Category Archives: Throwback Review

A look back at old movies that deserve to be remembered.

2014 In Memoriam: Robin Williams

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An Amazing Comedian But Also A Brilliant Film Actor

Robin Williams was a giant. He was highly intelligent, insightful, a master at impersonations, an unequaled expert at improvisation and by far one of the funniest comedians to ever walk the planet. To lose him was terrible for all of us who loved what he did. In fact, when I was feeling down I would try to find a stand up routine or talk show appearance of his to make me laugh and it never failed to cheer me up. But, one area that I found him to be slightly overlooked was in his abilities as an actor. Sure, he won a well- deserved Oscar and ninety percent of the time he appeared on the Late Show or The Tonight Show it was to promote one of his films. However, I think people often became so distracted by all of his hilarious antics as a guest that his excellence in movies was not as recognized. This is in addition to the fact that the half- life of recognizing someone as an Oscar winner is very short as he himself pointed out when he was on Inside The Actor’s Studio. So, I felt compelled to reflect on three roles he played where his incredible cinema acting talent was on full display. I’m certain that others might think of other films than the ones that will be on display, but these were the ones that I remember the most.

Honorable Mentions

Doctor Cozy Carlyle- Dead Again (1991)
Although he only had a few brief scenes in this film his portrayal of a therapist who lost his license for becoming sexually involved with his patients was excellent. You could feel his desperation, regret and remorse over his actions. Doctor Carlyle also plays a fairly pivotal role near the film’s end.

Peter Banning- Hook (1991)
A tale of a grown up Peter Pan was an interesting idea to say the least and who better to play that than Robin Williams. The scene where he screams at his kids for playing too loudly and his overall arrogance as the grown up Peter Banning were gut wrenching. Furthermore, his transformation back into his true self of Peter Pan was an astounding thing to watch.

Mel- Deconstructing Harry (1997)
Although he only had a small role in this as part of one of protagonist Harry Bloc’s (Woody Allen) vignettes he made an already side splitting movie all the more hilarious. He played an actor who appeared to people to be out of focus, which made them nauseous and did so with typical manic hilarity. This would cause me to double over, giggling and still does whenever I recall it. When the director tells him, “Mel your soft. Your out of focus,” and he responds “It’s blurry it’s really blurry,” I still find myself in a fit of laughter.

His Three Best Roles

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John Keating- Dead Poet’s Society (1989)

It may seem not as important now, but Williams’ time, as John Keating was quite a revelation when this picture came out. Here was the man known for being Mork and at times doing very salty comedy, playing an inspiring teacher. His calls for “Carpe Diem” to the boys he taught, his encouragement of Neil (Robert Sean Leonard) to pursue acting against his parents’ wishes and his ability to make poetry excitable to the young men of Welton preparatory school felt extraordinarily real. Furthermore, (Spoiler alters here) the scenes where he breaks down crying alone in the classroom after Neil’s suicide and when he utters, “Thank you boys” at the end of the film when they all pay tribute to him touch, all but the coldest hearts. Dead Poet’s society proved that Robin Williams was a fantastic dramatic actor and there is no way the film would have had such an incredible response if it were not for him being in it.

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Dr. Sean Maguire- Good Will Hunting (1997)

He won an Oscar for this movie and rightfully so. In truth, he was so good in it that I believe that every scene he was in would is worth examining. However, I’ll limit myself to only two. As Dr. Sean Maguire he was the one person who could reach out to, understand, and guide the brilliant but very troubled Will Hunting (Matt Damon). In addition, his interpretation of a man mired in grief over the death of his wife was breathtaking. However, by far there were two scenes that stuck out the most to me. You need only to see both of them to witness how exemplary his performance was.

The first comes midway through the film as Sean and Will are in a therapy session. Sean tells Will about how his wife used to fart in her sleep and how one time when doing so she woke herself up. Will starts laughing uncontrollably as does Sean. After this the latter makes a key point when he says something to the effect, “ I loved that about her. That’s what made her my wife. Her idiosyncrasies. People call these things imperfections. They’re not, that’s the good stuff.” The naturalism and ease in this scene along with the profound statement of Sean’s make it amazing to watch. A sweet little footnote to it is that Robin Williams improvised the line about his wife farting and that is why Matt Damon laughs so hard. If you watch closely you can see the camera shake a bit and that was because the cinematographer did not know the joke was coming and was trying to maintain his composure as he shot the scene. (It always makes me wonder how even funnier Robin Williams would have been in person.) Moreover, this is important to the story as it further humanizes Will, makes the viewer like Sean even more and shows the bond that is developing between the math prodigy Will and his court ordered shrink.

The second comes near the end of the film. As Sean and Will are about to complete their last session, Will asks Sean if he has had any personal experience with child abuse. Sean then recounts how when his angry alcoholic father would come home he would provoke him to beat him so that he would not hit his mother or little brother. This leads to Will finally describing in more detail the physical abuse he suffered at the hands of his foster father. Then Sean picks up Will’s file shows it to him and says, “ You see this. All of this (expletive). It’s not your fault.” When Will responds casually, “ I know,” Sean keeps saying it until the latter collapses sobbing in Sean’s arms. This moved me tremendously when I first saw it and never fails to today. In one moment, Sean recognizes who Will is as no one before ever has and gives him license to put the dark past behind him.

Robin Williams was an eye opener, as Sean Maguire and the Oscar seemed like the least that could be done in acclaiming him. If you have not seen this you should. He will leave you in awe.

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Seymour Parrish- One Hour Photo (2002)

One Hour Photo was not a huge box office hit as far as I know, but was an absolutely brilliant thriller that solidifies the fact that Robin Williams could not only be funny, charming and sensitive in movies, but also quite scary. He plays Seymour (Sy) Parrish a photo tech at a chain store much like Wal-Mart. Sy is an extremely lonely, isolated man who treats his job of developing photographs as if it were an indispensably valuable service to the community. He is also in such longing for a family connection that he becomes dangerously obsessed with the Yorkin family whose photos he processes very often. He hangs copies of their photos in his apartment, pretends to bump into them in places, and even breaks into their home and imagines himself living with them. Sy’s firing from his job for making too many copies of photographs, giving a free camera to the Yorkins son Jakob (Dylan Smith) as well as his discovery (Spoiler alert) that Will is having an affair push him over the edge. This leads to a shocking conclusion where the reasons for and the full extent of Sy’s psychosis is revealed and where the Yorkins lives will be irreparably changed.

