November Blindspot: The Usual Suspects (1995)

Release: Friday, September 15, 1995

→YouTube

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. 

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

Month in Review: October ’17

To encourage a bit more variety in my blogging posts and to help distance this site from the one of old, I’m installing this monthly post where I summarize the previous month’s activity in a wraparound that will hopefully give people the chance to go back and find stuff they might have missed, as well as keep them apprised of any changes or news that happened that month.

Ah, nothing like putting out a Month in Review post a week late. And as you may have noticed, October was another insanely busy month of film reviewing on Thomas J. For those of you who have been able to keep up with this blistering pace, man. You all are the real MVP. And I thank you with one winky face.

😉

In this edition join me on the confession couch as I open up about major movie omissions and my inexplicably resurgent interest in watching more Independence Day. I also lament the disappearance of my all-time favorite movie candy and $6 Tuesdays.

Thor: Ragnarok — TONIGHT! See you there?


New Posts

New Releases: Stronger; The Foreigner

Blindspot Selection: Cujo (1983)


What’s Been Playing in the Background

October introduced me to Bladerunner. You read me right. I had never seen Ridley Scott’s classic science fiction epic until a few weeks ago. I instantly fell in love, but then, that was kind of my destiny. The Tears in Rain monologue in particular trapped me in a glass case of emotion. I don’t know how you really sort through your favorite movie moments of all time, but I do know that Roy Batty’s eventual acceptance of his own mortality is one of them. The plan was, of course, to see the original in advance of the premiere of Denis Villeneuve’s sequel. You haven’t missed anything there. As soon as I see 2049, you’ll know about it.

And speaking of falling in love: Stranger Things 2 will be my winter warmer for the next several weeks. This show is phenomenal and I have become so cozy in its world. I expect to find much solace in it while House of Cards, my first true Netflix love, is apparently collapsing.

But here’s where things get weird. While I’ve been procrastinating tending to my Blind Spot reviews and learning what those Nexus replicants are all about, I’ve had no such hesitation returning (again and again) to that terrible and awful and embarrassing sequel to Independence Day. (If you’re going to throw things at me after reading this, try to at least throw things that are soft. You know, pies and things of that nature. No beer bottles, please.) Anyway, yeah. It didn’t take many not-very-sober viewings to confirm that indeed Resurgence is, as the French would say, merde. But then I started to think about how dumb it was that Jeff Goldblum saved us from those little green bastards by infecting the mother ship with a computer virus . . . in an age where we were running Windows ’95.

Big Tom has realized that some things in this world just aren’t as holy as they were to Little Tom. The sequel may be in direct competition with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice in terms of being 2016’s most hated movie. Audiences everywhere took this long-delayed/ill-advised sequel as a personal sleight. The writers had 20 years to prepare, apparently — so why didn’t they prepare better lines? “This is definitely bigger than the last one” is a pretty poor attempt to deflect from the fact that there’s really no justifying the aliens coming back. But, whatever. This movie has grown on me, like a benign tumor. Dr. Brakish Okun’s reappearance is the most unlikely thing ever, but I’m glad it was able to be contrived. Brent Spiner is a lot of fun in these movies. And though Liam Hemsworth is no Will Smith, I’ve also warmed to him. So here is where I stand  (and talk about damning with faint praise): Resurgence has improved from being “terrible and awful and embarrassing” to being just “terrible.”

Meanwhile, and on a less serious note (what am I talking about, this is way more serious!), my regular enjoyment of movie theater snacks has been somewhat interrupted because of Maltesers. Specifically, the disappearance thereof. My local AMC theater used to carry them. It was pretty random, though. You get shelves overflowing with American confections and then you get this one British outcast. As someone who regularly shuns concessions at the theater because things like the Dollar Tree exist and you can buy candy there for less than the mark-up price at the theater, I made the exception for these tasty little pooh-colored morsels.* What do they expect me to do now, go back to Skittles? Ugh.

