COMING SOON...

COMING SOON...

Takashi Miike's Dead or Alive Trilogy, Cinema Paradiso and Psychomania

Monday, June 12, 2017

THE ASSIGNMENT: WHAT MAKES A MAN?



I’ll have to give THE ASSINGMENT credit for coming up with something original to add to the action genre. When I think back to all of the films that involve gender reassignment surgery the list is small.
Most of those fall into the exploitation genre with only a few notables in the major release category. Unfortunately little faith was seen in this film and it made its way quickly to satellite and now to DVD.

The opens with Dr. Ralph Galen (Tony Shaloub) sitting down to interview a straight jacketed Dr. Rachel Jane (Sigourney Weaver). Jane is in the psychiatric ward unable to stand trial due to her apparent insanity. It seems she was arrested in an abandoned hotel, surrounded by the bodies of her bodyguards and an employee. Now Galen is trying to decide if she is competent enough to stand trial or not.

What unfolds is Jane’s tale of what happened and the steps that occurred to bring about her circumstances. It seems that three years ago a professional hit man named Frank Kitchen (Michelle Rodriguez) was hired by mobsters to kill Jane’s beloved brother. In return she sought revenge on Frank. Hired by mobster Honest John Hartunian (Anthony LaPaglia) Frank waits for instructions, stashes the money he’s been paid and makes the acquaintance of a young lady named Johnnie (Caitlin Gerard).

Honest John sells Frank out to Jane who drugs and takes custody of Frank. When Frank wakes he finds himself covered in bandages. He discovers that not only has he been drugged with no idea who was behind it all but that during the time he was out an operation has been performed on him. Sexual reassignment surgery. Yes, Frank is now a woman but in body only. Jane has left behind a letter explaining what has been done, why, funds to help take care of him and medicine he will now need to take.

Frank heals a bit and then heads out to retrieve his cash and begin a quest to get revenge on all those who have done him wrong. Contacting Johnnie, slightly stunned to see what has happened, Frank begins to track down the group responsible beginning with the crew of Honest John, leading to a confrontation between the two. All of this is merely steps towards his ultimate goal of finding Jane.

This movie could have played in grindhouses across the country in a time when films like these were being churned out by far lesser studios and under the guise of directors with much less skill. But this time around it has the backing of Lionsgate and a director in the form of Walter Hill, one of the best action directors of all time and a personal favorite.

Hill was an amazing director from his first film (HARD TIMES with Charles Bronson) in 1975 and hit his stride in the 80s with movies like THE WARRIORS, SOUTHERN COMFORT, 48 HOURS, RED HEAT and CROSSROADS. As time went by for some reason his films played to smaller audiences and studios backed away. He never stopped making good movies, especially action films, and it was good to see him come up with something original here since he co-wrote the film.

What could have been salacious and tawdry is instead thought provoking. While full frontal nudity might be on display in the film it isn’t used for sensual reasons but instead to show the changes made to the body of Frank Kitchen. What few love or sex scenes there are in the film are brief and show very little. What we are talking about here is less the sexuality of the person transformed as much as the person inside.

Jane’s motivation for changing Frank as opposed to killing him outright is to experiment with him. A discredited doctor who does her work off the books she is curious to see if she can alter this macho persona who kills without remorse into a more feminine and thus more moral person in her mind. Whether she succeeds or not isn’t known until the end.

While Weaver does a great job as the cool and calculated Jane credit must be given to Michelle Rodriguez in the lead role of Frank. Her male persona is a bit less masculine than most men would seem but she pulls it off. Rodriguez has made a career out of playing roles where she leaves little doubt she is feminine while playing characters most would associate as more masculine. She’s always done an amazing job but here she truly must play a woman playing a man who becomes a woman. Not an easy task but she does it well.

Sure, this movie may not be for everyone. If nudity offends you or the thought of those who undergo sexual reassignment disturbs you too much then by all means bypass this film. The fact is that is not the main theme or design of the film. It is more a revenge picture with a twist to it rather than the standard fare. And speaking of twists it provide an excellent one at the end. If you’re willing to take a risk then you might be surprised by this one.

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LIFE ON THE LINE: UNSUNG HEROES



There was a time when Hollywood chose to make movies about people from every walk of life. They weren’t specially challenged, didn’t toss about political agendas, most were not super spies tracking down the latest bad guy and very few were dressed in tights with super powers. Instead these movies celebrated the normal average Joe and on occasion focused on the tough jobs they performed, celebrating them in the process. John Wayne’s HELLFIGHTERS comes to mind when I think of movies like this. Those movies are rare these days. Thank goodness that didn’t stop LIFE ON THE LINE from being made.

John Travolta stars as Beau, a lineman in Texas wracked with guilt after his brother dies of electrocution completing a job he should have done. On the way to the hospital his brother’s wife is also killed when hit be a semi. This leaves their daughter behind with only Beau to raise her, a job he willingly takes with no qualms.

Years go by and Beau’s niece Baily (Kate Bosworth) has grown into an upstanding young woman. The two of them have worked hard with the intention of her going off to college. But Bailey has a problem to deal with first. She’s still in love with Duncan (Devon Sawa), part of a family that Beau is not keen on. As a matter of fact he’s not thrilled with Duncan either viewing him as a stumbling block for Bailey.

When Duncan shows to take on the job of a new lineman Beau isn’t pleased but works around him. At the moment they need all the men they can get. A set of lines is being replaced and needs done before the storm season kicks in. Face it, this is a movie and you know problems will arise with this task.

