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Drowning Mona (2000)
9/10
"White trash Murder on the Orient Express"
22 May 2007
Maybe Danny DeVito and Bette Midler should collaborate more often. The two times they did it was comedy gold. While this movie is not as flat out hilarious as "Ruthless People," it should still be enjoyed by the same people who love that movie. It starts with a prologue stating how Verplanck, New York was the location where they decided to launch the Yugo line of cars in America. As a result, everyone in town, including the police, drives a Yugo car, and they all have catchy license plates like UGOMONA, ELLEEE, and OH RONE.

As the title suggests, this black little whodunit concerns who opted to rid the small town of Verplanck of its nastiest inhabitant, the matriarchal hag Mona Dearly (Midler, who chews up every inch of the screen in her "Rashomon"-esque flashback scenes). Police Chief Wyatt Rash (Danny DeVito, playing against type as the straight man), is determined to find out, even if nobody else cares to help. It's come at a bad time, because he's trying to help his daughter Ellie (Neve Campbell) plan her big wedding to mild-mannered land-scaper Bobby Calzone (Casey Affleck), who has just ended up short-handed after his beer-guzzling partner Jeff Dearly (Marcus Thomas, the epitome of slackerdom) takes a leave of absence. Bobby also seems unnaturally concerned with the the death of a woman who meant only bad things for him.

The characters, while bordering on cartoons, are played tongue-in-cheek, and you know the actors had fun doing it. There's the chain-smoking waitress Rhona Mace (Jamie Lee Curtis), who's having an affair with the deceased's husband Phil (William Fichtner, who walks away with the movie as a complete scumbag), and Bobby's overbearing brother Murph (Mark Pellegrino). The cops are just as zany, with Peter Coyote as the do-gooder lieutenant, and Paul Ben-Victor and Paul Schulze (Ryan Chapelle from "24") as a couple of bumbling idiots who seem to be good for one thing, looking out for Numbers One. There's Katherine Wilhoite as Lucinda, the lesbian folk-singer mechanic, and the great Tracey Walter is on board as the local fisherman who nobody really knows much about. Add in a foul-mouthed, alcoholic priest, and a funeral director who's also an amateur pornographer (Will Ferrell before he became huge), and it's a feast for those with a twisted sense of humor.
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Miami Vice (2006)
7/10
Less-than-stellar Mann
8 August 2006
Michael Mann is one of my favorite directors because he succeeds with virtually every project he undertakes. He has a keen sense of setting, character development, and how to stage action. He has been able to go from the urban cool of "Thief" to the epic frontier of "The Last of the Mohicans" and back with "Heat." With "The Insider," he showed how he could take a simple true-life story of a whistle-blower and imbue it with a sense of danger that is completely psychological.

His biopic "Ali" was ruined not by acting or direction so much as by the constraints of the outline, telling a by-the-numbers story that encompassed the legendary boxer's career, without breathing new life into the sub-genre. But Mann quickly rebounded from that misfire by reinventing his urban thriller with "Collateral," shot almost entirely in hi-def, with Tom Cruise giving one of his best performances, and comedian Jamie Foxx managing to outshine him at that.

Many credit Mann with creating "Miami Vice." It's not true, as he only executive produced the show and directed a few episodes. But it's still safe to say he knows the world the '80s hit takes place in. The movie, like the show, follows a squad of vice cops, particularly the maverick Sonny Crockett and the cool Ricardo Tubbs, here played by Colin Farrell and Mann favorite Foxx.

The movie picks up in the middle of a sting operation to bust a Haitian pimp at a disco. The sting is interrupted when they get an urgent call from an informant they haven't heard from in six months who's worried about his girlfriend, and some FBI sting operation fouling up. Due to some outside intel a white supremacist group is aware the people they are dealing with are FBI undercover operatives. And since Crockett and Tubbs know something's up, they agree to help FBI Agent Fujima (Ciaran Hinds) find out how his guys got leaked.

The film starts off at a break-neck pace, with so many strands it's hard to figure out what's going on. It actually feels like a TV show, because they have to squeeze so much into so little time, and we're not really sure how everything fits together.. As the film progresses, though, it becomes more focused, one big undercover sting, with Crockett getting in over his head with a Chinese/Cuban drug liaison. The supporting characters of Calabrese, Switek, and Zito, are underdeveloped. The casting of Barry Shabaka Hensley as Castillo was criticized early on by fans who wanted someone like Danny Trejo to fill the shoes left by Edward James Olmos. And while it is true that in Cuba and other countries south of Miami there are a fair amount of Negro Hispanics, Hensley doesn't fool anyone.

On the other hand, John Ortiz as bad guy Jose Yero chews up the screen nicely. Gong Li is stiff as Crockett's love interest, not to mention noticeably older (the actress is pushing forty, and Farrell is only thirty). British actress Naomie Harris does a great job of capturing the New Yawk accent of Trudy Joplin, and her chemistry with Foxx is good. Hinds, who recently garnered acclaim as Julius Caesar in the HBO series "Rome" and as the worrisome assassin in "Munich" plays a great bureaucrat, but it would've been nice to see more of him.

The hi-def photography works well for the most part, but less so in daytime, when some otherwise beautiful photography of South America is obscured by blurriness.

Mann has done a good job of reinventing the TV show for the modern era, but this is no "The Fugitive."
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9/10
Even funnier than I expected
12 August 2005
I'd heard this was a funny movie. I expected it to be funny. But I didn't expect it to be THIS funny! Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn headline a cast in what must be one of the absolute funniest movies I've seen in years. Part of the comic team that started out with "Zoolander" and later the VERY successful "Old School," among others, this is better than both. While movies like those, "Starsky & Hutch," etc. ended up relying quite heavily on the crude and outright disgusting, this movie forgoes much of that in favor of genuine laughs.

Vince Vaughn hearkens back to the over-the-top antics he first displayed in the cult hit "Swingers," while, perhaps for the first time, Wilson manages not to irritate me (okay, I'll admit Wes Anderson knows how to use him too). Together they generate enough laughs to sustain the picture by themselves. But luckily they are given a terrific supporting cast to help them on their way.

As mediators for couples in divorce settlements, they prove their effectiveness in the first scene, where they disturb separated spouses Dwight Yoakam and Rebecca De Mornay to the point that they want to settle just so these two don't have to talk anymore.

