Saturday, February 18, 2012

Movie Reviews-Beneath the Darkness, Drive, Phantom Punch, Death to Smoochy

Beneath The Darkness
"And I would have gotten away with it too if it wasn't for you meddling kids!!"
If you recognize and are amused by this quote then Beneath the Darkness might be tolerable for you. If you know where it comes from and don't find it funny at all then you should probably skip this film. If you never heard that before then this film will be new to you but I still can't recommend it without reservation.
Dennis Quaid plays a small town widower Texas mortician and former football hero named Ely, who in the opening scene jogs up to a neighbor walking his dog, boasts about his biceps and then produces a gun and tells the neighbor he's had this coming for a very long time. Ely takes the neighbor for a ride in his van. A one way ride that is.
Well at least the dog gets away. I wouldn't have liked it if the dog had gotten killed too. Dogs are cool. Neighbors? I can take them or leave them. Some neighbors I'd miss. Others???
I'd have to think about that for a while. 

Fast forward to the local high school in which a troubled teen, (is there any other kind?) Travis (Tony Oller) is not doing well academically.  He believes he had a paranormal experience when his sister died. So it makes PERFECT sense that he works as a cemetery groundskeeper for the just this side of manic Ely. Travis argues with his Mom about his faulty schoolwork and lackadaisical attitude. He hangs out with three other teens, one of whom is a girl, Abby (Aimee Teagarden) whom Travis would also like to take on a ride, but presumably a different kind than that which Ely gave to his neighbor. Abby however, appears to be more interested in another member of of the foursome, the quarterback of the football team. The names are REALLY not important. There's Travis, the quarterback, Abby, and Travis' best friend, who is apparently a wide receiver.
Foolishly, Travis admits his belief in the supernatural to his friends. Quarterback mocks him. To keep the peace Abby and Wide Receiver Guy point out that there are rumors of paranormal activity at Ely's house. The group agrees to go ghost hunting there though Quarterback reserves the right to mock Travis if nothing happens. Well something does happen. The group breaks into Ely's home and sees something that should not be. But Ely surprises them and chases them off. Well, Ely chases them all off except Wide Receiver Guy, who he kills in such a way that it looks like an accident. The film's balance is as you might suspect a series of chess moves between Ely and the remaining trio as they try to reveal his secret and stay out of jail. This may appeal to you. I dunno. I felt it it was extremely derivative of a certain 70's cartoon show.

I wasn't expecting too much from this movie. I thought it was just going to be another take on Fast and Furious or Faster. I was wrong. Gloriously, totally and indubitably wrong. Drive is actually a modern film noir but in color. It's a throwback to a movie making style last seen in the seventies, in which directors are fine with just letting things play out at their own pace. Not everything is explained.
If Drive has one moral it would be "A man's gotta have a code". The hero of the movie is unnamed. Let's call him Driver (Ryan Gosling). Driver doesn't talk much. He lets his actions speak for him. Driver works in a garage owned by the garrulous Shannon (Bryan Cranston). Driver also works as a Hollywood stunt car driver, a racer and as a getaway driver for armed robbers.  Driver appears to be at peace with himself and the world.
Driver meets a pretty young woman Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son when they have car trouble. As it turns out they are neighbors and Driver starts spending time with Irene. Again this moves slowly and naturally. They DON'T have sex.
Shannon is looking for the big score so he arranges for Driver to be backed in his racing by the mobsters Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Pearlman in a very menacing role). Bernie and Nino have loyalty to each other and that's the extent of their milk of human kindness. Unfortunately for Driver's future plans for Irene, her convict husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is released from prison and is about as happy as you might expect he would be to find another man trying to shake his peach tree. He not so subtly warns Driver off. Driver complies. But not soon after Standard is badly beaten and must ask for Driver's help. This sets off a chain of events that cause all of Driver's carefully separated worlds to start to collapse together.

The lighting, attitude, acting and action of this movie are just superb. Top notch stuff. I wish there were more movies done like this. You really enjoy the quiet parts and the frantic parts of this movie. It uses dynamics in its pacing and storyline. This could have won an Oscar. Well maybe that's stretching it a bit but it's not just a drive-fast shoot-em-up movie. Gosling does a really good job here. Camera work excites without leaving you queasy. Albert Brooks and Ron Pearlman play off each other nicely as the gentleman gangster and unreconstructed thug, respectively. Check this one out. It's easily the best of today's group. No competition. Look for Christina Hendricks in a small role.

Phantom Punch
I hadn't seen anything by Robert Townsend in a very long time so I decided to check this out. This movie purports to tell the true story of Charles "Sonny" Liston, one time thug and mob heavy, one time heavyweight champion of the world, who lost two controversial fights to Muhammad Ali and later died in very suspicious circumstances. The film title refers to the widespread belief that Liston, at the behest of his mob backers, took a dive in the second fight.

This should have been a better movie than it was. It starred Ving Rhames as Sonny Liston. Although I can't immediately think of someone who could have theoretically better captured Liston's aura of menace and forboding, the harsh fact is that Rhames was a few years too old for this role. His acting was the best in the film but it wasn't enough. Phantom Punch is apparently low budget. The camera work is okay but the sets and lighting, with a few exceptions don't really hold up. I understand that a film about Liston does not want to focus on Ali. But given that Ali was known as "The Mouth From The South" for his nonstop chatter, mastery of the dozens and general ability to get under the skin of opponents, it doesn't make a lot of sense to have the actor playing Ali be virtually silent.

The fights definitely don't convince the viewer as to authenticity. I mean they REALLY don't. Nick Turtorro plays Caesar Novak, Liston's direct mob handler. David Proval is the local mob boss. Stacey Dash plays Sonny's wife Geraldine, while Bridgette Wilson-Sampras is Caesar's girlfriend Farah. This movie suggests that Liston's demise was as much for personal (and classic) reasons related to Farah as it was for business ones. Generally this had a very made for TV/direct to DVD feel to it. There were some accurate depictions of incidents in Liston's life and of the open and casual racism of police officers and sportswriters. The film did have a strong sense of sadness and wasted talent which it could have investigated further. Phantom Punch made me want to learn more about Liston but it wasn't that entertaining (Dash and Sampras-Wilson in tight/revealing clothing aside)

Death to Smoochy
Okay just upfront, I liked this film a LOT.  It was however a complete box office disaster. I think the mixture of kids' shows, cynicism and mobsters was a bit too much for most people.
It is an adult comedy that centers around kids' shows. There is a tension here between TV producers and performers who are presumably trying to inculcate good, selfless behavior in children while at the same time fighting for ratings, raiding other shows for talent and generally behaving in all sorts of selfish, if not criminal ways.
One performer who has become thoroughly disillusioned by the whole sordid business is Rainbow Randolph (Robin Williams) the current popular host of a top ranked children's show.
Randolph is about this close to telling everyone where they can go and has long since lost any sense of happiness at entertaining children. He is only concerned about making sure his checks clear. When Randolph is busted in an FBI bribery sting operation, the self-serving station president Stokes (Jon Stewart) doesn't want to know him any more. The show's hard driving head producer Nora Wells (Catherine Keener) drops him.
The producers want a soft sap who won't make any waves and they think they've found what they need in Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton) an earnestly submissive and irritatingly pleasant and optimistic young man who performs as Smoochy the Rhino. Mopes was playing to literally captive audiences in methadone clinics. This didn't bother him. Mopes is the kind of man who, if someone throws something heavy at his head, will reluctantly duck and then calmly ask if the assailant wants to talk about her feelings. There are reasons for his demeanor though.

However as rapidly becomes apparent, Mopes actually believes in helping kids first and foremost. Mopes believes in organic foods and is anti-sugar. He gets extremely agitated at any suggestion of commercialism or endorsement activities. At first this is merely mildly annoying to Wells and Mopes' agent Burke Bennett (Danny  Devito). But as Mopes holds his ground, showing previously unknown backbone, Bennett and Wells start to run afoul of the larger crime charities, including one presided over by Merv Green (Harvey Fierstein). They are decidedly NOT happy about having their income stream limited by Mopes and put pressure on Bennett to get him to play ball. Or else.

Meanwhile the disgraced, impoverished and increasingly insane Rainbow Randolph is shocked to see that the show's ratings are better with Smoochy. He convinces himself that he must get rid of Smoochy, by disgrace and scandal if possible, or by good old fashioned murder if necessary. Williams carries this movie. I loved his over the top performance here. I am really confused as to why this film didn't do better but everyone has different needs for humor I guess. It's fair to say that Keener and Norton don't light up the screen together but again, Williams' performance more than makes up for that in my view. 
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