Sunday, June 29, 2014

Against the Crowd Blogathon


We've all done it. You've watched some movie that everyone has been raving about and just didn't like it. Depending on your personality, you may not even tell people in your real life how you feel about this film so you can avoid the "What's wrong with you?" conversation. Your contrarianism works in reverse, too. After sitting through a really good movie, you find out everyone else hates it. They all tell you it sucks and you suck for liking it.

Here is your chance to vent.

Even for venting, there are rules, though. They are as follows:

1. Pick one movie that "everyone" loves (the more iconic, the better). That movie must have a score of at least 80% on rottentomatoes.com. Tell us why you hate it.

2. Pick one movie that "everyone" hates (the more notorious, the better). That movie must have a score of less than 30% on rottentomatoes.com. Tell us why you love it.

3. Include the tomato meter scores of both movies.

That's pretty much it.

Oh yeah, let's make sure we let as many people as possible know how crazy you are. Leave a link to your post in the comments section below. In a few weeks, I'll create a post with links to all the entries.

By the way, should a movie you select not have a grade on rottentomatoes.com, use a score of at least 7.5 on imdb.com for ones you hate and less than 4.0 for ones you love.

I'm setting the deadline for two weeks from now: July 13, 2014.

Happy Blogging!


Friday, June 27, 2014

The Bling Ring

Directed by Sofia Coppola.
2013. Rated R, 90 minutes.
Cast:
Katie Chang
Israel Broussard
Emma Watson
Taissa Farmiga
Claire Julien
Leslie Mann
Georgia Rock
Gavin Rossdale
Carlos Miranda

High school student Rebecca (Chang) comes from an affluent family, doesn't have a realistic need for anything material, nor does she have a care in the world. The problem is her hobby. She gets a thrill out of breaking into people's houses. At first, it's just people in the area who happen to leave their door open. That escalates quickly into breaking into the houses of young, rich, and famous whenever she can surmise that they won't be home. Marc (Broussard) is her spineless accomplices. He often does the research needed. Soon enough, Rebecca also recruits a few of her other friends: Nicki (Watson), Sam (Farmiga), and Chloe (Julien). Together, they hit up the homes of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Megan Fox, among others. When their crime spree makes national headlines, the media dubs our band of outlaws "The Bling Ring." Peer pressure and bullying resulting in thievery ensues. All of it is based on a true story.

We quickly figure out that Rebecca is not just some random kleptomaniac. She is obsessed with the people she's robbing and the things they have. She is manipulative, superficial, and vapid. Unfortunately, these are all things that describe the movie as a whole. It wants to make some deep observation about our celebrity obsessed culture, but doesn't. Instead, it just shows this girl repeatedly brow beating Marc until he goes along with whatever cockamamie idea she's come up with. To help give us the feeling that something important is going on, we get a few reality-TV style confessionals from various characters. It's a technique I've long been over, especially since they add precious little to our understanding of the people on screen. Instead of giving us brief asides we can sink our teeth into, we get a disjointed group of scenes that would not alter our feeling about the movie by their exclusion.


The Bling Ring has often been compared to Spring Breakers. Both movies position themselves as dark comedies and focus on some unsavory aspects of youth culture. The problem is this movie doesn't really have much to say about it and isn't willing to go the extra mile to say it like Spring Breakers. That movie immerses us in a dream-like reality right from the beginning and uses that as an effective story-telling tool. This one gives us characters who speak in a valley-girl meets hip hop vernacular and barrels toward its inevitable conclusion. The most intriguing aspect of it, the relationship between Marc and Rebecca isn't handled sufficiently. Another potentially fascinating story line, regarding Marc's sexuality, is reduced to a couple of sight gags.

The movie attempts to use its ridiculously shallow characters to create a deep social commentary. However, it never makes us care about those people. We bop along with them on their misadventures, but aren't invested in them. As viewers, we remain apart from them. We watch them and silently, or not so silently, admonish their behavior. By the time the film ends, however, what we're supposed to take from our time with this bunch of spoiled rich kids is unclear. Since this is the case, the whole thing harmlessly floats by us and becomes less than memorable.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Million Dollar Baby

Directed by Clint Eastwood.
2004. Rated PG-13, 132 minutes.
Cast:
Hilary Swank
Clint Eastwood
Morgan Freeman
Jay Baruchel
Anthony Mackie
Brian F. O'Byrne
Margo Martindale
Michael Pena
Mike Colter
Lucia Rijker
Riki Lindhome

Maggie (Swank) has been boxing for a while and is looking for a trainer to help her learn the proper techniques and possibly take her to the big time. She walks into the gym owned by grizzled vet cut-man turned trainer Frankie Dunn (Eastwood). Dunn manages and trains Willie Jones (Colter), an up-and-coming fighter on the cusp of a title shot. The place is actually kept running by Eddie "Scrap Iron" Dupris (Freeman), Frank's bestest buddy. Frank tells Maggie he doesn't train girls and tries to ignore her. However, after Willie moves on to a new manager, and at Eddie's urging, Frank reluctantly takes her on.

Right from the beginning, Million Dollar Baby establishes that every relationship it depicts will be a battle of wills. The most prominent of these is that of Maggie and Frank. Frank is the immovable object trying to stave off Maggie's irresistible force. Irresistible being the key word. She is a big ball of warm and fuzzy. Frank is not. The differences don't end there. As a man whose been burned on numerous occasions by the sport he loves, Frank is overly cautious. His gruff exterior belies the fact he's deathly afraid of taking chances. this is something Maggie has no issues with. Being careful appears not to be in her nature. Consequences be damned, she's going after what she wants with both fists flying. It stems from her one true fear, ending up with a bushel of children and grandchildren while being dependent on welfare, like her mother (Martindale). I don't recall even a mention of her father. This makes seeking out Frank's expertise a matter of gravity, not logical thinking. Frank is similarly pulled. He sees qualities in her that he wishes he had. More importantly, she becomes a stand-in for his estranged daughter. Whatever happened in the past between he and his own child is something for which he desperately wants to atone. Maybe Maggie holds the key to his salvation. She is sure he holds the key to hers. It is their separate needs that binds them. However, Frank resists as best he can. This makes the exchanges between the two cinematic gold as each plays their role perfectly. Swank deservedly took home an Oscar for her work, here.


