Tag Archives: money

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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Don’t Breathe – Review

19 Sep

It’s been gratifying as a fan of the horror genre to see some really cool, highly original horror films to come out in the past few years. There’s been something of a horror renaissance. That being said, I’m not completely opposed to a film maker taking a familiar approach or using familiar plot devices to create a unique and entertaining horror film. It just has to be done right. Enter film maker Fede Alvarez and his newest film Don’t Breathe. This film is a mix of ideas that has been seen in films like Panic RoomThe Strangers, and Wait Until Dark, but it’s important to note that this isn’t a carbon copy of any of these movies. Instead, Don’t Breathe is an unbearably tense, slow burning horror film that’s smartly written and very well executed.

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Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto) are three Detroit friends who make a living off of breaking into and robbing houses protected by Alex’s father’s security company. After a while, the profits from these jobs are becoming less and less from what they have been, which begins making Rocky’s plan, along with all the other’s plans, of leaving Detroit almost impossible. One day, Money is told about a house in the middle of an abandoned neighborhood with $300,000 just waiting to be taken. The seemingly only defense is an older, blind man (Stephen Lang) who seems like he couldn’t do any harm to anybody. When the three thieves enter the house and come closer to finding the money, the blind man wakes up and realizes what’s going on. It becomes clear that he isn’t nearly as defenseless as he looks, which forces the three robbers to quietly maneuver around him in the house, but they soon discover the blind man’s darkest secret that he will kill for in order to protect.

For me, Don’t Breathe is one of those movies that really hits what a horror movie is supposed to be on the head. Fede Alvarez previously directed the remake of Evil Dead, which I have not seen, but after seeing this movie and seeing how well he understands the genre, I wouldn’t be opposed to it. This is an incredibly tense film that made me cringe countless times. There were even times where I was afraid to breathe and give away the characters’ location in the house. It a movie can make me tense up and not want to breathe, then I know that I’ve just experienced an excellent horror film. The first time the movie really got me was a quick scene where the blind man quickly walks down a hallway, forcing Alex to quickly hug the wall and remain absolutely silent. The actual scene lasts only a split second, but that’s what makes it so good. There’s no cue that this is supposed to make you jump or feel frightened. The immediacy with which it happens is enough to make anyone feel uncomfortable. And that’s just the beginning. There are so many memorable scenes that almost force you to watch the movie through your fingers.

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What makes the movie even more effective are the characters and the situation that they are in. I’m not so much talking about being trapped in the house, but more so the living conditions and fighting for survival in the dying city of Detroit. Similar themes were explored in It Follows, and Alvarez continues this exploration with Don’t Breathe. The film’s focus on the environment is really important to telling the story, and the actors play their parts in this world very well. They have more dimensions than what can be expected in most horror movies, even though their performances aren’t exactly out of this world. Stephen Lang on the other hand is outstanding. The outside world doesn’t so much affect him, which is why he is so threatened when outsiders enter his domain. He is a formidable presence, and while he doesn’t say too much in the film, it’s all about his actions. Like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees before him, the blind man is a nearly unstoppable force that gives you the creeps whenever he’s onscreen. Lang really was the only choice for this character and he’s excellent.

It’s also worth mentioning that Don’t Breathe is just an artistically and technically well designed film. The cinematography is perfect, and some scenes had me really loving the look of the film. The lighting is very important to the tension of this movie and without it done just right, the movie probably wouldn’t have been as effective as it was. A lot of attention was also given to the sound, and rightfully so. A large part of this movie is focusing and becoming paranoid about any little sound that may give away the location to the blind man. Every little click and whisper is magnified, which adds a sense of distress that I felt as a viewer. One great scene had such a quiet explosion when one character steps on a squeaky floorboard. The sound and the visuals all go above and beyond.

Don’t Breathe is not only a great horror movie, it’s just a great movie in general. The performances, especially by Stephen Lang, all work very well and it’s just a very well put together movie. The idea of someone breaking into my house and invading my space is one of the most terrifying ideas to me, and seeing that idea completely flipped on its head was interesting and made for a unique time at the movies. I really want this movie to be remembered years from now, as it’s a prime example of how to properly craft a suspenseful horror film.

Final Grade: A

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World – Review

21 Jul

In 1963, the world was blessed with Stanley Kramer’s over the top madcap chase comedy aptly titled It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Before this, however, Kramer was known as a dramatic directors with acclaimed films like Inherit the Wind and Judgment at Nuremberg as testament. What a way to enter the realm of comedy than with a movie that stars more comedians than any movie before it, and I’d wager since. This is a huge, epic comedy with action, excellent stunt work, riotous cameos, and slapstick comedy that brought the genre to a whole new level. To put it simply, this is one of the funniest movies ever made.

