Out of the Furnace


Woody Harrelson is perfectly willing to take off his shirt for Christian Bale.

Woody Harrelson is perfectly willing to take off his shirt for Christian Bale.

(2013) Drama (Relativity) Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker, Sam Shepard, Tom Bower, Bobby Wolfe, Dendrie Taylor, Carl Ciarfalio, Nancy Fosser, Bingo O’Malley, Jack Erdie, Gordon Michaels, Angela Kauffman, Charles David Richards, Tommy Lafitte, Tiffany Sander McKenzie. Directed by Scott Cooper

Times are tough. You don’t need to go to a movie to tell you that. In the Rust Belt, the manufacturing  jobs that were once the bread and butter in the region have been shrinking away, slowly disappearing from view. That leaves the residents there scrambling to find other ways to make money.

Russell Baze (Bale) is one of the lucky few who still has employment at a steel mill. He lives with a young woman named Lena (Saldana) who adores him and the two are talking about starting a family. His brother Rodney (Affleck) is back home from a tour of Iraq in the army. Sure their dad (O’Malley) is dying of cancer but they have his  brother and their Uncle Red (Shepard) to help them out. Things could certainly get a whole lot worse.

And then they do. Russell is involved in an incident not his fault that results in him getting sent to jail for a few years. Things begin to fall apart. Rodney goes back to Iraq. Their father dies. Even Lena leaves him, taking up with the chief of police Wesley (Whitaker) of their small town outside of Pittsburgh. All of a sudden things don’t make sense quite as much.

When Rodney returns and Russell finishes his time in jail, they both need to pick up the pieces. For Russell, that means obsessively stalking Lena and getting his job back at the mill while fixing up his dad’s old place. For Rodney, that means bare knuckle fights to pick up cash for a debt he owes to local bar owner and dealer of all things shady John Petty (Dafoe).

Rodney needs more money to fix up his debt however and he cajoles Petty into getting him a fight in rural New Jersey where a meth kingpin named Harlan DeGroat (Harrelson) runs things. Like any decent mountain community, they don’t cotton to no city folk telling them how to run things. When things go bad, Russell is left to pick up the pieces and do the right thing for his brother.

First of all, this is a movie that isn’t well-served by its trailer. It gives away an important plot twist and intimates that this is a different kind of movie than it is. The trailer implies that this is a thriller and quite frankly, that element of the movie only takes place over the last 20 minutes or so. The rest of the movie is more of a drama which is how I’m characterizing it now.

Cooper, whose first feature was Crazy Heart takes a completely different turn here on this his second. The milieu is much bleaker which is saying something considering that his last movie was about an alcoholic country singer whose career is fading into the twilight. Cooper has a knack at capturing working class life and working class people. As an actor himself he also manages to wring some excellent performances out of his actors.

Bale delivers just such a performance. He’s low-key and soft-spoken throughout most of the film but rage boils in him and sometimes boils over. He’s a decent man at heart but life has thrown just about everything at him he can tolerate and then some. There’s a scene with Saldana on a wooden bridge in which he tries to rekindle things after he gets out of prison that is so heartbreaking that you won’t be able to get it out of your head. In fact, it’s not just Saldana and Bale that do good work here – nearly every member of the principal leads is mesmerizing.

Harrelson is also noteworthy as the villain. When DeGroat meets Russell for the first time in Petty’s office and the two have words, Russell asks him “You got a problem with me?” and DeGroat responds “I got a problem with everybody” and that encapsulates the character. He’s as mean as a rattlesnake and prone to outbursts of violence as evidenced by the very first scene in which DeGroat beats a man half to death for intervening when DeGroat assaults his date at a drive-in. Harrelson captures that meanness and rage. There’s nothing redeeming about DeGroat, no qualities at all that make things around him better. He’s a cancer in his community that everyone is afraid to operate on.

There are a lot of good things about this movie but for some reason I couldn’t connect with it. Maybe I wasn’t ready for a movie quite as bleak as this. Perhaps it’s because it’s a little bit too long. Maybe the ending scene which didn’t ring true and was followed by an extraneous coda did me in. Or maybe it just wasn’t my cup of tea to begin with. Da Queen was very taken by the movie and would have given it a significantly higher score than I did – she was frankly surprised that I didn’t enjoy it as much as she did because normally I go for these sorts of films.

