Sollers Point


McCaul Lombardi looks like he just walked in on something.

(2017) Drama (Oscilloscope) McCaul Lombardi, Jim Belushi, Tom Guiry, Zazie Beetz, Everleigh Brenner, Imani Hakim, Wass Stevens, Alyssa Bresnahan, Ashley Shelton, Lynn Cohen, Greg Crowe, Liam Hughes, Pete Papageorge, Michael Rogers, Kazy Tauginas, Grace Doughty, Brieyon Bell-El, Vincent De Paul, Maya Martinez, Hilary Kacser, Marin Ireland. Directed by Matthew Porterfield

Redemption isn’t easily obtained. It requires a genuine determination to change and to make amends which requires hard work on the part of the seeker. Sometimes – often, in fact – even the best of intentions just aren’t enough.

Keith (Lombardi) has just been released from prison and has transitioned from incarceration to house arrest. He has moved in with his father (Belushi) who is wary of his son who had made a lot of mistakes and had hung out with the wrong crowd. A low-level drug dealer for local Baltimore gangs, Keith wants to put that life behind him and make something of himself.

He is not on good terms with his ex-girlfriend Courtney (Beetz) who also has his dog, or at least that’s how Keith sees it (she sees it as she’s got their dog which is at least equally hers). Some of the gang bangers from his past have come back, intimating that he owes fealty to them but Keith turns down the offer to rejoin, angering Aaron (Guiry) who harasses Keith in an escalating series of confrontations.

Keith’s biggest obstacle, however, is Keith himself. He wants to learn a trade that his father would find honorable like air conditioning repair but Keith misses the first class and is late for the second which gets him thrown out of class. He does some odd jobs here and there but he finds that in order to make real money he has to skirt closer and closer to his old life. Lonely, he initiates hook-ups with strippers that he knows which leads to a further falling from grace. And as Keith’s temper begins to get the best of him, he finally crosses the line and may bring his freedom to a crashing halt

This is Porterfield’s fourth film, all of which are set in his hometown of Baltimore. While there’s clear affection for the city coming from the director, it is not unconditional love – he sees its issues clearly and without sentiment. There is crime, racial division and an erosion of the ability of the working class to find jobs and dignity. Most cities have the same types of problems, particularly those that relied heavily on industrial economies in decades past.

Lombardi is a find; he’s had supporting roles in high-profile indies up to now but this is his first lead and he hits a home run. Facially a cross between John Cena and Mark Wahlberg, he carries the latter’s charisma and the former’s physicality. It makes for a very promising performance; keep his name in mind as I suspect we’re going to be hearing a lot more from him.

Beetz, who has a high-profile role in the upcoming Deadpool 2 comes off less impressively. Perhaps her character was written with less to work with than Lombardi’s but she came off flat and without energy for most of the film; I couldn’t for the life of me see what Keith saw in Courtney at all. The chemistry was much stronger between Lombardi and Belushi although to be fair they had a lot more screen time together. While I was disappointed in her performance here – she’s done some compelling work in Atlanta – I’m hoping she does better the next time out.

Jim Belushi has come a long way from The World According to Jim and he shows some pretty serious dramatic chops here. There’s a scene with him and Beetz in which he pleads with her for the sake of his son, made all the more poignant for what Keith is doing at that moment. That scene alone is worth seeing the movie for.

This isn’t the first film to explore the reintegration of ex-cons into society and the hurdles facing them. In many ways, this is a well-trodden path. Keith though is his own worst enemy; he loses his temper when he should keep it, he is passive when he needs to stand up for himself and he does the wrong things for the right reasons – and sometimes, the wrong reasons. He isn’t a guy I’d probably want to hang out with for very long. It is a testament to Lombardi’s charm that the audience still ends up rooting for him. While I wouldn’t say this is Porterfield’s best film yet, it is nonetheless a solid one that is elevated by the strong performances from Lombardi and Belushi.

