St. Vincent


Sometimes you have to dig in the dirt to get clean.

Sometimes you have to dig in the dirt to get clean.

(2014) Comedy (Weinstein) Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Chris O’Dowd, Jaeden Lieberher, Terrence Howard, Kimberly Quinn, Lenny Venito, Nate Corddry, Dario Barosso, Donna Mitchell, Ann Dowd, Scott Adsit, Reg E. Cathey, Deirdre O’Connell, Ray Iannicelli, Greta Lee, Melissa Elena Ramirez, Ron McLarty, Niles Fitch, Emma Fisher, David Iacono, Alexandra Fong. Directed by Ted Melfi

Some people just have mean and nasty dispositions. Maybe they don’t like people in general. Maybe they get some sort of satisfaction from putting other people down. Or maybe there’s another reason they act the way they do.

Vincent (Murray) is as curmudgeonly as they come. He lives in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn. He is either unemployed or retired. He spends his days drinking in a run-down bar, betting on the horse races at Belmont or hanging with a pregnant Russian prostitute named Daka (Watts). He smokes like a chimney and is generally a pretty unpleasant guy to know.

Into the neighborhood moves Maggie (McCarthy), a single mom still in the process of a bitter divorce from her unfaithful husband David (Adsit), and her precocious son Oliver (Lieberher). Things don’t get off to a good start with their new neighbor when her off-the-books movers accidentally knock a tree limb on top of Vincent’s car, damaging it. Vincent is predictably upset and reacts – also predictably – rudely. Welcome to the neighborhood.

Oliver is the sort of kid who just seems to attract bullies. He’s undersized and of course he doesn’t know anybody. To top it off, he’s a Jewish kid in a Catholic school. So on his first day of school at St. Patrick’s Academy a couple of bullies take his phone and keys. His mother is working as an MRI technician so he has to make his way home and when he gets there, she’s still at work. Left with no choice, he asks Vincent if he can use his phone. Vincent, somewhat begrudgingly, allows him to. Maggie can’t get away to let her son back in the house, but she arranges with Vincent to watch Oliver until she gets there – which Vincent insists on getting paid for.

Vincent has money troubles with a loan shark (Howard) on his back trying to collect. He also has  bills coming due, so he asks Maggie if she would like to make a regular gig of it. Maggie, not really having much of a choice, agrees.

So into Vincent’s world Oliver goes. Oliver joins him at the track, and at the bar. He also gets an insider’s look at what makes Vincent tick. Oliver is introduced to Daka whom Vincent describes as a “Lady of the Night.” Vincent teaches Oliver self-defense with the disclaimer “Don’t worry, you won’t get it right.” He also teaches Oliver something about self-confidence and of creating your own moral compass.

Still, there is a lot of stress in Vincent’s world, with money problems coming to a head and a loved one in dire straits. There’s also plenty of stress in Maggie’s world as she has to take additional shifts to make ends meet, and then her ex-husband is suing for custody of Oliver – mainly to punish Maggie. When Vincent’s style of “babysitting” comes to light, it threatens to destroy everyone’s world.

Murray has come a long way from his SNL days, and has delivered some strong performances such as in Lost in Translation and What About Bob. This is right up there with his best. Murray has said in interviews that Vincent is a lot like who he really is and let’s be frank, he tends to play very similar characters most of the time and Vincent has a lot in common with other characters Murray has played. Yet there is a humanity in Vincent that comes out unexpectedly even as he sometimes erects additional height on the walls he’s built around himself.

We’ve come to expect these sorts of performances from Murray so the success of the movie is going to hinge on how well his co-star Lieberher can hold his own with the star. The surprising answer is, rather well. Lieberher is absolutely convincing as the kind of wallflower that Oliver is, and while Oliver is clearly wise beyond his years, he’s not the kind of precocious kid actor who never lets you forget he’s pretending to be someone else. Instead, Lieberher kind of inhabits the role and makes a fine foil for Murray throughout.

The rest of the supporting cast is pretty strong as well, McCarthy and Watts in particularly impressive in roles that aren’t typical for them. McCarthy is more of a straight woman here, although she does get a few zingers off. But she shows that when she’s not being cast as a boorish slob, she can be extremely likable and sympathetic. Watts turns the traditional “hooker with a heart of gold” role on its ear, making Daka acerbic and sometimes as curmudgeonly as Vincent but despite the Natasha Fatale-style accent, the character comes off as real and believable. Chris O’Dowd is also impressive as a teacher at St. Patrick’s, a priest who is more worldly than you’d expect.

The movie does tend to go for the schmaltzy cliches a bit too eagerly with the ending becoming a bit too sitcom for my liking. I also have to admit that there are a few plot points like the loan shark that don’t really get resolved; they just seem to fade from view.

Still, any movie with a performance like this from Bill Murray is worth seeking out and St. Vincent is certainly one that you should. It’s funny, there’s plenty of pathos and while parts of it are sitcom-like, there is at least a heart here that hits you unexpectedly rather than clubbing you over the head throughout. This is a gem of a movie.

REASONS TO GO: Murray’s a hoot and Lieberher does an impressive job of staying with him.  Fine supporting performances by Watts and O’Dowd, and McCarthy is excellent in a very different kind of role for her.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit cliche and occasionally boggles the mind with sitcom sugary sweetness.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of adult thematic material some of which involves sexuality, alcohol and tobacco use and a plethora of cursing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At one point, Jack Nicholson was rumored to be taking the title role but eventually it went to Murray.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grumpy Old Men
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: John Wick

A Million Ways to Die in the West


Only Charlize Theron knows what to do with the hordes of film critics who have turned their venom loose on this movie.

Only Charlize Theron knows what to do with the hordes of film critics who have turned their venom loose on this movie.

