“It’s high noon at the far end of the universe”, the dvd poster of Oblivion states. Years before the underrated Cowboys & Aliens came out, Oblivion came along, and it’s definitely gives the concept a better, and quirkier run for its money. Granted it’s essentially a B movie, and it’s meagre budget shows to the point where it looks like a grade school play. But therein lies it’s charm. It’s got a cast of supremely wacky old west stereotypes played by some surprising, familiar genre faces who you’d never thought to be seen rough housing together in the same flick. It also has some lovingly crafted, creaky stop motion animation that calls Harryhausen to mind and brings to life some super weird alien hybrid thingies that look almost Henson-esque as well. When a lone spaceship lands on the outskirts of an intergalactic desert town, it’s occupant brings trouble along with him. He’s a nasty, one eyed reptilian alien gunslinger named RedEye, played by the inimitable Andrew Divoff. He growling, bad tempered son of a bitch, and his first order of business is to ruthlessly slay the town’s sheriff, and claim it for himself. What he doesn’t count on is the Sheriff’s son (Richard Joseph Paul), a prospector who soon returns to Oblivion looking for answers, along with his Native friend Buteo (the late great Jimmie F. Skaggs). All kinds of townsfolk end up in the crossfire, including drunken Doc Valentine (a priceless George Takei), slinky brothel owner Miss Kitty (Julie Newmar), a cyborg police deputy (Meg Foster), a pawnbroker (Isaac Hayes) and the town’s elegant undertaker, played by Carol Struckyen who some may remember as the giant from Twin Peaks. RedEye has a smoking hot henchwoman and girlfriend named Lash, played by B movie scream queen Musetta Vander, who gets the vibe they’re going for here and sinks her teeth into the material with admirable abandon. The film sticks to its guns despite being obviously silly and somewhat falling apart in a climax that oddly is too darkly shot to make out properly. What it lacks in resources it makes up for in imagination, which it has in spades. Alien scorpions, cyborg deputies, leather clad babes are but a few of the genre mashing treats to be found here. Great stuff. Oh and check out the sequel as well, called Oblivion 2: Backlash, it’s a nice companion piece.
Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy is one of the most unsettling film experiences you will ever sit through, and the damn thing is only 90 minutes. It’s disconcerting, ambiguous and seems to exist simply to spin the viewer’s anxiety reflex into a storm and make our stomach turn loops. It’s a trim entry into the psychological upset sub genre, and puts a frazzled looking Jake Gyllenhaal through a wringer as he pursues a mysterious doppelgänger through the streets of Toronto, a bustling city that feels oddly desolate as glanced upon by Villeneuve’s camera, adding to the themes of paranoia and mental unrest. Gyllenhaal plays a twitchy college professor who is stuck in a closed loop routine: he gives lectures at the local university, drives home to his emotionally inaccessible girlfriend (Melanie Laurant), rinse and repeat. A chink appears in the chain when he becomes aware of another man in the city who appears to be his identical twin. The other man is a small time actor with a pregnant wife (Sarah Gadon) and a decidedly more nasty approach to the situation than the professor. The two of the, circle each other in a disturbing game of not so much cat and mouse, but Jake and Jake, both of them having not a clue as to what is going on, the edges of madness inching closer to both of their perception. Are they twins? Are there even two? Is it just one of them, losing their mind? There’s very freaky dream sequences with the constant imagery of spiders, both large and small, and what do they mean? Who’s to tell? Denis has stated in interviews that there is both rhyme and reason to his creation here, but whether he will ever divulge them remains to be seen. Perhaps it’s better left illusory, a formula for entrancing audiences that has already proved to work well for David Lynch. The moment that the man behind the curtain reveals the conscious meaning of his very subconscious efforts, the spell is no doubt broken. In any case, it’s a very hard film to process or focus on, our nerves jittering constantly and sabotaging any modicum of rational though that we might employ in deciphering the piece. This may be called style and atmosphere over substance by some, but even in not comprehending what’s going on, we feel deeply that there is some sort of cryptic cohesion if we are able to feel between the lines, maybe coming up empty handed ultimately, but knowing within us that we’ve attained wealth to our soul simply by bearing witness. I can’t say it’s a film that I love, or that I would watch again, but it’s certainly one that won’t leave my memories any time soon, and that is an achievement no matter how you look at it. It’s also got one of the scariest and most unexpected endings to any film I’ve ever seen, taking you so off guard that you feel like you’re going to have a coronary. It’s filmed in sickening piss yellow saturation which adds to the overall disconcerting nature, and quite the striking colour choice as well. I can see why this one was released with little fanfare or marketing, despite the presence of heavyweights Villeneuve and Gylenhaal. It’s difficult stuff, a movie that frustratingly soars above your head, onward towards its intensely personal and psychological destination. It’s up to us to jump, grasp and attempt to reach as high as the piece in order to get what we will out of it. Good luck.
