The Disaster Artist


The Franco brothers – together again at last!

(2017) Biography (A24) Dave Franco, James Franco, Seth Rogen, Ari Graynor, Alison Brie, Jacki Weaver, Paul Scheer, Zac Efron, Josh Hutcherson, June Diane Raphael, Megan Mullally, Jason Mantzoukas, Andrew Santino, Nathan Fielder, Joe Mande, Sharon Stone, John Early, Melanie Griffith, Hannibal Buress, Judd Apatow, Bryan Cranston, Charlene Yi, Jessie Hannah Eris, Peter Gilroy, Lauren Ash. Directed by James Franco

 

There are three kinds of bad movies. There are the ones that are just bad, the ones you walk out of in the theater or more usually switch off from your television. There are the ones that are guilty pleasures – movies you know aren’t very good but you still like them anyway because they either speak to you in some way, there’s an actor in it you really like or you simply liked the vibe. Finally there are the “so bad they’re good” classics like Plan 9 From Outer Space or Terror in Tiny Town. One of the most recent examples of this is The Room.

It was made by writer, director and star Tommy Wiseau (J. Franco) who has a decidedly bizarre Eastern European-like accent but claims he’s from New Orleans. With long rock star hair matching his leather rock star pants, he has a look all his own, a kind of heavy metal marching band pirate.

In 1998 he met Greg Sestero (D. Franco) in an acting class in San Francisco. Greg wasn’t very good, unable to commit to his role. Tommy walked in and did maybe the most ham-fisted version of Stanley Kowalski screaming “STELLLLLLLLAAAAAAAH” in history. The two, both of whom have aspirations of making it in the business, become fast friends.

They end up moving to L.A. together and sharing an apartment Tommy has there. Tommy, who apparently has an unending source of money, is rejected by mega-producer Judd Apatow one night – well, he did interrupt his dinner – and decides that rather than waiting for a producer to see the clear star quality he knows he has that he needs to show it by making his own movie.

The thing is, Tommy knows absolutamente nada about making movies and while he hires a professional crew, he chooses to refuse their helpful advice and go resolutely down his own road. From time to time he turns into an actual dictator on the set, bullying actors and technicians alike and firing them from time to time without cause. Nevertheless, somehow the movie gets made and only Tommy seems to know that the movie is completely horrible and yet it will go on to become one of the first cult movies of the millennium.

Both of the Franco brothers are terrific in their performances but particularly James who not only nails Tommy’s bizarre accent and mannerisms but seems to inhabit his head too. Tommy as is pointed out in the movie and by reviewers lives on his own planet and everyone else is just visiting. James has gotten most of the acclaim (and the Golden Globe although surprisingly no Oscar nominations) but Dave deserves a little love too in a much less flamboyant role.

As a matter of fact, the cast is strong throughout as Franco likely cashed in a whole lot of markers to get lots of celebrity cameos – often as themselves – that help make the movie fun in spot-the-celebrity drinking game; you know the one, where you take a shot every time you see a celebrity other than the main roles. I guarantee you’ll be passed out drunk before the film is halfway over. Even given that you may well get a kick out of seeing some familiar stars from the recent past such as Melanie Griffith as a harried drama teacher or Sharon Stone as a harried agent. You’ll also see Seth Rogen at his non-stoner best and Alison Brie (Dave Franco’s real life wife) as Greg’s sweet girlfriend.

Although it shares a certain amount of DNA with Ed Wood, a similarly-themed film that critics seem hell-bent on comparing this to, they are completely different outlooks. Wood is a movie about mediocrity; this is a movie about perseverance. Tommy isn’t a particularly gifted or visionary individual and yeah if he wasn’t wealthy who knows if he gets to make a movie like this but one has to admire his tenacity, even if he occasionally turns into a dick in the process.

There is a question every critic needs to answer when reviewing a film like this – no, you don’t need to see The Room before seeing this and it really doesn’t matter which you see first. I would lean slightly towards seeing this first because you’ll appreciate the Wiseau original much more if you do.

