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.

The Sessions

November 16, 2012 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy
Directed by: Ben Lewin (“Paperback Romance”)
Written by: Ben Lewin (“Paperback Romance”)

Every January, the Sundance Film Festival is held in Utah where the table is set for the independent film industry to introduce some of the best projects they have to offer. Through the years, films get their big debut in Sundance and the buzz is strong enough to carry them into the next calender year. It happened to 2009’s Audience Award winner, “Precious,” which rode its wave all the way to a couple of Oscar wins.

Some films, however, make a splash in Sundance and then fizzle out. For example, 2010’s Audience Award winner, “happythankyoumoreplease,” earned mostly negative critic reviews and basically disappeared from the radar after the festival.  As 2012’s Audience Award winner, the Fox Searchlight acquired dramedy “The Sessions” vies to be the next Sundance hit to make some noise in the Academy Award race.

“The Sessions” tells the true-life story of Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a man who has lived with polio for many years and is forced to spend time in an iron lung so he can survive. Approaching 40, Mark decides he finally wants to lose his virginity. To accomplish this, he hires a sex surrogate named Cheryl Greene (Helen Hunt) and consults his priest (William H. Macy) for spiritual advice.

After turning in fantastic performances as total creeps in consecutive years in “Winter’s Bone” and “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” Hawkes gets to show his versatility in “The Sessions” playing a weak and vulnerable character. Simply put, Hawkes is transformative. He adapts a specific voice, different mannerisms, and is totally believable and sincere as he gives a physically-restraining performance where he can only emote through facial expressions and speech. Grating Boston accent aside, Hunt’s performance is decent, albeit a little one-dimensional. The one curveball of the main cast is Macy, who always entertaining in his time on screen, but is occasionally an awkward or ill-fitting presence in certain scenes.

For a film so heavily centered on sex, “The Sessions” is decidedly tame. The film is often so lighthearted that if Helen Hunt weren’t completely nude for half of the movie, it would probably be rated much, much lower on the MPAA scale. The biggest reason the film is so mild comes from Lewin’s screenplay. The self-deprecating jokes from Mark are cutesy, there’s flowery poetry, and the majority of the other dialogue is toothless. The script isn’t particularly smart, doesn’t have many surprises and falls into place exactly how one might think it would. This is most evident in a contrived scene in the last “session” between Mark and Cheryl.

The film will no doubt be a mainstream crowd pleaser, something that is evident by its Audience Award from Sundance. What is also evident, however, is that “The Sessions” is pure Oscar bait.  It’s harmless, inoffensive and vanilla cinema that features a strong lead performance that will certainly create some Oscar buzz. By no means is “The Sessions” a bad film, but it is starving for something other than the great performance from Hawkes to truly stand out.

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.

Shorts

August 21, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Jimmy Bennett, Jake Short, Trevor Gagnon
Directed by: Robert Rodriguez (“Spy Kids”)
Written by: Robert Rodriguez (“Spy Kids”)

There’s no denying filmmaker Robert Rodriguez is a kid at heart. Whether he’s firebombing dusty Mexican villages or journeying into virtual worlds with pint-sized superheroes, Rodriguez is a very likeable director. He’s like that popular little boy in elementary school everyone wanted to be friends with because of his impressive toy collection.

The problem with Rodriguez is that he still hasn’t found a way to make his toys for tikes as much fun as the ones for the big boys. While there was minimal success with the original “Spy Kids” in 2001, its two sequels and the ridiculous “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl 3-D” that followed failed to show the same unique voice Rodriguez had at the start of his career. (YouTube “Bedhead,” his first family-friendly short he made back in 1991).

Almost 20 years later, Rodriguez continues to run into the same familiar dilemma with his newest age-appropriate adventure. In “Shorts,” the auteur from Austin, Texas has kicked over his toy chest to reveal all the playthings he has collected over the years. The overabundance of imagination and silliness, however, is just too much for one tiny movie to handle.

Putting his head together with one of his real-life sons (he did the same with “Sharkboy”), Rodriguez siphons as much childhood fantasy as he possibly can before writing an overly-ambitious story about a small, tight-knit suburb that goes topsy-turvy when a rainbow-colored, wish-granting rock falls from the sky and lands in the community.

Jimmy Bennett (“Orphan”) is Toby Thompson, a bullied kid who gets his hands on the rock right before Rodriguez starts to play his cinematic version of hot potato and tosses the main computer-generated prop around to everyone. This includes brothers Loogie (Trevor Gagnon), Lug (Rebel Rodriguez), and Laser (Leo Howard), who can’t seem to get a grasp on their wishing technique.

Leslie Mann (“Funny People”), Jon Cryer (TV’s “Two and a Half Men”), and Kat Dennings (“The House Bunny”) round out the rest of the Thompson family – Mom, Dad, and sister Stacey – who don’t have much luck with the rock either. When Stacey tells her immature older boyfriend that she wishes he’d “grow up,” he literally becomes 40 feet tall. When Toby tells his parents he wishes they “were closer,” their bodies mesh into a two-headed-mom-dad hybrid.

In addition to the main cast and all the CGI already crowding the screen, Rodriguez has more characters up his sleeve, including germaphobic scientist Dr. Noseworthy (William H. Macy) and his son Nose (Jake Short), who unleashes a booger monster with the help of his father’s laboratory experiments. The slimy green gunk isn’t the only villain running amok. Mr. Black (James Spader) and his two gothic kids Helvetica (Jolie Vanier) and Cole (Devon Gearhart) instill fear into the rest of the community while pursuing the rock for its endless power.

Even with Rodriguez breaking “Shorts” into more controllable vignettes, he decides to make the process even more chaotic than it has to be by editing the entire film out of sequence and trusting kids under the age of 12 haven’t seen “Pulp Fiction.” It’s a risky attempt that unfortunately doesn’t work as well as he would have hoped.

While a handful of the child actors are cast well, Rodriguez focuses more on special effects and overuses slapstick to reach the film’s demographic. There are only so many times someone can bump their head before the joke just isn’t funny anymore. In “Shorts,” Rodriguez never knows when to say when.