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Thursday, May 19, 2016

FILM REVIEW OF ''MONEY MONSTER" (2016)




The George Clooney & Julia Roberts hostage yarn “Money Monster” (**1/2 OUT OF ****) turns up the heat on Wall Street, but its uneven shifts between comedy and drama make it difficult to take seriously.  Mind you, any movie that skewers the financial services industry is welcome because these opaque institutions need more transparency than they have offered for their enigmatic machinations.  One day, perhaps, we may know what the money brokers are actually doing with our hard earned dollars.  Meantime, Wall Street has always struck me as a crap shoot.  Either you run huge risks to reap huge rewards or your audacity pays off in dirt rather than pay dirt.  “Home for the Holidays” director Jodie Foster and scenarists Jamie Lindon of “Dear John,” Alan DiFiore of TV’s “Grimm,” and Jim Kouf of “National Treasure” make this problem a glaring point in “Money Monster.”  Unfortunately, most of us already know this because we’ve watched either Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” (1987) or his belated sequel “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” (201o).  As for the claustrophobic hostage crisis that unfolds for three-fourths of “Money Monster” in the studio of a financial news network before the plot propels the characters out into actual New York City streets, you’ve seen it covered in more compelling movies like Sidney Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975) or Spike Lee’s “Inside Man” (2006).  Superficial, uneven, but above-average, two-time Oscar-winning actress Jodie Foster’s fourth film as a director suffers primarily because the male characters are anemic.  For a change, the guys qualify as airheads, while the gals are pretty astute.  George Clooney, Jack O’Connell, Giancarlo Esposito, and Dominic West amount to nothing less than nitwits.  None of the guys have an inkling about anything, but the women know what to do.  At fade-out, the dames rise above the dudes.  Neither the Wall Street skullduggery nor the logistics of outsmarting an unstable, naive gunman furnish any surprises.  Indeed, the hostage drama is more compelling than the lackluster Wall Street mystery that triggers the gunman into action. If you missed the Oscar-nominated movie “The Big Short,” it details real-life Wall Street chicanery, but it is a far more complicated film to follow.  Nevertheless, despite its toothless nature, “Money Monster” emerges as a suspenseful saga, until certain revelations undercut the tension in the third act.

Lee Gates (George Clooney of “Gravity”) is a cynical Financial News Network commentator, reminiscent of CNBC’s “Mad Money” pundit Jim Cramer, and he cavorts about his studio like a carnival barker.   Meanwhile, Lee's veteran producer & director, Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts of “Erin Brockovich”), orchestrates the colorful graphics that enliven his on-camera antics as he dispenses stock tips for investors.  Basically, Lee relies on his savvy insights to make educated guesses about monetary matters.  Sadly, Lee’s expertise about all things Wall Street backfires on him.  Before he realizes what has happened, Lee finds himself eye-to-eye with a pugnacious goon poking a pistol in his face.  This intruder, who slipped stealthily past distracted security guards and invaded the FNN studio while the show was ‘live’ on-the-air, demands to know why Lee gave him such appalling information.  Just about everybody in this 98 minute, R-rated thriller gets caught off guard at one point or another.  A discontented, blue-collar, delivery man from Queens, Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell of “Unbroken”), knows zilch about the financial industry except what Lee Gates predicts.  He prompts Lee at gunpoint to don a vest packed with enough explosives to flatten a city block.  Kyle brandishes the detonator in his other fist and warns everything about the consequences if he loses his grip.  The only individual in the studio with a clue about what to do is Patty.  She produces and directs Lee’s stock tips show.  She gives Lee his cues and instructs the crew where they must be whether they are operating cameras or loading graphics.  Patty galvanizes not only Lee, but also her crew into action to contend with Kyle as the N.Y.P.D. swarms into the studio with their sniper response unit.  Eventually, Patty convinces Lee that he should play along with Kyle.  Lee sheds his anxiety and struggles to mollify Kyle.  Poor Kyle, it seems, squandered his late mother’s entire nest egg—some $60-thousand—and invested it in Ibis Clear Capital stock.  Lee had hyped Ibis with such enthusiasm that Kyle sank every penny into it.  According to Ibis, a computer glitch occurred, and the company lost $800 million, cleaning Kyle out.  Kyle throws a temper tantrum and threatens to shoot anybody and then possibly blow Lee to smithereens while Lee and Patty scramble to unravel the secret behind Ibis’ meltdown.  Unfortunately, nothing that Lee does satisfies Kyle.  At the same time, the rest of the world has tuned into Lee’s show and is savoring the ‘live’ showdown. 
If Kyle weren’t enough of a nuisance for Lee and Patty, the N.Y.P.D. poses another problem that generates white-knuckled suspense.  When the police aren’t quietly evacuating the FNN staff, they are sneaking into position to end the confrontation with their snipers.  As it turns out, beleaguered Captain Powell (Giancarlo Esposito of “The Scorch Trials”) is stunned when his men want to shoot at the bomb vest that Lee is wearing rather than at Kyle!   The snipers assure Powell that they have an 80 percent chance of success at blasting the detonator off the bomb.  Eventually, word reaches Lee, and he wields Kyle as a shield.  Powell rejects their strategy as outrageous.  Meantime, the globe-trotting, duplicitous, Ibis CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West of “300”) makes the foolish mistake of flying into New York to present his side of the story.  During this chaos, the N.Y.D.P. coaxes Kyle’s wife Molly (Emily Meade of “Trepass”) on-camera in the hope that she will persuade Kyle to put down his pistol.  Instead, an irate Molly berates Kyle without mercy for being asinine.  Altogether, while “Money Monster” provides nothing new about Wall Street’s treachery, but Foster compensates with taut suspense that keeps you on the edge of your seat. .
 

