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Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)
Promising movie turns inexplicably schlocky halfway through
Like many people here, I was lured to this movie by the plethora of positive reviews on IMDB and a certain tomato-based site. But I've also enjoyed Vince Vaughn in a lot of movies, and director S. Craig Zahler's "Bone Tomahawk" is a very impressive directorial debut.
We're introduced to Vaughn as Bradley Thomas, who is laid off from his job and comes home to discover his wife's been having an affair. His slow burn becomes rage as he rips his wife's car apart with his bare hands. We learn they are both recovering alcoholics. They decide to start over and have a child. To make ends meet, he starts running drugs, which eventually allows he and his now-pregnant wife to move to big house in a better neighborhood. Partnered with another druglord's henchmen for a big deal, things go sour and a shootout with police ensues. But Bradley is a stand-up guy with a certain moral code, so he takes down the two henchmen to ensure that they don't slaughter a bunch of cops doing their job.
He is nonetheless arrested and, still displaying his personal morals, refuses to roll over on his employer, and is convicted and sentenced for trafficking. He says a stern goodbye to his wife and goes to do his prison time. But then his wife is kidnapped and a man comes to visit Bradley, telling him he needs to murder someone in a maximum security prison to settle his debt for the drug deal that went bad, or something horrible will happen to his wife and unborn child. To get transferred to the other prison he will have to prove he is a security threat. He brutally beats a prison guard and takes down a few more as he's being led to a holding cell, thus fulfilling the conditions for a transfer.
Up to this point, even with the hokey kidnapping, the movie works. Bradley's a guy who does what he needs to do for the good of his family, even if it's illegal and ultimately brutal. Then they transfer him to the maximum security prison, and enter Don Johnson as every sadistic prison warden from every prison exploitation movie ever, complete with a gang of sadistic henchmen in Gestapo-ish uniforms. Suddenly, you're no longer watching a drama about a man pushed to his limits but a C-grade Grindhouse exploitation movie complete with badly choreographed kung fu-style fight scenes, excessive gore, terrible special effects and painfully bad acting. I assume this abrupt change in tone was entirely intentional on the part of the director, but it completely lost me. As a result, not only would I say the movie is disappointing, but one of the worst I've seen in a very long time -- and I'm not that picky. Watch at your own risk, but be prepared to regret wasting your time.
Clichéd and contrived
I'll say this for Jake Gyllenhaal: I don't think any other currently working actor physically commits to a role as much as he does. He went from the spindly, underweight creep in 2014's "Nightcrawler" to a totally ripped boxer in 2015's "Southpaw." As far as physicality is concerned, Gyllenhaal is 100% believable as a boxer. Unfortunately, that's where the plausibility of this film pretty much begins and ends.
In a very short time span (even the supposed time frame within the movie), we see Gyllenhaal's Billy Hope go from undisputed world light heavyweight champion to losing literally all of his money and living in the projects. All this happens because another boxer mouths off to Billy at a charity event, which leads to fisticuffs and a gun going off that kills Billy's wife! The other boxer takes the gun from his crew member who fired it, but even though the police are en route and he's at the center of the incident, he is not caught with the gun and is never formally implicated.
From there it's a very quick slide downhill, as Billy loses his title and is even suspended from the sport, followed by further descent as he loses his daughter into state custody, and somehow losing every single thing he owns and even every last nickel. Even though he's a famous sports personality, overnight he goes from living in a mansion to living in the projects working as a janitor. Again, even in the movie's time frame this is all a matter of weeks.
He needs to train and he needs work, so he finds a dirty old gym and a tough, no-nonsense trainer. Meanwhile, the boxer at the center of the murder of Billy's wife is now the light heavyweight champion. After a single exhibition match, Billy is offered a chance at the title! If you're thinking this sounds familiar, yes it is, you've seen in 100 times. Do you wonder how it will end? No, you don't. You know how it will end.
"Southpaw" borrows from dozens of films -- from pretty much every sports movie ever, but most notably the "Rocky" movies (in particular "Rocky V," I think), "The Karate Kid" movies, "The Wrestler," and "The Champ," and no cliché is too clichéd for the filmmakers. Yes, there is even a training montage!
That's all a shame, too, because Billy Hope and his wife's shared background (both orphans) has the making for an interesting story, and there are some fine actors on hand, including Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, and Rachel McAdams. Unfortunately, McAdams is only allowed to be the standard boxer's wife nagging her husband to quit the sport or risk brain damage, before being unceremoniously killed off, while Whitaker is stuck playing a combination of Mr. Miyagi, Eddie Dupris and Mickey Goldmill.