These guys do everything together, and they have for the last seventeen years. It is the most homo-erotic relationship between two heterosexual men to be shown in quite some time. The whole movie, they are after women, but it is their bond that holds things together. It has gotten so Jeremy (Vaughn) has promised, in keeping with tradition, never to let John (Wilson) spend his birthday alone, since the only child's parents are dead. And, as the title implies, every year they head to weddings looking for women to bed. They also make quite a scene at every wedding, assisting with the cutting of the cake, and making speeches to the bride and groom.

But then comes the "Kentucky Durby of weddings," Treasury Secretary Cleary (Christopher Walken) is walking his oldest daughter down the aisle. The scene features walk-ons by Sen. John McCain and James Carville. The two buddies go in as "brothers from New Hampshire," and things spiral out of control. John sets his sights for Claire Cleary, (Rachel McAdams), the middle child who is dating a selfish environmental lobbyist (Bradley Cooper, of "Alias" fame). Jeremy, who just wants to stick to the plan of the one-night stand, becomes the object of obsessive deflowered virgin Gloria Cleary (Ilsa Fisher, giving perhaps the most energetic performance of the film), not to mention the secretary's gay son, Todd. Mrs. Cleary (Jane Seymour) attempts to seduce John in a rather humiliating scene reminiscent of "The Graduate." Another hilarious addition is the secretary's foul-mouthed mother, who describes First-Lady Eleanor Roosevelt as being a dyke. Henry Gibson, as the meek Father is also a pleasure, not so much for what he says (since he has very few lines) but what he doesn't say, including listening to Vaughn give confession, ending with a mouth-to-mouth kiss to seal the deal.

Vaughn and Fisher are a perfect romantic pair, because each one is just as crazy as the other, and as determined as she is to screw him, he's just as determined to keep away. Owen Wilson, more subdued than his co-star, actually shows a depth heretofore unseen in his character. Will Ferrell has an uncredited cameo as the entrepreneur who taught Vaughn how to crash weddings, a momma's boy who now gets his kicks crashing funerals.

The references to bodily organs, sex, etc. are all fairly relevant in the context of the story, and not overdone. It's crude, but unlike "Old School," stuff isn't just thrown in there because the writers couldn't think of anything genuinely funny to say.
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Touching Evil (1997– )
Twisted and gritty
11 August 2005
This was one of my favorite "Mystery!" series. This was something of a precursor to shows like "CSI" and "Without a Trace," and ten times better. Robson Greene is DI Dave Creegan, a workaholic who works in a fictional British unit called Organized Serial Crime (OSC). Creegan received a bullet in the head some time back, and was brought back to life through the miracle of medicine, now walking a tightrope on the edge of sanity as the semi-suicidal detective hunts down serial killers and other perps through his gift for thinking like they do. Creegan's partner, DI Susan Taylor, is a no-nonsense type whose method for solving cases is quite the opposite of Creegans. DC Mark Rivers, also a key player, is as far removed from Creegan as possible, a by-the-book detective who is just as content to wait for back-up as jump into the fire. There were some excellent shows, but the first season is by far the best, starting off with a perverted and villainous suspect portrayed by Ian McDiarmid, of "Star Wars" fame.

Perhaps this show lacks some of the class that made earlier shows such as "Prime Suspect" such a treat, but the only thing on "Mystery!" to match it as of yet is probably the most recent American-produced Tony Hillerman adaptations.
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The Island (2005)
8/10
Stylized fun/frightening morality play
25 July 2005
Warning: Spoilers
What would you do to survive? How much would you be willing to pay for a longer life? These are the issues at hand in Michael Bay's latest film, easily one of his better efforts (and helped by the absence of blockbuster king Jerry Bruckheimer, if only a little). The world Bay has created looks real. The action doesn't always. But he's brought an excellent cast on board to help the movie on its way.

Lincoln Six-Echo (Ewan McGregor) has lived underground for three years. He's something of a rebel in a nearly perfect society, one of two remaining sanctuaries from the contamination that has killed almost everything outside. That other sanctuary is the Island, a "Garden of Eden" that everyone hopes to go to, by winning the lottery. Lincoln's best friend is Jordan Two-Delta (Scarlett Johanssen), who is a more obedient member of their society, who likes to show Lincoln up in a virtual fighting game powered by XBOX (the advertising is everywhere). Only Lincoln asks questions, like where does the food go that he and his friend Jones Three-Echo make every day? The only clues he can find come from a white-trash maintenance guy, McCord (Steve Buscemi), who works in the outer, more contaminated area of the society. Dr. Merrick (Sean Bean) worries about Lincoln's queries.

When Jordan wins the lottery to go to the Island, Lincoln has another of his bad dreams, only slightly different from before. He gets up in the middle of the night and slips into a restricted area, disguised as a doctor, where he makes a very disturbing discovery. Two of the citizens at Merrick were sent to the island. One, a lottery winner named Starkweather (Michael Clarke Duncan, a happy version of John Coffey), and Lima, a pregnant woman whose water just broke. Lima has been euthanized while her baby was delivered to another woman who looks just like her, and Starkweather is seen running down the hall with a surgical cut down the center of his chest.

Of course, as anyone who knows anything about this movie would know, Lincoln tells Jordan and they make an escape, pursued by a French mercenary (Djimon Hounsou, delectably amoral) and his cold-blooded cohorts. Merrick explains to Hounsou's Albert Laurent the importance of getting Jordan, since model Sarah Jordan is comatose in a New York hospital. The two find Lincoln's old buddy McCord at a biker bar, where they learn they've got a lot to learn about the outside world. Says Lincoln: "I've gotta go get McCord. He's in a can taking a dump," having absolutely no idea what that actually means. McCord sets them straight on who they really are, that they are actually clones of millionaires, and tries to get them on a train to L.A., where Lincoln's "sponsor" lives.

L.A., 2019 looks remarkably realistic. It's a believable future because the cars look almost the same, yet elevated trains keep going up and up and up, mercenaries fly around on hoverbikes, and cars have a finger-print identification system. Laurent and his cronies are following the "stolen" credit card McCord, now dead, gave to Lincoln. A series of shoot-outs occur between Laurent's guys and police, Laurent's guys and civilians, and especially, Laurent's guys and the two clones. The best scene during this is when our two heroes are riding on the back of a tractor trailer hauling train wheels, and untie them, sending them rolling along and into their pursuers' vehicles. Another scene, that was too hard to believe, was when the clones are hanging on the insignia of an office building, and fall ninety stories to still survive. "Jesus must REALLY love you," says a construction worker and witness to them, upon their miraculous survival.

