Hard Target (1993, directed by John Woo)

Nat Binder (Yancy Butler) has come to New Orleans to track down the father who she hasn’t seen since she was seven years old.  What she doesn’t know is that her father has recently been kidnapped and killed for sport by a wealthy hunter and Most Dangerous Game enthusiast named Emil Fouchon (Lance Henriksen).  After a homeless veteran named Chance Bourdeaux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) saves her from a group of muggers, Nat hires him to help her track down her father.  This turns out to be a good decision because Fouchon is sending out his private army to track down Nat and Chance is Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Jean-Claude Van Damme has never gotten as much respect as he deserves.  Even though most of his action movies were low-budget and often not very good, Van Damme was still a better actor than some of the other B-action stars of the 90s and, unlike most of his contemporaries, he could actually do most of the things that he did in the movies in real life as well.  Though Van Damme may have sabotaged his career through cocaine abuse, it’s not a surprise that most action fans would welcome a Jean-Claude Van Damme comeback far more than a comeback by someone like Steven Seagal.  Hard Target features Van Damme at his best, emphasizing his athleticism and contrasting his earnest acting style with the more flamboyant villainy of Lance Henriksen, who also brings his best to the role of Emil.  The film also features Wilford Brimley, bringing his best to the role of Bourdeaux’s uncle.  Van Damme, Henriksen, and Brimley all at their best?  How could anyone turn down Hard Target?

Hard Target was the first American film of director John Woo and he proves himself to be the perfect director for the material.  With Woo, every scene becomes an operatic set piece and it’s impossible to worry about any plot inconsistencies when Van Damme is gracefully jumping out of the way of bullets and missiles.  Woo turns the material into a live-action comic book and, even if it’s not as good as his Hong Kong films or later American films like Face/Off, it’s still undeniably entertaining.

Hard Target is Van Damme’s best film of the 90s.  Watch it on a double bill with Surviving The Game.


Love On The Shattered Lens: The Path of the Wind (dir by Doug Hufnagle)

The 2009 film, The Path of the Wind, begins with a man being released from prison and discovering that living in the real world can be just as confining.

Lee Ferguson (Joe Rowley) has spent the last few years locked up, convicted of killing a man.  It was a spontaneous fight and Lee didn’t intend for the man to die but that doesn’t change the fact that Lee is responsible for taking another man’s life.  He was a model prisoner and he intends to be a model citizen.  Fortunately, he’s inherited a nice house and a good deal of money from his father.  He’s also got a job waiting for him, as the well-meaning manager of the local grocery store has agreed to give Lee a chance.

From the minute he leaves the prison, Lee feels out-of-place in the world.  He’s still struggling to control his temper and, because of his past, he’s hesitant about letting anyone get too close to him.  He knows that if he tries to get close to anyone, he’ll eventually have to tell them why, despite his obvious intelligence and education, he’s currently working as a stocker in a grocery store.  And, after he tells them that he’s been in prison, he’ll then have to explain what he did to find himself in that situation.

Still, on his first night of working at the grocery store, he meets a young woman named Katie (Liz DuChez).  When he first sees her, Katie is being harassed by her violent ex-husband.  Lee chases the man off.  It turns out that Katie runs the local video store and she thanks Lee by offering him all of the free movies that he wants.  Eventually, Lee works up the courage to go to the video store and gets a bunch of western DVDs.  Later, he reveals that he not only doesn’t have a DVD player but he’s not totally sure what a DVD player is.  I guess Lee was in prison for a while.

It takes a while but Lee and Katie finally start to date.  Katie opens up about her past as a stripper and Lee finally tells her about the time that he spent in prison.  (It turns out that Katie already knew.)  They fall in love but there are still problems.  For one thing, Katie is rather religious whereas Lee is a committed agnostic.  Secondly, Katie refuses to have sex unless she’s married.  Lee, meanwhile, really, really wants to get laid….

Of course, that’s not all that’s going on in The Path of the Wind.  There’s about a different dozen storylines running through The Path of the Wind and the film doesn’t do a particularly good job of juggling all of them.  Along with having to deal with Katie’s psycho ex-husband, Lee also has to deal with not one but two evil coworkers and his bitter sister.  This is one of those films where a lot of plot points are raised but then mysterious abandoned.  There is one effective scene, in which Wilford Brimley shows up as the father of the man that Lee killed.  Brimley’s only in the film for a few minutes but he brings so much natural authority to his role that he basically takes over the entire movie for the limited amount of time that he’s on screen.

