A Dog’s Purpose


Dennis Quaid goes nose-to-nose with one of the canine stars in the film.

(2017) Family (Universal) Josh Gad (voice), Dennis Quaid, Peggy Lipton, KJ Apa, Bryce Ghelsar, Juliet Rylance, Luke Kirby, Gabrielle Rose, Michael Bofshever, Britt Robertson, Logan Miller, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Pooch Hall, John Ortiz, Nicole LaPlaca, Primo Allon, Peter Kelamis, Caroline Cave, Jane McGregor, Robert Mann, Ron Vewymeren, David J. Lyle, Kelly-Ruth Mercier. Directed by Lasse Hallström

 

Let’s get one thing straight; I am a dog person. Seriously, Da Queen often shakes her head at the extent of my love for the canine species. I have trouble watching cruelty perpetrated to dogs on film (even in animations) and quite frankly all it takes is my dogs whimpering just the right way and I’m putty in their paws. In other words, I’m pretty much the target audience for this film so keep that in mind when reading the review.

The essential concept is that we look at the lives of a variety of dogs, all voiced by Gad, who have been reincarnated one life from the other complete with the memories of previous lives. Bailey belongs to a young boy (Ghelsar) named Ethan. Ethan rescued Bailey from the inside of a hot car and with the support of his mother (Rylance) and over the grumbling of his salesman father (Kirby) he is allowed to keep him.

As Ethan grows into his teen years (Apa) it becomes clear that his father is a drunk and abusive as well, frustrated over his lack of success. Ethan has become a high school football star and through Bailey’s timely intervention, the boyfriend of beautiful Hannah (Robertson). He is well on his way to a college scholarship but a tragic accident changes Ethan’s life forever.

Ethan does go off to college but only after breaking up with Hannah. Bailey goes into a tailspin (no pun intended) without Ethan and not long afterwards, his health fails and Bailey passes on. However, to Bailey’s surprise he wakes up young…and female. Now he’s…I mean, she’s…Ellie, a police dog whose handler (Miller) is lonely and maybe content to be that way – or maybe not. Still, Ellie is brave as can be and a fine partner for Al until…

…she comes back, this time as Tino, a chubby corgi who becomes the object of affection for college student Maya (Howell-Baptiste). Their relationship continues on past graduation and after Maya gets married and starts a family. It continues until it’s Tino’s time to leave and he comes back as…

Buddy, a lovable St. Bernard who ends up chained in the front yard of a dilapidated shack, ignored and neglected and occasionally abused, wondering what it all means until at last he finds a way to someplace familiar…someone who he remembers (Quaid).

Hallström has never shied away from sentiment and this might be the most sentimental of all his films. It’s based on a book by W. Bruce Cameron and while there are some differences in plot line, it is essentially the same where it matters. The subject matter is essentially a dog wondering what the point of it all is; what is his/her purpose in life and what is it about buttholes that is so dang appealing?

Of course this is really about the place of all of us in the universe, not just dogs. Do we just live and then die? It’s heady stuff for a family film and why the Judeo-Christian tradition of heaven and hell is largely ignored here, the film does suggest that our place in the universe is largely determined by how much we love. Dogs are a metaphor in that regard because after all, who is more loving than man’s best friend?

Some might be aware of the video that went viral just before the film that was released that showed one of the dogs – the one who plays Ellie – apparently being forced into the water and being submerged. It should be said that while PETA and other animal rights groups made a big deal out of it, as it turns out the video was doctored and CGI was used of the dog in the water. There’s no doubt that the film crew did have a reluctant dog that should not have been forced into the water (it had more to do with the position of where they were filming the stunt rather than the stunt itself which the dog performed on other occasions without incident) but there was no abuse going on and Hercules, the stunt dog in question, is alive and well. It’s another case of people manipulating truth to suit their own agendas.

The performances here are adequate. You know the old showbiz adage of working with animals and children – it applies here. The best performances tend to come courtesy of those with four paws. That’s not in any way denigrating the two-legged actors here; Quaid is fine as always and Apa looks to be an Elar Coltrane in the making. The focus is on the dogs here and so the humans tend to be more background than anything.

Some movies are tailor-made for critics and others are not; this falls in the latter category. For the most part critics don’t like emotionally manipulative films and this one is certainly that. Yes, the movie is rife with clichés and that’s a problem but I don’t think that kids are all that picky about such things. There are at least two or three places where tears were flowing down my cheeks without shame. As catharsis goes you won’t get better than what I got here in most any film.

