ASTHMA (2015)

October 23, 2015

asthma Greetings again from the darkness. So this greasy, heroin-addicted slacker picks up a smartass tattoo artist while driving the Rolls Royce he has just stolen. What sounds like the beginning of a stand-up comedian’s best joke, is actually one of the earliest scenes from writer/director Jake Hoffman’s first feature film.  That’s right, you have seen him many times as an actor (he played shoe mogul Steve Madden in The Wolf of Wall Street), but now Dustin’s son is a full-fledged filmmaker.

When first we meet Gus (Benedict Samuel, “The Walking Dead”), he can’t be bothered to actually paint the wall he was hired to paint … “It’s already white!” Once relieved of his duties, he heads home and white washes his apartment … not just the walls, but his TV, books and Jim Morrison poster. He claims all of his heroes are dead, and that he was unfortunately born in the wrong era … the 70’s were so much more his style. He then proceeds to try and hang himself.  Of course, he fails at that too.

Next we see him car-jack the Rolls and then Ruby (Krysten Ritter) is accepting his offer of driving her to Connecticut. Having previously rebuffed his advances at a local bar, it’s obvious Ruby is intrigued by the banter and energy of Gus. The road trip brings it challenges and high points for Gus, and the two arrive at the communal retreat that features a mystic/yoga instructor (Goran Visnjic, Beginners) and a rock singer (Dov Tiefenbach), amongst others. Logan, the rock singer, and Gus softly battle for Ruby’s attention, but it’s difficult to watch as Gus drugs up and loses any sense of appeal.

It’s not long before Gus is being bailed out of jail by his well-off dad … played by Jerry Zucker, who in real life, directed Ghost and produced numerous Hollywood films. The two share an awkward car ride to the home of Gus’ bedridden mom played by Rosanna Arquette. Perhaps all of this makes more sense when you learn that Gus also takes life advice from his imaginary philosophical talking werewolf (voiced by  ). Maybe this explains what those of us who don’t shoot heroin are really missing.

The cast is strong, and each gives it their best shot. It’s just not very entertaining or enlightening to watch some aimless dude drift through life while higher than a kite. What is clear, and has been to me for quite some time, is that at some point the right role is going to come along for Krysten Ritter, and her career will take off. She has had a solid career up to now, but next level is within her grasp. She has quite a screen presence … way more than the imaginary werewolf. Mr. Hoffman’s feel for directing offers hope for future projects, and he is certainly to be commended for his use of cutting edge music. Next time … please give us a more interesting lead character.

watch the trailer:

 

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A WALK IN THE WOODS (2015)

September 2, 2015

a walk in the woods Greetings again from the darkness. Bill Bryson is a terrific and prolific writer known over the last thirty years for his books on travel, science and language. His comedic and witty approach makes his work accessible to even casual readers, yet somehow this is the first of his books to receive the Hollywood movie treatment. Envisioned in 1998 as the third collaboration between Robert Redford and Paul Newman (who died in 2008), there is even a scene reminiscent of Butch and Sundance pondering a cliff side jump/fall. This final version instead teams Mr. Redford with a grizzled Nick Nolte.

Redford stars as Bryson (aged about 30 years over the novel) who has had a successful writing career and has a quite comfortable life with his wife Catherine (Emma Thompson) and their family. His problem is that he hasn’t written anything new in years, save the Forewords for the books of other writers. He is feeling unsettled and almost spontaneously decides to hike the Appalachian Trail (more than 2000 miles). His wife is as supportive as you might guess … she laughs at him, begs him not to go, provides documentation of the dangers (bears, bacteria, bludgeoning), and finally agrees only if he can persuade someone to go with him.

Enter Mr. Nolte as Katz, an estranged friend from years ago, who may or may not be on the run from law enforcement. We do know he is overweight, a recovering alcoholic, quite horny (for a man in his 70’s), and in a point that matters little … was not actually invited by Bryson to go on the trip.

What follows is senior citizen slapstick (a new sub-genre for my gray cinema category). The tone is extremely light-hearted … in the mode of The Bucket List, Grumpy Old Men, and “The Odd Couple”. Some of the scenery is breathtaking, but mostly we get face-offs between the intellectual and thoughtful Bryson, and the slovenly horndog Katz. Director Ken Kwapis is best known for his TV comedy work on “The Office”, “Malcolm in the Middle”, and “The Larry Sanders Show”. Redford and Nolte are (very) old pros who handle the material and surface humor with ease. Nolte brings such a physicality to his performance that it left this viewer wondering if he was really that talented or (hopefully not) that frighteningly out of shape. Either way, it works.

Additional support work comes in quick spurts in the form of Nick Offerman as an REI salesman, Mary Steenburgen as a motel owner, Susan McPhail as a memorable Beulah, and motor-mouthed (and funny) fellow hiker Kristen Schaal whose character would have most hikers hoping for a bear attack.

