White Mile (1994, Directed by Robert Butler)


In this HBO movie, Alan Alda plays the biggest asshole in the world.

Alda is cast as Dan Cutler, an ad exec who books a corporate retreat to Canada’s White Mile.  He tells the nine men who accompany him, some of whom are clients and some of whom work for him, that it’s going to be a weekend of fishing and male bonding.  What he doesn’t reveal is that the trip is also going to require whitewater rafting.  Despite the fact that the majority of the men are out-of-shape and hardly any of them have any rafting experience, Dan insists that they all take part.  When their guide says that they’re going to need to take two boats, Dan refuses.  He wants everyone in one boat, the better so they can all work together to prove their manhood by conquering the river.

The trip starts out well but, when the raft hits a rock and turns over, five of the men end up dead.  Despite injuring his leg, Dan survives and, when he returns to work, he’s hailed as a hero.  However, one of the widows of the men who didn’t survive is now suing the company.  While Dan tries to cover his own ass, one of the survivors — Jack Robbins (Peter Gallagher) — is faced with a dilemma of his own.  As one of the few people who knows that Dan demanded that the guide only use one boat, will Jack testify to the truth at the trial or will he follow Dan’s orders and keep quiet about what really happened?

Based on a true story, White Mile features some brief but exciting (and harrowing) rafting scenes but the film is less about what happened in the wilderness and instead about what’s happening behind the closed doors of corporate America.  White Mile does a good job of taking Alda’s sensitive male persona and pushing it through the looking glass.  As played by Alda, Dan is the type of tyrannical boss who we’ve all had to deal with.  His friendly smile barely disguises a bullying streak.  Even after the accident leaves five of his colleagues dead, Dan is still convinced that the trip was a good idea and that everyone was having the best day of their lives until they hit that rock.  When the river guide initially finds Dan stranded on a rock, Dan makes a show of telling the guide to come back for him later and to find the others.  When Dan later comes across one of the dead men, he says, “He must have had a bad heart,” as he grasps at any way to avoid taking responsibility.  Though White Mile is dominated by Alda’s villainy, it also features good performances from Gallagher, Robert Loggia, Bruce Altman, and Jack Gilipin.  When Gilpin demands to know if anyone at the ad agency has shown any true remorse for what happened, he is speaking for the entire audience.

White Mile was an early HBO film and, because it was released before HBO became known for its original programming, it’s often unfairly overlooked.  When it was released on DVD, it was advertised as being an action-adventure film, which it definitely is not.  Instead, it’s a look at the type of head games that far too often act as a substitute for responsible and ethical management in corporate America.  It’s a good movie and you’ll never look at Alan Alda the same way again.

Catching Up With The Films of 2018: Fifty Shades Freed (dir by James Foley)


“Mrs. Grey will see you now.”  (Insert your own eye roll GIF here.)

Occasionally, you see a film and, even though you know you should, you just never get around to reviewing it.  For instance, I saw Fifty Shades Freed when it was originally released in February and then I watched it again when it was released on DVD.  Both times, I thought to myself that I should write down my thoughts on the film, if for no other reason than the fact that I previously reviewed both Fifty Shades of Grey and Fifty Shades Darker for this site.  And yet, I never did.  To be honest, it was difficult to really think of anything to say about this movie that I hadn’t said about the previous two films.

Fifty Shades Freed opens with Christian (Jamie Dornan) and Ana (Dakota Johnson) getting married and going on their honeymoon.  It’s fun!  It’s sexy!  And it’s kinda creepy because, as always, Christian has control issues and he has to have his security team following them all over the place.  Christian freaks out with Ana removes her top on the beach.  Ana gasps at the sights of handcuffs.  There’s one hot sex scene that will temporarily make you forget about the fact that Jamie Dornan doesn’t seem to be that good of an actor.  It’s everything that you’d expect from a Fifty Shades honeymoon.

Unfortunately, the honeymoon ends way too quickly and then we have to deal with the marriage.  On the plus side, marrying Christian Grey means that you get to live in a really nice house and fly around in a private jet.  On the negative side, Christian is still basically an immature douchebag and, now that’s she rich, Ana has become a lot less likable.

