Tag Archive: Don Cheadle

The Rat Pack (1998): Grade: B

rat_packIs this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime? The Rat Pack is not available for rent via Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime.

Directed by: Rob Cohen

Written by: Kario Salem

Starring: Ray Liotta, Joe Mantegna, Don Cheadle, Angus Macfadyen, William L. Petersen, Zeljko Ivanek, Bobby Slayton, Deborah Kara Unger, Veronica Cartwright

The undefine-able nature of the term “success” lends itself to an endless array of interpretations. The most conventional definition of the term is an accumulation of material wealth (money, property, cars, houses, clothing, etc.). On the opposite end of that spectrum are those who define success as the attainment of knowledge. Still, there are those who define “success” as the freedom to do whatever you want. In addition to accumulating material wealth (worth about $100 million by the time he died), singer/actor Frank Sinatra had this last freedom in abundance. The world was certainly Frank Sinatra’s oyster – the perennial bachelor playboy was limited only by the bounds of his ambition, which seemed to be boundless in 1960, at least in the way he was portrayed in the HBO biofilm, The Rat Pack.

By 1960, Frank Sinatra was enjoying a rebirth of his career. His Oscar win for his performance in From Here to Eternity revived Sinatra’s career in 1953 and ever since then, the singer/actor’s career thrived in both music and film. Sinatra was a regular mainstay in Las Vegas, and he, along with his Rat Pack friends (Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, & Joey Bishop) personified cool. However, in the late 1950’s and 60’s, Sinatra’s ambitions turned his attention to a new arena: politics. Sinatra’s interest was motivated by his desire to gain the media’s respect for him, to elevate himself from being perceived as merely a nightclub singer with mob ties, and he, along with the rest of this county, was smitten with John F. Kennedy’s youthful optimism for this country. The Rat Pack chronicles Sinatra’s (Ray Liotta) involvement with the Kennedy family, his role in getting JFK to the White House, and his relationship with his fellow Rat Pack members (Don Cheadle as Sammy Davis, Jr., Joe Mantegna as Dean Martin, and Angus Macfadyen as Peter Lawford).

Biopics are among the toughest genres to make. A person’s life obviously does not neatly fit within a screenplay’s 3-act structure. What we usually end up with is a movie about a person’s life or an event in which key moments are taken from that life/event, condensed together, and shoehorned into a 3-act structure. Consequently, a lot of details are left out, glossed over, and existing facts are exaggerated to make the film more dramatic. Aside from knowing the members of the Rat Pack, I am totally unfamiliar with their lives and interactions with each other so I cannot attest to how accurate The Rat Pack is. However, given the little I have read about them, I am going to assume everything in this movie is generally true.

Starting with the performances/portrayals, Ray Liotta never seems to get a fair shake despite having given some memorable performances in his career (Goodfellas, Field of Dreams). Most critiques I have read/heard about Liotta’s portrayal of Frank Sinatra in The Rat Pack is that he merely channels his Henry Hill character from Goodfellas. I totally disagree and such a gross oversimplification of Liotta’s performance is unfair. In fact, I was more impressed with Liotta work than what Don Cheadle and Joe Mantegna did in this film. The latter two actors were nominated for Golden Globe awards (with Don Cheadle winning) whereas Liotta was not nominated. Frank Sinatra was by all accounts a complex man. He loved women (particularly Ava Gardner), a high-class lifestyle, and he was fiercely loyal to his friends (both his Ray Pack comrades and his mobster benefactors). Not being content with just being a popular matinee singer from Hoboken, Sinatra ambitiously ventured into film and television acting before setting his sights on gaining access to the political circles in Washington, D.C. At the same time, Sinatra’s career ambitions seemed to always be dogged by his mobster connections, and he seemed to never gain the respect he deserved because of this.

Frank Sinatra was also known for his dedication to achieving racial integration, a view not shared by most in his circles, and his support for those who were blacklisted in Hollywood for their communist ties. The best and most touching moment in The Rat Pack is a scene between Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. in which Sammy announces to Sinatra that he plans to marry his white girlfriend, actress May Britt. Sinatra knew the repercussions of Sammy’s decision, especially to his friend JFK’s electoral chances, but Sinatra continued to support his friend anyway. In this scene, Liotta beautifully conveys both Sinatra’s fierce support for Sammy Davis, Jr. and his sympathy for what his friend would endure for marrying a white person.

