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Monthly Archives: May 2013

The Last Stand is as formulaic as they come and is strangely populated by 5 characters sporting near-incomprehensible accents: Arnold Schwarzenegger (born in Thal, Styria, Austria), as a retired LA narcotics detective who is the sheriff of a small town on the Mexican border; Forest Whittaker (born in Longview, Texas), as the out-of-breath, over-salivating, beleaguered FBI agent who has lost a major cartel figure in an attempt to transfer him from Las Vegas to a super max prison; Eduardo Noriega (born in Santander, Cantabria, Spain), as that cartel figure, who is hurtling at 200 MPH in a tricked-out sports car, hoping to make the border; Peter Stormare (born in Arbrå, Gävleborgs län, Sweden), Noriega’s henchman, who is clearing the path for Noriega’s arrival by trying to kill Schwarzenegger and his motley crew of small town defenders (Stormare’s southern accent is hilarious, half ABBA, half Foghorn Leghorn); and Rodrigo Santoro (born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), one of those defenders, an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran locked up on a drunk and disorderly, deputized to assist Schwarzenegger.

Since you can’t understand what most of the people are saying, the pedestrian script is mooted, leaving you free to enjoy director Kim Jee-Woon’s (born in Seoul, South Korea) impressive chase scenes and shoot ’em ups.

I’ve seen worse, and Schwarzegger maintains an irrepressible likeability that makes for an enjoyable ride.

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A year or so before The Sopranos, Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco offered a glimpse of the series with this sharp, “deep cover” mob flick, alternatively brutal and funny, and at the end, touching. Donnie Brasco (Johnny Depp) is actually FBI agent Joe Pistone, who goes undercover to break a mob crew led by Michael Madsen. His entree is provided by a lower-level made guy, Lefty (Al Pacino), who vouches for Donnie, shows him the ropes, and, as Donnie loses his moorings and allegiances (to both the FBI and his suffering wife, Anne Heche), becomes a father figure.

Paul Attanasio’s (Quiz Show, Disclosure, and several episodes of Homicide: Life on the Street) script is tight and playful. We get harrowing scenes where Donnie is conscripted to dispose of a body via hacksaw or merely nearly found out:

These scenes are followed by amusing vignettes of what mobsters do on vacation in Miami (water slides, burying colleagues in sand, bad tennis) or the everyday humdrum of the criminal life, stealing boxes of steak knives or parking meters.  Attanasio even includes a wry stab at marriage counseling between Depp and Heche. David Chase would do the same thing for Tony and Carmella Soprano a few years latter, to similar tragicomic effect.

As Donnie becomes enmeshed in his crew, the audience becomes invested in their survival, if not from the FBI, from rival mob crews. Depp sells this kinship very effectively. This was one of his first major dramatic roles and he shows a depth and darkness that is highlighted by Heche’s increasing frustration and anger. Tempering both performances is a rare restrained turn by Pacino, who becomes Donnie’s family. It is always a treat to see an older Pacino performance that shelves histrionics.

There are a few weaknesses. The Heche-Depp marriage, rocky as it is, seems too indomitable for reality, and Depp’s introduction into the crew seems a tad effortless. But this is a picture every bit as strong as the best of The Sopranos episodes.

The Bay had a few things in its favor.  Director Barry Levinson is no slouch.  The “found media” approach is appealing to me, as is evidenced by my affection for the Paranormal Activity movies. And the premise – a small Maryland town is plagued by a bacteria that cuts through it on a July 4th celebration – had promise.  Two factors, one personal to me and the other a colossally stupid decision on Levinson’s part, resulted in my turning the flick off about a third in.  I’ll take my lumps first.  I can handle slashers (if not gore porn), serial killers, unsettled ghosts, zombies . . . you name it.  But a plague of pustules and vomiting blood and boils?  Very, very hard.  And then, there were afflicted children.  Damn, this better be good.

It wasn’t. Levinson was more interested in making an eco-horror tract than an actual scary movie.  As such, once his narrator (a witness to the July 4th disaster who is video-blogging) introduces us to the source of the plague (apparently, chicken shit being run off into the Chesapeake Bay), we learn that near everybody but our narrator dies.  At the outset!  She even points out people in the collated footage and says, “he dies” and “he doesn’t survive the day.” So, within 15 minutes, the audience knows the source of the killings and pretty much who dies.

Hell if I’m going to sit through pustules and boils on children under such circumstances.

In evaluating Robert Rodriguez’s half of the Grindhouse double feature experiment/debacle with Quentin Tarantino, one has to remember that the insistence on an homage to 70s drive-in crap was an insurmountable mistake.  

A small Texas town is beleaguered by zombies, created by a military experiment gone bad. All hell breaks loose. Not really funny and not at all terrifying, mostly boring, often disgusting. But in the ultimate structural pass, Rodriguez is not responsible for a lazy, uninteresting film, because he is patterning his movie on same.  Along with Tarantino’s Death Proof, there are few greater examples of Hollywood hubris.