Christian freaks out when he discovers that Ana is still using the name “Ana Steele” in her email address.  Ana explains that she’s Ana Steele at work but then, when she meets an architect named Gia Matteo (Arielle Kebbell), Ana tells her to stop flirting with her husband and announces, “You can call me Mrs. Grey!” with all the intensity of Kelly Kapowski announcing that she’s going to prom with Zach Morris on Saved By The Bell.

The marriage continues to play out like a perfume commercial written by Sartre’s bastard child.  Fortunately, there’s a few more sex scenes that are designed to again remind us that a good body can make up for a lack of everything else.  Unfortunately, Ana gets upset when Christian tries to humiliate her for real and a pouty Christian walks out of a shower as soon as Ana steps into it.  Ana is told that she’s pregnant and Christian totally freaks out because he still has all sorts of things that he wants to do with his money.  Christian’s a douchebag but he’s got a good body and he’s like super rich.  Have I already mentioned that?

Anyway, it turns out that Ana is being stalked by her former boss, Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson).  Fortunately, all of the stalking allows Ana and Christian to rediscover their love for each other.  There’s a kidnapping.  There’s a car chase.  There’s a lot of music and a lot of scenes of Dakota Johnson looking confused and Jamie Dornan looking blank.  It’s a Fifty Shades movie.  What else were you expecting?

The usual argument that critics tend to make with the Fifty Shades trilogy is that the movies are terrible but Dakota Johnson does the best that she can with the material.  Actually, both Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan are pretty lousy in all three of these films but Ana was at least kind of a sympathetic character in the previous two films.  Unfortunately, Fifty Shades Freed sees Ana and Christian becoming a boring married couple and what little chemistry Dornan and Johnson had in the previous films completely vanishes.  As a result, Ana doesn’t seem like someone lucky enough to have fallen in love with a man who just happens to be super wealthy.  Instead, she just comes across like someone who sold her soul for a private jet.

Fifty Shades Freed is the weakest of the trilogy, done in by the fact that there’s really not much of a story to tell.  Ana and Christian get to live blissfully ever after and it’s always good to see happy mannequins.  I saw this movie with my best friend and we talked through the entire movie and I imagine that’s what we’ll do every time we rewatch it.

Stallone Acts: Cop Land (1997, directed by James Mangold)


Garrison, New Jersey is a middle class suburb that is known as Cop Land.  Under the direction of Lt. Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel), several NYPD cops have made their home in Garrison, financing their homes with bribes that they received from mob boss Tony Torillo (Tony Sirico).  The corrupt cops of Garrison, New Jersey live, work, and play together, secure in the knowledge that they can do whatever they want because Donlan has handpicked the sheriff.

Sheriff Freddy Heflin (Sylvester Stallone) always dreamed of being a New York cop but, as the result of diving into icy waters to save a drowning girl, Freddy is now deaf in one ear.  Even though he knows that they are all corrupt, Freddy still idolizes cops like Donlan, especially when Donlan dangles the possibility of pulling a few strings and getting Freddy an NYPD job in front of him.  The overweight and quiet Freddy spends most of his time at the local bar, where he’s the subject of constant ribbing from the “real” cops.  Among the cops, Freddy’s only real friend appears to be disgraced narcotics detective, Gary Figgis (Ray Liotta).

After Donlan’s nephew, Murray Babitch (Michael Rapaport), kills two African-American teenagers and then fakes his own death to escape prosecution, Internal Affairs Lt. Moe Tilden (Robert De Niro) approaches Freddy and asks for his help in investigating the corrupt cops of Garrison.  At first, Freddy refuses but he is soon forced to reconsider.

After he became a star, the idea that Sylvester Stallone was a bad actor because so universally accepted that people forgot that, before he played Rocky and Rambo, Stallone was a busy and respectable character actor.  Though his range may have been limited and Stallone went through a period where he seemed to always pick the worst scripts available, Stallone was never as terrible as the critics often claimed.  In the 90s, when it became clear that both the Rocky and the Rambo films had temporarily run their course, Stallone attempted to reinvent his image.  Demolition Man showed that Stallone could laugh at himself and Cop Land was meant to show that Stallone could act.

