KALIFORNIA (1993)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: Dominic Sena
CAST: Brad Pitt, Juliette Lewis, David Duchovny, Michelle Forbes
MY RATING: 9/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 58%

PLOT: A journalist duo go on a tour of serial killer murder sites with two companions, unaware that one of them is a serial killer himself.


Ask any movie fan for names of actors who played memorable serial killers in film, and you’ll get a lot of obvious ones (Anthony Hopkins, Charlize Theron, Anthony Perkins) and you might get a few not-so-obvious ones (Michael Rooker, Andrew Robinson, Peter Lorre).  But I’m willing to bet no more than one person in 20 will name Brad Pitt, whose performance as the skeevy Early Grayce dominates Kalifornia, the 1993 directorial debut film of music video director Dominic Sena (Gone in 60 Seconds, Swordfish).  Pitt is so convincing and deliberately off-putting that I came close to switching the movie off and returning it to the thrift store where I found it.  Why would I want to keep watching a film where I’m repulsed by one of the main characters nearly every second he’s on screen?

Kalifornia may be predictable to some, but I was blown away by the story development.  Brian (David Duchovny) and his longtime girlfriend, Carrie (Michelle Forbes) are embarking on a cross-country road trip from Pittsburgh to California.  He’s an author writing a book on serial killers.  During their trip, he will visit infamous murder sites to gather material, and Carrie, a professional photographer, will take pictures for the book.

(The first time we see Brian, he’s mixing drinks at a party and holding forth about how the government should rehabilitate killers instead of executing them.  They are products of their environment, their upbringing, they’re not ultimately responsible for their own actions because they simply don’t know any better, and so on.  Over the course of the movie, his beliefs will be put to the test.)

Brian is short on cash until he finishes his book, so he places an ad on a university message board looking for people willing to split gas and food costs on a cross-country road trip to California.   One of the most incisive moments in the movie comes when Brian and Carrie drive to a meet-up point and spot their new travel companions: Early and his girlfriend, Adele (Juliette Lewis), a young woman whose mental development seems to have been arrested at about a 13-year-old level.  Carrie whispers to Brian, “Look at them, they look like Okies.”  Meanwhile, Adele whispers to Early, “Oh, Jesus, Early, they look kinda weird.”  The movie seems to be setting us up for an awkward odd-couple road-trip movie where, uh oh, one of them is a serial killer!  But you ain’t seen nothing yet.

During their road-trip, and in between visits to famous murder sites, Early and Brian start to bond a little, much to Carrie’s dismay.  Brian has a theory about why the Black Dahlia killer was never found, but Early has another: that he’s alive and well in a trailer park somewhere, “thinkin’ about what he’s done, goin’ over it and over it in his head, every night, thinkin’ how smart he is for gettin’ away with it.”  Ohhh-kay…

One night when Brian and Early are at a bar, Carrie and Adele get to talking, and Adele reveals that she doesn’t smoke because “he broke me of that.”  Carrie asks her if Early hits her, and her reply is as heartbreaking as it is terrifying: “Oh, only when I deserve it.”

This and several other red flags get to be too much for Carrie, and she gives Brian an ultimatum: “Either they get out at the next gas station or I do, your choice.”  What happens at that next gas station I would not dream of revealing, but it ignites the slow burn of the previous hour and turns Kalifornia into a tense, bloody thriller that rivals anything by David Fincher.

I’ve given so many establishing plot details above (I left some juicy bits out, trust me) because I’m trying to convey how this film, which starts out like a slightly amped-up basic-cable movie-of-the-week, shifts into another gear in the second hour.  Unsuspecting viewers like me, who have only heard of the movie but never even seen the trailer, will watch the first hour wondering where the good movie is.  But have patience, it’s coming.  The payoff is worth the wait.

[Author’s note: by the way, don’t watch the trailer for this movie.  It gives away WAY too many plot points that I haven’t mentioned, both before and after the gas station incident mentioned above.  Just the worst.]

Visually, I didn’t see a lot of the music-video camera pyrotechnics that director Sena would later employ in Gone in 60 Seconds, etcetera.  The movie is content to let the dread sort of speak for itself.  The various murder sites they all visit seem even creepier and uglier than they need to be.  Slick editing brings little details into focus that heightens the tension.

Ah, I can’t think of any way to explain how great this movie is without giving away more plot details, and this movie is best seen in a vacuum, knowing as little as possible.  So trust me.  If you’re a fan at all of serial killer movies or documentaries, this movie will not only entertain, it will give you a lot to chew over.  Kalifornia belongs in the serial killer movie pantheon with The Silence of the Lambs, Psycho, and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.  Especially that last one.

12 MONKEYS

By Marc S. Sanders

Bruce Willis is a time traveler from an ugly dystopian future in 12 Monkeys.  His name is James Cole and his mission is to uncover why all but one percent of the world’s human population perished from a mysterious virus in the year 1996. 

Director Terry Gilliam specializes in disorienting his films.  No shot or closeup is well defined.  He’ll position his camera on a slant or he’ll turn it on an uneven axis so that nothing appears completely clear.  In 12 Monkeys, the viewer is as confused as the protagonist, James Cole, along with a psychiatrist he periodically encounters named Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe).  Beyond the camera trickery, the script of the film offers up oddball characters in both Cole’s present time period (the “future”) and in his past.  Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt, in his first Oscar nominated role) is one particular weirdo, residing in a mental institution that Cole is entered into when he time traveled back to Baltimore, Maryland in the year 1990.  During his stay in the loony bin, Cole is talking gibberish to Dr. Railly and her team.  Jeffrey has his own language of nonsense.

Cole’s dreams of himself as a child are intermittently weaved into the final edit of the film.  There’s a woman running after a man, a rapid beep, beep, beep and a gunshot.  Later returns to this dream will provide more clues fleshing out its significance.

It would be easy to have a five-minute conversation and spell out what occurs in 12 Monkeys, but that would be defeating the cleverness of the film.  The achievement of its story relies on the sum of its parts.  Terry Gilliam strategically lays out breadcrumbs with fractional pieces of dialogue, words and pictures that quickly flash in front of you.  It may even hinge on a news story or memorable pieces of music playing on a radio. Still, he also unnerves the characters and the viewer with uncomfortable and sometimes grotesque imagery. 

The first time you watch the film your attention may turn to the long stream of bloody drool hanging from Bruce Willis’ mouth when he shares his first scene with Madeleine Stowe.  Repeat viewings, which I believe only enhance the picture, will have you focus on the nonsensical dialogue that James Cole is continuously uttering.  Other characters are seemingly disruptive to your concentration, particularly the herky jerky behavior of Brad Pitt’s character, but their purpose is essential to a mystery that has left the world of the future in a tailspin where the last of the human race lives underground while animal wildlife roam the cities above.  Furthermore, who or what can explain the enigma behind a team of people perhaps known as The Army Of The 12 Monkeys?

12 Monkeys is a very weird and very unusual kind of science fiction film and that is its crowning achievement.  I have spoken before of how sometimes a movie can not be determined as a success until it reaches its climax, say the last five minutes of its running time.  Terry Gilliam’s picture is one such example.  Gilliam has a keen sense of foreshadowing with tactical layering of complexity.  He is wise with how everything neatly unravels at just the right moment. The answers to the mysteries that James Cole pursues eventually rise to the surface, reminding us that everything was right under our nose the whole time. 

I recall the elation I had the first time I saw the film in theaters.  On repeat viewings, I grin at how the movie is assembled.  Quick references that seem like blink and you miss it moments add up to a satisfying conclusion in Terry Gilliam’s film.  My colleague, Miguel, and I both agree on the time travel motif in 12 Monkeys.  It is one of those rare occasions where the science built within the story’s fiction seems to make sense.  Too often time travel movies paint themselves into a corner and can’t escape the gaping plot holes they leave behind.  Yet the different time settings of 12 Monkeys cooperate with themselves.  Because the film doesn’t color outside of its lines, its worth applauding how ingenious the picture truly is from beginning to end.

12 Monkeys may require your patience the first time you watch it.  It’s not a comfortable journey.  However, you’ll be glad you stayed with it as the story answers its own questions.

BABYLON

By Marc S. Sanders

Director Damien Chazelle has come a long way since his first major motion picture, Whiplash, a small film about a young, tortured drummer.  Since that accomplishment, he seems to get more and more elaborate with each project.  Babylon certainly exceeds ambition in any select 3–5-minute scene it offers within its grand opus.  The main title card doesn’t appear on screen until after the first thirty minutes and by then you are exhausted, yet completely awakened.

Babylon begins in the mid-1920s, during the pioneering times of Hollywood filmmaking where silent films were fresh and were regarded outlets for escapism and entertainment.  Big studios like MGM were not quite on the scene just yet and movie makers experimented with their films having no regard for rule and caution while constructing them.  On a busy day of shooting at around 3:15pm, an open field sword and sandal battle might turn up an extra in an accidental death with an impaled spear.  No matter.  Must keep shooting before daylight is lost and everything runs off schedule. 

It was at this time that a star like Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), rugged with a square jaw and dashing with a pencil thin mustache, offered greatness in movie houses that showed silent pictures.  A new discovery like Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) who seemingly came in off the street captured producers and patrons alike with her wide-eyed expressions and lanky, yet appealing posture.  These were the first celebrities of the advancing twentieth century.  They were starlets that brought people back and back again to the cinemas to witness battles of roman conquest or dancing on top of a bar while batting their long eyelashes for a mug at the camera.  The filmmakers loved to work with them. 

These performers ruled Hollywood until the Talkies appeared on the scene.  Movies with sound revolutionized the industry, but these famed individuals couldn’t keep up with the evolution.  Audiences and filmmakers couldn’t accept a compatibility.  Try to imagine a Jack Conrad listen to a packed movie house chuckle at one of his romantic speaking scenes.  It’s heartbreaking to watch.  He was admired, but now he’s a joke.

When the sun would set, the parties soaked–make that drenched–in orgy and debauchery would begin and nothing was off limits.  Naked women would happily get high and drunk and tossed over a large crowd.  Prop penises would be inserted into one partygoer and then another and then another.  Fat ugly men would happily accept getting urinated on.  Endless amounts of liquor and especially cocaine would be gulped and snorted and the greatest dares imaginable would always try to top themselves.  Have you ever heard of a party getting so out of control that someone would go so far as to wrestle a rattlesnake in the middle of the desert?  Jack happily watched all this decadence go down.  Nellie joyfully became the outrageously intoxicated and fearless ringleader. 

I have offered only a sliver of description for Chazelle’s over three-hour film.  To sum up, Babylon offers a hard-edged response to the family friendly interpretation found in Singin’ In The Rain.  Both films delve heavily into the transition of silent filmmaking to talking pictures and those who were left behind.  Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s G rated picture will have you giggle at their Lina Lamont with the squeaky voice and pratfalls who’s all wrong for the next phase.  The heavy R rated dramatic interpretation is offered in Chazelle’s script with Margot Robbie’s Nellie LaRoy and her Jersey accent, accompanied by unrefined posture and behavior.  Her drug binges are no help either.  Margot Robbie is fearless in her performance.  She is messy, sloppy, harsh and frenzied with her character.  One thing that came to mind as she is snorting line after line of coke is that at that time, there was no such thing as a means for rehabilitation like today.  No one was even looking out for the harm that drugs and alcoholic binging could have on people.  People were left to their vices to just drown in their poison of choice.  For silent pictures, you could plaster them in makeup and costume and let them mug and bat their eyes for the camera.  It didn’t matter if their speech was slurred.  Talkies required much more concentration of their performers.

