Mini-Review – “Primal Fear” (1996)

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“Primal Fear” is an exception to my dislike of courtroom dramas, because of the harsh urban landscape that this film paints and its ever-present sense of right and wrong.

In this film, where an altar boy (Edward Norton) is on trial for allegedly murdering a well-known priest and a high-profile defense attorney (Richard Gere) takes his case and gives the boy every opportunity, there is always this looming presence of a corrupt city that Gere’s character, Martin Vail, is doing his best to fix. Shot in Chicago, we only ever see the broken landscapes of the city, including burnt husks that remain of buildings, giant holes in street and an entire decrepit neighborhood that was bought by the church, only to see half of it get torn down and the other half still standing, as if to remind the town who has power in this neighborhood.

The people’s attitude reflects this landscape – harsh, blunt, prone to attack and uncaring. These people have very little to believe in, so they can’t even bring themselves to stand up for more than a cheap meal. The media is relentless, always asking for more information about the killings and terrible things happening around town so that everyone can be reminded of how awful people can be.

This makes Vail’s struggle so fascinating. He’s a man who will take a case, not because of the money or fame (though that certainly does help), but because he believes in the justice system. He feels that everyone is innocent until proven guilty, and his clients are never guilty. Vail’s goal is to give this dying city something to hold on to, and remind them that this world does not own them.

“Primal Fear” becomes less about a courtroom case and more about saving an innocent life.

Of course, part of the reason this film is so memorable is due to its twist ending, which I won’t dare spoil here. Let’s just say most courtroom dramas don’t have a twist ending, and even though I knew it was coming I was still shocked to see everything unfold like it did.

If you’re looking for a different kind of courtroom drama and want some great suspense out of it, give “Primal Fear” a shot.

Final Grade: B+

Movie Review – “The Nice Guys” (2016)

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Is it possible to be a good detective and a good person at the same time? According to “The Nice Guys,” not in 1970s Los Angeles. But then again, these guys were not good detectives to begin with, so at least they’ve got that going for them.

“The Nice Guys” was written and directed by Shane Black, who most people will remember as the director of the hit-or-miss “Iron Man 3,” but others remember him for his earlier works, especially “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” A crime-thriller with an impeccable sense of timing and comedy and gave us some subtle yet charismatic performances from Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer. “The Nice Guys” seemed to return to the roots of “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” by taking two unlikely heroes that despise being anywhere near one another to solve an ongoing mystery, while playing it all very tongue-and-cheek.

“The Nice Guys” often feels like a combination of “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and “Iron Man 3,” taking the chemistry and comedy of the crime-thriller, but keeping the production value and impressive visual style of the superhero film. However, the comedy comes and goes and some performances are stronger than others.

Set in 1977’s Los Angeles, we meet our two “specialists,” the rough and often wise-cracking enforcer Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) and the bumbling and often drunk private detective Holland March (Ryan Gosling). When March stumbles upon a missing person case, he ends up running into Healy, who threatens March if he continues his case. Eventually, the two find out that the girl they’ve been dealing with, named Amelia, is involved in some shady business, including the porn industry and Detroit’s’ automobile companies. Healy and March decide that if they’re going to find out anything about this, they’ll have to reluctantly work together.

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When it comes to the characters, “The Nice Guys” can’t really make up its mind on what it wants to say. Gosling’s character is one plagued by tragic events, including the death of his wife and his house burning down due to his own error. He can’t forgive himself, and has “You will never be happy” written on the side of his hand to constantly remind him to never forget the pain, no matter how much he drinks. March asks his daughter if he’s a good person, and she immediately replies with a hard “No!”

Supposedly, March takes these cases to set a good example for his 13-year-old daughter Holly (Angourine Rice). With his job, he sees good people do terrible acts and hopes and prays the same won’t happen to Holly. March spends the first half of the movie doing this, but then we take a sharp turn from this – We see Holly do more for the case than her father does.

