Film Review: Bug (2006)

Release Date: May 19th, 2006 (Cannes)
Directed by: William Friedkin
Written by: Tracy Letts
Based on: Bug by Tracy Letts
Music by: Brian Tyler
Cast: Ashley Judd, Michael Shannon, Lynn Collins, Brian F. O’Byrne, Harry Connick Jr.

DMK Mediafonds International, Inferno Distribution LLC, L.I.F.T. Productions, Lionsgate, 101 Minutes

Review:

“I guess I’d rather talk with you about bugs than nothing with nobody.” – Agnes White

William Friedkin is most associated with directing The Exorcist. This film, however, leaves you with a similar sense of disgust and dread.

In this picture, we meet Agnes, a lonely Oklahoma woman that works in a gay bar and lives in a rundown hotel. She does drugs and fools around with a lesbian, has a psycho ex-husband that just got out of prison and is still emotionally wrecked from the loss of her child.

Agnes is introduced to Peter and immediately develops in infatuation with him. Peter and Agnes get very close and intimate, even though Peter “isn’t into women” or anyone for that matter. Soon, we learn that Peter believes in all sorts of crazy conspiracies and even thinks that he was implanted with flesh eating bugs as some sort of military experiment.

As the film rolls on, Peter gets more erratic and insane and Agnes follows suit, believing him every step of the way. She starts seeing what Peter is seeing.

The film is magnificently shot. The opening scene that pans over a dark and barren landscape, slowly moving towards a small hotel in the distance, is beautiful and haunting. The cinematography in the last twenty minutes or so, showing these two insane people in a confined space of tin foil walls glowing from bug zappers is eerie and enchanting. This film certainly looks spectacular.

Bug also benefits from the tremendous performances by both Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon, who sell their characters to the point that their slip into madness feels organic and terrifying.

Despite the solid acting, though, the characters aren’t nearly developed enough in the script and it is hard to feel anything deeper for them beyond their psychotic surface. Sure, your heart aches in a way but you don’t necessarily like these two people or find them to be that interesting. Watching anyone slip into a horrible state of mental health is always engaging to some degree but this film lacks the soul it needs to really make it as profound as it was trying to be.

Besides, everything just sort of happens and once the crazy ball gets rolling, we’re off to the races and it goes from 0 to 60 in record time.

Bug is a film that has a lot of strengths but doesn’t do much to capitalize on them other than just throwing them on the screen and hoping it works on its own. It’s hard to say whether or not the script was lacking, although it seems as though it was, or if Friedkin failed to bring it all together. I think the blame is really on both of those things, though.

Plus, you’re supposed to wonder if Peter is actually telling the truth and isn’t just nuts. I never once thought he was anything but nuts and saw this all as a shared delusion. I know that I was supposed to question it but that just didn’t work for me.

Additionally, the ending is pretty terrible and didn’t add anything to the narrative. Things just sort of end very badly and very blandly.

This is a creepy and disturbing movie that will certainly make you uncomfortable but it is just as much unsatisfying as it is mesmerizing.

Rating: 6/10
Pairs well with: Other body horror films: The BroodThe Fly, etc.

Film Review: Straight Outta Compton (2015)

Release Date: August 11th, 2015 (Los Angeles premiere)
Directed by: F. Gary Gray
Written by: Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff, S. Leigh Savidge, Alan Wenkus
Music by: Joseph Trapanese, N.W.A.
Cast: O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Paul Giamatti, Aldis Hodge, Neil Brown Jr.

Legendary Pictures, New Line Cinema, Cube Vision, Crucial Films, Broken Chair Flickz, Universal Pictures, 147 Minutes

Review:

“They want N.W.A, let’s give em N.W.A.” – Eazy-E

*Written in 2015.

I have been waiting for this film to come out since I first heard about its development a few years ago.

N.W.A. is a group that I listened to almost since their inception and they had a big influence over me as a kid. Sure, my parents didn’t like me listening to them when I was in middle school but I really didn’t care and record stores didn’t really police their sale of explicit products to minors in the early ’90s. Well, some stores did but I avoided those.

