Monthly Roundup & Favorite Film of March 2014

March2014Recap

Welcome to April everybody! I finally got my flip-flops out yesterday for the first time in … well I can’t even remember! Temperature actually reached 60˚F on Sunday! I saw a bunch of people in shorts either jogging or on their bikes. It’s just a tease though as we’ll be back in the 30s again tomorrow, complete with SNOW! 😦  Thank goodness blogging is something I can do indoor or there’d be only like two posts a month, ahah.

Now, before I get to the recap, I just want to make a small but significant announcement:

APRIL FOOOOOOLS!

This past weekend I rewatched The Notebook again (in tandem with Drive) and now I’ve fallen madly in love with Ryan Gosling! YES I know, I know, better late than never right? I felt like I have been missing out that I have not blogged about the oh-so-hunky & massively talented movie star. So to make up for lost time, I will be dedicating the entire month of April to Ryan Gosling and his films. I even made a special header to commemorate this special occasion!

Ahah sorry to those who fell for my April Fools prank, I wanted to do something cheeky and my hubby helped me come up with the idea. So don’t expect me blogging about Gosling anytime soon. No hard feelings ok, friends? 😉


Ok now that we’ve got that out of the way… here are some posts from March you might’ve missed:

Lots of Blogathons I participated this month, here are three I participated in:

New Releases:

Rental:

Rewatches:

March Blindspot Film: All The President’s Men (1976)

Favorite Movie Seen in March 2014:

FaveMarchMovie_CapAmerica2I happen to enjoy the first Captain America movie, even more so every time I watched it. Yet this one managed to surpass it. The conspiracy theme they promised us definitely delivered, and Chris Evans is much more comfortable in the role and he absolutely rocked it. Review coming later this week!


What I’m looking forward to in April:

mspiff2014_smallbold

Just got my Press Pass yesterday so I’ll be posting which films I’ll be seeing. Stay tuned!


So, what movies did you get to see in March and which one is your favorite?

Superlative Casts Wasted In Mediocre Films – In the Valley of Ellah, The Ides of March & Margin Call

jackdethbanner

Greetings all and sundry!

Between bouts of less than strenuous snow shoveling. I’ve taken refuge within the recent fare of The Sundance and Sony Channels. To acclimate myself with some interesting contemporary offerings. And maintain a sense of loyalty to Julian of Dirty With Class. And his suggestion that I sometime stray from my comfort zone of earlier Classic Films.

To that end, I have plunged deep into titles that tickled my interest as their trailers and ads when first unleashed on the populous. Either for their visuals, tightly compressed and less than two minute story lines. Or their casts. Which, surprisingly in hindsight appeared and delivered far beyond the parameters of their assigned tales.

Allow me to introduce …

Superlative Casts Wasted In Mediocre Films

Chronologically first in line is this odd little offering from Paul Haggis and “Based on actual events” of the early Iraq War.

In The Valley of Elah: (2007) – Sundance Channel

InTheValleyOfElahPoster

Whose central plot device focuses upon returning G.I. Specialist Mike “Doc” Deerfield (Jonathan Tucker). And his strange and grisly death after suddenly going AWOL after a few weeks stateside.

Enter Mike parents, Army veteran and retired Army Intel Sergeant, Hank (Tommy Lee Jones). And his stoic wife, Joan (Susan Sarandon), who has already lost one son to a helicopter crash during a Ranger training exercise..

Being the concerned father, Hank travels to his son’s home station. Starts asking questions while hitting the first defensive line of an Army stonewall. And doesn’t buy the less than orderly goings on of the Army investigation for a minute. In retribution, hank takes a look at his son’s barracks room and finds Mike’s smart phone. Hoping it may have something hidden within its high tech innards.

InTheValleyOfElah_Jones_Sarandon

Frustrated, Hank has a discussion with Joan, who channels her inner June Lockhart from the 1960’s CBS fci-fi series, Lost In Space. And sends Hank out to find some help from the local police. On the way, Hank drops Mike’s phone at a local computer shop and asks the resident nerd or geek to run a complete diagnostic and dredge up what he can.

At the police station, Hank sees Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) deep in discussion with the distraught wife of a returned G.I.. Who had drowned the family’s pet dog in the bathtub while her husband had his son watch. Detective Sanders takes the report, but there is nothing she or the police can do. And there’s even less Sanders and the cops can do regarding an AWOL soldier. Not her problem. Not her jurisdiction.

Until a few days later and a crime scene pops up with a burned and dismembered body in the middle of nowhere. The local P.D. is more than happy to lateral the scene and crime over to the Army. Since the scene is on the outskirts if the military reservation, Fort Huachuca, Arizona.

InTheValleyOfElah_Theron

Hank wants to stick his nose in, but the Military Police have little time and no use for a long retired brother in arms. Angered, Hank starts playing with his son’s phone. Which had suffered heat and fire damage. And its stored videos are garbled, but show images of G.I. interrogating and later, torturing Iraqi soldiers.

Hank get a call from the base and an officer takes Hank out to the crime scene. And later the morgue. Where Jason Patric‘s Lt. Kirklander starts asking questions about Mike’s possible involvement in drugs. Nudging the possibility that a cross border gang may be responsible. Since a glass pipe was found under Mike’s mattress.