REASONS TO GO: Dog lovers will be absolutely charmed. The film examines some pretty deep questions in a non-lofty manner. There’s a Middle American sensibility here.
REASONS TO STAY: Those who don’t like having their emotions manipulated won’t like this at all.
FAMILY VALUES: Children and sensitive sorts (particularly about animals) may have a hard time with the peril several dogs (and the family) are put into and may be unable to handle the passing of various dogs in the film.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bradley Cooper was originally slated to voice the various dogs in the movie but the scheduling couldn’t be worked out so Josh Gad was hired instead. Also, the bulk of the movie was filmed in Winnipeg.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/21/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Old Yeller
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Death Race 2050

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Gold (2016)


They may be in the middle of nowhere but at least they have a good pot of coffee.

They may be in the middle of nowhere but at least they have a good pot of coffee.

(2016) Adventure (Dimension) Matthew McConaughey, Edgar Ramirez, Bryce Dallas Howard, Corey Stoll, Toby Kebbell, Bill Camp, Joshua Harto, Timothy Simons, Craig T. Nelson, Stacy Keach, Macon Blair, Adam LaFevre, Bruce Greenwood, Rachael Taylor, Frank Wood, Michael Landes, Bhavesh Patel, Vic Browder, Dylan Kenin, Stafford Douglas, Kristen Rakes. Directed by Stephen Gaghan

 

A wise man once wrote that “all that glitters is not gold” but gold does glitter and its pull on some men is irresistible. It is the lure of riches and fame but also of conquering the odds. Not many who go looking for gold actually find it.
Kenny Wells (McConaughey) is once such. His company – the Washoe Mining Company that he inherited from his respected and revered dad (Nelson) and which had been founded nearly 80 years earlier by his granddad – is foundering, a once-thriving organization doing business out of a bar and down to a few loyal employees who hadn’t been paid in months. The economic downturn of the 80s has hit Washoe and Kenny hard. As it turns out, Kenny is a bit of a carnival barker, trying to get funds from disinterested local bankers to take one last stab at the dream. While his girlfriend Kay (Howard) remains loyal and believes in him, things look pretty bleak for Kenny Wells.

Then he discovers the largely discredited theories of Michael Acosta (Ramirez) who had discovered a sizable copper deposit years earlier. A rock star among geologists at one time, Acosta is also on a downward spiral. However, Acosta believes there is a major gold deposit in one of the most remote areas of Indonesia.

At first, things go badly. Kenny has sunk every last dime he has and what little he is able to borrow into the venture. To make matters worse, he’s contracted malaria and nearly dies. Acosta nurses him back to health and even as the miners (who also haven’t been paid) have left in droves, the patience pays off as gold is discovered and not just a little bit – billions of dollars worth. Kenny and Michael have just hit the big time and for Kay, her ship has just come in.

Immediately as word spreads of the small company’s find spreads, Wall Street sharks begin to circle in particular in the form of Brian Woolf (Stoll) who is all smiles and white teeth but means to wring every penny out of Washoe that he can. It looks like easy pickings, too – Kenny’s drinking, always a problem for him, has reached massive proportions. He also smokes like a fiend and is paunchy and sometimes he’s not all together mentally speaking, or at least so it appears.

But Kenny proves to be cannier than people give him credit for. The small time operator has a few tricks up his sleeve as he fights to protect what he worked so hard to obtain. And for awhile, it looks like he might succeed until a bombshell drops that threatens all he has earned – and then some.

This is loosely based – VERY loosely – on the Bre-X mining scandal of the 1990s. For one thing, that took place in Canada rather than in Nevada and led to some major reforms on the Canadian stock exchange as well as in mining practices. The investigation also overwhelmed the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who simply didn’t have the resources to investigate the scale of corruption that took place so there were never any charges filed.

Otherwise most of the salient facts that are shown here jive with what happened in Canada back in the 1990s. Some of the characters here were based on people who were involved in the real case (primarily Wells and Acosta). Otherwise, this is mainly a yarn about greed and dreams.

