Insomnia File #34: The Minus Man (dir by Hampton Fancher)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

Last night, if you were unable to sleep at one in the morning, you could have turned over to Starz and watched the 1999 film, The Minus Man!

The Minus Man is a strange little film about a rather odd man.  Vann (Owen Wilson) is a drifter.  He avoids questions about his past with the skill of someone who specializes in being whatever he needs to be at the moment.  When he rents a room from Doug and Jane Durwin (Brian Cox and Mercedes Ruehl), he tells them that he’s only drunk one beer over the course of his entire life, he always works, he always pays his rent on time, and that he’s never smoked “the dope.”  He says it so earnestly that it’s difficult to know whether you should take him seriously or not.  And yet, Vann is so likable and so charmingly spacey that you can’t help but understand why people automatically trust him.  Vann succeeds not because people believe him but because they want to believe him.

Vann’s new in town.  As he explains to a cop who pulls him over, he’s just interested in seeing the countryside.  From the minute that Vann shows up, he’s accepted by the community.  He goes to a high school football game and befriends the local star athlete (Eric Mabius).  He tries to help repair Doug and Jane’s marriage, which has been strained ever since the disappearance of their daughter.  With Doug’s aid, Vann gets a job at the post office and proves that he wasn’t lying when he said he was a hard worker.  Vann even pursues a tentative romance with the poignantly shy and insecure Ferrin (Janeane Garofalo).

In fact, it’s easy to imagine this film as being a sweet-natured dramedy where a drifter comes into town for the holidays and helps all of the townspeople deal with their problems.  However, from the first time we see him, we know that Vann has some issues.  As Detective Graves (Dennis Haysbert) puts it, Vann is a “cipher, a zero.”  There’s nothing underneath the pleasant surface.  Of course, Graves doesn’t really exist.  Neither does his partner, Detective Blair (Dwight Yoakam).  They’re two figments of Vann’s imagination.  They appear whenever Vann is doing something that he doesn’t want the world to find out about.

Whenever the urge hits him, Vann kills people.  When we first meet him, he’s picking up and subsequently murdering a heroin addict named Casper (Sheryl Crow).  Vann makes it a point to use poison because he says that it’s a painless death.  Vann also says that he’s doing his victims a favor, as he feels that the majority of them no longer want to live.  Vann is the type of killer who, after having committed his latest murder, sees nothing strange about volunteering to help search for the missing victim.

Like a lot of serial killer films, The Minus Man cheats by giving all of the best lines to the killer.  In real life, most serial killers are impotent, uneducated losers who usually end up getting caught as a result of their own stupidity.  In the movies, they’re always surprisingly loquacious and clever.  While Vann may not be a well-spoken as Hannibal Lecter, he’s still a lot more articulate than the majority of real-life serial killers.  As I watched the film, it bothered me that we didn’t really learn more about Vann’s victims.  (It would have been a far different film if someone had mentioned that Vann’s third, unnamed victim was “Randy, who was just having a bite to eat while shopping for a present for his little girl’s birthday.”)  Too often, The Minus Man seemed to be letting Vann off the hook in a way that a film like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer or even American Psycho never would.

That said, The Minus Man may be occasionally uneven but it’s still an intriguing and sometimes genuinely creepy film.  The Minus Man makes good use of Owen Wilson’s eccentric screen persona and Wilson gives a very good performance as a man who has become very skilled at hiding just how empty he actually is.  Much like everyone else in the film, you want to believe that there’s more to Vann than meets the eye because, as played by Wilson, he’s just so damn likable.  Over the course of the film, Vann and Doug develop this weird little bromance and, as good as Wilson is, Brian Cox’s performance is even more unsettling because we’re never quite sure what Doug may or may not be capable of doing.  Even Janeane Garofalo gives a touching and believable performance as a character who you find yourself sincerely hoping will not end up getting poisoned.

With all that in mind, I wouldn’t suggest watching this film if you’re trying to get over insomnia.  This is the type of unsettling film that will keep you awake and watching the shadows long after the final credits roll.

