Film Review: A Day To Die (dir by Wes Miller)

A Day To Die is a low-budget action film with a ludicrously complicated plot.

The film opens with an elite SWAT team reacting to a terrorist incident in a small town.  A group of white supremacists have taken over a hundred hostages in a high school.  An elite SWAT team, led by Brice Mason (Frank Grillo) and Connor Connolly (Kevin Dillon), attempt to rescue the hostages but a mistake leads to the school blowing up and many of the hostages dying.  Corrupt police chief Alston (Bruce Willis) breaks up the SWAT team.  Some of the members become auto mechanics.  Some of them become drug addicts.  Connor becomes a …. parole officer.

A year or so later, Connor is forced to kill one of the henchmen of the local drug lord, Pettis (Leon).  Pettis is upset because, by his estimation, the dead man would have brought in over two million dollars over the course of his career.  Pettis orders Connor to steal two million to pay off his “debt.”  Pettis gives Connor 12 hours to find the money and, just for good measure, he kidnaps Connor’s pregnant wife (Brooke Butler).

Pettis suggests that Connor get the money by robbing a rival’s drug house.  With no other choice, Connor puts in a call to Brice and soon, the old SWAT team has gathered in a garage.  Quicker than you can say Fast and Furious, the team is talking about how they’re family.  If Connor needs them to rob a bunch of drug dealers, that’s what they’re going to do.  However, they’re also going to take down Pettis in the process.  Of course, what they don’t realize is that Pettis has a connection of his own with Chief Alston.

Probably the best thing that can be said about A Day To Die is that Bruce Willis seems to be remarkably steady on his feet.  This was one of the batch of films that Willis made before his family announced that he was retiring from acting.  Knowing what we now know about not only his health but also the allegations that Willis wasn’t always sure what type of films he was being singed up for, it’s always a bit awkward to watch his last few films.  But, in A Day To Die, Willis actually gives a credible performance as the corrupt police chief.  Though there’s not much of evidence of the swaggering wise guy charisma that made Willis a star, Willis still delivers his lines convincingly and he seems to be invested in the character.  While I’m faintly praising the film, I should also mention that Leon appears to be having fun with the role of the sharply-dressed drug dealer and Frank Grillo is his usual rugged self.  They’re all good enough to keep you watching.

Unfortunately, Kevin Dillon uses the same facial expression that he used when he played Johnny Drama on Entourage and, as a result, it’s a bit difficult to take him seriously as an action hero.  (If anything A Day To Die seems like the type of film that everyone would laugh at Johnny for doing while Vince was appearing in Martin Scorsese’s Gatsby.)  Ultimately, the film is done in by an overcomplicated plot that really doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny.  As entertaining as Leon is, Pettis’s actions never really make sense.  In the end, A Day To Die is better than American Siege but nowhere close to Gasoline Alley.

Band of the Hand (1986, directed by Paul Michael Glaser)

This place is Florida.  The time is the 80s.  Five juvenile delinquents have been given a chance to earn their freedom.  All they have to do is go down to the Everglades and train with Indian Joe (Stephen Lang), a no-nonsense Vietnam veteran who is determined to teach them not only survival sills but also how to work together as a team.  But Joe is interested in more than just reforming a group of youthful troublemakers.  He wants to turn them into a crime-fighting team who can help clean up the most dangerous neighborhood in Miami.  When Joe and delinquents move into and refurbish a previously condemned building, they get the attention of both the local drug kingpin (James Remar) and his main enforcer (Laurence Fishburne).

Band of the Hand is very much a film of its time, not only in its fashion and music choices but also in its full-on embrace of the war on drugs and the idea that the best way to clean up the streets is for vigilantes to do it on their own.  The film was produced by Michael Mann and, as directed by former Starsky and Hutch star Paul Michael Glaser, the film has the look of an episode of Miami Vice.  That might be because the film itself was originally meant to be a pilot for a television show.  When the networks passed on it, it was released to theaters instead and advertised as being “from the maker of Miami Vice.”    The movie never escapes its television origins.  Things start strong in the Everglades, with Lang proving himself to be a master of glowering and the young delinquents struggling to not only survive Lang’s training but also resist the temptation to kill each other.  It’s less interesting once the action moves to Miami and it becomes Death Wish 3 without the blood or Charles Bronson.  The scenes with the young men goofing around are an awkward fit with the scenes of Remar and Fishburne terrorizing the neighborhood.

Band of the Hand is still worth watching if you want to see some familiar faces early in their careers.  John Cameron Mitchell and Leon both score early roles as two of the delinquents-turned-crime fighters and Lauren Holly plays the romantic interest who is inevitably ends up with the bag guys.  James Remar was always a good villain and Laurence Fishburne channels both his previous performance in Death Wish II and his future performance in King of New York.  It’s a good cast, even if no one really breaks free from the production’s television origins.

