Friday, November 30, 2012

Black Fist

Directed by Timothy Galfas and Richard Kaye.
1974. Rated R, 93 minutes.

Cast:


Robert Burr
Annazette Chase
Charles L. Hamilton
Denise Gordy
Richard Kaye
Ed Rue
Edward James Olmos


You know a movie is gonna be good and turrible, grammar and spelling intended, when it has two directors and goes by at least three titles. Such is the case with Black Fist, AKA Bogard, AKA Black Street Fighter, possibly AKA Homeboy. Legend has it that one of the main reasons for the multiple directors and titles is that the finished product is actually two crappy movies spliced together to form one mass of Blaxploitation goodness. Someone else will have to confirm all that for you. All I know is I’m about to have a ball! In keeping with genre traditions, I suggest completely ignoring any title which doesn’t include the word “Black.” With that in mind, let’s move on.

Before we actually get to the movie, we’ll just get the trivia round out of the way early. In other words, this is semi-interesting stuff I couldn’t find another spot for within the actual review. Some days, I suck. Anyhoo, Black Fist AKA lots of other stuff, marks the big screen debut of Edward James Olmos. Now that I know his long and wonderful career started here, I have even more respect for him than I had after my first viewing of the awesome American Me. He is only one of the former Miami Vice cast members in this movie. We’ll get to the other guy in just a bit. There is another bit of totally inconsequential info. Also making her cinematic debut is Denise Gordy: niece of Motown music mogul Berry, eventual wife and ex-wife of this movie’s star and baby-mama to the late great Marvin Gaye. Enough of this ‘Before They Were Stars’ crap, I’ve got a movie to talk about.

Our black street fighter with the black fist is named Leroy (Lawson). No disrespect to all the brothas named Leroy out there, but you can’t get any more stereotypical than that. This is a cause for pause, as in I’m pausing the movie to pop some popcorn and grab a brew. Gotta set the mood cuz I don’t know when the next time will be that I’ll have so much fun with my pants on and zipped up. Too much? Whatever.


Dig it, Leroy can’t seem to find a gig. He needs to make some bread cuz he’s got a wife to take care of…and a girlfriend. No jive. His game must be tight cuz this never becomes an issue. I would say this ain’t stereotypical, but I don’t feel like wasting any of my valuable sarcasm. Leroy has a constantly stumblin’ bumblin’ homie named Fletch. A quick look at Fletch reveals that this is obviously not Chevy Chase. Research the reference if you don’t get it. Hey, wait a sec. Oh snap! That over-acting dude is future Miami Vice star Philip Michael Thomas! Don’t get too attached to Fletch. He winds up dead. Ahem, sorry…Spoiler Alert! Well, not really. That he dies becomes relevant for a bizarre reason we’ll discuss later. For now, just know that Fletch hooks Leroy up with local gangster Logan (Burr). Of course Logan is white. Know your Blaxploitation!

Logan is into all kinds of stuff, but his pride and joy is his stable of bare-knuckle street fighters. He also gets a kick out of droppin’ N-bombs on his black employees, the highest ranking of which joins in on the fun. Talk about a house negro. Regardless, Leroy wants to be down. Apparently, there’s lots of bread to made bustin’ heads. Logan sets Leroy up with an audition fight. Our boy promptly takes a whoopin’, but Logan likes his spunk and hires him anyway. Since he’s not ready to take on the mean streets, Logan only has one thing to do: subject Leroy and us to a rigorous training montage.

Before too long, Leroy starts kickin’ ass and rakin’ in the dough. He’s doing so well, his down time is much more relaxing than it was before. Yes, this means another montage. This time we get to see him take long walks in the park and makin’ sweet sweet love with his wife then hangin’ out at the girlfriend’s crib countin’ stacks of money and makin’ more sweet sweet love. No jive.



You just have to know that happiness is short-lived. Suddenly, sleazy cop Heineken starts sniffin’ ‘round for a cut of Leroy’s winnings in exchange for not throwin’ the black street fighter’s black ass in jail. Woah, wait. The cop’s name is Heineken? Hot damn, I’m drinkin’ one of those right now! Woah, wait again. The cop is future co-star of so much stuff I care not to name, Dabney Coleman! I must say that, as a sleazy pig, he’s perfect. He’s even slimier than Logan, whom this eventually leads back to cuz that’s who he works for. My bad: Spoiler Alert! Doesn’t drinking imported beer from a green bottle make you feel more important? No? Just me? Forget it.

Leroy figures out the whole shebang and wants out, but not before he has one last big money fight. He lets it be known he won’t be sharing any of the proceeds when he wins. Brothas and sistas, you know tha man won’t let that slide. After the exit fight, Logan has someone try to kill Leroy by blowin’ up the dude’s car. Small problem with this course of action: Leroy’s not in his ride, but his very pregnant wife and her brother are. Dead. Oops. Woah, wait. Let’s back up a tiny bit. Before walking out to the car we see pregnant wifey sitting in the club that Leroy just bought with his black fists and drinking something out of a wine glass that was definitely not water. The 70s were great.


Did you see what just happened, here? For those of you so mesmerized by my skillful and imaginative prose that you somehow missed the unsubtle nuances of the story, I’ll explain. We have stopped watching a sports movie and are on to the revenge flick portion of our feature.

