‘Public Enemies’ – Michael Mann and Johnny Depp Take on John Dillinger

“The reason you caught me, Will, is we’re just alike! You want the scent? Smell yourself!”

-Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox) speaking to Will Graham (William Peterson) from a scene in Michael Mann’s “Manhunter.”

After all these years, Michael Mann still has a strong fascination with criminal masterminds and those who spend their careers chasing them down. Film after film, he has spent his time delving into how the “good guys” and “bad guys” feed off of one another, and if they could not exist without one another. “Public Enemies” reminded me a lot of “Heat” in that respect, and it shares a lot of similarities as it looks at the famous John Dillinger, played here by Johnny Depp, and at the man sent to catch him, Melvin Purvis. It’s not as great a film as “Heat” was, but it is still a masterful piece of filmmaking and the kind we have come to expect from director Michael Mann.

“Public Enemies” starts with Dillinger and his friends breaking out of a maximum-security prison, something which seemed easy to do back in 1933. It turns out Dillinger is actually quite the celebrity and can find safe havens in one town or another. To many he is seen as a hero, and to others he is nothing more than a criminal. But as Dillinger continues to rob more banks, the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover (played by Billy Crudup) become increasingly persistent in bringing him to justice. In the process, Hoover turns to Melvin Purvis (played by Christian Bale) who subsequently leads a manhunt to take down Dillinger, and in the process changes from the person he thought he could be to the one he is chasing after.

One thing which has not changed about Mann’s movies is he still knows how to stage one hell of a gunfight. Back in 1995, he gave us one of the greatest in Downtown Los Angeles with “Heat,” and he has lived in the shadow of that brilliantly staged moment ever since. Sure, he has choreographed gun battles every bit as effectively brutal like in “Collateral” and his film version of “Miami Vice.” In his films, you don’t just watch guns go off, you feel them going off. When a bullet hits a body, characters don’t just fall down like in an old western. Their bodies are forever shattered, and the wounds they carry last long after the end credits have finished. There are a lot of strong action scenes like this throughout “Public Enemies,” and each one is equally hair raising. While “Heat” may remain his masterpiece, his other works do not pale in comparison necessarily.

Having Johnny Depp cast as Dillinger must have seemed like a no brainer. They appear to share some similar tastes minus the heavy gunfire, given Depp’s previous reputation as a “wild boy:”

“I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars… and you. What else you need to know?”

-Johnny Depp as John Dillinger from “Public Enemies”

Depp remains one of the best actors of his generation, and he has constantly challenged himself to where this particular role is no exception. Dillinger was a criminal celebrity, perhaps one of the first, and Depp effortlessly shows you how Dillinger made this seem possible. With his eyes, Depp can still seduce the most knowledgeable and naïve of women without even having to try too hard. The actor also clearly brings out the joy Dillinger gets out of life, and he also gets at the depth of pain he experiences as those closest to him leave him, cut him loose, or get killed.

As Melvin Purvis, Christian Bale delves into many of the same situations which haunted Bruce Wayne/Batman in “The Dark Knight.” Melvin starts off as a man who is dedicated to the law and follows the rules and regulations to the letter. But after some serious setbacks, Melvin finds he has to use different methods in order to get his man. These methods include acts and people which and who work outside of the law. In the process, he comes to see what he has to become in order to capture Dillinger. But unlike Bruce, Melvin may not be able to live with himself when this is all through. Bale pulls off a really solid accent while playing Melvin, and he has a much more nuanced character to play here than he did in movies like “Terminator Salvation.”

But the one performance I enjoyed most in “Public Enemies” was Marion Cotillard’s who plays Dillinger’s girlfriend, Billie Frechette. Cotillard won the Best Actress Oscar for giving one of the greatest performances of all time in cinematic history in “La Vie En Rose.” She shares great chemistry with Depp throughout, and she is delightful to watch as Billie is ever so quickly drawn into Dillinger’s dangerous world. Billie does sense the trouble which lies ahead, but everything happening is too exciting for her to pass up. Showing both fear and excitement in a film scene without words is easier said than done, and she pulls it off like it’s no big deal.

If there’s anything which takes away from “Public Enemies,” it is that it doesn’t delve as deeply into the characters’ lives as I had hoped it would. If anything, this film would have benefited more from a back story, especially for Dillinger as to why and how he became a bank robber. It was also said that Dillinger was a hero because the banks he robbed ended up freeing things up for those who were economically challenged because of the Great Depression. I would have liked to have seen more of this because Mann may have thought this was clear from the way regular people treat Dillinger, but it doesn’t feel like they have a good enough reason to. Had there been a little more depth to these characters, this could have been as great a movie “Heat.”

Still, “Public Enemies” is fine filmmaking and continues Mann’s theme of looking at how the line between cops and criminals is often blurred and how both are actually one and the same. You could almost call this “Heat” as a period piece. Mann makes you wonder if a criminal can ever find and hang onto a love despite their law-breaking nature, and if the cop can ever lead a normal life outside their career of going after the crook. From William Petersen trying to think like the killer in “Manhunter” to James Caan trying to leave a life outside of crime in “Thief,” it’s a thin line indeed. Perhaps Mann keeps pursuing this theme in hopes that there will be a tomorrow for characters like these regardless of their opposing natures. Maybe he will find the answer in a future motion picture, and hopefully we will not have to wait too much longer for such a cinematic work.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Paul Williams and Stephen Kessler Discuss ‘Paul Williams Still Alive’ at the Nuart

WRITER’S NOTE: As the opening paragraph indicates, this article was originally written ten years ago.