(2014) Western Comedy (Universal) Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Giovanni Ribisi, Amanda Seyfried, Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman, Liam Neeson, Christopher Hagen, Wes Studi, Matt Clark, Evan Jones, Aaron McPherson, Rex Linn, Brett Rickaby, Alex Borstein, Ralph Garman, John Aylward, Gilbert Gottfried, Ewan McGregor, Christopher Lloyd, Ryan Reynolds. Directed by Seth MacFarlane

During the 1950s, Americans tended to idealize the Old West. Rugged cowboys rode the range, rescued pretty school marms from bandits and varmints, and generally saved the day with an “aw, shucks” modesty. Cowboys were real men, Indians were the enemy and things were pretty simple. Of course, it wasn’t really like that.

The Old West was in reality a brutal place where arguments were solved with guns, violence was rampant, sanitation was next to impossible and the only thing worse than contracting a disease was going to the doctor to get it cured. Albert (MacFarlane), a sheep farmer in hole-in-the-wall Old Stump, Arizona, knows it better than most. He is the sort of guy who would rather negotiate than fight, which makes him yellow in the Old West. That’s fine and dandy with Albert. He’d much rather be a live coward than a dead hero.

His girlfriend Louise (Seyfried) doesn’t necessarily agree with that philosophy. After a humiliation after being challenged to a gunfight, Louise decides she’s had enough and dumps Albert in favor of Foy (Harris), a successful shop owner who caters to moustache owners. Albert is devastated. Louise was one of the only things worth staying in the West for. San Francisco would be a much better place for him, much to the disdain of his father (Hagen). His close friends Edward (Ribisi) and Ruth (Silverman) commiserate but they have problems of their own. For one, they’ve been together and they want to have sex, but also want to wait until they get married and keep their purity. Until then, Ruth will continue working as a prostitute to help save up enough to get married. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie.

Into his life waltzes Anna (Theron), a gorgeous blonde who is new in town. She also happens to be a crack shot and when Albert loses his temper and challenges Foy to a gunfight, she offers to help Albert work on his marksmanship. Of course, they soon develop into something more than friends even though Albert still wants to win Louise back. However, Anna might have forgot to mention that she’s married – to Clinch Leatherwood (Neeson), one of the most vicious and deadliest gunfighters in the West.

The title is apt. MacFarlane’s character constantly grouses throughout about how dangerous it is out in the West and throughout the film people get killed by wild animals, shot by ornery bandits, crushed by blocks of ice and in a memorable sequence, fart themselves to death.

Fans of MacFarlane’s TV show Family Guy will no doubt feel right at home here. However, it should be said that the humor is pushes the envelope HARD and there are some things that you’re going to find offensive, like the shooting gallery gag that also serves as the fodder for an after-the-credits scene with a surprise cameo appearance. In fact, there are a ton of cameos to keep an eye out for.

Otherwise, this is one of those movies that throws as many jokes as it can into the mix and sees which ones you find funny and which ones you don’t. When the comedy works here, it’s sidesplitting. When it doesn’t, it’s groan-inducing. Fortunately, it works more than not.

MacFarlane is an appealing lead, although his character is a kind of neurotic nebbish, sort of like Woody Allen in chaps. MacFarlane, who co-wrote as well as directed and starred in this, has the characters act in fairly modern idioms, which allows 2014 audiences to relate better to the action in some ways while others might find this anachronistic and off-putting. It is part of the humor to hear someone from 1882 say “Oh, snap!” although again, there was some sniffing from critical quarters.

The supporting cast isn’t a bunch of straight men (and women) to MacFarlane as a lot of modern comedies tend to do; they all have their funny moments which you would want from a cast of talented actors like this. Only Neeson seems to be playing it straight, although he does give Clinch an outrageous Lucky Charms Irish accent which apparently he insisted upon before taking the part. I don’t know if a gunslinger with an Irish brogue rates laughs but okay.

MacFarlane references other Western comedies, notably Blazing Saddles and Django Unchained (which isn’t, strictly speaking, pure comedy) directly and otherwise. He makes use of Utah’s Monument Valley (subbing for Arizona) with some nifty cinematography, graphics and score right out of a 1950s epic screen Western. Visually speaking, he’s got the Western part down. However, the story doesn’t really support the length of the film and I got a little bit fidgety there towards the end.

This hasn’t been getting good reviews and I’ve also read some comments from non-reviewers that expressed how offended they were at this movie. There are those who tolerate offensive humor more than others and if you’re one of the others it wouldn’t be a good idea for you to check this out. I don’t think this is as good as MacFarlane’s previous movie Ted but that movie had its share of squirm-inducing moments. Use that as your guide as to whether you should see it or not. This isn’t for everybody, but the people that it is are going to love it.

REASONS TO GO: When it’s funny, it’s hysterical. Fun concept.

REASONS TO STAY: Overkill. Runs about 20 minutes too long. Those who don’t tolerate profanity and sex very well should stay the fuck away.

FAMILY VALUES: A cornucopia of profanity and sexual innuendo, some violence and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Theron wore a wig throughout the shooting because she had shaved her head for the filming of Mad Max: Fury Road.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/3/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blazing Saddles

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Maleficent

Farewell, My Concubine (Ba wang bie ji)


The King and I.

The King and I.

(1993) Drama (Miramax) Gong Li, Leslie Cheung, Fengyi Zhang, Qi Lu, Da Ying, You Ge, Chun Li, Han Lei, Di Tong, Mingwei Ma, Yang Fei, Zhi Yin, Hailong Zhao, Dan Li, Wenli Jiang, Yitong Zhi, David Wu, Qing Xu. Directed by Kaige Chen

Life imitates art, it is said, much more than art imitates life. Art can only capture an instant, a moment at best but life is long term. It is rich and full of the twists and turns that are not entirely all of our own making. We are relentlessly buffeted by the tides of history, even if we aren’t aware of it.

In the mid 1920s a prostitute brings her son to a prestigious school where the various disciplines of the Peking Opera are taught. However, he is rejected because he was born with a sixth finger. Undeterred, she takes her son home and hacks off the extra digit with a carving knife, then brings the boy back to the school where he is at last accepted. There, he meets a friend who will be an integral part of his life both professionally and personally.

