Theatrical Review: The Counselor

You would think that teaming up director Ridley Scott with celebrated writer Cormac McCarthy would yield an absolutely entertaining as can be film… at least that’s what I thought…

After seeing the movie, one of my friends and I were driving back to my house and he, having the same reaction as I started to play a game of negative catch-phrase summaries for the movie, coming up with things like, “The Counselor should be disbarred!,” or “The Counselor is a mistrial!,” or “The Counselor should file a motion… or have a motion, any motion!” Yeah, sure they’re lame phrases, but it was about the only enjoyment we got out of the whole film.

Basically, what you have here is Scott and McCarthy creating a sort of pulp fiction fable of sorts. A young lawyer (only known here as The Counselor- no name is ever given) is madly in love and is about to engage in a one-time drug cartel deal in order to make a ton of money in which to keep him and his lover in a lavish lifestyle. Before the deal goes down, The Counselor is warned by two other associates (both also tied to the deal) that if he takes this step, his life will be irrevocably changed in ways that he can’t even prepare for. Still, the Counselor goes in on the deal and as expected it all goes horribly wrong…

By the above premise, it sounds like this should be fairly straightforward in how it’s events all lay out, but it’s anything but. This story is told in scenes that are filled with long-winded philosophical discussions that seem like they’re trying to embrace the idea of being disengaging. Now there’s nothing wrong with that and as one of my friends pointed out (and I certainly agree), it’s the sort of thing that Quentin Tarantino does all the time in his films, but Tarantino also tends to throw in other qualities that makes his scene more than just the talk (I tend to think that it’s more how Tarantino is a genuine movie nerd, and that joy about movies is what makes his scenes and characters work so well). The titular character is drawn out in the most broad of ways, he’s supposed to be interesting because of his amazing love for this woman and has these nebulous money problems that he’s trying to overcome, but other than that, there’s nothing that makes him relatable or interesting in the slightest. The same can be said of his associates, one of which (played by Javier Bardem, the character Reiner) delights in his excesses and the other (played by Brad Pitt, Westray) prides himself on his ability to be ready to walk away from anything. They’re both ciphers of sorts (as is every character in the film) and for that, they certainly serve the fable aspect of this story, but their dialogue is so dry and endlessly pontificating that it just makes scenes more of an endurance challenge than anything else.

I’ve mentioned both Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt above, and yes, The Counselor certainly does have a high-powered cast. One of my favorite actors of the present day, Michael Fassbender, plays the titular character, Cameron Diaz plays Malkina, Reiner’s scheming girlfriend and Penélope Cruz plays Laura, the Counselor’s love. I think the cast are all fine here, it’s just that the dialogue is completely off-putting. To me, Pitt fares the best in his few scenes as he seems to be doing his best to not only speak these words naturally, but also bring in some sort of engagement to the overall piece. Cameron Diaz certainly has a sharp look about her here, but even an over-the-top scene with her dry-humping a car is just something that we endure more than we’re engaged in. Penélope Cruz is basically “the girl” of the film and nothing more. Fassbender certainly looks good in his part, and does a respectable job of holding his own with Bardem and Pitt (though again, it’s disengaging), but after that, there’s little reason to give a damn at all. Late in the movie, Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris shows up for one little scene (uncredited) that serves us another little bit of philosophical pontificating, but it’s glaring due to Norris’ recognizability from Breaking Bad and the fact that other than reacting to what was being said he had nothing else to do. To me, it served as more of a reminder of just how much more superior Breaking Bad was at doing a lot of the same things that The Counselor is trying to do.

I’ve used the word “endurance” a lot during this review, and I’m sorry to say, getting through this film was a test of that more than anything else. Director Ridley Scott certainly does a few interesting visual things here, but other than that, he just seems slavish to McCarthy’s pretentious script. I get the movie’s symbolism and dark messages about human nature but in the end it’s just completely soulless and ultimately… boring. With a director of Ridley Scott’s calibre and a cast that should be able to deliver huge life to anything, this just ends up making The Counselor one of the most bloated and disappointing movies that I’ve seen this year.


Theatrical Review: Bad Grandpa

86-year old Irving Zisman’s wife has just passed away and the old man couldn’t be happier. He’s now ready to sow his oats with other women, but soon finds he has another problem that he has to deal with. His daughter, a drug user, is about to be sent to jail and now she wants Irving to watch over her son, Billy. Irving does this but with the idea of taking Billy cross country to be with his father who’s not exactly the most stand-up of individuals his own self. Along the way, Irving and Billy have their own set of adventures… so to speak.