This isn’t as annoying as my even-more-local Cinépolis seemingly doing away with $6 ticket Tuesdays. Down the road from me is a crummy little complex at the end of a crummy little strip mall where crummy projectors often play good movies, but those discount rates have made visits there more attractive. That theater has changed ownership more times than I can count, yet $6 night has been the one constant. (Well that and the fact that you really don’t want to touch anything once inside the theater.) The price may have only gone up a dollar, but what’s to stop it going up again? And if it does, I may have to start prioritizing my theater trips. It may well be time I start ravaging Netflix for more alternatives. Maybe I’ll become a more regular patron of AMC if it does one of two things: 1) diversifies its weekly showings or, better yet 2) BRINGS BACK MY DAMNED MALTESERS!


Double Feature

Baby Driver · June 28, 2017 · Directed by Edgar Wright · If all you need is one killer track, I choose Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver. This high-energy heist film leaks charisma all over the road as it follows a youthful and talented getaway driver named Baby (Ansel Elgort) who burns rubber day and night for Doc, a shady mob boss played by Kevin Spacey. When a meet-cute with a diner waitress (Lily James) pumps the brakes on Baby’s aimless drifting, Doc’s Good Luck Charm must make a choice between a life of crime and an uncertain future with Debora. The story’s assembled out of parts from countless other films of course, but it’s the synergy between the production’s aural and visual elements that not only make Baby Driver instantly engaging, but consistently and almost unreasonably entertaining. The choreography on display is such that Wright’s new movie becomes more a musical sans the random dance interludes, one where the song selection may be important but the placement of those songs is where the true artistry lies. Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss’ editing entrances with rhythmic precision and the director’s familiar energy and passion ensure the project steers as far away as possible from self-conscious affectedness, while barreling down the road with purpose and a great sense of humor toward something more pure and honest. One of the summer’s most feel-good and bittersweetly fleeting escapades. (4/5)

Only the Brave · October 20, 2017 · Directed by Joseph Kosinski · Only the Brave presents Mother Nature as an ultimate and merciless foe as a group of dedicated firefighters seek to prove themselves among America’s most elite responders. From the director of such vacuous (if gorgeous) sci fi fare as Tron: Legacy and Oblivion comes an altogether more impressive work, one that deftly balances visual spectacle with touching human drama. Joseph Kosinski’s steadily absorbing tribute pulls inspiration from the GQ article by Sean Flynn, dedicating the bulk of its two-hour running time to fleshing out a handful of the 20-member Granite Mountain Hotshots, a Prescott, Arizona-based squad who faced the ultimate test when they came up against the infamously deadly Yarnell Hill fire in the summer of 2013. The cinematic treatment benefits from an all-star cast who provide great depth to broadly drawn characters, with Josh Brolin leading the charge as the gruff but likable crew supervisor Eric Marsh, torn between his professional and personal commitments. He’s got a lot of support from the likes of James Badge Dale and Taylor Kitsch who contribute to the Band of Brothers-esque camaraderie but arguably overshadowing them all is Miles Teller as Brendan ‘Donut’ McDonough, a former heroin addict who vows to turn his life around by seeking employment with the volunteer fire department. Only the Brave may be the beneficiary of the gut-wrenching facts upon which it is based (the likes of which you are strongly encouraged to ignore until after you’ve experienced the film), and yet the contributions of Academy Award winners Jeff Bridges and Jennifer Connelly are as indelible as they’ve ever been. (4/5)

 

* If you’ve never had Maltesers, don’t let anyone try to convince you they’re the English equivalent of Whoppers. That’s a HEINOUS lie.

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

Decades Blogathon – L.A. Confidential (1997)

Hey everyone, the other ’90s throwback we have for Day Four in Decades is a review by Anand of Demanded Critical Reviews, which talks about the 1997 urban crime thriller L.A. Confidential. It’s good stuff, and you should check it out on Three Rows Back.

three rows back

Welcome to Day 4 of the Decades Blogathon – ‘7’ edition – hosted by myself and my blogging brother Tom from Thomas J.For those who don’t know, the blogathon focuses on movies that were released in the seventh year of the decade. Tom and I are running a different entry each day (we’ll also reblog the other’s post) and for today I’m welcoming Anand from Delighted Critical Reviews, who turns his sights on the 1997 neo-noir L.A. Confidential.

