cast: Robert DeNiro, Paul Dano
There are familiar characters within Robert DeNiro’s Jonathan Flynn. For starters, he’s a closed-minded TAXI DRIVER. And he’s in his own world and fancies himself a famous author – much like THE KING OF COMEDY dreamt of being a famous comedian. But this Flynn only pretends to be narrating a true story as he, after being thrown out of his apartment and losing his job, wanders the streets in the freezing cold New York City nights. It’s his son Nick, a twenty-something who’d grown up with a single mother (Julianne Moore in sporadic flashbacks) with only dad’s letters and pictures, whose narration is legit. Nick resides in a closed-down strip bar and works at a homeless shelter where his father, a barking, opinionated bully, eventually resides. The inter-workings of the shelter gives the viewer an involving, realistic yet somewhat watered-down experience of how the other half lives. But when Nick, played with dependable pathos by Paul Dano, morphs into a cocaine habit – strungout one minute and clean the next – the real story sidetracks. It's the relationship with pop that keeps the movie grounded and interesting. And for DeNiro fans, while this isn’t one of his top-shelf performances, it far exceeds the mediocre grimacing cop roles he’s sleepwalked through for the last decade.
cast: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale
When Johnny Depp isn't overdoing he’s underplaying. The Tim Burton films has his characters flitting and frolicking on the screen like animated puppets wired on ten gallons of caffeine, while in roles like THE RUM DIARY he’s as subdued as a guy on the corner.
But when playing John Dillinger, the single most famous bank robber in American history – who became (and remains) a folk hero during the depression – some of that hyperactive spark might have helped. But the failure of the overlong PUBLIC ENEMIES can’t be blamed on the immensely popular A-list celebrity. Depp, being much too pretty for the role, and whose narrow shoulders in the big black coat resembles a high school kid in a mob-themed prom, does achieve brief bouts of slowburn cool, especially when toying with the head of FBI hunter Melvin Purvis, played with monotone breeze by Christian Bale – yet another talented actor wasted in this expensive suit with no pockets.
Director Michael Mann spends so much energy on the frantic action… Dillinger and his boys on the run one minute and quickly robbing banks the next… that the characters are completely wasted. There’s not one clear shot of Baby Face Nelson’s nefarious mug – he could have been a essential antagonist that would allow Dillinger to deliver more strength to the proceedings.
Depp, in filling the shoes of genuine tough guys Lawrence Tierney and Warren Oates (whose turn in the 1973 John Milius biopic is still the best), gets lost in the milieu of grainy cinematography and shaky nighttime shootouts. And the sappy love story between Dillinger and his half Indian gun moll seems a mere romantic device.
The biggest tragedy are the two historic keynotes to the story – Dillinger’s prison break using a gun-shaped soap bar and his eventual demise outside the movie theater thanks to the Lady in Red, are rushed along with a soundtrack more befitting a majestic biopic than a kickass one. He was a bank robber, after all, not an Emperor.
cast: Emile Hirsch
The best directed movie from actor/auteur Sean Penn since 1991’s underrated THE INDIAN RUNNER, this is a visually gorgeous travelogue showing the sites of America though the yearning eyes of Christopher McCandless, a suburban college graduate turned intrepid idealist who ditches everything – giving his law school funds to charity – for a trip to Alaska for what he considers the ultimate freedom. Eventually, without a car or money, McCandless meets a hippie couple; a charming tractor driver; and a dear old man with a tragic past. Each character serves as a peripheral warning for McCandless that his ill-prepared trek might not be very safe, and even those not familiar with the true story can assume it's a one way ticket. From riding a kayak through the Colorado River to climbing gorgeous mountaintops, director Penn shows more style than struggle for the main character, whose journey is mostly aesthetic and, backed by original music by Eddie Vedder, dwells in a glossy documentary style giving the isolated journey a much too rosy outlook. Except scenes in the “present” as McCandless resides in a junked “Magic Bus” in the middle of nowhere, Alaska, and eventually runs out of food and sanity. With a determined scruffy puppy countenance, Emile Hirsch balances dedicated traveler and naive optimist decently enough. With mistakes equaling accomplishments, he's never shown too perfectly despite the heavy-handed narration by his sister, who subliminally compares him to the ever-quotable philosophers instead of a normal guy on an abnormal quest. His obstacles include skinning a moose before flies take over; getting stuck in Mexico; and the temptation to sleep with a sixteen year old Kristen Stewart. Running at a breezy two and a half hours, this is a trip worth taking – and although there’s a clear anti Capitalist message throughout, the film, made by a politically polarizing celebrity, is never one-dimensional or one-sided. Anyone yearning to escape from the drudgery of city life into the “wonders of nature” will enjoy this quest. There’s a lot to experience with enough time for everything to matter.
