Method of Murder


In the desert where you can bury your bodies …or not.

(2017) Documentary (Vision) Jacky Rom, Tommy McDonald, Junior Rubio, Arianna Black, Mason Pollack, Jamie Wilson, Sarah Cass, Cash Kasper, Norm Thom, Derek Stevens, John Fiato, Jenny Brown, Vivien Karp, Joseph Charfauros, Sandy Karp, Larry Hess Lyle Rivero, Marco Antonio, Keith Evans, Kristin Whittemore, Isabelle Mondelaers. Directed by Elliot Manarin

 

How do you kill a person and get away with it? In this era of forensic experts, security cameras and digital footprints, it’s harder than ever – and it was never easy. For most of us, it’s an academic question, something that leads us to watching TV crime shows or reading murder mysteries.

For British crime novelist Jacky Rom however, it’s a whole lot more than idle speculation – it’s a living. The author of best-selling novel From Makeup to Murder, she was hard at work on the follow-up From Vegas to Villainy and needed some ideas on how to do the deed, so to speak. Being the kind of plucky sort who isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, she heads out to Los Angeles and Las Vegas to figure out how she was going to commit the perfect crime – in a literary sense.

In this hour-long documentary, Rom interviews tattoo artists, photographers, magicians, make-up specialists, lion tamers, archers, casino security experts and firearm specialists. For the most part everything is handled in a fun, lighthearted manner. Rom is endlessly cheerful and comes off like a Brit combining work and vacation, but there are some serious moments. She is visibly affected when she fires a handgun; the recoil establishes just how powerful a weapon it is and just how easy it is to kill someone with it. For a few moments, the crime author seems to be empathizing more with the victims than the investigators.

She seems to have an inventive mind as one of the methods she devises is pure genius if impractical. However, sadly, most of the methods she investigates are pretty run-of-the-mill – I suppose she wanted to keep her best ideas for her book and I could hardly blame her. As it turns out, having lions dispose of the remains of her victim turns out to be a bad idea. When she looks into burying a body in the desert, she discovers it is a whole lot harder than it sounds.

I don’t think this is going to give anyone with criminal intent any nefarious ideas but it is a bit of a lark, even if it moves slowly occasionally. Rom is an engaging personality and I wouldn’t mind spending an hour with her normally but after awhile this begins to feel like one of those British travel documentaries that has an offbeat, morbid bent.

REASONS TO SEE: The concept is fascinating albeit morbid.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie is fairly vanilla and unimaginative.
FAMILY VALUES: Although presented in a lighthearted manner, some of the subject here is adult in nature thematically speaking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to being a crime novelist, Rom also is a radio hostess in the UK.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: How to Commit the Perfect Murder
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The Farewell

Lights Out (2016)


Attention Teresa Palmer: there's a blue light special in the basement.

Attention Teresa Palmer: there’s a blue light special in the basement.

(2016) Horror (New Line) Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Alexander DiPersia, Billy Burke, Maria Bello, Alicia Vela-Bailey, Andi Osho, Rolando Boyce, Maria Russell, Elizabeth Pan, Lotta Losten, Amiah Miller, Ava Cantrell, Ariel Dupin. Directed by David F. Sandberg

 

As humans, we are conditioned to fear the unknown and what can be more unknown than darkness? We can’t see what’s in the dark – our eyes aren’t built for it. In the dark, anything can happen and not all of it is pleasant. Sometimes, that which lives in darkness can be downright terrifying.

Rebecca (Palmer) is a metal-loving young woman who has a – I hesitate to call him a boyfriend but he does have sex with her and they’ve been dating for several years – friend with benefits named Bret (DiPersia) who is a musician who plays metal. She lives on her own in an apartment over a tattoo parlor. She left home the moment she could pack her bags; hallucinations and nightmares had driven her to the brink of madness.

This is where her mother Sophie (Bello) dwells as a matter of course. Sophie was committed to a mental institution as a little girl and came out fragile, but her issues seemed to be under control with medication, and her second husband Paul (Burke) – not Rebecca’s dad by the way – has watched with some alarm as his wife’s mental condition starts to deteriorate rapidly. When Paul meets a tragic end, Sophie pretty much slides off into the deep end.

