Snatched (2017)


Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn get a look at the reviews.

(2017) Comedy (20th Century Fox) Amy Schumer, Goldie Hawn, Wanda Sykes, Joan Cusack, Randall Park, Oscar Jaenada, Tom Bateman, Christopher Meloni, Al Madrigal, Bashir Salahuddin, Arturo Castro, Raven Goodwin, Ike Barinholtz, Kate Dippold, Moani Hara, Nicholas J. Lockwood, Pedro Haro, Tom Choi, Modesto Cordero, Linda Molina, Kim Caramele. Directed by Jonathan Levine

 

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating; comedy is a highly personal thing. Everyone’s taste is different. One person’s belly laugh is another person’s meh and vice versa. We all react differently to different stimuli and what tickles our funny bones can’t necessarily be predicted. I know there are things I find funny one day that I wonder what on earth I was thinking the next. Still, there are things that we can universally agree on are not as funny as others.

Take this Mothers Day comedy. Emily Middleton (Schumer) is failing at life. Fired from her retail job, dumped by her musician boyfriend and left holding the bag on a non-refundable vacation to Ecuador – Ecuador? – she searches desperately for someone to go with on the “trip of a lifetime” (Ecuador?) but none of her friends are particularly interested in going or more to the point, interested in going with her. Judging on the behavior we observe in the first ten minutes of the film, one can scarcely blame them.

With almost no options available, she turns to her mother Linda (Hawn), an adventure-challenged cat lady of a mom who is happiest staying at home with a glass of wine and a book. One has to wonder why, particularly since Emily’s agoraphobic and passive-aggressively spoiled younger brother Jeffrey (Barinholtz) lives with mom, whom he addresses as “Ma-mah” and complains loudly if his bread isn’t warm enough. Millennials *eyeroll*!

Emily manages to convince Linda to go but it promises to be as awkward as you can imagine. Linda bundles up like a mummy by the pool and slathers Emily with enough SPF-1000 to deflect a flamethrower. Linda also shows no interest in going out partying so Emily goes by herself and is picked up by the handsome and charming James (Bateman). One simply can’t fathom what he could possibly see in her until of course it turns out his interest is strictly financial.

He arranges for Linda and Emily to be kidnapped by a ponytailed drug lord named Morgado (Jaenada) for white slavery purposes. However, the two intrepid women escape from Morgado’s essentially brain-dead  thugs and hook up with an Indiana Jones wannabe named Roger Simmons (Meloni) whose wilderness experience is limited to being the former manager at a Best Buy. With Jeffrey trying to get the U.S. Embassy to mount a rescue and the women trying to make their way back to civilization with an enraged Morgado in hot pursuit with a personal vendetta, the jungle might not be the safest place to be.

On paper, this should have worked. A strong cast led by the redoubtable Hawn who reminds us here why she was one of the greatest comediennes of her generation and a director who has some pretty quality films on his resume with a writer who co-wrote some of Melissa McCarthy’s best movies all lead to the assumption that this should have been a high quality film. Sadly, it Is not.

Hawn is one of the bright spots here although Schumer acquits herself reasonably well in a thankless role that mainly consists of the actress going from one onscreen embarrassment to the next. Schumer is one of the most talented comedic actresses working today but this feels like the character was cobbled together from dozens of other characters Schumer has played over the years. There’s nothing really original for her to sink her teeth into.

Poor Barinholtz, generally a pretty reliable character actor, gives his all to a character who you just want to punch in the throat at nearly every opportunity but the character is so inherently unlikable that you don’t care if he improves himself or not. Likewise the Emily character starts off basically as a self-involved bitch but as she spends more time with her mom becomes softer and more humble. Schumer is likable enough that even in an unlikable role we end up rooting for her but the transformation is fairly cliché.

The major sin here is that the comic set pieces – and the movie literally one set piece after another after another – are mostly unfunny. You don’t expect everything to work but you would hope at least 50% worked. That’s not the case here. Most of the gags here left me completely flat. There are some that work – and a lot of them are in the trailer – but there are fewer that work than don’t.

Hawn is really the reason to see this movie, particularly if you’re of a certain age. She’s not the Cactus Flower at this stage of her career but she still has deft comic timing and a screen persona that is both ditzy and charming. Schumer and her have a pretty comfortable chemistry that makes one wonder/hope that there might be further collaborations for the two in the future. If there is, one hopes they get better material to work with than this.

REASONS TO GO: It is wonderful to see Hawn onscreen again who remains an engaging screen personality.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is dreadfully unfunny in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief nudity, plenty of profanity and some sexual content of the crude variety.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Hawn’s first movie since 2002 when she made The Banger Sisters.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grandma
FINAL RATING: 6/10 (about 4 of which is Hawn)
NEXT: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

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Mustang


"Break out up the middle on three. Ready? Break!"

“Break out up the middle on three. Ready? Break!”

(2015) Drama (Cohen) Gűnes Sensoy, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Elit Iscan, Tugba Sunguroglu, Ilayda Akdogan, Nihal G. Koldas, Ayberk Pekcan, Bahar Kerimoglu, Burak Yigit, Erol Afsin, Suzanne Marrot, Serife Kara, Aynur Komecoglu, Serpil Reis, Rukiye Sariahmet, Kadir Celebi, Muzeyyen Celebi. Directed by Deniz Gamze Ergűven

In a patriarchal society, women are often seen as little more than brood mares and chattel, auctioned off to the highest bidder and made as marriageable as possible in order to take them off the hands of their poor parents who must pay for their care and feeding, the sooner the better. While the world is evolving in general from such beliefs, in more rural areas of certain parts of the world, these attitudes persist.

Lale (Sensoy) is the youngest of five orphaned sisters living with their grandmother (Koldas) in a compound-like home in a small seaside town in Northern Turkey. Walking home from school, they encounter some boys who are friends (not boyfriends) by the beach and decide to go swimming, still in their school clothes. Their innocent childish games catch the attention of an elderly woman who reports their behavior as obscene and libidinous to their grandmother, who proceeds to initiate beatings for all five sisters.

Their brute of an Uncle Erol (Pekcan) proceeds to put the house on lockdown, turning a beautiful home into a virtual prison – a wife-making factory in fact in which the five sisters are removed from school, taught classes in sewing, tea-making and essentially home economics. Uncle Erol and grandmother move quickly to arrange marriages for the eldest, then the others in turn.

In the meantime the high-spirited girls have trouble adjusting to their newfound confinement, growing bold and concerned about the future they have in store that is being made for them without any input from the girls themselves. In heartbreaking fashion, they slowly break as their world shrinks to the confines of their barred and gated home and their purpose in life to please husbands they haven’t even met. Only Lale, the youngest and the most outspoken of the bunch, seems to have any spirit left.

This is an impressive film that was France’s official submission for the Foreign Language Film category, making the Oscar shortlist (as of this writing the Awards haven’t been presented yet) and being nominated for the same award in the Golden Globes as well. The nomination is well-deserved. Ergűven weaves a spell-binding tale that not only exposes the archaic attitudes towards women that exists in certain Muslim-dominated countries but also our own, lest we forget the attitudes of the Christian right having to do with abortion and female sexuality.

Ergűven cast the film wisely, particularly with Sensoy whose jaw-jutting petulance mark her Lale as an utter handful. She’s demanding and opinionated, something not tolerated well in traditional Muslim households when regarding women. In fact, that’s where the film title comes from; Lale is untamed and unbroken, although the same doesn’t remain true for all of her sisters as the marriage train comes to pluck them one-by-one, Ten Little Indians-fashion.

The five actresses with their long flowing brunette locks look like sisters and act like them too. Few films I’ve seen really capture the dynamic of sisters as well, from the bawdy teasing to the occasional rivalry and bitter fights. All five of the sisters are beautiful and not just physically; they have an inner beauty that radiates from them like an angelic glow.

Frequent Nick Cave collaborator Warren Ellis contributes the synth-heavy score, and it is very effective, never intruding on the viewer but always beautiful and haunting. Cinematographers David Chizallet and Ersin Gok take advantage of the bucolic Turkish village, making it seem almost idyllic until we see the ugliness beneath.

If I have one criticism of the movie, it’s that the editing is a bit choppy, going from scene to scene in abrupt cuts that wrench the viewer from one scene to the next. It makes the film a little bit like an old car with a bad engine and a flat tire, lurching from scene to scene. A little defter hand on the editing  bay might have made for a smoother viewing experience but at the same time, that does feel a little bit like the kind of vehicle you’d find in a town like this; well past its prime, beaten up but getting you where you need to go despite the problems.

