Gaspar Noe’s ‘Vortex’ – An Unflinching Descent into Oblivion

This movie starts off simply enough with an elderly couple outside of their apartment in northeast Paris, having what looks like lunch and some wine as they are enjoying the long life they have had together. The wife then asks her husband, “is life a dream?” He responds, “life is a dream within a dream.” Seeing these two together in such a simple setting spoke to me of a couple who have lived what looks like a very successful life. It also proves to be the happiest scene this movie has to offer.

Vortex” is the latest piece of cinema from Gaspar Noe, a filmmaker I very much admire and have no problem nor hesitation in defending. This particular movie is his most mature one to date, but do not for one second think he has lost a single ounce of his audaciousness here. With “Vortex,” he takes us on a cinematic journey which I can best describe as being unflinching as we follow this couple as their mental and physical health are on a permanent downward slope. Gaspar begins this movie with a dedication which states: “To all those whose brains will decompose before their hearts.” This is then followed by Françoise Hardy singing “Mon Amie La Rose,” a song about going from life to death. Suffice to say, you know from there that this movie will not have a happy ending, and there is no music score from Thomas Bangalter to elevate us out of the bleakness on display.

With “Vortex,” Gaspar goes out of his way to utilize the split screen approach, which Brian DePalma used to great effect in his movies, and a line is slowly drawn down between these two characters to where their existence together will never be the same. They go about their daily activities in what seems like the usual mundane way as the husband works on a book he calls “Psyche” which deals with movies and dreams, and the wife goes shopping at local stores near Stalingrad Station where they live. But as she travels through the aisles of one store, we see on her face how lost she is to where it quickly become clear she has no idea where she is at. Keep in mind, this is just the start of the story. We have yet to see how truly bad things will get.

As for the husband, the work on his book is constantly being undermined by his wife’s deteriorating condition which shows itself in the most horrifying of ways. In addition, he is suffering health problems of his own as his heart condition has him checking his blood pressure every other day. Their only hope is the help they get from their son, Stéphane (Alex Lutz, playing one of the few characters here with an actual name), but he can only deal with so much as he has problems of his own which includes raising his son, Kiki (Kylian Dheret), and recovering from his mental breakdown and a drug addiction which threatens to overtake him in the face of inevitable mortality.

We know Dario Argento best for being one of the best horror filmmakers ever which such classics as “Suspiria,” “Deep Red” and “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” among others. As for Françoise Lebrun, she is a highly acclaimed French actress who has appeared in a plethora of movies, most notably in Jean Eustache’s “The Mother and the Whore.” Together, these two do not act their roles as much as they inhabit them. With the split screen setup, this makes perfect sense as every single moment in this couple’s time together counts for everything. Even the most mundane of details carries a lot of meaning as these two experience a deterioration neither is prepared to accept or fully deal with.

I also have to give Alex Lutz a lot of credit as well. Not only does he inhabit his role alongside Argento and Lebrun, but he never overacts in the slightest as his character of Stéphane has to carry the weight of his parents’ mental and physical demise all on his shoulders, and anyone who has been through a similar situation can certainly relate. Still, the scene where he relapses without even knowing his son is watching him freebase proves to be quite devastating.

With “Vortex,” Gaspar is not out to pass judgment on these two characters or those around them. Instead, he makes us follow them are inevitable journey to death which we know is coming. Is it cruel of him to do this? No, not really as we have a certain denial when it comes to the finality of life. We know it is coming, but who is prepared to deal with it? While we say we will be there for our loved ones when they breathe their final breath, who exactly looks forward to that?

Watching this movie, I was reminded of some dialogue from one my favorite television shows, let alone one of my favorite HBO shows, “Oz:”

“Let me tell you, dying is a lot harder on the living than it is on the dead. Death really only hurts those left behind.”

“Do we care for people when they’re sick because we actually care about them? Or do we care for them because when our time comes, we want someone to care for us?”

“The state’s attitude to the elderly, any elderly, in or out of prison is… hurry up and die.”

With “Vortex,” Gaspar is not out to suggest any course of action, but to instead offer us an unflinching look at a couple’s last moments before they expire. Even if I felt the urge, I could never look away from the screen as these two individuals breathed their last breaths. Now while it might sound like I am spoiling this film for you, I am not. Some films you watch to enjoy, and others are meant to be experienced. “Vortex,” like all of Gaspar’s films, is meant to be experienced more than anything else, and I applaud it for that.

I would also like to add how “Vortex” makes me want to look at my parents and tell them the following:

“If you ever get dementia, I will kill you. You understand?”

Filmmaker Lars Von Trier was once quoted as saying the following:

“A film should be like a rock in the shoe.”

That is certainly the case with “Vortex.” This is not the first Gaspar Noe film to give you this feeling, and it certainly will not be the last.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One’ Teaser is Here, Should You Choose to Accept it

It’s been close to five years since the last film in this long-lasting franchise, but now we get our first look at “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One.” I should, however, state how frustrated I was to see it will not be released until July of 2023 which is such a buzz kill. All these exciting images are presented to us, and now we have to wait just a little over a year to see them on the silver screen. This reminded me of how thrilled I was when I first watched the teaser trailer for “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions,” and how deflated I was when we saw the year 2003 plastered at the end of it. We were so excited, and then we were made to wait a full year before we went back to the “real world.” That’s like putting salt in the wound!

Well, with Tom Cruise returning as Ethan Hunt once again, we are greeted with various images we have come to see in the “Mission: Impossible” films such as him palling around with his colleagues played by Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson and Vanessa Kirby among others. We also get glimpses of insane car chases which go through downtown cities, trains traveling through the countryside, and our heroic characters partying at a members’ only rave in the most glamorous of places. So yeah, this definitely looks like a “Mission: Impossible” film.

Having watched this teaser trailer several times now, this particular sequel looks to be not much different from the others which preceded it. Perhaps this is because Christopher McQuarrie is returning to director’s chair for the third time, or maybe I am just reacting to how Tom Cruise still looks like he hasn’t aged a day since “Mission: Impossible III.” I’m not surprised to see him “grinning like an idiot every 15 minutes” here and, in this trailer, we see him running really fast, and all by his lonesome as usual. When was the last time anyone rang alongside him anyway?

