The Hard Way (1991, directed by John Badham)


Lt. John Moss (James Woods) is a cop with a problem.  A serial killer who calls himself the Party Crasher (Stephen Lang) is killing people all across New York and he has decided that he will be coming for Moss next.  However, Moss’s captain (Delroy Lindo) says that Moss is off of the Party Crasher case and, instead, he’s supposed to babysit a big time movie star named Nick Lang (Michael J. Fox)!

Nick is famous for playing “Smoking” Joe Gunn in a series of Indiana Jones-style action films.  However, Nick wants to be taken seriously.  He wants to play Hamlet, just like his rival Mel Gibson!  (That Hard Way came out a year after Mel Gibson played the melancholy Dame in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 adaptation of Shakespeare’s play.)  Nick thinks that if he can land the lead role in a hard-boiled detective film, it will give him a chance to show that he actually can act.  To prepare for his audition, he’s asked to spend some time following Moss on the job.  Mayor David Dinkins, always eager to improve New York’s reputation, agrees.  (David Dinkins does not actually appear in The Hard Way, though his name is often mentioned with a derision that will be familiar to anyone who spent any time in New York in the 90s.)  Of course, Moss isn’t going to stop investigating the Party Crasher murders and, of course, Nick isn’t going to follow Moss’s orders to just stay in his apartment and not get in his way.

The Hard Way is a predictable mix of action and comedy but it’s also entertaining in its own sloppy way.  Director John Badham brings the same grit that he brought to his other action films but he also proves himself to have a deft comedic touch.  Most of the laughs come from the contrast between James Woods playing one of his typically hyperactive, edgy roles and Michael J. Fox doing an extended and surprisingly convincing impersonation of Tom Cruise.  Woods and Fox prove to be an unexpectedly effective comedic team.  One of the best running jokes in the film is Woods’s exasperation as he discovers that everyone, from his girlfriend (Annabella Sciorra) to his no-nonsense boss, are huge fans of Nick Lang.  Even with a serial killer running loose in the city, Moss’s captain is more concerned with getting Nick’s autograph.

Woods and Fox are the main attractions here but Stephen Lang is a good, unhinged villain and Annabella Sciorra brings some verve to her underwritten role as Moss’s girlfriend.  Viewers will also want to keep an eye out for familiar faces like Penny Marshall as Nick’s agent, a very young Christina Ricci as Sciorra’s daughter, and Luis Guzman as Moss’s partner.

With its references to David Dinkins, Mel Gibson’s superstardom, and Premiere Magazine, its LL Cool J-filled soundtrack, and a plot that was obviously influenced by Lethal Weapon, The Hard Way is very much a period piece but it’s an entertaining one.

Catching-Up With Two Courtroom Dramas: Suspect and 12 Angry Men


As a part of my continuing effort to get caught up with reviewing all of the movies that I’ve seen this year, here’s two courtroom dramas that I recently caught on This TV.

  • Suspect
  • Released in 1987
  • Directed by Peter Yates
  • Starring Cher, Dennis Quaid, Liam Neeson, John Mahoney, Joe Mantegna, Philip Bosco, Fred Melamed, Bernie McInerney, Bill Cobbs, Richard Gant, Jim Walton, Michael Beach, Ralph Cosham, Djanet Sears 

Suspect is a hilariously dumb movie.  How dumb is it?  Let me count the ways.

First off, Cher plays a highly successful if rather stressed public defender.  And don’t get me wrong.  It’s not that Cher is a bad actress or anything.  She’s actually pretty good when she’s playing Cher.  But, in this movie, she’s playing someone who managed to graduate from law school and pass the DC bar.

Secondly, Cher is assigned to defend a homeless man when he’s accused of murdering a clerk who works for the Justice Department.  The homeless man is deaf and mute, which isn’t funny.  What is funny is when he gets a shave and a shower and he’s magically revealed to be a rather handsome and fresh-faced Liam Neeson.  Liam doesn’t give a bad performance in the role.  In fact, he probably gives the best performance in the film.  But still, it’s hard to escape the fact that he’s Liam Neeson and he basically looks like he just arrived for a weekend at Cannes.

