Saturday, June 28, 2014

Q & A

Q & A (1990)
Movie rating: 7/10
DVD rating: 8/10
Release Date: February 4, 2003
Running Time: 2 hours 12 minutes
Rating: R
Distributor: Fox Home Entertainment
List Price: $14.98
Disc Details
Special Features:  Widescreen anamorphic format
Chapter selection
Video Format: Anamorphic Widescreen (2.35:1)
Languages: English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo)
Spanish (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono)
French (Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo)

Subtitles: English, Spanish.
Captions: Yes
Casing: 1-Disc Keep Case

Nick Nolte gives the performance of his career in Sidney Lumet's brutally disturbing cop drama "Q & A." That Mr. Nolte wasn't nominated for an Oscar for this performance is a disgrace. "Q & A" is not for the squeamish. Lumet's tale of corruption and the search for truth was a brutal forerunner of Michael Mann's "Heat" and the TV series "NYPD Blue."

Detective Lieutenant Mike Brennan (Nick Nolte) is the most decorated cop in the NYPD. He is also corrupt to the core. The overweight behemoth cold-bloodedly murders a Spanish drug dealer. The rogue cop uses a throw down and calls for backup.

Assistant District Attorney Al Reilly (Timothy Hutton) is awakened by a phone call from his new boss. Homicide DA Kevin Quinn (Patrick O'Neal) tells Al that he is needed to question witnesses to a police shooting. Quinn picked the new DA for this assignment because he is Irish and a former cop. Quinn says that this is a clear case of justifiable use of police force. After all, Mike Brennan is the kind of guy you think of when the term "New York's Finest" is said. Al is warned to protect the record: "If it's not in the Q & A, it didn't happen."

Al meets Detectives Luis Valentin (Luis Guzman) and Sam "Chappy" Chapman (Charles Dutton), who are handling the investigation. Chappy is a former marine who served with Brennan. Valentin is a hotheaded cop who is idealistic and honest. Several mobsters were inside the club where Brennan murdered the drug dealer. They are called in by All and the two detectives. Bobby Texador (Armand Assante) is a Puerto Rican drug dealer. His girlfriend, Nancy (Jenny Lumet) is Al Reilly's former fiancée. Valentin disrespects Bobby Tex in front of his old lady. The two men argue and Bobby Tex throws suspicion of the pat story told by Mike Brennan about the shooting. Al let the Q & A become infected with evidence which will lead to the deaths of many characters in this movie. Can the rookie DA and his detective assistants buck the system and take down New York's most decorated cop?

"Q & A" is an uncompromising examination of corruption, bigotry, homophobia and moral courage. Nick Nolte is as imposing as any monster that ever graced the silver screen. Nolte gained nearly 50 pounds to play the part. His tough Irish accent is right on target. Nolte's extra weight adds immensely to his performance. He is able to transform his face from cherub-like innocence to terrifying rage at a moment's notice. Nolte's Brennan is the type of cop you hope you never meet. He hates everyone. He takes from men in powerful positions. He doesn't hesitate to kill anyone who dares to threaten him. During one disturbing scene, Brennan calls several prostitutes to him on a street corner. Brennan is looking for a transvestite hooker who can put him in danger. One of the prostitutes is a man in drag. Nolte reaches into his pants and crushes his testicles to make him talk. Though Brennan is homophobic, he also has strong latent tendencies. Nolte's performance is psychologically complex. It rivals Harvey Keitel's performance in "Bad Lieutenant" for shear outrageousness and bravado.

Patrick O'Neal is pure evil. His Quinn is a perfect portrait of the dangers of too much power in the wrong hands. The scene in which Timothy Hutton's Al has lunch with DA Leo Blumefeld (Lee Richardson) is wonderful. Bloomfeld tells a story about Quinn as a young DA. Blumefeld accents the horrible story with the epitaph "Fuck him, now and forever." You will feel the same way after seeing this film.

Armand Assante was nominated for a Golden Globe as best supporting actor as Bobby Tex. I will always wonder why an actor of Assante's talent and looks isn't given better roles. Maybe some young director like Quentin Tarantino will rediscover him the way Robert Forester was in "Jackie Brown." Bobby Tex is aware that Al and Nancy had a thing once. Bobby tells Al he will kill him if he catches him sniffing around his girl. The irony is that Bobby and Al may end up having to rely on each other when Brennan goes on the warpath.

If "Q & A" has a weakness, it is the romantic subplot between Al and Nancy. This is an urban war film. The attempt at romance slows the story down. The film would have been better with 15 minutes cut from the running time.

The Disc
Great film, picture and good sound. No extras, but the price reflects the vanilla DVD status.

Picture Quality: 9/10
Andrzej Bartkowski's cinematography captures the story's gritty, realistic tone. Bartkowski also shot Lumet's "Prince of the City." The film uses muted colors and dark tones. No artifacts found. No delineation problems. The DVD looks almost a good as the movie did in the theaters.

Sound Quality: 8/10
The only other complaint I have about the movie are the songs by Ruben Blades. I've enjoyed his music in other venues, but this music is really bad. There is no loss of dialogue. At times the higher ranges sounded a bit flat. Nice balance between the ranges.

Menu: 6/10
Simple, single frame design. Easy to navigate. Just nothing special.

Extra Features: 0/10
There are no extras. The DVD only cost $14.98, so you don't miss the extras. I enjoyed the director's commentary by Sidney Lumet on the DVD of "The Verdict." I would have enjoyed hearing what he and Nolte might have had to say about this film. Maybe if the DVD makes a ton of money, FOX will issue a special edition.

The Final Word:
If you like cop dramas, you will love "Q & A." Those who want to see the performance of a lifetime by Nick Nolte should also check it out. Not for kids.