That’s the “glue” for the movie Bad Grandpa, a full-length film from Jackass creators Johnny Knoxville, Jeff Tremaine and Spike Jonze which itself is based on a series of candid camera situations that have been seen in past Jackass productions. If you’re at all familiar with Jackass, then you already know what I’m talking about, but for the uninitiated, these pieces take Jackass frontman Johnny Knoxville, apply elaborate old-age make-up to him and then have him and a young boy serving as his grandson get into some pretty ridiculous (and often raunchy) situations that gets the most amazing of reactions from unsuspecting onlookers. They’ve been some pretty funny segments in past Jackass movies, and now, Knoxville, Tremaine and Jonze are following Sacha Baron Cohen’s lead from his Borat and Bruno movies, and have created this full-length feature and it’s hilarious.

Now of course, the ridiculousness of these situations are certainly a big part of the humor, but the other thing that certainly adds to this has to just be the sheer danger of what could happen out of these when they might go too far. That’s certainly evident in a couple of parts of the movie; one involving Zisman getting into a confrontation with a guy after having destroyed a giant penguin attraction for a diner and another in which Billy’s father is just about to face off against a group of bikers while claiming his son. Getting to these points is certainly very funny, but you can’t help but wonder what happens afterwards. Well, here, you actually get a chance to see some of that in a terrific end credits sequence that not only shows some alternate situations, but pulls back the curtain and lets you see a little bit behind the scenes, including all onlookers being told that they’re part of a movie. This actually adds tremendously to the end enjoyment of the film- those of us who are familiar with the set-up now get a much more complete picture of just what it takes to make this sort of production, not just cast-iron balls, but also a lot of fairly elaborate planning.

Knoxville is terrific here and he certainly fools everyone that we see him coming into contact with. He’s definitely playing a cartoon character and even with the “glue” holding all of these stunts together, there is a relationship that’s built with Billy, a twisted relationship though to be sure. But still, Knoxville’s always fun to watch. Jackson Nicoll plays Billy, and though most of the gags here focus around Zisman, Nicoll gets his moments too. I suspect that most of what’s done with Nicoll is along the lines of how gags are done on TruTV’s Impractical Jokers show (in my opinion, one of the funniest shows on TV today), basically with Nicoll wearing an earpiece of some sort and being fed lines from the production team. But even with that, Nicoll still gets one of the drop-dead funniest moments in the movie involving an obviously staged beauty contest along the lines of what you might see on TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras.

Bad Grandpa at least for me is one of the funniest movies, if not the funniest movie that I’ve seen all year. Yeah, it’s humor is way on the lowbrow side of things and there’s nothing wrong with that at all, especially when you consider just how elaborate some of these set pieces had to be. It definitely earns it’s “R” rating as well, In particular with a couple of scenes that… no forget it, I won’t say any more you should see this for yourself, but trust me, it’s “R” is deserved. I saw this with a group of three other friends last night and we all had a terrific time with this. Certainly recommended for Jackass fans of course, but I think they’ve crafted something here that even goes beyond that and even just a touch further than Sacha Baron Cohen’s films, especially with it’s end credits sequence. Don’t miss this one…


Theatrical Review: Escape Plan

Ray Breslin is the foremost authority on maximum security incarceration in the world. His security company is a private contractor to the United States government that’s used to check out the overall security of those facilities. How they do this is that Ray himself is inserted as a convict in the prison and then he immediately starts to plan his escape. He’s a master at this and now the CIA is asking for his help in evaluating their newest facility; designed to take the worst offenders in the world and send them away forever. Once Ray gets to this facility, he finds that it’s a completely different situation entirely, something that’s much more sinister than he’d originally thought. Ray begins to plan anew but finds he needs a little help and he gets that from a fellow inmate named Rottmayer.

This is the premise to Escape Plan, the latest in a string of films featuring 80s action stars coming back to the forefront and of course this teams two of the biggest; Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Both stars have had movies out already this year; Stallone with Bullet To The Head and Schwarzenegger with The Last Stand and I certainly thought both were a lot of fun (though I preferred The Last Stand a little more), but I think Escape Plan trumps them both… this is a really good time at the theatre.

Now of course, it’s terrific to see two of the biggest iconic action stars teamed in a movie together, and I know I certainly enjoyed seeing these guys together in the Expendables films. It’s especially fun when you can get them together in a movie with a premise like this. I think Escape Plan has a pretty darn good and tightly plotted story that looks great and takes it’s time to unfold everything thanks to director Mikael Håfström. Now, that’s not necessarily saying this is the most original of stories that you’ll see but it is really well put together and it’s at least apparent to me that Stallone and Schwarzenegger are having a good time playing off of each other.

And of course, that’s the main reason most would be going to see this, at least in my estimation, and certainly both guys are rock-solid here, with me giving just a little more of a nod to what Schwarzenegger does here. Schwarzenegger particularly shines in a fantastic scene where Ray and Rottmayer have worked out a plan so that Ray can actually get on the outside of the holding facility. During this scene, Schwarzenegger’s Rottmayer is being tortured and he slips into speaking in German and it’s probably some of the most natural line delivery I’ve ever seen on Schwarzenegger’s part.

