Review: The Iceman (2012)

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I know a lot about Richard Kuklinski. Not only have I read Philip Carlo’s 2009 biography The Ice Man: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer, but I’ve also seen the two-part HBO prison interview with the man himself. From that knowledge alone, I remember being slightly perplexed as to why Michael Shannon was chosen to portray him in 2012’s The Iceman. It’s not that Shannon is a bad actor; to the contrary, I think he’s one of the more talented people working in Hollywood today. No, I was mainly confused about Shannon’s appearance in contrast to how the real Kuklinski actually looked. In retrospect, the late James Gandolfini might have been a wiser choice, but as I settled in to this film, I realized that Shannon’s raw ability superseded the physical differences.

The Iceman introduces us to Kuklinski while he is still employed splicing pornographic films together in a seedy lab. Not long after he meets a woman named Deborah (Winona Ryder) who seems to reach him on a level unattainable to most of humankind. Kuklinski is taken with her, but oddly cautious about showing any real emotion. Aside from the occasional shot at off-the-wall humor, Kuklinski is altogether emotionless. Nevertheless, Deborah looks past his exterior and finds enough good in him to become his wife. The newlyweds soon add a baby girl to their family and all seems to be going well. 

One evening, Kuklinski is accosted at the film lab by a gangster named Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) and his goons. Demeo is upset over the fact that a shipment of porno films has not been finished and holds Kuklinski personally responsible. Despite an array of valid excuses, Kuklinski is slapped around, threatened, and held at gunpoint. To Demeo’s surprise, none of this appears to shake Kuklinski at all. Demeo opines that such a cold man must be devoid of feeling and secretly decides to recruit him as an enforcer. Kuklinski’s first “test” is to kill a homeless man at Demeo’s insistence without questioning. He does. This begins Kuklinski’s long and tumultuous career as one of the most feared contract killers to ever walk the face of the earth.

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First off, I did enjoy this film. I felt it was well done and it certainly kept me interested throughout. My issue is that the facts of Richard Kuklinski’s life and career were intermixed, twisted, and mashed together, sometimes out of sequence. Again, I’ve seen the HBO interviews, and I vividly remember some of Kuklinski’s recollections about different hits he carried out. The filmmakers appeared to take small pieces from different occurrences and apply them to one situation. While it’s okay to make creative changes in the interest of a good story, I felt that it actually downplayed Kuklinski’s callousness. He was, in reality, much viler than this film would have us believe. Here he is depicted as a caring family man who murdered for profit. That isn’t necessarily untrue, but the real Kuklinski, by his own account, sometimes took pleasure in the numerous methods he used to kill people. For example, the real Kuklinski once tied a man up and left him in a cave to be eaten alive by rats. To add insult to injury, he videotaped the entire ordeal. Shannon’s Kuklinski simply wasn’t that evil. He had a hair-trigger temper, but even that was subdued compared to the man he was depicting.

A second issue I had with this film is that Kuklinski’s cold-heartedness almost comes out of left field. For people who have an awareness of the real case, it doesn’t hurt to be dumped into the middle of the story. But for people who have never heard of Kuklinski, his abrupt maniacal transformation doesn’t make a lot of sense. For a broad audience, I feel it might have been necessary to broach the subject of where Kuklinski came from and how he became a monster. Only once did the filmmakers touch on his back story, and it was a bit too fleeting to paint the big picture. While visiting his brother Joe in prison, a discussion arises about their violent upbringing. But again, too much is going on in this film for the average person to pay attention to these small details.

Again, some things have been changed without explanation. One of Kuklinski’s first victims is a man who insults him at a bar. Later that evening, Kuklinski slits his throat and calmly walks off into the night. The real Kuklinski spoke about this incident during the interviews, and he actually set the man on fire in his car; he didn’t slit his throat. Why such details were altered, I can’t really say.

For the most part, The Iceman is a winner. If nothing else, I would encourage everyone to watch it for its entertainment value, not necessarily for its accuracy. By all means, seek out the HBO interviews and a copy of Philip Carlo’s book if you want to experience Richard Kuklinski in all his wickedness.

Review: Fruitvale Station (2013)

Fruitvale Station is an independent effort that will most likely go unnoticed among the throngs of larger-budget films currently showing. Truth be told, that is somewhat tragic. Sure, the plot centers on a relatively unknown person, but I don’t consider that to be the underlying motor driving the story. The main character, Oscar Grant, is like a million other people in the world. He is a face in the crowd, invisible to most of society – and for that reason, his life is nothing if not insignificant. At least that’s what a warped sense of importance would have us believe.

Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) is a 22-year old with a rough past. Born into relative hardship, his future seems to be mapped out ahead of him. His jobs are fleeting, and illegal activities shine in comparison to working for low wages and keeping a normal schedule. His girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) are living with a constant fear of instability. They know that Oscar’s intentions are good, but his track record dictates that he will either fail on the straight and narrow or end up in prison for trying to earn money the only way he can. It is the quintessential double-edged sword.

This film follows Oscar around through an ordinary afternoon. It is the last day of 2008 and his mother Wanda’s (Octavia Spencer) birthday; the evening’s plans are to watch New Year’s Eve fireworks in the city. Fearing that Oscar will drink and drive, Wanda suggests he and his friends travel via the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station. It is never mentioned directly, but Wanda’s fear of Oscar behind the wheel seems to be rooted in a previous incident. This is supported by her insistence that he wear an ear piece while driving and talking on his cell phone. As it happens, avoiding the roads and taking the train will prove to be more troublesome than anyone could have imagined.

Fruitvale Station begins with the five words that audiences usually lap up vigorously: based on a true story. Any of us can watch a film and become engrossed, but when we realize that the events before us actually transpired, even if the filmmakers took artistic license, it adds something to the experience. Oscar was not only a real person, but the center of a controversy that still resonates in light of the recent goings on in Sanford, Florida. I cannot elaborate on what happens, but there is something to be said for the cultivation of stereotypes. Despite his shortcomings, Oscar is far from a bad person. He is an attentive father and a genuinely nice guy. His biggest challenge, it seems, is digging himself out from beneath the weighty barriers that come with growing up in a less-fortunate environment. This is not a struggle unique to him; countless children are raised around poverty, drugs, weapons, and fighting. Those children eventually become adults, though age and its supposed wisdom can hardly be expected to supersede the emotional trauma they’ve suffered.

Interestingly enough, Oscar is the kind of person that would ordinarily be feared by, dare I say, a majority of white America. From a distance, he is just another out-of-work strain on the system. The issue is that Oscar’s story is multidimensional, but his upbringing does not afford him a wealth of people interested enough to listen. Whether or not society is aware, such indifference simply creates more of the same. Oscar knows that the odds are against him; try as he might, the road to redemption is much longer because opposition stands in all corners. So what happens? Oscar gives up on the legal way of doing things because it has never gotten him anywhere. And then what happens? Oscar’s choices land him in jail. Next? “Regular society” pats itself on the back for correctly profiling this type of individual, failing to remember that there could be no other logical result in a world where racism is still very much alive. It’s a sad state of affairs, but the unfortunate reality.

What Fruitvale Station does is force us to stop looking at Oscar from a distance. It brings us into his life, so that we might understand his choices, even if we don’t necessarily agree with them. In the end, the audience gets a vivid picture of just how futile everything can be. Still, there is a message of hope here. I felt this film was brilliantly acted and the pacing effective considering how much time has supposedly elapsed in Oscar’s day.

For an independent film, I was surprised at how many showings are available. I can only hope that it is getting as much attention everywhere else, so please see it if you can!

Review: The Best Offer (2013)

The word “odd” is often used to describe something in a negative way. It’s a rarity that being considered offbeat is complementary; such nomenclature forces a stigma into our minds that can seldom be reversed. Well, that might be the case in real life, but for an artistic film with elements of Hitchcockian intrigue scattered about, it is really the only fitting thing to say. The Best Offer is a film that has flown largely under the radar, released overseas at the beginning of the year, and for the most part, lost on American audiences. Admittedly, it isn’t for everyone, and I suspect most contemporary film-goers would lose interest unless they have something deep within themselves that pines for the strange and hidden aspects of the human condition. For me, those aspects are the most interesting, so I sank into the quicksand of this abnormal story immediately.

Virgil Oldman (Geoffrey Rush) is an art auctioneer/appraiser with a touch of dishonestly coursing through his veins. He routinely withholds information about the true value of the pieces he auctions, though in all other areas of his life, he is rather self-righteous and professional to a fault. His expertise is well-known in the art world, so much in fact that his services are difficult to procure. Out of the blue, an elusive young girl named Claire (Sylvia Hoeks) calls upon Virgil to oversee the auction of a vast collection she has inherited. The few first attempts at meeting go awry, with Claire repeatedly failing to show and concocting a series of transparent excuses for her absence. Virgil becomes increasingly irritated, but soon learns that Claire suffers from Agoraphobia and has chosen to hibernate in a secret room hidden behind a wall in the main living area of her colossal villa. Ironically, Virgil is no stranger to this kind of behavior; he keeps a similar room of solitude in his own house, decorated obsessively with portraits from various periods in art history. Still, he is disturbed by Claire’s refusal to reveal herself, and tries desperately to coax her from seclusion.

