The Commuter

Release: Friday, January 12, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Byron Willinger; Philip de Blasi; Ryan Engle

Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra

The Commuter is the fourth time director Jaume Collet-Serra and Liam Neeson have teamed up to deliver you the questionable goods. Sure, it was Pierre Morel’s Taken that discovered the fountain of ass-kicking youth within the 66-year-old actor, but it’s Serra who has really taken that template and run with it, testing its flexibility by placing the aging but clearly still agile action star in a variety of gritty situations. He’s experienced identity fraud, dealt with the Irish mafia and beaten up terrorists at cruising altitude. Though he hasn’t achieved much distinction with this approach, in championing quantity over quality the barceloní is at least giving us options.

Which is why it is so difficult for me to actually recommend something as . . . . bleghhh as The Commuter. Of all the vehicles built around Neeson’s very particular set of skills, the train thus far has proven to be the least effective. Or at least its villains have. The story is also disappointingly a retread of 2014, borrowing everything but the pilots and tray tables in their upright and locked position from that year’s Non-stop. 

In this one Neeson plays an ex-cop named Michael MacCauley who has been working in life insurance for the last ten years. He has taken the train in and out of the city every single day and because he has, Michael begins the film like everyone else, as persona very grata, before invariably getting roped into a murder conspiracy that could have fatal consequences for all. Think you’ve had a bad day? Try having this shoved on your plate after being unceremoniously let go from a job you desperately need.

Moments into yet another ordinary commute home (minus the whole being fired part) Michael is joined by a mysterious woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her capacity) who can’t help but dump the plot all over his lap. In an Agatha Christie way she informs Michael there is one passenger on board who “does not belong,” and that, hypothetically, if he were to locate that person he would be rewarded with $100,000. The catch is he has no idea what the person looks like, the days of profiling complete strangers are far behind him, and (again, hypothetically) he must find the individual before the train reaches the end of the line. When Michael finds a stash of Ben Franklins in a lavatory he discovers that there is nothing hypothetical about this proposal.

Rounding out cast notables are Patrick Wilson and Sam Neill. The former, who reunites with Farmiga for the first time outside the realm of The Conjuring universe, offers a confidante in ex-partner Alex Murphy (like in RoboCop!) when things go all pear-shaped for Michael. Meanwhile Neill is absolutely wasted in the vastly underwritten role of Captain Name’s Not Important. At least one of them is meant to suggest something about corrupt cops and departments, but there’s just not enough material here to get a feel for what is being said about it. Yes, crooked cops. Those are . . . those are bad.

The Commuter should be praised for its commitment to realism — insofar as ‘real’ means mundane, uneventful. Yet that same tactic tends to tip the film itself into mundanity. Despite there being an attempt to survey the moral depths of his character, Michael just isn’t interesting enough to justify the sheer randomness of his involvement. On one hand, the film’s lack of big action feels appropriate, but then it leaves you with plenty of time to ponder on the motives of the villains. Or how many trains derail every year.

Look, what mechanizes these kinds of late-career action films doesn’t have to be some sophisticated scheme nor do they need to be borne out of a sociopolitical movement, but at the very least there should be some kind of weight behind the nefariousness. And if we never do believe the threat is strong enough to actually overpower him, for the love of Qui-Gon at least make the adventure compelling. The Commuter does neither of these things, and as a result leaves fans wanting off at the nearest possible stop.

“My career is running off the rails. Pah. Says who?”

Recommendation: B-grade Serra if you ask me. When much of life is about choice, why would you choose the rather uneventful and dramatically uninspired The Commuter? For those dreaming of the day they get Non-stop set on a train, well . . . . . . . dream no more.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 105 mins.

Quoted: “What’s in the bag?”

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

The Big Short

The Big Short movie poster

Release: Wednesday, December 23, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Adam McKay; Charles Randolph 

Directed by: Adam McKay

When it was announced Adam McKay would be putting his comedic muse Will Ferrell in time out so he could make a film not only steeped in but specifically commenting on the 2008 financial crisis (and the events that precipitated it), I knew there could only be two possible outcomes.

This was boom or bust. The Big Short was either going to be an exciting new direction for the guy who gave us a NASCAR driver with two first names and the Channel 4 News Team    . . . or it was going to be an unbearable misfire, proving the limitations of a director who likes to keep things casual.

It turns out I was wrong. There was actually a third option, a middle ground — the dreaded ‘it was just okay’ territory where you’re not sure whether what you’ve just watched is something you’re going to care about by the time you get to your car. But The Big Short lingers in the mind for at least that long because you just can’t shake the weirdness. It is a weird experience; I mean, really weird. Not in a Rocky Horror Picture Show or Guillermo Del Toro kind of way, where weirdness is beneficial, even a signature.

It’s a film in which weirdness is just off-putting. Events are rooted very much in dramatic realism but tonally McKay prefers going for that whole meta ‘breaking the fourth wall’ thing that made Scorsese’s commentary on the wealth of Wall Street a couple of years ago oh so much fun. He douses character dialogue and interaction with an arrogance that would make Ron Burgundy and Ricky Bobby proud. And, okay, even Jordan Belfort. Key players are more caricatures than characters and they’re this way because McKay doesn’t want to be lecturing audiences with characters who aren’t fun and in that way, relatable.

It’s a film where strippers lament having to pay multiple mortgages and Ryan Gosling can almost pull off the fake tan and hairstyle á la Bradley Cooper in American Hustle. Christian Bale doesn’t have the gut or the really bad wig this time around though.

Working from a script written by Charles Randolph and himself, one based upon Michael Lewis’ 2010 book of the same name, McKay zeroes in on three groups of finance geeks who predict the destabilization and eventual collapse of the national and global economy several years in advance, paying special attention to the precarious state of subprime mortgage loans. The borrowing of money was an issue further compounded by big banks’ frivolous selling of what are known as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), ways of bundling together poor loans in a package those banks would sell to their investors as a way of transferring any responsibility of debt repayment.

