Friday, September 19, 2014

Movie Review - No Good Deed (2014)

Idris Elba as the sexy psycho in "No Good Deed"
This film is not to be confused with Tyler Perry's Good Deeds, but like a couple of Tyler Perry's other films, there is domestic abuse against women. In the wake of recent domestic abuse cases in the media with African-Americans, particularly NFL players like Ray Rice, this movie is somewhat topical. Tyler Perry doesn't direct thrillers, but if he did, it might be something like this. Despite being predictable, this film has a few compelling moments and is paced with some alacrity.

Idris Elba stars as Colin Evans, a convicted felon in Tennessee who is up for parole. He was convicted for manslaughter for a bar fight that went too far. However, it's suspected that Colin also brutally murdered a bunch of women. Apparently, there is no proof that he committed those murders, so initially there's a chance that the parole board will free him.

The reason that it's a movie that could be a Tyler Perry film is because that question of his guilt is immediately thrown out the window. Elba is probably best known for his role in HBO's The Wire, a show that put its criminals front and center, but those criminals were never as Colin is described here, which is a "malignant narcissist," a fancy term for basically being evil.

What possibly made The Wire successful is that its characters, even if they were criminals, weren't straight evil. They had reasons for their actions that made sense given the socioeconomic and cultural circumstances they found themselves. Plenty of TV shows and horror films or thrillers utilize straight evil characters, but it's always scarier or more of an engaging quandary, if there is some nuance or sympathy.

None of that exists here. Written by Aimee Lagos, what might have helped is if some of the mystery regarding Colin's crimes had remained a mystery. Director Sam Miller could have also chosen to keep Colin's misdeeds undercover, but instead the filmmakers never let the audience be on his side.

As such, every action Colin makes becomes predictable. Thus, the movie becomes boring, as it slides to its inevitable conclusion. I suppose as a pulpy thriller it works. It's suitable, B-movie excitement that trades more on its star's growing sex appeal than any kind of intrigue or intelligence. To the black women of the Cinema In Noir podcast who hoped for a shirtless Idris Elba moment, you got it. In fact, you see Elba go fully nude as he takes a titillating and tense shower.

It's at this intersection that things become worrisome. Elba is certainly not the first person to use physical attractiveness to maintain interest in a character that one would sooner avoid or use sex appeal as almost a weapon. Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) comes to mind. Jennifer Jason Leigh in Single White Female (1992) and Josh Brolin in last year's Labor Day (2013) were also about sexy psychos. One of the best examples of this is this year's Stranger By the Lake.

Yet, what's worrisome is that the image of the black man has been plagued with too many recent negative portrayals. Aside from Kevin Hart in Ride Along, Anthony Mackie in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and possibly Dwayne Johnson in Hercules, there really haven't been any black male heroic characters on the big screen this year.

It's not this film's job to rectify that, but with all the domestic abuse cases in the news, particularly in regard to the NFL players like Ray Rice, it's difficult to divorce those images of Rice beating up his now wife in an elevator with the images in this film of Colin beating up various women, including one who was his girlfriend, and not resent the film itself.

Fortunately, Oscar-nominee Taraji P. Henson co-stars as Terri, one of the women whom gets beaten up after Colin invades her fancy, Atlanta home, and Terri is a strong, black mother who is smart and fiercely fights back. She's not just a helpless victim, which is a common media image. Thankfully, this movie doesn't portray her as that. If this movie is watchable at all, it's only to see Taraji P. Henson fight and in fact kick Idris Elba's ass.

SPOILER ALERT!!!