Except for having Sinatra’s blue eyes, Liotta may not resemble the Chairman of the Board, but his clearly earnest portrayal of the singer/actor makes up for this. The actor nicely captures the confidence, swagger, and charisma Sinatra was known for. Liotta also does a fine job displaying the naivety Sinatra had about his relationship with the Kennedy family. Sinatra was so enamored by the hopes and dreams JFK inspired in the country that he seemed to willfully ignore the slick political machinery underlying JFK’s campaign to take the White House. Just like the loyalty he gave to his mobster friends that helped him gain fame, Sinatra expected JFK to do the same after he helped him win the presidency. You deeply sympathize with Sinatra when he discovers that he’s merely been a pawn in toward fulfilling JFK’s political ambitions.

Don Cheadle won the Golden Globe award for his performance as Sammy Davis, Jr. A few short years after The Rat Pack was released, Cheadle co-starred in the 2001 remake of Oceans 11, the film that originally starred the Rat Pack. It goes without saying that Don Cheadle is unable to deliver a bad performance. I mean, he even survived Swordfish! Here, Cheadle comfortably fills into the shoes of Sammy Davis, Jr., a man just as complex as Frank Sinatra. Davis, Jr. owed much of his career to Sinatra because without his friend’s help in performing in previously whites-only clubs, Davis, Jr. may have never achieved the success that he did. Davis, Jr. was also a huge advocate of the civil rights movement, and he was not afraid to push back against the establishment to live his life the way he wanted to live it (e.g., marrying white actress May Britt). At the same time, Davis, Jr. recognized that he needed to also toe the line at times and play to society’s stereotypes so that he could pave an easier way for a future generation of black entertainers. Cheadle captures the mannerisms and dialect of Sammy Davis, Jr. without resorting to a caricature of the singer. Unfortunately, the film does not explore the singer’s relationship with the Rat Pack as much as I would have liked it to. It seems there was more friction between him and his cohorts than the movie reveals. Worth noting is the song and dance number where Sammy sings “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” to a group of Klu Klux Klan members.

Finally, we get to Joe Mantegna, who stars as Dean Martin. For the most part, Martin stayed out of the politics and drama that Sinatra was involved in. With a large family to support, Martin focused exclusively on his career even though he remained cold and distant with his wife and kids. The film does not give a whole lot for Mantegna to do here other than appear and sound like Martin, which he does very well. There are a few, brief glimpses of Martin’s family life, but other than that, Dino spends the majority of this film as a supporting character among the rest of the Rat Pack. I was surprised that Mantegna, and not Ray Liotta, received a Golden Globe nomination.

The Rat Pack is rounded out by a few more notable actors who, more or less, give serviceable performances. Angus Macfadyen plays another Rat Pack member, actor Peter Lawford. Lawford was essentially a bag boy/messenger for Frank Sinatra and the Kennedys. He hated the fact that he was used by all these people (Sinatra used him to get close to the Kennedys and the Kennedys used him to control Sinatra), but he could never muster enough courage to stand up to anyone. Macfadyen almost has a thankless role here playing a spineless man who lacked any self-worth. William Peterson (CSI) plays JFK and Deborah Kara Unger plays Ava Gardner, Sinatra’s ex-wife and lover. Neither actor elevates their performance above a caricature, especially Peterson, who is unconvincing as JFK.

The Rat Pack features some very good performances, but what ultimately stands out is the film’s gorgeous production design by Hilda Stark Manos, who also earned a Golden Globe for her work on this film. I don’t know whether or not the sets accurately portray what Frank Sinatra’s house and office looked like, and nor do I care because the 1950’s space age look of the sets is absolute eye candy to behold. Watch for one particularly nice shot where an FBI agent is sitting inside his car outside of Sinatra’s restaurant and behind the car is a huge Coca-Cola billboard.

One can easily dismiss The Rat Pack as nothing more than your typical TV bio movie and to a large extent, this film does amount to this. Director Rob Cohen presents the story in the same straightforward manner that we have seen so many other TV bio flicks. The movie does not give us anything more than a simple recital of the facts from one dramatic event to the next. At the same time, the marriage of Washington and Hollywood during this period is fascinating enough to make you not care so much about the director’s failure to take this film to another level of insight. With that said, I would have done anything to see Martin Scorsese’s depiction of the Rat Pack, a movie which he was developing for a long time. All in all, even with all its faults, The Rat Pack is an entertaining and educational watch that contains some very good performances.


