B Movie Glory: Cat Run 


Cat Run is a useless, needlessly crass and unpleasant piece of pseudo euro-pulp garbage with not a redeeming factor in sight. It tries its best to do the whole assassin mad dash a-lá Smokin Aces and such, but there’s no heart, no discernible frequency to jive with and it ends up so thoroughly dead on arrival that you can feel the lack of pulse simply by watching a hastily cut trailer. The story is a glossy parade of silenced pistols, broad characterizations and graphic genre prototypes that offers nothing fresh, beginning with a murder scandal involving a scumbag politician (Christopher ‘Shooter McGavin’ McDonald) and a high class escort (Paz Vega). This causes subsequent fallout and bloodshed as all kinds of freaks and lowlifes come crawling out of the woodwork. They include two moronic would-be businessmen (Eurotrip’s Scott Mechlowicz and Alphonso McCauley), a mysterious oddball (DJ Hughley) an Eastern European mobster nutjob (always cool to see Karel Rosen) and Helen Bingham, a ferocious assassin played by British thesp Janet McTeer. They’ve made her character excessively, ridiculously arch and violent, hovering so far over the top she flies into orbit. The thing about these low rent, hard boiled, high octane ensemble capers is that you have to have a balance, a flow of all energies involved that stays streamlined and congruent. Smokin Aces had that (its sequel ran on an empty tank, but that’s another story), as a good example of the recipe done right. This one just feels aloof and awkward, nothing to say and no amount of high style to distract us from the lack of proper story. It amazes me that they churned out a sequel this year, which I’ll be avoiding, I think. 

-Nate Hill

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

2017.  Directed by James Gunn.

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Guardians of the Galaxy is often described as one of the best films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  As a result, expectations for James Gunn’s follow up, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 were incredibly high and the final result, while not perfect, is one of the best made superhero films thus far.  Featuring a scene stealing performance from Michael Rooker, uncharacteristically beautiful visuals, and an unexpectedly mature story, this is a film that showcases the limitless potential of superhero films as allegories to the struggles of reality as well as reveals the innate ability of comic book films to mirror the depth and artistic breath of their source material.

Peter “Starlord” Quill is found by his wayward father, Ego after a disastrous job that leaves the Guardians fractured and pursued by a ruthless alien civilization.  As Peter explores his relationship with father, terrible truths are revealed that test the bonds of friendship and family as each Guardian confronts the horrors of the past for hope at a better future.  Gunn’s script stumbles to achieve the same level of humor of the first film while presenting an action film almost devoid of action that almost entirely mimics The Empire Strikes Back.  However, as the story begins to unfold, dark sequences of mass executions, torture, and murderous narcissism are interwoven with one of the most sophisticated stories to be featured in a Marvel film.  Building on the first movie’s core of broken outsiders forming a ragtag tribe among the stars, Gunn’s second effort expands on the theme of family by examining fraternal conflicts and surrogate fathers. While the heart wrenching conclusion is telegraphed from one of the first frames, the emotional payoff works due to the chemistry of the cast.

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Michael Rooker’s performance as Yondu is a tarnished, broken, and perfect super nova.  His vulnerable delivery of dialogue combines with moments of genuine menace and paternal empathy to form the foundation around which everything else orbits.  This is a story about love and its consequences distilled through a cosmic interpretation of Cat’s in the Cradle and none of it works without Rooker’s panache. Dave Bautista continues to impress, despite the clunky script, and his scenes with newcomer Pom Klementieff are comically awkward in one instant and then tear inducing in the next. Zoe Saldana and Karen Gillan continue to have weaker arcs, but this is more from the material than their performances.  Bradley Cooper’s Rocket continues to impress, with Cooper’s verbal torment unexpectedly overcoming continually stale jokes about his origins.  Kurt Russell is the perfect choice for his role, but to expound would spoil the pure joy of his introduction.  The Baby Groot-centric credits are outstanding, focusing on the childlike wonder of the character while ignoring a repetitive action scene that suggests a heightened awareness of the formulaic constraints of its colleagues.  Unfortunately, there are continuous efforts to double down on the character’s cute factor that are underwhelming.

