Monday, December 23, 2013

Hurricane of Injustice: Denzel's Fine Work in The Hurricane.

Movie Review: The Hurricane

Director: Norman Jewison

Reviewed: 23 December 2013

jamesintexas rating-- ***1/2

I find myself drawn strongly to films that appeal to my sense of justice. And prison films in general play upon this because of the institutionalized torture of taking time away from an innocent person. Norman Jewison's The Hurricane stands close to the upper echelon of prison films with The Shawshank Redemption and In The Name of The Father, films that demand introspection and awareness of the ravages of time upon a single face. These films are actor's showcases, and Denzel Washington portrays the emotional turbulence, the depression, and the despair of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, a young boxer falsely accused of a horrific crime in New Jersey one night. At the whims of one impossibly, indefensibly evil police officer Della Pesca (Dan Hedaya), Rubin finds himself jailed, convicted, and broken by a corrupt system of cops, judges, and inept lawyers. He languishes in prison for years, writing a book, becoming a cause celebre, but it is only when Lesra (Vicellous Reon Shannon), a troubled young man who has moved away from his family in order for a chance at survival, writes him from Canada that the wheels of justice start being set in motion.

Jewison's film appeals straight to the heart with its confident moves from past to present, impossibly gorgeous black and white boxing matches with a ferocious Rubin to the institutionalized grey of the prison present. Jewison depicts Rubin's fracturing of his own mind in one intense sequence constructed to make Rubin appear to split personalities. Denzel Washington is a tour-de-force here, being asked to show the highs and lows of Rubin's life. His work is magnetic, impossible not to watch even in quiet scenes. Jewison often shows institutional walls and doors blocking Rubin, moving across the screen to metaphorically squash him. The Hurricane fights back with all that he has, though confined to a prison cell.

The film, I think, streamlines the story a bit too much by making the villain so villainous and neglecting to pursue him for any sort of retribution. Ultimately, it weakens the film to have this one character exhibit so much abuse of power without ever being held accountable. And in taking on so much, the film loses a bit of its emotional through line with the burgeoning relationship between young Lesra and Rubin. The legal machinations and investigations prove quite interesting, though the three Canadians never seem that developed or real. The film earns its ending, a powerhouse court scene with Rod Steiger as the Judge Sarokin. Rubin's desire to hold out hope for true justice makes for compelling viewing, and the real-life footage of The Hurricane at the end, though superfluous for Washington has made him so completely real, again wrings even more tears from an audience appalled at the injustice that robbed a man of so much time, so much life.

And at its core, there is something uniquely American about this story. A young man in Canada bought a book in a used book sale, read the entire book, and wrote letters to an author imprisoned, sparking the fire that lit the way to his freedom. And our court systems, flawed though they are, ultimately served the justice that they aspire to uphold. I highly recommend The Hurricane, despite its imperfections. It moved me to tears at least twice, and I think Denzel Washington's performance is one of his finest ever.

Lifestyles of the Rich and Shameless: Coppola's The Bling Ring, A Satire That Goes Nowhere.

Movie Review: The Bling Ring

Director: Sofia Coppola

Reviewed: 23 December 2013

jamesintexas rating-- **

The Bling Ring, Sofia Coppola's new confection of a film, features the light subject of a loose affiliation of bored high school students who stumble upon the joys of sneaking into celebrity homes in the Hollywood Hills, raiding their closets, and making off with cash, guns, jewelry, and couture. The thieves cover their faces, jump security fences, and often times find the keys to the house under the mat (or that the houses are unlocked). By googling celebrity addresses and using the internet to find out who is out of town, the group becomes more and more bold, selling the stolen goods, wearing it to parties, bragging about their conquests. Rebecca (Katie Chang) seems to be the leader, drawing new student Marc (Israel Broussard) under her spell; Nicki (Emma Watson) and adopted sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga) also go along for the ride. As Coppola tips in the first five minutes, we know that the Bling Ring will get caught; so, the film becomes a study of materialism, empty lives, the intersection of celebrity and fandom, as well as a satire of parenting.

