A landmark of cinematic excess and a monument to extreme personal waste. What begins as a festival of bad behavior rapidly becomes a volatile carnival of wild transgressions by its conclusion. An ode to the beast within. Chaotic, loud, obnoxious, and utterly unhinged, the film adaptation of the iconic novel Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas is Terry Gilliam on two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, with a half a salt shaker of cocaine on the side, and some other goodies lined up and ready to pummel the senses. Aggressive doesn’t begin to cover this masterful piece of work – it forcefully shoves your face into a kaleidoscopic realm of drug-fueled hyper-insanity, all beautifully stitched together by Hunter Thompson’s indelible prose and the gonzo filmmaking energy of Gilliam and every single one of his collaborators. The obscenely gifted (and one-eyed) cinematographer Nicola Pecorini should have won every award back in the day for his work on this aesthetically ground-breaking piece of cinema. Scene after scene, shot after shot, one is left with a buzzing sensation in their eyes, as the restless camera never stops prowling, swerving, or gliding, producing waves of cinematic euphoria that have rarely been achieved. Few other narrative films have shown the LSD experience for what it truly can be (James Toback’s Harvard Man has an EXCEPTIONAL trip-out sequence as does Larry Clark’s Bully and Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void – DMT in that one…) and you can tell that Gilliam was eager to explore how he could visually convey the monumental bingeing and drugging that Dr. Gonzo and his Lawyer would embark upon. Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro give career-topping performances, never once not feeling 110% committed to the maximum absurdity unfolding all around them. Depp studied Thompson’s mannerisms for months before shooting and the effect that their personal relationship had on his performance can be intrinsically felt at all times. Del Toro had to go off of stories and memories for his bit of methodically uncontrolled madness as Thompson’s animalistic partner in crime, and everything he brought to this film – the fat stomach, the out of control hair, the demonic glint in his eye – added up to creating a truly gluttonous monster of a man. I can remember buying a ticket for this film, back in high school, on the Sunday of its opening weekend, and the cashier remarking incredulously: “Are you sure?! We’ve had a lot of walkouts and angry people…” Seriously, only a fool would go into this movie blind; I hope that the people who bolted early were so shocked and appalled by what they’d seen that they’ll never forget it for the rest of their lives. This isn’t a movie for everyone; in fact, I’d say that there’s a limited audience for this film and other works like it — you need to WANT to be surrounded by drunk and high people for an extended period of time, so as a result, the asinine levels of drug and alcohol fueled debauchery that occur will be a turn off to many, many people. I’ve long been fascinated with Thompson and Gilliam as artists, and this project seemed like a natural fit for Gilliam to tackle considering his anarchic view on life, and how Thompson’s original text sought to challenge every single notion of what everyone felt was normal and acceptable. This is top 10 material of all time for me, a movie I could watch every single day of my life, and it’s something I’ll never grow tired of exploring, debating, and obsessing over.
Sean Mullin’s sweet yet cuttingly cynical romantic dramedy Amira and Sam hits all the right notes. I love that this film went with its heart in the final act. Martin Starr kills it here – if you’re a fan of his deadpan comedy stylings from HBO’s Silicon Valley then you owe it to yourself to see him all cleaned up and looking crisp in this funny, touching, sad, and finally hopeful little gem that knows exactly what to do during its 85 minute run time. The story hinges on Sam (…Starr), an Iraq war veteran who by chance meets Amira (Dina Shihabi), the beautiful niece of his wartime translator who has relocated to New York. Through a series of potentially life altering circumstances, Sam is asked to hide Amira after a run in with the NYPD, while an unexpected romance blossoms between the two lost souls. Their “meet-cute” is wonderful, the chemistry that Starr has with Shihabi is palpable, playful, and sexy, and I loved how Mullin threw in pointed jabs about the messed up immigration system that continually plagues America. Feeling like a cousin in some respects to Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor, this is a film that operates on a few levels, with comedy masking some rather upsetting notions of estrangement, and while what happens in the final moments might strike some as unlikely, I believed it because of how well defined the central relationship was and because Mullin clearly has an affinity for his characters (he also wrote the original screenplay, which seemingly feels based on some of his life experiences to go off the Wikipedia page). Paul Wesley (perfectly prickish), Laith Nakli (perfectly pensive) and David Rasche (perfectly to the point) all do strong supporting work. This is one of those small, under the radar gems that deserves to find an audience!
