BIG KILL (2018)

October 18, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been 6 years since Scott Martin directed his last feature film, and most of his credits are as a producer. This time out, the Texas filmmaker proves his love of the western genre, and he’s so committed to the cause that he dons many Stetsons for the project: writer, director, producer, editor, and one of the lead actors. We always admire those who overcome obstacles and see their vision become a reality. Every movie doesn’t need to be a classic … it’s a Herculean task just to get a film made, and hopefully it provides some entertainment value (which this one does).

Mr. Martin plays Jake, who along with his friend Travis (Clint Hummel) travels the old west countryside finding trouble and making waves at every turn. Jake is the sharpshooter, while Travis is the ladies’ man. Neither seem to have any marketable skills, other than the knack for staying alive – which is an accomplishment given that they seem to be shot at quite frequently and run out of every place they ride into … even Mexico!

The opening shootout sets the mood for us, as it comes across as tongue-in-cheek, with just enough realism to let us know danger exists. Danny Trejo has an entrance worthy of his cult status as Mexican General Morales … a man very displeased with Jake and Travis. An annoying electronic score accompanies a chase scene that crosses the border and ends at a Cavalry outpost run by a Colonel played by the great Michael Pare (EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS), whose two scenes are over far too quickly.

Jake and Travis accompany city slicker Jim Andrews (Christoph Sanders) on a road trip via horseback to Big Kill, Arizona … a town Jim’s brother has promised him is booming. A recurring punchline of “Never heard of it” adds some levity every time Big Kill is mentioned. Instead of a lucrative silver mining town, they find a once boom town gone bust, and now the town is run by the most unethical “Preacher” (steely-eyed and square-jawed Jason Patric) that one is likely to find. The preacher is aided by his muscle: quick-draw Johnny Kane (Lou Diamond Phillips in a gaudy red suit and evil grin) and Stephanie Beran as a knife toting Felicia Stiletto – just one of the character names pulled straight out of the comic book universe.

Jim’s brother (played by KC Clyde) is located, and though Jim begins the courting process with local girl Josie Strong (a standout Elizabeth McLaughlin), the troubles and violence and literal backstabbing in town soon draws the boys into the fracas. Much of the film has the look of kids playing dress up, but as a tongue-in-cheek western, there is enough entertainment value to hold our interest for 2 hours. Fortunately music director Kays Al-Atrakchi resorts to more traditional trumpet-based western music after that opening chase. Most of the shootouts provide some humor, whether intended or not, but we can be sure the cast had a grand time making this one … that shines through loud and clear – especially in a town where the undertaker is named Digger.

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CLUE (1985) revisited

October 12, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. All movie watchers have at least two categories of films: those they will watch any time of any day, even if they can only catch a few minutes; and those they can’t imagine ever watching again since the first time through was so painful/miserable/boring/unentertaining. Now you may have other sub-categories as well, but you likely have at least those two. For me, the first category (the good one) includes both GODFATHER movies, PULP FICTION, THE RIGHT STUFF, DOUBLE INDEMNITY, JAWS, THE PRINCESS BRIDE, REAR WINDOW, and well … there are actually far too many to list!  The second category is comprised of: THE BOUNTY HUNTER, PROBLEM CHILD, BORAT, TORCHLIGHT, DEATH BECOMES HER, CADDYSHACK 2, just about every Jerry Lewis movie without Dean Martin, and well … there are plenty more, but I’m getting a bit nauseous thinking about this.

The point is that for 33 years, CLUE has been on my ‘never-watch-again’ list. All these years later, I’m unable to provide any specifics about my initial viewing experience, other than it featured Martin Mull (never been a fan) and was entirely too silly and over-the-top for my ‘highly refined’ tastes (although I like “The Three Stooges” and Peter Sellers’ “Pink Panther movies)  A friend, whose movie judgment I trust, has been encouraging/goading me into giving CLUE another try … to the extreme that she recently gifted me the DVD, thereby removing inconvenience as an excuse for avoiding it any longer. Anyone familiar with my “revisited” blog entries will know that what follows won’t be a traditional movie review. Expect some scattershooting.