The main player of the film is newcomer, Diego Calva, as Manny Torres.  A Mexican who inadvertently finds himself in the Hollywood nightlife while pushing an elephant up a steep hill only to get shit on.  (The elephant serves no purpose except to make an appearance at one of these crazy parties.)  Manny has an instinct for what’s to come in the movies and builds himself up into a studio executive.  While he’s dangerously falling in love with Nellie, he’s also discovering next big things like a Negro entertainer who’s magnificent with a trumpet, Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo).  Manny is a good man who swims above the dangerous life of Hollywood partying and decadence.  He’s an innovator that’ll never receive credit for what he uncovers.  That’s for the white executives to profit from.

A minor but welcoming story is Sidney’s.  He’s soon hung on posters outside movie houses, and performing with big bands.  Hollywood awards him with riches he could never imagine and never asked for.  However, ironically, his complexion comes off too white against some of his other band players and the idea of caking himself in charcoal makeup is insisted.  How will Sidney respond to this humiliating request? The wealthy also have a particular regard for him.  His status as an entertainer.  Do they see him as a showboat clown or the artist he values himself to be?  How does Sidney want to be considered?

With all of the parties and drinking and drug use to go around, Babylon goes off in a hundred different directions before it finds an even keel outline that switches storylines from Jack to Nellie to Manny and Sidney.  Chazelle strives to one up what other filmmakers before have attempted.  I could not help but think about Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights which follows the porn industry in the late 70s and early 80s.  Happiness abounds until time and technology and constant self-abuse cause everything to unravel.  Babylon follows a very similar trajectory.

A friend of mine found Babylon too be overly gratuitous.  She’s not wrong, but while she took it as a complaint with the film.  I take how superfluous the movie is as a major compliment.  There are long scenes where Chazelle will not surrender for the audience.  He shows how drug raged Nellie is when no one will fight that rattlesnake by having her violently pick it up, swing it around and thus it will eventually latch on to her neck while she’s running around amid a gang of naked partygoers.  Then we get to see another starlet cut the snake off below it’s head, rip its fangs out of Nelly’s skin and proceed to suck the venom out.  Oh, you’ll squint and squirm through the whole scene.  What do we learn from this?  Drugs are bad.  Really bad, and they will delude you into acting with no vices or boundaries.  So, let’s be completely honest about it.

When Nellie is recruited for a talking film, we see take after take after take of her trying to make her mark while it is shouted over and over again to the crew to shut the fuck up.  There can be absolutely no noise from anywhere that the mikes can pick up and it doesn’t matter if a crewman is getting dangerously overheated in a soundbox.  (No air conditioning could be allowed because the hum would be picked up by the microphones.)  It’s a brilliantly, well edited, long and tortuous scene of flaring tempers, sweat, heavy light and stress.

I remember reading an interview with Henry Hill, the mobster who was the focus of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas.  Hill said with no uncertainty that the characters portrayed by Joe Pesci and Robert DeNiro were not even close to how frightening and violent their real-life counterparts were.  So maybe even Scorsese glossed over how harsh that world ever was.  Damien Chazelle is a relentless filmmaker with Babylon.  Nothing is whitewashed.  Most of what you see is shock value, but that’s the message he’s conveying and per his research he must be convinced the life of this era was actually this outrageous and way over the top. He’s certainly not forgiving with how manic these people lived, particularly with Margot Robbie’s character.

At the same time, he calms the film down to offer a harsh truth to a quickly becoming has been like Jack Conrad, Brad Pitt’s character, no longer in his prime.  Jean Smart portrays a gossip columnist reminding Jack that the height of his career is long gone, but fifty years from now, new generations will be rediscovering his achievements.  He will be a legend for all eternity.  Chazelle is speaking to us, those that appreciate what Turner Classic Films and other formats like videotape and DVD offer to see the first of these kinds of pictures where it all began with legends like Jack and maybe Nellie and especially Chaplin. Chazelle was an important student of this later generation.  This is the best scene of the picture with a magnificently written monologue, and I won’t be surprised if Jean Smart gets an Oscar nomination that no one ever saw coming.  I’m inclined to declare she should just get the award.  It’s such a telling moment for all kinds of movies.

Chazelle loves to make films.  The epilogue to Babylon demonstrates his affection as his story jumps to twenty years later, and an older Manny watches Singin’ In The Rain in a theatre. From what he inadvertently brought to the fold all those years ago, movies have evolved and continue to develop into bigger scales of what we could never have thought possible.  Chazzelle edits in a sequence where it started with silent films like A Trip To The Moon and Keystone Kops over to grand musical ensembles and adventures like Ben-Hur and then on to special effects with quick cuts of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Terminator 2, and Avatar.  Flashes of color appear on the screen and then quickly cut back to these captions in celebrated films and film stock.  I don’t believe any of this spoils anything of the film, but I like to recognize how Chazzelle takes inspiration from Stanley Kubrick’s bewildering conclusion to 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Movies are going on and on and on.  Whoever is hot now and presently significant will have to adjust to an ever-changing industry.  Once celebrated puppeteers working for guys like George Lucas have no value in an age of computer graphic engineering.  Big box office stars might not be able to uphold their careers during a time of streaming films that come to us by means of our flat screen TVs we can affordably buy at Walmart.  Kardashian girls are more widely recognized than maybe a Jack Nicholson or a Meryl Streep.  (Someone I know had no idea who Carol Burnette is.)

