Family, The (2013)
★ / ★★★★
The Manzoni family are now the Blake family as they fall under the witness protection program. Fred (Robert De Niro) has snitched against a fellow Mafia and so he and his family are no longer safe in the U.S. They are assigned to live in a small town in Normandy where not much happens. It should have been easy to assimilate but the ways of the Mafia are ingrained deep in the bones of the Blakes. Though precautions are made, their identities are discovered eventually and a Mafia boss (Stan Carp) sends his henchmen to clean up.
The film works as an action-thriller but it flounders as a comedy. Given that it is supposed to be a hybrid of both, it never reaches a healthy balance so the experience is a great frustration. Coming into the picture, I had no idea that Luc Besson directed—and co-wrote—the material. And yet at the same time I was not surprised. The last twenty-five minutes is the best part of the picture—and majority of it involves building up the tension until the inevitable violence. It shows the efficiency of the Mafia when it comes to achieving a goal, why they are notorious.
It must have occurred to Besson and Michael Caleo that their screenplay is lacking a special spark. It is not at all funny. While the characters are supposed to be bored with their new small-town life, the movie is not supposed to be boring. There is a way of showing the dullness of the every day without necessarily being dull. Each member of the family gets his or her own subplot but all of them have little heft. Their quiet desperation is not communicated in an effective manner.
Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) frequents a church to deal with her guilt. Belle (Dianna Agron) falls in love with her substitute math teacher. Warren (John D’Leo) deals with the politics in his school. Fred wants to write but he is not allowed to write what he knows—Robert (Tommy Lee Jones), a supervisor of the program, makes sure of that. A lot is going on but not one is particularly engaging or compelling. I never once believed that the characters are a real family. Things happen but I found myself not caring.
In fact, I found one of the subplots to be quite cheap. A minor having sexual relations with an adult and we are supposed to buy that at least some aspect of it is romantic? While the subject can be interesting in a different film with much more intelligent or insightful screenplay, it comes off desperate here. It feels like the writers had run out of ideas and so they came up with this schoolgirl crush thing that does not make any sense whatsoever.
Based on a novel by Tonino Benacquista, “The Family” is almost devoid of inspiration. A month from now, perhaps the only moment I will remember from the picture is DeNiro watching Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” because the joke, while obvious, is on point. I certainly wished I was sitting through that movie instead.
King of Comedy, The (1982)
★★★ / ★★★★
Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) is an unemployed aspiring stand-up comedian with a dream of headlining his own late-night talk show. Rupert is convinced that the way to achieve this goal is to persuade the successful Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) to get him coast-to-coast airtime for ten to fifteen minutes so that the country can discover his talent. But when Jerry avoids Rupert’s requests for appointments one too many times, the latter executes a drastic method to get exactly what he wants.
Written by Paul D. Zimmerman and directed by Martin Scorsese, “The King of Comedy” is sharp when it comes to its critique of celebrity obsession, so uncomfortable to sit through at times that I did not know whether to laugh or groan, and the themes it touches upon have become more relevant over the years especially now that we can follow our favorite celebrities in various social media. De Niro’s performance is one to be remembered.
It requires a bit of practice to be able to tell whether a scene is happening in actuality or only in Rupert’s mind. This is appropriate because we see the story through his eyes and he himself is not even aware between real and fantasy. There are even instances when he is so out of touch with reality, it fails to occur to him that certain courses of action he takes are considered criminal offenses. What matters to him is what he hopes to get out of a situation—to hell with consequences. And that is scary. We laugh at him and yet on some level we feel sorry for him. The screenplay is to be admired because it does not treat its subject like a caricature even though the picture is a satire.
There is one memorable scene right after another. One that stood out to me is the dinner between Rupert and a barkeeper named Rita (Diahnne Abbott). One is caught off-guard and assumes it is going to go smoothly… until Rupert steers the conversation into his dream of achieving fame and pulling out a book filled with his favorite stars’ autographs. While the scene is comedic, there is a sadness to it, too. Observe Abbott’s character very carefully. Rita just wants to have a nice, simple time with a man she sort of likes and yet instead of talking about one another, they are talking about other people. Instead of looking at each other, they are looking at pen marks on a white page.