Victor Nunoz’s Coastlines is a nice small town drama with some top players all giving fine work, causing me to wonder why more people haven’t heard of it, and how come it didn’t get a wider release. In any case, it’s low key and really captures the quaint rural vibe of less densely populated areas in the states. The cast is absolutely to die for, consisting mainly of very distinct, frequently garish actors who all play it dead straight and relaxed, which is a huge switch up for most of them. Timothy Olyphant plays Sonny Mann, an ex convict recently released from prison, quietly arriving back to his Florida hometown, and the dregs of the life he left behind. His Pa (the ever awesome Scott Wilson) is conflicted by long simmering resentment, and the love for his son buried just beneath. Sonny reconnects with his best friend Dave Lockhart (Josh Brolin), who has become the town’s sheriff in the years gone by. Sparks fly between Dave’s wife (Sarah Wynter) and Sonny, creating a rift between the two and illustrating Sonny’s unavoidable knack for creating trouble for himself, and those around him. Further tension comes along when the town’s local crime lord Fred Vance (William Forsythe at his most genial and sedated) tries to strong-arm Sonny into assisting with nefarious deeds, using his younger brother Eddie (Josh Lucas) to convince him. Even when tragedy strikes and these characters go head to head, it’s in the most relaxed, laconic way that permeates southern life. Robert Wisdom has a nice bit, Angela Bettis shows up as a girl with a thing for bad boys, and watch for the late great Daniel Von Bargen as the local Sheriff. This one fits nicely into a niche that leans heavily on small town drama, dips its toes ever so slightly into thriller territory, and is a charming little piece that’s worth a look to see these actors on an acting sabbatical.
Like many people of my generation in North America, the first exposure to The Street Fighter (1974), starring Sonny Chiba, was probably the brief clip shown in Tony Scott’s True Romance (1993), which was written by Quentin Tarantino, a big fan of Chiba, an actor who got his start appearing in science fiction and crime thrillers but is best known for his martial arts movies, chief among them The Street Fighter series. True Romance’s main character celebrates his birthday by going to see a Sonny Chiba triple feature at a local theater and there he meets the girl of his dreams. In explaining the allure of Terry Tsurgui – Chiba’s character in the film – he sums it up best by telling her, “Well, he ain’t so much a good guy as he is just one bad motherfucker. I mean, he gets paid by people to fuck guys up.” Based on the worldwide success of Enter the Dragon (1973), the Toei Company decided to release its own martial arts action films and the result was The Street Fighter. It would be this film that would make Chiba an international movie star. The film went on to garner a notorious reputation for its bone-crunching violence, which earned it an unprecedented X rating in North America – the first film to do so based solely on violence.
Terry Tsurgui (Chiba) is a mercenary hired by the Yakuza to free a convicted killer named Junjo (Masashi Ishibashi) from prison who is about to be executed. The man killed seven people with his fighting skills, which one prison guard says sarcastically, “He must think he’s Bruce Lee.” Terry enters the prison under the guise of a Buddhist priest (?!) and engineers quite a clever breakout by zapping Junjo with a move that induces paralysis thereby making him unfit for execution. It takes less than four minutes into the film and we get a pretty cool fight sequence in slow motion complete with funky sound effects that were the hallmark of 1970s era martial arts films. If that weren’t enough, a fantastic spaghetti western-esque theme song by way of Shaft-era Isaac Hayes plays over the opening credits sequence and off we go.
