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

Pixels


Game over.

Game over.

(2015) Family Sci-Fi Comedy (Columbia) Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad, Matt Lintz, Brian Cox, Sean Bean, Jane Krakowski, Dan Aykroyd, Affion Crockett, Lainie Kazan, Ashley Benson, Denis Akiyama, Tom McCarthy, Tim Herlihy, Serena Williams, Martha Stewart, Dan Patrick, Rose Rollins. Directed by Chris Columbus

It’s hard to believe, but the 1980s are now three decades in the rear view. It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was hanging out in the local video arcade, losing quarters at a terrifying rate and listening to Depeche Mode, Duran Duran and Culture Club on the radio and, being me, looking like a reject from the 70s. My fashion sense has always been a decade out of whack.

But the sins of the 80s are catching up with us. The footage of a video game championship contest are among the clips that have been sent out by NASA in a probe into outer space, hoping to find intelligent life and re-assure them that we are peaceful and eager for friendship. Instead, the aliens (whom we never see) get the wrong idea; they believe these violent games to be a declaration of war and in their culture, they send out their warriors to face our warriors in a test of strength, only our warriors don’t have a clue what to do with these now-archaic video games.

It will be up to Brenner (Sandler), the runner-up in the contest and boyhood friend to President “Chewy” Cooper (James) to save the day, along with the winner of the contest, the arrogant Eddie (Dinklage) and  another childhood friend, Ludlow (Gad) who is a raging conspiracy theorist these days in tow. A fetching Marine Colonel, Violet Van Patton (Monaghan) serves as the military liaison with Brenner’s Arcaders team with Admiral Porter (Cox), the Pentagon Chief of Staff, who doesn’t think much of Brenner and his team. They ain’t much but they’re all we’ve got.

This is based on a short film which is far superior to the feature. There are no name actors in it and the special effects are much less detailed shall we say. Still, it’s far more entertaining than this flat and generally unfunny comedy which has been somewhat justifiably excoriated by the critics. However, I have to admit that the video game characters, the scenes in the arcade in the 80s and the general vibe induced a nice feeling of nostalgia in me, which I assume was the point. But unfortunately, I needed more and I assume, so did most of those who have been panning the film.

Certainly it helps to have had some connection to the 80s to enjoy the movie at all, but like a lot of Sandler films as of late, this just isn’t that funny. It’s almost all shtick, and that is the kind of humor that can be taken only in small doses, at least by me. Sandler, who had done some pretty funny movies early on, like Happy Gilmore for example, hasn’t really made me laugh for it feels like a decade or more. I don’t know why; he’s a genuinely funny guy, and he has a quick wit that comes out in talk shows. It just feels like he’s playing the same character over and over again, so much so that he has stopped caring about it. I can’t say for certain that it’s true but it sure feels that way watching him.

I like Kevin James too but he suffers from the same issues as Sandler; mostly, playing the same guy in generally unfunny comedies. There were some moments, like when he appears in front of a crowd that clearly hates him and he’s nothing but polite and almost ignorant of the hatred directed at him – now, that was funny. Some have said that he blends the girth of Christie, the timidity of McConnell, the ignorance of Perry, the reading issues of Dubya and the hair of Paul – essentially the perfect Republican presidential candidate. I don’t know if that was the filmmakers intention but the role certainly satirizes modern politics nicely – and subtly. I wish there was more going on like that.

Instead, we get the bombast of the space invaders, coming at us with Centipede, Pac-Man, Galaga and Donkey Kong. We get a life-size Q-Bert and gigantic Froggers hopping across traffic. I think it probably sounded impressive to the producers and the executives who greenlit this, but there really is no way to make the clunky graphics of the 80s come off as anything other than clunky graphics. And don’t get me started on the extraneous, completely unnecessary 3D.

Every summer there’s always one movie that just bites the big one, and this summer it appears to be this one. It gives me no joy to say this; I think Adam Sandler is a decent guy who really needs to make some different choices in movies. He needs to re-invent himself and I wish him luck at it; comebacks are notoriously hard in Hollywood but Sandler is still a talented guy. So are most of the people involved with this movie but this would have better been left a short.

REASONS TO GO: Video arcade nostalgia. Some of the more satirical stuff works.
REASONS TO STAY: Not very funny. Special effects are clunky.
FAMILY VALUES: Some slightly foul language and suggestive comments.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Akiyama plays Pac-Man inventor Toru Iwatami, the real Iwatami appears in the film. He didn’t want to play himself because he speaks no English.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 18% positive reviews. Metacritic: 27/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super Mario Brothers
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Primeval

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues


The news team discusses the size of their paychecks.

