KILL THE IRISHMAN (2011) / Crime-Drama

Running Length: 106 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for strong violence, language, and some sexuality/nudity.

Cast: Ray Stevenson, Vincent D’Onofrio, Val Kilmer, Christopher
Walken, Linda Cardinelli, Jason Butler Harner, Vinnie Jones, Paul Sorvino, Tony Lo Bianco, Mike Starr
Director: Jonathan Hensleigh
Producers: Al Corley, Bart Rosenblatt, Tara Reid, Tommy Reid
Screenplay: Jonathan Hensleigh (based upon the novel To Kill the Irishman: The War That Crippled the Mafia by Rick Porello)

There’s no denying that the story of Danny Greene and the Cleveland mob war was destined to become a motion picture; it’s just too bad that it had to be Kill the Irishman. Set in the 1970s, Kill the Irishman chronicles the rise and fall of Danny Greene (Ray Stevenson, Punisher: War Zone), the strong-willed Irish-American labor union rep whose request for a loan results in him becoming the number one target of the mob and their countless assassination attempts.

Now sure, Kill the Irishman is no Goodfellas and we don’t expect for it to be, but that’s no excuse to give it credit. This is a B-movie – cheaply filmed and unattractive looking. From the film’s opening scene, we know what’s in store for us. The special effects are dull and dumb and the direction is bland, and despite being based on a true story, the plot gets old after the first hour is up. The final 45 minutes are a mess of beatings, stabbings, emotional moments, and spectacularly bad explosions. While there is enough mayhem to satisfy the audience that Kill the Irishman was made for, I doubt that their attention will be held for very long.

Stevenson is good in his role as Greene, creating a sturdy central character that the others build off of. Also, like his character, Stevenson sticks out amongst a crowd of familiar faces. (Kill the Irishman is only his ninth feature film.) Among the supporting cast are legendary actors such as Tony Lo Bianco, Christopher Walken, Paul Sorvino, Mike Starr, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Val Kilmer and Vinnie Jones. Surprisingly enough, Stevenson is the best out of any of them and it’s his performance that makes Kill the Irishman consistently watchable. Director Jonathan Hensleigh (The Punisher) assembles a cast of tough faces, but doesn’t use any of them to their full ability. They are simply there; used to inspire fear with frowns and curse words, but frankly they look tired of playing the same characters in the same movie over and over again.

Potential is a key word here, and while Kill the Irishman has a couple of interesting scenes, it ends up being another lackluster, run-of-the-mill gangster flick. It’s not bad. It’s worse than bad – disappointingly average. It’s not anything that you haven’t seen before and I doubt that you’ll want to see it again.

Final rating: ★★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2012 Stephen Earnest

CUTTER’S WAY (1981) / Drama

Running Time: 105 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for language, violence, and sex.

Cast: Jeff Bridges, John Heard, Lisa Eichhorn, Ann Dusenberry, Stephen Elliot
Director: Ivan Passer
Producer: Paul R. Gurian
Screenplay: Jeffrey Alan Fiskin (based upon the novel Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg)

One of the more underrated films of the eighties, Cutter’s Way is uncompromising, understated, and completely anti-Hollywood, delivering its message with a sharp sense of irony. Jeff Bridges and John Heard star as Richard Bone and Alex Cutter, a couple of seeds that stumble upon a murder cover-up involving one of the most prominent figures in their Santa Barbara community. Seeing it as a chance to strike back against the system that ruined his life by sending him off to war, disfigured Vietnam veteran Cutter devises a plan to blackmail the killer.

Though Cutter’s Way lacks both resolution and story line, it benefits from its strong lead performances, well-written characters, and solid direction. Bridges and Heard play well off of each other and provide equally balanced performances, even though Heard does overpower Bridges on occasion. The character of Alex Cutter is a tense and psychotic character, and Heard plays him with extraordinary power in decidedly his best performance.

