THAT GUY DICK MILLER (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 31 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

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Directed by: Elijah Drenner

Written by: Elijah Drenner

Starring: Dick Miller, Lainie Miller, Gilbert Adler, Steve Carver, Roger Corman, Joe Dante, Fred Dekker, Ernest R. Dickerson, Corey Feldman, Robert Forster, Zach Galligan, Leonard Maltin & William Sadler

If you watch a lot of movies, then you’ve likely noticed small recurring actors. You may drive yourself crazy trying to remember what you’ve seen them in before and ultimately realize that they’ve been side characters in a ton of movies. These performers are what some people refer as “That Guy” as in “Oh that guy. He’s in everything.” Some modern examples of “That Guy” include Brian Cox and Dylan Baker. However, there’s one “That Guy” who trumps them all. From the mid-1950’s to the present, Dick Miller has acquired nearly 200 credits to his name. Though he’s only received the leading role in two of his films, you’re more than likely to recognize Dick Miller from somewhere. He’s the neighbor in GREMLINS. He’s the psycho-killer in A BUCKET OF BLOOD. Now, he’s the subject of this remarkably entertaining and insightful documentary.

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THAT GUY DICK MILLER takes the viewer through Dick Miller’s career in the film industry. The documentary weaves together interviews with co-workers and friends as well as tons of clips from Miller’s bit parts in various films. We are also given details about his personal life that you would never have any clue about. For example, Dick wasn’t planning on becoming an actor and originally wanted to be a screenwriter. He has a full drawer of screenplays that were never made into movies and has officially written three films (two of which he seems to be embarrassed by).

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This documentary will definitely play big for genre buffs who are more than a little familiar with who Dick Miller is, but should also serve as a fascinating experience for newbies who had no idea about this actor’s many roles. Through one-on-one interviews, you get the sense that Miller always injects a little of himself into each performance (as small as that performance might be). He’s such a unique individual that you can’t help but love the man. That spirit and sense of enjoyment is omnipresent through this entire documentary. Miller discussing the many problems that occur on various sets is especially entertaining. One piece about how money was tight during spots of his career (even though he had filmed five movies in one year) and him constantly waiting by the phone for his livelihood is a bit of brutal honesty that you don’t hear a lot of in Hollywood. I felt like giving the man a round of applause, because he very much seems like a dedicated individual.

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Besides examining Dick Miller’s career, the movie simultaneously sheds light on how very different the filmmaking scene was during the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. Miller thrived in the world of exploitation cinema and B-movies. They were his bread and butter. Though he’s also appeared in THE TERMINATOR and was sadly cut out of PULP FICTION, Miller serves as a bit of a genre icon for many. I would love to see a documentary examining the rise of exploitation movies and B-flicks in the Hollywood scene as well (though I’m sure a handful have already been made) from director Elijah Drenner because he clearly has a solid grasp on what he’s doing and how to present this information. If there is one complaint to be had from me, it comes in a 5-minute segment focusing on Miller’s friendship with Joe Dante that seems to lean a tad too much on Dante’s filmography as opposed to Miller’s role in it. At any rate, it’s a minor gripe and is still interesting nonetheless.

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Overall, THAT GUY DICK MILLER is a fascinating, oddly heartwarming documentary that highlights a significant piece of genre filmmaking history. That piece being the recurring character actor with nearly 200 credits to his name. Much like BEST WORST MOVIE and SPINE TINGLER!, THAT GUY DICK MILLER should serve as a hugely enjoyable time for genre buffs and equally fascinating for people who don’t necessarily know a lot about exploitation cinema. This comes highly recommended!

Grade: A

THE HUNT FOR THE BTK KILLER (2005)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 28 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

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Directed by: Stephen Kay

Written by: Tom Towler & Donald Martin

(based on the book NIGHTMARE IN WICHITA: THE HUNT FOR THE BTK STRANGLER by Robert Beattie)

Starring: Robert Forster, Gregg Henry, Michael Michele, Maury Chaykin & Mimi Kuzyk

From 1974 to 1991, Dennis Rader (known as the BTK Killer, Bind Torture Kill) terrorized the small community of Wichita, Kansas. With 10 victims under his belt, Rader wasn’t arrested until February 2005 thanks to a stunning turn of events and sheer dumb luck. The legal proceedings for the infamous BTK Killer concluded in June 2005. There were three months between Rader’s trial date and the premiere of this made-for-TV movie. When I see stuff like this I’m reminded of the scene from SE7EN in which Brad Pitt tells the psychotic John Doe, “You’re just a movie of the week!” Besides winding up in prison for life, Dennis Rader ultimately became fodder for a TV movie of the week and 2005’s HUNT FOR THE BTK KILLER is that movie. How does it hold up as an accurate and well-made portrayal of Rader’s capture? Honestly, this is a bit of a mixed bag.

