Monday, April 29, 2013

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days

Directed by David Bowers.
2012. Rated PG, 94 minutes.
Peyton List
Karan Brar
Laine MacNeil
Grayson Russell
Melissa Roxburgh
Philip Maurice Hayes

Our favorite wimpy kid Greg (Gordon) is back for another adventure. This time, school’s out and he hopes to spend the summer perched in front of the TV playing video games. After his dad (Zahn) nixes that idea, he pals around with his bestest buddy Rowley (Capron) at the country club of which Rowley’s family are members. There, he pursues his other favorite pastime, Holly Hills (List). Early teen hijinks and shenanigans ensue.

Much of our time is spent at said country club with Greg and Rowley. We also get to spend plenty of time with Rowley’s family. This is where the movie excels. Most of us have gone to stay for awhile with friends or relatives only to discover they do nothing the way we do things in our own homes and had to suffer through it. Dog Days takes great pains to convey the feelings we had when that happened and even how hurt our hosts are when they find out we’re not exactly enjoying ourselves. Weaved into this we see how the dynamics of the two boys’ friendship works and is strained by these events. During this time we see such other things we remember from our own youth, or will surely experience if you’re a member of the actual target audience, such as sneaking off to do things we've been forbidden to and being bullied by our older siblings. These, combined with Greg’s fawning over Holly and willingness to do just about anything to be near her ring truest of all the situations presented. Thankfully, big brother’s antics are scaled back a bit from the previous movie except for his show-stopping number late in the proceedings.

This installment again fails in the department of parent-child relationships. While the things I mention in the previous paragraph has an authentic feel to them even when they’re over the top, what happens between Greg and his dad does not. It’s too broadly stroked sitcom stuff with a lazy moral. The difference between this and part two (Rodrick Rules) is that it’s mom (Harris) who is mostly a sideline player while Greg and dad try to bond. The other thing about this is that it feels disingenuous. There are no such efforts made toward Rodrick who is very apparently wasting his life and is at a much more advanced age than Greg. While Greg is made to get off his keester and stay off the video games, nothing at all is said to Rodrick who literally sleeps all day and plays in a marginally talented band. Finally, Greg’s other friends are once again relegated to slightly more than cameo appearances. They helped make the first movie feel like the real life of a pre-teen. In the two movies since they generally show up for a scene that could probably be cut from the picture without us missing anything.

Dog Days is better than Rodrick Rules but not quite as good as the original. It does some things very well and others not so much making it a very uneven watch. In other words, it basically vacillates between being a funny, highly nostalgic sitcom to an unfunny one filled with jokes that come with pre-ordained punchlines. If you’re a fan of the series, this will be another welcome entry. If not, it won’t ruin your day.

MY SCORE: 6/10

Friday, April 26, 2013


Directed by Rian Johnson.
2012. Rated R, 119 minutes.
Piper Perabo
Noah Segan
Pierce Gagnon
Qing Xu

Our story focuses on Joe (Gordon-Levitt). He’s an assassin known as a looper. His job is killing people sent back from the future by mobsters who live in a time where disposing of bodies is virtually impossible. At some point, whenever they decide they want to completely disassociate with a particular looper, they “close his loop” by sending him his future self to gun down. Needless to say, when Joe fails to kill the older Joe (Willis) who has been zapped back to him, all sorts of problems arise. Young Joe trying to kill his loop, Joe’s boss (Daniels), plus a slew of henchmen, trying to kill Joe and/or his loop and his loop doing some killing of his own ensues.

Despite the focus on shooting people, Looper is a thinking man’s action flick. It disguises that fact pretty well until it’s final moments. Until then it plays out like a wonderful game of cat and mouse and mouse (not a typo). As you might imagine, such a scenario makes it difficult for us to figure out who to root for. This is a good thing. Both the younger and older Joe have compelling reasons for their actions. Since they’re not presented simultaneously our allegiances sway.

Eventually, we meet Sara (Blunt) and her little boy Cid (Gagnon). They figure heavily in the proceedings, but we’re not sure what to make of them, either. Again, this is good. It’s good because we’re never confused, just conflicted. Our confliction adds to the tension between chase scenes and shootouts. We find ourselves on the edge of our seats as pending danger for one person or another creeps closer. The trick is, through more character development that we had any right to expect from a shoot 'em up sci-fi flick, we become vested in these people. We really understand why each of them feel their actions are the only way to deal with the issues at hand. This is used to much greater effect than rushing us off to the next action sequence, or trying to dazzle us with special fx. Even though, like I said, at it’s core it is science-fiction, Looper is not about showing off whatever futuristic gadgets the filmmakers can dream up or giving us a laser and lights show. It’s a rather human tale that happens to contain time-travel.

Humanity not only drives the movie, but ends it as well. One character makes a decision many of us would like to believe we’d make but I’m not sure how many really would. Once it happens, Looper instantly becomes a parable addressing several issues pertaining to current-day society. I choose the word parable because it is not terribly different from some religious stories. Still, that’s not why it has the immediate impact it does. It has that because it poses a simple question you can debate with your friends. Would you do it?