What stood out to me most in this trailer was the appearance of Henry Czerny who returns to this franchise as Eugene Kittridge for the first time since the original “Mission: Impossible” film from 1990. Hearing him talk to Ethan and explain how he needs to take a side makes me feel like this sequel will have very high stakes, and this always helps to add to spectacle on display.

One other thing; seeing Ethan ride a horse is something I have not seen him do before in this franchise. At least I can count on the filmmakers bringing in that as something new. Plus, I have not seen a train fly off the rails since “Back to the Future Part III,” and that should be quite the sight to see. And then there is Cruise driving a motorcycle off of a cliff, something we already knew he was going to do. It makes me wonder what motorcycle enthusiasts think of such a stunt. Once they learn what kind of motorcycle he let crash to the ground, they may be incredibly heartbroken.

And if you look closely, you will get glimpses of newbies to this franchise which include Esai Morales, Hayley Atwell and Cary Elwes among others. These are actors you can always depend on, and I have no doubt they will be great additions.

“Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One” is set to open in theaters on July 14, 2023. If you haven’t already, check out the trailer above. Whether or not this will equal or be better than “Mission: Impossible – Fallout,” one of the best action films of recent years, remains to be seen.

‘The Batman” Movie and 4K/Blu-ray Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent, Tony Farinella.

I have stated in the past I’m not the biggest fan of superhero/comic book films. I know they are insanely popular, and they make up most of the current box office these days.  However, they have never quite tickled my fancy. A recent exception to the rule would be 2019’s “The Joker.”  It was my favorite film of 2019. When a superhero or comic book film is dark, gritty, and focused on character development as opposed to explosions and car chases, I can get into the film and appreciate the characters and the story. I’m happy to report “The Batman” is a really, really good movie that surprised the hell out of me.

When Robert Pattinson was named as the latest Batman, a lot of fans of the franchise were disappointed and fixated on his previous work in the “Twilight” franchise. Between “The Batman” and “Good Time,” directed by the Safdie brothers, Robert Pattinson has proven he is a solid actor when given the right material.  Everyone has their favorite Batman from the various films in the franchise. I haven’t seen all of them, so I can’t say with any clarity which one is my favorite or which actor has done the best job. I don’t feel as though Pattinson was asked to do a lot here, but what he does do is slightly above average.

It’s rather tough to judge Pattinson’s performance, as there is a lot going on in this nearly three-hour film.  It wasn’t a standout performance or one that blew me away. At times, it felt like the film was protecting him and didn’t give him a lot to do. When the film was over, I was impressed with the film and not really thinking about his performance as Batman. I would have liked to have seen more from Catwoman, played by Zoë Kravitz.  Considering the film’s length, I felt as though they could have included her a little bit more in the film.  There are also stand-out performances from Paul Dano, Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro, Andy Serkis, and an unrecognizable Colin Farrell.

It’s Halloween in Gotham City, and it turns out to be a night of mayhem after its mayor Don Mitchell Jr. is killed by the Riddler. James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), of the Gotham City Police Department, calls Batman into action as he feels he can be an ally in this case.  This is not met with open arms by the Gotham City Police Department.  This will also not be the first body that is found dead by Batman and James Gordon. The Riddler is leaving behind cards with various clues, taunting Batman.  In some ways, this film had the feel of “Se7en” to it.  This is much more of a dark thriller/horror film than a superhero film, which was appreciated. It helped that the film was directed by Matt Reeves of “Cloverfield,” “Let Me In,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “War for the Planet of the Apes” fame.  He knows how to make a tightly wound thriller with human elements.

What makes “The Batman” work so effectively as a story is that the Riddler, right or wrong, has a motive behind all of his killings. He sees all the lies and coverups that are happening in Gotham City.  He just wants to expose the truth to the public. Speaking of the Riddler, I would have liked to have seen more from Paul Dano in this film.  I understand they want to build up to showdown between Batman and the Riddler, but it left me wanting more.  I imagine that is for us in the eventual sequels.  Again, I would have liked more from the Riddler and Catwoman.

There is also a moral dilemma at the heart of the film.  Bruce Wayne/Batman is looking to figure things out about his family with the help of the family butler, Alfred (Andy Serkis).  He’s piecing the clues together at the same time the audience is figuring them out as well.  There is a rhyme and a reason to everything which happens in this film.  At times, it felt like a smarter “Saw” film with some of the traps, letters, and messages that were being sent out by the Riddler.  The film is an intense ride which really packs a wallop.  That being said, I would have trimmed about 20-30 minutes from it.  That would have made it a four-star film.

I’m really surprised they were able to get away with a PG-13 rating with all of its dark material, which deals with subjects such as mental illness, grief, death, trauma, and explosives.  While I have no issues with films that are willing to be bleak and dark, it felt like an R-rated film to me, which is high praise.  I’m going to give the film three and a half stars because of the run-time.  At times, it really gets bogged down and can feel tedious.  In the end, this is a very enjoyable look at Batman from director Matt Reeves.  The way the film is shot is absolutely brilliant.  The dark, brooding cinematography and tone were very much appreciated.  I really, really liked “The Batman.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

4K Info: “The Batman” is released on a three-disc 4K Combo Pack from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment. It has a running time of 176 minutes and is rated PG-13 for strong violence and disturbing content, drug content, some language, and some suggestive material.  One disc is the 4K, another disc is the Blu-ray, and there is an entire Blu-ray disc devoted to the special features, which are over two hours long!

Video Info: Released in 2160p Ultra High Definition, “The Batman” is simply stunning with its dark black imagery. It’s a remarkable 4K, and it’s exactly why the format is really finding its way into the homes of more hardcore film collectors.  The film also comes with Dolby Vision. You won’t be disappointed by a single scene in this film.  It’s breathtaking. For the Blu-ray, you get your usual 1080p High Definition.  The special features come on a separate Blu-ray disc as mentioned earlier.

Audio Info: For the 4K and Blu-ray, you receive the following audio formats: Dolby Atmos-TrueHD: English, Dolby Digital: English Descriptive Audio, English, French, and Spanish. Subtitles are also in English, Spanish, and French.

