Baghead


There's nothing creepier than a friendly half-naked guy with a paper bag over his head in the woods.

There’s nothing creepier than a friendly half-naked guy with a paper bag over his head in the woods.

(2008) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Ross Partridge, Steve Zissis, Greta Gerwig, Elise Muller Jett Garner, Cass Naumann, Jennifer Lafleur, Darrell Bryant, Anthony Cristo, Jen Tracy Duplass, Heather Hall, David Zellner, Dan Eggleston, Spencer Greenwood, Stephanie Huettner, Amy Quick Parrish, Vincent James Prendergast. Directed by Jay and Mark Duplass

The creative process isn’t something you can really force. It happens or it doesn’t. However, sometimes it helps to shut out the distractions of your daily life and just get to it.

Four wanna-be filmmakers/actors are attending a film festival – Matt (Partridge) who is in his 30s and is still awaiting the stardom that he’s sure is coming his way; Chad (Zissis) who is beginning to watch his hairline recede and is desperately in love with Michelle (Gerwig), the youngest of their group and a budding alcoholic who is less interested in Chad than she is with Matt. There’s also Catherine (Muller) who has had an on-again, off-again relationship with Matt which might be on or it might not be. She’s not really sure.

While at the film festival they watch a really bad feature by pretentious director Jeff Garner (playing himself) play with some acclaim, they come to the bitter realization that they’re not going to ever make the movie that will be the vehicle to establish their talents unless they write it themselves. Matt suggests heading to a cabin in the woods to write a film about four young people being stalked in a cabin in the woods by a guy with a bag over his head. It would be a slasher film spoof with a modern allegory of….oh, it’s crap.

But as the complex relationships between the four rear their ugly heads and create the kind of tension that they were trying to escape from in the first place, it becomes clear that they are being stalked by a guy with a paper bag over his head. Is it life imitating art or just a horrible coincidence?

For many, this is a mumblecore classic – the first of the genre to get distribution from a label affiliated with a major studio. Like most mumblecore films, very little happens here other than listening to people bitch and moan about their lives and loves. The budget is microscopic, the cast necessarily compact and the acting fairly naturalistic. But this is no Scream, mumblecore-style.

Zissis is the most appealing character here. Chad doesn’t have Matt’s ego or Catherine’s insecurities or Michelle’s immaturity, although he is a bit of a lost puppy. He also has a hopeless attachment to Michelle who is unlikely to return those feelings. Most of us at one time or another have been in a similar situation so we can watch Chad flail away futilely for the brass ring and nod in sympathy; we’ve all done it.

Gerwig, who is in many ways the face of mumblecore, is at her very best here. Her characters are generally flaky yet warmhearted and that is no different here. Don’t get me wrong; these characters can be annoying over the course of a 90 minute film but when played less for quirkiness and more for a terminal case of youth then we end up in her corner instead of irritated. Gerwig isn’t always successful at striking that balance but she does it here.

The other two performances depict rather unpleasant human beings, although of the two Partridge’s Matt is a bit more well-defined. Muller’s character is pretty one-dimensional as written but she gamely does what she can with it.

The problem with movies like this is that they have to grab our interest a little bit more strongly than other sorts of movies either with clever dialogue, an engaging plot or terrific performances. Baghead falls short in all three categories. I can only take so much self-absorption before I start getting the screaming meemies. I can respect the mash-up of genres here, blending romance, slasher horror, supernatural thriller and Hollywood indie and I can admire the tight craft that the Duplass brothers bring to the table – for a second feature this is incredibly self-assured. However, I can pretty much leave the hand-held camera gymnastics. I shouldn’t need to take anti-vertigo meds to watch a DVD.

WHY RENT THIS: Zissis and Gerwig have a sweet chemistry.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Nothing much happens. Not always as interesting as it thinks it is.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is a bit foul in places. There’s also some nudity and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The second of five films directed by the Duplass brothers and the first to get a major studio release.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s an entertaining interview in which the Duplass brothers supply both frequently asked questions and answers, as well as a brief short called Baghead Scares.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $140,106 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Adaptation

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters

This is the End


Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel discover that The World's End is opening after their film.

Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel discover that The World’s End is opening after their film.

(2013) Sci-Fi Comedy (Columbia) Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride, Michael Cera, Emma Watson, Channing Tatum, Kevin Hart, Aziz Ansari, Mindy Kaling, Rihanna, David Krumholtz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Paul Rudd, Martin Starr, Samantha Ressler, Jason Segel, Catherine Kim Poon, Anna Rekota. Directed by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen   

 

This is the end

beautiful friend

Of our elaborate plans, the end

Of everything that stands, the end

Can you picture what will be

limitless and free

And all the children are insane.

