21


When Jim Sturgess says "Hit me," some might misinterpret the request.

When Jim Sturgess says “Hit me,” some might misinterpret the request.

(2008) Drama (Columbia) Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, Laurence Fishburne, Aaron Yoo, Liza Lapira, Jacob Pitts, Jack McGee, Josh Gad, Sam Golzari, Helen Carey, Jack Gilpin, Jeffrey Ma, Christopher Holley, Scott Beringer, Teresa Livingstone, Jeff Dashnaw, Frank Patton, Colin Angle, Bradley Thoennes, Spencer Garrett, Sally Livingstone. Directed by Robert Luketic

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Getting an education is expensive but it is necessary these days if you want an express pass to success. Students go into outrageous amounts of debt just to make it through four years of college, let alone graduate school. Some students have had to think outside of the box in order to pay off what they owe.

Ben Campbell (Sturgess) has a brilliant mind, but that and a dollar will buy you a cup of coffee, and not even a very good one. He has achieved a great deal – he’s got nearly a perfect academic record at MIT and with his MCAT scores near the top of the scale, has been eagerly accepted into Harvard Medical School. The trouble is, he can’t afford the more than $300K that a Harvard Medical School will cost him and apparently he’s already maxed out on student loans. He takes solace in his misery with fellow nerds Miles (Gad) and Cam (Golzari), his two best friends.

One day, he catches the eye of Mickey Rosa (Spacey), one of his professors, for his ability to think calmly and rationally under pressure. When Rosa investigates further, he finds that Campbell has a keen mind for numbers a talent which is clearly being wasted as the assistant manager for a men’s clothing store.  Rosa decides to invite Ben to join a project he has underway, which involves having his genius students count cards at blackjack in Las Vegas casinos. While perfectly legal, it is frowned upon by the casinos because it is a way of beating the odds, which casinos are not known for tolerating.

Although reluctant to join at first, Campbell is finally persuaded to join by Jill Taylor (Bosworth), a girl he has had a crush on for some time. Spacey introduces him to fellow card counters Choi (Yoo), Kianna (Lapira) and the current big dog in the yard, Fisher (Pitts). Rosa trains Campbell in the nearly foolproof system which is designed to fly under the radar. After a training session, Rosa flies the team to Vegas to give Campbell his trial by fire. At first nervous and unsure, Campbell is able to focus on the task at hand while playing and becomes the team’s best card counter. This gives Rosa the warm fuzzies for his new prodigy, even as it brings envy and anger from Fisher and a certain amount of chemistry with Jill.

As the team grows more and more successful, they begin to attract the notice of security consultant Cole Williams (Fishburne), whose livelihood is being threatened by security software. Ever the old dog sniffing out wrongdoing (at least as far as the casinos are concerned), he begins to keep a wary eye out on the young man who seems to be winning an unusually high percentage of the time.

In the meantime, the thrill of the game and the fruits of success begin to take their toll on Ben. Initially in only until he earned his tuition for medical school, greed and arrogance are getting the better of him as he begins to alienate those who are closest to him, while initiating a growing conflict with Mickey, who has hidden depths of vindictiveness. Will Ben be able to win back what he’s lost while staying out of the clutches of the stone-fisted enforcers of Vegas?

Sturgess who turned some heads in Across the Universe is a charming lead. It’s a shame he hasn’t yet gotten the script to put him over the top, although this movie was successful enough that it looked like it just might but as of yet it hasn’t happened. Spacey is absolutely delicious as the villainous Mickey Rosa, smooth as a snake and twice as lethal. Fishburne is one of those actors that I wish would be cast in films more often; he is always interesting. I take some solace in that he has been very present on television recently with lead roles in CSI and Hannibal.  Most of the rest of the young cast manages to look good but for the most part, their characters aren’t particularly well-drawn.

The visual effects can be a bit much, but at least they manage to capture the excitement of big-time gambling, Vegas style. The interminable chip effects that often scream “I’m a pretentious film school graduate directing this movie – watch how clever I am!” appear so often they finally induce vertigo more than move the story along. A truly nifty soundtrack and some flashy camera work make this clearly a work of the MTV generation (the preceding statement should at least give readers a clue to my age).

Sturgess and Spacey do some very nice work, particularly Spacey. The young cast is attractive. Of course, any movie that spends as much time on the Vegas strip as this one does is near and dear to Da Queen’s heart. The blackjack sequences, which could have conceivably been unutterably boring, have some snap and pop to them which will allow even non-gamblers to get into the movie.

Unnecessary (and unforgivable) geography errors take you out of the movie in a jarring kind of way. Also, the shots of the ultracool and hip card counters walking in slow mo were cliché when it was made; it is twice that now.

There’s far more style than substance here if you ask me. The fact that this is based on actual events (the real person that the Ben Campbell character was based on makes a cameo as a dealer) makes you wonder whether the truth might not have made a better movie than the fiction based on it. While it can be visually stunning at times, there are too many clichés spoiling this pot. Not bad, but not great either.

WHY RENT THIS: Fascinating subject matter and nifty presentation. Blackjack sequences well-staged. Some good work by Sturgess and particularly, Spacey.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unnecessary and foolish errors in geography and logic. Overuse of “chip effects” and “badass slo-mo.” More style than substance.

