Band Aid


There are few things as musically authentic as a garage band..

(2017) Comedy (IFC) Zoe Lister-Jones, Adam Pally, Fred Armisen, Susie Essman, Retta, Hannah Simone, Ravi Patel, Brooklyn Decker, Angelique Cabral, Majandra Delfino, Nelson Franklin, Kailash Banerjee Sukhadia, Vivien Lyre Blair, Colin Hanks, Chris D’Elia, Daryl Wein, Jamie Chung, Erinn Hayes, Jesse Williams, Gillian Zinser. Directed by Zoe Lister-Jones

 

Marriages are complex, fragile things that can sometimes be torn apart by the slightest of difficulties. We take it for granted that married couples will argue, sometimes in toxic ways. Relationship experts tell us that arguments are a healthy thing for couples. Experience tells us that they can also signify the beginning of the end.

All Anna (Lister-Jones) and Ben (Pally) seem to do is argue. The arguments are generated by life’s little annoyances – like a chronically full sink of dirty dishes and a leaky faucet that never gets fixed –  and often lead to big underlying issues. Both of these 20-somethings are suffering from failed expectations; Anna once had a book deal that fell through and now she’s an Uber driver. Ben, a talented artist, designs corporate logos when he can actually get his butt off the couch. There are moments that it’s clear that the two still love each other but those moments are becoming increasingly infrequent.

One early hint that things are terribly wrong between them is that when they are invited to a child’s birthday party, Anna has to get really high just to make it through the party for reasons that become clear later in the film. While she is blissed out, she and Ben give an impromptu rock concert on children’s instruments. Later that night, Anna hits on the idea of starting a band – and using their arguments as inspiration for songs.

Considering that their relationship counselor is moving to Canada (quite possibly to get away from the two of them), it seems like all the therapy they can afford. They locate their dusty guitar and bass and start searching for a drummer; they find one in Dave (Armisen), a neighbor and recovering sex addict who probably couldn’t be more creepy if the writer’s tried (and they did).

They play a couple of gigs and they aren’t half bad. In fact, they’re pretty good. Best of all, the impromptu therapy seems to be working; Anna and Ben are arguing less and the dishes are getting done. They seem to be more kind towards each other. A potential record deal is in the offing. Life couldn’t be rosier.

Then they have the mother of all arguments and at last some of their underlying issues begin to surface. Anna throws Ben out and he shacks up with Dave for a bit before running home to Mama (Essman). But there were things said that can’t be un-said. Can their relationship survive? Should it?

There’s a lot to like here. Lister-Jones, more familiar to viewers through her television work including her most recent stint on the CBS sitcom Life in Pieces, proves to be a promising director. She’s no Sofia Coppola – yet – but she has the wisdom to keep her touch light and the skill to pull it off. She also has a ton of chemistry with Pally; the two make a cute couple, too cute upon occasion but always believable. Their arguments hit the right notes and sound pretty authentic to these married ears.

The dialogue is hipster 101 in some ways; everyone talks like they’re in a sitcom pulling off snarky one-liners. The trouble is, I know a lot of people who talk exactly like Ben and Anna and it’s even more annoying in real life. Some people are also not going to be able to get past that both Ben but especially Anna use drugs heavily t get through the pain and have both become somewhat caught in a very deep rut. Go-getters might have trouble with the couple, as those who have issues with hipsters might.

Still, the movie is surprisingly insightful – the conversation between Ben and his Mom near the end on the nature of women had a lot to say and makes the whole movie worth it right there. I was also fond of the dirty dishes as a metaphor for the relationship; the dishes just stood there stagnant in a pile with the couple just piling new dishes on until one of them thinks to clear out the dishes from the sink. So it is with relationships (and Ben and Anna’s in particular); all the negative stuff gets piled on in the relationship and the heap just gets larger and larger until one of them decides to let go of the negatives.

The tone is pretty light and I liked that the humor which was pretty skewed in places kept things from getting too depressing, but some of the humor is a bit cruel and snarky; if you don’t like those sorts of jokes this movie might not be for you. Do look for the cameos of Uber passengers in Anna’s car. This isn’t going to be top ten material for the year but it is a breezy and engaging film that has a surprising amount of depth at its core. Definitely check this one out!

REASONS TO GO: There are a surprising amount of insights, particularly later on in the movie. The music is pretty decent and surprisingly varied..
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is almost unbearably hipster-friendly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is more than a little drug use, plenty of profanity, some brief nudity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Decker, Delfino and Lister-Jones all star in the TV show Friends with Better Lives.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inside Llewyn Davis
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Past Life

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Chuck (2017)


Liev Schreiber gets ready to take on the role of Chuck Wepner.

