A.J. Hakari's sporadically-updated musings on the wide world of movies

Month: February, 2015

“Heist” (2001)

"Heist" poster


I’m surprised that David Mamet took as long as he did to make 2001’s Heist. By the time of the picture’s release, the famed penner of plays and doctor of scripts had racked up an impressive repertoire of tales involving con games, most of which were told from the victim’s perspective. These were stories about how easily those who assumed dominant societal roles could fleece anyone with even the mildest submissive streak, yet few were directly focused on the perpetrators of said schemes. Heist aims to change that and shed some thematic weight at the same time, in favor of supplying audience members with as no-frills an example of its namesake genre as possible. Mamet’s goal here isn’t so much to explore the psychology of those who con for a living but to craft a straight thriller, concisely presenting the expected twists and turns with its author’s patented linguistic flourishes. Considering the wealth of talent behind and in front of the camera, some viewers may find Heist to be traditional to a fault, yet its engaging plot and entertainingly elaborate turns of phrase should spell a good time for most.

Just when Joe Moore (Gene Hackman) thought he was out, they pulled him back in. Joe is a career criminal, a veteran thief who virtually wrote the book on pulling off the most complicated robberies. But in the process of busting into a jeweler’s storefront, his face is captured on camera, an incident that has him convinced that his stealing days are over. Surprisingly, Joe feels relieved by this, opting to use his newfound sense of freedom to set out with his wife Fran (Rebecca Pidgeon) on a long-awaited sailing adventure. However, his diminutive fence Mickey (Danny DeVito) has another plan in store; having spent a small fortune on setting up the theft of a Swiss gold shipment, he expects Joe and his crew to finish the job. Our man wants nothing to do with the heist, but when all his efforts to trick his way out of the gig end in failure and plunge his team into further hot water, he has no other choice but to comply. Forced to recruit Mickey’s volatile nephew Jimmy (Sam Rockwell), Joe puts his plans for this one last score into motion, despite the best efforts of Jimmy’s hot temper and his crew’s waning confidence in his skills to derail them.

Heist doesn’t have as overtly escapist of a tone as many flicks of its kind tend to receive, but that’s what helps it stand out. The layers of grit applied here are mostly convincing, making the action seem more grounded than usual without detracting from the pure joy of seeing improbable swindles come together. You get the idea that these aren’t expertly-trained commandos at work; this is a gang that screws up, panics, and ends up having to improvise in some respect, regardless of how well-planned their jobs are in advance. Joe’s troupe also isn’t the kind to back down after having one pulled over on them, a sleeping giant that the greedy villains foolishly insist on waking up over and over. The concept of letting go and knowing one’s limitations is at the heart of Heist, showing how much better one’s mortality fares when they decide their coffers are full enough. Anything can happen when somebody can’t shake the dollar signs in their eyes, and it’s this notion that fuels the intensity behind the picture’s robbery sequences; we’re never sure of whether the baddies or Joe will make the first stab at gaining the upper hand. Despite the film’s scant gunplay and pyrotechnics, scenes like these are a great help in preserving a suspenseful mood, as they come tinged with a seat-of-their-pants urgency that has you constantly wondering how things will play out for the characters.

Also, this being a production conceived by Mamet, the biggest star in Heist next to its satisfyingly-executed capers is its dialogue. These lines go out of their way to not resemble regular human speech in any way, but I’ll be damned if it still doesn’t sound really cool. Barring the odd bad apple, Mamet has always had a knack for assembling actors who can make his signature kind of wordplay fly, and Heist is no exception. “When he goes to bed, sheep count him,” says Ricky Jay’s distraction artist about Joe, and the behavior he exhibits over the course of the story proves it. Hackman portrays Joe as a force to be reckoned with, a cool customer when everything’s going according to plan but a terror when he’s crossed or stuff goes to pot. Seeing him get back in his own way at those who keep trying to screw him over at every turn is a pleasure, and revisiting this film over ten years after Hackman stepped out of the Hollywood spotlight really made me miss the guy. DeVito’s performance is plenty intense itself, filling Mickey with enough piss and vinegar to render the character fearsome in spite of his stature. Jay and Delroy Lindo also do fine work as members of Joe’s crew, but Pidgeon proves to be one of the movie’s weakest links. She’s far too stiff to play the femme fatale card, and there isn’t much foundation to the arc Fran is given; the path she takes doesn’t make a lick of sense, included seemingly just to make Joe look a little better when all’s said and done.