For whatever reason I didn’t here and that can be taken for whatever grain of salt you wish to give it. The elements are all here for a good movie and in fact you may well find it to be more rewarding than I did. For me there didn’t seem to be much of a point to it – unrelenting violence and despair with nothing at the end that made me think it was all worth it. Perhaps that was the point. In any case, I found this a movie in which the ingredients were superior but it didn’t add up to a gourmet dish.

REASONS TO GO: Solid performances throughout by an excellent cast.

REASONS TO STAY: Overly long. The ending was quite the letdown.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of violence, some pretty strong language and some drug content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie playing at the drive-in during the opening scene is Midnight Meat Train.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/21/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Winter’s Bone

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Holly and the Quill Christmas movie festival begins!

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Don Jon


Can't take my eyes off of you.

Can’t take my eyes off of you.

(2013) Romantic Comedy (Relativity) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Glenne Headly, Brie Larson, Rob Brown, Jeremy Luke, Paul Ben-Victor, Italia Ricci, Lindsey Broad, Amanda Perez, Sarah Dumont, Sloane Avery, Loanne Bishop, Arin Babaian, Antoinette Kalaj, Arayna Eison, Becky O’Donohue. Directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt

The nature of romance and sexuality largely remains a mystery for most of us. Men don’t understand the draw of the romantic fantasy to women and women have trouble understanding why men are so obsessed with pornography. Now, while it is true that there are some women who have a porn addiction and some men who are romantics at heart, largely the stereotypes hold.

Jon Martello Jr. (Gordon-Levitt) has a pretty good life. He’s a Jersey boy who knows what he likes and pretty much has things lined up; his apartment, his boys Bobby (Brown) and Danny (Luke), his family – Mom (Headly), Dad (Danza) and his sister Monica (Larson) who is too busy texting and rolling her eyes to get a word in – and his church, his car (a sweet Chevy from the golden age of metal) and girls. His buddies call him “The Don” because he scores a hot looking chick every time he goes out clubbing. Every time, an 8 or above.

But that isn’t enough for Jon. You see, sex is all well and good but what really satisfies him is masturbating to porn. He even has his own method – starting off slow, with still pictures and working his way up to video clips until he finds the right one he can lose himself in. When he gets off to porn, everything else goes away, not to mention that the actresses in the clips will do things for their partners that no real woman will do for Jon.

Then one night in the clubs he meets Barbara Sugarman (Johansson), a blonde Jersey queen who takes most of her cues from Snooki (except for the horrid orange spray tan look). She’s so hot that Jon’s got to have her except she doesn’t put out so easily. So, as Bobby tells him, he needs to get out his long game. Wine and dine her, romance her. Do the kind of things that boyfriends do for their girlfriends.

The problem is that Jon doesn’t just want to get into her pants; he thinks she might just be The One. To show her his commitment, he agrees to take night classes so that he can move up the service industry ladder. Unfortunately, Barbara catches Jon at his obsession one night and makes him agree to not watch porn which she finds disgusting.

At first Jon does his best but he needs the release so he starts doing his porn on the side, even on his smart phone during lectures in class which attracts the notice of Esther (Moore), an older lady that Jon sees crying in the parking lot one night. Soon she seems to be making a move on him which Jon isn’t really interested in – he’s got Barbara after all and she’s at last giving it up for him – but there are cracks in the foundation of paradise and soon Jon will either have to give up his porn or Barbara.

The crux of the movie has to do with expectations and need. Sure there’s a lot of nudity, brief glimpses of porn stars humping and a whole lot of sexuality but that’s not really the point of the film, although quite frankly there are those who won’t be able to get past all that, either in a positive or negative way. All some will see is the sex and they will react to it according to their own morality either as a prurient interest or with prudish disgust. It’s simply an occupational hazard for a film like this.

That said if you look beyond the boobs and the moans you’ll actually find a thoughtful movie that looks at the nature of men and women and the differences between them, as typified by Jon. I think there are a lot of women out there who genuinely cannot understand the fascination that porn has for men and this movie might go a long way towards explaining it. Porn is a fantasy the same way a romantic movie is a fantasy for Barbara. The happy ending for her is a prince of a man who will sacrifice everything for her, be completely devoted to her and adore her 24/7. Jon’s happy ending is, well, a happy ending.

