Run All Night


Liam Neeson's having a bad night.

Liam Neeson’s having a bad night.

(2015) Action (Warner Brothers) Liam Neeson, Ed Harris, Joel Kinnaman, Vincent D’Onofrio, Nick Nolte, Genesis Rodriguez, Boyd Holbrook, Bruce McGill, Common, Lois Smith, Beau Knapp, Patricia Kalember, Daniel Stewart Sherman, James Martinez, Radivoje Bukvic, Tony Naumovski, Lisa Branch, Holt McCallany, Aubrey Joseph, Jessica Ecklund. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

No matter how low you sink, there is always family. Sure, occasionally there are those who sink so low that their family loses sight, maybe even give up on them but that doesn’t mean they don’t stop loving them – nor does it mean they wouldn’t do anything to help.

You can’t sink much lower than Jimmy Conlon (Neeson). Once one of the most feared assassins in the Irish Mob, he was known by his nickname of The Gravedigger. He worked for his childhood friend Shawn Maguire (Harris) until Shawn decided to go legitimate and divest himself of his illegal activities. Shawn keeps Jimmy around these days more out of a sense of loyalty.

Jimmy’s activities have cost him everything. His wife, from whom he was estranged at the time of her death and his son Michael (Kinnaman) who is trying to build himself a good, straight and narrow life with a pregnant wife (Rodriguez), a little girl and working two jobs; one as a boxing coach for underprivileged kids, the other as a limo driver to keep the bills paid.

Jimmy isn’t really getting his bills paid, although his buddy Shawn bails him out once in awhile. Jimmy has crawled into a bottle and looks to stay there; even Detective Harding (D’Onofrio) who’s been chasing him for decades has given up on Jimmy, although he still wheedles him for the names of those he’s murdered so that some closure might be brought.

Shawn’s son Danny (Holbrook) is the heir apparent to Shawn’s legitimate business concerns but Shawn is a drug addict and a hothead who wants to follow in his father’s criminal footsteps. He makes a deal with Albanian drug dealers to import some heroin into the U.S. and wants to bring his dad aboard to legitimize the deal but Shawn is having none of it.

This is a problem for Danny because the Albanians gave him money to make the deal with his dad. Now the deal has collapsed and the money has essentially gone up Danny’s nose. The Albanians, who have a certain amount of taste for the good life, take a limo to Danny’s house to collect. The only thing they end up collecting is a bunch of bullets from Danny’s gun.

Danny witnesses this and flees home. Shawn finds out about the debacle and asks Jimmy to talk to Michael and make sure he keeps what he saw to himself. He also orders his son Danny to stay put. Danny being Danny heads over to Michael’s house instead and is set to shoot dead his childhood friend. Instead Jimmy kills Danny before he can kill his son.

Shawn doesn’t take the news well. He assures Jimmy that he is going to go after Michael with everything he has and once Michael is dead, only then will he allow Jimmy to die. Jimmy tells Shawn that this is a very bad idea but Shawn won’t listen and so Jimmy’s gotta do what he’s gotta do to help his son, who hasn’t talked to him in years, stay alive through the course of a very long and cold December New York City night.

This is pretty typical for Neeson’s recent action movies; lone wolf killer sort on the downward swing, protecting family, killing anyone and everyone who threatens said family even if they’re wearing a badge. Neeson has this kind of character down pat and even though he could play it in his sleep gives it a professional effort.

Collet-Serra has collaborated with Neeson on some of his better films, Unknown and Non-Stop, of his action era. This is a slickly produced and photographed action piece, with Collet-Serra using the lurid neon and dimly lit bars and pubs of New York as an expressive backdrop. Although Shawn is rich, his home is the residence of essentially a blue collar guy, the background from whence Shawn sprang. Jimmy’s apartment is the home of a drunk, the last place on earth anyone would want to live but Jimmy looks at home there. Details like that can elevate a mediocre film into a good one.

The story won’t set the world on fire; we’ve seen this sort of thing before but Collet-Serra does it as well as it can be done, at least thus far. There are some peripheral characters, chief among which is Andrew Price, a methodical and fastidious hit man played by rapper Common and done surprisingly well – he’s impressive in this brief role and shows the chops it takes to become a big time leading man which hopefully we’ll soon see him become.

I have to admit, I’m an Ed Harris fan. He’s one of those actors who seems to never phone in a performance, always giving a terrific performance no matter what the role or how good the movie it’s in. He elevates every movie he appears in and he’s no different here. Shawn clearly loves Jimmy as a brother but is heartbroken over the death of his boy, driven to unspeakable rage that will mean the obliteration of his friend and his family. There’s a Shakespearean component to the role in many ways.

Run All Night is like many March movies in that it isn’t going to win any awards and is not likely to break box office records. It’s not going to wow many critics nor is it going to inspire legions of devoted fans. What it will do is provide consistent, solid entertainment for those who love action movies and Liam Neeson’s version of them in particular. Chances are you’ll get exactly what you expect you’ll get when you buy your ticket and you really can’t ask any more from a movie than that.

