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

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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

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

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 BOONDOCK SAINTS (1999) / Crime-Drama

Running Length: 110 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for strong violence, language, and sexual content.

Cast: Willem Dafoe, Norman Reedus, Sean Patrick Flanery, David Della Rocco, Billy Connolly, Bob Marley, David Ferry
Director: Troy Duffy
Producer: Robert Fried, Chris Brinker, Mark McGarry
Screenplay: Troy Duffy

I enjoy a good cult film. Who doesn’t? They’re odd, quirky, off the beaten path. That’s how they attain their cult status. And there are some good ones out there, but sadly, The Boondock Saints is not of them, although you may have been led to believe so. See, The Boondock Saints is essentially garbage in cinematic form. It’s dumb, stale, and rotten to the core. The most positive words I can say about it are that it makes good use of a terrible premise and screenplay. I mean, really; how good can a movie about two Irish vigilantes and a gay FBI agent be? The answer is not very good at all.

First and foremost, I can’t stand how big of a following this film has. What do people see it? Is there something that I’m not getting? Understanding? I loathed this film. I absolutely detested it. I searched and searched for anything redeemable, and while there were occasions where I found a certain line or scene enjoyable, I mostly sat in despair, thinking to myself, “Why do people like this film so much?” Once you get past the shoddy direction, weak script, and wooden acting, there are still the countless technical mishaps, which are so plentiful in number that a pretty decent drinking game could be made of them. It’s really just awful in every aspect.

This is why I suspect that The Boondock Saints is loved not because it is good, but because it is so bad that it is good. It is sort of a guilty pleasure, like those really campy B-movie horror flicks from the 80s. Maybe it’s not. Maybe people actually enjoy watching this. Maybe those same people list Howie Long as one of their favorite actors. Who really knows? Better yet, who really cares? When a film maintains a critic rating of 20 percent on the Tomatometer and an audience rating of 90, who are you really gonna trust?

Yet it still manages to attract followers, which is simply beyond me. So, for those of you that don’t know what it’s about, I’ll enlighten you. The story focuses on two Irish-Catholic brothers, Conner (Flanery, TV’s “The Young and the Restless”) and Murphy (Reedus, Blade II), who kill a pair of Russian mobsters in self-defense and, because of their actions, are seen as local heroes, even by the police force. Assigned to their case is FBI Agent Paul Smecker (Willem Dafoe), who, during an interview with them, discovers their motivations for doing what they did and reasons with them.

Later that night, in a holding cell, the brothers are contacted by God and are called upon to destroy the evil and the wicked that run rampant in their town. They become vigilantes, and with the help of their friend Rocco (David Della Rocco), they set out to get rid of evil in the most Catholic way possible: by shooting it full of holes and mercilessly stomping it into the ground.

Now, as I am sure I have stated before, “Tarantinoan” is a term that I like to distance myself from, but it’s obvious what the influences are here. The script by Troy Duffy resembles something that Tarantino might have written, but lacks his style or touch. The dialogue is unnatural. The pop culture references seem to written by a man who has no earthly idea what he is talking about. Jokes that were intended to be funny are not. (There’s a running gag about a senile old man named “Fuck-Ass” whose constant stuttering always results in a frustrated “Fuck! Ass!”)

The shootout scenes are so badly-written and so badly-executed that it’s just pathetic, and the scenes meant to inspire emotion left me shaking my head in disappointment. Hell, there’s even a scene where Willem Dafoe dresses up in drag and poses as a prostitute. (Yeah, there’s that scene.) And we’re talking about Willem Dafoe here. Willem freakin’ Dafoe. What was he thinking? I mean, sure, I can see why it wasn’t that bad of a decision considering the amount of money that he’s made from it, but this is just embarrassing. Not only does writer/director Troy Duffy waste Dafoe’s talent; he abuses them. He manages to make one of the finest actors of our generation look like a poor, untalented fool.