Iron Man 3 (2013): Grade: A

iron-man-3-poster-1Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall, Stephanie Szostak, James Badge Dale, Jon Favreau, Ben Kingsley, & Ty Simpkins

Directed by: Shane Black

Screenplay by: Shane Black & Drew Pearce

If my comic book obsessed 14-year old self was told that in the future I would see all of my favorite comic book superheroes coming to the big screen on an annual basis and they would be given the kind of respect they deserve instead of the schlocky, low-budget Roger Corman treatment they were given during my childhood, I would have soiled my pants and invented a time machine to forward me to the future. The superhero genre is the most fascinating genre from both an artistic and business perspective. Initially, superhero films were self-contained stories just like any other movie that, if they succeeded financially, they spawned a sequel.

Marvel Studios changed all that. Starting with Iron Man in 2007, Marvel did the unprecedented by creating a film universe for its superhero properties to exist within that was modeled after the comic books. In the comics, each superhero character like Iron Man, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, etc. has their own monthly comic book series in which they have self-contained adventures, but that which still exist within the Marvel Universe. Alongside these individual series of books, some of these superheroes gather together and have additional adventures as a team (i.e. the Avengers) or they participate in a storyline that runs through all of Marvel’s comic books (i.e. Civil War).

For movie studios, the ideal film is one that will generate sequels and merchandise sales (i.e. action figures). Marvel Studios (and its parent company, Disney) recognized that with the use of their comic book model, there was the potential for an endless number of sequels that, if done well, would increase merchandise sales (that already existed from the popularity of the comic books). So far, Marvel Studios has not taken any serious missteps in translating their properties unless you count Iron Man 2 (which despite its unpopularity with fans, it still earned an ungodly amount of money at the box office). The studio has been very careful to stick with established Marvel mythology and only change what it feels will not translate well cinematically. As a result, Marvel fanboys have been overall pleased with how Marvel’s Phase 1 (which ended with the release of The Avengers last summer) turned out.

Iron Man 3 marks the beginning of Marvel’s Phase 2. Without giving or hinting anything away, I will only provide spoiler-free information in this synopsis . In this sequel, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is struggling to deal with his recent adventure with The Avengers by experiencing sleepless nights and anxiety attacks. In the meantime, the world faces a terrorist threat from a man named The Mandarin (Sir Ben Kingsley), who has been bombing various locations around the world. In addition, an inventor/entrepreneur named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) develops a method to regenerate missing limbs and the ability to generate extreme heat. He has an organization he calls AIM in which he uses his method to help soldiers regenerate limbs they lost in battle. Back in 1999, Killian, then a poor, struggling scientist, tried to meet with Stark to discuss his invention, but Stark blew him off. Killian is now back and he presents Stark with a new threat.

I do not know whether Jon Favreau left the Iron Man franchise voluntarily because he wanted to pursue other projects (like the trainwreck Cowboys vs. Aliens) or he was booted out after the perceived unpopularity with Iron Man 2. Regardless, the franchise has received a rejuvenating boost with the hiring of acclaimed action writer-director Shane Black (Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang). My biggest issue with the two Iron Man films had always been poor action choreography and setups. Favreau is not an experienced director and other than Zathura, his writing and directing efforts were limited to comedies (Swingers, Made, and Elf). I can probably speak for everyone when I say that I never understood why Marvel hired Favreau to helm Iron Man in the first place. His lack of experience with action/sci-fi/adventure films became glaringly obvious in the lackluster action sequences in both Iron Man films. What saved those films was mainly Robert Downey, Jr.’s magnetic performance and a strong supporting cast of actors.

With Iron Man 3, Shane Black has come to the rescue and shoved Favreau aside to present us with how a true Iron Man action film should look like. I have been a huge fan of Shane Black’s work ever since he sold his first screenplay (Lethal Weapon) back in 1987. Black brings to the table the same level of quality as someone like Joss Whedon with a similar talent for sharp, humorous dialogue and character development and an even stronger talent for writing action. Iron Man 3 has three big action sequences (one of which, seen in the trailers where the crew and passengers of Air Force One are dropping from the sky, is my favorite) contain the perfect blend of fun and exciting action and humor. The final action set piece is set in a shipyard, a type of location that is used way too often in action movies and at this point just screams of excessive cost-cutting and lazy screenwriting. However, it attests to the strength of Black’s screenwriting skills that despite its location, Black manages to come up with some very creative uses of the shipyard that I have not seen before and ends up with both an exhilarating and humorous finale.

As always, the centerpiece of Iron Man 3 is Robert Downey, Jr., who at this point has convinced audiences to think he actually plays himself in these movies. It has been rumored that Downey Jr. may not return for Iron Man 4 and if this is true, then Marvel needs to do everything in its power to return Downey Jr. to the role. The actor defines the role to the same extent that Christopher Reeve did with Superman. The appeal of the first two Iron Man films rested primarily on Downey Jr.’s performance rather than the story or the villain and many fans actually did not even like the Iron Man films except for the actor’s performance. Here, Downey Jr. has to compete for the first time with a good story and great villains.