Both actors have a lot of nice support here. Person of Interest’s (one of the best shows on TV today), Jim Caviezel gets to step out of his normal heroic role and play sadistic warden of this mystery facility, Hobbes, and he look like he’s lapping it up. Vinnie Jones plays Hobbes’ head guard, Drake and again, he’s just matching Caviezel with his zeal for the part. Character actor Faran Tahir is a Muslim inmate named Javed who ends up being an ally of Ray’s and Rottmayer’s and he’s certainly got the chops to go toe-to-toe with Stallone and Schwarzenegger any day of the week (Stallone should look at getting him into the Expendables films). Amy Ryan, Sam Neill, Vincent D’Onofrio, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson and Caitrona Balfe round out the rest of the main cast, and again, it’s just solid work and especially satisfying to see guys like Neill and D’Onofrio here, who certainly go a long way to grounding this story.

Like I said, I had a great time with Escape Plan and have no trouble recommending it here at all. It’s terrific to see Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwazenegger play off of each other and especially so with this type of story. Sure, both stars are certainly showing their age (I should look that good when I get to their ages), but as far as I’m concerned, that just adds further to the flavor of their performances and I can’t wait to see what more they still have in store for us down the road.


Theatrical Review: Machete Kills

Former Mexican Federale and all around bad-ass, Machete, gets recruited by the United States government to go after an arms dealer, Voz as he plans to enact an insane scheme.

Yep, that’s all I’m going to say about the story to Machete Kills, the latest film from director Robert Rodriguez and the sequel to 2010’s Machete, which in turn was a pseudo-sequel of sorts to 2007’s Grindhouse. Grindhouse (my personal nod for movie of the year for 2007) was the brainchild of directors Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino that sought to bring back the flavor of 70s and 80s exploitation films with it’s double feature of movies, Planet Terror and Death Proof. Peppered around the movies were all sorts of cool “fake” trailers for upcoming movies as well as assorted ads (and this is where I insert my personal appeal to Rob Zombie to yet again make a full-length feature around his trailer, Werewolf Women of the S.S., forgive me, I have to do this every time I talk about Grindhouse in any sort of review- what can I say? I had no idea how much I wanted to see this movie until Zombie made that trailer, but I digress). One of those trailers was for a movie called Machete which in itself is also a little nod to Rodriguez’s past movie, Spy Kids, as this is the same character seen in that film, but in a completely different light (an R-rated light).

Anyway, enough with the background, so how was the movie? Well, I had a good time with it, but then I’m a huge fan of Grindhouse films, exploitation films and B-movies in general and fans like myself will probably have a lot of fun with Machete Kills. This doesn’t take itself too seriously in the slightest and borders on the edge of parody. Now some might see this as a sort of betrayal of the Grindhouse theme, but I guess it all depends on just how wide you define that theme. If you’re thinking more of 70s exploitation films, yeah this strays from that, but I tend to include the 80s movies in that as well, and when you do that, then it fits. When Rodriguez made Planet Terror in Grindhouse, I likened that movie to the films of cult director Fred Olen Ray (whose filmography includes films like Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers and Bad Girls from Mars amongst others). Ray’s movies are about as broad as it gets for exploitation films and while I have no idea if he’s an actual influence on what Rodriguez does with these movies, it’s certainly a sensibility that I think they have in common.

Staying true to it’s roots, right off the bat, we get a “fake” trailer for Machete Kills Again… In Space though it may not be as fake as you think, but it sets the tone of the whole piece right away. This is broad, over-the-top stuff that winks more at James Bond movies more than anything else, right down to the structure of the rest of the movie. Machete meets an assortment of villains throughout, all of which could be a Bond villain as seen through a Fred Olen Ray lens, and battles them all in some sort of over-the-top manner. It’s obvious to me that Rodriguez and his cast and crew are having a ball putting this thing together and we just shouldn’t take it seriously in the slightest.

It’s definitely a low-budget movie, but that’s how Rodriguez works and manages to see his vision through. Robert Rodriguez usually has his hand in everything including the movie’s excellent score and it’s visual effects. Hell, it wouldn’t surprise me if he didn’t cook for the crew at some point either. To me, he’s one of the most talented creative forces in movies today- he knows what he wants and he always gets it and he’s willing to put himself into it fully to get it. Now with that said, this isn’t quite as satisfying as it’s predecessor and a lot of that is due to the film’s ending or rather lack of one (though again, this is set up from the start). This could also all be by design as maybe a bit of commentary on Rodriguez’s part about major studio tentpole films, but if so I still wasn’t quite satisfied by it, but still had a good time with the film overall.

