John Leguizamo

Land of the Dead (2005, George A. Romero), the director’s cut

While Land of the Dead is almost always an unfortunate misfire, it’s also never an unmitigated disaster. It’s full of missed opportunities, but they’re usually missed because director Romero just can’t crack the scene. And when he doesn’t crack a set piece, he often goes in the entirely different direction; maybe it’s about the budget, which is way too small, maybe it’s not. But it seems like the budget. After the successful opening set piece, there’s no reason to think Romero isn’t going to be able to execute at least the same quality again. And he’s never able to do it, but he also never really tries to do it. Romero front loads the movie; it deflates just when it should be doing the opposite. The characters gradually lose personality and importance. Because it’s time for the adequate but bland zombie action.

The film takes place in the future… the zombies have won, people all grouped in the big cities, the rich people live well, the poor people do not. Romero is shooting Toronto for Pittsburgh with a cinematographer (Miroslaw Baszak) who lights it to look as Canadian as possible. Land lacks any visual personality; the mix of Romero’s composition, Baszak’s flat lighting, Michael Doherty’s fine but bland editing, and Arvinder Grewal’s production design looks less like a post (zombie) apocalyptic vision and more like a pitch reel for one. Same goes for the actors, save Dennis Hopper, who’s just plain terrible. Simon Baker, Asia Argento, John Leguizamo, Robert Joy; at best their performances feel like stand-ins for better ones once the project gets the green light. At worst, it’s a charmless lead like Simon Baker, who is more than capable of being charming, Romero just doesn’t seem to realize it. Not in his direction or his script, which gives his actors really bad life stories purely for expository purposes. There’s not just no character development in Land, Romero doesn’t take the time to even establish the characters.

And it’d be fine if the film could have retained the first set piece energy. So Baker, Leguizamo, and Joy all work for Hopper. They leave the city to raid neighboring towns for supplies. Apparently there’s an almost endless amount of neighboring towns to raid; all you have to do is shoot fireworks and the zombies all look up and everything’s jim-dandy—the zombies don’t attack, they watch fireworks. It also allows Romero to set a lot of action at night, which was apparently less expensive and does nothing to help with that lack of personality thing. Only Baker and Joy discover there’s one zombie—Eugene Clark, in the film’s best performance—who doesn’t look up at the fireworks.

The movie ends up being about Clark leading a bunch of zombies to attack the city, where the rich people live in a ritzy skyscraper and Romero only has the money to establish it through a promotional video playing on a TV–Land of the Dead has both too little budget and too much. The tricks and devices Romero uses to cover for not having more money lack inventiveness; there’s a ton of bad CGI composites. Like, a static matte painting would’ve been much better bad. But you do bad CGI composites because they’re cheap. And it shows. And it hurts the movie.

Anyway, while Clark’s leading the slow-moving attack—see, he’s learned how to use objects and can teach other zombies how to use objects so it’s going to be a different kind of zombie attack (only, not really as it turns out but the attack’s immaterial)—Leguizamo has gone rogue and Baker has to track him down, bringing pals Joy and Argento.

Of the three, Argento’s probably best. She’s not good overall—the writing doesn’t allow for it—but she’s got some rather strong moments. She takes the job more seriously than anyone else. Though who knows what’s going through Hopper’s head as he woodenly delivers lines; who knows, maybe Romero did cast him to be a personality-free rich jackass with a goatee. Hopper’s reaction shots to zombies eating flesh look like someone told him to stand still for his picture to be taken. Romero would’ve done better to give Leguizamo that part. To do something to mix it up.

But there’s no mixing it up. Because outside a couple Romero-Dead nods and sufficiently revolting zombie feasting (though Baszak’s lighting makes it look… not fake, but not real), Land of the Dead has less of a pulse than its zombies.