This movie does have a twist. It goes to explain why Colin is doing what he's doing in the latter half of the movie. I have to say that I didn't like it. First, it needlessly condemns yet another black man. Second, it only muddles things because it makes it seem that Colin had some kind of plan, which if he did, it's made even less clear after the twist is revealed. It's never really clear what his goal is or how he hopes to accomplish it. I suppose things spin out of control and he has to just improvise. Yet, it seems as if he and the filmmakers lose sight of any direction.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence, menace, terror, and for language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 24 mins.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

TV Review - The Normal Heart

Mark Ruffalo (center) puts up in a fight
in "The Normal Heart" (HBO)
This HBO production won two Emmys, including the one for Outstanding Television Movie, which was an award that it absolutely deserved. Written by Larry Kramer and based on his Tony Award-winning and autobiographical play, this movie is a powerful testament of the early years of the AIDS crisis in New York City, the early 1980's, brimming with so much passion and pathos, and so many great lines. Directed by Ryan Murphy (Running With Scissors and Eat Pray Love), it's lengthy but Murphy moves it along at a feverish pace with fast editing and over-the-top sequences, maintaining a terrifying momentum. What helps is his assembling of an amazing cast led by the pitch perfect Mark Ruffalo and supported by great actors in large and small roles, including Julia Roberts, Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons, Taylor Kitsch, Alfred Molina, Joe Mantello, BD Wong, Jonathan Groff, Denis O'Hare and Corey Stoll.

Mark Ruffalo stars as Ned Weeks, a gay man living in 1981 New York. He retreats with his friends to Fire Island. Even before things kick off, Ruffalo's Ned arrives amid a flurry of people but he seems disconnected. He's not like all the other gays. He knows everybody but is lonely somehow. Things change when his friend Craig Clayburn, played by Jonathan Groff, falls over sick on the beach.

Ned goes to Dr. Emma Brookner, played by Julia Roberts. Emma suffered from polio, which left her needing a wheelchair. She's been receiving patients much like Craig who have the noticeable lesions on the skin and who wither away by losing a ton of weight until they die. Emma dedicates herself to studying these patients' ailment and trying to treat it.

Her first recommendation is abstinence, but Ned and everyone in the gay community reject that, so Ned decides to attack the problem through political channels and legal channels. He continually tries to get an audience with the mayor but is continually denied. He goes to his brother Ben, played by Alfred Molina. Ben is a lawyer who agrees to do pro bono work for the Gay Men's Health Crisis, or GMHC, the organization that Ned joins to fight the AIDS epidemic.

The movie represents the fear within the heterosexual community about not wanting to be near AIDS patients, even those that work at hospitals, as well as the broader homophobia. There is speculation as to why the government took so long to take more active steps to address the epidemic.

Ned's gripes are more at the mayor but he does have a scene where he indicts President Ronald Reagan as well. Ned points out that Reagan refused or supremely neglected even saying the word "AIDS" in public. A really powerful scene with Emma has her indict the CDC or other comparable governmental arms about what little they're doing or how they're not researching or approaching the epidemic in requisite ways.

Yes, there's a lot of speeches and a lot of speechifying, but how the makers ground this movie and its characters is by giving proper due to the relationships. Ned pressures a closeted, gay newspaper reporter Felix Turner, played by Matt Bomer, to help him in the cause. They immediately start to date, romance develops and they move in together.

Bruce, played by Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights), is elected president of the GMHC. The scene of his election is great because despite not being as intelligent and as well-spoken as Ned, he is prettier and sexier. Bruce gets involved with someone equally pretty if not prettier, a male fashion-model named Albert, played by Finn Wittrock.

Both Ned and Bruce deal with the fact that their boyfriends get sick with HIV and AIDS. Both are members of the GMHC, but where they differ are the tactics they prefer in this struggle. They basically fight over how to fight. Ned is way more aggressive and way more in-people's-faces. Ned is all about screaming and, when that doesn't work, screaming louder. He clashes with not only Bruce but other members of GMHC.

The passion that is infused in this movie comes from Ruffalo's anger in these clashes. He bounces greatly off Kitsch and Molina, and every other person he encounters. The compassion or pathos that's also infused in this movie comes from Ruffalo's big-hearted and unconditional or unflinching love that he has for those that are sick with AIDS.

Bomer gives the performance of his life, rivaling Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club and Tom Hanks in Philadelphia. Bomer is simply not in a central role. Emmy-winner Jim Parsons is closer to being in a central role and he too gives the performance of his life. His speech at a funeral and the scene in which his final moment is a wordless act is simply a knockout.

