Film Review: To Die For (dir by Gus Van Sant)


The 1995 satire, To Die For, is a very clever film about some seriously stupid people.

Of course, you could debate whether or not Suzanne Stone-Maretto (Nicole Kidman) is actually dumb or not.  Suzanne may not know much about anything that isn’t on TV but she does have a natural understanding for what makes a good story.  She knows exactly the type of story that the public wants to hear and she does a good job of faking all of the right emotions.  As she proves throughout the course of the film, she’s also very good at convincing people to do stuff.  Whether it’s convincing the local television station to put her on the air as a weather person or convincing two teenagers to murder her husband, Suzanne always seems to get what she wants.

Of course, what Suzanne really wants is to be a celebrity.  She wants to be a star.  As she explains it, that’s the greatest thing about America.  Anyone can become a star if they just try hard enough and find the right angle.  If the film were made today, Suzanne would be a social media junkie.  Since the movie was made in 1995, she has to settle for talk shows and murder.

So maybe Suzanne isn’t that dumb but her husband, Larry (Matt Dillon) …. well, if we’re going to be honest, Larry’s more naive than dumb.  He’s the favored son of a big Italian family and it’s obviously never occurred to him that a woman would possibly want something more than just a husband and a lot of children.  He thinks it’s cute that Suzanne’s on TV but he’s also fully convinced that she’s going to eventually settle down and focus on starting a family.  It never occurs to him that his wife would be willing to sacrifice him on her way to stardom.

Of course, if you really want to talk about dumb, just check out the teenagers who Suzanne recruits to kill her husband.  They’ve been appearing in a documentary that Suzanne’s been shooting.  The documentary’s title is “Teens Speak Out,” which is something of an ironic title since none of the teens that Suzanne interviews really has anything to say.  Lydia (Allison Folland) is just happy that the “glamorous” Suzanne is pretending to care about her.  Russell (Casey Affleck) is the type of grinning perv who drops a pen just so he can try to get a peek up Suzanne’s skirt while he’s on the floor retrieving it.  And then there’s Jimmy (Joaquin Phoenix), with his flat voice and his blank stare.  Jimmy is briefly Suzanne’s lover before he ends up in prison for murdering her husband.  It doesn’t take much to convince Jimmy to commit murder, either.  Apparently, all you have to do is dance to Lynard Skynard while it’s raining outside.  Media interviews with Lydia, Jimmy, Suzanne, and Larry’s sister (Ileana Douglas) are sprinkled throughout the film and Jimmy continues to insist that he will always love Suzanne.

As for Suzanne, she’s got stardom to worry about….

Though the subject matter is a bit familiar and the film, made before the age of Twitter and Instagram, is a bit dated, To Die For‘s satire still carries a powerful bite.  One need only watch A&E or the Crime and Investigation network to see that Suzanne was absolutely correct when she decided that killing her husband would make her a star.  If To Die For were made today, you could easily imagine Suzanne leveraging her infamy into an appearance on Dancing With The Stars and maybe Celebrity Big Brother.  At the very least. she could get her own house hunting show on HGTV.  Delivering her often sociopathic dialogue with a perky smile and a positive attitude, Nicole Kidman is absolutely chilling as Suzanne.  Meanwhile, Joaquin Phoenix’s blank stare will continue to haunt you long after the film ends.

And speaking of endings, To Die For has a great one.  You’ll never hear Season of the Witch the same way again!

Guilty Pleasure No. 31: Hail, Caesar! (dir by the Coen Brothers)


Sometimes, I wonder if I was the only filmgoer who actually enjoyed Hail, Caesar! when it was released in February.

Oh, don’t met wrong.  I know that I’m being a bit overdramatic when I say that.  It got some good reviews from the critics, though the praise was rather muted when compared to the reviews that traditionally greet the latest film from the Coen Brothers.  I know more than a few people who have agreed with me that Hail, Caesar! was an entertaining lark of a film.

But I know a lot more people who absolutely hated Hail, Caesar!  Of course, no film is going to please everyone and the Coen Brothers have always had a tendency to attempt to deliberately alienate their audience.  But what has always struck me is the fact that the people who disliked Hail, Caesar seem to really, really dislike it.  Talk to them and you get the feeling that they view Hail, Caesar as almost being some sort of a crime against both humanity and cinema.

