Past Life


The sleuth sisters.

(2016) Thriller (Goldwyn/Orion) Nelly Tagar, Joy Rieger, Doron Tavory, Evgenia Dodina, Tom Avni, Rafael Stachowiak, Muli Shulman, Katarzyna Gniewkowska, Gilat Ankon, Oma Rotenberg, Lenny Cohen, Avi Kornick, Keren Tzur, Aryeh Cherner, Nitzan Rotschild, Aliza Ben-Moha, Yannai A. Gonczarowski, Tamir Shinshoni. Directed by Avi Nesher

 

For those of a certain generation the question “What did you do in the war Daddy?” was neither a frivolous nor easily answered inquiry. For some, particularly in Axis nations, the answers weren’t particularly savory or honorable. There is no shame in survival, but let’s face it; survival can come at an extraordinarily high cost.

Sephi Milch (Rieger) is a young musician and singer who yearns to be a composer. As part of a tour that the choral group at her Israeli arts academy is undertaking in Europe in 1977, she takes part in a performance in West Germany. In the audience is acclaimed composer Thomas Zielinski (Stachowiak) and his mother Agnieszka (Gniewkowska). The older woman grows more and more agitated, unable to stop staring at the photo of Sephi in the program.

At a reception following the concert while her son is receiving an invitation from the choral master to come to Jerusalem and fill the artist in residency program, the mother accosts Sephi and accuses her of being the daughter of a murderer. Thomas is forced to physically drag his mother out of the room. Sephi is quite naturally disturbed by this but rather than tell her father Baruch (Tavory), a well-respected gynecologist in Israel, she confides in her sister Nana (Tagar) whose relationship with her father is strained to say the least.

Nana works with her husband Jeremy (Avni) on a publication that publishes opinion pieces highly critical of the Israeli government as well as nude photo layouts of Israeli models. She has a temper and often argues loudly with her husband in front of co-workers. When Nana hears about the incident from Sephi, she determines to launch an investigation into her own father’s wartime activities. When Baruch gets wind of it, he decides to read his wartime diary to his daughters – he doesn’t have the diary but claims to remember it word for word.

Now the focus turns to the diary and whether Baruch’s memory is as sharp as he claims. That will bring Sephi back to Berlin and to Poland as she attempts to uncover the events of a horrifying night – and discover if her father is the man she thought she was.

This is reportedly to be the first in a planned trilogy of similarly themed stories from Nesher and it is based on the memoirs of the actual Baruch Milch (although it is a fictionalized version). Now, I will grant you that movies with Holocaust themes are many and there aren’t many more ways to explore it without essentially repeating themselves but this is quite different. For one thing, it implies that for the sake of living through the ordeal some Holocaust survivors did things that were terrible, which they undoubtedly did. It also looks at how these terrible acts can affect the lives of not only those who committed them but their families as well.

Rieger and Tagar are believable as sisters. Often in films the tendency is to give sisters very similar personalities; anyone who knows a pair of sisters knows that’s rarely the case. Often sisters have wildly divergent personalities and that is the case here; Sephi is quiet and a bit mousy while Nana is loud, abrasive and self-confident. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a closeness between them; it just means that the two react differently to the same stimulations and while there are those differences between them, they are more alike than even they realize.

The performances here are sterling throughout which helps keep the movie from settling into cliché; the people in the movie all feel real, whether it’s from the stressed out mother (Dodina) to the angry and stubborn Agnieszka. Thomas is a bit of a romantic foil for Sephi but there isn’t a lot of romance in the movie other than between the two sisters who learn to respect and relate to each other through their shared experience. Tavory also gives a fearless performance as Baruch, making him a most unpleasant man much of the time (you can see why Nana despises him) whose daughters grew up being physically assaulted by their father. Baruch does love his daughters as best as he can but he is extremely damaged by what happened during the war and he’s not inclined to share that with his girls until they finally corner him.

The choral music featured in the film is strikingly beautiful. Nesher also captures the era of the 70s well and while there are some missteps when it comes to pacing – the movie takes a long while to unfold which may cause problems for some younger Americans – he does allow the story to unfold very nicely. Like the espionage movies of the era in which this is set, nobody’s motives are above reproach and the audience is left feeling slightly off-balance in a good way.

The family dynamic is what elevates this movie above other movies that have themes involving the Holocaust. I can get why people are a little weary of movies with that theme but this one is definitely one worth taking note of. It’s difficult for those of us who didn’t live through the Holocaust to really understand what survivors endured and had to live with. This movie will at the very least give you an idea of that and maybe a little understanding at how far the damage went beyond those that didn’t survive the war.

