Casino (1995)


Bright lights, sin city.

Bright lights, sin city.

(1995) Drama (Universal) Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone, Joe Pesci, James Woods, Don Rickles, Alan King, Kevin Pollak, L.Q. Jones, Dick Smothers, Pat Vincent, John Bloom, Pasquale Cajano, Melissa Prophet, Bill Allison, Vinny Vella, Phillip Suriano, Erika von Tagen, Joseph Rigano, Gene Ruffini, Dominick Grieco, Millicent Sheridan. Directed by Martin Scorsese

There’s no doubt that director Martin Scorsese is an American treasure. When all is said and done he will go down as one of the great directors of all time – up there with Truffault, Hitchcock, Sturges, Ford, Capra, Kurosawa and Ray. One of the elite.

Casino is one of his masterpieces. Some of his fans believe it is his best, although when you put it up next to Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas and The Departed that’s a tough claim to make, but there is certainly some argument to be made for it. In my own case, I tend to have a soft spot in my heart for it, particularly since Da Queen and I visit Las Vegas so often, there’s a particular fascination not just for the setting but the era as well.

Based on the lives of Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, Geri McGee and Anthony Spilotro, the movie takes place in the waning days of the mob in Vegas. Sam “Ace” Rothstein (De Niro) is an expert gambler who has made himself useful to the mob as a sports handicapper, one of the best in the business. He is sent to Vegas by the Teamsters-fronted Outfit to run the Tangiers, and soon doubles their earnings, which delights the bosses back in Chicago.

What is most important to the bosses is the skim, the amount of cash that is taken off the top of the casino’s earnings and sent directly to mob accountants to be hidden, while never appearing in the casino’s balance sheet and thus never getting taxed. As long as the skim is healthy, the bosses are happy and as long as the bosses are happy, Sam’s life expectancy stays reasonable.

His boyhood friend Nicky Santoro (Pesci) is sent to Vegas to be the enforcer, but his brutality and high-strung temperament eventually get him banned from every important casino in Vegas, so he has to resort to burglary to supplement his income. The mob bosses aren’t happy with Nicky but they more or less keep him around.

While this is going on, Sam falls in love with Ginger McKenna (Stone), an ex-prostitute whose boyfriend, Lester Diamond (Woods) was once her pimp and is now a cheap hustler. Sam convinces her to marry him although she is still plainly in love with Diamond, and she does, eventually giving birth to his daughter.

Things start to spiral downward for Sam and his friends as Ginger’s drug abuse, binge spending and affairs with Diamond – and with Nicky – threaten the lives of all three of them. Sam tries to distance himself but if the mob bosses go down, you know they’re going to make sure that no loose ends exist who can put them away.

Although many, including myself, consider the first two Godfather films to be the best movies on organized crime in history, I think it’s fair to say that Scorsese is the best director of movies on organized crime ever. He’s clearly fascinated by the psychology of the good fella, but also as shown here of that of the gambler.

This was the eighth and to date last collaboration between De Niro and Scorsese and they go out with a bang. De Niro is never better than he is here, playing the clever, street smart and somewhat mercurial casino manager. He knows he’s walking a dangerously fine line and knows just how to do it and keep everybody happy, but what he can’t do is control what the people around him are doing and that gets him into hot water. De Niro makes Sam kind of a tragic hero, one undone by the actions of his wife and best friend. It’s almost Shakespearean in many ways.

De Niro is aided by a fine supporting cast, including Stone in her signature role, one that would get her nominated for an Oscar. Her Ginger is high strung, weak, and plainly the kind of woman who can’t say no to anyone if it means she gets what she wants, but at the same time isn’t smart or patient enough to wait for what she wants to come to her. She’s not really a tragic figure – she’s weak, she’s addicted and she can’t escape who she is as much as she wants to. It is amazing Sam fell in love with her but then again, she’s a beautiful woman as Geri McGee was in real life.

Pesci is at his Pesci best here. While he’ll likely be remembered for his character Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas, this will also be part of his legacy, the ruthless and far more sadistic Nicky Santoro who puts an unfortunate’s head into a vise in order to get him to talk (the real life Spilotro actually did just that and in the end his victim talked). Santoro is like a bull in a china shop, a loose cannon likely to go off anywhere and at anytime. His affair with Ginger would be the beginning of the end of the mob in Vegas.