As time goes on, Claire’s wall of resistance starts to crumble brick by brick. She begins to regard Virgil as a kindred spirit, perhaps sensing in him the same isolation she has felt her entire life. Virgil has already developed feelings for Claire, no doubt the result of having romanticized her as the only object of beauty he has never seen with his own eyes. His frustration causes him to spy on Claire when she believes no one else is in the house. Once he beholds her in the flesh, his attraction multiplies, becoming an obsession that monopolizes his every waking thought. When he finally meets her face to face, we are drawn further into a surreal landscape where nothing is what it appears.

The Best Offer is a multi-layered trip through a distorted version of reality. Visually, the film reminded me of the old Gothic stories that have permeated our culture, like Wuthering Heights. Here, Claire lives in a massive villa that looks to be suffering from years of neglect. It is surrounded by businesses and other structures, though is somehow still isolated from the rest of civilization. Much like Claire herself, the house is solitary and almost hollow. That the two protagonists in this film are quarantined people who cannot manage to connect with society on anything but a superficial level is no coincidence.

If you watch everything unfold in The Best Offer at face value, you might miss the point. The real depth in this story is one that must be found in the subtle nuances of the atmosphere. It is almost an indefinable quality, similar to a dream that harbors some meaning in a series of random, disconnected images. I suspect different people will derive their own meaning from the plot, as there is a multitude of angles from which the film can be viewed. From my own perspective, I took away a feeling of sadness and despair intermingled with the oddness I mentioned in my opening paragraph. There is something not quite normal about this; it is a world within a world, and if nothing else, it is the perfect conduit for discussion on both the filmmakers’ vision and the pieces of humanity that are lost in the crowd.

The acting here is second to none. Geoffrey Rush personifies the quintessential genius who possesses all the qualities of proficiency and none of the basic abilities to free himself from his weather-beaten heart. His character is so rife with personal regret that falling for a woman with any similarities to him is all but written in the stars. By comparison, Sylvia Hoeks’ Claire is an enigma in an iron fortress, choosing to build a wall to keep the rest of humanity at bay. However, she is also extremely clever, and as the audience will learn, quite adept at creating illusions.

Without divulging more of the secrets in The Best Offer, I leave you the choice of hunting down a copy of this film and walking through it suspiciously. Do not be intimidated by the fact that it’s a foreign production, nor by its arthouse foundation. If you are interested by the gears that turn in all of us, you’ll want to give this one a shot.

Review: The Conjuring (2013)

If you ever comb through my reviews, you’ll realize I have an affinity for haunted house movies. In terms of horror, it was always my favorite sub-genre. Hollywood has been inundating the masses with ghosts and phantoms lately; and though most of these efforts are built on good intentions, something is always missing. The Conjuring has been lurking in the shadows the last few months, just out of view, glancing around the corner waiting for the perfect time to capitalize on our darkest fears. I was one of the people waiting to be unnerved. Now that I’ve seen it, there are two very important things coming to light.

This story is the alleged retelling of the Perron family’s distressing existence in a 300-year old Rhode Island farmhouse. The goings on are mainly seen through the eyes of Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), paranormal investigators known as the foremost authority on everything weird in the country. When they first catch wind of the activity in the Perron household, Ed is hesitant to get involved despite Carolyn Perron’s (Lili Taylor) desperate pleas. Lorraine persuades her husband to empathize and they agree to pay a visit.

The Perrons are relatively normal. They have five daughters and are struggling financially, though the patriarch, Roger (Ron Livingston), is doing his best to provide a stable life for everyone. The first occurrences in the house are pretty standard for a haunting – bumps, odd sounds, and independently moving doors. But when a few of the girls see a hideous entity perched atop an old wardrobe in their bedroom, things begin to escalate quickly. What follows is an unraveling tale rooted in the witchcraft trials of 17th century New England.

Overall, I felt The Conjuring was a good effort. There was an homage hidden in this film; it was like a mash up of Amityville, The Changeling, The Exorcist, and Poltergeist. The title font is even a clear reference to 70’s horror. However, I walked in with such anticipation that I may have set my expectations a little too high. I’m generally pleased with the Insidious team, so having them behind this film gave me hope that I was about to see something memorable. Where I believe it may have failed is in the pacing.

