Life (1999)


 

Life

Martin Lawrence and Eddie Murphy ponder the meaning of Life.

(1999) Comedy (Universal) Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, Obba Babatunde, Nick Cassavetes, Anthony Anderson, Barry Shabaka Henley, Brent Jennings, Bernie Mac, Miguel A. Nunez Jr., Michael “Bear” Taliferro, Guy Torry, Ned Beatty, Bokeem Woodbine, Lisa Nicole Carson, Noah Emmerich, Clarence Williams III, R. Lee Ermey, Heavy D, Sanaa Lathan. Directed by Ted Demme

 

Once upon a time in America, life in prison meant precisely that. There was no early parole, no time off for good behavior. If you were sentenced to life, you could pretty much count on dying a prisoner in some godforsaken camp, farm or prison.

Rayford Gibson (Murphy) is a small-time crook in Prohibition-era New York trying to get out of debt to a Harlem mobster (James). He sets up a scheme of driving some Mississippi moonshine to the mobster’s speakeasy in New York. He ropes in as his driver Claude Banks (Lawrence), a bank teller (a bank teller named Banks? haw haw!) who has also fallen afoul of the mobster because of an unpaid gambling debt.

Gibson’s weak nature gets the better of him and after receiving the liquor shipment, he decides to do some gambling in a rural club. He gets cheated by a local card sharp (Williams) who later mouths off to the town sheriff, who murders him. Banks and Gibson have the misfortune of discovering the body, and being seen with it. They get, you guessed it, life in prison.

The two, initially antagonistic to one another, are forced to rely upon each other in the brutal work camp to which they are sentenced. Time passes and they dream of the freedom it seems will be denied them for a crime of which they aren’t guilty. Prison changes them – but will it be for the better?

There are a lot of poignant moments in Life and with Murphy and Lawrence, even more funny ones. There is social commentary in the form of how black men are treated in the South, but it isn’t strongly told or terribly compelling. Other movies explore that subject in greater depth and with greater insight.

The problem with “Life” is that the filmmakers aren’t sure whether they wanted to make a comedy, an examination of prison life in the Deep South of, say, 50 years ago, or a political/social commentary on the shaft given African Americans. They decide to do all these things, and in fact their reach exceeds their grasp.

Rick Baker does a great job of aging the two actors for their 60 year stint in prison and both actors have made a career of doing old age well; in fact, the make-up got an Oscar nomination that year. The various eras portrayed in the film are captured pretty nicely, and despite the fairly large cast the pace moves along at a good clip.

Some of the best African-American comics and comic actors in the country show up in the film, including the late Bernie Mac in a small role at the beginning of his career. The acting certainly isn’t the problem here. No, I think that the big problem is that this is kind of a Song of the South fantasy that glosses over the big issues – these guys are in prison for a crime they didn’t commit, after all – and goes for more of a sweet feeling that simply doesn’t mesh.

Life really doesn’t give you any new insights into anything. It’s mainly an excuse to pair two of the brightest comic minds at the time in America. Watching the two at work individually is fascinating, but Lawrence and Murphy don’t generate enough chemistry to hold any interest as a team, which is why they never teamed up in a movie again. Still, these two remain some of the best comedians of the past 20 years and seeing both of them together in the same film has some attraction right there.

WHY RENT THIS: Any opportunity to see Murphy and Lawrence is worth taking. Excellent supporting cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ignores the larger issues. The chemistry between Murphy and Lawrence isn’t quite as good as I would have liked.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some violence as well as plenty of salty language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Rick James’ limp as Spanky was genuine, as he’d just had hip replacement surgery.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There are some outtakes in which Lawrence and Murphy try to crack each other up – and in all honesty, some of these are funnier than what you’ll find in the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $73.3M on a $75M production budget (estimated). The movie was a financial failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shawshank Redemption

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Dark Knight Rises

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The Killer Inside Me (2010)


The Killer Inside Me

Don't make Casey Affleck turn this car around.

(2009) Thriller (IFC) Casey Affleck, Kate Hudson, Jessica Alba, Ned Beatty, Elias Koteas, Simon Baker, Tom Bower, Bill Pullman, Brent Briscoe, Matthew Maher, Liam Aiken, Jay R. Ferguson, Ali Nazary, Blake Lindsley, Caitlin Turner. Directed by Michael Winterbottom

 

Roger Ebert once said that what we desire is not a happy ending so much as closure. I think this is rather true; we don’t necessarily want to see things finish with a grin and the warm fuzzies; sometimes we want the tale to end in blood and destruction because that is what has been earned – just as long as all the loose ends are tied up.