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The capture of the BTK Killer is ultimately a story of dumb luck and one officer who didn’t have many clues to monster’s identity. What triggered BTK’s “return” was a writer announcing a new book about the BTK cold case. After seeing that upcoming chronicle of his story, Rader’s mask of sanity slips as he obsesses over his old crimes and begins planning new ones. Thanks to BTK’s overwhelming ego, the police receive some evidence to suggest that this feared serial killer is still alive and well. Detective Jason Magida sets up a plan to bait BTK into making a revealing mistake. What follows is a game of cat-and-mouse which results in the capture of Rader, who is now rotting in jail today. Being told from a court scene in the opening, HUNT FOR BTK is mainly made of flashbacks detailing reenactments of Magida’s search for Rader.

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Though it sets itself up in the most clichéd manner possible, this movie could have arguably been better if it were told in a chronological narrative instead of flashbacks accompanied with bad narration. Right away, things become totally apparent that this was a made-for-TV effort. Not made for HBO or Showtime (where the content restrictions are more open), but basic cable or (more likely) network television. In spite of the R rating that the film totes on its DVD release, things were cut back to keep it at a safe level. I don’t need or want to see Rader’s graphic crimes on-screen, but there are noticeable points where Robert Forster’s hardened cop says things like “I don’t know if we’re going to catch this frickin’ guy.” If you can’t swear in your movie, don’t add cheap substitute faux curse words. Just write the dialogue without any space for profanity to be had. At least, that way it’s less distracting. Forster isn’t compelling in the role of Detective Magida as the real reason (the film showcases this in a backhanded way) that Rader managed to get arrested was through a stupid mistake on his part and luck on the cop’s side. The film doesn’t exactly sport the most compelling true story behind it and the production values are very cheap.

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HUNT FOR BTK sinks all possible suspense with a manipulative soundtrack. The same few pieces of music are played over and over. To the film’s credit, one piece of music is decent, but we have to sit through it six times before the film is over. This movie tries way too hard to force emotions down the viewer’s throat during certain scenes. One moment that felt especially unnecessary was Dennis Rader was hitting on a waitress in a diner. The soundtrack lets us know to be scared of Rader, but we already know he’s a serial killer. Even if you weren’t aware of that, the opening scene shows you that he’s a psycho. Therefore, we don’t need a cheesy bit of music to clue us in on Rader’s sinister intentions towards this young woman. It’s fairly obvious because he’s a serial killer!

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The sole saving grace to this otherwise mediocre TV movie is Gregg Henry’s portrayal of Dennis Rader. I kind of wish more scenes featured Henry, because he was excellent in the part. He managed to capture the deeply psychotic side brimming beneath the fake surface of this lunatic, while also showing the façade that so many people bought into (Rader was a boy scout leader and a church leader). However, the aspect that Henry absolutely nailed is the asshole side of Rader, whom many say was constantly abusing his small position of power as a local dogcatcher. There’s a particular encounter with him and a pissed off neighbor that pretty much played out just like it was originally described. Gregg Henry is the only shining talent in HUNT FOR BTK.

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HUNT FOR BTK is a shallow, simple, and cheaply made TV movie of the week. Honestly, I’m kind of glad it turned out that way, because egomaniac serial killer Dennis Rader (who delighted in every bit of attention he got after being arrested) doesn’t deserve a good movie made about him. The cop’s closing voiceover about never giving up in the face of danger is especially insulting to the viewer’s intelligence, because reality (and the film) showed that he didn’t exactly do anything remarkable to catch Rader. The only reasons to watch THE HUNT FOR THE BTK KILLER are for Gregg Henry’s performance or if you’ve just read up on the case and want to see a middle-of-the-road TV movie based on the material.

