Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk


War and football: two American pastimes.

War and football: two American pastimes.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Releases for the Week of August 7, 2015


Fantastic Four

FANTASTIC FOUR

(20th Century Fox) Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell, Reg E. Cathey, Tim Blake Nelson, Dan Castallaneta. Directed by Josh Trank

Four young researchers who are experimenting with a transporter device end up in an alternate dimension where things go very badly for them. They do return home, but they’ve been  changed fundamentally – all four of them have amazing powers. While sinister government forces plot to use these youngsters for their own ends, the fantastic four intend to use their powers their own way and on their own terms – to fight a super-powered villain more powerful than they are individually but only together will they beat Dr. Doom. This more serious-minded reboot by the director of Chronicle has gotten really horrible early reviews, although it should be said that most reviewers are less than enthusiastic about the superhero genre in general.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a promo here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Superhero
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi action violence and language)

Bangistan

(A A Films) Jacqueline Fernandez, Rajesh Sharma, Ritesh Deshmukh, Pulkit Samrat. The fictional country of Bangistan is a nation divided; the Muslims on one side, the Hindus on the other but there is hope; a Karma conference which is being attended by the spiritual leaders of both sides may bring the nation together but there are those who would rather see it torn apart. Each side, unbeknownst to the other, sends a human bomber to put an end to peace. Fortunately, each of the bombers is a complete nincompoop and neither is too anxious at the prospect of blowing themselves up in the name of ideology.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks
Rating: NR

Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection “F”

(FUNimation) Kyle Hebert, Chris Ayres, Sean Schemmel, Monica Rial. The 20th feature film in the Japanese anime franchise brings back one of the most notorious villains in the franchise. After being resurrected following his death, Frieza plots his revenge against the Z Fighters with the eventual plan to take over the planet, but Goku, Vegeta and the rest of the Fighters aren’t about to go down without a fight.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (special engagement; opened on Tuesday)
Genre: Anime
Now Playing: AMC Downtown Disney, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Cobb Plaza Cinema Cafe, Regal Pointe Orlando, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: NR

The Gift

(STX Entertainment) Jason Bateman, Joel Edgerton, Rebecca Hall, Busy Phillipps. The lives of a married couple are thrown into turmoil when a chance encounter with an acquaintance from the husband’s high school days turns into something more terrifying. The husband, you see, is harboring a horrifying secret and the acquaintance, through a serious of mysterious gifts, is going to make sure that secret comes back to haunt him. This is not only Edgerton’s directorial debut but also the first release from new mid-size distributor STX.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for language)

Irrational Man

(Sony Classics) Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Jamie Blackley, Parker Posey. The latest film from Woody Allen is about a distraught philosophy professor who falls for two very different women. Feeling that nothing he has accomplished in his life has made a difference, he takes no joy out of life but when he overhears a stranger’s conversation, it leads him to make a momentous choice that will affect all three of them profoundly.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: AMC Downtown Disney, Amstar Lake Mary, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Epic Theaters of Clermont, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Pointe Orlando, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: R (for some language and sexual content)

Ricki and the Flash

(TriStar) Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer, Rick Springfield. Ricki had a husband and children but she also had a dream of rock and roll stardom. She has chased it all her life and it has cost her everything and like most rock and roll dreams, has not returned the stardom she envisioned. Making a living as the guitarist and singer for a bar band, Ricki returns home when she finds out her daughter is undergoing a crisis. Determined to be the mom she never was, she attempts to build bridges with all of her children but that’s far easier said than done. The latest from director Jonathan Demme was written by Diablo Cody and features Streep’s real-life daughter as her onscreen daughter.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material, brief drug content, sexuality and language)

Shaun the Sheep Movie

(Lionsgate/Aardman) Starring the noises of Justin Fletcher, John Sparkes, Omid Djalili, Richard Webber. The newest feature from Britain’s stop-motion experts Aardman Studios features their beloved character Shaun the Sheep, who lives in the English countryside with the Farmer. The Farmer is all about getting the work done; Shaun wants nothing more than a day off. When his plot to put the Farmer to sleep goes awry, the Farmer ends up in the big city without any memory. It will be up to Shaun, his flock and the ever-vigilant dog Bitzer. Cinema365 was treated to an advance screening and you can read my review here.

See the trailer, a clip and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opened Wednesday)
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG (for rude humor)

Srimanthudu

(Eros International) Mahesh Babu, Shruti Haasan, Rajendra Prasad, Jagapati Babu. A wealthy man has everything – but his soul feels empty. When he comes upon a small village by chance, he realizes that he can affect profound change on the lives of the villagers. However, there are those who would not see him spend his millions in that way.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Action
Now Playing: Touchstar Southchase
Rating: NR

The Wolfpack

(Magnolia) Bhagavan Angulo, Govinda Angulo, Narayana Angulo, Mukunda Angulo. Seven brothers are confined to their Lower East Side Manhattan apartment, home schooled and having rare contact with the world outside the walls of their apartment. Their isolation and loneliness is eased by elaborate re-enactments of their favorite movies using props from around the house. When one of the brothers manages to escape this existence, the dynamics in the household are changed.

See the trailer and stream the full movie from Amazon here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: R (for language)

Detachment


Just holding up the wall.

