For the Love of Spock


The Nimoys are all ears.

The Nimoys are all ears.

(2016) Documentary (Gravitas) Leonard Nimoy, Adam Nimoy, Mel Nimoy, Sybil Nimoy, Julie Nimoy, William Shatner, Chris Pine, Zoe Saldana, Zachary Quinto, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Mayim Bialik, Jim Parsons, J.J. Abrams, Jason Alexander, Walter Koenig, Catherine Hicks, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Nicholas Meyer, D.C. Fontana, Amy Mainzer. Directed by Adam Nimoy

 

The character of Mr. Spock in the original Star Trek series was and is a cultural icon. Played by Leonard Nimoy, then a character actor who had never worked more than two weeks on the same project in his career, he was created at a time of great social upheaval and in many ways stood for rationality, logic and self-control in a time when just about everyone was about as emotional as one could get. He also stood for cultural tolerance, as he was best friends with a human which was a metaphor for the racial turmoil going on in the United States at the time (and sadly continues to this day).

Nimoy’s son Adam, a successful television director, wanted to do a documentary on the cultural phenomenon that is Spock and got his father’s blessing to do it. After a Kickstarter campaign netted the necessary funds, Adam conducted an interview with his father and started to talk to other members of the original series cast when his father suddenly passed away at age 83.

The focus of the film changed from Spock to Leonard Nimoy. It became a love letter from a son to his father. The two had a very rocky relationship at times, particularly when Adam’s drug use became an issue, which fueled displeasure from his father, an alcoholic. They went years without speaking, but eventually reconciled.

He tells his father’s story, glossing over his childhood and young adulthood and bringing him to his days in Trek. Much of  the movie focuses on his time as Spock and in between; on the rigors of fame and having to share his father with an adoring fan base. Early on, he and his sister Julie answered fan mail for their father. It was Adam who in the famous prank showed up on the set without his dad’s knowledge wearing Vulcan make-up (the footage is shown here).

Nimoy famously has had a loving relationship with the Trek community of both fans and the cast and crews of the various TV and film iterations; he also had a sometimes contentious relationship with Paramount, the studio that produced the series; his lawsuit to gain the cast royalties from merchandising was settled largely because the studio wanted to make motion pictures based on the show and Nimoy refused to sign for the film before the suit was settled. It was also at his insistence that George Takei and Nichelle Nichols were added to the animated series cast; he felt strongly that the diversity of the original show’s cast needed to be brought over to the animated show and even today both of those actors refer to the incident with great affection.

The younger Nimoy includes plenty of home movies as well as backstage footage from the show and films which for me personally was very nostalgic; I lived in Los Angeles at the time the show and the first movies were being filmed and I was reminded of that watching the film, bringing on in me a strong sense of comfort. It was an idyllic time and an idyllic place.

The movie does run a bit long in my opinion but love letters always tend to. Fans of the TV show and of Star Trek in general won’t mind; I think they’ll kind of prefer it that way. The interviews with the new cast add a bit of dimension in that all of them grew up with Star Trek even if they weren’t fans and those that were (such as Simon Pegg) were a bit awestruck working with Nimoy in his signature role. Fans like Jason Alexander and Jim Parsons talk about what the character meant to them but at the end of the day, it is his brother Mel who breaks down when talking about the terrible day when Leonard Nimoy passed away that gives us the greatest sense of what the man behind the Vulcan meant to us all.

The film closes with a tribute to Nimoy at the Burning Man festival shortly after he passed away and I swear that the flames on the tribute as, like the other temporary art installations at the festival, burned to the ground brought to mind the Federation emblem in the shape of the flames seemed to be the most cosmic of all the tributes. Spock lives but without Nimoy to give the character its essence (with all due respect to Zachary Quinto who plays Spock in the movie reboot franchise) it is mostly the idea of Spock that we have now – and that gives all of us comfort. Truly, this is a wonderful way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the original show.

REASONS TO GO: Very much a love letter from a son to his father. It’s an interesting perspective on fame by the children of the famous. The backstage footage is pretty nifty.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is a little bit on the long side.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some foul language but not a lot.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The movie was funded by a Kickstarter campaign.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: To Be Takei
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Milton’s Secret

Get Hard


The IRS pays a visit to Kevin Hart and Will Ferrell.

The IRS pays a visit to Kevin Hart and Will Ferrell.

