Month: May 2012

Two-Lane Blacktop

1971

Universal Pictures

Directed by Monte Hellman

Produced by Michael Laughlin

Written by Rudolph Wurlitzer

Right from the start I’m going to tell you that most of you who decide to watch TWO-LANE BLACKTOP after reading this review aren’t going to like it. And I’m going to tell you why so pay attention:

TWO-LANE BLACKTOP was made during a period of American film when experimentation was encouraged and indulged.  Filmmakers weren’t worried about product placement or how much a movie made on its opening weekend.  They didn’t care about rewriting all the heat out of a screenplay to ensure that the characters were likeable or relatable. They gave you a movie with characters and respected the intelligence of you, The Viewer to decide if you liked them or not.  TWO-LANE BLACKTOP is a road movie more concerned with capturing the mood of a period of American history than giving you a thrill ride or a meaningful character study.  Now I say this because for a generation brought up on CGI Summer Blockbusters, By-The-Numbers Action Movies, Generic Romantic Comedies and Lame Ass Horror Movies, TWO-LANE BLACKTOP can be a frustrating 102 minutes to watch.  And unless you’re willing to open your mind and explore the existential nihilistic worldview of the movie you oughta give it a pass.

Now, for those of you who are still with me…

The Driver (James Taylor and yes, that James Taylor) and The Mechanic ( Dennis Wilson and yes, that Dennis Wilson) travel up and down western U.S. highways in their highly modified 1955 Chevy two-door sedan.  The battleship gray beast of a car looks like it’s about to fall apart but it’s fast enough to catch rabbits.  They spend their time picking up money in street races and live out of their car.  They never talk about anything that is not related to the care and maintenance of the Chevy or racing.  They never make small talk or chitchat and never refer to each other by name.  We never find out how they met, where they came from or why they are living this life.

The movie gets even stranger when they pick up The Girl (Laurie Bird)  Or I should say that she picks them up.  She’s a hitchhiker and simply gets into their car without asking them and they drive away with her in it as if she had been travelling with them all along.

They keep passing a 1970 Pontiac GTO being driven by Warren Oates, who thinks that The Driver wants to race.  He catches up to them at a gas station and a race is proposed.  They’ll race to Washington D.C. from their present location in New Mexico.  The winner gets the loser’s car.  Now don’t go getting hung up on this aspect of the movie as nobody makes it anywhere near Washington D.C. by movie’s end.

In fact, nobody really seems anxious in any way, shape or form to win the race.  There’s one point where GTO needs a new part for his car and The Mechanic offers to help him.  The Driver stops along the way to participate in races and GTO picks up every hitchhiker he runs across.

The only real acting in the movie is done by Warren Oates as GTO.  His attempts to connect with other people consists of giving them rides to their destinations while telling elaborate stories about his background.  To various hitchhikers he claims to be a former test pilot, a scout for movie locations and an ex-race car driver.  He’s the only character who appears to aspire to a better life somewhere and there’s a nice scene where he tries to talk The Girl into running away with him.  There’s another really poignant scene where GTO gives an old lady and her granddaughter a lift to a cemetery so that they can pay their respects.  Even though he doesn’t have to, he quietly waits for them.  And look for the scene where a gay hitchhiker clumsily attempts to seduce GTO.  It’s a great “Who The Hell Let Him In This Movie?” moment as it’s Harry Dean Stanton, of all people.

The Girl sleeps with both The Driver and The Mechanic but doesn’t seem to enjoy it much and eventually leaves them, as enigmatic as when she joined them.  The film ends with the race to Washington, D.C. unfinished and the characters still where we first found them: on the endless road.  There’s a constant mood of elegant sadness in the very soul of this movie.  These are characters who have no past and no future.  It’s all about their cars and the road.

And I suppose that if TWO-LANE BLACKTOP has any meaning that it’s that we all lose sight of the goal in our lives by the distractions along the road.  That’s what I get out of it, anyway.  What you’ll get out of it is something entirely different.  It’s not a movie for everybody but it is a movie worth seeing.  Enjoy.

102 Minutes

Rated R

Twister

 

1996

Warner Bros. and Universal Pictures

Directed by Jan deBont

Produced by Ian Bryce, Steven Spielberg, Michael Crichton, Kathleen Kennedy

Written by Michael Crichton, Anne Marie Martin

TWISTER falls into the weird in-between category of it not being a really good movie but it isn’t an especially bad one, either.  It’s not a movie that I would recommend you go out of your way to avoid but it’s also not one I’d recommend as a Must See.  Let me put it this way: if you’re channel surfing and just happen to land on it, check it out.  If you see it in the $5 bin in Wal-Mart or Target or Best Buy, leave it there as I don’t think it’s worth a place in anybody’s home Movie Library but it is two hours’ worth of disposable entertainment that you can enjoy if you approach it in the right way.

