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The Postman (1997)

What willful streak of perversity inspired Kevin Costner to take on this wacky tale of a letter carrier-turned-postapocalyptic hero, brother to such he-men as Seinfeld‘s Newman and that sad, skinny guy in Il Postino?—Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly

Every truly awful movie epic has a point of no return, a moment when the accumulated bad lines and bogus sentimentality become so cloying that the best defense against a mounting queasiness is an awed amusement. If you have a low tolerance for mawkish jingoism, Kevin Costner’s post-apocalyptic Western, The Postman, offers a new opportunity for levity every few minutes after its first hour.—Stephen Holden, The New York Times

Goofy and gee-whiz when it isn’t being post-apocalyptic glum, it is such an earnest hodgepodge that only by imagining Mad Max directed by Frank Capra can you get even an inkling of what it’s like.—Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

Ah, The Postman: The butt of so many late-’90s topical jokes, it makes Ishtar look like Citizen Kane. Ironically, Kenneth Turan’s dyspeptic description of the film as “Mad Max directed by Frank Capra” is dead-on—but I consider that a positive. The Postman boasts a winning combination of ambition, sentiment, idealism, and insanity. Some three-hour films are a chore to sit through, but The Postman breezes through its runtime, brimming with a unique cinematic voice and offbeat charm usually lacking in big-budget studio fare.

Right now is the perfect time to revisit the film, being that we’ve hit an onslaught of post-apocalyptic films (The Book of Eli, The Road, Zombieland, and more to come) that feature grim, frequently harrowing depictions of society at its absolute worst. Kevin Costner has a bit more faith in humanity than this recent crop of films. He has an awareness that, even if a cataclysmic event occurs, people will not immediately start rubbing themselves with old oil filters and eating each other. When challenged, we huddle together and muddle through. If we didn’t have that primitive ability, humanity would have died out centuries ago. As noble doctor Jack Shephard once said, “We can either live together, or we can die alone.” Costner chooses the former, and his film doesn’t even have a smoke monster!

The Postman opens in 2013, several years after a frequently referenced civil war that left the U.S. fragmented and isolated. We don’t get many details, but we’re left with the impression that most of the major cities fell, and what remains are isolated small towns, pooling skills and resources in order to survive. (This much, at least, should terrify the anti-communist crowd.) With the lack of a unified government, these towns operate as little independent states, run by local mayors and sheriffs, and people generally treat each other well despite the undercurrent of despair.

And then there’s General Bethlehem (Will Patton), an intelligent man who has amassed an army formed partly of those who fought in the war but mainly able-bodied men he plucks from towns his army periodically pillages. As Bethlehem himself describes his position, they’re a feudal society, and he’s their lord. The great thing here is that Costner and Patton don’t let Bethlehem become a sneering, simpering villain on a stupid, single-minded quest. Unlike Gary Oldman in The Book of Eli, Patton’s Bethlehem firmly believes he’s the hero of the story. In a different kind of story, he could be. He’s restored order to his small slice of a chaotic country, and his goals have less to do with horrendous abuse of his “vassals” than protecting them from the outsiders he believes are a threat. Part of this has to do with his desire to maintain an empire without interference, but there’s a certain misguided nobility in his desire to amass an army of slaves to ensure the safety of those who remain relatively free.

In early scenes, Costner’s never-named character (I’ll just call him The Postman to make life easier) roams from town to town, butchering the works of Shakespeare in exchange for food and shelter. When Bethlehem’s army descends on a town, The Postman attempts to sneak away with his mule, but Bethlehem spots him and recruits him for his army, which dwells in something resembling a desert canyon. Caged with other prisoners, all The Postman can think about is escape, but none of the other prisoners want to risk their lives to help him.

Bethlehem sees an intellectual equal in The Postman. He’s older than most of Bethlehem’s recruits, so they both remember the way things were before the war. However, the war itself has left them both with diametrically opposed perspectives on humanity. Bethlehem believes they need order and control; The Postman, not surprisingly, lobbies for freedom and civil rights, mainly because he’s a cynic who wants to be left alone.

Because of his intelligence and survival skills, Bethlehem chooses The Postman to lead a hunting party for a lion that escaped from what used to be a zoo. The Postman sees his opportunity for escape. He jumps off a rickety rope bridge and swims to freedom. He hides in an old mail truck that crashed in the woods, which contains all the accoutrements of the old U.S. Postal Service: a bag full of letters, a uniform, and the skeleton of the deceased letter carrier.

The Postman sees this as an easy con—if he can find letters addressed to survivors in various towns, he can fool them into giving him the good things in life without having to perform for them. He tries this out on a town called Pineview, and although the sheriff (Daniel von Bargen) eyes him distrustfully, the fact that The Postman arrives bearing legitimate, 15-year-old letters fills the town with hope. He’s an instant celebrity, to the extent that an infertile couple (Olivia Williams, Charles Esten) begs him to be the “body father” of their child.

It’s right around this time that The Postman realizes he may have overstepped a bit. He just wants something to eat; he has no desire to lead a revolution based on a fantasy. Ford Lincoln Mercury (Larenz Tate), a teenager who named himself after a rusty old car dealership sign, represents the idealistic youth. He’s been searching for a purpose, and until he meets The Postman he thinks that purpose is attempting to repair and drive old cars. The Postman begins to fear the level of attention and the desperate optimism of the townspeople. Quietly, the sheriff orders him to leave before he causes too much trouble, and The Postman eagerly obliges—but not before reluctantly swearing in Ford as a junior postman.

When Bethlehem and his troops arrive for their usual tribute (and to search for The Postman), he’s shocked by Pineview’s misguided hope and subtle rebellion. He’s horrified to see an American flag raised over the post office and orders Pineview’s citizens to burn it and the post office. The Postman travels to another town, working the same con, and this time things are even worse—the townspeople close the gates on Bethlehem, announcing themselves as citizens of the Restored United States. They send The Postman—their “government rep”—to negotiate. It takes Bethlehem awhile to realize the clean-shaven, well-dressed man is their missing “Shakespeare.” He attacks the town, but The Postman and Abby (Williams) fight back. The Postman is shot in the melee, so Abby takes him to an isolated cabin, subsisting on grass and “water soup” (and, eventually, the meat of the horse they rode in on). They spend the winter holed up together, and guess what? She’s pregnant with his child.

