Reviews written by registered user
mark_r_harris

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23 reviews in total 
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Marlowe (2007) (TV)
2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
One of the weakest Marlowe adaptations, 23 January 2015
2/10

I can tell why this pilot was not picked up; it lacks distinction. And apart from the protagonist's name, the Los Angeles setting, and a few lame quotations of famous phrases ("Trouble is my business"), it also lacks any meaningful relationship to Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe stories. Jason O'Mara's thoroughly modern P.I., confident, sexy, and smirky, certainly does not recall Marlowe's cynical, thoughtful personality in any way whatsoever. And while I enjoy watching hunky television actors in their late 30s and early 40s as well as the next gay guy - you could even call me an aficionado - there is just not enough going on with the character. Or anything here, really.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Fascinating debut feature, 10 July 2014
8/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Pablo D'Stair's micro-budget, monochromatic, minimalist neo-noir (how's that for some abstract descriptors?) is more rewarding to watch and think about than many a conventional mainstream film, and I heartily recommend it to the adventurous. I noticed points of contact with Travis Mills' first two features, "The Big Something" and "The Detective's Lover," although the two directors may not know each other's work. Both are operating out of small-city America (D'Stair - Gaithersburg, Maryland, Mills - Tempe, Arizona) and have an eye for the particular scale and atmosphere of these places which film-makers typically ignore, although so many people make their lives in them. Both directors seem to call out a certain deadpan quality in their actors - Goodloe Byron's Bryant in "A Public Ransom" is distinctly reminiscent of supporting male characters in the two Mills features. Both directors draw attention to their framing in a way that that commercial film-makers try to avoid; among D'Stair's a priori decisions for "A Public Ransom" were to shoot everything from stationary camera positions and to hold those positions for fairly long scenes, which naturally throws a focus on the unmoving edge.

I'll stay away from straightforward plot summary here, because there is plenty of it in the external reviews. D'Stair has promoted his film energetically to bloggers; that is how I first found out about it. Looking at all those reviews, I notice that even a few of the film's champions get some key points wrong. They almost uniformly note that the film is dense in dialogue, which D'Stair in interviews has acknowledged was very precisely written - no improv here, thanks - but then some of the reviewers seem not to have paid as careful attention to that dialogue as they might. Specifically, in a film with only three on-screen characters, they bobble their descriptions of the key relationship between Carlyle Edwards' Steven and Helen Bonaparte's Rene, his good friend. The two are NEVER romantically or sexually involved; instead, Steven cheats on his unseen wife Lisa with another unseen woman, Deb - he has multiple phone conversations with both of them, and in the last scene Rene explicitly says that there is no way she ever would have become involved with Steven. I thought I'd clear this up because, as you will see if you watch the film, these issues are pretty pertinent to any meaningful discussion of the story. (By the way, "Carlyle Edwards" is D'Stair himself, and I wouldn't be surprised if "Goodloe Byron" and "Helen Bonaparte" are assumed names also, because Carlyle-Byron-Bonaparte, it's just too perfect.)

Anyway, the dense dialogue is worth engaging with, the images are worth absorbing, and the movie as a whole has a mesmeric middle-of-the-night quality. The meta-fictional angles are involving, too, since what we have here is a story about not one but two writers who are "collaborating" (sort of) on a story that is partly appropriated from real events that may or may not have been set in motion by the active member of the pair ("Strangers on a Train" with scribes). In the end it's the passive one who seems to come in for harsher moral judgment - but is the character who expresses that judgment standing in for the director? and is the audience meant to share that judgment? Most of the reviewers take it that the answer to both questions is "Yes"; I am not sure, but in any case I did not share the stringent view of the passive writer's inaction. The movie ends on a question mark; each viewer needs to work out his or her own answer.

Terrific indie feature, 20 December 2013
9/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This stylish first feature, shot by writer-director Travis Mills in Tempe, Arizona, is infinitely better than most Hollywood comedies. Mills states that he is influenced by Buster Keaton, and by Howard Hawks in his screwball comedy phase, and one can easily spot traces of both. The framing of the action is consistently funny in and of itself (Keaton), and the laugh-out-loud dialogue has a line-by-line quotability (Hawks). (Even a simple utterance like "Scratch that" elicits a guffaw because it is so perfectly placed.) "The Big Something" is a satiric murder mystery set in and around Tempe's low-rent, sometimes even scruffy establishments: a record store, a coffee shop, a pool hall, a bike repair "hellhole," a dilapidated former mental hospital (shades of the popular website Abandoned Places). The actors vary in professional level, as is pretty inevitable on a low-budget feature, but it scarcely matters because they all do create engaging characters that you want to know more about, none more so than our hapless-but-likable protagonist, Lewis the record store clerk, played winningly by Michael Coleman. There are many more bits of recognizable human behavior here than in slicker productions. And the stylistics are wonderful: the ultra-precise framing as mentioned, the clear bright cinematography (the Arizona sunlight is practically a character), the sprightly use of public domain jazz and blue recordings on the soundtrack, the sparing but pleasant touches of iris-ins and iris-outs and silent-film-style title cards. Highlights of the action include the unexpected revelation of a character as an accomplished harpist, an absurdist chess match with one player who doesn't know the moves, a fight amongst homeless over a dumpster "territory," the threatening deployment of a croquet mallet, and the use of "Bob Saget" as a secret password.

