Review: BRINGING OUT THE DEAD (R)

Nicolas Cage as Frank Pierce.

U.S. Release Date: October 22, 1999

Running Time: 121 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Language, violence, drugs)

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Patricia Arquette, Ving Rhames, Tom Sizemore, John Goodman, Marc Anthony, Cliff Curtis

Director: Martin Scorsese

Producer: Barbara De Fina, Scott Rudin

Screenplay: Paul Schrader, based upon the novel by Joe Connelly

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / November 28, 2011

Nicolas Cage plays Frank Pierce, a burned-out paramedic searching for life and happiness but finding only death and misery, in Martin Scorsese’s eccentric hell-ride, Bringing Out The Dead. Now, Frank is in a bad state. He’s not only a wreck, but a ten-car pileup on a gritty road in a bad part of town. This stems from a teenager’s life that he failed to save (who he often hallucinates walking down the street), and ever since, he hasn’t been able to save anybody.

At the beginning of the film, Frank and his partner Larry (John Goodman) are racing to the scene of a heart-attack victim. When they get there, there is nothing they can do. The man is dead. But this is nothing new to Frank. He explains to us in a brief voice-over, “I was a grief mop.” See, in his line of work, his job isn’t always about saving lives, but rather trying to bring encouragement. The night moves on into day. Frank strikes up a small relationship with Mary (Patricia Arquette), the daughter of the heart-attack victim. Both have troubled pasts and find solace in each other.

Like many other Scorsese films, Bringing Out The Dead follows no tangible storyline. We focus entirely on Frank, the deplorable places that his job brings him, and the deteriorating effect it has on his mind and body.

While there are a lot of dramatic moments, there are some pretty funny ones, too. This isn’t humor delivered by dialogue, but by sheer absurdity. Scorsese incorporates a lot of Frank’s mental collapse into how the film looks, with lights flashing wildly, demonic-looking characters, and gritty cinematography. We really get that “hellish” feel.

Scorsese also uses a lot of religious imagery as well. The hospital, Our Lady of Perpetual Mercy (aptly nicknamed “Perpetual Misery”), blatantly resembles purgatory while one could relate the Oasis, a place to get high and escape from the city, to Heaven. There’s a even a scene involving a “miracle” where a virgin gives birth. All of this contributes to making Bringing Out The Dead  a rare moving-going experience. It’s decidedly the most offbeat film from Scorsese, and just so happens to be one of his finest.

Nicolas Cage can always manage to pack such raw energy into his characters. He brings an intensity like no another to Frank, who isn’t necessarily “likable” but totally relatable. We can relate to Frank, even if we’re likely never to encounter or endure as much pain as he has. The brief bits of narration he is given really give him depth. Sure, the film does sag in parts and its character are stretched to the absolute extremes of the scale, and it is an acquired taste, but that’s all what makes it so unique. And if you’re a Scorsese fan (and who isn’t?), then this is a must-see.

RATING: 3/4

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Review: LOST IN LA MANCHA (R)

The genius behind it all, Terry Gilliam.

U.S. Release Date: August 30, 2002

Running Time: 93 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Language)

Cast: Jeff Bridges, Terry Gilliam, Johnny Depp, Jean Rochefort

Director: Keith Fulton, Luis Pepe

Producer: Lucy Darwin

Screenplay: Keith Fulton, Louise Pepe

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / November 25, 2011

Anyone who knows anything about Terry Gilliam knows about what it’s like to work with him. It’s not so much that the man is a difficult person; it’s just that he can’t ever stop thinking. Creativity fuels his productions. Now, that doesn’t seem like much of a problem, because it isn’t. The problem is that he has a mind unlike anybody else. It’s incredibly hard for other people to comprehend (let alone “imagine”) what he’s thinking, and it literally takes brute force to get him to stop. That’s just how complex of a guy he is.