Battle Royale SE Director's Cut

Battle Royale SE Director's Cut (2000)
Movie rating: 9/10
DVD rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1/10/2003
Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes
Rating: NR
Distributor: Korea - Starmax Co., Ltd.
List Price: $35.95
Disc Details
Special Features: Widescreen anamorphic format
Chapter selection
Region 0 (all regions)
2 disk boxed set
Featurette: Auditions
Featurette: Making of Special Edition
Featurette: Birthday party
Featurette: CGI effects
Featurette: Tokyo Film Festival coverage
Featurette: WowWow TV special
Featurette: Memorial photo gallery
Featurette: Orchestra recording
Theatrical trailers
"Movie is a War" trailer
DVD Trailer
TV spot
Promotional art gallery
Video Format: Anamorphic Widescreen (1.85:1)
Languages: Japanese (DTS 5.1)
Japanese (Dolby Digital 2.0)Surround

Subtitles: Korean, English.
Captions: No
Casing: 2-Disc Keep Case

I became aware of the film "Battle Royale" when I did research for director Kinji Fukasaku's obituary in January of this year. I immediately became obsessed with seeing this movie. This past weekend at the Wonderfest2003 festival in Louisville, Kentucky, I picked up an import DVD from the good folks at Wild and Wooly Video.

"Battle Royale" works on so many different levels that I could write several reviews. Fukasaku's movie works as a political satire, a black comedy, an action epic, a science fiction thriller, a moving drama and a fascist manifesto. How you react to this movie will have a lot to do with the strength of your stomach. "Battle Royale" is a violent film in which 9th grade students are forced to kill each other. The images are disturbing, not for their graphic nature, but because these are our children committing the mayhem. "Battle Royale" is an artistic work of pure genius.

At the turn of the millennium, Japan is in shambles. The economy has hit rock bottom. The nation has been plunged into a depression that rivals the Great Depression of the 1930s. Children are boycotting schools by the hundreds of thousands. The 1960s catch phrase "Don't trust anyone over 30" seems to be the law of the Japanese children. The adults of Japan have come to distrust and fear their own kids. Something has to be done.

In response to this youthful anarchy, the government passes the 'Battle Royale Millennium Education Act.' Once a year, a 9th grade class is picked by random lottery. The children are transported to a deserted island. Each is fitted with a necklace that will explode if tampered with. Each student is given a duffle bag with some food, water and a weapon. The rules are simple: anything goes. The kids are released onto the island. They have three days to kill each other. If at the end of three days, there is more than one child alive, all of the necklaces will detonate. The sole survivor will be allowed to reenter society with (hopefully) a new respect for their elders and the skills it they will need to become a successful adult!

"Battle Royale" is a wild ride that will challenge you from the very first frame. I've watched this movie four times so far and have seen something different each time. I've laughed, cringed and almost cried. Kinji Fukasaku's direction is masterful. His action sequences are handled as deftly as the best work of John Woo. (Go ahead and start sending me the hateful e-mails for that one right now!) Japanese Icon Beat Takeshi stars as Kitano, Class B's former 7th grade teacher. Kitano retired once the students started boycotting the classes. The straw that broke the camel's back for Kitano was a stab wound inflicted by Nobu (Yukihiro Kotani). Mr. Takashi preps his former students for the trial before them with sardonic glee. When one female student whispers during his presentation, he throws a knife into her forehead. "I'm sorry," Kitano says as he pulls the blade from the dead girl’s face. The teacher has his class's attention. Kitano is aided in this orientation of death by a hilarious video starring a perky cheerleader type is a sexy military outfit. The scene is hilarious, sarcastic and chilling at the same time.

"Battle Royale" works in large part due to the magnificent performances by the huge cast of young performers. Tatsuya Fujiwara plays the male lead Shuya. Shuya's mother ran off and his father committed suicide. Shuya will continue to try and fight and grow into an adult even though no one has given him any guidance. Aki Maeda plays the female lead Noriko. Noriko is the girlfriend of Nobu and the object of strange admiration from teacher Kitano. The beautiful and sexy Kou Shibasaki delivers a standout performance as the tragic and lethal Mitsuko. Ms. Shibasaki has great screen presence. I'd learn to speak Japanese if I had half a chance with her!

"Battle Royale" is based on the novel by Koshun Takami. The director's son Kenta adapted the novel for the screen. Fukasaku's script is surprisingly poignant. The children in this film deal with the horror of either killing or being killed in very serious ways. The script examines all possibilities and reactions to such a predicament. The young actors rise to the material and turn "Battle Royale" into a powerful piece of art.

The Disc
Outstanding film. Great picture and sound. While the movie includes English subtitles, for some reason the extras are only subtitled in Korean!

Picture Quality: 10/10
This limited edition import boasts a wonderful transfer. The picture is sharp and crisp throughout. There are no delineation problems, shimmering or softness around the edges. The color schemes in the movie vary from scene to scene. The deliberate visual choices enhance the film's atmosphere. Wonderful rich colors. Several scenes are shot in muted tones. The colors in those scenes are also excellent. A visually exciting film that sets mood and atmosphere with shadows, light and color.

Sound Quality: 10/10
Masamichi Amano's rousing score received one of the seven nominations (including Best Picture and Director) that "Battle Royale" received from the Award of the Japanese Academy. My advice is to turn your home theater system up very loud when you are on the main menu. Amano's Wagnerian score blasts forth in the first seconds of the film with angelic highs and sweeping middle and low notes. The music pulls you into this epic film. The DTS track is fantastic as if the 2.0 surround. No distortion. Rich, full tones throughout. Whether it's Amano's music or the sound of automatic gunfire, the sound is excellent.

