SNITCH (2013)

February 24, 2013

snitch1 Greetings again from the darkness. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has carved out a terrific career alternating between major action movies (Fast Five) and comedy flicks (The Other Guys) … both which take advantage of his real life Hulk-like physique and presence. Apparently two film genres is not enough. This time out he attempts to transition to a serious dramatic role as the Construction Company owner-divorced/remarried-suburban father who will do anything for his quasi-estranged teenage son. This would have been a Harrison Ford role back in the 1990’s and probably better suited to Matt Damon today.

Jason (Rafi Gavron) makes a dumb mistake by accepting delivery of a shoebox full of Ecstacy from his best friend. Next thing you know, Jason has fallen victim to the exceptionally strict minimum sentence federal drug laws for first time offenders. Enter Jason’s earnest, hard-working dad who pushes the politically ambitious federal prosecutor (Susan Sarandon) to allow him to infiltrate the drug world in an effort to reduce his son’s sentence.

snitch2 John (The Rock) has a nice suburban home, with a nice second wife (Nadine Velazquez from Flight), a nice young daughter, and a stressed-out ex-wife (Melina Kanakardes from “CSI:NY”) whom he kinda blames for Jason’s mess. John has loads of family drama plus financial issues at work as he is trying to expand his business. Now he has to figure out how to get into the dirty drug distribution world. His first attempt leaves him face down in the dirt after getting his ass kicked – not a sight we are accustomed to with this giant of a man. Finally, he gets help from one of his ex-con employees (Jon Bernthal) who is trying to stay clean, but really needs the money John is offering.

A meeting with scary Michael Kenneth Williams (Chalky from “Boardwalk Empire”) leads to a meeting with a Mexican drug lord known as El Topo (Benjamin Bratt). John’s access to 18-wheelers is just what this drug cartel needed. For some reason, snitch3these brilliant drug dealers would rather trust some unknown trucker dude than spend part of their $83 million on buying their own rig. All logic aside, John works closely with a DEA Agent played by Barry Pepper, who is sporting the worst facial hair this side of Gandalf.

The director and co-writer is Ric Roman Waugh, who made his name as a super Hollywood stunt performer (and also directed Felon). His co-writer is Justin Haythe also wrote Revolutionary Road and the upcoming The Lone Ranger. The story is based on a true to life “PBS: Frontline” about a family who went through a similar ordeal. In spite of the overuse of the “shaky cam” there is some confusion on whether this is a political statement concerning the stringent drug laws, the abuse of power by political officials, or an insight into the moral dilemmas faced by “normal” types in this day and age. snitch4The script seems to exploit the issues in the same manner those with power exploit the first time offenders (often high school and college age kids).

The trailer is a bit misleading as the film only features two real action sequences and both are sampled in the trailer. This is more of a family drama with some moral dilemmas sprinkled in. Pepper and Bernthal are especially effective in their roles, while The Rock is just too distracting to play the typical suburban dad. He is a giant and you can’t ignore that he still looks like a world class wrestler and not a guy you would see at a PTA meeting. Still, if you don’t think too much, this one is entertaining enough for a February release.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see The Rock’s attempt to transition to serious drama

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  you are expecting the next big time action flick from The Rock

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rieI5g9fgRc


CLOUD ATLAS (2012)

October 27, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ambitious and mesmerizing. Those are the two words that best describe my reaction to this stunning film based on the David Mitchell novel. Hopefully, you have not come here for answers to the many mysteries offered up by this most unique film experience. If you are the type that loves to think, analyze and discuss complex movies, you will be challenged and satisfied. If you prefer your stories clean, straightforward and gift-wrapped, you will be like some of those in my audience who walked out of the theatre at various stages -not to return.

