The Mule (2018)


The look you get when everything you’ve spent a lifetime building falls apart.

 (2018) Drama (Warner BrothersClint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Peña, Dianne Wiest, Alison Eastwood, Taissa Farmiga, Andy Garcia, Ignacio Serricchio, Loren Dean, Diego Cataño, Daniel Moncada, Victor Rasuk, Ashani Roberts, Lobo Sebstian, Devon Ogden, Cesar De Léon, Richard Herd, Clifton Collins Jr., Jackie Prucha. Directed by Clint Eastwood

 

Clint Eastwood is something of a folk hero, and has made a career playing other folk heroes. His latest is Earl Stone, a man driven to the wall when his business fails and he falls into a job delivering coke for the cartel. It’s the perfect front; on the surface, he appears to be a harmless geriatric and that’s pretty much what he is. But it’s a dangerous game he’s playing, with a magnanimous cartel boss (Garcia) overseeing suspicious and ambitious underlings (Serricchio) and a driven DEA agent (Cooper) all on the hunt after Earl.

Eastwood was pushing 90 when he made this film (he’ll become a nonagenarian on May 31st of this year) but still retains the gruff charm that has carried him through the late stages of his career. While his character is not so admirable – he essentially has alienated his entire family, choosing work over ,loved ones at every turn, is a serial womanizer and a not-so-subtle racist – but Eastwood has always made guys like these seem not-quite-so-bad. He’s also still a skilled director who builds up a strong tension throughout the film; will he get caught? Will that police dog find the drugs? Stay tuned.

Currently on iMDB Eastwood has no projects lined up either as a director as an actor; this is very likely his swan song in front of the camera (although we have learned to never say never in that regards – 2008’s Gran Torino was supposed to be his last acting role but he has appeared in several films since then) as last year’s Richard Jewell is likely his final film as a director. While this film isn’t a disgrace to his legacy, neither does it enhance it much. It’s reasonably entertaining, elevated by the presence of one of the last authentic stars of Hollywood.

REASONS TO SEE: Eastwood is always watchable. A “so bizarre it has to be true” story.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the racist remarks Earl says made me a little uncomfortable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Earl Stone character is based on Leo “Tata” Sharp who was also a horticulturist who became a drug mule for the Sinaloa cartel from 2001-2011.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/14//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews. Metacritic:  58/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Old Man & the Gun
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Bombshells and Dollies

New Releases for the Week of December 14, 2018


SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDERVERSE

(Columbia) Starring the voices of Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Lily Tomlin, Nicolas Cage, Zoë Kravitz, Liev Schreiber. Directed by Bob Perischetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman

Brooklyn teen Miles Morales is the Spider-Man of his dimension. He’s new to the job but shows a lot of promise. However, a threat to all of reality brings different Spideys from a variety of dimensions to face down the threat in this first feature-length animated film from Marvel to hit theaters.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and video featurettes here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, 4DX, DBOX, DBOX 3D, Dolby, IMAX, IMAX 3D, RPX, RPX 3D, XD, XD 3D
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for frenetic sequences of animated action violence, thematic elements, and mild language)

Mortal Engines

(Universal) Hugo Weaving, Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Jihae. Based on a series of young adult books, this introductory film to what Universal hopes will be a major franchise for them picks up after a cataclysmic event has decimated the Earth. Cities have become mobile, scavenging for dwindling resources and London is the most predatory of all of them. A mysterious girl whose memory of her mother may unlock the key to her survival, joins forces with a dangerous outlaw, a defector from London and a brave young man to stop the ambitions of the mad Thaddeus Valentine.

See the trailer, clips, video featurettes and B-roll video here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, Dolby, IMAX, IMAX 3D
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of futuristic violence and action)

The Mule

(Warner Brothers) Clint Eastwood, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Peña, Dianne Wiest. An old man, broke and alone and facing nearly insurmountable financial problems, takes a job driving a load of cargo. What he doesn’t know is that he’s inadvertently become a mule for a vicious Mexican cartel. He does so well that he gets more and bigger cargoes until he finds himself on the radar of the DEA.. He must also face the mistakes of his past before his present deeds catch up to him.

See the trailer and a clip here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for language throughout and brief sexuality/nudity)

Once Upon a Deadpool

(20th Century Fox) Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Morena Baccarin, Fred Savage. Essentially, this is Deadpool 2 re-cut to a PG-13 version with all the naughty bits edited out and some new footage edited in.

See the trailer and stuff (mostly for Deadpool 2) here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Superhero Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release (Kinda)

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, crude sexual content, language, thematic elements and brief drug material)

Vox Lux

(NEON) Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Willem Dafoe (voice), Jennifer Ehle. America at the beginning of the 21st century is seen through the eyes of a jaded pop star. This festival favorite is just now making its way into local theaters – with a whole lot of buzz over Portman’s performance.

See the trailer and video featurettes here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for language, some strong violence, and drug content)

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

Antidote
Backtrace
DriverX
ROMA

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE:

Anna and the Apocalypse
Backtrace
Becoming Astrid
Natacha
Odiyan
ROMA
Shoplifters

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG:

Hushaaru
Odiyan

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

Burning
Hushaaru
Odiyan
ROMA
Science Fair

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

DriverX
Mortal Engine
The Mule
ROMA
Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse
Vox Lux

The 15:17 to Paris


Anthony Sadler muses aboard the 15:17 to Paris.

