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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Review: Before "The Blacklist," James Spader Walked the Line Between Good and Bad in "Bad Influence" and "Jack's Back"

Two Interesting Dual Roles Starring a Younger James Spader

By Chris Sabga

On "The Blacklist," James Spader masterfully portrays a mysterious criminal-slash-informant, the morally-ambiguous Raymond "Red" Reddington. As it turns out, he's had some practice. This is far from the first time Spader has had to tiptoe between innocence and guilt. In the spirit of the over-the-top popcorn fun of "The Blacklist," I've picked two films from Spader's large body of work that aren't afraid to be excessive and more than a little bit ridiculous.

Bad Influence (1990)

The premise: a mild-mannered young executive becomes influenced by a dangerous new friend. I went into "Bad Influence" expecting Spader to play the bad guy, with Rob Lowe portraying his pal-in-peril. Instead, the opposite occurs. Being cast against type at the time is likely what attracted both actors to the film.

Michael (Spader) is a mild-mannered executive who can't stand up for himself in any aspect of his life. He's taken advantage of at work by a jerk named Patterson, stuck in a relationship with a domineering fiancée, and bullied at bars – until Alex (Lowe) "saves" him.

You know Michael is an innocent little lamb because he wears glasses – the ultimate symbol of weakness in any respectably cheesy '80s or early-'90s flick.

Under Alex's "bad influence," it isn't long before the meek Michael becomes the swaggering Mick. At first, Alex's friendship seems like a positive development for "Mick." Of course, as the audience already knows, that honeymoon period won't last. Soon, things turn [cue dramatic music] deadly.

Michael would have cowered in the fetal position, but Mick has a slightly better handle on things – thanks, ironically, in part to what he's learned from his "mentor," Alex. It's fun watching Spader's transformation.

The editing is particularly well done. On occasion, we won't be shown certain scenes or actions we're expecting to see. What initially seems like a clumsy cut eventually reveals itself as a deliberate omission to ramp up the mystery and tension.

Still, just about everything that happens is completely illogical. The naivety of Spader's character is astounding. He almost immediately shows Lowe where he lives, even though they're still practically perfect strangers. (Folks, most of my closest friends still haven't been invited to step through my front door!) There's almost no rhyme or reason to any of Spader's increasingly bizarre actions. It's unrealistic and implausible to the nth degree. (I won't spoil any of the major details, but I will say that there's bunny mask somewhere along the way.)

And yet, despite being completely preposterous, the movie still somehow works. It has that certain feel and charm you only get from something made in the '80s and very early '90s. It's no great work of art, but it is a good time!

This formula would be tweaked and refined in the coming years by various Lifetime TV movies of the week (with Lowe himself even appearing in one or two of them).

The fun thing about revisiting the earlier portions of an actor's career is seeing which other future stars turn up. Spader's girlfriend is played by a young Marcia Cross, who seems slightly unhinged even here – a trait she would later perfect in "Melrose Place" and "Desperate Housewives."

But she has nothing on Lowe. It would not surprise me if he was legitimately on drugs like his character during the shoot. He brings a maniacal, Joker-like quality to his role.  

In "Bad Influence," Spader essentially plays a good guy with some shades of gray. For "The Blacklist," the scale seemingly tilts in the other direction. Either way, that type of duality has always been one of the actor's strengths.

Two years earlier, Spader literally played two very different people in the same film: identical twins – one nice and the other "naughty."

Jack's Back (1988)

John Westford is a nice, shy doctor who works at a free clinic. Rick Westford is a former career criminal who hasn't spoken to his brother in two years. Both are played by James Spader.

You know John is a sweet, harmless guy because – here we go again – he wears glasses. Rick has perfect eyesight and a leather jacket. That means he's bad. (Or "naughty" as John would say, because he's too nice to use a stronger word.)

Needless to say, Rick's "tough guy look" was menacing for about five seconds in the mid-1980s before the fashion world moved on and common sense took over. It's dated – but funny – by today's standards.

"Jack's Back" is definitely a product of its time, but that makes it even more enjoyable, not less.

As far as storylines go, this is a pretty good one: 100 years to the day of Jack the Ripper's famous slayings, a copycat killer is going around recreating them down to the finest detail.

The innocent, bespectacled doc is somehow accused of the crime. The only person who can clear him is his chain-smoking, leather-clad, "bad" twin brother.

This is your basic whodunit mystery thriller. There's nothing fancy about it, just good, clean '80s fun. Spader's presence is what makes this one stand out.

