Master Maggie


Let the acting lesson begin.

(2019) Drama/Short (Goodface) Lorraine Bracco, Neil Jain, Brian Dennehy, Kenan Thompson, Chris Henry Coffey. Directed by Matthew Bonifacio

To be a great actor it doesn’t hurt to have a great acting coast and Maggie is one of the best. Thanked by both Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett in their Oscar acceptance speeches, Maggie has a client list that is strictly A-list, including Brian Dennehy and SNL veteran Kenan Thompson.

When a guy (Jain) comes off the street trying to wheedle a lesson out of her – he has a big audition with Law & Order the next day – she refuses at first but he’s persistent and eventually she agrees to give him a crash course. It is a lesson destined to change them both.

Bonifacio is no stranger to Tribeca, having debuted two well-received shorts there. This one has his best-known cast to date. Getting Bracco was a particular coup; she simply knocks it out of the park. Ever since The Sopranos ended, we really haven’t seen much of her onscreen; that’s a damn shame because she is really a wonderful actress. Jain, best-known for his work in the 2014 film The Quitter holds his own.

Bonifacio, drawing on his own experiences as an acting coach, wrote and produced the film with his wife Julianna Gelinas Bonifacio making this a family affair. The short has a sly sense of humor and an interesting twist at the end, although it isn’t super-revelatory.

I don’t generally review shorts but this one caught my attention with a terrific cast (I’m a big fan of both Dennehy and Bracco) and the cojones to tell veteran actor Dennehy that he needs to be more intense. Of course, when Tony Soprano’s shrink tells you that you need more intensity, then you get more intense, that’s the end of it. The short is currently appearing at the Tribeca Film Festival and is likely to play several more. Keep your eye out for it.

REASONS TO SEE: Bracco gives an intense performance, matched nicely by Jain.
REASONS TO AVOID: The twist is on the mild side.
FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter may be a bit more than little ones can handle.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jain’s character is auditioning for Law & Order; Jain ironically appeared in a role on the Criminal Intent spin-off.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/28/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Tutor
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Trumbo (2007)


Bath time is work time for Dalton Trumbo.

Bath time is work time for Dalton Trumbo.

(2007) Documentary (Goldwyn) Dalton Trumbo, Joan Allen, Brian Dennehy, Michael Douglas, Paul Giamatti, Nathan Lane, Josh Lucas, Liam Neeson, David Strathairn, Donald Sutherland, Dustin Hoffman, Kirk Douglas, Helen Manfull, Mitzi Trumbo, Christopher Trumbo, Walter Bernstein, Kate Lardner, Peter Hanson, Emanuel Azenberg. Directed by Peter Askin

documented

One of the core values of the United States is the freedom of speech. Our forefathers in their wisdom decreed that nobody’s right to it would be abridged by congress or any other legislative body. That freedom is one we take for granted…until someone tries to take it away.

In the late 1940s we were riding high, but all was not perfect. The Nazis had been defeated, but we weren’t quite out of the woods yet; the communists in the Soviet Union and elsewhere were on the rise and we were fully certain that a World War III was just on the horizon and there was a fatalism that it would be nuclear.

At that time in Hollywood, Dalton Trumbo was also riding high. One of the most acclaimed and honored screenwriters in the business, he fell afoul of the House of Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC led by the notorious Senator Joseph McCarthy. The committee, attempting to root out what was rumored to be a heavy communist influence in Hollywood, went after Trumbo who was unapologetically a member of the Communist Party (although he would later leave it, disillusioned). When questioned as to his activities, Trumbo asserted his First Amendment rights and refused to answer. He was found in contempt of Congress and jailed for a year. When he was released, he discovered he was blacklisted by the major studios and had to make a living writing scripts under “fronts” – other screenwriters who were credited with the scripts that Trumbo (and other members of the so-called Hollywood Ten) wrote. Two of them, The Brave Ones and Roman Holiday, would net Oscars for Trumbo which he couldn’t collect at the time.

Eventually Kirk Douglas enlisted Trumbo to write Spartacus, perhaps the most well-known of all his movies. Once that became a blockbuster, the blacklist essentially ended. and Trumbo resumed his writing career which lasted into the mid-70s (he would die in 1976 of a heart attack).

