Brick Mansions


A pictorial representation of what is wrong with this movie.

A pictorial representation of what is wrong with this movie.

(2014) Action (Relativity) Paul Walker, David Belle, RZA, Gouchy Boy, Catalina Denis, Ayisha Issa, Carlo Rota, Andreas Apergis, Richard Zeman, Robert Maillet, Bruce Ramsay, Frank Fontaine, Chimwemwe Dave Miller, Bradshaw Anderson, Ryan Trudeau, Ron Lea, Danny Blanco Hall, Bruce Dinsmore, Carolina Barczak, Kalinka Petrie. Directed by Camille Delamarre

When Paul Walker passed away in November of last year, he had two films in the can and was in the midst of filming the seventh installment of the popular Fast and Furious series. He had a reputation for being one of the nicest and most compassionate guys in Hollywood, but had never really been able to move past a certain kind of role, mainly in action films and thrillers, that he played throughout his career.

Which is a shame. I would have liked to have seen him grow as an actor and I have no doubt he had that capability within him, but we’ll never know for sure. That’s what makes watching this movie which even by the standards of some of the turkeys he did was pretty awful.

In 2018 Detroit, the ghetto of Brick Mansions – once a sought-after address in the city but now overrun by drugs, gangs, crime and poverty – has been walled off and all services, including schools, hospitals and police patrols, removed leaving the citizens of that zip code to rot and fend for themselves.

Drug lord Tremaine Alexander (RZA) rules over his kingdom with an iron fist, although there are some chinks in his armor. One big one is Lino (Belle), a French-Caribbean who is a master martial artist and parkour runner who takes issue with Tremaine’s policies. Recently he’s pilfered some 20 kilos of drugs and destroyed them, which makes Tremaine none too happy. He sends his number two man, called K2 (Boy) to kidnap Lino’s girlfriend Lola (Denis) and hold her hostage basically to bring Lino back to the Mansions after Lino was arrested by a corrupt cop.

Undercover detective Damien Collier (Walker) also has a bone to pick with Tremaine. Collier’s father was murdered in cold blood by the drug lord and Damien has dedicated his life to bringing the all-but-untouchable criminal to justice. Having just taken down George the Greek (Rota), one of Tremaine’s main suppliers, he is offered the opportunity by the mayor (Ramsay) to go in and do some real good.

Apparently some of Tremaine’s men had ambushed an armored car that was transporting a neutron bomb – the kind that kills people but leaves buildings intact – and the ignorant Tremaine had accidentally armed it. The clock is ticking and in order to find the bomb and punch in the code to neutralize it, Damien will need someone who is familiar with the Mansions. And Lino just happens to be available.

Of course, the two men have differing agendas – Lino is much more concerned with getting his girlfriend back – and neither one trusts each other but given the firepower at Tremaine’s disposal and the high stakes they’re playing for, they will have to figure out a way to become a team if they are to rescue the girl, neutralize the bomb and capture the bad guy.

Writer-producer Luc Besson adapted this from District B-13 which also starred Belle, who happens to be one of the originators of parkour and still one of the best practitioners of the discipline. When Belle is onscreen, it’s magic and for those who haven’t seen him in the Besson film (and its sequel) this is a nice introduction to some of the amazing stunts that he can do.

Sadly, nothing in the rest of the film really holds up. Walker is at least somewhat charismatic, although he is given a character who mostly reacts to Belle’s actions. This is the kind of role that is normally in Walker’s wheelhouse and I think that he’s given a pass here mostly because of the situation, but were he still alive I think that the critics would have been much harsher. More on that in a minute.

The rest of the cast ranges from mediocre to just plain godawful. The plot has holes in it you can drive a dump truck through and the filmmaker needlessly gives the ending away in the very first scene. I could go on, but it would just be flogging a dead horse.

The French original is really much better – a better story, better acting and it still has Belle in it. Sadly for Walker fans, neither he nor Belle can save this film which fails in so many unnecessary ways. Remaking a film from another country doesn’t mean you have to dumb it down for an American audience, although sometimes it might seem that way.

The real tragedy of Walker’s passing is the wasted potential. He was well on his way to being a possible A-lister; just a couple of roles that took him out of the usual ones he did would have done it. There are critics who said that Walker had limited range and limited potential but I disagree. Some of his work in earlier films were pretty memorable. Unfortunately, films like this may well be his legacy. He deserved better.

REASONS TO GO: Great parkour action.

REASONS TO STAY: A disappointing American remake of a much better French film. Outside of Walker and Belle, the cast is uniformly horrible.

