Hunter (2018)


Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage.

(2018) Horror (Random Media) Jason Kellerman, Rachel Cerda, Leigh Foster, Ryan Heindl, Nick Searcy, Beau Forbes, Adria Dawn, Bill Bannon, Susan Monts-Bologna, Andrew Gebhart, Lynda Shadrake, Ann Joseph, Leah Uteg, Kiley Moore, Darren Stephens, Ryan Kitley, Renee Sebby, Riley Sebby, Shon McGregory, Claudine Tambuatco. Directed by David Tarleton

 

Chicago has been a violent place since the Jazz Age. These days it’s a poster child for urban gang violence and murder. Still, the Windy City has a special quality all its own, if you don’t look too closely into the shadows.

Hunter (Kellerman) was at one time a feared MMA fighter. He was absolutely devoted to his mother (Shadrake) and little sister (Uteg). All that is shattered when they are killed in a home invasion. Only Hunter survives and he carries with him images of horror from that night that haunt him non-stop.

He is reduced to living on the streets of Chicago in the dead of winter. Starving and cold, he hears about a shelter from his only friend, Crazy Sybil (Dawn) and in near desperation he goes to find a warm bed, hot food and maybe even a shower. However, the price for staying is that he must talk to a therapist, in this case named Danni (Cerda). The problem is, Hunter isn’t interested in talking. He’s just interested in surviving and so Cerda has to find a way to break down his walls.

Those walls are up for a reason. It turns out that the gang that killed his sister and mother are still out there and still murdering. Hunter knows their secret and may be the only person who can stop them, but Hunter isn’t sure whether they are real or figments of his imagination. Spoiler alert: they are very real. In the meantime Danni and Hunter have crossed a line into romance which now makes her a target.

This actually has a pretty nifty concept, one I can’t discuss completely without spoiling the film. Suffice to say that revealing Hunter’s last name would be a very big clue. It also should be noted that the way in which Chicago is utilized as a setting lends itself to the type of movie this actually is, although in a much different way than fans of the genre are unused to. What genre? I can only say it’s a subset of the horror genre and leave it there.

Kellerman doesn’t look like your average horror or action hero, nor does he look like the average MMA champion. When he hasn’t been “homeless-ed” up with a raggedy beard, scruffy clothes and weathered skin, he resembles more the happy-go-lucky Jewish boy next door in a romantic comedy albeit one with Hebrew calligraphy tattooed to his chest. Nonetheless he does a pretty strong job in the lead and has a big future ahead of him given the right breaks.

Unfortunately, Tarleton opted to use a myriad of jump cuts perhaps in an effort to give us an idea of Hunter’s confusion and torment. If that was the purpose (and I have no definite idea that it was only that it’s the only explanation that makes sense) he was unsuccessful. After watching these cuts for only 20 minutes I began to get a headache and had to shut the movie off for a bit. That’s never a good sign.

Tarleton is more successful at building up to the climax, and he does so masterfully. We get a sense that Hunter is unreliable as a narrator, doubting even his own senses. That works really well in the course of the film giving us an is-he-crazy-or-is-he-not subtext to work with. In many ways the movie has a lot of inventive qualities and if the editing had been less frenetic this actually could have been a superior film. I give the filmmakers props for giving us a movie that has a lot of potential and viewers who are able to handle a lot of rapid-fire images perhaps better than I could may actually end up enjoying this immensely. Those who are more sensitive (like myself apparently) may find this to be more of an ordeal than a pleasant experience though. If that’s the case and you really are intrigued, I suggest having plenty of aspirin on hand.

REASONS TO SEE: The atmosphere is suitably Gothic, something Chicago lends itself to well.
REASONS TO AVOID: The filmmakers have an over reliance on jump cuts which tends to be headache-inducing after a while.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of violence and gore, some profanity as well as a bit of sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:
Schatz won an Emmy for her work on the documentary Through a Child’s Eyes: September 11, 2001.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Radial
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/15/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Thirst
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The Last Resort

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The Anatomy of Monsters


A tete-a-tete among sociopaths.

A tete-a-tete among sociopaths.