His son Christopher Trumbo created a play from the letters Trumbo wrote during the period of his trial before HUAC, his incarceration and the years he was blacklisted. Askin has skillfully weaved that into an unusual documentary, taking the elder Trumbo’s words read by a variety of socially conscious Hollywood actors skillfully interwoven with archival footage, home movies and contemporary interviews detailing Trumbo’s ordeal.

The readings themselves vary; some are very emotional, while others feel stiff. Clearly some of the voice actors connected more with the material than others did, and quite frankly some of the letters sound better in the mind read on the printed page than they do spoken aloud. However, the home movies and some of the archival footage is absolutely riveting, and Askin maximizes their effect. Editor Ken Engfehr is to be commended for his deft touch.

Through these readings, interviews and footage, we get a glimpse of Trumbo the man, a man of unique principles and courage. Standing up for his beliefs at a time when conformity was more the norm – well, I suppose that can be said of any time – but certainly at a time when rocking the boat when it came to communism was tantamount to treason. Trumbo, despite his disdain for capitalism, had a deep abiding love for the Constitution and despite the fact that he could have pleaded the Fifth chose not to and ended up going to jail because he did not. He felt that the First Amendment was precious and needed to be protected, no matter the cost.

We honor those soldiers who have fought to keep us free and justifiably so. They put their lives on the line to uphold the principles that founded this nation and made it, despite all its flaws, a great one, and that’s something that should be treated with respect. However, along with those who defended our nation on the battlefield, respect should also be given to those who fought for our liberty on different battlefields; in the courtrooms, in the halls of our legislature and in the hearts and minds of our citizens. It would take decades before Dalton Trumbo’s courage would be recognized and honored but better late than never.

The story is compelling enough that it has been made into a feature film, with Bryan Cranston starring as Trumbo. It is in the process of a staggered release and should be coming to a theater near you soon (it’s already out in major markets like Los Angeles and New York City as this is published). Cranston is said to be on the Oscar shortlist for Best Actor and wouldn’t it be ironic indeed if he won an Oscar for the role. I haven’t seen the new movie yet but something tells me it will be a sentimental favorite.

WHY RENT THIS: Excellent use of archival footage. Some of the letters are really touching.  Important story.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the readings sound a bit stilted.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Debuted at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $109,057 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trumbo (2015)
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Documented concludes!

Meet Monica Velour


Truer words were never written...even accidentally.

Truer words were never written…even accidentally.

(2010) Comedy (Anchor Bay) Dustin Ingram, Kim Cattrall, Brian Dennehy, Keith David, Daniel Yelsky, Jee Young Han, Sam McMurray, Elizabeth Wright Shapiro, Jamie Tisdale, Tony Cox, Henry Yuk, Lauren Mae Shafer, Peter Carey, My-Ishia Cason-Brown, Nicole Stober, Kathi J. Moore. Directed by Keith Bearden

Cinema of the Heart

The problem with meeting our idols is that they rarely live up to our expectations of them. They are all, without fail, human beings every one, all of whom are imperfect and in some cases, downright awful – which is how they got to the pinnacle in the first place. That goes for ’80s porn legends as well.

Tobe (Ingram) has been dealt a pretty raw hand by life. His parents are both dead and he lives with his aging cantankerous grandfather (Dennehy) and drives a weenie truck, the “Weenie Wiz” which he is now having to sell. Unprepossessing in the looks department, Tobe hasn’t had a lot of experience in l’amour. His ideal woman is a beautiful porn star from the 80s named Monica Velour (Cattrall).

But that was a quarter of a century ago and she’s more or less disappeared from the porn scene. Tobe is driving the Weenie Wiz to a collector (David) of American kitsch in Indiana who’s buying it. Tobe learns that his idol is making a live appearance at a strip club not far from where the collector lives. Tobe figures that this might be his only chance.

However when he gets there he discovers that not everyone has the same admiration for his idol that he does. A group of drunken frat boys heckle her unmercifully and when Tobe asks them to stop, they beat the holy crap out of him.

Monica takes him home and he discovers to his…shock? surprise? I’m not really sure…that she is pushing 50 and lives in a trailer, recovering (and not always fully) from a drug habit and embroiled in a bitter custody suit with her asshole of an ex-husband who forbids her any contact with her daughter and uses that as a means of torturing her.

Monica is a tough broad who’s survived one of the most heartless and cruel lives imaginable but her kid is her Achilles heel. Tobe wants to do something for his idol that will prove his devotion and savvy readers will have an inkling of what that just might entail.

