CON AIR (1997)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and Language

Directed by: Simon West

Written by: Scott Rosenberg

Starring: Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, John Malkovich, Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames, Colm Meaney, Danny Trejo, M.C. Gainey, Nick Chinlund & Dave Chappelle

Even though the 80s was home to lots of cheesy R-rated action flicks, the 90s seemed bound and determined to churn out increasingly ridiculous action entertainment. Originally released in the same month as another outrageous Nicolas Cage action vehicle FACE/OFF, CON AIR is a crazy ride. It’s stupid and ludicrous, but it’s also funny and enjoyable. The material’s cheesiness lends to the entertainment factor as we get one hell of a cast, competently directed action, and unrealistically high stakes. If you want explosions and Nicolas Cage (in a mullet, trying to pull of a bad accent), then CON AIR is for you.

After killing a man to protect his wife, Army Ranger Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage) has been handed a ten-year prison sentence. Being a good guy at heart, Poe quietly serves his time and waits to go home to his loving wife and daughter (who doesn’t know him yet, but still writes him adorable letters). When he’s granted parole, Poe boards the massive prison aircraft Jailbird. Things go awry when the evil madman “Cyrus the Virus” (John Malkovich) and the rest of the dangerous convicts wind up taking over the plane. If he wishes to ever see his wife again and hopes to save some lives in the process, Poe will have to carefully help take down the prisoner-hijacked plane. Meanwhile, U.S. Marshal Vince Larkin (John Cusack) attempts to stop folks from simply blowing up the plane.

CON AIR is stupid, ridiculously stupid. There’s the whole prisoner revolt sequence, which seems to rely on an unlikely series of coincidences (with a prisoner smuggling gasoline on board) and a series of easily-accessible levers. As if the hijacked airplane wasn’t enough for the plot’s high stakes, they also throw in a subplot about Poe’s cellmate being diabetic and all of the syringes on the plane being smashed. To boot, the laws of physics are frequently defied and you know what? All of this stupidity and the sheer ridiculous nature of the film are the bombastic fun to watch! This is a big dumb popcorn movie and doesn’t aspire to be anything more than that.

As the heroic Poe, Nicolas Cage has horribly wooden line delivery and evokes a cheesiness that remains unrivaled in his filmography. Cage’s serious moments are hilarious and they’re not supposed to be. He also sports the worst mullet in the world and tries to pull of a terrible Southern accent (which downright disappears during a few scenes). As a so-so supporting character, John Cusack sweats on the ground level and gets involved in the finale when the action leaves the confines of the plane. Colm Meaney plays a hot-headed higher-up and adds to the tension as he seems just a tad too trigger-happy.

The convicts are the real show-stealers though, because each one of these colorful characters adds something memorable to the film. Ving Rhames plays intimidating gangster henchman Diamond Dog, while Danny Trejo (who was once a real-life convict) has the role of a rape-happy thug. M.C. Gainey is a huge highlight as hyperactive pilot prisoner “Swamp Thing” and delivers one of the cheesiest jokes in the entire film. There’s also a miscast Dave Chappelle as junkie “Pinball.” Steve Buscemi stars as serial killer Garland Greene (whose murders make the Manson Family look like the Partridge Family), coming off as both creepy and unexpectedly funny. John Malkovich gives the best performance in the film as “Cyrus the Virus.” He’s such an entertaining baddie and his death scene is probably one of my favorite action deaths ever (as it goes on for a while and he bites it in three increasingly over-the-top ways).

In terms of action, CON AIR never once gets repetitive. There are one-on-one fights, plane crashes, car chases, explosions, midair combat, and showdowns in various locations. The film is also shot in a way wherein the viewer can make out what the hell is going on and which characters are giving/receiving the blows/bullets. To say that the film gets over-the-top in its action would be a huge understatement as one scene has a broken propeller flying between Cage and Malkovich…to break up their confrontation in the most insane way possible.

