Clover


A couple of idiots walk into a bar…oh, you’ve heard that one?

(2020) Crime Comedy (FreestyleMark Webber, Nicole Elizabeth Berger, Jon Abrahams, Erika Christensen, Chazz Palminteri, Ron Perlman, Julia Jones, Jake Webber, Jessica Szohr, Michael Godere, Tichina Arnold, Johnny Messner, Louis Lombardi, Val Lauren, Brian Goodman, Ari Barkan, Martin Abrahams, Peter Johnson, J.J. Alfieri, Giovanni Reda, Kathryn Schneider. Directed by Jon Abrahams

 

The trouble with borrowing money from mobsters is that sooner or later they’re going to want it back. If you don’t have it, it could lead to some pretty awkward conversations: “Where’s my money?” “AUUUUGH! OWWWWWW! OOOOOOO GOD!!!!” *whimper, whimper* *bleed, bleed*

That’s the situation that Irish brothers Jackie (M. Webber) and Mickey (Abrahams) Callaghan find themselves in, especially after Jackie foolishly gambles away their payment the night before it’s due. Then again, Jackie isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier.

They are given one chance to redeem themselves: said mob boss Tony (Palminteri) sends the two screw-ups along with his vicious son Joey (Godere) to collect from another deadbeat. Of course, you figure that the two numbskulls are being set up and they are, but after Joey kills the deadbeat, he himself is shot – by the deadbeat’s 13-year-old daughter Clover (Berger).

Realizing that nobody is going to believe they weren’t responsible, Mickey and Jackie go on the run, dragging Clover in tow. They try to find help from a rogue’s gallery of family and friends, including Jackie’s bitter ex-girlfriend Angie (Szohr), family friend and cop Stevie (Messner), local fix-it lady Pat (Arnold) and their demented uncle Terry (J. Webber) who has a thing about poisons. Can they keep themselves alive as well as protect an innocent little girl who may not necessarily be as innocent as she looks?

Abrahams and writer Michael Testone are trying to work out the Troy Duffy playbook, but neither is quite as clever nor as skilled with punchy dialogue as Duffy is, and the movie needed a whole lot of cleverness and snappy dialogue. It’s the kind of movie that I really could easily like, but it let me down in so many ways.

Before we get to that, there are some good points to keep in mind; the chemistry between Abrahams and Mark Webber is spot-on; they get on just like brothers who most of the time want to kill each other but deep down they would kill for each other if needed. Berger is a revelation; she reminded me strongly of Chloë Grace Moretz in Kick Ass and that’s a good thing. She’s both pretty and tough, yet shows vulnerability when she has to.

You also have Palminteri doing Palminteri which is always worth the price of the rental by itself. But you also have some pacing issues; at times the action comes thick and fast but at other times it drags. There needed to be more consistency there. Also, the score is about as annoying as can be. It sounded like someone paid ten bucks for a generic thriller score for student films. It is telling that nobody is credited with the score. This is where a decent budget could have netted them a few songs from the 70s to go with some of the obvious influences. I even thought I caught a whiff of blaxploitation in the mix.

There was some real potential here but it ends up being just a mediocre film, which is a shame. Elements of it work really nicely, particularly the three leads (and Palminteri) but a lack of good dialogue, a soundtrack that probably shouldn’t have been added on, and some issues with pacing doom the movie to being a must only for Palminteri completists.

REASONS TO SEE: A really nice twist at the end.
REASONS TO AVOID: Lacks bite and snappy pacing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and lots of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the debut feature film for Zonana.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Boondock Saints
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Streetlight Harmonies

Time Lapse


The future doesn't look so bright for these Millennials.

The future doesn’t look so bright for these Millennials.

(2014) Science Fiction (XLRator) Danielle Panabaker, Matt O’Leary, George Finn, John Rhys-Davies, Amin Joseph, Jason Spisak, Sharon Maughan, David Figlioli, Judith Drake, Mark C. Hanson (voice), Dayci Brookshire. Directed by Bradley King

If only we knew the future. What would we do with that knowledge? If we could look even just 24 hours ahead, how would that affect our lives?

A trio of young roommates have to wrestle with that problem. Finn (O’Leary) is a frustrated painter who has no idea what to paint. Stuck in the visually artistic version of writer’s block, he has taken a job as the maintenance man in a group of bungalow-style apartments, the sort that were once popular in L.A. and continue to be found throughout the Southland. He lives with his best friend Jasper (Finn), a happy-go-lucky gambling-addicted bartender and his girlfriend Callie (Panabaker), the only one of the three gainfully employed and an aspiring writer herself.