For a comedy this movie is a bit of a downer. The two characters at the heart of the movie lead fairly bleak lives and yes, they’re played for laughs but when you look at it in black and white you kind of feel that sense of quiet desperation that are the lives so many of us lead. That doesn’t mean there aren’t legitimately funny moments which the filmmakers are trying to juxtapose with genuine pathos. They succeed only part of the time on that score however as some of the plot points feel a bit contrived.

Cattrall does some of the best work of her career. One of the most beautiful women in the world (still), she allows herself to be photographed sans make-up and with her hair left pretty much the way she woke up with it. That takes some guts in an industry where glamour is everything and its lack can set your career back some, particularly if you’re an actress pushing middle age.

What makes Monica Velour successful as a character is that she’s no angel, no hooker with a heart of gold and certainly no role model. She makes some pretty self-destructive choices and there are times you really want to give her a good “WHAT WERE YOU THINKING” rant nose to nose with her. She’d probably head-butt you though so do be careful if you decide to take me up on it.

Cattrall brings that aspect of her to life, makes Velour a survivor – in some ways barely but a survivor nevertheless – and believable in that role. She has been chewed up and spit out in some ways but she has most of her fight left in her although when it comes to her daughter again…Achilles heel, remember?

I wish I could say the same for Tobe. He’s played as a kitsch worshipping outsider who loves jazz from the ’30s, cars from the ’50s and porn from the ’80s, golden ages all. He has the gangly mawkishness of Napoleon Dynamite which isn’t a good thing. The trouble with using that kind of quirky indie eccentric as a main character is that those sorts of people only exist in New York and Los Angeles and their only friends are writers. I’m convinced of that because I’ve never met these sorts of folk anywhere else. Tobe is a sweetheart sure but there’s also a creepy stalker aspect to him and I don’t see someone as cynical and guarded as Monica really succumbing to a guy like this. It doesn’t seem to be in her nature.

Like Meat Loaf warbling “I’d do anything for love but I won’t do that,” so the right-minded critic can see a movie he or she wants to love but just can’t quite bring themselves to recommend their readers see it. I liked the individual elements to this movie just fine but it didn’t jell into a cohesive whole. I would have liked to see more story and less quirkiness and more humor along the lines of the opening credits in which Monica’s porn career is seen through posters and clippings. It turns out that Monica’s career choice as a porn star is unfortunate for the movie overall; not because I have anything against porn stars but because the filmmakers used it as a license to be quirky. The irony is that they were trying to show Monica as a down to Earth decent sort with problems that down to Earth decent sorts tend to have. Unfortunately they use Monica as an excuse to be quirky in a story that would have been better served with a couple of ordinary folk in a situation ordinary folk tend to have.

WHY RENT THIS: Cattrall puts on a brave performance. Gets the 80s era porn right.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too much of a Napoleon Dynamite vibe. Worships the low-brow a bit too lustily.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sex and nudity, plenty of bad language and a bit of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The “Weenie Wiz” hot dog truck was stolen shortly after production wrapped. It has yet to be recovered.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $33,042 on an unreported production budget; this was not a box office money maker.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miss March

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Cinema of the Heart 2013 Day Three

The Big Year


The Big Year

Making movies is for the birds

(2011) Comedy (20th Century Fox) Steve Martin, Jack Black, Owen Wilson, Brian Dennehy, Rashida Jones, Rosamund Pike, Dianne Wiest, John Cleese (voice), Kevin Pollak, Joel McHale, JoBeth Williams, Paul Campbell, Cindy Busby, Anjelica Huston, Jim Parsons, Anthony Anderson, Barry Shabaka Henley, Al Roker, Steven Weber, Corbin Bernsen. Directed by David Frankel

 

All of us want to leave a mark in some form or another; not necessarily as celebrities but in our own small way we want to accomplish something special, something we can be proud of. Something that says “I was here. I did this. I meant something.” It’s not always an easy thing and often we have to overcome obstacles we never could have anticipated.

In the world of bird watching, birders have a kind of Heisman Trophy that they go after – it’s called, informally, a Big Year and it means essentially spotting as many birds as possible in a calendar year. It requires an insane amount of dedication and not a little expense. The all-time champion is Kenny Bostick (Wilson) who holds the mark at 723 separate species of birds.