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Cold Fish

Directed by Sion Sono.
2010. Not Rated, 145 minutes.
Mitsuru Fukikoshi
Asuka Kurosawa
Hikari Kajiwara
Megumi Kagurazaka
Tetsu Watanabe

Right at the beginning we’re told Cold Fish is inspired by true events. Yeesh. Our trek into the bizarre begins when troubled teen Mitsuko (Kajiwara) is caught shoplifting. When her dad Nobuyuki Shamoto (Fukikoshi) and step-mom Taeko (Kagurazaka) come to get her, they meet store-owner, the fun-loving Yukio Murata (Denden). He’s an exotic fish dealer, same as Shamoto, only much more successful. Instead of calling the cops, Murata offers to give Mitsuko a job and to let her live in a dorm, of sorts, with the other girls that work for him. Since things aren't exactly great between any combination of the three members of the Shamoto household, and Murata and his wife Aiko (Kurosawa) seem harmless enough, Mr. Shamoto agrees. Besides, Murata drives a shiny red Ferrari. As expected, he’s not all he cracks himself up to be. Sure, Mitsuko is a cute young girl and that’s the road my mind traveled in trying to figure what Murata is really up to. That ain't it.

In rather short order, things turn down a dark road. Murata traps Shamoto into a shady business deal that includes making him an accomplice to murder, among other things. Don’t worry. That’s only the beginning. Eventually, we get into adultery, rough sex, domestic violence, more murder, rape, exhibitionism, more murder, and lots and lots of fun with really bloody corpses. A great deal of it is in shocking detail. After this, you’ll no longer have to imagine how to properly dispose of a body and not leave any evidence. To call this movie morbid is selling it way short.

That said, things seem to be coming to a logical conclusion. However, just when we think its coming to an end is when it really flies off the rails. The problem is the point that it appeared we were working toward is rendered completely moot. What promised to provide some form of social commentary through its extremes opts to become a gore-fest enamored with its own pools of blood.

Until now, the only movie I’d seen by director Sion Sono was the fabulously disturbing Strange Circus. As weird and twisted as that movie is, it all works. The story and its visuals somehow both manage to be simultaneously repulsive and compelling. Eventually, it all comes together in a “wow” moment. I couldn't believe what I just saw, but I loved it. Cold Fish is a cruder, and amazingly, more baffling film that reaches for the same qualities possessed by SC but never quite gets there. It just keeps pushing the envelope until it flies off the table then pushes some more. The ending is something far beyond cynical, seemingly just for the sake of being so. To its credit, though, even with all the grotesque and simply distasteful visuals you can’t take your eyes off CF. You may cringe and cover your face, but will probably still watch through parted fingers. This is not a movie you’re likely to forget.

Monday, April 22, 2013


Directed by Nicholas Jarecki.
2012. Rated R, 107 minutes.
Tim Roth
Laetitia Casta
Graydon Carter
Chris Eigeman
Stuart Margolin
Reg E. Cathey
Bruce Altman
Curtiss Cook

Robert Miller (Gere) is the kind of financial wizard that graces the cover of Forbes magazine. Business is booming and he has his adult children helping him run his ridiculously lucrative operation. He’s just turned sixty and celebrates with some cake and ice cream with the family, including wife Ellen (Sarandon) and then sneaks out to see his mistress Julie (Casta). What none of them know is that everything isn't really so swell. He’s going broke and has cooked the books to make his business look like it’s standing on solid ground to James Mayfield (Carter), the potential buyer he’s trying to close a deal with. Of course, this isn't something he shares freely seeing how it may land him in prison for a very long time. Still, something somehow more troubling takes place. He gets himself into an even more immediate bind that threatens to get him into a jail cell even sooner than having numbers falsified which, in turn, puts his deal in jeopardy and the financial future of lots of people who have no clue what’s going on. A very rich man trying to weasel his way out of trouble ensues.

At first, Arbitrage seems as if it’s going to be strictly an economic thriller in the mold of MarginCall. While not as gripping, it was still an interesting. It then has a rather abrupt changing of gears that works excellently, kicking the tension up a couple notches as we wonder if and how Robert will get out of this jam. We watch the world around him crumble. His facade begins to fade away, at least to his family. They eventually find out there is trouble afoot with the business, but still don’t know about his other misdeed. The police do and are desperately trying to gather proof. 

Richard Gere delivers the goods with an excellent portrayal. He makes us understand that Robert is not just a man who believes that money fixes all problems, but he knows there is no truer thing in all the universe. Fittingly, he’s a character we’re not sure we can get behind. Do we see a man who made some bad choices but is really doing these things for the greater good or, is this an evil rich guy throwing around what monetary weight he has left? The answer may depend on your political leanings. No. Politics is never explicitly mentioned. Still, yours may color the goggles through which you view this movie, particularly the ending.