More fun and excitement follows with the face-to-face confrontation of Lincoln Six-Echo with Tom Lincoln, a Scottish boat designer who is much more fun to watch, even if he's not the good guy the clone is.

McGregor, as both insurance and sponsor, is quite good. His American accent is actually better than the trailer would have me believe, and his sense of wonder is quite believable, as long as Bay remembers it, so too does his egocentric persona as the Scottish bad boy. (Since Lincoln's false memories are actually the memories of his sponsor, he is all the more believable) Johanssen, as the educated-to-fifteen-years Jordan expresses a sense of curiosity at the verge of maturity maintains a borderline childlike point of view at all times (except in bed, something "Newsweek" critic David Anson brought up with Bay in an interview). Sean Bean is marvelous as yet another of his many villains, this one being a scientist with a God-complex who never quite grasps the absolute amorality of his work. Hounsou is brutal and intimidating, and a last-minute change of heart is exactly the kind of thing that, for some reason, never seems to work in movies - he's too bad to be good. Buscemi once again helps to round out the movie as a human foil, full of humor and a cynical look at things. Linclon: "What's God?" McCord: "Well, you know when you wish for something? God's the one that ignores you."
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8/10
A very Clintonian spy thriller
11 July 2005
For people who enjoy action at the expense of logic, you can't do much better than this ridiculous flick about an amnesiac teacher in a small Pannsylvania town who discovers she's a CIA assassin.

Geena Davis plays two very different characters. Samantha Caine is the sweet, confused, amnesiac mother of an eight-year-old girl named Caitlin. She lives with her boyfriend (Tom Amandes) and is a member of the local PTA. Charlie Baltimore is a self-loathing killer who cusses like a sailer and even uses sex as a weapon. Sam makes an uneasy transformation into Charlie as she begins to attract the attention of some corrupt government agents.

Samuel L. Jackson plays Mitch Hennessey, a sleazy, wisecracking private dick who is hired by Samantha, nicknamed "Amnesia Chick", to help her find her past. Jackson is a great source of comic relief. This is not his best role, but I think it's probably his funniest.

Craig Bierko is the main bad guy, Timothy, a former target of Charlie's who has been recruited by the very agency she used to work for, due to budget cuts in intelligence.

This is where the plot shows its age. In a scene at the White House, the President tells the CIA director and Charlie's boss, Leland Perkins, among others, that their money is in health care. And this is the whole basis of the bad guys' plan. Perkins and Timothy are going to kill 4000 people in Buffalo, NY, and blame a frozen Arab man for it, to get funding for more intelligence. Charlie was a relic of the Cold War, and they have no use for her now. The Bush Administration now is so different that such a plan wouldn't be relevant. Healthcare is already a secondary prospect to intelligence and war.

The cast includes Brian Cox as Charlie's mentor. He would later go on to star in a similarly themed, but much more serious movie, "The Bourne Identity," although Ward Abbott was a politician, not a man of action. David Morse is also featured as one of Charlie's targets Samantha mistakes for her fiancé. Neither of these actors last very long in the movie, it moves too briskly for that. The two-hour running time blows by thanks to the break-neck pacing.

Renny Harlin is often cited as one of the worst directors of big-budget action-fests working today. That may be true, so maybe it's Shane Black's script that saves things. Black is perhaps the best writer of action films. "Lethal Weapon" turned into the most successful cop-buddy franchise, I think, in history, with four movies to its credit. Black knows how to give the audience non-stop action and also a few chuckles. Here is probably his most fun, least serious effort, and Harlin complements that by never taking things seriously.

Interested in action and style with fun, believable characters in outrageous situations? This is for you. It ain't "Casablanca," but it sure ain't as shallow as James Bond (no offense to the 007 franchise).
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Birth (2004)
4/10
Dull and unpleasant, but not outright bad
5 July 2005
Warning: Spoilers
I believe Jonathan Glazer is perhaps the worst director I know of Grade-A material. "Sexy Beast" may not have had the most brilliant script to work with, but Ben Kingsley and Ray Winstone did excellently, and when Kingsley was killed off, so too did the movie lose its energy.

With this film it is a much different case. The cast full of first-rate actors, but they have absolutely nothing interesting to say. The only actors that stood out at all in the film were Danny Huston, Anne Heche, and Peter Stormare (even if his role is small).

Anna (Nicole Kidman), widow of ten years, has finally decided to remarry with a wealthy executive named Joseph (Huston, looking a lot like Richard Nixon). Plans are interrupted by the boy who lives downstairs (Cameron Bright), who just happens to have the same name as Kidman's late husband, Sean. Not only that, but he says he is her husband, and backs it up with a wealth of information. Not only does this disturb Anna, Joseph, and Anna's mother, Eleanor (Lauren Bacall, completely wasted here), but it also bothers the boy's parents, since he claims he is no longer their son.

There was a lot of controversy surrounding this film at its release. One source only cited a kiss. Another talked about a bath that Kidman has with Bright. Accusations flooded the boards accusing the film of child pornography, etc. Although it is hardly that bad, I was a little surprised at what there is. The bath scene does happen, but it's not romantic.

The mystery finally reaches a "satisfying" conclusion. I put that in quotes, because by the time it comes, too much damage has been done for me to really care for anybody but the now-shunned Joseph.

The two best scenes - or the only scenes that gave me any pleasure - were one when Joseph goes off on the kid and starts paddling him, and another, the moment of truth, when Clara (Heche) explains to Sean that he is not who he claims to be, because of the other Sean's love affair with her.

There is an obnoxious continuity break during the film, and too many of those symbolic shots people love to stick in indie dramas. The talent here isn't bad at all, but with actors including Arliss Howard, Alison Elliot, and Tony Levine, one would think they could come up with a slightly better film than this.

Where is Don Logan when you need him?
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Collateral (2004)
Intense
12 August 2004
This was the movie I had been anticipating all summer. Tom Cruise as an assassin, and I love good against-type casting. This movie is an intense roller-coaster ride with excellent atmosphere supplied by Mann, and two great performances from Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx, and sprinkled with character performances from Mark Ruffalo, Javier Bardem, Bruce McGill, Peter Berg, and Irma P. Hall.

Foxx, without any underlying comic edge to his performance, is perfect as the mild-mannered cab driver named Max, a man who has memorized the fastest routes to any destination in LA and dreams of opening a fancy limousine service. After dropping off a young assistant district attorney (Jada Pinkett Smith), he picks up Vincent (Cruise), and so begins their night of killing.

With some serious 5 o'clock shadow, silvery-gray hair and matching chrome suit, Tom Cruise is playing a much older person than before. He is totally devoid of sympathy for the dead, and is convinced that what he is doing is right, or at least acceptable. In some odd way, the very things that make him such a heartless person, almost redeem him, as we know that this sociopath isn't just a cartoon of someone, but morally bankrupt about what he does. He's been contacted by a drug trafficker named Felix (Bardem) to kill five people.

They travel throughout Los Angeles making Vincent's rounds. The digital photography helps to give the movie a documentary feel. The film is gritty and realistic feeling. The last few minutes betray this, to some effect, when Vincent becomes almost super-human, but he goes out nicely, in a way that is somewhat improbable, but nonetheless appropriate.

This film will likely (or hopefully) garner nominations for the two leads and the director. It's a stylish piece of work that works more like a horror movie than a thriller. In the theater I found it difficult to breathe as the intense action and suspense kept elevating. There was always a part of me--don't as me why--that was rooting for the bad guy, but he still scared me. Maybe it's when you take that Tom Cruise charm and twist it around into a bad thing.
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Intolerably cruel to watch
9 August 2004
Very little of this movieis worth anything. It is basically an excercise in cruelty, with one character stabbing the other in the back the whole way through. There are moments when characters look like they're making a turn for the better, but then they go back to being just plain bad, and drawing the movie out much longer than it needs to be. And the very worst of these characters is Catherine Zeta-Jones' heartless you-know-what, who ends up falling for the divorce attorney (Clooney) who kept her from getting anything off her rich, philandering husband (go figure). Or at least it would appear. For Clooney's part, he's a scumbag who's found a conscience when he becomes smitten with the gold-digging beauty. She doesn't return the favor, though, in any way that can make the viewer want to see her come out on top.

On the plus side, for a story that was not originated by the Coens, there are still some interesting minor details that seem to be inspired moments in the brothers' imagination. Herb, the senior partner of Clooney's law firm, lives in the basement of the building, hooked up to eerie-looking tubes, with such literature as "Living Without Intestines" on his coffee table. Also, is the character of Wheezy Pete, an asthmatic hit man whose demise comes when he mistakens his pistol for his inhaler. Also, a Scottish preacher in Las Vegas, who marries Clooney and Zeta-Jones, is a hilarious character.

The supporting characters of Geoffrey Rush's psycho producer Donovan Donaly and Cedric the Entertainer's a$$-nailing private detective are too-little seen. Especially after Rush's outlandish performance in the opening scene, shooting at his cheating wife and snapping Polaroids of his rump, where she stabbed him with a trophy before taking off.

In all, this was a movie that COULD have been entertaining. But movies with no redeemable characters make for terrible romantic comedies.
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Pitch Black (2000)
Surprisingly good
14 July 2004
"Pitch Black" cannot lay too much claim to being original, since "Alien," "Predator," and a whole array of other sci-fi and non-sci-fi films have dealt with the issues in this movie before. But that's what Hollywood is all about. The film opens as the captain of a civilian cruiser, while in a cryogenic sleep, dies. Two other crew members, Owens and Fry, struggle in vane to land the ship, dumping cargo in an attempt to raise the nose, and land on a nearby planet. After crashing and wrecking the ship, Owens is mortally wounded and the one hostile passenger, Richard B. Riddick, escapes.

The planet has three suns, so there is no nighttime. Great rib-cages of monstrous animals lie in canyons on this seemingly waterless planet. Among the survivors is an Arab holy man and his three sons, a prospector, an antiques dealer, a mischievous "boy," and an Aussie, whose job now is to dig graves for the dead. Also, there is a man named Johns, who is hell-bent on tracking down the escaped killer, Riddick. But his motives are more ambiguous than people think.

The only water on the planet comes from a well where people had previously settled here. But nobody is around. But thankfully they left some kind of lifeboat shuttle, that the crew can use to leave the planet.

Zeke, the gravedigger, mistakenly shoots another surviving passenger, mistaking him for Riddick, and discovers a hole in the burial site wall. When he looks in there, something kills him and sucks him through, and Riddick's standing right there.

Initially blamed for Zeke's death, the escaped convict, a man who has had an operation on his eyes to see in the dark, warns of something inside that hole. When indeed they do find creatures, and a model of the planet suggests that the last civilization was wiped out during a rare total eclipse, one which coincidentally is about to happen again, Johns makes a deal with Riddick to help them if he promises to play nice.

The movie features a cast of, at that time, fairly little-known actors, save for Keith David (best described as a character actor). Vin Diesel had been in "Saving Private Ryan" as a soldier who got shot by a sniper, and in "Boiler Room," but this was his first starring role. The character arcs help give this movie credibility: Caroline Fry (Radha Mitchell) was willing to dump the whole passenger load to save her own life, and now is hailed as captain for saving everyone's life; Johns (Cole Hauser) is a morphine-addicted bounty hunter; Riddick would just as soon leave everyone behind, as is his animal nature.

On one last note, Vin Diesel is not Marlon Brando, but he's not a "bad actor." Certainly not too bad here, as a relative bad guy. But now he's too big. He oughta do more movies like "Boiler Room," playing a supporting role to someone with more clout than Paul Walker.
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No Good Deed (2002)
An amazing mediocre suspenser
13 July 2004
Warning: Spoilers
I am a fan of Dashiell Hammet's work. I haven't read "House on Turk Street," but after watching the movie, I was amazed at how much the movie reminded me of his work, especially "The Glass Key," although the plotlines are hardly alike. the whole movie, for all it's clever plot twists, seems to exist in an entirely different world, one made famous by William Powell, Myrna Loy, Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, and John Huston. But the film also commits an unforgivable crime: it casts Samuel L. Jackson--whom I had previously believed could inject life and intensity into even the smallest part--as a dull protagonist who lacks all the wisecracking personality that people expect from the actor. Jackson aside, the cast is pretty good, but nothing special.