(2018) True Life Drama (Warner Brothers) Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler, Spencer Stone, Judy Greer, Jenna Fischer, P.J. Byrne, William Jennings, Bryce Gheisar, Paul-Mikel Williams, Thomas Lennon, Jaleel White, Robert Praigo, Tony Hale, Lillian Solange, Ray Corasani, Irene White, Mark Moogalian, Steve Coulter, Seth Meriwether, Heidi Sulzman. Directed by Clint Eastwood

 

True heroism is a pretty rare thing. You never know where it might occur; in a school, or a nightclub – or on a train from Amsterdam to Paris.

But on a hot August day in 2015, the latter is precisely where it occurred. When a terrorist pulled out an automatic rifle and threatened to massacre the travelers aboard the high-speed rail. Director Clint Eastwood, one of the best in Hollywood history, is tackling the events of that day and the three Americans who were involved – boyhood friends from Sacramento, two of whom were in the military. You would think that this would be in Eastwood’s wheelhouse but strangely this is one of his most disappointing movies in decades.

There are a lot of reasons that this movie doesn’t work as well as it might but the biggest is the script of Dorothy Blyskal, based on the book by the three Americans involved. She chooses an odd narrative structure, starting with the beginning of the attack on the train but then going into a series of flashbacks into their boyhood and development into the young men they would become. It makes a bit of a mess of the story and there is a lot of necessary business – too much time sightseeing – that slows down a film that at just over 90 minutes should be zipping by.

Another part of the problem is Eastwood’s decision to cast the heroes as themselves. These young men have a lot of skills but acting is not among them. I’m not blaming them – you get the distinct feeling that these men are experiencing far more nerves in front of the camera than they did facing an armed terrorist – but I don’t think they should have been put into the position that they were. The child actors who play them as youths may be even worse.

The actual terrorist attack is done extremely well and is the highlight of the film. Unfortunately, it takes too long to get there and by the time you do you may have been checking your watch. Now, there are some conservatives who will think that I don’t like the movie because the heroes are Christians who are into guns and the military. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I appreciate that they are a different brand of hero than we normally get on the silver screen and yes, they are normal Americans – that’s what makes their heroism more exemplary, even though they do have military training. The reason I don’t like the movie is because most of the time it’s boring and that has nothing to do with my political views but on my cinematic experience. The fact that mass audiences haven’t embraced the film is a testament to that.

REASONS TO GO: The story is truly inspiring.
REASONS TO STAY: The acting is stiff and there are too many flashbacks – this might have worked better as a documentary rather than as a narrative feature.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity, some bloody images, sexually suggestive material and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first person to tackle the terrorist was actually a Frenchman but he turned down the Legion of Honor and asked to remain anonymous because he feared reprisals from extremists.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Trouble is My Business

The Beguiled (2017)


Melancholia through sepia gauze.

(2017) Thriller (Focus) Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, Emma Howard, Wayne Pére, Matt Story, Joel Albin, Eric Ian. Directed by Sofia Coppola

 

It is in some ways a triumph of atmosphere over substance. This remake of a 1971 Clint Eastwood film – one of two he made with Don Siegel that year (the other was Dirty Harry) which was in turn based on a novel by a fella named Thomas Cullinan comes at the story from a female perspective, something Hollywood sorely needs these days.

During the Civil War, an isolated girl’s school in Virginia (which is unconvincingly played by Louisiana here) tries to maintain gentility and grace in a rapidly deteriorating situation. The slaves have “run off” and so the girls are given chores to do. Food is becoming harder to come by and one of the younger residents, Miss Amy (Laurence) stumbles upon a wounded Union soldier, Corporal McBurney (Farrell). Although headmistress Miss Martha (Kidman) considers turning him in to the Confederate Army, she chooses to hide his presence while he’s recuperating as it is the “Christian thing to do.” The opportunistic McBurney recognizes a sweet deal and sets about exerting control over the girls using his own charm and sexuality to pit them against each other, particularly the lonely schoolmarm Miss Edwina (Dunst) and the sexually charged Miss Alicia (Fanning). As you can guess from the trailers, it doesn’t end well for the male of the species.

Coppola is known for her slow pacing in her films and in this case the pace matches the setting; dripping in Spanish moss, you can feel the heat rising from the ground right through to the dresses of the ladies, all of whom sweat profusely – excuse me, glow. It is clearly a Deep South environment; I wonder why Coppola didn’t just bite the bullet and call it Louisiana as that would have made more sense but I digress.

In some ways the tone works but in others it works against the film. At times the story moves so slowly that one can be forgiven for checking their watch. It’s not that the film is boring precisely but it could have used some energy; Da Queen characterized the movie as “a bit flat” and she’s not wrong. Still, you can’t help but be brought into the organic lull that Coppola creates.