The rest of the movie mixes the two story lines very well achieving suspense without suddenly injecting unnecessary action sequences. It sticks to it’s story in a manner that feels as if it comes from real life. In fact, it seems like the onset of the current recession has been combined with a Kennedy family headline. So this isn't something that comes at us from out of left field. Though almost none of us have brokered half-billion dollar deals, we've seen lots of news of this type. This is where the power of Arbitrage lies. It puts us inside a story we have all heard about in some form or another.

MY SCORE: 7/10

Sunday, April 21, 2013


Directed by D’Urville Martin.
1975. Rated R, 90 minutes.
Rudy Ray Moore
Lady Reed
West Gale
Jerry Jones
Hy Pyke
Vainus Rackstraw
John Kerry
René Van Clief

Dolemite (Moore) is his name. Effin’ up MFers is his game. Just ask him. Actually, you don’t have to. He freely volunteers this and other pertinent information. If you grew up in a black neighborhood, chances are you've come across the character a number of times since he’s become a popular cult figure in the community. His later years were marked by guest appearances on TV shows such as "Martin" and in music videos by Snoop Dogg and others. Along with the rest of us, Moore even referred to himself as Dolemite. If all of this is news to you just know that the character is a kung-fu fightin’, loud-mouthed, super-lovin’ pimp/comedian who often speaks in rhymes. Imagine if Redd Foxx dressed more outlandishly than Superfly and did most of his act in couplets and there you have it. If that doesn't help then look up Dolemite on YouTube. Go ‘head. I’ll wait, you rat soup eatin’mutha-sucka! I’m paraphrasing him, by the way.

Our saga begins with our hero in jail on some trumped up drug charges. He’s two years into a twenty year bid. However, the warden and some higher ups have noticed that the drug problem in the ‘hood has actually gotten worse since Dolemite has been locked down. They do the only logical thing and release him with the agreement he’ll help them catch his nemesis and the suspected kingpin Willie Green (Martin).

If any of this sounds familiar it’s because a decade or so later this basic premise made Eddie Murphy a superstar with the release of 48 Hrs. Unlike that move, there’s nothing in Dolemite that’s remotely as sensible as, oh say, actually working with the police. Our hero is turned loose and works on his own, mostly. By mostly, I mean there is one FBI Agent who knows why our hero is on the streets. His identity is not known to Dolemite but it’s pretty obvious to us. He’s dressed far more conservatively than any other black person in the movie and always shows up at just the right moment. By work, I mean Dolemite gets busy with the ladies, fights off and/or kills the crooked cops that have been trying to put some bullets in him since two seconds after he walks out of prison, gets busy with some more ladies and reclaims his old nightclub from Willie Green, guerrilla pimp style.

Be honest. At this point you think you’re reading a negative review. Nothing could be farther from the truth. This is the type of delicious awfulness for which I mine the depths of the cinematic abyss. As proof, I offer the fact that I've returned to this movie a handful of times throughout my life. I had to. All the tenets of Blaxploitation are gloriously represented. Wild outfits in garish colors? Check. Pimpin’? Check. Badly choreographedkung-fu fightin’? Check. 70s slang? Check. Gratuitous nudity? Check. Awful acting? Check. Easily spotted stunt doubles? Double check. Visible boom mics? Oh lawdy, yes! Check that box three or four times. There is only one thing left to say. It’s so bad, it’s awesome!

Friday, April 19, 2013

Jeff, Who Lives at Home

Directed by Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass.
2011. Rated R, 83 minutes.
Rae Dawn Chong
Steve Zissis
Evan Ross
Benjamin Brant Bickham

Jeff (Segel) is thirty years old, unemployed, lives in his mother’s basement and spends most of his days smoking pot and finding signs of the divine order of the universe everywhere he looks. More than just finding them, he can’t help but chase them to see if they’ll lead him to his destiny. For instance, someone calls his home looking for a Kevin, an obvious wrong number. However, when he later sees a guy on the bus wearing a jersey with that name on the back he just has to follow him. His brother Pat (Helms) is in a troubled marriage with Linda (Greer) and doesn’t have the greatest relationship with mom, either. Mom (Sarandon), a widow, is dealing with her own issues. Most of all, she wants Jeff to fix the broken shutter.

In the titular role, Jason Segel has the lovable lunk thing going on and does a nice job with it. He’s no Daniel Day-Lewis, but it’s one of a few character types he fits comfortably within. Helms, goes the perpetually angry and snarky route while Greer gives us full-blown passive-aggressive. All three are perfectly fine in their roles but none blow us away.

In the mom role, Sarandon is wonderful as the ever-exasperated and lonely lady. The story line of her having a secret admirer at the office and confiding in her co-worker Carol (Chong) is really the most interesting of the various subplots. It’s the only one that really has any air of mystery (though, not much) and provides the movie’s most heart-wrenching and, conversely, most tender moments.

Most other things are ripped directly from the marriage dramedy and/or the wise man-child sage playbook. This includes the contrived ending that ties everything together. Of course, we arrive there through Jeff’s incessant following of signs. Since it all culminates in such a great thing that tugs mightily at our heart strings we’re meant to ignore the ridiculousness of it all. I’m sure some will, but for lots of us, it’s kind of an eye-rolling finale.