Actually that’s not quite fair. As Jon explains it, he fantasizes about the sexual acts that most women won’t even consider granting him (i.e. oral sex, doggie style) because for the most part they want the missionary position. To him, a woman who is willing to do those things for him is the equivalent of Barbara’s prince. In both cases, the egos of each of them are being catered to by their partner. In some ways both of them are children of our time – completely self-absorbed without a thought of what they are giving to their partner, only receiving from them.

Gordon-Levitt, who also wrote and directed this, looks like he watched a lot of Jersey Shore to get his character down – The Situation, anyone? – and shows as much promise behind the camera as he does confidence in front of it. He wrote the part of Barbara with Johansson specifically in mind and she loses herself into it, becoming a Jersey Shore princess in all her gum-snapping bleached blonde glory. Barbara and Jon are both full to overflowing with that Jersey attitude – Jon screaming in road rage while he drives to church, Barbara telling Jon that he won’t do housework when they’re living together because that kind of thing is beneath her and thus, as an extension of her, beneath him as well.

In many ways Moore steals the picture. She is the conscience of the film and her character Esther is the one that introduces the sense of giving into the film. Certainly she’s one messed-up broad and we only get a glimmer into her personal tragedy. She’s not glammed up for this role; there’s wear and tear on her face but more importantly in her eyes. She ends up teaching Jon – and by extension the audience – the difference between having sex and making love.

It’s nice to see Danza and Headly, both industry veterans, on the big screen again and personally I wouldn’t mind seeing the two of them more often. The rest of the supporting cast is pretty solid with Larson making the most of her single scene of dialogue.

I wouldn’t have minded about ten more minutes of exposition fleshing out some of the main characters a bit and when you leave a film wishing it had been longer you know the filmmakers are doing something right. While those who are offended by depictions and discussion of sex are urged to give this one a wide berth, the rest of you get an enthusiastic recommendation. This is a movie that honestly and with some humor examines sex and love and how easy it is to forget that the sum of those two things is far greater than the total of their parts.

REASONS TO GO: Funny, charming and thought-provoking. Gordon-Levitt, Johansson, Moore, Danza and Headly all have strong performances.

REASONS TO STAY: The porn and sexuality might be off-putting to those sensitive to such things.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots and lots of sexual content including graphic nudity and simulated sex (as well as simulated porn), plenty of foul language and a bit of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gordon-Levitt and Danza previously worked together in Angels in the Outfield when Gordon-Levitt was just 12 years old.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/14/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Moonstruck

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Enough Said

The Iceman


Michael Shannon has a unique way of firing his agents.

Michael Shannon has a unique way of firing his agents.

(2012) True Crime Drama (Millennium) Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Chris Evans, Ray Liotta, David Schwimmer, Robert Davi James Franco, Stephen Dorff, Danny Abeckaser, John Ventimiglia, Ryan O’Nan, McKaley Miller, Megan Sherrill, Hector Hank, Zoran Radanovich, Shira Vilensky, Kelly Lind, Erin Cumings, Ashlynn Ross, Weronika Rosati, Christa Campbell. Directed by Ariel Vromen

It’s always the quiet ones, the ones who lose it and go on a killing spree. Contract killers are another case altogether. These are men with ice in their veins, able to kill without remorse or emotion. It’s a job for them, no less upsetting than someone who sells cars for a living.

Richie Kuklinski (Shannon) is a family man, married to the beautiful but volatile Deborah (Ryder). He works dubbing films – cartoons he tells his wife but porn films in reality. The mobster who runs the porn operation Richie is working for – Roy DeMeo (Liotta) – is impressed by Richie’s coolness under fire, so he decides to take Richie on as a contract killer. Roy and his buddy Josh Rosenthal (Schwimmer) take Richie out and order him to kill some random homeless guy which he does.

This is the start for a whole new career for Richie as he ices guys on Roy’s say-so. When a coke deal is botched by Josh who kills the dealers involved, Roy is forced to lay low for awhile, leaving Richie unemployed. As money gets tighter and Richie’s temper gets more volatile, Richie hooks up with Mr. Freezy (Evans), a freelance contract killer who works out of an ice cream truck. He teaches Richie the proper use of cyanide and the trick of freezing bodies and then thawing them before dumping them, throwing police off on the correct time of death. It is for the latter practice that Richie is given the nickname “The Iceman.”

