The Good Heart


If it looks like a duck...

If it looks like a duck…

(2009) Drama (Magnolia) Brian Cox, Paul Dano, Isild Le Besco, Bill Buell, Booi, Susan Blommaert, Alice Olivia Clarke, Kim Songwon Brown, Stephen Henderson, Seth Sharp, David Moss, Dale A. Smith, Michelle Nelson, Henry Yuk Lui, Ed Wheeler, Clark Middleton, Stephanie Szostak, Edmund Lyndeck, Nicolas Bro, Daniel Raymont, Damian Young, Elissa Middleton. Directed by Dagur Kari

There is something inherently noble in a dive bar. It is the refuge of the lost, the lonely and the abandoned. It is a place for those who have given up on life as well as those who life has given up upon. It is a gin-soaked, beer-drenched haven of dignity for those who have none.

Crotchety old Jacques (Cox) owns just such an establishment in the center of New York City. Slovenly, suspicious, mean-spirited and set in his ways, Jacques limits his customers to 13 regulars and frowns on outsiders whom he contemptuously refers to as “walk-ins,” chasing them out with a bottle of vodka with a stream of ketchup in it in response for a request for a Bloody Mary with organic tomato sauce.

After his fifth heart attack, he finds himself sharing a room with homeless young Lucas (Dano) who is as kindly as Jacques is curmudgeonly. Jacques having a brush with mortality knows that his body will not sustain his lifestyle for much longer, and has begun giving thoughts to his legacy. He realizes that one thing he wants to remain after he shuffles off this mortal coil is his bar and determines to take in Lucas, who has nowhere else to go, as the heir apparent to his grandly named but less impressive on the inside House of Oysters.

Lucas, who was in the hospital after attempting suicide, is amiable enough to the idea although much of Jacques’ worldview is puzzling to him. “Never be nice,” he growls after Lucas treats one of the regulars with kindness. The world according to Jacques is a harsh place full of people who will take advantage of every fracture of weakness that your facade displays and to Jacques kindness equals weakness.

Lucas for his part is learning the niceties of bartending as well. “A good bartender always knows what his customer wants before he even knows it,” says the old school Jacques and Lucas very much takes this to heart. For his part, Lucas teaches Jacques that the way to make it through life isn’t necessarily through uncompromising adherence to one’s principles.

Into this mix one rainy night comes April (Le Besco), a stewardess afraid of flying. This is an egregious violation of Jacques’  longstanding “no women allowed” rule for the bar. This is enough to get his erstwhile protégé banished from the bar along with April, a fellow lost soul Lucas has fallen in love with. But what will become of Jacques’ legacy?

Icelandic director Kari, best known for his indie film Noi the Albino is shooting for a grimy look. The movie looks like it was filmed through a lens that hadn’t been cleaned in years. This is meant (I think) to be more of an allegory or a fable than something realistic and true to life despite the gritty feel. For one thing, I can’t imagine any hospital letting a kid who’d just attempted suicide just walk out of a hospital without at least some sort of plan for him to stay in a safe environment, not in a dingy old bar with an old man who just might be psychotic.

Cox is one of those character actors who almost never turns in a bad performance even when handed a turkey of a script. This one has quite a few flaws in it and inhabits the bar with eccentrics right out of the Lovable Movie Drunks for Dummies book. Cox interacts with all of them as if they were written by Shakespeare.

I tend to blow hot and cold with Dano. He has turned in some fantastic performances but also a few groaners as well. Here he is on the good side; his character has clearly been wounded deeply by some unnamed trauma in the past and while he doles out random (and sometimes not-so-random) acts of kindness, he sees himself as unworthy of life. Some of the kindest people I’ve ever known are the hardest on themselves.

There aren’t really any big laughs here and that might well be by design. One of the faults I have with this movie is I don’t think they are set on whether this needs to be a comedy or a drama and so tries for something in between. Not that combining the two can’t be done well, but I think the movie would have been better-served at picking a path and sticking with it.

I can recommend just about any movie with Brian Cox in it and a lot of them with Pau Dano in them. This one I think has just enough depth to it to be worth a look-see for those who haven’t caught it yet but I wouldn’t recommend putting too much effort into it; there isn’t enough here to make it worth digging to find.

WHY RENT THIS: Good performances from Cox and Dano. Gritty where it needs to be.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ceaselessly drab. Quirky more than funny.

FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of cursing and a disturbing image.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kari, born in Paris to Icelandic parents who moved him back to their home country at the age of three, is also a member of the band Slowblow.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: As with most Magnolia home releases, there is an HD-Net making-of special.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $343,818 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Extra Man

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: X-Men

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R.I.P.D.


Gunfight at the OK Corral

Gunfight at the OK Corral

(2013) Supernatural Comedy (Universal) Ryan Reynolds, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Bacon, Mary-Louise Parker, Stephanie Szostak, Robert Knepper, James Hong, Marisa Miller, Mike O’Malley, Devin Ratray, Larry Joe Campbell, Michael Coons, Christina Everett, Michael Tow, Lonnie Farmer, Piper Mackenzie Harris, Ben Sloane, Catherine Kresge. Directed by Robert Schwentke

Just because we’re dead doesn’t mean there aren’t any rules. When you die, you depart this mortal coil and drift skyward into the next realm where you will be judged and your final destination assigned. A lucky – or unlucky, depending on how you look at it – few are yanked out of line because they have certain skills. They become part of an elite law-keeping force – the Rest in Peace Department.

Nick Walker (Reynolds) is a Boston cop and up until now, a good one. He and his partner Bobby Hayes (Bacon) stumbled onto some gold during a routine drug bust and now are keeping the stuff out of evidence. Nick, who wants to build a better life for his wife Julia (Szostak), is having second thoughts however. He just can’t bring himself to be a dirty cop. Bobby has no problem with it however and just to show Nick what a good sport he is about it he shoots him in the face.

Nick’s trip to judgment is interrupted (as you might guess from the first paragraph) and is yanked into a sterile-looking office where a bored-looking functionary named Proctor (Parker) basically tells him what’s what and offers Nick a 100-year contract with the R.I.P.D. Or, of course, he can go ahead and face judgment.

Nick isn’t quite ready for that so he accepts and is assigned to Raycephus Pulsipher (Bridges), better known as Ray – a cantankerous Wild West sort that would have been played (or at least voiced) by Slim Pickens a few decades back. Ray’s none too happy about having a partner – particularly a green-behind-the ears (literally) rookie. However, he shows him the ropes albeit reluctantly.

The job of the R.I.P.D. is to locate souls who had somehow stayed on Earth after death and bring ’em back for judgment. Apparently earth and death don’t mix and the souls begin to rot, developing a stank (as Roy puts it) that can be noticed by electronic glitches, unusual amounts of rust, rot, mildew and dead plants and of course human-looking people who when confronted with cumin suddenly transform into fleshy, putrescent masses of rot that have superhuman strength, can bound about like a kangaroo on steroids and generally wreak havoc. These rotting souls, which are called Deados, need to be kept from human attention in order to keep the universe in balance. Oh, and R.I.P.D. officers on Earth don’t look like their earthly selves; Nick appears to be an elderly Asian man (Hong) and Roy a smoking hot underwear model (Miller, who happens to be a smoking hot underwear model).

In a case of cosmic serendipity that only a Hollywood screenwriter could hatch, Nick’s first case involves a Deado named Stanley Nawlicki (Knepper) who – wonder of wonders! – has pieces of gold just like the ones Nick was keeping. That leads him to investigate his old partner who he still has some unfinished business with which leads to a conspiracy to turn the one-way portal to the afterlife into a two-way street using an ancient artifact (there are always ancient artifacts in these stories) called the Staff of Jericho which if activated will literally create Hell on Earth as the Dead overwhelm the living. Or it could just be this week’s episode of The Walking Dead.

Based on the 2001 Dark Horse comic of the same name, R.I.P.D. has a clever title and a not-bad premise to work with. Schwentke provides some pretty cool visuals, from the Men in Black-esque headquarters to the Ghostbusters-esque monsters. But therein is the rub – the visuals, while cool in and of themselves, remind you of something else. I don’t have a problem with borrowing – even borrowing liberally – from other visual looks but I don’t recall anything in the movie that looked especially unique.

Reynolds has gotten a lot of flack lately for his appearances in subpar movies (much as Ben Affleck did a few years back) which I think is patently unfair – Reynolds is charming and appealing but his character doesn’t really play to those strengths. Here he’s kind of grim and obsessive and that really isn’t his forte; when Reynolds is at his best he’s a bit of a smartass, like his work as Deadpool in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (and when is his Deadpool movie coming out 20th Century Fox executives? We’re waiting!). Had his role been a lot lighter, the movie would have been better. Instead, he’s essentially a straight man for Jeff Bridges.

