STRAIGHT TIME (1978) / Crime-Drama

Running Length: 114 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for language, violence, sexual content, and some nudity.

Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Theresa Russell, Harry Dean Stanton, Gary Busey, M. Emmet Walsh, Kathy Bates, Sandy Baron
Director: Ulu Grosbard
Producers: Stanley Beck, Dustin Hoffman, Tim Zinnemann
Screenplay: Jeffrey Boam, Alvin Sargent, Edward Bunker (based upon the novel No Beast So Fierce by Edward Bunker)

Straight Time is a masterpiece of modern film making. It is both a gripping crime-drama and an engrossing character study, and it features one of the most developed criminals ever to hit the silver screen. Dustin Hoffman stars as Max Dembo, an ex-convict on parole after just being released from prison. Max is a man who doesn’t exactly desire a life of crime but sees no other way fit to making a living. He has been toughened by years behind bars and, because of this, has become better at what he does best: steal. The knowledge of what will happen if he is caught makes him all the more determined not to be. Does he ever question whether what he does is right or wrong? Have years of being incarcerated changed him? That question can be answered in one of the film’s earliest scenes, when Max is asked if he understands the conditions of his parole: “I gotta get along with you or you’re gonna send me back to jail.”

Like the millions of others who are frequently subjected to imprisonment, crime is not an obsession but a way of life for Max and he is forever doomed to continue it. He’s practically incapable of doing anything else. Regular day jobs disinterest him. There is no excitement in living a simple life, and even though Max gives it a go at first, he eventually gives in to his daily routine of liquor store hold-ups.

Straight Time takes on structure as it goes along, but is never conventional in doing so. It studies Max rather than trying to explain him. The writers, Jeffrey Boam, Alvin Sargent, and Edward Bunker (the latter whose novel the script was based upon), never make it clear what it was that got him to this point. Instead, they focus more on what it is that drives him to continue doing what he does.

In the film’s early stages, Max’s primal opposing force is his Los Angeles parole officer, Earl Frank (M. Emmet Walsh), who is cruel and patronizing and offers little help in the way of making sure that Max stays clean. Frank is unwilling to forget the past and is more concerned with catching Max in the act of doing something illegal so he can put him right back in jail. Walsh always succeeds in playing the bad guy (see Blood Simple) and is marvelously detestable here. He snarls and cackles and offers one of the most sarcastic grins you’ll see in a motion picture.

The real action begins halfway in. Max partners up with Jerry (Harry Dean Stanton), an old associate, and the two execute a series a profitable heists; first a bank then a high-profile jewelry store. The tension increases. It becomes only a matter of time before Max’s actions get him caught and we’re stuck waiting for that moment to come.

What most crime films lack is character, and while bank heists and firefights are exciting to watch, they do not bring or add any of the depth that is needed to keep us so emotionally attached to our protagonist. Although Max is not necessarily a “likable” lead, he is one that we can reason with. We understand his motives and personality, and we see a world that is unforgiving of his nature and unwilling to accept him for who he is. Director Ulu Grosbard does nothing to “liven” up this image; he paints his picture in shades of gray. This is a grim portrait of a grim character, and grim it is all the way until the very end.

There is a fine cast of performances including the likes of Gary Busey, Harry Dean Stanton, and Kathy Bates, but the best comes from Hoffman, whose meticulous performance the film dwells upon. He manifests the character of Max better than any other actor imaginable and not once does his acting ever falter. In a career that has spanned over three decades, his performance in Straight Time is one of his greatest, and also one of his least-known.

This is not a film about a man moving up in a world of crime, but rather about his decline and eventual demise. The farther up he goes, the harder it is to go back down. Giving up begins to seem more and more futile, even if it means running for the rest of his life. That’s a risk he’s willing to take.

Final rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2011 Stephen Earnest

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Review: THE WAY OF THE GUN (R)

Ryan Phillippe and Benicio Del Toro as Parker and Longbaugh.