The news team discusses the size of their paychecks.

(2013) Comedy (Paramount) Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, David Koechner, James Marsden, Christina Applegate, Kristen Wiig, Dylan Baker, Meagan Good, Harrison Ford, Greg Kinnear, Judah Nelson, Josh Lawson, Fred Willard, Chris Parnell, Bill Kurtis (voice), June Diane Raphael, Tom Clark, Jennifer Gullick, Aubrey Drake Graham. Directed by Adam McKay

One of the characters that established Will Ferrell as one of the top comedy stars of the first couple of decades of the 21st century was Ron Burgundy, the conceited and laughably ignorant local news anchor of San Diego, the classiest city in the U.S. That was nine years ago. Since then a sequel has been clamored for but never realized until now.

Burgundy (Ferrell) has been absent from the San Diego news scene, having moved on to a higher profile news job in New York City, co-anchoring with his wife Veronica Corningstone (Applegate). The lead news anchor and the most respected newsman in New York, Mack Tannen (Ford) – no relation to Biff apparently – is preparing to retire and has decided to promote Veronica to replace him. As for Ron, Mack fires him due to his sloppy performance on air.

This causes a good deal of friction between Ron and…well, Ron and he leaves Veronica and their son Walter (Nelson). He languishes back home in San Diego until he is approached with an offer to work at GNN, the world’s first 24 hour news channel which is being fronted by an Australian billionaire named Kench Allenby (Lawson).First however he’ll have to reassemble the old Channel 4 news team. Sportscaster Champ Kind (Koechner) owns a fried chicken franchise that uses a cut-rate meat that isn’t chicken to skimp on expenses. Reporter Brian Fantana (Rudd) is considerably more successful as a photographer of cats. Sadly, Brick Tamland (Carell) is dead except he isn’t as he shows up to his own funeral. Of course, there is a school of thought that Brick was scared all along.

Once in New York, Ron and his team are assigned to the graveyard ship while arrogant Chicago anchor Jack Lime (Marsden) gets the primetime spot. Jack taunts Ron and his team and as a result Ron bets Jack that he’ll get higher ratings. Jack, knowing it’s a slam dunk, agrees.

The news team are desperate. There’s no way they can beat Jack Lime; even if Jack has nothing important to report he’ll still kick their butts by virtue of the timeslot he has. Then Ron has an epiphany; rather than telling people what they need to know, why not tell them what they want to hear? The concept turns out to be a huge success and broadcast news will never be the same. Ron’s attempts to reconcile with Veronica fall flat – she’s dating a psychologist (Kinnear). Ron’s boss, Linda Jackson (Good) takes a rather aggressive interest in him and the two start dating, if you can call lots and lots of casual sex dating.

But those who ride high fall further and Ron’s ego, never a small thing, is inflated beyond tolerance. However a tragedy will strike that will be the biggest obstacle Ron has ever had to face in his career. Can he do it and can he make it up to those he has wronged around him?

I had high hopes for this movie, being a big fan of the original Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. However this doesn’t even get close to measuring up to that movie. The jokes are for the most part old and make you feel uncomfortable more than laughing and most of the best jokes are outgrowths from the first movie (like the news team rumble). I’m not the most politically correct person in the world but I guess I don’t find sexism and racism real funny, even if you’re making the person with those sentiments look ignorant.

The first film had more cohesion while the sequel seems to be more of a series of gags strung together in a rough storyline. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that tried so hard to be funny. The first film didn’t have to try.

While I like the characters from the first film and the chemistry they possessed, they seem kind of tired and stale here and there doesn’t seem to have been much – if any – further development except that Brick develops a romance from fellow eccentric Chani (Wiig).

Maybe my problem is more that while the first movie had some heart and soul, this one seems to be talking down to us more – as if they realize that the first movie was a comedy classic so they don’t have to try at all here and anything these characters do and say is funny so laugh if you want to be cool. The vibe here just was unpleasant and I came away wishing that I hadn’t seen the film. It’s almost bad enough to make me wish that I hadn’t seen it because the first movie that I loved so much has been tarnished by this one.

REASONS TO GO: Some gags work.