Finn gets word that their neighbor opposite them, the reclusive and elderly Mr. Bezzerides (Rhys-Davies) is late with his rent check. In addition, nobody has seen him for at least a week. He sends Callie over to the apartment, fully expecting it to stink to high heaven with the smell of decayed corpse but it seems fine. However, she discovers something odd; there’s a contraption that resembles a giant Polaroid camera pointed at their front window and a wall full of photos of things going on in their apartment – and sometimes of simply the empty window. Several of the photos appear to be missing.

They soon deduce that the device actually takes a picture of whatever it is aimed at 24 hours into the future. Callie finds Mr. Bezzerides’ journal detailing his experiments; the last entry indicates that the photo taken that day indicated Mr. Bezzerides demise. Eventually his desiccated body is discovered in a storage unit.

Finn is all for calling the cops but Jasper argues that it would be foolish to do so when what they have in front of them is a veritable gold mine. All they have to do is put a sign in the window with the winners of that day’s races and they can make a fortune. Jasper is sure that it will be perfect with no harm even remotely possible coming of it. Callie seems all in with the idea but Finn is  reluctant. Jasper convinces him that he can see what he’s painting in the future and get out of his funk. Finn finally agrees, a bit reluctantly.

Of course Jasper being a world class screw-up is absolutely wrong that no harm could possibly come of using the camera; of course harm can come, in the form of a suspicious bookie (Spisak) and his taciturn goon (Figlioli).  Paranoia rises, relationships crumble and the future suddenly seems a terrifying place as they become slaves to the images that must occur. Or do they?

First-time feature filmmaker King and his co-writer (and fellow first-time feature filmmaker) BP Cooper have formulated a cool premise that has tons of potential, then really don’t do anything with it. For one thing, they commit one of the most cardinal sins in filmmaking; taking two fairly smart and sensible characters (Finn and Callie) and have them listen to the most irresponsible of the three (Jasper). Would you even take advice as to what brand of toothpaste to use from this guy? No, and neither would they, especially since they presumably know him better.

Panabaker, best known for playing the sensible scientist in The Flash TV show, is once again playing the most grounded member of the group. Her performance is satisfying, but unfortunately both Finn and O’Leary (particularly the latter) seem a little bit stiff, like they’re not comfortable on-camera. Maybe someone showed them a Polaroid.

Near the end of the film some sexual tension shows up; I wish they might have used this a bit more in the film as it did improve the overall torpor that the movie seems to exist in. I will say that the climax turns out pretty well and tells me that both King and Cooper have a good deal of potential as writers, but the movie is definitely somewhat hit and miss in that regard; they use a terrific concept to tell a rather pedestrian story when all is said and done. With a little bit more imagination they might have had something here but that doesn’t mean what they have isn’t entertaining. Certainly it is worth a look on VOD or at your local theater if it happens to be playing there. Sci-fi fans will probably get a kick out of it in any case; I don’t need a gigantic camera that takes pictures of the future to tell me that one.

REASONS TO GO: Nifty difty premise. Cleverly thought out.
REASONS TO STAY: Stiffly enacted. Doesn’t really use the premise wisely.
FAMILY VALUES: Some violence, some sexuality, some drug use, a little bit of foul language and some tense situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Polaroid film is no longer manufactured. The filmmakers had to fake the Polaroids by purchasing old Polaroid pictures on Ebay, cutting out the insides and pasting digital images color-corrected to resemble Polaroid pictures inside.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/9/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Timecrimes
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Casino

Focus


Will Smith and Margot Robbie make an arresting couple.

Will Smith and Margot Robbie make an arresting couple.

(2015) Crime Drama (Warner Brothers) Will Smith, Margo Robbie, Adrian Martinez, Gerald McRaney, Rodrigo Santoro, BD Wong, Brennan Brown, Robert Taylor, Dotan Bonen, Griff Furst, Stephanie Honore, David Stanford, Dominic Fumusa, Steve Kim, Don Yesso, Juan Minujin, Jano Seitun, Melania Lenoir, Pietro Gian, Justina Bustos, Paola Brasca, Kate Adair . Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa

Con artist movies are not the easiest things in the world to undertake. For one thing, we’ve all seen at least a few, from The Sting on down. It’s hard to fool veteran moviegoers and keeping the audience misdirected is the key to a successful con movie, or else the audience leaves the theater feeling as if it was they who had been conned.

