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

Here Are The Chicago Film Critics Association Nominations!


Okay, only a few more precursors to go and we’ll be caught up.

Yesterday, The Chicago Film Critics Association announced their nominees for the best of 2017!  I’m happy that they did so because it gives me an excuse to use that picture of Al Capone that I use whenever I post anything about the Chicago Film Critics.

Here are their nominees!

Best Picture
“Call Me By Your Name”
“Dunkirk”
“Lady Bird”
“The Shape of Water”
“Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri”

Best Director
Guillermo Del Toro, “The Shape of Water”
Greta Gerwig, “Lady Bird”
Luca Guadagnino, “Call Me By Your Name”
Christopher Nolan, “Dunkirk”
Jordan Peele, “Get Out”

Best Actress
Sally Hawkins, “The Shape of Water”
Vicky Krieps, “Phantom Thread”
Frances McDormand, “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri”
Margot Robbie, “I, Tonya”
Saoirse Ronan, “Lady Bird”

Best Actor
Timothee Chalamet, “Call Me By Your Name”
Daniel Day-Lewis, “Phantom Thread”
James Franco, “The Disaster Artist”
Gary Oldman, “Darkest Hour”
Harry Dean Stanton, “Lucky”

Best Supporting Actress
Mary J. Blige, “Mudbound”
Holly Hunter, “The Big Sick”
Allison Janney, “I, Tonya”
Lesley Manville, “Phantom Thread”
Laurie Metcalf, “Lady Bird”

Best Supporting Actor
Willem Dafoe, “The Florida Project”
Armie Hammer, “Call Me By Your Name”
Jason Mitchell, “Mudbound”
Sam Rockwell, “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri”
Michael Stuhlbarg, “Call Me By Your Name”

Best Adapted Screenplay
“Blade Runner 2049”
“Call My By Your Name”
“The Disaster Artist”
“Logan”
“Mudbound”

Best Original Screenplay
“The Big Sick”
“Get Out”
“Lady Bird”
“Phantom Thread”
“The Shape of Water”
“Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri”

Best Animated Film
“The Breadwinner”
“Coco”
“The LEGO Batman Movie”
“Loving Vincent”
“Your Name”

Best Documentary
“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail”
“City of Ghosts”
“Ex Libris: New York Public Library”
“Faces Places”
“Jane”
“Kedi”

“BPM (Beats Per Minute)”
“A Fantastic Woman”
“Loveless”
“Raw”
“The Square”

Best Art Direction
“Beauty and the Beast”
“Blade Runner 2049”
“Dunkirk”
“Phantom Thread”
“The Shape of Water”

Best Editing
“Baby Driver”
“Call Me By Your Name”
“Dunkirk”
“The Florida Project”
“Get Out”

Best Original Score
“Blade Runner 2049”
“Dunkirk”
“Phantom Thread”
“The Shape of Water”
“War For the Planet of the Apes”

Best Cinematography
“Blade Runner 2049”
“Dunkirk”
“The Florida Project”
“Mudbound”
“The Shape of Water”

Breakthrough Performer
Timothee Chalamet, “Call Me By Your Name”
Dafne Keen, “Logan”
Jessie Pinnick, “Princess Cyd”
Brooklynn Prince, “The Florida Project”
Florence Pugh, “Lady Macbeth”
Bria Vinaite, “The Florida Project”

Breakthrough Filmmaker
Kogonada, “Columbus”
Jordan Peele, “Get Out”
Greta Gerwig, “Lady Bird”
John Carroll Lynch, “Lucky”
Julia Ducournau, “Raw”

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #119: Shutter Island (dir by Martin Scorsese)


Shutter IslandThe 2010 film Shutter Island finds the great director Martin Scorsese at his most playful.

Taking place in 1954, Shutter Island tells the story of two detectives, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio, giving an excellent performance that, in many ways, feels like a test run for his role in Inception) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo, also excellent), who take a boat out to the Ashecliffe Hospital for The Criminal Insane, which is located on Shutter Island in Boston Harbor.  They are investigating the disappearance of inmate Rachel Solando, who has been incarcerated for drowning her three children.

Ashecliffe is one of those permanently gray locations, the type of place where the lights always seem to be burned out and the inmates move about like ghostly visions of sins brought to life.  It’s the type of place that, had this movie been made in the 50s or 60s, would have been run by either Vincent Price or Peter Cushing.  In this case, the Cushing role of the cold and imperious lead psychiatrist is taken by Ben Kingsley.  Max Von Sydow, meanwhile, plays a more flamboyantly sinister doctor, the role that would have been played by Vincent Price.