Within these limitations, each actor has his moments, especially Gyllenhaal. In fact, there are several scenes that work well on their own, but on the whole the movie just doesn't add up to anything but another "champion becomes underdog and becomes champion again" film.
The Gunman (2015)
Wow, this movie was unexpectedly dull! With director Pierre Morel and actors Sean Penn, Javier Bardem and Ray Winstone on board, I expected a slam-dunk action/thriller. Morel's films to date -- "District B13," the first "Taken" and "From Paris with Love" have been have been fairly mindless yet fast-paced, entertaining popcorn flicks. This one just lumbers along like a poor man's "Bourne Identity" that never manages to get off the ground.
There are two big differences between this film and Morel's earlier efforts: Those films were written or co-written by Luc Besson, whose scripts are often borderline ridiculous (e.g. "Lucy") but almost always entertaining and full of snappy dialogue. Perhaps more importantly, the other films each clock in around 90 minutes, but this one plods on for nearly two hours! Even with the cliché-ridden script and phoned-in performances, a tighter edit might have provided some sense of momentum.
I'm not super-picky when it comes to action movies, but in this rare instance I actually lost all interest long before the final credits rolled. View at your own risk.
Star Trek (2009)
OK, so I have Nichelle Nichols' autograph, and a photo of me with James Doohan. I guess I was a Trekkie in my younger days -- but only for the original series, and I guess the films with the original crew, not the spin-offs. All the more reason I really wanted to like this film.
I don't even know where to begin. This film is a mess. It doesn't work for me as a popcorn movie, let alone as Star Trek. The plot is ridiculous and full of holes. (Black holes, get it?) Trekkies have always been able to forgive ridiculous plots (e.g. Star Trek movies three through six), as long as it meant we'd get to see Kirk and crew back in action. This so-called reboot is barely recognizable.
Rather than doing a sustained impression of William Shatner's Kirk, Chris Pine appears to have opted instead for a sustained impression of Christian Slater. Never mind how Pine plays Kirk, the character hardly resembles the original anyway. Instead of James T. Kirk, the master tactician who lived and breathed Starfleet, but wasn't afraid to buck the system, we get James T. Kirk, the reckless a-hole who has issues with authority.
Then there is Spock. Instead of cool, logical, level-headed but still part human Spock, we get vindictive, whiny Spock -- who is having a hot affair with Lt. Uhura, who herself appears to be a descendant of Beyonce.
All of the remaining characters -- including the villain -- are written and played fairly one-dimensionally. The only characters that seem to come close to the originals are Scotty -- who is in the film all too briefly -- and Chekhov.
Yeah, I know, this is now "alternate universe" Star Trek, because Nero and "Spock Prime" went back in time and changed the past, present and future. That shouldn't mean everything has to suck.
Woe to Leonard Nimoy, for not being able to resist a little more Spock money. The producers obviously lured him into this film to give it some Trek credibility (Trekibility), but it doesn't help. Shatner should be glad he wasn't asked.
Well, I know I am going against the grain here. This film has done huge box office, so JJ Abrams and crew will make more of them. Let me save you the trouble of waiting, or traveling to the future to see them: They will also suck.
Death Sentence (2007)
Wow, what a waste of time
Good golly, this is one bad, bad movie. I must agree with one poster on the message boards: Sitting all the way through such a dumb movie leaves one feeling pretty stupid.
What's wrong with this movie? Well, when creating fiction, a good rule of thumb is to come up with some sympathetic characters -- at least the main character should be someone with whom the audience can empathize. The plot should also be plausible. Unfortunately, the main character in Death Sentence is a complete idiot, and the plot is so ridiculous I cannot even come up with an adequate metaphor.
If you are tempted to watch this movie, please allow me to save you some time with this short summary.
First, the main character, Nick Hume, (played by Kevin Bacon) almost runs out of gas with his oldest son in the car, and has to stop in a very bad part of town, an irresponsible oversight that directly leads to the death of his son. Then, rather than send his son's murderer to prison (where he could at least take some comfort in the fact that the murderer would spend the next five years or so being forcibly sodomized), he decides he's Charles Bronson and murders the guy instead.
Thus, Mr. Hume invites the wrath of the killer's brother and his drug-crazed gang of psychopaths, directly leading to the murder of his wife, and the critical injuring of his other son and himself -- because apparently the best thing to do when you know a gang is coming to kill you is to just stay home and wait it out. (Luckily, he and his son are only injured, because as lustful as this gang is for revenge, they only put one bullet in each family member, and don't bother to check if they are dead or not.) When he wakes up in the hospital, he does not cry for his dead wife or kick himself for being such reckless idiot. He spends a minute with his presumably dying son, then goes out the hospital window to finish what he started. Remarkably, the police do not think to look for him at his home, which is the first place he goes, and is also a crime scene. Neither do they try to call him on his mobile phone, which he is carrying, or look for his car, which he is driving.
Mr. Hume buys a bunch of guns, gives himself a very bad haircut for no apparent reason, and then sets about wasting the rest of the gang in a very graphic fashion, shooting like Jet Li -- pretty good for a stockbroker.
Critically, perhaps mortally, wounded, Mr. Hume goes home -- where the police finally figure out he might be -- sits down on his sofa and watches old home movies. The police tell him his son might pull through. The movie ends there, but we can assume in a final act of idiocy that Mr. Hume dies, thereby leaving his sole surviving son an orphan. Thanks, Dad.
In closing, I suggest that if you need to see a revenge movie, rent Death Wish instead.
Worthy topic -- awful movie
I happened to catch this on TV, and wanted to watch because I remembered the Spin magazine article upon which the movie is based. I was very disappointed. First, if James Belushi is the lead actor in a movie, it should be a sign that it's not exactly an A-list production. Gregory Hines was a world class dancer, but sadly not a great actor.
In fact, all of the acting in this film is either flat or hammy, which can only be blamed on the director, who is this film's weakest link. Charles Carner seemed to be trying to ape Oliver Stone's "JFK" in portraying the alleged conspiracy to cover up the "real" child murderer(s), but without the benefit of a good script, an A-list cast or, it must be said, the talent. It just doesn't work.
It's a shame that such a worthy topic for a film did not get better treatment.
That '70s Show (1998)
Not very "70s"
I've tried to watch this show several times, but for a show called "That '70s Show," I don't find much apart from a few haircuts and the occasional reference to disco that actually evokes the '70s -- the decade in which I grew up. Of the episodes I have seen, most of the plots and jokes could be set in any time period. Take away the novelty of (supposedly) being set in the '70s, and the show is neither interesting nor funny.
If you're looking for a show that more successfully represents the experience of youth in America in the '70s, in my humble opinion you can do no better than "The Wonder Years."
Mad About You (1992)
A much better show than I ever expected
I never watched this show in its original run, because I thought it was a sappy "relationship" comedy. I have since caught it in syndication, and I am surprised at how good it is. It does have its sappy moments (like even the greatest sitcoms -- except "Seinfeld," which poked fun at this show at least once), but at the core of the show is an homage to all things Manhattan, and classic comedy heavily influenced by "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "I Love Lucy," and Sid Caesar. I have laughed out loud more to this show than I have to some of my other favorites.
The show does have its weaknesses and some annoying characters, but the comedy holds up anyway. If you have avoided this show until now, give it a try.
Team America: World Police (2004)
Brilliantly offensive to everyone
I never liked "South Park," so this movie did not interest me much when it came out. I happened to catch it on TV a few months ago, and I cannot remember the last time I laughed so much.
Many may also have avoided "Team America," due to a perception of it as being a low-brow, jingoistic, potty-mouthed frag-fest. True, it is a potty-mouthed frag-fest, which skewers Hollywood liberals, Muslims, France, and a certain North Korean dictator, but it is so much more.
Perhaps I am giving the film makers too much credit, but as I see it they also savage the "War on Terror," American machismo, conservatives, and Hollywood in general. Indeed, the film attacks mediocrity and shallowness, allowing almost no element of our popular culture to escape unscathed. (The awful film "Pearl Harbor" and its schlockmeister director Michael Bay -- also responsible for the craptastic "Armageddon" -- are brutalized in a particularly hilarious song.)
If you can handle some sick humor and haven't seen this movie yet, give it a try. If you are not laughing your head off by the end of the first scene, turn it off.
Bad dialog, bad acting, bad hairpieces. I never heard of this movie until it was on satellite this month, which is odd considering it's a Bruce Willis movie. Now I know why. Every cliché in the police/hostage drama book.
And the thing with Bruce Willis' family -- his wife and daughter are on screen for about two minutes, next time you see them they are hostages in the back of a van. Why should we care about characters who showed up only briefly before? Movie-making 101: Build the characters so the audience cares.
I used to think Bruce Willis could be pretty good in anything. This is the exception that proves the rule. Don't waste your time.
"Do not forget your dying king."
"JFK" is a remarkable accomplishment for director Oliver Stone, especially when you realize that his main protagonist, Jim Garrison, was in reality a total nut-case, not to mention a jerk. So Stone's first challenge was to create a likable and sane protagonist.
Stone was able to take elements of Garrison's book and the Clay Bertrand case, infuse it with tons of other information from other sources, and present the theory of a conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy in a very engrossing and entertaining manner.
The editing and cinematography are dazzling, the casting is inspired, and the acting is superb -- even the wooden Kevin Costner is just right in the (extremely idealized) role of Jim Garrison. "JFK" stands up to repeated viewing. I recently watched for about the tenth time.
This film will have a deserved place in history, due to its impact on the public consciousness. When it came out, it reawakened the public debate over Kennedy's assassination. That is not a debate between conspiracy theorists and everyone else. In fact, there are a lot of regular folks from that generation, my parents included, who believe the complete truth has never been revealed.
"JFK" does not ultimately answer any questions. For all of the film's faults, it does succeed in raising a number of questions which to this day have gone unanswered.
One fine morning...
This is a movie about complicated, intertwining relationships. It is a hard look at deep human emotions and sexuality. It bowled me over, quite unexpectedly.
The dialogue is extremely well written. Most importantly, director Mike Nichols elicited stunning performances from the actors. The chemistry between the characters is palpable. So natural were the performances, I frequently felt uncomfortable, as if I had walked into the middle of a very private conversation.
All the actors are great, but Clive Owen is particularly solid. And Julia Roberts finally grows up and plays a serious adult role, without falling back on her usual bag of cutesy tricks.
If you value good writing and good acting -- and don't insist on fairytale endings -- this is a movie to see. Simply stunning.
Great film, in spite of many flaws
Despite a number of contrived plot devices, and some questionable casting, this film works as a thought-provoking political thriller. It manages to deliver its message, which in very simplified terms is that demand for oil is dictating reckless U.S. foreign policy. It's a lot like the movie "Traffic" but about oil instead of drugs...
I particularly thought the death of Bryan Woodman's (Matt Damon) son was overly-contrived, just to set up Woodman as Prince Nasir's economic adviser. That was too convenient, and I almost stopped watching the film because of that.
As for the casting, Clooney is very good, as are a number of the other key players. But it seems to me that Christopher Plummer has played the "pure evil" role in about 300 other films, and Chris Cooper's "good ol' boy" act is getting very tiresome. Meanwhile, great actors like William Hurt and Jamey Sheridan were wasted in small roles.
There is also surely enough that the U.S. has done in the Middle East to make a great non-fiction political thriller, rather than this fictional -- albeit plausible -- film.
Still, the film manages to hold up, and the ending is bleak. Such is the direction in which our foreign policy is leading us.
Strip Search (2004)
Good idea, poorly executed
I just watched this film (on European television), but didn't see from the very beginning what it was called. So I looked it up here on IMDb. "Strip Search" is a terrible title. What were they thinking? That I think is an example of what is wrong with the film. They have a story with a very interesting political premise, but they gave it some crap title more appropriate for a straight-to-video Shannon Tweed flick.
Well, it IS an interesting premise, that the U.S. domestic response to 9/11 has brought the country closer in some respects to the police states it still publicly condemns. It is a premise with which I strongly agree. And the plot vehicle of playing the same dialogue in a U.S. and a Chinese prison was a very good idea. But it is all really poorly done.
The biggest problem is the dialogue itself, which is clichéd. It really could have used a few rewrites. Surprising that it came from Tom Fontana, of the great "Homicide: Life On the Streets" TV series.
The other problem is that except for Glenn Close and Maggie Gyllenhaal, the other actors are unable to rise above the hack dialogue. Ken Leung I thought was particularly bad. And in movies, the ultimate blame for poor performances has to be laid at the feet of the director, in this case the legendary Sidney Lumet. (But let's face it, Lumet hasn't made a truly great film since 1976's "Network" (1976), and not even a good film since 1988's "Running On Empty.") With the exception of the acting of Close and Gyllenhaal, the whole film feels like a hack job. The political message is hammered home with all the subtlety of a German jazz band, complete with inter-cut speeches about freedom and democracy from U.S. presidents, and a fadeout with statistics about U.S. detainees. Sheesh.
Too bad, this could have been a thought-provoking film. It's so poorly done and overwrought that it just won't change anyone's mind.