Concussion


The Fresh Prince of Pittsburgh.

The Fresh Prince of Pittsburgh.

(2015) True Life Drama (Columbia) Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Albert Brooks, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Morse, Arliss Howard, Mike O’Malley, Eddie Marsan, Hill Harper, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Stephen Moyer, Richard T. Jones, Paul Reiser, Luke Wilson, Sara Lindsey, Matthew Willig, Bitsie Tulloch, Kevin Jiggetts, Gary Grubbs, Joni Bovill. Directed by Peter Landesman

Football is our modern coliseum and the players our modern gladiators. They are admired, respected and beloved pretty much throughout the United States. When a character here says that the NFL “owns a day of the week – it used to belong to religion, but now it’s theirs,” he isn’t kidding. Football is a mania and nearly a religion itself.

But the game takes a toll. It is a game of violence, when behemoths smash and crash into each other like meteors in the asteroid belt. Helmets go flying, players wobble off, tottering on their cleats and sometimes, people get concussions. However, the National Football League takes precautions, don’t they?

When Hall of Fame center Mike Webster (Morse) dies unexpectedly at the age of 50, the city of Pittsburgh mourns. That he died homeless and some would whisper crazy is glossed over in the torrents of grief marking the loss of the city’s warrior. When it comes time to autopsy the body, the task is given to Bennet Omalu (Smith), a Nigerian immigrant who happens to be the forensic pathologist on duty at the Allegheny County Morgue.

What Omalu sees puzzles him. Apparently, Webster was in excellent shape. There were no toxins in his body that would explain his heart just stopping, or his erratic behavior in the years prior to his death. Why is this man dead, wondered Omalu although an antagonistic colleague (O’Malley) urges him to wrap it up. However, Omalu can’t do that. He orders expensive tests – that he pays for himself – to look into the why of Webster’s demise. What he finds is shocking.

Apparently repeated blows to the head can cause trauma that eventually causes early dementia, excruciating headaches, personality changes and suicidal tendencies. That condition is called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (or CTE for short) and as he passes on his findings to his sympathetic boss Cyril Wecht (Brooks), other players like Dave Duerson (Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Andre Waters (Jones) and Justin Strzelczyk (Willig) begin to show signs of the same problem.

When Omalu takes his findings public, at first the NFL ignores them but as the good doctor persists to the point where the issue can’t be ignored, they go on the offensive and suddenly Omalu’s competency as a doctor is question as well as his status as an immigrant. In the midst of building a life in America with his new Kenyan wife Prema (Mbatha-Raw), his American dream may be turning into an American nightmare.

In some ways this is a very important story. The safety of the players should be of paramount importance to the league (you would think) as the players are their commodity. However, the NFL chose to fight against the safety of their player, reasoning that these findings could kill the game altogether. Maybe the game should be killed in that case – no game is worth dying for. I’m sure many readers will find that sacrilegious.

However, Landesman chooses to frame it in the love story between Prema and Omalu and then they draw Prema up as support girlfriend 101, with very little character to the character. She’s so bland that the only reason you can see Omalu falling in love is because Mbatha-Raw is so extraordinarily beautiful. However, the blandness isn’t Mbatha-Raw’s fault – she’s proven herself an outstanding actress. The fault is of the writers who chose to put most of their efforts into Omalu but also the male supporting characters, like Dr. Julian Bailes (Baldwin), a former Steeler team physician who becomes one of Omalu’s staunchest allies, and Dr. Wecht, whom Brooks imbues with a kind of menschiness, as New York Daily News reviewer Allen Salkin so aptly put it.

This is Smith’s movie however and he runs with it like Adrian Peterson through the secondary. Smith is often underrated as an actor because of his laid-back charm and his Fresh Prince grin. One forgets that he has two Oscar nominations (for Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness) and some truly memorable performances in other movies. While his filmography of late hasn’t had the kind of success that he’s used to, he still has skills and he could very well get his third Oscar nomination for this performance.

&The movie doesn’t have the emotional punch that it probably should have, although being a non-football fan it might not resonate with me as much as it might. However, parents whose kids want to get into the game would do well to look into CTE and ways of preventing it (there are some excellent pads out there that protect players from concussions in the brain but also in the heart). The NFL certainly comes off here as a somewhat indifferent corporate entity more interested in maintaining the profits rather than the player’s long-term safety. It makes me wonder how the movie got permission to show the logos of the various teams and helmets on-camera and use game footage of NFL games. However, this is a movie in which the performance is better than the overall film. That’s not the last time you’ll hear that particular analysis of a film this holiday season.

