Dir. Frank Coraci
About the only thing you might count as unexpected in this tired Kevin James comedy vehicle is something the film actually doesn’t do. Though it hardly suffers from a dearth of other inept slapstick comedy bits, at no time does James get hit directly in the groin by anything. Instead, its nearly mirthless two hours are filled with scenes of James getting knocked in the head, whipped with a plastic flag pole and getting thrown over a wall by a gorilla. And yet, no matter how many times he hits the deck or smashes his face into something concrete, it still never feels like enough physical suffering for putting you through this dreck.
James plays a zookeeper named Griffin, who years earlier was badly dumped by his girlfriend, Stephanie (Leslie Bibb). When she suddenly returns, on the eve of his brother’s nuptials, Griffin goes into a frenzy to try and win her back from her lumpish boyfriend, Gale (an absolutely brutal Joe Rogan, who can’t even play himself convincingly). The gimmick is the zoo animals all want to try and help him win her back, and break the animal code of not speaking in front of humans in order to relay their advice. Predictably, many of the animals are voiced by recognizable, big name actors, who want to emulate their public personas: Thus, Nick Nolte does the voice of the wounded and lonely mountain gorilla, Bernie; Sly Stallone is the voice of the lion; Cher, his lioness; Faizon Love plays one of the bears, alongside pal Jon Favreau; Don Rickles is a frog; and Adam Sandler is the little monkey whose advice involves “throwing poop” at everyone. Quelle appropriée!
By the end, of course, the film has to attempt some shabby nonsense about being “about something,” the way Sandler-related comedies always have to pretend to have a subtext in order to justify their running length. In this case, we are meant to believe that Griffin has learned that its more important to be himself, conveniently falling in love with a stunningly gorgeous zoo veterinarian (Rosario Dawson) in the process, then fall prey to the goldbricking love of a gorgeous, but fickle, woman.
The script, which initially sold for a whopping $2-$3 million before going through the rewrite meat grinder with a veritable who’s who of humorless drones, including Nick Bakay and James himself, goes through its dimwitted paces without much sense or sensibility, but that you would absolutely expect. What is far more galling are the reports that the filmmakers used a wrangling company purportedly caught on video abusing its animals for training purposes. If true, it puts one particular somber scene between Griffin and Bernie in harsh perspective: Complaining about the manner in which another zookeeper abuses his charges when no one else is around, Bernie complains that all humans are the same, “They lie.” How unpredictably poignant a moment, if the filmmakers turn out to be the biggest hypocrites of all.
Dir. David O. Russell
To begin with, how can you even make a dramatic film about boxing anymore? You have two fully iconic films in Rocky and Raging Bull so steeped into the national consciousness, any whiff of either of their narratives feels completely derivative. In the one, you have a rags-to-riches story with a palooka finally getting a shot, in the other, you have an intense character study of a former champ who brings on his own demise with his pettiness. Daring director David O. Russell’s eloquent solution is to fuse the two elements together with his own off-beat sensibilities and the result is verifiably impressive.
The true story centers around two Boston-area half-brothers, Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a young tomato can earning some dough and a lot of lumps in the ring, and his older brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), a revered former fighter (known as “the pride of Lowell”) gone to seed and the crack pipe, though he’s supposed to be Micky’s trainer. The boys are lead by their pugnacious mother, Alice (Melissa Leo) — also mother to seven heckling daughters — who serves as Micky’s manager. The trouble is, both Alice and Dicky have their own agenda for Micky — he makes them a fair amount of money, no matter how badly they neglect his career — so he’s really left on his own, getting regular beatings in the ring. When Micky meets Charlene (Amy Adams), working in a local bar, she starts to steer him clear of his flying circus of a family, but it is only when Dicky is arrested and put in jail that he is finally able to spread his wings and box with purpose.
But the film is hardly a simple redemptive story. For one thing, most of the redemption, such as it is, doesn’t involve the main protagonist. Micky’s done nothing wrong, other than dutifully follow his mother and older brother’s wishes (“I’m sick of being a fucking disappointment,” he says to Charlene), so the task of salvation really falls upon them, especially after Dicky gets out of prison and wants to work with Micky again. The film is filled with video clips and old movies of the brothers, including Dicky’s celebrated fight against Sugar Ray Leonard in the late ’70s, serving as the validation of their memory of things. It’s all that kind of weight Micky ultimately has to shrug off in order to better fully embrace who he is.
Purposefully, the film avoids many of the standard boxing tropes, while embracing others. It’s not a film of iconic moments, Russell shrewdly avoids indulging in grand gestures, rather he brings a neo-documentary mise en scene burnish to better realistically portray what could have been an easily overwrought narrative arc. To that end, his cast is flatly phenomenal, no one more so than Bale, who attacks Dicky’s lunatic charisma and twitchy energy with complete abandon, sporting a greasy sheen, deep-set eyes and rotting teeth, his is a Best Actor performance in the making. Leo is also brilliant, disavowing her normal intellectualism to channel this fiercely demanding and unstable mother figure. Wahlberg also does excellent work and works so flawlessly with Adams you can palpably feel their connection. Russell, who hadn’t made a film since the brilliant-but-manic I Heart Huckabees left him with a reputation as egocentric and batshit crazy needed a comeback as much as any of these characters. It looks like he’s got one.
Dir. Martin Scorsese
There’s little doubt that Martin Scorsese is one of America’s greatest living directors; but it’s also just as evident he’s lost a few miles off his fastball over the last decade or so. True, he finally won a long overdue Academy Award for 2006’s The Departed, but, frankly, the film doesn’t even crack his top ten. And here, with this wobbly would-be psychological thriller — based on a novel by the often-overreaching Dennis Lehane — Scorsese has, perhaps, made his weakest film since Gangs of New York.
Part of the problem might be his continued insistence on using Leonardo DiCaprio as his leading man. It’s not that DiCaprio isn’t a skilled actor — when he settles into a suitable role, he can be absolutely enthralling — it’s that his range isn’t anywhere near as extensive as his various A-List directors keep insisting it is. He’s like an NBA player with an effective mid-range jumper who keeps jumping out beyond the three-point line and hoisting up bricks. DiCaprio runs into trouble when he’s attempting to play older, more lived in and grizzled characters: With his perennially boyish face and a voice prone to breaking when he’s upset, he simply can’t convey the weight of time and anguish on a character’s shoulders. Meanwhile, the rest of the stellar talent Scorsese has assembled here, including Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow and Michelle Williams, are almost criminally wasted. It’s Leo’s show, in other words, and he’s simply not up to the task.
It also doesn’t help that Scorsese is adapting a Lehane novel (from a screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis). In previous works, such as Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone, Lehane has shown a propensity for overwrought, undercooked characters and nonsensical plotting; the trend continues here. DeCaprio plays Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshall who comes to this remote island asylum off of Boston Harbor with his partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo, who holds a perpetual expression of quizzical horror). Ostensibly, they are there to investigate the escape of one of their patients, a deranged woman (Emily Mortimer), who had drowned her children; however, it eventually comes out that Teddy has his own agenda in mind — trying to track down the killer of his wife, said also to be an inmate on the island.
Thus ensues a series of laborious and obvious dream sequences/psychotropic encounters between the increasingly agitated Teddy, his dead wife, piles of dead bodies, other prisoners and reams of scattered papers flying in the air. None of these sequences are terribly arresting or effective, a reaction that sadly can be said of the whole enterprise. Never before has Scorsese had to rely on such hoary visual metaphors: leaping flames, reverse smoke curling, crumbling ashes, pouring rain, spinning records. It’s as if he’s channeled an episode of “Twin Peaks” via Angel Heart, a film that plays similar mind tricks, but far more effectively. Scorsese can be commended for trying to break new ground — getting away from New York, Italians, mobsters and Robert DeNiro — but you still hate to see such a supreme talent working on a project so beneath him. When he’s churning out flicks that could have just as easily been made by Brett Ratner, you know it’s time for an intervention.
Dir. Ben Affleck
Pity poor Ben Affleck. By all accounts he’s a decent, intelligent, earnest kind of fellow, but he somehow keeps getting attached to projects that don’t properly reflect his talents. This is a guy, after all, who some critics (gulp!) suggested would be the bigger star after he and his buddy Matt Damon made Good Will Hunting.
This flick, his debut as a director, unfortunately continues this negative trend: It’s earnest and hard-working but makes little sense and isn’t believable for half-a-second. First of all, he’s cast his brother, Casey, as the lead heavy in a missing child film. Like his bro, Casey is likable, charismatic and even downhome-y, but he can’t carry a picture, especially matched up against actors like Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman (Ed. Note: Well, at least until The Assassination of Jesse James… came along).
The set-up has Affleck’s character, Patrick Kenzie, a small-time P.I. with his associate/girlfriend Angie (Michelle Monaghan) getting mixed up in a complicated missing-child case, working alongside a couple of other detectives (Ed Harris and John Ashton) on the trail of three-year-old Amanda (Madeline O’Brien), whose mother, a dope fiend, seems suspiciously less-than-hysterical at losing. All kinds of things happen, many of them poorly staged and clumsily rendered, including several overly long scenes with the characters doing long, revealing monologues about themselves.
Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane (Mystic River), many of the same wholly improbable elements seem at play. There are giant plot holes and far too many times where characters makes decisions that have no bearing on any kind of reality, but are essential for the wheezy stop-and-start plot. There are a few scenes of gritty realism (especially in the early going when Kenzie and his partner question people in a Southie bar), and a great deal of care to populate the film with real-looking people — excepting the main stars, you would be hard-pressed to find a scruffier and more homely looking group of people in a recent Hollywood film — but all the window dressing in the world can’t hide the fact that the entire story feels fabricated and farfetched, the kiss of death for a film attempting to portray urban realism.
This is Ben’s ‘Round the Way Girl’ film, an homage to all things Boston, from the accents to the rooftops, a scene he clearly knows very well, but he spends this valuable currency like it’s burning a hole in his pocket.