U.S. Release Date: September 8, 2000

Running Time: 119 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Language, sexual situations, violence/gore)

Cast: Ryan Phillippe, Benicio Del Toro, James Caan, Juliette Lewis, Taye Diggs, Nicky Katt, Geoffrey Lewis, Scott Wilson, Kristin Lehman

Director: Christopher McQuarrie

Producer: Kenneth Kokin

Screenplay: Christopher McQuarrie

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / December 28, 2011

Christopher McQuarrie’s directorial debut, The Way of the Gun, is a stylish and offbeat re-imagining of the classic Western that starts — and ends — with a very loud bang. It may get far-fetched and outlandish at times, but never so much that we become uninterested.

The plot focuses on Parker (Ryan Phillippe doing an uncouth impression of Marlon Brando) and Longbaugh (Benicio Del Toro), a couple of criminals looking for the ultimate score. Their time comes when they overhear a conversation about a woman that is carrying a child for a wealthy couple, and the two get a rather clever idea: kidnap the woman and hold her unborn child for ransom until the couple decides to pay up. Well, their plan goes through, but there’s one thing that they haven’t reckoned with: the father of the child is Hale Chidduck, who happens to have a lengthy criminal background. One thing leads to another and pretty soon an all-out war is started between the kidnappers and Chidduck, who sends his henchmen out instead to take care of business.

Regardless of the slow pace, The Way of the Gun is handled quite well by McQuarrie, who seems pretty confident his first time out as director. He delivers a much-needed sense of style that is essential for a movie like this, especially in the film’s well-choreographed climax, but the real strength comes from his script. There isn’t a whole lot of originality to speak of, but that’s not saying there isn’t fun to be had. Channeling Peckinpah, McQuarrie sends his characters into the heat of desert, ready for action. But instead of heroes clad in trench coats and dark sunglasses, we get bulletproof-vested criminals wielding shotguns.

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about McQuarrie’s script is that he doesn’t make the characters of Parker and Longbaugh inept or moronic like most movie criminals so often are. He derives their names from Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and sort of gives them some of the same qualities. That’s not saying that they’re perfect — they do manage to screw up a few times — but they’re smart and they plan ahead and a lot of their maneuvers are quite genius. The same goes for the opposing team. This way both sides are equally matched.

McQuarrie’s realistic approach also highly benefits the mood of the film. He keeps the action stylish, but does not over-exaggerate it. There is none of that choppy or heavily-edited gunplay that so often plagues modern-day crime movies. Everything is pulled off with straight-forward realism. We witness one of the world’s slowest car chases and a gun battle where our heroes are actually injured.

The Way of the Gun is also very dialogue-heavy. You saw this in McQuarrie’s previous script, The Usual Suspects, as well. He makes the character of Parker verbose and almost philosophical with his wording, and it’s his character that provides us with most of the film’s one-liners (“Fifteen million dollars is not money. It’s a motive with a universal adapter on it”).

The acting is not exactly top-notch, but there a couple of serviceable performances, most notably the one from James Caan, who plays yet another tough guy. This is a role that Caan finds himself in quite often, but here he brings an unexpected amount of heart to the character of Joe Sarno, possibly because it’s the one character that most adequately summarizes his acting career.

In a world of sub-standard action flicks, The Way of the Gun stands out. It doesn’t glamorize violence; it studies it. And while it may have its share of flaws, it’s engaging, involving, and a good start for McQuarrie as a director.

RATING: 3/4

Review: THE TRIP (NR)

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in "The Trip".

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in "The Trip."

U.S. Release Date: June 10, 2011

Running Time: 107 minutes

MPAA Classification: NR (Language)

Cast: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Margo Stilley, Claire Keelan

Director: Michael Winterbottom

Producers: Andrew Eaton, Melissa Parmenter, Henry Normal, Michael Winterbottom


By STEPHEN EARNEST / December 27, 2011

At first look, The Trip may not seem like much, but once you get into it, it becomes something much more than you first expected. Now, by saying this, am I implying that a twist of fate occurs among the characters? That the plot takes a turn and becomes something different and more complex than the IMDb synopsis entails? Quite the contrary, actually.

For those of you that have read a plot synopsis on The Trip, you will know what I am talking about. For those of you that haven’t, allow me to explain.