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace
  16. Kill The Messenger
  17. The Suburbans
  18. Only The Strong
  19. Great Expectations
  20. Casual Sex?
  21. Truth
  22. Insomina
  23. Death Do Us Part
  24. A Star is Born
  25. The Winning Season
  26. Rabbit Run
  27. Remember My Name
  28. The Arrangement
  29. Day of the Animals
  30. Still of The Night
  31. Arsenal
  32. Smooth Talk
  33. The Comedian

Film Review: 25th Hour (dir by Spike Lee)


(SPOILERS)

First released in 2003, 25th Hour is one of those films that gets better and better with each subsequent viewing.

Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) may have done some very bad things in the past but nearly everyone has benefited.  His childhood friends, a trader named Frank (Barry Pepper) and a teacher named Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), both get to live vicariously through their friend, even if neither one of them is quite willing to admit it.  Monty’s father (Brian Cox) is a retired fireman who now owns a bar that was largely purchased with the money that Monty made from dealing drugs.  Monty’s girlfriend, Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), is “living high” off of the profits of Monty’s drug deals.  For that matter, so is Monty.  Monty has a nice apartment, a loyal dog, and a supportive boss named Uncle Nikolai (Levan Uchaneishvili).

Of course, Monty understands that he’s in the business of destroying lives.  When Monty first met Naturelle, he had just completed a transaction with a well-dressed businessman.  Years later, when Monty is sitting on a bench with his dog, that same man approaches him and begs for more drugs.  The man’s no longer wearing a suit.  Now, he’s apparently homeless and so addicted that he takes it personally when Monty informs him that he’s no longer in the drug-selling business.

Why is Monty no longer selling?  Someone told on Monty.  When the DEA showed up at his apartment, it didn’t take long for them to find the packages that he had hidden in the cushions of the couch.  For all of his swagger and confidence, it would appear that Monty wasn’t quite as clever as he thought he was.  Monty was arrested and subsequently sentenced to seven years in prison.

The majority of 25th Hour takes place during Monty’s final night of freedom, a night that he’s planning on spending it with Frank and Jacob, both of whom could have made the same mistakes that he did but, for whatever reason, they didn’t.  Needless to say, Monty’s got a lot on his mind.  For all of his attempts to hide it, Monty isn’t as tough as he pretends to be.  He knows that it’s not going to be easy for him to do seven years in confinement.  He’s terrified of getting raped in prison and he worries that he’s going to be locked in a holding cell with 200 other criminals.  Both he and his friends know that, even if he does survive, he’ll be a different man when he gets out.  Frank suggests that he and Monty could open a bar when Monty is released but they both know this is an empty promise.  Not only is Monty is scared of the future but he’s haunted by the past.  Is he getting what he deserves?  What if he had made different choices?  Will Nautrelle wait for him or, as some of his associates suggest, is she the one who betrayed him in the first place?

Over the course of the night, both Frank and Jacob are also forced to deal with their feelings towards Monty.  Frank is a Type A personality, the one who spends his day screaming into telephones and who eagerly looks forward to exploiting bad economic news for his own financial gain.  Frank says that Monty is getting what he deserves but, as the film progresses, it becomes obvious that Frank knows that he has more in common with Monty than he wants to admit.  Jacob, on the other hand, is a socially awkward teacher who is struggling to deal with a crush that he’s developed on one of his students (Anna Paquin).  If Frank fears that he’s more like Monty than he wants to admit, Jacob wishes he could be more like him.  At first, it’s hard to imagine that these three men could ever have been close friends but, as soon as you see them together, it all makes sense.

As directed by Spike Lee, one of American cinema’s greatest provocateurs, 25th Hour is more than just the story of one man’s last night of freedom.  Over the course of the film, Monty becomes a symbol of not just New York City but of America itself.  Driven by self-interest, Monty has spent his life ignoring the consequences of his actions and, now that he has no choice but to confront them, it’s too late.  During the film’s most famous scene, Monty stares in a mirror while his reflection rants against every single neighborhood and ethnic group in New York City.  The rant is such a powerful scene that it’s easy to miss the most important point.  Only at the end of the rant does Monty’s reflection admit that he’s as much to blame for his life as any of them.

Oh yes, the Rant.  The Rant is so famous that I was almost tempted to not mention it in this review, just because it doesn’t seem as if there’s much left to be said about it.  Even people who dislike the film seem to be in agreement that the Rant is one of the most powerful and incendiary moments in early 21st century cinema.  The Rant gives us a portrait of a divided and angry society in collapse and it’s a portrait that is probably even more relevant today than it was when the film was first released.  The Rant feels like such a classic Spike Lee moment that it’s surprising to discover that the Rant was included in the script even before Lee was attached to the film.