Being a character-driven drama as it is, one would expect for the pacing to be relatively slow, but even though Cutter’s Way does sag in parts, it is never boring. This is an intense thriller that slowly mounts in tension until it explodes in its finale. Plot is not a strong point. There is a story at the center of Cutter’s Way, but for the most part, the characters just talk instead of getting on with their actions. While this does not affect the film’s pacing as much as you might think, it does get relatively tiresome to watch these two intriguing characters simply do nothing.

Final rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2012 Stephen Earnest

BUBBLE (2005) / Drama

Running Length: 73 minutes

MPAA Classification: R for some language.

Cast: Debbie Doebereiner, Dustin James Ashley, Misty Dawn Wilkins, Decker Moody, Omar Cowan, Scott Smeeks, K. Smith, Laurie Lee
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Producer: Gregory Jacobs
Screenplay: Coleman Hough

There are two sides of Steven Soderbergh. First, there’s the catchy, stylish side that has made audacious films like Ocean’s Eleven, Traffic, and Out of Sight. Then there’s the more independent and humbled side; the side that focuses on making low-budget experimental films like Schizopolis and Full Frontal. Of the two sides, Bubblewas made by the latter.

It’s extremely hard to give an appropriate and accurate review of Bubble. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it or even what to classify it as. The film cannot be defined by a genre. In fact, it doesn’t even feel like a true film. It just feels like… life. That’s the best word I can think of to describe it. Bubble is mundane, unconventional, and has a cast made up entirely of non-actors. And by non-actors, I don’t mean actors that are just making their debuts. No, I mean non-actors. Literally. These people have no previous acting credits and I don’t think they plan on having any in the future.

The story of Bubble transpires in a small, destitute town somewhere along the Ohio River. It focuses on a group of people that work at a doll factory. Technically, there is no lead character, but if one were to be chosen, it would undoubtedly be Martha (Debbie Doebereiner). Martha is nice, friendly, and, despite her bulky exterior, is actually quite small inside. Her closest friend is Kyle (Dustin James Ashley), a younger co-worker. Their friendship is based off of the fact that Martha gives him a ride to work every day.

For the first 45 minutes, nothing really happens in terms of plot development. Granted, the plot does develop, but only at a snail’s pace. A third character, Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins), joins the workforce at the doll factory, causing friction between Martha and Kyle. Rose has a darker side; a side that Martha sees but Kyle doesn’t. After those 45 minutes are up, a plot materializes, but seeing as Bubble is only a 73 minute film, it’s not around for that long.

Now, I’ll give Soderbergh credit where credit is due. Bubble is as close to real life as you’re gonna get in a film and Soderbergh’s execution exhibits a strong sense of understanding human relation. He knows how humans walk and how humans talk, and the fact that he uses unknown actors and an improvised script makes Bubble seem all the more realistic. He effectively captures real life, which is not something that is easy to do. In that aspect, Bubble is interesting.

But on the other hand, everything else is sub-par. Sure, I can level with Soderbergh. I can appreciate and respect his reasons for making this film, but it’s simply not a film that can be enjoyed. You can never really ever get into it. And I know that this film wasn’t designed for entertainment purposes, but that’s not what I’m getting at either. Bubble is simply not good. It’s dull, pointless, and slow. And while it’s not necessarily bad, I doubt that you’ll be talking about it for very long after seeing it.

Aside from the film’s slow pace, Bubble is just downright amateurish. Lighting is bad throughout and I found several of the shots to be unexpectedly out of focus. While I suspect that Soderbergh may have done this to lend an air of authenticity to the overall “look” of the film, I found it irritating. Same goes for the use of unknown actors. Not having an acting career is an excuse for doing a poor job, but that doesn’t make watching it any less unbearable. That being said, there is an exception. Debbie Doebereiner does an adequate job and gives it her all, but the supporting performances are less than stellar. Stiff acting is something that cannot be forgiven and watching it is a painful experience.