As I've alluded to, Frank and Maggie's battles is hardly the only one playing out before us. There is Frank and Willie, Frank and Eddie, and also Maggie against her own mother. Perhaps most intriguing, aside from the main event between our two leads, involves two seemingly expendable characters: Shawrelle (Mackie) and Danger (Baruchel). Shawrelle is a pro fighter who hasn't been terribly successful. Around the gym, though, he's a motor-mouthed bully. Danger is his exact opposite. He dreams of becoming a champion, but has no boxing ability whatsoever. He just hangs around the gym pantomiming his imaginary victory over fight legend Thomas Hearns. He's also Shawrelle's favorite target. On the surface, it's an extraneous, if fun, subplot. Juxtaposed with our protagonist, it becomes the breathing embodiment of the journey Maggie's spirit makes. The name Danger represents the arduous road she chooses to travel. They share highs and lows. her real life triumphs prove as fleeting as Danger's made up ones. Their defeats work in concert to illustrate the point Eddie makes to Danger after she suffers a very real and painful loss: "Anybody can lose one fight." This leads us back to Maggie. We know that she loses one fight. The question is does she lose the fight after that, as well. Whether she does isn't easily discerned. It could be argued both ways. Even if you accept her as victorious in the end, you know it's not an indisputable fact.

Eastwood's direction holds it all together in a tight package that never rushes, but also doesn't meander. It moves from setup to action to climax at a wonderful pace. the entire time it is pulling us deeper into Frank and Maggie's world. there is one little, but troubling plot hole for fight fans that might turn some off to the movie as a whole. It's the way our heroes first meet. Given all we're told of her skill level a short while later, it makes no sense. However, it's small enough that the removal and/or changing of just a few lines of dialogue would fix the issue. The bigger problem for those of us with a decent amount of boxing knowledge are the fight scenes. The choreography of them is just horrible in that all-too-Hollywood way. Each pugilist takes turns beating their opponent from one side of the ring to the other with seemingly endless successions of landed punches. Either that, or someone gets knocked in about five seconds. It just doesn't work like that. It's the one artificiality that snaps me out of the movie on several occasions. Thankfully, the narrative snags me from the brink of tuning out each time and swaddles me in layers of its fabric. Once we get beyond all the fight scenes, it never lets me go.



Monday, June 23, 2014

The Ten Most Iconic Female Movie Characters



A couple months ago, Nostra at My Filmviews started up a blogging relay on the ten most iconic movie characters of all time. It is still going on with the list constantly changing, one character at a time. I was able to participate and I enjoyed coming up with my choice. However, one thing I noticed is that female characters are getting left out. Without going back through the entire relay, I don't recall there ever being more than three on the list at any one time. Most often, there are only one or two. Being the gentleman that I am, I thought the ladies deserved a little more light so...

A list of 10 iconic female movie characters has been made. That list will be assigned to another blogger who can then change it by removing one character (describing why they think she should not be on the list) and replacing it with another one (also with motivation) and hand over the baton to another blogger. Once assigned, that blogger will have to put his/her post up within a week. If this is not the case the blogger who assigned it has to reassign it to another blogger. After you have posted your update leave the link in the comments below and I will make sure it gets added to the overview post.

Yup, I'm starting my own relay race.

Picking out the first ten was a tough task. I think they are all justifiably iconic. Therefore, I'm very interested to see what you guys out in the blogosphere come up with. In no particular order, here is your opening list:


Ellen Ripley
How could I not start with Ms. Ripley. She's been a near constant in the other relay. When she fell out, she was almost instantly re-added. To quote Sati of Cinematic Corner, "She is the ultimate badass movie heroine and she has set the bar for other action/horror ladies so high no other actress and character has managed to cross it and it's been decades." That's good enough for me.


Holly Golightly
Holly is the eternal fashion icon/protagonist of Breakfast at Tiffany's. It's a character that has stood the test of time and remains beloved to this day. In the words of Sofia of Film Flare, "one could easily argue that it is because of Holly G. that Audrey (Hepburn) is still ridiculously well-known - the two have become one gigantic iconic image that transcends movies." Indeed.


Nurse Ratched
Believe it or not, the leading lady can sometimes be the bad guy. The beauty of Nurse Ratched is that she's not really bad, but someone hell bent on doing their job the best way she knows. She represents the establishment in an anti-establishment movie. Despite being a woman, she is The Man..in the 1970s, revolutionary minded sense of the word. Louise Fletcher's performance of the character is so perfect, it's scary.


Princess Leia
This is the one that I most grew up with. The original Star Wars came out when I was a kid. I actually went to a theater to see it during the first run. Take that, young whipper-snappers. For me, there was just no denying her a spot on my list. Don't take my word for it. Take it from Ruth at Flixchatter, "Princess Leia is not just one of the coolest female movie characters but she’s a film AND pop culture icon. I mean, if you just draw a silhouette with her hair buns on each side of her head, I think people young and old would instantly know who that is." If that's not iconic, I don't know what is.


Mary Poppins
In this era of anti-heroes starring in gritty dramas, and I'm talking about comic book movies here, a vision of perfection like Mary Poppins might not work. However, I think that's precisely why she persists as an icon. As Manon from Film Inquiry puts it, "She stood for female independence and being yourself, she was funny, charming, sweet, and I think she’s the nanny every child would want, even today." I know I wish she was my nanny.


Dorothy Gale
Is there a more beloved and romanticized female character in all of cinematic history than Dorothy Gale? I personally can't count how many times I've seen The Wizard of Oz. It's one of those rare movies that people of every possible demographic have seen numerous times. Impressive indeed for a movie of near 80 years old. And yeah, we all know and love The Lion, The Tin Man, and the The Scarecrow, but we really love Dorothy. Alex of And So It Begins sums it up nicely, "...the very sight of Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale is an image that will be forever linked to cinema. You see a picture of Dorothy, and you think film. You don’t think of The Wizard of Oz, or Dorothy, or Toto, you think film. Film as a whole, in all its lasting glory. Dorothy is a perfect example of persona and art form forever married to one another." I can't argue against that.


Sarah Connor
In the first Terminator, Sarah Connor was a great character. Her transformation into what we see in the sequel made her an icon. She went from damsel in distress, to actively fighting for her own survival and, more importantly for the sake of mankind, her son. What makes her iconic is that she symbolizes female strength in both the most raw physical form and from an emotional, maternal standpoint. Others may think she's crazy, but she's doing whatever it takes to protect her kid. That's why we love her.


Mrs. Robinson
In 1999, the movie American Pie coined the term MILF in reference to Stifler's Mom. However, three decades earlier is when we got the real original, Mrs. Robinson. Countless teenage (or early 20s) boys have daydreamed about being seduced by one of their friends' moms. Mrs. Robinson was the fantasy come to life. In the words of Nikhat from Being Norma Jeane, "Mrs. Robinson is arguably the sexiest movie character of all time. Her icon status is almost aspirational. Women wish they could be as attractive as her and I'm fairly sure every guy wants her." Pretty much.


Foxy Brown
I just had to include the great Foxy Brown. When you think of great ass-kicking women of the 70s, you have to think Foxy. When you think of sex symbols of the same era, you think Foxy. When you think of iconic black women of cinema, you think Foxy. And when you think Foxy, you think Pam Grier. She was not only an African-American female action star, she was THE female action star of the time. She still inspires women to this day. She also inspires us men, too. Quentin Tarantino included. Of Ms. Grier and her most famous role, he said "In the 1970s they talked about Jim Brown being the black Burt Reynolds, or Shaft being the black James Bond, but Pam Grier wasn't the black anybody, because there was nobody else, black or white, who was like her. And there still isn't. She founded her own genre."


Scarlett O'Hara
This was my most reluctant choice. I'm not a big fan of Scarlett or Gone With the Wind. However, that doesn't change the fact that she is iconic. Years before I ever saw the movie, I knew exactly who she was, and her plight. By the time I actually watched it, I knew so much about her it was like having deja vu. As Katy of Girl Meets Cinema tells us, "...adored attention is still paid to the character for her fashion, romance to Rhett Butler, and vivacious personality which ranges of everything from manipulative, flirtatious, smart, and definitely spoiled. It's hard for me to think of film history and iconic characters, and not have O'Hara pop into my head as one of the first picks."


There you have my two cents. Since I am blatantly ripping him off, it's only right that I start the race by passing the baton to Nostra at My Filmviews.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Women in Film Blogathon: Troy Carmichael


John from Hitchcock's World has been on a roll and has several blogathons going simultaneously. One of them is titled Women in Film. His aim with this particular blogathon is a noble one. In his own words, he intends "to draw attention to some of the good, strong, female characters we do have in the movies." Indeed, there have been a number strong ladies throughout cinematic history. However, unless you're in complete denial, you know that there are far fewer great female characters than there are male. That alone makes this a worthwhile exercise. Since it is, I want to do my part. Before I get started, though, John did lay down the law...

1. The female character in question should have qualities that make her strong. That doesn't necessarily mean better than the guys, just well-written; we're trying to promote equality here, not reverse misogyny.

2. Unlike my previous blogathon, I'm going to be a bit stricter here and say that each entry should only focus on one character. However, if you like you can write mulitple entries examining different characters.

3. If you can, do try to find less obvious choices. There are a few that I can expect are likely to get picked: Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, etc. If you decide to write about any of the "obvious" choices, I encourage you to at least try and find something new to say about them.

4. You are allowed to pick characters from any film, genre, or time period you like.

No problem...

except I occasionally like to be difficult.

This means I'm going to kinda-sorta ignore the title of the blogathon and focus on what the rules say. By that, I mean that the character I've chosen is female, but not a woman. At least, not yet. When we meet Troy Carmichael, played by Zelda Harris in Spike Lee's Crooklyn (1994), she is a little shy of her tenth birthday.


Troy lives in Brooklyn, New York in the early 1970s with her sizable family. There's mom and dad plus four brothers for a total of seven. Chronologically, she's the second youngest of the five children. As the only girl, she wraps dad around her finger and has an extra special bond with mom. Much of her day is spent keeping up with and often outwitting her brothers. When she's not doing that, she's hanging out with her friends and getting into a little mischief.

Right from the beginning, we see that there is a strength to her, but it's something we suspect won't blossom for at least four or five more years. Due to some unforeseen circumstances, that timetable is sped up considerably.

Spoiler alert.

We eventually find out that Troy's mom Carolyn (a wonderful Alfre Woodard) is deathly ill. Near the end of our journey with Troy, Carolyn passes away. Remarkably, Troy steps into her mother's shoes. She literally becomes the woman of the house, running things as her mom would have. While her father Woody, the under-appreciated Delroy Lindo, appears overwhelmed, Troy picks up any slack. At the beginning of the movie, she was just one of the hordes of children in her neighborhood who had their play interrupted by being called in to dinner. By the end, she is the one letting her family know that dinner is ready. She assumes her mother's old post on the steps in front of their house and surveys the area, making sure her brothers are safe and behaving themselves. At ten, her maternal instincts have bubbled to the surface even as she misses her own mother.


What makes Troy a great character is that her transformation is entirely natural. None of it feels contrived, or impossible. Where she ends up feels like the next logical step after all of her earlier steps. She's not some super-child with extraordinary gifts none of us could ever hope to have. She is a kid dealing with a situation head-on. She realizes that a void has been created in her home and fills it as best she can. While her brothers will inevitably rebel against whatever authority she assumes, especially the older ones, they will always know that they cannot do what she does in a seemingly effortless manner. Regardless of what the future may hold for them, they will always respect the way she grabbed the reins of the household.

