The Marvelous Brie Larson — #6

Welcome back to another edition of my latest Actor Profile, The Marvelous Brie Larson, a monthly series revolving around the silver screen performances of one of my favorite actresses. If you are a newcomer to this series, the idea behind this feature is to bring attention to a specific performer and their skill sets and to see how they contribute to a story.

For the penultimate installment in my Brie Larson spotlight I’m focusing on a black comedy from British director Ben Wheatley. Considering I have seen only two of his seven films — High Rise and Free Fire — I am not what you would call a Ben Wheatley expert. But what I’ve seen of his work so far has been enough for me to consider him a pretty unique director. Again, it’s a small sample size but I’ve really enjoyed how distinctly different these two movies are. Pure, unbridled chaos and pitch-black comedy seem to be the only things these movies from the mid-twenty-teens have in common. Well, that and if getting a lot of high-profile actors to be in your movie is a talent, Wheatley is most definitely talented.

Free Fire is his first movie “set” in America, though the old print factory in Brighton, England makes for a perfect stand-in for a Boston warehouse. It’s an action-driven movie that plays out as if Guy Ritchie directed Reservoir Dogs, where the schadenfreude is in greater abundance than the bullets and the blood. Best of all, in a movie that features a ton of recognizable names, Brie Larson gets to play a significant role in it and she kills it — quite literally.

If you haven’t caught up with the dark pleasures of Free Fire, it’s streaming on Netflix right now.

Brie Larson as Justine in Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire

Role Type: Lead

Genre: Action/comedy/crime

Premise: Set in Boston in 1978, a meeting in a deserted warehouse between two gangs turns into a shoot-out and a game of survival.

Character Background: Justine, a kind of peacekeeper and one-woman coalition for reason and logic, was originally meant to be played by Olivia Wilde, but she ended up dropping out. I think Wilde is a really strong actor but I can’t see anyone else in this role. Larson’s eye-rolls and natural ability to deliver sarcastic quips are real treasures of this movie. Alongside her American, side-burned colleague Ord (Armie Hammer), she’s here to broker a black market arms deal between the IRA (represented primarily by Cillian Murphy) and a South African gun runner (played deliciously over-the-top by Sharlto Copley), one that goes hopelessly and hilariously awry thanks to an unforeseen event.

The screenplay (by Wheatley’s wife Amy Jump) provides her a really interesting arc. Justine is the lone woman amidst a pack of egotistical, volatile and fairly unsympathetic men. Early on she’s predictably dismissed as just a bit of scenery. When she’s not being referred to as “doll,” she’s being asked out to dinner in what has to be one of the least appropriate ask-someone-out-for-dinner situations ever. While her costars are by and large quick to demonstrate their instability and their sexism, Larson is keeping tallies, and her character’s own ulterior motives under wraps, waiting for the right moment to demonstrate her own penchant for opportunistic scheming.

Free Fire is a very simple movie, and that’s one of its great strengths. Larson describes it as “an action movie making fun of action movies.” The plot is easy to follow and while all the gunfire eventually becomes kind of white noise it’s the characters that make it worth sticking around for. They may be here for different reasons but the thing they will all have in common, sooner or later, are bullet wounds and injuries.

Marvel at this Scene: 

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 


All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

Dolemite is My Name

Release: Friday, October 4, 2019 (limited)

→Netflix

Written by: Scott Alexander; Larry Karaszewski

Directed by: Craig Brewer

The way Craig Brewer captures the response to Dolemite, the movie-within-his-movie and at least part of its raison d’être, is so warm and uplifting. Yet it’s also quaint if considering today’s cinematic landscape. Cynics like me are tempted to dismiss the ending as too pat and Hollywood but the movie was indeed met with a serenading of sorts from audiences. Dolemitea pulpy, outrageous story about a pimp who breaks out of prison to take revenge on those who set him up, made $12 million on a budget of $100k. It’s gone on to become a cult classic of blaxploitation.

Yet if this heartfelt tribute to pioneering showman Rudy Ray Moore (or Dolemite, if you like) were to be rolled out in a wide theatrical release you wouldn’t struggle to find a good seat today. You can thank superhero movies for your extra leg room and more than the usual choice of good seats. Superheroes (and villains) rule and everything else drools at the numbers they are putting up at the box office. There isn’t a damn thing Eddie Murphy can do about this, even if he is as good as he’s been in years — maybe ever — in Dolemite is My Name, a ridiculous(ly) entertaining ensemble comedy available almost exclusively through Netflix.

Ironically, and despite actually earning a limited run on the big screen (the likes of which won’t draw crowds like you see here, sadly), Dolemite is My Name has perhaps found its ideal stage on your TV screen. Streaming is the ultimate in consumer catering because it gives you a more intimate, “customizable” experience. Imagine sitting in a 200-seat auditorium where everyone has a remote control to rewind their favorite moments in a Peter Jackson epic. Or to back up to try and understand what in blue Hades Sylvester Stallone just mumbled.

I say all of this because this is the kind of movie you’re going to rewind and pause just to bask a little longer in the triumphant return to Delirious-era Murphy. I must have inflated the runtime to something close to two and a half hours as I rewatched his Rudy Ray Moore enthusiastically chop the air around him as he envisions himself not just a star, but a kung fu master in his own movie. The energy Murphy brings and the riffing he does as he becomes his character, a pioneering, wig-donning, cane-wielding motormouth and eventual big-screen star whose name bore the fruit of not one but four Dolemite-centric adventures, is something to behold. And behold again.