Grade: C

LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN (2006)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence, Sexuality and Language

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Directed by: Paul McGuigan

Written by: Jason Smilovic

Starring: Josh Hartnett, Bruce Willis, Lucy Liu, Morgan Freeman, Ben Kingsley & Stanley Tucci

In the opening minutes of LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN (after a grisly montage of different people being taken out in violent ways), Bruce Willis explains what a Kansas City Shuffle is. He describes it as when everybody goes right and you go left. The entire plot of SLEVIN could be summed up that description. This ingenious and underrated crime thriller leads goes left where every other crime thriller goes right. It’s a constantly surprising and very well-written flick that needs a bigger following behind it. If there was any best Tarantino movie that Tarantino didn’t direct in the new millennium, this is it!

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Slevin Kelevra (Josh Hartnett) is an unlucky young man who has found himself in quite the predicament. After losing his job, apartment and girlfriend, Slevin goes to visit his friend Nick Fisher in New York. Once there, his luck gets even worse as he’s mugged (wallet with ID and all is taken) and Nick is nowhere to be found. After making friends with a nosy neighbor (Lucy Liu), Slevin winds up in a classic case of mistaken identity. Nick owes money to two different mob bosses, The Boss (Morgan Freeman) and The Rabbi (Ben Kingsley), who live across a busy street from each other. Slevin is caught in between these crime lords and a brutish cop (Stanley Tucci) on his case. All the while a shady hitman named Goodkat (Bruce Willis) waits in the background to make his move. It’s a confusing plot to get down properly and things get even more complicated as the movie goes along, but the second half is where everything pays off in spades! This is an understated near masterpiece.

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LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN is comparable to a Tarantino crime flick in any number of ways. Namely the dialogue which is sharp, fast, and full of wit. The colorful characters all have their special personalities. Even someone as basic as two thugs who are seen in three scenes, make their presence known with different quirks. Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley are fantastic as two rival crime bosses who have their own different sense of humor. Both are intimidating, especially Morgan Freeman, but their smartass attitudes make them a joy to watch. Bruce Willis also shines Goodkat, rarely glimpsed in the first half but making his presence well-known in the second.

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The one thing that I would fault is the connection between Josh Hartnett and Lucy Liu. A romance is kindled between the two and they aren’t exactly compelling as a couple. I’ll go as far as saying that Lucy Liu is the weakest part of this flick. Josh Hartnett is a smartass that kind get a little grating at points, but I completely dug his character by the end. Also, Stanley Tucci is underused as the main police officer on Slevin’s tail. Some viewers might find it a little hard to get through the seemingly convoluted nature of the first half, but things go from confusing to downright excellent and rewarding in the second half. This is a movie that turns into something you don’t expect it to. Keeping it vague, you won’t know what hit you.

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LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN is a Kansas City Shuffle (you’ll know the origin of this term in the final seconds of the film). It’s one of the most underrated films that you’re bound to find. One of the best crime stories you’ve never heard of and if you have heard of this film, then you know exactly why its awesome and how it tricks the viewer in so many ways. There are tons of twists in LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN and I’ve kept things vague enough so you won’t guess exactly what’s coming. The second hour is one of the finest reveals that keeps pulling even more reveals as it goes along. Though the forced romance might keep things from being perfect, it’s damn near a masterpiece regardless. A bloody brilliant film that is the definition of a hidden gem. If you’re even remotely into gangster movies, then you must see this!

Grade: A

MIDDLE MEN (2010)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Sexual Content, Nudity, Language, Drug Use and Violence

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Directed by: George Gallo

Written by: George Gallo & Andy Weiss

Starring: Luke Wilson, Giovanni Ribisi, Gabriel Macht, James Caan, Laura Ramsey, Jacinda Barrett, Kelsey Grammer, Terry Crews, Kevin Pollak & Robert Forster

MIDDLE MEN plays out like the gooey mess of someone throwing THE SOCIAL NETWORK, BOOGIE NIGHTS, and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET in a blender. That description should tell you if this film is in your wheelhouse or not. Based on the real-life experiences of Christopher Mallick (a morally questionable businessman in internet history), the film seems to jumble a bunch of different events into a coherent storyline that begins with a fast-pace and a lot of dark humor. Somewhere along the line, things get fumbled as the film significantly deviates into more familiar (probably entirely fictional) territory and ultimately becomes far less interesting.

