NetFlix Explained

From via Hacking Netflix

© 2010 Tommy Salami

the four horsemen race with the devil…

Horsemen a derivative dark thriller reminiscent of Seven, The Cell and Japanese teen ennui and rebellion films such as Suicide Circle. Dennis Quaid plays a Detroit Homicide profiler so dedicated to his job that it veers toward child abuse; his son Alex, played by Lou Taylor Pucci, raises his younger brother and is used to Dad bailing out after a cell phone call and dropping a $20 for cab fare, whether they’re in church or about to go to a Red Wings game. We’re introduced to him when a hunter finds a banquet of freshly yanked human teeth on a silver platter in the middle of an iced over lake in the woods. A bizarre image for sure, but what does it mean?

The film is only 90 minutes long and is the worse for whatever cuts were made, because it seems like the murders occur so swiftly. The next victim is a housewife, a mother of three children, one adopted, who is found suspended by fish hooks in her bedroom. A custom rack holds her up, much like Vincent D’Onofrio’s insane killer in The Cell, and she was stabbed perfectly between the aorta and lungs so she’ll drown in her own blood over a period of hours. Looking back on this, the script by Doom penner David Callaham- CallaHAM!! When yer last name’s Pluck, you cherish these moments of schadenfreude– is pretty convoluted and contrived. The room the body is found in has the words “Come and See” painted on the walls, and this leads super-sleuth Quaid to the Biblical book of Revelations, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

I don’t think the movie will hook you.

Visually the film is intriguing and director Jonas Åkerlund, who’d previous done Spun, manages to keep us watching even as the plot holes widen into chasms. The performances are mostly quite good- Quaid is against character and adopts a scowl that hints at the inner pain that would make him so driven as to leave his dying wife’s bedside for the job. As his son, Lou Taylor Pucci perfectly captures the “here we go again” attitude of the neglected child, as he raises his younger brother in the face of the invisible Dad. Zhang Ziyi, as the adopted daughter of the first victim, chews the scenery so thoroughly I was reminded of the cartoonish bad girl from The Crow (full review).

I’m sorry son. Grisly murders are just cooler than bein’ a Dad.

Horsemen has nice visuals and the interplay between Quaid and his son Pucci is interesting enough, but the story is one we’ve seen done better before, and has holes that the Ice Truckers could navigate through with their eyes sewn shut. At 90 minutes it seems like whole swaths of interconnections were cut for time or should have been written in the first place, and the ending is so preposterous that you’ll know that whoever wrote it not only watched The Cell, but never asked how D’Onofrio managed to hook himself in that bizarre suspension rig he used. It’s an unfortunate film for all the actors involved, who deserve better. (Note: Lou Taylor Pucci is my cousin, but as you can hopefully tell from this review, when he’s in a stinker like this or 50 Pills I won’t sugarcoat the review).

Rating: Stinky

Race with the Devil has Warren Oates and Peter Fonda as motorbikers on vacation in a big honkin’ RV, chased by Satanists after they see them sacrifice a nude girl in an arcane desert ritual? Sounds like a recipe for hot buttered awesome! and it is!
Directed by Jack Starrett- the incoherent master of Authentic Frontier Gibberish from Blazing Saddles, and the director of exploitation classics Cleopatra Jones and The Losers– the movie rides on the fearsome energy emitted by the incomparable Mr. Oates. He and Fonda are dirt bike racers who decide to take an RV trip to the Rockies for some skiing, with wives Lara Parker and Loretta “Hot Lips” Swit in tow. When they park the Winnebago in a remote stretch of wasteland and go to explore the lonely desert, they realize they are not alone. They witness what they first believe is a bunch of hippies cavorting naked around a bonfire, but soon realize it is something far more dark. A hooded man plunges a knife into a woman’s chest, and as the men stare blankly through the binoculars at what just happened, their wives saunter up and the Satanists notice. Oops.
They give chase, but after a harrowing run back to the mobile home they manage to hightail it out of there, with cultists banging on the windows as they careem through a gulch on the way back to the interstate. But their hell ride is far from over. They pull into the nearest town to notify the Sheriff, and he leads them back to the location with an eerie sense of ease. When they find blood, he says it could be an animal’s. So Peter Fonda sneaks some into a jar to be tested at a lab. But back in town, their wives feel like they are being watched, even when in public. The townsfolk seem to be giving them the evil eye. And it turns out to be true, for when they return to the RV, Loretta’s pooch has been killed and hanged from the door.
And worse, once they’re on the highway they find some new pets in the trailer, rattlesnakes! After nearly crashing and killing everyone, Warren Oates decides to fight back. Fonda is eclipsed by his fury, and plays the quiet husband who can barely believe what’s going on. They buy a 12 gauge at the general store, but the game is on, and the highway out of town is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. And about a billion Satanists in pickup trucks with molotov cocktails! The long chases in the RV as trucks full of cultists hop on and try to set it on fire definitely influenced The Road Warrior a few years later, and are pretty exciting. The film has a dark ending, but it comes so abruptly that you wonder if they ran out of money. After Rosemary’s Baby, the Devil winning seems a bit like a cop-out, but it’s a lot of fun while it lasts.