Jackson plays a cop who works in grand theft auto, but decides to help a grieving neighbor by finding her runaway daughter, believed to be with a boyfriend on Turk Street. After having little luck in his search, he ends up helping an elderly lady, Mrs. Quarre, get her groceries inside, losing the picture of the boyfriend in the process. When he tries to describe the suspect to her and her husband (an almost unrecognizable and Americanized Joss Ackland) a man who fits the vague description (blonde hair, blue eyes) comes out with a gun and takes Jackson hostage. Hoop, the psycho, is just another addition to Doug Hutshison's psychotic and short-tempered characters (Percy in "The Green Mile," Tanner in "The Salton Sea"), and he breaks no new ground here, but fills in as a supporting player. He and the Quarres are working with mastermind Tyrone (Stellan Skarsgard) to rip off a bank of ten million dollars. Erin, Tyrone's mistress, has seduced a bank employee into making the actual transaction. Tyrone, an authoritative sociopath, is Hoop's exact opposite in crime. He "doesn't believe in killing" and treats the gang as a business.

With a cop in their midst Erin is left to watch him while the deal goes down. Jackson happens to be a diabetic, and she learns that the hard way when she gives him a drink. She also learns that he plays classical bass. All their interaction during the rip-off to make you wonder which side Erin is on.

Tyrone, at the robbery, poses as Mr. Abernathy, a blind man who is here to wire money for a deal his company is making. Hoop shuts down power, and the inside guy, a geek who is obsessed with Erin, wires the money to a temporary account on a floppy he has encoded. He won't give them the code until he sees Erin, and Erin has found out that the cop tried to make a phone call and left the phone off the hook.

Tyrone and Hoop go to the guy's house, and wait. He will only tell Erin. He really just wants an excuse to have sex with her. Hoop kills him. Hoop and Erin have plotted against Tyrone, but Tyrone talks Hoop out of it. The Quarres have been waiting to fly them out to Fiji, but have figured out the double-cross, and they want the money. Erin has convinced Tyrone that the cop was looking for him, and not the boy. And so things get more complicated. But in the end it never really comes to a boil.

Milla Jovovich as Erin does a good job of playing a femme fatale. But the real attraction, if any, is Skarsgard, who hams up his villain quite nicely. It's not that he'sreally good at giving a layered performance, but as his character resorts to some pretty sadistic acts of violence, he makes up for the blandness of Jackson and Hutchison's dumb psycho. This is an intelligent killer, a man who is willing to share, but won't let other's get in his way.
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Ronin (1998)
10/10
The Chase!
9 July 2004
This film is shot with beutiful locales and is packed with fantastic gunfights and car chases to keep the adrenaline running. It's some sort of "Mission: Impossible" and "Speed" combo. Robert DeNiro headlines an ensemble cast. He's okay as a wisecracking ex-CIA agent, but it's not his film. With John Frankenheimer's assured direction, and an array of some of the best European actors working today, playing ex-intelligence and military personnel (CIA, KGB, British Navy, etc.) working with a rogue Irish rep. (Natascha McElhone) to retrieve a case from some French thugs en route to selling it to former KGB operatives. The case is wanted by a renegade IRA member, Seamus O'Rourke (Jonathan Pryce) who is in hiding in France.

The other members of the mercenary team are Frenchman Vincent (Jean Reno, "The Professional"), a German ex-KGB agent Gregor, (Stellan Skarsgard) who is a computer whiz and is working an angle with the Russians, Spence (Sean Bean) an arms dealer, and the getaway driver, Larry (Skipp Sudduth, "Third Watch").

Gregor turns out to be a wild card, and the case turns out to be something people would rather kill for than bother paying money.

The streets of Paris and other towns around the country and give the movie a hard-boiled look. The characters are trigger-happy enough to be featured as the villains in an episode of "Alias," but they are not nearly as flashy as in that show. And the chase scenes rival "The French Connection."

On one last note, this was the movie where I first took note of Jean Reno (who I'd previously seen on "Mission: Impossible") and Stellan Skarsgard (who I'd seen already in "Good Will Hunting" and "Amistad") as European talents to watch for.
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9/10
Michael Moore one-ups himself
30 June 2004
I, like many of the like-minded friends I know, flocked to theaters the opening weekend. I missed it Friday, but got in Saturday, and the place was packed! The object: to put "Fahrenheit 911" in the top five ballpark, and keep it from vanishing from theaters. I'd said prior to seeing it that, although on a smaller scale, this was the liberals' "Passion of the Christ," a movie swarming with so much preconceived gossip that like it or not, people will go see it. (For the record, I never saw Mel Gibson's controversial movie) Still, while it only mildly surprised me that the movie made No. 1 at theaters, I was shocked when I heard it made something like two million more than "Bowling for Columbine," the other highest-rated documentary, causing Moore to out-do himself.

The movie, undeniably, is an opinion piece. A movie made with an agenda in mind, and I don't have to say what it is. You probably already know Moore's feelings about President Bush, or you wouldn't even be reading this. From the opening scandal surrounding the 2000 election, to the filming of Bush & Co. getting ready for their speechmaking. (Wolfowitz salivates on his comb to slick his hair back) And then, the Trade Centers are hit... We don't actually see the planes hit the towers, but rather, we hear them, then are faced with the astonished and saddened faces of people standing in awe. Paper's flood the air with a cloud of smoke. But we do see Bush, sitting quietly in a Florida elementary school, contemplating the news in his head during a photo-op. And so starts the Bush-bashing, an ambiguous yet slanted look at long ties to cabinet members, their ties to oil, the real Ahmed Karzi, and Prince Bandhar of Saudi Arabia.

The movie demonstrates the lackluster conflict in Afghanistan, where too few soldiers were sent, and took too long at getting to al Qaeda's suspected locale. Then the War on Terror. In one episode, a woman is asked to take a container of breastmilk from the plane, yet another man is allowed matches and cigarette lighters. During this time it is estimated that there would be eight Troopers on duty at any given time in Oregon. (Nice defense from terrorists) Then they show how Bush used the tactic of War on Terror to coax politicians into lending support for his Iraq plan. The details of any infamous incidents in Iraq are not covered, although troops are seen playing around with a couple of POWs. Some soldiers talk about listening to music during their fighting. One song they listen to seems tailor-made for killing.

Michael Moore also follows Flint, Michigan resident Lily Lipscombe, a patriotic "conservative Democrat" whose daughter served in Desert Storm. Her son is stationed in Iraq, and when he dies, she is transformed into a grieving mother, one who never thought such a tragedy would happen.

