Chuck

May 27, 2017 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Liev Schreiber, Naomi Watts, Elizabeth Moss
Directed by: Philippe Falardeau (“The Good Lie”)
Written by: Jeff Feuerzeig (debut) and Jerry Stahl (“Bad Boys II”)

Even though its prominence and national interest has waned in favor of MMA in recent years, there seems to be an everlasting connection to the cinematic world and boxing. Perhaps it is because boxing has seen so many of its prominent figures rise and fall, which makes for a good narrative. Or, more likely, perhaps it is that “Rocky” set the bar for sports films so high that boxing films will always be timeless comparisons. It is fitting, perhaps, that the latest entry into the genre is a biopic of Chuck Wepner, the man who, allegedly, inspired Sylvester Stallone to write “Rocky.”

In 1975, boxer Chuck Wepner (Liev Schreiber) gets the opportunity of a life time: to fight the heavyweight champion of the World, Muhammed Ali. As a huge underdog, Wepner goes 15 rounds with Ali and is seconds away from going the distance. This performance turns Wepner into a local folk hero, and Wepner must do all he can to keep his family intact while turning down a path of drugs and women.

Without question, “Chuck” serves as a showcase for Schreiber who gives a fantastic performance. Wepner is a character who absorbs and loves the fame, as small scale as it is, but also has an acute awareness of the façade and showmanship that goes into it. Schreiber captures this quite well, especially in scenes where he must work his way through shame and guilt over his behavior. While the supporting cast is mostly good, nobody is on screen long enough to make much of a difference one way or another. Elizabeth Moss is probably the best of the bunch, and far-underutilized.

One of the more interesting aspects of “Chuck” is that the most formative event of Wepner’s life is a stepping stone to more story, rather than a climax. Wepner’s famous fight with Ali takes place relatively early on in the film with very little build up. It’s an admirable decision from screenwriters Jeff Feuerzeig and Jerry Stahl to not center the movie around that one big fight, as it may have come off as a biopic version of “Rocky.” Instead, it shows what happened in the wake, and the darker, self-destructive patterns of a man with very little self-control and the need to be admired.

That said, the movie still has some pretty generic moments. Once the debauchery starts, it’s no different than any other film where a person of prominence spirals into drugs, lets the fame get the best of them and alienates family. There’s some pretty good writing sprinkled throughout the film and the early parts of the film feature some true greatness. But “Chuck” punches itself out and staggers to the finish. Despite that, “Chuck” is still worth the price of admission for Schreiber’s excellent performance.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

May 9, 2013 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Liev Schreiber
Directed by: Mira Nair (“Amelia”)
Written by: William Wheeler (“The Hoax”)

Based on the New York Times bestselling novel, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” takes viewers into the past of Changez (Riz Ahmed), a Pakistani man who moves to the U.S. to go to Princeton and  chase the American dream. He rises to the top of a consulting firm where he is immediately take under the wing of Jim (Kiefer Sutherland), an executive who believes Changez has what it takes to thrive in the industry. After 9/11, however, things take a turn for the worst for Changez as he is met with new difficulties because of his nationality. Met with hostility from a country he loves, he soon finds himself at the center of a kidnapping. Sitting across from him is Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber), a reporter who wants to find out where Changez’s ideals lie.

The element that works best in “Fundamentalist” is Changez’s rise to prominence at his firm Underwood Samson. Changez is a natural at thinking critically and assessing values of companies, often reminded by Jim of his “gift.” Ahmed plays these scenes with a well-rounded, quiet confidence. In fact, Ahmed is easily the strongest part of the film. He shows not only the ability to anchor the story as the lead, but delivers a wide emotional range. The film also takes time to reminds its viewers of the uneasiness with foreigners (and especially those of Middle Eastern descent) that was held in America shortly after the 2001 attacks. Not only is he mistakenly arrested on the street, but when returning from an international flight, Changez is singled out, taken to a backroom and strip searched. It’s a touch ham-handed but director Mira Nair certainly gets her point across that racial profiling exists in this country.

Technically, the majority of the film takes place in flashbacks, which attempts to offer most of the intended tension for the film. The plot, however, becomes convoluted and the payoff is weak. Additionally, there is a subplot involving Changez and his girlfriend Erica (Kate Hudson) that don’t work. The romance (and the arguments) between these characters fail to ignite any passion or chemistry on the screen.

