Thursday, June 24, 2010

"Holy Rollers" a Tough Sell

“Holy Rollers” a Strange but True Crime Tale

If “Holy Rollers” weren’t based on actual incidents, one might be tempted to dismiss it as too far-fetched.
First-time director Kevin Asch and screenwriter Antonio Macia swear this cautionary tale was based on actual events in 1998, when a small group of Hasidic Jews were busted for smuggling more than 1 million ecstasy pills from Amsterdam to New York City over the course of a year.
How could members of one of the most conservative, Orthodox sects of Judaism be involved in such a crime?, one might ask.
The short answer is naivety. A longer answer involves temptation, greed and weakness of spirit.
Sam Gold (Jesse Eisenberg) is a 20-year-old member of Brooklyn’s Hasidic Jewish community. He works in his father’s clothing business, but the family hopes he will be inspired to become a rabbi.
Sam’s best friend Yosef (Justin Bartha) introduces him to a slick operator named Jackie Solomon (Danny A. Abeckaser). Jackie says the guys can make some quick cash simply by transporting “medicine” from Holland to America. Because Hasidic Jews are considered above reproach it would be unlikely they would be troubled too much by customs authorities.
With his innocent, boyish face, Sam certainly doesn’t look like a drug runner, and the fact he is attracted to Jackie’s pretty girlfriend Rachel (Ari Graynor) makes the deal all the more attractive.
It’s a story as old as the Book of Genesis. If you know the Bible or the Torah, you know once a man yields to temptation, there is the devil to pay.
As inevitable as the fate of Sam Gold is, Jesse Eisenberg keeps it interesting by his convincing characterization of a truly naïve, basically good young man who is quickly changed into someone quite unrecognizable, and totally heedless of his peril.
Shot in just 18 days, “Holy Rollers” has a rough documentary feel to it. It is certainly not a feel-good movie. I can’t imagine what niche audience it fits. There are bad apples in every kind of religion. In an increasingly mistrustful world, no one is above suspicion.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Joan Rivers a Fearless Survivor

Say what you will about Joan Rivers, she is one remarkable, brave and brutally honest woman.
I am not a Rivers basher. I got to see the human side of her 25 years ago, when by a fluke I ended up spending a day with her in a limo ride to Miami and back to speak to a group of students.
“Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” goes great lengths to humanize a comedian who has become a caricature of herself.
This documentary by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg was filmed over the course of a year, as Rivers was turning 75 (she turned 76 June 8).
Interspersed with contemporary footage are vintage clips from early in her career, before Rivers embarked on all the plastic surgery that would turn her into a smooth-faced, puffy-lipped freak.
Rivers apologizes for nothing; not the face-lifts, the Botox, the filthy mouth, her extravagant lifestyle or her neediness. Joan Rivers is a performance junkie of the first order. Without her bully pulpit of concerts and comedy clubs she would die, quite literally, like her husband Edgar Rosenberg, who committed suicide in 1987- three months after the Fox late night talk show produced by Rosenberg and starring Rivers was cancelled.
It has been said that great comedy comes of pain, and Rivers certainly has had her share of pain. One of her most painful losses was the abandonment of her one-time champion, Johnny Carson, when she launched her own talk show in a competing time slot.
Pity not Joan Rivers. If it weren’t for her, we wouldn’t have such brazen female comics as Kathy Griffin and Sarah Silverman.
“She is the master of sticking in there,” acknowledges Kathy Griffin. No one survives funnier than Joan Rivers.

Knight & Day

Tom Cruise Relaxes and Laughs with “Knight and Day”

Tom Cruise is back.
First he made a hilarious appearance as obnoxious producer Les Grossman, dancing with Jennifer Lopez at the MTV awards.
Now he stars with Cameron Diaz in “Knight and Day,” a live-action cartoon that spoofs Cruise’s identity as unflappable action hero.
Cruise is Ron Miller, an invincible super-secret double CIA agent who collides in the Wichita airport with the life of June Havens (Cameron Diaz), a gearhead girl whose pride and joy is the 1967 GTO that belonged to her daddy.
June restores collector cars for a living. She is in Wichita to buy a couple of carburetors. Her next destination is Boston, where she will be a bridesmaid at her sister’s wedding.
Suddenly June’s reservation is cancelled because the plane is allegedly over-booked. At the last minute the flight is back on again. The plane is nearly empty except for a handful of men including Ron Miller (Cruise), the stranger who had collided with June minutes earlier.
Ron and June flirt, and while she is in the ladies room, Ron springs into action and dispatches everyone on the plane, including the pilot.
No problem, Ron says, I’ll just crash-land in a cornfield and we’ll be on about our way.
“Knight and Day” is homage to great mystery-man, damsel-in-distress movies like “Charade” and “To Catch a Thief.” Director James Mangold (“3:10 to Yuma”) doesn’t expect us to believe the preposterous plot for a moment. For the record it concerns an infinite power source invented by geeky Simon Feck (Paul Dano), who is in Ron’s protection against a parade of bad guys in Boston, New York, the Azores, Spain and Austria.
Cruise, who turns 48 July 3, appears to be having great fun parodying his fearless Ethan Hunt character in “Mission Impossible.” Cameron Diaz is as beautiful as ever, whether cowering in fear or flashing her sexy million-watt smile. If you want to see beautiful people having fun in exotic locations while smashing cars and dodging imaginary bullets, this is your flick.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Some Sequels are OK

Toy Story 3 a Treat for Adults... Kids Too

In a summer of sequels, some are better than others.
“Toy Story 3” is better; way better than “Shrek 4,” for instance.
The folks at Pixar Studios have always been strong on creativity. This third installment of a 15-year-old franchise is the most adult of what began as a children’s fantasy in 1995.
Andy Davis, the little 6-year-old boy whose quarreling favorite toys provided the impetus for a toys-come-to-life comic adventure, is now 18 and getting ready to go off to college.
Mom has ordered Andy to clean out his room. What he is not taking to college he will either have to put in the attic for storage or put trash bags for the garbage truck.
As Woody, the string-pull talking Sheriff/cowboy puppet is Andy’s first and favorite toy, we see him put Woody in the box marked “college”
Thanks to a mix-up, the rest of the toys are put in a black plastic garbage bag and set out with the trash.
The toys spring to life whenever Andy is not around, and you just know Woody is not going to let his friends be unceremoniously dumped in a landfill.
The clever and inventive screenplay, by written series creator John Lasseter, Michael Arndt (“Little Miss Sunshine”) and a couple others, gets the toys a last-minute reprieve that sends them to a day care center instead of the dump. The wee Caterpillar kids of SunnySide Day Care are not much better than the destructive Sid Phillips was in the first film. Worse, SunnySide is ruled by the soft-talking but malignant Lotso, a plush purple bear (voice of Ned Beatty) and his menacing minions.
Tom Hanks (Woody), Tim Allen (Buzz Lightyear), Jessie (Joan Cusack) and the rest of the toy gang are back, but there are some interesting newcomers, starting with Ned Beatty’s troubled, battered bear. The funniest of these is Ken (Michael Keaton), Barbie Doll’s boyfriend, who lives in a groovy 1970s-era dollhouse pad with a fabulous wardrobe closet.
“I am not a girl’s toy,” Ken insists petulantly, while adults wink and nudge.
Mr. Pricklepants the hedgehog (Timothy Dalton) is an Actor, don’t you know, and you wouldn’t want with mess with Chuckles (Bud Luckey), the grim-faced clown, or the creepy Big Baby, who may not talk, but is plenty scary.
“Toy Story 3” is in fact the scariest of the series, building to a cliff-hanging, raging inferno kind of finale. The jolts are interspersed with delightful comic interludes, as when Buzz Lightyear’s vocabulary (and entire attitude) is switched to Spanish ((voice by Javier Fernandez Pena).
It has been 11 years since Toy Story 2, but this is well-worth the wait. This could well be the end of the series, but as Buzz Lightyear hints, “This isn’t goodbye.”
Take that Shrek!
“Toy Story 3” will be shown in 3-D IMAX format through June 27 at the Museum of Science & Discovery and in 3-D at other theaters.

Three and a half stars

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Behaving Badly with Michael Douglas: "Solitary Man"

A Princess Tries to Save Hawaii

Michael Douglas was born to play a cad.
Later this summer we will see him as Gordon Gekko, his greatest cad, in “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.”
For now you can see him as a lesser but no less reprehensible cad in “Solitary Man.”
The tone is set by Johnny Cash’s wrenching rendition of Neil Diamond’s self-pitying “Solitary Man.”
We get a brief glimpse of Ben Kalmen (Douglas) at the peak of his game six and a half years prior to the main story. He is “New York’s Honest Car Dealer” loved by all, especially his wife Nancy (Susan Sarandon) and daughter Susan (Jenna Fisher).
In a routine physical, Ben learns there is “something wonky” with his EKG, and the doctor urges further tests.
A normal man would heed the doctor’s advice and see what’s up.
Not Ben. He’s a deal-maker and a risk-taker, so he decides that’s it, I’m done with doctors.
So begins the six-year slide where we meet Ben near the bottom in this script by director Brian Koppelman and David Levien. He has divorced Nancy and taken up with Jordan (Mary Louise Parker), a younger woman with a college-age daughter, Allyson (Amanda Poot).
In a bid to show he still has clout, Ben says he will “pull some strings” at the Massachusetts college which is his alma mater and has a building named after him.
In reality Ben no longer has the wherewithal to pay his American Express bill. He was flagged for illegal hanky-panky in his car business, spent a night in jail and paid a large fine.
Again, a normal man would have picked himself up and attempted to rebuild his reputation, but not Ben. Instead he has engaged in reckless sex with young women and hits up every friend he knows for loans, to the extent he has no friends left except for Jimmy (Danny Devito), a hard-working buddy who runs the diner his dad passed on to him in that Massachusetts college town.
Believe it or not, “Solitary Man” is a comedy; a very dark comedy about a man behaving very badly and very foolishly. Only an actor with Douglas’s charm could keep us from despising him from the outset.
This movie will no doubt upset some people. I choose to see it as a cautionary tale about the refusal to face the reality of aging and the refusal to take responsibility for one’s destructive behavior. It’s not easy to watch, but it is Douglas’ best dramatic work since “Falling Down” in 1993.

Three stars

Princess Kaiulani at Regal Delray

“Princess Kaiulani” was the opening film at the 15th annual Palm Beach International Film Festival. Now it is opening in limited release in area theaters including the Regal Delray.
A little knowledge about Hawaiian history is helpful in appreciating this sumptuous but not very exciting movie.
Princess Kaiulani (Q’orilanka Kilcher) was born into Hawaiian royalty in the late 19th century just as the USA and private business interests were conspiring to colonize the beautiful Polynesian islands for profit and military strategy.
Educated in exile in England, the spunky Princess returned to her native islands to fight for the rights of its original inhabitants. Because of the bravery and perseverance of Princess Kaiulani, some of the excesses of colonialism were averted and the good name of Hawaiian royalty was upheld.
I know all this because my mom lived in Hawaii for six years, immediately before and after the horrors of World War II. One of her friends was Duke Kahanamoku, who was not a member of Hawaiian royalty but is a true American hero. This movie is a gorgeous tribute to Hawaii’s proud native history.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Friendship Forged in Chaos of "Get Him to the Greek"

Aldous Snow Preens Again in Judd Aptow Comedy

Remember Aldous Snow from “Forgetting Sarah Marshall?”
The vain, preening bombastic British rock star from that movie now has his own feature.
“Get Him to the Greek” stars British comedian Russell Brand as the over-the-hill, alcoholic, drug-addled Snow and co-writer Jonah Hill as a new character, Aaron Greenberg.
Aaron is a 23-year-old Capitol Records intern assigned to get his idol Snow from London to Los Angeles’ Greek Theatre within 48 hours, or die trying.
It’s a very simple premise that relies almost entirely on the appeal of its two main characters. It doesn’t hurt that Russell Brand evidently has a lot of friends in the music business.
Sean “Diddy” Combs for instance is virtually playing himself, though he is called “Sergio Roma,” the record producer who is Aaron’s big boss.
Jonah Hill is a very smart guy who doesn’t mind throwing any shred of dignity away and playing the fool.
Aaron is the fall guy, punching bag and butt of jokes in Aldous Snow’s warped world, but we see a real friendship being forged in the madcap misadventures in London, New York, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
Russell Brand knows his role from the inside out, as he is a self-confessed recovering alcoholic and drug-abuser, and he knows the tricks and treacheries of such a libertine.
Aldous Snow is a vapid, pretentious poser, and he is given some perfectly terrible songs to sing, the worst of which, “African Child,” is justifiably mocked by even the most tolerant critics. Snow’s fall from stardom is his excuse for a downward spiral that results in rejection of him by his long-suffering fellow pop star girlfriend, Jackie Q (Rose Byrne) and the loss of his beloved son Naples (Lino Facioli).
This is pretty serious business, but this is a comedy, and a very funny, laugh out loud kind of comedy at that.
Aldous Snow is not the only extreme character. There is his perfectly horrible dad Jonathan (Colm Meaney), a loutish leech who has cheerfully used his son all his life.
There is Elisabeth Moss as Aaron’s girlfriend Daphne, who provokes some of the most unexpected laughter in a most uncomfortable bedroom scene.
Joining in the merriment is a parade of star cameos, from Christina Aguilera to Pink and Dee Snider of Twisted Sister.
“Twisted” is name for the sophomoric humor of writer Hill and writer-director Nicholas Stoller, but twisted can sure be funny.