CON AIR has lots of goofy details and obvious flaws. There’s the silly performance from Nicolas Cage and the colorful prisoners (who all contribute to the humor and action). The film’s soundtrack seems downright strange in places (Trisha Yearwood’s “How Do I Live” is incredibly out-of-place for this film, but still received an Oscar nomination) and the same guitar riff is played around a hundred times throughout the score. For all of its faults and stupidity, CON AIR is fun and succeeds at being entertaining from start to finish. If you’re into action movies (especially ridiculous ones) and you haven’t seen CON AIR, you owe it to yourself to sit through this one!

Grade: B

DEEPWATER HORIZON (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 47 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Prolonged Intense Disaster Sequences and related Disturbing Images, and brief Strong Language

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Directed by: Peter Berg

Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan & Matthew Sand

(based on the article DEEPWATER HORIZON’S FINAL HOURS by David Barstow, David Rohde & Stephanie Saul)

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Gina Rodriguez, Dylan O’Brien, Kate Hudson & Ethan Suplee

Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg seem to have a knack for turning tragic true stories into emotional big screen experiences (see 2013’s LONE SURVIVOR and the upcoming PATRIOTS DAY). On April 20, 2010, massive oil rig Deepwater Horizon had a disastrous blowout, which claimed 11 lives and became the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Where there’s an incredible and terrifying real-life event, there will often be a movie adaptation following in the aftermath. Victim’s families and survivors were hesitant about this film, feeling that it might come with a political agenda or change too many details, but Berg’s based-on-a-true-story disaster flick has been lauded for mostly sticking to the facts.

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Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) works onboard the Deepwater Horizon. This massive floating oil rig houses 126 people and is under contract by BP Oil. Though rampant technology malfunctions and broken parts litter the ship, BP Oil sees no reason for putting money towards fixing safety hazards. Despite the warnings of Mike Williams and supervisor Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), BP Oil big man Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich) insists that the Deepwater Horizon begin drilling for oil. What results is a deadly inferno filled with flying shrapnel, explosions, toxic gas, and hellish stream of flaming oil. Mike Williams, Jimmy Harrell, and the rest of the crew are forced to muster up unthinkable courage and attempt to escape from the fiery, sinking oil rig.

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DEEPWATER HORIZON’s first half is dedicated to building up to the eventual blow-out with mixed bag character development thrown in for good measure. There’s a sense of foreboding and warning signs that tease what is to come, as if you weren’t already expecting it from the actual news reports and the film’s plot. Putting this disaster in context (especially as far as BP Oil’s role in the proceedings) makes everything seem more harrowing and heartbreaking. The film makes sure to let the viewers, many of whom may have no idea about the intricacies of oil rigs (myself included), get a basic idea of how they function and the moving parts of the job. It also showcases how idiotic bureaucracy puts lives in danger by trying to be cheap.

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When the disaster sequences hit, this movie delivers some of the most impressive CGI in years. Shots of the burning oil rig, exploding machinery, and a seemingly endless fiery stream are all believable and terrifying. This is one of the scariest disaster films I’ve seen and it’s made more intense by the characters being essentially stuck on a death trap. A storytelling technique that might have been cheesy in other hands, but works phenomenally well, are shots of the camera entering pipelines to show us what’s occurring within the rig’s malfunctioning machinery. These bits generate suspense towards further chaos and help the viewer understand how/why all of this destruction is occurring. Though the disaster scenes are stellar and made even more realistic with stomach-churning injuries, some messy editing results in moments that seem confusing…though one could argue that crew members likely felt confused during the actual incident.

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With 126 people on board the Deepwater Horizon, the script was only able to select a handful to focus on. The performances of the main characters range in quality, though none of them are bad. Mark Wahlberg plays Mike Williams, whose life-saving actions are slightly exaggerated in this movie, as a charismatic action hero and not much else…though this character is based on a real person. Kurt Russell continues his recent string of great performances as likable rig supervisor Mr. Jimmy. Gina Rodriguez, Dylan O’Brien, and Ethan Suplee are solid as other rig workers. Meanwhile, John Malkovich is so convincing as a scummy BP Oil boss that he made me want to punch him in the face for the entire running time. He’s that great in the role! Finally, Kate Hudson delivers the film’s more heartbreaking moments as she tearfully watches his husband’s workplace burn from news cameras and prays for him to survive.

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Though DEEPWATER HORIZON doesn’t exactly have great character development and suffers from messy editing during a few scenes, this disaster flick is absolutely respectful towards the real-life tragedy victims and survivors. I got so wrapped up in the sheer intensity and action of the blow-out that I wasn’t emotionally prepared for the film’s powerful epilogue that had me on the brink of tears. Small details (like a father freaking out when he can’t find his son or a tearful breakdown) showcase a sad aftermath to a story that’s already upsetting beyond belief. DEEPWATER HORIZON will keep you on the edge of your seat during the disaster, will make you furious at BP Oil’s incompetence (something this movie didn’t embellish), and will leave you an emotional wreck. This is one of the best disaster films in years!

Grade: B+

CUT BANK (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 33 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence and Language

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Directed by: Matt Shakman

Written by: Roberto Patino

Starring: Liam Hemsworth, Billy Bob Thornton, John Malkovich, Teresa Palmer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Bruce Dern & Oliver Platt

CUT BANK is a movie that I discovered through its trailer. I previously had no idea this film even existed, in spite of it receiving a VOD release earlier this year and playing a couple of big film festivals last year. The well-cut trailer intrigued me as to whether or not this might be an undersung gem of 2015. So, throwing caution to the wind, I ventured out to the nearest Redbox and spent a dollar to see this flick. It seems that this is one of those many cases where the trailer is better than the movie its advertising, because CUT BANK is a film suffering from both an identity crisis and a bland script. The end result comes off like someone trying really hard to imitate the Coen brothers and not quite understanding what makes their movies work so well to begin with.

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Dwayne McLaren and his girlfriend, Cassandra, are recording a video in their small town of Cut Bank, Montana. Their little video shoot goes awry when they accidentally capture footage of a deadly crime in progress. The postman has been shot and killed by a mysterious stranger. Dwayne, who has been desperate to get out of his small town, sees this murder video as a possible ticket for a lot of money. However, the clumsy Sheriff Vogel is investigating the crime and finds that the simple crime is much more complicated than it originally appeared to be. While all of this is going on, creepy redneck Derby Milton is hunting, with deadly determination, for a mysterious package (that has disappeared with the mailman’s body). Through a series of events all of these characters will wind up encountering each other and not all of them will walk away alive.

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CUT BANK has a Coen vibe to it, whether that was intentional or not. However, it doesn’t quite have the story to back that up. Once an obvious plot revelation has been revealed in the first third, it becomes pretty apparent where everything will head. The screenplay doesn’t dissuade from that predictable route. One thing that CUT BANK does attempt to do is tell it’s crime story with a sense of humor. There are tense moments as well as attempts at comedy. However, the mash-up of these two genres doesn’t work nearly as well as other, better attempts that have come long before this film (e.g. anything from the Coens or Tarantino). Even with the tonal imbalance set aside, the main two protagonists in this story are ridiculously bland. Liam Hemsworth and Teresa Palmer just don’t sell their characters well, though the writing doesn’t do them any favors either. The likes of Billy Bob Thornton (who recently impressed in the first season of FX’s FARGO) and Bruce Dern (who received a Best Actor nomination for his performance in NEBRASKA) are handed equally boring roles. Thornton acts grumpy (what else is new?) and Dern acts even grumpier. That’s about all there is to their performances.

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This movie actually hits its stride in two subplots. John Malkovich is enjoyable to watch as the incapable Sheriff encountering his first murder on the job, which leads to scenes of him throwing up at crime scenes. A couple of Malkovich’s scenes also have him acting alongside Oliver Platt who plays a conniving businessman. However, Platt’s scenes only amount to about five minutes of total screen time. The best character and performance come from Michael Stuhlbarg, who’s unrecognizable as the central baddie. His character is the reclusive Derby Milton, a quiet hillbilly with a mean psychotic temper. Milton is just looking for his parcel and the mystery surrounding what exactly that is has a quirky pay-off, but not necessarily a satisfying one.

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CUT BANK is a weird, but predictable, movie that seems to be trying too hard to emulate the Coen brothers. It’s NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN by way of FARGO and doesn’t manage to measure up to either of those films or stand by itself. The tonal shifts don’t work nearly as well as the director and writer probably intended them to and the performances are mixed across the board. The best pieces of the film come in Malkovich, Platt, and Stuhlberg. Even then, I can’t fully recommend the whole 90-minute experience for those three performances alone. If you stumble across this on late-night cable or while scanning Netflix out of boredom, then you could do far worse. However, I wouldn’t recommend going through much effort to watch this middle-of-the-road thriller.

Grade: C

DANGEROUS LIAISONS (1988)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

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Directed by: Stephen Frears

Written by: Christopher Hampton

(based on the novel LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos)

Starring: Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, Swoosie Kurtz, Keanu Reeves, Mildred Natwick & Uma Thurman

Though written more than centuries ago, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s DANGEROUS LIAISONS still holds up as all too relevant in this day and age. Birthing a massive amount of controversy since its release, this scandalous French novel is one of the first instances of sex in literature being turned into a tool for manipulation and power as opposed to an act of the deepest love and affection. The 1988 film adaptation masterfully transports the viewer back into 18th century France and forces them to examine a pair of purposely unlikable characters much to our shock and awe. DANGEROUS LIAISONS is a devilish delight for cinephiles and fans of Laclos’s novel.

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Merteuil and Valmont are two former lovers and aristocrats who consider themselves on a higher intellectual pedestal than the lesser souls around them. Using their cunning wits, the two devise a game in which Valmont will seduce two separate women with the goal of humiliation in mind for the reward of a night alone with Merteuil. Valmont’s first conquest is Cecile, the virginal fiancée of a well-to-do music teacher. The second is a Tourvel, the wife of a member of Parliament. This game of seduction, double-crossing, and manipulation has unforeseen consequences on everyone involved. Both the players and their victims will suffer dire consequences.

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At its core, DANGEROUS LIAISONS is all about relationships both physical and emotional. As far as the sexual content goes, the viewer is given a couple of sensual moments and nothing overly erotic or cheesy. Most of the sex scenes are left to our imagination with mere suggestive comments and sly innuendos about what acts being performed behind closed bedroom doors. Though there’s plenty of emotion to the proceedings as Valmont actually begins to show real feelings towards one of his would-be victims, it doesn’t stop the film from sprinkling in bits of dark humor. One morning-after moment with Valmont gets some big laughs, but that doesn’t make his actions any less cruel. The movie also manages to take the viewer on an emotional rollercoaster into areas they might not have initially expected upon going in (unless they have read or known the source material).

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Glenn Close gives one of the best performances of her career as Merteuil. She puts on an innocent respectable persona while her noble friends are around, but reveals her darker true self whenever she’s alone with Valmont. John Malkovich is absolutely fantastic as the complicated Valmont. Though he introduces himself as a repulsive individual lacking a basic moral compass, Valmont quickly shows that there could be a genuine good and caring side to him…if things work out in his favor. Uma Thurman and Michelle Pfeiffer are solid in their roles of Valmont’s potential victims. However, there’s one performance that sticks out like a sore thumb. Keanu Reeves is wooden as the music teacher. Though he’s barely in the film, Reeves simply doesn’t belong in a cast like this and uses a distractingly wooden delivery that competes with his role in 1992’s DRACULA as the biggest mood-killer in an otherwise amazing film.

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The technical accomplishments in DANGEROUS LIAISONS masterfully bring Pre-Revolution France to the screen. Costumes are elegant. Sets are exquisite and convincing. The classical music is fitting. This is one of those rare period pieces where you actually feel as if you’ve transported back to said time period. Clearly, a lot of attention was paid to the tiniest details, save for Keanu’s unconvincing performance.

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In an emotionally shattering scene near the end of the film, one character states that vanity and happiness are incompatible. Truer words have never been spoken and DANGEROUS LIAISONS has never been more relevant. This is a scary notion that’s beyond anyone’s control, but it’s brought to startling light in this fantastic film that more than does justice to a masterful and hugely influential literary masterpiece.