I adored Heist when I first caught it at the theater, and while my enthusiasm has lessened since then, it was still a fun watch. The screenplay contains some great chestnuts (“Everybody needs money — that’s why they call it money!“), the seasoned ensemble is more often than not on the ball, and although the visuals and methodical pacing may strike certain viewers as blah, it all goes towards giving the film its credible flair. Heist isn’t an all-time great addition to the genre that inspired its title, but boy, does it work like a charm.

“The Colossus of New York” (1958)

"The Colossus of New York" poster


They don’t make very many monster movies like 1958’s The Colossus of New York. This here is a specimen from the golden age of creature features that deigns to explore the horror of actually being a freak of nature one’s self, an angle few genre pictures of the time had the chutzpah to address. For sure, The Wolf Man‘s Larry Talbot struggled with his wild side, but this conflict was played out with a melodramatic bent rather than as a truly dire dilemma. But as its spare piano score pounds out note after foreboding note over the opening credits, you can tell that this definitely isn’t the case with The Colossus of New York. A feeling of doom and gloom takes residence in the pit of your stomach at the start of the movie and stays there, brought on by the way the story emphasizes the pain and loss of humanity that the process of becoming a walking abomination would incur. That the film wasn’t able to iron out all of its stodgy staging and wooden acting does detract a bit from its overall power, but it still leaves you with a uniquely solemn impression regardless.

Dr. Jerry Spensser (Ross Martin) could have changed the world. Thanks to his revolutionary research, he was on the cusp of solving the world hunger problem once and for all. But before he made it to the history books, Jerry was killed in a terrible accident, depriving mankind of one of its greatest minds — and his wife (Mala Powers) and son (Charles Herbert) of a loved one. However, Jerry’s father William (Otto Kruger) isn’t about to let all that genius go to waste. He spirits his boy’s body away to his basement laboratory, working around the clock to preserve as much of him as possible. Helped reluctantly by his other son Henry (John Baragrey), William at last reveals the fruits of his labors: a towering android that now houses Jerry’s brain. The formerly deceased doc is none too pleased with being booted back to life, especially upon realizing he can never see his family again. As much as William tries forcing him to continue his groundbreaking work, Jerry finds his mind drifting towards using his newfound strength and longevity to violently take out his aggressions on the world at large.

So many individual elements in The Colossus of New York work so splendidly, it’s disheartening to see it have such a tough go at tying them all together into a consistently solid product. That the film at least lives up to the grim narrative foretold by its opening minutes is a definite point in its favor and a move that will forever etch this in the memory banks of vintage science fiction fans. Though it doesn’t even begin making a case for why it chose to cram Jerry’s cranium into a ten-ton robot (which can move, yet remains stationary while he does his work anyway), the movie still does a great job of hammering home how horrible adapting to his transformation must be. The eponymous android does look a touch cheesy — just imagine a more humanoid Gort with a poncho — but have fun trying to get the haunting, static-tinged screeching Jerry lets loose when he returns to the living out of your head. His journey is a fascinating take on the genre’s typical, Frankenstein-style cautionary tales of meddling with science, focused on what might happen if mankind’s physical limitations were taken away. With a body that endows him with immortality, great strength, and the ability to tap into other supernatural planes, what’s to stop Jerry from losing all sense of compassion for humans and go mad with power? We’ve seen monsters and madmen struggle with their darker impulses, but this picture makes it loud and clear that being a virtually boundless brute is not fun.

