Sam Shepherd’s Silent Tongue is a bizarre one. The writer/director is usually in succinct, assured control of his art but here he kinds of makes a mess in the sandbox, literally since this is set in the deserts of the American Southwest. There are some outright fantastic ideas at play here and scenes of striking beauty and chilling poetic morbidity, but the narrative isn’t fixed together solidly enough and much of it is lost on the viewer in a hail of haphazard scenes and a story that barrels along with scant exposition, a complaint that you will rarely, if ever hear from me, but here we are.
This is River Phoenix’s last film before an untimely passing, and it finds him sitting half crazed out on the frontier, grieving the death of his halfbreed Kiowa wife Awbonnie (Sheila Tousey), who perished during childbirth. He’s an already slow kid who is driven positively mad by this tragedy, and sits there with her corpse on a makeshift alter howling at the moon and brandishing a giant rifle at anyone and anything who comes near them. Because of his refusal to give her proper burial rights, she comes back as a vengeful, spooky ghost to harass and haunt him, something like a desert legend crossed with a spectral Kabuki costume. Elsewhere the boy’s distraught father (Richard Harris) returns to the dusty travelling circus where he bought Awbonnie in hopes of purchasing her twin sister Velada (Jeri Arredondo) to console his son out there on the plains. The circus owner and father of the two (Alan Bates) is less than cooperative when he learns of his first child’s passing and his son (Dermot Mulroney) is downright hostile. Seeing no other option, Harris kidnaps the girl and high tails it for the desert enclave where Phoenix sits and Awbonnie roams around like a lost soul tormenting him.
This isn’t a pretty boy western, a shoot em up or a cowboy picture, it’s a gnarly, fucked up frontier horror story populated by strange people and punctuated by odd, supernatural occurrences and disturbing flashbacks involving the mother of the two Kiowa girls (Tantoo Cardinal), who is called Silent Tongue for a very specific and unsettling reason. Phoenix is convincingly unhinged and plays the horror well, Harris is weary and understated, while Mulroney seems miscast and stumbles over the articulate western dialogue. It’s Bates who takes the cake though as the constantly drunk circus owner who has to face his past out there on the plains, he practically fills up the whole runtime with his ranting and raving, it’s a wonder he could sustain that level of mania for an entire performance. Tousey is intense and elemental as the ghost, adorned in eerie makeup and face paint and spewing out freaky threats in a guttural voice. Shepherd tries his best to anchor everything in symbolism and provide a story that makes sense, but it simply gets lost in a muddle and ends up making little emotional impact, which is kind of unforgivable because this story technically *does* make sense when you work it out in your head and *should* make a landing like that. I’m not usually one for remakes but this one practically begs for it because the story and ideas are so beautiful and full of potential, but the execution turned into kind of an inconsequential shit show. Shame. Great score by Patrick O’Hearn though.
Surprisingly, The Sum Of All Fears is my favourite film version of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels. Alec Baldwin did a bang up job in the superb Hunt For Red October,
Harrison Ford held his in two beyond excellent entries, and we won’t speak of the Chris Pine/Keira Knightley snooze-palooza from a few years back. Why then do I gravitate towards this Ben Affleck incarnation? Who knows. Battfleck himself makes an adequate, inquisitive Ryan, on the younger end of the rope and under the guidance of CIA Yoda Morgan Freeman. I think it’s the early 00’s tone of the film itself though, the whip smart editing, Bourne-style escalation of suspense and terrific ensemble cast, a hallmark among Clancy films. Affleck embodies a younger, inexperienced Ryan whose infamous intuition is just breaching the surface of his character, right on time for a deadly plot to set off a nuclear device on American soil. A German radical (Alan Bates, underplaying evil nicely) with vague ties to a Neo Nazi faction is cooking up a false flag attack against Russia, using a long dormant warhead supplied by arch mercenary Colm Feore. Or at least I think that’s the crux of it, these cloak and dagger affairs can get pretty dense on you sometimes. There’s a sense of global danger though, a level of stress that ratchets up until even the stoic US President (an explosive James Cromwell) begins to lose it. The Russian President (Ciaran Hinds) gravely tries to sort out the misunderstanding, whilst Clancy staple character John Clark (Liev Schreiber gives Willem Dafoe a run for his money) covertly smokes out conspirators. Unease and tension nestle into the narrative, and when that impending disaster is minutes away during a hectic NFL game, you can feel the suspense in the air. The supporting cast is rich with talent including Michael Byrne, Bruce McGill, Philip Baker Hall, Josef Sommer, Ron Rifkin, Lisa Gay Hamilton and gorgeous Bridget Moynahan as Ryan’s fiancé. I’ve got nothing but love for Red October, Patriot Hames and Clear & Present Danger, but something about this one hit a frequency and resonated with me a little better, coming out on top as the most re-watchable, enjoyable entry.