Henry Braham’s ambitious cinematography is the savior.  There’s a remarkable shot of Yondu looking out onto a shantytown while red and green neon lights reflect against a dingy window that underscore the character’s inner turmoil and immediately sets the tone.  Another jaw dropping composition features Gamora sitting on an alien planet’s surface, surrounded by a psychedelic miasma of colors while the film’s centerpiece involves a beautifully shot sequence of musical mayhem aboard a pirate ship.  The poetic finale is a color infused sequence of reverence that is both a sublime capstone on a transitional story and a sensational homage to the era in which Guardians is forever submerged.  The soundtrack diverts from the first film’s grab bag of chart toppers to feature intimate songs whose symbolism (while blatant) mixes perfectly with the serious tonal shifts and will have even non-believers humming for days after.

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Ramsey Avery’s art direction is yet another unexpected surprise.   The Sovereign are an alien race that are introduced during the first act and with just a handful of precious scenes, the sheer scope of their home world is communicated through dazzling Art Deco throne rooms and Black Mirror-esque combat stations.  The planet on which the bulk of the story transpires is a LSD soaked sanctuary, mirroring the arrival of a child’s errant father who brings wondrous new toys as compensation for unreliability.  Dreams, impressions, and preconceptions are all at play both in the physical environments on display and the heady metaphysical conflicts within the characters’ hearts.

In theaters now, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is not perfect, but it excels in areas that other Marvel films have just begun to explore.  Michael Rooker’s outstanding supporting performance anchors a film that could have easily gotten carried away into a vortex of CGI and Vol. 2 almost does.  It is brought back from the brink of forgettable action sequels by breathtaking visuals and adult oriented themes that combine to create the perfect remedy for the spandex fatigue that has gripped the box office.  If you enjoyed the first film, there is plenty here that will work, albeit with some rough patches of dialogue and crude humor, but underneath the expected mediocrity lies a passionate story about the definitions of family, traumatic abuse and its consequences, and most surprisingly a well-defined villain with a purpose, something that has been severely lacking in the bulk of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films.  Candy cane aesthetics and pure heart are what elevates James Gunn’s second pop-pulp space opera to front of Marvel’s cinematic stable.

Highly Recommend.

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BARRY LEVINSON’S TIN MEN — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

2.5

I’ve been a big fan of director Barry Levinson (Wag the Dog, The Natural, Rain Main, Bandits, Bugsy) over the years, and one of my favorites from him is his 1987 dramedy Tin Men, which features a trio of fantastic performances from Danny DeVito and Richard Dreyfuss as competing aluminum siding salesman who cross paths with each other, and Barbara Hershey as the woman who they compete for. Levinson wrote the humorous and fond-memories screenplay (it’s the second of his four “Baltimore Films”, with the others being 1982’s Diner, Avalon in 1990, and the very underrated Liberty Heights in 1999) and it’s abundantly clear that he’s always had a great ear for dialogue, especially in the films that he’s set in his home state of Maryland. Peter Sova’s unfussy cinematography is stylish without calling attention to itself, Stu Linder’s crisp editing keeps the comedic timing sharp and on-point from all the actors, and the wonderful supporting cast includes J.T. Walsh, Bruno Kirby, Seymour Cassel, John Mahoney, and Jackie Gayle. The Fine Young Cannibals contributed to the soundtrack and made an appearance during a nightclub sequence, and the film ended up grossing $25 million in theaters off of strong critical notices. Tin Men is currently available on DVD and via Amazon streaming and feels like the sort of film that a present day studio executive would laugh you out of their office for pitching to them.

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Dark Cities, Dark Futures, Dark Caves: An Interview with Bruce Hunt by Kent Hill

Young Bruce Hunt loved movies and blowing things up. This love, and learning the basics of the craft from film magazines of the period, would firmly cement in his mind the path on which he would travel. As it was said in a film that Bruce would later work on, “Fate it seems, is not without a sense of irony,” a teenage Bruce would encounter Academy Award winning special-effects artist Dennis Muren in a cafe in London.

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It was Muren that would advise the dreamer to seek out an effects house in his native Australia for possible future employment and, after art school, that is what the talented Mr. Hunt would do. Working with small production houses on commercials his work would soon catch the eye of the founder of one of these companies, a man named Andrew Mason. It would be Mason, producing a film directed by Alex Proyas called Dark City, that would call on Hunt to bring his passion, and by then, professional eye for effects photography to his first big screen gig.

Work on another big flick would follow, as Mason would again tap Bruce and bring him to work on the Wachowski’s cinematic masterpiece The Matrix. There would be work on the film’s sequels before, at last, Bruce would sit in the director’s chair for The Cave, an adventure in deep terror. He would emerge from the darkness to work on Baz Luhrmann’s Australia only to descend again soon after for Guillermo del Toro’s Don’t be afraid of the Dark.

Through it all his love of the movies continues to drive him and, as you will hear, he has plans to get his visions back on that big screen, just as soon as he can. It was great to sit down with Bruce. Not only is he a filmmaker I admire, but it was great to just talk about movies with him.

If you don’t know his work then now is the time to check it out. But, if you already have and you’re a fan like me – then kick back and enjoy.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you my good mate . . . Bruce Hunt

Problem Children with Big Eyes who make Biopics that’ll give you Goosebumps: An Interview with Larry Karaszewski by Kent Hill

As the child from a working class family in South Bend, Indiana, Larry was introduced to the movies by his father. He was not restricted as to what he could watch, so he watched it all. After high school he debated between pursuing either a career in comedy or a life in pictures.

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Larry opted for the movies, and soon found himself at USC. It was there that he would meet Scott Alexander, and together they would form not only a friendship, but also the foundation of a prolific career as a successful screenwriting duo.

After (and though it launched a trilogy of films and even an animated series) Problem Child, the screenwriters struggled to find work. It seemed as though they had been typecast buy their work and so looked to independently produce a biopic they were working on about the notoriously bad filmmaker Ed Wood.

As fate would have it, word of the project reached director Tim Burton. After expressing interest, the boys would have to hammer out a screenplay in double-quick fashion. They succeeded, and this, the first in a string of biographical efforts, would re-establish them in Hollywood and from it they would carve out their place in the genre and become, in many ways, its ‘go-to guys.’

Biopics of Larry Flynt and Andy Kaufman would follow, seeing the boys team up with Academy Award winner Milos Forman. They would go on to re-team with Tim Burton as well as dabble in a variety on different genres including everything from a kid-friendly version of James Bond to horrific hotel rooms were you’ll spend a night or perhaps even an eternity.

Larry and Scott have garnered the highest accolades the industry has to offer and continue to deliver. While trying to get a hold of Larry for this interview I caught him riding high on his recent wave of success, so I would just have to wait for the tide to turn. I am however, glad that I did. It was, as it is ever, a privilege to chat with a man whose work I heartily admire. I love the films he has written and I look forward to the projects that he and Scott have in the pipeline.

Without further ado I present, the award-winning screenwriter and all-round nice guy . . . the one, the only, Larry Karaszewski.

‘Hope’ spawned an ‘Empire’: Celebrating 40 years of ‘Star Wars’.

“…There’s nothing here for me now. I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father.” ~ Luke Skywalker

sw-40th-logo696With two films under his belt, a young and relatively inexperienced director made a journey that would take him from the deep Saharan Desert, to the rain forests of Guatemala and the comfortable studios just outside London.

This young director would not only go on to revolutionize the way films were produced, but he would also develop sound techniques and visual effects systems that would allow him to tell his story, creating several cottage industries along the way.