On June 27, 2012, singer and songwriter Paul Williams along with filmmaker Stephen Kessler appeared at the Nuart Theatre in support of their documentary “Paul Williams Still Alive.” After its conclusion, both men were greeted by a packed audience that had been deeply moved by what they just witnessed. The documentary follows up with Williams years after his enormous success back in the 1970s, and it finds him experiencing happiness and fulfillment in life he didn’t have back then.

Kessler has described making this documentary as “a labor of love,” but Williams quickly pointed out that it didn’t start that way. Their relationship when filming began was an uncomfortable one, but Williams eventually warmed up to Kessler, and their strong friendship proved to be very authentic as they talked with the audience at the Nuart. Kessler even went out of his way to say the following:

“I’ve never said this in front of people before, but you (Williams) were brave to do this movie.”

No one in the audience disagreed with this assessment. Williams described this as a “warts and all documentary” that shows him at his best and worst. One particular sequence, when he was co-hosting Merv Griffin’s talk show while on drugs, was one he originally wanted to be cut out as he was terribly afraid of what his kids would think about him. His son Cole, however, was in the audience, and when asked about what he thought of the documentary, he said, “It’s great dad!”

Kessler made it clear he had no intention of putting himself in this documentary, and he even said he “can’t stand movies that do that;” directors becoming the subject of their own films. His increased participation in “Paul Williams Still Alive,” however, helped to illuminate the songwriter much more than it would have without him. While Kessler keeps going back to the past, Williams looks to the future instead.

When Williams was asked when he reached his bottom as an alcoholic, he responded it happened when he started looking out the window for what he called the “tree police.” He even joked and said, “You know you’re an alcoholic when you’ve misplaced an entire decade.” What made him say this was the embarrassing truth that he forgot for a time that Ronald Reagan was once President of the United States.

Since becoming sober, Williams says he now knows what it feels like to be around people he feels safe with. He has also entered into what he calls his “Paulie Lama” period of life as he goes out of his way to pull people off of bar stools, and that he would be thrilled to work at the Betty Ford Center if asked.

1992’s “A Muppet Christmas Carol” marked the first project Williams ever did sober, and he remembered going into it feeling very scared. But after he finished working on it, he found he was able to approach his work in a more productive way:

“Success for me has to be about authenticity and honesty. Today I have to trust that I am enough. Never again will I ever let tension and my ego keep me from writing songs.” The emcee of the Nuart told us not to ask either of the two how much “Paul Williams Still Alive” cost to make or when it will come out on DVD. This is because he wants to see it again with as a big an audience in the midst of all these summer blockbusters being thrust at us. It is certainly one of the sweetest documentaries you will ever see, and to see Williams today is to see a man very comfortable with who he is and who does not need another cup of fame to feel better about himself.

Underseen Movie: ‘Paul Williams Still Alive’

Going into this documentary, I thought it would be one of those great comeback stories of a fallen celebrity who gets their dormant career resurrected through the help of one die-hard fan. But while filmmaker Stephen Kessler seems intent on reminding the world of what this gifted songwriter has given us, “Paul Williams Still Alive” is not that kind of documentary. Instead, it’s a story of a man whose life was run into the ground by a strong addiction to fame and drugs, and of his journey back to a place of happiness and fulfillment he is ever so thankful for today. This is not an artist looking to make a comeback, but of one who appreciates what they have to where not much more is needed than that. As a result, this makes “Paul Williams Still Alive” one of the sweetest and most life affirming documentaries I have seen in some time.

Kessler is best known for having directed many popular television commercials and “Vegas Vacation,” a sequel which rated high in test screenings, but still turned out to be a dud. Kessler starts off this documentary recounting how he grew up being such a big fan of Williams and of how the songwriter seemed to be everywhere in the 1970s. Williams appeared on “The Muppet Show,” made numerous appearances on television shows such as “Beretta,” and he became an incredibly popular guest on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. On top of that, he composed the music for “The Muppet Movie,” the cult classic “Phantom of The Paradise,” and eventually won an Oscar along with Barbara Streisand for the song “Evergreen.”

Somewhere along the line, Kessler assumed Williams had passed away at far too young an age. But while ordering one of Williams’ albums on the internet one night, he discovers to his surprise that the singer and songwriter is still very much alive and continues to create and perform music throughout the world. From there, Kessler makes it his mission to make a movie about Williams in an effort to let the world today know how much of an impact his music has had on all of us and still does to this day. Remember, he was a featured artist on Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories.”

Kessler started filming Williams when the songwriter visited Winnipeg, Canada where a fan convention for “Phantom of The Paradise” was taking place. This collaboration gets off to a rocky start as Williams shows a sharp reluctance to being filmed. There’s even a moment where he is singing in a San Francisco nightclub and gets the house manager to dim the lights so Kessler can’t get a good view of him onstage. As for Kessler, his solution to this problem provides this documentary with one of its funniest moments.

In some ways William’s reluctance is refreshing because, in a time where we are constantly flooded with reality shows with people becoming famous just for the sake of being famous, he is not keen about being part of this. In fact, it doesn’t take long to see he is not the least bit interested in becoming famous again like he once was as he has described the pursuit of fame as being in his own words, “pathetic.” As this documentary goes on, the narrative focuses much more on the person he is today, a much healthier human being who is humble and thankful for what he has.

