John Dahl’s Rounders is the premier poker movie, an utterly charming, never too serious and surprisingly slight look at the lives of several very different individuals whose lives revolve around the game in New York City. The main focus lands on two young men who are fast friends, yet reside on somewhat opposite sides of the responsibility coin. Poker prodigy Mike (Matt Damon) has since given up his art after a soul crushing loss to local russian bigwig Teddy KGB (John Malkovich). He’s content to simmer in solitude with his perky girlfriend (Gretchen Mol, who never fails to convince me that she’s Samantha Mathis until I double check on imdb). Right in time to disrupt his quiet life is cocky street rat Worm (Edward Norton), fresh out of prison and looking for the type of trouble that landed him there in the first place. It’s to long before he’s racked up some serious debt to dangerous people with ties to Teddy KGB, and Mike is forced to come out of retirement and risk everything he has once again, this time for his friend. The poker scenes are staged with meticulous eye for detail and mannerisms in attempt to put you at the same table as the players, and it’s nifty to see each acting style played to the microscopic hilt as Dahl maintains patient focus on his work. Norton is appropriately scuzzy with just a dollop of endearing, scrappy charm and Damon fills the protagonist’s shoes very well. It’s Malkovich, however, who pulls the stops out and is my favourite character of the piece. With a muddy russian accent that rivals his french one from Johnny English, a lazily snarky streak with just a hint of intimidation and a bag of oreos at his side without fail, he’s a hoot, holler and a half as the life of the poker party. Sexy Famke Janssen has as great bit as as shady chick with eyes for Damon and connections with dodgy folks, expertly playing the half sweet and seductive, half menacing game. Watch for topnotch work from John Turturro, Josh Pais, Michael Rispoli, Josh Mostel, Adam Lefevre, David Zayas, Goran Visjnic, Lenny Clarke and Martin Landau in an earnest turn as a kindly professor who looks out for Mike. It’s short, sweet, concisely paced, tightly written, flawlessly acted and wonderfully entertaining stuff.
The Harvest is the very definition of a hidden gem that one stumbles upon while watching late night cable and sits through to the end just because it’s such a wickedly nasty little thriller. Erotic and steamy, dangerous, very darkly funny are qualities that all reside within a terrific script that has one kicker of an ending that’s quite the chuckle inducing payoff. No one wants to have their organs taken while on vacation in some sketchy South American country, let alone consider the thought of it. Hard luck screenwriter Charlie Pope (an intense Miguel Ferrer in one of his few lead roles) falls right into that unthinkable scenario. He’s sent to Mexico by his bad tempered boss Bob Lakin (a sleazy Harvey Fierstein, who REALLY needs to be in more movies), and marinates in the sweatiness trying to get some work done. After a hot and heavy night with a gorgeous local babe (Leilani Sarelle) he wakes up with the mother of all hangovers and is horrified to find that one of his kidneys has been removed. From there it’s a stomach churning mad dash to figure out where the smugglers have gone, and evade the, at the same time, because they’re coming to try and get his other one and silence him forever as well. It’s an uncomfortable little piece of white knuckle trash, but it’s made with solid flair and like I said, the script is top shelf stuff. Ferrer is the running man here, trying to keep one step ahead of some very dangerous people, his bountiful acting talent putting us right there with him. Fierstein is always a gravel voiced gem, and gets two penultimate scenes that spin the plot on its cogs, both which will have you laughing uncomfortably. There’s also an early career appearance from George Clooney, who is Ferrer’s cousin. His credit here, and I’m not even making this up, is ‘Lip syncing transvestite’. How’s that for a leg up in the industry. Lowbrow, gut churning black comedy mixed with the exotic fish out of water thriller makes for a neat little piece of genre bending, grotesque shocker fun.
