Lee Tamahori’s Mulholland Falls gets a bad rap in some circles for being boring and uneventful despite its charismatic cast and opulent setting that’s ripe for peppy action sequences. I think they are confusing boring with the concept of a paced and very slow burn, yet one with all the texture and richness of an action film, one that admirably decides to take the route of the old school noir, with loving care put into story and character, two elements which the action and violence live simply to serve, and not to take the driver’s seat against. Or it’s simply not some people’s cup of tea, which is totally okay too. Personally though, I love a good L.A. cop yarn that has a story to go with the toughness. This one bears striking similarity to 2013’s Gangster Squad, which also had Nick Nolte playing a 1940’s Los Angeles cop in charge of a squad that operates outside of the law. That film is pure cheese, all razzle dazzle and no plot. Mulholland Falls falls somewhere between Gangster Squad and L.A. Confidential; not quite up to delving into the serpentine intrigue of the latter, yet infinitely more interested in telling a worthwhile story than the former. And tell it does, in high flying style that only a crime film set in that time period can do. Nick Nolte plays Hoover, a whiskey voiced, take no prisoners LAPD badass who heads up an elite anti corruption task force that operates far outside the red tape and pretty much do what they want to stomp out corruption. His squad consists of Michael Madsen, Chris Penn and a scene stealing Chazz Palminteri as the oddball of the bunch, with serious impulse control issues. A straight up dream cast of tough guys, and although I’ll admit that Penn and Madsen are a tad underused, their presence alone boosts the film’s credentials into an epic pantheon. The film revs up with a kicker of an opening sequence in which the squad severely roughs up a troublesome mobster (an uncredited William L. Petersen). “This isn’t America, it’s Los Angeles” Nolte growls to him, stating the tone of perverse lawlessness which permeated the city back then. Soon he’s drawn into a tawdry scandal involving the murder of a young prostitute (Jennifer Connelly) who he previously had encounters with. The search leads him far and wide, crossing paths a sleazy photographer (Andrew Mcarthy), a dying air force tycoon (John Malkovich manages to ham it up even at his most laid back) and his stern lieutenant (Treat Williams). Nolte also has a poor jilted wife played nicely by Melanie Griffith in limited but effective screen time. The plot is hard boiled to the bone, with Nolte in one his most gruff mid career roles and loving every stressed out, rage fuelled second of it. The conclusion is his show, with a whacked out Palminteri in tow for a spectacular sequence set aboard a doomed military aircraft. The cast gets deeper, believe it or not, with Daniel Baldwin, Ed Lauter, Kyle Chandler, Titus Welliver, Louise Fletcher, Rob Lowe and Bruce Dern contributing gamely. This one’s got style on it’s side and then some, replicating a sense of time and place with the torque ramped up to near Sin City levels. Admittedly not perfect, but a pure and simple blast of a flick, in my opinion.
The 80’s and 90’s saw the momentous rise of beloved funnyman Eddie Murphy within the action comedy genre, particularly the wise cracking cop niche. 48 Hrs kicked it off, the Beverly Hills Cop trilogy added to the snowball effect, and so it went. His manic charisma led to many a starring role, including the somewhat forgotten actioner Metro, one thats notable because it shows the actor in just as many serious situations as comedic ones. There’s a tether on his sense of humour here, which in other films has been set to roam and end up where it may, often halting entire scenes for his non stop antics to play out. Here he gets a few moments like that, but even more to get seriously angry and tough, most likely helped by the fact that he’s up against one of the most truly heinous villains he’s ever had to face. Here he’s Scott Roper, a fast talking, resourceful San Francisco hostage negotiator who flexes both brain and brawn in a tense opening confrontation with a loose-screw criminal (Donal Logue). We see right off the bat what an efficient dude he is, a nice precursor for the trying times ahead. He’s inhabits a world chock full of every necessary genre element: a cranky police captain (Denis Arndt), a sexy girlfriend (stunning British gal Carmen Ejogo), a fresh out of the academy rookie partner (Michael Rapaport, not given much to do) a recently deceased former partner (Art Evans) to avenge, slain by the obligatory arch criminal, in this case psychotic jewel thief Michael Korda (Michael Wincott). Wincott makes Korda a truly detestable guy. Vile, slithery and absent of any shred of remorse, killing his way through the city with Roper hot on his tail. And there you have it, every necessary element in place for a solid cop flick, and one that’s gotten very little attention over the years. There’s neat action set pieces including a showstopper set aboard a speeding trolley car, endearing bits of comedy now and then from Murphy and some savage violence that proclaims the film’s hard R rating proudly. Murphy and Wincott have a sizzling verbal dual, separated by prison glass that launches the scene into the stratosphere of intense profanity, with F bombs spewed off in rapid fire, tempers and talents of both actors in overdrive. Lukewarm reviews can be found all over for this one. Yeah its no 48 Hrs, but it earns it’s stripes and to me is one of Murphy’s very best, helped along quite a bit by Wincott’s snarling, evil presence. Great fun.
