31 Days to Scare ~ The Hand (1981)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Jon Lansdale is a comic book artist who loses his right hand in a car accident. The hand was not found at the scene of the accident but soon returns by itself to follow Jon and murder those who anger him.

Stars: Michael Caine, Andrea Marcovicci, Annie McEnroe, Bruce McGill, Viveca Lindfors, Rosemary Murphy, Oliver Stone

Director: Oliver Stone

Rated: R

Running Length: 104 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Doing this series of 31 Days to Scare every October for quite some time now, I’ve been able to offer up some of my favorite suggestions of popular and lesser-known films/documentaries/tv shows to consider as the days get shorter, and temps get colder.  There comes a point when even I need to get some new material and that’s where movies like The Hand come in…and where I can sometimes run into a bit of a conundrum in how to present the work to you, dear reader.  You see, while my normal reviews are my unvarnished takes on new releases, I always try to feature movies that are worth in this special series between October 1 and October 31.  Setting out to experience the new, watching these older titles leaves me open to run across a stinker or two and while 1981’s The Hand is no outright turkey, it’s starts to grow more than a few feathers of bad taste as it starts to gobble up what made the first half so good.

Directed by then recent Oscar-winner Oliver Stone (this was Stone pre-Platoon, Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July, Scarface, and more recently Savages) who was given near carte blanche by a studio eager to get into business with the red hot screenwriter/director, The Hand is an adaptation of Marc Brandel’s 1979 novel “The Lizard’s Tail”. Springing from the author’s mind as he was going through a divorce, the novel turned the strain of matrimony coming apart at the seams into scary stuff.  Stone keeps most of the novel intact, following a comic book artist (Michael Caine, JAWS: The Revenge) living in New England with his unhappy wife (Andrea Marcovicci, The Stuff) and young daughter who loses his drawing hand in a freak accident and then is unable to find his missing appendage. 

As he adjusts to life without his instrument to create, his marriage takes a turn, and he opts for a job at a college in California so he and his wife can have time apart.  It’s here that he becomes friendly with a fellow teacher (Bruce McGill, The Best of Enemies) and meets an attractive student in his class, a relationship that becomes something more.  When his wife and daughter visit for the Christmas holiday, several unexplained events happen which suggests violence has followed the artist from one coast to another.  Is it his missing hand which we’ve seen creeping around on the ground and randomly hopping onto the necks of various supporting characters?  Or is this all in the head of a man slowly losing grasp on reality and retreating into a fictionalized world to avoid dealing with his formerly stable life which is now crumbling around him?

That’s the psychological thriller of a movie Stone set out to make and is pretty much the way Brandel’s book flows, sidetracks to spirituality and metaphysical journeys with the wife aside, but it sounds like the studio wasn’t happy with what was delivered and made major changes.  These changes, clearly evident in the choppy and scatter-brained final act, rob the characters of much subtly and instead crank their dials up past 11 and hope for the best.  Without much room to breathe or act rationally, everything becomes fever-pitched to the back of the theater wall or your living room. If the hand was originally meant as metaphor it devolves into just another crawling creepy crafted by a legend of cinema, Carlo Rambaldi who had just come off of the far more successful 1976 retelling of King Kong for which he had won an Oscar.

The shift in Stone’s tone is fairly jarring, but then again if you are familiar with Stone’s later work you can see his natural inclination to not want to make your traditional thriller or a simple horror film – he likes playing the subtext and the exploration of that is here.  Going back later and claiming studio interference is easy and while I believe some of it was there, I also feel like The Hand maybe wasn’t even destined to be great in the first place. 