Nicky (Smith) is a con artist and one of the best. He finds big sporting events – the Super Bowl, Championship Boxing matches, All-Star games – and basically invades those towns with a crew of pickpockets and thieves, using plants to distract and confuse while his light-fingered operatives steal wallets, jewelry, electronics – whatever items of value they can get their hands on. There are also the grifters who pose as aggrieved husbands and cheating wives in one of the oldest tricks in the book. Nicky and his crew can make a fortune.

Nicky has taken under his wing the lovely Jess (Robbie), an aspiring con artist who has natural talent at it but lacks the experience and some of the skills. Nicky teaches her that all of this is a matter of focus, keeping track of the lie and sticking with it. Die with the lie, he tells her when they meet when she tries unsuccessfully to swindle him. You can’t con a con man, after all.

However, when Nicky grows too fond of her, he abruptly pulls away. You can’t get too close to people in this game after all. You always have to keep your focus.

Three years later, Nicky is in the midst of working a con involving an experimental Grand Prix auto engine from a smarmy Brazilian billionaire (Santoro) with a curmudgeonly but deadly bodyguard (McRaney) when who walks into the picture? Jess, of course. Is she playing an angle or has she, as she claims, left the life and become the girlfriend of the billionaire? And what is Nicky’s angle? Who’s conning who?

Directors Ficarra and Requa also co-wrote the movie and while they have given us a slickly filmed opus with some nice visuals, there’s a good deal here that is lacking, particularly in the writing. Smith is in dire need of a hit and this isn’t likely to be it; despite the fact that he still has the charm and manner that made him one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, audiences aren’t responding to it as much as they once did and this is the kind of script that really Smith should have passed on. He’s too good for this material.

Robbie is a star in the making. After garnering attention for her role as the trophy wife in The Wolf of Wall Street she shows that she has natural screen presence that holds up nicely to one of the most charismatic stars in the world which bodes well for her career. She and Smith in fact have a good chemistry, the sort that money can’t buy and their complex onscreen relationship works because of it. As I intimated, you’re never quite sure who’s conning who.

The supporting performances are strong here too, particularly from Wong who plays an Asian businessman with a penchant for gambling who gets into a battle of wills with Nicky, Martinez as the socially awkward best friend and obligatory computer genius, Brown as the captain of Nicky’s crew and McRaney at his gruff best. The acting isn’t the problem here.

The sequences of pickpockets working the Super Bowl crowd in New Orleans are artfully choreographed and fun to watch. The cinematography is nicely done as well, delivering a world that exists in the underbelly of night and on the fringes of the good life. It’s a believable looking film.

Where it goes off the rails is in the writing. For one thing, most veteran moviegoers should be able to predict what’s going to happen next without missing the mark which is a cardinal no-no in a movie like this. There are few really genuine left turns here and the movie suffers for it. There are also plenty of plot holes; the con of the Asian businessman is supposed to rely on subliminal persuasion but the explanation of them is unconvincing at best. The character development is sloppy and fairly stock for movies of this nature; one gets the sense that this is more of a compilation of con man films more than an original take on the subject, and characters often act out of character – Nicky at times for a hardened con man with a supposed heart of stone is awfully sentimental.

The movie works okay as strictly entertainment but it is eminently forgettable and won’t do much for the careers of Smith and Robbie, although they’re both pretty good here. It is typical of the kind of movies that are released in February; a cut above those that come out the month previous but in general flawed, sometimes deeply. This one is of the latter persuasion.

REASONS TO GO: Good chemistry between Robbie and Smith who make engaging leads. Some nice supporting performances as well, particularly from Wong, Martinez, McRaney and Brown. Nice choreography on pickpocket scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: Nothing really surprising here. Plenty of plot holes and “huh?” moments. Characters don’t really behave like how you would expect those sorts of people to behave.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of bad language, brief violence and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Robbie and Smith will be co-starring again in next year’s Suicide Squad.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Grifters
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: What We Do in the Shadows

The Gambler (2014)


Mark Wahlberg's agent is dead to him after getting him this movie.

Mark Wahlberg’s agent is dead to him after getting him this movie.