Just holding up the wall.

(2011) Drama (Tribeca) Adrien Brody, Marcia Gay Harden, James Caan, Christina Hendricks, Lucy Liu, Blythe Danner, Tim Blake Nelson, William Petersen, Bryan Cranston, Sami Gayle, Betty Kaye, Louis Zorich, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Chris Papavasiliou, Kwoade Cross, David Hausen, Roslyn Ruff, Jerry Walsh, John Cenatiempo, Brenda Pressley, Tiffani Holland. Directed by Tony Kaye

We are challenged in the classroom like never before. Teachers must compete with all sorts of distractions – texts, phone calls, games, the kind of thing that other generations can’t even begin to understand. With shorter attention spans, kids don’t seem inclined to put any effort in to learning which puts other nations – China and India at the forefront – of educating their young people and putting themselves in a position to be the global power in this millennium.

Henry Barthes (Brody) is a teacher, or more to the point, a substitute teacher. He’s been sent to a month long stint in an inner city school where apathy is the word of the day. His predecessor essentially had a nervous breakdown and several other teachers seem to be on the verge of one of their own. Henry strikes up friendships with the acerbic Chuck Seaboldt (Caan) and the pretty but standoffish Sarah Madison (Hendricks).

In the meantime he is trying to inspire gifted artist Meredith (B. Kaye) as well as take teenage prostitute Erica (Gayle) under his wing. These are things that are meant well but still don’t look too good and Henry ends up facing the music for acts of kindness when all he wanted to do was inspire a few kids to achieve, to make something of themselves and to live a life that could have some meaning. Not too much to ask, eh?

Considering the caliber of the cast, the script had to be something spectacular because many of these fine actors get little more than a line or two and yet they are here because they believed in the project, which speaks highly of the original material. Certainly it seems to be an indictment of the public education system, a place in which the problem children are all dumped into the same building and educators are little more than glorified babysitters. Parents who can’t be bothered to show up on parents night are perfectly happy to march into the administrators office and tell the principal (Hardin) – who has already been told to seek employment elsewhere at the end of the year – that the parent is going to have her gang raped. Nice, right?

I’m not sure principals and teachers deal with parents threatening with sexual assault very often in reality, but the apathy of parents and students towards education today is a very real issue that very real teachers deal with on a daily basis. Unlike the movies – including this movie – it takes a lot more than one inspiring teacher to reverse the tide for an entire classroom. Students are people and like most people they react to the same things in different ways. In other words, what’s inspiring for one may come off as cheesy for someone else.

Brody works very hard here and why not? This is the kind of role that’s tailor-made for his talents. It doesn’t hurt that he has Oscar nominees and Emmy winners to work with. He gets plenty of support but make no mistake, this is Brody’s show and he runs with it.

Still, he is hampered by the cliches that show up in so many schoolroom dramas and that kind of offsets his performance. While the heart is in the right place here, there are very few movies that really give us a fly on the wall view in the modern classroom and this isn’t one of them, sadly. While worth checking out particularly if you’re into Adrien Brody, this doesn’t set any new standards in educating the masses about the state of education.

WHY RENT THIS: A uniformly excellent cast. This is right in Brody’s wheelhouse.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little bit cliche in places.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Betty Kaye, who plays Meredith in the film, is the director’s real-life daughter.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is premiere footage from the Tribeca Film Festival as well as studio interviews with Brody and Tony Kaye.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.5M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental/Stream), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy), iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (unavailable), Target Ticket (unavailable)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dangerous Minds
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Taken 3

Kill the Messenger


Jeremy Renner doesn't want Matthew Lintz to hear what he's about to tell Rosemarie DeWitt.

Jeremy Renner doesn’t want Matthew Lintz to hear what he’s about to tell Rosemarie DeWitt.

(2014) True Life Drama (Focus) Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Matthew Lintz, Oliver Platt, Michael Sheen, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Robert Patrick, Barry Pepper, Andy Garcia, Paz Vega, Tim Blake Nelson, Richard Schiff, Ray Liotta, Dan Futterman, Gil Bellows, Aaron Farb, Josh Close, Yul Vazquez, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jen Harper, Jena Sims. Directed by Michael Cuesta

In 1996, Gary Webb was an investigative reporter working in the Sacramento bureau for the San Jose Mercury News. He had been part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team for the newspaper’s coverage of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake.

While covering the trial of a drug dealer (Farb) he is contacted by a beautiful, sexy but mysterious Latina woman (Vega) – the dealer’s girlfriend – who drops off some documents that his lawyer had been given during discovery, documents that clearly had never meant to be given to the lawyer. In it, the dealer had been apparently working for the United States government back in the ’80s as a paid informant – and selling drugs while he was. Not such a big deal until it became clear that the CIA was who he was selling drugs for.

Webb would dig deeper and discover that the proceeds of the drug sales were being used to fund the Contras in the civil war going on in Nicaragua, a war that then-President Reagan desperately wanted to wage and one in which Congress had forbidden him to do so. He would visit Nicaraguan jails, abandoned airfields, chasing his story wherever his leads took him.