Shortbus (2006)
4 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
Neither hot nor deep, 18 December 2013
4/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I give it points for being different, and I am all for art porn on principle. But in general, "Shortbus" is too weepy-sensitive to be hot. And John Cameron Mitchell's sexual ideology, as presented, is frankly puerile. A male character lacks affect until he is penetrated, and then all of a sudden, he can feel! A female character (who looks to be the world's worst couples counselor) can't experience an orgasm until she is jointly seduced by a Taylor Lautner-Taylor Swift type couple (we should all be so lucky), and then, well, the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air! The movie ends on that latter scene, actually, and I didn't like it any more than I did when "Adventureland" was structured around Jesse Eisenberg's getting laid, and when he does, mission accomplished, the movie's over. Yuk. It also makes me nervous to think that Lars von Trier's new "Nymphomaniac" is apparently based on this same plot trope, the search for the missing female orgasm. And at four hours or more length, no less. (Word has it that the director's cut of "Nymphomaniac" is five-and-a-half hours.)

Large chunks of "Shortbus" do not work at all - a long screwball scene at mid-movie involving a vibrating egg is simply embarrassing. The characters are by and large not engaging (a word I prefer to "likable" in this context - you can be engaged, held, by someone who is not likable, such as Henry Hill in "Goodfellas"). Every now and then, a little bit of the movie clicks - there is a jacuzzi seduction with one guy edging closer to another that packs more erotic charge than all the explicit scenes put together. And I like Justin Bond's line, while surveying an orgy: "It's just like the Sixties, only with less hope." (Bond as the club proprietor, Lindsay Beamish as a dominatrix, and Peter Stickles as a cute stalker are the best performers here.)

The film is clearly a fantasy, because it is hard to believe that the thoroughly polysexual Shortbus club could exist in the real world. When it comes to getting down to business, gay men don't like to be around women, lesbians don't like to be around men, straight men don't like to be around gay men, and there are never enough out bisexuals to go around. That leaves straight women, who I believe are indeed more ecumenically minded, but who also tend to avoid such establishments. Straight sex clubs seldom work because of gender ratio problems: they become either gay sex clubs, or brothels. That's the real world. Mitchell's concept of an establishment where everyone just gets along and gets it on is sweetly sentimental, though not without a certain wistful appeal.

Beyond all that, I have always maintained that a sex club that is not also a bath-house is an icky proposition. People need to shower!

6 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
Curiously captivating carnival noir, 27 September 2013
8/10

One of several worthy discoveries in Something Weird Video's "Weird Noir" set, and the most formally interesting of the bunch. "Girl on the Run" obeys the classical unities of action (one plot, which is all you have time for in 64 minutes), time (it all takes place in one evening), and place (it is set entirely inside a traveling carnival's grounds). The film is spatially fascinating: you really get a sense of how a carnival can pack a lot of activities into a smallish area, and how, out of direct sight of the public, the "inner world" of the carnival company can go on vigorously despite there being no apparent physical room for it. The sound design is dense and realistic and lends a high degree of verisimilitude to the film's texture.

"Girl on the Run" is bookended by an excellent night-time opening shot of the carnival and its Ferris wheel from a medium distance, very atmospheric, and a great closing shot of a laughing mechanical clown. Some thought went into the presentation here.

On the debit side, the acting is fairly ordinary, although protagonist Richard Coogan - television's first Captain Video - is certainly a handsome, energetic chap. The storyline is nothing special either. And yet the very standardness of these elements throws the more innovative aspects of the movie into higher relief, and the overall result is highly watchable.

I encourage any film history student or scholar looking for an offbeat candidate for detailed analysis to take a look at this movie; I think you might see rich possibilities in it.

