Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa is a stunning film, an enigmatic jewel that doesn’t reveal any of its secrets or intent after the first five minutes, half hour or even mid point but rather let’s the passage of time, the sense of place, the richness of character and mesmeric atmosphere draw the viewer in. Bob Hoskins is George in another one of his ferocious bulldog performances, but this time around there’s a roughly sculpted emotional climate he’s cultivating too. George is an ex con who has drifted off his path in life, and after being released from prison has no idea where to turn. An old mob contact sets him up as driver and protector to high class call girl Simone (Cathy Tyson) and the two of them get on thunderously at first, until he gradually falls madly in love. She is a cipher, and Tyson plays her with a counterintuitive, flint-spark resilience. What’s she looking for as she scans the inky black London streets with an uncommonly focused gaze? I won’t spoil the surprise, but this narrative unfolds organically, at its own pace and with a deep feel for London as both a city and a primordial habitat. Michael Caine is deliciously vile as the horrid porn kingpin Mortwell, a selfish sociopath whose path George and Simone must cross on their own. You can’t quite pin this one down in any one genre and therein lies the magic that is a Jordan film. His work is always illusory yet somehow so specific but never tethered to any one thing you could describe in a few sentences. He makes films less from a genre perspective and more from a life perspective. There’s romance here to be sure, but not in the way one might think and the film’s violent conclusion set in seaside Brighton might leave you just as confused and heartbroken as some of its characters. There’s droll comedy too in episodic interactions between George and his chum Thomas, played by the great Robbie Coltrane in the kind of jovially cherubic turn that only he can pull off. There’s danger, loneliness, joy, monsters, corruption, redemption, love, hurt and more, all gilded by achingly beautiful cinematography drenched in West End neon, a Michael Kamen score that hits every note from jazz to a horror theme style jangle, of all things. I don’t know what else to say except experience this slice of life on celluloid for yourself, because it’s something truly special and not to really be put into words. Magnificent film.
I’d love to have been in the studio executives office to hear the pitch for Bubble Boy: “Okay so basically Jake Gyllenhaal is this kid who lives in a plastic bubble, he’s on a road trip and there’s also a travelling freak show owned by Mini Me from Austin Powers, a singing cult led by Fabio, Asian mud wrestling, twin incontinent geriatric pilots named Pippy and Pappy, a motorcycle gang headed up by Danny Trejo, an Indian who drives a food truck serving ‘Ice cream… and curry’” …if I were the exec in charge I’d have no choice but to green light the thing just for the balls they had to bring it to me. Like how do you say no to all that? Real talk though, this film was actually pretty special, and I mean that sincerely. Yes, it’s this kind of surreal, John Waters-esque parade of uproarious and seemingly arbitrary commotion anchored only by Gyllenhaal’s naive, oddball hero but there’s a message sewn into all that madness too that’s actually really sweet and astute. Born without a self generated immune system, Bubble Boy is kept at home in a pristine plastic environment by his overbearing, Jesus freak mom (Swoosie Kurtz), until he falls in love with the girl next door (Marley Shelton). When she runs off with plans to marry a preening douchebag (Dave Sheridan), he constructs that amazing bubble suit and and it’s off on a bizarre cross country race to find her and fix the misunderstandings of their relationship before she gets married. Things get a little… random along the way and his mom takes hot pursuit with his dad (John Carroll Lynch, excellent) in tow. It may all seem like noise and confusion but there’s a real theme of escaping one’s own personal prison going on beneath the surface. Gyllenhaal has left his eternal quarantine and headed out into the great unknown but in a sense each character he meets is in their own bubble of sorts, stunted by belief, circumstance, past trauma or just lunacy. Trejo is terrific as the rambunctious biker who pines for his lost love and will do anything for Bubble Boy, who he considers his ‘Vato.’ The circus show and all its members (which include the varied likes of Matthew McGrory and Lester ‘Beetlejuice’ Green) are a self ostracized bunch who don’t value their own worth until put to the test. Hell, even a cross country bus ticket vendor played by Zach Galifinakis sits resolute and awkward inside his booth, perplexed at sights he observes around him and unable to engage with the world. When mom catches up to Bubble Boy just when he’s about to reach Niagara Falls and wants to yank him home, Carroll Lynch as his dad gets the subtly subversive, beautiful line of dialogue: “What if Neil Armstrong travelled all that way just to *not* walk on the moon.” This is a balls out comedy peppered with delightfully weird shit but it’s also a film about questioning one’s reality, breaking boundaries imposed by whatever system governs you and finding a place in this world, which I promise you is far more strange than anything any screenwriter could ever dream up. Absolutely great film.
