The Many Saints of Newark


Dinner with the Family.

(2021) Crime Drama (New Line) Alessandro Nivola, Leslie Odom Jr., Vera Farmiga, Ray Liotta, Michael Gandolfini, Jon Bernthal, Corey Stoll, Michela De Rossi, Billy Magnussen, John Magaro, Michael Imperioli (voice), Samson Moeakiola, Joey Coco Diaz, Germar Terrell Gardner, Alexandra Intrator, Gabriella Piazza, Mason Bleu, Aaron Joshua, Lesli Margherita. Directed by Alan Taylor

 

There is absolutely no doubt that The Sopranos remains one of the most influential and important television series of all time. It helped establish HBO as a legitimate provider of quality original entertainment and ushered in a new golden age of television which moved away from broadcast and to alternate sources of content providers, from cable and now to streaming. For many of our favorite television shows of the past decade, we can thank show creator David Chase, who co-wrote and produced this prequel to his show, whose storytelling prowess paved the way for shows like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and Sons of Anarchy.

The movie opens with a startling and effective crane shot that turns into a dolly shot of a graveyard. We hear various voices of the dead until one takes focus; that of Christopher Moltisanti (Imperioli, the sole member of the series cast who appears here), who acts as a kind of narrator as well as Banquo’s ghost. He laments over his own untimely death (one of the most shocking moments in a series replete with them) and focuses in on his father, Dickie Moltisanti (Nivola).

Dickie is welcoming his father, “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti, back from Italy. He brings with him a brand-new bride, Giussepina (De Rossi) from Italy. She speaks little English and is about a third his age. Dickie has been running the numbers operation for the DiMeo crime family, using enforcer Harold McBrayer (Odom) to collect in the predominantly African-American neighborhoods of central Newark. It is 1967, and after the violent arrest of an innocent black taxi driver, riots erupt.

In the meantime, Johnny Soprano (Bernthal) has been arrested for assault with a deadly weapon and sent to prison, leaving his son Tony (Ludwig) in the less-than-tender care of Livia (Farmiga), who is already showing signs of being the unstable, manipulative harridan that Nancy Marchand was acclaimed for in the series. Tony admires his uncle Dickie and begins to see him as a mentor and father figure. As Tony grows into his teenage years (Gandolfini, the son of the late James Gandolfini who played Tony in the series), he begins to show a willingness to gravitate towards the criminal life that his Uncle – and father – are part of. In the meantime, McBrayer – seeing the Black power movement and feeling the contempt in which he is held by the Italians – begins to build an empire of his own. Things are going to get mighty ugly in Newark.

I have to admit, I blew a little hot and cold about this one. Da Queen, who is not really a Sopranos fan and has seen little of the show, liked this movie a lot. On the other hand, I’ve watched the show and know how good it could be – and to be frank, the movie doesn’t really measure up in some ways to the original. Few things, to be fair, ever do.

Part of the problem is that the characters who were so indelible – not only Livia, but Paulie Walnuts (Magnusson), Uncle Junior (Stoll), Big Pussy (Moeakola) and Silvio Dante (Magaro) – all faithfully reproduce the look and mannerisms of those who played the characters on the show. It is a bit distracting in a way – it’s like watching a remake of a favorited movie with celebrity impersonators – but one has to give credit where credit is due. All of the things that made us love (or hate) those characters are present here. Farmiga, in particular, and Stoll, both get high marks for inhabiting the parts that Marchand and Dominic Chianese created. However, there isn’t a lot of additional insight to the characters that can’t be gleaned by watching the show – any of them. As a result, the emphasis is mainly on the “new” characters of Dickie, his father and McBrayer.

It should also be mentioned that Gandolfini acquits himself very nicely in the role that made his father famous. The movie really isn’t about Tony; he’s a bit player in his own prequel. For some, that is going to be annoying. I think, though, that it’s a smart move; Tony Soprano is a character that was perhaps one of the most well-developed in television history. While other characters in the show that are portrayed here don’t really get to add much insight to their characters, I don’t think there’s really a lot that can be added to Tony that we don’t already know

So there are a couple of questions to be answered here. First of all, if you’re not familiar with the show, you can still see The Many Saints of Newark without feeling lost. Familiarity with the show adds a certain amount of flavor, but for many of the characters who met untimely ends, we’re fully aware of their (sometimes) grisly demises that occurred in the series and that does color our perceptions somewhat. Does it add anything for fans of the show? Not really a lot. You get a little more background into the relationship between Tony and his mentor, but it doesn’t really make for any startling revelations. While there are plenty of Easter Eggs for super fans to glom onto, for the most part this doesn’t really sit atop the pantheon of mobster movies as much as the show does. If you’re anything like me, however, you will be inspired to re-watch the show once again and that really isn’t a bad thing at all.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong performances throughout. Plenty of Easter Eggs for fans of the show.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t really add a lot of additional insight into the show and characters.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence (some of it gruesome), profanity and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The amusement park scenes were filmed at Rye Playland in Westchester, NY. The amusement park scenes for Big were also filmed there.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (through November 1)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/10/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews; Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goodfellas
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Pharma Bro

Raging Fire (Nou fo)


Shots fired!