                 – Jim Morrison

The apocalypse is very much on our minds this summer. Perhaps it was because the world was supposed to end last year (and maybe it did and nobody told the rest of us). Be that as it may, there are a bunch of movies out there (or about to come out) that have the end of days as a plot point.

This one comes from Pineapple Express co-writers Rogen and Goldberg (who in addition to co-directing this one also co-wrote it) who rope in fellow Express star Franco in a movie in which most of the actors are playing Bizarro-world versions of themselves.

Baruchel lands at LAX where he is met by good friend Rogen. Their friendship goes back to when they were both struggling comics in Canada. Baruchel is looking forward to a weekend hanging out with his good friend who supplies them both with copious video games on an HD 3D TV, all of Jay’s favorite snacks and of course ample amounts of weed.

Rogen drags a reluctant Baruchel to a housewarming party at Franco’s home which can best be described as a pretentious post-modern bunker. It turns out he has a creepy kind of friendship with Rogen, which Baruchel doesn’t appreciate. He also doesn’t like most of the people at the party, particularly Hill who seems sweet and giving (and whom everyone seems to adore) but for some reason Baruchel has real enmity towards.

There are plenty of celebrities there – a coke-snorting, butt-slapping Cera who Kaling wants to do the horizontal fandango with, a rapping Robinson who wears the name of his new rap song on a t-shirt and several other young stars, mostly from the comedy community. However, the party abruptly ends when a massive earthquake hits the L.A. area, opening fissures in the earth. Baruchel witnesses people ascending to the sky in a strange blue light but nobody believes him – Baruchel thinks it’s the apocalypse while the survivors who ran back into the house (after watching one of the stars get skewered by a street lamp and dragged down into the bowels of the earth) – Franco, Rogen, Hill, Robinson and Baruchel – scoff at his story. Me, I thought it was aliens to begin with.

They discover an uninvited McBride had been sleeping one off in Franco’s bathroom and had, unaware of what was happening outside, cooked almost all of their food for breakfast. As it turns out, Baruchel isn’t far off and in the world of hedonistic egos that is Hollywood, heaven isn’t an option. Or is it?

I had high hopes for this one coming in. Rogen can be hysterically funny as a writer and given all the talent involved, there was reason for optimism. The trailer rocked pretty hard too. Safe to say, this is a major disappointment.

For one thing, there’s an overreliance on dick and weed jokes. I’m no prude – trust me, I don’t mind crude, raunchy and drug humor – but after the same subject of jokes over and over and over again it gets old. Even stoners need a change of subject.

I’m not saying that the movie isn’t funny. There are some real laugh out loud moments (some of which weren’t even in the trailer) but I just expected more. High expectations (no pun intended) can sometimes shape a review, perhaps unfairly.

Yes, there is plenty of skewering of the self-centered and self-destructive behavior that Hollywood is notorious for, but do we really need another movie about that? I mean, it’s not as if this is some sort of new and revelatory information here.

It feels like a massive in-joke that maybe I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to get. I like these actors individually but this smacks too much of self-indulgence and just didn’t get me laughing enough to overcome the perception. While I’m fully aware that these “self-portraits” are characters loosely based on the celebrity involved (and in the case of Cera and I’m sure a few others, having nothing to do with the personality of the celebrity involved) it’s still not the point. The point is that the movie just isn’t as good as it should have been, nor did it tickle my funny bone the way it should have. I have no doubt that there are people who found this to be right in their wheelhouse – my good friend Adam has already proclaimed this the funniest movie of the year and the final scene set in the afterlife is certainly going to make my son cackle louder than a Who concert – but I’m just not going to be one of them. Make of that what you will.

REASONS TO GO: Really great cast and some nifty cameos.

REASONS TO STAY: Relies way too much on dick and drug humor.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots and lots of crude humor, drug use, sexuality, quite a bit of foul language, some brief nudity, apocalyptic religious images and violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All the paintings in James Franco’s home were actually painted by James Franco.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/16/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100; the reviews have been for the most part scathing.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cabin in the Woods

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Man of Steel

The Last Samurai


The Last Samurai

Tom Cruise teaches modern warfare tactics to the Scientologists.

(2003) Action (Warner Brothers) Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, William Atherton, Billy Connolly, Tony Goldwyn, Timothy Spall, Masato Harada, Togo Igawa, Shin Koyamada, Hiroyuki Sanada, Koyuki, Shun Sugata, Sosuki Ikematsu, Aoi Minato, Shichinosuke Nakamura. Scott Wilson. Directed by Edward Zwick

 

Over the lives of those who devote themselves to the art of war and a life of dealing death, a question of honor must always hover. For what cause does one fight, kill, die? What can be worth the moral choices of taking another human life?

