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

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: SESSION 9 (R)

One of the many terrifying scenes in Session 9.

U.S. Release Date: August 10, 2001

Running Time: 102 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Language, violence)

Cast: David Caruso, Peter Mullan, Stephen Gevedon, Paul Guilfoyle, Josh Lucas, Brendan Sexton III, Larry Fessenden

Director: Brad Anderson

Producer: John Sloss, David Collins, Michael Williams, Dorothy Aufiero

Screenplay: Brad Anderson, Stephen Gevedon

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / November 23, 2011

When it comes to twenty-first century horror, not many of them manage to scare quite as much as they should. They’re always the same thing over and over again, repeating the same mistakes that their predecessors did. Once in a blue moon, you’ll get a horror film that will get it right, and this time that horror film is Session 9.

It stars Scottish actor Peter Mullan as Gordon, a father who runs an asbestos cleaning company with close friend, Phil (David Caruso, from TV’s CSI: Miami). Gordon is desperate to keep his company running, so he takes the contract on an abandoned mental hospital and even offers to clean it out in a week’s time.

He uses his usual crew to help him out. The lack of time and hazardous surroundings don’t quite contribute to a peaceful environment, so the group of men don’t really get along as well as they should. As time progresses, they begin to learn what used to happen at the hospital. One of the men, Mike (Stephen Gevedon), uncovers a set of tapes that talk of brutal and primitive forms of punishment. In a particularly terrifying sequence, Hank imagines people walking around in the basement. And the more they begin to find out about the hospital, the more they begin to find out about each other.

Minus a shaky final act, Session 9 is a thoroughly effective horror story that uses its haunting atmosphere as the source for most of its scares. While it didn’t manage to flat-out scare me, it kept a pretty consistent creepy tone and I’ll admit that it did get under my skin from time to time. Plus, there’s a couple of jumpy parts for you Paranormal Activity fans.

Really, I was surprised by how very absorbed I was in this movie. It never quite takes off like it should, but it’s so utterly and hypnotically watchable that it’s near impossible to take your eyes off the screen. If you look away for a second, there’s a chance that you’ll miss something, and that something could be a definite game-changer.

The cast does a great job. These are not all “big name” actors. Peter Mullan is relatively famous, but not to the American crowd. He works as the lead here and really convinces for the most part. I mostly pleased with Josh Lucas, who did an excellent job. He supports the film quite nicely and had me quite convinced during that certain “basement” scene. Also, it was nice to see David Caruso in something other than CSI: Miami.

Overall, this seems to be an overlooked gem. You rarely find a well-made horror film, so its kind of an small achievement when you do.

RATING: 3/4

IN TIME (2011) / Science fiction-Thriller

Running Length: 109 minutes
MPAA Classification: PG-13 for violence, some sexuality and partial nudity, and strong language.

Cast: Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, Cillian Murphy, Olivia Wilde, Alex Pettyfer, Vincent Kartheiser, Johnny Galecki
Director: Andrew Niccol
Producer: Andrew Niccol, Marc Abraham, Amy Israel, Kristel Laiblin, Eric Newman
Screenplay: Andrew Niccol

The concept for In Time, the new film from writer-director Andrew Niccol (The Truman Show), is interesting, but the way in which it is executed is dreadful. This is one of those movies that you go to watch more for style rather than substance, but rarely does it have either.

Our hero is Will Salas (Justin Timberlake, The Social Network), a factory worker who lives in a future where the world uses time as a form of currency. When your times runs out, you go plop. Kinda like that Bruce Willis vehicle Surrogates. Salas lives at home with his mother and wants nothing more than to be a clichéd human being in every movie ever. So, one night Salas happens across a stranger (Matthew Bomer, USA’s “White Collar”) in one of the local bars. The man seems to be out of place, for it’s apparent that he’s very wealthy. See, in this future, the rich and the poor are seperated by “time zones”. The richer you are, the nicer the area you live in is. Simple enough, right?

Well, a couple of hoodlums notice this as well and pick a fight with the man, claiming that they are entitled to his time as much as he is. A chase ensues, with Salas helping the man out of the bar and through the streets to an abandoned building, where the man explains that his reason for being in this time zone is because he longer appreciates being immortal. So much wealth makes you not appreciate the small things in life and eventually, you just want to go away. This is about as sentimental as In Time gets.

The morning after, Salas awakens to discover that his “time balance” has been tremendously increased. Stupefied, he gets up and races to the window just in time to see the man kill himself by jumping from a bridge. Now, with this large amount of time on his hands, Salas travels to the highest time zone, attracting the attention of the locals, including the daughter (Amanda Seyfried) of a “millenium”-aire (Haha!). The two quickly develop a romantic attraction for one another, but their relationship is put on hold with the arrival of the Timekeepers, who suspect Salas of murder. But before they can arrest him, Salas and the girl elope. Mayhem ensues.