(2021) Crime Action (Well Go USA) Donnie Yen, Nicholas Tse, Lan Qin, Angus Yeung, Patrick Tam, Ben Lam, Deep Ng, Kang Yu, Henry Prince Mak, Tak-Bun Wong, Jeana Ho, Ken Lo, Simon Yam, Tony Tsz-Tung Wu, Kwok-Keung Cheung, Jing-hung Kwok, Ray Lui, Chris Collins, Fung Kwok, Singh Hartihan Bitto, Inderjeet Singh, Cheung-Ching Mak, Yee Tong Directed by Benny Chan

 

When Hong Kong was the action movie capitol of the world, Donnie Yen was one of its principal stars and Benny Chan one of its most talented directors. After the handoff from the UK to mainland China, the Hong Kong film industry, which at its peak produced 200 films per year, was absorbed into the Chinese film industry and became subject to pre-approval by Communist film censors. The by-the-seat-of-the-pants take-no-prisoners action that made it beloved by those who had picked up on just how special those films were became a thing of the past.

But this latest film, starring Yen and fellow HK action star Tse, is a throwback to the style before Chinese action movies became indistinguishable from low-budget American ones. An elite team of Hong Kong police officers, led by Cheung Chung-Bong (Yen) who is as incorruptible as it gets, are after a mysterious band of thieves whose ruthlessness and willingness to spill blood have made them a priority. To Cheung’s shock, he discovers that the thieves are ex-cops led by his ex-partner Yau Kong-Ngo (Tse). Ngo had been sent to prison after a riverside interrogation went sideways. Bong had put him there, and essentially their superiors through Ngo under an entire fleet of busses. He emerged from prison with thoughts of deadly revenge and a moral compass that had turned pitch black.

The two are headed for an inevitable confrontation and while getting there, Chan gives us plenty of amazing action sequences, including a car chase that you’ll have to see to believe, and all sorts of fights, mayhem and gun battles. Yen, at 60, still has plenty of action chops left in him (he was recently cast in the upcoming John Wick sequel) and Tse is one of the most charismatic stars in Asia. Having both of them in the same film is a little bit like Christmas in August.
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The plot leaves a lot to be desired; we’ve seen it before, not just in big budget American action movies (think Michael Mann) but also in a plethora of Hong Kong crime movies which have made detailing the line between cops and criminals something of a trademark. Also, for a movie that’s roughly two hours long, there is almost zero character development for everyone other than the two leads, which is a disadvantage the film never really overcomes.

But then another action sequence comes along and all is forgiven (there is an interrogation room sequence in which Ngo and Bong have a quiet moment that is the best non-action moment of the film; the movie could have used more scenes like it). One is reminded that at its peak, the Hong Kong film industry was one of the most innovative and imaginative in the world, at times rivaling Hollywood for clever action sequences. For anyone who remembers those Hong Kong action movies of the 80s and 90s with fondness, this one is going to be right up your alley.

REASONS TO SEE: Hyper-kinetic action sequences.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is mighty pedestrian.
FAMILY VALUES: There is much violence, profanity and some gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This would be Chan’s final feature as a director as he passed away from cancer August 23, 2020. He was able to complete shooting and supervise the majority of post-production before his illness prevented any further involvement.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Heat
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Don’t Sell Me a Dog

Martin Eden


Brave workers, unite against the evil bourgeosie!

(2019) Drama (Kino LorberLuca Marinelli, Jessica Cressy, Vincenzo Nemolato, Marco Leonardi, Denise Sardisco, Carmen Pommella, Carlo Cecci, Autilla Ranieri, Elisabetta Valgoi, Pietro Ragusa, Savino Paparella, Vincenza Modica, Giustiniano Alpi, Giuseppe Iuliano, Peppe Maggio, Maurizio Donadoni, Gaetano Bruno, Franco Pinelli, Anna Patierno, Lana Vlady. Directed by Pietro Marcello

 

2020 has given us not one but two films based on novels by Jack London, the Harrison Ford-led Call of the Wild and this one. They couldn’t be two more different films.

The titular Martin (Marinelli) doesn’t toil as a longshoreman in Oakland as was the case in the original 1909 novel, but as a sailor in the Mediterranean. When he saves a young boy from a beating on the pier, it turns out that the boy is the scion of a wealthy family, the Orsini clan. Their comely daughter Elena (Cressy) is well-educated, intelligent, witty and an angelic beauty. She falls for the ruggedly handsome Martin much to the dismay of her bourgeois family.

Martin is equally smitten but realizes that any kind of relationship between the two of them is impossible so long as he is poor. He determines to make his fortune as a writer, and as a writer he follows the dictum to write what he knows. Unfortunately, what he mainly knows is rage against the machine, as he becomes slowly more radicalized. He moves from menial job to menial job, scraping by, while his writing career goes nowhere. He perseveres and Elena hangs in there, but as Martin finally finds success, he changes and slowly the thing he wanted most begins to slip away, furthering his rage.