I won’t say this is a beautiful movie, even though it looks beautiful; some of the scenes are very ugly indeed, with young girls being examined for their virginity, an indignity that American girls don’t have to tolerate. However, this is an incredibly moving and thought-provoking movie that will stay with you long after the movie is over. All five of the sisters – yes, albeit that not all of them are as well-drawn as Lale – are still with me even though I saw the movie days ago. And I’m not in a terrible hurry to ask them to leave, either.

REASONS TO GO: A look at a rarely-glimpsed culture. Forces you to examine attitudes towards women in general. Breaks your heart as the movie goes on.
REASONS TO STAY: The editing is a little choppy.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are quite adult; there’s also some mild sexuality and a rude gesture.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the feature film debut of director Deniz Gamze Ergűven.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fiddler on the Roof
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The Forest

Room (2015)


Room is the world and the world is Room.

Room is the world and the world is Room.

(2015) Drama (A24) Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, Sean Bridgers, William H. Macy, Wendy Crewson, Amanda Brugel, Joe Pingue, Cas Anvar, Zarrin Darnell-Martin, Tom McCamus, Sandy McMaster, Jee-Yun Lee, Matt Gordon, Randal Edwards, Justin Mader, Brad Wietersen, Jack Fulton, Kate Drummond, Chantelle Chung, Megan Park. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson

The world is what we perceive it to be. For some, the world is vast and extends far beyond our planet. For others, the world is boiled down to the small space of their room.

Ivy (Larson) has a very close relationship with her son Jack (Tremblay). On the occasion of his fifth birthday, she bakes him a cake. He watches TV and she makes sure he gets plenty of exercise. She tucks him into bed at night with a story, then awaits the return of his father.

But this isn’t an ordinary situation. Their home is an 11×11 garden shed and his dad kidnapped Ivy when she was 17, tricking her into getting into his car by appealing to her compassion. Since then he has kept her locked up, raping her regularly (and inadvertently creating Jack) for seven years. Their only contact with the outside world is a skylight which mostly just allows them to see passing clouds. For Jack, Room is the entire world.

Finally, his mother devises a bold escape plan and the two are finally liberated. For Jack, his world has suddenly expanded like a sponge thrown into water. For Ivy, it means a reunion with her mom (Allen) and Dad (Macy) who have divorced in the aftermath of her kidnapping. It means coping with the media which clamors to hear her story. It means adjusting to freedom, something Jack has never known.

But the thing is, both of these souls are wounded, suffering from acute Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, even if Jack hasn’t known any other life than Room, now he has to completely readjust his world view which is no easy task even for a five-year-old. Ivy has to deal with reintegrating herself into a world which has moved on without her, and she has to deal with the reality of what was done to her. She is no longer in survival mode and that can be the most dangerous time of all.

Room, which is based on an extraordinary novel turns out to be an extraordinary film. Abrahamson has taken the script, adapted for the screen by the novel’s author, and breathed life and color into it even if the color is mostly grey. The movie is set in Ohio during the fall and winter and it seems to be eternally raining, snowing or cold. Even the interiors are full of fall colors, the hospital where they are kept briefly sterile white. Only Room has bright colors, which is both ironic and intentional.

The effect brings a chill to the audience even if considering the horrifying circumstances that Ivy endures does not. And make no mistake, while those circumstances mirror several real life cases in which women were imprisoned, used as sex slaves and forced to bear children by their captor, this is a unique story unto itself and completely fictional – and completely plausible.

What makes this work are incredible performances by Larson and Tremblay. Their relationship is at the center of the story, and it is happily an authentic one. Larson has turned in several outstanding roles in a row and for my money is emerging as one of the best young actresses around. Don’t be surprised if Oscar comes knocking on her door for her work here, and certainly don’t be surprised if she nabs some high-profile roles because of it. Her character is strong on the outside, but the facade is crumbling and revealing an inner vulnerability that is heartbreaking, particularly when things come to a head about midway through the film.

Tremblay plays a child who gets frustrated, particularly when told things he doesn’t want to hear and often acts out with screaming tantrums – in other words, a typical five year old. While I think a few too many of these fits of anger are presented here – we get the point of his frustration and after awhile like any child’s tantrum they grow wearisome – that is certainly not the fault of this young actor who delivers a mature performance many veteran actors would have trouble producing. This may well be the top juvenile performance of the year.

