November Blindspot: The Usual Suspects (1995)

Release: Friday, September 15, 1995

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Written by: Christopher McQuarrie

Directed by: Bryan Singer

Before the X-Men made Bryan Singer a household name in the early 2000s, he had already achieved what the vast majority do not by directing an Oscar winner on his second try, the 1995 neo-noir mystery The Usual Suspects. He had help of course, with his regularly contributing screenwriter taking home one of the two statues for his talky and twisty original screenplay while Kevin Spacey snagged the other for his star-making role as a small-time con man suffering cerebral palsy. The director’s ambition has certainly grown over the years, as have his budgets, but the irony remains that some of his most inspired work resulted before he ever earned his seat at the big kids’ table.

Even if Singer failed to earn plaudits for himself that February night, his craftsmanship here is undeniable. The Usual Suspects is not only stylish without being affectatious, it offers its cast of brand-name actors plenty of room to stretch their legs and play off of one another’s unique energy. The film is not just a master class in obscuring the edges of morality but the cinematic sleight of hand is also really impressive. So often the frame is filled with smoke and mirrors figuring out what is actually going on can be a tall task. Patience (and a willingness to forego immediate comprehension of events) pays dividends. Singer makes you feel as if you’ve accomplished something by the end, something that cannot be said about his more blockbuster-friendly fare, fun as those adventures may have been.

Despite the peripheral blur, the premise remains simple. A major dope deal turns ugly aboard a boat moored in the San Pedro Bay, and a lone survivor, claiming immunity, recounts the details of his involvement and the events leading up to it through extended and potentially unreliable flashbacks. In the present tense, U.S. Customs Special Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) must decide on what level to trust his source. He knows as well as any thug he’s put behind bars that no one wants to be a rat.

The story begins with an explanation of an event that took place six weeks prior, an amusingly farcical police investigation into the disappearance of a truck carrying guns through New York. Although a group of five mangy suspects are brought in for questioning, no culprit is identified. While sequestered in a holding cell, one among them, Stephen Baldwin’s bad-boy hipster Michael McManus, hatches a scheme to screw with the boys in blue as a token of their gratitude for being pointlessly incarcerated. Everyone is on board except Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), a former dirty cop trying to turn over a new leaf by going into the restaurant biz.

The others — Benecio Del Toro‘s too-cool-for-proper-enunciation Fred Fenster; Kevin Pollak as angry guy Todd Hockney and the recently disgraced Spacey as the aforementioned Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint — have no compunction to leave this cell changed men. A series of profitable but small-time jobs eventually leads the gang to a big payday, when an opportunity arises to clear their names with an arch-criminal by the name of Keyser Söze, an almost mythological figure whom no one ever sees or hears from directly. Because their affinity for theft has struck a little too close to home, one of Söze’s representatives, a mysterious man played by the late, great Pete Postlethwaite informs them they can avoid certain death if they disrupt a major coke deal about to go down in the Bay, one that stands to net a competing drug lord $91 million.

Christopher McQuarrie’s screenplay, which has curried so much favor with the Writer’s Guild of America over the years it’s now considered among the top 40 greatest screenplays of all time, creates a confluence of themes that include but are certainly not confined to: persuasion versus manipulation; virtue versus vice. Does crime really pay off all your debts? A scale of relativism emerges from the morass: the only thing worse than a career criminal is a career criminal who rats on his colleagues. And in The Usual Suspects, there’s sort of this poetic justice with the way snitches get their stitches.

Curious about what’s next? Check out my Blindspot List here.

Recommendation: This is a movie you’ll have to put some effort into but it’s so worth it you’ll very likely end up like me, embarrassed you decided to give up on the first 20 minutes in the first place. After those 20 very confusing and frustrating minutes, the nut eventually cracks. It’s milk comes spilling forth. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 106 mins.

Something better than another damn quote: The line-up scene was scripted as a serious scene, but after a full day of filming takes where the actors couldn’t keep a straight face, Singer decided to use the funniest takes. Behind the scenes footage reveals the director becoming furious at his actors for not being able to keep their shit together. In an interview, Kevin Pollak states that the hilarity came about when Benicio Del Toro “farted, like 12 takes in a row.” Del Toro himself said “somebody” farted, but no one knew who. 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The 33

'The 33' movie poster

Release: Friday, November 13, 2015 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Mikko Alanne; Craig Borten; Michael Thomas; Jose Rivera

Directed by: Patricia Riggen

Patricia Riggen’s optimistic, spiritual account of the 2010 San José mining accident in which 33 miners were trapped 2,300 feet below ground for nearly three months collapses under the weight of a feebly written and executed script.

Disaster films aren’t known for their star-making performances nor their Oscar-baiting screenplays, and The 33 is perfectly okay with continuing that trend, rendering everyone whose name isn’t Antonio Banderas cardboard cut-outs of characters. Because disaster films aren’t known for their acting pedigree, it might seem odd that my major complaint with this picture is the abysmal acting on display. And yet, this thing is painful to sit through folks, even despite an outcome that is quite uplifting because, you know . . . it really happened.