REASONS TO GO: Nobody does the hangdog action hero better than Neeson. Harris always lends credibility to any production he’s in.
REASONS TO STAY: Plays to Irish stereotypes. Somewhat predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: Tons o’ violence, plenty of un-charming foul language, some drug use and lots of Irish temperament.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The two young men in the film, the sons of Shawn and Jimmy respectively are named Danny and Michael, which are also the names of Liam Neeson’s sons in real life.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Walk Among the Tombstones
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Cinderella

The Wrecking Crew


Another day at the office for the Wrecking Crew.

Another day at the office for the Wrecking Crew.

(2008) Musical Documentary (Magnolia) Cher, Brian Wilson, Mickey Dolenz, Nancy Sinatra, Glen Campbell, Herb Alpert, Leon Russell, Glen Campbell, Tommy Tedesco, Plas Johnson, Hal Blaine, Dick Clark, Carol Kaye, Jimmy Webb, Carol Kaye, Joe Osborn, H.B. Barnum, Lou Adler, Al Casey, Bones Howe, Don Randi, Snuff Garrett, Bill Pittman, Carmie Tedesco. Directed by Denny Tedesco

When people look at the golden age of rock and roll, there are few better places to turn their gaze to than Southern California in the 60s and early 70s. Some of the most iconic music of the rock and roll era came from that time and place. Bands like the Beach Boys, Sonny and Cher, the Mamas and the Papas, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, the Monkees and so on routinely recorded there. However mostly what they provided was the vocals; the music was actually made by someone else.

They were called The Wrecking Crew, although not by themselves. There were about 20 to 30 main players in the pool of studio musicians that lived in L.A. at the time (the movie lists more than 100) who appeared on the bulk of the albums that came out of the area, including from bands that were made up of actual musicians, like The Byrds.

One of the most respected of them was guitarist Tommy Tedesco. A raconteur with a great sense of humor, Tedesco also had the kind of skill that made him comfortably at home in any style of music. He was also a whiz at Spanish/Mexican guitar. He teamed often with bassist Carol Kaye (one of the few women among the Crew) who was responsible for iconic baselines such as the ones found in the Mission: Impossible theme and on Sonny and Cher’s “The Beat Goes On.” Hal Blaine was also one of the most prolific and respected drummers of his time; as he himself recounts, the Crew judged each other not by how many gigs they got because all of them were fully booked, but how many they turned down.

The Crew also worked on movie and television theme songs (the guitar on the Bonanza theme song, for example, was Tedesco). It is actually kind of thrilling to watch saxophonist Plas Johnson play the iconic notes to the theme of The Pink Panther.

None of the Crew craved the limelight and only a few of them really achieved any notoriety, chief among them Glen Campbell who went on to a long career doing country-tinged easy listening music (with such hits as “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Linesman” and “Rhinestone Cowboy,” many of which utilized his colleagues in the Wrecking Crew) as well as an acting career. They are almost without exception not listed on the albums they played on as musicians. However, their influence has been incalculable; Blaine himself played on seven straight Record of the Year Grammy winners, a feat that has never been duplicated before or since, and he is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But largely the Crew labored in public obscurity, content to play music, collect large checks and shape rock and roll as we know it. The director, Denny Tedesco, is the son of Tommy and started this project in 1996 as a means of tribute to his father, who would pass away a year after he started filming the project although a group interview including his father plays a substantial roll in the documentary. There are also other subjects, like Dick Clark, who were alive when interviewed (and in Clark’s case, unaffected yet by the stroke he suffered in 2004). Campbell himself suffers from Alzheimer’s but was perfectly lucid in his pre-diagnosis days.

There are also interviews with the stars who they worked for. It is interesting to hear Cher, who normally is an effusive and self-confident interview when talking about her latest film project kind of revert to the shy and less confident personality she had when she was first starting out. We also get to see Brian Wilson talk about the Smile sessions that would later become the most famous album never released (although it has since) with some of the tracks showing up on the Pet Sounds album.

The music here is simply unbeatable. Nearly every clip brought a smile to my face. Not all of it was rock and roll; the Crew backed up all sorts of different musicians, including most of the members of the Rat Pack. We can hear Frank Sinatra joking with his daughter Nancy on audio tape taken from the sessions when they recorded “Something Stupid” together. Stuff like that is priceless.

It took Tedesco 13 years to assemble the film and nearly as long to get it released theatrically. As you can gather, getting the rights to use much of the music in the film was a formidable task It took a lot of money that the production didn’t have, so they used Kickstarter to acquire the funds to help them get permission. People of a certain age, however, will certainly appreciate the effort. While the filmmakers don’t really go too much into what the main folks in the Crew thought of their fame or lack thereof, or what happened as the business changed and studio musicians fell out of favor, but that dose of reality would likely have made this a lesser film. There are insights into the time and place of the Crew, but little of themselves. If you’re looking to get a feel for who these people really were, you won’t get much beyond “talented musicians with stories to tell.”