Not entirely unlike "The Blacklist's" Reddington, the "tough" twin in "Jack's Back" is definitely more of an anti-hero. Then again, how bad can he really be? He manages a shoe store!

Monday, October 21, 2013

Review: Death Ship

It's Better to Be in the Water

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: March 7, 1980 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Horror
Running Time: 91 minutes
Director: Alvin Rakoff
Writers: John Robins, Jack Hill, David P. Lewis
Cast: George Kennedy, Richard Crenna, 
Nick Mancuso, Sally Ann Howes, Kate Reid, 
Victoria Burgoyne, Jennifer McKinney, 
Danny Higham, Saul Rubinek  

If you go into something called "Death Ship" expecting the next "Citizen Kane," you have only yourself to blame because you're severely lacking in common sense. But there's no better way to celebrate the Halloween season than by popping in a cheap, tawdry, blood-soaked horror flick that's low in budget but high in body-count. 

Movies like this aren't about the acting (which is just good enough) or dialogue (heavy-handed and hokey), but George Kennedy and Richard Crenna make the most of it.

The film begins on a regular cruise ship, captained by Ashland (Kennedy, "The Naked Gun"). He can expertly control a vessel, but he's chilly to his crew and incapable of dealing with the passengers. It's his maiden voyage; he's about to be replaced by his assistant, Trevor Marshall (Crenna, "Rambo"). Marshall's wife and two young children are also on board.  

After a "Poseidon"-like disaster capsizes the cruise-liner, Ashland, Marshall and his family, and a few other crew members and passengers are left to fend for themselves on a rickety raft.

"Help" finally comes in the form of an ominous black ship.

They're all better off drowning right then and there, but since that isn't an option, they climb aboard. It quickly becomes obvious that something is amiss. No one else seems to be on the ship – or are they? Of course, all of this is standard horror movie fare.

It isn't long before the "death ship" reveals two important facts about itself: 1. It's German. 2. It's haunted. Needless to say, a horror movie wouldn't use Germany randomly; it would naturally focus on the darkest period in that country's history. I'll leave you to figure out the rest.

If you only know George Kennedy as the friendly, goofy second banana from the "Naked Gun" series, his role here as a cold, crazed captain is quite a departure for him – and he pulls it off fairly well. Amazingly, Richard Crenna was born less than two years after Kennedy but seems twenty years younger in this movie. Maybe it's just me, but Crenna bears a striking resemblance to Bryan Cranston. (Is the "Breaking Bad" star available for a remake?)

Is it hyperbolic to say that "Death Ship" has the most memorable shower scene since "Psycho"? Maybe, but that is the undoubted highlight of the film and the sequence everyone will walk away remembering.

Even so, "Death Ship" is hardly a great movie – but it is an effective one. It features unsettling imagery, eerie quick cuts, and a spooky soundtrack. However, at times, the editing can be a bit haphazard – as if a connecting scene was chopped out or not filmed at all. The story and action are still easy enough to follow though. This isn't Shakespeare, after all. But I knew what to expect going in – and more importantly, what not to expect.

The moviemaking masters won't be losing any sleep over this little obscure slice of '80s horror, but I can't lie: I had fun.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Review: Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon)

From Buffy to the Bard – Joss Whedon's Post-Avengers Party

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: June 7, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Comedy, Romance, Drama
Running Time: 109 minutes
Director: Joss Whedon
Writers: Joss Whedon, William Shakespeare
Cast: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, 
Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg, Reed Diamond, 
Fran Kranz, Jillian Morgese, Sean Maher, 
Spencer Treat Clark, Riki Lindhome, 
Ashley Johnson

Joss Whedon takes on William Shakespeare in one of the most fascinating adaptations of the Bard's work. If you're a seasoned "Whedonite," he has assembled a dream team of actors from his other projects: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg, Reed Diamond, Fran Kranz, and Sean Maher will all be familiar to fans of "Buffy," "Angel," "Firefly," "Dollhouse," and "The Avengers." But even if you're not well-versed in the "Whedonverse," his shows are always impeccably cast.  However, going from vampire slayers and space cowboys to the immortal words of Shakespeare himself is a big leap – even for Whedon, who is one of the best writers working on television and in the movies today. How does he fare with a lady so fair?

Whedon's interpretation of "Much Ado About Nothing" is both classical and modern. It's a black and white film that takes place in the present day using Shakespeare's original Elizabethan-era language. It's a strange, exciting combination of elements. But does it actually work?