Anyone who knows anything about Terry Gilliam also knows about his countless production problems. There have been disagreements over budget concerns, script issues, actor choices. Gilliam spent a length of time arguing with the studio over Brazil. Years later, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen grossed eight times less than what its original budget was. There was supposedly even an attempt by Gilliam to adapt Alan Moore’s popular Watchmen comic series into a film, but it failed.

The main reasoning behind the quarrels between Gilliam and studio is that his films are just too eccentric for a mainstream audience. Most are unwilling to fund his productions simply because it would cost a lot of money to bring his imagination to the screen, and they would be taking a huge risk, as not every everyone is accustomed to Gilliam’s off-beat style.

Such is the case for Gilliam’s planned feature The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, which encountered nearly every production problem imaginable.

First off, there were debates over the budget. Due to financial indifference in America, Gilliam decided to produce the film using a European studio, but was still only able to get half of the amount that he actually needed to make the film.

Secondly, when the time to film finally came around, the crew discovered that the area in which they were filming was located right next to a NATO aircraft base. The deafening sound of planes flying overhead was a huge problem, and even worse, was unavoidable.

On the second day of actual shooting, a flash flood came and damaged a lot of the equipment. It would take at least a day for new equipment to be sent to them, and time was of the essence. Plus, they couldn’t use of the footage from the first day. The set was permanently changed because of the flooding — the dirt and hills were a different, darker color and there was virtually no sunlight.

The final straw was when the actor in the lead role of Don Quixote, Jean Rochefort, suffered from a herniated disc. He was in need of medical attention and had to be flown back to Paris, and there was no estimated date on which he was expected to return.

Eventually, all of this resulted in a cancellation of the project. It supposedly takes a lot to convince Gilliam not to go through with something and at the end of the film, he finally just admits that maybe the project is better off staying in his mind. And it’s a true shame. From what I saw in Lost in La Mancha, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote looked like a fairly enjoyable piece of work.

RATING: 3/4

Review: SESSION 9 (R)

One of the many terrifying scenes in Session 9.

U.S. Release Date: August 10, 2001

Running Time: 102 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Language, violence)

Cast: David Caruso, Peter Mullan, Stephen Gevedon, Paul Guilfoyle, Josh Lucas, Brendan Sexton III, Larry Fessenden

Director: Brad Anderson

Producer: John Sloss, David Collins, Michael Williams, Dorothy Aufiero

Screenplay: Brad Anderson, Stephen Gevedon

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / November 23, 2011

When it comes to twenty-first century horror, not many of them manage to scare quite as much as they should. They’re always the same thing over and over again, repeating the same mistakes that their predecessors did. Once in a blue moon, you’ll get a horror film that will get it right, and this time that horror film is Session 9.

It stars Scottish actor Peter Mullan as Gordon, a father who runs an asbestos cleaning company with close friend, Phil (David Caruso, from TV’s CSI: Miami). Gordon is desperate to keep his company running, so he takes the contract on an abandoned mental hospital and even offers to clean it out in a week’s time.

He uses his usual crew to help him out. The lack of time and hazardous surroundings don’t quite contribute to a peaceful environment, so the group of men don’t really get along as well as they should. As time progresses, they begin to learn what used to happen at the hospital. One of the men, Mike (Stephen Gevedon), uncovers a set of tapes that talk of brutal and primitive forms of punishment. In a particularly terrifying sequence, Hank imagines people walking around in the basement. And the more they begin to find out about the hospital, the more they begin to find out about each other.

Minus a shaky final act, Session 9 is a thoroughly effective horror story that uses its haunting atmosphere as the source for most of its scares. While it didn’t manage to flat-out scare me, it kept a pretty consistent creepy tone and I’ll admit that it did get under my skin from time to time. Plus, there’s a couple of jumpy parts for you Paranormal Activity fans.

Really, I was surprised by how very absorbed I was in this movie. It never quite takes off like it should, but it’s so utterly and hypnotically watchable that it’s near impossible to take your eyes off the screen. If you look away for a second, there’s a chance that you’ll miss something, and that something could be a definite game-changer.