Ah, revenge flicks. You know the drill. Our hero has to question, beat down and/or kill a lot of people until he gets back to Logan. The first person to get the “Punisher” treatment is some cat with a heavy Hispanic accent who goes by the name Boom Boom. Apparently, Boom Boom got his name because he’s an expert…woah, wait. Oh snap! That over-acting dude is future Miami Vice star Philip Michael Thomas! No, I did not accidentally copy and paste, this is not any sort of typographical error and I’m not crazy. Philip Michael Thomas indeed plays two completely unrelated roles in the same movie without any makeup to disguise the fact and dies both times. Brothas and sistas, that last sentence could truly have been the entire review. It says far more than the rest of the masturbatory drivel I’ve spewed all over this delectable dreck. In case you missed the not-so-hidden meaning in the most recent of my brilliant statements, understand this: the only type of movie that would even attempt to pull off such tomfoolery is one that’s so bad it’s awesome! No jive.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Iron Lady

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd.
2011. Rated R, 105 minutes.
Cast:

Alexandra Roach
Harry Lloyd
Olivia Colman
Iain Glen
Anthony Head
Nicholas Farrell
Richard E. Grant
Martin Wimbush
Roger Allam
John Sessions


Meryl Streep plays Great Britain’s first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. She’s aided in her portrayal by Alexandra Roach who plays the younger Margaret. Through the use of flashbacks, we follow the once most powerful woman in the world from the time shortly before she gets accepted to Oxford through the present. Those flashbacks reveal a vibrant woman with a passion for making things right, as she saw fit. We see her struggle and elbow her way into politics, essentially an all-boys club when she began. Naturally, she evolves into a hard-nosed leader who won’t take any guff from anyone. Throughout our time with her, she efforts to adjust to life out of office and without Denis (Broadbent), her beloved but deceased husband.



Some recent biopics about famous women have chosen to focus on the more tawdry details of their lives, love affairs and soap opera like melodrama, relegating what made them great to secondary status. Such is the case in both Coco Before Chanel and Amelia, both making their subjects the focal point in a love triangle more than anything else. Thankfully, The Iron Lady spares us the romance novel histrionics. Instead, we get to see the drive that made her into the Margaret Thatcher we’ve come to know. Her ascent to power and exertion of it are allowed ample breathing time. Whether we agree or disagree with her philosophies and decisions is irrelevant. What’s important is that she achieved much during her lifetime.

That’s not to say there isn’t a love story because there most certainly is. Without their courtship dominating the run-time we still get a clear understanding of how much they mean to each other. We also realize how tough her public life is on their family. Still, they are what could be described as soul mates. This gives us the current of sadness that runs through TIL. Much of the older Thatcher’s time, by extension much of Streep’s time, is spent within the lonely confines of her bedroom. She often speaks aloud to Denis, present only through her constant hallucinations. Here is where the movie almost loses us. It’s depressing watching a once-great figure stumble about her home talking to herself. She appears to struggle with the fact she’s no longer Prime Minister and wholly unable to cope with the reality that her husband has been dead some years.

As usual, Meryl Streep keeps us engaged. She again demonstrates her ability to get lost within the character and draw out both their despair and their dignity. If there is one trait most of her characters share, it’s regality. That’s certainly fitting for Thatcher. However, this is one instance where Streep didn’t do it alone. I’d be remiss if I didn’t commend Alexandra Roach. She does a very good job as the younger, more ambitious, less secure Margaret. The two performances mesh nicely. It helps that Roach bears a healthy resemblance to Streep.

Eventually, a triumphant finale is fashioned out of our hero’s post-political life. Still, it’s not as uplifting as it wants to be. It feels like a temporary victory or possibly a segue to other problems. The movie ends because it must. Some of you may cry because it is a touching moment. It just doesn’t leave us feeling particularly good about where Thatcher stands.

MY SCORE: 7.5/10

Friday, November 23, 2012

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Directed by Guy Ritchie.
2011. Rated PG-13, 129 minutes.
Cast:
Jared Harris
Stephen Fry
Geraldine James
Paul Anderson
Kelly Reilly

As is always the case, we find Sherlock Holmes (Downey Jr.) embroiled in the biggest case of his career. He’s matching wits with Professor James Moriarty (Harris) who appears to have connections to assassinations around the globe. However, his sanity seems to be waning when his right hand man Watson (Law) finds him in quite a disheveled state. After getting wind of what Holmes is up to, Watson makes clear that he will not help on this one because he’s getting married and leaving for his honeymoon tomorrow. Since a Sherlock Holmes adventure is nothing without Watson, it’s inevitable that our hero convinces his sidekick to tag along “just this once.”


With regards to the main plot, solving the case, A Game of Shadows works very well. It’s less convoluted and without the notions of supernatural occurrences of its predecessor. We get a bad guy who is an intellectual match for our hero. The two have some enjoyable back-and-forths. We also get some well-presented action sequences. Director Guy Ritchie doesn’t deviate from the visual style of the orginal, which he also helmed, and it pays off. The one carry over that doesn’t work quite as well is Sherlock’s ability to completely predict a momentarily upcoming situation. It’s okay for the most part but grows tired. The way Ritchie tries to inject life back into it, doesn’t actually help: it becomes a telepathic conversation between Holmes and his adversary.


The story surrounding the conflict is where AGoS falters. It masks its flaws with comedy that’s actually pretty well done. Though often settling on slapstick and cranking the homoerotic factor to 11, it’s fun and keeps things moving along. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law work both aspects well showcasing wonderful chemistry throughout. While Downey has the flashier role, Law is perfect straight man. The pun is intended because I can crack homoerotic jokes, too. The problem lies within the part of the tale it brings up as rather prominent then abruptly drops. Okay, I didn’t really how punny that sentence was until I was actually typing it out. Sorry. Let’s move on.


Remember what I said about Sherlock’s sanity? Well, we never follow that thread. Doing so has the potential to provide the franchise with serious depth. However, the operative word is “serious.” Probably in order to keep ticket revenue fairly deep into nine digit territory, Guy Ritchie seems dead set against doing anything thought provoking. Whimsy, fisticuffs and chases rule the Sherlock Holmes universe. If that is indeed the case, the movie would’ve been better off not even mentioning that our hero might be a little off.