With his sidekick and comic relief Ratnose (Goichi Yamada), Terry hijacks the ambulance carrying Junjo en route to the hospital. When the man’s brother and sister are unable to pay up, Terry proceeds to mess them up, including sending the brother out a window to his death and selling the sister into prostitution. When Terry dares to ask for more money to kidnap a rich Japanese heiress in order to control her fortune, his employers decide to kill him because Terry knows too much. As we all know from these kinds of films that that is a fatal mistake and boy, does he make them pay.
Terry only really cares about money and asks a lot for his services. He is a gruff, no-nonsense kind of guy. The film wastes no time in establishing Terry’s badass credentials as he takes on more than six guys that stupidly try to ambush him in his apartment. There’s a wild-eyed intensity that is quite unnerving to his opponents. What Terry lacks in finesse, he more than makes up for in ferocity. Subtlety is certainly not his forte. For example, he attempts to tail his target in a car without caring about or knowing to follow from a discreet distance. For his troubles, the car he and Ratnose are in is grabbed by a construction vehicle and dropped off a bridge! However, Terry’s not invincible and gets his ass handed to him when he takes on the head of a karate school who knew his father. There’s no denying that Sonny Chiba has a unique screen presence and an intense stare that puts guys like Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal to shame.
Goichi Yamada’s Ratnose is a character whose only purpose appears to be as comic relief (“Who do you think you’re talking to, Madame Butterfly?” he says to Terry at one point in reference to his lousy cooking skills), groveling and being endlessly insulted by Terry. However, he does get his self-sacrificing heroic moment in the sun and this selfless act draws a rare tear of emotion from Terry, which in a weird sort of way humanizes the film’s brutal protagonist.
The Street Fighter is chock full of great, cheesy B-movie dialogue intoned by a guy dubbing Terry’s voice trying to affect a gravely Clint Eastwood-esque vibe. One choice gem has Terry tell some assailants, “So I’m to die because I know who it is that controls the Yakuza here? Isn’t that mean and nasty?” Another gem comes when Junjo goes into an oxygen coma, collapses right before being executed and a prison official asks someone nearby, “You’re a lawyer – what must I do?” It is how this line is said – in stilted, badly done dubbing – that makes it funny. However, there are also some pretty cool lines, too, like when Junjo confronts Terry and tells him, “I’ve waited a long time to settle the score.” Terry replies dismissively, “Sorry, I’ve more urgent things right now.” How cool is that? Yeah, I’m not too busy completing a job to kick your ass right now… maybe later.
In The Street Fighter, Terry punches, kicks and viciously gouges his way through a series of brutal encounters. Among the scenes that earned the film an X rating are one in which Terry castrates a would-be rapist with his bare hands, which still manages to shock with its intensity and graphic nature even by today’s standards. Guys are punched so hard they spit out mouthful of teeth and spew judicious amounts of blood. But the film saves the best (and nastiest) move for the final showdown, an impressive battle as Terry proceeds to single-handedly decimate a tanker boat full of henchmen with a climactic fight on deck in the pouring rain.
Shigehiro Ozawa’s direction is appropriately dynamic with plenty of skewed camera angles, slow motion, black and white flashbacks and even an X-ray shot of Terry crushing a guy’s skull with his fist. How badass is that? He makes excellent use of the widescreen frame, especially during the fight scenes, letting them play out along the entire length of the frame.