Williams’s depiction of a deeply lonesome, withdrawn man at loose ends was so convincing that it was unsettling. When watching it, you feel as if he could snap at any moment and that makes you feel very uncomfortable. Furthermore, when he does snap your heart beats faster until the conflict is resolved and when the movie is over you feel the need for a shower and maybe a Valium. It is a testament to how well he did in One Hour Photo that his portrayal of Sy could evoke such a reaction. Without him, there would be no movie.

Robin Williams will be missed. Robin Williams was irreplaceable. He was a comedic genius and a truly brilliant man whose like we will never see again. He was one of a kind, not just in the world of comedy, which he became known for, but also as an extraordinarily gifted film actor. The movie world is already poorer without him even though he has been gone for only a few months. His legacy lies in his work. This is work that you should see.

2014 In Memoriam: Remembering Philip Seymour Hoffman

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Philip Seymour Hoffman: My Favorite (And In My Opinion, His Best) Performances

With 2014 drawing to a close in the next few weeks, I thought I would reflect on some of the fine actors that were lost this year. Indeed, this was a year when legends died in the entertainment community. In recent months, giants like Mike Nichols, Joan Rivers and Robin Williams passed and people well skilled at interpreting a character like Bob Hoskins and James Rebhorn have also added another hole. In each case, each one of these artists can never be replaced. But, one of the fiercest blows came for me at the beginning of year with the untimely death of Philip Seymour Hoffman.

I first saw Mr. Hoffman in Scent of Woman in 1993 in which he played George Willis, Jr. I felt he was good in the movie, but I largely forgot about him until six years later when I again saw him in one of my all time favorite films, The Talented Mr. Ripley. I adored the way he brought to life the character of Freddy Miles. Seeing him play male nurse Phil Parma brilliantly in Magnolia followed this. After that I was pretty hooked. However, I became a full- fledged fan in April of 2000, when I was fortunate enough to see him star with John C. Reilly in Sam Sheppard’s play True West at The Circle In The Square theater in Manhattan. The play was excellently written, extraordinarily acted and he and Reilly delivered exquisite performances. In fact, I went back a second time because both actors had switched roles and played different ones than I had seen them act the previous night that I was lucky enough to see the production. Both times he was in rare form as he became so consumed in the characters he portrayed that he was visibly physically and emotionally drained at the end. I was highly affected and vowed that anytime that he acted in a film or play that I wanted to and could afford to see I would make a point of being in the audience. (I was also fortunate to have him stand behind me in line at the Barnes And Noble near my home and to see him around my neighborhood quite often. I never spoke to him because I did not want to bother him, but now part of me wishes I had. He always seemed very grounded, friendly and affable with no traces of a large ego.)

So, his death for me was like a punch in the gut and one I’m still reeling from. This was not a traditional leading man who had become successful based purely on his fantastic ability and not on any other factors. As a result, for me, it’s hard to imagine a world where we will never see another performance from him ever again. Because of this, I thought I might pay tribute to him by sharing what I believe to be his four best works, the impression that they made on me and what he brought to them.

Honorable Mention: Before I set out to disclose the films of his I loved the most, I thought that these movies which showcased his range and admirable gift, but which I won’t go into in detail should also get some mention. They are: Brandt in the Big Lebowski, Phi Parma in Magnolia, Freddy Lounds in Red Dragon, Joseph Tuner White in State And Maine, Scotty J. in Boogie Nights, Sandy Lyle in Along Came Polly (He is enormously funny in this one.) Paul Zara in Ides of March and Lancaster Dodd in The Master. I’m sure some out there can think others, but these were just a few of the pictures he was involved with that I found to be truly exceptional. However, the next four had for me a continuing impact.

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1. Freddy Miles- The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

Hoffman appears as Freddy Miles in The Talented Mr. Ripley fairly early on in the film. From the moment he pulls up in his red sports car and hopes out of the table declaring to his friend Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law), “Don’t you want to (expletive) every woman you see just once,” and kisses Dickie on the cheek European style, he is a presence that is deeply felt. Freddy pulls apart the notion that Tom Ripley should deign to be in the company of himself and Dickie, the young heirs to vast fortunes living an ex-patriot life in Europe. He puts Tom in his place when saying things like, “Tell me about this job of yours Tommy. You stay at Dickie’s house, you eat Dickie’s food, you wear his clothes and his father picks up the tab. If you ever get bored let me know. ‘Cause I’ll do it.” Or when he catches Tom glancing over at Dickie and his girlfriend Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow) having sex on Dickie’s boat and asks, “Tommy, how’s the peeping?”
In short, Freddy is a typical narcissistic, privileged, arrogant, snobbish high society bachelor who believes the world revolves around he and his friends and demonstrates the usurper Tom Ripley is so obviously trying not to appear to be. It is a testament to Hoffman’s talent that he was able to bring to life this questionable character with such realism and humor. Not only does it propel the story forward in a meaningful way, but leaves you liking someone you should not and who will serve a much more significant purpose in the film until its conclusion.

I loved the movie and everyone’s work in it, but I found myself filled with regard for Hoffman and was eager to see more from him.