Hank and Sanders return to the crime scene and determine that Mike was brutally killed and immolated elsewhere and deliberately dumped between battling civilian and military jurisdictions…

I’ll leave it right here for Spoilers’ sake.

Overall Consensus:

Paul Haggis is a well respected, revered and feted screenwriter. Attached to many award winning films. And that said. He should stick to what he knows and does best!

His direction of this first of a small number of “Anti-War” films is parochial at best. He knows how to set and stage scenes. And arranges and choreographs whatever action scenes there are in a copy book or primer fashion. No scene leaps out memorably. Though, Mr. Haggis claims credit for the film’s adaptation and screenplay.Even when Tommy Lee Jones’ Hank near weepingly informs his wife that their youngest son is dead.

InTheValleyOfElah_Sarandon

Susan Sarandon does anger and the sudden bereaved mother well. But Carol Burnett did it better in the made for TV movie, Friendly Fire in 1979. Cinematography by Roger Deakins is serviceable. And a bit clever with New Mexico outlands and Morocco substituting for Arizona and Iraq, respectively. And polished by editing by Jo Francis.

Also not a fan of the heavy-handed, Boogeyman treatment ladled onto Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Something that little is known about, but quickly becomes the catch all for any tense or erratic behavior beyond what is considered the “norm”.

Which takes into the sometimes murky world of politics. In an adaptation of the play, Farragut North. Originally written by Beau Willmon, who shares screenwriting credit with the film’s director, George Clooney and Grant Heslov.

The Ides of March: (2011) – Sony Channel

IdesOfMarchPoster

Which boasts Ryan Gosling as junior political campaign manager, Stephen Meyers. Attached to the Presidential campaign of Pennsylvania Governor, Mike Morris (D), (George Clooney. Who’s not afraid to occasionally throw his weight around). Tied up in a slowly tightening race against fellow Democrat and Arkansas Governor, Ted Pullman (Michael Mantell).

Both candidates have connections and money to burn. But need the endorsement of North Carolina Governor, Franklin Thompson (Slippery Jeffrey Wright), who controls 356 convention delegates.

Now that the primary characters have been noted. The meat of this tale hangs mostly upon and is brought to the fore by secondary players. Specifically, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti, in fine form!) as Tom Pullman’s manager, front man and perhaps, bag man? Who meets with Meyers in private and delivers Meyers to a sit down with Duffy’s boss. Media and message specialist, Paul Zaza, (Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Laconically used to his power and rarely raises his voice.). Who is intrigued by Meyers and is in search for a new Padawan to mentor and teach the ropes and ins and outs to.

IdesOfMarch_RachelWood

Meyers and Duffy talk. And Duffy offers Meyers a position on the Pullman campaign. Which Meyers turns down in an effort to curry favor with his new girlfriend, Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood). Young. Idealistic. And utterly naive and out of her depth in her desire to be part of “An honest campaign, where integrity matters”.

Molly is an intern with the Morris campaign and is also the daughter of former Senator Jack Stearns (Gregory Itzin) and Chairman of the Democrat National Committee.

Meyers is bounced around as offers of Sec State are made to Morris by Duffy through Pullman. Counter offers are made in return by Zaza. Just to the the juggled balls even and airborne and Thompkins’ delegates in the mix as major leverage.

No one is playing well with the other. All anxious to hold onto whatever favorable numbers are in the polls. Meyers tries calling Molly to no avail. So Meyers begins poking around where he shouldn’t. Back to Iowa and a stopover shared by Molly and Morris. Molly is pregnant by Morris. Meyers pays bag man and delivers money to Molly for an abortion. Meyers fires Molly from the campaign with orders for her to keep quiet.

IdesOfMarch_Clooney

A New York Times reporter, Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei) braces Meyers with what she knows about Meyers’ meeting with Duffy. And wants more. Threatening to publish what she knows unless Meyers wants to help himself. Confronted with a leak. And Molly’s sudden overdosing. Meyers decides to take on Morris. Who has just enough information and gossip to implicate Meyers in Molly’s death. And cuts Meyers off at the knees while being handed his walking papers.

Seeking revenge, Meyers talks to Duffy, who wants nothing to do with Meyers’ rogue, duplicitous activities. Paul Zaza is even less friendly. Filling Meyers in on his personal beliefs in loyalty. And Meyers coming up far short. Admitting to Meyers that he leak that sent The New York Times after him. And not really caring. Because Meyers doesn’t have what it takes for full contact politics.

I’ll not violate the Prime Directive regarding Spoilers and pull over right now.

Overall Consensus:

Having followed the rough and tumble of politics inside and just outside Washington, DC for forty plus years. And crediting everything I know about how Democrats play the game to the late, great political novelist, Ross Thomas. I just didn’t buy the premise of the entire film.

Never doubting for a moment that Mr. Clooney’s Mike Morris would win the nomination. Basically due to his hair and good looks. I also expect something more imaginative than long telegraphed twists and standard plot devices.