(2017) Sports Biography (IFC) Liev Schreiber, Elisabeth Moss, Naomi Watts, Ron Perlman, Michael Rapaport, Jim Gaffigan, Pooch Hall, Jason Jones, Morgan Spector, Sadie Sink, Zina Wilde, Catherine Corcoran, Wass Stevens, Angela Marie Ray, Liz Celeste, Ivan Martin, Joe Starr, Jen Ponton, William Hill, Mark Borkowski, Marell Miniutti, Leslie Lyles, Megan Sikora. Directed by Phillippe Falardeau

 

America loves an underdog and perhaps there’s been no bigger underdog in U.S. boxing history than Chuck Wepner. A journeyman heavyweight in the 1970s based in Bayonne, New Jersey, he’d had a decent enough career, winning the Jersey State Heavyweight Championship but had never really fought any of the big dogs of the era – until 1975.

Wepner (Schreiber) has a certain amount of local fame as he is treated like he’d won the heavyweight championship of the world. Of course, admiration doesn’t put food on the table so he runs a liquor route to make ends meet. His wife Phyliss (Moss) endures the boxing in which he takes terrible beatings but Chuck tends to have a wandering eye – and the other body parts unfortunately wander as well. The marriage is most definitely sailing through rough waters and while Chuck is devoted to his daughter Kimberly (Sink) his ego tends to get in the way of making smart choices.

After Ali (Hall) wins the Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman, his manager Don King invites Wepner to fight for the championship against Ali, then just a little past his prime. The match is expected to be a joke but Wepner gives Ali everything he can handle, coming just 18 seconds away from going the distance until Ali, angered that Wepner had knocked him down, pummeled him into a technical knockout. Still, Wepner became a folk hero.

A young out-of-work actor named Sylvester Stallone (Spector) sees the fight and is inspired to write a character based on Wepner – Stallone names him Rocky Balboa. The rest is history and although Wepner has nothing to do with the movie itself, he feels a sense of accomplishment when the movie wins multiple Oscars as if he had been responsible. He starts billing himself as “The Real Rocky.”

But all the accolades and adulation get Chuck’s ego spiraling out of control and he spends the Disco Decade in debauchery, doing drugs, drinking heavily and partying with women. Having had enough, Phyliss leaves him for good and Chuck sinks into a deep depression fueled by drugs and alcohol. Standing by him is his estranged brother John (Rapaport), his best friend (Gaffigan), his longtime manager (Perlman) and a barmaid named Linda (Watts) who is unimpressed with Chuck’s fame. Will it be enough to get him back on the straight and narrow?

Because the stories are so similar, the first part of the film comes off as kind of a Rocky Lite which may or may not be what the filmmakers intended. Then, in a sense, it all goes off the rails as Wepner gets lost in the trappings of fame, 70s style – discos, tons of drugs, tons of sex. It turns into a cautionary tale at that point which is diametrically different to the underdog story that it began as.

One of the things that really caught my attention is that Falardeau accomplishes either digitally or by using film stock the look of era movies which helps keep you right in the 70s. The trappings of the time – the truly obnoxious hair, the boxy cars, the outlandish clothes and the pulse of disco – further set the tone.

Schreiber of late has gotten notoriety for playing the Hollywood fixer Ray Donovan on Showtime and I can’t help but notice that while both Donovan and Wepner are violent men, Donovan is clever and street smart while Wepner is easily swayed by praise. Wepner has an ego which makes some sense since he came from a background in which his ego along with his body took a pounding. When everybody loves you, it’s hard not to love yourself.

While there is some humor to the movie it falls flat in that regard a little more often than I would have liked. The humor is a bit heavy-handed and the movie would have benefited from a lighter tone overall. As for the story, some of you might be aware of Wepner’s history but most people won’t; still, the story is a bit predictable even though it is based on Wepner’s life. Hollywood has had lots of Wepners in its history.

As boxing movies go, this one isn’t going to make any grand changes to the genre but it doesn’t disgrace itself either. It’s entertaining enough and for those who are wary of the big summer blockbusters that are taking up most of the screens in the local multiplex, this makes a very entertaining counter option.

REASONS TO GO: The movie was shot to look like it was filmed in the 70s which enhances the sense of era.  Schreiber is appealing as Wepner in a Ray Donovan-esque way.
REASONS TO STAY: The filmmaker needed a lighter touch here. Overall the film is inoffensive but predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of profanity, plenty of drug use, some sexuality and nudity, a lot of boxing violence and a few bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally titled The Bleeder in reference to Wepner’s boxing nickname “The Bayonne Bleeder.” Wepner claims the title changed due to it sounding like a horror film but it is also well-known that he detested the nickname.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ali
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Power Rangers

Wilson (2017)


A dysfunctional family portrait.