McConaughey went the “de-glamorize” route, wearing a set of crooked false teeth, gaining 45 pounds on a cheeseburger diet to get quite a bit of a paunch and wearing a hair piece with a bald spot and thinning locks. McConaughey, who is a very handsome man, doesn’t look that way here. In the past, I’ve praised Hollywood actors for going this route for the sake of their art but it’s becoming a much more prevalent event these days so I’ll refrain from a whole lot of compliments; let’s just say that the acting performance that McConaughey delivers is as good as anything he’s done regardless of the sideshow about how he looks here. He’s come a long way since the laidback Texas surfer dude he seemed to always be playing.

The movie runs two full hours and to be honest I’m not sure it needed to. Once the gold is discovered it begins to drag a little bit as the corporate setup takes most of the focus and that portion of the film isn’t nearly as interesting. The ending is definitely Hollywood too – I would have liked it to have been less heart-warming, particularly after everything the principles did to each other. It doesn’t seem terribly realistic to me.

Like many other films that Weinstein distributes, this bounced around the release schedule for a time before settling on a Christmas release in New York and Los Angeles and expanding nationwide in January. I’m frankly mystified that they’d open this up in the holiday season at all; there was never any real chance of Oscar attention here and to be honest this feels a little bit more suited to the less competitive January release schedule. Still, it is competently done and reasonably entertaining which given what dogs we usually get in January is saying something.

REASONS TO GO: McConaughey does a stellar job here despite all the make-up and hair tomfoolery..
REASONS TO STAY: Overall, the film feels long and seems to lose steam in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of sexuality, some nudity and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Gaghan’s first film in eleven years, his last being Syriana.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fool’s Gold
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Live By Night

Bridge of Spies


Tom Hanks meets the press.

Tom Hanks meets the press.

(2015) True Life Drama (DreamWorks) Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Sebastian Koch, Peter McRobbie, Austin Stowell, Dakin Matthews, Eve Hewson, Jesse Plemons, Scott Shepherd, Lucia Ryan, Wil Rogers, Nadja Bobyleva, Joe Forbrich, David Wilson Barnes, Mikhail Gorevoy, Steve Cirbus, Billy Magnussen, Noah Schnapp, Jillian Lebling. Directed by Steven Spielberg

The Cold War was in many ways, anything but. While the Soviet Union and the United States weren’t shooting at each other, that didn’t mean there weren’t casualties.

Rudolf Abel (Rylance) is a painter living in Brooklyn. The FBI thinks he’s a spy for the Soviet Union and they are following him, although he manages to evade their pursuit. He picks up a nickel on a park bench and discovers the coin has been hollowed out with a message left for him inside. However, eventually the FBI catches up with him and arrests him.

Eager to make a good impression on the world stage, rather than summarily executing the spy the government is keen on putting Abel on trial. They engage insurance lawyer James V. Donovan (Hanks) to represent him. At first Donovan wants nothing to do with it; he knows that representing an accused spy would bring him into a spotlight he doesn’t want he or his family to be in; he knows that people will hate him almost as much as they hate Abel but he truly believes that every man is entitled to a proper defense and decides that this is the least he can do to serve his country after having served it well in the Second World War.

He undertakes to defend Abel, advising him to cooperate with the U.S. Government but Abel refuses. Donovan grows to admire Abel for his loyalty to his cause, even if that cause is diametrically opposed to that of his country. Donovan endeavors to give Abel the most vigorous defense he can, knowing the judge (Matthews) in his case is predisposed to let Abel swing from the highest rope in the land. Donovan pleads with the judge to consider sparing Abel’s life, arguing that it would be a good thing to have Abel in hand just in case an American spy were to get captured, not to mention it would make America look merciful in the eyes of the world.

As it turns out, they were about to get a reason to keep Abel alive when pilot Francis Gary Powers (Stowell), piloting a U2 spy plane over the Soviet Union, is shot down and contrary to his orders captured alive (his orders was to take a cyanide pill and kill himself before getting captured). The government, knowing that Powers has knowledge of their spy plane program that they don’t want the Soviets to have, discovers that the Soviets are making overtures for a prisoner swap through the East Germans and to Donovan. CIA chief Allen Dulles (McRobbie) sends Donovan to East Berlin to negotiate the exchange. However, the Berlin Wall is being built, splitting the city in two. Tensions are high and the East Germans have captured an American student named Frederic Pryor (Rogers) who was studying economics there as a spy. Everyone knows that Pryor is no spy but now there is another element to the mix – and the Soviet and East German agendas might be entirely different.