And Dafoe’s performance isn’t even the worst of the entire movie. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s one of the best. The leads, Flanery and Reedus, have terribly chemistry with one another and deliver stiff, detached performances. Never before I have seen two actors look more uncomfortable and miscast than these two. There’s Billy Connolly as the entirely irrelevant Il Duce and Carlo Rota as the loud and incomprehensible Don “Papa” Joe, but neither are as bad as David Della Rocco, who has just about the worst excuse for a performance I’ve seen since Chuck Norris’ turn in Forest Warrior. Rocco spends most of his screen time shaking, ranting, yelling, and cursing, yet never manages to make any of it seem genuine.

Listen up, fanboys. You can say whatever you like about this movie. You can try to explain to me what is so “good” about it. You can try to bring me down to your level stupidity by getting me to agree with you, but I won’t and I never will. That’s that. Trust me; I can handle a dumb movie. I can even learn to like a dumb movie. But what I can’t handle is a dumb that doesn’t know that it’s dumb, and that’s precisely what The Boondock Saints is.

Final rating: ★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2012 Stephen Earnest

MONA LISA (1986) / Crime-Drama

Running Length: 104 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for language, violence, and strong sexual content.

Cast: Bob Hoskins, Cathy Tyson, Michael Caine, Robbie Coltrane, Clarke Peters, Kate Hardie
Director: Neil Jordan
Producer: Stephen Woolley
Screenplay: Neil Jordan, David Leland

Like the famous painting, Mona Lisa is beautiful, captivating and mysterious. One viewing is simply not enough; multiple are required. There is a depth here unparalleled by most other films, and while countless other comparisons can be made between it and the painting, I prefer to use one in particular – Mona Lisa, like the famous painting, is a work of art.

Irish writer-director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) fills in as Da Vinci and delivers to us what turns out to be a promising and worthwhile venture into the seedier parts of London. Never before has the city been presented in such a way. There are dark, foreboding alleyways; streets cluttered with porn shops and sleazy strip clubs; and cobblestoned sectors where prostitution is rampant. Jordan’s view of the city is atypical – (it might have something to do with him being a native of Ireland) – and helps in contributing to the overall tone of the film.

Mona Lisa opens with Nat King Cole’s song of the same name, which plays against the opening credits. These moments are so sanguine and upbeat that we are anticipating an entirely different film than the one that we’re going to get. Of course, this changes the second that they end.

Bob Hoskins stars as George, recently released from prison. He arrives at the doorstep of his own home to greet his daughter, but she doesn’t recognize him at first glance and his ex-wife throws him out. Tommy (Robbie Coltrane), an old friend, is in the area and offers George a place to stay. On their way home, George pays a visit to Mortwell (Michael Caine), a man who seems to be connected to his prison sentence. Because of this, George feels as though he deserves some sort of recompense. Mortwell is not there, but one of his associates offers George the job of working as a chauffeur for Simone (Cathy Tyson), a high-class call girl. At first, the two do not get along, but a relationship does eventually develop. It is not a romantic relationship, but one where both feel comfortable around each other. Eventually, George learns that Simone is in trouble, and Mortwell is involved.

The story never settles into any particular genre. At some parts, it is a drama. At others, it is a thriller. There are even moments of romance, but not the kind of romance that one expects. This is one of Mona Lisa‘s most admirable attributes.

Probably the best performance comes from Bob Hoskins, who was rightfully nominated for an Oscar. Hoskins is a puzzle of an actor to me. I’m not sure how to categorize him, for he doesn’t quite have the look of an actor that should be in these kinds of roles, yet he plays them to perfection. He makes the character of George. There’s an equal amount of confidence and innocence in his performance that makes us sympathize with him, either when he’s not sure of what’s going on or growling in anger. Hoskins is that kind of unique actor that looks he should always be wearing a perpetual frown and holding an AK-47, but he can display emotion like no other.