What else can possibly be said about Martin Scorsese’s towering masterpiece Gangs of New York that hasn’t been said already? Released as America was still healing and reeling from the events of 9/11, this was a forceful, absurdly large production that broke exciting new ground for Scorsese as an epic artist, and it marked the start of a fabulous run of films with Leo DiCaprio. Screw the naysayers or anyone who has a problem with Gangs of New York – the film is Scorsese’s ode to violence and to New York and it’s a staggering achievement from top to bottom. Should it be longer? Maybe. But always remember – Scorsese has said on record that no director’s cut will ever be released because the version that came out in theaters was his “director’s cut,” despite contentious battles with Harvey Scissorhands and the often rumored three plus hour work print cut that made the rounds to select journalists and Scorsese’s close friends. Is it messy in spots? You bet. But I like it messy. I like it chaotic and fucking insane and so filled with gory conflict that you never know where to turn. This is Maximalist Filmmaking from our Resident Master, and holy WOW I had forgotten how opulent and decadent everything was in this mostly unrivaled spectacle. The visceral force of every single scene is crushing, Daniel Day Lewis is on another stratosphere with his performance, and the rush of filmmaking energy that can be felt during those electric opening moments let you know that you’re going to be in for a helluva ride. Leo manned up here – I don’t want to hear it – he wasn’t miscast. He brought it all and left nothing out. The final sequence where he faces off against DDL is fierce and absurdly bloody (a literal river of red at one point) and so awesomely shot, cut, scored, and preformed you can’t help but giggle over all of it. Or maybe that’s just me. Dante Ferretti’s production design truly stands on its head; there’s rarely been a production built from the ground up that felt this real and lived-in and organically alive. The dense, incident packed screenplay from Steven Zaillian, Kenneth Lonnergan, and Jay Cocks is wonderfully dramatic, unexpectedly funny, and stuffed with so much detail both big and small that I’m finding that after at least five or six full viewings there’s stuff still to unlock. The last 30 minutes with the destruction of the Five Points is exhilarating – it’s smashingly violent cinematic spectacle for the ages. The scene with DDL draped in the American flag and telling Leo what life is all about – it’s the stuff of movie legend. The ballsy final shot of the NYC skyline with the Twin Towers standing triumphantly – that was Scorsese’s big “fuck you” to the scum that destroyed those monuments and it feels cut from the same artistic cloth as the closing moments of Steven Spielberg’s Munich. Everything about this movie just screams “I’m Better Than You” and I utterly love it. The cast is extraordinary, with Jim Broadbent owning every single scene he appears in as Boss Tweed, Liam Neeson having his bad-ass cameo, Henry Thomas as a sniveling little traitor, Brendan Gleeson as a man who at times can be a “touch indelicate,” and John C. Reilly as a morally corrupted police officer. Only Cameron Diaz feels out of place, though not as much as I’d previously remembered her being. Her Irish accent was bad, but as usual, she gave it her all, didn’t wimp out in any way, and brought a fierce sexuality that would remain mostly dormant until The Counselor. I’m a Diaz apologist as I’ve long been smitten, but I’ll agree that she’s the weak link in the cast overall. But it’s hardly anything that could sink the film, and it’s not like everyone wasn’t acted off the screen by Day Lewis either…he was the central force of the movie, the black heart and vile soul, and it’s a magnetic work of intensely modulated acting that relies on everything that an actor has at his or her disposal: Voice, eyes, body language, and the ability to convey emotion both through talking and through silence. Filmmaking rarely is this bold and exuberant when $100 million is at stake and it easily rests as one of Scorsese’s finest, most ambitious accomplishments. “That my friends, is the minority vote!”