When New Line Cinema picked up the film in North America, it was renamed The Street Fighter from its original title, which translated into the infinitely cooler sounding, Clash, Killer Fist! It earned an X rating for the gory violence and the studio re-edited the film significantly, cutting out 16 minutes in order to get an R rating. The Street Fighter was an international hit spawning two sequels, Return of The Street Fighter (1974) and The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge (1974) as well as a spin-off film, Sister Street Fighter (1974). None of them hold a candle to the one that started it all – a cult film that dispenses with niceties like political correctness and restraint for an unbridled romp through the criminal underworld led by Chiba’s unrepentant mercenary. For fans of down ‘n’ dirty martial arts movies, this one is pure catnip and a potent reminder of how good a decade the ‘70s was for the genre where you could have a mainstream masterpiece like Enter the Dragon along with no-holds barred carnage on display in The Street Fighter.
Lethal. Cold. Innovative. Andrew Dominik’s wildly underrated crime thriller Killing Them Softly was one of the best movies from 2012, and it stands as a personal favorite in this well-travelled genre. I love sleazy stories about disreputable characters and this film lovingly explores the criminal underworld with dark humor, graphic (and scary) violence, and a ruthless and impactful message about capitalism that perfectly serves the savage material. Based on the novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins, Dominik went for the throat with this spare and brutal piece of crime fiction, presenting a bleak worldview that feels appropriately cynical. Brad Pitt went extra mean in this film as a deadly mob enforcer who lives by a very strict code of conduct. His tack-sharp performance feels like a spiritual cousin to his work and character in Ridley Scott’s brilliant, diamond-cut thriller The Counselor; I love how Pitt seems unafraid to shred his pretty-boy image with degenerate scum such as these guys in these particular films, going with ungainly facial hair and allowing his great looks to be repeatedly upended. He’s been one of my favorite actors for the last 20 years for many reasons; I can think of so few films that he’s starred in that I haven’t enjoyed. And coming after The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Dominik yet again switched gears and styles, but presented no less of an all-encompassing atmosphere and cinematic world.
In Killing them Softly, Pitt is called in to handle a relatively straight forward situation after two drug-addict losers (the fantastic pair of Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, grimy and glazed-over and lovingly desperate) knock over a mob-controlled poker game being supervised by a low-level hood (Ray Liotta, perfectly pathetic). Richard Jenkins lays on the smarm as Pitt’s casually funny criminal world contact who serves as the middle man, and James Gandolfini brilliantly subverts his own gangster visage with a sad and delicate portrayal of an alcoholic, depressed hit-man who doesn’t have the physical energy or mental strength to do what’s asked of him. The scene with Gandolfini, Pitt, and a tired prostitute who takes no shit is one of the sharpest, funniest bits of cinema in recent memory, totally vulgar and grotesque and beautifully acted by the trio; just watch Pitt’s genius facial expressions during this entire back and forth. This is a nasty movie about nasty people doing nasty things, with lots of vulgar discussions of sex by low-class hoodlums, and more than one instance of punishing, crushing violence. And I love the ferocious final moment of the movie with Pitt and Jenkins at the bar – it’s note perfect how this movie finishes up. Dominik’s terse dialogue is grim and masculine and poetic, and the obsessive detail he takes with each character makes for an extremely rewarding viewing experience. Greig Fraser’s dynamic, beyond stylish cinematography is always finding new and interesting ways to visually convey ideas and themes, with the wonderfully attuned editing in perfect synch with the style of the imagery. And the way Dominik uses sound is nothing short of show-stopping, as numerous scenes take on an extra, ominous edge due to the sonic quality.
At this point, I’ll happily follow Dominik anywhere he goes as a filmmaker. His searing debut, the Australian prison film Chopper, showcased a then-unknown Eric Bana in a performance that sits alongside Tom Hardy in Bronson, Michael Fassbender in Hunger, and Jack O’Connell in Starred Up. His second film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, was one of many masterpieces released in the crowded 2007 season, and it never truly got the attention it deserved. And much like Jesse James, Killing Them Softly was another effort that came and went with barely a mention from critics at zero attention from the Academy, a movie that was well received but that died a quick commercial death. Granted, it’s not a happy-go-lucky little movie or an easy to digest studio potboiler with at least one sympathetic character, but it deserved to do better at the box office, and it’s a movie that seems to have slipped by a great number of people. If you like your crime films to be unsentimental, menacing, and distinctly funny thanks to a sick sense of humor, look no further than this edgy, volatile effort that seems delighted by the sordid lives of low-class reprobates.
All Richard Linklater has done throughout his stellar if often overlooked career is make one excellent film after another. He’s worked in a variety of genres but always with that effortlessly casual style, and Fast Food Nation easily ranks as one of his best, and most curiously least discussed pieces of work. It’s sort of like The Insider in that, take something that a vast majority of the American populace is addicted to, in this case fast food instead of cigarettes, and nobody is going to really want to hear about it from a cinematic entertainment standpoint. This film is fantastic, topical, and purposefully alarming, featuring an insane cast of stars and character actors including Patricia Arquette, Luis Guzman, Bobby Cannavale, Bruce Willis, Greg Kinnear, Kris Kirstofferson, Wilmer Valderrama, Paul Dano, Lou Taylor Pucci, Ashley Johnson, and Catalina Sandino Moreno, with Linklater basing his scapel sharp screenplay on Eric Schlosser’s best selling novel, and taking no prisoners at any point during his tapesty style narrative. The bloody and disgusting sequences inside of the cattle slaughterhouse are painful to watch, Cannavale is absolutely fantastic as an evil letch taking advantage of a seriously corrput system, and the “There’s shit in the meat” sequence between Kinnear and Willis is absolutely hilarious. This is a very dark satire and all too honest indictment of American life and it’s ridiculous how low of a profile this film has.
James Mangold is a director who takes nothing but top shelf scripts and spins them into gold, and Girl Interrupted is a shining example of this. It’s based on a book by Susannah Kayson in which she outlines an 18 month stay at a mental ward sometime during the 60’s. Mangold adapts her book for the screen, gathers an excellent cast of talented gals and a couple guys, and makes a film that holds up today like it was still it’s release week in 1999. Winona Ryder plays Susanna, a reckless girl who is labeled wayward and unstable by her parents, committed to a facility by her stern psychiatrist (Red Forman himself, Kurtwood Smith). She’s a little rough around the edges, but one senses the innate sensibility to her that perhaps has been buried under turbulent behaviour not by anything within her, but by the constricting nature of the time period she has been born into. In any case, she finds herself thrown into an environment she didn’t expect, with many other girls, some of which she clashes with, some of which she ends up befriending, and one that.. well, defies classification, really. The girl in question is Lisa, played by a fantastically fired up Angelina Jolie who nearly combusts upon herself in her furious performance. Lisa has been dubbed nearly unable to treat, yet simply has the kind of soul that doesn’t fit into a box, let alone lend itself to scholarly dissection. Ice cool one moment, a raging typhoon the next, and holding a dense riot shield over any trace of her true emotions every second, she’s an enigmatic, elemental wild card. It’s the best work I’ve ever seen from Jolie, getting her a well earned oscar nod. She teaches Susanna some lessons that only people on that side of the glass can comprehend, confounding the facility’s head doctor (Vanessa Redgrave) and puzzling a kind orderly (Whoopi Goldberg), two rational people who simply can’t understand the kind resolution and companionship that often comes out of irrational, unconventional interaction that almost always is seen as ‘unstable’. Ryder is pitch perfect and carries her share of the load, but despite being the protagonist, it’s Jolie’s show all the way. She’s unbelievably good and will break the heart of both first time viewers and veterans who put the dvd in every so often for a tearful revisit. The late Brittany Murphy is great as Daisy, another complicated girl, and Clea Duvall scores points as Georgina, the shy and reserved one. There’s also work from Jared Leto Elizabeth Moss, Angela Bettis, Bruce Altman, Mary Kay Place, Kadee Strickland, Misha Collins and Jeffrey Tambor. Tender, patient and non judgmental are qualities which are essential in films of this subject matter, as well as empathy from both viewer and filmmaker, to take a look at these girls and even though we may not understand what is going on with them or their beaviour, to simply bear witness, and be there for them. Mangold knows this and acts accordingly, leading to a beautiful film of the highest order. Viewers are sure to do the same, completing the artistic ring full circle.