Inside Llewyn Davis


The Greenwich Village People.

The Greenwich Village People.

(2013) Drama (CBS) Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake, Garrett Hedlund, F. Murray Abraham, Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett, Max Casella, Jerry Grayson, Jeanine Serralles, Adam Driver, Stark Sands, Alex Karpovsky, Helen Hong, Bradley Mott, Michael Rosner, Bonnie Rose, Sylvia Cauders, Amelia McClain. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

Some places and times held a sort of magic that created oodles of great music that has stood the test of time – places like Athens, Georgia in the mid-80s, San Francisco in the late 60s, Manchester, England in the 90s and Greenwich Village in the late 50s, early 60s. In the last of these, beatniks and folk musicians were thrown together to begin a phase of rock and roll exemplified by Bob Dylan and Dave van Ronk, among others.

In this milieu toils Llewyn Davis (Isaac), once a member of the duo Timlin and Davis – until his partner threw himself off the George Washington Bridge in a fit of melancholy that was as counterculture as a suicide can get (“You’re supposed to throw yourself off the Brooklyn Bridge,” grouses one character. “The George Washington Bridge? Who does that?!?”) and now Davis is trying to go it alone. It is winter in the Village and he has no money, existing from gig to gig and without a winter coat. He relies on the generosity of his friends to give him a couch to sleep on during the night and maybe a cup of coffee or some food.

When he accidentally lets out the cat of his Upper West Side buddies the Gorfeins (Phillips, Bartlett) who essentially show off Llewyn as their bohemian folk singer friend, he embarks on an odyssey of his own that takes him into the life of Jean (Mulligan), a fellow folk singer and a member of the duo Jim (Timberlake) and Jean who has gotten pregnant. Who is the father? Could be Jim, whom she is married to and wants to have a baby with…or it might be Llewyn whom she slept with in an inadvisable night of drunken regret. She doesn’t want to have the baby if it’s at all possible that the baby could be his. Fortunately for her, he has an abortionist on call for what seems to be a string of brief flings.

He ends up on a road trip to Chicago with a taciturn driver (Hedlund) and a garrulous jazz musician (Goodman) who when he’s not sleeping is regaling Llewyn with highly mannered stories about jazz hipsters he has known. He goes to meet an impresario (Abraham) his agent (Grayson) was supposed to have sent a copy of his album to…but didn’t. In tow is this cat who is the albatross around the neck of the Ancient Mariner.

The Coens specialize in taking ancient stories and modernizing them and there are elements of this here, not just in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner but also in their old standard Odyssey as well as maybe a few newer tales. While there is a good deal of humor here, it is less in the dry, deadpan style they’re known for and a bit more subtle and a lot darker.

Oscar Isaac kills here. Not only does he sing and play guitar, he also acts. Llewyn Davis is a bit of a prick; he uses his friends and when they’re usefulness has been exhausted, he moves on. He is frustrated and is known to lash out without provocation and he is a bit on the arrogant side, Starving Artist division. Yet even despite Llewyn Davis’ many faults, Isaac imbues him with a kind of empathy that allows him to see through the pain. While he doesn’t necessarily like people all that much, he relates to them real well. Isaac, who has been one great role away from stardom, has found that role. Expect him to be an A-lister from here on in.

There are some fine supporting performances here as well, from the shrewish folk singer by Mulligan to the mannered jazz musician by Goodman which is a good deal out of both their comfort zones I think. Timberlake also does some good work that is a bit out of his own comfort zone, playing the terminally nice and terminally clueless Jim.

The music here is absolutely amazing. My mom used to love Peter, Paul and Mary and had an album of Vanguard folk singers that included the Weavers, Odetta and Cisco Houston and I listened to that album often. While the folk singers on that album weren’t the well-scrubbed WASPs that several of the singers are here (and which the dark-haired Llewyn is not), the vibe is at least approachable. Most of the music was recorded live and the actors mainly sang and played their instruments for real.

What happened though was that I felt disconnected from the movie to a large extent. I normally love what the Coen Brothers do and even their less successful movies (Burn After Reading) have at least something of interest about them. Frankly I admired the craft of the movie in re-creating the era; as I said, I loved the music and the performances as well. The movie just didn’t resonate with me. Maybe I was just in a bad mood but I left the movie feeling a little disappointed. Maybe it is the circular nature of the story which begins and ends with essentially the same incident although you’re never sure when the flashback actually begins.

Still, the Coens’ worst is better than the best of most directors. They take chances and at the end of the day, their movies aren’t made to please anybody but themselves which is the proper way to go about making movies. Try to please too many people and you end up pleasing nobody.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous music. Isaac is a star.

REASONS TO STAY: Much more mainstream than we’re used to from the Coens.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly rough language including some sexual references as well as some brief violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The photograph of Chris Eldridge, guitarist for the Punch Brothers (a real folk band who contributed heavily to the music) is seen on the Timlin and Davis album cover; Eldridge is identified as Mike Timlin, the partner who threw himself off the George Washington Bridge.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 92/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Mighty Wind

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

Last Vegas


What happens in Vegas...

What happens in Vegas…

(2013) Comedy (CBS) Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline, Mary Steenburgen, Jerry Ferrara, Romany Malco, Roger Bart, Joanna Gleeson, Michael Ealy, Bre Blair, April Billingsley, Stephen Scott Scarpula, Andrea Moore, Noah Harden, RJ Fattori, Aaron Bantum, Phillip Wampler, Olivia Stuck, Ashley Spillers, Karen Ceesay, 50 Cent. Directed by Jon Turteltaub

When I was a kid, 30 sounded pretty old to me. When I was a teen, 40 was over the hill. In my 20s, I thought that decrepitude started at 60. Now half a century on in my life, I realize that age is just a number, but aging is inevitable for all of us.