“Paul Williams Still Alive” does give us a brief biography of the songwriter and of how he grew up with an alcoholic father who made him sing “Danny Boy,” and that his being so short ended up ostracizing him from his classmates at school. He comes to blame his lack of height on hormones being injected into him early in life. This was done to make him taller, but it ended up having the exact opposite effect. After moving out to Los Angeles to become a film actor, he ended up finding success as a songwriter which eventually turned him into a huge celebrity. The attention it gave him was something he came to live for, and it would eventually become an even bigger addiction for him than drugs.

As time goes on, Williams eventually warms up to Kessler, and this becomes clear during a trip to the Philippines. Williams even encourages Kessler to join him in front of the camera instead of just staying behind it, and that is saying a lot. Now this might have proven disastrous as “Paul Williams Still Alive” could have ended up becoming more about the filmmaker than his subject, but Kessler’s increased involvement proves to be a major plus. The relationship between these two men helps to define Williams as he is today.

While Kessler constantly looks to the past, Williams only wants to look forward. The one scene which makes this clear is when Williams watches himself guest hosting Merv Griffin’s talk show. Clearly high on drugs and making an absolute fool of himself, the realization of what he was doing back then forces him to stop watching the rest of the footage. The person Williams was back then is so different from who he is today, and the pain which crosses his face over his embarrassing past deeds is impossible to hide.

Near the end, Williams gives Kessler a whole bunch of videotapes he has in storage, having no idea of what’s on them. One particularly disturbing video has Williams celebrating Christmas with his family, and then later going upstairs to film himself getting high. Watching this illustrates just how far down the songwriter’s drug addiction took him and, looking at him today, it’s almost like we’re looking at a completely different person.

It should be clear by now that Kessler is not out to embarrass Williams in the slightest. Instead, his intention is to bring the songwriter back to the world’s attention, and this is a noble intention indeed. Williams is the same man who wrote the song “Rainbow Connection” for Kermit the Frog, “We’ve Only Just Begun” for the Carpenters, and “An Old-Fashioned Song” and “Rainy Days and Mondays” for himself. Heck, he even did the music for “Emmett Otter’s Jug Band Christmas,” one of my favorite holiday specials ever.

Today, Williams continues to make beautiful music which deals with themes like love, loneliness and alienation, and he definitely deserves to be recognized for the countless music contributions he has given us. Maybe not everyone has forgotten who he is, but we do need to be reminded of what he has created.

Now some have accused “Paul Williams Still Alive” of not including more of his music, but this documentary is not intended to be a career retrospective. In actuality, it becomes more about how Williams is a better, not to mention a far more interesting, human being today compared to when he was an overindulgent celebrity. He has been clean and sober for over 20 years, and he is even a certified drug and alcohol counselor. Looking back, it seems as though he lives to be a counselor more than he wants to create new music, and that is saying a lot.

With “Paul Williams Still Alive,” Kessler has given us far more than the average showbiz documentary. He has given us an individual worth appreciating who, while having made some serious mistakes in life, has come out of it on the other side a proud and happy person. All of this is all accomplished without Kessler ever trying to be manipulative or play at our heartstrings unnecessarily. This is a warts-and-all documentary which doesn’t hide anything, and I came out of it with not just a deep respect for Williams, but also for his healthy perspective on life.

During a time which sees certain celebrities desperately grasping for whatever fame is available to them, here is one who has found the happiness we all mistakenly thought we would get when we became a super star in everyone’s eyes. In the end, “Paul Williams Still Alive” is more about what it means to be happy, and Williams has more than earned the happiness he has today. Like he says, he does not need “another cup of fame” to make him a satisfied man.

* * * * out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: ‘The A-Team’ – A Ralph Report Video Vault Selection

The movie version of the 1980s television show “The A-Team” is one of those examples of how, as U2 put it in their song “Numb,” too much is not enough. The plot is razor thin, and the stunts defy all things we see as logically possible. And you know what? I didn’t care because I HAD SUCH A BLAST WATCHING IT!!! Many reviewers have been bemoaning how it was not what it could have been. I, on the other hand, prefer to see it for what it is, a highly entertaining film and the kind we usually expect to watch during the summer season.

After a prologue that shows how this team of Army rangers came together, we get thrust right into the action as we catch up with Hannibal, Faceman, B.A. Baracus, and the consistently insane Murdock as they are about to wrap up their tour of duty in Iraq. But before they can leave, they are given another mission to retrieve U.S. treasury plates that insurgents intend on using to make counterfeit money; the same kind of plates we would love to have in our possession as they would allow us to quit our day jobs. Without going into much detail, the plan goes awry, and they get set up to take the fall for something they are completely innocent of. The rest of the movie has them going on a mission to get the plates back and clear their names.

The director behind this unrestricted mayhem is Joe Carnahan. This is the same filmmaker who began his career with the $7,500 budgeted “Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane” and later directed one of the best crime thrillers with “Narc.” Not once does he allow us to take the characters or what they are doing at all seriously, and it is clear from the get-go how he wants us to take joy in the utter insanity of everything going on. For those who think this movie could have been more serious and reality-based, you came into it with the wrong expectations.

Just look at the insane things these guys do here. They parachute out of a plane in a tank, and they are forced to steer it by firing the turret. There are other moments that defy simple description, and you just have to watch it without wondering too much over how they pulled this insanity off without a hitch. These are characters who prepare for their missions by doing the impossible, or so it would seem. While Carnahan at times gets caught up in the current trend of action film editing which features quick shots that leaves us a little confused as to what we are watching, he keeps us entertained throughout and even allows us to breathe when we need to. Not every filmmaker allows us to pause for a moment, so this is worth pointing out.