Actor Steve Coogan (played by actor Steve Coogan) is assigned by the Observer newspaper to write an article on the cuisine of Northern England.  Unfortunately, his girlfriend can’t make it, so he invites an old friend, Rob Brydon (played by Rob Brydon) , to come along with him. From here, the plot does not deviate. Coogan and Brydon eat and converse with one another. That’s it. All of this is filmed in documentary fashion, so we get a sense that we’re just watching the lives of two actors. There are no hidden gimmicks or fight sequences or sex scenes. We watch two men go from place to place eating food. Simple enough.

This sounds boring, right? Well, it’s not. It’s actually quite entertaining, mainly because the two actors are such talented impressionists. Brydon (most certainly the funnier of the two) is constantly switching from voice to voice, mimicking a wide variety of famous actors, almost never using his own. In one hilarious instance, he and Coogan argue over who has the better Michael Caine impression, debating over whether or not his voice cracks when he gets emotional.

But while there moments of utter hilarity, there is a fair amount of emotional depth. We learn more about the Coogan character; about the underlying jealousy that exists between him and Brydon. We get a sense that there is some sort of rivalry going on between the two, because even though Coogan believes that he is the better and more well-known actor, Brydon is the one that gets stopped on the streets and asked for autographs.

There are various moments of truth here, such as when Coogan and Brydon decide to explore nature. Coogan spends the entire time explaining the cultural and historical significance of certain parts of the park, while Brydon is more interested in just observing it for himself. He doesn’t need to be told about something to enjoy it. Later on, Coogan is approached by a man who does the exact same thing to him (explaining how the rocks formed that way…) and he realizes how much of a pain it really is.

Ultimately, when we think that all of this character development is going somewhere, The Trip ends, without really resolving anything between Coogan and Brydon. Was it just a way to showcase the mimicking abilities of the two lead actors? That question plagues my mind so, but I think that the half-ambiguous ending makes it seem all the more like a documentary. It’s not a Hollywood movie with a happy ending; it’s real life.

In terms of direction, Michael Winterbottom doesn’t really have that hard of a job. Most of what appears on the screen is routinely executed. There are shots of the English landscape, shots of Coogan and Brydon talking in the car, shots of them eating and talking together, shots of the food being prepared, and shots of Coogan himself exploring the countryside, searching for cell phone reception. But to be fair, when has a documentary ever been that complex of a thing?

RATING: 3.5/4

JERRY AND TOM (1998) / Comedy-Drama

Running Length: 107 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for violence and pervasive language.

Cast: Joe Mantegna, Sam Rockwell, Maury Chaykin, Charles Durning, William H. Macy, Ted Danson, Peter Reigert, Sarah Polley
Director: Saul Rubinek
Producer: Lions Gate Films
Screenplay: Rick Cleveland (based upon his play)

Jerry and Tom is a wholly unknown work of cohesive directorial vision, showing us independent cinema at its absolute and unprecedented best. It is a film so unknown to modern audiences that it maintains somewhere around 300 user ratings on the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, which is a low, low number in this day and age. But should that matter? Should the merit of a film be based on its own popularity? Why, of course not. You’ll find that some of best films are the ones that no one’s heard about.

The film focuses on the titular characters of Jerry and Tom (Sam Rockwell and Joe Mantegna), a pair of low-rent hitmen that work at a used car dealership. The owners, Billy (Maury Chaykin) and Vic (Charles Durning), often need “help” when it comes to solving messy situations, so when the time comes, the true talents of Jerry and Tom are put to use.

From there, Jerry and Tom follows the along the lines of many movies that came before it, but never too closely. Tom shows Jerry the ropes and teaches him how to go about his executions in the most professional way possible. But Jerry lacks the coolness and calmness of Tom. He’s talkative and show-offy and likes to do things his own way, which proves to be a little dangerous from time to time, and Tom doesn’t have the patience to deal with it.Of the two, Tom is the oldest and the wisest and has been in the business the longest. Jerry, on the other hand, is a newcomer. In fact, his becoming a hitman was entirely by accident. (He was merely in the wrong place at the wrong time.) So, due to his inexperience in the field, Tom takes him under his wing.

