THE COMEDIAN (2017)

February 2, 2017

the-comedian Greetings again from the darkness. It’s often seemed as if Robert DeNiro existed in two unrelated cinematic worlds. He’s a 7 time Oscar nominee and 2 time winner (The Godfather: Part II, Raging Bull) renowned for his dramatic work, while also seemingly intent on proving he’s as funny as he thinks he is. His work in Analyze This, Analyze That, and the Fockers franchise takes “playing against type” to an extreme. This latest is his return, 35 years after The King of Comedy, to playing a stand-up comedian.

Of course Jackie Burke (DeNiro) is no regular comedian. He’s pushing 70 years old, has anger issues, no close friends, a strained relationship with his brother (Danny DeVito) and agent (Edie Falco), and fights his popular legacy as “Eddie” from a decades-ago popular sitcom. He strives to be recognized not as Eddie, but as Jackie Burke, the king of insult comics.

That anger lands him in community service where he meets Harmony (Leslie Mann) who is also serving her time. It’s kind of creepy to watch the 30 years older dude hit on her, but it’s explained away by her ‘daddy issues’ with Harvey Keitel. Of course, DeNiro and Keitel have a natural rhythm (that spans 5 decades of working together), but it’s really DeNiro and Mann who have the best scenes (outside of the unnecessary romantic interlude). Ms. Mann is especially fun to watch and brings a sense of realism to a film that’s mostly lacking.

Taylor Hackford directs a script written by a blend of 4 writers: a Producer of Fight Club, a standup comedian, an Oscar nominee for The Fisher King, and a writer best known for the Kennedy Center Honors. It’s a weird mix that explains the periodic flashes of genius and the overall mismatched parts.

There are no shortage of familiar faces that pop up, including Billy Crystal, Lois Smith, Jimmie Walker, Brett Butler, and Gilbert Gottfried. Patti LuPone is enjoyable in her role as DeVito’s wife and Jackie Burke-hater. It’s nice to see Charles Grodin in a Midnight Run reunion with DeNiro, and Cloris Leachman proves that comedy kills in her brief time on screen.

Although there is a more cutesy humor segment at a retirement center when Burke leads the residents through a make-shift version of “Makin’ Poopie” set to the rhythm of “Makin’ Whoopie”, anyone seeing this should be braced for raunchy humor. Lots of raunchy humor. Jackie Burke is an insult comedian in the vein of Don Rickles, only he adds a dash of Jim Norton and Amy Schumer. With all the uncomfortable laughs, it might best be described as that rare film genre – blue humor for the blue hairs.

watch the trailer:

 

 


JOY (2015)

December 26, 2015

joy Greetings again from the darkness. The movie is inspired by the true story of entrepreneur Joy Mangano (listed here as an Executive Producer) and her 1990 invention of the Miracle Mop. You should know that neither “Mangano” nor “Miracle Mop” is mentioned, and much of the story sprung from the mind of writer/director David O Russell. Also, if you have been a fan of Mr. Russell’s past few Oscar nominated films (American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook, The Fighter), you should be warned that even though there is a large cast of familiar supporting players, it doesn’t play like his usual ensemble piece, but rather as a true star vehicle for Jennifer Lawrence (who plays Joy).

This is a working class Italian-American family, and the multi-generational aspect is in full play as Joy (a single, working mom) and her two kids share the house with Mimi (Joy’s grandmother played by Diane Ladd), Joy’s mom (Virginia Madsen) who is a recluse dressed in 60’s party attire and addicted to daytime soap operas, and Joy’s dad (Robert DeNiro) and her ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez) who share the basement. Tony is the rare combination of slacker-Tom Jones impersonator. Also involved are Joy’s agitating and envious step-sister Peggy (Elizabeth Rohm) and Dad’s new wealthy girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rossellini). This family makes The Royal Tenenbaums look suburban stale.

Flashbacks and dreams, along with the supportive words of Mimi, convince us that Joy is a creative genius, whose once promising abilities have been stifled by the harsh realities of raising kids, and overseeing a bunch of free-loaders who mostly never miss a chance to steal a bit of Joy’s light. All of that changes one day thanks to glass shards in her palm and the close proximity of crayons and drawing paper. Poof! Just like that, Joy has invented a revolutionary new kind of mop.