Sub plots revolve around the new neighbors who just moved in next door, Eugene and Carline (Ryan Robbins and Julie Benz). Eugene is suffering from PTSD after returning from Iraq but not being treated for it. Carline is wishing her husband were the man he was and eventually searches for comfort elsewhere. Another subplot involves Ron, a young man obsessed with Bailey who refuses to take no for an answer, basically stalking her.

As the film moves forward Beau and Duncan have their run in and both learn what the other man is made of. The eventual storm, which we know is coming since the movie continues to count down the days to the storm, trouble does arrive. With power out across the county the men must concentrate on bringing power back online. A suicide attempt and a confrontation in the dark from Ron just adds more to the story as the men who risk their lives to insure we all have power do so once again.

I know some will discount this movie because portions of the plot seem like cut and paste moments from the standard melodrama playbook. The thing is if it works it doesn’t matter. All the storylines on display here work well with one another and intercept at various times forwarding the story along. It is never a hindrance to what we are witnessing unfold.

Others will shoot this film down because of the accuracy depicted of the men who work as linesmen. Rare is it that a movie gets a 100% accuracy level when it comes to things like this. The goal of a movie is to tell a story, not show the most minute details of the job being depicted. I read one review that complained that the depiction of the linemen showed them as boozing brawlers after work. I didn’t walk away with that. Knowing several linemen in person I can tell you that coming home to a cold beer is not all that unusual.

The film itself is entertaining and well-made on all levels. The cinematography, even during rain sequences is clear and sharp. The sound levels aren’t such that we can’t hear or understand the actors when they speak, a personal gripe of mine with most movies today. And directing is well done here too showing a talent for composition for the entire film and a coaxing of great performances from the entire cast.

What most will watch this for is to see John Travolta. I will say that I think he does an amazing job here. Don’t shoot him down for the accent he chooses, it works. Perhaps the best thing is to see him performing in a role that’s closer to his real age 63 than those roles chosen by most actors his age playing characters far too young for them. He does it with such skill and ease that for the most part you never pay attention to it.

On the whole I’m sad to see that this movie didn’t warrant a major release in theaters. It deserves better than a straight to DVD release. Some movies I’ve seen in theaters were not near as good as this one and a large number of critically acclaimed films were not as enjoyable. So my suggestion is that you seek this one out, rent it, buy it and watch it maybe more than once. When you finish you’ll find yourself not only entertained but with a much larger sense of gratitude for those who choose to make sure power arrives at your doorstep.

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THE 9TH LIFE OF LOUIS DRAX: THE POWER OF THE MIND



Louis Drax (Aiden Longworth) is a special nine year old. As he narrates his tale he’s suffered numerous accidents in the few short years he’s been on this planet. So much so that his mother tells him he’s catlike and needs to be careful because he’s nearing his ninth life. So when he plunges over a cliff early on in the film the odds of his surviving are slim. But survive he does.

Rushed to the hospital with his mother in tow and his father missing, Louis was underwater for some time after falling off the cliff into the sea. The combination of cold and lack of oxygen leaves him clinging for life. Eventually the doctors’ call his death official and he is carted off to the morgue…where he wakes much to the consternation of the morgue attendant. Rushed back to surgery Louis is barely alive and in a coma.

Enter into the picture Dr. Allan Pascal (Jamie Dornan), a neurosurgeon who is fortunately nearby. He comes into the case trying to help Louis come out of his coma and to communicate. Placed in the wing he oversees filled with various coma patients Pascal and his staff talk to them, interact with them and try to ease them back.

Louis’ mother Natalie (Sarah Gadon) refuses to leave the hospital until she can be with Louis. His father Peter (Aaron Paul) is still missing and considered on the run. Natalie has told the police that he pushed Louis off of the edge of the cliff.

The movie moves back and forth in time and space as we listen to Louis tell us about his life. Most of this is done in flashback as Louis talks to his therapist Dr. Perez (Oliver Platt). Bits and pieces of what was happening in his day to day world combined with his attitude towards life are revealed in these moments, peeled back like the layers of an onion but never quite telling us the whole story.

In addition to the tale of Louis that he is presenting us we have that of Dr. Pascal and Louis’ mother Natalie. The married Pascal finds himself attracted to the young mother in need. This doesn’t go unnoticed by the staff or by the police, still on the hunt for Peter Drax. Their story unfolds slowly as well offering us more of a question mark as to their potential future rather than a solid yes or no.

Eventually Pascal begins to suspect that Louis has been trying to use his brainwaves to communicate to him via his dreams. This leads to a hypnotic session involving Pascal and Perez that they hope will lead to the truth about what happened to young Louis and if he is indeed trying to communicate with them.

I know, this all sounds a bit weird. The fact is that it is weird but in a good way. While not identical I found myself thinking back to the movie DONNIE DARKO with the strange way the story is told but how it all makes sense in the end. That a movie can achieve this AND tell a solid story at the same time makes for one marvelous movie.

The movie itself looks fantastic but I would expect nothing less from director Alexandre Aja. I’ve long been a fan of his including past films like HORNS, MIRRORS and PIRANHA 3D. He has a great visual sense and a respect for fantasy I’ve only seen in director Guillermo del Toro. He puts that to great use here in this film.

The entire cast does a tremendous job here. Dornan plays Pascal low key which is what we need from the character. Gadon is the endangered waif of a woman that needs protected. But for me the standout was Aaron Paul. Having seen him for several years in BREAKING BAD it’s nice to see him portray a character who may be nefarious but at the same time might be purely innocent.

On the whole I can’t recommend this film enough. I was captured by the story from start to finish, never wanting to check the time stamp to see how much longer I had to sit through the movie. It’s one that I know will take a space on my shelf of movies to revisit on occasion. It’s also one I’m looking forward to discussing with others who get the chance to see it. It is a movie worth seeking out if not owning it outright.

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