He has become bored and restless resting on his laurels. He’s made the decision to tackle another big year, much to the chagrin of his long-suffering wife (Pike) who is much more eager to start a family. Still, she recognizes he needs one last adventure and gives it to him, but not without consequence.

Brad Harris (Black) is a computer programmer who is divorced and feeling less sure of who he is. He knows he loves birding and is pretty good at it but has to save for quite a while to mount up the resources in order to tackle something like a Big Year. His parents (Wiest, Dennehy) are less than enthusiastic but mom manages to mount up some supportiveness while his cardiac patient dad is less tolerant.

Stu Preissler (Martin) is a workaholic CEO on the verge of retiring and he knows what he wants to do with the first year of his retirement – a Big Year. His wife (Williams) is a little less sanguine about it with a grandchild on the way but Stu insists that he can do both. However, his company is a bit jittery about his departure and a new merger that is going to save the day is dangling by a thread and Stu’s touch is needed.

The three run into each other in the field and none wants to tip their hand that they are going after a Big Year but soon it becomes obvious that they all are after the same thing. While Kenny will do anything and everything to safeguard his record – and allow himself to shatter it – Stu and Brad quickly realize that the only defense against Kenny is to team up. But who will be the winner at the end of the year?

I hadn’t expected much from the film, having understood that it was a critical and box office failure but I was pleasantly surprised. The three leads are all individually engaging and all of them restrain their normal onscreen personas so that none of them is overwhelming (Black particularly who can be overbearing in some of his roles). Here they all are charismatic but sweet-natured – even Wilson’s character, who can be a bastard, isn’t all bad.

Black gets to have a nice field romance with a fellow birder (Jones) which helps add a romantic element to the movie; all of the leads are at different places in their relationships with Stu’s being more centered, Kenny’s being on the edge of disaster and Brad’s just beginning. It illustrates the role of our partners in our lives quite nicely too.

The cinematography is quite nice, with enough bird shots to do a nature film proud (not all of the footage here was authentic – some was spliced in from other movies in order to bring enough different species of birds on screen). Sure, there are some bits that stretch the believability quotient a bit but none to the breaking point.

The leads aren’t the only reason to see the film. As you can see in the cast list there is a pretty impressive collection of talent, some on for only a scene or two (like Huston as a crusty boat captain) but it isn’t stunt casting so much. We aren’t playing “spot the celebrity” although it makes a nice counterpoint to the bird spotting (and a fun game to play for those watching the second time – see how many birds YOU can spot).

This was a movie that came out with a bit of fanfare, considering the star power in the leads and then exited theaters quickly. For whatever reason it didn’t connect with audiences who probably thought a movie about bird watching would be boring. The point is however that this isn’t strictly about bird watching. It’s about getting out of your comfort zone and living. Getting off the couch and into something, anything, that sparks our passion. You can’t really complain about a movie that advocates that.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing heart. Some interesting bird-watching facts. Nice performances from the leads.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit too obsessive.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are more than a few bad words and a little bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All the bird sightings from the winner of the competition are shown over the closing credits and yes, every one of them is a different species of bird, although they weren’t all spotted by the same person in this case.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Nothing on the DVD but the Blu-Ray has a gag reel.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7.5M on a $41M production budget; there is no way to call this other than an unmitigated flop.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Butter

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Cloud Atlas

Silverado


Silverado

Scott Glenn catches Kevin Kline lying down on the job.

(1985) Western (Columbia) Scott Glenn, Kevin Kline, Kevin Costner, Danny Glover, Rosanna Arquette, Brian Dennehy, Jeff Goldblum, Linda Hunt, John Cleese, Ray Baker, Lynn Whitfield, Jeff Fahey, Tom Brown, Richard Jenkins, Amanda Wyss, James Gammon, Joe Seneca. Directed by Lawrence Kasdan

 

Back in ’85, the Western as a genre was essentially dead. It had been in many ways one of the most dominant genres in movies during the 50s and into the 60s but faded from popular appeal, although the Italians made some pretty good ones in the 70s with Clint Eastwood particularly. However, the anti-hero craze of that era didn’t translate to the Western very well although periodically movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and others managed to re-capture the magic.

Silverado was an attempt to do just that by Kasdan, screenwriter of Raiders of the Lost Ark and director of The Big Chill and Body Heat. He assembled a cast of some of the best young (at the time) actors in Hollywood and set them loose on the genre.

