Wild Card (2015)


Never get Jason Statham's drink order wrong.

Never get Jason Statham’s drink order wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Big Fan


Big Fan

Patton Oswalt is a New York Giants fan and lives with his mom. 'Nuff said.

(First Independent) Patton Oswalt, Kevin Corrigan, Michael Rappaport, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Serafina Fiore, Gino Cafarelli, Jonathan Hamm, Matt Servitto. Directed by Robert Siegel

Sports fandom is a double edged sword. It can bring us enjoyment, great memories and a sense of belonging to something bigger. It can also grow into obsession and overwhelm everything else in our lives.

Paul Aufiero (Oswalt) is a New York Giants fan. That might be an understatement; it might be more accurate to say that he lives for the New York Giants. His life revolves around them. He works as a parking garage attendant and lives in a closet-sized room in his mom’s Staten Island apartment. That might not be so bad if he were just starting out, but pudgy Paul is 35 with no ambition for family or career. All he really cares about is his beloved Giants.

Every night after he gets off work, he calls into the Sports Dogg radio show as Paul from Staten Island, where he has some small degree of celebrity. Usually his rants involve a reaction to what his nemesis, Philadelphia Phil has already said. Paul carefully writes down on a legal pad exactly what he’s going to say, then reads it into the phone, pacing his room like a caged animal. His rants usually wake up his light-sleeping mom (Kurtz) who beats on the wall and yells at her son to shut up, it’s 2am. He yells back, a kind of Fred and Wilma Flintstone with a New York Italian edge.

One night, he and his buddy – his only friend really – Sal (Corrigan) spy their hero, Quantrell Bishop (Hamm), a five-time Pro Bowl cornerback, at a Staten Island gas station. Impulsively they follow him to a dodgy Brooklyn neighborhood where it appears Bishop might be buying drugs, then to a downtown Manhattan strip club. The buddies follow him in, pay for their ten dollar Budweisers and work up enough nerve to meet their hero.

He’s pleasant enough at first, but when they let slip that they followed him all the way from Staten Island, he gets the impression they’re trying to shake him down. Enraged, he beats Paul within an inch of his life. Paul wakes up three days later after emergency surgery. Bishop has been suspended, the Giants are losing and the police, particularly in the person of Detective Velarde (Servitto), are anxious to bring charges against the football player and bring the incident to a close.

This brings Paul to a turning point; the Giants’ season literally rests in his hands and he simply can’t let them down. He tells the incredulous detective that he can’t remember the incident; the cop responds “Can’t? Or won’t?” Of course, it’s won’t; Paul remembers the incident clearly enough, and it haunts him like Marley’s ghost.

When Philadelphia Phil finds out that the beating victim is none other than Paul of Staten Island, Paul’s world crumbles. His hatred for his nemesis reaches a boiling point; how far is Paul willing to go to prove his loyalty to his team?

Writer/director Siegel is best known for writing The Wrestler which brought Mickey Rourke’s career back to life. This is a different kind of sports film, taken from the perspective we’re mostly used to facing on our own – that of the fan. Of course, few of us are as rabid as Paul is, but there is still the same outside-looking-in kind of feel to the movie that most of us are used to.

Oswalt is best known as a stand-up comedian (and to film fans as the voice of Remy in Ratatouille) but he does just fine in this straight dramatic role. His Paul has a life that most of us would think of as unfulfilling, but he likes it just fine. He’s completely satisfied to be without romance, ambition or curiosity. His relationship is with his football club; it’s the only thing that matters to him, the only thing that makes sense. His family doesn’t understand; really, I don’t expect most viewers will understand either. Only those who have the kind of passion Paul possesses will truly get his character.

The movie revolves around Paul to a very large extent; the other characters are on the periphery of your vision. That Oswalt can carry the movie is crucial; if he falters, the movie fails. Fortunately, that doesn’t happen. The only real glitch is I found the ending to be a bit perfunctory and even a little surreal. Then again, I might not be the kind of guy this movie is meant for, even though I consider myself a pretty rabid fan of the San Jose Sharks NHL club. While I don’t see me getting in the grill of a fan of an opposing club the way Paul does, it’s a good thing that there are fans like Paul around; makes the world seem a bit more normal, a bit more familiar. That’s all that I need to recommend this, quite frankly.