The cast does a great job. These are not all “big name” actors. Peter Mullan is relatively famous, but not to the American crowd. He works as the lead here and really convinces for the most part. I mostly pleased with Josh Lucas, who did an excellent job. He supports the film quite nicely and had me quite convinced during that certain “basement” scene. Also, it was nice to see David Caruso in something other than CSI: Miami.

Overall, this seems to be an overlooked gem. You rarely find a well-made horror film, so its kind of an small achievement when you do.

RATING: 3/4

Review: LIVING IN OBLIVION (R)

Steve Buscemi leading the rest of the crew as they prepare for a shot.

U.S. Release Date: July 21, 1995

Running Time: 90 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Language, brief sexual content/nudity)

Cast: Steve Buscemi, Catherine Keener, Dermot Mulroney, James LeGros, Peter Dinklage, Kevin Corrigan

Director: Tom DiCillo

Producer: Michael Griffiths, Marcus Viscidi

Screenplay: Tom DiCillo

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / November 21, 2011

Steve Buscemi has got to be one of the most charismatic actors out there. That’s not an insult, mind you. His characters are always so life-like and well-acted; so much, in fact, that you begin to wonder if they’re actually people that you know or have met before.

In Living in Oblivion, he shines. He plays Nick Reve, an independent film director. Lately, Nick’s been having a frustrating time with his cast. He can’t get anything to go right. The leading lady, Nicole (Catherine Keener), isn’t responding well to her male co-star, the meat-headed Chad Palomino (James LeGros), and the cinematographer Wolf (Dermot Mulroney) is having lady problems.

The main storyline is divided into three segments, all of which are either dreams or reality. We’re never quite sure. Is this intended to be some sort of underlying or hidden meaning? Who knows.

The main gag in Living in Oblivion is that  every time something goes well in a shot, something else goes wrong. Nothing ever goes exactly according to plan, and the thing that goes wrong usually screws up the entire shot. There are countless retakes, with none of them ever leading anywhere. We get a sense that this is what really happens on an independent film set. And who knew that someone else’s troubles could be so damn funny?

The film’s director, Tom DiCillo, won the well-deserved Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance Festival in ’95. And that’s the best part about Living in Oblivion. The writing is fantastic. It’s wickedly funny and original. Each character is given a decent amount of depth and DiCillo manages to poke fun in the just the right places.

The casting is perfect. Of course, Buscemi is fantastic in his role, but so are LeGros and Mulroney. LeGros is hilarious as the Brad Pitt-like leading man and almost every line out of Mulroney’s mouth could be considered comedic gold. These are performances that typical moviegoers don’t relish has much as they should. They consider a good performance to consist of detail, tears, and nudity. A good comic performance goes overlooked more often than not, and it’s one of the most difficult to perform.

These kinds of films, these low-budget comedies, are always so great. It’s great that they are unknown to the most of the world. Comedy like this comes with a price: you have to search for it, and in the end, it pays off.

RATING: 3.5/4

Review: LOVE LIZA (R)

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Kathy Bates in "Love Liza."

U.S. Release Date: January 14, 2002

Running Time: 90 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Language, drug use)

Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, JD Walsh, Kathy Bates, Jimmy Raskin, Jim Wise, Erika Alexander, Stephen Tobolowsky

Director: Todd Louiso

Producers: Ruth Charny, Chris Hanley, Corky O’Hara, Jeffrey Roda, Fernando Sulichin

Screenplay: Gordy Hoffman

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / November 21, 2011

Wilson is upset. He’s disheveled, confused, angry, and not really sure of how to cope with the recent loss of his wife. His anger really isn’t directed at anybody in particular. Maybe he’s upset with himself. Maybe the world. Who knows? Maybe he just needs to vent. But either way, he’s the main reason to watch Love Liza.