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2. Lester Bangs- Almost Famous (2000)
For anyone who loves rock and roll or is a rock and roll musician this movie is a perfect look at the genre in the seventies. Furthermore, it is a humorous, poignant and funny tale about a boy maturing to the early stages of adulthood and leaving behind the illusions of his younger self. Hoffman’s depiction of the real life rock journalist Lester Bangs who served as a mentor to the film’s director Cameron Crowe, and does so to the on screen version of Cameron named William Miller (Patrick Fugit) is perfect. He emits the wit, the wisdom and the loneliness that comes with the job. He also espouses truths about rock that in my opinion, are sadly very alive with us today when he says, “You’re coming along at a very dangerous time when they will ruin rock and roll and everything we love about it.” But, like in The Talented Mr. Ripley, he also provides dashes of humor during key scenes. For instance, when William calls him frantic that he has not even begun writing the story he was assigned by Rolling Stone and now has to talk to his editor Bangs tells him, “You’re talking to Ben Fong Torres right? Tell him that it’s a “think piece” about a mid level band struggling with their own limitations in the harsh face of stardom. He’ll wet himself.” Finally, he provides arguably the film’s most key insight when a dispirited William having returned from being on the road with one of his favorite bands Stillwater and being disappointed by their behavior and his own lack of charisma, says to him, “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone when your uncool.”
I saw this movie. I loved it and it wouldn’t have been complete without the contribution of Philip Seymour Hoffman to it.

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3. Jacob Elinsky- 25th Hour (2002)
25th Hour is a brilliant film by Spike Lee set in New York City in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and follows Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) as he tries to tie up all his loose ends before having to begin serving prison time for dealing drugs the next day. Hoffman was once again in a supporting role as he played Jacob Elinsky a teacher at an elite New York prep school and one of Monty’s two best friends, who will spend all their time with Monty until he has to leave. In this part, Hoffman created a man who was struggling, confused, somewhat socially awkward and trying to understand a world he could no longer recognize. (This all of course was exacerbated by the fact he had begun lusting after one of his female students.) In a nutshell, his character served the purpose of further humanizing Monty who was far cooler than Jacob was but treated him like a brother, and in expressing the fear, pain, consternation and bewilderment all of us living in New York felt at the time. As usual, he did so outstandingly and like in Almost Famous, had there been no Hoffman in this one it would not have been as powerful.

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4. Truman Capote- Capote
For playing Truman Capote, Hoffman won a much deserved and long overdue Oscar. At this point, I had become somewhat disillusioned with his latest films and thus I went into this one with some reservation. Additionally, Capote being such a flamboyant, larger than life personality the idea of Hoffman portraying him as he researched and wrote his revolutionary book, “In Cold Blood,” seemed like quite a stretch. But, I could not have been proven more wrong. He delivered a realistic, witty, interesting and unbelievably honest interpretation of the one and only TC. Anyone interested in acting need only look at the scene in film where Capote says goodbye to the two killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickcock (Clifton Collins, Jr. and Mark Pellegrino) as they are about to be hung to death to see someone at the top of his game. Hoffman’s work in this film was a once in a lifetime home run that still resonates today.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman would go on to do other great movies and play other great characters after the films that I mentioned, but these were the ones that had the most personal, profound, and lasting influence on me. I found them not just entertaining, but inspiring and thought provoking and that was what made his death so upsetting for me. Furthermore, he had kept up a steady stream of good work in recent years. One need only to look at The Master to see that he was nowhere near being finished. What is even sadder is that we will never know what other great characters and work he had in store before he died and that is a great loss for all of us who love cinema.

Philip Seymour Hoffman was a true original, unmatchable actor. His loss hurt and even though he only passed away this year, as a fan I already miss him deeply.

Throwback Review: Christmas Movies

The First Two Die Hard Movies and Eyes Wide Shut: Are They X-Mas Movies?

With the holiday season now in full swing there are going to be a profusion of films about them in the theaters, on television, and available for pay per view. Although, I have great respect for and enjoy celebrating the season, I have never been a big fan of holiday movies except when I was a small child. There’s no doubting the historical or societal impact of films like, It’s A Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street, but they just never really appealed to me. Even more adult themed ones from filmmakers I treat with regard like Ed Burns The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, have failed to rouse any great excitement in me or a strong urge to see them. But, while watching some of the films in Die Hard franchise over the Thanksgiving weekend- which for me has become an odd yearly custom- it occurred to me how strange it is that certain movies set during the holidays look as if they have absolutely no relevance to it itself. This is of course, in the sense that they do not really seem to espouse any of the tenets that it is meant to engender in people. This is clearly the case when it comes to the first two Die Hard films and Stanley Kubrick’s final offering, Eyes Wide Shut.

Setting the first two Die Hard movies during Christmas is certainly an effective plot device. As in both movies, it allows a reason for John McClaine (Bruce Willis) to be traveling to Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. and then saving his wife from the terrorists that have turned Christmas time into a nightmare. In the first film, it shows that despite their difficult marriage, McClaine has a deep love for his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) as he battles with and defeats the terrorists not just out of a sense of duty, but to save her from certain death. In the second, he takes on soldiers turned mercenaries to keep her plane and others from crashing and resulting in not just her death, but also many others. Due to these facts, one could argue that in some ways they could be thought of as Christmas movies because they seem to advocate the virtues of love and justice triumphing over evil. However, on close examination that idea is a bit of a stretch.

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Now, I do not mean to be sanctimonious. I really like these two films. I find them very entertaining to watch especially when I want to turn my mind off for a few hours, but setting them during Christmas just seems odd to me. I’m aware that both were based on novels that may have also been set during the period, so maybe when conceiving these pictures the creators did not want to stray too far from the source material. But, does it not strike anybody as a little strange that in both movies, during a time that is supposed to be promoting peace on earth and good will toward men you have a tough cop shooting people, stabbing there eyes out with a piece of ice, snapping their necks, and throwing the main villain off a building in the first movie and destroying the plane of the other in the second. This is in addition to dropping various f- bombs and delivering some of the best salty one liners in film history. And that’s just the hero.

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In the first film the terrorists kill people without compunction (But, what else would you expect from terrorists right?) interrupt a sexual encounter and seek to steal millions of dollars all while the strains of various Christmas carols and Ode to Joy play in the background. Along with that, they mention miracles and Christmas references repeatedly. Similarly, in the second, they kill a man, who lives in a church, shoot policeman, and crash a plane full of innocent civilians and obviously enjoy doing it. All this goes on while travelers wait at the airport to depart or greet their loved while Christmas references abound. Knowing all of this, I’m surprised and relieved (I don’t think any kind of creative endeavor should ever be censored.) that there has not been more of a backlash against this film from certain aspects of the Christian community as far as I’m aware.

