“ANT-MAN” (2015) Review

 

“ANT-MAN” (2015) Review

When Marvel Studios first announced that its new movie about the comic book hero, Ant-Man would be the end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) second stage, I found myself scratching my head. Why would a solo effort like “ANT-MAN served as the end of Stage Two? Why not the epic “THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON”, which had been released two-and-a-half weeks earlier?

Needless to say, I had no idea what was going through the mind of MCU show runner, Kevin Fiege. So, I sat back and watched how he and the filmmakers for “ANT-MAN” would handle this. And I must say . . . I found myself more than pleasantly surprised. This surprise, along with the actual movie also taught me another lesson about making assumptions. One day, this lesson will remain with me and I will stop making assumptions for good. Hopefully.

As for “ANT-MAN”, the movie created a small controversy when the Marvel and Disney Studio bosses decided to fire British filmmaker Edgar Wright and replace him with Peyton Reed as director. They also dismissed the screenplay that Wright co-wrote with collaborator Joe Cornish and allowed the film’s star Paul Rudd and Adam McKay to re-write the script. A good number of critics and moviegoers believe this move may have harmed “ANT-MAN”. Others are contemplating on how the movie would have turned out if Wright had remained the film’s director. After seeing “ANT-MAN” and recalling that 2007’s “HOT FUZZ” was the only Wright film I have ever truly liked, I realized in the end that I could not care less about how Wright and Cornish would have done the film. Yes, I enjoyed “ANT-MAN” that much.

The movie begins in 1989 when the recently widowed Dr. Hank Pym resigns from S.H.I.E.L.D., after discovering their attempt to replicate his Ant-Man shrinking technology. Believing the technology is dangerous, Dr. Pym refuses to release the technology to S.H.I.E.L.D. or anyone else. The story jumps twenty-six years later. Pym’s estranged daughter, Hope van Dyne, and former protégé, Darren Cross, have forced him out of his own company. Cross is close to perfecting a shrinking suit of his own, the Yellowjacket, which horrifies Pym. Fortunately, Hope realizes the danger that Cross’ new invention poses and decides to help her father destroy it.

At the same time, convicted burglar Scott Lang is finally released from moves in with his old cellmate, Luis and the latter’s two friends – Dave and Kurt. After making a surprise visit to his daughter Cassie’s birthday party, Scott is dismissed by his ex-wife Maggie and her police-detective fiancé, Paxton, for not providing child support. Unable to hold a job because of his criminal record, Scott agrees to a burglary job that Lang agrees to a burglary job that Luis has discovered – one that involves breaking into an expensive Victorian manor. Only the house belongs to Hank Pym and the only thing Scott was able to find inside Dr. Pym’s safe is the Ant-Man suit. Scott tries on the suit and accidentally shrinks himself. Terrified by his experience, he tries to return it to the Pym manor and is arrested by the police. However, Dr. Pym pays the jailed Scott a visit and helps the latter break out of jail, using the suit. Then he recruits Scott to help him and Hope pull a heist on Darren Cross’ new Yellowjacket suit before his former protégé can sell the technology to dangerous people.

Following the over-the-top action fest of “THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON”, “ANT-MAN” proved to be something of a respite for me. Not only did the movie proved to be a respite, but also quite enjoyable. But before I go into why I enjoyed the film, I have to point out its shortcomings. The worst thing I can say about “ANT-MAN” is its pacing. There are a few moments in the film in which director Peyton Reed nearly rushed the film. This was especially apparent in the montages that conveyed Scott Lang’s training as Ant-Man at the hands of Hank Pym and Hope van Dyne. And I cannot help but wonder why Hope had snitched on Scott to the police . . . a day after he had broke into Dr. Pym’s home and taken the Ant-Man suit. Unless she was unaware of the actual date that Scott had planned to make the original heist. The movie also suffered from two abrupt endings. One ending featured Luis’ revelation that Sam Wilson aka the Falcon was searching for Scott. The other abrupt ending was scene in the movie’s second post-credit scene in which Sam revealed his discovery of the missing Bucky Barnes aka the Winter Soldier to Steve Rogers aka Captain America.

“ANT-MAN” had its usual set of flaws, but I cannot deny that I found it very entertaining. More importantly, I found it to be one of the more unconventional entries in the MCU. On one level, the movie is an origin tale about the comic book figure, Ant-Man. On another level, the movie began with the Ant-Man character already established. This is due to the fact that the movie’s main character, Scott Lang, is the second person to become Ant Man. The superhero’s first origin happened back in the 1970s or 1980s, when Hank Pym assumed the role and his wife, Janet van Dyne became the Wasp. There has never been a Marvel film before in which a second person assumed the role of a particular superhero or superheroine. If one really looked at the movie from a certain perspective, the role of Ant-Man revolved around three people – Scott Lang, Hank Pym and Hope van Dyne. “ANT-MAN” told how Scott became the superhero. In the case of Hank and Hope; the movie told how the “hero” affected the lives of both father and daughter. Hank’s role as Ant-Man had eventually led to the death of Janet van Dyne, which affected their relationship. And Scott becoming the new Ant-Man eventually not only led to their emotional reconciliation, but also helped him reconciled with his ex-wife and her fiancé, which allowed him to spend more time with his daughter. Even the villain, Darren Cross, seemed to have some kind of emotional tie to Hank. The latter had not only considered the former as a protégé, but also a son. Yet, Cross’ growing obsession with the Pym Particle and Hank’s refusal to tell him about it, led to resentment on Cross’ part and coldness on Hank’s. I have never come across a Marvel film with that scenario. Come to think of it, I have never come across a Marvel film in which family ties had such a strong impact . . . with the exception of 2003’s “THE HULK” and 2010’s “IRON MAN 2”.