Later, there is a fantasy wedding scene in which we get a chance to understand Rupert a bit more. There is an apology made about people in Rupert’s life not believing or not regarding him as important. It might explain his abnormal psychology, the irrationality of his fame-driven existence. Maybe being on television is proof that he is important. But then again perhaps it is all biology: brain circuitry gone awry or developmental problems when Rupert was a boy. There is a scene later on where Rupert makes jokes about his alcoholic parents. Perhaps there is truth there somewhere.
If I were to describe “The King of Comedy” in one word, it would be “relentless”—just like the main character. There is one awkward but telling scene right after another. Although Rupert Pupkin is obviously an extreme case of someone obsessed with attaining recognition, one still has to wonder: Why is it that many of us revere people just because they appear on television or the movies? Why are we not a society that shows the same level of enthusiasm for NASA engineers, scientists, mathematicians—those who make extraordinary contributions to society in order to make this world a better place to be in?
Wag the Dog (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Wag the Dog,” based loosely on the novel “American Hero” by Larry Beinhart, is supposed to be a satire but it works as a realistic unveiling of the circus that is politics nowadays. It is savagely funny in parts, very curious in others, and, in a few instances, it makes one think deeply about the layers of truth, if any, shown in the media.
Mere eleven days before the election, the president is accused of having sexual relations in the Oval Office with a local Firefly Girl (equivalent to a Girl Scout). Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro), a master spin-doctor, is hired to perform damage control. “Change the story, change the lead,” he claims, and so he decides that in order to distract people from the president’s misconduct, the United States will be involved in a fictitious war with Albania. In order to accomplish such a feat, he requires the help of a Hollywood producer, Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman), to produce highly manipulative clips that are meant to be leaked to various news sources.
The picture moves at a fast pace with rapid-fire dialogue that is both intelligent and entertaining. More impressive is the fact that Hilary Henkin and David Mamet’s screenplay maintains a level of silliness and elegance throughout—a challenging balancing act—in addition to the requirement that just about everything we are seeing and hearing must remain realistic so that the subject being satirized delivers a powerful punch on a consistent basis.
De Niro and Hoffman take the script and sell the tricky lines convincingly. In a way, their two characters must be larger-than-life—because comedies usually require extreme personalities—but at the same time they tend to ground their characters just enough so that we believe it is possible to meet a version of themselves in an airport or in a line at a coffee shop.
Their numerous verbal sparring, even when they are not on the same page one hundred percent, is highly amusing. They have a good sense of timing as well as the instinct to break from the expected beats, especially when delivering long lines of dialogue, to jolt us into paying attention. Not once do we forget that these are seasoned performers, ones who are not afraid to take risks, to do something wrong, or sound wrong. Part of the fun is their willingness to just go for it.
The film, directed by Barry Levinson, offers numerous memorable secondary and tertiary characters, from William H. Macy’s CIA agent who knows the truth about the so-called war, or lack thereof, to Kirsten Dunst as a young actress hired to play an Albanian orphan trying to escape from her war-stricken village… shot in a Hollywood studio. These supporting characters, all funny in their own way, elevate an already high-level, smart, black comedy.
Dirty Grandpa (2016)
★ / ★★★★
“Dirty Grandpa,” written by John Phillips and directed by Dan Mazer, has a most infantile sense of humor and an emotional intelligence of a plastic bag. Just about everything about it does not work because it has no understanding of what makes real people tick. The so-called jokes rely solely on behavior and so there is no involving story, believable characterization, and genuine humor is created. It exists to annoy and make the audience feel uncomfortable.
It flops right from the very first scene. The setting is a funeral and the source of humor involves our twenty-something protagonist named Jason (Zac Efron) being so into his career as a corporate lawyer that we are supposed to think of him as so uncool, so boring, a square. The problem is, however, the screenplay has not gotten a chance to set up the necessary tone and atmosphere to pull off an attempt at comedy—let alone dark comedy—at this point. Instead, the would-be jokes often come across mean-spirited.
The plot involves Jason being tricked by his grandfather (Robert De Niro) to drive to Florida right after the funeral. The latter’s goal is to get his grandson to loosen up and realize that the girl he is about to marry (Julianne Hough) is very wrong for him. Although the plot is far from groundbreaking, no effort is made so that the grandfather and grandson are able to connect on a genuine level. Instead, we are bombarded with scenes where they curse at each other, get into very awkward and uncomfortable situations (it’s supposed to be funny that Efron’s character appears to be sexually molesting a child at the beach), down to a scene where they share a bed and one of them gets naked. Cue the penis shot.
