Mercury 13


Even goofing around, these ladies all had the Right Stuff.

(2018) Documentary (Netflix) Wally Funk, Rhea Woltman, Sarah Ratley, Jim Hart, Bob Steadman, Ann Hart, Gene Nora Jessen, Jackie Lovelace Johnson, Eileen Collins, Jerrie Cooper, John Glenn, Jacqueline Cochrane, Gus Grissom, Gordo Cooper, Janey Hart, Bernice Steadman, Valentina Tereshkova, Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton. Directed by David Sington and Heather Walsh

 

There are some who think it is America’s most shining hour. Certainly in the annals of human achievement the American space program’s race to put a human on the surface of the moon has to rank right up there near the top and yet even that inspiring story had some less proud moments entwined in it.

Did you know that there were women who underwent the same rigorous testing that the male astronauts undertook and in some cases actually outscored the men? If you didn’t then join the club, one in which I’m a fellow member. It’s all true though; 25 female aviators were invited to take the astronaut tests of which 13 were able to pass. They became known as the Mercury 13 in reference to the original Mercury 7 astronauts who included Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Gus Grissom and Gordo Cooper.

They were invited by Dr. William Randolph Lovelace to take those tests. Lovelace had founded the Lovelace Clinic at the urging of outspoken aviation pioneer Jackie Cochrane who herself was eager to go into space. Lovelace believed that women were just as capable as men to be astronauts and thought that the prevailing attitude that women weren’t mentally or physically strong enough to handle the rigors of space flight was pure hooey.

The testing wasn’t sanctioned by NASA however and when they found out about it the powers-that-be at the space agency blew a figurative gasket. They ordered that the testing be stopped immediately and the women dismissed. The women weren’t about to take this lying down; they took their fight to Congress where they testified – often eloquently – about their right to explore, to do with their lives as they chose. In the end Lyndon Johnson quietly shut their program down without explanation.

The story is enough to hold your interest. Oddly, the filmmakers do some alternate history building by showing footage of the moon landing with a female voice coming from the astronauts, as if Mercury 13 member Janie Cobb had been the first person to set foot on the moon rather than Neil Armstrong; it comes off as a bit self-indulgent. It really doesn’t add anything to the narrative which I thought was better focused on what was rather than what might have been. The aerial sequences early on were well-filmed however.

Although not all of them are still with us, the interviews with the surviving Mercury 13 are a real pleasure. The ladies are still feisty although by now they’re in their 80s. One of their number, Janey Hart, would go on to become one of the co-founders of the National Organization of Women which would go on to lead the fight for women’s rights. As for the space program, it wasn’t until 1985 that Sally Ride would become the first American woman in space (the Russians had sent Valentina Tereshkova into orbit in 1963) and ten years later Eileen Cooper would become the first woman to pilot a space shuttle.

Fittingly, she invited all the surviving Mercury 13 to her launch and the footage of them exulting in the triumph not only of the shuttle but of women’s place in the space program speaks volumes about how necessary this documentary is in the age of #MeToo.

REASONS TO GO: The story is a fascinating one. There’s some nice aerial photography.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s depressing to think that things haven’t changed as much as they should have.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and depictions of sexism.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sington and Walsh cut their Space Race teeth by making the acclaimed documentary In the Shadow of the Moon.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Right Stuff
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Choosing Signs

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Silencer


 

Even the best of shots don’t always hit what they take aim at.

(2018) Action (Cinedigm) Johnny Messner, Danny Trejo, Robert LoSardo, Nikki Leigh, Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Heather Johansen, Erik Aude, Edward Modlin II, Mariene Márquez, Mike Ferguson, Sofia Esmaili, Erin Michele Soto, Said Faraj, Tristian Eggerling, Ashlee Nicole Jordan, William Guirola, Nailia Lajoie, Noli Mollakuge, Tom Struckhoff, Victor Boneva, Rachael Santhon. Directed by Timothy Woodward Jr

 

Some men kill for their country; they are trained to do it and it is a job for most of them. However, when someone’s family is threatened, killing becomes much more than a job and if the person in question is a trained sniper, God help the one doing the threatening.

