Vampire Cleanup Department (Gao geung jing dou fu)


There’s nothing like a nice refreshing dip in an acid pool.

(2017) Horror Comedy (Media Asia) Babyjohn Choi, Min Chen Lin, Siu-Ho Chin, Richard Ng, Hok-chi Chiu, Meng Lo, Susan Yam-Yam Shaw, Cheng-Yan Yuen, Jim Chim, Eric Tsang. Directed by Sin-Hang Chiu and Pak-Wing Yan

Budding filmmakers, here is something to consider: everybody loves a secret agency that protects its citizens from supernatural threats – or at least a high enough percentage of everybody that you’re likely to get a whole lot of buzz.

Tim Cheung (Choi) is something of a clumsy nebbish. An orphan, he was brought up by his grandma who often confuses him with his deceased father. One night, he sees someone being attacked in an alleyway and tries to help; instead, he is bitten on the behind by a strange creature.

That creature turns out to have been a vampire. When Tim wakes up, he’s in the underground headquarters of the Vampire Cleanup Department, a secret government agency that takes on the nosferatu of Hong Kong. Among those who work for the VCD are his Uncle Chung (Ng), the head of the department as well as his Uncle Chau (Chin) who is the martial arts master of the group. There’s also Ginger (Yuen), a priest who is the master of the amulets that freeze the undead among other things; there’s also Tai Gau (Lo), the weapons master.

On Tim’s first mission, he gets dragged into a lake that had once been farmland and is kissed by a rotting vampire. The vampire’s rotting flesh sloughs off, revealing a beautiful young girl. Summer (Lin) was a 20-year-old girl whose Landlord had her buried alive with him when he died; the Landlord was a vampire and the living girl had become one due to her unjust death. Like most vampires, she can only hop around rather than walk or run. The others order Tim to immolate Summer in their furnace but Tim, seeing the tears flowing from the undead girl’s eyes hides her instead. The two soon fall in love. He grows to believe that she is not evil; that she is in fact a rare human vampire who might be able to learn how to become human again.

It’s a bad time to fall in love with the undead; there is an ambitious police officer who wants to take away the undead gig from the VCD and has his American scientist find a way to destroy the vampires scientifically. It is also very nearly time for the blood moon during which time the Landlord vampire can resurrect himself. What’s a nerdy vampire hunter to do?

For fans of classic Hong Kong cinema, particularly the hopping vampire genre, your ship has come in. This is an amazingly entertaining but lightweight homage to those films of yore such as Mr. Vampire – many of the cast have made appearances in one hopping vampire film or another. This is more of a romantic comedy than outright horror; while there are some gory images, they are relatively few in number and the bulk of the story is concentrated on the romance between Tim and Summer.

This is very much a guilty pleasure, with cheesy special effects and comedy that falls on the silly side but it has charm by the bucketful. One can’t help but root for Tim despite his hangdog demeanor and his somewhat klutzy cluelessness. It is well above the Abbott and Costello horror spoofs and way above the more modern Scary Movie-type abominations. After viewing it, I was thinking this is what a Hong Kong hopping vampire film might look like if produced by Kevin Feige and directed by Guy Ritchie – although you might have to twist yourself sideways to see the Ritchie reference (I was thinking of the Sherlock Holmes films).

The mythology behind the Vampire Cleanup Department itself is solid and has the kind of detail normally reserved for comic book adaptations. Think of these guys as the Avengers of hopping vampire hunters with a Shaolin twist. Who can’t love vampire hunters who are disguised not in dark suits but in rubbish collector vests? Some of the humor is downright subversive if you can get past the pratfalls. I love that the voice of Summer is essentially Siri after she swallows Tim’s smart phone.

There are a few missteps. Some of the intentional cheesiness is perhaps a mite too cheesy for Western audiences. Some of the externally filmed scenes at night are way too murky and were hard to make out and while the Siri-voiced Summer conceit is cute, the Malaysian pop star Lin actually has a very naturalistic delivery and I thought the film might have benefited from more dialogue from her.