Rating: Worthy

What’s Wrong with the ’90s: Chaplin

What’s Wrong With the ’90s?

And yes, one more feature is born: What’s Wrong with the ’90s. I started thinking about it when I popped in Men at Work, that somewhat enjoyable garbage man comedy with Keith David, Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez for an ’80s Trash of the Week. It felt … off. And I realized why. And this minor feature came to be. There are plenty of great movies from the ’90s, but the early part of the decade embraced the smarminess born in the reaction to Reaganomics, and the movies all had to be mini Comic Relief-a-thons, where it was only okay to laugh if 10% of someone’s profits were going to help the homeless.
Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin starring Robert Downey Jr. made a big splash and then disappeared, perhaps because the media was more interested in Downey’s drug problems at the time. This review has been sitting around since June, waiting for me to be inspired to write more about this movie, but unfortunately it deserves to be remembered only for Downey’s performance. It really is a bit of a mess, and epitomizes that early ’90s fear of offending anybody, love of madcap nostalgia without understanding why we loved it, and so on.

It plays like a much older film, and I’m sure that’s the intention. The credits open over Downey removing the famous Tramp make-up slowly, to show us the legend of Charlie Chaplin being unmasked. The rest of the script is just as clumsy, and Downey’s performance is the real meat of the film. In the first few minutes we see young Charlie outshine his mother at a stage show, which breaks her spirit so she never sings again; this leads to eviction and the boys being sent to workhouses (England has always been rather barbaric) where Charlie evades the guards in a Keystone Kops style chase, and digs a boot out of the muck, foreshadowing the famous scene in The Gold Rush. All voiced over by George Hayden (Anthony Hopkins) as he works with Chaplin on his autobiography.

We don’t see Downey’s excellent performance until 18 minutes in, when his brother gets him a job doing slapstick in a burlesque show. And finally, the film draws us in. Most memorable is Kevin Kline as Douglas Fairbanks, falling from grace as former partner Mary Pickford becomes the richest woman in America; less appealing are sloppy subplots where Chaplin insults J. Edgar Hoover, inspiring the man’s vendetta against him, Charlie saying that talkies “will never catch on” while he and Fairbanks play on the Hollywood(land) sign, his first divorce inspiring his first hit The Kid with Jackie Cooper. The movie lingers on his young skirt-chasing habits, and Milla Jovovich plays one of them in an early role.
The film is really a big mess held together by Downey’s excellent performance and that of several supporting players. The bookends of Charlie dictating his biography, leaving out things he feels are uninteresting, is simply bad screenwriting. Attenborough repeatedly mimics Chaplin’s slapstick to add some liveliness to a dreary long film where he stumbles from one underage ingenue to another, while his brother continually warns him to be a good Jew and not anger the gentiles during America’s early flirtations with fascism before WW2. It’s very episodic and seems made by committee, and never captures the sentimentality of the man’s great films. Instead, it gives us brief snippets of moments in his life that supposedly inspired his films.
I expected to love this and write a huge glowing review of an underappreciated ’90s gem, but watching made me realize why it was forgotten. It fails as an epic, and Downey’s excellent performance would have been better served in a much smaller film that didn’t re-enact Chaplin’s classics, but tried to show us the man, or concentrated on just part of his life. His influence on film and popular culture is incalculable, and his courage in spitting in Hitler’s eye and that of the Red Scare witch hunts was heroic; sure he liked young tail, but that doesn’t make him a tragic hero. This is a movie best viewed with a stack of Chaplin DVDs afterward.

To give an idea of how popular Fairbanks and Chaplin were, this is a photo of them shilling for war bonds during the Great War.

