Murder on the Orient Express (***1/2) – It’s never about whodonit


Murder on the Orient Express – 2017

Director Kenneth Branagh
Screenplay Michael Green based on the novel by Agatha Christie
Starring Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Tom Bateman

“Lies – and again lies. It amazes me, the amount of lies we had told to us this morning.” (said Bouc)

“There are more still to discover,” said Poirot cheerfully.

“You think so?”

“I shall be very disappointed if it is not so.”

The Poirot of Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on The Orient Express is much more tired than the Albert Finney version of my extreme youth. Finney seemed ready to jump into the fray, whereas Branagh’s version always seems to remind people he’s on his way to retirement. On his way, but not quite yet.

This time, after solving the case of the missing religious artifact with the prime suspects being a priest, a rabbi and a cleric, he is asked to head to London for an impending case. The quickest route has to be the train line of the title, taking off from Istanbul the next morning. He gets on.

The mystery of the title happens the second night on the train. Someone is murdered. Then the train is stopped by landslide. The director of the train line, Bouc (Bateman) presses his friend, Poirot to solve the case quickly before the train gets moving again and gets to the next stop.

From this point, the interviews are fast and furious. If you think you’ve solved it or if you have seen or read previous incarnations, this train is still worth the ride. The point of Branagh’s take is not really to show a neat collection of clues and piecing the puzzle together. That said, it should be easy enough to surmise that there is more than one motive and suspect.

Where Branagh succeeds in this take of the story is in his realization that there must be a reason to watch a film more than once. The things going against that in any mystery is once you’ve seen it, the mystery is solved. It also doesn’t help to have such exaggerated vamp performances.

For these reasons, Branagh has included some carefully laden clues, gorgeous scenery, a humble soundtrack and some more subtle acting to reward repeat viewing. In short, he’s made a movie that draws you in while it pulls you down the track.

First of all there are very few scenes that come across as cheesy. Everyone is playing straight with no chaser. Even Derek Jacobi, who seems the very essence of a flaunt, has a muffle on it for once. In fact, only Poirot comes across as any sort of flamboyant, and like I said, he’s pretty subdued. And he’s rather polite, too. We just know that he has a big mustache and can’t turn down a good mystery.

The shots of the train and the environment it ambles through are excellent, for the most part. There are a couple of CGI moments, but those are forgivable in an age where a warm den with a computer outweighs any shot in inclement weather. We can definitely tell, in scenes like Poirot’s interrogation of Debenham (Ridley) and the final reveal, these people are not comfortable and for more reasons than their guilt or innocence.

Of the passengers, all of the performances are good, and a few of them great. Pfeiffer hasn’t chewed this much scenery since Dangerous Liaisons. Ridley’s counter to Poirot’s inquiries is fun, as she gives no quarter, nor does she expect any. My favorite is Bateman’s Bouc, in what should have been a throwaway role. His frank honesty adds an innocence that is required to give Poirot a sounding board off which to bounce his findings.

Most interesting is the scenery that Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos use for many of the shots. There are many shots from differing vantages and through angled windows and mirrors that add another dimension to what could have been a boring and repetitive venture of questions and answers.

This is not necessary viewing, to be sure. It’s a matter of preference and whether or not you have a Sunday afternoon with nothing planned. It’s not necessarily the kind of film that will leave one puzzled. In truth, one would hold little chance to fully resolve the film based on the fact that evidence mostly comes to light for us in an orderly fashion throughout the last two acts.

It’s a good film though,. And it deserves a space for those who like to see a good story told well. Not well enough for awards, but definitely well enough for someone with nothing much to do.

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



Golden Sombrero: To Live And Die In L.A. (*) is just awful


To Live and Die in L.A. – 1985

Director William Friedkin
Screenplay Friedkin & Gerald Petievich based on the novel by Petievich
Starring Willem Dafoe, William L. Peterson, John Pankow, Debra Feuer, John Turturro, Darlanne Fluegel, Dean Stockwell, Jane Leeves, Jimmy Hart

“You ain’t my partner.  You ain’t even my fuckin’ friend!”

If they took every horrible thing about 80’s action movies and wrapped them into one package, you’d have To Live and Die in L.A.. Well, the soundtrack is good, at least. The cast is pretty good, too. They’re just not good at all in this film. Roger Ebert’s 4 star review helped to give the film a lift over the years, to the point that it has a 94% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Anyone who watches the film from the perspective of a rational human being  would barely be able to justify not laughing hysterically, much less giving the film half of that respect.

What’s wrong with the film?