My expectations weren’t super high for Joe Dirt and they were not only met but surpassed. This is one charming, hilarious, comfortingly juvenile exercise in spoofing the Mountain Dew monster truck crowd and I loved it to bits. Usually when I see David Spade onscreen I ball up my fists and get ready to swing but here he makes sly work of a good natured simpleton with the world’s most epic mullet. Joe was left at the Grand Canyon when he was eight years old by his dummy parents, and has been wondering the States ever since, looking for them. He explains all this in flashbacks and regales an incredibly cynical radio DJ (Dennis Miller) with his adventures with all the strange people he meets, and let me tell you that strange is a fucking understatement. He befriends a mega hottie (Brittany Daniels) who is head over heels for him while he’s too oblivious to notice. He joins forces with a Native American entrepreneur (Adam Beach) who sells fireworks but not the kind that anyone wants to buy. He shacks up with a bubblegum blonde babe (Jaime Pressley) who may or may not be his long lost sister, which is an extra turn-on for him. Christopher Walken steals the goddamn show (as he always does) as Clem, a janitorial kingpin with serious dance moves and the absolute funniest line in the film, you’ll know the one I’m talking about. Other memorable and very hyperactive work is put forth by Erik Per Sullivan, Caroline Aaron, Fred Ward, Tyler Mane, Richard Rhiele, Eddie Money, Carson Daly, Kevin Nealon, Joe Don Baker, Rosanna Arquette and, uh, Kid Rock just for the hell of it. This is about as silly as comedies get and I laughed like a loon almost the whole way through. Spade makes a great underdog hero in a story that puts him through a ringer of alienation, loneliness and embarrassment but ultimately gives him the happy ending he deserves and the overall narrative is quite sweet. Great film.
What if there was an alien organism out there whose evolutionary process unfolded at about a thousand times faster rate then ours? What if it crash landed on earth and began said process amidst our carefully balanced infrastructure and caused a modicum of pandemonium? Couple that juicy premise with the gooey Ghostbusters sensibility of Ivan Reitman and the X Files vibe that David Duchovny carries and you’ve got Evolution, one hell of a fun film. This raucous SciFi comedy didn’t make much of a critical splash and sort off faded into obscurity but it’s tough for me to see why as I had a fucking blast with it, starting with the oddly balanced comedic quartet of Duchovny and Orlando Jones (in a role that sounds like it was written for Will Smith, how cool would that have been) as college scientists, Julianne Moore as a CDC guru and Seann William ‘Stifler’ Scott as a hapless wannabe fireman. This alien species grows at a scary rate and contains the kind of arbitrarily morphing biodiversity you might find in a Super Mario game. While they kind of seem benign and don’t really have an aggressive or conquering mentality beyond their base evolutionary nature, it still seems like they need to be eradicated on the simple ‘us vs. them’ clause. An asshole military general (Ted Levine) and the blustery, stressed out governor (Dan Akroyd dressed to the nines and stealing the show) have their own ideas but they’re in over their overqualified heads and it’s up to our four heroes to figure something out. This is an escapist comedy that doesn’t take its premise too seriously but rather wants to showcase some lovingly crafted 80’s era practical effects and a few scrappy early 2000’s CGI ones too. It’s got a playful Men In Black mentality that I felt right at home in, and knows how to have a great time. My favourite scene is when four scared housewives open the pantry to find a slug/dog/platypus/seal looking thing and one of them responds dead seriously with: “When did you get a dog??” It’s that kind of lunacy that spurs this into a truly inspired piece. That and all the ooey gooey aliens running around being chased by a shotgun wielding Agent Mulder & Co. Good times.
