The Big Take


With Zoe Bell, axe and you will receive.

(2018) Crime Comedy (Archstone) Ebon Moss-Bachrach, James McCaffrey, Dan Hedaya, Oksana Lada, Bill Sage, Zoe Bell, Robert Forster, Slate Holmgren, Tara Westwood, John Enos III, Joslyn Jensen, Taylor Gildersleeve, Nick Daly, Matthew Kehoe, Sean David Morton, M.J. Rodriguez, Sandra Docherty, Sid O’Connell, Donna Mitchell. Directed by Justin Daly

 

It goes without saying that movies that go direct to video are generally of a lesser quality than those that do not. However there are exceptions and The Big Take, a crime comedy that is the first feature for writer-director Justin Daly, is one of those.

Faded movie star Douglas Brown (McCaffrey) is plotting his comeback, although a bitter divorce has led him to put all his assets into a bank in Panama to keep them from his vindictive ex. At an exclusive club in West Hollywood, he is accosted by barback Vic Venitos (Holmgren) who pushes a friend’s script called The Night of the Fire on the aging actor but Brown dismisses him in a manner that gives the impression that the movie star is quite the jerk.

Vic doctors one of Brown’s drinks and the actor is forced to make an exit but not before collapsing in a stairwell where an aggressive transgender (Rodriguez) apparently rapes him in a moment of transphobia that may cause those sensitive to such things to squirm (NB: although the incident is never shown, it is intimated that something sexual is happening and while it’s possible that the transgender in question was doing something else awful to Brown most audience members are going to think “rape”). Venitos then arranges to blackmail Brown into financing his film, but in typical neophyte fashion messes it up and writes the blackmail note on the back of the script which includes the writer’s name – Max O’Leary (Moss-Bachrach) – and address.

Brown’s hard-nosed agent Jack Girardi (Sage) puts ex-cop fixer Frank Manascalpo (Hedaya) on the case to retrieve the hard drive that Venitos stole from the club with the original security camera footage of Brown’s moment but the screenwriter’s Ukrainian wife Oksana (Lada) turns out to be pretty competent in hand-to-hand combat and gets the better of Manascalpo who then resorts to hiring nuclear deterrent Edie (Bell), who has a violent temper and a burning desire to be an astronaut and that’s when things get rapidly out of control.

I generally don’t have very high expectations for direct-to-video projects but the cast list should give you a clue as to the higher quality than normal of this one. I’m always happy to see Bell onscreen; not only is she a great action star, she also brings a certain sparkle to every role she inhabits. Forster is one of my favorite character actors as well and his world-weary cop here is a specialty of his. Hedaya is unfortunately far less visible than he was say 20 years ago but he still has the greasy screen presence he’s always had. Moss-Bachrach is essentially the star here; Max is blissfully ignorant of his producer’s machinations and doesn’t understand why his star is sending thugs to his house. Moss-Bachrach (who is credited here without the hyphen) has a bit of a nebbish quality to him but is likable enough to pull it off.

There is a bit of a noir-ish tone here but with a sly wink towards Robert Altman’s The Player and Elmore Leonard. In fact, I wouldn’t have been surprised to find out that this was based on a Leonard novel (it wasn’t) which is pretty high praise. One gets the sense that the same frustrations that Max and Vic feel are frustrations that Daly is no stranger to.

There are some missteps. The soundtrack is less than scintillating with an over-reliance on Trojan ska (Oksana’s character loves to gyrate to the island riddim) and worse industrial club fare which actually detracts from the film. It’s a given that a low-budget film isn’t going to be able to afford the best soundtrack but I’ve seen plenty of films of comparable budgets that have managed to fill their soundtrack with wonderful songs. It’s a shame they didn’t put more time and effort into finding some for this film. Also, these type of caper comedies need to move at a breakneck pace to be effective; this one is a bit too laid-back and as a result doesn’t have the energy it really needs to be truly memorable.

Nonetheless this is a reasonably entertaining crime comedy that doesn’t waste the viewer’s time and while there is some room for improvement, I was pleasantly surprised and can give this a solid recommendation. I could only find a couple of outlets where it’s currently available but Sony’s home video arm is behind it so I wouldn’t be surprised to find it all over the place in the near future. New York City readers can also catch it at the Cinema Village for a brief theatrical run as well but I would suggest you get out to see it quickly; it’s not likely to remain in theaters long.