How we age largely depends on how we feel about aging. Some of us continue to be active and do things, get out of the house and live full bore as much as they did in their 30s. Others give in to their aches and pains, hunker down where they live and wait for the end of life to claim them. We do have a choice in the matter, although sometimes we are dealt some pretty nasty hands.

Friends since their boyhoods in Brooklyn, the Flatbush Four have gone their separate ways but the kind of friendship they had 60 years earlier has endured for the most part. Billy (Douglas) is the ladies man and the confirmed bachelor of the bunch. He’s a big successful Hollywood type and at last has met someone that he is willing to marry, although his proposal is  a bit unorthodox. Never mind that he’s in his 70s and his fiancée is just barely 30. Love happens when it does.

He can’t wait to share it with his friends and immediately calls Archie (Freeman), recovering from a minor stroke in the home of his overprotective son Ezra (Ealy) and Sam (Kline), who is suffering from depression and can’t seem to get motivated to be happy about anything. Everyone agrees that an epic bachelor party in Vegas, thrown the way only the Flatbush Four can, is in order.

The fourth member however, Paddy (De Niro) is conspicuously missing. That’s because there’s a great deal of bad blood between him and Billy that has caused a gigantic rift between them in the past year. Paddy is also mourning the death of his lovely wife Sophie, the unofficial fifth member of their childhood group and basically stays at home in his bathrobe much of the day, other than to receive a regular dosing of really bad soup from his well-meaning neighbor. Getting him to Sin City is going to take some doing.

However all of them manage to make it there one way or another. Sam arrives with a blue pill and a condom that was given to him by his epically understanding wife who tells him “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” She misses the fun-loving guy she married and hopes that a fling in Vegas will bring that guy back.

Things are still awkward between Paddy and Billy but they manage to get around it as they find ways to party on. They also meet a sexy sixtyish chanteuse named Diana (Steenburgen) who has reinvented herself from being a tax lawyer. All four of the men are immediately drawn to her including the prospective groom.

Their VIP host at the Aria, Lonnie (Malco), helps them put together the kind of party that even the most jaded Vegas performers will remember forever, with a female impersonator (Bart) with a surprising secret, as well as Cirque du Soleil performers, a bachelorette party and even a cameo appearance from Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson. They even have their own personal gopher (Ferrara, with a completely different kind of Entourage). But history is threatening to repeat itself. Can their friendship withstand Las Vegas and more to the point, will Las Vegas survive the Flatbush Four?

There’s no need to tell you that this is an impressive cast. Any one of the four male leads would make this a movie I’d be eager to see. Even though I had reservations about the plot and the script, I still wanted to see this just to see Douglas, De Niro, Kline and Freeman all perform. This isn’t the best work of any one of them – nor did I expect it would be. Still, they’re all pros (as is Steenburgen) and they all give performances that won’t disappoint anybody beyond the most jaded and cold-hearted of critics.

The script is as you might have guessed from the trailer not particularly scintillating. They aren’t re-inventing the wheel here nor do they have to. While I could wish they would have pumped up the funny a little bit, the personality of the leads more than makes up for it. While there are some off-putting moments (a male crotch gyrating in De Niro’s face during a bikini contest), for the most part there is nothing terribly sinful going on.

What surprised me was how touching the script was. These aren’t geriatric actors doing the standard old man gags. You know the sort – the kind that are like “Tee hee hee. Oh look at the adorable old man, he’s so horny, he’s using drugs, he doesn’t know how to use a computer tee hee hee.” Something tells me if the Flatbush Four had been anything like that, they wouldn’t have gotten actors of the caliber that they did. These are men dealing with the sorts of things the those entering old age actually deal with – grief, loneliness, a loss of virility/sexuality, being treated like an imbecile and/or porcelain doll by the well-meaning.

While the comedy might appeal to those who don’t see a lot of movies, it’s that charm of treating the aging with respect that won me over. Yeah, watching Freeman bust a move after drinking a Red Bull and Vodka in a Vegas nightclub might have been a bit patronizing but for the most part, it is the friendship between the Four that endures and makes this movie worth seeking out. It isn’t the greatest movie you’ll see this year, but it will be better than you’d expect – unless you fall under the jaded and cold-hearted category.

REASONS TO GO: Five veteran pros (the four leads and Steenburgen). Surprisingly heartwarming.

REASONS TO STAY: Fairly cliché and the humor is a bit low-key for modern comedies.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of sexual content and a few bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scenes set in Brooklyn were actually filmed in Atlanta.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/13/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 44% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grumpy Old Men

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT:

Seven Psychopaths


Seven Psychopaths

Colin Farrell wants the Shih Tzu but Sam Rockwell just won’t share.

(2012) Black Comedy (CBS) Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, Tom Waits, Olga Kurylenko, Zeljko Ivanek, Gabourey Sidibe, Harry Dean Stanton, Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Pitt, Linda Bright Clay, Long Nguyen, Amanda Warren. Directed by Martin McDonagh

 

Being a writer is tough, and yes, even for the movies. It’s not easy to articulate something from concept to finished screenplay. Sometimes you don’t even begin there – you just have a title and taking it into fruition sometimes can lead to unexpected destinations.

Marty (Farrell) is a screenwriter who is stuck. He’s got a title for his screenplay, “Seven Psychopaths.” He’s got a loose concept – that it’s about seven psychopaths. He’s even got a psychopath to begin with. That just leaves him with six more to go. And a plot. Piece of cake, right?