Robert Altman’s The Gingerbread Man isn’t the director’s best, but it’s worth a looky-loo just to see this solid cast cavort around in a sweltering Georgia atmosphere and play out a narrative that’s part sultry seduction thriller and part hard boiled whodunit. I remember watching it and going ‘meh, I’ve seen this type of thing a thousand times and this one didn’t raise the bar at all.’ I’m thinking now that perhaps my mindset was in the wrong space, and that Altman set out to simply bring us the romantic murder mystery in its purest form, without deviation or higher ambitions. In that case he’s made a neat little potboiler with a suitably ludicrous ending, some truly effective red herrings and a really great troupe of actors, so,e going nicely against type. The multitalented Kenneth Branagh plays suave Georgia lawyer Rick MacGruder, who finds himself in deep trouble when he has an affair with sexy, slinky and shady Mallory Doss (the very underrated Embeth Davidz). She’s a good enough girl, but she has a backwoods nutcase of a father named Dixon (Robert Duvall being uber strange and loving every second of it) who is stalking and threatening her. Dixon is a bedraggled, cult-leading swamp rat and Duvall plays him to the frenzied hilt of uncomfortable ticks and unkempt theatrics. MacGruder, being smitten with Mallory, is of course compelled to use his legal and personal power to help her, and concocts a convoluted scheme involving a subpoena to Mallory’s belligerent ex husband Pete Randle (a cranky Tom Berenger blusters about in the third act). This of course sets off all kinds of back door motivations and sweaty double crosses that are hard to keep track of until all is revealed in the final act, prompting a collective audience reaction of “huh??”. It’s all in good fun though and at times it seems like Altman is deliberately dipping into B movie territory just to shirk his high art mantle and spice up this gumbo with some trashy, lowbrow flavour. I say bring it, that’s exactly the way to my heart. Writing this review I’m now realizing I probably like this film way more than my ending statement might suggest, but sometimes we need to hash it all out on paper (or in this case a cramped iPad keyboard) to reevaluate our perception of a certain piece. The cast gets juicier, with Robert Downey Jr. doing a quick bit as Macgruder’s slick buddy who works as a private investigator for the law office, Daryl Hannah and Famke Janssen as Rick’s jilted wife as well. It’s based on a John Grisham novel, and Altman seems to be the first director to adapt his work with a ramped up style and personal flair that goes beyond the academic thrills on the page. This one feels heightened, sultry and oh so sweaty in the way that only a southern set thriller can be. Cool stuff.
House Of Sand And Fog is an emotional thunderclap in ways you won’t see coming, leaving the viewer gutted after a finale that feels spare and detached yet wracked with emotion in the same moment. You feel haunted after witnessing the story unfold, and I was particularly affected by Ben Kingsley’s determind, tender performance for days after my viewing of the film. He plays an Iranian man, a proud man who was a Colonel in the air force in his home country, and has been forced to work construction labor jobs in America to support his family, and to keep up the appearances of their lifestyle. When neglected taxes force a troubled woman (Jennifer Connelly) out of the house she grew up in, Kingsley sees an opportunity to buy the the property for a fraction of what it’s worth, essentially leaving Connelly homeless. She has a history of alcoholism and instability, and this unfortunate situation really worsens her condition, leading to angry and confrontational behaviour towards Kingsley. He has no ill will towards her, he’s simply trying to make a better life for his family whom he loves very much. His wife (Shohreh Aghdashloo) is still very much rooted in Iranian culture, and much of what’s going on goes over her head. There’s also a cop (Ron Eldard) who strikes up a reckless romance with Connelly and tries to strong arm Kingsley into selling the house back to her, pretty much reasoning with his dick instead of his brain. This is a film that refuses to take a side, showing us unblinking and compassionate views of both people within the conflict, and never lifting a judging eyebrow. It’s a sad, sad turn of events and the film wants to show us the tragedy, but it does so with the utmost care, and always has a loving hand in presenting it’s two lead characters. Connelly is heartbreaking, showing us the burning humiliation that frays her spirit to the last sinew. Kingsley is flat out brilliant in the kind of performance that holds up for decades to come. He rightly won an Oscar for his galvanizing turn that breaks hearts and opens tear ducts. Ron Eldard is the only piece that doesn’t fit, because he’s usually not fund in this type of stuff. He’s really talented as an offbeat character actor, but just seems out of place here playing it straight, and it also doesn’t help that his character is just damn unlikable. Aghdashloo is the third leg of the acting table, and her work earned her an Oscar as well, she is plain superb. Be careful of what mood you’re in when you give this one a go, it’s pretty devastating. It’s also powerful cinema, and a story that could happen to anyone, anywhere in the world, giving us something real to latch onto and connect with.