When DeMeo finds out about Richie’s new freelancing scheme, he goes ballistic which doesn’t bode well for Richie’s future state of health. When Roy brings in Leonard Marks (Davi) from one of the big crime families in New York, it looks like Richie’s days are numbered but Roy and Marks have forgotten one prime directive – never ever piss off a contract killer.

This is pretty standard stuff for the true mob killer movie. Yes, Richie Kuklinski was a real person who claims to have killed between 100-250 people during his heyday from 1948 to 1986. He was also a family man who’s arrest stunned his neighborhood.

While the story remains pretty typical, the acting here is superb. Shannon, an Oscar nominee, shows that there are many more of those on the way (and likely a statuette somewhere down the line) with a powerful performance here which is doubly commendable because he doesn’t have a lot to work with. The real Richie was by all accounts a strong, silent type who wasn’t much of a communicator. He was more or less a psychopath who was paid for crimes he probably would have committed eventually in any case. Shannon gives Richie at least some personality, with cold eyes that erupt into volcanic fury when pushed. It’s a marvelous juxtaposition that gives the character depth that the real Richie probably didn’t have.

Ryder, who has been an infrequent screen presence of late, is absolutely amazing as the willfully oblivious Deborah. She knows that her husband is hiding something horrible, but chooses to ignore it. There’s nothing wrong if she doesn’t know there’s anything wrong, so she chooses to ignore it until it’s right in her face.

Schwimmer is the anti-Ross here, stocky with a hippie ponytail, a 70s porn star moustache and a mean streak, although there is a bit of Ross-like nebbishness as he begins to realize he is in far over his head. Liotta gets a standard Ray Liotta crime figure and does with it what he usually does, which also adds to the overall quality of the picture.

In fact the performances are what makes the movie. This is strongly acted throughout, from the barely-recognizable Evans to Franco in a brief cameo. It’s Shannon however who carries the movie and he does so with ease. He may well be this generation’s De Niro – not a traditional leading man sort but who elevates every movie he’s in. While Vromen is no Scorsese and this no Goodfellas it nonetheless doesn’t disgrace the genre created by that film. In fact, it’s a solid follower in it’s footsteps.

REASONS TO GO: A strong performance by Michael Shannon.

REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t really add much to the true life mob movie genre.

FAMILY VALUES:  A good deal of violence and a bit of gore, lots and lots of foul language and some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James Franco was originally cast as Kuklinski but had to take the smaller role as Marty Freeman instead; Maggie Gyllenhaal was likewise cast as Deborah Pellicotti but had to drop out due to her pregnancy and Winona Ryder got the part.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100; solid good reviews here.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kill the Irishman

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The History of Future Folk

Admission


Two people who know just how cute they are.

Two people who know just how cute they are.

(2013) Romantic Comedy (Focus) Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Lily Tomlin, Nat Wolff, Michael Sheen, Gloria Reuben, Wallace Shawn, Michael Genadry, Christopher Evan Welch, Sarita Choudhury, Rob Campbell, Sonya Walger, Olek Krupa, Travaris Spears, Camille Branton. Directed by Paul Weitz

Getting into a good school can make all the difference in life. Princeton University, as one of the best schools in the nation, has to rigorously check potential students, culling out the wheat to get to the chaff. Looking for the best and the brightest isn’t always easy.

Portia Nathan (Fey), as one of Princeton’s top admissions officers, has that unenviable task. The simple math is that there are far more applicants than there are open spots so much of what she does is telling young students that their application has been declined.

This year it’s particularly vital because the director of admissions (Shawn) is stepping down at the end of the year and he doesn’t want to go out as number two, which Princeton has fallen to for the first time in years. His position will go to either Portia or Corinne (Reuben), her supercilious rival. Portia, whose territory is the northeast, is given the directive to find some new blood from schools not normally associated with Princeton.

Then she gets a call from John Pressman (Rudd), a former classmate at Dartmouth with Portia who knew her roommate well. He’s got a progressive school called Quest Academy in New Hampshire and has a student he’s particularly high on that might make a nice addition to Princeton’s student body. He invites her to talk to the student body about the advantages of going to Princeton. Oh and by the way, the student in question – Jeremiah (Wolff) – may possibly be the child she gave up for adoption just after she graduated from college. Whoops.