Haunted house films always have what I refer to as starter elements. I mentioned those a moment ago. Starter elements are the creaks and knocks, the missing objects and the unexplained discrepancies to normal living. Those things are the kindling to an inferno promising to erupt. The Conjuring’s misstep is piling on too much of those small, insignificant happenings while the audience waits for the big reveal to unfold. We see glimpses of the bigger picture, but it seems to take longer than necessary to develop. That is not to say that The Conjuring failed entirely. To the contrary, what it lacked in imagery was eclipsed by an abundance of dread. We know that something is wrong with this house, and we know that it’s something old and manipulative. What we don’t know what it is or why. That’s ultimately what we’re all waiting to find out, and when it does happen, it lacks the explosion that we expect. The storyline was not bad, but it was somewhat, dare I say, forced.

The Conjuring did succeed in creating an atmosphere. If you’re going to explore the other side, what better place is there than an old farmhouse? Also, New England is so rich in turbulent history that suffering the wrath of restless spirits in that area is a pretty frightening prospect. Because I wanted to like this film (and I did like it), I waited for something better than I’ve seen over the last two years in big-budget scare-fests. Perhaps those high hopes are what made me too critical of the finished product. When I saw Insidious, I really had none of those preconceived notions. I walked in blindfolded and was caught off guard by one of the strangest, most visually unsettling endings I can remember in recent times. Had I walked into The Conjuring the same way, I might be singing a different tune. In the end, this was a good haunted tale, but I just believe there was room to do more with it.

On a side note, James Wan has an obvious fascination with creepy-looking dolls. The one presented here is one of the more eerie ones I’ve seen. If nothing else, the image of that sinister face will keep you company when you lay down at night.

Review: After Hours (1985)

For as much as I like 1985’s After Hours, I’m somewhat disappointed with myself for never having reviewed it. I consider it one of the greatest films, not because it broke any records or showed audiences something completely new, but because it somehow managed to tap into my nightmares and build a story around them. 

I should probably explain that statement.

When I was a kid, I had a recurring dream where I was lost in a deserted city at night. The streets were dark and lonely; the only lights came from the office windows of buildings far off in the distance. There seemed to be no place to hide, and every turn pushed me deeper into a complex maze from which there was no possible escape. My only saving grace was waking up in the morning and realizing that none of it had actually happened. Well, After Hours is the cinematic version of that dream; the only difference is that the protagonist, Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) is not dreaming.

Paul is a lonely man. He works a humdrum job as a word processor and spends the evenings alone in his apartment, endlessly flipping through television stations in search of anything. On one such evening, he breaks from the monotony and sits in a coffee shop reading Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. The book catches the interest of Marcy Franklin (Rosanna Arquette), a fellow wanderer who starts a conversation with Paul and eventually gives him her phone number. Later that night, Paul hesitantly calls her and agrees to come to her apartment on the other side of New York City. This begins a series of events that leads to one of the worst experiences any human being can ever have. In the cab on the way to see Marcy, Paul’s $20 bill flies out the window. Once he is dropped off in front the building, it is nearly midnight, and he is broke. From that point on, unfortunate coincidences and bad luck essentially trap Paul in the city. He runs into shady characters, erratic strangers, thieves, and even becomes a suspect in different heinous crimes. If that isn’t bad enough, his interactions lead to a suicide, and before long, an angry mob chases him through the streets with the intention of killing him.

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After Hours is basically what I call a Neo Noir. Anyone familiar with the Film Noir staples of the 1940’s will easily recognize the elements that influenced director Martin Scorcese. With the exception of the very beginning and the very end, the entire film is shot at night. The likelihood is that Scorcese wanted to present a claustrophobic atmosphere, and keeping the viewer in a permanent state of darkness forces them to understand the paranoia running through Paul Hackett’s mind. Hackett embodies the quintessential everyman loser, the kind of guy that cannot catch a break. It’s not that he is a bad person or even deserving of the fate befalling him; he has just been chosen by the universe to endure the worst that life has to offer. Sometimes it happens that way. That was the basis of 40’s Noir. One person is picked randomly and dragged along the ground until they either give up or die. 