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated TV-MA-LS.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 12 mins.
Available on HBO on Demand.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Movie Review - Wetlands

I went and saw this German film during its one-week run in Philadelphia on Saturday, September 13. Outside the theater, the Ritz Bourse, there was a printed message on the poster that reinforced the fact that due to its content, no one under 18 would be allowed in to see this movie. I assume that this warning has to do with all the blunt sexuality, but I don't recall seeing such a printed message for Stranger By the Lake, which I also saw at the Ritz Bourse. I assume that it also has to do with all the gross and in-your-face, toilet humor, except there's nothing here that the Farrelly brothers or the Wayans brothers haven't done. There are some things here that might make John Waters blush, but he wouldn't be too surprised by director David Wnendt's work.

After the movie was over, I got into a bit of an argument in front of the box office with a couple who had also just seen this film. The couple was trying to dissuade another woman from seeing it, while making comparisons to Richard Linklater's Boyhood. Both films are coming-of-age stories. Both are about teenagers of divorced parents. Yet, this film provides a female experience and point-of-view rarely seen on the big screen.

It's the version of Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac that I wish he made. It's as funny and subversive as any Todd Solondz or Pedro Almodovar movie. Yet, it's wildly more entertaining and heartfelt. There are plenty of moments that will disgust, make you squirm and even physically be repulsed or want to turn your head. Unlike the graphic sexuality and the blood and gore in other, more mainstream movies, the sex and blood in this film packs a stronger punch.

Carla Juri stars as Helen, a teenage girl who skateboards, loves punk rock music and sex. She's also a rebel. She's not an anarchist but there are certain rules, which she refuses to obey on occasion. A lot of those certain rules are about hygiene, particularly hygiene in regard to her pubic and anal area. For example, she doesn't wash her hand after a hand job. She revels in bodily fluids, male or female in origin.

The filmmaker makes Helen the narrator, so the movie isn't just about a punk rock, sex-obsessed, hygiene-challenged, sardonic girl. The movie is itself a punk rock, sex-obsessed, hygiene-challenged, sardonic film. The clear example is in the opening shot. It invokes what this film is about without actually showing it. Helen's sex-escapades lead to her being hospitalized for extreme hemorrhoids.

There is an animated sequence that riffs on a Listerine commercial, depicting germs as scary monsters, but the movie cuts to a live-action shot that grossly cuddles up to them. Based on the novel Feuchtgebiete by Charlotte Roche, there's a lot of inherent humor, but Wnendt crafts great visual gags. Many hilarious moments come from the editing. A religious montage is an example of the number of edits being comedic, but like Park Chan Wook, how Wnendt chooses to edit his transitions is funny as well. This movie also has one of the most laugh-out-loud, car accidents with Helen's mom, playing off a common, motherly platitude.

Despite her dirty deeds, Helen is a beautiful girl, as Juri is a beautiful girl. Yet, so is the entire cast. Helen's friend, Corinna, played by Marlen Kruse, as well as Helen's various love interests, including Kanell, the black "spelunker," played by Selam Tadese, and Robin, the male nurse, played by actor-musician Christoph Letkowski, are all attractive, interesting and charming.

This is the craziest and funniest movie I've seen all year. As soon as I saw it, it immediately became my number one of 2014. It's tops not just because of the sick and outrageous humor like a pizza rape fantasy that is jaw-droppingly insane and pornographic, but also because the movie has such empathy and unexpected warmth. Taking the sweet with the sour, the nasty with the nice, is the essence of life and of certainly this film.

Five Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but contains full frontal male and female nudity.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 40 mins.

Movie Review - Love is Strange

Ira Sachs' previous film was Keep the Lights On. It was about a young, gay male couple dealing with drug addiction. This film is about an older, gay male couple dealing with discrimination in employment and New York realty as well as in general the rigors of age. It provides a fairly good glimpse into the relationship of a gay couple who has been together for nearly 40 years and the nuances that all that implies. With the couple played by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, it's more than a glimpse. It's a pretty, realized portrait, thanks solely to their performances. The plot mechanics and the imbalance of focusing on certain characters undermine it, but the performances remain strong.

