FBI agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) is cold on the trail of Texas' notorious "God's Hand" serial killer until he's paid a mysterious call by solemn Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey). It seems Meiks could bust the case wide open--he declares that "God's Hand"'s handiwork is that of his brother Adam and he's got a long and complicated tale to tell that'll explain it. Doyle's ears perk up and he and Meiks embark on a trip to the rose garden where Meiks claims Adam buried his victims and then killed himself. On the way Meiks reveals his gory story. It involves the boys' kindly father (Bill Paxton) who was a sensitive caring man--until he went insane one day claiming God had chosen him and his family to kill all the "demons" that inhabit Earth disguised as real people like their neighbors. Dad regularly makes a list and checks it twice for all the demon folk he needs to exterminate on any given Sunday but he's not on this holy mission alone--his sons are "God's hands" as well and together they must hunt down the demons and destroy them. In a weird variation on Cain and Abel 12-year-old Fenton rebels against Dad (killing others isn't exactly his idea of a fun after-school activity) while little brother Adam is happy to join in.
Because the movie is told mostly in flashback McConaughey is relegated mostly to voiceover and a few present-day scenes in which he acts frighteningly morose and gives the sense that there's more to his story than first meets the eye. Because most of the story takes place in 1979 the boys are the ones who really make this film work. Fenton the younger (Matthew O'Leary) is a real find--he clearly struggles with his love for his father whom he knows has gone over the edge and his repulsion for the deeds Dad is determined to have the family carry out. Wrestling with his own demons he finally is able to settle on a solution for how to stop the horror. Little Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) is quite good as the innocent youngster who adores his dad and hangs on his every word seeking only his approval and refusing to believe he has lost his mind. Paxton effectively bridges the transitions between gentle loving father and insane murderer insisting the boys finish all their veggies and revealing his next victim in one breath. He's like those killers on the news about whom people say "But…he was such a nice quiet guy." The performance almost verges on funny if it weren't so horrific.
Paxton makes an auspicious directing debut with this tight little movie keeping the action going and the plot flowing and letting you completely get to know the characters as they exist in their own eras. He deftly avoids choppy flashbacks and the potentially confusing story is perfectly clear yet no less gripping. The killing scenes are absolutely squirm-in-your-seat nightmarish but thankfully we don't see all the grisly details as with so many slasher flicks. Instead we're shown everything right up to the point of death and we're spared the splattering blood and guts. It's just enough to make you cringe and cover your eyes and ultimately far worse to imagine the outcome than to see it all in special effects and makeup. Frailty is also scarier than the typical slasher flick bloodfest--it's way more frightening to imagine the nice guy next door committing such crimes than a made-up character wearing a hockey mask or razors on his gloves. The movie also comes up with a startling twist that you don't see coming right away. But--without revealing too much--the movie falls apart at the end with some enormous problems. Sometimes directors try to explain too much; we won't so we'll just leave it at that.
Set in 1949 in the quiet California town of Santa Rosa the story centers on Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) who is a second-chair barber in his brother-in-law Frank's barbershop (Michael Badalucco). Ed's wife Doris (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with
her boss hotshot department store owner Big Dave (James Gandolfini). When Ed gets an investment tip on the future of dry cleaning he decides it's time to cash in his chips so he blackmails Big Dave. Big Dave married to wealthy heiress Ann (Katherine Borowitz) is not about to let this
financial pressure get the better of him (come on now this is Tony Soprano Ed's messing with). Things quickly spiral out of control (someone's murdered) slow down (Ed narrates Ed smokes narrates smokes some more) and then just get weird (something involving UFO sightings and a teenage pianist) before coming to an electrifying end.
The film's lineup is impressive: Thornton McDormand Gandolfini Badalucco Scarlett Johansson Tony Shalhoub. Yet the cast seems as constrained as a prisoner in jail waiting for breaks in Ed's narration to shine. The reliance on voice-over narration
to get the story across impedes the dramatic and comedic timing and much of the acting except of course that of the Bogart-like Ed. We're captivated by him whether we like it or not--he is the only one that can tell us what the hell is going on. Unfortunately he loses a lot of credibility because although he assures us he's a quiet man of few words he never shuts up.
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (Fargo) did what they set out to do--which was create an impressive smart modern take on '40s film-noir classics like The Postman Always Rings Twice. Watch this movie for the unprecedented black-and-white cinematography of Roger Deakins who takes inspiration from the Coens and turns what many moviegoers expect from a black-and-white picture on its head. Mainstream audiences may have difficulty with the slow methodical pace of this movie and some things drag the film down like the UFO subplot. But the Coens have a reason for all things leaving much to the viewer's interpretation. Perhaps the directors employed the same theory as the defense attorney does in the movie the 'uncertainty principle'--the more you look at something the less you know.
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Step right in. We have recognizable has-beens to suit your every entertainment need. Looking for the leading-man type? We have great deals on Eric Roberts, Patrick Muldoon, Kiefer Sutherland and Dean Cain. In the market for a tough guy? Take your pick of Ray Liotta, Roy Scheider, Michael Ironside and other fine choices. We have leading ladies, too -- Morgan Fairchild, Jennifer Beals and Ally Sheedy.
What's that? You say these guys are box-office poison? Guess again. Even though they were scratched off the Hollywood A-list a while ago, these names still mean something in places such as Australia, Germany, Italy, Spain and Japan. And if you'd dropped in here at the weeklong American Film Market, or AFM, wrapping up today, you'd realize that being big in the Netherlands might not be glamorous, but it's nothing to sneeze at.