The most surprising thing about Troy is not anything she does, but in whose world she resides. She is a female character in a Spike Lee movie. Spike is one of my favorite directors, but even I have to admit that his female characters are lacking, to say the least. Troy is not. During the course of time we spend with her, we get a full portrait of what drives and motivates this little girl. Spike has let this young girl dance into our hearts and simply take them over. However, the lion's share of credit for the way in she was portrayed should go to the director's sister Joie. Over the years, she's frequently appeared in her brother's movies, including this one. The twist is that this time around, she has a much bigger role off the screen as she penned the screenplay. It's a wonderful, bittersweet narrative that rings true at nearly every turn.

Despite such an excellent performance at such a tender age, star Zelda Harris has not gone on to a long career as an actress. She would appear as the younger sister of the protagonist in Spike Lee's basketball flick, He Got Game, along with earning a handful of other credits. Her turn as Troy appears to be the high water mark for her. Even if she never again graces our screens, Ms. Harris can hold her head high. She gave us an incredibly strong, and still growing, young woman.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

100,000 Views!

Today is a cause for a celebration. At least for me, anyway. After years of toiling in obscurity nearing on isolation, and one year of slightly less isolation, I've finally reached a plateau some of my fellow bloggers will scoff at: 100,000 views.

Reaching such a milestone has put me in a reflective mood...a greatest hits kind of mindset, if you will. With that, below are links to some of my personal favorites among my own posts, in no particular order, and including a wee little excerpt so you can see what you might be getting into.

Alas, this is 1983 and there are no cell phones. This means we’re stuck with watching mom play hide and seek with this behemoth of a dog who’s coat grows more matted by the second. If you held a gun to my head and asked me which one were smarter I’d have to say the dog.



Watching her really feels like we are looking at Queen Elizabeth II wrestle with the idea of how to address her nation about the passing of Princess Diana whom she is known have her differences with.



Brothers and sisters, like Satan has a plot to enter our souls and turn us away from our Salvation, so too does Chipwrecked have a plot.


However, even icons are not perfect. JFK has The Bay of Pigs, Jay-Z has "Kingdom Come," LeBron James has the 2011 NBA Finals. Morgan Freeman has The Magical Negro.


Throughout the 90s, he supplied me with many of the most awesome martial arts flicks featuring an American actor ever made, no matter how much alike they all were. I know, I know, Chuck Norris, blah blah.


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.


You already know how I feel about this so-called film. Therefore, I’m going to do something constructive while I bang out a few more paragraphs. I’m attempting to take the art of onomatopoeia to new heights, just like this, boom.


No doubt, Philippe’s quirky, not quite all there personality and obvious zest for life makes the stories of planning and carrying out of his moment at the top of the world into compelling drama.


Certain people are lucky I’ve not yet been named Supreme Ruler of the Universe. Cataclysmic events may have erupted the very moment it came to my attention that the ever-invisible and unquestionably guilty “they” were going to make another Big Momma’s House.


Once you apply the criteria I'm using, the pool of linebackers thins out tremendously. That said, I'm excited about what we have up front. Sgt. Engleheart can be a little soft, but Lattimer more than makes up for him with his 'roided out insanity and passion for having a place at the table.


We're taking some chances with our guards, though. Billy Bob isn't in the best shape and is prone to concussions, but he's hard to move. He also might be able to sneak out and catch a pass or two.


While doing a little self-research for this post, I've come to realize something about me. Generally speaking, the worse the movie, the better the review. With that in mind...




Thanks to everyone who has stopped by Dell on Movies, and an extra special super duper shout out goes out to those brave souls who keep coming back to the place even after they've had a look around.  Hopefully, we'll get to 200,000 a whole lot faster.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Escape Plan

Directed by Mikael Hafstrom.
2013. Rated R, 115 minutes.
Cast:
Sylvester Stallone
Arnold Schwarzenegger
Jim Caviezel
Faran Tahir
Vincent D'Onofrio
Amy Ryan
Vinnie Jones
Sam Neill
Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson
Caitriona Balfe

We meet Ray Breslin (Stallone) just in time to see him escape from a maximum security prison. Then we find out that this is his job. He runs a company that literally puts max security institutions to the test. The people who run these places hire him to go inside undercover as a prisoner and try to break out. He always does. It's made him a legend in "the industry." Yeah, apparently there is an industry and he is a legend in it. Um, yeah. It's an industry built on a pretty poor business model, if you ask me. Our boy Ray has three other employees, but none of them ever go inside even though jobs take months, maybe even a year to complete. On top of that, its dependent of the institutions that hire him, presumably all part of the public sector, having to come up with a couple million bucks to pay him. Since this is a movie, I suppose we have to let all that slide. Anyhoo, the CIA soon comes calling with an extra special job for our hero. They want him to break out of a place that's not only maximum security, but so "top secret" that they won't even tell him where it is. The inmates there are so dangerous none of them has been afforded due process. Various governments from around the world just snatched them off the streets and shipped them here. These guys are not allowed any contact with the outside world whatsoever. Ray will be treated accordingly.

As action flick set-ups go, this one is totally ludicrous, but interesting. Once we hear what this job entails, our wheels immediately start turning. Where could they be taking him? How is his team going to help him? Lastly, with such bad guys around, will Ray even survive long enough to try an escape? Okay, we know the answer to that last one. Still, we ask the question. That's good. It helps us get engaged in the movie. This isn't The Godfather, or anything, but we're interested. It helps tremendously that throughout the movie, the story manages to maintain a sense of impossibility to the task at hand. We really do feel for our hero when he finds out where he is.


Another thing that helps keep us entertained is Sly's larger than life co-star, Arnold Schwarzenegger. While never known as a great thespian, Arnie's been a movie star for most of my life. For those of us who grew up during the 80s and 90s, having him in a movie with Stallone is something we clamored for, but never thought we would actually see. That it comes all these years later adds to the film's charm. Back then, the debate among action lovin' boys was over which was better. If you argued in Schwarzenegger's favor, you certainly weren't celebrating his acting skills. So, what is it about him that made him such a huge star? There were plenty of other big brawny dudes out there saving the world. What sets him apart is his amazing screen presence. It is on full display in Escape Plan. He simply dominates the screen, no matter who else is on it, Stallone included. He's also completely comfortable in his own skin, nowadays, which has made him a better actor. He says everything with a hint of humor and understands that's how it should be. He delivers one of those bound to be underappreciated performances. I really enjoyed him here, but I know people will dismiss his work because of who he is.