While we see the lights and the glamour of Vegas, we also see the seedier side, the darker side and the side they don’t talk much about in the Chamber of Commerce. The events in Casino are well-documented and were part of Vegas lore; Rosenthal’s fall would lead to the decline of the mob’s influence in Sin City. Vegas in fact changed dramatically in the 30 years since the events here took place, going from the smaller casinos to the multi-billion dollar megaresorts that dominate the Strip today. Even so, there are old-timers who look back to that era with some affection.

What makes Scorsese’s Casino so special isn’t so much that it is based on a true story, or even that the acting performances are so exemplary; it isn’t even the terrific look of the film that cinematographer Robert Richardson assembled (although he didn’t agree; he hated the look of the movie so much that he wouldn’t use the cameras that he used here again for more than 20 years) that captures both the neon glory of downtown Law Vegas and the nascent Strip, but also the back rooms, the gaudy mansions, the seedy and the sensational.

While the third act drags a little for me in watching the final, painful fall of Sam, I can’t help but admire the movie overall as a masterpiece, one of several to Scorsese’s credit. And while Raging Bull was a more intense experience, Taxi Driver the better film from a filmmaking aspect and Goodfellas probably more enjoyable overall, Casino remains more of a sentimental favorite for me. It depicts an era, a mentality and a tragedy that reminds me of Shakespeare and yet is distinctly American. This is a classic that should be on every movie buff’s must-see list.

WHY RENT THIS: One of Scorsese’s best (and that’s saying something). Awesome look at the dark side of Las Vegas. Great performances from De Niro, Pesci and Stone. Gorgeous cinematography.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ending could have taken less time to gestate.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence, some of it brutal; there is also foul language pretty much throughout the film. There are also depictions of drug use and sexuality as well.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The casino scenes were shot at the Riviera (which recently closed and is scheduled to be imploded in the summer of 2015), while the exterior of the hotel was shot at the Landmark (which was imploded shortly after the movie was shot). However, the events of the film took place at the Stardust which closed in 2006 and was demolished in 2007, as well as at three other casinos which are also gone (but primarily at the Stardust).
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition contains a history of Las Vegas as well as a profile on writer Nicholas Pileggi.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $116.1M on a $50M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, Vudu, iTunes, Flixster
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goodfellas
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Woman Power Returns!

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jOBS


Ashton Kutcher counts the number of good reviews.

Ashton Kutcher counts the number of good reviews.

(2013) Biographical Drama (Open Road) Ashton Kutcher, Dermot Mulroney, Josh Gad, Lukas Haas, J.K. Simmons, Matthew Modine, Lesley Ann Warren, Ron Eldard, Ahna O’Reilly, Victor Rasuk, John Getz, Kevin Dunn, James Woods, Masi Oka, Robert Pine, Nelson Franklin, William Mapother, Eddie Hassell, Elden Henson, Abby Brammell. Directed by Joshua Michael Stern

Some people are really hard to figure out. They may have greatness in them – a vision so profound it changes the world and everything in it. They may also have demons in them, demons that sometimes reduce them to assholes and tempers their greatness.

Steve Jobs was a lot like that. The co-founder of Apple revolutionized technology and its place in our lives, but he was famously difficult to deal with. He set standards that were ridiculously high and didn’t react well to those who questioned his vision. He was volatile and not above screwing his friends over. It’s hard to reconcile his greatness with his pettiness.

The film opens with Jobs (Kutcher) addressing the troops at Apple, announcing the iPod in 2001, then immediately heads back to his undergraduate days at Reed College where he is a hippie-esque dropout auditing courses, taking drugs and making love with the woman he says he loves, artist Chris-Ann Brennan (O’Reilly) – but whom he’s not above cheating on.

After a trip to India, he returns home to the San Francisco Bay Area and gets a job at Atari but his prickly personality causes friction. He is given a project to work on  his own on – which would turn out to be the game Breakout – and eventually turns to his old friend Steve Wozniak (Gad) to help him. He misrepresents the payment to his genial friend, keeping the lion’s share of the payment for himself. However, a project Woz is working on as kind of a sidelight grabs Jobs’ attention and imagination. It’s a graphical interface that allows display on an ordinary TV screen. This would become the Apple computer. After limited success selling to local hobbyists, former Intel executive Mike Markkula (Mulroney) is drawn to Jobs and the product of the nascent company. He agrees to invest and Apple computers is born.

