Clarity


Healthcare isn’t what it used to be.

(2014) Drama (Vision) Nadine Velazquez, Dina Meyer, Maurice Compte, Tony Denison, Dana Melanie, Lourdes Narro, Geovanni Gopradi, Anton Rivas, Rusty Meyers, Jason Sarcinelli, Cazi Greene, Thompson Jr., Vinda Montalvo, Veronica Lopez, Eduard Osipov, Christina Roman, Joey Huebner, Morgen Weaver, Luis Delgado, Danny Pacheco, Andrew Pacheco, Sharon Resnikoff. Directed by Peyv Raz

 

A mother’s love is pretty much about as certain as death and taxes. There aren’t many moms who wouldn’t go through hell for the sake of their child and if that child’s life hung in the balance, well there isn’t anything they wouldn’t do to save them

Sharon (Meyer) is throwing a dinner party to welcome her adopted daughter Maggie (Melanie) home from medical school. However when she arrives home she suddenly collapses at the dinner table and is rushed to the hospital. As it turns out, Maggie has a rare disease that is causing her kidney to fail and she needs a new one pronto. As she is adopted, nobody in Las Vegas – where Sharon lives – can help. They’ll have to find her birth mother who Sharon only knows lives somewhere in Mexico.

But Maggie being adopted is a bit of a misnomer. She was in fact stolen from her birth mother Carmen (Velazquez – Narro as the younger version in flashbacks) and sold to the rich American. Sharon wasn’t aware of this although Malcolm (Denison), her late husband’s muscle man, knew the score. So he heads off south of the Border to bring Carmen back. He doesn’t mention that her long lost daughter needs a kidney. Carmen’s husband Omar (Compte) is somewhat suspicious at the sudden reunion and insists on coming along.

Carmen has the same disease as her daughter does and the transplant may very well kill her – which makes one wonder if poor Maggie is getting a kidney that will last her for very long. Sharon is used to getting what she wants but as the power shifts from the wealthy Sharon to Carmen who wants justice for having her child stolen from her, Maggie’s life will hang in the balance.

I’ll give credit where credit is due; this is a really good concept for a film and it brings up some solid socioeconomic points not to mention some pretty strong emotional ones. Unfortunately, the opportunity provided by a good concept is squandered in execution, mainly because the movie ends up coming off like a particularly hysterical telenovela.

Some of the plot points strain credibility, particularly near the end when Carmen threatens Sharon, and by extension, her own daughter. It comes out of left field and especially when Carmen went through such heartache and at last is reunited with her daughter I don’t think that she would do anything to endanger her daughter’s life – but beyond that there’s also the dialogue which does sound like soap opera 101. Not that I have anything against soap operas but the movie takes all the worst elements of that particular art form which may well thrill fans of that genre but if, like me, you’re not quite so enamored this might not be good news at all

Meyer, who was one of my favorite actresses of the 90s (I’ll never forget her work on Starship Troopers and Eyes Wide Shut) puts as much dignity as she can muster into the role. Velazquez who has done some stellar work on her TV shows Major Crimes and Six does what she can with a character who is often contradictory which I suppose makes her fairly realistic. Playing the innocent martyr is Melanie who at least manages to look beautiful and ill at the same time.

Much of the rest of the cast injects some hysterics in their histrionics. I don’t blame them to be honest; with a movie like this chewing scenery is really the only option for an actor and a lot of that goes on here. I do think this is a bit of a wasted opportunity; this could have further explored the class divide between the wealthy trophy wife of a Las Vegas businessman (I don’t think it was really necessary to make him so shady) and the impoverished hard-working Mexican girl; given the current climate of Mexican-American relations, a lot of hay could have been made of that as well although to be fair this was filmed well before Trump was elected. If the over-dramatics had been cut down in the plot, this could have been a really nice little film. Hopefully Raz’s next one will be better.

REASONS TO GO: The concept is good and Meyer handles her part like a pro.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is cringe-inducing. Some of the writing is a bit on the overwrought side.
FAMILY VALUES: The movie has a bit of violence as well as discussion of a character’s rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the feature directing debut for Peyv Raz.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Finding Forrester
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Monogamish

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Hearing is Believing


The joy of music.