FILM REVIEW OF ''NEIGHBORS" (2014)



“Neighbors” (*** OUT OF ****) is a riotous, gross-out, comedy of errors.   

The premise is pretty basic: a young, married couple with an infant daughter is settling into a starter home in the suburbs clash with a college fraternity when the frat takes up residence next door.  Rude and crude jokes fly like diarrhea.  Mac Radner (Seth Rogen of “Knocked Up”) and his wife Kelly (Rose Byrne of “Bridesmaids”) are experiencing their first bloom of parenthood.  Kelly never strays far from her baby monitor, while Mac performs the dutiful chores as the breadwinner.  Although we don’t know specifically what kind of job he has, Mac has a boss that hates to impose himself as an authority figure on his employees.  Meantime, Mac and his newly divorced best friend Jimmy (Ike Barinholtz) like to smoke pot out back during ‘joint file’ breaks.  Mac and Kelly are learning how to orchestrate their lives, particularly time for coitus, around their adorable daughter Stella.  The first scene when Mac and Kelly are humping and bumping in a chair, with Mac sitting and Kelly perched astride him, is amusing.  Stella is watching them intently with her big, round, bright eyes.  Mac gets flustered because Stella is staring at them, and he suggests they turn her around.  No sooner are they back to grinding than Mac notices that Stella has turned around and is eye-balling their every move with infantile fascination.  The trials and tribulations of these young married parents is nothing compared to what awaits them after a college fraternity, Delta Psi Beta, buys the house next door and converts it into a party hardy paradise.  Naturally, Mac and Kelly fear the Greeks will not only keep them awake but also Stella, so they plan to preempt those shenanigans.  Actually, one of my best friends contended with a raucous fraternity that moved next door to them in a residential neighborhood and created pandemonium.  In “Neighbors,” the frats and the young couple repeatedly refer to the distance—ten feet—that lies between them.

Initially, Mac and Kelly, pushing Stella in a stroller, approach the Delta Psi House and introduce themselves to President Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron of “17 Again”), Vice President Pete (David Franco of “21 Jump Street”), and the rest of the kids.  Naturally, everybody finds Stella too cute for words, while the Radners welcome the Deltas but give them subtle warning about keeping it down.  In an earlier scene, Mac and Kelly discussed the various ways they could ask the kids to keep it down.  The first night in the neighborhood, the Deltas stage a blow-out party and invite Mac and Kelly because Teddy is afraid that the couple could create trouble for them.  Mac and Kelly are determined not to behave like ‘old people,’ and they indulge themselves to excess.  Everything goes into the crapper during the second night.  Earlier, Teddy informed them that all they had to do is notify them when the noise got too out of hand.  Teddy doesn’t want them to phone the police.  After several attempts to contact Teddy and company, Mac and Kelly give up and call the police.  Erroneously, they believe that they have made an anonymous call.  They watch as the police, in the form of one cop, Officer Watkins (Hannibal Buress of “The Kings of Summer”), arrives and informs the Deltas that they have having too much fun.  Mac and Kelly watch from their front window and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” director Nicholas Stoller frame the shot from their perspective.  Mac and Kelly are horrified when the cop points in their direction and everybody gravitates to their front door and the young married couple is revealed to be the ones who lodged the complaint.  Mac and Kelly withdraw their complaint and the Deltas proceed to make their life a ‘hell on earth.’  