Alfred Molina plays George, a music teacher at a private, Catholic school. John Lithgow plays Ben, a 71-year-old retiree who is an artist, a painter to be more precise. After nearly 40 years together, the two get married. The state of New York only legalized same-sex marriage in July 2011. Assuming George and Ben have lived in New York their whole lives, getting married was something that they could only recently do. While George wasn't in the closet, his making his relationship with Ben official causes the Catholic school to fire him.

Ben's painting isn't selling. He doesn't even seem to try. George gives private music lessons, but it's not enough to pay their rent. Financial reasons prevent them from being able to stay in their apartment. They have to move and try to find a new, more affordable place, but in the meantime they become homeless.

They ask their friends and family for help. The problem is that their friends and family don't have a lot of extra space to take in both of them, so George and Ben have to separate. George sleeps on the couch of two friends, a younger gay couple in one pocket of New York, whereas Ben sleeps on the bottom bunk of his grandnephew's bedroom in another pocket of New York.

The comedy and drama here comes by way of the close quarters of these older men bumping heads with younger roommates, the awkwardness and annoyances therein. Logistics of cramped spaces is the core problem for both situations, but other social issues come into play in each.

Unfortunately, Sachs makes the film a bit lopsided and comes up a bit short in certain areas. Starting with George's situation, it's clear he gets no privacy and barely any sleep as the gay couple, Ted and Roberto, are constantly up late having loud parties. Sachs, however, never fleshes out these two. Supposedly, both Ted, played by Cheyenne Jackson, and Roberto, played by Manny Perez, are cops, but we get little sense of that. Sachs barely gives them any scenes of dialogue. All we see are them as stereotypical, gay party boys with no regard for George's situation, or any recognition that what happened to him could happen to them.

With Ben's situation, immediately he rubs his grandnephew the wrong way. Charlie Tahan plays Joey, the grandnephew of Ben who has to sleep in the top bunk bed now. Sachs cleverly reverses the dynamics here. Instead of the older gay man losing his privacy or time to oneself, in Ben's situation, he's causing the younger people to lose their privacy or time alone. This is especially true for Joey.

It's also increasingly true for Joey's mother, Kate, played by Marissa Tomei. Kate is a writer who works from home and becomes more and more bothered with Ben's presence. Unlike with Ted and Roberto, Sachs gives Kate and Joey many scenes of dialogue to flesh out their characters. It's more so with Kate. In fact, one scene with Kate leads to a very funny and ironic joke.

Joey's character is more present than anyone else, but even he gets a bit lost here. Joey is only upset at Ben. There's a weird moment of homophobia that he claims isn't, and there's another weird moment of the theft of French books, which one would think odd for a teen in the digital age, but there isn't a true sense of who Joey is beyond generic, rebellious teenager. It makes a moment of pathos at the end hollow and unearned.

Sachs follows Joey in one of several long one-shots and I would have preferred Sachs to focus more in the movie's final moments on George. Molina's performance is the film's shining star. His journey gets a deus ex machina but not a proper payoff.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated R for language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 33 mins.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Movie Review - The Trip to Italy

This is the sequel to The Trip (2011), the comedy wherein Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, two British comedic actors, play versions of themselves as in Curb Your Enthusiasm. The premise of their film three years ago is that Steve and Rob go on a road trip where they visit various restaurants, essentially as food critics. This film is practically the same, except the road trip isn't through England. It's through Italy.

They drive in a cute, little convertible. Sometimes, it's down highways, or back roads or even city streets. They go to these various restaurants. They sit. They eat. They talk and they banter. This is repeated over and over, and then over and over again, which would have been fine, if there were some kind of progression.

Every single scene is about Steve and Rob being self-referential and doing endless impressions. It felt like the impressions were only one or two scenes in the first film. In this film, the impressions were in every scene. They were constant, and the repeated impressions of Al Pacino and The Godfather became annoying.

