This is a blog which primarily gives some attention to movies that I find were overlooked (for whatever reason) or are simply underrated. I also comment on other, mainly movie-related issues as well. I welcome any suggestions for films to be added to this distinguished list.

One word of warning: The films listed below contain spoilers, so caution during reading is required.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

"I'd like to kill somebody!"

"Say that again."

"I'd like to kill somebody."

"Let's me and you go for a ride, Otis."
-Otis and Henry

I'm not the type who condemns a film simply because it has extreme violence, and I'm certainly not the type who blames violence in movies for real-life horror such as Columbine or, more recently, the killings in Norway. Extreme on-screen violence, when used in a certain way, can enhance a film's impact. One great example of this is Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971). I honestly consider this film a work of art, but I can certainly understand why some people dislike it (my father, a man I very much admire, is one such person). Most people remember the moments where Malcolm McDowell's Alex brutalizes innocent people. Where this film's greatness comes into play, though, is that it takes into account the reactions of other people to Alex's crimes; in the case of this film, those people are society in general. When Alex is incarcerated, the issue becomes what to do with him-and whether the route taken is the moral one in that regard. The scenes in which Alex initiates violence serve as the catalyst for that dilemma.
Contrast that with, say, The Devil's Rejects (2005), which simply shows scene after scene of violence by characters its director, Rob Zombie, will go to his grave insisting are supposed to represent 'real' people. On top of that, the film seems to go slower and slower as it reaches its boring slow-motion climax.
In his book Your Movie Sucks, Roger Ebert wrote this in response to criticism of his less-than-stellar review of the movie Chaos (2005):
"I believe evil can win in fiction, as it often does in real life. But I prefer that the artist express an attitude toward that evil. It is not enough to record it; what do you think and feel about it?"
This perfectly sums up why I love Clockwork but dislike Rejects, even though they both contain deplorable content (ironically, Ebert gave a thumbs-down to Kubrick's film, but a thumbs-up to Zombie's).
This brings us to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. John McNaughton, perhaps best known today for making the quirky sex drama Wild Things (1998)-which, after Basic Instinct (1992), is my favorite guilty pleasure movie-made this film is just a month with a budget of just over $100,000. The inspiration for the story came from a 20/20 segment on serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, who confessed to over 600 murders after he was captured. He died in prison in 2001.
The title character (Michael Rooker) is someone who randomly kills people with his partner Otis (Tom Towles). One day, Otis's sister Becky(Tracy Arnold) comes to live with them and, eventually, falls for Henry, while becoming more and more repulsed by Otis. Eventually, Becky and Henry kill Otis after he brutalizes her. Rather than calling the police, they spend the night in a motel before Henry dumps a trunk on the side of the road the next morning, which, presumably, contains Becky's body.
Leonard Maltin commented that this film focuses on other sick minds besides Henry's. Indeed, as murderous as Henry is, Otis is even worse. In addition to raping Becky, he is all-too-eager to go after innocent people, such as the salesman who berates them for wasting time at his shop just as Henry is about to leave. The only lucky one is this film is a boy who sells him marijuana. Otis places his hand on his leg, prompting the boy to punch him in the face and fleeing. While he escapes, though, Henry uses Otis's frustration at the incident to kill a passerby on the highway after they fake car trouble.
Maltin also commented that this film resembles Peeping Tom, and I agree with that to some extent. Henry and Otis steal a video camera from the salesman they kill and later use it to record themselves slaughtering a family in their home. Unlike Mark Lewis, though, Henry doesn't wish to make a film of his deeds to show the world, but is content with carrying out his horrific acts in private.
The film's counterpoint is Becky, who listens to Henry from the moment she meets him. One reason being that they both claim to have been abused during their childhood by their parents. She's seems to be a lonely soul who wants someone who won't shun her, and she believes Henry is that someone-even when she points out that he changes his story about how he killed his mother.
Hence, the response to Henry's violent acts in this film come from someone who, ironically, wants his love and, tragically, is killed for her desire to be near him.
Rooker is great in the title role, coming as an everyman in some scenes and a downright terrifying S.O.B. in others. This was his first film role and it segued into a great career as a character actor, although the role I'll always know him for is as Kevin Costner's government-fearing aide in JFK (1991).
In Scream 2 (1997), one of the characters (played by Rooker's JFK co-star Laurie Metcalf) says that she hates it when people assume that a person's family or upbringing led to them murdering people. Indeed, many slasher films have pinned the cause of their mass slaughters on family trauma but this film, in a way, puts that cliche on its ear by mentioning it only once.
Although the film was made in 1986, it wasn't released until 1990, mainly due to its violent content, which, naturally, led to disagreements with the MPAA. However, it did form a cult following, enough to warrant the inferior Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Part 2 (1996).

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Freeway (1996)

"Do you wanna get shot a whole buncha times?"
-Vanessa Lutz

Reese Witherspoon came onto the movie scene with one of the best debut performances in film history in the coming of age drama Man in the Moon (1991). From there, she gave other great performances in (mainly) independent films such as this one, although her best during that period was her performance as overachieving Tracy Flick in Election (1999), which may very well top the distinguished list of performances which should have been nominated for an Oscar.
Bonafide stardom, however, came with her role as Elle Woods in the comedy Legally Blonde (2001). Her spirited work in that film, though, is the only reason it's worth a look. Remove Reese and Blonde is quite predictable and forgettable, in the same way that if you remove Jack Nicholson from Batman (1989), that movie is as lacking as Joel Schumacher's more-hated Bat-flicks.
Speaking of Jack, Witherspoon's character in Freeway, Vanessa Lutz, is similar to his character in the classic film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), R.P. McMurphy. Both are delinquents with sharp senses of humor who gain the sympathy of the audience.
Vanessa's life in a poor section of Los Angeles is disrupted when her mother (Amanda Plummer) is arrested for prostitution. But rather than returning to foster care, Vanessa steals her social worker's car and, after obtaining a gun and bidding goodbye to her boyfriend Chopper (Bokeem Woodbine)-who is killed in a shootout shortly afterward-heads to her grandmother's in Stockton. But Vanessa doesn't get far when her car breaks down on the highway. To her rescue, though, comes Bob Wolverton (Kiefer Sutherland), a schoolteacher who offers her a lift. Bob's kind nature prompts Vanessa to basically give him her life story, which includes the times her stepfather and others have molested her. After dinner in a cafe, though, Bob reveals his true colors by trying to kill her, which convinces her that he's the infamous 'I-5' killer that's been in the news. But Vanessa manages to shoot him with her gun (after the pinned-down Bob states that he wouldn't be convicted of any crime with his clean record and, subsequently, offers her money) and leaves his body in his car before running off.
Ironically, Bob isn't dead and stumbles into a hospital. Although the gunshots have left him disfigured, he tells the police and his unsuspecting wife Mimi (Brooke Shields) that Vanessa assaulted him and that he's an innocent victim.
Vanessa is promptly arrested and, after a hearing, sent to prison, despite informing detectives Breer and Wallace (Wolfgang Bodison and Dan Hedaya, respectively) of what Bob really is.
These words prompt them to reexamine their evidence and, as Vanessa breaks out with the help of her fellow inmates and resumes her trip to Grandma's, discover with Mimi that Bob really is the 'I-5' killer.
Unlike Cuckoo's Nest, the most tragic character here isn't the main character or anyone brought under their wing, but rather Mimi. She believes her husband to be a great humanitarian and, when she learns he's anything but, promptly takes her life with a bullet in the mouth.
Meanwhile, Bob himself goes on the run when he sees the police at his home. With a picture of Vanessa's grandma that he somehow acquired, he meets up with Vanessa posing as her grandma. Vanessa, however, isn't fooled and quickly sees that her grandma is Bob's latest victim. She also turns out to be his last victim as Vanessa strangles Bob after a vicious struggle. Breer and Wallace arrive and (presumably) exonerate her.
This film has been called a take on the tale of Little Red Riding Hood and its easy to see why (a trip to Grandma's and Bob's surname are probably the most obvious reflections of this).
Witherspoon's great work is matched by Sutherland, who makes Bob charming and then scary. Perhaps my favorite moment in the film is when Vanessa puts the fear of God into Bob by pulling her gun on him, after he had done the same to her just moments earlier.
I can only hope that Witherspoon returns to making films as clever as this soon because, with the glorious exception of her Oscar-winning work in Walk the Line (2005), her recent films, including How Do You Know (2010) which co-stars Jack, have been less than satisfying.