Breaking the Chain of Racism
Jackie Robinson is Still in Play
Writer-director Brian Helgeland’s methodically balanced biopic about revered baseball legend Jackie Robinson manages the near-impossible feat of offering all things to all people. Baseball fans, those interested the civil rights struggle, and casual filmgoers will be rewarded with a tale that is equal parts history lesson and pure entertainment. Helgeland (screenwriter on “L.A. Confidential”) gets substantial support from Chadwick Boseman in the lead role as the first African American to be admitted into Major League Baseball in the modern era. Not only do Boseman’s chiseled facial features resemble those of Robinson circa 1947, but also the actor’s expressive athletic comportment on the field evinces the intensity of Jackie Robinson’s nimbleness of mind and body. For his part as the Brooklyn Dodger’s visionary general manager Branch Rickey — who broke an unwritten rule of baseball to sign Robinson in the first place — Harrison Ford delivers a consummate performance of rich character study. It’s the best work of his career.
Although Jackie Robinson’s story has been told many times on film, “42” revitalizes its clearly defined dramatic goals. The thematic message is outlined in Branch Rickey’s principal demand of his new player that Robinson function as an ambassador against racism. Rickey demands that Robinson exhibit “the guts not to fight back” against the constant barrage of threats and catcalls he endures as a black player in an all-white game. It’s a towering demand that few men could imagine living up to if put in a similar predicament.
Episodes of outrageous bigotry follow one after another. Robinson’s own teammates conspire against him during a training period in Havana, Cuba with the Montreal Royals. The filmmakers do a good job of condensing the potentially audience-alienating racist vitriol that Jackie Robinson was subjected to while still making their point. The Phillies’ bigoted loudmouth manager Ben Chapman (well played in a thankless role by Alan Tudyk) hurls every ugly racist epithet he can think of at Robinson during a series of games. The scenes are appropriately unnerving. Jackie Robinson calmly stands ground in the batter’s box — trying to get a hit for his team — while the largely white crowd contributes to an atmosphere of seething hatred.
The film’s replication of a historic publicity photo of Jackie Robinson and Ben Chapman standing side-by-side speaks volumes about the men’s mutual animosity, and Major League Baseball’s estimable effort to move the conversation forward. Robinson conveys passive resistance by picking up a bat for the men to hold so they won’t have to “touch skin.”
By telling a knotty personal story of far reaching public implications in such a straightforward fashion, the filmmakers allow the lore of Jackie Robinson’s wellspring of humanity to resonate against America’s ongoing disease of racism, which relentlessly permeates our daily lives. “42” isn’t about ignoring the condition; it’s about addressing it in a way that models appropriate behavior. Jackie Robinson imparted authority while wearing the number 42. This worthy film explains both how and why.
Rated PG-13. 128 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)Tweet
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In an age where people obsess over their cellphones to the exclusion of the physical world around them, a dystopian malady takes over. Identity theft, online bullying, and interactive porn sites each play a part in a problematic digital social landscape that “Disconnect” examines in a razor-sharp triptych narrative. Every character gets in over their head via pervasive technology. The thought-provoking movie is seamless in plaiting together the lives of its scrupulously credible characters. The effect is haunting.
The subject of shrouded online identities, and their ability to infiltrate and damage the lives of their victims, may sound like old news to some but the threat is constant. The recent spam wars that slowed internet traffic to a crawl for millions of users is just one more in a long line of reminders about how vulnerable anyone who uses a computer or cellphone is.
Andrea Riseborough’s quick-witted television journalist Nina carries on a webcam conversation with Kyle (Max Thieriot), an Internet sex worker for an underage sex site. Self-assured Kyle enjoys his work. He makes good money showing off his nubile bod and the erotic tricks it can do. Nina earns his trust, but all she really wants is to break a juicy story that will put a feather in her cap at the TV station she works for — not that she isn’t susceptible to Kyle’s very direct charms.
Ben (Jonah Bobo) is a sensitive teenage loner. He writes plaintive songs on piano when he gets home from high school. Ben hides behind a swath of long hair that hangs down over his eyes. The fragile son of a successful attorney (well played by Jason Bateman), Ben takes the bait when a “girl” from his school professes her attraction in the form of Facebook instant messages. Unknown to Ben, her online identity is comprised of a couple of bullying classmates — one of whom is the son of Mike, an internet-crime investigator and former cop (played by Frank Grillo).
Mike works on a case of identity theft that has devastated the lives of Derek (Alexander Skarsgard) and Cindy (Paula Patton), a married couple whose relationship was already in crisis due to the death of their child. Derek, a former Marine, imagines doling out some personal justice on the person who ruined his life.
Director henry Alex Rubin (“Murderball”) embellishes the visuals with an inventive use of bold graphic design for the instant message dialogue that takes place between characters. Voyeurism becomes an interactive-like encounter for the viewer. An image system involving the camera viewing its subjects at various distances through windows and fences adds to a suspenseful sense of constant surveillance. In addition, cinematographer Ken Seng (“Quarantine”) uses a combination of documentary and straight narrative camera techniques to keep the viewer on edge.
Rubin advances debut feature screenwriter Andrew Stern’s dynamic source material with an insistent rhythm of emotional counterpoint that culminates in an artistically composed crescendo of synchronized climaxes. When the slow-motion sequence occurs, it gives the audience time to ruminate on the physical and emotional forces that led up to it. Your cellphone can’t help you.
Rated R. 115 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)Tweet
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The Company You Keep
A movie in search of a story, this Robert Redford-directed flop has all the interest and suspense of a piece of burnt toast. The fate of three former members of the American ‘60s radical left group The Weather Underground sets the film’s plot objective. A scant crash-course in the homegrown terrorist organization reveals that one of the group’s members shot and killed a security guard during a bank heist that took place in Michigan. Attempting to topple the U.S. government by robbing a bank doesn’t exactly couch the group as having a clear strategy back in the day. Currently, former group member Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) turns herself in to authorities after remaining hidden for 30 years disguised as a suburban housewife living in upstate New York.
Enter Shia LaBeouf’s laughably portrayed go-getter newspaper reporter Ben Shepard to start snooping around. LaBeouf repeatedly pushes his glasses up on his nose to show he’s a modern-day hippie journalist who understands, if not identifies, with the matured activists he follows like a cat sniffing a trail of tuna. Equally problematic is Stanley Tucci’s wobbly supporting performance as Ben’s editor. Tucci is just not serious or mean enough for the role of a demanding print newspaper supervisor.
Small town attorney Jim Grant (Robert Redford) lives comfortably as a doting single father to his 10-year-old daughter Isabel (Jackie Evancho). Ben gets wind of Grant’s secreted past affiliation with the Weather Underground at roughly the same time as the FBI. Grant’s solo adventure on the lamb to reconnoiter with his old activist flame Mimi (Julie Christie) leads to a soap opera worthy culmination, complete with wimpy dialogue about America’s wretched state of affairs. Yawn, yawn, yawn.
Mimi is the only member of the group still engaged in activism, and yet the screenwriters barely scratch the surface of her reality as a guerilla freedom fighter other than someone living off the grid.
Terrence Howard is sorely miscast in his under-developed role as the FBI’s lead agent. The movie would have more interesting if Howard had been cast as the reporter instead of LaBeouf. Not that it would have improved the storyline, but the movie would have been more appealing.
What promises to be an ostensibly self-assured examination of leftist principles crushed by a militarized fascist corporate monolith, transgresses into a meandering chase movie with very little at stake.
To the film’s detriment, Susan Sarandon’s character — the most intriguing of the bunch — gets lost in the shuffle. Redford’s socially reformed milquetoast role barely registers as anything other than half of shared protagonist duties opposite LaBeouf’s anemic performance.