Emmett (Glenn) is a loner, an expert gunslinger just released from prison after killing the father of a cattle baron named McKendrick (Baker) who had drawn on Emmett. Now he wants nothing more than to be left alone but apparently it is not to be as he is attacked by a trio of bushwhackers ambushing him in his cabin.

Emmett decides to head to Silverado to find out what’s going on. Whilst en route, he discovers Paden (Kline), wearing only his skivvies and left to die in the desert. Emmett rescues him and together they head to Turley to meet up with Emmett’s brother Jake (Costner). Jake however is in jail awaiting hanging – he killed a man in self-defense but the judge didn’t see it that way. When Paden discovers one of the men who robbed him, he kills him and ends up in the same cell as Jake. Emmett breaks them both out and the trio escapes with the help of Mal (Glover), an African-American cowboy run out of town by Sheriff English John Langston (Cleese).

The quartet then encounter a wagon train whose money has been stolen by bandits. A comely homesteader (Arquette) attracts the attention of Paden, who along with his mates takes the money back and returns it to the homesteaders.

In Silverado, Mal discovers his father (Seneca) has been run off his ranch by McKendrick’s men who later return and kill his dad. Mal’s sister is working as a saloon girl in the saloon run by Stella (Hunt) and administered by the town Sheriff, Cobb (Dennehy) a former outlaw who once rode with Paden but now reports to McKendrick. He offers Paden the job of saloon manager which Paden accepts.

Emmett finds out from his sister that McKendrick is driving out all the lawful homesteaders in an attempt to make the range free for his cattle and indeed McKendrick’s men attempt to drive off the new set of homesteaders. The situation escalates when Emmett is ambushed and beaten nearly to death before being rescued by Mal, and his sister’s home burned to the ground, her husband (the land officer) murdered and their son Augie (Brown) kidnapped. The four men – Emmett, Paden, Jake and Mal – must take the law into their own hands if justice is to be done in Silverado.

This is really a throwback to the popcorn Westerns of the late 50s and the early 60s – John Ford would have approved, I think. The ensemble cast shows varying degrees of comfort in the saddle – Glenn is a natural for the genre, Kline less so although his laconic delivery channels that of Gary Cooper. The wide open spaces of New Mexico are brilliantly photographed and made ample use of by cinematographer John Bailey.

Costner’s performance of Jake is compelling and charismatic and would propel him into stardom. He damn near steals the show from his better-known peers which is no small feat. He captures the attention of the audience every time he’s onscreen and brings a whole lot of energy to the film. In many ways he drives the movie into a more modern vein, or at least modern for its time.

The 80s were a particularly fertile time for films and this one is a classic of its time. While it didn’t resurrect the Western the way I think the filmmakers and studio hoped it would, it did at least open the door for a trickle of Westerns (some with Costner) to get studio green lights. Without Silverado I doubt we see Dances With Wolves, The Unforgiven and the dozens of others that have appeared since then. I suppose in that sense, it was successful – the Western remains a fringe genre but at least it’s not extinct.

WHY RENT THIS: Great ensemble cast. A real throwback to the epic Western.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat pedestrian storyline.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are more than a few shoot-outs and a couple of bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Costner was cast as Jake by Kasdan as a way of making amends for cutting his role completely out of The Big Chill.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a very interesting interview with Costner as he is quite candid not only about making the film but about his misgivings about the character as well. The Gift Set edition included a pack of playing cards, although this version is long out of print. You may be able to pick it up on eBay however.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $32.2M on a $23M production budget; it was considered a box office disappointment at the time although it has become more than profitable due to its home video release and regular cable and broadcast appearances.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tombstone

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: A Midsummer’s Night Dream (1999)

Righteous Kill


Righteous Kill

This is what happen to screenwriters who deliver subpar scripts to De Niro and Pacino.

(2008) Police Drama (Overture) Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Carla Gugino, Donnie Wahlberg, 50 Cent, John Leguizamo, Brian Dennehy, Trilby Glover, Melissa Leo, Alan Rosenberg, Rob Dyrdek. Directed by Jon Avnet

It takes a special kind of person to be a police officer. The temptation of corruption is always there, plus there’s the endless string of disappointment and frustration as felon after felon that you’ve worked hard to convict gets let off on technicalities or under the auspices of a sympathetic judge.

