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The Man from Earth (reviewed by Ben)

You’ve probably noticed that most of the movies we review on this page are successful, or at least well-known. So you might be surprised th...

Friday, December 2, 2016

Barton Fink (reviewed by Dad)

The kids have already been introduced to the Joel and Ethan Coen, first through their Horatio Alger business fairy tale Hudsucker Proxy, more recently through that weird concoction of quirk and grit that is Fargo.  So – unsure what would be the result – it was time to introduce Ben to what I consider to be the Brother’s Coen’s very best picture: Barton Fink.
The title character of this 1991 dark work (played by John Turturro) is an idealistic, young playwright who, after a smash hit on Broadway, is offered the chance to write for the pictures.  This requires him to relocate to Hollywood where he splits his time between the studio and a residential hotel, each of which compete for the most hellish tormenter of Barton’s soul.
On the studio lot, he has to navigate between Jack Lipnick, the crazed megalomaniac who helms the studio (played brilliantly by Michael Lerner), and other Hollywood types including studio player Ben Geisler (Tony Shalhoub), a Faulkner-like fellow writer (also a sous and brute) W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney) and Mayhew's secretary-with-a-secret Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis).
Speaking of secrets, Barton shares the floor of his decaying hotel with traveling insurance salesman Charlie Meadows (played by John Goodman).  On the surface, Charlie is one of the ordinary schmoes Barton writes about in his “socially relevant” dramas. But might he be more than that?
While the characterizations in this ensemble alone would make Barton Fink a masterpiece, the locations (especially Barton’s hotel/prison) are are almost characters in their own right.  And no film in history has depicted the lunacy of Hollywood and the suffering associated with writer’s block with Barton Fink’s combination of cinematography and mania.
The kids are definitely getting schooled enough in film to start exposing them to stories that require appreciation of the self-referentiality that has led to more than one Hollywood classic (from Singing in the Rain to The Player, Hollywood’s best products tend to be about itself).  But I wasn’t sure how Ben would react to some of the surprises in the story, especially those that appear on the surface to be surreal diversions, but in fact speak volumes about the nature of a main character (in this case, the seemingly talented but ultimately shallow Fink).
So, Ben, what did Barton do for you?
Ben Replies: It was so incredibly different from Fargo that I was caught by surprise. But I ended up loving Barton Fink. It was a truly intriguing movie that left me with more to think about than I’m used to at the end of earlier movie nights. The acting and writing were great.  My biggest criticism was that at times the performances were too subtle, which meant you couldn’t really tell what what the film was trying to say until long after you finish watching it. This meant I like the film less for perfect storytelling or intense entertainment, than for its thoughtful and meticulous qualities. In summary, I really liked it (although maybe not as much as Dad).

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Man from Earth (reviewed by Ben)

You’ve probably noticed that most of the movies we review on this page are successful, or at least well-known. So you might be surprised that one of our all-time favorite movies is one you’ve probably never heard of.  The Man From Earth (2007) was made for only $200,000 and it’s brilliance lies on the fact that it’s a gripping sci-fi tale consisting of seven people sitting in a room, just talking.

A group of college professors in varying fields hold a goodbye party for their friend, John Oldman, where John decides to reveal to his intellectual pals that he is thousands of years old, having been born a Cro Magnon.

What starts out as a friendly hypothetical conversation heats up as his friends realize he might just be telling the truth (or, at least, believes he is). Talk about a conversation starter for a biologist, a devout Christian, an anthropologist, and historian and an archaeologist, all experts in their fields who can’t quite prove that he’s wrong! It is a perfect way to include almost any topic in the film. If he really is so old, then surely he can tell you almost anything you want to know.

This kind of thinking drives the arc of the conversation, as his friends go from playfully questioning him to calling a psychologist to save him, eventually pulling a gun on him to see if he really is immortal like he says. It doesn’t quite sound like the film could keep you interested for an hour and a half, and yet it does. It perfectly demonstrates the dark side of human nature, but also convinces you there is hope within the bonds of friendship.

Many films today consists of the mindless action sequences with no heart (like Doctor Strange, which I saw with my brother last week). The “action” in Man From Earth consists mostly of discussion of everything from religion to cellular regeneration.  At its heart, however, it’s a movie about a man redeeming himself after several thousands years spent hiding, only to find that the world is not ready to accept him. It’s a lesson that’s hard to swallow but truly important, and not something you will not forget.

The fact that few have heard of this movie, it’s director, it’s screenwriter, and it’s stars is quite sad, but to be expected. Every year, action (especially superhero) movies, are the big cash machines.  And intellectual, over-dramatic, made-on-a-grand-scale yet heartless beyond the surface films are the big favorites come award season (see The Big Short, Shakespeare In Love and many more.) This film was a drama, and the biggest awards don’t go to such small films, even one as brilliant and intriguing as this one. There are so many great films out there that no one knows about, and The Man From Earth just might be the best I’ve ever seen.