I was lucky enough to interview Griffin Dunne some time ago, and I made sure that After Hours was discussed at length. Griffin confirmed many of my assumptions about the film, including Scorcese’s use of oddly-angled shots (one in particular showed Paul breaking through a door from overhead). He also agreed with me that the film borrowed heavily from Film Noir. He described Paul Hackett as a man willing to leave his comfort zone on the premise of sleeping with a woman (Arquette). Paul’s solitary lifestyle made him an easy target, simply because he had nothing else to do. Granted, he could never have foreseen the events that would unfold, but he never thought that far ahead. In the moment, he made a hasty decision to cross the city at night with little money and no contingency plan for disaster. Losing his $20 makes it impossible for him to even take the subway back to his apartment.

One of the highlights of After Hours is how it was perfectly cast. Sure, it’s easy to think that Griffin Dunne was the perfect choice for Paul Hackett because he’s the only person we’ve ever seen in that role. But even if that had not been the case, there is a subtlety about Dunne that combines vulnerability, desperation, and neediness. Paul Hackett is a character that demands these qualities; a stronger man would not have let the events of the evening break him down to the point of falling apart. Another interesting point made during my interview with Griffin is how modern audiences continually try to “solve” Paul Hackett’s problems. Griffin told me that people always ask him why the character didn’t just “use his cell phone,” failing to remember they didn’t exist in 1985. Again, After Hours worked perfectly for the era in which it was made. Had Paul Hackett found himself in this predicament nowadays, a cell phone would have probably gotten him out of it. 

If you haven’t seen this film, my best advice is to find it immediately, pop it in your DVD player, and suspend all notions of modern technology. If you can imagine yourself wandering around New York City with nothing at your disposal, and a vigilante mob trying to hunt you down, you might just feel as suffocated as the main character. At the very least, you’ll understand the nightmares I had as a kid.

Review: Behind the Candelabra (2013)

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Few people in entertainment history can be thought more extravagant than Liberace. For all intents and purposes, the man was a walking circus, cloaked in the most ridiculously theatrical getups the world has ever seen. He was a pillar of overindulgence, exaggeration personified. He was also a highly talented pianist who charmed audiences with his wild personality and glittery stage shows. One might assume that someone of this magnitude would be difficult to portray, and they would be right. It isn’t easy to conjure the spirit of a man like Liberace, especially because he’s been gone for over 25 years and the opportunity to speak with him first-hand is long gone as well. Nevertheless, in the new HBO biopic Behind the Candelabra, veteran actor Michael Douglas resurrects the flashy showman with such believability that it is as if he never passed away.

The focus of this film is Liberace’s relationship with a young man named Scott Thorson (played by Matt Damon). Thorson is a wet-behind-the-ears, star struck kid who is immediately taken in by one of Liberace’s elaborate shows. Through a mutual friend he is able to meet Liberace backstage and the two hit it off immediately. Though Scott’s homosexuality is not evident at first, Liberace’s is certainly out in full force. We assume that Scott is either homosexual or quickly becomes that way to cultivate the relationship. Regardless of which is true, the bond between the two men quickly transitions from platonic to romantic. Their first encounter is a bit awkward with Liberace moving fast and Scott not wanting to ward off the advances. As the years progress, Liberace’s grandiose lifestyle bleeds into Scott’s personality and he becomes more superficial and materialistic. Still, there is the ever-present threat of Liberace’s desire for younger prospects, and Scott begins to feel like he will be replaced by an insatiable newcomer with the same need for Liberace’s adoration that he once had.

The real Scott Thorson penned the autobiography (Behind the Candelabra: My Life With Liberace) on which this film is based. Without having read the book, it is safe to assume that Thorson harbors a great deal of resentment towards Liberace. This is evident near the end of the film when the AIDS virus has already ravaged Liberace’s body. Despite having been estranged for some time, one of Liberace’s last wishes is for Scott to visit him at home, which he does. All the more telling is Liberace’s insistence that Scott never tell the world how badly the illness has altered his appearance. That we see Michael Douglas’ mind-boggling transformation from a superstar to a man wasting away in his pajamas suggests that Scott did indeed break his promise and spill the details in his book. This is not meant to be a judgment. It is impossible to say what anyone else in his situation would have done.

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While the story here is fascinating, the real heart of his film is the performances of both Michael Douglas and Matt Damon. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t blown away by these portrayals. Douglas seems to have mastered Liberace’s nuances in spite of his personal health issues. Behind the Candelabra was originally conceived in 2008, but delayed for five years due to Douglas’ throat cancer. Nevertheless, Douglas went all out in his depiction of Liberace, even choosing to have his own hair styled instead of wearing wigs and donning the now-legendary outfits so convincingly that it was like watching old footage of the man himself.

