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To Live and Die in L.A. – Review

11 Oct

I’ve talked about William Friedkin before on this blog, and I’m sure I’ll be doing it again in the not too distant future. He’s a brilliant film maker who has very rarely allowed his vision to be compromised, so even if his movies aren’t always gems, you have to respect the guy. I mean he did The Exorcist and The French Connection for heaven’s sake. One of his movies that doesn’t get nearly enough attention that it deserves is his 1985 neo-noir thriller To Live and Die in L.A. While the film has gotten a cult following over the years, it’s not one that I hear discussed too much. I’ve just recently watched it and at first, I didn’t really know what to make of it, but then when it was over I really stopped and thought about the movie as a whole, and I gotta say that it’s one of his stronger films. It may not be quite on the level of The Exorcist and The French Connection, but like those movies, it defies Hollywood norms and turns the concept of a clean narrative completely on its head.

Richard Chance (William Petersen) and Jimmy Hart (Michael Greene) are two secret service agents who are tracking down notorious counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe), whose fake bills can never seem to be contained. After a routine check of what is believed to be Masters’ printing lab, Hart is shot and killed by Masters and his bodyguard. This fills Chance with an overwhelming need for vengeance, a need that he makes explicit to his new partner, John Vukovich (John Pankow). As the investigation turns up new leads and the two earn Masters’ trust as two potential buyers of fake bills, more problems arise with the legality of their actions. Vukovich sees the danger in how deep they are getting, but Chance is so blinded by his hate for Masters that they may both fall down a criminal abyss and never find their ways out.

At its surface, this sounds like a pretty standard revenge thriller, and for most of the movie that’s how I saw it. I want to get my initial reactions out of the way first, because a lot of my complaints about the movie are still valid. For one thing, this film has a very strange way of editing that can either be seen as way too stylistic or just plain sloppy. Scenes end before it seems they should and we are transported to another time and place entirely. It’s hard to keep track of how much time has passed between these cuts and where we have just jumped to. It was also kind of hard to take Petersen’s performance seriously at some points. He’s supposed to be a hard boiled anti-hero, which does come across well at times, but other times it’s a bit too much and resulted in some unwanted laughter at his overly dramatic performance. Finally, for a while, the story seemed so plain and generic that I had a hard time getting into it. A serviceman who is consumed by revenge goes against authority to get what he wants. It’s your everyday “play by my own rules” scenario. Luckily, To Live and Die in L.A. offers a lot more than your standard revenge film, and that’s where this movie really stands out.

This is a movie that has to be seen in full to really appreciate everything it has to offer. It got to a point pretty late in the film where it kicked into high gear and made everything before it come into focus. Chance’s character is one of the tragic anti-heroes of film and the subtle manipulations he made throughout the movie may not hit you immediately, but it soon hits you like a brick. He manipulates his partner who get pushed further and further to the edge throughout the movie. He also manipulates a woman named Ruth, played by Darlanne Fluegel, a parolee who he extorts through his power as an officer of the law and through sex. It’s an odd relationship that fits in very well with the off putting nature of the movie. Along with the manipulation, which begs the question of just how evil Chance is compared to Masters, is deception all across the board that is revealed in the last scenes of the movie. This turns a standard revenge plot into a slow game of deceptive progression that heats up and finally explodes in the last act of the movie. This narrative progress is one that has be seen in full and made me appreciate the movie so much more.

Many people have linked this film to The French Connection because of the plot and the themes of crime and corruption. I definitely see it and I also see a link with the hopelessness that both films feature. The way this film is shot is classic Friedkin, with the dramatic scenes in close up, the fights almost uncinematic, and actions set pieces that are, on the flip side, very cinematic. Highlights of the movie include a brawl in a living room, a fantastic car chase that ends on the wrong side of the freeway, and a scene in a locker room that will make you feel like an anvil just fell on you. The cinematography by Robby Müller is excellent and really brings out the noir sensibilities this film clearly has. I know I keep saying this, but all of these elements are what save this movie from being generic and raises it to a movie that I haven’t really stopped thinking about since I’ve seen it.

