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Gangster Squad (2013) starring Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Nick Nolte and Emma Stone. You’d think with this cast one could not make a bad movie, but you would be wrong this one really sucks.

Sean Penn has long been a favorite actor of mine.  His career includes such classics as Bad Boys, Fast Times at Ridgmont High, 21 Grams and U Turn but to add Gangster Squad to his list has got to be killing him and he should kill his agent for getting him into it.

I’ve never been a Josh Brolin fan and now I remember why.  His is a poor man’s Tommy Lee Jones at best and it is especially true in this movie.  Moreover, the writing in this film is akin to something a freshman in high school could do.  The film is just that train wreck you can’t take your eyes off of.  Gangster Squad is a film that really should be watched by the Mystery Science Theater 3000 gang.

Sean Penn play Mickey Cohen, a 1940-50’s gangster in Los Angeles who also happens to be a good boxer.  Penn I think is wearing face putty as part of his make-up and has a positively awful—almost comical accent.  And as the ruthless gangster that he is terrorizes both his henchmen and innocent civilians alike.  Our poor man’s Tommy Lee Jones is a former OSS officer from WWII that police chief Nick Nolte thinks can take down Cohen and his criminal empire.  However, according to the chief, this has to be done off the books otherwise someone else will just step in to take Cohen’s place.  “I want to talk to you about the war for the soul of Los Angeles.” That’s the exact line Nick Nolte’s police chief uses to give Brolin his assignment, and the dialogue only gets more ridiculous from there, with moronic screenwriter Will Beall aping the hard-boiled detective films of the past with no understanding of what made that old school purple dialogue work. The story doesn’t help anything either, starting with two scenes of grotesque violence and then idling forever before putting together the actual squad you’ve come to the theater to see.  With the help of his angelic, pregnant wife (of course she’s pregnant) O’Mara assembles the customary blend of outlaws and roughnecks; the only one with any actual personality is Ryan Gosling’s Jerry, a smooth-talking cop with a gangster for a best friend and a dangerous eye for Grace (Emma Stone), Mickey Cohen’s kept woman.

An early scene between Gosling and Stone– who were so fantastic together in Crazy Stupid Love– falls flat under the weight of the old-fashioned patter, and it’s a dismal preview of the many flat scenes to come, even among squad members played by greats like Robert Patrick, Anthony Mackie and Michael Pena. Everyone is acting furiously, Gosling with an odd high voice, Brolin with his locked grimace– and nobody is getting anywhere, as the gangster squad embarks on a few half-baked schemes for catching Cohen with no sense of strategy or rising tension. We’re told that Los Angeles is crumbling under Cohen’s corruption, but we’re never shown it, and the stakes behind all these bloodbaths start to feel further away, until Fleischer’s stylized and slowed-down violence becomes dull, then repulsive.

Combining the worst of modern action sensibilities with a Disney World recreation of the past, while also wasting some of the most interesting screen talents out there, Gangster Squad is an incredibly frustrating film.

Furthermore, the movie is 2 hours long making it viewing even more tortious.

 

 
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Posted by on July 21, 2013 in Movie Reviews

 

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Sanford & Son (1972-1977) a ground breaking comedy created by Norman Lear and starring Redd Foxx, Demond Wilson and the theme song written by Quincy Jones.

For those of you who don’t know who Norman Lear is, he is the legendary actor, writer, producer, director, and creator of such renowned sitcoms as All in the Family, Good Times, Sanford & Son and The Jefferson’s, which Gene Siskel, known best for his critical reviews of both television and movies, said: “What All in the Family did for the Caucasian race in our nation with television, Sanford and Son did for African Americans.  It is one of the two most noted and significant African American sitcoms since the invention of television.” Sanford & Son defined and revolutionized American television and many believe paved the way for such series like the Cosby Show.

The 1972 NBC television program Sanford and Son chronicled the adventures of Fred G. Sanford, a cantankerous widower living with his grown son, Lamont, in the notorious Watts section of Los Angeles, California.  The show was based on and licensed from the format of a British program, Steptoe & Son, which featured the exploits of a cockney junk dealer making Sanford and Son as the American version.

The starring role of Sanford and Son was portrayed by actor-comedian Redd Foxx.  Foxx (born John Elroy Sanford) was no newcomer to the entertainment industry.  His racy comedy routines had influenced generations of black comics since the 1950’s.  It was Foxx’s enormously funny portrayal of sixty-five year old Fred G. Sanford that quickly earned Sanford and Son a place among the top-ten watched television programs to air on NBC television.  He was supported by Demond Wilson playing his 30-year-old son, Lamont Sanford, who really supported the junk and salvage business and served as the butt of Sanford’s often bigoted jokes and insults.

