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Monday, September 15, 2014

Review: Locke

Beyond Bane: Tom Hardy is the Next Big Thing

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: April 25, 2014 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 85 minutes
Director: Steven Knight
Writer: Steven Knight
Cast: Tom Hardy, Ben Daniels, 
Andrew Scott, Ruth Wilson, 
Bill Milner, Tom Holland, 
Olivia Colman

"Locke" clocks in at a taut 85 minutes. The entire film is spent behind the wheel of a car. The only person we ever actually see is the driver, Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy). He interacts with several people during his journey, but only over the phone. He calls his family, but he's not going home. He speaks to his boss and assistant, but he's not showing up for work in the morning. Instead, he's going to London – for reasons that will be revealed over the course of the drive.

Every other movie openly celebrates the irresistible allure of the open road. Not this one. There are no dazzling sights to see. Locke snails through an average English highway at night. Everything is dark and dull, ordinary and listless. One area blends into the next. Despite the mundane setting, the roads take on an eerie, foreboding quality.

In some ways, it's similar in structure to "Buried" from a few years ago – which featured Ryan Reynolds inside a coffin – but this is (thankfully) much less disturbing and claustrophobic.  

Flashing police lights add tension to an already volatile situation by slowing Locke down and forcing him to maintain the speed limit. Locke is locked in. Of course, there's always the ever-present threat looming of being stopped by the police and further delayed.

Then there's the matter of Locke's persistent coughing and sniffling. What does it all mean? In any other film, it would foreshadow the character's fate. But this is a driving movie without a road trip, no high-speed races or chases, and not an explosion in sight. One could possibly surmise that Locke's physical deterioration symbolizes the similar erosion of his life – but sometimes the common cold is just the common cold!

"Locke" plays with the standard "grammar" of film by taking the audience's expectations and subverting them.

This is an actor's showcase for Tom Hardy. Every scene hinges on his facial expressions and vocal inflections. It's an incredible performance. But special mention must also be made of his supporting cast, who have only their voices to work with. They include Ben Daniels and Andrew Scott (who play Locke's boss and co-worker, respectively), Ruth Wilson, Bill Milner, and Tom Holland (his wife and kids), and a few others he interacts with along the way – most notably Olivia Colman. In some ways, they have the more difficult job. They have to create relationships with the main character and further the story along – all without ever actually appearing onscreen. The two children ("Son of Rambow's" Milner and "The Impossible's" Holland) are especially strong in their roles. Mostly, they ramble on about a soccer match, but their enthusiasm and intensity really brings Locke's unseen family to life. Locke's overwhelmed assistant, Donal ("Sherlock's" Andrew Scott), is another highlight.

"Locke" is a unique experience. It won't be for everybody. For me, it's one of the coolest films of the year. Tom Hardy is a riveting presence. He's been in high-profile roles before (Bane in "The Dark Knight Rises"), but this puts him on the map as a major talent to watch closely. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Review: Chef

A Cinematic Confection

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: May 30, 2014 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Running Time: 114 minutes
Director: Jon Favreau
Writer: Jon Favreau
Cast: Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, 
Bobby Cannavale, Emjay Anthony, 
Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, 
Sofía Vergara, Oliver Platt, Amy Sedaris, 
Robert Downey Jr.   

"Chef" is a film about relationships. A cook's relationship with his food. A chef's relationship with his staff. A father's relationship with his son.

Chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) controls the kitchen of a major Los Angeles restaurant, but he's not the owner – that distinction belongs to Riva (Dustin Hoffman), who's more concerned about what's in the cash register than on the plate.

Despite those difficulties, Casper has a great staff: his sous chef, Tony (Bobby Cannavale); his line cook, Martin (John Leguizamo); and his hostess, Molly (Scarlett Johansson). They're all fiercely loyal to him. They love him. So does his ex-wife, Inez (Sofía Vergara), and their 10-year-old son, Percy (Emjay Anthony).

A prominent food blogger, Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), is coming to the restaurant to review Casper's cooking. The chef wants to create a new, bold menu that will wow the critic's culinary senses. The owner disagrees. Keep everything the same, he says. "Play your hits!" Unfortunately, the chef's "hits" make him a tired nostalgia act instead of the vibrant visionary he used to be.