FAMILY MATTERS: The language is salty throughout. There’s some sensuality and violence as well as some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The real Ben Campbell makes a cameo appearance as a blackjack dealer at the Hard Rock.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a featurette on the history and game play of Blackjack. There’s also an interview with one of the actual MIT students involved in the incident. The Blu-Ray adds a video blackjack game through the BD-Live option.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $157.9M on a $35M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Clockers

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT; Levitated Mass

Gangster Squad


City of angels.

City of angels.

(2013) Crime Drama (Warner Brothers) Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Patrick, Michael Pena, Nick Nolte, Jack McGee, John Aylward, Jon Polito, Mireille Enos, Austin Abrams, Lucy Davenport . Directed by Ruben Fleischer

Power is something most people covet. Power means control over your own life. For most of us, our desire for power ends there but for others that’s just not enough. They want control over every life, absolute power. Absolute power, as they say, corrupts absolutely.

In postwar Los Angeles, corruption is rampant. The police and politicians are in the pocket of organized crime and in L.A. that means Mickey Cohen (Penn). An ex-boxer and bodyguard from Brooklyn, he has made his way up through the ranks of the Meyer Lansky gang and has been sent West where he has achieved absolute power over the criminal underworld.

Chief Parker (Nolte) realizes that he has lost control of his city and that there is little he can do to regain it. Legal remedies have proven ineffective as he has the corrupt Judge Carter (Aylward) under his thumb, along with a surfeit of politicians and police both in Los Angeles and neighboring Burbank. Parker realizes the only way to deal with Cohen is to go outside the law.

To that end he enlists the help of Sgt. John O’Mara (Brolin), a war hero whose wife (Enos) is very, very pregnant. O’Mara isn’t afraid to stand up to Cohen and knows how to wage guerilla warfare. O’Mara can’t do it alone though so he brings aboard Coleman Harris (Mackie), the so-called Sheriff of Central Avenue who keeps the peace in the largely African-American section of L.A. Harris, who has watched the influx of heroin destroy his community. He jumps at the chance to do something about it at the source.

He also brings in quick draw Max Kennard (Patrick), an old-style gunfighter with an anachronistic moustache and an Old West attitude, and Kennard’s partner Navidad Ramirez (Pena) who idolizes Kennard and wants to make a difference. He also brings in tech whiz (for the era) Conway Keeler (Ribisi) who is the best at tapping wires on the Force.

Finally there’s Jerry Wooters (Gosling), a crack detective who like O’Mara was a hero during the war. Now he’s just trying to keep his head down and stay out of the way of the freight train that is Cohen. Of course, if you’re going to do that you probably shouldn’t fall in love with his girl, who is the beautiful redhead Grace Faraday (Stone) who is ostensibly his etiquette instructor. We all know what she really is though.

Assassinating Cohen won’t do the trick as someone who could well be worse would just rise up and replace him. His whole organization must be smashed to pieces, beyond repair. The Gangster Squad must operate under the radar and in the shadows. Should Cohen find out who they are, not only their lives but the lives of everyone they care about will be in grave danger.

If this sounds very much like The Untouchables, well the similarities are unmistakable. This isn’t the same movie mind you – it lacks the epic scope of the Brian de Palma classic, but it’s cut from the same cloth. However, that cloth has faded and grown a little ratty over the years so it’s not quite the same fit.

Then again, Gangster Squad doesn’t have David Mamet writing the script. Not that Will Beall is a bad writer – he isn’t – but he’s not quite at that level, y’know? And this isn’t one of his better works; the script is long on action and short on sense. Quite frankly, the detectives in the Gangster Squad should have been killed many times over. It’s a case of Hollywood baddie bad aim syndrome, and brainless thug disease.

What that winds up doing is wasting another superlative performance by Sean Penn. He radiates menace in the same way as a pit bull does. He can be genial and charming one moment, bloodthirsty and rabid the next. It’s certainly comparable to De Niro’s Capone in The Untouchables except more volatile. Yes, you read that right.

Brolin does okay as the hero, although he simply is eaten alive by Penn. Wisely, he doesn’t try to compete so much as support which takes a pretty generous guy considering he is ostensibly the lead character. Gosling in fact makes a better foil for Penn (although they have no scenes together). Brolin is a fine actor in his own right and with the right role can really make some magic but it doesn’t happen here. However Gosling, who has been on a real hot streak, underplays as he usually does and it makes for a good counterpoint to Penn’s theatrics.

Stone is gorgeous to look at but she doesn’t connect with Gosling quite as well as they did in Crazy, Stupid, Love. Still, she fills the role nicely and quite frankly the era suits her. In fact, the filmmakers really do capture the era nicely, recreating Slapsy Maxie’s nightclub (a favorite hangout of the real Mickey Cohen) and other Los Angeles/Hollywood landmarks of the time.

This isn’t a bad movie, not at all. It’s just not really distinctive. It certainly doesn’t reach the heights of Zombieland which Fleischer helmed back in 2009. He hasn’t really reached that level of creativity since; hopefully the sequel which is currently in the works will bring him back to that standard. Unfortunately, Gangster Squad feels more like a project done to fill the time before he can get something he really wanted to do more.

REASONS TO GO: Penn is mesmerizing. Vision of L.A. in its heyday is well-achieved.

