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Pirates (1986)

Look at the pedigree: Roman Polanski, disgraced and exiled director of several fantastic films (Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, Tess); Walter Matthau, an actor of such tremendous talent that he still qualifies as underrated despite three Oscar nominations and one win; and Tarak Ben Ammar, whose involvement as producer and/or financier of European films (most notably Life of Brian Franco Zefferelli’s La Traviata) lend him credibility despite his not being a household name.

Cannon brought these people together in a CAA-like package. After years of mockery from critics over their oeuvre—which, to that point, consisted largely of sequels, ultraviolent action movies, and crass attempts to cash in on fads (like breakdancing)—Cannon sought out prestigious yet down-on-their-luck filmmakers and actors to make a better class of film for them. For well-publicized reasons, Polanski hadn’t directed a film since Tess in 1979. After an almost nonstop series of hits during the first half of the ’70s, Matthau starred in an unfortunate string of flops. Cannon pounced, and Pirates happened.

What an ill-conceived mess of a film. Its opening sets a tone of depravity that the rest of the movie gleefully embraces: Captain Red (Matthau), a Cockney pirate with a huge black beard and a surprisingly convincing peg leg, is stuck on a leaky raft with his French manservant, Jean-Baptiste (Cris Campion). Jean-Baptiste fishes off the side of the raft, but all he can catch is a tiny minnow. Red is so hungry, he grabs the minnow and swallows it, even though it’s still on the fishhook, which gets stuck in his throat. Red yanks on the fishing line twice, but the hook remains stuck, so he slices the line with his sword and swallows it. This is played for laughs, but all it made me do was clutch my own throat, somewhat nauseated as my mind tried to simulate what it might feel like to yank on a fishhook caught in my throat. More attempts at laughs follow: not satiated, Red immediately lunges at his servant, attempts to bite him in the ass, and when Jean-Baptiste climbs the mast to get away from him, Red starts to chop it down with his sword, all the while explaining why it would be honorable for Jean-Baptiste to let Red eat him.

The possibility for laughs exist in these bizarre bits of business, but laughter never comes. This long opening scene exists solely to introduce Red as a comically unpleasant, gold-obsessed monster. I give Polanski some credit for never trying to redeem this character’s faults, but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed spending time with Red or any other character in this film.

Immediately after this opening scene, Red and Jean-Baptiste sneak onto a Spanish galleon and get caught and forced into slavery. Ostensibly, the plot revolves around Red’s quest to steal a solid-gold Aztec throne from the ship, but the film gets distracted from that storyline with many other swashbuckling clichés: Red leads a mutiny, Jean-Baptiste falls in love with a beautiful aristocrat (Charlotte Lewis), Red attempts to ransom the aristocrat to her father (and when he won’t pay, Red instructs Jean-Baptiste to rape her in front of him), for some reason Red travels to a tropical island where he owes many people money, and so on.

The depravity continues in moments like the extended, graphic scene in which their captor, Don Alfonso (Damien Thomas), forces Red and Jean-Baptiste to eat a raw rat. Also, this movie has roughly as much rape-based humor as Yellowbeard (another awful pirate comedy), which is especially uncomfortable in light of Polanski’s sordid personal life. The humor relies far too much on gross-out gags, but those gags make the Farrelly Brothers look like Frank Capra. The miscalculation is surprising, because although Polanski is not known as a comedy director, he made at least one great one (1967’s The Fearless Vampire Killers) and peppered most of his other films with an undeniable wit. Matthau does his best to mine laughs from the awful material, but he has so little to work with, his performance frequently comes off as desperate. It’s sort of sad to watch.

The movie doesn’t really work as a rollicking pirate adventure, either. Polanski does focus on some of the details of pirate life (such as Red bartering to get a fellow slave to carve him a new peg leg), but overall, it just mines too many clichés and has too little narrative focus to work as either a satisfying homage to classic pirate fare or a cautionary tale tearing down the pirate mythos. Any attempt to understand why the script is so scattershot would require more conjecture than I’m willing to put forth in a review. What matters is the fact that the story simply doesn’t work.