I’ve written about this brilliant film numerous times but that’s not going to stop me from doing it again. Simply put, Arlington Road is one of the most dynamic political thrillers ever made, a film that would never get produced and released in today’s current social landscape, and without question, it sits on the top shelf with other notable genre entries including Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View. A true product of the late 90’s and partially born out of the Oklahoma City bombing which had occurred just four years prior, it’s one of the best films from the decade that really stuck to the devious twist ending (Fincher’s 90’s trio of Seven, The Game, and Fight Club all come to mind), and now that we all live in the ghost of 9/11, a film with as downbeat of an ending such as this one feels almost novel and antique, let alone remotely possible. The prevalence of the cinematic antihero took a backseat in the early 2000’s in the wake of the terrorist attack in NYC, but we’re starting to see a resurgence of that theme; Arlington Road feels like the work of prescient filmmakers who took real life events, looked at them for the root cause of their evil, and showcased a phenomenal two-hander between neighbors who are living on entirely separate ends of the political and mental spectrum. This is a film that still stings with a serious force, delivering an ending as diabolical, clever, and haunting as the final moments of Seven (yes…really!). Mark Pellington’s unnerving, nervy, visually arresting direction created a thriller that deserves serious reconsideration as a stellar example of a genre picture that transcends its root elements, especially given the last 15 years of worldwide social turmoil, violence, and unrest. Released in the summer of 1999, this was more of an October movie, and it was lost among the blockbusters of the season, despite some passionate critical notices and vocal support from ecstatic admirers. I can remember going to a test screening of this film, and sitting in the theater totally riveted, and then being positively blown away when the final scene unfolded and the credits began to run.
Starring Jeff Bridges as a paranoid college professor who starts to suspect that his post-card-perfect neighbors are domestic terrorists (the chilling Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack as his ominous wife), Arlington Road has a zero-fat screenplay written with care and intelligence by Ehren Kruger, and was directed with pulse-quickening panache by Pellington, who also crafted the underrated chiller The Mothman Prophecies, the charming 50’s set drama Going All the Way, the quirky spiritual comedy Henry Poole Is Here, and the little seen but extraordinarily intense male weepie I Melt With You, which plays like a heightened version of the landmark 1970’s picture Husbands crossed with the early-80’s relic The Big Chill. He’s an eclectic filmmaker who stems from the music video world, someone who always has an interesting story to tell, and it’s a shame that he didn’t become more prolific after Arlington Road busted him out of the gate. And it’s just beyond shocking to think that Kruger, who exhibited so much promise with this amazingly calibrated screenplay which double backed on itself in the final reel (only inviting closer scrutiny), would then go on to churn out one piece of forgettable crap after another, with only a few exceptions (The Ring, The Skeleton Key). He’s been responsible for a literal roll-call of poorly structured movies with inane dialogue (The Transformers series, Reindeer Games, Impostor, The Ring 2, Blood & Chocolate, and The Brothers Grimm, which was barely salvaged from total train-wreck status by director Terry Gilliam and his usual brand of visual lunacy), ultimately becoming the ultimate paycheck whore. And while that’s good for him and his bank account, it’s robbed him of any sense of class or dignity. And it’s head-scratching because only an individual with clear talent could have devised a script as scary and as smart as Arlington Road.
The explosive opening moments with Bridges trying to help an unknown child who has had their hand blown off in an unseen accident are the stuff of genuine nightmares, and the way that Kruger kept piling on the surprises and twisting the screws within the narrative all the way until the end literally makes this an edge of your seat thriller, especially for the uninitiated. The opening credits are very stylish, casually evoking the trendsetting title sequence of Seven (also designed by Kyle Cooper), but still being its own thing, with tomandandy and Angelo Badalamenti’s creepy score immediately setting the mood. Bobby Bukowski’s crisply composed and tightly coiled 2.35:1 widescreen cinematography makes great use of open space in some instances, and then gets up close and personal when the situation calls for it, and in tandem with Conrad Buff’s razor-sharp editing, Arlington Road hurtles through a series of increasingly sketchy events all the way up to a tragic and devastating conclusion. Cusack and Hope Davis share a now famous telephone booth scene that’s still creepy to this day, and the way that Pellington, Kruger, and everyone involved at the studio level didn’t wimp out during the final act when push came to shove still has to be applauded. And the idea that Jeff Bridges delivered this sweaty, unhinged, emotionally distressed performance directly after his legendary, stonerific work in The Big Lebowski is a further testament to his unending talent. And to think – he’d go on a year later to play the coolest President of the United States in Rod Lurie’s underrated and fantastic The Contender! He’s one of our great acting talents, capable of anything, always ready to surprise.
