THE 33 (2015)

November 12, 2015

the 33 Greetings again from the darkness. How do you structure a film based on a true story that lasted 69 days, occurred 5 years ago, and was followed live on TV by half of the global population? Director Patricia Riggen (Girl in Progress, 2012) delivers a film designed to tug on heartstrings, and is based on the book “Deep Down Dark” from Hector Tobar, as well as interviews with the key players.

In 2010, the San Jose copper/gold mine collapsed trapping 33 Chilean miners more than 2300 feet under tons of rubble and an unstable rock that dwarfed the Empire State Building. Through some pretty solid special effects, we are there for the collapse. It’s this segment and the immediate reactions from the miners that provide the film’s best segment. We feel the miner’s sense of panic and doom as they begin to come to grips with their plight.

The film rotates between three struggles: the isolation of the miners struggling to survive, the tent city populated by their families struggling to maintain hope, and the Chilean government struggling with the politics and public relations of a rescue mission. From a character standpoint, each of these three segments is given a face. Antonio Banderas as Mario becomes the focal point of the miners. He searches for an escape route, takes charge of the (very limited) food rations, and acts as referee and light of hope in an extremely volatile situation. Juliette Binoche (yes the French actress) is Maria, the sister of one of the trapped miners and the most assertive of those pushing the government to attempt a rescue. Rodrigo Santoro plays Laurence Goldborne, Chile’s Minister of Mining, and the one who pushes the government to move forward with the costly rescue mission.

Other key characters include Bob Gunton as Chile’s President Pinera, Lou Diamond Phillips as “Don Lucho”, the safety inspector, Gabriel Byrne as the chief engineer, James Brolin as Jeff Hart (leading the U.S. drilling team), Naomi Scott as Mario’s wife, and three of the other miners: Oscar Nunez, Mario Casas, and Juan Pablo Raba.

The most bizarre segment comes courtesy of miner hallucinations. It’s a fantasy-infused Last Supper sequence that plays out to the sounds of a Bellini opera, while the food and drink flow and the family members join in the joy. It’s not difficult to imagine the brain taking these poor gentlemen to such places of mental torture.

As if the approach is to make the most viewer-friendly buried miner film possible, we aren’t witness to much underground conflict, and the internal bickering within the Chilean government officials is kept to a minimum. We do get to see the media circus that occurred during the ordeal … of course, most of us witnessed it in real time.

Director Riggen has delivered a film that taps into the multitude of emotions for the different groups of people, rather than concentrating on the miserable situation of the miners. It’s a challenge to keep us interested in a true story of which we all know the ending, but most viewers will stay engaged with the characters. It should also be noted that the minimalistic score is some of the last work from the late, great James Horner.

Watch the trailer:

 

 

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FOCUS (2015)

March 7, 2015

focus Greetings again from the darkness. Movies about “the con” have had many different looks over the years: the suave coolness of Oceans 11, David Mamet’s twisted perspective in House of Games, the tongue-in-cheek teamwork of Redford and Newman in The Sting, the demented mother-son approach in The Grifters, and of course, the slapstick style of Steve Martin in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. All of these committed to one style and made it work. The latest from the writing/directing team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (I Love You Phillip Morris, Crazy Stupid Love) can’t seem to decide if they want the audience in on the joke, or if they rather the audience be the butt of the joke.

Will Smith plays Nicky, a third generation con man who is also a very conservative entrepreneur. He runs his cons as a business and prides himself on never taking unnecessary risks, ensuring the odds are in his favor. His professional curiosity lands him in an awkward situation with Jess, played by Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street), who clumsily mistakes Nicky for an easy mark. Instead, he agrees to mentor her during Super Bowl week in New Orleans. This sequence is the best and most entertaining part of the film.

The second half of the film complicates things with the do they or don’t they love story between Nicky and Jess, as well as a few other messy personal relationships. The fun here lies with the con, not the love story, and that’s where the focus should stay. In fact, the most interesting characters aren’t Nicky and Jess, but rather a riotous Adrian Martinez (as Nicky’s computer whiz assistant), Rodrigo Santoro (as a racing team owner trying to cheat the competition), Gerald McRaney (a hoot as Santoro’s crusty old henchman), Robert Taylor (TV’s “Longmire”) as one of Santoro’s competitors, and BD Wong as Nicky’s betting adversary in the film’s most ludicrous sequence (and that’s saying a lot). Ms. Robbie has true star potential, but the script hangs her out a few times. She will be seen as Jane in next year’s Tarzan movie, so add that to your must-see list.