Farrell is one of the best scoundrels in Hollywood and he takes it to a new level here. Kidman is still as ethereal a beauty as has ever appeared onscreen but she is also a much more talented actress than she is often given credit for; she is solid here and her sponge bathing scene with an unconscious Farrell is one of the most erotic scenes you’re likely to see in a mainstream movie this year. Dunst, playing a repressed and lonely spinster elevates her game as well.

The movie was a box office failure although critics praised the movie generally, which is not an unusual thing. I thought the film was a fascinating study of sexual politics and of feminine strength, a near polar-opposite of the 1971 version and, I understand, the novel although I confess I haven’t read it. This is one of Coppola’s best works and it bears looking into especially if you are a fan of thought-provoking films.

REASONS TO GO: The movie does a fine job of creating the feel of the Civil War-era South. The film serves as an interesting examination on sexual politics.
REASONS TO STAY: At points the sedate pace makes the film feel flat.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality and adult situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Farrell and Kidman can also be seen together in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which along with this film won awards at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Keeping Room
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Baby Driver

Sully


Take me to the river.

Take me to the river.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Warner Brothers) Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Jamey Sheridan, Anna Gunn, Valerie Mahaffey, Holt McCallany, Delphi Harrington, Mike O’Malley, Kate Couric, Jeff Kober, Molly Bernard, Chris Bauer, Blake Jones, Jane Gabbert, Molly Hagan, Sam Huntington, Michael Rappaport, Jerry Ferrara, Ann Cusack. Directed by Clint Eastwood

 

January 15, 2009 was a watershed moment for New York City and all of the United States. On that day, US Airways Flight 1549 took off from LaGuardia Airport in New York City bound for Charlotte, North Carolina. It was in the air for just about three minutes when a flock of Canadian geese flew across their path. Several birds were sucked inside each of the two engines and the aircraft lost thrust from both engines. Without power, they had to glide onto a runway but the pilot didn’t think they would make any nearby airport. He determined their best chance for survival was to to make a controlled water landing on the Hudson River. He did so – without a single loss of life. That incident became known as the Miracle on the Hudson.

The pilot, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Hanks) was hailed as a hero by the popular media and the press. He and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Eckhart) had done the remarkable and saved a plane full of passengers and crew (155 souls in all) from almost certain death. But there were questions, questions the National Transportation Safety Board had about Sully’s decision making. Flight data showed that one of the engines was still turning, indicating that there was sufficient power in the engine to make it back to LaGuardia. Also, computer simulations showed that the plane could have made it back to the airport.

However, Sully knew through 40 plus years of flying that it wasn’t so. Doubting himself, his career and reputation at stake, he knows he will have to confront his accusers with the only things he has to defend himself with – his experience and the truth.

It would seem that the story of Sully Sullenberger would be the perfect fit for Clint Eastwood; after all, he’s one of the finest directors working and the Sullenberger story has that same resonance that Chris Kyle of American Sniper did. However, whereas that film was a character study disguised as an action film, this is more of a disaster film disguised as a character study.

Hanks doesn’t really resemble Sullenberger facially but he’s a good choice for the role. This is in many ways very similar to his Jim Lovell role in Apollo 13 although there are some differences we’ll get into in a bit. Still, it’s a portrait of a calm professional doing what he does best in a moment of crisis, just like the Ron Howard film. Hanks has that quality of calm and cool that he has projected throughout his career and while he is not as well-known for those types of roles, he still excels at them, quietly.

What I was a little bit disappointed about is that we don’t really get that much insight into Sullenberger himself. Much of the movie revolves around the investigation of the crash, and while we get scenes juxtaposing the hero-worship going on in the media and the public (which Sullenberger seems definitely uncomfortable with) and the questioning of his competence at the NTSB hearings, we don’t get a sense of what Sullenberger was thinking very often. He’s a notoriously private man in real life and so he may not have shared a lot of that (I haven’t read the autobiography this is based on, I must confess) for writer Todd Komanicki to work with.

The scenes of the crash which are mostly told in flashback (as well as nightmares that Sully has of the plane crashing into buildings) are for the most part pretty well-told, although to be honest special effects are not Eastwood’s forte. Still, the scenes are serviceable and give the viewer the “you are there” feel that is needed.

Of course, there were more folks in the cast than Hanks. Eckhart is rock solid as the co-pilot. Jamey Sheridan also shines as the head of the NTSB investigation. Laura Linney plays Sullenberger’s wife and sadly, she is depicted mostly on the phone with Sully which really puts some strain on the dynamic between them – you never get a sense of the relationship between them. I think the movie could have used some time with the two face-to-face onscreen.

Eastwood is much too savvy a director to churn out a movie without at least some merit (although Jersey Boys might well be the exception to that rule) but this one is a bit too clinical to be among his best. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a great story and the depiction of those 208 seconds from the time the birds were encountered to the controlled water landing are harrowing and amazing. Any Eastwood movie – even Jersey Boys ­– is worthwhile viewing. I like Sully well enough but I left it feeling that there could have been more – and should have been.