Taking place in a stylized Hollywood in 1951, Hail, Caesar! tells the story of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin).  Eddie is a shadowy figure.  As head of production at Capitol Pictures, Eddie’s job is to keep the “bad” behavior of the stars from getting out into the press.  (The press is represented by Tilda Swinton who, in a typical Coen Brothers twist, plays twin sisters who are rival gossip columnists.  If the thought of that makes you smile, you are potentially a part of the right audience for Hail Caesar.  If it makes you roll your eyes, you should probably avoid the film.)  Eddie is the most powerful man in Hollywood and he will do anything to protect the image of the American film industry.  He will lie.  He will cheat.  He will threaten.  He is so ruthless and so good at his job that even Lockheed Martin is trying to hire him away from Capitol.  And yet, at the same time, Eddie is also a family man and a Catholic who is so devout that he goes to confession on a nearly hourly basis.

(For all you non-Catholics out there, Pope Francis only goes to confession twice a month.)

Hail, Caesar! follows Eddie as he deals with a series of potential problems.  Temperamental director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) is upset because he’s been forced to cast Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich, giving the film’s best performance), a good-natured but inarticulate cowboy star, in his sophisticated comedy.  Synchronized swimmer DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansoon) is not only pregnant but unmarried as well!  (It’s the 50s, remember.)

However, the biggest crisis is that Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) has vanished from the set of his latest film. A mysterious group known as The Future has taken credit for kidnapping him.  It’s not really much of a spoiler to reveal that The Future is a cell of communist scriptwriters and they are determined to convert the rather dumb Baird to the struggle.  As opposed to most films about Hollywood in the 50s, the communist screenwriters are portrayed as being a bunch of self-righteous and rather cowardly nags, the majority of whom spend more time debating minutiae than actually trying to the overthrow capitalism.  In many ways, Hail, Caesar is the anti-Trumbo.

As you might guess from the plot description, there’s a lot going on in Hail, Caesar but none of it really adds up too much.  Nor is it supposed to.  We’re encouraged to laugh at these frantic characters, as opposed to sympathize with them.  Eddie Mannix and Hobie Doyle both emerge as heroes because they’re the only characters who remain calm and confident, regardless of what strangeness is happening onscreen.  Eddie may be ruthless, the film tells us, but at least he gets results.  Hobie may not be the smartest or most talented guy in Hollywood, we are told, but at least he doesn’t pretend to be anything other than who he is.

Hail, Caesar! is a bit of a lark, a celebration of style over substance.  As far as Coen Brother films go, Hail, Caesar has more in common with Burn After Reading than No Country For Old Men.  The film is largely an inside joke aimed at people who know the history of Hollywood, which is perhaps why some viewers reacted so negatively.  Inside jokes are fun when you’re in on the joke.  When you’re not in on it, though, they’re just annoying.

As for me, I thoroughly enjoyed Hail, Caesar!  It may not be the Coens at their best but it’s a lot of fun and it appealed me as both a history nerd and a lover of old movies.  The best parts of Hail, Caesar! are the scenes that parody the largely forgotten, big-budget studio productions of the 1950s.  This is the rare film that acknowledges that not every film made before the 1960s was a masterpiece.  The Coens love movies but that doesn’t keep them from getting a little bit snarky.  For example, check out this production number featuring Channing Tatum:

Is Hail, Caesar self-indulgent?

Yes.

Is it largely an inside joke?

Yes.

Did I absolutely adore it?

You better believe I did.

Hail,_Caesar!_Teaser_poster

Previous Guilty Pleasures

  1. Half-Baked
  2. Save The Last Dance
  3. Every Rose Has Its Thorns
  4. The Jeremy Kyle Show
  5. Invasion USA
  6. The Golden Child
  7. Final Destination 2
  8. Paparazzi
  9. The Principal
  10. The Substitute
  11. Terror In The Family
  12. Pandorum
  13. Lambada
  14. Fear
  15. Cocktail
  16. Keep Off The Grass
  17. Girls, Girls, Girls
  18. Class
  19. Tart
  20. King Kong vs. Godzilla
  21. Hawk the Slayer
  22. Battle Beyond the Stars
  23. Meridian
  24. Walk of Shame
  25. From Justin To Kelly
  26. Project Greenlight
  27. Sex Decoy: Love Stings
  28. Swimfan
  29. On the Line
  30. Wolfen

Review: Torchwood: Miracle Day Ep. 08 “End of the Road”


“End of the Road” is quite an apt title for the eight episode in the fourth season of Torchwood. We see the end of a couple characters during the episode and at the same time we finally get the final pieces to the question of who or what caused “Miracle Day”.