Stark Fear (1962)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
A Gloriously Sleazy B Noir that Also Has Real Issues on Its Mind, 30 August 2013
8/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Stark Fear," made in Oklahoma in 1962, was a one-shot feature for both director Ned Hockman (who later taught film production at the University of Oklahoma) and screenwriter Dwight V. Swain. It is a gloriously sleazy little number that ought to be taken up by feminist film criticism pronto, because the male of the species has seldom been depicted so viciously. With one exception, every man in the film is a louse and a rapist, potential or actual. Poor Beverly Garland suffers so much in this film, at the hands of sicko sadist hubby Skip Homeier and assorted other lowlifes, that you would think she would hightail it out of Oklahoma, if not off the planet. But no, she sticks around for worse! - although she eventually recovers her pluck with the help of a female confidante (in what is genuinely one of the more interesting depictions of women's friendship in that era).

The film verges on being a "roughie," a style that was starting to emerge at that time and was full-blown by 1967. It has quite a bit in common with other contemporary local productions such as Herk Harvey's "Carnival of Souls" and Steve Cochran's "Tell Me in the Sunlight." And what is it with psychos and sadists in the early Sixties? "Psycho" (1960), "Peeping Tom" (1960), "The Couch" (1962), "The Sadist" (1963), on and on.

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
A brilliant, overlooked film, 14 July 2013
10/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Of all the many films I have seen that were influenced by Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction," this is the best. Other movies that the film-makers might have seen and profited by are Goran Paskaljevic's "Cabaret Balkan" and Mike Figgis's "Timecode." In any case, I mainly list the comparisons in order to give potential viewers a sense of where the film is cinematically situated. This is a brilliant piece of work in its own right.

"Cambio de suerte" follows the intersecting adventures of about a dozen lowlife characters in the streets of a Mexico City neighborhood in one evening. If you are easily put off by nasty characters, don't watch this! - I had to remind myself that I was safe, that the scuzziness I was seeing couldn't leak through to my side of the screen.

We return to many events from different points of view that reveal unexpected dimensions to what we thought we had already digested - particularly in the case of an episode of sexual violence that bookends the film. Jorge Ramirez Rivera plays with politically incorrect material in a way that some might find offensive, but can actually be defended as philosophical. So I'm glad he took that risk.

I would love to see the film-makers' minute-by-minute chart of the characters' locations and movements! It all works out with an impressive hair's-breadth precision.

"Cambio de suerte" is available on DVD with English subtitles, but I might have missed seeing it if a friend hadn't loaned it to me, because the DVD case says that the film is in 1.33:1 full-screen, which would have put me off buying it. The case is in error. The film is correctly offered in all its 2.35:1 glory.

I hope that I have encouraged some of you to find this film and give it a chance. I watch a lot of movies, and I was really grabbed by "Cambio de suerte."

1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Badly Underrated and Misunderstood, 20 May 2013
9/10

Ami Canaan Mann's "Texas Killing Fields" went nowhere commercially, despite a boost from Mann's father Michael Mann (who is listed as a producer). It was barely released and only grossed $45,000 domestically; it received poor reviews when it was reviewed at all. And yet, although it is not a great movie, it is a very good one, and I believe it was thoroughly misunderstood. Although not quite at the level of "Zodiac" or "Memories of Murder" as an elliptical police procedural about a creepy chain of killings, it is nearly as original as those two great films.

Commenters, both professional and amateur, complained that "Texas Killing Fields" is unclear and confusing, although some did note the rich, layered Texas small-town atmosphere (Mann actually shot on location in Louisiana). Certainly, it is not a transparent piece. Chunks of exposition are withheld. We have to puzzle out the backstory. Relationships are not clear at first. A fair number of Sam Worthington's lines are mumbled indistinctly (in a quite convincing Texas drawl). Various elements of the plot turn out to be completely unrelated to each other, and some of them just dribble off the edge of the film. There is no neat wrap-up that ties everything together.

I submit that all of this is done on purpose by Mann and screenwriter Donald F. Ferrarone, and that one of the movie's major stylistic influences is Robert Altman's "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," which Pauline Kael famously praised for exactly the narrative and stylistic choices that "Texas Killing Fields" is attacked for. Apparently making those choices today is not OK, unless you are a big enough name (Terrence Malick, Paul Thomas Anderson) to get away with it.

If I were Ami Canaan Mann, I think I would be very frustrated that my intentions were not noticed, and my film dismissed as not worthy of attention. Maybe she should have gone for a pure art-house approach, without the infusion of commercial elements such as a car chase (although, those elements are quite well handled). Then the film probably couldn't have gotten financed, though.

"Texas Killing Fields" was originally slated to be directed by Danny Boyle, and Mann was brought in as a replacement, although you wouldn't guess it. Her handling of the material seems personal. In one sense, it is not surprising that the conventionally-minded would not "get" what she is up to here, since the commercial elements that allow the film to get made can mislead some viewers into thinking that "Texas Killing Fields" is trying and failing to be a "movie-movie" thriller.