Easter Eggs:
No Easter Eggs found during review.

Extra Features: ?/10
I don't know how to rate the extras because I don't speak Japanese or read Korean. I don't understand why the folks who made this DVD would add English subtitles to the movie itself but leave them out of the extras. (Is my American arogance showing?) I did watch all of the extras. Some are enjoyable even without an understanding of what is being said.

The CGI featurette shows you the many layers of several composite shots. I didn't realize until watching this featurette that many of the bullet hits were done with CGI rather than squibs.

The Memorial and Promotional Art galleries are photo montages set to Mr. Amano's wonderful music. Speaking of the music, there is a great featurette concerning the movie's orchestration. It can be enjoyed for the music alone.

The "WowWow TV special" is an extended multimedia trailer that is visually and aurally exciting. This featurette can be enjoyed for the visuals alone. I wish I could have understood what was being said, but I'll just have to wait for an American version to be released.

The lack of English subtitles really hurts during the "Making of," "Birthday Party" and "Tokyo Film Festival" featurettes. The only English spoken on the second 'Special Features' disk is an ad Quentin Tarantino did praising the movie.

The Final Word:
"Battle Royale" is an important movie that offers many things to the open-minded viewer. Those who can't see past the violence should stay away. For those willing to take a risk, "Battle Royale" is a challenging and fulfilling movie experience.

Kidnapped (A.K.A. Rabid Dogs)

Film & Disc Review, Kidnapped (A.K.A. Rabid Dogs)
by Rusty White
reviewed: 2007-04-02

Kidnapped (A.K.A. Rabid Dogs) (1998)
Director(s): Mario Bava
Movie rating: 8/10
DVD rating: 9/10
DVD Release Date: 04/03/2007
Running Time: 96 minutes
Rating: NR

Italian horror master tried to branch out into another genre in 1974. He shot a film and was in the process of editing it when the producer went bankrupt. Bava's film languished in legal limbo for 25 years. He died before his film would see the light of day. Bava fans can rejoice at this long lost masterpiece. Who knows what effect this would have had on Bava's career had it been released back in 1974! I won't go into a lot of the background of these two films as the DVD includes some great extras which explain everything. I will say this: two versions of the film have been released. "Rabid Dogs" came out in 1998 and the restored version called "Kidnapped" was released in 2002. This DVD includes both versions of the film.

The plot involves a robbery gone quite bad. Four gangsters take down a payroll. THere is loss of life on both sides as the police arrive immediately. A car and then foot chase results in the gang being surrounded in a parking garage. They take a hostage and escape. A few blocks later, the gang abandons the woman's car and carjacks a man sitting at a red light. The man has a sick boy in the car with him. The remainder of the movie involves the gang's escape. The bulk of the story takes place in the car as it tries to get out of Rome.

Actor Riccardo Cucciolla plays Riccardo, the level-headed driver who only wants to get his son to the hospital. German actress Lea Lander plays the distraught woman hostage. The three surviving gang members are lead by Doctor (Maurice Poli). Doc is a calm but menacing presence. His two henchmen are '32' (George Eastman) and Blade (Don Backy). '32' is so named because of the size of his penis. Remember that Italy is on the metric system. You do the conversion. Blade is proficient in the use of his stiletto.

The movie is harrowing. The story is told in real time. The claustrophobic setting adds tension that is almost unbearable. The film also includes one of the great twist endings in film history. Mario Bava was a master story-teller. His horror films have sent shivers down countless millions of spines. These two films show that he would have been one of the great crime movie directors had fate worked out differently. There are many who say that this is the director's best film. I'm still undecided on that point, but this is one of the greatest films to be produced in the 1970s.

There are some differences in the two versions of the movie. "Kidnapped" is a tighter film. Even though it is just one minute shorter, it moves much faster. Mario Bava's son Lamberto filmed a couple of short prologue scenes to clarify a point that is important to the end of the film. He also took out one scene from the 1998 version. The big difference is that the 1998 film has a new score. The earlier score is raw, like the movie itself. You be the judge of which version you like better.

The Disc
Two great versions of Mario Bava's final film as sole director. Good picture and sound. Excellent extras.

Picture Quality: 7/10
Though both versions of the movie have been cleaned up considerably, there are still a number of artifacts throughout. I thought it added to the atmosphere. Kind of like the deliberate scratched present in the 1970s homage "Grindhouse." Otherwise, a wonderful picture.

Sound Quality: 9/10
Great soundtrack. The music, dialogue and sound effects all sound great.

Easter Eggs:
No Easter Eggs Found on Disc.

Extra Features: 10/10
Kudos to author Tim Lucas for a great commentary track. I've enjoyed Mr. Lucas's commentary tracks on a previously released "Mario Bava Boxed St" released by VCI, as well as the yet to be reviewed "Mario Bava Boxed Set Vol. 1" being released by Anchor simultaneously with this DVD. Mr. Lucas is the founder and editor of the great magazine "Video Watchdog." He is also the author of a huge book on the life and films of Mario Bava. Like Eddie Mueller, who does the best commentary tracks around for Film Noir DVDs, Tim Lucas adds so much to the experience of watching a Mario Bava film. I enjoy Bava's work for its visual beauty and psychological terror. Tim Lucas takes you several steps deeper into the mind of Mario Bava. I can't wait for the release of his book.

As always, Anchor Bay has included a great original documentary on the making of this film. Do not watch the documentary before you see the movie as it includes spoilers. The documentary includes interviews with many of the main players in this drama.

The DVD also includes a quite lengthy text biography of director Mario Bava. Trivia note. The Italian master of suspense died within days of THE master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock.

The DVD also includes trailers from the great Mario Bava boxed set coming out at the same time as this DVD.