REASONS TO STAY: Shark-jumping ending. Predictable at times.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s quite a bit of gangster-style violence and a fair amount of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Garden of Allah apartment complex, where Wooters lives in the movie, was a real place, a landmark in Hollywood which was famous for some of the people who lived there, including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Robert Benchley. It was well-known for the Spanish-Moorish architecture and for the fair number of actors and actresses that lived there. It was torn down in 1959 and replaced with a strip mall and a bank.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100. The reviews are unspectacular.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mulholland Drive

OLD TIME BOXING LOVERS: There’s a scene where Cohen is watching a film of one of his old boxing matches. Yes, that’s the real Mickey Cohen fighting.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Father of Invention


 

Father of Invention

Kevin Spacey, a victim of the economic downturn.

(2010) Comedy (Anchor Bay) Kevin Spacey, Heather Graham, Camilla Belle, Virginia Madsen, Craig Robinson, Johnny Knoxville, John Stamos, Anna Anissimova, Red West, Michael Rosenbaum, Danny Comden, Jack McGee, Karen Livers. Directed by Trent Cooper

We all make mistakes in life, some more serious than others. When we foul up, it is on us to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and make life work again. In order to do that, sometimes we must re-invent ourselves. That’s an opportunity to rectify past mistakes but only if we learned from them.

Robert Axle (Spacey) is an infomercial billionaire. Or, rather, he was. One of his inventions had a design flaw, causing the user to be maimed. One prison center and several class action suits later, Axle is released from prison. His billions are gone; what was left after the settlement of the suits was spent by his now ex-wife Lorraine (Madsen) on philanthropy and a frivolous career move as a singer. Her new boyfriend Jerry King (Robinson) eagerly aided and abetted the dissolution of his nest egg.

Without any place to go, he is forced to move in with his estranged daughter Claire (Belle) and take a job at a Wal*Mart-like entity where his boss Troy Colangelo (Knoxville) offers endless platitudes which are ultimately meaningless. To make matters worse, Claire’s roommate Phoebe (Graham), a lesbian and a hater of men who initially thinks Robert  is the epitome of the male species – i.e. absolutely despicable – but falls for him anyway.

Robert knows just one good idea could conceivably take him back to the top and soon enough he has it. He takes it to his old company but they pooh-pooh it – and then steal it as their own. Robert has had his share of sins in his life, but the punishment seems to be well beyond what he deserves. Still, he plugs along, getting Troy to invest in his new product and enlisting the help of long time ally Sam Bergman (West) to help design and build the new product, it looks like his way to the top is assured. That’s generally when the floor drops out from under you.

This is one of those movies that shows up that gets a “cup of coffee” release on a few screens here and there (generally in New York and maybe Los Angeles) and then goes straight on to home video. With home video, streaming, and various other ways of watching movies than going to theaters or watching them on television networks, the demand for films has increased while the quality has remained flat.

That has led to a cornucopia of mediocre movies out there that you’ve never heard of but are easily available through Netflix, on cable or through YouTube in some cases. The issue with that is that some pretty decent movies wind up falling through the cracks and getting lumped with the chaff.

This is one of those movies. Spacey has been a performer who rarely disappoints over the past 20 years; even though not all of his movies have been financial or even critical successes, you can never accuse him of phoning one in and he doesn’t here. He takes Robert Axle from broken and defeated to arrogant and driven, ending up as humble and loving. In other words, he takes us on Robert’s journey and allows us to understand the road that got him there. And he makes it look effortless in doing so.

Graham is one of my favorite actresses. Not only is she shagadelically beautiful but she also has plenty of skill. Her angry lesbian is written kind of one-dimensionally but Graham gives her some depth, mostly from the way she interacts not only with Robert but with Claire as well. I truly wish she would get some better parts to work with.

The story is pretty predictable and it is mainly Spacey’s performance that gives it any particular nuance. You know pretty much how it’s going to end up and what steps are going to happen before it gets there. Normally that would be reason enough to not even bother writing a review – but Spacey gives this movie a reason to be seen.

WHY RENT THIS: Even in bad films Spacey is always entertaining.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot is kind of predictable and occasionally nonsensical. Characters are mostly clichés.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of bad language as well as some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Spacey shot this while concurrently working as artistic director of the Old Vic in London, one of the most prestigious positions in the legitimate theater.:

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shrink

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Centurion

New Year’s Eve


New Year's Eve

Josh Duhamel prepares to raise a toast to handsome men

(2011) Romantic Comedy (New Line) Hilary Swank, Robert De Niro, Josh Duhamel, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sarah Jessica Parker, Katherine Heigl, Zac Efron, Jon Bon Jovi, Sofia Vergara, Abigail Breslin, Jessica Biel, Ashton Kutcher, Halle Berry, Cary Elwes, Seth Meyers, Til Schweiger, Carla Gugino, Sarah Paulson, Lea Michelle, Common, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Larry Miller, Penny Marshall, Matthew Broderick, Alyssa Milano, Hector Elizondo, Jack McGee, Yeardley Smith, James Belushi, Ryan Seacrest, John Lithgow. Directed by Garry Marshall

 

Garry Marshall is perhaps the pre-eminent director of romantic comedies working today with such classics as Pretty Woman to his credit. Recently he directed the holiday-themed ensemble piece Valentine’s Day which had considerable box office success. Could he match that with a second holiday?

Ingrid (Pfeiffer) is an assistant working for a completely oblivious executive (Lithgow) at a major record label in New York. She is sad, depressed and lonely and tired of being taken for granted, quits her job, taking with her four tickets to the company’s coveted New Year’s Eve bash at a local art gallery. She has a whole list of unfulfilled new year’s resolutions from the previous year. She enlists Paul (Efron), a courier, to help her fulfill them before midnight. If he does, the tickets to the party are his.

That party is being catered by Laura (Heigl), who until a year ago was the girlfriend of rock superstar Jensen (Bon Jovi, cast against type). It was on New Year’s Eve last year that Jensen bolted on Laura after proposing to her. He’s regretting his decision and wants to get back with her but she’s having none of it. Waiting in the wings is Ava (Vergara), Laura’s hot-blooded sexy Latin sous chef.

Sam (Duhamel) is attending a wedding in Connecticut but on the way back to New York to give a speech at a New Year’s party his car skids into a tree. He hitches a ride back to town with the parson who officiated the wedding, his wife (Smith) and grandfather (McGee). As they crawl through traffic back to the city, he recounts how he met a fascinating woman at the same party last year and is hoping he’ll run into her again.

Randy (Kutcher) is a bit of a cynic who hates New Year’s eve. He gets stuck in an elevator with his comely neighbor Elise (Michelle) who hopes her gig as a back-up singer for Jensen at his Times Square appearance might lead to a big break for her. The two are however stuck and it appears that it is going to be a pretty sad last day of 2011 for the both of them.

Kim (Parker) is a single mom who wants nothing more than to spend New Year’s eve with her daughter Hailey (Breslin). Hailey however wants to head to Times Square where a boy is waiting to bestow her first kiss on her. Kim doesn’t want her to go so in time-honored tradition Hailey runs off anyway and Kim frantically looks for her.

Expectant couples the Schwabs (Schweiger, Paulson) and the Byrnes (Biel, Meyers) bid to be the couple with the first baby of the New Year, which carries with it a $25,000 prize. It’s on as the highly competitive fathers look to figure out ways to hurry along their wives’ delivery, much to the disgust of the Byrnes’ New Age doctor (Gugino).

In the same hospital, Stan (De Niro) waits quietly to die, having refused treatment. The end is near and while the doctor (Elwes) can only make him comfortable, Stan is hoping to see the ball drop in Times Square from the rooftop, which the doctor says is against hospital policy. Nurse Aimee (Berry) stays by his side, not wanting the old man to die alone as he fights to make it to midnight.

However, the ball is in danger of not dropping. Claire (Swank) is in charge and feels the entire weight of the world on her shoulders. An electronic snafu has the ball stuck halfway up the pole. With her police officer friend Brendan (Ludacris) calming her down, she sends for super electrician Kominsky (Elizondo) to save the day and indeed, New Year’s Eve. Can there be a new year if the ball doesn’t drop?

As you can tell, there are a whole lot of plot threads to keep track of here. Marshall however keeps them all relatively easy to follow. This is very much an “old fashioned’ kind of romantic comedy and that’s meant in a good way; it doesn’t necessarily follow the same tired formula nearly every romantic comedy employs these days. There are big points for this.

Those who like star watching will be in hog heaven here. There are tons of cameos (as you can tell from the impressive list above), several of whom have no more than one or two lines of dialogue. Some of it is stunt casting but for the most part, all of the performers are pros and go about their business competently. There are even some Oscar winners who get a chance to slum a little bit.

As in any ensemble piece, there are some bits that work and others not so much. De Niro does some good work (as you knew he would) and paired up with Berry the two make a winning combination. Pfeiffer and Efron are surprisingly pleasant together, and Duhamel is as appealing a romantic lead as there is in Hollywood at the moment. There are plenty of moments that stretch disbelief to its limits (as when Breslin bares her bra in a crowded subway station, exclaiming “This isn’t a training bra” at which Parker rushes to cover her daughter up, squealing “This isn’t Girls Gone Wild” in a smarmy sit com-y voice. Does anybody do that?), in fact too many.

However, that’s really moot, honestly. This is meant to be fluff entertainment, cotton candy for the soul. It has no aspirations other than to entertain and even that it does gently. Not every movie, as I’ve often said, has to be a transformative experience. Sometimes it’s enough merely to sit back and forget your troubles for an hour and a half or two. That’s ambition enough for me.

REASONS TO GO: Star watching always fun. Some of the stories are heart-warming and tender.

REASONS TO STAY: Vignettes vary in originality and quality.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words and some sexual references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hector Elizondo has appeared in every movie Garry Marshall has ever made.

HOME OR THEATER: This many stars should be seen in a theater.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Young Goethe in Love

Moneyball


Moneyball

Brad Pitt hopes his latest draws bigger crowds than this.

(2011) True Sports Drama (Columbia) Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, Chris Pratt, Kathryn Morris, Stephen Bishop, Kerris Dorsey, Bobby Kotick, Brent Jennings, Nick Porrazzo, Jack McGee, Glenn Morshower, Casey Bond, Tammy Blanchard. Directed by Bennett Miller

In Major League Baseball, as in most anything else, there are the haves and the have-nots. Some ballclubs have enough money to afford anything and anybody, others have to watch their budget carefully.

The Oakland A’s are a have-not ballclub. As General Manager Billy Beane (Pitt) puts it, there’s the rich clubs and the poor clubs. Then there’s fifty feet of crap…and then there’s Oakland. Owner Stephen Schott (Kotick) doesn’t have the money to compete with a New York Yankees, for example. After the A’s lose in the divisional championship to the hated Yanks, the A’s are gutted by free agency going into the 2002 season; All-Star First Baseman has been signed by the Yankees, Johnny Damon by the Red Sox and Jason Isringhausen to the Cardinals.