The discipline at the school is brutal and absolute. The smallest of infractions, the most trivial of mistakes would lead to extravagant punishments painful, bloody and over-enthusiastic by the somewhat sadistic Master Guan (Lu). Eventually the boy and his friend grows up, becoming Cheng Dieyi (Cheung) who performs female roles as a male and Duan Xioulou (Zhang) who takes the masculine roles.

Their most famous roles come from the classic opera Farewell, My Concubine in which Dieyi plays the concubine, a most loyal servant of a King (played by Xioulou) who takes her own life after a military defeat of her master even though she has the opportunity to leave safely. The two become the toast of China and Dieyi, trained from boyhood to be effeminate, develops an attraction to Xioulou who doesn’t feel the same. When Xioulou meets and marries a former courtesan of the infamous House of Blossoms, the headstrong Juxian (Gong Li), a rift develops between the two friends that lead to the dissolution of the company on the very night that the Japanese invade.

The two men and the woman who has become unwittingly the third part of a triangle endure the tribulations of the Japanese occupation, the Kuomintang administration, the Communist revolution and eventually the Cultural Revolution. They have to endure the betrayal of Xiao Si (Lei) whom Dieyi rescued as a foundling and who becomes an opportunist, jealous of Dieyi’s status within the troupe. Eventually they have to endure the consequences of their decisions over the years.

Epics of this scale have become exceedingly rare over the years, due in large part to the prohibitive cost of making them but also because of the shift in moviegoers’ tastes over the intervening years. For American audiences the subject matter, the turmoil of 20th century China, is largely new territory. Most of us are taught little of events in that country in school and those of us who lived during some of the events either didn’t pay much attention to them or dismissed them altogether. Kaige Chen brings those events to life, giving audiences who didn’t live in that place at that time a sense of the horrors that took place. I can only imagine what those who lived through them thought of the film.

The Dickensian opera school would make Oliver Twist sympathetic to the plight of the boys while the lavish productions of the Opera are stunningly rendered by one of the last three-strip Technicolor labs left. While Cheung is exceptional as Dieyi and portrays his inner torment (and outer bitchiness) with a great depth of emotion, it is Gong Li whose performance will remain with you for a long time after you see this movie. Hers is a tormented soul, suffering through love for a man who isn’t entirely hers. It is as exquisite a performance as you’ll ever witness and reason alone to laud her as China’s finest actress (although I’m still partial to Michelle Yeoh myself).

The Chinese government had some issues with the movie – not the least being the depictions of the hardships during and after the Cultural Revolution and not a little because of the underlying homosexual relationships – and has banned it and un-banned it repeatedly. It shows China with all her warts and scars, but also her spirit and perseverance. It is a marvelous portrait of 20th century China, a nation in upheaval that rose to becoming the dominant world power that it is now. Even though the movie might be overly long for some, it is nonetheless more of an education than it is an entertainment, although there is plenty of the latter to be had as well.

WHY RENT THIS: A beautifully shot lyric poem. Gong Li is breathtaking.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Drags on a little bit.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of rough language not to mention some pretty heavy thematic material that may be inappropriate for the very young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first film from the People’s Republic of China to win the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: While complete box office figures aren’t available, it is worth noting that the movie pulled in $5.1M at the American box office, an unusually high figure for Chinese films until Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came along nearly a decade later.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Scent of Green Papaya

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: 27 Dresses

Defendor


Defendor

Clark Johnson can’t believe he gets stuck with the low-rent superheroes.

(2009) Action Comedy (Darius) Woody Harrelson, Kat Dennings, Elias Koteas, Sandra Oh, Michael Kelly, Clark Johnson, Lisa Ray, A.C. Peterson, Kristen Booth, Charlotte Sullivan, Tony Nappo, Ron White, David Gardner, Bryan Renfro, Max Dreeson. Directed by Peter Stebbings

 

When you think about it, in order to be a superhero vigilante sort you have to have at least a screw loose or two. It would be much worse if you didn’t have any super powers to speak of.

That’s Arthur Poppington (Harrelson) to a “T.” By day he’s a mild-mannered construction worker – actually, he’s the guy who holds the “Slow” and “Stop” signs on road crews. He was abandoned by his mother as a boy and is certain that she was murdered by a super villain named Captain Industry. He has dedicated his life to tracking down this nefarious criminal, thus far without success. Usually it involves Arthur dressing up as the superhero Defendor – yes, spelling is not one of Arthur’s strong suits. He puts on some army surplus blacks (with a “D” on his chest in silver duct tape), a video camera on his helmet and eye-black serving as a kind of mask. More often than not he gets his butt kicked.

One night he interrupts a pimp beating up on a crack-addled hooker and stops it. It turns out that the pimp is actually a cop, Sgt. Dooney (Koteas). The girl, Katerina (Dennings) is in no shape to go anywhere so Defendor/Arthur violates one of his own rules and takes her to his Batcave…err, lair. She finds him to be a bit unbalanced but sweet – and maybe her ticket out of this horrible nightmare that is her life. She intimates that she knows who and where Captain Industry is and things escalate in a very bad way.

There have been a number of delusional superheroes without powers movies of late, mostly on the indie scene but best known is Kick-Ass from a couple of years ago (a sequel is supposedly on the way). This one doesn’t really add anything to the conversation about delusional superheroes but neither does it disgrace itself either.

The reason for that is mostly Harrelson, who has been really turning in some memorable performances of late. Defendor doesn’t have powers per se and he’s not much of a fighter, but he uses some clever weapons – like jars full of angry wasps, and marbles to trip up his opponents. Harrelson captures the hangdog Arthur nicely, making his delusions organic and believable. We never doubt Arthur for a moment.