This may end up being my favorite movie from this year’s New York Asian Film Festival, which is saying something because this was a particularly bumper crop of fascinating films for the festival which has become more and more influential in the past few years. It isn’t going to change anyone’s point of view or educate them all that much on conditions in Asia but it is going to entertain the ever-loving heck out of you and that’s a lot more than many of this year’s summer blockbusters can claim.

REASONS TO GO: Although this is a bit on the cheesy side it’s nevertheless supremely entertaining. The background mythology is solid. Choi is ideal for the handsome nerd role. It reminded me of a Guy Ritchie film in a kind of twisted way.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the humor is a bit overly silly for Western tastes. The special effects are definitely cheesy and some of the outdoor night scenes are a bit hard to see.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some horror violence (some of it comedic) as well as bits and pieces of gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cheng-Yan Yuen, who plays the priest Ginger, is the brother of legendary stunt choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/16/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fearless Vampire Killers
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Birthright: A War Story

UFO: It Is Here (UFO: Es Ist Hier)


These German lasses just found out that Donald Trump COULD be elected U.S. President.

These German lasses just found out that Donald Trump COULD be elected U.S. President.

(2016) Horror (Daredo) Laura Berlin, Dennis Mojen, Olga von Luckwald, Leonard Hohm, Jan Walter, Hacky Rumpel, Andreas Ladwig, Fabio Cimpeanu, Nika Cimpeanu. Directed by Daniele Grieco

 

If you’re gonna be a film student, you might as well be ambitious. It’s all well and good to film a documentary at the local zoo, but when an object appears in the sky above your heads, causing the animals in the zoo to universally freak out, that’s a whole other matter. Abandoning your original project to search out a crashed meteorite might just be the ticket not only to getting an “A” but perhaps getting your name out there in the industry.

That’s exactly the situation that confronts Melissa Stein (Berlin), Leo Best (Mojen), Paula Idem (von Luckwald), Erik Greven (Hohm) and André Selke (Walter). Afterwards, they take a vote among themselves to drive to the Northwest and find the crash site of the meteorite and the vote passes, with only sensible Paula voting to finish their Zoo assignment.

Paula is however overruled and off they go in their van into the woods of Germany/Luxembourg/Belgium (where the movie was filmed by the way) and find what amounts to a needle in the haystack. Wouldn’t you know it but they do; a plume of smoke signals that they’ve found what they were searching for.

The crash site is covered with a haze of smoke and is nothing like they expected. There are metal fragments everywhere; scattered all over the ground among scorched trees and embedded in the trunks of trees as well. It is nearly dusk by the time they get there and worried that the authorities will have cordoned off the area before they can get the footage they need, they elect to remain there overnight with once again Paula voting for going home. They should have listened to Paula.

One of their number turns up missing the next morning and when they eventually make a grisly discovery, it becomes clear they are being hunted. Eventually they find a cave where they have an encounter with the thing that’s stalking them and it is like nothing seen before on this Earth, at least for as long as humans have been here.

This is a found footage film which may turn some off to it immediately; for awhile there it seemed like every other horror movie utilized the technique until it became pretty much overused. These days it has become decidedly less so, which makes reviewing it a bit easier. Still, it’s hard not to compare it to the granddaddy of all found footage films, The Blair Witch Project whose template is followed pretty closely by Grieco and to be fair if you’re going to follow a template, that’s a pretty good choice. There are also some nods to Alien, a movie Grieco professes much admiration for. The creature has some similarity to things encountered in the Ridley Scott film, although I think it’s more of an homage than a theft in this case.

Essentially what you have here is five good-looking young people making bad choices in the woods (and later, in a cave and even later in an abandoned farmhouse). That’s essentially the recipe for any horror film, but I was pleased that at least one of the characters seemed to be sensible; she just wasn’t listened to  There is a fair amount of gore here – it’s not for the squeamish by any standard – and mostly practical effects. The alien itself is pretty nifty, although I wouldn’t call it a state-of-the-art creation. We don’t see much of it except in one cave scene where one is found that appears to be in a slumber while digesting a recent meal. There is also plenty of shaky-cam going on which those who are sensitive to such things should be wary of.

