Thursday, May 31, 2018

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (2007)

Synopsis: Self-absorbed, narcissistic douchebag returns home after long absence to enrage his hot-tempered father one more time before the old fart croaks. 
Blurb From the DVD Jacket: “A coming of age drama about writer/director Dito Montiel’s youth, the film captures the mid-1980s in the toughest neighbourhood of Astoria, Queen’s.” 
What Did I Learn?: In the mid-1980s Astoria wasn’t a nice, working-middle class district of New York City at all, but a violent slum with garbage on the streets. Oh, and the local teenagers wore tattered and crappy clothing. 
Really?: 1) Hold on - Antonio watches his whack job brother accidentally kill himself in a grotesque manner, and all he wants to talk about during the service is exacting revenge against a local hood for an unrelated matter? Sorry, I didn’t buy that scene. 2) See: “What Did I Learn?” 3) I realize Dito had some very real emotional problems that stemmed from his family and social life, but I had a lot of trouble believing it would take him 20 years to return to New York, or that he wouldn’t do a better job of staying in touch with the people who supposedly mean so much to him. Come to think of it, I have to wonder how a teenaged boy with no money and no connections could survive, let alone become a famous writer in California. 
Rating: I have to give A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints a rather mixed review. I’ve always liked autobiographical character-driven films, and there are a number of splendid performances in this picture; Diane Wiest is great, and I’ll never forget an emotionally-charged scene between Shia LaBeouf and Chazz Palminteri where young Dito essentially says goodbye to his father. Still, Guide rubbed me the wrong way (see: “Synopsis” and “Really?” of the characters, including Dito, are all that likeable or sympathetic (so I had a hard time caring about any of them), the ending provides very little resolution, and what’s the deal with director Dito Montiel’s distracting and unnecessary use of imagined conversations and subtitles for conversations in English? 6.5/10 stars.

Ladder 49 (2004)

Synopsis: Joaquin Phoenix volunteers for an extremely dangerous job, even though is cute girlfriend doesn’t want him to do so, and…. Oh, sorry - that’s the synopsis for We Own the Night
Blurb From the DVD Jacket: “Academy Award-nominated stars Joaquin Phoenix (Best Supporting Actor, Gladiator, 2000) and John Travolta (Best Actor, Pulp Fiction) ignite the intense action in this heroic tale of ordinary men with uncommon courage!” 
What Did I Learn?: Apparently, it’s really easy to deconstruct a brick wall in minutes, using nothing but a piece of rebar. 
You Might Like This Movie If: You take ladder safety very, very seriously. 
Really?: 1) See: “What Did I Learn?” 2) Funny how we’re told nothing about Jack Morrison’s family or background, aside from his religious affiliation. Does he come from a long line of firemen? Was he expected to enter the profession, or was this entirely his decision? 3) Did anyone else think it was a bit selfish and irresponsible for Jack to ask for a transfer from engine duty (i.e. putting out fires with a hose) to truck duty (rescue work), which is much more dangerous job, when he has a wife and several children to think about? 
Rating: Ladder 49 is a treacly, and highly disappointing post-9/11 celebration of firemen that tries too hard to paint these brave individuals only as heroes, and doesn’t put much effort into reminding us they’re still ordinary men with ambitions, hopes, fears, etc… An obvious comparison would be Dennis Leary’s TV series Rescue Me, except that nobody who drinks a bit too much in this movie ever becomes an alcoholic, marriages stay intact, and Phoenix’s character knows exactly the right things to say when his kids express legitimate fears for his safety. Oh, and Leary’s show was often funny, compelling, and sometimes even provided some insights into a difficult and misunderstood job. I cannot recommend this movie. 3/10 stars. 
Would it Work For a Bad Movie Night?: Probably not, but take a drink any time somebody mentions that “firemen run into a burning building when everybody else is running out” line. Once is fine, but it’s used on several occasions.

