Movie Project #20: Face/Off [1997]

50 Movies Project #4: Contemporary Edition

The 50 Movies Project is an annual tradition at The Warning Sign. Every year, I select 50 movies that I feel I must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. This year I’m focusing on contemporary films (1980 to present day) that I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.

Face/Off [1997]

Face/Off [1997]
Director: John Woo
Writers: Mike Werb, Michael Colleary
Country: USA
Genre: Action/Crime/Sci-Fi
Starring: John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen
Running Time: 138 minutes

Going into Face/Off, I was hoping for a ridiculous, over-the-top action flick, and that’s exactly what I got. John Woo’s third American film is genius in that it sets up two of Hollywood’s craziest actors and lets both of them go off the rails.

Nicolas Cage is at his most deliriously best right from the get-go, playing a terrorist supervillain named Castor Troy. His archenemy is John Travolta’s Sean Archer, an FBI agent who is seeking revenge for the murder of his young son (killed by Troy, of course). Their first confrontation in the film depicts the age old battle of airplane vs. helicopter. Later, they fight on top of a speeding powerboat. The action scenes are signature Woo — stylish as all hell, and full of spectacular explosions.

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Blue Ruin [2013] Movie Review

Blue Ruin [2013]

Blue Ruin [2013] 
Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Writer: Jeremy Saulnier
Genre: Thriller
Starring: Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves
Running Time: 90 minutes

Blue Ruin is a revenge thriller that is anything but conventional, and the same goes for its central character, Dwight (Macon Blair).

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Locke [2013] Movie Review

Locke [2013]

Locke [2013] 
Director: Steven Knight
Writer: Steven Knight
Genre: Drama/Thriller
Starring: Tom Hardy, Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson
Running Time: 85 minutes

Locke may be the greatest 85-minute vehicle advertisement ever made.

The entire film takes place inside the cozy confines of a BMW X5 SUV, and it proves to be the only source of comfort for Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) as his life begins to unravel over the course of a drive from Birmingham to London.

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Mystery Road [2013] Movie Review

Mystery Road [2013]

Mystery Road [2013] 
Director: Ivan Sen
Writer: Ivan Sen
Genre: Mystery/Thriller
Starring: Aaron Pedersen, Hugo Weaving, Ryan Kwanten
Running Time: 112 minutes

Mystery Road is a slow burn thriller with western elements set in the dusty Australian Outback. It’s a film that’s not afraid to take its time setting up the story, and its methodical pacing is both a blessing and a curse.

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Movie Project #11: Road House [1989]

50 Movies Project #4: Contemporary Edition

The 50 Movies Project is an annual tradition at The Warning Sign. Every year, I select 50 movies that I feel I must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. This year I’m focusing on contemporary films (1980 to present day) that I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.

Road House [1989]

Road House [1989]
Director: Rowdy Herrington
Writers: Hilary Henkin, David Lee Henry
Country: USA
Genre: Action/Thriller
Starring: Patrick Swayze, Kelly Lynch, Sam Elliott, Ben Gazzara
Running Time: 114 minutes

Pain don’t hurt.

Even though this year’s project is stacked with acclaimed films, I don’t know if there was anything I was looking forward to more than the incomparable Road House. Anyone who has been reading this blog for a while now should know how much I love bad (or so bad they’re good) movies. There’s something to be said about shutting off your brain and just going with the flow, embracing cheesy acting and terrible dialogue as the delectable pieces of junk food they are. I’m happy to report that Road House is every bit as awesome (and awful) as I had heard.

Patrick Swayze, still riding the wave of success from Dirty Dancing, stars as a professional cooler (aka bouncer) named Dalton. He has built up a reputation as being the best in the business, and he is hired by businessman Frank Tilghman (Kevin Tighe) to clean up his bar called the Double Deuce. It’s an absolute pigsty of a nightclub, and it is home to many of the bottomfeeders of society. Its patrons are loud and short-tempered, and every other minute a huge bar fight breaks out. The poor house band even has to play behind a cage to avoid being hit with thrown beer bottles. The current wave of bouncers (including pro wrestler Terry Funk!) will throw out those who get particularly unruly, but they’re generally content with the unstable atmosphere.