I admit that for me to be wowed by a found footage film it has to be really innovative and bring something to the table that no other film in the genre has. This one does have a few things worth checking out but otherwise it really doesn’t add anything particularly new to the genre. It’s solidly made by a filmmaker who knows what he’s doing and I wouldn’t be surprised if a few years down the line he starts to get some mention with the young lions of the horror genre.

REASONS TO GO: The creature effects are primitive but effective.
REASONS TO STAY: There are way too many found footage tropes here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of profanity, some disturbing images and plenty of horror violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second straight found footage film that Grieco has directed, having had a hit in her native Germany with The Presence in 2014.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/4/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Blair Witch Project
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Deepwater Horizon

Tallulah


A short walk on a long pier.

A short walk on a long pier.

(2016) Drama (Netflix) Ellen Page, Allison Janney, Tammy Blanchard, Evan Jonigkeit, Felix Solis, Uzo Aduba, Fredric Lehne, Liliana/Evangeline Ellis, John Benjamin Hickey, Zachary Quinto, Maddie Corman, Tommar Wilson, J. Oscar Simmons, Charlotte Ubben, Olivia Levine, Jason Tottenham, Todd Alan Crain, Chanel Jenkins, Stacey Thunder, Jasson Finney. Directed by Sian Heder

 

Motherhood is one of the most primal of all human urges. There is no doubt that it changes a woman, not just in a physical sense (which it does) but also in her perspective, in how she sees the world. Some say that every woman becomes a great mother, but that simply isn’t so. Some women were flat-out not made to be mothers.

Lu (Page) has been living on her own, homeless and content to be. She doesn’t want to be tied down to anything or anyone – although she seems pretty smitten with her boyfriend Nico (Jonigkeit). However, he isn’t terribly smitten with the lifestyle of stealing and conning to survive and eventually takes a powder. Knowing that he is headed to New York City to find his estranged mom, she follows him there. Since she’s in a van and he’s on foot, she gets there first.

Margo (Janney) is Nico’s mom and she’s bitter ever since her husband Stephen (Hickey) deserted her – for another man, in this case Andreas (Quinto). Because Margo is living in faculty housing and it’s Stephen who is actually the faculty, she has to pretend like he’s still there, a fiction that has kept her in a place to live even though she hates the artwork on the walls and feels trapped in a place that she doesn’t particularly like.

When Lu turns up at her door, she’s at first dismissive but at she realizes that Lu is the only connection she has to her son so when Margo sees the doorman Manuel (Solis) she instructs him to send the waif back up the next time she drops by. And she drop by she does, only this time in the company of a baby (Ellis).

You see, while Lu was at a posh hotel taking leftover food from room service trays, she was spotted by Carolyn (Blanchard), a Real Housewives type. Mistaking Lu for hotel staff, she has her babysit her baby while she goes out and parties with a man who she is most definitely not married to. When she comes back to the hotel room and passes out dead drunk, Lu realizes Carolyn is not a fit mother. Rather than contact the authorities, she impulsively takes the baby herself for her own.

On the Margo front, Lu passes off the baby as Margo’s granddaughter and suddenly the two women are bonding, not just over the shared genetic material but also over motherhood itself. Margo realizes she wasn’t mother of the year – neither was Lu’s mom, who essentially abandoned her – but she has a chance to redeem herself for the mistakes she made with her son. The police however are closing in and Lu doesn’t sense the tightening net around her.

Heder, one of the writers of Netflix’ hit Orange is the New Black series, has a keen eye for women’s issues and what could be a more important one than motherhood? Well, at least that’s the way society makes it out to be. A woman is more than her ovaries and this is a movie that makes a case that being a great mom is not all there is to life.

In fact, the three main female characters are none of them great moms. The closest one to it is Lu, who stole her baby which is certainly one of the most unforgivable crimes in our culture. That she took it from a woman patently unfit to be a mother, who didn’t want to be a mother, who endangered her child’s welfare and seemingly her life was not necessarily the issue, or at least I didn’t think so.

Margo had devoted her life to Nico, particularly after she and Stephen broken up but her bitterness and betrayal colored that relationship as well. It wasn’t until after she met Lu that she was able to let go and be free of her self-imposed burdens, which is a theme in the movie symbolized by both of the two main female characters imagining they are floating away from earth, no longer tethered by gravity. With Lu it’s a dream at the beginning of the film; with Margo a daydream at the end.

I’ve never been an over-the-top Ellen Page fan, although I recognize that she is an extremely talented actress and I can relate to her on that point. However, the characters she chooses to play are often a bit too strident for my liking and often a bit too offbeat from time to time. Lu lives by her own rules; in some ways, she is as self-centered a character as Page has ever portrayed. There are those who will characterize this as kind of the logical continuation of Juno, the title character that launched her career, a pregnant teen. I don’t really see it that way though; Lu is nothing like Juno.

One of the objections I had to the script was that Lu has been set up to be something of an individualist. She wants relationships to be on her terms, in fact life itself is lived on her own terms. Her action of impulsively stealing the baby just seems to be so out of left field in that sense; someone who is as irresponsible as Lu is suddenly decides to take on the biggest responsibility of them all? It didn’t make sense when I saw it and I imagine that it could be written off as the impetuousness of youth – but that’s some bad writing.

While I enjoyed the performance of Allison Janney immensely, at the end of the day this seems to be a missed opportunity more than anything. We rarely get to see mothers portrayed as anything but saints and sacrificers and that is largely true of most moms, but we don’t always get to see the other side of it – the loss of identity, the absolute panic of not knowing what to do when your baby won’t stop crying, the exhaustion and the mistakes. Any mom will tell you that she made her share of foul-ups and sometimes things that she’s done that she wishes she hadn’t. I don’t think Heder was really certain as to whether she was writing a treatise on motherhood or finding freedom as a woman, and in a sense she tried to do both and ended up doing neither. I didn’t see anything here that really gave me any insight into the characters that I couldn’t have figured out by watching the Lifetime network for an hour or two.

REASONS TO GO: Janney is as solid as she always is.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the plot points don’t seem too organic.
FAMILY VALUES:  Profanity abounds; there are also plenty of adult themes, some drinking and drug use, sexual situations and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Allison Janney and Ellen Page are in the same movie for the third time, after Juno and Touchy Feely.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/22/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Castle in the Sky
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Der Bunker

Magic Mike XXL


You're welcome, ladies.

You’re welcome, ladies.

(2015) Comedy (Warner Brothers) Channing Tatum, Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Jada Pinkett Smith, Adam Rodriguez, Gabriel Iglesias, Kevin Nash, Elizabeth Banks Andie MacDowell, Amber Heard, Michael Strahan, Donald Glover, Stephen Boss, Rhoda Griffis, Jane McNeill, Ann Hamilton, Mary Kraft, Kimberly Drummond, Carrie Anne Hunt. Directed by Gregory Jacobs

Sometimes a movie is only as good as the audience you view it with. I can’t imagine seeing Magic Mike XXL in a room full of dour, jaded critics. They would never get what this movie is about on their own. What I did see this movie with was a room full of screaming, hooting, hollering women who would have thrown dollar bills at the screen had they thought of it.

And that’s just how Magic Mike XXL should be experienced. Channing Tatum returns as the titular male entertainer, now having hung up his G-string with a custom-made furniture business. His girlfriend from Magic Mike has left him and while he is doing what he wanted to do in the first film, he kind of misses the life. When Tarzan (Nash) calls, Mike comes running. The remaining Kings of Tampa – Dallas (Matthew McConaughey’s character from the first film) having absconded to Europe with the Alex Pettyfer character – are ready to close out their careers with a bang, at a male stripper convention in Myrtle Beach over the Fourth of July weekend. So Mike piles in to a fro-yo van owned by Tito (Rodriguez) along with Ken (Bomer), Tobias (Iglesias) and Big Dick Richie (Manganiello) for a road trip for bros.

