Gang Related (1997, directed by Jim Kouf)


LAPD vice detectives DiVinci (Jim Belushi) and Rodriguez (Tupac Shakur) have a pretty good racket going.  They sell cocaine to drug dealers and then, once they get their money, they murder the dealers and take their drugs back so that the cocaine can be resold.  The murders are written up as being “gang-related” and because no one cares about dead drug dealers, Divinci and Rodriguez don’t have to worry about anyone actually investigating their crimes.

This all changes when they kill the wrong dealer.  It turns out Lionel Hudd (Kool Mo Dee) was actually an undercover DEA agent and now that he’s been murdered, his partner (played by Gary Cole) is investigating the murder.  Needing a patsy to take the fall, they arrest a homeless man who is known as Joe Doe (Dennis Quaid).  Joe can’t even remember what his real name is and, because he’s intoxicated when he’s arrested and interrogated, it’s easy for DiVinci and Rodriguez to talk him into believing that he killed Hudd.

At first, it seems like a perfect plan because the only people that the citizens of Los Angeles care about less than gang members and drug dealers are the homeless.  But then it turns out that Joe Doe is actually a wealthy surgeon and his family hires a prominent attorney (played by James Earl Jones, so you know he’s good) to defend him.  Meanwhile, the stripper (Lela Rochon) who DiVinci and Rodriguez coerced into identifying Doe as the murderer is having second thoughts.  And so is Rodriguez.

The plot of Gang Related may be convoluted and sometimes difficult to follow but that works to the film’s advantage as Divinci and Rodriguez find themselves plunging further and further down the rabbit hole of their own lies.  The audience may be confused but so are they so everyone’s the same page.  It seems like no matter what scheme DiVinci comes up with to try to cover for his own crimes, there’s always an unforeseen complication and most of the film’s narrative momentum comes from watching two corrupt cops go from being cocky to being desperate to save their own lives as their maze of deception becomes increasingly difficult to navigate.  Neither DiVinci nor Rodriguez is a likable character (though Rodriguez is, at least, troubled by what he’s become) so there’s a lot of pleasure to be had by watching these two finally face justice.

Gang Related was Tupac Shakur’s final film and it was released over a year after his death.  It’s a B-movie but it’s a well-made B-movie and Shakur gives a good and complex performance.  So does Jim Belushi, whose mounting desperation is really something to see.  Gang Related may be a B-movie but it’s portrayal of two criminal cops being empowered by a corrupt system is still relevant today.

Horror Film Review: One Hour Photo (dir by Mark Romanek)


I guess some people might argue that the 2002 film, One Hour Photo, isn’t really a horror film.

It’s an argument that I can understand.  The film does have its scary moments, like the scene where Sy Parrish (Robin Williams) dreams that his eyes are exploding.  But there aren’t any ghosts or vampires or hockey mask-wearing slashers to be found in One Hour Photo.  Even the film’s most disturbing moment — in which we see that Sy’s apartment is nearly empty except for a giant collage of pictures that cover his living room wall — is more depressing than scary.

It’s really a very sad movie.  In fact, it’s probably even more sad today than when it was originally released.  Now, when you see Robin Williams’s sad eyes and you hear him talking about how reality can never live up to a photograph, it’s impossible not to think about the actor’s 2014 suicide.  I remember that, when One Hour Photo and Insomnia came out in the same year, there was a lot of talk about how unexpected it was to see Robin Williams playing such dark characters.  Now, of course, that darkness is a key part of Robin Williams’s persona.

In hindsight, it’s also sad because one watches the film with the knowledge that, even if Sy hadn’t lost it at the end of One Hour Photo, he still probably be a lost soul in 2019.  When we first meet Sy, he’s working at the one-hour photo lab in SavMart.  He talks about how much he loves developing pictures.  When someone mentions that they’ve been thinking about getting a digital camera, Sy nervously chuckles and says, “Don’t do that, you’ll put us out of business.”  Of course, in 2019, people take pictures with their phones and even digital cameras are viewed as being something of a relic.  If Sy were around and free today, I doubt he’d have a job.  If he did have a job, it’s doubtful it would be one that would allow him to cover his wall with someone else’s photos.  Instead, in 2019, I imagine Sy would be one of those people following strangers on social media and printing out all their pictures and probably sending them unsolicited DMs and private messages.