To Live and Die in L.A. is a very well made movie that isn’t without its flaws. Some of the editing really didn’t work for me and Petersen’s performance was sometimes a bit too over the top for the realistic vibe that Friedkin was obviously going for. It’s still a very memorable, gritty, and ultimately tragic modern noir tale that takes viewers deep into the grimy underworld of criminal Los Angeles. It’s not Friedkin’s best work, but it’s a movie that deserves a lot more credit than it’s given. I definitely give this movie a recommendation. Give it a watch.

Final Grade: B+

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Extract – Review

20 May

Mike Judge is one of the best when it comes to comedy. It’s hard to deny the impact he’s made on the genre and popular culture itself. From his television creations like Beavis and Butt-HeadKing of the Hill, and most recently Silicon Valley, to his commercial film hits like Office Space and Idiocracy, his talent is clearly visible. One of his movies that I don’t hear too much about is his companion piece to Office Space titled Extract. I’ve finally come around to seeing it, and I can sort of see why it’s not one that’s talked about too often. It certainly is funny enough and a comedy that will more than likely stay on my radar, but it does lack some of the sharpness and off the walls absurd satire of his other, more recognized work.

Joel Reynolds (Jason Bateman) seems to have it all. He is the founder and owner of the Reynolds Extract company, has a great house in a quiet neighborhood, and also is married to his beautiful wife, Suzie (Kristen Wiig). On the flip side, his company is also facing problems after an accident causes one of his employees (Clifton Collins, Jr.) to lose a very important part of himself, he is constantly aggravated by what may be the world’s worst neighbor (David Koechner), and his love life with his wife has become stagnant. Things become even more complicated when a mysterious drifter, Cindy (Mila Kunis), starts working at the factory and shows a major interest in Joel. Because of this and some horrible advice from his friend, Dean (Ben Affleck), Joel’s life becomes a series of lies, even great misfortunes, and a possible company ending lawsuit.

Extract has a story that’s all over the place. There’s problems with the factory and also Joel’s love life, then there’s Mila Kunis’ character who has a backstory and motivation all her own, and then there’s an impending lawsuit that becomes more of an issue towards the end. There’s so much going on that it’s hard to keep track of it all sometimes. This works both for and against the movie. On one hand, with all of these subplots working against each other, there are some areas of the movie that feel rushed and not worked to completion. One character is relegated to just one scene when he could’ve had a lot more screen time. On the other hand, it started to make me stressed, which should be a problem, but it helped me relate to Joel’s plight, especially when he starts to reach his boiling points.

Where the movie does sort of falter is in the overall point of it. When I watch something by Mike Judge, I expect to see some sort of satirical sharpness, especially when he says that this film is a companion piece to his super sharp Office Space. There’s a really fun comedy of errors to be found here, but the whole thing feels kind of hollow. Part of that can be due to what I was talking about before. There’s so many plots and subplots and side characters that don’t amount to much that the whole thing doesn’t feel fully realized. If Judge was going for this simple comedy of errors vibe, it pulled off, but if he was going for something more than it doesn’t quite reach that standard.

Where Extract does succeed, and where Judge continues to show his immense understandings, is the personification of the characters. Everyone in this movie is someone you have met or have no problem believing in. One of my favorite characters is an older woman at the factory who continuously harasses a new employee and who refuses to work because she believes she works harder than everyone else and gets nothing for it. I know I’ve met that person. This also has a really great cast. Bateman is always great as the deadpan character who explodes after being pushed too far. Ben Affleck is surprisingly hilarious as Dean and David Koechner as Nathan, Joel’s annoying neighbor, kills every scene he’s in.

Extract is definitely a minor entry into an otherwise outstanding body of work by Mike Judge. This is a funny film with a great cast and a premise that works really well, even if it does feel stretched a bit too thin. If more time was given to certain plot elements, this might have felt a little bit stronger, even without the sharp satirical edge I was expecting. This movie is good for some laughs, but don’t expect anything more than that.

Final Grade: B-

Amistad – Review

13 May

In 1839, the slave ship La Amistad was taken over in a slave revolt led by Mende captives. This led to a drawn out trial involving many different parties concerning murder charges and property rights, while abolitionists of the time used the trial to prove that these Africans had rights the same as anybody else. While this incident didn’t change the times it did have lasting effects whose ripples could be felt throughout that time in history. It remained a story that seemed overshadowed by other historical events until Steven Spielberg, producer Debbie Allen, and writer David Franzoni resurrected the story for modern audiences. While it isn’t the most historically accurate film in the world, it has a sense of courage and honor that shows there was plenty of good in a time of evil.

After freeing himself from his chains securing him to the slave ship La Amistad, Mende captive Sengbe (Djimon Honsou) leads a revolt against the Spanish slave traders on the ship. Due to their lack of knowing how to properly navigate a ship, Sengbe and the rest of the Africans find themselves landing in an American port and are swiftly arrested by Naval officers. The captives are once again locked in jail where they await trial for murder and cases involving property rights. This attracts the attention of abolitionist Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) who enlists the help of property lawyer Roger Sherman Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) to represent the captives in a court of law. The proceedings actually keep favoring Baldwin’s arguments, but it doesn’t take long for President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne) to intercede and take the matters to the Supreme Court. With their case quickly spiraling out of control, Joadson, Baldwin, and Sengbe recruit the help of former president John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) to stand up for the Africans’ rights in the highest court of the land.

Amistad is the first film Spielberg made with Dreamworks, and at this point it’s hard to believe there was a time that he wasn’t working with this company. This was the time when Spielberg was really showing what he had to offer. This is epic film making that only got better with Saving Private Ryan. The production design of this movie is top of the line with sets that seem to live and breathe. I am really interested in this time period, so I may be a little bit biased to praise movies that so completely bring this era to life. While the set design and costumes already stand tall, there are other factors that exist to completely draw you into the world of this movie. The first is John Williams’ beautiful and often sweeping score. The other is Janusz Kamiński’s eye catching cinematography that was also put on display with Spielberg’s previous movie, Schindler’s List.

Like I said earlier, Amistad is an epic movie that really takes its time in telling the story and making sure all of the information is clear to the audience. This is both a good and a bad thing. While there is plenty of dramatic momentum moving the story forward, it’s hard to ignore that this can be an overly wordy movie. There are some moments where you have to stop and think of people really talk like the characters in this movie do. The writing is mostly spot on, but there are times when it becomes a little bit too theatrical when a general rule for film making is to show the audience information and not outright tell them. There’s one scene in particular that really stands out. There’s a scene where John Quincy Adams is addressing the Supreme Court, and it’s clear that Spielberg was really into shooting this scene, and for a while it’s incredible. It’s an amazing speech that unfortunately never seems to end. There were at least three different times where I thought that the speech was over, but then the camera would change and Hopkins would continue on. It became almost comical.

While this movie does get a little wordy and bogged down in over the top dramatic soliloquies, the people delivering these lines are all megastars in their own rights. This is a great cast with Freeman, McConaughey, Honsou, and Hopkins all knocking it out of the park. McConaughey and Honsou especially work great together and their getting to learn to understand each other while not speaking the same language is my favorite part of the whole movie. I do feel like Morgan Freeman was underutilized and only has a few memorable scenes where I feel like he was actually given something to do. Finally, Hopkins isn’t in the movie all that much, but when he is it feels like I’m watching the real John Quincy Adams and not an actor playing the part. Few actors can pull that off as well as Hopkins can.

Amistad has all the working of a memorable and epic Steven Spielberg movie. It’s filled with a cast of great actors, excellent music, and fantastic production design. It also is a little bit overdone in some parts, which can either add more of an entertainment quality or come off as something a little less respectable. This isn’t Spielberg’s finest achievement, but it is one that I feel doesn’t get the respect that it deserves. Personally, I thought it was a great movie and it’s one that I’d love to watch again. It tells an excellent story, and while it may not be totally historically accurate, it’s a pretty epic way to spend an afternoon.

Final Grade: A-

Death Wish Series – Review: Part 1

24 Mar

One of the most iconic action stars of the past century is the one and only Charles Bronson. He has a charisma about him that is undeniable, so it’s no surprise that he’s a name still remembered to this day. The film that got him raised to such a status is a well known thriller called Death Wish. While controversial for its time, and even this time in a way, it has garnered a lot of fans and a possible remake from Eli Roth. Like with other films of this time and genre, one movie wasn’t enough, which resulted in a total of five Death Wish movies. What can be said about them? Well… they’re certainly something else.

Let’s start with the original from 1974.

Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) is a liberal minded architect living with his wife (Hope Lange) and daughter (Kathleen Tolan) in New York City during a time when crime is sky rocketing. One afternoon, a group of thugs break into Paul’s apartment and assaults his daughter and murders his wife. Overcome with grief, Paul doesn’t know what to do and his beliefs are all starting to go down the drain. After a business trip, Paul comes home with the answer and a brand new revolver. He takes it upon himself to start working as a late night vigilante, walking the bad streets of New York and shooting anyone that threatens him or another person. This causes the media, citizens, and police to start paying attention to his actions, and things in New York begin to slightly change. With the people starting to fight for themselves, NYPD Lt. Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) begins his nearly impossible task of tracking down the vigilante and putting an end to his spree.

Death Wish was made in 1974 and based off of a novel of the same name that was published in 1972. This was a time when crime was really getting bad in major cities, and people just didn’t know what to do about it. This brought about a new age of action films, with the most resonant being the Dirty Harry series. This film doesn’t quite hit as hard as some other films because the idea of vigilantism isn’t explored nearly enough. The novel takes the idea and shows the dark side that it can create, while the film shows Kersey as a straight up hero who can do no wrong. This makes the film feel incredibly dated and kind of a shallow experience, especially if you’re approaching this wanting to see an action classic that can stand the tests of time. It can also come off as very preachy in terms of its right wing political ideology. I don’t care if a movie leans a certain way, but make it subtle and don’t talk down to an audience.

There are things in Death Wish that do stand out. For one thing, Bronson’s performance is good even though the character sort of feels a little bit underdeveloped. Instead of being this boisterous vigilante, he plays the role very quietly, which actually reflects the whole tone of the movie. As the series goes on, it gets more and more off the walls, but this film is much more down to earth. In fact, it’s hard to call this movie a full blown action movie when it often times feels like a drama. The plot moves along slowly, which in retrospect actually works better than I originally thought. There are also no grand action set pieces. The “action” happens very quickly with Kersey pulling out his revolver and shooting a criminal, and once that’s done he just leaves the scene. It felt gritty and real and wasn’t at all what I originally expected this movie to be.

Death Wish is an interesting time capsule of a movie, but it’s one that hasn’t really aged well. It’s political ideology is rammed down the audience’s throat to the point of being obnoxious and it features a well known main character that didn’t always feel too complete. It does feature some cool scenes that feel gritty and realistic and the whole approach of not making a grand scene of the violence is a good choice. I just wish that the idea of vigilantism and its dark side was explored more instead of the whole concept just being praised. It’s an interesting movie for any film history buff and fans of Charles Bronson, but it’s really lacking in many ways.

Final Grade: B-

Eight years later, in 1982, a sequel crept its way into theaters and dragged things down even further.

