Road to Nowhere


A noir setup.

A noir setup.

(2010) Thriller (Monterey Media) Tygh Runyan, Shannyn Sossamon, Dominique Swain, John Diehl, Cliff De Young, Waylon Payne, Robert Kolar, Nic Paul, Fabio Testi, Fabio Tricamo, Moxie, Peter Bart, Pete Manos, Mallory Culbert, Beck Latimore, Thomas Nelson, Bonnie Pointer, Jim Galan, Jim Rowell, Gregory Rentis, Larry Lerner, Lathan McKay, Michael Bigham, Araceli Lemos, Sarah Dorsey. Directed by Monte Hellman

I have heard it said that movies are a reflection of real life, and as time has gone by, real life has become a reflection of the movies. There is an awful lot of truth in that, sometimes more than we know.

Mitchell Haven (Runyan) is a moviemaker working on a film in North Carolina about a crime scandal. He has hired virtual unknown actress Lauren Graham (Sossamon) to play the role of Velma Duran (Sossamon), daughter of a Cuban national involved in an embezzling scheme with politician Rafe Taschen, played by actor Cary Stewart (De Young).

But art may well be imitating art as the director begins to fall for his leading lady, who may know more about the original crime than she lets on. And as flashbacks of the original crime tell us, the lines between movie and life are starting to blur significantly.

There is a definite noir feel here almost to the point of parody. Hellman is well-known for more anti-establishment sorts of films that tend to break rules and take chances. This is as mainstream a film as he’s directed (at least that I’ve seen), Silent Night Deadly Night 3 notwithstanding – it was subversive for its time as I recall (I haven’t seen it in almost 20 years).

I have to admit that most of my impression of Sossamon has been fairly rote, but she really shines here and proves that she is well-suited to a mysterious femme fatale role. She tends to get more sexpot roles and while she does well with those, the added air of mystery and potential mayhem really suits her. Not that Shannyn Sossamon is planning to murder anyone, mind you. She just plays someone like that on TV….or, in this movie.

One of the big problems here is that Hellman jumps back and forth from the movie to the crime (using the same actors playing the actors who committed the crime) and very often you are confused as to what you are watching which I suspect is deliberate on Hellman’s part. Fiction and reality collide and merge until it is impossible to tell which is which and perhaps that’s the whole point. It didn’t work for me however, possibly because I was being overly analytical about it. Sometimes it’s best just to let things kind of happen and allow them to wash over you without overthinking them.

This is a bit intellectual as noir films go, and a bit noir as intellectual films go. It’s really neither six of one nor half a dozen of the other and curiously unsatisfying when all is said and done. This isn’t the movie I would have expected Hellman to mount a comeback on. Not that I want to see him rehash his old style but I would have hoped for something a little less pedantic than this.

WHY RENT THIS: Sossamon is at her very best.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Often confusing, particularly as to timeline.
FAMILY VALUES: Foul language (though not a ton) and a brief scene of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Hellman’s first feature film in 21 years.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: A Q&A from the Nashville Film Festival and on the Blu-Ray edition, an interview with Sossamon.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $161,619 on a $5M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shameless
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Bank Job

Brooklyn


The romance of Ireland meets the romance of Long Island.

The romance of Ireland meets the romance of Long Island.

(2015) Romance (Fox Searchlight) Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Maeve McGrath, Fiona Glascott, Eileen O’Higgins, Peter Campion, Emily Bett Rickards, Eve Macklin, Nora-Jane Noone, Mary O’Driscoll, Samantha Munro, Jessica Paré, Jane Brennan, Eva Birthistle, Brid Brennan, Hugh Gormley, Jenn Murray. Directed by John Crowley

There comes a time in the lives of some people – a lot of people, actually – in which the realization that they have no future sets in. At that moment, they may choose to accept that fate or they may choose to pack up and leave and try to make something of themselves elsewhere.