It’s a shame.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by George A. Romero; director of photography, Miroslaw Baszak; edited by Michael Doherty; music by Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek; production designer, Arvinder Grewal; produced by Mark Canton, Bernie Goldmann, and Peter Grunwald; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Simon Baker (Riley Denbo), Asia Argento (Slack), Robert Joy (Charlie), John Leguizamo (Cholo DeMora), Dennis Hopper (Kaufman), Joanne Boland (Pretty Boy), Alan Van Sprang (Brubaker), Phil Fondacaro (Chihuahua), Sasha Roiz (Manolete), Krista Bridges (Motown), Pedro Miguel Arce (Pillsbury), and Eugene Clark (Big Daddy).


Body Count (1998, Robert Patton-Spruill)

Body Count is unexceptionally bad. Theodore Witcher’s script is poorly plotted and stagy; Patton-Spruill’s direction is simply lame. He’s got no personality; it’s a heist gone wrong picture and it’s clear Witcher’s seen Reservoir Dogs, but Patton-Spruill’s apparently incapable of directing scenes with any tension whatsoever. Oddly Curt Sobel’s musical score reminds of seventies American New Wave so… maybe someone else made that decision? With an eighty-five minute run time and no theatrical release, Body Count obviously had its post-production issues.

Still, the acting’s good. Donnie Wahlberg’s probably the best, followed by David Caruso, then John Leguizamo. Body Count has the added problem of having no redeemable characters whatsoever–Ving Rhames is revealed as a religious man late in the picture as a way to endear him. Without a sympathetic lead and with Patton-Spruill’s vapid direction, Count‘s often tedious to watch. But then Witcher will come up with a great line or two (usually for Caruso) and it engages a little again.

Rhames is all right as the de facto lead. There’s not enough to his character (the religion thing is inane) and his arc is unbelievable, but he’s solid.

The film’s about a bunch of robbers on a lousy road trip, with Linda Fiorentino as a hitchhiker who tags along. She’s surprisingly mediocre. It’s not her fault, of course. Witcher’s script frequently reviles in its misogyny.

Good photography from Charles Mills. It could be a lot worse. Like if it were eighty-six minutes.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Patton-Spruill; written by Theodore Witcher; director of photography, Charles Mills; edited by Joseph Gutowski and Richard Nord; music by Curt Sobel; production designer, Tim Eckel; produced by Mark Burg, George Jackson and Doug McHenry; released by Polygram Filmed Entertainment.

Starring Ving Rhames (Pike), David Caruso (Hobbs), John Leguizamo (Chino), Linda Fiorentino (Natalie), Donnie Wahlberg (Booker) and Forest Whitaker (Crane).


The Lincoln Lawyer (2011, Brad Furman)

The Lincoln Lawyer is—in addition to being, besides the cast, a great pilot for a cable series—a standard legal thriller. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a new one of these, probably because there are so many decent old ones to go through. Nothing in the film is a particular revelation, which might explain my lack of enthusiasm.

Star Matthew McConaughey is a basically good defense attorney who believes in justice. No surprises in his character. McConaughey essays the role fine.

Marisa Tomei’s his ex-wife (they’re still seeing each other) and an assistant district attorney. Tomei’s fine too.

Actually, wait. Josh Lucas stands out. As McConaughey’s opposing counsel, with more ambition than brains (and aware of it), he does a great job. Oh, and Michael Paré. He’s great.

The supporting cast is decent. No one excels—it’s a legal thriller, why bother? Ryan Phillippe, William H. Macy, John Leguizamo, Michael Peña, Laurence Mason, Frances Fisher—They’re excellent actors; they all give fine performances. But they’re just pieces in the wheel, not particularly important. The twists and turns are what’s important in Lincoln Lawyer and, like I said, it’s strictly television material.

One problem is John Romano’s script. I imagine he faithfully adapts the bestseller source material, but he doesn’t bring anything special or filmic to it. It’s a legal thriller. Why bother?

Director Furman has some decent composition, but he can’t bring personality to the L.A. setting.