Still, Denny Tedesco wisely lets the music do the talking for them. It’s rare you get a movie where you exit the theater feeling better when you walked in; it’s even more rare when you learn something in the same movie. The Wrecking Crew accomplishes this and it might motivate you to go spend your paycheck on Amazon or iTunes gathering the songs here into your own personal collection, if they aren’t already there. If they aren’t, they should be.

REASONS TO GO: Incredible soundtrack. Some nice insights into a bygone era of music. Definitely a labor of love and it shows.
REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t really delve into the issue of being “the men (and woman) behind the curtain.”
FAMILY VALUES: There is some salty language here and there and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie originally played at the 2008 Florida Film Festival but took six years after that to get a distribution deal, finally getting a much-deserved theatrical release seven years after it was made.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/26/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 20 Feet From Stardom
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Run All Night

Chappie


Dev Patel and a new kind of Robocop.

Dev Patel and a new kind of Robocop.

(2014) Science Fiction (Columbia) Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver, Sharlto Copley, Yo-Landi Vi$$er, Ninja, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Brandon Auret, Johnny Selema, Anderson Cooper, Maurice Carpede, Jason Cope, Kevin Otto, Chris Shields, Bill Marchant, Robert Hobbs, Mark K. Xulu, Sheridon Marema, Shaheed Hajee, Arran Henn. Directed by Neil Blomkamp

Law enforcement is by definition a dangerous job. Police officers are killed in the line of duty all over the world more often than we would all like. Some feel that militarizing the police will protect better those who protect and serve. Using advanced military robotics may well be the solution, they might think.

Johannesburg, South Africa, has gone one step forward in that direction. Rather than put tanks and armored personnel carriers in the streets with gangs armed with rocket launchers and other advanced weaponry, they have put mechanized robots. However, these robots are often used with police officers, since a computer can’t tell right from wrong. However, the programmer for the robot cops, a fellow named Deon Wilson (Patel).

Deon has a whole other idea in mind. He’s developed a program that would give the Scout robots artificial intelligence; the ability to learn, grow, expand and make moral judgments that they couldn’t possibly make in the field. What he doesn’t know is that Michelle Bradley (Weaver), the head of the company he works for, is deathly afraid of even the concept of A.I., knowing that it could mean the end of the human race.

More practical is Vincent Moore (Jackman), an ex-military man whose creation, a clunky AT-AT looking thing whose design was rejected by Bradley, has more practical reasons for being pissed at Deon – he wants his Scout project to fail. He wants it to fail miserably and then let his own devices come save the day. Everyone in the building knows that Moore is a piss-poor engineer but everyone is a little afraid of him because Moore is a little psycho.

After a Scout is badly damaged in the field it is assigned to get scrapped. Seeing an opportunity to see if he can make his creation work, Deon decides to bring home the spare parts to build a robot of his own and see if he can make the A.I. work. Instead, he’s intercepted by a gang led by Ninja and Yo-Landi (Ninja and Vi$$er, respectively) who want him to give them a means of turning off the Scouts so that they can undertake a grand heist that will in turn give them the cash to pay off Pitbull (Selema), a psychotic gang leader who they owe money to.

Instead of an off switch, they get Chappie (Copley), the robot with the A.I. Child-like and frightened, Chappie learns at an astonishing rate. Ninja wants to turn Chappie into an accomplice in the heist while Yo-Landi is more of a nurturing sort. Despite Deon’s best efforts to keep Chappie in the straight and narrow, Ninja and his mate Yankee (Cantillo) are turning on Chappie to the delights of Thug Life and Gangsta Rap.

But Chappie is developing a moral compass of his own and is torn between Ninja and Yo-Landi, whom he address as Daddy and Mommy, and Deon, his creator. What will Chappie become, and what will happen when he gets there?

Blomkamp is the South African director behind District 9 and Elysium. Both are dystopian sci-fi films that are not only well-made entertainment but thought-provoking as well. This is the latest in that particular trend, although quite frankly it’s not as successful as the first two.

Artificial Intelligence is a subject that is moving well out of the province of science fiction and into the realm of science. It’s something we’re getting closer to. The nominal villain of this film, Moore, opines that artificial intelligence is unpredictable and could decide at a moment’s notice that the easiest way to protect the world was to get rid of the human population. He does have a point.

But then again, Chappie is literally a child whose moral development is being overseen by thugs. I can imagine that would raise some red flags, although the Yo-Landi character is a bit more maternal and less harsh than her male counterpart.

