September 16th, 2014

3 DAYS TO KILL (2014) *** ½

It should be mandatory that all action stars age 50 and up do a movie written by Luc Besson. Besson’s knowhow around the action genre served Liam Neeson well with the Taken movies, and John Travolta had more fun than he had in years in From Paris with Love. Like Neeson and Travolta before him, Kevin Costner benefits from Besson’s knack for crazy action set pieces and quirky sensibilities in 3 Days to Kill.

Costner stars as a secret agent who learns he only has months to live. He decides to spend his last days getting to know his estranged wife (Connie Nielsen) and daughter (Hailee Steinfeld). Costner’s sexy superior (Amber Heard) knows that he’s the only one who can identify a baddie known only as “The Wolf”, and offers him an experimental drug that can save his life and give him more time to spend with his family. The only catch is, he’s got to deliver The Wolf on a silver platter.

Many will probably dismiss this movie just because it was directed by McG, but this is quite honestly, the best film he’s made since the first Charlie’s Angels. McG and Besson are a match made in Heaven. McG’s flair for taking crazy situations while making them seem perfectly mundane is a perfect fit for the material. I mean, the flick starts off with Costner singing “Happy Birthday” to his daughter over the phone while getting into a shootout with a creepy henchman known only as “The Albino”. What makes the scene work is that neither McG nor Costner play it for laughs. Had they winked at the audience, it wouldn’t have played nearly as well.

Costner looks like he’s having a blast. His character has a lot of quirky moments (I liked his relationship with a bunch of squatters living in his apartment), but is always a consummate badass. I particularly loved the scene where he tortures a guy with a car battery while simultaneously gleaning parenting tips from him.

Amber Heard is also great as Costner’s boss. I’m not saying that because she appears wearing a different sexy outfit every time she’s on screen. I hope she gets more roles like this, because she’s terrific at playing sultry femme fatales.

3 Days to Kill isn’t quite up to snuff with something like Taken. However, it is full of crisp action sequences, black humor, and winning performances. Sure, the script might get a little cartoonish near the end, but it still remains enormously entertaining throughout.

MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES (1957) *** ½

James Cagney gives one of his best performances as the iconic make-up legend and horror film star, Lon Chaney in this overly melodramatic, but completely absorbing biopic. Raised by deaf-mute parents and stuck in a loveless marriage, Chaney decides to divorce his wife and start life again in Hollywood. When the courts deem him to be an unfit father and take his son away from him, Lon sets out to work himself to death to provide a home for his boy. Along the way, he becomes one of the greatest make-up men of all time.

For any fan of Lon Chaney, this will be a must-see. If you can deal with the overwrought first half involving Chaney’s crazy pregnant wife (Dorothy Malone) hating on his deaf parents and worrying whether or not their son will be deaf too, you’ll be rewarded with some great moments in the second half. This section of the film is a helluva lot of fun and Cagney looks like he’s having a blast being made-up in loving recreations of Chaney’s various make-ups.

The later scenes of Chaney in make-up are easily the best parts of the film. Things get even better though when Chaney’s personal life spills over into his professional life. I loved the part where he had a big blow up with his wife on the set of Hunchback of Notre Dame while in full-on Quasimodo make-up!

Unlike most biopics that were popular in the ‘50s, Man of a Thousand Faces is in glorious black and white. This was a prestige picture for Universal Studios, and they could’ve easily made it in color if they were so inclined. I’m glad they didn’t though, because Chaney’s make-up just wouldn’t have looked right in color.

Cagney is riveting as Chaney, and he anchors the film whenever it veers into melodrama. The supporting cast is great too. Jim Backus is awesome as Chaney’s faithful press agent, and future Hollywood mogul Robert Evans is perfectly cast as Irving Thalberg.

GIRLS IN PRISON (1994) *** ½

Up-and-coming songwriter Missy Crider visits a loudmouth record producer (Jon Polito) and leaves him her song, “Endless Sleep”. That night, he is murdered, Missy is blamed, and she is sent to prison. With the help of her cellmates, she sets out to clear her name. Things get complicated when a series of “hit women” try to kill Missy while she’s behind bars. When they fail, the sexy secretary behind the whole plot (Anne Heche) gets thrown in jail to finish the job herself.

Girls in Prison is one of the best films in Showtime’s Rebel Highway series. It was directed by John McNaughton and co-written by Sam Fuller, which is about a perfectly matched pair as you can get. In some ways, it feels like McNaughton’s warm-up to Wild Things as it’s full of fun pulpy noir touches. Of course, there's plenty of typically hardboiled dialogue by Fuller too.

The cast is a lot of fun. Crider is quite good as the innocent waif wrongly accused, and Ione Skye has some good moments as her sexy lesbian cellmate. I also liked Miguel Sandoval as the tough-talking private investigator, and McNaughton regular Tom Towles is awesome as the head guard. It’s Anne Heche though who steals the movie as the femme fatale secretary. She also takes a better shower here than she did in the Psycho remake.

Girls in Prison runs through all of the clichés you’d expect in a Women in Prison flick. There are lesbian scenes, shower scenes, riots, catfights, hosings, and women performing in drag shows. McNaughton even manages to make up some brand new Women in Prison clichés along the way! The climax of the film comes when Anne Heche tries to stick a shiv into Missy Crider during the annual prison potato sack race. How many movies do you know of end like this? It just goes to show that McNaughton has a gift for filtering the campy aspects of the genre through his own tough as nails sensibilities.