Set in 1970s Los Angeles Dolemite is My Name examines the rise of a self-made man as he goes from lowly record store assistant manager by day/MC by night, to the maker of three crass but hugely popular comedy albums, to, yes, “f-ing up motherf–ers” on the big screen. The film divides neatly into two equally intriguing halves. The first hour or so is devoted to the birth of his stand-up persona and his intelligent if profanity-laced sketches that would earn him a substantial fanbase. And credit where credit is due: the writers don’t turn a blind eye to “toastmaster” Rico, a vagrant played by Ron Cephas Jones, who periodically drifts in and out of the Dolphins of Hollywood record store, spitting rapid-fire rhymes about an urban legend named ‘Dolemite,’ an identity Moore assumes as his own alter ego.

The second half focuses on our increasingly spectacularly besuited hero’s ambitions growing beyond touring the Deep South along what was called the “Chitlin’ Circuit.” The narrative blends business and production reality with Moore’s insatiable appetite for nationwide recognition. He gains an entourage, establishes a production facility in the famous Dunbar Hotel and even convinces a big name to direct and co-star in his project-in-making in egotistical yet accomplished actor D’Urville Martin (a scene-stealing Wesley Snipes). Yet it’s not exactly smooth sailing as he attempts to get his ultimate dream realized. Walter Crane (Tip “T.I.” Harris), a film executive, denies Moore’s creative ambition (in appealing to the masses, black actors don’t do camp comedy; they do heart-warming dramas about overcoming their ghetto roots) while the business-savvy Bihari brothers warn him of the grave financial risks of failure.

The major developments unfold in a breezy if occasionally lackadaisical way. It’s a pretty familiar underdog story where obstacles are by and large steamrolled over. That’s in part by design, as an homage to the force of sheer will that was Rudy Ray Moore, but it’s also due to the script by Ed Wood writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, one that prioritizes entertainment over profundity. Their story tends to glide over the surface rather than dive into the depths of Moore’s unhappy and impoverished childhood, providing a line or two about his burning desire to be better than his father. Yet (and I’m just guessing here) this is a more fundamentally sound production about the making of a legend — the so-called “Godfather of Rap” — than its namesake movie was. And unlike its namesake, the performances, not big boobs and kung fu, define this one.

While Murphy is going to get much of the attention (and deservedly so) I have to single out Da’Vine Joy Randolph as well. She plays Lady Reed, a former backup singer who rediscovers her mojo when Moore drops into a night club in Mississippi. Her relationship with the former is integral to the story’s focus not just on confidence but identity in a time when Hollywood was not only overwhelmingly white but upheld that only one body type was “beautiful.” Randolph is never less than convincing and inspiring as she becomes not just a confidante to Moore in his lower moments, but entirely comfortable in her own skin — breaking past her fear of having her figure captured forever in celluloid and simply owning her identity in ways she previously thought impossible.

As stylish as it is raunchy, this 70s-throwback is mostly a testament to the indefatigable spirit that erected a movie star out of a stand-up comic. It’s also an amusing, even insightful look into the moviemaking process, compacting several scenes from the Dolemite franchise into a collage that goes to show what can be done with limited funds, some good friends and an abundance of self-confidence.

Pimp daddy deluxe

Recommendation: Safe in terms of its narrative structure but bold in dialogue (families take note: Dr. Dolittle isn’t catering to your kiddies here) Dolemite is My Name is never less than a pure joy ride to the top, especially alongside an endlessly entertaining Murphy, who comes flanked by a number of highly recognizable names, including but absolutely not limited to Craig Robinson, Mike Epps, Keegan-Michael Key, Titus Burgess and Kodi Smit-McPhee. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “Dolemite is my name; f-ing up motherf-ers is my game.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

20th Century Women

20th-century-women

Release: Friday, January 20, 2017

[Theater]

Written by:  Mike Mills

Directed by: Mike Mills

Fun seems like a clumsy word to describe a film trading in themes such as female empowerment and disaffected youth. But let’s call it what it is; 20th Century Women IS fun. Enlightening, entertaining, satisfying, significant — all the above. It celebrates maturity and individuality with a blitheness that is completely disarming. Therapeutic, even.

Mike Mills’ Oscar-nominated, original screenplay explores the lives of three women living in sunny 1970s SoCal. Former President Jimmy Carter’s “crisis of confidence” speech serves as a tone-setter in this beguiling but often dark dramatic comedy starring Annette Bening as Dorothea Fields, a boarding house landlord who enlists two of her tenants to help raise her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann’s third feature film credit) during a period of sweeping social and political change.

Dorothea is divorced when she gives birth to Jamie at the age of 40. Coming-of-age story is mostly preoccupied with the evolution of this non-traditional mother-son dynamic, in which a substantial age gap presents many a unique challenge as Jamie starts coming into his own. But the film also uses its two other free-spirited principals in Greta Gerwig‘s photographer Abbie and Elle Fanning‘s girl-next-door Julie to stake out greater thematic territory, including gender politics, burgeoning sexuality and personal responsibility — although invariably each subplot circles back to the family dynamic and the challenges of parenthood.