Riggen finds herself combatting the odds with a roster the size of two Marvel films put together. There are at least 33 main characters, and those are just the miners trapped beneath the earth — more specifically, under a rock that apparently weighed twice as much as the Empire State Building. Collectively, I suppose, you could consider them one singular character, only one that’s not very exciting to watch. On the surface, both literally and figuratively, we deal with Chilean government officials, concerned more with public image than the safety of those involved and the grieving family members whose desperate requests are often stymied by bureaucratic bullshit.

Speaking of, there’s Bob Gunton as President Piñera, a far cry from his Warden Norton and Rodrigo Santoro as Chilean engineer Laurence Golborne, whose handsome exterior makes him the perfect candidate as a pseudo-public relations manager, a character so ill-defined I don’t think I’m making that title up. He’s meant to be an engineer, although he’s reminded several times by Gabriel Byrne‘s Actual Engineer character that he should start thinking like one. Duh. Isn’t it obvious? People’s lives are in danger, get it together man!

Gunton and Santoro are rendered as puppets, wooden and largely void of charisma in their Suits, the kind you expect to see in films dealing with real lives hanging in the balance, lives dependent upon their political clout to ironically save them. Even more nebulous are the aforementioned family members, though one in particular stands out because she’s played by Juliette Binoche (for some reason). She’s sister to the alcoholic Darío Segovia (Juan Pablo Raba); the pair have more issues communicating than Hellen Keller. Apparently they’ve suffered some sort of trauma in the past.

Clearly, something was going to have to be sacrificed given the extensive roster. But Riggen, along with a quartet of writers, sacrifices the wrong thing, reducing virtually every miner and their corresponding family members to a few lines at most. It’s nigh on impossible to root for these people when we already know the outcome and when we can’t tell Adam from Eve. Fans of The Office will get some mileage out of Oscar Nuñez as Yonni Barrios, one of the miners who is experiencing marital woes and who apparently farts in his sleep. If I weren’t such a fan of his character in that show I’d label this characterization as annoyingly juvenile. Actually, it still is just juvenile, but at least there’s an attempt to shove some humor down into these dank caves.

There are a few positive takeaways, however. What saves this largely uncharismatic cast is the level of diversity in the casting itself. Chilean, Brazilian, Filipino, Mexican, Cuban and Colombian actors congregate to play their Chilean parts, and once again it’s apparent how much Banderas believes in this material. His Mario Sepúlveda is one of an elite few with energy and passion. And quite frankly I was prepared for the religious overtones to be off-putting. Instead this adds weight to proceedings. It’s also one of a few elements that signify the passage of time, lending gravity to the collective despair.

Unfortunately these elements are not enough to qualify The 33 as a natural disaster/biopic worth digging into.

Antonio Banderas inspiring his mining brothers to keep the good faith in 'The 33'

Recommendation: The 33 represents a cinematic treatment of a fairly recent and highly unlikely rescue mission that garnered global attention and support. The optimism is a welcomed attribute, but weak writing and poor acting do a lot of damage here. If you’re looking for basic coverage of the event in cinematic form, I think this is currently your only option (unless there’s a documentary out there somewhere). Inspired by the book ‘Deep Down Dark,’ written by Hector Tobar.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 127 mins.

Quoted: “That’s not a rock, that’s the heart of the mountain. She finally broke.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

TBT: End of Days (1999)

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HAPPY NEW YEAR PEEPS! My friends, get used to using the time stamp ‘2015.’ Because it is a brand new year, I think it’s definitely time for TBT to stage a comeback. I’m finally feeling refreshed on this thread, and I have quite a ridiculous number to blabber on about today. What’s tall, strong and rhymes with Fwarzenegger? That’s right, the star of

Today’s food for thought: End of Days.

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Haunting viewers half-assedly since: November 24, 1999

[DVD]

Schwarzenegger. Satan. Squaring off at the turn of the millennium.

Sounds great, right? And I mean, really, how much blame can one put on me for thinking the idea might lead to a pretty sweet movie way back when? (When was that ‘when?’ Let’s just go with whenever.) Well last night I discovered, amidst a haze of celebratory hellfire-and-brimstone smoke, that I had approximately 120 minutes’ worth of blame to assign myself for thinking that this lame supernatural thriller from Peter Hyams could cut the mustard.

Well that mustard must have been thick, or the un-cuttable kind, because that so didn’t happen. For a movie set at the height of anti-tech-based fear-mongering before the year 2000, this bloated production feels more obligatory than optional. Insipid instead of inspired. End of Days, despite a suitably ominous opening title sequence, winds up as a rather flaccid, albeit topical, film that yields very little in the way of scares and even less in terms of convincing performances. We’re surely not going to look to the big guy (for clarification, I mean Arnie) for the acting chops — he’s not exactly going to seduce the devil with a rousing performance independent of those spectacular pectorals. But if anyone else involved could have at least pretended that they looked at a script before signing on, that wouldn’t have been the worst sin committed that year.