Honestly, I may be nit-picking a bit. Then again, that’s what you’re here for. Still, let’s not forget AGoS is a fun ride. As mentioned, Downey and Law are both great. Meanwhile, the action and humor makes the time go by pretty quickly. If you enjoyed the first movie, I see no reason you shouldn’t like this one. I will say it’s just a shade below its predecessor on quality. By the way, fans of the original Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo get a nice treat seeing Noomi Rapace as our damsel in distress. It’s a role that requires very little of her immense talent, but I suspect it pays a lot better.


MY SCORE: 7/10

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Roadie

Directed by Michael Cuesta.
2011. Rated R, 95 minutes.
Cast:
Ron Eldard
Jill Hennessy
Lois Smith
Catherine Wolf
Suzette Gunn

True to the movie’s title, Jimmy (Eldard) has been schlepping bags for the band Blue Oyster Cult ever since he got out of high school twenty years ago. We meet him on the day he’s been fired, desperately trying to convince them via cellphone to reconsider and take him on their next tour. Unsuccessful, he arrives back home in Queens to stay with the mother he hasn’t seen in quite some time. He runs into some old friends at a local bar and reminisces about old times. Eventually, long buried emotions and scars resurface. While Jimmy is an adult, it’s obvious he hasn’t really grown up. It’s clear in his constant need to pretend he’s a big shot. The standard lie he tells is he now manages Blue Oyster Cult and has even written and produced a few of their songs. That the band hasn’t been popular for a while makes it a story people willingly accept.

The other lie is he’s only in town for a day or so until he’s off to South America with the band. This makes Jimmy a hard guy to really like. What helps are the few moments of unbridled honesty that he musters. It is at these times we recognize him as passionate but insecure, filled with bluster about how road-hardened he is yet emotionally fragile. Years living on the fringes of the rock star lifestyle seems to have stunted his growth. It’s evident that his former classmates, ex-girlfriend Nikki (Hennessy) and her husband Randy (Cannavale), who used to give Jimmy a hard time, haven’t grown up that much, either. Even now, Randy insists on calling Jimmy by an unflattering nickname. Jimmy still carries a torch for Nikki and does a poor job hiding it. This manifests itself into the edge on which the rest of the movie teeters. Like his time with the band, this is one more thing he can’t quite let go. We know that he must, for his own sake, but fear he might be incapable. The situation is exacerbated because it appears the others won’t let it go, either.


By now, you should’ve gotten the idea that Roadie is a film built upon conversations. That means the acting has to be on point for this to work. There are no action or sex scenes to distract us from watching the people involved as opposed to just their bodies. Thankfully, all of the performers are excellent. In the lead role, Eldard delivers what is sure to be one of the most overlooked performances of 2011. It’s a role that demands him to ooze confusion and self-doubt. He presents us with a true man-child who is unfortunately staring blankly at a crossroads. No less effective are the two ladies in the cast: Lois Smith as Jimmy’s mom and Jill Hennessy as the one that got away. Smith is absolutely perfect. Hennessy’s Nikki mirrors Jimmy with her own tough exterior concealing a gooey center. She also has the added weight of being everyone’s focal point, which the actress bears well but the character does not. The showiest role belongs to Cannavale has Nikki’s loud-mouthed hubby. He’s a grade A jackass, the variety of which we all know at least one. He also gives us some comic relief, but the laughs are uneasy.

Like a lot of movies, one of the problems is the expectations set by its advertising. Once again, I have to refer to a DVD cover as the main culprit. This one exclaims ‘sex, drugs and rock-n-roll!’ and sets Roadie up as a rollicking musical drama. It is not anything of the sort. As already mentioned, there is no sex. There are a good deal of drugs, but the rock-n-roll consists of people playing really old records (yes, records) and passionately pontificating about them and the state of music. This drama made up of everyday people. It’s a character study which doesn’t really answer our most important questions. Instead, it leaves us to ponder them on our own.


MY SCORE: 7.5/10

Monday, November 19, 2012

We Need to Talk About Kevin

Directed by Lynne Ramsay.
2011. Rated R, 112 minutes.
Cast:
Ezra Miller
Jasper Newell
Ashley Gerasimovich
Siobhan Fallon
Alex Manette
James Chen


The last sixteen years have been a living hell for Eva (Swinton). Things don’t appear to be getting better. She spends most of her days agonizing over what has happened during that time which culminates with her teenage son Kevin (Miller) in jail. She lives alone in a shabby little house that’s a wreck, both inside and out and goes to visit her boy quite often. The two mostly sit across a table and stare at each other. They don’t seem to be mother and son so much as they do a pair of adversaries inextricably stuck with one another and forced to behave. Through flashbacks we see pretty much Kevin’s entire life. It does indeed seem as if he’s hated her literally from day one of his existence. Soon, the feeling becomes mutual. However, realizing that a mom shouldn’t feel that way about her boy she continues to give her relationship with him the old college try. Unfortunately, the boy just seems evil.

It’s clear right from the beginning that Kevin has not just committed a crime, but done something especially heinous. It’s so bad that Eva is shunned by everyone in town. One lady even has enough gumption to punch her in the face and call her names as they pass each other on the street. For what it’s worth, Kevin doesn’t seem the least remorseful about anything. Didn’t I say he’s evil.

When I say evil, I don’t mean it in the way we normally think of when talking about horror flicks. Kevin isn’t possessed by some revenge-seeking demon or a host for the devil. He just seems to be a bad kid from the start. This dredges up the old nature vs. nurture argument. Was he born rotten or did life spoil him?


