CVIndependent

Mon04062020

Last updateFri, 03 Apr 2020 5pm

Bob Grimm

Paul Williams was one of the entertainment heroes of my youth (along with Ernest Borgnine). The little singer-songwriter was everywhere: awards shows, The Love Boat, The Muppet Movie, Bugsy Malone, etc.

And then, one day, the dude mostly disappeared. I’d see him get a songwriting credit here and there, but for the most part, he seemed to have gone away.

It makes sense that director Stephen Kessler, also a Williams fan, would think he was dead. Upon finding out that Paul Williams was still alive, he set out to meet him, and eventually made this highly enjoyable film, Paul Williams Still Alive. (It's being released on DVD today, Feb. 5.)

It turns out Paul was fighting some chemical-dependency demons. Also, with the death of variety shows and weekly television shows relying on guest stars (The Love Boat, Fantasy Island), there just weren’t many places for Williams to show his face on the boob tube.

Kessler takes his camera along on a small tour and visits Williams at his house. What makes this movie so much fun is how Williams interacts with Kessler. Sometimes, he’s friendly; sometimes, he’s a little nasty. All in all, he’s a great sport, and shows that he can laugh at himself and take criticism like a champ. 

The strange thing about Williams is he almost looks younger as an older man. He certainly doesn’t look his age (72), and that long hair has been replaced by a short, spiky hairdo that looks cool. His singing voice remains distinctive and cuddly. Nobody else sounds like Williams, and nobody ever will.

It's good to see that Williams is clean and sober, and nice to find that interest in him remains healthy. Hey, this is the guy who wrote “The Rainbow Connection,” “Evergreen” and “We’ve Only Just Begun,” for God’s sake. It’s about time we showed him some respect here in the relatively new millennium.

By the way, if you have never seen Bugsy Malone, the musical gangster movie parody with an all-youth cast including Scott Baio and Jodie Foster, seek out the Blu-ray. It’s an overlooked classic.

Special Features: There’s some additional Paul Williams concert footage, and that’s a good thing, but the disc could’ve used some more stuff. 

This genuinely chilling haunted fairy tale comes from producer Guillermo del Toro and writer/director Andres Muschietti, and is based on Mushcietti’s original short film.

Two little girls are abandoned by their demented father in the forest. They are discovered years later and adopted by their uncle (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend (Jessica Chastain). The little girls have taken on the characteristics of feral beasts and are convinced they are being watched over by a force they call “Mama.”

As it turns out, Mama is very real—a decent CGI creation that is both scary and just the right touch of funny. The film works well, not just because Muschietti knows how to construct a good scare, but also because he does a great job getting you to care for the little girls and the Chastain character.

Chastain, looking rather gothic, delivers another good performance, even though she isn’t very convincing as a bass player in a punk band. I was scared throughout much of this movie.

Mama is playing at theaters across the valley.

Arnold Schwarzenegger returns to a starring role with The Last Stand, a film that falls somewhere in the middle of the Arnie canon. It’s not a terrible effort—but it’s not anything to get all that excited about, either.

Arnie is back, murdering the English language with his own special brand of finesse—but he’s refusing to take his top off. He needs a little more time with the HGH so he can take off his shirt, Stallone style! Yep, Stallone is 66 and has no problem showing off his gloriously fake old-guy pecs.

Arnie plays Ray Owens, sheriff of a small town near the Mexican border. When stopping at a local diner to have some coffee, he notices one of the patrons is played by Peter “Where is pancakes house?” Stormare (the actor who put Steve Buscemi through the wood-chipper in Fargo). Ray correctly assesses that this guy means trouble—and bad things begin to happen.

A drug-cartel baddie named Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) has busted out of a U.S. prison and is racing toward Ray’s town in an incredibly fast Corvette in an attempt to cross the border. The Stormare character is part of a team sent in advance to make sure conditions are clear for crossing—which means shooting a farmer brandishing a shotgun and demanding he get off the land. The angry farmer is played by, of course, Harry Dean Stanton.

Ray has “seen things,” thanks to his prior L.A. cop days, so he’s prepared for a good fight. His deputies include wet-behind-the-ears newbie Jerry (Zach Gilford), the hot-girl deputy (Jaimie Alexander) and another cop played by Luis Guzmán, who, like Stanton, always seems to show up in movies like this.