Aside from mom’s workplace ordeal that’s presented independently from the rest of the proceedings, Jeff, Who Lives atHome hardly distinguishes itself from many other pictures of its kind. It is occasionally funny and often melodramatic, but that’s pretty much the genre formula to a tee. It moves at a solid pace and is a fairly short movie so it manages not to drag. Think of it as a more believable and, therefore, better version of Our Idiot Brother.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Way of the Dragon

AKA Return of the Dragon
AKA Bruce Lee vs. Chuck Norris
Directed by Bruce Lee.
1972. Rated R, 90 minutes.
Bruce Lee
Nora Miao
Chung-Hsin Huang
John T. Benn
Ping Ou Wei
Robert Wall
Ing-Sik Whang
Di Chin
Tony Liu
Malisa Longo

You’re a family of Chinese immigrants in Rome trying to make a living by running a restaurant. There is a major problem, though. The local mob wants your land. Every day, they send goons over to run customers off and rough you up until you decide to sell. What are you going to do? Without any friends in town, you send word back to your uncle in Hong Kong asking for his help. He goes above and beyond the call of duty by sending you a cousin you don’t even know. He sends you Bruce Lee. Pure epicness ensues.

It goes without saying that Bruce kicks mobster tail. With two of the most awesome lines of dialogue you’ll ever hear, Mr. Lee explains both his fighting and the movie in full: “Dragon seeks its path. Dragon whips its tail.” Of course, this is all done by his feet and fists. Why don’t the bad guys just shoot him? Rest assured, dear reader, they try. Our hero’s handy little homemade darts, thrown with the kind of accuracy that would make a sniper jealous, takes care of that minor inconvenience. What happens when they send a whole crew of guys at him at once? Are you serious? You know we’re talking about the legendary Bruce Lee, right?

To the bad guys’ credit, they do the only thing they can do and try to fight roundhouse kicks with roundhouse kicks. They call in none other than Chuck Norris. Chuck Norris. Chuck MFing Norris. Yes. Seeing this movie guarantees you’ll witness the most awesome showdown in the history of mankind. The only thing that could possibly make it any better is if they fought in the one place where the very soil beneath their feet is saturated with the blood of gladiators; blood of both those that have fallen and the winners that limped away. I'm talking about Rome’s famed Colosseum. Oh, that’s right. They do. The true miracle of this film, besides it being a landmark moment in the evolution of fight choreography, is that the entire world didn't spontaneously combust the very instant these two titans clashed.

This is exhausting. Finding superlatives for that which none sufficient exist is difficult work. I must resort to using the one word that works best: perfect. Perfect, as in Bruce Lee movies are perfect. Well, at least the ones he completed while alive. Even the one teeny tiny scene that may cause us to question its flawlessness is perfect even though it is less testosterone filled than the rest of the film. Bruce might seem a little too gentlemanly, or just put off by an overly forward woman, when he turns down a particularly gorgeous and easy piece of Italian hotness (Longo). Then we realize that the life of a truly dedicated martial artist is a disciplined one. Anyhoo, what does all this mean? It means what I've already said, damn whatever credibility you've ascribed to me, Bruce Lee movies are perfect.

MY SCORE: ∞/10

Monday, April 15, 2013

Dredd (2012)

Directed by Pete Travis.
2012. Rated R, 95 minutes.
Olivia Thirlby
Lena Headey
Rakie Ayola
Warrick Grier
Domhnall Gleeson
Rachel Wood
Jason Cope

I’m quickly losing hope for the future. Yet again, Earth has become mostly an uninhabitable wasteland. The entire surviving population has been herded into what are called mega cities, large stretches of land that once included several major cities now combined into one. It’s no surprise that crime occurs at a ridiculous rate. We’re told that 17,000 offenses are reported each day. The only form of law enforcement are the judges who not only make the arrests, but carry out the sentencing as well, even if it means putting someone to death. They can only respond to about 6% of those reported crimes. We spend our day in Mega City One with Judge Dredd (Urban). He’s the most feared of all the judges and has no problem with executing baddies. That’s pretty much all we get to know about him. He’s tasked with assessing a rookie, Anderson (Thirlby) on her first day in the streets as she tags along with him. She actually failed her test to become a judge but since her psychic abilities are off the charts she’s being pushed through. The pair go to investigate a triple homicide in a 200 story building known as The Peach Trees. Wouldn't ya know it? The evil wench that runs the whole place, known as Ma Ma (Headey) doesn't take too kindly to this. She locks the whole place down and beckons every lowlife within the sound of her voice to take out the two judges. A futuristic version of The Raid: Redemption breaks out with ten times more building and ten times fewer good guys.