This film was pretty fantastic. In fact, I’m going to go on and say that this is my favorite film of the year thus far. It was, by far, F. Gary Gray’s finest work as a director. Being that he has been a long time collaborator with the men who were the subject of this film, made it feel real personal and he had legitimate insight into the relationships of these guys. Additionally, with Dr. Dre and Ice Cube consulting heavily on this film, we got one of the most accurate music biopics ever made. Granted, I’m sure they filtered in their own bias.

This, above all else, was a film about friendship – even more so than the history of N.W.A., Ruthless Records and Death Row. It showed five close friends coming up together and challenging a corrupt and oppressive system. It showed how they fought for freedom of speech and how they became the voice of a generation that was fed up – transcending their neighborhood and their race: effecting millions of people all over the world. Even when friendship dissolved, in the end, the love was still there and through all the bullshit and really bad blood, they were still brothers.

The acting was on point. Ice Cube was played by his real life son and he looked and sounded exactly like his father. In fact, most of the time, you only see him as Ice Cube and get lost in the performance. Pretty damn impressive for a kid who has never acted. Jason Mitchell was perfect as Eazy-E, Paul Giamatti was a great choice for Jerry Heller and Neil Brown Jr. truly felt like DJ Yella. Corey Hawkins was good as Dr. Dre but was the weakest of the main actors. Aldis Hodge was okay as MC Ren but I felt like Ren really got the shaft in this film, as he was just in it. He wasn’t shown as a character of significance and someone of Ren’s presence, which he has a hell of a presence, should have been featured more. This film makes MC Ren just seem like the odd man out of the group and maybe that is because he never found the individual success of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E.

Arabian Prince was completely shafted. He wasn’t even mentioned in the film. But if you remember the cover of the “Straight Outta Compton” album from 1988, there were six men in the photo. He was the sixth man, lost to history and forgotten. And I guess his role was so minimal, they really didn’t need to include him in the movie.

I did like how they featured the D.O.C., Warren G, Snoop Dogg, 2pac and mentioned Bone Thugs. I like how they tied in the Rodney King beating and the L.A. Riots, showing how N.W.A.’s music was almost prophetic without the film beating you over the head with it. The scene featuring the unity between the Bloods and Crips against the police was beautifully shot and executed.

Moving on, there are a few things I have to nitpick about with the film. For one, in 1986, Eazy-E is wearing a black White Sox cap. Well, the White Sox didn’t wear the black uniforms until 1991 or so. In another scene, which takes place in 1993, Eazy-E is using a cordless phone model that didn’t come out until around 2000. I know, because I owned that same phone. Also, 2pac was recording “All Eyez On Me” in the studio with Dr. Dre while Eazy-E was still alive in the film. Eazy died in early 1995 while “All Eyez On Me” was recorded late in 1995 and released in early 1996. There were a few other weird discrepancies but I’ll stop being an asshole.

Besides, the film’s narrative was strong. The movie told a great story and that is the most important thing.

While I do feel that the film shows both the good and bad of Eazy-E and Jerry Heller, I feel like this is through the eyes of Dre and Cube, which it is. I wish Eazy would’ve lived and would’ve been able to consult and flesh out his side of the story in the same way that Dre and Cube were able to do with the director. But to be fair, despite Eazy’s faults, he is still shown as a loveable yet tragic character and Dr. Dre and Ice Cube honored him for who he was.

The only big plot point that I felt was missing, was showcasing how heated the beef got between Dr. Dre and Eazy-E. For those that experienced it, it was a big deal at the time and from a fan’s perspective, the beef felt irreconcilable. Dre and Eazy both expressed regret about it in the film but it wasn’t shown or discussed in any sort of detail.

Also, the film jumps over the whole NWA & The Posse era.

I feel that it is also important to point out how funny this film is. It isn’t a comedy but there are so many great comedic moments throughout the picture. Yes, it is a serious film that has very dark moments for each character but their is a light-hardheartedness about this film that really showcases the soul of these men.

In closing, Straight Outta Compton is a spectacular film whether or not you even care about hip-hop. For those that do care about this group, it gives you an intimate look into their lives and shows how everything went down, as accurately as can be portrayed on film. And being that I am a person that lived through all of this and remember it from the perspective of a fan, it is impossible to not fall victim to nostalgia. But in that nostalgia, one walks away feeling more intimately connected to something that has been a part of your life for a long time. This was a film just as much about those of us who rode along with N.W.A. from 1988-1992, as it was about the band itself.