“Neighbors” bristles with pervasive drug use.  The Deltas smoke, toke, and puff with an outlandish variety of paraphernalia.  They stage parties that are virtuously as rowdy as anything that James Belushi and company held in “National Lampoon’s Animal House.”  Like the “Animal House” Delta Tau Chi Fraternity, The Deltas find themselves in hot water with the equivalent of John Vernon’s Dean Vernon Wormer.  Dean Carol Gladstone (Lisa Kudrow of “Romy and Michele's High School Reunion”) doesn’t scheme as much as Wormer did.  Nevertheless, she puts pressure on the Deltas and runs interference when the Radner complain about the Deltas.  A huge part of the problem is that the Deltas, particularly Teddy and Pete, have established new goals since they moved in next door to the Radners.  They want to make history as previous Deltas did that they can plaster on their fraternity board.  Meaning, they want to take partying to the next level.  All of this sparks a war between the Deltas and the Radners, and the oldsters are determined to run off the youngsters.  At one point, Mac and Kelly decide to sabotage the plumbing next door, and Mac manages to smash a water pipe so that the basement floods.  The Radners figure that if they can destroy the house that the Deltas will have to vacate the premises since they will not be able to pay for the improvements.  Incredibly, the Deltas turn their predicament around.  They hole a dildo yard sale and generate more than enough money to pay for their sabotaged plumbing.  Mac and Kelly decide to attack the Deltas by setting them at each other’s throats.  Kelly comes up with a plan to turn Teddy and Pete against each other by getting Pete to bed down with Teddy’s girlfriend.  Of course, the Deltas strike back at the Radners.  One of the funniest gags in “Neighbors” is the use of automobile air bags to surprise the oldsters.  These scenes are totally off the chart hilarious.  

If you love farcical humor, “Neighbors” is good, mindless, fun.  Seth Rogen has no shame, and the competition between the frats and the young married couple is lively. 

Sunday, March 13, 2016

FILM REVIEW OF ''FOUR FAST GUNS" (1960)

The title "Four Fast Guns"(**1/2 OUT OF ****) refers to the hero's expertise with a six-shooter as well as the three pistoleros hired to kill him. "Hell Bound" director William J. Hole Jr.'s western melodrama "Four Fast Guns" qualifies as a low-budget but above-average 'town tamer' sagebrusher with a good cast, compelling characters, and several surprises. This black and white, 72-minute oater reminded me of the Wayne Morris B-western "Two Guns and A Badge." In "Two Guns and A Badge," Morris is appointed the deputy marshal of a lawless town. In reality, he isn't the man that the townspeople were supposed to have as deputy marshal. Similarly, "Four Fast Guns" protagonist Tom Sabin (James Craig of "Drums in the Deep South") has been run out of a Kansas by the hired gunman, Haggerty, who was paid to clean up the territory. The obnoxious 'town tamer' encounters Sabin along the trail. Haggerty warns him to steer clear of Purgatory where his next job is. Sabin ignores him so Haggerty goads Sabin into a gunfight. Indeed, Haggerty clips Sabin's arm between the shoulder and the bicep and then demands that Sabin show him the palm of his hand. Presumably, Haggerty intends to put a bullet through Sabin's hand and end his days as a gunfighter. Haggerty has his own gun drawn when Sabin surprises him and drops him dead in his own tracks.

Sabin rides into the town of Purgatory. Inscribed on an archway that welcomes visitors are the words: Purgatory: When you ride into Purgatory, "Say goodbye to God." The citizens have never seen Haggerty. When Sabin shows up, they ask him if he is the 'town tamer?' Like the Wayne Morris hero in "Two Guns and a Badge," Sabin tells them that the 'town tamer' Haggerty sent him to Purgatory all the way from Kansas. At first, Sabin isn't altogether sure that he wants to maintain this masquerade. The citizens offer him $500 for the job. When somebody suggests that Sabin may be afraid, our protagonist accepts the job. The townspeople want to see the owner of The Babylon Saloon, Hoag (Paul Richards of "The St. Valentine's Day Massacre"), run out of town since he controls all the killing, rustling and gambling in those parts. Sabin and the citizens strike a compromise. They will try him out and pay him after he cleans up Purgatory. When they want to know where to send the $500, Sabin gives them the address of the widow of Jay Cassavedas. Later, when Sabin prowls around the marshal's office, he spots a wanted poster of himself on the wall. He is wanted for the killing of Jay Cassavedas.