The harsh reality of stand-up comedy is that for every Jerry Seinfeld that makes it, there are hundreds of comedians who don’t. There are comedians who work dead end jobs during the day and spend the rest of their time working comedy clubs in the hopes of getting that “big break” on a late night talk show or a role in a film or a television sitcom. Some of them have what it takes but most do not. David Seltzer’s film, Punchline (1988), is dedicated to and about these men and women who try to make us laugh. It also explores the dedication, the discipline, and the sacrifices that must be made in order to make it.
Steven Gold (Tom Hanks) is a struggling medical student who moonlights as a stand-up comedian. It quickly becomes evident that he is lousy at the former and excels at the latter. And yet, when he is given a chance at the big time, he cracks under the pressure. Lilah (Sally Field) is a dedicated housewife that also yearns to be a comic. She has the raw talent but not the command of craft that Steven possesses. At first, he doesn’t give Lilah the time of day but slowly they bond and he teaches her the fundamentals of stand-up comedy. “All you need is the right gags,” Steven tells her, and he’s right. Once Lilah has some decent material she discovers her natural gift of making people laugh. An uneasy friendship develops between the two and the personal conflicts they must resolve: Steven’s desire to make it big vs. his inability to do so and Lilah’s love of comedy vs. her love for her family.
David Seltzer wrote the first draft for Punchline in 1979 after becoming fascinated by comedy clubs while looking for someone to play a psychiatrist on a T.V. pilot that he was writing. He had a development deal with the movie division of ABC. Originally, the tone of the film was more good-natured a la Fame (1980) with more characters and less of an emphasis on Steven Gold. Bob Bookman, an executive, sponsored the script but left for Columbia Pictures. He bought the screenplay because Howard Zieff (Private Benjamin) was interested in directing it. When Zieff lost interest (he ended up doing Unfaithfully Yours in 1984), the script was buried for years.
In 1986, producer Daniel Melnick found the screenplay for Punchline among twelve other scripts collecting dust in the vaults of Columbia Pictures. Seltzer’s screenplay had gone through three changes of studio management because the executives didn’t like the mix of comedy and drama. They also didn’t like the Steven Gold character because they thought he was, according to Melnick, “obsessive, certainly self-destructive and could be considered mean-spirited.” The studio couldn’t get a major star to commit to the material and so Melnick decided to make the movie for $8 million and with no stars. Interim studio president Steve Sohmer didn’t like that idea and sent the script to Sally Field, who had a production deal with Columbia. Field agreed to star in and produce the film. Once she signed on, the budget was set at $15 million.
Field didn’t mind sharing the majority of the screen time with Tom Hanks and taking on the role of producer because, as she said in an interview at the time, “as a producer I am not developing films in which I can do fancy footwork. I don’t have to have the tour de force part.” New York comic Susie Essman and sitcom writer Dottie Archibald coached Field. The writer also served as comedy consultant for the film, recruiting fifteen comics to populate the comedy club Steven and Lilah frequent. Field’s research often mirrored her character’s as she remembered working “for about six months to find where Lilah’s comedy was, which is what my character was going through. So it was actually happening to both of us.” As one of the producers on the film, Field found working behind the scenes very demanding, disagreeing with Seltzer about the content of Lilah’s act and how much of it should be in the final cut. The filmmaker said, “Sally had a high degree of opinion and certainty about things. She ain’t the flying nun.”
Two months before the Punchline went into production, Hanks wrote a five-minute stand-up act and performed it at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles. As Hanks recalled, “It was pure flop sweat time, an embarrassment. That material lasted 1 minute 40 seconds, and it had no theme.” Hanks tried again and again, sometimes hitting three clubs a night. It took a month before the actor “didn’t sweat like a pig” on stage. By that point he had enlisted an old friend and comedy writer Randy Fechter and stand-up comic Barry Sobel to help him write his routine. Hanks ended up performing more than thirty times in clubs in Los Angeles and New York City.