REASONS TO GO: Lombardi has some potential. There are some sweet and satisfying moments.
REASONS TO STAY: Beetz didn’t impress me at all. The character of Keith doesn’t have a whole lot going for him.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity including some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Porterfield and Lombardi visited a state prison to get ideas on how Keith would behave in certain situations.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Small Crimes
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
In the Fade

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Robot Overlords


Robot riding: the next Olympic sport.

Robot riding: the next Olympic sport.

(2015) Science Fiction (Vertical) Ben Kingsley, Gillian Anderson, Milo Parker, Callan McAuliffe, Geraldine James, Steven Mackintosh, Tamer Hassan, Ella Hunt, Justin Salinger, Craig Garner, Roy Hudd, David McSavage, Michael Stuart, Jimmy Johnston, Laurence Doherty, James Tarpey, Sonny Green, Ciaran Flynn, Edna Caskey, Neil Brownlee, Abigail Castleton . Directed by Jon Wright

So, let’s say that a race of giant robots have occupied the planet. We’ve all been essentially grounded, informed in no uncertain terms that we are to remain in our homes at all times or be vaporized (which must absolutely suck for the homeless). What’s a teenager to do?

That’s what’s happened to Sean Flynn (McAuliffe), whose RAF dad (Mackintosh) has been missing for two years. He’s living with single mum teacher Kate (Anderson), her comely daughter Alexandra (Hunt) and her jokester brother Nathan (Tarpey). Added to the mix is Conor (Parker) whose dad just lost it and ran outside, which led to him being disintegrated in front of his own son and now has joined Kate’s sorta happy family. Her ex-colleague, Smythe (Kingsley) is a collaborator with the robots and quite sweet on her, although the feeling isn’t reciprocated. The kids despise him, rightfully believing him to be a traitor to his own species.

Whilst fooling around in the basement, Conor discovers that electrocuting himself with a car battery can short out the tracking devices installed on every human’s neck, which allows them to go outside without being detected by the robots. At first it’s a lark until it gets curmudgeonly grandpa Morse Code Martin (Hudd) captured and essentially lobotomized, all his thoughts stolen from his head by something called a Deep Scanner. The robots are apparently studying humans and intend to take their ideas from them and use them for their own. Let’s hope they didn’t scan the humans who created this film.

While out they make the amazing discovery that Sean has the ability to control the robots through telepathy, albeit only one at a time. Still, this could be the turning point in getting the robots off our planet and allowing humans to take back their homes after all, although not if Smythe and the robotic Mediator (Garner) have anything to say about it.

This is a family-oriented sci-fi action film which should appeal to Anglophiles and Giant Robot enthusiasts alike. The story is a bit disjointed and the ending a bit anti-climactic but there’s nothing here that is likely to offend anyone, unless they have an unreasonable hatred of all things British. Although filmed in Northern Ireland and on the Isle of Man, the story is set in what appears to be either a Northern English or Scottish town – the accents run along those lines and they can be thick at times.

Kingsley has made a career of being a smarmy villain and while I’d prefer to see some different roles for him because he is such a talented actor, he does make a superior bad guy and he is one of the highlights here. Anderson is a fine actress but doesn’t get a lot to do here. Most of the focus is on Sean, Conor, Alexandra and Nathan and quite frankly they’re okay but little more. McAuliffe is an Australian actor who has received rave notices in his homeland for other roles and some say is likely to become a big star worldwide eventually, which can only help this film that has bombed at the box office both in its native land and here.

There are a few other interesting performances besides Kingsley’s; Hudd does a fine job as the defiant pensioner, while Tamer Hassan is excellent as Wayne, a criminal sort with a heart of gold who assists the kids. He is a right proper villain, you might say, although he feels like he comes from an English gangster flick and was deposited somewhat unceremoniously into this Transformers-like affair.

The story tends to be a bit on the kid-friendly side; teens and kids save the world, which might not appeal so much to adults. What really doesn’t appeal to adults is thinking about the mechanics of the story; if people are confined to their homes and are never allowed out, how do they get groceries, clothes and other necessities? What do people do when they get sick? Who ya gonna call?