A few things about the Rant:

  1. The film deliberately leaves it ambiguous as to whether or not Monty is actually speaking.  We see the back of his head and his reflection but the movement of his head rarely seems to match the movement of his reflection.  Regardless of whether Monty is actually speaking or just imagining the rant, the scene does make clear that, even on his way to prison, Monty can only truly express himself while alone.  Of course, once he’s locked up, Monty’s not going to be alone for at least seven years.
  2. “Enron!”  I have to admit that, when I recently rewatched film, I laughed when Monty started ranting about Enron.  I can vaguely remember a time when everyone was obsessed with Enron and Halliburton and all that other stuff so I found it funny that I briefly had to struggle to recall just what exactly Enron was.  16 years from now, I wonder if people will watch old movies and TV shows and say, “Why are they all so obsessed with Russia?”

As well-done and brilliantly acted as it may be, the Rant has tended overshadow an even better moment.  It has been said that the key to a successful work of art is a good ending.  As a writer, I can tell you that endings are a hundred times more difficult than beginnings.  Fortunately, 25th Hour has an absolutely brilliant ending.

After having finally convincing Frank to beat him up (in an effort to make himself look tougher once he arrives in prison), Monty is being driven to the prison by his father.  As they leave New York City, Monty takes one final look at the city and it’s citizens enjoying freedom that he’ll never again have.  (This is such a New York City that you can’t help but feel that it’s adding insult to injury that Monty’s going to have to serve his time upstate.)  As he drives, Monty’s father begins to talk…

It’s all about decisions and consequences.  Monty made his decisions years ago.  Over the course of Monty’s last night of freedom, Frank, Jacob, Naturelle, and even Uncle Nikolai made their decisions.  And now, as he drives his son to prison, Monty’s father is forced to make a decision of his own.  There’s so much great acting to be found in 25th Hour but, during that final soliloquy, Brian Cox upstages all of them.  Brian Cox is one of those character actors who seems as if he’s been around forever.  He’s the type of dependable actor who, much like Monty’s father, is often taken for granted.  If nothing else, you have to be thankful for a film like 25th Hour because it gives everyone a chance to be reminded of just how brilliant an actor Brian Cox truly is.

(Here’s a random bit of a Brian Cox trivia.  While everyone knows that, in Manhunter, Brian Cox was the first actor to play Hannibal Lecter, he also played Winton Churchill the same year that Gary Oldman won an Oscar for playing the same role in Darkest Hour.)

25th Hour is not an easy film to watch.  At times, it’s one of the most depressing films ever made.  It’s tempting to say that, as bad as things ultimately turn out for him, you’re glad that Monty has his father and his friends but that’s really not true.  No matter how much his friends care about him or how much Naturelle and his father love him, Monty’s going to prison and his story is simply not going to have a happy ending.

And yet, 25th Hour is one of those films that you can’t look away from and, after you watch it, you simply can’t forget.  Every time I watch 25th Hour, I find new details to appreciate.  With each subsequent viewing, the pungent dialogue becomes even more multi-layered.  With each subsequent viewing, Monty becomes even more of an intriguing and tragic figure.  This is a film that makes you appreciate the brilliance of Edward Norton and mourn the fact that Barry Pepper rarely gets roles as good as his role here.  With each viewing, 25th Hour reminds you of what a great talent we lost when we lost Philip Seymour Hoffman.  It’s film that gets better with each viewing.

Assuming that Monty survived and managed to stay out of trouble, he should be out of prison by now.  Hopefully, wherever he is, he’s doing okay.

Playing Catch-Up With The Films of 2017: Churchill (dir by Jonathan Teplitzky)


2017 is shaping up to be the year of films about Winston Churchill.

For instance, Dunkirk has been an Oscar front-runner ever since it was released last summer.  Winston Churchill does not actually appear in Dunkirk but his shadow hangs over the entire film.  Whenever Mark Rylance says that he’s doing what the prime minister requested him to do, we know that he’s talking about Winston Churchill.

Darkest Hour, which I hope to see this week, features Gary Oldman in the role of Churchill.  For most of the year, a lot of people (like me) assumed that Darkest Hour would be a definite best picture nominee and a probable winner.  While the film seems to have lost a little of its luster, everyone still seems to agree that Gary Oldman is not only going to be nominated by best actor but that he also has a pretty chance of finally winning.

