COMING SOON...

COMING SOON...

THE HOT ROCK, CINDERELLA LIBERTY, ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL and DISTANT VOICES STILL LIVES

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

CEDAR RAPIDS: INSURES YOUR LAUGHTER

It seems that every now and then a small movie makes big noise. They’re usually an independent film that was made for almost no money, if they’re lucky they get a star or two and they become noticed at film festivals. CLERKS was one such film and so was LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. So when I heard that CEDAR RAPIDS was this years talked about indie film I wondered if it was true or not. Yes, the movie lives up to its reputation. It’s hilarious.

Ed Helms (of HANGOVER and THE OFFICE fame) stars as Tim Lippe, a modest insurance salesman in a small town who was destined for great things but never seemed to get there. His life is rather hum drum, he’s never been anywhere outside of this small town and the thrill of his life is his girlfriend Macy (Sigourney Weaver), his old 7th grade teacher.

Currently he plays second fiddle to Roger, the top guy who has always represented the company well at the national convention, bringing them back 2 Double Diamond trophies in a row. When Roger is found hung with his own belt in an act of autoerotic asphyxiation, Tim is selected as his replacement. The company’s owner Bill (Stephen Root) gives him advice and books him in a room with a safe fellow insurance salesman.

Unfortunately the best laid plans…

His roommate Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) and he are upgraded to a suite since the hotel overbooked. Unfortunately they have to take in a third party and that person is Dean Zeigler (John C. Reilly), a wild man that Bill warned Tim to stay away from. As is usually the case, Dean isn’t quite as bad as Bill made him out to be even if he is a horn dog and a guy who likes to have far too much fun.

As the threesome gets acquainted they’re joined by Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche), another insurance salesperson who knows everyone but Tim. The four become fast friends as the film progresses and find themselves in various predicaments.

As Tim attempts to become one of the boys, he finds friendships tested and his morals questioned due to a twist in his plans he didn’t account for. He finds himself forced to question a few of his beliefs, to open himself up to the world outside of his small town and to basically grow up. Through it all he makes some fantastic life long friends.

I know, an insurance salesman convention doesn’t sound like the most interesting thing on the planet. But the fact is that these characters are likeable, crazy, fun, interesting and more complex than you would think. The spots they find themselves in are funny at times and touching at others. These characters are ones you’d like to have a drink with.

The film offers some great writing and directing as both bring out the best in these actors. I’ve not seen Heche do a character as well as she does Joan, a woman in what could be a loveless marriage who makes the convention a time to let loose. Reilly has this character down pat having played similar ones before. There was no way anyone else could have played this character. And Whitlock does a great turn here as a straight laced salesman who has a side he rarely lets anyone else see.

But the central character here of Tim as played by Helms is great. He could have gone for goofy, he could have overdone the aw shucks attitude. But Helms plays it straighter than that and the character of Tim Lippe is better off for it. You first think of him as a buffoon but by the end of the film come to care about him deeply.

CEDAR RAPIDS proves one thing. You don’t have to have a mega-million dollar budget to make a great movie. You just have to make something original, something entertaining and something that will make people laugh. This film does all three and does them well.

BATTLE LOS ANGELES: SCI FI GETS A REALITY CHECK

For years film makers have made movies that talked about an invasion of Earth by aliens. The most famous have included WAR OF THE WORLDS, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and THE THING, all made and then later remade. But while each of those films depicted an opposing force taking on our own, more often than not it was a space ship using enormous power or a one on one taking over of a human. A real look at what war with aliens might be like hasn’t been seen until the just released BATTLE: LOS ANGELES.

The film opens with Staff Sgt. Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) turning in his notice. He’s planning on retiring. This is in part because he’s had enough but also because his last assignment went bad resulting in most of his men being killed while he survived, something that rumor mongers blame him for. Once his last group is finished training, he’s gone.

But that doesn’t happen when he and his men are called in while on maneuvers. They’re whisked away via helicopter to a special base and told that what was thought to be a series of asteroids hitting the Earth is now thought to be an alien invasion. The asteroids are slowing as they hit the atmosphere and as they watch news reports they witness the armed invaders, their form of grunts on foot, rise from the seaside and begin firing on civilians.

The battle rages on but the fire power of the aliens is just too massive. With only 3 hours until they drop a ton of bombs to take out Santa Monica, Nantz and his new commander Lt. Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez) are assigned to take their men in to rescue a group stranded in a police station and to send back intel along the way.