The Spring Break scenes are rightly over-the-top but completely unnecessary. One might argue that the brainless middle section is very insulting to women, the LGBTQ community, and African-Americans—often simultaneously—and one would be right. I argue that it is even insulting to Spring Breakers because there is no sense of real enjoyment among new and old friends. It is so fake that notice shots where just about everyone at the beach look as though they have perfect bodies. If they did not, Grandpa would make fun of the target for having extra weight. This film is a commercial—which is not necessarily a negative quality, but it is a bad commercial because it fails to appeal to young people of all sizes, color, and creed.
I suppose if the viewer was in it to see Efron’s abs, arms, buttocks, one could recognize a whiff of entertainment. But such rock-hard things can be seen at a local male strip club, so why bother to sit through a picture that offers no value, entertainment, or entertainment value? The filmmakers—and the studios—ought to have asked themselves this question before releasing this embarrassment to the public. I felt awful that Aubrey Plaza, the best comedian in the film, is a part of this humiliation.
Untouchables, The (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★
Special Agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is assigned to work with cops in Chicago to deal with the flow of illegal liquor and violence during the Prohibition. Everybody knows that Alphonse “Al” Capone (Robert De Niro) is ultimately in charge of importing and distributing alcohol to and around the country, but the police and others in power are either too afraid to stop him or are being paid to keep quiet. Agent Ness, therefore, thinks it is necessary to form his own team (Sean Connery, Charles Martin Smith, Andy Garcia), men of the law with whom he can trust, to bring down the head gangster.
Based on the screenplay by David Mamet and directed by Brian De Palma, “The Untouchables” is a good-looking action-thriller with a number of memorable set pieces that are certain to entertain. What the picture lacks, however, is complexity in terms of characterization. Though the demarcation between the good and the bad guys are well-defined, there is little cross-over in terms of how they think and the decisions they must make to achieve a goal. Thus, when a supposedly dramatic moment in which a character must choose between upholding the law versus personal vengeance, the dramatic gravity appears slight.
More than a few may argue that Costner is robotic in playing the lead—but I disagree. I enjoyed that it is difficult to read him at times, Costner playing Agent Ness almost guarded. After all, he is a stranger in the city and he has been assigned an important task of taking down one of the most visible criminals in the country at the time. I did not see his performance as robotic or wall-like; rather, the character has a lot to accomplish but he does not quite know where to start and so he covers it up by looking composed and professional. He wants to gain the respect of those who doubt what he can do.
De Niro’s performance is good but the character is not well-written. I found this Capone to be cartoonish—with only one really good scene involving a baseball bat. Mamet does not allow the character to do very much other than to look polished and sound sinister every time he must make a speech. The more interesting villain is Frank Nitti (chillingly played by Billy Drago), one of the henchmen who we cannot wait to get his comeuppance.
The action scenes make an imprint because they unfold like a thriller. Particular standouts include the station and the baby stroller, a rooftop chase, the raid at the border between the U.S. and Canada. De Palma employs uncomfortable pauses during critical moments. Just when we are ready to take the punch, he delays just a bit to catch us slightly off-guard. He does this time and again but it does not get old because there is almost always a bit of variation to keep the approach fresh.
The clothes, the sets, the hairstyles, and other elements designed to summon the 1930s are carefully picked out. Though they are easy on the eyes, they are never distracting. Couple the images of the past with a modern action-thriller score, one creates an interesting dichotomy. Although some may disapprove of the background music, I found it fitting considering the off-beat use of camera angles and pacing of action scenes.
“The Untouchables” would have been a more complete experience if we had gotten to know Agent Ness’ partners beyond what they can do superficially or their expertise. They are, however, given some memorable lines, particularly of Connery’s character giving advice to the federal agent in terms of what he should be willing to do or cross to capture the seemingly untouchable Al Capone.
Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Pat (Bradley Cooper), diagnosed with bipolar disorder accompanied by severe mood swings, has been institutionalized for eight months by the order of the court. His mother (Jacki Weaver) picks him up from the hospital and takes him home so that he can try to get into the groove of living his life again. But Pat is on a mission. He believes that if he works hard enough to get in shape, learns to be more knowledgeable about classic literature, and puts his life back together, his wife, whom he caught sexually involved with a much older man, would want him back. Meanwhile, everybody knows that the restraining order is there for a reason but no one dares to break him out of wishful thinking.
