‘Lone Survivor’ a punch-in-the-gut retelling of heroism

In all armed conflicts, things can go horribly wrong, either via bad planning, wrong decisions or just plain bad luck — leading to tragic consequences. But even amid these deadly mishaps there are incidences of courage and beating incredibly overwhelming odds against survival — all deserving of recognition.

Writer-director Peter Berg has for years worked on bringing to the screen “Lone Survivor,” the story of a Navy SEALS recon mission in Afghanistan that turned out to be a disaster. The movie is an adaptation of the book written by Marcus Luttrell, the SEAL who barely lived through this horrible incident.

The mission took place in June 2005 and was called Operation Red Wing, with its objective being to capture or kill a Taliban leader named Ahmed Shah. The plan was to drop four Navy SEALS into the rugged terrain of Afghanistan who would do a reconnaissance of the base where Shah was believed to be operating, and if possible take the guy out, or if the base was too well-guarded, to call in more firepower.

The four men chosen for the task were Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matt “Axe: Axelson (Ben Foster).

Berg opens the movie with real footage of the rigorous training program for SEALS, showing that many wash out. Then there are the usual pre-mission scenes that set up the characters, their relationships and the camaraderie of these selected, elite few. The mission itself is then laid out by Erik Kristensen (Eric Bana), using a map and models of the helicopters being used.

As usual, these men engage in the usual fooling around but are all-business when the mission commences.

Things go well at first. The SEALS  are dropped several miles from their destination and have to hoof it up rocky terrain. When they arrive at the recon area, they discover that Shah has nearly an army of soldiers around him. In addition, the SEALS are unable to establish communications with their base. The decision is made to lay low until dark, then retreat to higher ground and contact the base with an update on the mission.

Unfortunately, an unforeseen event happens. Three goat herders come up to the area where the SEALS are hunkering down, and one has a mobile phone, indicating a possible link to the Taliban. The SEALS have three choices. They can kill the three goat herders and continue with the mission. They can tie up the herders and retreat, risking that the three may freeze or starve to death before being found. They can set the herders free and hope they do not go to the Taliban encampment and report what happened until the SEALS can return to their extraction zone. Since one of the herders clearly is hostile toward them, the SEALS are pretty sure their presence will be revealed once the herders are set free.

Luttrell argues for releasing the herders, noting the restrictions on rules of engagement employed by the U.S. military and the consequences of bringing harm to unarmed citizens. But it is Murphy who has to make the call, and he orders that the herders be freed and the SEALS pack up and go home.

With communications still down, the SEALS still need to get to a location from where they can send a signal. This slows their retreat and soon they find themselves facing an army of Taliban, and for all their training and sophisticated weaponry they simply cannot fight off these overwhelming numbers without support.

A vicious battle ensues and although the SEALS do kill several Taliban, they take their own beatings with gunshot wounds and explosion shrapnel, and are really messed up when they have to twice tumble down steep, rock-infested terrain.

The movie’s title already reveals the fate of Murphy, Dietz and Axelson, so it is difficult to see these outstanding men die. The message that Berg and Luttrell wanted to convey is yet another reiteration of the code of soldiers — that they fight for each other. Even if the objective is not achieved, if all the men come back alive, the mission to them is a success.

There was an additional tragedy. Murphy sacrifices himself so he can get to a peak point and use a cell phone to call for help. But the two choppers flying in for the extraction do not have support from armed Apache helicopters, which have been summoned to another hot spot, and when one of the choppers is brought down by a portable missile, the other is forced to flee.

People who have read Luttrell’s book have criticized the altered ending. Although Luttrell was rescued by members of the Pashtun tribe, which has a code that they protect any person from an enemy, the chaotic and bloody battle between the Pashtun tribe and Taliban trying to get to Luttrell actually was only just a standoff until Luttrell was rescued by U.S. forces. This was seen as a manufactured gung-ho and emotional ending to this story — apparently done with Luttrell’s blessing.

That aside, the objective of Berg and Luttrell was to give a detailed account of what happened and to recognize and pay tribute to the men who died on that mountain. This is a violent and explicit retelling of this incident, and while it does pull the emotional strings, it also in rich detail shows how these men are willing to give their lives to honor the code of watching out for each other.

For the actors, the physical aspects of the roles had to be more challenging, as there was not much time for deep emotional expository. Most of their dialogue, once the mission starts, is pure military jargon anyway. Still, the four stars present tough, dedicated men. You know these guys are tough.

‘Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones’ veers away from the story arc

Let’s face it: The entity that harassed poor Katie (Katie Featherston) in “Paranormal Activity” and turned her into sleep-walking killer who murdered her boyfriend, sister and brother-in-law and abducted her toddler nephew is one heck of a jerk. It started messing with the minds of Katie and sister Kristi when they were little girls and just could not get enough. Thus, “Paranormal Activity” has become almost a perennial event, usually an October movie release in time for Halloween.

