The Hitman’s Bodyguard


Mace Windu’s got a brand new bag.

(2017) Action Comedy (Summit) Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Salma Hayek, Gary Oldman, Elodie Yung, Joaquim de Almeida, Tine Joustra, Richard E. Grant, Michael Gor, Kirsty Mitchell, Barry Atsma, Sam Hazeldine, Ori Pfeffer, Dijarn Campbell, Rod Hallett, Yuri Kolokolnikov, Nadia Konakchieva, Roy Hill, Georgie Glen, Noortje Herlaar, Donna Preston, Samantha Bolter. Directed by Patrick Hughes

 

The most important thing about a buddy action movie is that the chemistry between the buddies is good. Judging from the trailer, it appeared like that was a slam dunk for The Hitman’s Bodyguard – action veterans Samuel L. Jackson and Ryan Reynolds looked to be like the best buddy combo since Gibson and Glover. Then I saw the movie.

The premise is a simple one; down on his luck executive  bodyguard Michael Bryce (Reynolds) whose “triple A rated” agency took a tumble after a Japanese CEO he was hired to protect had his grey matter splattered all over a private jet window. Now his ex-girlfriend Amelia (Yung) who works for Interpol these days has a proposition for him – to escort a hired killer named Darius Kincaid (Jackson) from Manchester to the Hague to testify in the trial of an Eastern European dictator (Oldman) being tried for war crimes. Of course, neither the dictator nor elements within Interpol that he paid off want to see Darius make the court date and they mean to make sure he doesn’t.

There is an over-abundance of car chases which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you like car chases. Some of them are actually quite well done – in fact quite a number of stunts are really well-performed here. The problem is that many of the best ones are spoiled in the trailer. In fact, this is one of those occasions where the experience of a film is ruined by viewing the trailer. I can sympathize that those folks who make trailers have a difficult job – to get people excited about a movie without revealing too much about it. It’s a fine line to walk and not every trailer walks it successfully. This one doesn’t.

The all-important chemistry between Jackson and Reynolds isn’t nearly as strong consistently as the trailer would have you believe. Like any good buddy action combo, the relationship is strictly love-hate (emphasis on the hate to begin with) but there are times that the two feel awkward together. I think part of the problem lies with a studio decision to change what had been a pure action drama into an action comedy just weeks before shooting started. The original script had been on the Black List for best unproduced screenplays but I suppose the powers that be thought – with some justification – that a team-up between Reynolds and Jackson should be heavier on the comedy. Unfortunately for them, comedy can be a tricky thing to write and what looks good on paper may not translate to onscreen laughs.

The supporting performances are pretty solid. Oldman is suitably snarly as the generic Eastern European dictator and Grant has some nice scenes as one of Michael’s more recent clients but the show is nearly stolen by Hayek as Darius’ foul-mouthed wife. I would have liked to have seen a lot more of her and a lot less of Yung who is nondescript here.

2017 was a good year for action movies and this one had the potential to be right there among the best. Sadly, it squandered a lot of opportunities and ended up being merely adequate. Adjust your viewing plans accordingly, particularly since there are a plethora of great action movies out there that are far more worth your rental dollars.

REASONS TO GO: There are some great stunts in the film. Hayek was terrific in the film; it could have used more of her.
REASONS TO STAY: The chemistry between Jackson and Reynolds is inconsistent. Many of the best sequences were spoiled in the trailer.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of violence and profanity throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Criminal which also was Europe-set and featured Gary Oldman and Ryan Reynolds shared over 100 crew members in common.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/1/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hot Pursuit
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Kingsman: The Golden Circle

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Strad Style


Danny Hauck in his home studio.

Danny Hauck in his home studio.

(2016) Documentary (1170 Productions) Daniel Hauck, Razvan Stoica, David Campbell, Stefan Avalos, Rodger Stearns, Mary Hauck, Alfredo Primavera. Directed by Stefan Avalos

Slamdance

Dreams come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and some are more realistic than others. Then again, that’s what dreams should be right – to reach for the unattainable, the unlikely, the impossible?

Daniel Hauck is a bipolar man who lives in an isolated farmhouse in Laurelville, Ohio. Since he was a young boy he has been fascinated by violins. More than fascinated, really; it would be more accurate to call it a passion or an obsession than anything else. He doesn’t really have the talent to play them so much but he develops an urge to build them.