That said, the battle is fought exceptionally well in the trenches by Mr.Giamatti’s and Philip Seymour Hoffman. And their characters who exude worldly weariness over the daily give and take. Addicted to the give and take of power, while doing everything they can to protect their candidates. To these men, it’s a job. Which becomes a career over time. With wins and losses. As long as the wins outnumber the losses. To Ryan Gosling‘s Stephen Meyers. It’s an adrenaline charged rush. That requires, and later demands recognition.

IdesOfMarch_Clooney_Hoffman

It might also help to use locations in Pennsylvania to help tell and sell the tale of a Pennsylvania Governor’s desires to rise in political ascension. Instead of major and outlying cities in Ohio and Michigan!

Cinematography by Phedon Papamichael is noteworthy in using these sometimes cramped and uncredited locales to add a touch of damp, dour, cold, dingy winter weather to buttress a rather tame, pedestrian.story.

Which glides us to the final installment in independent story telling. Orbiting slowly and re entering in stock market crash of 2007 and its near fatal effect on Goldman~Sachs and other Wall Street firms.

Margin Call: (2011) – Sundance Channel

MarginCallPoster

Which opens to the noise, clamor, hustle and bustle of another day’s trading on the floor. Though, something new is added. Expensively suited supervisors taking busy traders aside and handing them their pink slips. With whispers to not clear their desks or offices. Just leave!

Watched in slack jawed and stunned awe by Junior risk assessment analyst, Seth Bergman (Penn Badgley). Senior Trader, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) and Trading Desk Supervisor, Will Emerson (Paul Bettany). Something foul is afoot as traders are escorted out. Amongst them, Peter and Seth’s boss, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci). Master numbers cruncher. Head of risk management on the trading floor. And nearly unrecognizable in a few days’ stubble.

The three subordinates watch as Dale is led towards an elevator. Peter steps close and Dale manages to pass a USB Memory Stick. With the waning “Be Careful” as the elevator doors close, Peter plugs in the stick and starts stripping the mathematical algorithms. Discovering a whole submerged iceberg of useless and junk stocks, bonds and mortgage backed securities. Far exceeding projections from any time in the past. Or present.

MarginCall_Spacey

The exchange house is hemorrhaging money. And drastic measures are needed as department heads decide to burn the midnight oil. each wondering if their heads will be on the block. As Senior Risk Management Officer, Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore) starts going over the “Formula”‘s numbers and projections. Seth and peter call in Will Emerson. Who calls his higher up, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey solidly in touch with his inner Jack Lemmon).

The players make their entrances in whispered asides and brief encounters. As Will, Seth and Peter go to the skyscraper’s roof for a smoke or last bit of fresh air before the dawn. With Will trying to allay fears while not really knowing much of anything, himself. As a helicopter makes itself known before circling and landing on the upper, night lit helipad.

The first of several meetings is called. With Division head, Jared Cohen (Simon Baker, from L.A. Confidential and The Mentalist. Radiating smooth confidence in expensive attire) and Corporate CEO, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons. A veteran of past “hiccups” and anxious to find the limits of immediate damage). His opening soliloquy is equal parts familiarity with what may occur. And a desire for ideas. Any ideas which might help allay or soften the inevitable.

MarginCall_Irons

Ms. Robertson adds to the discussion with the news that “The Formula” is real and a worst case scenario will soon be at hand. While Sam responds to Tuld’s wanting a plan of action with a dawn to dusk sale of anything and everything. At least 40% sales on stocks and shares at 85 cents on the dollar by 11 o’clock. With recalls to brokerage houses throughout the day. Starting at 65 cents on the dollar afterward and continuously whittling down as excess ballast is dumped, But to what end?

Survival, of course. Creating what is sure to be a long, hard and full day ahead. As lower tier traders go seek privacy to cry or panic. And their bosses sweat out what can be retrieved or gained.

As the man with the plan, Eric Dale is sought out for whatever other input he might be able to add in regards to sales and options. Eric is at home. In his recently purchased and refurbished house in Brooklyn. And Will and Peter have their breakfasts interrupted. And are dispatched to find whatever the can. or bring him back.

In the interim, Ms. Robertson has a tete a tete with Jared over whom is going to be asked to fall on their sword and be a sacrificial lamb. Sarah is having no part of it. While Jared knows that she is. And will be. While Sam takes the just arrived floor traders asides and delivers not exactly a pep talk, but more of a plan of strategy.
Mentioning bonuses to individual and team of traders for achieving or exceeding their assigned quotas.

The morning bell clangs and the air is alive with calls out and the sales feeding frenzy begins. With Will laying on all his charms while giving away whacking great chunks of toxic stocks at slightly better than minimum loss. That will surely approaching maximum before the day is out.

Overall Consensus:

Here we have an instance of an A-List cast being used to less than their absolute potential. In a film whose dialogue could use one or two scenes of unbridled and angry scenery chewing. We have utter, serene, near glacial calm as the bottom is falling out of a touch stone brokerage house.

The cast does what it can to add suspense with inflection and decades of experience with the spoken word. Especially Kevin Spacey’s Sam. Who has too many years in. Wants out badly, but the present opportunity offers little in return. Sam does what he does, because he needs the money.

While Jeremy Irons knows the present situation is terrible. But survivable. The only real “third wheel” is Demi Moore‘s Sarah Robertson. Who approaches the requisite anger level for such a situation. Railing against the men over her coveted position, while being brushed aside at nearly every turn.