The Final Word:

This is a must have DVD for fans of the great Italian master. Anchor Bay produces another instant classic.

Friday's Menu (2001)

Full Course Treat. Hold the Shrimp!

Rating: 2 & 1/2 STARS
Director: Jeremy Benson
Starring: Mark Williams, Rezia Massey, Ginger Hurst, Shannyn Howerton, Jacob Hanshell, James Warren
Length: 1 hour 31 minutes
Rated: N/A

      What's it like being 20; in between high school and the real world? Writer director Jeremy Benson knows because he is there. "Friday's Menu," the first film by the independent filmmaker tries to capture the experience. Benson has succeeded for the most part in his witty, profane film about two guys trying to find something to do on a Friday night. Obviously influenced by the work of Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino, Benson has created an episodic little film which follows various groups of characters through a hectic night in which nothing seems to go right, but in fact does. JP (Mark Williams, who also coproduced) has promised both Kelly (Ginger Hurst) and Ricky (Rezia Massey) that he will hang out with them on Friday. Ginger proves elusive, so JP reluctantly goes out with his buddy, Ricky. Ginger meanwhile ends up hanging with her bud, Ginger (Shannyn Howerton). Thrown into the stew are two inept robbers, Big Jake (Jacob Hanshell) and Smiling Jim (James Warren), a couple of wallflowers sitting around chewing tobacco and watching cheesy movies, Alice (Chris Bowman) and Poe (Georganna Wallace), a couple of bums (director Benson and Mark Williams again) and various insundry others. Plotwise, there isn't much further to report. Director Benson follows these characters as they ramble through the night. A Gen X take on "American Graffiti" except these kids spend more time discussing sex than whether they are going to leave for college the next day. Sex, sex and more sex as a matter of fact.

      At the premiere, I sat on the row behind the parents of the folks who made and acted in this film. I had seen the first half of the film when I interviewed Director Benson and editor Rusty Herring a week before. I wanted to see the reaction of an older crowd. For the most part, they were laughing like the rest of the audience. The elderly couple sitting next to me did walk out rather quickly though. I thought that was a good sign. This movie is not for your grandparents (maybe it is!). One thing that struck me about the movie was how Benson captured his female characters. The standout scene in this regards involved not Kelly and Ginger, but rather the two wallflowers: Alice and Poe. As they sit on the couch watching TV they break into a conversation about the pros and cons of giving as opposed to receiving oral sex. The discussion is frank and almost clinical. The girls deal with the issues of emotional subservience, physical pleasure and love. In juxtaposition compare this scene to it's counterpoint involving Jake and Smiling Jim. The two robbers sit huddled on their drug dealer's kitchen floor waiting to buy some weed. They two break into a stoned conversation about getting head versus just having sex. These two guys prove that dudes on dope should keep their mouths shut. Their ramblings are crude and funny. Unlike the ladies earlier, there is no talk of love or emotional involvement. Benson pegged that essential difference between the sexes in these two scenes.

Ricky (Rezia Massey) and JP (Mark Williams)

      The acting for the most part is quite good. This is remarkable considering that with the exception of Ms. Howerton, none of the cast has had any training or experience. In the acting department Rezia Massey as Ricky is a real find. His Ricky is a wildman par excellence. Mr. Massey has a real screen presence. When he is on screen you can't help but wonder what he will do next. Its kind of like Lord Byron meets Eminem. He is a perfect spoil for Mark Williams' JP. JP would rather be with Kelly this night. He pulls his van over several times that night to try and call her. Ricky constantly rags on his friend for being whipped. There is a great scene between JP and Ricky as JP breaks one of the rules of being a guy and opens up about his true feelings for Kelly. He dares to reveal true emotions. This takes place following a fairly traumatic experience, so PJ's breaking the rule is understandable. Williams also has a strong screen presence. He and Mr. Massey dominate the film. When Benson cuts to other characters you want to return to JP and Ricky. It's kind of like wanting to stay on Butch and Sundance when that film cuts away from them.

      That is not to say that the other characters don't hold your attention, they do. In fact with two exceptions I enjoyed every scene. Their is a scene involving JP's grandfather (Mark Williams again!) and two other guys at a coffee shop, and a blind date scene between one of the coffee shop guys and a flowsy blonde which seem totally out of place. These scenes break to flow of the film. Once Benson returns to JP and Ricky or Kelly and Ginger things get rolling again. Ginger Hurst's Kelly reminds me a several girls I knew in high school. Kelly is a fast talking, no nonsense southern belle who is confused by the mixed signals she is getting from JP. She to would rather be with JP than Ginger. Ginger is a bouncy, effervescent young woman who seems to have an answer for every problem. She is more cocksure than Kelly, but she also seems less mature. Like Ricky and JP, the two girls drive through the night in search of something to do. The two stoned robbers are a bit reminiscent of Kevin Smith's characters Jay and Silent Bob, except these guys really have nothing profound to say. Nevertheless, they are fun to watch. Both Jacob Hanshell and Jim Warren can't help but make you laugh. There are a couple of scenes at the dope man's house. Ricky gets into it with Travo (Travis Macklin), a no nonsense gun toting weed man. Ricky and Travo go at it about which race can hold their weed better. Ricky ignores the gun and gets in Travo face shouting, "I know plenty of white guys who could smoke you under the table!" Mark WIlliams is priceless in this scene as he stands by in fear as his buddy taunts a guy with a semi automatic pistol in his hand. JP tries to intervene, but Travo tells him to "Get his Opie looking face away from him."