Alright, it’s 90’s cheesy Scott Glenn shit-kicker action time. The Last Marshal is low budget cheese of the highest order, a broad, violent and deliriously politically incorrect story of Texas lawman Cole McLeary (Glenn), a racist, homophobic, asshole, dickhead old school cowboy who travels to Miami pursuing two vicious killers (Vincent Castellanous and Raymond Cruz) who shot up a church in his town. His brittle persona clashes hilariously with the uber-liberal culture climate of Miami and he makes friction for himself pretty much anywhere he goes as he works with a local unit to take down a strange German drug kingpin played by the great William Forsythe, who clearly has no idea what a German accent sounds like but I love the big guy so much I didn’t care. This one gets points for having Glenn’s character be a complete insensitive douche who never changed his ways or accounts for his atrocious behaviour, there are several key scenes of character development that give him a turnaround and make him a really likeable guy under all that gruff. Just stick with it past the first scene of the film where he manages to heinously insult both Mexicans and Natives in one breath, it’s a startling first impression, but he softens up as the film goes. In terms of action it’s pretty cool, some neat fights, gun battles and a cool boat chase. It’s essentially action background noise, a cool trophy to put on the DVD shelf for Scott Glenn completists, as it’s pretty tough to get your hands on a copy.
Man, if it ain’t sharks in a tornado it’s alligators in a hurricane. Alexander Aja’s Crawl is a million times better monster movie than Sharknado though, the buzz surrounding it peaked with Quentin Tarantino claiming it as his favourite film of 2019 and it definitely lived up to the hype. It’s a no frills creature feature in the sense that it arrives to get down to business, gets down to that business with ruthless efficiency and the slack pulled razor taut and then exits as soon as it showed up, kind of like the hurricane it’s set in. The storm descends upon Florida just as professional swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario) is searching for her dad (Barry Pepper, always awesome) in a neighbourhood that’s about to get hit bad. He’s been attacked by vicious hungry gators while patching up the crawl space and now they’re both trapped down there, with the winds outside, the water rising dangerously all around them and the beasts chomping at their every move. Oh yeah and they’re both severely injured too. It’s a wicked awesome setup and Aja makes good use of it, the gators look pretty damn photorealistic for CGI, the suspense lays on thick as fuck, the surrounding storm makes wonderfully cacophonous atmospheric textures and the gore is just this side of realistic enough to be uncomfortable and just bloody enough to ding the horror genre barometer. I also really appreciated both the acting and writing in our central father daughter relationship, I believed these two were family, cared for them and actually legit tensed up a few times when they almost get eaten alive. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how you make a great horror movie.
It’s crazy times we’re living in because of this Coronavirus, and I hope everyone out there is staying safe, taking necessary precautions and keeping a level head about the pandemic. I also hope you all are finding time amidst the chaos to take care of yourselves, have a beer, cuddle your pets, chill with loved ones and do things that make you happy. I myself am continuing the blogging train to stay sane and this week it’s time to take a look at my top ten favourite films about viruses, yay! Not to be deliberately morbid but it does seem appropriate given our situation and there are some really excellent films out there that deal with outbreaks, from procedural dramas to schlocky horror to fascinating science fiction. Enjoy my picks!
10. Robert Kurtzman’s The Rage
I had to include at least one low budget gore fest on this list because it’s an incredibly formative arena in the genre for me. Legendary FX guru Kurtzman makes hilariously scrappy work in telling of a batshit insane evil Russian scientist (the great Andrew Divoff having a blast) who releases a horrific rage virus into human tests subjects. When they get loose and vultures feed on them the vultures go ape shit and become nasty mutants that go after everyone and it’s all a deliriously violent bit of B horror mayhem. Can’t go wrong with mutant vulture puppets done with knowingly crude effects and a whole lot of choppy editing commotion.