Curtis Hanson’s L.A.Confidential begins with an establishing sequence so rare in thrillers nowadays who want to dive head first into the action rather than utilize time for character development.

L.A. Confidential Poster

These establishing sequences are also a fitting introduction to the underbelly of Los Angeles, and three policemen who masquerade through it. The first is Officer Bud White, a righteous officer with utmost respect for women and who adheres to…

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Elvis & Nixon

'Elvis & Nixon' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 22, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Joey Sagal; Hanala Sagal; Cary Elwes

Directed by: Liza Johnson

Maybe it would’ve been too cheesy to use, but I was totally surprised when I never heard the line “Elvis has left the building.” But let’s get one thing straight: Elvis & Nixon is plenty cheesy, so it might have actually fit. I guess I have to move on now.

With two figures as iconic as The King and Tricky Dick filling the frame, Liza Johnson‘s decision to fashion a breezy, lightweight dramedy around them is, in hindsight, a sensible one. After all, she knows we’ve all come to listen in on a singular conversation, one behind closed doors. And since this isn’t Frost-Nixon she has no compunction to prop everything up on stilts for the stakes just aren’t as high here. There are barely any stakes at all, as a matter of fact. Despite that, Johnson’s aware of the remarkable position she’s in, able to use creative license as a way to get a foot inside the Oval Office on that day, December 21, 1970.

This infamous meeting took place prior to Nixon taping all of his conversations. No one knows what really happened. What was spoken about? What was Elvis trying to gain by meeting with the leader of the free world? How did he act? How awkward was Nixon? Most importantly, did Elvis thank him very much on the way out the door?

As the story goes, Elvis, disturbed by the deteriorating fabric of American society as drug abuse and stinging Vietnam protests swept across the nation, felt a responsibility to help in the fight against the counterculture. Call it counter-counterculture. He was into collecting police badges and was proud of the concealed firearms they enabled him to carry. All that Elvis lacked was a federal badge and the authority to actually go undercover as a “federal agent at large.” He felt his appearances in movies afforded him the art of disguise and he would be able to infiltrate schools without being recognized. So he sought approval first from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs and when that didn’t pan out he requested a meeting with the President.

Elvis & Nixon is a film that lives and dies on its casting, which is both the film’s strength and its weakness. Michael Shannon certainly looks the part, donning the mutton chops (I don’t care if they’re not real, they look pretty good on him), the gold-plated necklace and rings. He’s got his collar riding high around his neck, and the ladies come swooning, flocking into whatever room he’s in just for a visual confirmation that “it’s him.” As to the Prez — fans of House of Cards are going to have to dial back their expectations of Kevin Spacey’s cinematic politician. Even while embracing Nixon’s relatively off-putting demeanor, Spacey is so stiff in the role you’d think he’s never played a man in such power before.

Those two are such consummate professionals the fact I could never see past the actors wasn’t an issue. If anything, it’s a treat being aware of performers working with material with this many implications, just to see what two of the greatest working actors today are able to do. That hand-slapping reflex test was improvised by Shannon, apparently. Of the two, Spacey is generally better because you could argue his awkwardness blends magnificently with Nixon’s persona. Shannon neither looks nor sounds like Elvis, though his soft charm and towering presence positively oozes The King of Rock’n Roll.

Supporting them is an impressive albeit random mix of recognizable names. Some, like Colin Hanks’ Egil “Bud” Krogh, fare better than others. Krogh is significant as he’d go on to be convicted for his role in the Watergate scandal, so it’s difficult to believe someone as innately likable as the son of Tom Hanks would have this potential to be so corrupt. Evan Peters plays another faceless White House employe — Dwight Chapin — and he barely registers. Worst of them all is Alex Pettyfer, Elvis’ close friend and confidante Jerry Schilling. Pettyfer prefers to sleepwalk rather than use charisma to get through. In a surprising twist, though, Johnny Knoxville seems to be taking acting a bit more seriously these days. He’s quite watchable as another member of the ‘Memphis mafia,’ Sonny West.