REASONS TO GO: The film is brilliantly directed by Nesher. You’re never sure of anyone’s motives which heightens the suspense. The choral music is gorgeous.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story that Nana tells about urinating on her sister was something that the actress that plays her, Nelly Tagar, actually did. She told the story to director Avi Nesher and he liked it so much he put it in the script.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Debt
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Hero

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Traficant: The Congressman from Crimetown


(2016) Documentary (Steel Valley) Jim Traficant, Ed O’Neill, Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, Sherry Linkon, Bertram de Souza, Jim Tressel, Judge Edward Cox, Anthony Traficanti, Tim Ryan, Vic Rubenstein, Rick Porrello, Don Hanni, Gerry Riccuti, Ralph Zerbania, Pat Ungaro, Bill Binning, Don Mumford, Vince Guerieri, Paul Cains, Joe Bell, Mona Alexander. Directed by Eric Murphy

 

Politicians come and go but sometimes one stands out, occasionally for all the wrong reasons. Jim Traficant, representing the great state of Ohio from his native Youngstown, did stand out for all the wrong reasons but also for all the right ones.

Even in high school Traficant was a bit of a maverick. The quarterback for the varsity, he was regularly benched for refusing to run the play the coach sent in. In the late 50s and early 60s that was a big no-no. Fellow alum Ed O’Neill – who went on to a successful career as an actor – recalls the time that Traficant threw a 70 yard touchdown pass and was immediately benched because the Coach wanted a running play. It’s guys like this that Traficant would fight against his entire life.

As the Mahoning County Sheriff, he was jailed for refusing to process eviction notices, throwing families out of their homes. Youngstown, which had a steel-rooted economy at the time, was suffering badly with double digit unemployment and the steel mills closing down like bowling pins. People were hurting and Traficant, the son of a truck driver, could empathize. After returning to the job, he went after the mob which was a big part of Youngstown life.

However it was Traficant who wound up getting scrutinized. Audio surveillance tapes linked Traficant with mob figures and the Sheriff was indicted. Defending himself rather than getting himself a lawyer, Traficant beat the charges using the defense that he was doing an undercover investigation of the mob so that it appeared he was taking bribes from the mob.

Traficant always had higher aspirations and went after and won the U.S House of Representatives spot for his district, which he would win four more times. Something of a gadfly, he had an eccentric haircut, an affinity for bell bottoms and was known to spout some pretty outrageous things from his bully pulpit. His favorite catchphrase was “Beam Me Up – There’s no intelligent life on this planet.”

An erstwhile Democrat, he clashed with party bosses and was often ostracized for voting against party interests. Still he was able to bring much-needed jobs to the Mahoning Valley and was so loved by his constituency that he was voted in with roughly 70% of the vote four times running, unheard of then and now.

However Traficant became a victim of his own hubris and his fall was as spectacular and as sudden as his rise. Documentary filmmaker Eric Murphy does a mighty fine job of chronicling the life of the maverick Congressman from Youngstown, making his film entertaining as well as informative. Although background information about his parents and childhood years is strangely missing, we get plenty of archival footage as we get to hear much of the bombast from the lips of the late Congressman.

Traficant was a populist in the vein of Huey P. Long and had a lifelong love of the spotlight. He would be the first Congressman to be expelled from Congress since the Civil War and campaigned from jail (and nearly won). Murphy tells his story with a fair amount of objectivity although his affection for the subject is clear also. The film feels a little bit like a television newsmagazine story but it also doesn’t shy away from pictures of mob casualties and F-bombs.

Murphy is a legitimate talent with a bright future. This is one of the better documentaries I’ve seen this year and it is absolutely mind-boggling that a distributor hasn’t picked this up. Keep an eye out on the website for upcoming screenings of the film, or you can rent it on Amazon and iTunes with hopefully more streaming services to come. This is one of those hidden gems that you’ve never heard of but when you see it you wonder why you haven’t. If you do see it, be sure and pass it on to your friends; word of mouth is the lifeblood of a film like this and it deserves a goodly amount of praise.

REASONS TO GO: An entertaining documentary that tells the story of a political maverick well. The editing of the film is outstanding.
REASONS TO STAY: I would have liked a little more early years background of Traficant before politics.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity and a few images that might be a little disturbing to some.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Traficant passed away September 27, 2014 as the result of injuries suffered when the tractor he was driving on his farm accidentally rolled over him.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wiener
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Band Aid

Everybody Wants Some!!


The 70s become the 80s.

The 70s become the 80s.

(2016) Comedy (Paramount) Blake Jenner, Juston Street, Ryan Guzman, Tyler Hoechlin, Wyatt Russell, Glen Powell, Temple Baker, J. Quinton Johnson, Will Brittain, Courtney Tailor, Taylor Murphy, Christina Burdette, Zoey Deutch, Sophia Taylor Ali, Austin Amelio, Tanner Kalina, Forrest Vickery, Jonathan Breck, Ernest James, Justin Alexio, Celina Chapin, Shailaun Manning. Directed by Richard Linklater

College circa 1980 was a different place than it is now. Back then, there were no cell phones, no laptops, no Internet. There was a lot of sex and while there were sexually transmitted diseases, they could be cured with penicillin. There was a lot more facial hair and your music collection didn’t fit in a small box; you used a milk crate to carry your records around. A lot of things though, haven’t changed.

