BREAKDOWN

By Marc S. Sanders

The southwest region of the United States can be brutal.  The desert landscape is scorchingly hot and the end of the world seems like an eternity away…no matter how fast you drive or how far you go.  Worse yet could be the truckers and locals who could care less about who you are, where you came from or where you’re going.  So, you better be sure your well equipped Jeep Cherokee has enough gas in the tank and your oil dipstick comes up black.  For Jeff and Amy Taylor, though, nothing they do will matter.  Their car is destined to break down anyway.

Jonathan Mostow wrote and directed a taut thriller called Breakdown that builds on a Hitchcockian formula for a road picture.  When Jeff and Amy’s (Kurt Russell, Kathleen Quinlan) car breaks down on a long, lonesome highway in the middle of the desert, a friendly trucker stops by (JT Walsh) to lend a hand.  He offers to take them to the next stop where they can call a tow truck.  Jeff agrees to stay with the car.  Amy hitches a ride to call for the tow.  Shortly after, Jeff realizes that Amy has mysteriously disappeared.  When Jeff catches up with the trucker, the situation gets even stranger because this guy claims to have never met Jeff before or even know who his wife is.  It gets even weirder and more frightening from there.

Kurt Russell is very good in a relatively simple, but effective story that only needs its ninety minutes to get your heart racing.  As Jeff learns of the conspiracy playing against him, the panic builds in Russell’s performance.  A really effective moment occurs when Jeff is forced to go to a local bank and withdraw ransom money.  While the banker is executing the money transaction, Jeff enters the restroom.  In this short moment, Mostow keeps a good close up on a very sweaty, beaten and nervous Kurt Russell.  Jeff is looking for something to use as a weapon.  Now, we’ve seen this many times before.  What kept me absorbed in the suspense of the film is how Kurt Russell evokes his thought process without having anyone to talk to.  In this bathroom, he involuntarily walks in circles, seemingly asking himself “what am I going to do?”.  Mostow never breaks the shot, allowing his lead’s performance to send home the paranoia.  I was right there with this poor guy.  What is Jeff going to do?

JT Walsh was an under the radar character actor; one of those guys that you recognize from dozens of films (Good Morning, Vietnam, A Few Good Men), but you just never knew his name.  He passed away too soon.  I’d wager eventually he’d get some kind of awards recognition.  This is a magnificent villain in Breakdown.  A good antagonist is one you can trust at first.  So that when the veil is lifted, your jaw drops a little.  Walsh accomplishes that here.  He turns on the good guy and he betrays the viewer.  He really plays a guy with two masks on.  Friendly and helpful at first.  Later, a toothless scowl is across his face as he terrorizes Jeff.  The big rig truck that Walsh drives becomes reminiscent of what Steven Spielberg accomplished with his first film, Duel.

While a Jeff Taylor character may have appeared in an Alfred Hitchcock film, as the common man caught up in an outrageous plot he was never looking for, Jonathan Mostow has modernized the method with well edited action scenes.  This is a road picture but there really are not car chases to behold.  Instead, there are moments where like any of us, we will increase our speed on long stretches of road.  When we take our eyes off the highway for a split second, we never expect what will pop out and startle us.  As well, when we try to pass ahead by cutting into the opposite lane, a head on collision may come our way.  The film goes for those pressure points first before another overly used car chase.  This is where the environment fights back against the protagonist.  

The location shoots of Breakdown are superb.  An old diner, in the middle of nowhere, has some locals who could care less about a polite out of towner, clearly concerned about his missing wife.  They just look straight ahead while nursing their beers.  The bartender has also had enough of this guy to the point of threatening him with a gun to get out of the joint.  A passing by police officer (Rex Linn of Better Call Saul, another great character actor) devotes no more than five minutes of his time to poor Jeff’s concern, and then he moves on.  The desert and the people who occupy the area serve only apathy to a helpless stranger.  The setting of Breakdown is a villain all its own.

This thriller works simply because a scenario like this could happen to any of us.  It was released in 1997, just ahead of the cell phone age, and there’s acknowledgement of that time.  Jump to today and this situation could still happen.  Technology is not always going to help us, no matter how many bells and whistles we have on a car or how many bars show on our handheld devices.  In the desert, any one of us can be a victim unto ourselves.  In the middle of nowhere, a bad guy can use an opportunity to his advantage at the expense of any persons leaving themselves unguarded.