When Holland gets drunk at a large porno social gathering, Holly sneaks into the party and manages to track down information about Amelia. She makes friends with some of the people involved in the investigation and is able to find out far more than Holland does. She even gets crafty with escape plans when she needs to. Basically, Holly is like Penny from “Inspector Gadget,” since Penny was always the one to solve her uncles cases, and Inspector Gadget was just bumbling around.

So I find it strange that Gosling’s character gets this oddly tragic back story for a comedy, all to show that he wants to improve himself, and the world, for his daughter, but his daughter is already smarter and more capable than he is.

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To be fair, Rice’s performance might be one of the better parts of the film. She takes everything in stride, including the many topless women and hitmen that come after them, while still keeping her innocence that her father is so desperate to cling to. And to see a young woman has capable as Holly in this movie, where every other woman is used to sell sex or is as blind as bat, is quite refreshing to see.

Also, I was blown away by the production values for “The Nice Guys” to give the film its 1970s vibe. The streets are filled with old clunkers and protesters, the air is teaming with smog and a modern building is no where in sight. There are posters for films like “Jaws 2” all over the place. Lots of little things like that to make the film feel foreign in its age, but quaint enough to still remind us of Los Angeles.

Overall, I enjoyed “The Nice Guys” even if most of the best comedy was used in the trailers. Gosling and Crowe’s on-screen chemistry was fine enough, but Rice stole the show by solving most of the mystery even while her father babied her. While often more tragic and dreary than it needed to be, especially for a comedy, this did lead to some pretty funny scenarios and some good character moments between Crowe and Rice. Not quite up to “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”‘s level, but this was still a fun ride.

Final Grade: B-

Mini-Review – “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers” (1954)

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So this is a film where a group of brothers that live up in the mountains come down to an innocent farm town and snatch up several women for their own, without asking for anyone’s permission. They seal off the only entrance to their mountain home with an avalanche, meaning the town’s people can’t rescue these women until spring. By the time the town folk make it there months later, they not only find the women have developed Stockholm’s syndrome and are content and happy living with their captors but that many of them might be pregnant.

But the worst part of all this? The guys who kidnapped these women are the heroes of the film. “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers” makes out these men as being sick of isolation and just want a bit of loving, and they’re looking for it the only way they know how – by forcing others against their wills and acting like cavemen when it comes to their possessions.

And it’s all played for fun and laughter.

This makes “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers” unbelievably uncomfortable. I understand that this was a different time when mountain men didn’t have time to go out and look for wives, but something is wrong with your film when I am on the same side as the angry mob carrying shotguns and nets.

The only way “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers” would work today is if it were a horror film and delved into the psyche of these kidnapped women. Otherwise, making a tale of holding people against their will and forcing love on them while trying to play it off as whimsical and light-hearted is unsettling.

Final Grade: C-

 

Movie Review – “Captain America: Civil War” (2016)

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With the abundance of super hero films out there, it is easy to forget that these heroes are imperfect like everyone else. Our imperfections and flaws are what make us human. We can be stubborn, emotional, vulnerable, forgetful and so many more that remind us we can pick ourselves up and learn from our mistakes. We like to think that super heroes are above that, but “Captain America: Civil War” shows us they might be more broken than others.

I have no problem saying this film might be just as good, if not better, than “The Avengers.” While that film gave us some great character moments where these larger than life icons work off one another and blast some aliens while they’re doing it, “Captain America: Civil War” brings them down to Earth and gives us the most human super hero movie so far, where every character is boiling with so much passion that it is blinding them.

While on a mission in Lagos, the Avengers accidentally cause a massive explosion that kills several innocent people and the world witnesses the whole thing. The team is approached by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and the Secretary of State, formerly General Ross (William Hurt), who has that the Avengers have far too much power for someone who sees no world boundaries and takes the law into their own hands, pointing out the many lives that were lost in the previous two Avengers films and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”

Ross proposes an agreement the team had to sign, stating that a team of world leaders would now decide when and where they would be deployed into action and always under close watch. The leader of the Avengers, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), can’t sign the papers, believing that the safest hands in the world are still their own. The team is splintered in two by all this, as the Captain’s old friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan) reappears and seems to be up to his old diabolical acts again, but not of his own free will.