For Nathan Algren (Cruise), the morality of being a warrior has become murky. A hero of the American Civil War, he has grown disillusioned and bitter, having seen carnage inflicted on women and children by cowardly officers bent more on making names for themselves than fulfilling their mission during the Indian Wars. Algren has become an alcoholic, a shell and a parody of himself, shilling the Winchester rifle and using whiskey to medicate his emotional pain.

For Katsumoto (Watanabe), the morality is clear. A samurai whose life is given in service to his emperor, the world is becoming a colder, crueler place. As Japan moves reluctantly to modernize and traffic with the rest of the world, the changes that are brought into that country are sometimes painful, and Katsumoto can clearly see the end of his way of life approaching. However, his unwavering devotion to his country and the emperor makes him and his kind targets of those who seek to create a new Japan, one that will profit them above all.

Algren is invited to Japan by his former commander Bagley (Goldwyn) and a Japanese railroad magnate Omura (Harada) to modernize the Imperial Japanese Army and teach it to use the weapons of Western war. Emperor Meiji (Nakamura) is enamored of the West and is a little weak, but his mentor, Katsumoto, still has his ear, making him dangerous to Omura and those like him. Katsumoto is trying to get the emperor to rethink his plans, but is ultimately forced from court and into rebellion when Omura’s assassins fail.

Algren at first is little more than a hired hand, but after being captured by Katsumoto, he is brought to a remote mountain village which is Katsumoto’s home, and is exposed to the samurai life and code, and begins to heal, not just from the wounds inflicted in the battle, but also in his spirit, where his pain has been festering for so long. Hired to destroy the samurai, Algren at last joins them, despite facing terrible odds.

The shadow of Akira Kurosawa, one of the greatest directors of all time, is evident here. Director Edmund Zwick (Shakespeare in Love, Glory, Legends of the Fall) was heavily influenced by the man in the director’s chair for such classics as Ran, Rashomon and Yojimbo. In fact, a screening of Seven Samurai when Zwick was 14 provided the young man with a lifelong interest in Japan and in movies as well. In the battle scenes, particularly, Zwick pays the master a great deal of homage in the way he sets his scenes up, although not nearly as poetically and poignantly as did Kurosawa.

This interest in Japan led Zwick to read Ivan Morris’ “The Nobility of Failure,” the account of Saigo Takamori, a real-life samurai in the Meiji court who at first embraced but eventually renounced the modernization of Japan. The roots of The Last Samurai can be found here.

Zwick succeeds in creating a rich landscape of intrigue and honor, as the loyal, honorable samurai are faced with the treacherous, scheming industrialists. There is a love interest as Algren falls for the widow (Koyuki) of a samurai he had slain, and it is there that the two cultures meet most poignantly, and most awkwardly.

Cruise does a difficult job nicely here. In a role that changes from a washed-up, alcoholic, bitter man into a courageous, honorable warrior, Cruise carries both of these facets of the Algren character nicely, and allows us to see the progression from one to the other. Seeing this again reminds me that although he is best known as the charismatic movie star, Tom Cruise can really act when he gets the right part.

Although Cruise is the center of the movie, he is overshadowed by the spectacular performance of Watanabe. Katsumoto is a wise man, a beloved leader and a magnificent tactician, but also melancholy, knowing the life he has loved is slipping away and that he is unlikely to survive its passing. Watanabe is subtle, which is not something Japanese actors are traditionally known for. He creates a character rich in contradictions and complexities, and lights up the screen whenever he’s on it. He would be nominated for an Oscar for his performance and even though he didn’t win, the movie established him in Hollywood where he would go on to roles in major films including Batman Begins.

Character actors Billy Connelly and Timothy Spall also put in solid performances. The battle scenes are truly memorable – this is where the Kurosawa influence most obviously comes into play. Zwick is also very good at establishing a good sense of period. Although the visual Kurosawa references can be a little heavy-handed at times, Zwick wisely chooses to put his own stamp on The Last Samurai, and that’s what makes for a good movie. Sure, there are elements of Ran but there are elements of Glory in the battle sequences as well.

The film has epic, sweeping landscapes, wonderfully staged battle scenes and allows us to view a culture very much misunderstood even to this day, and gives us a chance to see how Japan started on the road into becoming the mega-commercial technological giant it is in the 21st century.

Still, what ultimately makes this an excellent movie is that it is about the journey of the people in it. It is much harder to comprehend the journeys of nations; we can’t relate to them as easily. It is far easier to relate to the growth of individuals, something we are (hopefully) all doing throughout our lives.

