Traveller (****) is a deceptive lead for Paxton

Traveller-1997

Traveller – 1997

Director Jack N. Green
Screenplay Jim McGlynn
Starring Bill Paxton, Mark Wahlberg, Julianna Margulies, James Gammon, Luke Eskew, Nikki DeLoach

There is a strong desire to turn away from Traveller for fear of having seen it all before. For the type of film that is very much low budget, one is tempted to think there would be something less formulaic. It’s a presentation of the Irish descendant Travellers of the deep south who keep to themselves except when they go to towns and take advantage of the local populace. One of these con men is Paxton’s Bokky, who has things working just fine until he is obliged to take on the son of a prodigal cousin, Pat (Wahlberg) as a partner.

The film has moments of gravity and some wackiness thrown in to the point where it’s hard to take it seriously at certain points. James Gammon’s Double D is a particularly tough character to take seriously. His character is played to such a comic degree, it brings the film to hi jink territory.

Wahlberg doesn’t have much to offer at this point in his career, but he’s not a detriment. This is the same year he was in Boogie Nights, and he’s essentially the same character here. He’s got a certain amount of verve which plays well, if muted.

Juliana Margulies is played against type as, Jean, a desperate single mother who loses her job due to one of Bokky and Pat’s scams. Bokky takes more than just pity on her. Very quickly, Bokky and Jean become a thing. Their chemistry works well enough. Paxton’s skill is such that he is definitely as capable of lifting your wallet as he is to add money to it without you knowing.

Paxton’s portrayal is the very biggest selling point of the film. He has a way of grabbing a lead character and making him real, instead of large. His Bokky has a certain amount of charm and ability, but he never lets it get in the way of his dedication and obligation to others. One can’t help but wonder how good this film could have been if they had dedicated to creating supporting characters that actually challenged him in the way that fed into his abilities of self-deprecation and courage.

As for antagonists, he is worthy of intelligent counterparts and he gets these in this film. Unfortunately, Green’s directing style takes away from the power of the more dangerous elements. Only in the last few minutes of the film does it all come together. Once it does, everything moves up a tick, when you realize there’s been a secret, malevolent force only hinted at before.

That it shows up when it did gives the story a significant jolt and makes us the whole journey much more worthwhile. It also gives us another example of how effective Paxton was as a lead actor. A lesser force would have insisted on being the focus of the answer, rather than someone who is at the complete mercy of others. Very few would allow themselves to be put in this position, and it makes the film much better because of it.

Another strong selling point for the movie is the soundtrack. Several traditional movies that were hits in another form are covered quite effectively by the likes of Randy Travis, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Mandy Barnett and The Cox Family. Several of the artists make memorable takes on these classic songs, adding character to the film that gives it a definite time and place.

If you have no patience, this film is not for you. Honestly, the first 3/4 of the film is almost a complete throwaway. The thing about that ending, though, is it brings you to the point where its all worth watching over again to see what it is you missed watching the first time.

One thing’s for sure, though, if you like Paxton, this one is a must. And you’ll miss him every time.

(**** out of *****)

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Forgotten Gems: One False Move (****1/2) is the Promise of a Future

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One False Move – 1992

Director Carl Franklin
Screenplay Billy Bob Thornton, Tom Epperson
Starring Bill Paxton, Cynda Williams, Billy Bob Thornton, Michael Beach, Earl Billings, Jim Metzler

One False Move is now seen as somewhat of a jumping off point in the career of Billy Bob Thornton. It is here we saw his first foray into writing after a young career of playing under-achievers. At the time, it was viewed, rightly, as a sort of graduation to the big time for actor turned director Carl Franklin.

In the process we see some evidence of relative inexperience with perspective. The arrival of Ray and Pluto to the party at the start of the film is an example. Awkward dancing, people plopped in front of another view, back to awkward dancing. It’s in this first act, however that we see his true skill. Tasked with seeking a young child that has been left undetected and must be taken care of, we see the child found, standing, whimpering in a back room. This little boy seems to be doomed as the lens begins to focus on him. The moment we think the dam is about to burst on his young life, the imagery changes to halfway across the country, to a different kind of childhood experience. It is an unforgettable experience that never fails to bring strong emotions.