Linklater, whose last film was Boyhood and elevated him to perhaps the most successful indie director in the business, calls this film a “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused. None of the characters from that film appear here but I can see his point – while that film took place in the last year of high school, this one takes place in the first year of college.

It follows the members of the fictional Southwest Texas University baseball team during the three day weekend prior to school starting and the fall preview games for the team. It is August in Southwest Texas which means, well, heat, lots of beer and pretty girls wearing hardly a thing. There’s a lot of what we now call “Classic Rock” on the radio (but back then we just called it rock) and it’s about to be morning in America.

Jake (Jenner) is our proxy amongst the jocks. We see things unfold through his eyes. He’s smart enough to know that while he was the star of his high school team, he may not be talented enough to be a starter on this team and as for moving on to the major leagues, probably only McReynolds (Hoechlin) has a shot. But in the meantime, he’s making friends with the other players, including Willoughby (Russell), a California stoner who is kind of a Deepak Chopra of the pitcher’s mound, Finnegan (Powell) who knows that this will be the best time of his life and plans to make the most of it, Jay (Street) with an explosive temper, and Beuter (Brittain) who is an unsophisticated rube.

Over the weekend, the guys bang back beers, smoked a little leaf and do whatever it takes to get laid. All of that rings true to the college experience, then and now. Jake meets a comely freshman theater major (Deutch) and the two begin to hang out and develop something of a romance. Where it will lead is anyone’s guess – after all, we’re talking about the first weekend at college for the both of them.

I think that for the most part Linklater nailed the period (as he usually does) with a few quibbles; the guys play The Legend of Zelda which didn’t come out until the following year, for example nor would it have been likely that a college student had a VCR, which retailed for about $600 back in August 1980. Still, he gets the flavor of the period right.

This is very much a guy’s picture; only the theater major is given any sort of character and most of the women in this film are reduced to being the sexual prey of the baseball players. In a sense, we’re getting the worldview of the jocks – all bros and no hoes. Some viewers might have a problem with that. Still, this is a Linklater film so it’s thoughtful right?

Not so much. In many ways, this is one of his most mindless films yet. I kinda got the sense that this was almost a throwaway movie, one that he didn’t give a lot of thought to (even though it arrives in theaters a year and a half after his last one). To me, it doesn’t have the depth of character that is a hallmark of Linklater’s movies; the characters all seem much more to be stereotypes.

The acting is a little bland as well. The cast is largely unknown and while Jenner stands out by default, the rest perform their roles without distinction but at least without making a mess of it either. Damned by faint praise, I know.

But there is more to the movie than just a great soundtrack (and it really IS great) and capturing its era nicely. This is a Richard Linklater film and even though it will likely not be considered one of his best works, there are still moments that show you how good a director he is and how gifted he is at structuring comedic sequences. There are some really good light-hearted moments. Not the big laughs of a big Hollywood comedy, but the introspective chuckles of recognizing something as ridiculous that perhaps you took part in when you were younger.

I will admit that I’m definitely the target audience for this thing. While I didn’t go to college on an athletic scholarship, I knew some who did and I was there during this precise era (in August 1980 I was starting my Junior year). While I like to think I wasn’t quite so sex-obsessed as these guys were, I probably was – guys that age are hormones on legs. So while this isn’t one of Linklater’s best, it certainly isn’t his worst and even a subpar Linklater movie is worth checking out, and this clearly is worth checking out.

REASONS TO GO: Gets the era dead to rights. Terrific soundtrack. Some really funny sequences. Doesn’t overstay its welcome.
REASONS TO STAY: Might be a little sexist. Bland cast. Not as thoughtful as previous Linklater films.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots of profanity, plenty of drug use, a good deal of sexual content and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The credits include one for a cat wrangler credited to Bernie Tiede, who was the subject of Linklater’s 2011 film Bernie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dazed and Confused
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Angry Birds Movie

X-Men: Days of Future Past


Smile and the world smiles with you.

Smile and the world smiles with you.

(2014) Superhero (20th Century Fox) Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Jennifer Lawrence, Peter Dinklage, Halle Berry, Omar Sy, Nicholas Hoult, Shawn Ashmore, Ellen Page, Evan Peters, Josh Helman, Daniel Cudmore, Bingbing Fan, Adan Canto, Booboo Stewart, Lucas Till, Evan Jonigkeit, Mark Camacho, Zabryna Guevara. Directed by Bryan Singer

In the modern era of Superhero films, each franchise faces a particular problem – each succeeding entry in the franchise needs to be bigger and better, the stakes higher in order for the audience to continue to flock to the multiplex to see them. That is why, in my opinion, studios choose to go the reboot route rather than continue on with existing casts.