Road House [1989]

Enter: Dalton. He immediately clears out the staff members that refuse to play by his rules (one of which is simply to be nice) and begins overhauling the business. Problems arise when Dalton fires a bartender who has ties to the local business mogul, Brad Wesley (Ben Gazzara). Wesley has his finger in seemingly every business in town, and he wants to keep things the way they are. He does his best to make Dalton’s life miserable, though Swayze plays him like he doesn’t have a care in the world.

Along the way, Dalton gets a love interest, Dr. Elizabeth Clay (Kelly Lynch), and some backup support from his longtime buddy and veteran cooler, Wade Garrett (Sam Elliott). When Garrett shows up, the film gets more and more violent, lending itself to some wildly entertaining barfights. Naturally, there’s a huge showdown at the end that becomes the centerpiece of the entire movie. It is here where Wesley’s top henchman, Jimmy (Marshall Teague), makes one of the most awkward threats imaginable (“I used to fuck guys like you in prison!”) before succumbing to Dalton’s wicked throat punch (it has to be seen to be believed). At this point, the film has its foot on the gas and culminates with an epic finale at Wesley’s personal mansion. To give you an idea of just how utterly ridiculous this becomes, take note that the last words mentioned in the film are “A polar bear fell on me.”

Road House [1989]

But this imbecility is what makes Road House so much fun. Swayze kicks a bunch of ass, Gazzara hams it up as the main villain, buildings get destroyed, characters find excuses to fight over anything, and Sam Elliott gets to show off his pubic hair. Wait… scratch that last part, that’s something I wish I did not see. Ditto for Patrick Swayze’s belly button (some things just cannot be unseen).

Is Road House great cinema? Not in the slightest. But it’s a damn fun film, and sometimes that’s all that matters.

8/10

Movie Review: Cheap Thrills [2013]

Cheap Thrills [2013]

Cheap Thrills [2013]
Director: E.L. Katz
Writers: David Chirchirillo, Trent Haaga
Genre: Comedy/Thriller
Starring: Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, Sara Paxton, David Koechner
Running Time: 88 minutes

Craig (Pat Healy) is having a really bad day. In a matter of just a few hours, he receives an eviction notice and loses his job as an auto mechanic. Now unemployed and staring at the very real possiblity of his family (a wife and infant child) being homeless, Craig attempts to find solace at a nearby dive bar. While drinking alone, he is approached by Vince (Ethan Embry), an old buddy he hasn’t seen in five years. Right away it’s clear the two have little in common anymore. Craig is a family man, no longer the skater and partier he once was, whereas Vince still has the same low ambitions he has had since high school.

Their awkward small talk is interrupted by a loud and boisterous man at a nearby table. This is their introduction to Colin (David Koechner) and his trophy wife Violet (Sara Paxton), a rich couple who are spending an absurd amount of money without a care in the world. Seemingly bored and looking for action, Colin starts proposing a series of dares to his new acquaintances in return for increasing amounts of money. The propositions start off innocently enough — $50 for whoever does a shot of tequila first, $200 for the first person to get slapped by a woman at the bar — but as the night progresses, the stakes get higher.

Cheap Thrills [2014]

Though darkly comedic to the end, the film really kicks into gear when the group of four go back to Violet’s house. The dares get increasingly vulgar (think bodily fluids) and violent (think blood, lots and lots of it). To get into specifics would be a great disservice to the film — seriously, do not even watch the trailer — as half the fun is seeing just how far these two men will go to make some quick cash.

Craig and Vince are the perfect targets for such shenanigans. Craig is, of course, looking to gain some income to keep his family afloat for the next several months, while Vince sees this as a way to make his life even easier. Though the two of them had been friends long ago, their relationship is now flimsy enough that neither is afraid to take drastic measures to make sure they get the cash.

Cheap Thrills [2013]

Pat Healy, the great indie character actor, and Ethan Embry both do so well in this. Healy, in particular, is frightening in his progression from everyman to a testosterone-fueled competitor. Sara Paxton excels as an emotionally vacant wife, but it is David Koechner who steals the show. Best known for his work in comedies like Anchorman, Koechner is much different here with his nice guy persona. There is a certain tension every time he is on the screen simply because he is so unpredictable. The fact that he is so generally friendly at first makes it so jarring — and fearsome — when he pushes his contestants further and further into increasingly volatile dares.

