[Movie Review] The Stepfather

StepfatherStarring: Terry O’Quinn, Shelley Hack, Jill Schoelen, Charles Lanyer
Director: Joseph Ruben
Genre: Thriller
Cert: 18
Released: 1987

You think you know someone? You might think twice after viewing Joseph Ruben’s (“Sleeping with the Enemy”, “The Good Son”, “Money Train”) low-budget thriller, “The Stepfather”. Released to little acclaim (it grossed $2.5m in 1987), this B-movie has developed a significant cult following on video over the years. It yielded two sequels ? one mildly inferior, the second hugely inferior (suffering from the absence of lead actor Terry O’Quinn) ? and has experienced a further following as a budget DVD release.

So what’s it all about? Terry O’Quinn (“Young Guns”, “The Rocketeer”, TVs “JAG”, “X Files” and “Millennium”) is Jerry Blake. Jerry is a real-estate agent, a man who sells homes and with it, in his eyes, the American Dream. He’s living with Susan (Hack ? TVs “Charlie’s Angels”, “Annie Hall”, “The King of Comedy”) and subsequently has become stepfather of sorts to her daughter, Stephanie (Schoelen). But Stephanie is not that keen on the man she calls “Scary Jerry”. Her psychiatrist, Dr. Bondurant (Lanyer ? “Die Hard 2”, “The Astronauts Wife”), tries to help Stephanie find some balance and reason in her feelings towards Jerry but she’s not for turning.

And she hasn’t even seen what we’ve seen. The opening scenes of the movie show Jerry in a house somewhere, cleaning blood off his hands, shaving his long beard, trimming his over-grown hair and swapping his glasses for contact lenses. He then leaves the house, stopping only to pick up some toys that are on the ground, leaving behind blood-soaked bodies, whistling a happy tune as he goes. The Stepfather is off to find a new family to make him happy. God help them if they fail.

Jerry is a believer in family, a home and discipline. He doesn’t so much love Susan and Stephanie as love the idea of a happy family. He tries everything to win over his stepdaughter but failure only drives him in to a private rage. Will the monster inside Jerry rise again?

I know people will dismiss “The Stepfather” for numerous reasons. Its low budget, corny dialogue and unknown cast being primary of them. But there are several reasons why this horror/thriller is compulsive viewing and one of the best movies of its genre.

First amongst these is the performance of Terry O’Quinn. A familiar face on TV through the nineties, O’Quinn delivers an absolute tour-de-force as deranged Jerry Blake. Whether it is the delivery of his lines or the subtle facial expressions, he gets it down to a T. This is a frightening, thoroughly convincing, top class performance from a moderate actor ? and that makes it all the more remarkable. And O’Quinn has to be on top form because his supporting cast is under whelming at best. Schoelen is an inexperienced young actress, Hack a paperweight.

Secondly, Ruben creates plenty of tension through various techniques ? slow camera panning, sound effects (although the music is typical eighties fare) and angled-close ups on the demented O’Quinn. He shows himself to be hugely adept at maximizing the realistic performance of O’Quinn and the bizarre nature of his behaviour.

Thirdly, the interplay of the characters is intriguing. Susan knows that Jerry and Stephanie don’t see eye to eye, but she assumes it is the typical teenage reaction to a stepfather. Jerry knows that Stephanie doesn’t warm to him and it tears him up ? but he keeps on trying, while in the background manipulating whatever he can to try and get them closer together. To his family he seems to do it so subtly ? but unknown to them he is calculating and sick.

A criticism I can aim at the movie is the lack of depth that is offered regarding Jerry Blake. Why don’t we investigate Jerry’s psychosis more? He doesn’t speak of his past or, more specifically, his childhood although we find that he loves 1950s TV and shows all the hallmarks of someone who had a strict upbringing. Seeing as the movie never delves into this, I’ve always felt that an intriguing project would be a biopic based on this fictitious character and a look at what made Jerry Blake who he is.

“The Stepfather” is a wonderful movie, a cult classic with the sort of gritty tension that is all too often lost in the heady world of Hollywood. What might be nice is a modern-day remake of the movie ? maybe Gary Oldman playing the Jerry Blake character. I’m excited by the prospect of seeing Oldman down in the basement banging his fists and screaming ‘we need a little order around here!’, or referring to himself by the wrong name before staring in to space and asking: ‘Wait a minute. Who am I here?’.

One of my all time favourites.