REASONS TO GO: The performances are terrific particularly among the leads. An inside look at an American hero – and why being a hero isn’t necessarily good news for the hero.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s little insight into Sullenberger himself.
FAMILY VALUES:  A little bit of rough language and scenes of plane crash peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Ferry captain Vincent Lombardi, who was the first on the scene to pick up survivors, plays himself in the movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/11/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flight
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: ARQ

American Sniper


Taking aim on controversy.

Taking aim on controversy.

(2014) True Life Drama (Warner Brothers) Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Kyle Gallner, Luke Grimes, Keir O’Donnell, Sammy Sheik, Leonard Roberts, Cory Hardrict, Eric Ladin, James Ryen, Jake McDorman, Eric Aude, Navid Nagahban, Mido Hamada, Kathe Mazur, Sam Jaeger, Chance Kelly, Elise Robertson, Ben Reed, Marnette Patterson. Directed by Clint Eastwood

As we deal with the aftermath of our country’s adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq as it seems we are preparing to do battle with ISIS, it behooves us to seek out the aftermath of those who fought those wars. War is never easy on those who fight it, regardless of the reasons they have for leaving their homes and their families and going off to some godforsaken place to kill other human beings. We often take that part of our armed forces for granted.

Chris Kyle (Cooper), a proud Texan and would-be cowboy, goes because he feels that after 9-11, it is his duty to protect a country that he loves. He leaves behind a wife Taya (Miller), a strong woman of no uncertain opinions who eventually falls for the burly Texan despite having exceedingly low expectations when first they met. He joins the Navy SEALs mainly because he believes them to be the toughest SOBs in the military.

Kyle proves to be a gifted sharpshooter who is perfect for sniper duty. His first action requires him to make an agonizing decision when it seems that a young boy is getting ready to hurl an explosive at an American convoy in full sight of his mother, who handed him the device. He waits until the last possible second, before it becomes apparent that his intentions are to blow up the convoy; then Kyle shoots him dead, and then his mother for good measure when it appears she’s going to finish the job her son was unable to. Far from being a moment of triumph, it deeply affects the young SEAL deeply. When he sees a terrorist (Hamada) put a drill through the head of a child while his parents watch, he decries the Iraqis as savages and it’s hard not to argue with him.

Kyle goes through four tours, and each time he returns home as Taya puts it, he’s not really there. He’s nervous, jumpy, living very much inside his head while Taya tries desperately to reach him, to get her husband back. By now Kyle is also a dad, and while he goes through the motions of being a father and assures VA psychotherapists as well as his immediate family that everything is fine, everything clearly is not. He only seems to be whole in country.

As he piles up the confirmed kills, he gets the nickname of Legend which at first makes him uncomfortable but eventually he grows to accept. It is a mark of the respect in which his peers hold him as he becomes the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, for all the lives of American military men he saves with his unerring aim and precise shots. There is however a counterpart within the ranks of the enemy, one known as Mustafa (Sheik) who is in many ways a mirror image of Kyle – a family man, one obsessed by his work and absolutely deadly. Somehow Kyle needs to survive his tours and come back to his wife and family – a whole man.

Clint Eastwood has become over the years a great American film director and although he has had his share of missteps (cough Jersey Boys cough cough) his consistency has been as good as any. In a lot of ways this is going to be counted as one of his best works ever, although it is steeped in controversy more because of the subject matter than anything else.

There are those who have decried the film because in their minds it glorifies an individual who shouldn’t be glorified. Many have pointed out that the real Kyle, on whose autobiography this is based, consistently identified Muslims as savages (which he does in the film on one occasion) and has been labeled a racist because of it. He has also been taken to task for exaggerations or making up incidents out of whole cloth.

These are two separate issues and on the first, I can only say that it was common for veterans of war to dehumanize those they fought against. It is one way for the psyche to cope with having to kill other human beings. If they aren’t human, if they’re savages, it makes it easier to justify what you’re doing. Thinking that way may not necessarily be politically correct but it’s at least understandable.

The other can also be looked upon as something of a Texas thing. Now, making up a story in which former governor and ex-Navy SEAL himself Jesse Ventura was rude and insulting to fellow SEALs who were mourning a friend and getting clocked by Kyle is wrong and Ventura – who has been excoriated for doing so – has every right to defend his reputation, even if it means suing the widow of the man responsible because she is after all profiting from the story in a matter of speaking, since the story is a part of his best-selling book. While I give veterans a good deal of leeway in their behaviors, they are nonetheless responsible for their actions when they return home and are liable for the consequences of those actions.

That said, I don’t think this film glorifies war at all or this one in particular – at one point, at a soldier’s funeral, an unidentified woman who I assume is the soldier’s mother reads a handwritten eulogy condemning the war – but rather tries to give us insight into those who fought it. For me, the most compelling material is when Kyle is home, struggling to be home and be present with his family. It takes a good deal of time for him to finally want to be home, to finally let go of his feeling of duty and to get past his need to be a hero which the real Kyle was often accused of and Eastwood seems to agree was part of the man’s psychological make-up.

