SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS (Great Britain, 2012)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: Martin McDonagh
CAST: Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken, Tom Waits, Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 83% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A struggling screenwriter inadvertently becomes entangled in the Los Angeles criminal underworld after his oddball friends kidnap a gangster’s beloved Shih Tzu.

I wanted to like Seven Psychopaths more than I ultimately did, but it is still a fun, mostly unpredictable ride.  My biggest hangup was that it felt too similar, in broad strokes, to other “meta” movies.  To other BETTER movies, unfortunately.  I always try to review the movie in front of me instead of comparing it to other films, but in this case that guideline proved impossible.  But I did try.

The story involves Martin (Colin Farrell), a struggling screenwriter in Los Angeles; Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell), his best friend who also runs a dog-napping racket with HIS friend, Hans (Christopher Walken); and Charlie (Woody Harrelson), a dog-loving gangster whose favorite pet is a Shih Tzu named Bonny…whom, as it happens, the dog-nappers have stolen.  We get an idea of just how much Charlie loves his dog during a scene where he interrogates the dog-walker who lost her.  When a man is willing to shoot someone over a dog, I’d be the first in line to give it back, but Billy has other plans.

See, his friend Martin is trying to write a screenplay.  He’s under a deadline, but all he has so far is the title: Seven Psychopaths.  He doesn’t even know who all the psychopaths are yet.  So, Billy tells him a couple of stories about psychopaths that he’s heard about here and there, and the characters slowly start to take shape.  Meanwhile, Hans makes periodic visits to his cancer-stricken wife at the hospital.  Also, a serial killer is on the loose, but he only kills mafia and yakuza hitmen.  ALSO also, Billy puts an ad in the paper advertising for psychopaths to reach out to him and Martin so their stories can be used in Martin’s screenplay.  That’s how they wind up meeting Zachariah (Tom Waits), an odd little man who carries a rabbit wherever he goes and spins a tale of how he and HIS wife would hunt…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

As you see, there’s a lot of story going on.  And, as I mentioned before, most of it is unpredictable.  The concept of a killer who only targets hitmen is unique, at least in my mind.  But when the story focused on Martin’s screenplay and how it was being put together, that’s when I started having cinematic déjà vu.

Example: Martin isn’t sure how he wants it to end.  He’s a pacifist, so he doesn’t want it to end in a cliched shootout.  Billy spins a tale of how HE would end the film, with a bullet-ridden, blood-soaked shootout in a cemetery, featuring the return of Martin’s ex-girlfriend for no reason and a supporting cast of all seven of the psychopaths reuniting, also for no reason.  At that moment, I instinctively thought, “Well, clearly this movie is going to end in a shootout.” And it does. Sort of.

Martin hears Billy out and disagrees.  “They should all just go to the desert and talk their issues out instead of shooting each other.”  Again, I realized, “Okay, so they’re going to wind up in the desert.” And they do.

And so it went, over and over again.  A character would pitch an idea for Martin’s screenplay, and later in the film that idea would suddenly be manifested.  Martin gets criticized because his screenplay doesn’t feature enough women and doesn’t give them anything meaningful to do or say…in the middle of a movie where the women don’t do or say anything meaningful.

Don’t get me wrong, I like meta movies.  But despite the dark comedy and the typical awesomeness of Chris Walken and the other elements that weren’t so predictable (the reason behind Hans’ cravat, for example), I just couldn’t shake the feeling of “it’s all been done before, and better.”  I’m thinking specifically of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (no screenwriter, but same vibe) and Adaptation, a movie where the lines between reality and the screenplay get so blurred as to be non-existent.  Seven Psychopaths feels like it’s trying to get to that level, but it never quite gets there.  On that level, it’s not quite a success.

However, I will say it’s worth a watch for any movie fans.  There are enough satirical elements that make it worthwhile.  (“But his rabbit gets away, though, because you can’t let animals die in a movie…just the women.”)  Walken’s performance is, as always, the stuff of legend, even in a smaller role like this one.  Late in the movie, he has a marvelous scene between himself and a button man with a shotgun.  If that vignette is not mentioned during the tribute video when he eventually passes away, I would be extremely disappointed.

MAN ON FIRE (2004)

By Marc S. Sanders

A movie that has eluded me until now is Man On Fire featuring Denzel Washington in another Tony Scott film.  I say eluded because with this director/actor combination I’m usually satisfied with the finished product.  That wasn’t the case here, though.