Dozens of movies about a man and a woman meeting and getting together romantically released throughout the course of a year consistently prove that romantic comedy is a tough sub-genre to get right, but “Silver Linings Playbook,” based on the novel by Matthew Quick, is a shining and welcome exception. Consistently going for the big laughs and the picture might be criticized for not having enough heart, unrealistic because life is not as simple as a series of sketches. Too much sad moments and the film might be denounced for being too dark and depressing, not at all fit for couples and hopeless romantics who wish to validate their beliefs.
Perhaps one of the toughest challenges the film faces is the question of when–or if–it is okay to laugh at a character with a mood disorder. I admired that the writing is very discerning between the man and his ailment even though at times it is very difficult to separate them. I liked that, in a way, it asks us what we consider to be politically correct. When some of Pat’s unstable behavior is played for laughs, it is never mean-spirited. There is always an ironic twist, a parallel joke, or insight that accompanies what some people may easily dismiss as offensive. For instance, Pat wearing a trash bag every time he goes running around the neighborhood may be considered as a behavior by “a crazy person.” Yes, it’s amusing that someone from a middle-class family would willingly wear trash bag in public. But the way we may choose to see it is it might be our protagonist’s way of acknowledging that it was wrong of him to almost beat a man to death after he has caught his wife having an affair. Trash is what is considered to be an unwanted thing. Deep down, knows he is unwanted by the community and he wishes to do better, despite his stubborn personality, and so we want to be on his side.
Embers of romance smolder when Pat and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) meet over dinner hosted by Pat’s friend (John Ortiz) and Tiffany’s sister (Julia Stiles). With the help of a sharp script that allows Pat and Tiffany to say what is on their minds without filters, Cooper and Lawrence imbue their characters with a fresh vitality through their eyes. Even though they are, in a lot of ways, unhappy and damaged people, we want them to get to know each other and perhaps become a couple. Each time they interact, we can feel that they were once happy and are still willing to reach a new version of what they think makes up happiness. The screenplay amps up the ante by forcing Pat and Tiffany to be a part of a mostly one-sided, unglamorous romance. We may not have a bipolar disorder or depression but they remain relatable because we grow to understand their personalities and the way they think.
“Silver Linings Playbook,” based on the screenplay and directed by David O. Russell, is about people who need emotional healing with plenty of unexpected humor along the way. It is an atypical romantic comedy due to its reliance on utilizing silence, especially to build drama between father (Robert De Niro) who thinks he has not given enough to his younger son, to go for the big emotions that feel genuine thereby taking away elements that might be perceived as manipulative. Why use music to give us a hint on what to think or how to feel when we have the brains (and hopefully the empathy) to read between what is communicated and the unsaid? The music, however, is required for the dance competition. It is executed with such joy and creativity that if it fails to make you smile, you just might be taking life a bit too seriously.
New York, New York (1977)
★★★★ / ★★★★
It was 1945 and the Japanese had surrendered the war. During a party, charismatic Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro), a saxophonist, tried to get the attention of various women to no avail. The third woman he talked to, Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli), a USO singer, didn’t want to speak to him either but he insisted that he was worth her time. He figured that if they talked long enough, she would end up liking him. And she did. The two eventually got married, but being together for the rest of their lives didn’t seem like it was meant to be. “New York, New York,” based on the screenplay by Earl Mac Rauch and directed by Martin Scorsese, was a sincere portrayal of marriage that was about to hit the rocks. Instead of using its musical numbers to sugarcoat the realities of Jimmy and Francine’s time together, it used song and dance to reveal the inadequacies that they felt but didn’t have the courage to confront. Francine enjoyed her independence but when she found out that she was pregnant, there was a sudden shift in her priorities. Her love for the child took precedence and her love of music was relegated to second place. But for Jimmy, it wasn’t the case. When they met, he said that he loved three things, respectively: music, money, and women. When he found out he was going to be a father, his priorities didn’t shift and wasn’t willing to compromise. Their fights were ugly and heartbreaking, especially the scene in which Jimmy called the very pregnant Francine “disgusting,” the camera unblinking toward the seething anger and sadness that permeated between the two. De Niro and Minnelli’s performances had range and depth so their characters felt like real people. Since the characters had a complexity to them, it felt like we were a part of their lives and responding to the ups and downs of their relationship felt natural. Scorsese’s direction elevated the picture because it seemed like he allowed certain accidents–a blurb in the dialogue or an item that seemed out of place–to make the final cut. Also, I appreciated the small gestures like Francine playing with the buttons of Jimmy’s shirt as he was telling her something important. It was an image that we could easily see out in the world if we stopped and observed. There are criticisms involving the fifteen-minute musical montage called “Happy Endings.” Personally, though I agree to some extent that it disrupted the tone of the marriage drama, I appreciated the risk it had undertaken. While somewhat out of place, it remained focused on its overarching themes. The songs were not only incredibly catchy, they commented on the hardship of marriage. It wanted to communicate to us that a constant reevaluation of a relationship is not only healthy, it is necessary because it keeps us receptive of our as well as our partner’s wants and needs. “New York, New York” offered another layer by exploring contrasting elements: femininity and masculinity, independence and security, successes and failures, and love and friendship. Though not considered to be a success upon its release, it proved how audacious Scorsese could be as a filmmaker.
