The Purge: Anarchy


Purge biker chic.

Purge biker chic.

(2014) Thriller (Universal) Frank Grillo, Carmen Ejogo, Zach Gilford, Kiele Sanchez, Zoe Soul, Justina Machado, John Beasley, Jack Conley, Noel G., Castulo Guerra, Michael K. Williams, Edwin Hodge, Keith Stanfield, Roberta Valderrama, Niko Nicotera, Bel Hernandez, Lily Knight, Jasper Cole, Brandon Keener, Amy Pierce-Francis, Chad Morgan, Dale Dye, Amy Paffrath. Directed by James DeMonaco

In a brutal environment, survival itself requires more brutality. When the world is kill or be killed, so must you in order to survive it. The way things are going in this world, the future won’t be for the faint of heart.

As explained in last year’s surprise hit The Purge, the New Founding Fathers – a kind of crypto-fascist neo-Conservative Tea Party on steroids gun-loving bunch have taken over the country and given the people what they wanted – safety, stability and prosperity. Of course, only if you happen to be white and wealthy.

The rest of us have the Purge, an annual night in which all laws are suspended and everything is legal including rape, murder and destruction of property. It is a night to, as the newscasters enthusiastically endorse, unleash the beast. As the day draws to a close and the Purge draws near, people look at each other nervously, murmuring to each other “stay safe” and praying that whatever protection they have be they state of the art security systems with steel window  covers and titanium doors, or plywood nailed hastily over doors and windows will hold against the onslaught of the night.

Sergeant (Grillo) is grimly gearing up for the evening. He has a small arsenal at his disposal and he means to go out hunting. Sweet waitress Eva (Ejogo) returns home to her ailing pop (Beasley) and her rebellious daughter (Soul) – is there any other kind – and prepares to ride out the storm as best she can. She can’t afford her papa’s medicine and her bitchy boss won’t give her a raise so that she can live decently. She is one of the working poor and although she does her best to make a decent life for her family there’s not much she can do on the paycheck of a diner waitress.

 

Liz (Sanchez) and Shane (Gilford) are a couple who are on the verge of splitting up. They can’t even agree on who to tell first. Picking up groceries on the way home, their car breaks down as the sun begins to set and they know they’re in deep trouble. They will have to find a way to safety on a night when there is none to be had and when every human they see will be out to kill them.

All of these five’s paths will coalesce in a moment of conscience and Sergeant will find himself trying to lead these people ill-equipped to survive in the urban jungle to safety, all the while his mission of vengeance uppermost in his mind. The night though is long and the odds are longer that they’ll make it through.

I will say right off the bat that this is a slight improvement from the first film. While there continue to be holes in logic and common sense in the overall story I found there to be fewer in the sequel than in the original and the pacing of the story was much more frenetic. The political overtones continue to be fairly blatant – this is certainly a fairly thinly veiled uppercut aimed at the American right, particularly the neo-cons in the Tea Party and the religious right (before nearly every murder, the lily-white upper crust Purge participants pray, invoking God’s blessings on the New Founding Fathers). I can’t imagine Fox News will love this movie particularly and I can’t say as I blame them for once.

 

Grillo who has been a sterling supporting performer for years finally gets a lead role and quite frankly I see more of the same in his future. He’s got the brooding Clint Eastwood-esque anti-hero quality to him only there’s a little more warmth to him. He definitely carries the movie along and stands out in a group of solid but unremarkable actors.

Another issue I have with the movie is that while there’s a ton of violence, there’s no imagination to it. People just open fire with automatic weapons and pepper human bodies with bullets. Not that I expect that in a real life situation that mirrored this it would be any different, it just kind of all runs together. There’s no cleverness here, just carnage.

I think that those who liked the first movie may well like the second while those who didn’t will definitely NOT like this one. While I get the sense that the filmmakers are probably on the same side of the political aisle as I am, their views may be a little bit too extreme for me. Even Fox News has something of value once in awhile and not all conservative ideals are as bad as they are made out to be here. I’ve met plenty of compassionate conservatives although it must be admitted that there are some who the New Founding Fathers resemble very much.

 

Needless to say, this still isn’t quite good enough for me to recommend. There’s just too many plot issues and not enough well drawn-out characters to capture my interest. This is very much a one-trick pony and if you happen to like that trick, more power to you – enjoy. For those of us who need a little bit more variety in our hour and a half in the multiplex, this probably isn’t the movie to see.

REASONS TO GO: Different sort of film than the first. Grillo a promising lead.

REASONS TO STAY: Overtly political. Relentless violence. Not very thrilling as thrillers go.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots of violence, much of it unsettling and plenty of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The lead character, known here only as Sergeant, had most of his backstory cut from the film during post-production; his name in the script is Leo Barnes.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/27/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Warriors

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August: Osage County


The calm before the storm.

The calm before the storm.

(2013) Drama (Weinstein) Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Sam Shepard, Julianne Nicholson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dermot Mulroney, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, Misty Upham, Will Coffey, Newell Alexander, Jerry Stahl, Dale Dye, Ivan Allen, Arlin Miller, J. Alan Davidson, Maria Swindell Gus. Directed by John Wells

In the dusty heat of Oklahoma in the dog days of August, tempers can flare and people can be driven to the despair of unrelenting heat and no air-conditioning. Then again, a family can duplicate those same conditions – unrelenting heat and no saving grace of air-conditioning.

Violet Weston (Streep) has cancer of the mouth that causes her intense burning pain. She pops pills like others pop Tic Tacs. She is a feisty curmudgeon who speaks her mind, even if what she has to say is unpleasant – which it often is. There are hints of racism in her and enough self-righteous judgmental pronouncements to fill up several evangelical Christian sermons.

When her husband Beverly (Shepard) disappears, her kids come running home which in at least two cases, is a place they really don’t want to come back to. Karen (Lewis) has flitted from man to man and seems to have found one that she can stick with, slick Steve Huberbrecht (Mulroney) who is going to marry her in a few months and take her on the honeymoon she always wanted – Belize. Barbara (Roberts) is shrill, angry and frustrated; her husband Bill (McGregor) is separated and carrying on with a younger woman and her 14-year-old daughter Jean (Breslin) is withdrawing into a world of pain, pissed off at both her parents but particularly her mom.

Only Ivy (Nicholson) stayed near home and she is worn to the bone, ready to take off with her secret fella to New York City and away from Violet’s grasp. Also coming to the house are Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Martindale) and Mattie Fae’s husband Charlie (Cooper). Mattie Fae is on the surface the adoring aunt but she treats her own son, Little Charles (Cumberbatch) like an absolute nincompoop which he just might be; he certainly is a jumpy sort. Taking care of Violet is Johnna (Upham), a Native American who watches the chaos around her without comment.

Into this volatile environment comes the revelations of family secrets that will either draw this dysfunctional group closer together or break them apart forever. The specter of abuse will rear its ugly head and the skeletons in the closet will do their ugly heads before it’s all over.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts (who has written Killer Joe among others), the movie gets the big screen treatment by director John Wells (known primarily for his small screen work on series like E.R. and The West Wing). Wells does an excellent job of setting the time and place – the acrid, soul-burning prairie heat of Oklahoma, the beautiful but run-down Victorian home of Beverly and Violet and the sunset vistas. He also manages to capture the claustrophobia that can happen at an awkward family dinner.

There are some tremendous performances going on here, by Roberts and Streep in particular (both of which garnered Oscar nominations) although some may find them over-the-top. These are two women, mother and daughter, who are more alike than either would care to admit and both are at the end of their ropes. The disappearance of Beverly has left them with no buffer and with neither Ivy nor Karen willing to get in between them their confrontation becomes inevitable. Both characters aren’t very likable – probably Chris Cooper’s Charlie is the only one who is – and neither one is likely to inspire you to share a meal with them, especially if fish is on the menu.

They both have a great deal repressed inside them and it boils over, leading to a family crisis of dramatic proportions. Drug abuse is part of the issue but there is also a good deal of “truth telling” which is often the refuge of those who wish to be cruel and get away with it which is pretty much where both Barbara and Violet are at. The interesting thing is that this movie really isn’t about Violet so much although Streep’s performance puts her front and center, but the movie is about Barbara – that’s one of the reasons that the controversial closing scene focuses on Barbara. Da Queen, for her part, thought that last scene unnecessary. I for one thought it brought better closure than the original ending which features Johnna consoling Violet on a staircase.