(2017) Music Documentary (Gravitas/Foresight) Rachel Flowers, Dweezil Zappa, Keith Emerson, Jeanie Flowers, Arturo Sandoval, Stevie Wonder, Andy Radford, Dan Flowers, Ian McDuffie, Frank Cavenee, Taylor Eigsti, Ellis Hall, Brian Hutchison, Vaughan Flowers, David Pinto, Benny Chong, Larry Tuttle, Joy Cavenee, Mari Kawaguchi, Leo Medina, Cynthia Gonzalez. Directed by Lorenzo DeStefano

 

Maybe once in a generation (if you’re lucky) comes a musical prodigy who has the ability to be a game changer. That person for this generation might just be Rachel Flowers. An absolutely lights-out pianist, she is able to hear a song once and then play it, possessed of true perfect pitch. She is also similarly skilled on a multitude of instruments, including guitar and flute. She is an amazing composer, working in a variety of styles and genres including pop, progressive rock, jazz and Latin. She is, in short, the real deal.

What makes the 21-year-old musician’s accomplishments even more impressive is that she has been blind since she was a baby, having been born prematurely and developing retinopathy which caused her retinas to detach repeatedly until eventually her parents had to accept that she would be blind for the rest of her life. She lives with her mom Jeanie in a modest home in Oxnard along with her little brother Vaughan who seems a typical well-adjusted teen who admits that he lives in the shadow of his sister and then the film proves it by going virtually the entire rest of the film without him appearing on camera.

The documentary follows Rachel essentially for two years as her impressive YouTube videos garner her  notice from various music industry folks who begin to help her – some directly, some not – but she begins to get a following. That doesn’t mean she wasn’t already well-known; by the time she was 11 she’d been on 60 Minutes twice. However, until recently her notoriety wasn’t really translating into income to speak of as the small family lived hand-to-mouth, surviving on Jeanie’s paychecks.

She does get the blessing of some pretty impressive musicians, including jazz pianist Taylor Eigsti, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, keyboardist Keith Emerson (of Emerson, Lake and Palmer fame) who seemed to hold a special place in Flowers’ heart – she performs several of his songs during the movie – and fellow blind prodigy Stevie Wonder.

She leads off the film performing the Walter Murphy disco-era pop hit “A Fifth of Beethoven,” serving notice that not only is she into classical but she’s into pop in a big way. The movie follows her from an appearance at a local concert hall in Oxnard to a Las Vegas stage with Dweezil Zappa playing the music of his father Frank (some of the most difficult and demanding compositions of the 20th century) to performing in her church and an impromptu performance at a big box store trying out a variety of keyboards on sale in front of admiring shoppers.

Rachel is an engaging presence, smiling broadly whenever she is playing music (for the most part; for more somber pieces her expression is more serious) and charming all with her humble demeanor and her infectious giggle which you will either be annoyed by or look forward to depending on your tolerance for girlish giggles and she giggles a lot. She is clearly a talented performer but also her original music ranges from haunting to joyful. She is clearly a talent to be reckoned with and I can’t imagine that she won’t be getting multimillion dollar offers from big players in the coming months.

It’s a shame that the film doesn’t live up to its subject. I haven’t seen DeStefano’s other documentaries but I sure hope they’re better than this one. He obviously adores his subject and there’s nothing wrong with that, but we are treated to multiple scenes of musicians and admirers praising Rachel effusively. It isn’t that she doesn’t deserve it but her music speaks for itself; we don’t need to hear people endlessly remark on how talented she is. We all know it.

To make matters worse, DeStefano packs his film with cinematic ephemera that do nothing to really give us any sort of insight into Rachel herself. We see her at a self-defense course for the blind with other blind folks but as we see person after person practicing their techniques I began to fidget and wonder what on earth any of this has to do with the woman or her music. Occasionally Rachel talks about her creative process and how she expands on snippets of melodies that pop into her head, but we don’t get a sense of how she tackles the act of creating music overall.

The concert footage is extensive, giving us a chance to listen to entire pieces of her music which is a nice touch; so many music documentaries go for more is more, giving us 15-30 seconds of a song before going on to the next one. Not so here and it’s a good thing; really the best way to get to know Rachel Flowers is through her music. I say that because that’s essentially the only way we get to know Rachel Flowers here; the filmmaker does a poor job of showing us who this woman is.

That’s too bad because you will want to get to know her better once you hear her music. Something tells me that the director got so close to her subject that he lost objectivity and as a result made some poor directing decisions. I love the music of Rachel Flowers; I can’t say I can recommend the documentary about her as wholeheartedly. See it for the musical sequences which are enthralling but be aware that this is a severely flawed presentation that might send you scurrying for YouTube to watch more of her performances. That might be a much less frustrating way to encounter her.

