Out of the Furnace

December 6, 2013 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck
Directed by: Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”)
Written by: Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”) and Brad Ingelsby (“The Dynamiter”)

For a film that boasts a principal cast of five previous Oscar nominees, as well as a recently lauded writer/director, “Out of the Furnace” struggles to put the pieces together and proves that, as cliché as it sounds, the whole really isn’t always greater than the sum of its parts.

“Out of the Furnace” focuses on two brothers living out in the economically-suffering U.S. Rust Belt. Russell (Christian Bale) is a hard-working steel mill worker who is focused on his relationship and taking care of his family. His brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) is a soldier who has spent time in Iraq and finds himself in a massive gambling debt. As Rodney looks to settle his debt through underground bare-knuckle fighting, he mysteriously disappears. With little help from the police, Russell sets out to take matters into his own hands.

The big draw of “Out of the Furnace” is its previously mentioned impressive cast of Bale and Affleck as well as Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe and Forest Whitaker. As the main focus of the film, the best of the cast is Bale. His performance is strong, most notably in his scenes with Affleck as well as a couple of scenes with actress Zoe Saldana who plays his girlfriend. While Harrelson’s performance in itself is quite good, his villainous character is written somewhat hokey and over the top.

Since the narrative jumps around so frequently, many of the other cast members don’t really get a chance to shine in their roles. In fact, the lack of a narrative focus is one of the reasons that “Out of the Furnace” fails from a storytelling perspective. Not only is the plot wafer thin, but there are parallel narratives and thematic elements that don’t seem to ever sync up or fully connect. There are also plot points that happen throughout the film that seem important, but prove to be relatively and frustratingly inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.

Most of the first half of “Out of the Furnace” is spent waiting for the film to get going, which never truly happens. The film often feels stuck and by the end, incomplete. There are a few things to like: the cinematography is well done and there are a few scenes from world-class actors that are worth a watch. But as a complete work, “Out of the Furnace” lacks the finesse and construction of a well put together film.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler

August 16, 2013 by  
Filed under Uncategorized

Starring: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr.
Written by: Danny Strong (HBO’s “Game Change”)
Directed by: Lee Daniels (“Precious”)

The portrayal of African Americans in a domestic capacity in cinema over the last 75 years has been a sensitive one to say the least. From Hattie McDaniel’s Academy Award-winning role as a house servant in 1939’s “Gone with the Wind” to actress Octavia Spencer receiving the same accolades playing a civil-rights era maid in “The Help” two years ago, debate continues on whether or not these subservient characters should even be depicted anymore. “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” an ambitious biopic detailing the life of a White House butler over the course of eight presidencies, proves that they should. While the film is far from flawless, it’s one that takes pride in its narrative and succeeds in dignifying an occupation deemed stereotypical by some. With Oscar winner Forest Whitaker (“The Last King of Scotland”) fully embracing the project and an impressive ensemble cast that brings to life America’s dark racist past, “The Butler” is significant.

Whitaker is at top form as Cecile Gaines, a character based on real-life White House butler Eugene Allen whose 34-year tenure at the White House saw him rise from a “pantry man” at the end of the Truman presidency to his retirement as maitre d’ for President Ronald Regan. Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong (HBO’s “Game Change”) may take many creative liberties with Allen’s story, but it’s never lacking in heart. The script does skim across history at times, but the civil rights movement itself is incorporated extremely well and reveals the most powerful scenes of the film. As Cecile’s militant son Louis, actor David Oyelowo (“Lincoln”) is especially noteworthy. The comeback of Oprah Winfrey to the big screen in a live-action film after 15 years (she plays Cecile’s wife Gloria) might be attracting all the headlines, but it is Oyelowo’s turn as an activist who butts heads with his father that deserves the most attention. One scene in particular where Louis and Cecile argue about the legitimacy of acclaimed actor Sidney Poitier  will go down as one of the best of the year.