There is an epic quality to the film as we watch the arc of Martin’s life, his involvement with intellectuals, with the wealthy Orsini family and with radical socialists who seek to make sweeping changes in Italy. Much of what Martin communicates in the second half of the film is half-screamed as he rails at socialists whom he sees as doomed to fail, but more so at capitalists who exploit people like himself. Soon, all he has is that anger.

Marcello, better known for his documentaries although he has an excellent narrative feature (Lost and Beautiful) on his resume, has a good eye. He intersperses archival footage of turn-of-the-century Italy as well as faux archival footage of a magnificent sailing ship which seems to be a metaphor for Martin’s success…or ambitions…or dreams; take your pick.

The movie is extremely well-acted as Marinelli does his best to make a character who slowly becomes consumed with fury likable and relatable and, for the most part, succeeds. Cressy is luminous and radiates intelligence; in many ways, she’s a more interesting character than Martin is although his story is a tragic one.

I suspect conservative-leaning readers may shudder at the thought of a movie that looks at socialists but they are not romanticized in the least. However, it doesn’t sugarcoat the snobbery of the Orsinis. Painting both sides as equally non-admirable. London wrote the novel as a means to reconcile his success (the novel was written after the bulk of his most successful novels had made London a wealthy man) with his socialist leanings. I don’t know if London had an inner uncontrollable rage that characterizes Martin (at the time he wrote it he was suffering from the kidney disease that would become nearly unbearable in the later stages of his life) but certainly there’s a lot of Martin Eden in Jack London, and vice versa. Success comes with its own measures and they don’t always have to do with the size of the paycheck.

REASONS TO SEE: A lyrically photographed tale that is epic in scope and feel.
REASONS TO AVOID: Turns into a socialist polemic at times as Martin becomes more unlikable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, violence and sexual content..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The ending of the novel led to speculation that London’s death may not have been accidental.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/22/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Reds
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Linda and the Mockingbirds

Deadpool 2


Deadpool: Superhero in training.

(2018) Superhero (20th Century Fox/Marvel) Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Zazie Beetz, Morena Baccarin, Julian Dennison, T.J. Miller, Leslie Uggams, Karan Soni, Brianna Hildebrand, Jack Kesy, Eddie Marsan, Terry Crews, Bill Skarsgård, Brad Pitt, Lewis Tan, Rob Delany, Nikolai Witschl, Randal Reeder, Shioli Kutsuna, Stefan Kapicic, Matt Damon, Alan Tudyk. Directed by David Leitch

 

The Merc with a Mouth returns for a second go-round (third if you count the abortion that was X-Men Origins: Wolverine) in a movie that takes nothing seriously, least of all itself.

In this blockbuster sequel, a despondent Wade Wilson attempts to kill himself which turns out to be impossible. He finds a reason to live when he befriends a 14-year-old sexual abuse victim who calls himself Firefist (Dennison). The kid seeks revenge against the headmaster (Marsan) of an orphanage who has tortured and abused him. When you can shoot fireballs from your hands, revenge isn’t all that hard to come by.

Standing in the way is Cable (Brolin), a time-travelling cyborg who has come back in time to kill the boy. Apparently in the future, a grown up Firefist kills his family and scorches a whole lot of the Earth. To fight the nearly indestructible Cable, Deadpool recruits a superteam of his own although they turn out to be short-lived. Extremely although Domino (Beetz) whose superpower is crazy good luck survives – which is a good thing because she’s one of the best things about the movie.

Nonetheless, Deadpool hopes to reason with Firefist and get him not to turn to the dark side while Thanos…I mean Cable…thinks that the greater good will be served by ghosting a 14-year-old boy. I gotta admit, I was rooting for him to kill the boy at times.

Like the first film there are plenty of occasionally gruesome action sequences. Also like the first film there is an explosion of meta-based humor, poking fun of everything from comic book movies (duh) to Barbra Streisand (Brolin’s stepmother) to every action cliché ever to Les Miserables. There are plenty of brief cameos, some of them virtually unrecognizable.

In short, it’s a hoot and a half. The humor is hit and miss at times but hit more often than not. The movie feels a lot more cluttered than the first but it also has much more scope than the first. The action is an improvement and there’s even a little bit of pathos to mix things up a little bit. I don’t think those who loved the first one will feel any less love for the sequel and I’m pretty sure that most of us will be eager for the threequel. Maybe they can convince Hugh Jackman to show up for the third. That would give Reynolds a whole new opportunity to riff.

REASONS TO GO: Reynolds continues to make Wade/Deadpool a compelling character. There are lots of fun celebrity cameos and Easter eggs throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a little bit more cluttered than the first.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence – some of it extreme, gore, profanity and a brief scene of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dennison, who was 15 when the movie was released, was legally unable to see it in his native New Zealand.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Fios/Verizon, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/22/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Blue Iguana

Concert for George


Eric Clapton doing what he does best.