Eilis Lacey (Ronan) had that decision made for her, by her fiercely protective big sister Rose (Glascott) who wrote Father Flood (Broadbent) in New York to help find Eilis lodging and a job in the Big Apple and so he does, in Brooklyn which in 1951 (when this is set) was full of a rainbow of different cultures, including the Irish. Leaving Rose to care for their widowed mother (J. Brennan) and leaving the employ of a miserable harpy (B. Brennan), she sets sail for the Land of Opportunity.

Once in Brooklyn, she is given lodging at a boarding house run by the no-nonsense Mrs. Kehoe (Walters) who tries to keep Patty (Rickards), Diana (Macklin) and Sheila (Noone) in rein which given their Irish high spirits is no easy task. Desperately homesick, Eilis tries to fit in at the boarding house and tries to fit in at the high-end department store where she works under the watchful eye of Miss Fortini (Paré).

At a dance put on by the local Church, she meets Tony Fiorello (Cohen) who has a thing for Irish girls. His soft-spoken geniality and gentle self-deprecating humor appeals to her and slowly she starts out liking her new beau to falling in love with him. However, a family emergency calls her home to Ireland where she ends up facing a new wrinkle there in the form of a new suitor who is equally kind-hearted and quite the catch, young Jim Farrell (Gleeson) who by the standards of Enniscorthy in County Wexford is well-off. Now the young woman’s heart is torn between two continents and two very different lives. Which will she choose?

Da Queen is fond of describing acting performances that she admires as “quiet,” a trait I find curiously endearing. It means something much different to her than to thee and me and yet in this case, I think she might have something. Ronan is absolutely outstanding here, almost certain to get a nomination for Best Actress at the forthcoming Oscars. Much of her acting takes place in her eyes and on her expressive face; her lilting Irish accent is easily understood, and her longings and yearnings are written in her expressions. Any critic who dismisses the role as bland and unmemorable clearly hasn’t been watching this actress closely, and they are well-advised to – methinks she will be one of the industry’s outstanding actresses for decades to come.

The film is beautifully photographed, from the lush greenery of the Emerald Isle to the windswept barrens of the Long Isle (Long Island NYC) to the brownstone comforts of Brooklyn. Much of the movie takes place in the latter location, a Brooklyn where the Dodgers are still Dem Bums, the streets are alive with color and vitality, Coney Island is still the working class escape and the world is full of possibilities. Sure, this is an idealized Brooklyn because it is largely the Brooklyn of memory and memory makes fonder the places we’ve lived in. The Los Angeles of the 1960s was far from perfect but in my own memory, it is an idyllic place and probably nothing like what it really was and certainly nothing like what it is now. That is the nature of places; they change, often faster and more profoundly than we do ourselves.

While the love triangle between Jim, Tony and Eilis is a bit of a stretch (finding two really nice guys who are actually gentlemen is damn near impossible as any woman will tell you), the relationships that Eilis works out with the two of them feel authentic. Eilis is at times too good to be true – a little naive but with an absolute heart of gold (in fact, the movie has no real antagonist other than the harridan Miss Kelly at the grocery where Eilis works at the movie’s start) and a sweet nature that is straight out of a 50s romance movie.

The world has changed a lot since the time Brooklyn was set in and much of the innocence of that time is long gone. It is not uncommon for those who remember that era to long for its simplicity. Don’t discount the value of nostalgia in marketing a movie – as fellow critic Roger Moore correctly pointed out, the movie seems to be consciously aimed at those who like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and My Big Fat Greek Wedding. And there’s nothing wrong with going after that demographic either; certainly the audience we saw at our screening skewed older. However, nostalgia isn’t all this film has going for it; Ronan’s star turn is likely to get that Oscar nod and could well attract more film buffs here than nostalgia-seeking retirees. This is a contender for my year’s best ten list; go give this one a watch and it might end up on yours too.