The framing device of Arthur’s psychiatric sessions with a sympathetic doctor (Oh) goes a long way in helping with that. In fact, the supporting cast is solid if unspectacular, with Johnson as a sympathetic police captain, Kelly as a sympathetic co-worker and Koteas as the dirty cop (Koteas has proven quite adept at portraying dirtbags). Denning is also notable in a role that could be entirely cliché but is given plenty of personality by Denning, who to my mind is one of the most exciting young actresses around. She has all the earmarks of having a career filled with meaty roles and Oscar-caliber performances.

Stebbings is a Canadian actor who is making his feature-length directing debut here and his inexperience shows. There are times when the editing is a bit abrupt and quite frankly much of the material is rather hit or miss. There was some potential here, but I think a more experienced hand at the wheel might have cajoled it out. I wanted to like this movie more than I did but the flaws of pacing, writing and lighting are just too glaring to ignore.

WHY RENT THIS: Harrelson continues with his string of good performances. Denning delivers.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Really doesn’t add anything to the “Superhero without powers” films that have been coming out. Hit or miss.
FAMILY VALUES: This one’s got it all; violence, drug use, bad language and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ellen Page was at one point rumored to play the Kat Dennings role; she wound up in the similarly-themed Super.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $44,462 on a $3.5M production budget; a box office flop.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super
FINAL RATING: 4/10
TOMORROW: The Insider

Chloe


Chloe

The garden isn't the only thing that's growing in this greenhouse.

(2009) Thriller (Sony Classics) Julianne Moore, Amanda Seyfried, Liam Neeson, Max Theriot, R.H. Thomson, Nina Dobrev, Mishu Vellani, Julie Khaner, Laura de Carteret, Natalie Lisinska, Tiffany Knight, Meghan Heffern, Tamsen McDonough, Kathryn Kriitmaa. Directed by Atom Egoyan

 

Sexuality is one of mankind’s preoccupations, and it occupies a good deal of our time and energy. We ascribe to it wonders and magic, but in truth it is just a physiological function. For a physiological function we sure give it a whole lot of our thought.

Catherine Stewart (Moore) is a gynecologist who knows more about the physical aspects of sex than most. She knows about it more professionally than personally however; her marriage to academic David Stewart (Neeson) has become more platonic over time. She chalks it up to familiarity and age, but there are signs that her good husband may be cheating on her.

Being a smart, capable professional lady rather than confront her husband or hire a detective, she hires Chloe (Seyfried), a prostitute she meets to attempt to seduce her husband and then report back to Catherine as to whether he takes the bait.

Soon, we discover that Chloe may have an agenda of her own and that Catherine is having a crisis of sexuality of her own. When Chloe takes Catherine and David’s son Michael (Theriot) under her wing, that agenda may be turning sinister.

Canadian director Egoyan is one of those cinematic soldiers who is better known to art-house lurkers and professional critics than the general public.  He is a talent who looks at sex in a more straight-forward way than his neighbors to the south tend to; he neither romanticizes it nor demonizes it, simply recognizes that it is a part of life.

Here there is a certain kinky side to things and Egoyan doesn’t shy away from that either. I’m not necessarily talking about fetishes so much as exploring darker aspects of our sexuality, and using sex to get what we want. Chloe is not above such things.

Although Neeson is the marquee name, Moore is the star of this show. Her Catherine is a complex, multi-layered creature who doesn’t always act the way you’d expect her to. I get that they’re trying to show her insecurities just beneath her professional demeanor, but c’mon, for someone as smart and accomplished as she is she sure does some dumb things (as mentioned above).

Seyfried, the sweet waif from Mamma Mia has become one of the more reliable young actresses out there. Here, she does the femme fatale for the first time that I’m aware of and she pulls it off very nicely. Her Chloe is obviously disturbed and has some pretty sick issues, but you still wind up feeling a little sorry for her, even after…well, let’s not get into that. Don’t want to spoil things for you.

Egoyan and writer Erin Cressida Wilson are not entirely to blame for this; Chloe is based on a French film by Anne Fontaine called Nathalie which I have not seen but I am assured by SF Chronicle critic Mick LaSalle is a pretentions and overbearing load of twaddle. I found that a bit surprising since Fontaine is normally a very good writer and director.

Still, everyone makes a misstep once in awhile. The premise is a bit ponderous, I grant you that. I mean, why would any woman in her right mind ask someone she doesn’t know to seduce her husband to prove that he’s faithful? Sounds a lot like entrapment to me. And just because you have a beautiful, sexy young woman throw herself at a middle-aged married man doesn’t mean he’s cheating. It just means he can be tempted – who’s to know that he would have ever strayed if not for the machinations of his wife.

Chloe is an Atom Egoyan film, so that means it won’t be completely without any merit whatsoever. There are certainly elements that are recommendation-worthy. However the cohesive whole doesn’t quite make the cut for me.

WHY RENT THIS: Good work by Moore and Seyfried, with Neeson in more of a supporting part. Extremely sexual which immediately casts it as non-American in origin.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The erotica is kind of Skinemax-worthy. Catherine doesn’t always act according to character.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of sexual dialogue in the movie, some nudity and other foul language., not to mention a bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While filming this movie, Liam Neeson’s wife Natascha Richardson passed away as a result of injuries sustained in a skiing accident. The schedule was rearranged so that Neeson only needed a further days of shooting after returning to the set.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $11.7M on a $14M production budget; the movie was not profitable at the box office.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Woman in Black

Cowboys & Aliens


Cowboys & Aliens

If these townsfolk had seen Battlestar: Gallactica they'd be running and screaming by now.

(2011) Sci-Fi Western (DreamWorks/Universal) Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach, Paul Dano, Noah Ringer, Keith Carradine, Clancy Brown, Ana de la Reguera, Abigail Spencer, Toby Huss, Walton Goggins, Raoul Trujillo. Directed by Jon Favreau

We all know that stagecoaches belong in Westerns and starships in Sci-Fi movies and never the twain shall meet. Why that is, I’m not sure – but at last the twain have actually met.