Aside from Hoskins, there are other good performances as well. Michael Caine is brutish and caustic as the film’s main villain, one of the few that he’s played in his career. (I deny the existence of On Deadly Ground.) He is terrifically wicked in his role and equally matches the yelling strength of Hoskins in a particular scene. Cathy Tyson does a good job as well in her film debut, and she strangely reminded me of Cynda Williams in Carl Franklin’s One False Move.

Under Jordan’s elegant direction, Mona Lisa is one the classiest films that cinema has ever had to offer. It has an attitude of self-confidence and self-aprpeciation, again much like the famous painting, and there is an air of sophistication that hangs about it. Neil Jordan is a film maker whose work always carries a distinct look about it, and Mona Lisa proves his film making prowess.

Final rating: ★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

© 2012 Stephen Earnest

Review: YOU KILL ME (R)

Ben Kingsley and Tea Leoni.

U.S. Release Date: June 22, 2007

Running Time: 93 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Language, violence)

Cast: Ben Kingsley, Tea Leoni, Dennis Farina, Luke Wilson, Bill Pullman, Philip Baker Hall, Marcus Thomas

Director: John Dahl

Producer: Tea Leoni, Howard Rosenman

Screenplay: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / January 5, 2012

The hitman comedy is easily one of the most identifiable kinds of  movies, simply because there’s always a certain amount of oddballness in them. The story always stays decidedly formulaic, but the characters are only normal to an extent, and their normality is only used to make them seem more human.

While John Dahl seems to have gotten most of it right, You Kill Me is not quite up to par with the likes of Grosse Pointe Blank and The Matador. It is not even really the same kind of movie as the other two, even though it certainly tries to be. There is a sense of humor at its core, but only of the mildest kind. I can’t guarantee that you’ll laugh more than twice, although you will certainly smirk a lot.

The film’s center is Frank Falenczyk (Ben Kingsley), a disorderly hitman with an incessant drinking problem. Now, I won’t necessarily call Frank the hero because he really isn’t. He’s just there. Sure, we’re supposed to be rooting for him when he goes up against the bad guys, but it doesn’t really ever work that way. He’s simply not likable enough. Kingsley usually plays such strong characters, but Frank just doesn’t have any depth at all. He wanders from scene to scene with the same expression of lethargy, always looking completely unhappy. Words come out of his mouth at such a low volume that I had to lean forward a couple of times to try and decipher what it was that he was saying. Now, while I’m not blaming Kingsley’s acting, in a way I sort of am. This is a role that requires no real emotion and Kingsley brings nothing to it, which is what it calls for, but I found myself detached and uncaring about the future of the lead character. If that’s what Dahl was aiming for, and it seems like he was, then mission accomplished.

The real story of You Kill Me involves Frank botching a critical mission and being sent to San Francisco to get himself together. While there, he has to take up a job at a mortuary and attend several sessions of AA. But while he’s away from home, another mob begins to threaten the one that he works for. Sounds good, right? Well, it’s the perfect premise for a hitman comedy. So much could be made of it. I sat there in my chair thinking of everything that could happen; waiting for something to appear on that screen and make me grin. I was getting my own hopes up.

Dahl squanders everything. He lets everything roll downhill in a wave of predictability, turning the last half-hour into a sort of romantic comedy. I sat there waiting for it to be over, the grin rapidly dissolving from my face.

I take it that maybe I’m on the few that doesn’t like You Kill Me. It’s too subtle and quiet for my taste. It doesn’t begin or end with a bang. In fact, there’s not even a real bang anywhere throughout the entire movie. Everything remains disappointingly low key. Yes, this is a hitman comedy, but only technically. It doesn’t hold a candle to the rest. There is a small amount of humor to appreciate, but none of it is ever dark. There is never a mood that fits. Nothing ever seems to fit quite right with anything else. That’s mainly where You Kill Me fails. It’s awkward and slow-paced.

RATING: 2/4