Editor’s note: The style of music on the soundtrack was misidentified as reggae and has been corrected. Also, at the director’s request, it is pointed out that whatever violation of Douglas Brown occurs is not explicitly shown so that it is possible that the incident is something other than sexual assault.

REASONS TO GO: The movie is surprisingly entertaining. The cast does a strong job.
REASONS TO STAY: The soundtrack is more than a little weak. The energy is a little too low-key for the genre.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and profanity, some brief drug use and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Daly is the grandson of the legendary Ingrid Bergman and nephew of Isabella Rossellini.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Get Shorty
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Rampage

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Whiskey Tango Foxtrot


Live and on location.

Live and on location.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Paramount) Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina, Christopher Abbott, Billy Bob Thornton, Nicholas Braun, Stephen Peacocke, Sheila Vand, Evan Jonigkeit, Fahim Anwar, Josh Charles, Cherry Jones, Scott Takeda, Eli Goodman, Soledad O’Brien, Thomas Kretschmann, Vic Browder, Ava del Cielo. Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa

There is a certain glamour in war correspondence. Being close to the front lines, embedded with fighting units, hearing the bullets whine overhead, seeing the results of the carnage…it takes a certain kind of personality to love it.

Kim Baker (Fey) is a copywriter for a cable news network whose career is going nowhere. So, too is her love life as her boyfriend (Charles) is rarely home and when he is he’s not really engaged. When the opportunity to volunteer to cover the war in Afghanistan arises, she seizes at it like a drowning woman clutching a life preserver.

Once in Kabul, her perceptions change. What was a desperate move to save a floundering career and a boring life becomes a lifestyle. Aided by a crusty Marine Crops general (Thornton), a lecherous local public official (Molina) and a gentle but effective local fixer (Abbott), she begins to learn her way about the armed forces and Afghanistan. She is befriended by a blonde and beautiful rival (Robbie) and an irreverent Scottish photographer (Freeman) with whom she shares moments of terror – and drunken revelry as well.

However, modern mass media is a monster with an endless appetite and the sorts of stories that should be getting told aren’t. Kim’s frustration begins to tell, particularly as her star – once on the rise – is definitely on the wane at the network. She needs a big new story to save her and when it finally presents itself, might just end up being a little too close to home.

This is based on the memoirs of an actual war correspondent, Kim Barker (the first “R” is inexplicably left out) who worked for the print media (not cable) and whose life story only slightly resembled what appears in the film. Ah, Hollywood – but then again, nobody ever said this was a documentary anyway. It was also mostly filmed in New Mexico, standing in for Afghanistan.

There has been some controversy regarding the casting, with white actors Molina and Abbott playing Afghan roles and I can see the point. Then again, both of them do very fine work here – which is likely why they were hired. I don’t know that you necessarily have to hire the same ethnic group to play every single role – and there is more scrutiny on Hollywood’s non-white employment record as of late. I’m not insensitive to that. However, it also must be said that the PC press can take that to extremes, so let us be wary of that. There’s inclusive and there’s impractical.

Fey does some of the best work of her career. That said, she is the queen of the smug look; she is also the queen of the cabbage patch which she seems to work in to her every film (stop it, Tina…just…stop it). There are occasions when that is inappropriate in the film and you’re taken out of a serious moment and thrust into an SNL sketch. However, throughout most of the movie, we get to see a greater emotional range than we’re used to from Fey. She still hasn’t shown the kind of range that one needs to be a great dramatic actress but I think it’s within her grasp. She certainly takes a step in the right direction here.

We’ve seen the life of a war correspondent in films like The Year of Living Dangerously and I’ll be honest, in some ways this film is a bit redundant but in other ways it makes a nice companion piece. We get that it is indeed a masculine profession but there are plenty of women who do it now and seeing the experiences of one is certainly welcome and worthy.

The movie isn’t exactly action-packed although it has its moments; there are an awful lot of expository scenes and that might irritate the attention-challenged. Plus one other roadblock is that films about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have traditionally not done well at the box office (with one or two exceptions); perhaps the American public is war-weary but I think it is more that the American public really doesn’t care.

I do like the concept behind Whiskey Tango Foxtrot but I’m a little disappointed about the execution. There is plenty to recommend about it here, but the movie fails to take advantage of some of its potential by going for easy when they should go for deep. Don’t expect a movie that’s going to ultimately give you a ton of insight (when it could have) but at least it will be entertaining while it is not terribly illuminating.

REASONS TO GO: Solid dramatic performance by Fey. Nicely illustrates the allure of a war correspondent’s life.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit on the slow-paced side. A little bit too glib at times.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of profanity, some brutal war images, a little bit of drug use and sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fey dedicated the film to her father, who passed away during filming.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Restrepo
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Forbidden Kingdom

Pulp Fiction


Someone is going to get a cap in their ass.

Someone is going to get a cap in their ass.

(1994) B-Movie Noir (Miramax) John Travolta, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Ving Rhames, Tim Roth, Eric Stoltz, Amanda Plummer, Harvey Keitel, Christopher Walken, Steve Buscemi, Quentin Tarantino, Julia Sweeney, Phil LaMarr, Frank Whaley, Burr Steers, Rosanna Arquette, Bronagh Gallagher, Duane Whitaker, Peter Greene, Stephen Hibbert, Kathy Griffin, Maria de Madeiros. Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Some movies become classics because they define an entire genre; others because they define a region. Many become classics because they define the person who made it – and Pulp Fiction does. But what sets it apart from other movies is that Pulp Fiction has come to define cool.

Pulp Fiction is ranked high on a lot of people’s lists of all-time favorite or significant (or both) films, critics and film buffs alike. Tarantino had already been receiving notice for his previous films True Romance and Reservoir Dogs but to most people, this is his artistic nadir. It would provide a serious career renaissance for Travolta and a boost for Willis, while Jackson would really hit the public radar with his incendiary performance here.

Tarantino skillfully weaves three stories – one of two career killers, Vincent Vega (Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Jackson) having a particularly bad day, a second about a prize fighter named Butch Coolidge (Willis) who fails to throw a prize fight and runs afoul of gangster Marcellus Wallace (Rhames) who also happens to be the employer of Messrs. Vega and Winnfield. Finally a third story involves Vincent’s ill-advised assignment to take out Marcellus’ wife Mia (Thurman) out for dinner and dancing. He takes her out to Jack Rabbit Slim’s, a restaurant that never existed but OMG it should have. There, waiters dressed like Hollywood stars of the 50s and 60s serve burgers, shakes and steaks to customers seated in classic cars. Slot car racers ring the room and periodic twist contests and other entertainment keep the joint hopping.

My personal favorite sequence is when Vincent and Jules head to a suburban home of mutual friend Jimmie Dimmick (Tarantino) after one of the messiest accidents you’ll ever see on film. They are forced to call The Wolf (Keitel), a fixer who specializes in clean-ups. There is a whole lot of dark humor in the scene and I always look forward to it whenever I view the movie which is pretty regularly.

Tarantino has always been a skillful writer of dialogue and he writes some of the best I’ve ever heard here. Much of it has become classic; Vincent’s laconic assertion that in France, a Quarter Pounder with cheese is called a Royale with cheese, or Jules’ Biblical oration when he’s about to shoot someone in the face and who can forget Marcellus Wallace promising that he is “going to get medieval on yo ass” to a  It is also the kind of film where bad things happen to just about everyone.

The movie combines all sorts of different genres, from black comedies to thrillers, from mob movies to fight flicks. Pulp Fiction is B-Movie noir, a tribute to the movies that weren’t so respectable but are the movies that we tend to remember even more than the high-falluting Oscar winners. These are the movies that we are raised on, the movies that make us feel just a little bit like badasses. These are the movies that appeal to the devils of our better nature, and Pulp Fiction is everything about these movies that makes them great.

WHY RENT THIS: A true classic with some of the best dialogue ever written. Terrific performances by Travolta, Jackson, Thurman and Keitel.  Awesome soundtrack.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be filled with a few too many pop culture references.

FAMILY VALUES:  All sorts of violence and drug use as well as a ton of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Travolta and Thurman copied their twist sequence at Jack Rabbit Slim’s virtually move for move from a similar dance sequence in Fellini’s 8 1/2 by Barbara Steele and Mario Pisu.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Collector’s Edition DVD includes a feature from Siskel & Ebert At the Movies on Tarantino and his generation of filmmakers, Tarantino’s acceptance speech when the film won the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, an interview of Tarantino by Charlie Rose and a menu from Jack Rabbit Slim’s. The Blu-Ray has all of these other than the menu.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $213.9M on an $8M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Reservoir Dogs

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: The World is Not Enough