Robot Without A Cause: Class of 1999 II: The Substitute (1994, directed by Spiro Razatos)

There’s a new substitute teacher at a local high school in Oregon and he’s not going to put up with any disrespectful punks.  John Bolen (Sasha Mitchell) can educate minds and change lives but only when he’s not busy killing any student with a bad attitude and trying to protect his fellow teacher, Jenna McKenzie (Caitlin Dulany).  Jenna is scheduled to testify against the local gang leader so every punk at school is trying to intimidate her and her boyfriend, Emmett (Nick Cassavetes!).  It takes Jenna and Emmett a while to realize that John is killing all of their students but soon, a mysterious man named G.D. Ash (Rick Hill) shows up and insinuates that John might be connected to the robot teachers that, two years earlier, terrorized a high school in Seattle.

This sequel to The Class of 1999 is mostly more of the same, with the main difference being that the focus is not on the students being hunted but instead on the teachers being “protected.”  If the first Class of 1999 was about the dangers of a no tolerance discipline policy, the sequel is all for it and suggests that maybe the world really would be better off if teachers could just kill some of their more disruptive students.  The first film’s director, Mark L. Lester, did not return for the sequel and directing duties were given to stunt coordinator to Spiro Razatos who, not surprisingly, emphasized action and stunts over characterization.  Fortunately, Sasha Mitchell was a champion kickboxer so he’s believable in the action scenes and he’s such a stiff actor that you could believe that he might be an android.  There’s a good and unexpected twist towards the end of the movie but, ultimately, the victims are too interchangeable and the direction is too flat for this sequel to duplicate the demented pleasures of either Class of 1999 or Class of 1984.

Sundance Film Review: Alpha Dog (dir by Nick Cassavetes)

The Sundance Film Festival is currently taking place in Utah so, for this week, I’m reviewing films that either premiered, won awards at, or otherwise made a splash at Sundance!  Today, I take a look at 2006’s Alpha Dog, which premiered, out of competition, at Sundance.

Sometimes, I suspect that I may be the only person who actually likes this movie.

Alpha Dog is a film about a group of stupid people who end up doing a terrible thing.  Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch) is a 20 year-old living in Los Angeles.  His father, Sonny (Bruce Willis) and his godfather, Cosmo (Harry Dean Stanton), are both mob-connected and keep Johnny supplied with the drugs that Johnny then sells to his friends.  It’s a pretty good deal for Johnny.  He’s got a nice house and a group of friends who are willing to literally do anything for him.  Johnny, after all, is the one who has the money.

When Johnny’s former best friend, Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster), fails to pay a drug debt, things quickly escalate.  When Johnny refuses to accept even a partial payment, Jake responds by breaking into Johnny’s house and vandalizing the place.  (Just what exactly Jake does, I’m not going to go into because it’s nasty.  Seriously, burn that house down…)  Johnny decides that the best way to force Jake to pay up is to kidnap Jake’s younger brother, Zack (Anton Yelchin, who is heartbreakingly good in this film).

It quickly turns out that Zack doesn’t mind being kidnapped.  Everyone tells Zack not to worry about anything and that he’ll be set free as soon as Jake pays his debt.  Zack decides to just enjoy his weekend.  Since Johnny is better at ordering people to commit crimes than committing them himself, he tells his friend, Frankie (Justin Timberlake), to keep an eye on Zack.

And so it goes from there.  While Johnny leaves town, Frankie introduces Zack to all of his friends.  Everyone laughs about how Zack is “stolen boy.”  Zack’s going to parties and having a good time.  However, Johnny returns and reveals that he’s been doing some thinking, as well as talking to his lawyer.  Regardless of whether Zack’s enjoying himself, both Johnny and Frankie could go to prison for kidnapping him.  Frankie argues that Zack won’t tell anyone about what happened.  Maybe they could just pay him off.  Johnny thinks it might be easier to just have him killed.  Frankie’s not a murderer but what about Elvis Schmidt (Shawn Hatosy)?  Elvis is a loser who desperately wants to be a part of Johnny’s crew and he owes Johnny almost as much money as Jake does.  How far would Elvis be willing to go?