REASONS TO GO: Ronan is magnificent. Beautifully shot. Well-written. A lovely slice of life.
REASONS TO STAY: Maybe a little too idealized.
FAMILY VALUES: Some brief profanity and a scene of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Ronan was born in The Bronx, she was raised in Ireland by her Irish parents; this is the first time in a movie that she’s used her native Irish accent.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Avalon
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: The Ridiculous 6

Ghost Team One


Carlos Santos is uncomfortable around pretty women.

Carlos Santos is uncomfortable around pretty women.

(2013) Horror Comedy (The Film Arcade) Carlos Santos, J.R. Villarreal, Fernanda Romero, Tony Cavalero, Meghan Falcone, James Babson, Scott MacArthur, Craig Stott, Damien Amey, Felicia Horn, Sarah Chapman. Directed by Scott Rutherford and Ben Peyser

6 Days of Darkness 2015

Florida Film Festival 2013

Haunted houses aren’t what they used to be. You never can tell what sort of house will be haunted – from the suburbs to the country to big cities, houses and even apartments and duplexes can be haunted by all sorts of ghosts.

Roommates Brad (Santos), Sergio (Villarreal) and Chuck (Cavalero) are hosting a party in their apartment. All three are young Latino-Americans and while Brad is super-sexed and Chuck super-uptight, Sergio is a bit more of the party animal.

When a drunken Sergio staggers from the party to discover some fornicating going on in his apartment, at first he thinks nothing of it. However when he has an encounter of his own with a ghostly partner, it’s discovered that the apartment building used to be a Chinese brothel and the madam who ran it was apparently not a very nice person.

After inadvertently waking up the madam, Sergio and Brad unwillingly enlist the aid of the gorgeous Fernanda (Romero) with whom both boys quickly and quite decisively fall in love with. Sergio is irked because Brad already has a girlfriend – Rebecca (Falcone) – and Sergio really has it bad for Fernanda.

Their attempts to ghost hunt turns into a mighty crapfest of incompetence, sexuality and paranormal activity. Chuck shows an unexpected side and the boys have to figure out a way to keep the world – or at least their corner of it – from coming to a screeching, bloody halt.

This movie comes off as a bit of a satire of the found footage genre which quite frankly has overstayed its welcome by this point. Not that I mind a bit of good satire but this thing seems to just kind of be non-satirical as satire goes. Sure there are some funny bits – a line about sucking the demon out pretty much made me fall to the floor laughing – but the jokes are mainly of the goofy frat house humor sort. Frankly I thought the film would have been better served to eliminate the found footage trope entirely – and just tell the story as a story.

Some critics – alright one critic that I’m aware of – groused about the portrayal of ethnics here, specifically Latin and Asian playing to stereotypes but I think that especially the Latin roles pretty much ran the gamut of not just the Latin experience but the American experience. If white actors had played the same characters as white characters not a peep would have been heard. This is one of those occasions where the ultra-liberal get their politically correct panties in a bunch over what is really nothing. Frankly, I thought the movie portrayed Hispanics as able to take a joke about themselves. After all, if we can’t laugh at ourselves, who can we laugh at?

That said the chemistry between Santos and Villareal is genuine and carries the movie. You believe instantly that these guys are buddies and have each other’s back. Of course, that sort of thing is always open to interpretation but what is not subject to debate is that Fernanda Romero is smokin’ hot and I truly hope we see a heck of a lot more of her in future movies. The woman is sexy personified.

The movie goes off the rails a little bit in the climactic moments but overall this isn’t all that  bad even though critics panned this pretty much universally. I found it to be reasonably entertaining but not breaking any new ground, although I suspect the filmmakers went at this from a different angle than we’re used to. A little too self-referential, possibly a little too self-congratulatory, the film could have used a modicum of humble pie or at least tried a little less hard to take itself too seriously. I liked it more than most of my colleagues did which likely means you will too. Incidentally, the movie played the Florida Film Festival back in 2013. Just sayin’.