The film’s a bit of a mess but there’s a low-key sincerity to it that’s kind of likable.  According to the imdb, it was made for a budget of $100,000 and, with the exception of Wilford Brimley, the cast is largely made up of amateurs.  That said, both Joe Rowley and Liz DuChez have enough screen presence to be watchable and, even if the dialogue sometimes sounds a bit awkward, they have a likable chemistry and you can believe them as a couple.  Add to that, the film does attempt to deal with a very real issue, the difficulty that ex-cons face trying to rejoin a society that often values punishment and revenge over forgiveness and rehabilitation.  This is an amateur film but it may hold your interest.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Tender Mercies (dir by Bruce Beresford)

The other day, on this very site, I mentioned that the 1983 film Tender Mercies was one of the films that David Lynch turned down.  

In his memoir, Room to Dream, Lynch wrote that he was sent the film’s script while he was looking for a project to serve as his follow-up to The Elephant Man.  Lynch wrote that he liked the script, which was written by Horton Foote (who had previously won an Oscar for adapted To Kill A Mockingbird), but that Lynch also felt that it just wasn’t the right project for him at the time.  Tender Mercies was eventually directed by Bruce Beresford and Lynch mentioned that he felt that Beresford did a “brilliant” job.

After I posted the article, it occurred to me that Tender Mercies is not a film that’s as well-known as it deserves to be.  It received five Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture.  Robert Duvall won his first (and, to date, only) Oscar for playing the lead role.  It’s an acclaimed film but it also plays it in a rather low-key style, particularly when compared to some of the other films that were released in the early 80s.  (1983 may have been the year of Tender Mercies but it was also the year of Scarface, Flashdance, Return of the Jedi, and Risky Business.)  As such, it’s a film that’s been a bit overshadowed over the years.

Tender Mercies takes place in rural Texas.  Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall) is a former country-western star whose career has collapsed due to his alcoholism and his own self-destructive behavior.  One morning, a hungover Mac wakes up in a roadside motel.  Not having any money on him, Mac asks the motel’s owner — Rosa Lee (Tess Harper), who lost her husband in Vietnam — if he can work at the motel in return for a room.  Rosa Lee agrees, on the condition that Mac not drink while he’s working.

As the days pass, Mac and Rosa Lee grow closer and Mac becomes a surrogate father to Rosa Lee’s young son, Sonny (Allan Hubbard).  Eventually, Mac and Rosa Lee marry and Mac becomes an accepted member of the community.  However, Mac remains troubled.  His ex-wife, Dixie (Betty Buckley), has built a career on singing the songs that he wrote for her but she refuses to consider anything new that he’s written.  His teenage daughter (Ellen Barkin) stops by the motel and announces that she’s running away to get married.  There’s tragedy but there’s also hope and forgiveness.

Tender Mercies is a simple but affecting film about a good man who is struggling to deal with the fact that he was once a very bad man.  What makes Tender Mercies interesting is what doesn’t happen.  The first time I saw it, I spent the entire movie expecting Mac to fall off the wagon and break everyone’s heart.  Instead, Mac manages to keep his promise to his new family but what he discovers is that being sober doesn’t automatically exempt one from pain or guilt.  He still has to deal with sadness and disappointment but now, he has to do it without using alcohol as a crutch.  Instead of getting his strength from booze, he now gets it from love.

It’s a wonderfully sweet movie, featuring naturalistic performances from Harper, Hubbard, and especially Robert Duvall.  It seem appropriate that, after making his film debut as Boo Radley in a film written by Horton Foote, Duvall would win his first Oscar for another film written by Foote.  Duvall plays Mac as a plain-spoken and weary soul who is still just enough of a romantic to find some sort of redemption in the world.  It’s a great performance and it’s a good film and I’d suggest checking it out if you ever need a good cry.

Playing Catch-Up: Autumn in New York, Griffin & Phoenix, Harry & Son, The Life of David Gale

So, this year I am making a sincere effort to review every film that I see.  I know I say that every year but this time, I really mean it.

So, in an effort to catch up, here are four quick reviews of some of the movies that I watched over the past few weeks!

  • Autumn in New York
  • Released: 2000
  • Directed by Joan Chen
  • Starring Richard Gere, Winona Ryder, Anthony LaPaglia, Elaine Stritch, Vera Farmiga, Sherry Stringfield, Jill Hennessy, J.K. Simmons, Sam Trammell, Mary Beth Hurt

Richard Gere is Will, a fabulously wealthy New Yorker, who has had many girlfriends but who has never been able to find the one.  He owns a restaurant and appears on the cover of New York Magazine.  He loves food because, according to him, “Food is the only beautiful thing that truly nourishes.”