As I had earlier pointed out, “ANT-MAN” is not the usual “superhero/heroine” origin tale, due to the lead character being the second person to assume the role of Ant-Man. The movie is also unusual, due to the fact that it is basically a heist film. Remember that following the death of his wife back in 1987, Hank had concluded that the Pym Particles, which powered the Ant-Man and Wasp suits, was too dangerous to be used . . . by anyone. This is why he had resigned from S.H.I.E.L.D. in the first place . . . to ensure that the government agency would not develop something similar. Unfortunately for Hank, Cross finally managed to create his own shrinking technology (called Yellowjacket). And this forced Hank to recruit Scott to become the new Ant-Man and steal Darren’s technology. Scott’s past as a professional thief and Master’s Degree in Engineering proved to be two of the main reasons why Hank recruited him in the first place. One last aspect of “ANT-MAN” that made it so unusual for me was the offbeat humor that surrounded the characters of Scott, Luis, Dave and Kurt; along with the film’s bizarre action sequence in the last twenty minutes.

The technical aspects for “ANT-MAN” seemed pretty solid. But there are two aspects of the film that I found very impressive. One aspect focused on the movie’s visual effects created the team led by Allison Gainza. Not only was I impressed by their work in scenes featuring Scott’s interactions with many insects, but also how they shrink and inflate both the Ant-Man and Yellow Jacket characters at will. This was especially apparent in scenes featuring Scott’s encounter with the Falcon at the Avengers facility and his fight against Cross in the film’s final action sequence. Ironically, the visual effects were enhanced by the editing from Dan Lebental and Colby Parker Jr. that made that fight scene so memorable for me. I had never seen such a bizarre action sequence in a Marvel film, since 2013’s “THOR: THE DARK WORLD”.

When “ANT-MAN” was first in the development stage, the producers had two actors up for the role of Scott Lang aka Ant-Man – Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Paul Rudd. However, Gordon-Levitt dismissed the matter as a rumor and Rudd became the frontrunner. To be perfectly honest, I would have been satisfied with either actor in the role. But I have to give kudos to Rudd to making Scott Lang a plausible professional thief, but also providing the film’s emotional backbone. More importantly, Rudd did a superb job of combining both his sardonic style of humor with the emotional desperation that drove his character’s actions. I used to believe that the character of Tauriel from “THE HOBBIT” films was actress Evangeline Lilly’s best role. Then I saw her portrayal of Hope van Dyne and completely changed my mind. She was exceptional as Hank Pym’s embittered daughter, who finds herself willing to work with her father and prevent Darren Cross’ plans to sell the Yellowjacket technology. I had read somewhere that Edgar Wright had plans to make Hope a femme fatale character. And while that may have been interesting, I found this new version of Hope equally interesting. Lilly did an exceptional job of expressing Hope’s resentment and anger toward her father, while keeping her feelings barely under control. Rounding off this trio is Michael Douglas, who was excellent as the very complicated Dr. Hank Pym. What I enjoyed about Douglas’ performance is that not only did he manage to effectively portray the role of mentor, but also revealed certain negative traits in Pym’s personality that made him so difficult for both Hope and Cross to deal with.

What can I say about Michael Peña’s portrayal of Scott’s closest friend, Luis? Some have complained that his character is basically a comic stereotype of the Latino-American male. I would agree . . . superficially. However, between the screenplay and Peña’s energetic performance, Luis turned out to be quite an exceptional character who not seemed to be very verbose; but also a lover of fine wine, abstract art and video games. He also proved to be very proficient with his fists. And thanks to Peña’s performance, he nearly stole the show. Come to think of it, Corey Stoll was equally effective as the film’s main villain, Darren Cross aka Yellowjacket. Of all of the wealthy industrialist/scientists (good or bad) that permeate the Marvel Universe, Cross was one of the most interesting and scariest I have seen. And I have to give kudos to Stoll for making Cross both scary and a bit vulnerable at the same time.