TWISTER is in a way a throwback to the disaster movies of the 70’s and 80’s.  Although it’s nowhere near as good as say, “The Poseidon Adventure” or “The Towering Inferno” I liked it a lot more than “Armageddon” “Daylight” or some of the recent disaster movie throwbacks such as “2012” or “Deep Impact”

Dr. Jo Harding (Helen Hunt) is a meteorologist obsessed with tornadoes ever since she saw her father sucked up by one when she was a child.  She’s built a device called “Dorothy” whose purpose is to release hundreds of tennis ball sized sensors inside a tornado to provide information to improve the accuracy of tornado warning systems. Jo plans to deploy the device during an especially intense tornado season in the Midwest and the very day she intends to do so, her estranged husband Bill Harding (Bill Paxton) shows up with his prospective new wife Melissa Reeves (Jami Gertz) with divorce papers for her to sign.

Also showing up is Dr. Jonas Miller (Cary Elwes) Bill’s old partner who has built his own device “DOT-3” which is based on Bill’s designs for “Dorothy”.  Miller also plans to deploy his device and thereby claim sole credit for the invention of the device.  Bill holds off on the signing of the divorce papers to help Jo get “Dorothy” into a tornado before Miller does the same with “DOT-3”.

The rest of the movie has Jo and Bill, along with their wild-ass crew of storm chasers which includes Philip Seymour Hoffman, Alan Ruck, Jeremy Davies and Joey Slotnick pursuing tornadoes in increasingly more dangerous attempts to deploy “Dorothy” Melissa is dragged along and Jami Gertz’s reactions to the utter insanity of what they’re doing provides some of the humor in the movie.

The whole set-up with the bickering married couple is unnecessary as is the rivalry between Jo, Bill and Dr. Miller.  The real bad guys in TWISTER are of course, the tornadoes.  And they’re the real source of comedy for me in the movie.  Let me explain.  Apparently these must be a new breed of Stealth Tornadoes since there are several times in the movie where they sneak up on our intrepid band of storm chasers.  Even though they have all this high-tech gear in their caravan of trucks for monitoring storm activity, those pesky tornadoes just keep on taking them by surprise.  The one scene that had me howling with laughter was the one where Philip Seymour Hoffman insists that they’re right on top of a tornado but none of them can see it.  Why?  Because the daggone thing is following behind them.

There’s a couple of scenes where it’s bright and sunny with nary a cloud in the sky and all of a sudden things turn black in thirty seconds flat and multiple tornadoes come roaring out of nowhere like sharks who have tasted blood in the water. And the scene where a tornado apparently tip-toes quietly up to tear apart a drive-in is another howler.  The danger in chasing these things keep increasing as the intensity levels of the tornadoes rises, culminating in a tornado so powerful and deadly it’s called “The Finger of God”  But it still isn’t anywhere near as scary as that tornado in “The Wizard of Oz”.  Now that is a tornado to be terrified of.

But no matter how strong these tornadoes are, they just can’t snatch up Helen Hunt or Bill Paxton.  Boats, cars, bridges, trucks, 18-wheelers, cows are sent flying through the air by the powerful force of the tornadoes and even houses are pulled apart with ease but Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton appear to have the superhuman ability to avoid this fate simply by clutching onto each other and screaming repeatedly, “hang on!”

So should you see TWISTER?  Like I said earlier; don’t go out of your way to see it but if it happens to be on, it wouldn’t hurt you to watch.  It’s got a good cast of extremely likable actors who appear to enjoying what they’re doing and the special effects are very well done.  Sit back and enjoy the movie that I think should have been titled “Attack of the Stealth Tornadoes” and you’ll be fine.

113 minutes

PG-13

 

Scarlett Johansson In A Chair Vs. Jason Statham In A Chair

Brooklyn’s Finest

2010

Overture Films

Directed by Antoine Fuqua

Produced  by Basil Iwanyk, John Langley, John Thompson and Elie Cohn

Written by Michael C. Martin

It struck me even back then as somewhat unusual and even slightly humorous  that the two police/crime movies to hit theaters that year were actually throwbacks.  “Cop Out” is a homage to The 1980’s Buddy Cop Movie.  If you’ve seen “Lethal Weapon” “The Last Boy Scout” “Bulletproof” “Bad Boys” “Money Train” or “Running Scared” then you’ll know what I’m talking about.