Coppola's film seems all over the place. At times, the film features characters speaking direct to interviewers, documentary style, after the arrests. At times, the film lovingly slows down to capture its main characters taking pictures of themselves, draping jewelry and sunglasses on in victoriously gaudy fashion. The choice of making no one character the lead undermines the film because I was left wondering more about Rebecca's motivations since we never get to see into her life. Marc's family is shown in brief hints. Nicki and Sam interact with Nicki's mom (Leslie Mann) who has home schooled the girls and teaches them a philosophy based on The Secret. The film gleans past the complete emptiness and low self-worth that these characters must feel. Or maybe that's part of the posing being done, the constant questioning of clothing and image that they ask one another.

Since there is no one likable in the movie, there is no one to root for as well. The home invasions themselves are light on suspense since the teens nonsensically do not wear gloves or cover their faces on the way out. There are many shots of the teens in cars, listening to music, doing drugs, and partying in clubs, imitating a lifestyle that they cravenly desire. Coppola never seems interested in coming close to saying something about these teens beyond worshipping them and simultaneously exposing their vanity. It feels strange to describe such a film as boring, but it is. It shortcuts all conflict within the group, eliminating the details of the trial to focus on the arrival and departure of the well-dressed group.

When a person's education and values lead them to the altar of celebrity worship, the fierce urgency of wanting a lifestyle, wanting a clothing line, wanting a designer watch now supplants all else. When you want a lifestyle and desire to be a brand, how does that shape your world view? I wish Sofia Coppola would have examined more than just the sugary surface of these teens and their families.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Die Hard Five: Worst Film of the Year. Thanks for the Memories.

Movie Review: A Good Day To Die Hard

Director: John Moore

Reviewed: 17 December 2013

jamesintexas rating-- Zero Stars

I have lived my life by the Die Hard franchise. I saw Die Hard one night in a double feature billing with Ferris Bueller's Day Off at my cousin Christopher's house in the late 80's, transfixed by its language, violence, charismatic lead performance, and uber-confident villainy. I cut ads out of Premiere magazine and the Chicago Sun-Times when Die Hard 2: Die Harder was announced, and I saved my dollars from my summer job selling programs at Santa Fe Speedway Race Track in Chicago to purchase the double-film VHS set in the early 1990's. I watched these films over and over again, quoting them endlessly to my friends and teammates. At the IHSA State Track Meet my junior year, we watched Die Hard With A Vengeance, not as good as film as the previous two, but the character was still recognizable, Samuel L. Jackson was fun, the riddles and running all over New York City was captivating, and the film still worked. And then later in life, seven years after college, as a teacher now, I saw Live Free or Die Hard, a pale imitator of the original film, but one that gamely tried to inject life into the lead character John McLane by bouncing him off of Kevin Smith's hacker and Justin Long's cybernerd. The plot was terrorism within the US, and McLane's daughter Lucy was involved. I forgave that film many of its trespasses, but I acknowledged it as the weakest link.

Until now.

John Moore's A Good Day To Die Hard takes the beloved, iconic character of John McLane and completely guts it. Eviscerates it. Removes the heart and soul and humor of it. Bruce Willis is squarely to blame for this travesty as well. He provides the only through line of the five film franchise with all different directors and writers. The film is completely superfluous and involves McLane traveling to Moscow to rescue his son. The film tries to present McLane as charming and funny, but instead he becomes completely unlikable. The film cribs from the other films (Look, here's a person taking a dive off of a building! Look, here's a helicopter to crash! Look, here's a few notes from Michael Kamen's iconic score to remind you of the movie that you wish you were watching!). A plot involves the CIA, informers in a Moscow prison, corrupt politicians, and numerous rooftop gunfights.

And that's just it. Midway through this film, I wanted to turn it off and watch Die Hard. Bruce Willis has allowed his franchise to dribble away to nothing, and the director seems to only be awake when having giant trucks barrel into each other nonsensically on busy city streets. Forgettable villains, a cast unable to do anything of note led by Jai Courtney as McLane's son, but really the blame rests on Bruce Willis's shoulders.

Bruce Willis is the character, and this film makes me wish that John McLane had died in one of the previous films. So, like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg did with Star Wars and Indiana Jones, another iconic film franchise finds its latest installment to be a disaster that mars the legacy of the fine films that came before it. Let's hope that the Die Hard franchise is truly dead.

