Tuesday, February 5, 2013


The following review has graciously been offered to Buddies Forever Movie Club by my mentor and friend Nolan Dalla, noted poker historian and author of One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stuey "The Kid" Ungar. The review originally appeared in Dalla's personal blog, www.nolandalla.com
It took only 75 years for Dustin Hoffman to direct his first movie.
That he chose a film project way outside of Hollywood comprised of an entirely foreign cast (for an American actor and director) comes as a further surprise.
But the biggest shock of all is how his new movie, Quartet works so well. Beautifully filmed, musically enhanced, and topped by stellar performances all around from actors perfectly cast in each of their roles, Hoffman’s long-awaited directorial debut reveals that he picked up some excellent pointers over his last five decades in the movie business from mentors like Mike Nichols, John Schlesinger, Alan J. Pakula, Sydney Pollack, and others who mastered the meticulous craft of cinema from the opposite side of the camera.
Quartet tells the story of a group of retired classically-trained musicians living together in a palatial retirement home in England. All of the seniors were once world-class performers of classical music and opera. Most still play. So, adding it all together we have old people in a retirement home playing classical music. If all this sounds terribly dull and depressing, well think again.
Quartet mainly works because it treats its subjects with great respect and yet also manages to confront issues that elderly people must face about their impending mortality — with absolute credibility. These old people who move around slowly and dress funny aren’t to be pitied. They’re retired, but they still enjoy a zest for living life — which for each of them means continuing to play and perform the music they love.
A number of stories swirl around simultaneously — comprised mostly of personality conflicts and even romance among the cast.  Indeed, this film offers a portrait of all our futures which is both realistic, as well as optimistic. Like a similar movie made last year called The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, every action and word of dialogue is entirely believable.
This movie’s real charms are its subtleties.  The way simple scenes flow together, the natural beauty of the estate, complimented by just the right classical vignette. There are no car crashes, special effects, long senseless monologues, or shocking endings. It’s a slice of real life, and the lives of these characters deserve proper reflection.
Perhaps the most satisfying moment of the film comes after the final scene, during the credits. The added bonus material won’t be revealed here. But be sure and don’t leave the movie theater early, or you’ll miss arguably the most poignant moment of the film.
Unfortunately, it’s my prediction that this movie won’t do particularly well at the box office. Young people, who comprise the majority of modern-day movie goers, aren’t much interested in older actors with British accents or stories about what happens inside a retirement home. And that’s a crying shame because it’s ultimately their loss.
But for more mature movie fans, and particularly those who incessantly complain that Hollywood doesn’t make films the way they used to, here’s a film tailor made for more senior sensibilities. Those who stay home and ignore a film like this film do absolutely nothing to support their own cinematic wants and desires. And no matter how you slice it — that’s the biggest shame of all.

Buddies Forever Movie Club Rating: 70% 

(Note: Dalla ranks his movie on a scale of 0-10 stars. He ranked Quartet 7 out of 10)

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Saturday, February 2, 2013

Gangster Squad

In January of 2012, I had the opportunity to visit Melbourne, Australia. This was shortly after I started this movie blog, and I actually reviewed my third and fourth movies while there—The Descendants and Tailor, Tinker, Soldier, Spy, the former still one of my most highly-ranked Buddies Forever Movie Club films. This January I returned to Melbourne and made it a point to see another movie with Australian Buddy Forever Josh Bell.

It was a tough choice between Gangster Squad and Silver Linings Playbook. I say tough because between Bell’s love of gangsters and playbooks, and my fondness for squads and silver linings, well we just couldn’t seem to make up our minds. Luckily time made the ultimate decision and we saw the later showing of Gangster Squad.

Australia's Josh Bell
Here’s how IMDb describes the film: “Los Angeles, 1949: A secret crew of police officers led by two determined sergeants work together in an effort to take down the ruthless mob king Mickey Cohen who runs the city.”