F. Gary Gray, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube truly have a piece of work to be proud of. Don’t take your family though, unless you want Little Jimmy yelling “Fuck the Police” as he walks out of the theater. Then again, I was once Little Jimmy and I turned out just fine.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: Any top tier music biopic, really. This is just as good as the best of them.

Film Review: Suddenly (1954)

Release Date: October 7th, 1954
Directed by: Lewis Allen
Written by: Richard Sale
Based on: Active Duty by Richard Sale
Music by: David Raksin
Cast: Frank Sinatra, Sterling Hayden, Nancy Gates

Libra Productions, United Artists, 75 Minutes

Review:

“I’m not an actor, bustin’ my leg on a stage so I can yell ‘down with the tyrants’. If Booth wasn’t such a ham he might’ve made it.” – John Baron

This film was pretty heavy stuff for 1954. While there had been films about presidential assassinations before this one, never had their been one that took place in modern times. And on top of that, Frank Sinatra plays the man gunning for the President.

The film sees a widowed mother, her young son, her father-in-law and a cop that has the hots for her, held hostage in her home, as a gangster and his men are planning to use the home’s vantage point to stage a presidential assassination.

Sinatra plays a scumbag and there are no bones about it. I feel like it was probably hard to accept him in this role, given the time and for the fact that he was such a lovable icon. Still, his performance is solid and he carries himself well. He brought some gravitas and machismo to the screen and was unrelenting as this sinister killer.

Sterling Hayden plays the cop trapped with the mad man in the house. He is a good foil to Sinatra and their dialogue exchanges are engaging and serve to paint Sinatra’s John Baron as something darker than what you first assume. He’s a man with a screwed up history and a vendetta.

Nancy Gates plays the mother and she really is the heart and soul of the picture, even if she feels overshadowed and outnumbered by the men in the film. She has this likable sweetness and it is easy to understand her concerns, as the mother of a small child who has been threatened to be killed if any of the adults try to play hero.

Suddenly is well shot, well acted and has held up quite nicely.

The film ended up being at the center of some major controversy, however. When JFK was assassinated in 1963, it was said that Lee Harvey Oswald was inspired by this film. While that wasn’t necessarily true, Frank Sinatra was deeply upset about it, as he was close friends to the real-life president. It’s said that Sinatra pleaded with the studio to pull the film from circulation and that he tried to buy up all the prints in an effort to destroy them. This also wasn’t true but Sinatra did have some regrets about playing a part in this movie. And regardless of the true story or not, this film has very strong similarities to that dark day in American history and sort of foreshadowed it.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: The Manchurian Candidate, another Sinatra film with similar themes.

Film Review: The Mad Monster (1942)

Release Date: May 8th, 1942 (premiere)
Directed by: Sam Newfield
Written by: Fred Myton
Music by: David Chudnow
Cast: Johnny Downs, George Zucco, Anne Nagel, Reginald Barlow

Producers Releasing Corporation, 77 Minutes

Review:

“Gentlemen, I wish you were here to see the proof of my claim that the transfusion of blood between different species is possible. Perhaps you will change your mind one day soon when Petro tears at your throat.” – Dr. Lorenzo Cameron

More often than not a studio from Poverty Row would remind the world why they were a studio on Poverty Row. It’s not to say that they were incapable of quality, they made some good stuff now and again, but when you don’t have the finances or the nice studio to compete with the big dogs in the old Hollywood era, every project was an attempt to make chicken salad with chicken shit.

The Mad Monster looks and feels like a Poverty Row film. It’s poorly filmed with bad sound, bad camera work, bad acting and a script that didn’t need refinement, it just needed to be thrown out.

I’d imagine that this gem of awfulness would have been completely forgotten by this point, had it not been featured in the first nationally televised season of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Because of that, it found new life and will always exist, as that show’s die hard fans won’t let anything die.

It should go without saying that the effects are terrible, the acting is dog shit and the monster is cheesier than a Philly steak sandwich buried under Velveeta nachos. But there is an endearing quality to it because of those things.