Yeah right. It’s doubly hard when his girlfriend Kaya (Cornish) is extra-bitchy to him and his best friend Billy Bickle (Rockwell) is getting more loony tunes by the day. Billy and his good friend Hans (Walken) supplement their income by kidnapping dogs from their well-heeled owners and then returning them for the reward money. Hans mostly gives his money to his wife Myra (Clay) who’s in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery.

Things turn even weirder as the psychopaths begin making appearances in Marty’s life. From a serial killer of mob killers known in the press as the Jack of Diamonds to a rabbit-carrying nebbish named Zachariah (Waits) who was after rescuing Maggie (Warren) from a sadistic serial-killing judge went on a killing spree of serial killers before getting tired of the violence and leaving her. He regrets that now, and makes Marty promise to put a message to her during the credits, apologizing and begging her to call.

Billy and Hans kidnap Bonny, an adorable Shih Tzu who happens to be owned by psychotic mobster Charlie (Harrelson) who isn’t too pleased at the kidnapping. He loves that little dog more than anything on Earth and will rain a path of destruction from here to perdition to get her back. He sends his right hand Paulo (Ivanek) out looking for her.

More I will not tell you because you’ll miss some of the nuances of the film that you would lose if you had too much foreknowledge of what is coming. McDonagh, who is a veteran Irish playwright, crafts a movie that is quirky without being snarky about it. Too often in independent movies the quirkiness can come off as smug superiority that we’re so much hipper and smarter than everybody else. That’s the arrogance of youth talking.

Here, the quirkiness is true quirkiness – people who are off-center and okay with marching to their own drummer. These are characters that populate most of McDonagh’s work. Farrell, who was so good in McDonagh’s first film In Bruges is just as terrific here – the two are obviously simpatico as both of Farrell’s performances in McDonagh’s films are among his best.

Marty is a bit neurotic and definitely alcoholic although deeply in denial about the latter. It has led directly to his writer’s block and even though he’s a basically nice guy, he’s a bit of a jerk when he’s been drinking. Farrell gives Marty a bit of Irish blarney and charm, with a whole lot of L.A. jadedness. It’s one of those kinds of characters that is Farrell’s bread and butter and he nails it.

Walken though is the main reason to see this. If I were an Academy voter, I’d be nominating him for Best Supporting Actor. This is one of the best – if not the best – performances of his storied career. Hans has a troubled past and has found God but more importantly, serenity. He has changed profoundly and that shows in the patience he shows Marty and particularly Billy.

Rockwell’s Billy is the catalyst who has secrets of his own. Rockwell is one of the most reliable actors out there, almost always delivering an amazing performance be it comedy, drama or something else. Harrelson is also trustworthy; like Rockwell has amazing versatility but seems to do best in roles that have a black humor to them as his does, a mean black-hearted mobster who’s fallen in love with a tiny little dog.

But then again I can’t blame him there. I have a Shih Tzu of my own whom Bonny resembles uncannily and my feelings toward her are not unlike Charlie’s for Bonny, sometimes to the chagrin of my wife. Shih Tzu’s are a particularly loving an adorable breed and I’m very thankful for mine; if she got dog-napped I’d probably go a little crazy.

But then this is a film about crazy. What is crazy really when life itself is completely whacked out? That’s a good question without an easy answer. For my money, crazy is as crazy does and Seven Psychopaths is not crazy funny (it lags in places) but funny enough to be crazy.

REASONS TO GO: Bonny the Shih Tzu is adorable. Walken and Farrell deliver outstanding performances., backed nicely by Harrelson and Rockwell.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the film drags. Stretches believability occasionally.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a good deal of violence (some of it bloody and graphic), a whole lot of bad language, a bit of sex and nudity as well as a little bit of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mickey Rourke was originally cast as Charlie before disagreements with the filmmakers led him to being replaced with Woody Harrelson. During the graveyard scenes the Jack of Diamonds hides behind a grave marked “Rourke.”

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/2/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100. The reviews are mixed but on the strong side.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: In Bruges

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Mickey Blue Eyes

The Words


The Words

Bradley Cooper tries to explain to Zoe Saldana why she can’t be in The Hangover III

(2012) Drama (CBS) Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana, Jeremy Irons, Dennis Quaid, Olivia Wilde, Ben Barnes, Nora Arnezeder, Ron Rifkin, John Hannah, J.K. Simmons, Michael McKean, James Babson, Brian Klugman, Zeljko Ivanek, Elizabeth Stauber. Directed by Brian Klugman and Len Sternthal

 

Writing is near and dear to my heart. I am fascinated by words and like to use a lot of big ones. I don’t apologize for that. Communication is my job and I like to be precise about it. Still, as I’m fond of saying, I don’t write because I want to; I write because I have to. Those who write for a living will tell you that they didn’t pick their particular career choice; it chose them.

Clay Hammond (Quaid) is reading from his latest best seller. A comely grad student named Daniella (Wilde) approaches him from the audience and asks him for more detail about his story than he had given during the reading. Clay, who is separated from his wife, is a little tipsy and responds to the flirting. He starts to tell her about it.

Rory Jansen (Cooper) has dreams of being a writer. He works for three years on a novel, pouring out his heart. It’s good, he’s told but not great. He, like many struggling writers, begins to collect rejection slips like Bed, Bath and Beyond coupons. His girlfriend Dora (Saldana) is supportive; his dad (Simmons) not so much, although there is clearly affection between them. It’s just that dear old dad wants his son to grow up and take responsibility, understanding that not every dream is achievable.