The men are dropped down but it isn’t long before their opponent’s fire on them, leaving them with initial casualties and searching for a safe haven if just for a moment. The Lt. finds himself dazed and confused (a stereotype of most war films where a college educated leader stresses under real fire only to have the 2nd in command get him on track). It’s up to the Sgt. to get them moving once more and heading for the station.

Along the way they encounter the remnants of another platoon who have been hit harder than they have. Regrouping and joining forces, they head for the police station in the hope that the survivors are still alive.

Their hopes weren’t in vain once they arrive to find a few civilians still alive. The officers there are gone but their mission continues with just a short amount of time left to rescue these people, get back and possibly provide the military with enough information that they can find a way to repel these invaders.

All that in less than half the movie.

Due to the aliens as the invaders, most people will view this as a science fiction film. In reality this is definitely a war picture. The heroics of the men involved, the gung ho attitude of these Marines, the stereotypes seen in characters have been a staple for years. Many of the plotlines can be found in numerous war films. In any event it just doesn’t matter. Even if these ideas and characters have been seen before, they still provide an entertaining film.

The film also offers an inspiring look at the military as well. After years of tarnishing those in the military either as post traumatic stress victims, baby killers or goofballs who violate every human right possible, we’re presented here with a group of professionals who are trained to defend every person they can, to rescue those in need and to take on any hostile enemy that might attack the U.S., or in this case the Earth.  There are moments when you feel a swelling in your chest as these good men and women do their best against the worst of odds to protect and serve this country. It’s rare to see in today’s movies and nice for a change.

There are no stand out performances in this film. The entire cast does a great job depicting what the possible end of the world due to invasion might be like. There is fear on their faces when confronting an unknown enemy. There is joy when they can save someone. And there is triumph when they win any small battle that they can as they try and get to a safe location.

The effects are fantastic offering what appears to be the new look of alien spaceships and weaponry. For me these crafts seemed reminiscent of the space ship seen in DISTRICT 9. And the aliens themselves seem like a twisted compilation of the classic Predator and half a dozen robots seen of late. But it’s not just these two items that offer the best effects. It’s the scenes of devastation, of Los Angeles in flames, a burning relic of what it once was. That is the effect that sticks with you.

While BATTLE: LOS ANGELES isn’t quite a feel good movie it does offer hope and inspiration. And the entire vibe that surrounds the Marines in this film, as stated earlier, is one that gives you hope that should something like this ever occur, there will be someone there standing ready to take on all comers and to defend us all. This is a movie that might be too violent for children but will be an entertaining night at the movies for all others.

KILL THE IRISHMAN: CLEVELAND ROCKS

Movies based on real life do both good and bad things. On the bad side they make us believe that everything we’re witnessing is the bare facts laid out in cinematic style. On the good side they make us interested in a subject and hopefully look deeper into it rather than accept the film in blind faith. So it will be interesting to see what folks can learn about Danny Greene, the mobster and focus of the film KILL THE IRISHMAN.

Green (as played by Ray Stevenson) is a local tough guy who comes up the hard way. Picked on by the Italians in his neighborhood, the rough little Irish kid grows up taking his licks but dishing them out as well. He grows into a man and goes the physical labor route most do without an education. But Danny reads. He’s tough and smart, a deadly combination.

When Danny’s had enough of corrupt union leaders that care nothing for the men they represent, he takes on the local union boss and kicks him out. Now in charge of the union, Danny sets up shop and works with the Italian mob to steal from the loading docks he’s in charge of. Along the way he picks up a wife, has a few kids and eventually gets charged with wrongdoing, losing his job.

Back on the streets and looking for work, he goes to work for Shondor Birns (Christopher Walken), a Jewish mobster/loan shark. Danny learns the ins and outs of the business eventually taking on his boss. With a contract on his head, Danny decided to fight fire with fire. If that wasn’t enough, Danny also eventually takes on the Italian mob as well, daring them to take him out.

Looking into the truth behind the story you discover the numerous car bombings/deaths that took place in Cleveland when Danny Greene was around. Needless to say if you grew up in the 70s and in Danny’s neighborhood, a bulletproof vest and a bunker in your house would have been a good investment. He was a violent man when called for but depicted here he had a soft side as well, helping people out at times. Then again he also dished out physical abuse for those late to the loan shark. So which side of Danny Greene is the real one? Only he knows.

The movie tells the tale in straight forward fashion, only using flashbacks when police detective and boyhood friend Joe Manditski (Val Kilmer) narrates. Kilmer’s character is one that is torn between loyalties to his boyhood friend yet at the same time being a stand up cop enforcing the law. It’s a narrow path to walk down but he does the best he can.

