Faster


Faster

Dwayne Johnson realizes that sometimes, the People's Elbow just isn't enough.

(2010) Action (CBS) Dwayne Johnson, Billy Bob Thornton, Carla Gugino, Maggie Grace, Moon Bloodgood, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Tom Berenger, Courtney Gains, Mike Epps, Xander Berkeley, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jennifer Carpenter. Directed by George Tillman Jr.

The American action picture is somewhat of an archetype. It borrows heavily from the Western and often employs taciturn loners as heroes. It takes place on windswept plains and empty towns, and sometimes in big cities which convey a different type of loneliness. In this world, a man is measured by the size of his gun and his willingness to use it.

Driver (Johnson) is being released from prison after doing a ten-year stretch. Although the warden (Berenger) chides him to seek help if he finds himself going down the wrong path, Driver already has a direction in mind.

After picking up a 72 Chevy muscle car in a scrap yard, Driver has some business to take care of. You see, the gang that pulled off the bank heist that got him sent to the pen was ambushed by a rival gang who killed them all off and left Driver for dead having taken a bullet to the back of the skull. Surgeons affixed a metal plate to keep his brains from leaking out and now he walks around with a bit of a bad attitude.

Normally Driver could let something like that go but one of the dead was his half-brother and Driver doesn’t cotton much to that. He’s out to kill every mutha on the list of those who were responsible, from the low-lifes who were there to the ones pulling the strings behind the scenes. The latter would rather he didn’t come too close so they send out a hit man (Jackson-Cohen) with a strange British accent and impulse control problems. Killer, as he’s called is more of a dilettante than a professional, but he does have a girl (Grace) of his own and by gum he’s gonna marry that girl if it’s the last thing he does.

Also on Driver’s tale is a Cop (Thornton) who has even more problems than Driver or Killer. Ten days from retirement, he is a heroin user whose estranged wife harangues him for being late picking up his son for a baseball game and he’s more or less a joke to his peers. He has one last chance at redemption, not that Detective Cicero (Gugino), his partner, is interested; she just wants to catch this killer and she doesn’t want a sad sack junkie partner slowing her down.

This sounds more like an action movie of the ‘70s and in some ways it is. There is also a bit of the dark soul of film noir from the ‘40s and in some ways, it is. What it REALLY is, believe it or not, is an old-fashioned morality play. This story is not so much about revenge as it is redemption; it’s not so much about car chases as it is about forgiveness. While the trappings of an action movie are there, there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye.

Part of why the movie succeeds is because of Johnson. The Rock, the Brahma Bull, the People’s Champ. That guy. This is by far his best performance to date. His Driver starts out a killing machine, fueled by rage. As the body count gets higher, so does his sense of remorse, and a feeling that maybe revenge isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. By the time he reaches the final name on his list, a man who has reformed and become a Pentecostal preacher (Akinnuoye-Agbaje) the doubts have really set in. Things are no longer so black and white; it’s easy to walk up to a bad guy and blow the back of his head off if there is no doubt he is bad.

Thornton excels at playing folks who are a little bit flawed; he’s even better at playing folks who are a LOT flawed. That’s just what Cop is – a lot flawed (he actually has a name that appears briefly on a document near the end of the movie, but I didn’t catch it). Thornton gives him the hangdog look of a man who has made more mistakes than he can count and is desperate to try and redeem himself.  There’s that whole redemption thing again.

Gugino, who I still continue to maintain is one of the most criminally underutilized actresses in Hollywood gets wasted again in a role that she could easily have phoned in but chose not to. Her character is suspicious and somewhat hostile at first but ultimately makes some choices that show her to have a soft heart as well…oh yeah, I guess that you could call that…the “R”  word.

This is not a typical action movie and I don’t believe it ever was intended to be. In some ways it’s grim and brutal and the story line is a bit predictable (Da Queen figured out who was behind all the messed-up events long before the Big Reveal in the final reel, which puts her one up on me) and at times it feels like the characters are going through the motions as they drive through the deserts of Bakersfield and Inyo County. It isn’t the kind of entertainment that is mindless and easy (not that there is anything wrong with entertainment that is both of those things). I found myself reacting to the movie with a curious intellectual fascination which is not something you get from an action movie normally. For that reason alone I can recommend this.

REASONS TO GO: While ostensibly an action movie, this is also a morality play on steroids. Johnson makes a welcome return to a genre he is very well suited to.

REASONS TO STAY: The ending is a bit predictable and the movie has a curious lack of energy for a movie of this type.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a surprising amount of drug use in the movie, quite a bit of violence and a fair amount of foul language. There is also some brief sexuality that ought to bother nobody.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first strictly action film that Johnson has done since Doom (2005).

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the car chase sequences look good on the big screen but a lot of the rest of the movie is fairly intimate. Too close to call for me, so I’ll let you make it.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

Tokyo!


Tokyo!

Something emerges from the sewers of Tokyo.

(2008) Drama-Comedy (Liberation) Ayako Fujitani, Ryo Kase, Ayumi Ito, Denis Lavant, Jean-Francois Balmer, Renji Ishibashi, Julie Dreyfus, Yu Aoi, Teruyuki Kagawa, Naoto Takenaka. Directed by Michel Gondry, Leos Carax and Joon-ho Bong

From time to time, a producer will corral highly-regarded directors to make short films about a specific subject. Like any anthology, there will be both high points and low, but the question becomes will there be enough high points to make it worth enduring the low.

The subject of this anthology is…well, Tokyo. The sole link between the three tales here is that they are set in this, the most cosmopolitan of cities. Do we get some kind of insight into the glittering enigma that is Tokyo? Yes indeed, we do which is where the segments seem to hit their stride. There are also portions of each movie that could easily be set anywhere and that’s where the movie is at its weakest.