So this becomes a road trip movie, with a stop in Savannah to visit Rome, a private club run by Rome (Smith)  in which female members get up close and personal with a gaggle of strippers whose members include Augustus (Strahan), Andre (Glover) and Malik (Boss). With Tobias having been injured in a van accident, the Kings are in dire need of an M.C. and ask Rome who declines. She and Mike have a history y’see…

After a stop in house of randy older women including Nancy (MacDowell), the mother of Megan (Hunt) whom they met in a Jacksonville bar and whose buddy Zoe (Heard) is the new romantic interest of Mike, in a kind of non-threatening platonic way they run into Rome who has changed her mind and it’s on to Myrtle Beach, the Redneck Riviera, where the boys will go out with a bang.

This isn’t nearly as serious a movie as the first Magic Mike was. That movie’s director, Steven Soderbergh, is still behind the camera but as a cinematographer this time. What we have here is more of a road movie that doesn’t take itself nearly as seriously. I will give you that the filmmakers understand their target audience as the women in our audience lost their minds nearly every time that the men started dancing or stripping. However, it was surprising to me that most of the women in the audience seemed to be fonder of Manganiello than of Tatum, although after one simulated sex/dance sequence featuring the star, one audience member exclaimed “I think I need a cigarette.”

\I will also say that the movie does look at the bond between men in a way not usual to Hollywood, which tends to view male bonding as a macho thing done over guns, cars and violence. The Kings of Tampa are all pretty sensitive guys who admire and respect women rather than viewing them as objects to be taken to bed as conquests and then cast aside. They view what they do as a kind of therapy, giving their clients something they need – not just a sexual release but adoration as well. I think most women’s fantasies are about guys like these, sensitive but sexy, handsome and hot as well. What woman wouldn’t want to be adored by guys like these?

The plot is kind of threadbare and I was left wondering if I’d seen this in a room full the aforementioned dour and jaded critics would I have liked this movie as much? Probably not. Because the women in the audience were having such a good time, I ended up having as good a time as well and that’s something to consider. The movie is in many ways not nearly as good as its predecessor but in many ways better – it gives its audience exactly what they want and that isn’t such a bad thing at all.

REASONS TO GO: Has heart as well as tush. We end up caring what happens to these guys.
REASONS TO STAY: Extremely lightweight and disposable. More of an experience than a movie.
FAMILY VALUES: Language, male butt nudity, sexual situations and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Holdridge and Saasen not only co-starred and co-directed the film but also co-wrote it based on their own experiences.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/19/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Little Miss Sunshine
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Finding Bliss

Gone


Amanda Seyfried wants to have a talk with her agent.

Amanda Seyfried wants to have a talk with her agent.

(2012) Thriller (Summit) Amanda Seyfried, Daniel Sunjata, Jennifer Carpenter, Sebastian Stan, Wes Bentley, Nick Searcy, Socratis Otto, Emily Wickersham, Joel David Moore, Katherine Moennig, Michael Pare, Sam Upton, Ted Rooney, Erin Carufel, Amy Lawhorn, Susan Hess Logeias, Jeanine Jackson, Blaine Palmer, Victor Morris, Ted Cole, Tracy Pacana, Madison Wray. Directed by Heitor Dhalia

Woman Power

The thought of being kidnapped by a serial killer, thrown in a hole and being left there, waiting to die, is something most of us don’t really even consider. The thought of escaping that hole only to have nobody believe you that the ordeal was real is unimaginable.

But Jill (Seyfried) more than imagines it; this is what her life is. She’s certain that there is a serial killer out there, who has dug a large hole in Portland’s Forest Park, some 5100 acres of heavily wooded land in Oregon’s largest city. The police haven’t been able to find any hole, any trace that there are missing women buried there. Jill has a history of alcoholism and mental breakdowns; when her parents died some years earlier she was briefly institutionalized. She is so insistent that this horrible ordeal happened to her that eventually she is sent back to the hospital for evaluation.

A year afterwards, she is still obsessed with it, although less obviously. She works third shift at a diner as a waitress, about the only job she can get given her background. At night she patrols Forest Park, looking for the place she was taken to. She has been operating on a meticulous grid-by-grid method of searching, marking off each grid with a red pen but she still has a long way to go.

After a night of searching the park she returns home to wake up her sister Molly (Wickersham) who wanted to get up early to study for an exam she had  later that day, only to find her bed empty. Jill checks with Molly’s boyfriend Billy (Stan) who informs her that Molly didn’t spend the night, then later on he tells her that she didn’t show up for the exam. Jill gets a bad feeling about the whole thing, and goes to the police.