Replacing players of that caliber from established ballclubs is nigh on impossible given the salary limitations that Oakland had. An attempt to get a decent player at a bargain basement price from the Cleveland Indians ends badly, but Beane notices that the Cleveland GM is listening to advice (indirectly) from someone in the room he doesn’t recognize. Beane eventually finds out that the non-entity is Peter Brand (Hill), a Yale economics graduate who has some pretty radical ideas on valuing players, mostly based on ideas from statistician Bill James who is persona non grata in baseball.

Brand gives Beane the idea of bringing ballplayers into the organization based on On-Base Percentage (OBP) as opposed to traditional baseball philosophy which takes into account home runs, fielding, RBIs and hitting. The team’s scouts and baseball brain trust are appalled as Brand seems to be recommending players who under traditional rules of thought are marginalized, players like Scott Hatteberg (Pratt), a catcher whose arm has been blown out and is facing the end of his career until Beane signs him up as a first baseman; Dave Justice (Bishop), a former star in the twilight of his career and Chad Bradford (Bond), a relief pitcher with an unorthodox delivery.

A’s manager Art Howe (Hoffman) also has some severe objections, exacerbated by a contract dispute. Howe and Beane butt heads constantly, Howe playing his line-up according to his point of view and Beane frustrated that the players he’s acquired aren’t being utilized properly. As a result, the A’s begin to lose. Often.

Beane, whose daughter Casey (Dorsey) is hearing rumors of his imminent unemployment, has got to pull things together, but can it be done? Is Brand’s theory simply smoke and mirrors and more than a century worth of wisdom actually the best way possible?

This is a baseball movie for people who don’t like baseball movies, a sports underdog movie for those who don’t like sports. The script by Steve Zaillian (who won an Oscar for Schindler’s List) is smart and doesn’t talk down to audiences while at the same time explaining some of the concepts being put forth – not the overly complex ones mind you but just enough to make sense to the casual viewer.

Pitt is one of America’s biggest stars and that fact often causes him to be underrated as an actor and yet he has roles like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button that are Oscar-nominated, and not because he won the nomination in a cereal box either – it was well earned. There are some whispers going around Hollywood that he might be being considered for another Oscar nomination for this role too.

Beane is a complex man and Pitt captures those complexities, from his kind heart to his competitive fires. He wants very badly to win the last game of the season (which is the World Series-clinching win) partially fueled by his own promising but ultimately disappointing on the field career which he gave up a scholarship to Stanford for.

Hill is somewhat the comic relief but not because he is doing a typical Jonah Hill part. Brand (a fictitious character by the way) is part genius, very shy and quite un-self confident. Brand gets laughs because he’s a bit of a novice at the game of baseball and so he doesn’t fit in very well. He’s a nerd working in a jock factory.

The filmmakers wisely shy away from re-creating baseball scenes, mostly relying on archival footage in which the faces of the actors are digitally inserted. That means the audience isn’t forced to sit through badly staged sports sequences with actors who are obviously not athletic pretending to be professional athletes.

There are a lot of flashbacks to Beane’s baseball career which are I suppose to show his motivation for wanting to win so badly as a General Manager. There are way too many of them and they only serve to slow down the film, which is slow enough at times. Keep in mind that this is a movie about the front office more than it is about the ball field. Much of the action takes place on phone calls and in conference rooms.

This is one of the surprises of the year. It’s a movie that far surpasses expectations and turns out to be a legitimate Oscar contender. Had this been released in November or December, there would be reams of copy praising Pitt as a potential Best Actor and the movie itself a possible Best Picture. I was sold on this movie from the first few minutes and completely locked in for the duration. This gets a very high recommendation.

REASONS TO GO: Brilliant performances and an amazing script. Need not be a baseball fan to love this movie.

REASONS TO STAY: The action moves slowly from time to time. Flashback scenes to Beane’s baseball career seemed unnecessary.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director of Photography Wally Pfister was hired somewhat quickly after the original DP had been arrested on serious charges and was unable to do the film.

HOME OR THEATER: I’d go the home route on this one; nothing here really screams big screen.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Wanted

Drive Angry


Drive Angry

Nicolas Cage can remember when it was his career that was on fire.

(2011) Supernatural Action (Summit) Nicolas Cage, Amber Heard, William Fichtner, Billy Burke, David Morse, Todd Farmer, Christa Campbell, Charlotte Ross, Tom Atkins, Katy Mixon, Jack McGee. Directed by Patrick Lussier

It is said that a man will walk through the fires of Hell for his daughter. For some that’s more literally true than for others.

John Milton (Cage) has been away for a very long time. You might think he’s been in prison and he has, after a fashion; y’see, Milton’s been dead for several years – in the biggest, nastiest, prison of them all, Hell.

But he’s out now, walking the Earth from a place where you don’t exactly get paroled for good behavior. He’s a man on a mission; as it turns out, his daughter has been murdered by a charismatic cult leader going by the name of Jonah King (Burke) and not merely murdered, but butchered. To make things worse, her infant daughter (Milton’s granddaughter) has been kidnapped by King, earmarked for human sacrifice that will bring about a new world order – Hell on Earth.

Chasing him is the Accountant (Fichtner), an urbane demon who never gets ruffled but is someone you definitely do NOT want to mess with, as well as the police, as personified by the brutal Cap (Atkins). Assisting him is Piper (Heard), a waitress at a diner who Milton saves from being beaten up by her boyfriend (Farmer, who co-wrote the movie incidentally), and Webster (Morse), a former compadre of Milton’s.

