Tag Archives: action

Jim Mickle’s Cold In July

Cold In July is a fairly ambiguous title that’s just this side of sinister but could mean anything. To writer director team Jim Mickle and Nick Damici, it means an unbearably intense mystery about fathers and sons, evil rearing it’s head in small town America, noir, perhaps the first buddy flick with three leads and a beautifully crafted 80’s aesthetic complete with an electronic John Carpenter style score that makes the film.

Michael ‘Dexter’ C. Hall plays a somewhat meek family man who accidentally shoots a prowler in his living room one summer night. Case closed? Not really, as it seems the burglar has a father (Sam Shepherd) who comes looking for answers. This guy is both a veteran and an ex con though, which makes him about the hardest piece of work you could find, but… soon it’s apparent that something isn’t quite right. The county Sheriff (Damici also doubles as a very fine actor) is clearly not being straight with Hall, dodging specific questions and veiling the truth. Eventually there’s an uneasy truce between Hall and Shepherd as they try to smoke out a deep set conspiracy, but things *really* kick into high gear with the arrival of Don Johnson’s Jim Bob Luke, a private detective with attitude to spare who blasts into the narrative in a giant red Cadillac convertible that becomes its own character and signifies a certain liveliness for the second two acts.

One of the coolest things about this one is that it’s billed as a mystery, which it lives up to and then some. From where it starts out as a nightmarish home invasion thriller to the levels of truth uncovered in the final act is quite the journey, an unpredictable journey that gets shockingly dark and perverse yet always retains a sense of humour, is constantly exciting and atmospheric. It always helps when the characters you take a trip like this with are engaging, and the dynamic between the three is something special. Hall is innocent enough until the darkness shows up at his door, Shepherd is the man of few words and lots of action, a cantankerous, difficult man whose moral compass eventually comes brutally into the forefront. Johnson straight up steals the show though, Jim Bob may well be his best character and even though the guy is kind of larger than life and ridiculous, he still fits within the narrative and Don makes him a tangible human being underneath the gloss and bluster. Watch for Wyatt Russell (Kurt’s kid), Happy Anderson, Lenny Flaherty and Vinessa Shaw. The original score by Jeff Grace is so damn good and carries this story nervously scene to scene with nerve shattering tension and those classic electronic synth tones that are coming back in such a big way. This was kind of overlooked on release but stands as tall as any big budget Hollywood crime thriller I’ve seen, and taller than many. Mickle keeps the direction tight and streamlined but allows for moments of character while keeping the story hurtling along with terrific momentum. Great film.

-Nate Hill

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Jordan Downey’s The Head Hunter

It’s amazing what you can do with a low budget, especially when all you’ve got to blow is thirty grand, but Jordan Downey works small scale magic with The Head Hunter, an inventive, atmospheric Viking era horror story that is one of the most creatively entertaining films I’ve seen so far this year.

In the vein of stuff like Willow and The 13th Warrior, here we see a misty, desolate Nordic landscape (actually Portugal) and the fearsome warrior (Christopher Rygh) who wanders through it in spectral, gaunt armour, always on the hunt for hordes of mythical ghosts, goblins and werewolves, a bounty hunter of sorts who displays the heads of his quarries as trophies on the wall of his forest abode. The only creature he hasn’t yet slain is the one that killed his young daughter (Cora Kaufman) years before, and it’s his brutal purpose in life to hunt this thing down over foggy mountains, through dark caves and have his vengeance. There’s an inspired sense of detail here and much of the first half we simply see his routine in studious fashion, going out to kill these beasts (mostly offscreen, as budget permits), coming home all shredded up (thank god for gooey prosthetic effects) and using a homemade magic potion to regenerative damaged tissue and heal himself. I’ve read reviews saying this is boring or slow or goes nowhere but those critics have their heads in the sand, because these extended sequences are terrific for setting up character, getting a sense for the space and time around him and treating ourselves to the lovingly handcrafted production design, from ancient manuscripts he studies to the varied heads piked up on his living room wall. When the action and horror does come later it all pays off because we’ve sat with this guy for a while, learnt his ways and are ready to see how he handles things when they go haywire. They do, but I won’t spoil the fun because there’s a few delicious twists, tons of creepy horror action and even a few genuinely poignant moments too.

