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Conspiracy Theory (1997)
An Acid Trip of Truths, Half-Truths and Lies
I'm an admirer of Brian Helgeland's film work, and this original screenplay is my favorite of his (along with "42"). He's probably more noted for his adapted screenplays, e.g., "L.A. Confidential," "Payback," "Green Zone," "Blood Work," "Mystic River," etc., but those generally follow more predictable storylines.
This one may have a linear story path, but man, it throws in a lot of history and social/political commentary en route, taking us backward and forward, twisting and turning us, from dark avenues, sub-floors and dead ends, to green plains, sunny skies and doo-wop music. It's a psychedelic explosion of 20th-century American experience, and Director Richard Donner seamlessly captures and conveys it using New York city -- appropriately -- as his canvas.
The cast features Mel Gibson as Jerry Tucker, a guy trying to "put out a fire," in one of his best performances. Julia Roberts is excellent as Alice Sutton, a federal prosecutor driven to action by tragedy and love. Patrick Stewart is the mysterious villain Dr. Jonas, a Hippocratic-oath violator who builds CIA wet-work specialists and sets up fall guys. Along the way we see a lot of familiar faces that add character, spice and humor to the mix.
"Conspiracy Theory" is a fun and freakish trip.
The Report (2019)
Compelling, Worrisome, Timely
I found this movie riveting and well paced. Lead actor Adam Driver, even when his character nearly goes off the rails a couple of times, grounds the narrative and instills it (and us) with strength and certainty. Dan Jones' fight to do his job right and see it through is similar to what we're seeing now in Washington D.C.
When corruption, weakness and betrayal of our Constitution and common ideals become widespread in our political and government servants, we're fortunate that there remains a handful of principled and brave individuals who view public service and a free press as a responsibility, and carry out their duties in a manner consistent with respect for our country and for themselves.
As this film depicts, amoral people -- bereft of self respect -- will always find rationales and perverse justifications to engage in sociopathy. Doesn't matter the obstacle. They'll twist science, the law, the public trust, common sense and human decency to cover their hides and drain the public trough.
The truth eventually comes out and such people are exposed as the beastly hucksters they are. In the case of this film, much of the truth still hasn't come out, surely because the decisions, acts and people involved are so horrific that our representatives don't want us to know the extent of their betrayal.
But by protecting these monsters, by allowing them to remain in public service and even promoting some up the chain, our government essentially weakens our National Security. The self-compromised people it protects are the ones law-abiding Americans need protection from.
Lastly, I believe actors should choose their roles carefully. When playing a "bad guy," as Maura Tierney did in this film, if you can't find a way to uncover and reveal some redeeming quality in a character, then you shouldn't take the role. 'Cause you risk being reduced to a bit character actor in the future. There was nothing redeeming in Tierney's character. She played a human stain (actually an inhuman stain). I liked her before, but it'll be difficult to see her in any other light again.
For me, Mike Tyson's summary is the best: Sonny Liston was a Champion.
No matter what it took for him to get there, what unfathomable obstacles he had to endure and overcome, no matter the naysayers and institutional disadvantages, the rejections, hypocrisies, hangers-on and users, he earned the stature of Champion.
Gone too soon; questions about his end still lingering; speculations about his fights against Muhammad Ali -- it all makes for fascinating theorizing. But none of it can take away from the fact that Sonny Liston earned his Championship.
The Deer Hunter (1978)
Slaughter of the Innocents
As Mr. Cimino illustrates with elegant, rhapsodic flair, and with bare rawness, the story of life that we all live is more than brutal. It can be joyous and carefree, but also unpredictable and cruel. It throws us curveballs out of nowhere, subjects us to seismic upheavals that we often feel barely equipped to handle. Yet we have to plod through.
Add in the savagery and pointlessness of killing, of war, and the damage deepens exponentially. The path of destruction explodes, affecting everyone. Everybody suffers. There are no victors, only victims. The opportunity for grace and beauty becomes ever more elusive.
Hotel Artemis (2018)
Even Better on Repeat Viewing(s)
After "Hotel Artemis" and "Bad Times at the El Royale" hit the cable TV movie circuit, I checked them both out since they seemed similar.
There are huge differences, though. "El Royale" is ugly, squalid and unwatchable. I tried a few times but it is so morose, so unpleasant, so content to stew in its own vile filth, that I never wasted the time to watch it through.
"Artemis" is dark, but not seedy. It has much better dialogue, much better performances, much better chemistry among the actors. And though the arc of the story might not be grandiose -- the single location of the Hotel prevents that -- there's still enough backstory tied in to make the experience bigger than just what happens in the hotel.
