movies like this must have a quality bad guy. We get icy Rick Yune as Yang, a North Korean criminal mastermind. You might think this is extremely timely given the real world in North Korea, but Yune is certainly no Governmental official. The attack is very well planned and leaves Yune locked in the White House security bunker with the President, Vice President and Secretary of Defense (a spunky Melissa Leo). At the Pentagon, this leaves the Secretary of State (Morgan Freeman) and a bombastic General (Robert Forster) jockeying for control. Angela Bassett is there to referee. As movie goers we are accustomed to seeing Morgan Freeman as God, as the President, and as the brains behind Batman.  Secretary of State seems a step backwards career-wise, so it’s a relief when he assumes Presidential control.  While this group of officials sits around looking anxious and worried, Agent Banning is a one man wrecking crew against the terrorists.

olympus3 The images of the White House being attacked will prove quite disturbing to any US citizen and the sequence comes off as something that could possibly occur. Let’s hope director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) performed sufficient research to know this attack couldn’t actually happen. Still, Aaron Eckhart is a believable President … in the Harrison Ford (Air Force One) mode, tough as nails but also intelligent.

There are of course similarities to Clint Eastwood’s 1993 film In The Line of Fire, and many are comparing it to the 1988 classic Die Hard. For me, the difference in Gerard Butler’s Mike Banning and Bruce Willis’ John McClane is that Butler is the right guy in a bad place, while McClane was a good guy in the wrong place. The action sequences in Olympus Has olympus4Fallen are even bigger than Die Hard, and it’s certainly clear there is much more at stake.

The cast also includes Dylan McDermott and Ashley Judd. Without giving anything away, I’ll admit this is my favorite Ashley Judd role of all time. It will be interesting to see how this one compares to Roland Emmerich’s White House Down, which comes out in June. The story lines are almost identical with WHD starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx. Olympus Has Fallen is a very satisfactory action movie, with many traditional elements, and Butler has re-established himself as a real movie star. It’s doubtful Emmerich’s version will stand up against this one.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are an Action movie fan OR you want to see Gerard Butler in the perfect Gerard Butler role

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: watching the White House get attacked is something you prefer not to see even if it’s only a movie

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vwx1f0kyNwI