(2003) Concert Film (Abramorama) Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Dhani Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Joe Brown, Tom Petty, Ravi Shankar, Tom Hanks, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, Gary Brooker, Billy Preston, Olivia Harrison, Jools Holland, Sam Brown, Ray Cooper, Neil Innes, Andy Fairweather-Low, Jim Capaldi, Carol Cleveland, Anoushka Shankar. Directed by David Leland

 

Most remember George Harrison as “the quiet Beatle” but the truth is that he was one of the great guitarists of his time as well as a sterling songwriter who wrote songs like “Something,” “My Sweet Lord,” “All Those Years Ago” and “Taxman.” He maintained a strong interest in Indian spiritualism and was a close friend to sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar who taught him to play the instrument and who considered him to be a son.

Harrison died too young at age 58 on November 29, 2001 in the home of a friend after a long battle with lung cancer. His widow Olivia and close friend Eric Clapton (whom Harrison had known since childhood) organized a tribute concert which took place a year to the day of his passing at the Royal Albert Hall in London. A virtual who’s who of British rock royalty, the concert had the benefit that all of the performers were close to Harrison in some way or form either personally or as performers. The music that was performed therefore was straight from the heart and it shows.

A documentary was made of the event but was never released theatrically as far as I know; it has been available off and on over the years on home video. Now, on the occasion of Harrison’s 75th birthday (which would have been February 25, 2018) music documentary specialists Abramorama have undergone a brief limited theatrical release of the original documentary (for local Orlando residents, it will be playing at the Enzian Theater on March 19).

There are interviews with some of the participants which are very brief; mostly director David Leland is content to let the music speak for itself which it does eloquently. In the interview segments, Harrison’s death is still pretty close in mind and for some the emotion is still raw but the event was a celebration, not an elegy and the overwhelming feeling you get is joy. As for the concert segments, music director Clapton wisely kept pretty close to the original arrangements that Harrison had so the songs remained familiar. The songs themselves range from music that influenced Harrison (like Carl Perkins’ “Honey Don’t,” performed by Starr) to his tenure with the Beatles and then his lengthy solo career that followed as well as his work with the all-star band the Traveling Wilburys.

There was also a comedy interlude in which former Monty Python members Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam performed “Sit on My Face” from The Meaning of Life and one of their signatures “The Lumberjack Song” in which they were joined by longtime Python associate Carol Cleveland, Bonzo Dog songwriter Neil Innes, actor Tom Hanks and the Fred Tomlinson Singers. Harrison was a huge Python fan and produced their final two movies through his HandMade Films banner which also produced several other memorable films as well. The levity is a welcome moment and makes a nice break during the concert.

There were some exceptions. Harrison had a great deal of affection for the humble ukulele so McCartney performed “Something” on it, a tribute he’d been doing on his own solo tour that year. The song then opens up into a full rock number with Clapton joining McCartney on vocals. Shankar wrote an original song for the occasion which was performed with his daughter Anoushka. Finally Joe Brown, a pioneering English rocker for whom the Beatles opened for back in the early days and for whom Harrison was best man at his wedding, played “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” one of the few songs not written by Harrison in the concert, on the ukulele. He was joined by nearly every musician that played in the show onstage for a touching finale.

Leland for some odd reason chose not to use onscreen graphics to identify the performers. That’s fine for widely recognized icons like McCartney, Starr and Clapton but not everyone knows who Gary Brooker is or what he looks for and the parade of rockers whose heyday was in the 60s (and in Joe Brown’s case, the 50s) are not always easy to recognize. Some are introduced verbally but mainly we never know who’s speaking in the interviews or performing onstage which is a bit irritating.

One thing that was a little-remarked grace note to the whole thing was the presence of Harrison’s son Dhani who played acoustic guitar on nearly every song. Dhani who was 24 at the time of the show is a dead ringer for his late father. Seeing him playing behind McCartney was oddly comforting, like a glimpse of the past. It is also good to see Petty, Shankar and Billy Preston playing again, all of whom have left us since this show took place as well as Sam Brown, a striking performer (and daughter of Joe Brown) whose career was sadly cut short when vocal issues forced her to retire.

In many ways this isn’t the most polished of concert films as the participants had little time to rehearse. Still, the fact that stars of this caliber made room on their schedules to be at this show is not only a testament to the respect they had for Harrison as a musician but for the love they had for Harrison as a person. That love shows up very plainly in the music they played that night and it certainly makes this worth seeing on the big screen if it plays anywhere near you; you can see where it is going to be playing here. If you can’t make it to a theater or it’s not coming to one convenient to where you live, take heart; the movie will be back on VOD and on various streaming services in the not-too-distant future.

REASONS TO GO: Clapton’s star power is very much on display. The Monty Python interlude is nicely done.
REASONS TO STAY: The film could have used some identification for the various aging rockers.
FAMILY VALUES: This is suitable for all family members.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first time Paul and Ringo had performed together on the same stage since the break-up of the Beatles.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: 82/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Concert for Bangladesh
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Commuter

Spider-Man: Homecoming


Spider-Man is torn between two worlds.

