Haunted is an atmospheric, valiant yet frustratingly uneven ghost story effort, in the tradition of stuff like The Awakening and The Haunting. If the plot seems close to last year’s Crimson Peak, it’s because it is, and I’d bet that Del Toro had this forgotten entry in mind when he embarked on that journey. I say frustrating because there’s a certain few absolutely terrific moments of gothic horror that truly shiver your timbers, but they’re hopelessly mired in a mucky moor of a plot that unfortunately is not as effective as those key scenes. You David Ash is rough housing around wit his sister in the English countryside when she hits her head on a rock, and drowns in the pond below. He grows up soaked in guilt, dedicated to disproving the existence of paranormal phenomena. As an adult he’s played by Aiden Quinn, who is an average dude with slightly wild looking eyes who is always effective in the sense that he seeks out challenging, odd projects which test his everyday aura nicely. In the early 1900’s he is summoned back to rural Britain by an elderly woman (Anna Massey) who is convinced that she is surrounded by ghosts. He is greeted there by the luminous, attractive Christina (Kate Beckinsale), a friendly young thing with a distinct untrustworthy vibe and a penchant for getting creepy close with her two strange brothers (Anthony Andrews and Alex Lowe). She lives out there in isolation with them as well as their disturbed mother, and one gets the sense right off the bat that something is wonky. I suppose that’s the point though isn’t it? Beckinsale has carved a path of playing either somber, distraught women or tough, silent warrior chicks. This is the most animated work I’ve ever seen from her, and the most radiant she’s ever looked as well. It’s aslso to date the only nude scenes she’s ever put forth, and I don’t use the term lightly… she really bares it all here. The middle portion of the film meanders around with these characters, not revealing enough to push the plot forward enough, until the curtain is whisked away jarringly in the third act, cementing it’s pacing issues for good. It’s a picturesque enough journey, I just wish we had something to latch onto besides that, some substance and a consistency in the creepiness factor to keep us invested. Alas. It’s got a spookily wonderful beginning, and an electric, full blooded ending, the only two instances where it shows true feeling and commitment. The rest is, well… stale. It’s worth a peek for a few reasons though, including Beckinsale’s solid performance and that one uber-scary scene in the opener.
Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me is one of the most flat out disturbing films ever made under the sun, even if only for a few brief, harrowing sequences encased in a lurid, laconic, southern fried oddity of a story that defies genre confinement while still planting vague roots in crime drama. When the sequences I speak of show up, and you’ll know exactly when, it takes you right off guard and immediately notifies you that the film has no intentions of towing a line within anyone’s comfort zone. It’s an odd story for someone to strive to tell, and one wonders what inky black corners of the psyche that Jim Thompson was spellunking in when he scribed the novel on which this is based. It starts off conventionally enough, under the prosperous sun of the West Texas desert in the heat of the 1950’s. Sheriff’s Deputy Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) is a regular enough guy, tasked with rousing a local prostitute (Jessica Alba) living in nearby suburbia. He also deals with the dodgy real estate kingpin Chester Conway (a blustery Ned Beatty) and his cronies. He’s also got a cute fiance (Kate Hudson). He’s calm, cool and connected, right up until the part where he turns out to be a certifiable grade murdering psychopath. Affleck let’s the authoritarian composure bleed away and reveal the layers of eveil beneath, until we begin to wonder if the film we are watching has been interrupted by someone taping over it with something far darker. But no… it’s the same movie. It just veers into territory we didn’t expect and may be taken aback by. Affleck discovers the psychopath within himself, and fits inside the characteristics like a glove. The first person to stray into his path is Alba, and there’s a sequence where he gives her a royal, merciless, and bloody beatdown that will shiver your spine in its blunt, head-on realism. It’s seriously stomach churning shit, and levels off both the film and Affleck’s role in pure stone cold seriousness. He’s a budding lunatic, made all the more dangerous by bis position of power within law enforcement and shielded by his trustworthy reputation. The film resists generic story beats, and instead meanders about, diligently following Affleck from encounter to macabre encounter, discovering his dark interior nature without much rhyme or reason as far as conventional plot goes. This has a wickedly prolific cast for such a risky film, with fine work from Bill Pullman, Brent Briscoe, Tom Bower, Simon Baker and the ever reliable Elias Koteas who adds to the cumulative unease. It’s Affleck’s shown though, and he splinters nerves with his unpredictable, hollow and fascinating portrait of a psychopath. Soon we begin to wonder what he sees and heats is real, as characters he interacts with seem to come back from the dead and knowingly coach him towards trouble in trademark indications of serious mental distrbance. This one arrives at it’s end severely south of where it started from, taking the viewer off guard. Those who appreciate the tantalizing, prickly nature of a thriller that isn’t afraid to seriously shake up your shit and take you places you’ve only been to on clammy nightmares will appreciate it. Just mentally psych yourself up for that scene I mentioned, because it will scar you and then some.