For the most part, Stallone succeeded.  Though there are a few scenes where the movie does seem to be trying too hard to remind us that Freddy is not a typical action hero, this is still one of Sylvester Stallone’s best performances.  Stallone plays Freddy as a tired and beaten-down man who knows that he’s getting one final chance to prove himself.  It helps that Stallone’s surrounded by some of the best tough guy actors of the 90s.  Freddy’s awkwardness around the “real” cops is mirrored by how strange it initially is to see Stallone acting opposite actors like Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, and Ray Liotta.  Cop Land becomes not only about Freddy proving himself as a cop but Stallone proving himself as an actor.

The film itself is sometimes overstuffed.  Along with the corruption investigation and the search for Murray Babitch, there’s also a subplot about Freddy’s unrequited love for Liz Randone (Annabella Sciorra) and her husband’s (Peter Berg) affair with Donlan’s wife (Cathy Moriarty).  There’s enough plot here for a Scorsese epic and it’s more than Cop Land‘s 108-minute run time can handle.  Cop Land is at its best when it concentrates on Freddy and his attempt to prove to himself that he’s something more than everyone else believes.  The most effective scenes are the ones where Freddy quietly drinks at the local tavern, listening to Gary shoot his mouth off and stoically dealing with the taunts of the people that he’s supposed to police.  By the time that Freddy finally stands up for himself, both you and he have had enough of everyone talking down to him.  The film’s climax, in which a deafened Freddy battles the corrupt cops of Garrison, is an action classic.

Though the story centers on Stallone, Cop Land has got a huge ensemble cast.  While it’s hard to buy Janeane Garofalo as a rookie deputy, Ray Liotta and Robert Patrick almost steal the film as two very different cops.  Interestingly, many members of the cast would go on to appear on The Sopranos.  Along with Sirico, Sciorra, Patrick, and Garofalo, keep an eye out for Frank Vincent, Arthur Nascarella, Frank Pelligrino, John Ventimiglia, Garry Pastore,  and Edie Falco in small roles.

Cop Land was considered to be a box office disappointment when it was released and Stallone has said that the film’s failure convinced people that he was just an over-the-hill action star and that, for eight years after it was released, he couldn’t get anyone to take his phone calls.  At the time, Cop Land‘s mixed critical and box office reception was due to the high expectations for both the film and Stallone’s performance.  In hindsight, it’s clear that Cop Land was a flawed but worthy film and that Stallone’s performance remains one of his best.

 

Film Review: Fifty Shades Darker (dir by James Foley)


The Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy is shaping up to be the cinematic equivalent of a twitter parody account.

That’s the conclusion that I reached today after my BFF Evelyn and I watched the second part of the trilogy, Fifty Shades Darker.  Since we had both read the book, we weren’t shocked when Fifty Shades Darker turned out to be a bad movie.  Hell, we weren’t surprised when Fifty Shades of Grey turned out to be bad, either.  Each subsequent book was worst than the one that came before it so, when the film version of Fifty Shades Freer is released next year, it should be the worst of all.

Still, nothing could have prepared us for the amount of laugh-out-loud moments and odd details that were offered up in Fifty Shades Darker.  Consider just a few:

Having broken up with Christian “I’m fifty shades of fucked up” Grey at the end of the previous film, Ana Steele (Dakota Johnson, doing penance in the hope of being sprung from Purgatory) is now working for a hip and trendy Seattle publishing company!  How do we know that it’s hip and trendy?  Well, it’s in Seattle and it’s called Seattle Independent Publishing!  (As opposed to Seattle Corporate Press.)  Her boss, Jack (Eric Hyde) leers at her in a style that basically screams, “Lifetime movie villain!”  There’s a scene in which Ana tells her editors that they should be making more of an attempt to reach readers in the “18-24 demographic” and everyone reacts as if this is the first time that they’ve ever heard about this concept.  You half expect someone to say, “18 to 24 year olds!  WHY DIDN’T WE THINK OF THAT!?”  Seriously, after seeing this, I’m going to send my resume to the Dallas Observer, along with a note that says, “18-24.  Hire me for more info.”