Frank (Messner) is a decorated ex-Marine whose military service was marred by the accidental killing of a child. The event haunted him and led him to seek a quiet life as a restorer of antique vehicles in Las Cruces, New Mexico. One of his clients, Ocho (Trejo) has cartel connections as well as a personal friendship with Frank going back a ways. When Ocho’s daughter is hit by a drunk driver and dies in her own driveway, Ocho wants vengeance. Frank agrees to help him get it but this will be his last job. You can guess how that’s going to work out.

When Frank stalks the drunk driver, he meets up with him and discovers there are children in the car and so he can’t quite bring himself to pull the trigger. The grief-stricken Ocho doesn’t care; he wants this guy dead and when Frank fails, Ocho sends his henchman Nels (Liddell, channeling Michael Rooker) to kidnap Frank’s stepdaughter and ends up shooting Frank’s girlfriend Cass (Leigh). That turns out to be a mistake; Frank along with his buddy Lazarus (Ortiz) go on a rampage that ends up with a bloody confrontation on Ocho’s Old Mexican hacienda.

This is essentially standard revenge action fare, with Messner doing a surprisingly good job in the role of an action antihero. Frank is a bit of a loose cannon, he has a drinking problem and tends to shut out the people he loves the most. However, push him a little bit and he turns into Schwarzenegger and Stallone’s crazy love child. There is a future for Messner in low budget action films and maybe some big budget ones if he gets a few breaks.

The dialogue tends to be florid and infected with clichés.. There are also some pacing problems particularly early on, although the ending is pretty nifty if you ask me. However, most of the actors chew the scenery with gusto which is distracting at times.

This is not something I would generally recommend; the movie is seriously flawed. However, fans of 80s and 90s action movies ought to get a kick out of this one and it is possible that Messner may be an action star in the not-so-distant future. For those reasons alone I give the movie a very mild thumbs up, as a better film critic than I might have said.

REASONS TO GO: Messner has a lot of potential as an action hero.
REASONS TO STAY: The film starts slowly (although it does pick up).
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Liddell and Ortiz are notorious MMA rivals.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Commando
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
It Will Be Chaos

Insidious: The Last Key


Someone needs a manicure badly.

(2018) Horror (Blumhouse/Universal) Lin Shaye, Angus Sampson, Leigh Whannell, Kirk Acevedo, Caitlin Gerard, Spencer Locke, Josh Stewart, Tessa Ferrer, Bruce Davison, Aleque Reid, Ava Kolker, Pierce Pope, Javier Botet, Marcus Henderson, Amanda Jaros, Judith Drake, Hana Hayes, Thomas Robie, Josh Wingate, Danielle Kennedy, Melanie Gaydos, Patrick Wilson, Ty Simpkins, Rose Byrne. Directed by Adam Robitel

 

Horror franchises can be very lucrative indeed for a studio. Look at the Friday the 13th franchise for Paramount, the Paranormal Activity franchise for the same studio and the Nightmare on Elm Street and the Conjuring universe for New Line. It’s hard to know where Lionsgate would be had it not for the money generated by the Saw franchise years ago.

Insidious has been part of a renaissance of horror franchises that have taken hold of studio imaginations. For the most part these horror franchises are very cheap to produce and can generate tens and even hundreds of millions of box office profits when all is said and done. They may not be prestige projects or win many awards – or even gain much critical respect – but they are vital to a studio’s bottom line. Insidious has for the most part (especially in the second two of the four chapters to date) followed the story of Elise Rainier, a psychic who is able to communicate with the dead and sometimes venture into a dimension she calls The Further in which the living and the dead can sometimes interact – although it is the supernatural who reign there.

Like the previous installment, this is a prequel. Elise Rainier (Shaye) is at home when she gets a call from a potential client in a small New Mexico town. When she hears the address, immediately it becomes obvious that she is terrified as she abruptly declines to take the job and hangs up.

That’s because the address is her own childhood home, now occupied by a lone man named Ted Garza (Acevedo). As a child (Kolker) and as a teen (Hayes) as her abilities were manifesting themselves, she was tortured by the souls of those who had died in the nearby prison where her abusive father (Stewart) works. He not only doesn’t believe in the supernatural, he thinks his daughter is crazy and whenever she confesses that she has witnessed something supernatural, she is beaten with a cane.

