Thursday, March 19, 2009


Crime pays only for the best of the bad guys in director Frank Oz’s “The Score,” (*** out of ****) an entertaining, straightforward, procedural heist melodrama in the tradition of Michael Cimino’s “Thunderbolt & Lightfoot” (1974) and John McTiernan’s “The Thomas Crown Affair” remake. Not surprisingly, a gifted, powerhouse casting of Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Marlon Brando, and Angela Bassett make “The Score” both interesting and easy to watch. Oz depicts the crime of safe-cracking in fairly realistic, down-to-earth terms, in his version of the oft-told tale about the professional criminal that wants to quit the rackets and settle down. Nothing in “The Score” struck me as implausible. Anybody over age thirty who suffers from attention deficit disorder might find it difficult to endure both the quieter, contemplative moments and the deliberate, suspenseful pacing. Not surprisingly, too, Edward Norton excels as a lawbreaker modeled on Kevin Spacey’s Keyser Soze character in Bryan Singer’s first-rate epic “The Usual Suspects.”

All performances in “The Score” are above reproach, even Brando’s flaky Sidney Greenstreet stock character with his Truman Capote wardrobe. Scenarists Kario Salem of “The Fast and the Furious,” Lem Dobbs of “The Limey,” and Scott Marshall Smith of “Men of Honor” have crafted a derivative but solid nail-biter based on a story by Daniel E. Taylor. Never do they let these thieves off the hook, and they confound their every move in an intricately woven yarn of disasters and double-crosses. “The Score” reminded me of those classy, high-stakes European crime thrillers from the 1950s, such as Jules Dassin’s “Rififi” (1954), and “Topkapi” (1964), Giuliano Montaldo’s “Grand Slam” (1968), Henri Verneuil’s “Any Number Can Play (1963), and “The Burglars” (1972), Antonio Isasi-Isasmendi’s “They Came To Rob Las Vegas” (1968), Peter Colllinson’s “The Italian Job” (1968), and Michele Lupo’s “The Master Touch” (1974).

Sure, Hollywood has pulled off its share of these sagas, such as John Huston’s “The Asphalt Jungle” (1950), Phil Karlson’s “Five against the House” (1955), and Lewis Milestone’s “Ocean’s Eleven” (1959), but they don’t compare with these classics. Ironically, “The Score” qualifies as the flip side of Oz’s earlier comedy “Bowfinger,” but the latter boasts a more upbeat ending. Where Steve Martin struggles to produce a movie around Eddie Murphy’s nutty actor in “Bowfinger,” Robert De Niro must outsmart Edward Norton’s devious miscreant during a complex heist. The conflict in “The Score” boils down to an account about the survival of the fittest. The worse criticism is the writers have visited the well once too often for inspiration.

Robert De Niro of “Ronin” plays Nick Wells, a world-weary professional safecracker who owns a jazz club in Montreal when he isn’t pulling jobs out of the country for Max (Marlon Brando of “The Island of Dr. Moreau”), his longtime friend and fence. Nick has survived over the years because he rarely takes chances. Nick recites a speech that sounds like the speech he gave in Michael Mann’s superlative “Heat” about knowing when to walk away from a job. The opening scene brilliantly demonstrates Nick’s imperturbable under pressure in tight spots aplomb. As he is breaking into a safe at a mansion during a late-night party, two young lovers interrupt him. When they cuddle, Nick conceals himself behind a couch. When the girl prefers to smoke a joint before having sex, her boyfriend leaves the darkened room in disgust. Nick grabs the hapless girl from behind when she spots his safecracking tools. He threatens her if she doesn’t keep quiet, and then coolly finishes the heist. Once again, Hollywood warns us smoking pot can get you into deep trouble you never imagined. Something similar happened in the Peter Hyams’ horror movie “Relic.” A deadly creature stumbles onto its first victim, a helpless security guard, and devours him. During the off screen chomping, the camera zooms into a smoldering marijuana cigarette that the guard had been smoking. The message is obvious. If the guard had not been where he was sneaking a few puffs of pot, he would never have been gobbled. Anyway, Nick gets away without being discovered because he believes in discipline. As he later tells an accomplice, “Talent means nothing. Lasting takes discipline.” Max delivers the bad news the day afterward, the person they had planned to sell the jewelry to has died. Nick is upset because he had to finance the jewel heist with $20-thousand of his own money. Max calms him down and tells him about a new job.

Nick wants to settle down with his flight attendant girlfriend, Diane (the lovely Angela Bassett of “Music from the Heart”), but she refuses to marry him if he continues his life of crime. Nick and Diane are seriously contemplating marriage when Max offers Nick a job that will pay $4-million. During their opening dialogue sequence, Nick and Diane discuss what sounds like a crime that Diane participated in with a partner who didn’t make it back from Istanbul. This plot point is left dangling; making it sound like Diane resembles the Pam Grier stewardess in Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” who smuggled in money. As much as he loves Diane, Nick has second thoughts. He wants to wed Diane, but the prospect of a $4-million paycheck and the potential for paying off the mortgage on his club appeals strongly to him. When Nick reveals his illicit plan to Diane, she walks out in a huff.

Meanwhile, things grow complicated because Max tells Nick that the job is in Montreal.
One of Nick’s standard rules is never to pull a job in his backyard, an idea Max instilled in him, but the payoff is so big that not even Max can resist. Later, Nick learns that Max is deep in debt to another criminal. Like Nick, Max wants to use the proceeds to clear himself. Getting Nick to agree to pull the job in Montreal isn’t as difficult as getting him to team up with Jack Teller (Edward Norton of “American X”), the guy who shopped the idea to Max in the first place. Jack bristles with ambition. He masquerades as a part-time janitor with cerebral palsy. All the guards and the head janitor treat Jack like a son, and he used their sympathy to case the Customs House. All classic crime movies have those scenes where the criminals learn everything that they need to know about who they are going to hit, such as routines, etc. This is what I mean by ‘case the joint.’

One of the chief problems with the script is the lack of a back story about how Jack learned about the object of his avarice. Jack wants to steal a 17th century French scepter smuggled into Canada in the leg of a piano, but Far Eastern insects have contaminated the piano. The authorities have decided to incinerate the piano so the bugs don’t spread their contagion. The Customs House officials discover the priceless scepter when Jack points it out as the legs blaze in the furnace. Jack aggravates Nick when he meets him in public doing his cerebral palsy act. Max and Nick argue about Jack. Nick sends his thuggish strong-arm man, Burt (Gary Farmer) to scare him off. Jack proves more resourceful than Nick imagine. Eventually, the two guys patch up their differences and decide to go forward with the heist. About the same time they learn that the Customs House officials are beefing up security. Nick turns to his hacker friend Stephen (Jamie Harrold) who lives in a dark basement at his mother’s house where he surrounds himself with computers. Clearly, the people who made “Live Free Or Die Hard” borrowed this idea with their Kevin Smith character. Anyway, Stephen comes through. “Give me a KayPro 64 and a dial tone and I can do anything,” he proclaims. They need Stephen to get them the specs for the super vault where the scepter is now stashed. More problems occur. Our anti-heroic heroes bribe a hacker inside the security firm. Nothing goes according to plan in “The Score,” and these chaotic screw-ups heighten the drama and its outcome.

Despite the obvious loopholes in the script, director Frank Oz gets away with this crime caper for the most part. He generates considerable tension during the logistical planning scenes when Nick searches for a safe entrance into the Customs House from the Montreal sewer system. Oz knows how to induce anxiety, especially when Nick and Jack have to bribe the computer hackers. Dressed from head to toe in commando garb, De Niro’s Nick Wells looks like the saboteur plumber from Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” when he breaks into the Customs House. Moviegoers who like to hear the explosions of uncooked popcorn kernels hitting the floor of a cinema during the taut crime sequence will relish this atmospheric white-knuckler. If you thrive on gratuitous nudity, sex, and violence set to the tune deafening rap music on a soundtrack, “The Score” is not for you. Jazz lovers will appreciate the cameos Mose Allison and Cassandra Wilson make in Nick’s nightclub.


The only thing surprising about the new remake of Wes Craven’s landmark horror chiller “Last House on the Left” is that Craven and co-producer Sean S. Cunningham waited so long to do it. A former humanities professor, Craven ranks as one of the maestros of movie mayhem. He launched the Freddie Kruger “Nightmare on Elm Street” franchise back in 1984 and then scared up the “Scream” trilogy in 1996. Before those two successful series, he helmed “The Hills Have Eyes” (1977) and “The Hills Have Eyes 2” (1985), and served as producer on both remakes in both in 2006 and 2007. He is known for his 1982 horror comedy creature feature “Swamp Thing.”