Those key players probably could use some sort of introduction. There’s the eccentric Dr. Michael Burry (Bale) who is first seen in the film doing his homework on the health of the housing market in 2005. He’s the guy who realizes he too could profit immensely off of the blindness (or is it just ignorance?) of suits who don’t realize how faulty their investments actually are. He also doesn’t wear shoes in his office and blares loud music whenever he’s crunching numbers.

Sometime later a slithery, opportunistic investor named Jared Vennett (Gosling) catches wind of Burry’s idea and, realizing just how right he is, wants in. Vennett smells blood in the water and taps stock traders like Mark Baum (Steve Carell) to join in on the action. Carell colors Baum as a self-righteous, idealistic man who’s cynical so far beyond his years the question has to be asked: what are you still doing here on Wall Street? His wife Cynthia (Marisa Tomei) repeatedly tells him he shouldn’t try to fix every problem in the world. Baum experiences a crisis of conscience when he realizes how much money there is to be made off of the greedy bankers’ investments, and also realizing the parallels between that reality and the white collar crimes that have been perpetrated to create this entire mess.

There are also two young hot shots who discover the credit bubble and are eager to gain from it. Otherwise . . . it’s back to living at home with mom! Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) are seeking a way to establish their own names so they enlist the help of retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) — this is the wizened old fool who has been sickened by corporate greed and has sworn off of the trade — to help them short up (a.k.a. buy bonds cheap now to sell them for profit later) several high profile accounts.

I know, doesn’t this movie sound like so much fun? It is a credit to McKay and his entire crew that The Big Short maintains any semblance of energy whatsoever, as the story becomes far more bogged down by industry jargon than by the emotions this still raw subject matter is liable to generate in viewers.

Setting aside the inherent complexities of the story, The Big Short is just too much. It’s information overload, and on top of that it’s a whole lot of opinion flying in from all directions. Gosling’s character is entirely condescending and annoying — even more so than the dictionary definitions we must read occasionally on screen (McKay knows most people would be lost without them). Carell is a nervous wreck who challenges his own Michael Scott for most grating characters he’s ever played. Performances are otherwise, for the most part, not all that notable.

Somewhere buried deep inside this hodgepodge of statistics, dramatic license and comedic interplay there is genius. McKay embraces a challenging story with confidence that can’t be ignored, but just as unavoidable is the fact his dramedy is about as strange a concoction as I had presumed it would be, what with a cast that it is essentially split 50-50 in terms of comedic and dramatic talent. If you want to talk about big bailouts, The Big Short definitely benefits from its high-profile personnel.

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Recommendation: An odd and mostly unsatisfying blend of comedy and dramatic realism, The Big Short could very well divide the Adam McKay faithful as it doesn’t quite offer the memorably quotable scripts from times past, but it does suggest the man can do more than just provide a couple of comedians a line-o-rama for 90-plus minutes. Fact-based story is ultimately bogged down by jargon and dizzying editing that makes the whole thing kind of a headache. Disappointing. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 130 mins.

Quoted: “Tell me the difference between stupid and illegal and I’ll have my wife’s brother arrested.”

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

Filth

Release: Friday, April 25, 2014 (limited) 

[Netflix]

Written by:  Jon S. Baird

Directed by: Jon S. Baird 

What’s that old adage — nice guys finish last? Nice guys are also chumps.

James McAvoy as Scottish Detective Sergeant Bruce Robinson added that last part. It wasn’t me. I’m not the guy bumping a line or two before work, before meetings (before anything for that matter); not the guy almost literally cutting throats to get ahead, to get that coveted Detective Inspector promotion. I would never use a woman like Bruce would over a phone. I guess never say never, because I’m not sure what I’m fully capable of.

After all, I did find myself identifying perhaps a little too easily with his self-destructiveness. I found myself enjoying Filth for what it is rather than what it could have been: this is a story that enjoys that last burning cigarette before undergoing chemotherapy for its lung cancer. Nothing like that actually happens (though Bruce enjoys a cigarette for sure) but its reckless abandon and willful sinning is undeniably infectious.

Jon S. Baird drowns his character study in a hallucinogenic spirit that’s as fun as it is toxic. Based on an Irvine Welsh novel, Filth starts off pessimistic and ends accordingly, somewhat miserably. But McAvoy is just so good it doesn’t even matter if the tone vacillates between bleak and upbeat, suggesting a Fear & Loathing in Edinburgh, and that his character is uncharacteristically vile. Consistency isn’t what this relatively low-budgeted production was ever aiming for. It strips away illusion to reveal the ugliness of reality, a man coping with his life after a terrible event. Overcompensating, perhaps, but dealing with it in what may be the only way he can. Rarely is he justified in his actions — his abuse of friends and lady friends is shameful — and his abuse of narcotics and abuse of power while on the job are equally outrageous.

Bruce is assigned to oversee the investigation of the murder of a Japanese student, and though he believes this is the opportunity he needs to advance himself, he begins suffering from a series of emotional setbacks that gradually spiral out of control. Filth revels in squalidity not unlike the self-inflicted nightmare Raoul Duke and his attorney experienced en route to discovering the American Dream of the 1970s. In Filth, a film that seems to try to repel rather than entice — those who like their stories upbeat and expect some sort of method to the madness ought to give this a miss — things go from bad to worse and when they don’t seem to be able to get any more disorienting there’s always Jim Broadbent as Dr. Rossi to ensure Dorothy continues tumbling down the rabbit hole.

