September 2011 posts
KILLER ELITE (2011/In THEATERS) I don’t count myself a big action flick/Jason Stratham fan but I did love The Bank Job and I was intrigued by the chance to see JS up against the likes of Clive Owen and Robert de Niro in Killer Elite. Great cast, interesting story, solid trailer…and hey, it almost works. There’s plenty of action and the plot is thick—maybe too thick really. In the great tradition of British spy stories, this one is based on a book entitled “The Feather Men” by ex-SAS officer Ranulph Fiennes (Ralph’s cousin) and is set in the 1980s where it purports to tell the true story of four officers (former SAS who were active in Oman) who are assassinated by a “killer elite” squad on the orders of a Dubai sheikh whose sons were murdered by British forces. In the book, Fiennes claimed that he himself was targeted by the hit squad, but was saved by a group of vigilantes calling themselves the “Feather Men.” In the movie, we’re allied to the hit squad—lead by Danny (Stratham)—with his well played partners Davies (Dominic Purcell) and Meier (Aden Young). Danny is the reluctant assassin here—he comes out of retirement to take the sheikh’s assignment only because his partner Hunter (de Niro) is being held captive until all the revenge killings are completed. And just to make matters more interesting (read difficult), Danny must obtain confessions from each of the SAS officers prior to their murders and must send these through to Oman as proof of his success. Now, mind you, in the film, Danny is considered the best of the best when it comes to killing. But he meets his match in Spike (Clive Owen sporting a weird moustache) who is the ultimate protector for his former SAS colleagues, working in secret for a group of bankers, lawyers and typical British B-movie types, who form the backbone of the secret Feathermen group. This would be plenty of plot (right?) but we also have a love interest for Danny (gorgeous blond Yvonne Strahovski) back in Australia where he hopes to retire for good. Add to that two additional characters—one representing the British government’s interest in Oman and the other serving as a sort of “pimp” of assassins— whose loyalties are at best suspect and really you’ve got a bit too much going on. But let’s get real: who sees a movie like this for the plot? The action sequences are numerous and some are seriously good—most notably, a mano-a-mano battle between Owen and Stratham set in a hospital. And even though the movie runs long, and leads to a somewhat silly conclusion, I thought it was okay–not The Bank Job unfortunately–but not as bad as the reviews it’s getting. As someone else on the web suggested, a good choice for a matinee.
BTW: Ever wonder what happened to Clive Owen? He was so red hot he sizzled a few years ago and was rumored to be the next James Bond before Daniel Craig made Layer Cake and took the role instead. The Independent sheds some light in this recent interview article.
Talk about great television! This hour long conversation of anecdotes and observations between two old friends was filmed before a live audience last year at the Saban Theatre in Los Angeles and has been running this month on HBO. If you follow the link above, you can replay some of the bits, including Carl Reiner explaining the origins of the 2,000 Year Old Man….fantastic. The clips are short, so if you’re bored at work, this may help the day go by faster. And be sure to check out the full hourlong fun if you have HBO…and if you don’t, go visit a friend who does! Hopefully this will also be available soon On Demand.
LESS THAN ZERO (1987/DVD)
Who knew? During an interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s weekend version of Fresh Air, Brad Pitt mentioned that he had been an extra in Less Than Zero. Wow. And, as these things often happen, the movie turned up last night on a strange cable channel–so I watched it and I think I saw Pitt in a party scene but don’t hold me to that. I’m not sure who remembers this movie–in its day, it created quite a controversy. Roger Ebert gave it 4 stars for its damning but visually beautiful portrayal of the LA upper-crust young-things drug scene (with cocaine dominating). He even offered strong support for all the performances though most reviewers had less positive things to say, saving their praise for only Robert Downey Jr. in the leading role as Julian, the charismatic druggie whose life is falling apart, and James Spader as his patient but evil dealer/pimp. The other two main characters are routinely seen as weakly portrayed by Andrew McCarthy who is Clay, Julian’s wealthy “home from college on Winter break” friend and Jami Gertz, the skinny model and love interest of both Clay and Julian. I never read Bret Easton Ellis’ novel on which this movie is “loosely based,” but I gather the two are worlds apart–there’s still plenty of discussion in user boards on this topic. But ignoring all that and taking the movie by itself, I’d have to say that it is seriously eerie to watch RDJ in what feels like a preview of all the bad turns his real life took in the early 2000′s—horrifying is probably a better word for this. And thank heavens in real life he conquered his problems and is back in top form as the fabulous actor he always has been. Ironically, young Julian–who is perfectly portrayed by RDJ in the film– by the end sincerely wants to get his life back also, but no such luck. Not a great film by any means and it hasn’t aged well, but a good movie to catch if you’re a fan of either Spader or RDJ. Just try to live through the Andrew McCarthy parts.
