SEX AND THE CITY 2 (2010) / Comedy

April 27th

This is a satire. This has to be a satire. I mean, really, seriously this has just got to be the most subversive, most scathing, most indescribably disturbing satire ever filmed. Ever. In the entire history of the medium. Had Robert Altman lived to see this, he would have been scared for his own life. Had Paddy Chayefsky lived to see this, he would have straight killed himself. If this had been shown to George Orwell, he would have literally disintegrated. It has that kind of ungodly, repulsive power. This was not nor could it have been made by a person whose primary intentions did not include brutally satirizing the lives of the rich and glamorous, whose lives are so dripping with copious amounts of unbelievable wealth that they find room to complain about having not one but two Manhattan skyrise apartments; that they get mad – so mad that they cry – at their kids for leaving handprints on their new silk blah-dy blahs and then pontificate about the burdens of being a mother; that, because they are so oblivious to how the real world functions, feel as though they can actually relate to the poverty-stricken townspeople of Abu Dahbi because they share similar marriage problems. This is a satire, and if somehow it isn’t, if somehow the people who made this actually thought that they were making a genuinely funny, cutesy comedy, then this is the greatest horror film I have ever seen: a massive, abysmal chasm of soul-sucking blackness into which all things good – morally, ethically, intellectually good – have disappeared. This is a consumerist’s wet dream, i.e. my nightmare, and one of the most bloated, reprehensible things I’ve encountered in my lifetime, and if there is a single, living, breathing person out there who enjoyed it on its own terms, for its own merits, for the way in which it was made, for the god damned message, then weep. Weep for civilization. Weep for mankind. Weep for two hundred and fifty years of progressing as a society. If we are capable of creating something this poisonous, this offensive, this completely unaware of its own insurmountable terribleness, then surely the end is near. We are all responsible.

Don’t ask me why or how or when or where or with whom, but I watched this. This is something that I watched, willingly. I have only myself to blame.

Final rating: 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

© 2014 Stephen Earnest

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THE DRIVER (1978) / Crime-Thriller

Running Length: 91 minutes
MPAA Classification: PG for language and violence.

Cast: Ryan O’Neal, Bruce Dern, Isabelle Adjani, Ronee Blakely, Matt Clark, Felice Orlandi
Director: Walter Hill
Producer: Lawrence Gordon
Screenplay: Walter Hill

Ryan O’Neal (Love Story, Paper Moon) is the titular of Walter Hill’s classic crime flick, The Driver, which is one of those films from the 70s that has literally been cannibalized by others that have preceded it. Overall, The Driver is nothing more than your typical cops and robbers actioneer, but its intentional lack of character depth makes it somewhat intriguing. Hell, these guys don’t even names.

O’Neal is “The Driver”, a hardened professional who provides criminals and other assorted lowlifes with a getaway as long as they’re willing to pay enough. He’s the best in the business and knows it, which is why “The Detective” (Bruce Dern, Coming Home) is after him. The Detective is willing to do anything to catch “the cowboy who can’t be caught”, even if it means crossing the line of police procedure. And this time he’s got a fool-proof plan to put The Driver away for good, but it turns out that The Driver has got plans of his own.

Most will find their attention invested in the two car chases that bookend The Driver, as these are indubitably the film’s finest moments. Magnificently executed, paced, and edited, these chases are what the film is mainly known for, and for good reason, too. Philip H. Lathrop’s daring cinematography weaves through the streets of Los Angeles as The Driver either eludes pursuing police cruisers or stays on the tail of opposing criminals. And as long as these chases are – (each one clocks in at about eight minutes) – they are never boring.

O’Neal wears the same distant expression for most of the movie and it suits his character. He looks detached, empty. The Driver lives alone, has no real friends, and doesn’t talk much, and O’Neal captures most of this quite well. His handsome features are deceptive, for he’s capable of killing with the snap of a finger. You expect one thing and get the other. Opposite him is Dern, who you can tell is really relishing his role. The Detective is grossly self-confident and conceited, and seems just about as seedy as the supposed bad guys that he’s after. (His final expression at the end of the film is priceless.)

Walter Hill manages to turn Los Angeles into a very dark and sinister place; a place where crime runs rampant and police sirens echo throughout most of the night. The Driver is nothing remarkable and it’s nothing close to original, but it’s cool and very entertaining.

Final rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2012 Stephen Earnest

PASSION FISH (1992) / Drama

Running Length: 134 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for language and brief sexuality.

Cast: Mary McDonnell, Alfre Woodard, David Strathairn, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Leo Burmester, Lenore Banks, Nora Dunn, Angela Bassett
Director: John Sayles
Producers: Sarah Green, Maggie Renzi
Screenplay: John Sayles

Passion Fish centers on May-Alice Culhane (Mary McDonnell), a star of daytime television who finds herself paralyzed from the waist down after being involved in a taxi cab accident. Frustrated and despondent, she relocates to her family’s old home in Louisiana, where she takes out her frustration on every caretaker that her agency sends. She is coarse and rude and develops a rather sizable drinking problem, but this begins to change with the arrival of a black nurse, Chantelle (Alfre Woodard), the last caregiver that the agency is willing to send. Chantelle has problems of her own as well and eventually, she and May-Alice begin to develop a slow-but-steady friendship.

Now normally, this would work as the setup for a Lifetime channel movie; a tale of two women gaining the courage to rise up against the problems in their lives. And at first, that’s what Passion Fish seems like it’s going to be about. (A good reason for why the film did so poorly at the box office.) But that’s only the setup. What Passion Fish becomes so much more.

Like Lone Star and Silver City, Passion Fish deepens as it progresses. Sayles’ screenplay has all of the complexity and intricacy of a fine novel. He gradually adds depth to his characters, bringing their pasts into the picture. There is as much detail to their lives as that of any living and breathing human, and Sayles expresses this by giving each one of them a well-developed back story. It’s almost unexpected how involved you have become with these characters by the time that the story has ended.

Mary McDonnell and Alfre Woodard, the film’s two leads, deliver powerful performances. (McDonnell was honored with an Academy Award nomination, while Woodard was robbed.) McDonnell starts out as a nasty and unlikable character. In some of the film’s softest and most delicate moments, she exhibits unprecedented strength. Her character is angry with the way that the world now views her because of her immobility and McDonnell channels this like no other. Woodard is equally as good and plays quite well off of her, even shining in scenes where she is the only one present. As well, David Strathairn is good as McDonnell’s friend from long ago and former love interest, although he has little screen time.

John Sayles has dominated independent cinema since the mid-1980s and Passion Fish is no exception. It marks his ninth outing as writer and director and fifth as editor, and his work continues to be original in all three of these aspects.

Final rating: ★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

© 2012 Stephen Earnest

HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (1986) / Horror

Running Length: 82 minutes
MPAA Classification: Unrated, but originally released with an X rating for strong graphic violence.

Cast: Michael Rooker, Tracy Arnold, Tom Towles
Director: John McNaughton
Producers: Malik B. Ali, Waleed B. Ali, Lisa Dedmond, Steven A. Jones, John McNaughton
Screenplay: John McNaughton, Richard Fire

Often cited as one of the greatest horror films of all time, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a dark and unflinching look at the killings of a pathological mass murderer loosely inspired by real-life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. Originally filmed in 1986, Henry was not released until 1989 due to its controversial content, despite receiving rave reviews from critics.

The hoarse-voiced actor in the role of Henry is Michael Rooker, who was unknown at the time of the film’s release. In the film, Henry lives in a dank apartment with Otis (Tom Towles), a dim-witted parolee with whom Henry shared a cell in prison. With the arrival of Otis’ sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold), things begin to move ever-so-slowly downhill.

Henry largely works due to two particular elements: Michael Rooker’s performance and John McNaughton’s direction. There is no story to Henry. McNaughton delivers his film as an uncompromising look at real life. We merely observe as Henry and Otis perpetrate their murders. There is no method to how they choose their victims; it’s a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Rather than having a motive, Henry and Otis do it out of sheer boredom with no regard for human life.

Rooker’s performance is the more effective of the two. As Henry, his deadpan approach is bone-chilling and so realistic that, at times, Henry seems as if it could almost be happening. He rarely utters more than a few sentences of words and carries an expressionless face, providing us with one of the most eerie portrayals of a serial killer in cinema.

As well, McNaughton’s minimalist direction works. He doesn’t focus as much on the other aspects of storytelling as he does on generating mood. Mood is key in Henry and McNaughton accomplishes this fairly well. From the grimy Chicago streets to the haunting techno score, Henry is a film all about atmosphere.

Of course, Henry is not as powerful today as it was back at the time of its release nor is it as gory as many have been led to believe. Nonetheless, it still succeeds in providing those who watch it with a harrowing experience that they’re unlikely to forget.

Final rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2012 Stephen Earnest

CROUPIER (1998) / Crime-Drama

July 17th

“Now he had become the still center of that spinning wheel of misfortune. The world turned ‘round him, leaving him miraculously untouched. The croupier had reached his goal. He no longer heard the sound of the ball.”

Here, Clive Owen has a performance similar to Gosling’s in Drive inasmuch as it relies on understatement to work. Yet brimming just underneath that equable façade is a kind of chilling intensity that once in a blue moon manages to rear its ugly head. And it’s frightening.

That’s how most of Croupier pans out. Our relationship with the film itself mirrors that of Jack Manfred and the gamblers, his subjects. Just like its eponymous character, Croupier is a work of sheer minimalism, but there are secrets underneath its well-groomed, class-act exterior. There is ambiguity, uncertainty –complexity. It’s a waiting game. We wait. Maybe we’re rewarded, maybe we aren’t. It doesn’t matter. We’re there to be taken for a ride.

One of the joys about journeying back through a catalog of films you’ve previously loved to see if that love still stands is that you’ll more than often find that it does. Such is the case with Croupier. I’ve been in love right from the start with its luminous cinematography, its slow-mounting sense of dread, its noir conventions – that aforementioned Clive Owen performance, which is as enthralling and mysterious as any sculpture. And in the femme fatale(?) role, Alex Kingston provides us with the film’s sole source of something resembling humanity.

Final rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2012 Stephen Earnest

JOE (1970) / Drama

Running Length: 107 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for language, violence, drug use, and strong sexual content and nudity.

Cast: Dennis Patrick, Peter Boyle, Audrey Caire, K Callan, Susan Sarandon, Patrick McDermott
Director: John G. Avildsen
Producers: David Gil, Yorman Globus
Screenplay: Norman Wexler

Joe could have been something. It could have been a film about the kinds of people so fed up with the way things are going that they decide to take matters into their own hands. Joe bravely tries to be that kind of film, but isn’t. What it ends up being is a disappointing and dismissive attempt at pointing out the wrongs in society, doing so with very little impact.

Dennis Patrick stars as Bill Compton, an advertising executive who lives with his family in New York’s Upper East Side. Of late, his daughter Melissa (Susan Sarandon) has been living with her boyfriend Frank, a notable drug dealer in the area, which has caused some friction between her and her family. One day, Melissa overdoses and is sent to the hospital. Enraged, Bill tracks down Frank’s place to retrieve Melissa’s clothes, but when Frank shows up, his temper gets the better of him and he kills Frank in an ensuing brawl.

Panic-stricken, Bill takes refuge in a local bar; a bar that Joe Curran (Peter Boyle) frequents. Joe represents the average hard-working and blue-collar American for his time. He is racist and homophobic and holds contempt for anyone that is different. When Bill arrives, Joe is drunk and delivering his daily monologue on his resentment for the culture that the hippies created. Eventually, Joe strikes up a conversation with Bill and the two get to talking. One thing leads to another and before long, Bill has revealed his secret.

At the time of its release, Joe was hailed as some sort of masterpiece, doing well in areas both critical and commercial. Part of this was largely due to the powerhouse performance of Peter Boyle, who does an exceptional job as Joe. Boyle (who many will know as Frank Barone from the much-loved TV sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond”) was a terribly underused actor, only appearing in a modest number of films until his untimely death in 2006. His acting talents were never rightfully “stretched”, so it’s safe to say that in Joe he gives his best performance. (It was also the performance that broke him into Hollywood.) That being said, I don’t consider a fantastic performance. Boyle does a great job and adequately captures his character’s anti-heroic nature, and he has some riveting scenes, but this is a role meant for a more seasoned of an actor. Boyle gives it his all, but the reason why his performance was so “acclaimed” is because none of the actors that surround him are very good.

First and foremost, the film’s weakest link is Dennis Patrick, an actor whose career must have dissipated immediately afterwards. While Patrick may have the “look” of his character, he is simply not believable in the part. Half of the time he doesn’t even look comfortable. Many of his line-readings are flat and delivered with about as much emotion as that of a wax figurine. This may be contributed to the fact that he was not meant for this part or maybe he’s just not that good of an actor. Susan Sarandon carries all of the depth you’d expect from an actor of her age and skill, but she doesn’t exactly exceed expectations.

Now, not having tangible plot is not always a weakness. (Hell, it’s how Kevin Smith started his career.) Certain films don’t require plot in order to be interesting as long as there are interesting-enough characters and engaging script to hold the audience’s attention. Joe‘s writer, Norman Wexler, has a competent-enough screenplay. (He received an Academy Award nomination for it.) The set-up is intriguing and for the most part, the dialogue holds true, touching on delicate issues that plagued the working class near the end of the 1960s. Wexler’s smartest move – and biggest mistake – is making Joe Curran a supporting character instead of a lead. While Joe is an interesting character, the storyline that Joe is based upon could not work from his point of view. He belongs on the sidelines; there only to motivate Compton into doing bad. A film focusing on his life looks good on paper (as Boyle tried to do later on), but simply wouldn’t be interesting. Joe is a voice, not a person, and Wexler uses him accordingly.

On top of that, the bland direction on John G. Avildsen’s behalf doesn’t do Wexler’s script justice. He only succeeds in giving the film a more deliberate pace and his theatrical approach may cause viewers to lose interest within the first ten minutes. In the end, Joe could have been something, but isn’t. Those are the most positive words that I can say about it.

Final rating: ★★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2012 Stephen Earnest

GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE (2012) / Action-Adventure

Running Length: 95 minutes
MPAA Classification: PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some disturbing images, and language.

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Ciaran Hinds, Fergus Riordan, Idris Elba, Violante Placido, Johnny Whitworth, Christopher Lambert
Director: Mark Neveldine, Brian Taylor
Producers: Ashok Amritraj, Avi Arad, Michael De Luca, Steven Paul
Screenplay: David S. Goyer, Scott Gimple (based on the Marvel comic book series)

‘Depressing’ is not a dark enough word to adequately describe what these past couple of weeks at the movie theater have felt like. There has simply been nothing worth waiting for or looking forward to. Movies continue to be released and people continue to see them, but overall, the interest level of America has remained at a disappointingly low level.

Now of course, this is expected. The first quarter of the year is never an exciting time for cinema, so putting up with the bad movies is routine as long as there are a couple of good ones to keep us distracted. But lately, there hasn’t been. The movie industry is stuck in a rut. As each Friday comes along and a few new titles are added to the marquee, I become more and more curious of what those people in Hollywood thinking. Are people out there even trying anymore? Do they even care? Are they so out of fresh ideas that making something like Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance sounds like a good idea? If so, they must be more desperate than I thought.

There have been many big screen adaptations of superhero-based comic books over the years and the Ghost Rider franchise is by far the most worthless of them all. Not much can be done with a character as uninteresting as Johnny Blaze and both films centered on him have proved that. Like the rest of America, I didn’t like the first Ghost Rider. I didn’t really like anything about it. But as box office totals will go on to prove, if a movie manages to make enough money, it will more than likely have a sequel made, even if the movie is entirely unworthy of having a sequel.

Now, while the first Ghost Rider is a bad movie, I don’t hate it. Sure, it’s unattractive and lousy and stupid to boot, but overall, it’s relatively forgettable. When I first saw it, I griped and complained and said what I needed to say, but when it ended, I moved on. Such is not the case for Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. I’ll be talking about it for a long, long time.

To get right to the point, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is an extremely awful movie. It is wretched and foul and degrading and so supremely god awful in every single aspect that making fun of it seems like the wrong thing to do. I feel like by attacking it, I’m giving someone the opportunity to utter the phrase, “Hey, go pick on someone your own size.” Well, when a movie as unforgiving as this steals an hour and a half of your life and money from your own pocket, what else are you supposed to do?

The story transpires somewhere in ‘Eastern Europe’ on Johnny Blaze (Cage), a man whose own soul is possessed by the Devil. Blaze has this curse where his body will burst into flame at any given moment, turning him into Ghost Rider. It’s an annoying curse and he rightfully wants it gone, so enter Moreau (Idris Elba), a man who claims that he can get rid of the demon trapped inside of Blaze’s body as long as Blaze does him a favor in return. That favor consists of escorting a young boy (Fergus Riordan) and his mother (Violante Placido) to a monastery while having Mr. Roarke (Ciaran Hinds) and his band of misfits hot on their tails.

It’s safe to say that Nicolas Cage is at the lowest point in his career right now. He’s made one bad move right after the other, consecutively appearing in movies so crummy that it’s starting to seem like he may never get out of the hole he’s in. (Currently, he’s the laughingstock of Hollywood.) Sure, in the first Ghost Rider, Cage isn’t any Ben Sanderson, but at least he’s acting and we can tell that he is. In Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, his acting is so incredibly bad and horrendously wooden that it seems entirely intentional. It’s as if he’s making fun of himself and in turn, we’re not entertained; we’re bored. It’s sad to watch a once-great actor embarrass himself upon the screen, looking like a deranged psychopath as he trips over line after line, shaking and laughing like a tweaked-out crack addict. The only other performance to speak of comes from Ciaran Hinds, who blabbers cheap one-liners and looks like a Robert De Niro knock-off recovering from a stroke.

In Crank, the directing duo of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor incorporated a lot of their trademark frenetic camerawork and campy humor, but here they just completely overdo it. They take advantage of both the Steadicam and ‘Zoom’ option, overusing them in unnecessary situations to the point where it becomes annoying and a little self-indulgent. Essentially, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance could make for a decent B-movie if it didn’t take itself so seriously, but because it’s just so flat-out bad, there’s no way that we can enjoy ourselves.

The CGI is woefully cheap-looking and entirely unconvincing, resembling something from a late 90s video game. You’d think that a 60 million dollar budget could buy a better visual effects team, but apparently, it can’t. On top of that, the editing is frantic and incomprehensible and at times it feels like scenes have been scrapped from the film altogether, making an already incoherent storyline even all the more difficult to understand. Eventually, I just stopped trying to follow everything and gave up on caring. I wonder; when the final result was shown to the crew, what were they thinking? Did they fully realize what they had just made? The people involved with this soul-sucking hunk of overstuffed garbage should be downright ashamed of themselves.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is not only the lowest thing that Hollywood has had to offer this year, but in a long, long while as well. The ineptitude on display here is astonishing. It’s despicable that a thing like this can be made and make profit, which it undoubtedly will. Of course, bad news is what you’d expect from a movie like Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, so you may not be surprised by my warnings. But trust me: it’s a whole lot worse than I’m making it out to be.

Final rating: 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

© 2012 Stephen Earnest