Emotionally effective and intensified strongly by issues of the era, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” benefits from its talent in front of the camera and Daniels’ acceptance of what this film is not. It’s not trying to be as impactful as something like “Mississippi Burning” or (ironically) “In the Heat of the Night,” but as a human-interest story with some of those elements, the material practically writes itself.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler

August 16, 2013 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr.
Written by: Danny Strong (HBO’s “Game Change”)
Directed by: Lee Daniels (“Precious”)

An effective drama led by a star-studded cast, “The Butler” shows the history, struggles, and triumphs of the civil rights movement through the lifespan of a White House butler.

After growing up on a cotton field where his father was killed and mother was sexually assaulted, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) grows up and decides he wants more out of life. After impressing the right people while serving drinks at a fancy hotel, Gaines is hired to be a butler at the White House. Though he loves his job, family life isn’t always easy with his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) upset with him always being gone and his son Louis, (David Oyelowo) a civil rights activist, embarrassed of his fathers’ profession. Through the years as butler under several presidencies, the film chronicles the struggles of African Americans not only in the White House, but across the South in their fight for civil rights.

The film serves as a nice return to form for Whitaker, who has been far from critical praise since his Best Actor Oscar win in 2006. He is able to give life to his age-spanning character and does so with great personality. Much will be made of Winfrey’s return to acting, though her role was simply average in the grand scheme of things. The rest of the film is rounded out by a rather large list of supporting actors, the best of which is Oyelowo. He does a great job of butting heads with Whitaker, proving to be the strongest character relationship in the film. Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz are also standouts from the cast, providing the comic relief in the film. As impressive as the list of presidents is, none of them truly make a lasting impact other than very brief moments of decent impersonations.

The decision to make the film essentially a journey through the civil rights movement using Gaines’ tenure as a butler through multiple presidential administrations as a framing device is largely a successful one. Through this format, Daniels is able to tell a few stories at once, balancing between the historical facts of the civil rights movement and a struggle between a father and son. The latter plotline, which is entirely fabricated compared to the real life story of Eugene Allen, is where the film cannot avoid stepping into melodrama. While the relationship between Gaines and his son Louis is executed nicely, it is far too convenient to create a character that just so happens to be at multiple events through the civil rights era.

Through interviews, it has been clear that Daniels had to tone down “The Butler” in order to secure a PG-13 rating. It’s especially clear in the film, as the audio jarringly drops out of a couple of scenes including during the punch line of a joke from Gooding, Jr. and an f-bomb or two. It’s understandable, considering how much more difficult it is to get an R-rated film out to a wide audience, but perhaps it would have been preferable for Daniels to be unflinching with a film that covers the ugliness of the civil rights movement.

Much of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” teeters the line of hokey, Oscar-baiting moments and legitimately intriguing storytelling and an accurate portrayal of the struggles of black Americans. Daniels takes liberties with the real life story of Allen to inject more drama into his film, but is surprisingly able to bring in the reigns and tap dance around melodrama for the most part. For every moment that feels contrived, there is another that is earned, and through the strength of its more powerful moments and excellent ensemble performance “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” prospers.

The Last Stand

January 19, 2013 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Forest Whitaker, Johnny Knoxville
Directed by: Kim Ji-Woon (“I Saw The Devil”)
Written by: Andrew Knauer (debut)

After spending eight years as the Governor of California, action-star Arnold Schwarzenegger returns to the big screen in “The Last Stand.” When a dangerous druglord escapes the custody of the FBI during transportation, he devises a plot to escape to the US/Mexico border through the quiet, small town of Summerton Junction. When former LAPD cop and current Sherriff Ray Owens (Schwarzenegger) finds out, he decides to round up a small team and do everything he can to stop the dangerous criminal.

Schwarzenegger returns to the screen with the type of charisma that made him a bonafide action star in the 80s and 90s. Of course, with that comes unintelligible lines and some very poorly acted scenes, but that is ultimately part of the package and really the charm of his performances. The cast is rounded out with a few comedic actors to wedge between the violence. Luis Guzman and Johnny Knoxville both get a few decent one-liners out but don’t really add much to the film overall.