REASONS TO GO: One of Smith’s best performances. An important issue for any fan or parent of a player.
REASONS TO STAY: Pedestrian in places. Wastes Mbatha-Raw.
FAMILY VALUES: Some disturbing images and harsh language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Matthew Willig, who plays Steeler defender Justin Strzelczyk in the movie, played in the National Football League for 14 years for among others, the Jets, Packers, Niners, Panthers and Rams (twice).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/2/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Imitation Game
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Emperor’s New Clothes

Boyhood


Life is an ongoing investigation.

Life is an ongoing investigation.

(2014) Drama (IFC) Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Elijah Smith, Steven Prince, Bonnie Cross, Marco Perella, Libby Villari, Jamie Howard, Andrew Villareal, Richard Jones, Karen Jones, Zoe Graham, Nick Krause, Angela Rawna, Evie Thompson, Brad Hawkins, Barbara Chisholm, Jenni Tooley, Savannah Welch, Taylor Weaver, Jessi Mechler. Directed by Richard Linklater

Seinfeld was famously a sitcom about nothing. Here we have a movie, filmed over a 12 year span, in which nothing much happens. Nothing much, maybe, except life.

That is what this movie is all about. Richard Linklater, one of the more respected directors in the indie ranks who has such seminal films as Dazed and Confused and Slacker to his credit as well as the ambitious Before trilogy, took the time to film this movie with the same core cast of actors over a 12 year period. What he ended up doing is filming a series of short films which he later stitched together into a full-fledged feature film as we watch the cast grow up and age before our very eyes.

Mason (Coltrane) lives with his mom (Arquette) who is divorced from his dreamer of a father (Hawke) and his sister Samantha (Linklater) with whom he bickers constantly. She’s got a bit of the princess to her and she knows how to stomp her feet and declare her position without equivocation.

They live in various locales in Texas as mom takes on a series of boyfriends and husbands with varying degrees of success. She also goes back to school and gets her degree, enabling her to teach at a local community college. Dad in the meantime returns back to Texas from Alaska and means to take on a more active role in the lives of his kids. At first he’s just another, larger-sized kid along with them, but as time goes by he starts to change and becomes more the father he should have been all along.

Critics have been falling all over each other to praise this movie as you can tell from the scores on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, so much so that I can’t help wonder when the inevitable backlash is going to hit. All I can say is not now and not here. This is a magnificent film, one that will engender discussion for a very long time; certainly when you leave the theater you’ll be talking about it.

This was always a project that was going to need a little bit of luck. Getting the parents of the child actors to agree to taking a couple of weeks each year to film for 12 years is quite a commitment to ask for, even from the professionals. What if the kid actors turned out to be terrible? What if one of them decided they didn’t want to do this anymore – and in fact one did. Surprisingly, it was the director’s daughter who asked her daddy to kill her off in the movie. Thankfully, Linklater had enough vision to insist his little girl see it through – and eventually she came back on board.

The point is, there were a lot of ways that this project could have been torpedoed but in every sense of the word this movie was charmed. For one thing, who would have guessed that Coltrane would turn out to be a charismatic young actor? Linklater may well have suspected but there really was no way to know for sure when a kid is eight years old how he’s going to react to things when he’s eighteen.

Nonetheless, Coltrane gives an unexpectedly terrific performance. Sure there are times when as a young boy his acting is a bit forced by as the movie continues you see him grow more and more confident in his ability. By the time Mason heads off to college, there is a maturity to the boy and the performance that simply put gives the movie a grand shot in the arm. I don’t know what Coltrane’s future plans are but he certainly has the presence and the talent to make a go of it in the motion picture industry.

Arquette, who filmed concurrently to her work in the TV show The Medium for a good portion of the movie, has a complicated role. In many ways, her character is the least defined; while Hawke’s dad has a defined journey from flamboyant and immature daddy wannabe to responsible and surprisingly wise father, her character is always the most responsible one of the two. Her issues stem from her very poor choices in men, some with devastating consequences to her family. She’s a very bright, attractive woman but by movie’s end she’s alone. One wonders if her character deserved that fate.

We watch Mason and Samantha grow up before our very eyes while their parents grow older and wiser. One of the complaints that I’ve heard is that there are stretches where nothing happens, but those who make that complaint miss the point. Life happens, and sometimes life happens subtly. It isn’t just the big watershed moments in our lives that make us what we are – it’s the little things as well, sometimes as small as bowling without bumpers.