Ginger (Shannyn Howerton) and Kelly (Ginger Hurst)

      One final treat is the music! With the exception of the Stone Temple Pilots' song over the end credits, all of the music is original. The soundtrack has a rich mix of Jazz, Rock and Rap. The local artists provided the great score. The band "Martin Slang" which includes several cast members including co-producer/actor Mark WIlliams (this guy is a triple threat), Andy Almendinger. There is some excellent jazz fussion provided by Steve Harris. Finally a harder edge is provided by Deuce, aka Ghetto Metal. Duece reminds me of the hard edge rap/metal of Ice-T. The music adds immensely to the atmosphere of the film.

      Writer/director Benson brings all of the film's threads together by the time the final credits roll. Benson shows great promise in both the writing and directing department. I was struck by the way he created such a large number of individual characters of both sexes and different races and did so with such insight. The film's opening and closing are in color while the main portion is in black and white. Anyone who has read my reviews knows that I'm a sucker for symbolism. I really liked Benson's decision to use color for a limited purpose. Benson is a student of film. His college is Blockbuster, Hollywood video and the like. With no formal training, Benson and his friends just got a camera and did it themselves. He has a good eye for the right camera angles. He also has a nice touch for comedic timing. During the interview, I was shown the first half of the film. There was a scene between JP and Ricky in which I knew what the punch line was going to be. I began to laugh before it came. In fact, I laughed and it didn't come. When it finally did come, I laughed even harder. Benson had telegraphed the joke through the way he shot the scene, yet he held back on the delivery of the punch. It was a very nice touch. There are some things in the film which the viewer will find familiar. The debt that Benson owes to Kevin Smith and Tarantino is obvious. However, "Friday's Menu" isn't a derivative rip-off of those directors' work. Benson's film is personal and heart felt. The one thing I can't forgive Benson for though is that he put me off shrimp forever. You'll know what I mean when you see it.

      Benson's cast, crew and musicians all donated their time for free. So did a local TV personality for a comical voice over. Benson even convinced a helicopter pilot to volunteer to help him film the several impressive nighttime panoramas of the Memphis skyline. Another coup for Benson was the unexpected crane shot at a critical point in the plot. Benson hopes to enter the movie into several indie film festivals. Benson has reason to be proud. While there are a couple of out of place scenes and one or two flubbed lines which could have been corrected, "Friday's Menu" is a funny, and often insightful slice of life in between high school and the real world.

Red Dragon: Re-Enter the Dragon

Re-Enter the Dragon
by Rusty White
reviewed: 2002-10-05

Rating: 3 STARS
Director: Brett Ratner
Starring: Edward Norton, Anthony Hopkins, Ralph Fiennes, Harvey Keitel, Emily Watson, Mary-Louise Parker, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anthony Heald
Length: 2 hours 4 minutes
Rated: R

"Red Dragon" would seem to be the redheaded stepchild of the "Hannibal Lector" series. It has the stigma of being both a remake and a sequel. The big surprise is that "Red Dragon" turned out to be the second-best film in the series. I find it hard to write these words because I have been an ardent fan of Michael Mann's stylish "Manhunter" from the beginning. Both film versions of Thomas Harris's book "Red Dragon" are far superior to the noxious "Hannibal." "Red Dragon" was directed by Brett Ratner, soon to helm "Superman."

"Red Dragon" remains truer to Thomas Harris's source novel than did "Manhunter." The film's opening and closing provide the biggest treats for fans of the series. This new film version begins with the capture of Dr. Lector (Anthony Hopkins) by agent Will Graham (Edward Norton) of the FBI. This was an element of the novel that was missing from "Manhunter." I'll not spoil the setup, but do watch for Oscar winning composer Lalo Schifrin and John Rubinstein (Zachariah) in small roles during this sequence.

To those not familiar with the novel or earlier film version, the plot of "Red Dragon" centers around the FBI's hunt for a serial killer dubbed 'The Tooth Fairy' by the press. Francis 'The Tooth Fairy' Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes) has slaughtered two families. The police are stumped. FBI agent Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel) reaches out to Will Graham for help. Will retired after nearly dying during the capture of Hannibal Lector. Will has retreated to the solitude of the Florida Keys with his wife and child. Crawford convinces Will that his help is needed if another family is to be spared as nocturnal visit by the Tooth Fairy. Graham will only be needed behind the scenes; yeah right! Graham had a knack for thinking like his prey. Will eventually returns to visit Dr. Lector for advice on the case. Sound familiar?

Anthony Hopkins success in bringing pure evil to the screen is the reason this film was made. On the face of it, "Red Dragon" seems almost more calculated to make money than the horrendous "Hannibal." That fact makes the film's success all the more amazing. The bulk of the film is quite like "Manhunter" in pacing and tone. Though both film versions of the novel were photographed by Dante Spinotti, they are very different in style. Michael Mann's "Manhunter" was stylish in a "Miami Vice" sort of way. "Red Dragon" has more in common with "The Silence of the Lambs" than the earlier "Manhunter." Director Ratner comports himself well in this film. Though he does rely on the quick-cut shock tactic a few times too many, he created a moody and deliberately paced film.

Edward Norton is excellent as Special Agent Graham. So was William L. Peterson in "Manhunter." Norton has a rugged, sun tanned look that is perfect for the role. He is less brooding than Peterson was in the first film. Those who have not seen "Manhunter" will appreciate his performance even more. The are many scenes that use much of the same dialogue as the earlier film. I had a hard time not comparing performances as I watched.

While Ralph Fiennes is great as the villain, Francis Dolarhyde, I couldn't help thinking how cool it would have been to have Tom Noonan reprise his role from "Manhunter" as the killer. Fiennes is a good actor, but he has the wrong look and build for the part. Francis Dolarhyde was a misshapen giant. His size and facial deformity were important parts of his makeup. Fiennes didn't seem big enough for the part. He is great in the way he captures the emotional distress felt by the psychopath. "Red Dragon" goes into much more detail about Dolarhyde's background. This is a nice touch. Tom Noonan was able to convey the conflict of good and evil within the Dolarhyde character without all of the extra background information. I wonder what he could have done with this script!