This thing has an estimated budget of thirty grand, and runs for just over an hour, falling short of being an actual feature, but I know from experience just how tough it is to make a low budget work. My friends and I made a sweet horror film once that had a budget of 5 grand and the resulting product was only like eight minutes long, so I feel their pain. It’s especially apparent in horror because you need all these gory effects, costumes and exotic sets and whatnot, so it can be tough. The constraints are obvious here but I think that what Downey has accomplished with what he had is phenomenal. The setting looks beautifully eerie, atmospheric and well lit, the creature effects are earthy, elemental and refreshingly old school, the score by Nick Soole is most excellent in setting mood and the two actors playing the warrior and his daughter knock it out of the park. This was a bit less grimly serious than I pictured going in, more supernatural and fantastical than I anticipated, but once you adjust to the tone it works really well. Think more Army Of Darkness than Pathfinder but less silly and you’ll have some idea, but really this thing is fairly unique and on its own level. Plus, it isn’t a sequel, remake, reimagining or prequel, it’s an original script! How about that! Great stuff all in all, one of my favourites of the year so far.

-Nate Hill

Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale

So what did Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale do for the Bond franchise? Well, I’m not a huge aficionado or scholar of these films like some so I tend to look at each one on its own as an action adventure piece rather than observe how it fits into the jigsaw legacy of this mammoth series, but there’s no denying that this one kind of broke several moulds before it. After the garish 90’s heyday of Pierce Brosnan (I *love* all four of those films to bits) I feel like they just wanted to bring Bond down to earth a bit, distill the aesthetic into something that cleanses too many gadgets and what have you, cast someone darker and more dangerous and blast out a new trajectory for the character. Good plan.

Casino Royale is not only a splendidly exciting film on its own but the best, most impactful and unique 007 film since 1989’s ruthless and underrated License To Kill. Daniel Craig’s James Bond is an angry warrior who fucks up just like the rest of us and is fallible, not some invincible deity in a tux that can’t get hurt, deceived, betrayed or killed without tangible consequences. An early mission sees him tasked by Judi Dench’s then immortal M to infiltrate a high stakes poker game in some swanky French locale and gain information on dangerous arms dealer and terrorist Le Chiffre, played by vicious, predatory Mads Mikkelsen in one of my favourite Bond baddie portrayals. As if he isn’t in enough over his head, he meets the beautiful but equally dangerous Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), the most unique Bond girl since… who knows when. I love that she’s a self aware human being who has her reasons for falling into bed with him instead of just being a pair of tits with a voice as seen in countless entries before. Green has sex appeal for days but what makes her special is that way her eyes smoulder with a fierce independence and unpredictability, making her one of the most fascinating characters the whole franchise has to offer. Also supporting them is the great Giancarlo Giannini as a mentor of sorts for Bond, Jeffrey Wright as CIA operative Felix, Catarina Murino, Isaach De Bankolé, Jesper Christensen, Sebastian Foucan, Tobias Menzies, Richard Sammel, Tyrone the silly fat bastard from Snatch, Russian character actress Ivana Milicevic and Virgin Atlantic CEO Richard Branson of all people, if you look real close.

In terms of scope and staging, this is a kind of unique 007 film because it shirks the standards and ducks expectations. It opens with a spectacular chase like any other in the franchise, which is a monumental sequence in terms of stunt work. But much of the film is spent in the ornate casinos of France and a lot of the action is the casual intimidation and cerebral mind games that go alongside the poker match. There’s nothing quite like Craig and Mikkelsen sat opposite one another in tuxes, Mads bleeding out of his sinister looking dead eye and Daniel smirking at him like he wants to rip his head off, while Green looks on and let’s her ulterior motives simmer on the back burner for later. Cinematographer Phil Meheux takes full advantage of these rich, lushly production designed interior shots as well as the gorgeous outdoor rim of the Mediterranean that we get to see quite a bit of. My only real complaint is a third act that feels like it barrels in from another film; that’s not to say it’s bad or doesn’t work, it’s just a tad unwieldy with the landing and threw me off in terms of tone or climax but I suppose that could have been the intention. I’ll just say that this thing ends in the last possible way you’d expect from a 007, feeling fresh, raw and off the rails in a beautiful fashion that doesn’t tread the beaten path of so many before, but blazes out its own tragic, violent conclusion that will claim a piece of Bond’s soul but add much needed spirit to this series as a whole. Great film, and my second favourite Bond of all time after Skyfall.