Explicit Ills not illin’, Skin Deep is

Explicit Ills

This sprung onto the scene at the SxSW festival but didn’t pick up a distributor, and is now available on DVD. That’s odd for a film that ends up being poignantly about the state of health care for the working poor in America, one of the subjects in the news most lately. It doesn’t belabor us about the head with a hammer of its message, but instead paints a picture of a gentrifying neighborhood and introduces us to a handful of interesting characters. There’s a saintly young boy named Babo, played to perfection by Francisco Burgo, and his mother Rosario Dawson in an understated role; Lou Taylor Pucci, who seems to have bitten off more than he can chew with the side job he’s taken; Paul Dano (Eli from There Will Be Blood) as an unemployed actor relegated to playing a ninja at a kid’s birthday party; a teenage boy trying charmingly trying to get it on with a neighborhood girl, and Tariq Trotter of The Roots as a health food entrepreneur trying to open a store.
New writer-director Mark Webber has had small roles in many films before and makes a surprisingly mature debut here. The poor neighborhood is something he knows well; his single mother and himself were homeless in north Philly for some time and became the subject of a news show story. He presents with a naturalist style, letting his characters speak for themselves, and his Philly surroundings set the mood for a tableau that eventually evokes the deepest emotion. He makes us part of the neighborhood, and makes us care about the people in it. In the end, the story is about the community itself, and doesn’t end where you’d expect. It does have a few newbie mistakes, like the slow-mo dance intro to one character, and perhaps it is a little too removed at times, but this one’s worth seeing.

Rating: Tasty

Skin Deep

Otherwise known as “that John Ritter movie with the glow in the dark condom lightsaber fight” that’s really all this has going for it. I like John Ritter, but he doesn’t work here in the Larry from “Three’s Company” role, as a Lothario with writer’s block porking every California girl who comes his way. The only memorable jokes are this forced one and when he makes it with a female bodybuilder, and says he feels like Mrs. Schwarzenegger. Late-career Blake Edwards penned and directed this one, and unlike the unfairly maligned A Fine Mess, it doesn’t hold up. Remember Ritter with Sling Blade, where he’s incredible.

Rating: Stinky

In the Electric Mist with the Onion’s 2 Lovers

This week I decided to lump together my NetFlix and Cable reviews into one post, and make them much shorter. Unless I think a movie deserves the full treatment of course.

In the Electric Mist
Tommy Lee Jones is watchable in most anything- I even watched Man of the House– but James Lee Burke’s novels have had a hard time making it to screen. Much of the drama is internal, and while Mr. Jones can say so much with that craggy face of his, the story mostly gets lost here. Jones is Dave Robicheaux, sheriff in Iberia Parish Louisiana, where Hollywood big shots have come to film a War of Northern Aggression movie. And the bodies of young women start showing up in the bayou. John Goodman plays a producer with dirty money Dave knoves from days of old; Peter Sarsgaard plays a drunken film star who befriends Dave against his wishes. Robicheaux is a recovering alcoholic, and after someone doses him with LSD, he begins seeing a dead Civil War general in the mist- the novel’s original title is In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead- but nothing of much depth comes of it. The film was yanked from director Bertrand Tavernier, re-cut and dumped to DVD- a pity, since he created the well-regarded thriller Coup de Torchon. It’s a decent viewing, but it just doesn’t make it. Watching Tommy Lee Jones flirt with wifey Mary Steenburgen, and butt heads with John Goodman, might satisfy you.

Rating: Enh.

The Onion Movie
I was a big fan of the Onion even before it made it to the web, and it remains one of the best comedy sites. A movie, though? Well, part of it is a Kentucky Fried Movie-like skit comedy with news stories come to life, and that works. But the linking story, about the newspaper being taken over by a media conglomerate and attacked by terrorists, is pretty boring. It’s hard not to laugh at Steven Seagal showing up as the star of Cockpuncher, though. And some of the movie’s little in-jokes, like making up a bunch of fake ethnic stereotypes and then making them true, work very well. It’s hit or miss, but worth watching if you like the website’s sense of humor.

Rating: Enh.

Two Lovers

Soon to be blamed as the movie that made Joaquin Phoenix coo-coo for cocoa puffs, this is a decent romance drama starring him as a troubled young man recovering from a broken engagement, who gets torn between two lovers. One is the safe daughter of his father’s business associate, played by Vinessa Shaw (the hottie who saves Tom’s bacon in Eyes Wide Shut) ; and Gwyneth Paltrow, a sexy neighbor who has plenty of problems of her own. The story, written and directed by James Gray (We Own the Night) suffers from the same malaise his last film did- the story is lacking punch and emotional drive, and is a bit predictable. The acting is excellent here; I’d say Phoenix would be nominated if his public antics wouldn’t sour the Academy on him. He hasn’t been this good since Commodus in Gladiator. Paltrow is excellent as well, playing the thankless role of Michelle, who just can’t quit a married man (Elias Koteas, quite good as well). I liked it, sometimes a story is good even if you know where it is going, if the characters are good enough. And that’s the case here.