The first few minutes are admittedly distracting, as familiar faces from Whedon's troupe of actors – such as Clark Gregg and Amy Acker – speak to each other in the famous Shakespearean tongue while wearing contemporary clothing and walking around a Mediterranean-style home. It's a jarring juxtaposition. It takes time to get used to.

Then everything clicks, and you can't help but be swept away by the grand, masterful language and wonderful, endearing performances.

For the uninitiated, "Much Ado About Nothing" tells the tale of two great loves: the quarreling Beatrice and Benedick (Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof) and the young, smitten Claudio and Hero (Fran Kanz and newcomer Jillian Morgese).

Leonato (Clark Gregg) is Hero's father and Beatrice's uncle. Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) comes to visit them, along with two of his officers, Benedick and Claudio.

Don Pedro is embroiled in a feud with his brother, Don John (Sean Maher).

The wicked Don John enlists Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark) and Conrade (Riki Lindhome) for some nefarious trickery.

The services of Dogberry (Nathan Fillion), a bumbling constable, are eventually needed.

Anyone who has ever read or seen Shakespeare knows that the English of 1623 bears very little resemblance to what is written and spoken today. Yet, that challenging dialogue rolls off the tongue effortlessly for all of Whedon's actors. Even more impressively, their facial expressions tell just as much of a story as their words.

Acker and Denisof are especially delightful to watch. They bring a light, playful touch to their bickering characters. One of the highlights of the film is a back-to-back sequence where the two of them sneak around to spy on each other's conversations. In the grand tradition of broad screwball comedies, they dodge, weave, and hide to avoid being seen.

All in all, Joss Whedon and his cast never take themselves too seriously. It's apparent that they're all having the time of their life, and that enthusiasm is infectious. Therefore, it comes as no surprise to find out that Whedon and several of the actors he's worked with – including Acker and Denisof – would gather around to recite Shakespeare in their spare time for fun. After the grueling "Avengers" shoot, Whedon cancelled a trip with his wife – at her urging – to turn those private readings into a reality by finally filming "Much Ado About Nothing." Shot in only 12 days, he called it the best "vacation" he's ever taken.

It's a vacation for the viewer too: a vacation from the usual clichéd drudgery that permeates so many of today's movies.

Joss Whedon's interpretation of "Much Ado About Nothing" is a magical experience that is sure to satisfy everyone from the hard-nosed queen in the balcony to all of the groundlings in the cheap seats.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Silver Screen Surprises Coming in October

Kill Your Darlings, Machete Kills, JFK Killed, Schoolkids Who Want to Kill, and a Stomach-Killing Demon – All in the Killer Month of October

By Chris Sabga

October features an interesting mix of films. There is something for every taste this month. Here are some of the more interesting or under-the-radar movies coming out in the next 30 days.

Parkland (October 4th): Originally announced for September, "Parkland" was moved to October at some point. Everyone knows the story of JFK's assassination – or thinks they do – but "Parkland" focuses on the peripheral people involved that you don't hear much about: the doctors and nurses, cameraman, and others who were there that day and in the aftermath. It's a fresh angle on an incident that has already been dramatized countless times.

Bad Milo (October 4th): A man's painful ulcer turns out to be a demon living inside his stomach. I'll just leave it at that, because no other words could possibly be necessary.

The Dirties (October 4th): Kevin Smith "presents" this movie about school bullying, which means he didn't actually have anything to do with it – he just wants to endorse it, and he has, calling it "the most important film you will see all year." It definitely seems to have a homemade feel to it, which could add to the realism. It's about two bullied high school kids who decide to make a funny film about getting revenge on their classmates – until one of them wonders if they should shoot more than just a movie.  

Machete Kills (October 11th): The first "Machete" was a crazy grindhouse-style flick, with Danny Trejo as the titular character, Steven Seagal portraying a Mexican drug lord, and Robert De Niro hamming it up with a bad Texas accent. What?! But it was an undeniably fun time. Now, Machete is back to kill again – and along for the ride this time: Carlos Estevez (better known as Charlie Sheen) and Mel Gibson.

The Fifth Estate (October 11th): It's probably too soon for any kind of serious film treatment of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, but the combined acting power of Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, Anthony Mackie, Stanley Tucci, and Laura Linney is enticing.

12 Years a Slave (October 18th): I've known for years that Chiwetel Ejiofor is an amazing actor. Now it's time for the rest of the world to find that out too. I will openly admit that I'm rooting for him and his Oscar chances. He is someone who deserves the biggest opportunities possible.

Kill Your Darlings (October 18th): "Harry Potter's" Daniel Radcliffe plays beat poet Allen Ginsberg. According to "Kill Your Darlings," a murder brought him, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs together. It's certainly an enticing hook – and so is seeing the former boy wizard in a more serious, grown-up role.