When Christian (poor Jamie Dornan, who I’m pretty sure was trying to blink out an S.O.S. signal at certain points in the film) and Ana first reunite, it’s to attend an art show.  Ana’s artist friend has filled an entire gallery with photos of Ana, the majority of which resemble the “sexy” photos that Darcy posted to her MyRoom page in that very special episode of Degrassi.  Christian buys all the pictures because he can’t handle the idea of anyone else having Ana on their wall.  This obsessive and controlling act is just enough to apparently make Ana reconsider her decision to dump Christian because he was being too obsessive and controlling.

50

Christian eventually confesses to Ana that he’s only attracted to women who look like his mother and he punishes them because he’s angry with her.  “Oh, Christian, your Oedipal complex is so sexy,” Ana coos.  Okay, she doesn’t say that.  I said that and then Evelyn said something that I can’t repeat.  And then we laughed and laughed.  Don’t get me wrong.  I know that everyone has their issues and God knows, I’ve got a few myself.  But the minute a guy tells me that he’s only dating me because I look like his mother, that’s the minute I leave.

When Christian tells Ana about his messed up childhood, Ana responds by drawing on his chest with lipstick.  And I swear, that lipstick remains on his chest — without a smudge — for at least a few days.  Every time we would catch a glimpse of those perfect lipstick markings on Christian’s chest, Evelyn and I would start laughing.  I mean, drawing on your partner (or having your partner draw on you) can be fun but most people wash it off after a while.

(Incidentally, when the Scary Movie people get around to parodying this movie, you know that the lipstick scene is going to be recreated.)

Christian’s childhood bedroom is decorated with a poster of Vin Diesel.  When Christian is pouring out his heart, Vin Diesel is glowering in the background.  It would have been neat if the poster had suddenly come to life.  Perhaps Vin could have suddenly appeared in the bedroom and said, “Someday … BUT NOT TODAY!”

And I’m not even going to talk about the Ben Wa balls.

fifty-shades-darker-teaser-intrigued

Anyway, there’s really not much of a plot in Fifty Shades Darker.  Ana gets back together with Christian but says that she wants to have a “vanilla” relationship.  Christian agrees but he still keeps doing controlling stuff, like buying Ana’s company and freezing her bank account.  Ana gets mad.  Ana breaks up with him.  They get back together.  This happens a few times.  Christian tells Ana to stay away from a man.  Ana gets upset but then the man tries to rape her which feels like the film’s way of putting her in her place for doubting Christian’s instincts when it comes to men.  Kim Basinger pops up as the woman who introduced Christian to BDSM and tells Ana that Christian will never be happy in a vanilla relationship.  Ana says that vanilla is her favorite ice cream.  Here’s my thing: why can’t Ana come up with a more complimentary term than “vanilla” to describe her relationship goals?  I mean, Ana’s clever.  She came up with that whole 18-24 thing, after all.

There’s also a crazy woman (Bella Heathcote) who shows up occasionally.  We know she’s crazy because she’s dressed like someone who lives in an abandoned subway tunnel.  She occasionally grabs Ana and says, “I’m nobody!”  Hmmm….I wonder what that’s about…

(Well, don’t wonder too much.  There’s not a single mystery or question in Fifty Shades Darker that isn’t solved a scene or two after it’s raised.)

One of the redeeming things about Fifty Shades of Grey is that neither Dakota Johnson nor director Sam Taylor-Johnson seemed to be taking it all that seriously.  Dakota would pause meaningfully before delivering the worst of her dialogue, a sign that even she couldn’t believe what she was about to say.  Meanwhile, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s direction suggested that she found the story to be just as ludicrous and stupid as everyone else.  However, Fifty Shades Darker is directed by James Foley.  Foley is a veteran director, one who has been making films since before I was born.  He does a workmanlike job and you can almost hear him shouting, “Now, where’s my paycheck!?” during certain scenes.  Under Foley’s direction, there’s no winking at the audience.  There’s no hints of subversion.  Foley’s direction is very literal and more than a little dull.  He was hired to direct a big-budget version of a Chanel No. 5 commercial and that’s exactly what he does.