Those aren’t the only fine performances. Cooper gets some wonderful scenes in, as well as Nicholson whose drawn and beaten down demeanor belies the inner strength she possesses. Martindale’s performance is just the opposite; this wonderful character actress plays a woman who is tough and loving on the outside but wounded terribly on the inside. I also thought Cumberbatch was extraordinary as the wimpy, indecisive and overly sensitive son of Charlie and Mattie Fae. The rest of the performances were pretty much adequate.

Some of the scenes are uncomfortable, particularly as family secrets from way back begin to emerge from necessity. Violet, sometimes as malevolent as a cobra but often as vulnerable as a prairie dog caught in the gaze of a predator, rules the roost with an eye that misses nothing.

I know that not everyone shares my regard for the movie. It has often been criticized for having over-the-top performances and for violating the spirit of the original play which was a dark comedy. There are still elements of that here but this is definitely a drama. As for the performances, I think they are also by necessity over-the-top – the people being portrayed here are in the middle of a stressful family crisis who are dealing with repressed emotions that boil over. Of course they’re going to get loud. People get loud when they melt down.

At the end of the day this is the kind of movie that can be hard to watch, particularly if your own family has issues. For me the dynamics of the Weston clan are certainly far from normal but at the same time there was a certain amount of resonance. There is love but this is a family disintegrating and one wonders just how much it was the alcoholic Beverly that held them together. This is at turns fascinating and repulsive, like watching a snake swallow its prey. You learn something of nature in watching it but in doing so you learn something of yourself.

REASONS TO GO: Scintillating performances. Exceedingly well-written.

REASONS TO STAY: About as dysfunctional a family as you’re ever likely to meet. Occasionally uncomfortable.

FAMILY VALUES:  A ton of swearing including sexual references, some mature situations and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Abigail Breslin had a temperature of 103 degrees when she auditioned for the role of Jean Fordham.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/26/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ordinary People

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Lone Survivor

Larry Crowne


Larry Crowne

Julia Roberts smirks at Tom Hanks' new CHiPS-inspired look.

(2011) Comedy (Universal) Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Taraji P. Henson, Cedric the Entertainer, Bryan Cranston, Wilmer Valderrama, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Pam Grier, Rami Malek, George Takei, Rita Wilson, Jon Seda, Rob Riggle, Dale Dye, Grace Gummer. Directed by Tom Hanks

There are occasions in life where it becomes necessary to reinvent ourselves. We are almost forced to take stock, figure out what’s not working and attempt to fixing.

Ex-Navy “culinary specialist” (read: cook) Larry Crowne (Hanks) is sailing along at the big-box chain where he works and has won eight employee-of-the-month awards. He figures he’s being called in to win his ninth; but instead is dismayed to discover that he is being downsized. The reason? He has no college education (having chosen to serve his country instead) and has gone as far as he can go at the company without one. Not wanting to leave him in the same position for years to come, he is instead let go. Nobody ever said that big companies are logical.

He is underwater on his mortgage after buying out his wife after a somewhat messy divorce. After an unsuccessful attempt to refinance with an unctuous loan officer (Wilson), Larry is forced to start selling off his stuff at a perpetual yard sale run by his grouchy neighbor Lamar (Cedric) and his friendlier wife (Henson), who turns Larry on to the idea of going back to school. Larry also buys a scooter to get him places more economically.

At the local community college he takes a speech class with Mercedes “Mercy” Tainot (Roberts), a somewhat burned-out teacher who uses alcohol to numb out and help her forget she’s married to Dean (Cranston), formerly a promising science fiction author turned into a slacker with a penchant for commenting on blogs and surfing for porn on the internet. Mercy has the distinct impression that she is making not a whit of difference in the lives of her students.

He also takes an economics class under the watchful eye of the quirky Dr. Matsutani (Takei) who isn’t above a little self-promotion but has a distinct hatred of cell phones. In the class is the free-spirited Talia (Mbatha-Raw), who brings in Larry into her scooter gang, led by her boyfriend Dell (Valderrama). Talia decides to take Larry on as a bit of a project, remaking his house and his appearance in a more modern image.

Gradually Larry begins to rediscover himself, getting a job at a local diner and finding self-confidence through his speech class. Meanwhile, as Mercy’s marriage continues to fall apart, Larry begins to fall a little bit for the attractive but closed-off teacher, although Mercy assumes that Larry and Talia are together because of her clear affection for him.

