Friday, November 29, 2013


Don’t let the title of the latest Jason Statham thriller “Homefront” (*** OUT OF ****) deceive you.  This is no soap opera about life in the boondocks.  “Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead” director Gary Fleder and “Cobra” scenarist Sylvester Stallone should have entitled it “Hell On A Bayou.”  This exciting but formulaic revenge saga pits a retired DEA Agent against a murderous bunch of bikers and rednecks who resemble the hellions in the “Sons of Anarchy” television series.  Naturally, Statham plays the conscientious DEA Agent who witnessed a gross miscarriage of justice that his superior defends as ‘protocol.’  After an explosive drug bust at a New Orleans’ nightclub, our undercover hero’s brothers-in-blue mow down a clueless biker in a fusillade of gunfire.  Apparently, they suspected that the poor slob was reaching for a concealed weapon during a stand-off.  The blood-splattered experience sickened our protagonist enough that he resigned from the agency and settled down in a two-bit Louisiana town to raise his young daughter.  While he wants to put as much distance between his past as he can, our hero doesn’t realize that escaping his bullet-riddled past is easier said than done.  Basically, “Homefront” shares a lot in common with a witness relocation thriller, except the hero here is a cop rather than an eye-witness.  Stallone adapted Chuck Logan’s novel, but the filmmakers have altered the setting from Minnesota to Louisiana.  A former Vietnam veteran, Logan has published eight novels about his protagonist Phil Broker, and “Homefront” appeared in print back in 2009.  As it turns out, “Homefront” provides Statham with an ideal vehicle, and its rural setting and dastardly villains have the flavor of an Elmore Leonard novel.  Co-stars James Franco, Winona Ryder, Clancy Brown, Kate Bosworth, and Frank Grillo constitute a first-class cast for this gritty, hard-boiled, methamphetamine melodrama.

Everything goes wrong for our hero when his nine-year old daughter Maddy (newcomer Izabela Vidovic) picks on the wrong bully at her elementary school.  Fat Teddy Klum (Austin Craig) not only steals Maddy’s baseball cap, but he also terrorizes the willowy little darling on the playground.  Maddy warns Teddy twice to hand her cap back, but Teddy chuckles contemptuously at the defiant little waif.  Imagine Teddy’s surprise when Maddy socks him in the snout and knocks him on his obese butt!  Phil Broker (Jason Statham of “Safe”) is remodeling a house with his African-American partner Teedo (Omar Benson Miller of “8 Mile”) when he receives a call from the Rayville Elementary School.  School psychologist Susan Hetch (Rachelle Lefevre of “Twilight”) briefs Broker about the incident, and Sheriff Keith Rodrigue (Clancy Brown of “Highlander”) struggles to keep Teddy’s mom Cassie Bodine Klum (Kate Bosworth of “Straw Dogs”) off Broker’s back.  When she cannot slap Broker around, Cassie incites her husband Jimmy (Marcus Hester of “Lawless”) to rough him up.  Broker puts Jimmy out of action with the ease of a kung fu master, and the sheriff wonders where our hero got his training.  Later, Cassie resorts to her scumbag brother, Gator (James Franco of “Spring Breakers”), to take care of Broker.  Teedo warns Broker that Gator operates a local meth factory and discourages any competitors by informing on them to Sheriff Rodrigue.  Gator burglarizes Broker’s remote house in the middle of the woods and stumbles upon Broker’s files from his DEA days.  Furthermore, he discovers Broker was the anonymous snitch that sent Outcast motorcycle gang member Danny T Turrie (Chuck Zito of “Carlito’s Way”) to prison and put the first of the 47 bullets into Danny’s worthless son Jojo (Linds Edwards) on the street in New Orleans.  Gator concocts a hare-brained scheme with low-life waitress Sheryl Marie Mott (Winona Ryder of “Heathers”) to alert the Outcasts about Broker’s whereabouts.  Gator dreams in his naive mind that the Outcasts will repay him for his friendly little tip by helping him distribute his meth.  Outcast motorcycle chieftain Cyrus Hanks (Frank Grillo of “Disconnect”) and his best bangers roll into Rayville with payback on their brains. Meanwhile, our hero realizes that he is living in a land where feuding is a way of life.  At the last minute, after Gator has stolen Maddy’s pet kitten, Broker smells the stench of murder in the air and tries to clear out.  Unfortunately, our hero doesn’t get far before he discovers that there is too much lead in the air for him to hightail it without jeopardizing his daughter’s life.  

Mind you, “Homefront” would be just another entertaining but predictable shoot’em up, but director Gary Fleder has assembled a knock-out cast of celebrity talent and orchestrated some crowd pleasing action scenes.  James Franco plays Statham’s grinning redneck adversary with gusto galore.  At one point, he chides Phil Broker because our hero doesn’t “smell the wood burning” and “cannot connect the dots.”  Winona Ryder gives an electrifying performance as Gator’s scummy ex-convict accomplice who served time for smuggling narcotics into Angola Prison.  Topping both Franco and Ryder is sexy Kate Bosworth of “Straw Dogs” and “Blue Crush” as a housewife hooked on meth who ridicules her husband into doing what she cannot.  Seasoned character actor Clancy Brown emerges from the background a corrupt local sheriff who behaves with more discretion than the usual paid-off politician.  Essentially, nobody gives a bad performance in “Homefront,” and the children are incredibly convincing, too.  Of course, Fleder and Stallone shoot the works, and Statham displays his usual physical prowess.  Basically, if you enjoy watching the “Transporter” kick the crap out of his antagonists after they threaten his daughter, you’ll enjoy “Homefront.”  The close encounter combat sequence between our hero and two thugs at a local gas station is hilariously violent.  Statham is quickly turning into the new Steven Segal with the effortless aplomb with which he dispatches his opponents.  Dutch lenser Theo van de Sande’s cinematography of the swampy Louisiana locations is simply gorgeous; Sande shot the Wesley Snipes vampire opus “Blade.”  Clocking in at a nimble 100 minutes, “Homefront” never wears out its welcome.


Funny man Vince Vaughn has made a career out of playing obnoxious, motor-mouthed, louts in raucous comedies like “The Wedding Crashers,” “Couples Retreat,” “The Internship,” “Old School,” “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story,” and “The Watch.”  In his latest laffer “Delivery Man,” he doesn’t portray another obnoxious, motor-mouthed, lout.  Instead, he plays a sympathetic, soft-spoken, slacker.  Subdued as he is in writer & director Ken Scott’s remake of his own French-Canadian film “Starbuck” (2011), Vaughn is cast as a middle-aged, ne’er-do-well, oddball who scraped together a pile of dough during his youth from providing sperm donations for a fertility clinic.  The premise of “Delivery Man” is singular in its novelty.  No other comedy that I can recall has ever employed this plot.  In an administrative blunder of nightmarish proportions, the fertility clinic relied almost predominantly on our protagonist’s sperm, and the 693 deposits that he banked with them bred 533 children!  Two decades later, the progeny insist on meeting their papa, and they challenge our humble hero in court to divulge his identity.  As rude, crude, and lewd as “Delivery Man” (**** OUT OF ****) must sound, this sentimental, feel-good, PG-13, pleasantry is not cut from the same cloth as most of Vaughn’s characteristic, lowest common denominator, slapstick farces.  Incredibly enough, in a season celebrating super-heroic exploits like “Thor: The Dark World” and feats of empowered femininity like the incendiary “The Hunger Games” sequel “Catching Fire,” “Delivery Man” focuses on down-to-earth, flesh-and-blood characters who live quiet lives and blend into the background.  A conspicuous loser in virtually every facet of his life, our sperm donor extraordinaire has no idea that he has sired so many offspring.  