As the movie goes on, however, it gets mired in action flick cliches. Of course, there's an evil warden, rival factions, and money-grubbin' turncoats. All of them go through pretty standard storylines. There is alos the predictable hand wringing of Sly's cohorts as they work feverishly from the outside to help their boss. By working feverishly, I mean verbally accosting the one person we know is guilty, over and over again. This portion of film includes a bland performance by Amy Ryan and a poor one from 50 Cent. What's worse is that as clear as it is what's going on just based on the events occurring, someone will always be along to explain it to you. Additionally, there's the problem of trying to make a bunch of guys labeled as the most dangerous in the world into a lovable band of misfits. We're told repeatedly how bad these people were in the outside world, therefore, it's hard to build up much sympathy for them.

Overall, Escape Plan is fun as it plucks along. The action, while not exceptionally frequent, works. Among the treats is the long awaited fight scene between Arnie and Sly. It's at least twenty-five years late, but I'll take it. Kudos to Stallone, by the way, for looking less like a botox monster than he has recently. He performs exactly like we'd expect so no surprises, there. The rest of the cast? A number of the performances are hammy, but work within the framework of the movie. Plus, Schwarzenegger is a blast to watch. On the downside, it wastes the good will it builds early in the picture by failing to escape genre restrictions.


MY SCORE: 5.5/10

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Dallas Buyers Club

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee.
2013. Rated R, 117 minutes.
Cast:
Matthew McConaughey
Jared Leto
Jennifer Garner
Denis O'Hare
Steve Zahn
Kevin Rankin
Michael O'Neill
Dallas Roberts
Griffin Dunne
Deneen Tyler

Our saga starts in Dallas, Texas in 1985. Back then, AIDS was still thought of as something that affected primarily, exclusively by some, homosexual men. So of course, shock and disbelief are the first emotions felt by Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) when he is told he has acquired the disease and will probably die within the next thirty days. After all, he's a hard drinkin', coke sniffin', rodeo ridin' cowboy/electrician that strictly into women. Two at a time, if he can get them. It doesn't help that the gay community was openly frowned upon, more likely to be attacked than welcomed into a bar where straight folks hung out. Therefore, it's no surprise that once Ron's friends learn of his plight they ostracize him. He can't even hold onto his job. However, he's an enterprising sort. Despite it not yet being approved by the FDA, he manages to get his hands on the AIDS treatment drug AZT while it is in its developmental stages. When that doesn't work, he finds himself in Mexico where a shady doctor has prescribed him a cocktail of vitamins and drugs from other countries. When that works, keeping him alive well beyond thirty days, he enters into business with the doctor and begins smuggling these things into the U.S. and selling them in Dallas. As his local business partner, he surprisingly takes on Rayon (Leto), an openly gay man who also has AIDS and is hoping to save enough for a sex change. Less surprisingly, he also takes a liking to Eve, the doctor who cared for him when he was first diagnosed. Eventually, Ron takes the FDA head-on about their practices and which medicines should and should not be approved. This is based on a true story.

A lot has been made of the acting in this movie. Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto took home Oscar gold for their roles. I won't begrudge either of them as they both performed excellently. McConaughey's physical transformation is nothing short of startling. He really does appear to be withering away. More than that, he fully embodies the character. Woodroof's backward views, as they are shown here, come spilling out of him even when he isn't saying anything. That isn't often, because he says a lot and never bites his tongue. He's also a guy with a quick temper. More than any of that, he's a survivor. We feel his hustler's spirit as he does whatever is necessary to go on living. On the other hand, Rayon is trying to survive, but he has some quit in him. He needs Ron to push him and make him continue fighting. It's a battle that bonds the two even as it constantly wages. Leto completely disappears within the character. For my money, he is by far the most sympathetic figure in the movie.


The fact that I feel more for Rayon than for Ron is where my problems with this film begin. I don't like Ron. Truth told, I don't have to like the protagonist to like the movie. In this case, however, the movie is kind of dependent on the viewer getting in his corner and rooting for him because he's become such a great guy. That's hardly the case, at least the way its depicted here. He's a guy who acquired a disease and exploited other people with the same affliction for profit. At no point, do I feel like his mindset has changed. Therefore, his actions and the end don't quite match up with the man he seems to still be. He still appears to be homophobic, a bit racist, and all greed even as his cause eventually takes on a magnanimous tone. Sure, he cares for Rayon, even takes up for him in public in occasion. However, it doesn't feel like he's changing his attitudes towards gays, but that this is his one gay friend. It feels much the same as a white racist not understanding he can be called such when he has one black friend. By the time his battle with the FDA escalates it feels more to me like a guy trying to keep himself both alive and out of jail rather than a man that is working for the good of the people.

Because of my issues with Ron, Dallas Buyers Club is a very uneven watch for me. On the one hand, I have to marvel at the performances turned by McConaughey and Leto. Both men turn in amazing work. From a technical standpoint, many other things work well, too. The movie has a great look to it, and the tone is spot-on with what's going on. Still, I can't equate what this man accomplished with heroism the way the movie wants me to. Did he do some good things? Sure. It would be foolish to say that he didn't or that they weren't impactful. They were. The fact they were helpful to many people seems to be something that happened to come along with the fulfillment of his own selfishness than any truly altruistic intentions. At making me believe otherwise, the movie fails. To be fair, the movie does an excellent job of painting the FDA in a negative light. Their greed is also readily apparent. I just didn't see what Ron was doing as entirely different. What it all boils down to is that while I recognize a number of good things going on, including the simple fact that what happened is important, the film as a whole doesn't connect with me.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Blue is the Warmest Color

Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche.
2013. Rated NC-17, 179 minutes.
Cast:
Adele Exarchopoulos
Lea Seydoux
Salim Kechiouche
Aurelien Recoing
Catherine Salee
Benjamin Siksou
Mona Walravens
Alma Jodorowsky
Anne Loiret
Benoit Pilot

Adele (Exarchopoulos) is your typical high school student. She seems to be a fringe member of the in-crowd. this isn't some all-powerful elite crew like in movies for teenagers. It's just a group of girls who seem like they're the cool kids. They hang out together at school, talk a lot about their sex lives and exert a bit of peer pressure on each other about it. So when they tell her that a cute guy has a crush on her, the news comes with advice on how she should handle the stiuation. She pursues him and sure enough, winds up in bed with him. In the immediate aftermath, we see that something's amiss. She seems conflicted about the event. Her issue isn't whether or not she should've done such a thing. We can presume she was not a virgin before this. It appears she's not sure she really enjoyed it and doesn't know why.

Things would soon change. Adele decides to hang out with a gay male friend from school. He takes her to a nightclub full of guys where she stays for a while. Eventually, she wanders off on her own and finds herself in a lesbian bar. There she meets the blue-haired Emma (Seydoux), a budding artist and college student. The two hit it off right away. Emma pursues our heroine and before you know it, the two are in a committed relationship. We follow them for an unspecified number of years, well into Adele's adult life.

One thing that sets this apart from other movies about same sex relationships is that that is not the focus of the narrative. Early on, there is some hesitance on Adele's part as she comes to grips with her sexuality and a bit of cruelty suffered at the hands of her school friends when they only suspect she's a lesbian. However, that passes quickly. For the rest of the film we focus on fairly universal themes. Adele struggles with her place in Emma's life as Emma advances in her career as an artist, has friends more sophisticated than her, and an uncomfortably chummy relationship with an ex. She fears being left behind as Emma outgrows her. At times, she also feels neglected. On the opposite side of the coin, Emma is driven, climbing the ladder of success, and proud to have Adele in her corner. Unfortunately, she's somewhat oblivious to Adele's concerns. Adele hasn't verbally communicated her feelings and Emma hasn't picked up on them. Both Exarchopoulos and Seydoux give wonderful performances conveying their characters' emotions and motivations.


Normally, watching a three hour movie has me looking for things that should've been cut. I'm speaking to you, Peter Jackson. In this case, I actually found places where things could be added. Most important of these is finding out how Adele's parents feel about her relationship. I've already mentioned that the fact the couple in question is a lesbian one is not the movie's main focus. However, judging by the reaction of Adele's friends, the climate toward homosexuals isn't completely friendly, either. This is confirmed by the fact that Adele hides the fact that she is in a lesbian relationship when she introduces Emma to her parents. She presents it as a platonic friendship between two straight girls. Following this scene, her mom and dad just disappear from the movie. I'm not saying they have to disapprove of their daughter's lifestyle to create some massively melodramatic scene, but they should at least have knowledge of it and acknowledge it in some way. Without their input, there seems to be a gaping hole in the narrative of Adele's life. This is especially true when, just a short while later, we're shown that she has moved in with Emma. We're left to assume her parents are still in the dark about her relationship. This doesn't seem logical unless it were something that was expressly communicated to the viewer.

Delving into the parents' feelings may have placed more emphasis on the fact that our lovebirds are of the same sex than what was wanted. However, that is clearly the visual focus of the film. There are a number of sex scenes and they are almost all lengthy and graphic. It gets dangerously close to all out porn, if it isn't already that. It's hard to believe we aren't seeing actual sex. The way these scenes are shot, I wonder how it's possible that they are not doing what it looks like they are. Even during the one hetero sex scene we're shown something not seen in American movies outside of the adult industry: an erection. Cinematically, if there is a place to shave the runtime, it is here. Most of these scenes can be cut in half, if not reduced by two-thirds and change absolutely nothing about the movie. Of course, my inner-pig won't let me actually suggest that, so deal with it.

When the closing credits roll, we realize we might not be at the end. Ignoring the obvious, that we're told this is chapter one of two, the film concludes in such a way that suggests there could be more. I say could because if this were to be a standalone film then it functions as a fully self-contained unit. We've ridden the roller coaster of a relationship and come to a satisfactory finish. On the other hand, we can see there is possibly lots more to tell. What closes the movie could be interpreted as the chance for a new beginning, or at least a restart. We enjoy the ride we've had up until now and hope there is more to come.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Happy Father's Day, 2014


I just wanted to wish a Happy Father's Day to all of my fellow dads. I hope you get to enjoy it however you wish.

Since I've been doing this blog, I have reviewed a movie or two, or more on the joys of fatherhood, or something to that effect.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Battle of the Year

Directed by Benson Lee.
2013. Rated PG-13, 110 minutes.
Cast:
Josh Holloway
Laz Alonso
Chris Brown
Josh Peck
Ivan "Flipz" Velez
Jon "Do Knock" Cruz
Jesse "Casper" Brown
Sawandi Wilson
Richard Maguire
Caity Lotz

I love the women in my life. My wife is still the apple of my eye. My two daughters take turns wrapping me around their fingers. It only makes sense that I would say yes and plop my ass on the couch when begged asked to watch Battle of the Year with them. This is pretty much how I've seen every dance movie they could get their hands on over the last decade. Will I ever learn? Probably not.

So what's going on with this one?

Glad you asked. It's like this:

Every year, Paris hosts "Battle of the Year." It's an international b-boying competition, or break dancing contest forthe unhip, featuring teams from around the globe. A team representing the good o'l U.S. of A. has not won in a dozen years. Dante (Alonso), the super rich multi-media mogul who sponsors the team, decides its time to shake things up. He reaches out to Jason (Holloway), one of his old homies from around the way, to coach this year's squad. Jason is not super rich or a multi-media mogul. He's a reclusive drunk whose been drowning his sorrows in a bottle ever since his wife and son died in a car wreck. He reluctantly takes the job on the condition that he be allowed to do it "his way." Dancing and arguing ensues.

Why the arguing?

It's simple, really. When Jason shakes things up, he really shakes things up. After one look at last year's team, he kicks them all to the curb and decides to hold a mass audition. Once he's picked  the best twenty-something dancers, he takes them to what looks like an abandoned college dormitory from fifty years ago where he works the dog crap out of them in the name of molding them into a team. Of course, there's a catch. There are nine weeks left until "Battle of the Year." Each week, our drunken dance coach will send one of the boys packing.

Hmm...where have I heard of such a format before?

Oh yeah, every reality TV competition ever.


Okay, boys and girls. It's time to run down the sports dance movie movie checklist!

Drunken coach? Check. We covered this.

Overbearing team owner? Check. Literally in the very next scene after agreeing to let Jason coach "his way," Dante starts bitching about how Jason is coaching. Asshole.

Supremely talented, but selfish superstar? Check. This guy is played by Chris Brown, a real life supremely talented, but selfish superstar. Seriously, of all the celebrities, he's the most perplexing to me. The dude is a great, I mean a GREAT dancer, and an aiight singer. On the other hand, what I know of him as a person screams spoiled brat that I would not want to be in the same room with. Hey, that's exactly like his character! Should be easy playing a version of yourself, right? Well, Chris Brown is a great, I mean GREAT dancer.

Game-changing injury to said superstar? I would say check, but I don't want to spoil anything.

Lots of in-fighting while our boys grow as a team? Check. Basically, it's like one of those "Real Housewives" show with less hair and makeup. Just to ensure that's the case we get enough different types together. We already mentioned the superstar. There's also his rival from the neighborhood. Then we have the gay dude, the guy who hates gay dudes, and so on.


Awe inspiring sports dance scenes? Check. This is the one thing Battle of the Year has going for it. Literally. the dance scenes are kinetic and acrobatic. They're fun to watch even though it appears the frame rate has been sped up for these. Or, do I mean slowed down? I forget how that works. Whatever. The moves look too fast.

Wait...what am I doing? Praising something about this movie? Let's get back to our regularly scheduled program. Let's talk about the acting. It's not universally bad, but the people asked to do the most acting are just not good. Exempting Chris Brown from the conversation, let's move on to the others. The rest of the dancers were as bad as Mr. Brown or worse. Laz Alonso was pretty good, but continuing to speak about that doesn't fit my movie bashing agenda so let's move on to Josh Holloway. He's that odd kind of bad. He's really into it, and is arguably a better actor than anyone else in the cast. The problem is he's so miscast I don't believe a single word out of his mouth. There is no way I can roll with the idea that this guy was a former b-boy with legendary battle wins under his belt. I'm guessing Channing Tatum, or Columbus Short were both busy...or got a look at the script and chose wisely. I wish I had.

Damn family.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Thursday, June 12, 2014

R.I.P. Ruby Dee

October 27, 1922 - June 12, 2014

Another great has left us. The great Ruby Dee has passed today. If youngsters knew her, they did so as the widow of Ossie Davis, or that old lady from that movie. If her passing accomplishes anything, it will be to teach people that she was so much more than that. Sure, she was an actress with a great number of roles under her belt. Most notably, she received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her work in 1961's A Raisin in the Sun. Ms. Dee would get nominated for the same award in 2007 for her role in American Gangster. She didn't win that award, but did take home a number of honors through the years. She won an Emmy, a Screen Actors' Guild Award, and an Obie.

Aside from acting, she was also a poet, playwright, screenwriter, journalist, and most importantly, an activist. She even won a Grammy in 2007 for Best Spoken Word Album. During the 1960s, Ruby Dee and husband Ossie Davis were on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement. In fact, they had a vantage point very few did because they were good friends with both Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. They participated in marches. Dee herself emceed on occasion. She was truly a legend and will be missed.


Pointless List: Greatest Rappers Turned Actors


Yesterday, we talked about the movie depicted above, New Jack City. That means it's a perfect time to speak about just how far rappers have come on the big (and small) screen. New Jack was one of the first movies to feature a rapper in a prominent role that wasn't him/herself. In the time since, they've become a persistent, if not always consistent, part of Hollywood. For me, these are the best actors of all time...who started as emcees.

10. Eve
Best Movie Performance: as Terri in The Barbershop franchise
The self-proclaimed “pit bull in a skirt” proved she could hang with the fellas with two really good performances in the Barbershop movies. She parlayed that into a fairly successful sitcom, the simply titled Eve. From there, she ventured into more dramatic fare and was widely praised for work in the unsettling Kevin Bacon vehicle The Woodsman. Since then she's done some TV and small indie films. I hope she gets better acting opportunities because I think she really is a talented actress.


9. Ludacris
Best Movie Performance: as Skinny Black in Hustle & Flow
It's probably a little hypocritical of me to put a guy on the list whose best performance is playing a rapper. But he was genuinely good as Skinny Black in Hustle & Flow.  He was also solid in Best Pic Winner Crash. The real reason he's here, though, is because he has carved out a very nice career for himself, including as a vital member of the ensemble for the Fast and Furious franchise.


8. Ice-T
Best Movie Performance: as Jack Mason in Surviving the Game
Ice seems to have been around forever. He was an unknown rapper who landed a part playing himself, but only rapping not speaking, in 1984’s Breakin’ (and it’s sequel). He had some musical success locally in LA but it was still a few years until he had a national hit. It was a few more years until he got back onto the big screen. This time, he had a major role in 1991’s New Jack City. He gets lots of points for being a pioneer in this Hip Hop to Hollywood game. Even though, I can’t recall ever thinking he was a really good actor, he’s been reliable and perhaps more importantly he had a period where he was really bankable. His early movies made money. Whenever he guest-starred on TV’s New York Undercover the ratings shot through the roof. He's since become a solid performer in smaller roles and has settled in as a regular on Law & Order: SVU.