Truth told, We Need to Talk About Kevin isn’t actually categorized under horror. I’ve seen it called a psychological thriller, a drama and/or a suspense. Though it has elements of all of those, I wouldn’t say any of those descriptions is truly fitting. I would say it has as much, if not more, in common with fright flicks as anything else. It’s a horror made all the more unsettling because we’re too familiar with both the familial situation and the situation Kevin creates. It could be happening next door. The potential for this story to spring to life right before us, as it too often has, is far scarier than the prospects of some boogeyman in a dingy, tattered get-up disemboweling all of our friends while cracking witty one-liners. The terror comes from the context. That said, it’s not a movie you’d be pressed to watch alone in the dark. The sinking feeling it gives us has nothing to do with what might be lurking about just beyond our field of vision. It comes more from what we can plainly see but may not be willing to believe.

No matter which box we try to put it in, WNtTAK is unconventional. It, along with Eva seems to exist in a near constant dream like state like they’re both incredulous as to how things have turned out. There really is no plot, just the endless pain of her existence as flashbacks and current events alternate screen time. The other is never far from thought.

While the thematic occurrences are intriguing, they would be a hard sell if not for the amazing work turned in by Tilda Swinton. She’s perfectly perplexed at the mess her life has become. Not to be outdone are the three gentlemen handling the role of Kevin. While Miller handles the role in its final incarnation amazingly, he receives a great setup from the tykes who handle the younger versions. In particular, Jasper Newell, who plays Kevin between ages six and eight is remarkable. The two boys complement each other extremely well making for a seamless combined portrayal.

The pacing is a bit slow and the score, while moody, isn’t terribly exciting. This makes it a difficult watch for some. Regardless of which genre you think this belongs, you’re in the wrong place if you’re looking for a mile-a-minute popcorn flick. There is nothing wrong with those kinds of movies, I love plenty of them. However, they’re fleeting and light snacks. We Need to Talk About Kevin is heavy, stick to your ribs food.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Our Idiot Brother

Directed by Jesse Peretz.
2011. Rated R, 96 minutes.
Cast:
Steve Coogan
Shirley Knight


Ned (Rudd) is a lovable man-child who has three sisters: Miranda (Banks), Natalie (Deschanel) and Liz (Mortimer). True to the movie’s title, he’s arrested within a few minutes of us meeting him for selling marijuana to a uniformed officer. Yes, he sells weed to a cop in uniform. Fast forward to the day he gets released from prison. Not only has his job as an organic farmer vanished, but his girl has replaced him with a guy who could be his clone and kicks him out of the house. She won’t even let him have the dog he absolutely adores. With nowhere else to go, he goes back to mom’s house. Due to circumstances and opportunity he then winds up spending a little time living with each of his sisters. He accidentally wreaks havoc on each of their lives mostly by not knowing when to shut up.

Calling Ned an idiot is putting it mildly. The same applies to calling this movie idiotic. He’s presented as a charming dunce who has apparently never met a stranger. People freely confide in him things they’ve never told anyone else despite only recently meeting him. He can’t help but regurgitate what he’s heard to anyone who bothers to ask. In addition, he accepts any explanation given to him for things he sees with his own eyes as if he’s a three year old. The film merely plays on these things by dropping him into a vicious cycle. He moves in with one of his sisters, repeats something he’s been told or talks about something he’s seen and that sister’s life goes spiraling out of control, not they had any control to begin with. The sister then kicks him out and it’s on to the next house to repeat the process.

Allegedly, Our Idiot Brother is a comedy. However, very little of it is funny. Instead, we just roll our eyes in disbelief at how stupid this man is, wonder if he has some undiagnosed disability. Slogging through the movie is made all the more tedious because we can easily tell what this is all leading to. In case you plan on seeing this I won’t come right out and say it. I will ask you this: what happens in every other movie where a mentally challenged individual is surrounded by self-centered, busy people who think he’s a burden? If you know the answer to this question you’ve no need to bother with Our Idiot Brother.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Raid: Redemption

Directed by Gareth Evans.
2011. Rated R, 101 minutes.
Cast:
Iko Uwais
Donny Alamsyah
Joe Taslim
Yayan Ruhian
Pierre Gruno
Ray Sahetapy
Tegar Satrya
Iang Darmawan

Right from the start, the most important detail, one we haven’t even been explicitly told yet, is painfully obvious. Within a few minutes we’re shown Rama (Uwais), a rookie cop and soon-to-be father, with what amounts to a SWAT team of 20 officers on their way to take down an apartment building run by the notorious Tama (Sahetapy) solely for the purpose of harboring fugitives. Yes, the bad guys will far outnumber the good guys. The crucial piece of info we’re not told can be easily surmised from what Rama says to  the people at home, before reporting for duty. I won’t spoil it, you’ll probably figure it out on your own in a few minutes into your own viewing. There are several other “twists”. However, these are more along the lines of “well, duh” rather than “wow!” One character who plays a pivotal role is a tenant whom we have to doubt would ever be anywhere near this building. These things are a death-knell for a most movies. In The Raid: Redemption they barely matter.


What matters is that the time you spent reading the first paragraph is just slightly less than the total “downtime” you’ll have watching this flick. Catching your breath is only occasionally an option. What matters is you’ll be watching some of the most exciting, brutal and beautifully shot action to grace the screen in some time. The first half features a relentless assault of gunfire that would make John Woo proud. It’s all kicked off by one of the most amazing bullet-time sequences I’ve ever seen. The second half sees the shooting take a back seat to bone-crunching martial arts. One character even puts down his gun in favor of a fist fight, proclaiming “This is what I do.” Indeed, it is.

