Back in the summer of 1994, there were three big action films to hit the marketplace: Speed, True Lies, and sandwiched in between, was the underrated Blown Away, which suffered the worst box office fate of the bunch but still delivered more than enough thrills and excitement to qualify as an action-packed blast of unpretentious entertainment. This movie is so much fun in an old-school, traditional manner (it just FEELS, in a great way, like an MGM movie), shot with lots of style by director Stephen Hopkins (Predator 2, The Ghost and the Darkness) and acted with intense ferocity by Jeff Bridges and Tommy Lee Jones, as a Boston bomb squad officer and a mad Irish bomber respectively. Jones is running wild on the streets of Boston, blowing up anything and everything he can find, all in an effort to exact revenge on his old friend Bridges, who both went through IRA/terrorist issues which are dealt with in black and white flashback. Bridges is the noble cop who always seems to know which wire to cut – the blue one or the red one. While the plotting is mostly predictable, the film knows exactly what it’s doing with its numerous action scenes, and it must be pointed out, that the film features the SINGLE GREATEST DONE-FOR-REAL EXPLOSION ever captured on film. There’s no debating this. I fucking LOVE movie explosions. I’ve made it a point to STUDY them throughout my life. This one is top-dog. When Jones’ old shipyard boat goes kablooey at the climax, you literally can’t believe what you’re watching and that the two fearless stuntmen weren’t killed or burned to death. The image has REAL camera shake, glass windows in downtown buildings were blown out, and total radio silence in and around Boston Harbor was kept for 10 miles so no interference could occur with the destruction of the balsa wood ship. Peter Levy’s cinematography is terrific all throughout, and the brisk editing keeps the pace moving fast. Kino has just released an excellent special edition Blu-ray of this extremely fun, throw-back type action thriller that was more old-fashioned than audiences may have been expecting. Hopkins provides a great, info-filled commentary, and the picture transfer is very crisp and clean, retaining that awesome, slick-and-gritty 90’s film stock look, with that final explosion looking all sorts of epic and awesome in full 2.35:1 widescreen (previous DVD releases were non-anamorphic). Alan Silvestri’s score is appropriately bombastic and thoroughly exciting. Forest Whitaker, Suzy Amis, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, John Finn, and Lloyd Bridges all offer memorable support. Cuba Gooding Jr. has literally 30 seconds of screen time in one scene. Jay Roach (Meet the Parents) got original story credit!
I love how writer/director Jody Hill thinks. He’s a cinematic devil. And I mean that lovingly. He finds stuff funny that most normal people don’t find funny, and for whatever reason, I continually respond to it. Check out his extremely dark yet incredibly funny debut The Foot Fist Way – there’s stuff in that movie that is painfully hilarious. People have told me how I’m weird and just a tad bizarre with some of my likes and dislikes in the comedy genre. I think this is why I found Hill’s most recent cinematic excursion into comedy’s heart of darkness, 2009’s Observe and Report, to not only be one of the funniest films of the last 15 years, but some sort of strange, transgressive, unhinged masterwork that despite its crude surface exterior, has something perversely subversive to say about the fringes of society in America. And that’s what Hill’s specialty is – the fringe elements – whether it be Danny McBride’s delusional karate instructor in The Foot Fist Way or McBride’s gleefully unaware baseball player in the epic comedy TV series Eastbound and Down. The trailers were misleading for Observe and Report; the studio tried selling a dirty Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Well, the fact that there were two comedies that centered on mall-cops in development at the same time was just a natural-for-Hollywood coincidence, because Observe and Report couldn’t be any more different than Paul Blart. Observe and Report is like some sort of wild mixture of Falling Down, The King of Comedy, Taxi Driver, and Hill’s The Foot Fist Way.
Seth Rogen did a complete about-face in this film, squashing the lovable stoner character we’ve all come to love, and ripping into the role of the morally bankrupt, bi-polar Ronnie Barnhardt, a sociopathic mall security officer who fashions himself as judge, jury, and executioner. Literally. The plot involves a serial-pervert who has taken to flashing the female mall shoppers in the parking lot, opening up his trench coat and wildly exposing himself. Lovely! Ronnie goes head-to-head with a slimy detective played with evil glee by Ray Liotta who is investigating the case and can’t be bothered with Ronnie’s idiocy. Danny McBride pops up in a priceless cameo as a crack dealer. But the best part of Observe and Report may just be the utterly brilliant Anna Faris, playing the object of Ronnie’s affections, the slutty cosmetic-counter girl Brandi, who ends up getting flashed, and mentally scarred for life. Faris, in a performance that is nothing less than a small tour de force, gets some of the film’s best material; her date-night with Ronnie is one of the more questionable things ever to be featured in a film that is asking its audience to laugh. Ronnie uses her fears as a potential way into her heart (oops, I mean pants), all the while trying to put a stop to the flasher’s reign of terror, while also finding time to abuse a multitude of drugs and beat the crap out of skateboarding punks who love to loiter in the parking lot.
