Alan Parker’s ‘Angel Heart’ is a Devastating Descent Into Hell

Angel Heart” is a heavily atmospheric movie which makes you feel the coldness of New York and the never-ending heat of Louisiana in the summertime which makes you sweat like nothing else can. It is not a loud slam bang movie, and it does take its sweet time in setting up the story and the locations which the characters exist in. Each city proves to be an important character, and they reflect the nightmares and dreams of the main characters. If this movie were made today, I imagine the studios would want the actors cast in it to be younger and hipper and take away some of the dark stuff. I hope this is one Hollywood can leave off of the remake table.

Back when this was made, Mickey Rourke was a much bigger star, and this is one of the many movies he starred in without shampooing his hair beforehand. As Harry Angel, he does excellent work in making this New York City private investigator seem tough and sleazy, yet resourceful and vulnerable. Harry’s life unravels faster and faster as he digs deeper and deeper into the mystery which surrounds him. Watching Rourke here reminds me of what a strong and brave actor he can be when given the right material. Back then, he was not afraid to play someone whose dark side could often prove to be overpowering. His off-screen antics seemed to get the best of him over the years, but thanks to his performances in “Sin City” and “The Wrestler,” there is no forgetting who he is.

The movie credits itself for having “a special appearance” by Robert De Niro. Special appearance? This seems to imply you see him in the movie only once. On point of fact, we see him several times throughout as Louis Cyphre (pay close attention to this name). It is one of the few performances where De Niro never goes over the top and becomes a threatening force without ever having to put much effort into doing so. As Cyphre, De Niro gives a delicious performance of a man endlessly fascinated by the corruption and decay of the soul, and it appears he finds this as delicious as the hard-boiled eggs he always has on hand to eat. When he says the egg is the symbol of the soul and then slowly bites into it in front of Harry, it is a very chilling moment.

Lisa Bonet was deep into playing Denise Huxtable on “The Cosby Show” when she was cast in “Angel Heart.” I imagine the MPAA tricked themselves into giving this film an adults only rating because they got all hot and bothered at one Cosby’s television daughters showing her breasts. I can see them now:

“We can’t let kids see this movie! They will never look at one of television’s famous daughters the same again! This will destroy their innocence!! Won’t somebody think of the children?!”

Alan Parker, who directed “Angel Heart,” ended up cutting out ten seconds of the sex scene between Rourke and Bonet in order to secure an R rating. Upon its release on video and laserdisc, those ten seconds were restored. I first saw this film at New Beverly Cinema which prides itself on showing everything in 35mm, so I can only assume I was watching the theatrical version. But seriously, you cannot convince me this deserved to be an NC-17 movie even with those extra seconds. People can be so testy for all the wrong reasons.

A lot of the controversy surrounding “Angel Heart” almost hides the fact Bonet is actually really good here. A lot of people probably assumed she got the role of Epiphany Proudfoot because of her success on “The Cosby Show,” but Parker made it clear to everyone he picked her because he felt she was right for the part. Having seen this movie, I completely agree. I also have to admit it was fun seeing her naked, but anyway. Epiphany (perfectly named by the way) is a mysterious person who seems to say everything yet reveals nothing, and Bonet captures her character’s mystery very well to where she keeps us guessing.

Parker made many great movies over the years like “Birdy” and the cinematic experience which is “Midnight Express” to name a few. Like “Angel Heart,” they deal with lost souls trying desperately to free themselves of whatever is holding them back. There is a lot holding Harry Angel back, but when he finally gets to the truth, he will find that being held back was actually a blessing he could never see. Parker gives the movie a distinctive look as it takes place in the 1940’s, and he directs the actors very well and gives each a memorable moment which sticks with you long after the lights come up.

Trevor Jones composed the music score, and he does great work capturing the tension and atmosphere. Right from the start, he aids the filmmakers in realizing the horrifying truth Harry has spent the entire movie trying to find.

The first official trailer for “Angel Heart” goes out of its way to make it look like this is the second coming of horror by comparing it to “The Exorcist” and “Chinatown.” This proved to be a bit misleading as this film does not quite reach the heights of those two classics, and it really stands out as being from them. Still, it is a very good film which once against demonstrates Parker’s unique gifts as a filmmaker.

It did not receive much of an audience upon its release which almost led to me putting this in my “Underseen Movies” category, but it has since received a significant cult following throughout the years. Here is hoping that cult following will continue to grow, and that the remake train will leave this one off its passenger list. Seriously, Hollywood really needs to try more original stuff.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: Alan Parker’s ‘Birdy’ Starring Nicolas Cage and Matthew Modine

Birdy” is a great movie and a deeply felt character study about two young men who grow up together, and who are forever changed by the war they are drafted into. The movie is based on a book by William Wharton which chronicles two characters who are thrown into World War II. For the film, it was changed to Vietnam as the screenwriters, Sandy Kroopf and Jack Behr, wanted to work with their own youthful experiences. The story starts out with the two main characters who are now out of the Vietnam War, but who are forever scared by it permanently. In the end, they see all they have is each other.

Events move back and forth in time as we first see Nicolas Cage’s character of Alfonso “Al” Columbato coming out of the hospital following a bomb explosion which seriously disfigured his face. Bandaged like a Frankenstein creation, or like Michael Myers at the beginning of “Halloween 4,” he is no longer the ladies’ man we see getting to first base in scenes from his past. From there, Al travels to another army hospital where Birdy (Matthew Modine) is holed up in a cell not saying a word. After the damage the war has done to him, Birdy (we never learn his real name) has seemingly accomplished what he has set out to do – to become a bird in his own mind.

“Birdy” then shifts to their high school years in Philadelphia when Al and Birdy first met. While they initially seem like complete opposites, we come to see they want the same thing in life: to fly away from their problems. With Al, he has an abusive father to deal with who thinks nothing of smacking his son around when he screws up, and being on the high school wrestling team helps him deal with his utter frustration of not being able to stand up to him. With Birdy, he has a tough as nails father who is nowhere as sympathetic and understanding as his janitor father, and who is always taking away the baseballs that the kids unintentionally keep batting into her yard. Both Al and Birdy keep coming up with schemes to make money while hoping for an escape from their meager existence. But when it comes to flying away, Birdy is a far more literal about it.

Al really represents Birdy’s strongest link to the outside world as he falls deeper and deeper into his obsession with birds and in wanting to fly like one. He never shows much interest in anything you expect teenagers to indulge themselves in like girlfriends, making out, or being normal. One of the funniest expressions Birdy has is when he talks about how bad he feels for women as they have to have breasts which they just have to carry around and how they flop all over the place. I can’t think of anyone else who would make such a ridiculous argument, man or woman.

The scenes in which Birdy spends time with a beautiful yellow canary he gets and names Perta are some of the most memorable to found here. This is not just some National Geographic special you are watching as we see him studying birds ever so closely, almost making love to them. There is one amazing sequence where he dreams he is flying like a bird and director Alan Parker shoots the scene from a bird’s eye view as we go around people and fly over cars and then way up into the sky above. All this done to the instrumental version of Peter Gabriel’s “Not One of Us,” and this is one first movies to make use of the Skycam which is used to incredible effect.

While all this may make this movie sound like a nostalgic journey to the past, it is really a very hard-hitting movie which has its funny and nostalgic moments and also many awkward and painful ones. Seeing Birdy going to a prom, only because his mom threatens to get rid of his birds if he doesn’t, is painful in terms of how much we know he doesn’t want to be there, and you feel for his date who has the biggest crush on him. Hell, I would have killed to date the girl he goes out with! And seeing at the start how these guys are now at living in a time where they are forever changed, we know they are on an emotional descent which may permanently rob them of what is left of their humanity.

Seeing these two actors early on in their careers reminds you of just how talented they are. Cage’s role of Al is one of my favorites of his as we see him as a fun-loving guy, and then as a frightened war veteran who is terribly uncertain of what lies ahead for him. Having to spend so much of this movie in bandages could seem so limiting to many actors, but not to Mr. Cage. Before production began, it was said he had his wisdom teeth removed and without Novocaine. Learning this really made my mouth hurt! Talk about suffering for your art! Still, it did make his performance feel rawer and more genuine, and I still look forward to seeing more work from him like this even as he continues to dwell in the direct to video realm.

Modine has an especially hard role to play because he could have played it far too broadly, but he makes Birdy’s love for birds seem so real to where it is perfectly understandable why he has since withdrawn from reality. When we see him at the hospital, he is almost completely speechless and has to convey how he feels through his eyes, something actors need to learn if they want to be great at their job. This is one his best performances as well, and it led him to a career where he has played many different roles, and he continues to do so.

This is one of Parker’s best movies, and it stands alongside his strongest efforts including “Midnight Express” and “Mississippi Burning.” With “Birdy,” he has not just made some simple antiwar movie about how unnecessary and brutal war is, but of the bond of friendship and how it can never be completely broken, especially when you are in need. In essence, the scars, both physically and mentally, which have been inflicted on these two men bring them together because it seems like no one else can ever truly understand them. The heart of this movie is in the way these two men lean on each other, and how they recognize each other’s strengths. Parker gets this and makes it the main thrust of this excellent motion picture. In the end, most of his movies deal with people in a place which seems so alien and unwelcome to them, and of the rough and tumble journey to get back to the land of the living.

And, of course, I cannot complete this interview without mentioning Peter Gabriel’s film score as it has provided me with a soundtrack I never get sick of listening to. While it may seem weird to compose music to a period movie with electronic instruments, his music fits perfectly into the themes Parker deals with here. Like the characters, it is in its own world and dwells in both the beauty and pain of life. The music is cribbed from a lot of Gabriel’s other albums (which he has he freely admitted to many times), and it would have been interesting if he did include some of the lyrics to the songs used here like “Wallflower” as they illustrate the mental health obstacles these two men have to overcome.

Seriously, I love “Birdy,” and when the name Alan Parker comes up, this is one of the first movies of his I think of. It also contains one of the best endings of any movie I have ever seen, and you have to watch “Birdy” all the way through to the end in order to fully appreciate it. Trust me, it is worth the trouble, and it makes this Grand Prix Spécial du Jury prize winner from the Cannes Film Festival all the more unforgettable.

* * * * out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: Jonathan Glazer’s ‘Under the Skin’

Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” is, in a word, hypnotic. Shot in a clinical fashion which would have made Stanley Kubrick proud, it puts us in the shoes of a nameless and mysterious young woman, played by Scarlett Johansson, who spends her days driving around Scotland and seducing lonely men for what seems like a night of much needed sex. But we eventually discover she is not of this world as she lures these oblivious men to a dark void where their bodies are sucked into a deep dark abyss of liquid. From there, their bodies are consumed and sent off to a bright red light which I can assume represents the alien world she originates from. But while she may seem like an evil parasite, her travels on Earth result in her going through a process of self-discovery she was never meant to experience, and it leads to an endlessly fascinating motion picture which has stayed with me ever since I first watched it in 2014.

I was amazed at how Glazer almost fashioned this as a silent film. There is dialogue here, but not much of it. Johansson doesn’t speak until she finds a lonely male walking the streets all by his lonesome, and it is then that she shows us just how good her Scottish accent really is. It is also surprising to learn that most of the characters we see here are portrayed by non-actors who more or less improvised their dialogue. This gives “Under the Skin” a down to earth feel which helps to make Johansson’s character (we never do learn her name) seem all the more out of her element.

Visually, the movie has a strange beauty in its depiction of darkness and light, and there’s a scene in particular where we see what happens to the bodies of the men Johansson seduces which proves to be both eerily beautiful and simultaneously shocking. While many people might look at Glazer as if he is just totally ripping off Kubrick, he really has given this whole movie a unique feel as I still find it hard to compare it to others of its genre.

“Under the Skin” may end up frustrating a lot of viewers as it does not provide much in the way of answers. Glazer has opted to leave a lot of what we see to our imaginations, and I am always excited when a filmmaker challenges his audience to think about what they are seeing. Not every image we see necessarily deserves a straightforward explanation, and we live in a time when people are desperate for others to give them a definitive answer without thinking critically about what just took place.

Johansson is mesmerizing to watch from start to finish. Her character is a very tricky one to play as she has to come off as emotionally cold, but she eventually finds herself in a state of self-discovery where she experiences a number of things for the very first time. This is where she really could have gone overboard with moments which could have screamed out, “nominate me for an Oscar!” But her performance here ranks among her finest to date, and her reactions to experiences her character is put through are enthralling to witness.

Another thing which really stands out is the amazingly original music score composed by Mica Levi, better known by her stage name of Micachu. She composes mostly experimental music, and her soundscapes and bizarre musical design perfectly meshes with Glazer’s haunting visuals. I haven’t heard a film score quite this unique since Jonny Greenwood worked his musical magic on Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood.” I did not even hesitate to buy the soundtrack once I left the theater.

Glazer burst onto the scene with his feature film debut “Sexy Beast” in which Ben Kingsley gave us one of the most frightening, and unhappy, gangsters on the planet, but he was absent from cinema since his follow-up film “Birth.” It turns out he started working on his adaptation of “Under the Skin” back in 2004, and it took him a decade to get his vision onto the silver screen. It was great to have him back behind the camera as he has an amazing visual style which just sucked me right in.

“Under the Skin” is filled with so many haunting images which have stayed with me for a long, long time. The black void where Johansson’s character lures her male victims to, the white void where she dresses in another person’s clothes, a man racing his motorcycle through a lot of hazardous weather at an alarming speed, Johansson’s character reacting to the piece of cake she has just eaten, etc. This film absorbed me in a way few other movies did back in 2014, and it was great to see something so cinematically daring as. The fact it got made feels like a miracle.

Yes, it did prove to be divisive among moviegoers who were easily bored by its languid pace, and perhaps they were instead yearning for the latest bombastic action spectacle from Michael Bay. Regardless, I’m really glad that “Under the Skin” has provoked such passionate responses because it takes chances and doesn’t conform to the Hollywood norm which filmmakers cannot always escape from. It provides one of the more unique experiences I have had at the movies, and it was great to see Jonathan Glazer back behind the camera after a surprisingly long hiatus.

Besides, Scarlett Johansson, Black Widow herself, stars in this, and she is currently the highest paid actor working in movies. Shouldn’t that be enough of a reason to watch this striking piece of cinema?

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Scott Pilgrim vs The World’ – 10 Years Later and it is Still Awesome!

Upon seeing how the filmmakers gleefully manipulated the Universal Pictures logo to make it look like something out of an old Atari or Nintendo game in addition to scoring the fanfare with the prehistoric techno music we knew these games to have, I knew I was in for a very entertaining time at the movies. I always get a kick out of people messing around with the studio logos we see at the beginning of every motion picture. It is an immediate sign of how we are about to see something different from the usual Hollywood fare, something we do not get enough of. Perhaps if audiences embraced more movies like these, we wouldn’t have to deal with all these remakes and reboots!

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” was without a doubt the most fun I had watching a movie in a theater back in 2010. It is also another inspired masterpiece from director Edgar Wright who has previously given us the giddy cult classics “Shaun Of The Dead” and “Hot Fuzz.” Based on the comic book series by Bryan Lee O’Malley, it is really an ode to all things video games and a collage of the visual audio effects from them, and they are combined with a story featuring characters who are anything but boring. It is also beautifully shot, perfectly cast, very well written, and extremely well directed. In case you are wondering, yes, I love this movie, and I love it just as much 10 years after its release.

The Scott Pilgrim of the movie’s title is a 22-year-old man child who plays bass guitar with his friends for the rock band Sex Bob-omb. Finally rebounding from a devastatingly painful break up a year ago, he has started dating a 17-year old girl named Knives who is still in high school. Scott’s friends, including his gay roommate Wallace, tell him ever so bluntly he has lost his mind and assume he is trying to rebound with someone they consider to be his “fake girlfriend.” But then he gets a glimpse of the new girl in town, the mysterious raven-haired Ramona Flowers, and he is hopelessly smitten on sight and becomes intent on asking her out.

However, there is a catch; if Scott is going to be in a relationship with Ramona, he will have to defeat her seven evil exes. Indeed, Scott does get an email warning him of this, but he ends up deleting it quickly after declaring it as “boring.” As Arnold Schwarzenegger would say, big mistake! When Scott and his friends perform at a battle of the band’s competition, he is suddenly met by the first evil ex of the bunch, Matthew Patel. Other exes include those with mystical powers, a former skateboarder who has since become an actor, and another bass player who has developed telekinetic powers thanks to his Vegan diet. Let the battles begin!

Basically, the movie treats Scott’s life as though it were one old school game with dated graphics, and we watch him take on each ex (note, not all of them are men) as if he were in a real life Mortal Kombat tournament but without all the blood and guts. That’s the thing; there is no real gore to be found here as was the case in Edgar Wright’s previous two films. I bring this up because I gave my sister in law the DVD for “Hot Fuzz,” and she was horrified at the sight of Timothy Dalton’s face being impaled on a tiny replica of the Big Ben tower.

Scott defends himself pretty well, but he is also dealt a harsh beating without suffering any broken bones. It sounds cool when you think you can take a licking without a shattered collarbone or worst, but he does feel pain, so this side effect of taking on those people who were at other times equally enamored by Ramona is unavoidable. In defeating the exes, he will capture Ramona’s heart and become the first boyfriend of hers who is far from evil. He will also end up inheriting a boatload of coins after delivering the final blow.

I do have to say, however, it sucks he has no time to collect the coins or have some big gym bag to put them in. The amount spilled would have set him up in the local video arcade for life!

What I loved about “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” is how endlessly inventive it is in its visuals and the scenarios Wright comes up with, and it integrates all these images from video games deeply engraved in our minds to make us feel like kids again. There is one shot in particular which defies easy description, but it had me laughing harder than anything else I had seen in 2010 to the point where I got seriously light-headed. I’m pretty sure you’ll know it when you see it.

Now the pitfall of having such great visuals is other elements like acting and the screenplay might fail to get the same attention. But Wright, along with Michael Bacall, has written a script containing characters who, while flawed, I came to care about deeply. Unlike all those characters from those Pac Man or Super Mario Brothers games we played at home or, in my case, at a friend’s house, these are not just one-dimensional beings with one simple goal in mind. Scott doesn’t just have to defeat the league of evil exes, he also has to develop a strong self-respect before he can move on with his life in Canada.

Leading the cast here is Michael Cera who plays Scott, and he gives one of his best performance here. He was dealing with a backlash back then because many assumed he was just playing the same character in every movie he was in; an awkward young man who isn’t sure how to feel or act about anything due to a deep fear of embarrassment. But Scott is not really the same sort of character Cera has been portraying. Sure, there is a good dose of awkwardness when we first see him talking to Ramona, but he’s about to give up on getting her to go out with him.

It’s also important to note that Scott is not always a likable character. At times he is caught red-handed in being very dishonest with his friends, and he doesn’t always take their feelings into consideration. The major triumph of Cera’s performance is he still makes you root for Scott in spite of some of his selfish actions.

Playing the beautiful Ramona is Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and I cannot think of another actress who has looked so incredibly gorgeous with dyed hair. Winstead has appeared as John McClane’s daughter, Lucy, who proved to be just as tough as her dad in “Live Free or Die Hard,” she showed off a fantastic set of vocal pipes in Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof” (one of the two movies in “Grindhouse”), and she was a force to be reckoned with in “10 Cloverfield Lane.” Winstead makes Ramona look tough and intimidating on the outside, but she also allows us to see the wounded person underneath that cold defensive exterior of hers. Ramona may look mean, but she is a wounded soul. Then again, who wouldn’t be after having endured seven failed relationships?

There is also a dynamic scene stealer to be found here, and it is Kieran Culkin who plays Scott’s roommate, Wallace Wells. Shamelessly stealing men from Scott’s little sister while texting gossip on his phone like it is second nature, Culkin gets to bring the same biting wit of his which he used to great effect in “Igby Goes Down.” He is a fiendish delight in every scene he is in.

As for the exes, each actor imbues their characters with the specific traits and powers they come equipped with, and they succeed in making each one totally unique from the other. Brandon Routh gets to really let loose here in a way he never got to in “Superman Returns” as Todd Ingram, the Vegan ex with telekinetic powers. Witnessing his expected demise brings about one of the funniest moments as Scott finds this rival bass player’s kryptonite. Jason Schwartzman is also excellent as a slick theater manager who uses his charms on anyone and everyone around him, and he is a slimy delight as a record company exec who earns your trust only to break it when you’re not looking.

What else is there to say about “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World?” Plenty! The director of photography on this splendid picture was Bill Pope, the same man who did wonders for many of Sam Raimi’s films as well as “The Matrix” trilogy. His style perfectly matches up with Wright’s sensibility, and the way he sets up certain shots is amazingly brilliant. Furthermore, I have to applaud artists like Beck and Nigel Godrich for giving Sex Bob-Omb some kick ass music for them to play. In movies like these, I expect the bands to get stuck with some lame music which is geared more to sell a soundtrack than fit in with the overall story. That’s not the case here, thank goodness.

There are also inspired turns from Anna Kendrick (“Up In The Air”) as Scott’s sister Stacey, Alison Pine whose character of Kim Pine shows a bitter and stony expression, and Aubrey Plaza whose heavy stares and sarcastic state of mind as Julie Powers is a sight to behold.

I was depressed to see “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” bomb back in 2010. I could not believe it had such a lousy opening weekend, and I was miffed that audiences were more eager to see the god-awful comedy “Vampires Suck” snag the number one spot at the box office instead of this one. Over the years though, it has become a cult hit, and Wright did manage to score a big hit with “Baby Driver.” Regardless of its initial reception, this movie has proven to have a long shelf life, and I invite you to watch it if you have not already. Besides, in this time of an endless global pandemic, this one will take your mind off of it for a couple of hours.

Loved this movie, I did!

* * * * out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: Michael Haneke’s Shot-For-Shot Remake of ‘Funny Games’

There is no in between with a film like this. You will either like or hate it with a fervent passion. Reviews for “Funny Games” have gone all over the place from praise to vicious hatred. Some will describe it as a completely immoral piece of work which revels in what it despises. Others will look at as very strong suspense film which does not hide from the ugly reality of violence. After seeing this film, I can’t help but think this is what director Michael Haneke wanted. Alfred Hitchcock was once quoted as saying, “I love playing the audience like a piano.” So does Haneke.

Truth be told, Haneke must be reveling in getting us into such an emotional state as he did the same exact thing in the past. “Funny Games” is a shot-for-shot remake of his original suspense thriller of the same name from 1997. I actually did not realize it was a remake until around the time it arrived in theaters. But since this is a virtual duplication of another film, I’m not sure how necessary it will be to see the original.

Haneke wanted to remake “Funny Games” for an American audience because he felt it was in essence an American story in which he sees its citizens being giddily in love with violence onscreen and in the media. While there is something rather condescending about him thinking this, he does have a point. Every once in a while, we need a film which reminds us of the brutality of violence. While we may fiend for gun battles on the big screen, violence in real life is scary and something we should be eager to avoid. “Funny Games” was the first ironically titled and truly polarizing movie of 2008. It is anything but entertaining, and in the end, it is not meant to be. Some movies are made to be experienced, and this is one of them.

“Funny Games” revolves around the married couple of Ann and George Farber (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) whom we first see driving down the highway with their son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) and their sailboat in tow. When they finally arrive at their destination, they are met by two young men, Paul (William Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbet), both of whom look like well-bred preppies equipped with very nice manners. Brady’s character comes to borrow eggs to give which Watts gives him kindly. But on the way out, he accidentally drops them and won’t leave until he gets some more. Soon, both husband and wife are trying to throw these two guys out, and then the two show their true intentions when they take a golf club and smash one of George’s kneecaps.

With the family held hostage, Paul and Peter reveal their heinous plan; they bet that in 12 hours, the whole family will be dead. From there, it becomes a game of survival for the family as the games these two force them to play get increasingly dangerous. One of the major criticisms I have heard leveled at the killers is they have no motive. Sometimes not knowing why people do the things they do makes things much scarier. When “Silence of The Lambs” was first released in theaters, we were never told why Hannibal Lecter was a cannibal. But here, these two evil schmucks do have a motive which is senseless and viciously cold: they are torturing this family for the thrill of it and for what one of them calls “the importance of entertainment.” The director has given us two psychos whose motives, as he puts it are not “easily explained by societal factors.” They look to enjoy the power they have over this helpless family.

This phenomenon of people getting a high off of violence and torture feels like it is growing at a horrifying rate. There have been movies like “Henry – Portrait of A Serial Killer” and “Menace 2 Society” that have moments where the characters commit violent acts which have been intentionally or unintentionally videotaped. We later see these same characters watching their hideous acts over and over. There was an episode of “Homicide: Life on The Street” which featured a scene with one man filming his friend as he goes over to a nearby bus stop and shoots an old lady to death. No reason is given, other than the fact they find the visual so incredibly entertaining.

Like those characters, Paul and Peter are utterly repellent individuals. But the thing is, you should be repelled at what these guys are doing. They are without morals, and the rules of society are nonexistent to them which makes them all the more threatening and dangerous. The comfortable conventions of the normal suspense thriller are thrown out here. If they are employed here, then it is only for us to see them overturned when we least expect them to be. Unlike other Hollywood thrillers, the violence here feels much more real than you would expect it to be.

Another interesting thing is while this is technically an ultra-violent movie, there is actually not a lot of violence shown onscreen. Most of the violence is committed offscreen, making it all the more terrifying. There’s another moment where Ann is forced to disrobe completely, but you never see her from below the neck. It’s a moment where Haneke dares you to wonder why the camera isn’t showing us more here. You may end up hating him for that, but you cannot deny your mind went down to that dark and dirty place.

Like “Cache,” Haneke likes to film shots in long takes. This succeeds in trapping the viewer in with this family as we wait to see if they can escape their fate. One shot lasts a good five minutes or so as Ann desperately tries to break free of the tape which binds her hands behind her back. There are a lot of static shots here which are free of overly clever camera moves, and they suck us in to the action while generating strong suspense. There are points where we are not sure when these two psychos threaten to strike next.

Haneke goes even further by having Paul break the fourth wall between the characters and the audience watching this movie. Many found this device to be annoying, but I wasn’t bothered by it because it made the movie seem even creepier than it already was. It probably would have been an unnecessary device had it been overused, but the director uses it sparingly and to a powerful effect.

There is also a moment a rewind of events is employed. It is as brilliant a move as it is done to completely frustrate the viewer as it completely eschews the formula of movies like these. Haneke doesn’t hesitate to subvert our expectations, and trap us into a reaction we cannot hide.

Whatever you think of the movie, there is no denying the superb work done by the cast here. Tim Roth does strong work, and I can’t remember the last actor who made the pain of broken bones feel so vivid. I also don’t want to forget Devon Gearhart who plays Georgie Jr. as he has a very unenviable role as a child caught up in the worst of situations. He is asked to do things we would rather not see a child actor do, and he makes his sheer terror seem all the more horrifyingly real.

Michael Pitt makes Paul into such a cleverly cold character to where some have compared Paul to Alex in “A Clockwork Orange.” This is a young actor who has made a strong impression in movies like “The Dreamers” and “Bully” among others. He excels in roles like this which play on his charm to an incredibly unsympathetic effect. Brady Corbett plays the seemingly Peter, and he also has done memorable work in “Thirteen” and “Mysterious Skin.”

But in the end, this movie really belongs to Naomi Watts who has long since proven to be one of the bravest actresses working today. She has portrayed characters so naked in their vulnerabilities onscreen to where I constantly wonder how she gets through these roles without having a nervous breakdown. Her performance in “Funny Games” is no exception as she puts herself in situations so difficult to make seem real, but she succeeds here in making us believe just how terrifying her ordeal is.

“Funny Games” is one of those movies which make me want to ready everyone’s reaction to it. Like I said, this is without a doubt a very polarizing motion picture which people will either admire or despise. The again, if many did not have a negative reaction, then Haneke would have failed in his mission to completely unnerve us. No, it is not an enjoyable movie, but it is an experience which cannot easily be ignored as you walk out of the theater. It is a thought-provoking as it in no way allows for a neutral opinion. For my money, it is a very strong exercise in suspense which never lets up throughout its two-hour running time.

While it is not the most disturbing movie I have ever watched in a theater (“Requiem for A Dream” takes the cake there), it sure does come close. The violence presented here is of a real kind, and it does not offer the typical feeling of escapist entertainment. The best advice I can give you is if you don’t want to subject yourself to a very disturbing cinematic experience, then don’t see “Funny Games.” You have been warned, so take the R-rating seriously.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: ‘MacGruber’ – The Best SNL Movie in Years

MacGruber movie poster final high resolution

When I went to see “MacGruber” at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood back in 2010, I actually saw Jason Sudeikis while standing in line to buy a ticket. His impersonation of Joe Biden is a still a big hit with fans of the show, and he seemed like a very down to earth guy as he blended in with the crowd and talked with others.

Anyway, enough about him. Let’s get on with my review of this particular SNL sketch turned movie called “MacGruber.” About a decade before this one, movies from the long running comedy show were being released all the time, and many proved to be nowhere as funny as the sketches which inspired them. “The Ladies Man,” “Superstar,” or “A Night at the Roxbury” appeared to underwhelm audiences, and I wondered why none of them could come close to matching up with “Wayne’s World” or “The Blues Brothers.”