Months later, they return to Pineview to discover Ford has turned the postal service into a thriving hope machine. He’s recruited dozens of other letter carriers, turned an abandoned factory into a sorting facility, and created 30 routes throughout Oregon, Idaho, and Washington. He continues to perpetuate The Postman’s lies (which he believes are true) about a restored government in Minneapolis, led by President Richard Starkey.

The Postman is stunned at what he finds, and what follows over the ensuing 90 minutes is the conflict between the noble peacenik postmen and the increasingly fearful, clearly unhinged Bethlehem, who sees the optimism represented by mail as the biggest threat to his leadership.

Maybe some of you read that lengthy summary of half (half!) the movie with your jaws on the floor, stunned at the oddness of this story. Maybe you should, but half the reason The Postman works so well is because it’s sort of cheerfully nuts. Like Capra’s work, Costner’s overall earnestness and positivity is tempered by a biting wit that leads to legitimately funny lines like, “Wouldn’t it be great if wars could be fought just by the assholes who started them?”

Upon its original release, The Postman got a lot of flack for its length, but I challenge any of its critics to find a single poorly paced moment or unnecessary scene. Considering the length, the story is surprisingly tight—there’s just a lot of it, and Costner (working with Oscar-winning screenwriters Eric Roth and Brian Helgeland, no strangers to big-budget adaptations) has the good sense to take time developing the characters and post-apocalyptic world. By the end of it, even the smallest supporting character seems as familiar as George Bailey’s friends in Bedford Falls—and, like It’s a Wonderful Life, this film would have suffered enormously if we didn’t know or care about those people as much as The Postman himself.

I spent a lot of time describing the plot to illustrate that this film has more going on—in terms of character, narrative, theme, and its presentation of sci-fi and sociological concepts—in half its runtime than a lot of films possess altogether. As director, Costner manages the stunning feat of making an eventful, fast-paced film feel both deliberate and expansive. It’s a constantly inventive, genre-bending work that refuses to be pigeonholed. Costner takes numerous creative gambles that, in my view, pay off in spades. The lack of any overt “futuristic” special effects prevents cheesy gimmicks from getting in the way of the story, and the commitment to characters gives The Postman an effortlessly epic feel that fits well with the story of a man who single-handedly changes the world.

Beyond the characters and story, Costner subtly builds a universe unlike anything seen in cinematic sci-fi at that time. Pioneer towns have sprung up around the bombed-out remnants of modern structures. People haven’t reverted back to primitive ways so much as 19th century ways. The literal mash-up of the sci-fi and western genres would be done again in Fox’s short-lived Firefly (and its spinoff film, Serenity), but on that show it’s sort of a goofy conceit made plausible through sheer force of will. In The Postman, the reversion sort of makes sense. It’s only 2013, after all, and once machinery goes down and there’s no infrastructure to restore such things, we have to revert to an agrarian society built largely on self-reliance (or, at best, reliance on a small group of locals rather than a thousand Chinese factories to make clothes and junk food for us).

The Postman‘s portrayal of futuristic people oppressed by a fascist leader is nothing new. The difference is that these people aren’t terribly downtrodden. Obviously, things aren’t great, but they make the best of a bad situation, instead of complaining about things and mourning the way life used to be. For the most part, Bethlehem is little more than a weekly nuisance. When he leaves, they go back to feeling free to say and do whatever they want. Costner’s depiction of this world is subtly terrifying, much more so than a generic megalomaniac savagely beating down a group of mangy, starving cowards in rags. The fact that these people have freedom of thought but choose not to fight is scarier to me than people who have been brainwashed into doing another’s bidding. Handling the social attitude in this way also makes it easier to believe their change once The Postman gives them hope. They aren’t doing a straight 180—it’s more like a 30-degree twist from “mostly hopeless” to “somewhat hopeful.”

Ultimately, though, the movie’s just a lot of fun. It does everything well, but it has a sense of humor about its characters and story. To read the reviews, you’d have to believe Costner approached the film with a leaden gravity reserved for Jane Campion films. This is not the case. Consider the bizarre yet hilarious moment where Bethlehem—who fancies himself a skilled painter—attempts a self-portrait using a mirror. When his hand shakes, Bethlehem screams at the mirror, “Hold still!” After somebody insults The Postman’s Shakespeare performance, he asks, “How much did you pay to get in?” The man answers with a guilty look that lets us know he paid nothing. “So bite me,” The Postman continues. I’ve seen that quoted in numerous reviews to suggest Costner knew he was making a bad film and was both defensive and apologetic with that exchange. I think that’s reading a bit too much into what’s merely a legitimately funny moment in a generally fun, raucously entertaining cinematic experience.

Mark my words: The Postman will endure as an underrated classic, willfully misunderstood in its own time by an indifferent holiday audience (who decided they’d rather turn out for the worst James Bond movie ever made) and critics still looking to punish Costner for future Movie Defender subject Waterworld (not nearly as good as The Postman, but it didn’t deserve a tenth of the scorn heaped on it). In a year that saw the release of The Devil’s Advocate, Dante’s Peak, and Alien: Resurrection, it’s astounding to think anyone would consider The Postman among the worst of 1997. It wasn’t even the worst movie to open in its weekend (that distinction goes to Mr. Magoo). I’m not being at all hyperbolic when I say The Postman ranks among the best films of the ’90s—maybe not in the top 10, but certainly in the top 50.

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Death Wish II (1982)

The only possible way to enjoy the Death Wish films is to imagine they take place in an alternate universe where the paranoid fever dreams of the elderly have all come true. They’re the relentlessly cynical antidote to Cannon’s Breakin’ films, which paint Los Angeles slums with the sunniest possible brush. However, even the elderly’s paranoia can go too far, which is why Death Wish 2 feels like an exercise in depravity rather than a satisfying revenge thriller.

