Spare Parts

January 16, 2015 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Carlos PenaVega, George Lopez, Marisa Tomei
Directed by: Sean McNamara (“Soul Surfer”)
Written by: Elissa Matsueda (debut)

While Lions Gate Entertainment’s heart was in the right place when the company created Pantelion Films to help distribute movies specifically for Latino audiences, they’re track record has been less than stellar over the last four years from a critical standpoint. Sure, the surprise 2013 hit “Instructions Not Included” became the highest grossing Spanish-language film to ever open in North America, but the picture itself was riddled with clichés and substandard direction by its popular Mexican star Eugenio Derbez.

Despite some major disappointments over the years (“Casa de Mi Padre,” “Pulling Strings,” and especially the biopics “Cantinflas” and “Cesar Chavez”), Pantelion has managed to release a couple of entertaining projects, the first being the 2013 music drama “Filly Brown” lead by rising star Gina Rodriguez (TV’s “Jane the Virgin”). Its second bright spot on its roster comes this year by way of a true story that took place a decade ago in Phoenix, Arizona.

In the film “Spare Parts,” a group of undocumented Latino high school students decide to build a robot to compete in an underwater robotics competition. It’s an incredibly inspirational story you may or may not have heard about when it happened in 2004, but one that was deserving of a feature film. “Spare Parts” is far from perfect. In fact, with first-time screenwriter Elissa Matsueda penning the script, there are a handful of glaring narrative problems that can only be described as vague and amateurish. Still, it all really comes back to the story of these young men who did what many thought impossible.

It’s easy to root for the protagonists, which makes unnecessary characters and plot holes less bothersome. Everyone involved is so likeable, starting with actor Carlos PenaVega portraying Oscar Vazquez, the leader of the robotics team who brings his idea to enter the underwater competition to new substitute teacher Fredi Cameron (George Lopez). When Oscar finds out he is unable to follow his dream and join the military because of his immigration status, he is committed to finding something else to do with his life. Also on the team: Lorenzo Santillan (José Julián from “A Better Life”) who brings his talent as a mechanic to the group, but is struggling to live up to his strict father’s (Esai Morales) standards; Cristian Arcerga (David del Rio), the brain of the operation; and Luis Arranda (Oscar Gutierrez), the muscle needed to get their ugly, clunky and heavy robot into the water.

The story is strongest when screenwriter Matsueda stays focused on what is truly important, which are the technical aspects of the boys’ robot, the competition at hand and the backgrounds of these four Dreamers. Matsueda strays far too much between this and less interesting relationships between Oscar and his love interest and Fredi and another teacher (Marisa Tomei). “Spare Parts” should have taken a page from two similar films that came before it, “Stand and Deliver” and “October Sky,” and embraced its subject wholeheartedly (like “Stand and Deliver” did with calculus and “October Sky” with rocket building). There will be a few smiles by the time the closing credits roll, but the journey getting there and actually understanding how the boys accomplished what they did is sorely missing.

Love is Strange

September 26, 2014 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, Marisa Tomei
Directed by: Ira Sachs (“Keep the Lights On”)
Written by: Ira Sachs (“Keep the Lights On”) and Mauricio Zacharias (“Keep the Lights On”)

It’s difficult not to find “Love is Strange” likeable despite its many flaws. Anchored by moving and understated performances by Oscar nominee John Lithgow (“Terms of Endearment”) and Alfred Molina (“Frida”), it’s the kind of film that demands respect, especially since it’s filling a void in LGBT cinema where stories tend to be more about a younger generation and their struggles to find or confront their sexual identity. When is the last time you saw a love story between two men around the age of 65-70? Unless we’re talking about smaller documentaries like “Before You Know It,” “Gen Silent,” or “88 Years in the Closet,” it’s extremely rare. Even when actor Christopher Plummer won an Oscar for playing a gay octogenarian in the 2010 comedy/drama “Beginners,” the lover he chose was much younger. With that said, “Love is Strange” breaks some important barriers, but not without writing itself into some messy scenarios that feel way more complicated than they had to be.

The film opens with Ben (Lithgow) and George (Molina), two older gentlemen dressed to the nines, walking through the streets of Manhattan as if they were going to a nearby café to have a cup of coffee like it was any other morning. This is far from any other morning, however. This is Ben and George’s wedding day. After a nearly 40-year relationship, the couple has decided to make it official. Their joy is short-lived, however, when George, a music teacher at an Archdiocese-run school, is fired from his position since his marriage violates the Christian Witness Statement he signed when he was hired. Now on an extremely fixed income, Ben and George are forced to sell their apartment and temporarily sleep under different roofs until they can find a new home (none of their family or friends who live in the city can accommodate both men, a plot point that is hard to swallow, but important to the overall narrative). With Ben staying with his nephew and his family (Marisa Tomei plays the overly annoyed wife) and George staying with younger gay friends, the two men must do something they’ve never had to do during their entire relationship: live apart.