Let’s start with the script. The film centers around Secret Service Agents. At first you’d think their job is protecting President Reagan, since you hear him giving a speech as one of the agents, Richard Chance (Peterson) interrupts suicide bombing jihadist. The terrorist’s plot is further foiled by his partner, Greene (Hart) in a ridiculous display that should have ended up getting him killed. Instead, we have Greene telling Chance he’s getting too old for this shit as he rubs his shoulder afterward.

So, they’re protecting the president, right?

No, they’re tracking down Eric “Rick” Masters (Dafoe), a counterfeiter who is arrogantly displaying his prowess throughout the L.A. underworld…or maybe at the gym. Greene does one last stupid thing before he’s supposed to retire, and now Chance arrives just a few hours later with all the agents Greene should have had with him. Too late, his partner was shot in the face, with as cheesy a special effect as you could imagine in 1985. Really, though, there’s something wrong when a shotgun blast looks the same as a revolver blast did in 1971’s The French Connection.

We then find the agents breaking more laws and causing more damage than anyone they are trying to arrest. Part way through the film, one of the agents asks another why he doesn’t just go over to Masters’ house and shoot him. It would have caused a whole lot less grief for the characters, and the viewers.

Let’s talk about characters.

Chance takes the opportunity for revenge as a license to act like a complete asshole to just about everyone. His passion plays more like someone who’s beyond a coke binge. Peterson has charisma, but Friedkin pushes it to the side as often as he lets it shine. Several of his character’s decisions are downright stupid.

First, he lets his partner go off on his own for no justifiable reason. Next we see him busting a mule, Carl Cody (Turturro) in one of the most hilarious action scenes imaginable. First, he fires a shot past his target, then he inexplicably lets his guard down (not for the last time) as the guy knocks his gun away with a briefcase. As he’s cuffing him, a cop comes behind  and he completely turns his back on Cody while showing his credentials. Lucky for him Friedkin’s edit job made it to where Chance had already cuffed him before hand.

In Chance and his new partner Vukovich (Pankow), I think the French Connection director was going for an updated version of Popeye Doyle and Cloudy Russo. The result is painful to watch. Pankow, is clearly not a physical threat in any manner as Scheider’s Russo. In fact, he seems more like the kid brother who keeps asking you to wait as he tries to keep up. I spent more of the film thinking about his incredibly large forehead than I did enjoying his constant complaints to Chance about the laws they were breaking in pursuit of Masters.

As a duo, Chance and Vukovich could not be any less competent. They constantly take their eyes off the ball in crucial moments. Why? Mostly to provide a way to advance a chase, so they have something else to do. As officers of the law, I wouldn’t have these two watch a warehouse.

The plot is so obviously pointed towards having the two involved in a giant mess of a car chase, it’s incredibly funny to hear that they only netted $50k afterwords. The chase itself undoubtedly caused 20x that amount in damage. The car chase is the best thing in the film, until you realize it’s only so / so. Most of the time, Vukovich is moaning in the back seat. Did he get shot? No. He’s sad because someone they kidnapped got shot. It’s even dumber than that when you realize that the guy was a fellow agent.

Chance’s character feels like a complete mess. One can see moments where Peterson, in his second film after Michael Man’s Thief 4 years earlier, seems completely cognizant of his place in the scheme of things. The next thing you know, he’s forcing his informant / love interest to succumb to his “charms,” while eloquating about how good Quintin Dailey and Orlando Woolridge are compared to Michael Jordan. These days, we call that rape and bad basketball analysis.

Other highlights include figuring out the bellhop is a terrorist, confronting him and then offering to put his gun away so they can “talk.” Then there’s the time he ponders the thrill of cliff diving while driving against traffic.

Defoe is good and slimy here. He’s exactly what he should be, right up until he makes the fatal mistake of prolonging the final battle. Even at the time when I watched this as a teenager, he was the character I remembered most vividly. His character gets the benefit of being able to string two thoughts together without being sidetracked with guilt, a sudden realization or the desire to take his gun off the target. How he didn’t come out on top in this story is completely puzzling. Well, not really. The bad guy can’t really win, can he?

Speaking of the bad guy…William Friedkin might be the poster boy for how ego – among other things – can destroy a promising career. By the time he made this film, he had a steady stream of disasters in his wake. This was his 4th attempt at a comeback, after Sorcerer, The Brink’s Job, Cruising and Deal of the Century failed to resonate. It’s hard to figure out who else to blame for the failings of this movie than the guy sitting in the driver’s seat.

It’s clear when watching this film compared to The French Connection, there was a precipitous fall in execution, skill, just plain attention span with the man behind the camera. There are so many lapses in the story, the most consistent thing about it is the inconsistency. There is no one in this movie that I would purposely follow for more than 5 seconds, much less the 2 hour running time.