The story starts in Los Angeles, where Fantasia (Williams) is an accessory to a drug robbery and 6 murders. The killers are her boyfriend Ray (Thornton) and Pluto (Beach). Ray is a blunt object, who seems only to know about 30 words, but uses them often. Pluto is more deliberate and obviously intelligent. He is the one with the plans for the ill-gotten loot. When things start to go bad, Ray thinks immediately of the small sum of cash and Pluto reveals the shortsighted nature of his thinking. Fantasia wants to go back home, and her partners seem to be agreeable to that idea, after they achieve a few things on a cross-country trip.

Police in Los Angeles quickly determine the three as suspects, though, and they determine through evidence left behind where it is that Fantasia is headed. They head there first and discover the small town of Star City has a sheriff (Paxton) of boundless energy and seemingly questionable intelligence. The interplay between Sheriff Dale “Hurricane” Dixon and his big city counterparts plays out differently than one would expect. Sure, Dixon is a good man who has a handle on what danger is for his part of the world. He seems to have little to no clue the horrors that are headed his way, though. And the fact that he hasn’t drawn his gun in 6 years doesn’t convince the L.A. cops that they want his help when the assailants arrive.

The contrast of the relationships of both sides of the law as the tension ratchets upon their pending convergence is handled expertly. The circumstances of the trio who are fleeing are such that we have sympathy for Fantasia, even as she descends from accomplice to full-fledged killer. It is a carefully layered evolution that never lets the viewer have the easy position, even as we move towards the conclusion.

Dixon is an equally complex character. Lingering looks give a hint to depth behind relatively innocent actions early on. As the moment draws near, we understand that the title of the movie plays a heavy role in a tragedy of Thomas Hardy-like proportions. This is the Bill Paxton performance, above all others, that made me a fan. Never before or since have I seen an actor who conveyed so much with his eyes.

There is a scene in a restaurant in the second act that brings every gift Paxton has to the fore. He stumbles across the Los Angeles policemen having a conversation over breakfast. That conversation is cruelly about him and their impressions of him as a true bumpkin of the highest order. Having made the mistake of confiding in one of the two earlier, that confidence is shattered, and he still has to work with these two. Everything shows in those eyes. And it isn’t even his best scene in the film.

Truly, this movie is Paxton’s finest two hours. He is shown in every light: a flawed hero yet to be tested. He’s doubted by those he admires, takes those who value him for granted. He has greatness in him, and secrets in his past that could destroy everything. Franklin is smart enough to realize that as good as the script is, Paxton is the best interpreter of the message Thornton and Epperson are trying to convey.

The script is a great one. The border of right and wrong is drawn obviously between factions, when in truth there is a lot of gray.

A few of the film’s drawbacks:

  • The limited variety of curse words (“God Damn It!” is used numerous times).
  • There are times when you can’t tell the difference between the person holding a VHS camera’s angle and that of the cinematographer.
  • The actors, even Billy Bob, just aren’t that good.

Overall, the film is a story that transcends time.  As Levon Helm stated in The Band’s remake of Springsteen’s Atlantic City, “There’s winners and there’s losers / And I’m south of the line…” One False Move shows us how the pieces move on either side of that line.

Nightcrawler (*****) is the best kind of throwback

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Nightcrawler – 2014

Written & Directed by Dan Gilroy
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton, Ann Cusack, Kevin Rahm, Eric Lange

This is the kind of film that keeps me watching movies. The acting, the cinematography, the script and the promise of making an unforgettable experience with a small amount of overhead. This is the type of work the new Hollywood of the early 1970’s envisioned before it was derailed by greed, drugs and STD. If Paul Schrader could have stayed straight, this might be something we would have seen from him.

Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal) is a thief and a sociopath, doing whatever he deems necessary to move forward in life. Many have indicated that he is merely a vehicle to showcase how far down our society has fallen in the age of 24 hour news. Really, though, he’s more an example of how streets crowded with sheep do a good job disguising the wolves. He comes across an accident on a freeway and he just pulls over to look. He sees Joe Loder (Paxton) jump right in with a camera and film the grisly details. Then he learns Loder can get paid for this and decides to steal enough metal products and high performance bicycles to get himself a camera and a police scanner.

After an early success, he hires Rick (Ahmed) to be his navigator and second camera. The negotiations show much about Bloom. He sees Ahmed as a tool to get to the next step. There is absolutely nothing there for Lou on a human scale.

His early work is all negotiated with Nina, the news director for the lowest rated overnight news in Los Angeles. His increasingly daring work pays dividends for both and he pushes the envelope with her. This leads both of them to take even more risks and the resulting demands exact a toll on everyone but them.

Much of Nightcrawler exists in a bubble that encapsulates Lou Bloom. His reality is shaped by high intellect and a low threshold for morality. This viewpoint finds a comfortable niche in local news of Orange County. The viewer must have a willing suspension of disbelief in some of the things we see. There is a consequence for some of the things that he does if they were to be done by normal people in the real world. I have never seen the type of graphic shots that he takes on my local news. Taken in context of the character and this story, however, it works. By the time we’ve reached the conclusion everything comes together perfectly.

Gyllenhaal is not only one of the best actors of this age, but his capacity to pick interesting material is unmatched. I would love to see him work with Jeff Nichols and Michael Shannon on anything. His ability to express chameleon’s range of expression with a detached void behind the eyes gives Lou Bloom the most horrific visage since Michael Meyers.

Why you pursue something is as important as what you pursue.

Lou is the kind of person who is forever learning what he can do, but not whether he really should do it. His character is the very definition of a means to an end. According to IMDb, in 116 minutes of screen time, Bloom blinks only 4 times. No sleep for dreaming. The interactions with his supposed superiors in contrast to the way he treats his employee, Rick gives great insight into the mind of a sociopath. Society is not filled with fellow travelers: only obstacles and equipment to avoid or use. Gylenhaal deserves recognition for this role.

I have missed Rene Russo. She’s always been one of my favorite actresses, with a deceptive range. Her return in the Thor movies did not count so much as this much meatier and sleazier presentation as Nina. Allowing her character to be emotionally undressed by the sociopath that is Lou Bloom, Russo allowed herself the appearance of a mountain being dissolved from within. It is played perfectly by her director-husband Gilroy. Only someone with the talent of Russo can be motivated to play broken at one moment and go back to playing whole the next scene.

What if my problem wasn’t that I don’t understand people but that I don’t like them?

Ahmed gave a remarkable lead performance in the film the Reluctant Fundamentalist. His performance as Rick is the exact person that one might see answering an ambiguous advertisement from sheer desperation. His slow build from “too hungry to complain” to “something is not right” gives the viewer the most identifiable character. His humanist character is a startling contrast to Gyllenhaal’s lack thereof.

Gilroy shows an incredible eye for the beauty of the twilight of Los Angeles. The visions of beauty contrasted with the gruesome visage tracked down by “nightcrawlers” brings it home for the detached watcher. We can identify with a Rest Area being watered at night. Seeing what is just out of reach of the sprinkler is disconcerting. The car chase scene in the last act is as riveting as anything I have seen since The French Connection. That it is slowly built up from a stake out to a set up 911 call only makes it more amazing to watch. I don’t know what Gilroy’s been doing between screenplays, but his is a talent that needs to be further explored.

Nightcrawler is a landmark kind of film that should give filmmakers hope. It is possible to create tightly wound stories with great characters, plot and visuals within a tight budget. That this is the best film that has been released since Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter is not an accident. There are true artists out there with something worth saying. I don’t fault Hollywood for missing them. I am thankful we live in a time where it’s possible to find them, the way Lou Bloom finds things…or people.

(***** out of *****)

Edge Of Tomorrow (***1/2): Try, try again…

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Edge of Tomorrow – 2014

Director Doug Liman
Starring Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Brendan Gleeson, Noah Taylor
Screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth based on All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka

First thing’s first.  Edge of Tomorrow is a likable film.  Tom Cruise puts everything into it, just like usual.  Cruise’s Major William Cage is a mouthpiece for the military who is busted down to private and shown the front line despite his protestations.  This puts him in line to be the butt of ridicule and low expectations, just like the good old days.  And also like his past, Cruise gets to rise above those obstacles and the enemy as well.

Why is he busted down?  It’s the thinnest of excuses, but it amounts to “I don’t want to film the front line.”  So here he is, thrust into the midst of a disaster so bad, the big hero Vrataski (Blunt) of the war is decimated quickly. He outlasts her only long enough to kill one of the blue ones instead of the many red ones.  The blue ones are known as Alphas.  And their death triggers a reset of the day, time-wise by the Omega, who is the big brain of the attack.  The Alpha’s blood is mixed with his and this gives him the ability to reset as well.  Of course he too has to die to enact these resets.

This is not apparent to Cage until he gets together with Vrataski to compare notes.  This is something that Vrataski knows because she used to have the same ability, until…well, I will let you discover why.  She works to train Cage and at the same time they try to figure out how they can attack the Omega while avoiding  the Alpha.  This whole section of the film is handled cleverly enough to avoid being repetitive.  Still, its loud and the bad guys seem too animated to give a visceral feeling to the viewer.  Compare this to the street battle scenes in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and it becomes obvious what is lacking.

Cruise is good, but he’s treading over oft covered ground.  Blunt gives the strongest performance of the film, even if her character is an extension of her Devil Wears Prada self.  Paxton is more annoying than he’s been in a while.  Brendan Gleeson is very large for a general wearing camouflage.  Doug Liman does a great job with pacing, but like any director given the keys to the computer after so long, using traditional filming methods, he relies too awkwardly on the effects and the result is disconcerting.

Edge of Tomorrow works hard to please, even if at 113 minutes it still feels long.  That feeling is completely subjective.  The film has been well received by audiences and critics alike.  As much as I respect Cruise for his efforts to bring something new to the table each time out (even with his M:I sequels), this is not going to be one that I revisit all that often.

(***1/2 out of *****)

2 Guns: Not enough bullets

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2 Guns – 2013

Director Baltasar Kormákur
Starring Denzel Washington, Mark Wahlberg, Paula Patton, Bill Paxton, Fred Ward, James Marsden, Edward James Olmos, Robert John Burke
Screenplay Blake Masters based on the book by Steven Grant

There is a lot of star power in this film.  Personality just jumps off the screen at every turn.  We have Wahlberg somewhere between the knowing novice of his early films (Boogie Nights and the underrated Traveller) and the humorless quick study of his later work (The Italian Job, Contraband and Broken City).  Denzel, well, he’s Denzel.  There is not any real variance in his performances, but the subtleties are like no others.  One can always find time for Paula Patton.  Edward James Olmos is not in nearly enough.  He should work 24/7.  Paxton had me at “We just got our assess kicked, Pal!”

Even with all of this, 2 Guns is just so so.  That two undercover operatives from 2 different organizations can get so deep without figuring each other out is a stretch. Then they steal 43 million from another organization?  Suspension of disbelief can only be pushed so far.  Then there is the deception.  Everyone is double-crossing everyone, and somehow the ones they are deceiving get together to double cross our heroes.  It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World of guns and money.

It’s an entertaining film.  It’s not really memorable.  That one can be a fan of the two principal actors and still be nonplussed should tell you something.  Clint Eastwood, John Wayne and Toshiro Mifune made films like this and no one thinks any less of their careers in retrospect.  You probably won’t regret seeing it.  You probably won’t remember it after.

(*** out of *****)