(2014) Drama (Paramount) Mark Wahlberg, Brie Larsen, Michael Kenneth Williams, John Goodman, Jessica Lange, Anthony Kelley, Alvin Ing, Andre Braugher, Domenick Lombardozzi, George Kennedy, Lauren Weedman, Leland Orser, Richard Schiff, Griffin Cleveland, Steve Park, Da’Vone McDonald, Amin Joseph, Josiah Blunt, Shakira Ja’Nai Paye, Melanie McComb. Directed by Rupert Wyatt

Gambling is part of the human psyche. Not all of us our gamblers but at least once in our lives we all take a chance on something. Some, though, can’t live without the rush. The bigger the gamble, the bigger the thrill. Who doesn’t relish the thrill of hitting 21 at the blackjack table when you’ve put your entire bankroll in, or of hearing that girl whose league you’re so far out of that you’re actually playing a different sport say yes when you ask her out?

Jim Bennett (Wahlberg) is a gambler, a compulsive one. He goes to underground casinos and bets whatever sums of money he can get his hands on – usually borrowed. He’s a college professor by day (of English literature) and by night, he plays blackjack and roulette. He can go up by hundreds of thousands of dollars and then lose it all on one bad hand. He is a smart cookie for sure, but a self-destructive one as well.

He owes money to three very bad people; Lee (Ing) who owns the underground casinos that Jim gambles in (we can assume that most respectable casinos will have banned Bennett from their respective properties), Neville (Williams) who puts the urbane in urban as a gangster who, when the original movie that this is based on came out would have been portrayed in a Superfly hat with a ‘fro from here to waaaaaaaay out there, baby and the third is the most badass of them all – Frank (Goodman) who is fatherly and vicious at the same time. He is the loan shark with a heart of gold, trying to talk Jim out of borrowing money from him which is a little bit odd considering that Frank makes his millions from chumps like Jim borrowing money from him.

Jim’s mom (Lange) is the daughter of the founder of a bank and has wealth oozing from her every pore and dripping from her empty smile. She knows she has been enabling the beast all this time and when Jim comes to her for a loan of well over a quarter of a million dollars, her first instinct is to slap him across the face (which, I might add, he deserves). Like the enabler of any addict, she hopes that this time he will use the money wisely and take care of his debt and start a better life for himself but we know, he knows and she knows that just isn’t going to happen. Not yet. And when Jim tells her essentially to go away and not talk about his problem, she does, weeping for a moment before her mask of iron control slams down on her face and she walks away with what dignity she can muster and Jim (and we) don’t see her again.

Jim has been latched onto by one of his students, Amy (Larsen) whose talent Jim recognizes but in typical Jim fashion he attempts to tell what he conceives as the truth (and may well be – he’s a pretty smart guy) but in such a way that it alienates virtually everyone else in the class. There’s also Lamar (Kelley), a basketball star who is expected to cruise through the class so he can continue to be eligible to score lots and lots of points on his way through to the NBA. These two alone seem able to tolerate Jim who is filled with self-loathing and who time after time when confronted with the opportunity to do the right thing screws it up royally for himself and those around him.

With a deadline looming on Jim’s debt payback and his new girlfriend and his basketball-playing student who may be the only two people left who care about Jim now firmly in the crosshairs, Jim knows it’s going to be all or nothing this time and there will be no walking away if he loses. Not for him. Not for anyone around him.

This is based on a 1974 James Caan film of the same name which in turn is loosely based on a Fyodor Dostoevsky novel – also of the same name. This is a slick but soulless look at gambling, it’s hold on the psyche and how a smart man can be moved by it to do dumb things.

Jim says on two occasions that he’s not a gambler; the first time you think he’s being ironic. The second, it’s said with flat confidence which is meant to convey you see, I have it all under control and perhaps that’s what the movie means you to feel. It is near to the end of the film and supposedly, he’s getting his life back in order. I find this a disservice to the movie, particularly since throughout the movie we watch and recoil as Jim sinks deeper and deeper into the morass, and yet at the end one magical bet is supposed to be all it takes to lift him out of the pit. In real life, that’s what a lot of gambling addicts say and to a man (or woman) they can’t help but sink back into it and lose everything they’ve gained. That’s the nature of the beast.