There will be those that like Bubblefor what it is, and there are a handful of interesting scenes, but personally, I just couldn’t ever find my footing. That’s just me. The concept sounds intriguing at first, but when put into play, it’s surprisingly dim.

Final rating: ★★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2012 Stephen Earnest

THE DESCENDANTS (2011) / Comedy-Drama

Running Length: 115 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for language including some sexual references.

Cast: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Nick Krause, Amara Miller, Judy Greer, Beau Bridges, Robert Forster, Matthew Lillard
Director: Alexander Payne
Producers: Alexander Payne, Jim Burke, Jim Taylor
Screenplay: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor, Nat Faxon (based upon the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings)

The Descendants is director Alexander Payne’s first work since Sideways in 2004. However, unlike Sideways or, say, Election, The Descendants takes a more dramatic approach in resolving its issues, showing us a side of the director that Sideways only briefly touched on. That’s not saying that it doesn’t have a sense of humor – it does, but only enough of one to provide us with a few momentary laughs. Payne does not sidetrack us for too long with a funny joke; he gets right to the point.

The Descendants is undoubtedly his most personal work yet, so to speak. Set in Honolulu, the story focuses on Matt King (George Clooney), a lawyer, father, and somewhat-devoted husband whose thrill-seeking wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) is rendered comatose as the result of a boating accident. Because of this, Matt is forced to step in as full-time parent; something he has never had to do before. Work has always been his primary obligation. It was Elizabeth that was in charge of running the household, so Matt’s relationship with his two daughters, Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), has slowly deteriorated over time. Now, he’s forced to confront both them and their problems, and he’s entirely unprepared for either.

All of this happens in the midst of closing an important land deal. Matt is a descendant of one of the first white land-owning families on the island and is in charge of deciding whether or not to turn a large tract of undeveloped land into a vacation spot. Up until now, he’s been all for it, but with the added weight of personal crisis on his shoulders, he’s forced to rethink his options. Pressure to close the deal and take care of his family steadily mounts, and that’s not to mention the fact that he finds out that his wife was cheating on him.

At first, The Descendants seems exactly like what you’d expect: a film designed specifically to win its lead actor an Academy Award. (I gathered that just by glancing at the film’s poster.) Granted, Clooney’s name alone will attract most of the film’s audience, but his performance his not the only reason to see the film. There’s a fine cast of actors and actresses alongside him (most notably Shailene Woodley and Matthew Lillard) and while their performances don’t quite parallel his, they’re still just as important.

George Clooney has long since mastered the ability to create understated, intelligent characters. Matt King is the same old Clooney that we’ve seen in previous films like Up in the Air, The American, and Michael Clayton. He’s as sleek, dark, and handsome as ever, but ultimately, he was miscast. Sure, the performance that he gives is solid and one that deserves a fair amount of praise, but another actor would have been far better suited in his position. His demeanor just doesn’t fit the bill and on occasion, he’ll fall flat with his line readings. Understand that I’m not criticizing his performance; I just wasn’t entirely convinced by it.

The most promising aspect is Woodley, who many will know as the star of the ABC Family series “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.” But while she delivers arguably the best supporting performance, it won’t be her that most audiences will find their attention directed at. No, that would be Nick Krause as the film’s comic relief. He plays Sid, Alexandra’s stoner boyfriend whose own cluelessness often gets the better of him. Other standouts include veteran actor Robert Forster, Beau Bridges, and a brief appearance from Matthew Lillard.

Oddly enough, the weakest link is the script, which, despite some decent plot turns, is disappointingly average. Payne utilizes standard clichés to get him from one end to another and never really incorporates anything of his own, so what could have been great and original ends up being only serviceable. But overall, The Descendants is a pleasant outing at the movie theater. There are individual areas that need working on, but as a whole, the film and its message are entirely effective.

Final rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2012 Stephen Earnest

THE INDEPENDENT (2000) / Comedy

Running Length: 80 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for language, some violence, and sexuality.