(2017) Superhero (Columbia/Marvel) Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr., Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Gwyneth Paltrow, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier, Tony Revolori, Bokeem Woodbine, Tyne Daly, Abraham Attah, Hannibal Buress, Jennifer Connelly (voice), Kenneth Choi, Selenis Leyva, Angourie Rice, Martin Starr, Garcelle Beauvais. Directed by Jon Watts

 

One of the biggest news stories in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the last couple of years was the deal between Columbia and Disney that allowed Spider-Man to finally be part of the MCU. While he made his first appearance in the essentially Avengers tale Captain America: Civil War last year, Peter Parker (Holland) a.k.a. Spider-Man gets his own movie and thankfully it’s one of the very best of the franchise.

Holland is the third actor to play the webslinger after Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield both tried their hand at it and in many ways he’s much closer to the comic book original than either Maguire and Garfield who both had a bit of a swagger to them. Holland is a more humble Parker and while he has a bit of a smartass quip-oriented style, he still has a lack of self-confidence that manifests in his unrequited crush for fellow Scholastic Academic Bowl teammate Liz (Harrier).

He gets the benefit of having Keaton as the big bad, The Vulture a.k.a. Adrian Toomes. Collecting alien tech after helping with the clean-up of New York City following the Chitauri invasion of the first Avengers movie, When an unctuous city official (Daly) kicks him off the project leaving his business high and dry, he instead uses the tech to create weapons to help him steal further tech that allows him to develop weapons for criminals.

Parker is aided by Tony Stark (Downey) a.k.a. Iron Man who essentially sees him as a kid who is just learning his way through his powers – which is an accurate enough assessment – but fails to take into account Parker’s heart and will to contribute. The relationship between the two is strained but the two actors have a chemistry which makes it fun whenever the two are onscreen together. Eventually despite having the enhanced spider-suit taken away from him (that Stark gifted him with in the first place), Parker shows his mettle as a hero and proves his place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The action set pieces can be CGI-heavy although some of them are pretty impressive, particularly one on a Staten Island Ferry and another one in an abandoned factory. This is thankfully not an origin story (there have already been two of them) but we still get Spidey at a nascent point in his career as a crimefighter. That was a wise choice. We see Parker as a high school kid; this is before he heads off to be a photographer at the Daily Bugle or a college student at ESU. That’s a good place to start him off.

Tomei plays a different kind of Aunt May. In the comics and in the movies, we’re used to seeing an elderly May (although Sally Field’s version was a bit younger in the Garfield iteration than Rosemary Harris in the Maguire version) but here she’s a hottie. The dynamic between May and Peter was always a central one in the early comic books; I would have liked to have seen it developed a lot more here but there are always future sequels.

Despite a couple of missteps this is a very fine addition to the MCU and certain to keep fans happy and waiting for further appearances in the MCU by Spider-Man which should begin with the upcoming Avengers: Infinity Wars feature next year. This is the closest that the movies have come to nailing the comic book Spider-Man onscreen and I for one are happy that they did.

REASONS TO GO: Holland gives maybe the best portrayal of Peter Parker to date. Spider-Man is brought neatly into the MCU. The relationship between Parker and Stark is fun. The movie that is closest in tone to the comic book yet.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s a little bit of CGI overload. I would have liked to have seen more of Aunt May.
FAMILY VALUES: There are all sorts of profanity, violence, sexuality and occasional drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury was going to play Peter Parker’s mentor but the producers decided to go with Downey/Stark instead. Also, J.K. Simmons was in talks to reprise his role as J. Jonah Jameson from the Sam Raimi trilogy but he opted to go with Commissioner Gordon in the DCEU instead.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/25/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Weird Science
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Dunkirk

Baywatch


Ladies, you are most welcome!

(2017) Action Comedy (Paramount) Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron, Priyanka Chopra, Alexandra Daddario, Kelly Rohrbach, Ilfenesh Hadera, Jon Bass, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Hannibal Buress, Rob Huebel, Amin Joseph, Jack Kesy, Oscar Nuñez, David Hasselhoff, Pamela Anderson, Clem Cheung, Belinda, Charlotte McKinney, Izabel Goulart, Arian Foster, Vernon Davis, Eros Exarhou. Directed by Seth Gordon

 

Television shows, particularly popular ones, tend to be products of their own era. They reflect the tastes and mores of their times; that doesn’t always make them dated so much as it makes it easily identifiable when they were made. Nobody can doubt, for example, that Welcome Back, Kotter was a product of the 70s, 21 Jump Street was a product of the 80s or that Baywatch was a product of the 90s. When transferring these products to the big screen, a certain amount of updating is necessary for them not to seem hopelessly anachronistic. That generally requires a change in tone from serious to self-mocking.

Mitch Buchannon (Johnson) is not only a lifeguard, he’s the lifeguard. He leads a crack team that includes CJ Parker (Rohrbach) and Stephanie Holden (Hadera). It’s that time of year when new trainees are being welcomed into the program and this year’s group is an odd lot, including the overweight nebbish Ronnie Greenbaum (Bass), the perky but serious Summer Quinn (Daddario) and the disgraced ex-Olympic swimmer Matt Brody (Efron) who is only there because he’s doing community service for a drunk and disorderly conviction.