I refuse to call the actors out on the carpet for this one – they all do a bang-up job. Wahlberg is making a fine career out of playing heroes who are flawed, as in Pain and Gain. Here he has the unenviable job of taking a smart character who does dumb things and on top of it make him virtually unlikable. Jim’s arrogant, blunt, sometimes cruel – the line between truth and cruelty can be blurry at the best of times and Jim crosses that line regularly, often on purpose. The things he does seem to be a “suicide by gangster” thing. I can’t even begin to even figure out what’s going on with him; suffice to say that few of us ever get as messed up as Jim does and those that do, God’s mercy on ya.

Ing and Williams make credible victims, with Williams getting more of a meaty character to work with; Ing mainly plays it cool and looks (if you’ll forgive the expression) inscrutable which considering he’s Asian I’m not sure is a good idea. Ing’s poker face makes his character more menacing but the filmmakers really don’t follow through on that menace. Williams though gets to and quite frankly, his character is a bit of a throwback to 70s cinema and not in a good way always.

Goodman gets to chew the scenery and few do it as well as he does. He’s a street-smart guy who understands and respects Jim’s intellect and can’t for the life of him understand why he does what he does. He’s got that southern fried Foghorn Leghorn thing going but with a touch of ticking time bomb on the side. You get the sense that Frank is nobody to mess around with, despite the fatherly demeanor which he adopts with Jim from time to time. I love watching Goodman work and he’s in top form here.

This is a movie that doesn’t know when to stop. Wahlberg carries a briefcase with him everywhere but never uses it in a piece of business that’s unnecessarily distracting. Sometimes in attempts to be artistic they have Wahlberg staring off into the sunset with an icy demeanor and sunglasses shading his eyes, switching the background in a series of jump cuts while Wahlberg stays still in exactly the same spot in the frame. It’s a little bit like a Photoshop effect on film.

Worse yet is the ending, which not only jumps the shark, it lands back in the water and gets eaten by the shark. The movie began with the sound of a roulette wheel  spinning, the ball bouncing in the middle of the wheel and landing in its slot. Near the end of the movie, Jim is spinning a roulette wheel on which he’s bet everything; win and he pays everyone off and his girlfriend is left alone. Lose and Jim is a dead man. The movie begins with the sound of a roulette wheel, it should have ended with one. The movie should have faded to black right there without us knowing the result and leaving us to speculate. We never should have found out if the gamble was successful, but we do. And then there is a scene afterwards that is nothing if not gratuitous. By that time I was already gnashing my teeth and wishing that I was getting paid for this. Anyone who sees this movie should get paid for their forbearance.

REASONS TO GO: Goodman is a hoot.
REASONS TO STAY: Wahlberg’s character is so self-destructive, whiny and rude that it’s very hard to get any sort of human empathy for him or from him. Suffers from a major case of “going-on-too-long-itis.”
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of swearing, some brief nudity in a strip club and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wahlberg dropped 61 pounds for this role, an amount he said he would never lose again for any film. He also sat in on a number of English literature courses at Southern California colleges to get down the mannerisms and techniques of actual professors.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 46% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Premium Rush
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death

St. Vincent


Sometimes you have to dig in the dirt to get clean.

Sometimes you have to dig in the dirt to get clean.

(2014) Comedy (Weinstein) Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Chris O’Dowd, Jaeden Lieberher, Terrence Howard, Kimberly Quinn, Lenny Venito, Nate Corddry, Dario Barosso, Donna Mitchell, Ann Dowd, Scott Adsit, Reg E. Cathey, Deirdre O’Connell, Ray Iannicelli, Greta Lee, Melissa Elena Ramirez, Ron McLarty, Niles Fitch, Emma Fisher, David Iacono, Alexandra Fong. Directed by Ted Melfi

Some people just have mean and nasty dispositions. Maybe they don’t like people in general. Maybe they get some sort of satisfaction from putting other people down. Or maybe there’s another reason they act the way they do.

Vincent (Murray) is as curmudgeonly as they come. He lives in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn. He is either unemployed or retired. He spends his days drinking in a run-down bar, betting on the horse races at Belmont or hanging with a pregnant Russian prostitute named Daka (Watts). He smokes like a chimney and is generally a pretty unpleasant guy to know.

Into the neighborhood moves Maggie (McCarthy), a single mom still in the process of a bitter divorce from her unfaithful husband David (Adsit), and her precocious son Oliver (Lieberher). Things don’t get off to a good start with their new neighbor when her off-the-books movers accidentally knock a tree limb on top of Vincent’s car, damaging it. Vincent is predictably upset and reacts – also predictably – rudely. Welcome to the neighborhood.