The film is loosely based upon true events and is essentially the story of how the mob, which has never had a foothold in the city, was kept out of Los Angeles. Of course that story was glorified, embellished and given the Hollywood treatment, but the material still proved captivating. I didn’t have high hopes for Gangster Squad going in, and I left feeling I got what I expected. I’m not saying that it was a great movie, because it wasn't, but it entertained me throughout.

The thing with Gangster Squad, at least for me, was that it would have made a better television series than a movie. Had the story unfolded organically over time and the characters properly developed it could have been awesome. Instead, we got a turbo version where everything was squeezed into a 113-minute timeframe.

As previously mentioned, the story was appealing but ultimately it was rushed. The transitions for scene to scene, no matter how much time had passed or travel was required, was instantaneous. This warped the timeframe and I can honestly say that I have no idea how much time the film covered. Did it take place over a few months or a few years? I’m not sure.

While I liked the story, my favorite part about the film were the performances. The cast was chalk full of A-list actors, and even though their characters weren’t fully developed, they were fun to watch. That applied especially to Sean Penn, who played the boxer-turned-gangster Mickey Cohen. Penn is a great actor with a tremendous range and it was exciting to watch him portray such a power-hungry, immoral and capitalistic criminal. It didn’t turn out to be an iconic role by any means, but it was a solid performance and showed that Penn has what it takes to play a mean bad guy.

On the flip side were protagonists Sgt. John O’Mara and Sgt. Jerry Wooters, played by Josh Brolin and Ryan Gosling respectively. I was under the impression that the film would center around the latter actor, but the filmmakers did a good job balancing him with Brolin. I think both men are good at what they do, and that’s what they were in Gangster Squad—good not great.

The same can be said for the supporting cast, which included Anthony Mackie (who will play The Falcon in Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Robert Patrick, Michael Pena and Giovanni Ribisi. They rounded out the Gangster Squad and each of their characters were interesting, but due to poor development they didn’t really make an emotional connection with the audience.

I will say that I was impressed by both Nick Nolte and Emma Stone. The former had a small part as the chief of police, but he made the most of his time onscreen. Nolte is getting up there in years, which haven’t treated him too kindly, but it’s still fun to watch him do what he does in suitable roles. Regarding Stone, I must admit she’s becoming quite the sex symbol, which surprises me given past roles she’s had. I’ve always imagined her as a good girl, but I’m becoming convinced that just might not be the case. I also think Stone and Gosling had good onscreen chemistry, much like they did in Crazy, Stupid, Love.

I didn’t care too much for Gangster Squad, but then again I didn’t hate it either. It was entertaining, and that’s all I ask for from a movie. Will it win any awards? Certainly not (it’s more on par with Lawless), but if you’re looking for some quick and cheap thrills for a couple hours Gangster Squad should do the trick.

Buddies Forever Movie Club Rating: 58%

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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

The month of January has been hectic workwise, which is why I haven’t had the chance to review many movies. With that said, I did have one day at home and made it a special points to see Zero Dark Thirty, the new film by Kathryn Bigelow that has been generating a lot of Oscar buzz.

Here’s how Jim Beaver described the film’s premise on IMDb: “Maya is a CIA operative whose first experience is in the interrogation of prisoners following the Al Qaeda attacks against the U.S. on the 11th September 2001. She is a reluctant participant in extreme duress applied to the detainees, but believes that the truth may only be obtained through such tactics. For several years, she is single-minded in her pursuit of leads to uncover the whereabouts of Al Qaeda's leader, Osama Bin Laden. Finally, in 2011, it appears that her work will pay off, and a U.S. Navy SEAL team is sent to kill or capture Bin Laden. But only Maya is confident Bin Laden is where she says he is.”

The film was originally conceived to tell the take of the unsuccessful hunt, but that all changed in 2011 when Bin Laden was killed. A couple of scripts rewrite by Mark Boal, and Bigelow was able to tell the whole take. Now it’s important to remember that this isn’t a documentary, rather a dramatized account pieced together through interviews, research, etc. While it’s based on fact, it’s not historically accurate—at least that’s what acting CIA Director Michael Morell said when he took the unusual step of issuing a statement about the film and contradicting the use of enhanced interrogation techniques (AKA torture). "That impression is false,” Morell said in the statement. “We cannot allow a Hollywood film to cloud our memory." 

As previously mentioned, Zero Dark Thirty has been generating a lot of Oscar buzz and is a critically acclaimed film. For those reasons I was excited and had high expectations, but I must be honest, it didn’t blow me away (I know, a bad pun given the subject matter). It certainly was a good film, but it wasn’t exceptional. There were a lot of things I liked about Zero Dark Thirty, but then again there were some things I didn’t.

Let me start with the things I did, because on the whole the film was satisfying. First and foremost was the ability for Boal and Bigelow to generate so much tension and suspense involving events that stretched out over the course of a decade. In reality, the hunt for Bin Laden was long and tedious, and the film does a good job imparting this without actually encompassing it. What’s more, both managed to bring that suspense to a satisfying climax—the raid on Bin Laden’s compound. While the audience already knows what's going to happen, it was still an intense, and seemingly realistic, account of Bin Laden’s final moments.

I also like the fact that neither Bigelow nor Boal shied away from showing some “enhanced interrogation techniques”. Deny as much as they’d like, these sort of things most certainly happened and it’d have been wrong to gloss over it. Speaking of these scenes, Jason Clarke did an excellent job playing the character Dan, who was responsible for ascertaining vital information. He was calm, cool and collected while doing he job, but you could tell that it was chipping away at his soul. In my opinion his was the most developed character in the film. More on that shortly.

Finally, I love the film’s realism. Even though it was a dramatization, and liberties were taken for entertainment purposes, it still came off as a realistic account—much like Bigelow’s Academy Award winning film, The Hurt Locker, did back in 2008. I highly enjoyed one scene where security procedures were skipped and those who did so were duly punished. For me, it brought the unceasing danger associated with war to life.

Now, let me touch upon a few of the things I felt were lacking. First and foremost were the characters. I already mentioned Clarke did an excellent job, and for the most part I thought the rest of the cast did as well. Jessica Chastain was great as Maya, the CIA protagonist, while Mark DuplassJames GandolfiniJoel Edgerton and Chris Pratt did well in their limited roles (Pratt’s Navy Seal character was the perfect amount of comic relief); however, the problem was they were barely featured and hardly developed.

Another thing I hate is when films underutilize and essentially waste quality talent. That’s what they did with Stephen Dillane, who played a National Security advisor in the film. I was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role, which is a shame for the man who ahs tackled big roles such as Stannis Baratheon in Game of Thrones and Thomas Jefferson in the HBO miniseries John Adams.

Don’t get me wrong, I thought Zero Dark Thirty was a very good film, it just wasn’t as great as I was led to believe. It’s nominated for Best Picture, and it could very well win as the competing films don’t hold a distinct advantage. I wouldn’t be disappointed if it won, the same way I wouldn’t be if either Beasts of the Southern WildLife of Pi, or Argo won (I haven’t seen AmourLes Miserables and Silver Linings Playbook and don’t believe Django Unchained nor Lincoln deserve the honors); however, I do feel Bigelow, who got snubbed for Best Director, deserved a nomination as she’s a tremendous director, a fact she proved once again with Zero Dark Thirty.

Buddies Forever Movie Club Rating: 80%

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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Django Unchained

I’m a big fan of Quentin Tarantino. My fandom began in 1992 with his first feature film, Reservoir Dogs, and solidified two years later with the now classic Pulp Fiction. I was also a fan of 1997’s underrated Jackie Brown, but I really fell in love with Kill Bill—especially Volume 2 (the performances by Michael Madsen and David Carradine are among my favorite in modern cinema). Needless to say, I was excited for Tarantino’s newest project in three years—Django Unchained.

Not only was I excited because it was a Tarantino movie, I was also anxious to see Christoph Waltz back in action. If you recall, he played the vile Col. Hans Landa in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, which earned the 56-year-old German actor a well-deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. It was another great casting decision by Tarantino and instantly vaulted Waltz into superstardom. Furthermore, A-listers Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington and Samuel L. Jackson joined him in the film.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, here’s a description of the spaghetti western as described by BenLobel on IMDb: “Former dentist, Dr. King Schultz, buys the freedom of a slave, Django, and trains him with the intent to make him his deputy bounty hunter. Instead, he is led to the site of Django's wife who is under the hands of Calvin Candie, a ruthless plantation owner.”

The aforementioned Waltz played Dr. King Schultz, and once again he did an amazing job. I don’t know what it is, but Waltz manages to captivate every second he’s on screen. This was especially true as a villain in Inglourious Basterds, but Django Unchained also proved he made a good protagonist (with his charm, wit and intelligence, Dr. King Schultz was basically a good version of Hans Landa).

Playing his counterpart and the title character was Foxx, who accepted after Will Smith, who Tarantino had in mind when writing the film, declined the role. I have no reservations saying I’m a bigger fan of Smith than Foxx, but to be honest the latter did a great job. I tend to think Foxx hogs the spotlight, but that wasn't the case at all here. That allowed the other characters to shine through and strengthen the film as a whole. Interestingly, Foxx used his own horse, Cheetah, in the film, which I heard (him being as experienced with riding) helped him earn the role.

While both Foxx and Waltz made a fun duo, they didn’t strike me as iconic, which many past Tarantino characters have. If there was one in this film, it would have went to either DiCaprio, who was originally going to play the aforementioned Landa in Inglourious Basterds (Tarantino decided a native German speaker was best), as plantation owner Calvin Candie or his head slave, Stephen, played by Jackson. This was the first time in nearly 15 years the former wasn’t billed as the headliner in a movie, and it was refreshing to see the talented actor play a menacing villain in a supporting role. It was a nontraditional part for the star, and he did an amazing job. He was sick, demented and a gamesman, but pulled it all off under the guise of charm, tradition and etiquette. He was friendly scary if that makes sense.

Carsen Nachreiner was the buddy for Django Unchained.
As far as Jackson was concerned, he was scandalous and treacherous as Candie’s head slave, who was the real slave driver on the plantation. It was a prime example of the dog of the king being the king of the dogs. Jackson, who has appeared in five Tarantino films, really owned the role as the cantankerous mastermind and he was a pleasure to watch.

Rounding out the performances, I was glad to see the talented Walter Groggins in the film as Ace Woody, which was originally Kevin Costner’s role until he had to drop out, but Groggins was underused in my opinion (interestingly, others previously linked to a role that didn’t pan out included Lady Gaga, Kurt Russell, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Sacha Baron Cohen).

Regarding the story, it was a fairly typical western theme; in fact, it was inspired by the 1960s spaghetti western Django starring Franco Nero (Tarantino gave Nero a cameo as a bar patron—the one that says, “I know,” when Django explains, "The 'D' is silent"). Tarantino gave his own spin on it, and it flowed relatively well. By that I mean the plot naturally progressed while the characters were developed. Meanwhile, tangents were kept to a minimum and the underlying love story/fairy tale aspect was kept in check.

I don’t really have any qualms with the film, other than the fact that it went on a little long; in fact, there was one logical stopping point where I assumed the movie would end. It opted to go a bit further, which was fine, but the missed opportunity to end it smoothly did not go unnoticed. Other than that, I think the film was slightly pigeonholed by the various delays, script changes and actor turnover, which took a bit of shine off the film as a whole.

Django Unchained wasn’t Tarantino’s best, but it fit nicely into his portfolio. The characters, while not iconic, were well developed and entertaining, which was the strength of the film—at least for me. Of course there was the trademark Tarantino over-the-top blood and gore, which gave a distinct feel to what could have been a mundane western, or “southern” as Tarantino called it since it’s set in America’s south. If you like Tarantino, you should like Django Unchained. I left satisfied and feel it's worth the price of admission.

Buddies Forever Movie Club Rating: 84%

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