A stranger (Craig) wakes up in the badlands of the New Mexico territory circa 1873. He has no idea where he is and no memory of who he is. He also has a strange shackle on his wrist and a strange wound in his side that is still bleeding but half-cauterized. He is immediately beset by a trio of bounty hunters but apparently he knows how to fight and he definitely knows how to kill, besting the three of them, stealing their clothes, their gold, one of their horses and their dog.

He rides into the town of Absolution, and enters a house on the outskirts to freshen up. The owner of the house, Preacher Meacham (Brown) takes exception to this but eventually warms up to the lost lamb and helps stitch up his wound.

Later on, Percy Dolarhyde (Dano) goes on a drunken rampage shooting up the town, despite attempts by Nat Colorado (Beach), the right-hand man of Percy’s father to placate him, and the pleas for clemency by saloon owner Doc (Rockwell) and his wife Maria (De la Reguera). That’s Doc’s wife, not Percy’s by the way.

Percy accidentally shoots a sheriff’s deputy and the stranger eventually subdues him. Sheriff Taggart (Carradine) recognizes the stranger from a wanted poster; he’s Jake Lonergan, a notorious stagecoach bandit and murderer. Taggart’s attempts to capture Lonergan appear to be going south when a mysterious beautiful woman, Ella Swenson (Wilde) clocks Lonergan with a 2×4 and knocks him cold.

Meanwhile, Percy’s father, Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford) is investigating some of his cattle who have been burned along with his men who have gone missing when word reaches him that his son has been arrested. The wealthy and powerful Colonel Dolarhyde rides into town with Nat and a posse of his men to go take his son out of custody and also to remove Lonergan, who had most recently stolen a shipment of Dolarhyde’s gold.  

Things are just about to get ugly when they are interrupted by the appearance of strange lights in the sky. Those lights turn out to be alien spaceships which launch concussive fireballs into the town, knocking over buildings but harming nobody. That might be because the aliens are abducting the townspeople, including Percy, Maria and Sheriff Taggart. The day is saved somewhat by Lonergan, whose shackle hides a weapon that takes down one of the alien ships. It turns out that is the only effective weapon against them, so when Colonel Dolarhyde wants to go rescue his son and the other townspeople, he insists that Lonergan go with them.

Lonergan has no such plan however and rides off on his own to find out who he is and why he has this metal doo-hickey on his wrist. The secret of his identity may rest with the mysterious Ella and the mystery of who Jake Lonergan is and what happened to him may hold the key to saving the world from these nasty aliens.

Favreau is currently riding high as one of comicdom’s fan favorites on the strength of Iron Man and its sequel. While his latest film is ostensibly based on the Platinum Studios comic of the same name, in reality it shares little in common besides the title.

Favreau had originally wanted to cast Robert Downey Jr. in the lead role but when he had to bow out to work on Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows Daniel Craig was cast instead and a fine bit of luck that was. Craig is far better at the Eastwood-like mysterious stranger than I think Downey would have been and he interacts with Ford in a much more believable manner.

Having Ford and Craig as your leads in a Western is about as fortuitous casting as it gets. Ford in particular is gruff and curmudgeonly, snarling and barking like a dog but having something of a puppy heart deep down. Craig, James Bond aside, is an excellent action hero and while Favreau has characterized Ford as the modern John Wayne, I think a case could be made for Craig as a modern Gary Cooper as well.

Overall, the cast is pretty nifty with Brown taking high marks as the Preacher who may look like a missing cough drop brother but has a surprisingly modern take on faith. Dano gets some of the best comic bits as the sniveling son of the wealthy rancher (a cliché that he helped make palatable here) and Wilde is surprisingly good as the mysterious woman – I hadn’t seen much of her work but now I’ll definitely be looking forward to seeing more of her in future roles. Beach is one of my favorite character actors ever since he emerged in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers (he also grew up in Winnipeg which adds further points) and he continues to impress here. Sam Rockwell, one of the better actors working today, has a minor role that Rockwell underplays nicely. Having the sheriff’s nephew along for the posse’s ride is unnecessary and ridiculous – his part could have easily have been taken by a teenager or an adult. You don’t need a kid in every single film to save the day y’know.

The western vistas of New Mexico look great on the big screen here and three cheers to Favreau for resisting the studio’s pressure to film this in 3D. I think the movie benefitted by being left in traditional 2D and the bright sunlit canyons and badlands look better without the polarized lens of the modern 3D glasses.

The action sequences are at times amazing, with CGI alien ships going at Apaches and gunslingers going full-tilt on horseback. The aliens themselves are plenty scary, with a sturdy shell-like carapace, recessed hands and a real cruelty and lust for gold. Think of them as intergalactic versions of bankers and mortgage company CEOs. Okay, maybe they’re not that evil.

At the end of the day, a movie like this has to be fun and for the most part it is – the ratio of action to exposition should have leaned a little heavier towards the former but there is still enough of it to make this worth your while. If you don’t go for Westerns, the sci-fi element might be enough to make it palatable while if you don’t like sci-fi, you might take comfort in the western elements instead. If you don’t like either one, well, this is good enough filmmaking for you to check out anyway. I had hoped for a little bit better, but it is entertaining nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: Ford and Craig provide plenty of star power and Wilde, Rockwell, Beach, Dano and Brown provide fine support. Interesting mash-up of genres.

REASONS TO STAY: Action sequences are great but too far between. The kid is completely unnecessary here.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence and bloodshed, some disturbing creature effects, a little bit of partial nudity and some kids in jeopardy – the very young will probably get nightmares out of this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first comic book from Platinum Studios to be adapted to the big screen; this is the third comic adaptation from DreamWorks (after The Road to Perdition and Over the Hedge).

HOME OR THEATER: This is definitely a summer popcorn flick meant to be seen in a multiplex.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Crazy, Stupid, Love

Mammoth


Mammoth

This is the kind of penthouse view you can only see in movies.