Speaking of veteran actors, Joan Allen – one of Hollywood’s most underrated actresses – does a stellar job here as a mother who has to readjust to having her daughter back after thinking she was lost forever, and having to deal with that daughter’s own rage issues, and shifting inability to cope with all the emotions that are just now coming to the surface. Allen delivers a character who is magnificent in her grace and patience. She’s the kind of mom we all would want to have.

The story is not an easy one to watch. We are looking at people who are soul-sick, who have all suffered at the hands of the actions of one monster. All of their lives have been shattered – even Jack’s although he never knows it – and picking up the pieces is no easy thing. In many ways this is a story that is genuine and authentic. It deals not just with the physical aspects of the story, but the emotional ones as well and you’re likely to be thinking about it long after the movie is done.

It may be too intense for some; some of the scenes are raw and hard to watch. Still, thinking about it, I think you’ll agree that sitting through those scenes may feel awkward at times but it is well worth the effort.  Clearly one of the best movies of the year.

REASONS TO GO: Searing performances from Larson and Tremblay. Excellent supporting performances by Allen and McCamus. Taut, excruciating story.
REASONS TO STAY: The frequent tantrums can be annoying. May be too intense for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult situations, intimations of rape and plenty of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Joan Allen and William H. Macy played husband and wife in Pleasantville as well.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/12/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kiss the Girls
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Lucha Mexico

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials


Maze Runner The Scorch Trials

You’ve got to learn how to crawl before you learn how to run mazes.

(2015) Young Adult Sci-Fi (20th Century Fox) Dylan O’Brien, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Kaya Scodelario, Ki Hong Lee, Rosa Salazar, Dexter Darden, Alexander Flores, Jacob Lofland, Giancarlo Esposito, Patricia Clarkson, Aidan Gillen, Terry Dale Parks, Kathryn Smith-McGlynn, Lili Taylor, Barry Pepper, J. Nathan Simmons, Alan Tudyk, Lora Martinez-Cunningham. Directed by Wes Ball

It seems that whenever you’re in the middle segment of a cinematic trilogy, there’s always a bit of a letdown; there’s usually more exposition that action and it lacks the kind of energy that marks the first installment, nor the emotional punch of the third. Would that happen to this sequel to the successful young adult science fiction adaptation The Maze Runner?

Following the conclusion of that film, the survivors of the Glade are brought into an underground facility, a way station before being taken to their final destination. No, that doesn’t sound sinister at all, right? In any case, Thomas (O’Brien) hooks up with Aris (Lofland), a survivor of a different Maze (there are apparently many of them) and discovers the truth about the facility – it is wholly owned by WCKD (pronounced “wicked,” possibly the most unsubtle acronym ever), the corporate blackhearts who created the Mazes and they’re conducting medical experiments on the kids who have made it this far.

Naturally, this doesn’t appeal much to Thomas and he takes the rest of his crew – Teresa (Scodelario), Newt (Brodie-Sangster), Minho (Lee), Frypan (Darden) and Winston (Flores) out of the frying pan and into the Scorch. The Scorch is the world above ground, an arid desert with unpredictable weather patterns, terrifying storms and creatures that roam the wasteland by night. A trip to the local mall leads to the discovery that they are victims of the Flare, a virus that turns the victims homicidal and utterly insane.

Thomas and the gang are looking for The Right Arm, an underground resistance group who may be able to shelter them from WCKD who clearly want them back badly; the chief scientist for WCKD, Dr. Ava Paige (Clarkson) has sent her assassin Janson (Gillen) to go fetch Thomas and his tank engine…er, crew.

After being captured by Jorge (Esposito) and his daughter Brenda (Salazar), they get away from WCKD and head out to find Marques, the man who might be able to find the Right Arm. Once again, it’s back into the fire as a happening party turns into a 90s rave and turns into a real bad trip. Once the kids find the Right Arm, however, they are going to find out that there are worse beasts in the wasteland than madmen, and that courage may not be enough to get them all through. Making it out alive may not be in the cards for all of them, but there may be worse things ahead for all of them.

No need to keep you in suspense; this isn’t as good as the first movie. That movie had a kinetic energy that is severely lacking here. Not that there aren’t some superior action scenes; there are, but while Maze Runner felt like a sprint, this is more of a distance run. Most of the same folks that didn’t get snuffed in the first film are back with a passel of new characters as well as the bulk of the same talent behind the camera. The problem with middle films in trilogies is that they are often connectors, linking point A and point B. The middle of a story is never as interesting as the beginning or the end.

O’Brien is a little bit more animated here but the same problem that plagued the first movie plagues this one; Thomas isn’t a very interesting lead character. They try to make him that way with references to his unremembered past but the real issue is that Thomas acts like every teen hero in every cinematic adaptation of a young adult novel ever, and it really is kind of tiresome. There’s nothing here to distinguish it from its competition and even given that the audience this is playing too is a lot less discriminating, they aren’t dummies; they know lazy writing when they see it.

Most of the rest of the cast is adequate to decent; the most promising performer in the first film doesn’t appear here. It’s just that they’re not given a lot to work with; the characters are mostly bland, recycled from other stories and films. None of them really grab your attention much. That’s the problem with having characters who can’t remember their past; there isn’t a lot for the audience to hold onto other than their actions and when you’re talking about actions that are pretty much standard young adult fantasy fare that’s only worse. Even the zombie-like Flare victims don’t measure up to the monsters of The Walking Dead and the special effects here are pretty much standard.

This is bargain basement sci-fi that doesn’t really generate enough enthusiasm in me to really give it much of a recommendation which is a shame because I thought the first film had some potential. Maybe we’ll have to wait until the final installation in the trilogy to see that potential fulfilled but at this point I’m not especially waiting on the edge of my seat for February 17, 2017 to come around – the date that Maze Runner: The Death Cure is set to wrap up the series. Sad to say, I’d be just fine with them wrapping it up here unless they can do a whole lot better next time.

REASONS TO GO: Some fairly well-done action sequences. Attractive leads.
REASONS TO STAY: Really been there-done that. Lacks energy.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of violence, some thematic elements, a scene of substance use and some mild language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The studio greenlit the sequel two weeks before the first film opened after early reviews and audience scores proved to be overwhelmingly positive.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/5/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hunger Games
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Intern

Zaytoun


Stephen Dorff can't understand why he isn't a star and neither can Abdallah El Akal.

Stephen Dorff can’t understand why he isn’t a star and neither can Abdallah El Akal.

(2012) Drama (Strand) Stephen Dorff, Abdallah El Akal, Ali Suliman, Alice Taglioni, Loai Nofi, Tarik Kopty, Ashraf Barhom, Mira Awad, Joni Arbib, Ashraf Farah, Adham Abu Aqel, Nidal Badarneh, Hezi Gangina, Morad Hassan, Michel Khoury, Osamah Khoury, Doraid Liddawi. Directed by Eran Riklis

The conflict between the Palestinians and the Israeli is one of the world’s great tragedies. From the west, our perspective is that if only cooler heads could prevail on both sides perhaps they could live together in peace. Closer in however the perspective changes and things get a lot more complicated.

In 1982, Lebanon is in civil war and the Israelis are making noises about invading. Palestinian refugee camps house cells of the PLO who from time to time lob rockets into nearby Israel. Young Fahad (El Akal) lives in one such camp in Beirut but despite having a fairly laid back father and grandfather, he skips school regularly to sell gum and cigarettes on the streets of Beirut. The Lebanese themselves are not overly fond of the Palestinians who bring nothing but trouble. They chase Fahad and his friends and sometimes shoot at them. Fahad however s 12 years old and invincible. As for the camp, well, they’re more concerned that Fahad get his training by the PLO. Their homeland isn’t going to reclaim itself, after all.

That all changes with sudden ferocity when Fahad’s father is killed by a falling bomb. Fahad’s feelings for the Israelis moves from disdain and disrespect to downright hatred. Shortly afterwards, Yoni (Dorff), an Israeli fighter pilot, is shot down and captured by the PLO. Fahad is given the job of guarding the prisoner whose return to Israel might well bring about the exchange of many of their brothers-in-arms.

Fahad, still seething with hatred and sorrow, torments the prisoner and makes his feelings known to Yoni. When Yoni grabs one of Fahad’s friends to get some leverage to escape, he finds that he can’t harm the child even to secure his freedom. After he lets him go, Fahad shoots him in the leg.