The idea of creating a show about a special unit of young crime fighters who battle drug pushers was one that Mann didn’t abandon.  The final episode of Miami Vice was essentially an unsold pilot that followed many of the same plot beats as Band Of the Hand.  (It also didn’t lead to a television series, though some might argue that 21 Jump Street took the same idea and ran with it.)  As for director Paul Michael Glaser, he would later do a much better job with The Running Man.

Bats (1999, directed by Louis Morneau)

A scientist (Bob Gunton!) has genetically engineered the local population of bats in order to make them super intelligent and aggressive.  Though he says that he just wanted to make sure that the bats never went extinct, the ultimate result of his experiment is that the bats are now killing all of the citizens of a small town in Texas.  With the National Guard threatening to blow up the town, it’s up to Sheriff Emmett Kimsey (Lou Diamond Phillips!), Dr. Alexandra McCabe (Dina Meyer!), and assistant Jimmy Sands (Leon, so cool that he only needs one name!) to figure out how destroy the bats without destroying everyone’s home.

Now, this is how you make a killer bat movie!  There’s a lot of stupid things about Bats but it’s still a thousand times better than Nightwing.  I liked the idea of superintelligent bats more than the idea of just angry bats.  The bats are too clever for the humans, often seeing straight though their plans.  Nightwing took itself very seriously.  Bats does not and is therefore, better in every regard.  The bats are always on the attack, the good guys are always running from one place to another, and the National Guard just wants to blow everything up.  It’s a fun B-move, with the B standings for Bats.

You have to love that cast, too.  Any movie with Lou Diamond Phillips and Leon is going to be cooler than any movie without them.  I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the two of them hunt bats in their spare time because they really seemed to know what they were doing.  Dina Meyer was obviously cast more because she looks like Dina Meyer than because she’s really a credible scientist but she still handles all the bat talk without embarrassing herself.  Bob Gunton is a great bad guy, as always.

Bats is dumb, silly, and terrifically entertaining.

Music Video of the Day: Want You Back by Grey featuring Leon (2019, dir by Matt Komo)

So, this video last for about three minutes and I have to admit that I spent the first 2 and a half minutes feeling fairly skeptical about the whole thing.

I was like:

“Oh, they’re so in love.”

“Oh, now they’re fighting.”

“Oh, now, they’re looking at old pictures.”

“Oh now, they’re acting like kids again and everything’s okay.”

“Oh now, they’re driving together.”

“Oh now …. OH MY GOD!”

Yes, st the end of this video, the tragedy smashes into you like a freight train and I’m totally supportive of that.  The best short films — and that’s what a music video is — are always either extremely funny or extremely depressing.  Attempting to go for moderately amusing or thought-provoking doesn’t work.  A short film needs tragedy!

And that’s what we get here.  Suddenly, we understand why his old sweater is so important to her and maybe we feel a little bit guilty for rolling our eyes just a few seconds earlier.  As always, your mileage may vary.  Just remember to keep your eyes on the road.

Whenever I see a video like this, I always want to know what they’re fighting about.  These falling in and out of love montages always seem to have a scene where the couple suddenly starts yelling at each other in the kitchen and I always wonder what the exact details of the fight are about.  Is it that one of them wants to eat out while the other insists on cooking?  Is it because someone forgot to get Parmesan cheese the last time they went to the grocery store?  Whatever it is, they always seem to make up, which is a good thing.


Back to School #31: All The Right Moves (dir by Michael Chapman)

For the past week, we’ve been taking a look at 80 of the best, worst, most memorable, and most forgettable films ever made about being a teenager and going to high school.  We’ve been posting the reviews in chronological order and now, 30 reviews since we started this series with a film from 1946, we have reached the 1980s, a decade this is often considered to be the golden age of teen films.  For our 31st Back To School review, we take a look at 1983’s All The Right Moves.

How did you spend your Labor Day weekend?  Me, I spent it visiting with my family down at my uncle’s place.  Sunday afternoon, I was laying out by the pool and listening to my cousins Peter Paul and Paul Peter have a conversation.  (And yes, I do call both of them “Paulie.”)  They were talking about the Dallas Cowboys and I have to admit that I could not understand a word that they were saying.  It was like attending a Latin Mass, in that all I could do was hope that I was nodding at the right moment.  I can’t help it.  Football goes right over my head.  I know that the players are trying to score touchdowns and I know that whenever fall and winter come around, everyone I know is going to be complaining about the Cowboys.  But that’s it. (I also know that, what we in America call soccer, the rest of the world calls football.  But, to be honest, I really don’t care.)   Football talk might as well be a secret language.