Rating: Worthy

NetFlix Queue Picks: Wendy and Lucy

I watched the acclaimed indie Wendy and Lucy last month with Firecracker but forgot to write about it, and that’s a shame, because it’s one of last year’s best movies. I’d go as far as to call it, along with Frozen River (full review), as the closest we’ve come to The Bicycle Thief in recent years. Big talk, yes. But we’ve since swallowed neorealism and it takes a quiet, introspective film like this to bring it back to us. If Sean Penn watched this before Into the Wild it might have gone from good to great.
Wendy and Lucy is a deceptively simple film, and that will lead to accusations of pretentiousness. They are unwarranted. We meet Wendy, inseparable from her dog Lucy, a perky and lovable sandy mix. We’re slowly introduced to their situation through visuals, as Wendy tries to sell some aluminum cans at a recycling center; she’s homeless, living out of her car, tightly budgeting things so she can make it to Alaska and work in a cannery. She drives a beat-up Toyota and lives out of it with Lucy, and she’s made it as far as the Northwest. We don’t dwell on or pity her, for she meets some who are less well-off, as she walks Lucy by the railroad tracks. They live in the woods, and ride the trains to get around, modern day hobos.
People living like Wendy are just one crisis away from tragedy, and we get to see it happen. Her car breaks down; she makes a risky decision, and suffers the consequences. The drama mostly plays out on Wendy’s face; Michelle Williams isn’t Maria Falconetti in The Passions of Joan of Arc but she does an excellent job of expressing the history and emotional depth Wendy has with Lucy, and with her family. She’s been in Brokeback Mountain, The Station Agent and Synecdoche, NY as well. Director Kelly Reichardt does a fine job of telling us a story through conversation and images. For example, Wendy’s backstory is explained only through a phone call to her sister, and we know volumes from how she answers: “What do you want now?”
It’s a sad and touching story that gives a face to the marginal. to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald- you can start with a person, and end up with a type; if you start with a type, you end up with nothing. Wendy and Lucy gives us a person who we can empathize with by the end of the film, as she agonizes through decisions and doesn’t always make the right one. Our Puritan heritage may make us want her to suffer for her decisions, but hopefully we also have some Christian charity that can forgive her, and see the long road that led to them, where bootstraps could find no purchase.

Rating: Tasty

NetFlix Queue Picks – Choke

Sam Rockwell can now officially carry a comedy. Based on the book by Chuck Palahniuk, Choke
is about a hapless sex addict who works at a Colonial Willisamburg-clone theme park, and who likes to choke on his food in restaurants until someone saves him using the Heimlich. Because once they save his life, they feel responsible for him, and send him checks now and then. Sam Rockwell is able to make this feckless douche into a sympathetic protagonist, and that’s something.
I’d seen him before in the underrated grifter drama Matchstick Men and the also underrated adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where he had the difficult job of playing Zaphod Beeblebrox. He was despised by some for not being their internal incarnation of the hard-partying galactic President, but I liked what he did with the character. Victor Mancini of Choke is a bit of both. Wild man and con man. And he’s utterly watchable as he bumbles through his rather odd life.
Anjelica Huston is excellent as his institutionalized mother, who he supports with his job as “the backbone of colonial America.” He can’t even be a real menial laborer- he plays one in a theme park. Chuck Palahniuk has a gift not only for unflinching views into the disgusting underbelly of American life, but at depicting its very absurdity, and while Choke apparently dilutes his novel, which I have not read, I enjoyed this adaptation quite a bit. The supporting characters are excellent- Denny played by Brad William Henke as a fellow sex addict whose hand roams down his pants at the drop of a hat, Bijou Phillips as Paige the doctor.
What the hell happens in it? Well, as he fights to support his crazy mom, he gets involved with Paige, who’s working on her case. And he finds out that he may just have been conceived from Jesus Christ’s DNA. Like Fight Club, it does often try to offend for its own sake with these bizarre turns of the story, but this is lighter fare. The flashbacks of his childhood are a bit more serious and first-time director Clark Gregg (who also plays the hilarious Lord High Charlie in this, and stars in “The New Adventures of Old Christine”) does a fine job balancing things. On occasion he veers into the rumble strips on the shoulder of the cliche highway, but overall it reminded me of Thank You for Smoking, and that’s a compliment.

Rating: Worthy