Mutant Chronicles is a solid gem, as both a b movie and a legit exercise in bloody high concept fantasy. It’s got a sci fi vibe meshed nicely together with a grinding steam punk sensibility, and it’s pure visceral gold. The vague plot, as I best remember it: Some form of extraterrestrial intellegience takes up residence deep within the earth’s core, using a gigantic machine to turn humans into mindless, rabid killing machine with nasty, pokey, king crab looking things for limbs. The warring corporations who control the remaining resources on the planet commission a crew of dirty dozen style bad asses to venture deep into the earth, stopping the mutants and their makers, and silencing the evil contraption forever. Thomas Jane is Major Mitch Hunter, the stoic tough guy leading the group with grit and guts. He’s also searching for his missing superior officer Nathan Rooker (Sean Pertwee). Along with him is strong, silent monk Brother Samuel (Ron Perlman), his mute daughter (Anna Walton), and other assorted warriors including Benno Furmann and Devon Aoki. That’s pretty much all you get for a plot. The rest is screaming zombie esque hordes that ambush them at every turn and provide especially grisly action set pieces. There’s a really impressive journey in a rickety spaceship that looks like a cross between a hot air balloon and a toaster, and a cameo from an extremely bored looking John Malkovich. Jane and Perlman use their tough guy charisma to bring the story to life, and the special effects are pretty damn cool. This one has bite, imagination and buckets of gore, particularly in a frenetic finale deep within the earth’s interior. Great stuff.
In The Bedroom is tough cinema, packed with the kind of substance and human drama that often drives casual viewers away, their psyches scorched by the lack of generic plotting and warm, fuzzy story arcs. To those who actively seek out realism, heartbreaking emotion and films which probe the complex corners of the human soul for answers that weigh heavier in your thoughts than the questions, this one is a treat. It lulls you in with an opening montage of summer romance, giving you no context of the challenging character arcs to come. We begin with Frank (Nick Stahl) a man barely out of his teens, in the midst of a passionate fling with Natalie (a fantastic Marisa Tomei), a woman far older than him who has two kids and a troublesome ex husband (William Mapother). Frank’s parents differ on their opinions as far as his relationship goes. His no nonsense mother (Sissy Spacek), calmly disapproves, while his loving father (Tom Wilkinson) encourages simply by sitting back and going along with it. Then, out of nowhere, the plot takes a sharp turn into tragedy. Frank is killed in a struggle involving the volatile ex husband, leaving everyone behind to grieve. This film isn’t content with a simple, standard grieving process. It insists on holding a steady, nonjudgmental gaze upon the parents, and the agonizing state they are left in. The killer is released on extended bail. The mother is torn apart knowing he is out there. The father actively downplays the devastation simply because he isn’t capable of letting out what’s inside him, twisting him in silent despair every moment of every day. Wilkinson is emotional dynamite, like a bleak cloud with flashes of sorrowful lightning beneath, a time bomb of implosive sadness. Spacek carries herself magnificently, especially in a third act verbal showdown with Tom that leaves you gutted and stunned. These two play their roles with uncanny precision, every movement and mannerism a roadmap leading straight to the core emotion, and shellshock of the tragedy, still being absorbed by their characters with every frame we see. It’s a brave script for any group to undertake, and one which you must go into utterly prepared or you will either fall short of telling the story to its potential, or be consumed and disarmed by it, and arrive with a finished product with a tone deaf mentality. Not this one. Every aspect is treated with care, attention and focus by all involved, miraculously pulling this hefty piece off without a hitch. It’s often a struggle to sit through films that don’t make you feel all that great, films that tear off the superficial cloth that much of cinema is cut from, delving beneath for an unwavering look at what really goes on in this world of ours, be it large scale or intimate. It’s important to experience this occasionally though, as it can often teach you valuble truths and awaken parts of your perception that lie dormant during a lot of other movies. This one won’t hold your hand and provide an emotional blueprint for you to follow, but in being let off the leash, the experience may just be more rewarding.