Winona Ryder is Charlotte, a hat designer who is always happy and cheerful and full of life.  She’s the type who dresses up like Emily Dickinson for Christmas and recites poetry to children, though you get the feeling that, if they ever somehow met in real life, Emily would probably get annoyed with Charlotte fairly quickly.  Actually, Charlotte might soon get to meet  Emily because she has one of those rare diseases that kills you in a year while still allowing you to look healthy and beautiful.

One night, Will and Charlotte meet and, together, they solve crimes!

No, actually, they fall in love.  This is one of those films where a young woman teaches an old man how to live again but then promptly dies so it’s not like he actually has to make a huge commitment or anything.  The film does, at least, acknowledge that Will is a lot older than Charlotte but it still doesn’t make it any less weird that Charlotte would want to spend her last year on Earth dealing with a self-centered, emotionally remote man who is old enough to be her father.  (To be honest, when it was revealed that Charlotte was the daughter of a woman who Will had previously dated, I was briefly worried that Autumn in New York was going to take an even stranger turn….)

On the positive side, the films features some pretty shots of New York and there is actually a pretty nice subplot, in which Will tries to connect with the daughter (Vera Farmiga) that he never knew he had.  Maybe if Farmiga and Ryder had switched roles, Autumn in New York would have worked out better.

  • Griffin & Phoenix
  • Released: 2006
  • Directed by Ed Stone
  • Starring Dermot Mulroney, Amanda Peet, Blair Brown, and Sarah Paulson

His name is Henry Griffin (Dermot Mulroney).

Her name is Sarah Phoenix (Amanda Peet).

Because they both have highly symbolic last names, we know that they’re meant to be together.

They both have cancer.  They’ve both been given a year to live.  Of course, they don’t realize that when they first meet and fall in love.  In fact, when Phoenix comes across several books that Griffin has purchased about dealing with being terminally ill, she assumes that Griffin bought them to try to fool her into falling in love with him.  Once they realize that they only have a year to be together, Griffin and Phoenix set out to make every moment count…

It’s a sweet-natured and unabashedly sentimental movie but, unfortunately, Dermot Mulroney and Amanda Peet have little romantic chemistry and the film is never quite as successful at inspiring tears as it should be.  When Mulroney finally allows himself to get mad and deals with his anger by vandalizing a bunch of cars, it’s not a cathartic moment.  Instead, you just find yourself wondering how Mulroney could so easily get away with destroying a stranger’s windshield in broad daylight.

  • Harry & Son
  • Released: 1986
  • Directed by Paul Newman
  • Starring Paul Newman, Robby Benson, Ellen Barkin, Wilford Brimley, Judith Ivey, Ossie Davis, Morgan Freeman, Katherine Borowitz, Maury Chaykin, Joanne Woodward

Morgan Freeman makes an early film appearance in Harry & Son, though his role is a tiny one.  He plays a factory foreman named Siemanowski who, in quick order, gets angry with and then fires a new employee named Howard Keach (Robby Benson).  Howard is the son in Harry & Son and he’s such an annoying character that you’re happy when Freeman shows up and starts yelling at the little twit.  As I said, Freeman’s role is a small one.  Freeman’s only on screen for a few minutes.  But, in that time, he calls Howard an idiot and it’s hard not to feel that he has a point.

Of course, the problem is that we’re not supposed to view Howard as being an idiot.  Instead, we’re supposed to be on Howard’s side.  Howard has ambitions to be the next Ernest Hemingway.  However, his blue-collar father, Harry (Paul Newman, who also directed), demands that Howard get a job.  Maybe, like us, he realizes how silly Howard looks whenever he gets hunched over his typewriter.  (Robby Benson tries to pull off these “deep thought” facial expressions that simply have to be seen to be believed.)  There’s actually two problems with Howard.  First off, we never believe that he could possibly come up with anything worth reading.  Secondly, it’s impossible to believe that Paul Newman could ever be the father of such an annoying little creep.

Harry, of course, has problems of his own.  He’s just lost his construction job.  He’s having to deal with the fact that he’s getting older.  Fortunately, his son introduces him to a nymphomaniac (Judith Ivey).  Eventually, it all ends with moments of triumph and tragedy, as these things often do.

As always, Newman is believable as a blue-collar guy who believes in hard work and cold beer.  The film actually gets off to a good start, with Newman using a wrecking ball to take down an old building.  But then Robby Benson shows up, hunched over that typewriter, and the film just becomes unbearable.  At least Morgan Freeman’s around to yell at the annoying little jerk.