Patel who rose to fame with Slumdog Millionaire has become an engaging, charismatic actor who is able to ensnare audience sympathies with just a smile. He has as expressive a face as anyone in the business and he uses it to good purpose here. Jackman for his part rarely plays the villain and while his point of view here at least is relatable, the character’s jealousy and bullying tactics make the character hissable. I hate to say it but Jackman is far too ingrained in the public consciousness as a hero to make as an effective villain as you might like. Weaver is simply one of the most compelling actresses of our time.

Copley supplies the motion capture for Chappie as well as his voice; he does a pretty serviceable job, particularly delivering some much-needed moments of pathos near the end of the film. Copley is no Andy Serkis (but then again, who is?) but he does make Chappie feel like an actual flesh and blood…er, nuts and bolts robot.

Where the movie falls down is in the casting of Ninja and Yo-Landi Vi$$er. They are both highly regarded rappers in South Africa and they have the look of the criminal gang down, but quite frankly they’re both horrible actors. Ninja is stiff and delivers his lines in kind of a colorless gruff voice that gives me the impression that he didn’t really want to be there while Yo-Landi’s child-like voice is so distracting that some of her dialogue simply becomes unlistenable. One wonders if the characters carried the same name as the rappers because Blomkamp, who co-wrote the script with his wife, didn’t trust them to react to different character names while the cameras were running.

Blomkamp makes some tactical errors along the way besides the casting. The dialogue is often cheesy and doesn’t sound like real people talking. The abandoned industrial sites that are the hideouts for Pitbull’s gang as well as Ninja’s are indistinguishable from one another, while having Pitbull brandishing a solid gold machine gun may look gangsta but is impractical to say the least and ludicrous to be more accurate. There’s a lot more I could go into but it would be like kicking a dog while it’s down.

The movie has been fairly negatively received both by critics and at the box office and I can genuinely say that both critics and audience have it right. It isn’t to say that Chappie is without any merit whatsoever and should be avoided like a root canal on a healthy tooth – there is entertainment value here, it’s just that if you go in expecting something along the lines of District 9 you are going to leave disappointed. Blomkamp clearly is a talented director and has some major high profile projects lined up for the near future. Hopefully he’ll do a better job with them than he did with this.

REASONS TO GO: Some genuine moments of pathos. Dev Patel is engaging and Hugh Jackman makes for a decent villain.
REASONS TO STAY: Rappers are TERRIBLE actors. Missteps throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: A lot of violence, even more foul language and some brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chappie’s rabbit ear antennae are a nod to the similar look of Briareos in the manga Appleseed of which Blomkamp is a fan.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/25/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bicentennial Man
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Wrecking Crew

The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest


Making a run for it.

Making a run for it.

(2014) Documentary (Naked Edge/City Light) Mark DeFriest, Scoot McNairy (voice), Shea Whigham (voice), John Middleton, Robert Berland, Bonnie DeFriest, Brenda C., Gabriel London. Directed by Gabriel London

The great Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky once wrote that a society can be judged by how it treats its prisoners. Here in this country, I think it is fairly evident that our prison system is in need of drastic reform.

Case in point, Mark DeFriest. He was a 19-year-old kid when his father passed away, promising him that he could have his tools. Mark went ahead and took them. The problem was that the estate was still in probate; technically he didn’t own the tools yet. His stepmother called the cops, Mark panicked and ran. He was given four years for taking tools which had been promised him too early. It kind of seems to me that he could have gotten off without doing prison time, but far be it for me to second guess the wonderful Florida justice system.

DeFriest has a real issue with authority; he doesn’t do well when told what to do, where to be, how to live. Prison is definitely not the kind of place a person like that wants to be in. So, DeFriest made a break for it. He managed to actually get away too, for several days before being caught. Of course, time was added to his sentence for that little adventure. In fact, there were thirteen little adventures in all (to date). He successfully escaped in about half of them. The media took to calling him “Houdini.”

His lawyer, John Middleton, suspected that Mark had some sort of mental illness. He told horror stories of being gang raped and of horrible beatings, most of which could be corroborated by medical personnel. But there were also other things. DeFriest is a very smart guy, able to create keys that actually worked out of paper, and created zip guns from material commonly available around the prison. He also made impressive drawings and artwork from inside his cell, using the inside foil of potato chip bags. However, there was also extreme paranoia and what Middleton thought might be some psychosis.

The courts agreed to have Mark undergo competency testing. Four of the six psychologists agreed that Mark wasn’t mentally competent enough by the definition accepted by the Florida Department of Corrections. Two, however, believed he was; one of them was Robert Berland who had the most contact with him at Florida State Hospital’s Forensic Wing. It was his recommendation that the parole board accepted.

In the meantime Mark grew darker and more driven by despair. His marriage crumbled. A new one began, with Bonnie whom he met through correspondence. Bonnie has been a rock for DeFriest as his lawyer continued to advocate for his release as the years piled up and Mark’s misbehavior and Disciplinary Referrals (DRs as they are referred to) piled up as well. His parole date was extended, extended and extended some more. It soon reached 2085 having been sentenced to four years in 1980.