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Part of the reason I loved “Captain America: Civil War” so much is because you can see both sides of the argument. Iron Man’s side understands that the Avengers invoke challenge and competition across the globe, which causes chaos and destruction. If the Avengers didn’t have so much power, they wouldn’t have created Ultron and Sokovia wouldn’t have been destroyed, killing hundreds if not thousands of lives. They need to be put in check and reminded that they’re not all-powerful.

But, at the same time, Captain America’s side remains logical yet heroic. The Avengers didn’t cause the destruction of New York City in the first “Avengers” film, all they did was stop what was already coming. Cap’s side understands that lives have been lost, but even more would have died if they didn’t step in. They try to save as many lives as possible, but that doesn’t always mean they’ll save everyone.

Neither side is wrong, and both can be debated. That’s the beauty of this scenario.

This is fueled further by the ever-growing rivalry between Captain America and Iron Man, two very different heroes. One driven by kindness and intuition, while the other by his ego and technology. The two have never really gotten along, as they both see the world differently. In the past, they’ve gotten along due to the rest of the team, but now they’re forced to make a personal decision and their animosity towards each other explodes.

Part of the reason Iron Man’s side works so well is because of how emotionally unstable Tony Stark is throughout this film, thanks in no small part to Downey Jr.’s performance. He’s still beating himself up over Ultron, and by his own admission he “has worked non-stop,” no doubt trying to come up with better ways to save the world. This has caused Pepper Potts, his girlfriend in “Iron Man 3,” to break up with him.

Now he’s beginning to see how much of emotional train wreck he can be. So being reminded of the lives he’s destroyed thanks to his actions as Iron Man does not help. Keep in mind, in the first “Iron Man” film, once he found out his weapons were being used by the bad guys, he shut down all of his weapon manufacturers. While Tony has the biggest ego on the planet, he has a tendency to be hard on himself when he messes up, to the point that he has to start everything all over again.

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As the film progresses, this side of Tony becomes worse, to the point where he is endangering his friends and comrades for a personal vendetta and to prove that he’s always been right. Tony is almost tragic in this film, and its heart-wrenching to see a good man lose himself in his own rage and revenge.

In fact, if there were a theme throughout “Captain America: Civil War” it would be one of revenge. Many characters outside of Iron Man are acting out of anger towards the lose of loved ones, including the villain, Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) and the newest hero Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman). They’ve been consumed by the past and are unwilling to let it go to the point that vengeance is the only thing that matters, all while Captain America, a hero from the past, as learned to live in the now and not worry about history.

As for the new heroes, Black Panther was a wonderful addition. A hero that is one of the animalistic we’ve seen so far, while still being intelligent enough to figure out what his enemies are planning and wise enough to know when not to act. Then we have Spider-Man, who doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but is a blast to watch when he’s there. We get to see a vulnerable Peter Parker who is still unsure about what he should be doing, while getting the wise-cracking down perfectly that it doesn’t come as force.

If I did have one complaint with this Spider-Man it was the CGI used on his suit. Usually Marvel studios has great CGI, in fact the entire airport landscape for this film was entirely computer generated, but their Spider-Man was the worst effect of the film. Far too rubbery and didn’t always move in an human-manner. According to Marvel, there was no man underneath that suit while Spidey fought, only a computer image, and it really does show.

Outside of that, I think “Captiain America: Civil War” might be the funniest Marvel film in recent memory, in particular the titular war that occurs at an airport. Part of this is because it has Spider-Man, Ant-Man and Iron Man all in the same location and we just watch their natural snarkiness bounce off one another. Ant-Man had some of the funniest moments, like when he throws a toy truck at the opposing group and watches it explode, only to be disheartened that it wasn’t a water truck. Or when he gets inside of Iron Man’s armor and begins to rip it apart, while quickly turning into Jiminy Cricket for Tony.