Cast: Jerry Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, Max Perlich, Fred Williamson, Nick Cassavetes, Ron Howard, Peter Bogdanovich, Ted Demme, Karen Black, Roger Corman
Director: Stephen Kessler
Producer: United Lotus Group
Screenplay: Stephen Kessler

There’s no doubt that Jerry Stiller has made a career for himself as one of the most prolific and recognizable character actors out there. His personality for each character is usually the same – bellicose, boisterous, and brash – and because of this, he’s immediately identifiable. While he has appeared in quite a number of films, Stiller is more known for his television work and will undoubtedly be remembered as either the misguided Arthur Spooner of “King of Queens” or the ornery Frank Costanza of “Seinfeld.”

Here is The Independent, a look at the life of eccentric independent film maker Morty Fineman (Stiller) as his career slowly and steadily spirals downwards, and he becomes the focus of a two-man documentary crew. Fineman is the definition of a true independent filmmaker; a man whose own blind ambition is far greater than his talent. His films are those same trashy, low budget exploitation flicks the likes of Larry Cohen and John Waters made. They’re not bad on purpose; they’re made with the intent of being good, which makes them all the more awful.

Upon experiencing his final bouts of bankruptcy, Fineman calls in his estranged and relied-upon daughter Paloma (Janeane Garofalo) for council. He has his assistant Ivan (Max Perlich) searching for a film festival that’s willing to showcase his oeuvre. A comeback is what he needs to get back on top, but luck rarely comes his way. And to make matters worse, he’s operating out of a fleabag motel.

Like This Is Spinal Tap and Zelig, The Independent mainly benefits from its own authenticity. The film’s story is intercut with stock footage from cheap grindhouse flicks and interviews with real-life film makers and actors, making everything seem more factual. It hits pretty close to home, accurately depicting the troubles of independent film making and doing so in a comic vein. Of course, since the film is shot in a half-mockumentary, half-narrative style, we don’t actually ever “believe” in any of it, but this doesn’t at all detract from the viewing experience, even though some might find it a bit irritating.

Stiller is a riot as Fineman, the director oblivious to his own ineptitude. He gives a superb comedic performance (including the deadpan reaction he gives when having his work brutally criticized) and hits all the right notes. His persona and celebrity status make him perfect for this role and bring more depth to his character, the aging legend trying to make one final comeback. Such could be said about Stiller and this film. In all of the areas that it sags, he pulls through, consistently drawing laughs whether it be through action or dialogue. Sometimes he just yells and it works. I tell you I could laugh at this guy just by him standing there alone eating an ice cream cone.

But that’s not saying there isn’t any room for improvement. The director, Stephen Kessler, goes so over the top in a couple of instances that he loses any credibility. Satire is best done in a subtle manner and comes off as silly when taken too literally. The entire impact as dimmed. That being said, the premise does hold up — for the most part – and The Independent delivers both in smarts and laughs, and goes to show how truly good a film on such a low budget can be.

Final rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2012 Stephen Earnest

GO (1999) / Crime-Comedy

Running Length: 103 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for strong drug content, sexuality, language, and violence.

Cast: Sarah Polley, Katie Holmes, Jay Mohr, Scott Wolf, William Fichtner, Desmond Askew, Timothy Olyphant, Taye Diggs, Breckin Meyer
Director: Doug Liman
Producers: Matt Freeman, Paul Rosenberg, Mickey Liddell
Screenplay: John August

After finding almost immediate success with his smash hit Swingers, director Doug Liman went on to make the ambitious Go, in which he tried yet again to appeal to the indie crowd. Sure, Go is hip, stylish, kinetic, cool, crazy, wild. The camerawork is handheld and frenetic, dashing in between different characters and places with an almost documentary-like feel. The dialogue is snappy, clever, and sardonic, and spoken by characters that seem to always be in a rush. Trouble escalates as the film progresses. Things get out of hand. Characters are thrust into situations that they would rather not be in. But as fast-paced and funny as their misadventures sometimes are, Go is never quite as impressive or involving as it wants or tries to be. It packs the punch that Swingers had, but lacks the heart.