The episode begins with the Torchwood team arriving at the Colasanto estate and led by Olivia Colasanto to her grandfather and Jack’s former companion and lover from the late 1920’s. We find out that Angelo Colasanto has kept himself alive through natural means, but is now in a coma as Jack looks on. Angelo’s condition when revealed almost felt like a cop out, but in a major exposition info dump done by his granddaughter we find out who is behind Miracle Day”. They’re called The Families and are made up of the descendants of the three men last seen in the previous episode forming an alliance to study Jack’s seeming immortality.

Angelo himself has been kept out of the alliance due to the three men’s discomfort over his homosexuality. Angelo has been observing not just the three families through the years, but Jack as well in an attempt to either stave off whatever plans The Families have in regards to the “Miracle” or, at the very least, give Jack the clues needed to fix the problem. But before Jack, Gwen, Esther and Rex can do their thing to save the day there’s the little obstacle of Rex’s old boss in the form of Wayne Knight interrupting the Jack/Colasanto reunion. The rest of the episode never lets go of the throttle once John De Lancie’s CIA head honcho Shapiro show’s up and we get closer to this season’s endgame.

The episode was well-written even with the major expositional scene involving Nana Visitor’s character. Each character in the Torchwood team got a chance to shine in their roles with Barrowman making Jack’s bittersweet reunion with Angelo a mixture of happiness and regret. If there was a weak point in the cast’s performance it would continue to be some of the side characters like Wayne Knight’s deputy director Friedkin and Bill Pullman’s Oswald Danes. While I can understand the role of Knight’s character in the overall scheme of things this season I still can’t quite grasp just exactly what Pullman’s Danes character is suppose to do other than be over-the-top creepy. Even Ambrose’s Kitzinger got a chance to own her scene as she finally unleashes what she truly feels about Oswald Danes despite having to be his publicist.

“End of the Road” ends on a major cliffhanger with one of the Torchwood team members shot and the team split apart as the CIA, The Families and everyone else seem to be pulling at them from all directions making their task about solving “Miracle Day” that much more difficult. With only two more episodes remaining this season what looked to be a show that seemed stuck on idle for most of the middle episodes has suddenly begun to speed ahead towards what could be an epic conclusion.

Review: Torchwood: Miracle Day Ep. 03 “Dead of Night”


Torchwood: Miracle Day has now reached it’s third episode and we’re beginning to see a few more clues as to the truth about the so-called “Miracle Day” event which automatically made everyone on the planet Earth immortal (with the exception of the planet’s previous lone immortal Capt. Jack Harkness who became mortal instead). The series has been a bit slow about the reveals and dropping of clues and with only 10-episodes to this season it’s going to be interesting to see how Davies and his writers will tie things up when the tenth episode rolls around.

“Dead of Night” is the name of this latest episode and it’s actually quite an apropo title. The episode happens mostly at night and it’s during the darkness of night that we get a glimpse at some of the darker sides of some of the characters on the show. First, we see the team on the run after the bungled attempt by CIA deputy director Friedkin (Wayne Knight) to apprehend Matheson and the remaining Torchwood team at Dulles International. It’s interesting to notice how Rex and his fellow agent in Esther Drummond seemed out of sorts realizing that they’ve been betrayed by the very agency they work for (and maybe the very country they serve loyally) while both Jack and Gwen seem to take it all in stride as if they’ve been there and done that. Some have mentioned that the show doesn’t seem to be classic Torchwood and I can see where they’re coming from. The additions of the American characters to the team and the transplanting to US soil has created a different tone to the show which seem to be harder for the veteran fans to accept at the moment.

It’s definitely not the writing or the acting which has given this show an almost dual nature and feel. Tonight’s episode was written by Jane Espenson (who helped write the excellent sixth episode of Game of Thrones, “A Golden Crown”) and the flow of the show seemed to have improved for the previous one. Most of the set-up’s been completed and now the team is up and running once again with a new problem to solve. It’s that very problem which drives this episode as Jack and his new team begin to uncover one of the major clues that goes a long way into explaining the true nature of “Miracle Day”. I do think that finding out a major pharmaceutical conglomerate might have had a hand or knew in advance about “Miracle Day” wasn’t too much of a surprise. The way the episode paints PhiCorp and their plans for their wonder drug seems like the bad dream for everyone trying to overhaul the nation’s health care system for the better.