Where that leaves us is to count on the performances to help ground a series of late breaking events (and an entire epilogue of sorts) that threatens to carry the entire film right up, up, and away.  You can believe Caine when he says in interviews that the The Hand was one of a series of films he made in the ‘80s that were his “paycheck” movies, but it doesn’t register like that onscreen.  His performance is never anything less than totally committed and at times even giving more to the role than it may have deserved.  Stone’s cast the rest of the picture amicably too, with Marcovicci chilly as the not quite supportive wife and Annie McEnroe (Beetlejuice) playing the aggressive co-ed.  I’ll always be up for a McGill appearance and he’s nice here as Caine’s colleague in California.  What a surprise to see Stone cast himself as a indigent that becomes one of the first victims of the often well designed terror-hand.

I won’t even bother reviewing the severed hand because it was new to the business at the time and just getting its digits wet when it starred in this picture.  I’m not sure how it managed to get enough leverage to do the kind of deeds it does but if you’re delving too deep into the logic of it all you may have strayed too far away from the mindset required to take this in with the most open of minds.  I did hear that the hand received its training with Thing from The Addams Family so the skill was clearly there.  Aside from its tendency to glide on the ground when it should be crawling, it’s rather convincing.

Is The Hand a good movie?  Not really, but it’s never boring or so silly that you aren’t willing to stay invested to find out how it all turns out.  True, a rather strange coda leaves a bland taste in the mouth, and not just for the way it wastes a valued star like Viveca Lindfors (Creepshow). Then again, even that is written with such a bizarre bravado you almost have to applaud its audacity to send the audience out of the theaters like it does.  Caine is awfully good at selling what the role requires and Stone has gotten The Hand off to a mighty fine start.  It’s just those last 40 minutes of so when The Hand gets the thumbs down for grasping at air when trying to hold on to its message.

Movie Review ~ Blue Miracle

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The Facts:

Synopsis: To save their cash-strapped orphanage, a guardian and his kids partner with a washed-up boat captain for a chance to win a lucrative fishing competition.

Stars: Jimmy Gonzales, Dennis Quaid, Anthony Gonzalez, Bruce McGill, Raymond Cruz, Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, Fernanda Urrejola, Nathan Arenas, Chris Doubek

Director: Julio Quintana

Rated: NR

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Let’s get something out of the way at the start of this review, shall we?  The poster for Blue Miracle, the new inspirational true life tale Netflix is premiering on May 27, stinks.  It’s just awful. What looks to be a hasty photoshop project done by a junior intern doesn’t tell you what this movie is about in the slightest (no tagline?), nor would it catch your eye amongst the throng of enticing options Netflix pushes out week after week.  This is too bad, because while ultimately it’s no game changer of a watch, Blue Miracle is blessedly low on the sugar you might expect to be puckering on and heavy on the good-natured charm that goes down much easier, reeling you in for a surprisingly brisk viewing.

The bones of this whale of a tale feel pretty familiar.  Sunny Cabo San Lucas, Mexico is a haven for tourists who soak up the sun and sand, but venture further into the city and you’ll find Casa Hogar, a orphanage run by Omar Venegas (Jimmy Gonzales, Happy Death Day) and his wife.  Dubbed Papá Omar by the children he has helped to get off the streets and provide the kind of safe environment to grow up in that he wasn’t afforded, Omar is finding it harder to make ends meet.  Facing bankruptcy but unwilling to give up on the kids he has made a commitment to, he attemps a last-ditch effort to win the money in a yearly fishing tournament that’s never been open to locals before.

There are one or two problems with this plan, naturally, the first being that Omar doesn’t know how to swim, the result of a childhood trauma he keeps reliving throughout the film.  Secondly, neither he nor a select group of older boys from Casa Hogar knows the first thing about fishing.  Wanting to help his cash-poor friend out, tournament director Wayne Bisbee (Bruce McGill, Lincoln) pairs Omar with grizzled boat captain Wade Malloy (Dennis Quaid, Midway), a former two-time winner who had previously come to Bisbee wanting to enter the contest solo.  Though neither man is happy about the prospect of splitting any winnings, both agree that something is better than nothing and it’s out to sea for a weekend that will change their hearts and minds…and possibly their futures.