WHY RENT THIS: Occasionally really funny in a goofy frat humor way.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Would have been better off with a straight story rather than found footage.
FAMILY VALUES: Strong sexual content and graphic nudity, some drug use, a fair amount of profanity and some brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Romero started her career as a member of the Mexican pop group Fryzzby.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a blooper reel and a video diary.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9,195 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only). Amazon, iTunes, Flixster
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Haunted House
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness continues!

Stonewall (2015)


Just another summer night on Christopher Street.

Just another summer night on Christopher Street.

(2015) True Life Drama (Roadside Attractions) Jeremy Irvine, Jonny Beauchamp, Ron Perlman, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Caleb Landry Jones, Matt Craven, Joey King, Karl Glusman, David Cubitt, Andrea Frankle, Atticus Dean Mitchell, Richard Jutras, Otoja Abit, Rohan Mead, Ben Sullivan, Johnny Falcone, Vladimir Alexis, Kwasi Songui, Alan C. Peterson, Veronika Vernadskaya. Directed by Roland Emmerich

For the LBGT community, the Stonewall Riots of 1969 that took place following a police raid on the Stonewall Inn (a bar that catered to gay men and lesbians in an era when it was illegal to serve liquor to a homosexual) are a watershed moment, an event around which prompted real organization of gay rights activists.

In the late 1960s, homosexuality was considered a mental illness and was treated with electroshock therapy among other barbaric treatments. Gays were forbidden from working for the government, couldn’t get bank loans and were the targets of vicious beatings – often from the police.

Danny (Irvine), a young gay man from Indiana who has been kicked out of the house by his homophobic father (Cubitt) who also happens to be the high school football coach, has gone to New York City where he has a scholarship to Columbia University – if he can get his high school diploma and get his paperwork sent to the University. Dear old dad has no intention of helping his son, but his cowed mother (Frankle) is sympathetic and his little sister Phoebe (King) absolutely adores him and is very angry at her parents for the way they’ve treated their son.

Danny, having little money and nowhere to go, falls in with a group of gay street kids led by Ramon (Beauchamp), a hustler who turns tricks with middle class men who are firmly closeted, have wives and careers and occasionally beat the snot out of him. Ramon takes him in and fellow street kids Silent Paul (Sullivan), a Beatlephile, Orphan Annie (Jones) and Cong (Alexis) who is the most flamboyant of the bunch. He also attracts the eye of Trevor (Meyers), an activist who works for the early gay rights group the Mattachine Society. They believe in peaceful protest and non-violence while most of the street kids know that they will never get the attention of the straight society that way.

Most of them gather at the Stonewall Inn, a bar that is owned by the Mafia and managed by Ed Murphy (Perlman) who disdains the gay clientele but allows them to do pretty much what they want (the Mafia used the bar to blackmail wealthier gay clientele and made more money that way than from liquor but that’s not discussed in the film). Danny is a bit out of his element but soon grows to appreciate the more outgoing of his crew but there is tension between Ramon, who has fallen deeply in love with Danny, and Trevor to whom Danny is more attracted to.

Danny’s heart, however, belongs to Matt (Mitchell), the football player whom Danny was having furtive gay sex with and who threw Danny under the bus when they were discovered, prompting his ejection from school and home. Danny endures beatings from the cops and growing tensions between the now very jealous Ramon and Trevor, who may or may not be using Danny for his own devices, but those tensions are nothing compared to what was going on in the community and they would come to a head on a hot summer night in June 1969 when Detective Seymour Pine (Craven) made an ill-advised raid on the Stonewall.

Few people in the heterosexual community are all that aware of the Riots and their significance and the movie is the perfect opportunity to educate and inform. Unfortunately Emmerich, who is mostly known for his big sci-fi epics like Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow decided to make a fictional account, using fictional characters mixed in with a few real ones like Pine and Marsha P. Johnson (Abit). Considering that there are plenty of those who were actual participants and observers who had some compelling stories to tell about the riots, it seems a bit of a waste.