It opens with some laughably over-the-top thugs (one of them played by Laurence Fishburne) harassing Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson), who’s out on the Santa Monica pier with his daughter (Robin Sherwood). As you might recall from the original, non-Cannon Death Wish, Carol Kersey (played by Kathleen Tolan in that film) had the misfortune of watching New York hoodlums rape and murder her mother before raping her. It left her near-catatonic, and as Death Wish 2 opens, she’s still mute but is well enough to get released from the mental hospital into Paul’s care.

The thugs steal Paul’s wallet, and he lets it go because he’s just trying to show Carol a good time. See, in Death Wish 2, writer David Engelbach and director Michael Winner still want to have Paul balance a normal life with insane vigilante justice. He’s back to playing the mild-mannered architect, in love with radio journalist Geri Nichols (Bronson’s real-life wife Jill Ireland) and desperate to ensure his daughter’s safety. Letting the thugs steal his wallet is not the way to ensure her safety, because the thugs immediately descend on Paul’s apartment. Director Michael Winner leers eerily as the thugs take turns brutally raping Paul’s maid (Silvana Gallardo). When Paul and Carol interrupt them, they kidnap her and take her to an abandoned warehouse, where they giggle like 12-year-olds as they fondle her breasts, then rape her. The reenactment of her earlier trauma causes Carol to jump out a window, impaling herself on a wrought-iron fence.

Distraught for obvious reasons, Paul takes matters into his own hands. He rents a room in a flophouse and stakes out the Hollywood slums, slowly but surely taking out the thugs who killed his daughter. Desperate to solve the slew of vigilante killings, an LAPD detective (Ben Frank) calls in Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia), the NYPD detective who “solved” the vigilante killings in the first film. Ochoa fingers Paul Kersey, going so far as to break into Geri’s apartment to explain that Paul is a merciless vigilante. One of the few joys of the film is watching Charles Bronson attempt to talk his way out of hot water with Geri.

Despite the film’s problems, at this point Bronson still tried to make Paul Kersey into an actual character rather than a cartoonish superhero. As in the first one, he gives an impressively balanced performance. He plays Paul as a thoughtful, quiet man who feels more righteous indignation than bloodlust and wants desperately to keep Geri out of the mess he’s secretly creating on a gang-choked stretch of Hollywood Boulevard. This performance alone very nearly tempers the over-the-top depiction of criminals and violence, but the numerous rape sequences are just too salacious.

Much of the film is an orgy of graphic violence and gratuitous (and rather unpleasant, considering the endless amount of rape featured throughout the film) nudity. Watching Paul track and kill the thugs is mildly satisfying, but the whole movie is bound to leave any moviegoer with a shred of decency feeling vaguely ill. Add to that the typically shoddy Cannon production values, and the whole thing comes off like an over-the-top snuff film.

Despite the film’s unseemly content, Death Wish 2 was a huge hit for Cannon and Bronson, garnering a staggering $45 million at the box-office and spawning three more Cannon-produced sequels. How will those stack up to part two? I’ll be taking a look at each sequel during the month of November, so you’ll find out soon enough.

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Death Wish 3 (1985)

Death Wish 3 might be the most insane, spectacular action film ever made. The film trims the “fat” of the first two (such as Paul Kersey’s attempts to balance a normal life with frequent vigilante killings) and amps up the film’s universe to a degree so over-the-top, not even John Waters would be bold enough to go there. The result is a gloriously violent, laughably absurd, but undeniably entertaining masterpiece of action filmmaking. Yes, it’s stupid and silly and cheesy and inconceivable, but for its chosen genre, it’s one of the high water marks.

The film opens with Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) returning to New York City for the first time after taking his vigilante act on the road. He wants to visit a friend—a Vietnam vet who lives in a slum so violent, it’s beyond any mere mortal’s imagination—but when he arrives at the apartment, he finds the man has been brutally murdered by one of the numerous hoodlums overrunning the streets. Inconveniently, Paul arrives just as the police show up. They arrest him for the murder and drag him to the station.

Shriker (Ed Lauter, who previously costarred with Bronson in Death Hunt), who heads the “NYCPD” drug task force, recognizes Paul from his exploits in New York a decade ago. He offers a deal to Paul: he’ll put him on the streets to reduce the number of hoodlums, and in exchange Paul will be untouchable by police. Paul initially refuses, but when he’s harassed in lockup by Fraker (Gavan O’Herlihy), the Opie-esque leader of a gang whose fashion sense and painted faces make them look like they recently left Thunderdome, Paul changes his mind. He wants to take down Fraker and his gang.

Both Paul and Fraker are let loose on the streets. Paul returns to his friend’s tenement building, which is occupied by the nicest bunch of people you could possibly imagine—an elderly Jewish couple who mind their own business, a young Latino couple just starting out, and a swingin’ single named Bennett (Martin Balsam), who schools Paul on the way the neighborhood works. From there, it’s a high-stakes battle between Paul’s high-powered revolver and the increasing insanity of Fraker’s coked-up antics. This culminates in an epic 20-minute street battle that rivals Saving Private Ryan in raw violence and chaos. I’m not being hyperbolic at all—it obviously lacks Saving Private Ryan‘s depth and meaning, but it is equally as intense and frenetic.

This movie is a mind-boggling joy to watch. Winner shifts the tone from the first film’s gritty sense of realism to the outsized realm of a living cartoon. It’s impossible to do it justice in words, so here’s a brief clip that says it all:

This is the world of Death Wish 3 in a nutshell: maniacal gangsters, impotent policemen, and benevolent Paul Kersey becoming the hero of the day simply by taking action.

Taking his cues from a screenplay so insane that writer Don Jakoby removed his name from the final film, Winner creates this seemingly apocalyptic world through a combination of budget-conscious choices: Filming in weed-choked, bombed-out sections of London to substitute for New York; covering the thugs in war paint to distract from the ratty, thrift-store clothing; and finding a group of “good” characters so polite and noble, nobody in the audience could possibly root against them.