Foxx portrayed Sanford as a sarcastic, irascible schemer whose frequent get-rich-quick ideas routinely backfired.  His son Lamont yearns for independence, but he loves his father too much to move out on his own and leave the trouble-prone Fred unsupervised.  Though each owns an equal share in the business and though, technically, Fred is the boss, Lamont often finds himself doing all the work and having to order his father to complete tasks and duties.  Fred often insults his son, usually calling him a “big dummy.”  Lamont also insults his father, referring to him as an “old fool.”  However, the two have a close bond and regularly come to each other’s aid.

Though enormously successful, Foxx became dissatisfied with the show, its direction, and his treatment as star of the program.  In a Los Angeles Times article, he stated, “Certain things should be yours to have when you work your way to the top.”  At one point he walked off the show complaining that the white producers and writers had little regard for or appreciation of African-American life and culture.  In newspaper interviews he attacked the total lack of black writers or directors.

Sanford and Son survived some five years on prime-time television.  It earned its place in television history as the first successful, mostly black cast television sitcom to appear on American network, primetime television in twenty years since the cancellation of Amos ‘n’ Andy.  It was an enormously funny program, sans obvious ethnic stereotyping.  “I’m convinced that Sanford and Son shows middle class America a lot of what they need to know…”  Foxx said in a 1973 interview.  “The show …doesn’t drive home a lesson, but it can open up people’s minds enough for them to see how stupid every kind of prejudice can be.”

Unlike my previous post where I complained that American Studios milk a series for all it’s worth leaving it to die a miserable death, Sanford and Son went out on top.  When the show came to an end it was still at the top of the Nielsen ratings—even driving the Brady Bunch off the air.

Some material from Sanford and Son is now considered too controversial to air on network television and is routinely edited in syndication, specifically, derogatory racial references.

The episode “Fred Sanford, Legal Eagle” (see clip below) was edited before being aired on the cable TV network TV Land.  In the unedited version, Fred represents Lamont in traffic court as his legal counsel.  At the climax of the episode, Fred confronts the white traffic policeman who wrote Lamont the ticket.  “Hey, look here,” Fred asks the policeman, “why don’t you arrest some white drivers?”  When the policeman answers, “I do,” Fred gestures to the court observers, who are all black, and asks, “Well where are they?  Look at all these *****s in here!”  Upon uttering this statement, the live studio audience went crazy with laughter and applause.  Redd Foxx had to pause for the crowd to settle down before delivering the coup de grâce: “There’s enough *****s in here to make a Tarzan movie!”  In the TV Land version of this episode, Fred’s questioning of the policeman abruptly ends after “What do you have against black people?”

In thinking about this episode, I find myself reflecting on Foxx’s contemporary, Carroll O’Connor, playing Archie Bunker in All in the Family, which was also produced by Norman Lear at around the same time.  I can well imagine O’Connor as Archie, who was famous for his politically incorrect comments, making the exact same statement Foxx did, and I would imagine that had this interaction occurred on All in the Family, it would have been redacted out of the episode by now as well.  Still: is a comment that would be racist if uttered by a white O’Connor as Archie Bunker truly equally racist when uttered by Redd Foxx as Sanford? Is it really true, that in the United States of the 1970s, that the “n-word” would carry the exact same connotations no matter what the race is of the person saying it?  Is that even true today?

I think editing the show is disgraceful.  I am not implying or otherwise endorsing the use of such language, but let’s face it; it was part of TV history.  We sanitize enough already in this world why do we have to move to classic TV sitcoms?

 

 
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Posted by on February 11, 2013 in Movie Reviews

 

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Falling Down (1993) there is a little something in it for everyone.

I was rolling my catalog case along and caught the edge of the elevator door and tripped, but didn’t fall down.  Then it hit me, “eureka! Our next review at JPFmovies will be a look at “Falling Down” (1993), starring Michael Douglas and Robert Duval.”  An interesting film that has some moments of outrageously dark comedy and has some pretty cold, downright psychopathic behavior.  My guess is that while Douglas traverses Los Angeles to “go home” for his daughter’s birthday party, virtually everyone can identify with at least one of the situations he encounters along the way.  For us here at JPFmovies, it was the fast food restaurant scene (see clip below).

