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

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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: THE LOOKOUT (R)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt's performance is one the bright spots in "The Lookout."

U.S. Release Date: March 30, 2007

Running Time: 99 minutes

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

Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jeff Daniels, Matthew Goode, Bruce McGill, Isla Fisher, Alex Borstein, Carla Gugino, Alberta Watson

Director: Scott Frank

Producers: Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum, Becki Cross Trujillo, Jonathan Glickman, Laurie MacDonald, Laurence Mark, Ivan Oyco, Walter F. Parkes

Screenplay: Scott Frank

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / August 7, 2011

From famed writer Scott Frank comes The Lookout and given his reputation (he was the screenwriter for two great crime films, Out of Sight and Get Shorty), one would expect it to be another great addition to the crime genre. But despite being well-made and well-acted, it’s surprisingly mediocre. That’s not saying that I wasn’t entertained though.

The lead character is Chris Pratt, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Chris was involved in a car accident earlier and now has a form of short-term memory loss. Because of this, he’s forced to take notes in order to remember. His roommate, is a blind man named Lewis (Jeff Daniels). The age difference between the two is pretty large, but they remain friends nonetheless.

Chris is employed at a bank, where he works as a janitor, though he aspires to eventually become a teller. He is constantly training to get better at counting but his inability to remember gets in the way. One night, Chris is visiting a bar when he runs into Gary. The two went to high school together and Gary remembers Chris, as he was a huge hockey star back before his accident.

Eventually, the two form a small friendship and Gary invites Chris over to his house, where he meets the rest of the gang. Before long though, Gary divulges unto Chris a scheme that involves robbing the bank that Chris works at.

Then what The Lookout leads to is a predictably executed heist and a predictable outcome, not to mention that it began pretty predictably to begin with. The characters are the same characters we’ve seen a million times and despite all of the depth that they’re given, they still feel surprisingly two-dimensional. This is all on Frank, who is usually such a charismatic and fluent screenwriter. He brings every cliche to the table, following a formula so overused that it’s nearly impossible to try to spice it up a little. Predictably is what kills this movie.

Now, as stated before, the acting is spot-on. Daniels gives a great supporting performance as Lewis, the honest and loyal friend, and Gordon-Levitt is pretty sturdy as the lead. While the characters that they play are predictably-shaped, they bring as much talent to them as possible. One could say that they acting almost makes up for Frank’s pitiful excuse for a script, but that wouldn’t be the case.

This is one of those movies that you can watch with eyes half-opened: it doesn’t require a huge attention span, but you won’t get bored. There’s enough action here to keep you mildly entertained.

RATING: 2/4

FRANTIC (1988) / Thriller

Running Length: 120 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for violence, language, and brief drug and sexual content.

Cast: Harrison Ford, Emmanuelle Seigner, John Mahoney, Betty Buckley, Gerard Klein
Director: Roman Polanski
Producers: Tim Hampton, Thom Mount
Screenplay: Roman Polanksi, Gerard Brach

Harrison Ford stars as Dr. Richard Walker, a surgeon visiting Paris to attend a medical convention. He has brought with him his wife Sondra, but upon stepping out of the shower in their hotel bedroom, realizes that she has been kidnapped.

And so begins Frantic, Roman Polanski’s competent and cleverly-crafted thriller that employs the typical Polanski traits such as paranoia, irony, and Hitchcockian nostalgia. It’s murky and mysterious, focusing on Walker as hestumbles around Paris searching for his wife – confused, disoriented, and unable to comprehend anything that anyone is saying, with his only clue being a suitcase that she picked up at the airport, mistaking it for her own.

Frantic delivers what it promises: excitement. With a single action, the mood can change from calm to tense, bringing us from a perfectly relaxed seating position to the very edge of our seat. As confusing as the plot may be sometimes, it puts us in the same position as Ford. This is vintage Polanski and decidedly one of his best.

Besides having a sturdy lead performance from Ford, Frantic also features plenty of well-acted cameos (including one from David Huddleston, who strangely resembles Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a strong supporting performance from the beautiful Emmanuelle Seigner.

Frantic evokes memories of long-lost thrillers with its daring rooftop sequences, brief gunfights and car chases. It’s as entertaining and nerve-jangling as they get and rarely does it lag.

Final rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2011 Stephen Earnest

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

Review: PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 (R)

Things go bump in the night. Or not. Maybe.

U.S. Release Date: October 22, 2010

Running Time: 99 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Language, violence)

Cast: Brian Boland, Molly Ephraim, Katie Featherston, Sprague Grayden, Seth Ginsburg, Micah Sloat

Director: Tod Williams

Producers: Oren Peli, Jason Blum, Akiva Goldsman

Screenplay: Michael R. Perry, Christopher B. Landon, Tom Pabst, based on characters by Oren Peli

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / July 16, 2011

Paranormal Activity 2 is a half-hearted attempt at horror. It’s got a lot of “Gotcha!” moments and all of them failed to spark any sort of thrill inside of me. The plot is the same as the first Paranormal Activity, except Paranormal Activity 2 acts as a prequel and a sequel at the same time. It’s the second installment in the franchise, but happens before the first one. That’s about the most interesting thing that Paranormal Activity 2 has to offer.

People have got to learn that pop-ups are not scary. They do not define the word “horror”. Most modern horror films that you see on Netflix or at the movie theater use pop-ups as the main way to scare the audience. And almost ninety-nine percent of the time, they completely and utterly fail. These moments are referred to as “Gotcha!” moments. They usually involve characters hearing a noise, venturing into the darkness, and then, when they’re least expecting it, something bursts into the frame with a loud and unprecedented noise. But we almost always expect it. And it’s never as scary as its should be.

But besides not being scary at all, Paranormal Activity 2 is just plain stupid and boring. We switch between about six different camera angles for most of the movie and nothing really ever happens during the scenes. Sure, I get it. This supposed to give the audience suspense, so that when something does happen, they’re not expecting it to and it freaks them out. Normally, that sounds like a good idea but here, it doesn’t work. Nothing ever happens and something does, it’s usually something really small and minute or something really, really unbelievable. A certain scene involving a woman being dragged downstairs comes to mind.

Movies like Paranormal Activity 2 make me sad for this generation. Whatever happened to the good horror films of the sixties and seventies? Whatever to horror being manufactured with suspense, instead of loud noises and gore like it is nowadays.

Of course, Paranormal Activity 2 will attract those looking for a scary time. Of course, they will jump a few times, but leave slightly disappointed. Of course, there will be a third one. Of course, they will rely on “Gotcha!” moments as their source of terror. And if they choose to do so, I can guarantee you that the third one will be even worse than this one.

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