(2015) Comedy (Warner Brothers) Kevin Hart, Will Ferrell, Craig T. Nelson, Alison Brie, Edwina Findley Dickerson, Ariana Neal, Erick Chavarria, T.I., Paul Ben-Victor, John Mayer, Jon Eyez, Nito Larioza, Dan Bakkerdahl, Greg Germann, Ron Funches, Joshua Joseph Gillum, Chris Marroy, Katia Gomez, Elliott Grey, Raeden Greer, Melanie Hebert. Directed by Etan Cohen

For most of us, the thought of going to prison and doing hard time is not even something that’s on our radar. After all, we keep our indiscretions minor; speeding a little down the freeway, or entering an intersection just as the light turns red; maybe we fudge our taxes a little bit. Most of us aren’t ever going to be in a situation that might lead us to the hoosegow.

Certainly James King (Ferrell) didn’t think so. A wealthy fund manager on his way to marrying the boss’s daughter (Brie), he has essential the ultimate 1% life – a Harvard education, a high-profile position – a partnership in fact, something of a wedding gift from soon-to-be dad Martin (Nelson) – at a major financial corporation, a beautiful home and high end possessions, and expensive cars. He even has John Mayer (himself) playing his engagement party. He has it all, right?

Not for long. He’s arrested at his engagement party for embezzling funds, something he vehemently denies doing. However, the evidence is damning as the paper trail leads directly to James. A populist judge (Grey) instead of sentencing James to a country club minimum security facility instead sends him to San Quentin for ten years. James is given 30 days to get his affairs in order.

James knows that he has absolutely no chance to survive in prison. He needs to be prepared for what he’s going to encounter there, learn to defend himself. There aren’t many who can adequately get him ready for the big house, but maybe there is someone…why, the guy who washes his car at work, Darnell (Hart) – why, he’s a black man. Statistically speaking, there’s a good chance Darnell has been incarcerated.

In fact, Darnell has not – he’s a family man with a small business trying to make things better for his family by putting a down payment for a house in a better neighborhood with better schools for his daughter Makayla (Neal). He needs the money, so he agrees to get James ready, much to the bemusement of his wife Rita (Dickerson) who is fully aware that Darnell has a better chance of dunking on Dwight Howard than he does of being a true thug.

But Darnell has a plan and that’s to turn James’ home into a simulation of prison life, which suits James’ domestic staff just fine. James is confident that the investigators that Martin has put on the case will soon exonerate him but as the days tick closer to the day James has to report to San Quentin, Darnell begins to realize that not only is James as innocent as he says he is but that nothing that Darnell can do will EVER help James survive in prison – nothing can. The only chance James has to survive is to prove his innocence, but that seems next to impossible.

Hart and Ferrell are two of the biggest comic actors in Hollywood, with Hart dominating over the past few years and Ferrell making some of the most iconic comedy classics of the past decade. Their styles are completely different; Ferrell is a lot more over-the-top and often plays clueless boobs (as he does here) while Hart is more of a street-smart hustler sort who writes checks with his mouth that he can’t cash with his body or his skills. You wouldn’t think that the two would mesh all that well but there is in fact some chemistry between them – a lot more than I expected in fact. Cohen, the writer of Tropic Thunder making his debut as a director, wisely does a kind of back and forth type of presentation allowing both comics to shine individually and together as well. Considering that most people paying to see this are looking to see two of the best comedians working today together, I think it’s a wise course of action.

Also wise was getting Key and Peele writers Ian Roberts and Jay Martel to do the script, but somewhat surprisingly the two didn’t come through as well. Much of the plot is ultimately predictable and cliche, which considering the edgy material they’ve done for the popular Comedy Central show, is an unexpected bummer.

The movie means to examine through the lens of comedy racial discord and attitudes, homophobia and stereotypes. There are quite a few critics who have accused the movie of being racist and homophobic, but honestly, only the most politically correct nimrods are going to find it that way. There’s a vast difference between laughing at racial stereotypes and holding them up to ridicule and being racist. Part of the comedy comes from James’ abysmal ignorance of African-Americans and their culture; as a sheltered 1% sort he’s only hung around other 1% sorts which have, if you’ll excuse the expression, colored his perceptions. In white society, people often say “But I have black friends” when called out for racial insensitivity and that’s exactly how James undoubtedly would react.

There’s probably more of a case for homophobia when James is told to learn how to perform oral sex on other men as a means of survival but is unable to do it. However, there is a gay character who befriends Darnell who comes off as pretty normal and reasonable rather than a stereotype which I found refreshing. There was precious little mincing by the gay characters in the movie.