Matt Damon plays against type here as a young, naïve boy desperately looking for an identity. Damon is the last person in Hollywood to warrant rumors of homosexuality, though we have no trouble watching him as an openly gay man who teeters between self-acceptance and shame. At some points in the film, it is clear that Thorson is struggling with the idea of being gay, even scorning Liberace’s taste for gay pornography as sickening and vile. Nevermind that he has repeatedly engaged in consensual sex with Liberace (though he will only give, not receive). His unwillingness to give himself completely is likely the catalyst for Liberace’s wandering eye.

IMDB relays a bit of interesting trivia about this film: In a January 2013 interview with the New York Post, director Steven Soderbergh said that this movie was originally planned for a theatrical release but was ultimately produced by and aired on HBO instead because the story was “too gay” for Hollywood movie studios. The trouble with this concept is not that it is laced with intolerant rhetoric (which is painfully obvious), but that it seems a bit hypocritical when we look at the success (and let’s be honest, controversy) that resulted from 2005’s Brokeback Mountain. I believe the real issue here is that Hollywood no longer considers Michael Douglas a major box office draw, and gambling on upsetting the masses with such a blatant representation of homosexuality is too risky without the promise of a big financial return. That being said, I’m glad that this aired on HBO; they always seemed a little more liberal and resolved to the fact that this world contains many different kinds of people, not one robotic prototype that the entire population is expected to emulate.

I found this a really enjoyable ride and I recommend seeing it whenever you have the chance. In fact, even if you have seen it, watch it again. As Liberace says, “Too much of a good thing is wonderful.”

Review: The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

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If there is one movie I could watch again from those I’ve seen this year, it’s The Place Beyond the Pines. I’ve anticipated this one for some time, without really knowing what I’d be getting myself into. Not that I know, I want to go back to that place, to that world, to that curious story line that travels between decades and teaches us something about the importance of family – and the damage it can sometimes cause. Almost immediately, I lost myself in the lives of these people – veritable strangers, just faces on a bright box in a dark room. What begins as an offbeat tale about a reckless man soon becomes a character study about relationships. At the heart, Pines is like the broken pieces of our world thrown back in our faces; and though the surface plot leads the audience to believe they are watching something one-dimensional, the heartbreak simmering below works some kind of subliminal magic.

Luke (Ryan Gosling) is a crack motorcyclist eeking out a living by performing stunts in a traveling carnival. Aside from that, he does little else but live on his own delusional thoughts. His on-again-off-again girlfriend Romina (Eva Mendes) wants something better for her life and works hard in a local diner to make ends meet. Luke promises her the moon and stars, but realistically cannot deliver anything but disappointment. It is a realization that Luke refuses to accept. Romina, however, has painfully resolved herself to the fact that Luke will never be the man she needs. It is soon revealed that Romina has a son named Jason and that Luke is his father. Luke reacts with shock, but seems genuinely happy to have a son, even doing his best to spend time with the boy. Romina has since removed herself from Luke and taken up with Kofi (Mahershala Ali), a man who guarantees a better life and more stability. Luke resents Kofi’s presence; Kofi believes that Luke is an interference.

To suppress his feeling of inadequacy, Luke begins robbing banks with the assistance of a man named Robin (Ben Mendelsohn). Luke’s idea is to get enough money to support Romina and Jason, and hopefully push Kofi out of the picture. All seems to be going well with the first few robberies, but Luke becomes a bit overzealous as Robin warns him about the dangers of too much heat. Luke ignores him and trails off on his own, terrorizing banks until poor planning throws him in the path of rookie cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper).

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I’m stopping there with my synopsis. I have to. You’ll understand when you see this film. But make no mistake, this is not the end – not even close. While Luke is the main character – in the beginning – he merely builds a stage for a plethora of events to unfold. In essence, Luke is the silver pinball being propelled into a maze of complexity, setting off fireworks with every thing he touches, either physically or influentially.

The moment this film began, I knew I would like it. It has a seedy look that adheres itself to the darkest parts of our psyche. We are basically watching the more unfortunate versions of ourselves when we see Luke and Romina struggling. We know Luke will never go anywhere; in fact, his failures almost seem to be written ahead of him. But something inside of us roots for him over Kofi, even though Kofi is an honest man who treats everyone fairly. It doesn’t really make much sense logically, but perhaps we can always see more of ourselves in the underdog.

Most of the characters in this film grow up and unravel into other people. Jason gets older and begins to experience difficulty living in the real world, undoubtedly the result of his non-existent father and a mother that refuses to tell him the truth about things. Avery’s career takes off, though he clearly harbors many regrets that have spilled over into his life as a husband and father. Everyone here is like a Rubik’s cube, and their stories somehow intertwine to paint a portrait of the town that shaped their lives – Schenectady, New York – the place beyond the pines.