REASONS TO STAY: Mostly unfunny. Feels recycled. Drags on too long.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some drug use, a fair amount of foul language and some comic violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Paramount initially passed on a sequel, citing the budget being too much for them initially but then abruptly changed their minds. Will Ferrell announced the sequel was greenlit in character as Ron Burgundy on the Conan O’Brien show.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/1/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grown-Ups 2

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: The Wolf of Wall Street

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

Skateland


Vogue, Seventies style.

Vogue, Seventies style.

(2010) Drama (Freestyle) Shiloh Fernandez, Ashley Greene, Haley Ramm, James LeGros, Taylor Handley, A.J. Buckley, Heath Freeman, Brett Cullen, Melinda McGraw, Ellen Hollman, Casey LaBow, James Landry Hebert, Ross Francis, Caleb Michaelson, D.W. Moffett, David Sullivan, Joshua Bridgewater, Morgana Shaw, Rachael Lee Magill, Krystal Mayo. Directed by Anthony Burns

 

The summer after we graduate high school is a kind of a cusp between the first stage of our lives and adulthood and yet speaking just for myself I don’t even remember it very well. Different responsibilities and higher expectations are demanded of us as we enter into college, the military, the job market. The world becomes a much different place for us than it was in high school and we struggle to figure out how to adjust.

In a small Texas town in 1983 Ritchie Wheeler (Fernandez) has graduated high school and is managing a roller skating rink called Skateland. His sister Mary (Ramm) and girlfriend Michelle (Greene) are pushing him to submit college applications but Ritchie is in no hurry to go to college. He enjoys hanging out at Skateland with his friends, particularly Brent (Freeman), Michelle’s brother who has just returned to town after a stint as a motorcycle racer. There’s also Kenny (Handley) who is a rich kid who hosts frequent keggers and appears to be going nowhere.

You’d think Ritchie’s parents would be pushing him to start moving forward with his life but his Mom (McGraw) and Dad (Cullen) are having serious marital problems which take up most of their focus, leaving none upon their son who is beginning to drift aimlessly. He’s a talented writer (as most kids in movies like this are) but he’s in danger of having nobody ever find that out. And when Skateland announces that it’s closing its doors, his troubles are really beginning because Michelle, getting ready to attend the University of Texas in Austin in the fall, is beginning to suspect that she’s growing up while her boyfriend isn’t….and that they might just be growing apart.

Skateland is going for a bittersweet nostalgia which isn’t a bad thing. It definitely takes its cues from movies of the era with a kind of John Hughes-like appeal in teens who are reaching a crisis point in their lives. Whereas Hughes made those films funny and poignant, Burns has to settle for poignant.

The young cast is pretty decent here. Greene, who appeared in the Twilight films, is actually a pretty good actress and even though she doesn’t get as much screen time as the hunky Fernandez, when she is on she’s performing so confidently that you can’t help but notice her in a good way.

I do like how Burns captured the era so well – an era that I lived through, so I can attest to the look, the design and especially the attitudes. Whoever chose the soundtrack chose wisely; the songs really brought back the era nicely in my mind. One should never underestimate the importance of music to setting a scene of time and place in a movie.

This reminded me of a lot of different teen angst movies, many made in the era being depicted here. That’s not always a bad thing but sometimes you wind up asking yourself the question whether or not your time would have been better spent watching those films instead of this one. My big complaint is that it really doesn’t add anything to the coming of age genre, but it doesn’t disgrace it either. You could do worse than seeing this movie as an example of the teen rite of passage film. Then again, you could do better, too.

WHY RENT THIS: Captures the era perfectly. Some strong performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Has been done better in other movies.

FAMILY VALUES: There is teen drinking, smoking and drug use as well as a little violence and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is dedicated to the memory of John Hughes, a director whose work the movie emulates somewhat.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $19,411 on an unknown production budget; it’s unlikely that the movie made any money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dazed and Confused

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Unfinished Song

Rock of Ages


Rock of Ages

Julianne Hough prepares for her next scene in the Broadway version of “There’s Something About Mary.”

(2012) Musical (New Line) Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, Paul Giamatti, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Malin Akerman, Bryan Cranston, Mary J. Blige, Will Forte, T.J. Miller, Kevin Nash, Jeff Chase, Celina Beach, Dan Finnerty, Angelo Donato Valderrama. Directed by Adam Shankman

 

Maybe I’m a bit of a music snob – all right, there’s no “maybe” about it – but my idea of fun isn’t watching a cover band butcher the hits of classic rock. However, someone had to convince a Broadway producer and then a Hollywood studio that people would love to see it. Thus began a musical that has been a huge success on the Great White Way but would that success translate to the big screen?

Sherrie Christian (Hough) is a bright-eyed blonde travelling from Tulsa on a bus to make it to the bright lights and big city dreams of L.A. And of course the first thing that happens is she gets her suitcase stolen – the one with all her record albums in it, autographed of course. Sherrie is a rocker chick, a lacquer haired blonde who dreams of Night Ranger, Poison, Whitesnake and Journey. She lives for the hard stuff.

Her mugging is witnessed by Drew Boley (Boneta), a barback with dreams of rock stardom. He is a good-hearted sort and when he hears her story, he arranges with his boss Dennis (Baldwin), owner of the world famous Bourbon Club on the Strip, to give her a job as a cocktail waitress. She comes at a critical juncture for the Bourbon. The club is in financial chaos, owing a sizable tax bill. However, help is on the way – Stacee Jaxx (Cruise), the superstar front man of Arsenal, has brought his band to play their last show ever at the Bourbon before Stacee heads out on his own solo career.

Stacee’s oily manager Paul Gill (Giamatti) tells Stacee that he will be interviewed by a Rolling Stone reporter, one Constance Sack (Akerman), one who might have a bit of an agenda and one who isn’t overly awed by Stacee’s sexual attraction. In the meantime, the new mayor (Cranston) and his shrill wife (Jones) who may have a personal vendetta, are taking aim at the Bourbon and are out to shut it down so that the Strip can be cleaned up for rich developers to make a mint on.

Of course things don’t go as planned, everybody kind of goes their separate ways including Sherrie and Drew who have become a couple, but a misunderstanding tears them apart. Of course, this being a musical, we know that a happy ending is in sight and rock and roll will save the day.

I have a thing about Broadway musicals that take pre-written songs and plug them into a cookie cutter plot. Mamma Mia kinda got away with it because it was all the music of a single band and as such meshed together well. Hear, there are a bunch of different acts (with a lot of Poison songs, but also from such bands as the ones previously named as well as Starship, Twisted Sister and Bon Jovi.

The problem is that the songs are played pretty much without any passion. Rock requires it, and this has all the energy and passion of canned elevator music. It’s just loud guitars instead of soft strings. Most of the cast do their own singing and it’s probably better than we have a right to expect. In fact, the acting is pretty solid to but with two notable – and fatal – exceptions.

Hough is best known for her stint on “Dancing With the Stars” and she also has a surprisingly sweet voice (she’s done a country album to this point). However, her acting is not quite up to the same standards. Her Sherrie is kind of annoying, to be honest but at least that’s better than Boneta, veteran of Mexican telenovelas who is simply bland. His character isn’t particularly well-defined to begin with but Boneta adds nothing to him. His voice is pleasant enough but lacks the power to really deliver on his songs.

This is really a mess. It’s not the fault of Cruise who gives a performance that reminds me of his work in Tropical Thunder but without the clever dialogue. The leads are attractive but don’t really deliver any personality, something this project desperately needed. The plot is forgettable and while the songs are good, there really isn’t anything that distinguishes them in the musical numbers from the dancing to the settings. Hough, who is indeed a talented dancer, is even given a turn as an exotic dancer – and yet she almost never dances here. Talk about a wasted opportunity – in fact this whole movie really can be counted as one.

REASONS TO GO: Ummm…you like bar cover bands?

REASONS TO STAY: Some really wooden performances. Uninspiring musical performances. Just a mess in every sense.

FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of sexual innuendo including some fairly graphic kisses and making out. Lots of drinking – LOTS of it – and some implied drug use. Then there’s the foul language…not a ton but enough to be noticeable.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scenes set below the Hollywood sign were actually filmed in Pompano Beach, Florida in a landfill. The real Hollywood sign is fenced out and no public access is permitted.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/26/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100. The reviews are unaccountably mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mamma Mia!

’80s ROCK LOVERS: Several stars of rock in the 80s make appearances in the protesters-rockers confrontation near the end of the scene. Among those singing “We Built This City” are Nuno Bettencourt of Extreme, Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon, Debbie Gibson (yes, that one), Sebastian Bach of Skid Row, and Joel Hoekstra of Night Ranger.

FINAL RATING: 2/10

NEXT: Lola Versus

Take Me Home Tonight


Take Me Home Tonight

Topher Grace is disconcerted that Teresa Palmer has never heard of "That 70s Show."