With this level of maturity applied to what lesser films would regard as simply some dude in an unwieldy costume, one might assume that the rest of The Colossus of New York would follow suit. But while it’s not for a lack of trying, director Eugene Lourie (Gorgo) doesn’t quite succeed in nurturing the seeds of an uncommonly emotional B-movie into fruition. He passes over opportunities to really dig into the film’s other dramatic goings-on, from Henry dealing with always having been favored less than his brother to William letting his grief cloud the fact that his beloved son is well on his way to becoming a killing machine. These sections ring fairly flat, and while The Colossus of New York tries to shake things up with an unexpected character death or two as it marches towards the climax, it has a tricky time of holding our attention whenever the metal maestro isn’t onscreen. The ending is especially problematic, as what’s supposed to be the culmination of Jerry’s darkest designs coming to life is handled in a rather hurried manner. The last ten minutes blow the previous hour’s worth of ominous plotting in a mad dash to the finish line, robbing the best thing the flick had going for it of what should have been its most powerful moment.

From its minimalist score to its dark thematic overtones, there’s much to like about The Colossus of New York. It does such a fine job of accomplishing what it can with a B-movie’s budget and length, one wonders where it really could have gone had it been able to shed some more of the restrictions keeping the remainder of its ideas reigned in. Still, The Colossus of New York carries a flavor all its own that discerning cinefolk and card-carrying monster kids can agree isn’t like much that they’ve tasted before.

(The Colossus of New York is available on Blu-ray from Olive Films.)

“V/H/S: Viral” (2014)

"V/H/S: Viral" poster


I’m past the point of getting pissed over the V/H/S franchise having disavowed its namesake format. The first installment of this anthology series got me all hot and bothered by arriving under the guise of paying tribute to shot-on-video horror, only to boast more digitally-inspired tales of terror. Its follow-up, however, distanced itself even further from the cassette-based conceit, yet the quality of the stories contained therein was greatly improved; who cares how beholden one is to a gimmick, as long as the content is cool? It was with the hope that some of today’s finest genre talents were similarly given the freedom to go nuts that I approached V/H/S: Viral, a vehicle that ends up rehashing everything irksome about that first flick. In addition to committing the cardinal sin of anthology horror by featuring truncated segments that whiz away any traces of potential they might have had, it sweetens the pot by incorporating dizzyingly awful photography and intentional video “glitches” that detract from the overall atmosphere rather than enhance it. I don’t hate V/H/S: Viral because it doesn’t have any tapes; I hate it because it’s a terrible film, one that exemplifies all those annoying traits that give the found footage concept a bad name.

As opposed to the more concrete framing device favored by its predecessors, V/H/S: Viral employs one that plunges us right into the carnage. As he hits the streets to record an ongoing police chase, a young man (Patrick Lawrie) witnesses his girlfriend (Emila Zoryan) getting captured by the ice cream truck that the cops are after. While he takes off in hot pursuit, viewers are shown a terrifying trio of shorts interwoven with his efforts to get his gal pal back safe and sound. The first story involves a documentary centered around a magician (Justin Welborn) whose cloak conceals the demonic truth behind his talents. Next up, a scientist (Gustavo Salmeron) constructs a gateway into an alternate dimension that turns out to be more monstrous than he anticipated. The final vignette follows a troupe of skater punks heading to Mexico to shoot a video, only to become part of a strange cult’s deadly rituals. But as the aforementioned youngster races to get his girlfriend out of harm’s way, he remains oblivious to the chaos spreading around him, a wave of death and destruction that he’s in danger of helping bring to its crest.

V/H/S: Viral is slightly better than the movie that launched this franchise, if only because the latter had no prior entries to set you up for disappointment. Such issues as ignoring the bevy of ways that it could’ve aesthetically and thematically worked the videotape angle into the proceedings are of no outstanding concern, but in its place are a host of other shortcomings to drive you up the damned wall. Firstly, there’s the matter of the photography, which alternates between unbearably jittery and almost completely confounding in design. The questions of who compiled this footage, where they found it, and how they edited it all together are things you sort of have to forgive flicks of this type for not answering, but when they nag at you as strongly as they do in V/H/S: Viral, paying them no mind is downright impossible. They take you out of the moment in a heartbeat, causing what atmosphere the movie had hoped to generate to vanish in a puff of logic. Say what you want about the wraparound stories of its predecessors, but in terms of their characters stumbling upon the segments we come to see, reacting to what they find, and interacting with the forces that created them, there was at least a little something there. Here, there’s nearly no sense of correlation between the two areas, and by the time the film gets around to spilling the beans on what they have to do with each other, the slapdash structuring and frames upon frames of intentional technical glitches (for added “effect”) have since made you cease to care.

