Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Wristcutters: A Love Story

No doubt Wristcutters sat on the shelf for a long time because really... how do you market a long story about two people who committed suicide? And again the cut that director Goran Dukic finally released was probably not quite what he wanted. Dukic actually adapted his screenplay from his father's short story so that is probably why the characters seem to actually have a depth and feeling to them.

Zia (Patrick Fugit from Almost Famous) kills himself after problems with his girlfriend Desiree (Leslie Bibb from Talledega Nights). He finds out that suicides are condemned to live in a world much like the one he left "only a little worse." The fact that this world is made up of only suicides probably has something to do with that. Zia befriends a young immigrant Eugene(Shea Whigham from All the Real Girls) whose entire family has killed themselves. They talk and commiserate about their stories until one day Zia gets info that Desiree has too killed herself. Eugene and Zia set off on a road trip and that is where the story really gets going. The first person they encounter is Mikal (Shannyn Sossamon from A Knight's Tale and every man's wet dream) who is on the road trying to find the people in charge to inform them that she is in this work by mistake.

The story takes some twists and turns with other nice moments from John Hawkes, Tom Waits, and Will Arnett as the story comes to an end. The subject matter of suicide is a tough one to tackle and Dukic manages to craft a near brilliant tale of remarkable originality. His stark vision of the afterlife limbo in which the characters are habitating was missing only the lonely voice of Billy Corgan ala Spun. Suicide is treated with a bit a humor, but never so that is lessens the message of the film. The ending... the ending is just right.

Wristcutters will rightfully become a cult film one day much as Donnie Darko (tepid response in theatres) did in the last few years. One can only hope a true director's cut will come out with the many deleted scenes back in the film where they belong. If that happens my 90 will be a 100.


Angel Heart

Angel Heart is one of those odd films that has somehow lived on through the years despite it not being very good. It is almost mythical for the ruining of an American sweetheart Lisa Bonet from the Cosby Show. The nudity and sex scene she has later on in the film seem to be the sole reason why anyone remembers this Alan Parker film. Rumors were about too that the scene wasn't simulated... always one of those every few years in the urban myth variety. On to the movie...

Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) gets a visit from a potential client (Robert DeNiro) one day. Angel is more accustomed to finding cheating husbands than missing persons, but Cyphre (DeNiro) wants him to track down an old singer who has gone missing. Not much of an explanation or reason why just a thread to start with. Essentially this turns into a series of meetings Angel has with various associates of the singer that ultimately end with them showing up deceased. Angel feels a constant pressure to solve the mystery before he joins them in the morgue. Throw in an old girlfriend (Lisa Bonet showing up a long ways in) of the singer who seems to practice voodoo and you've got a glossy trash film noir.

Director Alan Parker has always been an overrated hack with far too heavy of a hand for me to take. Midnight Express got a lot of attention and probably is the only reason he was still making films by the time he got to Angel Heart. Parker would follow this trash up with an undenialable masterpiece Mississippi Burning. It was tough for him to mess that one up just as it is too much for him to elevate this material above standard genre crud. Much later on, Parker would do a string of so-so films culminating with Angela's Ashes and the godawful The Life of David Gale.

Bonet is extremely hot and underused, much like a walk on by British actress Charlotte Rampling. Of course, there is Mickey Rourke who has always been one of the finest actors working depending on how he feels about the film he is in. Here is seems to be trying to make the best of what he has got. Film noir is something Rourke was born to play, tis a pity he couldn't find a better script to do. The interviews with Rourke on the DVD lead you to believe his heart was never in this film and was more into his boxing around this time. I can't figure out for the life of me what DeNiro was doing here... and all the extras seem to point to the fact that he wanted nothing to do with it afterwards.

I'm giving this an average grade and you have to understand, without Bonet and Rourke, this would get a 0.