Of course now this puts her maternal instincts on overdrive and her impartiality on vacation. In the meantime her personal life is in chaos as her longtime boyfriend (Sheen) has dumped her for a bitchy English professor (Walger) and her relationship with her goofy feminist mom (Tomlin) is pinballing around her life like a pachinko machine gone berserk. On top of that John is looking kinda cute and sexy, even though she tells herself she wants no part of him. Which of course means she does.

 

Weitz, who’s made some pretty nifty pictures in his time (including About a Boy and American Dreamz) doesn’t quite have that kind of material here. This is, to be honest, a pretty pedestrian story, full of your basic romantic comedy clichés. Fortunately, that’s not all it is – there’s a bit of satire on the higher education system and how cutthroat it has become. There’s also something about embracing the differences, and understanding that people are more than the sum of their parts.

Fey and Rudd make appealing leads and that should come to nobody’s surprise – they are two of the most likable actors in Hollywood. They are not only an attractive couple, they play off of each other well. Both of them are pretty low-key however; there is nothing frenetic here and so the movie has a curiously muted feel. I suspect Weitz didn’t want to play this strictly for comedy (despite casting comedic actors in nearly every role) and wanted a dramatic edge to it but it winds up really settling into a middle ground that is neither funny nor dramatic.

Tomlin makes the movie worth seeing alone. One of the greatest comedians of all time (male or female), she infuses Susannah with just enough grouchiness to be funny, but just enough tenderness to give her the potential for redemption. Tomlin is definitely the comedic highlight here, which I’m sure that Fey as a longtime admirer doesn’t mind.

I actually liked the movie overall – but I didn’t love it (obviously). I wish it had been written a little bit better – perhaps Fey, one of the better writers working today, should have had a hand in it. Having not read the novel that is the source material, I can’t say for certain whether the fault lies in the source material or the adaptation but either way the plot is far too predictable – one of the main twists was predicted by Da Queen early in the movie and not to say that Da Queen isn’t a savvy moviegoer (she is) but it shouldn’t have been that easy for anyone to get it. With the summer blockbusters just a month away from the theaters, this is probably easy to overlook and is just as viable a choice for home viewing as anything else out there.

REASONS TO GO: Nice chemistry between Fey and Rudd. Pleasant and charming in places.

REASONS TO STAY: Formulaic. Lacks big laughs. Is curiously lacking in energy.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of language and some sexuality but not a lot.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While some of the scenes were shot on the campus of Princeton, more of it was shot at Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/2/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 42% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100; the reviews are mixed, trending a teensy bit to the negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wanderlust

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Burning Plain

The Hurricane (1999)


The Hurricane

Some are tough inside the boxing ring, fewer still tougher outside it.

(1999) Biographical Drama (Universal) Denzel Washington, Deborah Kara Unger, John Hannah, Liev Schreiber, Dan Hedaya, Rod Steiger, Debbi Morgan, Clancy Brown, Vicellious Reon Shannon, David Paymer, Harris Yulin, Vincent Pastore. Directed by Norman Jewison

 

One of the most notorious injustices of the 20th century was the incarceration of boxer and former middleweight champion Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (Washington). Sentenced to three consecutive life sentences for the murders of three white people in the Lafayette Bar in Patterson, New Jersey, Carter – a proud black man – loudly proclaimed his innocence but remained jailed for more than 20 years. Corruption, racial prejudice and legal chicanery kept him there.

In his cell, Carter, a strong-spirited intellectual, deprived himself of everything that could potentially be taken away from him, retaining only his heart, his mind and his soul – things that were his alone to control. Shutting out all those who loved him, Carter’s pride and dignity created a prison for himself of a different kind, one which allowed him to survive his ordeal. Still, even those strong walls he created for himself were crumbling in the insidious bonds of despair.

Into his life comes young Lesra Martin (Shannon), a young man deeply touched by Carter’s prison-penned autobiography. Martin had been “adopted” by three white Canadian idealists – Sam Chaiton (Schreiber),  Terry Swinton ( Hannah) and Lisa Peters (Unger), who taught Martin how to read and write. Martin is moved to write to Carter, who begins a correspondence with him. He gives Carter hope – hope quickly dashed by the New Jersey courts.