This isn’t one of the best movies of the year but it is a very good movie that I can easily recommend to anyone. Sure it’s a little bit out there – maybe because it gets into the orbit of planet Tommy a little too closely – and some might think it a paean to bad movies – it’s not. Still, those who have ever loved a movie for no reason other than because it was nutty enough to appeal to them will find themselves finding common ground with this film.

REASONS TO GO: Both of the Franco brothers deliver the goods. In fact, the cast is really strong from top to bottom.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too off-kilter for some and some may think it celebrates bad movies.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of profanity, some sexuality and more of James Franco’s butt crack than you may ever wish to see again.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film from A24 to be screened in the IMAX format.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ed Wood
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Greatest Showman

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Mr. Nice


Mr. Nice strikes a serious pose,

Mr. Nice strikes a serious pose,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Savages

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT:The Reluctant Fundamentalist

The Iron Lady


 

The Iron Lady

Meryl Streep suddenly notices that Jim Broadbent’s deoderant isn’t what it could be.

(2011) Biodrama (Weinstein) Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Alexandra Roach, Harry Lloyd, Olivia Colman, Nicholas Farrell, Roger Allam, Anthony Head, Richard E. Grant, Susan Brown, Julian Wadham, Pip Torrens, Nick Dunning, David Westhead, Amanda Root. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd

 

Few political figures of the late 20th century are as polarizing as Margaret Thatcher. Conservatives revere her for her fiscal frugality and willingness to go to war to protect British soil; liberals despise her for…well, pretty much the same things. By all accounts her personality was forceful and charismatic; she had a will of steel that bent to nothing and nobody, and when she set her sights on something, she inevitably would achieve it.

Her biopic starts with Thatcher (Streep) long retired from politics, wandering into a corner grocer for a pint of milk. She goes unrecognized by the other patrons of the shop; she grouses about the price of milk as any other consumer might. When she gets home, there is consternation; apparently she wasn’t supposed to wander off by herself and nobody knew where she was.

It turns out that Mrs. Thatcher has a touch of dementia. For one thing, she’s speaking with her husband Denis (Broadbent) – even though he’s been dead and gone for five years. Her daughter Carol (Colman) is urging her mother to clean out her father’s things from the closet. It’s long overdue for her to say goodbye. So she begins the heart-wrenching task of going through her late husband’s things, some of which send her on trips down memory lane – what we film  freaks like to call “flashbacks.”

We meet Margaret (Roach) as a young woman, a grocer’s daughter as London is enduring the Blitz. She’s plucky (some might say foolish) enough to run upstairs during a bombing to cover the butter. She idolizes her father who has some ultimately unfulfilled political aspirations. She develops some of her own, although getting into the male-dominated Tory party and winning a seat in the House of Commons proves challenging. She also meets young businessman Denis Thatcher (Lloyd) who proposes marriage which she accepts.

She eventually wins through and earns the respect of some of her peers for her strength of character and intelligence. She is mentored by Airey Neave (Fellows), a savvy politician who is later assassinated by the IRA. This is partially responsible for her lifelong hatred of terrorism and her refusal to give into it. She continues to rise in the party until she arrives as Prime Minister, a position she will be elected to for three terms and the only female to date elected to the position.

But the movie doesn’t really focus on her political career, although it is necessarily a part of her story. Nor does it take a position pro or con regarding her politics. Director Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan take great pains to remain neutral; somehow I suspect that they admired the woman but not her policies.

The attraction here is Streep. She deservedly won the Oscar earlier this year for her performance which is quite frankly one of the finest of her illustrious career. She captures the nuances of Thatcher’s mannerisms, yes – but so could any mimic. What she does that makes her performance scintillating is capture the essence of her character, from the force of nature presence as a world leader to a confused and sometimes frustrated old woman who no longer commands power or respect.

It is the latter aspect that conservatives have railed against this film for. Thatcher has largely stayed out of the public eye for the past 25 years since her somewhat painful ouster which apparently angered her greatly. There has been some speculation that she, like her good friend Ronald Reagan, might be the victim of Alzheimer’s Disease – which quite frankly is just that. I personally think it takes just as much courage to take on the ravages of old age as it does a hostile Labour party.