Seeing Liam Neeson here as John “Hannibal” Smith was great fun as it allows him to let loose in a way he doesn’t often. Typically, we see him as a mentor in movies like “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” and “Batman Begins,” but as Hannibal, he doesn’t have to be his old serious self. Once you see him pop a cigar into his mouth and light it up, you can see why Neeson was eager to join this project. The “Taken” actor wanted to have fun and lighten up for a change.

Bradley Cooper plays Templeton “Faceman” Peck, the Casanova of the group who, despite his womanizing ways, still has eyes for Charisa Sosa (Jessica Biel). Cooper has come a long way from beating the crap out of Vince Vaughn in “Wedding Crashers,” and he manages to convince us of his various intentions and has us believing this despite all the craziness he keeps getting caught up in.

The part of B.A. “Bad Attitude” Baracus is played by Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, former UFC Light-Heavyweight champion. I kept thinking that his nickname of “Rampage” won him the part. Taking on a part made famous by Mr. T could not have been an enviable position to be in, but Jackson pulls it off. Is this role a stretch for him? It doesn’t matter because he has us believing in Baracus, and that’s even when this character says he has become a pacifist. We all know that can’t last, and Jackson does surprisingly good work here and without the use of gold chains. Not one is he ever a fool we have to pity.

But the real scene stealer of “The A-Team” is Sharlto Copley who takes on the role of H.M. “Howling Mad” Murdock. It is only when he slips back into his South African accent that you remember he was in one of the very best movies of 2009, “District 9.” Having said that, he actually pulls off a compelling southern accent here, showing us he is a far more talented actor than we first realized. Watching him go utterly nuts, be it jump-starting a car with a defibrillator or singing a Dead or Alive song while hanging onto a rotor blade of a helicopter had me in stitches.

Jessica Biel is on board as Faceman’s eternal love interest Charisa Sosa, and she makes for a convincing badass female soldier here. It’s in some ways the same kind of role she played in “Blade Trinity,” and it is nice to see her doing it again in an infinitely better movie.

For those of you wondering if the show’s famous theme song is at all featured, it is. While some say it is not in this movie enough, they should be happy it was included. The score was composed by Alan Silvestri, famous for writing the music for such classic movies like “Back to The Future” and “The Abyss.” Listening to his work here, it is great he still has it in him to create such rousing action scores to keep our adrenaline up and running.

“The A-Team” also proves what I have been saying about how the US military is treated in movies today; they are not anti-troop in the slightest, they are anti-mercenary. Whether it is “Rambo” or “The Hurt Locker” or “Green Zone” we are dealing with, troops are shown to be a dedicated bunch to their country. The main villains are mercenaries who don’t even try to hide the fact they make more in one day than an American soldier makes in a year. Now tell me, who do you think is more patriotic?

You could complain about how absurd this movie version of “The A-Team” is, but Carnahan plays on what made the show so appealing back in the 1980s, and he pays homage to it without making a simple carbon copy of what many of us grew up on. Every once in a while, we need a movie that is brainless fun and does not require us to overthink everything going on. “The A-Team” succeeds on this front, and I enjoyed it much more than I thought it would.

Oh, by the way, be sure to stay through the end credits. You’ll see why. Like the average Marvel movie, it has some surprises up its sleeve.

Like Eddie Pence of “The Ralph Report,” I very much appreciated this cinematic adaptation of this 1980s television classic. What a shame it is that this movie never got a sequel.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: ‘The Men Who Stare at Goats’ – A Highly Unusual War Movie

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2009.

“More of this is true than you would believe.”

You know something? It’s really nice to see a movie use a phrase other than “based on a true story” or “inspired by true events.” Those descriptions have all but lost their meaning because even if what we are seeing actually did happen, it has all been watered down into a formulaic feel-good movie we have seen over and over again to where we want to gag. Even worse, we keep getting suckered into seeing them even when we should know better. Either that, or there’s nothing better to watch. But this year has proven to be great as filmmakers have worked hard to subvert those worthless phrases with movies like “The Informant.” That Steven Soderbergh film made it very clear how it was based on actual events but that certain parts had been fictionalized, and it ended by saying:

“So there!”

Now we have “The Men Who Stare at Goats” which opens with the sentence at the top of this review. The story behind this one is so bizarre to where it’s almost impossible to believe any of what we are watching could ever have happened. All the same, it appears a good portion of these happenings did take place, and it makes for what is truly one of the more unique war movies I have seen in a while. The film is based on a non-fiction book by Jon Ronson which looked at how US military forces used psychic powers against their enemies. They look at New Age concepts as well as paranormal activities to achieve these goals, and of how they worked to use these methods to their advantage. The movie takes place during the Iraq war, but not to worry, the filmmakers is not trying to shove any politics down your throat (not consciously anyway).

Ronson serves as the inspiration for Bob Wilton, an investigative journalist played by Ewan McGregor. Bob’s wife has just left him for his editor and, of course, he is depressed and decides he needs to do something more important with his life in the hopes he can win her back. As a result, he travels to Kuwait to do firsthand reporting of the Iraq War, with hopes of finding someone who can get him across the border. Bob ends up having a chance meeting with a Special Forces operator named Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) who was in the military, but now runs a dance studio. Lyn reveals to Bob he was part of an American unit that was trained to be psychic spies or, as he eventually calls them, “Jedi warriors.” From there, Bob learns everything about this special unit which sounds like something out of a science fiction novel.

I love the irony of all the talk about “Jedi warriors” here, especially since McGregor played one in the “Star Wars” prequels.

Anyway, “The Men Who Stare at Goats” is really a cross between a war movie and a road movie as Lyn and Bob traverse the sandy dunes of the Middle East to where not everything is as it appears. This film is also a mix of comedy and drama the same way “Three Kings,” another war movie which starred Clooney, was. While the tone is largely uneven, especially towards the end, this was definitely an inspired film which kept me entertained throughout and proved to be quite unpredictable.

McGregor is playing the main character here, but let’s face it, Clooney steals the show right out from under his feet. His performance as Lyn Cassady is truly one of his most surprising and inspired. Despite how ridiculous Lyn may seem, Clooney plays him straight and never appears to be self-conscious. Seeing Clooney trying to burst clouds with his mind, and trying to reach into his enemy’s mind by staring right at them has the actor going through emotions ranging from serious to funny to downright tragic. Having gone from playing dramatic roles in movies like “Syriana” to “Michael Clayton,” Clooney once again shows he is really good at comedy and never has to strive hard for a laugh.

I don’t want to take away from McGregor though, who pulls off a convincing American accent. In many ways, his role is more of a reactionary one as he is subjected to conditions one is never fully prepared for. Bob is bewildered at what Lyn is telling him, and yet he still wants to journey further and further into Lyn’s head. I also have to give McGregor a lot of credit because he could have made it look like he was consciously aware of all those “Star Wars” references, but he never did.

But one of the great delights is watching Jeff Bridges channel his inner-dude-ness from “The Big Lebowski” into his role of Bill Django, a military leader who, after being wounded in Vietnam, has a New Age vision of combat he wants to develop. This leads him to study concepts which he incorporates into a special unit called the New Earth Army. Bill becomes a teacher of using non-lethal techniques to gain advantage over the enemy, and his training techniques are unorthodox to say the least. Bridges plays the character broadly, but not too broadly. As funny as Bridges is, he infuses Django with a disappointment which threatens to render him useless to those around him, and with a deep sense of fear and tragedy as his techniques are misused or taken advantage of by those who seek to profit from them.

Having been in London doing tons of theater, it seemed like it would require a herculean effort to bring Kevin Spacey back to the big screen. Seeing him here is a kick as he plays the real antagonist of the film, Larry Hooper. Larry is basically the Darth Vader to Bill’s Obi Wan Kenobi and Lyn’s Luke Skywalker as he takes the non-lethal methods of the New Earth Army and ends up using them for more lethal purposes. Larry ends up doing this not so much out of greed as he does resentment since Django does not consider him in the same light as Lyn. His actions bring about the downfall of the New Earth Army, and he turns all these abilities they developed into something far more insidious. From there, you will see why the movie and the book it is based on has the title it does.

Spacey has great fun as he channels the inner smugness which has enveloped Larry over time. While his role is a little more serious than the others, he still has great moments of comedy which remind us of what a talented actor he is as he balances out the serious and comedic aspects of Larry without tilting too much in one direction.

“The Men Who Stare at Goats” was directed by Grant Heslov, Clooney’s business partner on many films. He has his work cut out for him here as he must find a balance between the humorous and dramatic aspects of the story. Granted, Heslov doesn’t always succeed but he creates a most unusual war movie, and it is all the more entertaining as a result. Even more telling is the way he portrays the Iraqi people in certain scenes. They are not shown as gun toting terrorists, and he captures the look of their helplessness in having to deal with a military occupation they did not ask for.

Like I said, there’s no serious politicizing of the Iraq war in this movie, so don’t feel like you are walking into some sort of trap. Like “The Hurt Locker,” it merely focuses on what those Americans in Iraq were doing in the midst of the chaos, albeit in a more comical way. “The Men Who Stare at Goats” seems almost far too bizarre to be real, but a part of you just might want it to be real. One thing’s for sure, you will never look at “Barney and Friends” in the same way ever again, assuming you ever watched it in the first place (c’mon! Don’t deny it!).

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: ‘Premium Rush’ Lives Up to Its Name

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2012.

David Koepp’s “Premium Rush” is the best cycling movie in some time. Come to think of it, when was the last time a cycling movie was made and released? I keep thinking it was Hal Needham’s “Rad,” but that came out in 1986. There’s also no topping the classic “Breaking Away,” the cycling movie many aspire to be like. There was also “American Flyers” which was released in 1985 and was written by Steve Tesich, the same one who wrote the screenplay for “Breaking Away.” But when it comes to “American Flyers,” I think its fantastic music score easily upstaged the film itself.

Anyway, none of that matters because “Premium Rush” delivers the goods like any cycling film should, and it does so with terrific acting, sharp writing and what looks like the real thing with a wonderfully severe lack of CGI as we watch these daredevil bike messengers throttle their way through the insanely busy streets of New York City.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Wilee, one of the very best bicycle messengers in New York who gets things to where they need to be and on schedule. Of course, this requires him to travel at breakneck speeds through busy traffic where a car can break down at the most inconvenient time, and he also has to deal with various members of the NYPD who have it in for him and others in his line of work. One other thing, Wilee’s bike of choice has only one gear, and he’s taken the brakes off of so that nothing will slow him down. Seriously, that is how he rolls.

Taking this into account, I wonder if Wilee has a death wish or if he’s just an adrenaline junkie. What we do learn about him is that he came close to becoming a lawyer, but the idea of sitting behind a desk in some office did not appeal to him in the slightest. Of course, it probably wouldn’t appeal to anyone who has seen “Office Space.”

