PASSION FISH (1992) / Drama

Running Length: 134 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for language and brief sexuality.

Cast: Mary McDonnell, Alfre Woodard, David Strathairn, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Leo Burmester, Lenore Banks, Nora Dunn, Angela Bassett
Director: John Sayles
Producers: Sarah Green, Maggie Renzi
Screenplay: John Sayles

Passion Fish centers on May-Alice Culhane (Mary McDonnell), a star of daytime television who finds herself paralyzed from the waist down after being involved in a taxi cab accident. Frustrated and despondent, she relocates to her family’s old home in Louisiana, where she takes out her frustration on every caretaker that her agency sends. She is coarse and rude and develops a rather sizable drinking problem, but this begins to change with the arrival of a black nurse, Chantelle (Alfre Woodard), the last caregiver that the agency is willing to send. Chantelle has problems of her own as well and eventually, she and May-Alice begin to develop a slow-but-steady friendship.

Now normally, this would work as the setup for a Lifetime channel movie; a tale of two women gaining the courage to rise up against the problems in their lives. And at first, that’s what Passion Fish seems like it’s going to be about. (A good reason for why the film did so poorly at the box office.) But that’s only the setup. What Passion Fish becomes so much more.

Like Lone Star and Silver City, Passion Fish deepens as it progresses. Sayles’ screenplay has all of the complexity and intricacy of a fine novel. He gradually adds depth to his characters, bringing their pasts into the picture. There is as much detail to their lives as that of any living and breathing human, and Sayles expresses this by giving each one of them a well-developed back story. It’s almost unexpected how involved you have become with these characters by the time that the story has ended.

Mary McDonnell and Alfre Woodard, the film’s two leads, deliver powerful performances. (McDonnell was honored with an Academy Award nomination, while Woodard was robbed.) McDonnell starts out as a nasty and unlikable character. In some of the film’s softest and most delicate moments, she exhibits unprecedented strength. Her character is angry with the way that the world now views her because of her immobility and McDonnell channels this like no other. Woodard is equally as good and plays quite well off of her, even shining in scenes where she is the only one present. As well, David Strathairn is good as McDonnell’s friend from long ago and former love interest, although he has little screen time.

John Sayles has dominated independent cinema since the mid-1980s and Passion Fish is no exception. It marks his ninth outing as writer and director and fifth as editor, and his work continues to be original in all three of these aspects.

Final rating: ★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

© 2012 Stephen Earnest

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

JOE (1970) / Drama

Running Length: 107 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for language, violence, drug use, and strong sexual content and nudity.

Cast: Dennis Patrick, Peter Boyle, Audrey Caire, K Callan, Susan Sarandon, Patrick McDermott
Director: John G. Avildsen
Producers: David Gil, Yorman Globus
Screenplay: Norman Wexler

Joe could have been something. It could have been a film about the kinds of people so fed up with the way things are going that they decide to take matters into their own hands. Joe bravely tries to be that kind of film, but isn’t. What it ends up being is a disappointing and dismissive attempt at pointing out the wrongs in society, doing so with very little impact.

Dennis Patrick stars as Bill Compton, an advertising executive who lives with his family in New York’s Upper East Side. Of late, his daughter Melissa (Susan Sarandon) has been living with her boyfriend Frank, a notable drug dealer in the area, which has caused some friction between her and her family. One day, Melissa overdoses and is sent to the hospital. Enraged, Bill tracks down Frank’s place to retrieve Melissa’s clothes, but when Frank shows up, his temper gets the better of him and he kills Frank in an ensuing brawl.

Panic-stricken, Bill takes refuge in a local bar; a bar that Joe Curran (Peter Boyle) frequents. Joe represents the average hard-working and blue-collar American for his time. He is racist and homophobic and holds contempt for anyone that is different. When Bill arrives, Joe is drunk and delivering his daily monologue on his resentment for the culture that the hippies created. Eventually, Joe strikes up a conversation with Bill and the two get to talking. One thing leads to another and before long, Bill has revealed his secret.

At the time of its release, Joe was hailed as some sort of masterpiece, doing well in areas both critical and commercial. Part of this was largely due to the powerhouse performance of Peter Boyle, who does an exceptional job as Joe. Boyle (who many will know as Frank Barone from the much-loved TV sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond”) was a terribly underused actor, only appearing in a modest number of films until his untimely death in 2006. His acting talents were never rightfully “stretched”, so it’s safe to say that in Joe he gives his best performance. (It was also the performance that broke him into Hollywood.) That being said, I don’t consider a fantastic performance. Boyle does a great job and adequately captures his character’s anti-heroic nature, and he has some riveting scenes, but this is a role meant for a more seasoned of an actor. Boyle gives it his all, but the reason why his performance was so “acclaimed” is because none of the actors that surround him are very good.

First and foremost, the film’s weakest link is Dennis Patrick, an actor whose career must have dissipated immediately afterwards. While Patrick may have the “look” of his character, he is simply not believable in the part. Half of the time he doesn’t even look comfortable. Many of his line-readings are flat and delivered with about as much emotion as that of a wax figurine. This may be contributed to the fact that he was not meant for this part or maybe he’s just not that good of an actor. Susan Sarandon carries all of the depth you’d expect from an actor of her age and skill, but she doesn’t exactly exceed expectations.

Now, not having tangible plot is not always a weakness. (Hell, it’s how Kevin Smith started his career.) Certain films don’t require plot in order to be interesting as long as there are interesting-enough characters and engaging script to hold the audience’s attention. Joe‘s writer, Norman Wexler, has a competent-enough screenplay. (He received an Academy Award nomination for it.) The set-up is intriguing and for the most part, the dialogue holds true, touching on delicate issues that plagued the working class near the end of the 1960s. Wexler’s smartest move – and biggest mistake – is making Joe Curran a supporting character instead of a lead. While Joe is an interesting character, the storyline that Joe is based upon could not work from his point of view. He belongs on the sidelines; there only to motivate Compton into doing bad. A film focusing on his life looks good on paper (as Boyle tried to do later on), but simply wouldn’t be interesting. Joe is a voice, not a person, and Wexler uses him accordingly.

On top of that, the bland direction on John G. Avildsen’s behalf doesn’t do Wexler’s script justice. He only succeeds in giving the film a more deliberate pace and his theatrical approach may cause viewers to lose interest within the first ten minutes. In the end, Joe could have been something, but isn’t. Those are the most positive words that I can say about it.

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

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