Besides that he’s also into custom cars and car clubs but that’s really a hobby that is a bit more expensive than he can afford at present being unemployed with almost no prospects of anything coming along anytime soon. He lives a lonely existence by choice although he does have a computer in which he keeps up with social media.

It’s on Facebook that he meets Razvan Stoica, a concert violinist considered to be one of the best in the world right now, although he is not well-known in the States – yet. The two befriend one another and begin messaging each other. They talk about classic violins and Stoica mentions that he would love to play one of the most famous in the world – Guarneri del Gesu’s (a contemporary of Antonio Stradivari and a fellow resident of Cremona in Italy) Il Cannone, or the cannon, the violin made famous by Paganini. .Daniel, perhaps impetuously, offers to build him a replica of the instrument.

Daniel hasn’t built a violin of this caliber before and he has no training in doing so. Nonetheless, he goes after the project with a certain amount of joie de vivre and learns what he can from the Internet. He also gets the help and support of Rodger Stearns, a local violin maker and woodworker. While his mother Mary and cousin David Campbell give him various degrees of support, Daniel proceeds largely through trial and error using the tools he has and making homemade UV booths and other ingenious ideas to keep the process going.

In the meantime, Razvan has expressed that he wants to play the instrument during a series of concerts in June starting in Amsterdam. Can Daniel overcome the odds and produce an instrument up to the exacting standards not only of one of the greatest concert violinists of our time but also one of the all-time masters of violin making?

Hauck is an engaging subject, often self-deprecating and sometimes raging against the difficulty of his situation and of the task he has set before himself. He is in many ways a perfect documentary subject, candid and open about nearly every aspect of his life. He has a dream yes, and he is determined to fulfill it but like most dreams it isn’t an easy one and it wouldn’t have been hard to abandon it at any time.

Avalos does just about everything on the project, including running the camera, editing, directing, producing and interviewing the subject. It’s very much his show and it shows enormous promise. The cinematography is as good as any I’ve seen for a documentary in the last year or so and not only captures the clutter of Danny’s home but also the stark beauty of the Ohio landscape in winter, the gorgeous Renaissance-era architecture of Cremona, and the sensuous lines of the violin.

There’s an awful lot of instruction going on here as well as Hauck takes us through the making of his violin. He knows what to do – he’s just not always sure how to do it and not everything he does ends up in success. Still, it’s fascinating stuff watching the project go from pieces of wood to a beautiful musical instrument.

I don’t know that this is so much an inspiring story so much as a comforting one – human beings are capable of so much more than we ever think we are and this reaffirms that. I’m hoping that a distributor that knows what to do with good documentaries gets hold of this; it deserves to be seen by a large audience. The logline may sound a bit dry but this is nonetheless a documentary that leaves the audience feeling good after the end credits roll and at a time when so many documentaries are hell-bent on telling us what’s wrong with the world, it’s nice to see what’s right.

REASONS TO GO: Danny Hauck is an engaging and fascinating subject. The film is actually extremely instructive on the difficulties of making a violin.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the editing is a bit jumpy.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Avalos was originally doing a documentary about “new violins” versus “old violins” and met Hauck through the process of researching it. When he discovered Hauck’s story, Avalos elected to focus on that instead.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mao’s Last Dancer
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: 20th Century Women

The Fault in Our Stars


In order to make an omelet...

In order to make an omelet…

(2014) Drama (20th Century Fox/Fox 2000) Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff, Willem Dafoe, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Mike Birbiglia, Emily Peachey, Lotte Verbeek, Ana Dela Cruz, Randy Kovitz, Toni Saladna, David Whalen, Milica Govich, Allegra Carpenter, Emily Bach, Tim Hartman, Bethany Leo, Alexis Hodges, Jean Bressard, Carly Otte, Elyse Alberts. Directed by Josh Boone

Life in general is rarely fair, but for teenagers who must deal with a deadly disease it is particularly unfair. Watching their lives ebb away, knowing that in the end their stay in this life will end prematurely, they try to find some meaning in their brief lives. It is hard to find much drama in the ins and outs of teen angst when you know your death is just around the corner.

Hazel Grace Lancaster (Woodley) has thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs. She is unable to breathe without the aid of an oxygen tank. At age 13, she very nearly died, her tearful mother (Dern) whispering that it is okay to let go but that’s not in Hazel’s DNA. She’s a fighter and she survives, managing to stabilize her deteriorating situation by undergoing an experimental treatment that she refers to as her miracle.