Filth isn’t particularly ambitious, despite the commitment from its lead. Where at first Baird’s screenplay seems to suggest a complex police procedural, there comes a point where it becomes apparent the narrative has little interest in anything beyond delving deeper into the mindset of a most corrupt detective. Unfortunately it takes some time before that awareness hits; surely I’m not the only one who arrived at the end feeling somewhat duped. Of course, there’s something I should have expected to sacrifice watching McAvoy making obscene gestures towards small children in public places and being a general douche, and if this film delivers on any promise it’s ensuring he may lose a few fans. Or he may gain some. I don’t really know. I do know that the red beard suits him though.

Despite the underachieving story, the production is bolstered by all-around great performances; entertaining turns from the likes of Eddie Marsan as Clifford Blades, a member of a masonic lodge Bruce is a part of, Imogen Poots as Drummond with whom Bruce is in the fiercest competition regarding that coveted pay raise, and Broadbent’s previously mentioned doc. Each performer seems to enjoy getting their hands dirty right alongside McAvoy. Very little of this world is attractive, yet there’s something compelling about Bruce’s degeneration.

“Yeah, alright then, take two of these and call me in the morning.”

Recommendation: Gleefully unpleasant, mischievous in all the right ways and darkly comedic, Filth is undoubtedly an acquired taste. For fans of James McAvoy, consider this a must-see. It’s always a treat seeing an actor undertake a role so atypical that it becomes transformative. Bruce Robinson is certainly the glue keeping this one together, as the story leaves quite a bit to be desired. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 97 mins.

Quoted: “Same rules apply.” 

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

Everly

Release: Friday, February 27, 2015

[Redbox]

Written by: Yale Hannon

Directed by: Joe Lynch

There’s an unshakable sense Joe Lynch and company didn’t fully appreciate the opportunity they had with Salma Hayek playing the lead in this economical, often comically violent home invasion thriller.

Despite having a strong presence Hayek is relegated to the role of Donkey Kong: all she must do is survive an incoming wave of bad guys and, barring something just completely off-the-wall in the script, she’ll be home free. Er, in a manner of speaking. She’s actually home the entire time, as Everly rarely leaves the confines of an upscale loft apartment, and when it does it saunters out into the hallway for a few long seconds just to see if the coast is clear. But it rarely is, and Everly is certainly not free.

If it’s not giving the film too much credit, Everly seems to harp on the idea of freedom more than its bloody special effects. On a small scale, Everly wants needs to be free of the physical and mental anguish brought on by her psychotic ex-boyfriend Taiko (Hiroyuki Watanabe). That her family winds up getting in the middle of several attacks (albeit on the back of some extremely foolish decisions) is surely reason enough for Everly to break free of her dark, dangerous past. Ironic that Lynch’s film can’t break free from the mould of the typical brainless action outing. Everly’s background is as unknown as the environment outside this building. And if there is freedom to be found it exists only in the physical: some way of escaping this hell-hole.

Everly’s ability to defend herself, while more often than not entertaining, makes her a thorough enigma if we are in fact meant to be rooting for her. Given the waves upon waves of attackers, each one seemingly more violent and depraved than the last, we want to assume Everly’s done something worse than cheat on poor Taiko; surely no degree of infidelity would justify this kind of a response. While the various intrusions mark Everly a prisoner in her own home her natural ability to quickly solve each recurrence of that very problem necessarily redirects a spotlight back upon her past. Alas, we don’t ever fully get to understand Everly.

As she exists in this version of the film — the final product, sadly — Everly is neither person nor prisoner. She’s a heavily-tattooed survivalist with no last name. Her current predicament, no more complicated than that classic video game. The controls are basically run, shoot/throw things, duck and hide. Despite Hayek’s faintly detectable humanity — even though, ew, she’s a hooker and shame on her for not being around for her young daughter — she doesn’t get to leave the stinging impression that the physicality of her performance wants her to. Drama is far more obsessed with getting even, an eye-for-an-eye when at least one of those eyes should be focused on the details. Like, why we should care about any of this.

While it’s good to see a female spin on this steadily-growing subgenre of action films popularized by Liam Neeson and his brand of vengeance-seeking, Everly overcompensates for its casting, eventuating in a grotesquely violent shocker that will be remembered less for Hayek’s energy than it will be for the blood stains it leaves behind.

“Say ‘Hola’ to my little friend!!!”

Recommendation: For those desensitized to brutal action, Everly delivers a lot of the good/red stuff. It’s suitably a short-lived home invasion and the experience packs in enough disturbing events to satisfy those sorts of fans but it’s a problem having someone as talented as Hayek in a role so poorly developed. She’s too mysterious to embrace but nowhere near sadistic to be rejected. Sad to say Everly is one to watch less for the character/actress than the crafty little kills she’s responsible for throughout.

Rated: R

Running Time: 92 mins.

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

Deliver Us From Evil

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Release: Wednesday, July 2, 2014

[Theater]

If the word ‘evil’ here can be interchanged with ‘boredom,’ then this is the perfect title for a film as lacking in personality as Scott Derrickson’s attempt at repackaging familiar themes to produce a unique experience.

Cliches are bountiful to the point of infiltrating the project’s title. Deliver Us From Evil suggests nothing but averageness and the proceedings do everything in their power to reinforce the notion. From Eric Bana’s hackneyed character arc — a man wrestling with personal demons becomes obsessed with a particularly troubling case and subsequently even more distant from his family — to the merciless employment of jump scares, to the predictably lame conclusion that relies on nothing more than a standard exorcism to bring the horror to a crescendo, everything about this project suggests what Derrickson and company have to work with here is hand-me-down material. Material from superior films from the annals of this dark and curiously entertaining genre.

