Trouble is My Business


A tough-as-nails gumshoe waits for the right dame to come along.

(2018) Mystery (Random Media/Lumen Actus) Tom Konkle, Brittney Powell, Vernon Wells, David Beeler, Mark Teich, Jordana Capra, Ben Pace, Benton Jennings, Steve Tom, Mollie Fitzgerald, Paul Hungerford, William Jackson, E. Sean Griffin, Laine Scandalis, Carl Bryan, Ksenia Delaveri, Pete Handelman, Steve Olson, Doug Spearman, Lauren Byrnes. Directed by Tom Konkle

 

Of all the art forms cinematic, one of the greatest – and hardest to do right – is film noir. Most of us when we think of noir think of classic films like The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity and Out of the Past and writers Dash Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane. While the heyday of noir ran from the 1930s through the early 1950s, from time to time attempts have been made to resurrect or at least pay homage to the genre, sometimes effectively (Chinatown, L.A. Confidential), other times not so much.

In a world of corrupt cops and hard-bitten detectives, Roland Drake (Konkle) has seen it all. Once one of the best missing persons men in the business, his reputation has been tarnished by a botched job in which Natalia (Delaveri), a missing girl, ended up dead and the newspapers blamed Drake. Business has dried up, his partner Lew MacDonald (Beeler) has moved on to start his own agency and he’s about to be evicted from his shabby office.

Then in comes Katherine Montemar, a sexy brunette with a sob story; her father has disappeared, the police are dragging their flat feet and now it appears someone is targeting the Montemar family because her uncle has disappeared as well. One thing leads to another and she spends the night with Drake. When he wakes up in the morning, there’s an ominous pool of blood next to him and no brunette.

That might have been the end of it but Katherine’s sister Jennifer (Powell) shows up with incriminating photos of Drake’s roll in the hay with Katherine and a .38 special. Eventually Drake takes on the case and runs into a variety of characters; Jennifer’s overbearing mother (Capra), the cross-dressing and likely insane butler Rivers (Teich), Jennifer’s handsome but inept boyfriend (Pace) and most ominous as well, the corrupt and vicious cop Barry Tate (Wells). They all are revolving around a missing black book and a fabulous diamond that is priceless. Drake will have to think fast, talk faster and know how to use his gun if he’s going to get out of this one alive.

Konkle is a bit of a triple threat man here, directing, starring and co-writing (with co-star Powell) and probably sweeping the floors after shooting. He certainly has a good knowledge of noir tropes and uses them effectively for the most part. He creates a dark and dangerous atmosphere and I certainly won’t complain about the production design although sometimes it is a little obvious that green screen is being used.

The script could have used some polishing. The rapid-fire patter of typical noir dialogue is present but Konkle and Powell are no Raymond Chandler or even Elmore Leonard. The dialogue is generally okay but sometimes it sounds a little clunky and forced. Not every line needs to sound like it’s being uttered by Sam Spade. Also the score is like a Mikos Rosza score from back in the day, only played on synthesizers like a bad 80s thriller. It totally wrecks the mood; the score is also constantly playing. In this case, a little dead air wouldn’t have hurt.

Some critics have judged this a comedy although I don’t think that was the intent of the filmmakers, although there are some fairly funny lines throughout. I do think that this is occasionally over-earnest, sometimes star-struck but never anything but a genuine tribute to a style of film which has become truly a lost art. While I can quibble with the execution in places, I certainly can’t fault the intentions

Oh, and for those who like choices the DVD/Blu-Ray of this release (available on Amazon) comes with both full color and Black and White disks. For my money, the Black and White version is much better, much more authentic. Purists should go for that; those who dislike black and white can always go for the color edition, but I think you miss something that way.

REASONS TO GO: The aesthetics are done just right.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is a bit clunky and delivered stiffly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content as well as more than a little bit of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lumen Actus is a production house that not only makes films but does all their special effects in-house. This film is the first of two productions they are working on.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/5/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mulholland Falls
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT:
Black Panther

A Different Set of Cards


Sometimes the game can get nasty.

(2016) Crime (108 Media) Adrian Linke, Jutta Dolle, Tim-Olrik Stoneberg, Guido Grollmann. Directed by Falko Jakobs

 

In the scheme of things the outcome of our lives often depends on circumstance. People who are born into poverty, for example, may not have the opportunities of those born into wealth and privilege. Turn over an unfriendly card and you’re a drug dealer; turn over a different card and you’re a police officer. So much of life falls on random chance.

In this low-budget German crime thriller, four people gather to play a game of poker. The narrator, Ben (Linke), watches the other three players like a hawk, trying to get a sense of their technique. One, a bearded badass (Stoneberg), is a trash talker who may slap you as soon as look at you. Another, a nervous bald man (Grollmann), is fearful and nervous; his game shows he can be easily rattled. Finally, a femme fatale (Dolle) is the wild card; Ben can’t really read her style at all.