The whole film is punctuated by George W. Bush's worst moments in front of a camera. As for Moore himself, he remains behind the camera for a good bit of the film, better to keep the audience focused on the business at hand.

Will it sway those who are not initiated? Swing-voters are likely targets, but Republicans, unless extremely moderate, won't even see it, most likely, let alone vote on it.
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Sexy Beast (2000)
The life of the movie
17 June 2004
Warning: Spoilers
This is a clever British gangster film, more on par with "The Long Good Friday" than "Snatch." And Ben Kingsley owns it. His ferocious and deservedly Osacar-nominated performance carries the film for its duration. But that's not quite enough.

Spoilers ahead (how I hate that word)

Kingsley's Don Logan, a menacing, foul-mouthed, and unpredictable creation, appears at the beginning of the second act. He's come to Spain to see Gal, our protagonist, who lives in a villa with his ex-porn star wife Deedee, and former Cockney thug cohort Aitch and his wife.

The film opens with a highly suggestive and comic scene of Gal, played by Ray Winstone ("Cold Mountain") sunbathing. He's a tubby fellow just past his prime, a likable guy with a rather unusual life as an expatriate Brit. Aitch is almost illegible in his talk, and in comparison, he is a real dufus. With the news that Don Logan has contacted Aitch's wife, Jackie, with respect to Gal, a bizarre man-sized rabbit appears in Gal's dreams, perhaps representative of Don and his vicious tactics.

Don comes in as a man who is, for some reason, tight-lipped. As he falls in with his surroundings, however, he shoots off at the mouth more and more, without concern for possible repercussions. He even has a history with Jackie that surfaces during his stay. But he's here on business, and he wants Gal.

Teddy Bass, (Ian McShane, "Deadwood") wants people to pull a heist at a high-tech bank. Gal is an old safe-cracker, so Don wants him for the job. But just as he came with act two, Don Logan leaves with act two. In a particularly menacing moment, after screaming every insult and threat he can think of, Don is attacked and killed by Gal, Deedee, Jackie, and Aitch, and murdered. The murder unravels in pieces after Gal is in England working for Teddy. Don Logan was supposed to get off the airplane in London, but he never showed up. And from here, things settle into a mode of minimal conflict.

Ian McShane looks the part of a ruthless gangster, but unfortunately the biggest character arc present in him is that he once took part in a homosexual sex act with the owner of the bank he's about to rob. The scene is presented in such a way that it can be difficult figuring out it even happened. But it eventually costs the banker his life.

Gal is let go with the full knowledge that they know Don is dead, but Don was the life of the party, and with him gone, what is there to enjoy.

Ben Kigsley, in a very un-Ben Kingsley performance, gives this movie more than it deserves. Ray Winstone gives some sympathetic bits, and the more Kingsley raves, the more you want someone to kill him. But once he's dead, there is no life, so the fun is pretty much gone. A generous 7/10 for Kingsley's uncompromising portrayal.
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10/10
Excellent cinematography, an intriguing story, and memorable characterizations
2 June 2004
First, I have a confession to make. This is the first Sergei Leone film I have ever seen (unless you count catching part of his 1984 gangster flick on TV one time). The film takes its time getting to know the people, and it takes just about that long to figure out just what is going on. But once everything is said and done, this is one heck of an epic western. Henry Fonda stars in a rare turn as Frank, a villain so charming one could almost forget he's a cold-hearted killer. He works for a railroad baron doing his dirty work, but he's starting to move up in the world, much to the chagrin of his employer, Mr. Morton. Frank is responsible for the massacre of an Irish landholder and his family, shortly before the man's new wife, Claudia Cardinale, arrives from New Orleans. The murder was set up to look like Cheyenne, (a wise-cracking Jason Robards) a notorious outlaw, is responsible. In another story thread, a mysterious stranger who plays a harmonica (Charles Bronson) is after Frank in a revenge plot that is not revealed until the end. Harmonica and Cheyenne end up teaming together, because each of them has there own reason to want Frank or Morton dead, be it an old score or protecting a reputation.

Halfway through the movie, The Widow McBain (Cardinale) loses my sympathy. She's a whore from New Orleans, and as is revealed with Frank, one willing to do anything to survive. Bronson plays an average Bronson role, while Jason Robards nearly steals the show as an outlaw who shoots his mouth off more than his gun. Fonda injects his character with a kind of sympathetic psychosis, so that while he understands guns better than he understands money, and uses them to cause great damage, he ends up not much worse than Bronson or Robards.
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9/10
Intelligent, brilliant, and dark
30 May 2004
Tom Cruise's character is perhaps my favorite thing about this thought-provoking Spielberg film. I honestly cannot easily think of a hero who is much more flawed than he is. This is a drug-addict with a short temper, who looks to the new pre-crime unit for hope after his six-year-old son was abducted.

Now, to make a movie about arresting criminals before they have committed the act, the protagonist has to find himself incriminated, right? And so that's exactly what happens. Enter Colin Farrell, just before people really knew who Colin Farrell was. He plays a representative of the Justice Department, overseeing the pre-crime activities to decide if the system is fit to go national. When Cruise goes on the lam, he's the man who goes after him. In one of the movie's better scenes, the two men duke it out inside a Lexus factory. The ageless Max von Sydow plays the veteran police man who has climbed to the top as an entrepreneur in crime, overseeing every facet of pre-crime, and doing everything in his power to keep the system his own. Academy-Award Nominee Samantha Morton is Agatha, the most gifted of the pre-cogs, who has a mysterious past that keeps being echoed in her memory of the murder of a heroin junkie. Peter Stormare makes a colorful cameo as a black-market surgeon, Tim Blake Nelson shows up as the warden of the would-be murderer prison where all inmates captured via Pre-Crime, are put. The fact that Spielberg films the entire movie using white filters to bleach out color helps give the film an atmospheric touch. However, it may not translate so well to the mainstream audiences who don't always appreciate some artistic style.
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9/10
Clever and unusual comedy-thriller
26 May 2004
Warning: Spoilers
This is a clever paranoia thriller, from a script by Brian Helgeland ("L.A. Confidential," "Mystic River"). Mel Gibson is alternately hilarious and disturbing as Jerry Fletcher, a confused and paranoid taxi driver in New York who rambles on about government conspiracies about NASA intending to assassinate the President with an earthquake, the new twenty-dollar-bill, and Oliver Stone being the secret spokesperson for George Bush. Julia Roberts holds her own as a woman working at the Justice Department, whom Jerry confides in to tell about conspiracies he's uncovered.

Jerry prints the "Conspiracy Theory," a newsletter detailing his latest findings. He lives in a squalid downtown apartment that is much like a vault, and purchases "The Catcher in the Rye" whenever he sees it, although he's never read the book. He keeps his coffee and meals in padlocked metal containers, and has fuzzy memories he cannot seem to conjure up. Until one of his articles in his newsletter catches the attention of Dr. Jonas (Patrick Stewart), who is apparently somehow linked to Jerry's past. Stewart spends most of the film in Jake Gittes mode, after Jerry bites off his nose in his first scene. Dr. Jonas, supposedly a CIA psychiatrist, works along with a cynical FBI agent, and Roberts' boss, Mr. Wilson, in catching Jerry. Jerry can't remember what he did, but he seems determined to protect Roberts' character as best he can.

This isn't the greatest movie ever made, but Gibson's skatter-brained performance works in a tragicomedy way, yielding some comic relief, while actually very sad. The scary thing is that there really are people like that, so do they actually know something?
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9/10
One of the best romantic pairings in recent years
14 April 2004
Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo are electrifying in this clever romantic thriller. They bring a much-needed maturity to their characters as a businessman/art thief and insurance investigator, respectfully. The movie works on a number of levels, but it is a character-driven film all the way.

Thomas Crown is a man who has it all. He's wealthy, and has plenty of time to take off to look at the paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. But one day, while security is diverted by a Trojan Horse scheme, he walks in and takes a valuable piece of art. The cat-and-mouse game begins.

The art-thief story takes a back seat to his ambiguous romance with the insurance investigator who was sent to find it. She knows he took it, and he knows she knows. He even plays games with her. He hands her a covered painting he says is what she's looking for, and she throws it in the fire without even looking.

Bottom line, it's all fun and games. The closest thing to an explosion or anything is when three men pop out of a Trojan Horse during the actual theft. When all is said and done, you know everyone has had a great time making this film. It reminded me in a few very elementary ways of the atrocious "Entrapment," only done right for a change.
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Suicide Kings (1997)
Classic Christopher Walken
7 April 2004
This is a mildly clever movie featuring another great portrait of menace from Christopher Walken. He's a retired mafioso who ends up being taken hostage by four New York preppies as leverage, since Avery's (Henry Thomas) sister, Elise has been kidnapped by two psycho hoodlums (including "Everybody Loves Raymond's" Brad Garrett). Walken is supposed to supply them with connections and foot the bill for the $2,000,000 ransom money. Jay Mohr is the mastermind of the plan, a semi-psycho control freak who may have more at stake than anyone else knows. Johnny Galecki is hilarious as Ira, the guy who loaned his house to his four friends for "poker" and freaks out when he finds a mobster dct-taped to his father's favorite chair. Sean Patrick Flanery, Elise's boyfriend, and Jeremy Sisto, as a junkie male nurse round out the accomplices in the kidnap scheme. What Walken learns from his attorney is that, most likely, the other kidnappers used an "inside player," and begins to turn everyone against each other, systematically.

During all of this, Denis Leary, as Walken's sociopathic driver, is prowling New York City (actually Los Angeles) for anyone who knows anything about either of the kidnappings. In the meantime he raves on with liberal profanity with his partner, about everything from his $5000 boots to the cheap graphite golf club he uses to bean another another gangster into submission with in a strip club.

The movie has one or two twists that don't quite gel. And it is definitely a dark and tense story, with only some mild comedy bits to warrant any laughs.

One scene in particularly vexes me. Denis Leary's character, Lono Veccio, tells an abusive alcoholic father about his own father and grandfather. His grandfather came over from Ireland with the alcoholic gene. His father inherited it. And although Leary is Boston-Irish, he plays a guy with an Italian name. It's fine, I guess, but it leaves a gaping hole concerning his origins.
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7/10
The Untouchables go to Chinatown...
18 March 2004
Warning: Spoilers
...Or at least that's kind of what this movie reminds me of in only the most basic ways. This film is okay, with good performances and a mildly-engaging plot, but the finale is kind of lackluster. Mulholland Falls is where the elite L.A. Hat Squad takes unwanteds to teach them a lesson. Nick Nolte is the world-weary boss. This is not one of his best performances, and he seems to overact just a little bit. Chazz Palminteri is his best friend, a short-tempered member going to sessions with a psychiatrist to help deal with his anger. Meanwhile, Chris Penn and Michael Madsen have little to do, though a scene where Madsen tries to pick the lock on a gate to a military base rather than have Penn blow it off is a funny bit.

They are trying to figure out how a girl found out in the desert was killed. Apparently impact with the ground did it. She was Nolte's mistress for six months during his marriage to Melanie Griffith. The trail leads to Gen. Thomas Timms (John Malkovich) who also knew the girl as his mistress. Malkovich turns in another good supporting role as a cancerous military man. Treat Williams, one of the officers and the real bad guy, turns in a fairly mediocre job.

All in all the movie falls short, but it does include some nice uncredited turns by Bruce Dern as the Chief of Police, and Rob Lowe and "CSI"'s William Petersen as a couple of hoods. (The latter of which is taken to the title location)
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A showcase of two great actors
10 February 2004
If you are a fan of Robert Duvall and Robert De Niro, or for that matter, Charles Durning, this may be a movie you'd want to see. But the film lacks somewhat in story. However, Duvall gives one of the best performances I can remember in his role of a jaded Homicide detective. He is assigned to a case involving the murder and mutilation of a prostitute. His brother, De Niro, is a priest whose top benefactor (Durning) may be at the root of the case. Duvall and Durning also have a history concerning that Durning's a high-class pimp. Outside of this information, the movie plays less like a murder mystery and more like a study of corruption involving Irish Catholics in post-war L.A. The story is also a fictitious version of the Black Dahlia case, a case that baffled police involving the murder of a prostitute, and the lack of evidence to suggest a killer.
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Line of Fire (2003–2005)
Quite an interesting pilot
3 December 2003
I don't know what to really say about this show. I loved the adds for it, and I'm a sucker for gangster movies and the like. I never would have pictured David Paymer as a mob boss, but he does a fine job. I felt like--and this is just after watching one episode--the mob syndicate aspect of the show has yet to fully develop its characters into three-dimensional people, unlike the FBI, who seem much more real so far. I really hope this doesn't become a kind of cops-and-robbers thing, following two opposite sides, yet always making you want the "good guys" to win, and bring down the "bad guys."