Love Liza explores the life of a man whose wife commits suicide, leaving him all alone in a place where he doesn’t quite feel comfortable. When she’s gone, all that he’s left with is a bitter mother-in-law and a mysterious note. The note is written by his wife, Liza. Throughout the course of the film. Wilson (portrayed brilliantly by Philip Seymour Hoffman) deals with his suffering by huffing gasoline. He can’t naturally cope with pain, so he turns to gasoline for help. It’s an odd choice fora  drug, but at effective one. Slowly, he becomes more worse than when he started. The drug begins to take over his life more and more, and he becomes addicted to it. People outside are wondering what’s happening to him.

Love Liza isn’t a particularly exciting film. It’s not even all that interesting. But it’s wonderful to watch Hoffman work. He plays the role of Wilson with such power and strength that you watch the movie just for him. And it also has something that most films don’t: it’s genuine. It’s had a considerable amount of time and thought put into it and while it isn’t utterly perfect, it’s honest and anyone that’s had a loss in their life can easily relate to it.

There’s not much plot here and the pacing is a little off, but Love Liza isn’t a bad film. It’d be forgettable, if only it weren’t for Hoffman’s lead performance. This isn’t one of those movies that you’d go out of your way to watch, but if you come across it and there’s nothing else going on, give it a chance. Who knows? You might be surprised.

RATING: 2.5/4

IN TIME (2011) / Science fiction-Thriller

Running Length: 109 minutes
MPAA Classification: PG-13 for violence, some sexuality and partial nudity, and strong language.

Cast: Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, Cillian Murphy, Olivia Wilde, Alex Pettyfer, Vincent Kartheiser, Johnny Galecki
Director: Andrew Niccol
Producer: Andrew Niccol, Marc Abraham, Amy Israel, Kristel Laiblin, Eric Newman
Screenplay: Andrew Niccol

The concept for In Time, the new film from writer-director Andrew Niccol (The Truman Show), is interesting, but the way in which it is executed is dreadful. This is one of those movies that you go to watch more for style rather than substance, but rarely does it have either.

Our hero is Will Salas (Justin Timberlake, The Social Network), a factory worker who lives in a future where the world uses time as a form of currency. When your times runs out, you go plop. Kinda like that Bruce Willis vehicle Surrogates. Salas lives at home with his mother and wants nothing more than to be a clichéd human being in every movie ever. So, one night Salas happens across a stranger (Matthew Bomer, USA’s “White Collar”) in one of the local bars. The man seems to be out of place, for it’s apparent that he’s very wealthy. See, in this future, the rich and the poor are seperated by “time zones”. The richer you are, the nicer the area you live in is. Simple enough, right?

Well, a couple of hoodlums notice this as well and pick a fight with the man, claiming that they are entitled to his time as much as he is. A chase ensues, with Salas helping the man out of the bar and through the streets to an abandoned building, where the man explains that his reason for being in this time zone is because he longer appreciates being immortal. So much wealth makes you not appreciate the small things in life and eventually, you just want to go away. This is about as sentimental as In Time gets.

The morning after, Salas awakens to discover that his “time balance” has been tremendously increased. Stupefied, he gets up and races to the window just in time to see the man kill himself by jumping from a bridge. Now, with this large amount of time on his hands, Salas travels to the highest time zone, attracting the attention of the locals, including the daughter (Amanda Seyfried) of a “millenium”-aire (Haha!). The two quickly develop a romantic attraction for one another, but their relationship is put on hold with the arrival of the Timekeepers, who suspect Salas of murder. But before they can arrest him, Salas and the girl elope. Mayhem ensues.

What In Time doesn’t understand is that people don’t enjoy seeing the same thing over and over again and especially not if it’s done poorly. (Well, at least I don’t.) Normally, I’m fine with a little predictability, but In Time is so bad in everything else that it does that it just can’t be forgiven. Seriously, guys — this one is stagnant.

There are problems with both the editing and visual effects. The pacing is even, but continuity is consistently off and the visual effects simply aren’t very believable. (To cite an example, there’s an image of car rolling down a hill that almost resembles stop-motion animation.)