MONEYBALL (2011/IN THEATERS)
All that buzz you’ve been hearing (and reading) about this movie may have made you wonder if it could live up to its rep. So I’m happy to tell you “no worries on that score.” The film is extremely well made and absorbing, and it works not just as a sports movie but in every way possible. Directed by Bennett Miller, who also made Capote, the film tells the true story of the Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane and his experiment in using statistics to recruit “under-valued” players in order to compete in a game dominated by big and bigger salaries. Beane’s assistant in this exercise is Peter Brand, a Yale economics graduate brought to life by an excellent Jonah Hill. Beane is played by Brad Pitt whose performance carries the film and is the stuff Oscar loves and should love—he nails this part—and creates a full-bodied character. What a year for Pitt, with the “Tree of Life” already under his belt. Maybe he’ll get two Oscar nods? That would be fine by me. Philip Seymour Hoffman rounds out the main cast as Art Howe, the team’s coach, a sour guy who is just trying to make the best of what he and the other “old timers” all see as a fool’s errand. The film is blessed with a great screenplay credited to Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, based on the book by Michael Lewis which incidentally has a spot-on subtitle: “The Art of Winning in an Unfair Game.” Real baseball fans know the whole story already and will recognize faces on the screen and the actual games being represented. But even non-baseball people (like me) will find themselves sucked into this film. Well done, one and all.
Grade: Big A
BTW: There’s quite a checkered history to the making of this film. The original script (by Stan Chervin) was set to be directed by Steven Soderbergh, pairing up with Pitt and looking like a sure bet. But in June 2009, literally days before filming was to begin in Phoenix, Sony’s chief Amy Pascal halted production. Word was that she had expected a traditional sports movie while Soderbergh was creating something more like a pseudo documentary, complete with player interviews, etc. Soderbergh was let go; Bennett Miller came in; and the script was rewritten. Jonah Hill was brought in to replace Demetri Martin (Taking Woodstock) who had been previously cast. Pitt stayed with the picture and even took a producing credit. And filming resumed in July 2010, 13 months later.
Of note: The end credits to the film note that Beane, despite being offered the largest GM salary in baseball history by the Boston Red Sox, remained with the A’s. In fact, he marked his 10-year anniversary as Oakland’s GM in October 2008. The Red Sox went on to win the Series two years after Beane turned them down. Oakland has yet to win.
MARRIED TO THE MOB(1988/DVD)
We sometimes forget that Jonathan Demme– the same guy who made Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia (and lately has brought us no less than three Neil Young documentaries)– also brought us some fabulous comedies. I can remember the first time I ever saw Married to the Mob and it was just as good when I watched it last night. This hilarious comedy features a terrific cast including Dean Stockwell nailing it as mob boss Tony “the Tiger” Russo; a young and thin Alec Baldwin as “Cucumber” Frank de Marco;
an equally young Michelle Pfeiffer as Frank’s widow Angela–the object of Tony’s amorous moves; Matthew Modine as Mike, the earnest FBI agent who falls for Angela; and best of all–Mercedes Ruehl as Tony’s uber-jealous wife Connie who really steals the show. This film came a short two years after Demme’s Something Wild (1986) with Jeff Daniels in the straight guy role and Melanie Griffith as the “wild” thing he falls for. Notably in that film Ray Liotta plays the crazy “gangster” role. Also wonderful. These two films would make for a terrific Demme comedy night. Get the popcorn going!