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Eyes Wide Shut

Still, as astonishing as it is to find the Die Hard films being set during the holidays, the most hard to believe is Eyes Wide Shut. Not to offed any Kubrick fans out there, but this movie is not the man’s best effort. The acting is weak, the dialogue is ridiculous at times and the story is way too weird and drawn-out. But, what is even more surprising than all of that, is the fact that all of it transpires before Christmas.

The film begins with Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) and his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) going to a Christmas party given by one of Harford’s patient Victor Ziegler (Sidney Pollack). At the party when the couple become unexpectedly separated, Alice gets propositioned by a Hungarian businessman, Bill flirts with and is subtly offered sex by two models that he meets, but is unable to act on his desire because he is asked by Zeigler to help him treat a nude woman who overdosed while taking a speed ball (This is a combination of cocaine and heroin.) This is just the beginning.


From there the film evolves into the Harfords’ smoking pot and having an argument where Alice expresses her craving to cheat on Bill with a naval office she saw briefly the previous summer. The depravity continues further. The fight and the death of a patient cause Bill to leave and go the patient’s home where the dead patients daughter comes him. He then leaves the patient’s home procures the services of and kisses a prostitute named Domino (Vanessa Shaw) where he is only unable to complete the transaction because his wife calls him before it can really get started. After stopping by at a local jazz club he hears about the virtues of women a pianist friend of his has seen at a secret sex party, which leads to him patronizing a costume shop where he sees two Japanese businessmen about to have sex with an underage girl. Finally, with his costume of a tuxedo, mask and black cloak with a hood he clandestinely attends another one of the secret sex parties he has heard about where orgies are going on and only leaves when his life is threatened when his imposter status is revealed. (To add to all this, he lies to his wife about where he has been the entire time.) This all occurs while Christmas decorations, music and allusions to it are present throughout the entire film. In fact, when he enters Domino’s apartment he remarks, “That’s a nice tree,” when he sees her Christmas decoration in her seedy apartment. There is more that goes on as the movie reaches its conclusion, but I think you get the point. These are not the kind of images most people have in mind or will admit to having in mind when they think of the Christmas holidays.

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In all fairness to Kubrick, his film was based on a novel by Arthur Schintzler where many of the same themes are apparent (I haven’t read the novel so I can’t say how closely the two stories mirror one another.) Furthermore, Kubrick had the right to set his film in anytime he wanted to no matter when his original source did. But, I think it can be safely stated that Eyes Wide Shut does not conjure up the precepts of Christmas as we have come to know them.

Thus, because of their setting the question becomes this: Should all of the films mentioned be considered holiday or Christmas movies? In a very bizarre and unsettling way, the answer is yes. If only for the fact that because the holidays are such a large part of each film they could bee seen as depictions of them in some manner. After all the holidays are all over them. It used to be that only politics created strange bedfellows. But I guess, in movies it can happen too.

Throwback Review: Mr. Brooks

Opening Credits: Mr. Brooks is a Crime/Drama/Mystery film that was released in 2007 and was directed by Bruce A. Evans (Kuffs). It stars Kevin Costner, Demi Moore and William Hurt.
 
What I Remember: When I first viewed the trailer for this film in June of 2007, I was very skeptical to say the least. After all although he is an excellent actor, I thought a movie where Kevin Costner would be playing a serial killer was a bit of a joke. How could the perpetual nice guy from Dances With Wolves and Field of Dreams ever conjure up such a person? How wrong I was.

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I hadn’t even intended to see the movie, but after two of my family members went to see it the night I saw the Police on their long awaited reunion tour, and they came back with glowing reviews, I had to. I could not have been more delighted or surprised by this exceptional film.
 
The Story: Mr. Brooks opens with the protagonist, Earl Brooks, (Kevin Costner) staring into a mirror reciting Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer (This is a popular prayer often said by those in A.A.) begging God not to let him given in to his addiction, which he has been able to contain for two years. The film then jumps to Earl being honored as the Portland, Oregon Chamber of Commerce Man of The Year. Earl is extolled, as a highly successful, respectable businessman who is always there for a friend in need, is a pillar of the community, and a man who clearly loves his wife as demonstrated by the surge of emotion he displays and the kiss he blows to her as he is about to begin his acceptance speech. In short, Mr. Brooks appears to be the kind of friend and neighbor everyone would like to have.
 
Next we see Earl and his wife Emma (Marg Helgenberger) driving home from the event. As he is driving, Earl hears the voice and sees the figure of Marshall (William Hurt) whom only he can see, urging him to kill again. Marshall is meant to be the voice inside everyone that says, “Go ahead, and be bad.” After Earl tersely informs Marshall he has vowed never to kill again Marshall replies, “C’mon you’re the f##king Man of The Year Earl, you deserve a treat.” After this exchange, Emma notices Earl looking distraught and asks him what is bothering him. He claims that it is merely a need to have ice cream and so they stop for some. What is ostensibly an ice cream run, is really a reconnaissance mission for as Emma is chatting away, Earl is observing a couple in a dance class the he has been watching lately and feels like murdering.


 
They return home and while Emma goes to sleep, Earl says goodnight and tells her he is going to do some work in his studio located on his sprawling estate. (He is a box designer and a box factory owner.) However, when he enters it and turns on his kiln one finds a host of fake identities, outfits, and weapons he uses to commit murders. He gets himself prepared for his next murder and then drives away in a car he keeps hidden in a garage on his estate. He arrives at the couple’s home dismantles their locks and security system, walks into their bedroom and shoots both of them as they are in the middle of a late night tryst. He gets a perverse, almost sexual thrill out of the killing and it’s only until Marshall points out to him that the blinds to the couple’s home were open does he feel any smack of fear or discomfort. He returns home after the crime, burns the photographs he had taken of the murdered couple after the crime was committed, and begs forgiveness from God for his actions.
 