Turk Cowan (De Niro) and Rooster Fisk (Pacino) are New York City Police Department detectives. They make a pretty good team; Rooster is the brains, Turk is the brawn. They are pretty well regarded by their peers, although there are some whispers that once upon a time Turk manufactured some evidence to put a killer away.

Well, that part is true, and it might be that he’s up to his old tricks again. Guilty parties who had escaped justice are turning up dead with the same bad poetry left with the bodies that Turk had left previously. Nobody is really mourning the bad guys, but the cops know that if one of their own falls under suspicion, they all are under suspicion and so Rooster knows he must go about protecting his partner by finding the real killer.

This is standard cop show plotting, not something you’d put on the plates of two of the most decorated actors in history, but here it is. Of course, Pacino and De Niro could elevate anything put before them; heck, you cast Pacino as Bella Swan and De Niro as Edward, you could even make the Twilight series more interesting. Okay, maybe not.

But the two of them need to be at the top of their game, right? Not here they’re not. Pacino operates barely above a whisper most of the time, sort of like Michael Corleone having a real bad sore throat. De Niro also seems oddly dispirited, like his mind was elsewhere. Maybe Jake LaMotta took one too many to the head.

Jon Avnet also has better films than this one on his resume. There just seems to be a feeling of punching a time clock here. This is a pretty impressive cast when you look at it on paper; it seems almost unheard of that Donnie Wahlberg would give the most memorable performance out of all of them, but there you have it. Wahlberg, as a fellow detective, is the most believable and the most intense. If everyone had given the kind of energy to their performance that Wahlberg did, this movie would have been a whole different story.

But when you give Carla Gugino a role which is basically all about having rough sex with De Niro (who ironically enough played her father in A Boy’s Life), it’s a waste of a terrific actress, one who doesn’t get enough work as it is. It’s not that Gugino isn’t sexy or kinky enough; it’s just you need to give her more to work with than just her sexuality. Take that away from the role and you have a television medical examiner part that could be done by any actress who can pronounce the jargon.

When you get a team up of De Niro and Pacino, you set expectations extremely high. The two have only had essentially six minutes of screen time together prior to this movie which, to be fair, gives them an awful lot of screen time together. The problem is that you wonder why they cast these two in roles that any halfway decent actor could do, and you get the feeling that this was simply stunt casting that the two bought into for the paycheck. Not that they shouldn’t get paid – after all, they’ve contributed some of the most memorable movie moments of the past twenty years – but Righteous Kill is very much like seeing a match race between Jeff Gordon and Jimmy Johnson, only to see them both coast around the track.

WHY RENT THIS: A case can be made for Pacino and De Niro to be the two greatest actors to appear in American films, and seeing them together is a big treat.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The rest of the movie, particularly the script, doesn’t fit the prestige of the two leads.

FAMILY VALUES: As with most police dramas there’s plenty of violence and bad language, but in this one there’s some kinky sexuality, as well as a little drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Pacino and De Niro have appeared in three movies together; in the first Godfather Part II, they both played gangsters. In the second, Heat, one played a gangster and one played a cop and in this one, both play cops.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on the temptations of police work, the kind of personalities attracted to the job and real life cases of corruption and brutality.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $77.4M on a $60M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Eagle Eye

The Next Three Days


The Next Three Days

Elizabeth Banks and Russell Crowe discover that this is anything but the Great Escape.

(2010) Crime Thriller (Lionsgate) Russell Crowe, Elizabeth Banks, Liam Neeson, Brian Dennehy, RZA, Olivia Wilde, Daniel Stern, Ty Simpkins, Jason Beghe, Aisha Hinds, Lennie James, Trudie Styler, Allan Steele, Helen Carey. Directed by Paul Haggis

Desperate men will do desperate things, all in the name of love. When we are backed up against the wall with nowhere left to turn, we can become capable of things both amazing and terrifying.

John Brennan (Crowe) and his wife Lara (Banks) live a decent life. John is an English teacher at a community college, and Lara has a more upscale job with a boss she detests. The two go out with John’s brother and his wife and have a spirited conversation about female bosses (which Lara’s boss is) and their ability to work with female employees.

The two go home and the next day share breakfast. All seems to be normal – until the police arrive to arrest Lara. It seems she’s been fingered as a suspect in the brutal murder of her boss, bludgeoned to death with a fire extinguisher. The evidence is highly circumstantial at best; Lara was observed driving away from the scene of the crime (the parking lot at the office where she works), her fingerprints were on the murder weapon, she and her boss argued rather loudly earlier in the day and to seal the deal, some of the victim’s blood made its way to the back of her overcoat.