The late Gene Siskel was a huge fan of slice of life films and undoubtedly this is the kind of film he would have championed. There is no slice of life movie that takes such a slice out of life and makes it seamless and organic. We don’t watch this movie so much as live it; throughout we are reminded of the events and situations in our own lives either as children growing up or as parents raising children, or even both. Those of a certain generation will find nostalgia in Harry Potter book release parties, a spot-on soundtrack, Ninetendos and campaigning for Obama. Others will recognize the kinds of challenges they faced growing up in the era, or raising kids in  the era.

Either way, this film will move you and take you places that while you may have already been there, will give you a fresh perspective on the matter. We all react to movies based on what we take into them from our own experiences, but this is one movie that most people are going to find value in, even in its quietest moments.

REASONS TO GO: Incredibly authentic. Basically appeals to kids that age. A primer for what to expect when raising kids.

REASONS TO STAY: Long periods of “inactivity.”

FAMILY VALUES:  A fair amount of swearing, some sexual references and teen sex, drinking and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the film, Morgan and Samantha’s dad take them to an Astros game against the Brewers and tells everyone that the Astros won on a three-run homer by Jason Lane in the bottom of the ninth. In reality the game, filmed on August 18, 2005 was won by the Brewers and Lane’s homer was a solo shot in the second inning.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/6/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 100/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cinema Paradiso

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Get On Up

Don Jon


Can't take my eyes off of you.

Can’t take my eyes off of you.

(2013) Romantic Comedy (Relativity) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Glenne Headly, Brie Larson, Rob Brown, Jeremy Luke, Paul Ben-Victor, Italia Ricci, Lindsey Broad, Amanda Perez, Sarah Dumont, Sloane Avery, Loanne Bishop, Arin Babaian, Antoinette Kalaj, Arayna Eison, Becky O’Donohue. Directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt

The nature of romance and sexuality largely remains a mystery for most of us. Men don’t understand the draw of the romantic fantasy to women and women have trouble understanding why men are so obsessed with pornography. Now, while it is true that there are some women who have a porn addiction and some men who are romantics at heart, largely the stereotypes hold.

Jon Martello Jr. (Gordon-Levitt) has a pretty good life. He’s a Jersey boy who knows what he likes and pretty much has things lined up; his apartment, his boys Bobby (Brown) and Danny (Luke), his family – Mom (Headly), Dad (Danza) and his sister Monica (Larson) who is too busy texting and rolling her eyes to get a word in – and his church, his car (a sweet Chevy from the golden age of metal) and girls. His buddies call him “The Don” because he scores a hot looking chick every time he goes out clubbing. Every time, an 8 or above.

But that isn’t enough for Jon. You see, sex is all well and good but what really satisfies him is masturbating to porn. He even has his own method – starting off slow, with still pictures and working his way up to video clips until he finds the right one he can lose himself in. When he gets off to porn, everything else goes away, not to mention that the actresses in the clips will do things for their partners that no real woman will do for Jon.

Then one night in the clubs he meets Barbara Sugarman (Johansson), a blonde Jersey queen who takes most of her cues from Snooki (except for the horrid orange spray tan look). She’s so hot that Jon’s got to have her except she doesn’t put out so easily. So, as Bobby tells him, he needs to get out his long game. Wine and dine her, romance her. Do the kind of things that boyfriends do for their girlfriends.

The problem is that Jon doesn’t just want to get into her pants; he thinks she might just be The One. To show her his commitment, he agrees to take night classes so that he can move up the service industry ladder. Unfortunately, Barbara catches Jon at his obsession one night and makes him agree to not watch porn which she finds disgusting.

At first Jon does his best but he needs the release so he starts doing his porn on the side, even on his smart phone during lectures in class which attracts the notice of Esther (Moore), an older lady that Jon sees crying in the parking lot one night. Soon she seems to be making a move on him which Jon isn’t really interested in – he’s got Barbara after all and she’s at last giving it up for him – but there are cracks in the foundation of paradise and soon Jon will either have to give up his porn or Barbara.

The crux of the movie has to do with expectations and need. Sure there’s a lot of nudity, brief glimpses of porn stars humping and a whole lot of sexuality but that’s not really the point of the film, although quite frankly there are those who won’t be able to get past all that, either in a positive or negative way. All some will see is the sex and they will react to it according to their own morality either as a prurient interest or with prudish disgust. It’s simply an occupational hazard for a film like this.