However, I’m clearly in the minority as far as that’s concerned.  America loves football and so does Texas.  (Yes, I do consider my home state to be its own independent nation.  Take that, Vermont.)  And the American film industry has a long tradition of making movies — like All The Right Moves — about football.

In All The Right Moves, Tom Cruise plays Stefan Djordjevic.  Stefan lives in a poor town in Pennsylvania and happens to be one of the stars of the Ampipe High School football team.  And that’s a pretty good thing because this town is obsessed with football.  The proud Coach Nickerson (Craig T. Nelson) is under constant pressure to win and Nickerson responds by pushing all of his players.  However, it finally looks like his approach is going to pay for both him and Stefan.  Nickerson is being considered for a college coaching  job.  Meanwhile, Stefan has a chance to get a scholarship to play football in college.  Interestingly, Stefan’s ambition is not to play professional football.  Instead, he wants to go to a good college so he can get an engineering degree.  Stefan’s main fear is to end up like everyone else in the town, working in a steel mill and not having any way to escape from a life of poverty.


All The Right Moves starts out as a standard sports film but, halfway through, it takes an unexpected turn.  Ampipe High plays a game against their main rival, Walnut Heights High School.  This is the big game.  This is the game that most sports movies end with.  This is the game that you watch knowing that Nickerson and Stefan will overcome their differences (Nickerson is stubborn, Stefan is cocky) and that they will manage to narrowly win.

Except, of course, Ampipe doesn’t win.  As the result of a last minute mistake, Ampipe loses their lead and they lose the big game.  Nickerson yells at the team in the locker room.  Stefan yells back and Nickerson kicks him off the team.  Suddenly, Stefan finds himself with no future.  And Nickerson finds himself and his family being targeted by the angry, football-crazed citizens of the town…

For a football movie, All The Right Moves is actually pretty good.  Of course, it’s not really about football.  It’s about the desperation of people who have found themselves trapped in a cycle of poverty and how something as seemingly inconsequential as the high school football team can become an entire town’s life.  It’s about how two stubborn men — Stefan and Nickerson — allow their own fear of being trapped to keep them from thinking and acting rationally.

The film is also distinguished by good performances from Tom Cruise (who, in the same year, would play a much different high school senior in Risky Business), Craig T. Nelson, and Chris Penn (who plays Stefan’s best friend on the team).  However, the film’s best performance comes from Lea Thompson, who is so good in the role of Lisa, Stefan’s girlfriend, that you can’t help but wish that the film had been more about her than him.  In probably the film’s best scene, she calls out Stefan for being selfish and points out that, regardless of what happens in Stefan’s future, she’s going to be stuck in the town that he’s so desperate to escape from.  The scene where she and Stefan make love is sensitively handled and it also features a split-second or so of Tom Cruise full front nudity.

So, there’s always that.

It’s no Risky Business or Fast Times At Ridgemont High but, as far as high school football films are concerned, All The Right Moves is not a bad one.


A Few Thoughts On The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo Remake

Have I mentioned how much I loved The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo?  Have I suggested that the late Stieg Larsson, in the Millenium Trilogy, did for Europe what James Ellroy did for America with the American Tabloid trilogy?  Have I gone into the fact I think Noomi Rapace’s performance as Lisbeth in both the original film and its sequels will probably be remembered as one of the greatest film performances of all time?  Have I explained that I think, even beyond Rapace’s performance, Lisbeth herself is one of the best characters in the history of film?  For that matter, have I talked about the hours that I’ve spent standing with my back to a mirror and looking over my shoulder and debating on which shoulder-blade a dragon would look most appropriate?  Personally, I think my left shoulder-blade is a bit nicer than my right but last night, my friend Jeff was telling me that…

Sorry, I’m losing focus here.  Okay, getting the ADD under control.  Anyway, the point of the matter is that I love The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. 

That’s why I feel a lot of caution about the upcoming, David Fincher-helmed remake.  First off, quite frankly, I really don’t see what can be improved on the original films.  It’s not as if the original film version of the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo failed to do justice to the book (if anything, the book fails to do justice to the film that eventually made from it).  I suppose a remake would give people who can’t handle subtitles the chance to see the story but honestly, who cares about those losers?  Speaking of the story, the rumors I hear seem to indicate that this remake is going to be an “Americanized” version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which I’m not really sure can be done as the entire book is basically meant to act as a metaphor for Swedish society.  Of course, it is possible that the remake is going to be set in Sweden as well but if that’s the case, what’s the point of the remake?