The first segment is “Interior Design” and is directed by French auteur Gondry (who lately resides in New York), and it is in a kind of a Kafka-esque vein. A would-be director Hiroko (Fujitani) and his mousy girlfriend Akira (Kase) move into the cramped apartment of Akira’s friend Akemi (Ito). The claustrophobic conditions only serve to exacerbate certain truths about their relationship; Hiroko is an overbearing untalented self-centered douchebag.

They look for affordable housing in the city, but like most mega-cities around the world, property values are sky high and affordable housing is at a premium. In overcrowded Tokyo, space is a luxury and some of the “properties” they visit are little more than closets with portholes. The stress and alienation begin to take their toll on Akira who undergoes a remarkable transformation to escape her reality, one that surprisingly brings her the serenity she craves.

The second segment is from avant garde French director Carax, who hasn’t made a film in ten years. In it, a strange, twisted creature (Lavant) emerges from the sewers of Tokyo to wreak havoc. Looking like a deranged leprechaun on a bender, he steals money, flowers and sandwiches from the hands of shocked onlookers and stuffs them all into his mouth with equal enthusiasm (Carax playfully sets much of this scene to the iconic musical score of Godzilla). He is loathsome, disgusting and vile and Tokyo recoils but the news media have a field day.

However, the story goes from curiosity to catastrophe as the creature finds a box of old grenades in his subterranean world and decides to lob them indiscriminately. Dozens are killed, maimed or wounded and the authorities tend to take a dim view of that. The creature is arrested and a dignified Japanese magistrate (Ishibashi) intends to prosecute, but the creature speaks a language that none can understand. How can a proper trial be held if someone speaks a completely unknown language. Fortunately, an ambitious French lawyer (Balmer) claims he can speak the language of the creature and a trial goes on in which everything is translated from gibberish to French to Japanese, which brings the segment to a crashing halt. However, there is a bit of a twist ending that will either leave you giggling or scratching your head.

The final segment is from Korean director Bong (who previously helmed The Host) and is in my opinion the best of the three. In “Shaking Tokyo” a man (Kagawa) lives as a hikikomori, which is the rough equivalent of a shut-in or a hermit, someone who chooses to remain in their apartment/home. With an inheritance from his parents enough to keep his bills paid, he orders pizza and stacks the boxes neatly against a wall. Agoraphobic to a nearly paralyzing degree, his house is meticulously well-ordered to the point it is debatable whether an actual human being lives there.

When a comely pizza delivery girl (Aoi) is there during an earthquake and faints, the man is unsure what to do. He eventually revives her by tapping a tattooed “button” on her arm. Her experience with him causes her to quit her job and live the same way. When another earthquake hits, a more serious one, the man, concerned about her welfare, takes to the streets of Tokyo for the first time in ten years. What he finds there is not what he left behind precisely.

All three segments have something going for them from the twisted metamorphosis in “Interior Design” to the senseless rampage in “Merde” (yes the segment title is a naughty French word) to the sweet underlying emotion in “Shaking Tokyo.” They all have an outsider’s insight into the megalopolis that is Tokyo, from the alienation that big city dwellers often feel in Gondry’s tale, to the sins of a people erupting from beneath the surface when they’ve been repressed to long in “Merde” to the isolationism that drives people to self-exile in “Shaking Tokyo.”

All three of the directors are world class, and they exhibit why they are so highly regarded here. I was particularly impressed with Bong’s piece, which seems to have much more of the soul of Tokyo than either of the first two segments. Gondry is an impressive visual director with a wild imagination; his realistic magic is on display here but as he sometimes is prone to doing, he gets a little too out-there for my own personal taste.

Carax’s segment is a little harder to peg. While the initial scene of the man-creature emerging from the sewers is fun and compelling, when he turns the piece into a courtroom drama it all falls apart. Having two sets of interpreters for the same dialogue may be all right for short periods, but it’s nearly 20 minutes of it; sorry gang, a bit too much.

I’m not sure that this will reveal enough about the soul of Tokyo to really make it worth your while, but there are some insights as I said. I’m just not sure that they aren’t general to any city rather than specific to Tokyo, and if not, why not set this anywhere?

WHY RENT THIS: There are some really compelling moments in each of the three episodes.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: As with any anthology, you take the not so good with the good.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief male nudity as well as some subtitled foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Gondry sequence is based on a graphic novel, “Cecil and Jordan in New York” by Gabrielle Bell.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Each of the segments gets their own making-of featurette, in some cases longer than the actual segment itself.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.2M on an unreported production budget; the film in all likelihood was a box office failure.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Faster

New Releases for the Week of December 17, 2010


December 17, 2010
“What do you mean click your heels three times and you can go home?”

TRON: LEGACY

(Disney) Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, Bruce Boxleitner, James Frain, Beau Garrett, Michael Sheen, Cillian Murphy, Daft Punk. Directed by Joseph Kosinski

It’s finally here! Sam Flynn investigates a signal that could only have come from his father, once the world’s leading video game developer who had disappeared 20 years earlier. His investigation finds him beamed into an incredible digital world that his father helped create only it has advanced a great deal in 20 years. Behind the scenes is an evil force that will do whatever it takes to keep both Flynns trapped in the electronic landscape.