Spielberg is a master storyteller and in many ways he’s the equivalent of Frank Capra. Hanks as I’ve mentioned before is the modern Jimmy Stewart and like Capra and Stewart, Spielberg and Hanks make as dynamic a director/actor pairing as we’ve seen in the last 20 years (with the exceptions maybe of Scorsese/Di Caprio and maybe Burton/Depp in that mix. This is the fifth time the two have been paired together and they’ve never made a bad movie.

And neither is this one. Hanks imbues Donovan with decency without making him cloying. Donovan’s faith in the Constitution resonates and once more, he’s absolutely right to. Donovan – and through him Spielberg and writers the Coen Brothers – preach that the Constitution is our roadmap to guide us through difficult situations; suspending it or ignoring it lessens us as a nation. Considering how fast and loose we’ve played with the Constitution in our War on Terror, the lesson has an extra importance especially now.

Rylance, who has won his share of Tony Awards for his work on Broadway, nearly steals the show from Hanks (a daunting task) by creating a man who is loyal to his nation, intelligent but also a human being, who grows to respect Donovan for his own loyalty to the U.S. Constitution. The real Rudolf Abel was a complicated man and Rylance conveys that.

The movie really is divided into two halves; the first part in which Donovan defends Abel which is essentially a courtroom drama, and the second in which Donovan goes to arrange the exchange which is more of a Cold War spy thriller. The first part actually works a little bit better than the second although it is in fact a bit drier in some ways; while I suspect the average moviegoer will like the second half better (the first can be slow-moving), it is the first where the meat of the message is delivered and has much more connection with me, at least.

For those who lived through the Cold War, the fear of nuclear holocaust was a real one you lived with every day. Duck and cover was a real thing. It looks quaint to modern eyes but it was the reality of the situation. People fully expected that World War III would be the last war – and that war would be inevitable. People in America really thought the Soviet Union was as evil as Nazi German. The Soviet citizenry probably thought much the same about America.

In some ways we haven’t grown much past those days. We still need an enemy to fear. We still lose our shit when someone outrages us. We still think the constitution should be suspended when it comes to terrorists, never realizing that once you go down that road that you can never go back – and that constitution that has guided us and protected us all these years becomes a little less shiny, a little less secure. The lessons from Bridge of Spies are extremely important in that regard; that they are presented in a well-crafted tale is icing on the cake.

REASONS TO GO: Spielberg and Hanks make a terrific pair. Rylance gives Oscar-worthy performance. Period of history brought ably to life.
REASONS TO STAY: Plods a little bit. Feels like two different movies…
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, some brief foul language and adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene filmed on the Glienecke Bridge near the end of the film is the exact spot where the events depicted in the scene took place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Thirteen Days
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Too Hip for the Room

Entourage


Rollin' with E, Vinnie, Drama and Turtle.

Rollin’ with E, Vinnie, Drama and Turtle.

(2015) Comedy  (Warner Brothers) Kevin Connolly, Adrian Grenier, Kevin Dillon, Jerry Ferrara, Jeremy Piven, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Perrey Reeves, Rex Lee, Debi Mazar, Rhys Coiro, Constance Zimmer, Haley Joel Osment, Billy Bob Thornton, Ronda Rousey, Emily Ratajkowski, Scott Mescudi, Alan Dale, Piers Morgan, Nina Agdal. Directed by Doug Ellin

Hollywood is as much a state of mind as it is a place on Earth. You can drive to it but you can never really achieve it; that is, unless you’re one of the lucky, magical few who make it in that town. And when you make it, so do those you brought up with you.

Vincent Chase (Grenier) is a movie star who is celebrating his divorce (or rather, his annulment) after nine days of wedded bliss on a yacht off of Ibiza. His boyhood chums – Eric (Connolly) who has been Vincent’s manager since his younger days; Johnny Drama (Dillon), his older brother whose stunning lack of success in becoming an actor is probably rooted in the fact that he can’t act for squat – and Turtle (Ferrara), Vinnie’s driver who just recently hit it big in a vodka line with Mark Cuban – are joining Vincent to drink away their sorrows, or whatever it is they’re drinking away.

Ari Gold (Piven), Vincent’s long time agent, has retired to Italy with his wife (Reeves) but at the behest of studio CEO John Ellis (Dale) has taken over the studio as production chief. His first order of business is to get Vincent locked into a new movie that looks like it could possibly become a smash hit – Hyde, a techno-retelling of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic .

When the movie runs into some financial issues and needs a few extra mill to finish up, Ari is forced to go to the money for the film – Texas rancher Larsen McCredle (Thornton) who sends his son Travis (Osment) to Hollywood to find out why more money is needed and whether or not the money already invested has been well-spent.

In the meantime, Vincent’s boys are having their own problems. Eric’s ex-wife Sloan (Chriqui) is about to have their baby and is willing to give their relationship another chance. However, perpetual nice-guy Eric has a relationship going with Dana (Zimmer) which might get in the way. Turtle is trying to get in good with MMA superstar Ronda Rousey (herself) who may nor may not be amenable to the idea, and Johnny Drama may have found the role that may finally turn his career around. The trouble is, it’s in his brother’s movie and Travis, the affable but dopey Texan, wants to cut him out of the film. And Vincent’s relationship with gorgeous starlet Emily Ratajkowski (herself) may complicate things more than either of them can imagine.

This takes place right after the HBO series ended its run four years ago after an impressive seven years on the cable network and is awash in celebrity cameos. So many that they are often of the blink and you missed them kind, like a venal encounter between Ari and Liam Neeson. Some of the cameos, like Rousey and Ratajkowski, are much more substantial and integral to the plot.

The good news is that if you didn’t watch the HBO series, you can still enjoy the movie – which is a fear I think may have kept some people away from theaters. Fans of the series will get a lot more of what they want; the teenage boy fantasy of endless parties, endless money and endless women, all of whom are SoCal gorgeous. Of course, there’s plenty of digs at the shallow Hollywood society, from the drug dealers to the studio heads to the creative sorts. Everyone has an angle, or so Entourage would have you believe, other than the innocents from Queens who stuck with their guy through hard times and are there with him to enjoy his success.

The humor here is crude and profane, and those offended by such things are going to have plenty of reasons to stay away. However, there are a lot of good reasons to go see this, in no small part thanks to Piven who made Gold an iconic character on HBO and shows that Ari, despite anger management courses and therapy, still rages with the best of them. Also of note is Osment, who after a successful child acting career has simply developed into a fine actor and shows some fine comic timing here; hopefully roles like this will help him garner more parts in a town which may have pigeonholed him into seeing dead people.

I don’t know that there was a demand to see Entourage again; while the creators were hoping that this would spawn a trilogy of big screen installments, the reality is that the show had something of a cult status at best and probably didn’t have enough of a core rabid fan audience to make those plans ill-advised. However, the movie that resulted was entertaining enough and even if you’re not counting cameos – which would be a fun drinking game when it makes it to home video – there’s plenty to make it worth your while.

REASONS TO GO: Ari Gold, man; Ari Gold. Osment shows some real comic chops.
REASONS TO STAY: Too many cameos spoil the broth. Maybe excessively crude.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of profanity, nudity and sexual references, and a little bit of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character Turtle is based on Mark Wahlberg’s real life assistant Donnie “Donkey” Carroll, who passed away at age 39 on December 18, 2005 from an asthma attack.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Spy

Road to Perdition


Road to Perdition(2002) Gangster Drama (DreamWorks) Paul Newman, Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin, Jude Law, Daniel Craig, Stanley Tucci, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Liam Aiken, Dylan Baker, Ciaran Hinds, Daniel Darlow, Maureen Gallagher, Kevin Chamberlin, Doug Spinuzza, Duane Sharp, Diane Dorsey, Harry Groener, James Greene, Peggy Roeder, Lara Phillips, Mina Badie, Heidi Jayne Netzley. Directed by Sam Mendes

Waiting for Oscar

2003 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
Best Supporting Actor – Paul Newman
Best Art Direction/Set Decoration – Dennis Gassner, Nancy Haigh
Best Sound – Scott Millan, Bob Beemer, John Pritchett
Best Sound Editing – Scott Hecker
Best Original Music Score – Thomas Newman
WINS – 1
Best Cinematography – Conrad L. Hall

Loyalty is a commodity that is very precious because it is so very, very rare. It’s been that way for a very long time – we are an inconstant species, truly. But then again, the earning of loyalty is a very difficult thing; we don’t give it easily for a reason. And for damn sure we don’t forgive when that loyalty is sundered.

Michael Sullivan (Hanks) is a loving husband and father as 1931 dawns. His son Michael Jr. (Hoechlin) has an unusual relationship with him; the boy worships his father and yet there is a distance between them. Perhaps it’s because his dad does mysterious work for the jovial John Rooney (Newman), who seems to be one of the leading men in town.