Red Lights (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Dr. Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) visit a family that believes their new home is haunted. Seconds after Margaret and Tom step inside, loud banging can be heard from upstairs. The father insists that the noise has been so relentless, his family is unable to get a proper night’s sleep. Once everyone is acquainted, a seance is performed by a medium. The table shakes more violently as the medium’s connection to the spirits intensifies. Meanwhile, as a renowned psychologist and physicist, respectively, Dr. Matheson and Tom know that the seance is a complete sham. They make a living debunking so-called paranormal phenomena and this particular “haunted” house proves to be an easy case.
Written and directed by Rodrigo Cortés, “Red Lights” is unwaveringly confident as it moves from the idea that logic offers the best solution for mystifying problems to opening up the possibility that perhaps science, despite being a singularly powerful tool, does not have all the answers.
The interplay between Dr. Matheson and Tom is interesting in that although they believe in science, we are given a chance to understand the subtle differences of their beliefs as well as their approaches to solving problems. Although one’s status and level of experience is higher than the other, observing them interact feels fresh because the relationship feels mutualistic. There is a reason for us to keep watching because the surprises do not depend on scenes where they reveal channelers, healers, and the like as charlatans.
A darker turn is taken, however, when Simon Silver (Robert De Niro), one of the world’s most popular psychic who happens to be blind, suddenly comes out of retirement. Tom becomes desperate to prove to the world that Silver is simply a very talented performer. He does not understand why his mentor is reluctant to go after Silver given that if they are successful, not only will their department get more funding, their lives’ work will be recognized universally.
The screenplay has a few surprises. Instead of a typical showdown of mind games between Dr. Matheson and Silver, it is fascinating how neither share one scene together. Instead, through Dr. Matheson’s recollection, we are given background information about their history in the 70s which eventually explains why she does not want anything to do with the man. The second half is more deeply-footed in its ominous atmosphere, the use of music more sparing, and the images more bizarre. Its pacing, too, becomes more unpredictable. Quick in some, slow in others, and completely stagnant in what can potentially be Tom’s salvation, specifically his relationship with Sally (Elizabeth Olsen), a pupil of Dr. Matheson.
Coincidences pile up like dead autumn leaves as Tom, the lost sheep, obsessively sorts through them with hopes of finding a golden answer. Which “coincidences” does Silver induce and which ones do Tom creates for himself? Sometimes it is challenging to discern and, arguably, it may not even matter–at least for Tom. Do logical answers matter much to irrational minds?
Sharply photographed, smartly written, and well-directed, “Red Lights” brings to mind the beautiful contradictions in Chris Carter’s “The X-Files” and the paranoia of Adrian Lyne’s “Jacob’s Ladder.” It may not be as accessible as either but it certainly is as mesmerizing.