And there’s no shame in that. Bridges is a terrific actor and he hams it up here for all its worth, which is considerable. He goes on and on about having a coyote gnaw on his bones after his demise which gets a bit tiresome but then his character is supposed to be tiresome. Kevin Bacon knows how to be a smooth, vicious baddie and he pulls it off here.

The worst crime this movie commits though is a lack of energy. There’s no sense of fun here, like the cast and crew were performing a chore rather than having a good time. This is the kind of movie that should be made with a twinkle in the eye and a sly wink to the audience but you don’t get that sense here. The elements are all there for a really good summer movie but the whole doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts. It’s not as bad as the critics say it is – but it isn’t as good as it could have been either.

REASONS TO GO: Clever premise. Bacon and Bridges do some fine work.

REASONS TO STAY: Feels flat. Derivative.

FAMILY VALUES:  A lot of violence, much of it of the Looney Tunes variety. Some sexuality and a bit of language (including some suggestive dialogue).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This marks the fourth film based on a comic book that Ryan Reynolds has appeared in to date.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/29/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 12% positive reviews. Metacritic: 25/100; the reviews were dreadful, coming as a surprise to no one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beetlejuice

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Fruitvale Station

Iron Man 3


Robert Downey Jr. mans the Iron Man customer service phone line.

Robert Downey Jr. mans the Iron Man customer service phone line.

(2013) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley, Don Cheadle, Rebecca Hall, Jon Favreau, Stephanie Szostak, James Badge Dale, Wang Xuequi, Paul Bettany (voice), William Sadler, Miguel Ferrer, Dale Dickey, Shaun Toub, Bill Maher, Joan Rivers, Sarah Burkhardt. Directed by Shane Black

When you’re an iron man, the question is important – is it the suit that makes you, or do you make the suit? That’s the question that Tony Stark (Downey) a.k.a. Iron Man is forced to confront in the third installment of the Marvel Superhero film series.

We begin with a prologue in Switzerland back in the ’90s when Tony Stark was just Tony Stark, the boy wonder engineer who was one of the most brilliant weapons designers on this ol’ planet Earth. He seduces one scientist – Maya Hansen (Hall) – and blows off another, Aldrich Killian (Pearce). These acts will have, as Tony narrates in voice over (which only appears at the beginning and end of the movie) a profound consequence on what is about to happen.

These days, Tony Stark is a mess. He has come back from New York after the alien invasion of The Avengers with nothing less than Post Traumatic Stress Disease. He can’t sleep, spending nights in his workshop building all sorts of new sets of armor (he’s up to his 42nd iteration) and driven into panic attacks when his experiences in New York are discussed – or even when the mere name of the city is mentioned.

Pepper Potts (Paltrow) has moved in and their relationship has become one of the few touchstones of Tony’s chaotic life but even she is frustrated, feeling like he’s slipping away from her. To make matters worse, there’s a terrorist who calls himself the Mandarin (Kingsley) who is setting off bombs all over the world, although they can’t find any bomb fragments to figure out what kind of devices he’s using that set off temperatures of over 3000 degrees.

To make matters worse, Aldrich has shown back up, the head of a think tank called AIM (Advanced Idea Mechanics) that has made him a wealthy man. No longer the long-haired nebbish geek, he’s confident and good-looking, capturing Pepper’s attention and Stark Head of Security Happy Hogan’s (Favreau) ire. However, Happy is caught up in one of the Mandarin’s explosions at Graumann’s Chinese Theater and is gravely injured.

Now it’s on. Tony goes on TV essentially daring the Mandarin to come get him – and even gives him his address. The Mandarin obliges him, taking out Stark’s Malibu in him just as Dr. Hansen comes to warn him to get out. He manages to save Pepper and Dr. Hansen but is trapped in the rubble which falls into the sea. He is presumed dead.

Of course he’s not; his armor, with a flight plan preset by Jarvis (Law), Tony’s computerized butler/assistant, takes him to Tennessee. He meets a young boy (Simpkins) who idolizes him, alternately helping him get back together even though he has nothing, and setting off new panic attacks. Tony really does need to get together; the Mandarin has plans not only for taking out the President (Sadler) but for perpetuating eternal terrorism and counter-response. Tony is far away from his armor and his friends in the Avengers. He will have to take on the Mandarin with just his intellect and his ingenuity. Will it be enough?