All of this is hugely disappointing in light of how good Pirates looks. The ship, a full-scale recreation (with a modern engine), is gorgeous, and the costumes alone do a great job of separating the disgusting pirate slaves from the well-kept Spaniards. The panoramic cinematography shows off the overall beauty of the sea and scenery (filmed in Malta and Tunisia). If nothing else, production designer Pierre Guffroy, costumer Anthony Powell, and cinematographer Witold Sobocinski should be commended. They managed to make a horrible movie look better than it should, and better than most cheap Cannon fodder. They’re the sole reason this movie didn’t get a shameful zero-star rating.

Pirates is a terrible film, lacking both the goofy charm of typical Cannon films and the high quality one expects from a Polanski film (assuming one hasn’t seen The Tenant or The Ninth Gate). The frustrating combination of incoherent storytelling and epically unfunny comedy obliterate a movie that had a great deal of potential.

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$5 a Day (2008)

What a setup: in a single day, Flynn (Alessandro Nivola, perhaps most recognizable from his turn in 2005’s Junebug) loses his job, loses his girlfriend (Amanda Peet), and learns his con-artist father, Nat (Christopher Walken), may be dying of brain cancer. Left with no one to turn to, Flynn reluctantly reenters Nat’s life, and what follows is a combination of a father-son bonding movie and a road movie. Unfortunately, neither movie is particularly good despite Walken’s always-welcome presence.

Ostensibly a comedy, the movie’s attempts at humor miss more than they hit. For instance, I found it amusing that Nat—who has abandoned a life of con artistry to devote himself to finding great deals and scams so he can subsist on only $5 a day—lives in a storage room under an Atlantic City rollercoaster, calling various radio stations under aliases to win concert tickets he can then scalp at a huge profit. Yet I never laughed at his car, a pink PT Cruiser bearing the Sweet ‘N’ Low logo, so he can get paid to drive rather than paying to own a car. The film wants us to laugh every time we see it (and we see it often on their cross-country trip to New Mexico), but the ridiculousness of its appearance didn’t stir my funny bone at all.

That’s the overall problem. $5 a Day has some funny bits, many of them having to do with Flynn resisting Nat’s lifestyle, but they’re mostly buried in a vast ocean of moments designed to elicit laughter that never comes. Like most road movies, it’s broken up into a series of vignettes as the pair travels across the country. These vignettes are designed to first show why Flynn hates Nat so much, and then bring the pair back together. Some of them work (notably a vignette in which Nat invades a corporate event for free food and Flynn needs to rescue him once partygoers learn the truth), but others fall flat. An extended sequence features Sharon Stone as a scantily clad sexpot, a childhood crush of Flynn’s who shows more affection to Nat. Nothing about this sequence works, either dramatically or comically. In a 90-minute movie, a 10-minute dead spot is a pretty big gulf.

The core of the conflict is this: after a lifetime of conning, Nat brought Flynn into the fold, then left him holding the bag when a con went bad. Flynn did time (discovery of his conviction is what gets him fired from his health inspector job in the opening scenes) and naturally resents his father. However, this conflict is resolved much too quickly and easily. Flynn is first shown as angry and annoyed, but he quickly switches over to amused and appreciative. Even though it’s sort of fun to see the two working together instead of against each other, the transformation occurs without any real explanation.

When Flynn returns to anger in the third act—after realizing his father’s real plan for dragging him to New Mexico—it’s never clear why he left that emotional state in the first place. The film tries to split the difference with a lazy device that finds Flynn frequently calling his ex-girlfriend and leaving long-winded, on-the-nose messages on her answering machine, while she looks on with a combination of sadness and apprehension.

If there’s any pleasure to derive from this film, it’s in Walken’s charming performance as Nat. He’s shown up in so many movies over the past decade as little more than a caricature of his quirky persona, so it’s hard to remember that he once won a well-deserved Oscar for a largely quirk-free performance. This is one of the few recent movies in which he’s appeared that has given him the opportunity to do more than a weird, funny cameo. From guilt about his duplicitous nature to pain over his longtime knowledge of family secrets Flynn learns on this trip, he makes Nat more than a kooky guy with a silly lifestyle. He also makes Alessandro Nivola—the ostensible anchor of the film—look bland in comparison. Granted, he’s the straight man, but he’s also not a terribly engaging one.

Director Nigel Cole made the winning British comedies Saving Grace and Calendar Girls, but his comic instincts don’t seem suited to this type of film. Though the film contains many well-composed shots, it lacks Cole’s normally strong wit and offbeat sensibility. The timing seems strangely off, which affects both the overall pacing and (most detrimentally) the success of the jokes. Maybe it was the budget constraints, or maybe Cole just didn’t invest much of himself in making the film. I don’t know for sure, and it would be unfair to speculate.

$5 a Day has its moments, but ultimately, the film is just too uneven to recommend. The laughs come too inconsistently, the arbitrary character changes make it hard to empathize, and the sluggish pacing makes everything seem a bit duller than it should. For Walken fans, it might be worth slogging through a so-so film to see his performance. Anyone else should simply avoid it.

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The Box (2009) by Richard Kelly

Name-checking philosophers and/or philosophical works is too easy, and that’s exactly why The Box annoyed me when I read it last year. Those of you who have seen the movie—and hopefully that’s all of you, since this article will be loaded with spoilers—will know exactly what I’m talking about: No Exit, Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential play that’s either about a ménage à trois gone horribly awry, or purgatory. In the finished film, Norma (Cameron Diaz) is shown teaching this to a class and having some sort of indistinct involvement in a school production of a play. It’s shifted much more to the background in the film than in the screenplay, which introduces it in the most random possible way and then turns it into the lynchpin of the entire story.

Doing that is lazy and obvious, the equivalent of shrugging shoulders and muttering, “I have absolutely nothing to say thematically, so I’ll let a 65-year-old play do the legwork for me.” It was a disappointingly hackneyed move from a writer who’s better than that.

Let me backtrack, though. The differences between the script I read and the finished film are many, and the use of No Exit is only one of the things Kelly changed at some point during the development process.

In the script, Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) is a cipher. We don’t learn his baffling, somewhat laughable backstory until nearly the end of the story (as opposed to the film opening with a series of hints about who he is and what happened to him). The script also shifts the button-pushing from the first act to the midpoint. The first half of the script, apart from the weirdness of Steward’s offer, is surprisingly normal and mundane. It’s simply the story of a family extended beyond its means, with Kelly hammering away at points about social climbing, status symbols, and greed before Norma finally feels backed into a corner and pushes the button. It also explores the deep flaws in both Norma and her NASA engineer husband, Arthur (James Marsden), whose motivations revolve around a combination of greed, vanity, and self-aggrandizement. More than anything else—more than the desperation to keep her son in private school or keep their home (the latter of which is a subplot excised completely from the film)—Norma pushes the button because she cares more about a fancy shoe to hide her foot deformity than the life of another human being.

This differs quite significantly from Richard Matheson’s 1970 short story “Button, Button,” on which the film is very loosely based. “Button, Button” is a pretty simple morality play, similar to Matheson’s Twilight Zone scripts (indeed, Matheson adapted the story for the 1985 revival of The Twilight Zone). When Norma pushes the button, it’s Arthur who dies—because, you see, the agreement is that she’ll receive $50,000 but someone she doesn’t know will die, and she never really knew her husband. Get it?! It’s kind of pat, but I did like that the $50,000 comes as the result of her husband’s life insurance payout instead of Steward arriving with a briefcase full of cash.

My knowledge of philosophy doesn’t extend much beyond the 100-level college course I took, so I defer to a much more educated (and much more anonymous) friend who holds a degree in the subject. He tells me the original short story fits the existential philosophy espoused by Sartre quite neatly.