(2017) Dramedy (Fox Searchlight) Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Isabella Amara, Judy Greer, Cheryl Hines, Margo Martindale, Brett Gelman, Mary Lynn Rajskub, James Saito, Bill McCallum, Alec George, Nate Mooney, Paul Cram, Tom Proctor, Katie Rose Law, Roxy Wood, Bruce Bohne, Greta Oglesby, Rachel Weber, Toussaint Morrison, Tonita Castro. Directed by Craig Johnson

 

We all know someone like him; a person with the social skills of a charging bull. Someone who generates awkward silences like our president generates Tweets. You know, that person who stops every conversation dead in their tracks with pronouncements that defy reason or rudeness that defies civility.

Wilson (Harrelson) is that guy. He lives in the Twin Cities of Minnesota with his dog that he adores but who pisses him off regularly. His only friend is moving about as far away as he can get and taking his shrewish wife with him. Wilson’s dad passes away from cancer soon afterward. With all this going on, Wilson decides he needs to reconnect with the world.

Doing that, he decides, means reconnecting with his ex-wife Pippi (Dern). She’s no saint either, owning what could charitably be charitably described as a checkered past including prostitution and drug abuse. When Wilson finds her, she’s trying to get her life back together working as a waitress. But that’s not all.

When Pippi originally left, she’d told Wilson that she’d gotten an abortion – but psych! It turns out that she’d put the baby up for adoption instead. Claire (Amara) has been raised by wealthy parents but has plenty of issues. Wilson is determined to reach out to the child he never knew he had and establish a connection, dragging a reluctant Pippi along in the process. It could be a good thing but as Wilson is wont to do, he messes things up instead.

This is based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes (who also wrote the screenplay) and it plays in a lot of ways like a Clowes book; simply drawn and not terribly sketched out. However, I have to admit I went in with low expectations based on a trailer that felt like something I’d seen plenty of times before. In all honesty I was pleasantly surprised; I thought this was going to be one of those social experiments to find out how unlikable they can make the main character and still get some critical acclaim.

Frankly, the critical response has been surprisingly low on this one; the general consensus seems to be that the film is predictable and in some ways it is – Wilson’s journey is pretty much by-the-numbers and yet I left the theater feeling a bit of catharsis. That’s not a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination.

It is definitely a movie that builds. Early on my low expectations were essentially being me and I remember leaning over and whispering to Da Queen “Oh, now I remember why Woody Harrelson is mostly playing support roles these days.” Well, more fool me – as the film progressed, Harrelson took over and while he was still playing a pretty much unlikable no-filter kind of guy, I felt myself beginning to root for Wilson. Hey, a guy that much into dogs can’t be all bad, right? In any case, I was reminded why Woody Harrelson has a filmography that a whole lot of actors in this town would envy. Okay, in Hollywood. EVERY actor in Orlando would envy Woody Harrelson’s filmography.

Yeah, there are places that the film gets a bit sentimental and yes, when Wilson hits rock bottom it’s hard not to get emotional. One thing though that differentiates this from other films of this ilk is that it has a superior cast. Laura Dern, Judy Greer, Margo Martindale (who’s essentially only in one scene) and Cheryl Hines are top actresses who take a back seat to nobody in terms of consistent performances. They add depth to the film and give Harrelson plenty of places to play off of – Dern in particular makes an excellent foil for Harrison. The young Isabella Amara does some fine work here as well; her character is certainly complicated and troubled but is basically a decent girl who hasn’t gotten a ton of love in her life.

The ending is a little schmaltzy but all in all, I did end up liking Wilson more than I expected to. I’m not a big Clowes fan by any stretch of the imagination so that’s a bit of an accomplishment but I’m now very interested in picking up a couple of the man’s graphic novels and giving them another chance. Sometimes, changing your perspective is a right place at the right time kind of thing.

REASONS TO GO: This is the kind of film that grows on you. Wilson does in fact grow throughout the film which is a bit of a shocker.
REASONS TO STAY: Way too many neuroses on display for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of profanity and a smidgeon of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The jail scenes were filmed at the Ramsey County Correctional Facility in St. Paul, Minnesota which is a working prison.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Barry

Lion


Dev Patel contemplates the blue screen of death.

Dev Patel contemplates the blue screen of death.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Weinstein) Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman, David Wenham, Sunny Pawar, Abhishek Bharate, Priyanka Bose, Divian Ladwa, Tanishtha Chatterjee, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Deepti Naval, Keshav Jadhav, Rohini Kargalya, Saroo Brierley, Sue Brierley, John Brierley, Menik Gooneratne, Madhukar Narlwade, Emilie Cocquerel. Directed by Garth Davis

 

We know who we are largely because we know where we came from. We know who raised us, who gave us life. For those who don’t know the latter, there are always questions – they are almost forced to wonder who they really are or where they came from.