(2009) Drama (IFC) Gael Garcia Bernal, Michelle Williams, Sophie Nyweide, Marife Necesito, Tom McCarthy, Run Srinikornchot, Jan David G. Nicdao, Martin de los Santos, Maria Esmeralda del Carmen, Perry Dizon, Joseph Mydell. Directed by Lukas Moodysson

The world doesn’t exist in a vacuum; what happens in New York might well ordain what happens in Luzon, or Bombay or Bangkok for that matter. Even our most insignificant actions in other words have consequences.

Leo (Bernal), Ellen (Williams) and their daughter Jackie (Nyweide) are a happy family. Sunday mornings are comprised of family tickle fests in their expensive Manhattan loft. Still, even a good tickle fest must come to an end and Leo, a video game designer, must jet off to Thailand with his business partner Bob (McCarthy) to sign a multi-million dollar deal that will make the already wealthy Leo even wealthier. Since Bob is the business end of the partnership, Leo has little to do but show up and smile; after doing too much sightseeing he begins to get bored.

Ellen is none too fond of Leo’s absence and her stressful position as a pediatric E.R doctor. She is suffering from insomnia, much of it due to sexual frustration but also due to a case that she’s handling in the E.R. of a child who was stabbed in the stomach by her own mother. She is also feeling disconnected from her daughter, a feeling that is further heightened by Jackie’s growing closeness with her nanny.

Gloria (Necesito), the said nanny, hails from the Philippines and has two boys there – Salvador (Nicdao) and Manuel (de los Santos) who miss her terribly and beg her to come home whenever she calls. She sends most of her earnings home to them to build them a home of their own (they live with Gloria’s mother) and put them through college eventually so they can make a better life for themselves. Jackie is latching onto her because she is basically the only one paying attention to her and treating her like a person. Gloria for her part teaches her Tagolog and takes her to the planetarium, which is Jackie’s favorite place.

The distance between Leo, Ellen and Jackie is growing and Leo finds that he is being tempted by a sweet Thai prostitute named, ironically enough, Cookie (Srinikornchot) who has a daughter of her own. There are a lot of mama issues in this movie.

Swedish director Moodysson (in his English language debut) has taken a lot of heat for implying the link between women working and child issues. Quite frankly he has a point there – women are being forced more and more into the workplace and something has to suffer for it and generally, it’s the relationship with their kids that has to take a back burner simply because they aren’t around as much. It’s not an indictment of women, gang, it’s just a statement of fact.

Bernal is a greatly underrated actor best known for his work in Y Tu Mama Tambien. His role is the least defined of the three members of the family but Bernal makes it memorable. He plays the husband as conflicted and a little bit weak-willed. He is guilty about his fling with Cookie and guilty about deserting his family but a little fuzzy on what’s really going on with his wife and daughter.

Williams, so good in Wendy and Lucy, shows that she has the ability to do an abundance of roles. Self-assured as a surgeon she is nonetheless flawed and occasionally unsure of herself as a woman. She is jealous of Gloria’s closeness to her daughter but doesn’t know how to develop that closeness herself. Instead, she finds herself giving that tenderness to the daughter of another mother. Williams owns the role the same way she owned the role of Wendy in the previous film; and the two roles could not be more different. I see statuettes and red carpets in her future.

The soundtrack is magnificent and uses songs by the electropop band Ladytron effectively to create upbeat moods, which the movie needs in places. It creeps along most of the time and has a languorous pace that can use the occasional shot of adrenaline and Ladytron supplies that nicely.

While the women play the pivotal roles in this movie, I came away thinking it was more about the way families drift apart in the modern world, given the demands of work and of human interactions. In that sense, this is a movie that hits the mark nicely, but it takes a long time to get down a short road and some might find that infuriating. Whether you agree with all of Moodysson’s conclusions is kind of beside the point. It’s whether or not you’ll enjoy the journey and I think it can go either way for most people. It’s worth taking the time to find out if you’re one of those who’ll like it though.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Bernal and Williams. Establishes dialogue regarding privilege and those who support it. Nice use of Ladytron on the soundtrack.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Moves at a glacial pace not unlike the title creature. Some will find the movie’s plot controversial and its conclusions unpalatable.

FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes going on here and some scenes where children are put in jeopardy.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed in Thailand, the Philippines, Sweden and New York City.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.8M on an unreported production budget; I’d guess the movie broke even or thereabouts.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Bedazzled (2000)

The Lincoln Lawyer


The Lincoln Lawyer

Life is pretty darn good when you're as good-looking as these two are.

(2011) Mystery (Lionsgate) Matthew McConaughey, Marisa Tomei, Ryan Phillippe, Josh Lucas, William H. Macy, John Leguizamo, Bob Gunton, Frances Fisher, Bryan Cranston, Michael Pena, Laurence Mason, Trace Adkins, Margarita Levieva. Directed by Brad Furman

Justice is often depicted as being blind. The reason for that is that things are not always what they appear to be, and people RARELY are who they appear to be. Justice needs to be blind in order to sort through all the deceptions.

Mick Haller (McConaughey) is a defense lawyer who generally represents the guilty; sleazebags and criminals alike. Rather than working out of an office, he operates out of the back of his Lincoln Town Car, chauffeured by Earl (Mason), a former client paying off his legal bill. It seems that Mick had been driving himself but after a DUI had gotten his license suspended, a driver was needed.

Mick has lots of friends in low places including Eddie Vogel (Adkins), the leader of a bike gang, and bail bondsman Val Valenzuela (Leguizamo), who often throws a case Mick’s way. He’s got one for him now – a big one that might pay a whole lot of bills. Louis Roulet (Phillippe) has been accused of beating the crap out of a prostitute.

Roulet has deep pockets; a wealthy real estate tycoon mom (Fisher) and a high-powered lawyer (Gunton) who hires Mick for the job after an initial interview. Mick puts his investigator Frank Levin (Macy) on the case.