Non-stop action can become tedious and weighed down from dragging around a clunky narrative. Even worse, they just go on forever. I’m talking to you, Michael Bay. Here, the barely over 90 minute frame is perfectly suited to carry a flimsy, yet effective enough story while we ooh, aah and cringe at the visuals. It’s an action film that knows how long it has before losing us and wants nothing more than to assault our eyes. Mission accomplished on that front. For you action junkies, this is the stuff of your wet dreams. On the other hand, if you’re looking for things like depth, character development, witty dialogue, etc., they are not found nor welcomed here. And it’s still a great movie, just not for the squeamish.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Hunger Games

Directed by Gary Ross.
2012. Rated PG-13, 142 minutes.
Cast:
Liam Hemsworth
Wes Bentley
Isabelle Fuhrman
Willow Shields
Paula Malcomson

Once a year, as penance for an earlier uprising against The Capitol, each of the 12 districts in the post-apocalyptic nation of Panem is required to send one male and one female between the ages of 12 and 18 to participate in The Hunger Games. The 24 “tributes” are shipped off to the Capitol where they’ll train for a couple weeks than head out into the forest where they will literally try to out survive each other. Yes, this means only one of them will leave these battlegrounds alive and be crowned the winner. This person will then be showered with copious amounts of fame and fortune.

The kids are chosen at their annual “Reaping.” Basically, all the adolescents have their name thrown into a bin from which two unlucky contestants are drawn. This year in District 12, barely eligible and obviously weak Primrose Everdeen (Shields) gets picked. Valiantly, her older and sturdier sister Katniss (Lawrence) volunteers to go in her place. It helps her chances that she’s an expert with a bow and arrow. She’ll be joined by Peeta (Hutcherson). No one is kind enough to volunteer for his spot. Off they go to The Capitol. Oh, I almost forgot: they travel with Effie Trinket, one of the district’s head honchos. I only mention her because she’s played by ElizabethBanks in full drag-queen regalia. Also with them is their appointed coach Haymitch Abernathy (Harrelson). He’s a past winner and obviously jaded by the experience.

We get a lengthy section on our heroine training, learning how strong some of the others are, how to play nice with the higher-ups and being introduced to the world. Sorry, I failed to mention that “The Hunger Games” are televised throughout the country. After more than sufficient build-up, we finally get to the games. Teenagers trying to kill each other ensues.

On the surface, it’s a fine movie. The setup is a bit too long as it is working really hard to make sure we like Katniss. Much of it is extraneous energy since she has us wrapped around her finger the moment she volunteers. This part of the film also makes sure we know who the favorites to win are. By default, they serve as villains. We also get to meet a few bad guys who will stay behind the scenes. This way, we’re fully vested in Katniss by the time the action begins. Like I said, it’s overdone but it’s still effective.



For some of us, there is the proverbial 800 pound gorilla in the room: Battle Royale. For those unaware, BR is a 2000 Japanese film with pretty much the same premise. A group of ninth graders are made to go off into the woods and terminate one another until only one remains in the land of the living. The way things play out in both movies makes The Hunger Games essentially a remake, or re-imagining, with a bigger budget, more screen time for adults and far more extravagant costuming.

That said, there is a major difference between the two movies: what they choose to be a metaphor for. BR is a microcosm of the way teenagers interact with one another and of adolescence itself. The cliquish nature of high school and hyperactive teen angst take center stage. THG ignores those things as much as possible. Instead, it’s a riff on our ever-expanding fascination with and the proliferation of reality television. It takes square aim at the logical evolution of a genre in which the stakes are constantly being raised. This is a solid, though still not quite fresh, topic for people in the target audience. However, for those of us old enough to remember such films, it lacks the depth and originality of such fare as The Truman Show or The Running Man.

Taken on its own terms, THG is a solid flick with slightly more on its mind than your average popcorn flick. Still, it never gets preachy. After all, social commentary is not the main purpose here, engaging and entertaining us through a likeable protagonist is. The other purpose is precisely like almost all other big blockbuster movies: setting us up for the sequel.


MY SCORE: 6.5/10

Monday, November 12, 2012

Battle Royale

Directed by Kinji Fukasaku.
2000. Rated R, 122 minutes.
Cast:
Tatsuya Fujiwara
Aki Maeda
Taro Yamamoto
Masanobu Ando
Kou Shibasaki
Chiaki Kuriyama
Takeshi Kitano


The youth of Japan have gotten so unruly that drastic measures have to be taken. Each year, one class of ninth graders is randomly chosen and forced to compete in “Battle Royale.” If you’re at all familiar with professional wrestling you’ll have a vague idea of what’s going on here. The difference is the stakes are considerably higher. The “lucky” class, 43 students in this case, is taken to a classroom on a deserted island where they learn that all but one of them will die over the course of the next three days. They are sent out of the classroom, one at a time. Each is given a bag that includes food, water and a weapon. What each gets for a weapon is completely random, ranging from automatic assault rifles to a pot lid. Their objective is to be the last survivor within the allotted time frame. To ensure there’ll be lots of killing going on each kid is fitted with a necklace that can be remotely triggered to explode. If a sole survivor hasn’t been identified at the end of 72 hours then all of the necklaces will be detonated. A few of the regular cliques from school stay together, each trying to figure a way out of this mess. Some go it alone, trying to avoid the others as much as possible. Of course, several of them become hunters of their classmates.

As you might imagine, this is a graphically violent movie. Though there are geysers of blood spraying from the unfortunate it’s still not as gory as some other Japanese horror and/or manga style flicks. That’s logical since the focus isn’t on violence as much as it is on adolescence. We concentrate more on how the kids react in an extreme situation. It is remarkable to see how some attack their predicament head on while others withdraw from conflict and some try to detach themselves from their reality all together. From time to time flashbacks give us tidbits about why some of them behave the way they do and/or why they’re viewed in a certain light by their classmates. Many of the performances are very good and the script deciphers for us who the heroes and villains are. Expectedly, there are even some twists to that dynamic. When the picture is complete it reveals itself to be a serious parable about growing up and the survival of the fittest mentality that governs most student bodies.