Washington portrays a hard drinking bodyguard named John Creasy.  He’s recruited by his war buddy, played by an uninteresting Christopher Walken, to protect a young girl named Pida (Dakota Fanning), daughter of an automobile industrialist and his always fashionable wife (Mark Anthony, Rahda Mitchell).  Creasy is a cold fish at first who refuses to accept Pida’s friendship.  Jump to a couple of quick scenes later and he’s become her surrogate father and swimming coach.  In a matter of seven minutes of running time, I’m supposed to accept that this guy has turned into a cuddly teddy bear for this kid.  As soon as that happens, Creasy is ambushed and Pida is kidnapped following her piano lesson. We are not even a quarter of the way through the picture, but the remaining hour and forty minutes play like an awful how-to documentary on effective means of torture for bad guys before ruthlessly killing them.

Tony Scott is a director who always seeks to demonstrate that glossy film styles are more significant than the screenplays he directs or the characters who reside within.  (Two exceptions come to mind though, Crimson Tide and True Romance.  Maybe some of Top Gun too.)  Man On Fire is a frustrating watch as Scott’s camera performs like a narrator with attention deficit disorder.  It can never sit still.  The movie jerks around so much with ridiculous quick cuts and deliberately grainy and distressed cinematography.  Just when I’m trying to comprehend a new player who enters the fold, the camera jumps to something else like a street corner or a moving car or Denzel Washington’s sunglasses. There are subtitles for the Spanish speaking characters that appear in a block letter font that looks like it came from a karaoke machine.  There’s also subtitles for what somehow appear to be “important” or “powerful” statements.  A line like “pass the salt” might read like “PASS the SaLt…PLEASE!!!!”  Tony Scott is obviously going for some kind of MTV music video approach, but it’s awfully distracting and downright annoying.  As well, I must ask why.  Why go through all this effort? The cameramen must have been getting motion sickness while fumbling and shaking around their equipment to shoot this picture.  So why bother?

The most interesting plot point happens in the first three seconds of the movie.  A statistic pops up describing how often kidnappings occur in Mexico (one every sixty seconds), and how as many as seventy percent of those incidents end up with a dead victim.  That’s a shocking dilemma, worthy of attention. Through his career, Washington’s selection of scripts has allowed him to tackle important issues with moments of debate and smart dialogue, as well as suspenseful action if there is a call for it.  However, Tony Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland are not interested in using these facts as a springboard with Man On Fire

Once the expected kidnapping occurs, and following a very quick healing – as in less than two days – of multiple gunshot wounds to the chest and back, John Creasy goes on a war path of revenge when he learns that Pida is dead.  Creasy doesn’t get to perform with much intellect here.  Having only a partial license plate number, he’s able to follow the breadcrumbs that lead to a crime syndicate notorious for winning millions in ransom demands.  Creasy simply goes up the food chain from one member to the next until he gets to the top of the pyramid.  That’s the movie!  That’s it!

He’ll cut a guy’s fingers off and cauterize them with a car cigarette lighter.  He somehow has access to a rocket launcher to use within the city.  Sadly, the most novel technique is to stick a rectal detonator (yes, I said rectal) up a man and set a timer for the guy to come clean with information before it goes off.  We can thank Tony Scott for putting up a countdown digital clock on the screen to gauge how close this thug is to his demise.

My past experience with movies like these have taught me that there’s always a traitor.  Someone set the plan in motion to abduct the little girl.  That’s not hard to figure out.  Once the character appears on screen, it could not be more obvious.  The motivation is just as ridiculous.

Man On Fire is only imaginative in how the protagonist dispatches one guy after another.  It lacks any effort in creativity towards its hero.  The guy drinks. He torments his enemies.  He’s got nothing interesting to say.  There’s a neglect for a very real and common problem within the country of Mexico.  The only design that is given attention is “artistic style” that Tony Scott adopts to mask away what is not there in any of the writing or character development.

I’d like to learn more about how the Mexican government responds to these kidnappings and maybe the experience that survivors endured.  Show me the torment that the families go through.  Can I see the method to the kidnappers’ plots or how they select their next target?  A very real predicament was offered with Man On Fire, but then it was tossed aside so I could see the effectiveness of an explosive suppository.  Now, is that really a movie that any of us want to see?


By Marc S. Sanders

I’ve always been a little hot and cold with Tim Burton’s films.  They are beautifully constructed in set and costume design, always well cast with exceptional talent and composer Danny Elfman’s music accompanies perfectly with Burton’s wide collection of social misfits and altogether celebrated weird material.  Still, more often than not, I leave Burton’s movies feeling less fulfilled than I want. Tim Burton’s one sequel film to date, Batman Returns, is one such example. 