It’s hard to sum up everything captured in a film this big and ambitious and yes, gratuitous.  Perhaps, the best I can tell you is simply that a hard truth to accept is that casualties come from discovery in a film like Babylon

FIGHT CLUB

By Marc S. Sanders

David Fincher’s Fight Club is a deliberately ugly and dreary film. It has to be to evoke the insomnia its narrator (Edward Norton) suffers from, as well as his lonely depression that offers no answers for his purpose to exist or to be loved by another person.

To alleviate his need for something fulfilling, the narrator resorts to attending support groups for men suffering from illnesses and debilitating diseases like testicular cancer. There he meets a former body builder named Bob (the singer Meat Loaf) who has developed floppy breasts after going through hormone therapy. Bob follows the processes of the self help group and embraces on to Norton’s character as a means of support; stuffing his face into Bob’s breasts. The narrator eventually becomes accustomed to this maternal practice and the ritual of attending these meetings as a regular process. However, he feels he is getting upstaged by Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), a punk looking girl with dark eyeliner and wild jet-black hair.

Even though Marla and the narrator negotiate who attends what meetings and on what night, Norton meets another punk like reckless character known as Tyler Durdin (memorably played by Brad Pitt) who manufactures and sells soap but also edits film reels, sneakily inserting penis images into family films. Tyler also works as a waiter at a high-end restaurant where he proudly adds a little of “himself” to all the courses that are served.

The narrator only works at a boring desk job where his boss uses any opportunity to look down upon him and chastise him on his performance or appearance, but never recognizing anything further within his nature. The boss could care less about him. Naturally, the narrator becomes in awe of Tyler’s behavior. Tyler is a rebel and offers much more beyond Bob’s comfort. Tyler serves a purpose for the narrator to pursue.

When Tyler challenges the narrator to hit him as hard as he can it eventually leads to a new kind of gathering for both of them, a support group known as Fight Club. Men from all over soon gather underground to partake of letting out their aggressions with bare knuckle fists and wrestling. Anyone attending gets a therapeutic vibe from bleeding and bruising themselves upon one another. The narrator certainly feels better.

Going a step further leads Tyler and the narrator to fight back against a system of order and capitalism. Their philosophy picks up traction and soon a form of revolution is taking place across the entire country. Somehow, the narrator is taken off guard by this new belief system.

There’s a lot to consider and question in Fight Club, though I’m not sure I care for the film as a whole to debate its message. Sometimes it feels like it’s not moving anywhere. Norton’s character learns things about his own consciousness and need to falsely subject himself as a cancer survivor or as an underground brawler because he has nothing else really going for him. I get that, but why should I care or like it?

Tyler Durdin resides in a broken down house on the other end of the city that is leaking from every pipe and it’s electricity could ignite another fire that maybe this decrepit dwelling survived once before. Tyler is happy with his home and happy to share it with the narrator as well as Marla whom he has endless sex with. Tyler doesn’t want the fancy trappings. It’s revolting to even possess such materialism and suck off the tit of a capitalist regime. With the narrator at his side, he encourages a fight against the power of commercialism and wealth. Find a way to destroy the structures of what the country has built itself into, perhaps.

That’s the message of Fight Club. I just can’t lay claim that I cared for the execution of the revolt. I’m supposed to laugh at Tyler’s antics at times like when he steals the gross liquid fat from liposuction patients to manufacture the soap he sells. Yes, we get a moment where the bags of fat leak and splatter all over the place. It was just never amusing for me. I found no symbolism in this passage. It’s just absolutely disgusting. When Tyler happily pisses in someone’s soup, I don’t think it’s funny either. I don’t like Tyler. I don’t envy him or want to be him. I don’t find anything to cheer for with him. I’ve got more admiration for John Bender in The Breakfast Club than I do for Tyler Durdin. I might respect what he stands for to a degree as we are a culture brainwashed by advertising and commercialism. I just don’t care for the actions taken by this so-called martyr on behalf of the self-described unfortunates like Norton’s narrator.

I also find it ironic and quite hypocritical that Fincher’s film is a call to stand up to materialism and commercialism and yet the cast is headlined by Brad Pitt, arguably one of the biggest box office stars of the last 30 years, complete with his name above the title and his image front and center ahead of Edward Norton’s on the film posters that promote the film. Pitt is also the guy you see first, last and all over the middle of any of the film’s trailers and advertisements.

Now tell me, is that not a contradiction in terms?

SEVEN

By Marc S. Sanders

There’s an interesting dynamic to David Fincher’s Seven that is not touched upon often enough.  Beyond the clever and grisly murders set to a theme of the Seven Deadly Sins, the two police detective protagonists are carved from completely different molds.  The spine of Fincher’s film, written by Andrew Kevin Walker, focuses on how these men approach the craft of the killer’s accomplishments.  One man wants to cut to the chase, find the criminal and cuff him.  The other wants to study the nature of this mystery man, and only then will it lead to the suspect’s true identity.

Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) stems from a time gone by for the cinematic detective.  He’s the trench coat wearing investigator who examines and connects dots, never resorting to fists or police intimidation with a gun.  Newly assigned Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt) dons the leather jacket with the cute goatee and boy blond haircut.  He’s more apt to making fun of the sick weirdo they are chasing, hardly lending any valuable insight or observations.  Somerset will approach with respect for the killer and his work.  Mills, with nowhere near the experience of his new partner, will disguise his loss of where to begin with this case by resorting to cheap shots at the killer’s expense, calling him Yoda and surmising this guy must be pleasuring himself in peanut butter, perhaps.

Fincher is widely recognized for the dark photography of his films, like the cherry wood hallways of Harvard in The Social Network or the lurid neighborhoods in movies like Zodiac and Gone Girl.  In Seven, the setting is very much a character in and of itself, but other than the fact that it is a California (thanks to a throw away piece of dialogue) metropolitan area, we never know the name of this city.  It is a dreary, ongoing rain-soaked environment that hinders the police officers and keeps everyone contained in the film, especially David’s wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow), unsettled.  The city has no name or identity.  Therefore, the police officers who occupy it are not the stereotypical cops designed for this place.  One works as a tired, wise and experienced Colombo figure, minus the sarcasm.  The other is an aggressive hot shot who is over trying to prove himself to peers and superiors.  Now he wants to be in charge.  They both follow the footsteps of the mystery together.  Yet, they are reading different roadmaps.

With seven days left before retirement, Somerset meets newly arrived Mills.  They are quickly dispatched to a filthy apartment for an ugly murder scene of an odd nature.  It is a scene labeled as Gluttony by the killer.  Greed follows shortly thereafter, and Somerset knows none of this random.  Whoever has orchestrated these two executions is methodical and resourceful, with a point to prove.  The artistic measure and inspiration are too creative, far from the sloppiness of a standard stabbing or gunshot to the head.  Somerset already knows five more murders will likely turn up and doesn’t want to get involved.  He’s seen enough.  Mills has the cavalier attitude.  Find the freak, and maybe take him out in a blazing shootout.  It’s reckless. 

Could Seven be an answer to how cop movies performed at one time and how they act now?  Seven may be the closest outline of pairing Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade with Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs.  Sure, the murder scenes are hard to look away from, as deliberately repulsive as they are.  Even after multiple views of the film, I still get curious with how the killer planned all of this out to the absolute most minute detail.  However, ninety percent of the dialogue is exchanged only between Freeman and Pitt. Paltrow has a couple of scenes that help paint the sad picture of life in this city, but ultimately the film belongs exclusively to the two cop characters.  Seven has one action scene, but it primarily covers how the two men respond to the nature of what they come upon.  Mills will crack jokes that maybe his college pals would snicker at.  Somerset asks the young man to just be quiet while he explores the scene.  Mills gets grossed out by a bucket of blood.  Procedurally, Somerset will ask Mills if there was any blood in it.  Mills will resort to Cliff’s Notes on the Seven Deadly Sins.  Somerset will spend his evening in the library, digging through the original source.  Mills will kick down a door without authority.  Somerset will protest against that action without following the standards of procedure.  It’s a dichotomy of impatience versus patience.

The two men actually don’t come to a common platform until the third act of the picture, when the rain has subsided, the sun comes out, and the killer opts to surrender himself.  Still, the mystery of his purpose remains and there’s an unknown element of what to expect next.  So, while the partners may agree that there’s more to come, they still respond to the killer, in person, differently.  Mills can only yell at the deranged suspect and call him names.  Somerset interviews the gruesome and imaginative architect with questions. 

Seven is a sensational crime drama.  It’s eerie, creepy and appreciatively sickening in its crimes.    The outline of some of the killer’s actions might seem conveniently questionable or far-fetched.  Some of the crime scenes were planned over a year’s time. Others were not meant to be revealed until a certain point within these particular seven days.  So, the writing might be a little too overly precise.  However, that should not be dwelled upon.  Rather, one kind of cinematic cop is not the standard in Hollywood films anymore.  Another kind of cop has filled that void in its stead. 

Andrew Kevin Walker’s script follows a very structured outline.  It’s not until the story’s infamous end does the film divert itself, as it is almost unfathomable that it could have actually happened. 

It is fortunate that David Fincher was allowed vast liberties with the production of only his second film, following the abysmal Alien 3 which famously took away any of the personal oversight he depended on as a rookie filmmaker.  With Seven, Walker and Fincher draw out four characters quite well – Somerset, Mills, the city with Tracy as its spokesperson, and the killer’s actions.  Blend these elements together and see if they make for a good product.  Fact is they couldn’t be any more disagreeable, but the chemistry works perfectly. 

Seven is a sensational movie and will likely always remain as one of David Fincher’s best films.

KILLING THEM SOFTLY

By Marc S. Sanders

What did I just watch? A mob movie, or a 2008 Presidential debate where the candidates are no shows, and their respective commercials are aired in their place? Andrew Dominik directs Killing Them Softly, with Brad Pitt who also produces.

Reader, I don’t get the appeal. Maybe it’s the outstanding cast which includes Pitt, as well as James Gandolfini, Ben Mehndelson, Richard Jenkins, Scoot McNairy and Ray Liotta. Sadly, these guys are given next to nothing do of any consequence.

After it is revealed that Liotta’s character, Marky, ripped off his own mob poker game a few years back, an idea is presented to two street addicts played McNairy & Mendehelson to do the same thing because, heck, they’d never be suspected and logic dictates that Liotta must have done it again. So, he’ll be the one to blame and get whacked. The game is robbed and now Brad Pitt’s hitman character is on the job. Simple enough story, almost like a Guy Ritchie picture.

Killing Them Softly is an adaptation of a 1974 novel by George V Higgins. I never read the book, but I’m curious if it contains any kind of relation to Andrew Dominik’s idea of editing recurring speeches and ads, compliments of Obama, McCain and Bush 45. Truly, what was the point of this recurring theme? A two-sentence piece of dialogue finally acknowledges this in the final minute of the film, but I’m still lost on the significance. Somehow Dominik made a dirty, cold, rain-soaked picture that has an omnipotent viewpoint from our most prominent politicians, and I don’t know what one thing has to do with another.