Sadly, the film is pretty damn boring for the most part and relies on the same small swamp set over and over. The film feels confined, cheap and barely has any redeeming qualities other than the fact that a monster was created by a transfusion of a dog’s blood into a man’s body.

So as is customary with movies like this, I have to run it through the Cinespiria Shitometer. The results read, “Type 3 Stool: Like a sausage but with cracks on its surface.”

Rating: 2.25/10
Pairs well with: The Monster MakerThe Corpse Vanishes and The Vampire Bat

Film Review: Cube (1997)

Release Date: September 9th, 1997 (TIFF)
Directed by: Vincenzo Natali
Written by: Andre Bijelic, Graeme Manson, Vincenzo Natali
Music by: Mark Korven
Cast: Nicole de Boer, Nicky Guadagni, David Hewlett, Andrew Miller, Julian Richings, Wayne Robson, Maurice Dean Wint

Feature Film Project, Odeon Films, Viacom Canada, Ontario Film Development Corporation, Cube Libre, Téléfilm Canada, Harold Greenberg Fund, Trimark Pictures, 90 Minutes

Review:

“No more talking. No more guessing. Don’t even think about nothing that’s not right in front of you. That’s the real challenge. You’ve gotta save yourselves from yourselves.” – Rennes

Cube is a film with a great concept mired by bad acting and questionable direction.

Don’t get me wrong, I really like the movie and it is, by far, the best of the three films in the series. Granted, the sequel and prequel weren’t made by this film’s director and therefore, can’t be considered his vision, even if they are extensions of the ideas established in this film.

The movie is actually pretty impressive. For one, it all takes place in a very confined space. It was filmed in one room on a very modest budget and even if it wasn’t a critical success, initially, it has developed a well deserved cult following.

The premise of Cube is intriguing. The setup is not wholly original but the overall idea for this film is.

We come to meet a group of strangers, who find themselves in a giant cube maze. Every room looks the same: a big cube with a door on all six sides, each door leading to an identical cube. However, some rooms have traps that kill and maim characters throughout the film. They must use their skills to try and traverse the deadly maze in an effort to find an escape.

You never really find out why the people were put in the cube or what its purpose is. There is the thought that they were selected for their different skill sets and that the game they are playing is only happening to give the cube a reason to exist.

None of the questions are really answered by the time you get to the end of the film and while that will most assuredly annoy most people, I was really happy with there not being a big reveal. The film is effective because it doesn’t need to explain itself. We meet these people, they are in this situation, we watch the experiment play out.

The later sequels started explaining more but without Vincenzo Natali in the director’s chair, I can’t really accept those events within the context of this film.

Cube is well paced, moves briskly but still builds tension in the right way. It’s not as predictable as you might think but then again, some things sort of just happen because they’re tropes of this picture’s genre style.

The only real negative is the acting. It’s not horrible and a few characters are likable but a few of them become grating after 90 minutes. I think that the acting quality just comes from lack of experience and a director that was more into the visual elements of the film than the performances of its stars. Nicole de Boer who was on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine around the same time as this, has proven she’s got chops.

Cube is certainly a worthwhile experience and it has a bit more gore than I remembered, as I haven’t seen it in a very long time. Not a lot of gore but some nice, quick gross outs here and there.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: The Cube sequels.

Film Review: Branded to Kill (1967)

Also known as: Koroshi no rakuin (Japanese)
Release Date: June 15th, 1967 (Japan)
Directed by: Seijun Suzuki
Written by: Hachiro Guryu
Music by: Naozumi Yamamoto
Cast: Joe Shishido, Koji Nanbara, Annu Mari, Mariko Ogawa, Hiroshi Minami

Nikkatsu, 98 Minutes

Review:

“This is how Number 1 works: first he exhausts you, and then he kills you.” – Number 1

While I have only seen a handful of Seijun Suzuki’s motion pictures, he has become one of my favorite directors of all-time. Between this and Tokyo Drifter alone, he has proven to me that he is a true auteur with an incredible eye, an enchanting style and impeccable craftsmanship.