Okay, originality is not the strong suit of Dredd. After all, it is the second attempt at bringing this comic-book hero to the big screen. The first, made in 1995, starred Sylvester Stallone in the title role. This time around we get Karl Urban. Unlike Sly, but in keeping with the source material, we never get to see his full face. He’s meant to be an emotionless, faceless metaphor for the law itself. It works. Then again, it doesn’t. It works because he’s a perfectly stoic action-hero. We like the idea that our hero is only concerned with right and wrong with no middle ground and that is there is no offense too minor for him to prosecute. It doesn’t because it is a challenge for the audience to connect with him. He’s aloof and inaccessible  While we watch and admire his handiwork with a very special firearm, we’re not particularly moved by this guy.

To help us have someone to root for there’s Anderson. She and Ma Ma are the only characters afforded a back story. Anderson’s is much more believable. She grew up an orphan. We like orphans. She wants to become a judge because she thinks she can make a difference. We really like optimistic orphans. Plus, she does some cool things with that psychic ability I mentioned. Because she actually seems like a human being this becomes her movie despite the title. Dredd is quite literally an instrument of death with very little else to distinguish him from the weapon he carries. Anderson is much more rounded with hopes and fears we understand. Thirlby does a nice job conveying these things.

Regardless of our feelings, Dredd is really about highly stylized violence. Like a lot of action flicks, there are a lot of scenes in slow motion. However, this movie has a very good reason for this. The most popular drug in Mega City One is the aptly named slo-mo. It makes your brain feel like time has slowed down to one percent of its normal rate. This gives us cause for slow motion sequences in which we clearly see
bullets going through people’s faces and whatever other body parts get shot. These are mixed nicely with action shown at regular speed that’s no less graphic, only quicker. I was not kidding when I referenced The Raid: Redemption. This movie really does resemble that one, just trading in the martial arts for even more gunplay.

In its own right Dredd is still a solid watch, truer in spirit to its source material than the Stallone flick. The hokeyness is gone as is any hint of sexual tension between the hero and his female partner. However, it may go too far in the other direction removing almost all sense of humor, including the satire the comic is known for, in favor of relentless bloodletting. The storytelling is extremely straight forward with nary a surprise to be found. If a shoot ‘em up is what you’re looking for, a shoot ‘em up is what you’ll get.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Judge Dredd (1995)

Directed by Danny Cannon.
1995. Rated R, 96 minutes.
Armand Assante
Joanna Miles
Joan Chen

Now that the world has finally gone to hell in a hand-basket, the powers that be have done away with the little nuisance known as due process. The police, now known as judges, are that plus jury and sometimes executioners. In lieu of trials, judges sentence people on the spot. The only people above them are the chief judges. Think of them as the Supreme Court. The most feared of the judges is the emotionless Judge Dredd (Stallone). In true Sly fashion, he shows up and bad guys die.

Two important things happen to set our story in motion. First, really bad guy Rico (Assante) escapes from prison. Second, Dredd is charged with the murder of one of the chief judges. Lucky for him, he is afforded a trial since he is an officer of the law. In the absence of actual lawyers, society has no use for them, he’s represented by his partner Judge Hershey (Lane). All of this is a fine setup and holds together pretty well. There are some nice narrative touches along the way in regards to Dredd’s two main relationships: the one with his partner that’s built on mutual respect but underlined by sexual tension and a father-son type bond between our hero and Chief Judge Fargo (von Sydow).

From a technical standpoint, the special fx are still solid after almost twenty years. The only real issue, visually, is that shots of the characters interacting on the ground, within city limits, have a small feel to them. Rather than seeming to take place in a sprawling, decaying metropolis, it’s pretty clearly a studio lot. Even so, this isn't a deal-breaker.

Rest assured, there is a deal-breaker. The problem is in the execution. Everything is slathered in cheese. It’s all way over the top merely because it’s a comic book movie, but without respect to the tone of its source material. Having Stallone play the titular role doesn't exactly help. His performance is exceedingly hokey, even by his standards. He literally poses for the camera, struts along in an effected manner and barks all his lines. Of course, action scenes start with his prerequisite battle cry. The sum of his efforts equal a six year old with a towel tied around his neck for a cape screaming “Look at me! I’m a superhero!” Actually, the whole movie says this. That’s because despite having a decent story, the dialogue is cliché riddled from the opening credits on. Sadly, the one exception is the comic relief Rob Schneider provides. Most of it feels ad-libbed and is occasionally funny.