But John Rooney is no ordinary businessman; he’s a gangster and Michael Sullivan is his main enforcer, known far and wide as the Angel of Death. Michael Sullivan Jr. doesn’t know this; he thinks his dad is a cop, or a superhero. So he stows away in the trunk of his dad’s car when he and Rooney’s son Connor (Craig) go to visit someone for a talk, and that talk gets out of hand and Connor kills a man in cold blood, forcing Michael to have to clean up the mess. Michael Jr. witnesses this and Connor, not being a trusting sort, decides to kill Michael Jr. and make it look like a random gang hit. Unfortunately, Connor is a bit of a screw-up and manages to kill Michael’s wife Annie (Leigh) and his other son Peter (Aiken).

This puts Rooney and his former enforcer at war and Michael goes on the run with his surviving son. He appeals to Frank Nitti (Tucci) of the Capone outfit in Chicago for justice and peace, but Nitti, not wanting to get in the middle, declines. In fact, Rooney has set the somewhat demented crime photographer/assassin Maguire (Law) on the two who decide to rob John of his ill-gotten gains and then strike out on their own. It is a time of father-son bonding in a wild era, on the run from everyone and beyond the law. But when one is known as the Angel of Death, you know that the Grim Reaper isn’t far away at any given time.

This was Mendes’ first film after his breakout success with American Beauty and Newman’s final on-screen appearance (he would do a voice role in Cars). Both of those events tend to overshadow the overall quality of the movie which was a lot higher than one might have expected.  The movie was based on a graphic novel by noted mystery writer Max Alan Collins and the dark tones and overall feel of that work ported over to the cinematic version nicely.

Hanks went way out of his comfort zone here for a role totally unlike any he has played before or since. While one can relate to his protective father side, the cold and brutal killer that the Angel of Death is completely comes out of left field for Hanks, who has more in common with Jimmy Stewart than Jimmy Cagney. Jude Law also has one of his better performances as the twisted killer and crime photographer who takes crime scene photos of his own crimes.

Newman makes a final performance that is a great one to exit on. His urbane gangster is generous and full of Irish charm on the surface but is as deadly as a snake below. The relationship between him and the Hanks character is spot-on, father-son type stuff which of course makes the real son of the gangster jealous which is part of what drives him to murder the family of Michael Sullivan. This is also a very different role for Craig in his pre-Bond days.

The depression-era Midwest is beautifully captured here and photographed adroitly by legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall, for whom this was his final feature as well (he passed away the following year after doing a short film). There are scenes of a confrontation between Michael Sullivan and John Rooney photographed at night in the rain which are absolutely breathtaking. Even if you’re not partial to gangster flicks, this is one of the best-looking and best-acted I’ve ever seen.

There are those who believe this is a good but not great movie and on that point I have to disagree. I think this will be thought of as a classic in the decades to come when the films of the 90s are discussed. At the end of the day, this is a movie that may be dark in tone but entertains nonetheless. If you haven’t seen it yet, this should be at or near the top of your must-see list.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific performances throughout, particularly from Hanks, Newman, Law and Tucci. Beautiful cinematography. Recreates the era nicely.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: More somber than most funerals.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of violence and a fair amount of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The crime scene photos in Maguire’s apartment are actual crime scene photos from the era, some of which were taken by Arthur “Weegee” Fellig, the notorious photographer whom Maguire’s character was based on.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The DVD edition has very little other than a deleted scene that has Anthony LaPaglia’s performance as Al Capone that was eventually cut from the final version, but the Blu-Ray has two memorable featurettes worth getting – one explores the world of Road to Perdition in both the graphic novel it’s based on and the film, the other a retrospective on cinematographer Conrad Hall whose work helped make this film so memorable.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $181.0M on an $80M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (not available),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Billy Bathgate
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: American Sniper

Top Five


Chris Rock, standin' around.

Chris Rock, standin’ around.

(2014) Dramedy (Paramount) Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union, J.B. Smoove, Romany Malco, Hayley Marie Norman, Anders Holm, Cedric the Entertainer, Kevin Hart, Karlie Redd, Ben Vereen, Sherri Shepard, Annaleigh Ashford, Jay Pharaoh, Tracy Morgan, Hassan Johnson, Leslie Jones, Luis Guzman, Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, Whoopi Goldberg. Directed by Chris Rock

Fame is something we all kind of wish we had deep down. We want all the perks – admiration, adulation and wealth to name a few. The reality of fame though is far different than our perception of it, particularly among celebrities in the popular arts. The pressure to produce can be absolutely crushing and the availability of alcohol and drugs – and the encouragement to use them irresponsibly – also can add to a celebrity’s woes.