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The next day we see the crime scene being investigated by Detective Tracy Atwood (Demi Moore). She has been chasing the “thumbprint killer” (The serial killer moniker ascribed to Mr. Brooks slayings.) for years and is disappointed he is back at it again after being dormant for so long. It is revealed that Detective Atwood is going through a messy divorce and that she is being hunted by another serial murderer known as The Hangman who has just escaped from prison. Atwood’s examination of the crime scene along with Earl’s behavior the previous night, demonstrate that he is meticulous, precise, disciplined, leaves nothing to chance and no way of collecting any evidence against him. This is a chilling fact.
Earl is then seen at an AA meeting declaring himself an addict. He volunteers to serve as a member of a cleaning crew for an AA event. Marshall tells him, “ If you were honest you’d say I killed two people last night. I really got off on it. But, I need your help not to kill again.” Earl promises to resume his AA meetings believing that this will keep him from giving in to his bloodlust.
 
Next Earl is at work where he is charming potential clients for his box factory business. His daughter Jane (Danielle Pennebaker) arrives to inform him she is quitting college. While he greets Jane, he notices a man waiting expectantly outside his office. As Earl enters his office to speak with Jane his secretary approaches him, hands over an envelope that was given to her by the man waiting and tells him that the man has said, “Mr. Brooks will find what’s in them very interesting.” He opens the envelope out of the sight of his daughter and secretary, and finds photographs of him perpetrating the murder the previous night. He calmly tells his secretary to tell the man to meet him in his conference room and in private, has a discussion with Jane about why she has left school and why she did not drive the BMW he purchased for her back to Portland.
 
When he arrives in the conference room the man (Dane Cook) introduces himself as Mr. Smith. He tells Earl that he is not going to shake him down for money, but instead relates that he was incredibly thrilled and excited at watching Earl kill the couple. (He had been secretly photographing and peeping on them for months as they left the blinds to their house open when they were intimate.) He tells Earl that the only way he will not go to the police with the evidence he has, is if Earl takes him with him the next time he’s going to kill someone. He also would like that to be soon. Earl reluctantly agrees even though he pledged to himself never to kill again and tells Mr. Smith, “Be careful, if it turns out you do like killing it can be very addictive.”

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From this point forward an already excellent and enticing movie becomes even more so. Astonishing truths about Earl, Jane, Mr. Smith and Atwood are disclosed and nearly all of the characters paths converge. This all leads up to a stunning ending that can knock one’s socks off.
 
Technical Details: Mr. Brooks is a fantastic film. It’s brilliantly shot, superbly written and marvelously acted. Additionally, for a piece with such dark subject matter, it is also has humor and never takes you too far down the rabbit hole.
Arguably, Kevin Costner gives one of the best performances of his career if not the best. He plays the charming sociopath of Mr. Brooks extraordinarily by mixing his typically likeable persona with the soulless calculation of a cold- blooded killer. William Hurt is equally good as Marshall, while Dane Cook gives a surprisingly strong performance, as does Demi Moore. Finally, it is incredibly well paced, as there is never a dull moment.
 
End Credits: So, if you have not seen Mr. Brooks I urge you, in fact I almost implore you to see it. If you have, I urge you to see it again, as it has so many complex layers, you will find something new in it the second time around. Its depiction of a sociopath is disturbingly correct.
 
Even if you’re not a fan of dramas or mysteries you should still see it for the fine acting, directing and writing. In addition, it is more than just a drama or crime story. It is a meditation on how people struggle to reconcile their professional or public selves with their private demons and realities. It is enthralling, intriguing, exciting, and spell binding. It is as excellent as a film can be.

Throwback Review: Lantana

Opening Credits: Lantana is a 2001 Australian Mystery- Drama Film directed by Ray Lawrence (Jindabyne) and stars Anthony La Paglia (So I Married An Axe Murderer), Geoffrey Rush (Shine), and Barbara Hershey (Hannah and Her Sisters).

What I remember: I first saw the trailer for this film in late 2001 and was immediately absorbed. Having great respect for the talents of Anthony La Paglia and Barbara Hershey, I was willing to give it a chance. Furthermore, having Australian relatives I’m always interested to see movies that are set there, if they look promising. Finally, I’m always up for a good mystery and this one definitely caught my attention. So, soon after it was released in January 2002, I went to one of my favorite theaters near Central Park with great anticipation.

The Story: The film opens with the shot of part of a dead woman’s body laying in a wilderness type area and then quickly jumps to a scene of two people reaching the conclusion of a tryst in a hotel room. After they have finished and are dressing, the woman asks the man if he has seen her earing and when he says he hasn’t she replies, “I’m only fond of them because my husband gave them to me.” After they say a pleasant, but somewhat awkward goodbye as the man is driving away, it is shown that the earing had become stuck stuck in his pants by accident. The man’s name is Leon Zat (La Paglia) and he is a detective with the Sydney Police Department who has a wife named Sonja (Kerry Armstrong) and two sons. The woman’s name is Jane O’May (Rachel Blake) and she has recently broken up with her husband and is friendly with her neighbors Nick (Vince Colosimo) and his wife Paula.

We also meet Leon’s partner Detective Claudia Weiss (Leah Purcell) and Valerie and John Knox (Hersey and Rush.) Claudia is clearly a good friend of both Leon and his wife and is disturbed by the recent outbursts of anger Leon is displaying while making arrests on the job and is very fond of Sonja. Valerie is an American therapist and John is a professor who lost their young daughter Eleanor, after she was abducted and murdered a few years earlier. Valerie has written a book about her daughter’s murder, which is being given serious attention by the Australian media. This angers John because he wants to grieve in private. Both are obviously struggling to cope with the devastating event. As a result, their marriage is in obvious trouble and they are distant with each other.