The family has actually watched this movie twice. Each time, I remembered the thoughtful, quiet perfection that makes it so great. This movie has found it onto my list of favorites of all time, along with the likes of The Shawshank Redemption, and has proved that just a few people talking in a room has twice the intrigue of a ten-million-dollar blockbuster.

Dad Responds: The official name of this film is Jerome Bixby’s The Man from Earth, highlighting its pedigree as the work of the writer behind some of the most memorable classic Star Trek episodes (including the Spock-with-beard classic Mirror Mirror and Requiem for Methuselah, the third-season episode that inspired Man from Earth).

It’s been a huge pleasure that both boys enjoy this film enough to write about it (Ben on this blog, Eli on one of his college essays).  The movie is a genuine triumph of writing, full of chills and emotion, which tackles substantial issues (the origin of ideas, what it means to be human, etc.) through the medium of sci-fi - the very thing that made Star Trek such a breakthrough series.  

So I agree with everything Ben says, except his dissing of Shakespeare in Love - party pooper!.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Quiz Show (Reviewed by Dad)

The 1994 historic drama Quiz Show provided a peek into the early world of television and television game shows which gave contestants the chance to win thousands of dollars by showing off their smarts, demonstrating that anything was possible for “average American Joes” who knew their stuff.
The problem was that a number of winners in these programs didn’t need to know their stuff since many of those early TV quiz shows were fixed, feeding answers to contestants television viewers liked, while asking those the public had bored with to throw the match to the next up-and-coming personality.
Such was the fate of Herb Stemple (played by John Turtorro), a working class schlemiel whose braininess won him thousands before his winning streak on the game show 21 came to an end at the hands of the erudite Columbia professor Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes).
The film dramatizes actual events, including the exposure of the quiz show scandals which involved sponsors, producers and contestants getting hauled in to testify before Congress.  The pivot point of the story is congressional investigator Dick Goodwin, played by Rob Morrow (mostly known for his television work on Northern Exposure and Numb3rs) who befriends Van Doren, even as he investigates him at the behest of Stemple (who has let his loss fester into loathing of the WASPy academic who defeated him).
The people behind the film might have thought they were creating a political allegory to help us understand how the media manipulate the public, even as they feed us the images and stories we most desire (such as rags-to-riches tales which let us stare as tens of thousands of dollars exchange hands).  By the end of the film, however, it was not a political message that resonated but a human one.
Scenes featuring Goodwin and Van Doren, for example, are charged with tension as the young Jewish lawyer gets drawn into (and becomes infatuated with) his target’s family – Charles being the son of the famous scholar, poet and fellow Columbia professor Mark Van Doren (played brilliantly by Paul Scofield).  But these scenes feature just a fraction of the sparks generated when the younger Van Doren must confess his success, and later his dishonesty, to his father.
Generally, it is the older actors who dominate the screen – even in bit parts.  Paul Scofield is definitely the best thing in the picture.  But veteran character actor Allan Rich (playing Robert Kintnet – the head of the network during the quiz show scandals) was only slightly less brilliant than Scofield or legendary director Martin Scorsese in one of his few acting roles (as the cynical head of Geritol, sponsor of the crooked game show).
Not all is perfect with the younger cast members, however.  In fact, it was hard to concentrate on Murrow’s performance, give how much of his energy he was putting into affecting a Brookline (MA) accent.   Even Fiennes, who usually inhabits his roles un-self-consciously, seems to struggle with the ticks and language required to portray a scion of America’s intellectual aristocracy.
There is also a problem with the film’s central premise that the corruption of television quiz shows says something big and important (other than the fact that they are as fake as professional wrestling).  Which is why the movie’s best moments are small and intimate, requiring us to ask ourselves how we would respond if a big check was offered to us if we would simply make a distinction between entertainment and lies.  
Ben replies: Another one where I agree with you. Quiz Show is an oddity that shows that a film can be very flawed, while still being great for what it does right. This movie centers around three performances, two of which range from forgettable to not just not as good as they could have been, and I could name several other problems. However, so much of this film is unforgettable as an entertaining look into the world of entertainment.  The acting from the supporting cast and a quick-witted screenplay alone make the film worth watching.  It’s also one of the most clean movies that we’ve reviewed, with a PG rating (so nothing to watch out for but a slow second act and a couple of so-so performances).

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Reviewed by Ben)

Bathing in the sink, cars falling from the sky, stealing a house, Mark Ruffalo and Kirsten Dunst dancing around in their underwear as a man - hooked up to all kinds of wires - lies on the floor...