Special Features:

Vengeance in the Making: A Making-of Documentary Featuring Cast and Crew

Deleted scenes with director’s commentary

Anatomy of a Car Chase featuring the Batmobile

The Batman: Genesis

Becoming Catwoman

and more!!

Even though the film is incredibly lengthy, I’d love to watch it again.  I really liked the direction they went with this film as far as the Riddler having an agenda behind his killings.  I also thought the moral dilemma and the code Batman lives by was really tested throughout the film.  It’s an impressive movie.  I’m not going to discredit the work of Robert Pattinson in the film, as I thought he did a fine job, but it did feel like the film really didn’t allow him to show off more of his acting chops.  He’s really hiding behind the Batman character. This might have been by design.  However, I would have loved to have seen a performance that rivaled the film.  Once again, maybe it was not the intention of the filmmaker or the people behind the film.  Still, if you enjoy your superhero movies with a dark edge to them, you will not be disappointed by “The Batman.”  There is no stone left unturned with the special features as well.  Without question, this is a day-one purchase at your local retailer.  I can’t wait to see what they come up with for the sequels.

**Disclaimer** I received a 4K/Blu-ray copy of this film from Warner Brothers to review for free.  The opinions and statements in the review are mine and mine alone.

‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’ – A Mixed Bag at Best

With Sam Raimi returning to Marvel Movies for the first time since “Spider-Man 3,” I honestly got really excited. With a title inspired by one of the many H.P. Lovecraft stories out there, and a look which makes this film seem like “The Evil Dead” as if it were produced by Kevin Feige, this “Doctor Strange” adventure looked to be more than the average superhero flick as it ventured into the horror genre, something we have not seen a Marvel movie do recently, if ever before. Plus, I was looking forward to the Bruce Campbell cameo you know is coming and to see where Raimi was going to put his classic 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 car on display as it has been featured in every one of his films. Come on, you know that car is going to make an appearance at some point.

Well, what stunned me about “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” was how much of Raimi’s visual flair ended up onscreen here. When it comes to Marvel Movies, I assume they are usually made by committee to where the director does have some say, but the producers usually get final cut regardless. But watching this one made me realize how much leeway Feige and company gave this celebrated filmmaker, and that’s even though said leeway only goes so far. As for the screenplay, well, just read on.

I went into this “Doctor Strange” sequel believing it would take place after the events of “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” but some have said this one is actually a prequel to it. Is it? I don’t know and would love it if someone could give me a definitive answer on this. What I can tell you is that it starts off with Stephen Strange and America Chavez (played by Xochitl Gomez) running away from an ever so fierce demon while trying to find the Book of Vishanti, this movie’s answer to the Necronomicon. But it is soon revealed that Stephen was just having a bad dream, or was he?

America then appears to Stephen again while he attends the wedding of his beloved, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), to someone other than him. After defeating an octopus demon with one eye with the help of Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong), they learn America is being hunted by demons because she has the power to travel through the multiverse in a way few others can only hope to.

It should be noted that this “Doctor Strange” sequel went into production without a finished screenplay, and it shows. Trying to explain everything which goes on here is very difficult as the number of universes these characters travel through is endless to where I am surprised no one had totems like those “Inception” did. Surely everyone here would eventually wonder if they were actually in the correct universe, right?

When it comes to the visual effects, I am back and forth on them. The opening featuring a lot of CGI to where I found myself not being the least bit enthralled at the action. As the show went on though, the effects became quite immersive and very clever, and there’s an absolutely brilliant scene in which Stephen and America find themselves flying through different universes which vary in colors, depth and weather. It reminded me of when Cameron Diaz chased after Catherine Keener while traveling through the mind of a celebrated actor in “Being John Malkovich.” With creativity like that, I wonder how far the imagination can stretch.

And yes, the actors are all terrific here as one would expect. I don’t even want to think about what other actors could possible inhabited have inhabited the role of Doctor Strange any better than Cumberbatch. While this is the second film where this Marvel character has the lead, Cumberbatch has already played this doctor in various other MCU adventures to where he can play a role like this in his sleep. With a simple move or inflection of his voice, this Oscar nominated actor can communicate so much even without uttering a single word.

Benedict Wong offers strong support throughout as, like Cumberbatch, is not about to let any of the visual effects upstage him in the slightest. Xochitl Gomez excels at playing a young adult who has more to deal with than the average teenager as she navigates through puberty while being afflicted with a special superpower. Rachel McAdams reminds us of what a pleasing presence she can be as Christine Palmer, the love of Stephen’s life who got away from him because superheroes can’t always have loving relationships. And there’s no leaving out the great Michael Stuhlbarg who portrays surgeon and Stephen’s one-time colleague, Nicodemus West. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t have a lot of screen time; Stuhlbarg makes every single second he appears onscreen count for all they are worth.

But for me, the best performance in this “Doctor Strange” sequel comes from Elizabeth Olsen who returns as Wanda Maximoff, better known as the Scarlet Witch. While Wanda may have been good in the past, we see here going rogue here as she attempts to reunite with her children, and these are kids who may not actually exist if you know what I mean. While this particular character could have easily turned into a one-dimensional villain whose selfishness comes at everyone else’s expense, Olsen gives Wanda an emotional depth which makes her threat to those around her all the fiercer. If there is one reason to check out this sequel, it is for Olsen.

After writing all of this, I imagine you must wonder why I have such mixed feelings about this MCU film as its screenplay needed another draft or two. I would have liked it if there were some sort of Thomas Guide available for the average audience member as the story is hard to navigate through to where it is difficult to become emotionally involved in everything going on. Perhaps it is best to view the previous events which took place in both the first “Doctor Strange” movie and “Wandavision” before stepping into this latest chapter as it will help ground you in every single event going on here.

Also, the pace drags in ways it should not, and taking this into account is especially frustrating. While many complain about the average movie lasting around two hours and 30 minutes, and this is not counting the half hour or so of commercials we are forced to experience at our local AMC theater, this one only lasts 126 minutes, and yet there were still moments where I found myself almost falling asleep. This should be a sign of when something or anything drags slower than your ordinary snail as we live in an age where we have no choice but to pick up the pace.