Rory and Dora (which sounds a bit like a preschoolers cartoon – couldn’t you have come up with better names than that?) eventually get married and wind up honeymooning in Paris (which is a bit pricey for struggling young newlyweds but let’s assume they got it as a gift) and while antique hunting Dora finds a beautiful old valise which she buys for Rory to use at his new job in the mailroom at a literary agency.

Still, Rory is depressed about his stalled career and wonders if he has the talent to be somebody. His depression begins to create a gulf between him and his friends and even between him and Dora. Then Rory finds a manuscript in the valise, one that has been sitting there for a long while. He begins reading it. He can’t put it down. It’s almost like a slap in the face; here is the novel he’s always wanted to write and someone else has written it. He becomes obsessed with it. He wants to know what it would be like to write something like that, so he takes the typewritten manuscript and types it, word for word including the misspelled words, into his laptop. He leaves it there and forgets about it.

But Dora finds it. She insists that he take it to an agent so he does. The agent (Ivanek) loves it. It gets published. The little book becomes a sensation. At first Rory feels guilty over plagiarizing the work but reasons that it was a means to an end; the novels he couldn’t get published now have deals and all due to this forgotten manuscript. He wins awards and becomes rich. His relationship with Dora becomes stronger.

One day while reading on a bench in Central Park, an old man (Irons) sidles up and sits nearby. The old man recognizes him and gets his copy of the book autographed. Then the old man tells him a story; the story of a young man (Barnes) in Paris after World War II. The young man becomes smitten with Celia (Arnezeder), a waitress in a sidewalk cafe. She falls in love with him. They marry but after a tragedy they separate. He becomes disconsolate without her. He writes a book, one he pours all his heart and soul into. The words flow out like a river. It is finished in two weeks.

He sends it to her and she reads it. She’s amazed and agrees to come home. Unfortunately, the valise she put the novel in got left aboard a train. It disappears – and it’s absence comes between the young man and Celia just as surely as a brick wall would.

The line between fiction and fact blurs a little in The Words. It isn’t about writing so much, although the demon in Rory that compels him to write, that compels him to be adored for it, is one I know all too well. But this is a story about guilt and how it gets into a relationship insidiously destroying it from within. It destroys people as well.

The three stories are all interrelated, but which ones are true and which ones are fantasy are pretty much left up to the interpretation of the audience (my take? All three). It is a story inside of a story within a story which while not an original means of telling a story is nonetheless not an easy one and takes a deft hand to pull off, which it is here.

It helps to have some strong performances from the male leads, and the filmmakers get them. Irons is one of those actors who looks and sounds great even when uttering banal lines. He’s memorable when onscreen and his scenes with Cooper are among the best in the movie. Quaid also has some fine moments although he is little more than a framing device. Still, there’s some thought and depth to his character.

The women don’t fare as well – Saldana gets the most screen time among them but for the most part the women in the movie aren’t developed quite as well as the men are. They are entirely reactive and serve either as ornaments or as plot devices. It’s not a commentary on them as actresses; more of a commentary on the writing.

It is meant to be literate and there is a bit of the hoity toity “writers are special” attitude that movies about writers sometimes get. And, as a movie about words, there are a lot of them. Much of the action moves through dialogue and there are voiceovers throughout. And while you may not see everything coming (to their credit the filmmakers refuse to spell things out although you can pretty much figure things out) the story isn’t what you’d call ground-breaking.

Still this is a smart movie that also appeals to the heart. The Old Man is a figure you will have a great deal of sympathy for, even though much of his dilemma is of his own making. I have to say I was inspired to go and do some writing after seeing this, even though that’s something I do every day. Writing movie reviews is one thing. Writing something that counts, something that means something to somebody and gives them insight to life or at least their own soul – that’s an entirely different thing.

REASONS TO GO: Thoughtful and literate. Inspires me to write. Fine performances by Irons, Quaid and Cooper.

REASONS TO STAY: Overly talky. Story is a bit been-there done-that.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly rough language in certain places.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rosamund Pike was considered for the role of Daniella but it eventually went to Olivia Wilde.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/25/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100. The reviews are horrible.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hoax

ERNEST HEMINGWAY LOVERS: The book that inspires the Young Man to writing is Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Jackal

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen


Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Ewan McGregor dips his toes in the water while Emily Blunt tries to warn him about the sharks.

(2011) Romance (CBS) Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, Kristin Scott Thomas, Amr Waked, Tom Mison, Rachael Stirling, Catharine Steadman, Conleth Hill, Hugh Simon, Tom Beard, Jill Baker, Waleed Akhtar, Peter Wight, Nayef Rashed, Clive Wood. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom

 

There are things that we use for metaphors for the unlikely; screen doors on submarines, Hell freezing over and so on. But what could be more unlikely in real life than going salmon fishing, a sport for northern climates, in the middle of a desert?

Well, nothing if you’re a fisheries specialist and that’s just what Dr. Alfred Jones (McGregor) is. He works for the British Environmental Agency (their fishing and aquaculture department, to be exact) and is called Dr. Jones so often that you half-expect an archaeologist in a fedora carrying a whip to tear around the corner and punch out a Nazi.

Then you meet Dr. Jones and realize that he’s a pretty milquetoast kind of guy. He is married to the shrill but caring Mary (Stirling) who is more and more putting her career ahead of her marriage. He designs famous flies for fly fishermen and talks to the Koi in his pond in the back of his Chelsea home. So when he gets the e-mail from Harriet Chetwode-Tolbert (Blunt) who works at a large English financial company that she has a client interested in a project that would bring salmon fishing to the Yemen, he responds with incredulity and essentially, some condescending rudeness.