The movie overall doesn’t match Streep’s performance, sadly. Although Broadbent does a good job in his role, most of the other performances are lost and quite frankly I had a difficult time telling the players apart. There is a lot of archival footage to help tell Thatcher’s tale but at the end of the day it is Streep who’s remarkable Oscar-winning performance elevates this movie above a Biography channel piece and gives life to Thatcher, something that the rest of the movie failed to do.

WHY RENT THIS: Streep’s justifiable Oscar-winning performance. Interesting story-telling style.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks insight into her political decisions and glosses over her more controversial policies.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some images of violence as well as brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won both of the Oscars it was nominated for (the other being Best Make-Up), a rare feat that had previously been accomplished by Ed Wood.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: While mostly the standard promotional stuff, there is a pretty decent featurette on the role the real Denis Thatcher played in her life.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $114.9M on an unreported production budget; the movie was likely a box office hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nixon

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Multiple Sarcasms

Nowhere Boy


Nowhere Boy

Julia Lennon and her baby boy John.

(2009) Biographical Drama (Weinstein) Aaron Johnson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Thomas Sangster, Anne-Marie Duff, Josh Bolt, David Threlfall, Sam Bell, Ophelia Lovibond, Paul Ritter, James Johnson, David Morrissey, Andrew Buchan, James Jack Bentham.  Directed by Sam Taylor-Wood

It is said that great men often come from humble beginnings, and there are few beginnings more humble than the working class Liverpool of the 1950s. From there sprung the Beatles and specifically, John Lennon (Johnson), a man who has reached near saint-like standing today.

Yet this film isn’t about John Lennon the Beatle or John Lennon the activist. It’s about John Lennon, the 15-year-old boy who had a charming grin and a goofy wit, as well as a rebellious streak and a lot of pain hidden in deep reservoirs within him.

The source of this pain was a feeling of abandonment; from the age of five, he had been raised by his Aunt Mimi (Thomas) and Uncle George (Threlfall). While his Uncle was a good-natured man who understood his nephew seemingly better than the uptight Mimi, Lennon wondered about who his daddy was or why his mother Julia (Duff) had allowed someone else to raise him.

He would get his answers although not quickly. He encounters Julia at a funeral, then is stunned when he learns she lives mere blocks away from his house. He decides to visit her with mate Pete (Bolt) – not Best, incidentally – under the guise of getting away to Blackpool for the afternoon, and is welcomed with open arms.

Julia is very different from his Aunt Mimi…night and day, really. Whereas Mimi is guarded, the epitome of a stiff-upper-lip Brit, Julia wears her heart on her sleeve, and expresses her emotions freely. Where Mimi is conservative and pedestrian in her tastes, Julia loves rock and roll and wants to experience everything. They may have been sisters, but they were as bi-polar as could be.

At first there’s a good deal of competition between the two. Mimi resents Julia’s intrusion into her ordered upbringing of John and Julia wants to resume her duties as mother again, duties she felt were taken away from her against her will. While Mimi is too mannerly to allow their rivalry to become ugly, there is certainly tension between the two women.

As John learns the details of Julia’s life and why things happened the way they did, he begins to pull away from both women. About this time he sees a newsreel of Elvis Presley at the movie theater and is taken by it; the screaming of the girls, the adoration, he wants it for himself. “Why couldn’t God have made me Elvis?” he muses out loud in one of the film’s forced ironies. His adoring mother responds “Because he was saving you for John Lennon,” which is as good an answer as any of us ever get. The irony here is that while he sees the adoration, he doesn’t see how that adoration can become a prison and it’s a prison he will wind up inhabiting for much of his adult life; it is a prison that will get him killed far too young.

As rock and roll begins to take him away from his studies, the strain between he and Mimi reaches a breaking point and John will soon have to make a choice between his dreams, the love of the woman who raised him and the need for the love and approval of his birth mother. Could he really have it all?

