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Hidden Netflix Gems – Bringing Out the Dead

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down.

Today’s entry is a hidden gem not only in the catalogue of Netflix, but also in that of beloved director Martin Scorsese, one of several underrated masterpieces so often overshadowed by more well-known ones like Goodfellas and Raging Bull. Along with films like The King of Comedy and After Hours, Scorsese’s 1999 film Bringing Out the Dead has been unjustly overlooked for the most part, and deserves more recognition than it has gotten. Sure, you could dismiss it as simply “Ambulance Driver” for its similarity to Scorsese’s breakthrough masterpiece, Taxi Driver, as well as the fact that both films were written by frequent collaborator Paul Schrader, but there is more to it than that. I’m certainly not saying it’s better than Taxi Driver, but it’s certainly different enough to warrant appraisal on its own merits.

The film follows three days in the life of constantly working New York City paramedic Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage), who is so exhausted and depressed that he has begun to hallucinate. His most frequently recurring vision is of a young woman named Rose (Cynthia Roman), who he failed to save from a fatal overdose. Throughout the three days in which we witness his life, Frank is teamed with three different partners, each of whom seem to reflect different aspects of his personality and his viewpoint toward his job. Larry (John Goodman) does his best to not take his work home with him, looking at his work as simply a job by which he refuses to let himself be haunted. Marcus (Ving Rhames) is the polar opposite of Larry, a Christian who views his job as working the miracles of the lord, bringing the dead back to life. Tom Wolls (Tom Sizemore) represents pure, unchained id, a man who encourages Frank to release his own demons through naked aggression aimed at the patients he is meant to be helping.

Along the way, Frank saves an old man named Mr. Burke (Cullen Oliver Johnson), who is ultimately so far gone that he spends his recovery in an intensive care unit, repeatedly flatlining and being revived again. His former junkie daughter, Mary (Patricia Arquette), forms a tenuous bond with Frank, and the two of them find some hope for redemption in each other, though without the expected romantic subplot that would have undoubtedly been exploited in a lesser film. Though Arquette’s performance feels oddly flat and this is not Scorsese’s best film, it is also far from his worst, which makes it vastly superior to the average movie. Bringing Out the Dead is a fascinating look at a profession that is oddly underrepresented in the movies, and the depths of the human soul that profession must regularly plumb.

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“Seeking Justice” trailer

Nicolas Cage has had some great role and some terrible ones as well. “Seeking Justice” seems like it might be a decent one for the talented but sometimes misdirected actor.

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A roundtable chat with producers Irwin and David Winkler of “The Mechanic”

Irwin and David WinklerHealthy father and son relationships are certainly more the exception than the rule at the movies. Even so, the murderous biological and surrogate father and son pairings in the original film “The Mechanic” and its action-packed update with Jason Statham and Ben Foster, are unusually problematic. It’s a tale, after all, about a junior hit-man learning from an older paid killer who has, in turn, killed the younger killer’s dad.

That, of course has pretty much nothing to do with two of the new version’s real-life father and son producers, Irwin and David Winkler. For the remake of the 1971 actioner, the pair have teamed up with another parent-and-offspring team, Irwin Winkler’s long-time producing partner, Bill Chartoff and his son, Robert. (For the record, there are a total of ten producers and five executive producers credited on the film.) Both individually and with Bill Chartoff, the elder Winkler has been involved with a remarkable number of good movies and a few genuine classics, starting with Sydney Pollack’s pitch-black Oscar winner, “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” and also including two of Martin Scorsese‘s signature works, “Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas.” Winkler and Chartoff also, of course, produced “The Mechanic,” the first time around when it was as much of a chilling look at sociopathy as it was an action flick.

Like any great producer, Irwin Winkler has had his share of interesting financial failures.  There was the ultra-culty early John Boorman film, “Leo the Last” and Martin Scorsese’s big budget 1977 disappointment “New York, New York.” Fortunately, there was also the occasional modest but high quality success like Bertrand Tavernier’s great 1986 love letter to jazz and jazz fandom, “‘Round Midnight.” He and Bill Chartoff were also key players in one of the most enduring franchises in film history, the one that started with a low-budget boxing drama called “Rocky.” Since 1991′s “Guilty by Suspicion,” Winkler has also occasionally directed. His most recent films include the musical Cole Porter biopic, “De-Lovely,” and the Iraq war drama “Home of the Brave,” which received a speedy burial.