Where Jerry and Tom draws its strengths from is its director, Saul Rubinek, whose direction is extremely impressive considering the fact that he is an actor. His style is very visual, most notably in the film’s transitions, where one scene will shift to another without cutting a single time, giving us the illusion that the two have blended perfectly together. Rubinek also keeps the mood very light-hearted, despite how dark the subject matter is, and chooses to keep most of the violence off-screen. Rick Cleveland’s script (which was based off of his own one-act play) features original characters and a good, if morbid, sense of humor.

Mantegna and Rockwell both excel in their roles, each offering a well-modulated and humorous performance. Mantegna remains consistently calm throughout, keeping a cool and relaxed demeanor, and Rockwell plays off of him so well. The other supporting performances from the likes of Maury Chaykin, Charles Durning, and Ted Danson don’t disappoint either.

The biggest problem that Jerry and Tom has is Rubinek’s incorporation of flashbacks, which should have been left out. Take for instance the linkage between Vic and the JFK assassination. Yes, we know what happened. Yes, it sounds interesting and could have conceivably taken place. But the flashbacks take away any element of surprise. Some things are just better when left up to the imagination.

While films like Jerry and Tom go largely unmentioned in the conversations of most people, that doesn’t mean that they go entirely unnoticed. In fact, they almost garner a certain amount of prestige for being so unknown. Jerry and Tom is the kind of film that requires a fair amount of digging to exhume. It’s not out there just waiting to be watched. It’s not like everything else. It’s different and has something that a big budget can’t buy – heart.

Final rating: ★★★1/2 (out of ★★★★)

© 2011 Stephen Earnest

MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001) / Drama

Running Length: 147 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for violence, language, and some strong sexuality.

Cast: Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Justin Theroux, Ann Miller, Robert Forster, Melissa George
Director: David Lynch
Producer: Tony Krantz, Neal Edelstein, Michael Polaire, Alain Sarde, Mary Sweeney, Joyce Eliason
Screenplay: David Lynch

A David Lynch film is one of the easiest kinds of films to recognize and one of the hardest kinds to forget. The man is an auteur; an artist, using a camera instead of a paintbrush. He perplexes the audience and challenges us to think, making us his own personal guinea pigs as he thrusts us into a world of obscurity. His aim is to disorient and confuse us until we lose any semblance of reality. And then, just when we think we might have a clue about what’s going on, he pulls the rug from underneath us, leaving us stranded in a sea of bewilderment.

There’s no doubt that a Lynchian film is an acquired taste, and even then it’s still hard to understand exactly what it is that he’s trying to say. He is a hustler. He lures us into a false sense of security with innocent characters and a cheerful atmosphere, but then turns his back on us when the mood changes. Don’t bother asking questions; you’ll get no answers. Lynch never feels the need to bother us with an explanation. He makes it our job to determine what happened, and that task borders on the impossible.

Consider Mulholland Drive, one of his most critically-acclaimed films. I won’t go into detail about the plot because frankly, there really isn’t one. What we have are an innocent protagonist, a series of seemingly unrelated storylines, and a tragic event to tie them all together. Of course, those who have never experienced a Lynchian film will automatically assume that everything will be solved by the end and they can leave the theater satisfied. But those of us who have know better.

I’ll admit that for a while, I actually thought that Mulholland Drive was going somewhere. The film is wonderfully atmospheric, with captivating cinematography and a haunting score. It is so enveloped in detail that we are forced to give it our absolute and undivided attention, making sure that we fully grasp and understand the importance of each scene. Lynch is such a superb director in the way that he makes certain actions and objects stand out, forcing us to question their relevance to the story line. We become intrigued, but only because we want answers.

Then, with roughly 45 minutes to go, it starts to go downhill. Mulholland Drive is so distant and slow-paced that we begin to question why we’re so involved, and it requires such a large amount of concentration that watching it becomes tedious after a while. Lynch is never quite clear on what happens and there are scenes that are so strange that it almost seems pathetic on his part. It’s as if he’s trying too hard to be weird in an attempt to keep us attentive and interested and in his attempt to do so, we become detached and bored. But oddly enough, we’re willing to venture a little bit further. It’s the big payoff that fuels our desire. If Lynch can orchestrate a good ending, then it would surely compensate for what he’s put us through. Is that too much to ask for?