Almost like science fiction, Death Wish 3 has only the tiniest possible footing in the real world. The film manages to succeed for two reasons. First, the goofy insanity of this world is consistent in its presentation—it doesn’t shift from gritty and real to raucous and over-the-top. Second, and most importantly, Paul Kersey still shines as a beacon of believability in the midst of the mayhem. Not because the sight of a well-built man in his mid-60s firing a gatling gun into a city street is in any way believable—because Bronson still plays him as a wounded man driven to his breaking point by what he’s experienced in his life. His anger and disgust is palpable and relatable, even if the things that anger and disgust him are jaw-droppingly farfetched. It’s also a nice touch that the other residents of the decaying apartment building join Paul in his stand against Fraker’s gang.

This film’s not for everyone, obviously. If you enter the world of Death Wish 3, you probably know what you’re getting into. The good news is that the film delivers beyond any viewer’s wildest expectations. This is why it received the coveted four-star rating. For what the movie wants to achieve—a chaotic, over-the-top action film—it surpasses any other example of the genre, including the other four films in the Death Wish series. As an avid fan of ridiculous action movies, I can guarantee you that you’ll never see anything else like it. Ever.

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Morning Glory (2010)

Morning Glory is a comedy suffering from a frustrating identity crisis. The film has all the focus of a cocaine-addicted squirrel, so it never decides which story it wants to tell. As a result, nothing in the film is particularly satisfying, despite sparks of potential all over the place. Does it want to be a scathing satire of news-as-entertainment, or a respectful paean to the difficulties suffered even by morning news personalities? A career-versus-romance story (because in the movies, nobody can ever do both successfully), or the tale of a career-driven young woman trying to earn the respect of both her peers and her family? The truth is, half the time the film doesn’t even seem sure if it wants Becky Fuller (Rachel McAdams) as its main character. It could just as easily follow the bitter rivalry between veteran newsman Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford) and longtime Daybreak host Colleen Peck (Diane Keaton), or the tragic fall of the IBS network’s news chief (Jeff Goldblum).

The majority of the time, director Roger Michell aims the camera at Becky. The film opens with her getting fired from a small-market morning show. A few weeks later, she’s hired as the executive producer of Daybreak, the lowest-rated national morning show on TV. Her task: Turn things around as quickly as possible. She gets the ball rolling by first firing the current anchor (Modern Family‘s Ty Burrell in a thankless, surprisingly unfunny cameo).

After scouring audition tapes of various anchors to replace him, Becky realizes Pomeroy has a Dan Rather-esque deal with IBS: He can pitch up to six hour-long specials a year, but none of the stories he wants to do suit IBS. Basically, they’re paying him to do nothing. She uses a loophole in Pomeroy’s contract to force him onto Daybreak, against his will. See, he’s a real newsman, and he considers morning shows undignified.

Sometimes, the movie is about Becky’s difficult struggle to keep Pomeroy happy. Sometimes, it’s about her attempting a relationship with a news producer (Patrick Wilson). Sometimes, it’s about her giving in to sensationalism in order to boost the ratings. Sometimes, it’s about Pomeroy wanting to prove to himself he’s still a real journalist. Sometimes, it’s even about the surprisingly paternal relationship that develops between a veteran Daybreak producer (John Pankow) and Becky.

Unfortunately, Morning Glory has so little focus that even the good things don’t have time to resonate. Exceptionally bad dialogue allows the characters to flatly describe themselves and what they’re feeling instead of taking the time to let the audiences see and feel along with them. When they run out of time for bad dialogue, a closing montage reminds us of long-forgotten characters and hastily abandoned early subplots. It tries to tie up loose ends, but it really serves as a prime example of how sloppy the film actually is.

On the plus side, McAdams is her typical charming self throughout the film. Ford’s late-period decision to grouse and grumble his way through every role actually fits with the character he plays, so that’s an unintentional bonus. The film mostly wastes a cast of ringers, though, including Keaton, Goldblum, and Wilson. The one actor who really stands out, surprisingly, is Pankow. Often a supporting player, probably best remembered as Paul Reiser’s cousin on Mad About You, his scenes with McAdams are often the film’s best. His easy rapport with her, and the father-daughter chemistry they share, is much more natural and fun to watch than the filmmakers trying to force the same sort of relationship between Becky and Pomeroy.

What frustrates me is the film that could have been. When the dialogue isn’t abrasively on-the-nose, it’s quite witty and amusing. The cast Michell has assembled is uniformly too good for the material, and the proceedings feel frustratingly watered down. This is most evident in the handling of Daybreak. After starting off with a little ineffectual media satire, the film inexplicably treats Becky’s decision to resort to sensationalism to boost ratings as the best possible choice, and a third-act twist has Pomeroy hosting a cooking segment to prove he cares about the show more than his journalistic integrity. At one point, Becky states the apparent theme to Pomeroy: “In the battle between news and entertainment, your side lost.” The film treats this as if we’re supposed to be on Becky’s side of the argument. It’s kind of a weird, dispiriting message.

The bottom line is this: go rent Network and/or Broadcast News. Even Switching Channels is a better choice. What a disappointment.

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Grilled (2006)

Imagine Quentin Tarantino had written Glengarry Glen Ross, and you’ll have some idea of what Grilled is about. You’ll also probably understand why it quietly went straight to DVD, considering it came on the heels of stars Ray Romano and Kevin James giving up highly successful, crowd-pleasing sitcoms in which they played generally likable people. Few would look at either comedian and say, “I want to see them in a cynical dramedy where they play sociopaths.” Yet, the movie itself is actually pretty good.

Romano and James play, respectively, Maurice and Dave, frozen meat salesmen desperate for a sale. They used to be their company’s top team, but they’ve hit a slump. The slump itself has caused tension in the partnership—the film opens with them angrily trying to go it alone before realizing that’s even worse than working together—but Maurice and Dave subtly imply that their personal problems have impacted their ability to sell. Dave’s wife left him and took his daughter with her; Maurice is a chronic womanizer who fails to close sales because he’s too busy trying to get phone numbers.