(2011) Comedy (Rogue) Topher Grace, Teresa Palmer, Dan Fogler, Anna Faris, Chris Pratt, Michelle Trachtenberg, Lucy Punch, Michael Ian Black, Demitri Martin, Michael Biehn, Bob Odenkirk, Angie Everhart, Jay Jablonski, Edwin Hodge. Directed by Michael Dowse 

Honesty is the best policy; it has been said time and time again but few of us really regard it as true. Most of us will lie about how successful we are, how old we are, what we did during the day – even who we are – to impress someone else. In an age where lies are commonplace and Internet identities are meaningless, we sometimes forget we used to have to tell our lies face-to-face.

In a sense, Matt Franklin has been lying to himself. He is an MIT grad who doesn’t really want to be an engineer, but kinda does. He’s not sure. He’s really not sure about anything. So he lives at home with his policeman dad (Biehn) and housewife mom and twin sister Wendy (Faris) and works at Suncoast Video (are there any of those left?) in the local Mall. Oh, did I mention its 1988?

Into his mall walks Tori Frederking (Palmer), the high school crush he never had the guts to ask out because he never had an “in” and about whom he was just coincidentally talking about with his best friend Barry Nathan (Fogler), a Mercedes salesman who’s about to get fired, although he doesn’t really know it (but he kinda does). Matt nervously strikes up a conversation with his unrequited love, trying to act nonchalant but getting flustered when she mentions her successes – graduation (with honors) from Duke, a job at a high-end investment banking firm.

That’s why Matt blurts out that he’s working at Goldman Sachs, which is a bit weird because apparently they don’t have an L.A. office (which is really weird because of course they do – even in the 80s, all of the big financial firms had L.A. offices). She asks if he’s going to a party that evening, and even though he wasn’t planning to; it’s at the home of Kyle Masterson (Pratt), the smarmy preppy boyfriend of Wendy who doesn’t even know that she applied to Cambridge (which I suppose is supposed to be Oxford but who am I kidding?) or that she would move to England if she was accepted.  The letter detailing whether she got in or not sits unopened in her purse.

So yes, this is one of those “life changing party” movies that had their genesis in the ‘80s and there are plenty of nods here to the era from a decidedly John Hughes-like tone to the big hair to the cocaine use. As someone who lived in Los Angeles in the 80s, I can tell you that they did get the mall culture right, and if the movie is a bit smug in its nod to the wealthy – both of the parties depicted here are in the homes of rich people, even if Matt and Wendy live in the burbs as the children of a cop who put most of his retirement money into Matt’s education, only to see him take a job at the mall. Money well spent, eh dad?

There are a few laughs here although not nearly as many as in the similarly-themed Hot Tub Time Machine which was a much better movie than this one. Then again it’s something of a miracle we’re seeing this movie at all; it was actually filmed four years ago, but Universal, which then owned the distribution rights through their Rogue imprint didn’t feel confident about releasing it and it sat on the shelf until the Starz-owned Overture distributors bought Rogue. Overture was in turn purchased by new distributors Relativity who then added it to the release schedule.

Grace can be truly charming (as he showed in “That 70s Show”) but he looks a bit lost here. His character is so wishy-washy that it’s difficult to get behind him fully and it gets frustrating to watch him flounder, which he does for much of the movie. Fogler, who hasn’t always been impressive in his film roles, does actually manage some of his best work here – a scene where he is lured into a threesome (of sorts) in a Beverly Hills bathroom with a Cougar who turns out to be “Law & Order” hottie Angie Everhart (shockingly unrecognizable here) is one of the movie’s highlights.

Unfortunately much of the movie relies on unfunny gags and uninspired bits. The movie relies far too much on the ‘80s gimmick and poking fun at a decade which is too much like shooting fish in a barrel. I liked the Goldman Sachs reference until I realized that it was inserted in well before the financial meltdown that Goldman Sachs had such a hand in so the reference was kind of accidental.

This is one of those movies that has enough good moments so that it’s not an utter waste of time, but is frustrating because it does waste its potential. I liked the tone of the movie; it just could have used a few more laughs to keep the pace moving along.

REASONS TO GO: There are a few funny moments, particularly between Grace and Fogler. Palmer is awfully pretty and Faris has a role that is completely out of her comfort zone but she still nails it anyway.

REASONS TO STAY: Not enough laughs to sustain the movie. There is a little bit of heart and warmth and while the film nails the “look” of the era, doesn’t really capture its essence, preferring to focus on the excesses of the time.

FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of bad words, lots of drug use, plenty of sex and nudity but hey, it’s the 80s!