Young Saroo (Pawar) lives in a small village in Hindi India with his mother (Bose) and his older brother Guddu (Bharate). They live in extreme poverty with Guddu and Saroo finding means of stealing coal and reselling it so that they can help put food on the table, particularly the delectable treats that Saroo craves. At night, Guddu goes to the train yard without Saroo who at five years old is too young although Saroo himself doesn’t think that’s true. He wheedles and he whines until Guddu finally reluctantly agrees to take him.

They get to the station and Guddu leaves Saroo on the platform while he investigates possibilities to where the two of them can find some coal. While he’s gone, Saroo gets sleepy – it’s way past his bedtime – and in a bit of a fog wanders onto a train where he can sleep more comfortably. When he wakes up, the train is moving – and the station by his home is long behind him. There is nobody else on board and nobody to hear his cries for help; the train is being relocated to Kolkata (what used to be called Calcutta). Once he gets there, he is as lost as a human being can be; he doesn’t speak Bengali, the language that is spoken there. He narrowly avoids being kidnapped by a child slave labor gang and eventually gets picked up by the authorities after days on the street.

Returning him to his home soon proves impossible; he doesn’t know the name of his village, or even the name of his mother (what five year old knows beyond “Mommy”?) and he is eventually put up for adoption. He gets lucky; a kind-hearted Australian couple – John (Wenham) and Sue (Kidman) Brierley take him into their Tasmanian home and raise him as their own, along with a second Indian orphan named Mantosh (Jadhav).

Years pass. Saroo (Patel) and Mantosh (Ladwa) have grown up; Saroo is attending university in Melbourne majoring in hotel management, while Mantosh has had a much more difficult time adjusting, becoming a drug addict and is often confrontational with his parents and adopted brother. Saroo considers John and Sue his parents and loves them with all his heart but at a party one night at the apartment of a student of Indian descent takes him back to his childhood and leads him on a quest to find his original home and family. That quest becomes something of an obsession, threatening his relationship with his girlfriend Lucy (Mara) who is supportive, and his standing at the school. He hasn’t told his adoptive parents about his mission; he fears it will break his mother’s heart. Using the then-new Google Earth on his laptop, he embarks on the seemingly hopeless task of finding his way back, but there’s no guarantee his family will even be there in the unlikely event that he does find his village – and considering how large India is and how the vast the train system, it will take years to find the right station with the right water tower if he finds it at all.

This true story, based on a book by the real Saroo Brierley (who appears at the end of the movie in footage detailing the end of his search along with his parents), is absolutely compelling and heart-warming. The first part of the movie, showing the five-year-old Saroo’s journey, has little dialogue and beautiful images – the very first scene in the film depicts young Saroo surrounded by butterflies. The countryside of rural India is juxtaposed with the urban squalor of Kolkata and makes for essential cinema. Part of the reason for this is Sunny Pawar who provides a sensational performance. He acts with his face, with his eyes – something you really can’t teach – unlike a lot of child actors who try too hard to act and ultimately come off as inauthentic. Pawar is nothing but authentic.

Patel is similarly sensational, having garnered a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor and is likely to receive serious Oscar consideration. This is nothing short of a star-making performance; the young actor has given notice that he can ascend to the next level and is in fact likely to. Saroo isn’t always pleasant in the movie; like many obsessed people, he sacrifices current relationships and dreams to scratch that itch. Basically though he is a character we root for even when he’s shutting his supporting girlfriend out.

Kidman, who chooses to play the part of Sue without glamour, is also likely to receive Supporting Actress consideration for the upcoming Oscars. It’s the kind of performance that makes you wish she was getting more screen time – there’s a scene where she confesses her fears to Saroo that is absolutely mesmerizing. She’s gone from being one of the most beautiful women in the world to a talented actress who has compiled an enviable record of mind-blowing performances. She’s become an actress whose movies I look forward to no matter what the subject.

The movie succeeds on nearly every level even though it does kind of lose its way in the middle a little bit. The ending, even though you can predict what’s coming, will absolutely floor you and to be honest there’s a component of the ending that will bring tears to your eyes in an absolute gangbuster of an emotional payoff. I can’t recommend this movie enough.