cast: Meryl Streep, Amy Adams
"That's what's so great about blogs. You don't have to be published. You can just go online, press enter, and there it is, out there." Finer words have never been spoken in a motion picture. This by the husband of working girl Julie Powell, who decided to make every recipe in Julia Child's famous first cookbook... from desserts to ducks and equaling over 500 dishes... in a year's time. And most importantly, to journal them in her very own blog. Meanwhile, the real thing, Julia Child, is shown in Paris in the 1950's learning how to cook and then deciding to write a cook book for "serventless Americans" who yearn to serve French food. The iconic Hollywood actress Meryl Streep obviously savors the role as Child, but her voice and mannerisms often border on imitation. While Amy Adams plays Powell with the kind of spunky animation you'd see in a sitcom. As Child struggles to get her book published, Powell has fewer problems and her blogging seems a mere shortcut to the real work done by her mentor, who, it turns out, wasn't Powell's fan for this very reason. But as a movie, both characters provide an equally interchangeable meat and potatoes to a nice dish that'll keep you interested in either outcome. While you know Child will succeed, and that Powell's blog resulted in the movie being watched, there's still a page-turning intrigue to this duel tale of a legend and her dedicated superfan's clever idea. Because that can be all it takes to climb the fence. Some coattails go a long way.
|year: 2012 cast: Jennifer Lawrence rating: ***1/2|
Set in a post-apocalyptic world, the Capitol needs these violent games as a reminder of hope and spirit, or something like that. Doesn’t make too much sense, and the premise borrows from THE RUNNING MAN while the goofy looking adults – including the show’s host and backers – resemble characters from Tim Burton's Willy Wonka. But the grownups aren’t the thing here.
Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen, a teenage bow-and-arrow huntress who bravely offers herself as a replacement for her lithe younger sister to take part in The Hunger Games. She, along with the male selection, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) – whose meek disposition clashes with Katniss’s steady prowess – are sent to a big futuristic city: a much different world than their rural district.
During the training process we get to know both characters... while the adults (especially a snarky talk show host) provide exposition to make things clear.
The story doesn’t rush to the titular game, allowing the viewer, like the characters, to feel involved in the initial process that – while leading to a death sport with inevitably dire consequences – is filled with suspense, melancholy, and even hope as Katniss remains a constantly evolving character, learning to charm the show's viewing audience. And when the Games are underway, we’re thrust from an intentionally vapid society into a sparse brutal wilderness.
Centering on Katniss and her skills to survive… especially when teamed against by a group of cutthroat players… she eventually bonds with Peeta – and the Shakespearean love story doesn’t mar the action. Especially thanks to Jennifer Lawrence, who makes one of the greatest cinematic female heroes for the teen set. With narrowed eyes and swift agile, her natural beauty’s matched by cunning resilience while her pale vulnerability keeps us hoping she survives.
Filmed mostly in closeups and tense medium shots, THE HUNGER GAMES is replete with twists, turns and backstory only readers of the popular novels can fully understand – but the characters are everything here. It's their tale. It's their fight. And we're just along for the ride.
cast: Justin Timberlake, Mila Kunis
This movie does one thing successfully – and it’s mindboggling. Mila Kunis, as a young lady no one wants to commit to, will seem completely unattractive. Kunis plays a big city corporate “headhunter” dumped by a guy who, in real life, wouldn’t tie her shoes. She then hires Justin Timberlake into their big city firm. Their job doesn’t matter and both actors seem way too young for their occupations – much of the dialog sounds forced into the mouths of two actors better suited for a college-based TV show. But both try their best to make the premise believable: two beautiful people agree to remain friends with benefits i.e. they can have great sex but won’t be in an actual relationship. Of course they wind up falling for each other but there’s a lot happening before this inevitable conclusion – which is never fully realized. The scriptwriters try so hard to stray from the cookie-cutter rom-com template that there’s a movie within a movie (starring Jason Segel) that purposely basks in clichés, including manipulate sappy soundtrack and banal one-liners: making it clear to the characters and audience we’re breaking new ground. But are we? This premise has been done before, but Kunis and Timberlake have an essential chemistry to make their sexual escapades – and the morning-after banter sparking an inevitably tense kinship – feel fresh and involving. Patricia Clarkson adds the needed aged experience as Kunis’s quirky mom and Woody Harrelson’s turn as Timberlake’s gay pal basks in intentional scene-stealing dialog. But it’s Timberlake who, despite a whiny high-pitched voice not fully befitting the big screen, succeeds by convincing us that Kunis might not be a worthy long-term girlfriend – now that’s a feat.
cast: Emily Bergl, Amy Irving
If you remember, in the original CARRIE, Mrs. White (Piper Laurie) mentions her philandering husband who fell to the ways of sin. Makes sense that he’d have an illegitimate child out there. Enter “Rachel” (Emily Bergl), more of an underdog than nerdy recluse.