With a supportive editor (Winstead), a loving wife (DeWitt) and a son (Lintz) who was as proud of him as could be, he brought all his facts together and wrote a multi-part series called Dark Alliance delineating the ties between the epidemic of crack cocaine that was impoverishing America’s inner cities, the Contra rebels and the Central Intelligence Agency. The Merc’s state of the art website (at the time) proudly pimped the articles for those outside of San Jose to peruse.

It was a bombshell. One of the first new stories to go viral, it brought Webb great acclaim and notoriety. Still, he’s warned by a former CIA whistleblower (Sheen) that the CIA would come after him by making the story not about the facts but about Webb himself. And that’s just what happened. The other major newspapers – the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post – attacked Webb’s reporting and all but insinuated that he’d made the story up out of whole cloth. His own newspaper essentially threw him under the bus, refusing to defend their own reporter and his story even though they had every chance to confirm it during the editorial process. It was not the paper’s finest hour.

In the interest of full disclosure, I myself worked for the Circulation department of the San Jose Mercury News before getting laid off in 2006 after their afternoon edition was discontinued. The events depicted in this movie mainly took place after I’d left and I didn’t know Webb at all (he worked out of Sacramento and I was at the main office in San Jose) although I was acquainted with a number of people in the newsroom including Jerry Ceppos, the managing editor who is played by the great Oliver Platt here.

The movie is trying to be a journalism/political thriller along the lines of a All the President’s Men. Some hold Webb in the same regard as Woodward and Bernstein are held in terms of investigative journalism. There is a curiously flat tone to the movie; Renner as Webb often articulates that his job is to bring the facts to the public and at times it feels like the movie is being directed by Jack Webb (no relation).

As I said, I didn’t know Webb in his Mercury News days and so I can’t say for certain how well Renner portrays the late reporter. His son Eric says that Renner caught his father’s essence and mannerisms to a “T” so I’ll go with his assessment on that. Renner is a passionate actor and this is a passion project for him.

As you can imagine, the movie’s presence has resurrected some of the old debates. Washington Post investigative journalism team managing editor wrote an op-ed last Friday excoriating Webb and calling the movie fiction. Other sources including the Narco News – an online newspaper that reports mainly on America’s war on drugs and other Latin American issues – have fired back, defending Webb. As for you dear reader, you don’t have to take anyone’s word on the veracity of Webb’s work. You can see it for yourself including the supporting documents – all published online in 1996 – at the Narco News here.

Frankly I don’t have the wherewithal to join the debate much. The piece itself remains explosive and controversial, even now. Was Webb a saint who just wanted to expose the truth of evildoers to the shining light of the public eye? In part, yes. By all accounts – even those of his detractors – have made it clear that Webb believed in the importance of investigative journalism and he believed in the truth of his own story. Certainly, it wasn’t perfect and he didn’t get everything right. Nobody does. However in the years since the publication of his work, the eventual repudiation of it and Webb’s eventual suicide in light of becoming unemployable at the job he loved, the essence of his story has been in fact validated. There was a connection between crack cocaine, the Contras and the CIA. How much crack was brought to the streets of Los Angeles and other American urban environments because of this dark alliance will probably never be known for certain.

What the movie does get right however is the decline of American journalism. At one time, the fourth estate existed independently of the other powers of American politics – the legislative, executive and judicial branches. It stood as a kind of advocate for the American people, tilting at the windmills of political hanky-panky and bringing that which was hidden in the boardrooms of industry and the back rooms of politics to the light of day. Today, in 2014, we no longer have that protection. The mainstream media is all owned by large corporations – the Mercury News itself is owned by a hedge fund which in recent days quietly closed down and sold its iconic headquarter building on Ridder Park Drive and moved what little staff remains to a downtown San Jose office building.

It was unheard of back in the day for a newspaper to throw one of its own reporters under the bus, but that’s what Ceppos and the Mercury News did. While in Ceppos’ extraordinary column which some have labeled an apology letter that in effect distanced the paper from Webb’s reporting there was some reference to “failure at every level and at every step” to properly edit the piece and verify the information (despite the presence of corroborating documentation which in what was then groundbreaking transparency was published online), at the end of the day we have since then seen a failure of mainstream journalism to stand up against corruption when it may potentially affect their advertising bottom line. We have seen an unwillingness to stand up against those whose activities cause harm to the public good, or segments of the public. We live in a world where real journalism, the kind that was meant to stand up for all of us, mainly exists on the Internet and is lost in the party-centric shouting of right wing and left wing posturing. In his grave, Gary Webb must be rolling indeed.

REASONS TO GO: Examines the erosion of journalism in this country.
REASONS TO STAY: Disappointing. Confusing at times.
FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of foul language not to mention some drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise at one time expressed interest in the Gary Webb role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/20/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Absence of Malice
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Boxtrolls

Flypaper (2011)


Patrick Dempsey auditions for a TV cop show role.

Patrick Dempsey auditions for a TV cop show role.