As Casper's boring molten lava cake bubbles over, so does his anger. A shouting match between him and the restaurant reviewer quickly becomes an internet phenomenon, and a mistaken public message on Twitter ignites a war of words.

Food is Casper's calling. If he gets a bit hot-tempered sometimes, it's because he cares so much about what he cooks. Like any artist, he's passionate.

But now he's also jobless – and there are no offers in sight.

Left with no other options, he reluctantly accepts his ex-wife's invitation to join her and their little boy in Miami for a week. It would be good for him, she reasons, to get away for a while and spend time with his son. Miami is where it all began for him: his culinary career, his relationship with her, and the birth of their child.

Inez urges Carl to consider opening a food truck. That leads to a meeting between him and her first ex-husband, a rich flake named Marvin (a scene-stealing Robert Downey Jr.). The off-kilter conversation between Favreau's chef and Downey's crazed character is one of the best and funniest moments in the film. Downey's presence amounts to little more than a cameo, but he makes every single second count.

Truly, all of the actors are fantastic. Favreau and Leguizamo share such an easy, natural rapport that it feels like you're genuinely listening in on two old friends. The same can be said for the love and pride Favreau's character feels for his boy; it just bursts through the screen. If I didn't know better, I'd think they were really father and son. Some of the best moments between them are the quiet ones – such as little Percy explaining to his dad how Twitter works, the concept of Vine's six-second videos, and what it means when a post "goes viral." Favreau is awesome as a 40-something-year-old who is behind the times technologically, and Emjay Anthony is heartwarming as the kid who just wants to spend time with his father "like they used to."

Once the food truck becomes operational, "Chef" turns into one of my favorite of all the genres: the road trip movie. This is where the film really shines. There on the open road, they talk, bond, take in the great sights (and smells), and discover new things about themselves and each other.

And then, of course, there's the food itself. Mmm Mmm! You will walk out of the theater wanting a second dinner.

"Chef" is not only a film about relationships, it's also about love. It was obviously a labor of love for Jon Favreau. In addition to being the star, he is also the writer and director. This is clearly a passion project for him – and it shows. He's taken all of the ingredients at his disposal and served us one of the year's best films.

Note: In "Chef," @ChefCarlCasper started a vicious "Tweet war" with @RamseyMichel that went viral. For a more pleasant and peaceful experience, you can follow me on Twitter @ScreenSurprises.

Bonus: Silver Screen Sister, the Second

I saw "Chef" with Silver Screen Sister, the Second. To preface this, I should point out that she's not usually the most attentive moviegoer. (For example: We watched "Black Swan" together – an unfortunate choice in retrospect – but she was too preoccupied with e-mails from work to notice anything "amiss" between Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis during one of that film's more infamous scenes. Thank God!) However, at the end of "Chef," she was absolutely giddy. So was I. She said it was one of the best movies she's ever seen. High praise coming from her, even if she has only seen nine or ten other movies. ("Coal Miner's Daughter" is still number one, in case you were wondering. Has "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" fallen to number three?)

"Oh my God, I have been smiling about that movie since we saw it. What a great experience. Thanks for getting me out of my draining work rut to see it. It was so worth it!

The line [Chef Casper] used – about not having a plan and never having made any steps without one before – reminded me of something I was thinking a few weeks ago:

Maybe sitting still is going to help me get where I need/want to be. It IS moving forward, but just not in a direction I have ever gone in…"

"Chef," she said, was "life changing" for her.

It's an easy movie to love. One cannot help but feel an infectious enthusiasm for it.  

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Matt's Movie Mortuary: The Gruesome Splatter Films of Joe Spinell

A True "What If?" Story

By Matt Wintz

This edition of Matt's Movie Mortuary takes a look at two horror films starring Joe Spinell, who also had roles in more mainstream fare such as the first two "Rocky" and "Godfather" pictures.


Any movie that kicks off with blaring 1980s music and a montage of women working out intercut with a blurry female-led rock band as opening credits can't be all bad, right? How could a horror movie with jazzercise suck? Well, I was going to make sure to find out, and the fact is, it can do a little bit of sucking. Joe Spinell, who worked as a character actor and found a part in "Rocky" along with "Godfather" and "Godfather Part II" became well known to horror fans as the maniac in, well, Joe Lustig's "Maniac." Here in the film "Undertaker," we find him as an undertaker by the name of "Uncle" Roscoe but his murderous tendencies haven't exactly died off like the people whom he's hired to care for.