After having heard almost nothing but negative reviews for the movie I was pleasantly surprised to find it a lot funnier than I expected with an unexpected strong comedic timing throughout. The jokes flow nicely and the plot, while predictable, at least keeps moving along. The material is fairly crude – although if the movie were bigger at the box office “keistering” might become a thing – but I’ve seen cruder.

This is one of those movies that should be the poster child for not letting critics make up your mind for you. I found it to be positively entertaining and while it doesn’t break new ground, it does at least what it’s meant to do – keep the audience laughing and showcasing two superior talents in Hart and Ferrell who hopefully will team up again after this. Maybe in a movie where their roles are reversed, where Hart is the privileged snob and Ferrell is the street-wise hustler. That’s something I’d pay to see.

REASONS TO GO: Nice chemistry between Hart and Ferrell. Some outrageously funny moments.
REASONS TO STAY: Over-sensitive and too politically correct sorts may find this racist/homophobic. Plot is fairly predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: Crude and sexual humor, graphic nudity, some violence, plenty of foul language and sexual innuendo and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Will Ferrell is 11 inches taller than Kevin Hart which led to some fairly interesting camera angles in order to make the differential less severe.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/7/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Let’s Go to Jail
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Furious 7

The Iceman


Michael Shannon has a unique way of firing his agents.

Michael Shannon has a unique way of firing his agents.

(2012) True Crime Drama (Millennium) Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Chris Evans, Ray Liotta, David Schwimmer, Robert Davi James Franco, Stephen Dorff, Danny Abeckaser, John Ventimiglia, Ryan O’Nan, McKaley Miller, Megan Sherrill, Hector Hank, Zoran Radanovich, Shira Vilensky, Kelly Lind, Erin Cumings, Ashlynn Ross, Weronika Rosati, Christa Campbell. Directed by Ariel Vromen

It’s always the quiet ones, the ones who lose it and go on a killing spree. Contract killers are another case altogether. These are men with ice in their veins, able to kill without remorse or emotion. It’s a job for them, no less upsetting than someone who sells cars for a living.

Richie Kuklinski (Shannon) is a family man, married to the beautiful but volatile Deborah (Ryder). He works dubbing films – cartoons he tells his wife but porn films in reality. The mobster who runs the porn operation Richie is working for – Roy DeMeo (Liotta) – is impressed by Richie’s coolness under fire, so he decides to take Richie on as a contract killer. Roy and his buddy Josh Rosenthal (Schwimmer) take Richie out and order him to kill some random homeless guy which he does.

This is the start for a whole new career for Richie as he ices guys on Roy’s say-so. When a coke deal is botched by Josh who kills the dealers involved, Roy is forced to lay low for awhile, leaving Richie unemployed. As money gets tighter and Richie’s temper gets more volatile, Richie hooks up with Mr. Freezy (Evans), a freelance contract killer who works out of an ice cream truck. He teaches Richie the proper use of cyanide and the trick of freezing bodies and then thawing them before dumping them, throwing police off on the correct time of death. It is for the latter practice that Richie is given the nickname “The Iceman.”

When DeMeo finds out about Richie’s new freelancing scheme, he goes ballistic which doesn’t bode well for Richie’s future state of health. When Roy brings in Leonard Marks (Davi) from one of the big crime families in New York, it looks like Richie’s days are numbered but Roy and Marks have forgotten one prime directive – never ever piss off a contract killer.

This is pretty standard stuff for the true mob killer movie. Yes, Richie Kuklinski was a real person who claims to have killed between 100-250 people during his heyday from 1948 to 1986. He was also a family man who’s arrest stunned his neighborhood.

While the story remains pretty typical, the acting here is superb. Shannon, an Oscar nominee, shows that there are many more of those on the way (and likely a statuette somewhere down the line) with a powerful performance here which is doubly commendable because he doesn’t have a lot to work with. The real Richie was by all accounts a strong, silent type who wasn’t much of a communicator. He was more or less a psychopath who was paid for crimes he probably would have committed eventually in any case. Shannon gives Richie at least some personality, with cold eyes that erupt into volcanic fury when pushed. It’s a marvelous juxtaposition that gives the character depth that the real Richie probably didn’t have.

Ryder, who has been an infrequent screen presence of late, is absolutely amazing as the willfully oblivious Deborah. She knows that her husband is hiding something horrible, but chooses to ignore it. There’s nothing wrong if she doesn’t know there’s anything wrong, so she chooses to ignore it until it’s right in her face.