(2014) Thriller (Artsploitation) Tabitha Bastien, Jesse Lee Keeter, Conner Marx, Keiko Green, Satori Marill, Tori McDonough, Lauren Brooks-Wilson, Andrew Tribolini, Asher Vast, Natalie Miller, Nick Frank, Tammy Miller, Ken Miller, Andre Kirkman, Roxanne Nihiline, E. J. Bastien, Dave Shecter, Simone Leorin, Alex Upton, Meredith Binder. Directed by Byron C. Miller

 

How can you tell who the monsters are? They don’t come with fangs and claws, after all. That handsome, clean-cut guy on the blind date could be a sadistic rapist; the beautiful, sweet girl-next-door sort could take great pleasure in destroying the lives of others. You just never know who is going to turn out to be a sociopath.

Andrew (Keeter) looks like a frat guy at first glance, like the preppy from Connecticut slumming down in the city…or in Seattle, as the case is here. He gets dressed and heads out to the bars to find that just right girl. And it appears he’s found her in Sarah (T. Bastien) who is obviously interested and carries her sexual hunger like a Vera Wang handbag. She even has a pair of handcuffs, which she obligingly puts on in the hotel room she’s rented for the two of them. That’s when he pulls out a wicked-looking knife.

But Sarah has some secrets of her own, starting when she was just a kid who found her jollies in killing her pet kitties, moving through her teen years when she maimed a romantic rival right through when she was an adult when she discovered the joys of taking down bigger prey – the two legged variety. Which one of these two is the predator and which is the prey? Don’t think that the answer is a simple one.

I like this concept immensely and it could have made for a chilling, thrilling good time. Unfortunately, the filmmakers didn’t have the experience to pull this off effectively. The pacing is all over the board; some scenes feel like the writer just couldn’t wait to get to the end of the scene and move on to more weighty matters; other scenes are excruciatingly drawn out. While it’s possible the filmmakers were going for an effect of putting the viewer off-balance, it just came off to this viewer as undisciplined and poorly edited.

Also gaining some negative points is the score; quite frankly, the soundtrack is intrusive and ineffective at establishing a mood. It sounded like the composer was trying too hard to set a mood, using menacing organ riffs to establish tension, and a bouncy soft rock background when Sarah and her boyfriend Nick (Marx) are together. A good soundtrack doesn’t create the mood; it enhances it and that’s something composer Paul Morgan needs to learn.

Tabitha Bastien (not to be confused with E.J. who plays a one-night stand for Sarah) takes control of the movie early on as we realize that the original focus on Andrew has shifted to Sarah. That’s not altogether a bad thing; Tabitha certainly has the screen charisma to carry the film. Although at times she’s given some really florid dialogue to mouth, most of the time the dialogue is well-written and sounds the way people talk, or at least the way I’d think a pair of serial killers might talk if they were to have a conversation; ‘Hey Ted Bundy.’ ‘Hey Jeffrey Dahmer.’ ‘Rough day at the office?’ “It was murder.’

One of the biggest mood killers is that the murders themselves are unconvincing. At one point a baseball bat is taken to a sleeping father, but the blows look like bunts rather than grand slams. There’s no force behind them and it absolutely takes the viewer out of the picture. I get that the filmmakers were operating on a minuscule budget but at least they can get the actors to slam the bat into a pillow and add the sound effects in post. If you want to do a realistic look at serial killers, you had better make everything realistic or else it just won’t fly.

This was a movie that sounds better on the printed page then it unspools on the screen. It’s available free for Amazon Prime users and if you are a lover of all things slasher you might give it a try if you have that service available. Otherwise, you need to be a very patient and understanding viewer, knowing that this is the work of relatively new filmmakers. There is certainly room for improvement but if they can keep the good concepts coming their execution will catch up to their imagination eventually.

WHY RENT THIS: The concept is intriguing. Tabitha Bastien makes a compelling lead.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the murder sequences were unconvincing. The film felt a little bit rushed in places and overly drawn out in others.
FAMILY VALUES: You’ll find some gore, violence, adult themes, sexual content and some profanity here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The working title of the film was The Witching Hour but was dropped in favor of its current title.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
SITES TO SEE: Amazon Prime, Vimeo, YouTube
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

The Snowtown Murders (Snowtown)


What's a summer evening without ice cream on the curb with a serial killer?

What’s a summer evening without ice cream on the curb with a serial killer?