Matt Greenhalgh wrote this based on the memoirs of Julia Baird, Lennon’s half–sister (shown in the movie as the elder of Julia and her husband Bobby’s (Morrissey) two daughters), and I imagine that her own reminiscence is colored by the loyalty to her own mother, who is shown to be far more sympathetic than the often priggish Mimi.

Johnson, made a splash earlier this year in Kick-Ass (which he actually filmed after this movie which was released in Britain almost a year ago), a role very different than this one. Here he is introspective, moody and so full of teen angst it’s leaking out his ears. This role demands a certain amount of gravitas and Johnson provides it nicely. He only resembles Lennon superficially on a physical level, but he captures the swagger and the silly side of him well.

Thomas has to make what is essentially a closed-off woman sympathetic, a very difficult task in the best of circumstances and few actors have the chops to pull it off well, but Thomas manages most of the time. Duff has a different sort of challenge, making the carefree and somewhat scatterbrained Julia relatable, and she pulls it off as well. There is some evidence that the real Julia had some mental illness in her background and Duff hints at it nicely.

As I said, this isn’t about the Beatles although Paul McCartney (Sangster) and George Harrison (Bell) do show up, but only Paul makes much of an impact here as we see the rivalry between John and Paul begin to develop at its earliest stages.

We do see the emphasis John placed on his music; we just don’t get what really drove him as a person, and as the film sort of sets you up to believe that it will, it came as a letdown to me and cost the movie ratings points which may have been more of the fault of studio marketing executives than the filmmakers.

Most of the music on the soundtrack is of cover tunes – not a single Beatles song shows up here, other than the iconic opening chord of “Hard Day’s Night” which opens the movie with the reverence of church bells but somewhat predictably is part of a dream sequence. However, I will say the musical sequences are done well enough.

It’s a bit of a disappointment but the movie is well-acted enough and does give enough insight into Lennon’s formative years to still get a recommendation from me. Of course, keep in mind that Lennon is a personal hero of mine, so be warned by that caveat that I might be softer on a film about him than I might otherwise be – or quite possibly and in fact more likely, harder.

REASONS TO GO: A look at the ex-Beatle’s formative years, a period not much covered by biographers. Strong performances by Johnson, Duff and Thomas.

REASONS TO STAY: You never really get any insight as to what drove Lennon other than mommy issues.

FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of rough language, a bit of sexuality and a whole lot of drinking and smoking; I would say it’s probably safe for most teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Aaron Johnson did most of his own singing for the movie, which was released in the U.S. the day before what would have been Lennon’s 70th birthday.

HOME OR THEATER: Home viewing for this one, definitely.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: I Sell the Dead

The Express


The Express

Ernie Davis rumbles for the end zone in the 1960 Cotton Bowl.

(Universal) Dennis Quaid, Rob Brown, Charles Dutton, Omar Benson Miller, Clancy Brown, Darrin Dewitt Henson, Saul Rubinek, Nelsan Ellis, Nicole Beharie, Aunjanue Ellis. Directed by Gary Fleder

In this age where most of the great athletes in our country are of African-American descent, it seems almost incomprehensible that at one time they were not even allowed to play in the national spotlight. For those pioneers who led the way, the path was often painful.

Ernie Davis (Rob Brown) was a humble young man who had spent much of his childhood in western Pennsylvania with his grandfather, affectionately called Pops (Dutton) who had managed to rid Ernie of his stutter by getting him to read passages from the Bible. Ernie was blessed with natural athleticism, speed and strength, all good qualities to have if you want to be a football star and that’s just what he was on the verge of becoming in High School.

Syracuse University Head Football Coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Quaid) is about to lose the best player in college football, Jim Brown (Henson) to graduation and the Cleveland Browns. Replacing him will be a tall order. Brown, for his part, is not unhappy to see the University moving behind him into the rear-view mirror. He encountered a great deal of racism on campus and despite being the best running back in the game by far, he had been denied the Heisman Trophy because of the color of his skin. For a man with the kind of pride possessed by Brown that’s a difficult pill to swallow, so when Schwartzwalder, with whom he had an often contentious relationship, called upon him to recruit the young Ernie Davis, Brown was understandably reluctant.

