“LAST VEGAS” (2013) Review

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“LAST VEGAS” (2013) Review

When I first saw the trailer for “LAST VEGAS”, my first impression was that it was some kind of senior version of “THE HANGOVER” or one of those comedy road trip movies featuring four friends. It did not strike me as an original movie, but it looked entertaining and I decided to go see it anyway. 

Directed by Jon Turteltaub and written by Dan Fogelman, “LAST VEGAS” is a story about a quartet of long time friends in their late sixties who gather in Las Vegas to attend a wedding. While giving an eulogy at the funeral of a friend, Billy spontaneously proposes marriage to his 32 year-old girlfriend. Several weeks later, he announces his engagement to at least two of his friends – Archie and Sam. Archie, who feels like a prisoner of his son’s following a mild stroke, sneaks away. Sam, who has become slightly embittered over his Florida retirement, is encouraged by his wife to go on the trip and even consider one night of adultery to get his mojo back. Both Archie and Sam meet in their old Brooklyn neighborhood to convince the last member of the old quartet – Paddy – to join them on the trip to Vegas. There is a difficult. Paddy is angry over Billy’s failure to attend his wife’s funeral, but Archie manages to convince him to accompany them.

When the four friends meet in Vegas, they try to check into an old hotel on Fremont Street. Unfortunately, the hotel has been transformed into an unsuccessful nightclub, where they meet a sexy, aging singer named Diana. Both Paddy and Billy, who is awaiting his young fiancée, become attracted to her. Thanks to Archie’s successful spell at a hotel casino on the Strip, the four friends are comped by the hotel to stay in one of their suites. While Archie and Sam set out to enjoy themselves, Billy and Paddy deal with their conflict over the latter’s late wife and Diana.

I might as well be frank. “LAST VEGAS” is not exactly a comedy classic. Nor does it have an original script. A lot of the movie is spent with the four seniors musing over aging and trying to pretend that they can still party hard. Not only would I never consider “LAST VEGAS” as one of the best films for any of the four leads, I would never consider it one of their best works during the later stages of their career. But I knew that coming in. One look at the movie’s trailer pretty much told me what kind of movie this would be.

But you know what? Despite the lack of originality and hardcore partying (PG-rated), “LAST VEGAS” turned out to be a very entertaining film. Hell, it was a lot of fun to watch. Thanks to Fogelman’s script, the movie was filled with some sharp wit and funny moments. Among the latter was Archie’s “difficult” escape from his New Jersey home, the four friends acting as judges at a swimsuit contest around the hotel’s swimming pool, Billy and Diana’s ride on what I believe was the Stratosphere. I could be wrong about the latter. Fogelman’s script was slightly elevated by a few scenes of pathos involving Billy and Paddy’s conflict over the latter’s wife, thanks to the actors involved.

Speaking of the actors, it is quite apparent that this movie owed a lot to the five leads. Mind you, Fogelman wrote an entertaining, yet unoriginal script. And Jon Turteltaub infused a great deal of energy into his direction. A great deal. The movie also benefited from solid performances from supporting players like Romany Malco, Jerry Ferrara, Weronika Rosati, Joanna Gleason and Michael Ealy. But one might as well face it. Without the four male leads and the sole female lead, I doubt that I would have ever found this movie amusing, let alone funny. Both Turteltaub and Fogelman owed a great deal to Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline and Mary Steenburgen. Not only did the four men proved to have strong chemistry with each other, Steenburgen added a good deal of her own chemistry with the team. She especially managed to click with Douglas and De Niro.

As I had earlier stated, “LAST VEGAS” is not a comedy classic. Nor did I find it particularly original. I would never list it as one of the best movies of 2013. But I cannot deny that I found it both witty and funny, thanks to Dan Fogelman’s script. Jon Turteltaub’s direction injected a great deal of energy into the story. And the movie overall really benefited from a strong cast lead by Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline and Mary Steenburgen. “LAST VEGAS” may not have been great, but I found it very entertaining.

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“TAKERS” (2010) Review

 

“TAKERS” (2010) Review

Over a year ago, a crime thriller about a group of bank robbers operating in Los Angeles was released to the theaters with little fanfare and a great deal of scorn. Although “TAKERS” earned over twice its budget, it barely made a dent with filmgoers. Out of curiosity, I decided to see what the lack of fuss was all about. 