Angel Heart (1987)
★★ / ★★★★
Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke), a private detective from Brooklyn, was hired by Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) to find a man named Johnny Favorite. For $5,000, Harry took the job. All clues pointed to Louisiana where some people were believed to practice witchcraft. However, every person who divulged information about Johnny’s whereabouts were eventually murdered in a gruesome fashion. Some of the dead bodies included a doctor (Michael Higgins), a psychic (Charlotte Rampling), and a musician (Brownie McGhee). Based on a novel by William Hjortsberg, “Angel Heart” was like watching a confused animal move from one side of the room to another. It was interesting because of the dark atmosphere that surrounded the mystery but it didn’t have enough rewards to keep us guessing. While murders consisted of bucket-loads of blood on the floor and on the walls, we felt no attachment to any of the characters because Harry didn’t spend enough time with them. The theme of the picture was a man suddenly forced into a world that was, to say the least, strange to him. He wasn’t aware of less popular religions so he feared people who practiced them. He claimed he was just a man from Brooklyn. We also learned his quirks which included an oral fixation and the wave of anxiety he felt when he was around chickens. He was an enigma because he had kind eyes but he kept himself from a distance. Even the girl named Epiphany Proudfoot (Lisa Bonet) with whom he eventually fell for was kept at arm’s length. The picture’s strongest asset was the performances. Rourke was charismatic but he possessed a quiet danger. When chased by thugs and questioned by cops, he had a certain way of defending himself and answering questions without giving much away. There was chemistry between Rourke and Bonet. Their sex scene, though graphic, was magnetic. I would say it was the highlight of the film. De Niro wasn’t given many scenes but he made the most of it. His character was one-dimensional, a snide leer here and there, but he relished every word and emotion to the point where we believed that maybe he was up to something devious. Directed by Alan Parker, I wish “Angel Heart” wasn’t so predictable. I correctly guessed who the evasive Johnny Favorite was and where he was located about half-way through the film. I’m afraid audiences with a keen eye for mystery would most likely pick up the red herrings too quickly, come to a conclusion, and then lose interest. Unfortunately, a multi-layered mood and consistently solid acting weren’t enough to keep it afloat.
Little Fockers (2010)
★ / ★★★★
It seemed like Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro) and Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) had finally found a way to get along after years of power struggle which often involved physical pain. Much to Greg’s surprise, Jack wanted him to be the “Godfocker” or the head of family. But when Jack began to feel a gnawing suspicion that Greg was having an affair with a beautiful pharmaceutical representative (Jessica Alba), Jack and Greg’s temporary ceasefire was shaken. Directed by Paul Weitz, “Little Fockers” was lifeless, tedious, and humiliating. There was no good reason for these characters to be on screen again because not only was there no story, there was no chemistry among the characters. We learned nothing new about them and they weren’t very funny because all of the jokes were either uninspired or recycled from other lame-brained comedies. The “I’m watching you” joke may have been amusing more than a decade ago but after hearing the same joke over and over again, it wasn’t even chuckle-worthy. The slapstick scenes served no purpose other than to disgust and Alba’s character doing physical stunts felt utterly desperate. The only two characters I found somewhat amusing were Roz (Barbara Streisand), Jack’s mom, and Prudence (Laura Dern), the recruiter for the elementary school Jack and Greg were interested in for the twins. Roz’ jokes about sex and aging were transparent but least they served a nice break from the two warring fathers. Prudence, on the other hand, was amusing because she found herself in disbelief when dealing with the Fockers. Having experience in working with obnoxious kids and dealing with, to put it lightly, difficult parents her fake smile was all too familiar. I enjoyed Dern’s performance, even though she wasn’t given very much to do, because she made Prudence relatable and less of a caricature. Unfortunately, the picture had to return its focus to Jack and Greg attempting to make each other’s lives miserable. It was almost masochistic. Toward the end, I thought its sweetness was completely false because the evolution in Jack and Greg’s relationship was absent. It was insulting that the filmmakers actually believed that we would buy the charade. The scene right before they were nice and gooey, Jack and Greg were so mean-spirited toward each other, I wondered if they genuinely regarded each other as family. Greg perfectly knew that Jack had a serious heart condition yet he wasn’t attuned enough not to throw a punch. With a sharper script equipped with enough character development and jokes that were actually funny and subversive, perhaps “Little Fockers” could have passed as a remotely mediocre comedy. Instead, this movie personified what the bottom of a barrel looks and sounds like: dark, depressing, and desperate.