Though I have no interest in watching Drew Pearce's "Hobbes & Shaw," it's evident here he knows how to work with actors. The key performances -- Jodie Foster, Dave Bautista, Sterling Brown, Charlie Day and Sofia Boutella -- are beautifully realized. And considering Jeff Goldblum character's effortless evil and delusional air of invincibility, it was utterly satisfying to watch him get his comeuppance.
In particular, Boutella's assassin (code-named "Nice") is one of hottest, most magnetic and compelling femme fatales I've seen in recent years.
Trouble Every Day (2001)
Creepy, Sick, Unredeeming
This is hardly far from being a gratuitous snuff film.
Some kind of link is suggested between erotica and animalistic violence, but the writers and photoplay opted not to probe the possible link, but instead to dive into a pool of blood and murder. More likely, the suggestion was simply a plot MacGuffin to trick the viewer into watching the scenes of unmitigated gore that follow.
Even though the screenplay moves back and forward in time, there was no explanation given for the brain research that might've shed some light on the causes for the brutality displayed by Gallo or Dalle's characters, or what exactly was the medical technology that Gallo stole from Leo, and why the research that he pilfered made no difference in his psychopathic fantasies and acts of commission.
Both Dalle and Gallo's film careers seem to have paralleled each other's; dark roles, people with dissociative conditions, and never any hope or illumination gained by them. This is an extreme version of "Betty Blue" in a way, also "Buffalo '66" -- without any eventual self-understanding or deliverance from evil.
Drive Angry (2011)
Creepy, Sub-Par Fantasy
This movie, this story, is a product of creepy & contrived conception. How anyone would spend a penny to fund it is incomprehensible.
Unless you're looking to satisfy a lowest-common-denominator connection among semi-evolved, mortally-wounded-by-medieval-dogma homo sapiens, drive quickly past this and don't give it a second glance in the rearview mirror.
Mortal Engines (2018)
Like a Live-Action Miyazaki Vision
Much of the visual look of this film reminds me of what you'd see in a Miyazaki animated film, like "Castle in the Sky." Incredible flying machines, a city in the sky, compelling heroes, heroines, robots & villains, capped off with epic battle scenes.
This film rises and sets on the strength of the lead character, Hester Shaw. And what an incredible heroine she is. Hera Hilmar hits all the right notes as Shaw, with believable energy, a tragic backstory, and an undying reserve of strength and resolve. Hester Shaw is a great character and Hilmar's performance is the main reason to watch this film.
I also enjoyed Jihae's performance as the Wanted Anna Fang, perhaps a bit contrived in terms of some of her dialogue, but her look and action sequences, and the key role she plays in Hester's journey, constitute an important element of the story.
Also, the imagery of St. Peter's Cathedral as a metaphor for deception, evil and destruction is ironic but hits a strong chord with me, especially in 2018/2019. And the idea of "London" as a predatory engine is equally ironic.
As a sci-fi/fantasy film, "Mortal Engines" combines beautiful live-action scenery and backgrounds with top-of-the-line 3D digital tech and compositing. There are a few instances where elements appear out of scale (particularly a couple of the flying shots), but overall this doesn't have a cheap, stitched-together, obvious-green-screen look like a lot of films that are heavy on the visual effects.
"Mortal Engines" is definitely worth a watch or two.
The Pelican Brief (1993)
Tone-Deaf Directing of Roberts Nearly Ruins Great Story
This is a heckuva compelling political thriller that remains relevant in 2019.
It's a great vehicle for Denzel, but the thing that irks me -- really irks me -- about this film is Alan Pakula's epic failure of directing vis-a-vis the Julia Roberts character, at critical points in the story.
On one hand, Darby Shaw is established early on as ambitious, daring, opinionated and fearless. But in the most important scenes that follow -- particularly her first meeting with Denzel's Grantham character -- I don't buy for one second her whispering, wilting, waif-like presentation. It's antithetical to the identity that was established. Sure, she was witness to, and almost victim of, brutal violence, but even though a person would surely be scared to death, her retreat into near-nothingness at these key plot points shows me that the director really didn't get his character or his actor.
Darby Shaw is in many ways a similar character to Robert's Alice Sutton in "Conspiracy Theory," admittedly years later when she'd matured as an actress and person, but the director of that picture (Richard Donner) handled her voice, presence and character far more expertly than Alan Pakula did here.