Eventually she runs off leaving her brother Christian to survive alone with his dad but not before she unknowingly allows a terrible entity into this world which ends up killing her loving and supportive mother (Ferrer). Troubled not only by the memories of the abuse she suffered but also haunted by the guilt over her mother’s death, she realizes she can’t find peace until she faces her own demons – literally. So with her assistants Specs (Whannell, who directed the last one) and Tucker (Sampson), she goes to Five Keys to do battle with evil.

There she’ll meet her now-grown brother (Davison) who hasn’t yet forgiven her for abandoning him, and his daughters Imogen (Gerard) and Melissa (Locke) who are both fetching which attracts the attention of Specs and Tucker but also Elise realizes that one of them may have inherited the gift/curse that she possesses.

Elise is one of the most admirable horror heroines ever created. Generally most horror franchises are about the monster and rarely is there a single hero that runs through the series. Insidious is the reverse of that (as is, to be fair, The Conjuring) but in the case of Elise, she is not a young person; Shaye is a rare hero of a certain age group (let’s call it AARP-friendly) who appeals to young people as well as others. She is grandmotherly at times but she kicks spiritual booty when she needs to. There has never been a heroine quite like her and in this film Shaye is at her absolute best.

In fact it’s safe to say that the acting is pretty solid all around. Sure, the two nieces are pretty much interchangeable and Whannell and Sampson occasionally try a little too hard for comedy relief but Davison is a savvy pro who compliments Shaye nicely and Ferrer does a bang-up job as the ill-fated mom. Acevedo also gets kudos for taking a character who has some depth and translating it into performance.

The Insidious series has never been gore-heavy and also quite frankly not really overloaded with scares as well, which makes it a target for some derision in horror fanboy circles. I’ve always appreciated that the scares in the first three movies are well-earned and if there are occasionally an over-reliance on jump scares (or startle scares as I like to call them) when they do go out to get you they generally succeed.

The one thing that keeps this from a higher score in my book is the ending; the final confrontation is a big letdown and is that unusual situation where it should have  gone on longer, even though because this is a prequel you pretty much know the outcome because…well, certain characters HAVE to survive or else the continuity is completely shot to hell. Of course, one of these days a franchise picture is going to shock the living daylights out of us by killing a character who is shown to have survived in one of the earlier films. Perhaps that will cause a paradox that will bring the whole universe to an end – or perhaps just a portion of it, like all politicians. That would be worth it, I’m sure we can all agree.

REASONS TO GO: This could be the best performance by Shaye in the series. In general, the acting is better than the average horror film.
REASONS TO STAY: This installment is a little bit less scary than other films in the franchise. The final confrontation between Elise and the demon is a bit anti-climactic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some disturbing thematic content and imagery, horror violence, scenes of terror and occasional profanity. There are also a couple of scenes of child abuse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This film is meant to conclude the prequel series for the franchise, leading to sequels that may or may not continue the character of Elise Rainier.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/7/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Annabelle
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Downsizing

Off the Menu


Romance always tastes better with a little extra heat.

(2018) Romantic Comedy (Vision) Dania Ramirez, Santino Fontana, Maria Conchita Alonso, Makenzie Moss, Andrew Carter, Kenzo Lee, Ian Reed Kesler, Kristen Dalton, Virginia Montero, Mario Revolori, Ariana Ortiz, Paul Whetstone, Catherine Urbanek, Tracy Weisert, Richard Daniel Williams, Mike G. Mercedinio Cisneros Jr., Jessica Fontana, Jen Lilley. Directed by Jay Silverman

 

Some movies come along from time to time that go directly to home video. For most of them, there’s a very good reason for that. However, once in a great while, a movie comes to the direct-to-video market that leaves you scratching your head why it didn’t get more love and a theatrical release.