Still, he accompanies Schwartzwalder on the recruiting visit and is pleased and a little taken aback that Davis can quote all his statistics off the top of his head and obviously has a case of hero-worship. Brown relents and quietly makes his sales pitch to Davis, asserting that Schwartzwalder can make him a better player. That’s all Ernie Davis needs to hear. 

On the campus of Syracuse, Ernie has to put up with a certain amount of disdain from the students as well as a hellacious workout regimen. Even though he’s a freshman and ineligible to play on the varsity, he practices with them and dresses for the games, which is painful because Syracuse definitely underachieved that season, falling to lowly Holy Cross in the season finale.

Still, with Davis eligible to play, the 1959 season is full of hope for the Orangemen and with Davis leading the way, the Orange are propelled to an undefeated season despite encountering racial hatred and all sorts of abuse. Still, things could be worse for Ernie; he’s got a great friend in Jack “JB” Buckley, a big lineman with an easygoing sense of humor and a heart of gold, and a beautiful girlfriend in Cornell coed Sarah Ward (Beharie). When the team is sent to the Cotton Bowl in Dallas on January 1, 1960 to play the second ranked Texas Longhorns for the national championship, one of the most memorable bowl games of all time would be the result, a game that would cement Davis’ reputation as one of the great college football players of all time and propel him to a destiny both glorious and tragic.

Director Gary Fleder pulls out all the emotional stops in this one, and given the facts of Davis’ life that’s not hard to do. What I don’t understand is why he and his writer Charles Leavitt felt constrained to exaggerate some of the facts of his story and flat out make up incidents that never happened, the most egregious example of which is a game at West Virginia in which, the filmmakers assert, bottles and other dangerous projectiles were thrown at the players (particularly the African-American ones) and set the scene for a dramatic confrontation between Davis and Schwartzwalder. Guys, I’m sure the same confrontation could have easily have been accomplished without maligning the good fans of West Virginia.

Rob Brown does a fine job at capturing the essence of Ernie Davis, who in life was most certainly a leader but led quietly. He was said to be unfailingly polite and kind with a gentle demeanor when he was off the football field. Brown captures that aspect of him, but gives him a core of steel that Davis undoubtedly had to possess in order to accomplish what he did, and showed the fierce competitive streak that players of that caliber must have in order to succeed.

Quaid does a solid job as Schwartzwalder, giving the crusty old ball coach a soft core but one ringed with steel. The unfortunate aspect is that while Schwartzwalder wasn’t a racist per se, he was a man of his times and it took some fortitude for him to unlearn behaviors that were ingrained into white America for decades.

I was a little concerned about the lighting which was sometimes a bit on the underlit side for my tastes, but that’s a minor quibble. While the era is captured with some success, I never really felt immersed in the era of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s when this took place.

Still, I’m really glad that a film is finally being made of Davis’ life. He was the first African-American athlete to win the Heisman and would have undoubtedly had a Hall of Fame-caliber career with the Cleveland Browns. Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with leukemia shortly after being drafted and died at age 23, having never played a down in the NFL. His legacy, however, is unquestioned and his story should be told, and despite the historical gaffes, it’s told pretty well here.

WHY RENT THIS: A fair depiction of a pioneering athlete who has gone largely forgotten by history.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the historical inaccuracies are completely egregious and are just as completely unnecessary.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some depictions of racism with plenty of racial slurs (including the N-word) as well as other foul language. There’s also a bit of sensuality but overall, it is suitable for most teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the film, the Penn State score is given as Syracuse 32, Penn State 6 but the actual score of the game was 20-18, one of the Orangemen’s toughest games in that undefeated season.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a wonderful retrospective on Davis that features interviews with Jim Brown and surviving members of his family and friends. On the Blu-Ray edition, there is a feature on the Syracuse championship season, with interviews with players and coaches both archival and contemporary and archival game footage from that season.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Ghosts of Girlfriends Past

Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman


Timothy Spall fits Mary Stockley with a new fashion accessory.