Schwimmer is the anti-Ross here, stocky with a hippie ponytail, a 70s porn star moustache and a mean streak, although there is a bit of Ross-like nebbishness as he begins to realize he is in far over his head. Liotta gets a standard Ray Liotta crime figure and does with it what he usually does, which also adds to the overall quality of the picture.

In fact the performances are what makes the movie. This is strongly acted throughout, from the barely-recognizable Evans to Franco in a brief cameo. It’s Shannon however who carries the movie and he does so with ease. He may well be this generation’s De Niro – not a traditional leading man sort but who elevates every movie he’s in. While Vromen is no Scorsese and this no Goodfellas it nonetheless doesn’t disgrace the genre created by that film. In fact, it’s a solid follower in it’s footsteps.

REASONS TO GO: A strong performance by Michael Shannon.

REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t really add much to the true life mob movie genre.

FAMILY VALUES:  A good deal of violence and a bit of gore, lots and lots of foul language and some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James Franco was originally cast as Kuklinski but had to take the smaller role as Marty Freeman instead; Maggie Gyllenhaal was likewise cast as Deborah Pellicotti but had to drop out due to her pregnancy and Winona Ryder got the part.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100; solid good reviews here.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kill the Irishman

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The History of Future Folk

The Change-Up


The Change-Up

Jason Bateman knows that no matter how much Ryan Reynolds pleas he's not getting Leslie Mann's teddy bears.

(2011) Comedy Fantasy (Universal) Ryan Reynolds, Jason Bateman, Leslie Mann, Olivia Wilde, Alan Arkin, Mircea Monroe, Gregory Itzin, Ned Schmidtke, Lo Ming, Sydney Rouviere, Andrea Moore, Craig Bierko, Taafe O’Connell, Ed Ackerman. Directed by David Dobkin

It is said that the grass is always greener on the other side and as with most clichés, there is a good deal of truth to it. It is human nature to want that which we don’t have. However, most times when we finally get to the other side we come to the understanding that the greener hue was just a trick of the light.

Dave (Bateman) is a family man with three children, two of them infants. He’s married to Jamie (Mann) who is beautiful and loving. He’s also a hard-working corporate lawyer who’s about to shepherd a merger that will virtually guarantee him the partnership he’s been working towards for a decade. However, Dave is working so hard juggling family and firm that his family focus has begun to suffer and Jamie is beginning to question how present he is in the relationship as husband and father (he has the breadwinner thing down cold).

Mitch (Reynolds) is Dave’s best friend, a ladies’ man and perpetually unemployed actor who spends most of his day getting stoned, playing video games and having every kind of sex with a wide variety of beautiful women. The two hang out at a local bar one night, watching a baseball game and talking about their lives. As the shots flow and the evening wears on, each professes admiration for the lifestyle of the other. As they stumble from the bar well past last call, nature calls and the two find a fountain in a public park nearby. As they urinate into the fountain, they both manage to say simultaneously “I wish I had your life.” The lights go out dramatically and the two go home to sleep it off.

Except when they wake up they are in each others’ bodies. Mitch suddenly has to cope with changing babies, attending meetings, seeing things through and the kind of intimacy in a relationship that goes beyond sex. Dave has to cope with kinky sex, loneliness and learning how to relax. However without meaning to, each one is screwing up the other’s lives. They must become the men that the other one is in order to get back to their own lives.

This may be a first for body switch movies – transference via urination. Certainly I for one am going to be much more selective into which troughs I pee into and with whom from here on out. However, pee isn’t the only bodily fluid you’ll be encountering here; in the first five minutes Dave gets a face full (and mouthful) of baby poop. That kind of sets the tone.

At least it does for the first half of the movie. From going Judd Apatow-raunchy in the first half, the second half is all Frank Capra-sentimental as the men learn the value of appreciating what they have. That almost sounds like a studio shying away from a complete raunchfest which is kind of bizarre because in addition to the scatological you’ll find sex with an EXTREMELY pregnant woman as well as with a decidedly mature woman, not to mention masturbation and extra scrotums. It’s a virtual smorgasbord of carnal delight.

Bateman is scaling comedy heights that will soon have him rubbing elbows with Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey. Here he shows off that he can be much more versatile in his range, playing both the irresponsible horndog as well as the conservative family man. Reynolds seems to be more involved doing action movies lately but it’s easy to forget he’s done some pretty solid comedic roles as well (Definitely Maybe, Waiting…) and is quite good at them. Bateman and Reynolds have some good chemistry together and in fact the whole ensemble fit together nicely as a whole.