WHY RENT THIS: Exquisitely staged battle scenes. Watanabe gives a searing, career making performance. Beautiful Kurosawa-esque cinematography.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Probably about 20 minutes too long.

FAMILY MATTERS: The battle sequences are fairly realistic and might be disturbing for some. There is plenty of bloodshed and some implied sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Although the film implies the Americans trained the Imerial Army, historically it was the Prussians who actually did.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The DVD contains a feature comparin the film to the actual historical events at the time. There’s also footage from the film’s Japanese premiere.  The Blu-Ray adds a text piece onbushido, the code of the samurai.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $456.8M on a production budget of $140M; the movie was a big hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shogun

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Piranha 3DD

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll


Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll

"If you're gonna make it in this world, you gotta look stylish my son"

(2010) Musical Biography (Tribeca) Andy Serkis, Naomie Harris, Ray Winstone, Olivia Williams, Noel Clarke, Toby Jones, Mackenzie Crook, Bill Milner, Arthur Darvill, James Jagger, Tom Hughes, Shakraj Soornack, Joe Kennedy. Directed by Mat Whitecross

 

Ian Dury was a New Wave/punk-era singer/songwriter who while well-known in his native England remains unappreciated here in the States. In an era when musicians were thumbing their nose at traditional rock music idioms, Dury was happily wearing his musical influences on his sleeve, from funk to jazz to British Music Hall.

He had been afflicted with polio as a child and walked with a cane most of his life; however while his disability certainly got in his way once in awhile, he tended to use it more as a statement; he thought that the attitudes of most governments and international organizations towards those with disabilities to be condescending and arrogant. He flaunted his limp and incorporated it into his act.

He was a force of nature, one that sometimes rained down rage on those who cared about him but there was no doubt that as pop stars go, he had more personality and charisma in one finger than a thousand “American Idol” winners would ever have put together. It’s a shame he didn’t make it on this side of the Atlantic (he was way too English for us to really get him) but songs like “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick,””What a Waste” and “Reasons to Be Cheerful” got into my head early on and have stayed there ever since.

He is played here by Andy Serkis with the subtlety of a rampaging bull. Serkis perfectly captures the essence of Dury, at least how I imagined him to be. Serkis’ malleable face is a mirror for Dury’s who often used his facial expressions as a kind of language of its own. He wasn’t always an easy man to get along with – Chaz Jankel (Hughes), co-writer of many of Dury’s best songs and one of the original Blockheads (Dury’s backing band) was constantly leaving Dury’s band and then returning  – and Dury was sometimes guilty of subtle and not-so-subtle cruelties in his relationships. He is depicted here as conducting a rehearsal with his first band, Kilburn and the High Roads, in his downstairs living room while his first wife Betty (Williams) is giving birth upstairs (which is apparently a myth), and he leaves Betty shortly to move in with a teenaged fan (Harris).

Dury’s relationship to his son Baxter (Milner) is shown as being bittersweet. Baxter has a bit of a case of hero-worship when it comes to his dad (what young boy doesn’t?) and Dury tries very hard to be a good father to his boy as flashbacks show us that Dury’s own father (Winstone) was not the best father in the world either. The Baxter-Dury relationship is really the central heart of the movie, and the scenes with the two of them are mostly when the film is at its best.

I think Whitecross is trying to tell the story the way Ian Dury himself might have told it, with a good deal of flash and sass and not a little bit of sleight o’ hand. At times it becomes confusing with dream sequences, flashbacks and timeline-jumping, which left me a bit mystified at times. Still, one has to give props to the film that had the balls to let Serkis sing with the original Blockheads providing musical accompaniment. That must have been very strange for them. Kudos also for the opening titles being done by Peter Taylor, who did some of Dury’s album covers and was his teacher and mentor when Dury was at art school

The manic energy of Dury is captured and reflected by the film which takes no prisoners and makes no apologies. American audiences, who showed little interest in Dury while he was alive (he died of cancer in 2000 at age 53) showed little in his movie and for that reason perhaps the movie isn’t really made for Americans – many of the references are firmly on the side of the UK. Still, this is a well-made film and Serkis’ performance as Dury is well worth watching. He proves that he is much more than Gollum – and much more than the motion capture king.

WHY RENT THIS: Dury was a fascinating character and Serkis captures his manic energy perfectly.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the references sail far over the heads of American audiences. A bit hard to follow at times.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of sex, it’s fair share of drugs and a crapload of rock and roll, and just a bit of the violence to keep matters in hand.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The single “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” for which the movie is named, is Dury’s signature track but never charted (while many of his other songs did). It was banned by the BBC after its release.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on director Mat Whitecross’ experiences at the Tribeca film festival.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $530,392 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking that the movie was likely a bit of a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Casanova

Cedar Rapids


Cedar Rapids

John C. Reilly, Ed Helms and Isiah Whitlock Jr. carry a precious cargo - Anne Heche.