Realizing that their new friend can’t survive much longer in prison, the Canadians and Lesra move to New Jersey, determined to free Carter. Despite the scarcity of witnesses willing to testify, despite the coldness of the trail they follow and despite veiled threats of bodily harm, they soldier on, convinced of Carter’s innocence. They eventually find the evidence they seek  but is it enough to free a man who has by now become a liability to the corrupt officials who originally imprisoned him?

Washington is sensational as Carter. He is absolutely riveting to watch, portraying one of the most complex individuals ever seen on the screen. He is a young man filled with rage and hatred; he is a middle-aged man dead to all emotion, he is an older man filled with wisdom and enlightenment. He grows throughout the course of this movie, and each change rings true every step of the way. Whenever Washington is onscreen, you can’t take your eyes off him.

This is a very affecting movie; Da Queen gave it three hankies, and would have made it four but ran out of napkins. Everyone in the theater was snuffling, particularly during a late-in-the-movie exchange between Carter and Martin. The supporting cast is swell too; Schreiber, Hannah and Unger are terrific, Dan Hedaya as a cop and Rod Steiger as a judge are fantastic, but Shannon is amazing here. I thought he had a very promising future, but that hasn’t panned out up to now.

The Norman Jewison was at the top of his game here. Never a flashy director, he was content to let the story tell itself without distracting the audience with parlor tricks. He does that here too, utilizing a lot of standard camera shots but never going the razzle dazzle route. With a story as intriguing as this one, those things aren’t needed and would actually detract from the impact of the film and Jewison was a seasoned pro who recognized that.

Most of the problems here are minor; for one thing, the movie drags during the middle portion when Carter adjusts to his imprisonment. Also, Carter is sometimes too good to be true. In real life, he was a man prone to violence and very suspicious of whites. He had problems controlling his temper and was sometimes thug-like in his behavior. He had served time for robbery and was dishonorably discharged from the military, not a conquering hero returning from war.  There is contraversy still that the movie was little more than a pro-Carter propaganda piece and there is plenty of evidence that he actually did commit the crimes he was accused of.  However, it must also be said that there are many who feel that the evidence was inconclusive and mostly circumstantial. Even so while some of his faults are alluded to Carter remains a fascinating subject for a movie. His ordeal makes for compelling drama. It seems almost unspeakable that he had to endure what he did. What will be the test of our culture in the years to come is that there be no more Rubin Carters. However, human nature being what it is, we have a long way to go until we get there.

WHY RENT THIS: Incendiary performance by Washington and fine supporting work by Shannon, Unger, Hannah and Schreiber. Compelling cautionary tale.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Glosses over the not-so-nice part of Carter’s personality.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are some scenes of violence and a surfeit of profanity.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The picture of Malcolm X in Carter’s cell was actually a still photograph of Washington playing Malcolm X in the Spike Lee film Malcolm X.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $74.0M on a $50M budget; the movie was unprofitable during it’s theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: Mutants

One for the Money


One for the Money

Katherine Heigl poses for another glamour shot while Ana Reeder has a moment.

(2012) Action Comedy (Lionsgate) Katherine Heigl, Jason O’Mara, Debbie Reynolds, Daniel Sunjata, John Leguizamo, Sherri Shepherd, Debra Monk, Nate Mooney, Adam Paul, Ana Reeder, Fisher Stevens, Patrick Fischler, Ryan Michelle Bathe, Leonardo Nam. Directed by Julie Ann Robinson

 

Desperate times call for desperate measures. When Stephanie Plum (Heigl) loses her job as a lingerie salesperson at Macy’s and goes six long months without a paycheck, she is reaching that desperation level of which I referred.

So when her cousin Vinnie (Fischler) has an opening at his bail bonds business for a bounty hunter. The kicker is that the guy she has to arrest is Joe Morelli (O’Mara) who was the one to – how to put this delicately – deflower Stephanie and then dump her unceremoniously, making him a first class schnook and a reason for Stephanie to jump on board with both feet.

Of course she knows next to nothing about bounty hunting, so she enlists the help of veteran hunter Ranger (Sunjata) who shows her the ropes and seems to be a little sweet on her (although this never goes anywhere in the movie). Of course it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.

