Faster (2010, directed by George Tilllman, Jr.)

A man known as the Driver (played by Dwayne Johnson) is released from prison, having served time for taking part in a bank robbery.  As soon as he gets his freedom, the Driver is jumping in a fast car, driving across Nevada and California, and killing everyone who he believes set him up and murdered his half-brother.  The Driver has even made out list of the people on whom he needs to get revenge.  Among those on the Driver’s list are a nightclub bouncer, a snuff film producer, an traveling evangelist, and one name that the Driver has not bothered to write down.

As the Driver conducts his killing spree, he is pursued by two other men who each have their own reason for wanting to find him.  The Cop (Billy Bob Thornton) is close to retirement and has a heroin addiction.  The Killer (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is a hit man who views murder as a personal challenge and who plans to marry his girlfriend (Maggie Grace) as soon as he takes care of the Driver.

Today, we take Dwayne Johnson’s superstardom for granted so it’s interesting to go back and watch a movie like Faster, which was made when Johnson was still best known as a wrestler and there were still doubts about whether or not he had the screen presence to carry an entire film on his own.  Though Johnson’s character is the main character and it’s his single-minded quest for revenge that propels the plot, the film spends as much time with the Cop and the Killer as it does with the Driver.  The Driver doesn’t get much dialogue.  Instead, the majority of the Driver’s scenes emphasize Johnson’s physical presence, casting him as the unstoppable hand of fate.  Johnson doesn’t really get to show what he can do as an actor until nearly halfway through the film, when the Driver has an emotional meeting with his mother.  Johnson acquits himself well in the scene but it’s still obvious that the film was made before people realized that Dwayne Johnson really could act.

Seen today, Faster is a relentless and exciting B-movie.  It’s fast-paced and, even if it doesn’t give Johnson a chance to say much, it’s smart enough to surround him with memorable character actors like Billy Bob Thornton, Tom Berenger, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, and Carla Gugino.  Even without a lot of dialogue, Dwayne Johnson is such an imposing figure and has so much screen presence that he dominates the film in a way that it’s hard to believe that there were ever any doubts about whether or not he could be a film star.  Faster holds up well, as both an action movie and star-making vehicle for Dwayne Johnson.

Major League (1989, dir. by David S. Ward) and Major League II (1994, dir. by David S. Ward)

I’m so excited that baseball’s back!

The 2020 regular season of Major League Baseball is going to start on July 22nd and it’s going to last until September 27th.  The teams will play 60 games and the World Series will be held in October.  It’s an abbreviated season but there was no way to avoid that.  I’m just happy that there will at least be some games played this year.

Of course, as excited and happy as I am, I can’t deny that baseball almost always breaks my heart.  Just a few years ago, I was so excited when a Texas team finally won the World Series.  Later, we all found out that the Astros won because they cheated, which will forever taint both the legacy of the team and the MLB.  It breaks my heart to say it but, as far as I’m concerned, no Texas team has yet to legitimately win the World Series.

And then there’s the Rangers.  I’m a Rangers fan.  I love the Rangers.  I was so excited the two times that they made it to the World Series and I’ve never gotten over their loss to the Cardinals.  (Their loss to the Giants I can accept because the Giants were a great team and they earned their wins.  The Cardinals, on the other hand…)  Ever since 2012, though, the Rangers have always broken my heart.  It’s been a while since we’ve had a great Rangers season.  At the start of every season, though, I say, “This is our season!”  And no matter how badly things end, I always say, “Next season, we’re going all the way!”

I guess that’s why I love Major League.

Major League is the ultimate underdog baseball movie.  It’s a film about a fictional version of the Cleveland Indians.  Rachel Phelps (Margaret Whitton), the new owner of the Indians, wants to move the team to Miami but to do that, she’s going to need to have the worst season ever, one where the team plays so badly and breaks so many hearts that even the most loyal fans stop coming to the games.  It shouldn’t be too hard since the Indians have’t even won a pennant in over 30 years.  But to make sure that it happens and that the team only wins 15 games over the entire season, Phelps recruits the worst players she can find.

The team that she puts together is made up of has-beens and never-weres.  Some of them have raw talent but none of them know how to play as a team.  Ex-con Ricky Vaughn (Charlie Sheen) has a killer fastball but is so near-sighted that he’s a danger whenever he steps on the mound.  Catcher Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger) is a veteran team leader but his knees are so bad that he can barely walk.  Willie Mays Hayes (Wesley Snipes) is fast but can’t hit worth a damn.  Pedro Cerrano (Dennis Haysbert) can hit home runs but only if the pitcher throws him a fastball.  Just as Rachel expected, the team struggles at first.  Even when they start to show signs of improvement, she cut back on their budget and sells their equipment, all to try to make winning impossible.  It’s only when their manager, ex-drywall salesman Lou Brown (James Gammon), tells them that Rachel wants them to lose that the team comes together and starts to win.

Everything that’s great about baseball can be found in Major League.  I love all the scenes with the fans slowly coming around to believing that maybe the Indians actually could win it all.  I’ve been through that so many times with the Rangers that I know exactly how they all felt.  I love the interactions between all the players on the team, from the new players eager to win to the veterans who just want to survive another season.  I love the scenes with the play-by-play announcer (Bob Uecker) trying to put a good spin on the way the team plays.  (All together: “Just a bit outside!”)  And mostly, I love that the film treats the game and its players with the respect that they deserve.  So many other films would have turned a character like born-again pitcher Eddie Harris (Chelcie Ross) into a punchline.  Instead, in Major League, he gets a standing ovation after he pitches his last game.  The best thing about Major League is that it loves baseball, both the games and the players.

Since Major League was a success at the box office, it was eventually followed by a sequel, Major League II.

Major League II picks up the season after the first movie ended and it tells the exact same story as the first film, just not as well.  Almost everyone from the first film is back (though Omar Epps takes over the role of Willie Mays Hayes from Wesley Snipes) but the charm and the chemistry from the first movie just aren’t there.  The players have to set aside their egos and learn how to play like a team all over again.  The main difference between the two movies is that it takes a lot longer for the Indians to start winning in the sequel than in the first film.  Plus, the sequel just isn’t as funny.

Even if the sequel is a let down, the first Major League is still one of the best baseball movies ever made.  If the Indians could win the pennant in Major League, maybe there’s hope for my Rangers yet!

18 Days of Paranoia #11: Betrayed (dir by Costa-Gavras)

The 1988 film, Betrayed, starts out on a strong note but then quickly becomes annoying as Hell.

It opens with shots of a radio talk show host, an outspoken liberal named Sam Kraus (Richard Libertini).  Kraus berates his callers.  Kraus ridicules anyone who is to the left of Bernie Sanders.  When a man with a rural-accent calls in and attacks Karus for being Jewish, Kraus calls the man an idiot.  After he gets off the air, Kraus walks through a parking garage and stops in front of his car.  Another car pulls up beside Kraus and suddenly, a masked man with a gun opens fire on Kraus, killing him.  The gunman gets out of the car and spray paints, “ZOG” on Kraus’s car before then fleeing the garage.

(ZOG stands for Zionist Occupational Government.  It’s a term used by the type of anti-Semitic dipshits who thinks that the Protocols of Elder Zion are real.)

From this shockingly brutal opening, we cut to panoramic shots of beautiful farmland and crops being harvested in the American midwest, the heartland.  Gary Simmons (Tom Berenger) owns a farm.  He’s a Vietnam vet who nearly received the medal of honor.  He lives with his mother and he has two children.  (He’s divorced and his ex-wife died as the result of a mysterious hit-and-run in California.)  Almost everyone in his small hometown seems to worship Gary.  They’re certainly curious about his new girlfriend, Katie Phillips (Debra Winger).

And really, they probably should be.  Katie Phillips isn’t Katie Phillips at all.  She’s actually an FBI agent named Cathy Weaver and she’s been sent undercover to investigate whether or not Gary was involved in the murder of Kraus.  Cathy, who comes from a broken family and who we’re told has always been seeking some sort of deeper meaning in her life, is charmed by both Gary and his family.  In fact, she falls in love with Gary.  She tells her superior, Mike Carnes (John Heard), that there’s no way Gary is dangerous.  Mike doesn’t believe her but, of course, Mike has a personal stake in this because he and Cathy used to be romantically involved.

(That’s right, everyone.  Betrayed is so narratively lazy that it resorts to making Mike a scorned lover, even though the film’s plot would have worked just as well if he wasn’t.)

As I said, the first part of the movie works.  Debra Wingers gives a strong performance and Tom Berenger is a charming roughneck.  For the first half-hour or so, the film does a good job of showing why men like Gary and his friends are susceptible to conspiracy theories and why they feel that the entire world is stacked against them.  You can understand why Cathy is so troubled by her assignment because Gary’s friends are hardly master criminals.  For the most part, they’re farmers who feel like their entire way of life has been taken away from them.

Unfortunately, almost immediately after Mike refuses to allow her to end her investigation, Cathy returns to the farm and sleeps with Gary.  Not only is this a plot development a disservice to everything that has previously been established about Cathy as a character but it also marks the point where the movie entirely falls apart.  Immediately after sleeping with Cathy, Gary suddenly goes from being a complex but troubled character to being a cartoonish super villain.  And listen — we’ve all been there.  You meet a guy.  He’s handsome.  He says all the right things.  He seems like he’s sensitive.  He makes you feel safe.  You let down your defenses for one night and the next morning, he’s yelling at you for wearing a short skirt in public.  It happens.  Of course, in Gary’s case, it means that he’s not only criticizing the way that Cathy dresses but he’s also taking her on a hunt where the prey is terrified person of color who Gary and his friends have kidnapped.  It also means that Gary drags Cathy along on a bank robbery and then expects her to join him when he wants to assassinate a presidential candidate.  Even after all that, Cathy remains conflicted about what to do with Gary.  The problem is that it’s not like Gary’s a guy who needs sensitivity training or who spends too much time watching ESPN.  Gary is a guy who is carting around weapons and talking about how he wants to kill “mud people.”  That Cathy still has mixed emotions after all of that goes against everything that the film previously asked us to believe about her.  Gary becomes too cartoonish to be plausible and, as a result, he drags down Cathy’s character as well.

