Underseen Movie: ‘Cloak & Dagger’ – Only in the 1980’s …

I first watched “Cloak & Dagger” back when I was nine or 10 years old, having recorded it on VHS when it premiered on channel 13, which was then known as KCOP in Los Angeles. From there, it became one of the many movies like “Bullitt,” Airplane” and “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” which I would watch a least a hundred times and never get tired of. Henry Thomas, in one of his post-“E.T.” movies, stars as Davey Osborne, an 11-year-old boy who escapes from reality into the world of Cloak & Dagger, a role-playing video game which features the exploits of the spy Jack Flack. Bored with life and yearning for a real adventure, Davey and his next-door neighbor Kim (a precocious Christina Nigra) embark to downtown San Antonio where he inadvertently witnesses a murder and gets hold of a video game cartridge of the Cloak & Dagger which is later revealed to contain top secret information. Davey’s wish of a real adventure comes true, but it soon becomes a reminder of what Augustus Hill once said drama “Oz:”

“Be careful what you wish for brother. Be very, very careful…”

Naturally, most people don’t believe Davey when he tries to explain what happened, and this includes his father, Hal, who loves him dearly but worries about him excessively as his son’s overactive imagination seems to constantly be getting the best of him. Once again, we have a movie which continues the theme of parents not listening to their kids until it is much too late. Then again, if parents did listen to their kids, a movie like this would not exist.

We also discover Davey is still grieving the loss of his mother who had recently passed away which quickly explains his constant escapes into a fantasy world. These elements combine together to make Hal believably dubious of his son’s claims, making it all the easier for the bad guys to try and capture him, and they are not about to show him mercy just because he is not yet a teenager.

I still vividly remember the “Cloak & Dagger” television ads just as it was coming out. Back then, this movie looked a little too scary for someone of my tender age to sit through, and my brother had already scared me off from seeing “Gremlins” although this was for reasons I would not discover until years later. Once the film made its television debut where all the “good stuff” was edited out, it seemed easier to take in.

Plus, seeing Henry Thomas with a gun excited me to no end. For once, the children were going to defend themselves without the help of adults! Now please keep in mind, I was a little boy playing with water guns back when this film was released (much to chagrin of my parents), so my mindset was, shall we say, somewhat different.

For a PG-rated movie, “Cloak & Dagger” is actually pretty brutal! You have adults shooting at kids, Davey ends up shooting a bad guy to death, another character looks like they got shot in the eye, and a kid almost gets run over by a van. You would not see anything like that in a PG rated movie these days (PG-13 movies are a different story), and this includes a cold-blooded villain telling Davey just how much he is going to enjoy blowing his kneecaps off. Looking at a movie like this today, my response to it would be, “only in the 1980’s…”

But for what it’s worth, “Cloak & Dagger” doesn’t glamorize real life violence and succeeds in making a distinction between the world of make believe and the finality of death in real life in a way which can only be rendered in a PG-rated motion picture. The movie is really more of a coming-of-age story in which Davey comes to discover how these imaginary adventures he constantly engages in are nothing compared to the violence waged in real life as certain actions render a solution which is permanent in inescapably brutal ways. Davey also comes to realize this even before reaching the age of puberty, so you know his teenage years are going to more torturous than what the average adolescent is forced to endure.

Thomas’ performance as Davey Osbourne was proof his excellent performance in “E.T.” (one of the best ever given by a child actor) was no fluke. You never catch him acting, and everything he does comes from a believable and natural place. Even as the movie heads into the inescapable territory of illogic which is typically inescapable in 80’s action movies, Thomas remains the emotional center of the story and keeps us watching to the very end. It’s hard enough to ask a pre-teen to carry any feature length movie on their shoulders, but Thomas had long since proven to be a true professional in doing so.

The other big actor here is Dabney Coleman who, back in the 1980’s seemed to be in every other movie. He plays Davey’s Air Force father, Hal Osborne, as well as his imaginary hero Jack Flack whom Davey sees as a more appealing version of his dad. Coleman is great in both roles, and you really have to appreciate his performance as Hal because it could have been your typically clichéd one-note daddy character. Throughout, he rides a good balance between being the disciplinarian and the sympathetic father who remembers what his life was like as a kid. Like his son, Hal wanted to be a hero too.

However, Coleman is clearly having more fun playing superspy Jack Flack who may not be as smooth or as dashing as James Bond, but is still very clever in his own mustached way. All that’s missing is a patch over one of his eyes, but Kurt Russell already beat him to this in “Escape From New York.” Seeing the actor reacting to his performance as Hal is good for a few laughs as Flack never stops deriding the man’s lack of belief and faith in his son.

When it comes to the bad guys, they are the typical one-dimensional types you usually find in 1980’s movies, but that’s just fine here. Eloy Casados plays Alvarez as your mainly stone-faced henchman; the kind of guy who smirks more than he smiles, and not just because he’s in a foul mood. In fact, a guy like him is typically never really happy about anything. I also love how he shoots at Davey from only a few feet away and STILL COMPLETELY MISSES HIM. He would have made a great stormtrooper.

Then you have Haverman who is played by former professional football player Tim Rossovich. With his strong body and build, he’s like the Incredible Hulk as a bad guy, except he doesn’t turn green and rip off his clothes whenever he gets pissed (his jeans do look a little tight on him though). The door is locked? This guy just smashes right through it as if it were no big thing, and it got to where I was just waiting for him to say:

“HAVERMAN SMASH!!!”

But the main baddie here is Rice, and he is played by Michael Murphy in a truly chilling performance. Murphy, still a few years away from playing the spineless mayor of Gotham in “Batman Returns,” gives you the perfect kind of bad guy you love to despise with every fiber of your being as he makes you believe Rice would think nothing of killing a kid who stood in the way of his ultimate goal; delivering government secrets to spies. Man, I remember wanting to see him get his just desserts as soon as he appeared onscreen.

When it comes to scene stealers, Christina Nigra wins the prize as Davey’s non-imaginary friend, Kim. Her sassy attitude makes for some great moments, especially when she informs her mother that Davey’s father is not her type. She does get annoyed with Davey when he takes things a little too far, but even she comes to admit he is never ever boring. Nigra also holds her own in front of the airport police chief as he smokes a cigarette in very close proximity to her. You don’t even see her complaining about the smoke. Maybe the anti-smoking campaigns hadn’t reached her school yet.

There are a couple of other familiar faces to be found here including the late Robert DoQui whose subdued performance as Lt. Fleming is the polar opposite of the hard-nosed and law enforcement chief we saw him portray in the “Robocop.”. William Forsythe also shows up as Davey’s other friend Morris and, seriously, he doesn’t look like he has aged a day since 1984. Even Louie Anderson appears for less than a minute as a hygienically challenged taxi cab driver who offers to give Davey a ride to the airport but only if he gives him $15 dollars in advance.