When it comes to “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” I cannot help but describe it as a near miss. While there is a lot here to admire, the final cut is undone by a screenplay which needed another draft or two before production began. While some filmmakers can get away with giving us an enthralling motion picture which everyone involved made up along the way, this one does not quite qualify. It really sucks to say this, but there you go.

As for the post credit scenes, one features an Oscar-winning actress who I did not expect to see here, and the other features an actor from many cult films pointing out the bleeding obvious. I hope you enjoy what they have to offer.

* * ½ out of * * * *

All-Time Favorite Trailers: ‘Strange Days’

I first saw this trailer when it played before “Mad Love” which starred Drew Barrymore and Chris O’Donnell. This was at Crow Canyon Cinemas, a movie multiplex I once worked at, and the volume was not all that great as the teenage audience, desperately waiting to see O’Donnell take his shirt off, were talking endlessly before the lights finally went down. I saw it again at the UC Berkeley theater, which was once known as the New Beverly Cinema of Northern California, and I got a better idea of what was on display as I could actually hear what was being said that time around.

Strange Days” is a 1995 science fiction thriller which starred Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett and Juliette Lewis, and the film featured a kind of technology which allowed those who used it to experience recorded memories and physical sensations of others. But despite it being co-written and produced by James Cameron and having been directed by Kathryn Bigelow, it flopped hard at the box office. It is only over time that this film has gotten the cult following it truly deserved as this one offers the viewer a cinematic experience you cannot find elsewhere.

This particular trailer for “Strange Days” was its teaser trailer which had Fiennes selling us on this technology. The dialogue is taken from a scene in which he is trying to get a potential customer to buy some recorded memories, but this time Fiennes is looking straight into the camera, attempting to sell the audience on what he has.

Fiennes starred in this film not long after his Oscar-nominated turn in “Schindler’s List,” and I love how he tells us about this technology here without showing us a thing. His words suck us in to the possibilities of what we could experience if common sense didn’t kick in on a regular basis. It’s a brilliant piece of acting as he succeeds in making us want to open Pandora’s Box and experience pleasures which are ever so forbidden.

I also love the sound design of this trailer as it features a hum throughout which is much like the one I heard as I entered the American Conservatory Theater to watch the first part of “Angels in America.” There is something so comforting and alluring about such a hum that I cannot help but be drawn into the subject matter in a heartbeat.

By the way, can anyone tell me what song was used at the end of this trailer? I really dug it and would love to know where it came from. Perhaps it was by the band Deep Forest as they were supposed to be composing this film’s music score (it would later be done by Graeme Revell), but I don’t know.

If you have not watched “Strange Days” yet, I encourage you to do so as it deals with themes which are more pertinent today than when this film first came out.

‘The Lincoln Lawyer’ – The Beginning of the McConaughey Renaissance

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2011, back when the McConaughey renaissance was just beginning. This almost marks the 1,000th post on The Ultimate Rabbit website!

Okay, now how many dramas and thrillers featuring a lawyer as the main character have we had these past few years? Heck, how many novels featuring lawyers have been thrust at us? After everything written by John Grisham and Scott Turow, you’d think the world would have had enough of legal thrillers whether or not they made it to the silver screen. It all reminds me of that joke we’ve all heard:

“What do you call a thousand lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? A good start!”

As a result, I was in no immediate hurry to check out the latest legal thriller adapted into a movie, “The Lincoln Lawyer.” This particular one is about a defense lawyer who has no scruples about what he does, but he ends up getting involved in a case which haunts his conscience like no other. Looking this plot line over, it sounds like “Primal Fear” all over again. How many times have we been down this road? Yes, I agree, far too many.

But alas, while “The Lincoln Lawyer” breaks no new ground in the legal thriller genre, it does contain many clever twists up its sleeve which distinguishes it from others of its ilk. It is based on the novel of the same name by Michael Connelly who is best known for writing detective novels and crime fiction. One of his previous books, “Blood Work,” was turned into a movie by Clint Eastwood, and it is one of the very few Eastwood directed movies which really sucked. It turns out, however, that “The Lincoln Lawyer” was actually Connelly’s first legal novel, and it introduced the world to one of his most popular literary creations, Mickey Haller.

Mickey Haller is a criminal defense attorney who spends his time defending the kind of people we would all rather see behind bars. Instead of a regular office, he works out of his Lincoln Town Car which he gets driven around in by Earl (Laurence Mason), a former client of his who is working off legal fees he owes. He has an ex-wife, Margaret McPherson (Marisa Tomei), whom he is still on good terms with even though she works on the opposite side of the court as a prosecutor, and they have a daughter whom they both dote on, and you at times wonder why these two ever bothered to divorce. If James Carville and Mary Matlin can maintain a marriage, why can’t these two?

Anyway, Mickey ends up defending Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), a Beverly Hills realtor who is accused of viciously assaulting a prostitute. The case, after some research, looks to be an open and shut deal for this ever so confident lawyer. However, more problems arise to where things are not what they appear to be.

That’s all I’m going to say about the plot. To say anymore would be to give away a good deal of what happens. What I will say is that it makes for a good story in how someone has to find a way to find justice without being forever disbarred from practicing law.

Much of the success of “The Lincoln Lawyer” belongs to the actor chosen to play Mickey, Matthew McConaughey. After seeing him in so many useless romantic comedies, he gets one of his best roles to date here. Believe me when I say he is perfectly cast in this role, and he nails Mickey’s sly confidence and cocky demeanor as he works his way through the courtroom to get what he wants and needs. Mickey is to an extent an amoral character, one who appears to care less about whether or not those he represents will commit crimes again after he gets them off. But McConaughey is so cool here that we find it impossible to hate Mickey, and we love his (if you’ll forgive the expression) “Rico Suave” ways which he utilizes around everyone he meets. Whether or not you agree with what he does, we all would love to have his coolness and persuasiveness when it comes to talking with and influencing others.

It also helps that McConaughey is surrounded by a great cast of actors who give him plenty to work with. Tomei remains as terrific and super sexy as ever in her portrayal of Margaret, and she shares strong chemistry with McConaughey throughout. We also get an entertaining turn from the always dependable William H. Macy as investigator Frank Levin, Haller’s right-hand man who succeeds in getting the facts whether he does it legally or illegally. We also get strong turns from John Leguizamo, Michael Peña, and Frances Fisher who all bring their best selves to this material.