So, I would rate this a 6.5. Better than a 6 and not quite a 7, but since you can't do half-stars on IMDB, I have to knock it down to a 6.
Just Like Heaven (2005)
Reese Witherspoon = Non Simpatica
The engine that drives this wistful romantic comedy is Mark Ruffalo, as an actor and as a lead character.
"Just Like Heaven" is worth watching because of the journey of both his character and Reese Witherspoon's.
But the underlying truth that's inescapable, at least to me, is that Reese Witherspoon, sweet as she may seem, is just not that into Italian guys.
I'm strictly straight, preference-wise, but I think Mark Ruffalo is a heckuva sweet guy, a likable guy, a flawed guy and a magnetic guy. But I think I must have more feeling for him than Reese does. Or at least than she was able to muster up in this film.
Reese is just non simpatica when it comes to "ethnic" guys, I guess. If I were a producer, I'd let her stick to faux-elite white folks and live out her Barbie and Ken illusion in movie roles and real life.
Buckets of Blood
File this almost-classic revenge flick along with Denzel Washington's Robert McCall (The Equalizer) and Jackie Chan's Ngoc Minh Quan (The Foreigner) as recent narratives of bad guys getting their comeuppances from an unlikely hero(ine). Although for reasons explained, this one falls a little short of those two.
Jennifer Garner is great in this role, as she was when she played Elektra (2005), another female fighting hero. She has great range as an actress, from the physical to the dramatic to the tender, and is credibile in all her portrayals.
This movie gets knocked down a few stars for good reasons. Primarily, because as a revenge movie it's not graphic enough. Correction: it's extremely graphic when showing bad guys killing innocent people or kids, or making them witnesses to murders, but it does not satisfy the bestial bloodlust that's warranted when the tables are turned on the evildoers.
It's unfair to learn secondhand about the deaths of corrupt DA's, Attorneys and Judges, or see the aftermath of Mrs. North's revenge against her family's assailants. Why is it permissible to depict the graphic horror of her first-hand experience, but not show us how she exacts justice against those primarily responsible for her victimization?
This is the same mistake Francis Ford Copolla made in Godfather II (before the "Saga" version was shown on cable TV), leaving on the cutting room floor the justice meted out by Michael Corleone against his ex-bodyguard Fabrizio, or Vito Corleone's justice against the henchmen who murdered his family in Sicily. We are expected to assume that it happened, in the background somewhere. But all we are graphically reminded of is the horrors suffered by the lead characters.
This movie already has an "R" rating, so it wouldn't be gratuitous to show the other side of the coin. Mrs. North is a heroine because of what she does. Not to show the extent to which she went in order to balance the scales of justice is a fatal flaw.
The other confounding thing about this movie is the title. Nowhere is "Peppermint" mentioned. So I have no idea from whence it comes. It's not a nickname, not a code-name, not referred to by urban legend. It has no bearing on the movie.
But I still recommend this film. Bravo for Mrs. North, just like bravo for Jennifer Lopez' "Slim" in the movie "Enough" (2002). We need more women meting out justice in the movies.
Danny Collins (2015)
Coming to Grips - and Love - with Human Frailties
The real-life origin of this movie -- a long-lost personal letter written by John Lennon -- is sad but prescient.
Though not a "downer" by any means, in fact quite hopeful, the movie itself resonates a sadness and prescience regarding the human condition. Key performances by Al Pacino and Bobby Canavale, as the aging pop star and his beyond-estranged son, both dealing with issues of mortality, move the story forward compellingly and honestly.
Annette Bening plays a pivotal supporting role as the Hilton hotel manager who helps orient Pacino's life-reveling/life-squandering character toward the relationships and responsibilities that are most important, not only to his life and those connected to him, but also by extension to us, the viewer. Bening flawlessly executes her part with presence, tone, strength and credibility.
This is a mature film with a story that matters and wonderful casting and performances. Cinematically, it flows gently past the eyes and through the ears.
The Man Who Knew Too Little (1997)
One of Bill Murray's Funniest
After all these years, i'm still mystified as to how this comedy is under the radar when rating Bill Murray's noteworthy performances. It's one of his most hilarious; his timing is impeccable throughout.
Even though presented in an absurd light, the context of the movie is not far-fetched -- an unsuspecting buffoon stumbling into a world of rich, corrupted elites who seek to stoke the fires of global political instability. Using "The Theatre of Life" as the vehicle was clever and creative.
Aside from the top-notch casting featuring a long list of well-known British (& some U.S.) actors who deliver their roles perfectly, the writing is the other star here. That and seeing Joanne Whalley in her prime.
The only reason I knocked off a star was because of the very ending as the credits roll, in which Wallace Ritchie "workshops" the company agents in the sand. That was a little much. Otherwise, this farce had me laughing so hard my gut ached.
October Sky (1999)
A Beautiful, Uplifting Movie
I've watched "October Sky" dozens of times since its release, and it never fails to move me, both viscerally and intellectually.
It's a movie that succeeds on so many levels. Terrific casting & acting (Jake Gyllenhaall is fantastic, Chris Cooper is too, and Laura Dern is radiant), spot-on production design, elegant cinematography & editing, and a wonderful musical score & soundtrack. Not to mention the adapted screenplay that touches on themes common to men, women, boys and girls across nations, ages and generations. And Joe Johnston's directing is pitch-perfect and ideally paced.
I highly recommend this movie. Watch it with your family, with a loved one or alone.
The Missing (2003)
You want to root for this film, but even a star-studded cast & noted director can't overcome bad writing, often stupid acting by side characters (a sign of the director's shortcomings working with actors), and one disappointing plot sequence after another.
the suspense element in this film is on par with a teenage mad-slasher movie.
Pass on this film.
Up for a bet? I'll take "Satan's Bunghole" over "Two-Slice Hilly" any day.
Diseth will overcome his moniker sooner than Howard does hers.
The Black Godfather (2019)
Fascinating Bio of a True American Hero
I prefer people like Clarence Avant. The guy behind the scenes. Or, as David Mamet so humorously wrote in "Things Change," "the guy behind the guy behind the guy." I prefer him much more so than the preening, pompous fools who try to overcompensate for their fatal personal insecurities by putting on facades of arrogance and boisterous self importance; posturing from their bully pulpits.
After watching this incredible documentary, the only criticism I have of Mr. Avant is his more-than-once stated desire to have the kind of money or influence (not sure he said that word specifically) of Warren Buffet or Bill Gates.
The issue I have is that, unlike Clarence Avant, neither Warren Buffet nor Bill Gates would do one damn thing for anybody else or give one damn penny to anyone else if it didn't put money back into their pockets or provide them with acclaim, by direct or indirect means.
Avant is a selfless man. A member of the human family to all. Those SOB's he mentioned in an aspirational regard are, to me, selfish, isolationist, territorial savages.
In the Valley of Elah (2007)
Of Flags and Monsters
To me, this story, the acting, the directing, the tone, the overall synthesis, are models of restraint. No need to hyper-accentuate brutality, man's depravity or the shattering of human lives.
Beyond the particulars of this story and its characters, "In the Valley of Elah" underscores a sorrowful and fundamental certainty: There are no "winners" or "victors" in war. All sides are equally devastated. No one escapes the death and torment. The destruction is total and the trauma everlasting.
Jurassic Park (1993)
Exhibits the Worst Traits of "Filmmaking"
A potentially interesting concept flushed down the tubes thanks to circus-tricks directing, over-acting music, bubble-gum acting and juvenile visual effects.
don't waste two hours of your life on this. it will leave you with a permanent limp.
The Guru (2002)
Smart & Funny
"The Guru" is a clever contemporary take on a well-worn theme, à la "Sweet Charity," "Nights of Cabiria," and scores of others, i.e., a "woman of the night" with a heart of gold.
Wonderfully cast. Heather Graham, Jimi Mistry, Marisa Tomei & several others strike the perfect tone. There are many familiar faces in minor roles. Michael McKean has a knack for satiric comedy, as here. I prefer him in roles like this, like his old HBO series "Dream On," and in Rob Reiner's "This is Spinal Tap" rather than his dark character Chuck in "Better Call Saul."
Also welcome & unexpected is the pairing of Dash Mihok (a far cry from his punk thug role in "Sleepers") and Bobby Canavale, as Rusty and his beloved second hose man on the Fire Department engine.
In addition to the feel-good music (both U.S. and Indian pop) and excellent choreography, the lasting impression I have of "The Guru" is the warm chemistry between Heather Graham and Jimi Mistry. And Marisa Tomei nails it, as always.
This lighthearted, witty and heartwarming romantic comedy is a lot of fun.
I've enjoyed this movie for decades, but on a recent re-viewing, it occurred to me that the visual allusion at the end is that Michelle's body was disposed of in the refuse truck in front of Walker's vehicle, and then drives away into the distance.
Anyone else make that connection? Such an act seems counter to Walker's instincts and downright cruel, but I don't see how the ending shots could be seen any differently. Or why Polanski would choose those shots if they weren't telling us exactly that.
Another interpretation would be welcomed, as this would be a gruesome fate if it were true, especially since without Michelle, Sondra would never have been found.
Better Call Saul (2015)
The Curious Case of Kimberly Wexler
Having watched Seasons 1-4 of this show from beginning to end multiple times, what puzzles me most is the character Kim Wexler. The writers and storylines have given us only a hint at what makes her tick.
Professionally, we know her as driven, intelligent, sober minded, independent, emotionally measured. The only times we've seen her ecstatic (besides landing Mesa Verde) have been when she's morphed into "Slippin' Kimmy." Actually, those are the only times we've seen her orgasmic. She & Jimmy have had sex only after they've pulled shenanigans.
For me, one of the most evocative scenes of Kim was when Jimmy left her a voicemail, singing "Bali Hai.". Listening to his message, her eyes conveyed dreamy, longed-for happiness as he sang, "Here am I, your special island."
All we've been told about her pre-show personal life is that she's from a nowhere town on the Kansas/Nebraska border; that she played golf since there was nothing else to do, and if she hadn't gotten out of there she'd have married the guy who ran the local gas station and would've spent her career working at the Hinky-Dinky food market.
But that's not much of an insight into what draws her to Jimmy. By contrast, we totally get the context of James McGill, who he is and how and why he became that way. It's unfair that his main foil in this show (besides Chuck) is still a mystery to us.
Maybe the writers are slowly discovering this themselves. Her partnering with Rich Schweikart in order to pursue her increasing interest in public defender work is a possible breadcrumb. But it may be a false flag. Or a half-baked stab at contextualization. The point is: Kim knows why she loves Jimmy. But we don't.
I just hope we find out about the real Kim Wexler before the portending loss and heartbreak shake us.
Better Call Saul: Sunk Costs (2017)
The Many Dangers of Junk Food
We've encountered the junk food eating Deputy DA Bill Oakley character several times in this Show. I know many acting professionals can overcome the stigma of being typecast, but I wonder if Peter Diseth (or anyone) can ever rise above, much less outlive, the dubious honor of being known as "Satan's Bunghole."
I can't imagine trying to crawl out from that dark comedy of a writer's imagination. But I see from his IMDB photo that Mr. Diseth now has a beard. That's gotta be, at a minimum, a good start.
Better Call Saul: Cobbler (2016)
Rabelais, West of the Rockies
I'd never heard of a "Chicago Sunroof" until Peter Gould soft-served the truth about it, most vividly, in the Season One Finale recounting Jimmy's misadventures at the Dairy Queen in Cicero, Ill. So I wonder if Gould also had a hand in the euphemisms offered up in this episode.
If not, then Gennifer Hutchison has a serious Rabelaisian streak running through her writing veins. Hoboken Squat Cobbler; Full Moon Moon Pie; Boston Cream Splat; Simple Simon, the Ass Man; Dutch Apple Ass; Crybaby Squats; Hellmann's Mayonnaise with a different name west of the Rockies. Every time I watch this episode I laugh so hard my gut aches.
But amid the hilarity, Hutchison doesn't lose sight of the story. Once Jimmy-- quite naturally--falls prey to the "tiny hanging chad" (legally speaking), the focus of relationships and storyline momentum sharpens. Fun gives way to serious. The transition is brilliantly handled.
This Episode is another example of excellent writing, and of stellar delivery by Bob Odenkirk, the biggest factors behind this show's success.
Better Call Saul: Five-O (2015)
Throughout this show's Four Seasons, there've been many moving episodes, many moving sequences, many memorable ups and downs. But every time I watch this particular episode, it still sends chills up my spine.
Not only because it's the fullest exhibition of Jonathan Banks' wonderful acting skills in Better Call Saul, but also for the key underlying themes it highlights, most notably the grave responsibilities of parenthood, of fatherhood, of fostering and ensuring your child's dignity. To betray that ultimate responsibility and trust invites the saddest and most brutal of consequences.
Kerry Condon has made the most of her appearances on this show. Of course she's been given great dialogue and scriptwriting through which to tell her character Stacey's story, but of all the side characters we've seen come through the BCS storyline, she is one of the anchors. So dependable. Her commitment to this character, I also feel it in my bones. She is a tremendous talent.
Gordon Smith is credited as writer of this episode. However many other writers were involved, his name is listed. So I salute him for his great work here.