So here I sit, pondering the movie universe and the ramifications of my having very much enjoyed this second viewing of CLUE – laughing many times and making note of just how clever it is … even amidst the packaging of silliness and slapstick in which it comes wrapped. There are, as you might imagine, some odd things associated with the film. First of all, it’s based on a Parker Brothers (now Hasbro) board game. Would you be excited about a Checkers movie?  How about Yahtzee or Candyland? Doubtful. Next, few films have a writer/director like Jonathan Lynn. Mr. Lynn is Cambridge educated, has written best-selling books, is known for a popular British TV series, produced and directed many stage plays, is an accomplished actor – he even played Hitler on stage (in a comedy), and has directed other comedy films such as MY COUSIN VINNY (1992) and THE WHOLE NINE YARDS (2000) . In yet another odd twist, Mr. Lynn co-wrote the CLUE screenplay with John Landis, who of course, directed the comedy classics ANMAL HOUSE (1978) and THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980).

Set in a creepy New England mansion on a stormy 1954 evening – replete with on-cue thunder and lightning – the twice Oscar nominated composer John Morris (he co-wrote the BLAZING SADDLES theme with Mel Brooks) greets us with a tongue-in-cheek score seemingly sampled from every late night horror movie from the 1950’s. A group of splendidly dressed guests are arriving for a dinner party after each received a mysterious and provocative letter from the evening’s anonymous host. We soon learn that the letters’ connective tissue is that each of these folks are somehow associated with … GASP … the government!  Even in 1985, this was a sure-fire way to characterize people as villainous.

It doesn’t take long for the first murder to occur, and other dead bodies are soon to follow – each in mysterious ways – leaving much doubt, and no shortage of suspects, as to the identity of the culprit. In fact, no one is to be trusted (other than possibly those already murdered). The confined environment of the mansion adds to the suspense, confusion, and comedy of the proceedings – as does a stellar cast of actors who know how to be funny in a serious kind of way.

Tim Curry stars as Wadsworth, who we assume is the butler and the fast talker and walker who seems to be running the show for the unknown host. Mr. Curry, of course, is forever enshrined in midnight movie lore as Dr. Frank-N-Furter in THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975). Wadsworth is assisted in the evening’s affairs by Yvette, played with jiggly wonder by Colleen Camp in a French maid uniform barely able to contain her assets. Ms. Camp has been a hard working actress since the 1970’s, was a two-time Razzie nominee in the 90’s, and can also be seen in this year’s THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS. The guests include Mrs. Peacock, played by Eileen Brennan, best known as the sadistic Drill Instructor in PRIVATE BENJAMIN (1980) and the heart-of-gold waitress in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971); the dressed in black Mrs. White, played by comedy giant and two-time Oscar nominee Madeline Kahn, so terrific in her memorable roles in BLAZING SADDLES and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN; Mr. Plum, played by Christopher Lloyd, his shock of white hair highlighting the BACK TO THE FUTURE franchise; Mr. Green, played by Michael McKean who only the year before was David St Hubbins in THIS IS SPINAL TAP, has been recently seen as savant lawyer Chuck McGill on “Better Call Saul”, and is likely the only relative of a signer of the Declaration of Independence in the movie; Colonel Mustard, played by the aforementioned Martin Mull whose career covers stand-up comedy, songwriting, TV series, movies, pro football, and his love of art; Miss Scarlet, played Lesley Ann Warren, nominated the previous year for her role in VICTOR VICTORIA, the star of one of my favorite offbeat 80’s films CHOOSE ME, and whose ex-husband John Peters was executive producer on CLUE; and finally, Mr. Boddy played by Lee Ving, known best for his punk rock band Fear. There are also a few cameos worth noting: Howard Hesseman from “WKRP in Cincinnati” appears as The Chief; Jane Wiedlin, a founding member of the band The Go-Gos who had a mega-hit with “Vacation” has a brief appearance as The Singing Telegram Girl; and Bill Henderson appears as a cop – this after a jazz singing career that crossed paths with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Frank Sinatra, Quincy Jones and others. Sharp-eyed viewers might also recognize the stranded motorist as actor Jeffrey Kramer, seen in JAWS as the deputy putting out ‘Beach Closed’ signs.