Bryan Singer may not necessarily subscribe to that theorem. He took the cast members of the X-Men: First Class reboot of the popular mutant superhero series and blended it with the original X-Men cast of his era and created a time-travel epic that carries the torch for both series’ nicely.

In a dystopian future, mutants have been all but eradicated as well as a good chunk of the human race. The Sentinels, giant robots with organic elements and an artificial intelligence that allows them to adapt to the various powers of the different heroes they fight, have become so powerful that not even the X-Men of the future can best them. The only humans left are those who agree with the agenda that mutants must be wiped off the face of the planet, using those who remain as slave labor.

Making a last stand in a Chinese temple are the remaining X-Men: Professor X (Stewart), Magneto (McKellen), Storm (Berry), Wolverine (Jackman), Bishop (Sy), Colossus (Cudmore), Shadowcat a.k.a. Kitty Pryde (Page), Blink (Fan), Sunspot (Canto) and Warpath (Stewart). They know that it is inevitable that the battle will be lost. They have only survived because Pryde has developed a plan in which she sends one of their members consciousness back a day to warn the rest that an attack is imminent so they can be elsewhere when the attack comes.

Professor X proposes that they do something similar but long-range. He has pinpointed the problem back to an event in 1973 – one in which weapons scientist Bolivar Trask (Dinklage), an anti-mutant hater of epic proportions, is assassinated by Mystique (Lawrence), the shape-shifting chameleon who was once the close friend of Charles Xavier (McAvoy) and later became the ally of Eric Lensherr (Fassbender) a.k.a. Magneto. She was later captured and her DNA was used to make what was already hard-to-defeat giant robots into nearly unbeatable sentient machines. The assassination also turned public sentiment against the mutants.

Sending someone back forty years is nearly impossible however. Pryde points out that “the human mind can only stretch so far before it breaks.” However Wolverine with his mutant healing power is the only one who can survive the trip. So it is that Mr. Cheroot first and Ask Questions Later is sent back to the Disco age where he will be given the monumental task of convincing the younger Xavier to try and find Mystique and stop her from her appointment with Trask.

Wolverine knows full well that it will take both Xavier and Lensherr to talk the headstrong Mystique who is angry and wounded over the deaths of several friends in Trask’s experiments on living mutants to discover what makes them tick. However, this is no walk in the park assignment. Xavier is bitter and angry over being shot by his old friend. He was paralyzed in the incident but a serum that Hank McCoy a.k.a. Beast (Hoult) developed allows him to walk and numbs the pain but also blocks out his powers. Xavier is just fine with that and really doesn’t give much of a flying you-know-what for the future but at last his conscience kicks in and he agrees to help Wolverine.

Getting Lensherr aboard is slightly more difficult. He is being kept in a metal-less prison hundreds of feet below the Pentagon – apparently he’s been blamed for the magic bullet that killed JFK – but Wolverine knows a guy. That guy is Peter Maximoff a.k.a. Quicksilver (Peters) who has superspeed and the attitude to match.

Of course, once they free Magneto he turns out to have an agenda all his own and now the clock is literally ticking – in the future, the Sentinels are approaching the temple where the remaining X-Men are holed up and Wolverine’s consciousness hangs in the balance.

This all sounds very convoluted and it is. I have deliberately left the individual powers of most of the different X-Men unexplained – it would just take too long. The issue I have with movies like this is that we get literally a dozen or more different characters most of whom are given short shrift or split screen time with a younger/older counterpart. When you have a cast that’s chock full of actors who’ve received Oscar consideration (there are eight of them), something’s got to give. Poor Halle Berry (who won Oscar gold) has almost no dialogue and only a couple of minutes of screen time although to be fair, Berry’s pregnancy prevented her from taking part in the movie as much as the producers would have liked. Anna Paquin (who also won an Oscar) gets no dialogue and less screen time than it takes to read this sentence and yet she gets star billing. Ah, the magic of Hollywood credits.

Despite this, the movie flows surprisingly well and those actors who do get more than a few moments of screen time make the most of it. McAvoy in particular does well with his self-medicating and self-loathing Professor a far cry from the suave and confident Professor X of his counterpart Patrick Stewart. We see the road that Xavier is taking towards the compassion and wisdom his character becomes known for and it’s rather fascinating. Jackman as well continues to make Wolverine his own and while it’s hard to make something new out of a character he’s played seven times, Jackman manages to accomplish that.

The supporting cast is pretty stellar and Dinklage is a superb villain. His Bolivar Trask doesn’t see himself as a villain but rather the facilitator who unites mankind against a common enemy. His enmity against the mutants is somewhat surprising considering that as a small person, Trask is himself an outsider within society. It’s a multi-layered role and a villain worthy of a broad canvas such as this.