Bone Dry is fantastic little piece of sun soaked, revenge fuelled melodrama that serves as a glowing showcase for its two leads, Luke Goss and a ferocious Lance Henriksen. Lean, mean, gritty and reminiscent of 1970’s revenge outings, it’s a bloody delight of a flick. Luke Goss, an actor who can give Henriksen a run for his money in the intensity department, plays Eddie, a well dressed dude with a suspiciously murky past, winding his way through the desolation of the Mojave Desert. After breezing through a lonely cafe run by a girl (always nice to see Dee Wallace) who clearly has eyes for him, he sets out through a particularly lonely stretch of the terrain, and that’s where he finds himself in serious trouble. He’s soon stalked by a menacing, mysterious man named Jimmy (Henriksen), who is intent on tormenting, taunting and fucking him up at every turn. Jimmy is an ex war monster a man whose taken it upon himself to put Eddie through every ring of hell that the Mojave has to offer, all in service of some deeply buried reasons that emerge from the sand late in the third act, shedding scorching light on the two men’s character arc, and giving the film quite the emotional boost. When I say hell, I mean it. Eddie suffers through some unspeakably horrific scenarios, including a scene involving a cactus that will induce mass cringing among audience members. Director Brett A. Hart has a heightened, almost Walter Hill-esque style to his film, with the intensity metre ratcheted up past the maximum, and editing trimmed down to whip smart strokes that put you right in the middle of Eddie’s clammy desperation and Jimmy’s enigmatic fury. Henriksen spends the first half of the film with his face shrouded, adding to the mystery of his character. He’s a master of the craft who slowly lets the breadcrumb trail fall with every portentous mannerism and glowering posture until we finally see what Jimmy is really about. One his best performances. Goss doesn’t let the energy sag for a single second, something he has always been great at. There’s further work from the legendary Tommy ‘Tiny Lister’ Jr. as well, filling in another subplot stranded out there in the sand. This one is genre bliss, brutal and blistering until it cools off for a conclusion that cuts the viewer some respiratory slack after the breathlessness of its juggernaut setup. Terrific stuff.
Wildflowers is a film that examines the aftermath of 1960’s counterculture and the hippie movement. The free love sentiment produced many children who were raised unconventionally, and in some cases outright abandoned by their flower power parents. Cally (Clea Duvall) is one such girl, a wild tomboy who lives with her sometimes employed father (Thomas Arana), and spends her days cavorting around with adolescents in similar situations. It’s rare that Duvall gets a starring role, and she’s absolutely wonderful here, steering Cally along with longing, resentment and just a bit of touching ‘lost girl’ emotion. She’s an actress who needs to be cast in more stuff to showcase her talent, and not just thrown into lesbian roles because she identifies as such (grrr!). She steals the show and proves what a magnetic presence she is. Cally never knew her mother, and hope arises with the arrival of mysterious Sabine (Daryl Hannah) a woman old enough to be her mother and seemingly connected to her somehow. Sabine is a free spirit with a turbulent mindset, a result of the fragmented lives that people led back in that time period, often leading to wayward souls with no sedimentary existence to slide into after the show finishes and they realize they aren’t as young as they used to be. Cally’s story plays out beautifully, a girl just coming into her own and realizing who she is, via experimentation and intuition. She meets a drug dealer named Jacob, played by Eric Roberts. He’s the friendly drug dealer, a cinematic archetype often sought after by filmmakers. Roberts could play an evil dictator and still come off like Prince Charming, he’s just that likeable, and as such is perfect for the role, a kindly rapscallion with lessons and advice for Cally which don’t quite play out as one might think. In the end, it’s Duvall’s show, one of the only lead roles she has that is even out there to hunt down, such is the rarity of many films in her career. It’s filled with terrific scenery, a whimsical yet real world aura and performances of emotional truth. Worth tracking down for Clea’s fans (I’m proudly a die hard) and a delight for the casual viewer.