See the trailer, clips, promos, interviews and music videos here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG (for sequences of sci-fi action violence and brief mild language)

All Good Things

(Magnolia) Ryan Gosling, Kirsten Dunst, Frank Langella, Philip Baker Hall. The movie is loosely based on the story of Robert Durst, the notorious scion of a wealthy New York real estate family. His wife Kathie disappeared back in 1982 and has never been found. Durst has been accused of the crime (as well as others afterwards) but was never convicted. Here in Orlando you can see this exclusively at the Enzian Theatre.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Mystery

Rating: R (for drug use, violence, language and some sexuality)

Black Swan

(Fox Searchlight) Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey. A ballerina in an elite New York City ballet company is finally getting the break she’s been waiting for as the lead in Swan Lake. However, the arrival of a new dancer who is far more sensual than she complicates matters and puts her ambition in jeopardy. She will need to get in touch with her own dark side which leads to frightening complications. This was originally not scheduled for wide release until January but the limited release did so well that it was rushed into theaters this week. It is also considered a leading Oscar contender next year, with Portman pretty much a lock for a Best Actress nomination.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a music video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Psychological Thriller

Rating: R (for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use)

The Fighter

(Paramount) Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo. The true story of boxer Irish Mickey Ward who overcame incredible adversity to become a champion. All four lead actors were nominated for Golden Globes, as did the movie itself for Best Drama. At this point it is considered one of the leading contenders for Oscar gold at next year’s ceremony.

See the trailer, interviews, promos and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Sports Drama

Rating: R (for language throughout, drug content, some violence and sexuality)

How Do You Know

(Columbia) Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Paul Rudd, Jack Nicholson. Director James Brooks (Terms of Endearment) returns with a comedy centered around a love triangle between a businessman with integrity who is about to be indicted for fraud, a narcissistic professional baseball player and a softball player recently cut from her team and having to redefine her identity. Sounds like a busy afternoon.

See the trailer, promo and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content and some strong language)

Eagle Eye


Eagle Eye

Shia LaBeouf discovers that the Republicans have control of the House.

(2008) Action Thriller (DreamWorks) Shia LaBeouf, Michelle Monaghan, Billy Bob Thornton, Rosario Dawson, Michael Chiklis, Anthony Mackie, Ethan Embry, Anthony Azizi, Bill Smitrovich, William Sadler. Directed by D.J. Caruso

George Orwell, a writer in the 1930s, predicted a society in which a somewhat fascistic government has complete knowledge of your activities and observes you via cameras placed everywhere. In this society, the rights of the individual have become secondary to the rights of the state, and the “Big Brother” figure, meant to be reassuring and friendly, becomes sinister and twisted.

Does any of that sound familiar? Our society has used defense against terrorism as an excuse to invade our privacy in every conceivable way. Our phone calls are monitored without our knowledge. Our internet usage is monitored without our knowledge. Our credit cards and bank accounts are monitored without our knowledge. I wouldn’t be surprised if our bowel movements are also being monitored. If that all sounds a bit paranoid, it’s probably from watching too many movies like this one.

Jerry Shaw (LaBeouf) is a slacker who works in a copy store (one not unlike Kinko’s) and lives hand to mouth. He’s far smarter than the job he does requires, but he seems to be pretty satisfied with underachieving. He then gets devastating news; his twin brother, a high ranking officer in the military, has passed away suddenly in an unusual accident.

Jerry goes home for the funeral where he and his father get into the same old argument; “When are you going to do something with your life? When are you going to be more like your brother?” Blah blah blah.  When Jerry gets home his empty bank account suddenly has three quarters of a million dollars in it. When he opens his apartment door, there are cases of weapons, explosives and enough stuff to blow up a whole chunk of city. He also gets a phone call from a mostly expressionless female voice informing him he needs to leave the apartment within ten seconds or be arrested by the F.B.I. Jerry is understandably overwhelmed and a bit skeptical…until ten seconds later when the F.B.I. barges into his apartment and arrests him.

He is being held as a terrorist by Agent Thomas Morgan (Thornton) in a cushy high rise which of course is what most F.B.I. offices seem to look like these days. In the meantime, Rachel Hollomon (Monaghan) sees off her son at the train station; he’s going with his elementary school band to play for the President in Washington D.C. She also gets a phone call from the same expressionless female voice that called Jerry, warning her that if she doesn’t follow instructions to the letter, her son’s train will be derailed. To prove that They can do it, the expressionless female voice shows live security cam pictures of her son on television sets in a nearby electronic store window (do electronic stores even have television sets in windows anymore?) so she does what she is told.

Back to Jerry. He receives another phone call from the expressionless female voice essentially telling him to duck. More of a believer this time, he does duck – particularly when he sees a giant crane arm hurtling towards the window. He is told to jump and with F.B.I. agents shooting at him, he jumps. Eventually he winds up on an elevated train – did I mention this was set in Chicago? Not that it matters. In any case, Jerry loses his cell phone so the expressionless female voice – or EFV as I’ll refer to it from here on in – calls him on someone else’s cell phone. Or, shall I be more accurate and say everyone else’s cell phone.

It becomes obvious that the EFV is the voice of an organization that has control of just about everything electronic, from traffic signals to cell phones to automated car crushers to satellites to power grids. That in itself is pretty impressive, but what does the EFV want, what part do nobodies like Jerry and Rachel play in the grand scheme of things and when is the next car chase?

Those are the kinds of questions you’ll be asking yourself when you watch this movie. Director D.J. Caruso previously worked with LaBeouf on the much better Disturbia which was also much smaller in scope. Not that I mind bigger scope, by the way.

The problem here is not so much with the acting, although LaBeouf and Monaghan don’t get much time to do any; they’re far too busy hurtling from one action sequence to another at breakneck speeds. The problem here is that the writers kind of write themselves into a corner. They make the EFV so omnipresent, so powerful that you wonder why someone so smart and so in charge couldn’t just take much easier short cuts rather than running two bedraggled citizens ragged on a cross country chase.

The movie obviously owes a lot to some classic suspense movies, like The Man Who Knew Too Much and movies like War Games and Colossus: The Forbin Project (while I’m dancing around who is behind the EFV, most folks know by now who it is either from having seen the movie, reading about it or just reading this review). It feels a bit like a pastiche, although Caruso proves himself more than capable with action sequences. There are some pretty nifty ones here, particularly one that takes place in an airport baggage conveyer system, and near the end in the streets of Washington D.C.

Dawson enters the movie early on as a military intelligence officer investigating the death of Jerry’s twin. She stumbles on this whole mess by mistake and winds up making a nice foil to Thornton’s corn pone F.B.I. agent; the two bicker quite a bit from the movie and provide some much-needed comic relief.

The key to enjoying a movie like this one is understanding its limitations. This isn’t meant to be examined seriously or given much attention to its own internal logic. The fact is that Eagle Eye does what it means to do quite well. It’s a roller coaster, not a math quiz, and it’s meant to be enjoyed without thinking too much about it. Just put your hands in the air and let the ride take you where it will.

WHY RENT THIS: Some great action and wonderful stunts to be seen here. The movie raises some interesting questions about how safe are we with all the surveillance that goes on, and how easily that information can be abused.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: There is a bit of a preposterous factor, and LaBeouf and Monaghan do not make for the most compelling leads ever.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action and violence, as well as some choice words but nothing I would fret too much about.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The voice of the EFV a.k.a. Aria, the computer program which is heard over cell phones and in the underground bunker, was voiced by an uncredited Julianne Moore.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The standard single disc DVD release has no features to speak of; on the 2-disc special DVD edition and the Blu-Ray, viewers are treated to a discussion between Caruso and his mentor, director John Badham whose War Games is obviously an inspiration for this (Caruso served as a second unit director on that film). There’s also an interesting but generic piece on the constitutionality of surveillance.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $178.1M on an $80M production budget; the movie made money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Tokyo!

Righteous Kill


Righteous Kill

This is what happen to screenwriters who deliver subpar scripts to De Niro and Pacino.

(2008) Police Drama (Overture) Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Carla Gugino, Donnie Wahlberg, 50 Cent, John Leguizamo, Brian Dennehy, Trilby Glover, Melissa Leo, Alan Rosenberg, Rob Dyrdek. Directed by Jon Avnet

It takes a special kind of person to be a police officer. The temptation of corruption is always there, plus there’s the endless string of disappointment and frustration as felon after felon that you’ve worked hard to convict gets let off on technicalities or under the auspices of a sympathetic judge.

Turk Cowan (De Niro) and Rooster Fisk (Pacino) are New York City Police Department detectives. They make a pretty good team; Rooster is the brains, Turk is the brawn. They are pretty well regarded by their peers, although there are some whispers that once upon a time Turk manufactured some evidence to put a killer away.

Well, that part is true, and it might be that he’s up to his old tricks again. Guilty parties who had escaped justice are turning up dead with the same bad poetry left with the bodies that Turk had left previously. Nobody is really mourning the bad guys, but the cops know that if one of their own falls under suspicion, they all are under suspicion and so Rooster knows he must go about protecting his partner by finding the real killer.

This is standard cop show plotting, not something you’d put on the plates of two of the most decorated actors in history, but here it is. Of course, Pacino and De Niro could elevate anything put before them; heck, you cast Pacino as Bella Swan and De Niro as Edward, you could even make the Twilight series more interesting. Okay, maybe not.

But the two of them need to be at the top of their game, right? Not here they’re not. Pacino operates barely above a whisper most of the time, sort of like Michael Corleone having a real bad sore throat. De Niro also seems oddly dispirited, like his mind was elsewhere. Maybe Jake LaMotta took one too many to the head.

Jon Avnet also has better films than this one on his resume. There just seems to be a feeling of punching a time clock here. This is a pretty impressive cast when you look at it on paper; it seems almost unheard of that Donnie Wahlberg would give the most memorable performance out of all of them, but there you have it. Wahlberg, as a fellow detective, is the most believable and the most intense. If everyone had given the kind of energy to their performance that Wahlberg did, this movie would have been a whole different story.

But when you give Carla Gugino a role which is basically all about having rough sex with De Niro (who ironically enough played her father in A Boy’s Life), it’s a waste of a terrific actress, one who doesn’t get enough work as it is. It’s not that Gugino isn’t sexy or kinky enough; it’s just you need to give her more to work with than just her sexuality. Take that away from the role and you have a television medical examiner part that could be done by any actress who can pronounce the jargon.

When you get a team up of De Niro and Pacino, you set expectations extremely high. The two have only had essentially six minutes of screen time together prior to this movie which, to be fair, gives them an awful lot of screen time together. The problem is that you wonder why they cast these two in roles that any halfway decent actor could do, and you get the feeling that this was simply stunt casting that the two bought into for the paycheck. Not that they shouldn’t get paid – after all, they’ve contributed some of the most memorable movie moments of the past twenty years – but Righteous Kill is very much like seeing a match race between Jeff Gordon and Jimmy Johnson, only to see them both coast around the track.

WHY RENT THIS: A case can be made for Pacino and De Niro to be the two greatest actors to appear in American films, and seeing them together is a big treat.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The rest of the movie, particularly the script, doesn’t fit the prestige of the two leads.

FAMILY VALUES: As with most police dramas there’s plenty of violence and bad language, but in this one there’s some kinky sexuality, as well as a little drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Pacino and De Niro have appeared in three movies together; in the first Godfather Part II, they both played gangsters. In the second, Heat, one played a gangster and one played a cop and in this one, both play cops.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on the temptations of police work, the kind of personalities attracted to the job and real life cases of corruption and brutality.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $77.4M on a $60M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Eagle Eye

The Brothers Bloom


The Brothers Bloom

Now that's a fine how-da-ya-do!