The film moves quickly, working from the outside in, providing glimpses of the powers that be, comfortable and in control in their respective spaces before the weight of inevitability obliges the editors to get to the good stuff, a dynamite, if not bizarre, twenty-minute scene in which Spacey and Shannon are allowed to unbutton and let loose. Weak supporting parts notwithstanding, Elvis & Nixon is a graceland for larger-than-life characters. It’s a movie where every actor has to fight in some scenes to be taken seriously, but hey, this isn’t heavy drama, so what does it really matter in the end as long as we have some fun with it?

Screen Shot 2016-04-23 at 9.47.59 PM

Recommendation: Elvis & Nixon turns out to be a very fleeting event. It essentially improvises one of the stranger moments in the Nixon presidency by giving us a visual of what happened behind closed doors. It’s a film for those looking for less intense Kevin Spacey and Michael Shannon-lite. That doesn’t mean that this is an altogether forgettable film, though. The fact that this very bizarre afternoon really happened is likely to stay with you for some time.

Rated: R

Running Time: 86 mins.

Quoted: “Who the f**k set this up?”

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: American Beauty (1999)

Unlike last week’s discovery, sometimes putting off a movie you’ve been aware of for many years is a strategy that pays dividends. Of course today we’re going to be looking at a movie that is so radically different that comparisons need not be made. I suppose the point of all this incessant rambling is for me to declare August 2015 as the month in which I finally decided to do something about those movies sitting on a shelf in my parents’ house, collecting dust. Unlike the CD it’s clear to me that good, old-fashioned DVDs will remain relevant even as we journey into a future filled with Netflix originals and online distributions and other, more modern forms of accessing cinematic entertainment. Some movies belong on the DVD shelf, and I mean that in the best way possible.

Today’s food for thought: American Beauty.

Stuck in a cinematic mid-life crisis since: October 1, 1999

[DVD]

It doesn’t matter that I’m only 16 years late to the party. It doesn’t matter that I’ve likely missed the most fervent discussions about one of the most striking suburban dramas American cinema has ever produced (and it doesn’t matter that the film wasn’t made by an American director, either — curiously he, Sam Mendes, of British stage and film background, would go on to make the film that reaffirmed Daniel Craig as the James Bond of a new generation). It doesn’t matter at all, because now I’ve seen American Beauty.

That is a big check mark on a list of films I have been meaning to see for some time. You’ll have to forgive me for a TBT post that is going to rehash what millions have already said (and said better), but at this point I think it’s all but impossible to stage a novel argument in defense of Mendes’ directorial debut, one that went on to win five Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

American Beauty is a kaleidoscope of themes and stories, all wrapped up in a mesmerizing cinematic package that would later rename Kevin Spacey as Best Actor of 1999 (though his co-star Annette Bening didn’t receive the same level of recognition her sensational turn as materialistic wife Carolyn Burnham all but demanded); Sam Mendes as the director of the moment; and would identify the Alan Ball-written screenplay superlative amongst all other original screenplays that year. Given its numerous interpretations since, American Beauty could almost be taken as an anthology. However, its rumination on beauty, youth, aging, sexuality and, perhaps most interestingly, how we define domestic bliss are all in service to Spacey’s Lester Burnham, whose trajectory from bummed out and frustrated to amped up and care-free can only be described as a mid-life crisis brought on by his chance encounter with a friend of his teenaged daughter.

The title itself seems almost too obvious, but when becoming familiar with the power dynamics that drive the Burnham household — it’s a family of three, with the moody and misunderstood Jane (Thora Birch) stuck in the middle of her parents’ drama more often than not — American Beauty becomes ever increasingly more ironic, encompassing both the physical and psychological manifestations of beauty. And despite the focus on Spacey’s character in particular, the numerous thematic explorations involve the film’s sprawling cast, most of whom turn in award-worthy performances as well.