Disney’s Zootopia is the kind of animated film that passes with flying colors in just about every damn category it needs to, making it a thoroughly endearing classic that will stand the test of time and delight countless new fans as time goes on. It’s the best of its kind since last year’s Inside Out, and one that will be hard to top this time around. It’s got the most treasurable kind of story, one that has all the fun, flash and zip that the kids will take a shine to, some hilariously subversive and cheeky humour for the the adults to chuckle at, and some vital, important messages within its themes that adults will knowingly relate to, and the kids will subconsciously perceive. Never preachy nor pandering, all of its ingredients are mixed harmoniously. And let’s talk about that animation, good lord. Every year these films get more cutting edge and eye boggling, and this one busts the blueprints in its attempts to dazzle, with every kind of texture, glint and rendered gold on display. Animals of all shapes and sizes run, scamper, dart and dive throughout the film, to the point where I felt that only with multiple viewings could I appreciate every loving detail and subtle joke. Ginnifer Goodwin gives perky vocals to Judy Hops, a small town bunny who dreams of being a big city cop. Just leagues away from the tiny carrot farm she was raised on lies Zootopia, a sprawling metropolis where the denizens of the animal kingdom live in civilization, or rather, their brilliantly realized version of it. She is told time and time again that she’ll never become a cop, but pays no heed. And whadd’ya know, she becomes a cop. Left to rot on parking duty by stern bison Sergeant Bogo (growly Idris Elba) she fumes and longs for real action. Soon she meets wily fox and street hustler Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman in possibly the best vocal performance in years), and both are whisked away on an adventure through Zootopia to find some bad cats (and every other creature imaginable) who are up to no good. The city itself is a marvel in every sense of the word. Divided into detailed, vast and climatized zones including Tundra Town, Little Rodentia (laughed hardest at this sequence, purely inspired) and a subtropical tree house lined Rainforest area. The cast has buckets of fun, including JK Simmons as Mayor Lionheart, Bonnie Hunt and Don Lake as Judy’s endearing parents, Tommy Chong as a yak hippie, Peter Mansbridge as Peter ‘Moosebridge’, and more. Shakira shows up essentially as herself in animal form, with an original composition called ‘Try Everything’ which gives the film a lot of its charm and heart. Bateman just has to be commended for a performance so full of real conflict and shades of grey its hard to belive hes playing a fox in a Disney flick. Despite being in the most hyper real of all genres, hes walked right out of real life amd nails every note. There’s so many highlights I could write for pages, but I won’t spoil the fun, of which there’s no end. There’s also a very grounded head on the film’s shoulders, saying some important things about not giving up on your dreams (sounds clichéd, I know, but not the way the writing addresses it here), and never assuming one thing about a specific group of animals just because of the way a few of them behave. Subversive stuff for a kids movie, and I’d have it no other way, as the undercurrents of film forge minds and opinions for the young ones. Simply put, it’s destined to be a classic, and comes up a winner no matter how you look at it. Oh, and try not to bust a gut laughing at the sloth sequence, I dare you.