The story is pretty cookie-cutter in the aspect of Roscoe is a murdering undertaker bothered by voices in his head, and he spends a lot of time stalking women and watching "The Corpse Vanishes." From the get-go of the movie, I noticed that there might be more time spent to women working out then to the actual violence on screen, and this is a fact that definitely plagued the movie. For fans of women jazzercising, this movie could be your cup of tea, as there's no less than two nearly full routine workouts plus women jogging in the first forty-three minutes. In comparison, there are only three on-screen kills in the first forty-three minutes.

Character-wise, we have Spinell as Roscoe, the murdering undertaker. Rebeca Yaron plays Miss Pam Hayes, the teacher of Roscoe's nephew Nick who does seem to have this awkward hots for her while trying to show her Roscoe's parlor and that he might be keeping some of the bodies for some extra lovin'. What brings this about is Miss Hayes seems that teaching about necrophilia in a college course is acceptable, and this immediately makes Nick believe his Uncle is bumping uglies with the recently deceased.

Story-wise, the movie runs a little thin. While I can respect a film that is trying to be no-nonsense, the sad thing to this movie is the pacing is very slow. And not in a slow-burn, intensity building sort of way. It just seems to be a movie that is trying to hit certain points, but is crawling to get there. For the most part, editing is a series of cuts between shots that don't seem to fit well and there are several times where there are different scenes intercut. While this might be to try and show what's happening in two places at the same time, it kills the intensity of the scene when you go from a kill, cut to a couple in bed, back to kill, back to couple, back to aftermath of kill, back to talking, then cut to a scene that seems to be set a day later.

There were also decisions in this movie that I could see might have been made from a budgeting perspective, but made me laugh (unintentionally). For instance, it seems that a lot of people enjoyed public domain programming in the 1980s, as "The Corpse Vanishes" makes almost twenty percent of the films running time, along with clips from "The Terror", an Abbott and Costello piece, and Ronald Reagan hugging a monkey. I also noticed that in Roscoe's first onscreen abduction attempt, when he uses the syringe on the female victim, there's no contact with the needle on the victim. It seems like a good idea that when creating a scene like this, make sure the scene doesn't pick up the reflection of the whole needle in the light.

The film is noted as being Joe Spinell's final starring role, as he would die in 1989, and it's also written on the back that it was unfinished. From how the film ends, I was wondering if there was more to be done bet it never got a chance to be completed. Either way, while I respect the filmmakers giving Spinell another leading role and the attempt (possibly) to recapture the feeling of "Maniac," the film falls very short in both the movie's disturbing tones and onscreen violence.


I will also take this time to bring this writing to a little bit of a side-note, and that is Joe Spinell and "Maniac" and why I have always seen that movie in a good light among horror fans. "Maniac" was co-written by Spinell, who played the main character Frank Zito, and the movie was directed by William Lustig, who also has directed the entire "Maniac Cop" trilogy. "Maniac" tells the story of Zito who lives in a small apartment, surrounding himself with mannequins, and during the night drives through the New York City area murdering and scalping women, putting his newly acquired trophies on the mannequins. The movie marries the amazing special effects of Tom Savini, coming off movies like "Dawn of the Dead" and "Friday the 13th," with the gruesome scalpings and Savini himself having his head blown off by a shotgun, with a disturbed story of a man who stalks a woman who he gets to know and how his underlying mommy-issues drive him to brutal attacks. The movie, a cult classic and having one of the best posters in horror movie history, was actually remade with Elijah Wood as the killer Zito.

The movie was put out on DVD by Code Red in 2010, and along with the movie there is a short interview with actor Robert Forster, and then his daughter Kathrine, that briefly touches upon their thoughts of Spinell. "Remembering Joe" is only a few minutes and the elder Forster talks about how Spinell was interesting and the only time he ever played a good guy was in "Hollywood Harry" with Robert and Kathrine Foster. Kathrine Foster then tells of a story from the rap party of "Hollywood Harry" involving Spinell, a Glad bag, and a swimming pool. Finally, trailers for Code Red releases of "Nightmare" (aka Nightmare in a Damaged Brain), "The Carrier," "The Visitor," "Slithis," and "Horror High" round out our special features.