&I had wondered why Emmerich didn’t use actual footage from the riots instead of recreated footage disguised as newsreels until I discovered that no footage exists of the riots and precious few photographs. I guess it’s hard for people of this modern society in which everything is documented to understand that news was covered by newspaper writers and photographers for the most part and to a lesser extent, television cameras and it was editors for newspapers and TV who determined what got covered and back then, a riot of gay people would tend to be given less attention (although it was front page news).

Beauchamp does a great job as Ramon/Ramona who wears his heart on his sleeve. There’s a heartbreaking moment after a client has badly beaten him where he confesses to Danny that this life is all he can hope for and that he expects that there will never be anything better for him. It’s a compelling performance and Beauchamp has a good shot at some better roles.

There is a lot of sexuality in this movie – a LOT – and the sex scenes are handled pretty much the same way you would see heterosexual sex scenes in a mainstream movie; kudos to Emmerich for treating the two equally. Of course, conservative Christians will likely lose their shit over it much as they did for Brokeback Mountain but that’s assuming that the movie makes any sort of cultural headway, which is not necessarily going to happen.

Considering that this is a movie about such a significant event in the gay community, the filmmakers including writer Jon Robin Baitz, a respected playwright, seem to promote gay stereotypes almost to absurd heights. Yes, there were plenty of drag queens back then and there were those who were lisping, mincing fairies who gave birth to the stereotype, but we get little sense of who these people are other than those stereotypes. Also, using the very uptight, whitebread Danny as more or less your audience surrogate is almost insulting and watching him go from zero to radical in the space of about 30 seconds is downright jarring and outright unbelievable. If you’re going to pander to stereotypes, may as well go all the way with it.

I’m really overrating this movie to a large degree because I think that the story is an important one. There is certainly a great movie to be made about the Riots but this isn’t it. It’s a squandered opportunity but I’m still recommending it because at least you get the sense of how oppressed the gay community was back then and how far they have come since. That much is worth the price of admission alone.

REASONS TO GO: A story that needs to be told. Some good performances, particularly from Beauchamp. Sex scenes handled with sensitivity.
REASONS TO STAY: Going fictional was a tactical error. Plays up gay stereotypes.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a lot of sex and sexual content, some drug use, plenty of foul language and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The riots took place on June 28, 1969 and lasted several nights instead of just the one indicated by the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/25/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 9% positive reviews. Metacritic: 32/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Selma
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Black Mass

Leatherheads


Even in 1925, "hi, mom" was a thing.

Even in 1925, “hi, mom” was a thing.

(2008) Comedy (Universal) George Clooney, Renee Zellweger, John Krasinski, Jonathan Pryce, Stephen Root, Jack Thompson, Max Casella, Wayne Duvall, Keith Loneker, Malcolm Goodwin, Matt Bushell, Tommy Hinkley, Tim Griffin, Robert Baker, Nick Paonessa, Randy Newman, Grant Heslov, Mike O’Malley, Heather Goldenhersh. Directed by George Clooney

The NFL is the most powerful sports league in the United States. The championship game, the Super Bowl, is one of the most-watched sporting events on planet Earth. The league makes billions in advertising and sponsorship revenue, broadcasting rights fees, game attendance and merchandising. Millions follow their teams week after week during the fall. But it wasn’t always that way.

Carter Rutherford (Krasinski) is on the top of the world. The star football player for the Princeton Tigers football team, he is matinee idol handsome, a war hero, admired by millions and blessed with a bright future ahead of him. Pro football? C’mon, it’s 1925! Pro football is for miners, farmers and lumberjacks, the pay is ridiculously low, there are no rules to speak of and the crowds are ghastly.

Dodge Connelly (Clooney) is at rock bottom. The star player for the Duluth Bulldogs pro football team is trying to hold together his club by the skin of his teeth. They have to forfeit a football game because the game ball – the only one the team has – is stolen. As much as he loves the game, Connelly knows the future is bleak. He’s no longer a young man, he has almost no skills to speak of and football is all he knows. To make matters worse, the Bulldogs main sponsor is pulling out, and the team is about to fold.

Lexie Littleton (Zellweger) is on the ladder to success. A brassy dame hustling, scratching and clawing to make her way as a reporter in a man’s world, she’s given a plum assignment by her editor (Thompson); a lieutenant (Casella) in Rutherford’s unit has stepped forward, claiming that his war record is false. Littleton is to get the confidence of Rutherford, build him up with a series of puff pieces and then when she gets the dirt, print the exclusive. If she does it, there’s an editorial position for her.

Connelly hits upon the bright idea of enticing Rutherford into pro football. In order to do it, he’s going to have to fast talk Rutherford’s agent/publicist CC Frazier (Pryce) into even considering pro football. When Dodge brashly guarantees ten grand per game, Frazier and Rutherford (mostly Rutherford who loves the game and wants to play past his college years) agree to join the Bulldogs. Littleton, smelling a fish story, decides to tag along.

At first, it looks like the most brilliant idea ever. Huge crowds show up to see the college star – even at Bulldog practices. The players begin to work harder to get into shape and Rutherford suggests some “effective” plays he used at Princeton. Of course, being a natural athlete better than most of the people playing the game doesn’t hurt and the Bulldogs begin to win. Connelly does his part by playing up the new guy and making sure he’s the one to score the touchdowns and that Rutherford gets all the glory. Dodge is far more interested in getting the girl, but when she discovers the truth, everything is at risk.

A nice period piece that captures the very early days of professional football nicely although I’m sure the NFL would take issue with some of the more, ahem, sordid aspects of the Duluth Bulldogs. Krasinski does some fine work as the ultra-preppy Carter “The Bullet” Rutherford. He was still best known for his work in The Office at the time (which was still on the air) and launches his film career with a completely different character than his Office work and does a great job in the process.

Clooney does his usual solid job; he seems to have an affinity for period pieces (O Brother Where Art Thou, Goodnight and Good Luck) and he plays a wise-cracking, hard-nosed Leatherhead well. Zellweger seems born to play the brassy, sassy dame with more than a little moxie. She looks right for the flapper era, and gets the cadences right.

Clooney captures the period nicely, with speakeasies and swell hotels. While the football sequences are mostly played for laughs rather than for any kind of authenticity, they are at least staged in an entertaining manner. Randy Newman’s score is reminiscent of his work in Ragtime and Parenthood; look for his cameo in one of the bar scenes.

I’m not sure whether Clooney intended an homage to screwball comedies or to actually make one; either way, it’s a bit light on jokes to match up to the better examples of the genre. The chemistry between Zellweger and Clooney isn’t as convincing as it could be.

Leatherheads is flawed, but generally entertaining. They try for the kind of screwball comedy that made things like His Girl Friday, Sullivan’s Travels and Adam’s Rib, but don’t quite get there. With a better script and better chemistry between the leads, this could have been a memorable movie, but it’s still worthwhile on several fronts – just not really anything you’d want to sing the praises of too loudly. Definitely worth the rental at least if you don’t have anything particularly pressing that you’d like to see. It’s not a complete waste of your time and money at least.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice era re-creation. Clooney and Krasinski do fine jobs.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Fails at being a true screwball comedy. Chemistry between Clooney and Zellweger not quite there.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is a smattering of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Due to a dispute with the Writer’s Guild of America over credit on the script, George Clooney removed himself as a voting member of the Guild.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: Infamous prankster Clooney is shown playing some memorable pranks on his unsuspecting cast and crew.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $41.3M on a $58M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eight Men Out
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Minions

The Art of Getting By


Discovering that craft services is Vegan only.

Discovering that craft services is Vegan only.