“Cloak & Dagger” marked the second collaboration between director Richard Franklin and screenwriter Tom Holland. Their previous film together was the eagerly awaited sequel “Psycho II,” and while this film offers them a change of pace, it still proves to be pretty intense. That they managed to find a balance between the real and imaginary worlds Davey Osbourne inhabits is fairly remarkable as it could not have been the least bit simple.

So much has changed in the world since “Cloak & Dagger” first came out, and it now seems astonishing just how dark it was compared to the movies that come out today with a PG rating. It was made back when you didn’t need a plane ticket to get through security screening, and you could hang out with your loved ones at the gate before their plane took off. You could smoke on airplanes back then as well. What hasn’t changed or weakened through the passing of time are the performances of Thomas and Coleman. Both are a reason why this film managed to find such a large audience on video after it failed to do so in movie theaters.

Of course, these days I have to wonder what a “Cloak & Dagger” sequel might look like. While certain questions were easy to answer back in the 1980’s, everything these days feels far more complex. There’s no doubt Davey Osbourne would be severely traumatized by his experiences here, and perhaps he and Kevin McCallister from “Home Alone” can join forces as they both defeated their antagonists in very painful ways.

Once again, only in the 1980’s could a movie like this have been made.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Ghostbusters: Afterlife’ – A Worthy Installment

The “Ghostbusters” franchise is a lot like the “Predator” franchise in that filmmakers take them in all sorts of directions in the hopes of reintroducing classic characters to a new generation. When it came to “Ghostbusters II” and “Predator II,” neither could match the power or cultural zeitgeist of the original, and we were reminded of how you cannot catch lightning in a bottle twice. A third “Ghostbusters” has been lingering in development hell for decades now, and the 2016 reboot looked like the best we could hope for. Then again, despite a terrific cast, the reboot was a financial failure. After that, I had to wonder, now who we gonna call?

Well, after many years and the COVID-19 pandemic which delayed its release, we now have “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” which was directed and co-written by Jason Reitman, the son of “Ghostbusters” (1984) director Ivan Reitman. What results threatens to be a mixed bag as this sequel relies a bit too much on fan service and treads through familiar territory, but if you can get past that, it still proves to be wonderfully entertaining and has a lot to say about the importance of family.

Thirty years after the events of “Ghostbusters II,” we are introduced to Callie (Carrie Coon), a single mother of two kids, the extremely bright but socially awkward Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) and the restless and cellphone-addicted Trevor (Finn Wolfhard). This family is struggling financially and emotionally, and only their infinite sarcasm can help them get through the day. And just when they find themselves evicted from their meager apartment, Callie comes to discover her father, whom she has been estranged from for years, has recently died, and she has now inherited his dilapidated farmhouse where he appeared to be farming nothing other than dirt.

The farmhouse is located in Summerville, Oklahoma, a town which looks to be located out in the middle of nowhere. While the land stretches as far as the eye can see, there apparently is very little going on, and it reminds me of what David Ratray, who played Buzz McCallister in “Home Alone,” once said:

“We live on the most boring street in the whole United States of America, where nothing even remotely dangerous will ever happen. Period.”

But soon after this family arrives in Summerville, strange things begin happening which cannot be seen as anything other than terrifyingly supernatural.

I have to say I really admired how “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” reminds you of how things can be forgotten after so many years. Those who watched the original “Ghostbusters” back when it came out in 1984 have watched it many times since as it was that good and so hilarious. But as time goes on, you have to be reminded of how easy it is for people to forget about the past, or that some have not seen nor remember certain events because, well, they weren’t born yet. Phoebe has to remind others of this, and it brings back memories me of when I ask certain individuals, “You’ve never seen a ‘Star Wars’ movie?!”

Jason Reitman has stated this film is about family above all else, and it definitely shows. The family of Callie, Phoebe and Trevor have been through more than the average family should ever have to experience, but then again, maybe this is common for what’s left of the middle class. While the Spenglers may be stuck in a realm of bitterness and a desperation to understand why they are at where they are. “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” implies while some families might be better off with certain members, others deserve an explanation. When it comes to explanations, the one this family gets helps to absolve a lot of bad feelings as living in a place of bitterness is a very unattractive quality in a human being.

When it comes to the screenplay, Reitman and his co-writer Gil Kenan have provided the cast with a lot of inspired dialogue as these two do not want them to be saddled with any of the clunky kind which ends up in every other motion picture. Seriously, the characters more often than not talk like real people here, and for me this is such a relief.

The cast all around is perfectly chosen. Carrie Coon, who may be best remembered for playing Ben Affleck’s sister in “Gone Girl,” is sublime as Callie. Right from the start, she makes this single mother a force to be reckoned with even as she matches her children’s sarcasm word for word.

Perhaps my favorite piece of casting here is Mckenna Grace who plays Phoebe as she takes this Wesley Crusher-like character and makes her ever so appealing. When I was a kid, characters like Phoebe were presented in movies as the kind I should avoid being like, but watching Grace here reminds me of how being incredibly intelligent but socially awkward can really pay off later in life. She really invites you to follow Phoebe as she becomes the big hero of the show here.

When it comes to Finn Wolfhard, I imagine many will look at his performance as a regurgitation of his work from “Stranger Things,” but such an accusation is not altogether fair. As Trevor, he portrays the normal teenager who is quick to become enamored of the opposite sex once he arrives in Summerville. What results is something which may feel similar to the infinitely popular Netflix series, but this young actor clearly knows how to distinguish Trevor Spengler from Mike Wheeler just as he did with Richie Tozier from the latter in the recent cinematic adaptation of Stephen King’s “It.”

And then there is Rudd, Paul Rudd. The actor, recently named as People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive (someday it will be me), is a blast as science teacher Gary Grooberson. Whether he is slobbering over all the Ghostbusters equipment or showing R-rated movies to a group of disaffected kids (kudos to him for selecting “Cujo” by the way), we are quickly reminded of how we can never go wrong with this guy. As much as I want to say “damn you,” the man never ceases to be an entertaining presence.

Now when it comes to the nostalgia featured here, it does come on fairly heavy, but it doesn’t capsize the film. Unlike sequels such as “Blues Brothers 2000” which was so jam-packed with so many familiar characters and scenes to where the déjà vu made me want to turn it off and watch the original instead, this one treads the line carefully to give us something a bit different even as it pays homage to the 1984 original.

Having said that, part of me wishes “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” was bit more original and did not simply re-employ old villains. If this franchise is to continue beyond this installment, and several post-credit scenes indicate it will, the filmmakers should be willing to take new chances in the future. Even Rob Simonsen’s music score sounds more like a simple adaptation of Elmer Bernstein’s to where it is hard to spot any new themes. It is a bit like when J.J. Abrams brought back Emperor Palpatine for “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker;” he’s a great villain and the kind you love to sneer at, but he failed once before and we know he will again, you know?