But one performance I want to single out here is Ryan Phillippe’s. As a Beverly Hills playboy who has had everything handed to him on a silver platter throughout his life, Phillippe excels in convincing everyone around and the audience of Louis’ intentions. Still, there is that glimmer in Louis’ eyes which suggests not everything he says or implies is on the level. Phillippe has been better known these past few years as Mr. Reese Witherspoon, but however things went down in that relationship, he deserves to be noted for his acting here and in other movies he has been in. Watching him onscreen here is riveting because he always leaves you guessing as to what will happen next.

Directing “The Lincoln Lawyer” is Brad Furman, and the only movie he previously directed is “The Take.” I really liked how vividly he captured the urban environment of Los Angeles, and it never felt like he was filming on some ordinary Hollywood set. With a story like this, Furman could have easily gone in that direction, but he gives each scene a solid reality which doesn’t feel all that far from the one we inhabit. He also keeps the suspense up throughout and gives us some tension filled scenes which keep us at full attention as if someone is about to come from behind us and bash our brains in.

Like I said, “The Lincoln Lawyer” does not reinvent the legal thriller genre, but it reinvigorates the genre with a strong and enigmatic main character and a story with twists we haven’t seen in some time. In a way, this movie brings McConaughey around full circle as he made his big breakthrough in the film adaptation of John Grisham’s “A Time to Kill.” Soon or later, this man who keeps telling us to just “keep on livin’” had to play another lawyer. I hope for his sake he gets to do a follow up to this one as he has this character down flat. Maybe others could have done it better, but who comes to mind as quickly as McConaughey?

* * * out of * * * *

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Hardcore’ (1979)

Paul Schrader’s 1979 film “Hardcore” is one I have been meaning to watch for years. Many of my film friends have sung its praises, and I have been a big fan of Schrader’s work both as a screenwriter (“Taxi Driver”) and as a director (“First Reformed” and “Patty Hearst” among others). Regardless, this quickly became one of the many films I kept promising myself I would watch but never got around to it. But then one evening, I saw it was playing at the Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles, and I realized the time had come to finally give it a look. Besides, this might be my only chance to see it on the silver screen.

“Hardcore” opens up on Christmas in Grand Rapids, Michigan to the tune of Susan Raye’s “Precious Memories.” Schrader quickly settles us into the peaceful and family-oriented environment which looks to be filled with church-going people who love and fear God in equal measure. You just might mistake it for the average Norman Rockwell painting which often gave us images that were all too wholesome to be believed. Everything looks to be together on the same page while singing faith-based songs and sharing in traditional ceremonies without question. Of course, it’s scenes like these that make me wonder when the cracks in this atmosphere will begin to show.

The main character of this piece is Jake Van Dorn (played by George C. Scott), a well-to-do businessman with strong religious beliefs. Originally, this part almost went to Warren Beatty, but as great an actor as Beatty, he would have been wrong. Scott is perfectly cast as he has the face of someone with deeply held beliefs to where questioning them could be hazardous to your health. Eventually, you know these beliefs will be tested in the extreme as the title “Hardcore” refers to more than the sexuality on display here.

Jake’s peaceful existence becomes undone when his daughter Kristen (Ilah Davis) goes missing while on a church-sponsored trip in California. He enlists the help of the police, but after seeing all the photos on the wall of missing children, some of who still haven’t been found in years, he decides to hire a private investigator named Andy Mast (Peter Boyle) to dig a little deeper. But what Andy finds is something Jake never could have expected nor be the least prepared to deal with.

Watching Jake view a porno film in which his daughter Kristen is having sex with two men is an unnerving scene as Scott portrays a deep shock and grief which illustrates the living nightmare any parent would be thrilled to avoid. While it threatens to contain, as Ralph Garman and Kevin Smith would call it, “exquisite acting,” and the scene has become an infamous meme for many, I am curious as to what depths Scott dug to capture such an unforgettable moment of devastation. Such a scene is impossible to erase from the memory once it is viewed, and it comes to inform the relentlessness and anger he will come to experience up to the movie’s end.

From there, Jake ventures into the seedy underworld of Los Angeles, or the one which existed back in the 1970s. Like “Taxi Driver’s” Travis Bickle, he is “God’s Lonely Man” as he ventures into a place he does not belong. His brother-in-law tells him early on that God is testing him, and it is clearly the case as ventures deeper and deeper into the city’s sleazy subculture where there are an endless number of sex shopkeepers, adult theaters, and massage parlors that do more for their clients than a simple rub down. At one point, he even disguises himself as a pornography producer in an increasingly desperate effort to find his daughter, and I kept wondering if and when he might give in to temptation.

“Hardcore” was Schrader’s second film as a director, following his brilliant debut with “Blue Collar.” As with “Blue Collar,” he had quite the time wrangling his cast. Scott was said to have not gotten along with Schrader, and at one point promised the director he would finish the film only if he vowed never to direct another motion picture ever again. Well, we know Schrader promised Scott just that to get him back on set, but thank God the filmmaker never followed through on his word. This is just as well as we still had other films like “American Gigolo,” “Cat People,” “Light Sleeper” and “Affliction” to look forward to.

Indeed, this is a film that could have been upstaged by its behind-the-scenes drama which, in addition to Scott’s behavior, included an ending forced on Schrader by the studio. Indeed, the ending is “Hardcore’s” biggest flaw as it doesn’t jibe well with all which came before it, and it feels lazily staged with a shootout that feels tacked on above all else. It is thanks to Scott’s performance in the final moments that I am willing to forgive the conclusion as he keeps it from ringing completely hollow.

Still, I think “Hardcore” is a triumph for Schrader as it allows him to dig deep into themes he has explored in his many works such as the conflict between man and immorality. Moreover, there is authenticity on display here which would be hard to find today as Schrader managed to gain access to real-life sex houses and adult theaters to where there is no doubt we are dealing with the real thing and not just some cheap set. Certain sticky stains on the windows make this abundantly clear by the way.