MarginCall_Tucci

Surprisingly, it’s Stanley Tucci who calmly, quietly underplays and subtly manages to steal then own every scene he’s in. His talk with Will on the steps of his Brooklyn home is a wonder to follow as explains hours and days of travel saved with a bridge he’s helped design between Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Direction by J.C. Chandor is adequate and mostly shot in one of Goldman’s deserted office towers. Though his screenplay could have stood a second review and possible re-write.

Personal Notes:

I don’t mind “Bad Cinema”. Some offerings are my favorite Guilty Pleasures. What I do mind are producers (And these films’ list of producers are all excessively long) putting their money on the line to assemble A-List and ‘Dream Team’ actors saddled with less-than-satisfactory projects under the reins of less than proven directors.


Check out Jack’s other posts and reviews


Agree? Disagree? Your comments are welcome!

FlixChatter [Guest] Review: Only God Forgives (2013)

TedSaydalavongBanner

OnlyGodForgivesPoster

Nicolas Winding Refn made a name for himself after directing 2011’s Drive, many thought that film should’ve been nominated for best picture at the Oscars. I really enjoyed it but I thought it’s more style-over-substance type of movie, so when Only God Forgives was announced as his next movie, I hoped it would actually be less style and more good storytelling. Unfortunately that was not the case, in fact OGF might be a prime example of a film that’s all style and not much substance.

The film begins with a scene at a Thai boxing arena, we’re first introduced to Julian (Ryan Gosling) and his brother Billy (Tom Burke). We then were shown that the boxing arena is actually a front for drug dealings runs by both Julian and Billy. Later Billy decided to go out and have some fun. He went to a local whore house and asked the pimp if he has any 14 year girls that he can have sex with. The pimp told him no and Billy went crazy and beat up him up. A few minutes later, Billy was able to find a young hooker on the street. The next scene we see cops are surrounding a hotel where Billy took the young hooker.

Here’s where we were introduced to Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), he’s some sort of a police chief and pretty much the judge, jury and executioner. As it turned out, Billy raped and murdered the young hooker. Chang surveyed the scene and then brought in the hooker’s father, he let the father go into the room and beats Billy to death. Then Chang lectured the father about letting his daughter have sex for money, the father begged for his forgiveness but Chang decided to punish him by chopping one of his arms off. Later on, Billy’s and Julian’s mom Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrived from the States. She wants revenge for her son’s death and orders a hit on everyone who was responsible for his death.

OnlyGodForgivesPics

There’s isn’t much story in this film, it’s basically a revenge flick that involves people killing one another. Refn seems to be more interested in showing moving images than actually telling a story. Here he mimic other filmmakers such as Kubrick, Lynch, Malick and his idol Alejandro Jodorowsky. In fact, he dedicated this film to Jodorowsky and the film kind of reminds me of Santa Sangre, Jodorowsky’s weird thriller that involves a mother and son. Many shots in the movie reminded me of Kubrick’s The Shining and Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Then there’s the visual and music which reminds me of Malick’s films. I think this was one of the few films I saw where the cameras hardly moved, Refn seems to be using many steady cam shots and have his actors do most of the moving around.

Performance-wise, I think the actors did as well as they could considering that the script had no plot whatsoever. Gosling hardly spoke throughout the film, all he did was either stare at the actors across from him or walking around looking somber. I’m not sure what Refn wanted out of that role. I’m curious as to how the character would’ve turned had Luke Evans starred in it, he had to back out because of scheduling conflicts with The Hobbit. Pansringarm’s Chang is some kind of god or higher power being, he walks around with dark clothes and no one can seem to hurt or kill him, my assumption is that the film’s title refers to him. I think the best performance belongs to Kristin Scott Thomas, she reminded me of Gary Oldman’s performance in Leon: The Professional. It’s way over the top performance but you somehow believe that kind of person do exist in real life.

OnlyGodForgives_KST

There’s been a lot of talk about the film’s violent content and yes it’s quite brutal. But not as bad some of the more extreme films such as Irreversible, Hostel or any of those torture porn flicks. Refn actually cut away some of the more violent scenes or he just didn’t show it. I’m actually glad he did that because I don’t think I can handle some of the more brutal scenes, like the rape of the young hooker, I hate rape scenes, I find them more disturbing and disgusting than seeing someone getting their head blown off. Now he did show some quite violent sequences, especially the scene where Chang tortured a guy who put out a hit on him, that was hard to watch.

Despite my not-so-enthusiastic review, I actually enjoyed this film. It has some great visual shots, Refn and his camera guy really did a good job of capturing the gritty look of Bangkok. There are some cool action sequences too, I really like the way Refn set up the scene where Chang and his men were ambushed by a bunch of thugs. But the highlight sequence for me was the much-advertised fight scene between Julian and Chang. Those expecting a big fight like other martial arts films will probably be disappointed, the fight actually ended pretty quickly. Since Chang is an experienced kick-boxer, he was able to kick the crap out of Julian easily. Thai actress/pop star Yayaying Rhatha Phongam, who’s apparently a big star in her native country, plays a call girl whom Julian is a frequent customer, but her role is not really significant in the film.