His ex-girlfriend, Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), however, entertains thoughts of working in an office as she doesn’t want to be a bike messenger forever, and that’s even though she says it beats waiting tables. There’s also Tito (Anthony Chisholm) who doesn’t let his advanced age make him any less useful in this line of work (nor should it by the way), and Manny (Wolé Parks) who competes with Wilee not just on a bike but for Vanessa as well.

On this one particular day in which this movie takes place, Wilee is delivering a package that has caught the attention of NYPD cop Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon). Now Bobby wants what Wilee has, but while Wilee is not always one to obey the rules of the road, he does follow the strict guidelines of his job which states messengers will not hand over the package they are delivering to anyone other than who it is meant for. As a result, Bobby begins chasing Wilee down as we find out that this NYPD cop, like any other stupid gambling addict, has a ridiculously high debt to pay off.

The film’s director, David Koepp, is best known as a screenwriter, having written such exciting movies like “Jurassic Park,” “Spider-Man” and “Panic Room.” Along with co-writer John Kamps, Koepp has great fun telling the story of “Premium Rush” in a non-linear fashion. The story goes back and forth in time as the characters’ actions are made very understandable and given more depth throughout. This way of storytelling may alienate certain audience members, but I liked it as it plays around with our perceptions of what we believe to be true. Just when you think you know what’s going on to happen, something comes along which obliterates your predictions.

As a director, Koepp has had varying degrees of success with movies like “The Trigger Effect,” “Stir of Echoes” and “Secret Window,” but here he manages to keep the action exciting and never lets it drag for a second. It also helps that the cycling we see here is done for real, and it makes me wonder how it was choreographed and who these stunt people are. Clearly, they dared to pedal fast while cars come at them in various directions, and even the best cyclists have to be scared in these situations.

Now people may debate about whether or not “Premium Rush” might serve as a recruitment gig for bike messengers, but it also shows how painful it can be when you crash into something, and odds are you will. There’s also a scene during the end credits which shows Levitt’s arm all bloody after he hit the back window of a taxi cab, and that makes up for the lack of a disclaimer.

Levitt has had great success in the last few years with “(500) Days of Summer,” “Inception” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” and he is fantastic here as a character named after that coyote who chased the Road Runner endlessly. This role could have been given to some actor who would have annoyed us with their overwhelming ego, but Levitt makes this character likable despite his insane bike-riding habits.

You also have ace character actor Michael Shannon on board as an undeniably dirty cop. It doesn’t matter what movie he’s in because Shannon never disappoints in giving us a great performance. As Bobby Monday, he makes what could have been a mere one-dimensional villain all the more colorful and threatening. We have seen corrupt cops like this one in so many different movies, but Shannon makes him seem more intriguing than what must have originally appeared on the written page.

The rest of the cast includes Dania Ramirez (whom you may remember as AJ’s girlfriend on “The Sopranos”) to the always entertaining Aasif Mandvi, and they succeed in making this movie all the more entertaining to watch. The action is also given an exciting and propulsive score by David Sardy and a beautifully sunny look by cinematographer Mitchell Amundsen. Heck, watching this movie makes you very sweaty even if you are viewing it in a theater or in the comfort of your air-conditioned home.

“Premium Rush” is nothing spectacular, but it is fun to watch. It’s a shame it did not do better business at the box office, but Columbia Pictures did kind of screw up its release. Watching it reminds those of us who do not ride bikes anymore how much fun and very dangerous cycling can be. If nothing else, it does make wearing a helmet while riding a bike far more appealing than it ever has been in the past.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Adventureland’ – A Ralph Report Video Vault Selection

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2010. I applaud Eddie Pence for featuring this as a Video Vault selection on “The Ralph Report.”

It’s always those low paying jobs you had as a teenager during the summer months which helped mold you into the person you are today. It sucks how it takes you another decade or so to realize this upon closer reflection. Being there at the cash register, ringing up orders for customers in the real world, this all shows you things people they don’t teach you in high school or college. So yes, even those cumbersome jobs I had such as cutting the guts out of fish, teaching little kids how NOT to fish (and they still didn’t listen to me), shoveling popcorn constantly to where I came home reeking of it, and selling overpriced drinks at the movie theater (because that’s where they get their profit from folks) made me wise up to things which would eventually benefit me later in life. It also taught me how to take control and responsibility for my life. Still, it would have been nice if they paid me more an hour. Minimum wage was around four dollars back then. I wouldn’t be able to live on that today.

Adventureland” follows the exploits of James Brennan who is forced to take a summer job upon graduating from Oberlin College. His dad just got laid off to where neither of his parents will be able to support him financially either for the summer vacation in Europe he was hoping to take, or for his first year at Columbia College where he was planning to study journalism. Despite gloating over the great vacation he cannot go on now, James applies for different jobs around his hometown, but even his impressive transcript from Oberlin can’t land him a decent paying job. Adventureland Park, however, is hiring just about anyone with a pulse who fills out an application. Heck, I bet they even hire people they call the cops on! James tries to get a ride operator position, but managers Bobby and Paulette (played by Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig) are convinced he is more of a games person, so he unenthusiastically takes on the job only out of a financial need.

This is one of those movies which unfortunately got lost in the shuffle due in part to Miramax’s promoting it in the wrong way. The posters kept screaming out how it was from the director of “Superbad,” Greg Mottola. But despite the fact both movies have the same director, they are very different from one another. While “Superbad” was a broadly comic farce (one of the most gut-bustlingly hilarious ones from this past decade might I add), “Adventureland” is more of a serio-comic story and one of the more realistic coming of age movies I have seen in a while. Don’t get me wrong, there are some very funny moments to be found here, but you really can’t walk into this movie expecting another “Superbad.” If you do, you will be disappointed for all the wrong reasons.

The Adventureland Park itself is like one of those travelling carnivals you see come into town once or twice a year. You know, the ones with those rides which are in a constant state of disrepair which no cleverness can ever hide. The games they have like the ring toss and dart throwing are all designed to be unwinnable. This doesn’t stop people from still paying to play them though, hence the profit. Plus, like all amusement parks, they play the same damn songs over and over to where the employees are driven to insanity. I remember working at a park like this once, and I endured the same exact daily irritations. Where James and his colleagues have to listen to Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus” every other five minutes, we kept getting subjected to Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers… Well actually, I do like Tom Petty, but I just realized I don’t listen to him as much as I used to.

I love how “Adventureland” gets all the specific details down to where it resembles just about any job I could have had as a youth. I actually worked at Disneyland for a couple of years myself, and while Adventureland is a pale imitation of it, many of the same rules I lived under were reflected by the park employees here. What this park has over that corporate monolith, however, is that the rules are much looser, and the working environment is nowhere as stressful.

Jesse Eisenberg plays James Brennan, and right now he is going through that Michael Cera phase of playing the young adult who is not always of sure of what he is supposed to say, think or do most of the time. He is best known for starring in “Zombieland” opposite Woody Harrelson or from “The Squid & The Whale” where he held his own opposite the great Jeff Daniels. Eisenberg is perfect as James in how he finds things to savor at Adventureland even though he would rather be vacationing in Europe. He never overplays or underplays the part to where he becomes ingratiating to watch. Somehow, this actor finds the perfect note to play James to where we like this guy and want to follow him on his post-graduate summer from start to finish.

The other big star here is Kristen Stewart who we all know of course from those darn “Twilight” movies. I haven’t seen any of them but, from what I have been told, I haven’t missed much. My friends keep telling me Stewart cannot act and how she looks all vacant whenever she is onscreen. Well, they didn’t check her out in “Adventureland” because her talent really shines through. Her character of Emily Lewin is the most complex here as she is dealing with a lot of problems which make her yearn for an escape out of town. Emily’s dad is actually a rich lawyer whom she resents for remarrying so soon to a woman she cannot stand. She really doesn’t need to work a part time job, but she does so just to get out of the house. Her methods of escape end up getting her into a relationship with Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds), a married man who also works at the park.

Stewart does great work in portraying a character who yearns to be with someone who really sees her for who she is, but ends up running away from that particular someone when she becomes seriously afraid of messing everything up. You care about Emily because we can all relate to being confused about our place in life and of wanting to escape an environment which feels too confining. As a teenager, you can really feel like a prisoner in your hometown, especially if you don’t have a driver’s license. There are only so many places you can go to, and there is a strong need to break the boundaries holding you back. Stewart and the rest of the cast really show this throughout.

Another actor I want to give a lot of credit to is Martin Starr who plays Joel, the sarcastic co-worker who shows James around the park and makes him see how everything works. Starr has an amazingly dry sense of humor which has served him very well ever since appeared on the depressingly short-lived show “Freaks & Geeks.” This role is perfect for him as he embodies the antisocial misfit we remember from school, and who proves to be far more interesting than the jocks who were the stars on campus. Starr also gives his role an unexpected depth as we see him getting involved with a girl who ends up thoughtlessly rejecting not for who he is, but of what she and her family sees him as. It’s one of the film’s most honestly painful moments which rings true in ways too real to discuss openly.

And, of course, I can never get enough of Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, some of the funniest people working today on “Saturday Night Live.” They are great together as the managers of this barely average amusement park and provide some of the biggest laughs as they take care of business as professionally as they can. Just make sure not to litter around Hader’s character because this will set his fuse off almost immediately,

With “Adventureland,” Mottola really captures how those jobs we worked for little money growing up toughened us up and helped in our evolution. I think it will be seen in the future as one of the most vastly underrated coming of age movies ever. It deals with the painful truths of growing up, and of experiences we had which molded the way we think and acted from there. Hopefully it will find the audience it deserves on cable and physical media. And for those of you who still think Kristen Stewart cannot act, get a clue, please.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Lost Highway’ – One of My Favorite David Lynch Films

I remember when I first watched David Lynch’s film “Lost Highway” back in 1997. I saw it at a small theater in Newport Beach where the screen ratio was off by a bit, and the opening credits did not fit onto the silver screen as a result. I left the theater feeling a bit cold as I was not sure what to make of What I saw, and the ending seemed so absurdly abrupt to where I wonder if Lynch and co-writer Barry Gifford had simply run out of ideas and went down a rabbit hole they could not dig themselves out of. The way I saw it, this film was easily upstaged by its soundtrack which proved to be one of my favorites from the 1990’s with its music by Angelo Badalamenti, Nine Inch Nails. Barry Adamson, Smashing Pumpkins and Marilyn Manson.

A few days later, however, I found myself thinking about “Lost Highway” a lot to where I could not put it out of my head. I could not figure out why initially, but then I found the answer in a review of the movie I read in Video Watchdog. I cannot remember the critic’s name, but they wrote it’s not about how the film affects you while you watch it, but how it affects you after you have watched it. I could not agree with this more, and it made me watch “Lost Highway” again, but this time in a THX approved theater with better sights and sound.