The special effects range from awful to not bad, although they’ve been savaged pretty thoroughly in the British press. While the explosions looked cheesy, the robots were effective enough although not as detailed as others in bigger budgeted films. Still, I found the entire movie to be entertaining overall in a Saturday morning cartoon kind of way. And we all know you never outgrow those.

REASONS TO GO: Some decent special effects. Kingsley is always swell.
REASONS TO STAY: Story is disjointed and ending anti-climactic. Most of the rest of the cast is merely adequate.
FAMILY VALUES: Robot violence and some human-on-human violence, a rude gesture and a few sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Deep Scanner resembles the main monsters from the film Grabbers which Wright also directed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/1/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: V
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Men in Black II

The Lady (2011)


The Lady

Michelle Yeoh is living in the golden age.

(2011) Biographical Drama (Cohen Media Group) Michelle Yeoh, David Thewlis, Jonathan Raggett, Jonathan Woodhouse, Susan Wooldridge, Benedict Wong, Flint Bangkok, William Hope, Victoria Sanvalli, Danny Toeng, Nay Myo Thant. Directed by Luc Besson

 

One of the most compelling political figures in the world today is largely unknown in the United States, yet she has won the Nobel Peace Prize and is iconic in Asia and Europe for her courageous stand against the repressive military junta which rules Burma (or Myanmar as they like to call it) with an iron fist. Her name is Aung San Suu Kyi and her story has been one waiting to be told.

Her father, Aung San had been a leader in the fight for Burmese independence from the English and had been moving to take the country into democracy when he was assassinated in 1947. He was and still is revered in Burma and his daughter Suu Kyi (Yeoh) lived in exile, in England where she had since married a bookish professor at Oxford, Michael Aris (Thewlis). They had two children together; Kim (Raggett) and Alexander (Woodhouse).

In 1988, Suu Kyi’s mother got seriously ill following a stroke so she journeyed back to Burma to be with her mom. At the time, the country was smack dab in the middle of the 8888 Uprising which was being brutally repressed by the government. Suu Kyi saw soldiers shooting unarmed students and doctors and was horrified by the carnage. In the meantime, students and professors at the local university, heavily involved in the uprising, saw Suu Kyi as a symbol of her father and for democracy and were eager to get her involved. Reluctantly at first, she began to take part in the protests.

Her one or two week trip would stretch out as the Uprising went on. Suu Kyi became the symbol the students hoped she would be and the people began to rally around her. Finally, when the government allowed the elections Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy demanded, they were shocked to discover that the NLD had won 392 seats in Parliament against only 5 for the reigning government, with Suu Kyi the new Prime Minister of Burma. That could not be allowed and the government voided the election.

The detestable Sein Lwin, the head of the military dictatorship, knew he couldn’t kill her outright; her father was a martyr and he was trouble enough. Killing Suu Kyi and making a martyr out of her as well might be too much for even his well-armed soldiers to control. He needed to break her spirit and make her a non-factor.

That job is charged to Win Thein (Thant), an ambitious and fiendishly clever Colonel. He placed the erstwhile Prime Minister under house arrest, confining her to the lovely lakeside home where she’d grown up, where she had last seen her father alive and where her mother eventually passed away. Most of her colleagues in the NLD were imprisoned or disappeared entirely.

She endured the loneliness of her imprisonment, surrounded by trigger-happy guards who’d like nothing better than to see her dead. Michael, knowing how precarious her safety was, initiated a nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize for his wife, which she won in 1991. Unable to attend, her son Alexander gave a moving speech in her absence which she heard over a battery-operated radio despite attempts of her guards to prevent her from hearing it.

However, in 1998 her husband Michael discovered that he had terminal prostate cancer. Suu Kyi was now presented with a horrible choice; return to Oxford to be at her husband’s side and never be allowed to return to Burma (effectively negating the work and suffering they’d done for democracy in Burma over all those years) or remain under house arrest, knowing she would never see her husband again.