Lou Ford (Affleck) is affable sheriff’s deputy in a small Texas town in the 1950s. He’s well-liked in the community and well-regarded on the force, particularly by his mentor Sheriff Bob Maples (Bower). His girlfriend Amy (Hudson), is a schoolteacher and everyone in town agrees they make a mighty fine couple and the general consensus is that the two will marry when Lou gets the gumption to pop the question.

What nobody knows is the volcano seething inside of Lou. He raped a five-year-old girl as a teenager for which his big brother Mike took the rap for. When Mike got out of the slam, he went to work for contractor Chester Conway (Beatty) and died under unusual circumstances on the job. Lou has always harbored a suspicion that Chester had something to do with it.

He also has a thing about inflicting pain. Introduced to sadomasochism by his father’s housemaid Helene (Turner), he likes to hurt people and the need to do so is getting more and more irresistible. At the prodding of the Sheriff, Lou visits a prostitute named Joyce Lakeland (Alba) who’s been having an affair with Chester’s son Elmer (Ferguson). The visit escalates into a severe spanking which, as it turns out, Joyce really gets off on. The two begin a passionate affair.

Joyce concocts a plan to extort money from Chester, enough for her and Lou  to leave town and set up new lives with. their ill-gotten cash. Lou is chosen to deliver the payoff. Instead he beats Joyce within an inch of her life (intending for the beating to be fatal) and shoots Elmer dead, setting up Joyce to take the fall for the crime.

Lou however fell short in taking care of Joyce and despite his best efforts, she survives. However, suspicion is beginning to fall on Lou from Amy who thinks Lou is cheating on her, and from County district attorney Howard Hendricks (Baker) who thinks Lou had something to do with Elmer’s murder.

A local youth, Johnnie Pappas (Aiken) is arrested by Hendricks for the crime because he is in possession of a marked $20 bill from Chester’s cash. However, Lou had planted that on Johnnie, the son of a close friend of Lou’s. Lou asks to interrogate him and winds up hanging Johnnie in his cell, making it look like a suicide.

Lou’s blood lust is getting out of control and the noose is tightening. Can Lou get control of himself and figure a way out of the mess he’s in, or will he eventually pay for his crimes?

Winterbottom has been a prolific director, with such films as Welcome to Sarajevo, A Mighty Heart and The Trip on his resume. He is competent enough at what he does, and from time to time shows flashes of brilliance but this won’t stand out as one of his better works. I do give him props for taking one of pulp writer Jim Thompson’s darkest and most violent works and preserving the darkest elements intact – that isn’t easy to do these days of focus groups and trying to pander to a general audience.

Affleck surprised me here. His roles have tended to be pretty easy-going and sweet-natured but here he is a sociopath and nearly irredeemable. He is not  aware of the difference between right and wrong – he has no idea why he does the things he does in some cases – and probably wouldn’t care much if he did. He is as self-centered as it is humanly possible to be; everything he does is for his own benefit and to feed his own psycho-sexual needs, which are dark indeed.

Alba has a difficult role as well as the masochistic prostitute. Even Hudson’s Amy has a few kinks of her own. As  a result, the film has been labeled misogynistic, often by high and mighty critics who don’t think that a woman could possibly enjoy pain in a sexual context. Not only is it possible but it is more common than you might think.

Thompson’s writing style rarely flinches at the darker side of human nature. There is brutality and violence and sexual deviancy that’s depicted with unusual candor and directness. The movie doesn’t shy away from these things, often to the point where gentler souls might be extremely put off by them. This is certainly a movie meant for those with stronger stomachs and steelier resolve.

WHY RENT THIS: Affleck portrays the sociopath dead on, something I didn’t expect. Hard-hitting and disturbing pulp fiction.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overly brutal and sexually twisted in places. Might be too downbeat for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There is sudden, graphic violence that is quite disturbing, some kinky sexual content and graphic nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tom Cruise was at one time attached to the part of Lou Ford with Andrew Dominik directing. When Cruise dropped out, so did Dominik citing that the role was so complex and disturbing it needed a star to carry it.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.0M on a $13M production budget; the film lost money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Step Brothers

Rango


Rango

Rango and posse mount some roadrunners in search of Wile E. Coyote.