Hill is obsessed with the socially awkward and having you look directly into the face of humiliation, the face of dead-beat America, the ethically bankrupt souls of individuals who are completely delusional and who cannot be helped, and then having you laugh at them AND with them, while the characters slip deeper and deeper into their own self-destruction. The finale of Observe and Report stands as one of the craziest endings I’ve seen, bracing in its casual violence, with the power to literally take your breath away; even coming close to spoiling it would be a crime. I almost hesitate to call this film a “comedy” as it’s certainly no feel-good Apatow production. There’s no overt sentimentality, the characters aren’t classically “likable,” and the way that the humor is derived from scenes depicting violence, racism, homophobia, and sexual deviance will test the limits of many viewers. I found it to be the most daring, the most original, and the ballsiest studio comedy since Team America: World Police. We need more movies from Hill as I can think of few other risk takers and envelope pushers quite like him. The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter can’t get here soon enough!
The 2009 comedy Humpday is Lynn Shelton’s masterpiece as a filmmaker and storyteller, a movie so attuned to its dynamic characters and point of view that it almost hurts to watch it. Ever since I saw this movie roughly five years ago, I’ve constantly been reminded of how brilliant and funny it is, and after revisiting it recently, I was blown away to find that the surprises still surprise – this is one of those under the radar gems (Shelton specializes in those) that deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. It’s the sort of film that shatters the notion of male sexuality in ways that few pieces of art dare to ever explore, and because the lead performances from Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard are so precise and heartfelt, I find it impossible to believe that this film couldn’t leave a lasting impression on any viewer. Shelton’s films always explore society and the people living on the fringes of our landscapes, and as usual, her innate sense of emotional complexity is in full stride here, as her improvised story goes to some seriously awesome and complicated places. It’s the sort of film that will tell you a lot about yourself as a person while you watch it, because while the scenario that gets played out will seem far-fetched to many (including myself upon first knowledge of the project), you buy into it because of everyone’s conviction in the material and how naturalistic and honest everything feels.
The premise is very simple in idea but beyond layered in execution and intent. Two heterosexual male friends, Ben (Duplass) and Andrew (Leonard), reconnect after 10 years of not hanging out. Old friends, guys who go way back, these are two men who know each other very well, but have allowed their lives to take them on different paths in recent years. But when they see each other, it’s like it was yesterday that they were chilling out, and it’s a natural fit for the two of them to be in each other’s orbits. One night while at a party with lots of old pals and after some solid drinking and puffing, Ben and Andrew end up in one of the most interesting “I Dare You” situations that they’ve ever encountered: Would they be able to have one night of sexual relations with each other, which would of course be filmed, as a way of creating an “art project” that they could then submit to a local film festival for consideration. Ben, naturally, has to discuss this idea with his wife Anna (Alycia Delmore), but he doesn’t really tell her the truth, which leads to its own set of interesting developments. But most importantly, this rather groundbreaking slice of sex comedy dares challenge our preconceived notions of what male friendship is all about, what its limitations are, and how two straight buddies might be able to convince themselves that one night of homosexual relations would do nothing at all to their long lasting friendship. That the film consists of numerous scenes of Ben and Andrew discussing their “date” in great detail should be of no major shock; but rather, it’s HOW they discuss their idea that makes this film as sharp as it is.
There isn’t one false step in this movie, not one bad scene, not one moment where you feel that this isn’t exactly what all of the creative parties had intended to do. In countless modern sex comedies, the idea of two women casually having a sexual tryst has been repeatedly shown in movie after movie, so it’s no surprise that the “hook” of Humpday is likely to provoke and potentially shock casual viewers, if not, however sadly, offend. This is a progressive film that looks at sex and friendship in a unique and soul-stirring way, and while it’d be a crime to reveal how the movie ends, I’ll allow that it’s note perfect, taking things to their logical conclusion if these two particular men just so happened to be involved in this highly delicate and potentially life changing experiment. Duplass and Leonard were totally unafraid with their performances, registering a sense of friendship that feels deep and well observed at all times. And as usual, Shelton brought her terrific eye for small details of humanistic comedy at almost every possible moment, and even has a terrific extended cameo as one of the party goers on that fateful night of dares. If you haven’t see Humpday, or were wishy-washy on it for whatever reason, I highly recommend this marvelous, incredibly funny film to anyone who is unfamiliar.
If you’ve ever gone through a long distance relationship, chances are you’ll be able to relate to the central themes in the 2011 film Like Crazy from up and coming filmmaker Drake Doremus. This is one of my favorite movie romances in a very long time, and it’s the sensitivity and the honesty that Doremus brought to this tale that really resonated with me. I’m a softie at heart, so when I see a film that feels as open and emotionally naked as this one, I pay close attention an…d can’t help but get swept up in the complexities of the story and the decisions that the characters make. Starring the fantastic trip of Anton Yelchin, Felicity Jones and Jennifer Lawrence, the film tells the story of Jacob (Yelchin) who meets Anna (Jones), but there’s a problem – she’s a British foreign exchange student who is deported after her visa lapses. Then, after their budding romance is put to the test via the long distance, Jacob meets Samantha (Lawrence), a beautiful co-worker, while Jones develops a relationship of her own back on her home turf. What will become of the central relationship and how will the characters navigate the tricky waters of young love? Doremus, for me, never missed a beat with this sensitive, loving, subtly gorgeous movie that stresses off the cuff cinematography along with a naturalistic screenplay (co-written by Doremus and Ben York Jones) that was heavily improvised by the actors based off a 50-page outline (per Wikipedia…) And I wouldn’t be surprised because there’s an unforced quality to the acting, and the dialogue often times stings with truth that might never have been able to be scripted. Jones is extraordinary in her part, registering every single emotion you could think of, while Yelchin has never been better on screen, conveying confusion and intense feeling all throughout. And it goes without saying, Lawrence brings her sunny, sexy, vibrant personality to the sole of Samantha, creating a woman you want Jacob to fall in love with and treat well. Everyone in this film has terrific chemistry with one another, which only makes all of the entanglements harder to judge and compare; as with life, the heart does strange things at all times. And then there’s the fantastic soundtrack that frequently comes into play, with Paul Simon POWER all over the place for extra coolness and sense of wise elegance. After premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011 where it won the Grand Jury Prize, the film found a small theatrical release and has hopefully continued to keep audiences engrossed over the last few years via Blu-ray, DVD, and streaming. This is one of those small but tremendously affecting movies that will hit many people very hard, very fast, and will stick around in the memory long after the film has concluded.
TRUE DETECTIVE 2.4 DOWN WILL COME
“Sometimes your worst self, is your best self.” – Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn)
We are now at the halfway point of the second season of TRUE DETECTIVE. The latest episode was an incredible slow burn of more complex character development, so slow that the episode came to a crawl at certain points, only to brilliantly explode in the final ten minutes to a Michael Mann inspired street shoot out.
Vince Vaughn’s back is to the wall, he’s out of resources and he’s going back, extorting the current owners of his previous businesses, his marriage is falling apart and he is losing trust in the people working for him. Colin Farrell is exiled inside his self loathing, saying goodbye to his son by giving him his father’s badge. Taylor Kitsch relapsed and drunkenly slept with his former “Black Mountain” buddy, and shored that up with more self destruction by getting engaged to his former girlfriend when she told him that she was pregnant. Rachel McAdams’ life is still a mess, and a formal sexual misconduct complaint was charged against her by the simpleton officer she was having sex with as well as her current partner helping fuel the complaint.
We also get a glimmer into what I think is the underlining occult story line of the show. McAdams’ father (David Morse) shows her and Velcoro a picture from the 70’s of him, Vinci’s Mayor’s father and Rick Springfield’s characters all on a beach side. I’m thinking that the sex parties that have been referenced in the last two episodes have something to do with them.
The episode ended like the fourth episode of the first season, a tremendous shoot out. This time, it wasn’t one take like it was in the first season. This time, the camera followed the three leads exchange gunfire with a gunman from a meth lab, as well as chasing an SUV down on foot. The scene was absolutely graphic. Civilians that were protesting outside of a public transportation bus terminal were gunned down; the officers supporting Farrell, McAdams and Kitsch were all gunned down.
What I found more engaging and interesting than the intense shoot out, was after it was over, the camera held on each character, we watched them regroup in the aftermath that left everyone dead but them. Farrell’s hands were shaking, saliva dripped from his mouth. McAdams was crying. And then there was Kitsch. Kitsch was stone cold, no emotion, no remorse and no empathy.
A lot has been built around Kitsch’s character. He’s gay, but more interestingly enough he was involved in “Black Mountain” during the Iraq war. Black Mountain can only be the fictional version of the “defense” contractor Black Water, that had free reign in Iraq, and they killed anyone and everyone. Kitsch’s vulnerability came out in his scene with Farrell earlier in the episode:
“I just don’t know how to be, out there in the world.”
“Look out that window, look at me. No one does.”