(2011) Comedy (IFC) Patrick Dempsey, Ashley Judd, Tim Blake Nelson, Mekhi Phifer, Matt Ryan, Jeffrey Tambor, John Ventimiglia, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Curtis Armstrong, Rob Huebel, Adrian Martinez, Natalia Safran, Octavia Spencer, Eddie Matthews, Rob Boltin, James DuMont, Judy Durning, Joseph Nemmers, Monica Acosta, Kasey Emas. Directed by Rob Minkoff

Greed is a big motivator. It attracts us like a magpie to shiny things. We want more, we want it all. Well, that’s true for some of us anyway.

It’s closing time at a bank which is about to receive a major security software update. Once the doors are closed the bank will be locked down for the night, its security systems offline. The employees are getting ready to go home when a trio of armed bandits come in through the back. They’re well-armed and professional.

As if things weren’t bad enough, a couple more robbers come in through the front door – two bumblers named Peanut Butter (Nelson) and Jelly (Vince). They aren’t affiliated with the other gang – they’re just there to take down the ATMs. Still, you can’t have two gangs in the same bank without a gunfight and that’s precisely what happens. An innocent bystander gets shot and killed in the crossfire, further raising the stakes.

Locked in the bank now, the last customer of the bank, a compulsive man named Tripp (Dempsey) suggests that both gangs can have what they want. An uneasy truce is negotiated between PB&J and their rivals (Phifer, Ventimiglia, Ryan). Tripp and the remaining bank employees – obsequious manager Blythe (Tambor), the creepy security guard (Martinez) and tellers Kaitlin (Judd) and her sassy colleague Madge (Spencer) are herded upstairs and told to wait in a conference room.

But Tripp, the obsessive sort that he is, can’t let go of the nagging thought that there’s someone else pulling the strings. Too many coincidences. So he decides to investigate. That can be a very dangerous thing when amidst trigger-happy thugs who take their place on the FBI’s most wanted list quite seriously.

Minkoff is best-known for directing The Lion King and Stuart Little. He hasn’t done a lot of non-family films and he went after a script penned by the co-writers of The Hangover. This isn’t on par with any of those films except for maybe Stuart Little.

It’s not for lack of effort. Dempsey is one of the most engaging actors today. It’s incomprehensible that he isn’t an A-list star by this point but most of his romantic comedies have done solid but not spectacular business. Here he shows some real skill. His character is full of tics that could easily have overwhelmed the film but Dempsey wisely plays them down and let’s his character serve the story rather than the other way around.

Judd is a usually reliable actress who has been flying under the radar of late. She does a credible job here but she really doesn’t have much to work with. She does have a bit of a romantic subplot with Dempsey’s character but it really doesn’t burn up the screen nor prove to be anything more than a brief distraction.

Nelson and Vince make a good team as Peanut Butter and Jelly, with a kind of earthy bumpkin charm to the both of them. They make an ideal counterpoint to the other three who are straight men with an edge. Phifer deserves better.

There are some real funny moments but not enough of them for my taste. The twists and turns are pretty predictable to the moviegoer with even below average intelligence and the characters other than Tripp aren’t particularly well-drawn. Still, it has its own innate charm and that can’t be discounted. You can seek this out if you’d like to but I wouldn’t spend a lot of time looking for it.

WHY RENT THIS: Dempsey should be a bigger star than he is. Some funny moments.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not enough funny moments. The twists are pretty predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, a fair amount of bad language and some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tripp’s medication, Depakene, is a mood stabilizer normally prescribed for Bipolar disorder patients, implying that is what Tripp is suffering from.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are some one-on-one interviews with members of the cast and crew.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.1M on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dog Day Afternoon

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: The Godfather

O Brother, Where Art Thou?


O Brother, Where Art Thou?(2000) Comedy (Touchstone) George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman, Charles Durning, Holly Hunter, Michael Badalucco, Del Pentecost, Chris Thomas King, Stephen Root, Daniel von Bargen, Frank Collison, Wayne Duvall, Musetta Vander, Mia Tate, Christy Taylor. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

Joel and Ethan Coen have become one of America’s finest filmmaking combos, and for good reason. Looking at their portfolio, you see a common theme of understanding the cadences, rhythms and twangs of American speech, and seeing the cracked side of American life. In films such as Fargo, Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy and Blood Simple, the characters are basically good but not particularly moral — there’s a criminal side to the heroes (with the exception of the Frances McDormand police chief in Fargo) that makes them charming, flawed but still in a realm to which the audience can relate.

Loosely (make that very loosely) based on Homer’s Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou?  begins with convict Ulysses Everett McGill (Clooney) escaping a Mississippi prison farm with his dim cohorts Pete (Turturro) and Delmar (Nelson). They are off to find the loot hidden by McGill from an armored car job before the valley it resides in is flooded by a WPA project. They almost immediately run into a blind seer (Duvall) who predicts that they will find great treasure, albeit not the one they are seeking.

Along the way, they run into a variety of characters, from a one-eyed Bible salesman (Goodman), to a corrupt Mississippi governor running for re-election (Durning) to a blind radio station owner (Root) who records the three convicts singing “Man of Constant Sorrow” which, unbeknownst to the three Soggy Bottom Boys (so dubbed because Delmar and Pete elect to be baptized, to the amusement of McGill) has become a huge hit.