On the other hand, grounding in the auteur theory is supposed to allow more sophisticated viewers to discern individual artistic styles in ostensibly commercial movies – that's what the theory is for, right? We know that a genre film is going to display certain tropes, and although we look at them, we also look beyond them. But apparently some film enthusiasts can only pull this off when the film-as-object is comfortably in the past, and cannot manage it when it's a new film right under their noses.

We should be getting all kinds of auteurist analyses of the underbrush of contemporary film production – straight-to-DVD projects, "amateur" and mumblecore films, stuff that only gets aired at a few smaller festivals. But I see very little of that sort of critical work being done. Most reviews linked at the IMDb are simplistic thumbs-up thumbs-down reactions (that's the bad side of Roger Ebert's influence), rather than hardcore criticism. I am seldom bowled over by the freshness or unexpectedness of these reviewers' "takes." I seldom see detailed argumentation that proceeds on a set of aesthetic principles.

The acting in "Texas Killing Fields" is sensational up and down the line. Although Sam Worthington's hot-headed cop may appear to be a somewhat clichéd character initially, the irony is that his supposedly calm, centered partner, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, turns out to be far more of a hot-head, a dangerously obsessive guy. Worthington does the best performing I have seen from him, and inhabits his character physically, with great exactitude. But although he is top-billed, it is really Morgan's movie, and he impresses as a powerhouse presence here. The contrast between him at 6'2" and Worthington at 5'10" seems several inches greater than that, and the troubled friendship between the two men, who may love each other without even liking each other, is one of the best cop relationships on film, all the more so for being unemphatically handled.

As Worthington's ex-wife and a commanding cop in her own right, Jessica Chastain is so authentic that you want a few more scenes for her. In an almost wordless villainous role, the always versatile Jason Clarke is frighteningly edgy (and in fact is often at the edge of the frame, or of our ability to see him – he slides quickly by, a slippery eel). And as a young girl who has been dealt the worst possible start in life, Chloe Grace Moretz, who was only 13 years old when the film was shot, recalls another great actress at that age, Jodie Foster in "Taxi Driver" – that's heady company.

My refraining from plot summary is deliberate. "Texas Killing Fields" is designed to make the viewer work, and each should do that work for himself.

11 out of 19 people found the following review useful:
More horrifying than "Saw" or "Hostel", 8 March 2013
1/10

So, I thought I would check out the state of the contemporary rom-com, and this seemed like a good bet. I mean, actors like Julianne Moore, Ryan Gosling, Kevin Bacon, Marisa Tomei, how can you go wrong?

Very,very wrong. What I got was one of the most appalling movies I have seen in a long time, a sick demented number full of crazy stalkers, that entirely endorses and promotes stalker-ish behavior. Because, you see, as long as YOU are convinced that the target is your "soul-mate," it can't be considered stalking.

Hello, Mr. Screenwriter! Have we forgotten that John Hinckley was fully convinced that Jodie Foster was his soul-mate? We know how that turned out, correct?

Ah, well, I guess we don't. So keep on pursuing your "romantic" thesis, and thanks for the details on 13-year-old boys masturbating and 17-year-old girls taking nude pictures of themselves. You are keeping it real and contemporary!

By the way, the answer to the burning question, What kind of dad hangs out at the same singles bars as his offspring? is, Creepy-as-Hell Dad!

Apart from pointing out the descent into the moral pit that this movie represents, I must also ruefully report that there is nothing of any aesthetic interest or pleasure here. No sprightliness, no style, no charm, not even such as might show up in the service of an entirely misguided plot. Not a single shot worth looking at, not a single line worth listening to. The characters are utterly boring, contourless screenwriter creations - no interests, no hobbies, no thoughts worth sharing, nada. No actors no matter how good could do anything with this material.

Steve Carell certainly cannot convince us that he could suddenly become a swingin' SoCal ladies' man, effortlessly picking up women half his age - and again, given the third act revelation here, it's a big yuck that he would want to.

Have fun.

6 out of 11 people found the following review useful:
Premonitory? (Major Spoiler), 12 December 2009
7/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I don't honestly think this is one of the better Twilight Zone episodes, but it has one fascinating element. The knowing look of the stewardess at the end, and the immediate explosion of the plane upon take-off, suggests that what we are seeing is an instance of domestic terrorism/suicide bombing, a good many years before such notions gained currency. Does anyone else see the ending this way, or am I reading too much backward into it? Certainly the stewardess/morgue nurse has been depicted as an agent of death throughout the episode. Her creepiness gives the episode a memorability that it otherwise might not have had, and to read her as a bomber is not difficult at all.


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