Friday, October 20, 2017

Classic Movie Review: The Onion Field (1979)

The Onion Field
Directed by: Harold Becker.
Written by: Joseph Wambaugh based on his book.
Starring: John Savage (Det. Karl Francis Hettinger), James Woods (Gregory Ulas Powell), Franklyn Seales (Jimmy Lee 'Youngblood' Smith), Ted Danson (Det. Ian James Campbell), Ronny Cox (Det. Sgt. Pierce R. Brooks), David Huffman (Dist. Atty. Phil Halpin), Christopher Lloyd (Jailhouse lawyer), Dianne Hull (Helen Hettinger).


The first hour of The Onion Field deserves comparison to Richard Brooks’ 1967 film version of In Cold Blood. Both films follows a pair of criminals, who don’t know each other that well, who end up tied together for life because of a stupid, senseless killing. In The Onion Field, the criminals are Gregory Powell (James Woods) and Jimmy Smith (Franklyn Seales), who meet each other shortly after Smith has been released from jail. Powell sees Smith as an upgrade over his current partner in crime – and Smith just needs to some money. The pair are riding around one night, when they are pulled over by two police officers – Karl Hetinger (John Savage) and James Campbell (Ted Danson). The criminals get the upper hand, and drive the pair of cops to the title Onion Field, where they kill Campbell, and attempt to kill Hettinger – who gets away. They are hardly master criminals, and get caught fairly soon – turning on each other as they are interrogated.
All of this happens in the films first, and better, half. This was the performance that made Woods a star – and it’s easy to see why. He had already perfected his thin, grinning psycho routine in the film – his Powell a chilling and unpredictable character, who believes he is smarter than everyone else, even though in reality he doesn’t know anywhere near as much as he thinks. He’s almost like both In Cold Blood killers rolled into the one – he talks a big game, like Hickock, but like Smith, he actually follows through on the violence. He’s the driving force of the action in the first half, with Seales’ Smith just along for the ride. Smith sees through Powell – and is hardly loyal to him (he doesn’t even think before he sleeps with Powell’s girlfriend), but at the same time, with Powell, he can make money – and no one else is offering. As for Hettinger and Campbell, the cops, they are more thinly sketched in this half – they are fairly new partners, as Hettinger has just transferred to this unit. They are friendly however, and that bond is starting to stick. When they pull over Powell and Smith, they don’t know what they’re getting themselves in for. They make mistakes to be sure – but every one of them is understandable in the moment they make them.


The first hour of The Onion Field has a tightness the rest of the film lacks – which is understandable. The first hour all takes place over about the course of a week or so, as the two sets of partners get to know each other, and embark on the collision course that will bring them together finally in that Onion Field. The second hour takes place over the course of years, and follows what happens next. Hettinger is haunted by that night, and also by the fact that he has to keep talking about it – with many on the force thinking he messed up tragically. He falls into a deep depression, messes up his career, and almost his marriage and entire life. On the flip side, Powell and Smith become experts at playing the system – at appeals, and appeals on appeals, and how to perhaps win their freedom (they have mixed success). This further traumatizes Hettinger, who has to continually relive that night. It also adds to the confusion of the movie, because there are so many courtroom scenes, with so many different lawyers, that it’s hard to keep track of whose coming and going.


The film is based on the book by Joseph Wambaugh – who also wrote the screenplay. Wambaugh former cop himself, who knew some of the players involved before he became a bestselling author. He had some clout at that time, and became one of the film’s producers, raising money himself to get the film made (this may well be why the cast is mostly newcomers). The director is Harold Becker – a journeyman with an uneven filmography, of which this his best work is probably (others may prefer 1989’s Sea of Love with Al Pacino). He is at his best in the first hour – travelling in the dark cars with the partners, and staging the violence of that night in The Onion Field, and in the great interrogation scenes, where Ronny Cox plays the detective who breaks both suspects done. His direction suffers a little in the second half – as he’s stuck in courtroom scene after courtroom scene, or else the domestic drama that Savage struggles to breathe life into.


Still, The Onion Field is a fine crime drama – a great one in the first half, a decent one after that – and really does deserve to be remembered better than it is. This is an example of a film that isn’t a masterpiece, but is good enough that it should be remembered, but because it wasn’t directed by an auteur, is pretty much forgotten. If for no other reason than to see one of the best performance of James Woods’ career (before he became a real life caricature of himself) – The Onion Field deserves an audience.