Filmmakers Lynn and Landis drew inspiration not just from the board game, but also such films as Neil Simon’s MURDER BY DEATH (1976, with Eileen Brennan), Agatha Christie’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (1945) and MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974), TEN LITTLE INDIANS (1965, based on Ms. Christie’s stage version), and William Castle’s classic horror film HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959). CLUE has a very theatrical look and feel, as something that would work equally well on stage as on screen. The strong presence of Tim Curry almost forces us to notice some similarities to THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, though CLUE offers no musical interludes – other than the exceptional use of the song “Life is But a Dream”.

As far as I know, CLUE was the first film to be distributed to theatres with three different endings (quite a feat for a murder mystery). With the initial release, you were likely to see a different ending than someone at a theatre across town. Fortunately, the Blu-Ray version provides all three – none more likely or reasonable than the other (that’s part of the gag). Fox recently announced a remake of CLUE starring Ryan Reynolds is in the works. Expect it to look much different than the 1985 version. Many of the jokes from the film wouldn’t be acceptable or tolerated in this current age of political correctness, yet Madeline Kahn, with her impeccable comedic delivery offers up the timeless line: “Life after death is as improbable as sex after marriage”. Yes, the film is campy and screwball and filled with slapstick. However, it may also be described as a crackling-dialogue-driven, whip-smart whodunit movie dressed up as an outrageous slapstick comedy … something I failed to recognize on my first viewing more than 30 years ago. Consider that mistake corrected.

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THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN (2018)

October 4, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Jim Morrison’s lyrics, “This is the end. Beautiful friend. This is the end” have been interpreted to have many meanings over the years, and they also seem just right for what is likely the final on screen performance from one of the few remaining iconic movie stars. Robert Redford claims this is probably the end of his nearly 60 year acting career. If that’s true, he couldn’t have selected a better project for his victory lap. The film itself is a nice mixture of mass appeal and the independent projects that Mr. Redford has long supported. As for the character he plays, it too fits him like a glove.

Filmmaker David Lowery (fresh off last year’s indie favorite A GHOST STORY) has adapted the story from a 2003 “New Yorker” article by David Grann, and it’s based on a true story – one that’s a bit difficult to believe … well, at least until Mr. Redford brings Forrest Tucker to life. Mr. Tucker escaped from San Quentin at age 70, and it was just one of his 16 prison escapes during a lifetime of robbing banks and getting caught. The story is that Tucker simply enjoyed the work, and went about it in the most gentlemanly possible way – often described by bank employees as polite and nice. It’s the perfect character for Redford’s trademark twinkle and grin acting style.

Most of this portion of the story takes place in 1981, and the film captures not just the era, but also the essence – something much deeper than clothes and cars. Starring alongside Mr. Redford is Sissy Spacek as Jewel, and their chemistry allows the quiet moments between their characters to work as effectively as their (sometimes) playful verbal exchanges. Tucker’s “crew” is manned by Danny Glover as Teddy, and the great Tom Waits as Walter. Waits is always fascinating to see on screen, and here he gets one especially good scene to shine. They are referred to as “The Over the Hill Gang” (in contrast to “The Hole in the Wall Gang” from Redford’s classic BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID.