50

The other big issue with Fifty Shades Darker is that Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan have very little romantic chemistry.  They both look good naked but that’s about it.  Jamie looks miserable to be there and Dakota seems to be trying to keep herself amused.  The lack of chemistry was less of a problem in Fifty Shades of Grey.  In that film, all that mattered was that Christian was rich and hot and Ana didn’t really haven’t anything better to do.  But, in Fifty Shades Darker, we’re asked to believe that they’re actually deeply in love and … no, it just doesn’t work.

Evelyn and I laughed through the entire movie.  In the past, we’ve gotten in trouble for doing this because we do have a tendency to get a little bit loud.  However, nobody in the audience seemed to mind.

Anyway, Fifty Shades Freer will be coming out next year.  Hopefully, someone will read this review and work my idea about the Vin Diesel cameo into the film.

Seriously, it would be great!

vin-diesel-jamie-dornan

Quickie Review: Running Scared (dir. by Wayne Kramer)


Director Wayne Kramer’s follow-up to his directorial debut (The Cooler) shows that he has a flair for drama and suspense that borders the line between reality and surrealism. Running Scared has such a gritty, washed out look right from the get-go that one starts to think it’s a film lifted right out of the 70’s. But that is only part of what Kramer does in creating a look and feel for Running Scared. Kramer actually uses every kind of trick in a director’s book to give his film such an over-the-top sense that the audience really doesn’t know what to expect just around the next dark corner.

Running Scared‘s first ten minutes sets up what the rest of the next two hours are going to be like. Kramer direct’s this ten minutes like a man possessed. The direction and editing is frantic and frenetic. Some have said that it’s all been done before by Tarantino, Woo and a dozen other action-stylists out of Hong Kong, but I disagree. Kramer’s style owes alot more to the grandfather of excessive film violence and that’s Sam Peckinpah. I’m not comparing Running Scared to Peckinpah’s seminal classic The Wild Bunch, but the pace and look of the chaotic shoot-out in the tiny apartment to start the film brings to mind the opening and closing shoot-outs of Peckinpah’s film.

Kramer knows he’s not making a social statement or even an intellectually relevant film. What he does know is that he wants to tell a fairy tale of one man’s hectic day and all the craziness he has to go through during that day. And this is what Running Scared really has turned out to be. A fairy tale set in an modern, dank, urban landscape where our hero (though anti-hero is more like it) and the two kids in his life must travel a surreal place filled with mack-daddy pimps, hooker with a heart of gold, corrupt cops and even a pair of child pedophiles who also turn out to be husband and wife. Running Scared is a like Grimms fairy tale as seen and told in a modern setting.

The cast of actors Kramer has assembled all do a good job in populating this violent, profane modern fairy tale. I’d be the last to think that Paul Walker was an actor who had any talent, but his performance in this film has given me pause to think that maybe its not him, but the projects he’s been doing that’s given him a bad reputation as an actor (which continues to this day as he continues to put himself in bad projects). Gone is the California surfer dude persona he seems to saddle himself with in most of his roles. He actually inhabits the low-level mobster soldier he plays as Joey Gazelle. This film may not be his breakout performance but it will open up some eyes. The boy’s got some skill he’s never been able to show before. The other actor who makes a standout performance is one Cameron Bright who plays Oleg. The neighbor kid whose theft of a mob gun Joey is suppose to make disappear turns Joey’s life upside down. Cameron’s almost like Pinocchio in that its through him that we see all the crazy characters he runs across. It’s a testament to Kramer’s direction that he’s able to get such good performances from Walker, Bright and the rest of the cast in a film that’s as confusing, complicated and surreal as this film turned out to be.

Running Scared was a wonderful surprise of a film for 2006. It’s an unabashed fun, thrilling urban fairy tale that goes for broke in everything it does. Wayne Kramer’s direction shows that his very good work in filming The Cooler wasn’t a fluke and one-time deal. He’s no Tarantino and surely not in the same league as Sam Peckinpah whose films this one owes alot to in style and feel, but he’s slowly making a name for himself as one who can do good work. Oh, Paul Walker does a good job in it as well.