Now keep in mind, those movies were based on sketches which lasted 3 to 5 minutes on the average SNL episode. With “MacGruber,” we have a movie based on a sketch which typically lasts for a minute at most. We all know from watching this obvious spoof of “MacGyver” that they all end in the same way, with MacGruber failing to diffuse the bomb and it going off, blowing him and his whole team to smithereens. So therein lies the fascination of this movie; Can MacGruber keep himself from blowing up and killing everyone around him for more than a minute? Can he sustain a full-length motion picture when he can barely sustain himself in every control room known to man?

Well, it turns out he can and for around 99 minutes. Before it was released, “MacGruber” was bursting all over with reviews calling it the best SNL movie since “Wayne’s World.” I find this praise to be completely justified as it is consistently hilarious and filled with moments which had me laughing harder than anything I saw in the remake of “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” and that was supposed to be horrific and serious. But while the jinx on SNL movies finally came to an end with “MacGruber,” this same jinx has unfortunately not been broken at the box office. It ended up grossing only $9.3 million worldwide against a budget of $10 million, but it has since become a cult classic. Trust me, “MacGruber” is great fun and contains many gut-busting laughs, and it deserved a much bigger audience than it initially got back in 2010.

Like “Hot Shots Part Deux,” the movie opens with MacGruber (Will Forte) living a post-Rambo type existence in a monastery where he finds peace from all things explosive. But Col. Jim Faith (the late Powers Boothe) brings him back into service when it is discovered his old nemesis, Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer gone wild), has acquired the X-5 nuclear missile and threatens to use it on a highly valuable target primed for utter destruction. Dieter also turns out to be the same man responsible for killing MacGruber’s fiancé, Casey (Maya Rudolph). To say this is all personal for MacGruber is pointing out the obvious. But seriously, what doesn’t this Inspector Clouseau of bomb experts not take personally? If you piss him off, please make sure he doesn’t memorize your license plate.

Forte never does quite convinces us that MacGruber is this great war hero, but that is part of the joke. He does, however, more than make us believe this character he has won more than a dozen purple hearts (how he earned all those is another story). No longer constricted by the dreaded FCC on network television, Forte really lets it loose here, getting away with stuff which would have had NBC and Lorne Michaels drop kicking him out of 30 Rockefeller Plaza if he pulled this off on live television. He also co-wrote the script, and he takes advantage of every opportunity for his character to make a supreme ass of himself while still remaining one you want to root for.

Plus, Forte does sex scenes here like no one else does in movies today, and I am certain no one has tried to match his acting in bed ever since.

Ryan Phillippe co-stars as MacGruber’s right hand man, Lt. Dixon Piper, a dedicated soldier who is of course infinitely brighter than him, and this causes a lot of violent resentment between the two of them. Phillippe does great work in playing the straight man to Forte’s idiotic lunatic. Had he tried to outdo Forte in terms of getting laughs, this pairing never would have worked. Lord knows MacGruber needs a partner, but he would never admit this unless he became incredibly desperate (and he does, so watch out). He also perfects that stony stare you get from some NFL star turned actor, and his funniest moments come when he reacts honestly to just how stupid this Miata-driving explosive expert truly is. Other actors would have overplayed this role, but Phillippe doesn’t thank goodness.

Kristin Wiig reprises her role as MacGruber’s assistant, Vicki St. Elmo. She is great as always, and MacGruber keeps stupidly putting her in such thoughtless situations where her life is in constant mortal danger. The scene in the coffee shop where she is disguised as MacGruber is nothing short of hilarious as she shivers in utter terror, having no clue what to do if things go bad. Still, you want to see Vicki get together with this clueless idiot because giving up this line of work for her music doesn’t make much sense, and this is especially the case when you listen to the songs she wrote.

Then you have Val Kilmer on board as the evil Dieter Von Cunth , and he gets to act all unhinged and crazy in a way he has not for some time. We know the only way MacGruber can defeat Cunth is through sheer luck, and Kilmer’s rubs in his character’s smug intelligence which he has in spades over this heroic douche bag. This represented a comeback for the actor, but it was sadly cut short due to his continuing battle against throat cancer.

“MacGruber” was directed by Jorma Taccone, one third of the Lonely Island comedy troupe which is responsible for all the “SNL Digital Shorts.” I was also surprised to learn he is actually the son of Tony Taccone, the former Artistic Director of Berkeley Repertory Theater. If you are ever in Northern California, be sure to check out a show there as they continue to challenge their audiences as much as entertain them. Anyway, Jorma keeps the proceedings going at a good pace, and he never lets the movie drag during its running time. While he doesn’t do anything groundbreaking with this movie or its formula driven plot, he does succeed in making this kind of satire feel fresh again. This genre has been so burnt out that we’re lucky if anything works as well as it does here.

The audience I saw “MacGruber” with at Grauman’s Chinese treated the whole thing like a rock concert, cheering when the title character first appeared on screen. It was a great crowd to experience this movie with, so it was surprising and depressing it got such a lackluster reception during its opening weekend. Even with competition from “Robin Hood,” “Iron Man 2,” and even “Shrek Forever After,” I figured it would still make a sizable dent at the box office. Still, it did eventually find its audience years later.

“MacGruber” is by no means a classic, and it is far from original, but it is certainly above average for this kind of movie. Saying it is the best SNL movie in years is faint praise. If you’re looking for a terrific comedy which emanated from the classic late-night show, then this is one you should check out. Even if you never laughed much at the skit on SNL, this movie will give you several belly laughs which we all live for. Just be sure not to eat any celery before you see it.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Point Break’ Remake is Visually Spectacular But Dramatically Inert

Was the world really pining for a “Point Break” remake back in 2015, especially when it already got an unofficial remake back in 2001? That remake was called “The Fast and The Furious,” and its director Rob Cohen freely admitted on many occasions how its plot was lifted directly from Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 action film. Nevertheless, the good people at Alcon Entertainment felt an official remake was needed. What results is a film of spectacular visuals, but they all come with a screenplay which is dramatically inert and with actors who barely look like they are having much fun even after all the surfing, rock climbing, snowboarding and wingsuit flying we see them do.

The plot is basically the same as the original, but the characters led by Bodhi (Edgar Ramirez) are not thrill seekers robbing banks to fund their exploits, but instead ecoterrorists who look to play a Robin Hood role in society. Moreover, they are trying to complete the Ozaki 8, a list of eight extreme ordeals designed to honor the forces of nature. FBI agent and extreme sport athlete Johnny Utah (Luke Bracey) picks up on this and becomes determined to infiltrate this gang and bring them down. Of course, this has him going undercover, and we all know what happens to undercover agents in movies like these.

I should note how this “Point Break” starts off with a prologue which has Johnny Utah racing over a steep ridgeline on a motorbike with his friend Jeff (Max Thieriot). But while Johnny lands successfully onto a lone stone column, Jeff does not and ends up falling to his death. As a character in “Cliffhanger” once said, “gravity is a bitch.” Did this remake need such a scene? I think not as the original didn’t. Seriously, how many times have we seen this scenario played out?