 

REASONS TO GO: Rachel Flowers is an exceptional musician and extremely likable person. The extended concert footage gives you more than a snippet of a song to enjoy.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is ragged; there’s way too many cinematic non-sequiturs and extraneous footage. There is a little bit too much fawning going on.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few instances of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Flowers will be playing at a tribute concert to the late Keith Emerson in Birmingham, England on July 28th with, among others, Rick Wakeman of Yes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Best and Most Beautiful Things
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Transformers: The Last Knight

Sleepless


Jamie Foxx: Amish cop!

(2017) Crime Action (Open Road) Jamie Foxx, Michele Monaghan, David Harbour, Dermot Mulroney, T.I., Scoot McNairy, Gabrielle Union, Octavius J. Johnson, Tim Connolly, Drew Sheer, Sala Baker, Tim Rigby, Eli Jah Everett, Tess Malis Kincaid, Steve Coulter, Matt Mercurio, Chan Ta Rivers, Brooke Boxberger, Chelsea Hayes, Holly Morris. Directed by Baran bo Odar

 

There are some movies that sound good on paper but when you see them in the theater you wonder what anyone involved with it was thinking. This is one of those.

Las Vegas is rocked by a shoot-out in which a couple of masked men take out several thugs. As it turns out, those thugs were carrying 75 kilos of cocaine which is wanted back very badly. And as it turns out, the two masked men were dirty cops – Vincent (Foxx) and his partner Sean (T.I.) – and the casino owner (Mulroney) who is brokering the deal wants the drugs back. You see, they’re for Novak (McNairy), scion of a crime family but whose position won’t protect him from his own father if this deal gets messed up. So Vincent’s son Thomas (Johnson) is kidnapped which doesn’t do wonders for Vincent’s relationship with his ex-wife (Union).

Neither does it do wonders for his relationship with Bryant (Monaghan), the Internal Affairs officer who is certain that Vincent is dirty and sees this situation as a means to finally get the proof. Everyone is after everyone and not everyone is who they seem to be. There is definitely a dirty cop in the mix but is it Vincent? And will Thomas pay the price if it is?

Quite frankly when you know a movie is going to be released in January, it falls into one of two categories – one is a movie that the studio is burying in the tundra and the other is a movie with Oscar ambitions that is getting a qualifying run in November/December and then released out in January so it isn’t lost in the mix with all the other Oscar could-bes This one is certainly one of the former.

Foxx is a terrific actor who has earned his spot on the A-list. It is to his credit that even for this movie he gives it his best shot despite having very little to work with. The character as written does a lot of senseless things, especially given the revelations that come later in the film. Foxx makes the character at least somewhat sympathetic, despite the fact that he’s written to be essentially a douchebag. Monaghan is an underrated actress who ends up with the role of a bloodhound with blinders on.

Most of the movie is absolutely preposterous. It is also loaded with cop movie clichés which doesn’t help matters any. The action sequences aren’t particularly exciting which is absolutely deadly for a movie like this. Fortunately for movie audiences, it came and went quickly but it should be coming to home video soon. Seriously unless you are on a mission to see every one of Jamie Foxx’s performances there isn’t a lot else to recommend this. Give it a skip.

REASONS TO GO: Jamie Foxx is almost always entertaining.
REASONS TO STAY: There is nothing new or original here. It may be more sleep-inducing than sleep-preventing.
FAMILY VALUES: The violence can be pretty intense; there’s also plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is a remake of a French/Belgian film entitled Nuit Blanche (Sleepless Night). It is also Swiss director Baran bo Odar’s English language debut.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 19% positive reviews. Metacritic: 33/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Training Day
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table

Jason Bourne


Matt Damon espies a Trump for President sign.

Matt Damon espies a Trump for President sign.

(2016) Spy Action (Universal) Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander, Vincent Cassel, Julia Styles, Riz Ahmed, Ato Essandoh, Scott Shepherd, Bill Camp, Vinzenz Kiefer, Stephen Kunken, Ben Stylianou, Kaya Yuzuki, Matthew O’Neill, Lizzie Phillips, Paris Stangl, Matt Blair, Amy De Bruhn, Akie Kotabe, Robin Crouch, Gregg Henry, Ava Katharina Maria Hoeller. Directed by Paul Greengrass

 

It’s been nine years since the most recent Bourne movie and that’s a long time for a spy to be on the shelf. Can the franchise that was once set to overtake Bond in the spy market recover?