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After careening his car off of a California highway, “Smiler” Grogan (Jimmy Durante) tells a group of witnesses about a briefcase with $350,000 buried under a giant “W” in Santa Rosita State Park. Thus begins a race by this group (including Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, and Jonathan Winter) to get to Santa Rosita and uncover the fortune for themselves. Along the way, alliances are made and broken, vehicles are destroyed, and one gas station is completely obliterated. While all this is happening, police captain T.G. Culpepper (Spencer Tracy) is keeping a watchful eye and planning his own way to get a hold of the hidden money and start a new life for himself.

If ever there was a need to talk about the cast of a movie, this is the time. One of the taglines appropriately reads, “Everybody who’s ever been funny is in it!” While that may not be completely accurate, it certainly doesn’t seem to stretch the truth too far. Besides the names I’ve already mentioned, the case also includes Buddy Hackett, Eddie Anderson, Peter Falk, Phil Silvers, Jack Benny, The Three Stooges, Jerry Lewis, and even Buster Keaton. The crazy part is that that still isn’t everyone. This movie is completely PACKED with Hollywood’s funniest people at the time. Even if you couldn’t care less about the plot involving hidden money and the race to get to it, this movie is worth seeing just to see all of these people in the same film. It’s a blast trying to spot everyone.

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While this is a really funny movie, a lot of the humor stems from the action set pieces that happen. Believe it or not, this is a very action heavy movie with car chases, plane stunts, and people just getting flung all over the place. The stunt work is absolutely fantastic and the chases are fast and exciting. It was cool to watch a movie that was as exciting as it was hilarious. From beginning to end, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World does not slow down and refuses to come to a halt of any kind. That’s pretty impressive considering it’s nearly 3 hours long. The full length cut available from Criterion is actually three and a half hours long, so I’d be curious to see how it holds up with those extra 45 minutes.

There’s so many great characters and actors in this movie that it’s hard to choose favorites, but it’s worth a shot. Jonathan Winters and his character Lennie Pike are high on the list for a very important reason. There’s a scene where Pike single handedly destroys an entire gas station. There is nothing left standing by the end of the rampage, and that’s honestly my favorite part of the movie. I also really loved Terry-Thomas as the British J. Algernon Hawthorne, a slimy kind of guy who has nothing nice to say about America or the people in it. Finally, whenever Sid Caesar was onscreen, it was hard not to laugh. He plays a sort of straight man dentist named Melville Crump, and seeing someone that straight laced in the middle a situation as off the wall as this is just hilarious.

Anyone who likes to laugh either already has seen or must see It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. It’s an exciting chase movie, a magnum opus of slapstick, and the ultimate conglomeration of funny people to ever grace the silver screen. After the success of this movie, Stanley Kramer went on to direct more comedies, and why wouldn’t he after showing just how good at it he actually was. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World should be on any film lover’s list for funniest movies ever made, and if it isn’t I’d have to hear why.

The Night of the Hunter – Review

22 Apr

I’m not the biggest fan of movies from the 1950s just because the majority of the ones that I’ve seen are kind of straightforward, especially compared to the dark and gritty noir films of the 1930s and 1940s. However, one movie from the 1950s really sticks out when it comes to style and storytelling. This is Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter. Taking inspiration from both German Expressionism and D.W. Griffith’s silent films, Laughton created a movie that may have been a bit too much at the time, but is now regarded as a horror/thriller classic.

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When family man Ben Harper (Peter Graves) is thrown in prison for robbery and murder, he meets a preacher by the name of Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum). He tells Powell of the thousands of dollars he stole and how it is hidden somewhere on his property. After Ben’s execution, Powell quickly proceeds to woo and wed Ben’s widow Willa (Shelley Winters). Everyone quickly falls for the charm and eloquence of Powell, but Ben’s son John (Billy Chapin) knows better. When John makes his move to get his little sister, the money, and himself away from their new stepfather, Powell goes on a rampage of violence that won’t stop until he has the money.

Recently when I reviewed The Tenant, I mentioned that it was an example of how horror should be, and I have the same exact thing to say about The Night of the Hunter, but for completely different reasons. This entire movie feels like a dream from childhood that haunts you for the rest of your life. Harry Powell is as much a boogie man as Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, or Freddie Kreuger, but even more so since he is seen through the eyes of a child. Anyone who tells me that the hymn Powell is constantly singing while being shot from afar entirely in silhouette isn’t at least a little scary is lying. Simply put, he’s one of the greatest cinematic villains of all time.