The show further explores Capt. Jack Harkness’ current situation as he begins to accept the fact that he’s finally dying (aging being the correct term people would use, but not for one so used to being immortal) and he doesn’t do as well as some would want him to. His emotional and drunken late-night call to Gwen after a one-night’s dalliance with a stranger picked up at a club brings back some emotional baggage and the sexual tension between the two. There’s an almost air of desperation in John Barrowman’s performance in this scene which should show new fans to the show that the series won’t be all about action and intrigue. There’s a reason the series has cultivated such a rabid fanbase and it’s been the performance by the actors, first and foremost. Eve Myles performance as Gwen on the receiving end of Harkness’ call were at times empathic, sad and frustrated as if she thought this was something the two were past but now have been brought back to the surface.

The other major performance of the night belongs to Bill Pullman’s pedophile murderer, Oswald Danes. His character still continues to be the show’s cipher. We’re still not sure what to think of Danes. He’s being made out to be a sympathetic character in one moment then a devious manipulator trying to find whatever advantage he could get his hands on to keep himself safe. We finally do get an idea who Danes is during a confrontation between him and Harkness and it spoke volumes at just how banal evil really is and it’s current face happens to be Bill Pullman’s. It’s going to be interesting to see how Danes, PhiCorp and “Miracle Day” will tie together once this season gets deeper into it’s main story.

“Dead of Night” was better than the last episode but still shows some growing pains as the writers are still coping with some of the major changes to the show’s usual tone. While some long-time fans of the show seem to not be as accepting of these changes I think it’s these changes that show’s growth in the series and such things do take time to find their footing. I expect more growing pains in the coming episodes, but I do think that this episode goes a long way into  establishing the melding of old Torchwood with the new Torchwood.

1st episode: “The New World”

2nd episode: “Rendition”

Review: Torchwood: Miracle Day Ep. 02 “Rendition”


The first episode of the fourth season of Torchwood was a major success for the series as it moves from it’s British locale over to the United States. It was a move which gave the series (now dubbed Miracle Day) an even more epic tone which was a good thing since the series truly became an epic one throughout it’s third season, Children of Earth. The premiere episode saw the introduction of the American half of what I assume will be the newly-reconstituted Torchwood Institute. Mekhi Phifer comes in as the confidently arrogant CIA operative Rex Matheson who has a major stake in finding out the true agenda behind what the world has been calling “Miracle Day”. Taking on the role of support to Rex is the idealistic and, somewhat, naive CIA analyst Esther Drummond (played by Alexa Havins) who first introduces Rex to the term Torchwood in the first episode of the new season.

“Rendition” marks the second episode of the series and continues exactly where the premiere episode left off with Rex taking custody of the last two surviving members of the Torchwood Institute, the previously immortal Capt. Jack Harkness and Gwen Cooper, and renditioning them back to the US through some vague US-UK intelligence cooperation program in the hopes that Torchwood will either shed a light into whats happening in the world or flush out the people who do know and who seem intent on killing Jack and Gwen.

This episode brings in a couple three new players into the new series whose agenda range from ambiguous to outright hostile in regards to the event of “Miracle Day” and the Torchwood survivors. There’s Rex’s fellow CIA operative Lyn (played by Dollhouse alum Dichen Lachmann) who has been sent to “assist” Rex in bringing stateside Jack and Gwen on a chartered jumbo jet. We find out soon enough Lyn’s agenda in accompanying Rex on this rendition flight as she secretly communicates with CIA deputy director Brian Friedkin (Wayne Knight) who seems to want Capt. Jack out of the way before the plane lands on Dulles International. The interaction between Lyn, Rex and the rest of Torchwood and flight crew really sets her up as the clear antagonist for this episode though it’s not yet established whether she will stay beyond this episode. Wayne Knight as the duplicitious CIA director Friedkin was a hit-and-miss addition for me. His character was written quite well, but I think the casting director for the show really dropped the ball in putting such a recognizable face in a role that needed someone who could get lost in the role. I’m sure I wasn’t the only viewer of this episode who either vocally or mentally shouted “Newman!” when he first appeared in the episode.

The third new character to make their appearance in this episode was the PR consultant Jilly Kitzinger (Lauren Ambrose) who seemed really gung-ho in trying to represent the suddenly famous (instead of infamous) pedophile-murderer Oswald Danes whose blubbering breakdown during a news interview has begun to earn him shouts of forgiveness from the faceless masses. Lauren Ambrose as Kitzinger looked to be too peppy at first glance, but as the show progressed and she began appearing in places where one would wonder why she was there at all it planted seeds of just exactly who Jilly Kitzinger really is. This character is definitely one whose agenda may just swing back and forth as the series goes on.