To commemorate the annual Batman Day, I opted to watch Burton’s return to the murkiest of comic book locales, Gotham City, where Michael Keaton reprised the role of billionaire Bruce Wayne who dons the costume of The Dark Knight.  This time the villains of the week are the grotesque Penguin (Danny DeVito) and the sexy, dominatrix like Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer). 

Penguin resurfaces from the sewers of Gotham 33 years after his parents abandoned him as an infant, depositing him into the city reservoir in a bassinet to be raised by…you guessed it…penguins.  (Schools of penguins reside in the city sewers???? I guess it’s better than rats.)  Nerdy and mousy Selina Kyle is raised from the dead by the gnawing and licking of random alley cats to take on a warrior persona for Catwoman.  How exactly a feline resurrection works in either myth or science is never explored.  I guess I just have to go with it.  The manipulator behind these villains’ actions is a wealthy industrialist named Max Shreck, portrayed by Christopher Walken.  I was never sure of his stake here.  I’m only supposed to understand that he’s unlikable on the surface and he is not good for Gotham. 

I love all these actors.  I love them in these roles.  I do not love the script doled out for them though, which serves none of them well.

Batman Returns is best when the Batmobile or the Bat Glider is on screen.  They are awesome pieces of hardware to see in action as much as any tripped-up James Bond vehicle.  However, these are props.  They don’t speak, or laugh, or cry, or get angry.  Therefore, they don’t drive or develop a story.  When Luke Skywalker pilots an X-Wing Fighter, I care about the pilot.  The pilot speaks for the vehicle.  Batman doesn’t speak for the Batmobile. 

It’s ironic that the title character has only one sentence of dialogue in the first 30 minutes of this two-hour film.  There’s no dynamic to Batman or Bruce Wayne.  Keaton looks great sitting by his fireplace in deep thought or watching his television as the bat signal beams upon him.  He stands, and then when we see him next, he’s sitting in his bat car in full horned head regalia.  Otherwise, the Batman character is a prop to be used for scapegoat tactics by Penguin, Schreck and Catwoman, or he’s present to hurl a bat gadget, or throw a stiff-arm punch.  He doesn’t even do much of that stuff, anyway.  In Batman Returns, I learn nothing new about Batman or Bruce Wayne or his crusade to protect Gotham City.

Keaton shares one good scene in the film with Michelle Pfeiffer. It may be the one scene with a story to it as the two are dressed down from their comic book evening wear to dance slowly at a masquerade Christmas ball where they gradually realize who they are when they are not with one another.  Of course, we know this should be so obvious, yet a rule of thumb for comic book literature is not to realize what’s right under your nose.  A nice touch to this scene is having Keaton and Pfeiffer be the only guests not wearing a mask while everyone else is.  Batman and Catwoman have in fact dressed up as someone else for the costume party.  Very ironic and almost clever.

Too much material is given to Walken as the conniving Max Shreck.  Walken performs well, but just like his Bond bad guy in A View To A Kill, he belongs in a different movie.  The Schreck character lends nothing to this Batman adventure.  Who’s interested in this guy?  McDonalds and the other merchandising companies could even see how unattractive this character is.  So, why couldn’t Tim Burton or his writers and producers?  I’ll pay you a gazillion dollars for your rare, never manufactured Max Schreck action figure.  Yet, the bland script from Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm arguably provides the most dialogue to this guy.  You’ve got Batman, Penguin, Catwoman, even Alfred the butler and Commissioner Gordon, and yet this grey-haired guy with a wolf like pompadour in a bland, black business suit is hijacking a Batman movie.  Makes no sense.  Much of Batman Returns is made with cutting room floor material taped together featuring an unwanted Christopher Walken.

Who else is better to play The Penguin than Danny DeVito?  No one!  So, it is disappointing when the squat actor has nothing to do.  A seemingly inspired storyline from the campy Adam West TV series, and maybe a handful of comics, have him running for Mayor of Gotham.  A good start, but then the script does nothing remotely interesting with it, even though this stuff sells itself.  Where’s the political jokes to parallel the campaign? Where’s the ridiculous podium debates?  Imagine Penguin kissing little old ladies and holding babies while on a campaign trail.  None of that happens here.  You have outstanding talent from DeVito and yet all he’s left to do is ride around in a duck boat, spit out black and green sludge goo, and scream frustrations in a groggy, ear-piercing bellow on more than a couple of occasions. Unlike Jack Nicholson before him, DeVito is abandoned to play scenes with no dialogue while he chomps on raw fish or screams for the sake of screaming. 