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Upon its initial release, this film did horribly both with critics and audiences alike, and that shows how ahead of its time the movie was, especially since we are able to fully appreciate it now. Laughton drew a lot of inspiration from D.W. Griffith’s silent films and early German Expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Just looking at the picture above, you can see all the shadows and how the room seems distorted. There’s also a great scene where two children stand in front of houses that are obviously painted. This is an extremely odd looking, but beautiful movie, which reinforces what I say when it feels like a nightmare you would have as a small child. The over the top style combined with the fact that its about a preacher threatening to kill children while murdering women for money is pretty polarizing, especially for being made in the 1950s.

I can’t go through this review without drooling all over Robert Mitchum’s out of this world performance as Harry Powell, or even just drooling over how well written the character actually is. I said before that he is one of the best villains in movie history, and I say that with complete confidence. Mitchum was known before this as playing a cool sort of hero/antihero, but Powell is over the top and memorable for that reason. He’s manipulative but at the same time a cowardly weasel who has no problem running from a fight with someone as big as he is. He targets to children for heaven’s sake. Mitchum nails this crazy character with every aspect from his performance from his steadily escalating voice to the eerily perfect posture he has throughout the movie.

The Night of the Hunter is one of the most memorable, haunting, and beautifully shot movies you will probably ever see and it’s amazing how it was so negatively received when it was first released. Unfortunately, Laughton would never direct another film and died only a few years later in the early 1960s. This is a horror movie that comes straight from a child’s worst nightmares that will still haunt an adult of any age. It’s an amazing horror film from the 1950s that inspired film makers from David Lynch to Spike Lee to the Coen Brothers.

Middle Men – Review

20 Jul

When I first heard about Middle Men, I thought to myself, “Hmm, I never thought they would make a movie about this.” It never even crossed my mind that this story needed to be told, but George Gallo, the writer/director, thought otherwise. What we got is a occasionally funny, entertaining, albeit messy movie.

Internet pornography exists, even to the dread of parents and Republicans, but who would’ve guessed it was started in a dingy apartment by two loser best friends, Wayne Beering (Giovanni Ribisi) and Buck Dolby (Gabriel Macht). Newfound success comes quickly along with a troubled partnership with the Russian mob. To fix this issue, Jack Harris (Luke Wilson) is brought in and uses his expert negotiation skill to make everyone more money by becoming middle men instead of actual pornographers. With a rise this tall and steep, the fall is going to ultimately end in betrayal, murder, and sex…lots of sex, but that’s just business.

Middle Men didn’t sweep through the awards circuit nor is it destined to be some sort of classic. What we have is a purely entertaining movie with an interesting story. I can’t really tell you how much of it is real, however, but I still had fun watching it and seeing how the ensemble cast was going to turn out.

The casting of this movie is about as strong as any movie with this kind of budget is going to get. Luke Wilson brings the right amount of good and evil to his role, but we never really feel like he is a bad person. He is the Tony Montana of this rise and fall story, only nowhere near as crazy. Giovanni Ribisi is the scene stealer. Most of the laughs that are generated by this movie come from him, with his coked up persona and constant aggravation. James Caan and Rade Serbedzija also play their characters successfully and comically.

Don’t let the marketing campaign of this movie fool you. It is not 100% comedy. There’s a lot of comedy in it, but this movie can get dramatic, although that’s not what is memorable. The drama comes and goes, but never hits hard enough to make the viewer think about the morality of the characters. Everything keeps moving and just begins to blend with the rest of the the story.

The real problem with Middle Men is that there is much story in a movie that isn’t even two hours long. Movies that can be classified as “crime chronicles” are normally way over the two hour point, allowing their stories and characters to be appropriately fleshed out. Here, we are given information through flashbacks and cuts in time when it would have been easier and a lot less messy to just keep the movie more linear. The beginning of this movie has more flashbacks in the first fifteen minutes than I might have ever seen in an entire movie. Never use a flashback as a crutch. It makes the narrative messy.

Still though, everything was presented interestingly enough to make sure that I never got bored, and I didn’t. To put it more concretely, I never check to see how much time was left. I was totally engaged by the story and all of its players. The cause and effects of Middle Men are both hilarious and serious. The narrative has its choppy moments and the writing isn’t a masterpiece, but this movie is a lot of fun. It isn’t the best ever, but I’d say Middle Men is worth a viewing.