Part five, titled “Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones” takes a break from the increasingly terrifying Katie saga and with it the creepy and nerve-wracking anticipation that came with the point-of-view footage, just waiting for something to happen.

Christopher Landon, who has taken up the reins in this franchise fron Oren Peli, writer and director of the original, delivers his fourth screenplay in this series, with “The Marked Ones” being the first he has directed.

This story centers around Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) and his friend Hector (Jorge Diaz), two teens who have just graduated from high school in 2012. Unlike the previous “PA” movies, these two do not live in two-story homes with security cameras and devices. They reside in cramped apartments, presumably in Los Angeles. Jesse uses some of his graduation gift money to buy a camcorder, thus allowing for the point-of-view footage that is the staple of this series.

The result is 80-plus minutes of shaky scenes. There are no breaks from the choppiness of hand-held devices that were offered in the previous movies via views from security cameras and PC cyberlink programs. People prone to motion sickness may find this a queasy experience.

The early part of the movie, like the others, is calm, centering on the youthful shenanigans of Jesse and Hector, along with Jesse’s sister Evette (Noemi Gonzales) and friend Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh).

Residing in an apartment downstairs from Jesse’s family is a creepy older woman, Anna (Gloria Sandoval). She is unfriendly, and weird noises emanate from her unit at night. When the teens use the camcorder to do some voyeuristic peeping in Anna’s place, they witness an exciting but ominous ritual. Adding to the mystery, Oscar (Carlos Pratts), who was valedictorian of Jesse’s and Hector’s graduating class, is seen leaving Anna’s apartment, looking agitated.

One day Jesse wakes up with a mysterious injury on his forearm, and when Anna is murdered in her apartment, Jesse and Hector, drawn by morbid curiosity, break into the apartment to look around, and find all sorts of puzzling things. Jesse starts experiencing changes that at first seem cool and amusing but grow more terrifying. Meanwhile strange things begin to occur and before long, Hector and Marisol are forced to investigate further and take more chances in an effort to save Jesse.

As in “PA” entries 2 through 4, the final moments really escalate in terror and Landon’s story takes us to a place that is sure to spark many discussions as to how this all ties in with Katie and Kristi. And it guarantees yet another “Paranormal Activity” will be forthcoming.

All the young actors in “The Marked Ones” are very convincing, and it is a marvel how filmmakers are able to blend in the special effects into the comcorder point-of-view format. “The Marked Ones” has a different tone than its previous stories. The scares are more of the jump-on-your-seat types than the kind that send chills up the spine. But either way, “Paranormal Activity,” even with its miscues in earlier movies, has the goods to get under your skin.


End of the year treats in ‘Nebraska’ and ‘Walter Mitty’

The year-end movie rush arrived with a vengeance as holiday feel-good and epic adventures hit the theaters along with the awards contenders squeezing in during the final weeks to gain eligibility.

While “The Hobbit” and “Frozen” were packing houses over the holiday weeks, Ben Stiller’s modern-day telling of James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” has been charming sizable audiences of its own.

Stiller has made a career for himself playing lovable, unassuming guys who are easy to root for simple because they are so easy to identify with, and certainly Walter Mitty is an icon of such characters. Thus Stiller was smart to direct and cast himself in the title role as Walter Mitty.

This updated story of a common man who daydreams vividly of heroics and romance was penned by Steve Conrad, who wrote the screenplay for “The Pursuit of Happyness,” featuring Will Smith. This 21st century Mitty is an unremarkable person who has labored for 16 years within the bowels of Life magazine, handling the vast inventory of photograph negatives.

But Life, like many publications, is under new ownership and forging ahead with a transition to digital, putting the employment of many at risk. For the final print publication, the cover photo is to be one by the legendary photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), one of the few holdovers still using film. This creates a problem when the film roll he sends to Life is missing the one photo that is to be used for the cover.

Mitty enlists the services of a co-worker, Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), a woman to whom he is enamored and is trying to hook up via online relationship matching, in helping him get that missing photo. Amid the threats of layoffs and Mitty’s own fantasy indulgences, Walter and Cheryl try to track down the world-hopping photographer. With the print deadline approaching, Walter grows more desperate to the point he takes off for Greenland, the last known location of Sean O’Connell.

“Walter Mitty” is a familiar story of a person who when pushed to the limit summons surprising resolve and courage to meet challenges. The natural charms of Stiller and Wiig lift this story that has its share of surprises. Shirley MacLaine as Walter’s mother and Penn have only a few moments of screen time but they are indelible.

“Walter Mitty” is a bittersweet feel-good story. In the end, Walter and Cheryl have new obstacles to face but you know they will somehow come through.

