September 25th, 2014

ROBIN WILLIAMS-PALOOZA: DARK ROBIN

INSOMNIA (2002) ***

Al Pacino stars as a detective who is investigating a murder in a small fishing town in Alaska where the sun doesn’t set. The investigation becomes more complicated when he accidentally shoots his partner (Martin Donovan) while pursuing the killer. He then becomes stricken with insomnia and starts hallucinating. Pretty soon, the killer (Robin Williams) begins calling him and eventually, they realize they have more in common than they think.

Pacino is great in this movie and gives one of his best latter-day performances. He’s the glue that holds everything together, especially when the pacing begins to drag. I also thought Martin Donovan did a really good job as his partner. He really holds his own with Pacino, and it’s a shame he gets the short end of the stick.

Williams is quite good as the soft-spoken killer. He dials his usual persona way down and delivers a creepy performance. It also kind of helped that the script was sturdy enough to give him some ripe material to work with. Since he doesn’t appear until the movie is halfway over, it’s a bit of a bummer, but the scenes of he and Pacino going toe to toe are great.

Insomnia was director Christopher Nolan’s big studio follow-up to his classic, Memento. It’s a solid, if unspectacular police procedural thriller. It’s novel in terms of its setting, and the fact that there are some shades of grey with the Pacino character. However, coming on the heels of Memento, it’s a bit of a letdown. You always know where’s it’s going and there aren’t any surprises, but it remains considerably entertaining throughout. It’s the relationship between Pacino and Williams that keeps the movie interesting, and just to see those two legends sharing the screen together is reason enough to check it out.

THE FINAL CUT (2004) ***

In the future, people have all their memories recorded, thanks to a “Zoe” implant in their brains. Then when they die, the footage is then assembled by a “Cutter”, who presents it to their loved ones during their “Rememory”, or funeral. Robin Williams is “the best Cutter in town” who gets the plum job of cutting together memories from a billionaire’s life. His rival (Jim Caviezel), who leads an anti-Rememory movement, also wants the footage for his own means and will do what it takes to get it.

The Final Cut offers up a lot of intriguing ideas. I mean the Cutters snip away all the bad out of people’s lives, leaving only the good. This is a great idea for a movie, and the filmmakers play with the concept in a lot of interesting ways. The film is especially interesting in its world-building (I love how matter-of-fact people were about such a potentially creepy device), and the implications of the dangers of the technology is handled really well.

For the most part, the film is quite daring, but whenever it veers into more Hollywood-friendly thriller territory, it’s considerably less successful. The chase scene ending is especially wobbly, and the subplot about Williams dealing with a childhood trauma doesn’t exactly work either. However, the flick is more successful than not and is constantly entertaining and thought-provoking.

Williams is excellent in the somber role of “Hakman”. This is definitely one of the great underrated performances of the millennium. I’m shocked it took me this long to check the flick out because it’s truly one of his finest hours.

ROBIN WILLIAMS-PALOOZA: DARK AND GOOFY ROBIN

CADILLAC MAN (1990) **

Director Roger (The Getaway) Donaldson isn’t exactly known for his comedic talents. He seems like an odd choice to direct a black comedy about a workplace hostage negotiation. He never really figures out what to do with the material, and with a script so uneven as this one, I’m not sure many people could.

Robin Williams stars as a desperate, shameless car salesman who is banging everything in nylons. While trying to meet his quota and save his job at the used car lot, the secretary’s jealous husband (Tim Robbins) comes in wielding a machine gun and threatens to blow the place up. Williams then has to make a sales pitch to save his own life.

Cadillac Man opens with a scene where Robin tries to sell a widow a car at her husband’s funeral. This is a great set-up, but it never goes anywhere and isn’t very funny. That’s kind of how the whole movie is, constant set-ups in search of a punchline.

The tone is kind of weird too. Donaldson takes what would in the real world be a grim situation and makes light of it. While the film tries to be a black comedy, it just doesn’t have the nerve to be edgy enough to really work. Since there aren’t many laughs to be had, the whole thing probably would’ve played better as a straight-up drama.

Then there are the scenes where Williams talks directly to the camera. They feel like they belong in another movie. In fact, the filmmakers drop this device and switch over to having Williams talk in voiceover for the rest of the picture (save for his final lines at the end). It’s like they couldn’t decide which way to play it. Instead, they try to split the difference and it just doesn’t work at all.

It also doesn’t help that Williams isn’t given very much of a character to play. He’s pretty wishy-washy and we never really find out why so many women could be attracted to him. It’s definitely not a role that’s up to snuff for someone of his caliber.

Robbins is stuck playing your typical wild-eyed crazy man. He doesn’t give a great performance or anything, but at least when he’s on screen the movie occasionally sparks to life. The women in the picture (Fran Drescher, Pamela Reed, Lori Petty) get some nice moments though, and it’s a shame that they ultimately don’t amount to much. If their roles were beefed up more and the hostage stuff was discarded, Cadillac Man might’ve played like a mash-up of Used Cars and Shampoo. As it is, it’s just a messy, mostly unfunny, lemon.

DEATH TO SMOOCHY (2002) ** ½

Death to Smoochy was made at a time when everyone (mostly parents) were fed up with Barney and wanted to see him die. Remember that scene in Mafia when the Eskimo kills the Barney-esque looking guy in a dinosaur suit? Death to Smoochy plays like a two hour version of that gag. Minus the Eskimo.

Robin Williams stars as Rainbow Randolph, an old school kids’ show host who is far from his happy go lucky television persona. In actuality, he is a foulmouthed asshole who takes bribes from parents to get their kids on his show. When the Feds bust him, the network replaces him with Smoochy the Rhino (Edward Norton), a clueless cornball in a stupid costume. Smoochy is an instant smash, but he soon finds himself up to his horn in trouble when Rainbow Randolph goes psycho and begins stalking him.

Directed by Danny DeVito, this flick tries a bit too hard to be quirky and edgy. It’s one thing to do a black comedy. However, there are some scenes that call too much attention to themselves, and don’t play on any level of reality. (Like when Smoochy sings songs in a methadone clinic.) Some of the darker stuff is pretty funny (take for example the scene where Rainbow Randolph takes Smoochy to perform at a Nazi rally), but the film is noticeably less successful during the subplot of the Mob whacking kids show hosts.

Robin is fairly intense and goes to some dark places. He doesn’t try to play it for laughs, unless, you think it’s automatically funny for a kids show host to drop F Bombs. Edward Norton is pretty annoying, but that’s what he’s supposed to do, annoy the shit out of people. It’s Catherine Keener who gives the best performance of the flick though as the network executive who falls in love with Smoochy.

Overall, Death to Smoochy isn’t bad idea. It’s just too uneven and overlong to be truly successful. There are some good zingers here and there to be sure, but it never quite really works.

Well, that’s going to wrap up Robin Williams-Palooza for this month. Next month is October, the time of year when I do a month-long horror-movie-a-day Palooza, The 31 Days of Horror-Ween. However, I am sad to report that this just might not be feasible this year. The reason: Jury Duty! I will try my best though to provide you all with the non-stop horror reviews you’ve come to expect from me every year around this time though. Like last year, I will be reviewing a bunch of bargain bin horror movies, just not on a daily basis. If I do miss a few days because of my civic duty, I will do my best to play catch-up, trust me.

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (2014) ****

Liam Neeson has a very particular set of skills, skills that he’s acquired over a very long career. Skills that make him loved by action fans the world over. His particular skill over the past few years is to threaten bad guys over the telephone before popping a cap in their ass a few reels later. And as Liam-Neeson-Threatening-Bad-Guys-Over-the-Telephone movies go, A Walk Among the Tombstones is the best one since the last one.

Neeson stars as Matthew Scudder, the private eye created by Lawrence Block that Jeff Bridges played in 8 Million Ways to Die. After Scudder’s stray bullet kills a little girl, he quits the police force and stops drinking. He starts going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and becomes a private investigator who does “favors” for people. A scary duo of (possibly) ex-Federal agents are going around kidnapping, raping, and butchering wives of local drug dealers. Since they can’t go to the police, the only person the dealers can turn to is Scudder.

A Walk Among the Tombstones was adapted for the screen and directed by Scott Frank, who also wrote the screenplays for Out of Sight and Get Shorty. He has a no-nonsense style that perfectly suits the material. The film is (mostly) set in 1999 when everyone was afraid of Y2K, but the film often feels like a relic from the ‘70s. All the characters are lived-in and authentic, and they all have various shades of grey.

Except for the bad guys. These are two of the most perverted sickos the screen has seen in some time. Frank does a good job of showing you just enough of their deviancy that you don’t want to see anymore. He also delivers the creepiest use of a Donovan song since David Fincher’s Zodiac.

There are a lot of things that Frank does right that in lesser hands would’ve come off as obvious or lame, but he nails it. Once Scudder’s homeless teenaged sidekick T.J. showed up, my heart kind of sank. However, Frank refuses to sugarcoat his relationship with Scudder. Sure, he looks after him and buys him new shoes, but Scudder also gives him the hard facts of life. The scene where he finds out T.J. is carrying around a loaded gun is heartbreaking.

The violent confrontation between the kidnappers is also expertly done. There is one scene involving blood trickling down a staircase that is creepier than anything I’ve seen in a horror flick in years. I also loved the way Scudder’s 12 Step Program heavily figured into the bloody showdown.

At the center of the movie is Liam Neeson. He gives one of his all-time best performances; and in a career where he’s played Darkman, Qui-Gon Jinn, and Oskar Schindler, that’s saying something. I’d love to see Neeson return as Scudder with Frank in the director’s chair every two years or so.