Harvey Keitel is flat as Jack Crawford. He doesn't have the cocky, self-assurance of Dennis Farina's Crawford from "Manhunter" or Scott Glen's laconic strength from "The Silence of the Lambs." Emily Watson takes of the role played by Joan Allen in "Manhunter." Watson plays Reba McClane, the blind woman who becomes Dolarhyde's lover. Ms. Watson employs the peculiar mannerism of holding her eyes wide open in almost every frame of film. It is as if she is saying, "Hey, My Eyes Don't Work!" This choice on Ms. Watson's part is distracting to the point it almost sinks her performance. The usually wimpy Mary-Louise Parker gets to play a non-victim role for a change. Parker plays Graham's wife. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the ill-fated tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds. The role was played better in "Manhunter" by Stephen Lang.

Brian Cox portrayed Hannibal Lector with great effect in "Manhunter." When I heard that a film version of "The Silence of the Lambs" was being made without Brian Cox, I was disappointed. Then I saw "The Silence of the Lambs." Anthony Hopkins reinvented evil on screen in that 1991-horror classic. In "Red Dragon," Hopkins once again brings a mixture of elan and menace to the screen. At times, his performance comes dangerously close to parody, but a twitch here, and a shadow in his eyes there, soon chills the viewer"s blood once more. Hopkins resurrects the Lector of "The Silence of the Lambs" and removes the 'serial-killer-as-superhero' taint raised in the movie "Hannibal."

Ted Tally wrote the scripts for both "The Silence of the Lambs" and "Red Dragon." Hiring Mr. Tally was a wise choice. His additions to Anthony Hopkins' role match the tone of the book. Lector was but a small part of the novel and first film. For obvious reasons, the part had to be enlarged in "Red Dragon" In "Manhunter," Graham visits Lector under the pretense of asking for his help. In fact, Graham has been away from the hunt for a long time. He just wants to get the scent of a psycho back in his nose. In "Red Dragon" Tally builds on that premise, but has Graham also deal with his fears. Graham is seeking some sort of closure with Lector in "Red Dragon."

Danny Elfman's score is powerful. Look for an Oscar nomination for this one. I was reminded of Bernard Herrmann's great Hitchcock scores as I watched the film.

"Red Dragon" ends differently than "Manhunter." I both appreciated this and found part of it contrived. There is a scene in which Dolarhyde is presumably killed, but you know that he isn't dead. That gimmick is as old as movies themselves. However, the gimmick is used to set up a final confrontation that is one of the best parts of the newer version. Norton delivers a powerful performance during this scene. The movie ends with a nice teaser that is designed to lead right into "The Silence of the Lambs." With "Red Dragon," Hannibal Lector has come full circle to a satisfying conclusion. By returning Hannibal to his origins, the mess that was "Hannibal" becomes just a bad memory.

Friday, June 27, 2014

25th Hour: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
by Rusty White
reviewed: 2002-12-16

Rating: 3 STARS,
Director: Spike Lee,
Starring: Edward Norton, Rosario Dawson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Brian Cox, Anna Paquin
Length: 134 minutes
Rated: R

Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) has 24 hours before he must surrender himself to Federal authorities and begin serving a 7-year sentence for dealing drugs. Monty spends his last 24-hours of freedom looking back over his past and forward to the 25th hour, the hour which will shape the rest of his life. "25th Hour," Spike Lee's first feature film since "Bamboozled" is a mature change of pace for the always interesting director. "25th Hour" harkens back to the early works of Martin Scoresese, especially "Mean Streets." Lee's film doesn't achieve the classic status of "Mean Streets," but it does have the taste, smell and feel of that earlier film. "25th Hour" also looks back to the films of the 70s with its wonderful ending.

Monty can't enjoy his last day with his lover Naturelle (Rosario Dawson). Monty suspects she was the one who turned him into the Feds. The cops said she did, and so did his Russian supplier, Kostya (Tony Siragusa). The fact that Monty still lives with Naturelle tells you something about his character. He's basically a nice guy who makes his living off of other people's misery. In the opening sequence, Monty and Kostya are on their way to a drug deal. Monty stops his souped-up Dodge Charger in the middle of a bridge and saves a dog that has been thrown from a car. He names the dog Doyal after Kostya says that Monty brings him (Kostya) bad luck. "You're just like Doyal's Law: It will go wrong." So the dog that should have been named Murphy, ended up being called Doyal. That's the kind of guy Monty is. He is conflicted. He wants to believe he can trust Naturelle, but then again, she was the only one who knew where the drugs were kept. Monty's namesake is Montgomery Cliff. His father James (Brian Cox) wanted to name him James Jr.. Instead, Monty's mother won out. Like the troubled actor, Monty has made a lifetime of bad choices. Those choices are closing in on him.

Frank (Barry Pepper) and Jakob (Philip Seymour Hoffman) are Monty's best friends. They want to show Monty one last night of fun, Frank is a high powered Wall St. trader who is willing to risk other people's money to insure he never goes back to the old neighborhood. Jakob is a dweebish teacher at a prep school who has the hots for Mary D'Annunzio (Anna Paquin), a pierced, tattooed hottie in his English Lit. class. The sub-plot between Jacob and Mary is Lee's one big misstep in this movie. Jakob's character plays an important role in the movie. It seems that the teacher/student sub-plot was thrown in to give Jakob something to do before he is really needed.