  • The Life of David Gale
  • Released: 2003
  • Directed by Alan Parker
  • Starring Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet, Laura Linney, Gabriel Mann, Rhona Mitra, Leon Rippy, Matt Craven, Jim Beaver, Melissa McCarthy

For the record, while I won’t shed any tears whenever Dzhokahr Tsarnaev is finally executed, I’m against the death penalty.  I think that once we accept the idea that the state has the right to execute people, it becomes a lot easier to accept the idea that the state has the right to do a lot of other things.  Plus, there’s always the danger of innocent people being sent to die.  The Life of David Gale also claims to be against the death penalty but it’s so obnoxious and self-righteous that I doubt it changed anyone’s mind.

David Gale (Kevin Spacey) used to the head of the philosophy department at the University of Texas.  He used to be a nationally renowned activist against the death penalty.  But then he was arrested for and convicted of the murder of another activist, Constance Harraway (Laura Linney) and now David Gale is sitting on death row himself.  With his execution approaching, journalist Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet) is convinced that Gale was framed and she finds herself racing against time to prevent Texas from executing an innocent man…

There’s a lot of things wrong with The Life of David Gale.  First off, it was made during the Bush administration, so the whole film is basically just a hate letter to the state of Texas.  Never have I heard so many inauthentic accents in one film.  Secondly, only in a truly bad movie, can someone have a name like Bitsey Bloom.  Third, the whole film ends with this big twist that makes absolutely no sense and which nearly inspired me to throw a shoe at the TV.

Of course, the main problem with the film is that we’re asked to sympathize with a character played by Kevin Spacey.  Even before Kevin Spacey was revealed to be a sleazy perv, he was never a particularly sympathetic or really even that versatile of an actor.  (Both American Beauty and House of Cards tried to disguise this fact by surrounding him with cartoonish caricatures.)  Spacey’s so snarky and condescending as Gale that, even if he is innocent of murder, it’s hard not to feel that maybe David Gale should be executed for crimes against likability.

A Movie A Day #239: Act of Vengeance (1986, directed by John Mackenzie)

Act of Vengeance is an uncompromising look at union corruption and how it hurts the workers while benefitting the bosses.

The year is 1969 and the United Mine Workers of America is one of the biggest and most powerful labor unions in the country.  The UMWA was founded to protect the rights of miners but the current union president, Tony Boyle (Wilford Brimley), is more concerned with enriching himself and consolidating his own power.  Despised by the workers that he represents, Boyle has managed to stay in power through fixed elections and his own fearsome reputation.  When 80 West Virginia miners are killed in an accident, Boyle defends the owners.  That is the last straw for Jock Yablonski (Charlies Bronson), a lifelong miner and proud union man.  Yablonski runs against Boyle for the UMWA presidency and, when the election is stolen from him, Yablonski challenges the results.

Boyle’s solution?  Working through one of his supporters (played by Hoyt Axton), Boyle hires three assassins (Robert Schenkkan, Maury Chaykin, and a young Keanu Reeves) and orders them to kill not only Yablonski but his entire family too.

With a name like Act of Vengeance and a star like Charles Bronson, it would be understandable to assume that this is another Cannon action film where Bronson gets vengeance by blowing away the bad guys.  That’s not the case, though.  Made for HBO, Act of Vengeance is based on a true story of union corruption and murder.  There is violence but very little of it comes from Bronson.  Instead, this is a well-made docudrama about what happens when workers are betrayed by the very people who are supposed to be looking out for them.

Bronson grew up working in the mines and he never forgot the poverty of his youth.  He knew men like the men depicted in this movie and Bronson gives one of his most naturalistic performances as Yablonski.  Brimley is at his gruffest as Boyle and the performances of the actors playing the three hapless but deadly assassins also feel authentic.  Ellen Burstyn and Ellen Barkin are also well-cast as, respectively, Yablonski’s wife and the wife of the main assassin.

Great Moments In Character Actor History: Wilford Brimley on Seinfeld

Though he is best known today for telling diabetics to “check your blood sugar and check it often,” Wilford Brimley was one of the best no-nonsense tough guys in the movies.  Back in the day, no one played gruff and plainspoken as well as Wilford Brimley.  Whether he was playing a senior citizen in Cocoon, a U.S. attorney in Absence of Malice, or a stern father figure in countless movies and TV shows, Wilford Brimley was the epitome of an honest, upright, no bullshit authority figure.  It has been a while since Brimley appeared onscreen but anyone who grew up in the 80s and 90s can remember hearing his distinctive voice and fearing that, somehow, Wilford Brimley knew everything that he had ever done wrong.