The same can be said about Johnny Knoxville, who once again finds himself playing wily comic relief in a sheriff-takes-a-stand” movie (something he did, with little success, with The Rock in Walking Tall). He’s basically around to wear kooky hats and make funny faces. I have come to the conclusion that I do not enjoy Knoxville onscreen unless he’s being struck in the gonads by a charging bull.

A subplot involves an FBI guy (Forest Whitaker) tracking Gabriel. He makes a couple of crucial phone calls to Ray, and spends much of the movie staring at computer screens and acting antsy. Didn’t this guy once win an Oscar?

Director Jee-woon Kim offers up some great car chases (including an especially good one in a dried-out corn field), some decent explosions and lots of cartoon violence. The film is never boring, and gets good grades for its action content. However, it is not on par with Kim’s A Tale of Two Sisters, one of the best horror films of the past 10 years.

As for the plot, it feels like a movie you have seen before, like the aforementioned Walking Tall, or even Cop Land, which starred a somber Sly Stallone as a lonely sheriff taking a stand against corruption. Stallone played that role when his career was in the midst of a dip, and he was looking to change up his image. As we know, Stallone didn’t get things swinging again until he played Rocky and Rambo as old guys. Similarly, Schwarzenegger probably won’t see his career spark up quite yet. Fortunately for him, his future slate includes a new Terminator; a shirtless, older Conan the Barbarian with saggy man tits; and a sequel to Twins. The meager first-weekend box office for The Last Stand proves that the general public could care less about Schwarzenegger emoting in a sheriff’s uniform.

Surprisingly, this probably contains Arnie’s best acting yet. He has a few moments when it almost seems like he knows how to actually act. I guess nearly two decades in politics gave him a chance to hone his bullshitting skills.

Mediocre movie aside, it’s good to see Arnold back on the big screen in a central role. Next time out, I’m hoping his movie is a little better. 

The Last Stand is playing at theaters across the valley.

This riveting cop thriller, released on DVD and Blu-Ray today (Tuesday, Jan. 22), features strong work from Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña as Los Angeles cops who get themselves in a lot of trouble with a drug cartel.

End of Watch was written and directed by David Ayer, who is no stranger to cop dramas. He wrote Training Day and directed Street Kings, another film about the LAPD. He also directed Christian Bale—quite well, I might add—in Harsh Times. End of Watch proves to be his greatest achievement to date.

I was a little worried this was going to be a found-footage film (a genre I have come to hate) when Gyllenhaal’s character started filming stuff for a project. A little bit of his footage works its way into the film, but this is mostly a straightforward narrative without that particular gimmick.

The supporting cast includes Anna Kendrick as Janet, Gyllenhaal’s gal pal, while America Ferrera is good as a fellow officer. There’s also Frank Grillo, so good in last year’s The Grey, as another officer.

Universal tried to build some Oscar buzz for Gyllenhaal and Peña, but the effort failed to get them any nominations. The campaign made sense, though, because these guys elevate End of Watch beyond a decent thriller, making it into something quite memorable.

Up next for Ayer? A movie called Ten, another drug-cartel/cop thriller starring some dude named Arnold Schwarzenegger. Looks like Ayer is sticking close to home with his topics in the future.

Special Features: Ayer provides a good commentary. You also get five behind-the-scenes featurettes and some deleted scenes. 

Tim Burton directs Frankenweenie, an enjoyable black-and-white stop-motion-animation film about a family dog being resurrected ... FRANKENSTEIN STYLE. (It’s based on a short film Burton did 28 years ago.)

While the story isn’t especially electric, the art direction is superb, and there are enough good laughs to make it worthwhile. Also worth noting: Winona Ryder voices a young-girl character who looks suspiciously like Lydia, her character in Burton’s Beetlejuice.

Other voices include Burton alumni such as Catherine O’Hara and Martin Landau, once again utilizing his Bela Lugosi voice from Ed Wood. A finale sequence involving a giant, Gamera-like turtle and rabid sea monkeys gives the film a nice retro-horror feel.

The year 2012 was fun for stop-motion animation, with this film and ParaNorman. I would have to give a slight edge to ParaNorman, because that one felt so fresh and new. This one has Burton up to his old tricks. Granted, his old tricks are fun tricks, but they are old tricks just the same.

Special Features: There’s a fun look at the Comic-Con exhibit folks were able to visit last year. You also get a behind-the-scenes look at the London production. (I’m always surprised by the size of the sets for these films.) Best of all, you get the original live action short starring Shelley Duvall, Daniel Stern and a very young Sofia Coppola.

The release date of Gangster Squad was delayed after the Aurora, Colo., theater shootings, due to a scene depicting violence in a movie theater. That scene, which was featured in the trailer, has been removed.

Well, they should’ve scrapped the whole picture. This movie is a mess.

Gangster Squad depicts a fictional account of the Los Angeles Police Department’s “under the table” efforts to remove gangster Mickey Cohen (played here by a truly awful Sean Penn) from power. While next to nothing in this movie actually happened, I can forgive a little artistic license when it comes to a gangster pic.

What I can’t forgive is cartoon caricatures, terrible performances, a misguided directorial tone and a crappy screenplay.

The film is set in 1949 Los Angeles, where Cohen has a firm grip on organized crime and the cops. Well-meaning LAPD Chief Parker (a typically grizzly Nick Nolte) tells brave Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to leave his badge at home; gather a squad of badasses; and disrupt Cohen’s operations.

The squad includes soft-voiced Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), an officer who plays with his lighter a lot. There’s also the brainiac (Giovanni Ribisi) who will spend much of the movie wearing headphones and tinkering with things.

There’s the knife-wielding officer, Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), who will throw a knife at someone’s hand in a crowded nightclub, even though he’s a cop and probably shouldn’t be doing things like that. And, finally, there’s the comic-book hero (Robert Patrick) and his sidekick (Michael Peña), two wisecracks who are great with their guns.

Director Ruben Fleischer is shooting for an authentic late-’40s gangster-film feel, he but achieves something more akin to parody. The film feels like a bunch of usually decent actors are playing dress-up with their toy guns; they all seem lost.

Emma Stone wastes her time as perhaps the film’s most-bizarre character. She is Cohen’s etiquette coach (rather than making her a straight-up hooker), somebody who is sleeping with a monster and then two-timing him with Gosling’s Wooters.

Good luck trying to make that character sympathetic. They dress Stone in heavy makeup and flashy dresses, and feed her terrible dialogue. She’s completely wrong for the role, although I would have a hard time picking somebody right for it.

Penn has chewed scenery before (I Am Sam, Casualties of War). This time out, he doesn’t just chew the scenery; he’s a freaking wood-chipper. I appreciate Penn as an actor, but sometimes—just sometimes—he can be terrible. This is one of those times.

Regrettably, the usually reliable Gosling is just as bad, and perhaps worse. He decides to utilize a voice that makes him sound like a 12 year-old kid doing a lame James Cagney impersonation. It’s bad to the point of distraction, as is his action of constantly flipping his lighter. We get it, Ryan Gosling … you learned how to flip your lighter, ’40s style. Now knock it off.

Gangster Squad lacks originality, a sense of purpose, style, class, Michael Keaton (although it feels like his Johnny Dangerously character could pop out any moment) and a basic overall reason for being. The problem wasn’t the violent movie-theater scene they had to excise. The whole damn thing stinks. 

Gangster Squad is playing at theaters across the valley.

With Zero Dark Thirty (to be reviewed later this week) opening locally on Jan. 11, the controversial SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama bin Laden—which aired on the National Geographic channel during the elections—comes to home video.

This film takes more of an action-movie approach, utilizing fictional interviews with Team 6 members and CIA operatives to tell its story. For a TV movie, it isn’t half bad.

Compared to Zero Dark Thirty, it doesn’t stack up dramatically or technically—but it did manage to keep me engaged. I watched both films on the same day, and I can tell you that the major difference that occurs during the Osama raid is that one film has Osama armed, while the other just has him running around in a robe.

A “gung-ho” feeling pervades this film. As for the political controversy, it does have real shots of Obama and his cabinet watching the mission, and a lot of Obama voiceovers. One does get the feeling that the makers of this movie had a favorite candidate for president in the last election.

Overall, this movie was a lot better than I thought it was going to be. It’s not good, but it’s not bad, either.

SPECIAL FEATURES: The only special feature is a short making-of featurette. 

The controversial Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow’s excellently crafted version of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, has a bunch of politicians and CIA officials crying foul. This makes me think the movie must contain some harsh truths and grim realities about the war on terror.