Third, during the trial, one of the jurors (Dennis Quaid) decides to investigate the case on his own.  Cher even helps him do it, which is the type of thing that would get a real-life attorney disbarred.  However, I guess Cher thinks that it’s worth the risk.  I guess that’s the power of Dennis Quaid’s smile.

Fourth, the prosecuting attorney is played by Joe Mantegna and he gives such a good performance that you find yourself hoping that he wins the case.

Fifth, while it’s true that real-life attorneys are rarely as slick or well-dressed as they are portrayed in the movies, one would think that Cher would at least take off her leather jacket before cross-examining a witness.

Sixth, it’s not a spoiler to tell you that the homeless man is innocent.  We know he’s innocent from the minute that we see he’s Liam Neeson.  Liam only kills who people deserve it.  The real murderer is revealed at the end of the film and it turns out to be the last person you would suspect, mostly because we haven’t been given any reason to suspect him.  The ending is less of a twist and more an extended middle finger to any viewer actually trying to solve the damn mystery.

I usually enjoy a good courtroom drama but bad courtroom dramas put me to sleep.  Guess which one Suspect was.

 

  • 12 Angry Men
  • Released 1997
  • Directed by John Frankenheimer
  • Starring Courtney B. Vance, Ossie Davis, George C. Scott, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Dorian Harewood, James Gandolfini, Tony Danza, Jack Lemmon, Hume Cronyn, Mykelti Williamson, Edward James Olmos, William Petersen, Mary McDonnell, Tyrees Allen, Douglas Spain

The 12 Angry Men are back!

Well, no, not actually.  This is a remake of the classic 1957 film and it was produced for Showtime.  It’s updated in that not all of the jurors are white and bigoted Juror #10 (Mykelti Williamson) is now a member of the Nation of Islam.  Otherwise, it’s the same script, with Juror #8 (Jack Lemmon) trying to convince the other jurors not to send a young man to Death Row while Juror #3 (George C. Scott) deals with his family issues.

I really wanted to like this production, as it had a strong cast and a strong director and it was a remake of one of my favorite films.  Unfortunately, the remake just didn’t work for me.  As good an actor as Jack Lemmon was, he just didn’t project the same moral authority as Henry Fonda did the original.  If Fonda seemed to be the voice of truth and integrity, Lemmon just came across like an old man who had too much time on his hands.  Without Fonda’s moral certitude, 12 Angry Men simply becomes a story about how 12 men acquitted a boy of murder because they assumed that a woman would be too vain to wear her glasses to court.  The brilliance of the original is that it keeps you from dwelling on the fact that the accused was probably guilty.  The remake, however, feels like almost an argument for abandoning the jury system.

A Movie A Day #264: The Cotton Club (1984, directed by Francis Ford Coppola)


The time is the 1930s and the place is New York City.  Everyone wants to get into the Cotton Club.  Owned by British gangster Owney Madden (Bob Hoskins), the Cotton Club is a place where the stage is exclusively reserved for black performers and the audience is exclusively rich and white.  Everyone from gangsters to film stars comes to the Cotton Club.

It is at the Cotton Club that Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere) meets everyone from Dutch Shultz (James Remar) to Gloria Swanson (Diane Venora).  Shultz hires Dixie to look after his girlfriend, Vera (Diane Lane).  Swanson arranges for Dixie to become a movie star.  Meanwhile, Dixie’s crazy brother, Vincent (Nicolas Cage), rises up through the New York underworld.  Meanwhile, dancing brothers Sandman and Clay Williams (played by real-life brothers Gregory and Maurice Hines) are stars on stage but face discrimination off, at least until Harlem gangster Bumpy Rhodes (Laurence Fishburne) comes to their aid.

The Cotton Club was a dream project of the legendary producer, Robert Evans, who was looking to make a comeback after being famously charged with cocaine trafficking in 1980.  Having commissioned a screenplay by his former Godfather collaborators, Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, Evans originally planned to direct the film himself.  At the last minute, Evans changes his mind and asked Coppola to direct the film.  After working with him on The Godfather, Coppola had sworn that he would never work with Evans again. (When he won an Oscar for The Godfather‘s screenplay, Coppola pointedly thanked everyone but Robert Evans.)  However, by 1984, a series of box office flops had damaged Coppola’s standing in Hollywood.  Needing the money, Coppola agreed to direct The Cotton Club.

Evans raised the film’s $58 million budget from a number of investors, including Roy Radin.  Roy Radin was best known for putting together Vaudeville reunions in the 70s and being accused of raping an actress in 1980.  Radin and Evans were introduced to each other by a drug dealer named Lanie Jacobs, who was hoping to remake herself as a film producer.  During the production of The Cotton Club, Radin was murdered by a contract killer who was hired by Jacobs, who apparently felt that Radin was trying to muscle her out of the film production.

While all of this was going on, Coppola fell into his familiar pattern of going overbudget and falling behind schedule.  This led to another investor filing a lawsuit against Orion Pictures and two other investors, claiming fraud and breach of contract.  When the film was finally released, it received mixed reviews, struggled at the box office, and only received two Oscar nominations.

With all of the murder and drama that was occurring offscreen, it is not surprising that the film itself was overshadowed.  The Cotton Club is a disjointed mix of gangster drama and big production numbers.  As always with post-Apocalypse Now Coppola, there are flashes of brilliance in The Cotton Club.  Some of the production numbers are impressive and visually, this movie has got style to burn.   However, among the leads, neither Richard Gere nor Diane Lane seem to be invested in their characters while the talented Hines brothers are underused.  The supporting cast is full of good character actors who are all in a search of a better script.  A few do manage to make an impression: James Remar, Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne as veteran gangsters, Nicolas Cage as the film’s stand-in for Mad Dog Coll, and Joe Dallesandro as Lucky Luciano.  The Cotton Club is sometimes boring and sometimes exciting but the onscreen story is never as interesting as what happened behind the scenes.

 

Film Review: A House Is Not A Home (dir by Christopher Ray)


Gerald-Webb-Creepy-Stairs-A-House-is-Not-A-Home-Still

I was recently lucky enough to get a chance to see a perfectly creepy haunted house movie called A House Is Not A Home.  A House Is Not A Home is one of those films that I have wanted to see ever since I first heard about it last year.  I have to admit that, usually, whenever I find myself looking forward to a movie, I sometimes dread actually watching it.  There’s nothing worse than being disappointed by a film that fails to live up to your initial expectations.  That’s why I’m happy to report that A House Is Not A Home not only lived up to those expectations but exceeded them.

A House Is Not A Home begins with a close-up of a bloodied hand.  An obviously unstable man (played, with a truly unsettling intensity, by Richard Greico) calls 911 and tells the operator that “they’re all dead” and it’s all his fault.  He then hangs up and, after shouting, “Take me!”, disappears into a bright white light.  It’s an effective scene, largely because it’s played totally straight.  You look at Greico and you have no doubt that something terrible truly has just happened and that not only was he responsible but he’s going to also be responsible for a lot more before the film reaches its conclusion.  It’s the perfect way to open up a haunted house scene, one that hints at the promise that the film itself will soon fulfill.

Sometime after the man had vanished, the house is up for sale.  Architect Ben (Gerald Webb) and his wife Linda (Diahnna Nicole Baker) are given a tour of the house by a real estate agent named Paul (Bill Cobbs).  When we first see Paul, he seems like a nice old man.  He’s friendly, he’s always smiling, and he comes across like he could probably sell snow in Canada.  But, it quickly becomes obvious that there’s something a little bit off about Paul.  By the time he finishes showing the house, you start to realize that his friendly smile seems to be more of a self-satisfied smirk.

Regardless, Ben and Linda buy the house and, along with their two teenagers, Ashley and Alex (Aurora Perrineau and Melvin Gregg), move in.  From the minute that they unpack, strange things start to happen.  Ashley is woken up in the middle of the night by mysterious laughter and, regardless of how many times she tries to move them, the same scary-looking dolls keep showing up on her dresser.  (Seriously, those dolls were creepy!)  Alex feels as if he’s being watched wherever he goes.  Linda, a recovering alcoholic, starts to drink again and her attempts to give piano lessons are made difficult by the fact that the piano occasionally attacks her students.  And Ben suddenly finds himself having nightmares and deliberately cutting himself so that the blood can hynotically drip down onto the kitchen table.