(2011) Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Sigourney Weaver, Anne Heche, Stephen Root, Kurtwood Smith, Alia Shawkat, Rob Corddry, Mike O’Malley, Seth Morris, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Thomas Lennon, Mike Birbiglia. Directed by Miguel Arteta

There is something disarming about the Midwestern version of naiveté. Hollywood, ever the sophisticate, tends to ridicule these sorts of people. I’ve found some of these people to be the salt of the earth and well worth more respect than Hollywood seems to give them.

Tim Lippe (Helms) is an insurance agent in Brown Valley, Wisconsin. He is in his mid-30s but he hasn’t had a lot of life experience. He is having an affair with his first grade teacher Macy Vanderhei (Weaver). He thinks he is living the dream; being an insurance agent is an opportunity to help people when they need it the most. Remember what I said about naiveté?

When Roger Lemke (Lennon), the agency’s most successful agent dies abruptly, Bill Krogstad (Root), the boss of BrownStar Insurance, is forced to send Tim to the regional insurance conference in Cedar Rapids where Roger had won three straight Two Diamonds Awards, the most prestigious award in the industry and as Bill darkly tells Tim, he needs to win again to keep the company afloat.

In Cedar Rapids (which Tim arrives at taking his first plane ride ever), Tim is set to room with Ronald Wilkes (Whitlock), the first African-American man he’s probably ever seen but perhaps the whitest black man ever. Also in the hotel room is Dean Ziegler (Reilly), an insurance agent who really knows how to live it up; drunken debauchery is Dean’s middle name and he is the one person at the conference that Tim was warned to stay away from.

Also part of the group is Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Heche), a married mother of two who uses the convention as an opportunity to cut loose and looks at Tim as her ticket to ecstasy. There is also Bree (Shawkat), a hooker working the convention whom Tim assumes is just a very friendly person.

Tim is set to make a presentation to the regional chairman Orin Helgesson (Smith), whose Christian values are the centerpiece of the Two Diamonds award. However, Tim has fallen in with Dean who has introduced Tim to the wonders of cocktails and crashing Lesbian weddings (which are legal in Iowa by the way). Tim is not equipped to handle the debaucheries of the big city that is Cedar Rapids; corruption, Iowa-style.

Of course, there is a bit of irony here. Okay, a lot of irony. Most people would never think of Cedar Rapids as a den of iniquity but I suppose it’s a matter of perspective; someone who’s never ventured from a small Midwestern town might see it that way. Wait’ll they get a load of Vegas.

Ed Helms has proven himself a great second banana not only in “The Office” but also in the Hangover movies. He hasn’t been given the opportunity to shoulder the load in a movie until this one, but he does so admirably. He plays the character irony-free, giving him genuine joy at the simple things like an atrium pool, the smell of chlorine, key cards and an extra bag of honey-roasted peanuts on the plane. Super awesome!

Reilly might just be the best second banana in the business. The reason for that is that he has the good sense to allow the leads to do what they’re best at and play the foil to them. He’s done that with Will Ferrell and he does it here with Helms. Still, Reilly manages to craft a memorable character of his own, one who might seem to be the absolute devil to a man like Tim but turns out to be as loyal a friend as you can ask for. Both Whitlock and Heche give solid performances, with Heche’s being particularly poignant and Whitlock’s more comedic.

I enjoyed the atmosphere Arteta weaves here, the world he creates. It’s a simpler place in a lot of ways  and to be honest, I kind of like that. Towards the end it gets kind of dark as Tim discovers harder drugs and so forth and that isn’t as funny in my view as the first part of the movie as we meet Tim – he seems to go outside the parameters he sets for himself and while I know that does happen in real life, it feels a little false here.

The humor works most of the time however – in fact, far more often than most comedies. This is one of those movies that got a little bit overlooked during its release – it went out in limited release and only had a few screens in some places and none at all in others. It is however worth seeking out, particularly if you’re into “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation” or “Modern Family” – which isn’t entirely a bad thing.

WHY RENT THIS: Hysterically funny in places. Helms proves himself to be an able comic lead.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie plumbs darker waters towards the end. Sometimes a little too over-the-top for what is billed as a light comedy.

FAMILY VALUES: The language can be pretty foul and there’s a good deal of sexual content, along with some drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Whitlock references the HBO series “The Wire,” which he was a cast member in – although not as Omar.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a gag reel and a bit on Mike O’Malley’s “urban clogging” bit, as well as a fake commercial for the insurance agency that Tim Lippe works at.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.9 on an unreported production budget; the movie broke even at best.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Saint John of Las Vegas

Brooklyn’s Finest


Brooklyn's Finest

Richard Gere drives his point home.