Sy is obsessed with the Yorkin family, Will (Michael Vartan), Nina (Connie Nielsen), and their son, Jake (Dylan Smith).  Even though the family barely knows who Sy is, he knows them because Sy has spent years developing (and stealing) their photos.  Sy views them as being the perfect family.  They’re the family that he wants to be a part of.  “Sometimes I think of myself as being Uncle Sy,” he says at one point.  But then Maya Burson (Erin Daniels) brings in her photos to be developed and Sy learns that the reality of the Yorkins is not as perfect as the photographs.  And Sy loses it.

Actually, there’s quite a few reasons why Sy loses it and the film suggests that, if the Yorkins had never stepped into SavMart, Sy would have found another family on which to obsess.  Something is missing inside of Sy.  Incapable of dealing with reality, Sy instead deals with posed pictures of happy times.  Towards the end of the film, there’s a throw-away line that attempts to offer some sort of insight into why Sy is such a lost soul.  Personally, I think the film works better without an explanation.  Why is less important than the fact that Sy exists.

In the end, One Hour Photo qualifies as a horror film not because of any paranormal danger but because it’s a film about the horror of everyday life.  You never know who might be watching you.  That friendly clerk who waits on you at the grocery store might be following you home and imagining that he’s a part of your life.  You never know.  One Hour Photo is the film that suggests that, lurking behind every friendly smile, there’s a blank Sy Parrish.  It’s a scary thought.

Film Review: The Bronze (dir by Bryan Buckley)


The Bronze has been getting terrible reviews since it first premiered at Sundance last year.  Telling the story of an Olympic bronze medalist who has grown up to be bitter and angry, The Bronze has been unfavorably compared to Bad Santa, Bad Words, Bad Teacher and … well, bad anything.  (You know you’re in trouble when your film gets compared to Bad Teacher because most critics have an irrational hatred for that film.  I actually enjoyed it.)  The Bronze was originally scheduled to be released last July and then it was pushed back and then, for a little while, it vanished all together as it was traded between different distributors.  Finally, last Friday, Sony Pictures Classics released The Bronze with all the fanfare of a community theater announcing their annual production of Forever Plaid.

Well, after hearing how terrible it was, there was no way that my BFF Evelyn and I could resist the temptation to experience it for ourselves.  (We both enjoy watching and commenting during bad movies.  That’s what led to us watching that Tyler Perry movie about the adulterous matckmaker .)  We caught a 10:15 showing last night at the AMC Valley View and the theater was almost totally deserted.  (Admittedly, not many people are brave enough to go to Valley View Mall past 9:00 but Evelyn and I fear nothing.)  We were expecting to see a thoroughly mediocre film but you know what?

We were both kind of surprised to discover that The Bronze was not the terrible film that we had been led to expect.

Melissa Rauch (who co-wrote the script) plays Hope Ann Gregory, a former Olympic gymnast who won the Bronze medal at the Summer Olympics.  She won the medal despite competing on an injured ankle.  Unfortunately, her injury ended her competitive career but it also briefly made her a national celebrity.  12 years later, most of the country may have forgotten Hope but the people of hometown of Amherst, Ohio still love her.

When we first meet Hope, she’s masturbating while watching footage of herself competing at the Olympics.  She then proceeds to steal money from her father’s mail route so she’ll have enough money to buy weed.  Hope is rude to almost everyone and yet, no one in the town seems to notice.  Or maybe they are so happy to be in the presence of a minor celebrity that they just don’t care how terribly she treats them.  The movie is actually somewhat vague on this point but still, the contrast between Hope’s reality and the opinion that others have of her is one of the best things about the film.  Intentionally or not, it perfectly satirizes that way that we idealize our celebrities.

When Hope’s former coach commits suicide, her final request is that Hope agree to train an up-and-coming gymnast, Maggie (Haley Lu Richardson).  At first, the jealous Hope tries to sabotage Maggie but eventually, Hope starts to take her job as coach seriously.  (When Maggie first shows up, she seems to be a one-note, excessively perky character but eventually, she reveals some needed, if not exactly surprising, complexity.)  Hope also develops an unexpected relationship with Maggie’s assistant coach, Twitchy (Thomas Middleditch).  (Twitchy is called Twitchy because he blinks a lot.)