Jason Bourne (Damon) has been living off the grid, but that’s what happens when the CIA wants you dead. He’s been making a living doing underground fights in Macedonia which is essentially a one punch affair for the world’s most dangerous assassin. Maybe all the blows to the head in the first three movies have jarred something loose but he remembers his past now, all of it. And he remembers in particular a meeting with his father (Henry) just moments before he was assassinated and at about the time that he – then known as David Webb – was recruited for Treadstone.

But as his long-time ally Nicky Parsons (Stiles) says, just because he remembers everything doesn’t mean he knows everything and he’s clearly got a lot to learn and he’s gonna go find out what he needs to know. New CIA director Robert Dewey (Jones) has a lot of skeletons in his closet and he doesn’t want Bourne opening his closet door. He sends an operative known only as the Asset (Cassel) after Bourne and Parsons, which doesn’t bode well for either of them.

Dewey in the meantime has an agreement with tech billionaire Aaron Kalloor  (Ahmed) who made his billions with a Facebook-like social media site that hides a nefarious secret and Kalloor is about to come clean, something Dewey cannot allow. Working on Dewey’s team is Heather Lee (Vikander), a CIA analyst and computer expert who is figuring out that there is a game afoot, but the players are playing for keeps and may well be out of her league. She will be the wild card when the end game makes its inexorable appearance.

I left the theater feeling a sense of déjà vu and not in a good way. There were high hopes for this franchise; not only was it making monster profits but first director Doug Liman and then Greengrass created bold, kickass movies that not only redefined the spy genre but made it relevant in the 21st century; even the James Bond franchise seemed to borrow from Bourne tonally once Daniel Craig was aboard. This feels like it cribbed a lot of its material from previous Bourne movies.

Greengrass likes to use the handheld camera for fight scenes and that does, I’ll admit, create a very kinetic action sequence. It also makes it nearly impossible to tell who is doing what to whom, and as a result it tends to waste the choreography and skill of those doing the fighting. I’m already prone to vertigo and those scenes don’t do me any favors; friends who have seen the movie who have no balance issues have reported feeling queasy during the fight scenes and having to look away from the screen. I get that this is something that Greengrass is known for and it’s tough sometimes for a filmmaker to give up a trademark of their style but perhaps he should consider it in this case.

Damon however, having won an Oscar since the last time he played Bourne, still is as Chuck Norris as they come in the role and yes I’m using the actor’s name as an adjective. He scowls with the best of them – in fact, I don’t think anyone cracks a smile in the entire movie that I could remember – and kicks bootie as well as any actor who doesn’t have a martial arts background to begin with. Bourne may well end up being his signature role (as Bond was for Sean Connery and Harry Callahan was for Clint Eastwood) and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Tommy Lee Jones is also fun to watch; he’s a crocodile in a business suit with a lapel pin and you can feel the slime dripping off of him as he works his magic. Hero or villain, Jones is one of the most reliable actors there has ever been; I can’t remember him ever phoning in a performance. French superstar Cassel (who is badly underrated here in the States) is almost Damon’s equal as the villainous Asset.

Despite the tendency towards overly kinetic camera work, Greengrass still knows how to mount edge-of-your-seat action sequences and the car chase down the Las Vegas strip near the movie’s conclusion may well be the best of the entire series. It is a thing of beauty and is worth seeing the film for all by itself. It is by no means the only well-staged action sequence in the film, however and in many ways other than Damon’s performance the action pieces are the best thing about the movie.

I don’t know if the franchise is getting a bit tired; something tells me that Greengrass probably has done about everything he needs to as far as Jason Bourne is concerned and while I think Damon is amazing in the role, it also might be time to put another actor into it if they are going to continue the franchise and if Damon won’t work with anyone else but Greengrass in order to play the part. Jeremy Renner will be returning in the not-too-distant future in another movie set in the Bourne universe, and perhaps it is time to see what other directors, writers and actors can do with it. I think that there’s a lot more that can come out of the franchise but this movie seems to indicate that those who have guided it successfully so far have essentially run out of steam.

REASONS TO GO: Matt Damon is as badass as ever. The Las Vegas car chase is a classic.
REASONS TO STAY: Shaky handheld camera work smacks of “Look, Ma, I’m Directing” syndrome. Too many elements are just like other Bourne films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action and violence as well as a little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Part of the film is set in Athens, Greece but due to the high taxes and bureaucratic obstacles, filming for that portion took place in Tenerife in the Canary Islands instead.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spectre
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Nerve

Now You See Me 2


The rain falls on the just, the unjust and Jesse Eisenberg.