It should probably be watched—and appreciated—on TV.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Brad Furman; screenplay by John Romano, based on the novel by Michael Connelly; director of photography, Lukas Ettlin; edited by Jeff McEvoy; music by Cliff Martinez; production designer, Charisse Cardenas; produced by Sidney Kimmel, Gary Lucchesi, Tom Rosenberg, Scott Steindorff and Richard S. Wright; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Matthew McConaughey (Mick Haller), Marisa Tomei (Maggie McPherson), Ryan Phillippe (Louis Roulet), William H. Macy (Frank Levin), Laurence Mason (Earl), Josh Lucas (Ted Minton), John Leguizamo (Val Valenzuela), Michael Peña (Jesus Martinez), Bob Gunton (Cecil Dobbs), Frances Fisher (Mary Windsor), Bryan Cranston (Detective Lankford), Michaela Conlin (Detective Sobel) and Michael Paré (Detective Kurlen).


Executive Decision (1996, Stuart Baird)

What the heck was my problem with Executive Decision the last time I watched it? I saw it about eight years ago and, according to my notes, was unimpressed. It’s a fantastic action movie–just the combination of editors–director Baird, Dallas Puett, Frank J. Urioste–might make it one of the tightest action movies ever made. I suppose it’s an action thriller, since the film–after a certain point–ratchets up the tension and never lets it down at all. It might be producer Joel Silver’s finest b-movie, just because it’s such a solid, intense ride. It opened in March–I remember seeing a sneak preview, then going back to see it again–but it’s a perfect summer movie.

Maybe the presence of Steven Seagal throws it a little, but he’s so inconsequential and so incongruous–the supporting cast is the best he’s ever worked with–John Leguizamo’s all right, but Oliver Platt and Joe Morton are fantastic. B.D. Wong’s really good too. This discrepancy doesn’t even get to Kurt Russell showing up in the movie… it’s like Seagal’s this little cameo thing, one without a purpose. It’s the kind of role they really should have gotten Bruce Willis to do, because he wouldn’t have brought any baggage (or Danny Glover). Seagal’s actually fine, he’s even funny at times–while never believable as an Army officer. But he gets a pass, because his parts in the movie are so disconnected from what it becomes… it’s hard to really think about him in the end.

Executive Decision is the only real Die Hard on a plane I think anyone’s made (it’s also bit of a revision on The Delta Force). The script even follows the Die Hard outline, down to J.T. Walsh offering to help negotiate and David Suchet sitting quietly. Silver knew what he was doing when he put this movie together and it’s a shame he doesn’t get appreciated for it. Baird’s a good action director, knows how to use the Panavision frame–it’s got Alex Thomson shooting some of it, so it all looks great–and the cutting is, like I said before, peerless. Maybe the Jerry Goldsmith music gets a little goofy, but it really doesn’t matter (it gets way too loud at times).

The acting’s all solid. Whip Hubley probably gives the film’s worst performance (except Halle Berry and Marla Maples and I think Maples is just there to make Berry seem like a better actress–oh, I guess Walsh is pretty lame too) but he’s okay. Russell gives one of his sturdy lead performances (I know it wasn’t a big hit, but I can’t believe they didn’t try to get a sequel into production), he’s totally believable as the Ph.D. who wants to be a pilot–I think knowing Russell is really a pilot is part of the film’s agreement with the audience, which might hinder its chance for a broad viewership–and can handle guns when he needs to… he’s Kurt Russell, after all.

The lack of chemistry between him and Berry is almost palpable and only the tightly edited, beautifully plotted climax carries the film through their scenes together. Then there’s a lull and it’s Frank Sinatra singing–much like Vaughn Monroe closes the first two (the Joel Silver) Die Hard entries–who makes everything all right.

Executive Decision is a great time.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Stuart Baird; written by Jim Thomas and John Thomas; director of photography, Alex Thomson; edited by Baird, Dallas Puett and Frank J. Urioste; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, Terence Marsh; produced by Joel Silver; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Kurt Russell (Dr. David Grant), David Suchet (Nagi Hassan), Halle Berry (Jean), John Leguizamo (Rat), Oliver Platt (Dennis Cahill), Joe Morton (Cappy), B.D. Wong (Louie), Len Cariou (Secretary of Defense Charles White), Whip Hubley (Baker), Andreas Katsulas (El Sayed Jaffa), Mary Ellen Trainor (Allison), Marla Maples (Nancy), J.T. Walsh (Senator Mavros) and Steven Seagal (Lt. Colonel Austin Travis).


The Groomsmen (2006, Edward Burns)

The Groomsmen looks wrong. The film doesn’t have any grain and the lighting suggests it’s shot on some kind of DV (it isn’t). Everything is very controlled–a bright outdoor scene doesn’t seem bright in Groomsmen, it seems like the color has been toned down so as not to offend. It looks like a Mentos commercial really, and that defect doesn’t make any sense. Burns has made films for quite a while now. There’s no excuse. Unless the DVD transfer is just a disaster or something.

It doesn’t help Burns coasts through The Groomsmen in every way possible. I kept waiting for some great shots, but there was literally only one. A very steady Steadicam tracking shot. Every other shot in the film was generic and felt like Burns wasn’t even paying attention when he was setting it up. The film’s got a gradual build-up, so I gave him some benefit of the doubt–and then tracking shot reassured me–but then nothing else ever appeared. But he’s also disconnected with the picture as a writer and actor as well.

The Groomsmen is chock full of characters–Burns, brother Donal Logue, cousin Jay Mohr and friends Matthew Lillard and John Leguizamo. All of them have a subplot going on except Lillard, who owns the bar and is happily married with a couple kids. I assume his subplot is supposed to be the missed high school glory days, but it really isn’t. Lillard’s character is too well-adjusted. Lillard might give the film’s best performance, it’s either him or Logue. While Lillard was flawless, I never thought Logue would be capable of giving such a nuanced, haunted performance.

Burns is able–as a writer–to not give himself many scenes as an actor and he doesn’t. His subplot, ostensibly the main plot, is boring. His absence is almost immediate, which made me think he was going to use the time to concentrate on the film’s direction. He doesn’t. The direction shows a shocking lack of attention and there’s certainly nothing innovative.

There is some funny stuff in the script, but it feels undercooked, like Burns produced an unfinished draft. Too many characters to follow, some conversations too loose, the sort of things he should have cleared up. Mohr’s essentially playing an idiot–he’s the comic relief–and it’s fine. Leguizamo’s good. Burns is clearly an acting piker here, but Heather Burns (I don’t think she’s a relation) is good as Logue’s wife. Brittany Murphy, as Burns’s fiancée, is fine. He keeps the women, with one exception, at home and it hurts the film. The characters start in situations Burns can never make reasonable. They just seem silly.

But the main, male characters don’t even go through interesting arcs. Nothing in the running time should bring any eureka moments for these guys, it’s all stuff they could have hashed out in the first five minutes. Burns feels like he’s got a collection of notecards with pat movie psychoses and he’s assigning them one by one. It’s a shame, since he certainly didn’t start out this way.

The Groomsmen isn’t terrible by any means, but it’s exceptionally disappointing.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Edward Burns; director of photography, William Rexer; edited by Jamie Kirkpatrick; music by Robert Gary and PT Walkley; production designer, Dina Goldman; produced by Margot Bridger, Burns, Aaron Lubin and Philippe Martinez; released by Bauer Martinez Studios.

Starring Edward Burns (Paulie), Heather Burns (Jules), John Leguizamo (TC), Matthew Lillard (Dez Howard), Donal Logue (Jimbo), Jay Mohr (Cousin Mike Sullivan), Brittany Murphy (Sue), Shari Albert (Tina Howard), Jessica Capshaw (Jen), Spencer Fox (Little Jack), Kevin Kash (Strip Club MC), Amy Leonard (Crystal), Arthur J. Nascarella (Mr. B), John F. O’Donohue (Pops), Joe Pistone (Top Cat), Tito Ruiz (Man in Bar), John Russo (Little Matt) and Jaime Tirelli (TC’s Dad).