The trouble is that Joe – a cop – doesn’t particularly want to go to prison and there’s a really good chance he’s innocent. He’s involved with a rather vicious boxer who may have murdered his girlfriend and may be involved with organized crime. The people who are after Joe are serious and lethal, and Stephanie finds herself smack dab in the middle. With the aid of her informants Lula (Shepherd) and Jackie (Bathe) – both prostitutes – a friendly boxing promoter (Leguizamo), her boss’s brassy secretary (Reeder) and her doting grandmother (Reynolds), she has a fighting chance to get out of this in one piece. That is, if Joe doesn’t kill her first.

This is based on the first installment of a series of books by Janet Evanovich that is extremely popular with the mystery-loving set. Heigl is apparently a big fan of the series and is producing the movie as well as starring in it. One suspects that she had a hand in casting herself in the role, which was a bit of a mistake. Heigl excels at breezy romantic comedy roles; her other action pics have been less successful.

In the books, Plum has loads of attitude and plenty of chutzpah, much more than Heigl conveys here. Heigl delivers the wisecracks but without the strength of character that Plum possesses. Heigl portrays her with a bit more vulnerability than I recall from the books. Now I’m not one of those sticklers for movie characters being absolutely identical to their literary counterparts – that’s not always possible or reasonable – but there are core traits that make the character unique and those shouldn’t be messed with.

Evanovich excels at creating unique characters and Ranger and Lula are two of her best. Shepherd makes something of a poor man’s Octavia Spencer but she does the role justice. I’m not real familiar with Sunjata but he is one of the better performers here; I looked forward to all of his scenes in the movie and he seemed to be the most at ease in his role. He didn’t make Ranger a superman, but he did give him that air of confidence that is needed to pull the part off.

Reynolds is one of the reasons to see the movie all by herself. She rarely makes screen appearances and while this doesn’t exactly rate with some of her finest work, it’s always wonderful to see a genuine Hollywood star (in the traditional sense of the word) at work.

The movie has been getting savage reviews and in some ways I can see the point – Robinson, primarily a television director, seems ill-at-ease on the big screen, creating a movie that seems more suitable for an hour-long network show than a big screen franchise. There’s a curious lack of energy here (although not for lack of trying) and while it conveys some of the charm of New Jersey, it adds none of the flavor, like a plate of spaghetti with no sauce.

Still, I found it pleasantly entertaining and while it’s not a movie that’s likely to stick in your memory for very long, it is diverting enough while you’re watching it. If I’m going to pay ten bucks a head for a movie, I at least want to be entertained and this movie delivers in that department. What more do you want?

REASONS TO GO: Way more fun than “Jersey Shore.” Engaging characters.

REASONS TO STAY: Feels more like a TV movie. Lacks energy.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a certain amount of violence, plenty of language, some sexuality (and partial nudity), a bit of drug use and plenty of Jersey attitude.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are 18 volumes currently in Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, all of which have a number in the title in some form.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/18/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 2% positive reviews. Metacritic: 22/100. The reviews are as bad as they get.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bounty Hunter

GREY’S ANATOMY LOVERS: Heigl, O’Mara, Sunjata and Monk have all appeared on “Grey’s Anatomy,” with Heigl and Sunjata being past or present regular cast members. Robinson has directed several episodes of the show as well.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Big Miracle

 

Win Win


Win Win

This could be a poster for the generational gap

(2011) Dramedy (Fox Searchlight) Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Melanie Lynskey, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Alex Shaffer, Burt Young, Margo Martindale, David Thompson, Mike Diliello, Nina Arianda, Marcia Haufrecht, Sharon Wilkins. Directed by Thomas McCarthy

 

We sometimes find ourselves at an ethical crossroads and find ourselves pushing the line out a little bit in order to make things work. Those kinds of boundary pushing have consequences, albeit sometimes unintended ones.

Mike Flaherty (Giamatti) is a genuinely good man who is enduring an especially rough patch. His elder law practice is crashing and burning and the financial fall-out from that is severe, leading to anxiety attacks while out jogging with his best friend Terry Delfino (Cannavale). Mike is the coach of the local high school wrestling team and a more woeful bunch of athletes you are unlikely to meet; their season is going down in flames and although Mike is a decent coach, the writing is most definitely on the wall. Of course, his assistants are Delfino and Stephen Vigman (Tambor) who is a CPA who shares the dilapidated office building with Mike which should tell you something about his good-guy-making-bad-decisions persona.