The Boondock Saints is an interesting movie for me, as it’s kind of evolved along with my consciousness as I’ve gotten older. Some films you initially dislike, yet they grow on you gradually until you see them in a new light. Some films you are crazy about right off the bat, yet over time the attraction dims and you realize you don’t really care for them anymore. And then there’s this one. While I can’t say I’ve grown to dislike it, because that’s just not the case, I will concede that as I’ve gotten older and new information on it has crossed my path, I’ve come to regard it in a new light. Also, the parts of my personality which went ape shit for anything pulpy and crime ridden back then have receded a bit as my tastes matured. But try as I might, I can’t bring myself to completely see it in a negative light, despite recognizing certain negative aspects of it which were once not so obvious to me. Saints is a tricky film because on the one hand you have the rabid fans who make up the cult following and have brought it the infamy it has today, as well as it’s sequel, which is really not that great. On the other hand you have the lofty monarchy of high film criticism, bashing it six ways to Sunday, the bad taste of it’s conception and production still on their tongues. Recently I watched the documentary Overnight (a biased film with its own glaring issues, but that’s another story), which chronicles the meteoric rise and fall of director Troy Duffy, who foolishly squandered a gift horse with immature and selfish behaviour, or at least that’s what the film shows. The film had the potential to be a big budget flick with huge stars involved and the backing of Weinstein. That never happened. Duffy’s ego swiftly sent the script into oblivion, until it finally got made years later for less than half the original offered budget, and landed in film purgatory before being squeaked into a meager distribution. A tragedy, say some. But.. is it though? Fate is a strange beast, and if everything went according to plan, we’d have a slick studio monster that might have been good, and no choppy, unique cult favourite to gain unprecedented momentum decades after its chaotic birth. Some food for thought. Anywho, on to the film. It’s low budget for sure and one can tell it’s made by a guy who’s never directed before, but it’s got a silly, cartoonish charm and cinematic flair for style that will keep you watching. Two rowdy Irish brothers named Connor (Sean Patrick Flanery) and Murphy (Norman Reedus) accidentally kill some scary russian mob soldiers in one of the most inventive scenes ever staged, and they discover they have a spiritual affinity for knocking off evil men. So, with no tactical experience whatsoever, they set out on a mission from God to end the lives of the Boston criminal underworld. Dragging their hapless, loveable buddy Rocco (David Della Rocco) along, its only a matter of time before the law tags them, and soon they have loony FBI honcho Paul Smecker after them. Willem Dafoe has to be seen to be believed in what is a career weirdest for him. He plays it like the Joker crossed with Bugs Bunny, never allowing an ounce of restraint or subtlety into the performance. I’d be interested to see the actor/director relationship which led to getting something this zany in the can. Smecker struggles morally, part of him believing the Saints to be a necessary force. They are faced with Italian mafia bosses including a scuzzy Ron Jeremy and Carlo Rota as Giuseppe ‘Pappa Joe’ Yakavetta, a ham fisted Don who wants the Saints gone. Rota is the only one who comes close to matching Dafoe’s maniacal energy, playing Yakavetta to unhinged, mustache twirling delight. Reedus and Flanery hold up their end with physicality and quite a lot of energy, making the McManus brothers two fun protagonists to hang around with. Billy Connolly shows up as Il Duce, an almost invincible assassin from hell who proves to be quite the obstacle for our boys. The concept for the film is relentlessly juvenile, and the action set pieces veer into silliness quite a bit and there’s a slapdash, haphazard feel to the whole thing, an unfinished varnish, or lack thereof to the whole process. It’s just such lurid, reckless fun though, filled with excessive profanity, comic book violence, laughable religious symbolism and deeply questionable morals that seem to have been penned by an eighth grader who’s just completed a John Woo and Charles Bronson marathon back to back. This is a movie that loves the fact that it’s a movie and acts accordingly, throwing everything it can get its hands on at you and yelling ” Look! Look how cool I am”. Is it cool? Up to you. It’s certainly one you won’t forget about. It almost ducks the ‘good film’ litmus test in the sense that you’d be wasting breath in claiming it’s a bad movie. It couldn’t care less about that, and the fans, of which I have to say I still am, seem not to either. It’s not really good, bad, terrible or anything. It’s just The Boondock Saints.