She is withdrawn and reads the same book incessantly – An Imperial Affliction by Peter van Houten, a reclusive American author who has exiled himself to Amsterdam. The book intrigues her because she can relate to the cancer-stricken heroine but also because it ends mid-sentence, indicating that the heroine has died. She wants to know what happens to the supporting characters after the lead character has expired but van Houten has consistently refused to answer questions of that nature despite many entreaties by fans of the book to do so.

She reluctantly attends a support group that meets at a local church with a well-meaning youth pastor (Hartman) who rolls out a giant rug with a portrait of Jesus and abjures his group of cancer-stricken kids that they are literally meeting “in the heart of Jesus.” Hazel isn’t really looking to reach out and make friends – what’s the point – but she attracts the attention of Augustus Waters (Elgort), a free-spirited survivor who was there to support his friend Isaac (Wolff) who is soon to have surgery that will render him permanently blind. Isaac at least has the comfort of a girlfriend (Peachey) who asserts that she’ll love him “always” but is eventually freaked out by the reality of his situation and dumps him.

Augustus had bone cancer which eventually cost him the use of one leg. Before the amputation, he had been a star basketball player in basketball-mad Indiana. An unlit cigarette dangles rakishly from his lips to symbolize that he is embracing his cancer but not giving it power over him. Not the most realistic of symbols, but he’s a teenager and entitled to do things that in the long run don’t accomplish the desired effect.

She attempts to keep the irrepressible Augustus at arm’s length but we all know (including Hazel Grace herself) that eventually he will win her over. Her mom and dad (Trammell) are both overjoyed that Hazel has connected to someone else. The two grow closer but the real kicker comes when Augustus uses his wish with a Make-a-Wish type group to take Hazel to Amsterdam to meet van Houten (Dafoe). Hazel would have used hers but at 13 she had used it instead to go to Disney World. Priorities, after all.

While the meeting with van Houten doesn’t go exactly as planned, it still ends up being a memorable trip although it concludes with devastating news – Augustus’ cancer, which had been in remission, has reappeared and it has spread everywhere. They both know that Augustus has been given a death sentence but they are determined that now that they are comfortable with being in love with each other that they will make the most of the time they both have left.

This is a movie that I am conflicted about in many ways. As most of you know, the movie is based on the bestselling novel by John Green that in turn was based on his experiences working with support groups of the sort Hazel made fun of early on in the film (and Hazel herself is based on a real person, Esther Earl, who died of thyroid cancer at the age of 16. Green, who was very involved in the production of the movie, pulled no punches in the book although for time constraints some of the suffering  at the hands of the disease that the protagonists had to deal with had to be left out – but then again, the movie isn’t about their suffering per se.

Shailene Woodley is one of the best young actresses working today and already has an Oscar nomination under her belt. She may well get another one here although Academy voters are not known for remembering good work from summer films. She captures the many dimensions of Hazel and keeps her real. A role like this could easily lose its humanity with actors trying to play her too heroically or not heroic enough. Hazel is an ordinary hero, a young girl living with lungs that don’t work properly and the prospects of a short life. She does tend to push people away but as it turns out there’s nothing wrong with her heart in the least.

Elgort is a handsome guy with an engaging grin, but the part is rife with cliches – the free-spirited dying kid who is full of life. Not that there aren’t kids like that running around, but there are a disproportionate number of them in Hollywood. Hazel narrates that she’d like to say that Augustus kept his sense of humor (after the cancer returned) but that wouldn’t be true, but then the writers go ahead and make it true. Don’t say that a character changes without having them change. It’s dishonest. None of that is Elgort’s fault by the way – and I don’t doubt he has a fine career ahead of him.

You need to keep a couple of things in mind when seeing this movie. First of all, it’s manipulative. Holy Christ is it manipulative! How could it not be, considering the subject matter? Brave kids facing a painful death? And yes, you will be anywhere from misty-eyed to outright sobbing when the end credits roll. Expect it and deal with it.

Secondly, this is a movie aimed very squarely at young teen and pre-teen girls. Augustus fits into the young female fantasy of a sensitive, caring boy who happens to be breathtakingly hot and free-spirited, willing to accept the love of his life as she is and wait for her when she’s not certain. He’s loyal, loving, affectionate, funny…if he pulled out a guitar and played a love song he wrote for every girl in the audience he couldn’t have been more perfect. And of course Hazel herself is brave, beautiful, and of course in mortal jeopardy but never backs down for a moment, fighting for her life with dignity and grace.