Abbie finds Gerwig in her element, a character with all the hipster affectations and quirks we have come to expect of an actor who’s very much a hipster at heart. Abbie’s journey through the story mines some of the greatest emotional depths, what with her having survived cervical cancer but being told by doctors she can’t have children. Contrast her against Julie, for whom possibilities are almost too endless. She’s a leaf on the breeze, drifting between her own home and Jamie’s bedroom where she frequently spends the night to get away from her psychologist mother who is convinced her daughter’s behavior is diagnosable. Meanwhile Jamie finds himself firmly locked into the Friend Zone.

Billy Crudup also stars as Dorothea’s handyman, playing a role that similarly subverts expectations as a potential father-figure for Jamie. But his influence is frequently subdued by Dorothea who argues Jamie doesn’t need a male role model. That’s why she tapped the girls for their help. (Speaking of Crudup — how Almost Famous is his ’70s ‘stache in this movie?) Her would-be suitor isn’t on an island though; William is also in constant search of that thing that will give his life meaning.

Mills outfits a compelling story with an authentic, nostalgic retro flare. Black-and-white Polaroids occasionally punctuate the frame, convincingly meshing Bening’s ambassador for independent women with examples of actual people living the real thing; the use of soft color and lighting creates a visual collage of a bygone era rich in period detail. The soundtrack is an experimental mix of the California sound and punk-rock bands fighting back against the establishment. The harmony that is created out of all these elements is what is going to earn Mills a rightful spot amongst the Cameron Crowes and Richard Linklaters of the industry.

Scrapbook-like flourishes also downplay the weight of the material without ever distracting from or trivializing it. 20th Century Women is more often than not an upbeat adventure but don’t let all the conviviality trick you into thinking the movie takes its material lightly. This is a movie that wants to erase the word taboo from the dictionary. Bening fearlessly steers us through the rough waters of belated parenthood and single motherhood. Performances are uniformly outstanding, but she’s the rock, the rock her son so desperately needs, especially in these confusing times.

20th-century-women-1

4-5Recommendation: Refreshingly forward-thinking movie eschews traditional gender roles and provides an incredible showcase for Annette Bening’s considerable talents. I want to say all these fancy things about this movie, but what I need to emphasize is just how thoroughly enjoyable it all is. I really loved this movie. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 119 mins.

Quoted: “Wondering if you’re happy is a great shortcut to being depressed.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Blindspot 2017

blindspot-logo

Peer pressure strikes again, people. I’m doing a Blindspot list this year. That’s right. Twelve films, one reviewed per month. I’ve seen so many fascinating lists over the past several years and finally I think I’m ready to tackle one of my own. It’s an inspired idea, and someone should get a sticker or something for conceptualizing this popular blog trend. What a great way to discipline yourself into tackling that ever-growing list of Movies I Should Have Watched, Like, Yesterday. It’s also a good way of diversifying your tastes. I’m not sure if any title on this list is a real stretch for me, many of them fall under genres I’m predisposed to enjoying anyway, but the vast majority of this list is comprised of things I know I absolutely should have seen by now — barring one or two curios I’ve been interested in ticking off even knowing they are going to be, in all likelihood, somewhat forgettable. The goal wasn’t to create a list of potentially life-changing films. No matter their relevance or durability, I’m motivated to get started here! I hope you all will follow along with me.

I present to you my Blindspot list for 2017*:


January 

defiance-movie-poster

Release: Friday, January 16, 2009

Plot Synopsis: Jewish brothers in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe escape into the Belarussian forests, where they join Russian resistance fighters and endeavor to build a village in order to protect themselves and about 1,000 Jewish non-combatants.  

Review now available here 


February

alive-movie-poster

Release: Friday, January 15, 1993

Plot Synopsis: A Uruguayan rugby team stranded in the snow swept Andes are forced to use desperate measures to survive after a plane crash.

Review now available here


March**

trainspotting-movie-poster

Release: Friday, August 9, 1996

Plot Synopsis: Renton, deeply immersed in the Edinburgh drug scene, tries to clean up and get out, despite the allure of the drugs and influence of friends.

Review now available here


April

metropolis-movie-poster

Release: Sunday, March 13, 1927

Plot Synopsis: In a futuristic city sharply divided between the working class and the city planners, the son of the city’s mastermind falls in love with a working class prophet who predicts the coming of a savior to mediate their differences.

Review now available here


May

what-about-bob-movie-poster

Release: Friday, May 17, 1991

Plot Synopsis: A successful psychotherapist loses his mind after one of his most dependent patients, an obsessive-compulsive neurotic, tracks him down during his family vacation.

Review now available here


June

once-upon-a-time-in-the-west-movie-poster

Release: Friday, July 4, 1969

Plot Synopsis: A mysterious stranger with a harmonica joins forces with a notorious desperado to protect a beautiful widow from a ruthless assassin working for the railroad.


July

swingers-movie-poster

Release: Friday, October 18, 1996

Plot Synopsis: Wannabe actors become regulars in the stylish neo-lounge scene; Trent teaches his friend Mike the unwritten rules of the scene.

Review now available here


August

Imprimer

Release: Friday, January 7, 2011

Plot Synopsis: A cop turns con man once he comes out of the closet. Once imprisoned, he meets the second love of his life, whom he’ll stop at nothing to be with.


