Bright


Not your two ordinary cops.

(2017) Fantasy (Netflix) Will Smith, Joel Edgerton, Noomi Rapace, Edgar Ramirez, Lucy Fry, Veronica Ngo, Alex Meraz, Happy Anderson, Ike Barinholtz, Dawn Olivieri, Matt Gerald, Margaret Cho, Joseph Piccuirro, Brad William Henke, Jay Hernandez, Enrique Murciano, Scarlet Spencer, Andrea Navedo, Kenneth Cho, Bobby Naderi, Carlos Linares, Bunnie Rivera. Directed by David Ayer

 

This Netflix film, released last Christmas, is a perfect example of the dichotomy between critics and audiences. Film critics hammered the film, calling it confusing and preposterous. Audiences loved it, making it one of the most watched non-theatrical movies ever. Netflix called for a sequel which is likely to be on the streaming giant’s front page in two to three years.

Smith, one of the most appealing actors in Hollywood for the past two decades, stars as a bitter and curmudgeonly L.A. cop who has a new partner that he doesn’t want. That sounds like the plot to dozens of cop buddy movies but this one’s a little different – it turns out his partner, Nick (Edgerton) is not just a different ethnicity. He’s an Orc – a completely different species.

The two are on the trail of a magic wand so powerful that whoever wields it can essentially bend the world to their will. Fortunately, only a select few can actually wield the wand; these worthies are called “Brights” and they only appear once every generation or so. Also on the trail of the wand is a bunch of corrupt cops, a gang of Orcs (who are portrayed here essentially as low-riding gangbangers) and an evil elf named Leilah (Rapace). Assisting Nick and Daryl (the Smith character’s name) is a less corrupt elf named Tikka (Fry).

There are some pretty decent effects here and Smith has never been so badass as he is in this film. I’m not kidding when I say that this is his best performance in a decade. Daryl walks around in a perpetually foul mood, like there’s a rock in his shoe he can’t quite get rid of or he has a particularly painful case of hemorrhoids. Either way, he’s far from cheerful; he’s like the anti-Fresh Prince.

It should come as no surprise that Max Landis wrote this; one of the things he does extremely well as a writer is world-building. The world of Bright is believable despite the mash-up of high fantasy and urban crime drama. There is a lot of detail and one gets a lot more detail that didn’t make it into the script. This is the kind of thing that can turn a single picture into a franchise.

David Ayer is the perfect director for this. Not so much for the fantasy elements although he is just fine with those but there are few directors who intuitively understand the workings of an urban crime drama like Ayer, whose previous credits include Training Day (as a writer), End of Watch, Harsh Times and Street Kings.

I don’t understand all the critical hate; this is really a good movie but I suppose this kind of fantasy mash-up isn’t for everybody. Still, I found it not just solidly entertaining but actually absorbing. This is one I wouldn’t mind seeing regularly (I’ve already watched it several times since it debuted). As far as I’m concerned, I only wish that this movie had a more widespread theatrical run; I would have liked to have seen it on a big movie theater screen. Ah well, if wishes were horses…there would undoubtedly be a few of them trotting around in the world of Bright.

REASONS TO GO: The filmmakers do an excellent job of world-building. Will Smith is at his badass best in this one.
REASONS TO STAY: The final action sequence is a bit disappointing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, fantasy violence and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: With a $90 million production budget, this is the most expensive Netflix movie to date. Also, it is the first Netflix film to generate a sequel which was signed shortly before the movie was released to the streaming service.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 26% positive reviews: Metacritic: 29/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Alien Nation
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Three Identical Strangers

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LA 92


Where were you in ’92?

(2017) Documentary (National Geographic) Rodney King, Daryl Gates, Tom Bradley, Maxine Waters, Henry Alfaro, Stacey Koon, Bernard Kamins, Theodore Briseno, Danny Bakewell, Charles Duke, David Kim, Laurence Powell, Darryl Mounger, Eric “Rico” Reed, Terry White, Stanley Weisberg, Bryan Jenkins, John Barnett, John R. Hatcher III, Cecil L. Murray, Rita Wallace. Directed by Daniel Lindsay and TJ Martin

 

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. There have been a number of documentaries that have been made to commemorate the event, including Burn, Motherf*cker, Burn and Let It Fall but for my money this is the best of the lot.