As well, Gandolfini arrives in the story and I never could gather what was his purpose. I think he is a hitman who is washed up, never getting his ass up to carry out the job and just monologues about nothing like the hooker he pays off; topics that Quentin Tarantino might’ve thrown in the editing trash bin.

Mendelsohn looks incredibly convincing as an addict living off the streets, yet his storyline has no end. He’s arrested. Then what happens? What does that mean for everyone else? Liotta has a long drawn out sequence of getting the shit kicked out of him by two mob foot soldiers. The scene goes on and on and on. His face cracks and bleeds, and bleeds some more. Brad Pitt? Well, he’s the hitman who just looks cool. Yeah, the black leather jacket he wears looks very cool on him. That’s about it.

There’s no development to Killing Them Softly. No surprise or twist. The guys you expect to get killed, get killed, and there’s no good dialogue.

This film is just an empty void of poorly, uninteresting violence.

TRUE ROMANCE

By Marc S. Sanders

The structure built into the script for True Romance by Quentin Tarantino, directed by Tony Scott, is like the trunk of a solid oak tree with strong, sturdy branches representing its collection of seedy characters in off color scenes. Tarantino sets it up – an Elvis infatuated boy meets a rookie call girl (Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette). Boy marries girl, and then boy & girl find a suitcase filled with a fortune in uncut cocaine. A simple storyline that now allows a bunch of fun, short vignettes to be played out, all leading to one moment after the other within this universe of outlandish, lurid debauchery.

What works so well in True Romance is that literally from beginning to end, you are always meeting a new and incredibly interesting character. Each scene welcomes someone else into the fold. For that, you need an all-star cast. Gary Oldman, Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Walken, Val Kilmer, Conchata Farrell, Dennis Hopper, James Gandolfini, Brad Pitt, Bronson Pinchot, Saul Rubinek, Michael Rapaport, Tom Sizemore, Chris Penn, Ed Lauter, Elvis & martial arts master Sonny Chiba. The list goes on and on. It should be noted that some of this cast were hardly bankable stars before this film, which flopped at the box office in 1993. Before the movie became a cult B movie obsession on home video and cable, it was blazing the trail of well-established careers for much of its talent.

Nearly every character can have a story of their own written about them. Take Gary Oldman in one of his best roles as the vicious looking pimp named Drexel, a white guy adopting a Jamaican gangsta accent with dreadlocks, gold caps on his teeth, a blind eye and wickedly curved scar down the side of his face. His appearance alone makes me beg to know this guy’s background in a whole other movie. Drexel’s introduction comes early when he pumps a shotgun into two hoods. Shortly thereafter he’s conversing with Clarence Worley (Slater), and we know who’s in charge of this scene. Oldman is only given about 10 minutes of screen time, but it’s hardly forgettable.

The same goes for Walken, as a well-dressed mafia don interrogating Clarence’s father (Hopper). This scene has become legendary for film lovers, and it carries into a stratosphere of intelligence and timing in performance duality. It remains one of the best scenes Tarantino ever wrote as we learn a probable origin of Sicilians from a doomed Dennis Hopper. This is an acting class at its finest.

Tak Fujimoto filmed the piece showing contrasts of a wintery cold and dirty Detroit versus a sun soaked Los Angeles. It’s sharp photography of gorgeous colors schemes.

Hans Zimmer scored the soundtrack, deliberately saluting Terrance Malick’s Badlands where we followed a similarly young criminal couple played by Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. Zimmer’s fun, melodic tones to celebrate Arquette and Slater’s adventures is perfectly in tune with the two-dimensional charm of their new and happy relationship. Most of Tarantino’s script is not taken seriously. Zimmer was the right device for that.

A few spare moments are played with dread, though. Slater and Arquette are truly in love. So, Tarantino & Scott threaten what the film treasures. Arquette as a call girl named Alabama Worley is incredible throughout the film. She’s a silly, adorably cute Southern belle dressed in secondhand store accessories, such as a cow spotted patterned skirt with neon blue sunglasses, and red cowgirl boots. This is not someone you’d hire to manage your accounting firm or run a library. However, Arquette’s emotional range really comes through during a brutal beating scene with Gandolfini. It pains a viewer to watch the moment, but it comes long after we’ve grown to love her.

Later, towards the end, our favorite couple is again endangered during a three way Mexican standoff. It’s hilarious, and way off kilter, but then it also gets downright scary.

That’s the beauty of True Romance. It’s a well-organized mess of emotions from comedy to drama to violence and silliness. Tarantino has great set pieces put together in a connect the dots rhythm.

It’s an endlessly quotable film. It’s a visual film. It’s a literal roller coaster of dangerously amusing storytelling told with affection and gratuity. It’s also quite sweet.

True Romance remains one of my favorite films of all time.

THE LOST CITY

By Marc S. Sanders

Sandra Bullock’s film The Lost City is nothing more than rollicking fun at the movie theater.  A popcorn movie.  You can simply focus on gorging yourself with endless amounts of popped kernels and large fizzy drinks and you’ll never find yourself lost in a complex plot.  It’s a screwball adventure in the same vein of Romancing The Stone.  What I appreciate is that it is not a duplicate blueprint of Romancing The Stone.  Maybe just the opening scene, but no matter.

Bullock is Loretta, a reclusive romance novelist, who knows that her books are nothing more than cheesy pulp material to the umpteenth degree.  Her agent Beth (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) keeps a positive attitude as she encourages a book tour to promote Loretta’s newest installment in a series that follows the adventures of Loretta’s fictional swashbuckler.  That hero is preserved on the covers of her novels in the image of fashion model, Alan (Channing Tatum) – a Fabio inspiration.  Alan dons the gorgeous blond locks wig with the beefcake chest and the fans seem to go wild for him more than they do for Loretta’s work.  Even the glittery purple jumpsuit with stiletto heels that Loretta dons for an appearance at a book fair doesn’t deter the screaming fans away from Alan’s muscular build and chiseled chin.