(2009) Offbeat Caper Comedy (Summit) Adrian Brody, Rachel Weisz, Mark Ruffalo, Rinko Kikuchi, Robbie Coltrane, Maximillian Schell, Ricky Jay (voice), Zachary Gordon, Max Records, Andy Nyman. Directed by Rian Johnson

When you’re a con man, there is no real life. There is no trust, there is nothing that isn’t scripted down to the finest detail, there isn’t anything really exciting. That’s the way it’s done, at least, by this brother team.

Brothers Stephen (Ruffalo) and Bloom (Brody) are con artists, and they would tell you there is considerable art in what they do. For Stephen, the ultimate con is where everyone gets what they want; for Bloom, he just wants a life that is unscripted, one he can call his own – one that isn’t quite so predictable. Obviously, he hasn’t lived the life the rest of us lead.

We see them as youngsters in foster care, having been thrown out of every reputable foster home in the state of New Jersey – that’s about 38 of them back in the day (Sha-zing!) when young Stephen (Records) organized the first con starring his brother (Gordon) in an effort to get him to socialize. Twenty years later and Stephen is still trying to get his brother to be less socially awkward.

Now they are accompanied by Bang Bang (Kikuchi), a mostly silent Japanese demolitions expert who excels in making things blow up real good. For Bloom, however, the rose has lost its shine. He is tired of the game, tired of the life, tired of not knowing who he is. He wants out. As is de rigueur for con films, this is to be their last job, even though Stephen still delights and revels in the life.

The mark is Penelope Stamp (Weisz), an agoraphobic heiress who is bored bored bored with her life, so much so that she collects hobbies like juggling chainsaws on a unicycle, skateboarding, break dancing and performing unnecessary breast enlargements on alcoholic women. Okay, the last one wasn’t in the movie but she may well have done it. After a carefully orchestrated encounter with Bloom turns into a near-death experience, she gets roped into his world hook line and sinker.

And what a world it is, replete with vaguely threatening sorts (Coltrane as the Curator) and out-and-out threatening sorts (Schell as Diamond Dog, the mentor to the Brothers and now a rival) and, of course, exotic Eastern European locations. The issue becomes that Bloom begins to fall in love with the mark, and how can you con someone when you care about them?

Director Johnson debuted in 2005 with Brick, a kind of film noir hardboiled detective movie set in a modern California high school. Although Da Queen didn’t like it much, I respected it for its cadences, the obvious love of the source material and the imaginative genre-bending that was done. There are some of those elements here as well.

Brody is making a career out of the sad sack romantic, and nobody does it better. He’s not really the sweetest person on earth nor is he the handsomest, but he always seems endearing enough to charm the pants off (literally) nurturing young women. Ruffalo gets to play a very meaty part that doesn’t look like it so much on the surface, but he imbues Stephen with enough quirks and just enough compassion to make him really compelling by film’s end.

Think of Johnson stylistically as a cross between Wes Anderson and David Mamet; I’d say overall the tone of the movie combines Mamet’s House of Games with Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. Anyone who knows these movies will either be straining at the leash to go see The Brothers Bloom based on that description or will be running for the nearest exit.

I get it; the movie is quirky and offbeat which can be a turn-off for mainstream moviegoers who like their movies pre-packaged with predictable storylines, well-known actors and Hollywood endings. This ain’t for you, folks; this is for those who love to be surprised and pulled every which way at the movies. This doesn’t have the wallop of The Sting but it does keep you guessing throughout the movie until you don’t know which way is up, which way is down or which way to the popcorn stand. If you’re headed that way, pick me up a bag with extra butter. If I’m going to chow down on The Brothers Bloom, I might as well go all the way.

WHY RENT THIS: Johnson is a phenomenal talent behind the camera and the movie may be quirky but it is ultimately endearing.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The tone of the movie is offbeat and American audiences don’t do offbeat.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a touch of foul language, some brief violence and a bit of implied sensuality but overall nothing most kids haven’t already seen before. 

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The various hobbies “collected”  by Penelope in the montage, actress Rachel Weisz learned to do every single one of them.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.5M on an unreported production budget; although this is an indie as it gets, chances are it didn’t make any money.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Righteous Kill

Pirate Radio


Pirate Radio

The one drawback to living aboad ship is all the cockroaches.

(2009) Rock ‘n’ Roll Comedy (Focus) Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans, Nick Frost, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Sturridge, Jack Davenport, Emma Thompson, January Jones, Gemma Arterton, Tom Brooke. Directed by Richard Curtis

As a former rock critic, I find myself somewhat amused, puzzled and alarmed all at once when I regard the state of rock and roll. Originally, the music was supposed to be rebellious; it was a symbol of rising up against the system and crafting something new, different and exciting. Now, it is the system. I guess that’s true of most things that start off that way.

To many, the apex of rock and roll occurred in the 60s, and the epicenter of that apex was in England. Some of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time were all practicing their art with relish and relevance – the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Who and so on and so forth. Yet if you wanted to hear those great British bands in Great Britain, you couldn’t. The BBC, the government-controlled broadcasting company, refused to play it on moral grounds, allowing rock and roll a begrudged hour or two per week and even then the songs that were played were far more middle of the road pop than rock.

When a need arises, trust some enterprising soul to figure out a way to fill that need and so pirate radio was born. A bunch of DJs and mariners rented a merchant vessel, outfitted it with a huge bloody antenna, and anchored in international waters, beaming the sounds of the Troggs, Leonard Cohen and Jimi Hendrix to a grateful nation. The most famous pirate station was Radio Caroline (which still broadcasts on the internet to this day, by the way).