Again, only because there's no progression. It was just riffs that went on too long. In one scene, when the two are doing impressions for other people, it feels like a competition, as if the two are trying to one-up each other. That coupled with the scene where Rob auditions on tape for a role in a Hollywood film could have developed into an interesting rivalry between the two.

The movie comes from the TV series. This movie in actuality is basically an edited down compilation from six episodes that originally aired on the BBC. A lot was obviously eliminated, but it doesn't seem to coalesce into anything, and whatever threads, like Rob's affair and Steve's son, are left dangling in the wind.

There are funny moments. Coogan's impressions of Robert De Niro and Pierce Brosnan are spot on. Brydon's gags about a man in a box and his Michael Bublé bit, where he isn't Bublé, are pretty hilarious. Coogan's reactions to both are the highlights, but that's basically it.

I try to avoid road trip movies because I've seen enough. Yet, a recent one called Red Flag (2012) by Alex Karpovsky is a far better film about two friends in the movie business who hit the road.

Two Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but recommended for mature audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 48 mins.

Movie Review - The Drop (2014)

Tom Hardy plays your everyday, Brooklyn
bartender in a scene from "The Drop"
Michaël R. Roskam directed the Oscar-nominated, foreign-language film Bullhead. It was a great, Belgium crime drama that explored an illegal organization not often explored with a really compelling protagonist in the center with better realized side characters. It was well photographed with striking visuals and interesting camerawork. It somehow managed to be fresh and shocking, delving into issues of masculinity in bold ways. This film tries to be the same, treads on similar ground or hits familiar beats to that one, except it's ultimately weaker across the board. It's like a watered-down version of Bullhead.

Tom Hardy (Inception and The Dark Knight Rises) stars as Bob Saginowsky, a bartender at a Brooklyn bar that has become a repository for the money of mobsters. The bar acts like an underground bank or holding spot for dirty cash. The bar is run by Bob's older cousin Marv, played by James Gandolfini in his final film performance, but Bob is Marv's right hand.

One night, on his way home, Bob finds a pit bull puppy in a trash can. The trash can is in front of the home of Nadia, a waitress, played by Noomi Rapace (The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo and Prometheus). The puppy is bruised and bleeding. At first, Bob doesn't know what to do with the puppy, but Nadia pushes him to nursing it back to health.

Even though the inciting incident is the bar being robbed of its drug money, much like Killing Them Softly (2012), that incident is only incidental. It almost rises to the point of not mattering. It gives Gandolfini something to do, but the robbery ultimately is swept away.

The true center is Bob's care for the dog, which he names Rocco, as well as his budding romance with Nadia. Yet, all through this film, something is off about Bob. He seems somewhat anti-social or at least socially awkward. Despite looking like he's in his late twenties and early thirties, he seems to have no idea how to talk nor woo a woman.

To Nadia, this might be adorable, especially when Bob is holding the cute puppy, making him cuter than he already is. Yet, the writer Dennis Lehane, adapting his own short story, doesn't do much to build the relationship between the two. They don't really talk. It comes as a bit of a surprise when Nadia's ex-boyfriend and ex-con Eric Deeds, played by Matthias Schoenaerts (Bullhead and Rust and Bone), shows up and is the true owner of the dog.

Eric is just ridiculous and crazy. He is perhaps the least nuanced and least sane character that Schoenaerts has played. As such, his fate is pretty obvious. It's practically the same fate as Schoenaerts' previous, English-language character in Blood Ties. Yet, Eric's struggle with Bob is all over a dog, and it's simply silly.

The real stakes are the thousands of dollars stolen in the inciting incident, but that becomes even lower than an undercurrent. Ostensibly, Bob is all about the dog. The money wasn't a concern for him, and while he comes across as a nice guy, as the film goes along, it becomes clear that something is bubbling underneath his surface.

When increasing threats from Chechen mobsters become apparent with blood and severed limbs popping up, Bob remains cool, calm and unaffected. One wonders how he could be so collected or seemingly naive to the danger and weirdness. Then, it's explained in an explosive moment.