But the times they are a’changin’. A muck-up in Afghanistan which resulted in British troops destroying a mosque gets their Press Secretary (and spin doctor) Patricia Maxwell (Scott Thomas) scrambling to find a feel-good story in the Mideast puts the spotlight on this potential project. Dr. Jones’ somewhat harried boss Bernard Sugden (Hill) nudges the reluctant Doctor to meet with Harriet and while the meeting is inauspicious, Dr. Jones is soon made to understand that this project needs to happen. Forthwith.

He comes up with a plan that’s theoretically possible and is taken to meet Harriet’s client, Sheikh Muhammed (Waked) who turns out to be very different than the pragmatic Dr. Jones expected. As does Harriet who as the project continues gets closer to Dr. Jones. There are obstacles of course; he’s married and she’s engaged to a Captain in the British Army (Mison) but when Mison goes missing and Mary leaves for an extended business trip to Geneva things get a little bit complicated.

Some movies just grab you with the amount of heart they show at their center and this is certainly one of those. Halstrom has a lot of those on his resume – The Cider House Rules, The Shipping News and Chocolat among them. This is certainly the sort of movie that would work for those who love those other films.

Part of the reason the film works is that this is so well-cast. Blunt and McGregor are both very appealing leads and the chemistry between them is genuine. McGregor gets to be full-on Scottish and that works nicely for the character. He is a bit of a prig but not so much that you get irritated. He is actually quite charming in his own way, although his sense of humor is a bit lacking.

Blunt is rapidly becoming one of the go-to women for romance movies. She’s smart and beautiful and sweet, all characteristics that serve her character well. She’s also a hell of an actress, as she proves during the scenes where she must deal with her boyfriend’s situation. There is some real pathos there and she doesn’t overplay it, making her grief real and accessible.

Kristin Scott Thomas is also an adept actress, able to do comedy, mystery, drama, in fact whatever is asked of her. She is mostly comic relief here (some of the film’s funniest moments come during IM conversations between her and the prime minister) and she gives the role just enough stiff upper lip in order to make the character a bit more funny.

The ending is a bit too smarmy and a bit too pat. I always have trouble with people who are in established relationships getting out of them to be with the “right one” even though you’re rooting for them to. It always makes me wonder how (in this case) Mary and Robert (Harriet’s Army boy) are feeling, even though the movie tells you it’s pretty much rotten. I’m not a big fan of two people to be miserable so two people have a shot at a different relationship (and generally those sorts of relationships don’t work in real life anyway – too much guilt).

Then again, I’m being a bit of a pragmatist here and the movie really isn’t meant for that sort of thinking. It’s meant to be enjoyed, experienced with your heart more than with your head. It’s not sugary sweet and yet it makes you feel enveloped with a warm blanket, sipping a nice hot cup of chocolate. This is a hug-from-your-grandmother kind of movie, the kind that makes you feel better coming out than you did going in. You can’t give a much better recommendation than that.

REASONS TO GO: Sweet and full of heart. Not so quirky that it gets irritating. Blunt and McGregor make attractive leads.

REASONS TO STAY: The ending is a bit too Hollywood for me.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of violence, a smattering of foul language and some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Yemen-set portion of the movie was filmed in Morocco.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/10/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100. The reviews are very good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Holiday

FISH LOVERS: You will learn more about salmon and their breeding habits than perhaps you ever wanted to know.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Dog Soldiers

The Woman in Black


The Woman in Black

Daniel Radcliffe discovers that black is the new acccccck!!!!!

(2012) Supernatural Horror (CBS) Daniel Radcliffe, Ciaran Hinds, Liz White, Janet McTeer, Alisa Khazanova, Tim McMullan, Roger Allam, David Burke, Shaun Dooley, Mary Stockley, Cathy Sara, David Burke, Victor McGuire, Jessica Raine, Sophie Stuckey. Directed by James Watkins

 

Rage and insanity don’t mix well. Give someone already unbalanced a reason to hate and the consequences can be dire indeed.

Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) is a man who doesn’t smile very much. His wife (Stuckey) died in childbirth four years earlier and he’d been in a funk ever since. Mr. Bentley (Allam), Arthur’s boss at the law firm that he works at, makes no bones about it; he needs to turn things around immediately and this next assignment will be his last if he doesn’t get it right.

This assignment is to go to a far-off village on England’s coastal marshland to sort through the papers of a recently deceased client. It will mean leaving his four-year-old son with the nanny (Raine) but he must do what he must do – there are already overdue bills he must attend to.

When he reaches the town he is met there with suspicious and downright hostile town folk with the exception of Sam Daily (Hinds) who is the richest man in town and offers Arthur a ride to the town’s only inn. As it is pouring down cats and dogs Arthur is only too happy to accept.

At the end the innkeeper (Dooley) denies he has a reservation and is eager to throw him out into the pouring rain but his wife (Stockley) is kinder, putting him up in the attic…the same attic from where her three children leaped to their deaths not long ago.

Few will take him to Eel Marsh House, the home where his client lived and died….and where a mountain of papers await him. And there are good reasons for it as well. For one, it sits on an island that can only be reached via causeway, a causeway that floods when the tide is in. Second, the house is overgrown, musty and spooky – the nearly perfect haunted house.

And like most perfect haunted houses, it comes with a ghost, a mysterious woman in black. She’s not Casper the Friendly Ghost though; when people see her, children in the village die. This explains their hostility towards him.

But why is she killing innocents? Why would she possibly want the children to die? Arthur has a personal stake in finding the answers; his own son is coming to town in just a few days for a visit and could be the next victim of the Woman in Black.

Watkins creates a really strange vibe here, kind of a cross between Jane Eyre and The Haunting. There’s a gothic element that comes out rather nicely. This is based on a novel by Sue Mills and was made into a British telefilm in 1989.