5star

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[Album Review] "Minor Earth | Major Sky" – a-ha

Minor Earth Major Sky - a-haAlbum Title: Minor Earth | Major Sky
Artist: a-ha
Year: 2000
Running Time: 58m 36s

Track listing: 1 Minor Earth, Major Sky; 2 Little Black Heart; 3 Velvet; 4 Summer Moved On; 5 The Sun Never Shone That Day; 6 To Let You Win; 7 The Company Man; 8 Thought That It Was You; 9 I Wish I Cared; 10 Barely Hanging On; 11 You’ll Never Get Over Me; 12 I Won’t Forget Her; 13 Mary Ellen Makes The Moment Count
I wonder how many people would identify a-ha as pioneers of pop music in the 80s. Sure, we had Wham!, Bros, New Kids on the Block and other popular music “bands” who scored huge success and appealed to a broad market, but none of these bands had the raw talent of the Norwegian trio. In guitarist Paul Waaktaar-Savoy, a-ha have a songwriter of immense talent, and with skilful keyboardist and fellow-songwriter Magne he has written classic tunes like ‘Take On Me’, ‘Sun Always Shines On TV’, ‘Hunting High and Low’ and ‘I’ve Been Losing You’. The vocal executioner though has always been the main focus of the band – Morten Harket. The Scandinavian sex symbol has a unique voice that helped make so many of the songs unforgettable.

It is fifteen years since the release of their multi-platinum debut album, and these three men have matured into their late-thirties/early-forties now. It’s hard to believe. “Minor Earth, Major Sky” is their first release in seven years after a self-imposed break aimed at rejuvenating those creative juices. Has it worked?

The title track kicks us off in rather excellent style – style being the key word. Terrific keyboard and bass work from Magne and Paul in this mid-tempo story of not belonging in the vast universe. ‘I can’t see me in this empty place/Just another lonely face/I can’t see me here in outer space/It’s so hard to leave a trace’ – perhaps a reference to the somewhat invisible existence of the band in the first half of the nineties. Perhaps just a reference to the late-twentieth century disorientation that many people feel.

The loneliness continues into ‘Little Black Heart’, a haunting tune about loss and doubt, Paul’s subtle guitar refrain hitting all the right notes. A relationship gone bad – ‘I never saw sunlight burn as bright/I never felt darkness the way I feel it tonight’ – self-loathing or perhaps pity – ‘You say it’s getting better/You say it’s alright/But I never felt darkness the way I feel it tonight/My little black heart’.

‘Velvet’ is a beautifully performed ballad that registered as a hit single and was featured in the 2001 movie, “One Night at McCools”. Originally released in 1996 by Paul’s own side-project, Savoy, this re-recording’s main differentiation is its more polished musical and vocal feel.

But the standout tune is comeback single ‘Summer Moved On’ – a strong concoction of beat, emotion, diverse vocals, strings and even a touch of flamenco guitar! Again the song deals with a-ha’s favourite topics of loss, sadness and regret. The emotional chorus of ‘Stay, don’t just walk away/And leave me another day’ is difficult to get out of your head. The bridge is just as memorable – ‘Moments will pass/In the morning light/I found out/Season’s can’t last/And there’s just one thing/Left to ask’.

We move up a notch with the faster-paced ‘The Sun Never Shone That Day’ with it’s foot-tapping chorus and unique strains of Morten’s voice making you wonder where he pulls the notes from! Clearly something that Savoy would have released on their own album (and indeed it is co-written by Paul and his fellow Savoy member, and wife, Lauren), it fits in well enough but is the weakest of the opening tunes.

Lyrically, ‘To Let You Win’ is absolutely outstanding and almost poetic. ‘You know I always had the strength to fight/But I got tired of the wars at night/Thinking they would end if I gave in/But I wasn’t strong enough/To let you win’, Morten mourns, almost croaking his disdain. When he admits ‘I thought you couldn’t love a man who’d lost’ and ‘It used to scare me to wake up wondering/If I’d forgotten what I was fighting for’ you see that he is a man torn by his desire for peace but not at the cost of his own self-respect.

‘The Company Man’ takes a while to grow but eventually it should work for you. A typical story of ‘artist loathes record executive’, one wonders if a-ha are being artistic or abstract. ‘Songs came out of our mouths/And into his hands’ – a clear expression of unhappiness at how artistic freedom are sold down the river for the mighty dollar. And conceivably another reference to the band’s fall from grace: ‘And we all come down/Don’t make a sound as we hit the ground’. Good stuff.

The powerful ‘Thought That It Was You’, is another sleeper – a song that’s musically and lyrically rich, and just like with ‘To Let You Win’, from the pen of Morten Harket. The dark, bleak lyrics (‘My shadows, they’re not new/My soul’s split in two’; ‘There’s a place we used to go/That’s where I throw our ashes now’; ‘Sometimes I felt so sure/When I opened up your doors/That there’d been no one there before’) create a phenomenal visual, religious image. The chorus – ‘You know my deepest sin/You’ve seen me deep within/So fill me now like wind/And let the miracle begin’ – is stirring and inspirational. Remarkable.

‘I Wish I Cared’ showcases Harket’s incredible vocals again, this time riding a typically mid-tempo Magne Furuholmen tune (‘You don’t know my destiny/You can’t see what I can see’; ‘This is how it has to be/No more us and no more we’. Decent effort.

The well crafted lyrics of ‘Barely Hanging On’ are the best part of a decidedly average track – and that’s being kind. ‘I used to be so sensible on my own/Now I’m so sensitive it’s a joke/I used to be so confident in a crowd/Now I can’t say my own name aloud’, crows Morten as he picks through the ashes of his life. I think the album could have done without this number.

The trio that close off the album are terrific. ‘You’ll Never Get Over Me’ is completely irrepressible with it’s beautiful chorus – probably the best on the album. The lyrics are functional enough (‘You say you want some fun/You’re not the only one’; ‘And you say you wanna run/You’re not the only one’) but they take a back seat to the extraordinary melody and rhythm.

‘I Won’t Forget Her’ is a little dated sounding, and indeed might have worked better as an acoustic or piano ballad, but it’s funky and catchy enough.

Closing off the album is the very different sounding ‘Mary Ellen Makes the Moment Count’. The Beatle-esque acoustics and keyboards lend a mysterious and gloriously ponderous aura and the startling honesty of the lyrics are enough to make you stop and think about your own raison d’etre. ‘The world’s full of lonely people’, says Morten. How right he is. Maybe it’s okay to be one of them.

While this record is more of a throwback to the over-produced 80s albums, there is enough contemporary influence here to please both new and old fans. I suppose the failure of their previous, more rock-based albums (“East of the Sun, West of the Moon” and “Memorial Beach”) prompted a-ha to try and find a good blend of both 80s and 90s a-ha. They have certainly done this here. There’s no doubt it is a brilliant record but are we going to have to wait 7 years for the next one?

3halfstar

[Movie Review] The Cooler

The CoolerStarring: William H Macy, Alec Baldwin, Maria Bello, Daniel J Nascarella, Ron Livingston
Director: Wayne Kramer
Genre: Drama
Cert: 18
Released: 2003

Did they ever exist? Is the concept of “coolers” a clever invention of Hollywood? Are coolers about as real as Godzilla, the Blair Witch or a good Kevin Costner movie? Well if so, suspend disbelief for just a while.

Wayne Kramer’s movie tells the story of a rather pathetic but decent man, Bernie Lootz (Macy). Lootz’s job at the Golden Shangri-La casino on the Las Vegas strip is to “cool” people who are on a winning streak. He simply stands at a table where a gambler has cleaned up and instantly their luck turns. Yes, he really is that unlucky.

Of course he’s a real earner for casino manager, Shelly (Baldwin). And right now he needs Bernie to be on top form as casino owner Nicky (Nascarella) wants the casino to modernise with new man, Larry (Livingston) at the helm. But Bernie’s luck is turning and that means that Shelly’s is too – in the opposite direction. When attractive young waitress Natalie (Bello) inexplicably moves in on Bernie, he gets a spring in his step and his sad life becomes a thing of the past.

But Shelly isn’t giving in that easily and he’ll do whatever he can to ruin Bernie’s happiness and ensure that his cooler remains in Vegas.

It’s hard not to love William H Macy with his depressed demeanour, hangdog look and weather-beaten features. His turn in “The Cooler” is without doubt the best thing on show. Making him miserable looking is not difficult – drooped shoulders, constantly down-turned mouth, ill-fitting suit and the fact that there’s never any cream left in the jug for his coffee. He pulls it off to a “T”.

But sadly he’s fighting a losing battle against a turgid script, poor direction and pacing, insipid and sometimes laughable dialogue (‘Look in my eyes, I am the only mirror you’re ever gonna need’ – Bernie to Natalie) and just about one of the worst judged endings I’ve seen in a movie. The plot on the surface sounds fine but the execution of it leaves much to be desired. The storytelling from Kramer at the end is poorly done and confusing and by that point I had been left feeling cold and totally detached from the characters anyway.

You want a villain? It’s not (Academy Award nominated) Alec Baldwin’s sometime-convincing bad guy that works for me. It’s Daniel Nascarella’s violent and vengeful portrayal of Nicky that’s locked down real good. A re-cast would have worked well here. Put the old-timer, casino-manager Nicky as the man being put under the thumb of the young entrepreneur owner, Shelly. Not that it makes any difference the movie would still be a train wreck, just might have been less of one if the roles were reversed.