Movie Review: Marjorie Prime

Marjorie Prime *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Michael Almereyda.
Written by: Michael Almereyda based on the play by Jordan Harrison.
Starring: Jon Hamm (Walter), Geena Davis (Tess), Tim Robbins (Jon), Lois Smith (Marjorie), Hannah Gross (Young Marjorie), Stephanie Andujar (Julie), Hana Colley (10yr Marjorie Granddaughter).
 
Marjorie Prime is the rare science fiction film that contains almost no special effects, and is almost completely dedicated to the characters, rather than the technology of the future. It’s based on a play, and that should give you an idea of what the movie will eventually turn out to be – a series of conversations. Really, the film uses its science fiction premise as a jumping off point to explore more interesting, complicated issues.
 
The film opens with a conversation between Marjorie (Lois Smith) and Walter (Jon Hamm). She’s in her 80s, and he’s in his 40s, and yet the pair are husband and wife, and they are reminiscing about their shared past. Walter is what is known as a Prime – a hologram, who is programmed to look and sound like a deceased love one, to provide companionship and comfort. Marjorie’s memory is fading, and having Walter there is a comfort to her – he reminds her to do things like eat, but their conversations go deeper than that as well. While he reminds her of her past, he’s also learning – he can only know of their past if he’s told about it. The two other major characters in the film are Marjorie’s daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and her husband Jon (Tim Robbins). Tess doesn’t really like Walter Prime – it’s weird seeing her long dead father in her living room, talking to her mother, and isn’t sure it’s good for her either – as it dredges up the past in ways she doesn’t really want it to, and calls to mind all the ways in which she feels her mother – who was distant through her life – may have failed her. Jon is all for it however – thinks it helps Marjorie, and eases their own burden. He talks the Walter more than Tess does – sharing the family history that Walter can feed Marjorie.
 
From there, the movie moves into interesting directions, with subtle shifts and reveals that we sometimes spot immediately, and sometimes take a while to spot. Yes, the film certainly feels like it is adapted from a play – in that you can easily see exactly how it would work on stage – but director Michael Almereyda is smart enough to open it just a little. It’s not all one static setting, but it is entirely within this beach house – yet even that provides different locations, that give off different feelings for each scene. The performances in the movie are excellent. Lois Smith has had a long, great career stretching all the back to the 1950s (her first film role was in Elia Kazan’s East of Eden in 1955) – and apparently, she played this role on the stage as well. It truly is a great performance, particularly as it develops, and you see how she changes. For her part, this is the best work I’ve seen from Geena Davis in years as well – as the daughter who is trying to hold it together, trying to hold everything inside – and only gradually do we realize she cannot. The men don’t fare quite as good – it’s not that either Robbins or Hamm are bad in the film, they are actually quite good – but just their roles don’t quite allow as much depth (especially Hamm’s). They are as good as they can be – but the movie belongs to Smith and Davis.
 
I cannot help but wonder if the farther I get away from Marjorie Prime, if I’ll like it even more. On the first viewing, I admired everything about it – the writing, the directing, the acting, while fully admitting that the film never really moves from being an intellectual exercise into something more emotional or fulfilling – it’s a thought experiment more than fully movie. Yet, I had similar feelings about director Almereyda’s last film – Experimenter – and that has slowly become one of under-the-radar favorites of the last few years. Both films initially seem cold on the surface – although I think that’s intentional in both cases. Experimenter rewards a deeper look, in a way that I don’t think Marjorie Prime quite does. But I will say, I want to revisit this film again – and see if I’m right or wrong about that.

Movie Review: Step

Step **** / *****
Directed by: Amanda Lipitz.
 

Step is a documentary about the senior year of the founding class of a charter school named The Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women – founded in 2009, with the goal of getting each and every one of its graduates to higher education. The film focuses on the Step team – and more specifically a few of the young women on that team – as they deal with various challenges throughout that year. It is a film that is almost effortless in showing us their world, their families, their struggles and, yes, some amazing Step routines – that are among the reasons why the film is the rare documentary crowd pleaser.
 