Hoag indulges in a hobby of importing works of art as well as minions of evil. The first work of art is a replica of Venus De Milo.
Ironically, Hoag is an invalid confined to a wheelchair. He spends his time plinking the piano in his bar. Later, Hoag's pretty wife, Mary Hoag (Martha Vickers of "The Big Sleep"), explains that a stagecoach wreck crippled her husband. Nevertheless, Hoag is a power neither to be trifled with nor ignored. Hoag is as cold-blooded as they come, and he antes up a thousand dollars to pay for Sabin's demise. Hoag sends one of his henchmen, Grady, over to kill the sheriff, but Sabin kills Grady. As each gunslinger botches the job, Hoag increases his offer, until the third gunslinger, Johnny Naco (Brett Halsey of "To Hell and Back"), arrives and takes the three thousand dollars to kill Sabin. One of the major surprises in "Four Fast Guns" occurs at this point and everything afterward clashes with the typical 'town tamer' western.

No sooner has Sabin arrives met Hoag that the crippled saloon owner sends a gunman to kill him. Sabin is in the marshal's office when his would-be assassin enters. Predictably, Sabin survives this encounter, but the twists are what distinguish this western. He has to contend with three gunslingers before he cleans up Purgatory and rides away to Tombstone. Along the way, Sabin befriends the alcoholic living in the abandoned marshal's office, Dipper (Edgar Buchanan of "Texas"), who wears a small cup around his neck that he uses to drink his whiskey. Despite his drinking, Dipper is a lot smarter than most people take him. Essentially, Dipper serves as the quasi-narrator of sort. Although he isn't seen until later in the action, Dipper provides narration at the outset. "This man came along the trail one Sunday morning back in '73 taking it slow and easy keeping his open eyes and his gun hand ready. Came
from nowhere I guess. Anyhow, he never said from where and we never asked. He was going to stop off in Purgatory, make his stand, like he lived alone. This is number one. He called himself Sabin." Dipper becomes Sabin's closest ally. Hoag's wife is another interesting character. She supports her husband, but her sentiments toward Sabin change over time. Ultimately, she grows to love Sabin, but she refuses to end her marriage to Hoag. The three gunslingers are worthy of note, particularly the Brett Halsey character. One of them is named Farmer Brown and he tries to shoot Sabin from under table as they are playing poker. Sabin outsmarts him. He pulls out his revolver and cocks it as
soon as he sits down so the weapon is on his thigh within easy reach. Since the outcome to this duel is such a foregone conclusion, director William J. Hole Jr., doesn't even show us how it happened. This strategy occurred in an earlier scene when a gunslinger entered the jail but the camera remained stationed outside. Shots were audible, and then the gunslinger walked outside and fell dead on the street.

"Ambush at Cimarron Pass" lenser John M. Nickolaus Jr.'s black & white, widescreen cinematography is an asset. "Four Fast Guns" qualifies as an above-average western that doesn't always draw things out to their inevitable conclusion and never wears out its welcome.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

FILM REVIEW OF ''GODS OF EGYPT'' (2016)


Hollywood has always suffered from a jaundiced perception of reality that creates discontent about its films, and “Dark City” director Alexis Proyas’ superficial sword & sorcery saga “Gods of Egypt” (**1/2 OUT OF ****) is the latest casualty.  Anybody who followed the pre-release controversy surrounding this $140 million spectacle about Egyptian mythology knows that the pillars of political correctitude have criticized it savagely it for its largely all-white cast.  Comparably, “Alien” director Ridley Scott contended with the same criticism of his Biblical epic “Exodus: Gods and Kings” for its essentially Caucasian cast.  Scott claimed he couldn’t find bankable actors of color or ethnicity to portray his characters so his film could recoup its multi-million dollar budget.  “Gods of Egypt” director Alexis Proyas and Summit Entertainment, the studio that released this 127 minute extravaganza, apologized about their whitewashed cast before the film’s release.  Nevertheless, this isn’t the first time Hollywood has clashed with the politically correct about casting the appropriate actor and actress.  Most recently, the botched fairy-tale fantasy “Pan” cast Mara Rooney as a Native American character when she was anything but Native American.  Films better and worse than “Gods of Egypt” have drawn flak from the Politically Correct fraction.  “Birth of a Nation,” “Cleopatra,” “Prince of Persia,” “Argo,” and “A Beautiful Mind” exemplify popular Hollywood films that violated the tenets of political correctness.  Casting celebrity actors rather than unknown native counterparts to attract audiences is the primary reason.  Clark Gable was far from British when he starred in “Mutiny on the Bounty” back in 1935.  Of course, a British actor would have been more credible, but Hollywood wanted a genuine star instead of an authentic Englishman.  John Wayne was miscast as the Asian warlord Genghis Khan when he appeared in "The Conqueror" in 1956.  Hollywood concerns itself about making money more than abiding by political correctness.  Occasionally, however, a Hollywood producer appeared, like Mel Gibson, who defied traditional casting protocol.  In his adventure epic “Apocalypto” (2006), Gibson hired Native American actor Rudy Youngblood to play a Mayan warrior.  Happily, Youngblood was conversant enough with speaking in Mayan to make the difference work.  In “Gods of Egypt,” Gerard Butler could have eliminated his Scottish accent, but the political incorrectness of his casting prompted neither Proyas nor Summit to recast another actor.  Indeed, miscast as he is, Butler remains a highly sought-after actor and his bankability as a star enhanced the box office potential for this mythological melodrama.