Bana plays a rather unlikable New York cop filled to the brim with machismo. Night and day he works in the slums of the city’s worst and most vile criminal trespassings, most recently discovering a series of impossibly disturbing situations involving babies being found in dumpsters, being dropped into lion’s dens at the local zoo, among other horrendous happenings. As a result he’s emotionally detached and more determined than anything to make sure his job gets done. The film we experience is apparently based on evidence and testimonials from the real NYPD Sergeant Ralph Sarchie, who, after experiencing this harrowing sequence of events, quit the force and reconnected with his spiritual side.

Derrickson’s account of the officer’s descent into demonic dealings in the filth and squalor of New York’s underground, while atmospherically appropriate, is written so as to become classroom-lecture style boring. There is not one lick of originality in any chapter in this police procedural, one partially interspersed with hard jolts of hellish blood-letting and heart-stopping loud crashing sounds as evidence of a possible evil spirit lurking in the air.

Partnered up with Joel McHale’s wisecracking Butler, who injects much-needed enthusiasm into the story — admittedly by forcing humor whenever possible, though he shouldn’t be faulted for at least trying here — the rough and gruff Sarchie is also a man running astray from his family’s religious upbringing. Wife Jen (Olivia Munn) has faith but also respect for what her husband does and the real-world hell he endures on a daily basis so she doesn’t force the issue. Or maybe she just isn’t allowed to; we don’t really know, the family dynamic is so poorly developed we aren’t afforded to know any of them other than Ralph. But even he remains a fairly static character, as his brooding skepticism slowly becomes manipulated into something akin to reluctant acceptance.

His chance encounter with an unconventional priest, a man whose effectiveness in the field of demonology and exorcism is betrayed by his Scott Stapp-esque appearance, helps to strip away that layer of doubt and disbelief. Ladies and gentleman, this is Édgar Ramírez’s Mendoza — or as Ralph likes to continually refer to him, Father Mendoza, despite his being a Catholic priest. He’s the guy who takes the baton from Ralph and Butler when events take a turn for the bizarre upon their discovery of three men who have all experienced severe behavioral disturbances and patterns of extreme violence following their deployment to Iraq in 2010 and subsequent discharge from the armed forces. The cops, even armed with their steadfast belief in being able to take on even the most amoral of mobsters, are well in over their head this time around and Mendoza offers his hand in the matter.

Deliver Us From Evil may ratchet up tension every now and then, but this is owed more to, again, the atmosphere Derrickson manages to effect through this particularly grimy and desolate space. No performance truly juts out from another, though Munn unfortunately bears the brunt of some of the worst lines and most one-dimensional character traits possible. When the violence hits close to home, fear and panic register but only barely. We only feel something because Ralph is inexplicably in wedlock to this gorgeous woman with an equally beautiful outlook on life and endless support for her family. (We don’t gather this info on our own, it’s all but handed to us on a silver platter given the way she’s dressed and her doting care for her daughter and husband, starkly contrasted to Bana’s cold personality.)

There are many frustrations created by this bland piece of cinema, yet the biggest violation has got to be the lack of emotional heft. Given this is based on a series of real events, we ought to feel genuine terror. We ought to feel dread and a desire to keep these characters out of harm’s way. What we ought not to be doing is laughing at several of the scare tactics. We ought to not be poking fun of victims who are slowly decomposing before us. But we haven’t been given much of a choice.

There is such little emotional connection with this film that it’s nice to feel something at all — our funny bones being tickled is better than being left numb to yet another misguided attempt at repackaging the familiar and giving it a new label. Deliver Us From Evil? How about deliver us from the evil that keeps delivering us things like Deliver Us From Evil?

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2-0Recommendation: It’s really difficult to give this a strong recommendation given the film’s underwhelming genericness. Despite an at-times tense atmosphere and chilling environs, there’s not enough significantly ‘different’ about anything that occurs in this uninspired horror to bear mentioning. It might also be worth noting you could do much worse for a bland horror film in 2014 but for want of saving money, sit tight and wait for some better entries that are bound to come out later on this year.

Rated: R

Running Time: 118 mins.

Quoted: “Ninja turtles and hot pockets, bruh. . .”

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

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

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Release: Christmas Day 2013

[Theater]

Nelson Mandela. Now there’s a name that has ‘Hollywood movie’ written all over it.

With the passing of such an extraordinary figure a mere month ago, the moment doesn’t seem to be any riper for a major motion picture about him to be sweeping across the globe. While it’s pretty difficult to conceive of this international release date being any more strategic than just being a ‘Christmas Day release’ (that’s a profitable enough decision to begin with), some of the more pessimistic of us are inclined to speculate that perhaps someone on the inside knew about certain developments in their subject’s health, on a medical level, on a level most of us wouldn’t care to know or recognize as being true. With the saddening foresight that this man might not be around for much longer, why not use that as leverage to potentially gain an even bigger audience?

That is, of course, to suggest: what would the box office turn-out be if this film was released, say this past summer? Next summer? Two Septembers from now? Would a later release date help the film fulfill its potential to move audiences?

Most people probably don’t think of movie releases being manipulative. And yet reality dictates that, with a time frame such as this (Mandela dying twenty days prior to the release), the subject would suddenly become more relevant; the potential for emotional connectivity would become much greater. If we didn’t have to come to terms with Nelson Mandela no longer being with us, this Christmas release would otherwise seem a little arbitrary.

Unfortunately, all of that is pure speculation. Some readers are probably shaking their heads at the level of cynicism on display. I don’t blame those people for thinking I’m overanalyzing the situation, but I think I’m going to stand by my conviction that Hollywood’s suits (i.e. some of the happiest people on Earth) really dug the idea of this suddenly becoming a much more timely tribute to Mandela. Especially when the film’s screenplay seems to support my perhaps off-kilter views.

At two hours and twenty minutes in length, Long Walk to Freedom is really a long sit. It overstays its welcome, a concept that must be difficult to believe if you have yet to see this, because it deals with one of the world’s most influential human rights activists. How, pray, does a topic like this wear thin?

Oh, how it does. . .

Written more as a thoroughly-detailed biography special on the History channel, director Justin Chadwick’s ambition isn’t to blame, entirely. As one can imagine, he had to sift through a tremendous wealth of information about the subject and the climate of South African politics of the time, so perhaps the condescendingly low-brow style of the film should be forgiven. Though this too often has the feel of a history class lecture, there’s ultimately nothing inherently wrong with that. It’s just not the film most are going to be expecting when it features one of the most rapidly-rising British stars at this moment.

The film is almost saved by London-native Idris Elba’s authentic portrayal of Mr. Mandela. Naomie Harris vies for some potential nominations as well, as she steps inside the role of Winnie Madikizela, Nelson’s second wife, an extremely frustrated woman who turned to more radical and violent measures of fighting for her fellow oppressed people. With both leads clearly committed to giving the film some gravity — Elba’s heavily-covered-in-make-up facial expressions are on multiple occasions heartbreaking and are effective in visually demonstrating the burden the real life figured carried with him for his long, long life — Long Walk can’t be dismissed completely as a ‘bad’ film.

Perhaps a more accurate description of the experience is underwhelming, which is a crime unto itself. Chadwick makes sure he maintains a reasonable number of inspirational quotes from the man himself, but it looks like we, the folks who were hoping to learn something about this iconic figure, might have to wait a few more years before being treated to the proper Mandela biopic. With absolutely no offense to the two lead performers — since they are virtually the only reason this film bears significance at all — Long Walk feels much too rushed, another sign this was a product of emphatic marketing to the public.

Elba and Harris do all they can with the material, but even their own personal, strong convictions about who their characters were drown in a sea of mediocrity and obligatory sentimentality.

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2-5Recommendation: It’s hardly an offensive film, even considering how middling the end results are. If you know literally nothing about the man (if that’s the case, shame on you) you will come away with a newfound respect for the struggles of these people and this man in particular. But if you’ve done any research whatsoever about this troubling bit of history, you’re not likely to be as moved by his dramatized on-screen plight. And to me, that just ain’t right.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 139 mins.

Quoted: “No person is ever born hating another person because of the color of their skin. People learn to hate. They are taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart.”

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 

American Hustle

American-Hustle-Poster

Release: Friday, December 20, 2013

[Theater]

Catch Me If You Can‘s little brother decides to show its face in 2013, sporting a cool name, a slick, sexy visage and the necessary wardrobe/make-up department to cover up all the acne pimples and skin blemishes its suffering from as it starts to stumble awkwardly into adolescence.

To that end, little bro has turned out to be quite the attention whore as well (if guys can be whores). My, how the previews have hyped this one up; puffed up its chest to the point where one might think if it were pricked by a pin, the entire thing would explode. But the only thing that would rush out — don’t worry, it wouldn’t be all gory and bloody — would be a substantial amount of air. That would be the sound of an ego slowly deflating as the excessive two-hour runtime plods ever onward.

The story of American Hustle is similar to the story of Frank William Abignale, Jr., at least structurally, in that it purposely meanders, it likes to take its time developing, and (here’s some great news) it makes outstanding use of a cast that is to die for. That last quality applies more to David O. Russell’s follow-up to Silver Linings Playbook, considering it has possibly the best one of the year.

Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a con man with a hairline not many would be jealous of. His fashion-oriented, equally cunning partner-in-crime Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) finds the man to be a little physically out of shape but his confidence and mental tenacity far outweigh his belly. Together they con people out of thousands of dollars, posing as art appreciators or collectors. . .or, whatever they are. Getting hung up on those details is not so important. What is, though, is the fact that their good luck of making money illegally eventually will run out, and indeed they get busted by the loose cannon FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (an incredibly fun Bradley Cooper).

DiMaso strikes a deal with the pair, telling them that if they apply their skills to a sting operation in which he’s targeting some of the nation’s most crooked politicians and power brokers, both Irving and Sydney will be pardoned of their previous crimes. They need four major busts, which will include nabbing Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). They soon embark on a wild journey through some of the most politically corrupt and criminally-linked tiers of society that inhabit the streets of 1970s New York City.

While it features a grab-bag of talent, little bro is pretty reluctant to get out of bed in the morning. The opening act drags us deeply into the slightly questionable relationship between Irving and Sydney. But O. Russell realizes we need to have an anchor point somewhere with a cast this large; he attempts to root our emotions the deepest with this only slightly more empathetic duo. But once we are through the first thirty or so minutes, the real fun and glamour commences.

American Hustle seriously benefits from O. Russell’s direction, as he cleverly infuses a substantial bit of humor with some scenes of solid tension and applies it to the entire colorful cast in nearly equal measure. Jennifer Lawrence plays up Irving’s unstable wife Rosalyn perfectly — it’s nearly impossible to think the actress is a mere 23 years old (two years older than my little brother for crying out loud), as her performances, perhaps capped off by this one, are marks of an incredibly matured, seasoned actress. The director’s hand and the talented cast blend for some truly brilliant scenes that make up for American Hustle‘s otherwise rather bland and frankly disappointing story.

After you strip down the fancy clothes, the over-the-top characterizations and lush, elegant settings, what you have left might be best described as a pissing contest between professional liars and cheaters. Who shall come out on top? Chances are, it won’t be the ones most are expecting from the outset. And chances also are that none of them are quite as adept as Frank William Abagnale, Jr., to invite yet another comparison. Unfortunately such comparisons are hard to avoid when the essence of the story is so similar. This may be a more glamorous cast to stick with, but expectation levels are so high with this film that anything less than perfect feels a little like a con in itself.