Suu Kyi is one of the most courageous people of our time and her story is one that has needed to be told. It has, in fact appeared onscreen in John Boorman’s Beyond Rangoon as well as the recent documentary They Call It Myanmar. However, this might be the most ambitious film about her yet. French filmmaker Besson, mostly known for the action movies he’s produced (including The Fifth Element, Taken and the recent Lockout) goes out of his comfort zone here.

The result is spectacular. Using his long-time cinematographer Thierry Arbogast he captures some beautiful images of the countryside (some of which was filmed illicitly by Besson himself during a visit to Myanmar) as well as of the people. Many of the extras were Burmese and during segments in which Suu Kyi was giving speeches, filming had to be stopped because the extras were crying.

Much of that is due to the performance of Yeoh. This was a role she was born to play and she gives Oscar-caliber work here. It is in my opinion the best performance of her career and that’s saying something about an actress who is one of the finest ever produced in Asia. She captures Suu Kyi’s inner strength and grace, as well as her fierce resolve. It doesn’t hurt that Yeoh has a very strong resemblance to the real Suu Kyi.

Thewlis who has done some fine work of his own, is never better than he is here. His Michael Aris is an academic with a heart of gold; well-read and as committed to the cause of democracy in Burma as his wife is. His sacrifice is as almost as great as hers, although he at least had the succor of family around him. Thewlis gives him a bit of a stiff upper lip but never fails to keep the man’s inner warmth close to the surface.

This is a powerful movie and the testament to it was the expressions of the people who had seen it on the way out of the theater – these were the expressions of people who had been deeply moved and many faces were streaked by tears. While there were times I felt the focus was too much on Michael and the boys, the end result is that this movie is about a portrait in courage Kennedy would have approved.

For some reason, critics have been giving this film a shellacking, including some that I have respected over the years. One went so far as to call the film “fawning” and compared it unfavorably to They Call It Myanmar which I haven’t seen yet and I’m sure is a fine film on its own, but they are different fruit entirely. This is one in which I say don’t listen to the critics and go and experience it for yourself. It’s a powerful, moving cinematic experience that shouldn’t be missed.

REASONS TO GO: Yeoh gives a bravura performance, quite possibly the best of her stellar career. Authentic and powerful.

REASONS TO STAY: Could have focused less attention on Michael and more on Suu Kyi.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and a few disturbingly bloody images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Besson constructed the set of Suu Kyi’s home to near-perfection, using photographs and satellite images for accuracy. He even set the home so that the sun rises through the same windows as they do in Suu Kyi’s actual home.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/22/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100. The movie inexplicably has received poor reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Burma VJ

BURMA LOVERS: While much of the movie was filmed in Thailand (particularly the scenes set in Rangoon), some of the footage was taken in Burma as well.  

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Lockout

Tower Heist


Tower Heist

Ben Stiller brings up the Nutty Professor movies even though it's in Eddie Murphy's contract that nobody mentions them.

(2011) Caper Comedy (Universal) Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Tea Leoni, Casey Affleck, Alan Alda, Matthew Broderick, Gabourey Sidibe, Judd Hirsch, Michael Pena, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Nina Arianda, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Juan Carlos Hernandez, Zeljko Ivanek, Peter Van Wagner. Directed by Brett Ratner

It goes without saying that the new villains in the movies, reflecting our perilous economic times, are financiers. Most of us hold them responsible to a large degree for the woes we find ourselves in. Wall street is the new mad scientist.

Josh Kovacs (Stiller) works as the building manager for one of the most exclusive residences in Manhattan and thus one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in the world. It is the home of the hoi polloi, the high and mighty – the movers and shakers of New York. He heads a staff that is renowned for their attentiveness and attention to detail.

Among the residents in the building one of the most famous is Arthur Shaw (Alda), a man who has managed the portfolios of nations. He is one of the world’s most respected financial minds, someone who understands the markets better than anyone alive. When doorman Lester (Henderson) opens the door for him, there’s just a little bit more deferential treatment for Mr. Shaw who is as down to earth as they come – playing online chess with Josh, who went to the same public school in Astoria that Shaw did.