Their boss gives them a handful of “sure-thing” leads and vows that if they can’t close one of them, they’re fired. The film takes its time showing Maurice and Dave apply callous, vaguely abusive salesmen tactics to close kindhearted marks. They get a lot of piqued interest but make no sales—until they arrive at the last lead. Loridonna (Sofia Vergara), a Latin sexpot who takes an immediate shine to Maurice, expresses alarming interest in their frozen meat. However, frequent calls from suicidal Suzanne (Juliette Lewis) interrupt the rhythm of the sale. Loridonna forces Dave to impersonate a doctor to calm Suzanne down. When that fails, she insists on going over to see Suzanne personally. Maurice and Dave, desperate to get Loridonna to sign the check, offer to drive her (Dave claims Maurice used to race professionally).

Suzanne, a drunk and a drug addict, lives in a mansion in the Hollywood hills. When Tony (Kim Coates), the mansion’s owner, arrives to patch up a gaping bullet wound, Dave realizes they have a new mark. Tony loves grilling, and he can actually afford what they’re selling (a full side of beef each month, plus a freezer to house it in). However, hitmen (Michael Rapaport and Erik Allen Kramer) show up and make short work of Tony. Suddenly embroiled in the criminal world, Maurice and Dave split their time evenly between running for their lives and trying to sell wealthy gangsters meat products.

Although I understand why this might alienate a huge segment of moviegoers, I appreciated Romano and James for making no effort to gain sympathy from the audience. They find numerous comedic moments in Maurice and Dave’s inherent unpleasantness. The film also goes dark enough to elicit sympathy almost accidentally—Maurice and Dave are in no way good people, but they also don’t deserve to be gunned down in cold blood. Both Romano and James do well in roles that are pretty ballsy attempts to alter the public perception of them. It’s interesting, to me at least, that Romano went on to cocreate and star in the similarly dark, uncompromising dramedy Men of a Certain Age (minus the criminal element), while James has retreated back to ineffectual crowd-pleasers.

William Tepper’s script piles one bad thing on top of another, almost like a British farce, before wrapping it up in a surprisingly neat package. The script and performances are solid, but the film’s thriller elements suffer under Jason Ensler’s workmanlike direction. A veteran helmer of TV comedies, Ensler knows how to find the humor in a given situation, but he doesn’t build the suspense required to make the third act really work. The film also lacks a cinematic visual flair, resembling a mid-’80s movie-of-the-week more than anything else. Honestly, looking like a movie-of-the-week has become a trademark of lazy film comedies for over a decade, but Grilled wants to be more than a lazy film comedy. It largely succeeds, but that’s not strictly a result of the directing.

Overall, Grilled is a bit of a pleasant surprise. It’s not a transcendent film experience, but it does give Romano and James a Punch Drunk Love moment to prove they can be more than sitcom actors. The fact that they both pull it off is less surprising than the fact that the film went direct-to-DVD. Two pretty big stars in a very funny, pitch-black comedy? Nobody wanted to take a chance on that theatrically? Alas, it has found its way into semi-permanent rotation on Comedy Central. Check it out there, or watch it instantly on Netflix. Even if you think you don’t like Romano or James, this movie might change your mind.

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Motel Hell (1980)

Coming in the middle of the cannibal craze of the ’70s and ’80s, Motel Hell has less interest in graphic exploitation than in a grim portrait of crazy people. Yes, it’s billed as a horror-comedy, and it does contain a few legitimate laughs, but this is a real horror film. It’s more disturbing than traditionally scary, but frankly, that’s the way I like ’em.

The film opens as a quiet study of Farmer Vincent (Rory Calhoun—seriously!), a rural motel owner (the title comes from a sign reading MOTEL HELLO, but of course the “O” has burned out) who enjoys the musings of an eerie televangelist who seems to broadcast 24 hours a day. Oh, he also goes out in the middle of the night and kills passing motorists. In his mind, he’s doing God’s work. God wouldn’t let him kill them if they weren’t bad, which is why Terry (Nina Axelrod) changes everything. She survives a motorcycle crash, and Vincent realizes she’s special, and it’s his duty—and God’s will—to nurse her back to health.

Initially terrified of her apparent captor, Terry develops Stockholm Syndrome and decides to stay and work for Vincent and his even creepier sister, Ida (Nancy Parsons). What Terry doesn’t know is that the family harbors a disturbing secret: Farmer Vincent’s smoked meat business—which sells the best meat anyone in the 100-mile radius in which they’re sold has ever tasted—contains a heaping helping of Soylent Green. A recipe passed down for generations, Ida buries the deceased neck-deep in the dirt of a secret garden. Thankfully, the film doesn’t dwell on the details. We’re simply to understand that “planting” them and slitting their throats (apparently so they can stew in their own blood) reanimates them. Ida and Vincent wait until they’re “ripe” before plucking them from the dirt and mixing them with pork.

Ostensibly, the plot revolves around Terry’s ignorance of Vincent’s secret life as she gets closer to him. Really, though, the plot is an afterthought. The film is at its best as a study of a twisted family unit, aided immeasurably by Calhoun and Parsons. This could have easily turned into the obnoxious sort of film where the director strains to mine laughs from the incongruity of characters doing deplorable things in a nonchalant way, but director Kevin Connor allows Vincent and Ida to play everything absolutely straight. Their dialogue during the “processing” scenes is the sort of intentional cheese that could have sunk the entire movie, but it works because Calhoun and Parsons play the characters as people absolutely convinced of their moral righteousness. They don’t mug for the camera.

The film’s third act relies a bit too much on cheesy horror cliches, which may have worked in a more overtly comedic film. Here, I just never got the sense that anyone was trying to be funny. Enough of the film legitimately disturbed me that when the filmmakers started to make the most obvious possible choices, it disappointed me. Once the attempt at plot takes over, it never matches the bizarre depravity of Ida’s garden and Vincent’s slaughterhouse. The rushed happy ending doesn’t help redeem it.

Nevertheless, the majority of Motel Hell works pretty well. Like a low-budget Poltergeist, it manages to combine real laugh lines like “Wow, I’ve never met anyone famous before—how come I’ve never heard of you?” with eerie elements like the grotesque sound of Ida’s “plants” choking on their own blood. It loses some steam in the end, but it’s worth watching for the numerous things it does well in the first 70 or so minutes.