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As the movie progresses it is revealed that Leon and Sonja are having difficulty communicating and that Leon is suffering a form of major depression probably due to some kind of mid-life crisis. They take a dance class, which Leon is noticeably annoyed with having to do, to try to reconnect and bring some excitement back to their marriage. Jane is in the class too, which is how she and Leon met in the first place. (The affair between Leon and Jane ends after their second sexual encounter, with hurt feelings and guilt on Leon’s part. Sonja find out about Leon’s infidelity, although not with whom and is furious.) Also, Sonja is seeing Valerie for therapy sessions unbeknownst to Leon.

One evening after John and Valerie had a small spat earlier, and Valerie has had a difficult session with an intimidating patient named Patrick Phelan (Peter Phelps), she begins to drive home in a highly agitated and upset state of mind. Her car breaks down in an isolated area in the outback near her home. She is understandably fearful and calls John asking for him to come and help her, but she cannot reach him. She calls John a second time only to get his voicemail and after declaring how distressed over what has happened to them and what is happening to their marriage, she informs him that she is going to flag down a car that is approaching and see if the driver can give her a ride. Valerie never makes it home and Leon is put in charge of investigating her disappearance.

It is at this point that an already engaging story becomes even more excellent. As I have done in other reviews, I choose not to disclose what transpires next because if I did it would ruin the whole film for anyone reading this who might be interested in seeing it. What I can say is that as the investigation into Valerie’s disappearance continues all of the character’s lives intertwine in a very plausible and interesting way. In addition, the movie’s ending is quite surprising.
Technical Details: This is a brilliantly acted, well-written, superbly directed piece with beautiful shots of Sydney a well- paced story, well used humor, and even a haunting, evocative score. All of the actors give strong, believable performances that conjure real emotion and understanding. Anthony La Paglia is fantastic as Leon as he plays this flawed, depressed, but likeable man with incredible truth. (In fact, he was so committed to the role that after having lived in New York for years, he enlisted a dialect coach to help him relearn how to speak in his original Australian accent.) Also, my hat goes off to Kerry Armstrong who gives an outstanding performance as Sonja. I could not believe this was her film debut when I first saw this as she is so convincing it can make one’s heartbreak. Finally, Geoffrey Rush and Barbara Hershey give stellar performances as always.

End Credits: Lantana is an excellent character driven work that anyone who appreciates excellent cinema should see. It examines the complexity of human relationships whilst unfolding a truly intriguing mystery before your eyes. Arguably, its greatest strength is that it shows that the most vexing mystery in one’s life can be the person that he or she is married to. Therefore, I urge you to see Lantana you will not be disappointed.

Throwback Review: Interview With The Assassin

Interview With The Assassin: An Obscure, But Excellent Film

It’s Great When You Can Be Surprised: 

Since the 51st anniversary of the assassination of the President John F. Kennedy is coming up, I felt compelled to review a hidden gem that deals with it from 2002. Interview With The Assassin stars Raymond J. Barry (The X Files, Little Children) and Dylan Haggerty (Con Air) and was directed by Neil Burger (Divergent).

When this film arrived at my doorstep a few years ago after Netflix recommended it, I was extremely skeptical. After all, I had not heard of the director or the actors and thought I had seen all of the movies about the Kennedy assassination that needed to be seen. (JFK, Mrs. Lee Harvey Oswald, Ruby, and Oswald’s Ghost seemed to be enough.) But, feeling a little under the weather and in need of a distraction, I reluctantly put the film in. For the next ninety minutes, I was riveted, enthralled, and highly impressed.

The film is shot in a documentary style and feels as if one is seeing a true story being recounted almost before your eyes. In fact, if one put the movie on without knowing that it was fiction, you could be fooled.

The Story:
Interview With The Assassin begins with a recently laid off San Bernardino, California local news cameraman named Ron Kobeleski (Haggerty), speaking with an interviewer off camera about how he first met his neighbor Walter Ohlinger (Barry). He informs him that Walter was a recluse whom he had barely had any contact with. Walter had asked Ron if he could come over to Walter’s house and film him confessing to a crime he had committed many years before without having been caught. Out of boredom, Ron agrees and then we see the interview begin.

Walter is an older man who has an intimidating and cold presence. After Ron begins the interview in an informal manner, Walter snaps at him and the camera is turned off. (Walter is clearly establishing that he is not a man to be trifled with and his imposing, unsettling manner sends chills down one’s spine.) When the interview begins again, Walter states his full name, seeks assurances from Ron that he will not allow his confession to be released to the world until he wants it to be and that he will not speak to the police. He then says to Ron, “I was in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Does that mean anything to you?” Ron recognizes the date as the Kennedy assassination and then Walter admits to being the second gunman on the Grassy Knoll. He claims that he fired one shot that hit President Kennedy in the head. He states that since he will be dead from terminal caner in six months, he no longer feels any need to hide his role in the conspiracy. Ron is incredulous and asks Walter if he has any proof to support his astounding claim.

Walter then takes Ron to a local bank where he has a safe deposit box. When the bank attendant who opened the box leaves, Walter shows Ron the shell of the bullet he allegedly shot from behind the stockade fence, which is contained in a plastic bag. Walter says he kept the shell so that those who planned the assassination would be unable to eliminate him and also has a will in the safe deposit box that names all of the conspirators involved. He then picks up the plastic bag points it right at the camera and smugly declares, “This is a federally insured institution and look what they’re protecting.”


Ron then takes the bullet to be examined at a local crime lab. Through his conversation with the lab technician, it is inferred that the news station Walter previously worked at often uses this lab, and Walter informs the technician he’s working on a story now and is no longer just a cameraman neglecting to mention that he has been laid off. He asks to know the type and caliber of the bullet as well as the year it was fired, “That’s the most important part,” Ron asserts. After the test is finished the technician notifies him that shell is from a bullet that was fired after 1962. He then tells Ron that he can match the shell to its bullet by performing more extensive and expensive tests. When Ron agrees to do more tests and offers to pay for them the technician jokingly asks, “What’s so important about this bullet? Is it the J.F.K. bullet?” Ron tells him it is not, but asks how he would handle it if it were. The technician replies, “ I wouldn’t.” When Ron asks why he would not, the technician tells him that it would be too dangerous to get involved with anything regarding the assassination.