REASONS TO GO: The story packs an emotional wallop and the payoff at the end is considerable. Patel, Kidman and Ladwa give terrific performances. Sunny Pawar gives a surprisingly powerful performance amid some wonderful cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: The film drags a little bit in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the events may be a little rough for sensitive children to watch; there’s also a bit of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Lucy character played by Rooney Mara is not based on a specific person but is rather an amalgam of Saroo’s real life girlfriends during the period covered by the movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Warchild
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Assassin’s Creed

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back


Tom Cruise finds his “make the ketchup bottle disappear” trick didn’t work as well as expected.

Tom Cruise finds his “make the ketchup bottle disappear” trick didn’t work as well as expected.

(2016) Action (Paramount) Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Aldis Hodge, Danika Yarosh, Patrick Heusinger, Holt McCallany, Judd Lombard, Jason Douglas, Madalyn Horcher, Robert Catrini, Anthony Molinari, M. Serrano, Nicole Barre, Jessica Stroup, Sharon E. Smith, Teri Wyble, Sean Boyd, Austin Hébert, Sabrina Gennarino, Ernest Wells, Lizbeth Hutchings. Directed by Edward Zwick

 

Most of us have some sort of moral code. It might not be straight and narrow and it might be more flexible than most, but it’s there. For most of us, there are things that just cannot stand. Then again, there are those whose codes, for better or worse, are about as flexible as the Rock of Gibraltar. Sometimes, that can be a good thing.

Jack Reacher (Cruise) was once in charge of a Military Police investigative unit until he retired from the armed forces. He prefers to live off the grid, moving from place to place and living off his pension which he collects in cash. He hitchhikes to get from place to place. He’s a loner by nature and will never initiate a conversation without reason to, but if you get up in his grill he absolutely will mop the floor with your carcass.

His successor in the unit is the ramrod-tough straight shooter Major Susan Turner (Smulders) on whom Reacher asks a favor from time to time. The two have developed a friendly, semi-flirtatious repartee that doesn’t seem to have much expectation that anything will come of it, but there is clearly mutual respect between the two and Reacher doesn’t respect a whole lot of people. After she arrests a group of human traffickers operating from a military base (and rescuing Reacher from being arrested himself for assault in the bargain), he tells her that he owes her a dinner and she can collect the next time he’s in D.C.

But by the time Reacher gets there, things have turned upside down; Major Turner has been arrested for espionage, something Reacher thinks smells fishy. And the more he talks to her commanding officer (McCallany), the fishier the smell. Pretty soon, he discovers that two of her direct reports in Afghanistan turned up dead. Quickly Reacher’s nose indicates that there’s a nasty little conspiracy going on and that Major Turner – whom he scarcely knows but considers a friend – is not safe in jail. He breaks her out and goes on the run, pursued by – well, everybody including a black-gloved assassin (Heusinger) with no name who might just be Reacher’s equal in hand-to-hand combat.

To further complicate matters, there’s a teenage girl (Yarosh) who may or may not be Reacher’s daughter and because she might be, she’s in the crosshairs of the killers. Whether she’s his progeny or not, he can’t just leave her in the hands of the wolves, so Reacher knows he’s going to have to do what he does best – kick ass and dig until he finds the truth, assuming you can handle it (see what I did there).

The Reacher book series penned by author Lee Child is at 21 books as of this writing and continuing to climb. The series has a fairly rabid fan base, not all of whom are especially pleased over the two films that have been adapted, particularly as the hero is 6’4” in the book, nearly a foot taller than what Cruise is in real life. Short of budget-busting special effects, nothing is going to make Cruise that tall. He is then forced to take up the slack with attitude.

And to a certain extent, it works. Reacher feels dangerous here. Maybe it’s the way he looks at you sideways or the coiled spring tension in Cruise’s body language but you get a sense that rubbing this guy the wrong way would be a bad and potentially fatal idea. I will give Cruise that – he gets the attitude of Reacher right.

But that makes it a bit of a hard sell. Reacher as written isn’t the sharing kind. He’s taciturn, sullen, often hostile. He’s smart in a predatory kind of way. He’s also self-disciplined as you’d expect for an elite military officer but that doesn’t mean he can’t explode into violence when the need arises. It’s the kind of character that Clint Eastwood might have owned a few decades ago, or more recently maybe Schwarzenegger. In many ways, Jack Reacher isn’t much different than a number of action hero loners with faulty social skills and therein lies the rub.

Much of the movie (particularly in the second half) requires Reacher to be something of a father figure and it just comes off…wrong. Reacher is loyal to a fault but that doesn’t make him an ideal family man. The interactions between Reacher and Samantha (said sullen teen whose moral compass is a bit shadier than his) are awkward as they should be, but that ends up making you feel uncomfortable, like listening to Florence Foster Jenkins singing karaoke.