Quiz Show: A Study of Time and Place

Movie Review: Quiz Show

Director: Robert Redford

Reviewed: 21 December 2013

jamesintexas rating-- ***1/2

Robert Redford's Quiz Show focuses its attention on the scandals of the 1950's television game show "21" where sponsors and network executives conspired to give trivia answers to contestants before the competition. By manipulating the outcome of the game itself, they attracted ratings and revenue to the show, never so more as when landing blue blood college professor Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), a young star struck appealing television presence. Van Doren replaces the grating Herb Stemple from Queens (John Turturro), a neighborhood hero who must make a decision whether or not to take a dive for the show when the producers tells him to do so. The drama here is riveting stuff.  Redford provides insight into both Stemple's family in Queens and Van Doren's family in Connecticut. The son of a famous American writer, Van Doren quietly descends farther and farther down the road of  cheating, and in part, Redford suggests, his relationship with his acclaimed father is at its core. Regardless, an investigation into who knew what when ensues.

Detail-wise, Redford has assembled a wonderful collection of 1950's outfits, cars, hairstyles, and television hardware. He chronicles the emergence of television as a powerful force in American culture, and the behind-the-scenes machinations are fascinating to watch, especially as Congressional investigator Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow) gets involved. Goodwin wants to attack television's higher-ups, not just the contestants. There are some nice moments of a burgeoning friendship between Goodwin and Van Doren as one circles the other, gathering evidence.

The film is well-cast and very smart. I enjoyed thinking about it. My only criticisms are in the lead performance of Rob Morrow. I do not feel that he carries the film sufficiently, and he has to do much of the lifting. He may be too young or just lacking of the gravitas of the character. And Ralph Fiennes, incredibly young here, has a speech at the end outlining Van Doren's beliefs and acceptance, but there is little of the conflict within him as he receives accolade after accolade. I think we are meant to believe that jealousy of his father's success drove him, but the details are vague. I wanted to know more about Charles Van Doren, but the decision to focus so much on Stemple and Goodwin means less screen time, less back story, less motivation for Van Doren. Ultimately, Quiz Show is a well-constructed historical film about a time when money drove the television networks to manipulate and hurt the people it built up and then destroyed on a national stage.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Pacific Rim Shot: Del Toro Gets Lost

Movie Review: Pacific Rim

Director: Guillermo Del Toro

Reviewed: 13 December 2013

jamesintexas rating-- *

Giant monsters fighting giant robots. What's not to like? Actually quite a bit. A disappointment on nearly all levels, Pacific Rim misfires by failing to craft a story worthy of its premise. Every time monsters appear on the scene like misshapen dinosaurs and dragons, the film displays some ferocious imagination. Every time the monsters disappear, the film grinds to a complete halt.

A portal created in the open ocean floor allows the beasts to travel between dimensions, launching a furious war upon humanity that dissolves countries and borders, rallying the planet together in its own self-preservation. The only way to fight these monsters involves two pilots stationed inside a giant robot doing something called a mind-meld neural handprint where they share a consciousness and control the robot's movements. Then, the robot gets dropped into the ocean near the monster, and they fight.

Idris Elba plays Stacker, the leader of the resistance. Charlie Day plays nerdy scientist Dr. Newton. Charlie Hunman is our charisma-less protagonist Raleigh. Rinko Kikuchi is the mysterious Mako. No one stands out in a positive way here. There are humorless scenes in the giant compound as the robots are maneuvered and improved. A lot of scenes. Too many scenes. It is kind of like watching The Empire Strikes Back and spending nearly all of the movie in the Hoth Compound, updating the speeders for the cold, training tauntauns and worrying about an impending attack. In that film, it establishes atmosphere and character and moves on to the AT-AT attack scenes (in daylight). Here, Del Toro dwells in this workshop realm which is visually uninteresting and distracts from the main event. This movie needed more fights and less talking.

Del Toro films many of the fight scenes in the dark in major cities, with the robots hurtling ships at the bad guys in addition to shooting missiles at them. The dark obscures some of the good stuff, but the fights can mostly be followed. I think the logic of the film is lacking at times. Why wouldn't fighter jets with missiles and bombs be more precise? Is humanity's best option a clunky, obvious target just asking to be knocked over? Additionally, the computers in the robots seem to fail quite a bit, a precarious situation with the robots fighting in and around so much water. Hearing characters scream about neural handshakes over and over again is not compelling, and the film just never generates any momentum.