David Wozniak (Vince Vaughn of “Four Christmases”) drives a meat delivery truck for Wozniak & Sons, his immigrant father’s business in New York City.  Without a doubt, David is the slowest delivery man on his papa’s payroll.  Not only is he a magnet for uniformed NYPD cops writing parking citations, but also he has landed on the wrong side of ruthless loan sharks.  He is over his head in debt to these hooligans for $80-thousand.  Nevertheless, everybody loves David, including his cute girlfriend, Emma (Cobie Smulders of “Safe Haven”), who happens to be one of New York City’s finest.  Before our ill-fated protagonist learns about his woes from the fertility clinic, he discovers that Emma is pregnant.  She adores David, but isn’t entirely sure that he would make an adequate breadwinner.  She agrees to give David a chance but warns him that he will remain on probation until she decides otherwise.  
Sadly, David has struggled over the years with various get-rich-quick schemes.  Those pie-in-the-sky ideas have yielded little in the way of consequence.  As the action unfolds, David has just scrapped his latest inspiration—cultivating marijuana hydroponically—when he learns about Emma’s pregnancy.  Emma has always wondered why David has never invited her to his cramped man cave where he tries to grow pot.  While David is worrying about his woes with Emma, he finds out that 142 offspring from the fertility clinic have embarked on a class-action lawsuit to smoke him out into the open.  When our hero submitted his sperm to the clinic back in the day, he signed a confidentially contract.  David’s best friend and sometime attorney Brett (Chris Pratt of “Moneyball”) advises him to lay low.  Brett has four children of his own and advises David to steer clear of his children.  David has never distinguished himself with his brilliance.  He takes a packet from Brett that contains profiles of the 142 children.  Mind you, every one of David’s biologically sired children is grown-up.  Despite Brett’s warnings to not peruse the profiles, David does and hatches a bizarre scheme to act as their guardian angels.  Like a guardian angel, he helps out his offspring without letting them know that he has a stake in their lives.  Initially, he attends a basketball game where one son is playing and behaves like a one-man cheerleading squad.  In another instance, he stands in for a barista so the guy can attend a casting call for actors.  Predictably, inept as David is, he all but destroys the coffee shop as he tries to perform a good deed.  Later, he rescues a daughter as she is about to plunge herself into the nightmare of heroin addiction.  Several lesser examples occur with David berating wolves whistling at a sexy daughter, assisting a drunken son with a cab, and urging bystanders to ante up contributions for a sidewalk musician.  Meanwhile, Brett tries to concoct a strategy that will serve them well in court.  Brett is a woebegone underdog himself.  Indeed, his own motherassured him long ago that he is no Perry Mason.  When Brett tries out his courtroom defense approach on his four children, they question his competence as an attorney!
Scott and Qu├ębec-born, co-scenarist Martin Petit never miss a chance to be multi-culturally correct.  As it turns out, the women who availed themselves of David’s prolific sperm donations were not exclusively white.  David begat a few African-Americans, too.  Furthermore, some of his grown-up brood preferred to explore alternate lifestyles.  At least one of them is handicapped both mentally and physically.  The awkward scenes between David and his crippled son are the stuff of tearjerkers.  A lesser movie would have depicted a breakthrough with the handicapped guy acknowledging his biological father.  Of course, contrived as it is, “Delivery Man” doesn’t let our hero get off the hook.  Just when it appears like David’s anonymity will remain intact, everything comes crashing down.  Cynically, with the Thanksgiving holidays at hand, you could say that Touchstone Pictures, a division of Disney Studios, couldn’t have chosen a better time to release this art-house gem.  Scott’s comedy celebrates fatherhood in general and presents a rainbow of situations in particular where parental love triumphs over adversity.  “Delivery Man” qualifies as a refreshing change-of-pace for Vince Vaughn.


Hang 'Em High

Director Ted Post's "Hang ‘em High" (*** OUT OF ****) qualifies as Clint Eastwood's least appealing western.  This United Artists release served as the first Eastwood epic after Sergio Leone's "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly."  Composer Dominic Frontiere's powerful orchestral score ranks as its best asset and enhances the formulaic Leonard Freeman & Mel Goldberg screenplay about western justice, circa 1889. Frontiere composed the scores for television shows such as "The Invaders" and "The Rat Patrol."  His score for the Lee Van Cleef western "Barquero" sounds like variations on his "Hang ‘em High" theme.  Mind you, Eastwood looks cool as a glacier in his dark blue outfit and flat-brimmed hat, and he kills bad guys who deserve to die without a qualm.  Nevertheless, "Hang ‘em High" resembles a tautly made television drama. The surroundings, even the sandy desert scenes, lack the majestic sprawl of his inspired Italian westerns and his later sagebrushers such as "The Outlaw Josey Wales," "The Pale Rider," and "Unforgiven."  Clearly, since he hadn't made a strong enough impression on Hollywood, Eastwood had to play it safe with a low-budget.  In retrospect, the wily Eastwood surrounded himself with an incredible cast of supporting actors that assumes far greater significant now than back in 1968 when “Hang ‘em High” swung into theaters.