 While there are no easy explanations for what we see on screen, this is undoubtedly one of the more complex and multi-faceted and challenging movies to watch. There are six stories that span approximately 500 years (beginning in 1849 and going through 2346 or so). We see many actors playing multiple characters of various ages, crossing racial and gender lines depending on the specific story.  We track the progression/regression of their souls through time. This will prove more challenging to you than it sounds on paper, as the make-up work is some of the most extreme ever seen on screen.  Many will describe the film as messy or convoluted, but the argument can be made that those traits add to the fun. Certainly, this won’t be to the taste of most; however, if you thrive on life’s puzzles, the film will hit your sweet spot.

 The six stories are co-written and directed by Tom Twyker (Run Lola Run) and The Wachowski’s (Lana and Andy, The Matrix trilogy). These six segments are split evenly between the two director groups, yet then blend seamlessly thanks to the truly expert editing of Alexander Berner. You will recognize the influence and similarities of such films as Master and Commander, Cocoon, Silkwood and Blade Runner, as well as many others.

Filling the costumes, donning the make-up and spouting the dialogue in manners that you often won’t recognize are such disparate actors as Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Donna Bae, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, James D’Arcy, Xun Zhou, Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant. Especially entertaining are Hugo Weaving as a sadistic female nurse and Hugh Grant as a violent tribesman. The best laughs in the film are courtesy of the great Mr. Broadbent whose facial expressions are near clown-like in elasticity.

 As for the themes and points of the film, that is a topic for debate. A couple of lines of dialogue offer some clues. Hanks’ nasty ship doctor spouts “The weak are meat the strong do eat“, and we notice the recurring theme of the strong dominating the weak across all story lines. There is another line: “One can transcend any convention so long as one can conceive of doing so“, that provides the glimmer of hope in each story. Love and oppression are always present, but it’s clear to me that the human spirit remains strong and is capable of overcoming oppression in the past, present and future. You may disagree but our debates will be colorful … and may change after a second viewing!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy assembling the pieces of multiple storylines and numerous interconnected characters OR you just want to see Hugo Weaving play the toughest on screen nurse since Nurse Ratched

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer movies to be short and sweet (this one is almost 3 hours and anything but sweet)

Watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQFAPeaJOf8


ARBITRAGE (2012)

September 16, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Most of us don’t tread in the world of corporate greed, deceit and fraud that defines the now four years ago financial crisis. Twenty five years ago Gordon Gekko in Wall Street put a face to corporate greed. Writer/Director Nicholas Jarecki now gives us Robert Miller, as portrayed by Richard Gere, for the face of Wall Street fraud … the step beyond greed that Bernie Madoff made famous. Toss in a Chappaquiddick-type tragedy and it’s abundantly clear that Robert Miller is no modern day icon to be worshipped.  He does share with Gekko an overinflated ego and sense of importance.

No matter how much we would prefer it to be otherwise, there is something to the charisma and emotional power of the few who seize control as politicians, CEO’s and cult leaders … all subjects of recent films. During this film, we never once doubt that Gere’s Miller is a scam artist with power. A slick huckster if you will.  He is not a good guy, despite his warm smile as he says all the right things to his family and close circle of advisors. We are sickened that he is able to fool so many, and at the same time hopeful that we can avoid becoming another of his victims. Yet, the reason this story is so familiar is that it rings so true.

Watching Miller’s house of cards slowly crumble is both fascinating and nerve-racking. We aren’t rooting for him, but we still get caught up in his web of subtle deceit. His demented sense of “responsibilities” guide him down the path of betrayal … a path that stomps on his all-knowing wife, his ultra-trusting daughter, his sensitive mistress, and a young guy just trying to get his life in order.  And this doesn’t even count the faceless list of investors clueless to the white collar criminal wreaking havoc on their personal finances.

The strong supporting cast is led by Susan Sarandon as the wife, Brit Marling (Another Earth) as the daughter, and Tim Roth as the crusty NY Detective trying to catch the big fish. However, this is Gere’s film and he delivers his best in years. Gere has made a habit of playing guys that always seem to have something brewing beneath the surface.  Here, he actually gets to explode in full arrogant glory.  It’s also great to see Stuart Margolin, who was so entertaining as Angel in “The Rockford Files” back in the 70’s. Another interesting casting choice has long time “Vanity Fair” editor Graydon Carter as the head of the financial institution looking to purchase Miller’s company.