Oliver is the sort of kid who just seems to attract bullies. He’s undersized and of course he doesn’t know anybody. To top it off, he’s a Jewish kid in a Catholic school. So on his first day of school at St. Patrick’s Academy a couple of bullies take his phone and keys. His mother is working as an MRI technician so he has to make his way home and when he gets there, she’s still at work. Left with no choice, he asks Vincent if he can use his phone. Vincent, somewhat begrudgingly, allows him to. Maggie can’t get away to let her son back in the house, but she arranges with Vincent to watch Oliver until she gets there – which Vincent insists on getting paid for.

Vincent has money troubles with a loan shark (Howard) on his back trying to collect. He also has  bills coming due, so he asks Maggie if she would like to make a regular gig of it. Maggie, not really having much of a choice, agrees.

So into Vincent’s world Oliver goes. Oliver joins him at the track, and at the bar. He also gets an insider’s look at what makes Vincent tick. Oliver is introduced to Daka whom Vincent describes as a “Lady of the Night.” Vincent teaches Oliver self-defense with the disclaimer “Don’t worry, you won’t get it right.” He also teaches Oliver something about self-confidence and of creating your own moral compass.

Still, there is a lot of stress in Vincent’s world, with money problems coming to a head and a loved one in dire straits. There’s also plenty of stress in Maggie’s world as she has to take additional shifts to make ends meet, and then her ex-husband is suing for custody of Oliver – mainly to punish Maggie. When Vincent’s style of “babysitting” comes to light, it threatens to destroy everyone’s world.

Murray has come a long way from his SNL days, and has delivered some strong performances such as in Lost in Translation and What About Bob. This is right up there with his best. Murray has said in interviews that Vincent is a lot like who he really is and let’s be frank, he tends to play very similar characters most of the time and Vincent has a lot in common with other characters Murray has played. Yet there is a humanity in Vincent that comes out unexpectedly even as he sometimes erects additional height on the walls he’s built around himself.

We’ve come to expect these sorts of performances from Murray so the success of the movie is going to hinge on how well his co-star Lieberher can hold his own with the star. The surprising answer is, rather well. Lieberher is absolutely convincing as the kind of wallflower that Oliver is, and while Oliver is clearly wise beyond his years, he’s not the kind of precocious kid actor who never lets you forget he’s pretending to be someone else. Instead, Lieberher kind of inhabits the role and makes a fine foil for Murray throughout.

The rest of the supporting cast is pretty strong as well, McCarthy and Watts in particularly impressive in roles that aren’t typical for them. McCarthy is more of a straight woman here, although she does get a few zingers off. But she shows that when she’s not being cast as a boorish slob, she can be extremely likable and sympathetic. Watts turns the traditional “hooker with a heart of gold” role on its ear, making Daka acerbic and sometimes as curmudgeonly as Vincent but despite the Natasha Fatale-style accent, the character comes off as real and believable. Chris O’Dowd is also impressive as a teacher at St. Patrick’s, a priest who is more worldly than you’d expect.

The movie does tend to go for the schmaltzy cliches a bit too eagerly with the ending becoming a bit too sitcom for my liking. I also have to admit that there are a few plot points like the loan shark that don’t really get resolved; they just seem to fade from view.

Still, any movie with a performance like this from Bill Murray is worth seeking out and St. Vincent is certainly one that you should. It’s funny, there’s plenty of pathos and while parts of it are sitcom-like, there is at least a heart here that hits you unexpectedly rather than clubbing you over the head throughout. This is a gem of a movie.

REASONS TO GO: Murray’s a hoot and Lieberher does an impressive job of staying with him.  Fine supporting performances by Watts and O’Dowd, and McCarthy is excellent in a very different kind of role for her.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit cliche and occasionally boggles the mind with sitcom sugary sweetness.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of adult thematic material some of which involves sexuality, alcohol and tobacco use and a plethora of cursing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At one point, Jack Nicholson was rumored to be taking the title role but eventually it went to Murray.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grumpy Old Men
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: John Wick

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For


Born to be wild.

Born to be wild.