After his vigilante spree in New York City, Paul Kersey has found a peaceful home in Los Angeles. His daughter (Robin Sherwood) is in a mental hospital and improving significantly, and he’s also found new love with radio reporter Geri Nichols (Jill Ireland). All of this comes crashing down when his daughter is kidnapped and murdered by a gang of criminals, which forces Kersey to once again pick up his revolver and hit the mean streets. As Kersey starts his revenge quest on the group of thugs, Detective Ochoa gets wind of what’s happening and travels to L.A. to put an end to Kersey’s spree, but it can never be that easy.

Death Wish II is straight up garbage. There’s no use beating around the bush with this one. It doesn’t even try to be anything different than the original. Kersey is living a happy live, then someone he loves is killed which brings him to his vigilantism. That’s the same exact plot as the original Death Wish. At least that one raises some questions and presents the material in a subtle way. This one, however, is just violence for the sake of it without any interesting material to back it up. That would be acceptable if this film had any sense of style, but it doesn’t even have that. It’s just a gray, ugly looking movie filled with cannon fodder for Bronson to take his anger out on. It’s absolutely mindless and devoid of any sort of flash to pull the viewer in.

Death Wish II succeeds at only the most base level. I will say that compared to the first one, there’s a bit more mindless entertainment. There’s no real set up to the movie. Things happen right away which leads Bronson to start his vengeful murder spree. If you want to see an action star just blow criminals away, this is the right movie to look at. There’s a lot more action and the violent scenes do feel bigger and more exciting, which is definitely a plus. The only problem, like I said before, is that there’s no style and the motivation feels completely stunted by Charles Bronson’s lack of dramatic presence.

There’s really not much to say about Death Wish II. It feels like a rehashing of the first film, but more loud and more violent. This would be a welcome addition if the story felt different and something new was added. There’s really nothing new here at all. The only time there was a plot development that could lead somewhere interesting, the film makers decided to cut that off prematurely in favor of more mindless proceedings. This film is really a waste of time and only die hard Charles Bronson fans should give this movie any sort of respect.

Final Grade: D-

But the series wasn’t done with the stinker that is Death Wish II. Not by a long shot. In 1985, Death Wish 3 was released, and this is where things really started to go off the rails.

Paul Kersey has been living the life of a vigilante for too long and has finally decided to put away the revolvers and lead a normal life. This personal promise to himself is shattered upon his return to New York City where he finds his long time friend bleeding to death after being attacked by a group of thugs in his apartment. Kersey is than approached by Inspector Shriker (Ed Lauter), who makes an off the records demand of Kersey to return to his old ways and clear the neighborhood of the goons responsible for all the mayhem. Kersey finds allies in the tenants of the apartment building, especially with WWII veteran Bennett Cross (Martin Balsam) and the mild mannered Rodriguez (Joseph Gonzalez). With the support of his neighbors and other victims of the community, Kersey wages war with the criminals and their leader, Fraker (Gavin O’Herlihy).

Death Wish 3 is one of the most unintentionally hilarious movies you or I may ever see. To be fair to it, it’s a slight step up from the second film but for some of the wrong reasons. I do like that the plot deviates from someone hurting his family, but it just goes right to someone hurting his friend. Where the movie really differs in that Kersey becomes something of a guardian angel to the neighborhood, and by the end they all join him in his war against Fraker and his goons. The third act of the movie, by the way, is an extended shoot out in the streets that seems to never end. It’s so much fun to watch but it’s some of the most absurd, mind numbing violence. By the end of it, there’s no emotion or excitement to be felt, other than the moment of joy when the first end credit begins to scroll up the screen.

The rest of the movie is also devoid of any kind of emotional or dramatic impact, which would be fine if the rest of the movie was as entertaining and off the walls as the third act. It isn’t unfortunately, and this is where things really get bogged down. It does have more memorable characters than the previous film, but they don’t really have to much to say or do until things really start happening. There’s a few scenes of Kersey gunning down people throughout the movie, but it’s just all part of the formula by now. Even with a storyline that’s changed, it’s not enough.