Well, if you know Lynch, then you should know better. Instead of giving us what we want, he does the exact opposite. He throws not only one curveball, but fifty, and throws them all at once. We are not given an answer, but rather a hundred more questions. The final half hour is so convoluted and nonsensical that I left not only confused and dissatisfied, but disgruntled and frustrated with the cruel charade I had endured for over two hours.

The “twist” ending that Lynch supplies us with is a hasty and hackneyed maneuver — a final and desperate attempt to tie everything together. The result is a chaotic and disorganized mess that many people mistake for “brilliance”, which it is not. There is no logic at all involved. Lynch has one goal and one goal only, and that goal is to confuse us. Not even he understands what he is doing.

And that ruins Mulholland Drive for me. Do I recommend it? Well, in some respects, yes, I do. Not as a whole, but as bits and pieces. Realize that I can handle weird, but only when it is done tastefully. David Lyncch is an admirable director, and a lot of that will show here, but directing alone cannot save his film. A decent ending might’ve.

Final rating: ★★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2011 Stephen Earnest

Review: PULP (PG)

Mickey Rooney and Michael Caine.

U,S. Release Date: October 31, 1972

Running Time: 95 minutes

MPAA Classification: PG (Language, sexual references, violence)

Cast: Michael Caine, Mickey Rooney, Lionel Stander, Lizabeth Scott, Nadia Cassini, Dennis Price, Robert Sacchi

Director: Mike Hodges

Producer: Michael Klinger

Screenplay: Mike Hodges

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / December 4, 2011

Let’s just say that Pulp isn’t quite the Mike Hodges that we’re accustomed to; the Mike Hodges that made great films such as Croupier and Get Carter. It’s fairly sub-par for a director of his magnitude, and is lacking in many of the major areas that are required for a film to be considered “good”.

The biggest problem I have with Pulp is the plot, which remains mostly incomprehensible for a majority of the film. Now, by saying this, I’m not saying that there isn’t a plot, because there is. It’s just that it’s unclear and unfocused, and things only begin to start making sense after we’ve already been watching for an hour. Tragically, this is only an eighty minute film.

The film stars Michael Caine as Mickey King, an acclaimed novelist of trashy pulp fiction. He resides in Rome and leads a rather quiet and eloquent life.

One day, King is approached by a wealthy and sophisticated patron named Ben Dinuccio (played by hoarse-voiced actor Lionel Stander). Dinuccio offers King a proposition to ghostwrite the autobiography of Preston Gilbert (Mickey Rooney), a once-famous celebrity. Apparently, Gilbert has cancer and wants his story told before he dies.

Though dubious as first, King agrees and travels to Gilbert’s home, which is located on a remote island. The two meet and converse but before Gilbert can divulge any of  his information to King, he is murdered and it is left up to King to find out why.

Now, all of this is a good setup for a detective story. The only problem is that we’re already three-fourths of the way through the film, so there’s not much “investigating” to be done.

From this point, the plot delves into realms of eccentricity and absurdity so inexplicable that I can’t recall or comprehend much of what I saw. There are several other mysterious characters that are said to be involved in the murder plot of Preston Gilbert, such as a cross-dressing hitman and a paranoid clairvoyant, but none of them seem to really be all that important. Or maybe they are and Pulp just doesn’t explain their existence properly, which is something I could understand.

But unfortunately, the plot isn’t the only bad part about Pulp. The acting is stiff and there a plethora of technical mishaps, ranging from lazy cinematography to bad lighting to poor sound quality. The only positive thing I can say is that the set design is spot-on.

I will conclude by saying that while Pulp isn’t a “masterpiece”, it is interesting. Not in the sense that you’re interested in the story and characters, but rather interested in what becomes of them. It’s an oddball sort of film, and one that only a small and distinct crowd of people will like. It certainly tries hard to be what it’s not, and while you can spot the influences here, it never really pulls anything off.

What we’re left with is a forgettable neo-noir that could make for an enjoyable watch on any given night. It’s not perfect, but it’s a forgivable and mediocre attempt at greatness.

RATING: 2/4