The young woman we spend the most time with is Blessin Giraldo – who has a larger than life personality, is a natural on camera, and a leader on the Step team. Things fell apart last year, when she missed too much school, her grades fell, and she wasn’t allowed to compete with the team. She’s trying to get back on track in her senior year – but it’s not easy. There is also Cori Grainger – the class valedictorian, who has her sights set high – she wants to go to Johns Hopkins – yet her newly blended family has a lot of kids to support, and cannot always even keep the lights on, so her path isn’t much easier. Then there is Tayla Solomon, who can only role her eyes, when her larger than life mother gets involved in the Step routines herself – or embarrasses her in front of everyone when she confronts her about her falling grades – which coincide with the arrival of a potential boyfriend. Her mother ain’t having that.
 
In many ways, Step follows the formula of many other crowd pleasing docs – as it follows the girls as they practice their routines, under the eye of their new coach, struggle with home lives, and build towards a big, final competition. Yet, I think it goes somewhat beyond that as well in its depiction of Baltimore, and in the multi-generational portrait of black women. The film was shot in 2015 – after the death of Freddie Gray – and we see murals dedicated to him, and the Black Lives Matter movement, is ingrained in everything – including the choreography. It’s a reminder that as talking heads – mostly white – still debate Black Lives Matter on TV as if it’s a potential terrorist group (which is ridiculous), in the African American communities in America, it’s less of a debate, and more of a fact of life. In terms of the portrait of multiple generations of black women, we see the girls and their mothers – and their dedicated teachers, counsellors, principals, etc. – some of whom made mistakes in their own lives, and do not want to see these girls do the same thing. While in other communities in America, teenagers screw up, and get second, third or fourth chances, that’s not what it’s like here – where if things don’t go well, we see what will happen.
 
All that sounds heavy, but it’s effortlessly interwoven into the movie, in a way that doesn’t beat you over the head with its message. This isn’t a “hyperlink” doc, that looks at an issue, and then encourages you to “get involved” in the end credits – but rather a portrait of these young women that is inspiring – but still leaves you concerned with what happens after the credits roles. As the step teacher says at one point, they are about to leave a small, all-girls school in which everyone cares about what they do, and enter a world where that’s just not the case. Oh, and the Step routines are amazing to watch. I went in thinking they would be the reason to see the film – and only gradually realized that they are the fun highlight of a better doc, more complete doc than I was expecting.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Movie Review: Land of Mine

Land of Mine *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Martin Zandvliet.
Written by: Martin Zandvliet.
Starring: Roland Møller (Sgt. Carl Rasmussen), Louis Hofmann (Sebastian Schumann), Joel Basman (Helmut Morbach), Mikkel Boe Følsgaard (Lt. Ebbe Jensen), Laura Bro (Karin), Zoe Zandvliet (Elisabeth, Karins Daughter), Mads Riisom (Soldier Peter), Oskar Bökelmann (Ludwig Haffke), Emil Belton (Ernst Lessner), Oskar Belton (Werner Lessner), Leon Seidel (Wilhelm Hahn).
 
The Danish film, Land of Mine, - an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at last year’s Oscars, is an odd film in that it takes place right at the end of WWII, and yet is more sympathetic to the German soldiers in the film, than the Danish ones. The film opens with a scenes of hundreds – or perhaps thousands – of German soldier marching out of Denmark back to Germany – as Sergeant Carl Rasmussen (Roland Moller) watches from his jeep. He flies into a rage however when he sees one soldier holding a folded up Danish flag – he not only takes the flag from the soldier, he also beats him to a bloody pulp before sending him on his way. This is our introduction to Rasmussen – who will spend the rest of the movie supervising a group of 14 young (and I mean young) German soldiers, who are being forced to defuse the mines left behind by the Germans. Hitler was convinced the allied attack would come through the beaches in Denmark – because of their proximity to Berlin – so there is something like 2.2 million mines buried there. Rasmussen supervises his group as they take up one stretch of beach, which apparently has 45,000 mines in it – all buried 15-20 cm below the surface. Rasmussen tells them if they work hard, they can go home in three months when all the mines are defused. Of course, one wrong move by any of these young men, and they are likely dead.
 