With a better script that focuses more on storytelling and characters development, this could’ve been a great crime thriller. I wanted to know more about Julian’s relationship with his mother, it sort of implied that she had sex with both of her sons, which is why both of them are so messed up. Then there’s Chang. Even though he’s written as this sort of higher being, I wanted to know more about him. If this was written by Quentin Tarantino, I think it would’ve been a great gangster flick. Even though I have a lot of complaints about this film, I really liked it and probably will see it again soon. Fans of Drive might be disappointed though but if you’re a fan of Kubrick, Malick or Lynch, you might like this film.


3 out of 5 reels


TedS_post


Thoughts on this film? Agree/disagree w/ this review? Well, let’s hear it!

FlixChatter Double Reviews: Gangster Squad

GangsterSquadPoster

Ted and I went to this film screening last Tuesday and once again we pretty much agree on our take on this one. Is it worth a watch? Well, read on.

Ted’s Review

Gangster Squad is a film that has big ambitions and it tried hard to be something more than it was. With a pretty good size budget ($75mil) and a solid cast, you’d think this could be a great period gangster film, unfortunately the people behind the cameras didn’t know what they were doing. The script is full of clichés from other better films, while the direction was all over the place.

The film starts out with a rogue LA detective John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) who is sick of crimes in his city and wants to clean it up. Being a WW2 veteran, he knows combat and will sacrifice himself to get rid of the bad guys. Unfortunately he’s a one man army going up against a ruthless mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) who’s trying to create his own empire in the west. O’Mara is one of a few cops who are not on Cohen’s payroll and it’s difficult for him to even get help from his fellow detectives. One day he got call in to the chief of police office, Chief Parker (the not-aged-well Nick Nolte), Parker also wants to take down Cohen and gave O’Mara the freedom to do whatever it takes to do so. The only down side is no one will know about his mission and O’Mara won’t get any credit for it. O’Mara agreed and with the help of his wife, they started recruiting his team of rogue detectives.

GangsterSquad_Pic8
GangsterSquad_Pic6

The film then becomes a generic good guys versus bad guys fill with shootouts and explosions. O’Mara’s team consists of misfits including a young detective Wooters (the totally miscast Ryan Gosling), electronics genius (Giovanni Ribisi) and three officers (Anthony Mackie, Michael Peña and Robert Patrick). Their plan is to take out Cohen’s operations one by one, sound familiar right? Yeah it’s the same plot as The Untouchables. As mentioned earlier, the script is full of clichés and a forced-romance between Wooters and Cohen’s lover Grace Faraday (Emma Stone) just didn’t fit into the plot whatsoever. The film is supposed to be about Brolin’s character and his mission to take down Cohen but by forcing these two characters into the plot, it just didn’t make sense to me.

Performances wise, I thought Brolin did a good job and his token characters (Peña, Mackie, Patrick and Ribisi) were pretty descent too. Sean Penn look bored, I’m not even sure why he accepted this role since he doesn’t like to star in big-budgeted films. Again I thought Gosling was total miscast and his character is totally unnecessary, while Emma Stone was on the screen for pure eye candy.

GangsterSquad_Pic3

Director Ruben Fleischer must’ve watched a lot of Sam Peckinpah’s and John Woo’s films before started working on this film. I love slo-mo action sequences but when a director decided to glamorizes those sequences then I think they don’t add anything to the film or even look exciting. Fleischer even followed the formula of action film to the teeth. Rouge heroes, check. Big car chase, check. Explosions check. Big climatic shootouts, check. The hero goes mano-a-mano with the villain at the end, check. Now I don’t mind if a film is very generic, heck I thought Jack Reacher was a pretty generic action thriller but it was well made and I enjoyed it quite a bit. I can’t say the same about this film, I think Fleischer just doesn’t have enough experience or talent to make this kind of genre; remember his previous two films were comedies.

I think with a better script and director, this could have been a very good period gangster film. But unfortunately the talents behind the cameras aren’t great and what we got here is a forgettable turkey that belongs in the dead winter season.

tworeels
2 out of 5 reels


Ruth’s Review

When I first saw the poster above, I thought boy, it couldn’t get any cheesier. Everybody looked like a mannequin doing corny poses and paired with an even cornier tagline. Well, it certainly sets the tone for the movie.

The story can’t be more straightforward, made even more mind-numbingly simple by Josh Brolin’s narration explaining things. Basically Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) is the arch villain, a Brooklyn-born gangster who owns Los Angeles in the late 40s. Practically all of the town’s politicians and cops have been bought with the money from all of Cohen’s shady businesses of drugs, guns and prostitution. The Gangster Squad is formed in order to stop Cohen’s quickly-expanding empire, led by Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin). The start of the movie is basically a long exposition on how the squad was formed, how O’Mara recruited each member of the squad.

GangsterSquad_Pic2

GangsterSquad_Pic7

Inspired by a true story (Cohen is like the Al Capone of the West Coast), there’s a lot of wasted potential here. Seems to me that director Ruben Fleischer is so enamored by the gangster era that he glamorizes everything about it, forgoing character development and a biting story. As one would expect in a gangster movie though, the violence is pretty brutal and there’s a constant onslaught of shootout after another, filmed in the most exasperating slo-mo style that lessen the impact of what’s going on instead of enhances it. Thus, despite the amount of violence, I feel that the characters don’t seem to be in any real danger. Even when they’re in peril, such as being burned alive, the way its depicted on screen is so stylized it’s hard to really feel anything. It also doesn’t help that most of the characters are so one-dimensional, which is such a waste of the talents involved.