Dr. Berland would have a change of heart; initially believing that Mark was faking his symptoms, he eventually came to realize that DeFriest’s difficulties were genuine. He has become one of the stauncher advocates for the release of the prisoner and has since diagnosed him as bipolar with paranoid delusions, all of which can be treated with medication.

DeFriest’s story is a nightmare made flesh. His anti-authoritarian nature is not exactly tailor-made for imprisonment. Minor infractions ranging from possession of contraband to misuse of phone privileges piled up, continuing to add to his sentence. In his 34 year incarceration, 27 of them were spent in solitary confinement in the notorious “X Wing” of Florida State Penitentiary¬† where he was the only non-violent offender.

The film primarily focuses on the fight of his lawyer, his wife and Dr. Berland to have the ridiculous sentence pared down and get Mark declared mentally incompetent. London uses some pretty impressive animated sequences to illustrate some of the events that occurred in DeFriest’s long incarceration; London cites Waltz With Bashir as an inspiration and in fact the animation resembles that film stylistically.

DeFriest himself is a pretty compelling character; he is a natural-born storyteller and has a pretty good sense of humor which I would imagine you would have to have in order to survive what he has survived. Judging from the horrible beatings he took (the results of which are sometimes displayed photographically) it’s hard to imagine that there wasn’t at least some brain trauma that may have contributed to what might have already been there from the beginning.

One of the things this movie is most successful at and what makes it so compelling is that it raises, at least in my mind, what the penal system is for. Does it exist to rehabilitate those who have broken society’s laws and help them emerge better citizens, or is it there to punish those who have transgressed? While surely there is an element of punishment involved, is that all we want it to be? A way to warehouse those who don’t play well with others?

The movie is a little less successful in some of its storytelling elements; I never got a clear picture as to what prompted Dr. Berland’s reversal of opinion which has been crucial in the defense’s argument to get Mark out of prison and into psychiatric care. However, the issues I had were of a fairly minor nature other than the one I just mentioned; most should find the story easily followed.

Our country currently has the highest percentage of its citizens incarcerated than any non-dictatorship on Earth. That’s not a statistic we want to be number one in. Imprisoning our criminals has become a lucrative business for privatized prisons (although DeFriest isn’t in one of those) which compounds the issues we have. Prison rape is a real problem as is prison violence. When you put men already prone to lawbreaking in a closed system and don’t give them much to occupy their time, violence becomes inevitable. It’s a self-defeating circle.

This isn’t an indictment of any individual. Even the parole board is essentially doing their job given the information they’re receiving. This is an indictment of the system. Mark DeFriest is no angel, but he remains incarcerated today as of this writing. Justice has been denied him and in many ways, he’s a victim of his own mental illness.

London’s restraint in telling the story is admirable; while he clearly understands that this is a system that needs to be fixed, he doesn’t affix the blame on anyone in particular. He’s just calling for changes to be made that benefit not only the prisoners but society at large. How we treat our prisoners, going back to Dostoyevsky, is a reflection of a society’s values. How our society at this time in history will be judged will largely be reflected in that. Perhaps if we start as a society injecting more compassion into our penal systems we will actually start turning out rehabilitated felons rather than men who come out even more dangerous and disillusioned than when they went in.

While the theatrical run for this film has essentially ended although you can go to the movie’s website and contact the filmmakers for one-off screenings or theatrical runs if you own a theater, the film will be airing on the Showtime premium cable channel in the United States starting tomorrow. While there’s no word when this will be available for streaming on iTunes or Amazon or on DVD, this is a documentary worth seeking out particularly if you are interested in issues relating to justice. Certainly it’s an early contender for my 2015 Top Ten list.

REASONS TO GO: A gripping story that invites the viewer to rethink their views on the modern prison system. DeFriest an engaging character. Very much a legal thriller.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit vague on Berland’s change of mind.
FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly rough language and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: DeFriest wrote a letter to his wife describing the murder of Florida State Penitentiary inmate Frank Valdes; it was eventually used as evidence against the prison guards who were accused (and later acquitted) of the crime. Because they were acquitted, DeFriest was moved to an out-of-state penitentiary for his own safety.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: West Memphis Three
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Red Army

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel


It's a Bollywood world and we're just living in it.

It’s a Bollywood world and we’re just living in it.

(2015) Dramedy (Fox Searchlight) Dev Patel, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Ronald Pickup, Celia Imrie, Diana Hardcastle, Tina Desai, Richard Gere, Lillete Dubey, Tamsin Grieg, Fiona Mollison, David Strathairn, Shazad Latif, Avijit Dutt, Denzil Smith, Ashok Pathak, Poppy Miller, Neeraj Kadela, Vikram Singh, Rajesh Tailoring, Penelope Wilton, Claire Price, Christy Meyer. Directed by John Madden

In many ways, we’ve lost sight of the respect that is due to the elderly population. Sure, I can get aggravated with them when they chat loudly in movie theaters, or drive slowly on city streets. I don’t, however, agree with the current mindset of sticking them in sterile nursing homes where they wait to die. There should be some dignity in the process.