I have since revisited “Lost Highway” again and again over the years, and I revisited it yet again at the Nuart Theatre which presented this Lynch cult classic in a 4K restoration personally supervised by the director. While it may not seem as brilliant as “Blue Velvet” or “Mulholland Drive,” it remains one of my favorite films of Lynch’s as it presents us with a puzzle of a story which might be easier to solve than at first glance.

We are introduced to the married couple of saxophonist Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) and his wife, Renee who live in the Hollywood Hills. Their marriage looks to be a cold one, lacking in passion. When it comes down it, Fred is far more able to get orgasms out of his saxophone solos than with Renee, and he becomes suspicious that she might be seeing someone behind his back.

Things get more unsettling for them when they discover someone has been leaving videotapes for them on their doorstep. The first one features a view of the outside of their house, but the second goes even further as it shows footage of them asleep in their bed. They call the police, but they are of little help in finding out who filmed them. Next thing you know, Fred finds and views another videotape which shows him hovering over Renee’s dismembered body, and from there he finds himself on death row for her murder.

Lynch has described “Lost Highway” as being a “psychogenic fugue,” a rare psychiatric phenomenon characterized by reversible amnesia for one’s identity. Others have compared the film to a Möbius strip, a non-orientable strip which one cannot consistently distinguish clockwise and counterclockwise turns. Both of these make sense as the beginning may very well be the end, and the end may very well be the beginning.

This is even further enhanced by Lynch saying he was partially inspired by the O.J. Simpson murder trial which came to dominate the early 1990’s. Indeed, I can see this inspiration all throughout “Lost Highway” as Simpson has not, nor will he ever, admit to committing any murders. For all we know, Simpson may still not know what he did as he has long since blacked it out of his mind. The same goes with Fred Madison as he cannot believe it when a certain video implies he murdered his wife in a most horrible way, but this doesn’t stop a jury of his peers from finding him guilty and putting him on death row.

There is a scene where the police visit Fred and Renee at their home after they received the second video, and Renee talks about how Fred hates video cameras and doesn’t want them in the house. His explanation is as follows:

“I like to remember things my own way. How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened.”

I have come to refer to this dialogue as the Dinesh D’Souza line as he continues to sell anyone and everyone on a narrative which just isn’t the least bit true. But regardless of how you view this film, one thing should remain clear: videotapes do not lie. Just look at what Detective Mike Kellerman (played by Reed Diamond) said in one episode of “Homicide – Life on the Street:”

“Videotape, it’s the perfect witness. It can’t change its testimony, and it can’t forget what somebody looks like.”

Indeed, “Lost Highway” is all about Fred Madison trying to escape the truth of what he did or, perhaps, what everyone thinks he did. As a result, he goes through a rather grotesque transformation which ends up turning him into a young auto mechanic named Pete Dayton (played by Balthazar Getty), and he gets released from prison. But as he now experiences life as a free man, he comes to meet the gangster Mr. Eddy’s mistress, Alice Wakefield. The only thing is, she looks a lot like Fred’s late wife, Renee. Of course, a lot of that has to do with the fact Patricia Arquette is playing Alice as well as Renee.

“Lost Highway” has long since become one of my favorite David Lynch films, and while “Blue Velvet” and “Mulholland Drive” are regarded more highly, this one is so much fun to view again and again. The whole thing is a complex puzzle, and I am convinced I can still solve its mysteries in ways I cannot with Lynch’s other works. I am not even going to try and make sense of “Inland Empire.”

With Pullman’s character of Fred, he is trying to stay ahead many steps of his darkest memories and actions, assuming they are true. But the deeper he digs into his psyche to escape an especially harsh reality, the more memories and familiar faces keep coming up. I like how Pullman plays Fred as a suspicious man who finds himself caught up in a situation he does not understand but which leaves him with the worst headaches imaginable.

Patricia Arquette is a marvel here as both Renee and Alice as she opens herself up, literally and figuratively speaking. It’s great to watch her go from portraying a scared wife to a dominant seductress who holds Pete very tightly within her grasp. Seriously, watching this Oscar winning actress here should serve as reminder of just how much stronger women are than men, especially when men are led by certain parts of their bodies other than their brains.

Who could have known this would have been Robert Blake’s last performance ever in a motion picture before the whole… Well, you know. Still, his work here as the Mystery Man is wonderfully chilling as he clearly took joy in crafting a character unlike any he played previously. When he glares at you, there is no escape, and seeing him without eyebrows makes his presence all the more unnerving. It’s an original performance which people never give enough credit to.

There are many moments from “Lost Highway” which will forever stay with me like when Fred Madison walks into the darkness of his home and re-emerges as someone much different, Robert Loggia who, as Mr. Eddy, unleashes his rage at an ignorant motorist for tailgating him, seeing Alice and Pete have sex in front of a car’s headlights, and the final scene where a character transforms in a hideously angry fashion. All of them are aided by the haunting musical soundscapes created by Angelo Badalamenti and Trent Reznor, the cinematography of Peter Deming, and the strange appearances pf both Richard Pryor and Gary Busey which had me wondering if Lynch was using dream logic in the same way Darren Aronofsky did in “Mother.”

“Lost Highway” provided me with one of the most unique experiences I have ever had. It left me at odds upon the beginning of its end credits, but it stayed with me from there on out, and I constantly find myself returning to it and its awesome soundtrack. This truly is an art picture as it can be interpreted in many ways, and I know I will come back to it again before I know it. Just remember one thing, Dick Laurent is dead.

* * * * out of * * * *

All-Time Favorite Trailers: ‘Strange Days’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * ½ out of * * * *