Truth be told, to say that I’m not a huge fan of the three main actors (Brolin, Penn and Gosling) would be putting it mildly. But I realize they’re quite popular and most people consider them very talented actors. Not that this movie would actually change my mind about any of them, well except for maybe Brolin who’s actually pretty good here as his character was given the most to do. Still it could’ve been developed better to rise above being a one-dimensional hero. My bafflement about Gosling’s popularity continues as his supposedly-suave ladiesman style annoys the heck out of me. Reportedly he deliberately uses a higher-pitched voice for this role, for what purpose I’ll never know! He’s pretty much just the pretty boy here, whose romance with Emma Stone‘s Grace Faraday is so cheesy and utterly unnecessary. I generally like Stone, but though she looks good in her period gowns, she’s lacking any kind of believability or conviction to portray a femme fatale. I wish they’d just focus on the love story between O’Mara and his wife Connie, played by Mireille Enos. I’ve never seen Enos before but she impressed me here and Connie is perhaps the only character I give a hoot about.

GangsterSquad_Pic5

GangsterSquad_Pic1

As for Sean Penn… oh, where do I begin? As if the characters weren’t cartoon-ish enough, his make up is just plain bizarre. I mean he’s already looked pretty scary on his own anyway, what’s the point of all that goop? I was thinking that if they wanted an actor with a ‘boxing face,’ they should’ve just hired Mickey Rourke! Anyway, I think The Huffington Post sums it up nicely in this article, Penn’s overacting style is off the charts.

It’s the supporting actors who actually manage to ingest some fun, even if they’re all as stereotypical as they come (but hey, they fill the ‘diversity’ quota). Anthony Mackie and Michael Peña, two supporting actors who should get more lead roles as they’re always so fun to watch, plus Giovanni Ribisi as the ‘brain’ of the squad operations and Robert Patrick as the no-nonsense gunslinger. Nick Nolte was appropriately grizzled as the only police chief who hasn’t been bought by Cohen.

GangsterSquad_Pic4

Ultimately, Gangster Squad is just a sleek but soulless and shallow endeavor. Every single thing one associate with the gangster lifestyle is on display here as if we’re going into some kind of Gangster ‘Disneyworld’ of sort. The production design and 1940s costumes are great to look at but in terms of depicting the real demons and darkness of the gangster world and what’s really at stake, this movie falls way short. I wouldn’t even call this movie a suspense thriller as there’s barely any real tension and the deluge of stylized violence grew increasingly dull. Heck, the scene where the toys tried to cross the highway in Toy Story 2 has more nail-biting moments than this entire movie!

So if you’re into this genre, don’t expect any kind of depth, complexity or nuances of L.A. Confidential or Untouchables. It may resemble those two in terms of story, but the similarity ends there. It’s a gritty story without any grit in its depiction, there’s just no immersive quality nor sense of realism as the whole thing feels like one giant ‘gangster-ized’ set.

2.5 out of 5 reels


So, do you agree or disagree about our assessment? Well, let’s hear it!

Double Clooney Reviews: The Ides of March and The Descendants

As part of the LAMB Acting School 101 on George Clooney, I thought I’d review two of his recent films, one of which garnered him an Oscar’s Best Actor nod. Now, the idea of this monthly LAMB event is to highlight a different actor/actress whose performances, for better or worse, have left a mark on the cinematic landscape.

Truth be told, I’m not as enamored with 50-year-old actor as most people. Yes I think he’s dashing but for some reason he’s not the kind of actor whose film I’d go see just because he’s in it. That said, I understand his appeal and he’s played his card right in the business, rising steadily from his days as a TV actor to becoming quite a Hollywood royalty if you will. Plus, the man knows how to pick good films and in the case of The Ides of March, he knows how to make a decent one.

So in honor of his Oscar nomination, here are a double reviews of his two latest films:

The Ides of March

I’m generally not a big fan of political films. Heck I’m not into politics in general, call me cynical but I feel that for the most part, there are just so much unethical stuff going on and it’s just a matter of what people can get away with and how much they’re willing to sacrifice to gain power. This political drama directed by Clooney is full of such back-alley dealings and takes its name from a historical event from the Roman Calendar. It’s a date commonly associated with the death of Julius Caesar, who was stabbed to death in the Roman Senate by a group of conspirators led by his most trusted allies and long-time friend Brutus.

There’s a loose connection between that event and what happens in this film, but a theme of betrayal is certainly ripe in the story. To understand the plot, we’ve got to meet the players:  Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris’ (Clooney) is campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination, and his campaign is led by a world weary campaign veteran Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his second-hand-man, an idealistic and ambitious 30-year-old Stephen (Ryan Gosling) who’s shrewd at handling the communications with the media. Morris’ biggest rival remains faceless throughout the film but his campaign is run by the cynical and ruthless Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti). Caught in the center of it all is one of Morris’ 20-year-old intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) who has the hots for Stephen.