“Love is Strange” is best when Lithgow and Molina share the screen. Of course, this only takes place a handful of times during the film since their situation keeps them separated. When the two talk about their lives and the sometimes painful past, it’s a beautiful way to show just how comfortable and sensible 40 years of companionship has molded their relationship. Ben and George have known for a long time that they work better as a couple. Director/co-writer Ira Sachs (“Keep the Lights On”) makes sure audiences can feel that security and compassion when they interact.

Where “Love is Strange” struggles is in the secondary family story it tries so desperately to fit into Ben and George’s difficult circumstance. It’s especially true with Lithgow who somehow ends up becoming a burden on his nephew’s wife and their teenage son. The fact that everyone gets so aggravated so quickly rings immensely false. It’s almost as if Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias felt they had to impose some sort of conflict to make the film find another emotional layer it could’ve easily done without (or done without the exaggeration).

Lithgow and Molina’s chemistry, however, is all the emotion “Love is Strange” needs. The deeper Sachs and Zacharias could’ve delved into that touching story and focused more on the quieter moments, the more the film would’ve felt true to form.

The Ides of March

October 7, 2011 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Phillip Seymour Hoffman
Directed by: George Clooney (“Good Night, and Good Luck”)
Written by: George Clooney (“Good Night, and Good Luck”), Grant Heslov (“Good Night, and Good Luck”) and Beau Willimon (debut)

Every smile or sentence that comes from a political candidate is calculated. As Matt Damon’s politician character in “The Adjustment Bureau” pointed out, focus groups are employed for even the most mundane details, from determining what the perfect amount of scuff for a pair of dress shoes is to picking a tie that conveys the right message. There is always a crack staff working behind the scenes feeding candidates lines, strategies, and conducting damage control, all to make sure their campaign is unsinkable.  In “The Ides of March,” Ryan Gosling plays a skilled, idealistic young staffer who enters the world of politics as a true believer, but finds out very quickly that winning an election requires more than just having a candidate you believe in.

Adapted from the play “Farragut North,” which draws inspiration from Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential bid, “The Ides of March” follows the primary campaign of Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) as he seeks the nomination of the Democratic Party. The Morris campaign is managed by Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), but the real brain of the team is Stephen Myers (brilliantly played by Gosling), a smart and emerging political mind on the campaign trail. When the manager (Paul Giamatti) of the opposing candidate approaches Stephen to try and poach him from the Morris campaign, the news is somehow leaked to the press and an aggressive reporter (Marisa Tomei) won’t stop until she gets the answers she wants. As this story begins to unfold, Stephen uncovers an even bigger scandal that threatens his job, exposes him to blackmail and extortion, and leaves him at the center of a moral and professional dilemma.

The cast of Oscar winners and nominees that director George Clooney has assembled is the strongest pillar of the film. Gosling gives one of the strongest performances of his critically-acclaimed career as a charismatic and ambitious man with everything to lose. Gosling has a particular knack for conveying disbelief and intensity with wide-eyed stares. Hoffman gives the strongest of the supporting roles. His scenes with Gosling contain some of the best interaction seen in a film this year. The interplay between these two commanding actors is the most obvious reminder that the film is based on a play, as one can easily imagine these scenes taking place on a Broadway stage.  Strong performances from Giamatti, Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood are seen, as well as from Clooney who takes a much smaller role in the film in exchange for his work on the script and behind the camera.

While the story is that of a pretty standard political thriller, “The Ides of March” sets itself apart in its execution. The script is sharp, with plenty of devastating and often hilarious quips.  The movie navigates through a potentially redundant concept by maintaining a constant tension and more than enough twists and turns to keep viewers interested.  As the stakes become greater and things spiral out of control, it is fascinating to watch Gosling’s character struggle between what is right and what the implications are for his career.

It might be a tad cliché for a film to depict politics as a dirty profession that can cause even the most ambitious and hardworking individual to become jaded, but the narrative works and feels like an accurate depiction of how a campaign would control a scandal.  With brilliant acting from its stellar cast, “The Ides of March” separates itself from an often-unimaginative genre with powerhouse performances and authentic details.

The Lincoln Lawyer

March 23, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Marisa Tomei, Ryan Phillippe
Directed by: Brad Furman (“The Take”)
Written by: John Romano (“Nights in Rodanthe”)

As far as courtroom dramas are concerned, you’d be hard-pressed to find something as generic as “The Lincoln Lawyer.” Forget about the excitement brewing because Matthew McConaughey (“Ghosts of Girlfriends Past”) is actually starring in a film that doesn’t require him to remove his shirt or offer up his rugged good looks for an insulting rom com role opposite Kate Hudson or Sarah Jessica Parker – as much as everyone would like it to be, this is not a sequel to 1996’s “A Time to Kill.” Instead, “Lawyer” is an overrated, underwritten crime schlock that plays like an irritating Dick Wolf-produced legal TV show. Call it “Law & Order: Luxury Sedan.”

That title might even be a stretch, since the titular vehicle doesn’t make much of an impact in the film besides serving as a shiny prop for the laid-back soundtrack featuring blues, R&B, and old-school hip-hop from artists including Bobby “Blue” Bland, Erick Sermon, and Marlena Shaw. As a suave, street-smart criminal defense attorney practicing in Beverly Hills, Mickey Haller (McConaughey) is chauffeured around town in style inside his vintage Lincoln Town Car.

Adapted from the novel of the same name by crime-fiction writer Michael Connelly (this is the first of four books in the Haller series), Lawyer struggles to find its footing within a cliché storyline reworked by screenwriter John Romano (“Nights in Rodanthe”) and helmed by novice director Brad Furman, whose only other film is the straight-to-DVD armored-truck thriller “The Take.”

In “Lawyer,” Mickey lands the case of his career when he is hired to defend Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), a spoiled, rich socialite charged with the brutal assault of a prostitute who propositions him at a nightclub. While Louis maintains his innocence (he cries “Set up!” on more than one occasion), Mickey and his investigator friend Frank Levin (William H. Macy) figure out a way to get their client off the hook even after indispensable evidence seems to mount against them.

From here, “Lawyer” becomes part morality thriller, part courtroom drama with Mickey caught in the middle wondering if he’s fighting for a scumbag’s exoneration. Despite McConaughey’s satisfying performance, none of it is very original. The pool of shallow characters (Marisa Tomei as the ex-wife prosecutor; John Leguizamo as a shady bail bondsman; Michael Peña as an ex-client who is now in San Quentin) don’t help us sympathize with our conflicted lawyer, whose character is never fully explored past his slicked-back hair, dog-tired eyes, and vulnerability to the bottle.

The Wrestler

December 30, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky (“The Fountain”)
Written by: Robert D. Siegel (“The Onion Movie”)

It’s not a sports movie in the classic sense, but director Darren Aronofsky’s gracefully expressive film is a perfect example of a heart-wrenching character study worthy of unlimited reverence. At a crossroad in his professional career, wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke in an brilliant performance) must do some soul searching and decide what the priorities are in his life before he loses everything.

The Ram is in the twilight of his wrestling career and can barely afford to pay his rent with the money he earns fighting on the weekends at small arenas. Once a star in his sport, the Ram knows those days are over but can’t seem to let go of the only thing he is passionate about and the only thing he knows how to do. It’s almost like he has something to prove to himself and the fans who have been following him over the years.

Even when he has a career-ending heart attack, there is a small voice inside telling him that he can still compete. He’d rather die doing what he loves than feeling trapped at a second-rate job at the deli counter of a local grocery store where he has to answer to a disrespectful boss.

The Ram is a lonely soul and it shows through his battered face and restless eyes. Estranged from his daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), the only real human relationship he has is with Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a middle-aged stripper who he visits from time to time at the club. When he does attempt to reconnect with Stephanie, there is an underlying anxiousness Rourke brings out of his character. The Ram realizes if he is given one more chance to show her he is ready to be the father she’s never known, that’s all he’s going to get. You fear for him and the mistakes you know he is capable of making. You fear for him becoming one of those washed up wrestlers who only lives through the glory days.

“The Wrestler” is the best film of Darren Aronofsky career. After directing daring films like “Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream,” and “The Fountain,” Aronofsky takes a very minimalist approach to this film and makes it feel like a documentary about an emotionally- damaged man. For a film that deals with a sport where staging is such an important element, “The Wrestler” couldn’t be more authentic. Rourke, of course, is the major reason the realism comes through the screen. Basically, he’s in every frame of the film. It is evident, however, how much Aronofsky makes these scenes vibrant, inspiring, and extremely sincere by capturing Rourke in his most fragile state from every angle. It’s the best film of 2008.