As performances go, Ryan Gosling was stellar. His character is so crippled by dysfunction that he hardly knows how to live day to day. His multiple tattoos and devil may care attitude represents a man who has given up on himself. He is an outcast, a leper in society, a transient, a strain on the system, a statistic, a dreamer too stubborn to dream in color. All that he has become is the result of his incapacity to change. Bradley Cooper also turns in a fine performance as a man who starts out shaky and transforms into a powerful and respected figure. He has such a grip on his career that he loses his grip on his family. Cooper’s Avery unfolds before us like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly.

This film is really well-directed and has the sensibilities of a Shakespearean tragedy. The title relates to the town itself because there is an underlying magnetism about the atmosphere. It is the kind of place notorious for trapping its residents, infamous for stunting personal growth. It is a vacuum that can diminish all hope in an impressionable person. I thoroughly enjoyed this story and urge everyone to support it as an independent effort that deserves to be seen with the same vigor as a major blockbuster.

Review: 42 (2013)

I consider myself an old baseball enthusiast. I’m a Babe Ruth fan mostly, but I’ve always had tremendous respect for Jackie Robinson. In an age where it was borderline criminal to be anything but white, Robinson courageously endured ridicule and heckling to overcome a racial divide that should never have existed in the first place. Nowadays, there are players of every ethnicity in professional sports. However, in Robinson’s time, prejudice kept African-Americans on one side and the white population on the other. Most people are familiar with Jackie Robinson enough to know that he opened the door to major league baseball for other players like Roy Campanella. Prior to that, the Negro leagues were a segregated man’s only hope to play the game. 42 follows Jackie Robinson’s transition from the Kansas City Monarchs to the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) is a popular player on the Monarchs, but known for his bravado and cockiness. Even in his earliest years, he exhibits signs of resistance to bigotry. While most of his teammates and contemporaries have accepted their “place” in the world, Robinson is continuously waiting to raise his fists for what he believes. It is an attitude that makes those around him uncomfortable, but Robinson’s refusal to undermine his importance as a human being is steadfast. In a gutsy move that rattles the foundation of baseball, team executive Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) decides that the color barrier has remained for long enough. Rickey makes up his mind to bring a Negro player to the Brooklyn Dodgers.  The prospects are many, but Rickey knows that the chosen player will undoubtedly suffer an endless stream of mockery and scorn. Additionally, Rickey is aware that if the player responds in kind, it will substantiate white America’s view of the black man as unruly and violent.

As expected, Robinson is not received well by white audiences. To make matters worse, his own teammates hate him and even draft a petition demanding to have him removed. Leaning on the support of his wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie), Robinson does his best to stay level-headed. Coupled with endless slurs is the ongoing threat to Robinson’s life. Nevertheless, increased showmanship on the field begins to turn the public’s hearts, and the first signs of tolerance begin to eclipse years of hatred.

Everyone knows that a biopic will have moments of embellishment. From a historical standpoint, I do not know enough about Jackie Robinson’s early career to criticize the accuracy of this film. However, I will say that other biopics are a good measuring stick for authenticity. 42 is a good film, but not the first to spotlight Robinson (Robinson starred in his own biopic in 1950: The Jackie Robinson Story). Still, it is interesting to see this story so many years after Robinson has been gone. What makes this film work is not only the wonderful job by lead actor Chadwick Boseman but effective direction by Brian Helgeland, who was also responsible for the screenplay of another 40’s piece: L.A. Confidential. To shed a bit more light on Boseman, I am very happy that Robinson was portrayed by an actor who actually resembles him. Often times, biopics are ruined because the wrong actors are chosen. Let’s not forget that Eric Roberts once played Al Capone.

The problem some people have with biopics is that they tend to be one-dimensional. The filmmakers usually have a direction in mind and follow it religiously. In other words, if they decide that the focus of the film is going to be Robinson’s heroic role in breaking the color barrier, then they probably won’t waver from that outline. As people, we know that no person is without faults and mistakes. Robinson was as much of a figure in the civil rights movement as Rosa Parks; however, some critics feel that complete historical accuracy requires the subject to be shown as they really were, rather than how the public has chosen to remember them. This doesn’t bother me because I don’t expect 100% accuracy. I like when films are accurate, but I know that those involved were probably not there for the real events. Even when filmmakers call upon the memories of people who knew the subject personally, I know that memories can change over the years. As long as it’s not a completely ridiculous portrayal (William Bendix as Babe Ruth anyone?), these types of films are usually done well.

42 has a great look. That, more than 100% accuracy, is a must for me. Having watched my share of 40’s films, I know what the era should look like. This film pulls the viewer into another time and holds them there for a while. So far, critics are agreeing that 42 is well-crafted and enjoyable. I will add one more recommendation to the pile. Go see this film in the theater. A larger-than-life man should not be seen any other way.

Review: Temptation (2013)

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I’m a bit torn about Tyler Perry’s latest offering, Temptation. It’s not that the film is altogether bad, though if you go by the horrific IMDB rating, you might think it pales beside every other film in history, including 1985’s They Don’t Cut the Grass Anymore (easily one of the worst things I have ever seen in my life). The issue here is multifaceted. Perry does a good enough job keeping us interested, but there are too many moments of incredulousness for the average viewer. At the very least, I couldn’t look the other way on most of these blunders; I was entertained, but irritated. It’s a hard thing to explain, but I’ll do my best.

Judith (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Brice (Lance Gross) are childhood sweethearts turned husband and wife who live a pretty ordinary life. Judith has ambitions of becoming a marriage counselor and spends her days racking up experience at a match-making company owned by a pretentious spitfire named Janice (Vanessa Williams). Meanwhile, Brice grinds it out daily as a local pharmacist. The drone of monotony has clearly overtaken Judith and Brice; their marriage is good, but boring.

Judith’s job suddenly crosses her path with Harley (Robbie Jones), a social media giant/millionaire who calls upon the agency to help him find a wife. Judith is all business at first, but soon realizes that Harley’s interest goes beyond a simple working relationship.

For this review, I’m opting to spend less time on the synopsis and more time on my analysis. What I’ve just described has probably been done twenty thousand times. This plot is not going to rouse your sensibilities and show you something you’ve never seen. I’m used to movies that rehash old ideas, and most times they work if there is a fresh angle or something else to keep me awake for two hours. What I found with Temptation is that the “angle” is too obvious. In the 80’s, the married woman would have been seduced by a rich playboy or a businessman with a Tom Selleck mustache; here, she is seduced by a rich businessman, but he does not work on Wall Street – he owns a social network. That kind of updating for today’s world is somewhat groan-worthy. It’s almost as if the screenwriters sat around a table and tried to think of the easiest way to slap a millionaire title on the “love” interest. When I think social media tycoon, I think Zuckerberg, and I can’t imagine any woman leaving her husband to wake up next to that face every day.

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The general consensus among women is that Lance Gross is a far better looking man than Robbie Jones. Despite the fact that both of them have David-worthy physiques, Gross elicited more gasps and grunts in my female-heavy audience than Jones did. That said, the casting here seems a little off-balance. If a married woman is going to abandon her relationship for a roll in the proverbial hay with someone else, at least make it believable. Was Shemar Moore too busy or something? What is Tyson Beckford doing these days? Robbie Jones did a fine job in his role and I am not criticizing his acting talent whatsoever, but I felt he was the wrong choice here.

The second problem I had with this film is that I ended up hating Judith’s character. It was clear that Perry meant for the audience to be sympathetic towards her, but halfway through the film, I had enough. For all intents and purposes, her husband was a good guy whose biggest faults were working too much and failing to drive a Ferrari on a pharmacist’s salary. Judith starts out as a conservative church mouse and quickly becomes a cheap, soul-selling diva. To add insult to injury, she purposely flaunts her new personality in Brice’s face. For men everywhere, I wanted to kick her down a flight of steps.

Lastly, the ending to Temptation is so laughable and ridiculous that I started looking around the theater for the candid camera crew. It took a finale that was supposed to be serious and turned it into a cartoon with an all-violin soundtrack. I literally could not believe my eyes as the credits rolled. I thought After School Specials were long gone.

Even though it might sound like you’d have a better time at the zoo, Temptation isn’t a lost cause. It does have its good qualities and it isn’t a dull film. The problem is that it sets itself up to be something that it fails to become. If I go to see a comedy, I expect to see one; if I’m there to see a political drama, I’m not interested in romance. In other words, Temptation was promoted as a steamy, new school Fatal Attraction and ended up like the episode of Saved by the Bell where Jessie gets hooked on caffeine pills. I just wanted more, and in that regard, I was disappointed. Still, there is entertainment in this film. My advice is to wait for the DVD.

Roger Ebert: 1942-2013