Ridley Scott’s vast, intricate crime epic American Gangster is one of the director’s finest achievement in film to this day. It’s sprawling in nature, expansive in scope but never chaotic or muddled. It always maintains a laser focus on its characters and story, thumping along at a rhythmic pace which swells and falls to the time of one of the most iconic stories in true crime. It’s Scott’s Heat, a titanic tale of cop vs. criminal in which neither are the villain or hero, but simply men adhering to rigid, ruthless principles moulded by the environments they have grown up in. Both men have an intense set of morals completely different from the other, yet equally as captivating. Russell Crowe is a troubled bruiser as Detective Richie Roberts, a cop so determined to convince himself of his own upstanding nature that he won’t take any illicit payoff in any amount or context. In contrast, every other aspect of his life is a shambling mess. Denzel Washington is quiet fury as Frank Lucas, an enterprising gangster and drug smuggler who rides the tidal wave of capitalism like there’s no tomorrow, flooding the streets of Harlem with pure heroin directly from the southeast Asian source, and rising swiftly to the peak of underworld infamy. The two are on an inevitable collision course, two juggernauts with different empires backing them who will stop at nothing. Lucas believes himself to be untouchable, shirking the flashy, preening nature of his peers and remaining out of the limelight, until cunning Roberts catches onto him. The rough and tumble world of New York in the 60’s and 70’s is lovingly brought to life by Scott, his cast and crew who go to impressive lengths in order to bring us that grit, realism and specific anthropological aura of another time, another setting. Speaking of cast, this has to be one of the most rip roaring collection of actors ever assembled, even to rival that of Heat itself. In Richie’s corner there is senior Detective Lou Toback (a sly Ted Levine, perpetuating the vague Michael Mann vibe even further), a scummy colleague (Yul Vasquez), and an off the books team of gangbusters including John Ortiz, John Hawkes and a mumbling RZA. He also clashes with his bitter ex wife (Carla Gugino) in an ugly custody battle for their young son. Over on Frank’s side of the hill are his huge extended family including Common, TI, Chiwetel Ejfor and Ruby Dee in one of the film’s finest performances as his strong willed, passionate mother, one of the only people who could talk sense into him and keep the animal inside at bay. Lymari Nadal is great as his bombshell Puerto Rican wife as well. His rivals include superfly-esque Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and a brief, hostile turn from Idris Elba. He also deals with the Italian mafia, personified by a hammy Armand Assante, an earnest Jon Polito and a slimy Ritchie Coster. One of the best performances of the film comes from Josh Brolin as positively evil corrupt narcotics detective Trupo, threatening everything that moves with his grease slick hair, porno moustache and silky, dangerous tone. As if that army of talent wasn’t enough, there’s also work from Kevin Corrigan, Joe Morton, Clarence Williams III in a powerful turn as an ageing Bumpy Johnson, and a blink and you’ll miss it cameo from Norman Reedus as well. What. A. Cast. The whole thing rests on Crowe and Washington, though, and both are like Olympian titans of crime and conflict, sweeping up everyone around them in a whirlwind of explosive violence, shifting alliances and the booming arrival of capitalism giving the American people in every walk of life a defibrillator jolt of economic change, laying the foundation for the world we live in today, one brick, one bullet, one business deal at a time. Scott achieves legendary heights with this one, a crime film for the ages that one can always revisit to see not how one hero cop took down a villainous drug lord, but how the forces which inexorably bind humans to various fates in accordance with their decisions swept up two extraordinary yet mortal men into historic infamy. In a word: Epic.
For Which He Stands is a lean, mean, nasty crime drama and cautionary fable about the dangers of pride and ego, and the spiralling disaster ones life can turn into when these qualities within the human nature go unchecked. It’s also a shamelessly slimy B movie treat featuring a tough as nails lead performance from William Forsythe as Johnny Rochetti, a small time Vegas casino mogul who runs afoul of some extremely dangerous South American criminals. He plays the role like Liotta from Goodfellas crossed with Bronson from Death Wish, an initial belligerent cockiness wiped promptly out of his personality by the very real danger stalking him, replaced by a reckless calm and willingness to get his hands dirty to defend his loved ones. One night, a Latin scumbag causes a raucous in his casino by violently threatening a girl. Johnny has a reflex reaction to defend her, and inadvertently kills the prick. This makes him a local hero, but also paints a huge target on his back for the Colombian cartel, who his deceased quarry had connections with. He’s forced to leave his wife (Maria Conchita Alonso) and contend with the dangerous criminal forces aiming to eliminate him. There’s some truly freaky cartel baddies here, including Andrew Divoff in a cameo as a gravel voiced psycho, and Robert Davi in a fire so,e turn as Carlito Escalara, a ruthless assassin hell bent on destroying Johnny. He’s got some legendary villain roles in over the years, and this one is among the nastiest, and best. Johnny’s only help comes from an intrepid federal agent (Ernie Hudson) and a D.A. (John Ashton’s). It’s Forsythe’s show though, and his transformation from untouchable big shot to caged animal on the run to eventual pistol packing hero is fun to watch. The atmosphere is pure crime cinema, told almost like a dark fairy tale that just happens to be set in Vegas. This one is positively buried in obscurity though, I had to seek out a screener VHS copy of a dusty corner of Amazon to get my hands on it. Good luck.