DRIVE (2011/IN THEATERS)
Perhaps, like me, you’ve been thinking that “Drive” is an Action Flick. Think again. The movie, which was nominated for the Palme D’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is classic noir–complete with a hero who must choose to do the right thing or take the money and run. Ryan Gosling stars as “the Kid,” a part-time Hollywood stunt driver, part-time LA mechanic and part-time driver for hire serving the darker side of the city—robbers, thieves, you name it. In fact, as the film opens, we hear his rules of engagement for these escapades: “You have me for five minutes. I drive.” And how! I had expected the kind of flashy car chase scenes we’ve become used to from Hollywood but this movie actually gives us solid Steve McQueen/ Bullitt level scenes—no tricks, no CGI (to my eye anyway)—just heart-pounding stuff. Danish Director Nicholas Winding Refn was selected for the film by Gosling himself and won Best Director for it at Cannes. Well deserved. The movie builds slowly and believably with strong performances all around, including Carey Mulligan who says a lot with very few lines as the “love interest” and neighbor, Irene; Bryan Cranston spot on as “the Kid’s” employer and sponsor; a wonderful Albert Brooks as the ultimate bad guy; and Ron Perlman as Nino, the link to the mob. And don’t miss Christina Hendricks as a mob doll—she’s not on screen very long but her part is pivotal. As for Gosling himself—like a Clint Eastwood style hero—he doesn’t say much in words, but says plenty with his eyes, his face and his physical moves. Quite a bit of violence and gore, so be forewarned. Great story-telling though.
BTW: Ryan Gosling is having a big and varied year with Crazy Stupid Love already out showcasing his comic talents (who knew?) and George Clooney’s Ides of March on the way (can’t wait). Gosling has already been nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role–back in 2007 for Half Nelson. He won the Independent Spirit Award for that same performance. And, of course, he and Rachel McAdams did win the “Best Kiss” MTV Award in 2005 for the Notebook!
Also: Gosling and Refn really bonded on this picture and are already working on more together. Check out their cute antics on the Red Carpet in Cannes in this YouTube video.
CRAZY STUPID LOVE (2011/IN THEATERS) In the mood for something light and fun? Try this slightly off beat summer comedy which is still running in theaters. There are some great faces to admire, chief among them Ryan Gosling as a slick seducer who understands the power of a well fitting suit, sharp shoes and a great haircut–as well as a great body! (Wow…gotta love all those shots of him without his shirt and for that matter without anything else!) And of course, Steve Carell gives his signature performance as the sweet but slightly clueless married man, dumped by his high school sweetheart and wife (Julianne Moore) over dinner. Add to that Emma Stone, Marisa Tomei, even Kevin Bacon and couple of great young performers–Jonah Bobo as the 13 year old son of Moore and Carell who is madly in love with his high school baby-sitter Analeigh Tipton–and a fairly original script and you’ve got the makings of a fun night out. Enjoy!
CONTAGION (2010/IN THEATERS)
Is it a bad sign when a movie has SO MANY famous actors in small parts? Probably yes, and admit it, you had a bad feeling about this movie right after you saw the first previews with all those stars, right?? I know I did, but I hoped to be proven wrong. Labeled as a “bio-thriller,” Stephen Soderbergh’s Contagion feels something like a fake documentary crossed with a disaster movie. Of course, we can tell it’s not a documentary because it’s full of famous, beautiful people, starting with opening shots of Gwyneth Paltrow (dying pretty darn quickly) and moving on to Matt Damon (as her surviving spouse), Laurence Fishburne (as the head of the CDC), Jude Law (as an irritating blogger and reminder of the influence of money in all things), Kate Winslet (as the CDC go-to girl), Marion Cotillard (embodying the World Health Organization), and even Elliott Gould in a small part as a pioneering and dedicated scientist. The film brings back memories of SARS and “bird flu” and loads of other things that should scare you. But yet, nothing in this movie is thrilling or, in fact, all that scary. It endeavors to show us what a pandemic might really look like, complete with TV news casts, people holed up in their houses, empty airports, power moves by international and government types, looting, lines and lines of individuals waiting for vaccines, etc. If the movie had followed its mid-section toward a more “end-of-days” conclusion, I’d say it would be a good front-runner to a showing of “The Road.” But indeed, in the film, we humans rise to the challenge and create the necessary vaccine, thus averting a terrible end. My friends found the movie just plain boring. I think there was a bit too much science for them and for most audiences. Soderbergh tries many styles in filmmaking—many are successful (Traffic, Oceans Eleven, Out of Sight)–but some of his experiments are not so great (Solaris). This film unfortunately belongs in the second category.
Back in 1996, everyone watched in awe as a young exuberant man jumped up and down on the Oscar stage for winning best supporting actor. For a brief time, his future was bright, and he had the world at his feet. However, the dark hand of the Oscar winner began to creep over him before the night was over. The young man was Cuba Gooding Jr.
After paying his dues, Cuba was given a great role and did everything he had with it. Looking back at his role of Rod Tidwell in Jerry McGuire, he deserved his oscar fair and square, but afterwards, dogs have laid better piles of work than Mr. Gooding, Jr has. The pinnacle of this pile of stinky poo is Radio, but first lets see the movies in between: As Good As It Gets, What Dreams May Come, Instinct, Men of Honor, Pearl Harbor, Snow Dogs, and Boat Trip. In the midst of these are several less notable films. As you can see this is not the most impressive list of films. The most notable is As Good As It Gets, but in that movie he had a supporting role that bordered on a cameo. In addition, it is one of those that we all know that he had signed up and filmed well before he earned his Oscar.
Then in 2003, a movie came along that many a great actor has fell victim to…the mentally handicapped role. Dustin Hoffman made his career with one, Sean Penn embarrassed himself with another, and Ben Stiller mocked them all. Cuba was no different. Radio gave him a chance at another Oscar, but as Mr. Stiller pointed out in Tropic Thunder about Sean Penn in I Am Sam, Cuba went to far with the character. In the end, he embarrassed himself and was part of a failed movie. To note, Ed Harris also signed on to this turd, and in the end, it was a failed I Am Sam meets Remember the Titans.
Cuba still continues to make films, but has never come close to his former glory. However, in the middle of a horrible slump, Cuba showed his greatness in a small role in American Gangster. That reminded all of us of how good he could be, but either he or his manger need to be smacked in the face for allowing an Oscar winner go the way of Kevin Spacey and Halle Berry.
ON OUR RADAR… The 68th Venice Film Festival is half-way over, the Telluride Film Festival finished yesterday and the Toronto International Film Festival is just getting ready to kick off on Thursday. So we have no shortage of reading material and fabulous photos of famous people looking their best as they walk the Red Carpet and then wing out to their next appearance. Exciting. And the films? Here’s just a quick and very personal run-down of five movies I’m getting seriously excited about:
1. Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants,” his first film since “Sideways,” is said to have “sucked all the air” (and love) in the screening room in Telluride. Perhaps predicting an Audience Favorite Win in Toronto??
2. Michael Fassbender’s performance in Steve McQueen’s “Shame” at Venice has reporters thinking he will take the prize for Best Actor. Lots of nudity, ladies.
3. ”The Artist”–a black and white favorite from Cannes — was equally loved at Telluride. Can’t wait.
4. David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method”– which showed in both Venice and Telluride– has audiences and critics widely debating its merits, particularly Keira Knightley’s possibly over-the-top performance as a mentally ill patient who loves spanking and sex. I’m excited to see this and make my own judgement! P.S. Great men in this flick: Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender and Vincent Cassel. Yum.
5. And finally….”Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”–will Gary Oldman finally get the Oscar he so richly deserves? Hope so and also hope this film lives up to the Alec Guinness masterpiece.
All in all, much to look forward to!