In both the movie and the script, the button-pushing is intercut with an unknown man murdering his wife for unknown reasons, a disturbing scene that is all but dropped until much later. Once Norma and Arthur get the money, the second half of the script starts by focusing on the couple’s confusion and paranoia. Arthur, who had the foresight to write down Steward’s license plate number, asks Norma’s father (a police sergeant) to run the plates. He calls back with a name and phone number. They call the number, and on the other end an old woman rambles inaccurately about the Prometheus myth before reciting a Dewey decimal number. Anybody who’s seen a Richard Kelly movie would not bat an eyelash when Arthur and Norma make the decision to go to the public library and find the book.

It’s No Exit, and in the script, this is the first reference to it. Norma (who’s a science teacher here) has a vague recollection of reading it, but neither understands the significance. However, a date is written in the book. They find the newspaper for that date and find the headline is all about photos downloaded from the Martian probe Arthur worked on. This makes him remember Arlington Steward, a low-level NASA employee who got hit by lightning (and allegedly died) the day the photos downloaded.

They split up, and Arthur’s cornered by a librarian who turns out to be Steward’s mother (and the woman on the other end of their earlier phone call) while Steward approaches Norma. This is followed by a long, bizarre, somewhat tedious dream/hallucination sequence in which Norma and Arthur find themselves in No Exit, before arbitrarily waking up in their beds, at home, shortly before the wedding of Norma’s sister.

The presence of No Exit is an enormous problem in this incarnation of the script. “Button, Button” fits with existential philosophy. The Box‘s third act speculates on whether or not Arthur and Norma are trapped in purgatory, a la No Exit. However, The Box itself doesn’t really jibe with existential philosophy. At least, not on the surface. My friend shrugged off existential parallels, but something intrigued him.

In the script, more than in the movie, a strong emphasis is put on Norma rationalizing pushing the button by saying it’s all for her son, Walter. She’s about to lose her faculty tuition discount, which means her son may have to—gasp!—attend public school. If the real core of the story revolves around the decision to finance Walter’s formal education, that’s right in line with Nietzsche’s observation that Socrates deserved his fate—a death sentence for “corrupting” children (i.e., providing them a secular education that opposed their religious education). Since the script, more than the film, makes a small point of pitting science against faith, the fact that Norma’s a science teacher and Arthur works for NASA is right in line with Nietzsche’s strange parable.

The foundation of existentialism revolves around self-delusion and the creation of one’s own morality. This ties quite deftly into pretty much everything The Box is about—Norma justifying her greed and vanity and deciding to eschew any hope of being a good person because she wants (more than needs) the money. Because existentialism isn’t nihilism—Nietzsche believed that Christianity had developed an outdated morality that people followed out of obligation and fear rather than the legitimate desire to be a good person. Kierkegaard used the example of God forcing Abraham to sacrifice Isaac: if Abraham believes in a good, just God, then he’s just going through the motions. He knows God’s just fucking with him, that he’ll never really have to kill his son. In that context, Abraham’s actions are as fraudulent as God’s test.

For all its scatterbrained insanity, The Box started to seem like the same sort of fractured morality tale, only about secular characters whose actions aren’t tied to a belief in God. To extend the Abraham mentality, Norma and Arthur are the equivalent of Abraham feeling a strong compulsion to kill Isaac. Not hearing the voice of God—just that nagging voice inside him, telling him to kill. Part of him knows it’s wrong, but he falls into that trap of self-delusion, justifying it as a righteous action. If God exists and is testing Abraham—without revealing himself, and without Abraham believing God is there at all—then He will punish Abraham if Abraham can’t stop himself from killing Isaac.

So, then, does that make Steward God, or an agent of God? Is the button Isaac, and Norma failed? These are the questions the script rushes through in its last few pages, never giving a clear indication of what’s truly going on. But if it is purgatory, and if this is a test of their worth to enter heaven after an undisclosed period in purgatory, this means they failed the test. So the ending, in which Arthur sacrifices Norma to save Walter, fits in a demented way. Arthur “passed” his portion of the test, but Norma failed. One can only assume getting shot in the face while in purgatory does not cause a person to ascend to heaven.