In Jaipur, the residents of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel have settled into a routine of life. Muriel (Smith) has become co-manager of the establishment, while Evelyn (Dench) has become a fabric buyer for a company which now wants to hire her full-time even though she’s in her late 70s. This puts a crimp in the already awkward relationship with Douglas (Nighy) who is running sightseeing tours but because he is having memory issues is relying on a young local boy to read facts and figures over a radio that broadcasts to a receiver in his ear. He’d very much like to take his relationship with Evelyn further but the two are talking at cross-purposes and Evelyn, a widow, isn’t quite ready to resume romance. And of course, Douglas is still technically married even though his wife Jean (Wilton) has left him and returned to England.

The other residents are also dealing with their own issues. Madge (Imrie) is trying to decide between two wealthy suitors and yet is spending much time with her driver Babul (Tailang) and his niece, trying to make up her mind. Norman (Pickup) who is working at the Viceroy Club, believes he’s inadvertently hired a hitman to take out his girlfriend Carol (Hardcastle).

Sonny (Patel), the owner and co-manager of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, has a lot on his plate. He is preparing for his upcoming wedding to his sweetheart Sunaina (Desai). He also realizes that his hotel is a victim of its own success; there are no rooms at the inn. The only thing he can do is expand and in order to do that, he needs money. A lot of it…and soon. He reaches out to an American hotel chain magnate (Strathairn) who tells Sonny that he’s intrigued by Sonny’s vision and will send an inspector to evaluate his existing property and whose recommendation would be crucial in making his decision.

He has his eye on a property nearby but into the picture steps Kushal (Latif), Sunaina’s ex-boyfriend and a wealthy and handsome young man who seems destined to be better at everything than Sonny. ¬†Sonny becomes uncontrollably and unjustifiably jealous, feeling that Kushal is there to steal everything Sonny has away from him. In the meantime, a new resident named Guy (Gere) from the States is there to write a novel – although Sonny believes him to be the hotel inspector – and falls for Sonny’s mom (Dubey) as a matter of course.

The first Best Exotic Marigold Hotel took me a bit by surprise in that I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did. The sequel doesn’t get the advantage of surprise that the first one got, but it still nevertheless connected with me. While in some ways being easily digestible and unsurprising like a bowl of cream of wheat, it does carry with it a flavor of India so that that bowl of cream of wheat has tandoori spices to be sure.

Of course, when you have a cast like this one, it’s really hard to go wrong. Smith and Dench are two of the greatest actresses alive today and both know how to deliver an acerbic line with the best of them. Nighy is likewise delightful, stealing the movie in many ways with his somewhat droll yet hip demeanor.

The script by Ol Parker, who also wrote the first one, doesn’t give short shrift to the backing characters either. Imrie in particular has some truly poignant moments to work with and while Pickup’s Norman is a bit of a one-dimensional bumbling lothario unused to the whole monogamy thing, even he has some depth as you can tell by that sentence alone. There is also a Bollywood-like dance sequence, something that the first film didn’t provide, which is utterly charming.

While a bit pedestrian, the lovely scenery of Jaipur and Mumbai where the film primarily takes place help keep the movie from ever getting boring visually and the performance of the aforementioned cast keep it from getting boring in any other way. While not quite as good as the first, the second visit to Sonny’s home for the elderly and beautiful is an enjoyable feast that reinforces a previously unknown desire to visit the sub-continent one day. If this movie teaches you anything, is that nothing is impossible nor unattainable no matter how old you are.

REASONS TO GO: Dench, Smith and Nighy are wonderful. Delightful Bollywood elements. Nice visuals.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit bland and predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: A bit of foul language and suggestive comments.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Evelyn claims that Muriel is 19 days older than she is, but in reality Judi Dench is 19 days older than Maggie Smith.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/17/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Unfinished Song
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest

Wild Card (2015)


Never get Jason Statham's drink order wrong.

Never get Jason Statham’s drink order wrong.

(2015) Action (Lionsgate) Jason Statham, Michael Angarano, Milo Ventimiglia, Hope Davis, Dominik Garcia-Londo, Max Casella, Stanley Tucci, Jason Alexander, Sofia Vergara, Anne Heche, Francois Vincentelli, Chris Browning, Matthew Willig, Davenia McFadden, Michael Papajohn, Jean Claude Leuyer, Grace Santo, Lara Grice, Shanna Forrestall. Directed by Simon West

Life is a bit of a gamble when you think about it. We can control things to a certain extent but circumstance and luck have quite a bit to do with it as well. All of our best laid plans can be irrevocably changed in an instant.