At first it looks like Mick’s ex-wife Maggie McPherson (Tomei), who works in the prosecutor’s office, is going to be assigned the case but when Mick turns up as lawyer, she has to recuse herself and a new prosecutor, Ted Minton (Lucas), is brought aboard.

The deeper Mick digs into the case, the more it appears to have bearing on an earlier case of his, in which he had urged a young man, Jesus Martinez (Pena), to accept a plea bargain to keep him out of the death penalty. And the more he looks, the more he discovers that he may have sent an innocent man into jail.

In the meantime, his current case is turning ugly and now it appears Mick himself is being set up for a murder charge of his own. It will take all of Mick’s cunning and street smarts to get him out of hot water on this one.

I was pleasantly surprised with this movie. McConaughey has been on a bit of a rut lately, with romantic comedies that really didn’t push him much. It’s been awhile since we’ve seen a movie in which McConaughey has really shown what he can do – We Are Marshall to be exact. However, this one harkens back to an earlier McConaughey movie, A Time to Kill. In that one, McConaughey played a clever lawyer as well.

There’s no doubt McConaughey oozes charm and while he is more well-known these days for going shirtless (and displaying his admittedly impressive six-pack) than he is for his thespian abilities, that doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of a good performance and he delivers one here. Those folks who are fans are going to be in seventh heaven, even though his shirt remains on for the most part.

He also has a pretty impressive cast backing him up. Macy doesn’t have a lot of screen time but makes good use of what he does have. Phillippe is a very solid actor who sinks his teeth into a role that requires him to be unsympathetic, the poor rich kid. Tomei, an actress who always impresses me, does a solid job here. It isn’t one of her career-defining moments but she gets the job done and is as gorgeous as ever doing it. Even country star Trace Adkins delivers in a role which is totally unlike his nice-guy persona developed on “The Celebrity Apprentice.”

This is based on a novel by Michael Connelly, and has all the makings of a franchise in terms of quality; unfortunately, the box office has been lukewarm for it although it appears that the movie will recoup its production budget. While at times it reminded me of an episode of “Law and Order,” it is at least competently done in terms of a legal drama, and while breaking no new ground is at least entertaining and diverting. I didn’t have real high hopes for it based on the trailer, but I thought this was a better-than-average film and of most of the stuff that’s out there in the spring, might well be the best quality movie in theaters at present.

REASONS TO GO: Really good cast and McConaughey is at his charming best.

REASONS TO STAY: Not especially groundbreaking; typical legal drama that at times reminds one of “Law & Order” and not in a good way.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of violence, a little bit of sex and a smidgeon of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Frank Levin’s first name in the book was Raul.

HOME OR THEATER: Nothing here screams “theater!” You can see it at home just as nicely.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Greenberg

Brooklyn’s Finest


Brooklyn's Finest

Richard Gere drives his point home.

(2009) Police Drama (Overture) Richard Gere, Don Cheadle, Ethan Hawke, Wesley Snipes, Vincent D’Onofrio, Will Patton, Ellen Barkin, Brian F. O’Byrne, Michael Kenneth Williams, Shannon Kane, Lili Taylor, Shannon Kane, Wass Stevens. Directed by Antoine Fuqua

 

There aren’t many jobs more difficult and stressful than that of police officer. In places like Brooklyn, you can multiply the stress levels times ten. That stress affects different men differently.

Three of Brooklyn’s finest (hey, catchy title) are in crisis; Eddie Dugan (Gere) is seven days away from retirement (usually a death sentence in cop movies) and is self-medicating with alcohol and the tender mercies of a prostitute whom he has fallen in love with. Then there’s Clarence “Tango” Butler (Cheadle) is deep undercover in a drug ring and is torn between his loyalty to the force and to recently paroled drug dealer Casanova Phillips (Snipes) who is trying to go straight. Finally there’s Det. Sal Procida (Hawke) has a seven kids and two on the way with a wife (Taylor) beset by mold respiratory distress trying desperately to get a mortgage on a larger home that he can’t afford.

The three stories run parallel to each other, with Tango being put under pressure by his contact (Patton) and a brass-balled bitch from the DEA (Barkin) who want arrests. Eddie is being asked to train young rookies, which Eddie is patently unsuited for. Procida is looking for a means of stealing enough cash to come up with his down payment.

Fuqua directed Denzel Washington to an Oscar in Training Day and has shown himself to be a mighty capable director over the years, particularly with talented actors (Hawke also appeared in that movie) and he coaxes some really good performances, particularly from Cheadle and Snipes. The scenes that those two share together are some of the best in the movie.

Snipes doesn’t have many scenes here, but they serve to remind us of how charismatic the man is. He’s had some well-documented legal problems that have yet to be fully resolved; hopefully at some point in the future he’ll be back to delight audiences once again.

Gere has some great acting chops but he always seems to be playing above his role. It’s hard to see him as a suicidal cop when his haircut looks like it came out of a Rodeo Drive celebrity hairdresser. He’s not the grittiest of guys in that sense and he might have been a touch miscast; it’s a credit to his skill that he manages to make the part believable.

Ensemble movies with parallel storylines have been plentiful in recent years and they mostly have the same damn problem – the insatiable need to wrap all the storylines with a neat bow and relate them all in some backhanded way. It worked in Traffic and Crash – it’s gotten old since.

Still, the storylines are awfully compelling here. The idea of the cop with mortgage problems is very relatable and in many ways that’s the storyline I was most interested in; however, the Cheadle-Snipes scenes make that storyline the best.

Cop movies run the gamut between the heroic cop and the bad cop. Often they are a bit of both and that’s the case here. None of the guys here is 100% admirable except for maybe Tango. However they are interesting enough and human enough to make the movie worth the price of a rental for sure.

