THE LITTLE THINGS (2021)

January 30, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. When a script has bounced around Hollywood for 30 years without getting produced, there is usually a good reason why. Written by John Lee Hancock in the early 1990s, a handful of directors have been attached at various times, but it’s the writer himself who has managed to get it on screen all these years later. Mr. Hancock has found his niche as a director by targeting the precise middle of mainstream with such films as SAVING MR BANKS (2013) and THE BLIND SIDE (2009), an approach more challenging when the topic is chasing a brutal serial killer.

Of course, casting three Oscar winning actors is always a wise choice. Two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington (TRAINING DAY, 2001, GLORY, 1989) stars as Joe Deacon, a defrocked L.A. homicide detective banished to the California desert as a Deputy Sheriff in Kern County. “Deke” suffered a heart attack, went through a divorce, and lost his job as a result of being haunted by an especially grisly unsolved case. When Deacon is tasked to pick up evidence in Los Angeles, he stumbles into a case being worked by his hotshot replacement, Jim Baxter. Oscar winner Rami Malek (BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, 2018) brings his unorthodox mannerisms to the role and soon (and unsurprisingly) the ‘old school’ and ‘next gen’ detectives are teaming up to work a serial killer case with (unsurprising) similarities to Deke’s old case.

Denzel is especially effective in the first half of the film. His Deke is a quiet man with extraordinary observational and listening skills, and he brings none of his patented histrionics to the role. Deke’s ‘little things’ process quickly identifies a suspect, and it’s a doozy. Oscar winner Jared Leto (DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, 2013) is Albert Sparma, a greasy-haired appliance repair man (who let’s this guy in their house?) with a penchant for following news of the city’s crimes. Soon enough he’s taunting Deke and Baxter, and enjoying every minute of their frustration at the lack of evidence. It’s the cat and mouse game we’ve seen many times.

I’m a fan of retro movies, and Hancock announces upfront that this one is set in 1990. There are two reasons for this: that’s the era when he wrote the script, and it corresponds to a time when the Night Stalker was fresh on the minds of L.A. citizens. (side note: Netflix is currently showing the superb docuseries, “Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer”). The idea of mismatched partners with polar opposite personalities is another aspect that we are quite familiar with, and Hancock even uses flashbacks to show us exactly what haunts Deke.

Supporting work comes from Chris Bauer, Terry Kinney, Glenn Morshower, Natalie Morales, and Michael Hyatt, with the latter two providing a non-victim female presence – although neither is given much to do. The most interesting aspect of the story is how Baxter is falling into the same emotional void as his new mentor, but unfortunately, not much time is devoted to this. In fact, the story has very little to keep us interested, and instead that burden falls to Washington, Malek, and Leto. Hancock has delivered a dark, brooding crime thriller that fails to deliver the thrills. It certainly pales in the obvious comparisons to David Fincher’s Fincher’s SE7EN (1995) and ZODIAC (2007), but is fine for killing time while stuck at home during a pandemic.

Now available on HBO Max

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THE HIGHWAYMEN (2019)

March 28, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Setting one’s film up to be compared to a long time classic can be quite challenging for a filmmaker, but that’s precisely the situation director John Lee Hancock finds himself. Known for crowd-pleasers like THE FOUNDER, SAVING MR BANKS, and THE BLIND SIDE, Mr. Hancock delivers a Netflix film destined to face off against Arthur Penn’s 1967 classic BONNIE AND CLYDE. Where the earlier film focused on the anti-hero celebrity (and beautiful faces) of the young outlaws, this latest film flips the lens and puts law enforcement (particularly grizzled veterans) front and center (Bonnie and Clyde are barely glimpsed until near the end).

The film begins with a well-planned and deadly prison break in 1934 and then moves into a meeting where Lee Simmons (John Carroll Lynch) of the Department of Corrections is pitching Texas Governor “Ma” Ferguson (Kathy Bates) on his idea of reactivating the defunct Texas Rangers, and bringing legendary lawman Frank Hamer out of retirement. It’s pretty simple – the FBI and its new-fangled forensics is failing miserably in tracking down Bonnie and Clyde, and the hope is that Hamer and his old-fashioned detective work will succeed.

Kevin Costner plays Frank Hamer, and we first see him and his well-trained pet pig trying to enjoy a peaceful retirement at home with his wife Gladys (Kim Dickens). Not long after, he’s joined by his old partner Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), who is down on his luck, drinks too much, and is in desperate need of a purpose. Thus begins the buddy road trip featuring the no-nonsense Hamer and the quipster Gault. Not many play self-importance better than Costner, and few deliver wisecracks better than Woody.

The screenplay comes from John Fusco, whose previous western projects include HIDALGO and YOUNG GUNS. Though this isn’t a traditional western, it has most of the expected elements. Aging lawmen chasing colorful outlaws. Good versus evil. Right versus Wrong. While it’s a relief the film doesn’t romanticize the Barrow gang and their violent ways, it’s a bit frustrating to see that the movie tries to make Hamer and Gault as famous and iconic as the outlaws they were chasing. Sure Bonnie’s fashion influenced many women of the era, but that had to be nauseating for those lawmen in pursuit who were putting their lives on the line. In the 1967 film, Denver Pyle played Frank Hamer in a shamefully written role, and here Costner strikes so many hero poses and seems to invoke mystical ESP abilities in his police work, that we half expect Hamer to walk on water at some point.

The best part of the film is watching Costner and Harrelson work together, with the latter really making this work on whatever level it does. Additionally, there is a scene with Hamer and Clyde’s dad that features William Sadler in a cameo. I don’t know if this meeting actually took place in real life, but it teases what the film could have been. As a fantasy for cinema aficionados, the project was originally intended to be a vehicle for Robert Redford and Paul Newman, but just never progressed. Combine that with BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID and THE STING, and you’d have an unmatched triumvirate of buddy greatness. Hancock’s film certainly pales in comparison to the 1967 film, but it’s a worthy story that deserves to be told.

available on Netlix March 29, 2019

a few years ago, I posted one of my revisited articles on BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967). You can check that out here: https://moviereviewsfromthedark.com/?s=bonnie+and+clyde

watch the trailer:


THE FOUNDER (2016)

January 19, 2017

founder Greetings again from the darkness. How you define success will likely determine your interpretation of this film that is every bit as much about the humble beginnings and explosive growth of McDonalds as it is a biopic of Ray Kroc, the self-professed “founder” of the golden arches empire. Capitalism and its corresponding businessmen have not typically been favorably portrayed by Hollywood in such films as The Social Network, Wall Street, Glengarry Glen Ross, Steve Jobs and The Wolf of Wall Street. This latest from director John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks, The Blind Side) and writer Robert Siegel (The Wrestler) is no exception, and it’s obvious why.

It’s 1954 when we first catch up with Ray Kroc (as played by Michael Keaton). He’s the type of traveling salesman who totes around his latest widget (a multiple milkshake machine), rehearses and polishes his spiel (via extreme close-up), and listens to motivational record albums that preach the importance of persistence, while he stays at roadside motels that act as his home away from home. Kroc doggedly pursues the American dream, and optimistically bounces from one project to another … convinced that he’s found “the next big thing”.

When circumstance leads him to a crowded little octagonal burger shop in San Bernardino, Kroc becomes fascinated with its simplicity and success. Over dinner, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) McDonald detail the Spee-Dee kitchen design and unique focus on quality, consistency and speed that today is considered the starting line of the fast-food industry. The tennis court sequence is especially creative and fun to watch. While the brothers prefer to keep the business small and remain in control, Kroc pitches his vision of franchising … a pitch with emphasis on “Crosses. Flags. Arches”.

The full story is likely one most people don’t know … despite the fact that McDonalds now feeds 1% of the world population each day (a statistic posted on screen). The relationship between Kroc and the McDonald brothers was never a smooth one, and it’s a perfect example of dog-eat-dog, or unprincipled vs idealistic. Kroc sees himself as a “winner”, while it’s likely most will view his actions as unscrupulous, even if legal.

Keaton’s performance accurately captures a man who is impatiently ambitious, and whose confidence and ego grow incrementally as it becomes inevitable that the decency of the brothers is actually a weakness in business. Offerman and Lynch are both excellent, and other support work is provided by Laura Dern as Kroc’s first and mostly neglected wife who is tossed aside when something better comes along; BJ Novak as Harry J Sonneborn, the key to Kroc’s power move; Justin Randell Brooks as Fred Turner and Kate Kneeland as June Martino, two trusted employees; and Patrick Wilson as a key franchisee. Linda Cardellini (Mad Men, Bloodline) plays Joan, Ray’s wife (she was actually his third) and business advisor from 1969 until his death in 1984. The film shortchanges her importance – at least until the closing credit recap.

Bookending that opening extreme close-up sales pitch, is a near-conclusion zoom on Keaton’s face as he prepares for an event where he will tell his story … at least his version of the story. The film does a really nice job of capturing the era. Of particular interest is that the cars don’t look like they rolled right out of a classic car show, as happens with most movies. It’s nice to see some faded paint and a dented fender on screen. The early McDonalds locations are beautifully and realistically replicated to provide a nostalgic look for some, and a first glimpse for others. Carter Burwell’s score is complementary to the proceedings, and director Hancock deserves credit for not just making this the Michael Keaton/Ray Kroc show. Rather than serving up a Happy Meal movie, the film instead provides a somewhat toned-down historical view of ambition and drive, and the birth of an empire … one that changed our culture.

watch the trailer: