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.
Upon my first ever viewing (I know) of Mike Figgis’s Leaving Las Vegas last night, I discovered that it’s not the film I thought it was all these years. I had an image of a quirky, star crossed lovers tale with a modicum of sweetness. What I got wasn’t insanely far off the mark, but I have to say I was disarmed and deeply affected by the sense of decaying bitterness which prevails throughout the story and hangs over it like the sour, neon stained moon over a feverish, perpetually nocturnal Vegas. Every character besides the two leads sort of flits dimly in and out of the story, never having any impact further than they need to service the plot with. This leaves Nicolas Cage and Elizabeth Shue eerily alienated and gives the movie a hypnotic flair. Even though these two abide in a bustling setting, it oddly seems at times that they are the only two human beings in existence. That also most likely stems from the film’s willingness to take the time to get to know them, lingering on every glance, murmur and mannerism, be it mundane or essential, to try and get a feel for these two completely broken souls. Cage is Ben, a failing Hollywood screenwriter who is quite literally drowning in alcoholism, plagued by some tragic past of which we never learn about. He is fired and splits for Vegas to hole up in a motel and deliberatly drink himself to death. There he meets Sera (Shue) a hooker with a heart of gold (Shue torches the cliche bravely). They are immediately attracted, and begin a relationship. She continues to see Johns, after being freed of her sadistic Latvian pimp (Julian Sands, terrifying). He makes her promise to not attempt to stop his drinking. Their romance is born out of the primal lonliness that each human being feels to a certain extent, that instinctual urge to reach out and grab for anything, anyone to put out the pain. Cage is everything in the role: pathetic, charming, sad, manic, desperate and deeply, scarily committed to his lethal quest of inebriation. The scenes of liquor consumption in this film go beyond excess and make Denzel in Flight look like a high schooler. It will make many uncomfortable, but looking away for our own peace of mind takes away from the urgency and dark poetry of Cage’s situation. Booze is a low burn, but it’s still suicide, and an agonizing method for anyone to behold in action: the person has an extended period of time to rethink, reevaluate, and if they don’t, then their resolve is extended and far more disturbing than a split second decision. Cage displays this in harrowing form in a career highlight. Elizabeth Shue is heartbreaking as the girl who loves him but can’t quite say why, a girl who has spent years in loveless copulation, confused and torn upon feeling it for the first time. Her character goes through some truly hellish things here. You will cry for her, fall in love with her alongside Cage and swell with admiration at her steely resilience in the face of some of the ugliest things life has to offer her. Each member of the supporting cast is like a star in the desert sky, a moment of flickering purpouse before fading into the background again to let Cage and Shue continue their dance of the damned. Graham Beckel as a shaken bartender, Xander Berkeley as a cynical cab driver, Valeria Golino as as a Barfly and R. Lee Ermey as a taken aback conventioneer are all perfect. Director Mike Figgis composed the score himself, a moody blues melody that clings to your perception after the film like a dream that won’t let go. Just to make the film more haunting, it’s based on a novel by a severely alcoholic writer who took his own life two weeks after production was underway, furthering the disconcerting vibe to a saturation point. This one is a tough watch, and you’ll be forced to see two human beings at the absolute end of the road, miles past rock bottom with seemingly no hope in sight. And yet, if you are patient and try to empathize, you will see the kind of flickering positivity and briefly life -affirming intimacy and light that humans cling to even in the darkest of times. Cage and Shue beautifully paint a bittersweet portrait of this through their work. It’s overbearing with the better, but that makes the sweet all the more precious and lasting. Just watch something happy after.
There are some films that are so perfectly made in every way possible that
I sit there thinking ‘Every persons effort and every element of creative energy that went into making this movie has been implemented flawlessly, arriving here and now to give me the viewing experience I’m getting. A perfect movie’. Michael Mann’s The Insider is such a movie. I held off on reviewing it for a couple days after seeing it, partly to let it sink in but mostly to see if I’d feel any different about it once my synapses had cooled down and the frames had dimmed from my consciousness. Perhaps the fiery reaction it drew from me in the moment was cheaply earned, or I was just in the right mood to love it at that time. Not a chance. If anything I’ve become more enraptured by it as time has passed, already aching for a second viewing. Every performance and aspect of is just so rich, deep and rewarding that for its two and a half hour runtime I found myself externally distracted not once. Occasionally Mann deviates from his comfort zone in the nocturnal crime zone. The occult themed period piece, the colonial adventure, the psychological horror, and this, the blistering drama based on a true story. One might not think the subject matter deserves a two and a half hour film, let alone would make a great one, but Mann has the cinematic Midas touch, and never half asses it. His films always contain traces of a true master at work, telling little details that engrave the film with a sense of immaculate skill and unwavering dedication to telling the story in its finest, and most honest form. The Insider tells the story of Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a chemist who turns whistleblower on the tobacco corporation he was once employed by, finding shelter under the wing of CBS News’s 60 minutes, and particularly hard nosed reporter Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino). The network wants his take, in order to do an exposé on Big Tobacco, a plan with predictably disastrous and dangerous results, for both Wigand and CBS. The film shakes off any impending sensationalism or deliberately emotional stylistic cheats, instead keeping a microscope focus on the three lead performances and letting all the hurt, determination and emotion come forth naturally through their work, as opposed to smothering their story with an overbearing score and cheap cinematic manipulation. I’ve never been that won over by Russell Crowe until now. He always seems ‘halfway there’ in his work, like he’s missing something. This changed things for me. He’s like a raw nerve here, a family man pushed to the precipice of an impossible decision. One can almost see him wrestling with his conscience behind those haunted eyes, a storm with a lid barely kept on and anchored by Crowe in his finest hour. Pacino holds us captive with his work until we realize we’re not breathing. He’s the moral compass of the piece, and to see him explode at the injustices served up to him will give you goosebumps. The third leg of the table is Christopher Plummer as Mike Wallace, the 60 minutes anchor who also struggles morally with the situation they are in. Plummer is so good you forget you’re watching a film, giving Wallace buried gentleness and chiselled emotional intensity that you can scarce believe is even possible through the craft of acting. The supporting cast is peppered with bushels of talent. Colm Feore, Philip Baker Hall, Gina Gershon, Stephen Tobolowsky, Diane Venora, Nester Serrano, Rip Torn, Michael Gambon and an unusually sedated Debi Mazar are superb. It’s Bruce McGill, however, who almost steals the film in one blistering scene, playing a lawyer with enough righteous anger to shatter your tv screen. A career best for him. No one puts you into a story by forcing you to feel alongside the characters quite like Mann. Here he guides us through the trials that Crowe, Plummer and Pacino face with steady hand and heart until we are invested. Then he pulls the ripcord and let’s the sparks fly, making monumentally intense work of events that could seem pedestrian in lesser hands. We really feel for Crowe and clutch the seat with the same desperate intensity that he clings to his family, and sanity. We feel the same jilted fury alongside Pacino as he wades through sickening bureaucracy for a shot at retribution. We take pause with Plummer as he ponders his legacy and are incredulous with all three at the snowball effect the entire proceeding has had on them, devastating us as an audience the same as them, in turn making us feel closer to them. This is all laced with the incredibly heartfelt music from Lisa Gerrard, who sang alongside Crowe in Gladiator and was a favourite of Tony Scott as well. Mann is a ceaseless monster of storytelling, tone and pacing. The story has flair simply because he doesn’t wantonly throw it in the mix; the feeling and reaction come from story and character and not the razzle dazzle. Mann knows this, and let’s the fireworks naturally spring from the absence of deliberation, like music in the vacuum of space. This one will live on to stand the test of time far longer than the decade and a half its help for already. It’s a revelation.
The fact that Cyborg 2: Glass Shadow has almost nothing to do with the first Cyborg is probably a good thing. I’ve seen both, and the first one is an ugly, grimy early starring vehicle for Jean Claude Van Damme that plays like an episode of American Gladiators on PCP. This sequel, however, is a scrappy little sci fi delight. It takes plays in a futuristic B-Movie realm where maniacal corporations wage war on each other for the control of lucrative artificial intelligence, cyborgs who can be programmed to be slaves, soldiers or whatever you want. Angelina Jolie is Casella ‘Cash’ Reese, a gorgeous warrior Cyborg held under the watchful eye of the Pinwheel corporation, ruled by a hammy Allen Garfield. Her trainer, a mercenary named Colton Hicks (Elias Koteas) starts to fall in love with her. In this particular B movie universe, it’s implied that there are fragments of what may resemble a soul that begin to grow inside the cyborgs, and gradually Cash falls for him as well. They plan their escape, and embark into a delightfully cheap looking metropolis of the future, seeking an oasis far away that’s basically a non extradition zone for robots. Pinwheel sends some dangerous bounty hunters after them. There’s fighting. And running. And shooting. And Cyborg sex including a 17 year old Angelina going fully topless, which makes me wonder how the filmmakers ducked the authorities on that one. Not that I’m complaining. Aside from baring her chesticles, she makes a pretty solid action heroine at that age, and even before making a name for herself she carries the film pretty well. Koteas is pretty much capable of anything as far as acting goes, breezing through this one in his sleep whilst still keeping one eye open to give Hicks a vulnerability and desperation that the film hardly deserves. Character actor Billy Drago gives a scene stealing performance of sheer unbridled lunacy as Danny Bench, a terrifyingly unhinged contract killer who pursues the pair and has an absolute smackdown of a fight sequence with Koteas. That old salty dog Jack Palance even shows up for an amusing, warmhearted supporting role as a mysterious hacker who helps the duo out and in turn gets his own retribution. Get one thing straight right now: this a B movie. If you go into one of these with your critic’s brain shoveling coal into the fires of cynicism, you’re gonna have a bad time. These films are overtly cheap, chock full of deliberate plot holes and speckled with acting that could wilt flowers. But I love them anyway. I grew up watching an endless stream of direct to video horror, sci fi and thriller flicks that maybe ten people on planet earth besides me have seen. I love them, they are amazing and they exist in a realm far, far outside film ‘criticism’. It’s best to gear your brain into fun mode before hitting play, then just relax and enjoy. If you’re the type of person that can do that, you’ll love this kind of stuff. If not, steer well clear. Cyborg 2 is the perfect example of a B movie done right, and I’ll be the first to admit that there’s plenty that are made with the kind of lifeless ineptitude that doesn’t even deserve a place in the genre. This one’s cheaply made, doesn’t have much of a budget to its name, yet admirably creates it’s own little world with what it has, spinning a story of action, romance, robots and Angelina Jolie. Honestly, who can say no to those things? You, that’s who.
Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club is every bit as dazzling, chaotic and decadent as one might imagine the roaring twenties would have been. it’s set in and revolves around the titular jazz club, conducting a boisterous, kaleidoscope study of the various dames, dapper gents, hoodlums, harlots and musicians who called it home. Among them are would be gangster Dixie Dwyer (a slick Richard Gere), Sandman Williams (Gregory Hines), a young Bumpy Johnson (Laurence Fishburne) and renowned psychopathic mobster Dutch Schultz (a ferocious James Remar). Coppola wisely ducks a routine plot line in favor of a helter skelter, raucous cascade of delirious partying, violence and steamy romance, a stylistic choice almost reminiscent of Robert Altman. Characters come and go, fight and feud, drink and dance and generally keep up the kind of manic energy and pizazz that only the 20’s could sustain. The cast is positively stacked, so watch for appearances from Nicolas Case, Bob Hoskins, Diane Lane, John P. Ryan, James Russo, Fred Gwynne, Allen Garfield, Ed O Ross, Diane Venora, Woody Strode, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Cobbs, Sofia Coppola and singer Tom Waits as Irving Stark, the club’s owner. It’s a messily woven tapestry of crime and excess held together by brief encounters, hot blooded conflict and that ever present jazz music which fuels the characters along with the perpetual haze of booze and cigarette smoke. Good times.
The one great benefit that any film based on a Stephen King story has is just that: it’s based on a Stephen King story. The guy is just such a prodigy of fiction that even if the film version of one of his books doesn’t deliver, one can still see the brilliant blueprint lurking beneath the frames. When the filmmakers are successful, however, we get a visually stimulating project founded on the tale he has weaved to support all the other elements. Hearts In Atlantis is based on an anthology volume of his, and in fact the story the film follows isn’t even called that, it’s actually ‘Low Men In Yellow Coats’. I can see why the director went with Hearts In Atlantis though, as it’s much more akin to the ethereal, sentimental tone he was going for, and less of an ominous hook. The story itself follows a mysterious man named Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins), a recent tenant in the home of young Bobby Garfield (Anton Yelchin) and his wayward mother (a miscast Hope Davis). The setting is Midwestern America, in the dead heat of a 1950’s summer. Bobby spends his days cavorting in the local woodlands with his fastest of friends, Carole (Mika Boorem) and Sully (Will Rothhaar). He takes a shine to Ted though, who pays him a dollar a week to read to him, and warns him of shadowy ‘low men’, threatening figures who doggedly pursue him for nasty reasons. Ted becomes a father figure for young Bobby, whose mother has questionable ideas about not only raising a son, but taking care of her own affairs. Now the film may seem a bit thinly plotted to some, and there’s a reason for that. This story is actually a tiny fragment in a much larger tale, King’s magnum opus The Dark Tower. Ted and Bobby have important parts to play in that saga, in which the events of this film are but a sentence long. Some viewers may feel slighted by a lack of context, but the filmmakers here still find a way to make this its own story, crafting a touching coming of age story melded with whispers of otherworldly intrigue. The fusion of beguiling nostalgia and the vague menace that advances on Bobby and Ted makes for a unique tone, something just south of a thriller which can’t quite be pinned down by genre labels. Hopkins can be both terrifying and tender depending on the role. Here he is kindness incarnate as a man whose worldly intuition goes beyond telekinesis into the kind of qualities reserved for the best and brightest. Yelchin and Boorem, who would star alongside each other again a few years later in the lacklustre Along Came A Spider, are the superb heart of the film. Yelchin has shown a constant progression of strongly realized, believable work and the quality of his craft can be traced back to this stunning genesis role. Boorem is highly underused these days, and one need only watch her light up the screen with emotional sincerity in this to see why she should be working far more. There’s neat supporting work from Tom Bower, Celia Weston, Alan Tudyuk and David Morse as an older version of Bobby who yearns for days gone by. I found myself deeply enjoying this one whilst constantly drawing back to the knowledge and context I have for it via The Dark Tower, but the film on it’s own is enough to provide a rewarding experience for anyone who isn’t familiar with the multiverse. Amid King’s favourite topics and settings are Midwest adolescence, idiosyncratic nooks of Americana and the ever present supernatural aspect, dynamics which Hearts In Atlantis gives us aplenty, along with an open invitation to explore the universe farther, should one want to venture along the path to the Tower. I’d recommend it.