"25th Hour" is episodic. The film doesn't follow the paradigms espoused by the numerous "how to" screenwriting books that crowd bookstore shelves. Lee follows the characters through this all-important day. Flashbacks are used when necessary to show Monty reflecting on what got him where he is. Lee's conservative use of the flashback rivals Sam Peckinpah's use of the same technique in "The Wild Bunch." They are short and to the point.

Edward Norton proves once again, that he is the best young actor working in film. Monty is an introspective character. He is living the most pivotal day of his life. Norton expresses this angst through a number of acting methods. His performance is lean. No fat whatsoever. Norton's Monty realizes he has screwed up. Although he had good motives, Monty took an easy way out. This may sound pat and trite, but Norton is wonderful portraying this conflicted character. It is in this respect that "25th Hour" most resembles "Mean Streets." Norton reminded me of Harvey Keitel's introspective gangster contemplating the fires of hell. Some may say that it's easy to feel sympathy for Monty because he's such a nice guy. The movie only shows one victim of his crime. Monty is confronted by a pathetic junkie in need of a fix. The movie doesn't go into as much detail about how Monty was able to harden his heart to those he preyed on. Maybe less of the student /teacher sub-plot and more of this issue would have made "25th Hour" a better film. Lee doesn't avoid the subject. There is a wonderful scene between Frank and Naturelle, which deals with it head on.

The movie includes a very nice subdued performance by Brian Cox as Monty's dad, James. James blames himself for Monty's troubles. Monty's mom died when Monty was 11 years old, and James turned into a drunk. Brian Cox's wonderful Irish lilt is magical as he does the voice-over Lee's touching and ambiguous ending.

Lee is to be lauded for his New York attitude. The credit sequence will touch even the most jaded heart. Lee is able to show the effects of 9-11 on New Yorkers and Americans in general during the course of the movie. There is a great scene shot from a window over-looking the clean up at ground zero. The scene represents the events of 9-11 as well as choices that Monty will have to make in the future. While "25th Hour" isn't a masterpiece, it is the best film by Spike Lee since "Malcolm X."

8 Mile: 8 Miles High!

8 Miles High!
by Rusty White
reviewed: 2002-11-09

Rating: 3 & 1/2 STARS
Director: Curtis Hanson
Starring: Eminem, Kim Basinger, Brittany Murphy, Mekhi Phifer
Length: 1 hour 58 minutes
Rated: R

Controversial Rapper Eminem has pulled off a Howard Sternish cinematic makeover. The adored and reviled singer comes across strong, sympathetic, funny and surprisingly moral in Curtis Hanson's new film "8 Mile." As Stern did in the wonderful "Private Parts," Eminem forces closed-minded critics to give the man another look with "8 Mile" . Eminem plays "Rabbit," a blue-collar, trailer-trash working-stiff who dreams of someway out of his hellish existence. Rabbit sees Rap/Hip Hop music as his ticket out. In "8 Mile," Eminem is a sympathetic hero striving to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. The young singer's performance is worthy of an Oscar nomination. Eminem has been quoted as saying he doesn't intend to act again. That would be a shame, as he has a charismatic screen presence. Eminem is asked to carry this movie. For a first time actor his performance is remarkably seasoned. The naysayers might state that Eminem is just playing himself. Even if that is true, he still has charisma. The history of film is full of people just playing themselves. Many of them were never heard from again. Others, like Gary Cooper, John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart based long and lustrous careers on playing themselves.

Rabbit (Eminem) works at a metal pressing factory in Detroit. "Only ex-cons and welfare moms work there" says Rabbit's former classmate who is now his mother's lover. Rabbit breaks up with his girlfriend when she mentions the word "pregnant." He does leave her the car though. Rabbit is a cipher to those around him. His buddy, 'Future' (Mekhi Phifer) knows that Rabbit has what it takes to break out into the music business. Future hosts Friday night "Rap Battles" at a place called the shelter. A Battle consists of two Rappers facing off for 45 seconds of stylized insults. The crowd decides the winner. The film starts with Rabbit preparing to take part in his first battle. Rabbit chokes. The time isn't right. He has too much inner turmoil to let the beast loose on stage yet.

Rabbit only has one place to go, now that he has broken up with his girlfriend: home to the trailer park. Rabbit walks in on his mother Stephanie (Kim Basinger) as she is riding her unemployed lover on the livingroom couch. Ah, the joys of trailer park living. Rabbit's journey to the film's climatic "Rap Battle" is a baptism of fire, which will reveal Rabbit's individuality and inner strength. Eminem is amazing as his character faces temptations and bullshit from every corner. Rabbit doesn't always make the right decision, but like "Old Blue Eyes," he does it his way!

Director Curtis Hanson has an eye for the seedy side of life. "8 Mile" is set in a version of Detroit that is even uglier than the Detroit of "Robo Cop." The only thing that doesn't appear broken down in this city are the spirits of the film's main characters. The city is a Muse for Rabbit and the others. Their poetry from hell encapsulates all of the anger and woe produced by life on the edge of oblivion. In the film's funniest scene, Rabbit works on his mother's broken down car, while Future talks to him. Stephanie's lover sits in the trailer listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama." Rabbit and Future make up an ad-libbed tribute to Rabbit's predicament to the tune of the Skynyrd song. The song is hilarious and sad at the same time. Rabbit is able to laugh at the cards he has been dealt. Like everyone else in the movie, he wants out. Unlike everyone else in the movie, Rabbit has what it takes to get out.

