Tag: stephen dorff

The Motel Life

The Motel Life (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Jerry Lee (Stephen Dorff) wakes his brother, Frank (Emile Hirsch), in the middle of the night and tells him that something terrible had just happened: He had accidentally struck a kid on a bike with the car. Although he had tried to pick him up and take him to the hospital, it was of no use. The boy was already dead.

Frank and Jerry Lee are inseparable, partly because they wish to honor their dying mother’s wish which was expressed to them back when they were still teenagers. Now in their thirties, the duo choose to remain in Reno with hopes of riding out the investigation. If they were to disappear suddenly, suspicion would surely arise.

“The Motel Life,” directed by Alan and Gabe Polsky, is more a story about the love shared between two brothers than it is about guilt, not having enough money, or the past although these three elements are major driving forces that continue to shape trail of their journey. It is a moving story, heartbreaking in some ways, and yet it is also about hope. No matter what happens, Frank and Jerry Lee are there for each other no matter what the cost.

The lead performances sizzle with stifled emotions. Hirsch gives Frank a level of strength that is almost unexpected because he looks much younger than Dorff, who injects Jerry Lee with so much pathos that we forget sometimes that he has committed a hit-and-run. I would have guessed that Dorff would play the stronger character—the protector—and Hirsch would play the guilt-ridden half.

Nevertheless, what ultimately ends up on screen is the correct decision. Since the casting choice is less obvious, those familiar with the performers’ repertoire will be fascinated because they manage to thrive in a relatively new territory. Meanwhile, those who are less familiar with Hirsch and Dorff can still enjoy the relationship of the two brothers by discovering, slowly, how their dynamics work.

The best scenes involve Frank telling Jerry Lee stories of their imagined great adventures. The wonderful animation employed vary in style and content but not so much that they come across detached from one another. On the contrary, there is fluidity in the drawings and plots and so we learn about what goes on in Frank’s mind: his inspirations, disappointments, his values, his hopes for the future. He is a man who does not speak a lot. It is easier to grab a bottle of alcohol than a shoulder of a friend—especially when he is not very social in the first place.

There are two people in Frank’s life that I wished were fleshed out a bit more. Kris Kristofferson plays a man named Earl who sells cars. In a way, he is a father figure to Frank. They share two scenes: One when Frank is a teenager (Andrew Lee) and the other when older Frank needs a car. Another person of importance in Frank’s life is a former girlfriend named Annie (Dakota Fanning). They have lost touch for years only to cross paths again under very different circumstances.

Based on the novel by Willy Vlautin, “The Motel Life” shows a portrait that may not be pretty or convenient but one that is worth looking at and thinking about. It made me feel glad that I have a brother who I believe will do anything for me when it really counts. Perhaps that is the reason why I was so moved by the brothers’ bond. Though we come from completely different backgrounds, I still saw a reflection of myself and my sibling in Frank and Jerry Lee.


Leatherface (2017)
★ / ★★★★

A tidal wave of exasperation washed over me as I endured “Leatherface,” supposedly a horror film but more like a copy and paste of scenes from the most generic and uninspired of the genre released within the last fifteen years. Being the first film in the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” franchise which features only the name of one of the most recognizable villains in slasher picture history, one would be inclined to believe that screenwriter Seth M. Sherwood might have something interesting to say about the mind of a serial murderer who later wears his victims’ faces. Instead, we are provided an interminable hostage scenario so ludicrous that anybody with half a brain would scream at the characters to run with every easy opportunity to escape. Natural selection is not at play here.

It is a shame because two great character actors, often underrated, signed up for the project. Lili Taylor plays Verna, mother of the boy who would become the titular character. Meanwhile, Stephen Dorff portrays Hartman, a cop seeking vengeance against Verna’s family because her children killed his daughter. Both manage to create characters from nothing; they may be one-dimensional because the script lacks common sense, intelligence, and a genuine understanding of human psychology and behavior, but the parents command strong personalities. It is a missed opportunity that these two do not share more scenes because their clashes contain a semblance of substance.

Part of the would-be intrigue is guessing which teenager would become Leatherface. Because the boy was taken away from his mother at an early age and been given a new name while in a mental institution, it is mentioned that he might not even know who he is. There are three candidates: kind-hearted Jackson (Sam Strike), mute and corpulent Bud (Sam Coleman), and budding criminal Ike (James Bloor). It is not at all a challenge to guess correctly when the viewer comes to understand the mean-spirited nature of the project.

Yes, horror films can be the opposite. I argue that great ones are not rotten inside. In fact, a lot of them are hopeful because evil is almost always weakened or extinguished, at the very least defeated that day so the characters can have the opportunity to live their lives. Here, however, it is one ugly, barbaric death scene after another. Bags of flesh being slashed, beaten to a pulp, and decapitated tend to dull the senses not only due to the fact that they are terribly executed but they are also increasingly boring. Deaths do not have impact because every person we encounter is a caricature.

Directed by Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, “Leatherface” is a limp origin story, empty of surprises, empty emotionally, and certainly one that drags. While there are moments of inspiration, directly tethered to Tobe Hooper’s 1974 classic, particularly one that takes place in the woods at night as blue, almost alien-esque light penetrates through the trees, these are not enough to elevate moldy, rotting scraps into something marginally edible.

The Iceman

The Iceman (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) dubs pornographic films for a living when he meets Deb (Winona Ryder), his future spouse. Wanting to provide more for his family, he accepts an invitation to come work with a mob boss (Ray Liotta). Kuklinski’s job involves collecting debts, sending messages, and silencing whoever needs to be executed. Meanwhile, Kuklinski’s family is led to believe that his highly profitable career is in currency exchange.

“The Iceman,” based on the screenplay by Ariel Vromen and Morgan Land, is an interesting look at a story of a real-life man who is believed to have killed more than a hundred people but was only convicted for three murders. Casting Shannon to play the title role elevates the picture because he is able to exude a quiet menace from the moment we lay eyes on him until he is in a jail cell and is asked by an unseen man if he regrets anything from his past. But the film disappoints a little. It spends too much time informing us about his role in the mob. There are not enough scenes that details his methods of killing.

Shannon is the type of actor who can play a character and entertain without saying a word. His performance is most compelling when a person insults or threatens those who are important to the notorious killer—mainly his family—and we feel him thinking: Is it worth slashing the throat of the man in front of him? What is the best way to kill this man—shooting him in the gut several times or a quick shot to the head? Shannon’s stature communicates a lot, too. Notice when he is standing up the character is more likely to lose his temper. When he is sitting down—with his family, friends, or superior—it is almost a way to suppress his compulsions.

The timing of the director, Ariel Vromen, such as when to move the camera and which angle to shoot from, complements Shannon’s acting style. Before a violent outburst, there is almost always an unsettling patient pause. It is suspenseful in that we anticipate to hear or see an explosion. Is Kuklinski going to explode in the next second? Ten seconds from now? Or is he going to be wait for a better, cleaner opportunity? If the timing were off from behind the camera, it would not have worked.

Brief appearances by well-known performers (Stephen Dorff, James Franco) are solidly acted. However, I would have preferred if unknown faces were cast instead. Familiar faces almost take away the realism the picture has consistently worked to establish. At one point, it starts to feel like a parade of actors outperforming the other. These scenes are saved by Shannon—he plays it smaller as if serving to drain away the bright colors.

While the most enthralling scenes involve Kuklinski going after people as if he were a bull targeting a capote de brega, “The Iceman” would have been a better picture if it had presented more of the man’s methods. How did he prepare physically and mentally before a kill? What kind of knives, guns, or ropes did he use? How did he clean up? It does not give us a chance to determine how efficient he is exactly. And for someone who has allegedly killed over a hundred people in cold blood, details as such are necessary.


Botched (2007)
★ / ★★★★

Ritchie (Stephen Dorff), along with two colleagues, successfully stole a suitcase of diamonds from an auction in France. But on the way to the meet their boss, the trio get into a car accident. Ritchie survives and tries to escape before the police arrive at the scene, but a car hits him from the side which sends the suitcase flying. Diamonds are all over the pavement. Mr. Groznyi (Sean Pertwee) is not happy.

Still, Ritchie is like a son to him so he gives him another chance. His new assignment is to purloin an artifact from a penthouse in Russia with the help of Peter (Jamie Foreman) and Yuri (Russell Smith). Although they are able to obtain the object, problems arise on the way down via elevator. Before they know it, there are ten of them in there. Fearing that security is aware of their presence, all of them get off at a floor that is currently under construction. There is a madman on the loose.

“Botched,” directed by Kit Ryan, is yet another example of how difficult it is to make a successful horror-comedy. Its look is sleek and its pacing is kinetic before Ritchie and company reach the mysterious floor. However, once they get there, the characters have nothing much to do other than call each other names. The experience is very much like being stuck in a room with not very interesting kids who hear something “funny” on television and they just have to try saying it in real life. It got exasperating quite quickly and I wondered what else it had to offer.

The group of ten is divided into three. Other than Ritchie and his two companions, there are three religious zealots (Bronagh Gallagher, Norma Sheahan, Gene Roonet), and four others who work for a company with various levels of expertise (Jaime Murray, Hugh O’Conor, Geoff Bell, Zak Maguire). Instead of the screenplay, written by Raymond Friel, Derek Boyle and Eamon Friel, pursuing creative ways for the characters to extricate themselves from an increasingly dangerous predicament, they are treated as wooden punchlines. Once a person’s quirk is milked to the ground, it is certain that he or she is going to die next. As a result, there is a drought of suspense. We wait passively for the next kill.

The floor that the characters are on is supposed to be special yet the movie fails to provide us a precise mental image of the place. In most buildings, there is usually a map for each floor. Why is this floor any different especially since it is under construction? While purposefully labyrinthine and filled with booby traps, it might have been nice if we were given the chance to orient ourselves. So if a character happens to stop or pass by a certain spot, we can recognize that a trap is somewhere near. In order words, it could have been a way for us to feel like we were a part of the group.

We do not care about any of the people being maimed and murdered. While knowing their respective backgrounds is unnecessary because there are too many of them, we might have felt a bit of connection with them if they were funnier or smarter. For instance, there comes a point where the remaining survivors enter a room full of medieval weapons. Instead of ransacking the place for the sake of self-defense, they just admire the decorations.

The Gate

The Gate (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★

Glen (Stephen Dorff) realizes he’s in a dream. Unable to find his family in the house, he decides to make his way up to the treehouse, only for the tree that supports his place of play to collapse with a thunderous roar. Waking up the nightmare, Glen discovers men in the backyard cutting down the very same tree from his dream. This leaves a strange hole in the ground which instantly captures the curiosity of Glen and Terry (Louis Tripp), Glen’s best friend. Inside it, they find a geode of substantial size which they later discover as a part of an underworld where demons reside.

Written by Michael Nankin and directed by Tibor Takács, part of the sheer joy of watching “The Gate” is the way it opens its deeply-clenched claw of secrets and its willingness to push the envelope of entertainment through a mutualistic relationship between an interesting story and eye candy special and visual effects. But this isn’t to suggest that the film relegates its heart for ostentatious display of visuals.

On the contrary, the way it sets up its plot pays substantial attention to Glen, our protagonist, in terms of what or who is important to him. I especially enjoyed the small but tender moment between Glen and his father (Scot Denton) as the latter explains to his son why Terry, it seems, takes a certain pleasure in making up macabre stories in the attempt to scare Glen. The manner in which the father explains Terry’s situation makes a general statement about the household: it is loving, protective, and understanding.

A more overt relationship comes in the form of Glen’s yearning for his sister, Al (Christa Denton), to treat him continually like he is the most important figure in her life. Dorff is wonderful in projecting childish frustration when Al chooses her friends over him at times as well as commanding a childlike rapture when Al shows kindness to him, that he is special, a reminder that even though she is growing up and her priorities are on the verge of shift, the fact that they are siblings with a lot of love between them will never change.

After Glen and Al’s parents leave the house to their kids for the weekend, the material picks up considerably. While it is able to hold onto the fun of being home without adults around, the special and visual effects make their way to the forefront, beginning with an attempt of levitation during a party. I admired the writing’s creativity as Terry learns what exactly is inside the hole in his friend’s backyard. Once the knowledge of the hole’s nature is out in the open, the material is able to play with its horror elements in more blatant ways, from little demons that cause all sorts of trouble to a living dead being discovered in a bedroom wall.

The screenwriter has an understanding of what kids are scared of, best executed in the scene when Glen and Al let out a sigh of relief, after having faced horrific happenings in the house, because they think that the adults are back from their trip early. The couple that stand outside prove to be impostors when the “father” grabs his son by the neck and chokes the life out of him. What is scarier to kids than the idea of their most trusted figures suddenly turning against them?

Although the last act of “The Gate” drags, it is nonetheless well-written and directed. Instead of rehashing a cheap imitation and putting its young protagonists in peril with neither regard nor hope for how they would get out of their predicaments, it takes inspiration from cheaper fares and offers a work with fire and excitement.


Somewhere (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) was a successful actor who lived in a posh hotel. He spent his days playing video games, sometimes attending interviews to promote his upcoming film, but there were times when he just sat around and stared into nothingness. His nights consisted of partying, drinking, watching two blonde exotic dancers work a pole, and sleeping with women he barely knew. In his case, a successful career did not equal happiness. Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, I feared that “Somewhere” began on the verge of insularity. Johnny driving around in circles in his fancy car was a heavy metaphor of his life going nowhere and fast, supported by unnecessary and more symbolic extended scenes. For example, the two women dancing on and around a pole which finally ended when Johnny fell asleep. I get it–he was apathetic even to things that excited most men. The director was so desperate to show us that Johnny was a lonely person when she didn’t need to. The moment Cleo (Elle Fanning), the actor’s eleven-year-old daughter, arrived, the story picked up because of her young, vibrant energy. The scene that stood out to me most was when the father, in such a simple way, looked at his daughter dancing on ice. It was one of the very few scenes when Johnny wasn’t the one being watched. When he was at the hotel, women gave him seductive looks. Sometimes a fan would recognize him and he or she would try to make banal conversations. When Johnny drove around Hollywood, he felt like he was being followed by someone in a black SUV. Many of the scenes centered around people looking for or looking at him. When nobody was looking at him, it was refreshing for him. He felt like he could breathe, like he was as normal as he once was. It felt like freedom. Furthermore, watching his daughter was the moment when I believed Johnny made an active decision to strive to be a better man–not necessarily the best father, but a better person who could be there for his daughter regardless of the reason. His personal promise was tested when Cleo’s mother, presumably divorced from Johnny, suddenly decided that she needed a break from life. Johnny had to go to Italy for the premiere of his movie so he took Cleo along. Cleo didn’t always agree with her father’s lifestyle, especially sleeping with random women and allowing them to stay until morning, but she wasn’t a brat. She internalized yet her eyes said everything what simple words couldn’t express. I was able to relate with her because I tend to do the same thing when I’m upset with someone who caused a negative situation. I believe “Somewhere” had a wonderful lesson about parenting. Sometimes a parent being there is just what a child needs. I stared into Johnny’s eyes and I couldn’t help but feel moved. It was like looking into the eyes of parents who think they’ve failed or that they’ve achieved nothing, not realizing that, in their children eyes, they mean absolutely everything.


Shadowboxer (2005)
★ / ★★★★

Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Helen Mirren were two assassins and lovers assigned to kill a mobster’s wife (Vanessa Ferlito) but instead decided to run away and hide her because she just had a baby. Written by William Lipz and directed by Lee Daniels, I was excited to see “Shadowboxer” because I love the lead actors and the supporting actors (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Stephen Dorff, Mo’Nique, Macy Gray). Unfortunately, the movie fell flat the moment Gooding and Mirren arrived in suburbia. Instead of really exploring what made the characters tick, especially when the sexual tension between the couple was apparent, the movie settled on the question of when Dorff would finally catch up with his wife and the two hired assassins that failed to kill her. I also didn’t like the fact that there was no sense of urgency and tension to drive the story forward. The audiences were supposed to buy that the characters were conflicted about the path they’ve chosen but without really focusing on their respective backgrounds (in the least), it’s ultimately hard to care let alone root for them. For a movie that runs in under an hour and thirty minutes, it felt longer than that because it didn’t have enough meat in its bones for us to delve into. I read a review that says this is far from a movie designed for the mainstream. I thought that review got that part exactly right. However, I disagree when he or she made a point about this film being about the characters’ path to redemption. If this was about redemption, they would realize the errors of their ways and try to change or stop hurting and killing other people. I argue that none of the characters wanted to change. In fact, there was barely any change at all. The movie showed us the reality in its universe without having to let the characters realize the errors of their ways. On the other side of the spectrum, they claim that the movie was so bad that it was good. Let’s not pretend; this movie was a failure and a great disappointment mostly because of its writing. You can cast the best actors in the world but if the backstory and dialoge are flat throughout, there is no way that the film will be successful. Stay away from this one because it suffers a bad case of a lack of substance.