All of these thoughts are largely rendered moot by the finished film, which downplays the existential concepts but ups the weird/sci-fi/conspiracy quotient by a huge degree. Take, for instance, a scene not present in the script, in which Arthur drives home babysitter Dana (Gillian Jacobs). On the ride home, she starts saying many strange things. Then, she gets a nosebleed and passes out. Arthur examines her driver’s license and finds (1) it’s from Massachusetts, and (2) her name is listed as Sarah. When he finally gets her home, she walks down the narrow, dimly lit hallway of her apartment. Every single resident steps out into the hall to glare at her while she shuffles, terrified, toward her dingy place. Inside, she stares at walls covered with maps and photos that hint at some sort of pattern.

Dana/Sarah is never seen again, and this pattern/conspiracy never comes up in any overt way. Is it a red herring, foreshadowing Steward’s apparent mind-control powers (an element not present in the screenplay), or another layer of symbolism that ties into the three free-standing cubes of water Arthur must choose to enter in the film’s version of the library scene? To put it another way: What the hell is going on?

Therein lies the problem with the film. I enjoyed many aspects of it: The surprisingly strong performances from Diaz and Marsden, the pitch-perfect mid-’70s aesthetic, the apparent homages to the conspiracy thrillers popular during the film’s timeframe, and the Donnie Darko-esque combination of domestic satire and unrelenting mindfuckery. I don’t feel like I wasted my time watching it, and I would probably take the time to watch it again to try to unpack whatever the hell is happening in Kelly’s twisted mind. I’m just pretty sure it has little to do with existential themes—in the film, No Exit itself has become the red herring, a source of foreshadowing and nothing more.

It’s strange to say that I didn’t like the script, because at this point it sounds like I’m championing it over the film. I grew to appreciate the script—even though I still didn’t like it much—once I started to see the odd, existential throughlines buried in its seeming aimlessness. They gave The Box a cohesiveness that Kelly lacked in both Donnie Darko and especially Southland Tales. The film abandoned that, which leads me to the only probable conclusion: I read way too much into the script. That’s not to say what I read into it wasn’t there, but I can’t imagine Kelly had any conscious intent to make the script this coherent. That’s just not his style.

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Stone by Angus MacLachlan and Edward Norton and John Curran

Alfred Hitchcock allegedly said, “No one ever made a good film from a bad script.” Though I can’t say that’s true 100% of the time, it is true that good scripts are turned into bad films with much more frequency than the opposite. Stone ranks high among the worst scripts I’ve ever read (and I’ve read I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell and the direct-to-DVD sequel to 30 Days of Night), but it piqued my curiosity. The draft I read has Edward Norton’s name on it, and he’s usually something of a quality magnet. Even when he’s in a bad film, it’s usually an ambitious misfire rather than an out-and-out bomb. So why would he not only attach himself to a script this bad but actively take part in rewriting it?

The simplistic story begins in 1970, when a younger Jack Marino (played in the present by Robert De Niro) takes a vacation with wife Madylyn and daughter Candace. He’s an unpleasant man prone to fits of anger, and everywhere they go, ex-cons seem drawn to Jack, their former parole officer. When Madylyn threatens to leave Jack—she no longer wants to put up with his drinking and anger—he threatens her right back, holding Candace over their hotel room balcony, insisting he’ll drop her if Madylyn leaves. To sum up: he’s a really pleasant guy any moviegoer would be happy to spend two hours watching.

Forty years later, Jack and Candace are estranged, but he’s still married to Madylyn. As he approaches retirement, Jack has to review one last inmate for possible parole: George “Stone” Creeson (Edward Norton), an obnoxious and seemingly unrepentant man. Jack sees right through his generic platitudes, and Stone is smart enough to realize he’s fighting a losing battle. Enter Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), Stone’s beautiful wife. She charms Jack, then starts sleeping with him. Jack claims to see right through their game, but he continues to sleep with Lucetta, then falsifies his review for the parole board in accordance with her desires.