That said if you look beyond the boobs and the moans you’ll actually find a thoughtful movie that looks at the nature of men and women and the differences between them, as typified by Jon. I think there are a lot of women out there who genuinely cannot understand the fascination that porn has for men and this movie might go a long way towards explaining it. Porn is a fantasy the same way a romantic movie is a fantasy for Barbara. The happy ending for her is a prince of a man who will sacrifice everything for her, be completely devoted to her and adore her 24/7. Jon’s happy ending is, well, a happy ending.

Actually that’s not quite fair. As Jon explains it, he fantasizes about the sexual acts that most women won’t even consider granting him (i.e. oral sex, doggie style) because for the most part they want the missionary position. To him, a woman who is willing to do those things for him is the equivalent of Barbara’s prince. In both cases, the egos of each of them are being catered to by their partner. In some ways both of them are children of our time – completely self-absorbed without a thought of what they are giving to their partner, only receiving from them.

Gordon-Levitt, who also wrote and directed this, looks like he watched a lot of Jersey Shore to get his character down – The Situation, anyone? – and shows as much promise behind the camera as he does confidence in front of it. He wrote the part of Barbara with Johansson specifically in mind and she loses herself into it, becoming a Jersey Shore princess in all her gum-snapping bleached blonde glory. Barbara and Jon are both full to overflowing with that Jersey attitude – Jon screaming in road rage while he drives to church, Barbara telling Jon that he won’t do housework when they’re living together because that kind of thing is beneath her and thus, as an extension of her, beneath him as well.

In many ways Moore steals the picture. She is the conscience of the film and her character Esther is the one that introduces the sense of giving into the film. Certainly she’s one messed-up broad and we only get a glimmer into her personal tragedy. She’s not glammed up for this role; there’s wear and tear on her face but more importantly in her eyes. She ends up teaching Jon – and by extension the audience – the difference between having sex and making love.

It’s nice to see Danza and Headly, both industry veterans, on the big screen again and personally I wouldn’t mind seeing the two of them more often. The rest of the supporting cast is pretty solid with Larson making the most of her single scene of dialogue.

I wouldn’t have minded about ten more minutes of exposition fleshing out some of the main characters a bit and when you leave a film wishing it had been longer you know the filmmakers are doing something right. While those who are offended by depictions and discussion of sex are urged to give this one a wide berth, the rest of you get an enthusiastic recommendation. This is a movie that honestly and with some humor examines sex and love and how easy it is to forget that the sum of those two things is far greater than the total of their parts.

REASONS TO GO: Funny, charming and thought-provoking. Gordon-Levitt, Johansson, Moore, Danza and Headly all have strong performances.

REASONS TO STAY: The porn and sexuality might be off-putting to those sensitive to such things.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots and lots of sexual content including graphic nudity and simulated sex (as well as simulated porn), plenty of foul language and a bit of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gordon-Levitt and Danza previously worked together in Angels in the Outfield when Gordon-Levitt was just 12 years old.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/14/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Moonstruck

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Enough Said

Straw Dogs (2011)


 

Straw Dogs

Kate Bosworth wants better roles and she’ll do what she has to to get them!

(2011) Thriller (Screen Gems) James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgard, James Woods, Dominic Purcell, Laz Alonso, Willa Holland, Rhys Coiro, Billy Lush, Walton Goggins, Anson Mount, Drew Powell, Kristen Shaw, Megan Adelle, Jessica Cook. Directed by Rod Lurie

 

There is no doubt that violence pervades American culture. We glorify it through our love of football; we aggressively defend it through our love of guns. We like to think of ourselves as civilized, sure but how civilized are we really? If violence were to come to our homes, would we know when to stop? Is there a point where we cross the line even in defense of those we love?

David Sumner (Marsden) is a Hollywood screenwriter and a Harvard graduate, a combination that you don’t see very often. His wife Amy (Bosworth) is a marginally successful actress who worked on a short-lived TV show that Sumner wrote for. After her father passed away, she is returning home to Blackwater, Mississippi where she grew up to repair and renovate his home with an eye for a possible sale in the future.

Sumner, an intellectual with a friendly but slightly condescending attitude, fits in to the good ol’ boys in Blackwater like a rhino in a flock of sheep. There’s the alcoholic ex-football coach, Tom Heddon (Woods) who fancies himself a latter-day Bear Bryant (down to the houndstooth cap) who has a somewhat slutty 15-year-old daughter Janice (Holland) who has eyes for Jeremy (Purcell), a mentally challenged young man who has had past incidents with young women.