Still, I very much enjoyed this sequel as it provides audiences with terrific characters who are inhabited by a very talented cast, and the effects are excellent throughout. And yes, there are great surprises to be found here, and I am not about to spoil them for you even if others have already.

But most importantly, this is a film with a lot of heart, and this should be completely clear during its last act. The final scene shows how the deeply embittered can be healed through love and understanding, and that’s whether or not you have a proton pack or ghost trap available. As the end credits came up, it was real treat to hear Ray Parker Jr.’s theme song once again. Where it once was annoying as hell, now it has been found again as “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” finally gives this franchise a truly worthy installment.

* * * out of * * * *

Matthew Lillard on His Directorial Debut ‘Fat Kid Rules the World’

Actor Matthew Lillard appeared at the Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles on September 12, 2012 where Cinefamily presented a sneak preview of his directorial debut, “Fat Kid Rules the World.” Based on the award-winning book of the same name by K.L. Going, it has already won the Narrative Feature Spotlight Audience Award at the 2012 SXSW Film Festival, and the audience at the Silent Movie Theater sounded just as enthusiastic as those festival-goers did over what Lillard brought to the silver screen.

One audience member asked Lillard what the budget was on “Fat Kid Rules the World,” and to hear him answer the question gives you an idea of how tight everything has become in the realm of independent film.

Matthew Lillard: We are well under a million dollars. We are a $750,000 dollar movie. We raised $158,000 dollars on Kickstarter (the audience applauded this), and we shot in 23 days in Seattle, Washington.

After winning the audience award at the SXSW Film Festival, Lillard thought “Fat Kid Rules the World” had it made because people loved it, and the reviews were really great. But then came the time to try and sell it to Hollywood studios.

Matthew Lillard: When the offers came in, they were all pretty terrible. I mean, they were all VOD (Video on Demand), and it gave us very little opportunity for our low budget movie to make its money back.

Granted, making an independent film has never been easy, but the way they are made these days show how much this industry has changed so much since the 1990’s. Eventually, Lillard decided he and his backers should bypass the typical route filmmakers take to sell their movies and create a new opportunity for themselves.

Matthew Lillard: With the $158,000 dollars (from Kickstarter), we put the movie on the Vans Warped tour all summer long. We made a deal with Tugg (a website for movies) so any kid anywhere in America can set up a screening of our film in their local cinema. If a kid lives in Fairbanks, Alaska, he can go to tuggthefatkid.com and request a screening of our film in his local cinema. They will set a threshold and the theater will say they’ll do it for forty people, and if forty people pre-buy a $10 dollar ticket then they will set it up at that time at that date in your theater.

Lillard went on to say that the highest requested movie before “Fat Kid Rules the World” got 330 requests, and his has already gotten over 1,000.

And when it comes to the life of this movie, Lillard made it abundantly clear how it is in the hands of the people who end up seeing it. It’s always great to hear stories like this as there are many different avenues available to filmmakers today, and we are not always sure of what they are.

Lillard then finished the evening by explaining to the audience why he made “Fat Kid Rules the World.”

Matthew Lillard: We made this movie for kids that are lost in the world. It’s an underdog story about an obese kid who finds punk rock music. For me, I wanted to make the movie because I found acting in my life when I was thirteen and it changed my life, and I think that there are kids out there that need this fucking movie. I did a movie called “SLC Punk,” and kids needed that movie. If I walk down the street in Austin, Texas people will come out to me and say, “Dude, SLC Punk changed my life!” And my goal, as lame as it is, is to help a kid out there who needs the movie finds the movie and it speaks to him and it changes his life or he finds himself. And that’s our goal, and you can help us do that.

“Fat Kid Rules the World” is available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.

Underseen Movie: ‘State and Main’ – A Ralph Report Video Vault Selection

One of my favorite parts of “The Ralph Report” podcast has been the Video Vault segment in which Ralph Garman, Steve Ashton and Eddie Pence recommend movies to watch that people may not be particularly familiar with. One episode had the three recommending movies about filmmaking, and Ralph picked David Mamet’s comedy “State and Main.” While listening to him describe this film, it suddenly occurred to me I had rescued a DVD copy of it from a Blockbuster Video store which was about to close forever. It has stood proudly on my shelf for many years, but therein lies the problem; I never took the time to watch the movie, and it was written and directed by Mamet for crying out loud!

So, the question is this, do I put “State and Main” in the “Underseen Movies” category as it was not a huge hit upon its release in 2000, or do I instead put it the one I lovingly titled “No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now?” Come to think of it, maybe I should create a new category entitled “No Longer Gathering Dust on My Shelf” as there are many DVDs and Blu-rays I own which I promised myself to view one day, and yet they still remain unseen by me. So, what are my excuses regarding this? That was a rhetorical question.

Anyway, “State and Main” starts off with a Hollywood film crew invading the small New England town of Waterford, Vermont to make a movie called “The Old Mill.” We quickly learn this crew had been kicked out of New Hampshire as the movie’s star, Bob Barrenger (Alec Baldwin), has a penchant for underage girls, something many do not take kindly to (need I say why?). Once the director, Walt Price (William H. Macy) arrives, he thinks he has found the perfect location as the town does indeed have an old mill which the film’s writer, Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman), has centered his screenplay around. They quickly find out, however, that the town’s mill has long since burned down to the ground, so several things, among others, need to be changed in the screenplay even if it goes against the writer’s original intentions.

Part of the fun “State and Main” is watching how Hollywood succeeds in bringing out the worst impulses in everyone. Whether it’s the film crew, the cast or the townspeople, everyone is out to get their piece of the pie, and everyone is a player. A plethora of chaos ensues, and this all happens even before a single frame of footage for “The Old Mill” is shot.

When it comes to Mamet, his plays and screenplays cut really deep when it comes to the real world, and his take on Hollywood players can be quite scathing. Just look at “Speed-the-Plow” in which three movie studio employees engage in a power struggle to get a certain movie made while moving up the corporate ladder to become rich beyond their wildest dreams. Then there was the political satire “Wag the Dog” in which Robert De Niro and Anne Heche and fabricate a war in Albania to distract Americans from a Presidential sex scandal, and they enlist Dustin Hoffman, playing a famous Hollywood producer clearly modeled on Robert Evans. Both projects leave a bitter aftertaste whether you enjoy them or not as Mamet acknowledges how brutal and competitive Hollywood can be when it comes to what gets made and how much truth gets revealed to the world at large.

With “State and Main,” however, Mamet gives us something lighter than he usually does as he revels in the various problems and complexities the characters are forced to deal with. Moreover, while he revels in exposing the Hollywood players for the selfish schmucks they can be, the townspeople prove to be every bit as devious in their own unique ways.

Watching William H. Macy here makes one realize why he and Mamet have had such a fruitful working relationship for so many years. Macy is well versed in the rhythm of Mamet’s dialogue, and he does an excellent job of making his character of Walt Price into a filmmaking veteran who has directed more motion pictures than we are quick to realize. Walt is a pro at handling every and all problems which come his way, and he only loses so much of his cool when one of his assistants tells him his wife has gone into labor. While some directors may be understanding, Macy makes you see why Walt treats the impending birth of a baby as an annoying inconvenience.

Is tempting to say Alec Baldwin was in his prime when he played movie star Bob Barrenger here, but he is still quite the actor after all these years and not just because of his work on “Saturday Night Live.” Baldwin makes Bob into the kind of star whom filmmakers work with against their own best interests as he wants to change the dialogue in the script because it doesn’t sound like something he would say in real life. You want to berate him for his selfishness and remind him he is playing a character and not himself, but Baldwin reminds you of how actors like this one are on an island with themselves to where their egos get the best of them before they could ever realize it.   

Philip Seymour Hoffman left the land of the living a few years ago, and watching him in “State and Main” is a bittersweet reminder of the amazing talent we lost all too soon. As screenwriter Joseph Turner White, the actor gives us the perfect portrait of a man struggling for truth amongst a film crew whom sees the truth as a major inconvenience in the large scheme of things. Even as Joseph is forced to navigate a realm of endless cynicism and casual indifference, Hoffman renders this character as someone whom you believe is determined to remain noble to his beliefs even as many around him have long since given up on morality as a concept.

But seriously, my favorite performance comes from Rebecca Pidgeon as Ann, a local bookseller who helps to lift Joseph out of his latest bout of writer’s block. Right from the start, Pidgeon is so charming and fetching as she delivers Mamet’s dialogue like a true pro and makes Ann into one of the cleverest characters a movie like this could ever hope to have. She is just so much fun to watch here, and I could not help but root for her throughout.

And, with this screenplay written by Mamet, you can sure bet there are many lines of dialogue which sound like something only he could have come up with. Here’s a few worth noting:

“Everybody makes their own fun. If you don’t make it yourself, it isn’t fun. It’s entertainment.”

“What’s an associate producer credit?

“It’s what you give to your secretary instead of a raise.”

“It’s not a lie. It’s a gift for fiction.”

“I’m going to rip your heart out, then I’m going to piss on your lungs through the hole in your chest! And the best to Marian…”

But my favorite piece of dialogue, and it has always stood out to me even from the film’s trailer, comes from an exchange between Joseph and Ann:

“But it’s absurd.”

“So is our electoral process. But we still vote.”

Now that line remains as true now as it did back when this movie was released, and I can’t help but still laugh at it loudly as the electoral process is being scrutinized today in ways both sound and utterly ridiculous. By the way, Biden won and Trump lost. That is all.

I am not sure where to rate “State and Main” in regards to the other many works of Mamet. At times I wondered if this material might be a little too light for him, but this was clearly not designed to be as emotionally brutal as “Glengarry Glen Ross.” In the end, I think this was a movie everyone in front of and behind the camera had a lot of fun making, and not just because Mamet’s name was on it. A lot of times, movie sets can be nightmarish places regardless of whether or not Scott Rudin is wandering around on them, but the love everyone had for the material is clearly on display here.  

Big thanks to Ralph Garman for giving me and others a reason to check “State and Main” out. Here’s hoping his recommendation will give this film a stronger shelf life than it already has.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: ‘Christine’ Starring Rebecca Hall as Christine Chubbuck

The tragic tale of Christine Chubbuck is one which many, including myself, cannot help but be morbidly fascinated by. She was a television reporter who, on the morning of July 15, 1974, reported on three national news stories and a shooting which occurred at a local restaurant named Beef & Bottle. When footage of the restaurant shooting jammed and could not be played, she said, “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in ‘blood and guts’ and in living color, you are going to see another first—an attempted suicide.” She then pulled out a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson Model 36 revolver, placed it behind her right ear and pulled the trigger. She died of her self-inflicted gunshot wound 14 hours later.

Many have tried to seek out the footage of Christine’s final moments, but those closest to her have done their damndest to keep it out of everyone’s’ hands as they never want it to be seen on any television screen ever again. With the 2016 film “Christine,” audiences will get a chance to see how this on-camera suicide went down, but neither director Antonio Campos or screenwriter Craig Shilowich are looking to exploit this sad death in any way, shape or form. Instead, they are far more interested in looking into what could have led this talented young individual to take her life ever so suddenly.

We are transported back to Sarasota, Florida in 1974 where Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) works at a local television station at which she reports on human interest stories that present a positive look at the world in general. She appears to get along well with her colleagues which include camera operator Jean Reed (Maria Dizzia), and she has an unrequited crush on fellow reporter George Peter Ryan (Michael C. Hall). When she isn’t reporting, she’s performing puppet shows for mentally handicapped kids. But while she may appear happy on the surface, we quickly see she is suffering. Moreover, she is suffering in ways not everyone can easily see.

While Christine is determined to report on human interest stories, her boss Michael Nelson (the great Tracy Letts) demands she focus more on crime stories as they bring in bigger ratings. She protests as such stories seem purely exploitive to her, but the term “if it bleeds, it leads” has long since entered Michael’s lexicon, and neither he nor any other television station manager can get themselves to look away from this especially when it comes to ratings. Christine acquires a police scanner to find grittier stories, but her intention to please Michael comes up painfully short as what she comes up with is not nearly enough.

As for Christine’s personal life, it’s not fairing much better. She still lives with her mother, Peg (J. Smith-Cameron), but they appear a bit distant from one another. This distance grows even stronger when Peg finds a new boyfriend whom Christine has a hard time warming up to. Even when she gets a much-needed hug from Peg, it is not enough to comfort her during the perfect storm of her depression.

And then there’s the issue of the stomach pains she has been feeling for a while. Christine is eager to find a husband and have children, but she is dealt a vicious blow when her doctor (played by Morgan Spector) finds one of her ovaries may have to be removed, decreasing her ability to bear a child. It was at this point I kept waiting for the song “Born Under a Bad Sign” to start playing on the soundtrack as if she didn’t have bad luck, she wouldn’t have any luck at all. Of course, pointing this out would have been obvious and cruel.

At the center of “Christine” is Rebecca Hall who gives one of the most definitive performances of a character suffering from depression and borderline personality disorder. She makes you feel her character’s deepest longings as well as her visible discomfort in being around big crowds of people. I can relate to her wanting to get close to someone and yet suffering a fight or flight moment as she suddenly wants to get away from a situation she has long since become uncomfortable being in. It’s like you desperately want to belong, and yet you also find yourself wanting to run away. Depression is a serious disease which has those afflicted with it suffering from irrational fears to where making certain decisions can be much harder than it ever should.

Another performance worth singling out here is Michael C. Hall’s as George Peter Ryan. When I first saw Michael here, I figured he would be playing George as the average egotistical reporter who would be quick to spurn Christine’s advances at any given opportunity, but the “Dexter” actor instead plays to where he takes her to a place where she can be heard. This leads to one of the most unexpected scenes in the film as I figured things would lead to an inevitably heartbreaking moment, but the filmmakers were not about to give us something predictable.

In some ways, I wish “Christine” dug deeper into its main character and her sadly crippled state of mind. While it does not just skip over the surface, I wanted it to examine other elements of her life which may have led her to make a permanent solution to what we all should see is a temporary problem. We never get to learn of her life as a child or of previous relationships she had with others, and this may have given the audience a broader understanding of her state of mind.

But when all is said and done, “Christine” is a thoughtful portrait of an individual whose life deserves to be known for more than her final and fatal act. While her deadly decision to end her life in a very public way may make her existence a study in morbid curiosity, the filmmakers are intent on making us see the individual at the center of it all. No one should simply be remembered for one act they committed as there is more to a person than meets the eye.

When I think of Christine Chubbuck, I am reminded of a couple of songs by my favorite artists. One is Sarah McLachlan whose lyrics for her song “Black” left quite the impression on me:

“If I cried me a river of all my confessions

Would I drown in my shallow regret?

As the walls are closing in

And the colors fade to black

And my eyes are falling fast and deep into the sea

And in darkness all that I can see

The frightened and the weak

Are forced to cling to mistakes they know nothing of

At mercy are the meek.”

And then there’s Elton John’s title track from the album of the same name, “Too Low for Zero:”

“I’m too low for zero

I’m on a losing streak

I got myself in a bad patch lately

I can’t seem to get much sleep

I’m too low for zero

I wind up counting sheep

Nothing seems to make much sense

It’s all just Greek to me

You know I’m too low, too low, too low for zero

You know I’m too low, too low, too low for zero.”

It can be far too easy to fall into the state of depression before you know it, and my hope is you will never be afraid to ask for help. Christine’s problems happened during a time where I cannot help but think the world at large was unaware of how serious mental illness can be. For those of you watching this film today, I hope you know how serious it is and that there is no shame in asking others to assist you in lifting you out of an emotional dark hole. Christine deserved such assistance, and you do as well.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: ‘What If’ – A Romantic Comedy I Actually Enjoyed

Okay, this is getting scary. I’m starting to enjoy romantic comedies again, and that is so not like me. Recent years have given us a few actually worth watching like “Obvious Child” and “Trainwreck,” both which went far beyond my expectations. This all started to happen as the genre began finding itself suffering from burnout thanks to a lot of banal movies which have made me roll my eyes on a regular basis, many of them adaptations to Nicholas Sparks novels. Then there was “What If” (or “The F Word” as it is known in certain circles) which is by no means an original romantic comedy. It owes quite a bit to “When Harry Met Sally” among other classics, and it does follow a lot of the same conventions I have come to expect from this genre. But what keeps it from feeling ordinary is a terrific screenplay, smart direction and wonderful performances from its two undeniably adorable leads: Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan.

Radcliffe plays Wallace, a medical school dropout who has been in one failed relationship too many, and this makes him take a long break from the game of love. But while at a friend’s party, he ends up bumping into Chantry (Kazan), an animator with a sparkly personality which more or less matches his own. After walking her home, Chantry informs Wallace she has a boyfriend named Ben (Rafe Spall) whom she has been with for a few years, and that she would love for her and Wallace to just be friends. Wallace agrees, but as time goes on, he wonders if they can be more than just friends. Lord, I have had many friendships with women where I wondered the same damn thing.

The questions of whether or not men and women can be friends still seems to come up from time to time, and that’s even though the answer should be a resounding yes. But there is always that one friend who belongs to someone else whom you endlessly pine for. “What If” really digs into this state of mind to where I could not help but feel Wallace’s passionate longings which he tries to cover up with a seemingly cynical take on love. We all have had crushes on others, and we are constantly aware of how painful crushes can be when they turn into shattering examples of unrequited love. It all reminds me of some dialogue from John Hughes’ “Sixteen Candles:”

“It just hurts.”

“That’s why they call them crushes. If they were easy, they’d call ’em something else.”

I was reminded of this while watching “What If” because, unlike other romantic comedies, I really found myself desperately rooting for Wallace and Chantry to become a couple. A lot of it is thanks to the fantastic chemistry between Radcliffe and Kazan as they bring this movie to such vivid life. Both play off one another wonderfully, and once you see the two discussing the ingredients of a Fool’s Gold sandwich (Elvis Presley’s favorite sandwich of all), you can tell they were made for each other.

Radcliffe may always have the shadow of Harry Potter hanging over him, but it’s really past the point where we have to recognize what a truly talented an actor he is. As he heads from one genre to the next, the young actor shows all the on-the-job training he got from playing J.K. Rowling’s unforgettable wizard has really paid off. While Wallace tries to put a solid front in an attempt to show how love has not gotten him down, Radcliffe shows what’s going on beneath the surface without ever having to spell it out for the audience.

Kazan has a uniquely adorable beauty about her, and she continues to do great work in every project she’s in. As Chantry, she gets the opportunity to take a character who appears to be comfortable with where she’s at in life, and we follow her through a journey of self-discovery which is honestly long overdue. She has a nice boyfriend and doing the work she loves to do, but throughout “What If” we watch her as she begins to discover what she really wants out of life. As she makes these subtle changes in her character, Kazan shows us just how wonderful an actress she can be.

There’s also a great scene-stealing performance from Adam Driver as Wallace’s best friend, Allan. Always giving bad advice on women and yet having a lot more success with them than Wallace, Driver has a wonderfully dry sense of humor here which is irresistible, and it’s a blast watching him stumble over his words on a regular basis.

I also have to give credit to Rafe Spall who plays Chantry’s boyfriend, Ben. This could have been the usual douchebag boyfriend who deserves to be dropped flat, but Spall makes him a good hearted man who just doesn’t have his priorities straight.

“What If” was directed by Michael Dowse whose other films include the two “FUBAR” movies, “Goon” and “Stuber.” While he doesn’t go out of his way to reinvent the romantic comedy wheel here, he does freshen up the formula and gives us something which does not feel like something you have seen a hundred times before. Along with screenwriter Elan Mastai, who based this screenplay on the play “Cigars and Toothpaste” by T. J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi, he does a good job of keeping us emotionally involved in the plight of these should-be lovers all the way up to its end.

I still have issues with romantic comedies from time to time, but “What If” shows what good filmmakers can do with a formula that has been done to death. Even though I have seen this kind of film so many times before, this one proved to be a lot more emotionally involving than I ever could have expected it to be.

* * * out of * * * *

CHECK OUT THE VIDEO BELOW TO VIEW THE EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW I DID WITH DANIEL RADCLIFFE ON “WHAT IF.”

Underseen Movie: ‘Music From The Big House’ – A Glorious Prison Musical

Music From The Big House” follows Rita Chiarelli, or “the goddess of Canadian blues” as she is known, as she visits what is considered to be the birthplace of blues music: Louisiana State Maximum Security Prison (a.k.a. Angola Prison). What she finds once there is a number of inmates who have long since found solace through their love of music, and this leads her to stage a concert at the prison with them. But unlike when Johnny Cash did his performance at Folsom Prison, Chiarelli performs with the inmates instead of just for them.

Cinematographer Steve Cosens originally filmed this documentary in color, but the decision was later made to show it in black and white which suits this documentary perfectly. McDonald goes over the history of this prison which was at one time known as the bloodiest in America. The descriptions given to us of how it operated years before gives you a picture of what hell on earth must seem like. The fact the filmmakers and Chiarelli were allowed access inside this prison is amazing to say the least, and it almost seems like a miracle they made it out of there as well.

We get a chance to meet the individual inmates who end up playing in the concert, and they are a fascinating bunch. It is not until the very end when we are told what crimes they have committed which got them sentenced to time behind bars, and this was a smart move on the part of the filmmakers. By not learning of their crimes right at the start, we are forced not to judge them ahead of their musical performances. Some of them do allude to their crimes without too many specifics, and one in particular hints at how he isn’t apologizing for what he did because he’s not sure he is yet.

Some might consider this project to be a self-serving one for Chiarelli so she can get good press and sell a lot of records, but that is not the case. Her love for blues music is never in doubt, and those who have seen her perform live can verify what a powerful musical presence she can be. Those not familiar with her work will be blown away by her performances, and there is no forgetting her once the lights go up. There are also moments where Chiarelli questions why she is doing this concert as she’s not blind to what these felons have done to earn long prison sentences. Still, none of it deters her from performing with them in what turns out to be a joyous occasion, and the kind many do not expect to see from hardened inmates.

Speaking of the concert, we do get to see a lot of it here. The musical numbers are utterly invigorating, and the audience I saw this documentary with couldn’t help but clap along with the music. They even applauded at the end of the songs and for good reason; the music is incredibly thrilling to take in even if you are not a fan of the blues. I haven’t been to many movies over the years where the audience really got into what was onscreen, so this is not a cinematic experience I am going to forget any time soon.

“Music From The Big House” is one of those small movies, let alone documentaries, which deserves a bigger audience than it has already received thus far. While you could just get away with buying the soundtrack (and please do buy it), this documentary invites more than one viewing, and it would make a wonderful double feature with the Talking Heads concert film “Stop Making Sense.” You will not be able to keep your feet still while watching either film, nor should you.

* * * * out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: ‘Let Me In’ – A Better Than Expected Remake

Let The Right One In” did not need a remake. The 2008 Swedish film was a brilliant atmospheric piece of cinema, and I find it endlessly frustrating when American audiences can’t embrace foreign movies more often. Do subtitles really have to be an impediment when they come across so much better than dopey English dubbing?

Regardless, its American remake “Let Me In” turns out to be a big surprise. Just when I was convinced Hollywood studios would simply dumb the story down to attract a youthful demographic, Matt Reeves’ take on John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel, which in turn inspired Tomas Alfredson’s movie, is amazingly respectful to its source material. Moreover, you can see throughout how the story deeply affected Reeves and how he personalized the actions of the characters on screen.

The story remains the same, but the characters’ names have been changed to protect the original. The setting has been moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico which, amazingly enough, appears to be as snowy as Sweden. The year is 1983 and Ronald Reagan is President of the United States, talking about the “evil empire” on television. The advantage of this film being set in the 1980’s, however, is that the characters don’t have to worry about not getting any cell phone reception because they don’t own cell phones. This makes it especially lucky for the filmmakers because they won’t have to make any stupid excuses for cell phones not working.

Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a 12-year-old boy who lives with his alcoholic mother (we never get a clear view of her face) and has no real friends to speak of. At school, he is constantly harassed by bullies who thoughtlessly subject him to even more humiliating tortures than what Oskar dealt with in “Let The Right One In.” Eventually, he comes in contact with Abby (Chloë Grace Moretz), a girl who looks to be around his age, who has moved into his apartment building next door to him. Although she tells Owen they can’t be friends, a strong bond soon forms once he gives her his Rubik’s Cube to play with. She ends up solving it in a way which doesn’t involve cheating. My brother would have just taken the stickers off the cube and put them back on with the colors altogether.

I really do mean it when I say the humiliations Owen endures here are even worse than what Oskar went through to where I came out of this remake believing Oskar had it easy. Reeves, who has directed “Cloverfield,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “War of the Planet of the Apes,” really captures how kids can be utterly cruel to one another, and it will bring back memories for those of us who were humiliated in ways which left a wealth of psychological scars. Seeing him practice his revenge on the bullies all by his lonesome makes made me sadder as what we imagine doesn’t always jive with reality. While the kids at times put up a tough façade, their vulnerability is clearly evident in their eyes.

As the movie goes on, the fact Abby is a vampire, or a bloodsucker if you want to call her that, becomes a side issue. She and Owen are just two kids, one whom is older than they appear, who are struggling through the painful awkwardness of growing up. When they come in contact, they for once have someone they can relate to. Both Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloë Grace Moretz are perfectly cast, and each has moments where their faces say more than words ever could.

McPhee previously starred in for “The Road” where he played Viggo Mortensen’s’ son, and he inhabits Owen with all the isolation and helplessness the role has to offer. Chloë Grace Moretz did this after her amazing breakout performance in “Kick Ass,” and as Abby shows a strong maturity beyond her years. But I really have to applaud the adult actors who, while they don’t have as much screen time as their younger colleagues, give depth to characters that could have just been simple clichés. Richard Jenkins, still one of the most dependable character actors, plays Abby’s guardian, Thomas. Through his scenes with Moretz, he shows a caring man whose relationship with this girl has lasted longer than we could ever imagine. Jenkins makes us sympathize with this man even as he commits horrible acts for the sake of Abby’s survival. When we first meet Thomas, he has become wearier with the passing of time and the dark deeds which have weigh heavy on his soul.

Equally impressive is Elias Koteas who plays a police detective whose name never gets mentioned. The beauty of his acting here is how incredibly subtle he is to where he fully inhabits his character with what seems like relative ease. This could just have been the typical policeman whom the audience is manipulated into despising, doing all the stupid things cops do in movies. But Koteas instead gives the character a deep humanity to where you respect him even as you fear what he will do this Romeo & Juliet couple in the making. This is just a regular guy doing his job, and this makes his eventual fate all the more tragic.