September

reservoir-dogs-movie-poster

Release: Friday, October 23, 1992

Plot Synopsis: After a simple jewelry heist goes terribly wrong, the surviving criminals begin to suspect that one of them is a police informant.

Review now available here 


October

cujo-movie-poster

Release: Friday, August 12, 1983

Plot Synopsis: Cujo, a friendly St. Bernard, contracts rabies and conducts a reign of terror on a small American town.

Review now available here


November

the-usual-suspects-movie-poster

Release: Wednesday, August 16, 1995

Plot Synopsis: A sole survivor tells of the twisty events leading up to a horrific gun battle on a boat, which begin when five criminals meet at a seemingly random police lineup.

Review now available here


December

downfall-movie-poster

Release: Friday, December 31, 2004

Plot Synopsis: Traudl Junge, the final secretary for Adolf Hitler, tells of the Nazi dictator’s final days in his Berlin bunker at the end of WWII.

* subject to change based on availability 

** not original line-up; I have switched out March and May, in anticipation of the Trainspotting sequel  


All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com

High-Rise

high-rise-movie-poster

Release: Friday, May 13, 2016 (limited) 

[Netflix]

Written by: Amy Jump

Directed by: Ben Wheatley

Chaos reigns supreme in Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, an adaptation of the 1975 novel penned by British author J.G. Ballard who envisioned a microcosm of society confined within a 40-story-tall luxury apartment building. After nearly four decades and several failed attempts at adapting material many considered ‘un-filmable,’ Ballard’s anarchical dreams have finally found a home on the big screen in 2016.

Despite several familiar trends, the 1970s-London-set High-Rise manages to differentiate itself by presenting an atypical dystopian society. Rather than prisoners of a faceless, nameless system, people are more often than not victims of their own circumstances, organized within the building according to their financial standing: the wealthy live on the top floors while the poor occupy lower levels. This isn’t a prison, for tenants haven’t been forced to abandon the conveniences of modern living nor have they been brainwashed into disassociating with the outside world. Rather, disaffection has occurred naturally, the conveniences of the building allowing those inside to gradually lose interest in anything it doesn’t provide. Additionally, and although it certainly feels like it at times, this isn’t a post-apocalyptic environment; the people who fill the frame represent only a fraction of society, those who we can safely assume actually wanted to come live here.

High-Rise is a movie of striking visual design, at times to a fault. Indeed, the building is a character unto itself, a looming entity with its upper five or ten floors precariously off-set from the rest. One look at this feat of civil engineering and you’re smitten. Even though it’s precisely the kind of physics-defying curiosity that has become old hat in these sorts of movies, the tower looks and feels right at home in our world. The cold, metal-gray interior features all the amenities you could imagine: shopping markets, gyms, pool-and-spa areas; there’s even a primary school. Parties are regularly thrown, often spilling over between floors, necessarily suggesting different economic classes still have the freedom to associate with whomever they so choose.

Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) is our way into the building. A 25th-floor resident, Robert is a lecturer on physiology and commutes daily to and from the city. He allows himself some distance from other people until his upstairs neighbor, single mom Charlotte (Sienna Miller), makes her presence known. The two quickly fall into a romance that eventually allows Robert to get to know her young but strange son Toby (Louis Suc). The first third of the film establishes the world inside this place and sees him getting acquainted with a few other eccentrics, including the Wilders, a family whose station in life seems to be being stuck on the bottom floor. Richard (Luke Evans) is a documentarian with a screw loose and more than a few probing questions. His wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) is heavily pregnant and wishes Richard weren’t always out getting himself into trouble.

Robert soon finds himself summoned to the penthouse, where high rise architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) and his socialite wife Ann (Keeley Hawes) live. Well, flourish really. He’s brought up for an opportunity to get to know some of the building’s more prestigious fellows, a networking opportunity if you want to call it that. In some ways Hiddleston’s place within the narrative, especially with regards to his association with such characters, feels reminiscent of Jonathan Pine and his fraternization with dangerous types in the brilliant TV mini-series The Night Manager, a John le Carré adaptation in which a former British soldier is recruited by MI6 to infiltrate the ranks of a notorious international arms dealer in order to bring him down.

While a sense of impending doom is distinctly lacking with regards to Robert’s situation, part of the crux of this story does concern an evolving perception of who the doctor really is, particularly as he begins currying favor with some of the elites. (He even gets to play a game of squash with Mr. Royal!) It’s no coincidence his apartment is almost smack-dab in the middle of the building. The metaphor is almost too overt: Robert’s not like the rest, he plays as though the rules don’t apply and thus finds himself in the precarious position of not caring whether or not he improves his current life. His physical location within this building, like it does everyone else, says a lot about the opportunities he has been afforded.

This puzzling drama is an exercise in random visual stimulation, so it’s fitting that the central conflict arises haphazardly as well. It takes three months from the day Robert moves in for the social infrastructure to fail. Specifically what triggers the collapse isn’t made clear, but basic necessities are the first to go: electricity, clean water, food supplies, proper garbage disposal. A man throwing himself from the 39th floor onto the hood of a car is the most apparent indicator of things starting to go awry. And later: complete pandemonium as the irascible Richard Wilder stages a revolution to take down Royal, who he believes is the one responsible for things falling apart. More perceptive viewers will notice that, while all of this is going on, police are nowhere to be seen.