These four players are actually playing a metaphorical card game; they are players in a drug dealer gone wrong. The badass is the buyer, who is strangely called The Salesman; the femme fatale is the seller, enigmatically called The Unknown. Ben himself is the buyer’s partner, only getting involved if things go south; he is The Accomplice. Finally, the nervous baldy is The Cop who is messing up the deal.

But Ben muses that this scenario could be a whole lot different if the players shifted roles. Ben becomes The Cop, the badass becomes The Unknown, the nervous bald guy becomes The Salesman and the femme fatale is The Accomplice. The outcome changes accordingly. And so it goes, as it turns out.

The concept is an interesting one and the same four actors keep the characters relatively intact even as their circumstances change. Jakobs, who co-wrote, edited, lensed and scored the film – I told you this was a low-budget affair – shows a remarkable confidence both as a writer and a director and manages to pull off what could have been a complete mess in less capable hands.

There is a distinctly film noir tone here – in fact the film was selected for a Los Angeles film noir festival earlier this year but with also a European flair. The use of light and shadow marks this very much as German as for whatever reason German filmmakers seem to be the most savvy filmmakers in the world generally in this aspect of filmmaking. The poker game segments are in black and white, adding to the noir feel.

Jakobs the writer wisely keeps the action to mainly two locations; a darkened room where the poker game takes place and a deserted warehouse where the drug deal segments happen. He also has only four actors in his cast; a lot of young filmmakers could learn a thing or two about putting together a great story in an affordable environment from Jakobs. What budget the film had seems to have been used wisely; the action sequences are well-staged and the gore is also done professionally without being too over-the-top.

Where the filmmaker falls a bit short is in the poker metaphor; it becomes a bit intrusive and feels forced the longer the movie goes on. I would have preferred more of the drug deal segments and less of the players sitting around the card table. However, there is a nice twist at the end which while not super original was at least unexpected and gave the movie what a lot of movies these days lack; a fitting ending.

I was only able to find one other review online for this so it hasn’t gotten a ton of press although it played the American film festival circuit somewhat extensively since its debut last year in Europe. It is widely available on VOD and while the jump cuts that Jakobs uses to distraction may mark this as a green filmmaker trying to establish a style, the things that work here work really well. Jakobs and his cast all have promising futures and I hope to see them all again sometime.

REASONS TO GO: The shifting roles is an interesting conceit. The film has a distinctly Germanic noir feel.
REASONS TO STAY: The poker metaphor gets old after awhile. There is a surfeit of jump cuts.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The English language version of the film was dubbed by the German actors, accents and all.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Memento
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
D-Love

Road to Nowhere


A noir setup.

A noir setup.

(2010) Thriller (Monterey Media) Tygh Runyan, Shannyn Sossamon, Dominique Swain, John Diehl, Cliff De Young, Waylon Payne, Robert Kolar, Nic Paul, Fabio Testi, Fabio Tricamo, Moxie, Peter Bart, Pete Manos, Mallory Culbert, Beck Latimore, Thomas Nelson, Bonnie Pointer, Jim Galan, Jim Rowell, Gregory Rentis, Larry Lerner, Lathan McKay, Michael Bigham, Araceli Lemos, Sarah Dorsey. Directed by Monte Hellman

I have heard it said that movies are a reflection of real life, and as time has gone by, real life has become a reflection of the movies. There is an awful lot of truth in that, sometimes more than we know.

Mitchell Haven (Runyan) is a moviemaker working on a film in North Carolina about a crime scandal. He has hired virtual unknown actress Lauren Graham (Sossamon) to play the role of Velma Duran (Sossamon), daughter of a Cuban national involved in an embezzling scheme with politician Rafe Taschen, played by actor Cary Stewart (De Young).

But art may well be imitating art as the director begins to fall for his leading lady, who may know more about the original crime than she lets on. And as flashbacks of the original crime tell us, the lines between movie and life are starting to blur significantly.

There is a definite noir feel here almost to the point of parody. Hellman is well-known for more anti-establishment sorts of films that tend to break rules and take chances. This is as mainstream a film as he’s directed (at least that I’ve seen), Silent Night Deadly Night 3 notwithstanding – it was subversive for its time as I recall (I haven’t seen it in almost 20 years).

I have to admit that most of my impression of Sossamon has been fairly rote, but she really shines here and proves that she is well-suited to a mysterious femme fatale role. She tends to get more sexpot roles and while she does well with those, the added air of mystery and potential mayhem really suits her. Not that Shannyn Sossamon is planning to murder anyone, mind you. She just plays someone like that on TV….or, in this movie.

One of the big problems here is that Hellman jumps back and forth from the movie to the crime (using the same actors playing the actors who committed the crime) and very often you are confused as to what you are watching which I suspect is deliberate on Hellman’s part. Fiction and reality collide and merge until it is impossible to tell which is which and perhaps that’s the whole point. It didn’t work for me however, possibly because I was being overly analytical about it. Sometimes it’s best just to let things kind of happen and allow them to wash over you without overthinking them.