Righteous Kill (2008, Jon Avnet)

I don’t know when I first realized De Niro and Pacino had never been in a movie together (really together)–it was long before Heat; their pairing doesn’t exactly seem obvious (both were always leading men), but something about their acting pedigree just made it seem natural. For example, Pacino’s never made a film with Scorsese and nothing feels off about it. Righteous Kill is a kind of passive movie event, thirteen years after Heat, thirty-four after The Godfather: Part II. Is there a reason for another pairing? No. Does anything substantive come out of this one? No. Is there a good reason for using rhetorical questions? Well, I’m trying to stay positive.

The big problem with Righteous Kill is the script. Russell Gewirtz manages a surprise ending–one very similar, actually, in form to his Inside Man ending–but there’s nothing in between. The perfect screenwriter for Kill is, as I think about it, Richard Price. He would have done the aging detective (something Gewirtz avoids in one of the script’s stupider moves), he would have done the New York setting (something else Gewirtz avoids–I’m amazed none of the movie shot in Canada), and he would have done an actual mystery. Gewirtz’s trick ending depends on a narrative with a constant absence of suspense (Jon Avnet being a wonderful directorial accomplice for that feature). The trick ending’s kind of neat, the way Gewirtz pulls it off and all, but it’s still a hollow gimmick ending. The movie has no meat to it, which might be the point. Righteous Kill was rumored to be headed straight-to-DVD and there’s nothing about it, past the leads, to make it special. Avnet shoots it 2.35:1, but it’s Super 35… so they could have just as easily printed it for anamorphic DVD.

With the script so failing–it’s amusing in parts, but most of my time was spent trying to imagine how I’d experience if they’d just told a straight story–there’s not much the cast can do with it. De Niro phones in his typical performance and Pacino phones in his. They’re in the same room, both on the phone at the same time, but there’s no reference to their pairing and the novelty of it. Had they referenced Godfather and Heat, at least the self-awareness would earn them some slack. Of the two, Pacino has more visible fun. De Niro’s can’t hide his boredom.

The supporting cast, which seems great, really isn’t. Carla Gugino is goofy in the kind of role she always plays now. Both John Leguizamo and Donnie Wahlberg are good. Brian Dennehy doesn’t work, mostly for the same age problems De Niro and Pacino have… it’s never believable these guys are still just detectives. The movie doesn’t acknowledge their age.

Alan Rosenberg shows up for a second and is, unfortunately, unimpressive. In a similarly small role, Melissa Leo is good. Trilby Glover is good in a small part… but Gewirtz neglects the character after a while.

With the last Pacino and Avnet pairing–88 Minutes–I bemoaned the state of Pacino’s career (I just hadn’t been seeing enough of his recent stuff, I’m sure). Righteous Kill will now be another bewildering entry on both he and De Niro’s filmographies. I keep thinking it should have been good (or better), but maybe not. Pacino and De Niro as old cops… eh.

If Price was busy, what about Mamet? Mamet could have directed too.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Jon Avnet; written by Russell Gewirtz; director of photography, Denis Lenoir; edited by Paul Hirsch; music by Ed Shearmur; production designer, Tracey Gallacher; produced by Avnet, Avi Lerner, Boaz Davidson, Randall Emmett, Daniel M. Rosenberg, Alexandra Milchan, Rob Cowan and Lati Grobman; released by Overture Films.

Starring Robert De Niro (Turk), Al Pacino (Rooster), Curtis Jackson (Spider), Carla Gugino (Karen Corelli), John Leguizamo (Detective Perez), Donnie Wahlberg (Detective Riley), Brian Dennehy (Lieutenant Hingis), Trilby Glover (Jessica), Saidah Arrika Ekulona (Gwen Darvis), Alan Rosenberg (Stein), Sterling K. Brown (Rogers), Barry Primus (Prosky), Melissa Leo (Cheryl Brooks), Alan Blumenfeld (Martin Baum) and Oleg Taktarov (Yevgeny Mugalat).