The performances are uniformly fine. Kim Basinger grows more and more with each smart script she selects. She has that rode-hard, hung-up-wet quality which exists in the world of Jerry Spingerville. Brittany Murphy is hot as Alex, the sexy babe who will do whatever and whomever it takes to get a ticket to New York. The sex scene between Alex and Rabbit captures perfectly the unbridled passion of a spur-of-the-moment-rip-your-cloths-off quickie as any I have ever seen on film. Mekhi Phifer has a young David Keith quality. Phifer provides a rock-strong sidekick performance. Only Evan Jones as the doofy "Cheddar Bob" seems to be a stereotype. Cheddar Bob is there to provide comic relief. Maybe he is based on one of Eminem's friends.

"8 Mile" contains much profanity, however, the film is completely devoid of any of the lyrics which have caused Eminem to incur the wrath of parents and old-farts like myself. Ironically, Rabbit comes to the defense of the film's one gay character. This isn't to say that Rabbit is a saint, he isn't. Thank God for that. Eminem's Rabbit is a fully developed character that is reminiscent of the "angry young men" cycle of films, which came out of England in the early 1960s. Eminem delivers as strong a performance as Albert Finney in "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning," Richard Harris in "The Sporting Life" or Tom Courtney in "The Loneliness of the Long Distant Runner." "8 Mile" melds the fury of those films into the formula plot of "Rocky" to create the story of a hero you can't help but root for.

Shadow of the Vampire: Immortal Undead

Immortal Undead
by Rusty White
reviewed: 2001-01-27
Rating: 3&1/2 STARS
Director: E. Elias Merhige
Starring: John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Udo Kier, Catherine McCormack, Cary Elwes
Length: 1 hour 32 minutes
Rated: R

In 1969, I saw F.W. Murnau's silent film masterpiece "Nosferatu" in the basement of the main library in Memphis. The movie ended around 10 PM. I believe I set a world record running the 5 dark city blocks to the safety of my home. This was one 11 year old that the boogie man was not going to get. "Nosferatu" is one of the best vampire movies ever made. It is hard to imagine anyone who has seen it disagreeing with that claim. E. Elias Merhige's "Shadow of the Vampire" builds on the clever premise that Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe), the actor who played Count Orlock in "Nosferatu" was in fact a real vampire. The only one aware of this is director Murnau (John Malkovich). Murnau has struck a deal with the devil in order to direct an unauthorized version of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Merhige's film is a smart, funny and insightful look into the world of filmmaking.

If you are looking for a scary movie "Shadow of the Vampire" is not for you, however, if you are a horror movie fan familiar with "Nosferatu" and the mysterious Max Schreck, then this is your cup of tea. That is not to say that those unfamiliar with this movie's origins will be disappointed. My date as ignorant of film's history as a nun is to the ways of carnal love and she loved "Shadow of the Vampire."

"Shadow of the Vampire" draws some interesting analogies between the undead and the artist. Malkovich portrays Murnau as a genius who seeks immortality through celluloid. In one scene, Greta Schroeder (Catherine McCormack), the leading lady of "Nosferatu" argues that she doesn't want to go on location because the theater season in Berlin is about to start. Malkovich responds by stroking her ego. This role will push her talents and make her a star. If she finishes the film she will make sacrifices for her art which will place her above all other actresses. It is Malkovich who is willing to sacrifice all for his art, even if his actions endanger others. No one else could have played this part. Malkovich's Machiavellian Murnau is a wonder to behold as he directs his movie. I especially enjoyed, as he directed Gustav von Wangenheim (Eddie Izzard) and Count Orlock during the dinner scene. As Gustav slowly cuts through a loaf of bread, Murnau suddenly yells, causing Gustav to cut his finger. The sight of blood sends Orlock into a vampiric frenzy. One must make sacrifices for their art. The movie trailer reveals the scene in which Murnau berates Orlock for attacking his cameraman. "Couldn't you have taken the script girl instead?" Murnau asks.

Willem Dafoe is barely recognizable under the realistic "Max Schreck/Count Orlock" makeup. Writer Steven Katz has created a truly memorable and sympathetic vampire. Max Schreck means "Great Terror" in German. While he evokes great terror on the cast and crew of "Nosferatu," Dafoe's Schreck is a pathetic and damned being who seems to enjoy this rare interaction with living beings. The loneliness of eternal life, shunned by the living has never been portrayed better. There is a wonderful scene between Dafoe, producer Albin Grau (Udo Kier) and screenwriter Henrick Galeen (Aden Gillet) in which the two drunken filmmakers ask Schreck what he though about Stoker's novel Dracula. Dafoe responds with a wonderful monologue which captures perfectly his characters isolation. I won't ruin it for you by describing it further.

I can't act my way out of a paper bag, but I can imagine what it must be like for trained actors to work with such a wonderful script. The cast is uniformly excellent. Eddie Izzard brings a subdued comic tone to his role of German actor Gustav von Wangenheim. Malkovich tells his cast and crew, that Max Schreck is a method actor who will only appear to them in full makeup and in character. The scene in which Izzard's character first meets the Count is hilarious. Izzard captures the apprehension and terror that all horror movie fans know as he waits for that unexpected bump in the night. I'd like to see more of Izzard on the big screen.

Udo Kier has a nice turn as the film's producer. Kier portrayed Dracula in the infamous "Andy Warhol's Dracula." It was nice to see Kier in a role which didn't play on his reputation for appearing as a kinky pervert.

My only complaint was Cary Elwes' horrible accent. I enjoy him as an actor, but his accent bothered me. I wasn't as bad a Kevin Kostner's English accent in "Robin Hood" but then few things are.

"Shadow of the Vampire" takes up many familiar themes and reexamines them with a fresh twist. The duality of the Murnau/Schreck characters could be the subject of a good post movie bull session with other movie buffs. She this one with a fellow movie fan, but "Shadow of the Vampire" should be enjoyed by all.