Blood Father

August 12, 2016 by  
Filed under Brian, Reviews

Starring: Mel Gibson, Erin Moriarty, Diego Luna
Directed by: Jean-François Richet (“Assault on Precinct 13” [2005])
Written by: Peter Craig (“The Town”) and Andrea Berloff (“Straight Outta Compton”)

Setting aside for just a moment the strange and harrowing ways in which it happened, it remains something of a distinctly American cinematic tragedy that, beginning in 2006, the world lost anywhere from 4-10 years of potentially prime work from Mel Gibson, as big and exciting a movie star as ever there was. To date, comeback bids have (understandably) skewed dark, alternately recasting the twinkling-eyed, roguish hero of “Maverick” (man, remember “Maverick?!”) as a criminal (“Get the Gringo,” “Machete Kills,” “The Expendables 3”), a depressive alcoholic (“The Beaver”), or a man on a full-tilt, burn-the-world-down revenge-bender (“Edge of Darkness”).

Jean-François Richet’s “Blood Father” — based on co-screenwriter Peter Craig’s eponymous novel (which, in a striking bit of coincidence, was published less than five months before the infamous Malibu DUI arrest that more-or-less started this whole thing) — efficiently combo-wraps all three in the personage of John Link (Mel Gibson), a gruff, buff, bored ex-con and former Hell’s Angel who dutifully attends AA meetings and maintains his parole terms in the meager hopes of living out his remaining years on the outside. This middling goal is put into sudden and significant jeopardy, however, by a single, last-resort phone call from Link’s estranged and oft-drugged-up daughter Lydia (Erin Moriarty): Bad, bad dudes are after her for shooting her badder-dude, cartel-drug-runner boyfriend, and she needs a few grand to get lost. Unsure what to believe, he, nonetheless, scoops her up without hesitation — but when said dudes bring the hunt to his doorstep, Link fights back, old habits and reptilian brain function are dusted off, and the chase is on.

The driving premise and structure here aren’t especially new: It’s the same proven sensitive-and-charismatic-’90s-actor-turned-grizzled-vengeance-and-violence-machine formula that these days has “Field of Dreams”‘s Ray Kinsella slamming heads in car doors, say, or Oskar Schindler ramming faces with fire extinguishers. Movies, though, are so very often less about the “what” than the “how,” and it’s the “how” here that works — and works well. Very well, in fact.

I never saw “Edge of Darkness,” or Gibson’s turns in the “Expendables” or “Machete” franchises. The last time I saw the erstwhile Max Rockatansky in a theatrically released film, in fact, was 2011. But “The Beaver,” frankly, didn’t prepare me for “Blood Father,” one of the most unexpectedly kinetic, entertaining, limbically thrilling small action films I’ve seen in a long while. The action is sudden, hard, and impactful, the sort that raises eyebrows, widens eyes, crams your mouth into a tight, silent little “O.” The dialogue is clever, laced with satire, and sharply crafted, but not too much so; in spots, appropriately, it’s lightly reminiscent of Shane Black (which is almost always a good thing, in my book). It’s something akin to getting slammed about in the backseat of a leather-seated, steel-backed muscle car, and Gibson and Richel have a firm grip on the wheel. As Link, Gibson is in fine form: An introductory monologue feels a hair rushed or movie-ish, but thereafter he’s flawless. Regret; warmth; weariness; cockeyed humor; stubborn intensity; that familiar, mercurial spark — these pour forth in equal measure as he flits and swirls from one to the other as organically as ever, as organically as anyone ever has. Indeed, the film is bolstered by able, full performances: William H. Macy as a hoot of an AA sponsor, Michael Parks as a thinning but menacing former colleague. Erin Moriarty acquits herself well as Link’s troubled daughter, and provides an effective energetic and emotional counterpoint to Gibson’s heavy, leathered growl. The film, though, is Gibson’s to carry — and carry it he does.

Am I pushing the point here? Writing emotionally? Maybe. I mean, no: I genuinely think Gibson is excellent as Link; he brings to it what few, if any, could. But there’s something else at play. “Blood Father,” the first Gibson-led piece I’ve seen in a half-decade, both opens and salves a wound I’d long been burying, perhaps somewhat subconsciously: I, as a moviegoer, as an audience member, as a ’90s kid, have missed Mel Gibson. A lot.

In an era in which critics and commenters have lamented that the old-guard Movie Star is dead, it’s significant to be reminded what they look(ed) like. Gibson’s performance is great, but even more refreshing is the experience of being back in a story he’s leading me on, with all the quicksilver confidence, charisma, vulnerability, and impishness I remember so very well and so fondly. And it makes me happy, but sad, as well. As Link (and Gibson) intones, frankly and not-un-self-consciously, hands fidgeting with what appears to be a sobriety coin, during that opening AA monologue: “I did a lot of damage. Lost a lot of people along the way. … But you can’t be a prick all your life and then just say, ‘Never mind.’ You know. I can’t fix everything I broke. All I can do is not drink. So I won’t do that today.”

There’s a seeming mea culpa element to almost every role Gibson has played since 2006. By design, surely. He plays broken men, damaged men, “bad” men. In some ways, he always has, but it’s different now. Gone are the romantic leads, the lightheartedness. Gone are the “good guys with a little bit of damage in ’em, just enough to be fun.” “Blood Father,” at least, casts him as the antipode: “Fuck-up with a sliver of hope, looking for redemption.” “What Women Want” and “Bird on a Wire” seem far, far away.

I truly, truly don’t mean to minimize the pain that was caused by the real-world actions of Gibson the man. I truly do not. I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m doing so, and if it does, I’m sorry. It’s not at all my intention. Hurt is hurt is hurt; it should not be ignored or diminished. Nor do I mean to attempt to pass judgment in any way on a man I’ve never met. God help any of us who is judged publicly and/or primarily by anything but our best days. And even then. Certainly, like it or not, Gibson is giving it another shot: “The Professor and the Madman” casts him opposite Sean Penn in a long-gestating project based on a book subtitled “A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.” The “Apocalypto” helmer is back in the chair for the intriguing-looking “Hacksaw Ridge,” though the trailer gives him the Affleck treatment, eschewing his name in favor of “From the Academy-Award Winning Director of Braveheart.”

It’s been a long time. There are questions, and the easy answers aren’t easy.

All I know is I’ve missed Mel Gibson, the movie star, and “Blood Father” gave him back to me, for a short while. Thank you.

Straight Outta Compton

August 14, 2015 by  
Filed under Jerrod, Reviews

Starring: Jason Mitchell, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins
Directed by: F. Gary Gray (“Friday”)
Written by: Jonathan Herman (debut) and Andrea Berloff (“World Trade Center”)

I’m probably too young and too white and nerdy to have been into—or even aware of—gangsta rap group N.W.A. at the height of their fame in the early ‘90s. I was a “Weird Al” Yankovic and They Might Be Giants fan, and being from South Texas as opposed to South Central, the death of Selena Quintanilla was a bigger factor in my life than the death of Eazy-E was five days earlier in March of 1995. But since I’m a human being in the United States tuned in to pop culture, the last two decades have left me familiar with the notable surviving members of N.W.A., Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, from the former’s softening into a mildly annoyed family movie star to the latter’s rise to the ranks of billionaire after unleashing Snoop Dogg, Eminem, and Beats headphones into the world. Cube and Dre both serve as producers on “Straight Outta Compton,” a strikingly-good biopic on the rise of the “dangerous”  reality rap group and its late front man that roars out of the gate with ferocity until stalling in the home stretch as the two moguls paint their legacies on film in decidedly positive terms.

The opening shot of the film follows Eric “Eazy-E” Wright (Jason Mitchell) through a drug deal in 1986 Compton, a tense situation broken up by an LAPD tank-mounted battering ram destroying the drug house. E escapes by the skin of his teeth, and the movie moves on to O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson (O’Shea Jackson Jr., playing his own father) writing rhymes on the school bus as it’s hijacked by gangbangers who threaten the teenagers on board throwing gang signs out the window. Finally we’re introduced to Andre “Dr. Dre” Young (Corey Hawkins) grooving to R&B records on headphones, blissfully unaware that he’s missing a job interview set up by his mother, instead focusing on a DJ gig later at a nightclub where Dre plans on giving Ice Cube some time onstage to spit rhymes, much to the owner’s dismay. Realizing there may be a future in this rap game, Dre and Cube convince E to put up some of his drug money to record some songs. The track that gives the movie its title, “Straight Outta Compton,” is a mega-hit, attracting the attention of music manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who sends the group on the road to both superstardom and inter-personal conflicts over money and respect spanning nine years.

With a first third that’s uniformly excellent, featuring electrifying live performance recreations and “aha!” moments behind famous lyrics, it allows for the film’s flaws in the last hour and a half to be more easily overlooked. By the time Ice Cube goes solo, punctuated with a fantastic back-and-forth sequence set to Cube’s epic diss track “No Vaseline,” the movie gets too caught up in both the back and forth of contract disputes and touching on seminal moments in gangsta rap history, like how Dre met both Snoop Dogg (Keith Stanfield) and Tupac Shakur (Marcc Rose) and checking in on how Cube’s screenplay for “Friday” is coming along. The personalities of the surviving members feel a little sanitized, too, from the suspicious lack of drug use by a group fronted with drug money to the glossing over of real-life controversies like Cube’s anti-Semitism and Dre’s violence toward women. Only the character of Eazy-E gets any real conflict and nuance, probably only because he’s dead and has no million-dollar brand to protect (DJ Yella and MC Ren are firmly in “…and the rest” territory as far the movie is concerned).  But history is written by the winners, and the story we’re left with is a really great one.