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I didn’t expect to laugh as much as I did, partly because this is a film where friends and allies are trying to tear each other apart. Still, the quips weren’t distracting and brought some levity to dark scenario, something that “Batman vs. Superman” desperately needed.

Overall, “Captain America: Civil War” is one of the best Marvel films to come out yet. It gives us an emotional and down-to-earth super hero story while still capturing the fun and imagination that we’ve come to expect from these Marvel films. This one has some spectacular acting from Robert Downey Jr., Sebastian Stan and Chris Evans that help drive the sentimental and fiery moments throughout this film. This is a blockbuster where everyone can find something to enjoy, even if you’re not a fan of super hero movies.

Final Grade: A

Mini-Review – “A Night At The Opera” (1935)

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The Marx Brothers return yet again, and this time in a film that is slightly better than “Animal Crackers” but still not quite at the quality of “Duck Soup.”

The reason I say “Duck Soup” is the best Marx Brothers film is because it has the most memorable sequences and unforgettable bits of comedy. To this day, the mirror sequence still cracks me up and Chico and Harpo interacting with the street vendor puts both of their styles of comedy on full display. Combine this with an amusing and somewhat-timeless story about a dictatorship run by a moron and you get a comedy that still holds up more than eighty years later.

“Animal Crackers” had some great sequences, especially the one between Groucho and Zeppo, where the lesser known Marx Brother has to translate a note for Groucho. But there was a lot of focus on secondary characters that goes no where and the acting from those characters is less than stellar. There are also large gaps in the film that went no where, like a five-minute scene of Harpo Marx playing the harp (Oh, now I get it).

“A Night At The Opera” hits a nice middle ground, where it has several secondary characters, but they’re somewhat interesting this time and are played by competent actors, especially the leading lady being played by a young Kitty Carlisle. The relationship between her and another young man is naïve yet refreshing to see, as they sing boisterous songs for one another with so much fiery passion that its hard not to be investing in their chemistry.

But of course, the Marx Brothers are the reason to watch this film, and they offer some priceless segments in “A Night At The Opera.” There is no Zeppo in this one, but each of the other brothers stands out even more now. The scene I loved the most was finding out that Groucho’s room aboard this fancy ocean liner is basically a broom closet, while his luggage takes up more than half the room. But as the scene progresses, we find out he hid three people in his luggage and they want food. Groucho ends up ordering so much food that it takes about six chefs to bring it all in, all while more people come to fix up the room and give Groucho a manicure.

There’s also a great scene between Groucho and Chico where they discuss a contract, with the print being so small that they keep taking turns trying to decipher the code. They also keep tearing up the contract when they discuss issues that they deem irrelevant until they’re left with nothing but scraps of different sizes, causing much confusion.

Overall, I enjoyed “A Night At The Opera” more than I did “Animal Crackers,” if only because this one felt more believable and had better pacing. This one kept most of the focus on the Marx Brothers, but gave us a great partnership between its romantic leads. The comedic sequences are memorable and showcase the variety that the Marx Brothers had.

Final Grade: B+

Mini-Review – “Mission: Impossible III” (2006)

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Remember when I said that Ethan Hunt went on his most personal mission in “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”? Well, I take all that back now that I’ve seen “Mission: Impossible III.” Not only does Tom Cruise get a chance to do more than just run and perform amazing stunts, but he gets to hold a grudge and do questionable things that keep this spy thriller interesting.

I have no problem saying this is the best film in the “Mission: Impossible” series.

This is mostly due to the superb acting from not only Tom Cruise, but also the ever-elegant Philip Seymour Hoffman. He plays the elusive Owen Davian, a black-market dealer who has funded terrorist organizations with money and weapons for years, yet has never been close to being captured. When Davian kidnaps one of Hunt’s former students, Ethan makes it his personal mission to hunt down this criminal and bring him in, especially before he gets his target, an unknown device called the Rabbit’s Foot.