Grade: A

SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE (2000)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 32 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Sexuality, Drug Content, Violence and Language

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Directed by: E. Elias Merhige

Written by: Steven Katz

Starring: John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Udo Kier, Cary Elwes, Catherine McCormack, Eddie Izzard & John Aden Gillet

SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE sounds like a blast right from the premise. It’s a macabrely clever blending of history and horror for a vampire film that’s truly one of a kind. The movie boasts talented actors and fantastic art direction. SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE was actually nominated for two Academy Awards after its release (Best Supporting Actor and Best Makeup). Despite all of these things, the film remains a hidden gem in the horror genre and a treasure for cinephiles familiar with the German Expressionism movement in the early years of cinema.

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The year is 1921. Famed German director F.W. Murnau has been denied the rights to produce an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s DRACULA, but proceeds to do so anyway by changing the names of characters and adding the title NOSFERATU. Instead of Count Dracula, the vampire is Count Orlok. The production crew hear rumors that Murnau has picked a most unusual performer for the role and these are confirmed by the arrival of method actor Max Schreck. Schreck frankly scares the bejesus out of everyone on the set with his realistic take on the undead ghoul. All the while, it appears that Murnau is going off the deep end to perfect his masterpiece. He couldn’t have taken radical steps and hired an actual vampire to star in his film, could he? Though that might explain why certain members of the crew are going missing…

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It’s not a huge spoiler to say that this is a horror movie and there are only so many ways this premise can play out. SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE has stellar moments, a show-stopping climax, and manages to add its own spin on actual history. F.W. Murnau was known for being a bit eccentric on his sets and Max Schreck was a method actor who did scare everyone on the set of NOSFERATU by never breaking character. Filmmaking was a far more intricate art form in this time period too. A single flaw in an unbroken shot could screw up a day’s work. Screenwriter Steven Katz uses all of this knowledge to his full advantage. The whole story is further brought to life by an absolutely beautiful soundtrack. Seriously, if you don’t have any desire to watch this movie, just listen to the soundtrack for the sake of listening to wonderfully composed music.

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As original as the plot may be, SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE seems to rely too heavily on the one-joke premise in places. There are many scenes (some of which are for pure comic relief) that have cast/crew members talking to Max Schreck in order to see how far he’ll push his method acting as a vampire. These usually end with one actor looking to the other and saying “We need more like him!” An added “wah wah wah” sound bite wouldn’t be too out-of-place in these moments. The film isn’t strictly played for laughs though. A very horror angle is taken on the material and reminds you that this is a dark story about eerie goings-on in the hope of producing a cinematic masterpiece. It seems almost like director E. Elias Merhige was aiming to incorporate German expressionism into this film about a guy making a German expressionist film. It’s kind of meta in that regard and adds yet another layer to why this movie is so damned entertaining.

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As far as the cast is concerned, John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe play off each other brilliantly. Malkovich is perfect as the obsessed Murnau and Dafoe is even more so in the role of Schreck. Adding little ticks, twitches, and a variety of extreme facial expressions, Dafoe is almost unrecognizable in this part and seems to be loving every second of it. This is how the scariest vampires are in my opinion (the creepy monsters that aren’t sexy and are only interested in draining your precious red fluid). A few other notable performers have issues or just plain leave way too early in the story. Eddie Izzard adds a lot of fun to the film, but leaves almost as fast as he enters. Meanwhile, Udo Kier is unconvincing as the film’s oddball producer. Then there’s Cary Elwes. In the right roles, he’s fantastic. In the wrong roles, he’s awful. He’s more good than bad here, but carries an undiscernible accent that magically comes and goes. The film works best when its focused on Malkovich or Dafoe and that’s a majority of the story.

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SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE tells a creative story that brims with potential as soon as you read the synopsis. There are many strengths (great atmosphere, fantastic soundtrack, a couple of perfect performances, etc.), but also some weaknesses (some shaky performances, a few pointless scenes, etc.). The good far outweighs the bad in this unusual horror flick. It’s a vampire movie like no other and it just happens to take place around the filming of one of the most famous vampire movies ever made!

Grade: B

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