Arnie can get away with looking more morose than he ever has because we wouldn’t want it any other way. Not when the Spawn of Satan is threatening to share potential screen time with him. The stakes have got to be high. So Arnie does. Tattered and torn by a past that still haunts him, Jericho Cane currently bides his time as an operative of a high-tech security team after throwing in the towel with the NYPD. The similarly jaded Bobby Chicago (I’m not making these names up), played by Kevin Pollak, functions more as a shadow and less of an independent character. He is plotted along a thoroughly predictable and entirely unoriginal character arc that only serves to contribute to a deep pool of genre cliches that gains great depth towards the end. Standing side-by-side with Jericho in a vast majority of scenes, he offers moral support for a man clearly in psychological peril. Jericho is a man who doesn’t believe in God anymore, but he better get his shit together quickly if he’s to save the world — more importantly, the party in Times Square — from what the title of this movie suggests.

On the last day of the first 1,000 years, it is said that the “ultimate personification of evil” shall rise and roam the Earth, searching for a lover to help create his offspring with. The consummation would in effect bring about the apocalypse. For all of this to work, the demon spirit will inhabit a human body to disguise itself until such an opportunity finally presents itself. Enter Gabriel Byrne, who has a hell of a time exercising his satanic side (though Al Pacino’s John Milton would like to have a sit-down with him as to how to properly effect unease in another without having to go full-on nutso). At least Byrne is one of a few involved who seems to be able to maintain the illusion he’s not dismayed by such an amateurish script. In End of Days, even Satan is predictable and boring.

I’m going to suggest something now that might read a little weird, but . . . shouldn’t Satan be precisely the opposite? Byrne tries mightily, but it’s to little avail. Every major moment his angry little man has recalls a much more inspired one Pacino had when interacting with Keanu Reeve’s heavily conflicted Kevin Lomax. It is a little unfair to make these comparisons but when it’s been done so much better only a couple years prior the inevitability is hard to fend off. However, where Byrne isn’t provided the story structure (and character development) required to provocatively suggest his supernatural power, he is given opportunity aplenty to graphically display his volatility.

End of Days makes sure to fulfill a certain quota. Blood and gore should garner nominations for their collective performance, attempting to cover up the film’s surfeit of shortcomings through sheer shock value. Outside of being paced like a snail, unnecessarily ambitious and poorly acted — with Robin Tunney at the center of that discussion — this is an often jarringly violent slog but at least the smatterings of bloodletting shock us into consciousness every now and again. They remind us of a story that is actually developing, but developing at such a languid pace it doesn’t really matter.

At the end of the day, Hyams’ film just isn’t very competent. I don’t mind (or much remember from the first viewing) the rehashing of elements from superior films in its genre, nor the laughably bad dialogue. Far more offensive is the fact it fails to develop any of its characters, or to even give much of a reason for anyone to do anything. I can get over the fact that Arnie haphazardly becomes the target of The Man in his apartment one evening. Hey, should you choose to spurn Satan’s advances he will become understandably pissed. I am even willing to overlook the inherent ridiculousness in early CGI rendering — with one sexually-charged scene coming to mind that seems destined to land on worst-shot scenes of the 20th Century — because, after all, this was before we knew it was ridiculous to think the world would cease to be after midnight on that night.

It’s a good thing that never happened, else I wouldn’t be able to continue enjoying my Arnie films like I have. His films haven’t really improved much but I frequently find myself enjoying them more freely than I was able to here. The lowering of one’s own standards is really put to the test in End of Days; that’s if you’re a fan of Mr. Universe butting heads with the Lord of Darkness in Times Square.

"Uh . . . Get to . . . the choppa?"

“Uh . . . Get to . . . the choppa?”

2-0Recommendation: Frustratingly End of Days squanders its promise of delivering a taut and thrilling, action-packed story by meandering into too many genre cliches in an attempt to give color to a rather colorless environment. It features a likable enough cast who surprisingly show up for work without having really read any of their parts, save for Gabriel Byrne who is quite fun. Save this film as a last-resort option if you are in the spirit for watching New Year’s Eve-centered stories. This isn’t anywhere near as good as I once had remembered it being. Whoops.

Rated: R

Running Time: 121 mins.

TBTrivia: The role of Jericho is the first bit of work Mr. Schwarzenegger was able to get after receiving heart surgery following his role as Mr. Freeze in Batman & Robin, two years prior. The actor had supreme difficulty finding studios willing to hire him in a “weak” state and it took a few days of shooting End of Days before insurance agents and studio execs finally backed away from the set, satisfied enough that Arnold was indeed healthy enough to shoot action sequences once again.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.fanart.tv; http://www.imdb.com