Killer Elite (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
After a job in 1980 which involved assassinating a man while the target’s kid was in the car, Danny (Jason Statham) decided to quit the killing business. A year later, Danny, living in rural Australia, received a package that contained photos of his mentor, Hunter (Robert De Niro), and instructions on how to retrieve his friend. In Oman, we learned that Sheikh Amr (Rodney Afif) wanted to avenge the death of his three sons. If Danny successfully killed three British former special air servicemen (Lachy Hulme, Grant Bowler, Daniel Roberts) before Sheikh passed away from his affliction, Danny would be able to walk away with Hunter and six million dollars richer. But just how do you get a recorded video confession and make the assassination look like an accident if the targets are tough and gifted special forces agents trained to endure the greatest types of torture? Based on the novel by Ranulph Fiennes, “Killer Elite” was able to accomplish a juggling act so uncommonly found these days in action pictures. It managed to be entertaining without sacrificing story and intelligence. In its own way, it was fashionably old-school. The goals that needed to be accomplished were succinctly laid for us. The steps toward each goal made sense even though the path was almost always never a straight line due to complications. Furthermore, since the film was set in the early 80s, sophisticated gadgetry was rarely featured. We were able to learn about the professions of the men involved, mostly through Danny’s perspective, in the way they handled guns, big and small, engaged in fiercely drawn-out hand-to-hand combat, and maneuvered their way in and around political agendas of men known as The Committee, mostly in their seniors, so intent on keeping things hush-hush, it almost felt like their loyalty was, ironically, a crime. I found a smidgen of sadness with it all. The Committee had no regard for the SAS, a group they formerly depended on for counter-terrorism and the like, because their use had expired. Determined to protect the former ex-SAS was Spike (Clive Owen), a former special agent himself who sported only one fully functioning eye. I was fascinated with how he was introduced as the only man capable of stopping Danny. Despite his obstructed vision, his focus never meandered and he was comfortable with thinking outside the box. And that made him a very dangerous man to deal with. Yet, over time, I learned to identify with what he believed to be worth fighting for. I wished, however, that the pacing was more consistent. With a running time of almost two hours, it felt longer because there was one too many flashbacks of Danny thinking about his girlfriend (Yvonne Strahovski): how they reconnected after so many years, how much he missed her, and how she was one of the main reasons why he wanted to quit the business. It was clear that he loved the girl. No further explanation was needed. The flashbacks greatly interrupted the urgency of the picture; instead of pulling me in closer, I began to feel an aversion to the romance. Based on a screenplay by Matt Sherring and directed by Gary McKendry, “Killer Elite” proudly supports the idea that the most effective action movies are not just about good people versus bad people. There’s good and bad in all of us. Some of us walk away from good, some of us walk away from bad. But it doesn’t mean we can’t choose to go back.
★★★ / ★★★★
When an innocent man was taken by the police and tortured to death, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), who worked for a passively tyrannical (and ultimately incompetent) government, was assigned to take a closer look at the computer error. Despite being aware that the many confusing bureaucracies that often led to dead-ends didn’t always serve the citizens’ best interests, Sam chose to retreat to his fantasy world when he felt overwhelmed. In his daydream, he was a powerful winged warrior who dueled a Samurai in order to rescue a beautiful woman. Reality and fantasy collided when Sam ran into Jill (Kim Greist), sharing great resemblance to the girl of his dreams, a woman suspected of terrorist activities like bombing public places. Directed by Terry Gilliam, “Brazil” was an adventurous satire that is worth viewing multiple times. There were heavy symbolisms, like a man being eaten by paperwork, and scenes that didn’t always fit into the big picture. For instance, the two electricians who seemed to gain some sick pleasure torturing Sam as they slowly took over his home. Granted, the scenes were very funny especially when Robert De Niro’s mysterious character appeared to lend Sam a helping hand. However, the picture was most fascinating when it tackled the absurd. Sam’s mother (Katherine Helmond) and her friends were obsessed with plastic surgery. Despite the many “complications,” they were willing to go back and endure the pain of having their skin cut up and stretched up to their scalp. It was almost like watching an addiction. It was hilarious but it held some semblance of truth in today’s obsession with youth and its relationship with the magic of science. What I found strange was how romantic the movie was at times. The film referenced Michael Curtiz’ “Casablanca” and its influence showed. The courtship scenes between Sam and Jill were silly and tender, yet it had darkness looming over the edge as something bigger than both of them threatened their budding relationship. It was interesting that Jill had the more masculine qualities, like driving a big truck that she called her cab, while Sam was the hopeless romantic who was hesitant to take action. Lastly, I found the final twenty minutes to be very hypnotic. While it didn’t make much sense as a whole, like in our dreams, sometimes the parts were more meaningful. What Sam went through personified the nightmare of the dystopian world that he and his loved ones happened to inhabit. “Brazil” was an ambitious and imaginative film which was not unlike watching someone’s dreams. It requires a bit of thinking from us and, more importantly, recognition that our government and society may be heading in a similar direction.