Tag: james caan

The Good Neighbor

The Good Neighbor (2016)
★ / ★★★★

“The Good Neighbor” manages to end strong but the journey there is a challenge to sit through, filled with seemingly interminable and boring images of characters staring at computer monitors where not much interesting happens. It is unfortunate because the writers, Mark Bianculli and Jeff Richard, clearly wish to comment on our culture today with respect to how many are so willing commit moral and ethical transgressions for the sake of direct or indirect approval via social media. Although I understand exactly what the picture is going for, the execution leaves a lot to be desired.

Inspired by a social experiment done in England, Ethan (Logan Miller) and Sean (Keir Gilchrist) decide to break into the house of an old man (James Caan) while he goes on his weekly shopping to install cameras and other gadgetries. The cameras are meant to record Harold’s reactions while the various electronics can be controlled to trigger a reaction. You see, the high school seniors who reckon themselves brilliant for coming up with the idea wish to convince the man across the street that his house is haunted. They call their new hobby an experiment but others might simply call it a crime. They hope that their project will gain them popularity once they release their findings to the world.

Although a dramatic thriller at its core, it is a mistake that the tone and atmosphere liken that of horror films. Too much effort is put into the camera looking at monitors rather than the material looking deeply into the hearts and minds of its subjects: the minors who fail to think things through before eventually crossing the line. Scenes where Ethan and Sean are away from their computers simply interacting with one another or spending time with their peers are a lot more informative than yet another night of sitting front of a screen waiting to see what would happen, if anything at all.

The two young men are not written as sharply or as interesting as they should have been in order to hold the entire film in place. Although Ethan is supposed to be the one who came up with the idea of committing the prank and Sean is supposed to have been the provider of brains and money, the screenplay proves to be consistently simplistic in that both are outcasts on some level with something to prove. The approach is a bore, Screenwriting 101, not at all worthy of our attention because the writers failed to create human characters that ring true.

Caan plays the tormented old man but even his caliber of talent fails to elevate such limp material. When closeups are employed, there is life and experience behind those aged eyes. However, due to the material’s dearth of complexity, specific details and emotions are missing. Eventually, hackneyed flashbacks are thrown on our laps and we are supposed to feel something because of there are sad images but without the necessary background information and specific details. It attempts to trick us to care beyond its superficiality.

Directed by Kasra Farahani, “The Good Neighbor” is a timely picture, but this trait is exactly the reason why I believe we deserve much better. It would be interesting to see a different interpretation of this picture after having gone a few more rewrites in addition to having another director who embraces the dark corners of humanity, especially from the mindset of teenagers today, born and raised in the culture of social media, who believe they have the right to mistreat others because it seems fun or because it is “just a prank.”


Thief (1981)
★★★ / ★★★★

Frank (James Caan) is a professional thief with dreams of retirement and finally marrying Jessie (Tuesday Weld), the love of his life. The last job was supposed yield enough money for Frank to move forward with his life, but the profitable exchange is thwarted by Leo (Robert Prosky), a crime boss who hopes to persuade Frank to be a part of his team. Initially, Frank resists the offer because he suspects that once he is in, there is no way he can be free. But the profit is so big that anybody with that kind of money will be set for life. It just might be the decision that will derail Frank’s long-term plans.

“Thief,” based on the screenplay and directed by Michael Mann, is a stylish, confident modern noir thriller that simmers with excitement during the first fifteen minutes and last hour. It is most frustrating that it is ultimately limited by the romance between the central character and the woman he loves. Though the two share some nice dialogue, especially when Frank goes into great detail about what kept him going through eleven years of incarceration, Caan and Weld do not share a strong enough chemistry so I did not care about them as a couple.

The middle section is filled with thick fatty tissue that dampens the wildfire thrills. Though the script is ambitious enough to create character development and establish a defined arc, I must admit that felt bored the more I focused on the romance. We understand why Jessie likes Frank because he has substance. On the other hand, we do not know much about Jessie other than she looks good physically. The difference is near impossible to ignore. In addition, the relationship stuffings are tonally awkward at times, the sweetness consistently lodged between tough guy talk and tough guy silence.

But the picture is so willing to get into the details of the heists that its shortcomings fade slightly—or at least for some time. We see the sorts of machines used to break into a vault, which buttons must be pushed at the right time, and get a sense of how long it takes to break through the defenses. Once inside, there are more details. We can tell a lot about a thief by the sorts of things he takes with him. Clearly, Frank has been a thief for a long time. He moves quickly but it feels like his mind works at a faster rate. It is a joy to watch him in his element and Caan prevents from allowing his character to become a caricature.

Equally involving are the dialogues shared between Frank and Leo. Leo may appear old but there is a confidence about him that only hints at his level of power. The intimidating crime boss has a speech near the end about ownership. I watched wide-eyed. Prosky has a way of looking into the camera and allowing us to feel the thorns of his character without necessarily going for the pinprick. It is the tease that magnifies the danger.

We know how these types of stories go: a reluctant man accepts a job, it is accomplished, and the man tries to leave. And yet despite the template, the material successfully rises above being generic because the characters are specific and we are made to understand why they choose to traverse certain courses of action. Based on a novel by Frank Hohimer, a nom de plume, “Thief” has the high level of control from behind the camera to match the fluctuating moods. The romance just needed to be written a little smarter.