Cooper, who added 40 pounds for the role, really inhabits the role of Kyle, who actually resembled the late wrestler Chris Benoit in reality. It’s a mesmerizing performance certainly worthy of the Oscar nomination he received. Cooper’s Kyle moves from a fairly normal aw-shucks cowboy to a heroic sniper in the field to a terse, uncommunicative stone wall of a man at home. It’s a brilliant performance that shouldn’t be missed.

Sienna Cooper’s performance as Taya is also flawless. It’s so good I wish the script and Eastwood would have devoted more time to her; at times she almost becomes one-dimensional because she’s trying to convince her husband to leave the war behind and be home. How she kept her family together, how she weathered those times when he was home and not with her (it must have been heartbreaking) would have added more nuance to the film overall. I’d have gladly sacrificed some of the battle sequences of Kyle in country for that.

About those battle sequences; they can be pretty intense and for those who might be sensitive to such things, you should be forewarned that there are scenes that are quite disturbing. However, the rest of us will find them, as I did, absolutely mesmerizing and keep you on the edge of your seat, as I was.

I don’t know why we need our heroes to be absolutely perfect. Nobody is, and Chris Kyle certainly wasn’t. I don’t know that I agree with all of his views or approve of some of the things he said. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t a great soldier, an expert marksman or a hero for saving the lives of hundreds and perhaps thousands of American troops. I do believe that for most people, how you feel about the war will color your perceptions of this film. The conservative right are hailing the movie as a masterpiece (which it isn’t – Unforgiven was far better) while the progressive left are decrying it as propaganda which it also isn’t. What it is when you get right down to it is a terrific movie about war itself, about surviving it not only physically but emotionally and mentally as well, and how hard it can be to come home when the tour of duty ends.

REASONS TO GO: Cooper is brilliant. Realistic and often heart-stopping battle sequences. Admirably allows viewers to make their own minds up.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally too intense for the sensitive. I would have liked to have gotten a little deeper into the mind of Taya.
FAMILY VALUES: Much gunfire and war violence, some of it quite disturbing. There’s also plenty of colorful language with some sexual references involved.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Chris Kyle and the real Marcus Luttrell of Lone Survivor fame actually met in SEAL school and became close friends which they remained for the rest of Kyle’s life.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stop-Loss
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: A Most Violent Year

Jersey Boys


Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends.

Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends.

(2014) Musical (Warner Brothers) Vincent Piazza, John Lloyd Young, Steve Schirripa, Christopher Walken, Johnny Cannizzaro, Michael Lomenda, Lacey Hannan, Joseph Russo, Erich Bergen, Mike Doyle, Donnie Kehr, Freya Tingley, Erica Piccininni, Kathrine Narducci, Lou Volpe, Michael Patrick McGill, Annika Noelle, Renee Marino, Allison Wilhelm. Directed by Clint Eastwood

There are those that say that legends are born, not made. There are those who insist that it’s the other way around. The truth is when it comes to music, it’s a bit of both.

In Belleville, a mostly Italian enclave in Jersey in the early 50s, young Tommy DeVito (Piazza) works as a driver and general go-fer for mobster Gyp De Carlo (Walken) by day and a budding musician with a doo-wop band by night.  He’s also friends with Frankie Castelluccio (Young), who would later come to be known as Frankie Valli. Castelluccio is a young man with an angelic voice who De Carlo sees stardom written all over. DeVito insists that Frankie do his vocal exercises and take singing lessons. He also has Frankie act as a lookout man on a botched robbery for which DeVito takes the fall.

After getting back from jail, DeVito – now with Frankie a full-fledged member of the band – along with Nick Massi (Lomenda) – seems content to play pizza parlors and bowling alleys in Jersey, although he knows as well as De Carlo that Frankie could very well be his ticket to the big time. They just need the right songs. Cue Joe Pesci (Russo) – yes, that Joe Pesci – who is friends with DeVito and happens to know a great songwriter named Bob Gaudio (Bergen) who wrote the novelty hit “Short Shorts” for the Royal Teens back when he was 15. Now out of that group, he’s looking for the right fit for his musical future. Introductions are made and the band, then called the Four Lovers, take the name the Four Seasons after a bowling alley where they unsuccessfully auditioned to play.

DeVito also introduces Frankie to Mary (Marino), a loud, brash woman who has no trouble figuring out that the talented Frankie is her way out of Belleville. The two eventually get married. In the meanwhile, Frankie and Gaudio head to the Brill Building trying to find a producer. They run into Bob Crewe (Doyle) who also hails from Jersey and knows Gaudio somewhat, but has met with some success as a producer. He’s flamboyantly gay (in an era when Liberace was considered “dramatic”) but he gives the four kids a break. Before long they’re singing back-up on an array of forgotten songs.

This doesn’t sit well with the group who were promised a demo of their own. Crewe is willing to produce it but he needs $1500 in order to do it and a radio-friendly song to promote. DeVito provides the cash – borrowing from loan shock Norm Waxman (Kehr) – and Gaudio provides the song – a little ditty called “Sherry.”

The song explodes and is the first of three number one hits in a row for the group. They become one of the most popular groups in the country with appearances on American Bandstand and The Ed Sullivan Show. However, everything isn’t cake and roses; the constant touring has estranged Frankie from his children and his wife, who has become an alcoholic. Tommy has been gambling heavily and is in debt to Waxman for a lot more than $1500 – nearly ten times that amount, as well as having been embezzling funds from the band. Tommy is also incensed at the growing closeness between Frankie and Gaudio, who have formed a separate partnership outside of the band. Things will have to come to a head sooner or later.

This is based on the Tony award-winning smash hit Broadway musical and features Lloyd who originated the role of Valli on Broadway and won a Tony for it. Several other actors in the cast were in either the Broadway or touring company of the show. Eastwood, who would seem on the surface to be an odd choice to do a musical (although his biopic of jazz legend Charlie Parker, Bird, remains one of those unheralded classics) wanted stage actors familiar with the material more than he did Hollywood name actors (although he did cast Walken as the genial mobster De Carlo).

There’s a stagey quality here which isn’t entirely due to the acting. While the actors frequently break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience – part of the original show’s conceit is that it was divided into four parts with each band member “narrating” from his own point of view – that doesn’t harm the movie much. In fact, I found it to be one of the elements that worked best.

Part of the problem is there’s a surprising lack of energy for a musical; that’s because most of the music is not performed in staged numbers. For the most part, they are depicted in the recording studio or on TV programs. It leads to a bit of frustration on the part of the audience who is expecting more music from a musical. Only the last number, essentially a medley of hits that starts off from the original band’s final performance together at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 1990 (Massi passed away from cancer in 2000) has that energy and performance that one expects from a musical.

So we have here a cross between a 50’s set goombah period piece and a screen version of a Broadway musical with elements of both filling the screen. I’m not sure which one works best but I think that both could have used a kick in the pants. I left the theater feeling curiously unfulfilled although Da Queen was enthusiastic for her love for the movie.

The music itself is good and Lloyd does an amazing job of creating Valli’s iconic falsetto, one of the most recognizable voices in the history of pop music. It must also be said that I have a sense that those who have seen the musical either on Broadway or in one of the touring productions will more than likely be disappointed by this effort as I was, even though I haven’t seen the musical as of yet.

This isn’t a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination; I just had higher hopes for it that weren’t met. The production values are spot on and although there are a few anachronisms (Valli is depicted singing his hit “My Eyes Adored You” to his daughter as a lullaby fully ten years before the song was actually written) they capture the period and place nicely. There is a bit of Italian-American stereotyping but not as much as you might think. For the most part, it’s entertaining; it just isn’t the kind of film you’ll want to see over and over again – at least not for me.

REASONS TO GO: Some great music. Young captures Valli’s voice nicely.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks energy. Looks stagey. Occasionally anachronistic.

FAMILY VALUES:  A fair amount of salty language, or what they call in Jersey “tawkeen.”

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At the conclusion of the film, Tommy DeVito says that he’s working for Joe Pesci these days. Pesci played a character named Tommy DeVito in GoodFellas based on a mob associate of Henry Hill, but not named after the ex-Four Season. The Pesci character during this film says “Funny how?” at one point, a reference to the same line Pesci utters in GoodFellas.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: That Thing You Do

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Life Itself

New Releases for the Week of June 20, 2014


Jersey BoysJERSEY BOYS

(Warner Brothers) John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, Vincent Piazza, Michael Lomenda, Christopher Walken, Steve Schirripa, John Griffin, Lou Volpe. Directed by Clint Eastwood

The Four Seasons were not just pop stars from a bygone era. They were four Jersey boys who went from the mean streets of the Garden State to the highest of heights. With the signature voice of Frankie Valli, they were one of the major pop forces of the 60s all the way through the 70s. A Tony Award-winning musical about their lives and music took Broadway by storm and at last hits the big screen, directed by none other than Clint Eastwood himself.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Musical

Rating: R  (for language throughout)

Cold in July

(IFC) Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson, Vinessa Shaw.On a hot summer night in Texas in 1989, a man investigates noises in his living room and surprises a burglar. A split second decision sees the man pull the trigger and become a local hero. Not everyone appreciates his actions; the criminal’s ex-con father is coming to town and he has nothing but bloody revenge on his mind.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for disturbing bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity)

The Grand Seduction

(eOne) Brendan Gleeson, Taylor Kitsch, Liane Balaban, Gordon Pinsent. A small Canadian town desperately needs a new petrochemical plant in order to survive. The company will not locate a plant there unless they have a resident doctor which is one thing they don’t have. When a doctor passes through, they realize that they have to convince him that this town is the paradise he’s been looking for.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for some suggestive material and drug references)

Humshakals

(Fox Star) Saif Ali Khan, Ritesh Deshmukh, Ram Kapoor, Bipasha BasuAshok and Kumar are best friends who unbeknownst to them have two lookalikes, also named Ashok and Kumar who are also best friends. Unbeknownst to both of these pairs of friends is another pair of lookalikes, also named Ashok and Kumar, also the best of friends. Add to this a man named Mamaji who also has a lookalike who in turn has a look alike of his own (you guessed it – all named Mamaji) and you have chaos waiting to happen.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

The Rover

(A24) Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson, Scoot McNairy, Susan Prior. In a future ten years following the collapse of society, a loner in the Australian outback has his car stolen by a gang of thieves. However, they leave one of their members behind in the ensuing chaos and the loner uses him (quite unwillingly) to track his former mates so that he can retrieve the only thing that really matters to him. The latest film from the director of Animal Kingdom.