Speaking of villains, although the relationship between inventor/entrepreneur Aldrich Killian and the Mandarin reminded me a lot of the relationship between entrepreneur Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) and Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko, the relationship in this film works better and it contains a surprise that works brilliantly, which I will not spoil because its reveal is one of the film’s best moments. Guy Pearce does a fantastic job as Killian. Ambitious, ruthless, as well as very charming, Killian’s goal of a super-powered race of soldiers/terrorists presents a more formidable threat against Tony Stark than Justin Hammer’s robot army did. In the last couple of years, Pearce has been adding an impressive list of performances (Animal Kingdom, Mildred Pierce, The King’s Speech, The Hurt Locker) to his already noteworthy repertoire (L.A. Confidential, Memento) and he can add this performance to that list. As for Ben Kingsley, all I will say about his performance in this film is that you will see him in a role that you have probably not seen him do before and the only other film that comes to mind in which he has given us a performance this different is Sexy Beast.

The rest of the supporting cast also does a wonderful job playing their roles. Although Jon Favreau drops out of the film early on, Shane Black has given the remaining regulars  (Pepper Potts and Rhodey Rhodes/Iron Patriot) more to do in this film, especially in terms of being involved in the action. I was especially impressed by the development of Pepper Potts character and she presents the audience with another of the film’s biggest surprises.

Given the high failure rate of third sequels (Superman III, The Godfather III, Spider-Man 3), it is a huge relief to not only see how well Shane Black has done with Iron Man 3, but he has even managed to make the film the best in the series. Aside from the improved action, Black has also taken Tony Stark out of his comfort zone where he is surrounded by his technology and money. Just like in the first Iron Man film when Stark had to MacGyver a suit from scratch in an Afghani cave, Stark is again forced to use his intellect in a similar environment (redneck country). We actually don’t see much of Stark inside the Iron Man costume until very late in the movie. Up until that point, Stark works on his own with the help of a precocious little boy (Ty Simpkins), whose interactions with Stark are comedy gold.

If there is one thing I could have wished for in this movie, it would have been to allow Shane Black to write/direct an R-rated version of Iron Man 3. Black is known for the excessive amount of violence and profanity in his movies and I would have loved to have seen it done with this film. I completely understand why Marvel would not have gone with this because it would have been a suicidal business decision and it would have considerably affected the film’s box office numbers. In a few scenes, you can tell Black tried to push the envelope as far as he could without sacrificing his PG-13 rating (there are scantily clad women and a high kill count).

Iron Man 3 elevates the franchise to a new height that I hope will continue with Shane Black at the helm and Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man. The film kicks it up a notch on every level, including a rousing film score by Brian Tyler, who replaces John Debney. You will not enjoy this film if you already don’t care for comic book movies, but if you do and even if you have not seen the past Iron Man films or any of the other Marvel movies, I think you will dig this successful opening salvo to the Summer 2013 movie season. By the way, stick around for the end of the credits as you will see who Tony Stark has been narrating his story to.

(SPOILER ALERT): If my suspicions are correct, the Mandarin will return.

I’ll just say this right now. I was not a huge fan of Iron Man when it came out in 2008. Namely, it suffered from a poor 3rd Act that practically ruined the film for me. Without Robert Downey, Jr. I’m not so sure if I would even regard the first film as being watchable. Besides, Iron Man has never been one of my favorite comic book characters and, in fact, I don’t think I’ve read a single issue of the Iron Man comic book series. So going into Iron Man 2, I had quite low expectations. Although many if not most fans and critics would seem to disagree, I think Iron Man 2 is an improvement over the first film. Jon Favreau and Justin Theroux (the screenwriter) have this time gone balls out with a intricate and ambitious storyline thats reminiscent of the kind of multi-issue stories you would find in the comic book series. I like that. However, the downside is that the film feels a bit convoluted. As interesting as they all are, the characters do not get a chance to fully develop and the subplots are forced to get resolved quickly to accommodate the film’s running time. All in all, Iron Man 2 is a mixed bag that weighed more towards being a good film than a bad film while at the same time being better than the first film.

In Iron Man 2, we are again introduced to the fast jetset world of Tony Stark, the industrialist billionaire who invented the Iron Man technology that now serves as America’s ultimate defense weapon. The U.S. government is afraid that this technology will soon fall into the wrong hands and so it asks Tony Stark to give the technology to the military so our government can make its own weapons based on the technology. Stark refuses and assures the government that his technology is totally safe and secure from falling into the wrong hands. However, he is soon proven wrong when a badass dude named Whiplash (Mickey Rourke) shows up wearing a suit based on Stark’s technology. This time, Stark has his hands more full than the last time. He finds out that the “heart” he invented to keep him alive is slowly poisoning him. There is also another rich industrialist (Sam Rockwell) who is competing with Stark by trying to create a weapon similar to Iron Man. Of course, Iron Man is assisted this time by his best friend, Jim Rhodes (Don Cheadle), who dons the War Machine Iron Man suit.

I tend to like sequels to superhero films more than the originals because we can finally set aside the origin story and get down to telling a good story of good versus evil. Origin stories usually have a weak and shitty villain who takes a backseat to the main character’s origin story, which I think is one reason why I could care less about Jeff Bridges’ villain in the first Iron Man movie. Here, we jump right into it. We see the growing pressures on Stark to protect the world and to protect himself while also maintaining his carefree playboy lifestyle. At the same time, the Avengers Initiative is beginning to more fully develop and we see the germs of its origin starting to form (NOTE: MAKE SURE YOU STAY THROUGH THE END CREDITS FOR AN AWESOME SURPRISE). All of this reminded me of a typical Marvel superhero comic book story and this film captures the essence of the comic book perfectly.

However, what works for a comic book doesn’t necessarily work for a film plotline. We have seen this problem in past superhero films such as Spider-Man 3, Batman Forever, and Batman & Robin. The filmmakers try to juggle too much for a 2 hour film and in the end, we are left with a whole big mess. Thankfully, Iron Man 2 is nowhere near as problematic in its storytelling as those earlier films were. Even though we have many more characters and subplots to deal with in this movie, the filmmakers mostly succeed in maneuvering the audience through everything. With that said, the movie is not without its problems. As I mention above, some of the characters are not allowed a chance to fully develop. For example, Scarlett Johansson, who plays the Black Widow, is barely seen in the movie and we are left with knowing almost nothing about her (BUT, to give her credit, she has THE BEST action scene in the whole film). We also don’t see enough of Whiplash or learn enough about him other than what other characters tell us about who he is. More problematically, many of the subplots get quickly resolved to make room for everything else. As a result, many parts of the film feel rushed. For example, we learn that Tony Stark is slowly being poisoned by his Iron Man technology. After many scenes showing the dire nature of this predicament, Stark ends up solving his problem without breaking a sweat. Boom, problem solved. Where this becomes a more annoying issue is in the 3rd Act. Again, just like with the first Iron Man film, the end fight scene gets resolved quickly and in a very unexciting fashion. One thing that I hoped Jon Favreau would have learned since making the first film was how to stage a good fight scene. Sadly, he still has a lot of room for improvement because what he gives us here, although better than the first film, still falls far short of the fucking awesomeness that could have been. I wanted to see Iron Man and War Machine take on the villain through the whole city of Los Angeles. I wanted to see massive destruction everywhere (like the battle scene between Superman and General Zod in Superman II). Why didn’t we get that?

As with Iron Man and every movie he seems to make lately, the success of the film rides mostly on the shoulders of the very talented Robert Downey, Jr. Here we get a hint of Tony Stark’s alcohol problem (an issue that was masterfully dealt with in the comic book series that I hope will serve as the basis of the plot for the inevitable 3rd film) and it results in Downey, Jr. being funnier than ever. The actor’s style suits the Tony Stark character perfectly with his manic energy and fly-by-the-seat-of-your- pants lifestyle. However, this time we are also treated by the equally if not even more talented Sam Rockwell, who plays Justin Hammer. Rockwell has never failed to disappoint in anything he has done (NOTE: Check him out in last year’s Moon, which is a film that deserved a Best Actor nod). Here, he plays an asshole billionaire industrialist who reminded me of Michael Dell. He practically steals every scene he’s in and I hope to see more of him in future installments of the series. I am a big fan of Terrance Howard and I was disappointed to see him get replaced for Iron Man 2 even though it was by Don Cheadle, who I regard as highly as Howard. However, Cheadle does a fantastic job as Jim Rhodes, Tony Stark’s best friend.

So is Iron Man 2 a film worth watching? It has its problems, but it still holds up as a fun, popcorn experience that I ended up enjoying more than the first film. For you comic fans, there is plenty of Avengers-related surprises which I won’t give away. I wish there was more of it, but I guess it wouldn’t be an Iron Man movie if there were. Many of you may be disappointed by this film, especially if you were a huge fan of the first movie. For me it was a reverse and it probably explains why I enjoyed it more.