A-House-is-Not-a-Home-Still-Gerald-Webb-Ben-Williams

Even more frightening?  The man from the first scene in the film keeps popping up, standing in the corner and watching.

Yes, obviously the house is haunted and eventually, even Ben is forced to admit it.  The family is forced to call in a voodoo priest, who attempts to exorcise the house.  (The priest is played by Eddie Steeples, who may be best known for playing the comedic Crabman on My Name Is Earl but  who actually gives a nicely intense and creepy performance here.  Just check out his eyes!)  If you’re a fan of the horror genre, then you’ve probably seen a lot of haunted house exorcisms but, even if it might seem like a familiar development, the exorcism scenes in A House Is Not A Home are really well-done.  If nothing else, they’re distinguished by the fact that the exorcist isn’t the typical quirky medium or self-doubting Catholic priest that most movies offer up.  For once, we’re given an exorcism that’s interesting to watch…

But does the exorcism work?  Well — does an exorcism ever work in a haunted house film?  You’ll have to watch to find out.

A House Is Not A Home is an effectively creepy movie, one that uses its low-budget to its advantage. Director Christopher Ray allows the camera to creep through the house, snaking its way through empty passages while the soundtrack is full of the sounds of restless spirits.  The end result is a film that, as opposed to relying on predictable CGI for its scares, instead creates a palpable sense of doom and dread.

The film is well-acted by the entire cast, with Bill Cobbs especially giving a wonderfully sinister performance.  (I wish I could tell you about his final appearance in the movie without it acting as a spoiler but seriously, it’s a wonderfully acted scene.)  In the role of Ben is Gerald Webb, who will be a familiar face to anyone who regularly watches the SyFy Channel.  Webb (who also earned a bit of pop cultural immortality by serving as casting director for both Sharknados) has appeared in several beloved Asylum films as characters who inevitably always seem to end up getting killed.  It was nice, in A House Is Not A Home, to get to see Webb play a leading role and prove that he’s capable of a lot more than just a good death scene.  He gives an effective, sympathetic performance here.  In fact, the entire family does.  One reason that the film works as well as it does is because you believe that these four characters actually are a family.  You care about what happens to them and, as a result, the horror is all the more effective.

Finally, two final notes about A House Is Not A Home.  At its best, the film — with its emphasis on atmosphere and its scenes of the characters discovering that the house exists on its own plane of surreal logic — can compared favorably to the works of Italian horror director Lucio Fulci.  I don’t know if that was intentional or not.  But it’s definitely a good thing!

Secondly, and perhaps a little sadly, A House Is Not A Home is one of the few “serious” films that I’ve seen recently that featured an almost entirely African-American cast.  That’s really saying something when you consider that I literally watch hundreds of films a year.  At a time when mainstream filmmaking (and the horror genre in particular) still seems to be struggling to break free from racial stereotyping, A House Is Not A Home is definitely a step in the right direction.

A-House-is-Not-a-Home-Still-Bill-Cobbs-Paul

Trailer: Oz the Great and Powerful (Super Bowl Exclusive)


OzTheGreatandPowerful

Oz the Great and Powerful is the first film by Sam Raimi since he was removed as director of the Spider-Man franchise. While he tried to go back to his horror roots with the underappreciated Drag Me to Hell he’s back to doing big-budget event films.

The film looks to tell the story of the Great Wizard of Oz prior to Dorothy’s arrival in the original film. James Franco takes on the title role with Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz all taking on the roles of the three witches of Oz. The film’s plot looks to be a sort of hero’s journey as Oscar Diggs must discover his true self once he lands in the otherworldly realm of Oz.

Could this film be a return to fantasy form for Sam Raimi or will it be a film thats visually stunning but spiritually empty like Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland?

Only time will tell and while Raimi always delivers a visual treat and an entertaining film they sometimes don’t resonate with the general audience.

Oz the Great and Powerful is set for a March 8, 2013 release date.