I would have never figured Richmond, Virginia for the setting of a long, drawn-out mob sting operation, but I like the idea for a change. Rather than the cold streets of New York or Chicago, or flashy environs of, say, Miami, they put a bunch of syndicate crooks in one-time capital of the Confederate States.

So far, while in pursuit of a low-level mob affiliate, an FBI agent exchanges shots with the crook and both are killed, right in front of the agent's partner. A young widow has just graduated Quantico, all in an effort to eventually make it to anti-terrorism and avenge the death of her husband in the Pentagon of 9-11. She's about to fill the shoes left behind by the afore-mentioned dead agent. Two agents inform a petty crack dealer his life may be in danger because of a tape taken from four days prior, when Malloy (Paymer) interrogated a man, beating him savagely with a lead pipe, learned he worked for the crack dealer, "Crazy Jazz," dealing drugs to Malloy's nephew, Jimmy. (The scene is probably the reason there's a "Viewer Discretion Advised" on this show.) Later on, newly recruited ex-con Roy, in a mad dash, shoots Crazy Jazz, threatens his buddy, and kills an innocent bystander, much to the chagrin of Malloy, and his lieutenant, Donovan Stubbin, who stood by as his friend went nuts. But apparently Roy is actually undercover, and it was all just a way of getting the dealer into Witness Protection.

The show definitely has potential, but only time (and ratings) can tell.
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Out of Sight (1998)
10/10
I used to like this better
28 November 2003
"Out of Sight" is the definitive George Clooney movie, and the one time I really liked something with Jenifer Lopez in it. I also have enjoyed the series "Karen Sisco," spawned from this film. But to my surprise, reading the book made me hate things about this movie.

When I read "Get Shorty" and watch the movie, I enjoy them both equally for their differences as well as their similarities. Not so with this movie. I have problems when a film decides, rather than to just change certain parts, altering how the characters get to where they're going, that they actually change the outcome of the story.

Aside from character descriptions (in the book Foley was 47, Karen was blonde, and Buddy was white) it seems that they felt they had to "Hollywood-ize" the story. Most of the humor in the movie was absent in Elmore Leonard's novel. One thing I did enjoy, that was a stroke of original demented genius, is in the way that White Boy Bob is killed. But the drugged-up serial rapist character of Kenneth, and the sociopathic tendencies of Chino (Luis Guzman) are not so well drawn as in the book. Some scenes were just outright deleted, making the movie just a little more improbable.

Don't get me wrong, I love the movie for what it offers. It's the things that are changed that make me feel like I was cheated. Through and through I'd give this a 7/10
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Mystic River (2003)
The best movie I've seen this year!
27 October 2003
This is an American masterpiece. A dark, disturbing film about scarred lives and respect in a Boston neighborhood. Both a haunting study of men on the edge, and a clever murder mystery, this marks Clint Eastwood's greatest latter-day film ("The Outlaw Josey Wales" stands in a much different place.). There is not a bad performance to be had in this harrowming, original American tragedy. There are bound to be Oscar nominations all around. Sean Penn delivers one of his best performances as vengeful Jimmy. As quiet Dave, Tim Robbins gives arguably his best performance ever. Kevin Bacon is great as Sean, the former childhood friend who escaped the old neighborhood and now lives life as a loser with a badge. Laurence Fishburn gives a fine supporting role that reminds us how he was great before he becaem Morpheus. Marcia Gay Harden, as Dave's frightened wife, gives a performance to eclipse her Oscar-win for "Pollock." And Laura Linney, as Jimmy's wife, gives another good performance, if her character seems somewhat underdeveloped.

The story of Jimmy, Dave, and Sean, three childhood friends who are all changed when Dave is abducted by two men posing as policemen and repeatedly molested before escaping, lends a frightening prologue to the events that encompass the rest of the film. When Jimmy's 19-year-old daughet Katie is found murdered following a night of bar-hopping, friends are reunited in the wake of her death. Sean is the homicide detective brought in to investigate. Dave's wife saw him come in with a nasty cut, a messed up hand, and someone else's blood on him, claiming it was a mugger. Jimmy starts his own hunt for his daughter's killer. Sean uncovers Katie's secret relationship with Brendan Harris, the son of a man who once ratted Jimmy out to the police. And the mystery surrounding Dave's whereabouts that night keeps coming up.

Eastwood, who has turned out many good, and a few mediocre films, is at the top of his game, a first-time music credit tossed in the mix. Brian Helgeland, adapting Dennis Lehane's novel, resurrects the same gifts witnessed in his Oscar-winning script "L.A. Confidential." The movie is a powerful, depressing story brilliantly told. It's not a movie to watch for fun, but it's worth the price of admission.
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Fargo (1996)
10/10
Possibly the blackest comedy ever made
16 October 2003
This is a brilliant piece of work, made by the Coen Brothers, who are known for turning out good (if bizarre and sometimes shocking) work. This is a thriller with shockingly graphic violence, and humor as black as coal. It is made even more shocking by the fact that the movie was inspired by true events. A sleazy but mild-mannered car salesman who hires a couple of criminals to kidnap his wife with the intention of keeping most of the ransom provided by his father-in-law. Things turn bad when one of the kidnappers shoots a State Trooper and two witnesses, leading seven-months-pregnant Brainerd, Minnesota Chief of Police Marge Gunderson to investigate the killings.

The cast is stellar. William H. Macy, as the hapless car salesman, gives arguably his best performance. Frances McDormand won an Oscar for her portrayal of Marge. Steve Buscemi, in one of his best roles from his mid-nineties crime movies, plays loud-mouthed, inept, "funny-looking" Carl Showalter. Peter Stormare, as the silent, stone-faced psycho-partner of Buscemi, is positively chilling. Unlike every Coen bros. movie since "Blood Simple," Fargo takes a more serious, less bent look at things. And the hilarious regional dialect, which can be obnoxious at times, adds humor and culture to the isolation of the setting. One thing that makes little sense is the title. The first scene takes place in a bar in Fargo, ND, but the meat of the film is in Brainerd and Minneapolis. Rating 10/10
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