'80s action films, Canon, Charles Bronson, dark comedies, documentaries, films, Freakonomics, Helena Bonham Carter, Laura Dern, Messenger of Death, nostalgia, Novocaine, quirky, Scott Caan, Steve Martin
Our campaign of catching up continues as we take a look at Tuesday’s viewings. There were a few old ones in there (albeit one that I couldn’t really recall) as well as a documentary that I’ve been meaning to watch for some time. Now, on to the show!
Growing up, there were few things in my life as absolute as my father’s complete and total respect for rugged individuals who did their own thing. Dad didn’t respect authority figures, politicians, cops, etc but he swore by a few people: Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson. I can’t recall how many times the two of us would sit down to re-watch the same Eastwood western again or catch the umpteenth viewing of Bullitt. I don’t think that mom was always happy about that (for some reason, my father never viewed gun violence in films as anything to worry about. He resolutely hated horror films, however.) but these are definitely some of the defining moments in who I currently am.
Back in the day, I’m pretty sure that I saw every film by all of these men at least twice, if not a hundred times. Some films (The Good, The Bad and The Ugly; Bullitt; Breakheart Pass) are such a part of my DNA that I could probably recite all of the dialogue. Other films, however, have sort of slipped into that foggy no-man’s-land of misremembered memories. After all, just these three actors, alone, made a lot of films, not even counting others like Lee van Cleef and John Wayne that were always in the mix. Whenever I encounter any of these older films that I can’t quite recall, I like to give them a spin and reacquaint myself with my youth. The most recent one? Bronson’s Messenger of Death.
For my money, Bronson was always at his best when he played the world-weary cop, out to do the dirty work that no one else wanted to muddy their hands on. He played a pretty wide variety of parts (at least for someone who was, primarily, an action star), however, stepping into the shoes of everyone from journalists to government agents and photographers (his ’50s TV show Man with a Camera is well worth hunting down). I would never call Bronson the most versatile actor out there (from the right angle, he’s more granite than Mount Rushmore) but he always brought a particular brand of toughness and vulnerability to his roles that was pretty much unmatched.
As Bronson flicks go, Messenger of Death is good, but not great. Part of his late ’80s work with Canon, the film is distinguished not so much by its story (which manages to combine armed, feuding Mormon fundamentalist families with Chinatown) but more for its relative restraint. Messenger of Death came just five years after what many consider to be Bronson’s most violent era (Death Wish 2, The Evil That Men Do, 10 to Midnight), yet this is (perhaps) one of his least violent films. For much of the movie, Bronson plays the role of investigator, spending more time looking for clues than shooting or fighting. Since Bronson would retire from films a scant six years after this film was released, I think a good case can be made that this was right about the time when he decided to wind things down.
When compared to the rest of Bronson’s work, this is definitely middle of the road stuff. The actual reveal of the villain has a bit of a Scooby Doo feel to it and the film’s depiction of Mormon fundamentalists is…well, let’s say it’s very 1980’s and leave it at that. For my money, however, any Bronson flick is better than a lot of other film combined, so this was sill a pleasant diversion. I have a feeling, however, that this will be one of those films I revisit in a few years because I can’t recall if I’ve actually seen it or not.
I remember when the actual Freakonomics book came out and became a huge phenomena. I was working in a bookstore at the time (may it rest in hell forever) and I figured this was just another fad-thing like Rich Dad, Poor Dad. As such, I didn’t give it a second thought and went about the rest of my life.
Fast forward almost a decade and I found myself curious anew after the film based on the book became available on Netflix. A film based on an economics book? Surely this would be the sleeping aid I’ve been seeking! As it turns out, I found myself enthralled from the first scene to the last.
The easiest way to describe the film version of Freakonomics is to say that it’s like a really fascinating series of TEDTalks. Not the boring ones that folks actually pretend to be interested in, mind you, but the actual interesting stuff like the correct way to tie your shoes. Several different documentary directors (including Super Size Me’s Morgan Spurlock) each take a shot at one chapter from the book, recreating them in everything from live action to animation. While the results aren’t always even, there’s more than enough interesting material to go around.
Ostensibly, the film (and book, I’m assuming) deal with the hidden side of economics: all of the little things that come together to actually form our entire financial system. The film tackles these things on small, personal level, however, so this isn’t the Intro to Econ class that everyone skipped in college. Exploring everything from the economics of choosing a baby name to the best time to sell your house, Freakonomics makes these issues not only interesting but rather fun. The book’s authors, Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt, serve as moderators/hosts and the two have an easy-going, fun rapport that makes it much easier to pay attention. If you’re in the mood for a little learning along with your entertainment, give this a shot. I ended up being so interested that I might finally read that book: I like to be fashionably late.
I remember seeing Novocaine in the theaters when it first came out. I’ve always been a big Steve Martin fan, even if he’s had an incredibly uneven, frustrating career as of late. Falling into the “Eddie Murphy trap,” Martin seemed doomed to spin his wheels in family-friendly fare forever, a sad state of affairs for the genius who gave us The Jerk. In 1999, however, Martin bounced back a bit with Bowfinger (ironically, co-starring Eddie Murphy). This was a decidedly darker, more adult film, even if it was still a goofy screwball comedy. Two years later, Martin followed that up with Novocaine, even darker still.
Martin plays nebbishy dentist Frank Sangster. He has a thriving practice, dental hygienist fiancée (Laura Dern, so quirky that she seems nuts) and a strong moral compass. Enter a sultry new patient, played by Helena Bonham Carter, however, and things go to hell faster than you can say “Ahh.” Throw in her batshit crazy, obnoxious brother (played by Scott Caan, channeling only the most over-the-top beats from his dad’s Sonny Corleone) and the dentist’s equally worthless brother and you’ve got a truly toxic stew. The whole thing leads to sex, drug thefts, multiple murders and a teddy bear with an impressive set of choppers. Will Frank be able to stay one step ahead of trouble? Can he trust anyone, including his brother? Is it true that nice guys always finish last?
All in all, Novocaine is a pretty enjoyable film. The score is great (Oingo Boingo’s Steve Bartek did the score, while Danny Elfman performed the theme. As such, that’s just about as close to an Oingo Boingo reunion as I’ll likely get.), Martin is excellent as the fish-out-of-water and Laura Dern provides some nice moments as his neurotic fiancée. More problematic were Helena Bonham Carter and Scott Caan. The two chewed so much scenery that there was precious little for the rest of the cast to graze on. In particular, Caan’s performance is so vein-poppingly over-the-top that I took an instant dislike to him. Carter doesn’t fare much better but at least she gets to play off of Martin. Poor Scott just gets to shout obscenities and rage like a steroid-pumped bro-dog. I was also less than fond of the frequent X-ray image transitions. A few times, here and there, were fine. After the millionth or so, however, the gimmick had long outworn its welcome. We get it: this is a film about a dentist and dentists use X-rays. Move on.
If you like Steve Martin or are looking for a good, quirky, comedy/crime/romance, you could probably do worse than Novocaine. It’s a decent enough film which builds to a truly gonzo ending before leaving us with the more traditional Hollywood wine and roses. Looking back from the Little Shop of Horrors, I think Martin would approve.