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: 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

Review: SAFE MEN (R)

Steve Zahn and Sam Rockwell are a pair of bumbling and inept safecrackers in "Safe Men."

U.S. Release Date: August 7, 1998

Running Time: 1998 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Language)

Cast: Steve Zahn, Sam Rockwell, Mark Ruffalo, Josh Pais, Paul Giamatti, Michael Lerner, Christina Kirk

Director: John Hamburg

Producer: Ellen Bronfman

Screenplay: John Hamburg

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / November 16, 2011

Despite all of the “blah” moments that it has, Safe Men is charming — in a mentally-ill sort of way. There will be parts of it that you’ll like, parts of it that you won’t, and parts of it where you’ll laugh your ass off.

It stars a young Sam Rockwell and Steve Zahn as a pair of untalented singers, named Sam and Eddie. They go from club to club, performing badly-played and badly-sung renditions of songs.

Well, in a case of mistaken identity, they are mistook by a tool named Veal Chop (Paul Giamatti) as a pair of expert safe crackers, or “safe men”, and asked to break into a very important safe. They deny it at first, but realize how much money is at stake and agree. So, they break in, but are soon caught by “Big Fat” Bernie Gayle, a local Jewish mob boss and owner of the house they are robbing. After all the confusion is sorted out, Sam and Eddie discover that Veal Chop set them up and is in league with “Big Fat”. And in order for them to live, they have rob a trio of houses. Problem is they don’t know how.

Safe Men juggles several different kinds of things at once, but doesn’t do any of them very well. It doesn’t do any of them bad; just not very well. At the very least, it’s mediocre.

It’s very funny, if you’re into that whole Napoleon Dynamite kind of off-brand humor. Michael Lerner is hilarious as “Big Fat” Bernie Gayle, who takes the title of “Big Fat” as a compliment. Giamatti, as well, is funny. The story is fairly predictable. It does take a couple of twists and turns, but in all the ways you’d expect. It sort of meanders for the first hour, then the real plot kicks in, but it’s gone in ten minutes. So, for the most part, you’re stuck following around characters who aren’t so likable.

Rockwell and Zahn bring nothing to the table. Practically any actor could have pulled the characters of Sam and Eddie, and the probably could have done it. But that’s only because there isn’t much depth to any character in Safe Men. Is that really so bad? Here, I don’t think so because any depth would be unnecessary. This movie isn’t about its characters, rather the situations they get involved in.

To tell you the truth, I didn’t have a problem with it. It was original enough to keep me interested and funny enough to make me laugh, so I found it pretty enjoyable. It sure won’t appeal to everyone’s taste, but is it a bad movie? No. But it’s not a real good one either. Its just decent, mildly entertaining, and in the end, harmless.

RATING: 2.5/4

Review: CRIMINAL (R)

Diego Luna and John C. Reilly.

U.S. Release Date: September 10, 2004

Running Time: 87 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Language, sexual content)

Cast: John C. Reilly, Diego Luna, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Peter Mullan, Maeve Quinlan, Jonathan Tucker, Ellen Geer

Director: Gregory Jacobs

Producer: Gregory Jacobs, George Clooney, Steven Soderbergh

Screenplay: Gregory Jacobs, based on the film Nine Queens

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / November 12, 2011

You don’t ever put your faith in a guy like Richard Gaddis. He’s as slimy as they come, both as a person and as a criminal. He’s constantly thinking up ways to get what he wants, no matter how much double-crossing he has to do. Sounds like a pretty bad guy, right? Well, in his line of business, being bad isn’t always such a bad thing.

Criminal is about gambling, cheating, stealing and lying, and it deals with a character that practices the latter three like they’re almost his hobbies. His name is Richard Gaddis, and he’s that smooth-talking con man from the first paragraph.

Now, Gaddis is all about personal appearance. To him, it’s the name of the game. In order to be convincing, one must look like a professional, and that requires being well-dressed. Gaddis may wear a nice suit and drive a nice car, but he’s really not much underneath it all. Does that matter? Of course not! It’s what you look like on the outside that matters.

The story begins in a casino on Rodrigo, a small-time crook playing a couple of con games of his own. He gets away with the first con, but is caught red-handed when he tries a second time. Security is called. Gaddis, at the bar, sees the commotion and hurries over to Rodrigo, posing as a cop. He clears it up security, flashing a badge, then escorts Rodrigo out to his car. Once at the car, he reveals to Rodrigo his true identity and invites him to be his partner on an upcoming scam.

From there, the story takes it usual turns, but adds in a couple of twists of its own. There are the assorted cons and tricks that you’d expect this kind of movie to have, but, surprisingly, they’re fairly original and somewhat plausible. Often enough, I wondered to myself, “Hey, I bet I could pull that off.”

One real great thing on display here is the lead performance from John C. Reilly. More than often, people refer to him as “the funny guy next to Will Ferrell.” What a disappointment. Reilly is such an underrated actor, and is almost always never given as much credit as he deserves. I, for one, think that he’s fantastic. He always manages to give his characters such depth and personality. Here in Criminal, he creates a character that is so unlikable that we actually pity him, and by the end, when we finally see how much of a sleazebag he is, we feel sorry for him.