Breakdown shows that our worst nightmare could be to drive into an endless daylight void, where any one of us can get stuck, only to later get caught.  It’s scary as a desert hell, and it’s a fantastic nail biter right until its bang-up conclusion.

THE THING (1982)

By Marc S. Sanders

Often, a great beginning to a film offers an intriguing question. So as I finally watched John Carpenter’s 1982 interpretation of The Thing, I was especially curious as to why a sniper aboard a fast moving helicopter was targeting a dog running across the open plains of Antarctica with a pulse pounding beat from legendary film composer Ennio Morricone. The film has me hooked and none of the gory horror to come, compliments of creature effects wizard Rob Bottin, has even presented itself yet.

Gore never did anything for me in horror, and horror has never been my most favorite genre of film. Rather, suspense always held my attention and kept me thinking long after the movie was over. Carpenter’s film is full of Bottin’s imaginative gore but the paranoia and mistrust among a crew of science operatives is the real centerpiece here. Whether it’s the innocence of a dog or the star power of Kurt Russell, I never trusted the narrative of The Thing and that’s the point.

An exceptional scene on the same level as the dinner scene in Ridley Scott’s Alien occurs following a crew man suffering a heart attack. The defibrillator is brought out, “CLEAR” is shouted and the man is zapped. Then something else happens. I won’t spoil the moment. Yet, this is where imagination was put to work; where effects and storytelling work cohesively. Thankfully, moments like these become a running theme throughout The Thing. You never know what to expect from an unmeasurable and incomprehensible enemy. The fact that resources are scarce and escape is impossible traps our characters and the viewer as well.

Convenient, fast learning knowledge only tells you that this entity can duplicate anything it comes in contact with. So, you might just be sidling up to the thing itself and you won’t even know it until it’s too late.

Isolation, lack of trust, fear, paranoia – all of these elements work towards the advantage of superb imagination and storytelling in Carpenter’s piece.

The Thing was always a movie that eluded me. I’m now so grateful to have witnessed it. It makes me yearn for better storytelling in today’s films beyond remakes and superhero exhaustion.

John Carpenter’s The Thing is an absolute must see motion picture. Watch it with friends and watch it with the lights turned off.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2

By Marc S. Sanders

James Gunn continues his Looney Tunes odyssey helming Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2. The silliness is grander, the story is weirder and the characters are now comfortably fleshed out.

Vol 2 is probably not better than the first installment. However, it is more inventive as Gunn takes his film along the hanging thread left over from before. Peter “Star Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt) meets his father at last in the persona of Kurt Russell who goes by the moniker Ego. This is all enthralling to Quill, though his love interest, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) sees beyond the facade.

Ego has invited them to his planet that he created. It pops with colors, serenity and cheer. This plays for a good story; maybe as a better and more developed Star Trek episode.

What differentiates this film from other Marvel films comes out in the third act. This does not consist of just space battles, laser swords and shootouts. The end is something else, something new, entirely. Thus, you are given the film’s greatest strength. I found it to be very imaginative.

Gunn however falls a little bit into his own trap along the way. There are too many relationships and characters that work as filler for side stories. Gamora vs her bitter sister Nebula. Drax (Dave Bautista) with a new, weird antenna on the head character named Mantis and Rocket Racoon and his big mouth with Yondu (Michael Rooker, in a bigger more significant role this time). Oh yeah! There’s also Yondu vs Sylvester Stallone (huh? why? how?) and Yondu vs his mutinous army, The Ravagers. It’s all a little too much for an already busy looking film.

I found it funny that The Ravagers reminded me of the motorcycle gang, The Black Widows, from Clint Eastwood’s Every Which Way… bare knuckle comedies. Those guys were much funnier than these Ravagers. Gunn overstays their welcome as they randomly cackle and heckle poor Baby Groot, the toddler tree thing. That gets old quickly.

Gunn approaches a special kind of humor here. Repeatedly, because these are outer space characters, it’s apparently funny to lend them explaining the punchline of a gag. So if Drax realizes that Peter has the hots for Gamora, he’ll belly laugh and explain literally how Peter feels and do it bigger and louder. Variations of that gag occur quite often among most of the characters. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it gets old.