(While this plays out, the film keeps a running tally of everyone who witnesses Zack not only being kidnapped but also held hostage.  In the end, there were at least 32 witnesses but none of them said a word.)

Alpha Dog is based on the true story of Jesse James Hollywood and the murder of 15 year-old Nicholas Markowitz.  Hollywood spent five years as a fugitive from justice, hiding out in Brazil and reportedly being protected by his wealthy family.  He was arrested shortly before the Sundance premiere of Alpha Dog.  Since it was filmed before Hollywood’s arrest and subsequent conviction, Alpha Dog changed his name to Johnny Truelove.  Johnny Truelove is a good name but it’s nowhere near as memorable as Jesse James Hollywood.

Alpha Dog sticks close to the facts of the case, providing a disturbing portrait of a group of aimless wannabe gangsters who, insulated by money and privilege, ended up getting in over their heads and committing a terrible crime.  Emile Hirsch gives one of his best performances as the sociopathic Johnny Truelove while Ben Foster is both frightening and, at times, sympathetic as Jake.  Justin Timberlake is compelling as he wrestles with his conscience while Shawn Hatosy is properly loathsome as the type of idiot that everyone knows but wish they didn’t.  The dearly missed Anton Yelchin is heartbreaking and poignant as Zack.  And finally, there’s Harry Dean Stanton.  Stanton doesn’t say a lot in this movie.  Often times, he’s just hovering in the background.  The moment when he reveals his true self is one of the best in the movie.

As I said, I sometimes feel as if I’m the only person who likes this movie.  It got mixed reviews when it was released and, in the years since, it rarely seems to ever get mentioned in a positive context.  Personally, I think it’s a well-done portrait of privilege, stupidity, and the lengths to which people will go to avoid taking a stand.  In the end, no one escapes punishment but it’s the rich guy who, at the very least, gets to spend at least a few years enjoying his freedom in Brazil.

Previous Sundance Film Reviews:

  1. Blood Simple
  2. I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore
  3. Circle of Power
  4. Old Enough
  5. Blue Caprice
  6. The Big Sick

4 Shots From 4 Films: The Thin Man, Bonnie and Clyde, The Notebook, Like Crazy

4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films is all about letting the visuals do the talking.

Love love love

4 Shots From 4 Films

 The Thin Man (1934, dir by W.S. Van Dyke)

The Thin Man (1934, dir by W.S. Van Dyke)

Bonnie and Clyde (1967, dir by Arthur Penn)

Bonnie and Clyde (1967, dir by Arthur Penn)

The Notebook (2004, dir by Nick Cassavetes)

The Notebook (2004, dir by Nick Cassavetes)

Like Crazy (2011, dir by Drake Doremus)

Like Crazy (2011, dir by Drake Doremus)

Halloween Film Review: The Wraith (1986, directed by Mike Marvin)

thewraithPackard Walsh (Nick Cassavetes) has a pretty good business going.  He and his gang of “road pirates” patrol the Arizona desert.  Whenever they spot a car that they want, they demand that the driver race for pink slips and they cheat to win.  Through fear and intimidation, Packard rules the town of Brooks and not even Sheriff Loomis (Randy Quaid) can stop him.

Packard is obsessed with Keri Johnson (Sherilyn Fenn), who works as a carhop at Big Kay’s Burger.  Packard considers Keri to be his property and even demands that she drink his blood so that they will be forever linked.  Earlier, Packard and his gang killed Keri’s boyfriend, Jamie.  When a new kid named Jake (played by Charlie Sheen) shows up in town, both Keri and Jamie’s brother (Matthew Barry) feel as if they know him from somewhere.  Jake also has scars on his back the match Jamie’s wounds.the_wraith_03

Shortly after Jake’s arrival, a mysterious black Turbo Interceptor appears on the roads.  The unseen driver challenges each member of Packard’s gang to a race and then purposefully crashes into them.  Whenever the Turbo explodes, it rematerializes somewhere nearby.  When the driver does finally get out of the Turbo, it turns out that he’s covered in black leather armor and his face is hidden behind a black helmet.