The film stars Michael Douglas in the lead role of William Foster (credited as “D-Fens”) the moniker appearing on his car’s license plate.  He is a frustrated, divorced and unemployed former defense engineer.  The film follows Foster as he goes on a violent trek across the city of Los Angeles, to reach the house of his estranged ex-wife in time for his daughter’s birthday party.  Along the way, he ends up in a number of situations, ranging from the trivial to the significant, provocative encounters that cause him to (over)react with violence and make sardonic observations on life, poverty, the economy, and commercialism.  Robert Duvall is an aging, often cowardly LAPD Sergeant on his last day before he retires, facing frustration with socially-accepted spinelessness, even while tracking down Foster.

The spark that lights this fire ignites when Foster’s air conditioning fails in his shitty car while he is in a serious traffic jam.  Out of pure exasperation, he simply abandons his car and begins making his way across Los Angeles to attend the birthday party as an uninvited guest.

The first encounter is at a convenience store, where the Korean owner refuses to give Foster change so he can make a telephone call—yes, that is right, at a payphone.  Foster has a heated discussion about the store’s ridiculously high prices.  The Korean goes for his baseball bat and demands Foster leave.  Foster wrestles the bat away from the shopkeeper and destroys much of the merchandise until the Korean brings his prices back to 1965 levels before leaving—then he pays for a coke and leaves.  In a vacant lot across the street, Foster is accosted by two gang members who threaten him with a knife and demand his briefcase as a toll before allowing him to leave.  Foster gives them a good beating and takes their knife and continues on his journey.

Naturally, having their “honor” challenged, the two gang members attempt a drive by shooting and find Foster in a phone booth.  They open fire, taking out several bystanders but Foster walks away without a scratch.  After the driver loses control of the car and crashes, Foster goes to survey the damage, finds a gun and shoots the one surviving gang member.  He finds the gangs gym bag full of weapons and walks away with his new found supplies.  After that encounter Foster gives his briefcase to an overly persistent panhandler he meets – but it turns out all the briefcase contains is a sandwich and an apple.

Feeling a little hungry, Foster rolls into a fast food restaurant and attempts to order breakfast, but they have switched to the lunch menu.  After informing the manager that the customer is always right, Foster pulls a gun and accidentally fires into the ceiling.  Trying to reassure the frightened employees and customers, Foster orders lunch, but points out that his burger looks nothing like the one shown on the menu.

Foster passes a bank where a black man is holding a sign stating “not economically viable,” protesting being rejected for a loan application.  The man exchanges a glance with Foster, who then asks him to “remember me” as he is escorted away by police.  Looking for a new pair of shoes (we see that Foster is stuffing his shoes with newspaper), Foster stops at an Army-Navy surplus store.  The owner is a white supremacist who chases away the police looking for Foster and when they have cleared out he offers Foster a rocket launcher, and congratulates him for shooting “a bunch of niggers” at the Whammy Burger.  When Foster denounces the overt racism the fool pulls a gun, but Foster shoots, stabs and kills him.  He changes into army fatigues and boots, takes the rocket launcher, and leaves.

In what is probably the second funniest scene, Foster stumbles across a road repair crew, working about as hard as teamsters usually do—not doing much–and accuses them of doing make work to justify their budgets.  He pulls out the rocket launcher, but struggles to use it, until a young boy (who thinks Foster is part of a movie set) explains how it works.  Foster accidentally fires the launcher which goes underground and destroys the construction site.

By the time Foster The film did ok at the box office, grossing $40.9 million domestically.  It earned $18.1 million in theatrical rentals, falling short of its $25 million budget.  Although, it was the number one weekend movie during its first two weeks of release (2/26-28, 3/5-7/93).

Reviews for the film were often positive.  The movie holds a 73% “Certified Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a score of 56 out of 100 (“mixed or average reviews”) on Metacritic.

What is fascinating about the Douglas character, as written and played, is the core of sadness in his soul.  Yes, by the time we meet him, he has gone over the edge.  But there is no exhilaration in his rampage, no release.  He seems weary and confused, and in his actions he unconsciously follows scripts that he may have learned from the movies, or on the news, where other frustrated misfits vent their rage on innocent bystanders.

Many film critics claimed that the film glorifies law-breaking vigilantism—which is a total load of nonsense; the character is not the ‘hero’ or ‘newest urban icon,’ but a rogue and the victim at the same time.  There are many elements of our society that contributed to his madness and one may even pity him.  But the film never condones his actions.

Controversy

The Korean American Coalition protested the film for its treatment of the Korean grocer.  Warner Brothers Korea canceled the release of Falling Down in South Korea following boycott threats (chickens).  Of course someone had to be offended.  Somehow unemployed defense workers were also angered at their portrayal in the film.  Falling Down at its core could be seen as the definitive study of the “angry white male”; the character of D-FENS was featured on magazine covers and reported upon as an embodiment of the stereotype.

Some compare Falling down to Boyz ‘N the Hood.  It is a shrewd, nasty–at times wickedly funny–movie that probes nothing and challenges everybody.  I will not be surprised if some people dismiss it as a variation of the Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood vigilante movies of the l970s.  Indeed, the locale and the characters may be new, but the ideology is old and familiar.

Falling Down taps effectively into Americans’ worst collective fears and nightmares, and, considering that it’s well-made and well-acted, the movie might be even more alarming than intended, because it is good entertainment.

 
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Posted by on October 9, 2012 in Movie Reviews

 

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Here is one I’ll bet many of you have not seen: FM (1978)

I feel I must disclose that probably my favorite non-jazz band, Steely Dan, recorded the sound track for this film—the title song being of course “FM.” Steely Dan–FM Theme FM the movie is about Q-SKY– the number one radio station in Los Angeles chiefly because the proverbial inmates run the asylum.  These attention-grabbing radio personalities include: Jeff Dugan, the rebellious radio station manager; Mother, who is burned out from being a DJ; Eric Swan, a self-centered and self-styled romantic who wants more than just being a DJ; The Prince of Darkness, the hip night DJ; and Laura Coe, the easy-going type.  The station personnel play the music they want to, only use certain advertisers, sponsoring concerts/benefits as well as some other “unorthodox” non-corporate ways to make the station their own and the best in LA.  They have operated relatively autonomously, free from corporate interference for some time.  However, the corporate machine is about to try to turn their No.1 position into cash.  The movie centers on the inevitable battle between Jeff and his corporate bosses, who want more advertising and money at the cost of music.

The skirmish grows until sales manager Regis Lamar from corporate HQ presents him with a business opportunely to advertise for the U.S. Army using a series of cheesy radio ads. When Jeff refuses to endorse the contract, Regis takes the issue to upper management who orders Jeff  to run the ads as provided by the Army and on the schedule specified in the advertising contract. Jeff takes a stand and quits his job.

In a show of solidarity with their fearless manager the remaining DJs decide to take control of the station in a sort of lock-in/sit-in/protest.  They incite listeners to gather in the street outside the station and protest while the DJs play music without any commercials.

Jeff Dugan wakes up to hear the DJs take control of the station. The crowd is already present when he arrives at the station. The DJs lift him up to the second story with a fire hose as they have already barricaded the front doors.  The office siege in lasts only until the police arrive to remove the staff.  Not willing to go down without a fight, the DJs battle back using a fire hose and throwing tapes and other office objects at the police.  The conflict is resolved when Jeff Dugan finds himself fighting a policeman outside on an overhang and saves the policeman from falling off and sees that fighting is the wrong thing to do.  He calms the crowd and announces that the DJs are coming out.

Unknown to him, the company owner Carl Billings has watched from the crowd as the events unfolded. He insists that the DJs stay in the station, fires his management staff responsible for the advertising conflict, and then joins the DJs inside the station.

In addition, the film includes live appearances by Linda Ronstadt, Jimmy Buffett, Tom Petty, and REO Speedwagon. Steely Dan performs the title theme, and Dan Fogelberg, Joe Walsh, Boz Scaggs and Queen also contributed soundtrack music. The film debuts  several future hits like We Will Rock You (in the protest rally sequence) and Life’s Been Good integrated into the plot.

I had a really hard time getting my hands on this movie a couple of years ago, but I am glad I did.  The music, sound track and real appearances by the artists themselves make this movie worth watching on its own.  Unfortunately, it is hard to find and even harder to find someone who has seen it to enjoy it with.  If you can, see it, if you can’t just get the soundtrack.

 
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Posted by on February 1, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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JPF Looks At One Of The Greats: Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.

Director Roman Polanski has had a tough and turbulent path through life—some of it his own making some of it just plain back luck.  Part of my decision to review Chinatown was his legal problems resurfacing again in September of 2009 when he was arrested in Switzerland at the request of the U.S. Government for extradition back to the States to face criminal charges involving alleged sex with a minor from the 1970’s.  On July 12, 2010, however, the Swiss rejected the U.S. request and instead declared him a “free man” although all six of the original charges are still pending in the U.S.

In 1969, before he was personally involved with our criminal justice system, Polanski’s pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered by Charles Manson and his band of  twisted followers.  Despite the personal hell one would go through under such circumstances, Polanski directed Chinatown which was released in 1974.  Chinatown is a 1974 American neo-noir film based on Robert Towne’s screenplay and starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston.  The film clearly embodies the film noir genre with its multidimensional tale that is part mystery and part psychological drama.

The film, set in 1937 Los Angeles was inspired by the disputes over water rights that had plagued southern California.  Nicholson plays JJ ‘Jake’ Gittes, a private detective who concentrates on matrimonial matters.  He is hired by a phony Evelyn Mulwray when she suspects her husband Hollis, builder of the city’s water supply system, of having an affair.  Gittes takes the case and photographs him with a young girl however, he was hired by an impersonator and not the real Mrs. Mulwray.  When Mulwray is found dead, Jake is plunged into an intricate web of deceit involving murder, incest and governmental corruption all stemming from the city’s water supply.

Polanski even makes a cameo appearance in film (the clip of course shown here) as the individual who famously cuts Jack Nicholson’s nose forcing him to wear an obnoxious bandage throughout much of the film.  Perhaps most importantly, Chinatown has one my favorite lines said in a movie “Forget it, Jake — it’s Chinatown” (again clip provided for your viewing pleasure).  It is also the last line of this great film.  You are a fool if you don’t make time to watch this one.

 
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Posted by on January 12, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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The Big Lebowski–Big Fun

Once again the Coen brothers produce an outrageous movie: The Big Lebowski.  The movie is cast flawlessly for the unique characters appearing on the silver screen.  Sam Elliot narrates certain parts of the move but the “big three” actors John Goodman, Jeff Bridges, and Steve Buscemi in each of their roles have a certain je ne sais quoi about them that is lacking in most dark comedies.  Goodman’s portrayal of Walter, the Vietnam vet with a short fuse is a riot.  Jeff Bridges takes a break from his customary serious persona to portray The Dude, a character who  is quite possibly the laziest [person] in Los Angeles county and Steve Buscemi is as entertaining as ever in his depiction of Donny, the guy who rarely speaks.  The cameo by John Turturro as “the Jesus,” king of the bowling alley, puts the movie over the top.

The Coen brothers created an odd array of marginalized characters that fall ass-backwards into center of an improbable situation.  The Dude is an unlikely hero living in the city of Los Angeles who becomes embroiled in a dilatant’s kidnapping.  Be advised that The Big Lebowski is not your average “zany” kidnapper comedy thrust upon us a thousand times before. The Coen brothers take a fresh look at this old tired story.  The story they have created is intriguing and entertaining, while the unique characters and subtle (but hilarious) dialog set the movie apart.

Although Bridges and Buscemi do an exceptional job of becoming their characters, Goodman steals the show in my opinion.  An early scene, for instance, involves a conversation about The Dude’s urine stained rug; it becomes clear that Walter is losing his mind.  In the early part of the conversation Goodman puts on a stone face to show that Walter is steadfastly tied to his position.  The Dude begins to agitate Walter as the conversation about the rug continues.  As Walter becomes more and more frantic he starts to furrow his brow, leaning forward when talking and turning increasingly redder.  As Goodman continues, his speaking becomes more staccato and flustered.  When The Dude refers to one of his attackers as “the China man,” Walter continues on his tirade then for a moment quietly addresses The Dude’s politically incorrect statement.  Changing from this erratic manner of speaking to the more politically correct and toned down discussion clearly shows that Walter is carrying around some serious baggage leading to sudden mood swings and a short fuse as he returns to his rant quickly.  Not long after his conversation with The Dude about the rug, Walter pulls a gun on a bowling league opponent for crossing the line and then trying to score 8 points because “nobody respects the rules anymore.”

The movie starts in a bowling alley where Donny, Walter, and The Dude are sitting at their lane discussing a mistaken attack on The Dude by some hired thugs who urinated on his rug.  The Dude is approaching the situation in a lackadaisical way but is by no means your average confused old stoner.  Bridge’s expressions during this scene show that The Dude is actually quite anxious about the loss of the rug “which really tied the room together.”  This brain trust concludes that since these thugs were after another wealthy person named Lebowski, The Dude should be compensated by him for the rug.  Thus the adventure begins.

On a side note, A.N., a friend of mine, found out I was reviewing the Big Lebowski, she said that the first time she watched it she didn’t like it, “the movie had been over hyped and I was expecting something that was overtly funny.”  When she sat down to watch it again and actually paid attention to the subtle (and not so subtle) humor she “loved it.”  We continued our conversation trying to decide which clips to post and were overwhelmed by choices.  Knowing we had to narrow it down, as you can see, these are the ones we thought of.

You would be a fool not to watch this movie.

 
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Posted by on June 4, 2010 in Movie Reviews

 

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