Affable Mitch and arrogant Matt take to each other like hurricanes and small Caribbean islands, but they are more or less stuck with each other. When a body washes up on the beach, Mitch is suspicious. Eventually the evidence points back to Victoria Leeds (Chopra) a sexy but amoral real estate developer who intends to make the Bay private. Of course that doesn’t sit well with Mitch to begin with and when the local cop (Mateen) expresses disinterest, he decides to investigate on his own with Matt protesting that llifeguards aren’t crime fighters.

Nonetheless the Baywatch team takes on Victoria’s band of thugs and killers and she outsmarts them, leading to the breakup of the team. The only way for the Baywatch family to remain intact is to prove that Victoria is behind the infusion of drugs into the area and the murders that will allow her master plan to flourish.

I expected to really hate this and given the dismal reviews it got, it’s not hard to understand why. I was surprised that it was actually not that bad – not earth-shattering stuff mind you but I don’t think it was ever intended to be. This is, after all, based on Baywatch folks, not Shakespeare in the Park. This isn’t meant to be anything more than entertaining and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

As you might imagine, this isn’t your pappy’s Baywatch. This is far raunchier than the 90s version – I don’t recall ever seeing someone’s junk getting caught in a sun chair on the show – and there is a self-deprecating tone that I’m pretty sure was missing from the original, although I must admit that I wasn’t really a fan of the show; having lived near beaches almost all of my life the sight of buff tanned bodies in skimpy swimsuits really doesn’t do anything for me when it comes to making choices for regular TV viewing. If I want to see that, I just have to drive no more than 45 minutes and I’ve got all I can handle. But I digress…

Johnson is perfect for this kind of role. He has that easygoing persona with a core of “I can kick your ass anytime I feel like it” below the surface. He’s always had a natural comic timing so action movies with a comedic bent have always suited him best, although he’s just fine at straight action also. He’s one of the most charismatic leads working in Hollywood currently, on the level of Will Smith and Mark Wahlberg. This is right in his wheelhouse.

Efron has shown in the two Neighbors films that nobody does snarky like he does. He plays one of those characters here that you can’t stand from the beginning but who deep down isn’t a bad guy. Eventually you just know he’s going to turn it around and he does; Efron has to make the change believable and he also does.

This is in many ways the ultimate summer movie; light, mindless, amusing and utterly forgettable. You can smell the sun screen, feel the rays warming your skin and hear the gulls squawking above the surf hours after the movie is over. If you’re looking for a movie that is going to push the boundaries of cinema, this isn’t it. This was never going to be it. If however you’re looking for something that is going to take your mind off of things for a couple of hours, keep you entertained and maybe even get you to laugh out loud a couple of times, you’ve found what you are looking for and as the fall and winter begin to turn temperatures colder, some of you are going to need this movie to keep you going until the next summer rolls around.

REASONS TO GO: It was funnier than I expected it to be.
REASONS TO STAY: Its welcome is worn out quickly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity including crude sexual humor and innuendo as well as brief but graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Johnson and Daddario previously worked together on San Andreas.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 19% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lifeguard
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Crown Heights

Clinical


The line between doctor and patient blurs.

(2016) Thriller (Netflix) Vinessa Shaw, Kevin Rahm, India Eisley, Aaron Stanford, Nester Serrano, William Atherton, Sydney Tamilia Poitier, Dion Basco, Adrian Flowers, Trevor Snarr. Directed by Alistair Legrand

 

Sooner or later, all of us without exception must endure some sort of traumatic experience. These experiences help shape us and we all deal with them in different ways. Some of us tackle them alone and try to work our way through them without help. Some of us lean on family and friends and allow them to prop us up as we learn to adjust to them. Still others seek the professional help of a therapist or psychiatrist. One wonders though; how do psychiatrists get help when they undergo a traumatic experience themselves?

Dr. Jane Mathis (Shaw) is having to deal with this vexing question. One of her patients, Nora (Eisley) didn’t react to Jane’s treatment well. Jane believes in forcing patients to confront their traumas which is a controversial therapy in and of itself but in Nora’s case the patient went right over the edge. Feeling that Jane was to blame for her situation, Nora went to Jane’s office (which is part of Jane’s home) and in front of Jane’s horrified eyes slit her own throat. Nora survived fortunately but was confined to a psychiatric hospital after the bloody suicide attempt.

Jane struggled to pick up the pieces, seeing her mentor Terry (Atherton) as his patient. She also got involved in a relationship with Miles (Stanford), a police detective which begs the question: why do movie psychiatrists always have romantic relationships with cops in psychological thrillers? Anyway, Jane finds herself having a hard time concentrating on her patients’ problems which seem mundane and petty to her. She’s drifting along some – until Alex (Rahm) comes along.

Badly burned and disfigured in a car accident, Alex is having a terrible time adjusting. He has issues going out into public; he feels like he’s being stared at (and he probably is). Jane is intrigued by his case – her professional curiosity has been stimulated for the first time since, well, since Nora filleted herself in front of her. She begins devoting more and more time to Alex and is beginning to see some progress.