Unfortunately, as the film’s narrative falls apart, so do the majority of the performances.  While Debra Winger struggles to make her character’s motivations plausible, Tom Berenger is reduced to doing a lot of glaring.  (Poor John Heard spends most of the movie shouting and bugging his eyes.)  About the only actor who comes out Betrayed unscathed is John Mahoney, who plays Shorty.  Shorty is one of Gary’s friends.  He’s a friendly and personable guy who seems to sincerely care about everyone and who has a charmingly gentle smile.  He’s also a total racist and the contrast between Shorty’s amiable nature and his hateful thoughts provide the latter half of Betrayed with its only powerful moments.  Mahoney gets one big scene, where he talks to Cathy about how much he hates violence but, at the same time, he feels that the world has left him no other choice.  Mahoney does a great job with his small role.  It’s unfortunate that the rest of Betrayed couldn’t live up to his performance.

Other Entries In The 18 Days Of Paranoia:

  1. The Flight That Disappeared
  2. The Humanity Bureau
  3. The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover
  4. The Falcon and the Snowman
  5. New World Order
  6. Scandal Sheet
  7. Cuban Rebel Girls
  8. The French Connection II
  9. Blunt: The Fourth Man 
  10. The Quiller Memorandum

Rockin’ in the Film World #20: EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS (Embassy 1983)

cracked rear viewer

You couldn’t go anywhere in 1984 without hearing “On the Dark Side” blaring from a car radio or your neighborhood bar’s jukebox. That’s thanks in large part to audiences rediscovering 1983’s EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS via repeated showings on HBO, turning the film into an instant cult classic and veteran Providence-based rockers John Cafferty & The Beaver Brown Band into FM-radio favorites. The film hadn’t done well when first released to theaters, but exposure on the fairly-new medium of Cable TV garnered new fans of both it and Cafferty’s soundtrack album.

Investigative reporter Ellen Barkin looks into the mysterious death of Eddie Wilson (played by Michael Pare’), lead singer of The Cruisers, whose death in a car accident is shrouded in secret, as the body was never found. Was it suicide? murder? or is Eddie still alive? She digs deep to uncover the facts about what happened that fateful night…

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Horror Film Review: The Sentinel (dir by Michael Winner)

Here’s the main lesson that I’ve learned from watching the 1977 horror film, The Sentinel:

Even in the 1970s, the life of a model was not an easy one.

Take Alison Parker (Cristina Raines) for instance.  She should have everything but instead, she’s a neurotic mess.  Haunted by a traumatic childhood, she has attempted to commit suicide twice and everyone is always worried that she’s on the verge of having a breakdown.  As a model, she’s forced to deal with a bunch of phonies.  One of the phonies is played by Jeff Goldblum.  Because he’s Goldblum, you suspect that he has to have something up his sleeve but then it turns out that he doesn’t.  I get that Jeff Goldblum probably wasn’t a well-known actor when he appeared in The Sentinel but still, it’s incredibly distracting when he suddenly shows up and then doesn’t really do anything.

Alison has a fiancée.  His name is Michael Lerman (Chris Sarandon) and I figured out that he had to be up to no good as soon as he appeared.  For one thing, he has a pornstache.  For another thing, he’s played by Chris Sarandon, an actor who is best known for playing the vampire in the original Fright Night and Prince Humperdink in The Princess Bride.  Not surprisingly, it turns out that Michael’s previous wife died under mysterious circumstances.  NYPD Detective Rizzo (Christopher Walken) suspects that Michael may have killed her.

(That’s right.  Christopher Walken is in this movie but, much like Jeff Goldblum, he doesn’t get to do anything interesting.  How can a movie feature two of the quirkiest actors ever and then refuse to give them a chance to act quirky?)

Maybe Alison’s life will improve now that she has a new apartment.  It’s a really nice place and her real estate agent is played by Ava Gardner.  Alison wants to live on her own for a while.  She loves Michael but she needs to find herself.  Plus, it doesn’t help that Michael has a pornstache and may have killed his wife…

Unfortunately, as soon as Alison moves in, she starts having weird dreams and visions and all the usual stuff that always happens in movies like this.  She also discovers that she has a lot of eccentric neighbors, all of whom are played by semi-familiar character actors.  For instance, eccentric old Charles (Burgess Meredith) is always inviting her to wild parties.  Her other two neighbors (played by Sylvia Miles and Beverly D’Angelo) are lesbians, which the film presents as being the height of shocking decadence.  At first, Alison likes her neighbors but they make so much noise!  Eventually, she complains to Ava Gardner.  Ava replies that Alison only has one neighbor and that neighbor is neither Burgess Meredith nor a lesbian.

Instead, he’s a blind priest who spends all day sitting at a window.  He’s played by John Carradine, who apparently had a few hours to kill in 1977.

But it doesn’t stop there!  This movie is full of actors who will be familiar to anyone who enjoys watching TCM.  Along with those already mentioned, we also get cameos from Martin Balsam, Jose Ferrer, Arthur Kennedy, Eli Wallach, Richard Dreyfuss, and Tom Berenger.  There are 11 Oscar nominees wasted in this stupid film.  (Though, in all fairness, Christopher Walken’s nomination came after The Sentinel.)