(2009) Police Drama (Overture) Richard Gere, Don Cheadle, Ethan Hawke, Wesley Snipes, Vincent D’Onofrio, Will Patton, Ellen Barkin, Brian F. O’Byrne, Michael Kenneth Williams, Shannon Kane, Lili Taylor, Shannon Kane, Wass Stevens. Directed by Antoine Fuqua

 

There aren’t many jobs more difficult and stressful than that of police officer. In places like Brooklyn, you can multiply the stress levels times ten. That stress affects different men differently.

Three of Brooklyn’s finest (hey, catchy title) are in crisis; Eddie Dugan (Gere) is seven days away from retirement (usually a death sentence in cop movies) and is self-medicating with alcohol and the tender mercies of a prostitute whom he has fallen in love with. Then there’s Clarence “Tango” Butler (Cheadle) is deep undercover in a drug ring and is torn between his loyalty to the force and to recently paroled drug dealer Casanova Phillips (Snipes) who is trying to go straight. Finally there’s Det. Sal Procida (Hawke) has a seven kids and two on the way with a wife (Taylor) beset by mold respiratory distress trying desperately to get a mortgage on a larger home that he can’t afford.

The three stories run parallel to each other, with Tango being put under pressure by his contact (Patton) and a brass-balled bitch from the DEA (Barkin) who want arrests. Eddie is being asked to train young rookies, which Eddie is patently unsuited for. Procida is looking for a means of stealing enough cash to come up with his down payment.

Fuqua directed Denzel Washington to an Oscar in Training Day and has shown himself to be a mighty capable director over the years, particularly with talented actors (Hawke also appeared in that movie) and he coaxes some really good performances, particularly from Cheadle and Snipes. The scenes that those two share together are some of the best in the movie.

Snipes doesn’t have many scenes here, but they serve to remind us of how charismatic the man is. He’s had some well-documented legal problems that have yet to be fully resolved; hopefully at some point in the future he’ll be back to delight audiences once again.

Gere has some great acting chops but he always seems to be playing above his role. It’s hard to see him as a suicidal cop when his haircut looks like it came out of a Rodeo Drive celebrity hairdresser. He’s not the grittiest of guys in that sense and he might have been a touch miscast; it’s a credit to his skill that he manages to make the part believable.

Ensemble movies with parallel storylines have been plentiful in recent years and they mostly have the same damn problem – the insatiable need to wrap all the storylines with a neat bow and relate them all in some backhanded way. It worked in Traffic and Crash – it’s gotten old since.

Still, the storylines are awfully compelling here. The idea of the cop with mortgage problems is very relatable and in many ways that’s the storyline I was most interested in; however, the Cheadle-Snipes scenes make that storyline the best.

Cop movies run the gamut between the heroic cop and the bad cop. Often they are a bit of both and that’s the case here. None of the guys here is 100% admirable except for maybe Tango. However they are interesting enough and human enough to make the movie worth the price of a rental for sure.

WHY RENT THIS: Well-acted with intersecting stories that, for once, are all equally compelling. Nice to see Snipes onscreen again.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Gere’s a bit miscast but still pulls it off. Final scene feels a bit forced, as these sorts of movies often do.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of bad language, blood, violence, sex, nudity…oh crap, just don’t let your kids see it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first film with Wesley Snipes in it to be released to theaters since Blade: Trinity (2004). All of his films in the interim had gone direct-to-home video.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an interesting featurette on the Brooklyn projects where this was filmed, and the creation of Fuqua Film Movement. There’s also a piece on writer Michael C. Martin, who went from a toll booth to becoming a screenwriter.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $36.3M on a $17M production budget; the movie made money.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Twilight: New Moon

Frost/Nixon


Frost/Nixon

David Frost and Richard Nixon square off in their historic interview.

(Universal) Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Rebecca Hall, Toby Jones, Matthew Macfayden, Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt. Directed by Ron Howard

It is said that the United States lost its innocence during the Watergate affair. That’s a bit simplistic – there has always been corruption and chicanery, even in the highest office, only not quite so public. When Nixon resigned, it was in the face of mounting evidence that he would be impeached for certain. Some of his detractors, however, howled, particularly when Ford pardoned him. It was as if we would never get any sort of admission of wrongdoing, or even acknowledgement that there had even been any. However, the closest we ever got to getting that satisfaction came from the most unlikely of sources.