Monday, May 28, 2018

We Own the Night (2007)

Synopsis: Fun-loving young man with cute girlfriend discovers his father is in danger, reluctantly enters the family business, and discovers he’s much better at it than his blowhard brother. Wait - it’s the mirror image of The Godfather! 
Blurb From the DVD Jacket: “What if your family stood in the way of everything you worked for? Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) forsakes his families (sic) tradition in law enforcement to become a Brooklyn nightclub owner.” 
What Did I Learn?: 1) If you piss in your pants, you only stay warm for so long. 2) It’s better to be judged by twelve than carried by six. 
You Might Like This Movie If: You're deeply nostalgic for 1988.
Really?: 1) I had a bit of trouble believing Bobby’s big meeting with Vadim and his crew in the stash house. First of all, he never once inquires about what his cut might be for distributing Vadim’s heroin (which I imagine would be his primary question if he were sincere), but why in the world would he ask where the heroin comes from when he’s wearing a wire and the cops specifically told him not to say anything that would attract suspicion? 2) The movie takes place in 1988, yet Bobby’s club keeps playing Blondie’s Heart of Glass, which was released several years earlier. Wouldn’t the hottest nightclub outside Manhattan play something a little more contemporary? 3) Do Bobby and Joseph actually speak Russian? They use a phrase or two now and then, and their father’s surname name is Grusinsky, so they might have a basic understanding of Slavic languages, but this is never made entirely clear. 4) Wow, Bobby’s personality completely transforms after his brother gets shot, doesn’t it? 
Rating: We Own the Night is an enjoyable, if somewhat formulaic crime thriller that works thanks to some good performances and stylish direction by James Grey. Oh, and I have to give this film an extra star for including an original, compelling, and highly memorable car chase shot entirely from the vantage point of one driver. 8/10 stars.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Scarecrow (1973)

Gene Hackman Movie #4 
Synopsis: Doomed delinquent dad delights deeply determined, demented drifter during disastrous drawn-out drive. Destination: Detroit! 
Blurb From the VHS Jacket: "Hackman. Pacino. On the road in an award-winning American classic." 
What Did I Learn?: 1) For every car, there’s dirt. 2) Scarecrows are beautiful. 3) Gene Hackman was not a skilled striptease artist. 
Really?: I had a bit of trouble believing Riley (Richard Lynch), who’s only serving 18 months in prison, is allowed to drive a jeep and even has his own, personal collection of hard liquor because he bribes the guards, would want to rape Lion. Couldn’t he arrange for a conjugal visit, or something? 
Rating: Scarecrow is an unusual, but extremely well-acted character-driven drama that features two iconic stars who never worked together again, afterwards. Scarecrow isn’t an easy film to watch - Lion’s (Pacino) journey turns really tragic in the second act, and the ending doesn’t resolve much, but it’s a memorable story about two very different men who form a strong friendship, and it’s well worth watching at least once. Interestingly, Pacino said that Scarecrow was the best script he had ever read, and Hackman was most proud of his performance in movie. Highly recommended. 9/10 stars.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

March or Die (1977)

Gene Hackman movie #3
Synopsis: Post-WWI French soldiers come to the sad realization their country is in for a long, long period of getting its ass kicked. 
Blurb From the DVD Jacket: "At the end of World War I, Major Foster (GENE HACKMAN), a tough, bitter American who was forced to resign from West Point and is now in the French Foreign Legion, is ordered, with his legionnaires, to protect an archeological expedition headed by Francois Marneau (MAX VON SYDOW) of the Louvre, who is to excavate for a priceless tomb in Morocco." 
What Did I Learn?: When a sadistic drill sergeant asks you to state your former occupation, it’s not a great idea to reply: “Premier of France!” 
You Might Like This Movie If: You've always been tempted to join the Legion. 
Really?: 1) I have to admit that I don’t know all that much about the French Foreign Legion, but I was a little surprised when the legionnaires in this movie underwent zero basic training before they were sent to Morocco. 2) I’m curious: would Muslim tribesmen really feel much kinship with the corpse of a 3,000-year old pagan female warrior nicknamed the Angel of the Desert? 3) Hold on - Marneau - the completely amoral art historian who doesn’t give a shit about the plight of his colleagues or the men who protect them is one of the only Frenchmen to survive the big assault? That seems a little unsatisfying. 4) I realize the Legion had a reputation for accepting anyone as a recruit without asking any questions about their past, but why in the world would they take in Marco the pickpocket? Who would be dumb enough to trust that guy? 
Rating: I wanted to like March or Die, but I would have to describe it as slow-moving and strangely confused about the story it wants to tell: does it want to condemn the Legion for brutality within its ranks and serving as an instrument of French colonialism, or celebrate the derring-do of legionnaires like Marco? For that reason, we’re never entirely sure if we ought to like Hackman’s character or not. Check it out if you’re a fan of the Indiana Jones franchise and you want to see its rather obvious influence on George Lucas and Steven Spielberg when they made Raiders of the Lost Ark. 6/10 stars.