In a nutshell, “TAKERS” began with a successful bank robbery committed by a team of seasoned criminals – including Gordon Cozier, John Rahway, A.J., and brothers Jake and Jesse Attica. Following the success of their heist, the five lead a life of luxury while planning their next job. Unfortunately, a former member of their team named “Ghost” is released fromprison. He convinces the group to strike an armored car carrying $20 million. While the bank robbers carefully plot their strategy, a pair of L.A.P.D. police detectives named Jack Welles and Eddie Hatcher investigate their last job. Welles and Hatcher, aware of Ghost’s release, finally become aware of the five robbers, and set about apprehending them.

“TAKERS” is basically a run-of-the-mill crime drama filled with complex characters and fast-paced action sequences. The movie also unfolded a peak into the private lives of both the robbers and cops – culminating into a series of familial and romantic frustrations, betrayal, and loyalty. The screenplay written by Peter Allen, Gabriel Casseus, John Luessenhop and Avery Duff pretty much touched upon every topic one could find in a story about bank robbers – aside from the hostage situation featured in movies such as 1975’s “DOG DAY AFTERNOON” and 2006’s “INSIDE MAN”. If I must be honest, the story structure and characterizations in “TAKERS” strongly reminded me of Michael Mann’s 1995 opus, “HEAT”, but with less complexity. To a certain degree.

In a way, I could see why most reviewers and moviegoers failed to warm up to “TAKERS” – aside from the controversial presence of Chris Brown in the cast. It is not exactly an crime epic in compare to some of the other movies I have mentioned. Although Michael Barrett’s photography struck me as colorful and glossy, there was nothing unique about it. Some of the dialogue in the film seemed wooden and unmemorable. And I could tell that some of the inexperienced actors like Tip “T.I.” Harris had a little trouble handling it. One of the action sequences featured a shoot-out between the five bank robbers and Russian mobsters at Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel. Both Barrett and director John Luessenhop tried to be ambitious by shooting most of the sequence in slow motion, while maintaining the sound effects – dialogue included – at a regular pace. Paul Haslinger’s mournful score somewhat helped the sequence, but the screenwriters’ insipid dialogue nearly undermined it.

I realize that many might find this hard to believe, but “TAKERS” possessed virtues that managed to outweigh its flaws. One, it possessed a first-rate cast lead by the likes Idris Elba and Matt Dillon. Both actors were superb in their roles as British-born immigrant and current leader of the robbers Gordon Cozier and veteran L.A.P.D. detective Jack Welles. The movie also featured first-rate performances from Michael Ealy, Hayden Christensen, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Jay Hernandez, Zoë Saldaña and yes, even Chris Brown. Paul Walker, Glynn Turman and Tip Harris gave solid support as well. I realize that I had been a little critical of Harris’ handling of some of the dialogue, but I must admit that his portrayal of the manipulative and vindictive “Ghost” really impressed me.

Aside from the Roosevelt Hotel shoot-out, “TAKERS” was filled with some outstanding action sequences, thanks to Luessenhop’s direction, Barrett’s photography and the editing of both Armen Minasian and Colby Parker, Jr. Some of the best sequences featured Hayden Christensen’s (A.J.) encounter with a double-crossing explosive dealer and his crew; the entire heist of an armored truck in downtown Los Angeles; and a chase sequence that featured Chris Brown, Jay Hernandez and Matt Dillon.

However, the one virtue that really made “TAKERS” work for me was the screenplay written by Luessenhop and three other writers. I realize that I might attract a good deal of flap of pointing this out, but the screenplay for “TAKERS”possessed one virtue that the highly regarded “HEAT” lacked – the minor plot lines featuring the some of the characters’ personal lives had strong connections to the movie’s main narrative. This prevented the movie’s pacing from dragging at an unnecessarily long pace.

Although “TAKERS” actually made a profit at the box, it was only able to do so, due to the movie’s low budget. Because otherwise, one might as well call it failure. Well, failure or not, I ended up enjoying “TAKERS” . . . much to my great surprise. It may not be one of the best crime dramas ever made, but I cannot deny that I found it entertaining, suspenseful and exciting.

“MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA” (2008) Review

 

“MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA” (2008) Review

Based upon James McBride’s 2003 novel and directed by Spike Lee, “MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA” told the story about four black soldiers of the all-black 92nd Infantry Division who get trapped near a small Tuscan village on the Gothic Line during the Italian Campaign of World War II, after one of them risks his life to save an Italian boy. The story is inspired by the August 1944 Sant’Anna di Stazzema massacre, perpetrated by the Waffen-SS. 