From there, Jobs, Wozniak, Markkula and the design team including Rod Holt (Eldard), Bill Fernandez (Rasuk), Daniel Kottke (Haas) and Chris Espinosa (Hassell) design the Apple IIe, one of the most crucial devices in the history of home computing. Apple takes off, becoming an economic engine. Jobs becomes obsessed with developing new products, starting with the Lisa – named after the illegitimate daughter whose paternity he vehemently denied even after tests showed him to be the father.

But Apple has grown into a corporation with money men and shareholders. One of the board members, Arthur Rock (Simmons), is deeply concerned with Jobs’ perfectionism and obsession with design at the expense of profitability. Something has to give and when Jobs brings on former Pepsi executive John Sculley (Modine) as the marketing genius to help take Apple to the next level, it does.

The mark of a good biopic is that we leave with at least some sense of who the man was. I think the success here in that regard is mixed; we certainly are treated to some of Jobs’ infamous tirades but we also don’t get a real sense of what causes that rage; we’re told early on that he was adopted but we never get a sense of whether or not that is a motivating factor.

That’s not Ashton Kutcher’s fault. He nails some of Jobs’ mannerisms (capturing his distinctive walk somewhat eerily) and certainly captures his passion. It’s the underlying stuff that we never get to see and that’s the script talking in that regard. I get the sense that the writers didn’t really bother to do a ton of research on Jobs – in many ways what we get is a very surface portrayal of event and milestone, but never what Jobs is thinking or where his ideas are coming from. They’re just…there.

Otherwise, Kutcher is much better than the critics have given him credit for. He gets some pretty solid support from Mulroney whose Markkula’s shifting loyalties and self-preservation tendencies are a model of the modern businessman but not necessarily admirable (and karma is a bitch, isn’t it) as well as Gad as Wozniak who is much more than the computer geek he appears to be.

This isn’t really a complete biopic. It takes on only a section of Jobs’ life, ending just prior to the release of the iPod (which is depicted at the beginning of the movie but the development of which really isn’t gone into). It doesn’t  show the iPhone which in many ways revolutionized society just as much as the Mac did, nor does it spend any time on his time at Pixar which is somewhat understandable.

Still, it’s fairly serviceable. The real Steve Wozniak takes the film to task for not being entertaining and he hits it on the head. The last third of the movie is mostly centered around boardroom drama and business politics and there’s nothing exciting about it. The best parts of the movie are in the center when Jobs and Wozniak are trying to change the world, one circuit board at a time. That they succeeded has helped create the world we live in now, for better or for worse. Which one it is will be judged by those who come after – as for us, I suppose it depends on your point of view.

REASONS TO GO: Communicates the trainers and filmmakers love for these animals. Some beautiful footage of orcas.

REASONS TO STAY: No rebuttal viewpoints (although SeaWorld declined to allow their executives to be interviewed for the film).

FAMILY VALUES:  Briefly, there’s some intense language and there are also a couple of drug-related sequences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scenes in Jobs’ family home and garage were almost all filmed in the Los Altos home where the real Steve Jobs grew up. The Apple scenes, however, were all sets and recreations as Apple declined to be involved with the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/24/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 27% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Pirates of Silicon Valley

FINAL RATING; 6/10

NEXT: Breaking News

White House Down


Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum are in the crosshairs (almost).

Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum are in the crosshairs (almost).

(2013) Action (Columbia) Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Woods, Richard Jenkins, Jason Clarke, Joey King, Nicolas Wright, Jimmi Simpson, Michael Murphy, Rachel Lefevre, Lance Reddick, Matt Craven, Jake Weber, Peter Jacobson, Barbara Williams, Kevin Rankin, Garcelle Beauvais, Falk Hentschel, Romano Orzani, Jackie Geary. Directed by Roland Emmerich

Okay, stop me if you heard this one before: a guy walks into the White House and then a terrorist attack helped out by traitorous elements from within go after the President with the apparent goal of getting nuclear launch codes from him, but that turns out to be a mere diversionary tactic for something far worse…

That’s pretty much the plot for White House Down which it shares with a Gerard Butler movie from earlier this year. Here, we’ve got Channing Tatum in the Gerard Butler role. So who will come out on top?