Andre Allen (Rock) is best-known as a stand-up comedian, considered by many to be one of the funniest men in America. His film career has spawned a lucrative franchise of a crime fighter in a bear suit. Now he’s trying to get up after hitting rock bottom after having gone through rehab and recovery. Sober a year and a half, he’s getting ready to marry Erica Long (Union), a reality TV star, on a Bravo reality series. His new movie, Uprizing about the Haitian slave rebellion is about to come out, and through it he hopes to reinvent himself as a serious Actor. Note the capital.

But the film is going to bomb. Everyone knows it except for Andre. His agent (Hart) has arranged for New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Dawson) to follow Andre around for a day, which he’s not very pleased about. The Times’ film critic has repeatedly excoriated his performances, comparing them to “crimes against humanity.” However he needs the publicity for the movie so he grudgingly goes along with it.

In the course of the night she will witness him reconnect with old friends and family, undergo interviews of often the most insensitive and inert kind, endure heartbreak and disappointment and come out on the other side – maybe with a clear understanding of who he is, maybe not.

I have always blown hot and cold when it comes to Chris Rock. His genius is plain to see but it hasn’t always been showcased properly in movies. His skills are in being Chris Rock, to present his views through his experiences and make them funny and relatable. He is not really a character actor; he never did the SNL thing of developing characters with their own distinct personalities. While that may limit one on the stand-up stage, it is excellent preparation for a motion picture career and has stood many alumni of the show well.

Rock stands out here. He is cocky and vulnerable, arrogant and humble, forceful and lost. I can’t think of many movie characters with as many contradictions as Andre Allen – and yes, having contradictions in a character is a good thing. We get to see facets of Rock that he usually doesn’t reveal. I don’t know that Rock is particularly looking to reinvent himself but he comes close here.

The support crew is pretty outstanding as well, a who’s who of modern American stand-up as well as some pretty fine actors in their own right. Dawson is one of those ladies who has a devastating smile, one that can melt solid steel and turn a glacier into a puddle in just about five seconds flat and yet it is rare that a director has really utilized it to good effect. Rock does and when he is the focus of that smile, every man in the audience feels it. This is one of her best roles ever.

Union has the thankless job of playing the fame-addicted reality TV star with a huge heaping helping of control freak factored in. She doesn’t have very many scenes with Rock (most of their interaction is over the phone) and the part isn’t terribly sympathetic but she still manages to make it real. Although we still don’t like her character.

Most of the cameos are just that but Last Comic Standing host J.B. Smoove gets himself a meaty part as Andre’s boyhood chum and bodyguard/chauffeur/right-hand man and runs with it. He reminds me a little bit of Arsenio Hall in Coming to America. In any case, the part works.

The movie itself is a bit of a mixed back. There were times I was drawn in and felt like a fly on the wall in someone’s life, which is when the movie works best. There were also some times when it felt like I was watching something staged, like the reality show within the movie. That’s when the movie works least.

This probably won’t be contending for my year-end top ten list but it should likely make the Honorable Mention. It’s pretty dang good but not great. There’s a lot here that works, like when Andre is visiting with folks from his past in the old New York neighborhood. When the movie is pouring it on about the movie star, then it felt a little bit forced. I would have liked to have seen more of the New York Chris Rock than the Hollywood Chris Rock. So, I suspect, would a lot of you.

REASONS TO GO: Has moments where it really fires on all cylinders. Rock is always a fascinating study.
REASONS TO STAY: Loses focus occasionally and overdoes it.
FAMILY VALUES: Nudity and strong sexual content, plenty of adult language, crude humor and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rock wrote the screenplay in his trailer while filming Grown-Ups 2 so at least something good came out of that movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/23/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stardust Memories
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Holly and the Quill begins!

Eastern Promises


Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts debate over which one of them Peter Jackson likes best.

Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts debate over which one of them Peter Jackson likes best.