But V/H/S: Viral is only as good as the scary stories it tells, and in this case, even its best material isn’t very sterling. With only three vignettes and the framing material, this film is much shorts than its ancestors, which delivers a modicum of relief. The magician segment has a fun premise behind it, although it’s painfully easy to predict what’s going to happen, and the staging so stretches the limits of its first-person perspective, one wonders why director Gregg Bishop (Dance of the Dead) didn’t save and expand upon it for another, better anthology flick. Timecrimes maestro Nacho Vigalondo takes on the second story, which is easily the movie’s finest; it comes the closest to peeling back the layers of its core mystery in a suspenseful manner, and despite another payoff you can see coming from a mile away, the journey there is strange and demented enough to leave you not minding so much. But the same can’t be said for the skater saga, which, with its death cults, dismemberment, and demons summoned from the depths of doom, comes off as a poor attempt to replicate the acclaimed “Safe Haven” short from V/H/S/2. With irritating characters you’re dying to see get eviscerated on the outset clobbering ghouls for twentysomething minutes, the repetition crushes your patience in a matter of moments. As far as the wraparound story goes, the less said, the better — it’s weak sauce on its own, and it’s even more anemic as a device meant to tie up all the segments with a blood-soaked bow.

I keep hoping this franchise gets better (which certainly seemed the case, considering how decent the second flick was), but after watching V/H/S: Viral, I’m ready to throw in the towel. As a junkie for found footage cinema and anthology horror, I can safely say that this film is a horrid example of both subgenres, dumping half-developed concepts on the screen and using erratic editing tricks to con its way into being declared edge or freaky. V/H/S: Viral didn’t just leave me steamed; it left me tired and utterly disappointed with the notion that some really talented horror filmmakers were brought under the same roof to crank out…this.

“New Faces of 1937” (1937)

"New Faces of 1937" poster


Tell me if this sounds familiar. A shady show business figure oversells shares in his latest entertainment venture, only to intentionally mastermind a flop with the aim of pocketing the cash for himself. If this premise brings to mind Mel Brooks’s The Producers or the means through which Uwe Boll loopholed his way into stocking cinemas with stinkburgers for most of his career, you’d be right, but these aren’t the first times the subject has gotten Hollywood’s attention. New Faces of 1937 takes this old showbiz legend and plugs it into an already frenetic production, one featuring a madcap world in which the Brothers Marx would be nice and cozy. Bad puns flow like the mighty Mississippi, the action frequently stops for the characters to engage in vaudeville antics, and saying what’s on your mind with a song is par for the course. On the downside, this means that the full cleverness of the story isn’t touched upon, so that more room can be given to the featured talents and their single-scene schtick. But when New Faces of 1937 is on, it’s a real delight, with nary a scene lacking something to leave you giggling like a ninny.

Robert Hunt (Jerome Cowan) is tired of critical acclaim. Reviewers have given their highest marks to the theatrical impresario’s shows, but the financial return hasn’t been as robust as he desires. Thus, Hunt has decided to enact a devious scheme to land him some easy dough: oversell backers ownership in his latest production and do everything possible to turn them into catastrophic failures. With a flop floundering on the stage, no one will think to ask for their money back, allowing Hunt to walk away with all the cash. Unfortunately, one of his stars gets wise to his plot, forcing the cur to hit the road and leave his upcoming revue, “New Faces,” in the hands of neurotic financier Wallington Wedge (Milton Berle). Having always wanted to break into show business, Wedge proceeds to undo the damage his predecessor wrought, injecting “New Faces” with the dynamite acts and great gags that were previously jettisoned. But it’s only a matter of time before he realizes the grave he’s digging for himself, and with a stable of fresh-faced stars hoping to make their dreams come true, he’s stuck between ensuring that the show goes on and saving his own skin.