If you want a good laugh, Death Wish 3 might be worth checking out, if only for the outrageous finale. It still keeps up the same trend that the other ones did, so the whole routine is feeling kind of stale at this point. It is a step up from the second movie, but that’s hardly saying much.

Final Grade: D+

So that’s the first three films in the Death Wish series. I still have two more movies to go, so keep an eye out for the next part of this review.

Hell or High Water – Review

30 Aug

One of my favorite movies of 2015 was a film called Sicario. It took an interesting look at the moral ambiguities that are a part of controlling the actions of the Mexican cartels on the American side of the border. It was a perfectly paced and beautifully shot film. As excellent as director Denis Villeneuve did on that film, the writer was the star of the show, and that writer was Taylor Sheridan, an actor who decided to try his hand at screenwriting. It payed off wonderfully, and now we have his sophomore effort titled Hell or High Water. I’ve seen a lot of really good movies this year, but none of them have reached the heights in terms of film making and storytelling that is seen in Hell or High Water. As of right now, I have to say that this may be one of, if not the best movie of the year.

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Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) are two brothers who are desperate to stop their family farm from being foreclosed. Their last resort is to begin a chain of bank robberies to raise money to pay off the loan that was unfairly designated by the banks. Of course, this is a very illegal solution, and therefore catches the attention of Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a tough as nails officer who wants one last successful case before he packs everything in and retires. What Hamilton doesn’t understand about these two brothers is just how desperate they are to save the one thing their family has to care for and make money with. This begins a chase through many different towns to find justice, but the question remains if the brothers are the ones to suffer the long arm of the law.

This film is directed by a guy named David Mackenzie, and I have to admit that I’ve never seen another one of his movies so I have no basis to really judge him or the rest of his work. I will say, if it’s anything like Hell or High Water, I’d love to check it out. This is a beautiful looking film, and it’s clear that Mackenzie went in with a very clear vision of how this movie should look. From the very first scene I was hooked by the expressive camera movement and the way it helped tell the story. Credit also has to be given to cinematographer Giles Nuttgens for the work he did with Mackenzie to make this film look so beautiful. There are scenes on southern highways with fields that are on fire or being completely destroyed in the search of oil, and with Mackenzie’s and Nuttgens’ talents it is made to look like a portrait of a dystopian America. Add Nick Cave’s and Warren Ellis’ creeping score to all this and you’ve got yourself something really special.

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One of the first things that intrigued me about this movie was the cast. It’s hard to choose just one protagonist, but the one that really sticks out as the main character is Toby, played by Chris Pine. I really only know Chris Pine as Captain Kirk in the rebooted Star Trek movies, so I didn’t have too high expectations for him. That being said I was surprised by his performance and confidence in his character. It’s a more subtle performance than everyone else’s, but it’s just what the movie and the character needed to really work. I have a firm belief that Ben Foster is one of the most underrated actors working today. Every movie I’ve seen him in, even if I didn’t like the movie, I could never say anything bad about Foster. He brings his A-game once again in Hell or High Water, and it didn’t take long for him to become my favorite character in the movie. Finally, Jeff Bridges brings a lot of depth to the character of Marcus Hamilton. He’s a confident but melancholy character who hides behind insults and racism when that confidence falters. All of these character complexities and idiosyncrasies are brought out by the fine actors, but if it wasn’t for the writer, this movie wouldn’t be what it is.

That’s what brings us to the real star of the show, and that person is Taylor Sheridan. Like I said before, I loved his screenplay for Sicario and Hell or High Water is a perfect way to follow up the success of his first film. On the surface, this film works as a great neo-western filled with excellent characters and a screenplay that is paced very well. It’s not so slow that it gets boring but it’s not so fast that you don’t have any time to think. There’s so much more going on beneath the surface than a tale of bank robberies in small Texas towns. Like SicarioHell or High Water uses this story as a cautionary tale about racism, poverty, corrupt banks, big business, and even more abstract ideas like self worth and family. There’s so much to be discussed after seeing this movie that it would be impossible just to talk about the story and not about the different themes and motifs that shine throughout the film. I can’t wait to see more from Sheridan.