Elf (2003)
★★ / ★★★★

A baby orphan snuck into Santa Claus’s bag of presents and ended up in the North Pole. The baby was named Buddy and raised by Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) and whole-heartedly embraced by the elfin community and strange creatures that lived there. But when Buddy became an adult (now played by Will Ferrell), he became more of a nuisance to the elves due to his size so he traveled to New York City to find his biological father (James Caan). The movie started off with promise because it was creative with its joke about a man who was so out of his element but was blind to the fact. Even more amusing were Buddy’s scenes with people in utter disbelief that he actually believed in Santa Claus with fervor to spare. Ferrell did a wonderful job playing a wide-eyed boy stuck in an adult man’s body. The slapstick comedy worked because kids like to put themselves in physically uncomfortable situations. However, the film failed to reach an emotional peak and establish a resonance like the best movies that took place around Christmas. While Ferrell’s interactions with Caan were amusing, I didn’t feel a genuine connection between the father and the son. When the son hugged with enthusiasm, the father reluctantly put his arm around his son to pat him on the back. There was no real growth between them. Too much of film’s running time was dedicated to the biological father’s challenges at work (which did not add up to much) instead of focusing on the problems at home (Mary Steenburgen as the very accepting wife was a joy to watch). I wish there were more scenes between Buddy and a salesgirl who loved to sing named Jovie (Zooey Deschanel). Farrell and Deschanel may not have chemistry (the film unwisely pushed their relationship to a romantic direction), but watching their friendship grow put a big smile on my face. Jovie always looked sad (which was ironic because I’m assuming her name came from the word “jovial”) and did not like to put herself in potentially embarrassing situations. Buddy was all about attracting all kinds of attention. Nevertheless, they got along swimmingly. While the majority of the film was about Buddy’s attempt of reconnection with the human world, the last twenty minutes was more about people believing in Santa Claus. I was left confused and I thought it was completely unnecessary. Perhaps the filmmakers thought that typing up dramatic loose ends was riskier than generating more pedestrian laughs. I thought the last few scenes were a desperate attempt to cover up weak storytelling. Directed by Jon Favreau, “Elf” had its share of funny and silly moments but its story needed a lot of work. Maybe the elves should have worked on the script so it could have had a bit of magic.

New York, I Love You

New York, I Love You (2008)
★★ / ★★★★

I’ve been waiting for this movie to be released in theaters for more than a year so I was really excited to see it when it finally was. Unfortunately, out of the ten segments (presented in order of appearances on screen–directed by Jiang Wen, Mira Nair, Shunji Iwai, Yvan Attal, Brett Ratner, Allen Hughes, Shekhar Kapur, Natalie Portman, Fatih Akin and Joshua Marston) only about five worked for me–the second (starring Natalie Portman and Irrfan Khan), the third (Orlando Bloom and Christina Ricci), the fourth (Ethan Hawke and Maggie Q), the fifth (Anton Yelchin, Olivia Thirlby, James Caan and Blake Lively), and the tenth (Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman).

I really wanted to love this movie as much as “Paris, je t’aime.” What made the first one so great is the fact that even though we encounter so many different genres and tones throughout the picture, it felt cohesive because we truly get a sense of who the characters were in under five to seven minutes. In “New York, I Love You,” it all feels a little bit too commercial. I felt as though it wanted to impress all kinds of people so much to the point where it held back emotionally and avoided taking risks. I’m also astounded by the fact that there were no homosexual storylines, barely any segments consisting of African-American or Latino characters, and most of clips consisted of a person falling in love or lust with another person. There are many dimensions of love (love for the city, love for a pet, love for oneself…) but it didn’t quite think outside the box. Those missing qualities are crucial to me because New York is supposed to be a melting pot of ethnicities, sexualities and mindsets yet we got to see the same kinds of people time and again. With “Paris, je t’aime,” we get diversity and in more than half of them, there was not a happy ending, which I thought was closer to real life than the stories presented in this film.

The five segments that I thought were standouts had a certain passion in every single one of them, whether it’s about a woman who doesn’t quite feel comfortable about getting married; an artist struggling to read one of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s books and whose curiosity of a woman he’s only met through the phone bothered him to the core; a man who thinks one way about a woman turning out to be someone completely different than we all expected; a teenager who goes to prom with a blind date unknowing of the fact that his date is unlike anyone he expected; and a couple celebrating their marriage that lasted for more than sixty years. Those are the kinds of stories I want to tune into and dissect because hidden layers are embedded in them. What I don’t want to see is someone supposedly falling in love unless he or she has something truly significant or different to contribute. The other five segments that I didn’t quite like should have been taken out and replaced by stories from other genres such as horror or science fiction, or they could have had a different mood or perception such as in a black-and-white reality or featuring a person so wasted in drugs–a way in which we could see the world through their eyes. That would have made more sense to me because we are essentially a drug culture. Or it could have featured at least one fashion model or a fashionista because New York is one of the biggest fashion capitals in the world. Instead of really embracing to tackle issues mentioned previously, the movie was way too safe with those other segments.

Having said all of that, I have to admit that I’m particularly hard on this picture. Since I don’t do half-star ratings, it must be said that I consider this a solid two-and-a-half star movie. When I came out of the theater, I was certain that I was going to give it three stars out of four but after thinking about it a little bit, it made me realize how much potential it didn’t use to create a truly magnificent project. For such a fascinating place like New York City, you just can’t play everything safe and get away with it. At least not with me because I’m big on seeing diversity and reality in certain kinds of films, especially in slice-of-life cinema. I’m not saying at all to not see this in theaters. By all means, please do to support a film released only on limited release. But what I want you to take away from this review is the awareness that what’s being presented on this film is not the gritty and dirty New York but the clean, nice New York we see on a prime time television shows.

Hopefully, the next project from this film series would not be as afraid to branch out.