However, before either of those films were released, there was Churchill.  Chuchill received a very limited release in June.  It starred Brian Cox in the title role and it took place in the days leading up to D-Day.  It follows Churchill as he struggles with self-doubt.  He is haunted by nightmares about the men he lost while a military commander in 1915.  He worries that he is being marginalized by the Americans (represented by John Slattery in the role of Dwight D. Eisenhower).  He worries that if he authorizes the invasion of Normandy, he’ll run the risk of losing whatever prestige he has left.  What if the invasion ends in disaster?

That question right there is the main problem with Churchill.  If you know anything about history, you know that the invasion of Normandy was a victory for the Allies, albeit a costly one.  Therefore, for this film to maintain any sort of suspense about what ‘s going to happen, it has to be viewed by people who don’t know about history.  But people who don’t care about history probably won’t be interested in watching a somewhat stuffy film about Winston Churchill.

Despite a few surrealistic nightmare sequences, Churchill ultimately feels like it belongs more on PBS than a movie screen.  It doesn’t surprise me to learn that the majority of director Jonathan Treplitzky’s work has been for British television because Churchill really does feel like a heavily edited version of a 6-hour miniseries.  You watch and you’re impressed by the production values and some of the performances but you find yourself wondering if certain have scenes have been cut out.  If Churchill had been made for HBO, I imagine that Brian Cox and Miranda Richardson (as Churchill’s wife) would be Emmy front-runners.  But, as a feature film, it feels like a decidedly minor portrayal of a major figure.

One final note: all films about the British government during World War II are required to feature at least one scene with King George VI.  Colin Firth, in The King’s Speech, remains the best George.  Laurence Fox in W.E. was the worst.  In Churchill, King George VI is played by James Purefoy.  He doesn’t have a big role but he does a good job with it.  To be honest, I wish that his role had been bigger because he and Cox are entertaining to watch when they’re acting opposite each other.

 

 

The TSL’s Horror Grindhouse: The Autopsy of Jane Doe (dir by André Øvredal)


I have to admit that I’ve watched so many horror films that I’m sometimes tempted to get a little bit jaded about them.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love the genre.  I love watching horror movies.  I love analyzing horror movies.  I love writing about horror movies.  It’s just that, after you’ve watched a few hundred of them, it becomes easier to pick up on all the little tricks.  For instance, I now know not to worry whenever anyone hears a strange sound in the kitchen because it’s inevitably just going to be a cat in a cabinet.  Instead, it’s only after the cat has run by and caused everyone to jump that you have to start worrying about something terrible to happen.  I also know that there’s a good chance that the first chase scene is going to turn out to be an elaborate nightmare.  As such, I sometimes I get cynical about whether or not I can really be frightened anymore.

But then I watch something like The Autopsy of Jane Doe.

I watched The Autopsy of Jane Doe back in Decemeber.  It was two in the morning.  I was alone in the house.  It was raining outside.  I was having trouble sleeping so, of course, I decided why not sit in the dark in my underwear and watch a horror movie?  At the time, it didn’t occur to me that I was essentially putting myself in a classic horror movie situation.  It was only later, when I was lying in bed with all the lights on and freaking out about every little noise that I heard that I realized my mistake.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe takes place in a morgue in a small town.  The body of a woman has been brought in.  It is believed that she died in a house fire but there are no signs of trauma on her body.  Her finger prints are not on record.  No one knows who she is.  Over the course of the night, coroner Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox) and his son, Austin (Emile Hirsch), examine the body.  With each incision, the mystery of Jane Doe’s identity deepens.  The inside of her body is as damaged as the outside is perfect.

As the night continues, strange things start to happen inside the morgue.  It’s small things at first.  Strange sounds are heard.  Austin thinks that he sees something out of the corner of his eye.  A storm starts to rage outside.  Austin says that they should stop the autopsy but Tommy says that they have to finish what they’ve started…

And things only escalate from there.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe sneaks up on you.  It starts out as a collection of small scares and subtle hints that all is not right.  At first, you’re kind of like, “Yeah, it’s weird noises and shadows in the corner.  It’s a horror movie.  Of course, that’s going on…”  And then suddenly, about halfway through the film, you realize that you’re totally tense.  All of those small scares have added up, leaving you wondering when the big scares are going to start.  And when those big scares do arrive, they deliver.  By confining the movie to one location, director André Øvredal creates a palpable atmosphere of claustrophobia and impending doom.  It helps that Brian Cox is one of those older, paternal actors who you always expect to be in control of things so seeing him in a situation where he has no control carries an unexpectedly strong emotional impact.

If you doubt the power of horror, The Autopsy of Jane Doe will make you a believer.

Film Review: The Ring (dir by Gore Verbinski)


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(SPOILERS BELOW!)

This weekend, I will be seeing Rings, the second sequel to the 2002 film, The Ring.  (Of course, The Ring itself is a remake of the Japanese film, Ringu.)  Since it’s been a while since we’ve had a new installment in the Ring franchise, I decided to rewatch the first film tonight.

I have to admit that I had a few concerns before I rewatched The Ring.  When I first saw The Ring, it scared me to the extent that I actually had nightmares afterward.  Even after all these years, the image of that little girl emerging from the well and then crawling out of the television still makes me shiver.  But even with that in mind, I still found myself wondering if The Ring would live up to my vivid memories.

After all, it’s been 14 years since The Ring was released and, since that time, it’s been copied and imitated by literally hundreds of other PG-13 rated horror movies.  Would the shocks still be effective, now that I knew they were coming and that I would no longer be surprised to learn that the little girl in the well was actually evil?

Add to that, there was the question of technology.  In 2002, it seemed all too plausible that people could be trading back and forth a cursed VHS tape.  The Ring was made at a time when DVDs were still considered to be exotic.  When The Ring first came out, YouTube didn’t even exist.  But today, both VHS tapes and VCRs are artifacts of another era.  DVDs have been replaced by Blu-rays and Blu-rays are in the process of being replaced by streaming services.  For The Ring to work, you had to be able to relate to people watching a VHS tape.  Today, all of these people would be too busy watching cute cat videos on YouTube to fall into The Ring‘s trap.

In short, would The Ring still work in the age of Netflix?  And would the film still be as scary as it was when it was first released?  These were the question that I found myself wondering as I sat down to rewatch The Ring.

And the answer to both questions is … for the most part, yes.

Here’s the good news.  All the important things still work.  The performances of Martin Henderson, David Dorfman, Amber Tamblyn, and especially Naomi Watts hold up well.  Gore Verbinski’s direction is still effective and, as I rewatched the film, I was surprised to see how many odd and quirky details that Verbinski managed to work into the film.  (I especially enjoyed the magic-obsessed desk clerk.)  The cursed video was still creepy and compulsively watchable and I still felt uneasy while watching Anna Morgan (played by Shannon Cochran) comb her hair in that mirror.  Even more importantly, the little girl in the well, Samara Morgan (Daveigh Chase), was still incredibly frightening.

Admittedly, The Ring is dated and some of its effectiveness has been diluted by imitation.  Unfortunately, that’s something that happens with any financially successful horror film.  Beyond that, as effective as the entire film was, there were parts of The Ring that did feel undeniably silly.  There’s a lengthy scene in which Naomi Watts, while on a ferry, attempts to talk to a horse and the horse reacts by jumping into the ocean.  I understand that the scene was probably meant to establish that, as a result of watching that videotape, Watts was now cursed.  But, still, I kept wondering why Watts was bothering the horse in the first place.  I mean, I love horses too but I know better than to disturb one while on a ferry.  As well, the film’s opening sequence — in which Amber Tamblyn is menaced and ultimately killed by Samara — no longer felt as effective as it did when I first saw it, largely due to the fact that it’s been copied by so many other horror films.  Imitation may be the ultimate compliment but it does tend to dilute the effectiveness of horror.

But, in the end, The Ring held up well enough.  The film’s storyline — characters watch a cursed video tape and then, seven days later, are killed by Samara — was simple but enjoyable.  And, when David Dorfman delivered his classic line: “No.  You weren’t supposed to help her,” I still felt a chill run down my spine.

Will Rings hold up as well as The Ring?

I’ll find out this weekend!

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Playing Catch-Up With The Lesser Films of 2015: Get Hard, Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, Pixels, The Wedding Ringer


SPOILER ALERT!

One or more of the films reviewed below will appear on my list of the 16 Worst Films of 2015!  Can you guess which one(s)?

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Get Hard (dir by Etan Cohen)

Will Ferrell is funny and Kevin Hart is funny and you would think that putting them together in one movie would be especially funny but … nope.  Get Hard, which I watched on HBO a few weeks ago, is incredibly not funny.  Ferrell plays a hedge fund manager who is convicted of fraud and embezzlement and it’s a sign of how haphazard this film is that I was never really sure whether he was supposed to be guilty or not.  Anyway, Ferrell is terrified of going to prison but fortunately, he runs into Kevin Hart.  Hart is playing the owner of a car wash here, a mild-mannered family man who simply wants to be able to afford to send his daughter to a good school.  However, Ferrell assumes that, since Hart is black, Hart must be an ex-con.

So, Ferrell hires Hart to teach him how to survive in prison and Hart agrees.  And, to be honest, this is not a terrible idea for an edgy satire but the film pulls it punches and never really exposes or challenges the racism that led to Ferrell hiring Hart in the first place.  Instead, it’s more interested in making homophobic jokes about prison rape (there’s a particularly long and unpleasant scene where Ferrell attempts to learn how to give a blow job that feels like it was lifted from a deservedly forgotten 90s film) and eventually, it devolves into a painfully predictable action film.

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Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 (dir by Andy Fickman)

I know what someone out there is saying.

“YOU’VE NEVER EVEN SEEN THE FIRST PAUL BLART: MALL COP!!!  WHO THE HELL ARE YOU TO REVIEW THE SEQUEL!?”

Well, listen — it’s true.  I’ve never seen the first film and the only reason I watched the second one (on HBO at a friend’s house, which means that it literally cost me nothing) was because I had heard how terrible it was and I figured that I should see it before making out my list of the worst films of the year.  But, even with that in mind, I think I can still give this film a fair review.

(At the very least, I’ll try.  Dammit, I’ll try.)

Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 is one of those films that is so forgettable that you forget about it while you’re watching.  Kevin James plays Paul Blart, a mall security guard who goes to Las Vegas for a security guard convention and ends up getting involved in thwarting a big heist.  It’s a comedy, though I can’t think of a single time I laughed.  Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 was not quite the abomination that I had been led to expect.  It was, in no way, comparable to Birdemic, April Rain, or Man of Steel.  Instead, it was just an incredibly empty and soulless film.  It was a zombie movie that existed only to eat money.

One thing that is frustrating about a film like Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 is that Kevin James seems like he could actually survive appearing in a good film, if he could just get a chance to make one.  He’s likable and he’s got an everyman quality about him.  But, for now, he seems to be trapped in films where he either plays Paul Blart or he’s surrounded by talking animals.

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Pixels (dir by Chris Columbus)

Speaking of Kevin James, he’s also in Pixels!  He plays William Cooper.  When he was a kid, he was obsessed with playing video games.  Now that he’s an adult, he’s the President of the United States!  And he still keeps in contact with his best friend from childhood, Sam.  Sam, needless to say, will never be President.  When Sam was a kid, he was traumatized when he lost a national video game championship.  Now that he’s an adult, he installs home-theater systems and he’s played by Adam Sandler…

When Earth is invaded, it turns out that the aliens are under the impression that video games are real!  So, they recreate a bunch of classic video game characters and send them off to do havoc.  Who better to stop them than the President and Sam?  And who better to help than a nerdy conspiracy theorist (Josh Gad) and Eddie Planet (Peter Dinklage), the same guy who cheated in order to defeat Sam at the video game championship….

If you’re thinking that sounds like way too much plot for a silly comedy about video games coming to life, you’re right.  Pixels has some cute moments (though, based on the comments and occasional laughter of the middle-aged people in the theater around me, I get the feeling that a lot of the film’s video game-themed humor was a bit too “before my time” for me to fully appreciate) but oh my God, it was such an unnecessarily busy movie.  The idea behind Pixels had some potential but the film refused to take advantage of it.

I’ve said this before and I always get some strange looks but I honestly do think that — if he would actually break out of his comfort zone and stop doing movies that mostly seem to be about finding an excuse to hang out with his friends — Adam Sandler could be an acceptable dramatic actor.  Check out his work in Punch-Drunk Love, Funny People, Reign Over Me, Spanglish, and even the first half of The Cobbler.  (Tarantino even wrote the role of Donny Donowitz in Inglourious Basterds with Sandler in mind.)  The fact that Sandler could be doing good work makes his continual bad work all the more frustrating and annoying.