An error in judgement was layering the actor in ugly makeup and unattractive costume wear.  Usually, DeVito is seen wearing a stained and damp white footy pajama suit with black dental pieces and very black eyeshadow on a whited out facial texture with a giant hook nose.  This is Danny DeVito.  He already looks like The Penguin.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!  The only charming accessories are his top hat and his collection of umbrellas (shooting fire or bullets or flicking out knives) that serve as exclamation points on dialogue when a jokey punchline could not be considered with even just a smidgen of effort from the writers.  The umbrellas were more expressive than the guy operating them, and yet even they were hardly used in any action scenes.

Batman Returns has some sloppy scene cuts as well.  A scene will appear with Catwoman skipping through a store, then it’ll jump to Batman punching out a few circus clowns, then the two meeting up on a rooftop somehow.  Why, where and how did this all happen?  The math doesn’t add up.  Penguin will somehow appear within this stitchery too.  For what reason?  Three movies are happening here and none of them are communicating with one another.

Films like the original Batman, or Edward Scissorhands or even Pee Wee’s Big Adventure carry the weirdo trademark of Tim Burton.  I know what I’m getting when I turn on almost any one of his films.  (Ed Wood being the surprising, and pleasing biographical exception.)  These are gorgeous, macabre films to look at, whether they are dimly lit or staged in deliberately bright and gaudy rainbow colors.  Yet, there are often scenes or moments that lack that hook that carries you from the exposition to the acclimation I normally get from the universe on screen before my eyes.  Batman Returns especially lacks that transition. 

Because the film looks so good, it is not the worst of the Dark Knight’s many films.  Yet, it is an uninspired and disappointing piece.  Any film with such storied and legendary characters as these is going to be a big letdown if they are given nothing to do.  Why, oh why, did they give almost all of the lines to the boring guy in the business suit?  If I wanted to entertain myself with an accountant, all I needed to do was sit in the lobby of an H & R Block.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Michael Cimino
Cast: Robert De Niro, John Cazale, John Savage, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 86% Certified Fresh

PLOT: An in-depth examination of the ways in which the Vietnam War impacts and disrupts the lives of several friends in a small steel mill town in Pennsylvania

[Author’s note: This will be the first in an ongoing series of reviews inspired by a book given to me as a birthday present by my long-suffering girlfriend.  Entitled Everyone’s a Critic, it challenges readers to watch a movie a week within a given category, then answer questions like, “Why did you choose this particular film” or “Do you feel this film deserved the award? Why or why not?”  Clearly designed to inspire discussion.  This category was “A Film That Has Won Best Picture.” This format is a work in progress, so I hope you’ll bear with me on future installments.

I am going to assume, for the most part, that most readers will have seen the movies being reviewed in this series.  Therefore, some spoilers may or will follow.  You have been warned.]

Once about every couple of years, I like to pick up and read Stephen King’s The Stand in its original uncut version.  My paperback copy runs to 1,141 pages, not including King’s foreword and a brief prologue.  Even Tolstoy would look at that thing and go, “Dude…edit yourself.”  But having read it numerous times now, I cannot imagine what could possibly have been excised from the edited version of King’s novel.  Every detail of that apocalyptic saga feels necessary.  Reading it is like falling into a fully realized alternate universe.

That’s what watching The Deer Hunter is like.  I can still remember the first time I watched it.  I knew its reputation as one of the greatest Vietnam War movies ever made, had heard of its harrowing Russian Roulette scene, and was intensely curious.  I popped it into the VCR, hit play…and for the first 70 minutes I got a slice-of-life drama about steel workers in a tiny Pittsburgh town (Clairton, for the detail-oriented) where, mere days before three friends ship off to Vietnam, one of them is getting married.  And the centerpiece is the wedding reception.  Ever watch a video of a wedding reception?  How high do you think a young teenager would rate its entertainment value on a scale of 1 to 10? 

I could not appreciate, as I do now, how vital this scene is.  Relationships are stated, expanded upon, and brought to a kind of cliffhanger.  Take the mostly non-verbal interplay between Linda (a luminous young Meryl Streep) and Michael (Robert De Niro).  Linda is clearly in a relationship with Nick (Christopher Walken), but it is painfully obvious that Michael and Linda have eyes for each other.  Mike watches intently from the bar as Linda dances at the reception, and whenever their eyes meet you can almost hear their hearts stop beating.  The oblivious Nick even pairs them on the dance floor while he visits the bar himself.  The awkwardness as Michael forces small talk and Linda shyly reciprocates is palpable.  And…is that Nick giving the two of them the eye at one point…?