Finally, he gets angry at both Lucetta and Stone for using him—so angry, in fact, that he tries to pull his review at the last minute and rewrite it—and honestly, this turn points to the script’s biggest problem: its story is thin, it wants to be a character study, but its characters (including Jack) are as weak as a cup of old Sanka. Jack’s behavior throughout the script seems wildly inconsistent—and not because of the drunkenness depicted in the opening flashback, because he rarely drinks during the present-day story—because he never rises above a generic stereotype. Here’s all we learn about Jack: he’s prone to rage, he’s good at his job, and he’s a cop who isn’t far removed from the criminals he interacts with on a daily basis. Never seen that before! His behavior gets weird, but his motives are never clear, so it comes off as nonsensical rather than complex.

Maybe some depth or nuance—or, at least, mystery—could have been added to Stone and Lucetta, but the script telegraphs their every movement in such frustrating detail, there’s no question of their priorities: Stone and Lucetta have hatched a plan for her to seduce him. The thing I keep seeing everyone talking about with this film is Stone’s religious epiphany. The script isn’t about that—in fact, it doesn’t enter into the equation until more than halfway through. Like Lucetta’s seduction, the writers telegraph Stone’s “epiphany,” making it abundantly clear that he’s faking it because he initially fears Lucetta’s seduction won’t be enough to get him released. Stone wants nothing more than to get out of prison, and every scene in which Jack and Stone interact shows him as an intelligent criminal testing Jack’s defenses. Stone takes many different approaches in hammering Jack, and clearly participates in Lucetta’s seduction plan. The “epiphany” is preceded by him looking at a convict praying with his visiting family, then rushing to the library to read all he can about religion. The script tries to toe this line that the transformation could be real, but why would anyone of sound mind think there’s a divine explanation for Stone’s change? When Stone questions Jack’s faith in God, it feels more like an admission that the big mystery doesn’t work at all. “You should believe in our half-baked mystery,” the script is saying, “because if you don’t, it means you lack faith.” First they insult us with bad writing, then they insult our moral character.

Finally, they insult our intelligence. The third act lays out a new mystery: once Stone gets released, Jack’s house burns down. He and Madylyn narrowly escape, and although Jack blames Stone (his crime was arson, to cover up murders committed by his cousin), the script does leave some hint that he could have caused the fire himself by leaving the stove on. Inexplicably, Madylyn lies to fire officials and claims there’s a faulty wire in the kitchen. Then, she leaves Jack. She’s found out about him and Lucetta, so it’s over. Her leaving makes sense. Lying about who or what caused the fire is baffling, however. Madylyn barely exists in the story, so there’s no believable motive for it. It’s just a cheap, melodramatic punch immediately after the overwrought symbolism of the couple’s “whole life” being destroyed in the fire.

There’s more melodrama to come, though. Jack gets drunk and goes after Stone with his gun. He demands to know why Stone is torturing him. Stone’s not afraid of him, and leaves Jack a pitiful mess, turning the gun on himself. All of this is tied up in a lazy “buzzing” motif every time Jack gets angry, made all the lazier by incorporating “buzzing” and “vibration” into the faux-religion Stone adopts.

Stone is simply an awful script. It has nothing new to say about cops, criminals, anger management, alcoholism, or religion—in fact, it has very little to say at all about those subjects, using them as reductive character traits rather than broader thematic devices. The script tries to bury its emptiness under lengthy, dialogue-driven scenes (notably the interview sessions between Jack and Stone), but those scenes accomplish the amazing feat of letting characters talk for a very long time without revealing anything insightful about themselves and/or the human condition. It’s all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Adding insult to injury, the dialogue is embarrassingly bad at points. Certain characters—particularly Jack—too frequently lapse into what sounds like a 19-year-old drama student ad-libbing the emotional core of a scene rather than rehearsing the scene itself. It’s less noticeable with younger characters like Stone and Lucetta, but Jack does not sound like a man in his 60s. That lack of verisimilitude hurts an already bad script.

So how does the film compare to this trainwreck?

Weirdly, Curran improves the finished film by removing most of the hackneyed attempts at mystery. Gone are the implications that Lucetta seduces Jack with permission, that Stone is faking his religious awakening, or that Jack is anything other than a hypocrite with rage-management issues. Instead of it feeling like Stone is trying to test Jack’s weaknesses like a velociraptor jumping against an electric fence, Norton plays Stone as absolutely sincere from the moment he appears in the film. He’s sincere but not very bright; when he misspeaks, it’s not a calculated attempt to gauge Jack’s defenses. When Stone’s religious transformation occurs, Norton plays it in a way that’s much more believable than the dialogue he recites. It’s an impressive performance, and I can now see why he was drawn to such an awful script. He knew he could do things with the character a lesser actor wouldn’t even dream of doing.

Even the mystery of the fire is transformed. There’s not even a hint that Jack may have caused it himself, or that it was in any way an accident. Curran makes it abundantly clear that somebody broke in and set the fire. Because of Norton’s performance, two things snap into focus: the fact that he fully admits that he’s not a reformed person so much as a person who accepts responsibilities for his actions, and the fact that he didn’t send Lucetta after Jack. Stone’s anger and hurt are real, and his psychotic reaction is no surprise. The only thing that remains a mystery is Madylyn’s response to the fire. It makes no sense in the script, and it makes no sense in the film. Madylyn is even more downplayed in the film than in the script, and not even Frances Conroy playing Madylyn as a largely confused drunk can make it work.

Ironically, much as the film improves on the script by downplaying the mysterious aspects of the story, it hits the religious aspects with the heaviest possible hand, bringing it right back around to hackneyed. Frequently incorporating Christian radio broadcasts on the soundtrack—including, near the end, Stone trying to explain his new philosophy on a call-in show—emphasizing the legitimacy of Stone’s transformation, and playing up Jack’s absence of faith make the whole film seem annoyingly overwrought. The script strained desperately to justify its existence, while the film hits audiences over the head with a theme as subtle as Davey and Goliath.

Where the script and film remain pretty much the same is with Jack. Curran plays up the thriller aspects to create the illusion something interesting is happening in the film, but at the end of the day it remains a bland character study of a man we know no better at the end of the film than we did at the beginning. De Niro is a great actor, and it’s nice to see him actually trying instead of just phoning it in or mugging comedically. There’s just not much of a character here for him to sink his teeth into. He does a fine job with what he has to work with, but unlike Norton, De Niro doesn’t bring anything unexpected to the table to make the role feel like more than the empty vessel it is. Strangely, Curran excises several character-building scenes from the script (like the entire subplot about his estrangement from Candace). In the script, those scenes didn’t exactly make Jack into a brilliantly rendered, multifaceted character, but it’s still odd that he’d remove the few scenes that do bring a little bit of extra shading to him.

Finally, the third act remains an insulting mess. It’s actually slightly worse in the film than in the script, because the script starts out bad and gets worse. The film starts out okay before completely falling apart. The many changes evidently made during production—Norton’s read on the character, the amping up of the religious themes, etc.—undermine a conclusion that never worked in the first place. Jack still insists he knows he’s being conned, he still lets Stone go anyway, he still tries desperately to change his report on Stone, and he still chases Stone with a gun after the fire. On the plus side, Curran cut the eye-rolling moment where Jack, after failing to successfully confront Stone, briefly turns the gun on himself to really drive home his self-hatred.

On the whole, despite the changes between script and screen, most scenes in Stone still feel a lot like an Actors Studio workshop where two actors improvise in character, revealing a lot of character information that actors find incredibly important and audiences don’t. I had the same hope for Stone that I did with A Single Man: That the caliber of acting involved and a handful of positive reviews from critics I trust would mean the filmmakers had accomplished the impossible and made a good film from a bad script. Stone is better than its script, but it’s still pretty bad.

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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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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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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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