Looking over screenwriter Chris Dowling’s listing on IMDb shows titles that reflect similar themes found in Blue Miracle.  Different world views colliding and eventually learning from one another, choosing between wrong and right, walking a mile in someone else’s shoes…all hearty stock that goes into Chicken Soup for the Netflix Film.  Yet Dowling and director Julio Quintana never let the movie get weighed down in its tripe, recycled though it may be.  Aside from a few spotlight performances, as I watched the film, I kept thinking how predictable the beats were while at the same time finding a true investment with these day trippers and honestly rooting for them. It’s a strange fence to find myself sitting on, admittedly, but expect to be perched there right along with me. If we’re nitpicking, and we must, I question why a movie set in Cabo featuring characters that were born and raised there would be speaking English to each other when they are alone but, hey, I guess that’s just the way these features have to be made.  Still, wouldn’t it have been nice to have it authentic, forcing audiences to either read the subtitles or admit defeat and watch it dubbed in their language of choice?

For a while there, I was beginning to think we’d lost Quaid as a dependable actor.  Turning up in roles that didn’t suit him or, worse, straining to make the broad circles of comedy fit into his square wheelhouse, gone was the fun Quaid that just had a looser screen presence.  In Blue Miracle, Quaid is clearly finding his way back to a comfortable place and he’s in fine (read: rare) form as the salty many of the sea that starts the film as a grump but, wouldn’t you know it, burns a little brighter once those boys from Casa Hogar spend a little time on his boat.  The boys all turn in pleasant, if unremarkable, performances of stock characters that every orphanage apparently needs to have (nerd, bully, loudmouth, clown, etc) but there’s no question Blue Miracle belongs to Gonzales.  Known for his TV work and small film roles, this is his chance to shine, and he does an admirable job with what he’s given.  The role is inherently written as good beyond measure, so he’s pretty much accompanied by a halo.  A lesser actor might go strong on the parts of the film where Omar battles his own inner demons while a bigger name might draw attention away from his costars in their scenes together.  Gonzales walks that fine line well, turning in his own solid performance while making room for Quaid and the boys, too.

In a strange bit of timing, Netflix’s Blue Miracle was the second new film I screened in less than a week based on a true story that featured a group of orphan boys seen as underdogs overcoming inexperience on their path to success.  That other film is 12 Mighty Orphans and it’s not coming out until July but both movies share that common thread of underestimating determination.  I won’t say yet which film is more successful at tugging at the heartstrings, but both are winners when it comes to having the audience completely in their cheering section by the time the final moments draw near. As for those you considering casting a line toward Blue Miracle, I say go for it. It’s better to be see what you catch instead of having it be the one that got away.   

Movie Review ~ The Best of Enemies


The Facts
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Synopsis: Civil Rights activist, Ann Atwater, faces off against C.P. Ellis, Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan in 1971 Durham, North Carolina over the issue of school integration.

Stars: Taraji P. Henson, Sam Rockwell, Anne Heche, Wes Bentley, John Gallagher Jr., Bruce McGill

Director: Robin Bissell

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 133 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: The filmmakers for Green Book haven’t even had their Best Picture Oscar on the shelf long enough to gather dust before another problematic movie on race relations has made it to theaters. Now I have a feeling that The Best of Enemies tells its tale with a bit more honesty and is unquestionably less outright manipulative but still…something feels off here. Though, like Green Book, it boasts two likable stars (one a recent Oscar winner) and is based on actual events, The Best of Enemies overstays its welcome by hammering home its message audiences will have received loud and clear early on.

It’s 1971 and Durham, North Carolina is still racially divided. Though laws on desegregation have chipped away at the antiquated restrictions at many institutions within the state, the schools remain separated by race. Continuing to fight for her civil rights and the rights of others was the outspoken Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson, What Men Want), a grassroots activist that wasn’t afraid to raise her voice to call attention to injustice within her community. On the other side of the coin was Ku Klux Klan leader C. P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell, Vice) who also felt like he was seeing the rights of another population of Durham being restricted. The two public figures were both respected within their individual circles and known to each other…and they didn’t care for the other one bit.