Worse yet is Charlie (Skarsgard), a handsome handyman who once was Amy’s beau. She was a cheerleader at the time, he a football hero who still hangs out with the same bunch he did in high school. The pack of them have seen their lives go downhill since high school, a bitter pill for anyone to swallow but they dull the ache with beer and hunting trips. Charlie gets the friendly David to hire him and his crew to repair the hurricane-damaged barn on the property.

Charlie, you see, still has a bit of a torch for Amy. He also has a bit of a passive-aggressive mean streak with a hate on for David that starts to manifest itself in subtle ways, like showing up for work early enough to wake David, or helping himself to beer uninvited from David’s fridge. As David retaliates in equally passive-aggressive ways, the violence escalates.

It boils to a head when Jeremy precipitates a tragedy and through an unlikely turn of events ends up in David’s home. A maddened crowd gathers with the intent of storming David’s castle. This he cannot allow and the passive aggressive turns to outright aggressive. As the villagers take to assaulting the walls of the fortress, David turns from civilized to savage in the blink of an eye. What will this cost him?

This is a remake of a 1971 Sam Peckinpah film which at the time polarized audiences and critics alike. Starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan George as the couple, the action was in that film located in rural England with Hoffman playing an out-of-shape mathematician. The hunky Marsden is a far different physical type.

That film was notorious for the shocking brutality of its violence which at the time caused critics to wonder if Peckinpah, whose The Wild Bunch two years earlier had made violence into an art form, had gone too far. Today there are those who consider it one of the most brilliant films to come out of the 70s, pushing the anti-hero so prevalent in the era to its limits.

In some ways Peckinpah’s film was ahead of its time. While there is violence here, it isn’t as in your face as it was in the 1971 version. One of the crucial scenes in that film was a rape of the wife by the handyman. During the course of the assault, the Susan George character seems to give up fighting, and may be even enjoying it. This was considered to be misogynistic, even though there are accounts of women reacting in a similar manner in real life. That element is missing here; Amy struggles mightily throughout and in doing so removes a plot point that is crucial to the first film and makes it less ambiguous than the first movie, robbing it of some of its power. I don’t know that Lurie makes a mistake in that regard but it is a major change from the original and I can see fans of that film being outraged.

Marsden has to fill the shoes of Dustin Hoffman, one of the most brilliant actors of all time and fares surprisingly well. He doesn’t even attempt to be the same character; he is far too hunky to be convincing as a meek nebbish as Hoffman’s character was, but he does manage to imbue the character with a kind of intellectual superiority which he can’t help but flaunt.

That leads to a kind of political subtext for the movie, which then becomes a Red State versus Blue State confrontation – the Left Coast liberal who is an *shudder* atheist and an intellectual, whose presence is slightly insulting to the god-fearing, gun-toting football fans whose traditional moral values get a might twisted in an Old Testament style reckoning. Woods, who actually is kind of a Left Coast liberal, plays Heddon as a hotheaded bigot with a short fuse. He’s usually a reliable performer but here he sails way over the top and turns the coach into a character.

I don’t know that this stands up to the original, which was about the savage lurking in all of us, even the most civilized of people. Here this turns into a bit of a revenge fantasy which when you get down to it are kind of a dime a dozen. There are enough elements from Peckinpah’s original to make this worth looking out for in the rental queue but even though the relocation in my mind is perfect location casting, not enough of the changes work out well enough to make this something you’ll want to see more than once.

The sad thing is that the point is lost on a lot of audiences, who critics reported were cheering and clapping at the end. Peckinpah might have been right about the savage in all of us after all.

WHY RENT THIS: Relocation to the American South makes much sense. Marsden does surprisingly well stepping into Hoffman’s shoes. Skarsgard shows some big screen charisma.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Far too watered down, removing the shock value. Woods too over the top.

FAMILY VALUES:  The violence can be pretty brutal. There’s a sexual assault, a ton of bad language and some consensual sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lurie is the Israel-born son of internationally syndicated cartoonist Ranan Lurie.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a featurette comparing and contrasting this with the 1971 original which in a way attempts to justify the existence of the remake, but Lurie’s commentary also does plenty of that.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.3M on a $25M production budget; the movie fell short at the box office.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shuttered Room

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Iron Lady

The Dark Knight Rises


 

The Dark Knight Rises

Bane and Batman work on their ballroom dancing skills.