BROOKLYN’S FINEST reminded me a lot of an old school cop movie from the 70’s or 80’s.  Amped up with a lot more violence, drug use and sex but still, it’s a throwback to an era when directors, writers and actors weren’t afraid to make their characters unlikable and unsympathetic.  Many of the characters in BROOKLYN’S FINEST do some pretty reprehensible things.  Including the three police officers the movie follows as they walk a moral tightrope that threatens to break under them every day.

Eddie Dugan (Richard Gere) has been a beat cop for twenty-two years and he’s down to his last seven days before retirement.  He has no family, no future and no desire to do anything more than ride out those last seven days as quietly as possible.  The last thing he needs or wants is to be given an ambitious rookie to train.  But his commanding officer appeals to his last crumb of pride; “Don’t you want your last week to mean something?”

Detective Sal Procida (Ethan Hawke) needs money and a lot of it.  He’s got a too small house full of kids and his wife (Lili Taylor) is pregnant with twins.  On top of that, her lungs are clogged with wood mold that aggravates her asthma and jeopardizes the health of their unborn children.  Sal heads up drug raids on crack houses where the bathtubs are full of money and he’s been helping himself here and there.  But it’s not enough.  The bills are piling up and there’s this brand new house he needs a down payment for.

Clarence Butler (Don Cheadle) aka ‘Tango’ is an extremely successful undercover detective.  He’s been working the drug trade in Brownsville and is best friends with Casanova Phillips (Wesley Snipes) one of the most powerful and successful drug lords in Brooklyn.  Tango, despite all his instincts and training has developed a real friendship with Casanova.  A friendship that means nothing to his boss Lt. Hobarts (Will Patton) and an ambitious Federal Agent (Ellen Barkin).  They want Tango to set up Casanova for a federal bust.  It means a way out of the undercover game for Tango.  A game that has already cost Tango his marriage and threatens his sanity, not to mention his life as Casanova has suspicions there’s a snitch in his camp.

Sounds like a hell of a thriller, doesn’t it?  Well, I hate to be the one to tell you this but while it is entertaining enough; BROOKLYN’S FINEST isn’t exactly the home run you would think it would be from the cast and director.  Remember that Antoine Fuqua is the director who gave us “Training Day” which really did put a new spin on the cop movie genre.   But while watching BROOKLYN’S FINEST I got the distinct feeling of ‘been there, done that’.  The influences of movies such as “Deep Cover” “New Jack City” “Cop” and “Report To The Commissioner” run through the movie.  Not that that’s a bad thing.  Not at all.  But it’s just that there’s nothing ambitious about BROOKLYN’S FINEST and no attempt to bring anything new to this familiar story of When Good Cops Go Bad.

One of the major flaws is that I never got the sense I was watching one cohesive story.  The three cops all work in the same precinct but never interact except for one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it exchange between Dugan and Procida.  And there’s a brief scene where Dugan and Tango literally bump into each other and that’s it.  The movie is constantly bouncing between the three stories and quite honestly, the Dugan story sucks the life out of the other two.  Every time we cut to Dugan the pacing and energy of the movie slowly dials down and when we get back to Tango’s story or Sal’s story, director Antoine Fuqua has to work twice as hard to regain that momentum back.

The acting is as good as you would expect from the cast.  Wesley Snipes and Don Cheadle are so good on screen together and their scenes snap, crackle and pop so much that you’ll wish the movie had been more about them.  Cheadle also has some great scenes with Ellen Barkin as Federal Agent Smith.  Barkin goes toe-to-toe with Cheadle in the acting ring and gives just as good as she gets.

Richard Gere is very good playing the soon to be retired Dugan.  We’re told several times during the movie that Dugan’s career was ‘undistinguished’ and ‘unmemorable’ but I think he’s a guy who sees being a cop as just a job and not a Holy Calling.  He’s not out to save the world like his ambitious trainee.  He just wants to go home at the end of the day and drink himself into oblivion.

I did find it funny that the tanned, handsome, obviously well-fed, fit and distinguishably silver-haired Richard Gere is supposed to be the burnt-out alcoholic when it’s Ethan Hawke who really acts like one.  With his greasy hair hanging in his face, pale as milk skin, twitchy mannerisms, chain smoking and looking as if he’s only read or heard about the beneficial personal daily use of soap and water, Ethan Hawke’s character is so wired it’s as if he’s about to run through the screen right at us screaming like a madman at any moment.   It’s also funny that even though we’re constantly told the Gere character is a raging alcoholic we only see him take a drink twice during the movie’s 133 minutes running time.