In 1995, superhero flicks were still in their infancy as big budget blockbusters. Released only a couple weeks after Joel Schumacher began his assault on the Batman franchise with Batman Forever, Judge Dredd was one of the first comic book movies, aside from The Caped Crusader and the then defunct Superman franchise, to have a lot of money behind it. However, once the rights were purchased to this and a number of such characters over the next few years, the people who made the comics were hardly involved, if at all. The filmmakers were on their own to figure the proper balance of what would work for mainstream audiences and what fanboys wanted. Not surprisingly, they often erred on the side of what they thought would create the biggest box office. It was a relentless drilling down the to the lowest common denominator leaving soulless actioneers that geeks like me saw as egregious misreadings of the source material, if not flat out disrespectful of it. They usually made money but didn't leave anyone clamoring for sequels. Unfortunately, JD is no exception. If nothing else, it misses the easy chance for social commentary that may have elevated it beyond being carried by a couple of exciting sequences. The character and his story is ripe for it. We never get it.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-75

Directed by Göran Olsson.
2011. Not Rated, 100 minutes.
Angela Davis
Stokely Carmichael
Bobby Seale
Abiodun Oyewole
Harry Belafonte
Talib Kweli
Ahmir-Khalib “?uestlove” Thompson
Erykah Badu
Kathleen Cleaver
Robin Kelley

America’s tumultuous 1960s have been well documented. As you should know, this includes the Civil Rights Movement. Though large portions of what went on, particularly things not directly involving Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or a Kennedy, are still obscure to the masses there is plenty of footage out there for one to begin to educate oneself. Of course, almost all of what has been available was shot and reported on by the American media or various civilians. The is where The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 differs. It was shot by Swedish media for their own news reports. This is footage most of us have never seen and with a point of view never heard. It’s also commented on by a number of famous African-Americans, seeing it for the first time themselves. Some of them lived through the era while others belong to a younger generation of entertainers and speak more to the lasting effects of the movement.

Much of our time is spent on three aspects: the work of Stokely Carmichael, the trial of Angela Davis and the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party. There are plenty of old interviews with those involved and commentary by the Swedes doing the reporting. It crystallizes the way at least one nation besides our own viewed what was going on. In a few instances we hear from Americans who actually went to Sweden during this time and reacted to the way things were being portrayed. Often, it’s eerily similar to the way we depict certain foreign situations. Imagine a country in which America is sympathetic to the rebels organizing against a corrupt government and “60 Minutes” or “Nightline” doing an exposé on this. That’s effectively what we’re shown. The difference is there is never any threat of Swedish intervention. They’re just curious to see how we will sort our mess.

The film moves forward in sections marked by the changing of each year in the title to the next, ending with ’75. This tactic provides a compressed, but eye-opening look at how much America changed, and some of the reasons why, in less than a decade. Still, this isn't a comprehensive history. We aren't inundated with details on the inner-workings of all things Civil Rights. As our timeline suggests, it’s more interested in what happened post-MLK, the more neglected portion of the movement. The title also tells us it is a mixtape. To oversimplify for those unaware, a mixtape is generally not a homogenized effort by the artist(s). It’s often music made between albums or a collection of the music of various performers mixed and edited in news ways. This is fitting for the movie because what we see was not originally shot with the intended purpose of making a documentary. It’s a collection of footage we’re not familiar with crafted into a poignant story-line.  Because of this, it has a freshness unexpected of a documentary highlighting events from roughly forty years ago.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Total Recall (2012)

Directed by Len Wiseman.
2012. Rated PG-13, 118 minutes.
Will Yun Lee
Mishael Morgan
Natalie Lisinska

In this version of the future, there are only two inhabitable places left on our great planet. To oversimplify, the more affluent folks live in Britain, also where the good jobs are, while poor people live in Australia, known as The Colony. In true dystopian fashion, the government is engaged in a bloody war with rebels from The Colony. Our focus is on Douglas Quaid (Farrell). He’s a regular joe from The Colony who works in Britain assembling automated police officers. Yes, it’s one helluva commute. He’s married to Lori (Beckinsale), a real-live cop. Despite all the chaos of the world around him, Doug’s biggest concern is the recurring nightmare he has and what it means. He decides to do something about it and finds himself at Rekall. They inject you with memories of whatever it is you want. Just about the time he gets strapped into the chair, the law bursts in shooting. Much to his own surprise, Doug manages to kill a bunch of flesh and blood cops plus some synthetic ones and escapes. Now, he really has to find out what’s going on. Yup, it’s a remake of the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie of the same name. Both are based on the Phillip K. Dick short story We’ll Remember It For You, Wholesale.

For those of us old enough to remember, or with a hankering for old sci-fi and/or Governator flicks, the muscle-bound Austrian in the room is that original. This one keeps the action here on Earth as opposed to Mars, does away with mutants with one three-boobed exception (one of a few homages to the first movie) and the limited oxygen supply. Vibrant and varied colors are traded in for a fairly monochromatic look. It also combines a few different characters into one and ramps up the action. In fact, there are times when it feels like one continuous chase scene. While this is fun, it’s not always filling. For starters, our hero’s motivation for going to Rekall in the first place is misguided. In Arnold’s version, it was clear. Doug dreams about Mars all the time and wants to go, but can’t afford it, so he goes to Rekall for the next best thing. Farrell’s Quaid should be walking into a psychiatrist’s office, not a place where reality is manufactured. Nonetheless, that’s where he goes. Okay, fine.