This is the first Iron Man movie not directed by Jon Favreau who still appears as an actor however, which he likened to being a grandfather who gets to play with the baby without having to change its diapers. Newcomer Shane Black had previously worked with Downey on the critically acclaimed but financially unsuccessful Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang as well as having written the Lethal Weapon series. Having already scored big numbers in international box office before even opening in the United States, this movie is poised to become this year’s box office champion and quite possibly the highest grossing film of the Iron Man series.

There’s good reason for it. While the tone has changed somewhat, the movie still retains much of what has made the series so successful – the dynamic special effects, the clever gadgets, Tony Stark’s irreverent attitude and the epic sweep. It also puts a focus squarely on Tony Stark which Favreau also did – and that’s a wise thing. When you have an actor the caliber of Downey, you’re crazy not to take full advantage of him – and Black ain’t crazy.

Stark is one of the most complex, layered characters in all of comics and that has translated to the film version. He’s arrogant, sure – but there’s a vulnerability to him here that is so much more evident than in the first two films. He is battling insecurity – when you encounter a living God and a living legend, it’s easy to develop an inferiority complex. He is terrified of losing the one relationship that matters to him, the only one that has since his father passed. Deep down, Tony is a generous, heroic guy – but he doesn’t have all the social niceties developed. Downey brings all of these aspects to life and integrates them nicely. Tony Stark is as fully realized a character as we’ve ever seen in a superhero movie.

His antagonists are not nearly as well-realized which is often a problem in superhero movies, particularly those that have become franchises. Kingsley has great fun with the Mandarin, giving him a bizarre accent that accents certain syllables (i.e. “teach-urrrrrrr”) that make him sound like a menacing idiot. This is explained late in the movie to my satisfaction however – but it still is a bit off-putting at first. Pearce is an underrated actor who is as versatile as they come. Some critics have huffed that they don’t understand how a snub in an elevator can turn a nerdy scientist type into a psychotic megalomaniac but they must have fallen asleep during the movie as Killian has a soliloquy which partially explains his change – and one gets the sense that his marble bag wasn’t quite full to begin with.

Paltrow hasn’t really gotten to run with the Pepper Potts character much – and she doesn’t get to here although she does have a couple of good scenes, and she does get to don the armor – well, Tony has the armor cover her to protect her as their home is buffeted by rockets and machine gun fire from attack helicopters. Still, the character is the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and she has a mind and a will of her own. She makes a formidable girlfriend for Tony, although that aspect is still yet to be explored fully. Then again, the movie is about the superhero, otherwise it would have been called Pepper Potts 3.

Cheadle and Favreau don’t get much screen time either, although both make the most of what they get. As I mentioned earlier, this is very much a Tony Stark movie even more in a lot of respects than Iron Man, although there are oodles of different armors which all come to play in the climactic battle (the website, which you can reach by clicking on the picture above, has details about some of them). For fans of the comic book, some of the story line borrows from the Extremis storyline although there are some significant changes.

The movie is the longest of the trilogy and might have benefitted from a bit of judicial trimming in the middle third. The final battle, which consists mostly of Tony’s suits flying about battling super soldiers infected with Extremis who are super strong and can shoot fiery breath from their mouths is spectacular but similarly overlong.

The reason to go see this is not just the eye candy however, although there is plenty of that. It’s Downey and a pretty dang well-written script. While I personally think the first Iron Man was better than this on a number of different levels, this one is a slight improvement on Iron Man 2 and while there isn’t a fourth film on the immediate horizon (word comes that Disney is in negotiation with Downey to extend his contract which expired after this film – if not just for future Avengers movies) the credits clearly state that Tony Stark will return. I for one look forward to it.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific action sequences. Explores whether the hero is the suit or in the suit.

REASONS TO STAY: Runs a little too long; could have used a bit of editing.

FAMILY VALUES:  Superhero violence and some sexually suggestive content. Fine for all but the very youngest comic book fans in your household.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The dragon tattoos on Aldrich Killian’s chest are actually drawings of Fin Fang Foom, an Iron Man villain from the comic books.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/9/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100; the movie is getting solid reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spider-Man 2

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Sightseers