Neil Jordan’s film version of Interview With The Vampire is simultaneously one of the most sumptuous and tedious visions of the affliction to ever hit cinema. On the one hand, it’s an absolutely gorgeous, atmospheric and old worlde glance at two damned souls who carry out their macabre destiny with flair and vicious grace. I say tedious as some kind of bitter compliment, because no other film has quite captured the internal torture of eternity or the nocturnal gloom that must prevail over such an existence quite as well as this film has. It barely runs over two hours and we feel like we’ve been planted in front of the screen for years. Such is the dedication of director Jordan, a sneakily versatile gent who augments his stylistic and tonal approach to whatever material he is working with. The film is exciting and raises a pulse, but only on its terms, and for long periods of time we sit through languishing despair that no doubt adds to the mood, but exists to serve the psyches of our two leads, and dares the viewer to suffer alongside them. I have somewhat of a bone to pick with certain producers behind the scenes who no doubt had a forceful hand in the casting of Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise. You see, author Ann Rice had her heart set on a filmic version starring Rutger Hauer as Lestat, and Lance Henriksen as Louie. Now, Cruise and Pitt are at the utter opposite end of casting types in Hollywood, and while Jordan is never a guy to compromise or chase stars right off that bat, I am still sour when I think of the film we’ll never see, starring two actors infinitely more fascinating and vampiric that Brad and Tom. Nevertheless, I have som much appreciation for the film that I can’t take it too hard, and remain a steadfast fan. Pitt plays Louie, a depressed Louisiana plantation owner with nothing left, especially to lose. He meets roaming vampire Lestat (Cruise), who promptly turns him, and the two embark on a century spanning odyssey of nighttime escapades, thoroughly fraught with homoeroticism. It’s isn’t so much an organized narrative as it is a lengthy look at these two, trapped by their condition and making the bitter best of it. They meet others along the way, including Armand (a slinky Antonio Banderas), Santiago (Jordan regular Stephen Rhea, lively evil incarnate) and Claudia, a child who Louie turns. She’s played by Kirsten Dunst in the best performance of the film. A young girl with the vampire curse thrust upon her at such an age, who mentally matures into a steely, furious woman trapped in the body of a ten year old. Not many actresses could succeed at that, but she is a spitfire little shryke who dominates every scene. All this is being retold by Louie to a 1990’s journalist (Christian Slater) who morphs from bemused disbelief to cold terror, and eventual morbid fascination. It’s a slog to get through, but an ornately beautiful one with some really bloody effects and the always terrific stewardship of Neil Jordan, whose films are never short of mesmerizing, whichever genre they fall into. A dark, dingy horror with lacy elegance at its core.
I feel like part of the reason why DreamWorks’s Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron works so well (Ebert noted this in his excellent review) is the fact that none of the animals talk. Although the titular horse is given internal narration by Matt Damon (of all people), not once does Spirit, or any other creature ever speak themselves. This allows for more time spent on music, visuals and storytelling free from banter or exposition. When you have a movie with such sweeping scope and majestic beauty, it’s nice to just relax and let it wash over you, almost like a music video. I’ll always love 2D animation, and here its done exquisitely, the wild frontier rendered in richly colored strokes, the horses vividly brought to life through the illustrations. It’s one of the last classic 2D outings, before the eventual switch to computer generated stuff. Don’t get me wrong I’m just as in love with 3D animation, but I will always have deep nostalgic pangs for this style as well. Someone once told me that cinema is the only art form in which every single artistic medium you can think of can all inhabit the same space, interacting and complimenting each other to create a symphony for all the senses and perceptions. Spirit is a shining example: exceptional drawing and animation, terrific voice acting, and the music, which is a standout. Both the stirring score by Hans Zimmer and the original songs by Bryan Adams are heartfelt compositions which soar along with the visuals in perfect harmony. Spirit is a wild young mustang, who is captured by a vicious Colonel, gruffy baritoned by James Cromwell. He tries to train the horse and break him, but Spirit has that wild spark of vitality that any protagonist of the animal kingdom must posess. He refuses to give in, never losing hope of one day returning to his herd. He is befriended by young native man Little Creek (Daniel Studi) who is also searching for home. The two form an adventurous bond, putting them against man and nature to return to their origins. Mountains, valleys, corals, trees and the untamed northwest wilderness are all presented in a fashion so gorgeous that the colors nearly pop off the screen. It’s just terrific entertainment through and through, never too silly, sappy or frightening, hitting all the right notes along the whole breadth of its breezy 80 minute runtime. DreamWorks doesn’t often give Disney a run for its money, but consider this a glowing exception.