Forest Whitaker

Rogue One (2016, Gareth Edwards)

Sadly, the Writers Guild of America does not publish their arbitrations for writing credits, because the one on Rogue One has got to be a doozy; I desperately want to know how they go to this script. Did it actually start as a video game or did director Edwards really have no idea how to do action scenes not out of a video game? Was there ever a satisfying conclusion to the various characters or was it always going to be amid the biggest Star Wars action sequence featuring the toys—sorry, spaceships–from the Original Trilogy ever mounted.

Because you know how they do all the rest. They do it with CGI. They even bring Peter Cushing back in CGI and credit some guy named Guy Henry who… stood in? Got CGI’ed over? Cushing doesn’t look real, he doesn’t even look alien (though the alien designs in Rogue One are like sixty percent good and forty percent perplexingly odd). He kind of looks like a video game character but maybe a little better… whenever he’s on, I wish I was just watching CGI further adventures of the Original Trilogy cast. I mean, probably not anymore because I wouldn’t want to see what the do with Carrie Fisher but still. There’s a novelty in it.

There’s no novelty in CGI Cushing in Rogue One because they still haven’t gotten the acting down. The face makes expressions but pointlessly. Kind of like the James Earl Jones cameo. His inflections make no sense. Partially because the exposition-full dialogue plays worse onscreen than George Lucas’s. Again, that Writers Guild arbitration has got to be some great reading. Like who wrote the Darth Vader cameo, which I’m not going to consider a spoiler because you should be able to get a “Rogue One Darth Vader” playset, complete with the bigger looking, Darth Helmet homage perhaps helmet.

The reason the dialogue is so bad is because they’re targeting a younger audience. There’s this really silly “Rosebud” running throughout the movie and it gets repeated time and again before it finally comes into play and then they even explain it. Because they’ve got to hit the eight year-olds, which is nice, right? It makes an eight year-old feel smart… which is kind of Star Wars in a nutshell.

Anyway.

The big space and land battle plays with all the good toys. There are ships from various movie periods fighting each other and whatnot, there’s AT-ATs, there’s… a samurai. There’s everything you could want. And lots of callbacks to the original movies, both in shots and dialogue.

As bland as the action direction, Edwards does pretty well with the pseudo-main plot, involving the creation of the Death Star (the first one, so pre-Star Wars; the movie assumes you’re very familiar, because otherwise why would you be watching Rogue One). Empire scientist Mads Mikkelsen tries running away but gets brought back by bad guy Ben Mendelsohn (who’s great but has to play second-fiddle to CGI Cushing, which is a choice); Mikkelsen’s wife dies and their daughter is rescued by Forest Whitaker. Jump ahead fifteen years and now the daughter is Felicity Jones and Whitaker’s an old man (so they can make prequels to this prequel, which would still be sequel to the prequels), and they’re estranged. Blah blah blah, needlessly complicated plot to get Jones and Whitaker reunited, bringing in Rebellion spy and secretly soulful assassin Diego Luna, who, with his trusty reprogrammed attack droid (voiced by an over-enthusiastic given the writing Alan Tudyk), will reunite father and daughter and hopefully save the universe.

Along the way Luna and Jones team up with Jedi Temple protectors but not Jedi Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen. They’re like Jedi groupies. Yen gives what’s probably the best performance… and there are good performances. Not just Mendelsohn. Luna’s a strong lead until Jones takes over for… ten minutes or so. She’s good. It’s a silly part, but she’s good. Riz Ahmed’s really good as the Imperial spy. Forest Whitaker’s good. Until they get to the direct prequel to Star Wars stuff, it certainly seems like it might add up to something for its cast. But once Threepio and Artoo show up… it’s just a countdown to their suicide mission overtaking them and clearing the board for the actual heroes to show up.