While Yoni is recovering in the local clinic, an incident occurs that gives Fahad second thoughts about his current situation. He approaches Yoni who’s offered to take Fahad to Israel with him if he helps him escape. Yoni seizes the opportunity and agrees. The two steal out into the night.

At first they are antagonistic towards each other (Fahad swallows the key to Yoni’s shackles in order to make sure he can’t run off) but as time goes by, they are forced to rely on each other and they reach an understanding. For starters, Fahad lugs around with him a small bag, a soccer ball (he idolizes the Brazilian star Zico) and an olive tree which he means to plant at the family’s home in Palestine. Yoni thinks he’s nuts at first but slowly grows to realize what the olive tree means. For Fahad, his aha moment is that Yoni is not such a bad man and if one Israeli can be decent, perhaps they are not all as bad as his PLO trainers have made them out to be.

This is essentially a combination of a road film and a buddy film set in the Middle East. Naturally the politics of the region play a heavy role in the plot. Riklis, who previously directed Lemon Tree and  The Syrian Bride, both fine films as this one is as well. In many ways, this is a much more mainstream Hollywood-like film than the other two. Riklis seems to have a real empathy for the Palestinian cause; while he doesn’t come out and say in any of his films that he is in support of their determination to create a country for themselves, all three of these films are seen not from the Israeli viewpoint but from the Palestinian and in all three cases the Israelis are seen as bureaucratic and somewhat insensitive to say the least.

Dorff has been quietly putting together some really quality performances lately (see Brake) and in a just world would be well on his way to the A list. Unfortunately this isn’t a just world and so his work goes mainly unnoticed in small indie films. This is one of his stronger performances and one can only hope that someone is noticing.

El Akal has been in 12 movies in six years and at 15 years old looks to have a pretty strong career ahead of him. While I was a bit frustrated by his performance here – in some scenes he shows tremendous emotional range while in others he is as wooden as the tree he carries around with him – the moments when he is on his game he literally carries the movie. If he can be a little more consistent with his performance there’s no telling what he can achieve.

The movie is divided in three parts; the opening act which focuses on Fahad and his life in (and near) the camp; the second is his and Yoni’s dangerous trek through Lebanon to get across the border – with the help of a Bee Gees-loving taxi driver who provides some needed comedy relief – and the third Yoni and Fahad in Israel and their quest to get Fahad to a home whose location he only vaguely knows. They are all three different in tone; the first harsh and sometimes shocking (a woman is executed for infidelity while Yoni and Fahad negotiate with the cab driver to get them to the border), the second more of a thriller as the two are hunted by the Lebanese military but also by the Palestinian guerrillas. The last act is a bit more warm-hearted and sweet-natured. The three mesh surprisingly well together but that third act is a bit of a letdown after the tension of the second.

I liked the movie about equally with Riklis’ other works. I can’t say that it gives any more insight into the conflict than what we already know – that the two peoples, other than their religious differences, are essentially much more alike than they’d probably care to admit. At the very least they both share a love for a harsh and often unforgiving land which has a beauty all its own.

REASONS TO GO: Dorff delivers another strong performance. Some good suspense and drama.

REASONS TO STAY: El Akal is inconsistent. Some actions taken by the characters aren’t explained well.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s violence and children in harm’s way; there’s smoking (some of it by children), some foul language and some adult themes and situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Zaytoun” is Arabic for “olive” and refers to the olive tree Fahad carries around with him throughout the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/18/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Defiant Ones

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Aftermath

Life (1999)


 

Life

Martin Lawrence and Eddie Murphy ponder the meaning of Life.

(1999) Comedy (Universal) Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, Obba Babatunde, Nick Cassavetes, Anthony Anderson, Barry Shabaka Henley, Brent Jennings, Bernie Mac, Miguel A. Nunez Jr., Michael “Bear” Taliferro, Guy Torry, Ned Beatty, Bokeem Woodbine, Lisa Nicole Carson, Noah Emmerich, Clarence Williams III, R. Lee Ermey, Heavy D, Sanaa Lathan. Directed by Ted Demme

 

Once upon a time in America, life in prison meant precisely that. There was no early parole, no time off for good behavior. If you were sentenced to life, you could pretty much count on dying a prisoner in some godforsaken camp, farm or prison.