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Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987)

Left with no way to top the inspired lunacy of Death Wish 3, the Cannon Group decided to shake up the formula with the fourth entry. Gone is the pattern of Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) getting exposed to some sort of personal tragedy that leads to him surveying the creep-infested streets of an urban blight zone and then killing everyone in his sight. Instead, Death Wish 4: The Crackdown unspools more like a Grand Theft Auto game than a traditional Death Wish film, driven by imaginative action set-piece vignettes that build to a moderately compelling overall story.

Paul Kersey has returned to Los Angeles, rebuilt his architecture firm, and started dating a journalist, Karen (Kay Lenz). Within the first few minutes of the film, Karen’s daughter (Dana Barron, the original Audrey from National Lampoon’s Vacation) has overdosed on cocaine and lies comatose in a hospital bed. Karen becomes obsessed with pursuing the cocaine epidemic as a news story, against the wishes of her disinterested editor. However, Hearst-like publishing magnate Nathan White (John P. Ryan of It’s Alive, whose late-period career involved an embarrassing number of Cannon productions) has a similar personal investment in “cracking down” on cocaine. He knows who Paul Kersey really is, and they make an arrangement: Nathan will provide the pertinent details of all the top players in the coke trade, and Paul will take action.

Once the stage has been set, the film moves from one sequence to another, with Nathan narrating the pertinent details and Paul taking out the trash. In these scenes, director J. Lee Thompson (who took over for Michael Winner as a result of Bronson’s disgust with Winner’s handling of Death Wish 3) manages to return to the first film’s suspense-thriller roots, putting Paul in actual jeopardy and finding clever ways to get him out of each situation. As the body count increases, Detectives Reiner and Nozaki (George Dickerson and Soon-Tek Oh, respectively) target Paul as a possible vigilante.

This film adds another component lacking in the previous sequels: guilt. It opens with an absurd sequence that only becomes marginally less silly when we learn Paul’s having a nightmare. I’ve captured it in the video clip below:

Warning: In keeping with Death Wish traditions, this scene includes some particularly harrowing violence against a woman. Sensitive viewers should steer clear. Fans of BMW might also want to steer clear, as this scene features possibly the worst product placement for their fine automobiles in the history of cinema.

Two key moments occur in this shoddily edited sequence. The first: A thug barks, “Who the fuck are you?” “Death,” Paul Kersey answers before shooting them all. The second: Paul flips over his final victim to reveal his face, and the face he sees is his own.

It’s a moment unlike anything else found in the Death Wish series and hints that, perhaps, Paul doesn’t feel he’s any better than the men he kills. Although the nightmare is never mentioned again, the scene seems to inform Bronson’s performance. He’s lost the moral righteousness of the first three films and operates with a bit more thoughtfulness. This ties quite effectively into the film’s idea of taking on major players instead of street thugs. In place of the mesh half-shirts, painted faces, and inverted mohawks, Death Wish 4 introduces a world of tuxedos, ballet tickets, and lavish garden parties. Like The Wire (yes, I am about to compare Death Wish 4: The Crackdown to The Wire), Paul has finally learned that the only way to have a real effect is to cut off the head of the snake, not the tail.

The action sequences have more variety than in the previous films. Paul actually employs disguises (something he hasn’t done since the second film) to infiltrate the cocaine ring, posing as waiters and forklift drivers to gain access to the inner circle. After attacking a video store (its walls adorned with posters of other Cannon films, making it an underfunded independent store that will undoubtedly be swallowed up by Blockbuster within months) that sells cocaine out of its back room, Paul sneaks into a posh party hosted by wealthy gangster Ed Zacharias (Perry Lopez). He finds creative ways to kill Zacharias’s security force, fakes a meeting between two rival gangs, and starts a war between the two of them. He even uncovers crooked cops on Zacharias’s payroll.

Although not quite as good as the first film or as mind-boggling as the third, Death Wish 4: The Crackdown is a solid action film that does a nice job of putting a fresh spin on both the franchise and Paul’s character. Any gamers out there will be impressed to learn that the very basic structure implemented in the Grand Theft Auto games and their knockoffs (stick characters on wildly varied, action-packed missions prefaced only by a brief explanation of who the target is, how they fit into the overall story, and why they need to die) can succeed as a film.

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Triage (2009)

I guess I can see why Triage went direct-to-DVD. It’s a very good film, but it’s relentlessly dour and unpleasant. As has been typical of Colin Farrell’s choices over the past few years, he’s challenging himself by playing a difficult character in a difficult film that I found difficult to watch. Still, it’s a lot less oppressive and self-conscious than something like 21 Grams, so shuffling it off to DVD seems like kind of a cruel punishment for a film that’s significantly more passionate than that exercise in ACTING.

Farrell plays Mark Walsh, a cynical photojournalist documenting the Iraqis’ anti-Kurdish attacks in 1988 Kurdistan. His best friend, David (Jamie Sives), has accompanied him, and they’re both a bit shocked at the medical treatment there. Among other things, the triage doctor (Branko Djuric) shoots those he can’t save. Mercy killings, but it’s still very disturbing. David abandons Mark to get home in time for the birth of his first child, and Mark is seriously injured in a mortar attack. He’s taken to the Kurdish triage unit, and it’s only luck that keeps them from mercy-killing him. Although severely battered, he has no serious bone fractures. As Mark recuperates, he begins to develop an understanding of the doctor’s methods. This does not stop him from selling his story as soon as he returns to Dublin.

Once he’s home in Dublin, Mark finds a new set of problems. His lover, Elena (Paz Vega), finds him cold and distant, but she doesn’t know why. He tells her his injuries came from a nasty fall into a river. Also, a knee injury seems to debilitate him despite the lack of any physical reason for it to worsen. Before long, a doctor finds a piece of shrapnel stuck in his brain, and Elena realizes Mark must have lied about how he got his injuries. A neurologist informs her that Mark may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and that may be causing his psychosomatic leg problems. Elena brings her psychiatrist father, Joaquín Morales (Christopher Lee), from Spain to treat Mark. She and Joaquin have a contentious relationship—he was responsible for treating soldiers under Franco’s regime, which in her mind makes him a traitor to Spain.