Lang isn’t exactly immune to the insanity, and it’s in his slow slide into a state of acceptance that maybe . . . just maybe, Royal’s plans aren’t completely sinister, that in some weird way society itself is what has failed him and failed the building. Wheatley ensures our perspective on the matter aligns with Robert’s, a tactic that allows us to remain as close to impartial as possible. And it’s not like Robert isn’t flawed himself. As the level of chaos increases we see his behavior change as well. A scene in the grocery store is particularly memorable, exhibiting a side of the doctor we haven’t yet seen: angry, desperate, and violent. He’s become overwhelmed by the survival instinct, protecting what matters most to him — in this case, a bucket of paint. At this point we are well beyond rules. Society is now left to fend for itself as Royal and his cronies continue to look for a way to improve the facilities.

High-Rise is an intensely visual piece that doesn’t quite resonate as the profound sociopolitical allegory it was clearly set on becoming and that the book has been heralded as. Nonetheless, it approaches a familiar subject with a gusto that allows us to overlook the fraying edges, offering up a hallucinatory experience that is as unpredictable as it is entertaining and thought-provoking.

tom-hiddleston-with-a-load-on-his-face

Recommendation: Fans of the weird and the dystopian need apply. High-Rise gets carried away with itself every now and then, with some sequences beginning and ending so sporadically you want to believe many of the transitions were done this way to add to the disorientation (and maybe this really was the thinking). Well-performed and even better shot. Cinematography is a high point, while Tom Hiddleston’s performance reminds us why this is an actor who should have more work. He’s too good. So is Jeremy Irons, but this is really Hiddleston’s movie. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 119 mins.

Quoted: “There’s no food left. Only the dogs. And Mrs. Hillman is refusing to clean unless I pay her what I apparently owe her. Like all poor people, she’s obsessed with money.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Hands of Stone

'Hands of Stone' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 26, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Jonathan Jakubowicz

Directed by: Jonathan Jakubowicz

Confession time: coming into this I had no idea who Roberto Durán was — ya know, other than the fact he would be the center of attention in Jonathan Jakubowicz’s boxing drama. Do I feel silly now.

Long story short, the Panamanian has been frequently listed as one of the greatest lightweight boxers of all time, a brutal and arrogant fighter who became world champion in four different weight classes — lightweight (1972 – ’79), welterweight (1980), light middleweight (1983 – ’84) and middleweight (1989) — and who fought both for the pride of his country as well as the opportunity to lead a life free from poverty and hunger.

Hands of Stone is standard fare. Rags-to-riches tale traces Durán (Edgar Ramírez)’s rise from troublemaking youngster with a penchant for bareknuckle brawling in the slums of his hometown El Chorrillo to a magnetizing presence inside Madison Square Garden. It also suggests he may not have gone that route sans the physical training and psychological conditioning he received from legendary trainer Ray Arcel (a really good Robert DeNiro).

There’s a lot to become invested with here, not least of which being the backdrop of political tension against which the film is set, one that paints Panama and the United States in a bitter feud over who should have control of the land surrounding the Panama Canal in the years leading up to the Trojillos-Carter Treaty in 1977. The turmoil populates the film nearly as much as the in-ring sequences, though the only time it really feels impactful is in an early flashback in which an 8(ish)-year-old Durán witnesses one of his own getting shot down amidst a mass riot in front of a municipal building.

That scene feels inspired. It’s both intense and visceral, and gives us plenty of reason to get behind el hombre con ‘Manos de Piedra’ early on. That same mechanism for empathy grows more interesting as Ramírez’s notably excellent performance steadily reveals there are many aspects to his character that you just can’t support. It’s a performance that treats the boxer like a human, deeply flawed and at times quite unlikable, sculpted very much by his harsh upbringing and, later, further scorned by the business of boxing at large.

DeNiro inhabits the trainer with the confidence and emotional heft you come to expect from the veteran — veteran, in this case, being applicable both to his experience in film as well as around the ring. A raging bull he is obviously not here, and don’t expect him to jump into the ring and throw any cheap shots on his fighter’s behalf. Finding him on the other side of the ropes, however, is by no means an indication of a career trend. Time and again DeNiro reminds his fighter (and us cheering in the peanut gallery) that boxing is as much about the head as it is about the fists. He brings a strong “kid, just think for a second!” psychology to the narrative, a kind of paternal figure that Durán often seems to enjoy ignoring in favor of reverting to his more natural, street tendencies.

The characters are quite strong in Hands of Stone. Maybe not as strong as stone, but they’re memorable. And if not memorable, attractive: Ana de Armas as wife Felicidad Iglesias begins life in the movie as a hard-to-get type in a schoolgirl get-up, but she’s not as vulnerable as she looks. She’s smart and has plenty reason to shun a man coming from a much less fortunate background. Unfortunately she does get reduced to precisely the kind of trophy wife archetype you would expect. When she’s not being shoved into the background, Cuba’s very own Scarlett Johansson has great presence.