Mark Pellington’s The Mothman Prophecies takes a harrowing look at a curious set of events that did indeed occur for real in the rural West Virginia area. Now, just how much of what we see in the film actually happened is eternally unclear, but I’ve read up on a lot of it and there’s enough testimonials, independent of each other, to both justify the film and shiver your spine. A myriad of unexplainable phenomenon plagued those poor people for some time back then, including visions, eerie phone calls and a mysterious red eyed creature in the shape of a giant moth. Businessman Richard Gere and wife Debra Messing come face to face with what appears to be this entity one night on a lonely stretch of highway, causing a grisly car crash and leaving Messing in a dire psychological state. With the help of a local policewoman (Laura Linney), Gere unwisely tries to figure out this terrifying mystery by putting himself way closer to the occurances than I would ever go, experiencing the stuff of nightmares along the way. Pellington comes from a music video background and as such he is incredibly adept at creating style and atmosphere (his opening credits for Arlington Road are almost as foreboding as anything in this film), two key elements in successfully telling a tale such as this. Gere wanders around in a daze most of the time, distraught over his wife’s condition and obviously influenced by forces unknown. Whatever is out there remains blessedly unseen save for a few hurried glimpses, say, behind a tree or at a kitchen window momentarily, spurring heart attacks from both audience and the poor sods stuck in this brooding bad dream. Rounding out the cast is Alan Bates as the obligatory historian who has seen this all unfold previously in some far corner of the world, and an excellent Will Patton in a frightening turn as a rural farmer who comes who becomes tragically influenced these dark forces. No one plays disturbed quite like him, a jittery, resolute calm always playing around in his eyes, the perfect presence to set anyone on edge. The finale sort of emerges from the chrysalis of dark atmospherics into large scale disaster mode, a choice which didn’t really work for me. I would have preferred to have it kept intimate and creepy right up until some kind of moody end, but they went with fireworks instead. Not enough to hurt the film of negate what came before though, it’s just too good of a time in the haunted house to be dragged down by anything, really. Chilling stuff.
A Prayer For The Dying is a melodramatic romantic action thriller following IRA assassin Martin Fallon (Mickey Rourke), a man with a brutal path in life whose long buried conscience surfaces after an explosives mission goes awry, resulting in the death of schoolchildren aboard a bus. It’s a bold scene to start a film with, and in every instance after it Fallon has a haunted frenzy about him, clearly damaged by what he did and saw. As if that weren’t enough, he now finds himself compelled to murder a priest (Bob Hoskins) who witnessed one of his militant crimes. Fallon spends a lot of time hesitating, and in that hesitation he strikes up a romance with the Hoskins’s blind daughter (Sammi Davis), finding sanctuary and a modicum of redemption with the two of them. A lot of nasty people from his past are looking for him though, including his amoral former partner (Liam Neeson), an evil British crime kingpin (the great Alan Bates) and the kingpin’s murderous brat of a son (Christopher Fulford). Obligatory shootouts, personal and religious angst, sappy sentiment and dodgy accents, particularly from Rourke, ensue. He can blend into a lot of roles and pull off a lot of different characters, but it seems an Irish accent is a stretch, and it shows. As the character of Fallon himself, ethnicity aside, he does a bang up job though. Bates is razor focused in playing anyone, and his villain here is a spidery creepo. Neeson is young and doesn’t get much to do except hassle Rourke, but their confrontations are nicely done by both parties. Director Mike Hodges, whose other work I’ve never really seen, seems to like slow and deliberate action scenes, very old world and sometimes repetitive, but entertaining nonetheless. Not the best IRA thriller out there (most of the events here have little to do with the movement anyway, and focus more on Fallon), but a decent way to spend a couple hours.
I’ve long been a fan of the work of Richard Lester. Petulia, Juggernaut, Robin and Marian, Superman II, The Three Musketeers, and The Four Musketeers are films I adore, and I’ll admit to having a soft spot (mostly due to childhood nostalgia) for Superman III. He was a filmmaker who was always interested in mixing tones (especially comedy with action), and I love the chaotic, almost frenetic sense of mise-en-scene that his movies frequently exhibited. I’m eager to check out th…e films of his that I’ve missed; he was always a filmmaker you couldn’t truly pin down, and it’s no surprise that a subversive talent like Steven Soderbergh would hold Lester in such high regard. One of his most asinine pictures, the 1975 slapstick swashbuckler Royal Flash, is easily one of the most ridiculous movies I’ve ever seen. It’s wonderfully cheeky fun, super clownish at all times, very light and spastic, with a pricelessly funny lead performance from Malcom McDowell as Captain Harry Flashman, a sniveling and humorous Oliver Reed, and as usual, Lester totally filled the frame with so much detail and action and energy that it’s literally impossible not to enjoy yourself on some level with this bit of lunacy. It’s undoubtedly minor, but so entertaining and a further reminder that Lester was a filmmaker capable of balancing various qualities and ideas in his work. One minute, the film feels mildly amateurish, with weird sound work and sped up film processing and strange acting on the part of background extras, and then the next scene is one that’s gorgeously appointed, with terrific vistas and epic sweep and great use of light and composition (the great Geoffrey Unsworth was the cinematographer). McDowell plays a good-hearted rapscallion serving in the British army who blunders his way from one situation to the next, always appearing to be the victor, despite his oafish manner and continual stroke of good luck. Alan Bates shows up for some hearty laughs, and the film is just one gag after another involving duplicity, impersonation, revenge, sexual mischief, and tons of terrifically staged sword fighting and general fisticuffs. There’s also a gag atop a bridge that sort of defies technical logic, especially given the era that this film was produced during. The Twilight Time Blu-ray is crisp and clean and offers a solid assortment of extras. A true pisser of the likes we never get anymore, Royal Flash is tons of fun.