The central question of the film is: What happened to David? He left before Mark, but he never made it back to Dublin. His wife, Diane (Kelly Reilly), is deeply concerned, and Mark’s shady behavior makes everyone around him think he’s hiding something. Is he, or is he just suffering as a result of his injuries? The answer to the question isn’t terribly surprising, but it’s not exactly meant to be, either. Like a less histrionic Salvador, the film is meant to be a brooding, gut-wrenching examination of a photojournalist in wartime. It succeeds, thanks in large part to Farrell’s quietly fierce performance and Lee’s smugly pedantic take on Joaquín.

Writer/director Danis Tanović first made a name for himself with the phenomenal 2001 film No Man’s Land. Triage sometimes shares that film’s dark humor, but mostly Tanović keeps the tone grim and uncomfortable. It may not be easy to watch, but it matches Mark’s dire outlook on things.

If nothing else, Triage deserved a small theatrical run to give it some exposure to critics and/or awards committees. Instead, it’s a forgotten film that will have a hard time developing a cult audience because, frankly, cult audiences tend not to flock to brutal wartime character studies. Still, it’s well worth checking out on DVD if you’re the type to respond to this sort of film.

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Golden Gate (1994)

I’d like to believe a movie can only get as bad as Golden Gate on purpose. Sometimes, a bad film is simply a result of amateurish ineptitude or wild miscalculations. This is a different case. It boasts a screenplay by playwright David Henry Hwang, who (deservedly) won every available award for M. Butterfly. Director John Madden went on to make the overrated but undeniably well-made Shakespeare in Love. Matt Dillon has gone on to be a quietly underrated actor, turning in great performances in even the most unchallenging films (he’s the only reason to watch One Night at McCool’s). Even composer Elliot Goldenthal—who I bring up because Golden Gate has, quite possibly, the worst score I’ve heard in a motion picture, ever—went on to receive three Oscar nominations and one win for his work on other films. So what the hell happened? I wish I knew.

The film opens in 1952, where Dillon tries his damnedest to convince us he’s a hardboiled FBI agent in possession of a law degree. As Agent Kevin Walker, he’s neither articulate enough nor tough enough to make the character believable. (On the plus side, he does a decent job of “aging” his performance as time passes in the story.) Walker is partnered with the fairly obnoxious Ron Pirelli (Bruno Kirby), on the hunt for filthy commies in San Francisco’s Chinatown. When they fail to find any, their boss presses them for a conviction. Walker comes up with the idea of arresting kindly laundryman Chen Jung Song (Tzi Ma) for the extremely thin reason that he’s organized a way for the Chinese-American population to send money to their families back home. Since “trading” with China is illegal, Song gets ten years in prison.

Ten years later, Chen gets released. Still wracked with guilt, Walker reluctantly takes the assignment to follow Chen in the hopes that he will continue his alleged communist activities. Walker tracks him thoroughly enough to watch the man commit suicide by hurling himself off a lovely scenic overlook near the Golden Gate Bridge. Feeling even guiltier, Walker sidles up to Chen’s attractive daughter, Marilyn (Joan Chen), and convinces her he’s a public defender who got to know Chen in prison. He whispers sweet, made-up-but-presumably-true nothings about Chen in her ear, and they start sleeping together. Naturally, Marilyn dumps him when she finds out the truth. Six years later, Marilyn is fully hippiefied and joined up with an Asian-American radical movement to convince the world either that they aren’t communists, or that communism isn’t so bad. Walker manages to get embroiled in this movement, too.

The chief problem, aside from the tragic miscasting of Dillon, is the script. It’s both a structural mess—free-floating through major events of the ’50s and ’60s without much sense of purpose—and features some of the worst dialogue I’ve ever heard. It’s frustrating that the movie has several opportunities to go into interesting directions, but it fails to capitalize on them. For instance, shortly before Chen’s suicide, Walker pledges to himself that he’ll help him rebuild his life. It’s supposed to be a tragic irony that Chen kills himself immediately thereafter, but I’m more interested in the story of a guilty FBI agent sacrificing his career to help a man he framed than the story the film actually tells. Walker’s romance with Marilyn—a woman less than half his age, and he’s not that old—is kind of creepy, especially since we’ve watched him gaze sympathetically at her as a little girl in 1952. There’s also frustratingly heavy-handed symbolism about the divide between two worlds and how it affects the Chinese-American community but also affects Walker (who’s torn between his own sense of ethics and the FBI’s bloodthirsty commie hunting).

The dialogue is the worst kind of on the nose. For some reason, Madden and Hwang made the decision to utilize something akin to a fantasy sequence for certain moments of the film. All the action stops, spotlights hit the main characters, and they speak to each other as if hypnotized, directly expressing their feelings in the laziest possible way. It’s a baffling choice that makes an already bad film suffer even more. Worse than the dialogue, though, is the grating voiceover narration, which attempts to tell Walker’s story as some sort of pseudo-mystical Chinese fable. He’s always referred to as “the man,” and there are numerous analogies to animals and nature. It would all be very poetic if it weren’t so stupid. It’s also another lazy device: When the film doesn’t slip into fantasy mode, Hwang allows the cheesy narration to explain feelings and motivations instead of working them organically into the characters’ behavior.

Then there’s that godawful score. Imagine someone hired Mike Post to do the soundtrack for a soft-core porn film, but the only instruments they gave him were a sultry saxophone and stereotypical Chinese instruments. That about sums it up. Aside from the stereotypical Asian-ness, it doesn’t match the tone of the film at all, and it does nothing to evoke the period. It sounds like a product of the mid-’80s, not the early ’50s, early ’60s, or late ’60s. And that’s another thing—the film covers 16 years, but the score never makes any changes to reflect the passage of time. Its spooky jazz feel wants to create a ’40s noir vibe, but it’s really better suited to a music video in which Bruce Willis plays the harmonica while dancing on a pool table in a foggy bar.