The film then follows Ron and Walter as the former tries to verify the latter’s assertion, but is unable to do so conclusively. Ron interviews Walter’s embittered ex- wife, goes with Walter to meet a member of his old Marine Corps unit, where Walter demonstrates that he is still a highly skilled sniper, and accompanies him on a trip to Dealey Plaza where Walter vividly and unnervingly recounts all of his movements on that fateful day.

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Technical Details:
After this point in the movie, many interesting and discomforting twists and turns take place, which I won’t share as not to wreck it for you if you have not seen it. But, what I can say is that the performances by the two leads are excellent. Dylan Haggerty plays a down on his luck average guy who keeps following a dangerous man’s trail-despite the risks it involves and the paranoia it brings about- because he fervently hopes that by one day revealing the truth he will acquire the wealth and acclaim he desperately craves. Raymond J. Barry is by far the standout of the piece as he plays a sociopath constantly on the edge of violent anger, brilliantly. In truth, I found him so convincing that I was very intrigued and somewhat disturbed by the thought of what the character of Walter was capable of doing next and how Barry was able to capture that with such authenticity.

In addition, the script is well written and the direction by Neil Burger is very good. The film’s low budget style camera work is a rare asset as it makes the tale and performances much more believable.

So, I highly recommend seeing Interview with The Assassin. Even if you are not a history or J.F.K. assassination buff, (Although, if you know absolutely nothing about President Kennedy’s assassination you might want to Google it to make sure you understand some of the references made in the film.) it’s exemplary performances and absorbing narrative are enough to draw you in. As I wrote before, it is a hidden gem and one you should acquaint yourself with.

Throwback Review: The Scary Blair Witch Project

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What I remembered: I hate scary movies. Like most people, I remember the Blair Witch Project being a big deal when it came out. Like a really big deal. There had never been anything like it before. The film is a movie built around the idea of some “found footage” of three young filmmakers going out into the woods to make a documentary about the local town superstition, the Blair Witch. All of the advertising was built around the idea that the film was actually true. The advertising was ahead of it’s time as this was one of the first movies to have it’s own website. You gotta remember this was back in 1998 when the internet was riding piggyback on people’s phone lines and page load times were measured in tens of seconds. The website had photos of the film crew before they disappeared and even pictures of the abandoned car found on the side of the road as well as photos of the “found” film canisters all dirty after a year in the woods. If it’s on the internet then it must be true syndrome kicked in and a lot of people bought it. I swear there was even a 30 minute TV show on the Discovery channel of all places that had a documentary about the missing crew. The hype built around this movie was huge and as a result many people got hooked by it and insisted the film was authentic and real as a result.

I got dragged by friends to go see the film the first weekend it came out. I didn’t want to go. I thought the whole Blair Witch myth thing stupid. But a lot of people didn’t as the theater was packed. I also remember sitting through the movie and becoming quite bored. Bored enough that at a few points I turned around and instead watched the audience and their reactions. You can tell a lot about a film by watching it’s audience. Are they disinterested as they pick out the black ju-ju bees from their box? Or are they on the edge of their seat with wide eyes glued to the screen? Are they sleeping? Are they watching you? For the Blair Witch I remember people watching and generally looking scared. Terrified even. I didn’t get it. A lot of the film was in black and white, the camera was so jumpy at times it was hard to see what was going on, and all the film seemed like was a bunch of boring home movies from a camping trip gone awry. When I walked out I was convinced it was one of the stupidest films ever made.

My friend swore he’d never go out into the woods alone.

That said, my teenage daughter loves the Paranormal Activity movies. She loves, loves, LOVES them. She goes to see each one as soon as it comes out, re-watches them over and over again on Netflix and can explain the whole convoluted history behind each one from a standing start . To her, the Paranormal Activity films are the epitome of what a scary movie should be. Last week we were looking for a movie to watch as a family and found nothing on TV until my wife stumbled upon the Blair With Project. To my surprise, my daughter hadn’t even heard of the film before. What? This is the grand daddy of your favorite film franchise yet you’ve never even heard of it before? How is that even possible? Kids these days. Well that settled it. If nothing else I’m always down for a good history lesson so we fired up the film to give her an education in found footage.

The Film: The film opens with text over a black screen identifying the premise of the movie. Three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods back in 1994 and a year later footage of their journey was found. The film comes off looking amateurish right from the start. Lots of shaky camera movements and impromptu dialogue as the students arrive in the town of Burkitsville Maryland to prepare for the next day’s shoot. A lot of the footage in the film was actually shot by the cast members and it shows which helps make the film feel authentic. This is hugely important to create the sense of realism that Blair Witch lives and dies on. If the film can’t create the illusion this all really happened then it’s failed from the start. While shooting there wasn’t even much of a script, as the actors were given general directions, but allowed to ad lib the dialogue during scenes. When tall these elements come together the film just works. What also jumped out at me was the old 90’s camera footage. A lot of the film is in black and white, grainy at times, out of focus, and poorly shot. Compared to today where everything today is so HD crisp and clear, it’s jarring. But the poor video quality really takes you back and makes the movie seem all the more real. The end result is that the film comes off very unpolished and unproduced as it should. Maybe this all didn’t really happen, but in the back of your head it sure looks like it could.