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Grifters

Sometimes it is fun to revisit a film that you don't bust out too often to see how well it holds up. The Grifters is a drama from 1990 featuring the talents of director Stephen Frears (Hi-Fidelity, Dangerous Liasons) and producer Martin Scorsese. Essentially it is a story about three grifters (con men) and their relationship to each other. Each one looks at the other as a potential mark despite their closeness. Lilly (Anjelica Houston) runs odds down at racetracks for the mob and is sent to LA for some quick work. She drops in to visit her son Roy(John Cusack) who is hurting from a con he tried to pull in a bar. These two all ready have a contentious relationship when Roy's girlfriend Myra (Annette Bening) enters the picture.

Revisiting this film now, I can clearly see that is set up as a creepy love triangle. Cue the scene where Myra confronts Roy about his work. A wisecrack early about Roy selling matchbooks provides a clue that she knew along what he did, but only later on after she witnesses it does she bring it up. At this point, Myra tell Roy that she is of the same ilk. Roy becomes immediately more intrigued by Myra since there is already that sexual tension between him and his mother.

Cusack is a master at the scenes with Lilly providing the viewer with way too much info with his eyes. They dart back and forth from breast to leg in a manner unbefitting of a mother-son relationship.

Strange that the film would come full circle from a line earlier on in the film. A woman always has one thing...

The Grifters was adapted from a novel by the great Jim Thomson that is less about the script as it is about the perfomances and direction. Cusack has the least showy part, but perhaps the most difficult overall. Houston has always been a fine actress, but most people didn't even know who the hell Bening was before this film. This is an excellent showpiece for one of the best actresses of all time. The daring and ballsy-ness is amazing.

Frears is always the consumate professional who might someday get the word auteur attached before his name. Each of his films has his fingerprints all over it. His work with the camera has a definite feel of the producer Scorsese. Each scene is done with such precision you can't help but feel excited just seeing what he is going to do next. Movies like this are an absolute pleasure to rewatch no matter what the subject matter.


Cameo alert for the great Pat Hingle as Lilly's mob boss. He was the original Commissioner Gordon in the Tim Burton Batman!

Geronimo: An American Legend

The second half of Walter Hill was much better thank God. You get a good script from excellent screenwriter/director John Milius (Rome, Red Dawn, Conan the Barbarian) with limited chances for Hill to fuck it up. Though the title would lead you to believe it is about Geronimo (Wes Studi), the story is told from a 2nd Lt. Davis (Matt Damon) fresh from West Point. He is put under the direct command of 1st Lt. Charles Gatewood (Jason Patric). Gatewood and Davis are charged with bringing Geronimo in to Brig. Gen. George Crook (Gene Hackman - the fuckin') to surrender. Geronimo's warriors would be the last to go into the reservation system while the US continued to push the American Indians away from their homes. Something happens on the reservation to start a revolt and soon Geronimo is back on the loose.

Altough you never really get to the heart of the Indian exploitation, you do get an excellent surface piece that manages to hit all the main points. Hill is able to sit back and not do anything too distractive to the narration. This represents a great change from his earlier work that would later again be touched on in Broken Trail.

In the description of the film, I wasn't even able to get to the greatness that is Robert Duvall as the tracker Al Sieber. Duvall manages to create a compelling character out of what seems like a stock role. In fact, each performance propels this film out of run of the mill status. For Gatewood, Patric brings the same underplayed, gentleness to the character as he lent to August March. Patric has become the king of understated roles, but that's for another column... Even Damon shows flashes of why, given the chance, he can really act. Also... look for a nice cameo from Kevin Tighe as a general who takes up the search for Geronimo later on. You'd probably recognize Tighe best as Locke's father on Lost or as the bar owner in the action classic Roadhouse.

Geronimo was Hill's follow up to the bomb Trespass. Both films did poorly in theatres despite being worthy of viewing. I liked Trespass a little bit better no doubt due to Bill Paxton and the Demon Knight himself William Sadler as the leads. Still Geronimo marks a key point in Walter Hill's career of direction.


Speaking of cameos... I almost forgot about Stephen McHattie popping in as well. McHattie is the diet Coke version of Lance Henriksen... right down to the gravely voice.

Wild Bill

It must have been Walter Hill flop month on AMC because I caught two of his biggest. Wild Bill came at a productive, flop-tacular time for Hill: the 90's. I had heard awful, scathing reviews about Wild Bill, but I thought there wasn't anyway it could be that bad... oh dear God I was wrong. It was absolutely worse. The movie starts with Bill (Jeff Bridges, but I'm the dude) hitting Deadwood (which covered all this better later on with some direction from Walter Hill...hmmm) to try and hit it big during the gold rush. The story is juxtoposed with too many annoying side characters and flashbacks. You never get a real sense of story with all the backtracking. Gunfights litter these for no particular reason other than to spice up the dull narrative.

Everybody is miscast. Ellen Barkin as Calamity Jane, Christina Applegate in anything, and The Dude sleepwalking through the lead all are enough to turn the film off immediately. Everything from the look to the direction just smacks of awfulness. This isn't even so bad that it is fun to watch. Even Diane Lane isn't fun... and lemme tell ya that is a hard thing to accomplish.

One wonders if Hill was just in a drug/alcohol stupor until his comeback with an episode of Deadwood and the pretty great tv western Broken Trail. Hill would follow this up with Last Man Standing, Supernova (a long story there...), and Undisputed... all turd sandwiches. Here's your DVD quote... Wild Bill is even WORSE than you would have thought!



There's not a lot to say about this classic film that hasn't already been said... but in case you've been under a rock or adverse to black and white I'll give a brief rundown of the plot. Rick (Humphrey Bogart) is minding his own business running a little night club in Morocco some time after the Germans rolled into Paris when the love of his life Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) walks through the door. Although the story weaves between the political climate and a plot regarding exit visas, this is essentially a love story about a man who is forced to take a side. Rick is friends with Chief of Police (Claude Rains) and knows that is a dangerous time to do so.

The plot is hardly revolutionary, but the script was for the time. The rapid fire, smart dialogue is something quite lacking in most older films and surprised me the first time I watched Casablanca. This is probably the chief reason this film holds up so well over time compared to it's comtemporaries. All the leads are well casted and devour their roles. Director Michael Curtiz never oversteps his boundaries with flashy shots... preferring to keep the camera as an outsider to the intrigue going on inside of Rick's club.

Casablanca is absolute masterpiece and is a firm reminder why older films can still be as important as newer ones. Forget the rubbish about Citizen Cane and catch this one instead. I'm glad I finally got around to it.


Tuesday, July 1, 2008

7 Years in Tibet

Not gonna lie to you... 7 Years in Tibet starts out as a bit of a mess. You have to stick with it for about 40 mins before you start getting to the good stuff. This time coincides with the mess in Heinrich Harrer's (Brad Pitt) own life. Heinrich leaves his pregnant wife at the train station after a fight to head off to climb a mountain in the Himalayas. The time period is just around the point that Britain was pulled into WWII. Harrer and expedition lead Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis) are captured by the British (Since they are German citizens) and placed in a prison camp.

Many escapes later... the two find themselves trying to seek passage into Tibet. Eventually they make their way to the capital city where they catch the eye of a government official (B.D. Wong from OZ) and the young Dalai Lama. Soon the Dalai Lama becomes fascinated with Heinrich and they become friends. Certainly this is to echo the fact that the child that Heinrich created seems to want no part of Heinrich in his life. Waiting out the war in Tibet allows our lead character to find who he really is and wants to be. Later on you get the rumbling of China into Tibet and the backstabbing that takes place... but this movie is at it's heart a tale of a man lost in the world.

Director Jean-Jacques Annaud (Enemy at the Gates, In the Name of the Rose) has done his best in cramming a story of about 10 years into the 140 min of run time. You feel a race at the start of the film to get to Harrer's time in Tibet. The story wants to be a bit more than that and that is a well intentioned goal. Annaud always gives his films a distinct look too... here you get Tibet as mostly a dirty, ugly place with the only glimpses of beauty being the people of the land. All of the actors are quite suited for their roles.

Not everything works here with the storyline. An effort was obviously made to keep this film under 3 hours. This causes the viewer to only focus on this period of time. This leaves you with the disctinct feeling that the most fascinating things might have been what Harrer did with the rest of his life... and not those 7 years in Tibet.