What In Time doesn’t understand is that people don’t enjoy seeing the same thing over and over again and especially not if it’s done poorly. (Well, at least I don’t.) Normally, I’m fine with a little predictability, but In Time is so bad in everything else that it does that it just can’t be forgiven. Seriously, guys — this one is stagnant.

There are problems with both the editing and visual effects. The pacing is even, but continuity is consistently off and the visual effects simply aren’t very believable. (To cite an example, there’s an image of car rolling down a hill that almost resembles stop-motion animation.)

As well as having technical problems, In Time suffers from formulaic plotting, all-around cheesy dialogue, and so many time-related puns that you’d need a to make a tally chart in order to keep track of them. Timberlake and Seyfried each give good performances, but they’re only as good as the script will allow them to be. Cillian Murphy smirks a whole lot and overacts, but given these one-dimensional characters, there’s not a whole lot that these actors can do to impress us.

It’s all a startling disappointment for Andrew Niccol, whose career takes a slight dip downwards. His Lord of War and Gattaca were both fascinating motion pictures, so what went wrong here? Normally in a situation like this, I’d blame the writer for the film’s badness, as that’s where a lot of the problems stem from. But seeing as Niccol was involved in the writing as well, what else am to do?

There is some good news to be had though. During the final ten minutes or so, I’ve never laughed so hard in my entire life. Ever. Who cares if I wasn’t meant to laugh? It’s the most emotion I showed the entire time, and that’s saying something. So unless you’re looking for some mindless Friday night cheese to poke fun at, don’t go see In Time. Don’t even go see it if there’s nothing else playing at the theater that strikes your interest. Go do something else. Live your life. Is it really as bad as I’m making it out to be? Oh, you betcha.

Final rating: ★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

© 2011 Stephen Earnest

Review: PONTYPOOL (R)

Stephen McHattie as Grant Mazzy.

U.S. Release Date: March 6, 2009

Running Time: 95 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Language, violence)

Cast: Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly, Hrant Alianak, Boyd Banks, Rick Roberts

Director: Bruce McDonald

Producers: Jeffrey Coghlan, Ambrose Roche

Screenplay: Tony Burgess

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / November 20, 2011

Pontypool is an extraordinary film. Not extraordinary as in it’s one of the best films out there, but extraordinary as in it’s amazing how much it accomplishes in the time and space it’s given. The movie stars Stephen McHattie as Grant Mazzy, a radio DJ in a small town in Ontario, Canada called Pontypool. On his way to work, he experiences an odd encounter with a mysterious woman, who approaches his car when he decides to make a stop, then abruptly disappears.

He arrives for his shift at the radio station, is greeted by his two counterparts, Sydney (Lisa Houle) and Laurel (Georgina Reilly), and the day continues to unfold as any normal day should. But things begin to slowly go downhill when Mazzy and his radio crew catch wind of a disturbance in town from their helicopter reporter. Apparently, people are gathering by the hundreds and rioting against a doctor’s office. Soon, the riot begins to escalate into something else. Violence rings out, people begin to die. Rumors of cannibalism make their way to the radio station. There is not control over anything anymore. What could be the cause for all of this?

That’s pretty much the synopsis of Pontypool, one of the few recent horror films that is actually scary. Not scary in the “Gotcha!” sense of the word, but more in the genuine, skin-crawling sense. The kind of scary that slowly builds in gut-wrenching tension instead of being abrupt and shocking. And here in Pontypool, that kind of scary is manufactured entirely by dialogue. Now, isn’t that impressive?

Aside from the beginning, the whole story set entirely in a single building, and most of the violence is kept off-screen. This way you’re never quite sure what’s happening. You’re stuck with the main characters inside the radio station, only getting information from the outside. It’s just terrifying not to know what’s going on.

Alas, Pontypool does lose its hold on you as it progresses. The final couple minutes or so are somewhat ridiculous, but no so ridiculous that you get bored. And I just couldn’t believe in the reasoning behind why everyone was acting so strangely. It didn’t seem possible.

The performances are fairly routine for characters of this genre, but McHattie is something to behold. He’s got that look of familiarity, like you’ve seen him before somewhere, but you’re not quite sure where. He brings a needed gruffness to the role and pulls off the character fabulously. I wouldn’t doubt it if he starts getting more lead roles in the future.

In the end, you won’t be blown away by what Pontypool has to offer, but you’ll be highly impressed by bits and pieces of it. Fans of the claustrophobic-horror genre beware: this one’s pretty good.

RATING: 3/4

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: 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