In the wake of the events of the Boston marathon bombings, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is likely to be a hot topic for debate. It’s anti-profiling themes can be taken several different ways, with its impact either strengthening or weakening depending on how one relates it to current events. Regardless, the film as a whole fails to muster up enough interest and wears out its welcome over its bloated 2-hour-plus run-time. It’s a nice display for Ahmed, who is likely new to American audiences, but doesn’t have enough substance to stand alone as a strong political thriller.

Salt

July 23, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Directed by: Phillip Noyce (“The Quiet American”)
Written by: Kurt Wimmer (“Law Abiding Citizen”)

It might be a studio’s biggest nightmare when a megastar like Tom Cruise drops out of your potential summer blockbuster, but when you’re able to secure someone with just as much celebrity power as Oscar winner Angelina Jolie, having to go back and rework the script to read “she” instead of “he” is a welcomed endeavor. (Yes, we realize there is probably much more to it than simply replacing pronouns, but it is well-received news nonetheless).

While screenwriter Kurt Wimmer (“Law Abiding Citizen,” “Street Kings”) was able to adjust his script according to gender for the film “Salt,” he doesn’t take the opportunity during the rewriting phase to fill in any of the plot holes or enhance some of the foolish dialogue. Despite its shortcomings, however, “Salt” is entertaining, unpredictable and a much-needed albeit moderate kick to the less-than-stellar mainstream summer action flick lineup. Even on that thinly-built frame of hers, Jolie can still carry a movie on her own.

When CIA officer Evelyn Salt (Jolie) is pegged as an undercover spy by a Russian defector, her escape from custody leads to lively foot chases, illogical assassination plots, and some terribly choreographed fight scenes. On her trail are her friend and colleague Ted Winter (Live Schreiber), who assumes she is innocent, and counter-intelligence officer Peabody (the always reliable Chiwetel Ejiofor), who does not.

The ambiguity of Evelyn’s character is what keeps the pace of the film at frenzied levels. It’s also what makes it so fun despite its number of implausible scenes. Still, it is nice to have a hero who isn’t tweaking on testosterone or afraid to break a nail. When Jolie is leaping off highways and onto the tops of semi-trucks it’s kind of hard not to pay attention.

Directed by Phillip Noyce, who is best known for a couple of those Harrison Ford-as-Jack Ryan flicks back in the 90s (his best work are his more dramatic films like “The Quiet American” and “Rabbit-Proof Fence”), “Salt” might feel like another Jason Bourne offering at times. But with Jolie taking the lead there is a distinctive dynamic that comes with featuring a female Hollywood sex symbol that can kick as much butt as the boys.

As far as ridiculous thrillers go, it’s highly unlikely the summer is going to produce anything with more flavor than “Salt.” But even if films like “The Expendables” or “Machete” do end up proving to be more enjoyable, there definitely won’t be a scene in either movie where Sylvester Stallone or Danny Trejo do what Jolie does and outmaneuvers their adversaries with a pair of panties.

Taking Woodstock

September 9, 2009 by  
Filed under CineStrays

Starring: Demitri Martin, Imelda Staunton, Emile Hirsch
Directed by: Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain”)
Written by: James Schamus (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”)

How director Ang Lee was able to turn the planning of such a momumental event in the history of music like Woodstock into something as exciting as the planning of a bar mitzvah is beyond comprehensible. Well, it actually starts with James Schamus’s detached screenplay and ends with actor Demitri Martin’s dull leading role as a small town Jewish guy who wants more out of life than working in the family business. Getting to see Lee’s version of an acid trip, however, is fairly interesting.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

May 8, 2009 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston
Directed by: Gavin Hood (“Rendition”)
Written by: David Benioff (“The Kite Runner”) and Skip Woods (“Swordfish”)

It’s no surprise 20th Century Fox wanted to start the new “X-Men Origins” series with the most popular character of the mutant group after the first three installments raked in more than 600 million in the U.S.

In “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” which is the first in more than likely a string of prequels to follow (“Magneto” is scheduled for 2011), Hugh Jackman reprises his role as the clawed-one. Director Gavin Hood (“Rendition”) takes us back to the beginning of the superhero’s life when he was a young, sickly boy struggling with the gift/curse with which he was born.

While the back story to Logan AKA Wolverine’s upbringing is noteworthy (we watch him and his half-brother Victor, who later becomes his nemesis Sabretooth, fight their way through years of war and suffering), the script soon stumbles onto an uninspired story of revenge. It’s a played-out theme that should have been left for its predecessors or at least built on a bit more securely.

When Logan turns his back on his unique capabilities and chooses to live his life in Canada as a normal human being with his wife, Victor (Liev Schreiber) gives him six years of freedom before coming to knock at his door and cause problems. Taking a page from “Watchmen,” Sabretooth is picking off his former mutant comrades and decides to punish Logan by killing his wife. (Cue the cliché aerial camera shot of a distraught Jackman screaming in the air as he holds his dead wife in his arms).

This prompts Logan to set out after his bro for revenge, but not before getting help from William Stryker (Danny Huston), the military man who unites the band of mutants at the beginning of the film to search for an indestructible material in Africa. This, of course, is the substance that is later injected into Logan to transform him into Marvel Comics’ icon Wolverine. The event is highlighted with Logan’s jagged claws turning into sleek alloy blades.

From here, the familiar Wolverine is born and begins his journey to find Sabretooth and destroy him. But not before screenwriters David Benioff (“The Kite Runner”) and Skip Woods (“Swordfish”) can introduce (or reintroduce) us to more mutants who, despite their massive following in the comic-book world, sort of bow out without doing much of anything. In essence, characters like Gamit (Taylor Kitsch), Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) and Agent Zero (David North), feel like trivial cameos amidst some astonishingly terrible special effects. (Hood might as well have left the actual green screen on the set during some scenes. The actors literally look like their running in a studio lot).

Nevertheless, it’s not only the technical flaws that make “Wolverine” so average and dull. Most of the finger-pointing should be directed toward Benioff and Woods for sticking to the safe route rather than giving audiences something they’ve never seen before. Sadly, “Wolverine” falls somewhere in the middle in terms of superhero cinema. It’s where most comic-based blockbusters that make millions go to be forgotten.

Defiance

December 28, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jaime Bell
Directed by: Edward Zwick (“Blood Diamond”)
Written by: Edward Zwick (“The Last Samurai”) and Clayton Frohman (“The Delinquents”)

British comedian Ricky Gervais might have been only kidding around during this year’s Golden Globe Awards ceremony when he told actress Kate Winslet that critical acclaim will always come when an actor stars in a Holocaust movie, but with the onslaught of films on the topic released last year, one or two of them were bound to miss the mark on historical captivation.

While Holocaust films like “The Reader” and “Valkyrie” produced fine material in their respected genre, others like “The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas” and “Defiance” do not hold interest for their entire runtimes. Although a true story like “Defiance” is an amazing anecdote on the surface, director/co-writer Edward Zwick has trouble creating an interesting community for his characters to thrive, which is basically the entire premise.

Actors Daniel Craig (“Quantum of Solace”), Live Schreiber (“The Manchurian Candidate”), and Jaime Bell (“King Kong”), play the Bielski brothers – Tuvia, Zus, and Asael – three Jews who escape Poland and hide out in the Belarussian forest for two years during World War II. There, the men create a “forest camp,” a makeshift society of other exiled Jews who are trekking through the woods to flee the Nazis. As their numbers grow, the Jewish survivors begin to form not only a new community to live in, but also a rebellion to fight back.

Adapted from the book “Defiance: The Bielski Partisans” by Nechama Tec, the idea that 1,200 Jews were able to evade death for two years is quite incredible and definitely a noteworthy chapter for any world history book. But as a film, Zwick and company horde the film’s characters into a tedious collection of one-dimensional throwaways in a talky and thematically unbalanced script. There’s no denying that “Defiance” is a film about bravery, but when the courageousness of an army is illustrated by how many soapbox speeches one can deliver, audiences can definitely count on an excessive waiting period before there is a satisfactory conclusion. It’s not until Zwick stops riding the break, however, when that actually happens.