Land of Mine is a tense movie in that you are never quite sure when a mine is going to explode. The young soldiers crawl on their bellies, with long metal rods that they use to stick into the sand and see if there is a mine there. If so, they dig it up, carefully, and defuse it. There are many way things can go wrong – and they pretty much all do at one point or another. At first, Rasmussen seems like the sadistic hothead he first appeared as in that opening scene – he is cruel to the Germans, and doesn’t seem to give it much thought. But gradually, he does soften. The Germans are not really being fed – but the movie makes it clear that the decision to do that comes above Rasmussen, who will eventually try and get them more food. The local farm – being run by a single mother and her small child – at first don’t seem to like the Germans any more than Rasmussen does – but they soften as well.
 
Land of Mine tells what is apparently not a well-known story in Danish history – and for good reason, as apparently forcing these young Germans to do what they do constitutes a war crime (I’m not sure how a country is supposed to diffuse millions of mines left behind by a former combatant, but it’s not that). The movie, smartly, never does show us a worse side of the Germans – there is only one of the soldiers who seems at all like he may be a true believer, but even he isn’t that bad. The soldiers are all young – like below the normal recruiting age, brought in by Hitler as the war was winding down, and it was clear they were going to lose, but they still needed soldiers to fight. They are being held responsible for the decisions and actions of others.
 
Gradually, Rasmussen becomes a more complex character than he first appeared to be. He very likely has many reasons to hate the Germans – and his anger is understandable. He is softened because he gradually begins to see the Germans as more than his enemy – he backslides once – but in the end he is more complicated than he first seemed.
 
Land of Mine isn’t a great film – it’s a little too straight forward, and it telegraphs its big moments too far in advance in too obvious of ways, and the end struck me as false. But it’s a good film – and a film that serves as a reminder that the good guys are not always perfect, and the bad guys not always evil – the people responsible usually don’t have to pay for their decisions.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Movie Review: The Foreigner

The Foreigner ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Martin Campbell.
Written by: David Marconi based on the novel by Stephen Leather.
Starring: Jackie Chan (Ngoc Minh Quan), Pierce Brosnan (Liam Hennessy), Michael McElhatton (Jim Kavanagh), Charlie Murphy (Maggie), Liu Tao (Keyl Lan), Orla Brady (Mary Hennessy).
 
The Foreigner is one of those movies that would have benefited from either taking itself more seriously or less seriously – as playing things as they did means the film cannot be the fun, goofy action movie that you may expect from a Jackie Chan film, but also not a serious exploration of the cycles of violence the film obviously strains for. It’s an odd action movie in that it is one without a true hero – everyone in the film exists moral gray areas, and are more than a little compromised. But it’s almost as if the movie doesn’t quite know that – and tries to elevate Chan’s character into a hero, which he really isn’t. Neither is Chan really up for some of the sad, subtle dramatic scenes the movie asks of him. It’s a film that left me more frustrated than anything else – because I think there’s a good film in here somewhere.
 
The film stars Chan as Ngoc Minh Quon – who came in England in 1984, after fleeing his native China. He has already had to bury a wife and two daughters – and when a terrorist attack takes from him his last child – a teenage daughter – he pretty much snaps. A group calling themselves the “Authentic IRA” takes credit for the bombing – which leaves a total of 12 people dead – although what precisely they’re asking of Britain is not entirely clear. The bombing places pressure of Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan) – the highest ranking Irish member of the government, a former IRA and Sein Fein member himself, who has tried to go fully political in achieving his goals. One of the people who isn’t convinced Liam has completely left that side behind is, of course, Quon – who doesn’t know anyone else in the IRA, so he starts to target Liam himself. All he wants is the names of the bombers he warns – and has the skills to back up his silent threats.
 
I admired parts of The Foreigner to be sure – especially how it really didn’t really depend on false villainy at any step along the way. The movie makes it clear just what a horribly awkward position Liam is in – and while it is of his own design – it would have been hard regardless. Things started so simple – but that got bigger than he could have imagined. He has pressure from the Brits, from his fellow Irishmen, and from inside his own family. Brosnan doesn’t often get good roles anymore – but here, he shows why he should – it’s a fine performance. Chan doesn’t fare quite as well. He is, of course, aging – and not quite the physical performer he once was. There was a time, when Chan was as gifted at that as we’ve ever seen in movie history – but time marches on. As a man suffering from grief and perhaps PTSD, Chan doesn’t really do much other than sit and look morose. The extended middle section – where I almost felt like I was watching a remake of First Blood – was probably the nadir of this. I’m not sure if the filmmakers – or Chan himself – didn’t realize that Quon really isn’t a hero here – he’s as morally compromised as anyway – but the films confusion over this, doesn’t help.
 
