April 26, 2011

Win Win (2011)

IT’S SATURDAY NIGHT, and I’m taking FilmMother out for a belated birthday dinner and a movie. I’m excited about getting the chance to see a film in a theater, and I wonder aloud about when was the last time she and I did so without the kids.

Valentine’s Day,” she informs me. She’s referring to both the holiday and the movie from 2010. In other words, over a year ago.

So yes, while we have seen movies in theaters since then (Toy Story 3, Despicable Me), this is the first time in a long time that we’re hitting the local cineplex childless.

My immediate thought: Let’s make this count by picking a good movie that the kids either couldn’t or wouldn’t want to see.

In Win Win, Paul Giamatti (Private Parts, Shoot ‘Em Up) is small-time New Jersey lawyer Mike Flaherty, who has a declining practice, financial woes (both in his practice and his family life), and an aging client named Leo (Burt Young) battling the early stages of dementia. When Mike learns that Leo’s estate would pay $1,500 a month for an at-home guardian, he offers himself for the job, then puts Leo in a senior living facility and pockets the money anyway. But Mike’s visions of an easy payday begin to fade when Leo’s teenage grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) suddenly appears on the scene. And just when Mike thinks he's found a way to make this new development work, the boy's mother (Melanie Lynskey) shows up and puts Mike’s plans in jeopardy.


From the opening scene of two joggers passing Mike as he tries to keep a steady pace, Win Win writer/director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent) prepares us for a portrait of a man who is losing ground: Mike’s caseload is waning, expenses at work and home are growing, and he’s coaching a god-awful high school wrestling team.

McCarthy’s films thrive on relatable characters in an environment that captures the realism of everyday life, and Giamatti is a perfect fit for both of these elements as Mike – a good guy and family man who, in desperation, makes a move to improve his life that he believes will truly hurt no one.

Of course, no film is complete without conflict, and Win Win has its share in the form of Leo’s supposedly reformed addict daughter Cindy (played with convincing vulnerability and opportunism by Lynskey) and the fallout from when Mike’s little scam is ultimately exposed. However, the film isn’t just 105 minutes of heavy drama; it also features several laugh-out-loud scenes as well as engaging and well-shot wrestling sequences.

And while the framework of Win Win has been seen many times – guy does something for selfish reasons, grows feelings for those he's exploiting, tries to explain “it's not like that now” when he gets caught – it’s a true testament to McCarthy's vision, and to the stellar cast he's assembled, that in watching Win Win you don’t feel like you've seen it all before.

Speaking of the cast, in addition to the always reliable Giamatti, Win Win features The Office’s Amy Ryan as Mike’s supportive yet Jersey-tough wife Jackie; Jeffrey Tambor as Mike’s colleague and assistant wrestling coach Steve; Bobby Cannavale in a highly entertaining turn as Mike’s childhood friend Terry, who’s still clinging to his glory days as a high school wrestler (even though he sucked); and newcomer Shaffer, who does an impressive job as the brooding and guarded Kyle.

Had it been packed with A-list stars, Win Win (a hit at Sundance) would currently be the talk of the town and number one at the box office. But the fact it’s not jammed with “movie stars” but rather with believable, respected, relatable actors is truly what makes it work.

There were only eight other people in our theater when FilmMother and I saw Win Win. A great movie-going experience for us, but a travesty for such a well-made, feel-good, and rewarding film as this. Right this wrong; go see Win Win as soon as you can.

Fun facts:
* McCarthy planned for Amy Ryan’s character to have a leg tattoo of her favorite Jersey rocker, but he wasn’t sure if it should be Bruce Springsteen or Jon Bon Jovi. He asked Alex Shaffer’s mom, who’s from Jersey, and her immediate response was, “Jon Bon Jovi, of course!”
* Shaffer is a nationally ranked wrestler in real life. A two-time regional champion, he became a New Jersey state champion in his weight class just before filming Win Win (his acting debut).


Is it suitable for your kids?
Win Win is rated R largely for adult language, with some adult themes and one butt shot courtesy of Cannavale’s character as he e-mails a picture of his bare ass to his estranged wife.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
Most definitely. Win Win is a great movie to share together, and she’ll be happily satisfied after viewing it.

They’ve fallen, and they can’t get up!
(What, you think you can do better?
Add your witty caption in the Comments section.)

Win Win
* Director: Tom McCarthy
* Screenwriter: Tom McCarthy
* Stars: Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Burt Young, Melanie Lynskey, Alex Shaffer, Margo Martindale, David W. Thompson
* MPAA Rating: R

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April 20, 2011

American Swing (2008)

AS A CHILD OF THE ‘70S, I sometimes have trouble relating to the fact that while I was enjoying the most innocent years of my life, many adults were engaging in some of the most hedonistic and debauched behavior of modern times. Casual and open cocaine use, key parties, and “swinging” by married couples were apparently taking place across America.

One avid swinger, a former deli owner named Larry Levenson, believed so much in catering to the swinger scene and bringing it to the mainstream that he opened Plato’s Retreat, a sex club in New York City during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s where couples could indulge in spouse-swapping, anonymous sex, and group orgies (not to mention the free buffet).

It’s the ascension, heyday, and eventual decline of Plato’s Retreat that’s the basis for the documentary American Swing.

Mathew Kaufman and Jon Hart direct this documentary about the legendary sex club Plato’s Retreat, which catered to adventurous heterosexual couples in the 1970s and beyond. Featuring frank interviews with former members and graphic footage of the club's activities, the film explores how a once-thriving center of free love imploded amid drugs, tangled relationships, and the rise of AIDS.


Kaufman and Hart certainly have done their research in order to create an informative and accurate-as-possible account of Plato’s Retreat – American Swing features dozens of interviews with former employees and management, friends and relatives of Levenson, regulars of the club, journalists who covered the scene, celebrities who visited the club, and archive footage of Levenson himself from appearances on Donahue and local New York City public access TV shows.

In addition to the sheer volume of interviews, Kaufman and Hart also provide unprecedented imagery of what went on inside the club – with dozens of photos and many video clips, both showing in very graphic detail the sexual escapades that took place (Swing is unrated, but would have easily been NC-17).

It’s oddly intriguing to listen to people who now qualify for AARP talk about Plato’s Retreat and the anonymous sex, spouse-swapping, and orgies that went on there – especially in the club’s notorious “mat room,” where only the most hardcore attendees would gather.

For the second half of American Swing, Kaufman and Hart put aside the titillating footage and focus on the people impacted by the club’s decline and eventual closing due to IRS woes and the looming threat of AIDS. (Watching Levenson and his cronies argue with callers on public access TV in 1985 as to what does and doesn’t cause AIDS is both laughable and sad, considering how little was known about the disease at the time.)

After three decades of being able to mostly only read and hear about what went on at Plato’s Retreat, American Swing blows the proverbial doors off the place – giving unprecedented access to the people who were there, showing what went on via uncompromising footage, and telling the story of yet another overconfident pioneer who believed his own hype, believed he was above the law, and fell victim to both.


Is it suitable for your kids?
Ah, no. No, no, no. The frank talk and visual evidence in American Swing regarding the sexual activity that dominated Plato’s Retreat is strictly for grown-up folk – and even some of them might be taken aback by what’s discussed and shown. There are copious amounts of nudity and several scenes of multi-partner or group sex, and recollections by former patrons about what they did or witnessed is sometimes as explicit as what’s shown.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
If she likes documentaries, American Swing is very well-made and more thorough than the average doc. But she’ll need to have an open mind to the subject matter.

See? Even casual, anonymous sex with group partners has its rules.

American Swing
* Directors: Mathew Kaufman, Jon Hart
* Stars: Bryce Britton, William Davidson, Dan Dorfman, Donna Ferrato, Jamie Gillis, Al Goldstein, Dian Hanson, Buck Henry, Ron Jeremy
* MPAA Rating: NR

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April 14, 2011

Black Samurai (1977)

AFTER RECENTLY FINISHING Michael Adams’ excellent book Showgirls, Teen Wolves, and Astro-Zombies: A Film Critic’s Year-Long Quest to Find the Worst Movie Ever Made, I found myself with a list of supposedly terrible movies I felt I had to see in order to truly savor their awfulness.

First on the list: the 1977 kung fu/blaxploitation flick Black Samurai.

Special agent Robert Sand (Jim Kelly) is asked by the CIA to save his girlfriend Toki (Essie Lin Chia) after she’s kidnapped by a voodoo cult led by the evil Janicot (Bill Roy). It turns out Toki is also the daughter of a top Eastern ambassador, and Janicot's ransom demand is top-secret information for a new weapon, the “freeze bomb.” Sand’s search takes him from Hong Kong to California to Miami, facing bad men, bad women, and bad animals (Janicot's pet is a killer vulture!).

Black Samurai has all the trappings of the ‘70s action genre: groovy opening credits, a funk-tastic soundtrack, sketchy audio, poor looping, stiff acting, overdone karate sound effects, bad editing, lots of Aviator sunglasses, and sideburns a-plenty. But despite all that tasty kitsch, the film as a whole isn’t as satisfying.

In terms of performances, Kelly – who had a memorable supporting role in Bruce Lee’s smash Enter the Dragon – is the lead plank in the wooden cast. (According to Jim Brown, the makers of their film Take a Hard Ride made Kelly’s character mute because he simply couldn’t act.) Dialogue is delivered either in monotones or with misplaced emphasis; the only exception is Bill Roy, who effectively relishes his role as Janicot with proper inflection and smarm.

Low-budget grindhouse filmmaker Al Adamson – whose films weren’t “fun” bad movies as much as “bad” bad movies – doesn’t provide an even or energetic pace to the proceedings. Fight sequences are either quick and done, or drawn-out and lackluster. (Though Sand’s jet-pack sequence left me in a mix of hysterics, jealousy, and how’d-they-do-that intrigue.)

The framework of Black Samurai is a direct lift (read: rip-off) of Enter the Dragon: a debriefing of our hero by government agents who need him for a mission; the hero’s journey to a mysterious island to bring down the big boss; a climactic battle where our hero wipes out dozens of the boss’ guards almost single-handedly; and a cat-and-mouse finale between the hero and boss (instead of a maze of mirrors as in Dragon, Adamson uses a maze of catacombs beneath Janicot’s mansion lair).

In fact, everything in Black Samurai is second-rate – not just to the classic Enter the Dragon, but to the ‘70s kung fu and blaxploitation genres in general. I watched the first hour in one sitting, but having to finish the last 25 minutes a few days later felt like having to do homework I’d been putting off.

While Black Samurai is nearly unwatchable, it should earn an award for Most Ironic Line of Dialogue: After Janicot forces Sand’s CIA buddy (Biff Yeager) at gunpoint to lie to Sand over the phone and lure him into a trap, Janicot declares: “The government even trains its agents to be very good actors.” Hmm. Maybe Adamson should’ve gotten a government grant from the NEA and sent the entire cast of Black Samurai to The Actors Studio.

Fun facts:
* In Kelly’s opening scene, he’s playing tennis. After his acting career faded, Kelly became a professional tennis player, rising to number two in California in the senior men's doubles rankings and reaching the state's top ten in senior men's singles. He now works as a professional tennis coach.
* Adamson’s death is the stuff of one of his films: He was bludgeoned in 1995 at age 66 and cemented in the Jacuzzi at his home by the contractor he had hired.

Is it suitable for your kids?
Black Samurai is rated R for language (including a baddie declaring Sand will be “one dead n**ger” and Sand calling another bad guy a “Whitey faggot”), chopsocky violence, and other acts of aggression (people are shot, poisoned by snakes, stabbed, and blown up via car bomb). Also, partygoers ogle a stripper during a party at Janicot’s mansion (no nudity, but she gets down to a bikini top and thong).

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
Moot point; it’s not worth watching. If she likes ‘70s kung fu and/or blaxploitation, I’d recommend Enter the Dragon for the former and either Pam Grier’s Coffy or Isaac Hayes’ Truck Turner for the latter.

If I cropped this shot any closer, you’d think
they were doing something besides fighting.

Black Samurai
* Director: Al Adamson
* Screenwriter: B. Readick
* Stars: Jim Kelly, Bill Roy, Roberto Contreras, Marilyn Joi, Essie Lin Chia, Biff Yeager
* MPAA Rating: R

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April 8, 2011

Hobo with a Shotgun (2011)

LAST YEAR, filmmaker Robert Rodriguez released the grindhouse love letter Machete following the buzz surrounding his 2007 then-fake trailer of the same name. Critic and audience response was good, but not great. “Meh”-chete, if you will.

So when an outlandish red-band trailer surfaced online months ago for another grindhouse tribute flick, Hobo with a Shotgun, the question was raised: Was there any possible way this film could live up to such craziness?

Rutger Hauer (The Hitcher, Blade Runner) is a hobo who rolls into a deteriorating, crime-ridden town (think Escape from New York meets Robocop’s Old Detroit), only to find it overrun by violence and ruled by a vicious crime lord known as the Drake (Brian Downey). The hobo's solution: Pick up a shotgun and start laying waste to crooks, corrupt cops, and lowlifes who cross his path.


It’s funny how mindset and time of day can affect one’s opinion.

After a late-night, caffeine-ridden viewing, it felt like Hobo director Jason Eisener just missed living up to the hype brought about by the trailer. The film seemed compelling yet uneven, with only nominal character development beyond the relationship between Hauer’s hobo and Abby (Molly Dunsworth), the hooker he’s sworn to protect.

But after a second viewing the following day, my head was in the right place to soak in everything Hobo had to offer: It’s an over-the-top, blood-drenched, blood-spurting riot that would make a young Peter Jackson proud (Eisener even offers an homage to Jackson’s splatter classic Dead Alive by featuring a lawnmower as a body-chopping weapon).

Hauer overdelivers nearly all of his vengeful-vagabond dialogue, and rightly so, given the campy and exploitative nature of the film. But screenwriter John Davies saves most of the best lines for the supporting cast of baddies: There are so many ridiculously raunchy catchphrases that I can’t repeat them all here, let alone pick the best one. Beyond the actors and the action, the atmosphere of Hobo is accentuated by two key factors: its oversaturated color scheme and the retro/synth-heavy score by Darius Holbert and Russ Howard III.

Hobo with a Shotgun is an all-out attack on the senses. It’s part grindhouse homage, part graphic novel come to life, and totally out of control…but in the most entertaining way possible.

Fun fact: Much like Machete, Hobo with a Shotgun originated as a fake trailer for Grindhouse (but was only attached to the Canadian theater release). The trailer, also directed by Eisener, was the winner of the South by Southwest (SXSW) Grindhouse fake trailer competition.

Is it suitable for your kids?
Hell. No. On top of the endless profanity, the vulgar threats made to random victims (most of whom are women), and the occasional nudity, the violence is graphic and relentless. People are decapitated, disemboweled, dismembered, crushed, tortured, hanged, shot, and stabbed. In addition, a baddie blowtorches a busload of kids, and in one scene Hauer’s hobo chews on broken glass.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
I’m guessing no, unless she’s into grindhouse flicks and can stomach a lot of bloody, graphic violence. Hobo’s more for a group of guys who can play off each other and hoot it up about the insanity taking place on the screen.

"Please don't shoot my dick off! I still have a lot of f**king left to do!"
(Actual line from the movie.)

Hobo with a Shotgun
* Director: Jason Eisener
* Screenwriter: John Davies
* Stars: Rutger Hauer, Gregory Smith, Molly Dunsworth, Nick Bateman, Brian Downey, Jeremy Akerman
* MPAA Rating: R

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