I’ve seen a lot of great movies this year, and at first I thought The Jungle Book was going to stay in the number one spot for my favorite movie of 2016. Now we have a new champion. Hell or High Water is without a doubt the best movie I’ve seen all year so far. The characters are rich, the actors are completely in touch with their roles, the film is just beautiful to look at, and Sheridan’s screenplay is going to have to be a contender for Best Screenplay come Oscar season. This is a movie about an era, a place, and people desperate to survive. If you only see one movie this year, make it Hell or High Water.

The Client – Review

5 May

Even if you’ve never read one of his books, chances are you still know the name John Grisham. Many of his stories have been turned into feature films, with my favorite being the 1996 courtroom drama, A Time to Kill. While that’s my own personal opinion, there are a lot of people who say that the best adaptation of a Grisham novel is the 1994 film, The Client. I remember watching this movie on t.v. when I was really young, and something about it really struck a cord in my brain making me remember it to this day. It’s finally time I revisited it and see if it’s held up after all these years.

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Mark Sway (Brad Renfro) and his little brother Ricky (David Speck) live a simple life in a trailer park by the woods. After sneaking in there to have cigarettes behind their mother’s (Mary-Louise Parker) back, the two boys witness the suicide by a mafia lawyer named Jerome “Romey” Clifford (Walter Olkewicz), but not before spilling the beans about his murderous client, Barry “The Blade” Muldanno (Anthony LaPaglia). This information makes the fame hungry federal attorney Roy Foltrigg (Tommy Lee Jones) anxious to get his hands on what the kid knows and lock Muldanno up for life, even if it means putting Sway in the sights of numerous mafia hitmen. This prompts him to get a lawyer of his own, the inexperienced Reggie Love (Susan Sarandon), who treats Sway’s case with a special kind of attention and won’t stop until he is protected from both Foltrigg and Muldanno.

This movie really has a recipe for success. Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon are enough of an acting force to push any story forward, but it also helps having a Grisham story and Joel Schumacher backing them up. Before anyone says anything, I realize Schumacher is responsible for Batman and Robin, but he’s also responsible for some great films like Phonebooth and Falling Down. This is a very well constructed and acted movie from everyone involved. Sarandon was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance, but Tommy Lee Jones also has a lot of great scenes that showcases how smarmy his character really is. This is also the debut of Brad Renfro who stands up very well to his acting superiors, which makes it more unfortunate his career was cut short when he died at the age of 28.

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With all of these talents mixing together, I’m quite surprised that The Client isn’t as exciting or thrilling as it should have been. I went into this wanting to see a lot more of the legal procedures and the mafia getting involved, but there’s only one court room scene and the mafia villains are completely laughable. For someone nick named “The Blade,” I was surprised to see how much of a cartoon character he was. It got to the point where it was hard to be threatened by these Looney Toon mafiosos. One of the reasons I love A Time to Kill so much is because there are great courtroom scenes. The one in The Client works fine, but there just isn’t enough there to make it really exciting. The film instead seems to want to focus on the relationship between Reggie Love and Mark Sway.

Since the attention is put on Brad Renfro’s and Susan Sarandon’s character, it’s important that they succeed in making their relationship interesting. At times, I feel like that’s the real crux of the movie. Sarandon’s character wants to have a connection with her estranged kids and Brad Renfro’s character wants to have a parent that can actually protect him. That’s where these two characters meet and find a special bond that makes their relationship interesting. There are times where this theme of needing some sort of connection is beat over the head, but it still works well enough and adds an extra layer to the movie.