The movie also featured first-rate performances from T.I. “Tip” Harris and David Dastmalchian as Scott and Luis’ fellow crew members, Dave and Kurt, who somehow managed to form quite the little screen team by the end of the film. Their discussion of the 1997 movie, “TITANIC” had me rolling on the floor with laughter. “ANT-MAN also featured fine performances from Judy Greer, Bobby Cannavale, a very funny Wood Harris, and a very charming Abby Ryder Fortson, who portrayed Scott’s daughter Cassie. Rounding out this cast was Martin Donovan, who portrayed a former S.H.I.E.L.D. top official/HYDRA mole Mitchell Carson. Although his appearance in the movie was not as long as the others, Donovan did a great job in setting up the malevolent Carson as a future threat in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. By the way, Donovan had worked with Paul Rudd in the 2000 movie, “THE GREAT GATSBY”; and with Michael Douglas in the 2006 political thriller, “THE SENTINEL”. To ensure the movie’s tie-in with the MCU, “ANT-MAN” featured cameos from Hayley Atwell (Peggy Carter), John Slattery (older Howard Stark) in the prologue; and Chris Evans (Steve Rogers) and Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes). But for me, the real thrill came in the form of Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson aka the Falcon. His surprise appearance, along with that crazy fight scene between his character and the lead proved to be one of the movie’s highlights for me.

“ANT-MAN” is not the type of Marvel film that would strike anyone as mind blowing or epic. And there are those fans who are still castigating it for not being written and directed by Edgar Wright. I personally do not care. I enjoyed the movie very much. Thanks to Peyton Reed’s direction, a great cast led by Paul Rudd and a very unusual screenplay written by Rudd and Adam McKay that featured a strong, offbeat humor; I enjoyed the movie very much. In fact, I would go far as to say that “ANT-MAN” was one of the most unusual Marvel productions I have seen. Probably the most unusual. And that makes it unique for me.

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Ranking of Movies Seen During Summer 2015

Usually I would list my ten favorite summer movies of any particular year. However, I only watched ten new releases during the summer of 2015. Due to the limited number, I decided to rank the films that I saw:

 

 

RANKING OF MOVIES SEEN DURING SUMMER 2015

1. “Jurassic World” – In the fourth movie for the JURASSIC PARK franchise, a new dinosaur created for the Jurassic World theme park goes amok and creates havoc. Directed by Colin Trevorrow, the movie starred Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard.

 

 

2. “Ant-Man” – Convicted thief Scott Lang is recruited to become Ant-Man for a heist in this new entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Directed by Peyton Reed, Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lily and Michael Douglas starred.

 

 

3. “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” – Guy Ritchie directed this adaptation of the 1964-1968 television series about agents for the C.I.A. and KGB working together to fight neo-Nazis in the early 1960s. Armie Hammer, Henry Cavill and Alicia Vikander starred.

 

 

4. “Tomorrowland” – Brad Bird directed this imaginative tale about a a former boy-genius inventor and a scientifically inclined adolescent girl’s search for a special realm where ingenuity is encouraged. George Clooney, Britt Robertson and Hugh Laurie starred.

 

 

5. “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” – Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are forced to prevent an artificial intelligence created by Tony Stark and Bruce Banner from destroying mankind. Joss Whedon wrote and directed this second AVENGERS film.

 

 

6. “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” – Tom Cruise starred in this fifth entry in the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE” film franchise about Ethan Hunt’s efforts to find and destroy a rogue intelligence organization engaged in terrorist activities.

 

 

7. “Mr. Holmes” – Ian McKellen starred in this adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s 2005 novel about the aging Sherlock Holmes’ efforts to recall his last case. Directed by Bill Condon, Laura Linney and Milo Parker co-starred.

 

 

8. “Fantastic Four” – Josh Trank directed this reboot of the Marvel comics series about four young people whose physical form is altered after they teleport to an alternate and dangerous universe. Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Bell starred.

 

 

9. “Entourage” – Doug Ellin wrote and directed this fluffy continuation of the 2004-2011 HBO series about a movie star and his group of friends dealing with a new project. Kevin Connolly, Adrian Grenier, Kevin Dillon, Jerry Ferrara and Jeremy Piven starred.

 

 

10. “Terminator: Genisys” – Alan Taylor directed this fifth movie in the TERMINATOR franchise, an unexpected turn of events creates a fractured timeline when Resistance fighter Kyle Reese goes back to 1984 in order to prevent the death of leader John Connor’s mother. Arnold Schwartzenegger, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney and Jason Clarke starred.

“AMERICAN HUSTLE” (2013) Review

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“AMERICAN HUSTLE” (2013) Review

For the past three years, the career of David O. Russell seemed to be on a roll. During said period, he has directed, produced or both three movies that have garnered a great deal of acclaim and awards. The latest of this “Golden Trio” happened to be a period comedy drama called “AMERICAN HUSTLE”.

Set mainly in 1978, “AMERICAN HUSTLE” is loosely based on the ABSCAM operation, set up by the F.B.I. as a sting operation against various government officials in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The movie begins with two con artists and lovers, Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser, who are caught in a loan scam by F.B.I. Special Agent Richie Di Maso. The latter proposes to release them if Irving assists him in a sting operation against Mayor Carmine Polito of Camden, New Jersey and other officials. Sydney tries to convince Irving not to agree with Richie’s proposal. But desperate to avoid prison and reluctant to leave his adopted son with his verbose and slightly unstable wife Rosalyn, Irving agrees to assist Richie and the F.B.I. The sting operation nearly starts off on the wrong foot, thanks to a clumsy tactic on Richie’s part, but Irving manages to woo back the charismatic and popular Carmine, who is seeking funds to revitalize gambling in Atlantic City. The scam seems to be going fine, despite Sydney’s growing relationship with Richie. But when Carmine introduces Irving, Sydney and Richie to the notoriously violent Mafia overlord Victor Tellegio into the plan to raise money; and Rosalyn’s jealous nature and notoriously big mouth threatens to expose the sting operation; Irving realizes he has to come up with an alternate plan to save him and Sydney from the Mob and the F.B.I.