Sorry, what did I just watch? And what makes a vision as bizarre as director Michael Condry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind succeed as well as this movie does?

It’s hard to put your finger on where this film goes right, even as you realize you can’t take your eyes off the screen. In the hands of a less capable team, Eternal Sunshine would have been a cheesy mindbender that just couldn’t pull off the seriousness buried in a seemingly silly plot. In this dark comedy, however, sci-and romance go together like you never thought they would.

The movie is about something we all we wish we could do at one point in our life. Joel (Jim Carrey) is a man getting out of a serious relationship and discovers that his ex-lover, a colorful woman by the name of Clementine Kruckynski (Kate Winslet), has had a medical procedure which removed all memories of him.

Upon hearing this, he sets out to do the same.  But once he relives the memories, he changes his mind. The film is centrally about him running through his mind as if it were a maze, trying to get away from the doctors trying to get a hold of him to complete the memory-removal procedure. Unfortunately, he has to watch as scientists remove the priceless memories of his lover (who joins him on the race through his mind).

Those scientists play a unique role in this imaginative movie. For while this small group of friends who work in their office, they are completely unaware of the drama going on as Joel and Clementine - within their own reality - try to run away in hope they can call the whole memory-wipe off.

So what is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind exactly? A sci-fi mind bender? Maybe. A very dark comedy? A strong case could be made. I however, think that the sci-fi and laughs are there to provide a foil to a serious human story. The visuals are truly unique, but they play a part in one finest dramas I have ever seen, rather than take over the film.  

The movie is perfectly written, directed with impressive detail, and charmingly acted by some great performers. If it sounds like a “different for the sake of different” movie, know that watching Eternal Sunshine is a great experience for even the most traditional of cinemagoers.

The standouts in the cast include the two stars: an electric Kate Winslet and a much more toned-down Jim Carrey than one is used to. The medical staff include Tom Wilkinson as the older, thoughtful boss with a secret, Mark Ruffalo as the charming operator, Kirsten Dunst (who is especially good) as his girlfriend (the receptionist at the company), and Elijah Wood as a geeky intern who uses his knowledge about Clementine’s mind to replace Joel in her life. Their ensemble work is masterful.

It has a very complicated story and is certainly a movie one has to give their full attention to. There are a couple sex scenes, some drug references, and a whole lot of swearing, so I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. However, once you get around to watching this magnificent film, your view on film (and reality) will forever be altered.

Dad replies: I share Ben’s enthusiasm for this film, especially how they take elements of effects-driven science fiction and comedy and work them into a romantic drama with genuine heart.  This was one of the first pictures in which Jim Carrey (where did he go, by the way?) demonstrated his ability to turn in a heartfelt, powerful performance, rather than mug for the camera or explode into flames.  Truman Show placed him in a similarly unreal situation, but failed to invoke the core element that makes Eternal Sunshine such a triumph: a deep understanding that as much as love can hurt, it is the only part of the human condition that can not (and should never) be erased.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Goodby Lenin (reviewed by Dad)

This 2003 German charmer is set in East Germany, just before the “East” is dropped when the Berlin Wall fell and both halves of the country were united as simply “Germany.”

Years earlier, Mutter (played by Katrin Sab) was abandoned by her husband who defected to the West, leaving her to raise two children, Alex (played by Daniel Brühl) and his sister Lara, on her own. After emerging from nearly catatonic grief, she finds a renewed commitment to life by throwing herself into Party work, becoming an exemplary “comrade” in Erich Honecker’s East German “socialist paradise.”

The kids grow up to become working-class cogs in Berlin’s Communist economy, adding interest in the opposite sex to their repertoire as adolescence turned to  young adulthood. One such romantic pursuit leads Alex to one of the protest marches that broke out in Germany as the ripple effects of Gorbachev's Perestroika (reform) program reached the rest of the Warsaw Pact.

Unfortunately for Alex, his inadvertent participation the march led to a beating by the East German police, followed by arrest (all without reaching the girl).  Double unfortunately, Comrade Mom was on the street where the march and police attack took place, and watching her son get clobbered and dragged away caused her to have a heart attack and fall into a coma.

A lot takes place during her months-long coma (from which doctors said she would never recover), including the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of Communism and the reunification of Germany.  The kids roll with these changes, moving from earlier meaningless jobs to far more meaningful careers installing TV satellite dishes and working in a fast-food drive-through.  And, as it turns out, Mom’s nurse was the very girl Alex previously pursued (and subsequently caught during one of his many visits to the hospital to be by his mother’s side).

Just as they kiss, however, Mom springs from her coma - a miraculous recovery.  The only problem is that her fragile condition means that any shock (such as finding that her beloved Soviet system no longer exists) could trigger another heart attack and kill her.  Faced with this choice, Alex takes the only reasonable course of action (for a comedy movie script anyway): moving his mom back home and doing everything in his power to prevent her from discovering that history has transformed her world.

As it turns out, Alex is remarkably resourceful in maintaining this illusion, beginning with scrounging for East Germany food packaging into which he could stuff the West German (I mean German) products that had replaced Socialist pickles and coffee.  As time moves on and his mother becomes more lucid (and suspicious), his deceptions escalate.

This long set-up of a seemingly comedic premise might obscure the amount of heart in this picture.  Each character is endearing in his or her own way, even as they expend tremendous energy  hiding the truth from one another.  

Sab and Brühl are particularly good at combining warmth, intensity and eccentricity as they create the reality-distortion fields the family has shared for their whole lives.  And the subtle messages the filmmakers deliver are as complex as the power of nostalgia to make us long for what once made us miserable, and the way familial love can be communicated through deeds and glances, rather than words.  

Ben replies: The interesting premise, a great script, and impressive visuals (like the scene where the mother runs out of her apartment to see a changed world) fortunately make up for uninspiring acting. It’s a great mix of comedy and seriousness. Although it’s a slower-moving film that makes it better for more mature audiences, it has a lighter touch than you’d likely find in more “family” films. Certainly a strong candidate for your viewing.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

LA Confidential (Reviewed by Ben)

There’s a scene, late in Curtis Hanson’s L.A Confidential, where within the story, a brief synopsis of the plot is given. I think even the Sherlock Holmes of moviegoers will be grateful for this moment. That’s because this crime drama is very complicated, and unlike many films, that just makes a great film better.

L.A Confidential is the story of three drastically different cops in L.A’s new police department, taking place in the 1950’s. Each has a personal interest in a new case, which drives the film’s narrative. When we first meet them Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is more proud of his job as an adviser on cop shows than he his as an actual cop, Bud White (Russell Crowe) is a corrupt jerk who has a soft spot for women and a specific hatred for those who lay hands on them. He also despises goody two-shoes Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), who got Bud’s partner, Stensland, kicked off the force for beating up a group of Hispanics for a bit of Christmas fun.

Exley wants nothing more than to be promoted and be as well respected as his father. He is, at first glance, your average, incorruptible cop, but as his sense of honor gets challenged, he gets even more interesting. The crime that starts it all is the murder of Stensland and several others in a bar, and the case gets the title “The Night Owl Murders.” Bud wants to avenge his partner, and Exley just sees it as an opportunity for some more recognition. Vincenne’s doesn’t care about the Night Owl killings, and continues to fool around with celebrities, that is until an actor he knows is murdered.

It turns out the murders were part of a larger web of crime. They are also tied to a man who gives prostitutes plastic surgery so they look like famous actresses. This ties together as both Exley and White begin a romance with one of his creations (an award-winning Kim Bassinger). The final scenes are full of action, backstabbing and interestingly enough, the three men befriending each other. It has a bittersweet ending that I won’t spoil.

This is a movie that really delivers. The writing is quick and sharp with some great highlights. It has an incredibly complex story that is both entertaining and suspenseful. It is littered with twists and turns and unfortunate truths.

And then there’s the acting, which is something else. Spacey gives one of his best as the most likable character in the film. Pearce and Russell Crowe are equally good. But the most impressive thing is watching Bassinger’s Rita Hayworth lookalike twist Crowe’s morals. It’s also surprising how well acted the bit (or at least smaller) parts, such as the woman identifying a murder victim as her daughter and a rough district attorney who Bud almost kills.  Based on a book under the same name by James Elroy, Hansen and these great actors have made more than a movie. They’ve made a world.

There are things I love less, as there are with almost any movie. My main one was how the “bad guys” we’re just not developed enough. It was also hard to tell what their plan was, as this part was a little complex. You just don’t get involved enough in what they’re doing. But this query was nowhere near enough to stop me from loving the film as much as I did.

In two weeks since I watched it, this crime drama has grown to be one of my all-time favorites. It is also one of the most impressive one’s I’ve seen. It is an action-packed drama full of interesting character, clever moments and bright costumes, that any movie fan should enjoy-if not love.

Dad responds: I’ve been waiting for the boys to get old enough to start enjoying important movies with tougher stories and more adult themes.  Unlike so much R-rated rot that delivers little more than shock, gore or raunch, this modern noir masterpiece is built off not one, not two, but three fully-formed (and imperfect) heroes who each end the film in a far different place than where they began it.   

The setting (LA in the 50s when policing was informed by both military and Hollywood cultures) is a character in itself.  And while I agree with Ben that the story was complicated and the evil scheme a bit hard to unpack, such thoughtful complexity was welcome in a genre (the gritty cop drama) known more for characters exercising finger triggers vs. their (and the audience’s) grey matter.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Walk (Reviewed by Dad)

In 1974, French aerialist Philippe Petit walked across the Manhattan skyline on a tightrope (actually a steel cable) strung between the soon-to-be completed Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.  His caper to run a wire between the towers and his epic crossings (eight times!) were the subject of the 2008 documentary Man on a Wire.

The Walk, a more recent fictionalized version of the same story, is director Robert Zemeckis’ attempt to recreate the event as well as send a valentine to New York in general and the World Trade Center in particular.

I say fictionalized, but The Walk is more of a fairy tale whose mirthful nature is exemplified by the main character (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) narrating his story from atop the torch of the Statue of Liberty.  As flashbacks show us Petit’s upbringing in France, his discovery and falling in love with wire-walking, his mentorship by uber-grump Papa Rudy (played by Ben Kingsley), and his teaming up with friends to cross the towers of Notre Dame and then the Trade Center, Zemeckis’ Paris and New York bore the same relationship to reality as Hill Valley of Back to the Future did to actual 1950s small towns.

But just as this make-believe moved from wearing out its welcome to getting downright annoying, the film generated some genuine magic in its recreation of the walk itself.  But even here, I couldn’t help noticing how much the steady and careful crossings in The Walk contrasted with footage of the actual event shown in Man on a Wire where Petit taunted the cops waiting for him on both ends of his wire by dancing back and forth before crossing the distance between the towers yet again.

I suspect that this lack of fidelity was the result of limitations in CGI technology (or F/X budgets).  In fact, at certain angles the traversing Petit resembled nothing so much as a video game character that was still in the process of rendering.

All this fakery would have been less of a problem if the non-fiction story upon which the film was based was not so well known or well documented elsewhere.  The filmmaker’s attempt to romanticize buildings that met such a tragic fate in 2001 presented further problems, although not ones for which Zemeckis should be held liable.

For Hollywood, like the rest of the nation, has never really come to grips with the magnitude and meaning of 9/11, which is why we retreat to the story of Petit or films like World Trade Center (which turns the horrific events of 9/11 into a formula story built around the epic heroism of firefighters) to help us avoid confronting the reality of an attack that left thousands dead and the world permanently changed.

Ben’s response: I think that the movie was just edgy. That is to say different and weird for the sake of being different and weird. I’ll admit that the scene on the wire was pretty cool, and one of the only reasons I don’t totally regret watching the movie. It was just stupidly written and childish, and that’s not to mention the long and so melodramatic scene where they set up the wire. I haven’t seen the documentary, but I think that would’ve made this overly dramatic film much more difficult to like.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Bernie (Reviewed by Ben)

If you’ve ever had an odd craving to see what happens when Witness For The Prosecution  meets Napoleon Dynamite (crammed into the format of a mockumentary) - or just want to see something really weird - the Richard Linklater-directed oddity Bernie is definitely for you.

This film has the quirky, very very dry humor that many loved about the redheaded loser of Napoleon woven into a plot that reminded me of the Billy Wilder’s famous courtroom drama (though at first you’ll be convinced you’re watching A Mighty Wind).

The movie begins with an odd, dark and funny collection of people talking about how perfect undertaker Bernie (Jack Black) is. It eventually talks about his unlikely “friendship” with an older, unpopular woman in the town (Shirley MacLaine) as the kindness that people associate with Bernie ends up being his downfall.

The woman, named Marjorie Nugent, ends up using this angel of a funeral director as her servant. As he becomes her property, the locals being interviewed start talking about how he changes before we see this “good man” finally snap and kills Marjorie. Realizing what he’s done, he hides her in a freezer and tries to convince the town that she’s still alive. When they finally find her on ice, it looks bad for him. When they find out she left her whole estate and fortune to him, despite her large family, it looks worse. You’ll notice the Witness similarities again when Bernie’s tried in court where everyone loves Bernie, but no one believes him.

Within the Might Wind style documentary format, it was dull, and kind of creepy how people think about murder as more of an entertainment. But surprisingly, there were some very complex good-guy/bad-guy ideas that are bound to surprise you as Jack Black jokes about death while selling someone a coffin, dances the big number in“The Music Man,” or carefully brushes up a dead body.

Similar to Adam Sandler, people either love Jack Black or think his branch of humor is an insult, and that he lacks real talent that other comedic actors like Steve Carell or Billy Crystal posses. But this movie lacks in toilet humor and stupidity found in Kung Fu Panda and the cringeworthy Gulliver’s Travels, allowing Black to be funny in a way that demonstrates real acting skill. He keeps himself reserved, which makes the movie even funnier, as does his brilliant singing and dancing ability.

What does it say that my grandmother recommended this movie? Probably that this family loves weird concoctions of film. And Bernie has proved that that can pay off.

Dad Replies - I’m with you that the film gave Jack Black (who I can’t stand when he does his loud and obnoxious routine) the chance to blend a subdued performance with screamingly funny song-and-dance routines.  In fact, I would have paid to see the entire production of Music Man that you caught a glimpse of in Bernie.  

Apparently all those personal recollections that punctuate the film came from actual locals who were around when the real life crime the movie was based on occurred.  This helped blur fiction and reality in some interesting ways, although I thought those interviews could have been integrated a bit more sparingly.

So while Bernie is a big of a hodgepodge - part comedy, part courtroom drama, part real and part faux documentary - it was fun to enjoy with the family a film in which everyone involved took a chance. So thumbs up (and thanks for recommending it Mom).

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

City Slickers (Reviewed by Dad)

Years ago, I took a course on how to write formula movies for Hollywood where City Slickers was used as an example of a formula pic you could set your watch to, which makes the movie a true testament to how great screenwriting transcends mechanics.

For those who missed it when it came out in 1991, City Slickers is a cowboy buddy comedy starring Billy Crystal as Mitch Robbins, a New York radio-ad timeslot salesman with a loving wife, two teenage kids, and the mother of all mid-life crises.

The crisis manifests itself during Crystal’s hilarious meltdown before his young son’s class during a “Bring Your Dad to School Day” that leaves everyone in the room (kids and teacher alike) gaping and depressed.  With his wife threatening to kick him out unless his “gets his smile back,” Robbins hits the trail with two boyhood friends for a working-ranch cowboy vacation that he hopes will put his life back on track.

Those two friends are Phil (played by Daniel Stern) an affable loser stuck in one of filmdom’s most loveless marriages, and Ed (the late Bruno Kirby), a sporting goods salesman who takes time away from his underwear-model main squeeze to exorcise the chip on his shoulder by going on dangerous vacations with his two buddies Phil and Mitch.

The film actually begins with the three buddies joining the Running of the Bulls in Spain where, of course, Mitch is the one who ends up with his bottom gored.  And it’s Ed who comes up with the idea of a two-week working holiday wrangling  on a Western cattle ranch.

The boys get to the ranch in time to meet their companions for the adventure: father and son black dentists (get over it, scolds the son), doppelgangers for ice-cream kings Ben and Jerry, and the (as usual) underutilized Helen Slater.

Slater gives Mitch and friends the chance to act heroically when the film’s nemeses, a pair of no-good cowpokes, gives her a hard time.  But the day is actually saved by the dark and dangerous Curly played by the incomparable Jack Palance.

This being a formula picture, the challenges Mitch and his friends face begin light and end overwhelmingly heavy, eventually leading to a situation requiring Mitch to summon up that inner cowboy he never knew was in him.

Unlike other stars who have successfully mixed comedy and drama, notably Tom Hanks and Robin Williams, Billy Crystal doesn’t let his performances get tripped up by the secret desire to make audiences love him.  His Mitch is a pain in the butt – childish, broody, whiny – albeit a pain in the butt with a remarkable gift for wisecracking.  And it’s his willingness to play to these imperfections that generates genuine drama from formulaic scenarios.

The film also treasures quiet moments, notably short scenes featuring the three friends conversing while in the saddle, scenes which transcend broader comic and action sequences and secretly reveal the true theme of the picture: what it means to be a grown up.

The kids seem to have liked it when we shared City Slickers at a Vermont B&B.  Or so I think.  Ben?

Ben Replies: I enjoyed City Slickers, it was fun to watch, although no one expects a comedy to be groundbreaking, and Slickers was not.

As someone who’s not super familiar with older comedies, this cowboy laugh-out-loud reminded me a bit of Anchorman, Zoolander or Ted: hilarious in a fun kind of way, full of people being stupid, and brimming with bright but not very real characters. Every scene is fun and the cast is great. But with every cliche (and an overly long saving-a-calf scene), I’m reminded that, having heard City Slickers  was an Oscar winner, I was secretly hoping that it would be more than just enjoyable.  Although I enjoyed the film a lot, groundbreaking it was not.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

A Few Good Men (Reviewed by Ben)

There are more than a few good actors in A Few Good Men . And yet the all-star cast is only one of the film’s redeeming qualities. There is a complex storyline and, although it deals with tough subjects, this Rob Reiner courtroom picture is just fun to watch.

The storyline kicks off when naval officer and lawyer Daniel Kafee (Tom Cruise) is given the frustrating case of two Marine cadets charged with the murder of their fellow soldier, William Santiago, who had requested a transfer off their base on Guantanamo Bay.

Unfortunately for the lazy lawyer, while he and his longtime friend and fellow lawyer Jack Ross (Kevin Bacon) think the case is open-and-shut (plead guilty for involuntary manslaughter) both clients (James Marshall and Wolfgang Bodison) refuse to do so.  For they want to go through with a trial in order to accuse their superior officer Lt. Kendrick (Kiefer Sutherland) of ordering a “Code Red” (an order to assault a fellow cadet issued by a superior).

Kaffee goes through with this destined-to-fail court trial along with faithful friend Sam Weinburg (Kevin Pollak) and the much-more-focused lawyer JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore) as the team for the defense, while Jack Ross is the attorney for the prosecution.

In providing this defense, Kaffee takes just about every risk in the book, and throughout the trial he grows from the laid-back Lieutenant who would rather play baseball than win a case, to a serious lawyer who breaks down witness after witness and proves that the two cadets acted on an order from their sergeant, with none of them knowing that toxins on the rag they used to gag Santiago would kill him.  

As Kaffee matures, he becomes more and more passionate about proving that Kendrick and his superior, Col. Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson), a very serious marine colonel with a sadistic manner, are to blame for ordered the Code Red on Santiago and then trying to cover their tracks., A main character growing dramatically in pursuit of justice can be a cliché, but A Few Good Men does this cliché impressively, something else that makes the film fun to watch.

Even people who haven’t seen the movie are probably familiar with the final confrontation between Cruise’s Kaffee and Nicholson’s unforgettable Jessup (nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar), most specifically for Nicholson’s line “you can’t handle the truth!” Though the film features many great scenes (including the drunken Kaffee ranting about how the team is destined to lose or the two accused soldiers refusing to plead guilty due to their duty as marines) the five minutes of dialogue where Kaffee tugs the truth out of the straight-toothed, red-faced Colonel is the highlight of the film. The intensity when Jessup breaks under the heavy pressure, and not only loudly confesses to ordering the Code Red, but attempts to jump out of the witness booth and strangle Kaffee, cursing the day he was born, contrasts so heavily with his seemingly authoritative persona that the scene borders on comedy.

While I love the story, cast and screenplay, I must say that the movie didn’t take any risks, for better or for worse. They used a cast full of stars, an unoriginal premise and plot points that you could find in many other movies. While this playing-it-safe method paid off, making A Few Good Men enjoyable to watch, a less-clichéd story can be found in just about any other courtroom drama.

As for the acting, someone must have called up every single big-name actor in Hollywood and said ‘hey, come be in this movie.’ From Cruise’s likable attorney, to the cold, condescending Kendrick (Sutherland) to Kaffee’s fellow lawyer (Moore), Reiner made it more than clear that he wanted nothing less than the best actors in his film.  But it’s Nicholson, one of the most acclaimed actors of all time, who dominates the screen whenever he’s on it.

With a gun-in-mouth suicide, a violent opening sequence, and pretty heavy swearing, this film earned an R rating.  However, I think that for any teen who loves movies should see this film (whenever their parents see fit).

Dad Replies: A toned-down version of the film (sans cuss words) plays on cable every few hours, so no one of any age should have to miss what I agree is a taught and enjoyable courtroom drama with a military twist (one that ignited the JAG jag and other imitators).  I agree with Ben that the all-star cast delivered the goods, although most of the other big names (Bacon, Sutherland, Moore) kind of faded into the background whenever Cruise and/or Nicholson were on the screen.  Like My Cousin Vinny, this film is less a “who-done-it” than a “can-he-prove-it” court battle, which gives the final confrontation between Cruise and Nicholson its dramatic punch, even for those who have seen the scene repeated and imitated endless times.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

My Cousin Vinny (Reviewed by Dad)

My Cousin Vinny’s “R” rating kept us from sharing this favorite with the boys until now, even though – having just recently gotten around to a family screening – the only thing that might make the film objectionable is ripe language (no sex, no violence).
Actually, that’s not quite true since the storyline is kicked off with a murder. Specifically, the clerk at a local quickie-mart in rural Alabama is bumped off during a robbery, and blame falls on a pair of New York college kids (played by Ralph Macchio and Mitchell Whitfield) who had just stopped by the shop during a cross-country drive in their mint-green GM convertible.
After being arrested and accidentally confessing to a crime (albeit, not the homicide they are accused of), Macchio decides to call home for rescue and is alerted that his cousin Vinny – a newly minted attorney – is on the way.
If the two accused boys were fish out of water, they have nothing on Vinny Gambini (Joe Pesci) and his leather-clad fiancé Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei in an Oscar winning performance) who roll into town completely unready for the local culture or courts.
This becomes apparent when the judge presiding over the case (played by the incomparable Fred Gwynne, sans monster makeup) repeatedly scolds Attorney Gambini for his informal attire, inability to comprehend (much less follow) procedure, and frequent curse-laden outbursts – some of which land Pesci in the same jail as his clients for contempt of court.
But after a slow start, Vinny finally gets the chance to shine as he demolishes one witness after another with a mix of goomba and chutzpah anyone who has ever traveled through Brooklyn will find immediately recognizable.  The prosecution eventually decides to fall back on evidence supplied by an FBI expert in automobile-related forensics, much to their dismay when Vinny’s fiancé is forced to take the stand.
As much as I continue to enjoy this picture (now through my children’s eyes), in retrospect it does seem as though the script was written backwards from a few (admittedly show-stopping) courtroom scenes. That said, every scene in which Pesci and Tomei interact is pure magic, more than making up for the implausibility of the key conceit in this high-concept comedy (would a law school graduate, even a totally green one, really have never heard of “discovery?”).
The fantastic nature of such a scenario may explain why I found that aforementioned R-rated language so jarring.  For the multiple F-bombs dropped by the leads placed them squarely in the vulgarity-laden tough-guy genre that have become Pesci’s trademark in films like Goodfellas and Casino, not in the semi-fantasy world of this much gentler storyline.  
So, I don’t know.  Ben – what do you think?
Ben Replies: Regardless of plot holes and ridiculous moments, Vinny is undeniably hilarious. Everything about this film has you laughing at every turn. The film is perfectly cast, especially the leather-clad duo of Vinny and Mona and the script is perfectly riotous. How can even the stiffest fellow not bust a gut when Pesci’s character brings the cooking time of grits to question on the stand? As a courtroom drama, however, this flick is only alright. A scene involving the identification of tire tracks was incredibly clever (and probably scored Tomei’s her Oscar).  But if the goal was to make A Few Good Men with an incredible underdog winning his first case, that case was kind of open and shut and, without the comedy, could be criticized for being boring.  So all in all, I agree with your thoughts on the film.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Sweeney Todd (reviewed by Ben)

There were more liquid ounces of fake blood used in Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd (subtitled The Demon Barber of Fleet Street) than lines spoken (or sung). Despite that, even gore lovers will think the cannibal/barber movie over the top, the film itself was somewhat underwhelming. Movie musicals are always a risky thing, and in the case of this film adaptation of Sondheim’s play, the risk did not pay off.

This is the somewhat confusing story of Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp), who was once an innocent barber who was arrested and robbed of his family by the malicious Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman).  He later returns to London to seek justice under the name of Sweeney Todd, a much less innocent and much less forgiving barber, ready to kill Turpin with a handy barber’s razor.

He befriends the longtime Fleet street resident Ms. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) and discovers his daughter to be the ward of his enemy, Judge Turpin. His innocent work disguised as a haircuttery leads him to less innocent murder.  And because he works just as hard on business as justice, he merges with Ms. Lovett’s pie shop where she uses the human meat of his barbershop’s customers in her very popular meat pies.

It’s a happy life, and yet he is plagued with the desire to find and kill the judge who still has his daughter. This leads to desperate measures which leads to the downfall of all the residents of Fleet Street.

All in all, a decent setup and the oddly heartwarming music is among Sondheim’s finest. The film does have it’s moments and we can even relate to several characters, especially since the acting is not half bad, especially Depp’s.

However the story was over-complicated and the excessive blood was distracting from the already complex plotline, not to mention the work of the talented songwriter of better-scripted musicals like West Side Story, Into The Woods and A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum. The film Sweeney Todd sometimes seemed like a lame excuse to have a wild bloodbath, rather than treat Sondheim’s work with care.

Apart from the star-studded cast, I’d give credit to the film’s casting director for reuniting the cast of Harry Potter (Rickman, Timothy Spade, Helena Bonham Carter) and Tom Hooper’s just as over-the-top Les Miserables (Sacha Baron Cohen and Bohnam Carter). It was also fun to see the vocally talented Johnny Depp and the very talented child star Ed Sanders (as the barber/pie shop's kitchen-hand, Toby).  For a film that is not very well put together, the acting of many (especially Depp) is superb.

I would say that this bloodbath musical is alright, but mostly because of the acting and singing performances and the wonderful score. The extremely gory scenes as well as the extremely complex story bring down mine (and many other people’s) opinion of the Tim Burton film.

Dad replies: Count me as one of those people Ben just mentioned as not having a great opinion of Tim Burton’s take on Sondheim’s murderous stage musical.  I agree that there were lots of interesting things going on in the film, and the director did key into the irony of having such a violent story play out against songs with whimsical tunes with bloody lyrics.  But the in-your-face images of slashed throats spouting gore, not to mention hands and feet spewing out of a meat grinder (and onto people’s plates) numbed me to artistic subtly.  As Ben mentioned, the cast was a treat (metaphorically speaking, of course) and the original material certainly worked on stage.  So blame for this mishap has to be placed at the feet of Burton who decided to go over the top, rather than find the middle ground the material required.