Rebecca’s half-brother Martin (Bateman) has now begun to have the same kinds of nightmares and hallucinations that just about destroyed Rebecca’s sanity. Concerned that Sophie is terrorizing her little half-brother, Rebecca moves to take Martin over to her apartment and out of Sophie’s influence. Sophie, who not only hears voices but has conversations with them, seems to be talking to a presence named Diana. Diana, as it turns out, was a friend who brutalized her in the asylum but had met a gruesome end. Some ends, as it turns out, are not as permanent as others.

Sandberg based this movie on a short movie – less than three minutes long – based on the same creature. With the feature clocking in at just a hair over 80 minutes, he certainly knows how to keep his stories compact which is laudable these days when movies routinely hit the two hour mark. He also uses a very interesting trope for his demonic presence; it only becomes visible and physical in darkness. Shine a light on Diana and she becomes incorporeal and harmless. When that light goes out…well, Diana raises havoc with those unfortunate to fall under her crosshairs.

This isn’t a particularly gory movie, nor are there a ton of murders (although a couple of hapless cops do get Diana’s special attention near the end of the movie). Most of the film is spent basically running away from Diana who is apparently very possessive of Sophie and doesn’t want to share her with anyone, even (and maybe especially) her own children.

It is refreshing to have characters in horror movies not act like utter and complete idiots, doing things that no rational sane human being would ever do. Say what you want about the leads here, they act like you and I would probably act in a similar situation, although to be fair I’d probably be a screaming wreck about a third of the way into the movie were it my life story.

The acting isn’t particularly outstanding; Bello is one of my favorite actresses but she makes some odd choices as Sophie – no pun intended. The part is a little bit of a caricature of a crazy person and if you don’t get the jitters watching Sophie for any length of time, you’ve probably taken some Valium recently. That or you drink enough coffee to make you permanently immune to the jitters. Palmer is beautiful and has some facial resemblance to Bello, but at the end of the day this isn’t a performance I would put into a star-making category; the success of the film will likely give her career quite a boost however.

Sandberg relies mainly on practical effects here, believe it or not. The CGI is kept to a minimum, although I’m certain that there is some optical trickery going on to make Diane visible and invisible so smoothly. I’m sure a computer or two were employed in that essential process.

All in all, this is a solid, scary movie that is going to make you think twice about turning out the lights when you go to sleep. I’m usually immune to such things, but I have to admit that when I went to bed after seeing the movie earlier that day, I did feel a good deal of apprehension as I shut out the lights. When a horror movie can do that to you, you know that you’re watching a director who knows what he’s about. I’ll be looking forward to his future work with more than a little bit of interest.

REASONS TO GO: You’ll want to sleep with the lights on afterwards. The demonic presence in the film has a nifty conceit.
REASONS TO STAY: Bello is wasted in a caricature of a performance and none of the actors really stand out. There are only so many ways you can make the lights flicker.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of disturbing images and terror, a fair amount of violence, some adult themes and a brief drug reference.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house in this movie is the same one used in Ouija and its upcoming follow-up Ouija: Origin of Evil.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Darkness
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Jason Bourne

Bullet to the Head


Rambo and Conan get their axe together.

Rambo and Conan get their axe together.

(2012) Action (Warner Brothers) Sylvester Stallone, Sung Kang, Jason Momoa, Sarah Shahi, Adwale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Christian Slater, Jon Seda, Holt McCallany, Brian Van Holt, Weronika Rosati, Dane Rhodes, Marcus Lyle Brown, Dominique DuVernay, Andrea Frankle. Directed by Walter Hill

Vengeance can make strange bedfellows of us all. Those who are wronged by the same party can become allies, regardless of their outlook on life. People who would never be friends are suddenly thrust together by circumstance, made close by common cause.