The action sequences are decently staged, although unremarkable in and of themselves. The climactic fight between the assassin and Reacher on the rooftops of the French Quarter (and it must be said that the Big Easy looks pretty great here) is lengthy but it feels predictable. I’m not saying that it’s horrible, it just didn’t wow me. Perhaps I’ve seen too many action movies.

All in all, this is entertaining enough to recommend but not enough to recommend vigorously. I think that a good movie can be made from the Child novels but thus far the movies have been decent but not memorable. They make for some nice time fillers if you’re bored and want to kill a couple of hours, but if you’ve got a yen for an action movie that’s going to leave you breathless with your heart pounding, this isn’t the one to select.

REASONS TO GO: Some pretty decent action sequences highlight the film. The filmmakers utilize the New Orleans location nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: For the most part the film is pretty unremarkable. It loses steam in the second half.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of violence and action movie goodness, a bit of profanity, some adult themes and a couple of bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on the eighteenth book in the series; its predecessor was based on the ninth book.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/17/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Out for Justice
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Denial

Casino (1995)


Bright lights, sin city.

Bright lights, sin city.

(1995) Drama (Universal) Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone, Joe Pesci, James Woods, Don Rickles, Alan King, Kevin Pollak, L.Q. Jones, Dick Smothers, Pat Vincent, John Bloom, Pasquale Cajano, Melissa Prophet, Bill Allison, Vinny Vella, Phillip Suriano, Erika von Tagen, Joseph Rigano, Gene Ruffini, Dominick Grieco, Millicent Sheridan. Directed by Martin Scorsese

There’s no doubt that director Martin Scorsese is an American treasure. When all is said and done he will go down as one of the great directors of all time – up there with Truffault, Hitchcock, Sturges, Ford, Capra, Kurosawa and Ray. One of the elite.

Casino is one of his masterpieces. Some of his fans believe it is his best, although when you put it up next to Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas and The Departed that’s a tough claim to make, but there is certainly some argument to be made for it. In my own case, I tend to have a soft spot in my heart for it, particularly since Da Queen and I visit Las Vegas so often, there’s a particular fascination not just for the setting but the era as well.

Based on the lives of Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, Geri McGee and Anthony Spilotro, the movie takes place in the waning days of the mob in Vegas. Sam “Ace” Rothstein (De Niro) is an expert gambler who has made himself useful to the mob as a sports handicapper, one of the best in the business. He is sent to Vegas by the Teamsters-fronted Outfit to run the Tangiers, and soon doubles their earnings, which delights the bosses back in Chicago.

What is most important to the bosses is the skim, the amount of cash that is taken off the top of the casino’s earnings and sent directly to mob accountants to be hidden, while never appearing in the casino’s balance sheet and thus never getting taxed. As long as the skim is healthy, the bosses are happy and as long as the bosses are happy, Sam’s life expectancy stays reasonable.

His boyhood friend Nicky Santoro (Pesci) is sent to Vegas to be the enforcer, but his brutality and high-strung temperament eventually get him banned from every important casino in Vegas, so he has to resort to burglary to supplement his income. The mob bosses aren’t happy with Nicky but they more or less keep him around.

While this is going on, Sam falls in love with Ginger McKenna (Stone), an ex-prostitute whose boyfriend, Lester Diamond (Woods) was once her pimp and is now a cheap hustler. Sam convinces her to marry him although she is still plainly in love with Diamond, and she does, eventually giving birth to his daughter.

Things start to spiral downward for Sam and his friends as Ginger’s drug abuse, binge spending and affairs with Diamond – and with Nicky – threaten the lives of all three of them. Sam tries to distance himself but if the mob bosses go down, you know they’re going to make sure that no loose ends exist who can put them away.

Although many, including myself, consider the first two Godfather films to be the best movies on organized crime in history, I think it’s fair to say that Scorsese is the best director of movies on organized crime ever. He’s clearly fascinated by the psychology of the good fella, but also as shown here of that of the gambler.

This was the eighth and to date last collaboration between De Niro and Scorsese and they go out with a bang. De Niro is never better than he is here, playing the clever, street smart and somewhat mercurial casino manager. He knows he’s walking a dangerously fine line and knows just how to do it and keep everybody happy, but what he can’t do is control what the people around him are doing and that gets him into hot water. De Niro makes Sam kind of a tragic hero, one undone by the actions of his wife and best friend. It’s almost Shakespearean in many ways.

De Niro is aided by a fine supporting cast, including Stone in her signature role, one that would get her nominated for an Oscar. Her Ginger is high strung, weak, and plainly the kind of woman who can’t say no to anyone if it means she gets what she wants, but at the same time isn’t smart or patient enough to wait for what she wants to come to her. She’s not really a tragic figure – she’s weak, she’s addicted and she can’t escape who she is as much as she wants to. It is amazing Sam fell in love with her but then again, she’s a beautiful woman as Geri McGee was in real life.