See the trailer, a clip and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Sci-Fi Action

Rating: R (for language and some bloody violence)

Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon

(Radius)  Shep Gordon, Alice Cooper, Sylvester Stallone, Michael Douglas.In the annals of managers both in the film and music industries, the name of Shep Gordon looms among the pantheon of the best. One of the few in the business who is beloved by both clients and corporate alike, he has created a storied life that would make a Hollywood movie – if it weren’t true. Now, close friend Mike Myers aims to tell the story of the man who redefined the word mensch .

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: R (for language, some sexual references, nudity and drug use)

Think Like a Man Too

(Screen Gems) Kevin Hart, Michael Ealy, Gabrielle Union, Taraji P. Henson. This sequel to the surprise hit of 2012 finds the same couples still hanging in there after a couple of years but now they are headed to Las Vegas to celebrate the wedding of one of their own. They find themselves unable to keep themselves from getting into hot water and forget one of the most basic rules of Hollywood – what happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay in Vegas.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy (opens Thursday)

Rating: PG-13 (for crude sexual content including references, partial nudity, language and drug material)

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot


Jeff Bridges and Clint Eastwood share a Zen moment.

Jeff Bridges and Clint Eastwood share a Zen moment.

(1974) Crime Comedy (United Artists) Clint Eastwood, Jeff Bridges, George Kennedy, Geoffrey Lewis, Catherine Bach, Gary Busey, Jack Dodson, Gene Elman, Burton Gilliam, Roy Jenson, Claudia Lennear, Bill McKinney, Vic Tayback, Dub Taylor, Gregory Walcott, Erica Hagen, Alvin Childress, Virginia Baker, Stuart Nisbet, Irene K. Cooper, Cliff Emmich, June Fairchild, Karen Lamm. Directed by Michael Cimino

Once a mainstay of Saturday afternoon television movie programming, this Clint Eastwood action thriller is notable for being Oscar nominated back in the day. All the digital splendor of a DVD doesn’t hide just how dated this movie is, though.

Notable as the first directorial effort of Michael (Heaven’s Gate) Cimino, the film concerns the pairing of a middle-aged, jaded bank robber now in hiding (Eastwood) and a young, impetuous and, er, highly vigorous young man named Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges, who garnered a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for the role) who literally run into each other in a wheatfield while bullets whiz around them. That pretty much sets the tone for the movie.

They are being chased by Red Leary (Kennedy), a foul-tempered former member of the Thunderbolt gang (Thunderbolt is Eastwood’s character, by the way). Eventually, they all hook up and plan to duplicate the gang’s legendary heist of Montana Armored. But you just know that Lightfoot, so full of piss and vinegar, will get on stodgy old Red Leary’s nerves like stink on a two-dollar cigar, and that the fur will fly because of it.

The location in Great Falls, Montana, brings out the feeling of desolation and isolation that couldn’t be pulled off on a studio backlot. Cimino shows some decent writing skills with a few unexpected twists here and there, but mainly he borrows too heavily on a stylistic level from such movies as Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch and Easy Rider.

Eastwood is at the point of his career here where he was beginning to stretch his acting wings (Thunderbolt and Lightfoot immediately followed Play Misty For Me on Eastwood’s resume). Of course, the basics of his persona honed in so many badass Italian westerns are there, but the tough guy he plays here has a vulnerable, world-weary and dog-loyal soul beneath the veneer. Bridges was at the very start of his career which was somewhat checkered for awhile but has been awash with Oscar nominations and lately, Oscar wins. The supporting cast includes some of the era’s most solid character actors in Lewis, Tayback, Taylor and Dodson, while Bach is lustrous and Busey turns in one of his earlier performances.

Few movies age well, especially those that try to make a hipness quotient that generally eludes Hollywood movies. What’s hip in one era becomes hopelessly anachronistic in the next. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot has some meat on its bones, but generally speaking, holds up about as well as The Partridge Family does. Those who love ’70s movies or are students of the era however might find this a hoot.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Bridges and Eastwood. Very much a product of its times.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Extremely dated and doesn’t hold up well. Derivative of other, superior works.

FAMILY MATTERS: A bit of violence and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Eastwood’s son Kyle had his first movie role in this film at age 5; because he had one word of dialogue, he had to be paid union scale for actors with dialogue rather than extras, which meant he got $128 (scale at the time) for his work.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $21.7M on a $4M production budget.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Prisoners

Mystic River


Sean Penn finds out there's a paparazzi convention in town.

Sean Penn finds out there’s a paparazzi convention in town.

(2003) Drama (Warner Brothers) Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Marcia Gay Harden, Laurence Fishburne, Laura Linney, Kevin Chapman, Thomas Guiry, Emmy Rossum, Spencer Treat Clark, Andrew Mackin, Adam Nelson, Tori Davis, Ari Graynor. Directed by Clint Eastwood

In Al Green’s R&B masterpiece “Take Me to the River,” he uses the river as a metaphor for redemption, for forgetfulness. In Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial effort, it is a place where sins are buried forever in the eternal non-judgmental current that washes them to sea.