However, Battle Royale does fall short in some areas. We’re never given a clear indicator as to why this program was started. There is only the vague blanket statement that the youth no longer respects adults. I understand respect is huge in Japanese culture, but I need a little more to go on. We’re never shown or really told about any rash of heinous acts by teenagers. We see what seems to be an isolated incident of the sort that occasionally happens in schools. Still, it’s nothing that would come close to justifying these means. With very few exceptions, none of the kids here seem to be the type you’d cross the street to avoid. Another concern is how the flashbacks are used. They don’t have the effect they’re intended to. It seems the director knew this and tacked on a few more at the very end that work better and should’ve been shown earlier in the movie.

BR combines it’s thrills with some sharp commentary. As noted, the whole thing functions as a metaphor for growing up. In that vein, it works brilliantly as a steroid enhanced, weaponized version of high school. On the other hand, some interesting concepts are brought up but rendered irrelevant by the plot’s execution. There are others, but mainly I’m referring to the “Danger Zones”. They’re set up and explained but nothing ever comes of them. Still, the human drama is intriguing and the camera doesn’t flinch in the face of violence. I’ve seen this on a number of lists of the best movies of the decade (2000-2009). I wouldn’t go that far, but it is an ambitious effort well worth your time as it predates similarly themed best-selling novel The Hunger Games by eight years and the movie that followed it by twelve. Be warned though, this is most certainly not PG-13’d for mass consumption.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Young Adult

Directed by Jason Reitman.
Rated R, 94 minutes.
Cast:
Charize Theron
Patton Oswalt
Patrick Wilson
Elizabeth Reaser
Jill Eikenberry
Richard Bekins
Collette Wolfe
Hettienne Park
J. K. Simmons

Mavis Gary (Theron) is the ghost writer of a once successful series of books aimed at teens, hence the movie’s title. Fresh out of a bad marriage, she suddenly decides to take a trip back to her hometown in hopes of reigniting an old flame. His name is Buddy (Wilson), her high school sweetheart. The problem? Not only is Buddy happily married, he’s just become a dad and is absolutely smitten over his family. Another hindrance is the small bit of fame she’s garnered as the prom queen who went off to the big city and did good. Lastly, it becomes clear rather quickly that Mavis is an alcoholic, or at the very least going through a bout of self-medicating with booze. The local yokels, most of whom admire but aren’t particularly fond of her, wonder aloud what she’s doing back home. Undeterred, she makes play for Buddy against the better advice of her newly found drinking pal Matt (Oswalt). He’s a former high school misfit whom she barely noticed was alive and has to have her memory jogged to remember him despite having the locker right next to his. He has his own set of complex issues.

Hopefully, you haven’t gotten the impression that Young Adult is a plucky romantic comedy of the sort Jennifer Aniston might star. This movie resides in a decidedly darker neighborhood. A couple of characters indeed have romance in their hearts, but it’s all misguided and unreciprocated. When there is eventually sex, it amounts to damaged people simultaneously taking pity on one another and consoling themselves. Beyond that, when the credits roll these people still have severe problems. I certainly would not categorize this as a date movie.

I will categorize YA as the character study of a delusional woman. And, as delusional people often are, she’s oblivious to her own insanity. Theron plays the role without a hint of self-awareness about the ridiculousness of the mission her character has assigned herself. Even when someone else tells her she’s completely out of line, she easily explains her point of view, as much to herself as the other person. In the face of common sense and decency she will not be swayed. Nothing short of getting her man will suffice, regardless of the consequences and/or collateral damage. Theron once again delivers a masterful performance.


Patton Oswalt takes a different path to excellence. His portrayal of Matt is made up entirely of self-awareness and pity. He has no delusions of grandeur and resigns himself to the idea that he will forever occupy the lowest runs of the social ladder. As a person who suffered a life-altering trauma because of the misperception of others, there is a thread of bitterness throughout his entire existence. The tricky part is he puts up just enough of a front to not be totally unapproachable. We even trust him even though his motives aren’t always clear. Is he befriending Mavis in hopes of sharing anything more than a few drinks with her? Or, is he just happy to have the most popular girl from his high school days hanging out with him?

The DVD cover of YA purports it to be some zany comedy that might easily star Tina Fey and/or Anna Faris. If that’s what you’re looking for you’ll be sorely disappointed. The ever-trusty Wikipedia page for the movie calls it a dark comedy. I’ll take it a step further. Any comedy within the confines of this picture is very dark, at best. It’s not quite as aggressively depressing as Melancholia, which also deals with emotionally damaged people along with our always imminent mortality. However, YA is no ray of sunshine. It dives into some of the more desolate corners of the human soul. It is a very good movie as long as you understand what you’re getting yourself into. There will be times when you will laugh. Just don’t go into it looking to yuck it up.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Immortals


Directed by Tarsem Singh.
2011. Rated R, 110 minutes.
Cast:
Henry Cavill
Stephen Dorff
Isabel Lucas
Kellan Lutz
Joseph Morgan
Ann Day-Jones
Peter Stebbings

Where there are swords, there must also be sandals. Not really, but they do enjoy each other’s company quite often. In Immortals they not only hang out together once again, they have many more of the usual suspects with them: chain mail, oracles, prophecies, and of course, immortals. Oh, I almost forgot there has to be a magical weapon. In this case it is The Epirus Bow.

Let’s back up a bit. Many moons ago, the gods defeated the titans at war. Instead of killing their enemies, the gods banished the titans to a special cage deep within the bowels of a Greek village where they are to spend eternity in a state of suspended animation. Sigh. This is where The Epirus Bow comes in. Whoever possesses it can use it to free the titans and wreak havoc on the world. Inexplicably, the gods don’t keep nor attempt to destroy this bow. The gods must be crazy.

Fast forward a few years. Unsurprisingly, the tyrannical King Hyperion (Rourke) is busy turning over every stone he comes across looking for said bow as part of his master plan…wait for it…wait for it…to rule the world! Muahahaha…ahem, sorry. In the process, he kills lots of people just to make sure we know how evil he is. Many of these are his own soldiers and mostly for no more reason than I’ve already given. That’s got to be bad for the troops’ morale, no?



Since every villain must contend with a hero, we have Theseus (Cavill). He’s a peasant who takes care of his mom and pals around with an old man (Hurt) whom he doesn’t realize is Zeus (Evans) in disguise. Pretty early on, Zeus comes right out and tells us Theseus is the only person who can stop King Hyperion. Of course, the gods could but Zeus forbids them from getting involved in human affairs. That whole thing gets darn messy, but I digress. The virgin oracle we can’t believe is a virgin is played by the almost impossibly beautiful (in my opinion) Freida Pinto.  Also early on, she “sees” that Theseus will indeed get his hands on The Epirus Bow. So there, now you don’t have to watch this crap. Hmmm. Since we are in Ancient Greece I’ll say it Olde English (wait…what?). This crap, thou mustn’t watcheth.

If you couldn’t tell already, I hateth this movie. Immortals is aggressively dumb without the good sense to not take itself so seriously. Nearly every action any character makes can be summed up by one word: stupid. It also breaks its own rules several times. This is noticeable mostly because the film itself makes a big deal out of these rules. Save for a couple of brief instances, it lacks the visual splendor of 300 or even the Clash of the Titans remake so we can’t even distract ourselves with shiny objects other than Mickey Rourke’s ridiculous looking headgear. The final, meant to be spectacular, battle involving the cgi titans is underwhelming. The Epirus Bow isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, either. It’s a bow that supplies its own arrows which is nice, but after taking the one shot to free the titans, it’s still just a bow and arrow.

Immortals wants to an epic but just comes across as hokey. Despite his helmets, Mickey Rourke is awesome as always and does all he can with a role requiring little more of him than being sweaty and stomping around the set. John Hurt also fares well. As our hero, Henry Cavill is just ho-hum, though he certainly looks the part (or for Superman, the part which he’ll use to soar into theaters next summer). Freida Pinto is absolutely drop dead gorgeous, just in case I didn’t make that clear. Unfortunately, the amount of drool that escapes my hanging bottom lip whenever she is on screen isn’t nearly enough for me to recommend this.


MY SCORE: 3/10

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Sparkle (2012)

Directed by Salim Akil.
2012. Rated PG-13, 116 minutes.
Cast:
Jordin Sparks
Whitney Houston
Carmen Ejogo
Tika Sumpter
Brely Evans
Michael Beach
Cee Lo Green

Sparkle (Sparks) is a songwriter with stage fright. Since she still wants her music to be heard, she recruits her oldest and most brazen sister named Sister (Ejogo), no less, to take a bus across town and sing her songs at a nightclub. Eventually, the girls meet up with Stix (Luke), a budding promoter. With dreams of making them into the next Supremes, by the way this is 1968, he recruits their middle sister Delores and transforms the trio into a girl group. He then begins getting them work all over Detroit in hopes of making it big. Even though the girls are grown, Sparkle is the youngest at 19, all of this requires repeatedly sneaking out the house of their tyrannical mother Emma played by Whitney Houston in her final feature film before her death in February of this year. Yes, this is a remake of the 1976 ‘hood classic.

If the title leads you to believe this movie is about Sparkle, you’re only partially right. We don’t focus on her until the final act. Honestly, the original did the same so that, in and of itself, isn’t a major complaint. The difference is the girl’s relationship with their mother takes center stage in this version while it was only occasionally touched upon in its predecessor. This moves our title character down to third on the totem pole. It’s probably just as well. Jordin Sparks isn’t a very good actress so lightening her load makes some sense.

In the older movie, the mother is a supportive sideline player. Here, she’s the complete opposite. To make sure we know who’s in charge, Whitney Houston is in full blown, stark raving mad lunatic warden mode. You get the feeling the girls have to ask permission to use the restroom or risk her wrath. She embodies the role well. Sadly, it’s a role that feels specifically written for her. Emma is a woman who has battled drug addiction along with the ups and downs of the music business and now wants to protect her daughters from suffering the same fate, or worse. As she continually rages, it’s difficult to watch her, listen to the sounds come from her obviously shredded voice box and not think of her tumultuous real life and the once flawless pipes with which she serenaded us all. It’s distracting and depressing which makes it a morbidly effective portrayal.


Also of more importance than Sparkle is Sister. She’s clearly the most like her mother. Indeed, much of the film’s fireworks are made up of shouting matches between the two. In the role, Carmen Ejogo gives a powerhouse portrayal rivaling Lonette McKee’s in the same role in the original. Sister’s story also contains another excellent performance, albeit from a surprising source. As comedian Satin Struthers, the movie’s lone unrepentant villain, Mike Epps turns in what is easily his best work. Though playing a comic, which is how he started in his real career, he really does bring this character to life and not just rehash the old Mike Epps schtick.

People who love this movie, and there will be plenty, will do so on the strengths of the aforementioned performances, the music and prerequisite ups and downs of high octane melodrama. However, there are serious problems. Beginning with the second act, the movie shifts into overdrive, propelling itself forward at breakneck speed. The various strands resolve themselves suddenly and/or predictably, leaving plot holes in their wake. In this regard, it pretty clearly follows the Tyler Perry template of filmmaking: scream, bicker, fuss and fight until an instant moment of clarity, kiss, make up.