There are those who sniff that this movie isn’t about cancer, but that’s disingenuous. No, the movie isn’t about cancer – you’re not going to learn the ins and outs of the disease from watching this film – but cancer informs this movie. There’s no movie (or book) without it. This movie isn’t about cancer in the same way The Godfather isn’t about the Mafia.

There are some beautiful truths here to be had here but you have to plough through some fairly predictable elements to get to them. I would have liked to see the characters be less perfect and more human. I would have loved to see Augustus scream at the faulty stars at the raw deal he’s getting. I would have liked to see Hazel lash out more than she does. I would have liked to see the movie pander less to the target audience and respect them more. However, that doesn’t mean this movie won’t satisfy their needs and strike a powerful chord in their hearts, and who am I to dismiss a movie that can accomplish that as well as this one does?

REASONS TO GO: Woodley shows off her Oscar-nominated form. Not a typical teen romance.

REASONS TO STAY: Manipulative and maudlin and unnecessarily so.

FAMILY VALUES: Some sexuality, occasionally salty language and mature thematic content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film’s title is a reference to a famous quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar; “The fault dear Brutus lies not in our stars but in ourselves.”

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/17/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: 50/50

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Miss Bala

Holy Rollers


Holy Rollers

Oy! Betcha Jesse Eisenberg never flew coach in that Facebook movie!

(2010) Drama (First Independent) Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Bartha, Danny Abeckaser, Ari Gaynor, Mark Ivanir, Elizabeth Marvel, Jason Fuchs, Q-Tip, Hallie Eisenberg, Bern Cohen, Stella Keitel, David Vadim, Charlie Hewson, Penny Bittone, Ori Pfeffer. Directed by Kevin Asch

 

The Hasidic Jews are particularly devout in their Jewishness. They tend to follow Jewish law more closely than the reform and even the orthodox sects. With their distinctive side curls and black dress, they are easily identifiable and travel freely all over the world. Their devotion to God is such that crime is extremely rare among them, enough so that law enforcement doesn’t consider them any sort of threat.

Certainly Sam Gold (J. Eisenberg) wouldn’t seem to be. A young man growing up in the Hassidic community of Brooklyn, his life seems to be pretty much mapped out for him; a marriage arranged for him by his parents, a future as a rabbi which he is studying to be and raising a family in the same community he himself grew up in. The world for Sam is a pretty stable, secure place.

Then that stability begins to crumble. His marriage arrangement ends, leaving him single and a figure of some suspicion in the community. His father and mother become keenly disappointed in him, wondering if he fits in to the community at all. Sam begins to question himself.

His best friend’s (Fuchs) brother Yosef Zimmerman (Bartha) asks Sam to do him a favor amidst all this. If he could just go to Amsterdam and pick up a small bag of pills, some medicine that is extremely expensive here but cheap over there – he’d be ever so grateful.

Sam naively agrees. Soon he finds out what he’s really transporting – ecstasy – but rather than recoil, he embraces his new venture. With his business acumen learned from his father, he impresses Yosef’s boss Jackie (Abeckaser) who takes Sam under his wing. He also impresses Rachel (Graynor), Jackie’s girlfriend whom he develops a connection to. Sam begins to make some serious money, far more than his father. He becomes intimately familiar with the night life in Manhattan and Amsterdam. He changes.

Sam thinks he’s the smartest boy on the block, not realizing the police are pretty smart too and are closing in on him. In fact, Sam in wanting to make something of himself truly has – an outsider in his own community.

Loosely based on actual events, director Asch creates a movie that in lesser hands might have wound up as cliche and boring. He chooses not to make this a movie of car chases and gun fights but of insight into the Hassidic community and a look at the evolution of a young man from Godly to criminal.

Unfortunately, we don’t really see it as an evolution so much as an abrupt change from one to the other. We never get a sense of Sam’s moral dilemma, never see him wrestling with his conscience. One moment he’s a naive, shy Hasid and the next he’s a worldly drug lord, overseeing a network of Hassidic mules going from Amsterdam to New York City with the notion that the Hassidic won’t excite suspicion from the authorities.

This is the type of role Jesse Eisenberg does so well with. He can capture both elements of the character – the shy naiveté and the brusque somewhat streetwise criminal. In a large sense, it’s reminiscent of his Oscar-nominated performance in The Social Network although mostly there he is in the latter mode.

The story is unusual enough that it captures the attention; the execution of it sadly misses the mark somewhat. Still, there’s enough rich material here to keep the film moving from start to finish and keep our interest until the end credits run. I wish they might have taken a little more time to develop the internal conflict that Sam surely must have had; the audience might have been able to get behind the character more instead of just thinking he’s a colossal putz.