Rayford Gibson (Murphy) is a small-time crook in Prohibition-era New York trying to get out of debt to a Harlem mobster (James). He sets up a scheme of driving some Mississippi moonshine to the mobster’s speakeasy in New York. He ropes in as his driver Claude Banks (Lawrence), a bank teller (a bank teller named Banks? haw haw!) who has also fallen afoul of the mobster because of an unpaid gambling debt.

Gibson’s weak nature gets the better of him and after receiving the liquor shipment, he decides to do some gambling in a rural club. He gets cheated by a local card sharp (Williams) who later mouths off to the town sheriff, who murders him. Banks and Gibson have the misfortune of discovering the body, and being seen with it. They get, you guessed it, life in prison.

The two, initially antagonistic to one another, are forced to rely upon each other in the brutal work camp to which they are sentenced. Time passes and they dream of the freedom it seems will be denied them for a crime of which they aren’t guilty. Prison changes them – but will it be for the better?

There are a lot of poignant moments in Life and with Murphy and Lawrence, even more funny ones. There is social commentary in the form of how black men are treated in the South, but it isn’t strongly told or terribly compelling. Other movies explore that subject in greater depth and with greater insight.

The problem with “Life” is that the filmmakers aren’t sure whether they wanted to make a comedy, an examination of prison life in the Deep South of, say, 50 years ago, or a political/social commentary on the shaft given African Americans. They decide to do all these things, and in fact their reach exceeds their grasp.

Rick Baker does a great job of aging the two actors for their 60 year stint in prison and both actors have made a career of doing old age well; in fact, the make-up got an Oscar nomination that year. The various eras portrayed in the film are captured pretty nicely, and despite the fairly large cast the pace moves along at a good clip.

Some of the best African-American comics and comic actors in the country show up in the film, including the late Bernie Mac in a small role at the beginning of his career. The acting certainly isn’t the problem here. No, I think that the big problem is that this is kind of a Song of the South fantasy that glosses over the big issues – these guys are in prison for a crime they didn’t commit, after all – and goes for more of a sweet feeling that simply doesn’t mesh.

Life really doesn’t give you any new insights into anything. It’s mainly an excuse to pair two of the brightest comic minds at the time in America. Watching the two at work individually is fascinating, but Lawrence and Murphy don’t generate enough chemistry to hold any interest as a team, which is why they never teamed up in a movie again. Still, these two remain some of the best comedians of the past 20 years and seeing both of them together in the same film has some attraction right there.

WHY RENT THIS: Any opportunity to see Murphy and Lawrence is worth taking. Excellent supporting cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ignores the larger issues. The chemistry between Murphy and Lawrence isn’t quite as good as I would have liked.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some violence as well as plenty of salty language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Rick James’ limp as Spanky was genuine, as he’d just had hip replacement surgery.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There are some outtakes in which Lawrence and Murphy try to crack each other up – and in all honesty, some of these are funnier than what you’ll find in the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $73.3M on a $75M production budget (estimated). The movie was a financial failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shawshank Redemption

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Dark Knight Rises

Mongol


Mongol

There are more than four horseman of the apocalypse in Mongolia.

(2007) Biographical Drama (Picturhouse) Tadanobu Asano, Honglei Sun, Khulan Chuluun, Odnyam Odsuren, Aliya, Ba Sen, Amadu Mamadakov, Ba Yin, He Qi, Su Ben Hou, Ji Ri Mu Tu, A You Er, Hong Jong Ba Tu, E Er Deng Ba Te Er, Sai Xing Ga, Bayersetseg Erdenebat. Directed by Sergei Bodrov

 

Speaking for myself personally I have a great love for history. Understanding what has happened in our past helps us to understand who we are in the present. The history of Asia, Africa and Australia are largely unknown here as we are mostly taught the history of the United States and Western Europe.

Temudjin (whose name should properly be spelled Temuchin) would later be known as Genghis Khan, a man even ignorant Western ears have heard of. However, as the movie opens up, he is a little boy (Odsuren) whose father (Sen) is a warlord who needs to see his son betrothed. While his father is eager for a more politically advantageous union, his son becomes smitten with Borthe, a young girl (Erdenebat) with a feisty nature. Temudjin manages to convince his father to allow him to become betrothed to Borthe, promising that he will come to claim her in five years. The party heads for home.

