A Movie A Day #67: Animal Factory (2000, directed by Steve Buscemi)


Edward Furlong is Ron Decker, a spoiled 18 year-old from a rich family who is arrested and sent to prison when he’s caught with a small amount of marijuana.  Being younger and smaller than the other prisoners, Ron is soon being targeted by everyone from the prison’s Puerto Rican gang to the sadistic Buck Rowan (Tom Arnold).  Fortunately, for Ron, prison veteran Earl Copen (Williem DaFoe) takes him under his wing and provides him with protection.  Earl is the philosopher-king of the prison.  As he likes to put it, “This is my prison, after all.”  If he can stay out of trouble, Ron has a chance to get out early but, with Buck stalking him, that’s not going to be easy.

Based on a novel by ex-con Edward Bunker, Animal Factory was the second film to be directed by Bunker’s Reservoir Dogs co-stars, Steve Buscemi.  Though it was overlooked at the time, Animal Factory is a minor masterpiece.  Taking a low key approach, Buscemi emphasizes the monotony of prison life just as much as the sudden bursts of violence and shows why someone like Ron Decker can go into prison as an innocent and come out as an animal.  DaFoe and Furlong give two of their best performances as Earl and Ron while a cast of familiar faces — Danny Trejo, Mickey Rourke, Chris Bauer, Mark Boone Junior — make up the prison’s population.  Most surprising of all is Tom Arnold, giving Animal Factory‘s best performance as the prison’s most dangerous predator.

Film Review: Ashby (dir by Tony McNamara)


Ashby

At first glance, Ed Wallis (Nat Wolff) seems like your typical nerdy high school student.  An introvert who has a hard time making friends, Ed is a talented writer but what he really wants to do is play for his school’s legendary football team.  One thing that sets Ed apart from cinematic nerds of the past is that he is not lacking in confidence.  He’s shy but he understands what he’s capable of accomplishing.  He knows he’s a good writer.  He also know that he has the potential to be a good football player.  When he crashes the team’s practice and manages to talk Coach Burton (Kevin Dunn) into giving him a shot, Ed proves that he’s the faster than anyone else on the team.  And when one of the other players starts to bully him, Ed has no trouble convincing the quarterback to stand up for him.  After all, as Ed explains it, if Ed’s not in a good mood than he’s not going to catch anything that the quarterback throws.  And if Ed doesn’t make those catches, the quarterback won’t have a good game and, if he doesn’t have a good game, he won’t get any scholarship offers.

At first, Ed’s determination to play football horrifies both his mother, June (Sarah Silverman), and his best (and only) friend, Eloise (Emma Roberts).  June is a single mother who terrifies Ed by openly discussing her sex life with him.  Eloise, meanwhile, is a self-styled misfit who is nicknamed “weird girl” by Ed’s fellow jocks.  It’s only after they see Ed playing on the field (and, not coincidentally, making the winning catch), that June and Eloise start to support Ed’s athletic dreams…

Meanwhile, Ed is getting to know his neighbor, Ashby (Mickey Rourke).  Ashby is a former CIA agent who has just been informed that he has only a few months to live.  Ed needs to talk to an old person for a class assignment.  Ashby needs someone to drive him around town.  At first, Ashby refuses to open up to Ed but slowly, Ashby starts to lower his defenses.  Ashby is soon coming to Ed’s football games, flirting with June, and serving as a substitute father figure.

Of course, Asby is also murdering people.  Though Ed doesn’t know it, the reason that Ashby keeps asking him for a ride is because Ashby is determined to track down and kill three men who he feels betrayed him.  Ashby does this with the full knowledge that eventually, the CIA is going to send somebody to take him out…

Ashby is a mix of genres that don’t really go together.  It’s a gentle coming-of-age comedy that’s also a violent revenge thriller.  The end result is an extremely messy film that never finds a consistent tone.  And yet, at the same time, that inconsistency is a part of the film’s strange charm.  The film is so determined to make its oddball mix of genres work that you actually do find yourself rooting for it, even if it doesn’t quite succeed.  Ashby is one of those films that shouldn’t work and yet, somehow, it does.

Some credit for that has to go to director Tony McNamara.  He directs with a good eyes for detail (the satiric portrayal of both high school and suburbia feels totally authentic) and he keeps the action moving at such a quick pace that you really don’t have time to obsess over the film’s mishmash of themes and tones.