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: It took four years for the movie to see the light of day, mainly over studio reluctance to show all the drug use; during the down time the title changed from “Young Americans” to “Kids in America” to the present one, taken from an Eddie Money song that while played in the trailer never appears in the film.

HOME OR THEATER: Chances are this will be gone from theaters before you can get out to see it anyway, so I’d make this a rental.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Looking for Eric

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps


Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Shia LaBeouf tells Michael Douglas that Indiana Jones was a better adventure hero than Jack Colton.

(20th Century Fox) Michael Douglas, Shia LaBeouf, Josh Brolin, Carey Mulligan, Susan Sarandon, Eli Wallach, Frank Langella, Austin Pendleton, John Bedford Lloyd, Vanessa Ferlito, John Buffalo Mailer, Sylvia Miles, Charlie Sheen, Ron Insana.  Directed by Oliver Stone

Filmmaker Oliver Stone has long had the reputation as a cinematic gadfly. Throughout the 1980s his movies took run after run against the establishment; movies like JFK, Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July all of which were Oscar bait in their time. However, many consider his 1987 film Wall Street to be his magnum opus. Michael Douglas would win an Oscar as the Machiavellian Gordon Gekko, a Wall Street financier whose mantra “Greed is Good” would become a catchphrase and, ironically enough, a spur for many of today’s brokers to enter the business. Still, that was 23 years ago; has Stone mellowed with age?

Some say yes. The movie opens with Gekko (Douglas, reprising the role from the original) being released from prison after doing eight years for insider trading. He leaves the facility with a mobile phone the size of a loaf of bread and a gold watch. There is, however, nobody to meet him; even the rapper/thug has a limo awaiting him.

Seven years later, his daughter Winnie (Mulligan) still hasn’t spoken to him in more than a decade. She blames him for the overdose death of her brother. She has a different life now anyway; she runs what is self-described as a “lefty website” and she’s living with Jake Moore (LaBeouf), who works as an investment banker for the established firm of Keller Zabel (said to be a fictional version of Bear Stearns) as an alternative energy specialist. Even though he’s essentially part of the system she despises, he’s still idealistic enough to give her reason to overlook it.

Their life is far from ideal, however. Keller Zabel is in trouble, the victim of rumors of insolvency based on bad debt (rumors which turn out to be partially true). Senior partner Louis Zabel (Langella), who is also Jake’s mentor, goes to the Federal Reserve, hat in hand, but is turned down, mainly due to the poisonous words of Bretton James (Brolin), the CEO of Churchill Schwartz (the fictional counterpart of Goldman Sachs) who had an axe to grind with Zabel.

When Keller Zabel fails, Jake decides to take in a lecture by Gekko who is promoting his book “Is Greed Good?” that, among other things, predicts the economic meltdown that would take place later that year (the movie is set in 2008). He manages to get Gekko’s ear by telling him that he’s getting ready to marry his daughter, which he is. Gekko agrees to talk to him.

Gekko agrees to get some information about who initiated the rumors about Keller Zabel in exchange for Jake helping to reunite him with his daughter. Jake arranges dinner with the three of them but Winnie walks out, unable to be in the same room with the man whom she blames for destroying her family. Jake stays in contact with her dad behind her back, however; Gekko responds by telling Jake that it was Bretton James behind the rumors that sunk Keller Zabel. Jake decides to initiate some rumors of his own. James is in turn impressed by the passion and smarts of young Jake and hires him. This lasts only as long as it takes for Jake to find out he’s being used.

Things really begin to fall apart then. Just as Winnie is beginning to move towards reconciliation with her father, Gekko reverts to his true colors and the revelation that Jake has been in contact with him behind her back threatens to submarine the relationship. Can someone like Gordon Gekko find redemption in this world, and more to the point, does he deserve it?

I asked earlier if Oliver Stone had mellowed with age, and I tend to agree with some of those who think that he has. Stone’s best works, including the original Wall Street, all carry a degree of anger to them. They are strident, opinionated and abrasive in some ways. He carries the courage of his convictions whether you agree with them or not, and in all honesty there is little ambiguity about his cinematic work.

That’s not as true here. Gekko at one point says, “I was small time compared to these crooks” referring to the Lords of Wall Street circa 2008, but he is in many ways as corrupting an influence as ever, although he isn’t even the villain of this piece – Bretton James is. While Brolin is a great actor in his own right and he does a magnificent job as the unrepentantly corrupt and greedy James, the movie could have used less of him and more of Michael Douglas.