Stephen ends up getting himself in two major predicaments involving Molly and Duffy, two separate occasions that both threaten not only his political career but also the career of his big boss, Morris. Loyalties are tested and the game of survival of the fittest are full on, lives are at stake and not just in political sense. This is a movie where there are no real heroes or villains, just a bunch of ruthless people who’s really tough to root for, in my opinion anyway. None of the characters are really sympathetic as they’re only concerned about themselves and how to get ahead. Perhaps the only person whom I despise the least is Paul who at least still strives to play by the book, perhaps too much for his own good.

I don’t think this film tells us anything new or fresh perspective that we don’t otherwise already know about politics. If anything it just reaffirms the ‘dirty politics’ reputation of every political party. Career victory wins over virtue, that seems to be the message, which is hardly surprising. Still I think overall I think it’s a decent film that offers intriguing dialog and a great deal of intellectual suspense. I like the subtlety of Clooney’s direction, he doesn’t show every single thing to the audition but instead scenarios are implied in a clever way, such as when Paul enters the big campaign SUVs with Morris in a back alley, it’s clear that his fate within that campaign is sealed. The face-off between Stephen and Morris in a dark kitchen of a restaurant is also shot in a sinister way that shows their faces in the shadows most of the time.

The performances are top notch and that’s another props from Clooney to draw sharp performances from his cast. Gosling is sleek and confident in this role, but I feel that he has that same cocky aura he displays in those DRIVE trailers and movie posters. Clooney doesn’t have as much screen time here but he certainly makes for a believable Obama-like figure, and seems like he’s likened his character to Obama as his campaign posters are done in the exact same way. To me, the two scene-stealers are the actors playing the campaign managers of both parties, Hoffman and Giamatti. They don’t share a screen together however, but their scenes with Gosling are quite memorable. Evan Rachael Wood proves that she’s one of today’s brightest young stars, she embodies her role with sheer drive and youthful recklessness that plays a key role in the downfall of the political candidate, as well as her own. Marisa Tomey is good but it’s a nothing special as she’s done a similar type of supporting roles in other films I saw recently.

Final thoughts:

I think fans of political films will enjoy this one and those who are already fans of the cast will definitely appreciate them all the more. I appreciate Clooney’s direction and the performances, but the film itself is not entertaining or even compelling enough for me to want to watch again.

Three and a half stars out of Five
3.5 out of 5 reels


The Descendants

I went to see this film largely because of Clooney’s casting and the fact that he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance. I’ll tell you right off the bat that I think his nomination is well-deserved, and it’s perhaps one of my favorite roles from this actor to date.

The story from writer/director Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways) is centered on the life of Matt King (Clooney), a workaholic attorney living in Hawaii. His life is turned upside down when his wife Elizabeth suddenly fell into a coma following a boating accident that leaves him to care for his two daughters. At the same time, Matt is also at the crossroad involving the decision to sell his family’s 25000-acre land that’s been handed down from his ancestors of Hawaiian royalty and missionaries, hence the film’s title. As the trustee of the estate, Matt torn between his family who want to sell the land and the rest of the island who wants him to preserve it.

The film opens with Clooney narrating the story, it’s done in a matter-of-fact manner refuting the common preconception that people who live in a place like Hawaii is devoid of personal problems. His friends seem to think that life in this tropical paradise must be equally perfect, not lacking anything. “Paradise? Paradise can go f*** itself.” Matt scoffs. That is such a perfect opening as it sets the tone to the whole film and how Matt’s life is definitely far from the pristine look of his surrounding.

Prior to Elizabeth being in a coma, Matt was an absentee father, he’s the ‘back-up parent’ that’s how he describes himself, thus his relations with his daughters is obviously not going to be easy, especially when he takes 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) home from her private school in the last days of her mother’s life. Alex seems like a typical rebellious teenager but when she tells her father a secret involving her mother’s infidelity, it’s clear life hasn’t been easy for her either.

This story could easily be overly sentimental and unbearably glum, but yet Payne somehow manages to inject subtle humor and the way Matt deals with his seemingly endless quandaries is often funny without diminishing the weight of those circumstances. The scene of Matt running to his neighbors’ house in a drab polo shirt, shorts and sandals is shot almost like a comic sequence even though he’s about to question them about his wife’s affair. The same with the scenes when Matt is spying on the man his wife is cheating on and when he pays him a visit. The script and Payne’s direction perfectly capture such complicated and extremely awkward situation with dexterity that makes you go, ‘wow, I sure hope I’d never end up in such predicament.’

Though I haven’t seen Payne’s previous work, I’ve read enough reviews about them that makes me think he like to incorporate all kinds of quirky characters in his films, though not to the degree of Wes Anderson. This film is no exception, Alex’s friend Sid’s stoned-like mannerism provides comic relief, but later we reveal that he too is not exempt from personal tragedy. In fact, the variety of characters in this film is what makes this film so wonderful to watch.