The first half of Punchline is a fascinating look at the inner workings of stand-up comedy and what it takes to make it. In this respect, Seltzer’s film is an unflinching portrayal of this profession. As Steven tells Lilah, “It takes every night, six clubs a night, all night. It takes working stag parties and elk club parties where you’re opening for a fucking accordion player.” It is this kind of dedication that is clearly needed in order to be successful. Stand-up comic Sobel felt that the atmosphere of the film’s comedy club was very authentic. “There’s a lot of desperation in the movie on the part of a lot of the comedians, which I feel is on the nose of what it is to be a stand-up.”
The film’s weakness lies in Lilah’s family life. Except for a wonderfully choreographed sequence where Lilah has to rush to get dinner ready for her husband (John Goodman) and his guests before they get home, the moments that feature Lilah with her family are where Punchline loses its energy and becomes a maudlin drama. This aspect of the film just isn’t as fascinating as the parts dealing with the art of stand-up comedy.
Punchline‘s best moments are when Steven’s manic presence dominates the screen. Tom Hanks’ characterization deftly shows how tragedy and comedy are entwined. In one scene, his character has a gig at a hospital where he entertains a group of patients and doctors. Hanks is genuinely funny as he works the crowd, making fun of people’s injuries so that they forget their own pain for a moment. The beauty of this scene is watching how Hanks interacts with his audience and how convincing he is as a stand-up comic. For the actor, the allure of doing stand-up comedy was “walking into a room of 400 people and taking them wherever you want for 20 minutes. Steven is god of his universe as long as he’s got a microphone in his hand.”
Hanks is also able to show us the darker side of his character in a brutal scene where he has a shot at being discovered and ruins it. Steven does his act at a club with a talent scout watching only to realize that his father, whom he fears and loathes, is in the audience. The look on Steven’s face before he does his act says it all — he knows he’s going to blow it but goes on anyway. The scene is so painful to watch because it is in such a sharp contrast to the hospital scene. To a deafening silence, Steven starts talking about his relationship with his father before breaking down and crying in front of the audience. It is an emotionally powerful scene that is tough to watch and one that the film is never able to surpass.
And this is due in large part to Hanks who goes all out with his performance by showing such a wide range of emotions that swing from euphoria to bitter resentment. It’s an unusual role for Hanks who usually plays nice guys. As the actor recalled in an interview, “He’s not a lovable goofball. His difficulties don’t make him a nicer character or a more sympathetic character but they do make him a darker character.” Under Steven’s very funny facade lurks a self-destructive, jealous person who will do anything to succeed. Is this what it takes to make it as a comedian? The film never really answers this question. Instead, it is left up to the audience to decide one way or the other.
Chairman of Columbia David Puttnam wanted to release Punchline during the Christmas of 1987 but the film wasn’t ready. Puttnam eventually left and Dawn Steel moved in and decided to release the movie after Big (1988) became a huge hit. Punchline grossed a respectful $21 million in the United States.
The best comedy is about yourself, your life, what you know, and finding what is funny in that. Punchline taps into this truism by showing that comedians not only comment on their own lives but what they see around them as well. This film is at its best when it shows us the inner workings of the stand-up comedy profession and how tough it really is. There is a ring of honesty to these scenes that the rather sappy happy ending cannot diminish.
Ah yes, the 90’s version of Judge Dredd, featuring a hopped up Sylvester Stallone as the titular comic book lawman. There is so much hate floating around for this flick that I feel like radios have picked up some of it right out of the air. There used to be a lot more loathing, but then the 2013 version graced our presence, and it was so good, so true to the source material and such a kick ass flick that the collective bad taste left the fan’s mouths, leaving this version somewhat forgotten and to many people, for good reason. But.. but… bear with me for just a moment, readers, and I’ll tell you why it’s not as bad as it’s utterly poopy reputation. Yes it’s silly, overblown, altogether ridiculous and Stallone takes off his helmet to yell about the law a lot. Basically pretty far from the source material and weird enough to raise eyebrows in many others, and prompt the torch and pitchfork routine from fans of the comic series. But it’s also a huge absurdist sci fi spectacle that will blow up your screen with its massive cast, opulent and decadent special effects and thundering, often incomprehensible plot. It’s in most ways the exact opposite of the 2013 version, all the fat that was trimmed off of that sleek, streamlined vehicle is left to dangle here, resulting in a chaotic mess that looks like a highway pileup between Blade Runner, Aliens and some Roger Corman abomination. But.. is it terribly unwatchable? Not in the least, or at least not to me. Like the highway pileup, it’s so off the rails that we can’t help but gawk in awe, and if we’re not some comic book fan who is already spiritually offended to the core by it, even enjoy that madness and lack of any rhyme or reason in it. Stallone uses his bulk to inhabit the character, and infuses a level of stagnant processed cheese to his dialogue that would be distracting if it weren’t for the electric blue contact lenses he sports the whole time, which look like traffic lights designed by Aqua Man. He’s embroiled in one convoluted mess of a plotline involving a former sibling (a hammy Armand Assante with the same weird eyes). Joan Chen and Diane Lane fill out the chick department, the former being some kind of cohort to Assante, and the latter a fellow judge alongside Dredd. Dredd has two superiors, the noble and righteous “” (Max Von Sydow in the closest thing he’ll ever make to a B-movie), and the treacherous Griffin (a seething, unbridled Jurgen Prochnow). The cast is stacked from top to bottom, including a rowdy turn from James Remar who sets the tone early on as a rebellious warlord who is set straight by Dredd. Rob Schneider has an odd habit of following Stallone around in films where his presence is wholly not needed (see Demolition Man as well), playing a weaselly little criminal who pops up whenever we’re off marveling at some other silly character, plot turn or risible costume choice. Scott Wilson also has an unbilled bit as Pa Angel, a desert dwelling cannibal patriarch, and when one views his scenery chomping cameo, although no doubt awesome, it’s easy to see why he had his name removed from the credits. The whole thing is a delightful disaster that shouldn’t prompt reactions of hate, at least from the more rational minded crowd. Yeah its not the best, or even all that good, but it’s worth a look just for the sake of morbid curiosity, and to see an entire filmmaking, acting and special effects team strive way too hard and throw everything into the mix, forgetting that less is more as they pull the ripcord of excess. Sure I’m generous, but I’d rather be puzzled and amused rather than bitter and cynical when a lot of work still went into this and me as an average joe has no right to bring down artists when my greatest life accomplishments so far are riding a bike with no hands while I have a beer in one and check my phone in the other. Such silliness is what we find in this movie, and I gotta say I was tickled by it.
Public Enemies (2009) marked Michael Mann’s fourth foray into American history with The Last of the Mohicans (1992), The Insider (1999), and Ali (2001) being his previous efforts. The director got his start making documentaries and always been interested in achieving absolute authenticity in the depiction of the professions that his protagonists practice, be it safecracking in Thief (1981) or serial killer profiling in Manhunter (1986). Born and raised in Chicago, it is easy to see what drew Mann to the story of John Dillinger, a famous bank robber during the 1930s. He and his crew were the best of the best at the time and so, he certainly fits the kind of protagonist Mann is drawn to.
Public Enemies begins in 1933 during the golden age of bank robbery and Mann wastes no time getting into it as he opens the film with an exciting escape from an Ohio prison orchestrated by Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and his crew. Soon after, we meet FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) in action as he takes down Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) with a hunting rifle from an impressive distance. In no time at all, Mann has established the film’s protagonist and antagonist. They are smart, super efficient men of action that are single-minded in their respective goals.
Unable to get funding and criticized by his superiors, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) needs high-profile busts and enlists Purvis to find and stop the country’s Public Enemy No. 1 – John Dillinger. The more notorious he becomes the more this angers not just the FBI but also the Chicago mob because his actions put extra heat on them. There is a nice scene where he meets with a mob representative who basically tells him that he is a dying breed. The money he makes knocking over one bank, they make in one day through illegal gambling.
Mann demonstrates that he is a master at orchestrating action sequences. They are cleanly photographed and edited so that there is no confusion. You can always tell what is going on and who everyone is instead of the kamikaze, headache-inducing editing and slapdash camerawork in films by the likes of Michael Bay and McG. The shoot-out at Dillinger’s hide-out in Little Bohemia is the film’s show-stopping action sequence much like the bank heist in Heat (1995) and the nightclub shoot-out in Collateral (2004). It is powerfully executed and full of tension and excitement as well as an impressive display of firepower with the deafening blasts of tommy guns and shotguns.