Regrettably Jakubowicz adopts a very workmanlike approach to both the study of a life less ordinary, and he doesn’t handle the significance of Durán’s fights very confidently. A few major moments are worth mentioning, like the infamous November 1980 rematch between Durán and former lightweight world champion Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond IV), during which Durán abruptly stopped fighting, refusing to “fight a clown.” Despite moments of intrigue inside it, the saga out of the ring plays out like one long run-on sentence. There’s a great deal of contrivance in the construction, not to mention more than a few sequences feel haphazardly sown together. There are other similarly nagging issues but I’ll just get over those.

Because, let’s get real: boxing movies are, more often than not, only as good as the fights themselves, and though Hands of Stone doesn’t offer any true hard-hitting moments, they’re staged well enough thanks to a sound effects team that knows how to deliver the devastating power behind Durán’s fists. I felt I got to know this guy fairly well; I only wish Jakubowicz could have been able to deliver the same kind of power with all aspects of his film.

hands-of-stone-3

Recommendation: Ramírez brings the intensity and passion, DeNiro gets in touch with Arcer’s Jewish heritage and gets to spout some Yiddish (which is just . . . amazing, by the way, if you’ve ever wanted to hear DeNiro calling people schmendricks), and Ana de Armas sizzles. The characters are strong, but the story leaves a lot to be desired.  

Rated: R

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “No más.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.variety.com 

Janis: Little Girl Blue

'Janis - Little Girl Blue' movie poster

Release: Friday, November 27, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Amy J. Berg

Directed by: Amy J. Berg

Janis: Little Girl Blue isn’t the whole puzzle but it offers up a lot of significant pieces in its exploration of the life of iconic blues rocker Janis Joplin. The account offers a celebration of a life cut tragically short, packing in as much fascinating archived footage and interviews with famous faces as a 100-minute treatment can afford. Driven by a narrative that entwines tour/concert/backstage footage with letters she wrote to her family about her experiences, the film earns an emotional heft that also makes an otherwise broad documentary feel more intimate.

It’s a travesty that Joplin’s story feels so familiar. Her succumbing to a powerful drug addiction becomes downright surreal when you consider the company she keeps. Jimi Hendrix. Jim Morrison. Alan Wilson — all gone at 27. And that was just the ’70s. You would think a sense of inevitability would actually ruin the experience, and at times the knowledge of the tragedy and that this has happened so many times before (and since) does indeed loom larger than what’s taking place in front of you. Perhaps it is better, then, to think of the overdose in the motel room not so much as a destination but as just another terrible thing that happened to her. (Lest we forget her being voted ‘Ugliest Man’ in a local college paper before Janis Joplin became Janis Joplin.) Of course, it would be callous to write off her death as a footnote. The point is that this life, as writer-director Amy J. Berg thankfully recognizes, represents much more than a statistic.

Because it doesn’t focus on her passing or use the documentary format as yet another platform for stigmatizing drug abuse (though it certainly doesn’t support it), Little Girl Blue is more often than not upbeat. The singer is larger than life both in personality and reputation, her presence exuberant and ubiquitous. People surround her, if not fellow musicians and bandmates then strangers hoping some of her rubs off on them. Whenever there’s a chance for her to mug for the camera, she does. In frame she’s alluring, a rebellious spark of energy that betrays her small-town-Texas upbringing. Out of frame of course, she’s an entirely different story. When reflected upon, she’s a character in a Shakespearian tragedy.

We start by walking through her high school days where she became a target of vicious bullying not only for her physical appearance — Joplin never was the poster child for femininity but the antithetical nature of her image is partly why the world fell in love with her in the first place — but for her advocacy for racial integration in schools as well. Interviews with younger siblings provide some color to her home life and what motivated the future industrial icon to break free of her Port Arthur roots.

From there it’s a jump into Joplin’s first experiences in San Francisco. We head to North Beach and then to the intersection of Haight and Ashbury Streets, a hippie hot spot, where she’d hook up with many likeminded individuals who took notice of her natural inclination to hang out with the guys rather than the pretty Californian women. Her first stint on the west coast wasn’t great. She became heavily involved with drugs and ended up on a bus back to Texas where she’d vow to overhaul her life and adopt a lifestyle more befitting of her parents’ expectations. As history would have it, that wasn’t meant to be either.

More anticipated chapters unfold soon hereafter. We chat with members of Big Brother and the Holding Company, a psychedelic rock group on the rise (at least as far as the local counterculture of the mid-60s was concerned) and to whom Joplin fully committed herself having gained recognition for the power in her voice and the pain with which she expressed herself having endured a tortured and confusing adolescence. The story then tackles head-on the turbulence of the following years with grace and dignity: the post-BBHC fall-out, the press surrounding her decision to form a new back-up band (who remembers the Kozmic Blues Band?), flirtations with Dick Cavett, the Woodstock gig and fleeting female lovers. The ebb and flow of an infatuation with drugs and alcohol becomes more flow than ebb as romantic prospects similarly come and go.

Away from her personal troubles, mounting pressure within the industry generated by speculation over what Joplin should do with her career continued to drive the nail deeper. What is a girl to do when she becomes bigger than the band she is a part of? One might naturally assume cultural evolution would eventually create an atmosphere of acceptance and comfort. Someone with talent of this magnitude should never have to feel alone but time and again we are reminded of Joplin’s sense of isolation and helplessness as she, as some interviewees put it, grew into a caricature of herself. How much imitation is considered flattery? Was she trying too hard to be the next Aretha Franklin? Should she have stayed with BBHC?