(2012) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Morgan Freeman, Matthew Modine, Cillian Murphy, Alon Moni Aboutboul, Burn Gorman, Ben Mendelsohn, Nestor Carbonell, Chris Ellis, Reggie Lee. Directed by Christopher Nolan

 

The world needs heroes. We latch onto them whether or not they deserve our admiration or not – and some of them do. However, heroes are often shaped by the perception given us by the media and by the powers that be. One man’s hero, in other words, is another man’s villain – and vice versa.

Eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne (Bale) a.k.a. Batman sits in isolation in Wayne Manor. Injured in his final fight with the Joker and with Harvey Dent, the Batman has been branded an outlaw for his role in the events of that film. Wayne is in a deep depression and despite the efforts of his faithful butler Alfred (Caine) remains so. There is no need for Batman, as legislation enacted in the aftermath of those events has helped the new police commissioner Jim Gordon (Oldman) clean  the city up. Gordon is assisted by Detective John Blake (Gordon-Levitt), a cop who believes in Batman and thinks that something stinks about his current outlaw status. Gotham is at peace and looking to the future at last.

However for figures like the Batman, the world has a way of preventing them from remaining on the sidelines for too long. A sexy catburglar named Selena Kyle (Hathaway) – who goes by the name of Catwoman – has robbed Wayne Manor of the string of pearls Bruce’s mother was wearing the night she was murdered, along with something more subtle – and dangerous to Bruce and those around him. Arriving in Gotham as well is Bane (Hardy), a masked terrorist of terrifying strength and an agenda that makes it sound like the French Revolution is coming to Gotham.

Bruce is struggling to keep his company out of the hands of the rapacious venture capitalist Daggett (Mendelsohn) who is after some technology developed by Lucius Fox (Freeman) that might prove devastating in the wrong hands. On his side is Miranda Tate (Cotillard), a European CEO who is on the same page as Bruce and Lucius. However, the attacks on Gotham and Wayne Enterprises are linked with each other and both have their roots sunk deeply into Bruce Wayne’s past. Bane is much more malevolent than even this and what he has in store for Gotham is nothing less than a full measure of reckoning.  Could this be the end of Batman?

Well, it certainly is the end of this phase of Batman. Nolan has made it clear that this will be the last Batman movie under his stewardship and there’s no doubt that Warner Brothers and DC aren’t thrilled about his departure. Nolan revived the character as a viable franchise

Of course, that isn’t all Nolan’s doing. Bale will go down in history as the definitive Batman much as Sean Connery is the definitive Bond. Bale captures the brooding nature of the character (which none of the other screen versions had fully been able to portray) while reminding us of his brilliance at figuring things out. Batman is the ultimate superhero strategist and we see that side of him here.

Some have criticized Bane as being too one-dimensional but I disagree. Bane is a very complicated character not unlike a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces you don’t have until the very end. It takes a bit of patience but once you kind of get him you realize Hardy is doing a tremendous job with him, considering he is mostly acting with his eyes as his face is masked and his voice distorted. Those who can’t see anything deeper aren’t looking hard enough.

There are those who will look at this as a social commentary of some sort and to be honest, Nolan’s movies often are. Bane might be thought of as the sort of epitome of the Occupy movement, blaring one solipsism  after another proclaiming the rights of the people over the evil powers that be. However, that would be a simplistic interpretation. Quite frankly, the movie is our worst nightmares about the economy come to pass; a morality play about how easily economic chaos can lead to physical chaos. It’s certainly a cautionary tale.

For me, the heart and soul of this particular movie isn’t so much Batman as it is Alfred. I was a little surprised Caine took the part initially and this movie might well be one of the crowning achievements of his distinguished career; it’s not a large part but it’s the soul of the film and Caine delivers one of the most emotional performances I can ever remember. I just hope the Academy remembers him when the nominations start to come out next year.

If the question is whether or not this measures up to The Dark Knight, then the answer is a resounding yes. If the question is whether the movie is as good or an improvement on The Dark Knight, then I’d say that it is close but not quite as good. Hardy is terrific as Bane and Hathaway makes a sexy but savvy Catwoman but neither of them delivers the good quite as well as the late Heath Ledger did as The Joker. Batman needs an opponent at least as clever as he is and Bane isn’t quite to that level.

This is as good a summer movie as you’re likely to find out there, one which takes the gauntlet thrown down by The Avengers and answers the call. We are quite fortunate to have a summer in which the superhero movies have been as uniformly excellent as this year has been; hopefully that will set the bar for summers to come.

