2013 Film Reviews
by Dr. Bob Blackwood

These movie review articles appeared in the Columbia River Reader and are copyrighted by Bob Blackwood

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Oscar Picks & “Bullet to the Head” for Fun

Each year I try to pick the Oscar winners; I do better at that than I do at the Keeneland Racetrack in Lexington, Kentucky.

Best Picture: “Lincoln,” though “Argo” is picking up many related awards.

Best Director: Steven Spielberg for “Lincoln.”

Best Actor: Daniel Day Lewis for title role in “Lincoln.”

Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence for “Silver Linings Playbook.”

Best Supporting Actor: Tommy Lee Jones in “Lincoln.”

Best Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway in “Les Misérables,” though Sally Field from “Lincoln” is a contender.

Cinematography: Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi,” though I’m glad to see that “Skyfall” is a contender.

Original Screenplay: Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” written by Mark Boal.

* * *

I have always enjoyed Walter Hill’s work; he may be the greatest living action director.  Films by John Ford and Howard Hawks must linger in his mind.  His “Bullet to the Head” (MPAA: R) with Sylvester Stallone is not his greatest work, but it is the best action film I have seen in years. 

The setting is New Orleans with its decadence and violence on display.  Hill was there before with Charles Bronson and James Coburn in the midst of the Great Depression with his first film, “Hard Times” (1975).  Hill even set the final action sequence of “Bullet to the Head” in the old New Orleans’ powerhouse that I believe he used for a bare-knuckle boxing sequence from “Hard Times.”

Stallone plays Bonomo, a hitman who has been double-crossed by his handler.  ) The handler’s boss (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) as a Washington insider) arranged for his partner to be killed by a mercenary (Jason Momoa), who almost killed Bonomo too.  Momoa makes a great heavy. 

Sung Kang (from “Fast Five”), a DC detective whose partner is killed in New Orleans as part of the same Washington-based intrigue, decides to hook up with Bonomo.  Bonomo knows the territory, and his attractive daughter (Sarah Shahi from TV’s “Fairly Legal”) can both remove bullets and create tattoos, skills needed in this film.  Kang shows he can act as well as react.

Throughout a wild costume party with naked ladies (wearing masks) thrown by a wealthy crooked lawyer (Christian Slater), a confrontation with a handler, an attack by a team of mercenaries with automatic weapons, and various fights, Bonomo and his Korean companion exchange insults (most of them coming from Bonomo), worldviews, and the usual male bonding dialog that we expect to hear.  This film is fun.  If you want profundity, try the films of Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini or Steven Spielberg on a good day.

Remarks on Coppola’s “A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III” 

and Jon Chu’s “G. I. Joe: Retaliation”

Roman Coppola, son of Francis Ford Coppola, has directed his second film, “A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III” (MPAA: R).   Roman has been scriptwriting lately with Wes Anderson and having some notable successes: “The Darjeeling Limited” (2007), directed by Wes Anderson, and Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012). 

This film, solely written by Coppola, is under attack, but it is worthy of comment. He attempts at making a film for adults.  Note the solid  cast: Charlie Sheen as Charles Swan, a graphic designer who is losing his woman; Bill Murray, Charles’ accountant who is having problems with his wife; Jason Schwartzman as his rocker friend hoping for a dynamite cover for his latest album; and Patricia Arquette as Charles’ grown up and helpful sister with children. 

Unfortunately, Charles hasn’t grown up, unlike Guido, the central character of Fellini’s “8 ½,” played by Marcello Mastroianni, a film very reminiscent of this one.  Both men have fantasy sequences of the women in the past and present of their lives.  Both men also have fantasy sequences of the men they work with, trying to get things done.  (In one of Coppola’s fantasies, Bill Murray is laughable, dressed as John Wayne from “The Searchers” about to attack an Indian village. This village is full of half-naked lovely squaws, not John Ford’s Comanches led by the bloodthirsty Scar.)

Mastroianni played his role as a mature man.  He felt pain; he felt bewildered. He understood that the women sometimes knew him better than he knew himself, and, Fellini made you believe that they did, too.  Charlie Sheen plays it as his TV character from “Two and a Half Men.”  He always has a knowing grin on his face.  A man can’t be desperate about losing the woman he alleges to love and drive around in late 1970’s-looking L. A. with a smirk on his face in his vintage Caddy with Bacon decals on one side and Eggs on the other.

The film fails, but it has its moments.  You can argue about why it failed. How many films are worthy of that?

Jon Chu’s “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” (MPAA: PG-13) is an action film, like its predecessor, based on the Hasbro toys.  The action sequences are like ballets—well-rehearsed.  The performances are flawless.  I would just like to have a little characterization.  Dwayne Johnson is pretty close to his The Rock persona, too bad. He has become a good actor; try “Snitch” sometime. Bruce Willis gives the standard Bruce Willis’ action performance with only one funny line in this film.  He usually gets more than that. The other actors hit their marks every time.

“42” and “The Company You Keep”: Tales from the Past with Messages for the Future

By Dr. Bob Blackwood


Brian Helgeland’s “42” (MPAA: PG-13) tells the story of Jackie Robinson’s success in big league baseball in the post WWII era.  I never saw “The Jackie Robinson Story” (1950) because, even as a kid, I knew it wouldn’t tell it as it is.  In this film, we see Brooklyn Dodgers’ owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) needing to increase sales in his stadium; privately, he admits that is his reason for “crossing the color barrier” in big league baseball.  Publicly, his reason and his manager Leo Durocher’s reason, as Durocher (Christopher Meloni) lays it down to a group of racist Dodger players, is “We need him to win the pennant.”  Both reasons were right.

Now when Robinson (played with great sensitivity by Chadwick Boseman) wasn’t getting beaned by racist pitchers or being walked to first base, he was also a terror on the base lines—driving the white pitchers crazy for stealing bases—as well as a good hitter.  Both ways, he helped the team get the pennant. 

I’ve never heard such rampant racist drivel as I heard in this film (except for growing up in Indiana in the 1950s & 60s).  Epithets were shouted so loudly the ballpark fans could hear them too, and some joined in.  But, we saw Robinson and his wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie, playing a woman who was a bit sheltered in her California childhood), stand up not only to menacing screams but to rude behavior and threats of physical violence.  It was not hard for me to picture these things happening, but it might be a challenge for today’s younger viewers.  This is a realistic film about a problem that we still live with today.

Robert Redford’s “The Company You Keep” (MPAA: R)—which depicts aging 1960’s Weather Underground activists finally facing apprehension for a bank robbery resulting in the death of a guard 30+ years ago—also deals with home-grown violence.  The cast members in this political thriller include four Academy Award winners—Redford, Chris Cooper, Susan Sarandon, & Julie Christie—plus five Academy Award nominees—Nick Nolte, Stanley Tucci, Anna Kendrick, Richard Jenkins & Terrence Howard.   Shia LaBeouf, as a newspaper reporter, leads the younger performers.

Redford, just as in his complex study of the Lincoln assassins in “The Conspirator” (2010), shows us young people who did brutal things for different reasons.  In this film, he also shows the less than professional approach of LaBeouf’s character, and has his character comment on it.  In addition, Redford demonstrates that even after you have offended society, you can still live an honorable life if you are willing to admit your mistakes to everyone involved. The characters and their problems aren’t simple; neither is anyone’s life.


From the Glorious to the Grunge: “The Great Gatsby” & “Mud”

By Dr. Bob Blackwood

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby” has been done three times as a motion picture in the sound era with Alan Ladd (1949), Robert Redford (1974) and Baz Luhrmann’s “Gatsby” with Leonardo DiCaprio (2013).  The Ladd film didn’t go over well.  Redford’s performance and the color cinematography seemed to be the only saving grace of that “Gatsby.” 

Luhrmann’s “Gatsby,” except for a coterie of critics who seem to have some personal animosity for Luhrmann, is by far the best.  Apparently some critics did not approve of a 3-D big budget film of “Gatsby” with all the latest special effects and a terrific soundtrack thanks to Jay-Z, Bryan Ferry and others.  Perhaps those critics thought the title of the book should have been, “The Middle Class Gatsby.”

The cast is exceptionally well chosen.  Tobey Maguire as Fitzgerald’s narrator, Nick Carraway, shows the vulnerability of Fitzgerald’s character as well as his acute perception of how the American class structure works.  Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan radiates a passive sexuality and masks her innate selfishness until the very end, making half of the men in the audience fall in love with her.  Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan--the brutal and conniving husband of Daisy and squire of who knows how many women--gives a human dimension to what could have been a two-dimensional character. 

DiCaprio is the best Gatsby yet, a man who does not know what it is to have a friend until he meets Nick.  This Gatsby really knows very little about women on his own social level, probably because he didn’t come from his current social level. He spent his time either fighting in WWI or hustling bucks in the ruthless world of Prohibition Era New York City.  Regardless of some critics, the film is doing well at the box office. 

Jeff Nichols, director of “Shotgun Stories” and “Take Shelter,” has turned out a good old Huckleberry Finnish Mississippi River story in “Mud” with Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon.  McConaughey (Mud) is a down-on-his-luck fellow, running from the law.  He agrees to swap a .45 automatic (but not the bullets) if two teenage boys—Tye Sheridan (Ellis) and Jacob Lofland (Neckbone)—will help him rebuild an old cabin cruiser he has found on an island in the big river. 

Now, if you have never known small-town farmers’ sons, you might be surprised at how good some of them are in scrounging for parts to repair motorcycles, cars and even good-sized boats.  Those young men have to make their own “toys”; no one is going to lay serious money on them. 

The boys do their job.  We learn that Mud got in trouble with the law by killing the vicious beau of his on-and-off girl friend, Juniper, played by Reese Witherspoon.  Mud is also facing revenge from the beau’s wealthy family, led by Joe Don Baker (King).  Mud’s only friend in the world is a retired “assassin” from a government agency, played by Sam Shepard.  Shepard always gives a studied performance.  The film is both heart-warming and, at the end, quite rousing. 


Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” and Luc Besson’s “The Family”

Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” (MPAA: PG-13) stars Cate Blanchett.  Her character, Jasmine, strongly resembles Blanche DuBois, the broken-apart heroine of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.  Jasmine’s husband, (Alec Baldwin) is a successful billionaire swindler, riding the tide until it becomes a tsunami. 

When Jasmine is “broke,” she procures a first class ticket to San Francisco and takes her designer wardrobe to her sister Ginger’s (Sally Hawkins) second-floor apartment.  Ginger and her boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale) are decidedly working class, as was her ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay).  Unfortunately, Ginger’s ex went broke after Ginger begged Jasmine to let her in on a good thing. 

Jasmine accurately badmouths Ginger’s friends and lifestyle while becoming the most incompetent dental assistant in San Francisco, until that job goes south.  At a San Francisco cocktail party, however, Jasmine picks up a wealthy diplomat (Peter Sarsgaard) who becomes her lover and, too soon for most diplomats, a fiancé.  All the while, we are laughing or feeling nervous at the ease with which Jasmine weaves a web of lies and half-truths around her.  Meanwhile, we realize she is an alcoholic, taking too many drugs, and is becoming increasing desperate.  Eventually, one of those coincidences, that writer’s often use as a shortcut, leads to the end of her proposed marriage and the beginning of....

This comedy and drama will interest most folks and probably alienate almost as many.  Don’t miss it or Blanchett’s gown at the Oscars.

Luc Besson is a French writer, producer, director.  He wrote and directed “La Femme Nikita,”  “Léon: The Professional,”“The Fifth Element,” and his latest, “The Family” (MPAA: R) with Robert DeNiro and Michelle Pfeiffer. 

Besson has exhibited a real gift for black comedy.  It is unrelenting in “The Family.”  Everything is sacrificed—subtlety, character development, logic, etc.—for the sake of showing a family (former members of an Italian-American crime family)—whose father (DeNiro), mother (Pfeiffer), daughter (Dianna Agron) and teenage son (John D’Leo) settle all disputes the mob way via bodily harm or death.  To increase the fun, the family is in the Witness Protection Program; Tommy Lee Jones plays the overseer. 

Their mayhem has caused them to be moved to France.  The mob has a $20 million price on the father’s head.  That’s too much money for the mob to pay.  And if the WPP is shipping mobsters off to France, God help them when a House Committee hears about it, let alone the French government. 

But, like most Besson films, despite its faults, it moves quickly, is well-edited, and gets laughs.  The public is paying its money to see it.  It is my guilty pleasure of the year.



“World War Z” and “This Is the End”: Is That All There Is?

By Dr. Bob Blackwood

I just finished an interesting book, Fantasy Film Post 911 by Frances Pheasant-Kelly. The author maintains that the 9/11 attack has led to a dark emphasis in fantasy films in the 21st Century.  Now, it could be argued that Marc Forster’s “World War Z” (MPAA: PG-13) is a science fiction film, but since in conversation it is always regarded as a horror film, I think the zombie fantasy trumps science fiction here.

Brad Pitt, pictured as a loving family man with Mireille Enos as the mother of his children, is caught in an early zombie attack in Philadelphia.  Before you can say, “Holy Man of Steel” or “faster than a speeding bullet,” every American city is swarming with zombies.  This speed of contagion is definitely fantasy, particularly if you have read Max Brooks’ novel, which is a remarkably interesting study of how each culture throughout the globe might deal with a major epidemic of this nature. 

The film is fast-moving as Pitt searches the globe for the source of the epidemic.  The airplane sequence in “Z” will be remembered; in fact it reminded me of a flight I had over the continental USA. Though I was enjoying the suspense in “World War Z,” I fear the hardcore horror fans will demand more gore.  I never hated my parents or my neighbors enough to want strangers to be chomping on their bones in their living rooms, but whatever turns you on seems to be the rule with some folks. 

I prefer films with sexy women in gorgeous clothes, a brave sheriff on a dusty street, or clever comedies such as “The Ugly Truth” with Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler.   If you like Shakespearean comedies, you might enjoy Joss Whedon’s black-and white-“Much Ado About Nothing” (MPAA: PG-13). The lines are delivered beautifully.

Should you see “World War Z”?  If you like an action film, sure.  As it made about $66 million on its opening week-end in the USA, you may be seeing a sequel eventually. 

I did not enjoy Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen’s “This Is the End” (MPAA: R), the portrayal of a big party at James Franco’s home where all of the actors—Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson and others—play themselves.  Yes, they are Hollywood actors having a “high” old time with liquor, drugs, sex, the usual….  After awhile, I thought, “Seth, this is the longest bad ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit, ever.”  Trapped, hungry and thirsty in Franco’s home, the English actress Emma Watson robs them.  That, I liked.  Then, the Apocalypse comes, and some of the jerks go to heaven.  Not in my world.



Action Comedies and a Vampire Horror

by Dr. Bob Blackwood

I really enjoyed the first “RED” film, directed by Robert Schwentke in 2010.  It is an action comedy, a mixed genre that we are seeing often these days.  This year, Dean Parisot’s “RED 2” (MPAA: PG-13) has almost the same cast as the first film—Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Mary-Louise Parker, Helen Mirren now including Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta-Jones and the dynamic Byung-hun Lee (who insures an even larger Asian ticket-sale).

What’s the premise? An atomic device has been smuggled into Moscow during the Cold War.  Now, our gang of experienced agents has to make the bomb go away.  Why them and not someone else?  Don’t ask; you’ll spoil the fun.  They kid each other; they shoot ‘em up.  They look good.  The jokes elicit laughter from the audience.  The cast are all good actors, some great ones.  We are lucky to see them all in the same film. It moves fast; we’re happy. 

Another action comedy with a fantasy twist, Robert Schwentke’s “R. I. P. D.” (Rest In Peace Department), is by the director of the first “RED.” It stars Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges as two more or less good cops who have come back from the dead to prevent the evil dead from taking control of the planet Earth and making it even worse than it is today. 

What is good about this film is the clever way the two starring actors alternate between being the straight man and the comic.  Twenty-first Century Reynolds knows the territory; Nineteenth Century lawman Jeff Bridges knows people.  Kevin Bacon is the heavy. 

By the way, Mary-Louise Parker runs the R. I. P. D. force and looks hotter than she does in “RED 2.”  The film generates laughter; some folks didn’t like the plot or the pace.  So it goes. 

Neil Jordan’s “Byzantium” (MPAA: R) is a vampire tale for adults, not for the “Twilight” crowd.  The main characters are a sexy mother vampire (Gemma Arterton) and her charming, if troubled, 16-year-old vampire daughter played by Saoirse Ronan.  You’ll recognize Jonny Lee Miller as TV’s Sherlock Holmes in “Elementary,” though in this film he is definitely the heavy.  The acting is superb.

Neil Jordan directed “The Crying Game” and “Michael Collins.”  He knows how to shoot and direct a film.  The script’s concerns—which are a commentary on the British class system, how it treats working class women and their responses to it—are of value.  I think I would have enjoyed the film more if it focused on those concerns in a totally contemporary setting.  As a vampire film, I wish it had more action and fewer twists and turns of the plot. 



Three Successful Films: “American Hustle,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” 

and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”

David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” (MPAA: R) took a true story as its base (the “Abscam” Scandal) and fictionalized it a bit. The cast—Christian Bale as an accomplished confidence man, Amy Adams as his slick partner, Bradley Cooper as the FBI agent who has his vulnerabilities, and Jennifer Lawrence as the wife of Bale’s character and a big-mouthed nut—ran with it.  This is a comedy.  Don’t get me wrong; there are not a lot of laughs.  I spent most of my time thinking, “This must be based on the truth.  No one else could be so dumb with so much money at stake.”  And then I saw “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” (MPAA: R), is based on the real-life autobiography of Jordan Belfort, who was a Wall Street broker/hustler determined to milk his clients dry.  Leonardo DiCaprio’s Belfort turns from college graduate to sleazebag thanks, in part, to Matthew McConaughey as a very successful and seemingly reputable Wall Street stockbroker, who’s private & business lives were an unhealthy mixture of alcohol, legal and illegal drugs, illicit sex and braggadocio. Belfort’s willing partner, charmingly played by Jonah Hill, joined the con-game more than willingly, though he seemed to lack any foresight. 

Though this film was based fairly closely to the outlines of the Belfort story, allegedly a great deal of the dialog—such as McConaughey’s outrageous speech to DiCaprio’s character—was improvised by some of the actors.  Scorsese has great rapport with his actors, and they have great respect for him.  For example, this is DiCaprio’s fifth film with Scorsese and his best.

By the end of this film, the overt sexuality and the characters’ self-destructive abuse of drugs may shock you.  Allegedly, “Wolf” was able to go as far as it did because it was independently financed, not by any major studio; the Hollywood corporate mentality is sometimes squeamish. 

Margot Robbie, as the wife of Belfort, is a stunning leading lady whose beauty and whose talents were effectively displayed by Scorsese in this film.  At the end of Belfort’s marriage, she stands up to her husband who has lied to her and betrayed her repeatedly.  It is a fierce sequence, one that you won’t forget.  Both actors made their characters realistic, frightening, and, in a way, pathetic.  I believe you will be seeing more of this Australian woman in the years to come. 

Finally, Ben Stiller’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (MPAA: PG) went beyond James Thurber’s charming short story.  At the beginning of the film, we do see Mitty (Ben Stiller), who supervises all the negatives from the “Life Magazine” photographers, fantasizing about his boring life and making an attempt to make a connection with an attractive woman (Kristen Wiig) at his office, just as “Life” is going out of the weekly business.  We occasionally still see him “zoning out” a la Thurber. 

But when Mitty is pushed by his new boss (Adam Scott), he responds in a surprising and crowd-pleasing way.  My screening ended with applause from a usually tough Albuquerque audience.  Sean Penn, as an eccentric photographer, and Shirley MacLaine, as Mitty’s wise mother, both give warm and wonderful performances.  If you want harsh reality, try the other two films reviewed here.