According to Rughead (Clint Howard), the only member of Packard’s gang who did not take part in Jamie’s murder, the driver is “a wraith, man!  A ghost, an evil spirit — and it ain’t cool!”

The Wraith is one of those films that always used to show up on TV when I was a kid.  Thought it was often advertised as being a horror film, it’s actually an uncredited remake of High Plans Drifter with Clint Eastwood replaced by Charlie Sheen.  Seen today, The Wraith is a major nostalgia trip.  One of the fun things about watching the movie is ticking off all of the clichés that make this a definite 80s film, from the cars to the slang to the soundtrack.  (It does not get more 80s than a soundtrack featuring both Billy Idol and Robert Palmer.)  Packard’s gang is all made up of generic punk types.  My favorite was Skank (David Sherrill), who had a mohawk and drank brake fluid.


Of course, the cars are the main appeal of The Wraith.  All of the, are cool (even Rughead’s pickup truck) but the obvious star of the film is that black Turbo Interceptor.  At its best, it rivals even Marty McFly’s DeLorean as the coolest car to show up in an 80s sci-fi film.


The Wraith may not be the greatest movie ever made but if you are into fast cars and Sherilyn Fenn at her loveliest, you should enjoy it.

6 More Film Reviews From 2014: At Middleton, Barefoot, Divergent, Gimme Shelter, The Other Woman, and more!

Let’s continue to get caught up with 6 more reviews of 6 more films that I saw in 2014!

At Middleton (dir by Adam Rodgers)

“Charming, but slight.”  I’ve always liked that term and I think it’s the perfect description for At Middleton, a dramedy that came out in January and did not really get that much attention.  Vera Farmiga is a businesswoman who is touring colleges with her daughter (Taissa Farmiga, who is actually Vera’s younger sister).  Andy Garcia is a surgeon who is doing the same thing with his son.  All four of them end up touring Middleton College at the same time.  While their respective children tour the school, Vera and Andy end up walking around the campus and talking.  And that’s pretty much the entire film!

But you know what?  Vera Farmiga and Andy Garcia are both such good performers and have such a strong chemistry that it doesn’t matter that not much happens.  Or, at the very least, it doesn’t matter was much as you might think it would.

Hence, charming but slight.

Barefoot (dir by Andrew Fleming)

Well, fuck it.

Sorry, I know that’s not the best way to start a review but Barefoot really bothered me.  In Barefoot, Scott Speedman plays a guy who invites Evan Rachel Wood to his brother’s wedding.  The twist is that Wood has spent most of her life in a mental institution.  Originally, Speedman only invites her so that he can trick his father (Treat Williams) into believing that Speedman has finally become a responsible adult.  But, of course, he ends up falling in love with her and Wood’s simple, mentally unbalanced charm brings delight to everyone who meets her.  I wanted to like this film because I love both Scott Speedman and Evan Rachel Wood but, ultimately, it’s all rather condescending and insulting.  Yes, the film may be saying, mental illness is difficult but at least it helped Scott Speedman find love…

On the plus side, the always great J.K. Simmons shows up, playing a psychiatrist.  At no point does he say, “Not my tempo” but he was probably thinking it.

Divergent (dir by Neil Burger)

There’s a lot of good things that can be said about Divergent.  Shailene Woodley is a likable heroine.  The film’s depiction of a dystopian future is well-done. Kate Winslet has fun playing a villain.  Miles Teller and Ansel Elgort are well-cast.  But, ultimately, Divergent suffers from the same problem as The Maze Runner and countless other YA adaptations.  The film never escapes from the shadow of the far superior Hunger Games franchise.  Perhaps, if Divergent had been released first, we’d be referring to the Hunger Games as being a Divergent rip-off.