Once again, veteran character actor Danny Trejo plays the title character. He’s a definite tough guy and this film just amplifies that. He’s there to be super-cool and that’s it. And he is; his look is terrific and whenever he gets ready to do his thing, it’s right on the money. Trejo’s character is designed as one-note so the drive forward in the film comes from the rest of the cast. Demian Bichir (from FX’s The Bridge), Amber Heard, returnees Michelle Rodriguez and Jessica Alba, Sofia Vergara, Carlos Estevez (Charlie Sheen), Lady GaGa, Antonio Banderas, Walton Goggins, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Mel Gibson round out the support here and all certainly fit well into Rodriguez’s vision. My own picks for standouts here are the gorgeous Sofia Vergara as the man-hating head of a whorehouse, Desdemona, Charlie Sheen as the President of the United States and Mel Gibson as the main villain of the piece, Voz. They all look like they”re lapping this all up and it makes them all fun to watch whenever they’re on-screen.

Even with my own problem with the film, I still had a great time with Machete Kills and would certainly want to see it again down the road, but again, I’m a huge fan of this type of stuff. I saw this the very next night after I saw Captain Phillips and it made for a very nice film palette cleanser for as heavy a movie as Captain Phillips was. Certainly recommended, but primarily for fans of Rodriguez and whacked-out exploitation films.


Theatrical Review: Captain Phillips

In 2009, Captain Richard Phillips and his crew of 20 began a routine transport job through international waters off the coast of Somalia. His ship, the Maersk Alabama is carrying valuable cargo and is soon the target of a crew of four armed Somali pirates, led by a young Somali named Muse. What follows is as tense a story as any you’ll see in film this year…

Captain Phillips is the latest film from director Paul Greengrass who’s certainly no stranger to presenting stories of both domestic and international tension having helmed two of the Jason Bourne films (The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum), Bloody Sunday, and one of my personal favorites, United 93. Greengrass is back in fine form with Captain Phillips, a film that works as both an edge-of-your-seat thriller as well as a complicated picture of the various effects of globalization. Obviously this is based around true events, but having not read the book from which it’s adapted (Richard Phillips’ and Stephen Talty’s “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea”), I’m really not for sure how much here is totally accurate, though it certainly feels that nothing’s been let to question. Regardless of it’s accuracy, it’s still as good as a thriller of this sorts gets and is bound to stir conversation after viewing (or at least it certainly did with the group I saw it with).

Technically, well this is terrific filmmaking and certainly right in line with the other movies on Greengrass’ resumé. Greengrass’ use of handheld cameras is certainly evident and while their effect normally doesn’t bother me, for one scene here, I did have some slight issue. This scene involved the introduction of Muse and his crew. Basically the action and camera works is pretty swift here, the Somalis are speaking in their native tongue and subtitles are trying to keep up with the conversation. Because these actors aren’t really known to us, Greengrass’ handheld camera work makes it a little difficult to get a bead on who’s saying what, though eventually we do get past that. That’s my only complaint with the film and I’d categorize that in the “extremely moot” column when it comes to total enjoyment of Captain Philips.

One thing that came to mind to me while watching this was thinking about how a fictionalized version of these same events would be handled in another movie. A fictionalized version would call for the pirates to make their way aboard this ship and they’d manage it with some theatrical results. Here, the attention to real world detail certainly made me think about it in a different way- with the Somalis having to fight their way through violent waves from the wake of the Maersk Alabama and then just having to combat the high-pressure hoses that the ship uses for it’s defense. In addition, it’s certainly easy to think of the Somalis as the “bad guys” of this piece and yet there is a complexity to them, particularly with Muse who’s both filled with pride and yet a total result of the circumstances that he lives under. Yes, they are criminals and we want them to get what’s coming to them in the end, but still you can’t help but feel empathic to their situation.

Tom Hanks plays the titular part and this is right up there with the very best of Hanks’ past work and will certainly remind one that he’s still one of the finest of American actors. There’s nothing that’s theatrical about this performance, it’s a very lived-in part with Hanks playing this guy who was basically just going out to do his job. There’s certainly heroism on his part though again, it’s the type of heroism that you’d see in the real world and certainly way more relatable. Where Hanks really gets you though is in the film’s climactic scenes where he’s not only triumphant from what has just happened, but also extremely vulnerable. It’s very effective work on Hanks’ part and I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest to see him at least get an Oscar nomination for this part.

I’ve also got to call out the work of Barkhad Abdi (Muse), Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed and Mahat M. Ali as the Somali pirates. From what I can tell, they’re all making their debuts with this movie and certainly holding their own with Tom Hanks. Abdi in particular plays this part as almost a counterpoint to Hanks as just another guy who’s going out to do his job, though he’s looking at this as his chance to get some respect from his leaders. There’s a real sense of inevitability to Muse, and yet his own pride has him always being assured.

Much like last week’s Gravity I have to close with this urging- don’t miss this! Captain Phillips is a totally engrossing thriller that just feels totally authentic. Both director Paul Greengrass and star Tom Hanks are at the top of their respective games here and though the outcome of this is already known, they certainly still make the ride getting to the end as compelling as can be. Highly, highly recommended.


Theatrical Review: Gravity

The crew of the space shuttle Explorer are on a mission in orbit over the Earth to add a new component to the Hubble telescope. Everything is going by the book with Dr. Ryan Stone installing the component, with some uneasy feelings about being in space, as astronaut Matt Kowalski fly around trying out his jet pack and keeping tabs on the mission. Word reaches the crew of Explorer that due to an accident with a Russian satellite, debris is speeding their way. They’re ordered to abandon their mission and get back to Explorer as quickly as they can but to no avail; the debris is already upon them. The Explorer is damaged beyond repair and all of the crew, except for Stone and Kowalski, are killed. With the International Space Station nearby, now the two must work together to survive while still adrift in space.

This is the premise to Gravity the latest film from visionary director Alfonso Cuarón as well as written by Cuarón and his son, Jonás Cuarón. Cuarón is best known for movies like Children of Men and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. While I’ve not seen the Potter film, I’ve definitely seen Children of Men and just get more taken with the movie every time I see it. When I first saw the trailer for Gravity, I was just blown away by it and couldn’t wait to see it. Mentioning this to other people at the time, they were more indifferent about it and just had no interest at all in it. I get that, you see this extravagant trailer, hear that it’s in 3D (which automatically reduces interest for most people these days), and just get the general premise and you think that there’s really nowhere to go with it. Well, for me anyway, my excitement for the movie is justified as I think Alfonso Cuarón has crafted one of the best movies of the year and certainly goes far out of his way to show you that 3D can greatly add to the experience of the film.

Right off the bat, this is some of the best 3D that’s been produced yet for movies. Cuarón has stated in some interviews that most 3D movies are crap, especially those that tack it on as an afterthought, and he was determined to use it in a way that truly added to the experience, basically also saying that if you only see the movie in 2D, you’re only going to get about 30% of what he wants you to get out of it. I believe that to be the case as well. The danger that Stone and Kowalski faces here is certainly stunning in 2D, but with 3D, you actually feel the experience to great effect making the circumstances even more dire. There’s way more to say about the 3D here, but to say too much would be to spoil it and I certainly don’t want to do that. Regardless, even if you absolutely hate 3D, it’s still the best way to experience this film.

Along with that, the visual style and effects of the film are as first rate as it gets. In Children of Men, Cuarón amazed me with some of his scenes that suggest the idea of a massive single take and he does the same thing here as well with the film’s spectacular opening sequence which runs about 12-13 minutes in length. Right there, with just technique alone, Cuarón sucks you into his premise and he keeps you there through the rest of the film. The survival tale here will certain bring to mind things like Cast Away for most, though for me, I get a sense out of it more from movies like Open Water or 2010’s Frozen (this is not the upcoming animated film, but a terrific little survival suspense movie with three people trapped aboard a ski lift)- situations that seemed even more hopeless than what Tom Hanks faced on an island (though don’t get me wrong, I think Cast Away is a terrific movie). The trick here is making your characters either likable or identifiable and I tend to think that the Cuaróns have done both with their script, as well as giving you this extraordinary thrill ride. In addition, the sound design and Scott Price’s excellent score punctuates everything in just the right way and further adds to the uneasiness of the entire situation.

Sandra Bullock plays Ryan Stone and George Clooney plays Matt Kowalski and both deliver terrific work especially when you consider the fact that they’re working in a special effects film that they have no idea of what the final piece will look like in the end. I mentioned above about making your characters either likable or identifiable, and that’s split between the two actors with Bullock playing the identifiable part and Clooney having the more likable part. Clooney’s Kowalski seems more like an extension of who Clooney is in real life, whereas Bullock is the one that’s more got to find a way to inhabit a part, and while the two may be diametrically opposed points of view, they still manage to find a way to have real chemistry, especially with a scene late in the film (can’t say much more about this scene other than at first it will have you thinking that there’s no way this could happen- but trust in the Cuaróns on this one). This is terrific work from two of the top stars of the day… but still, the real star here is Alfonso Cuarón with an amazing visual sense and pacing that keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout the entire movie.

Don’t miss this! Gravity is just amazing entertainment from start to finish and I cannot wait to see what director Alfonso Cuarón has next on his plate. He’s taken a premise that most would see as being thin at best and has turned it into completely compelling storytelling with some of the best visual effects of the year as well as totally re-defining what a 3D film experience should be. Highly, highly recommended and if you choose to see this, definitely see it in 3D.


Theatrical Review: Runner Runner

Richie Furst is a Princeton student who’s having huge problems paying his tuition. He gets by by acting as an affiliate for an online gambling site called Midnight Black and turning on other college students to the site. Now, Richie’s in trouble with the school and in a last ditch effort to gather the funds that he needs, he banks it all into the site and attempts to use his skills to raise enough money to set himself up. Richie loses all of his money on the site and discovers that there is something shady going on in the programming of the system. Rather than going to the authorities, Richie takes it directly to the owner and founder of Midnight Black, Ivan Block. Since the United States put a clampdown on online gambling, Block has relocated to Costa Rica and so Richie gathers whatever money he has left and makes his own sort of pilgrimage.

Once there, Richie manages to get Block’s attention and impresses him enough to become part of Block’s operation. Things are going fantastically well for Richie including catching the eye of Rebecca Shafran, who’s a former lover and high-up associate of Block’s in Midnight Black. But that’s not the only eye on Richie as he’s also soon discovered by an FBI agent, Shavers and is pressured into giving Block up. Richie refuses but soon discovers that Block has a few more nefarious plans in store for him.

Runner Runner is the latest film from director Brad Furman (previously known for movies like The Lincoln Lawyer and The Take, neither of which I’ve seen) and written by the writing duo of Brian Koppelman and David Levien. Now I do know Koppleman and Levien’s previous work as they were the writing team behind the movie Rounders and the creators of the ESPN short run dramatic series Tilt, both of which I enjoyed quite a bit. Their knowledge oft the gambling world is certainly evident in this movie and for the most part, Runner Runner is certainly a watchable, but predictable film. This tends to lay it’s events out in a pretty much by-the-numbers way as Richie tries to get himself ahead of Block, before Block can set Richie up to take an even bigger fall. It’s nothing that you haven’t seen before, but I do think it’s well executed, looks great, and certainly if you have an interest in this sort of thing, and I do, then it’s still a pretty decent time.

The strongest cards that director Furman has in his deck are his lead actors, Justin Timberlake and Ben Affleck who play Richie Furst and Ivan Block respectively. There’s a magnetism to both characters that makes them fun to watch. While I’m not for sure about Timberlake, I do know that Ben Affleck has some serious street cred in the poker world and so it’s definitely something that he’s drawing from for this performance. These are solid performances though both have certainly had better work in more memorable films and that can be said for the rest of the cast as well. The gorgeous Gemma Arterton plays Rebecca and Anthony Mackie plays FBI Agent Shavers, and again it’s solid work that moves this familiar story forward but not much else.

Runner Runner (the title here refers to a term in poker for needing two cards to fall in successive order to produce a winning hand- which is how Block looks at Richie from their first meeting) is basic light-pulp storytelling that’s more the kind of movie you might can enjoy as it’s running on background on your home TV than the sort of thing that you need to run right out and see immediately. If you’re familiar with either Rounders or Tilt, then it certainly fits comfortably right in line with those types of stories, though it’s a far lighter and less memorable experience. I had a good time with it and would certainly recommend it, but maybe hold off on it and wait for it to hit cable before investing the money for a trip to the theatre.


Theatrical Review: Rush

It’s 1976 and in the world of auto racing, Formula 1 racing has captured the world’s attention and primarily due to the intense rivalry between two drivers; the British born James Hunt and the Austrian, Niki Lauda. Both men are opposite sides of a coin; Hunt, a handsome “bad boy” who fills his off-hours with pure physical pleasures and Lauda, a much slighter individual who’s highly disciplined and so filled of his own skills that it just makes him unlikable to the rest of the field. This rivalry builds to a head with the German Grand Prix leg of the season on the treacherous Nürburgring race track and this is the story that director Ron Howard tells us with his latest movie, Rush.

Howard is certainly no stranger to telling fact-based stories in his films and has done so in the past with movies like Apollo 13 (one of this writer’s all-time favorite movies), A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man and Frost/Nixon. Howard’s hallmark in each of these films are an amazing sense of detail getting his time and place down perfectly and usually with some pretty compelling performances. On it’s surface, Rush is certainly poised to take a place right next to some of these movies and while I think it certainly does do quite a bit right, it falls just a little short of being the same sort of compelling viewing that say Apollo 13 or Frost/Nixon is.

Taking a look over at IMDB and the readers reviews there, I’m definitely in the minority on this one, though this review is hardly going to be any sort of condemnation of the film. Looking at Howard’s other past historic films, there’s a certain rise over adversity in each of them that very much raises the bar for them to varying degrees and I just don’t think that’s the case with Rush with it’s competitiveness between two men of privilege. Now it’s certainly interesting to see how both fueled each other in their drive to the Formula 1 championship, but I don’t think it’s quite enough to make it as rich as some of Howard’s other past efforts. One thing that I would’ve enjoyed seeing a little more of here, that’s only touched upon slightly, would’ve been more of the passion for the sport from both Hunt and Lauda. There’s a cool little mention of Lauda actually walking the course before a race and a nice scene with Hunt practicing his technique before a big race as well as a good bit with Lauda during a race that slows the action down and shows him figuring out his approach. I would’ve loved to have seen more scenes like this that just show the sheer passion for the sport, even if it would involve a few more visual effects on the racing end to pull them off just right. Now again, I think what Howard does here with the race scenes is pretty darn cool (the late John Frankenheimer would be proud) but I wouldn’t have minded a few more tricks along the lines of what say Renny Harlin did in Driven but maybe not quite so over-the-top.

Still, even with my own issues with the film, Rush looks terrific and really shines with it’s race re-creations (making me wish there was even more of that in the film). Veteran composer Hans Zimmer certainly shines here as well with a terrific score that really soars.

Chris Hemsworth (best known for his work as Marvel’s Thor character) and Daniel Brühl (Frederick Zoller from Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds) play both Hunt and Lauda respectively and both are well cast in the parts. Hemsworth’s Hunt is a certainly charming and charismatic character, but I tend to give more points to Brühl’s Lauda for having the meatier and much more interesting part. Brühl’s Lauda shows real progression here especially with some of the film’s climactic scenes. Hemsworth is s a little more one-note, though I was particularly impressed with him during a scene after a press conference with Lauda that shows off more of the respect that Hunt had for his rival. Both actors are very well cast and they play their parts just fine, though they won’t come off as particularly deep. That’s certainly nothing that’s out of the ordinary for racing movies, the same could be said for the leads in Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix and most certainly with Renny Harlin’s Driven, I was just hoping for a little bit more here.

Even though I have some issues with Rush it’s still some pretty quality entertainment. I tend to think that it’s drama comes off as a little more soap opera and thus not as compelling as some of Ron Howard’s other movies, but still it’s a highly watchable film and certainly one that fans of auto racing will embrace.


Theatrical Review: The Family

Giovanni Manzoni is a former Mafia boss who has snitched on the mob and now has a 20 million dollar price on his head. He and his family have been placed in a witness protection program that has had them move around the world a few times. Now, Giovanni, with the new name given to him of Fred Blake, his wife Maggie, daughter Belle and son Warren have been moved to Normandy, France. They try to fit in, but old habits die hard and even with protection from the CIA, they soon find themselves about to be tracked down by their former Mafia associates. Hijinks, of course, ensues…

This is the broad premise of The Family, a dark comedy from visionary French director Luc Besson and producer Martin Scorsese. When I first saw the trailer for this movie, I can’t necessarily say that I was thrilled by it as I was expecting it to be an overly broad comedy, but hearing that Besson was directing it made me take notice. Besson has previously directed movies like La Femme Nikita, Leon (know here as The Professional) and The Fifth Element, all big favorites of mine. Still, my expectations were somewhat low for the film, but I was pleasantly surprised by it’s end.

Besson has built his own little world here that uses the flavor of Scorsese’s GoodFellas as it’s source. Manzoni has done some horrible things for the mob, but still considers himself a good man, a good father and all he really wants to do is tell his true story. He starts to do that by writing his own memoirs, much to the dismay of his CIA handler. Besson tells this story with a very relaxed pace allowing us to get to know the Manzonis and how they exist in this little world that’s seems stuck in the heyday of the mob from the 70s. It’s not meant to be taken seriously, though at the same time it’s not an uproarious comedy by any means. This is presented in an almost episodic manner with each member of Manzoni’s family having their individual arcs and yet it’s all still tied to gather in such a way that I thought was satisfying. The pace of the film changes considerably during the final quarter of the film as the Manzonis are discovered by the mob and now have to use their own methods to get away again. I’ve seen some look at this as a film that’s trying to find an identity just because of some of the tonal shifts that happen when telling these stories, but for me, I looked at it all as world-building on Besson’s part and these shifts just seemed to make sense in this little microcosmos.

The biggest strength that the film has though is it’s cast and with high-powered names like Robert DeNiro, Michelle Pfeiffer and Tommy Lee Jones, you’d certainly expect some good work. Now I’ll tell you right up front, this isn’t the high-point of any of their careers, but it’s still sold work and their solid work helps add credibility to Besson’s world. When I was first seeing the trailers for this, I thought it was going to be another one of these comedies in which DeNiro does some overly broad mugging for the camera, but it’s not the case at all. Even with his violent past, DeNiro’s Manzoni is actually a measured character that genuinely feels like he’s trying to change his ways, though he has moments where he imagines what he would do to people if he was his old self. He and Pfeiffer have some really good chemistry together that’s well demonstrated in one very nice little romantic scene between the two. While Pfeiffer’s good to watch with her family, she actually has better scenes when she’s with two CIA agents who are constantly watching the family. Here she gets a chance to let her hair down a bit and not constantly be the rock for the family. Tommy Lee Jones plays Robert Stansfield, Manzoni’s handler and this is the type of thing that you’ve seen Jones do again and again, so he’s certainly solid in the part and excels when he has scenes with DeNiro. Now, I liked all of the leads quite a bit, but I was even more impressed by Dianna Agron (from Glee) and John D’Leo who play the Manzoni kids, Belle and Warren respectively. There’s a lot of strength and confidence to both of their performances and at least to me they both hold their own with DeNiro and Pfeiffer and further help build credibility for this as a family unit in this whacked-out little world.

I was really surprised at just how much I enjoyed The Family, though I suspect that I’ll be a bit of a minority when it comes to that. I think we had a total of maybe 8 people in out theatre to see this and midway through, two of them actually walked out. I do get that, they were might’ve been expecting this to be something that had far bigger laughs than what it did or just thought it meandered a little too much in building it’s world, I don’t know. For me though, I appreciated it’s mixture of both the low-key and the over-the-top, it’s salute by Luc Besson to American Gangster films (in particular Scorsese’s GoodFellas) and it’s rock-solid cast and certainly thought it was more than a good diversion.


Theatrical Review: Insidious: Chapter 2

In the movie Insidious, the Lambert family is terrorized by spirits in another dimension called The Further. Josh and Renai Lambert’s son, Dalton suffers an accident that puts him into a coma and turns him into a bizarre conduit with this world. Josh’s mother, brings in her old friend Elise, a medium, and her assistants, Specs and Tucker, to help the family find the answers that they need and in the process they also discover that Josh has the same gifts as his son. By the end, Josh has made his own journey into The Further to bring back his son, but with a great cost, as Elise is murdered by the spirits in the real world.

Insidious: Chapter 2 takes place almost immediately after the events of the first film. We start with a flashback to Josh’s childhood and soon discover that he had a greater connection to the Further than what was revealed in the first movie. A younger Elise hypnotizes Josh into forgetting about this chapter in his life, but due to the events of the first movie, Josh’s own connection has now opened back up. Back in the present day, Elise’s murder is being investigated by the authorities with Josh being seen as a prime suspect. The Lambert family vacates their home to go stay with Josh’s mother and soon Josh is cleared of being a suspect. With this greater connection now being opened up more, the family soon finds out that their terror is far from over.

That’s the base premise to Insidious: Chapter 2 and without a doubt, you will need to have seen the first movie in order to keep up with what’s going on with the second. Insidious: Chapter 2 comes to us from director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell who are no strangers to the horror genre having given us both the first Insidious as well as the first of the Saw movies. This is Wan’s second horror movie for the year, with his first being The Conjuring, which at least to me, is also one of the best movies of the year. I had a pretty good time with Insidious: Chapter 2 though not in the same league as The Conjuring.

One of the criticisms that I saw with the first movie was the whole idea of The Further and if you had any sort of problems with that, then this sequel may not fly to far with you as it’s firmly centered around The Further for the whole movie. For me, this other dimension brings to mind Don Coscarelli’s classic Phantasm series and I very much like how this went further in-depth with the concept especially using it well to find out the origins of the spirit that possesses Josh, a mysterious serial killer called The Bride in Black. By it’s end, they’ve now set up this series so that the world of The Further takes the front seat for any future films and of course the possibility of another sequel certainly exists.

Insidious: Chapter 2 movies at a pretty brisk pace that I think works especially well by the film’s end as it’s jumping between both the real world and The Further. It’s scares are mostly of the jump variety that are punctuated by the film’s score (terrific work from composer Joseph Bishara who also worked with Wan on The Conjuring). Where the film really excels for me though is just in it’s presentation of these new spirits and the very over-the-top way in which they are presented. For some, this might seem a little too cartoonish, but I like the fact that Wan and Whannell went that far especially with a character who’s the mother of the spirit that possesses Josh Lambert (played by actress Danielle Bisutti). I think it goes a little too far with the humor provided by the characters of Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) with just a few of the jokes seeming a little out of place, but it’s not a dealbreaker by any means.

Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Ty Simpkins, Lin Shaye, and Barbara Hershey all return from the first movie along with the above-mention Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson and for the most part, it’s a good turn by the cast. I mentioned in my review of The Conjuring that Patrick Wilson is one of my favorite actors to watch at work these days and he doesn’t disappoint in the slightest here, especially after his character of Josh is possessed. Wilson really turns on the crazy at that point and for me anyway brought to mind Jack Nicholson’s work in The Shining. New to this cast is veteran character actor Steve Coulter who plays Carl, another associate of Elise’s and Tom Fitzpatrick who plays The Bride in Black. Good work from both actors, but big props to Fitzpatrick and just how far he was willing to go in his portrayal of The Bride.

Insidious: Chapter 2 was a lot of fun that for me was only slightly spoiled by a… let’s say “rambunctious” audience of kids who were happy to get into a horror movie that’s rated PG-13. It’s an absolute necessity to have seen the first film in order to appreciate what goes on here, but if you’re a die-hard fan of the first (and there’s many out there) then you’ll no doubt have a good time with Insidious: Chapter 2.