Jimmy “Bobo” Bonomo (Stallone), not mindful that his nickname in some quarters is slang for the derriere,  is a New Orleans hitman on a routine job to execute some high rolling lowlife (McCallany). The job is done but Jimmy spares a hooker (Rosati) who has a tattoo of a panther that seems to be reasonably significant. His partner Louis Blanchard (Seda) chides him for his softness. They go to a bar to meet Ronnie Earl (Van Holt) who is their contact but instead, Louis meets his maker and Jimmy barely escapes.

Of course something like this gives Jimmy a mad on. He knows that Ronnie alone knows who hired him and he needs to know who the man is and why he and Louis were set up. In the meantime Taylor Kwan (Kang), a detective for the Washington DC police force arrives in town to investigate the death of the high rolling lowlife who turns out to have been his ex-partner, drummed out of the DCPD in disgrace. Detective Kwan meets up with Lt. Lebreton (Rhodes) and Detective Towne (Brown) of the New Orleans Police and they investigate Greely’s body at the morgue. There they discover Blanchard’s body as well and Kwan deduces that Blanchard and his partner Bobo were responsible for the death of his former partner.

Detective Kwan is, like Bobo, more interested in who hired him and set him up then in taking Bobo down. The two men meet but Bobo is extremely distrustful of cops and refuses to work with him. However when Kwan is attacked by a pair of corrupt cops outside the bar, Bobo rescues him. The enemy of my enemy and all that.

Detective Kwan is shot in the attack and Bobo takes him to his daughter Lisa’s (Shahi) tattoo parlor where she fixes him up. The two know they need to find Ronnie Earl, and a visit to a massage parlor locates him. Earl tells him that he worked through Marcus Baptiste (Slater), a sleazy lawyer. The two crash a costume party and kidnap him, taking him to a boat house on the bayou that serves as Bobo’s safe house. They are tracked by Keegan (Momoa), the thug who murdered Blanchard and a team of mercenaries. Baptiste confesses that the man behind all this is Robert Nkomo Morel (Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a deposed African warlord who aims to build condos in a low-income area. Just then Keegan’s mercenaries interrupt the party but Bobo and Kwan escape with Bobo blowing up the boathouse with the men in it. Only Keegan escapes and now he wants Bobo’s head on a stick in front of the Superdome if necessary.

This is based on a French graphic novel that has been transplanted to American soil which I suppose is appropriate enough. Certainly the gritty tone of the original works well in an American setting, although I can’t help but wonder how this would have fared in the capable hands of a Luc Besson or a Louis Letterier or even an Olivier Megaton, capable action directors all.

Stallone, closer to 70 than he is to 60, is terribly miscast here. The role is really meant for a lithe hand-to-hand combat expert. Someone along the lines of a Jet Li or a Jean-Claude van Damme would have been more suitable; Stallone is much more believable in a thug-like role, at least for me. However, he gets an excellent foil in Momoa who is clearly an emerging action star. His performance in the first season of Game of Thrones was incandescent and here that same charisma surfaces. I would love to see more of Momoa better films. Hey Sly, got room for him in your next Expendables flick?

Hill, one of the most respected action directors in Hollywood history (48 Hrs., Hard Times, Streets of Fire) , knows how to create a rough-edged mood, perfect for framing an action film. This is not going to stand among the best of his career; this doesn’t have the smooth flow or the chemistry of his previous pictures. Kang and Stallone are awkward together. Kang’s earnest by-the-book Taylor Kwan has no real charisma; he feels more like an archetype than a real person. I never got emotionally invested in him.

Stallone fares slightly better but as I said earlier the role is all wrong for him. That’s not to say that Stallone is a terrible actor; it’s just his physical fighting skills lend themselves more to someone a little more along the lines of a Mafiosi thug than a lethal assassin. Still, at least I wound up having an interest in the character.

2013 has started out with a rash of mediocre action movies, none of which has really stood out as especially memorable. Most of them have had brief theatrical runs and have disappeared into bomb status, no doubt to resurface quickly on home video and cable. With a particularly full schedule of action flicks scheduled for this year, it’s an inauspicious start. Hopefully we’ll get some better ones as the year goes on.

REASONS TO GO: Momoa is an excellent villain. Some of the fight sequences are nicely staged (but not all). Shahi makes excellent eye candy.

REASONS TO STAY: Stallone miscast. Lacks chemistry.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of violence, a fair amount of bad language, an even more fair amount of bare breasts and a little drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Walter Hill’s first feature film in ten years, and Slater’s first theatrically released feature film in eight.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100. The reviews are about as mixed as you can get.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Expendables

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Identity Thief

The Expendables


The Expendables

Jason Statham, Sylvester Stallone and Randy Couture are all puzzled by the awful smell coming from the ceiling.

(Lionsgate) Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Eric Roberts, Giselle Itie, Mickey Rourke, Steve Austin, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Charisma Carpenter, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, David Zayas, Gary Daniels. Directed by Sylvester Stallone

When we reach a certain age, we have a tendency to say things along the lines as “they don’t make them like that anymore” more and more often. In some cases, it’s just our memories of things from the past that color our perceptions. Once in awhile, we’re actually right – they don’t make them like that anymore.

Case in point, The Expendables. This is the kind of action movies that filled theaters with cheering, chest-pounding men and the women who put up with them. It’s the kind of movie that makes you want to cook some meat on an open flame, use power tools to make things that needed to be fixed even more broken, and drink several beers while watching football. You know, man things.

There’s a plot here but really, do you care? You’ve got Stallone leading a bunch of mercenaries into a fictional South American country to rescue a brave woman (Itie) with his besties at his side – mostly Statham and Li but also including Couture and Crews – against some rogue CIA agents (Roberts and Austin).  We’ve seen it more than once already this summer alone.

One of the big draws is a single scene in which Stallone, Willis and Schwarzenegger gather together in a church to essentially set up the story. It’s early on in the movie, last only a few minutes and then Willis and Schwarzenegger disappear forever from the movie. Still, you get an insane kick out of seeing these three action icons of the 80s and 90s together for the first time, with Stallone even getting in a jab at Schwarzenegger’s political aspirations.

Then there’s Mickey Rourke. Having seen his career resurrected in The Wrestler and further enhanced by Iron Man 2, he plays a semi-retired Expendable who runs a tattoo parlor slash garage where his old merc buddies get together to reminisce. He has a scene that he talks about why he got out of the game and gives at least a little insight into the toll of war on old warriors. Stallone, to his credit, centers the camera on a tight close-up on Rourke’s face except for a brief reaction shot, but essentially the entire speech is shot that way. It’s a stunning moment, one you wouldn’t expect to find in an action film like this and it serves to elevate the movie all by its lonesome.

Mainly though, this is about blowing things up, stabbing people every which way, kicking, punching and shooting people with guns, rocket launchers and whatever else is handy. The action is way over-the-top, loud and aggressive – in short, the way it used to be. You don’t have time to really think about how hurling an artillery shell at a helicopter with your bare hands isn’t likely to do much damage, let alone blow it up but Crews does just that and you pound your chest and grunt like a good monkey when he does.

Some of the fight scenes, particularly during the last battle, were difficult to follow. Stallone chose to use a more modern handheld camera approach, not realizing perhaps that the style was something of a novelty to begin with; combined with quick cuts, you get the sensation that the entire battle scene is hurtling by your head without really sticking onscreen. At times, you can’t tell who’s battling who, and it’s a shame because you wind up missing some of Jet Li’s martial arts moves which are unbelievable to begin with.

Still, this is a movie that will quell that action Jones you may have been craving for years now. I could actually feel my testicles swelling up while the movie was going on. Not an unpleasant sensation, let me tell you.

REASONS TO GO: A throwback action movie that gives you more bang for your buck than any action film this past summer.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the fight scenes (particularly in the climactic battle) were filmed with handheld cameras and were insanely difficult to follow, so quickly were they cut.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of action, lots of violence, lots of things go boom and lots of hand-to-hand mayhem. A few swear words too; probably older teens will be fine with this, but the very young should stay away.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene with Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis was filmed on October 24, 2009 and took six hours to film. Willis was in the midst of filming Cop Out and was given a pass by director Kevin Smith to appear in The Expendables; Schwarzenegger declined to accept any pay for his role, doing it as a favor to his longtime friend Stallone. It was Schwarzenegger’s first movie appearance in six years, since Around the World In 80 Days.

HOME OR THEATER: Big explosions should be seen on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Taking Woodstock

The Bounty Hunter


The Bounty Hunter

Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler are crusing the byways of New Jersey in a big blue whale.

(Columbia) Jennifer Aniston, Gerard Butler, Jason Sudeikis, Dorian Missick, Joel Marsh Garland, Christine Baranski, Jeff Garlin, Cathy Moriarty, Richie Coster, Carol Kane, Tracy Thorne, Adam Rose, Siobhan Fallon Hogan. Directed by Andy Tennant

Sometimes life drops a gift into our laps. It could be an inheritance from a previously unknown relative, or a long-forgotten stock gift hitting paydirt. It can even be something far more simpler but much more satisfying.

Nicole Hurly (Aniston) is a reporter whose life is her job. She is investigating the apparent suicide of a police property clerk under suspicious circumstances. When a snitch calls her to set up a meeting with important evidence on the line, she blows off a bail hearing for a traffic crime to go to the meet.

Milo Boyd (Butler) used to be a police detective but he’s made a few career missteps so now he works for his friend Sid (Garlin) as a bounty hunter for bail skip-outs. When he receives the ticket for his ex-wife – you guessed it, Nicole Hurly – over the fourth of July weekend, he is more than jazzed. He is simply ecstatic.

While searching his ex-wife’s apartment, he runs into her love-struck co-worker Stewart (Sudeikis) who believes that he is having a torrid relationship with Nicole (which was in reality a single night of drunken making out). With his intimate knowledge of the client he heads over to Atlantic City where Nicole has also blown off lunch with her cabaret entertainer mom (Baranski) to go to the track and think. He collars her at the track and its clear that she despises him and vice versa.

Milo is also in debt to some bookies for a good deal of dough and Mama Irene (Moriarty) wants it collected. A couple of thugs are on the look-out for Milo, and there are some crooked cops who are after Nicole. Now half the state of New Jersey is looking for both of them and they can’t stand each other – but they’ll have to rely on each other to make it back to New York.

In years gone by this would have been a screwball comedy with Rita Hayworth or Cary Grant in the lead roles, with lots of snappy one-liners and clever dialogue. Today, it’s a formula romantic comedy that shows little imagination in anything other than the casting of the leads with attractive, bankable stars.

Director Andy Tennant has made movies like Hitch and Sweet Home Alabama, both light entertainments that are way better than this is. This is bloodless and by the numbers. Aniston and Butler are both solid actors who have made some good movies but this isn’t one of them. Butler, who was solid in last year’s The Ugly Truth, is in a similar man-slob role but unlike that movie doesn’t have a whole lot of redeeming qualities. The sweetness that was at the core of his character in that movie is completely missing here.

There’s some talent in the supporting roles, from Baranski as Nicole’s oversexed mom to the great Carol Kane as a bed and breakfast owner. For the most part though, it’s wasted with pointless slapstick bits and one-liners that are punchless and none too funny. It’s not a complete waste of time, but it isn’t anything to write home about either.

In fact, this is a completely formulaic movie that holds no surprises whatsoever. You know where the romance is going, and you know who the bad guys are the minute they show up onscreen. It’s a no-brainer for even the non-discerning audience.  

REASONS TO GO: Aniston and Butler are attractive leads.

REASONS TO STAY: A passionless, formulaic script with no surprises whatsoever.

FAMILY VALUES: Some sexual situations and a little bit of violence and foul language but for the most part perfectly harmless.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The production filmed at Monmouth Racetrack in New Jersey; notices were posted throughout the track that those who didn’t want to be filmed should leave the premises.

HOME OR THEATER: No problem waiting for this to hit the home video market.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Repo Men