REASONS TO GO: A fitting end to a great movie trilogy that sets the bar high for future superhero movies. Well-orchestrated plot. Hardy and Hathaway make terrific villains; Bale is the definitive Batman and Caine gives an Oscar-worthy performance.

REASONS TO STAY: Very dark in nature, maybe the darkest superhero film ever which might be too much for younger audiences.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of comic book violence, some of it a little bit more realistic. There is a bit of simulated and implied sex, and a few bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Christian Bale becomes the first actor to play Batman in three live action films (Kevin Conroy has played the role seven times but all in animated features).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100. The reviews are strongly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spider-Man 2

FOOTBALL LOVERS: The football sequence was filmed at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. The kick returner was played by real life NFL star Hines Ward, who in the movie plays for the Gotham Rogues.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: An Unreasonable Man

Looking for Eric


Looking for Eric

Steve Evets and Eric Cantona share a Zen moment.

(2009) Family Drama (IFC) Steve Evets, Eric Cantona, Stephanie Bishop, Gerard Kearns, Stefan Gumbs, Lucy-Jo Hudson, Cole Williams, Dylan Williams, Matthew McNulty, Laura Ainsworth, Maxton Beesley, Kelly Bowland. Directed by Ken Loach

We all need a little help once in awhile. Sometimes we turn to friends or loved ones, sometimes to a professional. However, when we are being advised by a personal hero, are we just hearing what we want to hear? Or is the advice worthwhile?

Eric Bishop (Evets) is a postal worker in Manchester whose life is falling apart. His stepsons are drifting into thuggery – especially his son Ryan (Kearns) under whose floorboards he finds a drug dealer’s gun – and he regrets walking out on his wife Lily (Bishop) after the birth of his daughter Sam (Hudson), who now has a baby of her own.

He’s 50 and the regrets of a life that he realizes has been messed up beyond all recognition are beginning to sink in. After an impromptu therapy session and the smoking of some stolen weed, Bishop hallucinates his favorite football (what he call soccer – not the American kind) hero Eric Cantona (playing himself) from his beloved Manchester United side popping in to give him advice.

At first Bishop chalks it up to the stress but when Cantona begins to turn up more often he kind of just goes with it. As Ryan’s involvement with the drug dealer begins to escalate into a conflict, Bishop’s friends try to help him out of his jam. However, can anything help him win back his lost love again?

Director Ken Loach is one of England’s best-known and most respected directors. He has a knack for capturing working class Englishmen realistically and naturally. This may be his most mainstream film to date, looking at an ordinary Joe as he reaches the half century mark, full of regrets, stressed out by life and longing for simpler times.

The movie probably would have gotten wider release over here but the language and situation is steadfastly and unapologetically English; most distributors felt (and rightly so) that Americans wouldn’t have the patience for a movie of this nature. I honestly can’t blame them on that score.

However it is a shame – this is the kind of movie that leaves you with a very warm feeling inside. Evets and Cantona have a lovely rapport that infuses the movie with its charm and a certain amount of quirkiness. Cantona seems to have a gentle sense of self-parody, particularly with the image of a cocky, arrogant footballer; he plays trumpet, and he has a little bit of eccentricity as well that is refreshing. Professional athletes are often zealous about maintaining a certain image, so it’s refreshing to see one that is willing to look a little bit out of the box in that regard.

Evets is to my mind a big find here. He plays the embattled postal worker with a certain amount of honesty and grace. His Eric Bishop isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, nor does he have all the answers. He’s made some critical mistakes in his life and doesn’t have a hope of erasing all the ill will he’s generated over the years and yet he’s willing to try and make amends. Better late than never, I say, and watching Evets occasionally stumble through his issues makes him more relatable to my mind.

This is a movie that I don’t think was given much of a chance in the States and while I understand where distributors came from, this is one of those movies that I think deserve to be given a chance. There is always a small segment of American moviegoers who will find a movie that is well-made, even if they don’t always understand the cultural norms behind it. I’m sure if I lived in England and understood the working-class Mancunian culture I’d have had a greater appreciation for Looking for Eric but like the multiple meaning title, there’s plenty to appreciate even if you know nothing about Eric Cantona or the English working class.

WHY RENT THIS: As a slice of life for working class England, this is outstanding.   

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The jargon and accent may be a little difficult for the American audience to understand, as well as some of the football background.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of foul language and a little bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Evets and Cantona are better known for other professions; Cantona as a professional footballer, Evets as a former bassist for The Fall.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While there isn’t much on the DVD edition, the Blu-Ray has a couple of short films, a music video and a roundtable Q&A with director Ken Loach, star Steve Evets and soccer great Eric Cantona.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $11.5M on an unreported production budget; my guess is that the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Accepted

Fired Up!