Del Toro made Pan's Labyrinth, one of my favorite films of the last decade, so my hopes were high, but despite some nasty-looking monsters and a few fun fights, this movie is completely forgettable and a colossal waste of time and money.

Wacky, Wild, and Fun: The Coens Raise Arizona with Nicolas Cage.

Movie Review: Raising Arizona

Director:  Joel and Ethan Coen

Reviewed: 14 December 2013

jamesintexas rating-- ***1/2

"Its a crazy world."

"Someone ought to sell tickets."

"Sure, I'd buy one."

In Raising Arizona, a sun-drenched Looney Tunes cartoon of a movie, The Coen Brothers have created a breakneck comedy involving the abduction of the baby of furniture magnate Nathan Arizona by the lovable H.I. (Nicolas Cage) and his wife Edwina (Holly Hunter). The opening scenes outline how H.I. and Ed came to be a couple (she is the police officer that shoots his prison photos; he pledges his love to her when he gets out of the joint), and their struggles to become parents takes over the thrust of the plot. Upon seeing Nathan Arizona's newly born quintuplets in the paper (quote from Nathan: "We have more than we can handle!"), the couple decides to take one off of his hands. This decision sets in motion the law, some escaped prisoner friends of HI's (John Goodman and William Forsythe), the lone biker of the apocalypse, and a madcap run through a grocery store in pursuit of Huggies.

The film is in love with itself, offering wonderfully baroque speeches and narration to its characters while also displaying an effortless whimsy about its movements. The soundtrack is laugh out loud hilarious, and the film reaches into some sweet places at the end while never losing its core. The performances are particularly strong with Holly Hunter all intense energy and fire juxtaposed against the eye-popping, crazy-hair-having, and face-contorting of Nicolas Cage. Cage is phenomenal here, owning nearly every scene and doing quite a bit of physical comedy. He seems game for anything. The film contains its own little universe of personalities, symbols, and logic, and I found myself smiling while watching. It feels like you are in good hands, hands that know how to tell the story with a well-placed camera, sharp dialogue, and a joy for the task.

A comedy is a difficult task to pull off, but I feel that nearly every scene in Raising Arizona works well enough to earn a laugh and a smile. What more can you ask for in a film?

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Iron Giant: A Giant Achievement, Full of Heart.

Movie Review: The Iron Giant

Director:  Brad Bird

Reviewed: 8 December 2013

jamesintexas rating-- ****

Here is the true Iron Man, 1999's classic family film The Iron Giant. A young, lonely boy find a giant metal robot in the woods and forms a friendship. Set in the backdrop of the 1950's Atomic Age with Sputnik flying overhead and paranoia spreading across the land, The Iron Giant narrows its focus on this little boy wonderfully named Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal), his waitress-mother (Jennifer Anniston), the government inspector Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald), and a beatnik-artist-junkyard owner Dean McCoppin (Harry Connick, Jr.). Funny without pandering or insulting its audience, sweet without being maudlin, The Iron Giant delights in its colors and movements, a marvel of storytelling for 1999. Its reverence for comic books plays out wonderfully, and Bird's arrangement of the story results in a symphony of laughs and tears. It offers a take on violence that is refreshingly real ("Guns kill"), considerate of the consequences of pulling a trigger and paying off in a crucial way late in the film.

The film is not constructed to sell lunch boxes or Happy Meals. Its aesthetic is interesting and unconventional, and its highest moments achieve a grace and beauty often unseen in family films. I could watch this film over and over again, and I look forward to showing this film to my son when he gets old enough.

Battle Royale: The Hunger Games Precursor and Its Superior.