Timothy Spall fits Mary Stockley with a new fashion accessory.

(IFC) Timothy Spall, Julie Stevenson, Eddie Marsan, Michael Norton, Tobias Menzies, Clive Francis, Claire Keelan. Directed by Adrian Shergold.

An eye for an eye is what the Old Testament recommends in terms of justice. For two thousand years, Western justice has more or less followed this dictate, particularly when it comes to capital crimes. That begs the question; how are the ones charged with exacting judicial vengeance affected by it?

Albert Pierrepoint (Spall) is a grocer in Depression-era Britain. Somewhat shy, he romances Annie (Stevenson), a clerk at a nearby shop and eventually marries her. Times are hard and he has applied to the British Home Office for a position as hangman in order to bring in some extra income. This isn’t a decision come to lightly – he has several other members of the family who have performed this office. As it turns out, Pierrepoint is remarkably efficient, able to move prisoners from cell to noose to corpse in less than a minute. He quickly becomes one of the most sought-after hangmen in Britain because of it.

This efficiency catches the eye of Field Marshall Montgomery (Francis), who is looking for someone to dispense British justice to Nazi war criminals convicted at Nuremberg. Pierrepoint is enlisted and is flown to Germany, where he is given a somewhat deferential Army assistant (Menzies) to help him with the task of executing dozens of Nazis. When he returns home, he discovers that the press has discovered his identity and he is hailed as a national hero, to his amazement.

With the income from his work in Germany he is able to buy a pub and leave the grocery business. At his pub, he meets James “Tish” Corbett (Marsan), a garrulous man who is able to bring Pierrepoint (who he calls “Tosh”) out of his shell. The two often sing duets at the piano, and they become close friends. Tish, who is separated from his wife, has taken up with a mistress (Keelan) who often derides him publically. While Pierrepoint and his wife are less than enthralled with the mistress, they take solace in having a friend who doesn’t treat him like a pariah for his ghoulish sideline.

As the years pass, so do British attitudes towards capital punishment. Once feted as a national hero, now Pierrepoint is reviled as a murderer. At first, Pierrepoint is puzzled and troubled by this change of attitude. However, his own attitude is called into question when he finds his friend Tish in his docket awaiting execution.

Based on a true story of Britain’s most notorious executioner, the film is rather matter-of-fact and even clinical about the executions that Pierrepoint performs. Spall, best known as Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter movies, plays Pierrepoint as a meticulous, almost business-like executioner, well-versed in the physics of hanging and able to tell from height and weight exactly how to set the noose in order to kill the convict cleanly and quickly. His performance is exemplary and reminds us that he is one of Britain’s finest actors with a background in Shakespeare and Mike Leigh films before coming to the Potter universe.

It was also a pleasant surprise to see Stevenson, who I became a big fan of in Truly Madly Deeply back onscreen. She often plays a lot of thankless roles and here she makes good use of her onscreen time as Pierrepoint’s supportive wife, who while aware of his sideline, rarely discusses it with him until it becomes an elephant in the room, leading to one of the movie’s more compelling scenes.

Plainly, the filmmakers have an opinion on capital punishment but this is less about the merits of the death penalty and more on how it affects those who carry it out. Pierrepoint is far from a deranged psychopath; he is a civil servant who does his job efficiently and well. The fact that he, his wife and his friend are all so ordinary and average is what gives the movie its odd poignancy.

WHY RENT THIS: Spall performs marvelously in a role that is deceptively bland. Interesting presentation on how capital punishment affects the executioners.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The clinical portrayal of hangings might be disturbing to sensitive viewers. The ordinariness of the characters can make for occasional moments of boredom.

FAMILY VALUES: The above-mentioned executions are not for children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title is a bit misleading. Although Pierrepoint retired in 1964, executions by hanging continued to take place in Britain until 1965.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Stoned