Which leads me to the question of why did I give it one star? The star is exclusively owed to the soundtrack, which is incredible, given the circumstances. The group Wang Chung, hired by Friedkin after he heard their previous album, wrote the majority of the music after watching a rough cut of the film. This serves it well, especially in the elongated opening sequence(s) and the chase scene.

The title song is the best song they ever produced in their long, and somewhat mediocre career. It adds more resonance and character than any of the characters deserve. I still don’t understand what the songwriters were seeing when they wrote such tender lines as:

I wonder why we waste our lives here
When we could run away to paradise

There is no sense that any of the people in this story would know the difference between wasting their lives and spending time in paradise. They seem to bring their own hell with them.

It’s pretty clear to me that Ebert was judging this film on its chase scene, his ignorance of counterfeiting and his seeming affinity for Friedkin, despite his flaws. His instinct for Peterson was a little bit higher in praise than I would give, but the guy has exhibited staying power. What everyone else was thinking when they praise this film, I have no clue. And I don’t want to waste any more of my life finding out.

(* out of *****)


Death Note (***) is Pandora’s Box by another name


Director Adam Wingard
Screenplay by Charles Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, Jeremy Slater
Starring Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigham,
Paul Nakauchi, Jason Liles, Willem Dafoe

Before we go too far in any direction, this film is not great. It’s not a giant disappointment, though. It is just a little one. Anyone who has time to accuse the filmmakers of whitewashing the original material take a long walk. They’ve already done enough in front of the camera in Japan, from where the original manga emanates. There was a time when it would have been called an homage, but everyone has to be offended these days. Grow up and just take this for what it is, a borrowed tale of a borrowed tale of a borrowed tale.

The disappointment for me is only that I’ve seen Wingard do better and not all that long ago. You’re Next is one of my favorite slasher films of recent memory, and the word on The Guest is good enough it makes me wonder why I missed it. He’s been hired to do the upcoming Godzilla vs. Kong film too. Ears perked when this property he was attached to suddenly got placed in limbo. Then they perked again when Netflix picked it up and made it at full budget. One could almost feel the palpable disappointment just waiting for critics to express when the burgeoning monolith released the film in late August.

The story is quite recognizable to anyone who’s studied anything written before this date. A kid named Light (Wolff) literally has a book called Death Note drop out of the sky in front of him. He picks it up. He reads. It becomes clear through a series of screen flashes what the book wants him to know and what the director wants us to know. Write a name in the book, picture the face that goes with the name and that person dies.

The book comes with a death god, named Ryuk (Dafoe). The purpose of this demon is unclear. It seems like he wants to bust out somehow, but really he just wants the person who has the book to put him to work. He likes the rules, but he likes mischief even more. This mischief is pretty gruesome.

The movie has some good performances, in particular Stanfield as L and Qualley as Mia. Dafoe is right at home as the evil Ryuk. His brand of vitriol feels sinister and is, if anything, underused here.

They could have done better than Wolff for a leading man, but it’s hard to tell if its as much his issue as it is the writing. He’s somewhat annoying, like a more annoying Adam Goldberg, though I am not sure how he got there. Somehow he feels disconnected from the material, like he’s waiting for it to be worthy of him. Maybe its unfair, but I’ve never watched anything he’s been in twice.

If anything, they could have tethered Ryuk much closer to Light, or at least featured their back and forth more prominently. Though they take an original twist introducing the Adam and Eve element to it, in the end it serves as a distraction to what could have been much more interesting material.

I am not real familiar with manga, and there’s nothing here that draws me in. Wingard’s hold on the material seems fleeting here. It’s got nothing of the control he’s exhibited with his early work.

About that early work, I am watching The Guest now. Dan Stevens. Holy crap. Now that’s control.

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

John Wick (***1/2): I’m thinking you don’t kill the dog


John Wick – 2014

Director Chad Stahelski, David Leitch
Starring Keanu Reeves,Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Adrianne Palicki, Bridget Moynahan, Dean Winters, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Willem Dafoe
Screenplay Derek Kolstad

John Wick (Reeves) is a retired hitman / tough guy for the Russian Mob. He got out and nobody really wanted him back in. The Mob Boss’s Son, who amazingly had no clue who he was, makes the mistake of coveting his ’69 Mustang at the cost of his puppy Daisy. Thing is, this puppy was given to him by his recently deceased wife (Moynahan). So this puppy, Daisy, is kind of important. They killed the wrong puppy. So let the ass kicking begin.