FAMILY VALUES:  All sorts of violence, gunplay and action, a fair amount of salty language, some sexual menace and quite a bit of drug content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In reality Belle speaks with a thick French accent and he isn’t fluent in English. To make it more believable that he had been a long time Detroit resident, all of his dialogue was dubbed by Vin Diesel.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/11/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 27% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Raid: Redemption

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: The Other Woman

Holy Rollers


Holy Rollers

Oy! Betcha Jesse Eisenberg never flew coach in that Facebook movie!

(2010) Drama (First Independent) Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Bartha, Danny Abeckaser, Ari Gaynor, Mark Ivanir, Elizabeth Marvel, Jason Fuchs, Q-Tip, Hallie Eisenberg, Bern Cohen, Stella Keitel, David Vadim, Charlie Hewson, Penny Bittone, Ori Pfeffer. Directed by Kevin Asch

 

The Hasidic Jews are particularly devout in their Jewishness. They tend to follow Jewish law more closely than the reform and even the orthodox sects. With their distinctive side curls and black dress, they are easily identifiable and travel freely all over the world. Their devotion to God is such that crime is extremely rare among them, enough so that law enforcement doesn’t consider them any sort of threat.

Certainly Sam Gold (J. Eisenberg) wouldn’t seem to be. A young man growing up in the Hassidic community of Brooklyn, his life seems to be pretty much mapped out for him; a marriage arranged for him by his parents, a future as a rabbi which he is studying to be and raising a family in the same community he himself grew up in. The world for Sam is a pretty stable, secure place.

Then that stability begins to crumble. His marriage arrangement ends, leaving him single and a figure of some suspicion in the community. His father and mother become keenly disappointed in him, wondering if he fits in to the community at all. Sam begins to question himself.

His best friend’s (Fuchs) brother Yosef Zimmerman (Bartha) asks Sam to do him a favor amidst all this. If he could just go to Amsterdam and pick up a small bag of pills, some medicine that is extremely expensive here but cheap over there – he’d be ever so grateful.

Sam naively agrees. Soon he finds out what he’s really transporting – ecstasy – but rather than recoil, he embraces his new venture. With his business acumen learned from his father, he impresses Yosef’s boss Jackie (Abeckaser) who takes Sam under his wing. He also impresses Rachel (Graynor), Jackie’s girlfriend whom he develops a connection to. Sam begins to make some serious money, far more than his father. He becomes intimately familiar with the night life in Manhattan and Amsterdam. He changes.

Sam thinks he’s the smartest boy on the block, not realizing the police are pretty smart too and are closing in on him. In fact, Sam in wanting to make something of himself truly has – an outsider in his own community.

Loosely based on actual events, director Asch creates a movie that in lesser hands might have wound up as cliche and boring. He chooses not to make this a movie of car chases and gun fights but of insight into the Hassidic community and a look at the evolution of a young man from Godly to criminal.

Unfortunately, we don’t really see it as an evolution so much as an abrupt change from one to the other. We never get a sense of Sam’s moral dilemma, never see him wrestling with his conscience. One moment he’s a naive, shy Hasid and the next he’s a worldly drug lord, overseeing a network of Hassidic mules going from Amsterdam to New York City with the notion that the Hassidic won’t excite suspicion from the authorities.

This is the type of role Jesse Eisenberg does so well with. He can capture both elements of the character – the shy naiveté and the brusque somewhat streetwise criminal. In a large sense, it’s reminiscent of his Oscar-nominated performance in The Social Network although mostly there he is in the latter mode.

The story is unusual enough that it captures the attention; the execution of it sadly misses the mark somewhat. Still, there’s enough rich material here to keep the film moving from start to finish and keep our interest until the end credits run. I wish they might have taken a little more time to develop the internal conflict that Sam surely must have had; the audience might have been able to get behind the character more instead of just thinking he’s a colossal putz.

WHY RENT THIS: A role tailor-made for Eisenberg’s strengths. A rare look inside the Hasidic community. An interesting and unusual concept.. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sam’s change of character is abrupt and not well-explained.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some brief sexual stuff, lots of drug use and some foul language. Not to mention some Hassidic ass-kicking like you wouldn’t believe.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jesse and Hallie Eisenberg, siblings in real life, play siblings in the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a sit-down interview with Bartha and Eisenberg, detailing the actor’s preparations for the film and how they became involved with it.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $608,027 on an unreported production budget; the movie was probably somewhere just south of breaking even.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Chloe

Tropic Thunder


Tropic Thunder

Stiller and Downey share a tender moment in Tropic Thunder.