Stevenson is great here, depicting both sides of Greene and under laying the tough guy on the outside with the man who wants to help others as well. There always seems to be something simmering beneath that calm façade that Danny offers the public, a man of brute strength and unrepentant violence just waiting to be set free.

The entire cast does a great job here. Walken is underused but makes the best of his onscreen time. Vincent D’Onofrio as Greene’s friend in the mob John Nardi comes off as a low level mob guy who shoots for the stars and rarely reaches the top floor of the nearby buildings. Tony Lobianco turns in a fine performance of the local head of the mob in Cleveland who ends up getting help from big time New York boss Paul Sorvino.

One of the best things included in this DVD is a short documentary about the real Danny Greene. Archive footage of Greene daring the mob to come get him, pictures of his life and times all blend to make this man interesting and at the same time show him for what he was, a low level mobster who attempted to paint a better image of himself than the actual life he led.

This is a well made movie, one that entertains and that shows a mobster who, while he gets involved with them, is not Italian. Film makers seem to take an easy way out these days depicting all Italians as mobsters. This film shows that they don’t have a lock on the crime world, that there are others involved as well. The story is interesting, the character one that holds your attention and the technical aspects show a well put together film. All in all this is a movie that’s worth renting if not owning.

THE GLADES SEASON ONE: FOUL PLAY IN FLORIDA

One wonders now and then why the characters from various TV shows rarely seem to cross paths. For instance the characters in both VEGAS and LAS VEGAS never seem to run into the folks at CSI. I wondered this as I watched season one of THE GLADES. It would be interesting to witness the intensity of David Caruso as he came up against the smart aleck attitude of GLADES’ Jim Longworth (Matt Passmore).

Longworth is a transported Chicagoan who came to a town in Florida for health reasons: caught sleeping with someone he shouldn’t have been, he could have ended up dead had he stayed in the windy city. As a homicide detective he gets his chance to see enough dead bodies without having to worry one is his own.

The character of Longworth is an endearing one. He jokes and cracks wise at crime scenes while at the same time taking note of everything around him. Those finite pieces of information that others glance over are noted by him as he solves murders most would have difficulty with.

Along side Longworth are two police characters that provide a yin and yang for him. Carlos Sanchez (played by Carlos Gomez) is a coroner who helps Jim along not just in the field but as a friend as well. The two may give each other a hard time but they definitely work well together. The second is Colleen Manus (Michelle Hurd), a tough cop who is Jim’s supervisor intent on keeping a tight reign on him until he proves himself.

While Longworth is out fighting crime and searching for killers each week, we also get drawn into the story of his love life as it is. He meets a young nurse named Callie Cargill (Kiele Sanchez) and they seem to get along. His boyish charm and wise cracks break the frozen barrier she starts with and they become friends first. It seems that Callie has a husband who’s currently in jail but whom she wants to break with. The biggest reason she doesn’t is her son Jeff (Uriah Shelton). As the show moves forward, Jeff and Jim become close, but there’s still that fondness for his real father that keeps Jeff at bay.

Each episode features a new crime to solve, a new murder done by various criminals. Some are accidental, some well thought out in advance, all are solved before the final minutes of each show. The clues are laid out for viewers to try and guess the ending, as most murder mystery TV shows go. But the thing that makes this show different than most is the characters.

These are characters that you develop a liking towards. Each of them, even the hard as nails supervisor Longworth answers to. They each have their own strengths and weaknesses and that helps to make them more believable and more endearing. You want these two men to be close friends, you want Jim and Callie to get together. Now it’s just watching and waiting for those things to happen as well as to see how the crime is solved.

One thing I’ve noticed over the past few years. Some of the best TV series coming out are found on the cable networks as opposed to the big three. Which says a lot about how things have changed over the years. The three main networks are no longer the home for the best there is on TV. This show is proof of that.

With the new season already started, this DVD set is the perfect way to get caught up and find out how it all began. Forget about renting this one, it’s a series that’s worth investing in to keep. The acting is great, the cinematography is well done and each episode features some great writing and directing. In short, they’re doing it right and doing it well. Don’t miss this one, you’ll thoroughly enjoy it.


GREEN LANTERN, EMERALD KNIGHTS: THE CORPS KICKS BUTT

Comic book fans should be in Heaven by now. Where long ago there were just a few options outside of the printed page for them to see their heroes, many are popping up not just on TV but on the big screen as well, far more than at any one time (with the exception of perhaps the golden age of serials). These heroes are also being given a much better reception on DVD as well with some fantastic animated pieces coming out. And just in time for the release of the much touted GREEN LANTER in theaters is this gem, GREEN LANTER: EMERALD KNIGHTS.

For those who don’t know who the Green Lantern is watch GREEN LANTER: FIRST FLIGHT. In short you’ll learn that a group of cosmic brains trusts known as the Guardians forged rings out of the greatest power that exists, that of will power, and entrusted them to those brave enough to wield them throughout the galaxy as a sort of space cop. Yeah you’ll get that in this DVD as well but not as in depth.

At present there is a force that is unstoppable that has sworn vengeance against the Guardians and the Green Lantern Corps, an all powerful entity filled with anti-matter known as Krona. As the Lanterns charge their rings from the central battery, new recruit Arisia (Elizabeth Moss) talks to Hal Jordan (Nathan Fillion), Earth’s Green Lantern, and is told tales of the most legendary of the Lanterns.

Each story tells about the different Lanterns and how their nature has helped to change the Corps from what they were to what they are now. Stories range from the first Lantern to the man who trained Kilowog (one of the more well known Lantern’s for those who read the comic, saw the earlier DVD or who have seen the new movie).

The main point stressed in this direct to DVD feature is that the diversity of the Corps’ make up has helped to make it what it is today. Each different group of aliens has helped to make the whole that much better. A nice idea and one that should take place in today’s world. But not as something forced but as a fact of nature that merely exists. These Corps members aren’t thrust upon the group but meld in to become a part of the whole.

Through each story we see an act of heroism as well. Members are willing to give their lives to do what’s right. They act not because they are told to but because inside they feel the need to do so, that they have no choice but to do the right thing. That’s something missing from so many heroes depicted on the big screen today. Amazing that it has to come out in the form of a comic book rather than in that of an everyday person who makes the choice to do the right thing.

The animation is top notch here as it has been all along in the new DC Universe titles. My copy is the blu-ray edition and the colors just feel like they leap off the screen at you. They’re deep, bright, and dark when need by and just seem to glow just as the light of the lantern does. Cartoons have come such a far way from where they once were.

With any luck we will have the chance to see more stories of the Green Lantern and the Green Lantern Corps. They are ripe for fans of the comic book and for fans of science fiction. At its heart these stories travel into that area more than most comics have currently or in the past. In so doing they have transported us to different worlds to meet different peoples only to discover they’re not quite that different from us inside.

The extras feature a few other animated pieces to enjoy as well as a look at the next DCU animated feature being worked on, BATMAN:YEAR ONE. Based on the Frank Miller comic, it was the story that changed the way Batman would look from then on. Unfortunately we don’t get to see any animation from that, just who’s doing voices and such.

The DCU animated features are better than most. I’d have to say that many appear to be better than those coming from the Marvel comics group. Here’s hoping that they continue to feature quality over quantity and that perhaps we will find ourselves transported once more to the world of the Green Lantern Corps down the road.

THE SEARCHERS: A DARK SIDE OF JOHN WAYNE

I was told that THE SEARCHERS was perhaps the best John Wayne movie ever made. Believe it or not, I’d never seen it before. So when I saw that the blu-ray was on sale at amazon for under $10 I decided what the heck, let’s give it a go. I’m glad I did.

Wayne stars as Ethan Edwards, a rough and tumble man of the west comes home after fighting for the south in the Civil War. As the film opens, we see a woman through the front door of her house, Wayne on horseback riding to the house. This is the home of his brother and his family, a home that Ethan knew before the war. As the film moves on we get the idea that there was once something between Ethan and Martha, his brother’s wife, but nothing is said aloud.

Ethan is greeted by his brother and his family, a nephew, two nieces and a young man named Martin Polly (Jeffrey Hunter) who Ethan saved as a child, the sole survivor of an Indian attack on a wagon train. But the reunion doesn’t last long when the next morning a group of men on horseback show led by Rev. Capt. Clayton (Ward Bond). It seems a group of Indians have run off with homesteader Jorgensen’s cattle and they’re about to search for them. Ethan insists his brother remain home but Martin goes along.

Following the trail they discover that the cattle were stolen for a reason: to get them away from the settler’s homes so they could be attacked. They split when riding back to cover both places. Ethan and Martin return to find the farm ablaze and the bodies of everyone but Lucy and Debbie, the two nieces now presumed kidnapped. This ignites a search that last most of the film as Ethan and Martin head out to rescue the girls.

It would be so easy to offer bits and pieces of the story now, to tell you who makes it when and who doesn’t. But that would take away what is an effective piece of story telling done by master director John Ford. He and Wayne made many movies together and many consider this one to be their best. The way he frames scenes, the way he moves his actors is amazing and in turn presents a story that you don’t realize until it finishes.