I know the usual argument to these concerns is that, as a director, Fincher will not allow the film to be Hollywoodized.  At one point that may have been true but, judging from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Fincher’s got more Hollywood in him than most people want to admit.  The fact that he’s also teamed up with Aaron Sorkin (an establishment figure if there ever was one) to direct a movie about Facebook doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence but I’ll hold off on judging until the Social Network actually shows up in theaters.

However, I am encouraged by the news (announced yesterday) that Fincher has cast Daniel Craig as the male lead, Mikael Blomkvist (or whatever his name is going to be in the Hollywood version).  Craig’s name had been mentioned for the role ever since the remake was first announced but there were also reports that the role would go to Brad Pitt (who, of course, has already made 3 films with Fincher).  Nothing against Brad Pitt (who I think is a truly underrated actor) but it’s hard to think of a worst choice for the role of Mikael.  Mikael’s defining characteristic is just how ineffectual he is.  He’s the ultimate well-meaning intellectual, the type of guy who wants to fight injustice but is to insulated from the harsh realities of life to effectively do so.  (That’s why he needs Lisbeth, she represents everything he wishes he could do but can’t.)  In short, Mikael is a hero by default and casting an actor like Brad Pitt would throw the entire movie off-balance.

Mikael is not a role for a star.  Mikael is a role for a character actor and, James Bond aside, that’s exactly what Daniel Craig is.  (That’s one reason why Craig’s Bond is dull, regardless of how good a performance Craig gives in the role.)  Not only is Craig the right age, he projects just the right amount of idealistic weariness for the role.  Admittedly, it helps that Craig bears a passable physical resemblance to the original Mikael, Michael Nyqvist which, if nothing else, will make it easier for fans of the original film — like me — to accept him.

(For the record, my personal choice for Mikael would have been Tim Roth.)

Of course, the question now is who will win the role of Lisbeth and why would they want it?  For me, Noomi Rapace is Lisbeth.  She is the girl with dragon tattoo.  It’s hard to think of single mainstream actress in her 20s or early 30s who could hope to match Rapace’s performance.  (Perhaps a young Angelina Jolie could have though physically, Jolie is all wrong for the part.)  However, even beyond what Rapace did with the character, Lisbeth is one of the most vivid and memorable characters in recent literary history.  Even without having to worry about the shadow of Rapace’s previous performance, the role is not an easy one.

Originally, rumor had it that Kristen Stewart was a lock for the role.  At the risk of being burned at the stake as a heretic, I’m going to say that I think Stewart could have been an adequate (though not a great) Lisbeth except for the fact that she’s about ten years too young.  (While Lisbeth is described as looking like a teenager, she also projects a worldliness of someone much older.  Physical appearance can be faked but life experience can not.)  Carey Mulligan, star of An Education (the best film of 2009, by the way), was another actress who was frequently mentioned.

Well, according to Entertainment Weekly, neither Stewart nor Mulligan will play Lisbeth Salander.  Neither will Natalie Portman who, according to EW, was offered the role but turned it down.  The offer to Portman makes sense as she’s physcially right for the role and she’s an undeniably talented actress.  However, much as Pitt could never have been convincing as Mikael, Portman would have been miscast as Lisbeth.  Portman may be a talented actress but she’s also a rather passive one.  Even in her previous “action” roles (Leon, V For Vendetta), Portman essentially played a lost, damaged character (much like Lisbeth) who needed an older male figure to serve as her mentor (which, needless to say, is nothing like Lisbeth).

Again, according to EW, the role of Lisbeth has been narrowed down to four actresses: Rooney Mara, Lea Seydoux, Sarah Snook, and Sophie Lowe.  It’s probably a good sign that none of these actresses are household names exactly.  Competing with the shadow of Noomi Rapace’s Lisbeth is going to be difficult enough without also having to deal with the shadow of their own previous performances.  (For instance, even if Stewart gave a brilliant performance as Lisbeth, it would still be impossible for me to get through the remake without making at least one Twilight joke.)

For me, the real question is not who is going to be cast as Libseth but if Fincher and his producers are going to give us the real Lisbeth — this would be the unapologetically lesbian Lisbeth who can only befriend Mikael once she’s sure that she doesn’t any sort of sexual attraction towards him — or if we’re going to get a more mainstream, Hollywood version of Lisbeth.  Are we going to get the real Lisbeth who needs no one or are we going to get another version of what Hollywood claims to be a strong woman, one who can fight up until the final 30 minutes of the film at which point she’s suddenly rendered helpless by the demands of Mainstream Filmmaking 101.

More than anything, that will be the test that Fincher’s Girl With The Dragon Tattoo will have to pass if it wants to be anything more than an unneeded imitation of the original.

(Incidentally, the perfect Lisebth Salander would be Jena Malone.  End of story.)