If Joplin were any less interesting an individual Little Girl Blue would suffer from its cookie-cutter design. Along with her spunky personality it’s the little things that help set it apart. Contemporary American singer-songwriter Cat Power gives voice to Joplin’s telegrams. A view from the back of a train as it winds through California hills becomes a motif. And of course the interviews are (mostly) unique to this production. In truth, it just wouldn’t be a bonafide rock-and-roll documentary without a few well-worn edges. Almost obligatorily we have to explore beyond what’s captured on camera. Misery as a motivator. The irony and general strangeness of fame and popularity. Like with a great many acts, Joplin had a serious problem with the post-show comedown. Walking onstage is a totally different experience than walking off of it.

Berg’s efforts shouldn’t be taken as the definitive account of such a pioneering woman, but she has created mandatory viewing for anyone looking for a way to get to know the person behind the music a little bit better. The regular rhythms of a documentary based on the life of a famous person are always present but here they are as powerful as the subject is empowering.

janis-joplin-gq-17jul14_rex_b

Recommendation: Documentary takes viewers on a tour of the many ups and downs of the life and career of one Janis Joplin. While doubtful there’s anything here that long standing fans of the blues/folk rock singer haven’t already been exposed to but the film will be a good crash course for anyone who doesn’t have much history of her. Highlights: loads of archived footage including concert performances and awkward talk-show appearances; great interviews. Lowlights: very little about the overarching narrative comes as a shock. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that this is a retrospective, not a fluff piece. Nor is it a hagiography.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 103 mins. 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.nerdgeist.com 

The Infiltrator

'The Infiltrator' movie poster

Release: Wednesday, July 13, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Ellen Brown Furman

Directed by: Brad Furman

Brad Furman wasn’t looking to infiltrate more elite groups of directors who had earlier tackled the gritty but ever fascinating subject of the drug trafficking epidemic in America when he paired up with Bryan Cranston. That much is clear just based on the relative nonchalance with which The Infiltrator plays out. Things certainly become tense, but it’s nigh on impossible believing our beloved Walter White is ever in any real danger.

That’s probably because we’ve already watched that character endure five seasons of pure adrenaline-fueled drama. Everything we watch U.S. Customs Service special agent Robert Mazur (alias ‘Bob Musella’) go through here as he gets cozy with high-ranking members within the Colombian drug cartel only to bust them in the end, is accompanied by echoes of Breaking Bad, some of which are really loud. In that way The Infiltrator does feel less threatening, and it loses even more leverage given just how strictly it adheres to formula to get the job done. Just don’t call the film uninspired because you know as well as I that Cranston would never let such a thing happen.

The actor manages to convert what ends up being by and large predictable into a fascinating study of character. Mazur enjoys his job even with the danger it brings, but he doesn’t commit to high-risk jobs as a way to escape the doldrums of his home life — he’s happily married with Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey) and dearly loves his daughter Andrea (Lara Decaro). He enjoys what he does for a living because he’s also very good at it. The movie, his “last assignment,” keeps the perspective limited to his own, making all the mingling and consorting and bribery a devoted family man finds himself so naturally doing all the more unsettling.

Also adept at faking the hustle is Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), a stark contrast to Mazur’s poker-faced professionalism. He’s a loose cannon who embraces the potential thrills offered by new assignments. This one could be the mother of all thrills: a take-down of high-priority Colombian drug traffickers working for the one and only Pablo Escobar, ‘El Zar de la Cocaina.’ Their target is Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt), Escobar’s main merchandise handler. Leguizamo is a nice touch as he adds a vulnerability that often veers into comedic relief but the funny is never oversold. Lest we forget, there’s little time for laughter when you’re neck-deep in people who have made careers out of making other, usually more innocent people disappear, often in horrible ways.

The story is fairly straightforward and there will be no surprises for those even moderately well-versed in crime dramas. And those who are probably know that these kinds of movies are only as good as the threat that our good guys are up against. The Infiltrator comes heavily armed with Bratt’s quietly brutal Alcaino and a whole assortment of unstable, varyingly psychotic drug-addicted personalities. Villains are more than just caricatures; the seedy side of life is depicted matter-of-factly and bloodshed isn’t shown to up the thrill count. It’s there to shock and shock it does: the “auditioning” scene is a particularly blunt and cruel microcosm of the world into which Musella has stepped.

The Infiltrator is universally well-acted. On the home front, Aubrey’s Evelyn is a fiercely strong woman who must confront the realities of her husband’s unique profession. Not knowing what kind of a person she’s going to be greeted at the door with night in and night out evolves into a narrative of great concern and Aubrey sells that anguish well. Mazur/Musella reports regularly to Special Agent Bonnie Tischler, played by a possibly never-better Amy Ryan who clearly relishes the opportunity to play the golden-gun-carrying, tough-as-nails U.S. Customs special agent who takes no bullshit from anyone. And Diane Kruger rounds out a strong ensemble playing Kathy Ertz, an agent who’s never gone undercover before and finds herself helping Mazur keep his own story straight.