This is really all the plot that is need to excuse an hour and a half of carefully choreographed carnage. Wick’s grief is carefully hidden in the wooden countenance of Reeves’ face, expressed only in swift moves and hailing gunfire. That there is nothing going in the character department is of no consequence. Clint Eastwood made a career of these types of films in Western form. The movement is fluid and the bad guys die painfully.

There is plenty of acting talent to go around in this one. Nyqvist has been a staple since The original Dragon Tattoo trilogy. His work here, is a shadow of that classic, not even comparing to his Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol efforts. He does what he can with a “what ya gonna do” shrug and marches through to the inevitable conclusion. It’s a bummer when one realizes that no matter who is playing the bad guy, they aren’t going to make it.

Alfie Allen, who plays Theon Greyjoy in Game of Thrones, is a decent bag of slime. It says something when John Leguizamo won’t touch your stolen goods. Johnny’s looking quite dapper these days, even if he isn’t mid-card level. Willem DaFoe waits in the wings, a seemingly ambiguous hired gun. Ian McShane is an equally mysterious ombudsman of dark side ethics. Dean Winters, mayhem himself, doesn’t register as the bad guy #2.

Really though, none of these actors are given much to do, plot wise. They sit around and stew over the bad decisions of one and then, of course, compound that bad decision while waiting for the town to be painted red.

As the one applying the color, Reeves is a willing vessel. This movie is not intended to win any awards. He needs to live up to the heaping of praise by the characters who know of him expressed to those who are unaware of his talents. To that end, at about the 1/2 mark, they send the first wave of bodies his way to be slaughtered.

How people keep breaking into his house, I have not a clue. Perhaps it was the producers idea. He does not wast bullets, and he does not take chances. His moves, fancy as they seem, are more effective than Steven Segal in his prime. If this acting gig does not work out, maybe he too can pass secrets to MMA fighters. I get the feeling he’s going to be fine, though, if he keeps peppering his track record with sturdy fare like this. He should outlast Neeson by 20 years.

The film has class and it is fun. If one can get past Wick’s mounting injuries and seemingly endless capacity for recovery, it’s delightful to see him order dinner for 12. There is lots of nuance here. Plenty of rules. As long as the toughs stay within their rules, all is fair.

Just don’t kill the dog.

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

The Fault In Our Stars Extended Edition (****): So much depends…


The Fault In Our Stars – 2014

Director Josh Boone
Starring Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Willem Dafoe
Screenplay Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber based on the book by John Green

There is one point early on in The Fault in Our Stars which rings partially true.  Augustus Waters and Hazel Grace Lancaster (Elgort and Woodley) have met cute in a cancer group and have spent one date together.  During this date, they agree to read one book that is especially important to the other.  They send messages back and forth to each other about the books.  Then she gets a call from him.  This call is confusing for her, as she hears screaming in the background.  Augustus gives her an all too brief clue as to what is happening, and tells her to come over right away.  Hazel Grace arrives there shortly afterwards and they sit and converse as they pay passing attention to their friend (Wolff) and his anguish of losing a girlfriend.  While his friend is overacting his grief, the scene rings true to young love, where two could find each others eyes in a cesspool of misery.

It’s not that The Fault in Our Stars trades on this misery…well not in a cynical way.  The intention  is an expression of stars crossing for two people who may well have stopped looking skyward.  The late teen years are fraught with possibility as well as drama.  We feel like we can fly, but we’ve been in a cage for so long, we have no idea what it would be like. The kick here is these teens have had their wings clipped even before they are opened for the first time. It’s a brilliant premise, even if it is awkward at times.

There are several aspects taken from the book that just ring as silly.  The cigarette that will never be smoked, pretentious musings of a reclusive author, and exclaiming the wish to marry dragon fruit carrot risotto are among the leading candidates.

There are as many things that are touchingly real.  The way Augustus Waters continually refers to Woodley’s character as Hazel Grace is as old as time, but it is a wonderful expression.  His declaration of love works as well on the screen as it does in print, especially after treading the careful path through Hazel Grace’s obsession with her own mortality.  It’s easy to love the way Hazel Grace’s father is still the sensitive man he is in the book.

Where the story hits its stride is after they meet the pretentious author (Dafoe) and take a trip to the house where Anne Frank lived.  From the moment she tells Agustus to “…get over yourself…” we discover that this is more a lesson for her than it is for him.  Seeing her close her eyes and shake her head upon learning this and his reaction to her is the most touching moment in film this year.

Elgort and Woodley have an easy chemistry, especially with the occasionally clunky material early on.  The last half of the film is powerful and starkly portrayed, with little time to breathe and much time to show compassion through grief.  The reading of William Carlos Williams’ The Red Wheelbarrow (“So much depends…”) is a seminal moment brilliantly played.  There is plenty of cheese scattered throughout the story, but there are more moments touchingly conceived and excellently acted.  The result is a film that at its worst feels sophomoric, at best is existential, but is always honest and real.

There are many excellent lines in the story and instead of coming up with something not so clever to end this review with, I will let Green’s words do so properly:

Hazel Grace: I fell in love with him the way you fall asleep: Slowly, and then all at once.

Augustus Waters: I am in love with you. And I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we’re all doomed. And that one day all our labor will be returned to dust. And I know that the sun will swallow the only earth we will ever have. And I am in love with you.

Hazel Grace: Funerals, I’ve decided, are not for the dead.  They’re for the living.

Hazel Grace: But, Gus, my love, I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I’m grateful.

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

The Grand Budapest Hotel: Having a story to tell can do wonders


Grand Budapest Hotel – 2014

Written and Directed by Wes Anderson
Starring Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Edward Norton, Mathieu Amalric, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Léa Seydoux, Jeff Goldblum, Jason Schwartzman, Jude Law, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Tony Revolori

Wes Anderson films inspire a groundswell of apathy from me.  Often his work feels like Jazz to me, a form of art given much credit, even though few people understand it. If it’s “good” or not would seem to be in the eye of the beholder, but one must insist at the very least that some of his films are better than others.  For me, the good ones thus far have been The Aquatic Life with Steve Zissou, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and finally, this, his best film.

There are many reasons for this, but the primary one is the story.  Anderson’s films are the definition of quirk.  Odd characters, interesting perspectives, effects that look intentionally fake, but somewhat fascinating. If there is a vehicle to pull it all together, the effect can be pretty good.  Or in this case, classic.  His last effort, Moonrise Kingdom was just dumb.  Everyone in that story was no one to care about.  In truth, they all seemed like mental patients.  As a result, the odd aspects were annoying at best, frustrating on average and unwatchable at their worst.

The Grand Budapest Hotel escapes this fate by giving its characters very clearly defined objectives, and then setting about the goals with wonderful precision.  The focus of the story, Monsieur Gustave H. (Fiennes), devoted concierge of the titular hotel and his lead lobby boy, Zero (Revolori).  Their friendship for each other is immediate, and soon Gustave is giving Zero the best training possible.  Outside the realm of this training, Gustave has relationships with several of the elder lady patrons of the establishment.  One of them (Swinton) dies, leaving Gustave a painting in her will.  The painting has something attached to it that is of great import to the rest of the story.

Other relatives of the deceased, particularly her son, Taxis, arrange to have Gustave framed for the murder of his mother.  That he did not do it is obvious, but his arrest sets off a chain of events that leads Inspector Henkels hither and yon, while Gustave and Zero race to uncover the truth.

Fiennes is magnificent in a role that allows him to rise above the limits of the script.  When things get ridiculous, like the scene in the mountain monastery, we see him explode with the frustration the viewer experiences as the joke goes too far.  Then, almost immediately, his hits another comedic note.  My friend WeMissE thinks that Fiennes deserves a rare best actor nod for a comedy, and I am inclined to agree with him.

Equally fascinating is Revolori, as the devoted, confident and resourceful young Zero.  His relationship with Gustave exists on many levels, and watching them break through those levels is a charming and rewarding experience. Additionally, his courtship of Agatha.  Many moments ring true for two people seemingly destined for one another.

The best scenes in the film use miniatures.  The trolleys and the buildings are comical and fascinating to look at.  The chase from the monastery down the mountain is delightful and gives an exhilaration that would be missing if they had poured James Bond style money into it.

For those who’ve kept Anderson at arm’s length, I understand your trepidation.  If you are ever going to give another of his films a try, let this be the one. Who knows where he’ll go in the future, and if I am judging by his past work, I am not likely to care.  This is a movie that I will watch again and again, however.  Try it once.

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

Out of the Furnace The fire’s gone

Out of the Furnace

Out of the Furnace – 2013

Director Scott Cooper
Starring Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, Sam Shepard
Screenplay Brad Ingelsby and Cooper

“He might be safer over in Iraq”

It’s hard to recall the last movie that featured common folk in Steel Mill country of Pennsylvania that started out with anything close to a sunny day.  Indeed, the brightest light one sees is the torches the workers work with among the grit and grime.  Everyone is downtrodden, someone in the family is on death’s door and the younger, brighter future of the family is approaching an eclipse.  It’s always up to the stoic older brother to make the sacrifices.

Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace goes one better.  This time, the older brother, Russell (Bale) causes in a drunk driving wreck – after drinking with the loan shark (DaFoe) who his brother Rodney, Jr. (Affleck) owed money to – and ends up in prison.  When he gets out, he returns to the mill, but finds that his girlfriend (Saldana) has moved in with the North Braddock sheriff (Whitaker).  He accepts this stoically, like everything else in his life.

So while he’s staying busy repairing the old grimy house left to him and his brother by his now dead father, Rodney, Jr. – a serviceman returned from Iraq before Russell went to prison – has back in debt to DaFoe’s Petty.  He’s trying to pay off the debt by fighting, but given that he can’t take a fall, he isn’t making much money at it.  Petty tells Jr. to work in the mill, like his brother and father.  Of course that proposition is not so enticing.  Russell goes back and lifelessly goes through the motions.  After seeing evidence of Jr.’s past time, they have a talk, which goes nowhere.

“The f#%in’ mill killed our Dad.”

The military has killed Jr. from the inside, so he is going to finish the job by taking a fight in “Ramapo,” which Petty is trying to protect him from.  The folks in Ramapo, represented by Harrellson’s brutally sleazy DeGroat, are the bad mamba jamba, and of course things don’t go well.  Which leads us back to poor, downtrodden Russell to do something about it.

The biggest problem with Out of the Furnace is, to paraphrase the great Griffin Mill, the script writes itself.  The circumstances and the plot give Bale nowhere to go, even though he still can evoke strong feelings, like when he discovers that his lost love is going to have a baby with her new beau.  His lone vice takes place when he is doing good, and in every other moment of the film he is…doing good.  The stoicism leaves us nothing to wonder about his decisions.  The script takes care of that. Anything that happens to him is a direct correlation to some other decision made by his brother.  He speaks to him once about it, but then accepts that his efforts will be fruitless.

As DeGroat, Harrelson is pure venom.  It’s hard to imagine anyone “jumping in the ring” with him, but it’s just as unlikely any of his cronies would even play cards with him.  He does not accept losing, smirking or questions.  When he asks Jr. to take a dive, it can only go one way.  Guys like DeGroat exist in the movie mountains of Bumblef#%k, U.S.A. and nowhere else.

Cooper’s Crazy Heart was a combination of a great soundtrack and an incredible actor at the top of his form.  The script wasn’t half bad, but it seems more like a stroke of luck that it was better than this one.  His gritty sepia tone visual style worked better in a part of the country where the sun hit the screen once  in a while. Here it’s annoyingly dark, just like the labored subject.

There is a stellar cast for this film.  The producer’s list is a who’s who of Hollywood power.  Everyone is clamboring to be a part of the one who could be the next great director.  This film could put a curb to that.  I am sure he will get a few more shots, but there will be a few less big names and not as much money.  Meanwhile, Jeff Nichols cranks out classic after classic, for less money combined than this film cost to make.

(** out of *****)

Forgotten Gem: My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?


My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done? – 2009

Director Werner Herzog
Starring Michael Shannon, Willem Dafoe, Chloë Sevigny, Udo Kier, Michael Peña, Grace Zabriskie, Brad Dourif
Screenplay by Herzog and Herbert Golder

Herzog and Golder were thinking of making a movie about the real life murderer Mark Yavorsky, who committed a matricide, mirroring the play of Orestes.  He had been cast in the lead of the play at his college, UCSD and took things a tad too literally.  Golder had met with Yavorsky for a series of interviews, and upon Herzog’s meeting with him during their last interview, an idea was hatched.  Soon afterwards, Herzog discovered that Yavorsky had created a shrine dedicated to one of his films.  They decided to scale back on the direct comparison to the subject in the script.  What they came up with is disturbing, to say the least, and perhaps most because of its basis in reality.  Michael Shannon has a lot to do with it, too.

The meeting of Herzog and Shannon is not without its flaws.  There are more than a few segments that stand out as goofy and almost sophomoric.  Most of the screen time with Sevigny is a mystery to me.  By now we are all used to seeing her acquiesce to the strangest characters on the screen.  As brave as the choice was, it’s almost impossible to think about The Brown Bunny when I see her on-screen.  She always comes across as a timid shrew who just puts up with abuse, craziness or both.  Her onscreen persona feels like, “Please pay attention to me, as I am trying not to draw attention to myself.”  This time is no exception.  As Ingrid, she is the betrothed to Brad McCullum (Shannon), she bears witness to many odd conversations, most of which Brad is having with himself.

She’s not the only one who puts up with this odd behavior.  She’s not even the only one who excuses it.  Everyone wants the best for Brad.  It just seems that he has not been the same since he came back from the trip to Peru, when he was smart enough to not get on a boat during the most dangerous boating season of the year.  He claims God told him to avoid it.  Perhaps it was that he had eyes and he wasn’t on drugs.  Either way, when he comes back, these voices continue, or something does.

His mother, who loves him oppressively, but not cruelly.  Mrs. McCullum (Zabriskie) plays along as well as she can.  She follows along with his claims as reasonably as she can, while placing herself firmly in a wedge between Brad and Ingrid.  Ingrid remains steadfast, though.  No one, it seems, will keep her from her crazy love.

Kier, as play director and friend Lee Meyers, also spends some gloriously awkward times in the fluctuating circle of sanity.  His appearance is strange outside of the environment of the play stage.  Indeed, one of the highlights of the film is when Brad takes Lee to visit Uncle Ted (Dourif) on the Ostrich farm.  The combination of Tedd and Lee is glorious, especially when Lee loses a pair of glasses.

Dafoe and Peña are largely wasted as two detectives who interview folks between flashbacks.  As straightforward as the premise is, Herzog manages to leave images that burn in the mind, using the talent of Shannon in effectively limited doses.  There are many things that contribute to tragedy, but Herzog doesn’t push many theories on the viewer.  The result is disturbingly effective.  The viewer knows they are seeing some unusual behavior, but it is not limited to the protagonist / antagonist Brad.  Each of the people that surround him are unwitting contributors to the tragedy.

My Son… ends up being an effective demonstration of the helplessness in modern society to mental illness.  Since the matricide that served as inspiration for the screenplay, the de-regulation of sanitariums and HIPAA have help to create a society of watchers who understand someone needs help, but are powerless to act until tragedy strikes.  It’s hard enough to act in the first place.  Now we are prohibited from seeking information, and almost entirely prevented from committing someone until it’s too late.  At times this is very frustrating to watch.  When you see the moment that Brad literally thrusts someone into the position of acting, and then they don’t, it’s hardly surprising.  People are trained to follow laws and remain passive.  It’s institutional.  Crazy is anything acting out of the framework of the institution.

There are some brilliantly obtuse moments littered throughout the story, including a comical revelation of the hostages.  Shannon has so many ways to stay appealing even when you think he couldn’t be any more nuts.  His attendance at the open of the play could have been played myriad ways, and somehow he found the right one.  I appreciate the Razzle and the Dazzle.  Even if it might cost me dearly.

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


Cool Papa E Reviews the Spider-Man movie series

On July 3, 2012, the newest incarnation of Spider-Man spins its web on the public.  Some people, including me, think its a little too soon to be coming up with a reboot of the Tobey Maguire / Sam Raimi blockbuster series, given that the last one was released just in 2007.  Whether the new one works or not, they already have a second one on the way.

For now, let’s revisit the first 3 to see what went right, what went wrong, and what it is we’ll miss the most.

Spider-Man – 2002

Directed by Sam Raimi
Starring Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Willem Dafoe, Randy “Macho Man” Savage, Cliff Robertson, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons, Elizabeth Banks
Screenplay by David Koepp, Alvin Sargent (uncredited)


An excellent mixture of comic book sensibilities and genuine acting skill.  Tobey Maguire steals the show as one of the super heroes with whom most can identify.  Peter Parker, orphan boy taken in by his beloved Aunt and Uncle (Harris and Robertson).  Life’s hard enough watching his beloved Mary Jane (Dunst) from afar, but when his Uncle Ben is killed due to his misunderstanding of the message his Uncle had given him (“…With great power…”), it’s almost too much to bear.  Taking his last message as inspiration, he cleans up the town of all petty criminals.

Dunst adds a realism to the dreaminess of the woman that everyone loves.  Dafoe as Norman Osborne, a.k.a. Green Goblin is a stroke of evil genius.  He is able to play concerned friend and crazed scientist in a seamless fashion.  Franco perfectly plays Parker’s best friend and Norman’s son, Harry.  J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jamison has aged better than it came across initially.  A young, but still perky Elizabeth Banks is a surprise as Betty Brant.

What went right:

Just about everything in this film breaks right.  The directing style of Raimi is the best example of what went right in the film.  Spider-Man feels like a comic book and a movie simultaneously.  So many iconic shots in the film, yet it feels fresh with every viewing.

What went wrong:

The mask for the Green Goblin is just a tad goofy.  The rest of the series proves it.  The “you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us” line even felt weird after 9/11, and now it just seems odd.  Peter breaking up with M.J. at the end of the film…no way in hell any red-blooded male does that.

What we’ll miss most:

The camera angles presented throughout seem like they could only have been achieved by a spider.

Rating: (****1/2 out of *****)


Spider-Man 2 – 2004

Directed by Sam Raimi
Starring Same as above, plus Alfred Molina, Dylan Baker, Donna Murphy, Daniel Gillies
Screenplay by Alvin Sargent

Review: The intensity in the fights between Doc Ock (Molina) and Spider-Man is a flawless sight to behold whenever the two share the screen.  Peter spends much more time literally grounded by reality in this one and spends much of the first hour and a half moping, pining, starving and looking for a reason to carry on.  So much screen time is devoted to the should he/shouldn’t he and the fruitless romance between he and Mary Jane, that the film lags in the center.

Conversely, the scene with the train, where he loses his mask in his attempt to save all the commuters is as touching as any super hero scene ever made on film.  Instead of the forced 9/11 message of the first film, we have a genuine moment.

Doc Ock is well-played by Molina, once he becomes the monster.  Until then, the idyllic portrayal of he and his wife, played by Murphy, is about as touching as a coffee commercial.

There is a good, crisp film in there somewhere.  It’s just filled with bits and pieces that add an unnecessary 1/2 hour.

What went right: Doc Ock is an inventive bad guy.  He looks cool, does mean stuff and does not waste time with tons of exposition.  The effects are seamless and do not call undue attention as loud and overly spectacular.  J.K. Simmons has only gotten better in what at first seemed a throwaway role.

What went wrong: The middle part of the film is almost a direct and unnecessary rip off of Superman 2.  The losing of his powers is not explained fully and really just seems a plot contrivance.

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


Spider-Man 3 – 2007

Directed by Sam Raimi
Starring Same as above, plus Topher Grace, Thomas Haden Church, Theresa Russell, Bryce Dallas Howard
Screenplay by Alvin Sargent, Sam and Ivan Raimi

Review: Such was the fatigue surrounding this film by all involved, that there was almost no way it could have been considered successful.  I am pretty sure that no one is considering it’s $800 million gross a disappointment, but word of mouth in the critical arena speak about it, even today, of having “too much muchness.”  In essence, there are too many bad guys, even if the bad guys fluctuate back and forth between good and bad.  This, to me, should be considered a hallmark of good script writing.  Bad guys who weren’t all bad have been a consistent theme for each movie of this series.  This time we have a good guy who isn’t all that good.  Nice mixture.

Sandman, Flint Marko (Haden Church), is so nice, he ought to come with a gift card.  The script goes out of its way to make sure that we know that Marko’s intentions are good, even if the result is the occasional stolen vault, dead Uncle Ben, etc.  Using this plot derivation from the first film, they add the mysterious black goo that falls inexplicably from space (the way we like it, and we have the way to paint the bland, clean character of Peter Parker from white to…off white.  Even being attacked by his old buddy (and new Goblin) Harry Osborn had not been enough to turn him until that stuff arrived.

Meanwhile, they keep the M.J. (Dunst) storyline from becoming too boring by…kicking her to the curb.  Gwen Stacy (Howard) arrives to be a wrinkle in their bliss.  While I have never been a fan of Opie’s daughter, I think she would have had to work pretty hard to mess this up.  Eddie Brock (Grace) is the lucky guy who is with Gwen to begin with.  He’s also a sleaze bucket, who is willing to do anything for a photographer’s job with the daily bugle.  When that goo gets to him, we get our film’s most nefarious (and most underused) villain.

As much as I would have loved to see more of Venom, the plot as is holds up.

What went right: The script is stronger than it is given credit for.  Franco’s performance of Harry is nuanced and shows his growth as an actor.  Maguire gives a good performance as well.  Venom looks great and so does the Goblin.  The scene with Gwen hanging off the building is pretty darn cool, too.

What went wrong: Flint Marko’s Sandman works for the early part of the film, but his reasons for being around at the end (does he really want to “kill” Spider-Man?  No.) are quite weak.  So he just sits there in the final scene, like the first round boss of a bad video game.  Then, to have M.J. in peril during the climax, for the 3rd straight movie?  That is definitely a sign of creative drought.  Oh and Jamison buying that camera off of the kid was telegraphed using equipment from the 1800’s.

What we’ll miss most: Repeated viewings of this film have held my attention as much as anything else in the series.  This entry has really held up more than expected, despite what you see in print.  It is easy to see why any group of filmmakers would be fatigued after 3 huge blockbusters, but even as it were, the principals (read: Sam Raimi and everyone who would follow him) were ready to make 3 more.  Even if they did not, I am thankful for their reason: to avoid over-committing to a time frame when the script could not satisfy the director.  Even with groundbreaking special effects, it has always been the writing that made Spider-Man more interesting than other series that withered on the vine, like The Fantastic Four.

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