Heck, you even get to meet the manic/depressive Baby Face Nelson (Badalucco). They also run into three larcenous sirens and McGill’s wife, who is preparing to marry a man she considers “bona fide,” which McGill is not. When McGill objects to his wife remarrying and takes issue with her new suitor, he gets soundly thrashed and tossed out of a Woolworth’s, to his humiliation. Indeed, the three Soggy Bottom Boys do find a treasure beyond price, although they don’t realize it at the time.

The Coens capture the period perfectly, and give all the characters enough eccentricities to make them interesting, without making them overbearing. Clooney, in particular — with his obsession about his hair — commands attention. He is not “bona fide,” but that’s mostly bad luck. We root for him throughout and for his two dim-witted sidekicks. This is ostensibly a comedy, but it is a dry wit despite the occasional soggy bottom. The Coens lavish the characters here with interesting eccentricities and the actors repay him with excellent performances.

Refreshingly original, O Brother, Where Art Thou? remains quintessential Coen and those who love their movies, as I do, will love this one. Da Queen and I were laughing till our faces were beet red, particularly during an early train sequence, and at the final performance of the Soggy Bottom Boys near the end of the film. Clooney won a Golden Globe for his performance here, and I think it’s basically from this point he got taken seriously as an actor, as well as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.

The humor isn’t for everyone – some find it a bit too quirky. Still, there are some pretty wonderful country-fried performances from Durning, Badalucco and Root and especially from Goodman, Hunter, Turturro and Nelson and of course Clooney steals the show. I’d never thought of him as a comic actor before this, but he is quite good at it as he has proven in several films since which you can always check out later. In the meantime, enjoy O Brother, Where Art Thou? and anticipate future celluloid from the Coen Brothers

WHY RENT THIS: Hysterically funny in places. Great performance from Clooney. Among the best the Coens have ever done.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If the Coens’ quirkiness isn’t you’re style you won’t like this.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a little bit of violence and a few cursin’ words here and there.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a music video and a featurette that shows how the filmmakers obtained the golden hue that tones the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $71.9M on a $26M production budget; the movie was profitable although given the success of the soundtrack, probably more so than the box office receipts would indicate.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Raising Arizona

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Rashomon

Lincoln


Lincoln

The pressures of being President encapsulated.

(2012) Biographical Drama (DreamWorks) Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Tim Blake Nelson, Jared Harris, Lee Pace, Peter McRobbie, Gloria Reuben. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president, author of the Gettysburg Address and for all intents and purposes, Savior of a Nation, is revered beyond any President this nation has ever known. He is considered by many to be the greatest President in the history of our nation; his face is one of four that adorns Mt. Rushmore and along with Washington is a literal icon of American history.

But with all the praise heaped upon him, the hero worship accorded him, the legendary status given him, we sometimes forget – in fact more than sometimes – that he was a man. In this latest film from Steven Spielberg nearly a dozen years in the making, we are presented with not only President Lincoln but with Abraham Lincoln – father, husband, raconteur, wily politician, lawyer and human being.

We pick up the story as Lincoln (Day-Lewis) is trying to get the13th Amendment passed. This constitutional amendment would ban slavery. The war is in its waning days and he is concerned that his Emancipation Proclamation wouldn’t stand legal challenge which would surely come with the South rejoining the union which is what is expected will happen. He is concerned that will put the country back into the same position twenty years hence and a second civil war would surely destroy the Union utterly forever.

His Secretary of State William Seward (Strathairn) is in agreement and knows that once the South sues for peace which could happen at any time, the Amendment will never pass the fractious House of Representatives (the Amendment had already passed the Senate) and is 20 votes shy of the two thirds majority that is required. The time to get those votes is now; the House is in a lame duck situation with plenty of Democrats being shown the door in recent elections; not having to worry about re-election they could vote their conscience or on a baser level, these men would soon be needing jobs and could be persuaded to see reason with the right offer.

To that end Seward has employed William Bilbo (Spader), a lobbyist from New York whose chicanery is legendary. In the meantime, Lincoln is preparing for his inauguration and welcoming his son Robert (Gordon-Levitt) home from college. Robert is keen on joining the military and doing his duty to his country which Lincoln’s wife Mary (Field) is utterly against; she has already lost one son (in childhood to typhus) and will not lose another. Losing the first one drove her to the point of madness.

Opposing the bill are crafty politician George Pendleton (McRobbie) and firebrand orator Fernando Wood (Pace) from the Democratic side. Thaddeus Stevens (Jones) of Pennsylvania supports it, and is the target of the Democrats who wish the bill to fail. In the meantime, Francis Preston Blair (Holbrook) who founded the Republican party and whose influence can insure all the Republican representatives toe the line, is eager to go down to Richmond and negotiate a peace. Lincoln gives him permission to do so in return for his support.

Blair is in fact successful, getting the Confederacy to send a trio of peace negotiators led by Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens (Haley) but Lincoln orders them kept out of Washington in order to allow the Amendment to pass which it would not if the Congressmen knew that peace negotiations were underway. The clock is ticking and nothing less than the future of the Union is at stake. What will Lincoln do to ensure that future is slavery free?