True that the art of conning is made more complicated here, since it will involve the government (whereas DiCaprio’s character was constantly outlasting and outsmarting it). Still, there’s a lot left to be desired when this one concludes.

American Hustle is nonetheless a pretty fun time at the movies. Reiterating, there are some sequences and moments that shout Oscar potential and there’s no denying each incredibly talented performer here is having a blast with the material. A lot of that can also be pinned down to what they get to wear, though. Brad Cooper’s hair in curlers is downright chuckle-worthy. The banter back and forth between Cooper and Bale is priceless. The last thing that springs to mind when seeing Lawrence here is Katniss Everdeen. Heck, even Amy Adams is decent.

Throw in a couple of silly cameos and you’ve got a little brother that flaunts his swagger so casually you don’t really mind because you know he’s putting it to good use more than you are.

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3-0Recommendation: American Hustle is a raucous comedy that is mostly successful in bringing forth the laughs. It’s story is a little confusing at times and it won’t be until the very end that things become clear (if they do at all), but as long as you go in with an open mind and expectation levels at a reasonable height, this should be the fun you might necessarily expect out of all this excess bullshot. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 129 mins.

Quoted: “I believe that you should treat people the way you want to be treated, didn’t Jesus say that? Also, always take a favor over money. Effin’ Jesus said that as well.”

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

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

Closed Circuit

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Release: Wednesday, August 28, 2013

[Theater]

Shortly after seeing Closed Circuit, my brain short-circuited.

After a serious cerebral work-out trying to figure out why any of the events that occur in this British pseudo-psychothriller really matter, I may have injured myself. I apologize if this review doesn’t come out all that coherently and/or if details are botched.

Despite the film’s best intentions to remain an involved, tense and compelling examination of the effects of what happens when concerned citizens get involved in an oppressive government’s affairs — all it can really muster up the strength to do is tease an audience willing to participate. Indeed, the film has a very interesting concept and the cast is relatively inspired. As well, it contains potent subject matter: who doesn’t love a good government-bashing every now and then? There are even several considerably compelling sequences, though they are rather scattered throughout an intensely dialogue-driven narrative. But the film goes nowhere, often veering off course into some yawn-inducing segments that wind up providing more loose ends than tying current ones up. At the end of this film you’re likely to be asking yourself why you just sat through that.

The more basic issue with the film is that there’s almost no payoff at all; that’s mainly due to the narrative being largely unsatisfying — equal doses distancing and too convoluted for one to care much about it or for the individuals in supposed crises.

Closed Circuit is the unsettling story of a corrupt court case that goes public in London, ostensibly set in the present-day. After an explosion kills over one hundred people in the downtown area, two lawyers — Martin Rose (Bana) and Claudia Simmons-Howe (Hall) — are called upon for an unusually tricky legal defense concerning one of the suspected bombers. The British attorney general (Jim Broadbent) has announced that there will be two sessions in which information shall be disclosed concerning the incident — an open court session proceeding a closed one; if that sounds a little fishy, a little disconcerting, well that’s the main selling point Closed Circuit is nagging you with here. It’s no new strategy, but in this case it’s a pretty interesting situation given the events.

As per the instructions given to Martin and Claudia by the presiding judge, the two go a long period without communicating with each other by any means, nor do they receive information through each other or are seen in public together; they are only to meet independently with a third party — a man named Devlin (Ciarán Hinds) who will discuss matters in private with each lawyer. Given some history between the two, it’s even more crucial that they remain out of contact with each other, in case they get too emotional around each other and threaten an already delicate legal situation. Of course, the two go as long as they can separated before they naturally break that code when their situations go from bad to worse.

To make things more complicated (and this is where your brain’s computing power really starts to kick-in here, hence your future headache), one of Britain’s top security enforcers, a government-run agency called MI5, could be implicated in the investigation into what’s generally being regarded as a terrorist attack against the country. As Claudia and Martin continue to dive into their investigation, several suspicious individuals begin lurking around in their vicinity, even despite the two’s initial willingness to comply with the conditions of their assignments. In Claudia’s case, a shady Middle-Eastern agent named Nazrul (Riz Ahmed) is perpetually looking over her shoulder, trying his best to be polite and as “friendly” as possible. At least, those are the initial appearances.

When the convoluted plot fully reveals itself somewhere near the end of the middle third of the film, it’s clear that he’s only a pawn in this elaborate government conspiracy that now threatens the lives of both lawyers.

Had the film not been obsessively talking to itself for most of the time, getting into the minds and lives of these characters would be surely worthwhile (and achievable). It would’ve provided this film a level of psychological dysphoria unmatched by many films coming out of Britain as of late. Instead, because there’s little character development or demonstration that any one person really is ever in danger at any time, the journey with the characters comes across catchpenny and largely devoid of emotion.

Bana is more or less a decent excuse to see the film, though his character is as haunted by his past towards the tail-end of the film as he is in the beginning. Rebecca Hall as his would-be partner here has a few moments to really shine, and she ends up coming to the rescue in terms of delivering a few of the more compelling lines and owning some of the crucial moments. Hall is actually quite good. Despite the cast’s best efforts to elevate the dull script, the tone continues to isolate and bore. If we were the jury sitting in on this case, we’d require substantially more evidence to see if this movie should be charged guilty of fraud or not.

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2-0Recommendation: The title ‘Closed Circuit‘ suggests more about the degree of participation you might feel throughout this film: you could feel a little left-out and isolated from it all. That’s not your fault. On that basis alone, this film is difficult to recommend to many who actually enjoy being a part of the film. If you’re okay with sitting back and being well aware of watching a film, this might be worth checking out. There are some tense moments but these are so sporadic its not even really worth it for that, either.

Rated: R

Running Time: 96 mins.

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

Photo credits: http://www.anddev.org; http://www.imdb.com

2 Guns

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Release: Thursday, August 1, 2013

[Theater]

Gleefully tongue-in-cheek, 2 Guns is a mostly-successful buddy-cop action film that delves into the heart of a Mexican drug cartel while revealing surprising truths about the clientele it conducts business with. One could sense the lack of seriousness a mile away with this film. Fortunately, though, one gets exactly what one expects (and pays for) in this humorous account of two crooked trigger fingers, played by Marky-Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington as they get caught between the cartel and several nefarious American government officials, including those within the Navy and the CIA.

Wahlberg’s Marcus “Stig” Stigman is a former Naval employee who went AWOL awhile back, and now finds himself “partnered” up alongside the smooth-talking, shady DEA agent Bobby Trench (Washington). The two make a satisfyingly comedic pair, and even when the events surrounding their story include plot holes and cliches galore, one cannot deny that the pairing of Wahlberg with Washington is the main reason you go to see this film from Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur.

The film, set ostensibly near the Mexican border, opens with the duo planning a bank heist in which they stand to gain something like $3 million in cash. The bank they plan to rob — Tres Cruces Savings & Loan — is situated across from a diner with apparently some of the best donuts you’ll ever eat. Or so Bobby thinks, anyway. However, when the act goes down after some editorial backtracking to bring us all up to speed on what has occurred over the week prior, the two walk away with a hell of a lot more than the $3 mil they were expecting. It turns out they become $43 million richer, but a hot-tempered, rough-and-tumble CIA agent named Earl (Bill Paxton) quickly catches on to the scent of these pseudo-expert bank robbers and soon starts blazing a trail to find them and, presumably, kill them.

One of the main issues with this film is the lack of seriousness in any and all aspects of it. Well, excluding the violence. There are certainly a few moments that are shocking and which don’t seem to fit the bill of a movie that tries to be more light-hearted than dramatic. It is a little difficult to buy into the fact that Stig and Bobby are this good when they shoot their mouths off at each other, as well as several more serious-looking Mexican drug dealers. Aside from Stig’s demonstration of his accuracy (by shooting the heads off of several partially-buried chickens in a backyard — all the while eating a plate of fried chicken, no less), and the same applying to Washington’s character in other contexts, this is a film that insists you wholeheartedly accept these characters based on the actors’ reputations alone. That’s all well and good, except for the final scene where they manage to avoid a torrential downpour of bullets. It’s perhaps one of the most egregious scenes of Hollywood magic, and would make Keanu Reeves in The Matrix look like a newbie in his bullet-dodging scene. Still, it’s best to accept things at face value here and leave it at that.

An appealing aspect of 2 Guns, which may be misconstrued by more bitter critics as being dumb or confusing, is the fact that identities are never really clear virtually until the very end. We are not even sure for half of the time whether Bobby and Stig are working together or working against each other. Their relationship is certainly one of love-hate — perhaps more of the former than of the latter — and is a real treat to watch unfold. The two prove here that they could carry at least another movie together — not a sequel as such, but I’d love to see them pair up again as the leads of a similarly toned movie. They are simply too much fun to watch, and again, this is in spite of the fact that their backdrop is extremely familiar and steeped in cliche.

Paxton makes for a suitably villainous and corrupt CIA agent whose only intent is to reclaim what’s his. Edward James Olmos plays the despicable drug lord Papi Greco; James Marsden as Naval Officer Quince as well as Fred Ward, as Admiral Tuwey, prove that not even the Navy is free of corruption. Unfortunately, by the time you get around to meeting the latter character, the whole business of literally everyone on screen being a crook has become old news and any credibility that was barely established at the beginning is more or less evaporated by the desert heat (and somewhat abecedarian writing). Even the enticing Deb (Paula Patton), the would-be girlfriend of Bobby, turns out to be nothing more than femme fatale. The double-crossing gets to be a little too much, admittedly, but it’s not quite enough to turn the movie from a ‘two guns up’, to ‘two guns down.’

An explosive finish predictably pits mob boss, American government officials (represented of course by Paxton, Marsden and a few others), and the two rogues in Bobby and Stig all together in the ultimate showdown where bullets fly, bodies drop, bulls run rampant and $43 million in cash erupts in one of the funniest “makin’ it rain” sequences I’ve seen in a while. As cliche as it is going to sound, Bobby and Stig indeed stumble off into the desert sunset together, and, well. . . that’s that.

On the whole, this movie is nothing special. It is boosted exponentially by the fun interplay between well-matched leads in Washington and Wahlberg, and although it may sound repetitive saying that, I honestly couldn’t get enough of it. To me, seeing them together was well worth the price of admission. The story line needs little to no explanation (other than a warning notice about all the confusing betrayals and such) since it’s so well-worn and not entirely thought out well. But it’s just enough to justify 2 Guns‘ existence. It may be surprising to think of the fact that this film will be far from anyone’s mind when it comes Oscar season when you consider the star talent on display, but it proves that you need more than just great actors elevating an average script to make a great movie. This one is purely for entertainment purposes only, and I’m quite alright with that.

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3-0Recommendation: Come in with low expectations and you’re sure to have a good time. It’s capably acted, decently paced although it plods around a bit in the middle, and the conclusion can be seen coming a mile away, but if all you’re looking for in a movie is a great escape from your real-life drama, be sure to check in on these guys’ movie life drama. I’m sure it’ll be worth it in the end. And honestly, who DOESN’T like Mark Wahlberg. . . ?