Public Enemies reunited Mann with key collaborators, chief among them cinematographer Dante Spinotti who has shot his most memorable films (including Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, and The Insider). Mann has come under considerable criticism for making the move to digital cameras and even more so with Public Enemies because it is a period film and audiences are used to seeing them done on traditional film stock. However, it looks great with crisp, clear images, especially at night where there is an impressive depth of field. Certain scenes have a graininess to them inherent with digital cameras but, in this case, it gives a tangible, gritty texture that works. There are some truly beautiful shots in this film, like one in which a car carrying Dillinger and his crew hurtle down a road surrounded by a vast forest of trees that tower over them.
Mann is also reunited with composer Elliot Goldenthal who worked on Heat. Since The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Mann has relied on soundtracks comprised mostly of disparate tracks from various sources. Being a period piece, obviously Public Enemies really doesn’t lend itself to that kind of a soundtrack and Goldenthal expertly augments the drama that unfolds in various scenes, creating one of the best scores in a Mann film to date.
The attention to period detail is fantastic with classic trains, cars, and classic gangster iconography like tommy guns, fedoras and trenchcoats permeating the film. Mann really immerses us in the time period but not in a way that calls undo attention to itself. It’s just there in the background of every scene with vintage period architecture. Ever the perfectionist, Mann shot on location, often at the actual locations that Dillinger and his gang frequented. Whether you are consciously aware of this or not, the film just oozes authenticity.
Dillinger certainly enjoys the fruits of his labor but is always planning his next job. He follows his own personal code: he doesn’t kill unless absolutely necessary and doesn’t think about the future, living only in the present because he could easily end up in jail or dead. He is also very conscious of how he’s perceived by the public, enjoying the notoriety his exploits create. Johnny Depp portrays him as a very confident guy who is always in control. There is often this mischievous glint in his eye like he’s in on a private joke. Depp plays Dillinger with a lot of charm, like when he addresses the media while being booked in an Indiana jail. He knows how to work the crowd and the charismatic actor is excellent in this scene. However, Public Enemies is not afraid to point out that Dillinger is no hero. The man has no problem with killing someone if they got in his way but the film goes to great lengths to point out that he did so only when there was no other option. Dillinger was clearly a man who didn’t believe in wasting time, much like Frank, the safecracker in Thief. Depp inhabits the role with his customary dedication, adopting a specific voice, accent and effortless delivery of period lingo that sounds natural and genuine.
Christian Bale is quite good as the very determined Purvis. While Mann doesn’t create the balance of cop vs. robber as he did in Heat, Bale has a significant amount of screen-time in the film. Like other law enforcement figures in Mann’s films, Purvis uses state-of-the-art technology, for the time, to track Dillinger and his crew. As determined as Purvis is, Mann allows some humanity to seep in, like when he stops the brutal interrogation of Dillinger’s girlfriend Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) and personally helps her get cleaned up. It is this small moment that adds a welcome layer to his character.
There are all kinds of parallels between Public Enemies and Heat. In both films we are meant to sympathize with the bank robber. Also, the two leads only meet face-to-face in one scene. There is a climactic gun-battle where both sides take on significant casualties that alter the conclusion of the story. And, like McCauley in Heat, there is an inevitability to Dillinger’s life; that he will run out of time and luck; that Purvis and the FBI will close the net around him. That being said, Public Enemies is not a carbon copy of Heat. Personality-wise, Dillinger and McCauley are very different people with the former being a risk-taker and the latter being overly cautious. The same goes for the lawmen. Purvis is not the larger-than-life extrovert that Hanna is, but rather a no-nonsense man who gets the job done and that’s it. There’s even a loose cannon in the form of Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) who is to Public Enemies what Waingro was to Heat. A psychopath that the bank robbers initially ally themselves with but end up cutting loose when he proves to be too unstable. Structurally, both films couldn’t be different as Mann continues to experiment with narrative structure in a fascinating way. This isn’t your typical, cookie-cutter A to B to C plotting, which may frustrate some (see Ali or Miami Vice) but if you the patience and can get into it, watching Public Enemies is a very rewarding experience.