Golden Gate is the rare film where a group of talented people gathered together to make the worst possible product. Maybe it’s unfair to insinuate they made a bad film intentionally, but it’s hard to imagine these people doing such terrible work on accident.

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Bad Medicine (1985)

Based on a novel inspired by true events, the setup of Bad Medicine is this: in an unnamed country “somewhere in Central America,” Dr. Ramón Madera (Alan Arkin) has established an underfunded medical school that will accept virtually anybody and somehow provides degrees that are good in the United States. Among the Spanish students are a handful of Americans who couldn’t get into any U.S. medical schools. It’s a combination of fish-out-of-water comedy and political satire, but more than that, it’s about how medical school is difficult even when you go to a bad one.

Hilariously self-asborbed, Madera runs the school like a dictatorship, concerned more with meting out harsh punishments and garnering positive publicity than providing a decent education. He rides around campus in a limousine bearing the school flag. Humorless goons (Joe Grifasi and Gilbert Gottfried) issue demerits for wearing “loud” (tan) pants and white shoes. They mark students absent for sitting in the wrong seats. Students have to wait in long lines for a five-minute anatomy session working on the school’s only available cadaver (which has been in use since the school opened five years ago). Classes are taught entirely in Spanish, despite the segment of the student body who doesn’t speak the language. They live in roach-infested hovels, and according to the only American sophomore (Julie Kavner), very few foreigners survive their first year. It’s unclear if this is a result of stress or death.

The story finds its anchor in Jeff Marx (Steve Guttenberg), the black-sheep son of a family of frowning physicians. He’s smart but unmotivated, and he doesn’t have the grades to get into medical school. His insistent father (Bill Macy) registers him at Madera Universidad de Medicina (M.U.M., one of the subtler references to Madera’s hilarious mother issues). Although he has the brains for it, Jeff doesn’t know that he wants to be a doctor. At one point, he gripes that he never had a choice—he asked for a firetruck for Christmas, and his parents bought him an ambulance. This has always been his path, whether he wanted it or not. One of the nice things about Bad Medicine is watching Jeff find a sense of purpose as he starts to embrace medicine.

Jeff quickly meets Liz Parker (Julie Hagerty), a nurse back in the U.S., and they form a social group with the other Americans: Dennis (Curtis Armstrong), a wealthy Southerner obsessed with psychopharmacology; Cookie (Kavner), the seasoned veteran; and Carlos (Robert Romanus), a Puerto Rican New Yorker trying to pass for a native to get a tuition discount. The characters go from a disparate, disjointed group to a cohesive medical team over the course of the film, despite the dubious nature of their studies.

You see, as a PR stunt, Madera assigns them to go to a nearby village where nobody has ever seen a doctor, but he’s too cheap to send them with medicine. When Jeff gets shot in the leg by an irate and confused villager, Madera cancels the program. However, the villagers are in desperate need of medical care. The students realize it means more to them to help the villagers than to remain at Madera, so they forge pharmacy requests and open a clinic in the village. Quickly, the students all realize how desperately they want to learn in order to help those who need it, but they have to resort to stunts like bribing a morgue attendant to get a fresh cadaver for their anatomy studies. (They keep it on ice in Dennis’s bathtub.)

Meanwhile, Madera has become smitten with Liz, who agrees to go out with him in order to cover up their clinic. Madera is the source of the film’s most offbeat comedic moments. Typically, writer/director Harvey Miller mines comedy from the characters and their struggles to self-educate in less-than-desirable conditions, as well as the culture-clash antics of confused Americans adjusting to Central American life. Although Madera’s comedic beats come directly from the characters, he’s quite bizarre, the sort of man who thinks a statement like, “God sent me to you in order to spawn,” is the height of romance. A huge, tacky painting of his elderly mother hangs on one wall of his office; an elaborate gun collection adorns another. Despite the way he runs the school, his heart really is in the right place: He wanted to create a medical school where nobody suffers the discrimination he did while interning at his alma mater, UCLA. Ultimately, that all roots back to his self-absorption and inferiority complex, but even a broken clock is right twice a day. As played by Arkin (in one of his most underrated, criminally forgotten roles), Madera goes from a one-note stereotype to a fully-formed human, a walking contradiction whose ambition is frequently hampered by his ignorance and short temper.

Aside from having deceptively strong, believable characters played by a cast of ringers, Bad Medicine finds another major strength in its portrayal of medical school. Obviously, things at M.U.M. are patently absurd, but Miller gets the finer details right: A small group of students spending the majority of their time together, developing trust and deeper relationships than is typically portrayed in raucous “college” movies. Instead of mining conflict from competition among students, it allows them to work together in conflict against the school and the crumbling city of Valencia. It also, amazingly, emphasizes the rewards of education, and the notion that education comes more from experience and self-motivation than quality schools and competent instructors. This is suspiciously complex for a genre that’s usually more interested in keggers. Ironically, it does a better job of tapping into nerdy ideals than the previous year’s much more well-remembered Revenge of the Nerds (a film whose success is probably the reason Bad Medicine exists at all).

If I have one qualm with the movie, it’s that it employs numerous “native” extras who go to M.U.M., but none of them have anything to do with the American group. I understand that the movie focuses on the foreigners trying to make their way through medical school amid cultural confusion, but it’s a tad dispiriting that none of the native students have any interest in giving their own countrymen needed medical attention. I admit, from a dramatic standpoint, it’d make it way too easy for them to have both a translator and an ally familiar with the country’s cultural customs, but it’s a stark omission in an otherwise enjoyable comedy.

I’ve seen Bad Medicine a half-dozen times over the course of 15 years, and it seems to get better with each viewing. The fact that it doesn’t even have a proper DVD release—in an age where DVDs are on the decline—is criminal. Twentieth Century Fox put The Adventures of Ford Fairlane on DVD, but not Bad Medicine? What a world. On the plus side, if you have Showtime, you can TiVo it and have a nicer copy than my fading, fuzzy VHS tape.

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