The cops who had worked her case, Lt. Bozeman (Pare), Sgt. Powers (Sunjata) and Detective Lonsdale (Moennig) are all skeptical, given Jill’s history. They dismiss her claims, looking for reasons that Jill might not have gone to her test, and all of them think this whole scenario is going on inside Jill’s head. Only the newest homicide detective, Peter Hood (Bentley) believes her.

Knowing that she won’t get help through official sources, Jill is bound and determined to find Molly on her own and will do anything, break any law to find her sister who is the only family she has left. She’ll lie, cheat and steal – and if she finds the man who has her, kill – to get her sister back.

This is the kind of movie that should have everything going for it; Seyfried is an extremely underrated actress who shows here that she can take on roles like this and make them work. There’s also the Brazilian director Dhalia who is best known in this country for Adrift and has made some fine films in his native land. Then there’s Portland itself, one of those cities that should have more films made there; it is certainly underutilized.

Seyfried is terrific here. This is the kind of role that is often overplayed and the lead character can go from insistent and focused to shrill and unlikable in an instant. Jill is certainly not without her demons but who among us wouldn’t do the things she does to save a sister? Certainly not me. If Jill is on the ragged edge, it is very understandable and Seyfried makes her actually likable, even in her worst moments. It’s marvelous work and shows that Seyfried is a versatile performer who can do drama, comedy and musicals, all of which she’s done notably in the past.

Now for the bad news; the studio seems to have interfered a good deal on this project, insisting that the movie get a PG-13 rating (the director apparently thought it should be R rated) and made Dhalia’s life so miserable to the point that he considered taking his name off the project. In this particular case, I think Dhalia was right; the movie would have benefitted from being allowed to go to a harder rating. It needed more edge to it.

Worse still, the writing doesn’t do the role of Jill justice. It’s full of logical holes – for instance, how does a girl working a third shift waitress job at a diner afford to hold on to a beautiful home in a nice neighborhood and send her sister to college?  Since she’s going into the woods by herself anyway, why does the killer need to go to such elaborate lengths to get her into the woods?

But worse still, she has the police doing and saying things no self-respecting police department would ever do. I get that the writer, Allison Burnett, wants to completely isolate Jill and force her to take action on her own which is the crux of the whole movie, but certainly there had to be ways that she could have done it that were more imaginative. And I think the movie would have been more effective as well if the audience were left wondering if the whole thing wasn’t REALLY in Jill’s head, right up to the very end.

Still, the beautiful scenery in and around Portland and especially Seyfried’s performance make this worth a look. Granted, the movie got terrible reviews and I can’t say as I blame some of my colleagues for ripping this film a new one, but I can forgive a lot when you get a performance like Seyfried’s in the kind of role – the thriller hero that takes matters into their own hands – that is more of a traditional male bastion. That alone is worth a look-see.

WHY RENT THIS: Seyfried takes a strong role and runs with it. Pretty cinematography.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lazy writing. Illogical plot.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of violence and depictions of women being terrorized, sexuality, some drug references and brief harsh language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The hardware store that Jill shops at in the movie is a real hardware store in Portland and at exactly the location that the film shows it to be.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $18.1M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only). Amazon, VuduiTunes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kiss the Girls
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Woman Power continues!

A Walk Among the Tombstones


No more cracks about being too old for this.

No more cracks about being too old for this.

(2014) Mystery (Universal) Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour, Boyd Holbrook, Adam David Thompson, Brian “Astro” Bradley, Olafur Darri Olafsson, Sebastian Roche, Danielle Rose Russell, Natia Dune, David Anzuelo, Whitney Able, Maurice Compte, Laura Birn, Razane Jammal, Eric Nelsen, Frank De Julio, Mark Consuelos, Marielle Heller, Novella Nelson. Directed by Scott Frank

They don’t make ’em like Sam Spade anymore. Or Lew Archer. Or Philip Marlowe. Or Humphrey Bogart for that matter. Noir detectives – hard bitten, hard drinking tough guys who were often knights in tarnished armor, strong men with stronger codes. Life has kicked the crap out of them – it’s a dog eat dog world after all – but if the weak or the helpless are threatened, well, get ready for a fight.

Matt Scudder (Neeson) is a throwback to those kinds of guys. He used to be a hard-bitten hard-drinking tough guy on the NYPD until a particularly bad day at the office. These days – which happen to be 1999 – he’s an unlicensed private investigator which he describes as “Sometimes I do people favors. Sometimes they give me gifts.”

He’s not too picky about his clientele. When Peter Kristo (Holbrook), who attends AA meetings with Matt, approaches him on behalf of his brother Kenny (Stevens), Matt is wary at first. Kenny is a drug dealer whose wife Carrie (Jammal) was kidnapped. Finding her isn’t the problem – Kenny’s already found her. In pieces. After he paid the ransom.

This doesn’t sit well with him. He wants the guys who did it found and brought to him, preferably alive. Matt doesn’t want any part of a revenge killing – until he hears the audio tape the killers left for Kenny. Once he hears that he’s all in.

As he investigates he discovers that Carrie Kristo wasn’t the first victim and she’s probably not going to be the last. His investigations take him to a graveyard groundskeeper (Olafsson) who found the first body and to the seamy side of New York. He is assisted by TJ (Bradley), a tough-talking African-American street kid who wants to be a P.I. just like in the books he’s read at the public library where he essentially hangs out all the time. However, the killers (Harbour, Thompson) have selected another victim and this time she’s a true innocent. Time is running out.

The movie is based on the tenth in a series of 17 (and counting) books by crime author Lawrence Block. The fifth, 8 Million Ways to Die, was brought to the silver screen back in 1986 with Jeff Bridges taking on the Scudder role. I haven’t seen that one in ages (it used to be in regular rotation on cable) but I do appreciate Neeson’s take on the role better; he conveys the inner darkness of the character much better.

Frank, who exhibited a good deal of potential in the thriller genre with the Joseph Gordon-Levitt film The Lookout continues to impress at his ability to deliver that dark, noir-ish mood while keeping the movie essentially modern despite its setting of 15 years ago. The Y2K undercurrent seems a bit quaint these days – and boy does it bring back memories.

This is definitely Neeson’s film and he carries it with both dignity and toughness. He’s the kind of guy who will punch a guy through a glass window but will buy a street urchin pancakes. He’s made some awful, awful choices in his life and other people have paid for some of his mistakes. He’s trying the straight and narrow but he seems to exist mostly in the grey area between there and the dark and lawless. Neeson is the perfect choice for Scudder.

Now about TJ. Let me first give full disclosure by asserting that I haven’t read any of the books in the series. The character of TJ is introduced in the ninth book in the series. I have read elsewhere that he doesn’t appear in this particular installment. Quite frankly, I found his presence unnecessary and distracting. During the climax of the movie, the character commits the cardinal kid sin by going exactly to the wrong place at the wrong time to be in the most peril. It derailed the movie for me and made me want to find the nearest wall and bang my head against it. Sorry guys, but this cliche is older than the original noir pics and it was just as unwelcome back then. The young actor that plays TJ is engaging – but again, it seems kind of gimmicky and unnecessary to have him in the movie.

There are some really great moments in the movie – sadly several of them are on display in the trailer. There would have been some franchise potential here although the box office numbers sadly don’t seem to justify it so chances are this is the last of Matt Scudder we’re going to see for awhile. I have to say I’m glad to see that noir films are making a bit of a comeback with this and the much better Cold in July both hitting the multiplex this year. Now if we could only get screwball comedies to make a comeback.

REASONS TO GO: Neeson perfect as the brooding action anti-hero. Grim and gritty.
REASONS TO STAY: The TJ character completely unnecessary and gets in the way.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some pretty intense violence, themes and images, sexuality and brief nudity and a fair amount of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ruth Wilson was cast as Matt Scudder’s partner Joe Durkin (male in the book) but director Scott Frank felt that the character was essentially a loner and a partner would only confuse things, so the role was eliminated and all the scenes filmed with Wilson were cut.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Se7en
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The Maze Runner

Hesher


Joseph Gordon-Levitt has sure let himself go.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt has sure let himself go.

(2010) Drama (Wrekin Hill) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Devin Brochu, Natalie Portman, Rainn Wilson, Piper Laurie, Brendan Hill, John Carroll Lynch, Monica Staggs, Mary Elizabeth Barrett, Audrey Wasilewski, Lyle Kanouse, Frank Collison, Allan Graf, Rafael J. Noble. Directed by Spencer Susser

People come in and out of our lives like there’s a revolving door. Some stay for just moments; others are there for life. The effect that people have on our lives however doesn’t always have anything to do with how long they are in them.

TJ (Brochu) is a 12-year-old kid who’s life has been devastated. He mourns his mom who passed away recently but he gets no help with it – if TJ is devastated, his dad (Wilson) is catatonic. He mopes around the house, unable to go back to work. His own mother – TJ’s grandmother (Laurie) – is seriously ill, her body racked with cancer.

TJ is bullied brutally at school by Dustin (Hill) who in one memorable scene forces him to eat a used urinal cake. He is alone and losing his way but into his life comes two people; Nicole (Portman), a part-time grocery clerk whose life is teetering on the edge of financial disaster (a parking ticket is enough to make her panic) who takes pity on the young boy who is getting the crap kicked out of him by life.

Then there’s Hesher (Gordon-Levitt). TJ meets him when, consumed by frustration and rage, he throws rocks into the windows of a house under construction which turns out to be where Hesher is squatting. TJ’s act gets Hesher discovered and with that avenue of shelter closed to him, he decides that since TJ lost him his residence that he’d just go and crash with TJ.

TJ’s dad doesn’t like the idea but he’s really too shell-shocked to do anything about it. He’s checked out of life for all intents and purposes. Grandma is much more excited about the idea – for whatever reason she finds Hesher to be exciting and alive – mainly because he’s willing to pay attention to her.

And so Hesher interjects himself into TJ’s life and not always in a good way. He’s sort of like a forest fire; sometimes it’s a good thing to get rid of the unwanted shrubbery but more often than not the trees get killed with the shrubs. There’s no predicting how the fire is going to act.

This is the kind of movie that leaves one scratching one’s head. On the one hand, you have some pretty good actors who are putting on some pretty impressive shows, including Brochu who wasn’t well-known to me before I’d seen him in this film. Gordon-Levitt clearly takes this movie over – after all, it’s called Hesher and not A Bunch of Things That Happen to a Family in Mourning. He is not a Bill and Ted metalhead – he is the real deal, and if he sometimes seems clueless, well maybe he is. But he’s definitely an enigma.

On the other hand, people don’t act here like they logically would. Hesher is allowed to get away with all sorts of mayhem and people get pissed at him but they go right back to letting him do whatever he wants. I think at the very least he’d get a pretty good sock on the nose, or at least a few nights in jail. There are no consequences here and life doesn’t operate that way unless you’re a billionaire, a politician or Lindsay Lohan.

Even though the action takes place at various times of the day, it felt like the entire movie was shot in late afternoon or early evening. I don’t know if it was the lighting, the ambience or just me but even if it was a happy accident, that gives the movie an air of melancholy that fits in nicely. Grief often feels like perpetual dusk.

The message of Hesher seems to be that one must live life, even if one’s life sucks and even if the life one chooses to lead is a selfish fest. Any sort of life is better than no life at all. Hesher kind of fits into that paradigm nicely – watching Hesher is better than watching no movie at all.

WHY RENT THIS: Really well acted across the board.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little Hesher goes a long way. Sails off the edge of indie preciousness.

FAMILY VALUES: Where to begin? There’s lots of bad language and worse behavior, drug use, disturbing images, violence and sexual content – much of it in the presence of a minor. Not role model stuff in the slightest.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: For the Japanese release, the film was re-titled Metalhead.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a viral YouTube clip, as well as not just one but two outtake reels, including one devoted entirely to takes ruined by airplane engines roaring overhead.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $382,946 on a $7M production budget; not a box office success by any stretch of the imagination.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pineapple Express

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Open Range