For his part, son David Winkler has worked on a number of television movies as well as with his father on 2006′s “Rocky Balboa.” He also directed the 1998 drama, “Finding Graceland” starring Harvey Keitel.

I was personally anxious to talk to Winklers during a recent L.A. press junket for “The Mechanic” because of an oddball “only in L.A.” family anecdote. I was nevertheless beaten to the punch by an Italian reporter with a rather distinctive interviewing style who tended to dominate the discussion.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Weekend box office: “True Grit” tops slow weekend

There’s really not all that much to say about the box office this weekend other than that it was down a worrisome 29% over last year, so I’ll keep things brief as we peruse the Box Office Mojo weekend chart together. No huge surprises, though fans of westerns have a reason to celebrate.

Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon in

As seemed likely back on Thursday night, the Coen Brothers “True Grit” edged out the star-laden filmed deal, “Little Fockers,” earning an estimate $15 million for Paramount as opposed to $13.7 for the Universal comedy. That makes for a total of roughly $110 million in three weeks for the western as opposed to $123 for “Fockers.” However, considering that the budget for “True Grit” was more than 60% lower and with a probable buoyant life on DVD, I think it may be the likely profitability winner over the long haul. In any case, this is good news for the Coen’s fans, which includes myself, as it means that they’ll have greater latitude to do something really weird next time, if that’s what they feel like doing.

Nicolas Cage contemplates the eternal box office void in This week’s unloved new releases managed to avoid complete disaster. The lackluster and horribly reviewed action-horror flick, “Season of the Witch,” underperformed even modest expectations that it might hit $12 million. However, it managed to earn double-digits for Relativity Media, newcomers to the releasing game, and didn’t come in too shy of the lowered mark. The Nicolas Cage/Ron Perlman swash-chiller earned what may be approximately $10.7 million in third place.

Released in only 1,400 theaters or so, the musical drama for country fans, “Country Strong,” managed to earn a reasonable per-screen average of $5,126 for an estimated total of $7.3 million in 7th place. It follows “Tron: Legacy” and the sleeper-esque “Black Swan.”

Oscar contenders “The Fighter” from Paramount and “The King’s Speech” from the Weinstein Company remain strong several weeks into their release. The two films, about very different personal battles, made estimates of $7 million and $6.8 million in 7th and 8th place, respectively.

Colin Firth & Helana Bonham Carter contemplate a sticky wicket in

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Box office preview: “Season of the Witch” to lose to “True Grit” or “Little Fockers”

January is traditionally the month when the studios release their weakest films and the first weekend after New Years is traditionally one of the softest of the year. So, if ever an adult western from with a slightly dark and offbeat cast to it could be the #1 movie in modern America, this would be the time. Still, it might be a game of inches as Paramount’s “True Grit” will be up against the declining but still popular “Little Fockers” from Universal and one major new wide release with limited prospects.

Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman in

As per Box Office Mojo, “Season of the Witch” will be opening in over 2,800 theaters this weekend. It’s a blend of action and dark fantasy starring a downcast Nicolas Cage and the very cool Ron Perlman, who I had the pleasure of interviewing this week. If anyone reading my review thinks I’m being a bit hard on it, they should be aware that this film is probably one the worst reviewed films in some time, getting a terrible 3% “Fresh” from Rotten Tomatoes. However, a closer look shows that it’s not so much a film that everyone hates as a film that no one cares to recommend.

The creepy actioner is the maiden voyage as a distributor for Ryan Kavenaugh’s very busy mini-studio, Relativity Media, and it is expected to make as much $12 million or so according to THR’s Pamela McClintock (where are you jolly Carl DiOrio?) and Ben Fritz of the L.A. Times, though somewhat less seems entirely possible. What the film has going for it is a very low budget for an action flick these days, just $40 million.

Another entry, “Country Strong” is expanding to about 1,400 theaters this weekend, but hopes for this musical drama are modest indeed, though fans of country singer Tim McGraw and actress Gwenyth Paltrow should account for something. It’s going to be that kind of a weekend.