The rain falls on the just, the unjust and Jesse Eisenberg.

(2016) Action (Summit) Mark Ruffalo, Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Daniel Radcliffe, Lizzy Caplan, Jay Chou, Sanaa Lathan, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, David Warshofsky, Tsai Chin, William Henderson, Richard Laing, Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Brick Patrick, Zach Gregory, Ben Lamb, Fenfen Huang, Aaron Ly, James Richard Marshall, Alexa Brown. Directed by Jon M. Chu

 

We are fascinated by the concept of magic, of someone performing unexplainable feats of prestidigitation. Magicians are almost like real-life superheroes. All they lack is the spandex and the inclination to fight crime.

At the end of Now You See Me the Four Horsemen – the Vegas magic act that was a kind of Robin Hood, taking money from a rich insurance company and giving it back to the thousands of people it defrauded – are on the lam. J. Daniel Atlas (Eisenberg), the arrogant onstage leader of the Horsemen, is busy trying to investigate The Eye, the mysterious organization that controls them. Merritt McKinney (Harrelson) is trying to stay under the radar, Henley Reeves has left the group and Jack Wilder (Franco) has the world convinced that he’s dead. Their nemesis Thaddeus Bradley (Freeman) rots in jail and FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (Ruffalo) is trying to steer his boss Natalie Austin (Lathan) away from the Horsemen since he is their behind-the-scenes handler. Dylan also has his late father Lionel Shrike (Laing) very much on his mind, particularly the stunt that killed him.

The Horsemen need a fourth and into the group comes Lula (Caplan), a street magician like Henley Reeves was although Lula is much more into the Grand Guignol than her predecessor. They’re going to need the whole lot of them because they are up against Walter Mabry (Radcliffe), a tech billionaire whom the world also thinks is dead (the world has a terrible track record when it comes to dead guys) who wants them to steal a super secret microchip that will give him access to every computer on the planet.

The chip is held in a super-safe location in Shanghai, so it’s off to China for the Horsemen, but Mabry has a couple of tricks of his own; for one, Merritt’s identical twin brother is helping him stay one step ahead of the horsemen and Mabry is the bastard son of none other than Arthur Tressler (Caine), the insurance magnate whom the Horsemen exposed and nearly ruined in the first movie. Mabry also has sprung Thaddeus Bradley from jail and he has nothing but revenge on his mind. It will take a whole lot more than a few magic tricks for this group to escape Mabry; it will take a genuine miracle.

The first movie was a frothy affair that was light on the credibility but heavy on the entertainment. If anything, the sequel is even lighter on the credibility but as far as the entertainment value is concerned…not so much, I’m afraid. It seems a lot less lively than the first both in tone and in pacing. This sucker chugs along with tons of exposition then an elaborate magic trick before continuing to…you guessed it, more exposition.

Caplan is actually a delight here. Her character is witty, sassy and very capable as a magician. More importantly, Caplan inserts some badly needed fun into a script that should have been loaded with it. I mean, magicians who are crime fighters? Come on! That should be a slam dunk. Instead it’s more like a three-point shot…..from beyond half court.

Ruffalo is still, as ever, a bona fide Hollywood star but his role, outed in the first film, is less mysterious here and therefore less interesting. We know who he is and what role he plays and moreover, so do the Horsemen (although there’s a bit of a pissing contest between Daniel and Dylan about halfway through the film). The unnecessary introduction of a twin brother gives Harrelson double the screen time and the film an extraneous character who not only wasn’t necessary to the plot but also provides an unwanted distraction. A good 15 minutes of screen time could have been erased from this too-long movie just by removing the twin.

This is quite a disappointment. I was entertained by the first but found myself yawning my way through the second. The stunts pulled by the Horsemen are, as the first, almost all CGI which again wounds the film terribly. I think as I did with the first one that doing the magic with practical effects instead of digital would only have made the movie better. I mean, rain falling upwards? In London? Maybe on a stage somewhere but not out in the middle of the street. Movie magic is one thing, but that would have been better served in a different movie, like one with a kid with a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead. Now, the makers of those movies understood what magic is all about better than the filmmakers of this one do.