On the way home his father is poisoned by a treacherous tribe betraying the Mongol tradition of hospitality. His father names him Khan which doesn’t sit well with the rest of the warriors who know that Temudjin’s mother was the war prisoner from a different tribe.

One of those warriors, Targutai (Mamadakov) spares the life of the young Temudjin, claiming that Mongols don’t kill children but they apparently do leave them in the steppes to die. Temudjin is found face down in the snow by Jamukha who becomes his blood brother.

Later, Targutai captures Temudjin and enslaves him. He escapes and grows to manhood (Asano) without a tribe. He is once again captured by Targutai who is now free to kill the adult Temudjin but the young man escapes anyway and this time finds Borthe (Chuluun) and resolves to bring her back to his family. However, they are attacked by the tribe Temudjin’s mother had been captured from and he takes an arrow. Borthe whips the horse Temudjin is on, sacrificing herself for the man she loves and becomes the slave/concubine of the warlord Chiledu (Ga).

Temudjin approaches Jamukha (Sun), now a Khan himself, and asks for help in liberating his wife from the Merkit. Jamukha agrees to this, but a year passes before the attack actually takes place. In the interim Chiledu has passed away and Borthe has had a son by Chiledu. Temudjin takes the son as his own, despite the mutterings of both his own warriors and those of Jamukha. The next morning when Temudjin takes his leave to return home, a pair of warriors from Jamukha’s tribe accompany him since Temudjin distributes more plunder among his warriors than their former Khan. Jamukha rides after them and demands their return but Temudjin responds that every Mongol is free to choose their own Khan. Jamukha warns Temudjin that this will undoubtedly lead to future conflict which it does when Jamukha’s brother is killed attempting to steal the horses back of the warriors who had defected to Temudjin’s tribe.

Jamukha has vast numerical superiority and quickly overwhelms Temudjin’s forces. Rather than execute his childhood friend, however, he chooses to sell him into slavery. Borthe is misinformed that her husband is dead. Will Temudjin be able to escape once again?

This is  magnificent sprawling epic of the sort that David Lean used to make. Using a pair of cinematographers, Bodrov manages to create magnificent vistas of the barren steppes as well as lovely recreations of ancient Ulan Bator (the Mongolian capital) as well as villages of the era. This is as beautiful-looking a film as you’re likely to see in the last five to ten years.

It also boasts the fine Japanese actor Asano. While the movie is subtitled, Asano is magnificent with his facial expressions. You may not always understand what he’s saying but he conveys everything he is thinking and feeling with his face and eyes, his expressiveness giving flesh and blood to the historical figure Temuchin. Asano also has fine chemistry with Chuluun who amazingly enough is not a professional actress but was someone that the casting director met in the Russian embassy in China when she was leaving after having searched fruitlessly for the right actress to play Borche.

Now, as far as historical accuracy is concerned things get a little dicey. For one thing, not much is really known about the great Khan’s childhood and young adult life as the Mongolians didn’t really believe in written records. Much of what we see onscreen is conjecture and to be honest some of it seems somewhat unlikely given what few facts we do know.

There are plenty of battle scenes here with lots of arterial blood spurting in graceful parabolas through the air to liberally coat the camera lens. It can be pretty brutal and not for the squeamish. We also don’t get a whole lot of insight into everyday life on the steppes. We just get the sense that Temuchin went from slavery to battle to battle to slavery and so on. I’m quite sure there was more to his life than that.

This was the first film in a projected trilogy which unfortunately will not be completed – the other two to cover his rise as Genghis Khan and his eventual fall. While the remote locations helped keep costs down in making this movie, the movie was nevertheless unprofitable and the great difficulty in making the movie to begin with has essentially derailed the project permanently. I would have liked to have seen those films, but at least we have this one to excite our imaginations and certainly Mongol does that expertly.

WHY RENT THIS: Stunning cinematography. Asano turns a magnificent performance in.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Drags in places and is probably a good 15-20 minutes too long.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some battle sequences that are quite bloody and gory.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed on location in Kazakhstan and Inner Mongolia (a province of China where more Mongolians live than in Mongolia itself) in places so remote that roads had to be built by the crew in order to travel there, and where dailies – which normally take 24 hours to make it back to the production, took three weeks to arrive.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $26.5M on an $18M production budget; the movie lost money during its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: 21 Jump Street