(2008) Comedy (DreamWorks) Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Nick Nolte, Steve Coogan, Tom Cruise, Jay Baruchel, Bill Hader, Matthew McConaughey, Danny McBride, Brandon Jackson, Matt Levin, Reggie Lee.  Directed by Ben Stiller

Hollywood is indeed a dream factory, a place in which fantasies are packaged and sold. In making these fantasies however, sometimes real life becomes blurred and the line between the two disappears completely.

Tugg Speedman (Stiller) is an action star who yearned to branch out and do serious drama, but his one attempt (“Simple Jack”) ended up in disaster, with Tugg playing a mentally challenged farmer who thought he could communicate with animals. It was a naked Oscar play and everyone knew it and now Tugg’s career is in the dumpster. He’s making a big-budget star-studded war film to do a little career resuscitation.

The movie he’s doing is based on the memoirs of a Vietnam vet named Four Leaf Tayback (Nolte), a tough as nails soldier who lost limbs in the war. Joining Tugg in the cast is Kirk Lazarus (Downey), a five-time Oscar winner and method actor who gets so into the role he has his skin surgically dyed so he is able to convincingly play a black Sergeant. Comedian Jeff Portnoy (Black) has made a career out of fart jokes and self-indulgence. A heroin addict, he is on the raggedy edge of falling apart.

This is enough to give any director cardiac arrest, and director Damien Cockburn (Coogan) is close to it himself. The massive budget is spiraling out of control, with the prima donna actors causing numerous delays while technical issues drive the production further into the red and behind schedule. The studio head, Les Grossman (Cruise) is placing enough pressure on Cockburn to make the Dali Lama pick up an AK-47 and start firing randomly.

So, taking a cue from the crusty Tayback, Cockburn decides to send the cast into the real jungle, with cameras set up in various places. No trailers, no personal assistants, no Blackberries – just acting in the jungle. Speedman is gung ho for the idea, even after things begin to go south. As in, they fall afoul of an actual crew of drug runners who are shooting at them with real bullets. The actors, not knowing any better, are merely waiting for someone to yell “cut”!

This is a nice little satire on Hollywood and its denizens, from the unctuous agent (McConaughey) to the harried studio assistant (Hader). Stiller turns this into a cross between Airplane and Rambo with a number of homages in between. In fact there are so many you have to keep a sharp eye open to catch them all.

With a cast like this you’d expect there to be some hilarity but very often in these kind of all-star romps it descends into a series of bits that ultimately don’t make much of a cohesive whole. That’s not the problem here. This isn’t a bunch of stars doing their thing – it’s a movie in which everyone contributes their bit, from Jackson as rapper Alpa Chino who as the only actor who is genuinely of African descent is annoyed at the antics of Lazarus who in his method haze genuinely believes he’s black to McBride as an explosives expert who is in above his head.

Downey in fact proves to be a terrific comic actor who isn’t above poking fun at himself. Downey is himself a method actor and stays in character onscreen and off until, as Lazarus puts it, the DVD commentary is done. Stiller bulked up to play the somewhat clueless Speedman. It’s a bit like shooting fish in a barrel but still his character has a bit of Hollywood diva in it to make it more interesting than the average action star send-up.

Black is actually a little bit toned down here, although he has moments in which he indulges his usual manic persona a little bit. I think it works even in the context of Portnoy the heroin addict, although towards the end of the movie the character is wearing a bit thin on me.

For my money it is Cruise who makes the biggest impact here, completely going out on a limb as the foul-mouthed bastard of a studio head. His performance was so indelible that plans are afoot to make a movie based on his character when Cruise finishes his next film. There are those who think that Cruise restored a lot of bad karma to the good side with his performance here. I’m not such a big believer in that kind of thing, but I do believe you’ll remember Cruise long after the movie’s over.

There are times that the movie tries a bit too hard to be funny and becomes rather silly instead (which is usually what happens when you try too hard to be funny) but fortunately that doesn’t happen often enough to be of consequence. As comedies go, this one should be near the top of your list when searching the DVD racks for something funny to watch.

WHY RENT THIS: A terrific cast that works well together to make a great ensemble film, rather than a bunch of bits strung together. Cruise is classic as the foul-mouthed studio mogul.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Descends into silliness upon occasion.  

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a lot of bad words, a lot of sexual innuendo, a bit of drug usage and a whole mess o’ violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to Stiller, Jack Black filmed most of the movie with bruised ribs.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an excellent Mockumentary on the making of the film that is supposedly being made with a nod to Heart of Darkness and Werner Herzog. There’s a bit of raw footage showing how the actor’s improvised on set plus a piece from the MTV Movie Awards showing how a trio of the leads tried to promote the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $188.1M on a $92M production budget; the movie broke even.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Everything Must Go