While this crew isn’t Radio Caroline (the people and events that inspired the movie were scattered on the many dozens of pirate radio ships that encircled the British Isles), they are zany in their own right. Aboard Radio Rock is the debonair and irreverent Captain Quentin (Nighy), The Count (Hoffman), an American DJ who’s enormously popular and is the heart and soul of Radio Rock; Thick Kevin (Brooke), not the brightest bulb in the chandelier; Dr. Dave (Frost), a somewhat blindly trusting DJ who ought to know better; Gavin Cavanagh (Ifans), who is the most popular DJ in pirate radio and begins a fierce rivalry with the Count when he’s brought aboard Radio Rock, and young Carl (Sturridge) who is actually the protagonist, a virgin whose free-spirited mum (Thompson) sent him aboard the pirate radio vessel to sort himself out with his godfather, Captain Quentin. Bad idea, mum.

Curtis, who also directed Love Actually which is possibly the best romantic comedy of the past decade, knows how to work with an ensemble (Thompson and Nighy also worked for Curtis in that cast) and you never feel that any character is given short shrift; well, not really anyway. Carl is a bit too bland a character whose only trait seems to be his virginity, which is more a lack of opportunity than a characteristic. He is the audience surrogate to somewhat of a degree whose only function is to sit back and shake his head at the antics of the DJs. Those guys!

And the antics are highly entertaining, particularly as they import groupies to sail out aboard the ship to relieve these intrepid men of their sexual frustrations (hey, they’re both sailors and disc jockeys – can any human being get more inherently horny?) and not coincidently, bare their breasts on-camera. Hey, sex sells damn it.

Hoffman, Nighy, Ifans and Frost are always entertaining, and seeing them work together is a nice treat. Branagh plays Dormandy, ostensibly the villain of the piece, the tight-arsed minister in charge of ridding Britain of pirate radio forever. He is aided by the appropriately named Twatt (Davenport), the assistant in charge of finding dirty tricks and loopholes. He would later cross the Atlantic and become a personal advisor to President Nixon (just kidding). Both Branagh and Davenport are solid.

What will stay with you from this movie is the absolutely astonishing soundtrack which contains some of the best music from the late ‘60s. Some critics have moaned and groaned about some of the songs being from after 1966, the year this is supposed to take place. As Jay Leno might say, SHUT UP! Nobody cares about your knowledge of music history. The music fits the story and the songs are awesome. Just sit back and listen and let the grown-ups talk.

This isn’t as good a film as Love Actually but it’s pretty dang good all the same. For those of my generation, the music is a trip straight down Memory Lane (with a brief stop at Penny Lane, although the Beatles didn’t grant the rights and releases to their music so they don’t appear on the soundtrack). Curtis does a good job of evoking the era and keeps things light and a bit manic, all leaving a good taste in the mouth. It may only be rock and roll but I like it – and so did millions of others, including you I’d bet. While this movie didn’t fare very well box office-wise, it deserves a better fate, if just for Curtis’ taste in music alone.

WHY RENT THIS: A phenomenal soundtrack and a general sense of fun and bonhomie pervade the film. The actors look like they’re having the time of their lives.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot meanders down into Unnecessaryland and the whole virginity subplot seemed less enticing than the goings on with the DJs.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the language is blue, but not as blue as the bare behinds which were hanging out in the cold North Sea air.  

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the movie is a work of fiction, many of the events depicted happened on a variety of pirate radio ships, particularly the most infamous Radio Caroline, whose red and white color scheme was borrowed by the Radio Rock vessel. A DJ did get married on board a pirate radio ship, and Radio Caroline’s first ship did sink (although the station eventually got a second ship which remained in use until 1991; it sits as something of a museum and many of the artifacts from the vessel were used in this film).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition contains a short but informative featurette on the history of pirate radio in the UK. Unfortunately, the DVD consumer gets shafted again.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $36.4M on a $50M production budget; any way you slice it, the movie flopped at the box office.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Brothers Bloom

Police, Adjective (Politist, adjectiv)


Police, Adjective

Apparently Ion Stoica didn't get the direction for everyone to face the window, or he's just a maverick at heart.

(2009) Comedy (IFC) Dragos Bucur, Vlad Ivanov, Irina Saulescu, Ion Stoica, Marian Ghenea, Cosmin Selesi, George Remes, Dan Cogalniceanu, Serban Georgevici, Alexandru Sabadac. Directed by Corneliu Porumboiu

When confronted by conscience, the expression of our actions can sometimes be as important as the actions themselves. It is not only important to do the right thing, it is also important to express why the thing you’re doing is right.

Cristi (Bucur) is a cop in the provincial Romanian city of Vaslui. He has been given orders to keep an eye on a young teenager who smokes hashish with his friends on a daily basis; one of them has snitched on the teen, claiming that he has been supplying them with dope. It is a dreary and boring job as Cristi spends hours just watching the teens smoke.

His wife Anca (Saulescu) is a schoolteacher who is a bit stuffy about grammar and syntax. The two debate the literary interpretation of an inane Romanian pop song one evening after dinner; the wife listens to the song over and over again obsessively while Cristi’s nature is to analyze what the song means, but in a more rational matter; he doesn’t have a lot of room in his world for interpretation.

But apparently this conversation opens his eyes to the idea that he does have room, and he begins to make it when it comes to the teenager. If Cristi arrests him, the boy will be put in jail for a minimum of five years and more likely eight. The boy’s life and future will be utterly ruined. To further complicate matters, Cristi strongly suspects that the law governing this misdemeanor will be changed a few years down the road when Romania joins the European Union. He also believes that the teenager was snitched on so that the informant could make a move on the boy’s girlfriend. There seems to be a great deal of injustice happening in this small, insignificant crime.

When Cristi’s superior officer, Anghelache (Ivanov) pressures him for an arrest, Cristi flat-out refuses to arrest the boy. He simply doesn’t want the ruining of the boy’s life on his conscience. Anghelache, a somewhat fatherly figure, doesn’t hesitate. Out comes the dictionary in a scene that is at once gripping and droll as the two debate the meanings of words like “police” and “conscience.”