Looking at the credits, Schrader had quite the crew to work with. The film was executive produced by John Milius who remains one of the best screenwriters ever, the score was by Jack Nitzsche who helps add even more of a lurid feeling to the sights Jake is forced to take in, and the cinematography was by Michael Chapman who performed visual wonders on both “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull.” Seriously, the color palette Chapman uses here aids the story considerably, and I cannot help but believe it greatly influenced the later works of Gaspar Noe and Benoit Debie.

I enjoyed Peter Boyle’s performance as private detective Andy Mast as he makes this character look all too comfortable in a city that thrives on decadence than what might appear on the surface. Even as Andy gives in to his baser needs and desires, he knows how the story is going to end and makes very few apologies for who he is. While the ending feels a bit too similar to the one from “Chinatown,” Boyle makes it work as his dialogue rings very true in a cynical and sad way.

But another performance worth singling out here is Season Hubley’s as Niki, a prostitute and part-time adult actress who aids Jake in his search. The scenes she has with Scott represent the best “Hardcore” has to offer as their dialogue regarding both sex and religion illustrates their differences and similarities in ways only Schrader could have pulled off. She fully inhabits this character to where I never doubted how much of a survivor Niki was and will continue to long after the end credits have finished.

Like William Friedkin’s “Cruising,” “Hardcore” is a journey into a subculture that no longer exists in today’s world. These days, it is much easier to gain access to pornography through the internet, and it makes me wonder how Jake would deal with a similar situation in today’s world. Things would be a bit easier to trace, and that’s even though some lost children might forever stay lost (please feel free to prove me wrong on this). As devoutly religious as Jake is, I imagine in a time where the world wide web and cell phones control our lives more than ever, he would most likely be more isolated and closed off from those around him than ever before.

“Hardcore” is indeed classic Paul Schrader even with its inescapable flaws, and I have no doubt “8MM,” the 1999 film directed by the late Joel Schumacher and written by Andrew Kevin Walker, would not have existed without it. “8MM” also pales in comparison to it by the way. I look at movies like these and wonder why studios won’t leave the filmmakers alone in making them. You know how dark the material was when you started funding the project, right? So why insult everyone’s intelligence by trying to make things a little less dark?

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Dog’ Movie and Blu-ray Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent, Tony Farinella.

There is nothing about “Dog” that will offend your cinematic senses, nor is there anything in the film which will reinvent the wheel.  This is a simple movie with a simple concept.  For a lot of filmgoers, they probably love the idea of a dog movie starring Channing Tatum, who also co-directed the film with its screenwriter, Reid Carolin.  For some people, they are fine with a film that just leaves them feeling happy and does not require a lot of thought behind it.  They simply kick back their feet and enjoy themselves.  At times, I believe film can be a great form of escapism when done right.  In the case of “Dog,” there are individual moments that worked in the film, but as a whole, it’s missing a lot of key ingredients.

“Dog” follows Jackson Briggs (Channing Tatum), a former U.S. Army Ranger, who is having a tough time adjusting to regular life.  He has brain injuries and PTSD.  When the film opens, he’s making sandwiches at a sandwich shop, which is clearly not the best use of his skills.  Because of this, he’s eager to do something that will challenge and excite him. He wants to be put on the rotation for Pakistan, but there are major concerns about his health and if he will be able to handle it. He assures them he is fine, but it is clear he’s struggling.

This image released by MGM shows Channing Tatum in a scene from “Dog.” (Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures via AP)

When one of his former squad members is killed in a car accident, he is given the task of driving Lulu, a Belgian Malinois military dog, to Arizona for the funeral.  If he does this successfully, they will put in a good word for Briggs for a future tour. After the funeral, Lulu, because of its violent nature, will have to be put down. From here, the film turns into a road trip movie with Briggs and Lulu.  The dog causes a lot of headaches for him, especially when he’s trying to have sex. There is also a comical run-in with a psychic and her paranoid husband, played by former professional wrestler Kevin Nash.  It was great to see Nash on the big screen once again.  There is also a cameo by comedian Bill Burr.

There are other encounters along the way for both Briggs and Lulu. Some of them are successful and some of them are unsuccessful.  Some of them are funny, and some of them are what you would expect in a road trip movie featuring Tatum and a dog.  I imagine that was a big selling point for the film.  Considering the low budget for the film and its final box office numbers, it was a low-risk, high reward project for the studio.  From an artistic standpoint, the film has real issues with its pacing.  It’s very slow-moving and tedious to sit through at times, even though it’s 101 minutes. Tatum is a fine actor, but he’s not the kind of actor who is going to keep my interest for an entire film as the lead.  Even though I love animals, the same is true of the dog.

This is a feel-good flick with a lackluster story.  It’s not a bad movie.  It’s average, run-of-the-mill, and forgettable.  After it was over with, there wasn’t anything from the film that really stayed with me.  Considering its subject material (the impact and healing powers of animals and the real struggles the military deals with from a mental health perspective), they could have done a lot more here.  Instead, they played it safe and easy with a formulaic film that needed a little more bite to it, no pun intended. There are some laughs to be had here, especially with some of the cast members I mentioned, but they are few and far between.  I’m sure a lot of families and Tatum fans will enjoy this film. It didn’t do it for me, however.

* * out of * * * *

Blu-ray Info: “Dog” is released on a two-disc Blu-ray and DVD Combo Pack from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment, which also comes with a digital copy of the film. It is rated PG-13 for language, thematic elements, drug content, and some suggestive material.  It has a running time of 101 minutes.

Video/Audio Info:  The film comes on 1080p High Definition with two audio tracks: DTS-HD MA: English 5.1 and Dolby Digital: English Descriptive Audio. Subtitles are in English and Spanish.

Special Features:

“Dog” Trailer

Should You Buy It?

I can’t think of any reason to buy this film unless you are part of the Channing Tatum fan club.  The film has its heart in the right place, so I can’t fault it for that.  It just doesn’t want to try to break out of its formula.  The film follows all of the familiar beats one would expect in a film like this, and it ends exactly how you would expect it to end.  It follows the formula from A to Z.  It does not take any chances or have any surprises, whatsoever.  I don’t even think it’s worth a Redbox rental.  It’s a film you can completely pass on, and you will be just fine. The Blu-ray does not come with any special features, which is a bummer.  It would have been nice to see how Tatum worked with the dog and some of the challenges it presented for the actor. I feel like the Grinch giving this film a bad review, but its screenplay is just lazy and the pacing is really rough.  I’d pass on this one altogether.

