Friday, November 1, 2013


A busy movie weekend:

Last Vegas—Robert DeNiro, Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline are friends from the old neghborhood—Flatbush, Brooklyn, that is. They’re scattered around the country now, but when the most financially successful of them, Douglas, finally gets around to getting engaged, the quartet meets in Vegas for a wild bachelor-party weekend.

One of them, DeNiro, is there under protest; a depressed widower, he bears Douglas an angry grudge. Freeman recently suffered a mild stroke and is being kept on a short leash by his son. Kline’s wife (Joanna Gleason), fed up with his crankiness, has given him a condom and a Viagra tablet and told him to improve his attitude in Sin City. Douglas, whose trophy-wife-to-be is half his age, simply hasn’t come to terms with being old.

What is ensues in this comedy, directed by Jon Turtletaub from a script by Dan Fogelman, is just what you’d imagine—corny, heavy-handed gags about geriatrics drinking, gambling and flirting with scantily-clad nymphs young enough to be their granddaughters. Mary Steenburgen charmingly plays a slightly more appropriately-aged lounge singer who gets drawn into the gang and stirs up a bit of romantic conflict, but nothing very serious. The movie is shamelessly fluffy, and more enjoyable than it has any real right to be.

These guys are the real thing—movie stars—and there’s a reason that each of them has an acting Oscar. Even clowning around, they can effortlessly command an audience.

Oddly, though, the standout is the one that, if you were ranking them, would probably have to be considered the acting lightweight of the four—Douglas. Toward the end, he has a short monologue in which his feelings about aging finally pour out, and this amusing old-guys-behaving-badly smirk-fest turns, for one scene, into a real drama.

Man of Tai Chi—The title sounds like an SCTV sketch, but it’s not meant as a joke—this Hong Kong action melodrama wants to make the case for Tai Chi not as a great exercise for old ladies in the park, but as a badass martial art. The hero (Tiger Hu Chen) is a young delivery boy who studies under a Tai Chi master and competes in tournaments. He gets sucked into the world of a to-the-death spectator fight club run by an odious gangster, and soon finds he can only get out if he dies.

The gangster is played by Keanu Reeves, and the movie also represents the directorial debut of Reeves. Turns out that Matrix Boy makes a pretty good director. Man of Tai Chi is a flamboyant, highly entertaining piece of showmanship. Young Chen makes a sympathetic hapless hero—he has some of the passive, guileless charm of the young Reeves—and a thrilling performer; his Tai Chi moves have a riveting, dancerlike beauty. And Reeves shows, for my money, a better eye for martial arts sequences than most current action directors. He gives us less frenetic cutting, and lets us watch the fighters do their thing.

About all that Reeves the director isn’t able to do here is get a good, non-wooden performance out of Reeves the actor. But that puts him on a long list of filmmakers.

Underdogs—This indie football yarn, which played at the Phoenix Film Festival this year, is set in North Canton, Ohio, at a Catholic high school with an abysmal record. A tough, my-way-or-the-highway new coach (D.B. Sweeney) is brought in, and turns things around with his demanding work ethic.

For a brief time in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it looked like Sweeney might become a big star. That didn’t happen, but he remains an interesting presence. His performance here is good, but there isn’t one football scene in this competently-made but banal debut effort by director Doug Dearth that doesn’t feel derived from earlier, better sports movies like Rudy, The Rookie, The Blind Side and others—the final sideline scene here is virtually a remake of the same scene in Hoosiers.

The movie has a subplot about a different kind of underdog—the quarterback’s Dad, Bill Burkett—that is based on the story of the real North Canton resident Bill Burkett, developer of the EdenPure heater. According to Underdogs, Burkett faced a legal struggle with his then-employer over the intellectual property rights to the device which he had invented at home in his spare time. This is an intriguing story, and it’s hard not to suspect that the football stuff was grafted on to make Underdogs more commercial.

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