While watching “AMERICAN HUSTLE”, it occurred to me that it is filled with some very interesting and eccentric characters. First, there are the two lovebirds – Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser – with his odd toupee and her fake British accent. Then we have Richie Di Maso is an ambitious “Mama’s Boy” with hair permed into tight curls, who is a bit too eager to prove himself with the F.B.I. Irving’s wife Rosalyn is an unhappily married woman with a big mouth and a careless and self-involved personality. And Mayor Polito is a happy-go-lucky politician with a rather large pompadour hair-style and questionable connections to the Mob. The movie is also populated with a Latino F.B.I. agent recruited by Richie to potray a wealthy Arab sheik, a charming Mob soldier who ends up falling for Rosalyn, Richie’s frustrated and wary F.B.I. supervisor, and a very sinister Mob boss that can speak Arabic. If I have to be perfectly honest, I would have to say that the movie’s array of characters struck me as being the movie’s strong point.

This should not have been a surprise. “AMERICAN HUSTLE” is also filled with some great performances. Christian Bale gave a wonderfully subtle and complex performance as the aging and stressed out con man who reluctantly finds himself involved with a scam operation set up by the F.B.I. He certainly clicked with Amy Adams, who gave one of the most subtle performances of her career as the charming, yet desperate former stripper-turned-con artist, who found herself in a state of flux over her freedom and her relationship with her partner/lover. Bradley Cooper was practically a basket of fire as the aggressive F.B.I. Agent Richie Di Maso, who become over-eager to make a name for himself within the Bureau. Mind you, there were moments when Cooper’s performance seemed to border on hamminess. I could also say the same for Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of Irving’s not-so-stable wife, Rosalyn. However, I must admit that Lawrence also provided the movie with some of its best comic moments. Jeremy Renner was a joy to watch as the charismatic mayor of Camden, Carmine Polito. The latter must have been the most happy-go-lucky role he has ever done.

“AMERICAN HUSTLE” also featured some first-rate performances from the supporting cast. Louis C.K. was very effective Richie’s long suffering boss, Special Agent Stoddard Thorsen. Michael Peña provided some memorable comic moments as Special Agent Paco Hernandez, who surprised everyone with his ability to speak Arabic. Robert De Niro, who also made a surprising appearance as mobster Victor Tellegio, gave a subtle and intimidating appearance . . . especially in a scene in which he tested Agent Thorsen’s ability to speak Arabic. The movie also featured solid performances from Jack Huston as a young mobster, Alessandro Nivola as Richie and Thoren’s boss, Anthony Zerbe as a corrupt congressman, and Elisabeth Röhm as Mayor Polito’s equally happy-go-lucky wife Dolly.

I was also impressed by the production designs for “AMERICAN HUSTLE”. Judy Becker and her team did an exceptional job of bringing the late 1970s back to life. She was also assisted by Heather Loeffler’s set decorations and Jesse Rosenthal’s art direction. Michael Wilkinson’s costume designs did an excellent job of not only capturing that particular era, but also representing the major character. This was especially apparent in his costumes for the Sydney Prosser, who used low-cut dresses and gowns to distract her marks. And I mean very low cut.

If there is one problem I have with “AMERICAN HUSTLE”, it is probably Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell’s screenplay. At first, it seemed perfectly fine to me. But eventually, there were aspects of the screenplay I found either troubling or confusing. One, I noticed that Russell tried utilize the use of multiple narrations that Martin Scorsese used in his 1995 movie, “CASINO”. At first, he used Irving and Sydney’s narration. Then he added Richie’s voice to the mix. The problem is that I can only recall Richie’s narration in one scene. Nor do I recall Sydney’s narration in the movie’s second half. Also, the first half of the movie seemed to hint that Richie’s mark in his operation was Camden’s Mayor Polito, who wanted to raise funds to revitalize Atlantic City. Why? Why would the mayor of Camden be interested in revitalizing the fortunes of another city, located in another county? And why was the F.B.I. so interested in Camden’s mayor? At first, I thought the agency was aware of his mob ties. But when Carmine introduced Irving and Richie to mobster Victor Tellegio, both the con man and the Federal agent seemed by the mobster’s appearance. So, why did Richie target Carmine in the first place? To make matters even more confusing, Richie extended his sting operation to several members of Congress. There seemed to be no focus in the operation and especially in the story.

Despite the confusing screenplay, I must admit that “AMERICAN HUSTLE” was an entertaining movie. Not only did it recaptured the era of the 1970s, but also featured some superb performances from a cast led by Christian Bale and Amy Adams. I thought it was entertaining enough to overlook its flaws.

“END OF WATCH” (2012) Review

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“END OF WATCH” (2012) Review

If there is one present day screenwriter who has written so much about the working-class neighborhoods of Los Angeles, it is writer-director David Ayer. In the past, he has written crime dramas such as “TRAINING DAY”“THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS”“DARK BLUE” and “STREET KINGS”. Just last year, he added another entry in his crime filmography with last year’s “END OF WATCH”

Shot in documentary style (at least some of it), “END OF WATCH” followed the daily grind of Brian Taylor and Mike Zavalas, two young Los Angeles Police Department beat officers who are both partners and close friends, who patrol the streets of South Central Los Angeles. Taylor, a former U.S. Marine, is video recording his police activities for a film class, much to the annoyance of his fellow cops. The partners deal with a fire, occupants of a crack house, a public disturbance call that leads to a fight between a Bloods gang member named Tre and Zavalas, and a noisy party filled with Latino gang members that include a leader named Big Evil. But when Taylor has a hunch about Big Evil and convinces Zavalas that they should stake out the house of the home of the gang leader’s mother. When they do, the partners pull over a truck that leaves the house, arrest the driver and discover ornately-decorated firearms and a large amount of money inside the truck. Further investigations of the house leads to the discovery of more arms, human trafficking victims, and a warning from an ICE agent that the partners have stumbled into an operation with ties to the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico. The agent warns Taylor and Zavalas that they are over their heads, but the two officers end up ignoring him. The young officers’ private lives are also explored. Zavalas’ wife is pregnant with their second child and Taylor meets and ends up marrying a young woman named Janet.

“END OF WATCH” is not a bad movie. It provided an interesting look at the daily lives of police patrolmen in the working class neighborhoods of Los Angeles. In a way, it almost reminds me of the 1988 movie, “COLORS”. In many ways. The movie also benefited from some superb performances by leads Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña. The two actors managed to create a sizzling screen chemistry that made the close relationship between the two characters believable. They especially shined in the movie’s last reel, which featured Zavalas’ account of an embarrassing and funny encounter with his in-laws. And I also found Ayer’s direction very energetic. To my surprise, I was not even bothered by the the movie’s handheld camera format. And Ayer’s handling of the shootout between the two cops and Big Evil’s gang members, who are working on behalf of the Mexican cartel, was outstanding. In fact, I consider this last scene to be the movie’s pièce de résistance.

Despite the virtues I have listed . . . I did not like “END OF WATCH”. I do not dislike the movie. But I did not like it very much. Part of my disappointment with the film has to do with David Ayer’s screenplay. I could not tell whether he had intended for “END OF WATCH” to simply be a documentary style look into the lives of two police patrolmen . . . or a story about two police officers’ troubles with a Mexican crime cartel. It seemed as if he was trying to mix two different crime genres and failed to balance it out. It did not help that the subplot regarding Taylor’s film project had no real impact on the movie’s main narrative and it was simply discarded two-thirds into the movie. Ayer’s script allowed an ICE agent to warn Taylor and Zavalas that they had stumbled into a Mexican cartel operation following their arrest of the truck driver. But when an ICE surveillance camera recorded a cartel member putting a hit on the two young officers using Big Evil’s gang, the ICE agent failed to make a reappearance to warn the pair. Instead, Ayer’s script allows Tre to issue the warning. And I found myself asking . . . why. Why did Ayer allow Tre to issue a warning about the hit and not the ICE agent?

Aside from Brian Taylor and Mike Zavalas, the movie’s other characters strike me as one-dimensional . . . especially the character of Tre and the members of Big Evil’s gang. In fact, some of their dialogue felt as if it was over two decades old and had been lifted straight from “COLORS”. Ayers tried to broaden the other characters. He managed to somewhat succeed with the Gabby Zavalas character, portrayed by Natalie Martinez. But everyone else seemed to fall flat. David Harbour was simply wasted as disenchanted police officer Van Hauser, who continuously warned the two younger officers that the L.A.P.D. will stab them in the back one back. Unfortunately, Ayer never explained Van Hauser’s mindset. Watching“END OF WATCH”, I found it hard to believe that Anna Kendrick was once nominated for an Academy Award. She was surely wasted in this film as Taylor’s girlfriend and eventual wife. And her character struck me as even more one-dimensional as the gang members.

I wish I could say that I liked “END OF WATCH”. The trailer had impressed me. I was also impressed by the performances of Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Michael Peña, who projected a dynamic screen chemistry. And I found the shootout between the two cops and Big Evil’s gang dynamic. But somewhere along the way, the one-dimensional supporting characters and questionable subplots simply left me cold.

“GANGSTER SQUAD” (2013) Review

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“GANGSTER SQUAD” (2013) Review

Every now and then, Hollywood would release a movie with a story based upon a particular event or individual from Los Angeles’ history. Movies such as “CHINATOWN”“L.A. CONFIDENTIAL”, and “CHANGELING” are examples. Recently, Hollywood released a new movie about a moment in Los Angeles’ history called “GANGSTER SQUAD”.