Movie Review: Battle Royale

Director:  Kinji Fukasaku

Reviewed: 8 December 2013

jamesintexas rating-- ***1/2

A daring and well-executed nightmare of a film, Battle Royale shows a 9th grade Japanese classroom, gassed and abducted on their class vacation and forced into a bizarre, macabre game on a deserted island surrounded by military. One of their teachers tells them that each will be given one weapon, and that the 42 of them must eliminate each other until only one remains. The variation on "The Most Dangerous Game" and The Running Man involves the destruction of the social construct of these teenagers and their varied reactions to these constraints. The creators of BR, Battle Royale, wish to keep society in check (unemployment is extremely high; students are potentially volatile and in danger of rebelling), and Fukasaku's camera follows the horror on these young people's faces as the game begins. Some take to the game right away, dispatching each other with sickening violence. Others form pacts, searching for a way to break the system. The weapons vary from bag to bag; one might end up with a gun or a pot lid. The island is divided up into zones which are announced as dangerous during certain time periods, forcing constant movement. The players wear necklaces with bombs in them, enabling them to be tracked. Generally, we follow Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara), a young man haunted by the suicide of his own father (seen through eye-popping flashbacks) and Nakagawa (Aki Maeda), his young classmate with a crush on him. But Fukasaku's strength is allowing the audience to track multiple characters as well as delve into multiple backstories with flashbacks, title cards of dialogue, and vicious, bloody fights. How does one respond to imminent death? The film frequently breaks to announce who has died and how many remain. The tension is quite remarkable.

A word about the violence. Battle Royale is an unapologetically violent film with no qualms about showing teenagers dispatching each other in gruesome ways. It makes The Hunger Games look prudish with its shaky camera and oblique angles and dramatic falls to the ground. Weapons stick out of characters' heads, blood erupts like geysers (the film must be a partial inspiration for Quentin Tarantino's Kill-Bill series), and the film challenges and deepens as it goes on. I do not completely understand the machinations of the ending (it requires a second viewing), but the film is infinitely interesting. Released in 2001 to heavy criticism (and banned by the Japanese government, announces some proud title cards), the film does not shock in 2013 the same way, but it offers a powerful jolt as a disturbing story told in a creative way.

Gangster Squalor

Movie Review: Gangster Squad

Director: Ruben Fleischer

Reviewed: 7 December 2013

jamesintexas rating-- *

Gangster Squad tries to bring strong actors like Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Nick Nolte, and Sean Penn together to form a cohesive story about post World War Two Hollywood, when an unofficial task force of LAPD created by the Chief (Nolte) attempts to disrupt palooka-turned-gangster Mickey Cohen's (Penn) stranglehold over the city and possibly the West Coast. However, any way that you turn it, the task force represents vigilantism, shooting up nightclubs, burning money, killing men in the streets, and not using the infrastructure of justice at all. Brolin's hero is too clean cut, never conflicted about the dirty work these cops must do. Gosling's loner has a vaguely defined relationship with Cohen's moll (Emma Stone), heightening the tension in theory. In general, it reminded me of another movie, a better movie.

Probably in my cinematic timeline, The Untouchables is the first film that Gangster Squad reminded me of watching. Brian DePalma's bloody, stylish take on Elliot Ness's dismantling of Al Capone offered some dynamite performances, memorable moments, and some scenes of upsetting terror. Robert DeNiro wielding a baseball bat. The poor accountant guy. Sean Connery's comeuppance. With a strong visual sense, The Untouchables shows a disparate group of crime fighters (Kevin Costner, Andy Garcia, Sean Connery, etc...) united in the quest to topple the ultimate representation of evil. That film acknowledges the stakes in a far better way as the cops become hunted themselves and face moral questions in their pursuit of justice.

L.A. Confidential depicts the exact same time period (Late 1940's LA) with panache and much better performances. In that film, cops Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, and Kevin Spacey straddle the line of corruption and righteousness, battling crooked cops and gangsters in an uneasy alliance of egos. They are also tasked with creating an unofficial task force to rid the city of crime, and it plays better in that film from 1997.