Well, both movies have a few things worth noting. Here you’ve got Jamie Foxx as President, a sometimes irreverent but well-meaning liberal sort who has pissed off the wrong people when he announces a treaty that will get all U.S. troops out of the Middle East. Those darned military-industrial sorts simply have no sense of humor and decide that a change in plan is needed. But rather than do it the old-fashioned way – by buying Congressmen to block the treaty’s ratification – they decide they’d rather have their own guy in office. So they decide to take the White House by force with an inside guy close to the President making it happen.

There’s a pretty decent cast here, all in all – Richard Jenkins as a hangdog-looking Speaker of the House with Jim Boehner-like politics (although he seems to have a much more cordial relationship with President Jamie than Boehner does with President Obama), James Woods as a wise Secret Service mentor who’s about to retire, Maggie Gyllenhaal as his protégé who used to have a thing with Tatum’s D.C. Cop character who applies (and is turned down) for a job in the Secret Service.

Tatum actually does a pretty decent job. He’s still not the most expressive of actors but he’s getting better and his likability quotient is also improving. Joey King plays his politically precocious daughter with whom he’s trying to repair his relationship with. There’s a pretty decent dynamic between the two although King’s character is so annoying that you almost root for the terrorists to win so she can be executed. Does that make me a bad person?

The movie telegraphs most of its plot points as if the writers were of the impression that nobody who goes to see this movie will have ever seen another movie before. Early on in the movie you’ll figure out where the betrayal is coming from unless you’re stone deaf, flat blind and plenty stupid. There are a few grace notes – Nicolas Wright’s neurotic tour guide who knows everything there is to know about the Presidential Palace – except what Joey King’s character knows but then there’s always one of those on every tour. Jimmi Simpson has carved out a nice niche as the wisecracking tech guy and here plays a…wait for it…wisecracking tech guy.

There are some nice visuals of wanton destruction and some nifty stunts – Emmerich who has done big budget summer movies for decades knows how to keep the testosterone flowing. I have to say that Foxx also does a great job; generally when he’s onscreen the interest level picks up. Emmerich realizes that this is very much an action buddy movie with Foxx and Tatum and he wisely emphasizes that aspect of it.

As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, the believability aspect of this is pretty much nil; if a bomb went off in the U.S. Capitol (as it does here) the President wouldn’t be holed up in the Oval Office waiting for a situation report – he’d  be already on his way to a safe location outside of Washington before the sound of the blast had done echoing away. And even if he didn’t get out, once the White House was in enemy hands there’d be no question – he would be stripped of his Presidential Powers and the next in line of the succession would be President Pro Tem until the situation resolved. It isn’t the man, folks, it’s the office that is being protected and that’s why something like this would never work.

Still, all in all it’s pretty entertaining in a mindless way and sometimes that’s all a body needs. It just doesn’t really add anything to the genre so you’ll get that feeling of déjà vu all over again. Mindless fun has its place, and I don’t have a problem with a filmmaker creating a highly skilled entertainment, even one as derivative as this one is but I can’t necessarily say that the moviegoer doesn’t have better options available out there either.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of testosterone-churning action. Foxx is fun.

REASONS TO STAY: Extremely predictable. Doesn’t hold up with similarly-themed movies released earlier this year.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of bang for your buck – lots of violence, gunfire and explosions. There’s also a brief sensual image and a bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jimmi Simpson may best be known for playing Lyle the Intern on the David Letterman show.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/7/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100; the movie got mediocre reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Olympus Has Fallen

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: The Heat

New Releases for the Week of June 28, 2013


White House Down

WHITE HOUSE DOWN

(Columbia) Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, Richard Jenkins, James Woods, Joey King, Jimmi Simpson, Matt Craven. Directed by Roland Emmerich

A DC cop who had just been turned down for the secret service is touring the White House when it comes under a terrorist attack. Don’t you hate when that happens? In any case, he needs to rescue the president, keep his daughter safe and keep our country from collapsing. All in a day’s work, right?