However, Jane is beginning to have some terrifyingly realistic visions of Jane, visions in which Jane is paralyzed and unable to move. Terry writes them off as a specific kind of dream but Jane is beginning to have doubts about her own sanity. If she’s not sane, can she help others to find their own sanity?

I can’t say I have a particular fondness for psychological thrillers although I do enjoy them when they’re done well. This one, unfortunately, is only half-done. The story is pretty similar to many most veteran film buffs will have seen already and quite frankly isn’t as good as most of those. There are plenty of logical misses and characters do insanely dumb things in order to further the plot along. While there are a few genuine surprises, most of the twists and turns experienced moviegoers will see coming.

Legrand does a good job with the atmospherics, keeping things nice and tense throughout although he relies a little too much on jump scares for my taste. He also managed to get together a decent cast with a few names like Atherton, who is best known for playing officious bureaucratic sorts putting in a notable role as a supporting good guy as well as Serrano who plays the officious bureaucratic sort here.

Rahm is an up and comer, getting some good supporting roles and a couple of decent lead roles on television. He grabs the most attention here and not just for his make-up; he does a terrific job as a man cowering from life and hiding an inner bitter core. It’s the kind of performance that can lead to better things for a young actor and I certainly that becomes the case here.

Shaw who most will remember from 3:10 to Yuma and the first season of Ray Donovan is a bit wooden here. I get the sense that this is a director’s decision to make the character closed-off emotionally but I think it is taken too far and eventually we as an audience feel disconnected from Jane as a character. I don’t think it was a particularly good decision and I know Shaw is capable of much better.

In short, this is a fairly middle-of-the-role movie that is reasonably entertaining but compared to other things Netflix has to offer a bit lacking in quality. I think if Jane had been a little bit less of an ice queen the movie would have been a lot more intriguing. As it is I can give it a mild thumbs up but not much more than that. If you’re looking for a thriller that will pin you to the edge of your seat, keep looking.

REASONS TO GO: The vibe is sufficiently creepy. Atherton does some strong work in a rare sympathetic role. Rahm is an up and coming star.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is pedestrian. There are too many jump scares, plot holes and lapses in logic. Shaw is too wooden in this role.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some gore, plenty of terror, some violence and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shaw previously played a psychiatrist on House, MD.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fourth Kind
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk


War and football: two American pastimes.

War and football: two American pastimes.

(2016) Drama (Tri-Star) Joe Alwyn, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Chris Tucker, Vin Diesel, Steve Martin, Arturo Castro, Mason Lee, Brian “Astro” Bradley, Beau Knapp, Tim Blake Nelson, Deidre Lovejoy, Bruce McKinnon, Ben Platt, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Barney Harris, Christopher Cook, Laura Wheale, Richard Allen Daniel, Makenzie Leigh, Dana Barrett. Directed by Ang Lee

 

It is often easy in war to identify a hero. The crucible of battle can bring out the highest of human qualities as well as the lowest. But what happens to heroes after their moment?

Billy Lynn (Alwyn), a 19-year-old Texan from a small town, is finding out. During a skirmish with his Bravo company in Iraq, he sees his Sgt. Shroom (Diesel) go down after being hit. Without thinking, he goes out to defend his fallen comrade who has been a bit of a mentor to the young boy, taking on an Iraqi insurgent in hand-to-hand combat. The episode is captured on video and goes viral.

The Bravo company is sent home on a publicity tour, culminating in a Thanksgiving Day appearance at a halftime show at the Dallas stadium for their pro football team, whose smarmy owner Norm Oglesby (Martin) professes great admiration for the Bravos while at the same time trying to figure out a way he can exploit their fame for his own purposes. The company is presided over by Sgt. David Dime (Hedlund) who is a bit more worldly and protective of his boys, while a Hollywood agent (Tucker) tries to get the Bravos a movie deal for the rights to their story.

Set during the day of the big halftime show, Lee’s film captures the bonds of brotherhood between the soldiers who are increasingly disconnected with the well-meaning but clueless civilians who “support the troops” but don’t have any idea what that entails. Alwyn, a British actor, pulls off the American accent without a flaw and captures Billy’s jarring juxtaposition between worldly warrior and naïve 19-year-old. It’s a scintillating performance that hopefully will be the first of many for a young actor with a whole lot of upside.

His conscience is his sister Kathryn (Stewart) whose liberal anti-war aphorisms meet with disapproval in the Lynn family who are solidly behind the war. Perhaps the face of the attitude towards his heroism comes from cheerleader Faison (Leigh) who is more interested in her own image of him as a Christian soldier than in the real Billy Lynn.

Based on a book by Ben Fountain, the movie feels much of the time that it is trying to take on too many ideas in a superficial manner without settling on anything concrete. The overall impression is of a film without a message although it desperately is trying to get something across. I’m a big Ang Lee fan but this isn’t going to go down as one of his best.

Much has been made of the technical aspect of the movie; it was filmed at a higher frame rate – about five times faster – than standard movies. Unfortunately, few theaters are equipped to show the movie this way, although I understand that the effect was impressive and completely immersive. Perhaps someday we’ll get to see it the way it was intended but the 2D was satisfactory in terms of the images.