Again, the individual pieces of the story are all quite familiar, but filmmaker Jarecki does a nice job of assembling the pieces in a manner that keep us engaged. It also works as an example of how the rules are different for the rich, and show how the worst of them even think they can, and should, get away with murder!

** NOTE: Richard Gere took over the lead after Al Pacino dropped out.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see Richard Gere as the face of Wall Street greed OR you always enjoy a slick corporate thriller that offers up a villain to throw popcorn at (if movie popcorn wasn’t so expensive)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer to avoid any more thought concerning the financial crisis and those who stuck it to us (and still are)

watch the trailer:


JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME (2012)

March 18, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Jay and Mark Duplass (The Duplass brothers) were responsible for a terrific, creepy little comedy called Cyrus. It dealt with a dark, strange relationship between a mother and her grown, stay at home and do nothing son. The Duplass mumblecore beginnings often used familial relationships to find those moments of discomfort and comedy. Their latest movie brings all of that together as they examine multiple relationships within a family, and the possible role destiny plays.

Jeff (Jason Segel) is an unemployed, 30 year old, childlike pot-head who lives in his mother’s (Susan Sarandon) basement and watches the M Night Shyamalan movie Signs so often that he is convinced there are no “wrong numbers” in life … everything is a sign leading us towards our destiny. After the latest “sign” (phone call for an unknown Kevin), Jeff heads out to complete a simple task for his disenchanted mother. He gets sidetracked by his quest for Kevin, and stumbles into his brother Pat (Ed Helms).

 By this time, we have seen Pat interact over breakfast with his wife Linda (Judy Greer). Note to guys: serving breakfast to your wife will not neutralize your surprise purchase of a Porsche. These two people have clearly lost whatever bond they once shared. One thing leads to another and we are soon watching Jeff and Pat stalk Linda and her male lunch friend … or is he more? While this amateur detective work is playing out, Sharon (their mother) discovers she has a secret admirer at work. Her spirits are immediately lifted as she has pretty much given up on a personal life since the death of her husband years ago. Her friend Carol (Rae Dawn Chong) helps her be receptive to the idea, and this story line provides a nice Duplass twist.

 Despite the fact that none of the characters are extremely likable: Jeff is borderline goofy, Pat is kind of an ass, Sharon and Linda just seem frustrated … the story moves along so that each of them grows a bit and their relationships evolve. The ending is a perfect cap and provides meaning, though initially quite a shock to the system after first three-quarters of the movie.

The Duplass directing style utilizes micro-bursts of quick zoom in many scenes, giving this a quasi home-movie feel at times. As for the acting, I can’t imagine another actor than Jason Segel could have pulled off the role of Jeff. In lesser hands, he would have come off as mentally unstable or just a total loser. Segel’s sweetness pays off. It’s always great to see Rae Dawn Chong back on screen, and I didn’t even hate Susan Sarandon! Judy Greer’s scene in the hotel room is so well played, it’s a reminder of what a terrific and under-utilized actress she is. Don’t expect a laugh outloud comedy, as this is more drama than comedy, though the smiles and chuckles occur in the moment.

* note: the name Kevin plays a part in this story, and it’s also the name of a new documentary short from the Duplass brothers on Austin musician Kevin Gant

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see Jason Segel and Ed Helms inch towards dramatic roles OR you have missed seeing Rae Dawn Chong on screen as much as I.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have a deep affection towards Porsches

watch the trailer:


BASEBALL MOVIES: Readers Poll Results

October 26, 2011

The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and it could be again.” —Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) in Field of Dreams

Thanks to all of you who particpated in the Readers Poll for Favorite Baseball Movies. Although I sensed a minor conspiracy amongst women voters, the final results were pretty close to other published baseball movie lists.  I won’t name names, but the most creative write-in votes were for The Untouchables – noting the scene where Al Capone makes use of a Louisville Slugger, and Touching Home – a vote based, I believe, solely on the blue eyes of Ed Harris.