Casey Affleck (reunited with director Lowery for the third time) plays Austin Texas detective John Hunt, who spent a great deal of time chasing Tucker, and actually put the puzzle pieces together. Tika Sumpter appears as Hunt’s wife, Gene Jones is memorable as a Bank Officer, and for you Austin music lovers, Lefty Frizzell’s granddaughter makes a brief appearances. Other far too brief appearances include Isiah Whitlock, Jr, Keith Carradine (weirdly brief), Robert Longstreet, John David Washington, and Elisabeth Moss. The parade of familiar faces can be a bit distracting, but it’s understandable why so many wanted to work with Lowery and Redford.

Joe Anderson’s cinematography is terrific, and the film is oddly devoid of violence. If not mistaken, I believe we only see Tucker’s gun once … and that’s in a glove compartment. There is a certain easiness and warm fuzzy to the film, somewhat conflicting with what we would expect following an armed bank robber!

Of course, the reason we buy into the gentlemanly outlaw is the performance of Robert Redford. Charming and easy-going comes pretty easily to a man that is charming and easy-going. Director Lowery even treats us to a quick clip from young Redford’s film THE CHASE, and does so within a delightful montage of Tucker’s prison escapes. Few actors get such a perfect farewell tribute, and though it’s not quite Ted Williams hitting a home run in his final at-bat, at least Redford gets to tip his cap to the fans. Since he’s moving his career off screen, let’s bid a fond and appreciative farewell to the man that once proclaimed, “I’m better when I move”.

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THE SISTERS BROTHERS (2018)

September 27, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It was a good news – bad news kind of day for westerns. First, it’s announced that Mel Gibson will direct a remake of Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 classic THE WILD BUNCH. Talk about an undesired and unnecessary project! Fortunately, the movie gods understood this gut-punch and as a peace offering, delivered this near-masterpiece that doesn’t so much re-invent the Western, but rather provides a tonal and stylistic twist to the genre.

This is the first English language project from writer/director Jacques Audiard, who has previously delivered such powerful and well-crafted films as A PROPHET (2009), RUST AND BONE (2012), and DHEEPAN (2015). Based on the Patrick DeWitt novel, with a screenplay from Mr. Audiard and his frequent collaborator Thomas Bidegain, this latest is a very unusual film that teeters on satire at times, but is simply too bleak to be a comedy – although it’s too darn funny to be an outright drama.

A terrific opening sequence in 1851 Oregon features a nighttime shootout that sets the stage both visually and tonally for what we will experience for the next couple of hours. It’s beautifully shot and there is some misdirection on what exactly the Sisters brothers are made of. John C. Reilly is absolutely wonderful as Eli Sisters, the soulful forward-thinking one who also has a dash of goofiness to him. His younger brother Charlie Sisters, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is the slightly unhinged one who frequently follows in his hated father’s footsteps by drinking heavily. Charlie is alternatingly quietly menacing and drunkenly menacing. The two brothers are hired assassins, and while Eli dreams of a peaceful retirement, Charlie can’t imagine not doing what they do.

The brothers have been contracted by ‘The Commodore’, a rarely seen power broker played in brief glimpses by the great Rutger Hauer. They are to meet up with advance scout John Morris (played by Jake Gyllenhaal with a quasi-British accent) and kill Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), who has supposedly stolen from The Commodore. Of course, there is more to the story. Warm has actually developed a chemical compound that allows for the easy gathering of gold from waterways – remember this is the height of the Gold Rush.

This is kind of a road trip film … only it’s on a horse trail from Oregon to San Francisco, and it’s kind of a buddy film … only it’s two brothers. Along the way, bonds are forged and broken, and paths are crossed with a kind-hearted saloon gal (Allison Tolman), a greedy town lord (trans actor Rebecca Root), and the brothers’ mother played by the always interesting Carol Kane. There is also a cringe-inducing run-in with a spider, an unfortunate end for a favorite horse, and the hilarious first use of a toothbrush. There is also a Dallas joke that drew quite the laughter from my Dallas audience.

It’s such an unusual film, and it’s presented with a non-traditional pace and rhythm. The moments of laughter surround a core with a dramatic story of destiny, the meaning of life, dreams and visions, and the greed of man. All of this is set to yet another terrific score from Alexandre Desplat and the visually striking photography of Benoit Debie. Director Audiard has delivered a bleak comedy or a comical drama, and he’s done so with more than a fair share of violence. Whether you consider yourself a fan of westerns or not, this one deserves a look.

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ALL ABOUT NINA (2018)

September 27, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. There are dark comedies and then there is the first feature film from director Eva Vives (although she wrote the screenplay for RAISING VICTOR VARGAS). It’s really a dark drama with both feet in the stand-up comedy world, so we find ourselves laughing at the (profane) jokes, despite a lead character that is in desperate need of emotional salvation.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is dynamite as Nina Geld. And dynamite is meant to have two definitions here. She is terrific in the role, and she (her character) explodes with little notice. Nina Geld is definitely provocative. She is definitely a feminist. She is definitely funny, and she is most definitely messed up. We learn all of this in the first 5 minutes, and spend the rest of the movie waiting to see whether she self-destructs or is somehow saved.

We first see Nina as she delivers a set on stage at a comedy club. Her act is mostly about sex and the misery of relationships. We soon learn why she seems to have little happiness in life. The abusive married cop (Chace Crawford, Tony Romo’s brother-in-law) she has been seeing interrupts the one-night stand she was looking forward to. It’s quite unsettling to watch this unfold, and it seems to be the final straw needed to push Nina to relocate from New York City to Los Angeles. It’s southern California where her agent (Angelique Cabral) has arranged for to audition for “Comedy Prime” – a one hour comedy special produced by Larry Michaels (played by Beau Bridges).

In L.A., Nina rooms with a stereotypical southern California “New Age” type (Cate del Castillo) who senses energy fields and remains quite civil in her arguments with her partner (played by Clea DuVall). Mostly we see what a damaged soul that Nina is, and bearing an unfair brunt are her mother (Camryn Manheim), her mom’s friend (Mindy Sterling, AUSTIN POWERS), and a fellow comic (Jay Mohr).

When Nina meets Rafe (Common, in a rare leading man role), she begins to show her first signs of actual human connection. And of course she is confused by this, and her self-destructive being rears up. The big reveal as to the cause of Nina’s constantly confused state (I don’t believe the therapy sessions are working) is held back until late in the final act … and it’s a doozy that leads to a painfully honest on stage meltdown.

Ms. Winstead is really terrific here, and she is absolutely believable in her stand-up bits. In fact, the montage of impressions and her constant fine-tuning of the act are almost as good as the heavy drama pieces she excels at. The film itself is kind of a mash-up of stories, but it’s her performance that keeps us onboard … even as we question her character’s stability (and incessant hair tussling).

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ONE WILD MOMENT (2018)

September 26, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. In 1977, French Producer-Writer-Director-Actor Claude Berri directed a film version of his own original screenplay entitled IN A WILD MOMENT. In 1984, director Stanley Donen’s (SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN) final feature film was an Americanized remake that inexplicably left Mr. Berri as uncredited. Perhaps that’s how Berri preferred it, since Donen’s BLAME IT ON RIO was atrocious and nearly unwatchable despite a cast that included Michael Caine and a 21 year old Demi Moore. This third iteration, directed by Jean-Francois Richet (who co-wrote the adapted screenplay with Lisa Azuelos) does credit Berri, and returns the material to France where it’s a better fit.

Best friends Antoine and Laurent take their teenage daughters Louna and Marie (who are also best friends) on holiday to Antoine’s childhood home in the Corsica countryside. The house is a bit rustic and neglected, has spotty (at best) internet, includes a family burial plot, and is miles from town. The only neighbor is an elderly gentleman and his roaming dog. The girls aren’t nearly as taken with the serenity as their dads seem to be.

Both dads are loving and protective of their daughters, though the usual teenager-parent squabbles occur regularly. Watching the interactions between the dads and daughters, between the two men, and between the two teenagers is quite entertaining and exceedingly believable. Of course, the core of the story is what happens in one “wild” moment when Laurent is simply being supportive of Antoine’s daughter Louna – and her teenage crush of the older man shifts into seduction. A late night naked frolic on the beach crosses the line that should never be crossed. Laurent instantly regrets the action, and Louna falls “in love” like only a teenager can.

The rest of the movie becomes an uneasy dance of lies, threats, insinuations and betrayals. Most of it is handled with a comedic intentions, and that compounds the feelings of queasiness and disgust that we have towards Laurent and his unacceptable and unforgivable (and illegal) actions. We see the two men frazzled for much different reasons. Though he doesn’t know the identity of the “older man” who took advantage of his daughter, Antoine is obsessed with tracking him down and making him pay. On the other hand, Laurent is desperate to keep the secret from his friend, and that forces him to play along with Louna’s taunting games.

Two of France’s biggest stars, Vincent Cassel (MESRINE) and Francois Cluzet (THE INTOUCHABLES, TELL NO ONE) play Laurent and Antoine, respectively, while Lola Le Lann (age 19 during filming) and Alice Isaaz are Louna and Marie. Mr. Cassel and Ms. Isaaz are especially effective – he in a no-win role, and she leaving us wanting even more characterization.

Though it was filmed more than 3 years ago, it’s now getting a second life. Original writer Claude Berri is probably best known for his stellar work on JEAN DE FLORETTE and MANON OF THE SPRING, and we can’t help but think his script would work better in contemporary times if the comedy turned much darker and made it abundantly clear that Laurent’s actions were entirely unacceptable – instead of leaving his response to young Louna’s come-on as understandable. The film is produced by Thomas Langmann, the son of Claude Berri, and kicks off with the beautiful and familiar version of “La Mer”, a 1946 song by Charles Trenet.

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WHITE RABBIT (2018)

September 22, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. You have probably not met anyone like Sophia. I certainly haven’t. She’s a Korean-American performance artist who uses various personalities/characters in her “act”. She also lives alone in Los Angeles, and bikes everywhere … collapsing after a full day that consists of some mixture of delivering public diatribes, crafting her latest bizarre YouTube video, fulfilling her current TaskRabbit assignment, or trying to connect with a fellow human being – one that’s not someone else’s toddler requesting a horseback ride.

Sophia is played by Vivian Bang, who also co-wrote the script with director Daryl Wein (co-writer with his now-wife Zoe Lister-Jones of LOLA VERSUS). Ms. Bang is herself a performance artist, so we can assume much of this is cultivated from her daily life. As Sophia explains to her mother in one scene, “It’s not art that people can buy.” We first see Sophia screaming silently into the portable P.A. system she totes around while sporting a snow white wig and white jump suit.  She is standing in the middle of a grocery store and then proceeds to tell “her” story about immigrating to this country (it’s a story, but not really hers). The shoppers mostly ignore her. You might question why she is screaming silently or why she picks a grocery store (or public park) as a venue. The answers unfold slowly.

Sophia has multiple interactions with Victoria (Nana Ghana), an African-American photographer of roughly her same age. The two women hit it off, with Sophia being very attracted to Victoria. As their friendship builds, and “signs” possibly misconstrued, Sophia admits to learning English by watching John Hughes movies – explaining her Valley Girl accent and overuse of “like” (a disservice to Molly Ringwald). The chemistry between the two actresses is terrific and we actually would have enjoyed a bit more, especially after yet another bombshell rocks Sophia’s world.

An awkward movie audition, the use of cheese puffs and powdered sugar for YouTube videos, and a misplaced confrontation with a former lover/partner all lead us to better understand Sophia (and Ms. Bang) seeking validation of her work. On a couple of occasions she says “Can you hear me?” We might be trying, and Ms. Bang might have something of value to offer, though this film merely offers a tease. We sense there are similarities to the very talented Miranda July, only with differing missions. The excellent soundtrack is an added plus, and we will just have to sit quietly (without screaming) to see where this takes Vivian Bang.

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