Heartbreakers (2001)

Gene Hackman movie #2
Synopsis: It’s sorta-like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels meets The Mother-Daughter Exchange Club
Blurb From the VHS Jacket: "Get ready to lose your heart - and your bank account - to a couple of sexy sirens in this 'vastly enjoyable comedy' (People Magazine)!"
What Did I Learn?: 1) Love is pain. 2) Life is pain. 3) Cigarettes dissolve cholesterol. 4) Everyone is a little irritable after they choke. 5) “College stuff” is not a satisfactory answer if you fraudulently present yourself as a professor and you’re asked which subject you teach. 
Really?: 1) Heartbreakers is a screwball comedy, so I can overlook some of the sillier plot contrivances but I had a bit of trouble believing Page could be that obnoxious to Jason and still seduce him. 2) Wow - Sarah Silverman and Zach Galifianakis really don’t have much to do as Linda and Bill, do they? 
Rating: Heartbreakers is an entertaining black comedy that works as long as the viewer doesn’t ask too many questions about the plot. While I liked the bickering banter between Max (Sigourney Weaver) and Page (Jennifer Love Hewitt), Hackman steals the film with a strangely endearing performance that borrows heavily from W.C. Fields in his prime. Heartbreakers definitely loses some momentum after his character suffers from one-too-many coughing fits. 6.5/10 stars.

Monday, May 7, 2018

The Domino Principle (1977)

Synopsis: Apparently, the Deep State is so hard-up for trained assassins it must break them out of prison and shove wads of cash in their pockets. 
Blurb From the DVD Jacket: “Stanley Kramer directs Gene Hackman in this pulse-pounding, action-adventure thriller.” 
What Did I Learn?: Deep State assassins really enjoy blowing up cars. 
You Might Like This Movie If: You figure it must be a full-length version of this
Really?: 1) See: “Synopsis.” 2) Tucker beats the crap out of a Deep State goon, and even throws him down a flight of stair, possibly killing the man. Is this ever mentioned again? No. 3)  So, how long has Spiventa (Mickey Rooney) been in the slammer? That’s a demanding assignment, and I’m not sure if he actually convinced Tucker to do anything. 4) So, let’s see…. Tucker has fulfilled his assignment, he holds a Deep State goon at knifepoint, knowing they have no further use for him, he has a plane that can take him just about anywhere in the world, and he decides to go to the Central American vacation home the Deep State purchased for him? Yeah, that’s a great idea… 
Rating: The Domino Principle is a ho-hum, and somewhat dated 1970s conspiracy thriller that’s good for an evening’s entertainment, but suffers from a plot that doesn’t make too much sense (see: “Synopsis,” “What Did I Learn?” And “Really?”) and a muddled ending that’s less than satisfying. Apparently, the film was originally three hours long, so it’s entirely possible some of its problems stem from key scenes left on the cutting room floor. 6/10 stars.

Confidence (2003)

Synopsis: Motley band of flim-flam artists talk gangster into bankrolling an operation… oh wait, doesn’t that sound a lot like The Sting
Blurb From the DVD Jacket: “When professional grifter Jake Vig (Edward Burns) inadvertently cons a mob boss known as The King (Dustin Hoffman), he is given two choices: pull off a near-impossible heist on a mark of The King’s choice, or lose his life.” 
What Did I Learn?: Sometimes, style can get you killed
Really?: So, ultra-cynical Jake brings Lily (Rachel Weisz) into his small gang of con artists after she picks his pocket because he likes her style? Um….sure. 
Rating: This is going to sound terrible, but I have procrastinated the writing of a review for Confidence for over a month, and I can’t remember very much of it - which ought to tell you something. Sure, the film has a great cast, and Hoffman performs well as a very strange porn-loving gangster (he’s the one memorable character!), but it’s otherwise over-plotted and difficult to follow. 7/10 stars.