Personally, The Sentinel bugged me because it’s yet another horror movie that exploits Catholic iconography while totally misstating church dogma.  However, the main problem with The Sentinel is that it’s just so incredibly boring.  I own it on DVD because I went through a period where I basically bought every horror film that could I find.  I’ve watched The Sentinel a handful of times and somehow, I always manage to forget just how mind-numbingly dull this movie really is.  There’s a few scary images but mostly, it’s just Burgess Meredith acting eccentric and Chris Sarandon looking mildly annoyed.  If you’ve ever seen Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, or The Omen, you’ll figure out immediately what’s going on but The Sentinel still insists on dragging it all out.  Watching this movie is about as exciting as watching an Amish blacksmith shoe a horse.

There’s a lot of good actors in the film but it’s obvious that most of them just needed to pick up a paycheck.  I’ve read a lot of criticism of Cristina Raines’s lead performance but I actually think she does a pretty good job.  It’s not her acting that’s at fault.  It’s the film’s stupid script and lackluster direction.

A Movie A Day #146: The Dogs of War (1981, directed by John Irvin)

Jamie Shannon (Christopher Walken) is a professional mercenary who is hired, by a British businessman, to overthrow the government of Zangaro.  Though Zangaro is currently ruled by a ruthless dictator, Shannon’s employers want to replace him with someone even worse, all so they can get their hands on the country’s platinum mines.  After Shannon is captured and tortured by the government, he wants nothing else to do with Zangaro.  Instead, he wants to return to New York and propose to his ex-wife (JoBeth Williams).  But, when she turns down his proposal, Shannon and his mercenary army return to Zangaro.

Before winning an Oscar for The Deer Hunter and becoming one of our most popular character actors, Christopher Walken was a finalist for the role of Han Solo in Star Wars.  If not for George Lucas’s decision to hire Harrison Ford to read lines for the actors at the auditions, Christopher Walken’s career could have developed far differently.  The Dogs of War, which was Walken’s first big film after the high of The Deer Hunter and the low of Heaven’s Gate, features Walken playing a character who has much in common with George Lucas’s original conception of Han Solo, an amoral mercenary who will work for anyone who pays him.  Walken is almost too good as Jamie, playing the part as being so aloof and ruthless that it is sometimes hard to feel any sympathy for him at all.  If he had taken that approach to playing Han Solo, audiences would have really been shocked when Han returned to attack the Death Star.  They would probably be worried that he had returned because the Empire offered him a thousand credits to kill Luke.

The Dogs of War has an intriguing premise but it’s a very slow movie that gets caught up in all the minutia that goes into staging a coup.  It’s exciting when Walken and his mercenaries finally attack the dictator’s compound but it takes forever to get there.  The book, by Frederick Forsyth, is a well-written page turner but the film adaptation largely falls flat.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Big Chill (dir by Lawrence Kasdan)


There are certain films that truly are “You just had to be there” films.  These are the movies that were apparently loved by contemporary audiences but, when viewed today, it’s difficult to see just what exactly everyone was getting so excited about.  Sometimes, this is because the film itself was so influential and has been copied by so many other films that the original has had its power diluted.  And then, sometimes, it’s just a case that the film was never that good to begin with.

I’m guessing that The Big Chill must be one of those “you just had to be there” type of films.  First released in 1983, The Big Chill was nominated for best picture.  If you look the film up over at the imdb, you’ll find lots of comments from people who absolutely adore this film.  However, when I watched the film as a part of TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar, I have to admit that my reaction can be best summed in one word.


Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying that The Big Chill was a bad film.  To be honest, it was neither memorably bad nor remarkably good.  Instead, it just was.  Overall, the performances were good, the direction was shallow, and the screenplay was occasionally good and occasionally shallow but mostly, it was the epitome of serviceable.

At the start of The Big Chill, Alex is dead.  With the exception of a scene where his corpse is being prepared for burial, Alex never actually appears on screen.  (Originally, Kevin Costner was cast to play the role in a flashback but director Lawrence Kasdan cut the scene.)  What little we learn about Alex, we learn from listening to the other characters in the film talk about him.  For instance, Alex was apparently brilliant but troubled.  He attended the University of Michigan in the 1960s and was close to 7 other politically radical students.  While everyone else was busy selling out their ideals, Alex stayed true to his and, as a result, he ended up spending his life depressed and poor.  Alex ultimately ended up committing suicide, an act that leads to his 7 friends reuniting for his funeral.

Opening with Alex’s funeral and taking place over one long weekend, The Big Chill follows Alex’s friends as they try to figure out why Alex committed suicide and debate whether or not they’ve sold out their college ideals.  They also spend a lot of time listening to the music of the youth, getting high, watching a football game, and washing dishes.

(Interestingly enough, they spend the weekend in the exact same house where Alex committed suicide.  Which, to be honest, I would think would be kind of creepy.)

There’s Harold (Kevin Kline) and Sarah (Glenn Close), who are the unofficial grown ups of the group.  It was at their vacation home that Alex committed suicide and, over the course of the film, we find out that Alex and Sarah had a brief affair.  Harold owns a company that makes running shoes and, to at least one friend’s horror, is now good friends with the local police.  Sarah, meanwhile, splits her time between crying in the shower and smiling beatifically at her friends.

(Incidentally, throughout the film, Kevin Kline speaks in one of the least convincing southern accents that I’ve ever heard…)

Meg (Mary Kay Place) is a former public defender who, after deciding that all of her poverty-stricken clients really were scum, has now become a real estate attorney.  Meg wants a baby and is hoping that one of the men at the funeral might be willing to impregnate her.  Meg is a chain smoker so good luck, unborn child.  Before Alex killed himself, she had an argument with him.  (“That’s probably why he killed himself,” someone suggests.)

I liked Karen (JoBeth Williams) because she’s prettier than Meg and less condescending than Sarah.  She’s unhappily married to an advertising executive named Richard (Dan Galloway).  As they drive to the cemetery, Richard tells Karen that he can’t believe her famous friends all turned out to be so boring.  Karen is unhappy in her marriage and, after Richard returns home and leaves her in South Carolina for the weekend, decides that she wants a divorce.

That’s good news for Sam (Tom Berenger), an actor who is best known for playing private detective J.T. Lancer on television.  Sam is upset that nobody takes him or his career seriously.  Meg was hoping that Sam would be the father of her baby but, instead, Sam is more interested in Karen.

And then there’s Nick (William Hurt), who is a former radio psychologist-turned-drug dealer.  Nick was wounded in Vietnam and is impotent as a result.  In case you somehow forget that fact, don’t worry.  Nick brings it up every few minutes.

Michael (Jeff Goldblum) was my favorite among the men because he’s at least willing to admit that he’s a self-centered jerk.  Michael is a former underground journalist who now works for People Magazine.  Nobody seems to like Michael and yet, he’s still invited to stay over the weekend.  Personally, I like to think that he does so just to get on everyone’s nerves.  Good for him.

And finally, there’s Chloe (Meg Tillis), who was Alex’s much younger girlfriend and who doesn’t seem to be impressed with any of Alex’s friends (with the exception, of course, of impotent old Nick).

I have to admit that I probably would have responded more to The Big Chill if it was actually about my generation, as opposed to being about my grandparents. Someday, someone my age will make a movie about a bunch of college friends reunited for a funeral and it will be filled with my music and my cultural references and I’ll think it’s brilliant.  And then, a 30 years later, some snotty little film reviewer will watch and probably say, “Meh.  Old people.”

Such is life.

Film Review: Someone To Watch Over Me (dir by Ridley Scott)

Last night, my BFF and I were searching for a movie to watch.  As we were looking through what was available on demand, we came across a film from 1987 called Someone To Watch Over Me.  The film was described as being a romantic thriller about a “happily married cop who becomes infatuated with the wealthy and beautiful woman he’s been assigned to protect from a death threat.”

“This sounds like it might be good,” I said, “Plus, it’s directed by Ridley Scott and he’s good … sometimes.”

“Who’s in it?” my BFF asked.

“Tom Berenger.”


“He was in Inception.”

“Who did he play in Inception?  Was he the rich guy or was he one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s friends?”

“Neither.  He was just kinda there.”

Anyway, whether it was the Inception-connection or the fact that my friend was tired of listening to me obsessively read the description of every single film that was available on demand, we decided to watch Someone To Watch Over Me.

And you know what?

It’s no Inception but Someone To Watch Over Me is still a fairly entertaining little film.

In Someone To Watch Over Me, a youngish Tom Berenger plays Mike Keegan, a New York cop who has just been promoted to detective.  When wealthy socialite Claire Gregory (Mimi Rogers) witnesses a murder, Mike is among the detective assigned to guard her.  Though the resolutely blue-collar Mike and the sophisticated Claire come from different backgrounds, they both find themselves attracted to one another.  For Mike, Claire represents the type of lifestyle that he can only dream of.  For Claire, Mike is the opposite of the pretentious and vapid men that usually surround her.  Unfortunately, a sinister gangster is attempting to kill Claire and Mike’s down-to-earth wife Ellie (played by Lorraine Bracco) will kill him if she ever finds out.

Now, let’s make one thing clear.  The plot of Someone To Watch Over Me is just as predictable as you think it is.  As you read my summary, you probably guessed every single thing that happens in the film.  There are no surprises and there are no twists.  Everything in the movie plays out exactly the way that you’re expecting it too.

And yet, as predictable as it was, I still enjoyed Someone To Watch Over Me.  One reason was because of a scene in which Ellie reacts to Mike’s self-serving apologies by punching him in the face.  Lorraine Bracco — who is great in this film — throws that punch as if the fate of every woman on the planet’s self-respect depended upon it.  When she strikes out at her husband, it changes the film.  It’s no longer a film about romance.  Instead, it becomes a film about adultery.  Even while the film itself tries to play up the romance between Claire and Mike, both Ellie and Lorraine Bracco refuse to be pushed to the side.  After sitting through so many films that feature women nobly stepping aside so that their significant other can find happiness with his “true love,” it was refreshing to see Ellie call Mike out on his sanctimonious bullshit.

Secondly, I enjoyed Someone To Watch Over Me because it truly is a time capsule of the time when it was made.  I was born in 1985, which perhaps is why I’ve always been fascinated by 80s films.  If nothing else, they give me a chance to see what was going on in the rest of the world while I was busy learning how to walk.  Someone To Watch Over Me was released in 1987 and everything about it — from the fashion to the celebration of wealth and glamour to Ridley Scott’s artfully composed shots of New York at night to the vaguely cokey vibe given off by some members of the supporting cast to the landline phones — made me feel as if I had stepped into my own personal time machine.

So, in the end, Someone To Watch Over Me is not exactly a great or even a memorable film.  However, I’m still glad we watched it.