As you’d expect the battle sequences are plentiful and well-done. The Sentinels are fearsome creatures that have expressionless faces that are all the more terrifying for their mechanical blankness. Lots of things get blown up real good, and there are plenty of fists, fur and energy beams flying through the ether, not to mention flames, ice and the occasional claw.

A warning to those unfamiliar with the X-Men comics; there is a lot that goes unstated in the film that may not make sense. For example, the Wolverine in the ’70s has bone claws and in the future, claws of metal. That’s because the metal infusion that changes the nature of his weapon doesn’t take place until later on in time. In fact, the man responsible, Stryker (Helman) makes an appearance as an ambitious Trask operative here – he’d be played by Brian Cox in X2.

What really saves this movie is the plot which is complex and intelligent. Some often snipe at comic books and the movies that are based on them for being dumb and loud, but this is certainly not the former (and only occasionally the latter). Some thought was given to the mechanics and ramifications of time travel. The movie also made a good effort in re-creating the time period. Just as First Class was something of a superhero Bond movie, this is a lot like a superhero conspiracy movie, complete with Tricky Dick, the military-industrial complex and lava lamps.

This is the kind of entertainment that is synonymous with summer and a perfect fit for a year which has been thus far an improvement over last summer. The X-Men have always been some of the most interesting of comic books with some of the most compelling themes in the art form. The apocalyptic vision of the future here however is nothing compared to what is to come in the next installment of the series which is teased in an extra scene following the credits.

REASONS TO GO: Some sensational action scenes. Riveting storyline.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many characters; may be hard for non-fans to keep up with all of them. May not make sense to those unfamiliar with the comic.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of comic book action and violence, some suggestive material, brief nudity and a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the comic storyline the movie is based on, it is Kitty Pryde who travels back in time, not Wolverine. The change was made for continuity reasons – in the 1970s Pryde wouldn’t have been born yet, whereas Logan is ageless and would appear exactly the same in both future and past.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Terminator 2: Judgment Day

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: A Million Ways to Die in the West

American Hustle


The 70s - the sexy decade.

The 70s – the sexy decade.

(2013) Drama (Columbia) Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Pena, Shea Whigham, Alessandro Nivola, Elizabeth Rohm, Robert De Niro, Paul Herman, Said Taghmaoui, Adrian Martinez, Anthony Zerbe, Colleen Camp, Steve Gagliastro, Christy Scott Cashman, Becki Dennis. Directed by David O. Russell

Ah, the 70s. The Disco decade; home to the bellbottoms generation in which fashion and hair were so hideous that even the 80s looks more reasonable. The era in which the music scene was so stodgy that punk had to be invented to kick start rock and roll from a moribund existence (although to be honest I’ve always thought the accusation a bit unfair). In movies it was the time of the anti-hero when Travis Bickle, Dirty Harry and Billy Jack roamed the silver screen. Rodney Dangerfield might have said that the 70s don’t get no respect.

It was also the time of ABSCAM, an FBI sting operation that netted corrupt politicians amid accusations of entrapment. The latest from Oscar-nominated director David O. Russell is loosely based on that affair. Here, manic FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper) has small time con man and dry cleaner Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) by the shorties. Irv has been selling fake loans to desperate businessmen and pocketing the fees. He is aided by his sexy girlfriend Sydney Prosser (Adams) who affects an English accent although she’s from Albuquerque.

DiMaso has Atlantic City mayor Carmine Polito (Renner) in his crosshairs and thinks that Irv and Sydney can sweet talk the mayor into accepting money from an Arab sheikh to help rebuild Atlantic City and erect the casinos that he knows can turn the city around. While the FBI doesn’t have any sheikhs sitting around headquarters with nothing to do, Irv knows where to get one and it looks like he might just get out of this thing okay.

But things quickly start spiraling out of control. Irv’s wife – yes he has a wife too – Rosalyn (Lawrence) gets wind of what’s going on and knows enough to really throw a monkey wrench in the works. Carmine also brings in a mobster (De Niro) from Miami who is no fool and doesn’t play nice if he thinks that things are snarky and brother, nothing is more snarky than what’s going down in this hustle. To make matters worse, Carmine turns out to be a pretty decent guy who only wants to help the people of Atlantic City; he’s just willing to take an inadvisable shortcut to do it and Irv starts to get second thoughts about nailing him.

The story is more parable than plot having to do with control and power and how it corrupts, but that’s really not what the movie’s about. What the movie is really about is the characters and Russell may well be the best ensemble director in Hollywood right now. He has collected an impressive group of actors, some of the best working today.