That’s essentially it for plot. Hanks co-wrote and directed this star vehicle (this marks his second feature film as a director after the far superior That Thing You Do! back in 1996) tends to a gentle, inoffensive style in both writing and directing. I’ve often characterized Hanks as a modern Jimmy Stewart, an everyman with a heart of gold. He plays that role to the hilt here.

He is matched by Roberts, whose luster is undimmed 20 years after Pretty Woman. She still has one of the most radiant smiles you’ll ever see, although you’ll see far more frowning from her here which is a bit of a shame – but she nonetheless fills her role well. While the chemistry between Hanks and Roberts isn’t as electric as it is in Charlie Wilson’s War, they still work well together onscreen.

In fact this is very much a project moved forward by star wattage. The likability of Hanks and Roberts lies at the core of the film, and Hanks the director wisely utilizes it. He has a pretty strong supporting cast, but it is Mbatha-Raw who charms most. Best known here for her work in “Doctor Who,” she is incandescent and lights up the screen whenever she’s on. “Star Trek” veteran Takei also is strong as the curmudgeonly economics professor, while Cedric recycles his stage persona adequately enough. Valderrama breaks out of his “That 70s Show” type as the tough-seeming teddy bear Dell.

There are a lot of quirky characters here, from the self-absorbed student (Malek) to the slacker husband (Cranston) and most of them aren’t developed all that well. We could have done with a number of them altogether, quite frankly. Also, I felt Larry is a bit too passive here. He reacts to people who essentially re-shape him. He just kind of goes along with it; Lamar suggests he goes to college, he goes to college. The proprietor of a local diner suggests Larry start working for him, Larry goes to work for him. Talia wants Larry to change his wardrobe and add a wallet chain, Larry does. Larry becomes a blank slate which everyone around him draws their version of him on; he could have used a little more self-assertiveness.

The movie takes a situation that all too many Americans are feeling – laid off, middle aged, at a crossroads of life – and really doesn’t do a lot with it. There isn’t a lot of angst here; Larry has a few depressed moments, caught in montage early on, and then rolls up his sleeves and gets about the job of finding himself a new job. He meets with rejection but that doesn’t really figure much into the plot. It’s more of a means of getting the story from point “A” to point “B.” To my way of thinking, there were some lost opportunities here for commentary on the current economic state of things but apparently the filmmakers didn’t want to do that

Be that as it may, the movie still makes you feel good. There is no raunchiness here at all as there is at most of the summer comedies you’ll see this year. That in itself is rather pleasing; it’s nice once in awhile to see a comedy that doesn’t rely on pushing the boundaries for humor. The good thing about Larry Crowne is that no matter what kind of rotten mood you’re in (and I was in a foul one when I saw it) you’ll leave the theater feeling good – and if you’re in a good mood to begin with, you’ll leave the theater feeling better. I’m sure some Hollywood blurb-writer will coin it “the feel-good movie of the summer,” but for once the blurb will be accurate.

REASONS TO GO: A warmhearted comedy that relies heavily on the charm of its stars. Will pick you up even on a bad day.

REASONS TO STAY: A few too many quirky characters. The character of Larry might be a little too passive for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words and some sexual content but otherwise pretty mild.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally titled Talk of the Town.

HOME OR THEATER: This works just as well on the home screen as it does in the multiplex.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Knight and Day


Knight and Day

Club Med, this ain't.

(20th Century Fox) Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, Peter Sarsgaard, Viola Davis, Paul Dano, Maggie Grace, Marc Blucas, Jordi Molla, Falk Hentschel, Lennie Loftin, Dale Dye, Rich Manley, Celia Weston, Gal Gadot. Directed by James Mangold

Although I can’t prove it, I do believe that all women dream of a dark, handsome man who’ll whisk them away on the adventure of a lifetime. Most every woman I’ve ever asked has said that’s a fantasy of theirs. As they say, be careful what you wish for.

June Havens (Diaz) is returning home to Boston after scouring junkyards in Wichita for car parts for the GTO she’s rebuilding for her sister’s wedding gift. In the airport she literally bumps into Roy Miller (Cruise), a handsome, nice man who seems genuinely polite. June is immediately attracted to him but as usual dithers about doing anything about it. Her problem is that she’s been burned by the skeletons in the closets of the men she chooses too many times. Of course, there are skeletons and then there are SKELETONS…

Roy has a doozy. He’s a field agent for the CIA who has stolen a battery from an agency lab, along with its inventor, whiz kid Simon Feck (Dano). It’s not just any Duracell, either; it’s a perpetual energy battery that can indefinitely power, say, a small city. Obviously this is something a lot of people want to get their hands on, not the least of which is Roy’s partner Fitzgerald (Sarsgaard), his boss Agency Director George (Davis) and Spanish arms dealer Antonio (Molla).