David Frost (Sheen) was a British talk show host who had ambitions of greater success in America. His last show had failed and he needed something to put him back on the map. For Nixon’s (Langella) part, he was looking for nothing less than a comeback; a chance to redeem his tarnished reputation and restore his legacy. There were many clamoring for one-on-one interviews with the former president, three years after his resignation – three years spent in public silence. Every news anchor on every network was chomping at the bit to get Nixon in front of their cameras. However, Nixon – ever the crafty political fox – chose Frost, thinking he would have no problem controlling the interview and accomplishing exactly what he wanted to do.

Frost was well aware that he was in over his head and hired researchers James Reston Jr. (Rockwell) and Bob Zelnick (Platt), both rabid anti-Nixonites, to do as much research on Watergate and the Nixon presidency as was possible in the limited time they had to prepare. In the meantime, Frost was having difficulty securing financing and the networks were screaming bloody murder and making accusations of “checkbook journalism.”

It was a minor miracle that the interview took place at all, but on March 23, 1977 Nixon and Frost sat down in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Harold Smith of Monarch Bay, California and began to converse. The stakes were high for both men; if Nixon couldn’t outwit Frost and control the perception of the American people, he would go to his grave a disgraced man. If Frost was unable to gain that control over the interview, he would be responsible for the resurrection of Nixon’s public image and quite possibly, lose the only chance to get Nixon to speak on Watergate for all time.

These interviews were turned into a stage play which has in turn been adapted into a motion picture by populist director Ron Howard, who on the surface would seem to be the wrong man for this job – you would think someone along the lines of Oliver Stone or Robert Redford might be more suitable. Nevertheless, Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan (who adapted the work from his own play) have done a masterful work of making what is essentially a static situation (two guys sitting in chairs in a room) whose outcome is known seem suspenseful, tense and not the least bit stage-y.

The movie is well-served by its stars, who both appeared in the same roles in the stage play both in the West End and on Broadway. Langella, in particular, inhabits his role with some dignity, and justifiably received an Oscar nomination for it. He gives the disgraced president a human side, even charming at times but with hints of the ferocious game player that Nixon was, and at the same time horribly insecure about himself. Langella’s Nixon isn’t the boogie man the counterculture made him out to be; he was just ambitious to the point of self-destruction and even in his own way a good man who became a victim of his own hubris.

Sheen, who had just played Tony Blair to great acclaim in The Queen, gives another bravura performance which was in some ways more subtle than Langella, but no less spectacular. Frost is portrayed as a bit on the shallow side and quite charming in a rakish way, but also with his own insecurities; he was well-aware he was in over his head and managed to bring out the steel in his backbone only when it was really needed.

The interplay between Nixon and Frost was fascinating to watch here. They aren’t friends precisely, but both recognize a bit of the other in themselves. It allows a bit of a bond which the film’s ending seems to indicate went beyond the interviews. Although some liberties were taken with the facts (for example, the interviews took place three days a week for two hours a day for a total of 12 days of interviews over the space of a month; here, Nixon’s famous admission that his actions weren’t illegal because he was president takes place on the very last day of the interviews when in reality it took place on the fifth day.

That’s mere window dressing, however. It is the job of the filmmaker to maintain the essence of the events, not recreate them exactly note for note. Howard accomplishes that marvelously and while some have accused both him and Morgan for having been rather soft on President Nixon, it is by all accounts true that Nixon could be a charming, kindly-seeming man when the occasion called for it and was on friendly terms with David Frost until his death in 1994.

Nixon remains an enigma in modern history. We will never know why he chose to do the things he did, and what demons drove him to make those decisions. He will always be the first – and so far, only – President to resign from office and as Reston says in the voice-over, any political scandal from then to know will have the word “gate” attatched as a suffix. You may not get any insight into Nixon the man, but you will understand better the mystique that swirled around him in those difficult years.

WHY RENT THIS: A fascinating look at the confrontation between two men, each with their insecurities and into the mind of the disgraced President. The performances of Sheen and Langella are as good as it gets.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The scenes showing the preparation for the interviews go on too long and the movie lags a bit; it’s probably about 10 or 15 minutes too long.

FAMILY VALUES: There is enough cursing that this movie got an “R” rating; quite frankly, it isn’t so blue that I would prevent the average teen from seeing this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie title derives from a song by Courtney Love’s band Hole.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a feature on The Real Interviews in which the principle filmmakers as well as the playwright share their own experiences with interviews, and scenes from the actual interviews are shown to give you an idea how closely the recreation matches the original. There’s also an excellent featurette on the Nixon Library, illustrating the importance of presidential libraries overall. On the Blu-Ray edition, there is also a featurette that shows which of the locations were actually used for the original interviews, and Sir David Frost himself weighs in on his opinion of the play and the movie. The Blu-Ray edition comes with the U-Control feature, which allows picture-in-picture features that correspond to the appropriate places in the movie.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Devil

Friday the 13th (2009)


Friday the 13th (2009)

Affectionate to a fault, Jason Voorhees will go through plate glass for a hug.