People have said that Criminal doesn’t compare at all to the film that it’s based on, Nine Queens. For a lot of them, that’s their reasoning for giving it a negative review. I say, who cares? What if you haven’t seen the original? And since when does the caliber of a remake depend on how alike it is to the original, especially if the original is a foreign film? Appreciate it for what it is.

RATING: 3/4

Review: THE KILLING (UR)

Sterling Hayden as Johnny Clay in Stanley Kubrick's classic film noir, "The Killing."

U.S. Release Date: May 20, 1956

Running Time: 83 minutes

MPAA Classification: UR (Violence)

Cast: Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards, Jay C. Flippen, Elisha Cook, Jr., Marie Windsor, Timothy Carey

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Producer: James B. Harris

Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick, Jim Thompson, based on the novel Clean Break by Lionel White

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / November 10, 2011

Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing is a fine example of classic crime. It’s short, sweet, and to the point, but entertaining and well-acted.

The plot entails a heist that is carried out by a group of criminals. It is led by Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), who plans to carry out the heist and then settle down and get married. He gets a couple of other men involved and before long, the heist is ready to happen.

Where it takes a place is at the race track, which is a rather ingenious place to carry out  a heist, if you think about. The constant betting and large amounts of money make it perfect for being robbed. Most of the men involved in the heist work at the race track, so it’s logical that that’s why Clay hired them in the first place.

The Killing is brilliant in its own way. Many get turned off by older films. Since most post-1960 films aren’t very relative nowadays, they can’t catch the interest of most people. Well, The Killing is actually surprisingly modern for our time. And it’s very thrilling. From about twenty minutes in to that final memorable shot, you’re hooked, tense to know what happens next. Not many films can manage to do that.

Also, The Killing has some very true-to-life characters. Kubrick gives them some specified depth and you can almost connect to them in a rather emotional way, such as why they’re going to carry out with the robbery. Money can be such a powerful motive, and a hard one to overlook when there’s so much of it.

The final scene at the airport has to be one of the greatest scenes of all time: the dog barking, the money floating in the wind, the expressionless faces. All such iconic images. I wonder, whatever happened to class in the cinema? It seems to have all disappeared.

Of course, this film is undoubtedly legendary because of its director, but don’t look at it in that respect. Look at it not because of who made it, but because of what it is: a thoroughly entertaining thriller.

RATING: 3/4

Review: RED ROCK WEST (R)

Dennis Hopper plays a lunatic (what else is new) opposite Nicolas Cage in "Red Rock West."

U.S. Release Date: April 8, 1994

Running Time: 98 minutes

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

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Lara Flynn Boyle, Dennis Hopper, J.T. Walsh

Director: John Dahl

Producers: Steve Golin, Sigurjon Sighvatsson

Screenplay: John Dahl, Rick Dahl

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / November 3, 2011

Red Rock West has all the depth of a fine crime novel, and John Dahl is a good storyteller, but the movie is bogged down by stiff acting and predictable dialogue. The story is routine –a case of mistaken identity. A drifter named Michael (Nicolas Cage) wanders into a town called Red Rock, looking for a job. He is greeted by the bartender, Wayne (J.T. Walsh), who mistakes him for someone else. “You must be Lyle, from Dallas.” Michael, in need of money, takes Wayne up on the offer.

Soon, Michael learns the details of the job — He has been hired to kill Wayne’s wife, Suzanna (Lara Flynn Boyle), for Wayne thinks she is being dishonest. Michael drives out to the ranch, only to be convinced by Suzanne that if he doesn’t kill her and kills Wayne instead, she’ll pay him double. Michael accepts.

So, Michael takes the money and tries to skip town. A thunderstorm hits and not soon after, Michael hits a man on the side of the road, accidentally. Frantically, he carries the wounded man in his car back into Red Rock, to the hospital.

At the hospital, Michael’s alibi isn’t so good and the sheriff is called in. Oddly enough, the sheriff turns out to be Wayne himself, and he takes Michael outside the city for an execution. But Michael somehow manages to escape and flags down an oncoming car. The driver lets Michael in and the two head back into Red Rock to have a drink. And who else could the driver possibly be but Lyle, from Texas.

Sure, just from reading the synopsis on Red Rock West, I’m sure that you would be interested. Hell, that’s what got me so intrigued. But it’s really just nothing. It may carry all of the typical traits that classic film noir does, but it can’t pull any of them off.

You’ll grin a couple times at the twists and turns that the film takes, but displeased by what happens after them. See, Dahl knows how to tell a story, but not how to show it. All of this seems grand on paper, but when you put it up there on the screen, it unfolds rather blandly. Also, the acting isn’t anything special. Everyone seems pretty stiff. There isn’t any hidden meaning behind anything in Red Rock West, so you’re forced to rely on the actions and reactions of the characters. And when they don’t quite pull through, what do you turn to then?

There is one good thing though. Dennis Hopper does have a rather great performance as Lyle. He’s great at playing lunatics, in the “villain” sense of the word. He can really get you convinced that he’s crazy and here, with that maniacal expression plastered on his face half the time, I was really sold. But that’s about it. Red Rock West, despite the numerous positive reviews, is disappointingly average.

RATING: 2/4