See the trailer and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Action

Rating: PG-13 (for prolonged sequences of  action and violence including intense gunfire and explosions, some language and a brief sexual image)

20 Feet from Stardom

(Radius) Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Bruce Springsteen. The world’s greatest backup singers of the rock and roll era get together to reminisce on their careers as some of the most recognizable voices in music whose names you don’t know. A big hit  as the opening night film at this year’s Florida Film Festival. Catch my review here.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Music Documentary

Rating: PG-13 (for some strong language and sexual material) 

Copperhead

(Brainstorm) Billy Campbell, Angus Macfadyen, Peter Fonda, Francois Arnaud. A pacifist farmer in upstate New York defies his neighbors and his government in 1862 as the Civil War rages. The resulting schism in the community thoroughly illustrates the fact that war isn’t only fought by its combatants and it can have a terrible cost on the community at large.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Historical Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for an unsettling sequence) 

Fill the Void

(Sony Classics) Hadras Yaron, Yiftach Klein, Irit Sheleg, Chaim Sharir. A Hassidic family in Tel Aviv is rocked to the core when the eldest daughter dies in childbirth. When it looks like the widower will be matched with a Belgian woman, taking their only link to their deceased child with him, the family proposes that the younger daughter (who is betrothed to someone else) instead marry the widower. She now must choose between family duty and the call of her heart.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG (for mild thematic elements and brief smoking)

Ghanchakkar

(UTV) Emraan Hashmi, Vidya Balan, Sanjay Dutt, Rajesh Sharma. A master safe cracker decides to do one last heist before retiring and so he does – the big score he’s always dreamed of. The gang decides to split up and lie low until the heat dies down. However, when they reunite to collect their cash, they realize the safe cracker has had some sort of accident and has completely lost his memory. Or is he paying a rather dangerous game? They must stick around and find out which it is.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

The Heat

(20th Century Fox) Sandra Bullock, Melissa McCarthy, Demian Bichir, Marlon Wayans. An uptight FBI agent and a loose cannon Boston cop team up to take down a ruthless drug lord – if they don’t end up killing each other first. Oh and by the way – said agent and cop are women. This could get real ugly.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Buddy Cop Comedy

Rating: R (for pervasive language, strong crude content and some violence) 

Straw Dogs (2011)


 

Straw Dogs

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shuttered Room

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Iron Lady

The General’s Daughter


The General's Daughter

Madeline Stowe is tired of being taken to John Travolta's favorite cheap bar whenever they go out on a date.

(1999) Mystery (Paramount) John Travolta, Madeline Stowe, James Woods, James Cromwell, Timothy Hutton, Clarence Williams III, Leslie Stefanson, Daniel van Bargen, Peter Weireter, Mark Boone Junior, John Beasley, John Frankenheimer. Directed by Simon West

 

The United States Army is, in many ways, a cult in the eyes of us civilians. Think about it: People dress the same, address civilians with courtesy and respect (for the most part), engage in a life governed by a rigid code of morality and when threatened, protect their own. At least they don’t hand out flowers in airports.

The General’s Daughter looks at that code in a critical manner. Paul Brenner (John Travolta) is a member of the elite Criminal Investigation Division, a branch of the Army that investigates crimes committed on military property and/or by military personnel. He is brought into an investigation when a beautiful female officer (Stefanson) is raped and murdered in a particularly brutal fashion. Another investigator, Sara Sunhill (Stowe) who, as it so happens, used to be intimate with Brenner, is brought in to be a partner with her somewhat reluctant ex.

Also, as it turns out, the beautiful officer is the daughter of the base commander, Gen. Joseph Campbell (Cromwell). Campbell is getting ready to retire from the military, with an eye toward a political career. So the intrigue is sky-high, with a smarmy MP (Hutton), an edgy psych officer (the always-excellent Woods), and a guilty-looking assistant (Williams) lurking about the edges.

At the risk of giving away too much, two elements of the military are under the microscope here: the Army’s attitude towards women and the Army’s attitude towards cover-ups. I can kind of understand the latter; in order to be effective, an armed force must have the respect of not only those who potentially might oppose it but also of those it defends as well. The U.S. Army doesn’t like to appear vulnerable or mistaken. It takes steps to protect its reputation almost as vigorously as it takes steps to protect this nation.