As it turns out, a whole lot. I have to admit that I was impressed with Lincoln’s political acumen which I didn’t know much about. He was often underestimated by his contemporaries who thought him an uneducated rube from the sticks but in fact even if he was self-educated he was shrewd and had the foresight to understand that a slave economy was a limited economy and that the U.S. would never be able to grow as a nation with one in place. Of course, he also recognized the immorality of it.

But what the movie achieves which to me is even greater is that it brings Lincoln into focus as a man. Not only does Spielberg accomplish this by creating an authentic atmosphere for the tale to be told within, but to allow Day-Lewis – one of the greatest actors of our time – to inhabit the role. I was surprised at the high-pitched voice Day-Lewis uses for Lincoln but contemporary accounts confirm that the Great Emanciptor’s voice was in fact not the sonorous baritone we have come to associate with it. It was more of a tenor.

You get the compassion of the man, but also the frustrations he suffered as both a man – the loss of his son was a blow he never really recovered from – and as a politician. He felt every one of the hundreds of thousands of deaths that occurred during the war keenly and bore their weight on his shoulders. Lincoln has been characterized as an awkward gangly man and Day-Lewis gets the posture exactly. The performance is so massive, so overpowering that you can’t help but feel that this is going to be accorded an Oscar nomination as Denzel Washington’s performance in Flight will be as well. Both performances could easily win it, with the slight nod going to Day-Lewis.

Field also gives a performance that will be given consideration come Oscar time. Mary Todd Lincoln is often characterized as someone whose sanity was on the brink (she would eventually be committed to the sanitarium years after her husband’s assassination) but here she is strong and determined, giving Thaddeus Stevens an earful at a White House function. She is a First Lady without a doubt, one who not only saved the White House from dilapidation but defended her husband like  lioness.

There are some great supporting performances here as well, including Jones, Strathairn, Gordon-Levitt and Holbrook at the fore. While I learned a great deal about Lincoln the man, Lincoln the film never fails to be entertaining. It is a bit long and in places long-winded but you wind up feeling like you know the 16th President a little bit better and admiring him a little bit more. This country could use another President like him and sadly, it will be a long time if ever that we get one.

REASONS TO GO: Humanizes an icon. Another Oscar-caliber performance by Day-Lewis (and Field as well). Informative and entertaining.

REASONS TO STAY: You know how the story ends.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are images of the carnage of war and the brutality of slavery. There’s also some brief strong language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Spielberg spent twelve years (off and on) researching the movie. He recreated Lincoln’s executive mansion office precisely down to the wallpaper and books. The ticking of the pocket watch is Lincoln’s actual watch taken from the Lincoln Historical society – it was the watch he had with him the night of his assassination.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/27/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100. The reviews are extremely positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: 12 Days

CIVIL WAR LOVERS: .A nice re-creation of the bombardment of Wilmington and the battle thereafter. Also a look at the waning days of the war which are rarely captured in Hollywood.

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: The Fifth Quarter

Big Miracle


Big Miracle

Drew Barrymore is not so sure about her big kissing scene with her latest co-star.

(2012) Family (Universal) Drew Barrymore, John Krasinski, Kristen Bell, Dermot Mulroney, Tim Blake Nelson, Ted Danson, Stephen Root, John Pingayak, Ahmaogak Sweeney, Kathy Baker, Vinessa Shaw, Andrew Daly, John Michael Higgins, Gregory Jbara, James LeGros, Rob Riggle, Sarah Palin. Directed by Ken Kwapis

 

Americans sometimes overly admire self-reliance. There’s nothing we love more than a lone wolf taking care of business on his/her own. Situations arise in life however where help is needed. Generally we as a nation despise asking for assistance although there are instances where reaching out is the only way.

Adam Carlson (Krasinski) is a reporter for an Anchorage television station whose current assignment in the winter of 1988 is to go to small towns on the fringes of the 49th State and file reports about life on the last frontier. He has amassed quite a following in the small town of Port Barrow, Alaska where he is finishing up his most recent assignment, particularly from Nathan (Sweeney), a young Inuit lad who is a bit star-struck and looks to be fleeing tiny Barrow for bigger and better things.

Filing one last story, Adam notices something rather peculiar – water spouts coming from a small hole in the ice five miles from the nearest ocean. Upon further investigation, it is discovered that three California Gray Whales are trapped there, cut off from the ocean where their fellows have begun their Southerly migration. In a short time, the hole will freeze over and the whales will drown, having no means of getting air.

The filing of this story causes quite a ripple effect. Greenpeace activist (and Adam’s ex-girlfriend) Rachel Kramer (Barrymore) charges in, guns blazing, in an effort to rescue the whales and alienate the humans who might not necessarily agree with her points of view. One of those is oilman J.W. McGraw (Danson) who has a towable ice hover barge that is only a few miles away; it can break up the ice and carve a path to the ocean for the whales but Rachel and J.W. have had run-ins before over oil drilling rights in Wilderness Preserves.

The national guard has to be mobilized in order to get the helicopters to tow the barge to Barrow, which requires the co-operation of the Governor (Root) who isn’t giving it, until Kelly Meyers (Shaw), one of Reagan’s press coordinators in the White House recognizes an opportunity to improve her boss’s environmental record and give a boost to the Bush campaign (the first George, not the second) and puts pressure on the Governor to co-operate.