Gangster Squad has some shoot-outs and some violent scenes, though some sequences devolve into needless slow-motion, exploding Christmas ornaments, and excessive style. Penn seems nearly indecipherable under a mound of make-up as Cohen, spouting nonsensical lines and sacrificing his guys needlessly, and the final fight seems completely superfluous. It is a film that never requires you to think very much and never truly addresses its own characters' moral dilemmas. Nolte's chief creates a renegade vigilante task force that kills dozens of criminals and never has to justify itself. The world is stupidly simple in this film. As an introduction to this kind of film, Gangster Squad offers little and does not linger. Seek out the far superior L.A. Confidential or The Untouchables. At least Gangster Squad made me think of those enjoyable films. I cannot wait to re-watch them.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Iron Man Three: All Dressed Up and Nowhere To Go

Movie Review: Iron Man Three

Director: Shane Black

Reviewed: 1 December 2013

jamesintexas rating-- *

Where is the anarchic charisma of Robert Downey Jr? In Ironman Three, the character of Tony Stark seems radically uninteresting as does Downey Jr.'s performance. Although a step up (I guess) from the dreck of Ironman Two, Ironman Three offers little in the way of character development, and the once promising take on the modern action film is played out.

After an opening scene set in Germany at the turn of the century sets up some crucial relationships, we arrive in the present where Tony Stark must confront the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a shadowy terrorist behind a series of bombings while also coming to grips with his own insomnia. Stark's bluster and bravado plays against him resulting in a devastating attack on his Malibu compound. Rumored dead, Stark then plays detective and analyst, considering the evidence left behind after each bombing. He must reconcile with girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) as well as thrive without the benefits of his lab, money, and hardware. But, it is Tony Stark, so we are never really worried about him.

A motif in this film is Tony's constant manipulation of other Iron Men, controlling them with his hand movements and summoning them when he is in trouble. In a way, the concept ruins the film, suggesting in fight scenes an on autopilot type of atmosphere, where it is unclear whether there is anyone we can are about in a flying suit or if it is just another empty drone. The fight scenes were very unappealing, and the film does not have the conviction to follow through on a teased out possibly darkly depressing ending. The reveal with the Mandarin mid-film is a fun one, but it goes nowhere, and the villains in all three films seem sadly interchangeable. I wanted to laugh more, and I did not find the writing or the delivery of the quips as much fun as in the past.

Sequels are often diminishing returns, but I was surprised at how little substance there was to this film. Will Robert Downey Jr. go back to doing interesting, spirited work?  I certainly hope so. Iron Man 3 isn't it.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Disaster on All Accounts: Me, Myself & Irene.

Movie Review: Me, Myself & Irene

Director: The Farrelly Brothers (Bobby and Peter)

Reviewed: 1 December 2013

jamesintexas rating--1/2 *

Jim Carrey reunited with his Dumb and Dumber directors should have been comedy gold. Instead, this sloppy comedy Me, Myself & Irene wastes an intriguing and promising concept (Carrey as a Rhode Island State Trooper with split personalities) and goes for long stretches without laughs, the death knell of a comedy. As Charlie Baileygates, the mild-mannered father of three genius African-American children (the results of his wife's trysts with their limo driver), Carrey oozes repressed rage as he backs down from all conflict but loves his children; as Hank Evans, the impulsively violent maniac that represents Charlie's id, Carrey drowns small children, drives cars through business windows, tosses out intense language, attacks litterers, and pugnaciously attempts to combat Charlie's inadequate responses to the world around him. Renee Zellweger is the eponymous love interest with a flimsy character at best. The plot consists of Charlie/Hank having to escort Irene from Rhode Island to upstate New York as well as rescue her from some criminal elements that want her dead. The road trip, so often a staple of the Farrellys, offers diminishing returns. Nothing compares to the Sea Bass incident of Dumb and Dumber here.

The movie only occasionally works when Carrey goes off the rails in terms of violence, bravado, or language. And that does not occur often enough. Chris Cooper, Richard Jenkins, and Robert Forster are all wasted in minor roles. The work done by Charlie's three sons (Anthony Anderson, Mongo Brownlee, and Jerod Mixon) has funny moments, but I never feel that it is as transgressive or shocking as the Farrellys believe it is.

In 1998, There's Something About Mary was the funniest experience I have ever had in a movie theater. On the Friday night screening of the opening weekend, I observed audience members falling out of their seats laughing, and I missed whole chunks of dialogue because I was laughing so hard. There are simply no moments in this film akin to that experience. And Jim Carrey, as plastic and manic a performer as there is, simply does not entertain. I'm inclined to like Carrey's work, but here, he is grating. The film is a disaster.