Of course that can lead to several gray areas, morally-speaking. While instances as far out into the gray as The General’s Daughter are extremely rare (although the Navy’s Tailhook scandal comes to mind), the fact is that the potential for these kinds of shenanigans exist. Perhaps that’s why this movie is so effective.

It’s easy to forget sometimes that Travolta is actually a fine actor although he makes a pretty damn fine movie star as well. Here he plays a man walking through a moral minefield and is being forced to choose between what he knows is right and the good of the Army. It’s not an easy choice by any means and through Travolta we can see the character wrestling with his moral dilemma.

He has a spectacular supporting cast; Woods and Cromwell shine, and Stowe, Hutton and Williams are all excellent as well. All of them are among some of the finest actors in the business, now and almost 15 years ago when this was made. Still, this is definitely Travolta’s show and he’s at the top of his game here.

“The General’s Daughter” is not always an easy movie to watch, although as thrillers go, it’s top-notch. The solution is not what I expected, and it made me think long after the lights had come up in the theater. That’s a lot more than you can ask out of most thrillers – heck, most movies.

WHY RENT THIS: An entertaining thriller with unexpected twists. Travolta is in his best form here; he’s surrounded by a strong supporting cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Portrays the Army in a somewhat negative light. The murder/rape scene may be too disturbing for some.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is a very graphic and disturbing rape and murder scene, some perverse sexuality (as the MPAA so delicately puts it), plenty of strong language and violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The Fort MacCallum scenes were filmed at Savannah State University in Georgia and at Van Nuys Airport in Los Angeles.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $149.7M on an estimated $95M production budget; the movie didn’t quite make enough to be profitable during it’s theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Promotion

 

New Releases for the Week of September 16, 2011


STRAW DOGS

(Screen Gems) James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgard, Dominic Purcell, Laz Alonso, James Woods, Rhys Coiro, Walton Goggins. Directed by Rod Lurie

A Hollywood couple – a screenwriter and his actress wife – go to the Deep South to prepare the family home for sale after her father passes away. What appears to be idyllic and down home on the surface bubbles over into a cauldron of emotion and sexuality when her ex-boyfriend decides to give their relationship one last chance, leading to a violent conflict. Based on the controversial Sam Peckinpah 1971 thriller of the same name.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for strong brutal violence including a sexual attack, menace, some sexual content and pervasive language)

Drive

(FilmDistrict) Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman. A seemingly mild-mannered Hollywood stunt driver moonlights in a far more dangerous profession – getaway driver for whoever is willing to pay him. He drives, no questions asked, through nearly impossible odds. When he agrees to take on a job for a friend, he finds himself being chased by some of the most dangerous men in the criminal underworld and it’s going to take all his skills if he’s to get away clean.

See the trailer, clips and promos here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Action

Rating: R (for strong brutal violence, language and some nudity)

I Don’t Know How She Does It

(Weinstein) Sarah Jessica Parker, Greg Kinnear, Pierce Brosnan, Kelsey Grammer. A Boston mother of two tries to juggle family, marriage, school and career while maintaining her sanity. When she bags a new account for the firm she works for, necessitating frequent trips to New York, things get further complicated when the charming business associate she’s working with proves to be more tempting than she realized.

See the trailer, clips and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual references throughout)

The Lion King 3D

(Disney) Starring the voices of Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones, Nathan Lane, Jeremy Irons. Disney’s accountants are hoping they’ll be singing “Hakuna Matata” if the brief 3D version of their classic animated hit does well. Shortly afterward, the movie will be making its debut on 3D Blu-Ray so Disneyphiles prepare to unlimber your wallets.

See the trailer, featurettes and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: G

Tabloid

(Sundance Selects) Joyce McKinney, Kent Gavin, Peter Tory, Troy Williams. Acclaimed documentarian Errol Morris takes on a 1977 tabloid scandal, the lurid “Case of the Manacled Mormon” in which a former Miss Wyoming flew to England to, depending on whose account you believe, abduct an upstanding Mormon missionary into sexual slavery or liberate him from a cult. Something this unbelievable could only be a true story.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: R (for sexual content and nudity)