I must admit that I found myself surprised that the origin of the plot for “GANGSTER SQUAD” came from L.A. history. According to the book, “Tales from the Gangster Squad” by Paul Lieberman, Chief William Parker and the Los Angeles Police Department formed a group of officers and detective called the “Gangster Squad unit” in an effort to keep Los Angeles safe from gangster Mickey Cohen and his gang in the late 1940s and the 1950s. Screenwriter Will Beall took elements of Lieberman’s book and wrote a movie about the L.A.P.D.’s efforts to fight organized crime in the Southland. The movie starts in 1949 Los Angeles, where Cohen has become the most powerful figure in the California criminal underworld. Cohen has plans to expand his enterprises across the Western United States via the gambling rackets. Because the gangster has eliminated witnesses and bribed both the courts and the police, Chief Parker and the L.A.P.D. have not been able to stop Cohen’s rise. In a desperate move, Parker recruits the incorruptible and ruthless Sergeant John O’Mara to form a unit to wage guerilla warfare on Cohen’s operations and drive the gangster out of Southern California.

O’Hara, with the help of his very pregnant wife Connie, recruit the following men for his new unit:

*Coleman Harris, a tough beat cop from the South Central Los Angeles neighborhood

*Conway Keeler, a brainy wire-tapper

*Max Kennard, a legendary veteran gangster killer and sharp-shooter

Kennard’s young partner, Navidad Ramirez tracks down the squad and O’Hara reluctantly allows him to join. The sergeant tries to recruit his close friend, Sergeant Jerry Wooters, but the latter declines his offer out of disillusionment with the recent war and the police force. But when Cohen’s attempted hit on rival gang leader Jack Dragna results in the death of a young shoeshine boy, Wooters decides to accept O’Hara’s offer to join the squad. Also, Wooters has become romantically involved with Cohen’s etiquette coach and girlfriend, Grace Faraday. The squad’s campaign of terror against Cohen encounter a good deal of road blocks, including an unsuccessful raid against Cohen’s Burbank casino, the gangster’s penchant for paranoia, Wooters’ secret romance with Grace, Connie O’Hara’s desire for her husband to leave the police force and a deadly trap set up by Cohen in Chinatown. Despite the setbacks, violence and death, the squad eventually persevere over Cohen.

When I first saw the trailer for “GANGSTER SQUAD”, I immediately viewed it as one of those splashy, yet cheesy crime dramas trying to cash in on the success of movies like “L.A. CONFIDENTIAL” and “THE UNTOUCHABLES” by setting it before the present time. After seeing the movie, I suspect that my assumption was correct. There were elements in the movie’s story that I found unoriginal. Honestly. One could easily imagine “GANGSTER SQUAD” to be a post-World War II Los Angeles version of the 1987 movie, “THE UNTOUCHABLES”. Well . . . almost. And there were moments when I found “GANGSTER SQUAD” rather cheesy. This was obvious in some of the dialogue that came out of the mouth of actor Sean Penn, who portrayed Mickey Cohen; and in the movie’s narration spoken by Josh Brolin, who portrayed John O’Hara. And I might as well be honest. Penn’s dialogue was not helped by the occasional hammy acting that also marred his performance. For a movie that is supposed to be based on a historical book, I could not regard it as historically correct . . . especially in regard to the fates of both Cohen and rival Jack Dragna. I am a fan of Nick Nolte’s work, but I believe that he was a least two to three decades too old to be portraying Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker, who would have been in his mid-40s in 1949. Also, Parker did not become the city’s police chief until 1950.

“GANGSTER SQUAD” was not a perfect film, but I liked it very much. I enjoyed it. I found it very entertaining. And I found it gorgeous and colorful to look at. Thanks to production designer Maher Ahmad’s work, the film beautifully re-created post-World War II Los Angeles at the end of the 1940s. I was especially impressed by Ahmad’s elegant, yet colorful designs for the Slapsy Maxie’s nightclub, Cohen’s Spanish Colonial house and the Chinatown sequence. Ahmad’s work was enhanced by Gene Serdena’s set decorations, the movie’s art direction team and especially Dion Beebe’s photography. And Mary Zophres’ costume designs were absolutely gorgeous. Just to give you a hint, take a look at one of her designs for actress Emma Stone:

Gangster Squad grace faraday gown

Even though “GANGSTER SQUAD” seemed to be marred by cheesy dialogue, lack of originality and historical accuracy, I cannot deny that Will Beall wrote a very entertaining and exciting crime story. He did a pretty solid job of setting up the main narrative with Sergeant O’Hara’s disruption of one of Mickey Cohen’s illegitimate businesses – a whorehouse staffed by naive girls fresh off the bus or train and eager to make it big in the movies. This disruption catches Police Chief Bill Parker’s attention, prompting him to recruit O’Hara to organize and lead the “Gangster Squad” unit against Cohen’s operations. Beall also filled the story with exciting action sequences that included a nail-biting shootout in Chinatown, a forbidden romance between Jerry Wooters and Cohen’s girlfriend Grace Faraday, strong characterizations and more importantly, a good solid narrative. Rueben Fleischer did a first-rate job in transferring Beall’s script to the movie screen. And Fleischer did this with a great deal of flair and strong pacing.