Wilford Brimley played many roles but, for me, he will always be Postmaster General Henry Adkins in The Junk Mail episode of Seinfeld.  In this episode, Kramer announces that he is no longer going to accept any more junk mail and dares to suggest that we might not need a postal service at all.  Who better to set Kramer straight than the U.S. Postmaster General, Henry Adkins?  Even if it means having to put off his golf game, Henry is not going to let anyone make a joke out of the U.S. Postal Service.

As Henry himself explains, “I’m a postmaster but I’m also a general and it’s the job of a general to, by God, gets things DONE!”

In the video below, Henry Adkins enters at the 1:17 mark.

After watching this great moment in character actor history, you will never again complain about getting a pottery barn catalogue!

Sci-Fi Review: Ewoks: The Battle For Endor (1985, dir. Jim Wheat & Ken Wheat)


So one year later we returned to Endor to see the continuing saga of Wicket (Warwick Davis) and the family from The Ewok Adventure. What were those words Burl Ives left us with at the end of The Ewok Adventure again?

“Reunited, the families enjoy the simple pleasures of being together. Having learned something they already knew. That courage, loyalty, and love are the strongest forces in the universe.”

Well, those forces are apparently not that strong because this movie opens up with Cindel’s (Aubree Miller) family getting murdered. That’s nice!

I love that apparently Kilink’s ultimate weapon from Kilink vs. The Flying Man made it all the way from Turkey to the moon of Endor.


During all this killing we meet the two main villains of this movie.


This guy (Carel Struycken) who looks like every generic bad guy from ever fantasy adventure movie ever made. He wants some sort of device from a spaceship that he thinks will make him powerful.


And this lady (Siân Phillips) who looks like she belongs in He-Man and The Masters Of The Universe.

After getting captured, then escaping, Cindel and Wicket do battle with something I’m pretty sure I once hit a golf ball into when I used to play miniature golf.


While trying to escape that dragon via a hang glider, they crash. Then they meet this guy who is quite annoying throughout this film.


I guess they figured since Wicket now speaks English, they needed something else small that doesn’t. That thing takes them to a house in the woods, but soon the owner comes home.


Yep, it’s Wilford Brimley. According to IMDb, he and the Wheats didn’t get along, so the production designer Joe Johnston directed all the scenes with Brimley. How did that work considering Brimley is in the majority of this film. Well, unfortunately Brimley did not bring Remo and Chiun with him. That would have made for a very short film.

A large chunk of this movie can now be described as Brimley talks to Cindel, the bad guys talk amongst themselves, and Brimley and crew decide to seek out the bad guys. Oh, and this happens.


Unfortunately, Chewbacca from The Star Wars Holiday Special isn’t around to tell little Cindel that something about this doesn’t smell right. Of course she pulls a switcharoo and kidnaps the kid.


Now we get the annoying little creature, Wicket, and Brimley walking. For some reason we bump into a rock and get this shot of it.


Looks like a slot machine to me. They finally reach the evil castle, and after girl talk…


Brimley and crew scale the wall of the castle. Meanwhile, stuff is happening inside. Remember that whole Han and Greedo thing. Who shot first and all that. We can stop arguing about that. It’s time to start arguing over which one of these guys shot first.


There really isn’t much to talk about now because after they break the good guys (other Ewoks and Cindel) out of the castle, the rest of the film is a run and gun battle. At least this time Endor doesn’t scream Northern California like it did in The Ewok Adventure. Now shots like this just scream EBMUD watershed lands and Redwood Regional Park in the Oakland hills.


Eventually it all comes down to a battle between Brimley and the bad guy.


If you strike him down, he will become a more powerful spokesman for diabetes testing supplies then you can possibly imagine. But before that can happen, Wicket throws something that hits a thing on the bad guy’s chest and this happens to him.


With that done, it’s time for goodbyes and Brimley and Cindel leave the moon of Endor.


The question is whether this is any better than The Ewok Adventure. I would say no. Sure Wicket can talk, it feels more like we are on a foreign world, and there’s a lot more action to it, but that doesn’t make it better. The Ewok Adventure was a serviceable, but forgettable children’s sci-fi/fantasy adventure movie. This feels like they were contractually obligated to make a sequel so they threw together as generic a fantasy plot as possible and paid Brimley a few bucks to be in it. It’s super forgettable.

Now I just need to rewatch my childhood favorite Warwick Davis movie Willow (1988) and hope that The Force Awakens opens with Wicket pulling a Star Destroyer out of the sky using the force.