(2011) True Life Crime Drama (IFC) Lucas Pittaway, Daniel Henshall, Louise Harris, David Walker, Aaron Viergever, Keiran Schwerdt, Bob Adriaens, Richard Green, Frank Cwiertniak, Matthew Howard, Marcus Howard, Anthony Groves, Beau Gosling, Aasta Brown, Craig Coyne, Kathryn Wissell, Krystie Flaherty, Andrew Mayers, Robert Deeble. Directed by Justin Kurzel

Offshoring

The United States is the world capital for serial killers, but they are not merely endemic to American shores. They appear all over the world. Australia’s most notorious as of this writing is named John Bunting.

In the suburbs of North Adelaide lives Elizabeth Harvey (Harris) and her sons Jamie (Pittaway) and Troy (Groves), both by different fathers, as well as her boyfriend Jeffrey (Cwiertniak). They live an empty, desensitized existence, shuffling around like zombies in a hopeless environment where nothing will ever get better. Elizabeth doesn’t really care about much of anything as Jeffrey molests her sons with impunity and Troy molests Jamie. Jamie seems to accept all of this as his lot in life.

New neighbor John Bunting (Henshall) shows up almost like a knight on a charging stallion. He drives Jeffrey off and brings stability and a father figure to the family. Jamie becomes very attached to John who is mentoring him in the game of life.

That is, until John turns out to be a monster hiding beneath easygoing smiles. Oh, there are signs – the aggressive ways he questions people about their thoughts, following up with those irritating questions “Do you?” and “Really?” that tend to put people off. He punctuates his own declarative statements with a “Right?” forestalling disagreement.

And John has a particular hatred for pedophiles and homosexuals which he essentially equates. He uses a lot of anti-gay slurs in a hateful manner. Suddenly the mask comes off and we get a glimpse of the true man beneath, and that man isn’t a very nice one.

The thing is, John isn’t a man content to complain about the people he despises; he means to do something about it. However, being a good father figure, he intends to drag Jamie into his murderous activities – after all, fathers and sons are meant to go hunting, right?

With other easily manipulated neighborhood boys in tow, John would go on a killing spree that would take eleven lives. The dismembered, rotting corpses of their victims would be discovered in the vault of a closed bank in Snowtown (the murders actually occurred elsewhere but the perception that they happened in Snowtown because of the gruesome discovery persists today). While not all of the murders are depicted onscreen, the ones that are definitely aren’t for the squeamish – and they are said to be much more tame than what the court documents describe.

First time feature director Kurzel shoots most of this movie almost overexposed, leaving everything looking washed out and hopeless. While on the surface a working class neighborhood, there is literal despair here; nobody expects to rise above their current station. If anything, they expect things to get worse. They spend their days drinking, talking about how crappy things are, and smoking like chimneys. I think if they saved what they were spending on cigarettes alone they’d probably be able to afford to live in a better neighborhood, but y’know, that’s just me talking.

Henshall has an engaging screen presence. He’s not matinee handsome like other Aussie exports that have become Hollywood staples but he gobbles up your attention whenever he’s onscreen. He manages to portray what seems to be a genuinely nice guy but with sinister undertones, all of which are visible at once. One gets the sense that he doesn’t think what he’s doing is wrong; that he’s taking out the trash so to speak and storing it where it will bother nobody. I don’t know if he thinks he’s genuinely doing the world a service, but he might well do.

The issues here are that there are an awful lot of speaking parts (mostly with the exception of Henshall played by local amateurs) who aren’t well-developed and are literally indistinguishable from one another, all speaking in the local dialect; we Americans don’t just need subtitles, we need a program. The action is often disjointed, as if crucial scenes were left on the cutting room floor. I do think that was done intentionally to keep the audience feeling off balance however.

This isn’t an easy movie to watch, particularly for those sensitive to blood and brutality. It does take you somewhat not so much into the mind of a serial killer but into the mind of somebody who has been mesmerized by one. While I admire some of the techniques Kurzel employs – he is impressive with some of his ingenuity – he sometimes sacrifices substance for style, never a good thing. There is a great story here; we didn’t need to be reminded that there was someone behind the camera directing it. He is definitely a talent to keep an eye out for in the future; I have no doubt we’ll be seeing much more of him not just on the indie circuit but eventually for big Hollywood films as well.