The cast for “GANGSTER SQUAD” proved to be first-rate. Josh Brolin led the cast as the strong-willed, yet emotional police detective Sergeant John O’Hara. Utilizing his talent for projecting a no-nonsense demeanor with flashes of humor, Brolin was very effective as leader of “Gangster Squad” unit. Brolin also managed to generate on-screen chemistry with other members of the cast – including Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi and especially actress Mireille Enos, who beautifully portrayed O’Hara’s equally strong-willed wife Connie. “GANGSTER SQUAD” marked the second time Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone worked together since they were co-stars in the 2011 comedy “CRAZY STUPID LOVE”. And once again, they proved to be quite the effective screen team, as they burned up the screen as the cynical lovers Sergeant Jerry Wooster and mob moll Grace Faraday. I also enjoyed Anthony Mackie’s colorful portrayal of tough beat cop Coleman Harris, who developed an aversion to Burbank, following the squad’s unpleasant encounter with that city’s law enforcement. Giovanni Ribisi gave a poignant performance as the squad’s brainy wiretapper, Conwell Keeler. Both Robert Patrick and Michael Peña created a solid screen team as police sharpshooter Max Kennard and his clever protégé Navidad Ramirez. Although I found him slightly too old for the role, I must admit that I found Nick Nolte’s portrayal of Police Chief William Parker rather entertaining in a garroulous way. And despite some of the cheesy dialogue he was forced to spew, I must say that Sean Penn struck me as an effective villain in his performance as the violent Mickey Cohen. Especially when the cheese and ham were missing from his lines.

If you expect “GANGSTER SQUAD” to be a crime drama masterpiece, you will be disappointed. It is no masterpiece, I assure you. But . . . I thought it proved to be an entertaining, yet splashy crime thriller that recaptured the era of post-World War II Los Angeles. I guess one could thank Will Beall for his solid script, colorful direction by Rueben Fleischer, and an entertaining cast led by Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling and Sean Penn.

“TOWER HEIST” (2011) Review

“TOWER HEIST” (2011) Review

Seven years ago, Eddie Murphy had an idea about him and a group of comedians starring in a movie about a group planning to rob Trump Tower. The script developed and changed into an “OCEAN’S ELEVEN”-style caper, leading Murphy to leave the project. When director Brett Ratner continued to develop the idea into the movie’s present story, Murphy eventually rejoined the production. 

“TOWER HEIST” told the story about three employees of an exclusive apartment building called The Tower, who lose their pensions in the Ponzi scheme of a Wall Street businessman, who also lives in the building. The group enlist the aid of criminal, a bankrupt businessman that also lives in the building, and another building employee to break into the businessman’s apartment and steal back their money, while avoiding the FBI Agent in charge of his case.

One of my favorite types of movies has always been the heist comedy. This is why I am a fan of such movies like“LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS”“A FISH CALLED WANDA” and the “OCEAN’S ELEVEN” series. I do not know if I would place “TOWER HEIST” on the same level as the previously mentioned films. I would not regard it as one of the best heist films I have ever seen, or even one of the best comedies. But I cannot deny that I found it entertaining.

I must admit that I did not believe Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy would ever generate a strong screen chemistry. But in a rather odd way, they seemed to click. I suppose this was due to the fact that Stiller’s more subdued performance perfectly balanced Murphy’s more extroverted one. And they had solid support from the likes of Casey Affleck, Téa Leoni, Alan Alda, Michael Peña, Matthew Broderick and Gabourey Sidibe. I was especially impressed by Alda’s insidious performance as the scheming businessman Arthur Shaw and Sidibe’s portrayal of the sharp-tongued maid Odessa, whose savy proved to be the group’s godsend on at least two occasions.

Another aspect of “TOWER HEIST” that I admired was the movie’s script written by Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson. It was not the most spectacular story I have seen on the movie screen. I had a problem with the movie’s last five or ten minutes. I would reveal what I found troubling about the ending. But if I did, I would give away the story. I suspect Griffin and Nathanson ended it this way to put a little bite in the movie’s ending. It just did not work for me.

However, I did enjoy most of the story. I also liked that one of the main aspects that injected a good deal of suspense into the story was the possibility of one or more of the robbers betraying the others – especially in the case of both Murphy and Affleck’s characters. This is something that is usually common in a heist drama. But I have yet to see such a thing in a comedy, until I saw “TOWER HEIST”.

In the end, “TOWER HEIST” proved to be a solid and entertaining comedy with a slightly weak ending. The movie was also blessed with a first-rate cast led by Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy. And director Brett Ratner did a good job in utilizing both the story and the cast to make a pretty solid film.

“THE LINCOLN LAWYER” (2011) Review

“THE LINCOLN LAWYER” (2011) Review

For years I began to wonder if Matthew McConaughey would be stuck in an endless series of mediocre romance comedies and light action thrillers. The last noteworthy movie I had seen him in was the 2008 comedy, “TROPIC THUNDER”. Only, he was not the lead in that film. And the last noteworthy movie in which he was the lead actor was the 2006 drama, “WE ARE MARSHALL” and before that – the 2000 World War II thriller, “U-571”. Then I saw “THE LINCOLN LAWYER” and whatever doubts I had about the future of his career were erased. For now. 