(2007) Thriller (Focus) Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Sinead Cusack, Donald Sumpter, Jerzy Skolimowski, Tatiana Maslany (voice), Sarah Jeanne Labrosse, Tereza Srbova, Raza Jaffrey, Aleksander Mikic, Mina E. Mina, Josef Altin, Shannon-Fleur Roux, Mia Soteriou, Alice Henley, Christina Catalina, Elisa Lasowski. Directed by David Cronenberg

Over the years we have been treated to many fine films about the Italian mob. Directors like Scorsese and Coppola have given us insight to that criminal element, giving us anti-heroes we could root for in a certain sense. We were shown how fiercely loyal these men were to family, and while they were also ruthless killers we nonetheless found ourselves able to identify with them.

But that was another era and another mob. These days it is said the most ruthless and vicious criminals in the world are Russian and while there are those who might argue the point, I think most would agree they are at least in the running.

When a young woman in labor comes into a London hospital, midwife Anna (Watts) thinks nothing of it at first; she’s not the first woman to come in with complications. But she dies in childbirth, leaving behind a baby and a diary with a restaurant business card in it. There is no other identification on her and the woman spoke little English, being of an Eastern European background that is similar to Anna’s, a second generation immigrant to the UK.

The restaurant puts her in touch with its genial owner, Semyon (Mueller-Stahl) who promises to find relatives of the baby that she can turn it over to. However, all isn’t as it seems; turns out the restaurant is the front for Semyon’s criminal organization and the young girl’s diary, which is in Russian and is being translated by Anna’s Uncle Stepan (Skolimowski) incriminates Semyon and his reckless son Kirill (Cassel). Semyon orders Kirill and Semyon’s driver and cleaner of messes Nikolai (Mortensen) to claim the diary and silence by whatever means those that have come in contact with the baby.

That’s all I’m going to tell you about the plot. The late Roger Ebert had the right of it when he said that this isn’t a movie about how, but about why – and you won’t see the “why” coming (although some snarky critics claimed that they could – personally I don’t believe ’em). What you SHOULD know is that Mortensen, in his second collaboration with Cronenberg, may have given the performance of his career here. His research into the role is impeccable and he is so thoroughly believable as the tattooed mobster that you probably won’t recognize him at first.

Mortensen, who was nominated for an Oscar for his performance here, gives this very complex and layered character a lot of nuances, from the ironic cock of his head to the ghost of a smile that sometimes wafts over his face. When the time comes for violence however, Nikolai is more than equal to the task – a fight scene in a bath house (in which Mortensen is completely naked) is one of the most well-choreographed scenes of that nature ever filmed. By itself it’s worth the rental fee.

Watts, unfortunately, doesn’t quite live up to Mortensen’s performance. A very capable actress herself (as she showed in last year’s The Impossible) for whatever reason her character is vapid and somewhat colorless; perhaps it is simply by comparison to Mortensen’s character who is thoroughly intense and interesting, but her performance here is utterly forgettable. I have to chalk it up to the writing since as I said earlier Watts is an accomplished actress in her own right.

We also get some fine performances from Mueller-Stahl and Cassel. Both have primarily made their careers in Europe, although Mueller-Stahl has an Oscar nomination to his credit and has done his share of American movies. Cassel, mostly known to U.S. audiences for his part in the abortion of a sequel to The Crow is one of the biggest stars in France and he shows why here.

The movie goes through some sections in which the plot gets a bit muddy, particularly in the middle third. The ending is a bit strange as well, although given that this is a David Cronenberg film that shouldn’t be altogether unexpected. What I love about this movie is that it is so matter-of-fact about the Vory V Zakone (Russian for thief-in-law, roughly the equivalent of a made man) and their violence that sometimes crosses the line into sadism. These are men for whom these acts are a daily part of life and there is a certain amount of fatalism that is very Russian. While this isn’t up to the standards of The Godfather (which is a very high standard indeed) this certainly may be taken as the film that does for the Russian mob what Coppola’s classic did for the Mafia.

WHY RENT THIS: Reinforces the banality of evil. Magnificent Oscar-nominated performance by Mortensen and Cassel and Mueller-Stahl offer tremendous support.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Watts doesn’t quite hold up next to Mortensen. Jumbled in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  The violence in the film, as is not unusual with Cronenberg’s films, is graphic and disturbing. There is also a good deal of foul language, sexuality and graphic nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shot entirely in England, this is the first film Cronenberg has made completely outside of North America.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a feature on the tattoos and the significance of the figures therein. Some of the material is covered in the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $56.1M on a $32M production budget; the movie was just shy of recouping its production costs during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goodfellas

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Epic