The ginned up martyrs all get their big exits but they play trite, mostly because the script, some Edwards. Michael Giacchino’s score almost, almost, almost finally makes it work but then he doesn’t because he never makes it work. Giacchino’s score is middling when it’s not aping or anti-aping John Williams and much worse when it does.

Rogue One is a successfully executed Star Wars prequel slash midquel, which says nothing about it as a good use of $200 million or two hours and ten minutes…. In those terms, it’s an abject, even desperate fail and a complete waste of its (human) actors’ time.

I assume CGI Peter Cushing has nothing better to do.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Gareth Edwards; screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, based on a story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta, and characters created by George Lucas; director of photography, Greig Fraser; edited by John Gilroy, Colin Goudie, and Jabez Olssen; music by Michael Giacchino; production designers, Doug Chiang and Neil Lamont; costume designers, David Crossman and Glyn Dillon; produced by Leifur B. Dagfinnsson, Simon Emanuel, Kathleen Kennedy, and Allison Shearmur; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Felicity Jones (Jyn Erso), Diego Luna (Cassian Andor), Alan Tudyk (K-2SO), Donnie Yen (Chirrut Îmwe), Wen Jiang (Baze Malbus), Ben Mendelsohn (Orson Krennic), Forest Whitaker (Saw Gerrera), Riz Ahmed (Bodhi Rook), Mads Mikkelsen (Galen Erso), Jimmy Smits (Bail Organa), Alistair Petrie (General Draven), and Genevieve O’Reilly (Mon Mothma).


Black Panther (2018, Ryan Coogler)

Black Panther moves extraordinarily well. It’s got a number of constraints, which director Coogler and co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole agilely and creatively surmount. It’s also got Coogler’s lingering eye. The film can never look away from its setting–the Kingdom of Wakanda–for too long. Rachel Morrison’s photography emphasizes it, the editing emphasizes it, Ludwig Göransson’s likably ostentatious score emphasizes it.

The film opens with a stylized flashback prologue, setting up Wakanda. It’s an isolated African nation. A meteor with a magic metal crashed into it before humans and made magic plants. When humans arrive, they eat magic plants, they use magic metal, they become technologically superior. And they isolate themselves.

Then the film introduces lead Chadwick Boseman. Not protagonist Chadwick Boseman, unfortunately, but lead. And immediately he gets overshadowed. First by Danai Gurira as a general. Then by Lupita Nyong’o as Boseman’s ex-girlfriend and a spy. Everyone in the movie–with the exceptions of Martin Freeman and Daniel Kaluuya–gets to overshadow Boseman at one point or another. Coogler and Cole don’t seem to have an angle on the character, who should be on a self-discovery arc but can’t be because it’s a Marvel movie and he’s a superhero.

There are a few other things Black Panther really wants to do and wants to be, but can’t because of that Marvel movie constraint. Coogler and Cole do some amazing things to counter–especially since the movie opens with Boseman just getting down with his adventure in the third Captain America movie. They immediately work to establish the film on its own ground. Gurira and, especially, Nyong’o make it happen.

Then it’s time for more supporting cast introductions. Letitia Wright as Boseman’s techno-genius little sister. Mom is Angela Bassett. Forest Whitaker has a big part. Winston Duke is one of the tribal leaders. And Kaluuya. Kaluuya is Boseman’s friend who never gets to one-up Boseman. Wright’s whole part is one-upping him. Same with Duke.

Martin Freeman doesn’t get to one-up Boseman either. He’s a returning character from the Captain America movie. He’s narratively pointless. But Coogler keeps him busy and has some fun with the character. Andy Serkis is the other connection to the existing Marvel narrative. But he’s great. Coogler and Cole write this obnoxious jackass of a super-powered arms dealer and Serkis makes it work. I don’t remember Serkis–playing the character for the third or fourth time–ever being anywhere near as impressive as here.

Because Coogler makes it happen. He’s able to balance all the things Black Panther needs to do, wants to do, and can’t do.

Villain Michael B. Jordan is separate from that balance. He’s the bad guy, but he’s got a more traditional protagonist arc. If he weren’t a bad guy. Even the heroic aspects of his arc, there’s something bad about. Jordan plays the hell out of the part. It’s a better performance than part. One of the things Black Panther runs out of time on is Jordan’s villain arc. Because the third act’s got to have the action.

Coogler directs the action well. He directs the high speed fight scenes–Boseman’s nanite-infused outfit does something like superspeed–and he keeps it all moving. The fight choreography is awesome, whether it’s Boseman and Jordan or Boseman and Jordan’s CGI doubles or an actual huge battle scene with Gurira commanding troops.

I mean, Freeman’s Star Wars spaceship fighter chase thing is narratively required but not good. Coogler doesn’t do the starfighter chase thing. It’s fine. It’s not just Freeman playing Last Starfighter, thank goodness; they wisely leverage Wright to pace it better.

The final showdown between Boseman and Jordan is pretty good. The movie runs out of time with it too though. The denouement is too short. The second act is too short. Black Panther could easily support another ten or fifteen minutes over its two and a quarter hour runtime.

Great photography from Morrison. Great editing from Debbie Berman and Michael P. Shawver. Likable but not great score from Göransson. Breathtaking production design by Hannah Beachler. It’s a beautiful film.

Nyong’o, Gurira, Wright, Duke, Sterling K. Brown; all great. Whitaker’s pretty good. The part turns out to be a little wonky. Bassett’s good. Kaluuya’s part is undercooked. And then the lunacy of Serkis.

Black Panther is a darn good superhero movie and a beautifully, lovingly, and expertly produced one.

It’d just have been nice if Coogler and Cole had as strong a handle on Boseman’s character as they do on Jordan’s. It’s a Marvel movie, after all. The bad guys never get to overshadow the heroes.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ryan Coogler; screenplay by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, based on the comics by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Rachel Morrison; edited by Debbie Berman and Michael P. Shawver; music by Ludwig Göransson; production designer, Hannah Beachler; produced by Kevin Feige; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Chadwick Boseman (T’Challa), Michael B. Jordan (Killmonger), Lupita Nyong’o (Nakia), Danai Gurira (Okoye), Letitia Wright (Shuri), Angela Bassett (Ramonda), Martin Freeman (Everett K. Ross), Forest Whitaker (Zuri), Daniel Kaluuya (W’Kabi), Winston Duke (M’Baku), Sterling K. Brown (N’Jobu), and Andy Serkis (Klaue).


Arrival (2016, Denis Villeneuve)

Stylist for hire. Stylist for hire. Denis Villeneuve is a stylist for hire on Arrival. He assembles a wonderful crew and they all do great work. Joe Walker’s editing is always assured, never flashy. Bradford Young’s photography is phenomenal. Arrival’s got a great color palette. Bored with its beauty or some such aesthetic. Excellent music from Jóhann Jóhannsson, even if it sounds a lot like Michael Nyman’s Wonderland score at times. And great production design from Patrice Vermette.

It’s a shame all this great technical work is on a cheap, manipulative narrative. Eric Heisserer’s got no understanding of narrative pacing, so he needs someone like Villeneuve who can assign tonal shifts to the narrative to move things along. I mean, there’s expository narration in Arrival because it’s got a somewhat lengthy present action for an alien encounter movie and a lot of science the film doesn’t want to make up in detail for the viewer. So, even with expository narration, Heisserer can’t make this thing move. It’s a boulder Villeneuve’s got to get going, then keep going. The style gets it through. The technical skill gets it through.

Until there’s a big reveal and the script gets worse. Arrival isn’t cheap and manipulative in terms of its plotting–actually, if the script worked, the plot would be fine–Heisserer’s cheap and manipulative in the detail, in the contrived events, in the lack of ambition or thoughtfulness. There are big logic wholes and not just because the film’s structured to hide the reveal. And that hide is an exceptionally manipulative–or potentially exceptionally manipulative–device on its own.

Arrival should offer Amy Adams an amazing role. It doesn’t. Worse, Villeneuve doesn’t seem to care. He’s concentrating on the filmmaking, not his actors’ performances. You can’t blame him–the actors have that script dragging them down, all Villeneuve has to do is expertly render it. Adams is fine. She’s good. She’s not great. It’s not a great role. It should be a great role and it isn’t.

Jeremy Renner practically deserves an “and” credit. He’s present but not active. Heisserer and Villeneuve ignore him. The second half’s pacing is wonky and, even though Renner gets the stop narration updating the ground situation, he doesn’t have much of a place in it. He needs a very big place in it given the twist and the hide. Villeneuve needed to deliver here with his two lead and he doesn’t.

Forest Whitaker’s awesome as the army guy who recruits Renner and Adams to talk to aliens. Oh, right; Arrival is about aliens coming to Earth. Whitaker can chew some scenery. It’s kind of a crap part given he doesn’t get any character development, even though its sort of promised. I can’t even get into how cheap Heisserer gets with the end of the second act events. If it weren’t for Villeneuve, they’d be big enough to jar you out.

Arrival is a big disappointment. Not just because of the talented people working on it, but because it’s a fine plot with a bad script and Villeneuve tries to mundanely stylize away that badness.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Denis Villeneuve; screenplay by Eric Heisserer, based on a story by Ted Chiang; director of photography, Bradford Young; edited by Joe Walker; music by Jóhann Jóhannsson; production designer, Patrice Vermette; produced by Shawn Levy, Dan Levine, David Linde, and Aaron Ryder; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Amy Adams (Louise), Jeremy Renner (Ian), Michael Stuhlbarg (Halpern), Tzi Ma (Shang), and Forest Whitaker (Weber).


Body Count (1998, Robert Patton-Spruill)

Body Count is unexceptionally bad. Theodore Witcher’s script is poorly plotted and stagy; Patton-Spruill’s direction is simply lame. He’s got no personality; it’s a heist gone wrong picture and it’s clear Witcher’s seen Reservoir Dogs, but Patton-Spruill’s apparently incapable of directing scenes with any tension whatsoever. Oddly Curt Sobel’s musical score reminds of seventies American New Wave so… maybe someone else made that decision? With an eighty-five minute run time and no theatrical release, Body Count obviously had its post-production issues.

Still, the acting’s good. Donnie Wahlberg’s probably the best, followed by David Caruso, then John Leguizamo. Body Count has the added problem of having no redeemable characters whatsoever–Ving Rhames is revealed as a religious man late in the picture as a way to endear him. Without a sympathetic lead and with Patton-Spruill’s vapid direction, Count‘s often tedious to watch. But then Witcher will come up with a great line or two (usually for Caruso) and it engages a little again.

Rhames is all right as the de facto lead. There’s not enough to his character (the religion thing is inane) and his arc is unbelievable, but he’s solid.

The film’s about a bunch of robbers on a lousy road trip, with Linda Fiorentino as a hitchhiker who tags along. She’s surprisingly mediocre. It’s not her fault, of course. Witcher’s script frequently reviles in its misogyny.

Good photography from Charles Mills. It could be a lot worse. Like if it were eighty-six minutes.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Patton-Spruill; written by Theodore Witcher; director of photography, Charles Mills; edited by Joseph Gutowski and Richard Nord; music by Curt Sobel; production designer, Tim Eckel; produced by Mark Burg, George Jackson and Doug McHenry; released by Polygram Filmed Entertainment.

Starring Ving Rhames (Pike), David Caruso (Hobbs), John Leguizamo (Chino), Linda Fiorentino (Natalie), Donnie Wahlberg (Booker) and Forest Whitaker (Crane).


Battlefield Earth (2000, Roger Christian)

If only someone involved in Battlefield Earth realized they should be making fun of the story instead of being earnest, it might have some camp value. Instead, between Barry Pepper’s humorless protagonist and John Travolta’s ludicrous villain, Earth is an exasperating affair. No one noticed Forest Whitaker looks like the Cowardly Lion? Really? He looks just like him. He just needs a tail.

I expected Earth to be far worse. Travolta’s bad but not spectacularly (for him). Earth just shows having a movie where most of the characters are giant stupid-looking space aliens is a bad idea. It doesn’t help director Roger Christian isn’t competent enough to direct a Downy Fabric Softener commercial. He tilts his camera all the time and apparently instructed editor Robin Russell to use a lot of Star Wars style transition swipes. But Earth has little in common with Star Wars. Battlefield Earth is hard sci-fi; it’s exactly why I snicker when I hear that phrase.

Well, Roman DeBeers notwithstanding.

Additionally terrible things about Earth include Giles Nuttgens’s photography, Elia Cmiral’s music (especially) and the writing. But it’s hard to say whether the dumbest elements are from the script or the source novel. The aliens, it turns out, never shut off the United States’s apparently infinite power grid… after a thousand years of occupation.

But the special effects aren’t bad and Kim Coates is actually good in his sidekick role.

And Earth does move somewhat briskly. The stupidity and wholesale ineptness make it interesting.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Roger Christian; screenplay by Corey Mandell and J.D. Shapiro, based on the novel by L. Ron Hubbard; director of photography, Giles Nuttgens; edited by Robin Russell; music by Elia Cmiral; production designer, Patrick Tatopoulos; produced by Elie Samaha, Jonathan D. Krane and John Travolta; released by Warner Bros.

Starring John Travolta (Terl), Barry Pepper (Jonnie Goodboy Tyler), Forest Whitaker (Ker), Kim Coates (Carlo), Richard Tyson (Robert the Fox) and Sabine Karsenti (Chrissy).


Species (1995, Roger Donaldson)

Roger Donaldson has these great sweeping camera shots in Species. He doesn’t restrict them to the action scenes, but uses them to dynamically bring his five principals into the frame together. It’s always beautifully done and, if one could separate Donaldson’s work from the film’s content, Species would seem a lot more impressive.

Unfortunately, the fine work of Donaldson—and editor Conrad Buff IV—is nowhere near enough to forgive the film’s problems.

First and foremost, the script is dumb. An alien civilization dupes the American government into creating an emissary and that emissary will try to wipe out the human race. Now, that idea isn’t dumb, it’s just an idea. Writer Dennis Feldman’s execution of that idea is awful though. The guy can’t write. Though I might just be blaming him more so I don’t have to be so negative about the actors.

Alfred Molina gives a good performance. Marg Helgenberger isn’t bad. Michael Madsen’s awful most of the time, but fine when he and Helgenberger are flirting. It makes one wonder what she’d have been able to do with a better costar.

Ben Kingsley and Forest Whitaker make up the rest of the principal cast. Both are terrible. Kingsley’s unimaginably bad; he’s trying a Southern accent and it fails over and over again. He’s just awful. Whitaker’s problem is the script. His character’s writing is particularly bad.

Speaking of bad, there’s some lame nineties CG in Species too.

Species is a weak film. Great direction, terrible result overall.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Roger Donaldson; written by Dennis Feldman; director of photography, Andrzej Bartkowiak; edited by Conrad Buff IV; music by Christopher Young; production designer, John Muto; produced by Feldman and Frank Mancuso Jr.; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Ben Kingsley (Xavier Fitch), Michael Madsen (Preston Lennox), Alfred Molina (Dr. Stephen Arden), Forest Whitaker (Dan Smithson), Marg Helgenberger (Dr. Laura Baker), Natasha Henstridge (Sil) and Michelle Williams (Young Sil).


Phone Booth (2002, Joel Schumacher)

IMDb doesn’t mention it, but I thought one of the problems with getting Phone Booth made (it went through countless potential leading men) was the script and screenwriter Larry Cohen’s contract–i.e. no one could be brought in to make it, you know, good.

The film’s a piece of crap and it’s too bad because some of the acting is amazing. Colin Farrell’s great until he says he’s from the Bronx, then that image falls apart–Cohen’s script, not surprisingly, is set in the seedier 1980s New York, but with some updates for modernity. It’s almost exactly like it would have played out if Cohen had made it himself on a hundred thousand back when he was making his own pictures for theatrical release. I don’t know how many Larry Cohen movies I’ve seen, but all of a sudden, I remembered his schlock when watching Phone Booth.

Schumacher doesn’t bring anything to the picture except mediocre composition and annoying split screen shots. He knows he’s getting a great performance out of Farrell and he lets him run with it. Unfortunately, none of the other principals are any good. They aren’t bad, but it’s the kind of role Forest Whitaker has been playing since The Color of Money, only without the reveal of the hustle. Radha Mitchell and Katie Holmes have both done much, much better work (it’s the atrocious writing).

However, John Enos III gives a spectacular performance in a small role.

At least it runs less than eighty minutes.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Joel Schumacher; written by Larry Cohen; director of photography, Matthew Libatique; edited by Mark Stevens; music by Harry Gregson-Williams; production designer, Andrew Laws; produced by Gil Netter and David Zucker; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Colin Farrell (Stu Shepard), Kiefer Sutherland (the Caller), Forest Whitaker (Captain Ramey), Radha Mitchell (Kelly Shepard), Katie Holmes (Pamela McFadden), Paula Jai Parker (Felicia), John Enos III (Leon) and Ben Foster as the Big Q.


Bloodsport (1988, Newt Arnold)

At least Bloodsport is earnest. It’s also atrocious and unwatchable, but it is earnest. It really thinks the scenes with Jean-Claude Van Damme staring into space and flashing back to his childhood are a good idea. It thinks the crappy dialogue is okay. It thinks casting very recognizable (as the Hong Kong gangster from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) Roy Chiao as a Japanese guy is okay. For all the Cannon movies I’ve seen… I think Bloodsport might actually be the worst made.

The movie has absolutely nothing going for it, except conjuring the image of a Bloodsport rerelease box touting the presence of (now) Academy Award winning Forest Whitaker. Newt Arnold–who apparently did a lot of second unit work–cannot compose a shot, cannot move a camera, cannot direct actors. The writing’s laughable and only made worse by the performances.

It doesn’t open with Van Damme, which turns out to be a bad idea. Instead, it opens with a montage of the preparations for a highly secretive (and now presumably fictional) martial arts competition. This montage was, I think, meant to be classy, but thanks to the music, it’s a joke. The bigger joke is Donald Gibb getting the focus of the opening montage–Gibb is a recognizable big and gruff guy, he’s got lots of TV bit parts in his filmography–since he can’t even deliver a line.

Van Damme’s awful, but in a funny way. His earnestness comes through, but the acting in Bloodsport is like a public access commercial for a plumber. It really is the worst Cannon movie I can remember seeing–part of, anyway. I had to stop a few seconds after Leah Ayres shows up. It just gets too moronic.

I realized, as I stopped the movie, I haven’t been watching a lot of movies this bad lately. I only tried Bloodsport again because I remember thinking it was really good when I was nine (was I wrong) and I’d heard, ten years later, it was decent. Then the widescreen DVD came out and I kept tripping over references to it, so I rented it.

Bloodsport and its genre–the white guy martial artist–ended up direct-to-video pretty quick (and the whole genre got a footing because of video) and it’s embarrassing. I’m sure there are now direct-to-DVD movies just as bad–worse probably, thanks to the cheapness of video–but there’s an unfortunate legitimacy to these movies. They did indeed get theatrical releases. People did go and see them. Major newspapers did… occasionally… review them.

I couldn’t even get to the fighting scenes.

Someone needs to interview Whitaker about all the crap he’s made, I’m sure he’d be in good humor about it and it’d be funny to hear his stories.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Newt Arnold; screenplay by Christopher Cosby, Mel Friedman and Sheldon Lettich, based on a story by Lettich; director of photography, David Worth; edited by Carl Kress; music by Paul Hertzog; production designer, David Searl; produced by Mark DiSalle, Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan; released by Cannon Films.

Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme (Frank Dux), Donald Gibb (Ray Jackson), Leah Ayres (Janice Kent), Norman Burton (Helmer), Forest Whitaker (Rawlins), Roy Chiao (Tanaka), Philip Chan (Inspector Chen), Pierre Rafini (Young Frank), Bolo Yeung (Chong Li) and Ken Siu (Victor Lin).


Article 99 (1992, Howard Deutch)

Director of not one, not two, but three 1980s John Hughes movies, Howard Deutch applies those hard-earned skills to remaking M*A*S*H and, shockingly, doesn’t do too bad of a job. Sure, Article 99 is absurd and Lea Thompson as a doctor is a hoot, but its well-intentioned and sensitive to its characters. I’d heard of the movie before–I think I even have an Article 99 scrub shirt–but I thought it was a period piece, set either during Vietnam or just after. Instead, it’s set in modernity, which allows for the villains to be Republicans without military service who are trying to save a buck at the expense of veterans. Kind of eerie, isn’t it?

Even with a terrible opening–after a moderately classy, if way too forced Americana title sequence–pissed off vet Leo Burmester (nicknamed Shooter) tries to take the hospital hostage. It’s a loony sequence, but it introduces all of the characters pretty well and is one of the few times Article 99 is trying to be its own thing, instead of that M*A*S*H remake. It’s also the first time Danny Elfman reuses some of his more famous scores in Article 99 (though his love theme for the film, which seems to be an original, is nice). Following that sequence, Article 99 calms down a bit. There are hijinks, evil bureaucrats and so on, but it doesn’t jar the viewer’s suspension of disbelief until the end.

The reason Article 99 succeeds, even with the cartoonishness, is its actors. Kiefer Sutherland is earnest (even if his character making it through medical school seems unlikely) and likable. Forest Whitaker and John C. McGinley are good in supporting roles. I already mentioned the unbearably terrible Thompson, but Deutch seemed to realize it and only kept ten of her lines in the picture. But there’s Eli Wallach and Keith David to make up for it. Wallach has some great scenes with Sutherland and some great dialogue too (the script’s got a bunch of good one liners). David’s the all-knowing vet and even though the character’s goofy, David makes it work. John Mahoney’s villain is a solid John Mahoney villain, if a little less ruthless (he doesn’t get to kill anyone) than the usual.

I saved this paragraph just for Ray Liotta and Kathy Baker. Liotta’s performance–a leading man performance–is fantastic. It’s hard to believe he couldn’t make it as a lead, just because he’s so obvious great at it. Except then there’s the romance with Baker. Their courtship–and Elfman’s score for it–is one of the best things about Article 99, even if it seems totally out of place, both in terms of plot and quality.

Article 99 has its highs and lows, but wisely starts at its lowest point (the silly plot development at the end is more palatable after Burmester driving his car into the hospital in the opening). There’s a real sincerity to it, not just in the approach to the content, but also in the presentation of it. Liotta has a scene where he lectures amoral boss Mahoney on the duties of VA doctors and makes it work. It shouldn’t work, but it really does.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Howard Deutch; written by Ron Cutler; director of photography, Richard Bowen; edited by Richard Halsey; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, Virginia L. Randolph; produced by Michael Gruskoff and Michael I. Levy; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Ray Liotta (Dr. Richard Sturgess), Kiefer Sutherland (Dr. Peter Morgan), Forest Whitaker (Dr. Sid Handleman), Lea Thompson (Dr. Robin Van Dorn), John C. McGinley (Dr. Rudy Bobrick), John Mahoney (Dr. Henry Dreyfoos), Keith David (Luther Jermoe), Kathy Baker (Dr. Diana Walton), Eli Wallach (Sam Abrams), Noble Willingham (Inspector General), Julie Bovasso (Amelia Sturdeyvant), Troy Evans (Pat Travis), Lynne Thigpen (Nurse White), Jeffrey Tambor (Dr. Leo Krutz), Leo Burmester (Shooter Polaski), Ernest Abuba (Ikiro Tenabe) and Rutanya Alda (Ann Travis).


Street Kings (2008, David Ayer)

I wonder who came up with the title Street Kings, as it has nothing to do with the film’s actual content. I didn’t realize Fox Searchlight had a dimwit exec in charge of re-titling movies. Silly me. The original title, The Night Watchman, actually makes sense (especially since the movie appears to be shot with the title in mind, with Keanu Reeves watching the sunset a few times throughout, waiting to get to work).

Before I get to the good, I need to get through the bad. David Ayer, apparently pissed off he didn’t get to work on the script (or at least, a credited amount), sort of directs against the script. The first act of the script has very blunt, very hackneyed dialogue. Ayer could have directed around it but doesn’t. He plays it straight and it doesn’t work. I mean, Ayer has the greatest gift–Keanu Reeves playing a dumb guy who can get away saying these lines and still, he messes it up. Ayer’s not a good director, but I didn’t expect him to sabotage his own first act (he gets a lot better the rest of the movie). He’s got an irritating swooping camera move he does once every couple minutes. It’s bad. The other bad stuff–because there’s a lot of mediocre work here and it’s fine–seems to be when he’s aping Michael Mann. There are a couple techniques from Miami Vice and about a hundred from Heat here.

The rest of the bad is mostly Amaury Nolasco in one of the supporting roles. He’s atrocious.

Street Kings greatest success is two-fold in regards to James Ellroy. First, he managed to modernize his standard of the dumb cop who wises up. Here, it’s Keanu Reeves and he never wises up too much (he’s always a blunt instrument) and it works wonders. Second, he’s managed to get in an utterly depressing ending. Street Kings is, at its core, a depressing story about a dumb guy who wises up and learns ignorance might be bliss–kind of a story better titled The Night Watchman.

Most of the acting is excellent. Forest Whitaker doesn’t do anything fantastic, but he’s very sturdy and quite good. Hugh Laurie’s okay, but his character has a handful of quirks straight from “House.” Chris Evans is, no shock, excellent. Once he and Reeves partner up, the movie starts toward its higher plane. For the most part, Jay Mohr, John Corbett, Terry Crews and Naomie Harris are wasted. Harris is so underutilized, I didn’t even realize it was her until I read the credits.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Reeves carry a movie this well before–there’s a great scene when the dirty cops are bragging how easy it was to get it all over on him–and, title and director aside, Street Kings works fairly well.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by David Ayer; written by James Ellroy, Kurt Wimmer and Jamie Moss, based on a story by Ellroy; director of photography, Gabriel Beristain; edited by Jeffrey Ford; music by Graeme Revell; production designer, Alec Hammond; produced by Lucas Foster, Alexandra Milchan and Erwin Stoff; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Keanu Reeves (Detective Tom Ludlow), Forest Whitaker (Capt. Jack Wander), Hugh Laurie (Capt. James Biggs), Chris Evans (Detective Paul Diskant), Martha Higareda (Grace Garcia), Naomie Harris (Linda Washington), Jay Mohr (Sgt. Mike Clady), John Corbett (Detective Dante Demille), Amaury Nolasco (Detective Cosmo Santos), Terry Crews (Detective Terrence Washington), Cedric the Entertainer (Scribble), Common (Coates) and The Game (Grill).


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