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

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Review: BLADE RUNNER (R)

Harrison Ford hangs on in one of the more famous stills from "Blade Runner."

U.S. Release Date: June 25, 1982

Running Time: 116 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Sci-fi violence, sexual content, nudity)

Cast: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, Daryl Hannah, M. Emmet Walsh

Director: Ridley Scott

Producer: Michael Deeley

Screenplay: Hampton Fancher, David Peoples, based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / November 19, 2011

Over the past couple of decades or so, Ridley Scott’s legendary sci-fi noir Blade Runner has slowly gained in critical acclaim and popularity. It is now considered something of a masterpiece, and has somehow managed to acquire a rather sizable “cult” following. The American Film Institute added it to their “100 Years…. 100 Movies” list a few years ago, ranking it as the 97th greatest film ever made. But is it truly as grand as everyone says it is?

The movie stars Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard, a “blade runner”. Blade runners are somewhat like police. They are hired to hunt down artificial human beings known as “replicants” and execute, or “retire”, them. At the beginning of the movie, Deckard is assigned to find a group of six replicants that have escaped from an off-world colony and are hiding out on Earth, in Los Angeles. The plot sounds interesting enough, right?

But it’s not. The concept is fascinating, the synopsis sounds intriguing, but it is not delivered correctly. The story is fairly flimsy. After what seems like a promising opening couple of minutes, Blade Runner falls into a mess of cheesiness, predictability, and, sometimes, absurdity.

Don’t let the futuristic setting fool you. Blade Runner only uses it as a backdrop for the issues that it tackles, such as society, acceptance, and religion. Consider the creations of Dr. Eldon Tyrell, like Roy Batty. He’s practically perfect but somehow still isn’t happy. He wants more. He wants to be immortal. Humans are never quite happy with themselves, even when they have everything going for them. They always want more. Blade Runner does a good job is presenting this message, saying that greed will usually get the better of us, but it does not go anywhere further with it. It’s messages only last for a brief few minutes and then they are spoken of no more.

Deckard may seem like he’s the main character here, but he’s not. Here, in Blade Runner, there really aren’t any main characters at all. Everything begins and ends on Deckard, but he’s out of the picture for a lot of the time. I mean, I guess he could be considered the “lead”, but that’s because there isn’t anyone else that has as much screen time as him. You get what I mean? Deckard doesn’t “feel” like a lead character should. Lead characters should be able to connect with their audience; Deckard doesn’t. He’s also one of the most two-dimensional characters I’ve ever seen in a movie.

And the pace that Blade Runner moves at is ridiculously slow. I realize that all of the “haters” out there always complain about the pacing, and the people who love Blade Runner always get so offended by it, but come on, guys. It’s boring. It’s slow. It nearly put me to sleep. Movies like this shouldn’t be so boring. I mean, at times, it got so dreary and dull that I couldn’t even concentrate. The only exciting part was that final climactic battle near the end, and that was just ridiculous. It resembled one of the boss matches that Solid Snake endures in the “Metal Gear Solid” franchise.

Now, I will say two good things about Blade Runner—- It does look pretty darn good. The production design and the art direction are something to behold, and I agree that they are highly influential in the science-fiction genre. The dark surroundings and rainy skies are very popular in modern sci-fi. Also, the cinematography is grand; smooth and sturdy. But does any of that make Blade Runner one of the greatest sci-fi flicks ever? Good God, no.

I’m not a “hater”. I don’t hate Blade Runner. I just think of it as highly overrated. It’s really not that special of a movie, and if there wasn’t so much critical acclaim surrounding it, I’d think it would be easily forgettable.

RATING: 2/4

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

Review: DARK CITY (R)

Kiefer Sutherland plays a mad psychiatrist in the visually stunning "Dark City"

U.S. Release Date: February 27, 1998

Running Time: 100 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Violence, nudity)

Cast: Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, William Hurt, Jennifer Connelly, Richard O’Brien, Ian Richardson, John Bluthal

Director: Alex Proyas

Producers: Alex Proyas, Andrew Mason

Screenplay: Alex Proyas, David S. Goyer, Lem Dobbs

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / October 21, 2011

If there’s one good thing that I can say about Dark City, it’s that it has some of the best visual effects I’ve ever seen. The editing is utterly phenomenal, the direction is stunning and well-paced, and the film as a whole is just decidedly well-made. For the eyes, it’s an absolute pleasure to watch. For the ears, eh… Not so much.

The film opens with an introduction from mad scientist Dr. Daniel Schreber, played with utmost lunacy by actor Kiefer Sutherland. He describes the world we are about to see and what goes on in said word. Then we move on to the dimly-lit bathroom of a ominous hotel.

A naked bulb swings from the ceiling. A man (Rufus Sewell) awakens in a bathtub, naked as well. He doesn’t know who he is, why here’s here or what he’s doing.  Immediately, he receives a call from Dr. Schreber informing him that a group of men, known as “Strangers”, are after him. Schreber also informs him that he is John Murdoch, and is wanted for the murder of several women. After a close encounter with danger, he escapes the hotel, trying to find the meaning behind many things. Like why he remembers so fondly this place called Shell Beach. Like why he has psychokinetic powers that resemble those of the men that are after him. Like why he is wanted for murder, although he can’t ever remember killing anyone.

Already, you get the general jist of Dark City. It’s one of those amnesia-related thrillers that hit the cinema every so often.  It’s undoubtedly one of the best-looking films out there, but what it lacks is substance.

First off, most of the scenes involving the “Strangers” are ludicrous. At the beginning of Dark City, we’re expecting something totally different than what it becomes. Proyas sets us up to believe we’re gonna be watching a handsomely-made noir. That’s not at all what we get. Instead, we get huge cult-like gatherings that take place underground between alien parties. We get a fight sequence that resembles something out of  a “Dragonball Z” cartoon. People get sucked into space. A predictable and cliched ending.

Alright, so a little ridiculousness I can handle. But Dark City goes out of the realm of ridiculousness, past the gates of far-fetched, and becomes just stupid. With twenty minutes left to go in the film, I said “Enough!” How can something start off so good and end so bad? And sure, maybe this is the kind of film that Proyas intended to create. In fact, I’m sure he did. But it’s not the kind of film I intend to like.

There’s only one thing that can save Dark City from being bad and that is just the general look of it. Like I stated before, the visuals are magnificent. The production design is wonderfully reminiscent of classic film noir. Dark City seems to take place in the future, but the design scheme suggests otherwise. Part of me wants to like Dark City; the other part wants to hate it. I think that it’s a good film, but everything just unravels in the most absurd way.

I suspect that most fans of science-fiction will be astounded by the brilliance presented in Dark City. Science-fiction can be done right, but Dark City just isn’t my kind of film. It’s just completely unbelievable and in the end, fairly unoriginal.

RATING: 2.5/4

Review: SHUTTER ISLAND (R)

Leonardo DiCaprio never really knows what he's doing in "Shutter Island."

U.S. Release Date: February 19, 2010

Running Time: 138 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Language, violence, brief nudity)

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Patricia Clarkson, Max von Sydow, Emily Mortimer, Jackie Earle Haley, John Carroll Lynch, Ted Levine

Director: Martin Scorsese

Producers: Martin Scorsese, Bradley J. Fischer, Arnold W. Messer, Mike Medavoy, Jeffrey Clifford, Daniel Dubiecki, Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum

Screenplay: Laeta Kalogridis, Steven Knight, based upon the novel by Dennis Lehane

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / July 19, 2011

In a long line of bad-looking movies, Shutter Island comes right in at the worst-looking of 2010. Being a Martin Scorsese film, one would expect it to be a a great and enjoyable watch, but despite all of the twists and turns that it takes, it’s not. In fact, it’s fairly routine for this kind of genre. I’ve seen a lot of films that unfold the same way, and they do it a lot better. Granted, Shutter Island does get better as it goes along, but only by a little bit. For the most part, it wallows in the same amount of mediocrity for its entirety and provided me with the same thing I’ve seen a thousand times before.

One good thing is that the performance from the always trustworthy Leonardo DiCaprio is decidedly solid. He plays Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshall that has been sent to investigate the disappearance of a patient at a hospital for the criminally insane. The hospital is located on Shutter Island, an island somewhere in the Boston Harbor.

The staff at Shutter Island seems oddly complacent, despite their surroundings. Everyone is oddly eerie. Daniels (DiCaprio), assisted by his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), begins to investigate. That’s when things start getting a little too creepy for his liking. Right around this time the film’s first big twist occurs. Daniels reveals to Chuck his real reason for coming to the hospital in the first place. Apparently, his wife was killed in a house fire some two years back and the arsonist responsible for her death is being held at Shutter Island. Daniels took on the case so he could confront the arsonist, Andrew Laeddis.

Now, I’ll abandon the synopsis and begin by listing the downfalls of Shutter Island.

Besides DiCaprio, the acting was stiff and unbelievable. Everyone seems oddly campy. There’s a chilling cameo from gifted actor Ted Levine but, for the most part, DiCaprio’s the only one that seems to have actual feelings and emotions throughout the entire movie. The other actors are stiff and unconvincing and act as if they’re in on some big, stupid joke. Maybe it has something to do with the ending of the movie. Do I know? Do I care? Does it really matter?

The cinematography was bland and uninspired. Almost every scene was badly-lit and the continuity was a mess. This just isn’t Scorsese’s kind of film. What was he thinking? It’s agonizing to watch everything unravel, and boy does it unravel. The biggest, most unbelievably bad part about Shutter Island was the CGI. Good God! What awful visual effects. Half the time, I thought I was watching a 3D film, but not wearing the glasses.  I have a fair warning to Scorsese, wherever he may be, and that warning is to stay away from CGI in the future. His use of the green screen as well is horrifying.

Now, I have heard that many have been baffled by the film’s ending, saying that it was one of the most spectacular and unpredictable endings yet. I frankly don’t understand that. They claimed to have never saw it coming. It apparently threw them back and caused them to gasp. Uh, was that their first time watching a movie? Were they really that surprised? It’s one of the most overused “twist” endings in history. Hell, I knew how it was going to end from the trailer. What I wasn’t expecting was how bad it was actually going to turn out.

In the end, Shutter Island is a movie that received too much hype and those who view it long after its release will find it as disappointing as I did — that is, of course, if they have a decent taste in cinema and don’t enjoy inflicting pain upon themselves.

RATING: 1.5/4

ANGEL HEART (1987) / Horror-Drama

Running Length: 113 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for strong violence/gore, disturbing images, language, nudity, and a graphic sex scene.

Cast: Mickey Rourke, Lisa Bonet, Robert De Niro, Charlotte Rampling, Stocker Fontelieu, Brownie McGhee, Michael Higgins
Director: Alan Parker
Producers: Alan Marshall, Elliot Kastner
Screenplay: Alan Parker (based upon the novel Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg)

Alan Parker’s Angel Heart is an immensely creepy viewing experience. It’s not flat-out scary. It doesn’t go “Boo!” and laugh as you shrivel back into your seat. It will not have you clinging to the person nearest to you for dear life. But it will get under your skin. It will horrify you. And I guarantee that when it is all over, you will have nightmares.

The film transpires in the 1950s, starting off in Brooklyn then moving to Louisiana. Our hero is Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke), a small-time gumshoe who smokes so many cigarettes you could make a decent drinking game out of it. Angel is contacted by an attorney named Winesap, who instructs him to meet with his client, Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro). Cyphre is quite a sight with his long, black hair and manicured fingernails. He hires Angel to locate a crooner named Johnny Favorite that disappeared before a debt was settled between the two. Though hesitant at first, Angel accepts the offer.

Now, one would expect for Angel Heart to be rather routine as most noir is, but in truth, it’s actually very complex and unorthodox in the way it goes about presenting itself. Parker uses noir as a way to get the story in motion, but once it really takes off, the story delves into much more complicated territory, taking on elements of horror, surrealism, and the occult. One moment, he’ll lead you down a path of familiarity, expecting you to assume what’s most predictable, but will take the outcome and flip it on its ear, catching you by complete surprise.

Rourke is good in this kind of role. He makes the character of Harry Angel likable and innocent, though entirely competent. Parker fashions Angel Heart in the way that we pick up on details as Angel does, inflicting a double-dose of confusion on both the audience and lead character. His film relies so heavily on mood and atmosphere in order to be bizarre and horrifying and Rourke does a great job in making his character feel what we’re feeling. The direction is exceptional, and feels strangely to Parker’s previous outing Mississippi Burning. (Both deal with the bayou country of Louisiana.) Parker knows exactly how to grab our attention, how to make us ask questions, and then how to make us cringe when we get the answers.

As expected, the ending is a little weak. Now, this is routine for these kinds of motion pictures, and I get that. For the most part, the story in Angel Heart picks up in places and never seems to lag, but the final twenty minutes or so just kind of go all over the place. The “twist” is abrupt, not very logical, and even somewhat absurd, but, if you’re like me, you won’t let an unsatisfactory ending ruin an otherwise good movie.

Final rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2011 Stephen Earnest

Review: THE BIG LEBOWSKI (R)

"Oh come on, Donny. They were threatening castration! Are we gonna split hairs here?"

U.S. Release Date: March 6, 1998

Running Time: 115 minutes

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

Cast: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, David Huddleston, Ben Gazzara, John Turturro, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Elliot, Tara Reid

Director: Joel Coen

Producers: Ethan Coen, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner

Screenplay: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / December 26, 2010

The Coen brothers hit home again with their uproarious stoner noir, The Big Lebowski, which is hands down the funniest film that I’ve seen in a long, long while. Essentially, The Big Lebowski is a Coen-esque retelling of Raymond Chandler’s classic detective novel, “The Big Sleep.” (It even parodies the novel with its title.) Obviously, that’s the main influence here and you can expect for the Coens’ adaptation to be pretty reliable to the source material (as were both No Country for Old Men and True Grit.) But that’s not saying that they don’t make a couple of changes of their own.

Instead of private detective Philip Marlowe, we get The Dude; a laidback, unemployed slacker and California native who ends almost every sentence with the word “man.” (His real name is Jeffery Lebowski, but that’s not the name that he prefers.) The Dude is the ultimate movie hero. He’s likable, unmotivated, and surprisingly oblivious to most of what goes on around him. He’s a man of the people, yet the people in his world don’t seem to be too fond of him. When asked what he does with his free time, he replies, “I bowl. Drive around. The occasional acid flashback.” See, the Coens specialize in creating memorable characters. They’re less concerned with plot and more concerned with giving us a character that is original, relatable, and sticks out. The Dude is a character of a different time and place. (You could even say that he belongs in an entirely different movie.) He’s contrasting in nearly every aspect from the other characters in the story and because of this, we grow fond of him.

The story begins with The Dude being mistaken for someone else: the other Jeffrey Lebowski – the millionaire Jeffrey Lebowski, whose wife is in debt with a notorious porn king. The Dude’s home is invaded by a pair of thugs, who – after confronting him and realizing that he is not the man they are looking for – urinate on his rug and leave. “Not on the rug, man,” The Dude cries in defeat. And with that, the story has begun.

See, that rug really tied the room together, and The Dude doesn’t appreciate it. So, he decides to pay a visit to the real Lebowski in hopes of getting some kind of compensation, but that’s when problems start to arise. Things get complicated. Lebowski’s wife goes missing and a ransom note appears in her place, detailing her exchange for one million dollars. The Dude is then hired to act as a bagman and deliver the satchel to the kidnappers, but the hand-off goes awry and they never end up getting the money. Of course, the story does not end there. Double-crossings occur. Relatively shady characters appear. There are more plot twists than you can keep track of. The Big Lebowski pays homage to the film noirs of a time never replicated but always copied and it does them justice.

Naturally, the film’s strengths come from its acting and writing. That’s a given. When a film is under the direction of the Coens, it’s in good hands. Here, their writing outdoes their direction. Their script is full of fine moments. The dialogue is brilliant and colorful and there’s such a unique and oddball cast of characters. Originality has always been a staple of the Coen brothers’ works and in The Big Lebowski they are at their creative best.

The two best – and funniest – performances come from Jeff Bridges and John Goodman. Bridges was made for his role. He is The Dude and channels him like no other actor could, especially in his voice and gait. Opposite him is John Goodman in the role of Walter Sobchak, a disgruntled and stubborn Vietnam veteran. Goodman literally kills his role, taking the cake for the best comedic performance of the 1990s. Just his appearance in general can make you laugh, and for a majority of his screen time, I was. I don’t believe that I’ve ever seen a more idiosyncratic character than Walter Sobchak. From his countless references to the Vietnam War to his constant use of the phrases “Am I wrong?” and “Shut the fuck up, Donny!”, Sobchak is a timeless character and one to be remembered for ages. I don’t believe any other actor besides Goodman could’ve pulled him off.

The Coens have never failed to make an intriguing movie, even if the result wasn’t as good as their intentions were. Their films are always quirky, interesting, and delightful, and are some of the most noticeable films out there. They have a style that cannot be replicated, even though many have tried to. They are immensely talented and influential, and while The Big Lebowski isn’t their best film per se, it’s definitely their funniest.

“Am I wrong?”

“Yeah, but…”

“Am I wrong?”

RATING: 3.5/4