Radcliffe is making his first post-Potter appearance here and it is a very different role for him. The general complaint is that at 22, he seems a little old to be playing a widower and the father of a 4-year-old, but in the era that is depicted here they married younger. He does very well as a man who has been devastated and not quite recovered. As you might imagine a man in his situation would, Arthur is emotionally tight-lipped and Radcliffe captures that nicely.

Hinds is one of the more underrated character actors out there and he’s in top form here. McTeer, who plays his wife, is an outstanding actress who is up for an Oscar for Albert Nobbs and she has a juicy role as a woman who has been driven around the bend by the death of her child.

The atmosphere here is genuinely spooky which is all-important for a haunted house ghost story. The scares when they come are legitimately nightmare-inducing and may not be for the more sensitive Potter fans in the household who will surely be going out to see this in droves the first weekend.

Some of the story bogged down in places and to be honest, there is no new ground broken here. There are the old hoary horror clichés of the paranoid townspeople and the family graveyard where the spectres hang out but they don’t detract from what is a classic story told in an effective manner. I liked the ending which was a bit different – think Gladiator. I myself am fond of the haunted house movie and can’t get enough of them when they’re good, and The Woman in Black is most assuredly a good one. Well worth your time if you, like me, love a good scare

REASONS TO GO: Very atmospheric. Radcliffe acquits himself well. Some genuinely awesome scares. The ending works well.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit muddled in places story-wise A few horror clichés worked their way in.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, a little bit of violence and a few pretty good shock scares.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Adrian Rawlins, who played Harry Potter’s dad James Potter in the movie series, played the same role Daniel Radcliffe is playing here in the 1989 version of the movie.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/10/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100. The reviews are solidly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Others

RURAL ENGLAND LOVERS: Some beautiful shots of the misty English countryside and the bucolic villages therein.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Ondine

The Back-Up Plan


The Back-Up Plan

Jennifer Lopez shows how many times Alex O'Loughlin takes off his shirt in the movie.

(2010) Romantic Comedy (CBS) Jennifer Lopez, Alex O’Loughlin, Eric Christian Olsen, Melissa McCarthy, Michaela Watkins, Danneel Harris, Noureen DeWulf, Anthony Anderson, Tom Bosley, Maribeth Monroe, Robert Klein, Linda Lavin, Cesar Millan. Directed by Alan Poul

Life doesn’t always go the way we want it to. We make plans, have an idea in mind as to what we want out of life. When things don’t go as expected, it’s good to have a back-up plan.

Zoe (Lopez) thought she had it all figured out; great job, get married, have a few rug rats, presto blammo life is sweet. The problem is that none of her boyfriends were working out (men being what they are) and the old biological clock is beginning to tick just a hair louder. Therefore, Zoe makes the decision to go the man-less route in having kids.

Yup, we’re talking artificial insemination. Zoe goes to a fertility clinic where a kindly old doctor (Klein) does the procedure and she gets all knocked up. Giddy from the news, Zoe leaves the clinic on a stormy afternoon and gets into a cab. Trouble is, Stan (O’Loughlin who filmed this just before finding stardom in the TV reboot of “Hawaii Five-O”) spotted the cab at exactly the same time. The two argue and Zoe eventually gives up the cab because she doesn’t want to spoil her great mood.

Of course, now the two of them see each other everywhere. This is the Hollywood God Mechanism, cinematic deities sending none-too-subtle messages that the two were meant to be together. And of course, they are. This is a romantic comedy, after all. The two fall in love but Stan isn’t aware that Zoe has a bun in the oven and Zoe isn’t about to tell him because he might bolt. Boyfriends are a lot like deer that way, skittish.

Eventually she breaks down and tells him and Stan being a Great Guy (you can tell right away he’s a great guy because he’s an organic farmer selling his organic goat cheese at a Tribeca farmers market) doesn’t bat an eyelash but takes on the responsibility of being not only a boyfriend but a father to be – without any genetic connection or legal requirement. I can picture half the single moms in the audience sighing “Why can’t I meet a guy like that?” particularly when Stan shows up shirtless on a tractor, a kind of Chippendale’s farmer get-up.

Of course this is a Hollywood rom-com so there are going to be issues. The couple is going to break up. Are they going to get back together again? Are you kidding? C’mon, you know what the answer to that is.

Lopez is one of those actresses that has a great deal of talent is sadly aware that she has a great deal of talent. One gets the impression that she has a person in her entourage whose sole purpose is to tell her what a great deal of talent that she has. I’m not saying that she’s egotistical, but she seemed to be a much better performer before she became a Big Star. Even in Anaconda, as ludicrous a horror movie as has ever hit the big screen, she was more natural an actress.

I have to admit though, that she is really charming here. It’s as if that entourage flunky has been given the new responsibility to remind her that she doesn’t have to be Jenny from the block 24-7. She can be Zoe instead, a kind of meek and sweet girl. This is the kind of performance that made her a star in the first place.

O’Loughlin turns out to be an appealing romantic lead; together with his cop action persona in Five-O could well parlay that into stardom of his own. The supporting players are for the most part forgettable, although Klein has a few good moments and Anthony Anderson gets a really great scene as a playground dad telling Stan about the joys and pitfalls of being a dad.

Like most Hollywood romantic comedies, this is as wispy and sugary as cotton candy and just as forgettable. It is a pleasant diversion for as long as it’s there, but not long after it’s gone you might feel hungry for something more substantial. It does at least give me hope that Lopez is capable of better than we’ve been seeing from her lately, and that in itself is worthwhile.