The larger-than-life exploits in “Gods of Egypt” occur before the dawn of dynastic history, and all of it is preposterously outlandish.  “Dracula Untold” and “The Last Witch Hunter” scenarists Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless appropriated the Egyptian myth "The Contendings of Horus and Set" as their source material.  Pitting the gods Set and Horus against each other with the throne of Egypt as the prize, Sazama and Sharpless have forged an above-average, often contrived, but nevertheless entertaining escapade.  Indeed, they recycle familiar conventions, but they have enlivened these shenanigans with a surprise or two.  Proyas, who also helmed “The Crow” and “I, Robot,” never lets the pace slacken, and he stages some compelling close-quarters combat sequences.   Of course, we know the young mortal heroine, Zaya (Courtney Eaton of “Mad Max: Fury Road”), never stands a chance of being condemned to death in the Underworld.  The images of the Underworld look pretty creepy as a group of living skeletons preside over the induction process.  Similarly, you also know the Egyptian Lord of the Air, Horus (Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau of “Game of Thrones”), is going to reclaim his throne that his treacherous uncle, Set (Gerard Butler of “300”), took from him after he tore Horus’ eyes out and forced him into exile.  Not only did villainous Set steal the crown from Horus, but he also stabbed Horus’ noble father Osiris (Bryan Brown of “FX”) to death in front of everybody at Horus’ coronation.  Mind you, you need not avert your eyes because this lavishly produced, PG-13 rated movie depicts these depredations in a manner shouldn’t offend anybody.   Despite some grandiosely choreographed battle sequences, “Gods of Egypt” never wallows in blood and gore.  Everything unfolds as our charismatic young hero, an “Aladdin” like thief named Bek (Brenton Thwaites of “Maleficent”), steals a dress for his gorgeous girlfriend, Zaya, so she can attend Horus’ coronation in the height of fashion.  After Set halts the coronation, murders Orisis, and then blinds Horus, Zaya finds herself enslaved to the evil Grand Architect Urshu (Rufus Sewell of “Dark City”), but she concocts a plan so Bek can steal back Horus’ eyes and restore him to his rightful position as monarch.  Urshu surprises them and kills poor Zaya with a well-aimed arrow.  A desperate Bek appeals to Horus to save Zaya. The lofty Lord of the Air calculates that he can save her before she reaches the ninth gate of the Underworld.  Secretly, Horus isn’t being entirely truthful to Bek.  Meantime, Horus’ grandfather, the Sun God Ra (Geoffrey Rush of “Shine”), wages a never ending battle against a toothy titanic worm with which Set seeks to destroy Egypt so he can acquire immortality in life. 

Most of what occurs is stuff you’ve seen before in movies celebrating legendary Greek gods, such as “Clash of the Titans,” “Wrath of the Titans,” and “The Immortals.”  The Egyptian settings, however, add novelty to this narrative.  The deserts of Australia stand-in splendidly for the Sahara Desert. The computer-generated imagery is truly exceptional, with some of the best 3-D effects.  At times, when you are admiring some of these over-the-top shenanigans, “Gods of Egypt” feels like an awesome guilty pleasure. Despite its politically incorrect casting, “Gods of Egypt” qualifies as exciting from start to finish. The spectacular CGI laden effects are dazzling enough to compensate for its standard-issue, formulaic conventions.  The shape-shifting gods who tower above mere mortals reminded me of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and the “Transformers” franchise.  Some scenes that invite derision involve characters riding humongous, fire-breathing snakes or Set soaring above a battle in a sleigh pulled by giant scarab beetles.  Sadly, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau emerges as a rather lackluster hero, while Butler overshadows him in every scene. Altogether, “Gods of Egypt” is lightweight but enjoyable hokum.