Maria Bello plays Natalie, a woman who takes a shine to the older, down-trodden Bernie. Why? Who knows ? Maybe it’s the old ‘watch the quite ones’ mentality. But with plot turns and twists that don’t take long to figure out, you’ll know the real reason before you’re told it.

There are some other sub-plots going on along the way that are obvious as to the reason for their existence but do little to immerse you any more than has already been achieved. The last hour sees us go around in circles so many times you’re dizzy by the time the payoff comes.

It just didn’t work for me at all. And anyway don’t they know that “uncool” is the new cool?

1halfstar

[Movie Review] How to Kill Your Neighbour's Dog

How to Kill Your Neighbour's DogStarring: Kenneth Brannagh, Robin Wright Penn, David Krumholtz, Lynn Redgrave
Director: Michael Kalesniko
Genre: Comedy
Cert: 15
Released: 2000

I almost always expect Kenneth Brannagh to be donning a dodgy middle-ages moustache or flowery blouse whenever I see him on screen. His fascination with Shakespeare has been the bedrock of his career with successful productions of “Hamlet”, “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Henry V” behind him. But he’s also tried his hand at more mainstream work – 1991 thriller “Dead Again” and follow-up comedy, “Peter’s Friends” for example. In 2000, he took his hands off the reigns, merely starring in Michael Kalesniko’s directorial debut, “How to Kill Your Neighbour’s Dog”.

Peter McGowan (Brannagh) is a British playwright living in LA. After considerable success in the 80s, his 90s output has struggled to make the grade and now he’s agitated, struggling to sleep, chain-smoking and impotent. His excitable wife Melanie (Wright Penn – “The Pledge”, “Moll Flanders”, “Forrest Gump”, “The Playboys”), is pressuring him to have kids – something that is not on Peter’s agenda.

Add to that the incessant night-time barking of his neighbour’s dog, a stalker who claims he is Peter McGowan and the new eight-year old kid, Amy (Suzi Hofrichter), who hangs around his garden every day, and Peter’s hemorrhoids might not be the worst of his problems.

Maybe all Peter needs is to find his magic again, but work on his latest production is moving slowly, director Brian Sellars (Krumholtz – “10 Things I Hate About You”, “The Mexican”) and prima-donna actor Adam (Johnathon Schaech) unimpressed with the dialogue that Peter has written for the child character in the play. Peter needs to find some inspiration – maybe Amy can be that for him?

It might be little known, but it’s not under-appreciated. “How to Kill Your Neighbour’s Dog” made a splash in 2000, winning several jury and audience awards and chosen to close the Toronto film festival.

One of the main success’ of Kalesniko’s script is that he keeps things light-hearted despite occasionally making scathing observations about Hollywood (‘If you want to be happy in Hollywood, be a cinematographer. Nobody knows what you’re doing, so they can’t screw with you’) and human beings in general. When Melanie suggests that Peter see a doctor about his anxiety, he replies ‘What if he cures me? Then, I’ll have nothing to write about. Nobody wants to know about how happy you are’.

There is perhaps a more political side to the shtick. During a TV interview, Peter calmly tells interviewer Debra Salhany: ‘Do you ever think that if you attack an artist long enough, that you’ll succeed in having him censor himself?’ The dialogue succeeds in the main save for some occasions when it sounds like McGowan’s smart-arse replies have come right off a cue card.

The manic, mid-life crisis that seems to be enveloping Peter is amusing and while initially not caring much for his predicaments, one quickly warms to his character. Credit for this goes to Brannagh, massively underrated actor that he is. Puffing continuously on a cigarette, swearing at his neighbour’s dog, frequently not bothering to shave, dismissing young Amy with a sharp tone and paying little attention to his deteriorating mother-in-law (Redgrave – “Shine”, “Gregory Girl”), it is remarkable that you still smile at his frequent rants and take him at face value.

The rest of the cast do fine. Wright Penn is not pushed in her role but she carries it off as well as should be expected. Redgrave, veteran of the screen, has little to do but mutter and look lost which she does sufficiently and the supporting acts of Krumholtz, Schaech and Peter’s obsessed fan, Peter (Jared Harris – “Mr Deeds”, “Smoke”, “Natural Born Killers”), have their moments amongst it all.

This is a good movie. I don’t think it’s award-winning caliber but essentially you go in expecting occasional entertainment and you get a good sight more in the end. There is potential in the head of Kalesniko and I’d keep an eye on his next one. I expect a Christopher Guest-style approach where we’ll see him teaming up with Wright Penn and Brannagh again.

3star