I know this all sounds a bit cerebral and maybe even boring but the movie is anything but. This is a fascinating slice of life that masquerades as a police procedural. Here in the States, we think of cop shows mostly as CSI-like, or like “Law and Order,” with brilliant detectives out there catching bad guys in a very black and white milieu.

Here, there isn’t necessarily a bad guy, just a kid who is making a bad life choice. When Cristi’s conscience comes into play the movie elevates into something else completely. Who knew that a scene in which two people essentially debate the meanings of certain words could be so riveting?

Not everyone will agree with me on this. I will grant you that the pace is exceedingly slow, maybe too much for American audiences to really tolerate. Much of the movie is dialogue-free, but when the characters do talk they all have something to say. Even the inanities like the bureaucrats who make excuses why files can’t be delivered to the cop’s desk in a timely manner, or a fellow cop (Stoica) who is offended at not having been invited to his partner’s home for a meal, have a richness to them that fill up the palate of real life, something that Romanian films have been extremely successful at doing over the past decade as their film industry has become one of the finest in the world in terms of consistent quality.

Bucur has a sad sack quality to him and is in many ways the most loosely drawn character of the lot; he is a bit of an everyman who I think is a means of representing the audience in a somewhat absurd situation. Ivanov, who played the sinister abortionist in Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days is superb as the fatherly but officious police captain who not only wants his officer to enforce the law but to understand why it is important he do so without question. It’s an interesting debate that you want to take part of yourself as you watch, always the sign of a movie that is succeeding in its goals.

WHY RENT THIS: A very interesting look at the other side of police work and the value of conscience in law enforcement. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The pace is snail-like to the extreme and impatient audiences who tire of reading subtitles might give up on it quickly.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some depiction of teen drug use as well as a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Romania’s official submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscar of 2009.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Pirate Radio

127 Hours


127 Hours

James Franco might just be looking at Oscar gold.

(2010) True Life Drama (Fox Searchlight) James Franco, Amber Tamblyn, Kate Mara, Clemence Posey, Kate Burton, Treat Williams, Sean Bott, John Lawrence, Rebecca Olson, Lizzy Caplan, Pieter Jan Brugge, Jeffrey Wood. Directed by Danny Boyle

Being capable can sometimes be confused with being arrogant. However, being capable can sometimes cause one to become arrogant. Arrogance can then lead to hubris and that can lead to the kind of disaster that can change a life completely.

Aron Ralston (Franco) is the prototypical Type A personality. He never met a physical activity he didn’t like, a challenge he couldn’t face. He’s at his happiest when he’s alone in the canyons of Utah’s Canyonland National Park, even though it’s a bit of a hike from his Colorado home. Sure, he has friends like Brian (Lawrence) whom he works with and even Rana (Olson), an ex-girlfriend who sees through the cocky bravado and pronounces that he will end up alone.

Still, Aron is naturally charming as he proves when he meets a couple of pretty young women (Mara, Tamblyn) out hiking. They’re lost, he knows his way around and soon they’re frolicking around in an underground pond. When they separate, one leans into the other and says “You know, I don’t think we even figured into his day.” And they’re right, although he will eventually look back on their encounter with some regret.

He’s going to have the opportunity to dwell on that, and other aspects of his life. While crossing a cut canyon, he steps on a boulder he thought was stable and goes plummeting, downwards-like. When he lands, he discovers the rather inconvenient fact that his arm is pinned to the canyon wall by a boulder the size of a home AC unit. He tries to move the boulder, but no good. He tries pounding the boulder, unsuccessfully. He takes a deep breath, lays out all the contents of his backpack and tries to think. The sinking realization is that nobody knows where he is. Nobody can hear his cries for help. His water supply is limited as is his food. He has no real tools that can extricate him from the situation apart from a multi-purpose tool with a dull knife blade.

After freaking out a little bit, Aron realizes the grim situation he is in. He has only enough water to last him a few days. Nothing short of a jackhammer is going to get that rock off of him. He is going to die. 

Dying is a funny thing, particularly when you have time to wait for it. You are given a chance to reflect back on your life, see the road not traveled and figure out who you are and what didn’t work. And, as his water begins to run out, the lack of sleep and the exposure to the elements begins to play with his mind. And as his time runs out, he is faced with a devastating choice between the will to survive and a horror that thee and me could never contemplate.

Most of you know by now that Aron Ralston is an actual person who went through this, and that devastating choice was whether to saw off his own arm with the dull knife or else wait to die. Obviously he chose the former, and stumbled out of that canyon to be rescued by a pair of hikers who alerted authorities.

You wonder how a film set in a cramped space for 127 hours – a little over five days – can be a riveting experience but Oscar-winning director Boyle makes it so. Even though for the most part you know what everything is leading to, you get to see inside the person that Ralston is. During his ordeal, he made several entries on a digital video camera that essentially detailed what he was going through but also served as a goodbye and apology to his family for the times he put his own needs ahead of theirs. In the end, he realizes that he had insulated himself from the things in life that were most important.

Franco is an expressive and often physical actor who is perfectly cast here. This might be the defining performance of his career; it is as sure a bet to be nominated for the Best Actor Oscar in a few months as any performance this year is. He is onscreen for the entire movie and spends much of it alone. He has to capture the attention and imagination of the audience without interacting with anybody other than himself, and he does it in a way that is both natural and unforced.

The amputation scene is not as graphic as you might think, although there are reports of people fainting during it. It certainly is disturbing and I would think long and hard if I were the sensitive sort about putting myself through it. If you have someone who is affected by such, you might want to take it under advisement that they might not do well at this movie although the scene isn’t gratuitous in the least.