When Loretta is captured by a spoiled brat of a villain known as Abigail Fairfax (Daniel Radcliffe), she finds herself having to research the location of a lost city on a remote island rumored to possess treasures beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.  Somehow, within Loretta’s fiction she implied the actual location of this place.  Abigail needs her to delve even further towards the destination.

This all sounds cliché.  It is, actually.  So what!

What saves The Lost City is the screwball comedic approach to the film.  Bullock and Tatum are nearly twenty years apart in age.  Yet, they make a great pair in the same way that Hepburn and Grant did in Bringing Up Baby.  I could care less about the actual lost city and whatever treasure was there.  The symbols etched on an old piece of parchment that Loretta attempts to decipher never mattered to me.  Two days after seeing the movie, I don’t even remember what the lost city revealed when they eventually got there.  I did like the endless pratfalls of Tatum and Bullock, however. 

Channing Tatum looks like the adventurer of a romance novel.  Yet, he’s nothing more than a pretty boy or a “mimbo” as Jerry Seinfeld might describe him.  He’s actually got a crush on Loretta and upon determining that she’s been kidnapped, he recruits the legendary problem solver Jack Trainer (who could only be encapsulated in the form of a gorgeously blond, tan and muscular Brad Pitt) to rescue Loretta.  It’s important to Alan, though, that he gets recognized as the savior.  So, he kind of learns as he goes. 

Adventures in the jungle abound.  There are bad guys on motorcycles.  Guns, of course.  Fires within Alastair’s luxury SUV. Rock climbing.  Rivers with leeches.  Dark caverns and on and on and on.  Yeah.  I’ve seen this all before.  Again, I say so what!  It’s just a fun time at the movies that brought me back to the fast-paced escapades found in the 1980’s films I grew up on.  Yet, it has its own spin thanks to the relationship of Alan and Loretta.

Daniel Radcliffe and his beard are also great characters.  It’s a nice departure from the shoe horned role that’ll never leave him as a certain boy wizard who will not be named here.  He just brings out his fun bratty side.  His beard seems to wink along with him.

A better side story could have come with Da’Vine Joy Randolph though.  As the agent goes from one traveling step to the next as she attempts to find Loretta herself, Randolph just doesn’t look comfortable in the role with her sky-blue pant suit and big breasted physique that is intentionally in your face.  Where’s the slapstick that should be accompanying her?  She’s specifically made up to look like diva luxury and you’re waiting for one disaster after another to befall her. Beyond having to fly on a puddle jumper plane carrying farm animals, she simply survives her trek unscathed.  Either this storyline should have been excised all together, or it should have been rewritten to be just as silly as what Bullock and Tatum are delivering.  A flop in the mud or a slip in the river would have helped this plotline. 

The Lost City is just a cute film for Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum to look…well…cute together, and in a world where celebrities are slapping each other silly on live television, isn’t this a much better escape on a Saturday afternoon?

THE BIG SHORT

By Marc S. Sanders

Ever since Adam McKay’s The Big Short was released in 2015, it has remained a favorite film of mine. I watch it at least once every year. McKay’s script with Charles Randolph, adapted from the book by Michael Lewis, is enormously funny but also realistically frightening.

The film shows how America’s housing market crashed in the first decade of the 21st Century. Mortgage backed securities never failed in history until now, and no one anywhere, especially the banks, ever believed a crash would occur, but it did. Only a select few people like Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale) and Jared Vennet (Ryan Gosling) foresaw what no one else could imagine, and thus they took advantage of it by making enormous betting transactions against the housing market. To say you need a strong stomach for this kind of investment is a serious understatement.

Burry is the first one to realize that the country as a whole will default on their mortgages once their interest rates go up in 2007. He represents Scion Capital and invests billions of dollars against the mortgage backed investments. Now he watches for the next two years while the capital at Scion declines into negative digits and drowns out the frustration with death metal music. Bale is fascinating as Burry who has a brilliant mind, but he lacks social skills.

Vennet gets wind of Burry’s discovery and sells the idea to Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his team of representatives. Vennett narrates how it all played out in the market; how ratings agencies gave triple A rankings to bonds made up of worthless backed securities. McKay wisely has Vennett introduce celebrities like Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez to break down the vast complexities of everything. Robbie in a bathtub. Gomez playing black jack. It’s hilarious and relatable. Gosling is great. A great scene is his selling presentation which includes a metaphoric prop of a Jenga tower. Vennet has no qualms about collecting premiums as the rest of the country is going down. He’s profiting, and why not? Big banks have been doing it for years.

Carell is spectacular as well as Mark Baum. He has a heart, but he’s an angry individual. It sickens him to make money off this short buy, but it’s the responsible action to take for the benefit of his own clients. Mark also suffers from his brother’s suicide. McKay allows just enough time for this to draw out the misery of this character. Carell should have gotten an Oscar nomination at least. Baum is a guy with no filter as he confronts authoritarian parties throughout the film. He’s a hero really, but he’s not a guy I’d ever want to be left in a room with either.

An additional story arc comes from two young guys (Finn Wittrock & John Magaro) who also uncover this opportunity. They enlist Brad Pitt as a recluse who get them into the arena of big traders. These kids who started their investment company in a garage are great as well. Another party who came out of nowhere to uncover what no one else saw.

McKay assembled a magnificent blend of actors for these unusual characters who always hid behind their computer monitors. He directs with a lighthearted approach having his characters breaking the 4th wall at times to explain what all of this means in the simplest terms.