(2011) Animated Feature (Paramount) Starring the voices of Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Ned Beatty, Abigail Breslin, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Stephen Root, Harry Dean Stanton, Timothy Olyphant, Ray Winstone, Ian Abercrombie, Charles Fleischer, Claudia Black. Directed by Gore Verbinski

We all want to find ourselves. Our entire life journey is all about that – discovering who we are and what we’re meant to be. The journey isn’t always an easy one and the answers are rarely obvious – at first. But the truer we stay to ourselves, the easier the path becomes.

Rango (Depp) is a lizard. No, that’s not quite right – he’s a chameleon, but he’s lived in a terrarium all his life. He wants to be a thespian; not the kind that can get him shot in Arizona. No, the kind that recites Shakespeare and waits tables while they go on auditions. However, his audience is kind of limited, especially with a company that includes a plastic palm tree, a wind-up fish toy and a dead cockroach. Someone really needs to clean out the terrarium.

However, things are about to change. A bump in the road literally finds Rango stranded in the desert. A somewhat squashed armadillo (Molina) steers Rango to a small town named Dirt. A young farmer’s daughter (no cracks!) named Beans (Fisher) rescues Rango and gives him a ride into town. There his tales of heroic acts he never actually did win the admiration of the townies, including a doe-eyed badger named Priscilla (Breslin).

The mayor (Beatty), an aging turtle who might remind older viewers of John Huston’s character in Chinatown and younger ones of Mr. Waternoose in Monsters, Inc. deputizes…um, sheriffizes…oh Hell, anoints Rango Sheriff. He is charged with protecting the town’s most precious asset – water. The town’s supply is dwindling and their longtime source seems to be drying up. When Balthazar (Stanton), a grizzled mole steals the town’s remaining supply, things get ugly in a hurry.

This is one of the most offbeat movies you’re ever likely to see, a wild mash-up of Carlos Castaneda, Hunter S. Thompson, Quentin Tarantino and Sergio Leone, with a very heavy nod to the desert of the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons from Warner Brothers. I’m pretty certain mescaline was involved with the writing of this movie. Then again, Verbinski – auteur of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies that also starred Depp, is behind the camera so that explains a lot.

It’s a great looking movie. The desert is bleak and beautiful, stark and hostile. The town is a hodgepodge of found items (a discarded mailbox is the Post Office) that looks familiar and rundown at once. It doesn’t look so much lived in as it does inhabited. The animals are rendered beautifully, anthropomorphic but never cartoonish. Ironically, Rango is the most cartoon-like of all the characters; the rest look like something out of a Salvador Dali painting if Dali had embraced photorealism.

Depp is terrific as the titular character, but then it really isn’t much of a stretch. I thought it brilliant they made him a chameleon who wants to be an actor – how much more ironic can you get than that? Rango is all bluster and bravado but he isn’t really a bad sort; he’s just trying to survive without any real survival skills.

There are some very interesting supporting roles here. Nighy plays Rattlesnake Jake, a mean little sidewinder who carries a Gatling gun on his rattle and may be the most villainous gunslinger ever. There is a late cameo for someone playing the Spirit of the West that’s perfectly done; the person depicted isn’t the actor you actually hear speaking but you’d never know it, but it is so right you instantly smile and nod.

Some parents may be thinking of bringing their kids to see this just because it’s animated and I would urge them strongly to think hard about it. There are some pretty scary moments here, some choice words and it is not as kid-friendly as other animated features are. If your kids are five or six, I’d probably send you over to Mars Needs Moms first; some of the images might give ‘em nightmares. Then again, Mars Needs Moms might give you nightmares.

The story is a bit on the adult side as well, and while some of the characters might well generate some kid-attraction, they are far from cute and cuddly here. In fact, I suspect this movie was geared to adults first and kids second. Too much of the weirdness may go sailing over the heads of the Nickelodeon generation, like the Greek chorus of Mexican mariachis who keep promising that Rango is going to die. If you can’t trust a mariachi, who can you trust?

With animated movies so generally mediocre last year, the first two I’ve seen this year (this one and Gnomeo and Juliet) have been surprisingly good. Both took some chances with their stories and wound up hitting if not home runs, solid ground rule doubles. Rango gets a slight nod because the animation is so much better than the other, but hopefully this is a sign that we might see better overall quality in the animation genre this year.