(2011) Teen Romance (Fox Searchlight) Freddie Highmore, Emma Roberts, Sasha Spielberg, Marcus Carl Franklin, Ann Dowd, Maya Ri Sanchez, Blair Underwood, Ann Harada, Rita Wilson, Jarlath Conroy, Elizabeth Reaser, Andrew Levitas, Sam Robards, Alicia Silverstone, Michael Angarano, Dan Leonard, Sophie Curtis, Lindsay-Elizabeth Hand. Directed by Gavin Wiesen

It seems sometimes that the world is overcrowded with movies about teens, floundering to find themselves, finding romance which inspires them to put aside whatever bullshit they were into and grow up. I’m not sure if the source of these are frustrated parents of teens, desperate for hope that their own kids are going to grow out of the phase they’re in, or by former teens who wish that their issues could have been resolved that easily.

George (Highmore) is a self-described misanthrope, although I might have added nihilist to the description. He is a budding artist who is inspired by nothing. We’re all going to die eventually, he reasons; why bother doing anything? So the homework at the elite prep school in Manhattan that he attends remains uncompleted and he spends his lunch breaks alone and reading Camus. And if you needed one more clue that George is a pretentious Morrissey-wannabe, he always always always wears a dark overcoat. Except in the picture above.

Then Harry – I mean George – meets Sally (Roberts) and impulsively takes the fall for her smoking on the school roof. Side note: has anybody actually named their daughter Sally since, say, 1947? Anyway, the two start hanging out together and George begins to develop those kind of feelings for her which are either not reciprocated or ignored. As it turns out, Sally’s got issues of her own although we don’t find out what they are until later in the film.

George also meets Austin (Angarano), an artist who starts hitting on Sally. George’s parents – his doormat mom (Wilson) and his stepdad (Robards) who turns out to be not nearly as successful as he let on – are having issues. George, now really upset, has a blowup with Sally and the two fall go their separate ways, Sally into a relationship with Austin and George into a quest to find meaning by finishing his homework which leads me to believe that the first group might be the source of this particular film.

First-time director Wiesen cast this Sundance entry well, with Highmore especially proving to be fortuitous. The young Brit has been a skilled actor for quite awhile (and has received rave notices for his work on the Psycho TV series. The George character is truly unlikable when we first meet him; pretentious and angst-ridden in the worst teen way. Like many teens who prefer to embrace the doom and gloom, they refuse to see the things right in front of them that are good – a mom that loves him, a school that wants to inspire him, a girl that could be good for him.  Instead, he prefers to mess things up for himself which is pretty true-to-life.

What isn’t is that the movie follows too many teen movie cliches in that everything is resolved by a girl leaving a guy, forcing him to make changes for the better and by the end of the movie he’s actually a likable guy with a bright future and of course the ending is as predictable as a Republican reaction to an Obama policy. Most kids are far too complex and far too smart to believe this as anything but the most optimistic fantasy. Change comes from within, and change for the better is hard work. I can’t think of many schools, particularly elite academic institutions, that would be willing to let someone who has slacked off on turning in his homework all year save his academic life. In fact, most schools would have expelled his ass long before.

Despite the cliches, this is actually a pretty decent example of the teen coming-of-age romance genre and while it’s no Say Anything it’s still competently made and has some decent performances, especially from Highmore. And, for once, the adults aren’t treated like morons; they have their own issues sure but they are well-meaning. Of course, the trend lately is to eliminate the adults from the conversation entirely, but Wiesen doesn’t do that. The Art of Getting By more than gets by, thankfully; it’s not a movie that will change anybody’s life or perception of it but it fits the bill, particularly if you’re into the niche that it fits in.

WHY RENT THIS: Highmore is engaging and turns an unlikable character into a likable one.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t really add anything to the teen coming-of-age romance movie genre which is overcrowded as it is.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the thematic elements are aimed at more mature teens and adults. There’s also plenty of foul language, sexual content and scenes of teen partying and drinking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the first scene, the camera passes by Tom’s Restaurant, the one made famous by Seinfeld.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a couple of very brief interview segments on New York City and young love in general.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.4M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Restless
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Outside the Law

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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