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What I love about David Ayer’s work is that he is unpredictable and unafraid to tell a story in all its brutality. From his penned script Training Day to his directorial debut in Harsh Times, we are treated with bad men and worse men, doing what they need to survive and not worrying about the consequences. When I saw the trailer for his new film Street Kings, I thought I’d be in for a three-peat, but I should have looked at the writing credits. Don’t get me wrong, I like James Ellroy and Kurt Wimmer, I enjoy much of their work, however, knowing Ayer’s catalog makes me believe that it was their fault why I did not love this film. The aesthetic is there, the language is there, and the violence is never shied away from, but the story itself never surprises. You will be able to see what will happen straight from the getgo and unfortunately that just isn’t what I’m used to seeing with Ayer. I expected more and hopefully for his next film he won’t go gun-for-hire and instead write his own new urban street tale.

Don’t be fooled by the trailer, this is not a story about a corrupt cop on his day to day jaunts busting heads and covering his tracks. It’s about the good cop that has lost his faith, while he may go against the rules, he will only do it for the right reasons; he hasn’t gone completely off the deep end. No, it’s those around him that are lost and he must find two cop killers when everyone just wants to let it go in order to save his skin. True he wants the cover up to keep his job, but he also wants justice for his ex-partner, a man he began to dislike but a man he loved and would not let die in vain. In effect, then, we are treated to a much slower paced plot then you may want as he goes out on his own to solve the case off the books. More a straightforward cop drama then a crazy shoot-em-up, we are shown this one story thread through to its inevitable conclusion. It’s all tidied up with a bow, villains explain the whole plan like the old cliché goes, and we get closure. Ayer, you aren’t supposed to be so cut and dry, what happened?

Being such a by the numbers tale also means sacrificing a lot of character development. Roles like Naomie Harris’ are throwaways, putting a name actress in a small part with no real substance. The same goes for Hugh Laurie, third billed and quite entertaining, but does his Captain Biggs have any real need to be there? You could have put any guy off the street in that role and it would have served its purpose as a MacGuffin to be explained later. And how about Common? The guy owns his five minutes of screentime; it’s just a shame that is all he is allowed. Not to mention John Corbett who doesn’t even get a billing on IMDB, now that’s just strange.

The acting is great overall though. Forest Whitaker is a bit too showy for me, but I love the guy so I give him a pass; Chris Evans is top-notch as usual, hopefully a true breakthrough role is coming for him; and Jay Mohr comes out of nowhere playing the aged Sgt. without any of his trademark wit. Even Cedric the Entertainer comes in shedding any comedic preconceptions. He plays his not-so-bad thug sounding like Terrence Howard in Hustle and Flow; I was shockingly impressed. The guy that holds it all together, though, is Keanu Reeves. I know people hate the guy, but I think he is solidly perfect here. He has the dejection and death sentence look about him, taking the kills for himself so that his partners don’t have to live with the guilt. He knows what he does is wrong, but he does it because he believes he has to. Sometimes to keep the city safe, you have to bend the rules. Reeves looks weathered and beat-down here, totally believable as the cop looking to do right despite his actions. Real good stuff.

So, well directed and well acted, but yet not that great? Doesn’t seem to make sense, yet that’s my feeling. All the good stuff tries to overcompensate for the generic, lackluster story. One thing about cinema, though—and maybe the writers strike was worth it, even though those wanting the strike for more money were mostly the hacks, the true auteurs already get the cash—a good script overcomes all and a bad one cannot be saved. Unfortunately this one never goes that extra mile to be completely unique and the performances just fall into place when necessary rather than enhancing to bring the tale to new heights. If you haven’t seen it yet, go rent Harsh Times, save this one for a rental in a few months instead.

Street Kings 6/10

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**Spoilers Included**

4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days is a heavy, heavy film. I knew going in that it was considered by most to be a one-timer, a film that needs to be experienced, but one that will not make you want to watch again for a long time if ever. I guess I just didn’t think it would be as hard to watch as it is. When the synopsis says that the movie revolves around a young woman helping to assist her friend in getting an abortion, it means it. From start to finish, Cristian Mungiu’s work encompasses a single day from morning to night, packing while still not quite grasping the situation to silence upon the slow realization of the hell that they have just visited and may never be able to leave. For our main character, this is absolutely the longest day of her life and an abortion is the least of her troubles.

Otilia is played by Anamaria Marinca to perfection. She is asked to go through some excruciating events while centered in frame for extended periods of time. There are multiple long takes focused on her reactions and facial expressions while those around her converse and go about their business. When the abortion is finalized and about five minutes of straight, uncomfortable silence go by from the viewpoint of the bed looking at Otilia, we switch to a profile close-up of her as she tries to stay calm while attempting to chastise her friend for her lies and complete bungling of the proceedings. The way she must fight back the tears so as not to fully harm the distraught patient is hard to watch especially knowing what she had just gone through to allow the termination to occur. There are many more instances like this one, including a scene square on her at the dinner table of her boyfriend’s family. Cityfolk and successes, they talk about the inferiority of countryfolk as though they don’t realize one is sitting with them. They laugh and speak about how the young have no respect for their elders; well I wouldn’t either if my elders had no respect for humanity. If only they knew what was going on in her head, battling their subtle chides at her birthplace while fearing the worst for her friend whom she left behind in a locked hotel room, alone and scared waiting for her unborn child to leave her body.

By no means should anyone watch this film unless they absolutely know what they are getting into. If you thought Vera Drake was an unrelenting look into the topic of abortion, you can’t even imagine what will happen here. Probably the most controversial film I’ve seen in a long time, if not ever, this Palme d’Or winner will divide audiences and shock them to the core. It definitely begs the question for whether abortions should be legal. If you are pro-life or pro-choice, you have to still believe in safety for the mother. In a world where the procedure is illegal, we have young girls afraid of what is happening to them. They, like Gabita (a realistically tragic turn from Laura Vasiliu), face denial and wait too long to the point where their lives become at risk. An argument can surely be made that if Romania had legal abortions, this woman may have gone to a hospital earlier on rather then wait the duration of time expressed by the film’s title. With the issue of the right to life being only one example, this movie unveils a country locked into the past with a society of people without freedom. Upon graduation from college, each student is assigned an area to work the rest of their lives, (being a Tech student like Otilia pretty much means a city job in a factory, while her boyfriend continues his chemistry degree to be sent elsewhere), and they cannot go anywhere without their ID card as their movements are tracked to the point where one would get in trouble from the police for a card with a faded letter on their name. Romania appears to be a poverty stricken nation trying too hard to survive to allow its citizens to live lives without fear and dejection for the future.

Seeing what the world has come to during her journey to help a friend, Otilia finds out a lot about herself. She sees the selfishness of those around her, the reality of relationships before a career path is set being futile, how tenuous trust is between strangers and friends alike, and the responsibility that life truly requires. This film is an education on life and all the hard times it will throw at you. One has to weigh all her options and accept the situation she is in to do what she thinks is right whether onlookers will agree or not. Between what is asked of her by the “doctor” performing the termination and what her friend asks as far as disposing of the fetus, Otilia experiences a crisis of identity and faith without the ability to have any release, shown perfectly by the final shot of the film, (how perfect is that wedding reception dish set down by the waiter?).

While so much is rough to watch, nothing is done for shock value alone. Each instance happens in full context to the story. Between the rapes, the abortion procedure in full, the shocking static shot of the bathroom floor upon Otilia’s return, the frantic run to find a place for the fetus’ disposal, and even the short throwaway scene of the hotel receptionist giving the “doctor’s” ID card over as he forgot it has meaning. This man goes through the entire film saying how he has hid nothing, used his name and his car with fear of imprisonment if caught, and then we see that he left his ID card, the one thing it appears is crucial to life in Romania only leads to one explanation: he had been lying the entire time. However, can you really judge him fully after he performs the illegal service with professionalism and complete care? You most definitely can once you consider his payment, but either way it is still very uncomfortable to see this monster of sorts pat Gabita’s leg before leaving and saying “good luck” with complete sincerity. The film keeps you on your toes, moreso during the extended periods of silence, throwing tragic realities your way, mirrored off of the face of a woman broken completely under the weight placed on her shoulders, just attempting to get through the night in one piece. It’s brilliance housed in a very mentally tough package.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days 8/10

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It is very refreshing to see a Michel Gondry film with hardly any descriptive marks to tell you he made it. Besides the opening titles being drawn in bright colors on the fence behind Dave Chappelle and the one instance where we hear Gondry’s French accent ask Jill Scott a question, this could be any old concert film. Well, I shouldn’t say that…Block Party is definitely a one of a kind, behind the scenes look at a bunch of people giving back to the community and having a real good time doing so. Chappelle says it best early on when discussing why he was putting together this free show in Brooklyn: he was a fan of each artist before he ever met them and this is the concert he’d like to see. I must say, not being the biggest rap/hip-hop fan out there, it is quite the show.

Even a total dork rock fan as myself gets goosebumps and understands the amount of talent on stage here. When you have The Roots going with Scott and Erykah Badu singing backup, it’s something special. Not to mention Common and Mos Def rapping with everyone, Dead Prez singing with Chappelle’s commentary, Kanye West coming out with the Ohio State University marching band playing “Jesus Walks” behind him, and the reuniting of The Fugees, the music is top-notch. However, the concert aspect isn’t the best part. No, Gondry has spliced in some wonderful nuggets of candid looks, comedic moments, and historical tidbits to enhance the background soundtrack. Being the music video maestro he is, I couldn’t think of someone better to portray the true meaning of the show with the event itself, infusing each moment with the heart that went in, cross-cutting stories of the attendees with practice sessions and live performances on the stage without one false move.

Chappelle’s rapport with everyone is something to see a well. He is self-deprecating and compassionate to all those that cross his path, culling a diverse group of people from his Ohio hometown to join the other fans coming into Brooklyn to watch the stage in front of Broken Angel, the derelict building being restored into something better than it ever was, and Dave’s scouting location for any Hollywood film in need of a crack house. That house, however, not only gives us an intriguing venue coupled with the day care center next-door who’s manager allowed them to use its roof as a box seat, but also two of the eccentric characters that shape the movie. The elderly couple living in that house is so out-there, yet so real, that you are able to see past the getups and crazed stereotypes you may be thinking of. This is a couple married for 46 years, with quite the story on how they decided to join lives, who don’t enjoy rap because of all the swearing and language inappropriate for adults let alone children. Even so, they stick around and partake in the event—while also offering a place for Dave to rest his loins whenever he’d like—as the many others do, including his elderly white shop workers from Ohio and that “one Mexican” who can’t be found.

The anecdotes and confessionals really shine as they are peppered through the musical acts. The OSU marching band story is great, especially if his accidentally finding them is true, because they are a perfect example for what Chappelle is trying to do. Words from the one musician about how young people must seize their opportunities and how all these famous people are just like him, enjoying the skill and playing of everyone else, really hit home. Also, the band’s presence allows for a wonderful coda from Wyclef Jean after a nice solo at the piano. Strong words about how these young kids can’t use excuses and blame “the man” for all their troubles hold some meaning in the venue he speaks them in. He says that he came to America not knowing English and he found a way to become a success. If they want to follow they must show the initiative and not hide behind excuses and laziness. You want to learn something and better yourself, go to the library, education is there for the taking if you want it.

Besides the message and morals being thrown around, I really just enjoyed the inside look. Hearing what someone like Jill Scott has to say about Badu’s effect on her, or Lauryn Hill explaining how The Fugees formed and Pras talking about the differences he and Jean had breaking the group apart, or even the bureaucracy surrounding the reason why the group reformed for the show to begin with—Columbia not giving clearance for Hill to sing her own songs on the film. A lot went into the creation of this historic event and the filmmakers do justice to the end result. You know it’s been a success when you can go through the whole review without really touching on the star’s comic routine. Chappelle is definitely funny at every turn, cracking some spot on jokes, challenging a fan to a rap dual on stage, and just having a blast as the number one fan out of the whole crowd. Block Party is definitely something to experience.

Dave Chappelle’s Block Party 8/10

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Since I am unable to go to the theatre this weekend I thought I’d give a preemptive review of the Al Pacino thriller 88 Minutes, set to drop in a city near you on April 18. Yes that is right, the film you may have been hearing about since February of last year, the one that has been released on DVD everywhere in the world, will finally be unveiled for us to check out stateside, in the country that produced it. You know that must mean this thing is a knockout masterpiece. Seriously, they should have just shelved it and made a home-video release, sparing us all the trouble and false hope we are seeing a new Pacino flick, (But can we really call it false hope? When was the last time he had a good film? Honestly). Instead a new generic thriller that feels more TV movie of the week than box-office barnburner fills up a spot at the local Cineplex that could be used for something more worthwhile, or at least a screen cleaning. Let’s just rotate an empty theatre for the week and get them all nice and clean, maybe even upgrade to those digital projectors that will be everywhere come 2009. All we need is the week, because I will cry if this thing is up for longer than that.

Even with quite the cast of B-list actors that I enjoy for the most part, this film can’t get past its overblown plot. Every step is so obvious that it appears the filmmakers decided to throw as much intrigue and confusion to try and mask the simplicity of it all. There is so much going on, so many characters just blipping across the frame, and the obligatory guilt close-up of each person trying to plant the “what if” seed that it becomes laughable. It is all so manufactured that you end up seeing through the bells and whistles anyways, so it all goes for naught. I will say one thing though, I had a couple good chuckles; the film wasn’t a complete waste. The gimmick to keep everything a possibility for villainy brings in some fantastic bit parts. My favorites include the creepy temp apartment desk clerk. His delivery is comic gold and the way he forebodingly speaks and stares is priceless. And lets not forget the cab driver. The one who gets those little green Benjamins thrown at him so that Pacino can drive his car; the phantom that disappears when our lead stops at green lights and discusses integral information with his teaching assistant yet reappears whenever we need the joke of him getting paid to be a prop to the film. I loved it.

Unfortunately not even the acting can be praised as something attempting to salvage the monotony. I know people dislike a film like Phone Booth and I myself see its flaws, but one thing you can’t deny is the fact that it had stakes and the characters portrayed the immediacy of each second. With this film, Pacino literally crawls through the mysteries. He ponders memories so often that you get sick of seeing the same flashback over and over again and he acts cool as a cucumber at all times, selflessly pulling his friends out of harms way like he is a firefighter and even helping an elderly woman out of a smoky building so she can receive oxygen. The best part of that sequence is the reality that the actress playing her is probably not much older than he, yet she has breathing problems and he gets to sleep with his 20-something college students. Oh to be Al.

Some people do a nice job and I don’t want to slight the pretty big cast of recognizable faces. William Forsythe plays his FBI agent role to a “t,” but it’s too bad it’s written horribly, very obviously towards the end when he has to choose whether to bring his friend into custody; Amy Brenneman is perhaps the best thing going here as our lead’s assistant, congrats to her for actually taking it seriously; and Neal McDonough is a great time as the man on death row supposedly orchestrating it all from behind bars, his maniacal smile is perfect. After those, however, we get some basic cardboard manifestations of very “complicated” characters. These people have such intriguing pasts that we need them to have monologues explaining all the minutia so we truly can know their motivations and either check them off or on the suspect list in our minds. I like Alicia Witt and have since her days on “Cybil,” but she is not portrayed well here. Maybe the camera just lingers too long on her gaping mouth of surprise expressions, or maybe she just had an off month filming, I don’t know. As for Leelee Sobieski, I don’t know if I can fault her because she is just completely miscast.

There was potential with this film about a man who puts murderers away with forensic psychology now accused of being a murderer himself. Unfortunately, that intriguing dynamic is thrown away early and we are given standard thriller clichés until the inevitable and unoriginal ending. I blame the producers for reading these scripts of rehashed plotlines and actually green-lighting them. Oh, and I also blame the general public for shelling out their money, thus making those deep-pocketed men to continue churning out generic drivel for once great thespians (debatable I know) to be able to cash a paycheck with.

88 Minutes 3/10

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