Before I saw the movie, I came across a few reviews of the film. Needless to say, it either received mixed or bad reviews. Many critics either found the movie’s plot incoherent or seemed turned off by Lee’s message about the racism encountered by African-American troops during World II. After seeing the movie, I must admit that I also have mixed feelings about it.

Personally, I had no problem with the plot. It started with a the murder of an Italian immigrant by a black U.S. Postal Service in December 1983. Due to the investigations of the New York Police, and a rookie journalist portrayed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the postal worker is revealed to be one of the four American troops who find themselves trapped near the Tuscan village. This same veteran is also discovered to have a piece of Italian sculpture in his possession. As I had stated earlier, most film critics found the plot confusing. Aside from certain scenes that I felt should have been deleted, the plot turned out to be perfectly coherent to me. What Lee did was take certain subplots that focused on the four troops, the inhabitants of the Tuscan village, the Nazi’s search for an AWOL German troop and a group of Italian partisans; and drew them together to form the finale of the movie’s mystery surrounding the veteran-turned-postal worker and the Italian sculpture. I must admit that aside from a few scenes, Lee did an excellent job in bringing this all together.

And the director had a good, solid cast to help him bring this movie together. Derek Luke (“LIONS FOR LAMB” and “ANTWONE FISHER”) and Michael Ealy were especially impressive as the disciplined and tightly coiled Aubrey Stamps and the cynical and slightly bitter Bishop Cummings – who vie for the attentions of a local Italian woman named Renata, portrayed by Valentina Cervi. Laz Alonso gave a solid performance as the Puerto Rican corporal Hector Negron, forced to keep the peace between Stamps and Cummings. I was also impressed by Pierfrancesco Favino as Peppi Grotto, the leader of the local partisan group. Like many other child actors I have noticed in recent years, Matteo Sciabordi surprised me with an excellent performance as the young Angelo Torancelli, who befriends the four soldiers, while trying not to remember the horrible massacre at Sant’Anna di Stazzema. At first I was slightly wary about Omar Benson Miller’s performance as Sam Train, the private who first saves young Angelo in the film’s first half. He came off as rather raw and inexperienced to me. But further along into the film, his performance improved. And I realized that his performance had never been at fault. Only the screenplay written by author McBride. Miller had the unfortunate bad luck to slough his way through some pretty horrible dialogue, early in the film.

Speaking of the dialogue, it turned out to be one of the aspects of the film I barely found tolerable. At least in the movie’s first half hour. I wish that Spike Lee had discovered this lesson a long time ago – never hire the author of the novel you are adapting to write the screenplay. Producer Dan Curtis had also failed to learn this lesson when he hired author Herman Wouk to write “THE WINDS OF WAR”screenplay. As much as I enjoyed how the movie’s plot developed, there were some scenes or pieces of dialogue I could have done without. For example:

*Axis Sally’s attempt to demoralize the black troops crossing an Italian river – despite the scorn heaped upon the dear lady by the black American and German troops alike, I must have spent at least five minutes squirming in my seat. Ugh!

*Private Train’s determination to convince his companions that the young Angelo is blessed with some kind of divine gift. Honestly, his dialogue drove me crazy. James McBride should have been ashamed of himself.

*Sergeant Stamp’s speech about the difficulties of being an African-American soldier during the war

*The flashback featuring the four soldiers’ encounter with a bigoted ice cream parlor owner in Louisiana.

The last two turned out to be perfect examples of another one of the film’s flaws – namely Lee’s heavy-handed portrayal of racism in the U.S. Army, during World War II. A part of me wishes that the director had watched Carl Franklin’s adaptation of“THE DEVIL IN THE BLUE DRESS” (1995). That particular movie was an excellent example of portraying racism in the past, without pounding in the message. Lee, on the other hand, overdid it. He allowed the message to get in the way of the story at least twice. When Stamps received a message from their Southern-born captain to capture a German soldier for question, this sends the usually obedient Stamps went into a rant about how black troops were treated. It was simply unecessary. Lee forgot another rule in filmaking – you show, not tell. He managed to do that with the troops’ dealings with their Southern-born captain. But he could not stop there. He and McBride also included the flashback in Louisiana . . . something that added nothing to the story’s plot. It felt like a propaganda piece added at the last minute by the filmakers.

Despite some of the bad dialogue, unecessary scenes and the ham-fisted message on racism, “MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA” turned out to be a better film than I had originally perceived. Although the film critics had been correct in some of their complaints, I found it hard to agree with them that the movie’s plot was incoherent. Even before halfway into the story, I understood what McBride and especially Lee were trying to achieve. I say . . . give it a shot. It might surprise you.