As simple as McKay makes it with his humor, this was a terrible, terrible tragedy putting millions of people out of work and owners losing their homes. Even renters lost their homes. Pay your rent but it means nothing if your landlord isn’t paying his mortgage. McKay tragically shows this outcome.

It’s terrible to imagine, but it’s a major downfall of the American economy. When the country, is doing well, while paying short term low interest rates, no one concerns themselves with what could all go away in an instant. It’s a vicious cycle, and the only funny thing about it all is that the supposedly most brilliant investors will naively allow this to happen over and over again.

The Big Short is one of the best films made in the last 20 years.

MONEYBALL (2011)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Bennett Miller
Cast: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, Chris Pratt
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 94% Certified Fresh

PLOT: The general manager of the Oakland A’s attempts to assemble a winning team on a lean budget by employing computer-generated analysis to acquire new players.


On paper, Moneyball should not work as a movie. What have you got?  A feel-good sports story about the 2002 Oakland A’s utilizing the science of statistics to assemble the right combination of players to get them into the playoffs.

I mean, really?  Specifics aside, a Cinderella story about an underdog sports team trying to make it to the big game is one of the oldest, most predictable tropes in film.  Shall I count them off? Major League, The Bad News Bears, Bull Durham, The Mighty Ducks, Little Giants, Cool Runnings, Hoosiers…need I go on?

And in Moneyball, we barely even get to see any baseball action itself.  The movie is more concerned with the behind-the-scenes action, beating the trade deadline, shaking up the scouting crew, trying to get the manager to believe in the new system.  We don’t really see any major baseball action until we get close to the finale.

[SPOILER ALERT…unless you’re a HUGE baseball fan, in which case you were already aware of this.]

And let’s talk about that finale, while we’re at it.  The A’s make it to the 2002 ALDS elimination game, and what happens?  They LOSE.  Say what???

So why, oh why, does Moneyball work the way it does?

…no, really, I’m asking.  Because I’m not 100% sure myself.  Let me just tick off my thoughts as they occur to me here.

  1. There’s the screenplay.  Here’s some good advice: when you want to make a movie about a potentially dry subject, get both Steven Zaillian AND Aaron Sorkin to write your script.  The pace of the movie is stately, even sedate, but the dialogue is crisp, clean, and precise, getting to the point as efficiently as possible without being flashy.  In one memorable scene, someone walks up to the General Manager’s office and says just one word: “Peña,” and then walks away.  The GM takes it in, says, “Okay”, and calmly stands and flips his desk over.  The whole thing is over in 15 seconds.  I can imagine another movie wasting a lot of time with extra words or edits, but not “Moneyball.”  (SPARTAN.  That’s the word I’m thinking of.  The dialogue is spartan.)
  2. There’s the editing.  The dialogue is sleek and uncluttered, but there is a lot of information that has to be conveyed to those audience members who may not know what a box score is, or what a DH is, or why Billy Beane (the GM, played by Brad Pitt) doesn’t CARE whether his new first baseman can even field the ball properly, as long as he gets ON BASE when he’s batting.  Rather than use flashy editing to generate false suspense or excitement, the Oscar-nominated editors use more of that spartan vibe, with occasional jumps to real-world film clips of the actual team or individual players.  This is especially helpful when the film’s middle section details the woeful first half of the season under the new statistics-based system.  Again, not flashy, but effective.  Very hard to pull off, and deservedly recognized.
  3. There’s the structure…which I guess points back to both the screenplay and editing, but I’m just saying.  As I said, it’s a classic, well-worn trope.  Good guys get knocked down for the count – the A’s flat-out suck for the first half of the season – but then they suddenly start winning games and crawling back into contention.  As many of these films that I’ve seen, I still found myself unwittingly getting caught up in the spirit of the comeback.  In actual fact, the 2002 season is the one where the real Oakland A’s threatened to break the American League record for longest winning streak.  And it all comes down to one at-bat in the bottom of the ninth.  Because of COURSE it does.
  4. …and that sort of brings up another point.  Is there another sport that has as much innate mythology as baseball?  Sure, football has its share of comeback stories, and so does hockey and everything else.  But with baseball…lemme tell you.  A few years ago when the Chicago Cubs were on the verge of winning their first World Series in a hundred-and-eight years, I watched Game 7, rooting for the Cubs.  For those Cubs fans who watched as well, you’ll recall: that game was unmerciful.  The Cubs blew a three-run lead, they ended nine innings in a 6-6 tie, and then there was a RAIN DELAY before the 10th inning started.  But I will never forget that moment when the Cubs made the final out, and they wound up winning 8-7.  It was glorious.  …well, watching Moneyball, watching that section when the A’s are creeping up to winning twenty games in a row, I found myself grinning and laughing spontaneously, without even realizing I was doing it, and I remembered what it was like to watch the Cubs win.  And a big part of it has to do with that unexplainable psychic connection we have to the game itself, that sense of the romantic when someone clobbers a game-winning homer, or makes a dramatic catch to save a no-hitter, or when a relief pitcher retires the side with bases loaded.  I’m not a true baseball fan, I’ll admit…but I know good drama when it happens.  Moneyball gets that aspect of the game just right.

(I haven’t even mentioned the sterling performances from the principal actors, particularly Jonah Hill, who nabbed an acting nomination for one of the most underplayed characters in history.)

In the end, Moneyball is exactly like the Oakland A’s in the film.  It’s an unlikely combination of talent that generated surprising results and was critically acclaimed, gathering six Oscar nods.  It failed to win a single Oscar…much like the A’s were eventually eliminated from the playoffs in 2002.

But in the end, it’s not the shutout at the Oscars that I remember.  It’s the fact that this is still one of the best sports movies I’ve ever seen, and definitely one of the top 2 or 3 baseball films I’ve ever seen.