Filmmakers Lindsay and Martin take the bold step of utilizing no talking head interviews; the movie is made up entirely of archival footage and contemporaneous interviews that aired on the TV news and news magazine programs of the day. That’s a bit of a double edged sword in that while there is no “Monday morning quarterbacking” there is also no real analysis of the events; we are left to come to our own conclusions.

One of the best things about the documentary is that it show that the violence that erupted in April following the not guilty verdict for the cops that beat Rodney King didn’t occur in a vacuum. The filmmakers take great care in beginning with the events of the 1965 Watts riots that left 34 people dead (mostly African-Americans) and show the various incidents that led to a powderkeg growing in South Central Los Angeles.

In the era of Daryl Gates, the Los Angeles Police Department had become the enemy in the African-American neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Police brutality was not uncommon in the arrests of African-American suspects and to say that the police had an adversarial relationship with the black community is something of an understatement.

The powderkeg became primed when video surfaced of a brutal beat down of Rodney King, who led the police on a high-speed chase. King, an ex-convict out on probation, was driving while intoxicated and knew he would be sent back to prison if he was arrested. When he was ordered to get down on the ground, officers thought he was reaching for a weapon. A taser was used on King and then the horrifying beating in which cops used nightsticks as well as vicious kicks to hospitalize King.

It would have not gone beyond that except that a local resident named George Holliday, witnessing the incident used his brand new camcorder to capture the beating. When the cops showed little interest in the tape, he sent it to the news media. The resulting controversy caught the nation by storm and put the LAPD under a microscope. Although by that time I was living in Northern California, I grew up in Los Angeles and remember being ashamed to be an Angelino when this was going on.

Criminal charges were brought against the officers involved and the trial was moved to the mostly white suburb of Simi Valley. When the not guilty verdict was brought in, African-Americans were justifiably outraged, particularly since Korean shopkeeper Soon Ja Du had gotten off without serving jail time after shooting 15-year-old Latasha Harlins in the back of the head over a misunderstanding involving orange juice that he accused her of trying to shoplift.

The riot footage is brutal and disturbing. People are pulled out of their cars and beaten within an inch of their lives because of the color of their skin. Shops are torched and looted. The outpouring of fury was exacerbated by a stunning lack of leadership in the LAPD which led to police being withdrawn from the area which was left on its own to burn.

The riots took place before the ubiquitous use of smart phones to document everything, so mostly the footage comes from news sources although there is some home video footage that is shot, including the King beating which was one of the first examples of citizens using home video equipment to capture breaking news.

As a document of the riots and what led up to them, the documentary is superb. It presents the footage unemotionally and gives us some context that we didn’t have when the riots were going on. Yes, we don’t get a thoughtful analysis of how it changed the lives of those involved or how society in general was affected by them – other documentaries do a better job of that – for coverage of the riot itself and the immediate events that led to it the film is second to none.

The LA riots have continued to resonate over the years, leading directly to the Black Lives Matter movement which seems to indicate that there hasn’t been a whole lot of progress in the past quarter century, although ironically there has been in Los Angeles where the LAPD has become one of the most tolerant and most progressive police forces in the country. Still, it is disheartening that we continue to have the problems we do with racial relationships even given the events of the past 25 years.

This is a sobering documentary in which the old adage “two wrongs don’t make a right” is very much at issue. It shows what can happen when people feel pushed into a place where there is no other way out. It is also a warning that the powderkeg in South Central is also present everywhere and not just in African-American neighborhoods. Given the right circumstances, the kind of violence and horror that unfolded in April 1992 in South Central Los Angeles can happen anywhere.

REASONS TO GO: The filmmakers give the riots a great deal of context. Some of the archival footage is absolutely amazing. Some unsung heroes are brought to the forefront
REASONS TO STAY: This is definitely not for the faint of heart.
FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes of violence and disturbing images as well as profanity including racial epithets,
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was nominated for a 2017 Emmy for prime time documentary merit.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: OJ: Made in America
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: City of Ghosts

Lights Out (2016)


Attention Teresa Palmer: there's a blue light special in the basement.