From there, thankfully, much is the same between the two films. Most of the plot points from the original are hit, sometimes in a different order, but they are there. Farrell gives us a wild-eyed, bewildered performance that serves the film well. He gets plenty of help from some pretty awesome special fx, the hyperkinetic pacing and he two ladies fighting over him. Kate Beckinsale is in her cold-blooded Selene mode, sans vampire teeth and tight black leather. Biel is her more compassionate, but equal, opposite. The two provide more than their fair share of the action including some knock-down drag-outs with Farrell and each other. If there is a clear advantage for this movie over its predecessor they are it. Together, they dwarf what Sharon Stone and Rachel Ticotin were able to accomplish in the original.

That said, Total Recall still falls well short of Arnie’s film. It forsakes storytelling in favor of being bigger and brawnier. The result is a movie that’s fun to sit through but seems to be lacking all the little touches that make the first movie special. Of course, if you haven’t seen the original, this is irrelevant to you and this version will probably work just fine. In fact, if you go back and watch the older movie after seeing this one, you might find it dated and think I’m crazy. Still, I’m not quite on the bandwagon with all those folks calling this a horrible picture. True, it lacks the nuance of its predecessor making it feel emptier. However, I don’t think it is a bad movie. It’s just not my Total Recall.

MY SCORE: 6/10

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Total Recall (1990)

Directed by Paul Verhoeven.
1990. Rated R, 113 minutes.
Rachel Ticotin
Michael Ironside
Marshall Bell
Mel Johnson Jr.
Michael Champion
Ray Baker
Rosemary Dunsmore
Roy Brocksmith

Douglas Quaid (Schwarzenegger) is a construction worker who shares his life with Lori (Stone), his beautiful wife. Things are going great except for one thing: every night he has dreams of being on Mars that include some violent adventures and a lovely brunette. He then spends much of his day thinking of going to the red planet. Soon, he decides to go to Rekall. They’re a company specializing in the fabrication of vacations by injecting you with stuff that makes you believe you've actually been wherever it is you want to go without you ever leaving their offices. Of course, things don’t go so smoothly for our hero and what they give him doesn't seen to take. Nevertheless, his co-worker from the construction job and even his wife are suddenly trying to kill him. Sure enough, the authorities are trying to do the same. He gets some help from a stranger who advises him to get to Mars ASAP. Still not sure of what’s going on, he does. When he gets there he discovers the authorities there are also after him and even the locals hate him. They all think he’s some guy named Hauser. Lots of mayhem ensues while Doug tries to figure out what’s going on and we try to figure out if what we’re seeing is real or part of Doug’s Rekall experience.

Total Recall weaves a tale complex enough for thinking viewers yet still simple enough for the shoot ‘em up crowd. The action scenes come at fairly quick intervals while the plot between them twists and folds back on itself. It is of labyrinthine design and precise execution. The maze we travel is fun, not frustrating even if we're not always positive of what we’re watching. It is that rare popcorn flick that manages to both entertain the masses and screw with their heads.

Never known as a master thespian, star Arnold Schwarzenegger gives what is arguably his best performance. For a change, he goes beyond grunts and one-liners to give us something resembling a real human being. It’s also the only one of his better portrayals from before he became a parody of himself. Of course, the action sequences come natural to him so no worries there. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting he should’ve been recognized by the Academy, or anything. I’m simply saying he’s better than usual.

As with any older sci-fi flicks, how well the fx have held up is a concern. The mutants are all marvels of the grotesque. Occasionally, it is too apparent that something is a prosthetic or is just a bit hokey looking. Thankfully, this doesn't happen too often. In fact, I’d say there are just as many occurrences of things that still look really good.

Looking back through Arnie’s filmography hindsight makes it clear this is one of his most ambitious movies. It is not content to simply let him beat up a bunch of people and crack lame jokes. There are a couple of corny moments, but TR actually challenges us. The trick is that it does so without going over our heads, but still giving us enough to keep us locked in. For my money, it’s his best aside from the original Terminator.

MY SCORE: 8.5/10

Friday, April 5, 2013

Identity Thief

Directed by Seth Gordon.
2013. Rated R, 111 minutes.
John Cho
Génesis Rodríguez
Eric Stonestreet

Things are looking up for Sandy Bigelow Patterson (Bateman). He lives in Denver with his lovely wife Trish (Peet) and their two lovely kids and is about to start a new job paying him two hundred fifty thousand dollars per year. In the midst of all this joy, his credit cards start getting declined and he’s arrested for skipping a court date in Florida. Thing is, he’s never even been to Florida. He finds out what we already know: a woman who lives there has stolen his identity. Faced with not only the trhreat of going to jail, but losing his new job even if he doesn’t, Sandy heads to The Sunshine State to clear his feminine, ahem, unisex name. His plan is to bring the perp back to Denver and get her to confess. In case you were somehow wondering, that woman is Diana, played by Melissa McCarthy.