A sharp-eyed Josh notices, while in security chief Manuel’s (Hernandez) office what appears to be a kidnap attempt on Mr. Shaw. He makes a heroic effort to rescue him only to be clotheslined by an attractive woman, who turns out to be FBI agent Claire Denham (Leoni). It also turns out that the kidnapping is actually Shaw trying to escape arrest. It turns out that Shaw has swindled all of his clients out of the money they gave him to invest and that money is all gone. It turns out that Josh had given the employees of the Tower’s pension fund over to Shaw to manage and that money is all gone too.

This is devastating for some. Charlie (Affleck) the concierge is about to have a baby. Miss Iovenko (Arianda) is studying to pass the bar. Enrique (Pena) just started working there. But it is most devastating for Lester, who was about ready to retire and also had given his life savings – about $70K – to Mr. Shaw to invest and was left with nothing, meaning retirement wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. Disconsolate, he attempts to walk out in front of a train and is saved by off-duty police officers.

Josh doesn’t want to believe that his friend Mr. Shaw is a crook, but when he visits him to tell the house-arrested Shaw what has befallen Lester, it becomes clear that Shaw’s friendly man-of-the-people front was a facade. It also becomes just as clear that the money that the employees of the Tower have all been counting on is gone forever. However, Agent Denham lets slip that guys like Shaw always have a cash safety net available for emergencies and that they haven’t found Shaw’s yet. Maybe Josh can steal back what was stolen from he and his associates.

However, Josh isn’t a thief, as Charlie correctly points out. However, Josh knows someone who is – streetwise Slide (Murphy), a career criminal who lives down the street from Josh. Add the recently evicted Mr. Fitzhugh (Broderick) and Jamaican maid (and daughter of a safecracker) Odessa (Sidibe) and you’ve got yourself a gang. However can these amateurs make their way past the most sophisticated security system in New York and the ever-watchful eye of the FBI to get themselves a little payback?

It will probably not surprise anyone who sees this movie to know that it shares a writer with the Oceans 11 series. It has that element of camaraderie among thieves, the same kind of snappy dialogue. It does have some star power but after Stiller and Murphy it falls off somewhat, although there are some pretty good performances here.

The main one is Murphy, who after decades of doing forgettable family comedies finally goes back to the kind of role that made him a star, one that channels Axel Foley, Billy Ray Valentine and Reggie Hammond. This is not quite up to those standards, but it is his best role in years. He nails it as well, giving it that fast-talking con-artist veneer as well as that kind of bad boy ladies man that Murphy perfected 20 years ago and that comedians like Martin Lawrence, Chris Rock and Chris Tucker have all been channeling since then.

Alda, who was playing Hawkeye Pierce in “MASH” at about the same time plays maybe the nastiest villain of his career. Shaw is an arrogant, smug bastard who while obviously modeled on Bernie Madoff has a little bit of Leona Helmsley thrown in for good measure. It’s a delicious role and should go down as one of the most memorable movie villains of 2011.

Stiller is a bit of a cipher. He is likable enough but I think that the part would have been better with someone for whom larcenous behavior might have been more easily acceptable. Stiller seems better suited for characters who need less charisma.

Ratner excels in making mindless entertainment pieces and he does so here. There’s nothing much to think about and veteran moviegoers are for sure going to be able to figure out important plot twists (such as where Shaw’s money is actually hidden) well before the reveals. However, the cast is enormously appealing (the sight of Broderick reaching out of an open window to pull in their loot but afraid to move is one of the better moments in the movie) and the plot easy enough to follow. Don’t try to think too much about some of the plot holes and you’ll find this a pleasant enough movie, not a game changer by any means but a solidly entertaining diversion. Some critics will make it seem like that’s a failure but for my money that’s a big win for the audience.

REASONS TO GO: Fine entertainment. Eddie Murphy returns to form and Alda is a fine villain.

REASONS TO STAY: A little too predictable in the plot points. Nothing really new here.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of foul language and a smidge of sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Trump Tower in Manhattan was used as the stand-in for the Tower in the film.

HOME OR THEATER: The New York City vistas and the parade segment should be seen on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Due Date