FINAL RESULTS

1. THE NATURAL

2. FIELD OF DREAMS

 

 

 

 

3. (tie) BULL DURHAM

 

 

 

 

  (tie) A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. MAJOR LEAGUE

 

 

 

 

 

 

One can’t go wrong with any of the Top 5 as they are all quite entertaining. On the list are a few laugh out loud moments, some high baseball drama, a touch of historical significance, and a heavy shot (or two) of melodrama.

One of the frustrating things about baseball (and most sports) movies is that no matter how talented an actor might be, it’s very difficult to look like you can play the game if you really can’t.  Still, it’s the game, and the memories it creates that have such a grip on us.  Whether playing a pick-up game with our buddies (The Sandlot), watching our team play that magical season (Angels in the Outfield) or simply playing catch with dad (Field of Dreams), most of us carry a connection to the game of baseball and a corresponding special memory. That’s why there are more movies about baseball than football, basketball, hockey, golf and tennis combined.  It truly is the great game.

If you are interested in going a little deeper into the baseball vault, allow me to recommend a few that often get overlooked.

IT HAPPENS EVERY SPRING (1949) – comedy about a scientist who discovers a substance that makes baseballs repel wood. It stars Ray Milland and Jean Peters (who became Mrs. Howard Hughes)

THE WINNING TEAM (1952) – the comeback story of Grover Cleveland Alexander, starring Doris Day and Ronald Reagan.  Yes, the same Mr. Reagan who would go on to become Governor of California and President of the United States.

THE BINGO LONG TRAVELING ALL-STARS and MOTOR KINGS (1976) – comedy about a barnstorming Negro League team from the 1930’s featuring Billy Dee Williams, Richard Pryor, James Earl Jones and directed by John Badham

EIGHT MEN OUT (1988) – the story of the 1919 Chicago White Sox (Black Sox) scandal. It features a couple of then 22 year-olds named Charlie Sheen and John Cusack, and is directed by the great John Sayles.

THE SANDLOT (1993) – a story about kids being kids and the role baseball can play in family, friendship and growing up

KEN BURNS’ BASEBALL (1994) – if you have seen Mr. Burns’ documentary work on The Civil War or Jazz, then you have some sense of the detail and level of research that went into his multi-volume history of baseball

SUGAR (2008) – following the story of a talented Dominican minor league pitcher who dreams of the major leagues.

Thanks again to all who voted.  Pass this along to any baseball and/or movie lovers you know.  The final pitch is two more quotes:

It’s a great day for a ball game, let’s play two!”Ernie Banks

I’ve tried ’em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball.” — Annie (Susan Sarandon) in Bull Durham


THE LOVELY BONES (2010)

January 23, 2010

 (1-23-10) Greetings again from the darkness. With the uproar from fans of Alice Sebold’s novel, I am actually glad I have not read it yet (though I will). I found director Peter Jackson’s take to be interesting, attention-grabbing and well filmed, though at times a bit sloppy in story structure.  The fact that the actual murder and rape are not shown did not affect my ability to connect.

Certainly not a who-dunnit, the viewer instead is exposed to the many forms of grief after a family tragedy. I found myself quite angry at Rachel Weisz (the mom) for deserting her kids, though I understand the clash with Mark Wahlberg’s (the dad) approach. Not only was I angry at her as a parent, but as a viewer, her running away meant more screen time for Susan Sarandon, which is rarely a good thing.

Saoirse Ronan (excellent in Atonement) plays Susie, the victim of neighbor Stanley Tucci’s crime. Tucci is my favorite kind of movie villain … non-descript and blends right in. I find that to be the creepiest possible monster – the one that lives amongst us. Some of Jackson’s camera work with Tucci is fascinating and frightening, especially around the dollhouse. We can’t wait to see this guy burn.

Again, I consider myself lucky in that I can appreciate the film for what it is rather than comparing to a great book. Oh, and don’t miss Peter Jackson as the customer playing with the video camera in the store when Wahlberg picks up the first roll of developed film.