So should you see BROOKLYN’S FINEST?  I’d say yes but it’s not what I would call a Must See.  Don’t get me wrong; it’s as solidly professional a movie as you could hope for.  The acting and direction are right on point.  But the story (or should I say stories) aren’t anything new and there’s some fancy juggling the writer has to do at the end to finally have the fates of the three cops all play out in the same building in Brownsville’s Van Dyke housing project that I didn’t entirely buy but what the hell.  If you enjoy a down-and-dirty cop movie that isn’t afraid to wallow in its own excess of drugs, sex and violence then by all means check out BROOKLYN’S FINEST.

133 minutes

Rated R:  And it lives up to its rating so don’t say I didn’t warn you.  This movie has extremely vulgar language, brutal and bloody violence as well as graphic sex scenes.

Better In The Dark #130

Episode 130: THE GENTLEMAN WITH BLOOD IN HIS TEETH–A CELEBRATION OF CHRISTOPHER LEE

It’s time to induct the latest member of our Hall of Great, Great Men….and just in time for his 90th birthday, the Boys Outta Brooklyn raise their glass and honor the great Christopher Lee! Join Tom and Derrick as they explain why this is one of the most remarkable actors they’ve ever discussed, and not just because of his defining horror film roles! If that’s not enough, they struggle to explain the plot of one of Lee’s weirdest films, the insane Scream and Scream Again! Plus…Tom sings HEAVY METAL!!!, Derrick suspects the word ‘Hougenots’ is dirty, and writing talk. You know the world will hear from us again, so get to clicking!

BETTER IN THE DARK
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Silver Age Comics Through Modern Eyes
Join us now at www.earth-2.net!

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

2012

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Directed by John Madden

Produced by Graham Broadbent

Written by Ol Parker

Based on “These Foolish Things” by Deborah Moggach

Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) is way in over his head but he’s got enthusiasm, confidence and pluck enough to fill Yankee Stadium.  He’s inherited a dilapidated business from his deceased father, THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL and he’s positive he can turn it into a spectacular success.  All he has to do is convince a local businessman to invest in the place before his two older and more successful brothers tear down the place and keep his mother off his back.  She wants Sonny to return to Delhi and an arraigned marriage but he insists that he can make the hotel pay off big time.  His mother demands to know how.

“Look at the world around us!” Sonny tells her.  “The whole world is outsourcing their jobs to India!  Why not outsource their old people here as well?”  Because that’s the heart of Sonny’s plan as he changes the name of the hotel to: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel For The Elderly And Beautiful to complete its transformation into a retirement hotel for British retirees.

It’s not as hard to get clients as Sonny has slightly exaggerated the luxuries and charms  of the Marigold Hotel.  The retirees who decide to relocate to The Marigold Hotel are all British retirees but from all levels of their society’s structure.

Evelyn Greenslade ( Judi Dench) has recently been widowed and is forced to sell her house to cover her husband’s debts.  For her, this is the adventure she never got to have and she embraces it warmly, keeping a blog to inform her family and friends of her new life.  Douglas and Jean Ainslie (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilson) have invested and lost their life savings in their daughter’s internet business.  Their marriage is already desperately unhappy and they simply cannot face their future together in such circumstances.  They may not be able to face it in India, either.  Penelope is immediately attracted to High Court judge Graham Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) who lived in India until he was 18.  He’s returned to find the love of his life and find closure for that bittersweet relationship.  Militantly racist Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith) needs a hip replacement badly.  Unfortunantly the waiting list is six months long unless she goes to India where the operation can be done almost immediately.  Aging playboy Norman Cousins (Ronald Pickup) seeks to recapture his youth through one-night stands.  He isn’t as good at picking up women as he used to be but the old boy is in there trying.  Madge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie) is just as horny as Norman but she’s got her cap set on bagging a rich husband to share her golden years with.

All of these characters intertwine their lives in The Best Marigold Hotel in the most unexpected ways as it often happens when total strangers are thrown together in strange circumstances.  And it’s touching, whimsically sad, hilarious and downright life-affirming to see how these people handle being older while making new relationships with each other and a new country.   They’re at the time of their lives when they have more days behind than ahead and it’s increasingly more precious to them as a result of how they spend those days.

The cast couldn’t be better.  Bill Nighy steals the movie far as I’m concerned and considering who he’s co-starring with, that isn’t easy.  But I could sympathize with this quiet man who simply wishes to get along with his wife and make the best of a bad situation.  As his wife Jean, Penelope Wilson at times will make you hate her and sometimes feel sorry for her, all in the same scene.  There’s no point in me telling you that Judi Densch and Maggie Smith are brilliant because if you know their work then you know that they’re incapable of being anything less.  And Tom Wilkinson has the most poignant and surprising character arc, one that is handled with extraordinary sensitivity and pathos.  Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup are mainly here for the comedy relief and they handle the job with wicked dialog.