Given her family history and current situation, even when things go right for Joy, they never go all the way right. Having to borrow money from Trudy and depend on those who may or may not have her best interest at heart, makes for an endless chain of obstacles and challenges. But Joy is all about perseverance and self-actualization. The story emphasizes Joy’s stick-to-it-ness, and the process of learning about the legalities and pitfalls of starting and running one’s own business. Even those who should be supportive often ridicule and voice their doubts.

The film shifts when Joy meets Neal Walker (Bradley Cooper) who runs QVC. This was the time period when TV home shopping was in its infancy. Joan Rivers (played here by her daughter Melissa) was one of the early stars, and Joy’s Miracle Mop was one of the early successes. It’s a new world to Joy, but she’s a quick study and her tough-mindedness and sense of fairness and right come in to play on multiple occasions.

The above is much more story than I would typically describe, but it helps make the point that although Jennifer Lawrence continues to prove she is something quite special as an actress, the story is a bit of a mess and the pacing of the film is clumsy – slapstick blended with ultra-serious. It’s impossible to connect with this oddball group of folks, who mostly seem to be pulled right off of various TV sitcoms. Even using the soap opera (complete with Susan Lucci, Donna Mills, and Laura Wright) as a parallel to Joy’s life never quite works.

Jennifer Lawrence’s performance deserves to be ranked right with Joan Crawford’s in Mildred Pierce, but the different styles of the two movies results in only one being unforgettable. Director Russell mines the fractured family/group in many of his projects, and given his immense talent, we can be sure future projects will be more in line with the level of his recent past.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE INTERN (2015)

September 24, 2015

intern Greetings again from the darkness. A feel-good mainstream movie featuring two big time movie stars will likely have box office success and cause a lot of people to laugh out loud. In other words, the latest from writer/director Nancy Meyers should be celebrated for its entertainment value, rather than picked apart by film critics. Ok, I’ll give it a try.

Robert DeNiro stars as Ben Whittaker, a retired 70 year old widower, who just can’t seem to find meaning in hobbies and the leisure life. He applies and is selected for the “Senior Intern” program at About the Fit, a fast-growing online clothing company run by its founder Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway). In addition to being a Type A driven and obsessed-with-details company leader (the type that rides her bike through the office to save time), Jules also has a husband, a young daughter and a fabulous brownstone. What she doesn’t have is enough sleep, any friends, or enough time to enjoy any of the good stuff.  You aren’t alone if a buddy flick with DeNiro and Hathaway seems unusual to you.

At the same time Ben arrives on the scene, Jules is struggling with her investors’ decision to hire a more experienced CEO so that the company can maintain its phenomenal growth. That’s about as deep as the business talk ever gets (but just try to keep track of all the Apple product placements). Jules initially spurns Ben, but of course, he soon becomes invaluable around the office, and while blinking his eyes, becomes her most valued confidant and adviser.

Much of the comedy is derived from Ben’s interactions with the young employees. It’s quite simply a ‘generation gap comedy’ that makes all the points it needs to make without really breaking a sweat: senior citizens are a wealth of knowledge and can bring value to an organization or relationship, young people can learn from elders (it’s OK to shave everyday and dress for success) … and vice versa (computers are our friend), there still exists some animosity between stay at home moms and working moms, stay at home dads face challenges of their own, running a company is hard work both physically and mentally, communication often requires more than a text or email, and staying true to one’s self is not always easy.

Ms. Meyers has brought us other mainstream films such as It’s Complicated (2009) and Something’s Gotta Give (2003), and she has a feel for presenting the upper-middle class as a punchline for the masses. She likes showing successful people in uncomfortable situations … leaning heavy on awkward, while avoiding dangerous altogether. Her latest is a feel good movie that makes you laugh, without causing you to think about anything in your life that might bring you down. And there is real value in that.