“Let Me In” is not your typical jump-out-of-your-seat horror movie. There are a few jump scares, but the horror comes out of what cruelty people are subjected to, be it on the playground or anywhere else in town where you get your blood drained (and not by the Red Cross mind you). It also comes from where the line between what’s right and wrong becomes blurred as we ask ourselves if we can pull away from the people we love so much just to set things straight. What would we give up in the process?

As an American remake of a foreign film, I figured Hollywood would just change the story to where the good guys get the bad guys and justice wins out in the end. You know, the typical kind of plot designed to make us all feel good. To my astonishment, Reeves never veers in that direction once, and he has made a film whose climax is left up to the viewer to interpret. Nothing is ever easily spelled out for the audience, and I admired him for staying true to the source material.

If there is a drawback to “Let Me In,” it’s that in being respectful to “Let The Right One In,” not much has changed. For those who loved the 2008 movie as much as I did, there is much to admire but few surprises to be had. Many of the situations remain the same as before while certain characters in the background get more or less depth than they previously did. And there is all that snow like before, but it looks very beautiful and it’s a character of sorts in this movie. While Reeves doesn’t break new ground with this interpretation, we can see how deeply he relates to Lindqvist’s novel and its characters. In the end, “Let Me In”’ is not a vampire movie as much as it is one about childhood and how rocky a road it is for some more than others, especially for those who don’t grow old. It’s Reeves’ depth of feeling which informs this film, and it gives this remake a power I never expected it to have.

Oh yeah, there is 1980’s music to be heard throughout, but I kind of wished they put some more of it in here. I still love listening to music from that crazy decade, and it would have been cool to see some bloodletting done to the music of REO Speedwagon, Hall & Oates, or even Journey. How about something by Air Supply or Chicago? Oh well…

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: ‘JCVD’ – The Muscles From Brussels Lays Himself Bare

I have never really been a fan of Jean-Claude Van Damme. He has the moves, but he has never been much of an actor. I still vividly remember watching “Cyborg” with my brother and a friend of his on the family VCR years ago. My dad even watched it with us, and he could not stop bagging on Van Damme throughout the whole monstrosity which was made by those creative geniuses from Cannon Pictures. This is some of what he said:

“This is the single worst actor I have ever seen in my life! His face is completely immobile! He’s like Stonehenge!”

Oh, the memories! You’d figure after us seeing “Cyborg” that none of us would ever bother watching a Van Damme movie ever again, but he was everywhere for much of the late 80’s and early 90’s. “Bloodsport” was nothing extraordinary, but those fight scenes were pretty awesome.

“Death Warrant” was one I only saw because my best friend from high school wanted to check it out. It was alright, but this is probably being generous. I got a little pissed when that nerdy kid with glasses wanted to watch “Star Trek,” but the hot lady played by Cynthia Gibb did not want to bother. She would rather be screwing Van Damme’s character while he was taking a break from working undercover in a prison to catch a killer. Seriously, not all “Star Trek” fans are this geeky!

But following the commercial failure of “Universal Soldier: The Return,” Van Damme went from being a Hollywood star to being thrown into the hard to escape realm of straight to video movies, and he also went through drug problems and several divorces. I always wondered how people like him or Steven Seagal deal with going from big Hollywood action movies to direct to video crap which continues to define their careers to this day. I imagine they are not happy being in this movie star limbo. On one hand, they are still making a living, but at the same time I keep thinking they must miss where they were before Hollywood abandoned them in the wake of several box office disappointments.

JCVD” is a fictionalized answer to this question, and is not your typical martial arts ass kicking epic. Van Damme plays himself, and we can what years of drugs, court battles, and many B movies, most of them lousy, have done to him and his face. As the movie opens, we see him arguing with the director of his latest movie, but the director is more interested in throwing darts at a postcard with the Hollywood sign on it then in listening to a man whose only distinction is getting John Woo to come to America and make “Hard Target.”

We see Van Damme at court fighting for custody of his daughter (played by Saskia Flanders), and his ex-wife’s attorney presents his movies as arguments against him as a person. They pile up so high to where he excuses himself to go to the bathroom while the titles are still being read off. His problems keep mounting as he can’t get cash out of the ATM, and his lawyer calls saying he still owes him money. Then his custody suit hits an impasse when his daughter says she doesn’t want to live with him because, whenever a movie of his is on television, she gets picked on by all the kids at school. Even worse, he just lost a film role to Seagal just because he offered to cut off his ponytail.

So, Van Damme heads back to Belgium to reconnect with his roots and where he came from (hence his nickname “The Muscles from Brussels”). He is still treated as a big star and a hero back home, and as a man who helped put the country and its people on the Hollywood map. But soon after, a hostage situation erupts at a nearby post office and, yes, all hell breaks loose. At first, it looks like he is robbing the post office, but events are seen from different perspectives, and it turns out he has arrived at the wrong place at the wrong time. This time, he can’t rely on his martial arts moves to get him out of this situation. Van Damme is not seen as an action hero here, but as a regular man who is caught up in a situation not of his making.

“JCVD” is presented as a comedy/drama hybrid, and while the tone is a bit uneven, there are some very funny moments. We see one of the robbers buddy up with Van Damme and talk to him about his movies, and he even gets him to show off one of his classic moves. While the other robbers couldn’t care less, this one wants his autograph. In the meantime, the townspeople have come out in force to support the fallen celebrity for what he is doing. In many ways, the movie is a look at the crazy nature of fame and a celebrity is forever trapped in a prison because of it.

The big question I had when I went out to see “JCVD” was this; has he gotten any better as an actor. Even Los Angeles Times film critic Sam Adams in his review of this movie said that “most of the acting in Van Damme’s films takes place below the neck.” Surprisingly, the answer is yes, he has. In fact, in “JCVD” he is really good playing a fictionalized version of himself. My dad’s description of him as “Stonehenge” does not apply to him here, and while he will never be Laurence Olivier or Sean Penn, this movie is a big step up for him creatively speaking.

The movie has one tremendous moment of pure raw emotion from Van Damme when he suddenly rises above the film set and starts talking directly to the audience. His monologue lasts for several minutes, and he talks about how he always wanted to be a movie star. All these years later, he feels as though he is being punished for it. Granted, he admits to his mistakes like taking drugs, and I felt like he is still paying a price for his usage even while he is staying clean. The star never fakes a moment during this scene, and the scene is alone worth the price of admission. Van Damme has said doing this movie was like therapy for him, and I have no doubt about that.