Directed by Brad Furman and based upon Michael Connelly’s 2005 novel, “THE LINCOLN LAWYER” told the story about a successful Los Angeles defense attorney named Mickey Haller, who operates around Los Angeles County out of a Lincoln Town Car, driven by a former client working off his legal fees (hence the title). Haller has spent most of his career defending garden-variety criminals, until he lands the case of his career – a Beverly Hills playboy named Louis Roulet, who also happens to be the son of a real estate mogul named Mary Windsor. Roulet is accused of the brutal beating of a prostitute. At first, Roulet seems to be an innocent who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. But when Haller and his investigator, Frank Levin, discover that the prostitute’s injuries are similar to a past case of his that landed a previous client, Jesus Martinez in prison for murdering a woman, the seemingly straightforward case suddenly develops into a deadly game of survival for Haller.

After watching this movie, it occurred to me that the movie’s title bore very little significance to the actual plot. If anything, the idea that the Mickey Haller operated his law firm from the back seat of his Lincoln Town Car struck me as some kind of plot contrivance that almost seemed like a publicity ploy. Honestly. Both Connelly’s novel and the movie would have been better off with a title that related more closely with the plot. Perhaps I am being a bit of a nitpicker. Yet, before I actually saw “THE LINCOLN LAWYER”, I honestly thought the car would feature as a major plot point for the story. Another problem I had with the movie was that at times, cinematographer Lukas Ettlin utilized in that quick-cut photography that tends to leave me feeling slightly dizzy. And I thought that the story’s conclusion may have been rushed a bit. But despite these mild annoyances, I enjoyed the movie very much.

One, it has become increasingly rare to find a major Hollywood movie set in the Los Angeles. There have been movies set in my hometown. But there are not as many as they used to be. And as an Angeleno, this has been a bone of contention for me. Thankfully, director Brad Furman and cinematographer Lukas Ettlin did a great job in revealing the City of Angels to movie goers without resorting to extremes in its portrayal. Two, Furman made great use of a first-rate cast filled with many whose careers I thought were either over or sliding into oblivion. Most importantly, both Furman and screenwriter John Romano did an excellent job of translating Connelly’s novel to the screen. Okay, I confess that I have never read the novel. Which means that I do not know how faithful Romano’s screenplay was to the novel. But whether the movie was a close adaptation or not, I must admit that it had a damn good story. The best thing I liked about “THE LINCOLN LAWYER” was that Haller’s defense of Roulet transformed into a nightmarish situation in which he found himself in an unwitting game of cat and mouse.

When I said that the cast was first-rate, I was not joking. The supporting cast included excellent performances from the likes of Frances Fisher, who portrayed Roulet’s controlling and over-protective mother; Michael Peña, who portrayed Haller’s former client claiming innocence of murder, while serving time in prison; Laurence Mason as Haller’s observant chauffeur/former client; Michael Paré and Bryan Cranston, who portrayed two hostile but very different L.A.P.D. detectives, John Leguizamo, who portrayed the slightly sleezy bail bondsman responsible for directing Haller to Roulet’s case; and Bob Gunton, who portrayed the Roulet-Windsor family’s obsequious attorney. I believe that the last decent movie that Josh Lucas made was 2006’s “GLORY ROAD”. So, it was great to see him in a first-rate movie in which, once again, he proved how much of a chameleon he could be in his portrayal of the righteous prosecuting attorney, whose self-assurance is slowly whittled away. William H. Macy created a strong screen chemisty as Haller’s intelligent and witty investigator, who helps solve the case. And Marisa Tomei gave a strong performance as Haller’s ex-wife and a prosecutor who is torn between relief that she is no longer married to such a difficult man and lingering feelings for him.

But the two star performances came from Matthew McConaughey in the title role of Mickey Haller; and Ryan Phillippe as his latest client, Louis Roulet. McConaughey, who has spent too many years without a first rate leading role, owned this movie. Let me take that back. He did not completely own the movie, but he definitely made the Mickey Haller character his own. Hell, he practically conquered it. Sure, McConaughey utilized his usual brand of Southern charm in the movie’s first ten or fifteen minutes. But as the movie’s plot made a sharp turn, the actor dropped the charming façade and revealed his character’s range of emotions in dealing with his complicated new client. And speaking of the Louis Roulet character, I believe that it might turn out to be one of Ryan Phillippe’s best roles ever. Due to his superb performance, he transformed Roulet from a charming, yet bewildered client that projected an air of innocence to a dark and malignant man with a talent for manipulation.

Would I recommend that you see “THE LINCOLN LAWYER” before it disappears from the movie theaters? Absolutely. Thanks to director Brad Furman and screenwriter John Romano, the movie turned out to be a superb adaptation of Michael Connelly’s novel. And the movie was also blessed with a first-rate cast, led by outstanding performances from Matthew McConaughey and Ryan Phillippe. It is one of the better movies I have seen this year so far.