(2014) Action (Dimension) Mickey Rourke, Josh Brolin, Eva Green, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Powers Boothe, Rosario Dawson, Jamie Chung, Jessica Alba, Dennis Haysbert, Christopher Meloni, Jamie King, Bruce Willis, Alexa Vega, Jeremy Piven, Christopher Lloyd, Stacey Keach, Martin Csokas, Ray Liotta, Juno Temple, Jude Ciccolella, Julia Garner, Kimberly Cox. Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller

The world is a rough place and nowhere is it rougher than Sin City. A place where the corrupt wield absolute power with ruthless brutality, where tough guys hook up with even tougher dames, where anything can be had – for a price. That price might just be your soul.

Like the original Sin City, the story here is told in vignettes. In one, the ultra-lucky Johnny (Gordon-Levitt) finds a poker game which is run by Senator Roark (Boothe), the spider at the center of all the corruption of Sin City – and he doesn’t like to lose. It’s bad for business.

In the next, Dwight (Brolin), a former newspaper photographer turned private eye is looked up by his ex-girlfriend Ava (Green) who dumped him for a rich man (Csokas). He never could turn down a damsel in distress, and the brutish Manute (Haysbert) who watches Ava for her husband, isn’t about to let Dwight get in the way of the plan.

 

Nancy (Alba) still mourns the death of her love, Detective John Hartigan (Willis) who watches over Nancy from the other side. Nancy longs to take her revenge on Senator Roark who was responsible for Hartigan’s early exit, but she doesn’t have the nerve to pull the trigger. However, when Roark comes after her she knows that she has no choice but to take on the powerful senator. She can’t do it alone and so she enlists the aid of Marv (Rourke), the iron mountain of a man who protects her as best he can in a city that has no mercy.

It has been nine years since the first Sin City has been released and times as well as movie-going audiences have changed. However, the look of the sequel/prequel is pretty much the same as the first, shot in black and white with bursts of color – a headful of red hair, a bright blue coat, burning green eyes – with highly stylized backgrounds. I would imagine nearly the entire film was shot on green screen.

Still, if you like your noir hard-bitten with sexy dames more dangerous than the big guns of the guys, you’re in for a treat. The all-star cast all are down with the vision of Rodriguez and Miller, the latter of whom penned the graphic novels that the movie is based on; for the record, two of the vignettes are from the graphic novels, two were written by Miller especially for the movie.

 

Rourke, as Marv, is a force of nature. He’s grim, not too bright and damn near unstoppable, the kind of jamoke you’d want to have your back in a fight. Rourke gives him dignity and a love of violence in equal measures. He don’t remember things too good but he can be counted on when the chips are down.

Brolin takes over for Clive Owen who played Dwight in the first movie – his work on The Knick precluded his involvement here. Brolin is less suave than Owen but captures the inner demons of Dwight far more viscerally than Owen did. They do explain why Dwight’s face changed (and near the end Brolin is wearing prosthetics to look more like Owen) but they can’t explain away the English accent that Dwight affects in the first movie. Oops.

In fact, several roles have been recast. Michael Clarke Duncan passed away between films and Haysbert takes over the role of Manute nicely. Brittany Murphy, who also passed away between movies, had played Shellie in the first movie. Rather than recast her, Miller and Rodriguez instead wrote a new character to take over her part. Finally, Devon Aoki who played Miho in the first film was pregnant at the time of shooting, so Jamie Chung took over. Miho in either actress’ hands is one of my favorite roles in the series.

What is also missing from the first movie is attitude. There’s some of it here but the movie is a little more grim than the first, takes itself a little more seriously than the first one did. Whereas there is a ton of violence and gore here, it is missing the same kind of energy that the first film had. It feels more cynical and less fun.

There is enough going on here to make it worth your while and fans of Mickey Rourke are going to enjoy him cutting loose here as he does – he’s in nearly all of the vignettes. There are also some fun cameos, like Christopher Meloni as a besotted cop, Christopher Lloyd as a medico who doesn’t ask too many questions and Ray Liotta as an amoral husband having an affair who plans to end it the hard way.

I did enjoy parts of it enough to give it a very mild recommendation, but it simply doesn’t hold up next to the first film which was over the top, and balls to the wall. This one tries to be but ends up trying too hard.

REASONS TO GO: Still a visual treat. Some hard-bitten performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks panache. Grimmer than the first.

FAMILY VALUES:  All sorts of violence, bloodshed and foul language as well as a surfeit of sexuality and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the film Eva Green and Martin Csokas play a married couple. In real life, they had a romantic relationship for four years.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/1/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cold in July

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Carriers

13


This is one gun club you don't want to be a member of.