Douglas, as I mentioned earlier, won an Oscar for the first Wall Street and it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that he could win another for the same role 23 years on, although I would probably characterize it as more of a supporting role. Gekko is sleek, seductive and completely amoral; he is super-competitive and will pay any price in order to win on his own terms. It’s a fascinating role as much of the movie the lion has no teeth or claws, only to reveal that he had them all along about two thirds of the way through. Douglas is the reason to see this movie, first and foremost.

He has some company, however. Langella, who has been delivering terrific performances every time out of late, does so again here. His role is small but crucial, and he imbues it with dignity and honesty. Louis Zabel is a man who finds that his business has changed into something unrecognizable and something he doesn’t much like. He’s lost in this world that he helped shape, and the irony isn’t lost on him. Sarandon also has a brief role as Jake’s real estate selling mom, who is constantly in need of funds to keep her house of cards from collapsing.

This might have gotten a better rating, but unfortunately the movie is torpedoed by its ending, which I found literally preposterous. The characters turn completely on their own internal logic and act completely out of character. It’s about as jarring as ordering a pizza delivery and receiving liver and onions instead, especially if you hate liver and onions.

Having been employed by a financial institution my own self, I can tell you that the world created here is pretty much accurate; the hypocrisy and arrogance truly exists particularly the closer to the executive suite that you get. Of course, that’s pretty much true for any industry these days; it’s just that the financial industry has been in the spotlight more because of the sub-prime shenanigans.

There are a number of documentaries out there that examine the financial meltdown and its causes that are more likely to give you insight into just what happened. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps isn’t really a good substitute for them, since it really relegates much of the reasons behind the collapse to the periphery of the film, preferring to concentrate on the characters of Jake, Winnie and Bretton and to a lesser extent, Gordon Gekko. It does make for fine entertainment, but I suspect it will seem a bit dated 23 years after the fact and doesn’t have the advantage of prescience that the original Wall Street had. It’s more a rehash of current events, and it may be fair to say that you could have gotten the same insights by watching MSNBC.

REASONS TO GO: Langella, Douglas and Brolin do some pretty impressive work. The character of Gordon Gekko is as relevant today as he was back in 1987.

REASONS TO STAY: The ending is absolutely preposterous. Some of the direction is a bit self-indulgent.  

FAMILY VALUES: The language can be a little rough and some of the concepts are on the confusing side, but the average teenager should be able to follow it and maybe even appreciate it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A scene in which Donald Trump made a cameo appearance as himself was left on the cutting room floor.

HOME OR THEATER: While some of the New York City vistas look far more majestic on the big screen, the movie is nonetheless perfectly adequate when seen at home.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Leaves of Grass

Hot Tub Time Machine


Hot Tub Time Machine

John Cusack realizes for the first time this isn't a Merchant-Ivory film.

(MGM/United Artists) John Cusack, Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, Clarke Duke, Crispin Glover, Lizzy Caplan, Chevy Chase, Sebastian Stan, Lyndsy Fonseca, Collette Wolfe, Charlie McDermott, Kellee Stewart. Directed by Steve Pink

Every so often a movie comes along that you have very low expectations for that, when you actually sit down to watch, not only exceeds them but by a large margin. It’s one of the joys of seeing a lot of movies.

Adam (Cusack) is 40-something and miserable. His girlfriend has just left him and not in a nice way. He was one of those bright souls that never really measured up to his potential, and he lives in a nowhere life with no future. His video-game playing nephew Jacob (Duke) lives in his basement, mainly because his sister Kelly (Wolfe) wants nothing to do with the boy, who is an unemployed geek and a virgin to boot.

Nick (Robinson) is also 40-something, working in a pet spa cleaning the anal canals of dogs and inspiring them to exercise on a treadmill. He once had a promising music career but gave it up after marrying Courtney (Stewart), who has him completely emasculated.

Lou (Corddry) is an out-of-control wild man who drinks to excess and is the friend that everyone likes in small…okay, microscopic portions. At 40-something, he’s unmarried, has no girlfriend and no real life. He drives into his garage one night, totally hammered out of his mind. When his favorite Bon Jovi song – “Home Sweet Home” for those keeping score at home – plays on his car stereo, he goes into full-on air concert mode, not realizing that the garage door has closed with the engine running and that every time he stomps his feet the engine revs, spewing further emissions into the closed space.