In comparison with the original, Sparkle also suffers mightily in the charm department. That one is flawed, but it has a much more genuine feel. The grit and grime of the Harlem setting infused the characters not only with a sense of urgency about changing their station in life but also a naiveté about the temptations even minor success may bring. It also gives us a sense of danger. The same could’ve been achieved for this movie in Civil Rights-era Detroit. However, we’re given what feels like a glamorized version of the city wherever the girls perform. At their nicely sized suburban home they want for nothing tangible and can retreat from one another in a way the girls in the original could not. There is a real sense of a unit breaking up as the older movie progresses. Here, each of the sisters wears their individuality proudly on their sleeve, weakening both their bond to one another and ours to them. The glossiness of the sets, flossiness of the outfits and four ladies constantly proclaiming “I am woman, hear me roar!” mark this effort as falling off the assembly line of movies aimed at black females over the last decade. Girl power is great and I generally applaud movies for the attitude but it misses the point of its predecessor.

MY SCORE: 5/10

Monday, November 5, 2012

Sparkle (1976)


Directed by Sam O’Steen.
1976. Rated PG, 98 minutes.
Cast:
Dwan Smith
Dorian Harewood
Mary Alice
Tony King
Beatrice Winde
Paul Lambert
DeWayne Jessie

In 1958 Harlem, local guy Stix (Thomas) dreams of making it big in the music biz. To this end, he’s a singer/songwriter/manager/promoter. Shortly, it becomes apparent the best vehicle to make his fantasy become reality is being in a group with his best friend, his girlfriend and her two sisters. It’s chauvinistic of me to start from the male perspective since this really is about the girlfriend and her sisters so we’ll get back to Stix later.

Stix’s girl gets top billing. Her name, of course, is Sparkle (Cara). She’s the youngest of the three sisters and the quiet one. Middle child Delores (Smith) is a budding militant so she’s a bit more mouthy, no boyfriend. The real star of the show is the eldest sister named…um…Sister (McKee). She’s obviously a lot more worldly than the others: chain-smoking, getting it on in the back of her boyfriend’s car and dispensing sage advice about birth control. By the way, her boyfriend is Stix's best friend Levi (Harewood). And yes, the girls all live with their mom Effie (Alice).

Inspired after attending an all-night music revue, the gang decides to go full steam ahead at this singing thing. They win a local talent show and become a popular act around town. Predictably, success proves to be problematic. So, too, is the cost of taking the next step on their road to stardom.


Sparkle functions simultaneously as a cautionary tale and a love story. It intertwines tragedy and triumph in a way that feels organic, for the most part. Age has only served to enhance this aspect. There’s a grittiness that gives off a vibe of authenticity. Even our villains help in this regard. There’s Satin Struthers (King), a local Harlem gangster and Max Gerber (Lambert), a mobster we meet in the latter portions of the film. Neither is the flamboyant, cartoonish type often depicted in black movies of the era. They seem a realistic threat to what our heroes are trying to accomplish.

Despite the title, the movie doesn’t become about Sparkle until the third act. Until then, this is really about Sister. A riveting performance by Lonette McKee carries this part of the picture. Every word she says and movement she makes feels exactly right. It is she, not Sparkle, that keeps us vested. Even during that final act, our title character doesn’t really take over. From this point on, we’re rendered powerless by the charisma and megawatt smile of Philip Michael Thomas. Folks my age will know he went on to greater fame as Det. Tubbs on the legendary Miami Vice TV series. On that show, he mostly played second fiddle to Don Johnson. Here, he’s pure charm, swagger and “good hair”.

If you couldn’t already tell, Sparkle herself is not as important to the proceedings as one would think. She’s written as meek, unsure of herself and seeking the approval of others as a real 15 year old might. This is a good thing. The problem is she never really breaks out of her shell. There is no evidence she ever has an original thought in her head. She isn’t so much heroine as she is beneficiary and blank slate onto which we can project our own feelings about what’s going on with the characters around her, feel happy or sad for their successes and failures. From this standpoint, she remains the perfect conduit for the audience over 30 years since. On the other hand, she also helps mark the movie as a relic. Her relationship with Stix is out of whack with our 21st century sensibilities. True, it was even questionable then, but not quite condemned as the act of sexual predators the way it is now. As mentioned, she’s 15. Stix most certainly has 15 well behind him and it is explicitly noted they’ve done much more than hold hands.

The other characters and the portrayals of them vary in importance, but aren’t earth-moving. Of these we get two very good performances, one from Dorian Harewood as Levi and the other from Mary Alice as mom, Effie. There is also a very bad one. Dwan Smith plays Delores with the vocal inflections and body language of a small child stomping away from her parents after being sent to her room, no matter what the situation. It gets to be an annoyance rather quickly.

Last, but certainly not least, is the music. It’s a mashup of two eras that’s far more effective than it has any right to be thanks to the late great genius Curtis Mayfield. Sonically, the songs are crafted to sound like the time in which the movie is set. The instrumentation is something you’d expect from the 1950s. Lyrically they’re pure 70s, loaded with ultra-thinly veiled dirty talk. This works brilliantly with what’s going on in the movie. Sister serves as lead singer and is constantly pushing the envelope on stage and off. It helps tremendously that they simply sound good. Many of the numbers have become R & B classics, rightfully so.

Sparkle may be almost 40, but it still holds up pretty well. Both sides of its story still resonate. It doesn’t feel sugar-coated or overblown. There are a couple loose ends and one miraculous development right at the end but they’re not so troublesome they detract from the rest of the film. That makes this a fun, but flawed rollercoaster. It’s main strength is that it gives us something we can feel.