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The Wedding Ringer (dir by Jeremy Garelick)

And speaking of Josh Gad…he’s also in The Wedding Ringer!  For that matter, so is Kevin Hart.  Hart plays a guy who, for a sizable fee, will pretend to the lifelong best friend (and best man) for grooms who do not have enough real friends to fill out a wedding party.  Hart refuses to get emotionally involved with his clients but that all changes when, despite himself, he becomes friends with Josh Gad, who is on the verge of getting married to Kaley Cuoco.

The Wedding Ringer got terrible reviews but it also was very popular with audiences and I imagine a lot of that had to do with the relationship between Hart and Gad.  Both of them give very sincere performances that elevate some otherwise unpromising material.  The Wedding Ringer wasn’t good (it’s predictable, it’s portrayal of Kaley Cuoco’s character verges on misogynistic) but, at the same time, it wasn’t as bad as it was made out to be.  In the end, it was pretty much a typical January film.

I'm so excited!  I'm so excited!  I'm so ... wait a minute, am I just here because this is a post about bad movies?

I’m so excited! I’m so excited! I’m so … wait a minute, am I just here because this is a post about bad movies?

Which of these four films will make my list of the worst 16 films of 2015?  The answer shall be revealed soon!

 

 

Film Review: Anna (dir by Jorge Dorado)


AnnaI just finished watching Anna, a Spanish thriller that was briefly given an American release way back in June.  Anna (which was produced under the title Mindscape) got fairly bad reviews, with many critics dismissing it as being a weak imitation of Inception.

Having now seen the film, I can say that, once again, the critics were wrong.

Oh, don’t get me wrong.  It’s obvious that without Inception, there never would have been an Anna.  But, as any fan of old school Italian horror can tell you, imitation is not necessarily a bad thing.  Anna may start out as a low-budget take on Inception but, by the end of the film, it has established its own unique identity.

Anna tells the story of John (Mark Strong), a “memory detective.”  John has the power to enter into people’s memories, where he can search for clues to help people deal with psychological trauma and to occasionally help the police solve crimes.  At the start of the film, John is recovering from a trauma of his own.  After their son dies, his wife — who is also a memory detective — retreats so deeply into her memories that she can’t come back.  (Yes, I know.  It’s exactly like Inception.  Just be patient…)  While exploring the memories of an assault victim, John’s own memories start to intrude on the victim’s memories, leading to John having a stroke.

After John recovers from the stroke, he finds himself both financially destitute and emotionally unstable.  His boss (Brian Cox) takes sympathy on John and assigns him to what should be an easy case.  16 year-old Anna (Taissa Farmiga) is refusing to eat and her extremely wealthy parents want to know why.

John meets Anna and discovers that she’s a sarcastic, intelligent, and withdrawn teenager.  When John enters into her mind, he discovers memories of neglect and abuse.  The night after John first enters Anna’s memories, her nurse is pushed down a flight of stairs.  The nurse claims that Anna pushed her while Anna swears that she’s being framed.  Anna’s parents, meanwhile, have signed papers to have her committed, giving John just a few days to determine what’s behind Anna’s behavior.

Convinced that she’s innocent, John enters into Anna’s memories and searches for clues that will answer the question of whether Anna is a victim or a sociopath.  As he does so, he finds more and more evidence that Anna was abused.  However, he also starts to discover hints that there may be more to Anna’s memories than he originally realized.

Anna is a good and entertaining mystery of a film, one that takes its time telling its multi-layered story.  Jorge Dorado makes his directorial debut with Anna and he wisely emphasizes characterization and atmosphere above all else.  There’s a dream-like sense of menace that fills every frame of the film, casting a palpable feeling of unease over both John and the audience.  As a result of his work here, I’m definitely looking forward to seeing what Dorado does in the future.

Mark Strong is a talented and intelligent actor who has gotten typecast as a villain.  As such, it’s nice to see him actually get a chance to be the star for once.  Strong gives a sympathetic performance while adding just enough instability that the audience is never totally at ease with John.  The same can also be said of Taissa Farmiga, who gives a wonderfully ambiguous performance that makes Anna both innocent and destructive at the same time.  Anna keeps both John and the audience guessing until the very end of the film.

Anna is currently making the rounds on cable.  I would recommend keeping an eye out for it.

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