Piper and Milton drive through the south, chasing the cult and trying to retrieve the baby before the full moon. Hell is walking the Earth and things are going to get strange before all is said and done.

Director Lussier has been impressive in some of the opportunities he’s had; this is very much a tribute to a variety of different grindhouse genres. Quentin Tarantino would have a field day with this kind of thing; in many ways, his Deathproof has the same pedigree as this does, which owes a little more to Race with the Devil in many ways with its satanic cult overtones.

Nicolas Cage has had a really bad run in terms of box office. The one-time Oscar winner and A-lister has taken on enough B movie projects to become in danger of becoming the next Steven Seagal. Milton is not really given much of a personality and Cage doesn’t really supply him one. He talks in a laconic monotone and doesn’t show very much anger or desperation. Maybe it’s because he’s dead, but he doesn’t seem to have much passion about…well, much of anything. The title of the film may be Drive Angry but Drive Irritated might have been more suitable to the tone as Cage projected it.

The movie is carried to a very large extent by Amber Heard. She kicks ass, but not in an unrealistic way; she gets beaten up early on but she takes no crap from anybody. The fact that she looks awesome in her Daisy Dukes (yeah, there are all sorts of references like that here) doesn’t hurt. She isn’t so much a damsel in distress, even though there’s a little bit of that here.

Fichtner, who’s created a nice niche for himself as a bureaucratic corporate sort, takes that role and plays it to the “nth” degree here, only with a certain amount of a sly wink. He has a good time with the role, giving it the right amount of attitude to make it memorable. I found myself looking forward to Fichtner’s screen time more than Cage’s.

Burke, best known for his work in the Twilight series, channels both Tommy Lee Jones and Josh Brolin as the cult leader. It’s not amazing work, but solid enough; fortunately Cage doesn’t provide enough fireworks to make their showdown more meaningful.

However, there is plenty of bang for your buck here. Plenty of things get blown up, lots of jiggling boobs (including a great scene when Cage is having sex with a barmaid (Ross) when his hotel room is attacked by a horde of farm tool-wielding cultists, Cage starts shooting at his attackers, all the while remaining inside his partner even when one hits him with a taser, giving the lady a good shaking) and enough bullets flying to make an NRA highlight reel.

This movie is essentially mindless fun. If you try to think about what the plot means too much, your head might just spontaneously combust. However, it’s fine grindhouse entertainment that stands proudly alongside the best of that genre from the 70s and 80s.

REASONS TO GO: Mindless entertainment, lots of things blow up and lots of sex and violence.

REASONS TO STAY: Little plot, zero plausibility and Nicolas Cage is strangely flat.

FAMILY VALUES: Hmmm, where to begin? There’s violence, sex, nudity, rough language and disturbing images. There’s also baby sacrificing going on but that’s a whole other ball of wax.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the film, Milton drives a 1964 Buick Riviera, 1969 Dodge Charger and a 1971 Chevy Chevelle.

HOME OR THEATER: I know I’m in the minority here but I think this is one that should be seen on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Sophie Scholl: The Final Days

New Releases for the Week of February 25, 2011


February 25, 2011

Somehow, this shot of Amber Heard in the drivers seat doesn't make me angry at all.

DRIVE ANGRY 3D

(Summit) Nicolas Cage, William Fichtner, Amber Heard, Billy Burke, Simona Williams, Katy Mixon, David Morse, Christa Campbell, Charlotte Ross, Tom Atkins, Jack McGee, Todd Farmer. Directed by Patrick Lussier

A criminal who has died and gone to Hell breaks out of the Inferno and returns to Earth to save his baby granddaughter who has been kidnapped by a charismatic cult leader (who also murdered his daughter in the process). The cult leader means to sacrifice the baby during a full moon in order to bring about Hell on Earth. Naturally, Hell has a vested interest in this and so they send one of their best demons to keep Nicolas Cage from preventing the sacrifice. Hmmm…Nicolas Cage in a cool motor vehicle fighting against Hell. Sounds familiar somehow…

See the trailer, promos, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Supernatural Action

Rating: R (for strong brutal violence throughout, grisly images, some graphic sexual content, nudity and pervasive language)

The Concert 

(Weinstein) Melanie Laurent, Francois Berleand, Alexi Guskov, Miou Miou. When a disgraced former conductor of the Bolshoi who now works as a custodian intercepts a message meant for his former orchestra, he hits upon the idea of bringing together a group of ragtag musicians and bringing them to Paris for a triumphant return to the music scene. It will take some audacity but before he can find redemption he first must face the demons of his past – and present.

See the trailer and order the full movie here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for language and some sexual content)

The Grace Card

(Goldwyn) Michael Joiner, Michael Higgenbottom, Louis Gossett Jr., Joy Moore. A cop loses his faith in God when his son is killed in a tragic accident.  He also becomes bitter and mean, alienating his friends and partner and threatening to erode his already shattered family. It will take a miracle to bring this man who has suffered so much back from the brink.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Spiritual Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for violence and thematic elements)

Hall Pass

(New Line) Owen Wilson, Jason Sudeikis, Jenna Fischer, Christina Applegate. Two buddies going through middle age crazy – midlife crisis seems a bit too mild here – are given a hall pass from their exasperated wives. This grants them one week to do anything they want, no questions asked, no recriminations afterwards. Sounds like heaven until reality sets in as it inevitably does.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and promos here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for crude and sexual humor throughout, language, some graphic nudity and drug use)

KABOOM

(Sundance Selects) Thomas Dekker, Juno Temple, Kelly Lynch, Haley Bennett. From acclaimed indie director Gregg Araki comes this very stylized thriller in which a drifter who will sleep with anything of any sex or species uncovers a mysterious conspiracy in a Southern California seaside resort.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy Thriller

Rating: NR

The Fighter


The Fighter

Mark Wahlberg thinks he's in the next Batman movie; Christian Bale thinks he's the newest membrer of NKOTB.