WHY RENT THIS: Henshall has a great deal of charisma. Portrays Aussie working class life with a certain amount of affection.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many interchangeable and/or extraneous characters. Takes awhile to get going and is somewhat jumbled throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence, sexuality, scenes of torture, murder and animal cruelty, a ton of foul language and homophobic slurs and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Henshall lived in a hotel in the Snowtown area for six weeks, chatting with locals and trying to develop his character further.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are cast interviews. Surprisingly, no feature on the real Snowtown murders.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $8,452 (North America) on an unknown production budget; the movie made substantially more in Australia.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental/streaming), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (not available),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Badlands
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Offshoring concludes!

The Frighteners


Michael J. Fox doesn't like getting pushed around.

Michael J. Fox doesn’t like getting pushed around.

(1996) Horror Comedy (Universal) Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Astin, Jeffrey Combs, Jake Busey, Dee Wallace-Stone, Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe, R. Lee Ermey, Julianna McCarthy, Troy Evans, Elizabeth Hawthorne, Angela Bloomfield, Desmond Kelly, Jonathan Blick, Todd Rippon, John Sumner, Jim McLarty, Anthony Ray Parker, Melanie Lynskey. Directed by Peter Jackson

Six Days of Darkness 2014

Special gifts generally turn out to be curses more than gifts. People who are different are regarded with suspicion and sometimes out-and-out hostility. On top of that, those who can see dead people are being hounded by the dead to take care of unfinished business with the living. It’s enough to make a would-be ghostbuster  pound his head against a tombstone.

Frank Bannister (Fox) hangs out at cemeteries. Not because he’s fond of graveyards but it’s a good way to drum up business; to discover who has had someone dearly departed and then allow their loved ones to communicate or avoid said lately deceased. The Sheriff (Evans) tolerates Frank to a certain degree although he doesn’t approve. That’s because he knows that Frank has been through a lot; namely, a car accident in which his wife Debbie (Bloomfield) was killed. There were whispers that if may not have been an accident and Frank’s career as an architect came to an end, as did construction on the house he had designed and was building for his wife.

Some see Frank as a charlatan who manufactures “hauntings” and then charges exorbitant rates to “cleanse” them but nobody can prove it. In fact, Frank is a con man who manufactures the hauntings – through the use of three ghosts. You see, ever since the car wreck, Frank can see dead people. His friends Cyrus (McBride), a disco apparition from the ’70s complete with magnificent ‘fro, nerdish Stuart (Fyfe) and The Judge (Astin), a decomposing gunslinger from the Old West lift things around and make people (who can’t see them) think there’s a poltergeist about. Frank steps in with fake instruments and a squirt gun full of “holy” water and cleanses the house. It’s not an honest living, but it’s a living nonetheless. He manages to meet Dr. Lucy Lynskey (Alvarado) when her oafish husband (Dobson) dies of a heart attack.

In fact the people of Fairwater have been dropping like flies lately, all with massive heart attacks. Frank witnesses one and realizes that a supernatural entity in a grim reaper cloak has latched itself to the town and he’s the only one who can stop it. Can he protect the comely widow whom he has begun to get sweet on, avoid the manic obsessive FBI Agent Milton Dammers (Combs) and save the town?

This was one of Jackson’s last movies before embarking on the massive Lord of the Rings project; prior to this he had made movies for the New Zealand market including the Oscar-nominated Heavenly Creatures and the over-the-top Bad Taste. It was not a box office success, mainly because it was something of a compromise of sorts and not quite as anarchic and gore-drenched as earlier horror projects. It was also criticized for being a bit of a mish mash of other movies kind of lumped together.

Nevertheless, it’s still a romp. Fox shows why he was such a terrific leading man, completely charismatic and likable even as he was a bit of a cynic. He also showed some real vulnerability, something he didn’t necessarily do often in previous roles. It remains in my mind one of his best performances ever on big screen or small. There’s also an eclectic supporting cast, every one of whom does decent work here at worst.

There is a bit of a Ghostbusters vibe as well as a kind of tongue-in-cheek Beetlejuice feel (the movie shares composer Danny Elfman with the Tim Burton classic). There are also bits of The Shining and Poltergeist woven in with a bit of Scooby Doo and Re-Animator in there for good measure.

The ghost effects are definitely a bit dated but still effective. There are some other creature and practical effects that are definitely retro but work well even now, nearly 20 years after the fact. In fact, this is one of my favorite horror comedies of all time, right up there with the ‘busters and Beetlejuice as far as I’m concerned. The villains are very villainous (Busey as a serial killer is a natural), the heroes are not-quite-competent but always plucky, the romantic interest beautiful in an Andie MacDowell kind of way and the scares are masterful occasionally, although Jackson has a tendency to go for the laugh as much as the scare. This may not be the greatest thing since sliced bread but it’s a great pop up some microwave popcorn, gather the family round the couch and put this on the TV at Halloween kind of movie. And isn’t that worth something?

WHY RENT THIS: Fun as all get out. Fox is a hoot. Definitely an irreverent vibe. A few genuine scares.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Leans more to the comedy side.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language, lots of horrific images and comic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fox repeatedly blew his lines by referring to Astin’s character as “Doc,” his Back to the Future partner-in-crime. He broke his foot during filming, delaying production for about a week. This would be his last leading role in a film as the long shoot in New Zealand caused him a good deal of homesickness and he resolved to stay on the small screen, accepting a role in Spin City shortly thereafter.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Generally most major releases come with a making-of documentary which generally run in the 20-30 minute range. The one here is over three hours long and gets into details rarely gone into in home videos, including a read-through of the script at Jackson’s home.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $29.4M on a $26M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (stream/rental), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (buy/rent), Target Ticket (buy/rent)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beetlejuice
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness 2014 concludes!

Seven Psychopaths


Seven Psychopaths

Colin Farrell wants the Shih Tzu but Sam Rockwell just won’t share.

(2012) Black Comedy (CBS) Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, Tom Waits, Olga Kurylenko, Zeljko Ivanek, Gabourey Sidibe, Harry Dean Stanton, Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Pitt, Linda Bright Clay, Long Nguyen, Amanda Warren. Directed by Martin McDonagh

 

Being a writer is tough, and yes, even for the movies. It’s not easy to articulate something from concept to finished screenplay. Sometimes you don’t even begin there – you just have a title and taking it into fruition sometimes can lead to unexpected destinations.

Marty (Farrell) is a screenwriter who is stuck. He’s got a title for his screenplay, “Seven Psychopaths.” He’s got a loose concept – that it’s about seven psychopaths. He’s even got a psychopath to begin with. That just leaves him with six more to go. And a plot. Piece of cake, right?

Yeah right. It’s doubly hard when his girlfriend Kaya (Cornish) is extra-bitchy to him and his best friend Billy Bickle (Rockwell) is getting more loony tunes by the day. Billy and his good friend Hans (Walken) supplement their income by kidnapping dogs from their well-heeled owners and then returning them for the reward money. Hans mostly gives his money to his wife Myra (Clay) who’s in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery.

Things turn even weirder as the psychopaths begin making appearances in Marty’s life. From a serial killer of mob killers known in the press as the Jack of Diamonds to a rabbit-carrying nebbish named Zachariah (Waits) who was after rescuing Maggie (Warren) from a sadistic serial-killing judge went on a killing spree of serial killers before getting tired of the violence and leaving her. He regrets that now, and makes Marty promise to put a message to her during the credits, apologizing and begging her to call.

Billy and Hans kidnap Bonny, an adorable Shih Tzu who happens to be owned by psychotic mobster Charlie (Harrelson) who isn’t too pleased at the kidnapping. He loves that little dog more than anything on Earth and will rain a path of destruction from here to perdition to get her back. He sends his right hand Paulo (Ivanek) out looking for her.

More I will not tell you because you’ll miss some of the nuances of the film that you would lose if you had too much foreknowledge of what is coming. McDonagh, who is a veteran Irish playwright, crafts a movie that is quirky without being snarky about it. Too often in independent movies the quirkiness can come off as smug superiority that we’re so much hipper and smarter than everybody else. That’s the arrogance of youth talking.

Here, the quirkiness is true quirkiness – people who are off-center and okay with marching to their own drummer. These are characters that populate most of McDonagh’s work. Farrell, who was so good in McDonagh’s first film In Bruges is just as terrific here – the two are obviously simpatico as both of Farrell’s performances in McDonagh’s films are among his best.

Marty is a bit neurotic and definitely alcoholic although deeply in denial about the latter. It has led directly to his writer’s block and even though he’s a basically nice guy, he’s a bit of a jerk when he’s been drinking. Farrell gives Marty a bit of Irish blarney and charm, with a whole lot of L.A. jadedness. It’s one of those kinds of characters that is Farrell’s bread and butter and he nails it.

Walken though is the main reason to see this. If I were an Academy voter, I’d be nominating him for Best Supporting Actor. This is one of the best – if not the best – performances of his storied career. Hans has a troubled past and has found God but more importantly, serenity. He has changed profoundly and that shows in the patience he shows Marty and particularly Billy.

Rockwell’s Billy is the catalyst who has secrets of his own. Rockwell is one of the most reliable actors out there, almost always delivering an amazing performance be it comedy, drama or something else. Harrelson is also trustworthy; like Rockwell has amazing versatility but seems to do best in roles that have a black humor to them as his does, a mean black-hearted mobster who’s fallen in love with a tiny little dog.

But then again I can’t blame him there. I have a Shih Tzu of my own whom Bonny resembles uncannily and my feelings toward her are not unlike Charlie’s for Bonny, sometimes to the chagrin of my wife. Shih Tzu’s are a particularly loving an adorable breed and I’m very thankful for mine; if she got dog-napped I’d probably go a little crazy.

But then this is a film about crazy. What is crazy really when life itself is completely whacked out? That’s a good question without an easy answer. For my money, crazy is as crazy does and Seven Psychopaths is not crazy funny (it lags in places) but funny enough to be crazy.

REASONS TO GO: Bonny the Shih Tzu is adorable. Walken and Farrell deliver outstanding performances., backed nicely by Harrelson and Rockwell.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the film drags. Stretches believability occasionally.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a good deal of violence (some of it bloody and graphic), a whole lot of bad language, a bit of sex and nudity as well as a little bit of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mickey Rourke was originally cast as Charlie before disagreements with the filmmakers led him to being replaced with Woody Harrelson. During the graveyard scenes the Jack of Diamonds hides behind a grave marked “Rourke.”

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/2/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100. The reviews are mixed but on the strong side.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: In Bruges

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Mickey Blue Eyes

God Bless America


God Bless America

WARNING: Blatant "American Idol" rip-off ahead!

(2011) Black Comedy (Magnolia) Joel Murray, Tara Lynne Barr, Mackenzie Brooke Smith, Melinda Page Hamilton, Rich McDonald, Guerrin Gardner, Andrea Harper, David Mendenhall, Larry Miller, Lauren Benz Phillips, Aris Alvarado, Mo Gaffney, Maddie Hasson, Tom Kenny, Geoff Pierson, Tom Lenk. Directed by Bobcat Goldthwait

 

There is plenty of reason to be frustrated at the state of affairs in the good ol’ U.S. of A. Angry, even. Most of us keep our frustrations pretty much to ourselves however and our anger manifests it in a tendency to be more and more self-centered. After all, what can we as individuals do?

Things aren’t going so well for Frank (Murray). He lives in an apartment with paper-thin walls; the couple next door with their bawling new baby are inconsiderate at best, louts at worst. Frank suffers from terrible headaches that keep him up at night, and although he tries to be pleasant enough at work, he is grumpy as all hell and prone to snapping.

After a well-meaning but misguided attempt to cheer up a fellow employee lands him on the unemployment line, Frank gets the double whammy of finding out that he has an inoperable brain tumor that leaves him with a much shorter life span than he anticipated. Divorced from his wife (who respects him about as much as she does….well, she doesn’t respect him at all) and estranged from his pre-school age daughter who is turning out to be a spoiled child who channels Veruca Salt on a daily basis, he sits at home watching the endless, mind-numbing array of reality programming on his television.

At last he’s had enough. When his daughter won’t see him, he winds up watching a reality show starring Chloe (Hasson), a spectacularly entitled bitch who berates her doting dad (Miller) on national TV when he gets her the wrong car for her birthday (“I wanted an Escalade!!!!!” she shrieks at ear-bleeding volume when she views the offending present).

Disillusioned and with nothing to lose, Frank – an ex-military man – decides that this isn’t what he served his country for. He gets his gun and drives out to see Chloe and after a botched attempt to blow up her car, shoots her in the head. This is witnessed by Roxy (Barr), a classmate of the late reality star who is thrilled, not just because Chloe got what she deserved but also because she sees a way out of the boring life she leads.

At first Frank is appalled and wants nothing to do with the young teen but when Roxy confesses that her stepfather is molesting her on a nightly basis, Frank reluctantly agrees to bring her along. They decide to off Chloe’s indulgent parents as a message to parents who give everything to their kids except discipline. That attempt is botched as well but Roxy saves the day just when it appears that Chloe’s mom might actually get away.

Suddenly the two are sort of like a super-liberal Bonnie and Clyde, roaming the countryside to rid the land of those that Frank construes as mean, rude or oppressive. The offending parties include a conservative blowhard talk show host (kinda Glenn Beck-esque), a homophobic Christian preacher (read as Fred Phelps), Tea Party protesters and the most heinous of all, people who talk and text in movie theaters. All of them get a bullet courtesy of the two Liberal spree killers who are giving Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate a run for their money. However, Frank has his sights set on some of the worst offenders of all – a musical competition show called American Superstars, a thinly veiled version of “American Idol” right down to the graphics. He is particularly incensed that a mentally challenged young man with little talent tries out and gets ridiculed, later threatening to commit suicide.

As you might have noticed from the synopsis, this is black comedy and for director Goldthwait, a veteran stand-up comic and writer, business as usual. This is definitely a satire on American life as seen by a card-carrying leftie, and I must admit that watching a stand-in for Glenn Beck being gunned down gave me a curious sense of satisfaction – not that I’d want the real Beck to be snuffed, mind you. I wouldn’t mind an extended case of laryngitis in his case however.

Conservative sorts are going to have issues with the politics of the movie, unless they have a really good sense of humor and an ability to poke fun at themselves (which a fair percentage of them do I must admit). Liberals might just find this a bit too violent, kind of a Death Wish meets Dirty Harry with a dose of Coming Home thrown in for good measure.

Murray, whom most might recognize from his stint on “Mad Men” (and who is the brother of actors Bill Murray and Brian Doyle-Murray), makes a fine sad-sack hero here. His delivery is dry and a bit Midwestern, giving Frank a kind of socially awkward exterior which frames a fairly decent interior (except for his penchant for putting a bullet in people he doesn’t like). For me while I kind of understood Frank’s rage, I never felt the movie explained why such a decent guy snapped so completely.

Young Barr gets the thankless job of playing a precocious teen but she does it without making her relatively annoying (and any teen who rips Cody Diablo a new one is all right by me). She makes a good foil for Murray and even though they are about as odd a couple as you can get (Barr’s attempts to flirt with a suitably appalled Frank aren’t dwelled upon and are done before it gets too creepy) the chemistry seems to be pretty genuine.

There are some pretty great laughs here, some of the sort that will have you feeling guilty a moment after expelling your guffaw. There is nothing remotely politically correct here; Goldthwait has an axe to grind and he plants it squarely between the shoulders of the Republicans. It’s certainly a bit of a one-sided world view (although Frank sheepishly admits to sharing some of the political philosophy of the talk show host – the relaxing of laws advocating gun control which figures when you think about it) but then again, I doubt Goldthwaite wants or needs to apologize to anyone.

The point here is that the movie is funny and even brilliant in a couple of places. I found the scene where the rude theater-goers were gunned down to be vicariously satisfying. When you spend as much time in movie theaters as I do, people who talk and text in theaters are on your ten most wanted list. While I don’t advocate mass murder, sometimes watching some of your favorite targets being used as actual target practice brings a smile to your face. I hope I would find the humor in watching a conservative vigilante take down ACLU lawyers, atheistic political commentators and Greenpeace activists with the same objectivity. I might wince a little more often there though.

REASONS TO GO: A clever satire of American life. Barr and Murray have surprising chemistry.

REASONS TO STAY: Seems to take great glee at skewering the conservative/tea party sorts which might offend some.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, a surfeit of profanity and a few sexual references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Along with the Florida Film Festival, this has screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, the Calgary Underground Film Festival and South by Southwest.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/19/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: Not available. The reviews are pretty dang positive, at least early on.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: American Dreamz

GUN LOVERS: On display is a pretty impressive variety of handguns and other weapons, from Walther PK-9s to AK-47s to a .44 Magnum.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT:Turn Me On, Dammit!

The Cell


The Cell

Jennifer Lopez is terrified of horny men.

(2000) Science Fiction (New Line) Jennifer Lopez, Vincent D’Onofrio, Vince Vaughn, Dylan Walsh, James Gammon, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Musetta Vander, Colton James, Jake Weber, Tara Subkoff, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Peter Sarsgaard. Directed by Tarsem Singh

Really, the more I see ex-music video directors (such as The Cell‘s Tarsem Singh) take on feature films, the more I realize how excruciatingly painful to watch a two-hour music video would be.

Catherine Deane (Lopez) is a social worker who by some strange pseudo-science can enter the minds of comatose patients. Of course, I’m sure Jennifer Lopez enters the minds of a lot of men, but we won’t go there. Currently, she’s attempting to help a young scion of a billionaire with somewhat unencouraging results.

Meanwhile, out in the real world, serial killer Carl Stargher (D’Onofrio) is happy as can be, having constructed a diabolical device that will automatically drown his young, nubile female victims without Carl even being present (naturally, a bank of video cameras capture every morbid moment of their final struggles). A marvel of modern technology, that.

He doesn’t realize how close the FBI, led by twitchy agent Peter Novak (Vaughn) is to him. When they finally break down his door, Carl is already face-down and – you guessed it – comatose, the victim of a schizoid virus or some other such babble. With a victim locked in Carl’s Infernal Machine at an unknown location, time ticking away, you can guess what happens next. Uh, huh; an excuse for Jennifer Lopez to wear a lot of striking, exotic costumes and more important to Tarsem, a chance for the director to show off his visual style honed in dozens of music videos, notably R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion”.

Tarsem suffers from the “Look, Ma, I’m Directing” syndrome, a disease especially prevalent among ex-music video directors. “Art for art’s sake” may be MGM’s motto, but, pragmatically, it doesn’t work in movies. A movie isn’t just a series of images strung together; there has to be some sort of story, a reason for watching those images. If the story is mediocre, all the beautiful pictures in the world won’t save the film.

To make matters worse, the movie often violates its own internal logic – for example, as the social worker points out ad infinitum throughout the movie, it often takes a child months to build enough trust to let her in, but the serial killer only takes a single session! As we all know, serial killers are known for their trusting natures.

A trip inside Jennifer Lopez’s brain wouldn’t be as fruitful as the one we take here. Assuming there was enough room for anyone else in there, considering her ego, we’d be assaulted by letters 40 miles high in garish, blinking neon blaring “I’M ALL THAT & A BAG OF CHIPS.” Believe me, honey, you’re not. For his part, Vaughn showed most definitely that he was to become a star of the future. He has for the most part made good on that promise, largely because he’s learned to choose material where he has more to do than just smirk.

To Tarsem’s credit, some of the visuals and special effects are very nice indeed, but for the most part, its eye candy for its own sake. Frankly, Da Queen and I got more of a kick from the two guys in the row behind us discussing the philosophical implications of The Cell and its somewhat overbearing subtext of redemption and absolution when we saw this in a theater back in the day. Guys, you’re watching WAY too much of the Independent Film Channel.

By the way, what is up with film credits? Do we really need to see everyone’s name who is even vaguely connected with the movie? On the credits for The Cell you will see (I’m not making this up) the identities of the salad chef and of Jennifer Lopez’s bodyguard. I imagine the guy who cleaned up after the movie’s canine star will be graced with a poop wrangler credit next.

Roger Ebert, a voice I normally respect, did cartwheels over this movie which mystifies me to this day. The more I think about The Cell, the lower its rating goes, and if I don’t stop here, it’s going to get a zero rating, which really isn’t fair. It’s not completely without merit, but as fantastic as the visuals are, the movie is ultimately unsatisfying. Too many special effects and not enough solid writing, plot and characterization a dull movie makes – eye candy is tasty but doesn’t make for a satisfying meal.

WHY RENT THIS: Some amazing visuals and Jennifer Lopez’ exotic wardrobe.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A story that violates its own internal logic and falls apart over it’s own ponderous weight. A major case of “Look Ma, I’m Directing” syndrome.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is violence, sexuality, bad language, nudity, and bizarre images. Unless your kids are fetishists, you might want to steer them away from this.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Scenes in the movie are inspired by artwork by such artists as Damien Hirst, Odd Nerdrum and H.R. Giger.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The two-disc Platinum Series edition includes an interactive map of the brain that gives more information than you probably want on the subject, as well as an empathy test that allows you to determine how you handle your emotions. Good, free therapy.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $104.2M on a $33M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 3/10

TOMORROW: The Back-Up Plan