As a kid, I wondered why this soap opera nonsense was necessary in a Vietnam film.  Of course, I didn’t know what was coming.  That’s the beauty and wonder of The Deer Hunter.  It challenges you to follow along with this miniature melodrama to give meaning to what comes next.

There is a key moment during the reception when an Army soldier wearing a green beret stops by the reception.  Mike, Nick, and Steven (John Savage), who are gung-ho about serving their country, yell their support and let him know how much they’re looking forward to killing the enemy.  The steely-eyed soldier raises his glass, looks away, and says, “Fuck it.”  It’s not terribly subtle, but the ominous nature of this moment always fills me with a sense of foreboding, even having seen the film many times by now.

But even after the reception is over, there is one more small-town pit stop to make before the movie gets to Vietnam.  (In fact, The Deer Hunter spends surprisingly little time in Vietnam.)  Michael and a group of friends including Nicky and Stan (John Cazale) go hunting for deer in the mountains as a kind of ritual before Nick, Mike, and Steven are deployed.  It is in this sequence that Oscar-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s talents are put to stunning use.  We are shown vistas of the Allegheny Mountains that are simply breathtaking, with Mike and his friends seen as mere dots in the mountainsides.  Choral music with a men’s choir singing in Russian is heard on the soundtrack, giving the sequence a majestic aura that must be seen and heard to be believed.

Then the hunt is over, and the boys all have one last drunken night at the bar owned by another friend, John (George Dzundza in an under-appreciated, realistic performance).  Here they all sing along to Frankie Valli and listen somberly as John plays a sad classical tune on his piano.  And then, in one of the film’s masterstrokes of editing, we slam-cut immediately to the jungles of Vietnam – no boot camp, no footage of them being trained or flown over there, just suddenly they’re there and the contrast between the carnage we experience in the first few minutes of Vietnam versus the rhythms of their lives in Clairton could not be more extreme.

In a horrific but mercifully brief sequence, we watch as a Viet Cong soldier calmly walks into a burned-out village, discovers a hidden pit holding terrified villagers, and remorselessly tosses a grenade inside.  We then watch as Mike, now a battle-hardened soldier, emerges from a hiding place with a flamethrower and burns the VC soldier alive.

The effect of this scene cannot be understated.  To witness Michael torching a soldier, even after that soldier committed a brutal act himself, is jarring.  And why is it so jarring?  Because we have seen Mike as a civilian, as a friend, as a would-be lover, during that lengthy sequence at the wedding reception and while hunting with his friends.  Admittedly, you got the sense that he could or would get violent if necessary.  (He’s clearly the alpha male of his “clique.”)  But this…I mean, damn.

Then, in one of those Hollywood conveniences that never get old, Mike is unexpectedly reunited with Nick and Steve who just happened to arrive at that very same village with another platoon of US soldiers.  And then, immediately after being reunited, they are captured by enemy forces, imprisoned with several enemy combatants in a riverside compound, and forced by their sadistic keepers to play Russian roulette with each other as the guards bet on the outcome.  Michael comes up with a horrifyingly logical escape plan: convince the guards to put THREE bullets in the chamber instead of one.

Much has been made regarding the historical inaccuracy of this scene.  To those arguments, I say: who cares?  As someone once said, riffing from Mark Twain, “Never let facts get in the way of truth.”  The truth of the matter is, the Vietnam experience was a modern-day horror show, leaving physical and psychic scars on its participants and on our country.  In my opinion, the Russian roulette scene can be interpreted as a symbol of how those soldiers, or ANY soldiers, must have felt every single day.  Going on a routine patrol in the jungle could have potentially lethal circumstances.  They rolled the dice every time they called in an airstrike, betting they didn’t get firebombed themselves.  Booby traps were everywhere.  How is life in a war zone that much different from being given a one-in-six chance at living or dying?

I’ve already gone into far more spoilers than I am accustomed to, so let’s just say this happens and that happens, Michael winds up making it back home, Steven is grievously wounded in the escape attempt, and Nick goes AWOL when, after making it back to a military hospital in Saigon, he wanders the streets at night and discovers an underground ring of lunatics who run a high-stakes game of Russian roulette.  And we’re still just at the mid-point of the film.

When we see Michael back home, the earlier sequences establishing the rhythms of small-town life and his feelings towards Linda, for example, all come into focus.  We need that reception and the hunting scenes so we can see how much Michael has changed.  For example, when Michael is arriving back home by taxi, still in full military dress, he spots a huge banner: “WELCOME HOME MICHAEL”.  He tells the driver to keep going.  In a hotel room later that night, he sits on the edge of his bed and rocks back and forth, winding up crouching against the wall.  He is completely unable to process how to deal with people anymore.  Or, at least, he doesn’t trust what he will or won’t say.  I watch that scene, and I feel such intense sympathy and empathy.  What he’s feeling, what he’s been through, what he’s seen, is so huge that he knows he’ll never be able to explain it to anyone who hasn’t been there.  He knows he’ll get questions like, “What was it like?  Did you kill anyone?  How are you feeling?  Where’s Nicky?”  I’ll never know what it’s like to fight in a war, but if I had gone through what he’d gone through, I wouldn’t have stopped either.

There is a heartbreaking scene where Linda, who is more than a little distraught that Nicky is AWOL, hesitantly suggests to Michael that they go to bed.  “Can’t we just comfort each other?”  Mike rebuffs her, but in a way that makes it clear he’d like to, regardless.  De Niro’s performance here is staggering.  As he walks out, he makes a statement, showcasing how much he is feeling but also how unable he is to articulate it: “I feel a lot of distance, and I feel far away.”  I knew exactly what he was talking about.

The very end of The Deer Hunter is one of the most emotionally shattering finales of any movie I’ve ever seen.  It ends with a simple song, first sung as a solo, then joined by everyone else at the table.  I will not reveal what happens to get us there.  Is it shameless manipulation?  Yes.  Does it work?  Yes, so I can forgive the “shameless” part.

One of the criticisms I’ve read more than once about The Deer Hunter is how “one-sided” it is.  To which I say, “Well, duh.”  The Deer Hunter is not presented as a history lesson or a lecture on the internal politics in the country of Vietnam during the war.  The Deer Hunter is intended to make us feel something.  It wants to show us what happens to a person who is exposed to the very worst side of human behavior and lives to talk about it.  It wants to remind us that a country can wave a flag and stand for what’s right and be willing to sacrifice its best and brightest souls for a righteous cause…but it must also be prepared for the aftermath.  The Deer Hunter is a somber prayer that our country remembers the cost it demands, and that it will take care of its own when the dust settles.


By Marc S. Sanders

Sean Penn has been a gifted actor from the very beginning of his career.  Whoever thought the kid who played surfer dude Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times At Ridgemont High would go on to evoke such intensity in future roles afterwards?  Other actors who did that kind of sophomoric material went on to be in Police Academy movies.  Penn would never shake that surfer image, but he would at least equally receive accolades for his dramatic turns. In James Foley’s At Close Range the high stakes drama could not be more apparent. 

Penn portrays Brad Whitefore, Jr. in this film based on a true story taking place in a small, rural Pennsylvania town in 1978.  Brad Jr.  is going nowhere and that’s fine with him.  He’d rather be an intimidating, fearless kid who will defy his step father so he and his brother (Chris Penn, Sean’s real-life sibling) can get drunk and high.  When Brad opts to go live at his father’s, Brad Sr., house, he hopes that he will learn the ropes of becoming a career criminal like his dad.  Brad Sr. (Christopher Walken) specializes in ripping off tractors, farm equipment, cars, wealthy property owners, and safes carrying large amounts of cash.  He happily welcomes his son into his home with his misfit gang and his new young wife.  Dad will also express love to his son by giving him a car and support, while also welcoming in Jr’s new girlfriend Terry (Mary Stuart Masterson). 

There is a code among these criminals however, and it stretches to flesh and blood as well.  No one is to talk about what they do or how they do it.  Shortly after dad allows his son join in on a job, Brad Jr. learns of the consequences if anyone talks about their handiwork, especially if you are seen chatting with local law enforcement.

At Close Range came out in 1986.  Even by then, I don’t think it would be challenging to forecast where the story is heading.  What’s most interesting about the film are the cast performances from Penn, Walken, and Masterson.  James Foley sets up good scenes where loving trust works at one point, but when that is shattered, what is the detritus left over afterwards?  Christopher Walken plays a guy with no limits to upholding his code, and as I reflect on that motivation, I can’t help but think how relevant Madonna’s eerie ballad Live To Tell (from her True Blue album) is so very important to the picture.  The song should have received an Oscar nomination based on its significance alone.  I’ve only now just seen the movie for the first time.  Yet, I’ve been familiar with the song for nearly forty years.  It carries much more meaning now.

James Foley’s film could’ve been better, however.  The first hour is incredibly slow moving and doesn’t seem to offer much direction or exposition for what the film is truly going to be about.  At some points it is a boy meets girl storyline with Penn and Masterson.  They have good scenes together, but were they all necessary?  Couldn’t some of this material ended up on the cutting room floor?  Then in other areas it is a father/son coming of age piece where pals from both of their respective backgrounds get drunk together on any given night.  Brad Sr. is emulated for his leadership, the gun he carries, the money he flashes and the high-end muscle cars he steals, even gifting one to his son.  Brad Jr. is looked upon as the cool rebel (maybe a more aggressive modern James Dean) for not surrendering to intimidation from anybody. 

The movie also ends kind of abruptly.  It’s clearly understood what’s going to come of the father and son’s relationship.  Sean Penn and Christopher Walken stage a nail biting, very intense showdown in the kitchen.  However, what happens to them individually?  The final scene actually ends right in the middle of what could have been some good dramatic work, but it all goes to black.  Had I been in a movie theatre, I might have thought the projector broke down.  Business must have interfered behind the scenes.  A producer must have stepped in and pulled the plug.  It’s the best excuse I can think of, because the end credits intruded way too soon.  If the film was being edited for length, then there was much material to chop out of the first hour.  The filmmakers basically cut off the wrong leg.

At Close Range is not a steady trajectory of a movie.  It moves in too many sideways directions to stay focused on what it wants to be considered.  Is it a more genuine Rebel Without A Cause?  Is it a rural, backwoods interpretation with inspiration from Mean Streets?  Thankfully, what saved me from turning it off or falling asleep are the assembled cast performances.  At the very least, it got me interested to read up on the real story the film is based on.


By Marc S. Sanders

Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn make a perfect comedy pair close to the same vein as Bill Murray and Harold Ramis. Close, but not as legendary, and nowhere near the statures of Newman and Redford.

Wedding Crashers was the the first of their two collaborations to date. The movie works as it charges forth in its raunchiness and unabashed thrust to not hold back. Fortunately, a guy named David Dobkin directed a script from Steve Faber and Bob Fisher long before the age of “Me Too.” What a denial of a great idea we would have, had this film been made later. Reader, Wedding Crashers was never intended to be politically correct. If it even thought about it for a second, the entire production would have failed.

Just go with this. Wilson and Vaughn are John and Jeremy, practicing marital law mediators (I said go with it!), who relish in debauchery by crashing weddings as an opportunity to score one babe after another. Dobkin and crew assemble a fantastic early montage of various nuptials to show how well John and Jeremy play this field of formality. We get to see them in action in all of the different methods. At one time they are charming the parents. They are telling sob stories and crying false tears. They are making balloon animals for the youngsters as a means to catch the attention of a beautiful bridesmaid caught up in the sanctum of love. One after the other a braless gal pal is tossed onto a bed ready for John and/or Jeremy. Call it refreshing, but at least these players are equal opportunists; Jewish, Irish, Italian, Indian. Every kind of wedding ceremony imaginable is given attention. These guys are so fine-tuned at what they do that there is even a rule book, which you can reference on IMDB, or on the Blu Ray extra.

When Secretary Cleary’s (Christopher Walken with not nearly enough to do) daughter is getting married, one last hurrah before wedding season closes is upon them. John immediately becomes attracted to the bride’s sister, played spiritually by Rachel McAdams, while Jeremy oversteps himself with the youngest and overly clingy sister who makes sadomasochism seem G rated. She is played by Isla Fisher. To my surprise, following the success of this film, Fisher never really became more mainstream. She’s the scene stealer. When she begs Walken to let the men stay for the weekend at their New England island home, I lost it. I was dying at her antics. Fisher is so good. She had to have invented some of this material herself. An amazing comedienne. The stomping feet. The poutiness. This is comedy. Fisher never holds back in every scene she’s in and because of her, Vaughn as her lustful prey is all the better in his tormented state.

Another scene stealer is Bradley Cooper, playing McAdams bullying boyfriend. Cooper probably made this character bigger than the script intended. Again, I lost it as the family and guests warm up for a friendly game of flag football. Cooper is in his own element apart from the others as he goes through regiment drills of what equates to an unhinged Marine. He’s cruelly brutal but he’s terribly funny. Later in the film his part might get too sadistic though as he punches Wilson bare knuckled which truly sounds like a crack of his skull. There’s nothing really funny there. This is beyond a Three Stooges slap or eye poke. Sometimes less is more. Blame that on Dobkin.