Rated: R

Running Time: 109 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 

TBT: Enemy of the State (1998)

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With After Earth taking a plunge into less-than-mediocre territory since its opening a couple months back, Will Smith seemed there for awhile to be part of a conversation that I’m not used to him being included in. His judgment has been seriously questioned and criticized ever since getting his son on as the lead role in the most recent M. Night Disappointment. It’s weird to hear the bashing because if you consider his career of role choices, they’ve consistently been big, badass and mostly quite successful. He’s typecast as all hell, but he’s a fun typecast that usually elevates any given movie’s quality that he happens to be a part of. I haven’t seen After Earth myself, so I don’t know how good/bad young Jaden Smith’s limited acting chops were here. I am aware of how limited Big Will’s role was, however. The consensus seems to be that while at times the young actor fits into the moment, he’s simply not developed enough yet to carry a role this significant. Hence, some of the questioning: maybe, just maybe — did the Fresh Prince misjudge the situation? 

It doesn’t matter. July has now turned into Will Smith month. Each throwback post will be about a classic Big Willie-style flick — we began with Independence Day.

Today’s food for thought: Enemy of the State

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Release: November 20, 1998

[VHS]

Will Smith exercises good judgment here by tempering his Bad Boys persona (which I’m imagining is far closer to his actual personality) in order to let his dramatic side come through in the form of Robert Clayton Dean, an attorney whose daily life quickly changes when he finds himself caught in a dangerous game between a ruthless mafia boss and the unexpected proponents of a government conspiracy theory.

Enemy of the State is violent, complex (for a film that is decidedly more action than it is drama) and intelligent blockbusters you’ll see with Will Smith’s name attached. He is but one piece of a large puzzle in this story about a government aiming to cut into the lives of the public with greater ease, an effort to inflate anti-terrorist sentiment. Director Tony Scott may occasionally dive into melodramatic territory here, but for most of the time, the drama and tension really keep the film afloat aside from the occasional lull in action. Even these moments are rich with sharp and poignant commentary. We get healthy doses of edgy jabs aimed at the government, about as much as we do get your typical action schtick. . . not to mention, a robust performance from Scott’s impressive ensemble cast.

Aside from Smith, we have the legendary Gene Hackman — here playing the ex-NSA agent Edward Lyle, a.k.a “Brill;” Jon Voight is once again not one to truffle with as the opprobrious Congressman Thomas Reynolds; his shady NSA correspondents include the likes of Barry Pepper, Jake Busey, Scott Caan, Jack Black and Seth Green; and we have Tom Sizemore playing the mobster boss Pintero who makes for a great adversary against not only Dean but the treacherous politician as well. The trio of Smith, Voight and Sizemore spearhead a cast that is performing at the top of its game — Jack Black and Seth Green also are surprisingly restrained in this film and are great to watch if ever we have forgotten that the two can take on serious roles for a change. (For Jack Black, see Bernie, also.)

When a tape that contains footage of the murder of a high-level government official falls into Dean’s bag one afternoon while he’s out shopping for a gift for his wife, members of the NSA invade Dean’s life with a swath of technological devices to gain intimate information about him. After losing most of his dearest assets, including the trust of his wife Carla and his job with the law firm, Dean recruits the help of Lyle. Initially opposed to the idea of coming out of retirement for Dean’s sake, Lyle decides to cooperate in making Dean a formidable enemy of his state — stripping him of the bugs and other tracking devices, then turning the NSA’s tactics against them and Congressman Reynolds. The pair’s effort to prove Dean’s innocence (and save his life) would also be a last-ditch effort to prove that the tape implicates both the Congressman and Pintero. While the final showdown occurs in a secluded mafia kitchen, the location is right across the street from an FBI secure location. As it turns out, Dean has adopted some of the craft and skill that Lyle used in his days as an NSA employee; he forms a plan that ends up ultimately leveling the playing field for good, allowing him and Lyle to walk away clean.

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Here’s Will Smith paranoid, getting into his car. . .

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Here’s Will Smith paranoid in an elevator. . .

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Here’s Will Smith paranoid in a lingerie store. . .

A lot of what makes this movie so compelling is the fast-paced tempo. And, okay, yes — the large doses of action/chase sequences on display. Largely though, these are second to the fact that Enemy of the State delves into a subject matter that is 1) disconcerting and 2) original. Watching our lead character being stripped of his basic civil liberties makes for an exciting albeit, disturbingly personal, experience. Though the film is an exaggeration, it is interesting to sit and contemplate how many traffic cameras there are on intersections; how many speed cameras; how many crooked businessmen are out there; how politically-motivated crimes can (and do) get covered up (and how many are). There’s relevance to this storyline, and some realities might be just as chilling as the events that unfold in the film.

Scott’s successful late-90s entry into the sizable action thriller genre is also quite the stylish one. Snappy, tight editing and color schemes contribute a genuine conspiratorial vibe to the picture. It features scenes where Fiedler (Black) and his cohorts are establishing ways to identify the missing videotape — there’s some great technological plugs here, insights into how organizations like NSA operate (even if these people are corrupt in the movie). The appeal of the metro D.C. area is rather dirty and grimy. The retreat back into Lyle’s warehouse when the pair are being hunted down by NSA agents is yet another dark, drab accent.

Fortunately for me, my life is nowhere near this active or high-profile, so I won’t have to be worrying about turning a corner and being instantly and brutally interrogated. Nor do I need to be concerned about tracking devices planted in the heels of my shoes, in my shirt pockets or in my fire detectors at home. But while I’m at it, I’m just going to check the T.V. to make sure I don’t see my face on any channel. . .

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4-0Recommendation: This is one of Will Smith’s greatest movies, and perhaps one of his finer performances as well. If you’re an adrenaline junkie like me, Enemy of the State is a classic. Unlike me, you should have it on DVD by now and have watched it quite a few times since. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 132 mins.

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

Photo credits: http://www.deviantart.com; http://www.imdb.com; http://www.dfiles.me