The trouble with “The Company You Keep” is that it isn’t about anything. It does nothing to move the conversation forward about a capitalist system so riddled with corruption that there is no other example to follow. It’s a movie that makes its audience want to curl up in a ball and sleep for the next ten or twenty years.
Rated R. 125 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)Tweet
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Long Live Patty Hearst
Trashmeister writer/director John Waters takes ironic comedy and social commentary to an all-time sleazy low in his new movie “Strap-On.” Waters deviates from his Baltimore roots to urban and rural areas of Afghanistan where Maya Stain (played by former SLA member Patty Hearst) fights for SOC (Socialism Over Capitalism), a left wing mercenary group caught in a cross-fire between Taliban fighters, the Mujahideen, American troops and desperate civilians. Hearst might be pushing 60, but she still knows how to handle a machine gun. You will never want to see another movie after seeing this one, and you won’t want to see this one again.
As the group’s gutsy feminist leader, Stain wears an 18-inch, neon-blue strap-on to symbolize her authority and to distract her enemies. The ploy works. Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS has nothing on Stain. At times Stain is content to keep the bulge inside her camouflage fatigues, but for most of the film, Stain allows the large member and its flesh-burning, squirting acid to protrude from her pants in a permanent semi-erect state.
Waters views the mercenary lifestyle as fodder for social camp. He satirizes the Afghanistan military and social structure of the country while also poking fun at things like their public bathrooms, which consist of a well from which the user must hang on a rope with a piece of wood as a half-seat. There is a scene where the strap-on-wielding Stain throws a knife into the back of a Tajikistan military officer, sending him down into the dung-filled hole, giving Stain the opportunity to lean back and roar like a banshee in devilish delight.
However most of the film’s violence is directed at America’s private military firms. The SOC’s primary targets are private military contractors, i.e. rival mercenaries. “Strap-On” takes no prisoners. Stain’s torture of U.S. soldier — using her preferred method of violent personal intrusion — makes anything in “Zero Dark Thirty” pale by comparison. Think snuff-movie.
Tatyana (played by British comedienne Tracy Ulman) is an Uzbekistan national that Stain takes as a hostage during one of the SOC’s hostile take-overs of an American military facility. The movie really gets going when Tatyana, a cross between Deborah Harry and Hillary Clinton, becomes romantically-involved with Stain after the dust has settled. A wild pornographic lesbian love scene involves Tatyana singing “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” while Stain pounds her from behind like a steam locomotive.
Waters’ “movie” satirizes death, sex, torture, weapons, military officials, the Taliban and the universal phallic obsession of all soldiers. “Strap-On” is yet another reminder that America has gone past the point of no return and dragged the rest of the world down with it. Just as America’s ethics have gone down the toilet, its films have followed suit. The stain cannot be contained. Cinema is dead. APRIL FOOLS
Rated. 157 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)Tweet
The Place Beyond the Pines
An unbalanced dual narrative plays out in Derek Cianfrance’s (“Blue Valentine”) unsteady attempt to extract universal truths about unintended legacies passed down from father to son. Schenectady, New York is the setting of the film’s Iroquois Indian-inspired title, where a cross-generational crime drama unfolds.
The ever-impressive Ryan Gosling introduces the film’s first half as the heavily tattooed “Handsome” Luke, a nomadic motorcyclist working in a travelling circus. Luke rides with two other highly skilled bikers inside the fabled Ball of Death. Fear is not in Luke’s chemical makeup. A braless visit by Romina (Eva Mendes), a conquest from the last time he passed through town, seems to offer the laconic stud a return to pleasures past. However, Romina’s objective is to let Luke know he is the father of her child. Not that Romina wants anything from Luke; she is happily living with a man who is helping raise Luke’s son. Acting on patriarchal instinct, Luke quits his job. He announces to Romina that he will remain in town to help out with the baby in any way he can. Mostly, Luke just wants to spend time with his young son. Necessity, the mother of bad luck, lands Luke in the company of Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), a mechanic, successful bank robber, and hermit. Robin has much respect for Luke’s unique “skillset” on a motorcycle. Bank robberies ensue. The audience is hooked.
A jarring narrative jump places our outlaw protagonist with Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a small town cop. The film’s involuntary comparison between Ryan Gosling’s and Bradley Cooper’s characters doesn't favor Cooper. The split narrative effect functions as a bait-and-switch that breaks the film into a hobbled victim. The floor falls out from the movie.
With his own personal connection to Luke, Avery battles corruption in the local police department with the advise of his ex-cop father. Avery leverages the situation to secure an Assistant District Attorney post for himself. The filmmaker’s commentary on rampant corruption in police precincts all over the country is hard to miss. Trouble brews years later when the teenage sons of Luke and Avery meet in high school.
Every town is a small town. Strangely related people have a way of coming together like magnets. Derek Cianfrance attempts a macro-micro social approach that worked well for projects such as John Sayles’s “City of Hope.” But the dice are so loaded toward building up Ryan Gosling’s character — impetuous and violent as he may be — that the social drama has no where to go when he’s taken out of the equation. Cianfrance could have mitigated some of the narrative disruption had he followed through with Robin’s bank-robber subplot in connecting it to the rest of the movie. As it is, the intriguing character only pops up one more time under unsupported conditions that raise more questions than the scene answers.
The lasting effects of the sins of the fathers are a common theme running through current feature film dramas. In an age when America’s hostile military approach is backfiring with more suicides than battle deaths for soldiers, and gun violence spiraling out of control, it seems likely we’ll be seeing a lot more of these types of dramas. “The Place Beyond the Pines” is a film undone by its structure. The AB format is an untraditional story-form that needs considerably more attention than the three screenwriters here gave it.
Rated R. 140 mins. (C+) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)Tweet
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Ivy League Tina Fey
Higher Learning Gets Schooled
An above-average romantic comedy, “Admission” profits considerably from Tina Fey’s reliable comic efforts as Portia Nathan, a Princeton University admissions officer approaching an unforeseen midlife crisis. Sending up Ivy League practices for attracting and, mostly, rejecting desperate young college applicants is all part of the film’s canny satire. If the American college system is one big scam, Ivy League schools are shown as the worst offenders. It’s especially droll that the real Princeton University is used rather than a fictional school. In an age when the cost of higher learning comes with potentially bankrupting student loans, “Admission” is about how the process of learning is an ongoing activity that never stops. Having the ability to work inside the system means having the aptitude to move beyond it.
Fey’s upwardly motivated Portia anchors the film’s personal aspects. She’s engaged in a catfight struggle with her African American co-worker Corinne (Gloria Reuben) to take over the soon-to-be-vacant Dean of Admissions post currently held by Wallace Shawn’s Clarence character. Portia’s NPR-approved home life marriage to a pretentiously highbrow college professor — Mark (Michael Sheen) — is going down the drain quick. Tina Fey’s quirky-but-sexy-librarian manner makes her an ideal protagonist ripe for ethical challenges. She receives a doozy.
Recruiting road trips to high schools come with Portia’s job description. Her canned Princeton pitch doesn’t go over so well at New Quest, an alternative high school run by one-man-show educational visionary John Pressman (Paul Rudd), a world traveler committed to bringing up his adopted son. Assembly-line learning isn’t what the students at New Quest have in mind. Here are a group of informed kids capable of reading between the lines of a collegiate educational system built on capitalist ideals of greed, racism, and sexism. There’s comic satisfaction in seeing intelligent — rather than intellectual students — speaking truth to bravura. Portia gets stung.
John has an ulterior motive. He introduces Portia to Jeremiah (Nat Wolff) a young man John has reason to believe is Portia’s biological child that she gave up for adoption nearly two decades ago. John is a helper. He also has the hots for Portia, a fact that her feminist mom (Lily Tomlin) is none to pleased to endorse. She’d rather point her shotgun in his direction.
Paul Rudd continues his winning streak of amiable comic post-hippie characters. A more congenial romantic comic pairing — Fey and Rudd — you are not likely to find.
Portia takes up the insider cause of insuring Jeremiah’s entry into Princeton at any cost. However much Jeremiah has blossomed academically at New Quest — he’s something of a prodigy — his educational past isn’t so impressive on the printed page.
Crosscurrents of romance, drama, and comedy flow through one another. The movie hits its stride during a roundtable admissions process whereby each officer defends his or her picks for applicants. Comic suspense builds as Portia plays her best game of political strategy on Jeremiah’s behalf.
“Admission” is a “talk film.” Shifts in comic tone come without warning. The audience gets caught up in the battle for pent-up hopes between the film’s three main characters. We want the best for them, but understand that the status quo will never fill that gap. We’ve all still got a lot to learn.
Rated PG-13. 117mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)Tweet
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
Artfully satirizing the in-your-face state of modern magic — as practiced by the likes of David Blaine and Criss Angel — while celebrating the cheesy aspects of old school slight-of-hand tricks, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” is an effective comedy that covers a lot of ground.
At stake is a lifelong friendship between Las Vegas prestidigitation standard bearers Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi). Burt, the better-looking member of the duo, has let his outsized ego and cynicism take over. All passion for his craft is gone. Steve Carrel loses himself so completely in the role that you have to keep reminding yourself who you’re looking at. A key ingredient to the comedy’s success is Carrel’s keen ability at transitioning from an unlikeable protagonist into a character you can’t help but root for. Olivia Wilde’s presence as Jane, Burt’s admiring assistant in the stage act, adds just the right amount of sex appeal. At a time when global culture is engaged in a race to the bottom, the values expressed in the comedy reflect a return to tasteful sensibilities. There’s a refreshing quality to the laugh-out-loud fun on-screen.
Jim Carrey delivers a comic coup de grace as extreme-illusionist Steve Grey, whose violent brand of street magic involves things such as cutting a folded playing card out of his swollen cheek with a pocketknife. The kooky “magician” also makes a splash by holding his urine for several days. Carrey’s trademark make-you-flinch comic dynamics arrive via a logic-defying physique without an ounce of body fat on it. Jim Carrey just might be the fittest 50-year-old in Hollywood. The rogue aspects of Carrey’s unpredictable character allow of some of the film’s most shocking moments.
With audience numbers dropping at their Vegas casino home stand, Burt and Anton get pressured by casino’s owner Doug Munny (James Gandolfini) to shape up or ship out. A break-up ensues that sends the bickering duo off in separate directions of self-discovery.
The once filthy rich Burt is relegated to performing magic in department stores and in a retirement home for an audience that more likely to fall asleep than fall for a card trick, no matter how mind-boggling. A chance meeting between Burt and aging magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin) — Burt’s inspiration since childhood — adds a nostalgic layer. The ever-impressive Alan Arkin is the film’s secret weapon.
Anton takes up a humanitarian cause; he delivers magic sets to starving children in third world countries before realizing that perhaps magic sets aren’t exactly the right thing to share with kids in dire need of food and water. Steve Buscemi handles his seemingly thankless supporting role with just the right amount of humility.
Screenwriter John Francis Daley anchors the movie in various approaches to magic. Magic tricks do indeed take center stage in the narrative. Steve Grey’s climatic showstopper — involving a power drill applied to his cranium — takes the movie beyond any realm of expectation. Carrey’s skill with facial contortions hit the nail, or drill bit, on the head. Even better is the grand illusion that a reunited Burt and Anton pull off. The film’s explanatory coda —showing how the trick was done — adds a backstage angle of humor that leaves no stone unturned.
You can’t have a comedy about magic without gimmicks, and “Burt Wonderstone” has plenty. It also has panache.
Rated PG-13. 100 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)Tweet