Case in point: Jeff Fahey.
You might remember Fahey from his supporting roles in movies such as "Silverado" and "Wyatt Earp," or maybe even "The Lawnmower Man." But you might not know that Fahey is a certifiable movie star overseas, top-billed in dozens of thrillers and action films (search the Net and you'll find numerous Web sites paying homage to the hard-working actor). Strolling through the hallways of the Loews Hotel, where distributors at the AFM hawk their wares, you'd have seen posters for some of his latest: "The Sculptress," "Blind Heat" (co-starring the venerable Maria Conchita Alonso) and "Epicenter."
"Jeff's got a lot of movies out there right now," says Anthony J. Lyons, vice president of IFM Film Associates, an Aussie company based in Los Angeles that makes movies for $1 million to $3 million. "He's an internationally known actor, and he's not too expensive to get. Rather than charge $200,000 for one movie, he might charge you $50,000, but he'll get 20 movies instead of two. These days you need known actors to sell your films overseas, and Jeff is a good value."
How many times have you heard an actor praised as a "good value?" Money talks at the AFM, and Fahey is a favorite son here because his films fall into those tried-and-true genres (action movies, thrillers, lowbrow comedy, T-and-A, horror/sci-fi) that cross cultural and language barriers. These kinds of movies appeal to the dozens of international distributors who come here each year looking for stuff to buy. Films that will go straight to video or cable TV in the United States (that is, if they are released here at all) but can pull in a nice chunk of change in overseas markets.
The foreign rights to about 350 movies were up for grabs at this year's AFM, and an estimated $400 million in deals were made. Not all the films represented were of the low-budget, guns-and-car-crashes, monsters-and-scantily-clad-babes variety. TFI International was peddling foreign rights to "The Golden Bowl," the forthcoming Merchant-Ivory production starring Uma Thurman and Anjelica Huston; the new Roland Joffe movie "Vatel," with Thurman, Gerard Depardieu and Tim Roth, was also advertised, as was "Brother," the new movie from Japanese director "Beat" Takeshi Kitano.
But it was loads more fun to troll the market for the wreckage of once-thriving acting careers. There was Judge Reinhold from the "Beverly Hills Cop" movies, heading up a slam-bang actioner called "Crackerjack 2: Hostage Train," from North American Releasing. Reinhold plays Jack Wild -- no, not the guy from H.R. Pufnstuf -- a "rogue cop with a mission ... obsessed with capturing the notorious Hans Becker, a '60s-style Red Brigade type who has transformed himself into a '90s-style terrorist for hire," or so says publicity materials from the production. The film co-stars Michael Sarrazin as the bad guy. (Curiously, Reinhold did not appear in "Crackerjack 1," nor is he in the forthcoming "Crackerjack 3." Really.)
Other blasts from the past who have become AFM stalwarts include Steve Guttenberg, who gets the Most Interesting Title award for his directorial debut, "P.S. Your Cat is Dead!" Guttenberg is billed by the film's backers as the "acclaimed star of several billion dollars worth of top box-office and critical winners." Elsewhere, another company was dealing a different Guttenberg film, "Second Chance," a comedy with an all-star lineup of Pauly Shore, Robert Wagner and Tim Conway (no word, however, if Conway did the film in his ever-popular "Dorf" disguise).
If the definition of celebrity is skewed a bit in the films paraded here, the same can be said for the event itself. The American Film Market isn't a film festival -- there are no awards ceremonies, no paparazzi stampedes, and although there are premieres, they don't include big red-carpet entrances for celebrities.
It's not unusual for workaday actors such as Eric Roberts or Gary Busey to show up and do a little press for one of their films here, and they can walk through the hotel without being hassled. And you don't hear about wild antics on the after-hours party scene here. This is about as racy as it gets: One night last week, Jamie Kennedy (the film geek from the "Scream" films) got lost while walking around in search of the buyers' party for "The Specials," his new low-budget superhero comedy -- and he had to ask a bystander for directions.
"I've been to a few festivals before, but I've never been to something quite like this, which is pure marketing," said "Star Trek" actor George Takei, who was here promoting an as-yet unmade sci-fi film, "Overload," made by and starring a crew of former child actors including Tony Dow ("Leave It To Beaver") and Bill Mumy ("Lost in Space"). "But I know what the rules of the game are. I'm here to help sell the movie, which is something I never did with 'Star Trek.'"
If they ever hand out a lifetime achievement award to an actor at the AFM, it should probably go to Karen Black, the veteran of "Five Easy Pieces," "Nashville," "Airport 1975" and other 1970s classics who still works constantly, albeit in the relative obscurity of low-budget offerings, including many titles up for grabs at the market in recent years.
Black does it all -- from children's films ("Malaika," a movie about an elephant), to boring dramas about people over 40 ("The Donor," with David Carradine) and soft-core stuff (such as "Dinosaur Valley Girls," a movie from a few years back, in which she wore a loincloth) -- which makes her a fine role model for some of the other actresses such as Jasmine Guy, Carol Alt and Tahnee Welch following in her footsteps at the market.
"Karen is making a comeback, believe it or not," said Eric Louzil, president of RHG/Lions Share Pictures, which is peddling an independent film called "Oliver Twisted," in which Black stars. "... I've seen her name in quite a few films lately. She's quite a talent."
And at the AFM, a little talent goes a long way.