As for India, which is just as much of a character in the movie as the human cast…every time I watch a movie about India I want to jump in a plane and go there myself just to see if it’s as exotically packed full of life and color as it looks in the movie.  I especially liked a scene where Judge Dashwood takes time out from his search for his lost love to play a game of cricket with a group of children.

So should you see THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL?  I’m glad I did and I think you should as well.  First off, I like it that a movie like this is in theaters now as not everybody wants to see superheroes or big CGI blockbusters.  It’s a nice change of pace to see such a warm, human movie filled with characters so pleasant to spend time with.  Just because the movie stars senior citizens doesn’t mean it’s an old story.  Stories as enriching as THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL never grow old.

124 minutes

PG-13


American Gangster

2007

Universal Pictures

Directed by Ridley Scott

Produced by Brain Grazer and Ridley Scott

Screenplay by Steve Zaillian

Based on the article “The Return of Superfly” by Mark Jacobson

This isn’t the first time that Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe have squared off against each other in a movie.  Anybody remember the 1995 sci-fi thriller “Virtuosity”?  In that one, Denzel Washington was the cop and Russell Crowe was the bad guy, a virtual reality serial killer unleashed on the real world.  In the years between “Virtuosity” and AMERICAN GANGSTER both actors have made an impressive amount of really fine films and they’ve both won Best Actor Oscars.  Both men have achieved a level of respect and professional achievement that few actors today can claim.  And separately just their names are enough to guarantee a big weekend box office.  So putting them together again in a movie should assure us of some really outstanding scenes between the two of them since both men have done nothing but get better at their craft since 1995, right?

I wish I could say it was so but AMERICAN GANGSTER is a lot like the Robert DeNiro/Al Pacino crime thriller “Heat” or Robert DeNiro/Kevin Costner in “The Untouchables” in that for most of the movie we’re following two separate but intertwined storylines and we have to wait about two hours before we get to what we want to see: the two main actors going at it.  It’s worth the wait to finally see Denzel and Russell face to face, trust me on that but the few scenes they have together are so good you can’t help but wish they had more of them.

It’s the 1970’s and Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) has inherited the crime empire of his boss, the legendary Harlem gangster Bumpy Johnson who has passed away from an unexpected heart attack.  Frank doesn’t waste time in consolidating his power.  To do this he intends to control the heroin traffic in Harlem by cutting out any and all middlemen and making a deal directly with the supplier.  Frank himself flies to Bangkok and with the help of his cousin (Roger Guenveur Smith) he strikes a deal for a previously unheard of amount of heroin that is 100% pure.  He gives it a brand name: ‘Blue Magic’ and sells his product for half the price of his competitors.  Frank brings up his family from North Carolina, including his elderly mother (Ruby Dee) and buys a huge mansion estate for them all to live in.  He makes his five brothers his lieutenants and they proceed to make money.  A whole lot of money.

Ritchie Roberts (Russell Crowe) isn’t having as much fun in his life as Frank is in his.  Ritchie’s wife is divorcing him because of his constant womanizing and his single-minded devotion to his job.  Ritchie is such an honest cop that he turns in a million bucks to his superiors without even thinking for a minute about keeping it for himself.  It’s simple for him because he looks at it simply: the money was made illegally.  He’s a cop.  Cops don’t take illegal money.  Haw.  Remember that this is back in the 1970’s when police corruption in New York was just part of the job.  Ritchie is ostracized by his fellow officers and so he jumps at the chance when his boss (Ted Levine) gives him a chance to head up his own squad of Untouchables who will target the high-level drug dealers.  No nickel-and-dime dealers.  Ritchie’s investigations eventually lead him to Frank Lucas who has managed to stay under the radar for so long because he doesn’t go in for the flashy pimped out lifestyle of his peers like Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) Not Frank.  He dresses in conservative business suits and takes his momma to church every Sunday.  He doesn’t get high off his own supply and he runs his organization with a professionalism that makes him the gangland equivalent of Donald Trump.

Frank intrigues Ritchie who is amazed that a black man could amass so much wealth and power that even old school Mafia kingpins like Dominic Gattano (Armand Assante) give him respect and he’s determined to take Frank down.  It’s not going to be an easy job as Ritchie has no idea how Frank is smuggling his product into the United States and there’s a crooked cop (Josh Brolin) who is making life hell for both Frank and Ritchie.  The lives of these two men intersect at a very critical juncture in their lives and once they join together their story has a unique twist.

AMERICAN GANGSTER works extremely hard at wanting to be an epic crime drama.  But I actually think it works more as a character study of the two men, Frank Lucas and Ritchie Roberts.  Frank Lucas is a cold-blooded killer who can set a man on fire without blinking and sell heroin to children without losing a night’s sleep.  But he also provides for his family, instills a (twisted) set of business values and ethics in his brothers and faithfully attends church every Sunday.  Ritchie Roberts is a helluva cop who chases bad guys by day and goes to law school at night.  He’s also a neglectful father and a lousy husband.  Family values is an elusive concept for Ritchie who seems genuinely puzzled that his wife doesn’t accept his womanizing and off-hour association with the lowlife of New York City.  I think that director Ridley Scott spends so much time on the separate stories of these two men, both of who are looking for The American Dream in their own way and allows us to examine their moral values and ethical codes and he wants us to make up our minds as to what we think of how they achieve it.

Ridley Scott is a strange choice for this type of straight-up crime thriller.  I think perhaps the closest he’s come to a movie like this is 1989’s “Black Rain” starring Michael Douglas.  Ridley Scott is not the first director you think of when it comes to crime thrillers.  In the hands of Martin Scorsese or Carl Franklin I think the movie would have had more bite to it.  As it is Scott focuses more on how these two men conduct their business and their relationships to those around them.  As a result you’re not going to find over-the-top violence such as in “Scarface” “Goodfellas” or “The Departed”.  There is violence, sure.  But it’s handled in an almost documentary like manner.

Denzel Washington turns in his usual outstanding performance as Frank Lucas.  By now we’re all so used to Denzel being so good that it’s no surprise that we’re not able to take our eyes off him when he’s on the screen.  He’s gotten really good at playing bad guys.  And Russell Crowe is easily his equal in acting ability.  Separately they create fully realized characters and both men do more in a scene by saying nothing than other actors do with ten minutes of dialog.  They’re just that good.  And they’re backed up by an equally impressive supporting cast.  Ruby Dee has a really splendid scene where she has to talk Frank down from doing something really stupid and the honesty of the scene comes right out of the screen and grabs you by the shoulders.  Josh Brolin as Detective Trupo steps up his game considerably.  He has scenes with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe and damn if he doesn’t hold his own with the both of them.  It’s an impressive acting job he does here.  Chiwetel Ejiofor and Common have roles as two of Frank’s brothers.  Cuba Gooding, Jr. continues his streak as the most puzzling actor of all time.  Why does this man continue to waste his talent in unfunny so-called comedies when he has such a gift for dramatic roles?  His five minutes as Nicky Barnes in AMERICAN GANGSTER beats out the entirety of “Boat Trip” “Rat Race” and “Snow Dogs” all put together.

I was puzzled by Joe Morton’s character of Charlie Williams who in appearance is a near dead ringer for Gordon Parks.  His character’s relationship to Frank Lucas is never really explained.  He shows up every now and then, gives Frank some sage words of wisdom and then he’s gone.  And while we’re on the subject the relationship between Frank Lucas and his wife Eva (Lymari Nadal) isn’t all that satisfying either.  Despite the scene where Frank goes ballistic on Dominic Gattano when a hit on Frank goes wrong and his wife is almost killed I wasn’t convinced that either of them were ever that much in love with the other.

So should you see AMERICAN GANGSTER?  If you’re a fan of Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe then you probably already have.  And with good reason.  Both men are at the top of their game right now and watching them work is truly a pleasure.  The supporting cast does their job and backs up the leads superbly.  The direction is realistic and not unnecessarily bombastic.  And no, I don’t think that AMERICAN GANGSTER is the great crime epic it aspires to be but it is solid entertainment that’s worth your time to watch.

157 minutes

Rated R

 

A Gathering Of Old Men

1987

Consolidated Productions/Jennie & Co.

Directed by Volker Schlondorff

Produced by Gower Frost

Screenplay by Charles Fuller

Based on the novel “A Gathering Of Old Men” by Ernest J. Gaines

It’s a boiling hot summer day in a Louisiana sugar cane field once upon a time in the 1970’s.  An overweight black man named Charlie runs for his life, yelling for help.  And with good reason.  There’s a white man pursuing him on a tractor with a shotgun.  In desperation Charlie runs into a house as he simply cannot run any more.  The white man gets off the tractor and strides toward the shack, shotgun at the ready and loudly proclaiming his intention to enter the house and kill Charlie.  A shotgun blast comes from the house, killing the white man.

The house is owned by Mathu (Lou Gossett, Jr.), an elderly black man who tells the younger one to make a run for it.  Since we’re not shown who fired from the house we don’t know if it was Mathu or Charlie who did the killing but it hardly matters.  As one of the characters says later on in the film; “Ain’t no colored ever kilt a white man in this parish and got away with it.” Even though it’s the 1970’s and still in the white-hot passion of the civil rights movement everybody who lives in the parish knows full well that things really haven’t changed all that much.  Somebody’s going to get lynched over this.

Mathu lives on land owned by the Marshall family and it’s Candy Marshall (Holly Hunter) who concocts a plan to save Mathu from certain arrest and the probable lynching: she sends out a call for all of Mathu’s equally elderly friends to fire off their shotguns and bring them along to Mathu’s house.  She also calls for her fiancé, journalist Lou Dimes (Will Patton) to come to Mathu’s house to document what happens next.  And it could get bloody.  The white man who was killed was a Cajun and his father Fix (Stocker Fontelieu) intends to see to it that the man who killed his son pays for it.

Stuck in the middle is Sheriff Mapes (Richard Widmark) who started the day intending to go fishing and certainly didn’t plan on having to deal with this mess. Because each one of Mathu’s seventeen friends proclaim loudly and with finality that they were the one that did the killing and here’s the just fired shotgun to back it up.  And each one of those seventeen friends have brought along more shotgun shells as they don’t intend to see their friend lynched.

A GATHERING OF OLD MEN is a movie that is so far under the radar it isn’t funny.  I remember seeing it on CBS just once way back in the 1980’s and I’ve never seen it aired again on network television.  Which is a shame because it’s a powerful piece of filmmaking with outstanding performances from Richard Widmark, Holly Hunter and a cast of classic black actors such as the late great Joe Seneca, Woody Strode, Tiger Haynes and Julius Harris.

It’s a story exploring the desire of black men in the twilight of their years having one final chance at regaining their manhood and standing up for themselves.  It gets even deeper into the various attitudes of the white characters who all have their own agendas regarding the black characters.  The Cajuns want blacks to “stay in their place” so that they have somebody to feel superior to.  The Marshall family are guilty of patronizing the blacks and believing they are superior to Cajuns which they despise for being “poor white trash”  The patronizing attitude of the Marshalls is brought out sharp and clear in a scene when Candy proudly proclaims that these are “her” blacks and they “need” her to protect them from “those” white people.

It’s a story that doesn’t pull any punches and there are some today who might be uncomfortable watching this movie.  Especially now in this era of the Obama presidency where many believe that racism doesn’t matter and that we all walk around holding hands and singing “We Are The World.”  A GATHERING OF OLD MEN is an engaging reminder that such is not so.  And it’s simply a damn fine piece of ensemble acting that can be enjoyed as such on those terms.  It’s available on DVD and well worth your time to track it down.  Enjoy

The Avengers

2012

Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Pictures

 

Directed by Joss Whedon

Produced by Kevin Feige

Screenplay by Zak Penn, Joss Whedon

Based on the Marvel comic book “The Avengers” created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

 

This review is spoiler free as I’m pretty sure there will be some of you reading this who haven’t seen THE AVENGERS yet.  In about another month or so when more of you have seen it I’ll be rewriting the review so as to talk more in-depth about the movie.  Now if you want to read an excellent, more comprehensive review, by all means, go read Mark Bousquet’s review.  But be advised that Mark’s review has spoilers aplenty so if you’re the type who foams at the mouth at the very thought of spoilers, then don’t. 

 

My love affair with THE AVENGERS goes back to 1968.  That’s when I bought Avengers Annual #2 which featured Captain America going back in time with teammates Hawkeye, Goliath, The Wasp and The Black Panther and through a cosmic mixup find themselves doing battle with Giant-Man, The Wasp, Iron Man, Thor and The Hulk.  I was hooked and from that year to this one, The Avengers have always been my favorite superhero team.  Way back then my friends and I fantasized about seeing The Avengers in a live-action movie but until a few years ago I never really believed it could be done.  It has.  After five previous Marvel superhero movies it’s all led up to this.  And it’s been done with such fresh intelligence, unique wit, humor, creative consistency and downright fun that as far as I’m concerned THE AVENGERS is the best and greatest superhero movie ever made.  With this movie, the bar for superhero movies has been raised so incredibly high that I don’t think it’ll be topped anytime soon.  Matter of fact, I’m sure of it.