From the beginning, we’re told that Ethan is done with the secret agent business and has decided to settle down. Normally, this would be a cliché way of getting the older veteran back into the action one last time, but with “Mission: Impossible III,” Cruise makes it all seem legitimate. Hunt has found a woman he is willing to settle down with and raise a family, get a normal job and go about living like a regular man. He never stops smiling when he’s around his fiancée, Julia (Michelle Monaghan), and takes every opportunity to be near her. It comes across like he doesn’t miss the agency, and only takes the mission when he learns the woman he treats like his little sister is missing.

That’s what makes this so personal – Ethan was ready to give it all up, only for a despicable man to take his shining chance at happiness and force him to watch it die right in front of him.

It is difficult to get a beat on Hoffman’s character, whether he takes a delight in causing pain in others like the Joker, or if he only does it because he feels he has to, like Anthon Chigurh from “No Country For Old Men.” Owen Davian falls somewhere in the middle, where he will resort to brutal and under-handed tactics to get what he wants, but his facial expressions suggest that he is either keeping his happiness hidden or feels nothing. This is due to Hoffman’s brilliant acting, with the right mix of creepiness, subtlety and mystery.

Of course, like the other films in the franchise, “Mission: Impossible III” has some great stunt work, especially when dealing with leaping from tall buildings in Shanghai with nothing to cling to but a small parachute. With Tom Cruise still doing all of his own stunts and little to no CGI, the moment where we see Ethan nearly slide off a slippery skyscraper has quite an impact.

Overall, “Mission: Impossible III” was a blast to watch, with a great mix of drama, suspense and comedy when it needed to. The gadgets are not overused and fit in nicely with the world these films have built. Cruise and Hoffman turn in some great moments together and give this movie the emotional punch that it needed. I highly recommend this film to anyone who enjoys spy films of any kind.

Final Grade: A-

 

Mini-Review – “Pandora’s Box” (1929)

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If there was one genre of film that silent German cinema was best at, it was tragedy.

Tragedy in film often works best when witness someone’s life literally fall apart by the choices they make and not listening to it, and watch how the world goes from loving them and adoring what they’ve accomplished, to tossing them away like a moldy piece of bread. Several German films captured this perfectly, like “The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari” and “Faust,” but now I can say that “Pandora’s Box” joins that group.

For a long time, I thought “Pandora’s Box” was a fantasy about the literal box given to Pandora that contained the world’s evils, but the film is actually about a young woman, Lulu (Louise Brooks), a temptress who enjoys using her ability to woo any and every man she comes across. Lulu isn’t afraid to flaunt this power over men in front of other men she has seduced, which leads to many of her men becoming jealous and resorting to dirty tactics to keep Lulu, which does not always work out in her favor.

Very quickly, the title of the film becomes clear – Lulu is Pandora’s box. She tempts men to do terrible and evil things, just for the sake of lust and jealousy. To win her over and be with her is to become one with your inner evil, whether you know it or not. Lulu convinces a man twice her age to marry her after the two are caught at his son’s gala event. But even during their wedding reception, Lulu sneaks off to make out with several different men, including the groom’s son.

Personally, I hated Lulu from the moment the film started. That is, until we reach the final act and we see Lulu at her lowest point.

After everything that has happened to her and all the people she dragged down with her, she cannot give up her lifestyle. She is living in an attic with a broken window and snow pouring into her only living space, with week-old bread that is almost frozen, and here she is getting ready to “go out on the town.”

Suddenly, everything became clear – She cannot change who she is, a temptress. She has accepted this lifestyle and willing to live it to the end. Even if she’s dirt poor and on the run from the police, that’s not going to stop her from conquering another male. And in the end, she pays for that.

That’s what makes “Pandora’s Box” a fascinating silent tragedy that is certainly worth checking out. Rather than relying on seduction through words and physical touch, this film is entirely about Lulu’s look and movements, yet she is able to do so much through that alone. While it is a bit slow at the beginning, it picks up near the end and has a great climax when Lulu’s fate becomes clear.

Final Grade: B