Entertainment Weekly called it “crazily funny and exciting tribute to the grimy glory days of 1970s exploitation films” that “will leave you laughing, gasping, thrilled at a movie that knows, at long last, how to put the bad back in badass”, proving that some critics will go to great lengths for fear of seeming uncool.

It was, however, kind of gutsy to cast a near midget (Freddie Rodriguez) as the strong, silent hero.

This is shit.  A Bataan death march of a rom-com. For several reasons.

1) As secondary characters in Knocked Up, Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann were welcome respites from the manic upheaval of the leads.  As primary characters, they outstay their welcome very quickly.

2) Mann is a limited, mannered actress without a shred of heart.  She’s also director Judd Apatow’s wife.  He lightens her wispy load by primarily having her repeat the lines of other characters quizzically or allowing her to deliver others with a lilting, sing songy chirp. He also uses his daughters, the younger of whom is charming and genuine and the older of whom is as grating and one-note as her mother.

3) Rudd’s goofy, sweet smarm has also outworn its welcome.  Apatow has written a douchebag character and chose the “go to” douchebag actor to play him. If there was ever an actor who needed to play a villain quick, it’s Rudd.

4) The film is annoyingly haphazard.  Hey, we have a marijuana cookie.  Hey, we’re going to the doctors and we have witty things to say as they explore the orifices of our just-turned-40 bodies.  Hey, we have fathers (John Lithgow and Albert Brooks) who do their schtick and both have young children.

5) It feels as if Apatow let Mann and Rudd riff. Most of it is not funny. He definitely let Melissa McCarthy improv in one of the laziest, saddest scenes ever.

6) Apart from a few laughs provided by secondary characters, this movie is not funny or illuminating, and the characters are for the most part so odious or stupid that not enough bad things can happen to them to satisfy the viewer.

7) If this couple has been married for 14 years, one of them had to have been in a coma for 13 of them.

8) It’s over 2 hours long. Brutal.

9) The film confuses sexual frankness and obscenity with the funny, as if saying cock and fuck a lot does the trick.

10) Or, as Dana Stevens of Slate so nicely put it, as funny as a hemmorhoid.

On the plus side, it features a nice Ryan Adams song.

David Chase’s The Sopranos was a titanic television achievement, a violent, rich soap opera centered on a New Jersey crime family, adroitly crossing into the areas of everyday life of “civilians” and finding common cause in the political, familial, and cultural. But Chase was more an organizer of talent than a creator – he wrote very few of the episodes and only directed two. This is not a knock, but it may be relevant in evaluating Chase’s first underwhelming feature length film, Not Fade Away.

The picture opens with the chance first meeting of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger but quickly swings back to 1960s New Jersey, where another band is forming. Chase captures the awkwardness of the early house show; the various personalities (the guitarist who always needs more time for the band to be “ready” and the jealous former frontman, sidelined to back-up because of a weaker voice); and the juice of a well-played song.

But just when you think the story might go somewhere, Chase reverts back to the lead singer’s (James Magaro) depressing home life, where his dying father (James Gandolfini) harangues him for his long hair and his mother kvetches in full Livia Soprano mode. When we get back to the incremental steps of the band, we are again diverted to the domestic woes of Magaro’s girlfriend (Bella Heathcoate) and her own miserable homelife (her Dad is a scotch-swilling GOP square and her sister is a free spirit soon to be forcibly institutionalized).

The leads are weak. As the band’s budding lead singer, Magaro provides no more than smarm and edge, though he performs a convincing transformation from dork to Dylanesque cool. His mercurial girlfriend Heathcoate is leaden and charmless.

Worse, very little happens in this dark (and by dark, I mean inexplicably dimly lit, as if the 60s is best evoked by dingy exposition), moody, mostly joyless picture. We get some affecting vignettes and then what feels like filler after there is no follow up. The end is a preposterous paen to the power of rock n’ roll that is more peculiar than poignant.*

That said, had this been the first two episodes of a miniseries, who knows? I certainly would have continued to watch.

*. Having just read this sentence, I am forced to add “so put that in your pipe and puff on it, Pancho.”


This documentary doesn’t chronicle the decline of Detroit so much as provide a pastiche of the city’s current plight through the eyes of union workers, street folks, a bar owner, a video blogger, and various other denizens. While there is a faint whiff of class warfare, mainly dramatized by juxtaposing the opulent Detroit opera house (subsidized by the auto companies) with the rundown bleakness of the surrounding area, the thrust of the documentary is visual rather than thematic or political. The regular haunts and isolated neighborhoods are shot in extended, mournful stretches, the people are captured reminiscing in their natural element, and the depiction of the old abandoned structural dinosaurs of the city evokes dystopian films and the work of Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre.