We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.
Cody takes on thrillers and kaiju.
8 MILLION WAYS TO DIE (1986)
Currently in theatres is a film entitled A Walk Among the Tombstones, based on a novel written by Lawrence Block and starring Liam Neeson as a character named Matt Scudder. A Walk Among the Tombstones isn't the only Scudder novel Block penned, in fact it was the tenth installment to be published in a seventeen novel (as of now) series of Scudder stories. And it's not the first time a Scudder novel has received a cinematic adaptation.
Many viewers who see the Neeson film may not realize that this character was previously brought to life on screen eighteen years earlier, with Jeff Bridges in the role.
8 Million Ways to Die was an adaptation of the fifth novel in the Scudder series, published in 1982. The screenplay adaptation was written by David Lee Henry (whose other credits include the Patrick Swayze classic Road House, the Steven Seagal vehicle Out for Justice, and The Evil That Men Do, starring Charles Bronson) and multiple Oscar nominee/winner Oliver Stone, and the director's seat was occupied by the great Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude, The Last Detail).
The film opens with an incident that changes Scudder's life and ends his career as a Los Angeles police officer: during a drug bust, the suspect starts attacking cops with a baseball bat, forcing Scudder to shoot him dead as his terrified wife and children look on. This event sends Scudder on a downward spiral of alcoholism that leads to his wife kicking him out of the house and divorcing him.
The story then jumps ahead to a point in time when Scudder is regularly attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and celebrating six months of sobriety. He's picking up the pieces of his life, hoping to get reinstated to the police force. Then a young woman named Sunny (Alexandra Paul) shows up, desperate for his help in getting out of working as a prostitute at a club owned by Chance Walker (Randy Brooks), who Scudder once arrested for drug offenses back in the day.
Sunny seems terrified of Chance and the possibility that he won't let her off his payroll, but Chance insists that the girls who work for him - also including Sarah, played by Rosanna Arquette - are simply paid to show up at his parties, they're not prostitutes, and he doesn't care if Sunny wants to do it anymore or not.
Scudder is completely baffled as to what is going on here, and it gets even worse when he witnesses Sunny being abducted in a van and is unable to catch up with the vehicle in time to save her from being murdered.
The harrowing experience causes Scudder to relapse, and from there he has to navigate a plot involving Chance, Sarah, and a man named Angel Moldonado, a regular at Chance's club who wants to buy into co-owning it... using some of the money he makes as big time drug runner.
Angel Moldonado was an early film role for Andy Garcia, who brings a fantastic screen presence to the character, a guy who at times still seems to be having fun even when he's seconds from trying to rip your head off. When Bridges and Garcia face off in dialogue scenes, trying to keep their cool while trading insults and threats, it's utterly captivating.
8 Million Ways to Die devotes a lot of time to simply watching its characters interact with each other. The mystery Scudder finds himself in the middle of is actually quite easily solved, while large stretches of the film's 115 minute running time are made up of the time he spends getting to know Sunny and Sarah.
The film is especially strong when it shows how Scudder deals with his alcoholism and the pain he feels over what drinking has done to his life. It may be that the film is so proficient at showing these details because Hal Ashby himself had struggled with substance abuse problems.
Jeff Bridges is always great to watch regardless of the film he's in, and his portrayal of Matt Scudder is of a man who's likeable and noble despite how flawed he is, and also a man who seems willing to wade into any situation with a brave face, no matter how dangerous, when he's in the right.
Fans of the Scudder novel series seem to be mixed-to-negative on how the adaptation of 8 Million Ways to Die turned out (most being especially upset that the setting was moved from New York to LA), but taken on its own it's a solid mystery thriller with some great performances at its core and a nicely realistic style and approach to its characters and story.
REBIRTH OF MOTHRA III (1998)
65 million years ago (or 130 million, according to the subtitles on the copy of Rebirth of Mothra III that I watched), the dinosaurs went extinct. But the true reason for their extinction doesn't exactly match up with any of the theories we've heard. At least half of the dinosaurs were actually wiped out by a three-headed monster from space, King Ghidorah.
Now King Ghidorah has returned to Earth, and as he flies above the land, he not only causes mass destruction, but oddly any children he passes over suddenly vanish into thin air, teleported into imprisonment in a strange dome in a forest.
Mothra's tiny companions, Lora and Moll, call on their winged protector to stop King Ghidorah from causing the extinction of the human race... but even though Mothra previously defeated the King Ghidorah-like Desghidorah in the first Rebirth of Mothra movie, this Ghidorah proves to be much too strong for Mothra to handle, partly because this iteration of King Ghidorah has the ability to turn someone evil with just a deep look into his eyes. He turns Lora bad this way, and Lora and Moll's goodhearted energy is important to keeping Mothra going.
Lora and Moll's sister Belvera, who has long been on the dark side, had been up to another evil scheme, this one centered on the power of the Elias Triangle. Each sister represents either Courage, Wisdom, or Love, and when the appropriate ancient triangular symbol is stuck into a slot on the daggers each of them carry, their dagger becomes a glowing sword. Whatever Belvera is up to, she doesn't get to accomplish much before she too ends up in King Ghidorah's dome, trapped with hundreds of children... and the Ghidorah-controlled Lora.
Mothra and his Elias have gained some serious magical powers over the course of this series, and at this point they are even able to take a very drastic measure in order to beat King Ghidorah: Mothra flies 65 to 130 million years into the past in order to battle the younger, less powerful King Ghidorah in the prehistoric age.
Even then, Mothra will require the energy of Lora to beat his opponent, so a child is given the task of talking the Elias back into her right mind, with the fate of the world depending on his success. Within the dome, he gets an unexpected assist in his endeavor from Belvera, who may not be a lost cause after all...
Like its predecessors, Rebirth of Mothra III is an entertaining entry in the kaiju subgenre, and it may be my favorite of the three. I certainly found it to be an improvement over the middle installment, and I might like it more than first simply because it doesn't so strongly play to the children of the audience, although it is still clearly a movie that was made with kid viewers in mind. Plus, travelling back to the days of dinosaurs is awesome.
Screenwriter Masumi Suetani wrote each of the three Rebirth of Mothra movies, and director Okihiro Yoneda, who had directed the first but sat out the second, returned to help cap off the trilogy.
Someone who was unfortunately not involved was producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, the man who was behind all of the classic Toho kaiju movies, who had come up with the initial ideas for Godzilla and Mothra and was the driving force behind the Godzilla franchise for over forty years. Tanaka passed away in 1997, just short of his 87th birthday.
With Rebirth of Mothra III, Yoneda and Suetani delivered a kaiju movie that I think Tanaka would have been proud of, with action, thrills, and a lot of heart.
RELENTLESS III (1993)
The third entry in the Relentless franchise features the great character actor William Forsythe as a man named Walter Hilderman, a charming blue collar type with a very dark secret. He returns home from work to torment Marianne, the mentally off-balance woman he lives with. He rules Marianne's entire world with an iron fist because he is, as he insists, "the star". But it gets worse than that. Walter is also a necrophiliac serial killer who goes out to restaurants and bars with the sole intention of meeting women who he can woo, present himself to as their Prince Charming, then eventually murder - strangling them, mutilating them, keeping their bodies at his house, then after a while disposing of them in remote locations.
Realizing they have a serial killer, or a "repeater", on their hands, the LAPD brings in Detective Sam Dietz, the lead character of the Relentless series, to get his opinion on the case, even though Dietz no longer works in the Major Crimes section.
Although Dietz appeared to be getting back together with his estranged wife at the end of part 2 and making a change in his law enforcement career, by the time the events of part 3 have rolled around, nothing about the happy ending of the previous film has worked out for him - he has now been divorced for three years and rarely sees his young son.
With his (ex-)wife Carol out of the picture this time, there's a subplot that follows Dietz as he attempts to get back into the dating world. He starts seeing a girl named Paula, played by Signy Coleman, and their relationship gets off to a very rough start. The scenes depicting the issues Dietz and Paula run into as they try to work things out between them are very well written, well performed, and quite realistic.
Leo Rossi reprised the role of Dietz for this film and continued to do strong work as the New Yorker-in-LA detective with a messy personal life, proving that although his career has primarily consisted of supporting roles, he is also quite capable of carrying his own series.
Dietz is initially reluctant to get involved with this new repeater case, but after seeing the body of the latest victim he is compelled to assist in any way he can... And becomes even more involved when the killer sends a package to the police with a horrific item within, accompanied by a letter demanding that Dietz work the case, because the killer considers himself a star and feels he deserves to have Dietz tracking him down.
The more Dietz investigates the clues, the more he begins to feel like he may have some sort of past connection to this killer, and the more the killer starts to focus on Dietz and make it personal - threatening Paula, murdering colleagues and fellow officers. Dietz was fully dedicated to bringing the killer down before, but Walter really gets him fired up by targeting people he cares about and/or works with.
Director William Lustig (Maniac Cop, the original Maniac) kicked off the Relentless films, but never came back to helm any of the sequels. However, this third installment was written and directed by James Lemmo, a regular collaborator of Lustig's, having worked as cinematographer on the director's films Vigilante, Maniac Cop 1 and 2, Hit List, and even the first Relentless.
Lemmo did fine work continuing on the detective crime procedural franchise, bringing to life a sequel that is very dark and intense, with a straightforward but intriguing story that is deeply emotionally engaging for its hero.
I do feel that the film sputters out in its third act, reaching a conclusion that, although brutal, feels too simple and low-key considering the events that precede it. I wanted to see a great showdown between Walter and Dietz, and Lemmo didn't really deliver that. The ending isn't very satisfying, which brings my overall opinion of the film quite a bit, but the first 70 minutes are very solid. As much as Walter deserved Dietz, Relentless III deserved a wrap-up that was more cathartic.
WILD THINGS (1998)
Wild Things may be the last of its kind. A movie with a wide theatrical release that managed to gain success almost entirely through promotion of its lascivious characters, lurid subject matter and the promise that its actors would be engaging in provocative sex scenes.
The movie hit while the internet was gaining steam and popularity. Sixteen years later, with the net being the way it is, it's hard to believe that the prospect of actors being naughty could these days make a movie the sort of sensation Wild Things was in '98.
The screenplay by Stephen Peters could have easily been turned into just another sleazy drive-in exploitation flick or Cinemax late night movie if it had been made earlier or if director John McNaughton hadn't managed to corral such a high profile cast. The film even has the feel of being a standard B-movie skin flick at times, the lines just happen to be delivered by stars.
The main selling point in the marketing as it neared release was the fact that it would feature a threesome with Matt Dillon, Neve Campbell, and Denise Richards. And yet, for the first half of the movie, it's unimaginable that their characters could actually end up in bed together.
Dillon plays Sam Lombardo, a high school guidance counselor who Richards' Kelly Van Ryan, a wealthy cheerleader, clearly has a crush on, delivering every suggestive line she says to him with an over-the-top sexual swagger. One day, after washing Lombardo's car with a friend for a fundraiser and getting her clothes soaked, Kelly tells her pal to go on without her and walks into Lombardo's home... Sometime later, she exits, appearing to be upset.
Kelly tells her mother Sandra (Theresa Russell), who had a fling with Lombardo and still has a thing for him, that he raped her. Police officers Ray Duquette (Kevin Bacon) and Gloria Perez (Daphne Rubin-Vega), put together a case against Lombardo, even finding another student willing to testify that Lombardo raped her; poor, trailer-on-a-crocodile-farm dwelling Suzie Toller, played by Neve Campbell.
Bill Murray was just starting to turn his career around at this time, branching out of straightforward comedies and into more dramatic work, so at this point it was still kind of surprising to see him turn up in this movie as Lombardo's insurance-scamming lawyer Ken Bowden, even though Murray is there to provide a good amount of comic relief.
Although Kelly and Suzie appeared to be enemies, it comes out during the trial that the girls are scheming together to take Lombardo down. He didn't really rape either of them, he's a good guy being slandered by a couple of petty teenage girls.
To make this all go away, Sandra Van Ryan pays Lombardo off.
Once Lombardo is set to receive the 8.5 million dollar pay-off, that's when the secret angles to the story really start coming to light. The guidance counselor, the cheerleader, and the poor outsider were all this together... The much-hyped threesome happens... And there's half a movie's worth of twists and turns still to come from there.
In spite of its low rent pedigree and the lesser versions of it that "could have been" in different hands, Wild Things actually is a good, moody mystery that takes B genre elements and elevates them through the cast and storytelling.
The film constantly keeps the audience guessing as to what characters' true alliances and motivations are, and what we see happen or are told happened usually isn't what is actually going on. Everyone is playing everyone, and Peters and McNaughton managed to make it so the story always holds together, the bottom never drops out. The twists are surprsing, but they always make sense.
Three unrelated sequels, all of which went direct-to-video like Wild Things itself might have under different circumstances. Like most movies of its type do.
Wild Things was a success that may never be repeated, but if it was the last B-movie sexual thriller to be a hit on the big screen, then the genre had a laudable swan song.