Ok, I tried, but there are some things that must be pointed out. There was so much of Ms. Meyers’ script that was begging to be pushed to the edge and analyzed from a societal aspect. Her specialty is rounding off the corners so that no one gets hurt, and because of that the film is bereft of conflict … the single most important element for a meaningful scene. For example, the conflict between Jules and her husband occurs in a hotel room, which would be fine except … only one of them is there!  Also, we never really get any of the story from Ben’s perspective. Instead, we are just to believe that his Gandhi-like influence on co-workers is the only reward he seeks. I also found myself bothered a bit in the quick glimpse we get into Ben’s personal life. He blows off the advances of Linda Lavin and pursues Rene Russo … understandable, but a bit off-putting given that this female writer chose to have him hook up with the 11 years younger character, rather than the one closer to his own age.  There are many other similar type issues that warrant discussion, but that’s why it’s best to just sit back and enjoy this one, rather than asking “what if?”

watch the trailer:

 

 


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

 


GOODFELLAS (1990) revisited

February 7, 2013

goodfellas1 “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”  That’s how Henry Hill introduces himself.  He is the narrator and key figure in director Martin Scorcese’s 1990 masterpiece.  What follows Mr. Hill’s intro is the film version of Nicholas Pileggi’s non-fiction book, Wiseguy: Life in the Mafia Family (published 1986).  Every so often the perfect match of writer, director and cast occurs, and Goodfellas is one of those rare treats.

Viewing a 35mm print at the historic Texas Theatre just seemed apropo.  Knowing that this is the realized vision of Mr. Scorcese and his long time editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, caused the numerous VHS and DVD viewings over the years to simply fade away.  The silver screen works wonders for a film with such “big” characters, such startling violence, and such a perfectly inter-woven soundtrack.

Ray Liotta plays Henry Hill, the real life gangster who ended up snitching on the mob and entering the Federal Witness Protection program.  This should not be considered a spoiler because Hill’s story is known worldwide and, well, the movie is 23 years old!  Liotta was a relative newcomer when he exploded onto the screen in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild in 1986.  His manic performance in that movie led Scorcese to cast him as Henry Hill.   The real life Hill spoke at length with Pileggi for the novel, and the result is a very detailed and nuanced look into the life inside a New York crime family.

goodfellas4 The fascinating aspects are too numerous to touch on them all, but there are some that really stood out in this latest viewing. First, Lorraine Bracco plays Hill’s wife Karen. Watching the development of her character is pure gold on screen. She starts out as a fresh-faced blind date, who pulls no punches in putting Hill in his place after he stands her up … and right in front of his fellow gangsters, no less.  Watching her fall for “the life” is like watching someone get gradually intoxicated.  She seems aware but numb to the rational side of her brain. As Karen develops, she battles through some really tough situations, continues to be Hill’s biggest supporter, and finally his cohort in crime near the end.  She is one of the most interesting and best developed female characters from any gangster movie.

Another really fascinating character to follow is that of Tommy Devito played by Joe Pesci. Tommy is a tough guy born into the life, but the prime example of just never being satisfied. His short fuse temper is responsible for some of the most memorable scenes in the movie.  The “funny like a clown” scene and the fallout from “go home and get your shinebox” are two of the more goodfellas2frightening sequences ever seen on screen, and are perfect examples of what a loose cannon Tommy is. This character is based on the real life Tommy “Two Gun” DeSimone, muscle for the Lucchese crime family.

In addition to Karen, Henry and Tommy, the other main character is Jimmy Conway, played by Robert DeNiro. Conway is based on the real life Jimmy “The Gent” Burke, who was supposedly the mastermind behind the infamous Lufthansa heist depicted in the movie.  The Conway character perfectly represents paranoia and greed, while hiding behind the mob loyalty pledge. DeNiro never once overacts here, but his Conway dominates the screen despite the strong presence of Liotta and Pesci … and even Paul Sorvino, who plays mob boss Paulie.  Paulie is based on Paul Vario, the head of the Lucchese crime family. Sorvino plays him as quietly powerful and a guy with a phone phobia (for good reason). Sorvino’s Paulie is the centerpiece of the mob and is totally believable as a guy you better not cross.

goodfellas One of the more memorable scenes features Jimmy, Henry and Tommy stopping off at Tommy’s mother house to pick up a shovel … and a large, useful knife.  While there, Tommy’s mother (played by Catherine Scorcese, Martin’s mother) not only makes them a huge 3 am Italian meal, but also shows off some of her artwork, and even tells a joke!