REASONS TO GO: The animation is simply amazing. The story is a bit more adult than the average animated feature. Anything that has the potential for resurrecting the Western is fine by me.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the imagery, particularly those centering around Rattlesnake Jack, may be too intense for the little ones.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, some images of smoking, a little bit of action and some crude humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The animation was done by noted effects company Industrial Light and Magic – their first animated feature.

HOME OR THEATER: Certainly worth seeing in a theater.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: A Map of the World

New Releases for the Week of March 4, 2011


March 4, 2011
To be…or not to be…

RANGO

(Paramount) Starring the voices of Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Abagail Breslin, Ray Winstone, Bill Nighy, Stephen Root, Beth Grant, Ned Beatty, Harry Dean Stanton, Alfred Molina. Directed by Gore Verbinski

A chameleon with ambitions of becoming an Errol Flynn-like swashbuckling hero moseys into a dusty Western town that is beset by outlaws and other scumbags. He’ll have to become the hero he always dreamed of being in order to save the town and it’s good citizens from lawless animals…literally.

See the trailer, promos, interviews, featurettes and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: PG (for rude humor, language, action and smoking)

The Adjustment Bureau 

(Universal) Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, Terrence Stamp. An ambitious politician running for U.S. Senate meets a beautiful girl who turns his world upside down. There’s just one problem – he’s not supposed to be with her. His fate lies along another pathway – and there are agents of Fate who mean to insure that he takes that pathway, no matter what. He must find a way to do something most men fail to do – evade his own fate – in order to be with the woman he loves.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language, some sexuality and a violent image)

Beastly

(CBS) Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Hudgens, Mary-Kate Olsen, Neil Patrick Harris. In this Digital Age retelling of the timeless classic Beauty and the Beast, an arrogant prick of a high school senior gets by on his good looks and wealth until he pisses off the wrong woman – a mystical witch. She curses him with ugliness until he can find someone to fall in love with him as he is – or else stay in this state of hideousness for the rest of his life.

See the trailer, interviews, promos, clips and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Fantasy

Rating: PG-13 (for language including some crude comments, drug references and brief violence)

Cedar Rapids

(Fox Searchlight) Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Sigourney Weaver, Anne Heche. A mild-mannered, naïve insurance agent from a small town ventures to a convention in the titular city, only to be steered into the wild ways of the conventioneer by veterans of the circuit. As his life spins merrily out of control, he begins to discover that perhaps expanding one’s horizons isn’t so bad after all…assuming he survives it. One of the funniest trailers I’ve seen in a long time, by the way – it’s super awesome!

See the trailer, clips and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for crude and sexual content, language and drug use)

Marwencol

(The Cinema Guild) Mark Hogancamp, Jeff Malmberg. A brutal beating left ex-navy veteran and carpenter Hogancamp unable to speak, walk or eat and most of his memories of his former life gone. While occupational and physical therapy brought him part of the way back, his insurance was cut off, forcing him to rely on alternate means. He builds a World War Two-era Belgian town called Marwencol in his backyard (at 1/6 size) and populates it with G.I. Joes and Barbie dolls, acting out his fantasies and his messages. As the world begins to find the art that Hogancamp creates, he finds it the encroaching fame perhaps the most difficult thing to handle of all.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: NR

Take Me Home Tonight

(Relativity) Topher Grace, Anna Farris, Dan Fogler, Teresa Palmer. A graduate of the MIT class of 1988 drifts aimlessly in Southern California, choosing to work as a clerk in a video store rather than taking a job at some Fortune 500 company to begin that upward path to success. When he is invited to a party by the girl that he had a crush on throughout high school, he means to go and impress her – with nothing really in his arsenal to impress her with. It’s one last chance at redemption, all set to the throbbing New Wave and Hip Hop beat of timeless classics…yes, I’m talking about you, Eddie Money.

See the trailer, interviews, clips and a music video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for language, sexual content and drug use)

Toy Story 3


Toy Story 3

Buzz and Woody discover that Jessie has a bigger cut at the merchandising than they do.

(Disney/Pixar) Starring the voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Don Rickles, John Ratzenberger, Wallace Shawn, Michael Keaton, Ned Beatty, Estelle Harris, Laurie Metcalf, R. Lee Ermey, Timothy Dalton, Whoopi Goldberg, Blake Clark, John Morris, Jodi Benson. Directed by Lee Unkrich

For many, the Toy Story movies are a warm reminder of childhood, either experiencing the movies as children themselves or being transported back to childhood as an adult. Eleven years after the second movie in the franchise (still the only sequel Pixar has made, although there are plans for sequels to Cars and Monsters, Inc in the next two years) would there be a demand for Woody, Buzz and the gang after all this time?