WHY RENT THIS: Well-acted with intersecting stories that, for once, are all equally compelling. Nice to see Snipes onscreen again.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Gere’s a bit miscast but still pulls it off. Final scene feels a bit forced, as these sorts of movies often do.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of bad language, blood, violence, sex, nudity…oh crap, just don’t let your kids see it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first film with Wesley Snipes in it to be released to theaters since Blade: Trinity (2004). All of his films in the interim had gone direct-to-home video.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an interesting featurette on the Brooklyn projects where this was filmed, and the creation of Fuqua Film Movement. There’s also a piece on writer Michael C. Martin, who went from a toll booth to becoming a screenwriter.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $36.3M on a $17M production budget; the movie made money.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Twilight: New Moon

The Mechanic (2011)


The Mechanic

Jason Statham wants to renegotiate his fee.

(2011) Action (CBS) Jason Statham, Ben Foster, Tony Goldwyn, Donald Sutherland, Jeff Chase, Mini Anden, James Logan, Joshua Bridgewater, Mark Anthony Nutter, John McConnell, Lara Grice, Ada Michelle Loridans, Eddie Fernandez, Lance Nichols, J.D. Evermore. Directed by Simon West

Being an assassin is a lonely business. Killing people for hire tends to breed a certain amount of paranoia into one’s makeup; meticulous planning leads to success in this world, and those who allow a human interaction into the mix are just begging for trouble.

Arthur Bishop (Statham) is the best in the world at what he does. He’s a mechanic, a professional hitman who takes care of problems. He is adept at any sort of hit; be it one that looks like an accident or natural occurrence, or one that sends a message. He is employed by a shadowy company that rents out hired killers to wealthy clients, although Bishop’s hits are apparently only criminals and terrorists. As John Cusack said in a similar role in Grosse Point Blank, “If I show up at your door, chances are you did something to deserve it.”

After taking care of a Columbian drug lord (Logan) in a typically efficient and professional manner, Bishop returns home to New Orleans to meet with his mentor and corporate contact Harry McKenna (Sutherland) to receive his payment. The two banter about like old friends, which they are; bitching about corporate politics and Harry’s somewhat useless son Steve (Foster) from whom he is estranged. Bishop then goes home to his gorgeous house on the bayou which is accessible only by boat

Not long thereafter Harry meets an untimely end. Bishop is none too thrilled about it, but he has issues to take care of. Harry’s son Steve also shows up, angry at the world and ready to take out a random carjacker (Bridgewater) in the wrong place at the wrong time. Bishop shows up just in time to avert a stupid act of vengeance that would have ruined Steve’s life and agrees to take him on as a protégé. He trains him not only in the skill of firing weapons but in the art of killing. He even takes him along on the job to watch him kill a gunrunner (Evermore), a kind of “take your surrogate kid to work day” exercise.

The two then go after a couple of victims on their own, a rival mechanic (Chase) and a preacher/cult leader named Vaughn (McConnell). Due to Steve’s sloppiness and inability to follow instructions, they both turn messy. About then they discover that the death of Steve’s dad was ordered by Dean (Goldwyn), a high-ranking executive of the company which coupled with the botched assignments makes them a corporate liability. The mechanics become problems for other mechanics to fix. Can they get to Dean before he gets to them?

This is a remake of a 1972 film with Charles Bronson in the title role and Jan-Michael Vincent as Steve. That one, directed by frequent Bronson collaborator Michael Winner, was much more noir than this and like many films from the era had a somewhat fatalistic atmosphere. Some of the conceits of that movie don’t really translate well to this era of filmmaking, so the movie is different (although not radically so) than the original.

Director West, who has a mentor of his own in Michael Bay (West is best known for directing Con Air), is a strong action director and knows how to appeal to the hearts of men everywhere. There is nary a woman to be seen except as hookers (Anden) and victims (Grice and Loridans, whose arm Bishop threatens to stuff down a garbage disposal to motivate her dad for information).

Jason Statham was a wise bit of casting. Like Bronson, he plays it close to the vest emotionally. He conveys amusement with a little half-smile and annoyance with a half-frown. He is the perfect ice cold killer, which is what the character needs to be. He bares his chest and then some in the opening moments of the film, and ladies will get a nice up close look at nearly all of him later in the movie; for the guys, he kicks ass without ever breaking a sweat. However, it must be said he has the best stubble beard in the business.

Foster is an up-and-coming actor who already has an Oscar nomination under his belt; although this is most assuredly not going to win him his next one, I think that he’s going to win gold in that department in the very near future. He gives Steve menace and vulnerability at once, as well as a sexual ambiguity that adds some spice to the role. It’s a magnificent portrayal and well worth the price of admission for his performance alone.

The movie is a bit too workmanlike. My problem with it is that Bishop is so good that even when things go south you never get a sense that he’s in danger. He always seems to be two or three steps ahead of everybody else. He’s a bit like Superman in that regard; Superman is so strong and so invulnerable that it’s pretty hard to convey a sense of jeopardy. Bishop needs a really strong opponent and there isn’t one in the movie. No kryptonite here, either.

Still, it’s got all the elements you need in an action film – fast pacing, great stunts, things blowing up, a couple of hot naked (or nearly naked) babes and lots and lots of guns. While action movies have less cachet since the era of Schwarzenegger and Stallone, this one at least is a decent enough entry in the genre. Action fans will certainly be satisfied.

REASONS TO GO: Some decent action sequences. Foster is really good in his role. There may be no better action star at the moment than Jason Statham.

REASONS TO STAY: You rarely get a sense that there is any danger for Arthur Bishop – he’s almost too good for there to be a sense of jeopardy here.

FAMILY VALUES: As you might expect in a movie about an assassin, there’s lots of violence and a couple of disturbing on-screen murders. There’s also plenty of foul language, some nudity and sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sarah, the role played by Anden, was played by Jill Ireland in the original 1972 version (Ireland was then-wife to Charles Bronson). The character in that movie had no name and was listed in the credits as “The Girl.” 

HOME OR THEATER: The action sequences don’t have that epic a quality to them; the explosions might work better on the big screen. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all a matter of personal preference whether or not you want to see it at home or in a theater; you make the call.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Way Back