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Machete” was a fake trailer so good, it was green lit as full-feature film. Machete (Danny Trejo) was a Mexican Federale who disobeyed his boss which led to his wife’s beheading. Three years later and now in America, Machete was approached by a mysterious man named Booth (Jeff Fahey) for a job. For $150,000, Machete was assigned to kill Senator McLaughlin (Robert De Niro), whose platform was to ensure a stricter Mexican-American border, while making his speech for re-election. But the simple assassination plot was not what it seemed. The heated debate about illegal immigration was directly related to a drug cartel led by Von Jackson (Don Johnson) and the kingpin Torrez (Steven Seagal). “Machete,” directed by Ethan Maniquis and Robert Rodriguez, was an incredibly violent, bloody, laugh-out-loud funny, creative mess. The filmmakers knew that the movie was an exaggeration of good and bad action films that we loved and hated. Most of the action defied the law of physics but it didn’t matter because it was entertaining. It provided an excellent example of a character whose background information we did not need to know or fully understand. We just knew he had to survive because he was a symbol of the people, specifically immigrants, both legal and illegal, who were every day marginalized yet used as a scapegoat when a country was in an economic turmoil. Amidst the flying bullets, blades scraping through skin, and blood being painted on walls, I was surprised that it had moments of thoughtfulness, although wrapped in humor like a burrito. For instance, one of Booth’s henchmen stated that we allow Mexicans to enter our homes to clean, take care of our children or siblings, and park our cars, yet we wouldn’t allow them to enter our country. Controversies concerning illegal immigration aside, there was a painful truth to that statement. Furthermore, as enjoyable as the men were to watch, there were some interesting casting choice concerning the women who eventually came to fight on Machete’s side. Michelle Rodriguez was a perfect choice to play Luz because she was edgy, tough, and beautiful. On the other hand, Jessica Alba as an immigration and customs enforcer was not entirely convincing because she didn’t have enough angst and roughness. I actually squirmed in my seat during her speech, while standing on the hood of a car, about our rights to stand up to a law that failed to protect its people’s best interests. I felt like I was in a room with a high school teacher who got a little too carried away by the subject at hand. The most fascinating was Lindsay Lohan whose dream was to become a “model” but she really meant taking her clothes off over the internet. I gave her the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she wanted to satirize her wacky life. “Machete” embraced the offensive, the grimy, and the bold. I embraced it right back.
Everybody’s Fine (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Despite his doctor’s recommendation against traveling, Frank (Robert De Niro) decided to go on a road trip across America when his thirtysomething children (Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore) made last-minute cancellations to come visit over the holidays. Frank wanted to reconnect with his kids due to the recent death of his wife. Also, he felt lonely being by himself at home. “Everybody’s Fine” had an interesting premise but it ultimately left me wanting more. Since Frank’s children had vastly different personalities and temperaments, I thought that each visit would reflect a change of tone. Unfortunately, it remained mind-numbingly one-note. It was depressing because the kids didn’t want to have anything to do with their father which were reflected in their phone conversations when Frank was on the train, the bus, and the plane. Although he was somewhat welcomed with smiles and hugs, the emotions felt fake because we knew what they really thought about the surprise visit. It was like watching a guide called “How Not to Treat Your Parents When They Get Old and You Have Your Own Life.” It would have been refreshing if two of them didn’t want him over but at least one genuinely did without question. One visit could have been strange, the other really funny, and the last quite cantankerous. Big shifts in tone could have signified that the material wasn’t afraid to take risks. So what if everything doesn’t quite fit together? Just keep the audiences interested. There were some mildly comedic scenes like when Frank was portrayed as being out of touch with recent technology and his unawareness that the heavy bag he’d been carrying had a handle and wheels which could have made his life easier. There were also some touching scenes such as when we finally realized that there were some truth in Frank’s high expectations of his children and why they felt distant toward him for years. Nevertheless, I still disagreed with the way they treated their father as if he was a child. Protecting someone doesn’t always equal keeping them in the dark especially when the person had a right to know what was happening. The writing could have used some work. The scene I found most awkward and uncomfortable to sit through was the fantasy scene involving Frank sharing a meal with his children, played by actual kids, and secrets were revealed. Some of the divulged information could be surmised from Frank’s visit but some were simply out of nowhere. That scene felt cheesy, forced, and it diminished the little dramatic pull it had going for it. Written and directed by Kirk Jones, “Everybody’s Fine” had a great cast, with some effective acting from De Niro, but it made far too many missteps because of a weak script. I couldn’t help but feel disconnected during the more serious revelations.