Even more credit, however, I think has to be given to the cast, all of whom show an admirable commitment to bringing their eccentric characters to life.  Mickey Rourke’s plays Ashby as if he might be a distant relation to his character from The Wrestler while Sarah Silverman is so perfectly cast as June that you occasionally find yourself wishing that the entire film could be just about her.  I’ve lost track of how many times Emma Roberts has been cast as a quirky high school girlfriend but she still brings as much depth as she can to her underwritten character.

Ultimately, though, the film belongs to Nat Wolff, who was so good (as was Emma Roberts) in last year’s Palo Alto.  Wolff’s character in Ashby may not have much in common with the sociopath that he played in Palo Alto or the blind friend he played in The Fault In Our Stars, but Wolff brings a sly charm to all three roles and that charm convince the audience to not only accept but even embrace some of the film’s inconsistencies.  Nat Wolff truly holds Asbhy together, helping the film to survive some of its more uneven moments.

Ashby has been given a limited theatrical release and is available through VOD.  It’s definitely an uneven film but it’s worth seeing.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #114: The Wrestler (dir by Darren Aronofsky)


The_Wrestler_poster

I’m always a little surprised by how much I like the 2008 film The Wrestler.

Actually, to be honest, I’m more than a little surprised.  I’m a lot surprise.  First off, The Wrestler takes place in the world of professional wrestling and that’s a world that I not only know nothing about but which I also have very little interest.  (My cousin Gustavo — Hi, Gus! — loved the Rock.  That’s about the extent of my knowledge.)  Add to that, The Wrestler doesn’t take place in the world of televised pro wrestling.  (I may know nothing about wrestling but I do know a lot about television.)  Instead, this is a world of backroom matches, broken dreams, and fading lives.

Secondly, The Wrestler features, as its hero, a man in his 50s who is still a total and complete fuckup.  The character of Randy “The Ram” Robinson (played, in an Oscar-nominated performance, by Mickey Rourke) is perhaps epitomized by the fact that, after going out of his way to try to reconnect with his daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), and setting up a dinner date so that they can finally talk and get to know each other, Randy ends up getting consumed with self-pity, getting drunk, getting high, getting laid, and ultimately standing up his daughter.  And whenever I see that part of the movie, I hate Randy just as much as Stephanie does because I know exactly how she feels.  Stephanie can’t forgive Randy and neither can I.

And yet, oddly enough, I still care what happens to Randy.  Randy is a former wrestling superstar, a guy who was big in the 1980s but now lives in a haze of obscurity and self-pity.  He now wrestles on the weekend, works a demeaning job at a super market deli, and occasionally plays an old video game which features him as a character.  His only real friend (and source of strength) is Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a stripper who knows what its like to get older in a profession dominated by the young.

Randy does have one final chance at a comeback, when he agrees to an exhibition fight against his former nemesis, a  “villainous” wrestler known at The Ayatollah (Ernest Miller).  (It’s interesting to note that, outside of the ring, “bad guy” Ayatollah seems to be everything that “good guy” Randy is not, i.e., responsible, stable, and content with his life.)

However, there’s one problem.  Randy has a heart condition and he has been told that continuing to wrestle could kill him.  Will Randy give up the only thing that he’s ever been good at or will Randy potentially sacrifice his life to have one last chance to hear the cheers of the crowd?

Randy Robinson is another one of director Darren Aronofsky’s obsessive protagonists, a character who is so obsessed with something that he’s sacrificed everything else to pursue it.  Fortunately, Aronofsky is a master of making these type of characters sympathetic.  Over the course of the film, Randy fucks up so much that you really are tempted to just give up on him but Aronofsky directs the film with such compassion and Rourke gives such a vulnerable and emotionally raw performance that you find yourself giving Randy another chance despite your better instincts.  The film’s melancholy ending is effective because you know that it really is the only way that Randy’s story can end.

I’m always surprised to like The Wrestler.

But I do.

Trailer: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (Official Teaser)


Sin City A Dame to Kill For

Hard to imagine it’s been 9 years since the original Sin City hit the big screen. It was a comic book adaptation that many thought wouldn’t work, especially how Rodriguez envisioned it to be slavishly loyal to not just Miller’s dialogue but also his unique art style.

