When a film that rakes in big box office numbers faces an alarming volume of critical backlash, it is a challenge for filmmakers and production companies to know what parts of their formula to tweak for the sequel. Case in point, 2012’s THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. While the franchise reboot was not universally panned, fans and critics who saw glaring issues with the film were much more vocal than you might find with other lifeless blockbusters. Sony Pictures and, by extension, director Marc Webb had to have had this in mind when developing THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, and the result is a sequel that is substantially better than that its predecessor. Don’t get me wrong; it isn’t a great film, and perhaps this review will be equal parts whining about what I don’t like and damning the film with otherwise faint praise. Either way, I think it is worth noting that the filmmakers at least tried to make a better film than the previous installment.
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 presents itself more like a trailer for the four upcoming Spider-man franchise films that have been announced than as a work that can stand on its own two feet. I’m not normally one to complain about franchise building in the age of modern-day filmmaking; Disney/Marvel thrives by positioning each of their films as a teaser for the next to come, and Warner Bros. is looking to emulate that strategy with the JUSTICE LEAGUE franchise. What the AVENGERS films do effectively is contain their narratives in way that are individually satisfying if not seen in the context of the overarching cinematic universe. THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, on the other hand, clumsily juggles several narrative threads that serve no purpose than to set up the sequels. Read the rest of this entry »
Clocking in at a brisk runtime of 93 minutes, DOM HEMINGWAY is a curious film that somehow manages to be both too ambitious and too short at the same time. Director Richard Shepard certainly knows the type of stories he wants to tell about the titular Dom Hemingway, a London safe-cracker looking for his place in the world after serving a 12 year stint in prison. Through the film, Hemingway struggles with readjusting to a world that has left him in the dust over the past decade of isolation, tries to collect on an old debt, longs for a relationship with his daughter and grandchild, and tries to reintegrate himself into the criminal underground.
Each of these story elements holds the potential for solid story telling, but the break-neck pace of the film rushes Dom from situation to situation without every allowing a scene to breath. A longer run time or a more judicious editing hand with the script may have solved this fatal problem, allowing either more time for plot points to play out, or elimination extraneous sequences. Instead, we’re left with the film that fails to cram four fully realized acts into a three act structure. Read the rest of this entry »
Filled with more bravado than common sense, young lovers Tommy (Michael Pitt) and Rosie (Nina Arianda) embark on a series of robberies targeting Mafia social clubs Raymond de Felitta’s ROB THE MOB. Armed with an uzi and a get away car, Tommy and Rosie discover that mobsters don’t bring guns to their social clubs, making them easy marks. Since the Mafia is an illegal operation that thrives by staying just off the radar, reporting these robberies to the police is impossible. However, when Tommy and Rosie stumble across a list outlining the names and ranks of the entire operation, they find themselves the focal point of the attention of the mob, law enforcement agencies, and a curious reporter.
It is a challenge to classify a film like ROB THE MOB. The absurdity of Tommy’s actions, and his unwillingness to believe that he might be making obvious mistakes, adds an awkward humor to the script, amplified by his near-bumbled heists. One of the funniest sequences of the film occurs as Tommy struggles with his uzi during a robbery, then accidentally sprays bullets recklessly around the bar. ROB THE MOB also showcases poignant dramatic sequences that ground the story and keep it from going off the rails. In a way, this lack of focus could be viewed as confusion on the part of the filmmaker, and indeed, some of the film’s pacing felt a tad clumsy. That said, the film’s identity confusion provides a happy accident of sorts, keeping it from straying too far into either screwball or maudlin territory.
Be it a drama or a comedy, at its core, ROB THE MOB is a love story between a pair of young lovers who simply don’t know any better. It would be easy to paint the pair as simple, clueless thieves who bite of more than they can chew, but ROB THE MOB lets the characters display exuberant passion and a dim charm that makes them impossible to root against. Fans of films like TRUE ROMANCE or BONNIE AND CLYDE should appreciate the spirit of the romance, even if the lovers find themselves involved in a self-inflicted precarious balancing act between what’s right and what’s profitable. Nina Arianda stands out amongst an already talented cast, cracking a sincere, if goofy grin whenever the film starts to take itself too seriously.
The film suffers a bit by trying to provide too many emotional layers to its supporting cast. From the weary mob boss (Andy Garcia) to the special agent (Frank Whaley) to the investigative report (Ray Ramano), everyone whose lives are touched by Tommy and Rosie ends up embarking on an emotional journey to evaluate their own actions. With more balance, this might have been effective, but here, it comes across as merely ham-fisted. This results in a defanged Mafia that are viewed in a bizarrely nostalgic light in some sequences of the film, surely against de Felitta’s intentions.
ROB THE MOB tries to be too many things to be considered a great film, but the love affair between Tommy and Rosie and the charismatic performances by Pitt and Arianda are enough to make it a good film. If you’re the type of person that enjoys seeing love thrive despite challenging circumstances, ROB THE MOB might just steal your heart.
7 / 10
Warning: Minor spoilers ahead. Nothing major, but still… you’ve been warned.
It is a fallacy to think that the technical and narrative strengths of a film can be completely divorced from the social context that often shades our emotional reaction to that film. In a lot of ways, I would love to simply dive in to a review of Darren Aronofsky’s NOAH. Is it a good film? Is it entertaining? Does it leave an impact? Unfortunately, the social context of this film, as well as the many lenses through which this film can possibly be viewed, colors my answer. I ask that you indulge me as I explore some of these lenses before I give my own personal reaction to the film.
Biblical films come pre-weighted with a good deal of bias these days, and have ever since the Moral Majority placed its stamp on popular media in the 1980s. Modern Biblical films like the Kirk Cameron LEFT BEHIND series, FIREPROOF, and to a lesser degree, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, garner large amounts of attention from a niche audience comprising heavily of extreme fundamentalists, while also invoking the ire of the smug anti-religious type. Both groups are at polar opposite ends of the spectrum; most people fall somewhere in between, caring very little if the films succeed or fail. This makes Biblical films difficult to market outside of the niche crowd, and presented Darren Aronofsky with a peculiar problem: do you design a film for the fundamentalist, or do you create a subversive work designed to get the anti-religious type in your corner? To his credit, Aronofsky did neither, but we’ll get back to that in a moment. Read the rest of this entry »
A Wes Anderson film is always going to look like a Wes Anderson film, creating a consistency that die hard fans have come to love, and critics might find exhausting. Anderson’s latest offering, The Grand Budapest Hotel, relies on many of the familiar Anderson-isms that we have come to expect of the director: vivid colors, outlandish characters, plot twists that remain whimsical even when exploring dark territory, and sets that look lovingly and painstakingly hand designed. I could probably get away with ending my review there; if you like Wes Anderson’s aesthetic, you’ll enjoy The Grand Budapest Hotel, and if you find it tedious, you should probably skip it.
Boom. Review done, under 200 words.
Okay, for those of you still reading, you might be looking for something a bit more substantive, and I am quite happy to oblige. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a story inside of a story inside of a story, creating a narrative that presents itself as a cinematic Russian nesting doll. Our framing story is that of an author recounting his most notable interview; that interview, in turn, is of a successful citizen of the fictional country of Zubrowka who tells the story of his time as the lobby boy of the Grand Budapest Hotel in the 1930s. Fortunately, Anderson doesn’t spend too much time on either framing story, spending most of his time with the lobby boy and his mentor, M. Gustave, avoiding what could have made for a confusing set of timelines. Read the rest of this entry »
Like most writers, I try to find an entertaining hook or an interesting angle for each piece I write. As I prepared to write this review of Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, a documentary chronicling the life, career, and vivacity of a Broadway and Hollywood legend, my initial instinct was to focus on Elaine herself. After all, at 87 years of age, Elaine Stritch continues to live a fascinating life, performing one-woman musical shows, and making waves dropping F bombs on the set of ‘Today’ with Kathie Lee and Hota. Elaine is a badass who lives her life by a no bullshit policy that somehow makes her refreshing instead of caustic.
We’ll get back to Elaine in a moment, though. The most important thing I can impart to my readers about Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is just how spot-on director and producer Chiemi Karasawa’s instincts are in the creation of this documentary. Karasawa avoids unnecessary voice-overs and narration, allowing interviews with Elaine herself to carry the narrative of the documentary. When producing a documentary about a woman as full of vigor and charm as Stritch, allowing anyone else to tell her tale would be a disservice to the audience. Sure, Karasawa interweaves short interview segments with colleagues and friends, but these pieces are not meant to tell Stritch’s story as much as to provide framework and structure for the segments featuring Stritch herself to flourish. Read the rest of this entry »
You know that thing that happens when you make a photocopy, and then photocopy that photocopy, and you end up with a copy that comes nowhere near the quality of the original document? Well, the 2014 crime thriller The Bag Man, starring John Cusack, fits this description perfectly, presenting itself as a second-rate imitation of a mid-90s Quentin Tarantino flick. By itself, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Early Tarantino films combined quirky, charismatic characters with witty dialogue and dangerous situations in such a way as to always be interesting. The Bag Man tries to recreate this formula without understanding why the individual elements are necessary or how to craft them properly, churning out an end product that is somehow tedious and ponderous despite the numerous ‘what the fuck’ moments the film hurls at us.
The first sixty seconds of The Bag Man sets up the film’s relatively simple plot: crime lord Dragna (Robert De Niro) wants a criminal named Jack (John Cusack) to pick up a mysterious bag, check in to a seedy motel, and protect the bag in exchange for a hefty sum of money. Cusack only has one instruction: under no circumstances is he to look inside the bag. Once at the motel, things devolve into violence quickly as Cusack faces a rogue’s gallery of weird and quirky characters, including a blue-haired prostitute with potentially deceptive intentions, a dwarf in a track suit, a pimp with an eyepatch, Crispin Glover, and a squad of corrupt cops hell-bent on stopping him. Set amidst the gun fights and the double-dealing, the audience is drawn through the story wondering what’s in the box bag. Read the rest of this entry »