Although it may sound like a simple thriller, there’s more to Cheap Thrills than meets the eye. The film can be looked at as a commentary on the YouTube generation, a group that watches other people get hurt for their own amusement (it seems every day there’s a new fight video that goes viral). In fact, Violet is documenting the entire evening by taking pictures every time the guys do something senseless. There’s also an allegory of the rich controlling the poor (i.e. the 1% versus the 99%). But regardless of how you want to look at the film, it’s not something you will be forgetting anytime soon. Don’t be surprised if this is considered a cult classic in the next several years.

8/10

Movie Project #8: The Insider [1999]

50 Movies Project #4: Contemporary Edition

The 50 Movies Project is an annual tradition at The Warning Sign. Every year, I select 50 movies that I feel I must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. This year I’m focusing on contemporary films (1980 to present day) that I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.

The Insider [1999]

The Insider [1999]
Director: Michael Mann
Writer: Michael Mann, Eric Roth
Country: USA
Genre: Biography/Drama/Thriller
Starring: Russell Crowe, Al Pacino, Christopher Plummer
Running Time: 157 minutes

Whistleblowing reports are ripe for film adaptations, and Michael Mann’s The Insider turns one such true story into a gripping thriller. No action scenes are necessary here; instead, the film builds tension through the tumultuous work that is investigative journalism, and the extreme lengths large corporations will go to cover their asses.

Russell Crowe plays Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, a research chemist who decides to blow the whistle on the illegal behavior of his former employer, Brown & Williamson. Part of the triumvirate that is Big Tobacco, B&W had blatantly lied to Congress about the addictive nature of their cigarettes. Wigand is persuaded to spill the beans about these blatant perjuries by 60 Minutes producer, Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino).

There’s a lot on the line here. Wigand is breaking his confidentiality agreement, thereby risking jail, and he is receiving all sorts of legal pressure from his former company. He becomes paranoid, believing there to be threats on his life, and it begins to unravel his once-stable family. Bergman, determined to get this story out there, is fighting profusely with his superiors at CBS. They are worried about the possible financial repurcussions that could happen if they were to air an interview with Wigand. There’s a lot of back-and-forth drama going on, and the pressure takes its toll on both men. By the end of the film, both Wigand and Bergman look like they have been to hell and back. It’s an increasingly desperate battle between the evil corporation and those seeking to tell the truth.

The Insider [1999]

There is an equal emphasis on both men in this film. We grow to learn more about Wigand early on, as he battles with himself on whether or not to fully go through with his actions. Later, Bergman is the main focus as he fights tooth and nail to get the 60 Minutes interview with Wigand on the air and unedited. Even when things are looking absolutely dire, neither one gives up.

Both characters are well-written and given an ample amount of screen time, and Crowe and Pacino bring out the best in them. As the film goes on, it becomes more and more noticeable just how much of an uphill climb they have ahead of them. Crowe and Pacino are backed by an impressive supporting cast, including Christopher Plummer as 60 Minutes anchor Mike Wallace, Philip Baker Hall as the TV show’s top boss, and Diane Venora as Wigand’s distraught wife.

The Insider [1999]

If there is a flaw in the film, it’s the running time. This is a captivating story, no doubt, but it feels a bit stretched too thin to warrant a running time of over two and a half hours. There are moments where the film drags, and a bit more editing would have been beneficial.

In the end, The Insider asks the question: is justice really worth fighting for? In this case, yes, it appears so. All of the hard work from these two men did pay off, as the Big Tobacco companies reached a massive settlement (over $200 billion) with all 50 states. Wigand and Bergman emerged as different men by the end of it all, but it can be argued their perseverance made them stronger than they ever were before.

8/10

Movie Project #40: The Secret in Their Eyes [2009]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

The Secret in Their Eyes [2009]

The Secret in Their Eyes [2009]
Director: Juan José Campanella
Writers: Eduardo Sacheri (writer), Juan José Campanella (writer), Eduardo Sacheri (novel “La pregunta de sus ojos”)
Country: Argentina
Genre: Drama/Mystery/Thriller
Starring: Ricardo Darín, Soledad Villamil, Pablo Rago, Javier Godino, Guillermo Francella
Running Time: 129 minutes

“A guy can change anything. His face, his home, his family, his girlfriend, his religion, his God. But there’s one thing he can’t change. He can’t change his passion…”

In The Secret in Their Eyes, this quote, provided by a relatively minor character, Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), works on so many levels. Sandoval’s passion is booze, and he can’t break his love of whiskey, much to the chagrin of his impatient wife. Yet Sandoval is a functional drunk, and he provides a worthy friend and companion to Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin), the film’s main protagonist.