This is a bit intellectual as noir films go, and a bit noir as intellectual films go. It’s really neither six of one nor half a dozen of the other and curiously unsatisfying when all is said and done. This isn’t the movie I would have expected Hellman to mount a comeback on. Not that I want to see him rehash his old style but I would have hoped for something a little less pedantic than this.

WHY RENT THIS: Sossamon is at her very best.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Often confusing, particularly as to timeline.
FAMILY VALUES: Foul language (though not a ton) and a brief scene of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Hellman’s first feature film in 21 years.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: A Q&A from the Nashville Film Festival and on the Blu-Ray edition, an interview with Sossamon.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $161,619 on a $5M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shameless
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Bank Job

The Shameless (Mu-roe-han)


He's a Seoul man.

He’s a Seoul man.

(2015) Crime Drama (CJ Entertainment) Do-yeon Jeon, Nam-gil Kim, Sung-Woong Park, Do-won Gwok. Directed by Seung-uk Oh

We are victims of our own circumstances, whatever they might be. Whether we are trapped in our jobs, or trapped by our bad (or even good) decisions, wherever we are in life, that’s where we are. We can break out of our circumstances if we choose to, and if we’re willing to step out into the unknown but it requires a kind of courage that as we get older, we find that we no longer possess.

Detective Jae-gon Jung (Kim) is a lonely man. He is divorced and is hopelessly corrupt; in fact, his entire squad is essentially on the take from organized crime. He gets an assignment and not from his superiors in the police but from members of a criminal organization; Joon-gil Park (Park), a mid-level mobster with a gambling problem, has committed the ultimate sin; he’s murdered one of his own.

By their own rules, the mob can’t kill him, but they can let the cops have him…and if he gets crippled or killed during the arrest, so much the better. Park is on the run, but his weak point is his girlfriend, Hye-kyung Kim (Jeon). She is a madam in what is called a hospitality room but is essentially a brothel. Jung goes undercover, taking over as her head of security under the guise of Park’s cellmate in prison.

Although she’s initially suspicious and antagonistic with him, the two begin to warm up towards each other, finding out that they are kindred spirits. Kim is desperately lonely, her boyfriend on the run and the sexual encounters with her clients meaningless and almost perfunctory. She has accumulated a huge debt, mostly because Park has been gambling away her money and loan sharks have begun to make threatening noises against her.

Although Jung is using her to get to Park, he begins to fall for her and soon the two end up as lovers. Meanwhile, the forces that turned Jung loose to find Park are growing impatient and Park is broke, needing money to get out of the country and Kim is ready to give it to him. With everything stacked up against them, can Jung and Kim actually break away from the life they find each other in and make something better…together?

There is a heavy noir element running through the movie. Initially we see it as a bit of a wink, particularly in the jaunty jazzy score and the references that crop up early. Jung is the kind of role the late Robert Mitchum would have filled admirably and the movie would have benefitted very much by the presence of someone like him – although there really isn’t anyone like him and likely never will be.

While the crime story is really the reason for the film, it is the love story that drives it. The feeling is dark, that it is inevitable that nothing good can happen for the lovers. Regardless of whether Park is arrested or escapes, you realize quickly that it is going to be bad for Jung and Kim. Kim often disappears into the embrace of alcohol, while Jung…well, Jung is a complicated character who leaves maddening glimpses of the guy inside but the script rarely allows Nam-gil Kim to really give us much in terms of who Jung really is. He remains maddeningly enigmatic, a tortured soul who seems at every turn to choose remaining that way.

This is definitely the seedy side of Seoul, where business is crooked and crooked business is business as usual. The corruption is so integrated into every aspect of life that it is almost expected. Everybody is using everybody else to get ahead; the cynicism is palpable and pervasive. In other words, just like any really good noir.

When Jung and Kim have sex is the only time they seem to be truly alive. They both have a kind of dead-eyed demeanor throughout but when passion takes them over, the juxtaposition is really compelling. In that sense, these are masterful performances as the actors seem to be holding their passions in check throughout, waiting for just the right moment to reveal them.

The movie is a bit overly long though and adds a coda which is not only unnecessary but actually hurts the movie. There are some things about the fate of Kim and Jung that really should have been left to the imagination of the audience rather than spelling it out as precisely as it was. That last ten minutes could have been lopped off and the movie would have been better for it.

As noir thrillers go, this isn’t half-bad but the movie could have been made a bit more concise. There are enough elements to recommend it, particularly for fans of the genre and of Korean cinema in general, but it is not an enthusiastic recommendation I’m afraid. Still, that is appropriate for characters like Jung and Kim who have learned to take what they can get – and not to expect much more than that.