Attention Teresa Palmer: there’s a blue light special in the basement.

(2016) Horror (New Line) Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Alexander DiPersia, Billy Burke, Maria Bello, Alicia Vela-Bailey, Andi Osho, Rolando Boyce, Maria Russell, Elizabeth Pan, Lotta Losten, Amiah Miller, Ava Cantrell, Ariel Dupin. Directed by David F. Sandberg

 

As humans, we are conditioned to fear the unknown and what can be more unknown than darkness? We can’t see what’s in the dark – our eyes aren’t built for it. In the dark, anything can happen and not all of it is pleasant. Sometimes, that which lives in darkness can be downright terrifying.

Rebecca (Palmer) is a metal-loving young woman who has a – I hesitate to call him a boyfriend but he does have sex with her and they’ve been dating for several years – friend with benefits named Bret (DiPersia) who is a musician who plays metal. She lives on her own in an apartment over a tattoo parlor. She left home the moment she could pack her bags; hallucinations and nightmares had driven her to the brink of madness.

This is where her mother Sophie (Bello) dwells as a matter of course. Sophie was committed to a mental institution as a little girl and came out fragile, but her issues seemed to be under control with medication, and her second husband Paul (Burke) – not Rebecca’s dad by the way – has watched with some alarm as his wife’s mental condition starts to deteriorate rapidly. When Paul meets a tragic end, Sophie pretty much slides off into the deep end.

Rebecca’s half-brother Martin (Bateman) has now begun to have the same kinds of nightmares and hallucinations that just about destroyed Rebecca’s sanity. Concerned that Sophie is terrorizing her little half-brother, Rebecca moves to take Martin over to her apartment and out of Sophie’s influence. Sophie, who not only hears voices but has conversations with them, seems to be talking to a presence named Diana. Diana, as it turns out, was a friend who brutalized her in the asylum but had met a gruesome end. Some ends, as it turns out, are not as permanent as others.

Sandberg based this movie on a short movie – less than three minutes long – based on the same creature. With the feature clocking in at just a hair over 80 minutes, he certainly knows how to keep his stories compact which is laudable these days when movies routinely hit the two hour mark. He also uses a very interesting trope for his demonic presence; it only becomes visible and physical in darkness. Shine a light on Diana and she becomes incorporeal and harmless. When that light goes out…well, Diana raises havoc with those unfortunate to fall under her crosshairs.

This isn’t a particularly gory movie, nor are there a ton of murders (although a couple of hapless cops do get Diana’s special attention near the end of the movie). Most of the film is spent basically running away from Diana who is apparently very possessive of Sophie and doesn’t want to share her with anyone, even (and maybe especially) her own children.

It is refreshing to have characters in horror movies not act like utter and complete idiots, doing things that no rational sane human being would ever do. Say what you want about the leads here, they act like you and I would probably act in a similar situation, although to be fair I’d probably be a screaming wreck about a third of the way into the movie were it my life story.

The acting isn’t particularly outstanding; Bello is one of my favorite actresses but she makes some odd choices as Sophie – no pun intended. The part is a little bit of a caricature of a crazy person and if you don’t get the jitters watching Sophie for any length of time, you’ve probably taken some Valium recently. That or you drink enough coffee to make you permanently immune to the jitters. Palmer is beautiful and has some facial resemblance to Bello, but at the end of the day this isn’t a performance I would put into a star-making category; the success of the film will likely give her career quite a boost however.

Sandberg relies mainly on practical effects here, believe it or not. The CGI is kept to a minimum, although I’m certain that there is some optical trickery going on to make Diane visible and invisible so smoothly. I’m sure a computer or two were employed in that essential process.

All in all, this is a solid, scary movie that is going to make you think twice about turning out the lights when you go to sleep. I’m usually immune to such things, but I have to admit that when I went to bed after seeing the movie earlier that day, I did feel a good deal of apprehension as I shut out the lights. When a horror movie can do that to you, you know that you’re watching a director who knows what he’s about. I’ll be looking forward to his future work with more than a little bit of interest.

REASONS TO GO: You’ll want to sleep with the lights on afterwards. The demonic presence in the film has a nifty conceit.
REASONS TO STAY: Bello is wasted in a caricature of a performance and none of the actors really stand out. There are only so many ways you can make the lights flicker.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of disturbing images and terror, a fair amount of violence, some adult themes and a brief drug reference.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house in this movie is the same one used in Ouija and its upcoming follow-up Ouija: Origin of Evil.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Darkness
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Jason Bourne

Secret in Their Eyes


The eyes have it.

The eyes have it.

(2015) Mystery (STX) Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Alfred Molina, Dean Norris, Joe Cole, Michael Kelly, Zoe Graham, Patrick Davis, Eileen Fogarty, Lyndon Smith, Kim Yarbrough, Mark Famiglietti, Amir Malaklou, Niko Nicotera, David Israel, Dennis Keiffer, Don Harvey, Glenn Davis, Walter Tabayoyong, Michael Tennant, Ho Sung Pak, Saige Donaldson. Directed by Billy Ray

 

The line between justice and vengeance is often a fine one. There are those that say that you can have one or the other but never both; there are others that say they go hand in hand. Either way, both are exceedingly hard to attain and in the pursuit of one, often one has to settle for the other. When what attains is vengeance, we often have to kill a little piece of ourselves in order to find it.

In the aftermath of 9-11, an elite counter-terrorism task force has been established in Los Angeles by multiple law enforcement agencies. District Attorney Martin Morales (Molina) heads up the team, and among his agents are partners Ray (Ejiofor) from the FBI and Jess (Roberts) from the L.A. District Attorney’s investigative team. In their crosshairs is a downtown mosque which is said to harbor a cleric who had intentions of taking the jihadist fight to the City of Angels.

When a body is found in a dumpster next to the mosque, red flags are sent up and Ray and Jess are sent to investigate. However, the grisly discovery is of Jess’ 18-year-old daughter Carolyn (Graham), a vivacious soul who had been getting ready to go to college in the fall. The discovery devastates the team. New assistant D.A. Claire (Kidman) is assigned the case and a suspect is quickly located. However, dead end upon dead end frustrates the team and eventually Ray figures out who really did it – an informant within the mosque itself (Cole). But he is being protected by powerful forces and is set free, only to disappear.

Thirteen years later, Ray – now working as a security consultant for the New York Mets – comes to Claire – now the District Attorney – with the startling news that Ray has located the long-missing suspect. Claire and Jess (who still works for the office) are reluctant to reopen old wounds but Ray is particularly obsessed with the case and in bringing the man who killed Jess’ daughter in to pay for his crime. But even now, there are obstacles in the way of finding peace for Ray, Jess – and Claire.

This is based on the 2009 Oscar-winning film The Secret in Their Eyes, an Argentine film that won Best Foreign Language Film that year. While the plots are identical, some of the details have been changed which changes the dynamics of the newer film somewhat. Also you have three Oscar-caliber actors, all of whom who have won or at least been nominated, in the main parts.

Ejiofor is the central character and as he did in 12 Years a Slave he carries the movie on his broad shoulders. The scene in which he discovers the identity of the body in the dumpster is an incredible piece of work, although it is sadly unduplicated throughout the rest of the film. No, all three of the actors in the front deliver good, solid performances with moments of excellence. Roberts in particular has a haunted look that is most unlike any of her previous performances.

The problem here is that the low-key aspect of the film drains the energy from the audience. The pacing is extraordinarily slow and there were a number of scenes that I thought could have been trimmed if not excised. Ray also jumps in time between 2002 and 2015 and often the only way to tell what time period you’re observing is by the amount of gray in Ray’s hair. I occasionally found it confusing and hard to follow.