What I like about Clooney in this role is how far it is from his glamorous movie-star persona. In a lot of his films, one could argue that he’s just playing a variation of himself but I can’t say that it’s the case here. I feel that he’s able to epitomize the pathos and the personal hell his character goes through with precision and care. A less capable actor could easily resort to overacting, but fortunately Clooney manages to avoid that and the astute script definitely helps him achieve that. The rest of the performances is good as well, even the small roles by Beau Bridges as one of Matt’s cousins and Judy Greer as the oblivious wife of Elizabeth’s lover. I’m impressed with relative newcomer Shailene Woodley who’s done mostly TV work by this point. It’s touching to see Alex’s emotional growth that helps repairs her relationship with her dad, and that subtle transformation is believable.

The seemingly two separate storyline about Elizabeth’s coma and the sale of his family’s land somehow connect together at the end as Matt finally comes to a unexpected decisionIt’s not entirely unpredictable as we’ve sort of been cajoled to root for the King family to keep the land, but it’s a satisfying ending nonetheless. There’s no fairy tale ending but it’s a heartwarming one that definitely puts a smile in my face as tears run down my cheek.

Final Thoughts:

This neatly-paced drama boasts wonderful performances and carries an inspiring theme about second chances and forgiveness. The message about the importance of family over wealth is also quite strong which is always nice to see in today’s films. On top of that, it also boasts a beautifully-shot scenery of the island of Kauai that lends an authentic flavor to the story instead of becoming a distraction.

4.5 out of 5 reels


Well, have you seen either one of these films? I’d love to hear your thoughts on them and also on Mr. Clooney.

Counting down to 2012 – Ted’s Top Five Movies of 2011

I have to confess that I haven’t seen many of the more prestige films this year, only the big-budget tent pole type. So I don’t know how credible I am by naming the top film best films of 2011 even though I haven’t seen a lot of the films that came out this year. So I guess you could say these are my five favorite films that I saw in 2011:

5. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

I’ve seen this film twice now and I thought it was a lot of fun. To me the film feels like an old James Bond flick from the 60s but with 21st century action sequences and gadgets. Brad Bird did a great job of staging some of the most exciting action sequences ever put on film, my favorite has to be the car chase in the sandstorm. By filming all of the action scenes with IMAX cameras, audiences felt like they’re part of the action once those scenes unfolds on the tall giant screen. It’s hard to make an action film without lots of explosions and shootouts, but believe it or not, this latest Mission film only has one explosion in the entire film and hardly had any gun play. In fact, Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt character never even fires a gun the film, while in the last two films he was like a madman with machine guns and pistols. Again, a great fun action thriller and see it on a real IMAX theater if you can.

[rtm note: read my full review of MI4]

4. Rise of the Planet of the Apes

I thought this film was the best reboot/prequel since Batman Begins. Yes it has some plot holes and the human characters were underdeveloped but the film was about the ape Caesar and Andy Surkis did such a great job portraying that character through motion capture. The big climax sequence on the Golden Gate Bridge was one of the best action sequences I’ve seen all year. I think the reason I put this film up so high on my list is because I didn’t expect much from it when it was first announced. I thought to myself, really another Planet of the Apes film? Didn’t the Tim Burton’s remake already ruined the franchise? Well when I finally saw it, I was quite surprised how much I enjoyed it. Fox did a great job of switching the release date by moving it up from November of this year to August, the film was one of the biggest hits of the summer.

[rtm note: read my full review of Rise of the Planet of the Apes]

3. 13 Assassins

Technically this film was from 2010 but it didn’t get released in the States until April of this year, so I can include it on this list. I used to watch so many Samurai films when I was younger and seeing this film reminds me of my childhood. Takashi Miike, whose films mostly were known for their weirdness and extreme violence, made one heck of an epic Samurai film. The story’s pretty simple and easy to follow and that big battle at the end rivals any $100mil action films made in Hollywood in recent years. If this film doesn’t get a nomination for best foreign film at the Oscars next year, then I think the Oscar voters has lost their minds.

2. Tree of Life

I decided not to go see this film in theater because the last time I saw a Terrance Malick’s film in theater, The New World, some of the audiences just didn’t have the decency to shut the hell up and enjoy his visual story telling style. So I waited till it hits Blu-ray and watch it on my mini home theater. It’s pretty much what I expected from Malick and since I already read the script I sort of knew what I was getting into. He didn’t disappoint and yes it’s one of the most pretentious films he’s ever made but it’s a damn good one. I’ve only seen it once, so I can’t decide if it’s one of Malick’s best films yet but I think it’s better than The New World.

1. Drive

Another film that some have said it’s quite pretentious and I won’t argue with that, but it’s damn good pretentious film. I was never a fan of Ryan Gosling, in fact this is only the second film I saw with him as the lead. He was totally in command as the nameless Driver and pretty good as an action hero too. But I believe the film work so well was because of director Nicolas Winding Refn. He took a pretty straight forward genre and turned it into a cool hypnotic action thriller, reminds me of the old action films from the 70s and early 80s. In fact, I wonder if Refn watched Walter Hill’s 1978’s The Driver before he made this film. They both have similar style of storytelling and the main character was never mention by name except being call the Driver. I haven’t seen The Driver in a while but I believe Drive is a much better film. The film comes out on DVD/BD late next month and I can’t wait to see it again.


Stay tuned for Ruth’s Year in Review coming up this Saturday


Thoughts on any of my picks? I’d love to hear it.