The Bronze is not a great film.  Instead, it’s an extremely uneven film, one that often seems to be trying too hard.  It never manages to find the right balance between its raunchy comedy and the occasional and surprisingly subtle moments when it suddenly becomes a character study.

And yet, at the same time, it’s not as terrible as you’ve heard.  There are moments that work surprisingly well.  Some of them are moments like an enjoyably over-the-top sex scene between two gymnasts.  But then there are moments like the scene where Hope talks about the first time she learned that, as a result of the injury she sustained while winning her Bronze, she would never be able to compete again.  There are scenes like the one where Hope proves herself to be surprisingly loyal to the citizens of Amherst or where her long-suffering father (Gary Cole) confronts her about her behavior.  Though these moments may be few and far between, they still work surprisingly well.  It’s during these moments that The Bronze drops the protective mask of outrageousness and reveals some unexpected depth.  It helps that, along with writing the script, Melissa Rauch totally commits herself to the role.  At her best, she’s like a force of stoned nature.

Is The Bronze really worth seeing on the big screen?  Probably not.  It’s too uneven to really be successful.  But when it shows up on Netflix, I predict that a lot of people are going to be surprised to discover that The Bronze isn’t as terrible as they’ve been told.

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Embracing the Melodrama Part II #96: A Simple Plan (dir by Sam Raimi)


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The 1998 film A Simple Plan reunites Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton.  After previously playing adversaries in One False Move, they played brothers here.  However, it’s not just the cast that makes A Simple Plan feel like a spiritual descendant of One False Move.  Both One False Move and A Simple Plan deal with greed and violence.  Both One False Move and A Simple Plan take place in a small town where everyone thinks that they know all there is to know about each other.  Both One False Move and A Simple Plan feature Paxton as a man who turns out to be something more than what the viewer originally assumed.  Perhaps most importantly, both One False Move and A Simple Plan are meditations on guilt, greed, and community.

A Simple Plan takes place in Minnesota, in a world that seems to exist under a permanent layer of snow and ice.  While out hunting, Hank (Bill Paxton), his well-meaning but dim-witted brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), and their redneck friend Lou (Brent Briscoe) stumble across an airplane that has crashed in the woods.  Inside the airplane, they find a dead pilot and a bag containing 4 million dollars.  At first, Hank says they should call the authorities and let them know what they’ve found but he rather easily allows Jacob and Lou to talk him out of it.  Instead, they agree that Hank will hide the money at his house until spring arrives.  They also agree to not tell anyone about the money but, as soon as he arrives home, Hank tells his pregnant wife Sarah (Bridget Fonda) everything that has happened.

Needless to say, this simple plan quickly get complicated.  Sarah is soon telling Hank that he should not trust Lou and Jacob.  The local sheriff (Chelcie Ross) saw Hank and Jacob leaving the woods after discovering the plane and may (or may not) be suspicious of what they found.  Alcoholic Lou starts to demand his share of the money early.  As things start to spiral, Hank finds himself doing things that he would have never thought he would ever do.  Or, as Sarah puts it, “Nobody’d ever believe that you’d be capable of doing what you’ve done.”

And then, one day, a mysterious FBI agent (Gary Cole) shows up and says that he’s looking for the plane.  Except that, according to Sarah, he’s not really with the FBI…

It’s appropriate that A Simple Plan takes place in a world that appears to be permanently covered in snow because it is a film that is both chilly and chilling.  Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton are both perfectly cast.  (Thornton received an Oscar nomination for his performance.  Paxton undoubtedly deserved one.)  Bridget Fonda turns Sarah into a small town Lady MacBeth and Gary Cole, Brent Briscoe, and Chelcie Ross are all memorable in smaller roles.

(Brent Biscoe, in particular, is a redneck nightmare.)

The next time that you want to contemplate the evil that is done in the name of money, why not start off with a double feature of One False Move and A Simple Plan?

 

Shattered Politics #70: The Brady Bunch In The White House (dir by Neal Israel)


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What happens when architect and suburban dad Mike Brady (Gary Cole) is elected Vice President of the United States?  Well, President Randolph (Dave Nichols) ends up having to resign when it turns out that he’s thoroughly corrupt.  Mike Brady is sworn in as the new President and then appoints his wife Carol (Shelley Long) as his new Vice President.  He and his wife run an ethical and determinedly old-fashioned administration.  When Senators argue, Carol suggests that they need a time out.  When Mike is handed a report that indicates trouble for the economy, Mike looks at it, signs it, and says, “We can do better.”  When a racist Senator is seated next to a black nationalist at a White House reception, the two opponents are both served peanut butter on crackers by the Alice, the Brady Family housekeeper and soon, they are bonding over their shared love of peanut butter.

Of course, not everything’s perfect.  For instance, middle daughter Jan (Ashley Drane) is haunted by voices in her head that tell her that she’ll never be better than older sister Marcia (Autumn Reeser).  However, fortunately, Jan discovers a talking portrait of Abraham Lincoln who talks some sense to her.

And then, middle son Peter (Blake Foster) accidentally breaks a priceless Ming vase.  All of the other Brady kids take responsibility for breaking it.  President and Vice President Brady quickly figure out that Peter was responsible and, in order to make him confess, they punish every Brady kid but Peter.  And then…

Okay, are you getting the feeling that Brady Bunch In The White House is a stupid movie?  Well, it is.  This 2002 film was made for television and serves as a sequel to the earlier Brady Bunch Movie and A Very Brady Sequel.  It features the same basic idea as the first two films: the rest of the world is cynical and angry while the Bradys are still trapped in the wholesome world of their old television show.  Mike is still offering up life lessons.  Carol is still smiling and saying, “Your father’s right.”  Marcia is self-centered.  Jan is obsessive.  Cindy has issues with tattling.  Greg thinks every girl that he meets is really happening in a far out way.  Peter is always feeling guilty.  Bobby … well, Bobby doesn’t do much of anything.

The big difference is that the Bradys are in the White House now.  They’re still reliving incidents from their TV show but now they’re doing it in the White House.  And, some of it is kinda cute.  Well, I take that back.  Most of it is really stupid but the part about the vase made me smile despite myself.

So there’s that.

But, honestly — no, I really can’t think of any clever way to prove that the Brady Bunch In The White House is actually a subversive satire or anything that’s really worth recommending.

Sorry.

However, I did see A Very Brady Sequel on Cinemax last night.  It’s kind of funny and features a lot of pretty Hawaiian scenery.  Go watch that.  Forget about the Brady Bunch In The White House

Film Review: The Town That Dreaded Sundown (dir by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon)


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The Town That Dreaded Sundown is the latest classic horror remake.  In this case, it’s a remake of a 1976 docudrama about a real-life serial killer who, shortly after World War II, haunted the streets of my former hometown of Texarkana, Texas.  (You can read my review here.)  The original was a low-budget but effectively creepy little film that was shot on the streets of Texarkana and was full of authentic Texas atmosphere.  (It helped that it was directed by Charles B. Pierce, a Texarkana native, as opposed to some jerk from up north.)  What made the film all the more haunting was the fact that — in both the movie and in real life — the Phantom Killer was never captured.

So, how does the remake compare?

*Sigh*

(For the record, I’m not only signing but I’m also massively rolling my mismatched,  heterochromatic eyes.)

Listen, I will give this film credit for attempting to be something more than just your usual horror remake.  It actually does have a fairly clever premise.  Instead of retelling the original story, the remake of The Town That Dreaded Sundown begins with a bunch of people in present-day Texarkana sitting around and watching the original film.  There’s even an eccentric character named Charles B. Pierce, Jr. (Denis O’Hare) who we are told is the son of the original director.  It’s a clever idea, one that wisely acknowledges the effectiveness of the original film while also commenting on the continuing mystery surrounding both the identity and the fate of the Phantom Killer.

And, when someone dressed like the original Phantom Killer starts to murder young couples in Texarkana, we — just like the characters — are left to wonder whether it’s the spirit of the Phantom or if it’s someone imitating the murders from the original film or whether it’s something else altogether.

That’s certainly the question faced by Jami (Addison Timlin), who survives being attacked by this new Phantom but then grows obsessed with trying to discover who he is.  Addison Timlin gives a really good performance here.  She’s likable and sympathetic, the perfect “final girl.”

In fact, the entire film is well-cast.  Anthony Anderson is a lot of fun as a cocky Texas Ranger while Gary Cole and Joshua Leonard do good work as members of local law enforcement.  Denis O’Hare, who I will always think of as being Russell on True Blood, brings a certain dissipated nobility to his role.  The victims are all sympathetic and the killer is creepy.