One thing I have to say about this remake is it does look spectacular on a visual level. It was directed by Ericson Core who, quite ironically, was the director of photography on “The Fast and The Furious.” He also serves as his own cinematographer here, and he captures some amazing sights whether it’s the waves surfed at Teahupoʻo in Tahiti, the wingsuit flying sequence in Walenstadt, Switzerland, the snowboarding scene shot on the Italian side of Aiguille de la Grande Sassière in Aosta Valley, or the rock climbing which takes place at Angel Falls in Venezuela, Throughout, Core captures the beauty of each location to where I am compelled to visit them as soon as this Coronavirus epidemic is resolved. Yes, I am willing to wait that long.

But while the look of this “Point Break” is spectacular, it does not feel particularly the least bit exhilarating. The beauty of Bigelow’s film was she made you, as an audience member, part of the action. This was especially the case during the skydiving scenes as you felt like you were falling from the sky with the characters. With Core’s remake, I felt like I was watching everything from a distance to where I admired the view, but was never really enthralled by it.

Seriously, none of the actors look like they are having much fun here as they all seem so deadly serious to where you wonder if any of them has a mere understanding of what an adrenaline rush is. Luke Bracey may be a good actor, but his performance as Johnny Utah makes Reeves’ in the original appear all the more stellar. Reeves’ Utah had the good sense to know how scary and thrilling his adventures were to where his screaming while skydiving made complete sense. But to see Bracey remain calm while he falls from a mountaintop so high up makes his silence during such a descent utterly ridiculous and unbelievable.

Then there is Edgar Ramirez who has turned in memorable performances in “The Bourne Ultimatum,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and most especially in the biopic “Carlos.” But as strong an actor as he is, he does not succeed in making Bodhi a compelling character in this remake. Throughout, his face looks like it is etched in stone, and I kept waiting for him to show a little more excitement about his death-defying exploits. Patrick Swayze’s performance in the 1991 film was my favorite of his even if everyone thinks his penultimate role was in “Dirty Dancing,” and Ramirez does not come even close to matching the late actor’s charisma. This is especially evident in the scene where is sailing through some insanely high waves which are the same kind George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg attempted to traverse over in “The Perfect Storm.” Ramirez looks far too collected as he is facing death at any second, and the fact he is able to even get on his surfboard to travel that one last perfect wave is completely unbelievable. Come on, you have to be the least bit scared in a situation like this.

You also have Delroy Lindo and Ray Winstone here as FBI Instructor Hall and Special Agent Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey played Pappas in the original). Both are also playing characters who look like they are having a miserable time due to the challenges and endless frustrations of their jobs, but they should be forgiven as their characters were written as such. Besides, with actors like these two, you can never go wrong.

If there is a bright spot in this remake, it is Teresa Palmer who portrays Utah’s girlfriend, Samsara. She is such a luminous presence in any movie she appears in whether it is “The Choice,” one of the many misbegotten cinematic adaptations of a Nicholas Sparks novel, or “Hacksaw Ridge.” Her first appearance here is unforgettable as she dives into the ocean to where Utah is as compelled to dive after her as we are. Seeing her lay back into Bracey’s arms while in the ocean made me infinitely envious of him as I would have loved to been in his position. Palmer, however, is barely in this movie and is wasted in a role which demands more of her than the screenplay is willing to give. This is a real shame considering she gives this remake its most lively presence.

Bigelow’s “Point Break” cost only $24 million to make while this remake had a budget of around $100 million. Money may buy you impressive sights, but it cannot guarantee any audience an adrenaline ride. Besides, when it comes to filmmakers, male or female, can any of them compete with what Bigelow has to offer? Seriously, there is a reason why she was the first female to win the Best Director Academy Award for her work on “The Hurt Locker.”

When it comes to remakes, filmmakers and studio heads these days seem determined to play things straight. But looking at this remake of “Point Break” serves as a reminder of how it helps to not take things ever so seriously. Furthermore, Bigelow’s film has aged well over the years to where we are more than ready to accept Reeves as an action hero. While it helps to have a ton of money to make any motion picture, the budget on this remake did little to keep us on the edge of our seats. Just remember this the next time you feel like the budget for your flick is not nearly enough.

By the way, James LeGros who played Roach in the original “Point Break” appears here as FBI Deputy Director #2. I just thought you might be interested to know this.

* * out of * * * *

‘Milk’ Celebrates the Life of a Man Who Opened Doors For Many

I keep hearing about how Sean Penn wants to retire from acting and just direct from now on. He keeps saying he never really enjoys acting, so it has to make you wonder why he would keep doing something he doesn’t enjoy. But after watching him give another great performance in “Milk,” I would really like to believe he really enjoyed playing the late gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk despite the role’s emotionally draining moments. Penn gives us a man who loved life and smiled more often than not. Whether you are gay or straight, I am sure you would have like to have known the real Harvey Milk as he always seemed to be in the best of spirits no matter what he is doing.

Milk” is a longtime dream project of Gus Van Sant, and it looks at Harvey before and after he became America’s first openly gay man ever elected to political office. It follows him from when he moves from New York to the Castro district of San Francisco and the numerous political races he ran in. It culminates with his and Mayor George Moscone’s assassination at the hands of Supervisor Dan White. But don’t worry, I have not given anything away. The movie is an intimate character piece of Harvey as well as those closest to him as he fought for equal rights for all homosexuals in San Francisco and the rest of America.

It was actually quite prophetic that “Milk” was released in the same year California witnessed the depressing and infuriating passage of Proposition 8 which banned gay marriage in the state (it was later ruled unconstitutional in 2010). In the movie, we see Harvey and his friends fighting the good fight against Proposition 6 which was enacted by then California Senator John Briggs with the objective of banning gay men and women from teaching jobs in California public schools. Back then, people foolishly believed there was a connection between homosexuality and pedophilia which was and still is total crap. “Milk” came out at a time when the fight for gay rights was still far from over.

The majority of the action takes place in San Francisco in the Castro market. Anyone residing in or familiar with the history of Castro will see it is to San Francisco what West Hollywood is to Los Angeles. Harvey ends up opening a little camera shop with his lover Scott Smith (James Franco), but he is not greeted with open arms from the local merchants as they are convinced that, because he is gay, he will be closed down in record time. From there, Harvey decides to run for public office in order to find a voice for those who never had one before.

Van Sant does a great job of recreating 1970’s ever so vividly on what must have been a very tight budget. He also successfully interweaves television footage of the time with the actors to where it is not at all distracting. But his biggest accomplishment here is he does not turn Harvey Milk into some sort of superhero, and instead he treats him as a regular human being with flaws and all. Harvey helps those in need of help as much as he can, and he does this to a fault. His political life eventually overtakes his personal life and creates heartbreaking difficulties in his ability to maintain a loving relationship. He is encouraged to give up running for political office after he loses for a second time (he ran for office 4 times before he won), but with each election he makes a bigger impact with more and more voters.

Van Sant was originally planning to make this movie with Robin Williams in the lead several years before, but it did not work out. At first, it almost seems a bit odd to have Sean Penn playing Harvey Milk, but after the movie is over, you realize there is nothing odd about it at all. Penn gives this role an utterly gleeful spirit which I do not often see in his other performances. Most roles he plays are of characters in the pit of despair or of those so cynical about the world that it takes a battering ram to get through the traumatized psyche to get a genuine sense of feeling. This may very well be his most cheerful performance since he played Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” Penn really captures the spirit of what made Harvey so special, that he wanted to help people and gays around him come out of the closet.

Aside from Penn, there are other great performances to be found. James Franco plays Harvey’s lover, Scott Smith, and he is excellent as he creates a link to Harvey which can never be broken, ever. Franco matches Penn step for step in showing the highs and lows of a relationship between two loving people who struggle constantly to make things work between them.