9. Breck Eisner’s The Crazies
This one is interesting because the deadly virus isn’t your typical flesh eating zombie kind but rather infects the population of a small county with mental instability and eventual madness. There’s something so unnerving about the afflicted’s behaviour here and the incredibly suspenseful efforts of one sheriff (Timothy Olyphant) to keep the insanity under control.
8. Neil Marshall’s Doomsday
It’s unfair to call this film simply a virus themed horror flick, as there’s just so much going on. It’s part Escape From New York, part Tomb Raider, part Mad Max like several films collided into each other at top speed and yes, there’s a nasty killer virus here too that wiped out most of Britain’s population. Malcolm McDowell’s scientist turned medieval despot puts it best when he observes: “A virus doesn’t choose a time or place. It doesn’t hate or even care. It just happens.” Astute analysis of such an event.
7. Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever
The gross-out factor is to the extreme and the dark humour dial turned up to the max in this ooey gooey tale about a group of vacationing friends who encounter a horrendous flesh eating virus at their rural getaway. Man there are some wince-out-loud moments here, just watch what it does to a girl shaving her legs, as well as the shocked reaction of one dude who goes to finger bang his girl and comes up with a handful of… well, her I guess. Also that running joke regarding the redneck convenience store owner and the rifle above his counter? Fucking top tier comedy gold right there. Avoid the remake, Roth’s original vision is the real deal.
6. Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s 28 Weeks Later
I’m trying not to make this list too zombie-centric because it somehow feels like cheating but one slot gets designated and it has to be these two superb films. There’s a ferocity, an overwhelming intensity to those infected by this virus that makes both films feel thrillingly alive, dangerously immediate and gives them a cutthroat edge. Oh and I guess I cheated already anyways by putting two films in one spot but I’m one of the rare people who finds Weeks just as amazing as Days so they get to share the pedestal. Robert Carlyle going full Jack Torrence on bath salts man, can’t beat that aesthetic.
5. The Farrelly Brothers’ Osmosis Jones
This is such an underrated flick and if I ever do a top ten list on films that combine live action with animation it’ll make that cut too. Bill Murray is a slobbish zookeeper who contracts a wicked nasty virus played by… Laurence Fishburne lol. Half the film takes place inside his body where a rogue cop white blood cell (Chris Rock) races to stop the fiendish strain before it gets to all the major organs and it’s game over. The animation is slick, uniquely styled and the film just hums along with cool ideas, colourful imagery and terrific voiceover work.
4. Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil
This film has quite the virus, it doesn’t just stop short of turning people into zombies but mutates than into all kinds of giant horrific monsters for Milla Jovovich’s Alice to fight. I think these films are great, particularly this super stylish, sexy first entry that’s got enough blood, psychotic Dobermans, gunfire and security system gadgetry to bring the house down.
3. Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak
While this one does take the big budget Hollywood approach to the virus motif, it’s still a smart, scary and incredibly suspenseful piece, and holy damn the virus here is one monster. “It’s the scariest son of a bitch I’ve ever seen” says Dustin Hoffman’s virologist guru, and he’s not fucking kidding. It has a kill timetable of 24 hours, which are almost insurmountable odds but these people try their best and provide one hell of an engaging film.
2. Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion
This one, while still a Hollywood release, takes the clinical and detached route. Despite being heavily casted with big time A list talent the real star of the show here is the virus itself and it’s ruthless journey from Hong Kong to the states and beyond. Soderbergh employs crisp, precise editing and a sonic jolt of a score from Cliff Martinez to keep this thing moving along at the same scary pace as the pandemic it chronicles.
1. Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys
This one made the top spot on my time travel movie list too and does the same here, it’s just an all timer for me. We don’t even really see the virus here that wiped out most of humanity or it’s effects, most of the film takes place either just before or long after it’s released. But we get a sense of it, in the desolate snowy streets Bruce Willis walks through in a Mr. Freeze looking quarantine suit, filled with spectral roaming animals turned loose from a zoo. We feel the maniacal nature of the insane doomsday prophet (David Morse) who released it too.