Like a junior Pulp Fiction, the storyline of Gois divided into segments, each one focusing on a different set of characters and their perspectives on the night of a botched drug deal. In the first segment, Ronna (Sarah Polley) is a grocery store clerk in need of some quick cash, otherwise she’s facing eviction. Her chance to score comes when she’s approached by a couple of actors looking for Simon (Desmond Askew), a small-time drug dealer that’s out of town. They need drugs and she needs money, so she decides to fill in for Simon and get the drugs herself from Todd (Timothy Olyphant), Simon’s supplier. Unfortunately, Ronna’s a hundred bucks short and has to leave her friend Claire (Katie Holmes) behind as collateral while she goes off to collect the rest of the money. Problems arise when the deal turns out to be a set-up and Ronna’s forced to flush the drugs down the toilet.

The setting then moves to Las Vegas for the film’s second segment, where we focus on Simon and his friend Marcus (Taye Diggs) as they engage in various escapades across the city. After losing most of their money to gambling, the two steal a car and travel to a strip club, where they order a private room. But after Simon ignores the rules and “touches” the merchandise, he and Marcus are forced to flee the premises with the bad guys on their tail.

The tone of Go changes with its third and final chapter. It deals with the actors from the first segment, Adam (Scott Wolf) and Zack (Jay Mohr), who turn out to be only involved in the sting operation so that their own drug charges are dropped. After the deal goes south, their night continues, but gets weirder. They are invited to dinner by a cop (William Fichtner) and his wife (Jane Krakowski), who turn out to be advocates of a retail company. They manage to escape, but are quickly confronted with the implications of a hit-and-run.

The main successes of Go can be found in the film’s first episode, where the stars shine the brightest and the direction is the keenest. From there, the plot unravels and gradually loses steam. The transition from the first segment to the second is drastic. (In fact, it almost seems as if the two were written by entirely different people.) The dialogue feels forced and the characters are unlikable. It resorts to low-brow humor in order to garner laughs and doesn’t deliver quite as much as the first half-hour does. Consider a scene where Simon is forced to run through the hotel fully naked after the room he was having sex in bursts into flames. These are the kinds of antics that are overused to the point of being predictable and unfunny, and they simply do not belong in a film like Go.

Now, I would like to say that the third act gets better, but it doesn’t. It basically mirrors the events of the first two episodes, but does it with less excitement. It’s uniform and repetitive and still sub-par when compared with the first half-hour. In terms of resolution, it works. It manages to adequately connect the pieces and end the movie on a lighter note. But is ending the movie on a lighter note what we want? Is an upbeat ending what a film like this should have? It feels phony and put-on and doesn’t fit the mood. Look, I’m all for catharsis, but I’d rather have an ending that’s straightforward and depressing rather than one that I don’t believe.

Sarah Polley and Katie Holmes have the two best performances. (Their characters are the two that most obviously represent the Generation X crowd that Go appeals to.) They bring the most enthusiasm and likability to their characters, and it’s disappointing that they have so little screen time. As for the rest of the cast, Taye Diggs and Timothy Olyphant (who I’ve found to be a pretty reliable actor) both do a pretty good job. Desmond Askew is serviceable, despite my disdain for his accent, and Scott Wolf and Jay Mohr are intolerable for the most part. Their characters are arguably the most uninteresting of the bunch. (I cite them as the one of the major downfalls of the third act as well.)

The worst part yet is how much I wanted to like Go. From the opening shot, I was hooked. I thought I was getting into something really good. Doug Liman is such a gifted and well-equipped director, and even though his career choices of late have been a bit poor, Go certainly exudes a fair amount of style. Even though it may borrow a lot of itself from Pulp Fiction, it stays original for the most part, especially in the visual aspect, and there are some qualities about it that are likable.