As well as having technical problems, In Time suffers from formulaic plotting, all-around cheesy dialogue, and so many time-related puns that you’d need a to make a tally chart in order to keep track of them. Timberlake and Seyfried each give good performances, but they’re only as good as the script will allow them to be. Cillian Murphy smirks a whole lot and overacts, but given these one-dimensional characters, there’s not a whole lot that these actors can do to impress us.

It’s all a startling disappointment for Andrew Niccol, whose career takes a slight dip downwards. His Lord of War and Gattaca were both fascinating motion pictures, so what went wrong here? Normally in a situation like this, I’d blame the writer for the film’s badness, as that’s where a lot of the problems stem from. But seeing as Niccol was involved in the writing as well, what else am to do?

There is some good news to be had though. During the final ten minutes or so, I’ve never laughed so hard in my entire life. Ever. Who cares if I wasn’t meant to laugh? It’s the most emotion I showed the entire time, and that’s saying something. So unless you’re looking for some mindless Friday night cheese to poke fun at, don’t go see In Time. Don’t even go see it if there’s nothing else playing at the theater that strikes your interest. Go do something else. Live your life. Is it really as bad as I’m making it out to be? Oh, you betcha.

Final rating: ★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

© 2011 Stephen Earnest

Review: PONTYPOOL (R)

Stephen McHattie as Grant Mazzy.

U.S. Release Date: March 6, 2009

Running Time: 95 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Language, violence)

Cast: Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly, Hrant Alianak, Boyd Banks, Rick Roberts

Director: Bruce McDonald

Producers: Jeffrey Coghlan, Ambrose Roche

Screenplay: Tony Burgess

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / November 20, 2011

Pontypool is an extraordinary film. Not extraordinary as in it’s one of the best films out there, but extraordinary as in it’s amazing how much it accomplishes in the time and space it’s given. The movie stars Stephen McHattie as Grant Mazzy, a radio DJ in a small town in Ontario, Canada called Pontypool. On his way to work, he experiences an odd encounter with a mysterious woman, who approaches his car when he decides to make a stop, then abruptly disappears.

He arrives for his shift at the radio station, is greeted by his two counterparts, Sydney (Lisa Houle) and Laurel (Georgina Reilly), and the day continues to unfold as any normal day should. But things begin to slowly go downhill when Mazzy and his radio crew catch wind of a disturbance in town from their helicopter reporter. Apparently, people are gathering by the hundreds and rioting against a doctor’s office. Soon, the riot begins to escalate into something else. Violence rings out, people begin to die. Rumors of cannibalism make their way to the radio station. There is not control over anything anymore. What could be the cause for all of this?

That’s pretty much the synopsis of Pontypool, one of the few recent horror films that is actually scary. Not scary in the “Gotcha!” sense of the word, but more in the genuine, skin-crawling sense. The kind of scary that slowly builds in gut-wrenching tension instead of being abrupt and shocking. And here in Pontypool, that kind of scary is manufactured entirely by dialogue. Now, isn’t that impressive?

Aside from the beginning, the whole story set entirely in a single building, and most of the violence is kept off-screen. This way you’re never quite sure what’s happening. You’re stuck with the main characters inside the radio station, only getting information from the outside. It’s just terrifying not to know what’s going on.

Alas, Pontypool does lose its hold on you as it progresses. The final couple minutes or so are somewhat ridiculous, but no so ridiculous that you get bored. And I just couldn’t believe in the reasoning behind why everyone was acting so strangely. It didn’t seem possible.

The performances are fairly routine for characters of this genre, but McHattie is something to behold. He’s got that look of familiarity, like you’ve seen him before somewhere, but you’re not quite sure where. He brings a needed gruffness to the role and pulls off the character fabulously. I wouldn’t doubt it if he starts getting more lead roles in the future.

In the end, you won’t be blown away by what Pontypool has to offer, but you’ll be highly impressed by bits and pieces of it. Fans of the claustrophobic-horror genre beware: this one’s pretty good.

RATING: 3/4