(On DVD, June 2015) Well, I’m torn: What happens when you try to review a decently-made film that practically sanctifies someone who’s done something really, really stupid? I’m not much for the whole “throw away your shackles, take a hike, enjoy life” narrative: I think we’re made stronger by being part of a civilization with rules, ties and obligations. I’m not against traveling and having new experiences, but seeing the protagonist of Into the Wild give away his money, sever ties with his family, spout incoherent feel-good nonsense and head away from civilization in such a way as to sacrifice any chance of survival doesn’t make for a hero. And yet, Into the Wild is captivating. Sean Penn’s directorial debut is heartfelt, benefits enormously from location shooting, knows how to best use its actors (Emile Hirsch steals the show as the protagonist, but even Vince Vaughn has an uncharacteristic role) and manages to make even its most depressing moments mean something almost profound. It does suffer from its length, though: clocking in at a far too long two hours and a half, Into the Wild often feels as if it’s waiting for something else and seems even longer given the dumb decisions made by the so-called hero of the story. At the end, I’m more saddened by the film than uplifted by its attempt to glorify a series of bad decision by someone who may have had significant mental issues. Have I liked Into the Wild, or not?
(On Cable TV, December 2013) Matthew McConaughey’s recent career renewal has been a beautiful thing to watch ever since The Lincoln Lawyer and it reaches an apogee of sorts here within this pitch-black Texan crime thriller. Though sometimes billed as a comedy, Killer Joe is more lurid than funny, as it features a deeply dysfunctional family plotting to kill for purely monetary gains. Complications more than ensue when an implacable hit-man (McConaughey, deliciously evil) is brought in to execute the plan, and when the money goes missing. Twisted, sordid, at times asphyxiating, Killer Joe is not pure entertainment as much as it’s watching a train-wreck in motion. Sometimes in very slow motion, as the theatrical roots of Tracy Letts’ script show up most visibly in a series of lengthy dialogue-heavy scenes. (You may hear about the fried-chicken scene and you may think you’re ready to see it as just one more thing in your jaded filmgoer’s experience, but you’re not.) While Killer Joe ends a bit too early to earn a satisfying pay-off, there’s no denying the skill with which veteran director William Friedkin puts together the film, or the talent of the actors having fun with their slummy characters. Emile Hirsch is particularly credible as a dim-witted wannabe hustler who gets outplayed by everyone, while Gina Gershon gets the least-glamorous role as the fried-chicken-gobbler. (And now I feel dirty for having written this, and I haven’t even mentioned the twisted sex-slavery plot device.) Unpleasant yet fascinating, crafty and exploitative at once, Killer Joe may best be considered as showing how far McConaughey has gone from his beach-bum rom-com persona… and how good he is at playing dark.
(On TV, July 2013) I’m hardly the first person to comment upon the strange twisted relationship that American culture has with the pornographic industry (or sex in general): Any examination of the topic ends up revolving around a mixture of fascination, shame, immature comedy and half-veiled condemnation. The Girl Next Door isn’t different, as this story of a high-school senior teenager falling for a porn star neighbor seems to borrow from John Hughes’ classic comedies (but even more so from Risky Business), even as it tries hard not to condone actual pornography. It portrays porn as something both irresistible and immoral, the end message being that good guys (and girls) don’t really go all the way. (Nearly a decade after release, The Girl Next Door’s biggest laugh is now completely at the film’s own expense: it’s the idea that a soft-core sex education film could sell widely to teenagers given the wide availability of hard-core content on the internet.) Emile Hirsch is sympathetic as the all-American good kid while Elisha Cuthbert gets to smile and look pretty as the porn star (but never takes off her clothes; see “good girls don’t really go all the way” above), but it’s really Timothy Oliphant who steals the show as a porn producer who comes to ruin the hero’s life: it’s a fearless portrayal, and one that’s almost entirely magnetic despite the character’s menace. By the usual standards of teenage sex comedies, The Girl Next Door is a mark above the rest of the pack: it’s well put-together, relatively amiable and has a heart where many similar film only have dirty thoughts. Still, the ending half-hour shows the complex hoops a “safe” mainstream film aimed at teenagers must jump through in tackling pornography. Now the question becomes: if the same premise was developed in 2014, would it make a difference? One element of the answer: Watching this film on AMC is a strange experience, as much of the foul language is bleeped off… despite the film’s subject matter and occasional nudity.