Craven’s first film, “Last House on the Left,” marked him for future notoriety. Sean S. Cunningham produced “Last House” for Craven in 1972. Eight years later in 1980, Cunningham made horror movie history himself with “Friday the 13th.” Craven and Cunningham have teamed up to produce Greek director Dennis Iliadis’ “Last House on the Left” remake. Best known for “Hardcore” (2005), a grim drama about prostitution set in Athens, Greece, Iliadis appeared to be the ideal director for this new, updated, R-rated remake starring Sarah Paxton, Monica Potter, and Tony Goldwyn. Comparatively, Iliadis’ “Last House on the Left” (** out of ****) lacks the sadism of both the “Saw” and the “Hostel” movies and the eerie atmosphere of the original. Nevertheless, audiences that crave watching make-believe characters stab, rape, and then shoot other make-believe characters to death may applaud this lackluster remake.

Two teenage girlfriends, Mari Collingwood (Sarah Paxton of “Sydney White”) and Paige (Martha MacIsaac of “Superbad”), get together back when Mari arrives in town with her parents. Dr. John Collingwood (Tony Goldwyn of “Ghost”) and his wife Emma (Monica Potter of “Con-Air”), are taking a vacation in the country where they own a lake-front house. Overachieving swim champ daughter Mari borrows mom and dad’s Chevy Suburban to visit Paige in town. Paige works the cash register at a convenience store. Things take a turn for the worse when a hooded teenager, Justin (Spencer Treat Clark of “Superheroes”), asks for a pack of cigarettes. Paige won’t sell them because Justin appears underage. Justin has been eavesdropping on the gals and knows Paige wants to score some marijuana. Reluctantly, Mari drives Paige and Justin back to Justin’s motel where he rolls up some premium grade-A Columbian. Yes, Paige sold Justin cigarettes because she had to have some weed. Everybody is huffing and puffing on pot when Justin’s Manson-looking dad, Krug (Garrett Dillahunt of HBO’s “Deadwood”), his Uncle Francis (Aaron Paul of “Mission Impossible 3”), and Sadie (Riki Lindhome of “Gilmore Girls”) walk in on them.

Krug is an escaped convict. The police were taking Krug to prison when Sadie and Francis rescued him. They caught two unsuspecting cops off guard at a railroad crossing and T-boned the police cruiser with a big truck. Sadie shot the driver in the head and Krug strangled the detective beside the driver. Since the authorities have launched a manhunt, our evildoers cannot turn Mari and Paige loose. Mari and Paige realize too late that their geese are cooked. Krug commandeers Mari’s Suburban, and they cruise off into the woods to avoid roadblocks. They pass not far from where Mari’s parents live. Mari’s unexplained disappearance has Emma and John upset. Meanwhile, Mari and Paige attempt to escape from their captors by scorching Sadie with a cigarette lighter. In the confusion, Krug crashes the truck into a tree. Enraged by the girls’
defiance, Krug and company torture them.

Although the violence in Iliadis’ “Last House” remake is graphic, Craven’s original--even after almost 40 years--surpasses the remake in terms of its depravity. Iliadis and “Disturbia” scenarist Carl Ellsworth with newcomer Adam Alleca have made many drastic changes that prove the old saying ‘they don’t make movies like they used to.’ Indeed, they have eliminated a great deal about the original “Last House” that made it such a memorable nightmare. Iliadis and his writers have retained the basic premise, but the current crop of torture porn pictures overshadows their remake. The remake’s most talked about moment—if you’ve glimpsed the trailer—is the notorious microwave scene. A man’s head is jammed into a microwave and cooked until it explodes. Several friends have assured me that microwaves don’t work with the door open, but reality rarely dictates what Hollywood presents in movies.

Like its horrific predecessor, the “Last House on the Left” remake depicts poetic justice. The depraved deviants slaughter the innocent in the first half, while the parents turn the tables on the dastards in the second half. Ultimately, the villains suffer more than their innocent victims. This difference is what separates “Last House on the Left” from the “Saw” and “Hostel” movies. When the parents pay back the perpetrators in “Last House on the Left,” you may find yourself howling for blood and that’s what makes the movie so wicked.