Mike is representing Leo Poplar (Young), who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. The state wants to put him in a care facility but Leo wants to stay home. Mike discovers that Leo’s living will allows for a guardian in the event that Leo becomes unable to make decisions on his own and that the guardianship will pay $1500 a month to cover expenses. Mike petitions the judge (Wilkins) to allow him to be Leo’s guardian since they’ve been unable to locate Leo’s daughter. The judge allows this and Mike then turns Leo over to the facility anyway so he can pocket the expense money which will keep him somewhat solvent.

Then Kyle (Shaffer) shows up. Kyle is Leo’s grandson and came to town hoping Leo could put him up. Mike, feeling a little guilty, takes Kyle in which Mike’s wife Jackie (Ryan) whole-heartedly supports. It turns out that Kyle’s mom, Leo’s daughter Cindy (Lynskey) is in rehab, a drug addict who has been an unreliable caregiver. This sets Jackie’s dander up, but what floats Mike’s boat is that Kyle is also an Ohio wrestling state champion. Mike arranges for Kyle to be enrolled in his high school and adds Kyle to his team, instantly turning the program around. Seems to be a win-win situation for everyone, right?

Wrong. Cindy shows up and she wants to take Kyle back to Ohio. Worse still, she wants guardianship of her father, not so much the responsibility (which she would be unlikely to be able to handle anyway) but the money that goes with it. Of course this turns everything upside-down; Kyle is happy being part of a stable family and he mistrusts and despises his mother but he also wants Leo out of the facility and back in his home where he belongs. Mike’s web is quickly unraveling.

McCarthy has previously directed The Station Agent and The Visitor which are both very fine films, and you can add this to his filmography of movies that will stay with you long after the final credits roll. The characters aren’t indie film archetypes who appear in movie after movie; they are people with their own unique set of characteristics and who behave realistically in realistic situations. Most of us will relate to Mike’s financial predicament because most of us have been there or are there now.

Giamatti is one of those actors who almost always gives a terrific performance and along with his work in Barney’s Version of late seems to be at the top of his game, impressive at every turn. He’s become one of my favorite actors, one who can get my butt into a theater seat just because he’s in the movie. He makes Mike not just an everyman, but a believable one; a basically decent man pushed to the wall to make decisions that aren’t necessarily good ones but expedient ones. I think we all have done that at least once in our lives.

Ryan is also wonderful, playing Jackie as equally good-hearted and supportive but strong – she takes no crap but at the same time her heart goes out to a boy who has had a rough go. She’s like a she-bear whose cubs are threatened when her family – which includes Kyle – is threatened and why Mike leaves her in the dark about what’s really going on is understandable in that he wants to spare her the anxiety he is feeling, but also not in that his wife would be a solid rock. Ryan makes you wish you had a wife like her if you don’t have one, and if you do have one, count your blessings.

Shaffer has been receiving a lot of attention with his performance and for good reason. He is a natural and has great screen presence. You’d never know this was his first feature film, so natural is he before the camera. Like any first-timer there are some rough patches but this kid has some amazing potential and if he chooses to go this road, he certainly is going to be someone to keep an eye on.

The ending was a bit sitcom-ish for my tastes but that’s really one of the few bumps in the road that this movie takes us on. There are some wonderful supporting performances, particularly from Tambor, Young and Cannavale as well as Lynskey who has a pretty thankless role but does it well.

McCarthy is developing an impressive library of movies with his name on them and is a director that is rapidly becoming one who I’ll go out of my way to see sight unseen. He certainly has made another film here that is one of those quiet gems that you don’t hear much about but turns out to be well worth checking out. This is one worth finding at your local video or streaming emporium.

WHY RENT THIS: Giamatti and Ryan are terrific with some good support performances. A sweet film that doesn’t sugarcoat the hard choices. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit formulaic in the ending.

FAMILY VALUES: The language gets pretty rough in places and there are some allusions to drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Shaffer’s feature film debut; he was a New Jersey State wrestling champion in 2010 as a sophomore in high school but his wrestling career came to a close when he broke an L-5 vertebra.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The DVD edition has a music video from The National for their closing credits song “Think You Can Wait.” The Blu-Ray edition adds a Sundance tour by actor David Thompson and a brief interview of McCarthy and Giamatti, also from Sundance.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.8M on an unreported production budget; it is likely that the movie made a good chunk of change relatively speaking.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer