MEN WITH GUNS (1998) / Crime-Drama

Running Length: 89 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for strong violence, sexuality, language, and drug content.

Cast: Donal Logue, Callum Keith Rennie, Gregory Sporleder, Paul Sorvino, Max Perlich, Joseph Griffin, Janet Kidder
Director: Kari Skogland
Producers: Ilana Frank, Antony I. Ginnane
Screenplay: Lachy Hulme

Men with Guns is an unknown Canadian film that I doubt very many of you have heard of. No, don’t worry. It’s not a shocker if you haven’t. There’s not much to be said about it – not much good, that is.

Eddie (Donal Logue, The Tao of Steve) and Richard (Gregory Sporlender, Black Hawk Down) are a couple of losers headed up to an out-of-the-way barn to collect on a debt, but upon their arrival, they are assaulted by a group of thugs both physically and emotionally. They manage to escape, but not before the damage is done.

So, the two decide that revenge must be taken upon this gang and they back up to the barn a short while later, armed with guns this time. A bloodbath ensues and Eddie and Richard are left with guns, corpses, and a stash of cocaine. They take the coke and scram – a bad idea on their part. Turns out that the coke belongs to a merciless drug lord (Sorvino, Goodfellas) and he’s pretty upset about it.

To put it in simplest terms, Men with Guns is a technical atrocity. The editing is uneven, the camerawork is distracting and unclear, and poor direction on Skogland’s behalf only worsens these aspects. Halfway through, the plot becomes incoherent and the motives behind the characters’ action are nonexistent. There are a couple of entertaining scenes that owe themselves to occasionally clever writing, but the film fails at anything beyond that. It’s just simply not good.

Acting is another problem. The performances are tacky and unbelievable, especially from Donal Logue, who overacts the entire time. Max Perlich delivers his lines with an unconvincing smirk and Paul Sorvino doesn’t even really seem to be trying. Gregory Sporleder and Callum Keith Rennie both do an adequate job with their characters, but that’s really not saying all too much.

Now, with all of the badness, there is some good news. It does end. The film does have an ending – an ending that comes a little too late, but an ending nonetheless. It’s not a particularly good one, but it at least it is one.

Final rating: ★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2011 Stephen Earnest

Review: AUTO FOCUS (R)

Greg Kinnear as Bob Crane in Paul Schrader's bleak character study, "Auto Focus."

U.S. Release Date: October 18, 2002

Running Time: 105 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Language, violence, sexual situations, nudity, drugs)

Cast: Greg Kinnear, Willem Dafoe, Maria Bello, Rita Wilson, Kurt Fuller, Ron Leibman

Director: Paul Schrader

Producers: Scott Alexander, Alicia Allain, Patrick Dollard, Larry Karaszewski, Brian Oliver, Todd Rosken

Screenplay: Michael Gerbosi, based upon the novel The Murder of Bob Crane by Robert Graysmith

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / August 20, 2011

Paul Schrader’s Auto Focus is shockingly bleak, abrupt, and offers virtually no catharsis. Never before have I seen a movie present such lurid subject matter with such an upbeat tone.

Paul Schrader is certainly a man who knows how to capture the darker points of life on-screen. Auto Focus and Affliction, the latter being a personal favorite of mine, are perfect examples of men leading troubling lives and having to cope with them as best they can. The suffering and pain usually comes from within rather than from the surroundings. What Schrader does he begins by showing us a character that has been a victim of circumstance and then leads down us down their path to despair as they are swallowed whole by their own sin. In the end, we have no choice but to feel pity for them.

The story of Bob Crane is a depressing one. The Hogan’s Heroes star had such a career going for him, until his life took a turn for the worse. In Auto Focus, Greg Kinnear portrays Crane in a life-like role. What an excellent casting choice because I doubt that anyone other than Kinnear couldn’t have pulled the role off.

As you well know, Crane got involved with an electronics expert named John Carpenter, who introduced Crane to the world of home video. Time progressed and Crane got more famous with the show. He started going out to parties, cheating on wife. The activities that most celebrities engage in. Eventually, the role of a home video camera begin to find its way into the mix and soon Crane was recording his sexual encounters with nearly every woman he had sex with. This addiction to sex led to an addiction of it being recorded and soon Crane was keeping a collection of all of his sex tapes. Of course, his wife find out in a matter of time and Crane’s marriage was destroyed.

The story continues but only for a short while. Auto Focus shows this story so truthfully and realistically that it almost serves as a warning to us as viewers. Though Schrader is indifferent to the lead character, Bob Crane, it is very clear that he loathes and holds a deep resentment for the sin that Crane commits. Auto Focus warns us about the dangers and temptations that lurk beneath happy facades; it shows us what happens we can’t resist. But the truth is that we never really know what something’s like until we do it for ourselves.

There need to be more directors like Paul Schrader out there. Cinema does have a purpose but sadly, it is typically used to entertain audiences with violence, nudity, bad language, or, most of the time, all three. Auto Focus has all three of these things but doesn’t employ them for the sake of money or grabbing peoples’ interest. Rather, it uses them to show us what not to do and what happens when we do the forbidden.

In saying this, I’m not speaking out against violence or sex or profanity. I’m just trying to say that they take their toll on society. Look at the box office totals between Auto Focus and say… Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Surprised much?

RATING: 3.5/4

Review: THE LOOKOUT (R)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt's performance is one the bright spots in "The Lookout."

U.S. Release Date: March 30, 2007

Running Time: 99 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Language, violence, sexual content)

Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jeff Daniels, Matthew Goode, Bruce McGill, Isla Fisher, Alex Borstein, Carla Gugino, Alberta Watson

Director: Scott Frank

Producers: Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum, Becki Cross Trujillo, Jonathan Glickman, Laurie MacDonald, Laurence Mark, Ivan Oyco, Walter F. Parkes

Screenplay: Scott Frank

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / August 7, 2011

From famed writer Scott Frank comes The Lookout and given his reputation (he was the screenwriter for two great crime films, Out of Sight and Get Shorty), one would expect it to be another great addition to the crime genre. But despite being well-made and well-acted, it’s surprisingly mediocre. That’s not saying that I wasn’t entertained though.

The lead character is Chris Pratt, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Chris was involved in a car accident earlier and now has a form of short-term memory loss. Because of this, he’s forced to take notes in order to remember. His roommate, is a blind man named Lewis (Jeff Daniels). The age difference between the two is pretty large, but they remain friends nonetheless.

Chris is employed at a bank, where he works as a janitor, though he aspires to eventually become a teller. He is constantly training to get better at counting but his inability to remember gets in the way. One night, Chris is visiting a bar when he runs into Gary. The two went to high school together and Gary remembers Chris, as he was a huge hockey star back before his accident.

Eventually, the two form a small friendship and Gary invites Chris over to his house, where he meets the rest of the gang. Before long though, Gary divulges unto Chris a scheme that involves robbing the bank that Chris works at.

Then what The Lookout leads to is a predictably executed heist and a predictable outcome, not to mention that it began pretty predictably to begin with. The characters are the same characters we’ve seen a million times and despite all of the depth that they’re given, they still feel surprisingly two-dimensional. This is all on Frank, who is usually such a charismatic and fluent screenwriter. He brings every cliche to the table, following a formula so overused that it’s nearly impossible to try to spice it up a little. Predictably is what kills this movie.

Now, as stated before, the acting is spot-on. Daniels gives a great supporting performance as Lewis, the honest and loyal friend, and Gordon-Levitt is pretty sturdy as the lead. While the characters that they play are predictably-shaped, they bring as much talent to them as possible. One could say that they acting almost makes up for Frank’s pitiful excuse for a script, but that wouldn’t be the case.

This is one of those movies that you can watch with eyes half-opened: it doesn’t require a huge attention span, but you won’t get bored. There’s enough action here to keep you mildly entertained.

RATING: 2/4

Review: ELECTION (R)

Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon.

U.S. Release Date: April 23, 1999

Running Time: 102 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Language, sexual situations)

Cast: Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Klein

Director: Alexander Payne

Producers: Albert Berger, David Gale, Keith Samples, Ron Yerxa, Jessica Campbell, Molly Hagan, Delaney Driscoll, Phil Reeves

Screenplay: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / August 7, 2011

In the tradition of most urban black comedies (such as American Beauty and Happiness), Alexander Payne’s Election follows the formula quite well. And what an odd formula that is.

It deals with high school teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), who is well-known within the community for really getting involved with the students on more personal level, connecting with them almost like a father does to his child. Recently, he’s become unsatisfied with his life–both personally and professionally–and these feelings come into play with the school’s student council election.

Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), a student obsessed with academics, is the person whom his feelings are mostly directed at. She is destined for greatness, will only go up in life, and, at the moment, is running unopposed in the race for school president. McAllister has grown tired of seeing her constantly succeed and realizes that because of her, a lot of other people will fail and go on leading unfulfilled lives. Also, he just isn’t quite so fond of her. So, he decides to intervene in the election by convincing another student, Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), to enter the race. Naturally, sparks fly and Election heats up, spinning off into a whirlwind of political satire.

Broderick, an actor who, as well-known as he is, doesn’t have a very extensive filmography (mainly, he’s recognized for the John Hughes-directed comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), fits in perfectly with the character of Jim McAllister. He delivers such an honest and personable performance that he’s very easy to to identify with. Education is such a tiresome profession, having to watch as your students head off and become something better than you are. It’s hard to imagine that jealousy doesn’t often play a part in their lives. We all know someone like Tracy Flick, therefore, we can immediately relate with McAllister.

Election is a comedy, but it isn’t laugh-out-loud hilarious. It has a very quiet sense of humor, delivered not through actions, but through dialogue. Alexander Payne’s and Jim Taylor’s script is phenomenal. The satire is easy to spot–sharp and biting. Obviously, Election represents the presidential election of 1992 and its characters stand for the opposing candidates: Bush, Clinton, and Perot. It may over-exaggerate itself sometimes, but, for the most part, it stays very true to actuality.

The editing was Oscar-worthy. It was such a genuine pleasure seeing such smooth cuts and dissolves. The music (as brilliant as it was) was always right on cue with the characters actions. Without a doubt, Election is one of the finest-looking comedies I’ve ever seen.

Overall, Election may not be very upbeat and offers virtually no catharsis, but tends to very enjoyable. It’s funny, startlingly original, and boldly goes where most satires wouldn’t dare.

RATING: 3.5/4

FRANTIC (1988) / Thriller

Running Length: 120 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for violence, language, and brief drug and sexual content.

Cast: Harrison Ford, Emmanuelle Seigner, John Mahoney, Betty Buckley, Gerard Klein
Director: Roman Polanski
Producers: Tim Hampton, Thom Mount
Screenplay: Roman Polanksi, Gerard Brach

Harrison Ford stars as Dr. Richard Walker, a surgeon visiting Paris to attend a medical convention. He has brought with him his wife Sondra, but upon stepping out of the shower in their hotel bedroom, realizes that she has been kidnapped.

And so begins Frantic, Roman Polanski’s competent and cleverly-crafted thriller that employs the typical Polanski traits such as paranoia, irony, and Hitchcockian nostalgia. It’s murky and mysterious, focusing on Walker as hestumbles around Paris searching for his wife – confused, disoriented, and unable to comprehend anything that anyone is saying, with his only clue being a suitcase that she picked up at the airport, mistaking it for her own.

Frantic delivers what it promises: excitement. With a single action, the mood can change from calm to tense, bringing us from a perfectly relaxed seating position to the very edge of our seat. As confusing as the plot may be sometimes, it puts us in the same position as Ford. This is vintage Polanski and decidedly one of his best.

Besides having a sturdy lead performance from Ford, Frantic also features plenty of well-acted cameos (including one from David Huddleston, who strangely resembles Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a strong supporting performance from the beautiful Emmanuelle Seigner.

Frantic evokes memories of long-lost thrillers with its daring rooftop sequences, brief gunfights and car chases. It’s as entertaining and nerve-jangling as they get and rarely does it lag.

Final rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2011 Stephen Earnest

Review: THERE WILL BE BLOOD (R)

Daniel Day-Lewis gives an astounding performance in "There Will Be Blood."

U.S. Release Date: January 25, 2008 (wide)

Running Time: 158 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (A scene of violence)

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Ciaran Hinds, Kevin J. O’Connor, Dillon Freasier, Russell Harvard

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Producers: Paul Thomas Anderson, Scott Rudin, Joanne Sellar, Daniel Lupi

Screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson, based upon the novel Oil! by Upton Sinclair

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / August 3, 2011

Paul Thomas Anderson is one the best filmmakers to come about in the industry in a long, long while. His work is always so weird and eccentric, yet somehow it manages to be perceived as mainstream. His latest work, There Will Be Blood, is either a very sophisticated horror film or a completely unorthodox Western.

In the lead role is Daniel Day-Lewis, who won a well-deserved Academy Award for his performance. There’s no need to provide you with a plot synopsis because there’s virtually no plot at all. The film focuses on the life of Daniel Plainview, a man who starts his own oiling business. He makes promises to the locals of wealth and fortune, but doesn’t keep them. Over time, he is enveloped by greed and corruption as he gradually accumulates wealth and power and they get nothing. Eventually, he becomes ethically and morally insubordinate. He cuts all emotional ties with any living thing. Essentially, he is the definition of the word “evil”. Wealth has exposed his true nature.

Without a doubt, Daniel Day-Lewis has the performance of the year, the decade, and his career. He holds nothing back here, creating the most ultimately convincing character I’ve ever seen in a movie. There are rumors that he spent years preparing for this role and I’m not all that surprised. He changes everything about himself as a person–his speech, gait, mannerisms. To watch him first in real life and then in this movie is like watching two completely different people. It’s absolutely astounding.

The other Oscar-winner was Robert Elswit, who has some beautiful cinematography. Those long meandering shots that sort of skirt along the ground are the effect of expert camerawork and Elswit’s win was well-deserved. I found the score by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood to be excellent as well. It makes the movie almost as much as Day-Lewis’ performance, giving us an eerie and haunting backdrop. What a surprise it wasn’t nominated.

I suspect that many will become bored by the film’s frustratingly-slow pace. At times, the films meanders. The final forty minutes are composed of two scenes. Anderson doesn’t feel the need to excite us: he shows us what he wants us to see and we sort of have to deal with it.

In all of my cinematic experiences, There Will Be Blood has managed to be one of the most profound and disturbing ones yet. It is as terrifying as they come, not manifesting its horror with violence and gore, but with true-to-life acting.

RATING: 3.5/4