No, "Hang ‘em High" was NOT a Spaghetti western like the Sergio Leone trilogy that preceded them.  Lensed entirely in Southern California, this thoroughly routine oater springs its one and only surprise when our hero gets his neck stretched in the first scene. The sly ploy resembles Hitchcock's "Psycho" in this respect.  The last thing that you’d expect is that the star would be hanged at the outset.  Jed Cooper is a former St. Louis lawman-turned-cattleman wrongly hanged for rustling who survives the near fatal ordeal.  "Hang ‘em High" focuses primarily on the theme of revenge that figured prominently in most Italian westerns.  The lynch mob found our innocent hero after he had bought cattle from a murdered sixty-something rancher.  No matter what Jed says, Captain Wilson and his nine conspirators refuse to believe him.  He provides a fairly detailed description of the man who sold him the cattle, but this doesn’t dissuade the Captain from his decision. As it turns out, the dastard who killed the rancher gave Jed (Clint Eastwood) a forged bill of sale. This is what prompts the villains to see Jed swing dramatically during the opening credits as the title “Hang ‘em High” slams into the foreground in blood red letters.  Cooper finds himself briefly imprisoned after a tough-as-nails lawman, Marshal David Bliss (Ben Johnson of "Chism") cuts him down and takes him back stand trial at Fort Grant before the stern Judge Adam Fenton.

Judge Fenton (Pat Hinlge of "The Gauntlet")is a quasi-Judge Roy Bean. He has the last word on justice, and Hingle delivers a commanding performance. The villains led by Captain Wilson (an elderly Ed Begley of "Boots Malone") are an ineffectual lot. They botch hanging Jed Cooper, and he comes after them with warrants issued by Fenton. As much as Fenton warns Cooper that he better bring the hanging party in,  Cooper winds up killing several of them. The town where all the action occurs has another character, Rachel Warren (Inger Stevens of "Five Card Stud"), who has Fenton's permission to look at all new prisoners.  She is searching for the fiends that wronged her.  The romance between Jed and Rachel is as contrived as most of this weak western. Meanwhile, Jed realizes that Fenton may be a bigger bastard than he is with his iron-fisted rules about legality. In his spaghetti westerns, Clint Eastwood bowed to nobody, but his lawman character here takes orders, something that clashes against the Eastwood characters in
"Two Mules for Sister Sara" and "Joe Kidd."

One of the casting decisions defies logic, specifically Alan Hale Jr. as one of Wilson's riders who hangs Cooper. The portly Hale had played the beloved Skipper from "Gilligan's Island," but he had played less lovable roles before "Hang'em High." Nonetheless, it is jarring to see Hale in such a role.  One of the best casting decisions was veteran B-movie cowboy star Bob Steele.  Bob Steele grew up as the son of the same B-movie director who helmed numerous John Wayne westerns during the 1930s.  Indeed, Steele himself was a B-movie cowboy who starred in his share of low-budget oaters in the 1930s and afterward.  Meanwhile, Bruce Dern makes an excellent villain. "Hawaii 5-0" actor James MacArthur has a memorable cameo as the gallows Preacher.  Dennis Hooper as well as a line-up of familiar faces, including L.Q. Jones of "Battle Cry" and Ned Romero of "Dan August," flesh out "Hang ‘em High."  Not surprisingly, Hooper plays an insane prisoner called 'The Prophet.'  There are no spectacular looking shoot-outs because Ted Post shoots everything like one of his "Gunsmoke" or "Rawhide" episodes.  The scene where Jed is riddled with bullets and Rachel has to take care of him adds a tearjerker text to the story.  Happily, Eastwood would go on to make "Two Mules for Sister Sara" and redeem himself for this lackluster effort. The neatest touch occurs when they hang a number of men and one of them loses a boot as they plunge through the trap doors.

Happily, Post's next outing with Eastwood would come with the highly superior "Dirty Harry" sequel "Magnum Force." If you're looking for a better lynch law western, watch "The Ox-Bow Incident" with Henry Fonda that was made back during World War II.
 Hang 'Em High