Lara claims that she didn’t see the body, and that she had bumped into another woman who was leaving the parking lot on foot, although nobody else saw her but Lara. Despite her protestations of innocence, she is convicted and sentenced to prison. Three years pass; appeal after appeal is denied and their lawyer (Stern) informs John that basically her options have been exhausted – she’ll have to do the time. Lara, who has grown increasingly more depressed, her relationship with their son Luke (Simpkins) deteriorating to the point of non-existence, attempts suicide.

John knows she’ll never last the full length of her sentence. He also is completely sure she is incapable of murdering another human being, no matter how angry she was at them or what the provocation. With no further legal recourse, he determines that the only other option is to break her out of prison.

Of course, he knows nothing of prison breaks other than watching them on TV. He meets with an ex-con (Neeson in what is essentially an extended cameo) who achieved notoriety by breaking out of seven different prisons and lived to write a book about it. The author informs him that he needs a plan and a timetable. Being that she’s languishing in Allegheny County Prison in central Pittsburgh, he needs to know that 15 minutes after the escape is detected the police will have the center of the city locked down, the bridges closed and all of the subway and train stations as well as the airports manned with officers. 35 minutes after the escape is detected, the city will be on lockdown with toll booths manned by police officers and roadblocks on every major road out of the city.

John begins to spend a heck of a lot of time studying the prison and trying to figure out a foolproof plan. He is also going to need a weapon and a whole lot of money. Then he gets even more devastating news – his wife is going to be transferred to a prison far away from where they live in three days. If he doesn’t break her out in three days, their window of opportunity will be gone.

Haggis is one of the most honored writers in the business and he based this motion picture on a French film called Pour Elle (Anything for Her) which I haven’t seen yet. Haggis is a meticulous screenwriter and tends to fill his stories with an amazing amount of detail and research. Much of the first two thirds of the movie is kind of a how-to, setting up the story in the first 15 minutes of the two hour plus movie, then spending the next hour or so showing John doing research for the break-out. Fortunately, it doesn’t involve tunneling under the fence, putting mannequins in the beds to fool the guards or masquerading as day workers.

Few actors can resonate as an everyman as Russell Crowe can. He is quiet and strong, a perfect husband and father. Yet there is a core of steel to him, one which glimmers from time to time through the sweaters and the tweed jackets. Several critics have complained that they never quite catch the transformation from bookish teacher to efficient criminal, but I disagree. He is driven by desperation; desperate people have lifted automobiles off of other people. You never know what you’re capable of until you’re put into an untenable situation with no other options available to you but to achieve the impossible.

Banks has become one of Hollywood’s more reliable leading ladies. She doesn’t get the due of a Katherine Heigl or a Cameron Diaz but she is nonetheless just as competent and in many ways a better actress. We literally watch her fall apart before our very eyes and it is a compelling and believable performance in every way.

The movie really picks up during the final third when the actual escape is taking place. That is handled with edge-of-the-seat thrills and more than its share of gotchas. If the movie had been able to sustain that pace throughout, this would have been one of the year’s best.

Instead, we get kind of a how-to of prison breaks for the first two thirds that often stops dead in its tracks, particularly as we watch John stumble around Pittsburgh’s underbelly looking for falsified documents. The movie might still have gotten a decent audience, but stacked up against Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 it was essentially doomed to underperforming at the box office. This is a pretty solid movie that may not necessarily fit into your holiday movie plans, but is certainly worth a look on DVD/Blu-Ray if you can’t make it out to the multiplex.

REASONS TO GO: The last third of the movie when the escape takes place is tense, fun and energetic. Crowe is one of the best in the business.

REASONS TO STAY: The first two thirds of the movie about the planning stages drags a bit.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence as well as some drug references and a bit of foul language. There is also some implied sexuality; basically this is fine for any teen and/or mature older children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Haggis remains the only screenwriter to date to win the Best Screenplay Oscar in back-to-back years (for Million Dollar Baby in 2004 and Crash in 2005).

HOME OR THEATER: With all the holiday offerings coming out thick and fast, chances are you won’t be able to fit this into your movie going schedule which is okay – it will work just as well at home.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Painted Veil