Nobody throws themselves into  a role as physically as Bale. He gained some 50 pounds for this role and affected a slouch (which led to him being treated for two herniated discs) as well as a hideous combover which all became affectations of the character which helped sum up Irv in just a glance. Irv is wary about the world and doesn’t trust anyone and with good cause. He’s smart, smart enough to know that while he’s smarter than most people he’s not as smart as everyone and that the best strategy for any good con is to have a way out. Bale makes this character who might easily have become just another lowlife loser in lesser hands into a sympathetic almost-a-hero.

In fact, all of the characters wind up gaining a certain amount of sympathy from the audience which is quite a feat, even the somewhat loathsome DiMaso. Cooper understands that Richie is desperate to become somebody and lives in fear that he will be forever a non-entity. That fear drives him, makes him take unrealistic chances and to leap when he should look. It also creates a rage within him, a rage that he takes out on his hapless boss (C.K.).

Lawrence has become one of the most capable actresses in Hollywood over the last few years and while her role here is clearly a supporting one, she has one scene that is absolutely breathtaking. Just listen for the strains of Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” and you’ll understand. Rosalyn is a Jersey princess who comes off as plenty dumb but is a lot smarter in the end than anyone might think. She also rocks the lame dress you see in the poster.

Me though I thought the performance of the film belonged to Amy Adams. Dressed in sultry low-cut dresses she’s always threatening to fall out of, this is a strong brassy character but inside she is a frightened little girl holding off the cruelty of life with an English accent. When that vulnerability shows through as it does on a few occasions, Adams just rips it up. I don’t know that she’ll get an Oscar nomination for this one but she not only richly deserves one, I think she might just have put together a performance that beats out Sandra Bullock’s in Gravity. It’s neck and neck in my book for best actress of the year.

With all that going for it, you’d think I’d have loved the movie but curiously I didn’t love it. I liked it a lot, respected it a great deal but I just didn’t fall in love with the movie. It didn’t connect with me somehow; maybe it’s the length which seems to drag on a bit. Maybe it’s just that I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for it – there are elements of black comedy here as well as a scam movie. I admire that Russell stayed true not only to the setting but the way movies were made in that era. From a strictly craft point of view this is excellent filmmaking.

So take my lack of enthusiasm for what it’s worth. Sometimes you see a movie you admire but you just don’t connect with it for whatever reason. It happens. I get the sense my wife loved the movie more than I did but I don’t think she was all that enthusiastic in her love either. In any case from my point of view this is a movie that inspires respect and admiration more than devotion. Take from that what you will.

REASONS TO GO: High level performances all around.

REASONS TO STAY: Too long. For whatever reason I couldn’t connect with it.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a ton of swearing, some brief violence and some sex.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filming in Boston was delayed because of the Boston Marathon bombing; afterwards Adams, Cooper, Bale and Renner all visited victims of the attack in area hospitals.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 90/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Iceman

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Apocalypto

Mr. Nice


Mr. Nice strikes a serious pose,

Mr. Nice strikes a serious pose,

(2009) Biography (MPI) Rhys Ifans, Chloe Sevigny, David Thewlis, Luis Tosar, Crispin Glover, Omid Djalili, Christian McKay, Elsa Pataky, Jack Huston, Jamie Harris, Sara Sugarman, William Thomas, Andrew Tiernan, Kinsey Packard, Ania Sowinski, James Jagger, Howell Evans, Ken Russell, Ferdy Roberts, Nathalie Cox, Olivia Grant. Directed by Bernard Rose

The 60s and 70s were the era when drug culture became widespread and suddenly there was a worldwide demand for narcotics. It took all kinds to make sure the supply kept up with the demand – and some drug dealers were the most unlikely souls indeed.

Howard Marx (Ifans) was an honest and well-adjusted boy from Wales who managed to earn himself an education at Oxford. He’s studying alone in his room one night when exchange student Ilze Kadegis (Pataky) bursts into his room looking for a secret passageway. When she finds it, a curious Howard follows her to an old storage room where Graham Plinson (Huston), the university’s biggest dope dealer, hides his stash. Ilze seduces Howard and introduces Howard to the joys of cannabis. From that point on, Howard is hooked and becomes one of Graham’s best customers with his academics suffering predictably as a result.

When Plinson and Howard’s friends start experimenting with harder drugs, tragedy ensues and Howard vows not to touch the serious stuff ever again and rededicates himself to his studies, passing by the skin of his teeth (and with a bit of underhanded chicanery). He marries Ilze and takes a job as a teaching assistant (what they called a teacher training position back then) at the University of London. By now, the swinging ’60s were in full flower and Carnaby Street was the bloom on the rose. Howard was fully into the scene, prompting a reprimand for long hair and flashy suits.