Thus far in her acting career, McCarthy has proven to be a force of nature. As the identity thief, she is again a ball of boundless comic energy. Bateman is a wonderful straight-man, seemingly a perfect foil for McCarthy’s off the wall antics. On paper, it’s a match made in heaven. On screen, things even start off well. The first half hour or so is entertaining despite being a violent, mean-spirited brand of humor. Bateman chases her down, she chops him in the throat, or does some other heinous thing to him, and scampers off. He chases her down again and the cycle continues. This is precisely the problem. After a funny sex scene, and the inclusion of some gangsters that never fully makes sense, we arrive at the point where we've heard all the jokes and seen all the gags this movie has to offer. That joke I cracked about Sandy’s name being feminine? We only hear it about half a million times during the movie. Identity Thief just keeps repeating itself until it mercifully decides to end.

To their credit, McCarthy and Bateman give it their all. There is a very nice ebb and flow to their scenes together which comprise most of the film. Unfortunately, even the best comedy routines lose their luster after we've seen them umpteen times. However, we can sense the spark they have. I think they could make a thoroughly hilarious movie if given better material. What they’re working with here is lazy writing content to let our stars do all the work on their own.

MY SCORE: 4/10

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Rock of Ages

Directed by Adam Shankman.
2012. Rated PG-13, 123 minutes.

Diego Boneta
Kevin Nash

It is 1987 and The Bourbon Room is a legendary rock-n-roll club on Hollywood’s famed Sunset Strip. It’s where aspiring singers like Sherrie (Hough) come for a job when they’re fresh off the bus from their small hometowns. After all, rock god Stacee Jax (Cruise) got his start there and is coming back for his last show with his band, Arsenal, before embarking on a solo career. It’s where Drew (Boneta) already works. He fancies two things: Sherrie and being the next Stacee Jax. The Bourbon is also in the cross hairs of Mayor Whitmore (Cranston) and his high-profile and overzealous wife Patricia (Zeta-Jones). They are looking to clean up the strip, starting with its most famous den of sin. The Bourbon is run by Dennis (Baldwin) and his right hand man Lonny (Brand) and it is going broke. These story lines swirl about as now classic, pop infused rock songs blare through the speakers.

Rock of Ages is a musical in the most traditional sense of the word. Anytime and any place, people break into song while whoever is around dutifully provides background vocals and perform choreographed dance routines. Some are better than others, but all of them are cheesy. Regardless, they’re often saved by the sheer power of the songs they’re singing. You pretty much can’t help singing along if you've ever heard any of them before which is to say you've probably heard them a thousand times. However, after each song is done, we realize that what we just ate is not particularly filling. On the other hand, this changes a bit when there are actual stage performances. Most of them have more genuine emotion and edge to them thanks, in large part, to Tom Cruise. He seems to be channeling Axl Rose, both on and off the stage. It’s a mesmerizing turn by Cruise that, in a better movie, might have earned him some love during awards season.

The rest of the cast delivers mixed results and are not aided by the hackneyed writing. Paul Giamatti is great because that’s what he always is. Thankfully, he only sings a couple of bars in the whole movie. Bryan Cranston is mostly just there cheering on his wife, or sneaking out of the room to cheat on her. Russell Brand does his best Russell Brand impersonation, take it or leave it. Alec Baldwin is not as good as he is in those Capitol One commercials, except for when he gets to sing. He’s obviously thrilled someone was willing to pay him to croon. Now, he’s not the X factor or anything, but he appears to be having so much fun belting out tunes it’s infectious. That writing let him and Brand down in a major way, though. Musicals are, by nature, contrived. However, the turn their relationship takes feels so forced it’s beyond absurd. It only becomes what it is in order to wedge in the song they sing together. In contrast to Baldwin, we have Catherine Zeta-Jones. She is very good for most of the movie but terribly botches her big number. Her singing is okay, I guess, but watching her stiffly mimic old Michael Jackson moves is painful.

Speaking of painful, that’s precisely the way to describe the work turned in by our two young lovebirds. Julianne Hough is pretty, but hardly compelling and seems to be replaceable by any number of twenty-something Hollywood blondes. Ditto for Malin Akerman as Rolling Stone reporter Constance Sack. Believe it, or not, Diego Boneta fares even worse as Drew. His character struggles with being true to himself, and be a rocker, or do what his manager wants and front a boy band. Sadly, he’s not believable in either case. And more bad writing hurts him further. Early on, his character suffers from stage-fright. I get that even more suspension of belief is required to watch musicals than most other genres. Still, I’m hard pressed to accept that a guy whom I just saw give a rendition of “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” in a crowded record store, while dancing in the aisles no less, is afraid to sing once someone puts a microphone in front of him.

The better movie takes place when the two youngsters are not on the screen. It has considerable charm, again, much of which is due to Tom Cruise’s eccentric rock star. The rest is because of the familiar and still catchy songs. These tunes are fun no matter what, but a little less so when performed by Hough and Boneta who come off like a pair of posers. Perhaps, it’s because there is noticeably less grunge to either of them than anyone else in the movie. So, in addition to their blank acting, they’re both just way too glossy. Finally, that writing is just flat lazy as things are resolved suddenly without the end result feeling earned. In summation: see Rock of Ages for the music and Tom Cruise, skip it if you don’t think that will be enough.