Much like this review, the film is scattershot. There’s a cohesive whole to be had here but it eludes the filmmaker; just when you think the movie is about to gel, it goes off on another tangent or several of them. This is the most unfocused I’ve seen Lee as a filmmaker in his entire career. This is one of the year’s biggest disappointments.

REASONS TO GO: Some strong performances and content make this worthwhile.
REASONS TO STAY: A feeling that the film is all over the place makes it not.
FAMILY VALUES:  A whole lot of salty language, some scenes of war violence, some sexual content and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Mason Lee, who plays Foo, is Ang Lee’s son.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stop-Loss
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Origin

Chasing Mavericks


Beefcake on the beach.

Beefcake on the beach.

(2012) Sports Biography (20th Century Fox) Gerard Butler, Jonny Weston, Elisabeth Shue, Abigail Spencer, Leven Rambin, Greg Long, Peter Mel, Zach Wormhoudt, Devin Crittenden, Taylor Handley, Cooper Timberline, Maya Raines, Harley Graham, Jenica Bergere, James Anthony Cotton, Channon Roe, Thomas Freil, L. Peter Callendar. Directed by Michael Apted and Curtis Hanson

Some of the things that drive us are merely preferences. Others are compulsions. Some of those are absolutely irresistible; we are driven to those things with the same necessity as breathing, even if those things are dangerous to the point of being life-threatening.

Jay Moriarty (Weston) was a 15-year-old Santa Cruz boy who was into surfing in a big way but he longed to prove himself. Maybe to the father that abandoned him and his mother (Shue) when he was little. Maybe to that same mother who seemed more in love with getting drunk or stoned than with her son. Maybe to the bully (Handley) who tormented him. Or maybe to the girlfriend (Rambin) who wanted to keep him at arm’s length.

Who knows what reason or reasons it was – maybe a little bit of all of them. In any case, he longed to surf the ginormous waves in Half Moon Bay known as Mavericks. These weren’t just ordinary waves; when the right conditions were present, they were as tall as five story buildings and even veteran surfers shied away from them.

After a spectacular wipe-out attempting to surf them on his own, Jay knew he needed help. One of his neighbors was pro surfer Frosty Hesson (Butler), someone who had surfed Mavericks and lived to tell about it. At first the old pro wants nothing to do with the insistent teen, but as it becomes evident that Jay is determined to surf those waves with or without Frosty’s help, the older man capitulates, figuring that he can at least give Jay a fighting chance to stay alive.

The training is rigorous and not at all what Jay expected. However, he sticks to it and soon comes the time that he is ready as he’ll ever be, but is that ready enough?

The film has the benefit of not one but two decorated directors; I’m not sure if that helps the movie or not however. An awful lot of time is focused on Jay’s training and while some of it is interesting, after awhile it gets to be a bit tedious, particularly for non-surfing sorts. I will admit to being surprised that there is a very technical end that comes with riding the big waves that requires a lot more brainpower than one would expect from dudes that say “dude” and “bro” interchangeably.

Butler is one of those actors who seems to get overlooked a lot of times but is a tremendous talent with tons of screen presence. He has a couple of blockbusters on his resume, but seems to be relegated to the Clive Owen strata – good actors who do good work but at the end of the day seem just outside the top strata of stars. Here he plays a gruff surfer who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and has some issues of his own, issues that his wife (Spencer) thinks that Jay would cure.

Young Weston, best known to audiences at this point for John Dies at the End, is actually the lead here and carries the movie solidly. He’s since gone on to do some solid although unspectacular work, but seems to be building into a nice career. He and Butler play well off of one another, creating a believable onscreen relationship with Butler playing the surrogate father. Weston could have used a little more character development – I’m not sure that the real Jay Moriarty was well-served here.

We do see a little bit of the real Moriarty towards the end – the real one passed away tragically at the age of 23, but doing what he loved most. I agree with the critics who are of the opinion that this story would have made a better documentary than a feature film. Certainly those who are into the surf lifestyle or at least appreciate it will like this film more than those who aren’t or don’t. It’s not a bad movie, it’s just not a great movie. The capturing of the giant waves at Half Moon Bay, which are utterly terrifying as presented here, show the grand madness that is big wave surfing. But while this gets through the technical end, I don’t know if it gets to the heart and soul of the surfer as much as I personally would have liked.

WHY RENT THIS: Butler and Weston have excellent chemistry. The cinematography is amazing.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Way too long and way too technical. It might not appeal to non-surfers.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult themes and surfing action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hanson had to pull out of the director’s chair when poor health forced him out. Apted directed the final three weeks of shooting and all of the post-production without any further involvement from Hanson.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are featurettes on Half Moon Bay and the surf culture there, interviews with people close to Jay Moriarty in real life including his widow and the real Frosty Hesson, and interviews with surfers on the philosophy of surfing. Dude!
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.0M on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dogtown and Z-Boys
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: 10 Cloverfield Lane