Nick Wild (Statham) is a bit of a Las Vegas fixture. He is one of those guys that if you need a favor, he’s the one you see. Some of these favors he charges for – for example, he takes a beating from a guy so that he can impress his girlfriend (Vergara) for $500. He works out of the office of lawyer Pinky (Alexander) where he is introduced to tech billionaire Cyrus Kinnick (Angarano) who wants a bodyguard and, as it turns out, something more.

Then there are the favors he does for free. When his ex-lover Holly (Garcia-Londo) is beaten up and raped, he uses his connections with mob boss Baby (Tucci) to find out who done the deed and discovers it’s Danny DeMarco (Ventimiglia), the sadistic scumbag son of a highly placed East Coast mob boss. Using his impressive fighting skills, which were honed in a British special forces division, he subdues DeMarco’s bodyguards and allows Holly to take her revenge, after which she flees Vegas, taking with her money from DeMarco’s desk, some of which she gives to Nick for his fee.

Nick realizes that he won’t be welcome in Vegas much longer and needs to get out. DeMarco will be gunning for him and if he wants to make his dream of retiring to Corsica, he’d better get hopping. However, there is the thing that has been keeping him in Vegas so long – his gambling addiction. And on a night when so much is riding on it, he can’t afford for Lady Luck to be fickle.

Considering that this is essentially a Direct-to-VOD production, the talent before and behind the camera is pretty impressive but if you look at the budget below, you immediately understand that this was never meant for that sort of release. Why Lionsgate gave up on this project is beyond me; it’s actually surprisingly good for the genre and even though it is certainly flawed it deserved better for an unpublicized excuse me theatrical release.

For one thing, you get Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman supplying the script based on his own novel. Goldman excels in character development and each role here is definable and has at least some sort of personality to it. Given the stellar nature of the cast and that some of them only have a scene or two here, it’s no wonder that they were attracted to these parts which are more than stunt cameos.

West, who has such genre fare as Con-Air and The Expendables 2 on his resume, is usually pretty dependable for films in the action genre and surprisingly (yes, I’m using that word a lot here) this is pretty light on the action as action films go, but that’s a good thing in this case. Rather than going from one fight scene to the next, there’s actual dialogue, some of it pretty damn good. There’s also exposition and a genuine story. For film critics used to seeing action films which are just an excuse for people to shoot lots of big guns, chase around in cars and generally give people the opportunity to watch big men beat the hell out of one another, that’s like rolling ten sevens in a row.

I’ve always thought Statham was more than just a tight-lipped martial arts action hero. He actually can be quite soulful and when given the opportunity to act, has done so particularly well. Mostly though he seems content to accept roles in which he is given little to do beyond beating people up. Don’t get me wrong, he’s very good at it and usually his movies are entertaining but they are little more than that.

Here he gets an opportunity to do more and he takes advantage of it. Definitely this is a reminder of how good Statham can be in the right role, and given that he has a high-profile villain role in the upcoming Furious 7 gives me even more reason to look forward to that movie. He has nice chemistry with Hope Davis as a heart-of-gold blackjack dealer, as well as Angarano as a rich guy who believes himself a coward.

The oddball thing here is that the action sequences are the weakest aspect of this movie. That’s surprising (there’s that word again) given West’s action pedigree. Had a little more time and care been devoted to them I think this would have been released into theaters and maybe would have been the same kind of action hit that John Wick was last year.

Instead we end up with a movie that had enormous potential and remains an entertaining diversion but doesn’t do anything that pushes the envelope which is a shame. I think the movie’s slow start – things really don’t pick up until about 40 minutes in – also doesn’t do it any favors.

While the blackjack sequences are realistic and Davis (or her body double) gets the moves and attitude of a blackjack dealer just right, we also lose something in the fight choreography which is business as usual with the exception of the final fight in which Statham takes out a bunch of baddies with a butter knife and a spoon, not to mention slicing open a bad guy with a credit card. I also like that we get kind of a local’s point of view to Vegas. Still, with just a little more imagination when it came to the fight sequences this might have been something special.

REASONS TO GO: Entertaining but not groundbreaking. Realistic on the blackjack sequences.
REASONS TO STAY: Starts off slowly. Fight sequences are just adequate.
FAMILY VALUES: As with most Jason Statham movies, plenty of violence and cursing, some sexuality and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: William Goldman wrote the script based on his novel, which was filmed once before as Heat starring Burt Reynolds back in 1987. This is Goldman’s first script in eleven years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Safe
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Deli Man: The Movie


Ziggy Gruber works hard at cooking with love.

Ziggy Gruber works hard at cooking with love.