WHY RENT THIS: A role tailor-made for Eisenberg’s strengths. A rare look inside the Hasidic community. An interesting and unusual concept.. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sam’s change of character is abrupt and not well-explained.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some brief sexual stuff, lots of drug use and some foul language. Not to mention some Hassidic ass-kicking like you wouldn’t believe.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jesse and Hallie Eisenberg, siblings in real life, play siblings in the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a sit-down interview with Bartha and Eisenberg, detailing the actor’s preparations for the film and how they became involved with it.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $608,027 on an unreported production budget; the movie was probably somewhere just south of breaking even.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Chloe

Blind Date (2007)


Blind Date

An uneasy romance.

(Variance Films) Stanley Tucci, Patricia Clarkson, Thijs Romer, Gerdy De Decker, Georgina Verbaan, Robin Holzhauer, Sarah Hyland, Peer Mascini. Directed by Stanley Tucci

A relationship is a fragile thing. It requires nurturing and growth in order to survive. Sometimes, events happen which put this fragile existence in jeopardy. In those instances, a couple has to be willing to go to extreme lengths to make things work.

Don (Tucci) owns a rundown bar (although it’s never specifically said, we assume it’s in Amsterdam) and periodically takes to the small stage to perform a desultory Vaudeville-like magic act, usually to be met with disinterest. People go to this bar to drink and maybe hook up; entertainment is not really on the minds of any of the barflies who frequent it.

He is married to Janna (Clarkson), someone he has spent much of his adult life with. The marriage is a lifeless one, it seems; they are trying to spice it up with a series of blind dates arranged through personal ads. In each date the two take on different personas, trying to find two that mesh well. However, reality intrudes on each date as their problems peek through the façade, causing each date to end badly, inevitably.

It’s a simple premise, and only two gifted actors could make this work. Tucci wrote and directed this movie based on a 1996 movie by the late Dutch director Theo van Gogh, who would be murdered by Muslim extremists in 2004 for making a film critical of Islam. Tucci has chosen to take that movie and strip it down to a bare frame, shooting on two sets over the course of seven days, utilizing many of van Gogh’s regular crew to do it.

The results are mixed. The movie at times has a stagey feel, like you’re watching the filmed version of a stage play. I get the distinct impression that Tucci as a director was deliberately going for that feel, and to be honest, I think that it makes some of the movie ring false. The powerful dialogue and plot might have been better served in a more natural setting, but that’s just me.

What makes this movie worth seeing are the performances of Tucci and Clarkson. Their characters have both been wounded deeply and are struggling to find a way to co-exist and both of them are very well aware that they may be clutching at phantoms that don’t exist. The actors have to portray people playing different roles, only accidentally allowing their true selves to peek through. This is the kind of acting that requires great discipline, much preparation and a whole lot of talent. Fortunately, these are two of the better actors working today, people who elevate every movie they’re in but very rarely get lead roles.

There is some voiceover narration from the couple’s daughter which helps to explain the goings on (and it is much needed) but other than that all the lines (other than background chatter) are spoken by Clarkson and Tucci. Fortunately, Tucci has written compelling dialogue that is not only interesting but gives a good deal of insight not only into the hell these two characters are in but also into the nature of failing relationships in general.

This is a very intimate film in the sense that it delves deeply into the deepest, most private parts of a marriage – and I’m not necessarily referring to the bedroom, although sexuality is touched upon at times. This is about the emotional sanctuary that a married couple provides each other, and what happens when that sanctuary is eroded. It’s very difficult to get it back once it’s gone.

This is not a movie for everybody. It is painful and awkward at times and the emotional places it visits can be very traumatic for those who have been in similar situations. It also requires a certain amount of focus from the viewer to pick up on the nuances, and a willingness to be in a quiet, still place. Still, if you’re willing to commit to the movie, you may find that you get a good deal out of it. What that might be is totally up to you.

WHY RENT THIS: A very powerful look at two people trying to save their marriage in an unorthodox way. Tucci and Clarkson deliver strong performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This is a very emotionally complex movie without a good deal of language; less cerebral viewers may get bored.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a great deal of sexual tension and a fair amount of foul language. These, along with the very adult subject matter, should make this off-limits for kiddies.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The role of Don was originally offered to Tony Shalhoub but when he had to drop out due to schedule conflicts, Tucci decided to take the role himself.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Skeptic