Three young boys growing up in a blue-collar Irish neighborhood in Boston are marked for life when one of them is abducted by a pedophile posing as a police officer and held for four days before escaping. The victim is scarred, having invented a different personality for himself in order to survive the ordeal. The other two are guilt-ridden, each wondering what their lives would have been like if they had gotten into the pedophile’s car instead of their cohort.

Years later, they have drifted apart, although not far. Jimmy Markum (Penn) is an ex-con who has reformed, and runs the corner store. Katie (Rossum), his daughter from his first marriage, is the apple of his eye, an eye trained steadily on her and a neighborhood friend Brendan (Guiry), whom he mistrusts. Sean Devine (Bacon) is a homicide detective whose pregnant wife abruptly left him six months earlier and who periodically calls him and says nothing, waiting for Sean to speak, but Sean doesn’t know what to say. Finally Dave Boyle (Robbins), the pedophile’s victim, shuffles around like he’s in one of the vampire movies he loves to watch, and tries to make sense of the skewed perceptions his damaged mind takes in.

The three men see each other periodically, but are not friends the same way they were as children, although they remain drawn to their neighborhood and in fact the events that so marked them those years ago.

When Katie is brutally murdered, the three are drawn back together again, particularly as Sean is assigned the case. Dave reconnects with Jimmy, especially since Dave’s wife Celeste (Harden) is cousin to Jimmy’s second wife Annabeth (Linney). But as the men are drawn together, it becomes clear they are heading for an explosion. Dave arrives home the night Katie is killed covered in blood and with an implausible story. Celeste suspects that he is not telling her everything, but fears to connect the dots. Jimmy is a raging inferno, trying to reconcile his turbulent emotions but keeping it together externally; you literally expect him to have some of his internal organs pop out of his skin several times during the course of the movie. And while Sean’s partner Whitey (Fishburne in a most un-Morpheus-like role) trains his suspicions on Dave, Sean is reluctant to suspect his childhood friend, who endured so much; the psychology is wrong, and Sean’s survivor guilt is becoming an impediment.

When Celeste finally breaks down and tells Jimmy her suspicions, the chain of events becomes inevitable. You get the sense that Katie’s tomb is actually a vortex, sucking the three men into a unavoidable collision. When it comes, you half-expect the film’s very celluloid to combust.

Eastwood knows how to let a story tell itself at its own pace. At times, Mystic River is languid and slow-moving, but that is only because the characters must have their chance to develop; without that, the movie would collapse. At other times, the movie feels like it is rushing viewers along in a riptide. Eastwood also is a master of establishing mood; at no point do you ever doubt the reality of the neighborhood and the people.

There are some great performances here. Penn is masterful as the tortured father of a murdered 19-year-old daughter. It resonates from the moment he realizes that she’s been murdered to the end of the movie and obviously resonated with the Academy – he garnered his first Best Actor Oscar for the role. He is a violent man, although that violence is kept below the surface; you spend every moment wondering when he will erupt; yet he never goes over the top. His actions all are consistent with the character, and Penn’s emotional performance makes Jimmy Markum real. Penn was so underrated as an actor at the time this was made; in time, he has become considered with the likes of De Niro, Pacino and Hoffman in the elite cinematic pantheon. His performance here is the chief reason you should see this movie.

Bacon and Robbins are solid in their roles; Robbins has a more difficult task in trying to humanize and make relatable a man who has been through something most of us cannot imagine. He is successful most of the time, but such an effort is made to make him appear guilty (when the majority of the audience will probably realize that he is not) that it robs him of his credibility. However, his portrayal of a damaged, tortured soul was enough to win him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Bacon is more restrained in his performance, but doesn’t really convey as much emotionally as the incendiary Penn, and thus his work pales next to his co-star.

The supporting cast is for the most part solid, although Harden as the weak, emotionally dependent Celeste is at times cloying but what do I know – she was nominated for an Oscar for it.

Much has been made of the ending, which is (I think) deliberately ambiguous, especially regarding how the survivors react. The ending badly disrupts the flow of the movie. Mystic River is a good movie that could have been better, had the ending not been so badly botched.

WHY RENT THIS: Oscar-winning performances and a compelling story.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ending completely ruins the film.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a lot of bad language and a lot of violence, some of it implied of a sexual nature.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: In a scene set in the morgue where Jimmy is alone with Katie’s body and emotionally promising revenge, the corpse burst into tears because actress Emmy Rossum was so moved by Penn’s performance.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There are some interviews from “The Charlie Rose Show” of Bacon, Robbins and Eastwood. The 3-Disc Deluxe DVD edition includes the soundtrack from the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $156.8M on a $25M production budget; the movie was a huge hit.

DENNIS LAHANE LOVERS: The author of the book the movie was based on makes a cameo appearance during the parade sequence in which he can be spotted waving to the crowd from the back of a convertible.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Carol Channing: Larger Than Life