Dark, gloomy, gothic and stealthily gorgeous, Rachel becomes slightly unglued when her best friend (Mena Suvari) commits suicide after being dumped by a jock who, along with his fellow muscular dimwits, has a notebook with the names of their post-virginal conquests: a clever devise making these guys primed to be butchered and burned – but we’ll get to that.
Through a fledgling mid section, Amy Irving, returning as Sue Snell – the only survivor of the original – investigates Rachel’s past. Sue’s a counselor who recognizes similar traits in this troubled teen, especially the art of moving things around at will. Sporadic flashes to Sissy Spacek using her telekinetic powers, and eventually going bonkers, is not only blasphemous to horror fanatics but fails to connect this shallow interpretation with Brian De Palma’s classic.
And it’s no surprise that everyone will be in one place by the very end for Rachel to go to town. A raging rave party full jocks (including Rachel’s boyfriend – one good looking guy who’s actually nice) and banal beauties provide the necessary oven of madness, yet it occurs so quickly, with an overabundance of special effects, there’s nothing scary or eerie about it – John Rambo could have showed up with an M60 and it wouldn’t be any different.
Although with all the flaws, the “twist” ending – mirroring the original’s hand reaching from the grave – does provide an effective 11th hour chill. And that’s something, isn’t it?
cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme
Don’t listen to what anyone says: Jean-Claude Van Damme is a good actor. Pretending to be the naive younger brother of a far superior kick boxing champ, the action hero, known for his abundant ego, plays humble to the max. His big bro (Dennis Alexio) is crippled in a seedy backroom bout in Muay Tai by villainous rival “Tong Po,” a mohawked villain who plays tribal music as he circles his prey. Van Damme, aided by an African American Vietnam Vet, seeks training from a wise old sage and – like KUNG FU and KILL BILL 2 – the revenge-driven student goes through a torturous training session at a rural outpost, learning a method of kickboxing that you can’t get anywhere else. This takes up most of the film, including terrific montage scenes as Van Damme gains strength, agile, and wisdom. And when the local mob moves in, the student proves his worth to protect a local love-interest. The exterior locations are beautiful and the fight scenes occur sporadically enough to appease hardcore action fans. There’s a significant story-arc as Van Damme morphs from lamb to lion, and it’s not easy. Especially after the bad guys kidnap his wheelchair-bound brother and Van Damme must survive the final match with Tong Po, while the side characters, never resorted to filler status, need to pull off a last minute rescue for our hero to turn the tables in the ring – to win the match and to save his life.
cast: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum
Forget the church and the address. This has little to do with the TV series about undercover cops posing as high school students – other than centering on undercover cops posing as high school students. The premise begins and ends there; the real stuff deals with the unlikely friendship between Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum: in 2005 one was a high school nerd, the other a great looking popular jock. And now it’s 2012 and things have really changed. The geeks are cool and Hill fits right in with a group of politically-correct drug dealers who are the culprits, along with a band of rugged bikers, the duo must snare. But this plot thing is secondary to our underdog heroes back in high school, aided by a clever twist involving a name screw-up: Hill takes the easy classes and Tatum, not a smart cookie, joins the chemistry club. Each discover their own clues to find the supplier of a wonder drug with vivid and hilarious side effects – that we experience first hand! And after the hijinks have played out, including a wild house party, a car chase leads to a Tarantinoeque standoff with guns blazing at the prom (with an important cameo therein). But how the unlikely duo stick together through thick and thin... both gaining a brand new perspective on their former high school experience... is what really works – making for an iconic TV series reboot that, unlike most of its kind, really hits the mark.
cast: Lee Horsley
When teens went to CLASH OF THE TITANS and DRAGONSLAYER, grownups ventured into THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER, an exploitation fantasy with plenty of blood, guts, and naked women.
Lee Horsley is Talon, grownup from the vulnerable kid he once was: his family butchered before his eyes by villainous Richard Lynch. Talon, now a womanizing mercenary, is given the task to retrieve the brother of gorgeous Alana, played by the wide-eyed Kathleen Beller.
Most of the action occurs from the halfway point to the ending, after weathering twenty minutes of a reanimated zombie and too many close-up battles that don’t matter to the plot/rescue, which, once underway, never lets up.
Talon’s sword, with a blade in the middle and two more on the side that shoot out like missiles, is really cool – as are any scenes in dark lit taverns or dungeons. And thankfully, this isn’t a searing epic; running at a fast-paced ninety minutes, this bloody romp has just about everything – including a cocky hero that never takes the situation too seriously, even though death lurks.. and even pounces... around every corner.
cast: Eddie Murphy
Eddie Murphy’s back in form. Not to the grand days of TRADING PLACES and BEVERLY HILLS COP but the petrified 1990’s when he seemed to have lost his funny bone. Although the story is somewhat intriguing: a talkative, shallow agent acquires a tree where, with every word he speaks, a leaf falls – and he has only a thousand words until his inevitable death when the tree is bare. But this seems peripheral to Murphy’s annoying co-stars including a hen pecking wife and Clark Duke as Murphy’s personal assistant. Looking fifteen years old and trying way too hard for laughs, Duke makes particular scenes, where Murphy can’t speak in fear of losing all his leaves, not only unfunny but each drags on forever. One brief montage, as Murphy desperately attempts breaking the spell by becoming charitable, tries hard to revive the plot device yet nothing, including frantic attempts to mime each word, really works. Although a doomed Murphy displays worthy acting as he runs out of time and makes amends. But by the very end you’ll want to quickly leave the theater.
cast: Taylor Kitsch, Willem Defoe
This two hour and twenty minute film, based on the story by Edgar Rice Burroughs written in 1912, would have made a terrific Western. Starting out with our rugged hero John Carter, a rogue confederate soldier seeking a mountain of gold. He’s captured by Yankees and they can’t keep him pinned down. The boundless action is fast paced and exciting, Taylor Kitsch displaying the right amount of lean bravado and swift agile. But then something happens. Finding an emulate, Carter is transformed into a strange world that doesn’t look much different than the badlands of America: except there are green creatures bursting from eggs and giant, lanky aliens with four arms. And Carter himself has a powerful skill of leaping a hundred feet in the air. The plot's somewhat familiar: a beautiful princess is forced to marry a swarthy scoundrel in order to save her race. Declining that option, she winds up with Carter, who’s been taken in with the tall green aliens (the endearing leader voiced by Willem Defoe) and after a few cool fights, Carter and the Princess travel across the Mars terrain: each seeks a different location without realizing. Here’s where the movie hits a long, tedious wall… And by the time the action sustains you’ll feel robbed by the ponderous bouts of dialog describing the planet's history, why it’s doomed and who’s dooming it. Thus a scene where Carter battles a formidable beast in a Roman like coliseum is too little, too late. But after all’s said and done, and we return back to Earth, the final fifteen minutes provides an intriguing closure. And it's ironic that a film originally titled JOHN CARTER OF MARS would have been better off spending much less time there.
cast: Thomas Mann, Oliver Cooper
In this movie… Or, at this party… Character names really don’t matter. There’s the kid whose parents left him their house for the weekend. And he has three faithful buddies: The confident instigator; the dorky fatso; and a faceless camera operator who captures everything. The “all you see is being filmed” device ala CHRONICLE works nicely here, making the inevitable suburban bash feels like it’s right in your face – and you don’t even need 3D glasses. But while the party is key, some of the best scenes occur beforehand. As the popularity-seeking geeks set things in motion, from getting the word out to ripping off a "loaded" garden gnome from an urban drug dealer, we get to know these underdog losers enough to where, once the raging party occurs, their winning matters. While the cocky Oliver Cooper delivers the scene stealing role – think of a younger Vince Vaughan in SWINGERS – the heart and soul belongs to Thomas Mann, providing the essential drool-to-cool story arc. It’s his birthday party after all, which occurs in montage tidbits ranging from naked girls to a midget locked inside a stove, and fireworks and even a flamethrower. And while the intensity increases a bit too quickly… the party morphing into an act of terrorism within a ten-minute time frame… it’s never a drag. Yet what remains consistent throughout all the noise are the characters we’ve grown comfortable with. All leading to a weak and implausible resolution. Although the aftermath really doesn’t matter. Leave all that consequence stuff for THE HANGOVER.
|year: 2012 voices: Danny DeVito, Ed Helms rating: *1/2|
If you think Hollywood is the greediest moneygrubbing plastic city in the world, think again – and welcome to Thneedville, where every overly promoted, abundantly commercialized item costs bundles and, scariest of all, there are no trees.