A very smart person I know observed that Will Smith has been conning us for years, and maybe by taking this role, at least he is finally admitting it. It is a bit tiresome to see Mr. Smith consistently play the smartest guy in the room, the most charming guy in the room, and the sneakiest guy in the room. It seems maybe he is one of the few that still sees him as such. The best actors elevate their co-stars and the script, while it seems he believes his star power is all that’s required.

watch the trailer:

 


THE LAST STAND (2013)

January 19, 2013

last stand2 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been almost 10 years since Arnold Schwarzenegger was last top billed in a movie. He’s remained in the headlines most of that time … some good, some not so much. If you are an Arnold fan, it’s nice to see him back on screen. And what do you expect from a Schwarzenegger movie? Big guns, big muscles and big laughs from the one-liners. The first U.S. film from noted Korean director Jee-woon Kim delivers all three … and, unfortunately, little else.

Arnold plays Sheriff Ray who has semi-retired to a quiet life in an Arizona border town after a career on an ill-fated Los Angeles police drug team. His deputies are played by screen vet and comic relief Luis Guzman, Zach Gilford, and Jaimie Alexander. An FBI Agent played by Forest Whitaker contacts the Sheriff and lets him know an last stand3escaped drug lord played by Eduardo Noriega is headed through the town on his way to cross the border. Peter Stormare‘s group is in town to clear the path. Things get messy from there.

The tongue-in-cheek parts work best, but the plot and overall script are pretty lacking in substance. This could almost be viewed as a Schwarzenegger tribute film. The self-deprecating humor keeps the film rolling, but some of it just tries too hard … especially the segments with Johnny Knoxville. Some of the action is so over-the-top it draws the desired laughs from the audience, but be prepared for lots of gun play and plenty of Chevy commercial time.

last stand5 We also get a quick scene from Harry Dean Stanton and Rodrigo Santoro has a small role as a former war hero – turned town drunk who gets his shot at redemption. But make no mistake, this is Arnold’s movie and his chance to show that he still has it. The screen presence is still there, but his skills might play better in a more limited support role. That said, I triple dog dare you to not crack a smile when he is firing guns, in a frantic car chase through the corn fields, and engaged in hand to hand combat on the border bridge. After all … he did say he would be back!

*** NOTE to Directors: when you cast Forest Whitaker, don’t film him running … it’s not a pretty sight

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of Arnold the movie star and look forward to seeing him back on screen

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting a serious movie about a small town sheriff – this one is closer to trashy B cinema than Oscar.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0yMc9h3h9bs


I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS (2009)

December 11, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. The real story of Steven Russell is downright fascinating. He is the ultimate con man and has been nicknamed “King Con”. A master of reading people, gaining trust and manipulating many systems, Russell was proved to have stolen from a major food service corporation and a major healthcare organization. Stolen, as in hundreds of thousands of dollars. The smaller cons are too numerous to count. And don’t forget his string of jail/prison escapes!

Glenn Ficarra and John Regua (the writing team behind Bad Santa) co-direct this story based on Steve McVicer’s book on Russell. Somehow they have delivered a hokey, boring film despite the man at the center of the story. Luckily for them, Jim Carrey drums up a terrific performance as Russell and provides some relief from the amateurish script and direction.

The role of Phillip Morris is tackled by Ewan McGregor in a manner we have not previously seen from him. His effeminate naivety offers a nice contrast to the domineering Russell/Carrey. The support work is minimal but provided by the very capable Rodrigo Santoro and the very talented (but totally wasted here) Leslie Mann.

The film shows us the beginning of the fall for Russell. His parents tell him he was adopted and he responds by tracking down his birth mother. He pretty much falls apart after that meeting and commences with his endless stream of cons. Is he a happily married man or is he gay? Is he a brilliant strategist or an embezzler? His life changes during one of his trips to jail. He meets Phillip Morris. Their life together is full of excess, thanks to Russell’s latest scam. As always, the con is exposed and Russell spends his entire life alternating between being on the lam or in jail.

I found the film inferior to Catch Me if You Can, a better (not great) film about another real life con man, Frank Abignale. The cat and mouse chases of that film held my interest. This film has little drama despite the obvious talents of this off-center man. My guess is that in the hands of better filmmakers, this could have been a much improved film.

Apparently, Russell’s biggest con was played on himself. He never really figured out who he is. He is now serving a life sentence in near-solitary confinement in prison. Mr. McVicker, the book’s author, has stated two very telling observations. First, he suspects Phillip Morris was not quite as innocent as he would have us believe. Second, his description of Russell as a man “who makes you want to believe” tells you all you need know about this ultimate con man.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: You still need proof that Jim Carrey is a real actor and not just a goofy side show OR the Enron scandal just wasn’t quite funny enough for you

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: You have read the book OR don’t find much humor in con men