Fired Up!

This is where a funny caption would go if I could think of any.

(2009) Teen Sex Comedy (Screen Gems) Nicholas D’Agosto, Eric Christian Olsen, Sarah Roemer, Molly Sims, Danneel Harris, Philip Baker Hall, Adhir Kalyan, Annalynne McCord, John Michael Higgins, David Walton, Edie McClurg. Directed by Will Gluck

Ahh, to be young and horny; the arrogance that comes with it and the sad realization that we were all young and horny once. Hopefully, we weren’t all this stupid.

Shawn Colfax (D’Agosto) and Nick Brady (Olsen) are star football players on the Gerald R. Ford High School Tigers and they are entering their senior year. Good looking, popular and with Texas-sized libidos, they’ve been sowing a trail of broken hearts and soiled panties all through their school. Now they are faced with going to football camp with a bunch of sweaty guys and a mealy-mouthed coach (Hall) in the middle of the Texas desert in August. No, I wouldn’t want to do it either.

Instead they concoct a brilliant scheme; they decide to help out the cheerleaders at their camp in idyllic Illinois. Why, yes, as a matter of fact, I’d much rather spend the month of August with 300 nubile teenage girls who are limber, horny and have few options to choose from romantically as nearly all the other guys are either gay or old (like 25 years old…grody!). They convince the powers-that-be that going to cheer camp was really what the two guys wanted. Astonishingly, the powers that be agree with them and send them on their way.

Of course, the head cheerleader Carly (Roemer) sees right through them and of course Nick falls hard for her. Shawn, on the other hand, gets the hots for Diora (Sims) who happens to be married to the head cheerleading coach Keith (Higgins). There’s also a group of rival cheerleaders, the Panthers, who like finish first all the time and it’s so unfair. Like, OMG. Their head cheerleader, Gwynneth (McCord) is such a bitch; she, like, always dresses in black and that’s sooooooooo Goth.

But of course, everything turns out okay, despite the machinations of Carly’s boyfriend Dr. Rick (Walton) who’s actually a first year medical student but he wants to get used to the sound of it. And why wouldn’t things turn out okay? It’s cheerleading, man!

Now, the natural inclination is to compare this to Bring It On! and not just because both films have exclamation points in their titles. No, they’re both cheerleading movies and have two groups of rival teams vying for the top spot in a competition, with one team being a perennial champ and the other a perennial doormat. There are a lot of differences however; for one thing, this is much raunchier.

The writing team (operating under the nom de plume of Freedom Jones) tries to liven things up with snappy dialogue that sounds like an unholy crossbreeding of Diablo Cody and Garson Kanin. There are plenty of pop culture references and at times there are some very funny one-liners. Part of my issue is that the dialogue as spoken by these (ahem) teenagers mostly sounds arrogant. I guess it might be hip, but when you dis the message of John Lennon because most of the people who listened to him as contemporaries are in their 50s now then you just sound ignorant.

One other bone I have to pick is that most of the girls in this movie are depicted as bubble-headed idiots waiting for some acne-faced slimeball to charm their way into their pants. I’m not saying teenage girls are the most level-headed strata of our society, but they aren’t all dimwits either.

You don’t see a teen sex comedy for the acting and that holds true here. The performances are okay I guess, just not memorable. When the movie works as it occasionally does, it works really well. However it falls flat in too many places for me to give it anything more than a mediocre rating. It’s not the kind of entertainment you’ll probably care much for fifteen minutes after you’ve seen it. And that, my friends, isn’t necessarily a criticism – sometimes we all need a little disposable comedy to occupy our time.

WHY RENT THIS: The dialogue is clever in places. As teen sex comedies go, this one isn’t too bad.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little too much smug, “look at me I’m young and hipper than you ever were” bullcrap. Too many of the girls are too empty-headed.

FAMILY VALUES: Seeing that this is a teen sex comedy, there’s an awful lot of, well, sex. And talking about sex, sometimes in the crudest terms possible. And nudity, not a lot of it but a little. And other bad words which I won’t repeat here. Anyway, you’ve been warned.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Eric Christian Olsen was playing a high school senior, he was actually 31 years old at the time of filming.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a kinda sorta funny interview from the press junket which goes viciously, horribly wrong but that’s it.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $18.6M on a $20M budget; the movie flopped.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: War