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After some interviews with the local townsfolk about the legend of the Blair Witch the crew finally departs for the woods. It’s a kick to see the crew in full 90’s garb. Grungy flannels, long pony tails and unshaven beards abound. I have quite a bit of nostalgia watching this movie. I’m surprised. The mood is light and airy as they begin their full day’s hike to film on the location of some brutal murders committed by the Blair Witch many years ago. They find the site, at the aptly named Coffin Rock. Here the driven director Heather reads about the fate of five poor men who died horrible deaths there. Bound to each other the men were forced to watch as one was taken to the rock and had his intestines torn from his body. His screams echoing through the still and serene woods. The mental visual of the torture is chilling and sets the stage for what is to follow. For The Blair Witch Project, like other really great horror films, wholeheartedly subscribes to the idea that what our minds can imagine is far far worse than anything we can see onscreen. The Blair With has no special effects, no gore, no real jump scares. The budget wouldn’t allow it. Instead the film builds a sense of dread and tension in thick layers like few movies do. Compare this to the popular Blair Witch imitator, Paranormal Activity and you can see the difference. Paranormal Activity tries to be slick. Many shots come from mounted security cameras or tripods in the scariest of places, a pristine house. A door may open silently, a sheet may flutter for no reason, or a shadow is cast that can’t exist, but you see these things all the same. It puts a limit on to how scary they can ever be. In the Blair Witch, your imagination is your own worst enemy as it takes what little the film gives you and then screws with you. It’s way more effective. Way more scary.

Night falls as our trio  set up camp in the pitch black of night next to a creepy cemetery full of mysterious stacked rocks. The next morning they set off to find a distant abandoned cabin where the witch would kill children by making them face the wall, for the final shoot of their film. But their hike begins to take a turn for the worse. The crew begin to fight and accuse each other of getting lost as they drudge ever farther into the woods. Their only sense of direction comes from a paper map that proves to be hard to read. After walking in circles they soon realize they are truly lost and begin to question if they’ll ever find their way back or be rescued, so deep into the woods they’ve walked. The fighting adds even more tension to the film as the actors, who are really doing the hiking, over 90 hours of footage was filmed of them in the woods, are growing visibly tired. They camp in a clearing next to a bunch of those now iconic hanging twig shaped humans. (My friends and I would  spend hours after the movie building our own versions of these twig men ourselves. They were good at scaring girls) The next night as they camp they are woken up by the sounds of thrown rocks and cracking branches off in the distance and it… is… creepy. The sounds are unsettling. The woods is already a pretty scary place at night and these acoustic attacks don’t help any. In you’re head and theirs you know somebody must be making the sounds. But who? Why? And how? The students are literally in the middle of nowhere. Have they been followed? Is it the Blair Witch? Locals? Or something else?

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When they wake up the next morning a twig man has been placed by the tent mysteriously. They continue walking into the day only to discover the map, their only hope of getting, out has been lost. No GPS back in those days boys and girls. Animosity towards each other turns to anger as each blames the other for losing the map. You feel the tension build with each pointed finger. Instead of working together they are at each other’s throats. All they can do is keep hiking when they discover it was the new cameraman Mikey who threw the map into a river yesterday. It was useless anyways he says, in a fit of frustration. And with that their reality finally sets in. You can literally see the hope drain from their faces.

They are screwed and they know it.

Another night, another campsite. While hiding in their tent they are attacked as the tent suddenly shakes violently from unseen assailants. The crew runs for their life, guided only by the light from their cameras, into the darkness. As the sun rises they edge back to their camp and find grungy Josh’s backpack has been marked with slime. With no question anymore that they are being followed, they pick up the pace of the day’s hike. Wanting to avoid a repeat of yesterday night they decide to sleep in shifts and keep one person up on guard duty. Chillingly, when Heather and Mikey awake the next day from a restful sleep Josh is gone. Scarier still is that there doesn’t appear to be any signs of a struggle. He has simply vanished. Their screams of his name go unanswered. Again, this is a pretty effective scene  accomplished with so very little. With no other options Heather and Mikey keep on, trying to stay one step ahead of danger. The next night as they camp Josh’s screams can be heard off in the distance. He is in agony and suffering. Is he being tortured? Or worse? Like a game of mad libs, the movie invites you to fill in the holes with whatever crazy notion you can think off. None good. When they finally wake up in the morning a piece of Josh’s flannel is found by camp wrapped around an extracted tooth. This is also as gory as the movie gets.

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At this point in the movie you begin to feel as exhausted as the crew. The same dreary forest scenery begins to grate on your nerves. The shaky camera work is straining your eyeballs, many people actually got sick in theaters because of this, and Heather’s shrill screams have turned into nails on a chalkboard. You can almost smell how dirty the crew have become. If you could only taste their trail mix the film would be an assault on all five of your senses. It’s at this point, when the film is at it’s lowest that we get to it’s most famous scene. Surrounded by the darkness of a moonless night Heather turns the camera on herself and gives a snot nosed, teary eyed, hysterical, video confession where she finally accepts responsibility for all the horrible events that have befallen them. It’s a pretty powerful scene and has become iconic for a reason. In a film full of forgettable home movie footage this is the one point where the Blair Witch actually looks cinematic.

Soon after Heather and Mikey hear Josh’s screams again and rush off to go save him. Josh’s voice lures them towards a derelict cabin. Done playing the role of victims, they enter, armed with cameras in hand and search high and low for their friend. A faint voice can be heard from the basement as Heather rushes to follow Mikey down the stairs. When she enters her camera records Mike, alone, facing the corner of the wall. Heather screams as a viscous thud is followed by her camera dropping to the floor. Cut to black.

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On second thought: I must admit. I came away quite impressed having rewatched the movie after all these years. It holds up very well. It’s simpleness becomes has become timeless and this is what sets it apart from so many of the other imitators and copycats we see today. While not jump out of your seat scary, the only jump scare is at the very end, the whole movie builds towards it, the film is hard to watch. It makes you feel uncomfortable. It creeps you out. At times it’s gut wrenching It’s also very serious. The jokes are few and far between. Every minute of film is devoted to slowly ratcheting up the pressure, making things go from bad to worse. The fact the movie was able to do so much with almost nothing is incredible. With a budget of only $25,000 the film made almost $250,000,000 back.

Looking back, I think I watched this movie for the first time with a chip on my shoulder. I was determined not to get suckered into it’s fake reality and as a result I formed a negative opinion of this movie for a long time. An opinion that was formed unjustly. I’d love to see this movie get re-released so a new generation of Paranormal lovers could see what a high quality scary movie really looks like.

Then again maybe not. My daughter hated it.