Guilty Pleasure No. 10: The Substitute (dir. by Robert Mandel)


The most recent entry in the Guilty Pleasure series had Lisa Marie waxing poetically about the idealistic teacher in the “jungle” film The Principal. I counter and follow this up with a similar-themed film called The Substitute that came and went very quickly in the theaters (I’m not even sure if it did or just went straight to video) in 1996.

The Substitute stars veteran actor Tom Berenger (you may remember him in such films as Platoon, Major League and Sniper) as a Vietnam vet mercenary who ends up substituting as the substitute teacher for his girlfriend’s high school class as she recovers from an attack that has left her unable to teach. The girlfriend was played by one Diane Venora who in the very same year was in another little film called Heat by Michael Mann. These two polar opposite films in terms of their “quality” just shows you that when it comes to acting, unless one was a recognizable name then any role is a good role it seems.

Getting back to the film, Berenger’s character is the titular substitute in one of Miami’s worst inner-city high schools where, as the film’s tagline proudly proclaims, the most dangerous things about it was the students. That is until Berenger’s character shows up to find out who attacked his girlfriend and bring down the wrath of God himself (or at least Berenger’s character and members of his old mercenary team).

The film isn’t what one would call very subtle. We clearly see either two types of teachers in this school. There’s Berenger and his girlfriend who care for the young teens (the former woth tough love and the latter going about it in a more liberal sense) and then there are those who have given up on the school and just cashing in on a paycheck. This goes to the extreme with the school’s principal (played by Ernie Hudson) who begins to suspect that the new substitute might be more than he appears.

It’s the passive-aggressive interaction between the two roles played by Berenger and Hudson that made for some of the more hilarious sequences in the film.

Oh, another thing the film also involves a dangerous high school gang that uses the school as if it’s their own little fiefdom and the local drug kingpin using it as a way station to move heroin into the Miami inner-city school system. Oh, did I happen to mention that Marc Anthony plays the leader of the high school gang, because he sure does.

The Substitute almost plays out like how a teacher fed up with the inattentiveness of his students and the stress of doing a thankless job imagines the perfect scenario to “clean-up” the high school. It’s not through coddling and talking things out with the students. It’s about using military tactics to take out the dangers of gangs and drug dealers and tough love on those who are still worth saving.

Some have called the film as blatantly racist while others have pointed out how it is just an extreme version of the longstanding storyline of the educated and civilized white man saving the “natives” from themselves. What this film has over other school films of similar themes is how it doesn’t try to sugarcoat and hide behind ideals when it comes to it’s story. Plus, it’s such a guilty pleasure to see a typical 80’s action flick dressed up to be a late 90’s film. They really don’t make films like this anymore.

Review: Inception (dir. by Christopher Nolan)

The summer of 2010 has been quite a disappointment. While the films released during this major blockbuster season has been good most have not been able to be that one stand-out which defines a summer season. We’ve had the typical tentpole sequels like Iron Man 2 (good but not great) and Toy Story 3 (also good but not great) to remakes like The Karate Kid to The A-Team. To say that the 2010 summer blockbuster season has been lackluster would be an understatement. Even original films like Splice hasn’t taken in the audience. It now falls to one of the biggest titles for the summer to try and save the season. Whether it will do so financially is still in doubt, but critically the latest from Christopher Nolan may just become the event film of the summer to actually deliver on its hype and the promise of an audience seeing something new, fresh and daring in a sea of mediocrity. Inception comes into the 2010 summer season and delivers on its promises and more than lives up to the hype heaped upon it by critics and fans alike.

A film almost a decade in the making, Christopher Nolan’s epic and sweeping tale of dreams and reality wrapped around a heist film brings the filmmaker one-step closer to becoming the genius filmmaker some of his most ardent followers have dubbed him to be. Nolan as a filmmaker and, more importantly, as a storyteller has always had a fascination with shattered reality and how the subconcious directly affect his protagonists’ sense of the real. We’ve seen this in his film-style of using a disjointed and non-linear structure to his films which goes to creating a sense of confusion in the inattentive viewer. Some have called this style of his as being a gimmick to make a simple story more complex than it really is. I disagree with these individuals and say that Nolan has never done anything to trick an audience with his storytelling style and choices. His films have all the facts laid out before the audience, but in a way that asks the audience to participate in putting the jumbled pieces together. I’ve never seen a red herring used by Nolan in his more personal projects and even in the populist titles he’s done under the rebooted Batman franchise.

In his latest film, Nolan has refined his non-linear style and used it to successfully create the main setting of the film. Inception is set mostly in the dream world shared by the characters and those they’ve targeted. It is in this shared dream state that the audience learn the rules governing the world of Inception. It is in this dream state that we’re introduced to the first people who would make up an incredible ensemble cast put together by Christopher Nolan and his casting crew. We first meet dream extractor Dom Cobb (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and his pointman Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as they attempt to steal something valuable and important from within the dream of their Japanese-industrialist mark in Saito (Ken Watanabe). We see hints of the rules that will become important for the audience to help them follow the film’s main story as it unfolds. We learn that Saito has already known in advance that he’s in a dream constructed and being shared by Dom and Arthur in their contracted heist by parties unknown. As good as Dom and Arthur are at their job os stealing ideas from a mark through their dreams they have no chance when someone from Dom’s past inserts herself in their plans to sabotage what they’ve worked to accomplish.