GOTG Vol 2 is a fun watch. I don’t foresee this installment carrying the legendary status the first one did or even standing out among the best of the Marvel series, but I will give props to the outcome of what Ego truly is and what his intent depends on. (I won’t spoil that here, of course.)

The cast is great. Saldana is one of the stronger female characters in the MCU. She captures a background to Gamora that is blatantly absent from other Marvel ladies. Bautista has become a great character actor as well. He’s a smart guy with good timing. With his extensive child and adult film resume Kurt Russell is perfectly cast as Pratt’s father. Their personalities lend to some good chemistry.

James Gunn owns the Guardians films. No one else can capture his blend of humor and pop culture salutes. Yet, he overreaches a little trying to incorporate so much story and so many gags into one film. His vision is well defined, though.

Plus, Gunn stages another dance scene for Pratt and Saldana, and it’s great. As I noted in my Vol 1 review, that’s how you get to a viewer’s heart. Everyone loves to dance.

As well, Gunn accompanied his sequences with some tunes both fresh and familiar from Fleetwood Mac, Electric Light Orchestra and George Harrison to name a few.

James Gunn was always going to make sure never to take his films seriously. So, when you see a baby tree groove along while trying to detonate a bomb, I defy you to be so serious as well.

UNLAWFUL ENTRY

By Marc S. Sanders

The boogeyman is dressed as a police officer!

In 1992’s Unlawful Entry, Jonathan Kaplan (The Accused) directs a well-played Ray Liotta as a psychotic cop named Pete Davis who is terrorizing a yuppie couple named Michael & Karen Carr (Kurt Russell, Madeleine Stowe). The Carrs experience a home intruder who puts a knife to Karen’s throat. Officer Davis offers comfort to the pair and happily volunteers the arrangements for a high-tech alarm system. The first mistake that Michael makes is sharing the password with trusty Pete. You’ll expect that to come into play later on. Maybe what inspired the password will work itself into the film as well. Hmmmmmm?????

It’s difficult for Pete to resist the obsession he has for Karen and so he begins a campaign to get Michael out of the way. First, he demonstrates his brutality by offering Michael the opportunity to senselessly beat up the home intruder for no other purpose than personal satisfaction. When Mike refuses, Pete finishes the job. Later, Mike makes efforts to keep Pete out of their lives. It’s hard to do that when a highly decorated cop is involved. Karen, his own loving spouse, won’t even truly believe Mike; neither will the police chief.

As Pete continues with his intentions, Mike’s credit cards are maxed out, he loses a high priced client that Pete has been talking to, parking tickets add up, and so on. Pete also appears at the house at inopportune times like when Karen is taking in a swim or creepily stepping into their bedroom while the married couple is having sex. Eventually, Mike is put out of the way when he’s imprisoned after being framed as a drug dealer. Now Karen is all alone for a terrifying third act that you’ve likely seen hundreds of times before.

Unlawful Entry is engaging while you’re watching, but it does not convey much. The happenings all appear probable if a deranged cop wanted to go through all this trouble. Therefore, Ray Liotta owns the picture. Yet, what did I learn here? Don’t call the police?

For Kurt Russell, this is the first of two “husband is being terrorized” roles for him. Later, Russell would headline the cast of a better film to fall in this genre called Breakdown. Still, I like Russell here. He starts out as a guy who is not capable of fighting for the sake of his wife. He regrettably admits that shame to Pete early on. Pete pounces on that advantage to win Karen. Later, the strength of Mike’s short temper followed by his fear push him to do what he must to protect himself and his wife.

Madeleine Stowe is a good actress. There’s just not much for her to do with this part. She’s the spouse who opts not to believe her husband’s concerns. If she did, there wouldn’t be much of a movie. The third act is all action and blood and falling down the stairs and running back up the stairs. It’s no surprise really. Though it is convenient that Michael is finally able to post bail and get home in time for a final confrontation with Pete.

One thing that kept echoing in my head though was that as good as Ray Liotta is (he’s very, very good actually; very primal and deceiving), he is terrorizing a woman named “Karen.” Every time he says the name Karen, all that comes back to me is the film Goodfellas where he more or less tormented and disrespected Lorraine Bracco known as, you guessed it, Karen. A rule should be put in place, Liotta can no longer be cast with other characters named Karen. His Karen quota is maxed out.

ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD (2019)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Timothy Olyphant, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Luke Perry, Al Pacino, Kurt Russell
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 84% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A fading television actor and his stunt double strive to achieve fame and success in the film industry during the final years of Hollywood’s first Golden Age in 1969 Los Angeles.


Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film is a little bit like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  It’s big, bombastic, and goes the long way around the barn to get to the finale, but in the end it all makes sense and is a transcendent experience.

Let’s see, where do I start?

First of all, the film’s evocation of 1969 Los Angeles is like Mary Poppins: practically perfect in every way.  I’m no fashion scholar or visual historian, but every exterior shot of the city was pretty convincing to my layman’s eyes.  The movie theatres, the movie posters, the restaurants (anyone else remember “Der Weinerschnitzel”?), the cars, those HUGE sedans sharing the road with VW Bugs and M/G’s…it’s clear they did their homework.

There’s the performances by the two leads.  Tarantino once said he considered himself the luckiest director in modern history because he was able to get DiCaprio and Pitt to work on the same film.  Can’t argue with him on that score.  They carry the film in a way that few other tandems could have.  (Newman and Redford come to mind.) Mind you, DiCaprio and Putt don’t look much like each other, considering one has to be the other’s stuntman, but you get the idea.

Above all, there’s the story.  DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, a former leading man from ‘50s TV westerns who is now playing colorful bad guys in ‘60s TV westerns.  Brad Pitt plays Cliff Booth, the stuntman who’s been taking the dangerous falls for Dalton for years.  Dalton happens to live next door to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills.

All the trailers, and all the industry buzz, reveal that the Manson family and Sharon Tate play a part in the film.  That’s no spoiler.  Given what we know about those events, the movie plays like Gimme Shelter, the landmark documentary about the ill-fated concert at Altamont that was actually due to take place a few months after the events of this film.  It’s all very suspenseful, in the sense that we know what’s coming, but we’re just not sure how the movie is going to approach it.  So every scene with poor Sharon Tate in it is overshadowed by the fact that we know her ultimate fate in history.

It’s like the famous Hitchcock analogy of suspense.  Two people are eating at a restaurant when a bomb suddenly goes off under their table…that’s surprise.  Put those same two people at the restaurant, where the audience knows there’s a bomb under the table, but it doesn’t go off right away as the two people eat and converse and have dessert, and we’re wondering will they leave BEFORE the bomb goes off or not…?  That’s suspense.

And that’s the genius of this movie, with Tarantino’s sprawling, winding screenplay.  We get to know Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth intimately, we get the rhythms of their relationship, of Dalton’s mood on set, of Booth’s quiet acceptance of his role as Dalton’s sole support system.  We are treated to lengthy scenes showing Dalton at work on the set of a TV western, so we can appreciate the vast differences between an actor and their characters.  There’s a brilliant backstage scene between Dalton and a child actor who is impossibly, hilariously advanced for her age, and who winds up giving Dalton some goodhearted advice.

And interspersed through it all is Sharon Tate.  Sharon Tate bopping to music at home.  Sharon Tate picking up a female hitchhiker on her way into town.  Sharon Tate almost passing, then backing up to admire with youthful excitement, her name on the marquee of a movie theatre, right next to (gasp) Dean Martin’s name!  Sharon Tate dancing, walking, smiling, drinking…living.  She’s the diner at the restaurant, and the Manson family is the bomb we know will eventually go off.  It casts a pall over the proceedings, but not in a bad way.  It’s an interesting way to bring the reality of the situation into focus from time to time.

And now I have to end this review before I inadvertently give away certain, ah, plot elements that elevate Tarantino’s film from a mere character study or period piece into the heady heights of cinematic transcendence.  I have not myself read any reviews of the film, so I can only guess that whatever negative reviews are out there probably center on the film’s finale, or perhaps on its meandering script.  All I can say, or will say, is that I am firmly on Tarantino’s side on this one.  The way the conclusion was written and filmed is the kind of thing that people will still be talking about years from now.

So just take it from me.  If you’re a movie fan, and ESPECIALLY if you’re a Tarantino fan, this is right up your alley.  It’s easily his most slowly paced movie since Jackie Brown, but that just gives you time to e-e-e-ease into the characters, like putting on a tailored suit piece by piece.  This film, like Beethoven’s Ninth, is a masterpiece.