The film is clearly aimed at a very narrow group of movie goers, and it’s likely that group will be pleased with what they see on screen. The philosophical aspects of the book are mostly glossed over here, and for hiking in the mountains, there is an obvious lack of edginess. The objective is laughs, not deep thought. Objective achieved.

watch the trailer:

 


RUN ALL NIGHT (2015)

March 13, 2015

run all night Greetings again from the darkness. Imagine if Liam Neeson’s burned out Air Marshall from Non-Stop was instead a one-time mob hit man who had seen better days. That seems to be the inspiration for director Jaume Collet-Serra’s film (yes, he directed Non-Stop as well). When a guy is a drunken mess with no family who speak to him and only one friend – his old mob boss – a nickname like The Gravedigger tends to conjure better days of yore.

Neeson plays Jimmy Conlon, the has-been hitman whose only remaining friend is boss Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris). These days, Conlon expends more effort emptying a glass than fulfilling a contract.  Shawn respects their history and does all he can to protect his long-time friend who seems intent on boozing himself to death. As is customary in these “crime doesn’t pay” films, things get really messed up in the blink of an eye. Thanks to a wrong place at the wrong time moment, Conlon protects his own son (Joel Kinnaman) by shooting Maguire’s misguided son (Boyd Holbrook). Thus endeth the friendship.

The script is from Brad Ingelsby who wrote the original script for Out of the Furnace (2013), but most of it is pretty predictable. Still, with an excellent cast and some wildly creative camera work from cinematographer Martin Ruhe (Harry Brown, The American), this one offers plenty on the entertainment scale. The restaurant scene where Harris and Neeson face off is alone worth the price of admission.

As you might expect, there is plenty of gun play and swagger, but as the title suggests, mostly it’s a game of running and being chased … featuring a crazy car chase. Neeson has an extended public bathroom fight scene with Holt McCallany, and the detective played by Vincent D’Onofrio continues his decades long pursuit of Neeson’s character. Bruce McGill plays Harris’ right-hand man and Common is a steely new age hit man. Kinnaman’s wife is played by Genesis Rodriguez, and the film’s most bizarre scene features a grizzled Nick Nolte – you will find yourself asking “is that him or not?”

Mr. Collet-Serra has directed Unknown and Non-Stop, so Neeson is quite comfortable working with him, and you should certainly know what to expect going in. The friendship between two mobsters ends the way most do, and it’s another take on the blood family vs mob family loyalties. The Gravedigger may have one foot in his own grave, but he also has enough left for one wild night.

watch the trailer:

 


PARKER (2013)

January 27, 2013

parker2 Greetings again from the darkness. By now, we know what to expect from a Jason Statham movie: bone-crunching fist fights, big guns, fast cars, pretty girls, and wise cracks. Hope and expectations were a bit higher for this one since it’s a John J. McLaughlin (Black Swan) screenplay of a Donald E Westlake novel, and it’s directed by Taylor Hackford (Oscar nominated for Ray).

Statham plays Parker, a masterful thief with a straightforward code that he isn’t shy about sharing. His partner/mentor is played by Nick Nolte and Parker finds himself knocking off the Ohio State Fair with a group of guys led by Michael Chiklis. Things don’t go well and Parker finds himself left for dead.

It starts as a heist film and transitions into a revenge flick. Of course, there are some Statham style romantic elements included. Emma Booth plays Nolte’s daughter and Statham’s love interest. Then, we get Jennifer Lopez as a down on her luck Realtor who lives with her mom (Patti Lupone), but somehow manages to figure out that Statham’s character is not as he appears.

parker3 Lopez and her hyper over-acting don’t play well with the stoic Statham. She does, however, get to flash her best known ASSet. Nolte’s character gets lost in the shuffle, which is a shame. More scenes with Nolte and Statham could have proved interesting. Also, there is an odd story line with Bobby Cannavale as a Sheriff who has the hots for Lopez. With the exception of a brief interlude, this promising story line just disappears. Lastly, the film’s big Palm Beach heist really pushes the envelope of believability (scuba?  Chiklis isn’t exactly James Bond) and taints what sliver of reasonableness that might have existed.

Basically, Statham is the best thing about this Statham movie. The rest is pretty messy and disappointing … especially considering the DNA that this one offers (Hackford, McLaughlin, Nolte).

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a big Jason Statham fan

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your heist and/or revenge movies to have some level of suspense

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CJ4Nsu2tXTk


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

 


WARRIOR

September 12, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s always a bit thrilling when a movie catches us off-guard and is much more than expected. Walking in, I was all set for a testosterone fueled fight fest featuring BS bravado and mounds of machismo. While that element is abundantly present, writer/director Gavin O’Connor wraps the fighting around a pretty interesting story about family, bravery, desperation, pride and forgiveness.

The story begins with the convergence of a broken family – two brothers and their father. The split occurred many years ago, and without the details, we are able to piece together that dad (Nick Nolte) was a violent drunken ex-Marine and the mother planned to take the two boys and run. One of the brothers (Joel Edgerton) had fallen in love and decided to stay with dad. The younger brother (Tom Hardy) went with mom and even nursed her through her final days of cancer prior to his joining the Marines. The three men have been incommunicado for years, until one day Tommy (Hardy) shows up on Nolte’s doorstep.