Colonel Scott Boyer (Mulroney) is assigned to lead the helicopter team to move the huge barges but it is a dicey proposition at best. Meanwhile, the media is descending on tiny little Barrow to cover what has become an international sensation, including L.A. reporter Jill Jerard (Bell) who like Adam yearns for the big time.

In the meantime, the situation for the whales – dubbed Fred, Wilma and Bam-Bam – is getting more desperate by the hour and it doesn’t appear as if help is going to arrive in time. There is something closer that may well be the only chance for the whales. The trouble is, that it’s a Soviet icebreaker and to allow them to save the day might not be possible in that political climate.

These are based on actual events (Kwapis skillfully intercuts actual footage from the incident) although the plot has been condensed and made Hollywood-friendly. On paper it seems like it could be one of those treacly family movies that just reeks of cliché – dumbed down to kid levels. There is a kid here but unlike most family movies he doesn’t save the day – instead Nathan is taught the beauty of his heritage and learns to value his ethnic background. Otherwise, this is a movie that the whole family can appreciate.

The cast is well-assembled. Krasinski in particular is one of the most likable leads working in Hollywood today and the more movie work he gets, the more likely it is that the small screen is not going to be able to afford him shortly. Personally I think he’s one or two roles from being a huge star.

Barrymore is likewise a reliable lead, albeit further up the wattage ladder than Krasinski. She usually plays ditzy – and there’s a hint of that in Rachel – but she takes the committed environmentalist with tunnel vision cliché (she won’t wear make-up because so much of it is animal tested for example) and rather than make the character a caricature gives her flesh and blood instead. It’s a nice portrayal and illustrates why she’s one of Hollywood’s finest.

Danson, Nelson (as a state wildlife expert) and Baker are all fine actors who never disappoint; Danson is as close to a villain as the movie gets but he’s just so dang likable you wind up kind of wanting him to do the right thing – and not to be much of a spoiler but he does.

In fact, nearly everybody does the right thing here. It’s one of those movies where there are no real villains other than the elements and the conviction and commitment of the people of Barrow and those whom the story touches becomes the real focal point. That’s where the warmth is in the story, despite the chilly setting (which was filmed in British Columbia rather than Alaska).

The whales are portrayed both animatronically (well done) and by CGI (not so well done) and remain more or less on the periphery. Yes, everyone loves them and wants to save them but the people are the focus of the story. It becomes a family film that actually doesn’t pander to the kids at the expense of the adults, but rather treats kids intelligently and expects them to understand what’s happening without drawing in crayon.

I found myself liking this more than I expected to. Originally sentenced to the doldrums of the first release week in January, Universal moved it up into February, perhaps because the movie turned out better than they expected it to. This is good solid family entertainment that doesn’t disappoint the kids or the adults and hopefully, not the studio accountants either. Movies like this are to be encouraged.

REASONS TO GO: An engaging story. Krasinski is rapidly becoming one of the most compelling leads in Hollywood. Doesn’t talk down to its family audience, at least not much.

REASONS TO STAY: CGI whales aren’t always authentic looking.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stephen Root’s Governor Haskell is a fictional character; the governor of Alaska t the time this actually took place was Steve Cowper who was fairly supportive of the rescue efforts.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100. The reviews are solidly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dolphin Tale

INUIT LOVERS: Offers a rare and intimate look at Inuit culture in modern society, specifically in regard to their view about whales and how they use them for food and as a spiritual touchstone as well.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Journey 2: Mysterious Island

Incredible Hulk


Edward Norton

Ol' green eyes is back!

(2008) Superhero (Universal) Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, William Hurt, Tim Blake Nelson, Ty Burrell, Christina Cabot, Peter Mensah, Lou Ferrigno, Greg Bryk, Paul Soles, Debora Nascimento, Robert Downey Jr., Bill Bixby, Brandon Cruz. Directed by Louis Letterier

 

All of us have some sort of demon inside of us. They are of varying size and ferocity, with varying holds on us but we all have one. Some, however, have demons that are far more evident than others.

Dr. Bruce Banner (Norton) is living as inconspicuously as possible in a suburb of Rio de Janiero, working in a soft drink factory. When he is at home, he is doing complex research trying to reverse his condition – when his heart rate goes over 200, his physiology changes, turning him into a green behemoth of enormous strength and agility. Banner had accidentally irradiated himself with gamma radiation in an effort to find ways to regenerate cells but which now the U.S. Army in the person of General “Thunderbolt” Ross (Hurt) wants to create an army of behemoths. Complicating matters is that Banner’s girl is Betty Ross (Tyler), the general’s daughter. Yikes.

Banner runs afoul of some toughs working in the factory and when they attack him and set his heart rate above 200, Banner hulks out just as the army arrives to capture him. Let’s just say it doesn’t go well for the army.

Banner returns to Culver University in Virginia where Betty now works and where she is dating psychologist Dr. Leonard Samson (Burrell). Betty is reluctant to reunite although she clearly still has feelings for Bruce but the suspicious Dr. Samson turns Bruce in and he is captured. But Emil Blonsky (Roth), a British Special Forces agent charged by General Ross to capture Bruce, has taken a super soldier formula and forces Dr. Samuel Sterns (Nelson), a genetecist who has been secretly working with Banner, to inject Banner’s blood into his veins, turning him into an abomination. Only Banner as the Hulk can save the city now.