Now – FULL SPOILER WARNING – it’s almost inconceivable to think that studios and audiences would be down for the finale that Arlington Road presents these days. In one of the greatest bits of pull-the-rug out-from-underneath-you madness, the film ends with Robbins’s domestic terror attack actually succeeding, and not only is it a triumph, but the otherwise heroic Bridges becomes named as the chief architect of the entire plan, showing how Robbins had been playing and courting Bridges the entire time, turning him into an unwilling and unwitting accomplice. Yes, a lot of stuff has to happen during the final act for all of the pieces of the puzzle to come together the way the filmmakers want them too, but who cares – this is a movie, a fiendishly constructed one, and something with this sort of audacity has to be complemented. I love movies like this and The Game and Stay and Running Scared and Unbreakable and Fight Club and The Prestige, films that have one final tick up their sleeve at the end that puts everything into fresh perspective (sometimes multiple perspectives) and leaves you with that special feeling of having your mind shattered in all the ways made possible by great cinema. And then, to add insult to injury, not only is Bridges a national disgrace in his death, but his son is shuttled off to “live with relatives,” without the knowledge of anything that his father tried to do to stop the explosion from happening. Throughout the years, the climax of Arlington Road has been the subject of endless debate, with some being positively infuriated over the idea of the bad guy winning (and thoroughly destroying his opponent!) while others have embraced the unsettling implications of the plot and the notion that sometimes, evil does find a way of succeeding. It feels unlikely that a big-star project like this one could get made in today’s hypersensitive climate, especially in light of the failure of something like the ultra-nihilistic The Counselor; only an independent production could pull this sort of thing off nowadays. Arlington Road has integrity and a confidence that backs up its twisty and twisted narrative, so that when all of the pieces to the complex puzzle arrive, not only does everything fit, you don’t feel cheated, but rather, exhilarated.
Lone is an arresting display of images, sounds, ideas, and thoughts, all coming to resemble ravishing visual poetry in all the best ways that short films are able to demonstrate. Directed by Mark Pellington, this endlessly stylish and ultimately haunting 55 minute experimental piece feels like a series of interconnected music videos telling a surrealistic and sometimes hallucinatory story of life, death, love, sex, identity, and how people come to recognize each other during moments of great personal turmoil or tragedy. Resembling something you might see playing at a modern art exposition or exhibit, there’s a random and baroque quality to the startling imagery that will stretch the creative sides of your brain if you take the time to experience this spellbinding piece of visual communication. I was reminded of Malick (especially the final act of The Tree of Life) and Buñuel and Kubrick at various points while watching this obviously personal project that must have come from a brave part of Pellington’s soul as an artist; he’ll forever be a unique and idiosyncratic filmmaker that’s impossible to pin down. An ace director of music videos since the mid 80’s, having worked with the likes of Public Enemy, U2, Pearl Jam, Anthrax, INXS, Alice in Chains, NIN, Bon Jovi, and many others, it’s abundantly clear from frame one of this staggeringly composed effort that Pellington has a dynamic and confident grasp on visual storytelling, and how to convey story and emotion with color and camerawork, as well as an incredible sense for music and well timed editing. Lone was a collaboration between Pellington and musical artist Chelsea Wolfe (previously unknown to me), which takes the themes and music from her album “Pain is Beauty” and sets the songs to increasingly gorgeous visual compositions which will be hard to shake if you have the time and interest in checking something out that’s wildly abstract, lovingly avant-garde, and wholly unique. It also has the power to invade your psyche, providing you with sights that have the power to enlighten. Lone is available to stream in HD via Amazon and ITunes.