Stylish, genuinely gripping and sensationally well-performed, Furman’s exploration of the American drug trafficking epidemic can’t escape familiarity but it doesn’t have to when it’s so successful proving why certain well-traveled roads are the ones to take. I loved this movie for its complete and utter lack of pretense. It never tries to be anything it’s not.

Bryan Cranston gets mean in 'The Infiltrator'

Recommendation: Fun might not be the best word to throw around when talking about the escalating drug trafficking crisis but The Infiltrator makes the experience . . . shall we say, worth the while. As if there were any doubt, the performances are what make this movie a must-see for anyone who enjoys what the former Malcolm in the Middle dad is doing with his career these days.

Rated: R

Running Time: 127 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Decades Blogathon – Taxi Driver (1976)

 

Mark closes out the 2016 Decades Blogathon with a fantastically written piece on Martin Scorsese’s seminal 1976 crime drama Taxi Driver. Be sure you don’t miss it by visiting the link below! Thank you.

three rows back

Decades Blogathon Banner 20161976So this is the end; the final day of the Decades Blogathon – 6 edition. Thank you once again to everyone who made this such a great blogathon. My biggest thanks goes to my partner in crime on this enterprise – Tom from Digital Shortbread. We had a blast with this in 2015 and this year’s event has been just as much fun. The blogathon focuses on movies that were released in the sixth year of the decade and it’s my turn to focus on Martin Scorsese’s seminal 1976 classic Taxi Driver.

Looking to the Academy Awards as a critical barometer for the best films of a given year is, for the most part, as redundant an exercise as swimming through treacle.

The list of Oscar clunkers is long and ignominious and among the most glaring is the dearth of statuettes awarded to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. A…

View original post 911 more words

The Nice Guys

'The Nice Guys' movie poster

Release: Friday, May 20, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Shane Black; Anthony Bagarozzi

Directed by: Shane Black

Well, they’re not quite Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang but The Nice Guys squeak in at a close second, offering up liberal doses of hilarity and action that’s more fun than perhaps it ought to be. Which just leaves Iron Man 3, screenwriter Shane Black’s only other directorial credit, coming in at a relatively distant third.

To Black’s debut crime comedy The Nice Guys owes a great deal, not least of which being the awkward disposal of a corpse, a neon-lit film noir tilt, and the constant banter and infectious chemistry between its starring duo — in this case, Ryan Gosling and hey, what’s this, Russell Crowe? That’s right. Crowe does indeed have a funny bone in his body, and it’s a big one.

Los Angeles in the 1970s. Porn stars and private eyes. Privatized businesses colluding. Birds choking on polluted air. Two private investigators stumble into a possible murder/suicide plot involving a once-prominent female porn star (Murielle Telio), who may or may not be one in a string of victims associated with the shady production and distribution of a new skin flick. When surly, prone-to-violence Jackson Healy (Crowe) discovers there’s another detective trying to get his beak wet on the action, he requests that Holland March (Ryan Gosling) cease and desist . . . by snapping his arm. (As any self-respecting P.I. must.)

It’s a classic case of the odd couple and, despite the familiar blueprint, what follows proves to be among the crème de la crème of the buddy-cop genre. Holland, a single father whose precocious teen daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) consistently calls him out on his bullshit, has the slick suit and a nice house — one he claims they’re just renting while he rebuilds the old one that burned down — and a solid(-ish) reputation around town to lose if this investigation goes south. Jack Healy, on the other hand, is considerably less mannered (and less licensed), towing a fine line between bad guy and misunderstood loner. In short, they make for two equally compelling characters, both destined for a redemption of sorts, that make the occasionally tedious two-hour runtime all worthwhile.

The Nice Guys is moulded by classic buddy cop comedies of old — the likes of detectives Riggs and Murtaugh aren’t very deeply buried inside this nostalgic throwback to the ’70s.  But it also functions effectively as a period piece. The milieu is undeniably retro, though seeing is only part of the believing here. Catch yourself grooving to a pop/funk-infused soundtrack featuring the likes of The Bee Gees, The Temptations and a wonderfully timed Earth, Wind & Fire classic while the sporadic placement of movie titles that would go on to define the decade entrench us further in times that will never be again.

It’s only around the hour-and-forty-minute mark we experience a lull in between major action/comedic set pieces, the best of them all arguably lying in wait at the very end. But even during the slower moments the young Rice provides a welcomed respite from all the foolish antics that pervade. Here’s a character well worth embracing if not for her intelligence then for her morality: “If you kill that man, Jack, I will never speak to you again.” She’s talking, of course, about the primary antagonist of the film, Matt Bomer’s suitably psycho John Boy, a man who has a vested interest in retrieving the film reel her father and Healy are after (but not for the reasons you’re probably thinking). Rice’s character is something of a role model for young girls, offering up a performance that is all too rare in these kinds of movies. She is absolutely fantastic.

The farce occasionally borders on cartoonish, but then again Black always seems to teeter on the edge of self-parody. Playing it fast and loose works so well for him, and it certainly works well for the two leads. Using this as a barometer, the summer slate has a lot to live up to in terms of delivering pure escapist entertainment.

Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 12.17.55 AM

Recommendation: Gleefully farcical and profane in equal measure, The Nice Guys will best serve fans of Shane Black’s brand of comedy. It recalls the spirit of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang while managing to separate itself just enough. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “I think I’m invincible . . . I don’t think I can die!”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com