The original film’s success quickly ramped up rumors that a sequel was already being planned using the second graphic novel in the Sin City series. Rodriguez himself stated he wanted Angelina Jolie for the role of Ava Lord, the titular “Dame to Kill For”, but after years and years of delay the role finally landed on Eva Green‘s lap (not a bad choice and one I fully support).

So, we’re now going back to Basin City for more tales of booze, broads and bullets in this hyper-noir film that should be loved or hated in equal measures by those who have followed Frank Miller’s career. Once again the directing duties have been split between Rodriguez and Miller. Here’s to hoping that Miller has learned how to be a much better directer after his last film, The Spirit, tanked.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is set for an August 22, 2014 release date.

6 Trailers In Search Of a Title


Without further delay, here’s the latest edition of Lisa’s favorite grindhouse and exploitation trailers.

1) Something Weird (1967)

I just had to start out with this because it represents everything that I love about these old school exploitation trailers.  It’s just so shameless and cheerful about it all.  This film is from Herschell Gordon Lewis and it features ESP, a really kinda scary witch, and a random LSD trip.  The title of this film also inspired the name of one of my favorite companies, Something Weird Video.  (I make it a point to buy something from Something Weird every chance I get.  My most recent Something Weird video is a film from the 60s called Sinderella and the Golden Bra.  Haven’t gotten a chance to watch it yet but with a title like that, how could it be bad?)

2) Fade to Black (1980)

This is actually a really, really bad movie and I think the trailer goes on for a bit too long but it does have a few vaguely effective moments — i.e., when Dennis Christopher stares at the camera with half of his face painted.  Plus, you can catch a young Mickey Rourke acting a lot like Michael Madsen. 

3) Monster Shark (1984)  

Now you may think that since this Italian film was directed by Lamberto Bava (credited here as John Old, Jr. because his father, Mario, was occasionally credited as John Old, Sr.) and has the word “shark” in the title that it’s yet another rip-off of Jaws.  Well, joke’s on you because, as they state repeatedly in the trailer, “It’s not a shark!”  Even if you didn’t know this was an Italian film before watching the trailer, it wouldn’t be hard to guess.  First off, there’s the dubbing.  Then there’s the scene of the film’s main character wandering around aimlessly.  (Most Italian horror trailers feature at least one scene of someone just walking around.)  And finally, there’s the fact that this is yet another trailer that uses a sped-up version of Goblin’s Beyond The Darkness soundtrack for its background music.  While I haven’t seen this film yet, I plan to just to find out who Bob is.

 4) Van Nuys Boulevard (1979)

Originally, I was planning on including the trailer for a Ted V. Mikels’ film called The Worm Eaters right here but I reconsidered because, quite frankly, The Worm Eaters is one of the most disgusting, stomach-churning things I’ve ever seen.  I’m going to wait until I find five other equally disgusting trailers to feature it with and then I’m going to put them all up under the heading: 6 Trailers To Inspire Vomit.  Until then, enjoy a far more pleasant trailer — Van Nuys Blvd.  This trailer rhymes!  I’m tempted to say that I could have written it but then again, I only write free verse poetry.  Anyway, where was I?  Oh yeah, Van Nuys Blvd.

5) Vice Squad (1982)

However, there was a darker side to Van Nuys Blvd. and here it is: Vice Squad, starring Wings Hauser.  Eventually, I’ll review this film but until I do, check out our new friend Trash Film Guru’s review.

6) Crosstalk (1982)

We’ll conclude with the only thing scarier than Wings Hauser in Vice Squad — a computer that has not only witnessed a murder but enjoyed it!

A Quickie Review: The Expendables (dir. by Sylvester Stallone)


Lisa Marie has already done a wonderful job of reviewing Sylvester Stallone’s latest action vehicle, The Expendables. I’ll keep my review to a quickie format since her review went into detail and my thoughts ran at a similar path.

To start things I will say that despite the obvious gigantic leaps in logic one may have to take to buy into Stallone’s latest once that leap has been taken then The Expendables becomes a piece of mind-numbingly loud, fun and entertaining piece of popcorn cinema. Yes, this film is not going to break any new grounds in cinematic history (though in terms of piecing together a cast so manly and testosterone-fueled it may). Stallone will not have found his inner-Bergman or even his closeted-McTiernan. What The Expendables has shown would be how Stallone knows exactly what his core audience wants to see.