When Plinson gets arrested after plans to transport a shipment of hashish from Germany to England go awry, Howard – his marriage on the ropes, his job rapidly going down the toilet – figures he has nothing to lose and steps in to help. Because he’s not a known drug dealer, he sails through the customs checkpoints without so much as a second glance. Howard finds that the adrenaline rush of smuggling drugs appeals to him and he decides to take it up as a vocation  He eventually becomes one of the world’s largest marijuana traffickers – at one point controlling a fairly large percentage of the world’s supply.

However, the problem with this kind of lifestyle is that eventually people start gunning for what you have, and soon Howard finds himself playing a dangerous game. It’s one that will get him arrested and dropped into one of the nastiest prisons in the United States.

This is based on the autobiography of  Howard Marks (uh huh, this is a true story) and Marks served as a consultant on the film, proclaiming it as accurate even though there were some differences between his book and the movie. One gets the sense that there are a few brain cells not functioning quite up to optimum for ol’ Howard these days.

The same might be said of the filmmakers. The movie often feels like it was written by one stoned, and directed while the same. Plenty of stoner clichés – half-naked chicks rolling around on a bed full of cash, slow-mo shots of the arrest and so on – mar the film. While I liked that the first part of the movie was shot in black and white, switching to color when Howard takes his first psychedelic, at times one gets the sense that the film is stuck in neutral waiting for the GPS to kick in and send it somewhere.

Ifans is an engaging actor and as he did in Notting Hill he does a good job of playing the stoner. Although the Nice of the title refers to the city in France, it is also apt to the demeanor of Marks as portrayed by Ifans. I’m pretty sure the intent here was to portray Marks as a counterculture Robin Hood-sort, fighting the battle of worldwide weed, but I keep getting the sense that we’re seeing very much a self-promotion more than an accurate portrayal.  While honestly I have nothing against Marks, I wonder if I wouldn’t have appreciated the movie more if he had a few more warts here.

The rest of the cast is pretty decent, although Sevigny has a truly terrible English accent. She’s a fine actress but I found the accent distracting and thought the film would have been better served if she hadn’t attempted it, or if they’d hired a British actress instead.

The era is captured nicely and we get a sense of the wide-open era that was the ’60s and ’70s. This is more of a throwback to films of that era in many ways – the drug dealer is the hero and unlike the modern version of heroic Hollywood drug dealers these days, he doesn’t have automatic rifles, machine pistols or military training. Howard is no Rambo by any stretch of the imagination.

Those who dislike movies about drugs and drug dealers should give this a wide berth. You’ll only give yourself an aneurysm. Stoners will find this to be excellent entertainment with a hero they can get behind. As for the rest of us, this doesn’t really distinguish itself much – but it doesn’t disgrace itself overly much either. A lot of how you’ll find this movie will depend on your attitudes towards cannabis to begin with. Me, I’m allergic to the stuff so that should give you some insight to where I’m coming from.

WHY RENT THIS: Pretty decent performance by Ifans. Nicely immersed in the era it’s set.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Kind of runs together and loses cohesion. Sevigny’s accent is atrocious.

FAMILY VALUES: A ton of drug use and foul language as well as some sexuality and violence (and a bit of nudity).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In Marks’ autobiography on which the film is based, he claimed to have been betrayed to the American authorities by Lord Moynihan but that isn’t brought up in the film here for legal reasons.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Savages

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT:The Reluctant Fundamentalist

The Runaways


The Runaways

Joan Jett loves rock and roll; Cherie Currie loves the lifestyle.

(2010) Musical Biography (Apparition) Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning, Michael Shannon, Danielle Riley Keough, Scout Taylor-Compton, Tatum O’Neal, Stella Maeve, Brett Cullen, Alia Shawkat, Johnny Lewis, Hannah Marks, Jill Andre. Directed by Floria Sigismondi

The world of rock and roll is a harsh one, full of broken promises and shattered dreams. Every so often, a performer or a band will break through and change things; on other occasions, a performer or a band will succumb to the excesses of the industry. Sometimes, a performer or a band will do both.

Joan Jett (Stewart) is a young girl who idolizes Suzi Quatro and Keith Richards. She’s an adept guitarist but nobody will take her seriously and she longs to be in a rock and roll band. She meets Kim Fowley (Shannon), a fixture on the Sunset Strip in the 1970s-era Los Angeles when this all took place. Fowley sees himself as an acute judge of talent and a canny promoter who understands what sells. He longs to be a major player in the music business, something he is not at the time. He likes Jett’s look and her dream of  fronting an all-woman rock band – there were none at the time that had any success, although in pop music the girl groups of the 60s (Martha and the Vandellas and over in Motown the Supremes) had met with success. However, these were women who projected a certain safe and virtuous image. Fowley – and Jett – wanted danger and subversion. Fowley hooked up Jett with Sandy West (Maeve), a drummer. The two began practicing together but the band needed fleshing out.

Cherie Currie (Fanning) is Bowie-obsessed and performs one of his songs dressed just like him at a school talent show, getting booed by her audience and flipping them off in retaliation. Her home life is falling apart at the seams – her dad (Cullen) is an alcoholic, spiraling slowly to an inevitable end and her mom (O’Neal) has fled to Indonesia to escape, leaving her with her twin Marie (Keough) as essentially sole support. Fowley discovers her and brings her to his trashy trailer to perform with the band. At first Cherie is stiff and hesitant but with Fowley pushing her/abusing her into the right attitude, her natural performing talent, sexuality and charisma come to the fore. “It’s not women’s lib,” Fowley crows, “Its women’s libido!” The remaining spots in the band are filled up with guitarist Lita Ford (Taylor-Compton) and bassist Robin Wolf (Shawkat).

The group plays a series of gigs in a series of depressing dives before Fowley gets them signed to a major label. A song, “Cherry Bomb” becomes a minor hit (although it becomes a big one in Japan) and the band begins to headline gigs and support major acts in stadiums. They go to Japan where they are mobbed by rabid fans and all of a sudden this group of young girls – all in their mid-teens at the time – suddenly are cursed with the success of the rock and roll lifestyle; plenty of sex, plenty of drugs, and not so much rock and roll. Eventually, the curse of success will overcome the band, with internal musical differences and Currie’s drug habit proving to be too much for the band to survive.

Director Sigismondi makes her feature debut here after mostly directing music videos, as well as working in fine arts (she’s a talented photographer and sculptor as well) and to her credit she makes the most of a very little. She manages to capture the look and feel of both the L.A. suburbs in the 70s (I should know – that’s where I lived at the time) and the decadent scene on the Sunset Strip.

I’ve been a big fan of Fanning for a long time and she doesn’t disappoint here. She captures the nature of the vulnerable and sometimes lost Currie nicely, showing her as clay to be molded by Fowley and drifting off-course, prey to the temptations of the road. As her family life disintegrates, she becomes more and more lost. The movie to a large extent focuses most on Currie (but to be fair, she did write the biography that the movie is based on) and Fanning handles the load nicely.

Stewart, best known as the angst-ridden Bella Swan in the Twilight franchise is surprisingly rough-edged here, showing the force-of-nature strength of Jett but also her bisexual tendencies. There is a fairly lurid make-out scene between Jett and Currie which comes off as exploitative, but given the nature of the band and the era, kind of makes sense as something like it would appear in a 70s “B” movie, which this closely resembles in tone. Stewart shows more range here than she has previously, forcing me to revise my opinion of her as a somewhat one-note actress. I look forward to seeing more from her along these lines.

Shannon is a terrific actor who has one Oscar nomination to his credit and has the chops to garner more of the same should he get the right roles. This one is not, but he does capture the manic and manipulative nature of Fowley who yearned to be a mover and a shaker, but whose claim to fame would always be this band. He often claimed he assembled the Runaways both conceptually and practically, a claim he has backed off from in recent years. Shannon is riveting in the part, capturing both the yin and the yang of Fowley who could be supportive one moment and abusive the next.

In fact, in many ways this movie sugarcoats the Runaways story, leaving out allegations of sexual and physical abuse around the band. It also leaves out the backstory of the rest of the band (in the case of Ford, at the real Lita’s request) in focusing on the two leads. The filmmakers do a disservice to the band in essentially portraying them as a two-woman creative team (in reality, West and Ford co-wrote most of the songs with Jett and Fowley). While it’s true Jett and Currie were the heart and soul of the band, it would have been nice to include more of the rest of the band’s story in the movie, particularly that of West who passed away from lung cancer just prior to the beginning of filming.

The legacy of the Runaways is undeniable; Joan Jett remains a rock and roll icon, an inspiration to young female rockers everywhere. It’s a bit of a crying shame that they remain largely unknown here and those who do know them mostly know them for “Cherry Bomb,” their signature hit. They were certainly much more than that, and anyone who has seen their Showtime documentary (which includes some incendiary performance footage) will attest to that. The movie picks up part of their essence – enough to make it worth seeing. I just wish we would have gotten a little bit more of it.

WHY RENT THIS: An authentic recreation of the time and the scene. Surprisingly gritty performances from Stewart and Fanning. Shannon shows a good deal of charisma.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie leaves out a good deal of information, and fictionalizes or trivializes the group’s achievements.

FAMILY VALUES: There are occasionally graphic depictions of teen sex and drug use, as well as a whole lot of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jackie Fox, the actual bass player for the Runaways, declined to give the producers of the film the rights to her life story so a fictional character was introduced to be the Runaways bassist (and ironically, has no lines in the film); Lita Ford also declined to give her rights to the producers, but did meet with Scout Taylor-Compton prior to filming and declared that even if the film was awful, Taylor-Compton at least did her character justice.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.7M on a $10M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: A Single Man