The concept of “JCVD” is by no means original. We have seen many movie stars play themselves and have jokes played at their own expense to show they have a healthy sense of humor about their image. But while we have them take this route like John Malkovich did in “Being John Malkovich,” I can’t think of any others who have put themselves on the line like this. I can’t see Chuck Norris doing this as I am certain he would rather do an action movie where Mike Huckabee is President and he has to rescue him from being held hostage by pro-evolution terrorists.

If there was one big problem I had with “JCVD,” it’s that its subtitles were at times almost impossible to read. The movie, directed by Mabrouk El Mechri, is shot in a grungy style which is very close to black and white but not quite. As a result, the subtitles which are presented in white lettering almost blend completely into the background, and I had to keep leaning forward to better see what was being said. Considering how many of my friends hate subtitles and would rather watch movies dubbed in English, this certainly does not help.

You really have to give Van Damme a lot of credit here. Not many action stars would even risk being seen like he is shown in “JCVD.” Here, he lays himself bare to show us the man he has become through many mistakes and bad movies. I came out of it with a renewed respect for him, and it makes me want to see him get better. “JCVD” is not a great movie, but it is fun and kept me enthralled throughout its running time. Where he goes from here remains to be seen, but hopefully some good will come out of his performance here.

* * * out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: ‘Killer Joe’ – The WTF Movie of 2011

WARNING: DO NOT EAT FRIED CHICKEN BEFORE OR WHILE WATCHING THIS MOVIE.

William Friedkin’s “Killer Joe” got my vote for the WTF movie of 2012. It wallows in the sheer depravity of its deliberately idiotic characters without apology, and it is one of the most darkly hilarious movies I have seen in some time. Seriously, I would put this film on a par with “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” and “Observe and Report” as they are equally fearless in the places they dare to take us. “Killer Joe” also marks the second collaboration between Friedkin and playwright Tracy Letts whose play “Bug” Friedkin previously adapted into a motion picture. With this film, neither is out to show the audience any mercy as they challenge them in a way most filmmakers don’t bother to these days, and it wears its NC-17 rating with pride.

The movie takes place in Texas and features some of the dumbest or, to be polite, the most dimwitted characters on the face of the earth. Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) is a drug dealer who is in debt to his suppliers by several thousand dollars, and his solution is to have someone murder his mother as she has a $50,000 insurance policy. His father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), shows only the slightest moral opposition to this plan as he divorced Chris’ mother a long time ago and has since gotten married to the conniving Sharla (Gina Gershon), and Chris already has one person in mind to carry out this cold-hearted assassination.

That person is Joe Copper (Matthew McConaughey), a police detective who works as a hired killer on the side. Now Joe demands an upfront payment of $25,000 for his services, but Chris and Ansel can only pay him after receiving the insurance payout. As a result, Joe ends up taking a retainer to make up for that: Ansel’s daughter and Chris’ sister, Dottie (Juno Temple). As with all crimes based on greed, all the careful preparation cannot keep these characters from falling into the nasty realm of disaster. But long before the movie’s end, you will agree they have all earned the fate they ever so thoughtlessly brought on themselves.

If this seems like an unusual movie for Oscar winning director Friedkin to make, it shouldn’t. Friedkin’s movies in general, with the exception of “The Exorcist,” have never contained characters easily deserving of redemption. “Killer Joe” will be seen by many as a bold motion picture of his, but his movies show he has never passed judgment on any of the characters inhabiting his movies. He is also a brilliant filmmaker as he surrounds himself with a cast of actors who don’t easily judge their characters either.

McConaughey has been on a roll ever since he gave up making those dopey romantic comedies for movies like “The Lincoln Lawyer” and “Dallas Buyers Club.” With “Killer Joe,” he ends up giving one of the bravest and boldest performances of his career as Joe Copper is as immoral as characters can get. We never learn why he decided to get into this line of work while being employed as an officer of the law, but it doesn’t matter. McConaughey gives us a mesmerizing portrait of a character who is more than aware of how evil he is, and he is not about to apologize for it.

The other actors like Emile Hirsch and Thomas Haden Church deserve a lot of credit as they portray the dimwitted characters perfectly without ever just playing it for laughs. They play each character as being serious in what they say and do, and this makes us laugh uncontrollably at certain moments because we almost won’t believe how badly they screw things up. They also invest their characters with a history which shows on their faces and doesn’t need to be spelled out for the audience.

A special badge of courage, however, needs to go to Gina Gershon who plays Sharla as “Killer Joe” shows just how deep into a role she is willing to go. Her character thinks nothing of opening the front door without wearing anything from the waist down, and this is not to mention what McConaughey ends up making her do with a piece of fried chicken. Even as Sharla wears too much makeup to where her mascara runs down her face, making her look like the Joker from “The Dark Knight,” Gershon gives a truly fearless performance as someone who thinks she’s better than the people around her. But of course, Sharla finds out in the worst way possible that she is not.

The one person who really caught my eye though was Juno Temple who portrays the youngest child of the Smith family, Dottie. You may remember Temple as Selina Kyle’s street-smart friend from “The Dark Knight Rises,” and she makes Dottie a fascinating enigma. Her character is at times willfully innocent, seemingly naïve, but she actually becomes the only member of this trailer park family with anything resembling intelligence. Temple is utterly beguiling in “Killer Joe,” and I look forward to seeing more of her in the future.

“Killer Joe” was already earning infamy before its release with the MPAA giving it the dreaded NC-17. Did it earn this rating? Well, yes and no; this is certainly no movie to take your kids or impressionable teenagers to see. Then again, if “Killer Joe” were released by a major movie studio, it would have somehow gotten an R despite its content. Whatever you think this movie deserves the NC-17 rating or not, the hypocrisy of the MPAA remains maddening and never ending.

Friedkin has been leaving in the shadow of his most famous work for years as if no one would ever let him get past “The Exorcist,” “The French Connection” or even “Sorcerer” which is now being seen as the masterpiece it always was. The truth however is he has not lost his talent in setting up scenes which contain tremendous suspenseful impact. This is especially the case whenever McConaughey is onscreen because when he appears you know things are going to get really bad. Friedkin also is well served by his collaborators such as cinematographer Caleb Deschanel who finds a twisted beauty in such utter depravity, and composer Tyler Bates gives the most suspenseful and horrifying moments a strong atmospheric quality which makes the story all the more claustrophobic.

It’s hard to say where exactly “Killer Joe” ranks on William Friedkin’s long resume of work, but it is safe to say it is far more accomplished than his other works like “Deal of the Century,” “The Guardian” and “Jade.” With this film he gives willing audience members an experience they will not easily forget, and he directs Matthew McConaughey to one of the best and most explosive performances of his career. Those in the mood for the most disturbing of black comedies should not pass up “Killer Joe.” Just remember, it may be a while before you find yourself eating fried chicken again after you watch it.

* * * ½ out of * * * *