The meat of the plot is actually quite simple.  After being thrown off the destroyed Rainbow Bridge by his brother Thor (Chris Hemsworth) during his attempt to conquer Asgard, The God of Mischief Loki (Tom Hiddleston) found himself in a hostile dimension.  He has made a deal with the leader of the warrior alien race known as the Chitauri.  If Loki retrieves the ancient artifact known as the Tesseract he’ll be given command of a Chitauri army to conquer The Earth.  Loki manages to remotely use the Tesseract to open a portal by which he returns to Earth.  Loki steals the Tessarct from the S.H.I.E.L.D. research facility where it is being studied by Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard)  Loki escapes, destroying the facility in the process while turning Dr. Selvig, Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and half a dozen S.H.I.E.L.D. agents into his mind-controlled lackeys.

S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) decides to reactivate “The Avengers Initiative” to combat this threat.  He sends Natasha Romanoff aka The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to India to recruit Dr. Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).  Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) heads to New York to bring in Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.).  When Loki is discovered to be in Germany, it seems like the perfect assignment for Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) to capture him but that plan goes wrong when Thor shows up, intending to capture his brother himself, recover the Tessaract and take them both back to Asgard. And he’s got an outrageously big hammer to back up his intentions.

Surprisingly, Loki allows himself to be taken captive and imprisoned on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s flying aircraft carrier, the Helicarrier.  Fury attempts to talk this wildly diverse group into becoming a team while Banner and Stark try to find the Tesseract and the true depths of Loki’s scheming soon become obvious to all.  Divided and disheartened, The Avengers must learn how to work together as a team to save the world from Loki and the overwhelming onslaught of the Chitauri hordes pouring out of a interdimensional  portal above Stark Tower.

That’s the bare bones of the plot but there’s so much meat on the bones that it flat-out astonishes me how much Joss Whedon and his co-writer Zak Penn gets in there without the movie feeling rushed or over-bloated.  There are some great character moments aboard the Helicarrier and the scene of The Avengers bickering among themselves had me chuckling even though it’s a deadly serious scene.  But as a long-time Avengers fan, I’ve seen this scene played out in I don’t know how many issues of the comic book and it feels absolutely right in here.

We get astounding superhero battles such as Iron Man vs. Thor and Hulk vs. Thor while the actual alien attack on New York is jaw-dropping in its scale and level of sheer spectacle.  It’s also where we get to see The Avengers finally working together as a team and it’s one of the best moments in superhero movie history.

The acting is dead on-point with Mark Ruffalo being the stand-out.  I expected everyone else to be good as they’ve played these characters before and they know the tone they’re supposed to take.  But Mark Ruffalo comes in cold and nails Bruce Banner with an ease that is truly impressive.  He’s just as good as Eric Bana and Edward Norton and I could even see the progression in both The Hulk and Bruce Banner through Ruffalo’s performance.  They both have come a long way and Ruffalo as Banner reflects this.  Nothing he does invalidates or violates the Bana or Norton performances and actually builds on them.  And both Banner and The Hulk get some of the best lines/scenes in the movie.  Including the one between The Hulk and Loki that had the audience I saw the movie with laughing, cheering, clapping and high-fiving for at least five minutes.

Jeremy Renner makes for a far better Clint Barton than I thought he would be.  This incarnation of Hawkeye as well as The Black Widow are darker versions of the traditional characters but I didn’t mind.  These characters I’ve always admired and loved since they don’t have superpowers.  Even Captain America has the Super-Solider Formula going for him but Hawkeye and The Black Widow are superbly trained humans who through virtue of guts, heart and their outstanding skills prove why they’re worthy to be Avengers.

So should you see THE AVENGERS?  If you don’t, I don’t wanna know you.  If every other movie I see this year turns out to be crap I honestly don’t care because I’ve seen THE AVENGERS and it’s the Avengers movie I’ve been waiting since 1968 to see and it was worth the wait.

143 minutes

PG-13

 

Better In The Dark #129

 

 

Episode 129: DIRECTOR’S COURT–THE CASE OF TIM BURTON

Just as his latest collaboration with Johnny Depp, Dark Shadows, reaches the theaters (and that might be part of the problem), The Boys Outta Brooklyn reconvenes Director’s Court to pass judgement on Tim Burton. Tom and Derrick cover the man’s entire career and try to figure out if the man is still blazing new trails or relying on the same old tropes over and over again. Plus Derrick knows the value of Johnny Depp to moviegoers, why the Gene Wilder version of Willy Wonka may be a demented serial killer, and–for the first time ever–our subject may get his revenge. You know Spectre is really swell, so get to clicking!

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