In the Name Of (October 30th): Father Adam runs a center for boys in a small Polish village, where he happily plays soccer and preaches the good word. But why was he transferred from Warsaw? Is he hiding something? Accusations of homosexuality soon arise.

Blockbusters: Gravity (October 4th), Runner Runner (4th), Captain Phillips (October 11th), Carrie (October 18th), Escape Plan (18th), The Counselor (October 25th), Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (25th)

"Gravity" puts Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in space. The premise almost sells itself. Meanwhile, Justin Timberlake and Ben Affleck bring their starpower to "Runner Runner," a thriller about online poker.

"Captain Phillips" is based on the true story of the 2009 ship hijacking by Somali pirates. This is the kind of role Tom Hanks excels in. I just hope the movie focuses on more than just Phillips and the pirates – many other brave crew members were on that ship too.

"Carrie" is a remake, and those don't particularly excite me – especially when the original needs no improvement. But with "Hugo's" Chloë Grace Moretz in the title role and the always great Julianne Moore as her mother, the casting is certainly rock solid.

"Escape Plan" brings Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger together for the first time (not counting Arnold's minor role in the "Expendables" movies). With Sly getting top billing over Arnie, it already feels off, because that isn't ever how they were ranked in the '80s action hierarchy. These dream team pairings are exciting on paper, but I've been burned too many times. And it may be a case of "too little, too late," but I'll remain cautiously optimistic for now.

"The Counselor" is directed by Ridley Scott and written by Cormac McCarthy ("The Road," "No Country For Old Men"). That alone gives this project a boost in my mind. The fantastic cast doesn't hurt either: Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Penélope Cruz, and especially Javier Bardem.

I like the idea behind "Bad Grandpa," which features Johnny Knoxville in old-age makeup portraying a grandfather seemingly tricking unsuspecting real people in Borat-style situations. Unfortunately, the trailer isn't very funny. Worse than that, it's offensive at times (crashing a funeral and knocking over the coffin – not funny). Still, this type of setup always has potential – and we've seen bad trailers for good movies many times before. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Review: Rush

The Fast Lane is the Only Lane

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: September 27, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Drama, Biography
Running Time: 123 minutes
Director: Ron Howard
Writer: Peter Morgan
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, 
Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara, 
Pierfrancesco Favino, David Calder, 
Natalie Dormer, Stephen Mangan, 
Alistair Petrie, Julian Rhind-Tutt, 
Colin Stinton

The best films make you more interested in their subject matter; they compel you to rush out of the theater and find out everything you can about them. "The King's Speech" was that way for me; after it was over, I wanted to know all I could about George VI. Now I'm on a quest to learn as much as possible about James Hunt and Niki Lauda.

Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Lauda (Daniel Brühl) were real-life Formula 1 racing rivals in the 1970s. "Rush" is their story.

It's a character study of who Hunt and Lauda were as men. No interest or understanding of F1 is required.

Hunt is portrayed as handsome, charismatic, arrogant, and reckless all in equal measures. He's a playboy and party animal who is the center of attention wherever he goes. Lauda is serious and meticulous, cold and distant. What he lacks in good looks and a winning personality, he more than makes up for by having an insatiable drive and iron focus.

Their approaches to their chosen sport are as different as they are. Hunt goes into each race as if it's a game of Russian Roulette. Every lap may be his last. He realizes he's driving a "bomb on wheels." Lauda is far more grounded, with an eye for the smallest detail and a view of the big picture. Risks are inevitable – but unnecessary, irresponsible ones should be minimized.

Despite their differences, they both have one thing in common above all: they believe they're the very best at what they do. That resolute ego is what made them rivals – and legends.

The real-life Niki Lauda and James Hunt
Racing is in their blood. Despite having alternate paths laid out for them, they can do nothing else. They don't know how to. This is their talent and their passion. 

I didn't think twice about Formula 1 racing before seeing "Rush," but the performances of Chris Hemworth and Daniel Brühl made me care. It's easy to see why Hemsworth was cast as Thor: he's larger-than-life with a personality that radiates through the screen. Brühl is every bit as effective despite being lower-key and initially much less likeable. It's amazing how well Hemsworth and Brühl captured the people they were playing.  

The movie is much like Niki Lauda himself: straightforward, no frills, all business. Ron Howard has never been the flashiest director, but he's always had an eye for good stories. The rivalry between Hunt and Lauda is utterly captivating, not because of scores on a board but because of who they were.