Esposito is a retired legal counselor who is struggling to write his first novel, based on a horrific rape/murder case he worked on some 25 years ago. Seeking guidance from his former boss, Irene Hastings (Soledad Villamil), he begins examining the past events surrounding the case while also seeking possible new information during the present day.

The Secret in Their Eyes [2009]

The film goes back and forth between these two time periods — 1974 and 1999 — demonstrating the failures of the Argentinean’s justice system at the time. In 1974, when Esposito gets a lead on the possible murderer, his superiors are all too dismissive of his work. For them, they would rather take the easy way out and pin the crime on two completely innocent manual laborers; that is their rather unfortunate form of justice.

Yet Esposito refuses to give up until the right man is caught and behind bars. This legal case is his passion, and he is able to instill the help of both Hastings and Sandoval, even though both of them would rather let the past stay in the past. In one particularly impressive scene, Esposito and Sandoval head to a raucous soccer match in hopes of finding their lead suspect, a devoted fan of Racing Club. The entire film is full of slick camerawork, but it is here where Juan José Campanella’s vision truly shines. An extended take shows the action high above the stadium, where the camera then goes in above the pitch and into the crowd where the two investigators are entrapped among thousands of screaming and singing fans. It’s a remarkable scene, and it only intensifies when the main suspect is spotted, starting off a frenetic foot race throughout the stadium.

The Secret in Their Eyes [2009]

Even with so much of Esposito’s attention focused on this case, it is clear he has another passion: his long-time colleague, Irene Hastings. For whatever reason — partly due to his lack of self confidence — he struggles to make his move on his very attractive co-worker, despite her not-so-subtle hints otherwise. Their buried romance adds another layer to the case, even as they struggle to remember the past and their own fallacies.

Finally, there is the devastated widow of the murder victim, Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago). It’s clear that his passion is his wife, and after her tragic death, he does everything in his power to find her murderer, even sitting for entire days at the train station, waiting for him to show his face. Esposito forms a sort-of friendship with Morales, vowing to help him solve this case.

With so many plot lines in play, it would be easy for the film to become a bit of a mess. That’s not the case at all here — the transitions between past and present day are smooth, and the mashup of thriller, crime drama and romance feels effortless. This is a film that fires on all cylinders, delivering a gut-wrenching story with an unexpected ending, one that no one can soon forget.

9/10

Movie Review: Gravity [2013]

Gravity [2013]

Gravity [2013]
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Writers: Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón
Genre: Drama/Sci-Fi/Thriller
Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Running Time: 91 minutes

It’s easy to get swept up in the hype surrounding Gravity. Alfonso Cuarón’s latest effort is truly a technical marvel, and it is one of the most visually stunning films to come out in years. This is the type of feature that begs to be experienced on the biggest screen possible — IMAX 3D, preferably — and it’s the rare release that is garnering nearly unanimous praise from critics and audiences alike. Taken on these merits alone, Gravity is worth the trip to the theater. However, it is lacking in a few crucial areas, and these issues keep it from reaching the “instant classic” status that many are quick to label it as.

In theory, the idea behind the film is simple. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a rookie on her first space mission, and veteran astronaut Ray Kowalski (George Clooney), on his last mission before retirement, are performing a routine spacewalk before disaster strikes. A Russian missile strike has caused a massive chain reaction, sending seemingly endless amounts of space debris heading directly toward them. Their shuttle is destroyed, and soon the two protagonists become split apart.

At this point, our attention is focused primarily on Ryan and her will to survive. She is given a slight bit of back story involving a tragedy that occurred back home, and this is used as an attempt to get us to connect with her. In reality, this little nugget of information feels contrived. Ryan’s story is something that has been done to death in cinema — can this emotionally broken character overcome the overwhelming odds to stay alive? — and the overall writing leaves a lot to be desired. There is also quite a bit of on-the-nose symbolism regarding the rebirth of human life, some of which feels out of place.