(New Line) Jared Padalecki, Danielle Panabaker, Amanda Righetti, Travis van Winkle, Aaron Yoo, Derek Mears, Jonathan Sadowski, Julianna Guill, Arlen Escarpeta, Richard Burgi. Directed by Marcus Nispel

There is a Chinese proverb that if you wait by the river long enough, you will live to see your enemies float by you. That may or may not be true, but one thing I can guarantee you: a classic horror film character will float by first.

The picturesque community of Crystal Lake is rocked with the scandal of one of their own, Mrs. Voorhees, going ballistic and chopping up camp counselors at the local summer camp, Camp Crystal Lake, whom she held responsible for the drowning death of her son, Jason (Mears). She got hers when the sole surviving teenager decapitated her, although unbeknownst to her in full view of Jason himself who had somehow risen from the dead.

Years later a group of teenagers go camping and, as teenagers will do, drink, do recreation drugs and fornicate, not necessarily in that order of importance but pretty close to it. They are stalked one at a time by a mysterious, hulking figure in a burlap sack mask that carries a machete and knows how to use it, and use it he does until there is only one girl left, Whitney (Righetti) and he pounces on her like a kitten on a squeaky toy.

Six weeks later, another group of teenagers is headed to the same area; the lake house of the snooty jerkwad Trent (van Winkle). Included in his little group of party people are Chewie (Yoo), the token stoner, or would be if it wasn’t for Lawrence (Escarpeta) who is the other token stoner and not coincidentally, the token African-American as Chewie is the token Asian-American. Wow, the only two minorities in the movie are both weed users. Who’da thought?

Anyway into the mix comes Clay (Padalecki), Whitney’s brother and even though they weren’t much on speaking terms he’d come all the way to Crystal Lake to look for her, even though the cops have essentially written off the cake, in the person of Sherriff Bracke (Burgi). He and Trent butt heads (mainly because Trent is such a Butthead) and Trent’s adorable girlfriend Jenna (Panabaker) go off to hand out some more flyers and look for Whitney in the ruins of good ole Camp Crystal Lake. Of course, they find a lot more than they bargained for.

There really isn’t much plot here, as you’d expect. This is most certainly a Friday the 13th movie, a proud addition to the franchise. It has everything the original series had; impaling, decapitations, electrocutions, drownings and lots and LOTS of nubile, bare breasts.

It’s everything that was good and bad about the original series. Jason is virtually unkillable, sets some nasty traps and kills his victims in inventive but gruesome ways. It also has all the stereotyping and misogyny that was the hallmark of the original series here. All the women in the remake are either sluts or bitches or both. There is no in-between and that’s probably how a lot of the young male target audience probably views the female sex in general. The two nice girls are either mistaken for mommy or wind up kicking Jason’s ass. Hardcore feminists, be warned.

For the record, I think you have to take all of that with a grain of salt. These are not movies that are meant to be cultural barometers, nor are they meant to be taken all that seriously. It’s a means to blow off some steam, watch some attractive young people get sliced, diced, roasted or stabbed. It doesn’t even matter that much how good the acting is, although Padalecki, of TV’s “Supernatural” and Panabaker make due. Note to those who are attracted to such things – Julianna Guill is smokin’ hot.

Director Nispel, who also re-started the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise for the same producers (which includes Transformers director Michael Bay) is becoming something of an expert on re-imagining horror franchise of the 1980s (I can only guess what he’d do with Hellraiser) and he is on his way to becoming one of the better horror directors of this era.

It comes down to what your personal tastes are. If you really loved the Friday the 13th series in all its bloody glory, you’ll be in hog heaven with the new one. If you despised it, you’d do best to ignore this one altogether. If your opinion was somewhere in between, this is a competently done horror movie with an excess of blood and boobs. If that’s your thing, you’ve found a winner.

WHY RENT THIS: A definite return to the type of horror film we all know and loved from the 1980s.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The things that we didn’t love in horror films of the ‘80s are all still here.

FAMILY VALUES: Much graphic gore and violence, more bare breasts than you can shake a stick at and plenty of foul language. Perfect for pre-schoolers….NOT!!!!!

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Sheriff Bracke was named for Peter Bracke, author of Crystal Lake Memories, a reference book on the Friday the 13th series.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition has a featurette on the setting up of the seven most horrific murders of the movie. It gives you a good idea of how the make-up, special effects and props departments work together with the actor to make these scenes happen.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Burn After Reading