Final rating: ★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

© 2012 Stephen Earnest

THE STATION AGENT (2003) / Comedy-Drama

Running Length: 88 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for language and some drug content.

Cast: Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson, Bobby Cannavale, Michelle Williams, Paul Benjamin, Raven Goodwin
Director: Thomas McCarthy
Producers: Robert May, Mary Jane Skalski, Kathryn Tucker
Screenplay: Thomas McCarthy

“It’s funny how people see and treat me, since I’m really just a simple, boring person.”

Thomas McCarthy’s debut The Station Agent is a film of unprecedented power and emotion, given the fact that it seems so small on the outside. The cast is comprised of actors and actresses whose names were not very well-known at the time of its release in 2003, and the budget with which it was financed is relatively small. At first glance, one would expect for The Station Agent to be another one of those sappy, light-hearted films that independent cinema is becoming all too familiar with; but really, it’s not. It’s something much more than that, and I won’t deny that it was designed to make those who watch it feel good, it’s more of a chance for its cast and writer/director to showcase their talents.

Peter Dinklage stars as Finbar McBride, a quiet dwarf who lives alone in Hoboken, New Jersey. Making new friends is not an easy task, as he always expects for people to ridicule him for his dwarfism, so he lives withdrawn from the rest of the world. He keeps to himself most of the time and runs a small model train shop with his friend Henry (Paul Benjamin), a man who shares the same quiet personality. Fin loves trains – watching trains, building trains, listening to trains. It’s where he finds his refuge, and since the public doesn’t accept him for his size, it’s what most of his time revolves around. However, Henry dies of an unexpected heart attack and the shop is closed, but Fin learns that he has inherited a small piece of land that happens to have an abandoned train station on it. The property is out of the way in a rural part of New Jersey, making it an ideal place for him to start his new home. Of course, when he arrives, his move does attract the attention of the locals, such as Joe (Bobby Cannavale) and Olivia (Patricia Clarkson).

As stated before, the strengths of The Station Agent come from its acting and writing. (Thomas McCarthy won the BAFTA award for Best Original Screenplay.) McCarthy’s script is clever, original, honest, inspirational, and often very funny, and while The Station Agent does work as a comedy, it works as a drama as well. The tone is upbeat and the message is worthwhile, but the strongest element that McCarthy employs in his script is heart – pure, genuine heart.

Peter Dinklage excels as his character simply due to the fact that the character of Fin was made for him. I believe that The Station Agent is the first film to actually show the life of a dwarf as an everyday person. (To quote Dinklage from 1995’s Living in Oblivion, “Why does my character have to be dwarf? Is that the only way you can make this a dream? To put a dwarf in it?”) Dinklage has always been a fine actor, but because Fin is a character that is so close to home for him, he does an even better job than usual. This is his chance to shine, and shine he does.

Now, while Dinklage does deliver a strong central performance, the best performance – in my opinion, of course – comes from Bobby Cannavale, an actor whose work I am entirely unfamiliar with. Cannavale plays the outgoing, talkative character of Joe that befriends Fin in the early stages of the film. He sees past Fin’s size when others don’t and sticks up for him. Cannavale adds so much charm to his already likable character, bringing such positivity to the screen. To complete the trio, Patricia Clarkson plays Olivia, an artist dealing with a divorce and the death of the son. There are other supporting characters as well, such as Michelle Williams, John Slattery, and Raven Goodwin, although their screen time is limited.

McCarthy has found success in other films since his debut, but The Station Agent remains to be his greatest, most well-meaning and earnest piece of work. Like any good film, it takes more than one viewing to fully grasp – not because it is too confusing to comprehend, but because it takes multiple viewings to realize how truly powerful it actually is.

Final rating: ★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

© 2012 Stephen Earnest