Pesci is at his Pesci best here. While he’ll likely be remembered for his character Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas, this will also be part of his legacy, the ruthless and far more sadistic Nicky Santoro who puts an unfortunate’s head into a vise in order to get him to talk (the real life Spilotro actually did just that and in the end his victim talked). Santoro is like a bull in a china shop, a loose cannon likely to go off anywhere and at anytime. His affair with Ginger would be the beginning of the end of the mob in Vegas.

While we see the lights and the glamour of Vegas, we also see the seedier side, the darker side and the side they don’t talk much about in the Chamber of Commerce. The events in Casino are well-documented and were part of Vegas lore; Rosenthal’s fall would lead to the decline of the mob’s influence in Sin City. Vegas in fact changed dramatically in the 30 years since the events here took place, going from the smaller casinos to the multi-billion dollar megaresorts that dominate the Strip today. Even so, there are old-timers who look back to that era with some affection.

What makes Scorsese’s Casino so special isn’t so much that it is based on a true story, or even that the acting performances are so exemplary; it isn’t even the terrific look of the film that cinematographer Robert Richardson assembled (although he didn’t agree; he hated the look of the movie so much that he wouldn’t use the cameras that he used here again for more than 20 years) that captures both the neon glory of downtown Law Vegas and the nascent Strip, but also the back rooms, the gaudy mansions, the seedy and the sensational.

While the third act drags a little for me in watching the final, painful fall of Sam, I can’t help but admire the movie overall as a masterpiece, one of several to Scorsese’s credit. And while Raging Bull was a more intense experience, Taxi Driver the better film from a filmmaking aspect and Goodfellas probably more enjoyable overall, Casino remains more of a sentimental favorite for me. It depicts an era, a mentality and a tragedy that reminds me of Shakespeare and yet is distinctly American. This is a classic that should be on every movie buff’s must-see list.

WHY RENT THIS: One of Scorsese’s best (and that’s saying something). Awesome look at the dark side of Las Vegas. Great performances from De Niro, Pesci and Stone. Gorgeous cinematography.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ending could have taken less time to gestate.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence, some of it brutal; there is also foul language pretty much throughout the film. There are also depictions of drug use and sexuality as well.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The casino scenes were shot at the Riviera (which recently closed and is scheduled to be imploded in the summer of 2015), while the exterior of the hotel was shot at the Landmark (which was imploded shortly after the movie was shot). However, the events of the film took place at the Stardust which closed in 2006 and was demolished in 2007, as well as at three other casinos which are also gone (but primarily at the Stardust).
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition contains a history of Las Vegas as well as a profile on writer Nicholas Pileggi.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $116.1M on a $50M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, Vudu, iTunes, Flixster
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goodfellas
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Woman Power Returns!

Love and Mercy


Brian Wilson, just chillin'.

Brian Wilson, just chillin’.

(2014) Biographical Drama (Roadside Attractions) John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, Jake Abel, Kenny Wormald, Joanna Going, Dee Wallace, Max Schneider, Graham Rogers, Nikki Wright, Tyson Ritter, Brett Davern, Erin Darke, Diana Maria Riva, Bill Camp, Johnny Sneed, Claudia Graf, Tonja Kahlens, Carolyn Stotesbery. Directed by Bill Pohlad

The word “genius” is often thrown about the media like a demented Frisbee, landing on both the deserving and the undeserving. Of the former category, one would have to include Brian Wilson, the man behind the Beach Boys sound. Those unfamiliar with popular music who think of the Beach Boys as the band solely of “California Girls” and “Surfing USA” clearly missed some of the great music of the era, exemplified with “Good Vibrations,” “Heroes and Villains” and “God Only Knows.”

Wilson, like many authentic geniuses, was tormented throughout most of his life. As a young man (Dano) when he was churning out hit after hit for the Beach Boys, his tyrannical and emotionally abusive father Murray (Camp), himself a frustrated former musician belittled his son’s accomplishments, especially after the band fired him as their manager. “In five years, nobody will remember you,” he sneers at one point, “Nobody will remember the Beach Boys.” Clearly, he was wrong.

However, Brian’s insecurities blossomed into full-fledged paranoia, exacerbated by drug abuse. The pressures of creating not only great music but music that sells began to take its toll not just on Brian but also within the band; Mike Love (Abel), the band’s lead vocalist, resisted change vigorously, wishing to stay with a tried and true formula, even though as Brian foresaw, musical tastes were changing rapidly and the Beach Boys were just as rapidly becoming irrelevant. Brian’s marriage to wife Marilyn (Darke) disintegrated and as his mental health deteriorated, he would enter a period of reclusiveness (rarely leaving his bed) and morbid weight gain, at one time clocking in at well over 300 pounds. Drug-addled and plagued by erratic behavior, his family worried for his health and sanity.

In the 1980s he came under the care of radical therapist Eugene Landy (Giamatti) who became his legal guardian. Landy separated Brian from his brothers and mother (his father had passed away in 1973) and essentially oversaw every facet of his life, making decisions for him. Brian at this time (Cusack) was a shell of a man, functioning but just barely so. During this period he met the beautiful blonde ex-model Melinda Ledbetter (Banks) at a Cadillac agency where she sold cars. The two hit it off and began dating, under the strict supervision of Landy who eventually made the couple separate. Ledbetter, concerned about Brian’s worsening condition, fought for and achieved Landy’s removal. She would eventually marry Brian and the two remain a couple today.

Pohlad has more experience as a producer than as a director, although he has been associated with Terrence Malick somewhat of late and that approach has served him well here, refusing to take the route of standard musical biopics and instead takes the more fragmented approach of the Todd Bridges Dylan bio I’m Not There which may have as much to do with employing that film’s writer Oren Moverman as writer here.

One thing (of many) Pohlad did right was the casting. Dano is a near-perfect choice for the young Brian, capturing both his fragile emotional state and his absolute mastery in the studio. The real Brian Wilson’s experiments with psychotropic drugs would lead him to auditory hallucinations that he still suffers from today; not only does Pohlad really give us a sense of what Brian was hearing (with snippets of classic Beach Boys riffs in amazing mash-ups by film composer Atticus Ross) but Dano sells it, showing Brian’s fascination and occasional frustration with the music he couldn’t escape even if he wanted to. We see how tormented he was outside the studio and how happy he was in it; as Brian and his bandmates gather around the microphone to sing the harmonies that justifiably made them famous, only then does Dano’s Brian Wilson look truly happy.

As the middle-aged Bryan, Cusack turns in one of the best performances of his career – and as many of you might know, I’m a big fan of Cusack so that’s saying something. The older Brian is a completely different person than the younger one, although they have much in common – which is what inspired Pohlad to cast two actors who don’t really resemble each other to play him. This Brian is damaged goods, completely dominated and cowed by the powerful personality of Landy who exudes cult-like control over the musician. Cusack resists the temptation to make Wilson a collection of tics and neuroses; he seems like a fairly normal guy until you spend a goodly amount of time with him.

Giamatti may well be the best villain of the summer; he plays Landy as a controlling tyrant with a terrible temper. He seems nice enough and compassionate at first glance but soon the sadistic side shows through the cracks. Giamatti imbues Landy with enough soft-voiced charm to make him seem like a coiled snake, able to strike at any moment. It’s a compelling performance that if this were released in the fall might be getting some serious Supporting Actor buzz. He might anyway.

Banks gets short shrift here because the other performances are so strong, but that doesn’t mean she’s a slouch. In fact, although at first Melinda seems like essentially just a pretty face, we get to see the core of steel inside her as the movie progresses. The one false note lies in the writing; I think that it would be natural for others to think Melinda is a gold digger – Landy brings it up near the end of the movie. However, it really isn’t addressed in the movie, how others other than Brian and Landy are reacting to her. I would have liked to see what the perception of her was among the Wilson family, although to be fair it’s likely that Brian upon whose recollections the movie is based may not have known.

Pohlad tries to give us a sense of what Brian was experiencing, using sound and lighting effects to give us a sense of his torment. I heard that some moviegoers walked out during one of these sequences at a screening attended by one of my friends. I didn’t find them especially offensive, but clearly some did for whatever reason.

Having seen the documentary The Wrecking Crew recently and knowing that  they were involved with recording the Beach Boys music in the studio gave me an extra perspective into the film. I’m not saying it’s required viewing prior to watching Love & Mercy but it certainly is an advantage.

This is definitely one of the best movies to arrive so far this year. Incendiary performances, imaginative storytelling, terrific music and insight into not so much the music that Brian Wilson created but the mental illness that may or may not have gone hand in hand with it.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances all around. Captures both eras nicely. Of course, the music.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the scenes depicting Wilson’s mental issues may be confusing or even disturbing to some.
FAMILY VALUES: Definitely some adult themes, depictions of drug use and a fair amount of swearing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the studio scenes in which Brian and the Beach Boys are recording Pet Sounds were filmed in the actual studios where the iconic album was recorded. Most of the Wrecking Crew were portrayed by Brian Wilson’s current band and Dano used actual studio recordings to stop the band and instruct the musicians as to what he wanted.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I’m Not There
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: Time Lapse