Fitzgerald sends some agents on the plane from Wichita to Boston to try and apprehend Miller, but they fail. Unfortunately, both of the pilots get caught in the crossfire and the plane goes down in a field. Roy and June are the only survivors.

June wakes up (after Roy drugs her, a repeated theme throughout the movie) in her own bed and wonders if it was a dream. However, the post-it notes Roy left for her throughout her house advising her not to get in a vehicle with anyone claiming to be from an agency, to deny all knowledge of Roy and to get as far away from any agent as possible who tells her that she’s going somewhere safe and secure as this is code for “we’re going to execute you.” She tries to explain all this to her would-be boyfriend, fireman Rodney (Blucas) but they are interrupted by Roy who takes June hostage.

They get away and try to find Simon but Roy is late getting there and the understandably nervous Simon has fled for Austria. Right about then the Spanish gunmen arrive…

The plot here is really secondary to two things; the action and Tom Cruise. Mangold has crafted a fairly competent action movie with some nice stunts, although nothing terribly elaborate by say James Bond standards. The attraction here is Cruise. He is in full-on movie star mode.

Back in the day, there were movie stars like Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen who mesmerized you just by being onscreen. They had an indefinable charisma, something you can’t really explain but certainly can feel. You’re drawn in. There are very few of them left today. Tom Hanks is one, Julia Roberts is another. Cruise is like that, too.

He is no longer the young guy in his tighty whities sliding across the floor to Bob Seger, but he still has that incandescent smile and that self-confidence that makes him so irresistible to women, even if he has developed some middle age jowls. Whenever he’s onscreen (which is nearly the entire movie), the screen sparkles.

You have to feel for Cameron Diaz. She’s a fine actress in her own right and quite pretty, but she doesn’t have the kind of screen presence that Cruise possesses. That’s not a bad thing – it’s a pretty rare commodity – but it does make her almost an afterthought when you remember the movie, even after just having seen it.

There’s a pretty fine support cast, including the urbane Sarsgaard doing his best villainy, and Davis who resembles facially and vocally a young Alfre Woodward here. Dano is nearly unrecognizable as the Hall and Oates-loving genius who is perpetually in a state of shattered nerves.

That Hall and Oates thing is what lies at the heart of the flaws that the movie possesses. I know teenaged geniuses can be quirky but loving Hall and Oates music? Doesn’t seem realistic to me; I would have thought it better if the kid was into Lady Gaga or something a little more contemporary. Also, Paul Dano didn’t look like a young teenager or even a college student; that also took me out of the film’s world a little bit.

The conceit of drugging June constantly so that Roy can rescue her got a bit wearisome and kind of smacked of lazy writing – that way we didn’t get to see Roy get them out of the sticky situations they were in. It was bang, he knocked her out, there were a few brief moments where she faded into consciousness at various stages of the operation, and then bang, she’s awake in some totally different locale. Yes, we get that Roy is very, very good at what he does – it wouldn’t have hurt to see a bit more proof of that onscreen. The writers make a half-hearted attempt to put some doubt as to Roy’s motivations, but we know he’s a good guy from the beginning; this is a non-twist and these are the kinds of things that tend to distract viewers from a movie’s better nature.

Otherwise, this is a pretty good movie, not great. Certainly it kept me entertained the entire time and I enjoyed myself while I was watching it. It’s not as bad as I heard it was, nor is it as good as I hoped it was. It’s a standard action comedy, elevated by Cruise to something better. That’s good enough for me.

REASONS TO GO: Tom Cruise is at the top of his game. The movie is fun and lively.

REASONS TO STAY: Again, nothing particularly new or cutting-edge here and the CGI is a bit atrocious in places. A little too Looney Tunes for my taste at times.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of violence (action style) throughout and a little bit of bad language. Perfectly suitable for all teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The script was originally titled All New Enemies and the movie was shot under the title Wichita before changing its name to the current title.

HOME OR THEATER: While some of the action sequences look to need a larger screen, by and large this one is perfectly adequate at home.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Land of the Lost