This is one gun club you don’t want to be a member of.

(2009) Action (Anchor Bay) Jason Statham, Sam Riley, Alice Barrett Mitchell, Gaby Hoffman, Mickey Rourke, Stephen Beach, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Michael Shannon, Michael Berry Jr., Ray Winstone, Alexander Skarsgard, Starla Benford, Mike D’Onofrio, Daisy Tahan, Carlos Reig-Plaza, Forrest Griffin, Ed Bergtold, John Hoffman, David Zayas, Ben Gazzara, 50 Cent, Ashlie Atkinson. Directed by Gela Babluani

Some movies shouldn’t be remade by Hollywood. Not because the original is perfect as it was, but because there is a misunderstanding by Hollywood sorts of why the movie worked in the first place. That gets clouded when the director of the original also directs the remake.

13 Tzameti is not the perfect movie but it is a very good one. A French production set in France and in Georgia (the Russian one), it tells its story in black and white, lending a gritty quality that is largely absent here. While the story is nearly identical here, it is more fleshed out not only in backstory but also in palette – this movie is in color, which isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Vince Ferro (Riley) is a down on his luck laborer with a good heart. He is desperately in need of money – a lot of it – but the prospects of that are slim given his skill sets in life. While doing a job, one of the residents of the home he’s working in dies of a drug overdose. He overhears talk that the dead man was going to start a job that paid extraordinarily well. There are instructions for the job in an envelope which Vince, figuring the deceased wouldn’t need anymore, takes for himself.

 

He ends up taking a train to Chicago and is driven from there to a secluded dilapidated house where he is ordered to strip. His boot heels are cut off as the organizers look for electronic devices. To Vince’s horror, he is issued a gun and a single bullet, and a shirt with the number 13 on it. Other men, with other numbers on their shirts are also issued the same. They are made to stand in a circle and to load the gun with the bullet. The participants then spin the chambers until they are told to stop. They all aim the gun at the head of the man ahead of them. When a light bulb goes on, the master of ceremonies (Shannon) tells them, they are to pull the trigger. Those that don’t will be shot. Ferro is reluctant but knowing he will be killed for certain if he doesn’t, he participates.

Survivors of the first round will be issued two bullets in the second and those that survive the second round will be issued three bullets in the third round. At that point there are only five participants left, including Ferro. Two of the five are selected for a final duel – Ferro and Ronald Lynn Bagges (Winstone).

All this is done for the entertainment of a group of wealthy men, who bet heavily on the outcome of each round. Each of the participants has a wealthy sponsor, in Ferro’s case an elderly man (Gazzara) and in Bagges’ case his own brother Jasper (Statham). Should Ferro survive he will get a healthy payday, one that will allow him to live in luxury the rest of his life. But the odds are long, a dogged police detective (Zayas) is getting closer to busting the game and even if Ferro wins he will have to be on his toes to escape both the vengeful Jasper and the cops.

 

The newer movie is much more detailed than the first which took place more in the immediate moment which added to the overall tension. Here we get more of the backstory to the various characters, both the participants in the game and the rich men betting on it. It also must be said that in some ways this is a better looking movie, although in the end result I don’t think that the gloss did the film any favors. The original succeeded largely because of its grim noir-ish look and because we are so locked into the horror of the situation we don’t have time to think of anything else.

Certainly the acting is better here and there’s something to be said for that. However, with all the added backstory the movie tends to take detours that we really don’t want to be on. While the suspense is still relatively high, it still doesn’t compete with the first movie in that department.

So it’s safe to say that this is one of those movies that is a lot better if you see it before seeing the movie it’s based on. If you see 13 Tzameti first this will suffer a great deal by comparison. In that sense, maybe having the same director worked against this film; he was given a bigger budget and name actors like Statham, Rourke and Winstone. Of course he’d want to make a bigger movie. However in this case, bigger isn’t better.

WHY RENT THIS: Gut-wrenching suspense. Makes a nice companion piece to the original.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t always hold up to the original. Meanders a bit. Needs more grit and less gloss.

FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly disturbing violence, a bit of foul language and some brief drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ray Liotta was originally cast in the part of Detective Mullane but had to bow out due to a scheduling conflict; David Zayas ended up in the role.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Surviving the Game

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Beowulf