(2010) True Sports Drama (Paramount) Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, Jack McGee, Mickey O’Keefe, Melissa McMeekin, Bianca Hunter, Erica McDermott, Jill Quigg, Dendrie Taylor, Kate O’Brien, Frank Renzulli. Directed by David O. Russell

We all have our burdens to bear in life, and sometimes those burdens are our own families. They may mean well and have our interests at heart, but their own demons sometimes get in the way. There are even occasions where their only interests in their heart are their own.

Micky Ward (Wahlberg) is a prize fighter whose career has stalled. He has entrusted his training to his brother Dicky Eklund (Bale), himself a fighter whose moment in the sun came when he knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard during a 1978 fight. The pride of Lowell, Massachusetts has sunk quite a ways since then, becoming addicted to crack. However, he has high hopes of a comeback, and HBO has sent a documentary crew to film it.

In the meantime, Micky has a fight to take care of and he has prepared diligently for it, no thanks to Dicky who is often a no-show. Their mother Alice (Leo) is their manager, and she is not so much a typical manager as she is a force of nature to be reckoned with. She is sort of like Mamie van Doren gone to seed, a blonde bombshell who smokes like a fiend and wears too-tight pants and too-high heels, not unlike a moll in a mobster movie. Nobody in the business really takes her seriously, although nobody else in the family – including the seven sisters of the boys (acting as something of a drinking-chain smoking- bickering Greek chorus – is willing to say so.

Micky’s dad (McGee) thinks his son has the talent to go farther with better management; so does family friend Mickey O’Keefe (playing himself) who is also a Lowell cop. So does Micky’s new girlfriend, comely barmaid Charlene (Adams) who is derisively labeled an “MTV Girl” by Micky’s sisters because she had the temerity to attend college. The only one who doesn’t seem to think so is Micky himself.

That’s until the fight Micky has been preparing for collapses when his opponent gets the flu and Micky is forced to fight someone 20 pounds heavier, much stronger and much faster than he is. Of course, the results are predictable; Micky gets his ass handed to him. Disappointed and ashamed, he hides out in his house, seriously thinking of getting out of the fight game.

In the meantime, Dicky runs afoul of the law trying to raise some money to get Micky trained (typically for Dicky, he tries scamming local guys into giving them his wallets by impersonating a police officer arresting them in a prostitution sting). During the course of the arrest, overzealous police officers shatter Micky’s hands, ending any opportunity for a fight.

As the months pass by and Micky’s hand slowly heals, his relationship with Charlene gets stronger while he continues to drift further away from his mom and Dicky. Micky finds himself a new manager and begins training with O’Keefe, under the condition that Alice and Dicky not be involved with his career. As for Dicky, his life sinks to a new low when he discovers the documentary that he thought was about his comeback was in fact about how drugs destroyed his promising career and his life. The rift in the family starts to heal when Dicky gives Micky some advice for an upcoming fight that turns out better than their original plan formulated by O’Keefe and his manager (Renzulli).

Micky begins to go on a winning streak and eventually wins himself a title shot. He would seem to have it all, but can he continue to keep his family out of the picture or can he figure out a way to reconcile everyone and in doing so, become the champion he was always meant to be?

This is based on a true story, which in itself is kind of amazing because Micky’s family is not portrayed in a terribly flattering light, but assuming that the events are as depicted here, you have to admire the Wards and Eklunds for allowing this to be filmed as it was. The family is torn apart by drugs and by their own ability to see past their own self-interest. Alice is more about being the center of attention, and shamelessly favors Dicky over Micky. Micky acts somewhat numb, unable to stand up for himself or even voice dissent until he finally gets the support from Charlene he desperately needs.

Bale, who has done stellar work in the past, gets a role he can sink his teeth into. He lost a considerable amount of weight to get the gaunt junkie look of Dicky Eklund, and utilizes a rubber-limbed, rubber-faced demeanor that is half-clown, half-tragedy. We never get a sense of what Dicky was like before the drugs destroyed him but we do see him destroyed, unable to pull himself out of the mire until he gets clean in prison. Bale is a front-runner for a supporting actor role come Oscar time, and deservedly so. This may be the role that finally wins him the statue.

Wahlberg is an actor who can be depended on to do a solid job and occasionally (as in The Departed) stellar work. He almost never turns in a bad performance and here, he is given a role which is far from easy. It’s not that Micky is a complicated role; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Micky is actually a little bit boring, and yet he needs to be the centerpiece of the film. It’s hard to have someone so without inertia at the forefront of a movie, but Wahlberg manages to make the character one we can root for due to his natural charisma and likability.

It doesn’t hurt to have two of the better actresses in Hollywood in the supporting cast as well. Ever since Leo attracted notice for her work in Frozen River, I can’t say as she’s performed poorly in roles supporting (as this one is) or starring. She imbues Alice with shades of both fragility and strength, overwhelming her younger son at the same time desperately seeking approval. It’s a brilliant performance and deserves Oscar notice as well, although it may not be as slam dunk a nomination as Bale’s.