* * *

Writer-director Alexander Payne has made a name for himself by putting on screen comedic dramas that are insightful character studies, such as “About Schmidt,” “Sideways” and “The Descendents.” In his latest outing, “Nebraska,” he serves as director only,  using a script by Bob Nelson. Despite being 57 years old, Nelson has only two other writing credits, with “Nebraska” being his first full-length movie.

“Nebraska” is the story of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an addled man in his 70s from Billings, Montana, who is convinced he has won a $1 million prize from a publishing clearing house and is determined to go to Lincoln, Nebraska, to collect the money. Worn by years of excessive drinking and a mind that is growing more fuzzy, he believes he can just take off on foot — he no longer can drive — and trudge the hundreds of miles to Nebraska.

His stubborn actions exasperate his long-suffering wife, Kate (June Squibb in an Oscar-worthy performance) and youngest son David (Will Forte) to the point David agrees to drive Woody to Nebraska to prove that the letter he received claiming he is a winner is really just a scam.

This story is just a simple backdrop to what are the gems in the movie — marvelous interactions between the characters that are real, funny, poignant and tragic.

Dern’s Woody is a man of few words, but everything he says depicts a man who simply was not caught up in life’s complications — mostly he let his alcoholic indulgences smooth out the edges of his existence. When asked by David if he ever was in love with Kate, he shrugs it off and says the reason he married Kate was because that’s what she wanted. When asked if he planned on having two sons, he dismisses the question with the explanation, well he wanted to have sex with Kate so he figured a kid or two would be the inevitable result.

As Kate, Quibb almost steals the movie. She is brutally honest, homey, vile and yet the wise backbone of the family. In a memorable scene that is both touching and humorous, Kate, Woody and David visit a cemetery in their native town of Hawthorne, Nebraska, where Kate recalls these departed family members with fondness but also with stinging indictments. Her candid recollections of intimate times leave David mortified.

Nelson shows a keen eye for family relationships, especially those that were filled more with tolerance than love. Woody’s many siblings are not the kind to hug it up. To them, warm moments occur when they talk about their old cars or how many hours it takes to drive from one place to another. Woody is the quintessence of a family that just moseys along in life, never wanting to analyze anything.

For David, the trip to Nebraska is a revelation, discovering the father he never knew, and while David gains a new appreciation for who his father is, flaws and all, he has to learn to accept that Woody is never going  to reciprocate with any “I’m proud of you son” praises.

Wisely, Payne and Nelson do not opt for any rosy finishes. That just would not be the Grant way of doing things.

‘American Hustle’ a superb ensemble piece

With seven Golden Globe nominations in the bag, “American Hustle” is yet more proof that writer-director David O. Russell is a proven talent. Fresh off his stellar work in “Silver Linings Playbook” and “The Fighter,” where in these two films he guided Jennifer Lawrence, Christian Bale and Melissa Leo to Academy Award-winning performances, Russell has again presented memorable characters fleshed out by actors whose work will be contenders for Oscar nominations.

“American Hustle” focuses on people who are not evil but are willing to bend and break the rules to achieve their goals. Russell reunites with two of his most recent successful collaborations with Bale (“The Fighter”) and Lawrence (“Silver Linings Playbook”) in this story of schemes and corruption in the late 1970s.

Sporting a paunch and and an “elaborate comb-over” to hide a receding hairline, Bale is Irving Rosenfeld, a man raised in New Jersey whose most powerful influence in life is seeing his hard-working father victimized by corrupt people in control. Although he owns a chain of legitimate dry cleaning outlets, Irving veers off to do some conning, selling fake art and setting up a loan agency that is a rip-off scheme. At a party he meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) who like Irving is prepared to do whatever is necessary to get ahead. The two are drawn together by a passion for Duke Ellington and a drive to gain the good life. Soon they are lovers and partners in a successful alliance of cons in which Sydney claims to have ties to a London bank and can secure loans.

This idyllic, if dishonorable, arrangement has a complication in that Irving is married to Rosalyn (Lawrence) and has adopted Rosalyn’s son from a previous relationship. The sparks have long gone out between the two but Irving is a dedicated father and Rosalyn is hesitant to file for divorce.

Then, Irving and Sydney find themselves in trouble when an ambitious FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), nails them in an undercover operation. DiMaso considers Irving and Sydney as small-timers and thus forces them to work with him in taking down some bigger prospects. One of DiMaso’s targets is Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a passionate and ambitious mayor trying to revive Atlantic City and revitalize the state’s economy. But lacking the funding, Polito is desperate, making him vulnerable to using corruption in his quest.

“American Hustle” becomes a study in relationships as the plot unfolds. Irving has his hands full with Sydney, who is smart and manipulative, and Rosalyn, a strong-willed woman who is not as dumb as Irving might assume. Irving becomes the front man in luring Polito into DiMaso’s undercover operation and finds himself in unfamiliar territory — a genuine friendship with the political figure.

Trying to pull the strings is DiMaso, a volatile character whose ambition runs into roadblocks via his supervisor and his growing passion for Sydney.

All of these characters have good and bad points and are given shining moments to perform. Adams as Sydney can be vulnerable and conniving, playing both Irving and Richie. Rosalyn is the unknown variable. Not really sure what Irving is up to but forced to go along as she and Irving masquerade as a happy couple, she has the potential to unravel everything.

DiMaso is supposed to be the good guy, but he becomes blind in his overzealous pursuits of powerful people, making him easy prey to have the tables turned on him. Renner comes the closest to being a sympathetic character — a  man with strong family values and legitimate goals in making life better for his constituents only to find himself pulled into shady dealings.

And at the core is Irving, a man accustomed to being in control but finding himself pulled in different directions, factoring in loyalty, love and just trying to survive. Just when it looks like he is down and out, he makes a nice recovery.

“American Hustle”, co-written with Russell by Eric Warren Singer, is smart and funny and draws upon the challenges in life when the lines are gray rather than black or white. Who do you root for? Aside from great performances, that is what makes it a rewarding movie experience.

Diane Franklin recalls busy career in modeling and acting

Diane BookActress Diane Franklin had it all figured out. She knew from an early age what she wanted to do with her life, thus was able to begin her pursuits even before she started her schooling. Backed by unwavering parental support, and despite being a virtual novice with no connections whatsoever,  Franklin went to work while still a child, first in modeling, then in commercials, inevitably leading to  a busy career appearing in movies and television.

Now in her early 50s, Franklin has written an intimate and reader-friendly autobiography in which the title captures the essence of this actress:  “Diane Franklin – The Excellent Adventures of the Last American, French-Exchange Babe of the 80s.”

The layout of the book, a large paperback, is simple, with no fancy graphics. All of the photos, interspersed throughout the text, are black and white, including the eye-catching cover photo of the actress.

In a unique touch, Franklin “rates” each of the chapters that recall her movie experiences, using the guidelines employed by the MPAA in determining if a movie is for general or adult audiences. This is done by Franklin as a courtesy, as she is candid about her recollections of movies she was in that were geared toward adult viewers. These chapter ratings allow the reader to skip over any content that might cause discomfort.

Franklin recalls that the modeling work she did as a child was superb preparation for an acting career  — going after jobs, the long hours at times,  and the hard work. But she thrived on the demands and was drawn into the exciting world of entertainment.

Her diminutive stature, being only 5 feet, 2 inches, did stymie her modeling work, but she made a smooth transition into commercials. She also accumulated stage experience while in high school and did voice-over work for radio, all of which were valuable  in building her skills as an actress.

Franklin’s first professional stage work was playing Caroline Kirby in “The Happy Journey from Camden to Trention, Caroline being the daughter of the character played by JoBeth Williams.

At age 17 she landed the recurring role of Lois Middleton, a troublemaking teen, in the soap opera “As the World Turns,” which helped her prepare for the demands of an acting career. Thus, when she got her shot at a movie, she put in a memorable performance as Karen in “The Last American Virgin.”

In the book, Franklin details how she approached each role, finding she could play both an “angelic ingénue” or “searing siren.”  Karen in “American Virgin” was vulnerable, but Franklin easily fit into the siren character in the television movie of the week “Summer Girl.” She then proved her versatility with the tragic character of Patricia Montelli in “Amityville II: The Possession,” who starts out as sweet and naïve but ends up devilish, seducing a priest.

While television roles kept her busy, she was always looking for movie work, and in one of her career disappointments, she lost the role of Constanze, Mozart’s wife, to Elizabeth Berridge in the critically acclaimed and award-winning “Amadeus.” However, as events turned out, that setback enabled her to go on and make a name for herself in such movies as “Second Time Lucky” and more notably “Better Off Dead.”

Franklin’s book devotes separate chapters to these characters that have defined her career, analyzing each role along with comments on her working relationships with directors and fellow actors.

She closed down her 1980s experiences by starring as Princess Joanna in “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” She makes a pretty good case for calling herself a babe of the 1980s.

The latter chapters of Franklin’s book describe her transition from youthful star to another rewarding role – that of a mother. She  writes about her daughter Olivia, who writes, directs, acts and edits comedic short films. Son Nick composes music and plays the guitar. Diane also has taken on roles in her daughter’s films.

“The Excellent Adventures of the Last American, French-Exchange Babe of the 80s,” is a quick and enjoyable read, written in a personable style that mirrors her rapport with her fans. Also useful is a filmography at the end of the book.

 The book can be found at amazon.com.

‘Out of the Furnace’ is grim but well-acted

An underlying theme of the dreary but effectively performed “Out  of the Furnace” is that life is not fair, and how people deal with that fact defines them as a person.

“Furnace,” directed and co-written with Brad Ingelsby by Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”), focuses on three characters whose lives intertwine with sobering results. Each has his own way of dealing with the challenges of their existence, and the sad conclusion in this movie is that hard work and an honest life do not always pay off handsomely.

The soul of “Furnace” is Christian Bale as Russell Baze, a man living in the economically depressed Iron Belt. His hometown of Braddock is well past its prime, but residing and working there are all he has known. He puts in long hours at the steel mill and has a strong relationship with girlfriend Lena Taylor (Zoe  Saldana).  On the down side, he lives under the ominous cloud of the mill possibly shutting down as cheaper steel from China encroaches upon the industry. His widowed father is dying, the old man’s body worn down from years toiling in the mill.

Also of concern to Russell is his younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), a soldier who in between tours of service in Iraq returns to Braddock and falls into debt.  Rodney wants to break away from the Baze tradition of being mill employees but has no other job prospects lined up. In desperation he turns to illegal fighting, hooking up with the local operator, John Petty (Willem Dafoe), and earning money for taking falls in the bouts – except that sometimes in the heat of battle he forgets he is supposed to lose.

 During Rodney’s fourth tour of Iraq, Russell’s life takes a tragic turn, but he accepts the consequences and works on getting his life back together, even though his father now is gone and Lena has begun a new relationship with police Chief Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker). Russell pours his energy into renovating his father’s old house and resuming his employment in the mill.

On the periphery initially is Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a counterpart to John Petty but much more powerful. DeGroat resides and rules in the remote mountain areas of the northeast, where the sense of community is strong, with its own sets of rules and justice. Here, the police are mostly decorations. Harlan and his henchmen keep people in line.

Rodney returns from Iraq bearing physical and emotional scars from his tour there. Still indebted to Petty, he talks the reluctant Petty into setting up a fight in DeGroat’s territory. While Petty is looked upon warily in Braddock, he knows his place, and he knows that Harlan’s country is way more perilous than his own. Rodney’s story follows a familiar one of a person who vows to go astray just one more time, securing that big score, so he can settle into a stable life. Often these plans turn out tragically.

Harlan, aside from putting on fights, also deals in drugs, and as the opening sequence in the movie illustrates, is a loose cannon. It turns out that Petty’s worst fears about Harlan prove to be dead on.

Back in Braddock, just as Russell tries to come to terms with losing Lena, he is informed that Rodney has gone missing. He soon learns that law enforcement likely will not be effective in tracking down his brother. Harlan’s power is just too entrenched. So Russell, a man who always played by the rules, has to stray from that lifestyle to save Rodney.

Bale is engrossing as Russell, a man being dealt more setbacks than he deserves but maintaining a general faith in humanity until he is pushed too far. The rest of the cast is superb. Affleck is tragic as Rodney, the black sheep of the family, wanting to break out but essentially drifting along. Saldana’s Lena has fine moments as a young woman who has moved on with her life but still has strong feelings for Russell while being dedicated to Wesley.

Harrelson can play really unhinged characters, so he is in his element in “Furnace,” a man borderline crazy but also crafty. Some excellent support is provided by Whitaker – there are a couple of scenes involving Russell and Wesley that play out the dynamics of the relationship between the two as they are drawn together in solving the mystery of Rodney’s disappearance and must set aside the personal issues.

Also effective is Sam Shepard as Russell’s Uncle Gerald, who becomes a father figure, supporting Russell even as the man steps into danger.

As shown in “Crazy Heart,” Cooper has a sharp eye for human interaction, and in “Furnace” he tells a grim, humorless story that is violent and gritty but also conveys the warmth of people, particularly the brothers Russell and Rodney, who truly care for one another.

Statham is fine as good guy in “Homefront”

   With “Homefront,” what you see is what you get. It’s nothing more or nothing less – just an old-fashioned good versus evil movie.

   As usual, the character of virtue here is a person who does not seek out trouble, but does not back down when confronted by it. Also, this person may seem to be outnumbered, but the ferocity of his or her passion for survival is relentless and nearly impossible to subdue.

   This is a role that is tailor-made for Jason Statham.  He stars in “Homefront” as Phil Broker, a former undercover DEA agent, recently widowed, who settles in a small rural town with his daughter Maddy (Izabela Vidovic), who is about to celebrate her 10th birthday.  Phil just wants to blend in, but as with many small communities, he is an outsider subjected to close scrutiny.

   Trouble begins when Maddy is pushed around by a bully at school, Teddy Klum (Austin Craig), and responds by punching out the boy. Phil is called to the school and what should be a minor incident is inflamed by Teddy’s irate mother, Cassie (an emaciated Kate Bosworth), a woman with a drug habit who just will not let the playground confrontation blow over. When her husband Jimmy (Marcus Hester) tries to muscle Phil, he, like his son, gets flattened.

   So Cassie pays a visit to her brother, “Gator” Bodine (James Franco), whose boat repair shop is a front for a small-time meth operation. Gator has some local power and Cassie wants him to pull a little intimidation number on Phil. That also backfires.

   Meanwhile, the local gendarme, Sheriff Keith Rodrigue (Clancy Brown), is what you would expect from a small-town law enforcement officer – basically hard-working and honest but open to compromise when dealing with both Gator’s illegal activities and Phil’s growing list of physical encounters that are leaving some guys broken and bloodied.

   Gator’s small-time shenanigans, which also include stealing one of Maddy’s stuffed toys and kidnapping her cat Luther, only lead to Phil paying him a visit to say, hey I don’t want any trouble, but YOU definitely do not want any trouble from me. Gator snoops around in Phil’s house and finds boxes stuffed with old files that chronicle Broker’s past as a DEA agent.

   This allows Gator to go beyond his own jurisdiction. He enlists an old girlfriend, Sheryl (Winona Ryder), a lady whose own drug dependency past can hook her up with some big-time people who had a history with Phil and are harboring a grudge against him, to enlist them in taking out Phil.

    So now there is the inevitable battle between a man, who does have one ally, against a bunch of thugs. It ain’t gonna be a fair fight, especially when the added complication of Maddy being put in jeopardy is thrown in.

    Notable is that the screenplay is by Sylvester Stallone, an adaptation from a novel by Chuck Logan. This supposedly was going to be a vehicle for Stallone but the age factor kicked in, so it was handed down to Statham. It is not a complex story, and the characters are basic. Statham is low-key but dedicated to his daughter, wanting only a good life for her but ready to fight fiercely to protect her. Franco basically mails this one in. His only memorable scene is the one in which he is introduced, showing a vicious side that also falsely implies he is for law and order but actually is for protecting his own interests. Young Vidovic, who looks like she could be Statham’s daughter, shows a lot of spunk and clear-headed thinking, much like her father, when things get out of hand.

    A couple of plot items are left hanging. Whether they were eliminated via editing are so simply tossed aside and never filmed is unknown. Perhaps they may show up in an extended DVD version. Speaking of editing, once again, rapid editing mars some of the best action scenes. With a performer of Statham’s physical skills, it is annoying to not allow his scenes to flow smoothly without all the cuts.

Dark, chaotic day recalled in effective ‘Parkland’

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and some of the educational channels such has The History Channel and National Geographic have been offering specials, some repeated from previous years, covering that dark day in U.S. history. Included is the drama “Killing Kennedy,” based on the best-selling book by Bill O’Reilly and featuring Rob Lowe as JFK and Ginnifer Goodwin as Jackie Kennedy.

Meanwhile,  the movie “Parkland” had a limited run in theaters earlier this fall and now is getting a chance to reach a wider audience via pay-per-view offerings.

Co-writer Peter Landesman makes his directorial debut with “Parkland,” collaborating with Vincent Bugliosi (“Helter Skelter”) on the screenplay, based on Bugliosi’s book “Four Days in November.”

Parkland Memorial Hospital was where JFK was taken and died on Nov. 22, 1963, after suffering a massive head wound during a shooting in Dealey Plaza on the outskirts of Dallas while riding in a motorcade. Three days later, alleged JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald also died at Parkland after being shot in the abdomen by Jack Ruby during an attempt to transfer him to a county jail.

Although the movie is titled “Parkland,” the facility inevitably became a historical footnote and site for tourists, as the actions at the hospital pretty much were inconsequential. Both Kennedy and Oswald were beyond saving by the time they were rolled into the emergency rooms.

There are some intense and gruesome scenes at Parkland as the emergency doctor on duty , Charles “Jim” Carrico (Zac Efron), tries feverishly and futilely to save both men’s lives. Also detailed in the movie is the ugly scene when the Secret Service forcibly violated Texas law by removing JFK’s body and returning it to Air Force One for the flight back to Washington, D.C., shoving aside Dallas officials who insisted the body be retained for an autopsy.

“Parkland,” aside from the chaos at the hospital, focuses on four other characters drawn unwittingly into the tragedy. There is Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton), head of the Secret Service unit charged with providing JFK’s protection during the Texas trip. There is Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), the unassuming Dallas businessman who filmed the now famous and graphic seconds of the assassination. There is Robert Oswald  (James Badge Dale), a low-key family man whose life is turned inside out because his brother Lee is the alleged assassin. There is James Hosty (Ron Livingston), the Dallas-based FBI agent who had been tracking Oswald but did not believe he was a threat.

Giamatti as Zapruder and Dale as Oswald are particularly touching as two men who gain unwanted fame thanks to nasty twists of fate. Giamatti  portrays Zapruder as a decent man forced to keep his emotions in check, although anguished, as he deals with the unfolding realization of what he captured on film. Particularly agonizing is the moment when Zapruder first views the film, horrified as the footage shows the devastating head shot. Zapruder also most deal with the officials, as Sorrels demands to view the film, and the seemingly crass aspects of history, with Life magazine pursuing rights to the film – Zapruder agrees to sell the film only upon assurance from Life that the grisly frames showing the head shot never be shown publicly, a promise that Life could never keep.

Dale, who had a memorable scene-stealing turn as Gaunt Young Man in last year’s “Flight,” presents Robert Oswald as a man whose initial shock and bafflement upon hearing his brother is the alleged assassin are soon replaced by frustration. His meeting with Lee (Jeremy Strong) has him exploding in exasperation as Lee seemingly dismisses the scope of his alleged actions and talks about daughter June needing new shoes. Later Robert can only react with amazement as his mother Marguerite (Jacki Weaver) appears delusional, insisting Lee was a government agent  and a hero and who seems more interested in exploiting her family’s new fame to make money.

The government officials of Sorrels and Hosty come off less sympathetic, although Hosty is understandably surprised that Oswald, who he thought was just a lightweight if disgruntled person,  was capable of pulling off such a crime. Hosty soon gets caught up in the panic at the FBI office as his superiors are more concerned that the FBI will be embarrassed that the agency had Oswald in its sights but did nothing.

Sorrels is shown as a man who tries to set aside his anguish but also seems a bit preoccupied with his agency’s image too, failing to prevent an assassination.

The use of handheld cameras adds to some of the frenzied activity in “Parkland,” especially in the hospital scenes. In the more calm, if dramatic moments, Giamatti and Dale provide touching moments, as Zapruder finally breaks down later at home in the arms of his wife. And in a sad finale of a life that tragically misfired, Lee Oswald’s funeral is a testimony to a man to be forever despised. With not enough people in attendance even to provide pallbearers, Robert Oswald must plea to newspaper photographers covering the event to help him carry the casket to the grave site.

“Parkland” offers a unique and wrenching look at some of the people who were relegated to the background that sad weekend in 1963, but were very much a part of a tragic unfolding of history.

Thor is tough, Loki is interesting, but villain is dull in “The Dark World”

The Marvel  Comics juggernaut continues, this time with the hammer-wielding Asgardian Thor — part two.

As we have learned, the life of a super hero offers little time for basking in glory – it’s always one crisis after another, usually with the future of life at stake. Even supposedly vanquished foes manage to slip away and save themselves to fight another day.

“Thor: The Dark World,” opens with a prelude, narrated by Odin (Anthony Hopkins), king of Asgard, recalling that thousands of years earlier, a race of beings, the Dark Elves, despite having access to some force called Aether, were defeated by Asgardian fighters.  The Aether, seized by the Asgardians  — and looks like a demented DNA chain — cannot be destroyed, so it is encased in rock and buried were it cannot be discovered.

Back to the present, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), following his adventures on Earth, has been busy restoring peace within the nine realms. Loki (Tom Hiddleston), for his transgressions, has undergone a dressing down by his adoptive father, Odin, and sentenced to life in an Asgardian prison.

Thor returns to Asgard triumphant, but with lingering issues. It’s been two years since he left Earth and left scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) in a lurch. Odin,  praising Thor’s efforts, offers fatherly advice, suggesting Thor forget about any relationship with an Earthling.

Meanwhile on Earth, Jane is clumsily trying to recover from Thor’s disappearance with a blind date that gets interrupted by intern Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), who brings in evidence of an anomaly that might be a wormhole. During an investigation, Jane falls into the wormhole, landing next to the stone tomb of the Aether, which has opened a crack in the rock and manages to slither into Jane, making her a host to it.

On Asgard, Heimdall (Idris Alba), watcher of the universe, reports to Thor that he no longer can see Jane. So Thor returns to Earth, where Jane’s hands-on-hips, where-have-you-been interrogation gets interrupted when it is obvious something inside her is going crazy. Thor grabs her and takes her back to Asgard.

The escape of the Aether from the rock has aroused Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), leader of the Dark Elves, who has been in some sort of deep sleep but now is ready to resume his efforts to plunge the universe into darkness.

Malekith’s attempts to seize Jane and extract the Aether is thwarted by the Asgardians, but at a big cost, and in the aftermath Thor and Odin have differences on strategy, leaving Thor with an only option of committing treason against Asgard. The intrigue is heightened as he seeks help from Loki. Thor knows he cannot completely trust Loki, even as Loki  says, “Trust my anger.”

 The screenplay by Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, based on a story by the late Don Payne and Robert Rodat, has some deficiencies, most notably presenting a villain that is devoid of any character or depth. Why Malekith seeks a universe in darkness is never explained. This guy just does not want to yuk it up occasionally – cut loose, live and love and party. And of course he has absolutely no sense of humor.

So thank goodness for Loki with his suspicious allegiances and snarky comments, and Darcy with her can’t-take-life seriously foolishness. They freshen up what is a story on the brink of going stale. It gets to the point that Thor and Malekith seem relegated to secondary roles.

On the plus side, Hemsworth is a mighty presence as the honorable Thor and Portman keeps Jane on an even keel — not too helpless but still vulnerable in a battle of super forces. Stellan Skarsgard adds silliness as the brilliant but eccentric (seen as crazy) scientist Erik Selvig. The addition of Ian (Jonathon Howard) — perhaps as compensation for a zero personality like Malekith — as an intern to the intern (Darcy) makes for a few chuckles but ultimately is just another distraction

Hook up Darcy with Loki for future adventures.

Hook up Darcy with Loki for future adventures.


What would be interesting — and possibly irritating after a while — would be a link-up between Darcy and Loki.

Recapturing youth in “Last Vegas”

“Last Vegas” can be considered the aging baby boomer version of “The Hangover” movies. It is certainly not as outrageous as those wild adventures, but “Last Vegas” is a sometimes funny, sometimes touching movie that will appeal to an older audience.

What “Last Vegas” can boast is that its cast is proven, as the five lead roles are played by actors who have won Academy Awards. This distinguished group includes Michael Douglas (“Wall Street”), Robert DeNiro (“The Godfather Part 2” and “Raging Bull”), Kevin Kline (“A Fish Called Wanda”), Morgan Freeman (“Million Dollar Baby”) and Mary Steenburgen (“Melvin and Howard”).

The script was written by Dan Fogelman, whose previews screenplay experience includes animated features “Cars” and “Cars 2,” along with “Tangled” and “Bolt.” So it is no surprise that the story Fogelman weaves is a simple one, as four lifelong friends reunite for a trip to Las Vegas, where one of the group is getting married for the first time.

The movie begins with a flashback as the four friends, on the cusp of the teen years in Brooklyn, are shown in typical youthful rowdiness, which culminates with the theft of a bottle of scotch from a store.

More than 50 years later, Billy (Douglas) is getting married to the much younger Lisa (Bre Blair), his first marriage. Tanned and still fairly trim, Billy is the member of the group still clinging to his long fading youth. Billy contacts two of his friends – Sam (Kline), a mild, happily married man, and Archie (Freeman), recovering from a mild stroke, reveling in being a grandfather while being held almost captive by an overprotective son, Ezra (Michael Ealy) – to invite them to Vegas for the wedding.

Sam and Archie are willing, but bring up the sensitive issue of Paddy (DeNiro), the fourth friend in the group, recently widowed, electing to live a reclusive life and who has had a falling out with Billy. Despite the ill feelings, Billy insists that Sam and Archie trick Paddy into making the Vegas trip. They do so by lying, saying Billy is not going to Sin City with them, which just gives Paddy an excuse to complain constantly about Billy’s selfishness.

When they arrive in Vegas, and Billy is there, Paddy grumpily agrees to tag along and celebrate Billy’s pending wedding, while continuing to harbor resentment of Billy for what he feels was emotional abandonment.

Much like 2011’s big hit “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” “Last Vegas” is the story of people past their prime receiving a chance to recapture some of their youth. It also covers familiar ground of old people who find themselves out of their element, mixing with younger people and feeling lost in the latest cultural moods, but who eventually not only blend in but provide to the younger crowd the benefits of years of accumulated wisdom.

Some movies are blessed, and “Last Vegas” is one of them, with the appearance of a secondary character that adds a magical touch to the proceedings. In the case of “Vegas,” that character is Diana Boyle (Steenburgen),  a lawyer-turned-lounge singer who befriends the four friends. Though far from being a headliner in Vegas, Diana possesses great perspective on her singing efforts, and is wise and can be blunt (“You’re not as charming as you think you are,” she informs Billy). She is smart and cute and each time she is on screen, she adds a infectious touch of a person initially on the perimeter of the group but who is very aware of what is going on. With time, she would fit in very comfortably with these four guys.

“Last Vegas” takes a predictable path, but one that can guarantee being an audience pleaser. It is also a chance to observe proven veteran performers interact in believable ways.