**Disclaimer** I received a Blu-ray copy of this film from Warner Brothers to review for free.  The opinions and statements in the review are mine and mine alone.

Emily Blunt On Portraying a Single Mother in ‘Looper’

Sara (Emily Blunt) is a single mom who’s learned to stand her ground to protect her home — and her young son.

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2012.

As single mother Sara, Emily Blunt is a powerful presence in Rian Johnson’s “Looper” and she more than holds her own opposite Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis throughout. It’s been a busy year for the actress as she has appeared in several movies including “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” and “The Five-Year Engagement,” but “Looper” gives her an opportunity to play a different kind of role which allows her to be tough and vulnerable all at the same time. It presents a big acting challenge for Blunt, and those who know her best know she’s always up for one.

“I think I really just want to challenge myself, more than anything,” said Blunt. “People have been asking me if I’m gravitating to these sci-fi roles, but I don’t feel I necessarily am because they’ve been sort of sporadic as to when they come out. But I do like the idea of creating a backstop that is high concept for the characters to really have stuff to play with within that.”

Blunt has described Sara as being a “very tough cookie” who lives an isolated existence on a farm out in the middle of nowhere. Sara looks to have completely shut herself from the outside world and spends the days working on her farm and taking care of her five-year old son, Cid (the amazing Pierce Gagnon). The beauty of Blunt’s performance is how she pulls back the layers of her character to show us what’s underneath.

“I think that I really loved the tough exterior with the inner guilt that she sort of torments herself with,” Blunt said. “I love that unraveling of the character that you don’t know why she’s so tough, you don’t know why she’s so protective. Gradually it unfolds throughout the course of the third act. So really what I said to Rian (Johnson) was that we’ve got to make this whole sequence in the third act like that movie ‘Witness.’ It’s got to have that sort of pastoral tension to it and the feeling of someone coming in that’s alien to your world and disrupting everything and how frightening that must be for her. So, I think really I wanted to make sure we maintain the mystique of the character as long as we could.”

In preparing to play Sara, Blunt had to resort to using what she called those “dreadful sun beds” to get the tan her character has from working outside in the sun all day. Blunt did say she took some time lay out in the sun a lot before shooting began, but also admitted it takes a really long time for her to get a tan. Still, using the sun beds and getting makeup put on top of her tanned skin proved to be preferable to getting a spray tan as she hates the smell.

Blunt also gets to ditch her British accent for a Kansas-sounding one in “Looper,” and she worked with a dialect coach and listened to people from Kansas to get it down right. But what really helped was listening to one Oscar-winning actor in particular.

“The person I listened to a lot was Chris Cooper who’s from Kansas and grew up on a farm. I loved his voice and it sounded very grounded. I found it more helpful to listen to guys than girls because of the toughness of the character,” said Blunt. “I watched ‘American Beauty’ and I watched ‘Adaptation’ but I mainly listened to his interviews, him giving interviews and stuff.”

Watching Emily Blunt from one movie to the next shows her having an understated power to completely transform herself into whatever character she plays. It’s like she almost makes her preparation look effortless, except of course for those scenes where she chops wood with a big axe. As a result, she has become one of the most interesting actresses working in movies today, and we all look forward to seeing what role she will inhabit next.

SOURCES:

Sean O’Connell, “‘Looper’ Interview: Emily Blunt Talks Shotguns, Redemption and A Nickname for Her Fans,” Cinema Blend, September 26, 2012.

Fred Topel, “Butching Out: Emily Blunt on ‘Looper’ and ‘All You Need is Kill,’” Crave Online, September 27, 2012.

‘Cursed’ Movie and Blu-ray Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent, Tony Farinella.

From reading up on “Cursed” through the IMDB trivia section, the story behind the scenes of this film might be more interesting than the film itself.  I say this as a huge fan of the film.  I think it’s a really, really good Wes Craven/Kevin Williamson collaboration.  Is it as good as their work on the “Scream” franchise? No, but there is a reason so many fans of the duo have discovered and enjoyed “Cursed” since its initial release in 2005. Their usual brand of humor, self-awareness and gruesome kills are featured at times, in this film.  This Shout Factory Blu-ray features both the theatrical cut (PG-13) and the unrated cut.  I highly recommend you check out the unrated cut. I’ve seen both cuts, and the unrated cut, even though it’s only two minutes longer, features more gore.

“Cursed” stars Christina Ricci and Jesse Eisenberg as Ellie and Jimmy, a sister and brother duo living together after the unexplained death of their parents.  Jimmy is seen as a dork and feels forgotten about by his sister while Ellie is working on the “Craig Kilborn Show” as a producer. Oddly enough, Kilborn was no longer on the air when the film was released because it was delayed for two and a half years. Jimmy is in high school and being constantly picked on by Bo (Milo Ventimiglia) who resorts to homophobic insults every chance he gets.  Bo’s girlfriend, Brooke (Kristina Anapau), does not approve of his behavior, and she also takes a liking to Jimmy’s dog named Zipper.

Ellie is romantically involved with a smooth-talking ladies’ man named Jake (Joshua Jackson) who is about to open up a horror-themed nightclub.  His past causes Ellie to wonder if he really cares about her or if she’s just another notch on his belt. One night, Jimmy and Ellie have a car accident where Jimmy swears he saw a werewolf or a monster.  Ellie doesn’t believe him, and a police officer played by Nick Offerman is even more skeptical.  Before long, they can’t start to ignore the strange and weird things happening to their bodies and the feelings they are experiencing.