However, I kind of doubt it.  The Hunger Games works on so many levels.  Divergent is an entertaining adventure film that features a good performance from Shailene Woodley but it’s never anything more than that.  Considering that director Neil Burger previously gave us Interview with the Assassin and Limitless, it’s hard not to be disappointed that there’s not more to Divergent.

Gimme Shelter (dir by Ron Krauss)

Gimme Shelter, which is apparently based on a true story, is about a teenage girl named Apple (Vanessa Hudgens) who flees her abusive, drug addicted mother (Rosario Dawson).  She eventually tracks down her wealthy father (Brendan Fraser), who at first takes Apple in.  However, when he discovers that she’s pregnant, he demands that she get an abortion.  When Apple refuses, he kicks her out of the house.  Apple eventually meets a kindly priest (James Earl Jones) and moves into a shelter that’s run by the tough Kathy (Ann Dowd).

Gimme Shelter came out in January and it was briefly controversial because a lot of critics felt that, by celebrating Apple’s decision not to abort her baby, the movie was pushing an overly pro-life message.  Interestingly enough, a lot of those outraged critics were men and, as I read their angry reviews, it was hard not to feel that they were more concerned with showing off their political bona fides than with reviewing the actual film.  Yes, the film does celebrate Apple’s decision to keep her baby but the film also emphasizes that it was Apple’s decision to make, just as surely as it would have been her decision to make if she had chosen to have an abortion.

To be honest, the worst thing about Gimme Shelter is that it doesn’t take advantage of the fact that it shares its name with a great song by the Rolling Stones.  Otherwise, it’s a well-done (if rather uneven) look at life on the margins.  Yes, the script and the direction are heavy-handed but the film is redeemed by a strong performance from Vanessa Hudgens, who deserves to be known for more than just being “that girl from High School Musical.”

Heaven is For Real (dir by Randall Wallace)

You can tell that Heaven is For Real is supposed to be based on a true story by the fact that the main character is named Todd Burpo.  Todd Burpo is one of those names that’s just so ripe for ridicule that you know he has to be a real person.

Anyway, Heaven Is For Real is based on a book of the same name.  Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) is the pastor of a small church in Nebraska.  After Todd’s son, Colton, has a near death experience, he claims to have visited Heaven where he not only met a sister who died before he was born but also had a conversation with Jesus.  As Colton’s story starts to get national attention, Todd struggles to determine whether Colton actually went to Heaven or if he was just having a hallucination.

You can probably guess which side the movie comes down on.

Usually, as a self-described heathen, I watch about zero faith-based movies a year.  For some reason, I ended up watching three over the course of 2014: Left Behind, Rumors of War, and this one.  Heaven is For Real is not as preachy (or terrible) as Left Behind but it’s also not as much fun as Rumors of War.  (Rumors of War, after all, featured Eric Roberts.)  Instead, Heaven Is For Real is probably as close to mainstream as a faith-based movie can get.  I doubt that the film changed anyone’s opinion regarding whether or not heaven is for real but it’s still well-done in a made-for-TV sort of way.

The Other Woman (dir by Nick Cassavetes)

According to my BFF Evelyn, we really liked The Other Woman when we saw it earlier this year.  And, despite how bored I was with the film when I recently tired to rewatch it, we probably did enjoy it that first time.  It’s a girlfriend film, the type of movie that’s enjoyable as long as you’re seeing it for the first time and you’re seeing it with your best girlfriends.  It’s a lot of fun the first time you see it but since the entire film is on the surface, there’s nothing left to discover on repeat viewings.  Instead, you just find yourself very aware of the fact that the film often substitutes easy shock for genuine comedy. (To be honest, I think that — even with the recent missteps of Labor Day and Men, Women, and Children — Jason Reitman could have done wonders with this material.  Nick Cassavetes however…)   Leslie Mann gives a good performance and the scenes where she bonds with Cameron Diaz are a lot of fun but otherwise, it’s the type of film that you enjoy when you see it and then you forget about it.