Pizzolatto’s writing is unique and he truly has his own voice. The four main characters, much like this episode itself, are all slow burning. Whatever inner torment and turmoil they are dealing, they’re completely lost in who they once thought they were, or better yet who they thought they could have been. As Leonard Cohen’s theme song says, “I live the life that I left behind.”
DeWitt is Abby, a successful and prototypical massage therapist, running a beautiful spa in Seattle (Shelton’s home state and favored filmic location). Her shy and slightly odd brother Paul (Pais), is a dentist with a struggling practice, while her boyfriend Jesse (McNairy) seems unsure of what to do with himself as a person. Paul’s daughter, Jenny (Page), is always trying to think the best for her father but knows that he’s just not comfortable in his own shoes; their relationship is very touching to observe. But then something odd starts to happen – Abby develops a revulsion to skin (hard to be a masseuse, no?!), Paul develops a “healing touch” for people with constant tooth pain thus blowing up his business into the stratosphere, and Jesse thinks it’s a great idea for Abby to move in with him, despite his unclear direction in life. All of this is done in a way that feels never overly determined and mildly improvised at times, though from what I gathered, this effort had much more of a traditional script from Shelton than her previous films, which had almost solely relied on well structured improvisational dialogue. The entire film feels like some sort of heightened, bizarre fairy tale, and while it never gets “mystical,” there’s an air of Zen and a constant sense of emotional and spiritual searching that the narrative gives off.
The always terrific character actor Pais completely steals the show in Touchy Feely, and in a sane world, he would have been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar a few years ago; it’s annoys me that he didn’t get the full and proper recognition he deserved, and how these types of performances are sadly overlooked year after year by the Academy. McNairy, as noted earlier, seemingly can do no wrong, and has fast become one of my favorite actors. He’s exhibited amazing taste in material and the filmmakers he’s chosen to work with have all been quality and diverse, and here, he gets to add another interesting portrait to his gallery of low-key character based work. And Page again reminds how effective she can be in these small, personal movies, which is the common theme all throughout Shelton’s career – she’s a filmmaker interested in human interaction and the many ways that we verbally and visually communicate with each other on a daily basis. Because so much of the drama that’s at the center of Touchy Feely is the sort of internal angst (existential to some degree) that might be hard to convey, the film is even more interesting because of how well attuned DeWitt is to the material and to the large and small aspects of her inherently flawed and interesting character. Touchy Feely has been the most divisive film from Shelton in terms of critical reception, and it’s not hard to see why; it’s a unique item that doesn’t play by the normal rules at times, showcasing a lead character who can sometimes feel abrasive (by design) and mentally out of control. And while it’s not my personal favorite out of her oeuvre, it’s yet another distinct, intimate movie from Shelton that focuses on people and human behavior rather than empty CGI or a narrative that we’ve seen 100 times before.
“There’s more to life than survival. Jay Cavendish told me that. I owe him my life. Ho for the west.” Writer/director John Maclean’s stunning film debut Slow West has more than one line of dialogue like the one that I quoted above, and it’s within his poetic prose that this slim but never too brief slice of nastiness in the lawless West finds a confident footing as one of the most exciting first features that I can think of. Starring the fantastic trio of Michael Fassbender (honestly – this guy couldn’t be bad if he tried), Kodi-Smit McPhee (one of the best young talents around), and my current favorite cinematic scumbag Ben Mendelsohn, this is a violent, fatalistic movie that has ZERO narrative fat, looks strikingly beautiful, and has a dark sense of humor about itself that proves to be one of its strongest virtues. And at 79 minutes long, there’s not one wasted moment or frame, with an overall sense of narrative economy that’s bracing to behold, with a formal design that’s eye-catching and subtly stylish (Robbie Ryan handled cinematography duties). Centering on two crusty bounty hunters (Fassbender and Mendelsohn) going after the same human reward with a young lovebird in tow (McPhee), loyalties are tested, friends are uneasily made, and the unsparing and bloody truths of travelling through hostile territory in the late 1870’s are frequently explored with a rising body count and a penchant for the starkly visceral shoot-out. Maclean directs with crisp efficiency, the performances are all spot-on, and the confidence in the material speaks to potentially exciting stuff in the future for Maclean. Jed Kurzel’s atypical score for the genre added a fresh spin to the proceedings, and the location work made this low-budget item feel much larger than it ever could be due to the independent nature of the project. Fassbender has a hardened machismo that is perfect for his quick-to-shoot gunslinger, while Mendelsohn gets to be his usually awesome and slimy self, always looking as if he needs a bath and a meal. And McPhee continually demonstrates that he’s a terrific actor; it’ll be very interesting to see what sort of roles he takes on in the future. This is a small gem that will delight viewers who are looking for some quick and explosive entertainment.