CURSED, Mya, Shannon Elizabeth, 2005, (c) Dimension Films

Let’s talk about the cast as I felt like, every time I turned around, I saw an actor or actress I was familiar with on screen. Shannon Elizabeth is in the film, and she’s game for a grueling and demanding part in the film.  There is also the always reliable Judy Greer as a fast-talking publicist who finds herself butting heads with Ellie throughout.  There is also a cameo from Scott Baio as himself, and it’s just about perfect. Portia de Rossi plays a psychic, and she makes the most out of her limited screen time. Singer and songwriter Mya has a fun turn as the best friend of the Shannon Elizabeth character. As far as the standouts from this amazing cast, the brother/sister relationship between Eisenberg and Ricci is the heart of the film, and it feels very real.  They felt like brother and sister. Joshua Jackson also has just the right amount of mysterious charm to him, and Greer is a spitfire as always.

Any problems with “Cursed” are not the fault of Craven or Williamson. They were at the mercy of the studio.  It felt like they were both looking to make a witty werewolf film to turn the genre on its head just like they did with “Scream” while the studio and producers were looking to make a PG-13 film.  It’s why we are left with a film that shows hints of greatness and other moments which were aimed to be studio-friendly.  There are too many jump scares for example.  At times, the film plays it too safe.  Other times, in the unrated cut, they really go for the gore.

However, when it was all said and done, I enjoyed the hell out of “Cursed.”  The script is witty, sharp and timely for the early 2000’s. When I see its flaws, like the jump scares and poor special effects, I know it is the studio and not Craven, and that’s even though it’s his film.  When I see the material that works, such as the strong acting, the self-awareness and the gore in the unrated version, I see what could have been if the studio let Craven make the film he wanted to and stayed out of things. It’s clear the studio didn’t know how to market “Cursed” as it had a budget of $75 million, and it only made $29.6 million.

While this might sound like a negative review at times, I think “Cursed” is a cult classic which will gain more appreciation now that it’s released on this two-disc set from the fine folks over at Scream Factory.  I think it will get a second life. There is a lot of good in this film, and it allowed me, as the viewer, to overlook the studio’s interference. I really wish audiences could have seen the original werewolf design by the legendary Rick Baker (“An American Werewolf in London”) in the film.  Even though his name is in the credits, his work is not featured in it.  That’s a major mistake on the studio’s part. This is a really good movie which could have been great.  I still like it a whole lot. 

Do yourself a favor and read all of the drama surrounding this film.  It’s a miracle it was released at all. A special shout-out to Scream Factory for giving “Cursed” its day in court. It’s an enjoyable ride, warts and all.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Blu-Ray Info: “Cursed” is released on a two-disc Collector’s Edition Blu-ray set from Scream Factory.  It comes on a 1080p High-Definition Widescreen (2.40:1) transfer with an audio track of DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and with subtitles in English. The theatrical cut has a running time of 97 minutes while the unrated cut is 99 minutes. The unrated cut is the one to watch.

Special Features:

Theatrical Cut

Unrated Cut

Theatrical Trailer

NEW 4K scan of the original camera negative

NEW A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing – an interview with actor Derek Mears (13:57) – Derek Mears talks about his start in Hollywood as a stuntman and his background and training. He talks about his start on “Wild Wild West” and how he met Rick Baker on the film.  He also discusses how it can be hard in Hollywood to be seen as an actor and a stuntman as they want one or the other. Baker was how he got involved in “Cursed” as the werewolf. He details some of the issues when shooting the film, but he was mostly thankful for the opportunity to work with Craven, Baker and Williamson. I really enjoyed his enthusiasm and love of horror films.

NEW A Movie That Lives Up to Its Title – an interview with editor Patrick Lussier (17:57) – He talks about his early work with Craven going back to 1991 on TV. The fact they offered Craven a ton of money to make this film, and it would have put a lot of crew members out of work is ultimately the reason why he chose to direct it.  Craven had his concerns about the tone of the film and if it would be similar to “Vampire in Brooklyn” and the problems he had on that one.  Lussier was only supposed to be on “Cursed” for six weeks, and in total, he worked 19 months on the film. WOW! He goes into tremendous detail on the issues that plagued the film from start to finish.  In his words, “It was something to have survived.”  There were issues with Dimension Films changing the ending, test scores influencing them, and cast and crew members coming and going.  He ends it with a great quote on Dimension Films, “They don’t pay you for what you do. They pay you for what they do to you.”

Behind the Fangs: The Making of “Cursed” (07:33): This is a previously released special feature which includes interviews with the cast and crew.

The “Cursed” Effects (06:45): This is another previously released special feature which includes interviews with Derek Mears, Greg Nicotero, and Judy Greer.   It’s kind of odd to see everyone speaking so positively about the film and its effects, considering all of the drama surrounding what went on.

Becoming a Werewolf (07:58): Jesse Eisenberg hosts this special feature which is clearly tongue in cheek. Eisenberg and Nicotero have some fun together in playing this straight for laughs. Craven pops up here as well to join in on the fun. It’s also written and directed by Eisenberg, and his trademark humor is evident throughout.

Creature Editing 101 (05:32): Now this special feature is really interesting to watch considering what he said in his new interview that is included on this Collector’s Edition Blu-ray. He’s much more politically correct here.

Select Scenes with Audio Commentary by Special Effects Artist Greg Nicotero and Actor Derek Mears: The following scenes are featured: Car Wreck, Parking Garage, Tinsel and Final Fight.

Should You Buy It?

As a horror fan, this is a film definitely worth adding to your collection.  “Cursed” is a film a lot of people have talked about online over the past few years.  They have been clamoring to see the Craven cut of the film, but it’s not clear who owns the footage, and also the original ending was never shot. It has achieved cult status thanks to the fans. I’ve even revisited it a few times over the past year, and I’ve grown to enjoy it more and more with each viewing.  I also can’t help but wonder, “What if?” when I watch the film.  I wonder what could have been if the studio had let Craven do his thing and stayed out of his way.  I also wish Scream Factory would have released this film on 4K as they have been releasing a lot of their titles in this high-definition format. It looks pretty good on Blu-ray, but I imagine a full 4K release would have been really, really fun to look at, especially during the gorier scenes.  If you love Scream Factory and horror films with an interesting backstory, this is a must-own.  I think it’s only going to grow in popularity after this Blu-ray release.

There are two new special features here which are really good, but it would have been quite a treat to have a few modern interviews with some of the main cast members. I imagine they would have some fascinating and bizarre stories to tell. You can pre-order the film now on the Shout/Scream Factory website as it will be released on May 10th.