Watching the extras also helped me see so many of the things I missed while watching. We’re a movie going public used to extreme violence when watching films these days. This film offers up violent images without actually showing them. The scene where Wayne enters what appears to be a smoke house to find the bodies of his brother and sister in law is gripping. You know how he found them by the look on his face, not by seeing the actual bodies. And in some ways that’s more disturbing.

One thing I was aware of with this film was the subtle discussion of racism involved in it. Made when this was a somewhat taboo topic, Ford and Wayne brought it to the forefront here. Several characters have this discriminatory view of the Indians in the film that carries on to their captives as well. The search for the girls takes 5 years and during that time young Debbie becomes a woman. The question of whether to bring her back or to kill her since she’s been touched in more ways than one by her captor is central to the film. On one hand Ethan is ready to do what he considers his duty in killing her, on the other Martin, part Indian himself, is willing to do all he can to stop Ethan.

This film offered something different for Wayne than previous roles. Before he was the hero, the cowboy, the one guy everyone wanted to be. As Ethan he’s questionable at times whether it’s wondering where he got the money he gives his brother or in the way he handles various situations. As the film progresses we witness a slow change over the years as Ethan’s search for vengeance causes him to do worse deeds than when the search began. He’s not a nice guy but he is someone you wish was on your side.

The entire cast does a commendable job here. Each of them plays their roles note perfect. Veteran actors who starred in numerous Wayne films present themselves here as well as they’ve ever done. Ward Bond is cantankerous and at the same time a viable force for the old west. Hank Worden as Mose Harper portrays the man as perhaps simple but at the same time perhaps not. Maybe it’s a face he puts on to keep out of harm’s way. But the best cast member is Monument Valley.

Like almost all of Ford’s westerns, this one was shot in Monument Valley. Cut off from civilization for real, the cast and crew weathered some truly dangerous moments to bring this film to life. But its worth it was you view some breathtaking scenery. As I watched I thought to myself that while Frederick Remington captured the spirit and beauty of the old west on canvas, Ford was able to do the same on film.

Like I said when I started, the film is available in blu-ray format for under $10 at amazon.com. It’s worth that and more. I may not agree with the idea that this is the best western ever made or even Wayne’s best western, but I will say that it ranks up there in the top. If you’ve never seen this one, make it a point to do so.

FALL DOWN DEAD: FAIL DOWN DEAD

I love horror movies. I always have. When I was a kid I’d love to sneak out and watch the late show knowing full well that I’d be frightened and thrilled. I’ve seen all sorts of horror films, good and bad and even so bad they’re good films. But it angers me to find a movie that takes money that could have been better spent on a half decent film wasted on a piece of drek like FALL DOWN DEAD.

If the fact that it was cliché filled were all I might be more forgiving. But this movie has it all when it comes to bad. Bad directing, bad acting, bad writing…just bad.

The story revolves around Christie Wallace (Dominique Swain), a waitress in an all night diner working hard to save up money so she can move out of the city with her daughter. At the same time we have a concurrent tale going on about a serial killer who takes his victims and uses body parts from them in his attempt to create a piece of “art” played by Udo Kier.

After work on Christmas Eve, Christie accidentally comes across Kier and his latest victim staked out on top of a dumpster and sliced and diced. He sees Christie and immediately decides she has the perfect skin for his masterpiece and attempts to kill her as well. Instead, she drops her purse (oops so much for anonymity) and runs for the nearest building.

She convinces the bumbling night watchman (David Carradine completely wasted here) to let her in. They call for help but the two cops are on hand just moments before the power goes out in the building. For some reason the power has been going out all over town in various spots. Okay, I can get this point in the summer with air conditioners and all but Christmas Eve power outages? Come on.

The killer is in the building and it isn’t long before he starts trying to rack up a victim count. A couple of cheating spouses on an upper floor are brought downstairs and that’s when the killer starts.

There is the slim possibility of a story here and one that could be scary. Instead we have long winded meandering conversations between characters that we don’t get to know and actually don’t care about. It’s as if the writer thought “Hey, Kevin Smith gets kudos for having great dialogue, I think I’ll do it here”, never realizing that there must be a certain amount of action in a horror film as well. To cap it off the few action scenes there are with Kier make you wonder how a geriatric serial killer has the ability to catch people let alone take them on when facing them.

This is one of those movies that even when watched with your finger on the fast forward button you’re bored. Far too predictable and far to long winded to be enjoyed on any level. Avoid this one at all costs.