Years have passed since the adventures of the first two movies and Andy (Morris) is getting ready to leave for college. As time has gone by, many of his toys have fallen by the wayside – either having been donated, handed down to his sister Molly or thrown out, leaving only a few remaining holdovers; Hamm (Ratzenberger) the caustic piggy bank, Rex (Shawn) the unselfconfident dinosaur, Mr. Potato Head (Rickles) and his wife (Harris), Jessie (Cusack), the rootenist’ tootenist’ cowgirl in the West, Buzz Lightyear (Allen) the greatest toy ever made and of course, his best friend Woody (Hanks).

Andy is cleaning out his room before he leaves and has a hard time deciding what to do with his remaining toys. They’re old and worn-out and most people would throw them into the trash but Andy is not most people. He can’t quite let go just yet so he elects to take Woody with him to college and earmarks the other toys for the attic, but his mom (Metcalf) mistakenly throws them in the trash. Woody manages to help rescue them, and the toys, thinking that Andy no longer wants them, elect to go to Sunnyside Day Care as donations where maybe they might have a future, despite Woody’s attempts to persuade them otherwise.

Sunnyside is run by a strawberry-scented teddy bear named Lotso (Beatty) who seems kindly and welcoming at first. He has quite a set-up where toys will be played with forever in an ownerless world. At first glance, it seems like heaven for the toys but it quickly turns out to be the other place as Lotso assigns them to the Caterpillar Room where the youngest tots are gathered and unspeakable things are done to the toys. Lotso is revealed to be a tyrant running the toys of Sunnyside with an iron fist. Will Woody help his friends – his family – escape? Will Barbie (Benson) find romance with Ken (Keaton)? Why is Buzz speaking Spanish?

I can’t say this is a game-changer when it comes to animated features, but it is a marvelous movie nonetheless. Unkrich has managed to recapture the magic that made the first two movies classics even without the late Jim Varney (who passed on in 2000) as Slinky Dog (Clark, a close friend of Varney’s in real life, takes over the role). There is a bittersweet quality here that is only hinted at in the first two movies (especially the second); the essence of growing up and putting aside childish things. The last scene in the movie is one of the best in the series and should this be the last Toy Story film (and there’s no sign that it will be), it’s a marvelous way to go out, bringing things full circle in a sentimental but not over-the-top way.

The look of the movie is pretty much identical to the first two so in a way this is a step backwards for Pixar in that it doesn’t hold up against the magnificent animation seen in Wall-E for example, but it really doesn’t need to. The look of the movie is like going back home again in a lot of ways and seeing that things are exactly the way you left them.

They did add 3D and IMAX to the mix which to my mind didn’t really enhance the movie overly much; if you can take or leave either of those things I’d advise you to check out the standard version while you can; no need to spend $3-$10 per ticket just for those bells and whistles when the standard version works perfectly well.

I don’t really need to go over the voice characterizations. Most everybody who cares about movies has seen at least one of the Toy Story films and knows how good this cast is. Keaton and Beatty make fine additions and interact with the existing cast very nicely. There are some really clever moments (like a brief appearance of the Pizza Planet truck, or a train full of troll orphans) and some genuinely affecting moments that tug on the heartstrings without being manipulative.

The movie succeeds on all levels. Kids are going to go bananas for it – if you’re a parent, be resigned to demands to see it three or four times this summer. For adults, the underlying themes of memory, loss and growing up will hit home. After setting a Pixar record for the biggest opening weekend, the answer to the question I posed in the first paragraph is a resounding yes. More to the point, this is a summer family movie that will please everyone in the family and bear repeated viewings. Andy may be moving on, but given how good Toy Story 3 is it’s a good bet that the rest of us won’t be.

REASONS TO GO: Recaptures the magic. Ending had Da Queen in full-on bawl mode.

REASONS TO STAY: It doesn’t really break new ground nor does it measure up to Up or Wall-E but that doesn’t mean it’s not terrific.

FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly suitable for every audience.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Unkrich co-directed Toy Story 2 with John Lasseter and edited the first two Toy Story movies prior to being named director on this one.

HOME OR THEATER: Oh, big screen, definitely.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Paper Heart