Another standout performance comes from Emile Hirsch who plays street hustler Cleve Jones, and Harvey ends up encouraging him to help run his campaign. Hirsch gives Cleve a spirit and a determination which can never be easily broken, and he shows no shame in whom he is nor should he.

Other great performances come from Alison Pill who plays campaign manager Anne Kronenberg, a proud lesbian who helps Harvey finally win an election. Diego Luna is also heartbreakingly good as Harvey’s second lover, Jack Lira. An emotionally high-strung man with needs greater than anyone, let alone Harvey, can ever satisfy, Luna holds the screen strongly as he carefully illustrates his character’s constantly unsteady state of mind.

But another truly great performance in “Milk” comes from Josh Brolin who portrays Supervisor Dan White. Ever since 2007, Brolin has made a name for himself with terrific performances in “No Country for Old Men.” With his role as Dan White, he never goes the route of simply demonizing this man whose crime is still absolutely unforgivable to so many. Along with director Van Sant, Brolin gives us a complex portrait of a man brought up through a strong religious background, and who ends up getting so caught up in it to where it blinds him to the deep dark hole he keeps digging for himself. In a sense, his outcome is tragic in its own way, and when you find at the end credits how he ended up leaving this earth, there is no cheering. There is nothing but pity for the man who got a much too lenient sentence thanks to the so called “Twinkie defense.”

You don’t come out of this movie wanting to forgive Dan White for what he did, but the filmmakers never try to make you hate him. Besides, I am not sure Harvey would have wanted anyone to hate him either.

Van Sant succeeds in making “Milk” a largely uplifting motion picture without resorting to manipulative tactics in an effort to tug at your feelings or with an overwhelmingly emotional film score which begs you to shed tears. Truth be told, composer Danny Elfman does a great job of creating music which supports the characters and the movie without ever overdoing it. Van Sant is also served well with a tremendous screenplay by Dustin Lance Black, and he introduces us to the wonderful people in Harvey’s inner circle and makes each one a unique individual worthy of attention.

If there is anything which disappointed me about “Milk,” it is the archival footage of Anita Bryant featured throughout where she talks about how she sees homosexuality as a sin. Anita speaks of how the word of God must be directed, and she is clearly one of many people who have completely misinterpreted what the bible says about homosexuality. The one scene I kept waiting for was when she got a pie thrown in her (even God knows she deserved that). The fact this footage was not shown here was a bit of a letdown.

The real triumph of “Milk” is in how Van Sant makes you see what an inspiration Harvey was to so many people. The movie starts out with him saying, as he is about to turn 40, that he has done nothing with his life. By the end, both Van Sant and Penn make it clear he did so much and is still a huge inspiration to many more than 30 years after his assassination. Come to think of it, he may even be more of an influence to people in death than he was in life.

Many may end up not seeing this movie either because of their misplaced religious views, or because we know it will end with Harvey Milk being murdered. But “Milk” is not a movie about how Harvey died. It is a movie about how he lived, and of how his life is worthy of celebration. His courage did so much for people, and it is still needed in the darkest of times. This was a career high for Van Sant and Penn, and it was one of 2008’s best movies.

* * * * out of * * * *

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘The Grey Fox’

I remember when this film came out in 1982. I was a big fan of movie review shows like “At the Movies” back then, and the scene where Bill Miner tells an unsuspecting passenger about how he used to rob stagecoaches always stayed with me. As a result, when the opportunity came to watch “The Grey Fox,” which Kino Lorber has just re-released in a new 4K restoration, I jumped at the chance. The question was, do I put this film in the “No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now” category of this website, or in the one known as “Underseen Movies” as it has been said the film only grossed $5 million worldwide. Well, considering how I remember when it was first released 38 years ago, I think the former category makes the most sense.

“The Grey Fox” stars Richard Farnsworth as Bill Miner, a stagecoach robber who eventually became known as “The Gentleman Bandit” after masterminding 26 robberies and for originating the command, “Hands Up!” As the film opens, Bill is being released from San Quentin Prison after a 33-year prison sentence, and he is also heading straight into the 20th Century, a period in time which he may not be the least bit prepared for.

Bill seems to get off to a nice start as he takes a train ride where a fellow passenger shows him a device which peels apples very quickly, and he seems amiable even when he tells this passenger how he once robbed stagecoaches. But while his sister gives him the warmest of welcomes, her husband, well aware of his past crimes, is not quick to show Bill the same kind of welcome. Bill is eager to show him he is worthy of his attention, and the next day he begins a new job which has him shucking oysters.

Things look to be going okay, but then Bill sits down in a movie theater which is playing “The Great Train Robbery,” the classic film which is especially famous for a scene where an actor shot his gun right at the camera. As we look at Bill’s face, we see a passion arise in him to where he becomes intent on resuming his previous career sooner than later. His sister begs him to stay, but he tells her, “I have ambitions in me that just won’t quit.”

Most films from the 1980’s take their sweet time in showing their main character start off being released from prison and adjusting to life as a civilian before giving up and returning to a life of a crime. Back then, you did not need to speed everything along to get to the good stuff, and learning of a character’s history and experiences proved to be rewarding in a way which added to the cinematic experience. Of course, as time went on, filmmakers are obligated to move through the story at a rapid pace even if we do not have time to catch our breath. What is interesting here is how the filmmakers of “The Grey Fox” do not hesitate to move past Bill’s attempts to live as a peaceful civilian in very quickly in order to see him return to his previous occupation as a robber. If there were any other 80’s films which pulled off such a feat, I have yet to watch them.

In many ways, “The Grey Fox” is an anti-western along the lines of Robert Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” as Bill’s exploits are not as spectacular as this genre may suggest. His initial efforts to rob trains of their valuables proves to be unsuccessful as he is confronting by those who are not quick to give up anything without a fight. While his exploits may have made him infamous in the past, he is now living in an age which is far more eager to stop crime than celebrate it. As a result, he flees to Canada to see if he can have more success there as his passion for adventure usurps most other desires in his life.

“The Grey Fox” was directed by Phillip Borsos who had previously found tremendous critical acclaim in Canada with his short films “Nails,” “Spartree” and “Cooperage.” “The Grey Fox” marked his feature film directorial debut, and it proved to be a resounding triumph as he created a wonderful character study of a man trying to survive in a time he is not fully prepared to live in as he goes back to what made him famous, or infamous, in the first place. Along with cinematographer Frank Tidy, he perfectly captures the beauty of the Canadian wilderness which anyone can get lost in, and serves to illustrate how isolated Bill has been over the years. I have yet to view this film on the silver screen as the world is still in the grips of the Coronavirus (COVID-19), but I do hope the day will come when I can.

Borsos would go on to direct “The Mean Season” which starred Kurt Russell, and anything with Kurt Russell in it has got to be worth seeing. His last film was “Far from Home: The Adventures of Yellow Dog,” an innocent adventure film which came out at a time when younger audiences were starting to get more cynical about the family movies being released in theaters. I remember when an English teacher I had in college remarked at how the film’s trailer was playing and of her observing teenagers a couple of rows ahead of her who remarked at how it looked “lame.” She would go on to say how our generation was being mediatized to where we had been forever robbed of our innocence.

What a shame Borsos’ life got cut short at the far too young age of 41 following a battle with acute myeloblastic leukemia. He still had a lot to give to us from behind the camera.

