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Column Fri Feb 25 2011
Drive Angry 3D
Second only to James Cameron, Patrick Lussier is my favorite director working with 3D. While so many other directors making 3D films in the last couple years made a point to say, "We aren't throwing things at the camera," and "We don't want this to be a gimmick," Lussier opted for a different approach. He took a fairly shitty '80s slasher film, spruced it up, and made the absolutely glorious My Bloody Valentine, which came out at the beginning of 2009 and said to its audience, "Hey, we've got about 50 pointy objects we'd like to throw right at your head. Care to join us?" Lussier threw in some tasteful full-frontal nudity, a nice supporting role for the legendary Tom Atkins, and a metric shit-ton of blood and guts, and My Bloody Valentine turned a decent profit because it remembered to be entertaining.
His latest work uses the same 3D formula with an original story and an overwhelming number of fantastic car chases and wrecks. Like Valentine, Drive Angry was shot in 3D, a fact that Lussier makes abundantly clear (in the original posters, the "Shot In 3D" tagline was in the same size font as the film's title). But making a film in 3D is not enough of a reason to see any movie. No, the real and true reason you want to see Drive Angry in any dimension is the magnificent William Fichtner as a character known only as The Accountant.
I'm taking nothing away from Nicolas Cage's Milton, a man who has escaped from hell (literally) to save the life of his newborn granddaughter from the clutches of a satanic cult run by Billy Burke, who killed Milton's daughter, an event that triggered Milton's return. OK, I'm going to take a little away from Burke's performance because he just isn't that scary, especially next to Cage and Fichtner. I've seen guys in the bathroom during screenings scarier than Burke. Dude, you play Bella's father in the Twilight movies; you ain't scaring nobody. A soul patch does not a villain make. Fortunately, Burke isn't in the movie that much. The true badass creep factor goes to Mr. Fichtner, one of the true reigning champions of awesome.
What I liked about The Accountant is that his motives and true intentions are a little obtuse. At first, we assume he's been brought out of hell to capture Milton and drag him back. But as the film goes on and more bad guys die (thus, upping hell's population by a few souls), The Accountant seems more intent on simply keeping an eye on Milton until his mission is complete. Fichtner has all the best lines, the best clothes, the best quirks and ticks, and access to some fine weapons and vehicles. In case you didn't notice from the trailer, nearly every character in Drive Angry is obsessed with muscle cars, and if you are as well, you may want to avert your sensitive eyes as, one after another, these beautiful creatures are destroyed in epic fashion.
Also on hand is a beautiful waitress named Piper (Amber Heard), who, at first, seems like she isn't going to contribute anything to Drive Angry beyond a nice pair of legs in Daisy Duke shorts and a pretty face. But Heard steps up to meet the adventurous and edgy qualities of the rest of the cast and delivers what is easily her best performance since All the Boys Love Mandy Lane. In fact, by the end of the movie, it's clear that Piper provides the earthy heart and soul of a story that might have otherwise gotten buried in twisted metal, hellfire and testosterone overload. Not that there aren't plenty of explosions, cars flying through the air, and loads of gratuitous nudity (not Heard) to keep you. amused. Throw in a couple of nice supporting performances by David Morse and "Eastbound and Down's" Katy Mixon, as well as the return of writer Todd Farmer's naked ass, and you have yourself one hell of a fine movie.
I haven't talked much about Cage, and that's because his performance is the one I need to examine with a repeat viewing. Milton is a bit of a mystery. Was he an ordinary man who simply got pulled down to hell because of some bad deeds in his past? We don't know. Or is he something the devil holds in high regard for reasons we never know? I loved that Milton's history isn't spelled out and that Cage plays him as something of a blank slate. We know that he loves his daughter enough to want to avenge her brutal murder, and that's enough to get us through Drive Angry. He clearly sees Piper as something of an adopted daughter who he seems bent on protecting in a way he couldn't with his own little girl. I sometimes wish we'd seen a little more of the wacky Cage, but then I always wish that, and it probably wouldn't have been appropriate for this character.
Clearly these numerous unanswered questions could be wonderfully answered in a sequel, or better yet a prequel showing some of Milton's hell-worthy antics prior to dying... the first time. And I would welcome such a film — but only after Lussier or some other worthy stand-in makes a movie simply called The Accountant. Trust me, after you see Drive Angry, that's the movie you'll want to see next. If those satanic cult members knew anything about anything, they would be hailing the glory of William Fichtner. I know I do every single day.
One of the only worthy entries in this current wave of 3D, Drive Angry opens this week, and you have no choice but to see it or be sent to movie hell, where Yogi Bear, Little Fockers, Gulliver's Travels and the third Big Momma's House film are playing on a never-ending, triple-bill loop. You've been warned.
To read my exclusive interview with Drive Angry star William Fichtner, go to Ain't It Cool News.
I try not to judge the success or failure of any film based on the previous works by the director(s), but for reasons I can't quite explain, I'm inclined to do so more with comedies than any other types of movies. Case in point, we have the latest from the Farrelly brothers, Bobby and Peter, whose first three films (Dumb & Dumber, Kingpin and There's Something About Mary) were absolute, out-of-the-park hits. Later works like Me, Myself & Irene, Shallow Hal, Stuck on You and even their most conventional work, Fever Pitch, have definite moments of genius surrounded by decidedly average material.
The Farrellys built the mold, but rather than break it, they kept casting new versions in the same mold. The Heartbreak Kid was appallingly bad, and I won't even attempt to figure out what went wrong there. But their new film, Hall Pass, is actually something of a return to form. Not quite as good as the first three films, but better than most of the others, Hall Pass is the story of a pair of best friends (Owen Wilson as Rick and "SNL's" Jason Sudeikis as Fred) who somehow convince their wives that taking a week off from marriage will somehow strengthen their struggling relationships. The men see this as finally being able to act on the impulses they have, but never act upon, whenever they see hot women. The wives (Jenna Fischer as Maggie and Christina Applegate as Grace) think that if the men get these urges out of their systems, they will turn their attentions back to being good husbands. Shockingly enough, none of this comes to pass.
What I loved about the story (credited to co-screenwriter Pete Jones, the winner of the first season of "Project Greenlight") is how the fantasy world the men think they'll finally be exploring goes crashing head-on with the real world where women in their 20s won't give these "older" guys the time of day because Rick and Fred have no rap and no game. Their married friends (some of whom are played by the likes of Stephen Merchant, Larry Joe Campbell and J.B. Smoove) watch their every embarrassing move as they face rejection after rejection and their precious week slips away.
At various times during the story, both men consider the possibility of calling off their experiment. They already feel guilty enough about the thought of bringing women back to their homes (both wives have taken the kids to the coast), so they rent a shoddy hotel room, and end up spending most of their time being miserable and alone. What they never considered was that their wives have a hall pass of their own, and seem to have better luck finding potential man friends thanks to a local baseball team in the town where they're staying. Part of the fun of Hall Pass is trying to figure out who, if anyone, actually takes full advantage of the time off.
Like most films by the Farrellys, this one has as much heart as it does laughs, and it does have a half dozen or so truly foul and funny jokes. There's one in particular that literally almost caused me to fall out of my chair, no joke. It's good to know the brothers still have that wicked streak in them, amid all the heartfelt material. I also liked seeing Wilson play a basically nice guy in a movie like this. Sure, he's played nice men before, but I loved that Rick wants to be a bad guy just for a little while and then return to being a great dad and husband. He is his most tempted when he gets a chance to spend time with the gorgeous Leigh (Australian actress Nicky Whelan), who works in his local coffee shop.
The secret weapon in Hall Pass is Sudeikis, who's always been a great presence on "SNL," but really unleashes the totality of his sick and twisted self in this movie. Fred is a pathetic creature who finds solace and strength in being a pig, and he is truly gifted in this role. And I'd be doing the film a great disservice if I didn't mention the great Richard Jenkins (I'm sorry, let me make that Oscar-nominated Richard Jenkins) as Coakley, a player among players, pimp among pimps. Trust me, he'll probably be your favorite character in the film, even though he's only in a couple of scenes.
I'm guessing there is a large percentage of married men who might get a little more out of Hall Pass's message than their single counterparts. The good news is that married women are just as likely to understand the motivation behind such a scheme. In fact, it's good to see that a good one-third (possible more) of this movie is devoted to the wives' sordid story (something the film's trailers keep mysteriously hidden from view). I've seen this film twice now, and I think it holds up to some of the Farrelly brothers' better works. When I wasn't full-out laughing, I was giggling; when I wasn't giggling, I was smiling. It's tough to ask for more than that; sometimes we get it, but not often. And by the way, be sure to stick around for all of the end credits. There's a lot of funny stuff tucked away in there, as well.
To read my exclusive interview with Hall Pass co-director Peter Farrelly and co-writer Peter Jones, go to Ain't It Cool News.
Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune
Sometimes, the value of a documentary is in the learning more than the form the film takes. For example, director Kenneth Bowser's well-researched, extremely knowledgeable work about folk-singing legend Phil Ochs is a fairly standard issue biography with talking-head interviews, films clips, and lot of Ochs' powerful music. I knew a bit about Ochs because I had a history professor in college who was obsessed with him, and would take any opportunity to pull out one of Ochs' albums (on vinyl, naturally) to play for the class.
More so than I'd ever realized before watching this film, Ochs was positioned as a singer-songwriter for the times, as opposed to his mortal enemy/frequent talking buddy Bob Dylan, who was one for the ages. Ochs performed tunes about the great injustices of the 1960s, including Civil Rights, the war in Vietnam, and the deaths of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, all of which affected him quite deeply. I remember the first time I heard his songs "Here's to the State of Mississippi" or "I'm a Liberal" or his mainstay "I Ain't Marching Anymore." His songs were meant to be rewritten and updated for the times. I heard Eddie Vedder at a Pearl Jam concert sing a modernized version of "Mississippi" that utterly floored me. But many of Ochs' songs were loaded with biting humor, and a few were tender, heart-tugging ballads about loss.
Ochs was one of the few famous musicians to come to Chicago in 1968 for the convention riots, and he wasn't quite the same after. For the first time, he realized that some things were out of his power to change, and by the time the Vietnam War was over in 1975, he had run out of things to sing about with the "last dragon slain," as someone puts it. His music lost its folk roots, but he was a great fan of more experimental works. Ochs struggled with alcoholism, mental illness, and bouts of severe paranoia that the CIA was trying to steel his voice. His downfall was not pretty.
Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune collects an impressive list of interview subjects, including his brother and sister, Pete Seeger, Tom Hayden, Billy Bragg, Joan Baez, Sean Penn and Jello Biafra, among others, who tell honest accounts of Ochs' power as a musician and performer, as well as come clean about his shortcomings and deep-seeded troubles. The film is a wonderful portrait, and lets its subject shine by letting his music do a great deal of the talking. It certainly inspired me to dig deeper into his early albums, and it serves as both a great reminder of Ochs' talent, for those who are familiar with him, as well as a fine introduction to his story and legacy in today's music. The film opens for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.