Oh, and he would revolutionize the term ‘summer blockbuster.’

As with anyone finding their way in the world, roadblocks would ensue and a patient studio executive with an impatient board would push our young hero to his limits, and back again.

I am, of course referring to George Lucas and his small-ish Sci-fi-opera, Star Wars which opened in a limited release forty years ago, today.

By the time shooting started inImage-0 March, 1976, the story wasn’t completed with Lucas making adjustments along the way.  He also had a young, inexperienced trio of actors in the lead roles with two legendary actors who might have all questioned Mr. Lucas’ sanity more than once.

In the lead role of young Luke Skywalker was Mark Hamill who got his start in television on “General Hospital” in 1963.  He was recommended by Robert Englund for his first theatrical role.  Joining Hamill was the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, Carrie Fisher.  Fisher was 19 when she filmed Star Wars, young enough and rebellious enough to portray Princess Leia Organa.  She was stunning in her performance and held her own against the roguish, charming Harrison Ford who would play Han Solo, a fighter pilot with a few tricks up his sleeves.

Rounding out the cast were Peter Cushing as the cunning, evil Grand Moff Tarkin and Sir Alec Guinness as Obi-wan “Ben” Kenobi, a wizard of sorts with a mysticism about him that Luke very much wants to learn about, and Han tries to completely avoid.  British actors Sir Antony Daniels and Kenny Baker would play our lovable ‘droids, See-Threepio (C-3P0) and Artoo Deetoo (R2-D2), respectively.  David Prowse plays the role of Darth Vader, while an initially uncredited James Earl Jones would voice Darth Vader, a menacing hulk of blackness, threatening to anyone who would get in his way.  Peter Mayhew would play a 7’ furry, yet friendly creature named Chewbacca, the first mate on the Millennium Falcon, Han Solo’s ship.

Lucas had clout from his success with Universal’s American Graffiti but, he did not have the money to produce the film.  So he convinced Alan Ladd, Jr. at 20th Century Fox to bankroll the $8.4 million budget on the condition that Lucas would retain the rights to future sequels and the merchandising rights.

Technical and labor problems in both Tunisia and England put Lucas behind schedule several times throughout the production causing the release to be delayed from Christmas, 1976 to summer, 1977.

The first cut of the film was a disaster forcing Lucas to bring on two editors, Paul Hirsch and Richard Chew, who would tighten up the film’s pacing.  Lucas found that he didn’t have enough footage and convinced Ladd to release additional funds to cover the budget shortfall so that they could get the necessary Second Unit shots completed.

On the recommendation of Steven Spielberg, John Williams was brought on to compose a score that would be as whimsical as the images it was set to.  Scoring over 12 days in March, 1977, Williams would deliver a stunning, memorable score evoking thoughts of the Flash Gordon serials that Lucas based his Star Wars  on. Yes, he had influences from other sources, but the allusion towards Gordon is one of the most apparent.

“This will be a day long remembered….”

Fox did not initially believe in the success of the film, instead hedging its bet on Charles Jarrott’s The Other Side of Midnight.  They booked Mann’s Chinese Theater and 32 other theaters across the nation on Star Wars’ initial release, May 25, 1977.  Mann’s held the film for two weeks before William Friedkin’s Sorcerer took its place.

In an unprecedented move, Fox convinced Mann’s to bring Star Wars back on August 3, 1977, this time with all the trimmings of a gala premiere. At that time, 1,096 theaters had the film and approximately 50 theaters ran the film non-stop for an entire year.

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Star Wars would go on to set or break numerous box office records during its initial theatrical run that it was re-released in 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, and 1982.

The box office take was not enough, receiving six Oscar statuettes at the 50th Academy Awards, including Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound, and Best Visual Effects.  Alec Guinness was nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Lucas would get nods for Best Original Screenplay, Best Director and Best Picture, losing out to Woody Allen’s Annie Hall.  Not too bad for a film that no one believed in.

Lucas would revisit the film after Spielberg was able to successfully use computer generated special effects in 1993’s Jurassic Park and in 1997, Star Wars and its sequels, 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back and 1983’s  Return of the Jedi received a digital overhaulSpecialEditionPoster with enhanced effects, sound and new sequences.  They were all three released theatrically during the late winter and early spring of 1997.

I was 13 months old when Star Wars was first released.  My older brother got me in to mania with the toys and the action figures.  Many days were spent with my imagination flowing.  I remember watching a badly copied VHS copy of The Empire Strikes Back and finally seeing Return of the Jedi on it’s theatrical release in 1983.  I was in college when the Special Editions were released and made it a point to see them all as many times as I could.

Fundamentally, Star Wars works because it is a story of hope and yet it’s greatest strength is in its characters and the actors Lucas found to play them.

Now, forty years later, Disney is continuing Mr. Lucas’s efforts with a sequel trilogy. Our favorite characters have returned to us and we will continue to see the ‘Adventures of Luke Skywalker’ this Christmas with The Last Jedi.

As we celebrate forty years of the Force, of Wookies, of Rebellions and dreams, we remember those who have passed before us.  The Force is strong with them.

There isn’t a day that goes by where I say “thank you” to Mr. Lucas for inspiring me.  He gave me hope.  He still gives me hope.

“A New Hope” that is.

James Gunn’s GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2

James Gunn doesn’t quite surpass the first Guardians film with his followup, but there is more than enough to love from a sequel that stands monumentally taller than any other Marvel film (save for the first).

Gunn is such a remarkable auteur; his use of seminal popular music, blended with his not only perfect casting of genre actors but knowing how to use them, is what keeps this Guardians film from being a rehash of the first.

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The story, while at times has too many plot points running at once, stands on its own, and is not reliant upon any other arc within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That is incredibly refreshing. The film is about Star-Lord and his father Ego, played by Kurt Russell who turns in yet another fantastic performance.

Guardians 2 does use a few conventional gimmicks: the token Stan Lee cameo that has worn out its effectiveness sixteen movies ago, and an opening scene with a CGI de-age character which actually works well. Aside from that, and a second act that drags its feet slightly, the film is a lot of fun and you’ll be smiling and laughing through the entire film. Heck, you may even tear up during a few moments.

What’s very disappointing about this film, is the incredible missed opportunity of reuniting onscreen Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone. Call me shallow, but that’s a moment a lot of us were hoping for going into this film, knowing the kind of genre respect and sensibilities that Gunn has as a filmmaker, it is kind of a shock that this didn’t happen.

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Speaking of Stallone, seeing him in a film like this is an absolute joy. He doesn’t have a whole lot to do in the film, he’s mainly being setup for an expanded role in future Marvel films, but you can tell he’s having a lot of fun. Towards the beginning of the film, he shares a scene with Michael Rooker, and anyone who loves CLIFFHANGER will stand up and fist pump in the theatre.

Perhaps the best, and most effective part of the film isn’t the special effects (which are brilliant), or the genre actor cameos (which is even more brilliant), but a scene between Star-Lord and his Ego, as they discuss The Looking Glass’ hit song, BRANDY. It’s a very sweet and emotional moment between a father and son and showcases the star power that Russell brings to the role.

There are a plethora of scene stealing moments. The opening scene, the opening credits, the musical numbers, Baby Groot, Awesome Mix Tape Vol. 2, Michael Rooker – like I said, this film may not be as good as the first, but it’s an awesome experience and do yourself a favor and run the theatre to go see it.

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What’s almost hard to understand is how Marvel allows Gunn to make non-templated films that are a part of the MCU, yet really have nothing to do with any of these silly “phases”. The two Guardians films are different, they don’t fit inside of Marvel’s box of conventionality. They take place within a world where Gunn has the absolute freedom to do whatever he wants, and that in itself is a feat that is a cause for celebration, and very much leaves you looking forward to the next Guardians film.

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