-Nate Hill

Brian Helgeland’s Payback

Isn’t it always kind of more fun when the protagonist of a film is an utter scumbag? I think so, and Brian Helgeland did too when writing Payback, my favourite Mel Gibson film (outside Mad Max of course, but that’s a high pedestal to breach). There’s something so engaging about Mel’s Porter, a street rat career criminal who’s betrayed by his treacherous partner (Gregg Henry) and junkie wife (Deborah Kara Unger), left for dead in an alley. After a rocky recovery he comes back with vengeance on the mind, hunting down those who fucked him over and anyone who profited from it. The first thing he does to set tone for his character is steal cash from a panhandling hobo, which is just about the starkest way to inform your audience of what’s to come. What does Porter want? He wants his 24k from the job he got shafted on, not a penny less and, hysterically, not a penny more either, which becomes the beloved running joke of the film as he prowls streets, poker rooms, titty bars and all kinds of lowlife establishments to get what’s his. Henry is off the rails as his former partner in crime, taking his usual brand of scenery chewing to new heights and picking fights with anyone who makes eye contact with him. He isn’t even the main villain either, that honour goes to a stone-faced Kris Kristofferson as the sadistic head of a shadowy mega crime syndicate who are soon alerted of Porter’s ongoing rampage. There’s uber corrupt cops (Bill Duke, Jack Conley), a weaselly bookie (David Paymer), a bureaucrat desk jockey villain (William Devane), a high class escort with a heart of gold (Maria Bello) who brings out the faintest of softer sides in Porter, a sneering assassin (the great John Glover) and others who all get caught up in the commotion this guy causes just to get his modest 24 grand. A young Lucy Liu also shows up as a sexy S&M hooker with ties to the Triads and enough scary attitude to either turn me on or freak me out, I’m still not sure. My favourite has to be James Coburn as another organized crime hotshot who seems more interested in his elaborate accessories than putting a step to Porter’s nonsense. “That’s just mean, man” he bawls after Mel puts a bullet in one of his designer alligator skin suitcases. So damn funny. This is the epitome of jet black humour, one of the meanest, gnarliest, bloodiest and most entertaining neo-noirs that Hollywood has ever produced. Mel has played so many heroes and upstanding family men that it’s refreshing to see him go for the contemptible asshole shtick, and I’ll be honest I’ve never rooted for one of his characters harder than I do for Porter and his deranged urban crusade every time I rewatch this, which is a lot. Fucking brilliant film.

-Nate Hill

John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13

What makes John Carpenter such an incredible filmmaker? Many things, but one skill he has is being able to make a terrific story come alive whether he has a huge budget or not, whether it’s a giant high concept story, or a lean, mean, minimalist chamber piece. With Assault On Precinct 13 he’s got a few guns, a few cars, a few actors and one derelict police station, and the result, although not among his best work, is one nasty little urban exploitation feature that entertains and packs a bloody, visceral punch. The premise is gloriously simple: Several spectral, inhuman gang members chase a witness into an almost shut down precinct with intentions on killing everyone inside. One intrepid Deputy (Austin Stoker), a mysterious career criminal (Darwin Joston), a plucky secretary (Laurie Zimmer) and others are all that stands between these marauders and all out warfare. It’s a siege flick, a cop flick and an action picture all in one and works because of how low key it all is. The assault on the building itself is showcase low budget cinema and really well done as multiple silenced weapons shred through the doors and windows, but my favourite sequence is an earlier one in the film. As the gang prowls the desolated, decayed LA streets looking for suitable vehicles to hijack, a lone ice cream truck driver (Peter Bruni) finds himself right in the crosshairs of these heavily armed psychos. Then as if that isn’t bad enough, a little girl wanders up to purchase a frozen treat and, non discriminately, is gunned down in cold blood. It’s a shocking scene on its own just for the fact that Carpenter had the balls to do it and in fact on Robert Rodriguez’s Director’s Chair interview he said that he probably wouldn’t have gone that far had he made the film these days. What’s worse for me is that the girl is played by Kim Richards who starred as Tia Malone in Disney’s Escape To Witch Mountain, a film I grew up with and saw hundreds of times as a kid, so thanks John for ruining my childhood with that. Jokes aside it’s a galvanizing scene from beginning to end and even if there are way better Carpenter flicks out there overall, it’s probably one of the best sequences he’s directed in an otherwise solid pulpy action flick. Gotta mention Carpenter’s original score too which, as per usual, is brilliant.

-Nate Hill

B Movie Glory: Brian Smrz’s Hero Wanted

In the realm of Cuba Gooding Jr straight to DVD stuff, Brian Smrz’s Hero Wanted is probably my favourite. Many of them are absolute paycheque collecting trash, some are half assed efforts but a couple are scrappy, unique little gems worth seeking out. Gooding explores the dark side of human nature here as Liam Case, a simple inner city garbageman who uses the underworld ties of his colleague Swain (Norman Reedus) to stage a bank robbery for… unorthodox purposes, to say the least. Only problem is that the gang they hire is led by unstable maniac Skinner McGraw (Kim Coates) and his cop hating second in command Derek (Tommy Flanagan). The robbery ends up in disastrous bloodshed thanks to Liam’s plans and he then launches a personal crusade of vigilante justice against Skinner’s gang. All this commotion also attracts the attention of a tough homicide detective (Ray Liotta) who comes gunning for him as well. That’s only the main story arc, there’s all kinds of swervy subplots including a young girl (Sammi Hanratty) who Liam saved from a burning car years ago, the mother (Jean Smart) of one of the bank tellers injured in the botched robbery and the great Ben Cross as Liam’s ex special forces adoptive father.

It’s a lot to take in and it doesn’t all work together in the pot it’s thrown into, but it’s never not interesting, has a gritty 70’s crime aesthetic to it, plus both the writing and performances are organic and inspired. Gooding is terrific, his character essentially a perpetual fuckup whose schemes have lead him down a dark path, one he’s fighting brutally to find his way off of. Liotta brings heart and humour, not just another thankless cop role but someone who seems like an individual. Reedus gives my favourite performance as a dude who walks the line between good and bad finely, and pays dearly for it in an intense, poetic cap to his arc. Coates and Flanagan chew the scenery like there’s no fucking tomorrow, relishing the villain roles and creating two reprehensible street scumbags for the ages. The film skips all over the place and jumps around in time on a whim, so characters who died a few scenes ago are back again, a plot thread resolves itself before its even begun and it takes some getting used to. It’s a low budget effort at heart, but a huge and very creative one at that. A lot of the dialogue seems improvised and very candid, my two favourite exchanges being: Liotta and enters a crime scene, sees his partner visibly shook up and dryly intones: “What’s the matter? You look like Oedipus after they told him he just fucked his mother.” Elsewhere, Gooding and Reedus have a beer on their lunch break and shoot the shit: “You know America was founded on labour?” Reedus absentmindedly observes. “My uncle used to work in that factory over there,” replies Cuba, “Now that niggas on crack.” It’s that kind of deliberately offbeat energy that makes this one for the books and not just another B grade write off. Fun stuff.

-Nate Hill

Edward Zwick’s Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back isn’t the thunderclap thriller the first one was and considerably diminishes from a large scale epic feel to something more small, comforting and TV movie style, which is not say that’s a bad thing as I quite enjoyed it, I just wasn’t riveted and amped up like I was the first round. It’s interesting that director Edward Zwick stepped in as he’s usually accustomed to large scale, sweeping epics (Legends Of The Fall, Courage Under Fire, Blood Diamond, The Last Samurai, Glory) and instead went for something smaller here, but it works.

Tom Cruise’s nomadic badass Jack Reacher is still out there looking for people who cause trouble so he can cause it tenfold back upon them and as the film opens we see him take down nasty small town sheriff (Jason Douglas) turned human trafficker using only a payphone. That sets the tone for another raucous adventure that is decidedly not as ruthless or brutal as the first, but takes a more compassionate tone which is an interesting decision that I really liked as it allows us to see the softer side of this character. Jack has a liaison in the military called Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders) who feeds him intel and he’s taken a liking to her enough to ask her out, but when he arrives in Washington to do that he instead finds her smug superior officer (Holt McCallany) sat at her desk informing him that she’s been arrested under charges of espionage. This doesn’t quite sit well with Jack and after beating the shit out of him for answers, he launches a violent inquiry, tracks Major Turner down and helps her clear her name and vet out a conspiracy within the military.

This film works well because of that relationship between the two, and the terrific chemistry that Cruise and Cobie have. They serve as both romantic leads and partners in action and provide the story with a warmth that wasn’t there in the first, as the relationships there felt a bit cold and detached. There’s also a mysterious girl (Danika Yarosh) who may in fact be Jack’s daughter from a wife years back, and that adds a human side as well which was welcome. On the weaker side, the action set pieces aren’t as ingenious or as memorable as before, and the villains not as charismatic or well painted. It is hard to top Werner goddamn Herzog though so I feel their pain. McCallany is nasty enough as a classic bully and Robert Knepper sneers and snarls as an evil private security Colonel but he shows up so late in the game it’s hard for him to make a real impact. What does work works really well though, and Smulders is the best thing the film has going for it. She’s a true star that never mugs the camera but always feels sympathetic and engaging, not to mention gorgeous. Not the film the first was, but a fun time all the same.

-Nate Hill