Thursday, January 11, 2018


(US/UK - 2017)

A middling biopic that goes into the Watergate saga from the POV of the whistleblower, the cumbersomely-titled MARK FELT: THE MAN WHO BROUGHT DOWN THE WHITE HOUSE focuses on the veteran FBI company man who, 30-plus years later, admitted that he was the informant known as "Deep Throat," who regularly fed information to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward. These provided some of the most memorable scenes in the 1976 classic ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, with Hal Holbrook as Deep Throat, but MARK FELT goes into what drove him to secretly talk to the press. Felt (1913-2008) is played by an excellent Liam Neeson, and as the film opens in 1972, J. Edgar Hoover has just died and Felt is generally considered by D.C. insiders as a lock to take over as director. The job goes to former deputy Attorney General L. Patrick Gray (Marton Csokas as Russell Crowe), a Nixon loyalist who also brings back disgraced agent Bill Sullivan (a twitchy and overly mannered Tom Sizemore), a longtime rival of Felt's. After the Watergate break-in, Felt leads the FBI investigation but is quickly shut down by Gray, who insists on reporting all of their findings to White House counsel John Dean (Michael C. Hall) over Felt's objections that the FBI doesn't work for the President. A frustrated Felt begins feeding info of a cover-up to Time reporter Sandy Smith (Bruce Greenwood) and eventually Bob Woodward (Julian Morris) at the Post as Gray and Dean desperately try to find the source of the leaks and protect the Oval Office.

Produced by Ridley Scott, MARK FELT was released in September 2017, just after President Donald Trump fired FBI director James Comey over concerns of "loyalty" and stopping an investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. There's some unintended contemporary parallels with the FBI side of the story in MARK FELT and the Oval Office's misunderstanding of the limits of its power and who answers to it, and for a while, as Felt keeps digging for info and keeps being stonewalled by his own boss--this is as much about Felt butting heads with Gray as it is about Watergate--it's a compelling flip side to events seen in ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN. But as the film goes on, writer/director Peter Landesman (who also wrote the underrated and little-seen KILL THE MESSENGER) loses focus. Felt's decision to become a whistleblower seems initially rooted in his bitterness at being passed over as director after 30 years of doing and saying all the right things, but as he uncovers more evidence that leads directly to Nixon's inner circle, he refuses to play along and be the good soldier that Gray expects. This sort of thing plays to Neeson's strengths, and he turns in one of his best serious performances of the non-TAKEN variety in a long time. The large cast of supporting actors (there's also Josh Lucas, Brian d'Arcy James, Eddie Marsan, Tony Goldwyn, Noah Wyle, Ike Barinholtz, Kate Walsh, and Wendi McLendon-Covey) exists primarily to dump reams of exposition, exclaim cliches ("What you're doing...will bring down the whole house of cards!"), and stare suspiciously at one another as paranoia mounts. To the film's credit, it doesn't ignore Felt's post-Watergate conviction for illegal wiretapping of the Weather Underground and other activist groups and his subsequent pardon by Ronald Reagan in 1981, but it's included almost as an afterthought and it doesn't go deep enough into his reasoning for the overzealous surveillance of those groups: his daughter Joan (Maika Monroe) ran away and joined a commune and he was trying to find her while at the same time hoping to shield her from any prosecution for things she might've done as part of these activist groups. The entire subplot about Felt's home life is botched, leaving Diane Lane with almost nothing to do but complain and guzzle wine as Felt's neglected, long-suffering wife Audrey (who would commit suicide in 1984). Both Neeson and Landesman have expressed regret that most of Lane's performance ended up being cut from the film for time reasons, but really, the whole second half of MARK FELT collapses into total incoherence and starts demonstrating all of the tell-tale signs of a movie that's been hacked to pieces in post-production (Felt is shown meeting with Woodward just one time). At 103 minutes, MARK FELT is curiously short for this kind of sweeping historical saga, almost as if Landesman was told to ditch everything that didn't involve Watergate. Sony had no idea what to do with this, even with a big name like Neeson headlining: this only made it to 332 screens at its widest release, grossing just $768,000. (PG-13, 103 mins)

(US - 2017)

A refreshingly old-fashioned B-movie of the sort that would've played drive-ins back in 1980, the true crime saga LAST RAMPAGE: THE ESCAPE OF GARY TISON deals with a prison break and subsequent statewide manhunt that took place in Arizona in July and August of 1978. The film is a gritty labor of love for veteran character actor Robert Patrick, who produced and stars as Tison, a convicted murderer and tyrannical father who lords over his three devoted sons Donnie (Alex MacNicoll), Ricky (Skyy Moore), and Ray (Casey Thomas Brown). It's his sons who help pull off the escape during a visit, with Tison's psycho prison buddy Randy Greenawalt (Chris Browning) tagging along. Weary Sheriff Cooper (Bruce Davison) leads the manhunt and, of course, it's personal since Tison killed one of his close friends, while an ambitious reporter (Molly C. Quinn) tries to get a story out of Tison's devoutly dutiful wife Dorothy (Heather Graham). Tison is a brutal, ruthless sociopath with no capacity for mercy. He's not above shotgunning a newlywed couple or a toddler if it means saving his ass, and he doesn't hesitate to point a gun at Donnie's head when the eldest son starts thinking for himself, questioning his actions and refusing to call him "sir."

LAST RAMPAGE was directed by career journeyman Dwight Little, who made his name in the horror genre back in the day with 1988's HALLOWEEN 4: THE RETURN OF MICHAEL MYERS and 1989's THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA with Robert Englund. Since then, he's gone wherever his services have been required, from the 1991 Steven Seagal vehicle MARKED FOR DEATH, the 1992 Brandon Lee actioner RAPID FIRE, 1995's FREE WILLY 2, and 1997's MURDER AT 1600. Little's spent most of the last 20 years as a busy TV director, and LAST RAMPAGE is his first feature film since the $30 million video game adaptation TEKKEN went straight to DVD in 2011. Little doesn't bring any real sense of style to LAST RAMPAGE, but he keeps it fast-moving and focused, like a professional B-movie hired gun knows how to do. Patrick is terrifying and oozes pure evil as the monstrous Tison, and Davison has some nice moments as the folksy, matter-of-fact Cooper, even if the character seems to be a composite of Tommy Lee Jones in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and Jeff Bridges in HELL OR HIGH WATER. The film fails to take advantage of the unusual casting of Graham, and the scenes between the subtly manipulative Dorothy and the naive young reporter don't really seem to go anywhere. Dorothy is a woman who's convinced herself of many things, and Graham seems eager to disappear into a dowdy, unglamorous role with some truly hideous 1978 eyeglass frames, but the script, written by Alvaro Rodriguez (Robert Rodriguez's cousin) doesn't really give her much to do. The supporting cast also includes Megan Gallagher as Cooper's wife, Jason James Richter (the kid from FREE WILLY) as a deputy, and the late John Heard in one of his last roles (he died two months before the film's VOD release) as the useless warden. The Tison story was told once before, albeit in a more sanitized fashion, in the 1983 ABC TV-movie A KILLER IN THE FAMILY, which starred Robert Mitchum as Tison, with his three sons played by Lance Kerwin (SALEM'S LOT), and a young and unknown Eric Stoltz and James Spader. (R, 93 mins)

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