I had a bit of a hard time writing this review because I don’t really have a whole lot to say about The Client. The opening scene is one of the most intense and memorable intros to a movie I’ve ever seen, but from there it gets a little less than thrilling. What holds the movie up is the unique characters and an especially unique murder mystery that a child has now gotten mixed up in. If more attention was spent to actually making an exciting court drama with a touch of gangsters that weren’t cartoons, The Client would have certainly been a better movie. As it is, it’s a hard movie to talk about because it really is just ok.

Rampart – Review

17 Dec

Throughout my movie watching career, there have been collaborations between certain actors and film makers that work so well it should be illegal. For the sake of this review, the collaboration is between writer/director Oren Moverman and his go to actor Woody Harrelson. In 2010, Harrelson was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in Moverman’s heart wrenching drama, The Messenger. The two were then reunited 2012, along with co-writer James Ellroy (best known for L.A. Confidential), with Rampart. The performances and overall story in this film are really something to behold, but the overcrowding of subplots and an over the top artsy fartsy style almost ruined the movie for me.

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The year is 1999 and Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) is a police officer in the Rampart Division of the LAPD. Unfortunately for the people of Los Angeles, Brown is a racist, homophobic, and generally intolerant bigot who will resort to violence whenever he wants to to get the information he wants. After he is caught almost beating a suspect to death on tape, Officer Dave Brown’s life soon starts spiraling out of control. His ex-wives who are also sisters (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon) want nothing more to do with him while Assistant District Attorney Joan Confrey (Sigourney Weaver) starts pushing him towards an early retirement. As if that wasn’t enough, Brown becomes embroiled in an affair with an attorney working against him named Linda (Robin Wright) but also gets into more trouble after getting bad advice from his mentor, Hartshorn (Ned Beatty), which ends in a brutal murder.

I think the main reason to see Rampart is to see all of the amazing talent at work. Harrelson gives what may be the best performance of the year. It probably even beats his work on True Detective, especially since there is so much more corruption and hostility flowing through his character’s veins. A lot of the other actors I feel get under utilized though. For example, Steve Buscemi is only in one scene and I wanted to see him a lot more. Ice Cube also only shows up towards the end even though his character had a lot of great potential. After Harrelson, I think the next performance you really have to pay attention to is Ben Foster’s. Foster is one of Hollywood’s most underrated actors and his small role in Rampart and his leading role in The Messenger proves he’s capable of a lot more than he is given.

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James Ellroy is a master at writing in the crime genre. He has written plenty of murder mysteries and dramas while also penning screenplays and having involvement in documentaries. That being said, both Ellroy and Moverman went a little overboard in Rampart. The story of a corrupt cop finally facing his demons and getting what he has coming to him is great, and they show his breakdown wonderfully. The problem is that there is way too much crammed into this movie. It’s like they tried to take everything from a long novel and stuff it into a movie that’s less than two hours. Characters are underused, plot lines are unresolved, and some of the development feels either forced or nonexistent. Luckily, the crux of the story is there and really good. This is more of a character study of Dave Brown and Ellroy and Moverman hit the nail on the head when it came to that area of the screenplay.

Another major complain that I have with Rampart is that Moverman and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski went a little overboard with the art design. There’s a motif throughout the film that Dave Brown slowly begins disappearing. The start of the movie has him at the forefront of the action going on onscreen and while the movie goes on, he becomes framed behind objects and obscured. That’s an example of great artistic design. On the flip side, there’s a scene where the camera keeps cutting and spinning during a meeting and it’s not only unnecessary, but looks stupid. I get what they were trying to do, but it just didn’t work and only succeeded at annoying me. If Moverman and Bukowsky just toned it down a little bit, the film would have been all the better for it.

I almost loved Rampart and at the same time I almost hated it. I really don’t know how else to explain how I feel about this movie. On one hand it tells a really complex story about a man who refuses to change who he is and has to suffer for it, and on the other hand it’s an overstuffed movie that seemed to be going nowhere at parts. I feel equal on these two sentiments, so Rampart really just left me baffled. I wanna say give it a watch, but I can’t see anyone really coming out of it without a lot of questions that need answering.