The film was directed by Martin Campbell – a fine director of action movies – his best being Casino Royale, but it’s a solid, sturdy resume. This isn’t his best work - it’s even more workmanlike than usual for him – but it’s decent. But what the movie really needed to do is either embrace the action movie clichés it exhibits, and go wholly over-the-top fun, or else become a more serious exploration of terrorism and the cycle of violence. Because it tries to be both, it doesn’t really work as either.

Movie Review: xXx: The Return of Xander Cage

xXx: Return of Xander Cage ** / *****
Directed by: D.J. Caruso.
Written by: F. Scott Frazier based on characters created by Rich Wilkes.
Starring: Vin Diesel (Xander Cage), Donnie Yen (Xiang), Deepika Padukone (Serena Unger), Kris Wu (Nicks), Ruby Rose (Adele Wolff), Tony Jaa (Talon), Nina Dobrev (Becky Clearidge), Rory McCann (Tennyson Torch), Toni Collette (Jane Marke), Samuel L. Jackson (Augustus Gibbons), Ice Cube (Darius Stone), Hermione Corfield (Ainsley), Tony Gonzalez (Paul Donovan), Michael Bisping (Hawk).
 
You know Hollywood’s dependence on franchise movies is bad when they are reviving failed franchises from a decade ago, and acting as it audiences were drooling in anticipation for them. I bet there were not a lot a people out there who could have told you what Vin Diesel’s character’s name in 2002’s xXx was – but the third film in the franchise acts as if it’s a huge deal – including it right in the title, as if we remember who that is, much as they did with the Pitch Black sequel The Chronicles of Riddick. I honestly don’t remember much about 2002’s xXx, other than the fact that it was goofy fun, and it was one of the few times a Hollywood cast the great Asia Argento in a movie – had the movie been called xXx: The Return of Yelena, and starred her, than I’d get excited. I remember even less about the 2005 sequel xXx: State of the Union, that starred Ice Cube, when Diesel decided he didn’t want to do another movie – around the same time he decided he wanted out of another franchise that he would later return to – The Fast and the Furious – but that he did want keep the Riddick movies going. (It was also, to be fair, around the time Diesel delivered his best ever performance, in the late/great Sidney Lumet’s Find Me Guilty a film that, like Diesel’s other attempts for a non-action movie acting career, seemed to be ignored). Anyway, I bet no one not watching TBS on random Saturday afternoons has given the xXx franchise a moment’s thought in the last decade or so – but apparently movie studios have, which is why, 12 years after the failed sequel, we get the third film in the franchise – the triumphant return of Vin Diesel as it were.
 
That paragraph is perhaps a little harsh on the movie – but not entirely inaccurate either. To be fair to the film, it clearly knows it’s ridiculous, and is seeking to be little other than a goofy good time – a way to kill two hours of boredom with a mixture of stunts, explosions and boobs. I suppose if that’s your thing, that xXx: The Return of Xander Cage delivers in fits and starts – but it’s never really able to sustain any of it craziness. A big part of that is Diesel himself – who’s older than he once was, and perhaps not as capable of doing all the same stunts he used to – there is quite clearly a body double used often throughout the film. As well, pretty much every woman he meets immediately wants to fuck him – and I’m not quite sure why. Even James Bond, who in every incarnation is more charming, than Diesel here, had to work harder than Diesel does here to win over the ladies. Still, other than a sequence involving Hermione Corfield – who is 23 but looks a lot younger – who plays a computer hacker in a bikini, with a harem of women for some reason – most of his interactions with women are too silly to be truly offensive. The presence of Ruby Rose as a lesbian sniper helps too, if only because a her raised eyebrow, and a killer use of “that’s what she said” makes you realize how silly the whole thing is. Nina Dobrev’s character – a computer genius, who almost immediately tells Xander Cage her safe word, would likely be more offensive, had the actress herself not been so damn funny and likable in the role. Cage gets a proper love interest in the charming Deepika Padukone as another gun wielding secret agent, but strangely, it never really does anywhere. The other major woman in the cast is Toni Collette, playing the no-nonsense head of triple xXx – following an opening that dispatches the former head, Samuel L. Jackson, far too quickly. Collette is a great actress, and he is clearly having some fun saying her mostly idiotic lines – but doesn’t quite put the same kind of malicious glee into them than Jackson could.
 