This was the first episode of the new series to not be written by showrunner Russell T. Davies and one written by a newcomer to the Torchwood series in Doris Egan. The fact that Egan is new to the series didn’t really hamper the tone of this episode. It felt and sounded like a Torchwood episode. She even got a good handle on the Gwen Cooper character who bordered on organized panic during the flight to the US as Capt. Jack suffered through an attempt on his suddenly mortal life. I still get a kick at how quickly Gwen’s speech patterns get the more stressed out she gets. I was told by a hardcore fan over on Twitter that it was due to her being Welsh that she speaks so fast in such situation. That may or may not be true, but it made for some very amusing segments during an episode which continued to explore the dark side of the world population’s sudden bout with immortality.

It’s this exploration of whether “Miracle Day” actually is a miracle or a curse which gave the episode it’s serious weight throughout the episode. We see through Dr. Suarez (Arlene Tur) interacting with every expert trying to find out just exactly what has happened that “Miracle Day” looks to be a miracle by name only. The episode points out that people may night be dying but they’re still succumbing to injuries, diseases and plain old age. This dilemma brings about talks of a need to change how triage now operate and how “Miracle Day” looks to be the perfect breeding ground for super-germs and viruses. And while these were being discussed the series still hasn’t determined or given any clue as to the cause of this event whether it be natural, supernatural or extraterrestrial.

Overall, “Rendition” was a very good follow-up to an excellent premiere episode. We learn more about the new characters (all of them American) and see the old Torchwood faces back to doing what they do best and that’s solving a grave problem by the skin of their teeth. The new series has so far kept this Torchwood neophyte’s attention and actually has sold him on revisiting the past episodes and looking at them with eyes opened up by Miracle Day.

Up next week is the episode, “Dead of Night”.

1st episode: “The New World”

Quickie Review: Punisher: War Zone (dir. by Lexi Alexander)


If there was ever a Marvel Comics character who was perfectly suited to star in a grindhouse film it would be Frank Castle aka The Punisher. He’s a character who takes the term anti-hero past its limits and who makes other film vigilantes seem like sissy, choir boys. In December 2008 Lionsgate released a sort of reboot of The Punisher by Jonathan Hensleigh and starring Thomas Jane in the titular role. This time around the role of Frank Castle goes to Ray Stevenson (The Other Guys, Thor, Kill the Irishman) with German-filmmaker Lexi Alexander taking on the director’s reins.

Punisher: War Zone takes much of the characters in the film from story-arcs found in the Marvel Knight’s Punisher MAX series which took the character and his stories into a darker realm of violence. This latest film definitely owes much of it’s darker and more violent tone from that comic book line while at the same time creating a look which brings to mind the garish and over-the-top grindhouse action films of the early 80’s. The film quickly establishes who the Punisher is and what motivates him to take on and kill (heavy emphasis on kill) the criminal underworld of the city. In an opening sequence that probably out-violences every other film released in 2008, the Punisher wipes out a gathering of mobsters in every bloody way as possible. Blood and gore flows and splatters a-plenty in the first 10-15 minutes of this film.

There’s a semblance of a story which involves Castle mistakenly killing an undercover FBI agent which causes him a momentary crisis of conscience, but it really doesn’t last too long as there are more criminals to kill, main and blow up. If there’s one thing the Punisher knows how to do best it’s those three things. Ray Stevenson in the title role doesn’t get to emote much, but does a great job in showing the characters ice-cold ruthlessness paired with a sort of dead-man walking persona which rings true to how the Punisher has been written up of late. His Frank Castle is dead inside and only when he’s the Punisher does he even show any sort of life (even if it’s the barest hint). His foil this time around brings one of the Punisher’s earliest arch-enemies in the disfigured mobster (caused by the Punisher) Jigsaw (played with over-the-top campy relish by Dominic West). Where Castle is deadly serious to the point of morbidity his opposite was all garish with a liberal dose of crazy.

Punisher: War Zone really dispenses with any complexities to it’s plot and just finds reasons and excuses for the Punisher to go on another killing spree against criminals that for some it might not be enough. As a lover of grindhouse and exploitation films what this film offers was enough and really goes a long way in entertaining in such an 80’s fashion. It’s a film that revels in its violent absurdities and campy storytelling. Even the acting by all in the film passes the line of campy and into a sort of Looney Tunes level which makes the extreme violence and gore of the killings more cartoonish than realistic. This was a film that celebrated it’s grindhouse roots from the actors, the filmmakers all the way down to it’s cinematographer and art directors. It’s disposable entertainment and it knows it so doesn’t bother to try and hide that fact and just tries to entertain in every manner possible and then some.