When a fire destroys part of a school that served the black children of Durham, it sparks a debate that leads to the city council voting whether or not to allow children of both races to attend the same school. At the same time, a court-ordered school desegregation decree has finally come into play but instead of being the deciding vote and making history, the district judge involved passes the decision down to the people of Durham. Through a structured two-week community meeting known as a charrette, Atwater and Ellis become co-chairs and lead a group of representatives from the city in deciding how they want to move forward on several key issues, the biggest being fully integrating their schools.

Writer/director Robin Bissell (a producer of The Hunger Games) has adapted Osha Gray Davidson’s book and while it’s clearly a labor of love, it is quite a labor to get through. At two hours and thirteen minutes, the movie takes a while to get moving and then just sort of treads water for a good sixty minutes rehashing what we already know or setting up more scenes of racial tension designed to elicit the appropriate rage from the audience. By the time the film reaches it’s predicted climax, audiences might be a bit numb after all the elevated dramatics Bissell introduces.

The saving grace of the movie lies in the casting and it starts at the top with Henson and Rockwell. Both are actors that invest themselves fully into their roles and that’s certainly the case here. Though Henson is sporting an almost comically large fake set of breasts, she brings a dignity and strength of soul to Ann who wrestles with wanting to practice what she preaches about acceptance even when the person on the other side won’t look her in the face. You may think Rockwell has played a version of this character already in his Oscar-winning role in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri but the differences between the two men are vast. At the beginning of the film Ellis actually believes in the racist thoughts he spews forth but Rockwell takes us through each crack in his belief system as he spends time not only with the black members of Durham but other white people that don’t share his values.

There’s nice supporting work from Anne Heche (Volcano) as Ellis’ wife who doesn’t suffer fools…especially her husband, Wes Bentley (Interstellar) as the prototype KKK member of that era in that area, and Bruce McGill (Lincoln) as a crooked councilman. I also liked John Gallagher Jr. (10 Cloverfield Lane) as a local shopowner sympathetic to the integration that has to choose between what’s right for him and what’s right for his community. He shares a brief scene with Rockwell that hints at the kind of impactful moments the movie is sorely short on. Yet the film never takes off quite so much as when Henson and Rockwell are bickering or, eventually, seeing eye to eye.

Conceived as a historical piece documenting an important turning point in the Civil Rights movement but orchestrated as an audience rousing drama where everyone goes home happy, The Best of Enemies wants it both ways. It tries awfully hard, though, and that work doesn’t go unnoticed. Yet it winds up feeling like another strange misstep in Hollywood’s attempt to get a movie about the Civil Rights…right.

Movie Review ~ Ride Along

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Fast-talking security guard Ben joins his cop brother-in-law James on a 24-hour patrol of Atlanta in order to prove himself worthy of marrying Angela, James’ sister.

Stars: Ice Cube, Kevin Hart, John Leguizamo, Bruce McGill, Tika Sumpter, Bryan Callen, Laurence Fishburne

Director: Tim Story

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 100 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: Throughout the latter half of Ride Along I’ll admit to being totally zoned out and not paying attention.  Random thoughts kept floating through my mind….

Ride Along is asleep at the wheel.

Ride Along needs a jump start.

Ride Along?  More like Move Along. Nothing To See Here.

Where to begin with this one?

The buddy-cop comedy genre has taken a bit of a beating lately with 2013’s The Heat the latest casualty of writers that don’t know from funny and stars that trust those same writers to do a lot of the work for them.  On paper, I’m sure Ice Cube and Kevin Hart looked like a good combo to put together but in the poison pen of four (count ‘em FOUR!) screenwriters there’s less goodwill toward funny men and more musty cop jokes than you cake shake of box of powdered doughnuts at.