Assault on Precinct 13 (2005, Jean-François Richet)

Assault on Precinct 13 doesn’t remind of an early 1990s action movie because of Dorian Harewood, Kim Coates or Brian Dennehy showing up–or even because of the movie specific end credits song (by KRS-One no less). It doesn’t even remind of that genre because it lifts the icicle shamelessly from Die Hard 2. Even the presence of Matt Craven–in a theatrical release–doesn’t do it. I guess it’s because, even with all these identifiable similarities, Assault on Precinct 13 is a both traditionally solid action movie, as well as very self-aware. The casting is peculiar and I’d like to think the familiar faces were supposed to illicit the warm recognition they did. Assault on Precinct 13 feels like an action movie for people who won’t just recognize the icicle, but Coates as well. It’s a peanut butter and jelly movie.

As a remake of John Carpenter–one of Carpenter’s most distinctive features no less–Assault on Precinct 13 feels like they got the idea from a TV Guide description. With the exception of Laurence Fishburne’s character’s name, there isn’t any reference, isn’t any homage. There’s no urban uncanny here, the villains are all clearly defined (it’s Gabriel Byrne no less)–dirty cops instead of a street gang. Ethan Hawke (who would have thought, Hawke’s greatest commercial success comes from being an action guy) is a tormented cop who doesn’t know if he can make it. The psychological ramifications are trite and time wasters (the remake runs twenty minutes longer than the original), but they do allow for Maria Bello to be in the cast so I can’t complain too much. From her first scene, Bello and her acting quality seem rather out of place in Precinct 13, which is sturdily performed and all… but most of the cast members get about half their goofy dialogue out without it sounding cheesy. Bello gets it all out (to be fair to screenwriter DeMonaco, all of Bello’s scenes are the best written in the film). Hawke’s fine, but any acting ambitions he seemed to once have are very clearly gone. Fishburne’s fine too, but I was expecting more (he often just goes cheap with a Matrix delivery). Byrne’s lousy, but Currie Graham’s good as his sidekick. Dennehy’s good. John Leguizamo, in what should have just been a repeat of his annoying characters, adds some real texture to his performance. Drea De Matteo runs real hot and real cold.

But it’d be hard for Precinct 13 not to work. It’s a siege action movie and, as such, it’d have to be incompetently made to be bad. Director Richet is anything but incompetent. His composition isn’t startling, but it’s quite good and there isn’t a scene–even the poorly written first few–he doesn’t make compelling.

There’s one obvious, but not bad, CG shot. In the opening, Hawke’s at his desk (tortured, of course) and the camera pulls through the window and out into the sky until the precinct building becomes small. It reminded me of Curtiz’s use of miniatures in the 1930s. It’s a cool shot, sets the mood and all, but it’s nowhere near as interesting as it should be.

Anyway. The film’s certainly got me looking for more of Richet’s work.

But they never use the music. Carpenter’s theme to the original is one of his more recognizable compositions and it’d have made a great closing number… apologies to KRS-One.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jean-François Richet; written by James DeMonaco, based on the film by John Carpenter; director of photography, Robert Gantz; edited by Bill Pankow; music by Graeme Revell; production designer, Paul D. Austerberry; produced by Pascal Caucheteux, Stephane Sperry and Jeffrey Silver; released by Rogue Pictures.

Starring Ethan Hawke (Sgt. Jake Roenick), Laurence Fishburne (Marion Bishop), Gabriel Byrne (Capt. Marcus Duvall), Maria Bello (Dr. Alex Sabian), Drea de Matteo (Iris Ferry), John Leguizamo (Beck), Brian Dennehy (Sgt. Jasper O’Shea), Ja Rule (Smiley), Currie Graham (Mike Kahane), Aisha Hinds (Anna), Matt Craven (Officer Kevin Capra), Fulvio Cecere (Ray Portnow), Peter Bryant (Lt. Holloway), Kim Coates (Officer Rosen), Hugh Dillon (Tony), Tig Fong (Danny Barbero), Jasmin Geljo (Marko), Jessica Greco (Coral) and Dorian Harewood (Gil).


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