The film is virtually absent of politics, or any of that “America, fuck yeah!” nonsense. It offers an interpretation of the steps that were taken, and the deeds that were done, to rid the world of a true menace. Many of those deeds are done in a calm, calculated and perhaps even cold manner; at times, the film is spooky to watch. The people depicted in this movie mean business, and will do whatever it takes to get a job done. That includes waterboarding and literally scaring the shit out of detainees.

The film starts with a black screen and some terrifying messages left by Sept. 11 victims as they were close to death in the Twin Towers. It sets the tone for the unsettling film that’s about to happen.

We see Maya (Jessica Chastain)—a new, determined CIA officer (apparently a composite character of actual people) on the Bin Laden case—about to witness a torture chamber. Dan (Jason Clarke), another CIA agent, will use waterboarding, isolation boxes, dog collars and psychological mind games to try to draw some names out of a strong-willed detainee (a powerful Reda Kateb). Dan eventually gets a big name out of the detainee, and a long hunt that will see many casualties, including CIA agents, begins in earnest.

Is the movie pro-torture? Definitely not. Is it anti-torture? It isn’t that, either. The film is supposedly being investigated for using classified information when it comes to American interrogation tactics. Thankfully, I am no expert on the matter. This is a movie that leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether these types of interrogation methods were necessary in the pursuit of bin Laden.

Zero Dark Thirty clocks in at 157 minutes, with all but 40 of those devoted to Maya’s behind-the-scenes, dogged pursuit of public enemy No. 1. The last 40 minutes completely switch gears, as the film becomes an intense depiction of the final SEAL Team 6 mission that ended with “Geronimo.” All 157 minutes are top-notch, provocative and incendiary filmmaking. Bigelow has most certainly topped herself, including her Oscar-winning effort The Hurt Locker.

As for the raid itself, it’s dark and quiet. From the muffled “fwup, fwup, fwup” of the experimental helicopters (one of which crashed) as they swerve through mountain ranges, to the quick and decisive shots ending lives in that now-familiar structure in Pakistan, it’s all precise and stealthy. The aspect of the raid that unsettled me the most was the way Navy SEALS are depicted quietly and invitingly calling out the name “Osama?” before they shoot him.

Chastain, in just a couple of years, has become one of the world’s most dynamic, downright-reliable actresses. From her Oscar-nominated turn in The Help, to her beautiful supporting work in The Tree of Life and Take Shelter, she is creating one memorable character after another. Maya is her crowning achievement, and the role should get her another Oscar nomination.

Clarke is eerily effective as an interrogation man who needs a break and heads back to Washington, D.C., for a desk job. Kyle Chandler is appropriately complicated as Joseph Bradley, the CIA station chief in Islamabad. Jennifer Ehle plays a strangely happy and charged-up CIA agent, who goes so far as to bake a cake for an interviewee. (I know Bigelow and crew added some fiction to their story, but this seemed a little far-fetched. I was more convinced by the Maserati that somebody got for an interview than I was by the cake baking.)

As for the Team 6 sequence, Joel Edgerton (Warrior) and Chris Pratt (TV’s Parks and Recreation) are standouts. (Pratt’s character is listening to Tony Robbins as the helicopter approaches its final destination.) He tells his comrades that he has plans after the mission. Perhaps Bigelow is suggesting that the Pratt character is the Team 6 member who eventually wrote the best-selling No Easy Day.

Ultimately, Zero Dark Thirty is a film epic and efficient enough to be compared to the great films of Coppola, Scorsese and Kubrick. It’s an important and engaging piece of work from a director who looks like she is just starting to hit her stride.

Zero Dark Thirty <i>opens at theaters across the valley on Friday, Jan. 11.</i>

Promised Land wants to be a message movie, but it's too messy to deliver that message coherently.

Originally slated to be Matt Damon's directorial debut, it was instead directed by his pal Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting), who, with this and last year's mawkish Restless, finds himself in a bit of a slump. Although Damon relinquished the director's chair, he shared screenwriting duties with John Krasinski, and both have big roles in the film.

Damon plays Steve Butler, a likable corporate pawn for a natural-gas company who is sent to a farming town with a mandate to sell the community on allowing its presence. That presence would mean a lot of "fracking," a natural-gas extraction process that involves deep drilling—and some possible environmental side effects.

Steve is presented as a virtuous fellow who looks to do well and get ahead. He's just about to get a big promotion, and with a wisecracking co-worker at his side (Frances McDormand), he's set to sell fracking to a town filled with differing opinions on what to do with the land. Some, like Paul (Lucas Black), are looking for a big payday, while others, like Frank (a well-placed Hal Holbrook), look to get in Steve's way.

Also looking to get in Steve's way is Dustin (Krasinski), an environmentalist who claims that fracking wrecks farms and kills livestock. He posts pictures of dead cows around town and playfully intimidates Steve at local bars. He even makes a move on Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), the small-town girl Steve has his eyes on.

Is Promised Land trying to preach that fracking and natural gas are bad choices? I really couldn't tell you. The film is more preoccupied with giving us a nice, happy, pleasant outcome for Steve. Van Sant wants you to leave this movie thinking Damon's Steve is just swell—even if he did put people's livelihoods and land in jeopardy.

There's also a big twist that is nothing but a screenwriting stunt to throw viewers off-course. It completely undermines any "message" the film is trying to deliver, and comes off as something that would never, ever happen.

It's too bad. I liked the idea of Van Sant tackling a simple farm-town story—but the Damon/Krasinski screenplay betrays him in the end. Damn your pen, Matt Damon!

Damon's acting is OK. He's playing somebody similar in mannerisms to the character he played in We Bought a Zoo. (He wrote Promised Land with Krasinski while taking breaks from making Zoo.) His acting is better than his writing. The same can't be said for Krasinski, who both writes and acts badly here. Love the dude on The Office, but I'm lukewarm on him at the movies thus far.

As for McDormand, she rises above the material and makes her moments worth watching. The same can be said for DeWitt, who made a habit this year of showing her face in movies unworthy of her. She also starred in the mediocre Nobody Walks, the lousy The Odd Life of Timothy Green and The Watch. (I am one of the few critics who actually liked that one.)

Promised Land left me feeling weird, and I don't think that was its intention. Sure, it made me curious about fracking, but the film chickened out and failed to deliver a meaningful statement on anything. Van Sant has made an awkward movie that will be fracking forgotten by this time next year.

Promised Land is playing in theaters across the valley.

If you missed this one in theaters, you missed one of the year’s best big-screen experiences. Director Rian Johnson’s time-travel thriller is startlingly good-looking film.

It’s also a great brain-twister, featuring a bravura performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Joe, a hired assassin killing people sent back from the future the instant they pop up in front of him. Things get a little kooky when the person sent back to be offed is actually an older version of himself (a strong Bruce Willis).

Gordon-Levitt wears makeup to achieve a look more akin to Willis, but it’s the smirk and airy voice that really nail it down. Gordon-Levitt had a blockbuster year with this and The Dark Knight Rises, with this being the best screen work he has done to date.

A supporting cast including Paul Dano, Noah Segan and Jeff Daniels is top-notch. Dano is especially good as a fellow assassin (or “looper”) who loses his nerve at the wrong time—and pays a grisly price.

In a role that isn’t getting the notice it deserves (although she has gotten a nomination from the Broadcast Film Critics Association), Emily Blunt takes a break from funny stuff to deliver stellar work as a mom protecting a strange son (played by talented child actor Pierce Gagnon). Blunt holds her own with Gordon-Levitt, matching him at every turn.

Willis gets a chance to do some seedy stuff as his character goes on an unfortunate crusade. He does a good job of making his version of Joe a sympathetic character, even as he does unspeakable things.

As time-travel movies go, this is one of the best. The moment when future Joe sits down in a diner with present Joe is a real winner. (The universe does not end, as Doc Brown predicted would happen in Back to the Future Part II.) If you missed this on the big screen, don’t fret: The Blu-ray will look mighty good in your living room.

Let it be noted that this movie cost $30 million to make, according to IMDb.com. That’s a pretty low budget considering the look Johnson has achieved. It seems like the movie would’ve cost five times that amount, at least.

Special Features: A great commentary with the director, Gordon-Levitt and Blunt. It’s actually one of the year’s better commentaries, a truly fun listen. You also get deleted scenes, a couple of featurettes on the making of the film, and a short doc about the film’s score.