The overall atmosphere has a bit of a noir edge to it, just as the original did albeit with a Latin flavor. Transplanting the movie to Los Angeles robs it of that and indeed gives the movie an oddly generic quality – so many thrillers have been set in L.A. that there’s a been there-done that patina. That’s kind of disturbing and not in a good way.

While the ending is cathartic if a bit preposterous, it doesn’t save the audience from feeling that this is something they’ve seen before, even if you haven’t seen the original movie this is based on. Considering the abilities of the director and the talent of the cast, this is an extremely disappointing project that on paper should have been much better than it turned out to be. While it is still entertaining and I can recommend it solely on that basis, this is a movie that is haunted by the specter of what could have been.

REASONS TO GO: All three leads are fine actors. Cathartic. Noir-esque.
REASONS TO STAY: Surprisingly lethargic. Could have used some judicious editing. Time jumping can be confusing (keep an eye on the actors’ hair for clues).
FAMILY VALUES: Disturbing violence and sexual content, rape and plenty of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All three of the leads – Ejiofor, Kidman and Roberts – are left-handed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zodiac
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Second Mother

Taken 3


Liam Neeson manages to keep a straight face while reassuring Forest Whitaker his beard looks okay.

Liam Neeson manages to keep a straight face while reassuring Forest Whitaker his beard looks okay.

(2015) Action (20th Century Fox) Liam Neeson, Forest Whitaker, Famke Janssen, Maggie Grace, Dougray Scott, Sam Spruell, Don Harvey, Dylan Bruno, Leland Orser, David Warshofsky, Jon Gries, Jonny Weston, Andrew Borba, Judi Beecher, Andrew Howard, Cedric Cirotteau, Catherine Dyer, Jimmy Palumbo, Nazareth Dairian, Stefanie Kleine. Directed by Olivier Megaton

Sequels essentially come in two varieties; cash grabs made to capitalize on the popularity of the original film, or story extensions which continue the story from the first. Often the second kind can be an effective money maker for the studios, while the first kind can occasionally be surprisingly resonant with audiences. Generally speaking, however, all sequels are made – without exception – because the studios or the producers believe that there is a market demand for them.

The first two Taken films were very successful. In them Bryan Mills (Neeson), a former special ops military sort, sees his daughter Kim (Grace) kidnapped in the first film by sex traffickers and goes to Paris to kill everyone who looks at him cross-eyed and rescue his daughter; the second film has the ex-wife (Janssen) kidnapped in a revenge scenario by the dad of the kidnappers in the first film which leads to much of Istanbul being depopulated.

In this one nobody gets kidnapped. Ex-wifey is murdered and Bryan framed for it. No exotic locations, no family vacations, just Bryan tearing through Los Angeles looking to find out who done it and who is going to get his ass kicked all over Southern California. With a persistent detective (Whitaker) chasing him, ex-wifey’s husband (Scott, taking over for Xander Berkeley) trying to assist him, Russian mobsters led by the sadistic Oleg Malenkov (Spruill) slithering about, his buddies Garcia (Harvey), Smith (Bruno) and Sam (Orser) lending their own particular sets of skills when needed and Kim generally getting in the way, it’s going to be a very bad day in SoCal until Bryan gets to the person responsible for all his woes.

Now, before you wonder about the size of the rating I gave this, keep in mind that you don’t go and see an action movie for deep personal insights, innovative storytelling techniques or snappy dialogue; while sometimes any or all of those occur in an action film, it’s icing on the cake when they do. Mainly what we go to see action films for is to turn off our brains, sit back with our ice cold soda and buttered popcorn and bliss out to car crashes, flying bullets and villainous asses being properly kicked. We want to cheer for the hero, boo the villain and leave the theater feeling that all is right with the world.

It’s a fairly low bar to set from a certain perspective but there is absolutely nothing wrong with forgetting your troubles for a couple of hours in the multiplex and this is the kind of tonic you’re looking for if that’s what you’re after. Neeson is the most personable action star working at the moment with perhaps the sole exception of Dwayne Johnson and he certainly gives us everything we’re looking for in an action hero in all three of the Taken movies, this one included. Bryan is kind of a sweetheart most of the time, showing up at his college-aged daughters apartment a few days before her birthday with a gigantic teddy bear in an effort to be unpredictable. His effort fails miserably but throughout the movie he seems like a genuinely affable guy you’d want to shoot pool with.