But, with all that in mind, I was disappointed with the remake of The Town That Dreaded Sundown.  The reason the original film worked is because it was made by a member of the Texarkana community.  Charles B. Pierce knew the town and he understood why the Phantom Killer continued to haunt the citizens.  What his movie lacked in technical polish, it made up for in authenticity.

Though the remake features a narrator and duplicates the original’s obsession with letting us know whether each scene is taking place on the Texas-side or the Arkansas-side of the town, there’s still absolutely nothing authentic about it.  Whereas the original was filmed entirely on location, the remake was mostly filmed in Shreveport with only three days devoted to getting some location footage of downtown Texarkana.  As someone who has lived in both Shreveport and Texarkana, allow me to assure you that you can totally tell the difference.

The remake was produced by Ryan Murphy (of Glee and American Horror Story fame) and the film really does feel like a lesser season of American Horror Story.  It’s a film that has so little use for subtlety (just check out Edward Herrmann going totally overboard as a hypocritical preacher) that its creepy moments are totally smothered by all the heavy-handed cartoonishness that surrounds them.

Ultimately, the remake fails because it has no feel for or understanding for my homestate.  It was made by people who obviously know nothing about Texas or Arkansas beyond what they’ve seen in other movies produced, directed, and written by other northerners.

The 1976 Town That Dreaded Sundown worked because it was authentic.  Despite a few good ideas, the remake is just too generic to do justice to the original.

 

Quickie Review: Dodgeball – A True Underdog Story (dir. by Rawson Marshall Thurber)


What is there to say about Dodgeball – A True Underdog Story other than it’s a no-brainer of a hilarious movie that doesn’t aspire to lofty heights. What it does do is come out firing with some of the funniest physical comedy and one-liners since The Farrelly Brothers’ Something About Mary. First time director Rawson Marshall Thurber does a good enough job to keep the laughs coming one right after the another to keep Dodgeball from becoming too repetitive.

The movie is a riff from the stock underdog sports genre with a Peter La Fleur (played by Vince Vaughn with his usual sardonic wit) having to find a way to save his Average Joe’s Gym from being foreclosed by his bank and turned by a rival hi-tech gym next door into a parking lot. Who else would be the perfect foil for Vince Vaughn’s Peter La Fleur but none other than Ben Stiller as the former-fatty turned workout fitness Nazi, White Goodman. Goodman’s Globo Gym is a state-of-the art, sterile and BALCO-like gym where insults and making its members feel ugly, fat and useless is the way to clean health and the perfect bod.

Already, within the first fifteen minutes, we know who to root for and who to boo. In one corner we have the Average Joe’s guys played with comedic timing by Justin Long, Stephen Root, Chris Williams, Alan Tudyk and Joel Moore. Stiller’s Goodman and his consigliere Me’Shell (Jamal Duff channeling Barry White) with a hand-picked ringer of a dodgeball team he calls the Purple Cobras. With the two sides set the dodgeball carnage begins as Average Joe’s must win the Las Vegas Dodgeball Invitational to earn the $50,000 needed to save the gym. To round out the Average Joe’s team will be the bank accountant who ends up sympathizing with the Joe’s, Kate Veatch (played by Stiller’s real-life wife, Christine Taylor) and Patches O’Houlihan (Rip Torn in a scene-stealing role).

Rip Torn is hilarious as the acerbic and insane former dodgeball great Patches O’Houlihan. He pretty much gets all the best one-liners in the movie the moment he appears on the screen. He coaches the Average Joe’s team by browbeating them, insulting them and, failing that, throwing wrenches at them to help them in learning the 5 D’s of dodgeball: Dodge, duck, dip, dive, dodge. In fact, I would say that if it wasn’t for Rip Torn’s character dominating the middle part of the movie, I think Dodgeball‘s constant ball to the groin shots would’ve gotten old. Instead Patches O’Houlihan constantly gave people watching a reason to laugh out loud.

Dodgeball – A True Underdog Story is a movie that the Academy voters will not go about showering with praises and awards, but I’m sure most of them will be watching it and laughing out loud like the rest of the general public. Dodgeball is one hilarious, one-liner after one-liner ball to the nuts funny and it doesn’t aspire to be anything else but that. This movie will never get old with each viewing and will continue to make people laugh out loud.