(2014) Documentary (Cohen Media Group) Ziggy Gruber, Jerry Stiller, Larry King, Freddie Klein, Dennis Howard, Jay Parker, Fyvush Finkel, Mimi Gruber, J. Mackye Gruber, Freddie Roman, Zane Caplansky, Jane Ziegelman, Michael Wex, Adam Caslow, Alan Dershowitz. Directed by Erik Anjou

In their heyday, there were more than 1500 kosher Jewish delis in New York City alone. Now, there’s a tenth of that in all of North America. The great Jewish deli, once a mainstay of American culture, is slowly dying out.

This is a movie celebrating the deli and they choose for their spokesman David “Ziggy” Gruber, a genial man with a bit of a pot belly and an engaging grin. He also has a genuine passion for delis, having grown up essentially in the business; his grandfather founded the legendary Rialto Deli in Manhattan while his dad owned Long Island’s Woodrow Deli. He was stuffing cabbages as a pre-teen.

He would get himself to the Cordon Bleu Institute in England to learn to be a chef, but it was in the deli that his heart belonged. After going to a meeting of Deli Owners and discovering to his shock that nearly all of the owners were in their 70s and 80s and had nobody taking over for them when they retired, he felt that it was up to him to keep the culture alive and so he founded a deli of his own – in Houston.

Don’t laugh. There is a fairly large Jewish population there, as there is in many big American cities. In any case, his business took off and became a huge hit, to the point where he has been opening new restaurants although to date Kenny and Ziggy’s remains his only deli.

The film centers on Ziggy although it talks to various Deli Men from around North America including men from such legendary places as Cantor’s and Nate ‘n’ Al’s in Los Angeles, 2nd Avenue Deli and Carnegie Deli in New York, Kaplansky’s in Toronto and Manny’s in Chicago. They all admit given the labor-intensive nature of deli food and due to the high price of meat (deli tends to be meat-centric) the low return on investments that are modern delicatessens.

Part of why there are so few delis left is simply attrition. The Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, from where the initial flood of Jewish immigrants came to New York, were all for the most part wiped out in the Holocaust. There are no new immigrants coming to America from that region or at least very few and the children of those who are here aren’t interested in taking over a deli when they could be a doctor or a lawyer. Thus, the recipes for some of these dishes are fast disappearing – Ziggy bemoans that his grandfather’s gravy recipe died with him and that while he can get close, he can’t quite duplicate the taste. It’s easy to understand, given the grueling work schedule of the deli owner, why a lot of modern kids shy away from the business as a career.

The story of the delicatessen is also the story of the Jewish community in America; delis were places that they would gather to eat and became de facto cultural centers for the Jewish faith. For many, it was a taste of home, bringing with it the recipes of the old country – I’ll bet you didn’t know that pastrami was a Romanian invention despite the Italian-sounding name. However, with less and less people coming from the old country, the nostalgia factor has become less compelling and even in Jewish homes the meals that later generations grew up with became more Americanized.

We also see Ziggy, who had been married to his calling more or less, find someone who is willing to accept that – his massage therapist/acupuncturist Mimi. When the two decide to tie the knot, he insists on doing it in Budapest, Hungary in the synagogue where his grandfather had his bar mitzvah. If the site of Ziggy, tears streaming down his face, listening to the rabbi speak about the full circle of the grandchild coming to the temple where he breathes the air his grandfather breathed doesn’t make you misty-eyed, well, you are made of sterner stuff than I. I found him an engaging man, one who his brother said, not unkindly, that he was an 80-year-old Jew even as a child. He definitely seems to be an old soul and I’d love to sit down with him for an hour and just chat but I’d be willing to bet that it is a rare thing that he has an hour to spare for such pastimes.

Critic Sean Howley advised me not to see this hungry and it is sound advice. At the very least you will be jonesing for some good deli sandwiches after seeing this and the very next day I headed over to TooJays, our local deli. Matzoh Ball soup, pastrami on rye, carrot cake and a Dr. Brown’s celery soda. Oy vey it was delicious!

Gastronomy aside, the movie is surprisingly informative but doesn’t ever condescend. There are a number of Yiddish terms sprinkled throughout but they are thoughtfully defined with on-screen graphics in case you don’t speak it or haven’t been around it. There is a joy in what these deli men do, and even if they sometimes shake their heads in wonder at their own insanity it is clear that they feel what they do is not just a living but a calling. Not everyone feels the call as fervently as Ziggy does but all of them understand that what they are doing is not just piling a sandwich high with corned beef – they’re preserving a lifestyle and a culture that is in danger of disappearing. That makes the case that every time you head out to your local deli to pick up a sandwich, a bowl of soup or a loaf of bread, you are doing more than sating your appetite; you’re helping them preserve something precious. Who knew that grabbing a knish could be so important?

REASONS TO GO: Ziggy makes an ideal face for delicatessens. Informational without being boring and entertaining without being disrespectful. Merges cultural aspects and foodie aspects nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: Will make you hungry. Doesn’t really delve into why delis declined other than the financial.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of cussing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ziggy was once a line cook under Gordon Ramsay.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/14/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Search for General Tso
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Wild Card