WHY RENT THIS: A decent insight into the soul of the superfan. Oswalt does a pretty solid job carrying the movie in a dramatic role.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending was a bit anti-climactic. Some of the actions of Paul border on the surreal.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of foul language here, a little bit of sexuality and some fairly adult themes. I think it best that the kids skip Big Fan.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The host of the radio call-in show that Paul regularly calls is Scott Ferrall, who really does host a sports call-in show on Sirius satellite radio.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a downloadable Quantrell Bishop poster. Woohoo!

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Law Abiding Citizen

The Education of Charlie Banks


The Education of Charlie Banks

Jesse Eisenberg and Eve Amurri share a laugh.

(Anchor Bay) Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Ritter, Chris Marquette, Eve Amurri, Sebastian Stan, Gloria Votsis, Steven Hinkle, Dennis Boutsikaris. Directed by Fred Durst

Change is part of the human experience; we all aspire to change the things that are imperfect within us. We are not always successful at changing, but we never give up hope that someday we’ll finally get to where we want to be.

Charlie Banks (Eisenberg) is a young man who is a walking bundle of nerves. He has a fascination for Mick (Ritter), the neighborhood bully that borders on awe, going back to their childhoods. It’s the swagger and self-confidence, two things that Charlie doesn’t possess, that he admires. At a frat party one year as Charlie prepares to enter a prestigious Ivy League University, Charlie witnesses Mick beating up a couple of jocks nearly to death.

He reports this to the police, but afraid of the consequences of his decision he recants, leaving Mick out on the streets after serving a few days in jail. Charlie has no idea if Mick knows for certain who squealed on him in the first place but now that he is in his academic environment he figures he’s safe from him.

That turns out not to be the case. One day Charlie is surprised to find Mick visiting Charlie’s roommate Danny (Marquette), a friend of Mick’s from the neighborhood. Charlie is understandably unnerved, wondering if Mick knows. What was supposed to be a brief visit turns into a lengthy stay, as Mick begins to insinuate himself into Charlie’s circle of friends, even making romantic overtures towards Mary (Amurri), the girl Charlie is crushing on.

As time passes, Charlie’s fears seem to be allayed. Mick seems to see Charlie as something of a role model. For Mick’s part, he sees that learning isn’t necessarily for pussies and begins to feel a glimmer of hope that a better life is available to him. Charlie knows what Mick is capable of and warns his friends to a certain degree, but at the same time is rooting for Mick to change his ways. Can Mick overcome his own brutal, violent nature?

Limp Biskit frontman Durst explores themes that aren’t exactly unknown to heavy rockers, and inserts them throughout the movie. Drugs, sex, violence are all in the mix, as are feelings of insecurity and a bit of a middle finger to the upper classes (most of Charlie’s circle are twits, arrogant assholes and spoiled brats).

Eisenberg made this at an earlier stage of his career when he tended to be a bit twitchy in his actions. It gets so unsettling that by the movie’s end you feel yourself tapping your feet or drumming your fingers unconsciously. It’s good to know that he’s matured as an actor, as his most recent turns in Zombieland and Adventureland both show.

Ritter is what one would call “interesting casting,” a polite way of saying “Who the heck cast him as that?!?!” This is the kind of role that twenty years ago might have gone to Michael Pare or Matt Dillon or last year might have gone to Channing Tatum; there needs to be a sense of the smolder beneath the charming façade and Ritter tries gamely to conjure it up, but isn’t always on the money there.

The triangle between Charlie, Mick and Mary make up the most compelling part of the story for me, and given the early-80s/late-70s era that this is set in, the sex and drugs and rock and roll are a big part of it too. The last 20 minutes seem to lose their way a little bit before the end credits run; I got the feeling that the writers began to lose some focus, although that could have been simply me. Either way, it isn’t a good thing.

As first movie’s go, The Education of Charlie Banks isn’t a bad first effort. It is certainly flawed and might have benefitted from the surer touch of a veteran director, but we all have to start somewhere. I haven’t seen The Longshots, Durst’s second film, but I’m more inclined to based on seeing his first.

WHY RENT THIS: The relationships between Charlie and Mick and Mary make for an interesting triangle.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Eisenberg is a little bit too twitchy in the movie, giving the effect of watching a kid with ADD for a couple of hours.

FAMILY VALUES: As would befit a movie set in the early 80s about the poor little rich kid set, there’s a ton of drug and alcohol use, lots of swearing and thanks to the presence of Mick, a ton of sudden and terrifying violence. There’s also plenty of sexual content for those who look for such things.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While this was the first feature film to be directed by Durst, it actually was the second to be released; the sports film The Longshots with Ice Cube had a wide release several months before Anchor Bay released this on its brief limited run.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Whiteout