Enter Ted, a kid smitten with a gorgeous girl Audrey, who has only one wish – painted along the back of her house are tall skinny things resembling straws harboring wispy windblown cotton candy. These are the long forgotten trees, and she wants one, a real one, badly. Through his wise old granny, Ted learns of The Once-ler, a hermit residing on the outskirts of the shallow metropolis: walled in and policed by a wicked, and very short, dictator O’Hare. But Ted gets easily past the border and, using his power scooter, zips into a dark flatland where he finds a faceless hermit in a spooky house.
Here he learns the backstory and what the film’s all about: Once-ler was once a poor farm boy who discovered a land abundant in nature and cutesy animals. He realizes, to make his dream invention – what he calls the Thneed (think of a Bionic Snuggie) – he has to chop down a tree: which summons our titular hero, The Lorax.
This mustached, peanut-shaped, blunt yet lovable orange creature (voiced by Danny DeVito) is an underdog environmentalist that can only point the Once-ler toward wisdom. But becoming a powerful businessman is Once-ler’s priority – and his Thneed's a big hit until all the trees are gone.
Now we’re back with Ted, whose input means very little – especially since the title character (who has surprisingly minimal screen time and plot relevance) is history and the real tale has been told. Nevertheless, Ted’s final mission is to plant one last seed. Although the greedy O’Hare – who sells clean air in cans and fake trees for big bucks – wants him stopped.
Kids will enjoy the wonderfully vivid animation and the cutesy characters, especially a bear cub and singing fish residing in the tree-laden forest. Here’s where the most involving, fast-paced action occurs. And the overly obvious environmental message works in scenes where each tree falls: like best friends dying slowly, and painfully, before your very eyes.
But once the movie ends with a corny singalong about letting it grow, you’ll realize this ninety-minute tale was really just a message with vibrant color: Other than a greedy entrepreneur cutting down trees to make money and then realizing his mistake, not much really happens.
Yet the real moral of this anti-capitalist movie is that it grossed a whopping $70 million this weekend. But since spending, and making, large amounts of money is a supposedly bad thing, you can do the producers a favor: instead of paying $14 bucks to watch THE LORAX, go plant a tree!
voices: Allen Reed, Mel Blanc, Harvey Korman
Fred Flintstone, that lovable blue-collar caveman from Bedrock, becomes a spy in this feature length cartoon: Hanna Barbara’s farewell to the six season television series. Begins with a fantastic mountainside car chase involving two goons and a suave James Bond-like spy, Rock Slag, who looks exactly like Fred. The chase results in Rock being injured: Cut to Fred and his marble-eyed sidekick Barney taking a failed shortcut home. They wind up at the hospital where Fred’s given an assignment to replace his double: and the adventure begins. The Flintstones and Rubbles go on a European trip where Fred learns of a nefarious criminal, The Grey Goose, and his plot to blow up the world. Loads of fun action – mostly involving those two thugs attempting to kill Fred. But when various musical numbers are thrown in… the worst concerning the progression of children in the future that has nothing to do with the plot or characters… what begins as a clever spoof gets derailed. But the good stuff returns with a chase through an abandoned theme park: including a nod to Orson Welles's LADY FROM SHANGHAI fun house. What would have made a great hour-long two-part episode, sans the musical interludes, winds up a flawed Flintstone journey – yet even the bad parts are creatively bizarre... it was 1966, after all.
|year: 1978 cast: Michael Parks, Mary-Louise Weller, Katy Kurtzman rating: ***1/2|
While that show never got off the ground, this is a nice little film on its own. Parks plays Jim Spanner, a maverick fisherman who, along with ex-rummy counterpart Panama (William Windom, straight from a Hemingway novel), has found a sunken boat with an abundance of treasure. All is well until a gorgeous shark researcher arrives – Mary Louise Weller as Tracey Russell. The only way for anything to happen is if she puts her engine in his old boat, which means her own particular research comes first. Through Russell we see some terrific underwater shots of the sharks roaming their habitat, although unlike Benchley’s JAWS and this film's rather misleading title, the killer fish don’t provide much of a suspenseful element.
A smug pirate in preppie clothes, Le Salle, who wants to find that treasure before Spanner, is the antagonist here. And his eleven-year-old daughter Kris, played by child actress Katy Kurtzman, takes an interest to Spanner’s long lost little brother Mike (Moosie Drier), an adventurous kid who also loves the sea.
Although not loaded with thrills, it’s a neat little adventure with amazing shots and nice chemistry between the actors: especially Mary Louise Weller, best known as Mandy Pepperidge from ANIMAL HOUSE, who has three important scenes with each male character. So if you can find it, this never released on video treasure is worth watching.
|Mary-Louise Weller in HUNTERS OF THE REEF|