It’s in this introductory sequence that we learn of the backstory of Dom and why his latest heist-job didn’t work out too well and has now endangered not just himself but those he has been working with. Saito gives Dom and Arthur a way out of their problems after failing in this job to steal from him by doing a job for him. But unlike previous dream heists Dom and Arthur have done in the past this time Saito doesn’t want something stolen from someone’s mind but to have an idea planted so deep within a mark’s subconscious that the mark believes it to be their very own and not one planted by an outsider. The job doesn’t require Dom to be an extractor of ideas. He’s now to find a way to successfully plant an idea. A job known as “inception” which Arthur and others deem near-impossible to pull off and one quite dangerous not just to the mark but to those involved in the process.

To say anymore about the plot of the film would be to spoil it. Inception works best when as little as possible about the film is known going in. The surprise and awe of the story unfolding is half the fun. It’s like an intricate puzzle or game one tries to solve. It’s ok to know ahead of time how to solve things, but not as fun. While for some people the way Nolan uses non-linear storytelling can be confusing all he asks his audience is to pay attention to the details and clues he’s planting in every scene and piece of dialogue. Let’s be honest this film is not for the inattentive. I won’t say stupid since that implies having low intelligence. It doesn’t take intelligence to pay attention and I’ve known that some of the more intelligent people have a tendency to let their attention wander.

Inception is a film about big ideas and grandiose themes. While the story in of itself when broken down to its simplest common denominator is just a heist film done in a new way, the film allows for layers upon layers of ideas to wrap itself around this simplistic premise. Nolan doesn’t just play with disjointing time for audience. He’s gone and went towards manipulating reality within the subconscious thought to ask the audience a simple question.

Are what we seeing a dream or is it reality?

The film doesn’t trick us using red herrings to make us think one way or another. Everything Nolan has put up on the screen is quite literal and remembering the rules he had set-up in the first hour lays the groundwork for each individual audience to answer that question for themselves. There’s no right or wrong answer to the question, but for some who have seen the film their disappointment seem less to do with the quality of the film, the acting and the direction but more on some of the ambiguous nature of the ending which becomes a dealbreaker for some. Again while I respect their take on this film I find their reasoning for negative criticism to be grounded on thin to non-existent ground. I will get to that ending soon.

While some have called Inception as the anti-Avatar I believe the two filmmaker share similar traits not just in how they create their film, but also in their two latest film. Both Nolan and Cameron are quite known to be very controlling of how their films are made to the point they dabble in every aspect of it. In their latest films they’ve also gone a long way into building a world for their story and characters to inhabit and play around in. While Cameron’s latest was an otherworldly kind in the most literal sense the same could be said for Nolan’s latest but instead inhabits the mind and how anything is possible. From the look of things both film will also share the same sort of near-universal acclaim from the film-going audience with a small, albeit very loud, minority calling Nolan’s film unoriginal, boring and, a word I have loathed for its overuse when something becomes very popular, overrated.

Where the two filmmakers diverge is the way they go about their films. Where Cameron leans heavily in pulling at the emotional strings of the audience through narrative and film sequences in his films, Nolan plies the audiences intellect instead. Cameron for all his technical genius both within the filmmaking sphere and outside of it can be quite the sappy filmmaker and all his films have shown this whether it’s The Terminator or Avatar. For Nolan his films have always felt like an intellectual exercise. An exercise everyone was invited to participate in no matter their level of intellect. He’s been able to marry both his indipendent arthouse sensibilities with the blockbuster the masses seem to crave year in and year out. With Inception he has moved one-step closer to achieving a perfect meshing of the two. This film has all the makings of a great heist and sci-fi thriller wrapped around so many pieces of profound and thoughtprovoking ideas that even after several viewings an audience will find something new to think about. Only one other film I can think of in the last decade or so has accomplished this and that was 1999’s The Matrix by The Wachowski Brothers. While that film was a kick-ass sci-fi action film it also dared to mix in a liberal dose of philosophy both Eastern and Western not to mention subjecting it’s audience to rethink how they see reality.

Christopher Nolan has gone beyond just trying to question the nature of reality. His goal with this film is to deconstruct the nature of the subconscious itself and show how such a thin line separates the dream from the real that at first and, even several glances, one cannot tell the difference. It’s a good thing for the audience watching Inception that Nolan has given them the tools and the rules to follow if they dare. And that’s where I think Nolan will disnguish himself apart from other great directors of his generation and put him up on the level of the true masters in film history. He doesn’t just make films that has worldwide appeal but able to do them while still able to engage his audience to open up their minds to the infinite possibilities his stories offer. While this does make his film a tad cold and distant for some that shouldn’t detract from the high-quality of his work, especially with Inception. The film has heart. It just doesn’t pluck on those particular beats to engage the audience.

I think filmblogger Devin Faraci said it best on his Twitter feed while discussing the film with others. While not exactly verbatim what I got out of it was that he thought it was always easy to engage and/or manipulate the audience through emotional factors, but much harder to engage their intellect. While some have accomplished the former to a great extent and vice versa I think with Inception Nolan has stepped closer than anyone to engage both the heart and the mind of the audience.

This review cannot be too much of a review if I just spoke about the ideas, themes and the inner workings of Nolan’s mind. The film is actually very good. Good enough to that’s close to being perfect. Pick any aspect of the film and those involved have done some of their best work and grown in their craft. As I stated earlier the film sports one incredible ensemble cast. I’ve already mentioned Leonardo DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon-Levitt who both do very great work in their roles. DiCaprio continues to be the go-to-guy when it comes to playing the tortured individual. Similar to his other role in Scorsese’s Shutter Island, DiCaprio as Cobb was quite believable in his personal-made hell in regards to a past event which involved his wife Mal (played with beautiful elegance and malice by Marion Cotillard). But unlike Scorsese’s film Nolan doesn’t reveal this personal issue through a twist in the plot, but let’s it come out naturally with the help of another cast member providing the impetus for Cobb to come clean. This individual is the team’s new dream architect in the form of Ariadne (Ellen Page in her most mature role to date and one that should go a long way from helping her shed the label of being Juno-esque).

Ariadne becomes the proxy by which the audience learns the in’s and out’s of Cobb’s job as a dream extractor and, very soon, inceptor. Through some inventive use of CGI and practical effects we see throught Ariadne’s eyes how the shared dream-state behaves. How specific rules actually exist within this state no matter how many levels of dreams an individual or group goes down into a mark’s subconscious. Some of these scenes people have seen glimpses of in the trailers and tv spots, but even seeing some of them in advance doesn’t detract from how incredible they look when seen on the bigscreen, especially for those lucky enough to see them on IMAX.

The rest of the cast rounded out by Tom Hardy as Eames the team’s Forger, Dileep Rao as the Chemist in charge of fabricating the compounds needed for the team to enter their mark’s subconscious. Cillian Murphy (starting to become one of Nolan’s regulars) plays Robert Fischer, Jr. their target and mark throughout the film with veteran actors Tom Berenger, Michael Caine and Pete Postlethwaite providing the wise-men roles in the film. It’s Tom Hardy as Eames which stood out in a cast full of extraordinary young and veteran performers. His recent fame as an actor due to his brutal and daring performance in Bronson has made Hardy a hot commodity in Hollywood. His playful character of Eames serves to provide some levity in an otherwise very serious film which allows the audience to come closer to the characters and story instead of remaining distant as Nolan’s detractors like to point out. He nearly pulls off stealing the film from everyone everytime he’s on-screen. It’s a testament to all the actors that he doesn’t as each and everyone have their moments to shine without overshadowing their fellow co-stars.

It would be difficult to review this film without pointing out how beautiful it looks and sounds. The visual part of the film has to go to Walter Pfister who works his magic behind the cameras on this film. Every shot is clear, concise and free of tricks some cinematographers these days have come to rely on too often to make their shots look more dynamic than it really should be. The editing by Lee Smith makes sure that Nolan’s style doesn’t confuse the audience and keeps the non-linear narrative structure easy to comprehend. As for the score one has to look to Hans Zimmer’s growing rapport with Nolan. He’s scored two of Nolan’s film and it looks that Zimmer has tapped into what Nolan wants his film score to sound like. not to dominate or overemphasize particular scenes or beats, but to act as an accompaniment. All three individual do their part as does the actors into making Nolan’s vision of Inception come to life. As great a filmmaker as Nolan is turning out to be these support players have made sure his path towards that goal is done so on smoother ground than not.

Now, there’s going to be some heated and long debates as to the nature of the film because of the final shot. The final shot is of a metal dreidel spinning in the foreground with the camera panning to it. The dreidel is spinning and spinning and looks to keep on doing so. The dreidel is shown earlier in the film as acting as some sort of anchor to tell Cobb whether he is in the real world or in a dream. If it continues to spin and not tip over and fall then he’s still in one. If it spins but ultimately tips over onto its side then he’s out of it. The film ends with the dreidel spinning and for a split second before the film suddenly fades to black we see it wobble.

Many have seen this final shot as being a cop-out by Nolan to play with the audience’s mind. I happen to disagree.  I see it as a part of the story itself. nolan has been asking throughout the film what is real and what is a dream. This last shot just emphasizes this question and leaves it up to the audience to decide whether the dreidel continues to spin or eventually tips over. While I lean to the latter in the end it doesn’t detract from the film. The fact that some people have grabbed hold of this scene to negatively criticized the film as a whole tells me just how well-crafted a film Nolan has made that one little sequence lasting no less than 10 seconds becomes a dealbreaker for some when it should stimulate the mind into thinking what it actually means. I see that as the mark of an excellent storyteller.

In the end, Inception has done something this year which most film have so far been unable to do. It has delivered on its high-minded promises of a film that would challenge the audience and not just entertain them. It’s a film which has been overhyped for the last six month but has more than lived up to it and for some surpassed the hype itself. Inception looks to be one of those films which would forever define a filmmaker and this one will definitely define Nolan moving forward no matter what other projects he has in the future. This is a film that dares to appeal not just to the arthouse cineaste crowd but to the general audience who yearn to watch something exciting and original. I won’t say this is Nolan’s best film since he has years upon years to continue making films. Maybe one of those will be his masterpiece, but Inception definitely could be counted as being a nominee for that honor. If nothing else this film has saved what has been a very ordinary and lackluster 2010 summer film season.