The Burnhams have new neighbors moving in on their right, disciplinary father Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper, who has no trouble rising to the challenge of matching the intensity of his co-stars’ performances) and his obedient son Ricky (Wes Bentley), who is obsessed with documenting the world around him with his videocamera, including the girl next door. That relationship rivals the Burnham’s marriage in terms of tumultuousness and distrust. A heartbreaking performance from Allison Janney as Mrs. Fitts gives the impression that this family unit is in fact more damaged. While these people exist a little more on the fringe they nonetheless contribute significantly to the eye-opening drama. Then of course there’s the dialogue between Jane and that flirty friend of hers, Angela (Mena Suvari), who, as is the case with many teens, are constantly talking about which person at their school they should date next. Their obsession with looks and social status say much about the rest of the film’s focus on adults trying to come to terms with their position in life.

Mendes’ direction is perfectly polished, barely trumping the perceptiveness of Ball’s story. (Incredibly, the man has only gone on to write one other film since.) Maybe it’s just me, but there’s something very discomforting about watching a grown man up and quit a secure job at a magazine publisher only to take up a day job serving fast food. Equally distressing is seeing him change around his daily routine to include working out and taking long jogs so he can taylor his physique to Angela’s liking. He trades in his crappy old Camry for a shiny new sports car, a rash decision that, by most people’s definition, represents a mid-life crisis in and of itself. This breakdown (more like rediscovery given the amusing change in tone) doesn’t spring out of nowhere, mind; in Lester’s own words: “[Carolyn] prefers I go through life as a (swear word) prisoner while she keeps my (man-parts) in a mason jar under the sink. I’m so sick and tired of being treated like I don’t exist in this family . . .”

As a credit to Ball, American Beauty is a film that perpetually skirts around cliché, but even more than that, it creates situations and emotions that feel unique and original, rather than merely offering surprises on the virtue of its subversive tendencies. It’s uplifting watching this man’s transformation when really it ought to be troublesome. Well, actually it is troublesome but it’s never downright depressing. The scene at the drive-thru window is a particular highlight, when in reality it is a low point in this marriage. A burgeoning romance between Jane and Ricky catches us somewhat off guard. Not to mention, the mood in which this film begins — home video footage revealing a clandestine plan to solve Jane’s problems of being ignored, despite the fact that she’s the only daughter in this broken family — is brilliantly given context later on. (Okay, so really what I’ve just described relates more to direction than the writing but without the sharp dialogue and the delivery thereof, the manipulation of timelines wouldn’t be as effective.)

Looking back on this film is as thought-provoking as it is disturbing. American Beauty is so 1990s, and yet times haven’t changed so drastically that its most pressing questions are now foreign to a modern audience. How exactly do we define domestic bliss, and how long does it last? How do we define physical beauty? Is that healthy? How long has the model of the perfect family unit — the house, white picket fence, three kids and a dog — been out of date? I’m quite sure I know none of the answers, but it doesn’t matter because American Beauty doesn’t really either. It may satirize a number of cultural flaws but it doesn’t pretend to have a solution to them. That’s what makes this a classic.

Recommendation: To anyone who hasn’t yet seen American Beauty (I don’t know how many people I’m speaking to here), I urge you to devote two hours out of your day to this extraordinary work. It satisfies on so many levels it’s all but  impossible to name them all. What stood out the most to me were the performances, the writing (specifically the narrative’s ability to maintain a serious dramatic undertone while being incredibly funny simultaneously), and a bold, dramatic conclusion that is brilliantly understated. The perfect end to a near-perfect movie.

Rated: R

Running Time: 122 mins.

TBTrivia: The title of the film refers to a breed of roses that while pretty and appealing in appearance, is often prone to rot underneath at the roots and branches of the plant. Thus, the tagline “. . . look closer” tells the viewer that when they look beyond the “perfect suburban life” they will find something rancid at the root.

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

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