Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Cop Land

Sylvester Stallone earned some of his best reviews for Cop Land (1997), James Mangold's overachieving crime drama. Despite Stallone and a high-caliber supporting cast, the movie's wildly unbalanced.

Garrison, New Jersey is an idyllic suburb populated by New York policemen. Presiding is Sheriff Freddy Heflin (Sylvester Stallone), a wannabe with a bad ear who idolizes the police. Then Officer Murray Babitch (Michael Rapaport) shoots two teenagers and seemingly kills himself in a murky incident. Heflin reluctantly gets involved after discovering that his longtime friend, Lieutenant Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel), leads a coterie of crooked cops who will do anything to cover themselves.

Cop Land is a well-made film, with the raw style and violence of a Michael Mann film. Mangold effectively contrasts the grimy city with Garrison's seeming idyll, violent men retiring into seemingly normal life. There's a sharp racial charge to the proceedings: Babitch's victims are black, and Heflin's deputies harass a black couple visiting Garrison. Compared to Ray's crooks, Heflin's a saint: an act of teenaged heroism prevented his becoming a cop, yet also preserved his purity. Naturally, his conflict's to decide between friendship and justice.

Sylvester Stallone commits to his role, packing on weight and sloughing off his mannerisms. It's a surprisingly low-key performance, Stallone underplaying Heflin's quiet despair and incomprehension. Hopelessly out of his depth, he's only got a damaged moral compass and personal regrets driving him. Stallone deserves credit for his subdued work; many stars trying to prove themselves go the ham route. By underplaying, Sly goes toe-to-toe with heavyweights like Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta without breaking a sweat.
Problem is, Mangold can't decide if he's making Serpico or Our Town. Cop Land's overstuffed with sidetracks and subplots: characters have extramarital affairs and squabble with each other without making impact. Heflin's romance with Liz (Annabella Sciorra), wife of an NYPD cop (Peter Berg), is lost among a million other details. The plot hinges on Ray's bungled efforts to hide or kill Babitch, which are too cartoonish to take seriously. Why drown Babitch in a pool rather than shoot him? Are these guys evil, superefficient crooks or Watergate burglars?

Additionally, the supporting cast is so diluted, no one makes much impact, save Harvey Keitel's feral ringleader. Robert De Niro's Internal Affairs cop sulks and swears, berating Heflin for not getting involved, then for getting involved too late. Ray Liotta plays Figgsy, a troubled cop whose house suspiciously burns down in a long, tedious subplot. Janeane Garofalo's deputy endures sexism throughout the film; rather than prove her worth, she runs away. John Spencer and Edie Falco barely have dialogue. With so many underdeveloped plot strands, Cop Land collapses under its own weight.

Cop Land's last third replaces farrago with cliché, as Heflin reenacts High Noon. His deputies abandon him, Figgsy skips town, even IA blows him off. Eventually, Heflin faces off against Ray's goons with a shotgun and ruptured eardrum, effectively staged by Mangold virtually without sound. It's well-done, until a side character makes an astoundingly convenient reappearance to save the day. Cop Land's so sloppy it can't even land the ending.

Somewhere within Cop Land's overstuffed plot lies a really great crime drama. Mangold makes confuses clutter with depth, sprawl with scope. He made the same mistakes ten years later, remaking 3:10 to Yuma with identical narrative excess. Pity the filmmaker who never learns cinematic discipline.

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part II

With Mockingjay Part I, The Hunger Games franchise veered from Battle Royale lite to Spartacus for Teens. It impressed me as a surprisingly violent and sober reflection on revolution, more mature than supposedly adult-oriented Hollywood takes on the topic. Part II continues the trend, concluding the series with a chapter that's fitting, if not entirely satisfying.

PanEm's revolutionaries approach the Capitol, with President Snow (Donald Sutherland) promising a fight to the death. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) continues serving as the revolution's spokeswoman, increasingly disenchanted by its brutality. President Coin (Julianne Moore) taps her for a propaganda mission in the Capitol. Instead, Katniss goes rogue, leading her squad - including Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), barely recovered from a Capitol brain scramble, and third wheel Gale (Liam Hutcherson) - to assassinate Snow. Yet as victory become imminent, Katniss realizes that one man's death won't change everything.

Mockingjay builds on its predecessor's moral ambiguity. Characters debate the merits of killing civilians, while Katniss chafes at becoming a symbol while colleagues die around her. Troubled tribute Johanna (Jena Malone) channels Michael Corleone, telling Katniss "You can kill anyone, even a president." Surprisingly, the tyrannical President Snow has the clearest perspective; he sees Coin as a replacement rather than a liberator. He's vindicated by a manufactured atrocity that serves as a pretext for post-revolutionary purges.

Between these thoughtful sections is an action-driven second act. The Capitol's defended not only by enemy soldiers but booby-traps featuring Gatling guns, lasers and floods of oil. The longest (and most exciting) action scene features Katniss's team battling CHUD-like mutants in the Capitol sewers. The commando mission format works surprisingly well, allowing suspense to overtake bombastic action. Teen audiences won't be disappointed, even if they find Mockingjay's revolutionary debates tedious.

As always, Jennifer Lawrence sells it. The last film ended with Katniss throttled by Peeta; this time she's shot, incinerated by bombs, betrayed by her colleagues. Lawrence underplays Katniss's growing desperation; the most effective scene comes early, when she's held at gunpoint by a Capitol sentry and begs him to shoot. Trapped in her public role as liberator, manipulated by Coin and others she loses her humanity. Lawrence balances the action and character development perfectly. She's more impressive here than in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle.

Sadly, Mockingjay shafts the supporting cast. Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth continue enacting their boring romantic rivalry. Even raving, half-crazed Peeta is more appealing than bland, emotionless Gale. Donald Sutherland gets a few meaty monologues and Julianne Moore does a good job allowing cynicism to bleed through Coin's façade. Series regulars Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci and Philip Seymour Hoffman make perfunctory walk-ons. After four films, these characters deserved better.

After its grimness and an operatic climactic execution, Mockingjay's epilogue seems a miscalculation. Would a decapitated revolution become a democracy or fall into factional chaos? Can Katniss overcome PTSD through cathartic killing and childbirth? While it's been a pleasure unpacking this teen blockbuster, the non-cynical Groggy doesn't mind the cop out. If any character has earned a happy ending, it's Katniss Everdeen.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey

It's well-known that Fifty Shades of Grey started life as Twilight fan fiction. But E.L. James' novels manages to one-up those books; at least Stephanie Meyer couches her fantasies in fantasy format. James' direct, real world approach puts the misogyny and abusiveness front-and-center. Worse, Fifty Shades (and especially its film version) isn't satisfied being a kinky turn-on but wants to be an earnest romance. That idea's more depraved than any of Christian Grey's masochistic rituals.

English student Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) interviews brooding billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). The two strike an instant connection through Thomas Hardy novels and mutual sulkiness. Eventually, Christian reveals his terms for a long-term relationship: bondage, flogging, and kinky sex any time, anywhere. Ana gives in and the two start screwing each other. Ana struggles to see the human being beneath Christian's icy exterior.

It's hard to review Fifty Shades as a movie. Director Sam Johnson-Taylor competently renders James' scribbling, except for the robotic dialogue (which I'd blame on the micromanaging author) and some reddish bizarre mood lighting when Christian and Ana examine their contract. No, the problem lies with the execrable source material. That James' book became a bestseller rather than languishing alongside Hot Stud Trouble and other $5 romance novels is an eternal mystery.

Viewers are subjected to a cavalcade of imbecilic smuttiness. Christian's the kind of lover who only exists in cheap paperbacks. He's a tycoon who never works, sheds his shirt without prompting, rescues Ana from the horror of drinking with friends. Best of all, he's a philanthropist with a Freudian backstory that supposedly explain his psychosis. Ana succumbs to the allure of whips and surprise sodomy, but draws the line at spanking. We don't learn anything of her background except a distant mom (Jennifer Ehle) who vanishes within minutes of appearing.

In this sense, Fifty Shades isn't worse than your average Harlequin novel. What's disturbing isn't the content but James' approach. Where Edward Cullen watched Bella Swann sleep, Christian breaks into Ana's apartment and rapes her. An experience presented, in both book and film, as profoundly erotic and incurably romantic. Coupled with swoon-worthy scenes of Christian flying Ana in a private plane and taking her on expensive dates, it's clear we're expected to see not an abusive relationship but a troubled romance.

Dakota Johnson gives the most insufferably bland, emotionless performance imaginable. She's naïve and stumbling from start to finish, only changing expressions when Christian buries an ice cube in her navel. Jamie Dornan isn't much better, mistaking wooden for brooding, disrobing with Taylor Lautner-esque reflexivity. Decent actors Jennifer Ehle, Marcia Gay Harden and Callum Keith Rennie skulk in anonymous bit parts.

Ultimately, this charming tale of a manipulative sociopath and his meek supplicant doesn't seem to have pleased anyone. The book's fans found it too tame, BDSM practitioners found it offensive, most others found it incompetent and dull. Which didn't stop Fifty Shades from grossing $500 million. Don't know about you, but I can't wait for the sequels.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Rocky Balboa

"It ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward."
After Rocky V, Sylvester Stallone fell into self-parody (Demolition Man) and ignominious flops (Judge Dredd). Even his well-reviewed turn in Cop Land (1997) couldn't restart his career. Finally, in 2006 Stallone revisited his most famous character. To everyone's surprise, Rocky Balboa was both a success and a respectable movie.

Now pushing sixty, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) manages a restaurant in Philadelphia. Adrian is dead, son Robert (Milo Ventimiglia) is estranged; Paulie (Burt Young) hangs around, vulgar as ever. Rocky considers rejoining the fight game, encouraged by a computer-simulated match between him and contemporary champ Mason Dixon (Antonio Tarver). Dixon, whom boxing fans don't take seriously, challenges Rocky to a match. Despite the decades-age difference, Rocky determines to go the distance.

As expected, Rocky Balboa plays heavily on nostalgia. Rocky's working in the old neighborhood, befriending Marie (Geraldine Hughes), a minor character from the original Rocky who becomes a platonic friend. Burt Young plays Paulie for pathos, losing his job and choked up over Adrian's death. Milo Ventimiglia proves pitch-perfect, trying to distance himself from Dad while ducking his own failures. Stallone writes and performs these scenes brilliantly, allowing Rocky to call out Robert and soothe Paulie while confronting his own demons.

Some elements don't work as well. The premise is a stretch, even by series standards - though in fairness, the training montage shows Rocky overcoming his age. Meanwhile, Antonio Tarver's Mason Dixon never shows much personality beyond resentment; he's among the series' least memorable antagonists. It's also distracting to see Jim Lampley and Max Kellerman commenting on the fight, but this shouldn't shock in our age of product placement.

Still an imposing physical presence, Stallone gives an excellent performance. He's convincing whether in the ring, chewing out Robert or visiting Adrian's graveside. The final bout isn't exciting for its bizarre monochrome visuals, hectic editing and HBO shilling, but Stallone's conviction. After two sequels of slumming, he's clearly invested in doing Rocky justice. By film's end, he's recaptured the character's dignity and the audience's respect; Rocky, and Stallone go out on top.

Rocky Balboa's good enough to wash away memories of Rocky V. Sadly, it taught Stallone he could relive his action roles ad nauseum; hence Rambo (2008), The Expendables (2010) and other senile excretions. But why begrudge Stallone his vanity? With Rocky Balboa, he created an iconic hero who endured six films, forty years and endless parodies and imitations. Here's hoping Creed keeps the tradition alive.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Rocky V

"Time to put some hustle behind this muscle!"
Rocky IV won over fans through sheer silliness; it's impossible to hate, even if it's terrible. No one likes Rocky V (1990), Sylvester Stallone's ill-fated effort to return the series to its roots. Melodramatic and mean-spirited, it goes out of its way to alienate Rocky devotees.

Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) returns from Russia determined to retire. Ivan Drago's fight left him brain-damaged, and he loses money through a sleazy accountant. Rocky moves back into the old neighborhood, taking over Mickey's old gym. He connects with Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison), an up-and-coming boxer, and trains him to perfection - to the chagrin of Rocky's son Robert (Sage Stallone). Tommy defects to George Duke (Richard Gant), a sleazy promoter who promises him the world.

Bringing back original director John G. Avildsen and the South Philly locations (and even Burgess Meredith, in cameo), Rocky V wants to be a bittersweet bookend. Early scenes are passable; it's hard not to empathize with Rocky forced into retirement and losing his fortune (one hopes he sold the robot). Less engaging are the formulaic family scenes, with Talia Shire yelling in exasperation while Robert grows into an earring-sporting punk. Sage Stallone isn't a bad actor, but his challenging the school bully and arguing with Dad come straight from the Afterschool Special playbook.
Rocky V's newcomers are a snooze. Richard Gant's Don King stand-in is such an obvious hustler, Pollyanna wouldn't trust him. Michael Anthony Williams's challenger is a cipher. Tommy Morrison's affable but can't act. Then again, his character's so poorly written it doesn't matter. Avildsen elides character development and undercuts tension through endless montages, scored to banal hip hop music. Why develop plot when you can jump cut months into the future?

This makes Rocky V just another bad sequel. The final twenty minutes destroy it. Unsatisfied with his title, Tommy calls out Rocky in public, then punches out Paulie. The two have a down-and-dirty street fight, with barflies and hoboes cheering them on. Are Avildsen and Stallone bemoaning how far Rocky, street tough-turned-world champion, has fallen? Not with Bill Conti's score trilling heroically as ever. Did Stallone really consider Rocky brawling in an alley a triumphant finale?

Rocky V did decent box office, but turned off fans and aggravated critics. Even Stallone all but disowned the film. Rocky Balboa laid dormant for sixteen years, returning with a delayed epilogue that sought to undo the fifth film's damage.