The final scene then has Nadia make a choice about the explosion she's witnessed and her decision undermines her character. She basically makes the choice to love the bomb. Yes, in this case, Bob is the bomb, and there's no real reason why she chooses him. Perhaps, it's because he was nice to a dog. Well, Hitler was supposedly nice to his dog.

Two Stars out of Five.
Rated R for some strong violence and pervasive language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 46 mins.

Monday, September 15, 2014

DVD Review - Batman: Assault on Arkham

Given the success of Marvel's The Avengers, a film that combines a group of superheroes in a big adventure, Sony developed the idea of doing a movie that combines a group of villains in a big adventure. The idea was tentatively titled Sinister Six. Anyone curious about how a movie like that would work can look to this one.

I don't know too much about the DC Comics Universe. I also don't know all that much about what's referred to as Batman's Rogues Gallery. This is a hindrance because the villains who band together here are not major villains who have been depicted countless times in movies or TV shows.

Written by Heath Corson, and directed by Jay Oliva and Ethan Spaulding, the movie actively introduces us to the villains, but there is a prerequisite of knowing them from the comics. Guardians of the Galaxy did a good job of presenting unknown or not widely known comic book characters. Being live action, it needed to do a good job. This animated movie doesn't feel that burden. Yet, the character design, dialogue and plot are enough to carry it.

Amanda Waller, voiced by CCH Pounder, is a heavyset, black woman who is a government agent who has created the Suicide Squad, a collection of criminals from Gotham and beyond. She's able to use technology to threaten these criminals to do what she wants. Ironically, her current mission is to send the Suicide Squad into Arkham Asylum, the institution and prison in Gotham city designed to house the criminally insane.

Six villains comprise the Suicide Squad. They include Deadshot, Harley Quinn, Captain Boomerang, Killer Frost, Killer Shark and Black Spider. Deadshot, voiced by Neal McDonough, is the de facto leader. He's comparatively the least evil and psychotic of them all. He's probably the closest to being like Batman.

We don't learn too much about his back story or anyone else's. The exception is Harley Quinn, voiced by Hynden Walch. She used to be a psychiatrist who worked at Arkham Asylum. She fell in love with Joker, Batman's archenemy, and now dresses like a demented clown too or sexy, twisted, court jester. She's the most mouthy, the most flirtatious and is second in command because she knows the ins and outs of Arkham.

The funny and craziest thing about this movie is how adult it is. The characters curse, dropping the four-letter s-word. Characters in Guardians of the Galaxy might drop the same word once, but this animated movie does so more frequently. This movie also pulls no punches when it comes to the violence. Guardians of the Galaxy gets somewhat intense, but it shows no blood.

Not only does this cartoon show blood and pools of it, literally, it also has some pretty horrific gore, and gruesome deaths of innocent people. Oliva and Spaulding seem to have a predilection with decapitations, and not just people getting their heads sliced off their bodies in some way but people getting their heads exploded with chunks flying every which way.

What also proves how this movie is so adult is how it treats sex. Guardians of the Galaxy does have a shirtless Chris Pratt and has dick and ejaculation jokes. This cartoon actually shows Harley Quinn fully nude and has Deadshot's naked body on top of her. It's not crude or pornographic but it goes for it.

Speaking of Harley Quinn, she does have a love triangle here. Joker, voiced by Troy Baker, learns of Harley's affair with Deadshot and aside from his green hair, he also becomes green with envy. That on top of his other plan to cause chaos, mixed with the Suicide Squad's mission and its many twists and turns forces all Hell to break loose.

Half-way through the movie, all one can wonder is for whom should one root. For about 40 minutes, there is no hero. All the characters are villains, so it's a question if the audience should care about the Squad's mission. Even when Waller threatens and basically blackmails them, it's still difficult to care about them.

However, the filmmakers are able to turn it around and make the audience invested. I was even caring about the resolution of the love triangle. The final shot of the movie is questionable about how one should feel. The final shot is meant to be celebratory of revenge and of murder, which can be satisfying but in a very disturbing way.

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for violence, sexual content and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 15 mins.