 What sets this one apart is the details of each of the brother’s stories, very little of which I will discuss here. There is a terrific scene on the Atlantic City beach where their demons confront each other and we see that so much pain and bitterness exists despite their having been teenagers at the time of the split. They each felt abandoned by the other. Now one is an angry ex-Marine and the other is a desperate physics teacher with a family. This story couldn’t possibly end any place other than smack in the middle of an MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) cage fight!

 Their Dad (Nolte) had trained the boys as youth wrestlers and now a giant $5 million tournament is being held. Both brothers are carrying secrets and need money to solve their problems. Their secrets drive them to risk life and limb in the cage of this most brutal activity. To best describe these characters, Tom Hardy has the presence and physique of the guy you would never consider confronting in a bar fight. Joel Edgerton is the kind that your buddies would egg you on thinking you could probably take him. Instead you would end up in the back of an ambulance.

 As expected, and shown in the trailer, the MMA tournament ends with the two brothers facing off and guilt-riddled dad watching from the crowd. Despite the rowdiness and violence of the fighting, very little blood is shown. That’s not what this movie is about. Instead we get many adrenaline-rushes from the spectacle of the fights, plus a split-screen montage of the training leading up to the big moment. This is a crowd-pleaser in the vein of The Fighter, but not quite as mainstream given the MMA element.

 The two leads were each on my list of favorite movies last year. Joel Edgerton was in the excellent and under-the-radar Animal Kingdom, while Tom Brady was in the mega-hit Inception and will play Bane in the upcoming Batman film. In this film, Edgerton has more freedom with his character, but Brady does a wonderful job of capturing the quiet intensity followed by roid rage in the ring. Most surprising is the fine job turned in by Nick Nolte. He really showed up for this one. Other support work comes from Jennifer Morrison, Kevin Dunn and Frank Grillo. We also see former Olympic wrester Kurt Angle as the terrifying Russian MMA machine Yoba, and writer/director Gavin O’Connor as JJ Riley, the millionaire sponsoring the tournament.

There will be comparisons made to both Rocky and The Fighter, and both make sense. It is not quite at that level, but don’t mistake this as some dumb fight movie made for teenage boys. There is a story and it provides further proof that men, no matter how hard they try, manage to screw up the whole family thing more often than not … but in the end, they do try their best to make things better!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are up for a high intensity male-centric family drama with an abundance of testosterone OR you want to see the best Nick Nolte performance in years

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer slow, weepy family dramas rather than the simmering explosions of male communication OR simply watching MMA is more violence than you care to take on

watch the trailer:


ZOOKEEPER

July 11, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. We are all fine with the endless stream of animation featuring talking animals. The rules change a bit when the movie is live action … and the animals still talk! Not only do they talk, but they are giving lessons in love to zookeeper extraordinare Griffin (Kevin James) ala Dr. Phil.

Personally I think Kevin James is more suited to television, but it’s hard to argue with the huge box office success of Paul Blart Mall Cop. This movie isn’t quite as creative as that one, but for mindless summertime fun in an air-conditioned environment and a kid-friendly theme, it’s passable.

 The kid-friendly theme is somewhat misleading. To me, it’s the greatest flaw of the movie. It can’t seem to decide if it wants to be a kids movie or a “clever” film for kids that adults will enjoy. I don’t think most adults will enjoy it much, and I think most kids will be confused and bored by the adult plot of helping Kevin James land the girl and discover his true self.  But for kids, the animal scenes should sustain them.  I am not sure that TGI Fridays is enough for adults.

If you are going to have talking animals these days, you must have high priced voices … even though you can’t recognize them. Some of the vocal talent on display includes Sylvester Stallone and Cher as lions, Nick Nolte as the gorilla, Jupp Apatow as an elephant, producer Adam Sandler as the monkey (“throw poop”), Faizon Love and Jon Favreau as arguing bears, Maya Rudolph as an off-key giraffe, and Don Rickles as a frog.

 The story is this: Kevin James is a nice guy zookeeper who is loved by the animals, but spurned in marriage proposal by his girlfriend Leslie Bibb, who wants him to make more money. He works with nice gal Rosario Dawson who likes him so much that she agrees to help him get the shallow Bibb back. Other zoo co-workers include Donnie Wahlberg and Ken Jeong, who must be in every third movie released this year. Yada, Yada, Yada … animals give advice, Kevin James learns about real love, gorilla learns some people can be trusted, they all live happily ever after. I don’t consider that a spoiler.

The movie is produced by Adam Sandler and directed by his buddy Frank Coraci. Coraci also directed a comedy I kind of like (The Wedding Singer) and a couple I absolutely couldn’t stand (Click, The Waterboy). Anyway, if you are looking for mindless fun with the family, this one is safe though not inspired.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you don’t believe anyone (including a gorilla) can have fun at TGI Fridays.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: a step down from Night at the Museum is a step you prefer not to take