Passing on the satire that Mr. Brooks would partake in thirty years later, New Faces of 1937 instead uses the story at its core to simply cast a spotlight upon various types of talents. The film pauses on a number of occasions to give these acts a couple of minutes to do their thing, including a trio of brothers with radically different heights and a young Ann Miller tapping up a storm on the dance floor. Usually, vintage musicals stopping dead in their tracks to let someone do a random bit is a pet peeve of mine, but New Faces of 1937 works such moments into the proceedings more naturally than the norm. The show within this show is a variety performance, so it makes sense to have a cavalcade of kooky characters traipsing through, ranging from those who excel at their craft to those who should stick to their day jobs. In the long run, they don’t contribute anything especially vital to the story, but these little diversions are more often amusing than not and don’t come across as terribly intrusive. In fact, these newcomers fit in right along with the asides that the picture rations out for its more established stars. Joining Berle — who’d long since made a name for himself on stage and radio by this point — are the nasally-voiced Joe Penner as a wimpy would-be actor and Harry “Parkyakarkus” Einstein as a gofer, obliterator of the English language, and sower of behind-the-scenes chaos as “New Faces” gets closer to its debut.

Together, the ensemble behind New Faces of 1937 pulls through and gives us an appealing bunch of knuckleheads. Although the movie’s energy levels aren’t as manic as those of the dizzyingly insane Hellzapoppin’, the cast does a fine job of carrying on similar spirits at a lower volume. The one-liners are fast and funny (upon reading a negative review: “What did the Journal give us?” “24 hours to get out of town!”), and there’s enough diversity amongst the acts and tunes performed to fend off any feelings of sameness that might creep in. Still, this doesn’t mean that New Faces of 1937 is without occasions that could’ve been cut in the name of picking up the pace. A centerpiece skit involving Wedge being fleeced by the world’s worst stock broker (which appeared in the previous year’s Ziegfeld Follies) wears out its welcome really fast, and the standard-issue romantic subplot doesn’t end up eliciting very much concern. Also, while something like A Night at the Opera let the Marx siblings be their usual oddball selves as it told a satisfying story, this flick has a little more trouble sticking its landing. The “will the show sink or swim” aspect of the plot ceases to be a driving force a good hour or so into the running time, and as unexpected as its resolution is, it still comes across as disappointingly anticlimactic.

New Faces of 1937 was met with a mixed reception upon its release, unfortunately putting the kibosh on parent studio RKO’s plans for an entire series of cinematic showcases. It’s a film filled with its share of hits and misses, but the overall spirit is so infectiously silly and the ratio of endearingly corny jokes to outright clunkers so skewed in the former’s favor, you can’t help but let your grin spread and your toes tap away. New Faces of 1937 is a boisterous buffet of a movie, offering viewers a little bit of everything in the way of fulfilling their appetites for fun.

(New Faces of 1937 is available to purchase through the Warner Archive Collection.)

“Sliver” (1993)

"Sliver" poster


For a belly laugh that’ll leave your gut feeling like it was used in a Rocky montage, check out a ’90s Hollywood erotic thriller sometime. To see the product of middle-aged executives in suits attempt to inform mainstream moviegoers on all things kinky and dangerous is both hilarious and almost as uncomfortable as the legitimately sleazy exploitation flicks they’re riffing on. Pictures such as Color of Night and Body of Evidence set out to be received as sexually-charged mind games, only to shuttle their casts from unexciting chase scenes to equally listless love scenes. In the end, they weren’t worth the gimmick of watching big-name stars do the nasty, a pleasure that 1993’s Sliver is all too quick to deny its audience, as well. All eyes were on this to carry on in the steamy footsteps of the previous year’s Basic Instinct, going so far as to hire that film’s writer and breakout star for one more roll in the hay. Instead, Sliver fails to work on any of its intended levels, stimulating neither the intellect nor the nether-regions when all’s said and done.

