Sunday, June 22, 2014

Peter Berg's Very Bad Things: A Very, Very Black Comedy

A bachelor party turns into a nightmare when a prostitute is accidentally killed during the festivities. Her death triggers all sorts of unforeseen calamities. (review contains spoilers)

Very Bad Things is a truly twisted black comedy that teeters way over the edge of good taste. It was a very risky move on writer/director Peter Berg's part to make this his first foray into feature films as a director. However, the 1998 film has gone on to become something of a cult classic.

The film centers on a group of friends who throw their buddy Kyle (Jon Favreau) a bachelor
party in Las Vegas. In addition to Kyle, the group includes Mike (Jeremy Piven), his brother Adam (Daniel Stern), Boyd (Christian Slater) and Moore (Leland Orser). The guys are having a blast—boozing, snorting coke and trashing the hotel room—while Mike is having wild sex with a prostitute in the bathroom. In mid-coitus, Mike accidentally slams her head into a towel hook, killing her instantly.

When the others find out what happened, they start to panic and don't know what to do. Adam immediately runs to call the police, but Boyd stops him as he's not so sure if that would be the best course of action considering their situation. The rest of the group agrees with Boyd. They feel that calling the police would bring down an avalanche of problems on their heads and would completely ruin Mike's life. Thus, Boyd suggests that they bury the prostitute in the middle of the desert. He tells them that no one else even knows she was there, as he made the arrangements directly with her. The others think that this would be the best way to handle the situation.

The only one who has any real reservations about the idea is Adam. Boyd and the others eventually convince him that burying the prostitute would be the most practical and expedient thing to do in this predicament and would save them a world of trouble. Right when they're devising the plan of how they'll bring the prostitute’s body to the desert, a hotel security guard enters the room and tells them that there had been complaints about the noise. He soon spots the prostitute’s lifeless body in bathroom. Without hesitation, Boyd stabs him to death with a corkscrew. Now the group has two bodies to bury in the desert.

In Its Attempts To Shock, The Film Becomes Too Far Removed From Reality.

The Vegas incident triggers a chain reaction of mishaps and more grisly deaths. As the film progresses, it grows increasingly more violent and outrageous with the body count steadily climbing. After awhile, it seems that Berg wants to shock viewers more than he wants to entertain them. The first half, while sick, was still funny and entertaining, but the latter half just feels forced, soulless and depressing. It's shocking and sick just for the sake of it with no rhyme or reason behind it. The film becomes so over-the-top and outrageous that it loses any semblance of reality as well as much of its humor.

Each Character Battles With His Conscience.

The film raises some serious moral and ethical questions, and each character is forced to wrestle with his conscience as he comes to terms with his actions. However, there is one person who doesn't appear to be at war with his conscience, and that is Boyd. The incident in Vegas revealed a side of him that his friends never knew. It turns out that he's a bona fide psychopath. And Boyd is not just your everyday, run-of-the-mill psycho. He's a psycho who spouts self-help jargon while chopping up and disposing of dead bodies; he's a psycho who views killing two people and burying them in the middle of the desert as a sign of personal growth for him and his friends and treats it like a male-bonding excursion.

Christian Slater is terrific in the role of Boyd. It's one of his most underrated performances. And it's quite chilling to watch him calmly rationalize each monstrous act he carries out. Even when the film starts to veer off course, his character still remains interesting to watch.

And Daniel Stern and Jeremy Piven are quite good as the bickering brothers Adam and Mike. Both have a number of great scenes. Probably the funniest scene in the entire film is when Adam nearly has a nervous breakdown in the middle of a gas station mini-mart. Overwhelmed with guilt and paranoia, he just about loses it completely. The scene is fraught with tension and dread, but it’s also extremely funny. And Stern displays a great talent for physical comedy in the scene.

Stellar Soundtrack

One of the best things about the film is its soundtrack. Berg does a tremendous job in choosing the right music to set up scenes. For instance, the scene where the guys are cleaning up the hotel room and cutting up the bodies is set to "Do It, Fluid" by the Blackbyrds. This is a wickedly clever song choice for this scene. And right after that scene, Willie Bobo's "Fried Neck Bones and Some Homefries" is played while the group drives deep into the desert to bury the bodies. The haunting Latin groove fits the scene perfectly.

Cameron Diaz Plays The Bride-To-Be From Hell.

The film also stars Cameron Diaz as Kyle's controlling bride-to-be Laura. It turns out that she's just as deranged as Boyd. Her obsessive and controlling traits are apparent early on in the film. Even after she learns of what really happened in Las Vegas, she's still adamant about going through with the wedding. She wants to get married at any cost, even if she has to literally kill someone to make it happen. Laura and Boyd are cut from the same cloth. Both are selfish and manipulative control freaks who have homicidal tendencies. Diaz does a solid job as the cold and calculating Laura.

And Jeanne Tripplehorn (Criminal Minds and Big Love) delivers a fine performance as Adam's exasperated wife. Retired porn star Kobe Tai plays the prostitute, and Russell B. McKenzie plays the hotel security guard.

Peter Berg Makes Bizarre Choice For First Feature Film.

This film is a pretty odd choice for a director making his debut into feature films. But you've got give Berg credit for having the cojones to stick to his vision and not try to tone it down to make it more palatable for mass-audience consumption. This film has some brilliant parts but just as many bad ones, especially the ending. The film's finale is flat-out terrible. It feels as though Berg and everyone else involved had run out of ideas and just hastily threw that scene together. Had the entire film remained as strong as the first half, it would have been a great black comedy.

The reception to the film has been pretty much divided. It's just as much loved as it is reviled.

Very Bad Things at Amazon

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Boogie Nights: A Look Back at a Decadent Decade

Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights (1997) is a compelling exploration into the adult film industry during the late 1970s.

Boogie Nights is a captivating snapshot of the late 1970s and early ‘80s and the adult film industry before video, DVDs and the Internet turned it into a $15 billion-a-year cash cow. Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson effectively captures the temper of the era in all its hedonistic decadence, from the casual sex to the illicit drug use to the loose morality that defined the decade. What could have been a depressing three-hour cautionary tale of the era’s excesses turned out to be a fascinating and thoughtful examination of a group of flawed individuals who form a familial bond in the most unlikely of circumstances and settings.

Strong Cast Brings Film To Life

The film boasts a stellar cast that includes Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy and Philip Baker Hall. Screen veteran Burt Reynolds turns in one of his finest performances as adult film director Jack Horner. Jack has designs to be a “real” filmmaker, meaning he wants to be taken seriously as a director outside of the porn industry. He feels that his work will one day be respected by mainstream audiences and ultimately change people’s perceptions of adult films. His ambitions reveal how different things were back in the late '70s in that some thought that X-rated movies would eventually become a legitimate and respected genre in mainstream filmmaking. In Reynolds' hands, Jack is a compelling character, who is by turns charming, scary, paternal and sleazy.

In a star-making performance, Mark Wahlberg plays troubled teen Eddie Adams who stumbles into the adult film industry. Eddie’s an emotionally wounded kid who’s constantly belittled by his bitter, shrewish mother. His caring but browbeaten father provides him little help from his mother’s verbal assaults. Eddie’s in sore need of someone who will make him feel that he has some value and will provide him unconditional love. Jack and the crew of his production company take Eddie in and become his surrogate family and provide him the unconditional love that was missing in his real family.

It turns out that Eddie’s a natural, as he’s, shall we say, gifted in an area that would make him very bankable in the adult film business. He rechristens himself Dirk Diggler and has a short reign as the top male star in the adult film industry before drugs and ego take him down. Diggler’s character is loosely based on real-life porn star John Holmes who went from being top dog in the porn biz to a desperate drug addict, eventually dying from AIDS-related complications at 43 in 1988.

Drug-Fueled Violence

This film contains several disturbing scenes of graphic violence, most of them triggered by excessive cocaine use. However, these scenes are not gratuitous but are necessary to show the brutal reality of the environment in which the characters inhabited. Probably the most chilling and riveting scene in the entire film takes place when Dirk and his two buddies Reed Rothchild and Todd Parker (played by John C. Reilly and Thomas Jane, respectively) get in over their heads when they try to rip off wealthy and dangerous drug dealer Rahad Jackson (brilliantly portrayed by Alfred Molina). The scene unfolds like a great piece of music. The tension builds and builds until it reaches a crescendo of heightened emotion and violence. Anderson has said in interviews that the scene was inspired by the real-life 1981 Wonderland murders in which John Holmes was involved. Holmes was on the scene when the crime took place, but it was never confirmed whether he participated in the actual murders.

 Great Use of Popular Music In Setting Mood

Anderson deftly utilizes some choice tracks in creating the proper mood in his scenes. Like Martin Scorsese, he has a knack for picking just the right song to perfectly set up a scene. Some of the artists and bands featured on the film’s terrific soundtrack include Marvin Gaye, the Ohio Players, the Beach Boys, KC & the Sunshine Band, the Commodores, Electric Light Orchestra and Eric Burdon and War.

Paul Thomas Anderson Delivers With Boogie Nights

In only his second feature film, Anderson proved that he was filmmaker of great vision and talent. And although he was working with a large cast, he managed to make the viewer get emotionally invested in each character. Following Boogie Nights, Anderson continued to display his gifts as a writer/director with excellent films such as Punch-Drunk Love, Magnolia and There Will Be Blood. He always manages to get the best out of his actors. And when watching Boogie Nights, it’s clear that Anderson was a student of legendary director Martin Scorsese. Any Scorsese fan will notice the Scorsesian touches throughout the film. However, Anderson definitely has his own unique and original style of filmmaking, and he will no doubt continue to make compelling films.

Boogie Nights at Amazon

Related blog entry: Review of Paul Thomas Anderson's First Feature Film Hard Eight

Friday, June 6, 2014

Elisabeth Shue Stars in Adventures in Babysitting

Elisabeth Shue charms her way through this adventure/comedy about a suburban babysitter who gets thrown into a rough urban world of criminals and lowlifes.

(review contains spoilers)

Harry Potter director Chris Columbus made his directorial debut with Adventures in Babysitting (1987). It is a fun, highly entertaining comedy about the misadventures of a high school senior who gets sidetracked into a rough urban world of gangsters and assorted lowlifes while on a babysitting job. This was Elisabeth Shue's first starring role, and she didn't disappoint.

Adventures in Babysitting is sort of Risky Business lite. Both of the films' protagonists are naive, sheltered Chicago suburbanites who get a crash course in the real world and learn some important life lessons along the way. However, the PG13-rated Adventures in Babysitting is much tamer than the R-rated Risky Business.  The opening of the film even pays homage to the iconic Tom Cruise underwear scene from Risky Business. But instead of Bob Seger's gritty "Old Time Rock and Roll," Shue's character gets her groove on to the Crystals' hit "Then He Kissed Me." It's a really great way to open the film. You've got Phil Spector's famous Wall of Sound, the sweet voices of the Crystals, and a joyful Shue dancing around while she gets ready for her big date. It nicely sets the film's fun, playful tone.

A Babysitting Job Goes Awry

Attractive suburban high school senior Chris Parker (Shue) takes a babysitting job after her jerk of a boyfriend cancels on their date at the last minute. The little girl that she's hired to babysit is a spunky eight-year-old named Sara Anderson (Maia Brewton), who's a huge fan of the Marvel Comics superhero Thor. Sara roller-skates around the house wearing a winged Thor helmet, and posters of the hammer-wielding Norse god adorn her bedroom walls. Sara's older brother Brad (Keith Coogan) is a gawky15- year-old who has a mega crush on Chris.

While babysitting Sara, Chris gets an urgent phone call from her best friend Brenda (Penelope Ann Miller). Brenda ran away from home due to her contentious relationship with her stepmother, but lost her nerve once she got a peek at some of the derelicts, weirdos and perverts who hang out at the seedy bus station in downtown Chicago. Brenda doesn't have any money for cab fare to get home and wants Chris to come pick her up.  So Chris takes along Sara, Brad and his obnoxious best friend Daryl Coppersmith (Anthony Rapp) to get Brenda. The rescue mission is thrown way off course after Chris' car gets a flat tire on the expressway. In their peril-filled journey through the rough streets of downtown Chicago, they encounter a car thief, gangbangers, a young prostitute and assorted mobster types.

Elisabeth Shue really shines in this film, bringing a natural charm to her role of Chris. In addition to her good looks, she has a relatable appeal that connects with the audience. However, there is one problem, and it doesn't have anything to do with her acting abilities. Shue does not look like a 17-year-old high school student. The then 23-year-old actress seems much older than cast member Keith Coogan, whom she's only supposed to be two years his senior. It's not a big problem, but it does make you do a double take when it's mentioned that the two attend the same high school.

Shue receives strong support from her fellow cast members. The standout among the supporting cast is Maia Brewton as Sara. The young actress has great comedic timing and steals a lot of scenes in her role as the scrappy eight-year-old Thor devotee. And Penelope Ann Miller is hilarious as Shue's frantic best friend Brenda. Also, Calvin Levels is impressive as Joe Gipp, the charming car thief with a heart of gold. Rapp and Coogan are also quite good in their respective roles.
 In addition, the late character actor John Davis Chandler is very scary as hardened mobster Bleak. With his raspy sandpaper voice and cold-as-death glare, Bleak is one guy you don't want to mess with. And keep an eye out for a very svelte Vincent D'Onofrio (Full Metal Jacket and Law & Order: Criminal Intent) as a surly mechanic who Sara thinks is Thor in his secret identity.

Columbus does a good job in his first outing in the director’s chair. He moves the film along at a nice, crisp pace and draws strong performances from his young cast. Columbus went on to a hugely successful career as a filmmaker with five massive blockbusters to his credit: Mrs. Doubtfire; Home Alone; Home Alone 2: Lost in New York; Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone; and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. The screenplay for Adventures in Babysitting was penned by writer/producer David Simkins.

Additionally, the film boasts a killer soundtrack. It’s filled with stellar blues, R&B and rock tracks. Some of the artists represented on the soundtrack include Percy Sledge, the Rolling Stones, Edwin Starr, Junior Walker, Iggy Pop, Muddy Waters and Sam Cooke. And the late legendary bluesman Albert Collins has a cameo in the film. The kids duck into his blues club while fleeing from mobsters. He tells them, “Nobody gets out of here without singing the blues.” The highlight of the film is the scene with Collins and the kids performing “Babysitting Blues.”

Columbus delivers the goods with Adventures in Babysitting. It’s everything a film like this should be. It has a charismatic and extremely likable protagonist; it’s very funny, has lots of excitement and a really strong group of supporting players. And as an added bonus, the film has an amazing soundtrack. What more could you ask for?
Adventures In Babysitting at Amazon