His film is quite lean to the level of anorexic when one has to describe it’s plot and characters. The film’s main plot involves Stallone and his band of expert mercenaries (using the film’s title as their name) being hired by a Mr. Church (Bruce Willis in an uncredited cameo) who wants them to overthrow a certain dictator-general who rules a small South American island nation called Vilena. Stallone and his writers try to add some complexities to this set-up of past CIA dealings with the general and rogue agents (sounds like rogue CIA agents are the villains of the season for 2010 with The Losers and The A-Team also having their own rogue agent) and daddy issues. But all that was just gristle that could’ve been taken out of the porterhouse that this film ended up being.

The Expendables works best when bought into it as being a throwback, meat and potatoes type of action flick. It definitely owes much to the many action flicks that got churned out for film and direct-to-video in the hundreds during the 80’s. Even the casting brings to mind the typical casting list of 80’s action. Take the most recognizable (then move down the tiers) action stars of the day, put them together, add guns and explosions and you got yourself an actioner. And boy does this flick have tons of explosions and a veritable buffet table of weapons on-hand. My favorite has to be the AA-12 assault shotgun carried by Terry Crews’ character Caesar. A character who seemed written just someone will come into an action scene firing this most awesome of weapons. When Crews’ Caesar does put the AA-12 into use the theater I was in erupted in cheers (yeah, cheering nameless soldiers getting shotgunned off their feet seems tackless, but oh so fun!).

I really don’t need to go too much into the plot in detail. What I had mentioned earlier and what Lisa Marie has already written pretty much explains everything. The film’s cast of past and current action stars have chemistry together. Though I will say that the chemistry may be just due to the fact that they all are in on the joke while making the film. They seem to know not to take the screenplay seriously and just go with the flow of the action. We’re not watching a film about Stallone’s character interacting with Statham’s or Rourke’s or Li’s. We’re watching Stallone shooting the shit with the others and there just happened to be cameras around them rolling. The only thing missing from the non-action scenes between the cast members were stripper poles, dancers and a few Hell’s Angels bikers doing boucner duties (maybe the director’s cut edition of the dvd/blu-ray will put those back in).

Now, what would a Stallone flick be without talking about the action. While the action scenes are not revolutionary and not even stylisticly different the way the action in The Losers and The A-Team were shot again Stallone stuck to 80’s meat-and-potatoes. The action scenes were reminiscent of scenes from Commando, Rambo: First Blood Part II and Die Hard. It was a by-the-numbers, point a to point b style of filming an action scene that audiences will accept with a nostalgic smile or dismiss as being boring and been-there-done-that. The one thing Stallone added to these scenes which made them feel somewhat fresh and new was the brutal and gory way people reactedwhen their clumsiness made them get in the way of the thousands of bullets, shotgun shells and explosions. Stallone first showed this in its over-the-top glory in his previous film, Rambo, and he uses the same style in a slightly more subdued way in this film.

I will like to point out one particular action sequence which was brief but done with a certain panache that convinced me that Stallone should just crank out action flicks for the rest of his career. I’m talking about a point in the middle section of the flick when Stallone and Statham use their team seaplane to strafe then firebomb the waterfront docks in Vilena. Part of me knew what was going to happen when they began their run but by the time it ended I was smiling like a goofy 8-year old kid watching his first rated-R action movie. Yeah, The Expendables definitely plucked the nostalgia strings in this film-fan’s heart.

One other way to look at this flick is to compare it to Stallone’s Rambo which also had a mercenary team who unwittingly becomes sidekick to Rambo by the film’s end. I, and more than a few other reviewers, where actually interested in seeing a film with Rambo and said mercenary team in a film together. While such a film would’ve been one of the most violent if not the stadard bearer if ever made we’ll just have to settle for a more tame version with The Expendables. Maybe this flick will make that particular spin-off happen down the line.

I would like to say that The Expendables had more to offer than the guns, explosions and overwhelming aura of testosterone, but I’d lying if I did. That’s all one needed to know going into the theater to watch this flick. To expect anymore, even a decent dialogue, would be asking for sauteed mushrooms and artichokes when all that’s needed is that porterhouse cooked just above rare and a six-pack of brews. Just think of The Expendables as that kind of meal and one will enjoy the bloody fun being had by all on the big-screen.