What’s really fun to watch as the film progresses is the change of pace and camera work. Watching young Henry earn his stripes is treated with a light, almost comical touch.  As he becomes fully entrenched, we see a young man enjoying the power and respect of his position. This is crystallized by Scorcese’s infamous long-tracking shot through the back entrance and kitchen of the Copacabana as Henry and Karen end up front row by the stage. The downward spiral is much more frenetic with fast cuts and a desperate feel. Scorcese helps us feel the drug-induced paranoia that dominates Henry.

David Chase has stated that Goodfellas had quite an impact and inspired him to create “The Sopranos”, and the marks are goodfellas3quite clear. There is even a significant crossover in the cast as both feature Frank Vincent, Tony Sirico, Frank Pellegrino, Michael Imperioli and, of course, Lorraine Bracco (who was Tony Soprano’s psychiatrist).

Goodfellas was nominated for six Academy Awards, and Joe Pesci was the only winner (Best Supporting Actor).  It lost out in the Best Picture category to Dances with Wolves.  Scorcese has since directed two other critically acclaimed gangster films: Casino (1995, from another Nicholas Pileggi book), and The Departed (2006, which won Scorcese his first Oscar and also won Best Picture). You might also like to know that Pileggi is the creator of “Vegas”, the new TV show starring Dennis Quaid and Michael Chiklis.  The show is about the mob’s influence in the early “wild west” days of Las Vegas.

For years, movie lovers have been debating whether The Godfather or Goodfellas is the best gangster film. As much as I love debate, I see no reason to choose … they are both exquisite filmmaking, though quite different in style. Both films have provided us direction in life.  The Godfather informed us that “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business”.  Goodfellas counseled us “Never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut.”   Far be it from me to question the source of good advice!

***PROFANITY WARNING***  This is the unedited “funny like a clown scene” and it’s definitely NSFW!!!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E84VqqCPI7w


SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012)

November 24, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. The film is exactly what you would expect from a screwball romantic comedy steeped in drama based on bipolar disorder, depression, OCD, Philadelphia Eagles fanatics, a ballroom dancing contest, adultery, Hemingway, and a lead character who jogs while wearing a trash bag. Maybe not exactly what you would expect, but likely much more.

If you were told instead that the story is based on two damaged souls who help heal each other through dancing, you would have every reason to skip this one. However, as written and directed by David O Russell (The Fighter) and based on Matthew Quick‘s novel, this story is a frenetic, emotional roller coaster ride that provides a glimmer of hope for the two damaged lead characters, while reminding that each of us may be a bit off-center in some way. Now add in the best young actress working today (Jennifer Lawrence just turned 22), a rare performance from Robert DeNiro where he seems fully engaged, a pulling back the curtain on Bradley Cooper as much more than a pretty face, and one of the best and most pointed soundtracks in recent history …and  you have one of the best films of the year.

What you notice very early on is that what could be considered a trite story line, is instead pounding you with sharp, witty dialogue that pulls no punches in directness. The many aspects of family and emotional support are given time thanks to Pat (Bradley Cooper) being released after 8 months in a mental institution. He was sent there when he snapped after finding his wife in a compromising position with another man. Perfectly understandable if you ask me, but clearly he is the explosive one despite his claims to the contrary. An uncomfortable dinner party introduces him to Tiffany (Ms. Lawrence) whose husband has recently died and her coping skills have been shared with most of those in her workplace. This odd couple spark immediately and the wild ride begins.

Pat’s wife Nikki (Brea Bee) has issued a restraining order and his strategy to win her back consists of a positive attitude and maintaining control of his emotions. His supporters include his mother (Jacki Weaver, who was so great in Animal Kingdom), his OCD father (DeNiro) who so wants to re-connect with his son, his friend (John Ortiz) whose own marriage (to icy Julia Stiles) is a messy mess, his buddy from the asylum (a funny and not over the top Chris Tucker), and of course, Tiffany. The only real problem is that each of these supporters are teetering in their own way – just like Pat.