7. LL Cool J
Best Movie Performance: as God in In Too Deep
Like Ice-T, LL has been at this acting thing for quite a while now. In fact, the two share a really similar career arc. LL started with a cameo as himself way back when in 1985’s hood classic Krush Groove He would do the same the following year in the Goldie Hawn football movie Wildcats. He was one of the first rappers to star in his own sitcom, In the House, which had a solid 5 year run. His turn as a big time gangsta who called himself God opposite Omar Epps in In Too Deep is perfect. This is especially praise-worthy since LL’s always been more of a lover than a bad guy. He has charm, charisma and a presence few can match and none can deny. None other than famed film critic Roger Ebert has commended him on this. Honestly though, if he had, or starts, picking better movie projects he’d be near the top of this list.


6. Ice Cube
Best Movie Performance: as Doughboy in Boyz N the Hood
Honestly, since his winning debut in Boyz N the Hood, Cube hasn't been anywhere near as good. However, that hasn't stopped him from becoming one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars. With rare exceptions, his movies make money…lots of money. He’s simply a force to be reckoned with at the box office. As a rapper, he helped create gangsta-rap and has been involved with arguably three of the best albums the genre has ever seen, Straight Outta Compton as a member of NWA and Amerikkka’s Most Wanted and Death Certificate as a solo artist. Therefore, it feels kind of strange to say that he’s one of the most profitable comedic actors in the world, but it’s true. As proof, he’s the face of three highly lucrative comedy movie franchises: Friday, Barbershop, and Are We There/Done Yet?. That doesn't even count him having a major role in the Jump Street movies. Earlier this year, his buddy cop movie Ride Along, co-starring Kevin Hart, was a huge financial success. Love his movies or hate them, he gets it done where it counts, at the box office.


5. Tupac Shakur
Best Movie Performance: as Bishop in Juice
Tupac was less a person than a pure force of nature. It was impossible to take your eyes off him. His immense presence combined with an ability to be completely sincere no matter what he was saying led to some powerful performances. His turn as Bishop in Juice is wonderfully twisted. It has become legendary among hood-movie connoisseurs. As Lucky in Poetic Justice he was perfectly standoffish, yet vulnerable. He was even more vulnerable and all around flawless in Gridlock’d. Though I rate Juice as his best performance, I’d have to call this #1A. His fervent fans will tell me he should be #1. Talent-wise, it’s definitely arguable that he should be. Sadly, the brevity of his life and career kept him from giving us anything more than the few gems he left us with and from being even higher on this list.


4. Mos Def
Best Movie Performance: as Vivien Thomas in Something the Lord Made
Mos Def is one of the most underrated actors working today. He has a list of credits that’s not only as long as my arm but it hits nearly every demographic and goes back over two decades, starting with a role in TV’s God Bless the Child in 1988. He’s done just about every genre you can think of: action (16 Blocks, The Italian Job), comedy (Be Kind Rewind, Next Day Air), Sci-Fi (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), drama (The Woodsman, Monster’s Ball), voiceover (The Boondocks)…he’s done it all. No matter what he’s been asked to do, he’s excelled. In 2005, he was a Golden Globe nominee for his work in the HBO movie Something the Lord Made.


3. Queen Latifah
Best Movie Performance: as Cleo in Set it Off
The Queen is on my short list of most important rappers of all time. However, that has as much to do with what she’s done outside of rap as it does actually rapping. Her career as a thespian started with a brief yet powerful tirade against Wesley Snipes’ character in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever. From there, she had a few bit parts in TV and movies until she landed the part of Cleo in Set it Off. She gave a phenomenal performance. It’s a character that’s as far removed from her carefully crafted public persona as possible, yet she’s effortlessly believable. She hasn’t stopped working as an actress since, except by choice. She’s had a successful sitcom, Living Single. She’s been in some major money-makers (like Chicago and the Ice Age movies), some low-budget but well received fare (like Beauty Shop, Stranger Than Fiction, and The Secret Life of Bees), and everything in between. In 2003, she received an Oscar nomination for her work in Chicago In 2006, she became the first rapper to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In ’08, she won a Golden Globe and earned an Emmy nomination for her role in TV’s Life Support.



2. Mark Wahlberg
Best Movie Performance: as Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights
A former Calvin Klein underwear model with six pack abs, a brother that made it big with New Kids on the Block (Donnie, a fine actor in his own right) and a catchy rap song (the hugely successful "Good Vibrations"), Marky Mark was tailor made for the MTV crowd. He parlayed that into a cameo as himself in TV’s The Substitute and then into a role in the Danny DeVito vehicle Renaissance Man. He was widely praised for his work in Boogie Nights. I'll forever maintain that he should have gotten an Oscar nomination for this role. Though he himself didn't get one, the movie was nominated for 3 Oscars. He did make big money with that movie as well as a number of others. Most notably, The Big Hit, Three Kings, The Perfect Storm,The Italian Job, and 2 Guns. 2006’s The Departed finally earned him that Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actor. He also received critical acclaim for his fantastic work as real life boxer Micky Ward in 2011's The Fighter.



1. Will Smith
Best Movie Performance: as Chris Gardner in The Pursuit of Happyness
This guy’s success at whatever he’s tried is nothing short of phenomenal. As the rapping part of the duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, he won the first ever Grammy for Best Rap Album. He took the Fresh Prince persona to the small screen and starred in the hugely successful sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. It was the first and still by far, the most successful sitcom any rapper has ever starred in. While there, he honed his acting skills and received critical acclaim with his role in 1993’s Six Degrees of Separation. Since then, he’s become nothing short of the biggest movie star in the world. The list of his movies that reached #1 at the box office seems endless and growing. He’s starred in 14 movies that have grossed over $200 million worldwide, 10 of them made over $300 million. Five of them, Independence Day, Men in Black, I Am Legend, Hancock, and Men in Black 3 have made over $500 million. He's the only actor to have eight consecutive movies gross better than $100 million here in the U.S and ten straight pull in at least $150 million worldwide. That's not the only rapper/actor, the only actor, period. However, he’s managed to have some substance with all that style. He’s twice been nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars, for 2001’s Ali and 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness.


As always, feel free to let me know who I've left out.