You’d also want him at your back cracking skulls with the pool cue if necessary and while Neeson is in his 60s and moves like he’s in his 60s during a foot chase early on in the movie, he gets all the other stuff dialed in perfectly. He doesn’t have the physique of an Arnold Schwarzenegger or the fighting techniques of a Jet Li or even the hangdog smartass attitude of a Bruce Willis but he sort of fits in the mold of a nice guy with skills who has been pushed where you should never push him.

The supporting cast, for the most part, is all right. Whitaker, a fine actor in his own right, is full of idiosyncrasies and tics and business that occasionally distracts from the matters at hand but he is a very smart performer who knows that he is supposed to be the Sherlock Holmes here and Whitaker would make a crackin’ Sherlock in my opinion.

What every action film has to nail are the action sequences – the car chases, the fights, the gun battles. Even if everything else doesn’t work a movie of this genre can be redeemed by its action sequences. For the most part, the sequences here are well put together, particularly the assault on the Russian mobster’s fortress-like apartment near the end of the movie. However, it also must be said that there’s nothing in the action sequences that particularly stands out.

While I admire producer/writer Luc Besson for leaving the mold of the first two movies and going in another direction, the one he took was a path too well-traveled by Hollywood. We’ve seen the hero framed for a murder he didn’t commit and then have to battle bad guys and cops alike to clear his name how many thousands of times, and frankly this doesn’t add anything to that tired old genre. However, it doesn’t disgrace itself either.

This is the weakest of the trilogy if only by a little bit but it still has enough going for it to be worth seeing if you’re into action movies and particularly the sort that Neeson tends to do. While so many of the twists here are horribly telegraphed and if you are unable to figure out who’s behind all this you really need a year or two of remedial movie watching, it still bears a bit of attention although chances are you won’t remember much of it twenty minutes after the credits start rolling.

REASONS TO GO: Nice action sequences. Neeson is a charismatic performer.
REASONS TO STAY: Very cliche story. Neeson beginning to show his age in some of the more physical aspects of the role.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of strong language but mostly, lots of shooting, stabbing, punching, kicking and general mayhem.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Neeson uses a number of different firearms in the movie, he is a staunch advocate for gun control in real life.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 10% positive reviews. Metacritic: 25/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Three Days to Kill
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Oscar Gold begins!

Inherent Vice


Joaquin Phoenix counts the number of people in the theater.

Joaquin Phoenix counts the number of people in the theater.

(2014) Mystery (Warner Brothers) Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro, Jena Malone, Martin Short, Maya Rudolph, Eric Roberts, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jordan Christian Hearn, Jeannie Berlin, Joanna Newsom, Hong Chau, Michelle Sinclair, Elaine Tan, Martin Donovan, Erica Sullivan, Sasha Pieterse. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Those of a certain age will remember the hippie movement of the late 60s and early 70s. The flower children whose innocence combined with rampant drug use and sexual experimentation and some new age noodling ended up making them targets for ridicule in the 80s and beyond. Long haired sorts blissed out on whatever drug of choice was handy, smiling beatifically and mouthing pseudo-philosophical aphorisms of pseudo-depth that were in the end senseless became something of a cultural stereotype, but in truth they did believe in love and peace, which has to be better than believing in money and war.

Larry “Doc” Sportello (Phoenix) is a private eye living in Manhattan Beach – called Gordita Beach here – in 1970. Sporting mutton chops that both Wolverine and a British sailor from the 1820s would envy, he is mainly content to work on such cases that came in to his office that he shares with dentists and the rest of the time, smoke pot and hang out with his latest lady friends who at the moment happens to be Assistant D.A. Penny Kimball (Witherspoon).  Life is pretty sweet.