WHY RENT THIS: Lopez is as engaging and charming as she’s ever been. O’Loughlin is an appealing leading man.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: As with most Hollywood rom-coms, very formulaic.

FAMILY VALUES: Being as the movie is about being pregnant, there are a lot of pregnancy and sexual jokes herein; there’s a tiny bit of bad language and some mature themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the late Tom Bosley’s final film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $77.5M on a $35M production budget; the movie broke even and even made a little bit of money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Dream House

Beastly


Beastly

Alex Pettyfer is in need of a career makeover after this one.

(2011) Fantasy (CBS) Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Hudgens, Neil Patrick Harris, Mary-Kate Olsen, Peter Krause, Dakota Johnson, Eric Knudsen, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Roc LaFortune, Gio Perez, David Francis, Miguel Mendoza, Steve Godin, Julie Dretzin. Directed by Daniel Barnz

People can be incredibly shallow; we make value judgments based on what we see alone. The way a person looks really does influence how they are treated in life which is often inversely true to how they deserve to be treated. Beauty is often skin deep, although not always.

Kyle (Pettyfer) seems to have it all. The son of a well-known local news anchor (Krause), he attends an exclusive Manhattan private school – an academy, don’t you know. He is running for the Green Committee chairman on a platform that beautiful is better. He doesn’t really care a whit about the environment – he just wants the position for his transcripts so that colleges will think better of him.

He wins but not by as great a margin as he would like to; that’s because the local Goth, Kendra (Olsen) has defaced his posters and badmouthed him. He concocts a plan to humiliate her at a party but that’s a bad idea; you never know when a Goth is a real, live witch who can afflict you with a curse. In Kyle’s case, the curse is to be ugly for a year; if he can find someone to say “I love you” by the year’s end, he’ll revert back to his handsome self. If not, he will be doomed to live that way forever.

So Kyle becomes afflicted with tattoos that seem irremovable; gashes with metallic staples in them, as well as boils and bubbly flesh as well as a bald head; all his sexy hair falls away. His dad is horrified; he takes him to doctors who basically tell him nothing can be done. Rather than take his son home, he banishes him to a townhouse on the Hudson where he claims he will visit from time to time, but never does. Apparently, the rotten apple doesn’t fall far from the blighted tree.

Kyle, now going by the name of Hunter, is not alone in his exile; his housekeeper Zola (Hamilton) is sent along to see to his needs and a private tutor, the blind Will (Harris) is hired to take care of his schooling. None of this helps Kyle, who is brooding and angst-ridden. You can tell this because of the many montages set to moody emo songs.

However, there is hope; the lovely Lindy (Hudgens), a scholarship student who is not wealthy (although she is beautiful) who is forced to stay with Hunter and his crew when her drug-addicted dad (LaFortune) falls afoul of a drug dealer (Perez) – it’s a long story. As she begins to see the inner Hunter (who builds her a greenhouse on the roof of the brownstone to give her an idea of how sensitive he’s become), she begins to fall for the young man but the year is running out and before long, Kyle may remain Hunter…forever.

I have always had a problem with the whole Beauty and the Beast story, upon which this is based (it’s actually based on a young adult novel that was based in turn on the story). It doesn’t have the courage of its own convictions. We all know that the point of it is supposed to be that beauty is only skin deep, but how does that compute when the happily ever after has the beast returning to his handsome outer self?

The movie plays to all the teenage arrogances that piss off most adults. There is a hipper-than-thou vibe which is mildly irritating that comes from having characters who are mostly too rich and too pretty to give a crap about anything else other than their own selves and that never really changes much in the movie.

Pettyfer has a good deal of charisma, although his acting abilities haven’t yet caught up to it quite yet. Then again, that may be due to how the part is written. I really liked him in I Am Number Four; but not so much here. He has the looks and the screen presence to go far, but he frankly needs better performances than this one to get there.

Hudgens, a veteran of the Disney channel’s High School Musical movies, is dreadfully miscast here. She has a certain amount of charm, but has zero chemistry with Pettyfer. Her character is also badly underwritten; you never really get much look at the inside of Lindy who works with the homeless to show us how sensitive and caring she is, but otherwise is just like all the other students who are getting dissed for their insensitivity here. She certainly has a good deal of baggage in the film – a dead mom, an addicted dad – but we only get glimpses of the anger and pain this must be costing her.

The supporting cast is all right. Harris is always delightful, whether in his television show or his movie appearances. The trouble was we don’t get to see enough of him here. Olsen, yes of the Olsen twins fame, is actually revelatory here, making her character at least a little bit three-dimensional despite the white powder and Stevie Nicks wardrobe. She might be however *sob* a bit old for the role.

We all know where the movie is heading and the shallowness that the movie is wagging its finger at self-righteously in the end is celebrated. The movie is all about appearances and that is what bugged me the most. If you’re going to make a morality tale, at least have the courage to stick to your principles. I expected better from the director of Phoebe in Wonderland, a promising indie director who I still believe has some great films in him. This sure ain’t one of them.

I get the feeling this would have made an episode of “Gossip Girl” or “Glee” better than a motion picture. I don’t have a problem aiming a movie for the CW network audience, but I would hope that even movies aimed at that demographic would at least have something in it for parents dragged along to watch. No such luck here.

REASONS TO GO: There are some charming moments. Pettyfer is a star on the rise. Neil Patrick Harris is always a pleasure to see.

REASONS TO STAY: The message the movie sends is disturbing. Almost no chemistry between Hudgens and Pettyfer. The movie is a little too full of itself.

FAMILY VALUES: A few choice bad words and some drug references and even a bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Robert Pattinson and Zac Effron were rumored to be casting choices before the producers settled on Pettyfer.