Carly Norris (Sharon Stone) just wants a fresh start. Having at long last fled a loveless marriage, she’s ready to embrace life on her own, a process whose first step involves moving into some new digs. Carly’s lucky enough to be selected for an apartment in an affluent high-rise building, a coveted united that’s to die for…literally. She doesn’t know it yet, but her new place has a terrible past, as the last tenant was a young woman who plunged to her death. The cops ruled it a suicide, but the circumstances surrounding her death are still a mystery, and as Carly’s fortune would have it, she finds herself being lusted after by two men who were intimately familiar with the deceased. As she fends off the advances of oafish novelist Jack Landsford (Tom Berenger), Carly falls increasingly under the spell of Zeke Hawkins (William Baldwin), a reclusive sort who takes pleasure in coaxing out her submissive side. Both lotharios have skeletons in their respective closets, but only one is dangerous enough to be a murderer who struck once and may be thinking about doing so again.

Sliver is a graduate of the mystery movie school of thought that preaches making every character look unsavory as hell as the primary form of misdirection. This approach can work, should a film have the foresight to incorporate themes that provoke viewers and have them questioning just how morally upright they really are. The topic at hand in Sliver is voyeurism (with a dash of domination, Fifty Shades of Grey-style), but in lieu of boldly examining our fascination with seeing taboo imagery and invading the privacy of others without their knowledge, the picture dances around the subject and gives us a base-level view, at best. Its content raises no thought-provoking questions, nor does it contrive fascinating narrative avenues through which these matters could emerge and spark discussion. Sliver sure gives us a lot of big talk, but it’s skittish when it comes down to showing us its work — and when the aim of your film is to pull back the curtain on salacious sexual issues, nervous is at the top of the list of things you don’t want to appear to your audience. This becomes especially evident through our indecisively-written protagonist, a case in which the flick wants to have its cake and leer creepily at it, too. On the outset, Carly seems totally confident and self-assured, only to be portrayed as inexplicably vulnerable at random junctures, with the evidence of Zeke’s potential involvement in a handful of deaths apparently doing nothing to sway her from letting herself be willingly seduced by him. Whether it’s due more to the screenplay or Stone’s hesitance to play up characteristics that might make her look meek or frumpy, Carly is damn near impossible to relate to as a heroine, as her emotions and personality depend on whatever the plot needs them to be at that very moment.

But one can’t delegate all of the blame onto Stone’s shoulders, for Sliver‘s sucking is the result of a team effort. I’d be remiss if I left out the way a very pipsqueaky Baldwin issues Carly demands to see her lingerie in public with the affectation of a middle-schooler asking the lady from the 1-900 number what she’s wearing. He isn’t sexually intimidating in the slightest, and while Berenger fares pretty well at playing a meathead alpha male, that the movie pretends even for a second that he’s a possible romantic rival and not just a glorified red herring is a knee-slapping notion all its own. Aside from Colleen Camp hamming it up as Carly’s foul-mouthed and aggressively invasive secretary, there isn’t much to say about the supporting cast. People like Martin Landau and CCH Pounder hang around, but they haven’t a thing to do except walk into frame, mutter a few lines of rushed exposition, then swiftly depart so the leads can hop in the sack for yet another godawfully boring screw session. For a film built so much upon the idea of tapping into hidden passions, Sliver displays an alarming lack of concern for itself in nearly every department. Joe Eszterhas’ dialogue is cringingly inept, sex scenes fizzle out long before the actors finish with their forced grunting, and the mystery aspect of the plot is so by-the-books and paid so little mind in the long run, viewers are seldom given opportunities to perch themselves on the edges of their seats. It’s an all-too flaccid experience, one that puts an awful lot of effort into seeming as though it has something with which to tease us but can’t hang onto our attention once the foreplay wears off.

Without even the sort of rampant nuttiness that makes people watch Color of Night with their jaws agape, Sliver ends up cooling our blood down rather than raise it to any meaningful degree. This here is the worst kind of “erotic” cinema, a plodding endeavor that thinks a few bared breasts and hushed inquests as to the status of one’s naughtiness are enough to render it scandalous. Though some films of its ilk are so ridiculously sleazy that all you can do it laugh at them, Sliver is just a boring poser you’re glad to be rid of when the final credits mercifully start to crawl.

(NOTE: This review refers to the unrated DVD cut of Sliver.)