In his previous Korean films, most notably in “The Good, the Bad, the Weird,” director Kim Ji-Woon has shown a great knack for constructing unique and exceedingly entertaining action sequences. In his American debut, Ji-Woon sticks mostly to car chases, flying bullets and blood spray. While a few scenes of excessive violence are amusing, the amount of action and pure fun never quite reaches the levels seen in previous films. In fact, the mayhem is pretty standard fare when compared to his other projects.

The introduction of the “escaped fugitive” plot is where the film begins to lose steam. What is supposed to be a captivating creative action sequence is actually quite boring. From here, the film begins to become stale. Bad plots, (complete with massive holes), bad dialogue, and even a few scenes of shoehorned and inauthentic emotion plague most of the movie. The final showdown of the film, while the best part of the movie, is also ultimately a let down.

With his rising age and lack of acting chops, it will be interesting to see where Schwarzenegger’s career will go from here. “The Last Stand” wears out it’s jokes at the expense of Arnold’s age, so any forthcoming reference in other films will be immediately passé. While “The Last Stand” delivers on its promise of gunfire and explosions, it does so in unimpressive and unmemorable fashion. While Schwarzenegger’s presence is entertaining, the story just isn’t interesting enough.

Repo Men

March 20, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Jude Law, Forest Whitaker, Alice Braga
Directed by: Miguel Sapochnik (debut)
Written by: Eric Garcia (debut) and Garrett Lerner (debut)

While the premise for the sci-fi thriller “Repo Men” is an interesting one, first-time director Miguel Sapochnik and first-time screenwriters Eric Garcia and Garret Lerner lose all enthusiasm once the set-up is complete. What occurs after that is unfortunate as the narrative careens into awkward tonal changes, misguided storytelling, and scenes of ultra violence utilized to kick-start the moments of banality.

In the dystopian “Repo Men,” people in need of a transplant for an organ or other body part no long have to wait years to reach the top of a donor list. For a small fortune, patients can finance anything from an artificial lung to a pair of eyes or ears. Need a new liver? Five hundred thousand dollars should cover it.

Headed by an organization known as the Union, signing on the dotted line and going under the knife to survive is easy for people desperate enough and willing to go into major debt. It’s just a matter of time, however, when a bill goes unpaid and the Union sends out repo men to reclaim what patients can no longer afford.

Jude Law and Forest Whitaker play Remy and Jake, two longtime friends who are the best repo men in the company. Slick with their scalpels, Remy and Jake can slide into a high-tense situation and get things done without much commotion. While both love their jobs, Remy is seriously thinking about joining the sales team so he can spend more time with his family. Plans change after he is injured during a mission and wakes up in a hospital in need of a heart transplant himself.

After the operation, Remy grows a conscience and can no longer do the job he once enjoyed. To make matters worse, he has fallen behind on payments, which prompts Union leader Frank (Liev Schreiber) to send Jake out to play surgeon with his friend. Why the Union can’t make an exception for Remy especially since he is the top repo man they have is beyond comprehension, but there are far too many oversights to just wag your finger at just one.

At this point, Jake has teamed up with Beth (Alice Braga), a woman whose entire body has basically been reconstructed with artificial parts. During their love scene, you’ll scoff as Remy passionately kisses her while trying to piece her back together. While the film is going for dark and twisted like “Crash” (not the overrated 2004 movie about racism in L.A., but director David Cronenberg’s 1996 trippy one about people who find car crashes sexually stimulating), it comes off as laughable instead.

Full of nonsensical ideas and plot holes that will only be ignored by audiences looking for cheap action thrills ripped off from movies like “Old Boy,” “Repo Men” doesn’t have much to fall back on once the blood dries up.

Our Family Wedding

March 12, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: America Ferrera, Forest Whitaker, Carlos Mencia
Directed by: Rick Famuyiwa (“Brown Sugar”)
Written by: Wayne Conley (“King’s Ransom”), Malcolm Spellman (debut), Rick Famuyiwa (“Brown Sugar”)

Movies featuring racially diverse casts and themes are hard to come by these days (unless you’re rubbing elbows with the overrated brand name known as Tyler Perry). But if future projects aimed at underrepresented minorities are anything like the grating “Our Family Wedding,” studios should keep them tucked away at least until George Lopez’s dubious “Speedy Gonzalez” idea comes to fruition.

Not only are the distasteful stereotypes what make “Wedding” a chore to sit through, director and co-writer Rick Famuyiwa (“Brown Sugar”) just doesn’t have the comedic chops to deliver entertaining material for an entire feature film. While a goat hopped up on Viagra is the unfunny low point of the movie, “Wedding” sinks close to that level before and after the farm animal starts dry-humping Forest Whitaker in the bathroom.

Using the same structure as 2005’s “Guess Who” (a less than stellar remake of the Oscar winning 1967 film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”), the film follows two families as they prepare for a big wedding celebration for their son and daughter.

Lucia Ramirez (America Ferrera) and Marcus Boyd (Lance Gross) may be in love, but that doesn’t mean their dads have to like each other. The animosity between father of the bride Miguel (Carlos Mencia) and father of the groom Marcus (Whitaker) begins when Miguel, the owner of an auto repair shop, impounds Marcus’s sports car and exchanges verbal jabs with his daughter’s future father-in-law even before he knows who he is.

The set up is a tired one. Most of the jokes play the race card without remorse and each one is less amusing than the last. When Lucia and Marcus break the news to their families about their interracial relationship, no one bothers to tell Lucia’s grandmother (Lupe Ontiveros) who falls over when she sees a black man walk into her kitchen. The racial profiling continues as Miguel calls Marcus “bro’” and Marcus retorts with “hombre.” The families bicker and clash about wedding traditions, culture, and religion while Lucia and Marcus stand idly by having claimed a nonsensical mantra to help them get through the weeks before the big day: “Our marriage, their wedding.”

Directed gracelessly by Famuyiwa, “Our Family Wedding” is an unfortunate mess of a movie that skips all the tender moments and authentic family ordeals for dull slapstick comedy and ham-fisted put-downs. If you’re looking for something as endearing as “Father of the Bride,” you’ve come to the wrong ceremony.

Forest Whitaker belts out Dick in a Box

June 1, 2009 by  
Filed under CineBlog

While I may loathe the MTV Movie Awards as an actual awards show, I do love watching actors do things we normally wouldn’t see them do. Sacha Baron Cohen may have shocked audiences when he shoved his bare ass in Eminem’s face at last night’s show (the rapper was pissed!), and Andy Samberg’s “Dracula”/”Teen Wolf”/”Twilight” fake trailer was hilarious, but we expect things like that from those comedians. See Samberg below:

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What no one expected, however, was Oscar winner Forest Whitaker (“The Last King of Scotland”) coming out to sing “Dick in a Box,” which was first popularized by one of Samberg “Saturday Night Live” digital shorts that he performed with Justin Timberlake. Since Daniel Day-Lewis’s next film is Rob Marshall’s “Nine,” I dare the two-time Oscar winner to come out and perform Samberg’s “Jizz in My Pants” to promote the musical.

See the performance at the 1:32 mark below.

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Street Kings

April 5, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Forest Whitaker, Hugh Laurie
Directed by: David Ayer (“Harsh Times”)
Written by: James Ellroy (“L.A. Confidential”), Kurt Wimmer (“Ultraviolet”), Jaime Moss (debut)

If the name David Ayer is anywhere in a film’s credits, it would probably be safe to say the theme of the movie is going to revolve around corrupt cops. In his new film “Street Kings,” the director hands over the writing responsibilities (even after he did such a great job with 2005’s “Harsh Times”) to a trio of screenwriters who fail to understand the meaning of multilayered characters.

In the last seven years as a writer, Ayer has given us “Training Day,” “Dark Blue,” “S.W.A.T.” and “Harsh Times,” the last of which he was credited as both a screenwriter and first-time director. Now, in his sophomore film, Ayer’s lands some solid punches with the boys in blue, but doesn’t give us enough depth from the main and supporting characters. In “Training Day,” he transformed Denzel Washington into a crooked LAPD detective, a role which landed him his second Academy Award of his career. He also gave us an incredibly unique character study with Christian Bale as an ex-Ranger turned police officer in “Harsh Times,” one of the most overlooked performances of that year.

In “Street Kings,” the story follows LAPD vice detective Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves, who has come along way in the acting department since hamming it up most of his career), a trigger-happy cop whose on the right side of the law, but likes to do his job more like a renegade instead of a police officer. Think Russell Crowe’s Bud White in “L.A. Confidential,” which was also written by James Ellroy. Basically, he’s the jury, judge, and executioner.

When Tom uses his brute techniques to wipe out a couple of Korean kidnappers, he is thrust into the L.A. limelight as a heroic cop moving up in the ranks. Although his commanding officer Capt. Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker) likes the way he does his job, others, like Tom’s former partner Terrance Washington (Terry Crews), let internal affairs know there’s a guy on the force that isn’t exactly on the up and up. Now internal affairs officer Capt. James Biggs (Hugh Laurie) is watching Tom’s every move, which, of course, makes Tom want to confront his ex-partner for ratting him out.

During the confrontation, which takes place in a local convenient store, Tom and Terrance find themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time as they are ambushed by two masked gunmen who fill Officer Washington’s body with machine-gun ammo before Tom even knows what’s happening. But with the history between the two officers, Tom isn’t in the most ideal place, especially with Capt. Biggs asking questions.

Capt. Wander and the rest of the department, however, quickly step in to clean up the mess. “We can’t afford to lose you,” Wander tells Tom. “You’re the tip of the spear. Who’s going to hold back the animals?” Thus, corruption begets corruption and so on as Tom attempts to steer clear of Capt. Biggs and search for Terrance’s killers.

Unintentionally funny at times, “Street Kings” is a complex story with unrefined characters. With an entire cast basically playing bad or dishonest cops, there’s no real sense of conflict even between the cops and the thugs in the ghetto. And what fun can be had when everyone is on the same team? Even with semiautomatics, the story sputters in the film’s final anticlimactic act and quickly turns from complex to comical.

Vantage Point

February 20, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Dennis Quaid, Matthew Fox, Forest Whitaker
Directed by: Pete Travis (debut)
Written by: Barry Levy (debut)

Car salesmen. Reality TV show producers. Toothbrush designers. These are some of the only people that can get away with having a gimmick run their livelihood. Unfortunately, for their first time out of the gate, director Pete Travis and screenwriter Barry Levy throw all their energy into technique and forget about fundamentals.

Just in time for more presidential primaries, “Vantage Point” follows the attempted assassination of the U.S. President (William Hurt) during an international counter-terrorist assembly in Spain. Although it might seem like a full-length feature in theory, “Vantage Point” is actually about a 15-minute film told from the point of view of five separate people.

One of these characters is Thomas Barnes (Quaid), a Secret Service agent recently back on duty after taking a bullet for the President only six months prior. As cliché as cliché gets, Tom blames himself for the attempted murder of the Commander in Chief and questions whether or not he is ready to return to the line of duty (Quaid’s shifty eyes do most of the talking at this point).

Then there’s Howard Lewis (Whitaker), a bystander at the political gathering who is videotaping everything as the events unfold. But not even the all-powerful digital camera can catch all that is happening in this grassy-knoll-of-a-script. Secondary storylines weigh in on the conventional plot but become blurred as Levy repeats the scenario by rewinding to the beginning. It’s not clever, has been done before and in a much viewer-friendly way, and bets everything on a payoff that turns out to be a yawner.

An insane amount of time is wasted introducing us to would-be assassins when the actual assassination becomes insignificant midway through. As the web of characters gets thicker, it’s harder to feel any sense of mystery or how tense these individuals should actually be. Instead, the film is sliced and diced into an unrecognizable mess and then somehow devolves into a panicky car chase lead by an indestructible Quaid (who would have known the guy can Tokyo drift?)

Although the interweaving tricks may bring you to think of such films as “Run Lola Run” (a film that does it right) or “Timecode” (a film that does it wrong), “Vantage Point” is stale entertainment any which way you cut it. Trying to piece the thing together is like working on a puzzle where the finished product is a picture of a cloudy sky. It’ll get done sooner or later, but how dull is getting there and the outcome?