The time is 1950. Tyrone Purvis (Danny Glover) lives in a small Alabama town with his wife Delilah (Lisa Gay Hamilton) and teenage stepdaughter China Doll (Yaya DaCosta) running his own small bar called the Honeydripper. Despite his piano playing and the presence of a fabulous blues singer (Mable John who sang with Ray Charles as one of the Raelettes) the place is empty losing business to the livelier joint down the road. As the plodding and predictable story unfolds the stereotypes of the era emerge including the prejudiced and self-aggrandizing white sheriff (Stacy Keach) a group of disgruntled black farm workers and even a hellfire-and-brimstone traveling preacher who sets up shop in a revival tent. In his attempt to save his bar from going under Purvis resorts to a series of less-than-legal moves aided by his trusty right-hand man (Charles S. Dutton) and a mysterious young man (Gary Clark Jr.) who arrives in town toting a newfangled guitar--and who eventually plays a whole new kind of music: rock and roll. The assembled cast of Honeydripper is normally a talented group of actors but in this film they mostly seem to be going through the motions. Danny Glover looks like he is sleepwalking through his role as the bar owner who can’t make ends meet. As his wife Lisa Gay Hamilton does a familiar slightly histrionic variation on the put-upon spouse who retreats into religion as an escape from her family problems. And Stacy Keach is a total caricature of the bad southern sheriff. The brightest lights in this mostly dismal film are the two younger actors Gary Clark Jr. and Yaya DaCosta whose romance is a subplot of the central story. And the hands-down best performance is given by blues guitar great Keb’ Mo’ as a blind musician who offers up much-needed musical interludes throughout the film. At least he seems to be enjoying himself while most of the others onscreen struggle to deliver the hackneyed dialogue that riddles Sayles’ yawn-inducing script. It is hard to believe that John Sayles--the same man who wrote directed and edited wonderful movies like Lone Star Passion Fish and City of Hope--is the person behind Honeydripper. Sayles one of the cinema’s truly independent filmmakers has always had a very specific vision and voice a point of view that has garnered him two Academy Award nominations for screenwriting. But Honeydripper is just a disappointment with its completely predictable plotline and deathly slow pace. The one bright light in this plodding tale is the music. Early on Mable John lights things up with a couple of great old blues tunes then Keb’ Mo’ throws in some terrific riffs midway followed (finally!) by Gary Clark Jr.’s rousing rock and roll set that closes out the picture. If only the whole film was as interesting and fun to watch as the last 10 minutes when the music really ramps up. Sadly as it is by the time those final moments arrive the viewer is barely awake.
Set in late-‘60s/early-‘70s Harlem Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is a relative nobody an underling driver existing well beneath his gangster mentor Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III). But when Bumpy dies that all changes. Likewise street cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is small-time best known for having turned over a boatload of found cash out of the goodness of his heart. But in a way his status also begins to ascend around the time of Bumpy’s death. And so Lucas and Roberts both quickly rising through the ranks of their respective law-breaking and abiding hierarchies are on a collision course—each without the knowledge the other even existed. Frank doesn’t waste any time asserting himself once Bumpy dies and he will go on to become the only kind of drug peddler with a shot at staying power: opportunistic ruthless and not one to consume his own product. Lucas’ get-rich-quick scheme of importing Vietnamese heroin via U.S. soldiers’ caskets eliminates the middleman and nets him millions. But as is always the case one lapse in vigilance puts him at risk and Roberts is there waiting. Behold moviegoers the mother lode of acting duos—only we saw Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe together on screen 12 years ago in Virtuosity. Oh well. Truth be told the short time in which they share scenes has nothing on its buildup thereof but these two are a marvel in their own separate arcs. Denzel is the gaudier of them relishing his Scarface-sized villain even more than he did Alonzo in Training Day. It’s a top-notch performance to add to a career full of them and there are a plethora of scenes from which to choose for his Oscar reel. Crowe meanwhile isn’t quite as riveting as he was a few months ago in 3:10 to Yuma but that's partly because cinematic good guys always finish second in terms of watchability. And when the climactic confrontation nears Crowe dials up the tension a few notches. The marquee names though are but the tip of the iceberg in this star-studded affair which also boasts the likes of Chiwetel Ejiofor (who recently co-starred with Denzel in Inside Man) Cuba Gooding Jr. Common Carla Gugino RZA John Hawkes Ted Levine and the legendary Ruby Dee. But Gangster’s (no longer hidden) gem is Josh Brolin currently enjoying a major resurgence. With apologies to Denzel Brolin’s deliciously hateful corrupt cop might be the best performance here. Ridley Scott--semi-legendary for his sci-fi (Alien Blade Runner) action (Gladiator) and feminism (Thelma and Louise)--is not the first director who would come to mind for a gritty talky urban period drama but he displays unforeseen versatility with Gangster. Nothing feels inauthentic here from the look of Vietnam-era New York City and its inhabitants to the documentary-style feel of the sparse action and it’s a surprisingly restrained effort from Scott that allows for such realism. Other filmmakers might’ve been tempted to deflect Gangster into shoot-‘em-up territory with say an action-centric take on the size of villainry possessed by Lucas but Scott does well in staying true to what this story is and is not about. And while there’s nothing especially groundbreaking or unforgettable about his effort Scott keeps the two and a half hours pretty compelling. Gangster’s unsung hero however is its real subject Lucas and his true story even more so than the one adapted by Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List) from Marc Jacobson’s New York Times article. It’s a fascinating tale of everything that makes for good movies—race class money drugs corruption—brought to the screen vividly by a director who could potentially be in line for his first Oscar.
If there’s one positive thing about Delta Farce is that is actually follows a tried and true comedy formula-- namely the fish-out-of-water scenario—with moderate success. Down on his luck after losing his job and his girlfriend on the same day Larry (of the Cable Guy variety) decides to join his neighbor Bill (Bill Engvall) and his combat-happy buddy Everett (DJ Qualls) for a relaxing weekend of playing army. But when the three unlucky guys are mistaken for Army Reservists they’re loaded onto an army plane headed for Iraq--and mistakenly ejected in a Humvee somewhere over Mexico. Don’t ask. Convinced they’re actually in the Middle East the clueless wannabe soldiers turn into Magnificent Seven meets the Three Amigos and save a rural village from a siege of bandits proving to be real heroes after all. If you need to laugh at the war on terror you might as well do it with Larry the Cable Guy. He serves up his particular brand of comedy making light of a bad situation. In fact not only does he come off somewhat sympathetically as the hapless boob with a heart of gold he also gets the hot chick at the end of the movie. Go Larry! As his accomplice fellow stand-up Bill Engvall follows his own comic routine playing a hen-pecked trailer trash denizen who views this adventure as a great way to escape his overbearing wife and snotty kids. As the third doofus DJ Qualls (Hustle & Flow) plays a trigger-happy wannabe jarhead who sees this opportunity as a way to gain some street cred. And in a supporting role Danny Trejo a Robert Rodriguez regular pokes fun at his scary looks as the leader of the marauding bandits aptly named Carlos Santana. Yes the jokes are plenty. Director C.B.Harding is obviously a Larry the Cable Guy crony since his only other feature film credit is the Blue Collar Comedy Tour movie. Honestly all that’s really required of him is to point and shoot with maybe a few action sequences to coordinate here and there. But while the formula works as a cohesive movie having to sit through Delta Farce’s comic stylings is the tricky part. What it really boils down to is whether you’re a fan of Larry the Cable Guy. If so you’ll (I would hope) realize you’re watching a pretty stupid comedy but will laugh in the appropriate parts. If not I would really wonder what the heck you are doing sitting in the theater.
Bobby Garfield (David Morse) returns to his small hometown to attend the funeral of his childhood friend and remembers the fateful summer in 1960 when his whole world changed. The story flashes back to when 11-year-old Bobby (Anton Yelchin) and his best friends Carol (Mika Boorem) and Sully-John (Will Rothhaar) capture the pure joy of youthfulness. When a mysterious stranger named Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins) moves upstairs and starts to pay attention to Bobby the boy suddenly realizes what's truly missing from his life--the love of a parent. Bobby's mother Liz (Hope Davis) is embittered by the death of Bobby's father and shows little compassion for her son's growing needs. Ted fills a void with the boy opening his eyes to the world around him and helps Bobby come to terms with his real feelings for Carol--and his mother. But Ted also has some deep dark secrets of his own and Bobby tries hard to stop danger from reaching the old man.
The performances make the film especially in the genuine camaraderie of the kids. Yelchin Boorem and Rothhaar never deliver a false move with an easiness that makes us believe we are simply watching three 11-year-old children grow up together. Yelchin in particular is able to get right to the heart of this young boy who misses his father and clings to the only adult who will listen. And his scenes with Boorem simply break your heart. (Davis) does an admirable job playing a part none too sympathetic. She manages to show a woman whose been beaten down but who does truly love her son in her own way. Morse too is one of those character actors you can plug in any movie and get a performance worth noting. In Hearts you want to see more of him. Of course the film shines brightest when Hopkins is on the screen. It may not be an Oscar-caliber performance but the actor is unparalleled in bringing a character to life--showing the subtleties of an old man looking for some peace in his life.
If you are expecting the Stephen King novel you may be disappointed. Screenwriter William Goldman and director Scott Hicks (Shine) deftly extracted the King formula of telling a story through a child's eye and explaining how the relationships formed as a child shaped the adult later. Hicks did an amazing job with his young actors especially Yelchin and Boorem. But where the novel continued into a supernatural theme explaining Brautigan's fear of being captured by "low men in yellow coats" (a reference to King's The Dark Tower series) the movie downplayed the mystical elements instead giving real explanations for Brautigan's man-on-the-run. That was the one problem with Hearts--we needed more danger. Introducing men from another dimension may not have been the way to go but had there been more tension the film would have resonated more especially when Bobby risked his own safety to save Ted.