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Two moods for a holiday eve

It’s almost 9:30 p.m on the West coast and, with one of the nation’s two biggest family-oriented holidays happening tomorrow, a lot of folks on both coasts and in between are probably nervous about food preparations, psychotic relatives, their own psychoses, etc. Some may even be, as the contemporary argot would have it, ready to “lose their shit.” On that note, via Anne Thompson and Pajiba, we have a salute to the modern master of complete loss of emotional control, Mr. Nicolas Cage, from editor Harry Hanrahan. (It goes without saying this is highly NSFW — Cage is the only man in the world whose allowed to lose his shit at the office.)

Feeling a bit unnerved by all that? Me too. So, here’s the human antidote(s) to Nicholas Cage. Michael Caine salutes Cary Grant. How much cooler, calmer, and collected does it get?

Ahh. I feel much better now.

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Another Easter weekend trailer: “Leaves of Grass”

We live in a climate where even a fairly action-packed stoner black comedy featuring an apparent comedic powerhouse performance by an A-lister can still be released almost as if it were a 4-hour meditation on the futility of existence from the Ukraine. Fortunately for said A-lister, Edward Norton, and actor-writer-director Tim Blake Nelson, “Leaves of Grass” — which has not much to do with Walt Whitman but utterly wowed Roger Ebert — apparently made audiences squeal with delight at SXSW, reportedly setting up a chain of events which saved that film from what Anne Thompson reported on Thursday would have been a mere $250,000 ad budget.

The movie, which really seems to have dramatically divided critics so far (occasionally a sign of a truly interesting film), continues a venerable tradition of great actors interacting with themselves as identical twins and more fanciful doppelgangers. Below, Norton swims quite nicely in the same waters that worked so well for Jeremy Irons (“Dead Ringers”), Nicolas Cage (“Adaptation”), and, more recently, Sam Rockwell (“Moon“).  All I can say is that with a supporting cast that features a menorah-wielding Richard Dreyfuss, Keri Russell, Susan Sarandon, and filmmaker Nelson, a strong comic actor whose previous indie films have all been on deadly serious topics,  this one may not turn out to be the masterpiece Ebert finds it to be, but it sure looks to me like way too much fun to be left just to us art-house denizens.

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SXSW 2010: Kick-Ass

Matthew Vaughn hasn’t had the greatest luck with comic book movies – first, he walked away from “X-Men: The Last Stand” mere weeks before filming began, and more recently, he was replaced by Kenneth Branagh as director of Marvel’s big screen adaptation of “Thor” – so it’s nice to finally see him find a little success in the genre. Of course, “Kick-Ass” has had its share of problems as well, most notably in the lack of studio interest when the project was first being shopped around. And considering just how much graphic violence and language courses through Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.’s eight-issue miniseries, you can sort of understand why. Thankfully, that didn’t deter Vaughn from just securing the financing himself, because in doing so, he was provided the freedom needed to create the kind of balls-to-the-wall comic book movie that its bold source material deserved.

For teenage geek Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), comic books aren’t just an escape from the social hierarchy of high school, but a lesson in morals as well. When he wonders why no one has tried to do the superhero thing in real life, he throws on an old wet suit and heads into the city to fight crime. It doesn’t go quite as well as he imagined, but his random act of bravery is recorded and uploaded to YouTube where he becomes an overnight sensation as the masked crusader, Kick-Ass, spawning an entire subculture of costumed heroes in the process. Meanwhile, father-daughter duo Damon and Mindy Macready (Nicolas Cage and Chloe Moretz) really are living the secret lives of superheroes, and when they catch wind of Kick-Ass’ clumsy heroics, they decide to team up with the kid to take down the local crime boss, Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong).

kick_ass

There’s more to the story that would be considered a spoiler to first-time readers of the comic – namely, the reveal that Kick-Ass’ new superhero pal, Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), is actually Frank’s son, Chris, in disguise – but it’s announced so early on in the film version that you’re not surprised when he turns out to be working for the bad guys. In fact, there are plenty of differences between the book and the movie, but with the exception of Dave’s relationship with high school crush Katie Deauxma (Lyndsy Fonesca) – which follows the same general path until it veers off into a decidedly more Hollywood-friendly direction – it’s mostly just additional material meant to flesh out characters that didn’t have as much of a presence in the comic book.

And even when the movie isn’t using the comic as a blueprint, it still feels like it belongs in “Kick-Ass.” Director Matthew Vaughn clearly understands the world that Millar and Romita Jr. have created, and that familiarity resonates throughout, from the high-energy action scenes to the colorful performances from its cast. Aaron Johnson is a real find as the title character – a Peter Parker type who can play both dorky and cool – but it’s his pint-sized co-star who walks away with the film. Chloe Moretz has already proven that she’s mature beyond her years (see: “500 Days of Summer”), but she easily trumps that performance with an instantly iconic role that places her in the middle of some of the coolest, most wildly violent fight sequences since “Kill Bill.” Even Nicolas Cage is at the top of his game as his character’s alter ego, Big Daddy – a vigilante so conceptually similar to Batman that Cage speaks with an Adam West-like cadence.

That’s exactly the kind of detail that might drive some fans crazy, but it complements Vaughn’s vision nicely, because his “Kick-Ass” is more of a satire of the superhero genre than a straight-up action flick. And when you have an 11-year-old girl running around town chopping up gangsters, how could you not acknowledge the absurdity of the situation? Millar’s book had its moments, but Vaughn mines the material for even more laughs, especially in the relationships between Aaron and his friends (Clark Duke and Evan Peters), Kick-Ass and Red Mist, and Big Daddy and Hit-Girl. The end result is an entertaining blend of action and comedy that, despite falling short of its ridiculously high expectations, delivers everything that was awesome about the comic and more.

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“That’s why we’re superheroes. They love us.”

The box office preview is coming along later today, I promise, but in the meantime it seems it’s never a bad time for a new “Kick-Ass” trailer. Yesterday came the announcement that this highly buzzed about non-supernatural/non-sci-fi superhero action black comedy from the highly underrated director Matthew  Vaughn (“Layer Cake,” “Stardust“) will be opening the big SXSW Film festival in Austin this March.  Now, via the Heat Vision blog, here’s a very decent general audience trailer  — the movie itself is certain to be a “hard R”  — which describes the story in a bit more detail.

And, just for a bonus, here’s an earlier Red Band clip-trailer via Trailer Addict that I failed to run a while back, It adds a bit to what we saw previously of Chloe Moretz and Nicolas Cage as the not at all ordinary alter egos of Hit-Girl and Big Daddy. It kind of makes you all gooey inside.

I think it’s safe to say that, between this and his stellar reviews for “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,”  Cage certainly appears to have his regained his performing mojo. From what I’ve been reading, I’m also looking forward to more people agreeing with me that Vaughn, once  known only as Guy Ritchie’s producer, is the better movie storyteller.

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“The Hurt Locker” sweeps the National Society of Film Critics Awards

The National Society of Film Critics has bestowed another big awards win on the Iraq war thriller, “The Hurt Locker,” which won’t hurt its Oscar possibilities.  As with the two other most prestigious critics groups — the Los Angeles and New York film critics — the highly praised tale about a bomb disposal unit during the chaotic early days of the U.S. invasion won the group’s best picture award scroll.

The Hurt Locker

Ironically, according to Peter Knegt of Indiewire, the last time a single film swept the best picture prize from all three groups was when Curtis Hanson’s outstanding “L.A. Confidential” managed the coup in 1997. It lost the Oscar to James Cameron‘s sentimental and spectacular romantic melodrama, “Titanic” — one of the most widely disagreed with Best Picture winners in recent history. With “Avatar” becoming a wide popular favorite and a gigantic hit, a repeat of this scenario is not outside the realm of possibility.

“The Hurt Locker” also won major prizes for director Kathryn Bigelow and star Jeremy Renner, who edged out Jeff Bridges, currently a favorite the win the Best Actor Oscar for “Crazy Heart,” as well as Nicolas Cage for “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.” For Best Supporting Actor, once again “Inglourious Basterds” break out bad guy Christoph Waltz took the top prize, with another former unknown, Christian McKay, getting the second largest number of votes from critics for “Me and Orson Welles.”  The best screenplay nod went to the Coen Brothers’ ultra-dark black comedy, “A Serious Man.”

Mo'Nique in In something of an upset that, I’m guessing, might not be repeated at the Oscars, Yolande Moreau, of the French language biopic “Seraphine,” beat Meryl Streep in “Julie and Julia” by one vote for Best Actress. Once again, however, talk show host and comedian Mo’Nique added to a truly impressive number of wins with her work in “Precious,” taking yet another Best Supporting Actress prize.

You can see the complete list of winners at bottom of the Indiewire article I linked to above.

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