REASONS TO GO: Caplan is a welcome addition to the cast. The premise is rock solid.
REASONS TO STAY: Lacks the vitality of the first film. Makes an art form of the preposterous.
FAMILY VALUES: A bit of violence and foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Isla Fisher had to drop out of the film due to her pregnancy; Lizzy Caplan took over as an entirely new character.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Italian Job
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Central Intelligence

Mission to Lars


Mission to Lars

What a long strange trip it’s been.

(2012) Documentary (Spicer and Moore) Tom Spicer, Kate Spicer, Will Spicer, Lars Ulrich, Dr. Randi Hagerman, Jasmin St. Clair, Kerry King, James Hetfield, Janet (caregiver), Mum, Dad and Stepmum, Steve and Brian. Directed by James Moore and William Spicer

We all have dreams, no matter who we are. Even those of us who may suffer from intellectual disabilities have them. They can be great or small and some may even seem to be on the surface unattainable. There are occasions however when with the help of those who love us and care for us the most, anything can be possible – even achieving the unattainable.

Tom Spicer suffers from Fragile X Syndrome which is also known as Martin-Bell Syndrome. It’s not a form of autism, but autism can go hand in hand with it and often some of the symptoms of the disorder may well appear to be autism; in fact, Tom’s sister describes Fragile X during the film as “autism with bells on.” Tom lives in a care facility in England; he’s 40 years old and works at converting old newspapers into bedding for dogs which is a bit more complicated than you’d imagine. His mom and dad still have contact with him, but he seems to respond to his stepmom more than anyone.

His older sister Kate, a journalist and younger brother Will, a filmmaker have essentially ignored him most of their adult lives; they still see him from time to time but Tom can be difficult. One of the by-products of Fragile-X is enhanced anxiety which can cause him to shut down. He has a hard time dealing with things outside the norm and sometimes it can require a great deal of patience to spend any time with him.

Tom’s dream is to meet Lars Ulrich, the drummer for Metallica. He shares that dream with plenty of people, but for Tom, music is something of a refuge; he turns to it when his anxiety becomes intolerable. Kate and Will decide that they should make this happen but they will have to journey to America in order to do it as Metallica was on tour of the United States at the time this was made. Kate has some contacts that might be of use and as a journalist she has no problem picking up a phone and talking to people who are used to saying “no.” Will and his production partner Moore document the journey.

First off, getting Tom on the plane is no easy matter. This is far, far, far out of his comfort zone and his first instinct is to go to the paper shed where he feels useful and can shut out the anxiety. The trip is almost over before it starts.

However, it is not much of a spoiler to say that eventually they get Tom on that plane and take him to Los Angeles where they rent an RV (or caravan for those in Britain who may be reading this) and off they go to Las Vegas, Sacramento and Anaheim, following the tour.

Tom’s anxieties continue to be a factor; loud noises are difficult for him, much more so than the rest of us when loud volumes which may be relatively comfortable for us can seem to a Fragile X sufferer to be ten to a hundred times louder than how the rest of us experience it; when noise is truly uncomfortable it can be excruciating to someone with Fragile X.

Moore and Will Spicer capture some beautiful images of the English countryside as well as of the American West, particularly Yosemite National Park where the Spicers make a brief stop on their way to Sacramento. There are times where you can’t help but admire the images on the screen.

What sets this film apart is the human element. Kate is a bit of a worrier and throughout the movie she tends to hide behind some fairly unattractive hats. She is the one who makes the connections with Metallica’s management who turn out to be extremely accommodating. Will is less of a presence here; he’s mostly behind the camera but he seems to have quite the can-do attitude.

We do hear from an expert on Fragile X who explains the disorder somewhat but quite frankly we really only get the basics. Those who are interested should Google it as there is plenty of information about it on the web. In another note of grace, the filmmakers are donating a portion of the proceeds to a charity for children’s mental health in Britain.

The subject matter may be the journey to find Lars but that’s not really what this film is about. This is about how Tom deals with his genetic disorder and how it affects his life every day. It’s also about the love of a sister and a brother who want to make a memory for the brother whose life has been in many ways more difficult than theirs that he will always treasure. It is also about the kindness of strangers. It is an unexpectedly warm and compassionate documentary and if you’re looking for something to make you feel good, you can do no worse.

REASONS TO GO: Heartwarming and occasionally heartbreaking. Some beautiful cinematography. Admirable cause.
REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes gets repetitive. Kate’s hats.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mildly bad language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Bedfellow is an actual hotel in the Tribeca area of New York.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/24/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
BEYOND THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes (effective September 25)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gabrielle
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Stonewall

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
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