I’m not a huge fan of Kevin Hart to begin with which could have played a role in my feeling about the teeny-weeny comic’s manic energy threatening to vaporize everything left in his wake.  With many scenes winding up feeling like an extended set from his B-side comedy routines, Hart doesn’t have the instincts of the similarly wired Eddie Murphy at his age.  Murphy at least had several moments of silence in each of his films but Hart is non-stop – I halfway wondered if he kept on going so the editor would have trouble cutting away from him.

As Ben, a going nowhere security guard that spends his off work hours playing interactive videogames in a tony loft apartment he shares with his stunning girlfriend Angela (Tika Sumpter, Sparkle), Hart hits the ground running.   Though it’s never explained what Angela does, it has to be a high paying job in order for the two to afford the kind of rent the spacious brick faced dwelling would demand…because Hart’s low paying job isn’t cutting it.  He finds out he’s been accepted to the police academy and decides to kill two birds with one stone and impress Angela’s wary brother James (Ice Cube) who happens to be a hard-scrabble cop himself.  Make nice with the brother and get some advice…a good plan

James, on the other hand, sees an opportune moment as well…he can get Ben off his back and out of his sister’s life by giving him the kind of ride along he’ll never forget.  Over the course of the day they ride around Atlanta, assigned to 126’s…the most annoying cases no cop wants.  Each run in Hart has with a goofy cuckoo gets less and less funny…and it only makes him try harder and louder.

Ride Along has one scene in my new favorite movie location: The PG-13 strip club where no one is naked, everyone wants to get into, and women in bikinis have hundreds of one dollar bills stuffed in their get-ups.  Actually, the filmmakers don’t even fill their club inside with a lot of people…it looks like the kind of crowd that was recruited from a local dentist office.

Due to the fact that the one joke premise of James terrorizing Ben on a day long look into the life of a cop can’t last forever, the brilliant screenwriters toss in a taxing crime case for James that just happens to see a development on the very day that he’s potential brother in law is accompanying him.  Early on we see that a mysterious figure named Omar is involved with something really big (could be guns, money, drugs…who knows, I forgot) but since no one has seen him, no one can locate him.

The only thing they have to go on is a picture of Omar in the eighth grade…at which point director Tim Story makes the brilliant move of panning to a picture that looks so much like Laurence Fishburne (Man of Steel) that it’s not a spoiler to say…well…guess who plays Omar?  It’s these kind of dunderhead, “we’ll help you figure it out” hand-holding moments that make Ride Along not only not funny but mildly insulting as well.  The comedy is shoved in your face and then your good will is tossed aside until the film needs you to laugh again.

If Kevin Hart wanted to make a cop film about a guy going to the police academy…why not attach himself to the Police Academy remake that’s been talked about for years?  This movie is just incredibly lame, half-hearted, and clearly aimed to make a quick buck and pave the way for a sequel (it’s already been announced) rather than having any strong ambition to just make something funny.

The Silver Bullet ~ Ride Along

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Synopsis: Fast-talking security guard Ben joins his cop brother-in-law James on a 24-hour patrol of Atlanta in order to prove himself worthy of marrying Angela, James’ sister.

Release Date:  January 17, 2014

Thoughts: Though the mismatched buddy cop formula has been done to death in countless films (most recently in 21 Jump Street), I guess there’s always room for one more.  The unlikely combo here finds Kevin Hart (Grudge Match) trying to impress his fiancé’s policeman brother (Ice Cube) by spending some time with him on the job.  While I find that a little of Hart goes a long way, this seems to be a nice fit for the wise-cracking comedian and one that will play nicely against Ice-T’s more deadpan style.  I’m not expecting much from this one and that’s usually the best way to go into a formula film…because you may wind up liking it more than you thought you would.  Here’s hoping.