There are some good action sequences in the film – almost all of them involving Donnie Yen, a truly special movie martial artist, who manages to survive the rapid fire editing of the action sequence and still impress. Another great movie martial artist – Tony Jaa – is on hand as well, but for what reason, I don’t know – he doesn’t do much. The plot of the movie is some nonsense about a McGuffin everyone wants that does something to satellite or something. Who knows, who cares.
 
I have a hard time truly hating a movie like this – it’s too goofy to hate to be honest. But it’s also rather a cynical movie, and shows the rot at Hollywood’s core. When they make something like this, it really does seem like they’re out of ideas. Still, I suppose they won – the movie may have came out 9 months ago, but I did eventually cave and watch it – wanting to know what the return of Xander Cage would bring. Not much, sadly.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Movie Review: Happy Death Day

Happy Death Day *** / *****
Directed by: Christopher Landon.
Written by: Scott Lobdell.
Starring: Jessica Rothe (Tree Gelbman), Israel Broussard (Carter Davis), Ruby Modine (Lori), Rachel Matthews (Danielle), Charles Aitken (Gregory), Jason Bayle (David), Phi Vu (Ryan Phan), Donna Duplantier (Nurse Deena), Rob Mello (Joseph Tombs), Cariella Smith (Becky).
 
Happy Death Day is a goofy horror movie riff on Groundhog Day – and the best thing about the movie is that it knows how goofy it is. This isn’t really a scary movie – there are a couple of moments that may make the uninitiated jump, but for the most part, you likely won’t be too scared by the movie. Instead, the movie just want to have a little fun with the genre, and for the most part succeeds. I wish the movie had pushed itself a little harder – a better ending could have upped this film from fun, forgettable time waster into something more than that – but its ambitions are not that high.
 
The film opens with university student Tree (Jessica Rothe), waking up in a strange dorm room, hungover, and not quite sure how she got there. The dorm room belongs to Carter (Israel Broussard) – and he isn’t the creep we first assume him to be (it’s a little sad how low we set the bar for not creep like behavior for men on university campuses, but apparently just not sleeping with a girl who is almost unconscious from drinking too much is where we’re at). She quickly gets her stuff together, and does the “walk of shame” back to her sorority, and then goes through the rest of the day – her birthday – dodging calls from her dad, and apparently interacting with every person she knows on campus. That night, on her way to a party – she is attacked and murdered by some knife wielding psycho wearing a baby mask – but just as she dies, she wakes up in Carter’s room, and does the whole thing over again. And again. And again. And again. No matter what she does, it always ends the same – with the knife wielding psycho in the baby mask killing her. She figures if she can figure out who the killer is, than she can stop them – but that is more complicated than it sounds.
 
Like Tree, you’ll spend most of the film trying to piece together who the killer is – although a montage part way through takes a lot of suspects out of the running too early for my tastes. The last act of the movie is more than a little bit of a mess – and goes on a lengthy misdirection that was raised so many questions in my head that it obviously had to be a misdirection, and so it’s more than a little farfetched than Tree – who had lived through the day dozens of times by now – would ever believe it.
 
And yet, I have to say that for the most part, I enjoyed Happy Death Day. No, it’s hardly a classic, and it keeps its ambitions shockingly low – using Groundhog Day as a template should be where the filmmakers start innovating, not stop. But in Rothe, the film has found a star in the making – she’s funny and charming, and you root for her even in the first act, where she is admittedly a pretty horrible person. Happy Death Day probably could have – and should have – been better than it ultimately is – there is a great horror movie with this basic premise to be made. But for an October programmer, its good – a horror movie for people to watch this Halloween season that won’t scare them as much as keep them entertained. Its low risk, low reward to be sure – but its fun.