Into his life comes an ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Waterston). She happens to be having an affair with big-time L.A. developer Mickey Wolfmann (Roberts) and who has been undergoing some sort of guilt trip, possibly brought on by heroin addiction. He has surrounded himself with neo-Nazi bikers which is interesting since he himself is Jewish. His wife and her boyfriend want to put Mickey away in a sanitarium and throw away the key by which means they’ll gain control over his fortune. Shasta Fay begs Doc to look into it and Doc, being the last of the knights errant, agrees to. Shasta Fay promptly disappears.

I could tell you how the rest of the story goes but it won’t make sense. It is, after all, based on a Thomas Pynchon novel. However, I will say that there is an ambitious cop named Bigfoot (Brolin) who may be a staunch ally of Doc or setting him up for a murder charge – or maybe both, an Indonesian heroin cartel laundering their money through a consortium of dentists called The Golden Fang, a saxophone player (Wilson) and heroin addict who has disappeared, leaving his wife (Malone) frantic, a shady Hispanic lawyer (del Toro) and a sweet but scatter-brained assistant who narrates the movie (Newsom).

In the interests of fairness, there are a lot of people whom I respect that really liked this movie a lot but for me, this is more like The Master than There Will Be Blood, Anderson’s worst and best films to date (although I must admit Boogie Nights comes close to the latter). I can understand why they liked the movie – the visual style, the well-written dialogue (with Pynchon you can’t go wrong in that regard) and the performances but this is one of those movies that depends on excess but sometimes, more is way too much.

Like most Paul Thomas Anderson movies, this meanders all over hell and gone, following one thread until it gets played out or Anderson gets bored with it and then suddenly switching to another. Keeping track of who is allied with who is apt to cause your brain to spontaneously ignite into flames. Don’t bother because it doesn’t really matter much in the end anyway.

The thing is that Anderson (like Pynchon before him) is doing a kind of stoner noir here, a hard-bitten detective story with a soft-chewing hippie detective. You’ll smell the intoxicating mix of patchouli, marijuana smoke and incense blending together at the same time as you feel like you’re in a stoners apartment in which a fine layer of ash coats everything and every container possible has stubbed out cigarette butts and the counter tops faint signs of cocaine lines left behind. Both Da Queen and I felt the squalor permeating our skin and exited the theater into the cool night air, relieved to be breathing in something fresh and unadulterated by intoxicants.

Phoenix and Brolin are fine actors, Oscar nominees both. Phoenix does befuddled about as well as anybody and he plays stoned perhaps better than anybody save Seth Rogen. He captures the part of Doc about as well as anybody’s going to without doing the copious amounts of weed that Doc does during the film – and who knows, maybe he did. Brolin on the other hand plays the flat topped brush cut cop who wants to be the next Jack Webb but is more likely to be the most recent Martin Milner. He’s the best part of the movie, partially comic relief but not always.

We get that people did a lot of drugs in the 70s. We don’t have to see them light up in every fucking scene, take a long drag, and then proceed with the scene. I would estimate that about 20 minutes of the two and a half hour run time is devoted to watching people go through the mechanics of smoking dope and cigarettes and it gets monotonous. So too does the story, which meanders from place to place, becoming maddeningly interesting but just when it’s about to, takes off on another tangent with the previous story elements never to reappear again. Eventually the last 30 minutes the film picks up steam and for that reason the movie isn’t getting the first Zero rating this site has ever given out but it came damn close.

I get the sense that Paul Thomas Anderson’s ego wrote checks that this movie didn’t have the funds to cash and I’m not talking budget here. Pynchon as a writer has a delightful command of language and to Anderson’s credit as the screenwriter adapting his work, he does try to utilize that in the script where he can. Sadly, both Pynchon and Anderson are guilty of the same kinds of excesses – one in literature, the other in cinema – and the two don’t make a good match.

I’ve always admired Anderson for his creativity and for making movies that don’t conform to any standards, but that is a double edged sword and the blade is cutting deep here. Whereas There Will Be Blood is damn near a masterpiece, this is kind of a sordid mess that never really manages to get going and throws so many characters at you that pretty soon you begin confusing one longhair for another. That’s never a good sign. I had hopes that the combination of Pynchon and Anderson might yield up a great movie. Some folks may argue that it did. I would contend that it did not.

