Tuesday, January 17, 2012

DVD/Blu-ray Reviews of "The Ides of March," "Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star," and "Killer Elite"

The Ides of March (2011)
101 min., rated R.
Grade: B +

Politics can make for interesting drama, but no film on the subject is fooling us when aspiring to expose the backstabbing truths in the dog-eat-dog political world. Yes, politics is a dirty game of little integrity; believe it. No one will be as disillusioned as Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), the idealistic aide in the Democratic presidential nomination. Even if "The Ides of March" might not tell us anything new or revelatory, it is riveting and solidly made. After all, this is George Clooney's fourth effort in the director's chair, and he's at his best when making coolly efficient, confident pictures. 

Stephen Meyers is the smooth-talking press secretary to Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris (played by Clooney), a charismatic and articulate candidate who promises a change during his Ohio campaign. He's already drunk the kool-aid, worshipping Morris and knowing he will win the primary. Answering to sarcastic Senior Campaign Manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), 30-year-old Meyers is idealistic and unwary of the corruption that lurks everywhere. But he takes a chance in trusting the opposing senator's campaign manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), who asks to have a secret meeting with Meyers. Duffy tells the idealist that he will eventually turn as cynical and corrupt as everyone else. There are no mistakes in politics, only choices. 

Adapting Beau Willimon's stage play Farragut North, Clooney and loyal producing partner co-wrote the script. "The Ides of March" has thriller undertones, but there are no high-octane chases or fist fights. It's a cynical, serious-minded examination of behind-the-scenes machinations and Machiavellian schemes, where the shadow-heavy tapestry simmers with tension. Just like Julius Caesar's assassination marked the Ides of March on March 15th, scandal looms over the proceedings. From the indelible opening to the chilling final shot, both close on Gosling's face, there's a sense of foreboding. Once a key plot point is revealed, involving Stephen engaging in an affair with 20-year-old intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), it's initially hard to swallow and plays out in melodramatic fashion. 

Per usual, Clooney The Director gets great work out of his actors, giving each of them intense dialogue exchanges and showdowns. On the efforts of all the star power on screen, this is a true ensemble piece. Having a hell of a banner year, Gosling has already compiled a stellar résumé of performances that prove he's such a talented and versatile actor. Here, as Meyers, he feels too slick and cool to be such a starry-eyed idealist, but Gosling's turnaround to cynical and jaded is more believable. Hoffman tears into the juicy role of Paul Zara and Giamatti is so right as the slimy opponent, as is Marisa Tomei, playing pushy reporter Ida. Hardworking character actors Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Ehle fill their roles but still stand out, as ambitious Senator Thompson and Morris' wife. Clooney, himself, plays Mike Morris with the effortless charm you'd expect; he's reminiscent of an Obama-in-2008 candidate, from his polished rhetoric and promise of change to the "Believe" campaign posters of Obama's "Hope" posters. The story's rigid origins as a stage play are obvious, but seeing actors go nose to nose and giving David Mamet-y soliloquies make talky scenes pop with an extra fizz. "The Ides of March" is relevant, entertaining, and strongly acted, and will make political science undergraduates think twice. 

Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star (2011) 
96 min., rated R.
Grade: D 

What would Adam Sandler's posse of friends do without him? They'd probably all be busboys or cab drivers, or maybe be running for Congress! But it's worse: they're still getting star vehicles out of Sandler's production company Happy Madison. Stand-up comedian Nick Swardson needed, well, anything, so that's what he gets with "Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star." A funny, entertaining vehicle, not so much yet. 

Bucky is an Iowa simpleton, with big, Bugs Bunny buck teeth and a hideous bowl haircut. He's so inept that he can't even keep his job as a grocery store bagger. To cheer him up, his friends prepare him for his first porno in a basement. And holy malarkey, guess who stars in "The Farmer in the Smell"? His ultra-square folks, Jeremiah (Edward Herrmann) and Debbie (Miriam Flynn), that's who! Right then and there, Bucky comes to the epiphany that his destiny is to be a movie star, and he's off to Hollywood! Even though he has no experience with sexuality, Bucky hopes to break into the adult-film industry. Along the way, no one takes him seriously, except Kathy (Christina Ricci), a nice, nonjudgmental waitress, who believes in him and knows he can fulfill his dreams. 

Swardson's Bucky is such an insufferable, one-note creation, the kind of aw-shucks dunce that didn't go to high school because his "town didn't have one" and brushes his teeth in a pool. Oh, and everyone asks if he's retarded. He's the butt of every joke, including a major plot point that Bucky more than makes up for his microscopic unit with the pre-mature, overly excited way he ejaculates, thus becoming a huge porn star. Who knows what possessed Christina Ricci to take this role, but she's earnest and sweet as pie, brightening up the smut and gloom. Don Johnson falls flat as washed-up porn director Miles Deep, but Stephen Dorff (right off of his nuanced turn in Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere") gets away with a few laughs as well-endowed star Dick Shadow. 

The first non-joke in "Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star" is a farmer rubbing peanut butter on his crotch so the goats can lick it off, and it almost gets better from there. It's a mystery if Swardson, Sandler, and Allen Covert thought any of this was actually funny, but this is an ambitiously stupid movie from makers with arrested development. And if director Tom Brady learned anything since his feature debut, 2002's unexpectedly good-natured "The Hot Chick," it's that every would-be joke must get driven into the ground. At least it thinks up the most masturbation innuendos in one movie: "play with your business," "breakfast flap jack," "after-lunch pre-nap slap," "post-work traffic-jam slap," "dog-walk leash pull," and "midnight slap whack." And there's more where that came from. 

"Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star" isn't so much offensive as it's just childish, crude, obvious, and maybe eligible of a few more chuckles than "It's Pat: The Movie." However, that's like saying smoking is a few notches healthier than eating a Quarter Pounder with Cheese every day. For some movies, we set high expectations, and for others, we know have no hope. This one's crowning achievement? Pauly Shore, making a cameo, is the least to embarrass himself. 

Killer Elite (2011)
116 min., rated R.
Grade: C
The only relation to Sam Peckinpah's 1975 James Caan-Robert Duvall film, "The Killer Elite," is in name only, but "Killer Elite" is introduced as being based on a true story. It credits a non-fiction book, The Feather Men, by ex-Special Air Service officer Ranulph Fiennes (Ralph and Joseph's third cousin), but if "Killer Elite" purports to be fact-based, then there must be a fine line between a lot of wham-bang hogwash and reality. For one, it has no interest in character backstory. Two, there's not too much context from scene to scene. And three, it purports to be set in the 1980s, but the time period could be today without any telling details. But taken on the primal level of an action picture, and if you want to see Jason Statham in his comfort zone, Clive Owen with a mustache, and Robert De Niro not embarrassing himself, action buffs should be able to roll with this disposable but competent time-killer.

Just when an assassin named Danny (Jason Statham) thought he was out, they pulled him back in. During a job in Mexico in 1980 with his mentor, Hunter (Robert De Niro), he is shot and makes an immediate confession: "I'm done with this. I'm finished. I can't do this anymore." Famous last words, Danny. Of course, he is forced out of his Australian seclusion into one last job when Hunter is kidnapped by a vengeful Omani sheikh. To relieve Hunter, Danny and his team must kill three members of the British SAS who were responsible for the deaths of three of the sheikh's sons; they must make each murder look an accident, so the sheik won't turn up a suspect. Meanwhile, Spike (Clive Owen), the head enforcer of a British secret society called the Feathermen, is sent to track down Danny and his crew. 

Tension should seethe the screen, but Matt Sherring's script (his first, in fact) is needlessly complicated and newbie director Gary McKendry doesn't help much either. A romance between Danny and his farm girlfriend, Anne (gorgeous Yvonne Strahovski), feels like a tack-on, so the movie can be accessible to tough guys' girlfriends. Some of the brutally violent action scenes and free-wheeling stunts deliver the goods, including Statham jumping through a window while strapped to a chair. Other times, the punches and head-butts are shot in chaotic shaky-cam style and cut into hacky pieces. We can hear the bones crunching, but rarely can we tell who's crunching the bones and who's having their bones crunched. 

Statham has action-star bravado to burn that he has no problem repeating himself. In the role of Danny, the star evidences less charisma and humor than his Frank Martin character from the "Transporter" movies, but at least he gets more theatrically released work than Steven Seagal ever did. Trying to out-badass Statham with mano-e-mano combat, Owen is given even less material than Statham. Despite his prominence in the movie's marketing, De Niro is barely there. He sits out the middle of the movie because of his character's incarceration but pops back into frame for The Big (Sort-of) Showdown.

"Killer Elite" is a routine star-powered action flick that happens in front of you but never actually makes you care. It's hard to root for any of the "good" guys or understand every globe-trotting mission that pointlessly subtitles its new location. Finding a soul in an action picture can be like finding nutrition in a McDonald's Happy Meal: it's momentarily diverting but hardly memorable or even "elite."

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