REASONS TO GO: Stylish but fatalistic. Sexy in all the right places.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too long. Somewhat convoluted.
FAMILY VALUES: Sex, violence, nudity, drug/alcohol use and a ton of smoking, along with a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Oh’s second feature; his first was 2000’s Kilimanjaro but he has been active as one of Korea’s most sought-after screenwriters.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Key Largo
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Goosebumps

Death Valley (2015)


Upon reflection, some parties bring out our worst images.

Upon reflection, some parties bring out our worst images.

(2015) Thriller (Indican) Katrina Law, Lochlyn Munro, Victoria Pratt, Nick Tarabay, Kelly Hu, Jeremy Ratchford, Juliette Beavan, Cela Scott. Directed by T.J. Scott

It is said that in the desert that there are no shadows to hide in and that the scorching sun boils away the pretense and exposes the real person inside. I’m not sure who said it. Maybe it was just me.

A quartet of attractive people are driving on a brand new road in Death Valley on the way from a charity party in Hollywood to a spur-of-the-moment wedding in Vegas. The road is so new, in fact, that it isn’t open to the public yet but for producer Billy Rich (Munro), Hollywood Golden Boy, rules don’t apply and every door is open. He is the prospective groom and star actress wanna-be Annie Gunn (Law) is the bride. Along for the ride are married couple Roy (Tarabay) and Jamie (Pratt) Dillen, who won tickets to the star-studded exclusive party on a radio station promotion and have befriended Billy and Annie. Presumably, they will be the witnesses at the wedding.

One thing that is true about the desert is that oddball things can happen at any moment. A scantily dressed blonde (Beavan) emerges from out of nowhere and starts shooting at the people in the car. Rich, who is behind the wheel, swerves and manages to hit the blonde before skidding off the road.

The blonde is a goner. So is the car, which the blonde managed to perforate in some vital places before expiring. Of course, there is no cell service in the middle of nowhere – and because the road hasn’t opened yet, not much hope of any good Samaritans showing up from either direction. The old road is said to be about five miles away, paralleling the new road. With no real choice, the quartet begin hoofing it, taking with them the champagne they were going to toast with at the wedding.

The further they walk, the more frayed their nerves get – and the more secrets get revealed. Like a good noir film, layers begin to be scrubbed away by the gritty sand exposing further layers below. Will they find the road and presumably rescue? Or will the journey there kill the lot of them?

Those who are paying attention to the opening scene will know the answer to that. Veteran TV director Scott has a good feel for suspense, building slowly without turning it into a tension fest. This is more than a slow burn than a quick flame. He also makes excellent use of the environment, giving us some really beautifully desolate footage of the desert and giving the audience an excellent feel for how vast and forbidding an environment it is.

The movie’s problems tend to lie in the characterizations. It’s difficult to find someone to identify with in this movie because all of the main characters are pretty rotten, particularly when their guard is let down after the downing of much booze and pills. While it is kind of enjoyable to watch some sleazy Hollywood types get their comeuppance, from a human standpoint it isn’t easy to watch people suffer even though they may well deserve it.

It is also not easy to watch people make bad decisions, some of them incomprehensibly bad. For example, one of the women given an opportunity to change from her party dress and heels into something more appropriate refuses, and goes out walking on the desert sands in her heels. While I admire the grit of women who walk in heels because it requires balance and a certain amount of fortitude, I would think that heels would be absolute torture on sand. Not that I would know. In any case, I don’t think any sane person would choose that nor would anyone in a survival situation allow vanity to trump practicality.

Another thing I would have recommended is a little more focus on the Billy Rich-Annie Gunn relationship particularly in flashback. We see a little bit of them interacting at the party but we never get a sense as to why someone who is as likely commitment-phobic as Billy would be would agree to pull the marriage trigger with someone he just met. We get that Annie’s sexuality is a large part of the reason but we don’t really get to see it on display except for one scene in the desert. A little more exposition would have been nice on this matter.

Most of the technical aspects of the film are strong, but a caveat – I’m a fan of 8mm, the band that delivers the soundtrack here. While this isn’t their best work, it was definitely a plus for me to hear them doing their thing on a movie soundtrack. There are those who likely won’t think it is the advantage that I do. C’est la musique.

The ending is on the dark side, but that’s what happens with noir. You don’t get many uplifting, feel-good movies of the year with noir. This is a movie about a dark descent of four people who are More Than What They Seem, another noir trope. Fans of the genre should be sufficiently pleased although the movie has its share of flaws. Nonetheless, a fine effort for those looking for some sun-baked (literally) off the beaten path entertainment.

REASONS TO GO: Some beautifully desolate cinematography. Dark ending. Soundtrack by 8mm.
REASONS TO STAY: Lack of sympathetic characters. Some weak moments in the script. A little bland for the type of movie it is.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of foul language, some sexuality and some graphic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Law and Tarabay have both appeared in the television shows Arrow and Spartacus.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lifeboat
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Walk

Rebound


Gag me with a gag.

Gag me with a gag.

(2014) Horror (Look At Me) Ashley James, Mark Scheibmeir, Julia Beth Stern, Kevin Bulla, Wes O’Lee, Brett Johnston, Bruce Cole-Edwards, Dan Sutter, Liz Bauer, Ali Williams. Directed by Megan Freels

One of the worst things that can happen to you in a relationship is being cheated upon. The feeling of betrayal is overwhelming; it attacks your sense of self-worth and makes you question yourself – what did I do wrong? – as opposed to blaming the person who made the decision to cheat in the first place. It hurts everyone it happens to, but some people take it harder than others.

Claire (James) has felt the sting. An aspiring actress struggling to find roles in Los Angeles, she comes home one afternoon to find her boyfriend of three years (Johnston) in the throes of passion with a co-worker (Williams) who will go down in film history as having the bitchiest smile ever recorded.

Claire is quite naturally devastated. After some soul searching (and tearful showers), she decides that it is time to cut her losses and go back home to Chicago. She talks things over with her best friend Shannon (Stern) who wonders if she’s not just running away from her problems and advises her to think of it more as a vacation and less as a permanent move, but Claire is adamant. A road trip back to Chicago it is and the opportunity to take stock of her life and begin anew.

Even with the best of intentions things can go devastatingly wrong and in Claire’s case, they turn from bad to worse. An encounter with a homeless woman (Bauer) leaves Claire shaken; she also manages to lose her cell phone. And of course when she’s in the middle of nowhere later that evening, her car breaks down. A sympathetic driver (O’Lee) picks her up and takes her to the local mechanic, Eddie (Scheibmeir) who diagnoses the problem as a timing belt. The bill is more than Claire can afford, so she manages to talk the handsome but shy mechanic down to a little less by using her natural charm. The part won’t be available until the next day, so Claire will need to spend the night in the flea speck of a town.

Eddie drops her off at the local bar where she gets something to eat and drink, courtesy of a none-too-friendly bartender (Bulla) and samples the less than savory citizenry. That’s when her eyesight begins to blur and before long Claire is in a nightmarish situation that makes being cheated on look like good news.

Freels who also wrote the movie takes a very simple concept and makes it compelling. There aren’t a lot of bells and whistles here – this is what is called in the industry a micro-budgeted film – and they really aren’t needed. Everything revolves around Claire’s emotional breakdown and Murphy’s Law made horror film high concept.

On the negative side, the dialogue can be a bit clunky; particularly the conversation between Claire and Shannon which at times didn’t sound like the way two people naturally talk. There is also a bit of overacting in a melodramatic sense, and the music kind of underscores it; Freels’ approach of “less is more” would have done the movie good in the music department. The good news is that the film gets a lot better once Claire hits the road which is pretty early on.

This might be classified by some as torture porn but there is kind of a film noir vibe which is unexpected and welcome. Not a noir of the Bogart kind mind you, but more of a Robert Mitchum sort. This isn’t Cape Fear but it’s a distant cousin.

And now, a few words about the film’s ending. One of my big problems with indie films in general is that often the ending is a disappointment. Not so here. The ending is strong and unexpected, but logical. It’s what makes me think that Freels has a great deal of promise as a filmmaker and writer.

This isn’t for the faint of heart and there are some fairly gruesome scenes here, but all in all this is a solid debut feature for Freels, who has been a producer of films for a few years now. Her first stint in the director’s chair is flawed as you might expect, but promising. I have a feeling a lot of people are going to be checking out this movie after she makes one that hits it big.

WHY RENT THIS: Uncomfortable but delicious ending.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Melodramatic acting. Clunky dialogue.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence (some gruesome), sexuality and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Freels is the granddaughter of the legendary writer Elmore Leonard.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Amazon, VimeoGoogle Play
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hostel
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: Straight Outta Compton

The Missing Person


Nothing is cooler than a dick, a dame and cocktails.

Nothing is cooler than a dick, a dame and cocktails.

(2009) Mystery (Strand) Michael Shannon, Frank Wood, Amy Ryan, Margaret Colin, John Ventimiglia, Linda Emond, Yul Vazquez, Paul Sparks, Paul Adelstein, Kate Arrington, Anthony Esposito, Liza Weil, Daniel Franzese, Merritt Wever, Gary Wilmes, Betsy Hogg, Hailey Wegryn Gross, Coati Mundi, Neisha Butler, Jennie Epland, Abbie Cobb, Sakura Sugihara. Directed by Noah Buschel

There’s something to be said for a good noir film with a rumpled gumshoe on a tarnished quest, beautiful dames in dimly lit bars and plenty of cigarettes and martinis.  Not only is it a throwback to a simpler bygone age but in many ways it’s as American as a cowboy movie – although the Europeans (particularly the French) have proven themselves quite adept at the genre as well.

John Rosow (Shannon) is just such a private detective but Phillip Marlowe he ain’t. He does have rumpled down real good though. Anyway, he’s just kind of squeaking by and he fills his down time which there is plenty of with booze. Then he gets a phone call and a job – to board the California Zephyr train in Chicago and keep tabs on a man named Harold Fullmer (Wood).

The more Rosow follows Fullmer, the more suspicious he becomes – although that suspicion is tempered by frequent trips to the bar car. Fullmer isn’t necessarily who Rosow thinks he is and Rosow realizes that there is a connection between he and Fullmer that is unexpected – but crucial. This will lead Rosow to a moral dilemma that has no real right answer – just choices to be made.

Like any good detective story, the devil is in the details so I’m being a bit vague in my description of the plot. The Missing Person isn’t a traditional noir in the sense that there’s sex and violence a’plenty, but it is more noir in mood and convention. This is a modern noir, very much a product of the last half of the first decade of the 21st century but it has the DNA of a Raymond Chandler novel buried deep within.

Shannon has become one of the better actors in Hollywood; he’s as versatile as they come and while he may have a face only Willem Dafoe could appreciate, it’s an expressive face as well. John Rosow is a lost soul adrift in a post-9/11 world that he doesn’t quite understand. The drinking is to relieve the pain of loss and at unexpected times Shannon allows that pain to come to the surface and it can be devastating when he does.

Buschel doesn’t mind quietly poking holes in the whole noir ethos (tall characters bump their heads on ceilings and other moments of transcendent but very real silliness) but he has enough respect for the genre not to make fun in a snide way, more like the affectionate joshing of old friends. While he chose to make his characters more like kids dressing up in adult costumes and play-acting in many ways, the movie is anything but childish. In fact, it’s more adult than a lot of movies out there in that it carries a moral complexity that requires the viewer to examine his or her own moral compass in regards to Rosow’s conundrum. Sounds like a mathematical formula, doesn’t it?

In any case, this is mighty fine viewing but do be warned – it can meander in places, particularly in the middle third of the film. There were times I got the impression that Buschel himself wasn’t entirely sure how to move the film from point D to point E and the plot flounders when that happens. However lovers of old fashioned detective stories who like their stories hard-bitten with an intelligent chaser will be delighted to discover this one.

WHY RENT THIS: A nice juxtaposition between noir conventions and modern pop culture. Shannon gives a bravura performance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Never seems to know what direction its going in.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some foul language, a smidge of violence and sexuality and plenty of scenes of drunkenness.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: John is seen to emerge from the California Zephyr at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. However, the California Zephyr doesn’t go to Los Angeles; it terminates at Emeryville just outside of Oakland.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $17,896 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Big Bang

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Thunderbolt & Lightfoot

The Big Bang


Noir, 21st Century-style.

Noir, 21st Century-style.

(2010) Mystery (Anchor Bay) Antonio Banderas, Sienna Guillory, James van der Beek, Snoop Dogg, Autumn Reeser, Sam Elliot, Jimmi Simpson, Thomas Kretschmann, William Fichtner, Robert Maillet, Delroy Lindo, Bill Duke, Rebecca Mader, Robert Ernie Lee, Rachel Handler, Sean Cook, Khanh Doan, Keith MacGeagh, Chandra Bailey. Directed by Tony Krantz

When you think of film noir, you think of hard-bitten detectives in rumpled suits, gorgeous dames in dresses two sizes too tight and big bruising thugs with brass knuckles. You think of soft black and white, foggy back alleys and sleazy private investigator offices. You think of Bogart, Bacall, Mitchum and Greenstreet. You don’t think of Antonio Banderas and neon colored strip clubs.

But they can be noir too. In this celluloid extravaganza Banderas is Ned Cruz, a P.I. from the mean streets of L.A. A Russian boxer named Anton “The Pro” Protopov (Maillet), freshly release from prison after killing a man in the ring, is looking for a girl. Not just any girl though – you can find one on the Internet – but the lovely Lexi Persimmon. You heard me. Anyway, she wrote him a bunch of letters in the slam but gave the galoot no info to go on, no address, no social security, no phone number – not even an e-mail.

There’s also this stash of $40 million in blood diamonds, a waitress named Fay (Reeser) who loves particle physics, a porn director (Dogg) who loves his product a little too much, a kinky movie star (van der Beek) with a dark secret, a cross-dressing nuclear physicist (Simpson), a crazy billionaire (Elliot) obsessed with finding the God particle and willing to re-create the Big Bang in the New Mexico desert to do it and the billionaire’s wife (Guillory) who might be the key to the whole sordid tale. Oh, and did we mention the three brutal cops (Kretschmann, Lindo and Fichtner) chasing down Cruz to find out where the diamonds are?

On paper this really does sound like my kind of movie – something smart but timeless, using the conventions of a noir detective thriller with a touch of sci-fi and a little bit of black humor mixed in. However, references to physics and science doesn’t necessarily a smart film make although this one is pretty clever in places.

Banderas is an engaging star but I didn’t really believe him in the role. Ned Cruz should have been a lot more badass than pretty boy; in some ways I think Danny Trejo might have been more suitable but of course Banderas is the bigger box office draw so from that standpoint I can’t really blame the producers.

The cast is pretty impressive for a low budget thriller with a tiny distributor but not many of them get the kind of screen time that makes for much of an impression. Most are little more than cameos although Elliot seems to be having the most fun playing the kind of character he rarely gets to play while Simpson camps it up nicely. Reeser and Guillory really don’t have much more to do but look pretty which to be fair they do very, very well – but I suspect if their characters had been given a little more fleshing out they would have risen to the challenge as well.

I don’t think the movie achieves everything the filmmakers set out to do, but it is entertaining enough to be worth a look-see. Although I criticized his casting earlier, Banderas at least does an adequate job of playing the tough guy and of course doing the narration which is a noir tradition. While the movie takes a few left turns too many, it nonetheless at least doesn’t disgrace the genre and given that since its heyday many have tried but few have succeeded in giving us a good noir thriller I have to at least admire the attempt.

WHY RENT THIS: A noir thriller involving particle physics – I can’t make this stuff up. Decent cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Goes a little bit off into left field occasionally.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity and quite a bit of sexuality (some of it graphic), a bit of foul language and some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There was an extended sex scene shot that got the film an NC-17 rating that was removed from the film in order to bring it down to an R rating; director Krantz refers to it on the home video commentary track but the scene isn’t included on the Blu-Ray release.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Perfect Host

A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (San qiang pai an jing qi)


A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop

Two out of three...

(2009) Comedy (Sony Classics) Honglei Sun, Xiao Shen-Yang, Ni Yan, Dahong Ni, Ye Cheng, Mao Mao, Benshan Zhao, Ran Cheng, Julien Gaudfroy, Shuo Huang, Wenting Li, Sisi Wang, Xiaojuan Wang, Na Wei. Directed by Zhang Yimou

People are fallible. We are prone to making mistakes and letting our hearts guide our actions when our heads should prevail. We often fail to recognize or foresee the consequences of those actions when we take them.

Wang (Dahong Ni) is the owner of a noodle shop in the middle of nowhere. Location being everything (even in ancient China), his clientele mainly consists of wanderers and nomads on their way to somewhere else – anywhere else but there. He has a comely wife (Ni Yan) who has been unable to give him children. Frustrated at both his wife and his lot in life, the miserly Wang takes out his frustrations on his wife and his staff, but mostly on the former whom he humiliates sexually whenever he can.

She responds by buying a gun from a Persian trader (Gaudfroy). Now, she exclaims, she has the most powerful weapon in the world at her disposal. She also has a lover, the cowardly and timid Li (Shen-Yang) who mostly wears pink and rarely does anything that his lover doesn’t approve of.

Wang doesn’t like this much, as you might imagine. So much so that he talks to the corrupt and jaded local magistrate Zhang (Honglei Sun) and persuades him to kill his wife and her lover, then make the bodies disappear – for a large fee. Zhang figures he can do better and so he kills Wang instead, hoping to get all of his loot – except he killed Wang before he could get the key to his safe…and Wang just won’t stay dead…

Yimou, the award-winning director of such movies as Raise the Red Lantern and Curse of the Golden Flower (not to mention the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics), remade this from the Coen Brothers 1984 cult classic Blood Simple and overlaid it with his stylish and colorful visual sense.

He also chose to take the dark, noir-ish thriller that the Coens made and turn it into a broad comedic thriller. Purists are going to be horrified about that, and a lot of critics who loved the original had a hard time with the remake.

It certainly is a different film, although it strikes all the right plot points as the original, only approaching them differently and adding a subplot about a rival gang of thieves. The darker tones of the original are gone though; this is far more light-hearted.

However, Yimou has that distinctive sense of color and scope that make his films so breathtaking and awe-inspiring and he uses it to his advantage here. Although the noodle shop is grim and colorless, those that live in it wear brightly colored robes and carry on in an epic vista that wouldn’t look out of place in a John Ford western.

Sun gets the most of my attention; Zhang is laconic and somewhat low-key but he has a vicious side that reminds me of a cobra. Sun gives him that sense that something dark and nasty hides just below the surface. Playing a man who is dangerous is a difficult proposition; doing it without giving much away emotionally is even harder but Sun pulls it off.

The comedy is very broad and exaggerated, which while common with Asian audiences might be out of step with more subtle American tastes. Think of it as a Hanna Barbera cartoon without the intellectual undertones. It’s not for children though – but some of the set pieces would definitely appeal to less sophisticated senses of humor.

There is some bloodshed though – this isn’t strictly comedy – but considering how sexual the situation is there is almost no sexuality, which again illustrates the cultural differences between the Americans and the Chinese. This gives the movie a curiously sexless feel, and the sex did add a certain amount of kick to the original like adding jalapenos to a salsa.

I’m a big fan of Yimou but this one misfired for me. I’m recommending it mainly because the man always knows how to make a great-looking movie and this isn’t an exception but be advised that American audiences might have a tough time with the humor and the tone. If you can overlook that, you will find yourself enjoying the movie on purely a visceral level, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

WHY RENT THIS: Yimou is one of the most striking visual directors of our time. Some broad laughs.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The noir tone of the original is sorely missed.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of violence and some sexual themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the original was sent in modern (at the time) rural Texas, the remake is set in the remote desert Gansu province of ancient China.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The making-of feature is longer than the actual movie, but there are parts of it which are fascinating.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $38M on a $12M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Illusionist

Dylan Dog: Dead of Night


Dylan Dog: Dead of Night

A corpse is a corpse of course of course...

(2010) Horror Comedy (Omni/Freestyle) Brandon Routh, Sam Huntington, Peter Stormare, Taye Diggs, Anita Briem, Kurt Angle, Brian Steele, Kimberly Whalen, Randal Reeder, Courtney J. Clark, Kent Jude Bernard, Marco St. John. Directed by Kevin Munroe

Being an investigator for cases involving the living is hard enough. Being one for cases involving the undead…well, now, that’s durn near impossible.

A private eye with the unlikely name of Dylan Dog (Routh) is one such investigator, one who is designated by the non-breathing community to be an independent and impartial arbitrator of disputes, keeping the peace between vampire, werewolf and zombie alike. However, he has retired from that position, opting instead for chasing infidelities in tawdry hotel rooms while his assistant Marcus (Huntington) yearns for better cases that might make him a partner in the agency.

One such comes along when Elizabeth (Briem) hires Dylan to find out what killed her father. When he discovers it might be a werewolf, he doesn’t want to take the case but when Marcus is killed by a zombie and it looks like the deaths might be related, Dylan decides to take the case after all.

Along the way he runs across an ambitious vampire club owner named Vargas (Diggs) who has plans of ruling the entire supernatural community after using Dylan as a pawn to take out his rivals in the vampire elite; Gabriel (Stormare), an old werewolf friend who doesn’t take kindly to Dylan’s investigations; his son Wolfgang (Angle) who has a bit of a temper and a nasty streak for breathers and vampires (breathers is the creature term for us humans) and a zombie supermarket for parts. Oh, and about Marcus – he doesn’t stay dead for long.

The whole thing turns out to be about a supernatural artifact that if used could bring about the end of the world, yadda yadda yadda. The sad fact is that we’ve kind of heard this tune before. It’s dressed up nicely however, with some decent creature effects and some underlit shots of New Orleans (even the scenes shot during the day seem dark somehow) that showcase the gothic side of that city to nice effect.

Routh is a nice enough lead, although he is far from the hard-bitten film noir detective the role needs. I might have cast someone along the lines of Bruce Willis or not being able to afford him, someone rumpled like Paul Giamatti or Jack Coleman, the Horn-Rimmed Glasses man from “Heroes.” A little more world-weariness might have amped up the noir quotient somewhat, and Routh is more of a Superman type than a Sam Spade type.

Huntington plays a very similar role to the one he plays in the excellent SyFy Network series “Being Human,” except there he’s a neurotic werewolf and here he’s a neurotic zombie. Stormare and Diggs are solid performers who don’t disappoint, with Diggs getting a slight edge for his silky smooth megalomaniac role. Angle, the professional wrestler, shows some promise in his part as the tempramental lycanthrope.

The movie is based on an Italian comic book that is immensely popular in Europe but has made little impact here. The original source material uses horror to examine social issues and contemporary morality whereas this is more of a straight horror spoof, something which infuriated Italian critics when the movie was released in Italy earlier this year. Not being as familiar with the comic, I didn’t have so much of an issue with that (although I admit it probably would have made for a better movie) but my problem is that the story tended to be a little scatter-brained, with characters saying and doing things that didn’t always make sense within their character. Why would someone, for example, dedicated to hunting down and killing monsters want to create a more powerful monster in their place? It’s all apart of the “smart people doing stupid things” syndrome that plagues Hollywood.

Quite frankly, this isn’t as terrible as you’ve probably heard it was (if you’ve heard anything at all) but it isn’t very good either. There are some moments that sparkle here (as when Dylan goads a werewolf by quipping “You fight like a vampire”) but there aren’t enough of them to fully recommend this. Still, any movie that brings the dark side of New Orleans to the screen scores big points in my book.

REASONS TO GO: Nice creature effects and Routh is a decent lead.

REASONS TO STAY: Humor tended to fall flat and story took several head-scratching turns.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some creepy creatures, a goodly bit of horror violence, a few drug and sex references and a smidgeon of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Routh and Huntington previously worked together on Superman Returns.

HOME OR THEATER: Probably won’t be in theaters long enough for you to catch on the big screen but at home is just dandy.

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

TOMORROW: Eragon