When a storm strands Teddy and Chuck on the island, they quickly discover that neither the staff nor the patients are willing to be of any help when it comes to tracking down Rachel.  As Teddy continues to investigate, he finds himself stricken by migraines and haunted by disturbing images.  He continually sees a mysterious little girl.  He has visions of his dead wife (Michelle Williams).  A horribly scarred patient in solitary confinement (Jackie Earle Haley) tells him that patients are regularly taken to a lighthouse where they are lobotomized.  When Teddy explores more of the island, he comes across a mysterious woman living in a cave and she tells him of even more sinister activity at Ashecliffe.  Meanwhile, Chuck alternates between pragmatic skepticism and flights of paranoia.

And I’m not going to share anymore of the plot because it would be a crime to spoil Shutter Island.  This is a film that you must see and experience for yourself.

This is one of Martin Scorsese’s most entertaining films, an unapologetic celebration of B-movie history. He knows that he’s telling a faintly ludicrous story here and, wisely, he embraces the melodrama.  Too many directors would try to bring some sort of credibility to Shutter Island by downplaying the film’s more melodramatic moments.  Scorsese, however, shows no fear of going over the top.  He understands that this is not the time to be subtle.  This is the time to go a little crazy and that’s what he does.

Good for him.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #113: Gran Torino (dir by Clint Eastwood)


Gran_Torino_posterWalt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is a grumpy man.  And by that, I mean that he’s extremely grumpy.  Remember how grumpy Bill Murray was in St. Vincent?  He’s got nothing on Walt Kowalski.

Walt served in the Korean War and, five decades later, his experiences still haunt him.  After the war, he lived in Detroit and he worked on an assembly line.  He’s since retired but he still loves his old Ford Gran Torino, a car that he could very well have helped to build.  His wife has recently passed away and his children are eager to move him into a nursing home.  Walt is slowly smoking himself to death and the only person who visits him regularly is an earnest young priest (Christopher Carley, playing the ideal priest).

Just as Walt’s life has changed as he’s gotten older, so has his neighborhood.  The neighborhood is now dominated by Hmong immigrants.  When Walt catches Thao Vang Lor, a 16 year-old Hmong, attempting to steal his car, it leads to an unlikely friendship between Walt, Thao, and Thao’s sister, Sue.  When the same local gang that put Thao up to stealing Walt’s car subsequently attacks Sue, Thao wants revenge but Walt says that if Thao kills a man, it’s something that he’ll never recover from.  After locking Thao in his house, Walt goes off to confront the gang on his own…

And, since Walt is played by Clint Eastwood, you’d be justified in thinking that Walt’s confrontation would amount to a lot of quips and violence.  But actually, it’s the exact opposite.  Gran Torino does not find Eastwood in the mood to celebrate violence.  Instead, the film is a meditation on both the cost of violence and the impossibility of escaping one’s own mortality.

Whenever people talk about the 2008 Oscar race, the focus always seems to be on the snubbing of  The Dark Knight.  However, I would say that Gran Torino (among other films) was snubbed even more than The Dark Knight.  After all, The Dark Knight may have missed out on best picture but it still received 8 nominations and won an Oscar for Heath Ledger.  Gran Torino, on the other hand, received not a single nomination.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not arguing that Gran Torino deserved a best picture nomination.  It’s a fairly predictable film and some of the symbolism, particularly during Walt’s final confrontation with the gang, gets a bit too heavy-handed.  (Any time a character spontaneously strikes a crucifixion pose in a movie, you know that things are starting to get out of hand.)  But I would argue that Clint Eastwood definitely deserved a nomination for best actor.  In many ways, Walt is a typical Eastwood character but, right at the moment when we’re expecting him to behave like every other Eastwood character that we’ve ever seen, Walt surprises us by doing something completely different.  As a director, Eastwood subverts our expectations of Clint Eastwood as both an actor and a character.  As a result, the audience is taken by surprise by Walt, if not by the film’s plot.

I remember, at the time the film was released, there was some speculation that Gran Torino would be the last time we ever saw Clint Eastwood onscreen.  That proved to be false, as he subsequently starred in Trouble With The Curve.  However, even if it wasn’t his final acting role, Gran Torino still serves as the perfect monument to Eastwood’s unique screen presence.