All three men are close friends who have drifted apart since their glory years in the mid-80s. When Lou is taken to the hospital as a suspected suicide, only Adam and Nick come to the hospital (apparently Lou’s family hates him, which is unsurprising). The doctor urges the two friends to keep an eye on Lou and find a way to cheer him up. The two decide to take him to Kodiak Valley, a ski resort that was the site of some of their best times from their misspent youth. Much to Lou’s disgust, they bring Jacob with them (Lou has an unreasoning and unexplained loathing for Jacob).

When they get there though, it is far from the glittering village of hedonism that they remember. It is run down with many of the store fronts boarded up. The hotel is falling apart and the one-armed bellboy Phillip (Glover) is dripping with attitude.

The carnage continues when they get to their room. The hot tub is non-functional with the only thing in it a decomposing carcass of a raccoon. The only thing worth the trip is the carving that Lou put in one of the nightstand drawers that asserted that Adam was apparently gay and proud.

However, after a fruitless evening of playing quarters and reminiscing, the four are amazed to find the hot tub fully functional. The party really gets started then with the four drinking like fish, including a Russian sports drink that’s apparently illegal here.

They wake up much the worse for wear and decide to go skiing. To their surprise they find that the ski slopes are crowded. To their surprise, many of the skiers are wearing leg warmers and headbands to hold feathered hair. The black guys are wearing Jheri curl. Michael Jackson is still black. It’s 1986 and they’re at the scene of their many crimes.

It seems that they’re all inhabiting their young bodies again – which they can see when they look into the mirror. But after meeting a cryptic hot tub maintenance man (Chase), they begin to realize that they are being constrained by the butterfly effect – the consequences that of a butterfly flapping its wings in Beijing causing a hurricane in Miami. In other words, the smallest action in the past can have devastating consequences in the future. Since Jacob was too young to be there, he is in danger of never having been born.

Of course, that’s nothing like finding out that his mom was also at the ski resort and she was something of a skank in her day. But the guys need to do exactly what they did that day in the past; Adam needs to break up with his girlfriend (and take a fork to the face for his problems), the happily married Nick needs to have sex with a groupie and Lou needs to get beaten up by Blaine (Stan), the arrogant preppy ultra-conservative leader of the ski patrol.

The thing is that by choosing different paths here they could make their lives a whole lot better in the future. However, the repercussions could also be devastating. Will they follow the path they chose once and return home to the lives they know, or will they take a chance and risk everything?

Director Steve Pink co-produced two of Cusack’s finer films, Grosse Point Blank and High Fidelity. This movie is totally unlike Cusack has ever done before. He plays the straight man here, but the film is infused with a surfeit of toilet and sexual humor. It is as raunchy as they come, raunchier even than last year’s The Hangover. While I don’t believe this is going to pull the kind of numbers that film did, it is at least of a similar quality.

Although Cusack is one of my favorite actors, he isn’t the reason I like this movie – Robinson and Corddry are. Corddry is manic and over-the-top in his performance. While he doesn’t deliver a Zach Galifinakis-like performance, he makes an indelible impression. Veteran actor Robinson is the master of the deadpan look, and he comes up with some of the best lines of the film.

The film reproduces the 80s quite well, from the look to the music although it tends to lead more towards the cliché side. It’s not as bad as, say, The Wedding Singer in dwelling on the excesses of the decade but it does spoof its share.

In some ways this is a parable about middle aged crazy, reclaiming our youth and second chances (in fact, the Jacob character plays the online social game Second Life incessantly which is a nice bit of business). On that level it works surprisingly well. Regret is a powerful thing, but the characters aren’t crippled by it precisely. They are however trapped by their choices to a certain extent which have colored their lives even to the present day. All three of these characters suffer from diminished returns on high expectations. It’s not a condition I’m unfamiliar with.

I found myself laughing throughout the movie, from beginning to end. Too often a lot of modern comedies start off strong and fade in the final reel; not so Hot Tub Time Machine. Yes, the humor is scatological and crude, but if you don’t mind something that’s less highbrow, this is for you. I was quite pleasantly surprised; ignore the less-than-stellar trailer and give it a shot.

REASONS TO GO: Surprisingly funny, much more than I expected it to be. Corddry and Robinson turn in some fine performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Might be too raunchy for some.

FAMILY VALUES: Much raunchiness, nudity and bad language. Mature teens and adults only.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The “what color is Michael Jackson” line spoken by Craig Robinson is ad libbed.

HOME OR THEATER: Nothing really screams big screen here.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Made of Honor