Other parts are wasted though they start out promising like Jane Seymour as Walken’s wife and Fisher & McAdams mother, who serves as a sex craved Mrs. Robinson. She’s given a presence, though her story never really delivers. As well, there’s a resentful gay brother (Kier O’Donnell) who dresses in black and bears a striking resemblance to Gru from Despicable Me. The character makes a good entrance but is primarily there to further torment Vaughn in a quick bed hop scene. Then there’s not much else.

McAdams plays meet cute just fine with Wilson. Though with much interference from the rest of the characters during the course of the weekend you really don’t get a sense of how McAdams falls for Wilson as well as why Wilson goes against his Crasher Code and obsessively falls for her. Not much beyond dream like gazes at each other across the room. For the romance to really work, these characters have to talk with each other a whole lot more than just a token wave crashing beach scene.

The 3rd act is expected. The boy loses the girl. He takes lonely walks down the street, he becomes a slob and he makes one failed effort after another to win the girl back. For a raunchy comedy that was moving with lightning hilarity, this 3rd act really slows the movie down. It ran way too long.

Still, Wedding Crashers is a great comedy most especially thanks to the concept of taking advantage of what can typically happen at any wedding reception, and the uncompromising comedy of both Isla Fisher and most of Bradley Cooper’s material.

Put your morals aside and RSVP to the event.


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.


By Marc S. Sanders

A View To A Kill marks Roger Moore’s final outing as James Bond 007, and it’s more or less a near complete failure. Quite possibly my least favorite film of the entire series, regardless of an awesome song, compliments of Duran Duran and composer John Barry.

The inspiration for invention is expired in this film. Action set pieces rely on outside elements that do nothing to spice up the scenes. Bond manages to surf away along the snow covered Swiss Alps, in place for Siberia, while evading the Russians. The surfing is one thing, but when accompanied with a lame cover of The Beach Boys’ “California Girls,” you earn every right to roll your eyes and shake your head.

An unnecessary sequence involves Bond dangling from the ladder of a fire truck while the San Francisco police are pursuing him. It’s slapstick, but it’s not funny slapstick. You just wanna yell at the screen “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?????”

A View To A Kill plays like a poor remake of What’s Up Doc? with Barbra Streisand & Ryan O’Neil. Bond eventually partners up with a former “Charlie’s Angel” and hijinx ensue. Tanya Roberts plays the Bond girl this time and her dialogue mainly consists of screaming “James!” as if she is in terrible, helpless fear. She hangs and runs and screams and stands and sits while keeping her flimsy white dress and heels spotless. There’s nothing adoring, funny or attractive about her. She lends nothing to the film but dead weight. A scene involving an elevator fire had me wishing Bond would leave her to perish. The term “dumb blond” must have been coined when Tanya Roberts came on the Hollywood scene. Her character, Stacy Sutton, appears unaware of any of her surroundings and more importantly Roberts, the actress seems to be that way as well.

Roger Moore carries almost no chemistry with any of the fellow actors, certainly not with Roberts, and I think it’s because he gave up trying by the time he got to his seventh Bond film. He moves slow. He looks out of breath as he climbs the stairs of the Eiffel Tower. His delivery carries little wit. He is found hanging from the the Golden Gate Bridge and utters the line “There’s never a cab around when you need one.” Moore seems to show that even he doesn’t think any of this is fun anymore.

Perhaps the one redeeming quality goes to Christopher Walken as the psychotic Max Zorin. It’s funny to watch Walken play this part all these years later as he shows qualities that movie goers would love in his later films like True Romance, The Rundown, and even Catch Me If You Can. Walken deserved better material than this (especially following his recent Oscar winning status at the time). Instead, he’s given a well-toned Grace Jones as an accomplice who falls nowhere near the ranks of Oddjob or Jaws.

Richard Maibum wrote the unclear script involving Zorin’s desire to wipe out Silicon Valley, and monopolize on the micro chip industry. At least that’s what I think the film was about. The story mires itself in an overlong side story involving drugging race horses snd I could never make the connection. Bond is given the opportunity to photograph various suspects involved with Zorin and then later in quick conversation they’re all explained of their purpose. Yet, I was just more confused and unsure of what was going on and how it’s all bridged together. I don’t think the plot was complex or confusing. Rather, I think the film was cursed with plot holes and little regard for coherence.

Roger Moore notoriously regretted doing this film. He had overstayed his welcome in the franchise by 1986 with A View To A Kill. Albert Broccoli with his new producing partner, Michael G. Wilson (his stepson and a co-writer) were getting stale with the series. At this point the Bond series was no longer relying on crafty, well edited and witty filmmaking.

Moore’s last film was just processed for another buck at the box office with little respect for the franchise.

007 was due for a change.