 The brilliance of this movie is the balance struck between the near violent emotional outbursts and the sharp, exacting words spouted by each of the characters. Director Russell once again shows his flair for working class northeasterners. He understands these tough as nails people who wear their emotions on their sleeves. These people are as likely to punch you as hug you … both being acts of love.

The soundtrack deserves special mention. It is very unique and varied, with each song serving an exact purpose. Especially keen are Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour”, Led Zeppelin’s “What is and What Should Be”, and “The Girl from the North Country” a Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash duet. When the music strikes a harmony with the scene, the movie is all the stronger. Rarely do we get the perfect storm of script, direction, acting, music and relevance.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: complex relationships between characters facing life’s daily battles carries a certain artistic symmetry for you OR you just want to see acting of the highest quality led by a fabulous Jennifer Lawrence, a resurgent Robert DeNiro and a surprisingly talented Bradley Cooper

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your Rom-Com’s to be lightweight and light-hearted for easy laughs

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lj5_FhLaaQQ


THE GODFATHER II (1974) revisited

April 21, 2012

 Six weeks ago was The Godfather in a theatre setting. This time it was the exceptional sequel, which generated an equal amount of movie bliss. Experiencing these two classic movies on the big screen almost 40 years after release reinforces what great films they are … and how few truly great films get made. We are reminded that a powerful well-written story, world class cast, visionary director, brilliant photographer and stunning composer are all necessary components for movie greatness.

This sequel explores three time periods: the journey of 9 year old Vito to the U.S., his rise to power in Little Italy, and Corleone life after Vito’s death. Some find the cuts to varying timelines to be distracting. Personally, I find it fascinating and a very effective way to tell the entire story. Watching an almost mute 9 year old Vito land on Ellis Island and transform into a twenty-something community “leader” is one of the more powerful and unlikely events ever seen on screen. Mixing that with Al Pacino holding little back as a power-mongering Michael is downright frightening. If you doubt this, look at it from the perspective of Diane Keaton‘s May, or John Cazale‘s Fredo.

The film received 11 Oscar nominations and won 6, including Best Picture. Robert DeNiro won for his tremendous turn as young Vito, in a performance with very little English. This is early DeNiro … the Mean Streets, Taxi Driver era. DeNiro and Marlon Brando remain the only two actors to have won Oscars for playing the same character. DeNiro’s Supporting Actor competition came from two other cast members: Lee Strasberg as Hyman Roth (supposedly based on Meyer Lansky) and Michael V Gazzo as Pentangeli. Mr. Strasberg was the famed acting teacher whose prized pupils included none other than Al Pacino (who talked him into taking this role). Strasberg was also bequeathed 75% of the Marilyn Monroe estate and there was much scandal after his death when his widow auctioned off most of it.  Gazzo’s grizzled look and voice dominate his scenes and leave you feeling uneasy about what’s really going on with him.

 Here are a few other interesting points.  Most of this script was original for the film, though the background story of Vito was drawn from Mario Puzo‘s novel. Director Francis Ford Coppola considered casting Joe Pesci as the young Clemenza, but ultimately decided on Bruno Kirby. Dominic Chianese plays Hyman Roth’s right hand man Johnny Ola. Chianese has been recently seen in both The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire. B-Movie mogul Roger Corman plays one of the Senators on the committee interrogating Michael and Pentangeli. Harry Dean Stanton plays one of the FBI bodyguards, and former heartthrob Troy Donahue plays Connie’s (Talia Shire) goofy boyfriend Merle. One of my favorite characters in the film is Don Fanucci, robustly played by Gastone Moschin. His strutting and preening always creeps me out and makes me laugh.

Besides being the first sequel to win a Best Picture Oscar, The Godfather II is simply one of the finest films ever made. At 200 minutes, it requires both a time and mental commitment, but along with The Godfather, Coppola and Puzo have provided us exemplary story telling through expert filmmaking … and a piece of movie history.

here is a link to my comments on the original: https://moviereviewsfromthedark.wordpress.com/2012/03/03/the-godfather-1972-revisited/

below is a link to the trailer, but be warned … it contains 3 plus minutes of actual footage.  If you have not seen the film, I would not recommend watching the trailer: