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Once Upon a Time In Venice – ★ ★ ★ ★ DVD Review

Once Upon a Time In Venice40

Once Upon a Time In Venice was pulpish, noirish, and funny with an incredible array of characters.  I found it extremely entertaining.  It wasn’t the best movie, it certainly had flaws, but I enjoyed it and that is what I base my ratings off of, how much I enjoyed the film.

Bruce Willis plays Steve Ford, the only licensed private investigator in the Venice (Los Angeles not Italy) and he gets himself mixed up in a lot of odd cases.  His partner John (Thomas Middleditch) narrates us through the story as we see Steve track down a missing sister, only to sleep with her and incur the wrath of her overprotective brothers, who he escapes in a naked skateboarding scene…  He meets a friend whose car was stolen and he tracks it back to a drug dealer named Spyder (Jason Momoa), who he steals it back from by crashing out of his garage.  When he gets home he finds out that his sister’s house has been robbed, taking his niece’s X-Box, their television, and Steve’s dog Buddy who his niece takes care of after school.  They were robbed by punks who needed money for drugs, which leads Steve back to Spyder who controls the drug trade in town.  Now Steve has to apologize for wrecking Spyder’s garage, and what he feels was “his” car (even though it was stolen) in an attempt to get Buddy back.  Spyder agrees, (Steve’s gift basket of muffins helped smooth the tensions between them) and he’ll give Steve the dog back, if he’ll retrieve a case of cocaine that was stolen from him by a hooker.  Things don’t get any easier for Steve who is trying to buy back his parent’s house that he was forced to sell years ago to Lou the Jew (Adam Goldberg) and help his best friend Dave (John Goodman) who is selling his surf shot to get through a tough divorce.  Lou is in a bind too, because someone is painting pornographic graffiti on a building he owns that he’s trying to sell.  So if Steve can catch the graffiti artist, he’ll get the house back, if he can find the drugs he’ll get his dog back, easy right?

When I first heard of this film, I thought it was trying to be a John Wick rip-off, action star Bruce Willis trying to get his dog back sounds a bit like action star Keannu Reeves trying to get revenge on the guys who killed his dog.  Boy was I wrong, if this film was trying to cash in on any of the perceived similarities with John Wick, it did so totally with tongue in cheek.

I think what made Once Upon a Time In Venice work was the very clever script.  The dialogue was snappy and natural, and really plays off the comedic talents of the lead, Bruce Willis.  Bruce Willis is very funny, and has great comedic timing.  I wouldn’t have thought that “tough guy” Jason Momoa would be as funny as he was either, but perhaps it was the juxtaposition of these tough actors playing these tough roles with a lighter twist that made it work.  Having more seasoned comedic actors like Thomas Middleditch and John Goodman in the film also helps carry the story.  Quite good, and quite entertaining, if you’re looking for a few good laughs, give it a try.

Bottom Line: Every time you thought a situation was resolved it just got more and more absurd!  Every time things seemed sorted, a new character came in and twisted the plot into something more absurd than the last character did.  I loved it.


Trumbo – ★ ★ ★ ★ DVD Review

Trumbo4.0 Stars

Even though Trumbo is not my usual cup of tea, I felt that I had to watch it because of its Oscar nomination.  Bryan Cranston was a deserving Best Actor nominee for his excellent performance as Dalton Trumbo, a top Hollywood screenwriter who was blacklisted by the industry for his communist leaning political beliefs in the mid 1940s.  Trumbo takes us through the peaks and valleys of the writer’s career; from the beginning when he was writing hit movie after hit movie, to his time in prison, to his underground writing days and then shows us his rise back to the top as one of Hollywood’s elite writers.

Going into the film, I had no idea who Dalton Trumbo was, but of course I had heard of the infamous Hollywood “blacklist” and knew a little bit about it, the “Hollywood Ten” and the McCarthy Hearings.  I had seen the trailer and was intrigued enough to want to watch it, even before knowing Cranston was nominated for an award.  The film was very interesting, and quite informative and even a little bit educational.  Though since the special features revealed that the writer character played by Louis C.K. was an amalgamation of several real people, I’m sure other things were brushed up for the film too.

As I said it was interesting and entertaining, but it was a little dry which was kind of to be expected as this is really just a bio-pic.  While Trumbo was involved in Hollywood at an interesting time in history, he didn’t really live the life of a celebrity.  He didn’t go to Congress and punch out people who disagreed with his political views, he went to Congress to testify and defend his constitutional freedoms.  Not exactly the makings of an action film.  He didn’t face assassination attempts around every corner, he helped get his fellow blacklisted writers work by organizing a system where they could write under pseudonyms and still get paid for it.  Not exactly a suspense thriller.

Trumbo was really carried by the stellar performance of Cranston and that’s what most people will take away from their viewing experience.  The supporting cast was also impeccable, and I particularly enjoyed John Goodman, Helen Mirren performances as well as Dean O’Gorman playing Kirk Douglas.  That being said, it was a nice little history lesson disguised by great performances wrapped up in a movie so that the audiences of today would want to learn it.

Bottom Line: I’m slowly getting caught up.  I think I’m only 12 films behind in my reviews now….

Monuments Men – DVD review 2.5/5 stars

MonumentsMen2.5 Stars

Based on the true story of the “greatest treasure hunt in history”, The Monuments Men is a fairly light action drama focusing on an unlikely World War II platoon, made up of museum directors, curators and art historians, who were tasked by the president to go into occupied Europe and rescue artistic masterpieces from the Nazis and return them to their rightful owners.  It would be an impossible mission; the art was trapped behind enemy lines, the German army was given orders to destroy everything as the Reich fell, and even troops on their own side didn’t know how to react when the Monuments Men told them not to blow up a church full of snipers and munitions because of it’s historical architecture.  Soon, the Monuments Men find themselves in a race against time to avoid the destruction of 1000 years of culture, as they risk their lives to protect and defend mankind’s greatest achievements.

One of my favourite idioms often comes to mind when I’m watching movies with large “all star” casts, that is that “too many cooks spoil the broth”.  Usually I find that the story suffers because all of the big stars are competing for face time.  And I get that, if you’ve got a host of A-listers drawing in “their” fans as part of  your audience you better give those fans their money’s worth, but usually it stretches the story pretty thin as it seems each star has to do “something” whenever they’re on screen.  The comedic actor has to have over the top funny material, the action star has to have an incredible fight sequence, the sex symbol has to have the most amazing romance in screen history.   Almost the opposite happened in The Monuments Men.  There were a lot of big stars, (George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman) as well as a series of famed actors that aren’t exactly A-list stars but are still pretty big names (Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, Bob Balaban), but I felt as though no one really “did” anything.  The story was good, and interesting enough, but just didn’t seem to get into second gear.  There seemed to be little “thrill” and even less character development.  Very rarely did any of our big stars seem to be in any jeopardy, and when they were it seemed to resolve fairly quickly and easily.  At one point they’re spread out across Europe struggling to track down works of art and other treasures, not sure where to turn next, and in the next scene they’ve all met up to plot their next move.  How did they get across occupied Europe with such seeming ease?  And so quickly?  Sorry, it was mildly enjoyable and interesting enough, but in the end this one just fell flat.  The performances for the most part were good, and I found Bill Murray and Bob Balaban’s bits together to be the most enjoyable, but everything else just sort of seemed to stumble.

Bottom Line: The story finally got told, but The Monuments Men didn’t seem to know what sort of movie it wanted to be.  Drama?  Comedy?  Action?  It never really came up to stuff in any genre for me.  Perhaps I expected more because of the cast.


Product Details4 Stars

This year, I’ve only seen a handful of movies that are nominated for the Oscars this year.  Of those (Hobbit, Skyfall and The Sessions) none were nominated for any of the “main” awards; well, except The Sessions I suppose, with Helen Hunt being nominated for Best Supporting Actress; but none were up for Best Picture.  This year, of the nine nominees, the only two I was remotely interested in seeing were Life of Pi and Silver Linings Playbook (and that was only after I saw the trailer, the commercial did absolutely nothing to sway my interest).  I know I missed Life of Pi at theatres, and I think Silver Linings as well, but I did want to see something before the Oscars and with Argo coming to DVD, I decided to watch it tonight.

Argo has been receiving very good reviews, and has won the Best Picture and Best Director awards at the BAFTAs and the Golden Globes.  Without having seen it, I did not think that the picture would have a chance against Spielberg and Lincoln, which seemed to be the early (and critics) favourites to win.  Now having seen the film, Argo could headline my picks for the Oscar pool at work.  I can see why the film has won the awards it has, and I they are well deserved, that being said, you may ask why I didn’t rate it five stars?  It didn’t really do a lot for me personally.  It was enjoyable, but a little dry, and I’m not a huge fan of movies “based on true events”, especially when it is a historical event that I was alive for….granted I was only six years old, but I did know how the events were going to play out.

In 1979, the American embassy in Iran was taken over by Iranian revolutionaries and the American staff and diplomats were taken hostage.  Six of the workers did manage to escape and hid in the official residence of the Canadian Ambassador to Iran.  With limited options, the CIA with the co-operation of the Canadian government devised a daring plan to extract the six “houseguests”.  They created a fake Canadian film project led by CIA agent Tony Mendez alias Kevin Harkins, who were looking to shoot their film in Iran and smuggle the Americans out as its production crew.  With the help of some trusted Hollywood insiders, a backstory is created for the fake film crew and the fake film: “Argo” a Star Wars-esque film with a Middle Eastern flavour.

It was a little ironic at times to have to view the CIA as the heroes, as when you think about it (and it is touched upon in the film’s opening sequences) the CIA helped create this situation in the first place.  It was partially their decades of influence over Iran’s government that led to the  corrupt and oppressive regime, eventually inciting the 1979 revolution.  It was also nice see some real world cloak and dagger work which was a lot less glamorous than that of James Bond.  It’s obvious that dramatic license was taken with some of the situations because looking at it from the outside, an awful lot of coincidences occurred at the climax, and after watching the special features of the DVD we learn that things didn’t play out exactly as Argo shot them, but as we should know, real world climaxes don’t usually equate to Hollywood climaxes.

The story was actually quite interesting and I liked how it all came together. The real world techniques used were what really fuelled the story, and drove the suspense for me.  Again, having a film based on real recorded historical events does kind of kill the suspense, but that’s where a skilled director and good script can return them.  Fortunately Affleck did manage to do this, and Argo did manage to hold my interest for the most part.  I did find that some parts of the movie moved rather slowly, and I didn’t really care for the glimpses of Mendez/Harkins’ personal life,  I just didn’t think they fit in this film.  Ben Affleck, as I said, did a good job directing, but I didn’t find his acting very good at all.  He wore one expression the entire movie, covered up by an ’80s beard and I think when he tried to inject humanity into his character he was forgot what the movie was doing at that time.  Instead of being a taught spy movie or a political thriller, a few times he looked like he was trying to make an “absentee dad” redemption film.

Of the rest of the cast, I can only say good things about Bryan Cranston, John Goodman and Alan Arkin.  Cranston was excellent and believable in his CIA role, showing some of the life and passion that perhaps Affleck could have shown in his. Goodman and Arkin actually injected a lot of humour into the film, despite the overall serious nature of the situation, with their observational quips on Hollywood being both well scripted and well delivered.  Goodman plays John Chambers, a Hollywood effects and makeup artist who has done work for the CIA before; and Arkin plays Lester Siegel, a movie producer who is actually a composite of several Hollywood executives.  I find it unlikely that Arkin will win another Best Supporting Actor Oscar as he has already won that same award for Little Miss Sunshine, but if he did win, it wouldn’t be undeserved.

One nice little touch I personally enjoyed was a line near the end of the movie (I don’t think this will be a spoiler, since it is recorded history) when back in the States; Cranston’s character Jack O’Donnell congratulates Mendez on his work and quips “If we wanted applause, we would have joined the circus” and Affleck’s Mendez replies “I thought we did”.  I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but I thought the line to be a nice nod to John le Carré who wrote Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; thought by some to be the definitive real world spy novel; a story about the British Intelligence agency, that he nicknamed The Circus.  When watching the special features, one of the real “houseguests” told of how they were thankful that Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor had such a large library in Iran to keep them occupied in the months before their escape, and that she had read all of his John le Carré novels at the time.

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