Mark Pellington’s The Mothman Prophecies is my kind of paranormal scary movie, the sort that can’t be explained, won’t be explained, and doesn’t want to be explained. Less a ghost story and more a tale of the literal unknown, the film is “based on true events” and eschewed blood and gore in favor of extreme atmospherics and genuine tension. Richard Gere, playing in a genre that he’s not normally accustomed too, was excellent as a grieving widower who is hell bent on figuring out what his dead wife saw immediately before a major car accident, which revealed a long gestating brain tumor, which leads to her death. Laura Linney, hot off of her Oscar nomination for her bravura performance in You Can Count On Me, was strong as a local cop who helps Gere put the shadowy pieces of the puzzle together, and Will Patton did some reliable and unnerving character work as a man suffering from a similar set of circumstances to Gere’s. The fact that so many separate people had the same sort of visitations or experiences are what makes The Mothman Prophecies all the more strange and unsettling. The big set piece of the film occurs in the final beats of the home stretch, and shows the insane and catastrophic destruction of a small-town bridge, one that’s loaded with cars and passengers; it’s one of the best examples of disaster related action I’ve seen. Seemingly accomplished with little to no CGI, this sequence is a masterclass of editing, cinematography, sound effects, camera placement, and shot selection, with each image blistering into the next, causing a rush of dangerous excitement. None of it looks shot on a studio back lot, there are no noticeable green screen shots, the stunt work is exceptional, and the entire thing feels entirely realistic. I can remember seeing this film in the theater, alone, and being thoroughly sketched out by it, if for no other reason than that I actually believed it. I am not one for horror movies, I don’t believe in “ghosts,” and while I hold out some hope that I’ll see a UFO at some point in my life, the scare-tactics genre is one that I’m not a huge fan of. But The Mothman Prophecies is something different, a chiller born out of character and motivation more than anything else, and if even a shred of it is to be believed or at least empathized with, then something truly strange and sinister did occur in Point Pleasant, VA all those years ago. Fred Murphy’s mostly nocturnal widescreen cinematography fills the frame with varying shades of darkness, takes full advantage of moonlight, and even has the chance to get expressionistic with some of the images; that’s the artist in Pellington, infusing a genre entry with more class and style than is normally expected, and it goes a long way in keeping the effectively familiar narrative from ever going stale. And it goes without saying, the creepy musical score by tomandandy amps up the anxiety, fully complimenting Pellington’s assured visual compositions while never intruding on Gere’s emotionally affecting performance.
Metro Manila centers on a poor rice farming family from the Northern region of the Philippines. After finding out that their seed haul won’t bring in enough money for the season, Oscar and his wife Mai and their two young children set off for Manila, in the hopes of somehow bettering their lives. Of course, the naïve farmers are taken advantage of almost immediately upon entering the city, and they’re forced to make ends meet any way they can. Oscar eventually lands a job as an armored truck escort, a highly dangerous job in a highly volatile city, and he’s paired with a fast-talking partner named Ong who quickly takes Oscar under his wing and shows him the ropes. Meanwhile, the only work that Mai can find, as she’s a natural beauty, is as a dancer at one of the local strip clubs, where she’s made to deal with drunkards and leeches who are looking for some cheap fun. The film poses the all-important question: What do you do for your family when push comes to shove and there are mouths to feed and teeth that need to be looked at by a dentist? You do whatever it is that you can. The film kicks into high gear around the one hour mark when Oscar realizes that all is not exactly what it seems at his job, and the complexities of his co-workers begin to come to light. How it all plays out will be left for you to discover, but what Ellis has managed to do so well is convey the hardships and the plight of these people while never condescending to anyone at any time; the film feels authentic, lived-in, and for better or worse, incredibly raw. The performances are uniformly excellent, with Jake Macapagal delivering a searing performance as Oscar, and as the film progresses, you really get the sense of how much he loves his family and how he’s willing to do whatever it takes to keep them safe. John Arcilla steals all of his scenes as the conflicted and excitable Ong, and as Mai, Althea Vega brought a natural tenderness to her role of a mother who refuses to be humiliated more than once, especially in front of her children.
Made with extreme formal care and boasting a visual aesthetic that is both lushly poetic and incredibly visceral when called for, Ellis has seemingly made exactly the film he set out to make, and while never cynical or preachy, the film is a thoroughly bleak reminder of how hellish life can be for people who are living in poverty in an area such as the one showcased in this film. The action scenes crackle with immediacy and fury, and the film’s numerous flashback sequences amp up the cerebral quality of the entire narrative, almost providing the story with an eerie, almost ghostly subtext. Metro Manila works on multiple levels: It’s a thrilling and unexpected heist film, an intense family drama that anyone can relate too, a sly social statement about an entire nation, and a fantastic piece of overall storytelling that takes familiar elements and subverts them continually with what seems to be genuine excitement for the element of surprise. There was a point at which, I’d say roughly half-way, where I thought I knew where this meticulously planned piece of work was heading, and I’m so happy to say that I was wrong on almost every count. The ending is appropriately dark but at the same time oddly uplifting, and even though the last act almost invites extra scrutiny because of how intensely detailed it all is, everything adds up wonderfully, resulting in an absorbing piece of entertainment that makes important topical points without ever becoming over the top. Metro Manila is a film that not enough people seem to have seen and I really hope that this changes very soon, and that Ellis is fast at work with another movie.