All posts by Jeff Wilder

Screenwriter, director, commentator. Never a Gen Y, more of a late arriving Gen X. Likes: Alt rock, classic rock, old-school hip-hop, character driven cinema with an edge, interesting books, independent radio, kickball with friends, being with certain beautiful women. Dislikes: 90% of politicians, reality TV and Infomercial culture, studio gangstaism and the suburban mooks who buy into it, corporate radio, the rat race and certain demagogues. Influences: Mark Twain, John Lennon, Martin Scorsese, George Carlin, RZA, Hunter S Thompson, Don Delillo, Paul Schrader, Rakim, Nas, Kurt Vonnegut, Aaron Sorkin, Richard Linklater, Bill Hicks, Spike Lee, Mike Royko, Bono, Eddie Vedder and Paul Thomas Anderson.

“Still think you stand a chance against us cowboy?” “Yipeekaiyay!”

Die Hard

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$5.55 at Amazon 

(5/5)

Pros: Action, humor and performances.

Cons: It’s Die Hard. No cons.

(Note: This review appeared in different form on Epinions.com.)

As far as action movies go, Die Hard may be the ultimate one of all time. Not necessarily the best (T2 and a couple of John Woo’s Hong Kong films are ahead of it). But I can’t think of any other film that mixes action, comedy and serious drama into a full package the way this one does and has the results come out this well.

What makes Die Hard stand out is that its main character is a human hero, not a superman. John McClane is simply an ordinary working New York cop who finds himself in the midst of a nightmarish situation that he has to deal with. For that character to work, the producers needed an actor who could make the McClane character believable. They made the right choice in picking Bruce Willis.

Willis, despite what some of his more recent efforts may lead us to believe, can actually act quite well when he’s in the right movie. His McClane is a character that is not invincible and that adds legitimate suspense that would not be there if the character were a larger than life superhero. Indeed we see him bleed when he falls down and despite the fact that he does die hard, it is not inconceivable that he may fail in his mission. That adds more weight to the story and elevates it above the normal shoot-em-up flick. There’s no way a Stallone or Schwarzenegger could have pulled this role off.

I won’t spend too much time on plot details, as most viewers have already seen Die Hard or doubtlessly heard about it. New York Cop John McClane (Willis) travels to Los Angeles to visit his wife (whom he’s separated but not divorced from) at Christmas time. She works for an international conglomerate that has its headquarters in a very tall office building. McClane meets up with her at her office and waits for the office party to break up. When, just as luck would have it, a band of international terrorists show up. Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) leads the terrorists, who seize control of the buildings maintenance, shutting down telephone lines and putting the building on lockdown, and then pull off an armed capture of all the office partygoers. Their intent is to use the hostages as a means of distracting from their real intent, which is an electronic funds transfer of millions of dollars (at one point the head of the company asks Gruber “What kind of terrorist are you?” and Gruber chuckles and replies “Who said anything about terrorists?”).

McClane isn’t in the vicinity of the terrorist when they strike and so he retreats to an unoccupied sector of the building and from there laucnhes a private one man war against the villains.

Rickman makes an excellent villain. It’s a common view among many film critics that the quality of the James Bond movies is often determined by how good the villain is. That’s often the case there and it’s also the case in many action movies outside of the 997 series as well. Rickman has an appropriate level of charm and menace. He manages to dial down and not go screamingly over the top, except in situations where that’s warranted. Plus, he doesn’t go totally moronic when things start to go wrong, the way many villains do in Hollywood movies, making their defeat an obvious conclusion.

There is also the interplay between McClane and a local area cop named Al Powell (Reginald Veljohnson of TV fame as Carl Winslow on Family Matters). There is a scene where McClane has utilized a makeshift bomb to take out terrorists who were shooting at a group of trapped LAPD officers and in the aftermath he asks if the building is on fire. Powell replies “No. But it’s going to need a paint job and a shitload of screen doors”. There are also some moments of genuine drama when Powell tells McClane why he left the street beat.

I do not want to dig too much into the action sequences, since there is a certain element of fun in seeing them for the first time without being aware of what is going to happen. Just let me say that you will see much had to hand combat and a few scenes that literally leave people hanging.

So yes, Die Hard is definitely a great action film. Yet, in some ways, it also transcends its genre and becomes a great movie regardless. That’s why it stands as a classic.

Derivative: imitative of the work of another person, and usually disapproved of for that reason. See: Gangster Squad

Gangster Squad

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$3.99 at Amazon 

(2/5)

Pros: Good cast.

Cons: So derivative, it makes you just wish you were watching the originals.

(This review originally appeared on Epinions.com)

Reuben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad is one of the most obviously derivative movies in recent memory. It rips off Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables with a few elements of LA Confidential and Chinatown thrown in for good measure. Fleischer was obviously thinking of the axiom: If you’re going to steal, steal from quality sources. This movie however is proof that this doesn’t always work.

In the classic De Palma film, Eliot Ness set out to take down Al Capone as mandated by his bosses at the Treasury Department. To do so, he was instructed by a veteran Chicago cop that he would have to throw the rule book out the window. He followed this advice and began being a serious pain in the you know what to Capone. At one point, we see Capone take a Louisville slugger to the head of an associate who messed up.

In Gangster Squad, idealistic LA cop John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) is assigned by Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) to go outside the law to take down gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). To do so, O’Mara recruits a squad of fellow cops to assist in his war against Cohen. He soon starts being a pain in the you know what to the gangster. At one point, Cohen brutally slaughters an associate with a power drill.

So basically, Gangster Squad rips off the earlier film in most regards, It adds in a little unsanctioned romance, switches the time from the 30s to the 40s, the locale from Chicago to LA and the lead villain from Capone to Cohen. Other than that it’s an inferior rehash.

The Untouchabes had some fantastic direction, a great script by David Mamet and a truly excellent cast (Costner, Connery and De Niro). Gangster Squad has a very good cast (Brolin, Penn, Nolte, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone). But lacks in the area of direction and script.

Say what you will about De Palma as a director. But you can’t deny the man brings style to what he does. Flesicher doesn’t seem to be able to do that. His approach is suited for comedy as Zombieland proves. But crime noir may not be his forte.

The script meanwhile, in addition to being derivative, gives us characters. But doesn’t take much time to develop them. Cohen is depcited as an over the top psycho to rival Tony Montana. O’Mara is a family man who must go above and beyond to accomplish his mission. Ryan Gosling’s Jerry Wooters is the maverick of sorts. Emma Stone as Grace Faraday is the typical woman in pictures of this type. Yeah, the bulk of the people here are pretty two-dimensional.

I’ve seen some reviews that complain about the historical inaccuracies in Gangster Squad. Yeah it does play fast and loose with history. The Untouchables did too (Both Capone and Cohen went down thanks to the IRS). One particular review in Salon complained that it glamorizes the LAPD at a time when it should not have been glamorized. I won’t get into that. But I will say that LA Confidential is more accurate in that regard even if it is totally fiction.

Gangster Squad does offer some mild entertainment. However, it’s not really worth going out of your way for. If you’re looking for a cops and gangsters thriller of this type, just stick with The Untouchables.

The Untouchables Of The 90s.

New Jack City

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$14.98 at Amazon 

(4/5)

Pros: Wesley Snipes is superb, the direction is done well and Van Peebles stages the action sequences well.

Cons: Some pretty weak dialogue, dated elements.

New Jack City is one film that is regarded as a classic by many people. But truthfully, in some regards it has not aged well. It’s not a case of wine turning totally into vinegar. But people who are new to it might wonder what all the fuss was back in the early 90s.

Many a review has compared NJC to Scarface. But I think a more accurate comparison can be made with another one of Brian De Palma’s more popular films: 1987’s The Untouchables. That film, which focused on Al Capone and the cops who took him down, was a great example of 1920s set gangster pulp. NJC, directed by Mario Van Peebles in his directorial debut, sets out to do the same for the 1980s crack era in New York City. Hence, it feels in some ways like a classic gangster picture mixed with elements of blackspoloitation films and social commentary.

Wesley Snipes takes the lead role in a starmaking performance as drug lord Nino Brown. Brown has become quite rich by selling crack to poor people. But he realizes that he can get richer by setting up a distribution center. So, along with his men, he seizes control of an apartment complex, forces the tenants out and uses it to to distribute his crack.

Out to take Nino down are some streetwise cops. There’s Ice-T in his acting debut as Scott Appleton, a streetwise cop with a personal vendetta against Nino. Then there’s Judd Nelson as Nick Paretti, a cop who’s been through addiction himself. Appleton and Paretti are teamed up by their boss Detective Stone (Van Peebles). As is par for the course in movies of this type, they don’t get along at first. But eventually develop a grudging respect for one another amidst a termination to get the job done.

Discussing the cast, I would be remiss without mentioning Chris Rock in his first major role as Pookie, a young addict. We first meet him when he’s involved in a deal with an undercover Appleton. He tries to rip Appleton off and this leads to one of the better foot chases I’ve seen in a movie. After Scotty bust him, he later encounters him again after he’s become addicted to crack. He gets him into rehab. Afterwards, Pookie wants ot help brign Nino down. Despite his doubts, Appleton agrees.

Ice-T, Nelson, Rock and Van Peebles are all decent in their roles. But by far, the best performance in New Jack City is by Wesley Snipes. He plays Nino Brown as a charismatic yet truly evil sociopath. He sees his crack business as just that: a business. He doesn’t care how many people are hurt or killed because of it. Yet he’s not over the top as many villains of his ilk often are. He knows when to go over and when to dial down. This performance alone makes this worth watching.

Van Peebles direction is also done well. Prior to this, his main experience had been directing television. Here he transitions to movies quite well. He shows off a command of filmmaking that isn’t over the top. But doesn’t fall into just point the camera and shoot territory either. This film started his career off promisingly. But sadly, with a few exceptions, he never quite lived up to the potential he displayed here.

On the debit side, there is the matter of some weak dialogue. Lines like “He’s gonna hanging with Elvis” and ” I wanna shoot you so bad my dick’s hard” sound as laughable when spoken as they do being typed. Plus, there are certain elements of the film that immediately scream late 80s early 90s. While this was one of the first films to legitimately deal with the hip-hop culture, it’s more dated than other films of that era that also took it on.

On the whole however, New Jack City still does hold up. It may not be fresh. But it can still be enjoyed as a decently made period piece and a chance to see Wesley Snipes give a great performance. It doesn’t transcend the genre. But as far as genre films go, it’s a damn good one.

Not “Almost” classic. But entertaining nonetheless.

Almost Interesting-David Spade

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$11.99 at Amazon 

(3/5)

Pros: Self-deprecating, some interesting tidbits, an enjoyable read overall.

Cons: Choppy writing style, over-emphasis on cheap humor in spots, certain aspects overdone.

I’ve been a Saturday Night Live fan most of my life. Along with George Carlin, Monty Python and The Simpsons, it was one of the crucial shapers of my sense of humor. While it’s been a long time since I watched the show on a regular basis, there’s no denying it was one of the leading institutions of American comedy.

Yet unlike other institutions like the aforementioned Simpsons or Seinfeld, it’s surprising that there have been very few books written about it. The best of those still remains 2002’s “Live From New York” by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales (which was recently expanded and updated). At some point I will have to check out Tine Fey and Amy Poehler’s books. But in terms of insider takes from cast members, those have been limited.

Which makes David Spade’s 2015 memoir “Almost Interesting” all the more welcome. It doesn’t reach the level a book of this type should. But if nothing else, it’s way better than Jay Mohr’s self-pitying whinefest from about a decade ago.

While Mohr’s book was devoted strictly to his two years at SNL, Spade’s is closer to an actual memoir. He devoted the first four chapters of the 227 page book to talking about his childhood and school and college years as well as losing his virginity. From there he talks about discovering his passion and talent for comedy and how stand-up led to SNL.

The SNL chapters are what will likely draw many people to this book. Spade talks about getting hired along with Rob Schneider. Like the aforementioned Mohr, he struggled for a few years finding his groove at the venerated comic institution. But unlike Mohr, he was more successful. Also, unlike Mohr, he’s pretty self-deprecating and doesn’t fall into the indulgent whining that sank that book.

The self-deprecating aspect of the book makes it an entertaining read, even though it does get a tad obnoxious in spots. Also, there are times where Spade tend to overuse all capital letters for certain people (LORNE Michaels in one particular instance).

The tidbits that Spade reveals about SNL are entertaining as are his reflections on his late friend Chris Farley.

So, this is a fun and entertaining read. But it isn’t a classic either. In addition to the choppy writing style, He abruptly ends his discussion of the SNL years without talking about them ending. He also doesn’t talk much about his stand-up or TV/movie career post SNL. Considering that he was on a sitcom (Just Shoot Me) that lasted for several seasons, one would think that should have been included.

Overall, this book is both more and less than it could have been. It’s worth a read. But the great SNL memoir still has yet to be written.

“Wouldn’t stop it if we could it’s a hood thing”

2Pac-Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z.

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$8.39 at Amazon 

(4/5)

Pros: A handful of classics and some other good songs, improved production from his first album

Cons: Repetitive in spots, not as good as Me Against The World.

(This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Epinions.com)

Tupac Shakur is easily one of the most widely debated characters ever in the history of popular music. Brilliant MC or overrated average one who simply got elevated to the level he did because there were bullets in Vegas with his name on them? A good argument can be made for both sides. Was he the greatest MC ever? The G O A T? No way. His flow wasn’t always the best and his rhyming could be off at times. Plus there were times where his lyrics could be a tad too generic. Even his rival Notorious BIG was a better MC. But was Tupac talented. He certainly was.

But I came here to praise the fallen brother and my personal favorite album by him: 1993’s Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. Notice I said personal favorite. This does not mean that it is his best (that honor goes to 1995’s Me against the World, which has better production and songs). But it does mean that it is the one Tupac disc I would take to a desert island.

Strictly was Tupac’s second album after 1991’s 2pacalypse Now. That album spun off a couple minor hits with “Trapped” and the poignant teenage pregnancy number “Brenda’s got a Baby”. That album was inconsistent, yet the good moments (including the aforementioned singles) showed that there was talent at work.

Strictly represents a major improvement. There’s more stand-out songs here and the production, while still inconsistent and not that distinguished, has gotten better, pointing in the direction he would take on his next two albums.

At the time it was released, Strictly was one of the angriest rap albums on the market. The fact that it managed to come out on the heels of Ice Cube’s The Predator and Paris’s Sleeping With The Enemy and beat both in terms of pure fury should offer some indication as to how pissed off Tupac was.

And he had good reason to be angry. At the time of the album’s release, he had come off of some run-ins with the police; specifically the Oakland PD. Plus there was also the matter of being attacked by then VP-notorious misspeller Dan “Potatoe” Quayle. Apparently VP Potato Head felt that the lyrical content of 2Pacalypse had inspired a Texas 19-year old to shoot and kill a state trooper. That was later proven false. But Quayle went on TV and pronounced the album as having “no place in our society” and demanded that it be pulled off of record store shelves. This was of course around the same time that Mr. Potato Head went after Murphy Brown for having a baby out of wedlock. But I digress.

Strictly opens with the hard-hitting “Holler If Ya Hear Me” Complete with a sample from George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog”, this song announces that Tupac’s back and it’s no more Mr. Nice Guy. This song has a high level of energy that will get you moving and the lyrics show off his toughness quite well. No, the punk police will not fade him. This is one of his more forgotten ones (why it got left off his “Greatest Hits” I’ll never know) that should be better known.

After the skippable interlude “Pac’s Theme”, we continue on with Tupac taking the finger pointed at him and flipping it right back at his detractors in “Point The Finger”. In fact, that’s the prominent theme of this album, Tupac taking on everyone who tried to keep him down and showing them that he’s never going down.

Highlights in that regard include “Souljah’s Revenge”, the excellent Ice Cube-Ice-T collaboration “Last Wordz” and parts of the all-star jam closing track “5 Deadly Venomz”.

Lest you think this album is all unbridled rage at cops and the government, guess again. There are moments of genuine vulnerability scattered throughout the album. On “The Streetz R Deathrow” (not a reference to the label) he reflects on the hellish aspects of growing up in the inner city over a Barry White Sample. “Papa’z Song” is an angry rant at the absentee father he barely knew that lets you feel the pain of parental abandonment.

Then there’s “Keep Ya Head Up”. One of Tupac’s most emotionally affecting songs, this ode to black women shows off the caring side of Shakur the best. Over a slow funk sample, he warns his fellow men against mistreating women and offers encouragement to the single mothers and women on welfare. If you ever have someone claim that rap is all nihilistic violence and misogyny, have them listen to this song. Along with “Dear Mama” it is probably Tupac at his most vulnerable.

On the other side of the equation, there’s “I Get Around”, which shows off the other side of Tupac: the player side. Easily the most purely fun song on this grim album, this one will always sound great at a party. Yet it also works as a study in contradictions: in the last song discussed he was urging that women be treated with respect, here he’s treating them as sex objects.

Not to say that Strictly is strictly perfect. There are a couple of forgettable tracks (“Peep Game” and “Guess Who’s Back”). Some of the themes (bad cops, censorship, and bad government) do get repetitive at times. Also, the two unnecessary interludes should’ve been ditched.

Those complaints aside, Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z works well as Tupac’s toughest, angriest album. It’s better than the under produced 2Pacalypse and the filler cluttered All Eyez On Me (although that one is better produced). It may be harder to find these days. But it’s definitely worth the search.

“You wanna play rough? SAY HELLO TO MY LITTLE FRIEND!!!!!!”

Scarface

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Multi-Format $19.99 at Amazon 

(4/5)

Pros: Pacino, De Palma’s direction, classic line

Cons: Giorgio Moroder’s synth score.

(This review originally appeared in different form on Epinions.com)

In 1983, Brian De Palma was offered the opportunity to direct Flashdance. He declined. Instead, he chose to direct a 1980s re-make of a 1932 Howard Hawks film starring Paul Muni. De Palma made the right decision. While Flashdance has moments (most of them involving Jennifer Beals) that make it worth watching, it hasn’t gone down as a full fledged classic the way the movie De Palma decided to do instead has.

That movie of course turned out to be Scarface. Starring Al Pacino, with De Palma in the directors chair and a script penned by Oliver Stone, the result is a gangster movie that none too subtly comments on the decade of excess.

Scarface begins with some documentary footage of the Mariel boatlift. It is revealed that when Castro allowed Cubans to migrate to the United States in 1980 he didn’t just allow the innocent people who wanted a chance at freedom and opportunity. No, he emptied his jails and mental hospitals. Among those criminals who migrated to the US is a fictional one named Tony Montana (Al Pacino).

We first see Montana scheming his way past some immigration officials. He ends up in a refugee camp with his best bud Manny (Steven Bauer). Opportunity comes his way when he is offered a chance to get a green card for himself and Manny by killing a Cuban who worked for Castro. He agrees and soon has the card. However, his first job is working as a dishwasher at a Cuban sandwich stand. Tony wants the American dream. But he has no desire to do any real work for it. So when offered a crack at the South Florida drug trade he takes it. Before long, he’s risen through the ranks and rules the roost (apologies for mixing metaphors).

Scarface is (like Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas) a portrayal of a man who so desperately loves material wealth that he’s willing to go to any length to get it. But it is way less subtle about this than Scorsese’s film was. It is probably the most over the top studio gangster movie ever made. That alone makes it a classic. The movie is three hours long. But I’ve never been bored while watching it.

If the over the top aspect of the movie is what has made it a classic, it also keeps it from reaching masterpiece status the way the aforementioned Goodfellas has. In that film, Scorsese knew when to go over the top and when to reign it in. De Palma does not know when to reign it in. Subtlety was not in his vocabulary (nor in Stone’s for that matter) in 1983.

Pacino gives what may be the most iconic performance he’s ever given. What makes it work is that he knows when to dial down. He goes over the top 90% of the time and the film calls for that. The other 10% in scenes where he refuses to kill an innocent woman and child and scenes involving his younger sister (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) helps make Montana a real character, not a comic book caricature.

Like I said earlier, De Palma’s direction here is not subtle at all. But that’s not a criticism per se. Unsubtlety is what Scarface needs to really work and he gives it his all. It’s a film about the excesses of the 80s sure. But it still holds up today for a couple reasons. One is the influence the movie has on the hip-hop culture of today, particularly the gangsta rap element. The other is that Tony Montana is not much different from the white collar thieves of today. Take the guns away from Tony and you’d have Bernie Madoff.

The one part of Scarface that has become dated is Giorgio Moroder’s score. The synth beats immediately scream 80s.

The direction, characters, acting by Pacino, Bauer, Robert Loggia and Mastrantonio and Stone’s script combine to make Scarface the classic that it is. Even though it may be a great movie instead of a full fledged masterpiece, it’s still worthy of its status.

“And if you don’t know”, well it won’t tell you anything you don’t already know.

Notorious

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$9.99 at Amazon 

(2/5)

Pros: Pretty good direction, some good acting by Basset and Luke, the music of cou

Cons: Nothing revealed, rushed feel.

(This review originally appeared in different form on Epinions.com)

When I first saw a trailer for Notorious, my initial thought was “wow they did the Biggie movie pretty quickly. Next up, the Tupac movie”.

Yet I was curious to see it seeing as I own and love both of Biggie Smalls’ albums. Seeing as I like director George Tillman Jr’s work (Soul Food, Men Of Honor) as melodramatic as it can get at times. Seeing as I find myself drawn to bio-pics of musicians I like even as many of them turn out tto e average or bad for every good one.

Yet I missed seeing Notorious during its theatrical run. In fact I more or less forgot about it until about a year ago when I went iinto my local FYE and bought the remastered version of Ready To Die to replace the original (which got stolen from me at a party in the late 90s). After taking the album home and giving it a re-listen for the first time in a couple years, I remembered Notorious. So I rented it from Netflix.

Tillman’s direction is very good here. The film is shot well, there is some good acting and the way he integrates the music into the story is very good. Unfortunately, on the whole, Notorious is a letdown.

First off, this movie doesn’t really tell me anything about Biggie that I didn’t already know or couldn’t just as easily learn from reading his WIkipedia entry. We see him played in a sort of fast-forward fashion. His life is shown and high points are touched on. But we never really get a feel for the man. The movie has a rushed feel, similar to Oliver Stone’s George W Bush movie, although this one is better put together that the Stone film.

As other reviewers have pointed out, the movie doesn’t really show the talent in Christopher Wallace, the drive that made him successful for a brief period in the mid 90s. It depicts what happened to him as being based primarily on luck and while luck did play something of a role, he would not be as well-regarded today if the talent wasn’t there.

On the plus side, there is some good acting here. The best performance is by (the underused nowadays) Angela Basset as Voletta Wallace, Biggie’s mother. There’s also good acting by Derek Luke as Sean “Puffy’Puff Daddy/P Diddy/Diddy/Diddy Whatever He’s Callimg Himself nowadays” Combs and Anthony Mackie as Biggie’s friend turned foe Tupac. This leads to another plus for Notorious: it gets the details of the Biggie-Tupac feud down right as far as I can tell. Jamal Woolard is okay as Biggie. He looks like him. But he never really brings him to life.

In some ways I suspect that the problem might be that Tillman and his screenwriters were not sure how to handle a Biggie bio-pic. It’s easy to forget that Biggie’s time in the spotlight was relatively short. Unlike with a Ray or Walk The Line, there wasn’t a massive wealth of material for the filmmakers to draw from. So in trying to follow the conventional approach, they ended up short-changing their subject.

Notorious is far from the level of a Walk The Line. But it’s ahead of misfires like The Doors and Why Do Fools Fall In Love. But if you want to learn about Biggie Smalls I’d suggest reading the book Unbelievable that this movie was based on. Of course I’d also suggest buying both Ready To Die and Life After Death if you don’t own them already.

The Cinematic Equivalent of “put a little pep in your step!”

Larry Crowne

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$6.22 at Amazon 

(2/5)

Pros: Likable characters.

Cons: Who are all Mary Sue types.

(This Review Originally Appeared On Epinions.com)

Tom Hanks “Larry Crowne” is what a meal at Hooters would be like if the waitresses wore regular waitress clothing. It goes down easy, much like the food itself at that chain. But it’s bland as hell and instantly forgettable.

“Crowne” is Hanks’ second effort behind the camera after 1996’s “That Thing You Do”. That movie, while also relatively lightweight as far as movies about musicians go, at least had some ambition and conflict to it. It wasn’t the edgiest movie ever. But it worked.

To the extent that “Crowne” does work, it’s on account of the fact that the movie has heart. The titular character (played by Hanks) is a genuinely likable guy. We begin the film feeling sympathy for him. The problem is, he’s also kind of one dimensional.

As the film begins we see Crowne at work at his job as a manager at a Wal-Mart type retail store. It;s a dead end job. But it pays good, Larry’s good at it and he seems to like it. Then he’s called to the break room for what he thinks will be his fourth consecutive selection as employee of the month. Instead he’s informed that his lack of a college degree renders him unfit for advancement within the company and so Crowne is sent packing.

Crowne maintains his sunny demeanor throughout this even as frustration is hinted from time to time. In some ways that can be endearing. In other ways, it gets annoying after a while. There’s time where we wish for Larry to cut loose, tell us how he really feels at being fired for what is at heart a ridiculous reason. Instead we don’t see it.

That’s one of the movies main problems: the characters are all what are commonly referred to as Mary Sue types. For the uninitiated that means “Completely flawless and perky”. The only character in here who could be considered a jerk in any way is Bryan Crnaston and he’s a total jerk. No depth to these characters at all.

The most interesting character in the film is George Takei as an economics professor. Takei plays up his Star Trek past in a way that doesn’t directly reference it. He’s easily the most fun of all the characters in this movie.

Crowne, based upon a recommendation from his neighbor (Cedric The Entertainer), decides to enroll at the local community classes. The classes he takes include the economics one taught by Takei and a public speaking one taught by Julia Roberts. It’s in the public speaking class where the romantic subplot gets introduced. Of course we know that Hanks and Roberts will end up together. Never a doubt as to that.

Roberts does nothing new in her role as the put upon teacher with a husband (Cranston) who spends his days surfing the web for porn while he claims to be writing.

Hanks direction here is workmanlike. He’s not a show-off when it comes to his work behind the camera. He presents the story in an easy to follow way, which is appropriate for it. No, the direction is not the problem with Larry Crowne. The main problems have to do with the script.

The premise of Larry Crowne isn’t a bad one per se. The main problem is that the premise is used in the service of what is at heart filler. Consider that Hanks co-wrote the aforementioned script with Nia Vardalos. Vardalos, who wrote the much overpraised My Big Fat Greek Wedding, specializes in writing cinematic bubblegum (and acting in it as well). It’s hard to tell whether it’s her or Hanks who’s responsible for the screenplays lack of conflict and one-dimensionality. At heart, the movie is fun. But there’s limited personality and no depth at all. I strongly suspect that a director like Cameron Crowe could have given this movie a lot more depth and more developed personality.

Larry Crowne isn’t a disaster. It’s entertaining enough to serve as an alternative to bottom of the barrel claptrap. But at heart it’s like the boss who constantly says “Come on people. Put a little PEP in your step!”. When a movie gets like that, most people will have little desire to see it more than once.

“Y’all got cocaine eyes”

Blow

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$4.99 at Amazon 

(4/5)

Pros: Lead performance by Johnny Depp and Ted Demme’s direction

Cons: Penelope Cruz, basic story somewhat familiar.

(This review originally appeared in different form on Epinions.com)

Consider this story: a young man comes from a modest background and aspires to make something of himself as most people do. His father tries to teach him about the value of hard work. But his advice goes unheeded. Instead the young man is attracted to the other side of the law. He soon becomes a focal point in his area of criminal expertise. But this will ultimately lead to his downfall.

That’s the story told in “Blow”, Ted Demme’s 2001 (final) film. It’s an entertaining story. But many experienced moviegoers will note the obvious similarities to works by cinematic masters like Scorsese (Goodfellas), De Palma (Scarface) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights).

Similarities to previous masterworks aside, “Blow” is a pretty good film in its own right for a couple reasons. One is superb direction by Demme, The other is a fantastic lead performance by Johnny Depp.

Blow tells the story of George Jung (Depp), who, as the film begins is a teenager living with his parents. His father (Ray Liotta) is a workingman while his mother is very materialistic. Jung sees his father do lots of backbreaking work for little money and does not want to follow in his footsteps. His father tries to tell him that “money doesn’t really matter”. Needless to say, his advice is unheeded.

In 1968, George is a young man who goes to California with his best friend. Out there he takes to lazing on the beach and soon meets some people who introduce him to a new lucrative world, the world of drug dealing.

First off George establishes himself as a mid-level pot dealer. He gets pretty successful at that until 1972 when he gets busted. He attempts to plead innocence with Bob Dylan lyrics and his claim that he “crossed an invisible line with a plant”. His plea fails and he is jailed. It’s in prison where he meets another inmate who introduces him to a more lucrative type of drug dealing, that of cocaine.

After getting out of prison, George attempts to establish himself as a cocaine dealer. And he becomes quite good at it. He has soon built up quite a “respectable” business. This business draws the attention of South American drug lord Pablo Escobar (Cliff Curtis). Escobar and Jung come up with a plan to import cocaine into the US. This is what would gain Jung his infamy, when he helps to establish the cocaine market in the US.

At the time of its release, Blow attracted quite a bit of controversy. Many people, especially those of the social conservative variety, claimed that it was too sympathetic in its portrayal of a drug dealer. I can’t really agree. It shows that Jung did do some bad things. But it never forgot that he was a human being. Plus, let’s not forget that many individual users choose to use the cocaine themselves.

Depp is superb. It’s easy to forget now after all the variations he’s played on Jack Sparrow for the past 12 year or so. But he’s truly an excellent character actor. He plays Jung as neither hero nor villain. But as man with both good and bad points.

Also great in the acting department are Liotta, Cliff Curtis as Pablo Escobar and Paul Reubens as a California drug dealer. However, the film’s weakest link in the acting department is Penelope Cruz. Cruz is pretty to look at. But her character here comes off as shallow and annoying. Maybe that’s how the character was in real life. But her constant screeching grated on my nerves after a while.

Also making the film a cut above is Demme’s direction. Demme, while clearly influenced by Scorsese, manages to make the film his own. He lets the tension in it unfold naturally and the atmosphere perfectly evokes the period it was set in. Also like the Italian American titan, his choice of music selections is well-done.

Blow, while not quite a full-fledged classic on the level of its cinematic forebears, is a well-done cinematic study of a complicated man.

Darkness Coming Down

Taxi Driver

 

$18.46 at Amazon 

(5/5)

Pros: Scorsese’s direction, Schrader’s screenplay, the acting, the cinematography and atmosphere.

Cons: Will get under your skin big time.

(This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Epinions.com)

It’s a line. It’s one that you’ve doubtlessly heard many times. One that you’ve probably said many times. Sometime when you’re on the phone with a person and they say something and you’re not sure it was directed at you. So what do you say?

You talkin’ to me?

Of course 99% of people will know that line even if they haven’t seen Taxi Driver. That line has joined the likes of “Here’s Looking At You Kid” and “May the force be with you” in cinematic history.

As for the film itself: It would be an understatement to say that it holds up. It did not win any Oscars. Yet it still can be watched and admired (“enjoyed” might be too strong a word to use here) nowadays (I wonder how many people will watch and admire Titanic in 10 years).

Most people familiar with cinematic history will know the background on Taxi Driver. How Paul Schrader wrote the script while going through a time of personal torment living in Los Angeles. How Martin Scorsese ended up with the script after Brian De Palma turned it down. How Taxi Driver became his second collaboration with Robert De Niro after Mean Streets (the movie that put Scorsese on the cinematic map). How the MPAA threatened the film with an X rating for (surprise surprise in this paranoid of sex day and age) graphic violence. How Scorsese desaturated the colors in the scene the MPAA complained about and this made the film even more effective. How Taxi Driver went on to become something of a box office hit (albeit not quite a smash on the level of say Jaws) and a critical favorite. How it got overlooked at the Oscars in favor of a certain boxing movie not named Raging Bull. If not, then that last paragraph was the summary.

De Niro plays Travis Bickle, an insomniac Vietnam vet loner. It’s the insomnia that leads him to apply for a job driving cabs. When we first meet Travis we learn a few minor details about his life. He seems at first like many loners we’ve known, both in the movies and in real life. As the story progresses we see him gradually become unhinged. There have been numerous movies that show the lead character doing just that. Some have done quite well. But few have done it as well as Taxi Driver.

While on one of his runs, Travis sees Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) a campaign worker for Senator Palantine (a senator whose rhetoric mirrors that of then future would be aspirants to public office like Ross Perot and Jesse Ventura). He starts becoming somewhat obsessed with her and starts putting the moves on. At first she rebuffs him. But after a little pushing agrees to accompany him to a movie. Unfortunately, Travis chooses a porno movie and this of course does not go over well. The next woman to figure prominently in Travis’s life is 13-year old prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster). Travis simultaneously becomes obsessed with rescuing her from her pimp (Harvey Keitel) and taking out Senator Palantine.

Up until the late 1960s, early 1970s, movies had more or less clearly established their heroes and villains. Then with the likes of Bonnie and Clyde in 1968 things began to change. The antihero began to emerge.

Travis Bickle in a way is the perfect big screen antihero. He begins the film as a more or less ordinary guy and gradually goes insane (although the movie does subtly hint there may have been signs of that beforehand). What makes him go crazy? The movie shows how the crime and pollution he witnesses around him is a factor albeit not the sole reason. Part of it is also a desire to leave a mark of some kind on the world. In a way by looking at Travis Bickle we also get a look into the minds of real life disturbed lunatics like John Hinckley and Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.

Scorsese’s direction helps keep the tension in the film at just the right level. He knows when to underplay it and when to let it boil over. This is an instinct that has served him well throughout his career.

The cinematography works well. New York city is portrayed as neither heaven nor hell. But as a sort of purgatory. We see the demons all around be they Keitel’s pimp or a psychotic passenger in Travis’s cab (played by Scorsese himself) who talks openly about brutally murdering his former wife. Scenes of driving through rain or seeing the high amount of trash resulting from a garbage strike that affected NY at the time this was filmed help us join in Travis’ descent into madness. Bernard Herman’s score is another of the elements that make this film so effective.

As far as the acting goes, what more needs to be said? De Niro has given many a great performance over the years and some of the weak jobs he has taken recently cannot erase that. This may be his definitive performance. He shows Travis evolve from paranoid loner to crazy man to would be assassin to wherever he may be after the credits roll. Jodi Foster is just as good as the should be innocent girl who’s got a certain sense of wisdom beyond her years. Keitel, Peter Boyle and Scorsese himself are good in their supporting roles. Shepherd is a little wooden here and there. But this does not damage the film at all.

Taxi Driver, in addition to being a landmark of the cinema of the 70s, also opened the door for many of the films that would come along later. Movies like Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down and Neil Jordan’s The Brave One (also with Foster) owe a debt in both style and content to Scorsese’s masterpiece. So if you’re looking for a film with great acting, a compelling story and one that does not pull punches at all, then Taxi Driver is the film to see.