Gravity [2013]

Yet it is a testament to Ms. Sandra Bullock that we are in fact still able to resonate even slightly with her character. The decision to cast Bullock and Clooney — both of whom are comfortable and longtime fan favorites — was a stroke of genius. Going into the film, we already have some sort of connection to the characters simply because of who plays them. Bullock delivers what may be her finest performance yet, and she will certainly get some love during awards season. Clooney is basically playing George Clooney here, but it works for this role. His casual demeanor is the perfect complement for Bullock’s nervousness, and he makes the best of his limited screen time. I truly believe that much of the love for this film comes down to these two actors; if Robert Downey Jr. and Angelina Jolie, both of whom were originally attached to the project, had remained in the film, it could have been an unmitigated disaster.

It is especially impressive that even with these script problems, Gravity is a compelling film. The combination of Alfonso Cuarón’s direction and Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is a match made in heaven — just take a look at the film’s remarkable 17-minute opening shot as an example. Their work truly makes it feel as if you are floating in space, and the 3D is entirely organic. It remains to be seen how the film will hold up on DVD/Blu-ray, but as a theatrical experience, few are better.

8/10

Movie Project #32: The Wages of Fear [1953]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

The Wages of Fear [1953]

The Wages of Fear [1953]
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Writers: Georges Arnaud (novel), Henri-Georges Clouzot and Jérôme Géronimi (adaptation)
Country: France/Italy
Genre: Adventure/Drama/Thriller
Starring: Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Peter van Eyck, Folco Lulli, Véra Clouzot
Running Time: 131 minutes

Reason for inclusion: This is considered one of the greatest thrillers ever made. I had also never seen a film by Henri-Georges Clouzot.

Accolades: Golden Bear from 1953 Berlin Film Festival, Palme d’Or from 1953 Cannes Film Festival, BAFTA Award for Best Film from any Source

Somewhere deep in rural South America, the impoverished town of Las Piedras has become something of a final destination for many foreign drifters and washed-up laborers. The nearby American oil corporation, Standard Oil, essentially controls the town and the surrounding area, providing the main source of income for most of the townfolk. The corporation’s practices are hardly ethical, and it’s common to hear of explosions and other horrific accidents on the oil fields. Given their reckless work environment, it’s no surprise that Standard Oil would send a man to Las Piedras to recruit four desperate civilians to perform an incredibly dangerous — and possibly suicidal — task.

The request? Drive two large trucks filled with highly volatile nitroglycerine over 300 miles across some of the continent’s worst terrain. One mere bump could set off a fatal explosion.

Unsurprisingly, given the extreme poverty in Las Piedras, it doesn’t take long for some men to take up the offer. A combination of pride, machismo, and the $2000 price point prompts four men to embark on the treacherous journey.

The Wages of Fear [1953]

Mario (Yves Montand), Jo (Charles Vanel), Bimba (Peter van Eyck) and Luigi (Folco Lulli) are these brave men, all four of whom are ex-pats looking for a way out of town. They pair up, two per truck, alternating turns driving across bumpy dirt roads, unstable bridges, and rocky mountain passes.

The Wages of Fear is essentially split into two halves. The first hour or so is methodically paced, as it introduces the main characters and shares a bit of their back stories. At the same time, it does grow somewhat tedious, as unimportant characters are given too much screen time, and it’s never quite clear *why* these European ex-pats ended up in this particular town.

However, when the actual driving begins, the film really kicks into high gear. There is an overwhelming sense of dread throughout their journey, as the men’s courage is constantly put to the test. There are many, many moments where it seems like the end is near for them. For example, one stretch of the road — dubbed “the washboard” — is especially rough, consisting of nothing but bump after perilous bump. In order to traverse through this area, they have to keep their foot on the gas, maintaining a high speed until they reach the end. It’s an unbelievably tense moment, especially as they had made it a point until then to drive very slowly.

The Wages of Fear [1953]

An even tenser scene — and arguably the film’s most famous — has the men trying to navigate a hairpin bend in the mountains in order to get around construction. The only way to do so requires them to back up on an unstable wooden platform, where one crack would send them flying off the cliff to certain death.

The Wages of Fear is filled with suspenseful moments such as these, and it truly earns its status as one of the all-time great thrillers. This is a film that will keep you on the edge of your seat throughout, and given its French/Italian origin, there is simply no guarantee that there will be a happy ending, adding even more to its effectiveness. Although the film takes some time to get going, it more than makes up for it in its white-knuckle second half.

8.5/10