Film Review: The Expendables (Dir. by Sylvester Stallone)


I know that I really should have hated The Expendables.  For one thing, it’s a very, traditional, let’s-blow-up-Eric-Roberts-and-save-the-damsel-in-distress action film.  Storywise — well, there really isn’t a story beyond a bunch of inarticulate, muscle-bound men blowing shit up.  The Expendables is perhaps the most hyper-masculine film since Avatar, the type of movie that was obviously not made with anyone possessing a brain or a vagina in mind. 

In short, the Expendables is the type of mainstream, action movie that — based on everything I’ve ever written on this site — I should have hated.  But you know what?  I didn’t hate it.  I’m not saying that I loved the movie (because I certainly did not) but on the whole, The Expendables is a fun movie and sometimes, that’s more than enough.

The Expendables are a group of mercenaries, led by Sylvester Stallone and Jason Stathan.  They are, of course, the best at what they do.  They must be as their existence is apparently a well-kept secret despite the fact that they all have prominent Expendables tattoos and all they drive motorcycles covered with colorful Expendable decals.  So, the question is — can you accept the fact that the movie tells us the Expendables are a secret even though they clearly would never be able to pull that off in real life?  If the answer is yes, read on.  And if the answer is no, please don’t ever talk to me because you probably lack a proper appreciation for the absurd.

Anyway, The Expendables are hired by Mr. Church.  Mr. Church is played by Bruce Willis who, in his very short scene, manages to chew up more scenery than a termite in heat.  (That’s a lot of scenery.)  Mr. Church wants the Expendables to go to a poor, island nation and overthrow the military dictator.  Or something like that.  To be honest, I never really figured out what the exact mission was other than it involved blowing a lot of shit up. 

Oh, I nearly forgot to mention that Eric Roberts is on the island too.  He’s a bad guy.  You know he’s a bad guy because he’s always stopping the action to tauntingly explain his evil plans.  (It also helps that he’s played by Eric Roberts.)  Roberts is a bit of let down as a villain and its hard not to feel that his performance was basically made up of deleted scenes from The Dark Knight.  Then again, in Roberts’ defense, he’s having to compete with memories of Jason Patric playing a similar character in The Losers.

If Roberts’ villain is disappointing, the Expendables themselves are played well enough.  While Sylvester Stallone is hardly a great actor, he knows how to play an action hero and he brings just the right mix of self-aware parody and self-righteous fury to his role.  His second-in-command is played by Jason Stathan who displays something resembling charisma for the 1st time in his odd film career.  The other Expendables don’t get much to do beyond deliver a few quirky lines of dialogue and blow stuff up.  One of them is played by Jet Li who dominates his few scenes even though he doesn’t really get to do much.  Another Expendable is played by the Old Spice Guy who, according to Wikipedia, is actually a pro-athlete named Terry Crews.  However, all of the Expendables appear to enjoy hanging out together.  You get the feeling that they had a good time making this movie and, as a result, you feel almost guilty for worrying about stuff like logic or ambiguity.

The main selling point of The Expendables is that it apparently features every single action star in existence.  Even Arnold Schwarzenegger gets to make a largely pointless cameo and deliver the film’s worst one liners while, in real life, the state he’s supposed to be running descends further and further into financial doom.  While I recognized Stallone, Stathan, Willis, Roberts, Mickey Rourke, and Jet Li, apparently everyone else in the cast used to be someone at some point as well.  Luckily, I saw this movie with my friend Jeff who got very excited as he explained to me who everyone was and why their presence on-screen was making all the men in the audience so positively giddy.  To be honest, I think I probably actually understood a little less than a fourth of the information that Jeff provided me with but he was so incredibly cute trying to explain it all.

(I imagine I probably gave him the same look that he gave me when I attempted to explain Sex and the City 2 to him.)

As I explained at the start of this review, the Expendables is not, technically, a good film but it is a lot of fun.  As opposed to the Avatars of the world, the Expendables is a movie that is at peace with what it is.  There’s no attempt to try to fool the audience into thinking that they’re seeing a work of art.  There’s something to be said for that type of honesty, especially when you consider that we’re approaching that time in the film season when every movie is going to be marketed as a sure-fire Oscar contender.

And if the film is a hyperactive overload of testosterone — well, it is what it is.  After sitting through hundreds of films based on books by Nicholas Sparks, all featuring Miley Cyrus, Emma Roberts, or Amanda Seyfried haunting the beach all to win the love of some sensitive lifeguard eunuch, there’s something undeniably appealing about watching a bunch of guys acting like guys.  Zac Efron might have the heart and soul of poet but can he blow shit up?