But let’s be honest, the real star of “The Grey Fox” is indeed Richard Farnsworth who is unforgettable to where it makes perfect sense why he was cast as “The Gentleman Bandit.” Having started out as a stuntman who later became an actor and appeared in movies such as “Gone with The Wind,” “Red River” and “The Wild One,” he had already been working in show business for years when he got this role. Vincent Canby was correct in describing “Farnsworth” as being “remarkably appealing with a face the camera adores.” The actor, who passed away back in 2000 after a painful battle with cancer, certainly had a face which had life written all over it, and it is the kind of face Hollywood does not value as much as it used to.

Farnsworth creates a lived-in portrait of a man who is famous for being a robber, but who ended up spending more time behind bars than he did robbing stagecoaches. From start to finish, he nails the complexities of Bill Miner who proved to be a genuine, thoughtful, gentleman-like, loving, and at times quite the dangerous individual. And those eyes of Farnsworth’s are beautifully indeed as he lets us into his soul to show a life still yearning for adventure and a connection with someone which can possibly give him something to live for other than robbing trains.

The actor also has some terrific scenes opposite Jackie Burroughs who portrays feminist photographer Katherine Flynn. They have instant chemistry together, and their dialogue feels real, genuine and not the least bit manipulative. When the truth of who Bill is comes to the surface, we can see in Burroughs’ eyes how Katherine cannot simply tear herself away from him. Bill is one of the more unique individuals she could ever hope to meet, and Katherine knows she will likely never meet someone like him ever again, so why stop things there?

Well, it took me almost 40 years to sit down and watch “The Grey Fox” after that movie clip I saw on “At the Movies” was forever burned into my conscious mind. I think it is safe to say it was well worth the wait. Lord knows I would never have appreciated it on the same level when I was 7 years old, so it’s nice to catch up with it now long after my view of movies had evolved to another level. It is a beautiful relic which deserves to be embraced by a new generation of film buffs. I do hope you take the time to see it whether in a theater or by virtual cinema. With this new 4K restoration, it is now more beautiful than ever.

* * * * out of * * * *

Please click here to visit “The Grey Fox” page at the Kino Lorber website.

The Help Does Not Seek To Shamelessly Manipulate Our Emotions

The Help” was released with some controversy back in 2011 as it was based on a 2009 best seller by Kathryn Stockett, a white woman who wrote about African American maids’ experience working in the houses of white people. Many would have preferred to have had a black man or woman write this story, but it is important to note Stockett was herself raised by a black maid who instilled her with a strong confidence which proved to be unwavering, and this was all while her mother was absent from her life. Plus, Stockett, as represented by the character of Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, captured the voices of these ill-treated black women with really piercing honesty, and she made herself a vessel for their voices to be heard. From the start, she made it clear to the world that this book was about them and not her.

The movie version comes to us wrapped in a bow of beautiful colors and a very appealing movie poster. I kept think of Rob Reiner’s “Ghosts of Mississippi” which blew the opportunity to make audiences aware of who Medgar Evers was at the expense of some truly bland while characters, and neither Alec Baldwin or James Woods could not save the movie from its inescapable banality. “The Help” looked like it would make the same mistakes, but thankfully it does not. Regardless of whatever flaws it has, it is still a deeply felt motion picture which revisits a painful part of American history people have either forgotten or are sick of revisiting.

At its center is Skeeter (Emma Stone), a recent college graduate who gets a job writing a housekeeping column for the local paper in Jackson, Mississippi. After reuniting with good friends in her hometown, she finds herself perturbed by the senseless racism which has divided the blacks and whites in an almost unspoken way. Skeeter also becomes concerned as to the whereabouts of the maid who raised her, Constantine, as she has vanished without a trace. These events compel her to start writing a book of the travails black housekeepers go through, and she is determined to capture their pride, heartache and deep-seated anger resulting from their thoughtless mistreatment.

This could easily have been a manipulative motion picture filled with cloying emotions, but the filmmakers have given us a variety of characters, black and white that are complex and who never come across as simply caricatures. Each one has their own needs and desires which conflict with those of others, and after a while it becomes clear their problems do not always have to do with race.

The black maid Skeeter leans on the most is Aibileen Clark, played in a powerhouse of a performance by Viola Davis. Just as she did in “Doubt,” Davis inhabits her character with a pride which, while wounded, remains defiantly strong. While her voice projects a kindness and understanding on top of an obedience to her employers, Clark’s face and eyes betray a huge resentment which has long since reached its boiling point.

The next black maid who contributes to Skeeter’s book is Minny Jackson, played in another great performance by Octavia Spencer. She proves to be the most outspoken of the bunch which results in her getting fired quite often, and yet she is reluctant at first to talk with Skeeter about her experiences. We later see Jackson getting her revenge in a way which somehow feels inspired by episodes of MTV’s “Punk’d” or “Jackass.” Spencer gives “The Help” a great sense of humor it might have otherwise not had, and she is every bit Davis’ match.

Minny also develops a highly unusual relationship with the hopelessly naive Celia Foote. Unlike other working relationships, she gets the opportunity to be blunt with Celia and tells her what she needs to hear. I found the friendship between them to be one of “The Help’s” most welcome surprises. Jessica Chastain brilliantly portrays Celia Foote, and she has long since proven to be one of the best actresses working in movies today.

As for Emma Stone, she proved to be a revelation here, and she holds her own against a large number of acting stalwarts. Stone imbues Skeeter with a hard-won independence which never waivers. I love how even in Stone’s eyes you can see her determination in proving how strong a woman Skeeter is and of the sincere goodness in her heart. If she has not proven herself as a dramatic actress before this movie, she certainly did here, and now she has an Oscar to make this clearer to those foolish not to pay attention.

The majority of the white characters in “The Help” could have all been one-dimensional idiots, and while several of them make assumptions which are as ridiculous as they are racist, we see other sides of their personalities as well. One white character who can be seen as the movie’s chief villain is the snobby Hilly Holbrook, played in a truly gutsy performance by Bryce Dallas Howard. Her superiority against the black maids turns out to be driven more by fear than anything else, and realizing this at the film’s end gives Hilly a dimension we weren’t sure she had in the first place.

Howard has done phenomenal work over the years, and she was a good reason to actually see some of M. Night Shyamalan’s movies like “The Village.” She has also given us reasons to sit through “Jurassic World” and its sequel as well as “Spider-Man 3.” While those movies failed to reach the heights of greatness, she gave you a reason to watch them in the first place.

Other great performances in “The Help” come from Allison Janney as Skeeter’s mother, Charlotte, who goes from being a stubborn mother desperate for her daughter to get a man to someone who regrets the decisions she has made in her life. Sissy Spacek is a hoot throughout as Hilly’s mother, Mrs. Walters, who delights in her daughter’s misfortunes as her dad made the unforgivable mistake of spoiling her rotten. One underrated performance comes from Chris Lowell who plays Skeeter’s eventual boyfriend, Stuart. He starts off as an arrogant young man who thinks he has women all figured out, but he later comes to his senses thank goodness.

“The Help” is not perfect and does get a bit too cute at times, but its emotions ring true thanks to the acting and the direction by Tate Taylor who is a longtime friend of Stockett’s. It skirts the conventional narrative to give us something more authentic which is not, if you will excuse the expression, white-washed like so many other Hollywood movies. It covers a subject which we have no choice but to revisit as history repeats itself much too often, and it says a lot about the movie that it jumped from number two to number one at the box office in its second week of release.

* * * ½ out of * * * *