Mann has some genuinely affecting moments as Dave’s long-suffering wife who isn’t quite sure if she and her children have the place in Dave’s heart that they used to. The always reliable Alan Arkin has a few scenes as Mitch’s estranged dad and Olivia Wilde looks gorgeous as a law clerk with a thing for Dave…err, Mitch…err, Dave. It’s hard to get straight.

Body switching movies are as old as the hills and have been done in as many different ways as you can think of. This one purported to be a raunchy sexy version of the genre but only really sticks to it for the first half of the movie before being roped into the schmaltz that Hollywood seems to demand of its comedies. Not every great comedy has to come with a heart-warming ending, after all.

I wish The Change-Up had the courage of its convictions and had stuck to the raunchiness throughout. That seemed to be where the movie was in its comfort zone. I had hoped with the leads that the movie had it could have ended up a lot better of a movie. It’s still not that bad but it is a bit disappointing given my expectations for it.

REASONS TO GO: Reynolds and Bateman are extremely appealing leads.

REASONS TO STAY: Movie veers wildly from crude to cuddly. Humor is hit or miss, usually the latter. Been there done that factor is high.

FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit more nudity here than is usual for most Hollywood films of the 21st century; also there’s a good deal of salty language, drug use and innuendo.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The bar scenes were filmed at an Atlanta watering hole called Joe’s on Juniper.

HOME OR THEATER: This is definitely one you can save for your Netflix queue.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Another Earth

A History of Violence


A History of Violence

Viggo Mortensen is so hot that Ed Harris has to wear shades just to look at him.

(2005) Thriller (New Line) Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Ashton Holmes, Peter MacNeill, Stephen McHattie, Greg Bryk, Kyle Schmid, Sumela Kay, Gerry Quigley, Deborah Drakeford, Heidi Hayes, Aidan Devine, Michelle McCree. Directed by David Cronenberg

Funny thing about the past; it has a tendency to catch up with you. Especially when you least expect it to – and where you least expect it to.

Tom Stall (Mortensen) lives a quiet life in a small Indiana town. He owns a popular diner, is married to a beautiful native named Edie (Bello) and has two kids including a teenager named Jack (Holmes) who has taken his mild-mannered father’s lessons to heart and has as a result been picked on by bullies who are frustrated by Jack’s refusal to fight.

One night, all that is shattered when a couple of small-time hoods (McHattie, Bryk) come into his diner. They terrorize his patrons and despite Tom’s pleas for them to leave peaceably, it appears they are going to kill a waitress when Tom suddenly reacts with decisive action, killing both of the crooks.

Unfortunately, Tom’s actions get noticed by the media and he is painted as a hero. This is, in turn, noticed by a very bad man named Carl Fogarty (Harris) who seems to think that Tom is someone named Joey Cusack. Tom doesn’t appear to know Fogarty, but doubts are cast in the mind of his wife and the town sheriff (MacNeill). The question becomes who is Tom Stall and why is he so good at killing people?

By far, this is Cronenberg’s most mainstream movie. Known for cult films (Naked Lunch, Videodrome) and horror classics (The Brood, Scanners), he has a gift for taking a normal, safe environment and turning it upon itself until it is virtually unrecognizable. Here, he does that in a literal way; the man we think we know (and the man Edie Stall thought she married) turns out to be someone so different as to be almost a different species. This is not an easy adjustment to make and some may find it too much for them.

On the other hand, the adjustment is made easier by bravura performances by Mortensen, Bello, Harris and Holmes. Also worth noting is Hurt’s role as a man pivotal to Tom’s past. It is interesting that Hurt appears in only one scene, but his performance is so dynamic that he wound up being nominated for an Oscar for that one scene.

Violence is often used as the last refuge for survival, and Cronenberg seems to say it is justified in that case. However, is there a Joey Cusack lurking in every Tom Stall? Given the right circumstances, I think – and I have a feeling that Cronenberg agrees – there is.

WHY RENT THIS: Cronenberg’s most mainstream film. Terrific performances by Mortensen, Harris, Bello and Holmes – and an Oscar-nominated one by Hurt.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending isn’t what you might like it to be.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s some brutal violence, a good deal of sexuality (as well as some nudity), a bit of drug use and foul language to boot.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the last major Hollywood film to be released in the VHS format.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There’s a featurette on Scene 44, a dream sequence that was cut from the movie but was polished and added here as a special feature.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $60.7M on a $32M production budget; the movie broke even.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Runaways