This movie is inevitably going to be compared to Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk starring Eric Bana in the Banner role; the earlier version is a much more cerebral turn which was excoriated by fans and critics alike, but which I found to be much better than it was given credit for. This new Letterier-directed version is much more action packed, which is what fans wanted. Consequently it got better marks from fans although that didn’t translate into astounding box office.

Norton makes a terrific Banner; thoughtful, haunted and a little bit short on the fuse, temper-wise. There was a fall out between Norton and Marvel over the editing of the movie, causing the actor to distance himself from the film and Marvel to hire Mark Ruffalo for the upcoming The Avengers movie in the Bruce Banner role. One can only wonder what Eric Bana thinks of all this.

The action sequences are spectacular as you might expect although the CGI Hulk is still not quite as effective as he might be. There is more a connection to the Marvel universe here, with Doc Samson and the Abomination both in the mix and Hurt makes am mighty nice villain. This isn’t the perfect Hulk movie, but it’s a very good one and with homages to previous Hulk incarnations (including the Ang Lee version) in various ways, this is a fanboy dream.

WHY RENT THIS: Action-packed and a compelling story to underline it. Norton does a good job with the Banner side.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the CGI doesn’t quite work.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sci-fi/comic book violence and a few frightening images.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Paul Soles, who played Stanley the pizza parlor owner, provided the voice of Dr. Bruce Banner in the animated “Hulk” TV series in the 60s.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: In the Blu-Ray edition, there’s an animated comic book feature that is also a part of the U-Control feature that allows viewers to access behind-the-scenes content while watching the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $263.4M on a $150M production budget; the movie was just shy of being profitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Please Give

Saint John of Las Vegas


Saint John of Las Vegas

Some pictures can't be done justice by a simple caption.

(2007) Black Comedy (IndieVest) Steve Buscemi, Sarah Silverman, Romany Malco, Peter Dinklage, Emmanuelle Chirqui, John Cho, Tim Blake Nelson, Matthew McDuffie, Ben Zeller, Aviva, Danny Trejo, Avu, Josh Berry, Isabel Archuleta. Directed by Hue Rhodes

Sometimes, the most expedient solution to facing one’s demons is to run away. It is also one of life’s truths that the easy way is generally not the right way to deal with problems.

John Alighieri (Buscemi) has a particular demon – gambling. He has lost everything due to his addiction and is desperately trying to find himself a “normal life” and by fleeing the gambling dens of Sin City may have found it in the auto insurance company he finds employment at in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

But what is insurance but a different kind of gambling? And although John has found himself a new girlfriend – the effervescent Jill (Silverman) who is far prettier than John could have possibly hoped for – he still finds himself in need of cash, so his boss Mr. Townsend (Dinklage) gives him a mission for his sins . Okay, that’s a different allegory.

He sends John out into the field to investigate the claim of one Tasty D. Lite (Chirqui), a stripper in Las Vegas. Accompanying John is Virgil (Malco), a taciturn man who is one of the company’s top investigators.

Into the desert they go, where they meet a strange collection of nutjobs and oddballs, like Smitty the Carnival’s Flaming Man whose fire suit has malfunctioned, going off every twenty seconds or so, turning him into an inferno. Smitty has to wait until the fuel is exhausted but has a desperate craving for a cigarette, which isn’t exactly fire-retardant.

Then there’s Militant Ned (Nelson), a nudist with an automatic weapon dead set on preventing anybody from entering his land. And Tasty herself, who is in a wheelchair after her accident; John asks her for a lapdance which she gamely provides.

The whole point, as Virgil informs John, is to find a way to deny the claim. As John discovers, a normal life may be a whole lot less fulfilling and honest than the one he was trying to avoid, one which he meets head-on in the shopping marts and casinos of Las Vegas.

First time filmmaker Rhodes loosely based his script on the Inferno of Dante Alighieri, and all the temptations show up in one form or another – some more obliquely than others. The problem here is that for a black comedy, there’s far more black than comedy. Some of the bits are pretty funny (the Flaming Man bit for example) while others are mere head-scratchers.

Buscemi is perfectly cast, playing a man who is not entirely sin-free who is in a constant state of confusion. Nobody does the guilty conscience like Buscemi. Dinklage as always strong in his role, playing the money-grubbing and bullying boss to perfection. Silverman, also as always, is wasted in a role that plays on her sex appeal but doesn’t use any of her comedic talents.

This is a wildly uneven movie, well-done in some parts and horrible in others. The concept itself is interesting, but when you think about it, how many people know their Dante well enough to really figure out what’s going on, or more importantly, care? In your case, it’s probably a wash; Buscemi is worth checking out but there is little more than that out there that will either make any sense or worse still, elicit any laughter.

WHY RENT THIS: Buscemi, Malco and Dinklage are solid and the quirky characters that show up throughout the film are at least entertaining. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Wildly uneven; some of the bits work like magic, others fall completely flat.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of bad language and a little bit of nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Spike Lee was one of the producers for the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $111,731 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking that the movie was not profitable.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Delgo