REASONS TO GO: You can always walk out.
REASONS TO STAY: Way long. Dwells on minutiae too much. Watching stoners being stoned is about as entertaining as watching mimes at work.
FAMILY VALUES: Near-constant drug use and profanity. Some violence. There’s also a good deal of sexual content and occasional graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first time that Rudolph has appeared in a Paul Thomas Anderson film. The two have been a couple for more than a decade.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Forbidden Zone
FINAL RATING: 1/10
NEXT: Listen Up, Philip

The Perfect Host


Always use your right hand when threatening a guest with a knife.

Always use your right hand when threatening a guest with a knife.

(2010) Thriller (Magnolia) David Hyde Pierce, Clayne Crawford, Tyrees Allen, Cooper Barnes, Megahn Perry, Annie Campbell, Helen Reddy, Indira Gibson, George Kee Cheung, Brooke “Mikey” Anderson, Cheryl Francis Harrington, Amanda Payton, Joseph Will, Nathaniel Parker, Greg Brown, Mike Foy, Tracy Britton, Maple Navarro. Directed by Nick Tomnay

What makes the perfect host? Is it the immaculate home they live in? Or perhaps the feeling of welcome and hospitality that they radiate? Or is it the details of putting on the perfect party?

When entertaining, one may sometimes be accosted at one’s door by a complete stranger, claiming to be a friend of a friend. Do not immediately assume they are a bank robber or some similar reprobate but invite them in. Should you see evidence on television that they are in fact a bank robber, do not panic and whatever you do, never lose your civility. Should the bank robber pull a knife on you, remember these three things – manners, manners, manners! Offer your guest refreshment.

And by refreshment, of course, we mean wine. But what wine should the perfect host offer in such a situation? Why, red of course! That way when you drug the wine, the powder dissolves more fully, allowing the sedative to move more quickly through your guest’s system. And while he takes a nice refreshing nap, a perfect host always ties his slumbering guest to a chair so that there is no danger of him hurting himself through a fall or being stabbed with his own knife. Thus we see the hallmarks of a perfect host – courtesy, concern and commitment.

Despite his status as a party crasher, a perfect host always includes his guest in the activities of the party. Should a conga line form, make sure it snakes around him – don’t allow him to join the line however, as the physical exertion so soon after a restful nap may lead to perspiration and we can’t have that.

We’ve seen this kind of film before, including the Michael Haneke classic Funny Games but this one has a bit of a twist. Neither one of the protagonists are really likable. The bank robber, John Taylor (Crawford) is a nasty piece of work and although the script works at making him likable, at the end of the day he isn’t a nice guy.

Then again, neither is Warwick Wilson (Hyde Pierce), the titular homeowner whose dinner party Taylor crashes. In fact, Warwick’s hold on reality is extremely tenuous and we’re never quite sure if what’s going on is all in his head or real. Hyde Pierce is perfectly cast, drawing on his stiff-as-a-board Niles Crane role from the Frasier TV series only adding a psychotic edge. The results are very effective.

Where the movie goes off the rails is in the last third; one gets a sense that the writers painted themselves in a corner and rather than getting paint on their shoes hired an imaginary helicopter to fly them out. It doesn’t really work, even as the metaphor above doesn’t work.

Still, the movie is funny (in a sick and twisted way) in places and scary in others. You’re never really sure who has the upper hand and which one of the two you want to see get their just deserts until near the very end. Personally I wish they’d just bitten the bullet and made Taylor a truly despicable man instead of giving him an out. To my mind that would have been a better movie, although the one that they ended up making is pretty dang good.

WHY RENT THIS: Hyde Pierce gives a bravura performance. Well cast, well-written and funny as hell upon occasion.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Falls apart in the last third.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of foul language, some sexuality and some violence as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie originally began life as a 26-minute black and white short.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed, oddly enough although clips of the original short can be seen in the making of feature, the full short isn’t included here for reasons completely beyond my comprehension.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $48,764 on a production budget of $500,000; the film lost money during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Misery

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The American Experience begins!