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Jumping from 1980’s to 1990’s and ultimately to the mid-2000’s, the plot revolves around (fictional character) Jack Harris who proves to have a talent for fixing difficult problems and being an equally skilled businessman. After turning a friend’s night club into a goldmine in the short period of a few months, Jack is called in to help two morons (Wayne and Buck) responsible for creating a revolutionary internet program. This program allows for anyone living anywhere in the world to enter their credit card information for a monthly subscription to online pornography. What else would be so popular on the worldwide web? Unfortunately, Wayne and Buck have gotten themselves in bed with the Russian mob and a crooked lawyer. Jack fixes their problems in the best way in can, but also finds himself immersed in the glamorous lifestyle centered around perversion, sex, and drugs. This puts his personal life in danger of falling apart, whilst also building tension between him and his long-distance family. The Jack’s (along with his two partner’s) problems only steadily increase into bigger issues…

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MIDDLE MEN sounds like a recipe for success on many different levels. For the first half of the film, it delivers. The story is equipped with a rip-roaring fast face that jumps all over the place with ease. Frequent dark humor litters every scene and provides some much-needed comic relief that totally works. The use of the soundtrack is absolutely fantastic too. The whole film really does reek of a Scorsese-inspired filmmaker (in this case, George Gallo) and unlike most others who wind up ripping off the man’s style, Gallo works this all to his advantage. I absolutely loved the first 50 minutes of this film. It nailed everything one would hope for from a movie like this. Then things quickly turn in the opposite direction.

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Everything that worked so well in the introduction and set up is slowed to a crawl for the remainder of the film and sometimes even forgotten. It seemed as if the filmmaker and co-screenwriter weren’t content with the already complicated story they were telling. The resulting solution being to throw in a bunch of unnecessary (most likely entirely made up) plot points that have been seen in plenty of crime thrillers. Every single one of these felt completely out-of-place in this would-be drama about the complicated inception of internet pornography. The tone also dives into decidedly darker territory and loses the likable sense of humor in the process. The laughs were so frequent in the first half that the rest of the film (again) seems to have forgotten what worked so well in the beginning. The tone jumps all over the place and things ultimately conclude in an ending that left me unsatisfied.

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As far as the big name cast goes, nearly everyone delivers good performances across the board with one exception. That stick in the mud would be Luke Wilson. He’s enjoyable enough in comedies, but his dramatic side seems to be a mixed bag (e.g. VACANCY). In MIDDLE MEN, he’s taking center stage as the Ray Liotta role in GOODFELLAS. His voice-over narration lacks the charisma that Liotta delivered in Scorsese’s masterpiece. I didn’t mind this at the beginning due to how fascinating and entertaining everything else was, but Wilson winds up being an almost nobody of a leading man. His performance comes off as wooden. I was more interested in seeing everyone else around him.

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Kelsey Grammer has a brief one-scene role. Kevin Pollak and Terry Crews show up as seldom seen side characters. As Wayne and Buck, Giovanni Ribsi and Gabriel Macht are a blast to watch. Their screen time seems to be significantly cut in the latter half, which adds yet another reason for the film to take a dip in quality halfway through. Their characters also make some far-fetched decisions that I didn’t buy, even seeing how dumb they had shown themselves to be in their actions leading up the final 30 minutes. A welcome James Caan is the best presence on-screen as a loathsome lawyer that has a shady side to say the least.

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I really wanted to love MIDDLE MEN and I thought this might be an underrated gem from just how awesome the first half was. The humor was very funny. The pace was quick and flying by. The soundtrack was awesome and appropriate for each given time period. Then the movie takes a huge switch flip and things go downhill. A jumbled tone, overly familiar twists and some final notes that didn’t satisfy me in the slightest make MIDDLE MEN into an overall disappointment. It’s far from a terrible film. Everyone, except Luke Wilson, gives a solid performance. The film is competently shot and directed. Sadly, the end result is a mixed bag. If I saw this playing on cable and nothing else was on, then I’d switch it over to kill some time. I just don’t see myself going out of my way to watch this film again.

Grade: C+

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