Joel (Fontana) is the heir to a fast-food fortune as the scion of the founder of the Tortilla Hut franchise. He’s the prototypical spoiled rich kid, more interested in training for the Iron Man Triathlon than he is in learning the family business. His sister Stacey (Dalton) is the de facto CEO of the firm and things aren’t looking as rosy as they might. Tortilla Hut has always gone the “bigger is better” route without taking much notice of quality. Tastes are changing, however, and Stacey knows that in order to keep its market share Tortilla Hut will have to change with the times. What Stacey wants is authenticity so she sends her brother to the American Southwest to sample some dishes to see if they can be adapted to the Fast Food format.

Joel really doesn’t want to be there; he just broke up with his fiancée Lauren (Lilley) and he doesn’t even like Mexican food. While driving through a tiny village in New Mexico his car gets towed due to an expired license. He’ll have to get the car out of impound in order to do that but the local District Attorney is out of town on a fishing trip.

After running afoul of a foodie tour operator, the unscrupulous Kevin (Carter) he also gets off on the wrong foot with the only restaurant owner in town – the single mom Javiera (Ramirez). Her food turns out to be divine – when he finally samples it – and he gets the approval of her hard-working mom (Alonso) and especially her daughter (Moss), a precocious child who never seems to be in school (at least the filmmakers make that a running joke). But in addition to a delectable green chile sauce, Javiera is also making eyes at Joel and he at her. Love may be on the menu – if Joel doesn’t do what he usually does and mess it all up.

The movie starts out on a very cliché note and continues in general with a lot of the more obnoxious tropes of the genre. It ends up being pretty predictable from a plot standpoint but you wanna know what? I actually got drawn in by the movie’s warmth and charm, and the genuine chemistry between the leads. I could have used less of the precocious child in the mix but that’s just my curmudgeon side acting out.

Ramirez and Fontana are excellent leads for this. They’re both very likable, even when Joel is acting like a self-centered douche. Yes, there is a sensual cooking sequence but it actually comes off as more authentic than steamy. These are two people genuinely trying to learn to like each other; Javiera has been burned before and is wary of any sort of relationship while Joel has never learned to put someone else’s needs above his own. They each end up helping the other one grow and there’s a lot to be said for that.

I liked this movie a lot more when it was over than I did at the beginning. I didn’t expect to enjoy the film as much as I did but here you are. I was especially happy to see Alonso onscreen again; she was one of my favorite actresses of the 90s, full of vivaciousness and sparkling like a diamond piñata in every role she played. She hasn’t lost her touch.

I can understand your hesitancy at taking a chance on a romantic comedy that has gotten little notice but sometimes the movies that fly under the radar are the ones that make the most impact. I truly enjoyed the movie more and more as it went along and if you can make it through until Joel arrives in New Mexico you might just have your heart touched as mine was. For those who don’t have plans for the upcoming Valentine’s Day, don’t want to go out and pay exorbitantly jacked-up prices at local restaurants or just want a nice romantic evening any other day of the year, I’ve got an idea for you. Off the Menu is actually the perfect aperitif for a romantic evening at home or a stay at home date. Order up some good Mexican food from the best Mexican restaurant in your neck of the woods, bring it home and enjoy it while watching this with the one you love. Share a good bottle of wine, too. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

REASONS TO GO: The film’s charm wins you over eventually. It is lovely to see Maria Conchita Alonso again.
REASONS TO STAY: It takes awhile for the film to get going. There are a few too many rom-com clichés.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild violence and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mario Revolori Is the twin brother of Tony Revolori who starred in The Grand Budapest Hotel.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: No Reservations
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Insidious: The Last Key

Vacancy


This is not the kind of room service you want in a motel.

This is not the kind of room service you want in a motel.

(2007) Horror (Screen Gems) Kate Beckinsale, Luke Wilson, Frank Whaley, Ethan Embry, Scott G. Anderson, Mark Casella, David Doty, Caryn Mower, Meegan E. Godfrey, Kym Stys, Andrew Fiscella, Norm Compton, Ernie Misko, Bryan Ross, Chevron Hicks, Kevin Dunigan, Chuck Lamb, Richie Varga, Cary Wayne Moore, Dale Waddington Horowitz. Directed by Nimrod Atal

 

We take hotels for granted. We check in and go to sleep, completely vulnerable. We don’t know who is at the front desk, or what sort of people they are. They have access to our rooms, could enter while we’re sleeping and do God knows what to us and we wouldn’t know it was happening until it was too late.

David (Wilson) and Amy (Beckinsale) Fox are already having a bad night. Their marriage is already sinking into a morass of self-recrimination, self-medication and naked hostility following the tragic death of their son. On their way to a family function, David decides to take a shortcut off the interstate and is soon hopelessly loss. His navigator Amy is in a Xanax-induced snooze bordering on a coma, awakening to find one more reason to bicker.

A raccoon in the middle of the road causes David to swerve and crash. Nobody is hurt, not even the raccoon, but the car is barely drivable. They limp into a gas station that is anything but all-night. A friendly mechanic (Embry) tries to help them, telling them there might be a mechanic on duty in a town down the road, but their car has other ideas. They only make a few miles before their car expires of plot contrivance.

The bickering couple hoofs it back to the gas station, but the friendly mechanic is gone for the night. However, the fleabag hotel next door is open for business. The smarmy night clerk (Whaley) gives them a room with a view – of the parking lot. Hey, it’s the honeymoon suite. At first, David and Amy are not thrilled about spending a night in the same bed. After seeing the stains on the bed and the bugs in the bathroom, they aren’t thrilled about spending a night in THIS bed. Resigned to a terrible night, David puts on a videotape in the high-tech VCR on the TV which you half-expect to find rabbit ears on.

They see what appears to be a cheap horror movie of half-nude women being raped and slashed to pieces by masked killers. Then David notices something familiar about the scene. The bedspread looks an awful lot like the one in the flea-bitten room they are staying in. So do the curtains. Disquieted, David puts another cassette in and discovers it to be much the same thing – a couple being horribly murdered in a room not unlike their own. That’s when Amy makes the startling realization that it is their room. Their every move is being watched through a series of hidden cameras placed throughout the room. The sound of insistent knocking on their door signals the beginning of a night of terror in which the odds are stacked against them as a trio of killers comes after them to make the next episode in their snuff film series. Will David and Amy be able to survive the night, or will some other unfortunate traveler see their tape in that broken-down motel room?

Luke Wilson has been charming in a great number of better movies, but he is a bit flat as a slasher film hero. It’s not for lack of effort, however; he just seems a bit stifled. Beckinsale, from the Underworld movies, is gorgeous and resourceful. She makes the perfect heroine for this kind of movie, although her character’s bitchy moments make it difficult to root for her survival. Whaley is appropriately creepy, and most of the other characters are either meat for the grinder, or the ones doing the grinding.

Director Atal made his English language debut. He made the impressive Kontroll a few years back and his visual style seems tailor made for Hollywood. His seedy hotel is really seedy and claustrophobic. Paul Haslinger’s score is Horror Film Music 101, but at least it isn’t intrusive. Beckinsale is very pleasing to look at, and there are a few genuine scares. There is almost a Jim Thompson quality to the motel and the night clerk working there. The action sequences are pulled off nicely.

The stranded travelers are a hoary old premise for terror flicks going back to the earliest days of the movies and Vacancy doesn’t contribute anything particularly new or exciting to the genre. Wilson isn’t a terribly convincing hero; you keep waiting for a punchline that is never delivered.

As horror movies go, this one is about average. Beckinsale is easy on the eyes and as mentioned above, there are some pretty decent scare sequences. However, I wound up with a feeling I’d seen it all before, and better. If you haven’t seen a lot of horror movies and you want to see this one, you might not mind the clichés that are thrown at you like a water buffalo to the face, but otherwise this is merely a diversion.

WHY RENT THIS: Some pretty good scares can be found here. Beckinsale is a resourceful slasher film heroine.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot is pretty mundane. Wilson is a bit lackluster as the slasher film hero.
FAMILY MATTERS: The snuff film sequences are graphic and disturbing. There is also a great deal of violence, and a fair amount of nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The film was shot on the same soundstage as The Wizard of Oz was.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The DVD edition has an alternate ending; the Blu-Ray contains this and an alternate opening as well as a compilation of all the snuff footage in one feature if you’re of a mind to watch that.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $35.3M on a $19M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray only), iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, Fandango Now, Crackle, YouTube
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Strangers
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Moana

Jane Got a Gun


Jane takes aim at the industry suits who kept this film on the shelf for three years.

Jane takes aim at the industry suits who kept this film on the shelf for three years.

(2016) Western (Weinstein) Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, Noah Emmerich, Ewan McGregor, Rodrigo Santoro, Boyd Holbrook, Alex Manette, Todd Stashwick, James Burnett, Sam Quinn, Chad Brummett, Boots Southerland, Nash Edgerton, Robb Janov, James Blackburn, Nicoletta Chapman, Ricky Lee, Darlene Kellum, Lauren Poole, Kristin Hansen. Directed by Gavin O’Connor

When you are threatened, I think that most of us can pretty much take it. You can do what you want to us, but leave our families alone, right? When home and hearth are threatened, well, one has to make a line in the sand someplace.

For Jane Hammond (Portman), that line has been drawn. When her husband Bill (Emmerich) shows back home with bullets in his back, he tells her that he had a run-in with the Bishop Boys, a gang he once rode with and who Jane herself has a past with. Now they are coming. Jane could easily take her daughter and run, but she’s done that her entire life. She loves her home and will fight to defend it.

But she can’t do it by herself and Bill’s wounds are simply too severe for him to be much use in a gunfight, so she swallows her pride and enlists Dan Frost (Edgerton), the gunslinger who was once her fiance. While he was away fighting the Civil War, she had become disillusioned, believing that he had been killed in action. While on a wagon train headed West led by John Bishop (McGregor), she was saved from the proverbial fate worse than death by Bill, along with a daughter fathered by Frost that he never knew he had.

Now the past has caught up with her and Bill and only Dan can save them. Dan has issues of his own, many of them stemming with his treatment at Jane’s hands so he’s ambivalent about helping her out, but he can’t leave the woman he once loved in the lurch, even if he has to save the man she’s with now. So he calmly goes about the business of fortifying her home, knowing that the force that is coming at them may be greater than even he can save her from.

This is very much in the vein of typical “against the odds” Westerns along the lines of a High Noon in which a heroic figure is preparing for the arrival of an overwhelming force that is likely to kill them. Natalie Portman is no Gary Cooper, but she does topline the film nicely. When I heard she was doing this film, I wondered about the wisdom of casting her in this kind of role; after all, she’s one of the most beautiful women in the world and has the grace of a ballerina. Could she play a dirt farmer’s wife in the Old West? Turns out, she can.

O’Connor wants to make a traditional Western with a bit of a twist, putting Portman in kind of a heroic role. While Edgerton – who co-wrote the film – is ostensibly the hero, Portman steals the show but not to the same extent that McGregor does. With his shoe polish black moustache and coif, he looks the part of a Western villain, maybe to the point of self-parody. But he is certainly venal enough and his smooth words disguise lethal venom. It’s a terrific villainous role for an actor who tends to assay heroic roles more often.

The dusty New Mexico landscape is dry as a bone and makes for an appropriately desolate setting. I have to admit that while the movie is decently paced and doesn’t seem to have any extraneous material, the flashbacks are a bit awkward and the whole balloon ride thing was more or less unconvincing – you half expected to see them sailing for Oz.

The movie has largely been left to fend for itself, which is a crying shame. It deserved a better fate than it got from Weinstein and various distributors, directors and producers. Despite its checkered past in getting from script to multiplex, this isn’t a bad movie and while it isn’t the best Western out there, it is a solid entry into the genre which has received a welcome resurgence over the past several months. Movies like this are likely to entice even more viewers into the genre.

REASONS TO GO: Nicely paced. Acting performances are all solid.
REASONS TO STAY: Nothing here is particularly different and exciting. Derivative.
FAMILY VALUES: There are violence and language issues.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally filmed in 2013, the movie sat on the shelf for nearly three years due to several release date changes, the bankruptcy of Relativity Studios (who were originally to release it) and reported clashes between the distributors and producers.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/10/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hannie Caulder
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Cinema of the Heart begins!

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