I thought Tokyo Drifter was one of the coolest, if not the coolest, movies I have ever seen. Branded to Kill is nearly as cool and just as perfect as Tokyo Drifter.

Suzuki has a way of taking something pretty standard like a Yakuza picture and making it much more interesting than it needs to be. But that is also why his films are so unique and incredible and not just forgettable chapters in a massive genre of Japanese cinema.

The bizarreness of this film can’t be understated. The main character is an assassin for hire and is ranked Number 3. He is in a battle with the other ranked assassins throughout the film but is specifically being targeted by Number 1. He also has a fetish that sees him obsessively inhaling the aromas of freshly boiled rice.

The movie is mostly a series of assassin battles playing out, as these killers try to outwit and survive one another. The story also has strong film-noir elements in its visual style, use of a femme fatale and constant twists and turns. It is one of the most artistically sound Japanese neo-noirs of all-time, right alongside Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter.

It is easy to see where some other noteworthy auteur directors were influenced and inspired by Suzuki’s work here. The film almost has some David Lynch qualities too it, decades before Lynch really emerged and crafted his own interesting oeuvre. It would also influence John Woo, Chan-wook Park, Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino.

Interestingly enough, this film made no money upon its release and Suzuki was fired for making films that “…make no sense and no money.” Suzuki successfully sued the studio and caused a major controversy within the Japanese film industry, which resulted in him being blacklisted. He didn’t make another film for ten years and became a sort of counterculture hero. Because of this, he became recognized as an artist with something more to say than just a standard director pumping out low budget gangster movies for a paycheck.

Nowadays, this film is heralded as an incredible body of work and even has its own Criterion Collection edition.

Over thirty years later, Suzuki filmed Pistol Opera for Nikkatsu, the studio he had the falling out with. That film was a loose sequel to this one.

Rating: 9.75/10
Pairs well with: Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter, as well as some of his other films: Youth of the Beast, Pistol Opera and Gate of Flesh.

Film Review: No Questions Asked (1951)

Release Date: June 15th, 1951
Directed by: Harold F. Kress
Written by: Sidney Sheldon, Berne Giler
Music by: Leith Stevens
Cast: Barry Sullivan, Arlene Dahl, George Murphy, Jean Hagen

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 80 Minutes

Review:

I caught this film on an episode of TCM’s Noir Alley. While I’m an avid fan of film-noir, this isn’t a film that I knew about until Eddie Muller featured it on his show.

The film follows Steve, a young lawyer for an insurance company. Steve asks his boss for a raise but isn’t able to persuade him. As he’s leaving his boss’ office, he hears that the boss is willing to pay a hefty sum for the return of some stolen property, “no questions asked” on how it’s done, because the large sum is still less than it would cost to pay the claim.

Steve convinces his boss to give him the task but he attracts the attention of gangsters, who think that they can use Steve for similar situations. Being that this is noir, things take a turn for the worse. What we end up getting is a film that examines insurance scams and fraud, told through a noir tale featuring doublecrosses and twists.

Unlike other film-noir pictures, that had a grit to them, No Questions Asked feels like it is more visually refined, which is probably due to it being produced by MGM. However, the more glossy and refined appearance of the film makes it feel less like a noir than it should. Granted, MGM did produce proper looking noir, several in fact.

Barry Sullivan was decent as Steve but it’s hard to care for him, as he pines over Arlene Dahl – a high maintenance gal that doesn’t really care about him, and doesn’t jump all over the chance to be with Jean Hagen, who is smitten with him. Plus, he’s looking to make an easy buck in a dishonest way; not because he needs the money to live but because he wants to wow the woman that rejected him and general greed takes over.

The film is decently acted but not well acted. It seemed as if some people were really into their roles while others dialed it in. Maybe the director was just dialing it in too, as he accepted the unbalanced performances.

This is mostly a forgettable noir. We’ve seen films about insurance fraud before and some that were done much better. Sure, this is a different type of scam than say the one in Double Indemnity but one can’t watch this and not make some comparisons to the narrative of both films. Double Indeminity is also a bonafide classic, though.

No Questions Asked is a decent time killer but if you need to get your noir fix, there are dozens of films superior to this one.

Rating: 6.5/10
Pairs well with: Loophole, also with Barry Sullivan.