Amy Adams is a terrific actress who can assail anything from dramas to comedies to musicals and pull them off with equal skill. Here, she is at her sexiest and her most vulnerable. She is also strong and able to stand up for herself in a tough crowd, both at the bar where she works and among the Eklund women who are a formidable bunch themselves.

Director Russell resists the temptation to drag this movie into sports movie clichés and treacle, making instead something that resonates powerfully rather than going for cheap chest-pounding scenes of sports triumph. Micky Ward’s pursuit of the championship takes a back seat to his pursuit of his own identity, out of the considerable shadows of his mother and brother and that’s what makes this movie so good.

REASONS TO GO: The performances are all top notch and in Bale’s case, Oscar-worthy. The story is compelling and inspiring without being smarmy.

REASONS TO STAY: The boxing scenes could have been better.

FAMILY VALUES: One of the HBO cameramen in the film was played by Richard Farrell, who directed the original HBO documentary High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell that depicted Dicky Eklund.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There’s a hidden Mickey in the film; check out the back of Sam’s motorcycle helmet.

HOME OR THEATER: This works as well on the home screen as it does at the multiplex.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: The Tourist

The International


The International

When someone tells Clive Owen to go play in traffic, he's man enough to do it.

(Columbia) Clive Owen, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Brian F. O’Byrne, Ulrich Thomsen, James Rebhorn, Jack McGee, Michel Voletti. Directed by Tom Twyker

Given what is happening in the world economy today, most of us have come to the conclusion that bankers have shuffled off what morality they may have had and are operating strictly on a greed motivation factor. Still, even given their reprehensible behavior nobody is ordering contract killings…at least so far as we know.

Louis Salinger (Owen) is a hard-bitten Interpol detective who has been investigating the International Bank of Business and Credit (IBBC) for a long time. Every time he gets close to nailing them for ethical or legal violations, witnesses recant, die or disappear. Currently he is working with Manhattan assistant D.A. Eleanor Whitman (Watts) investigating corruption in the Big Apple having to do with the bank. Eleanor’s boss (Rebhorn) sounds the cautionary bell but the two plunge on.

However, it appears to be happening again. Louis’ partner dies of an apparent heart attack that was brought on by what might have been a lethal injection after meeting with a bank insider, who shortly thereafter perishes in a car accident. From then on Salinger is looking for leads, running up against dead ends and generally acting pissed off in various locations around Europe before following a likely bank-employed assassin back to New York. After a shoot out in the Guggenheim finishes off the assassin, Salinger recognizes that he cannot get justice via ordinary means. He will have to resort to extra-legal methods.

The above plot synopsis is really a bit of an injustice to this very complex and engaging movie. German director Twyker has a very good sense of pacing and utilizes the locations nicely, capturing the wealth and power of the IBBC and those who orbit around it. Those who remember his signature film Run, Lola, Run will appreciate The International’s twist and turns as well as its compelling action sequences.

Owen has the hangdog, unkempt and sleepless look of a man caught up in the throes of his own obsessions (which Salinger surely is). Only in the eyes does Owen allow Salinger’s consuming rage to show through. That his performance is so nuanced is a credit to Owen’s abilities as an actor; that his character is so easy to root for despite the fact that he’s a bit of a jerk cement my opinion of Owen as a major movie star coming into his own.

Usually I like Naomi Watts but she seems a bit lost here. While there is no romantic connection for her to play off of Owen with, the chemistry between the two seems nonexistent, like two people who work in the same building and recognize the face enough to exchange nods in the hallway. Surely two people who have been directly in the line of fire as these two are depicted would have at least more of a bond?

This is a bit of a police procedural (I never knew that Interpol agents were not allowed to carry firearms) and a bit more of an action film. The Guggenheim sequence, with Owen and his allies running down the ramps of the iconic museum in a running gun battle with black-suited assassins hired by the bank is as marvelous an action sequence as you’re likely to see. Not only would it do the James Bond series proud, but the way Twyker edits the sequence together would bring the warm fuzzies to the heart of a Hitchcock aficionado as well.

Yeah, the storyline can be confusing upon occasion, particularly in the second act and Thomsen as the head banker Skaarsen is a bit bland, which weakens his position as lead villain a bit. Mueller-Stahl is a terrific character actor who manages to be chilling and charming at the same time, something like finding out a beloved grandfather was once a serial killer.

Even though I give it only a mild recommendation because of some of the tendency to over-plot as well as for some of the gaping holes in logic that result, if I think about it I’d probably give this a higher rating after revisiting it in the future. Tom Twyker is a terrific director working with a terrific actor and movie star in Clive Owen. Something tells me that a few years in the future this movie may wind up being a watershed first encounter between two talents who I believe are destined for big things in this business.

WHY RENT THIS: The behavior of IBBC is appropriate given the recent behavior of major financial institutions contributing to our current financial crisis. The action sequences are breakneck and satisfying. Clive Owen is, in my mind, a big star.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the financial biz stuff is fairly boring. No chemistry between Owen and Watts. The storyline can be confusing in places.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of violence coupled with a good deal of bad language. You make the call.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The set for the Guggenheim Museum, in which a major action sequence takes place, was built in an abandoned locomotive warehouse using the original blueprints from the Guggenheim.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Most of the usual featurettes, deleted scenes and commentary.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Red Cliff