The cinematography here is breathtaking, utilizing the majestic desolation of the Utah landscape as a character in the movie. It is this that Aron disrespects and winds up paying a heavy price.

REASONS TO GO: A career-making performance by Franco and another great movie by Boyle. This is the kind of movie that stays with you long after its over.

REASONS TO STAY: Sensitive sorts will be disturbed by the amputation scene, and claustrophobics might be made uncomfortable with the surroundings in the film.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of bad language (hey, you’d curse if you had a boulder on your arm) and some pretty disturbing scenes of self-amputation that are definitely not for the squeamish.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The camcorder that James Franco uses in the film is the same one used by Ralston on his ill-fated trek. The video he shot had only previously been shown to family and close friends, but Boyle and Franco were allowed to watch it for accuracy sake. The video is kept in a vault for safekeeping.

HOME OR THEATER: Much of the film takes place in a cut canyon, a very narrow environment, but some of the shots of Canyonlands National Park are just breathtaking and should be seen on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Police, Adjective

Broken Embraces (Los abrazos rotos)


Broken Embraces

An embrace to take them away from the hideousness of the decor, at least for a little while.

(2009) Thriller (Sony Classics) Penelope Cruz, Lluis Homar, Blanca Portilla, Tamar Novas, Kiti Manver, Jose Luis Garcia, Chus Lampreave, Lola Duenas, Angela Molina, Ruben Ochandiano. Directed by Pedro Almodovar

We are all of us the sum total of all the people we have been in our lives. That which we are is a direct result of that which we were. In some cases, what we were is so far from what we are now that they are almost different lives.

Harry Caine – a clever play of Orson Welles’ Harry Lime (The Third Man) and Citizen Kane – is the pseudonym that Mateo Blanco (Homar) has taken. Blanco was once one of the world’s leading film directors, but a tragic auto accident robbed him of his sight. He is still a successful screenwriter, living in a Madrid apartment cared for by longtime personal assistant Judit Garcia (Portilla) and her sweet son Diego (Novas). Judit has deeper feelings for Mateo than just being his assistant, incidentally. This is neither here nor there in terms of the plot; it’s just the way it is.

Mateo although middle aged and blind, is still a bit of a playa – he just uses his disability to help get attractive women in the sack. He has evidently always been a ladies’ man. One day, while Judit is out of town on business, Mateo is approached by a young man calling himself Ray X (Ochandiano) who wants Mateo to write a film with a very specific plot. Mateo is intrigued until he realizes who Ray X is – and what he really wants. Diego, who hasn’t a clue, asks Mateo to tell him. Mateo gives him a story, the defining story of his life and of the last movie he ever directed, “Girls and Suitcases.”

It was the early 90s and Mateo was on top of his game. One of his producers, Ernesto Martel (Gomez), a wealthy industrialist arranges to have his mistress Lena (Cruz) granted a screen test. Mateo isn’t expecting much but does it to keep his investor happy. Instead, he is completely entranced by this beautiful woman whom he falls deeply in love with.

Soon, Martel begins to suspect that his mistress is cheating on him and sics his son on them to film everything they do, ostensibly in the mask of a documentary filmmaker capturing the making of the movie. And, if you haven’t figured it out by now, Martel’s son is none other than Ray X. Soon, the tension begins to escalate and Martel begins to show signs that he is willing to do anything to keep his mistress as his own – up to and including murder.

This isn’t typical of an Almodovar movie. For one thing, the story is told much more conventionally than in most of his films. However, his fondness for combining genres – in this case suspense, romance, film noir and even comedy – is very much in evidence here. This is the most Hitchcock-like of Almodovar’s movies; I can certainly see the master of suspense making a movie like that were he alive today, although knowing Hitchcock he’d have cast a blonde (someone like Naomi Watts) in the lead role.

Almodovar always seems to bring out the best in Penelope Cruz and this emerges as another great performance by the Spanish actress. She is certainly a victim in many ways in this movie, but she is also a victimizer, one who wraps men around her small fingers and uses her sexuality to get what she wants. When she finally finds a soulmate, she finds herself in a dilemma of her own making; only she knows what Martel is capable of and she is absolutely terrified.

I also like Homar, a veteran Catalonian actor from Barcelona (and who previously worked with Almodovar on Bad Education) who bears a slight resemblance to Kelsey Grammer here. He has two different roles to play; one the confident director, the other the embittered blind writer. The differences are subtle, but Homar pulls it off nicely.

Almodovar is fond of bright colors, and there are a whole lot of them here – apparently to his mind the Spain of the 1990s looked a lot like the Britain of the 1970s. There are a lot of reds in the movie and I don’t mean commies or retired assassins. I mean the shade of red; it is noticeable in nearly every scene.

People looking for Almodovar here will see glimpses of him but this is perhaps his most mainstream movie ever. People looking for a conventional suspense movie will finds glimpses of one but this is a bit on the art house side. I can say it is compellingly written, with well-drawn characters and an ending that while it doesn’t come from left field, at least is satisfactory enough. I’ve never been Almodovar’s biggest fan, but if you’re like me you might find this movie a bit more palatable than some of his other films which tend to be quirkier than this.

WHY RENT THIS: A very well-made thriller, not to Hitchcock-like standards but certainly in the style thereof. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This is very different from Almodovar’s other movies; his fans may not care for it as much.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s sex, drugs and a little bit of rock and roll. There’s also some off-camera spousal abuse.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth collaboration between Cruz and Almodovar.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a fabulous feature that simply captures Almodovar directing Cruz and how the two have developed a kind of cinematic shorthand in their working relationship. There is also a short film ostensibly directed by Mateo Blanco.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $31.0M on an unreported production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: 127 Hours