HOME OR THEATER: Probably better on a home screen.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Brooklyn’s Finest

The Mechanic (2011)


The Mechanic

Jason Statham wants to renegotiate his fee.

(2011) Action (CBS) Jason Statham, Ben Foster, Tony Goldwyn, Donald Sutherland, Jeff Chase, Mini Anden, James Logan, Joshua Bridgewater, Mark Anthony Nutter, John McConnell, Lara Grice, Ada Michelle Loridans, Eddie Fernandez, Lance Nichols, J.D. Evermore. Directed by Simon West

Being an assassin is a lonely business. Killing people for hire tends to breed a certain amount of paranoia into one’s makeup; meticulous planning leads to success in this world, and those who allow a human interaction into the mix are just begging for trouble.

Arthur Bishop (Statham) is the best in the world at what he does. He’s a mechanic, a professional hitman who takes care of problems. He is adept at any sort of hit; be it one that looks like an accident or natural occurrence, or one that sends a message. He is employed by a shadowy company that rents out hired killers to wealthy clients, although Bishop’s hits are apparently only criminals and terrorists. As John Cusack said in a similar role in Grosse Point Blank, “If I show up at your door, chances are you did something to deserve it.”

After taking care of a Columbian drug lord (Logan) in a typically efficient and professional manner, Bishop returns home to New Orleans to meet with his mentor and corporate contact Harry McKenna (Sutherland) to receive his payment. The two banter about like old friends, which they are; bitching about corporate politics and Harry’s somewhat useless son Steve (Foster) from whom he is estranged. Bishop then goes home to his gorgeous house on the bayou which is accessible only by boat

Not long thereafter Harry meets an untimely end. Bishop is none too thrilled about it, but he has issues to take care of. Harry’s son Steve also shows up, angry at the world and ready to take out a random carjacker (Bridgewater) in the wrong place at the wrong time. Bishop shows up just in time to avert a stupid act of vengeance that would have ruined Steve’s life and agrees to take him on as a protégé. He trains him not only in the skill of firing weapons but in the art of killing. He even takes him along on the job to watch him kill a gunrunner (Evermore), a kind of “take your surrogate kid to work day” exercise.

The two then go after a couple of victims on their own, a rival mechanic (Chase) and a preacher/cult leader named Vaughn (McConnell). Due to Steve’s sloppiness and inability to follow instructions, they both turn messy. About then they discover that the death of Steve’s dad was ordered by Dean (Goldwyn), a high-ranking executive of the company which coupled with the botched assignments makes them a corporate liability. The mechanics become problems for other mechanics to fix. Can they get to Dean before he gets to them?

This is a remake of a 1972 film with Charles Bronson in the title role and Jan-Michael Vincent as Steve. That one, directed by frequent Bronson collaborator Michael Winner, was much more noir than this and like many films from the era had a somewhat fatalistic atmosphere. Some of the conceits of that movie don’t really translate well to this era of filmmaking, so the movie is different (although not radically so) than the original.

Director West, who has a mentor of his own in Michael Bay (West is best known for directing Con Air), is a strong action director and knows how to appeal to the hearts of men everywhere. There is nary a woman to be seen except as hookers (Anden) and victims (Grice and Loridans, whose arm Bishop threatens to stuff down a garbage disposal to motivate her dad for information).

Jason Statham was a wise bit of casting. Like Bronson, he plays it close to the vest emotionally. He conveys amusement with a little half-smile and annoyance with a half-frown. He is the perfect ice cold killer, which is what the character needs to be. He bares his chest and then some in the opening moments of the film, and ladies will get a nice up close look at nearly all of him later in the movie; for the guys, he kicks ass without ever breaking a sweat. However, it must be said he has the best stubble beard in the business.

Foster is an up-and-coming actor who already has an Oscar nomination under his belt; although this is most assuredly not going to win him his next one, I think that he’s going to win gold in that department in the very near future. He gives Steve menace and vulnerability at once, as well as a sexual ambiguity that adds some spice to the role. It’s a magnificent portrayal and well worth the price of admission for his performance alone.

The movie is a bit too workmanlike. My problem with it is that Bishop is so good that even when things go south you never get a sense that he’s in danger. He always seems to be two or three steps ahead of everybody else. He’s a bit like Superman in that regard; Superman is so strong and so invulnerable that it’s pretty hard to convey a sense of jeopardy. Bishop needs a really strong opponent and there isn’t one in the movie. No kryptonite here, either.

Still, it’s got all the elements you need in an action film – fast pacing, great stunts, things blowing up, a couple of hot naked (or nearly naked) babes and lots and lots of guns. While action movies have less cachet since the era of Schwarzenegger and Stallone, this one at least is a decent enough entry in the genre. Action fans will certainly be satisfied.

REASONS TO GO: Some decent action sequences. Foster is really good in his role. There may be no better action star at the moment than Jason Statham.

REASONS TO STAY: You rarely get a sense that there is any danger for Arthur Bishop – he’s almost too good for there to be a sense of jeopardy here.

FAMILY VALUES: As you might expect in a movie about an assassin, there’s lots of violence and a couple of disturbing on-screen murders. There’s also plenty of foul language, some nudity and sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sarah, the role played by Anden, was played by Jill Ireland in the original 1972 version (Ireland was then-wife to Charles Bronson). The character in that movie had no name and was listed in the credits as “The Girl.” 

HOME OR THEATER: The action sequences don’t have that epic a quality to them; the explosions might work better on the big screen. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all a matter of personal preference whether or not you want to see it at home or in a theater; you make the call.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Way Back

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