I’ve seen some ill advised plans in my day and even orchestrated a few of them myself but I’ve never seen quite an ethically fucked, totally stupid, domed to fail miserably scheme as the one dreamed up by two dysfunctional middle aged NYC blue collar brothers in Sydney Lumet’s Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, a bleak, depressing, pitch dark, anxiety inducing morality play that although admittedly is an excellent film on all fronts, is *NOT* a pleasant viewing experience and I shan’t be revisiting any time soon. Ethan Hawke is the lower middle class, very aloof, perpetual screw-up brother whose marriage is a disaster, relationship with his daughter depressing and he needs cash for alimony quick. Philip Seymour Hoffman is the older, wiser (HA!) and more successful sibling with a sleek corporate career but has his own issues including backdoor corruption, a failing marriage of his own to Marisa Tomei (really? Those two?) and a crippling heroin habit. They’re both financially fucked, so big bro hatches a plan to rob a mall jewelry store on a low-key Saturday when the cash drop is in house. That’s already a bad enough idea, but get this: the store in question is owned by their own parents, who are elderly no less. Now, Hoffman has his own complicated reasons for justifying such a terrible act that stem back into their childhoods, as these kinds of inexplicably dour familial tragedies usually do, while Hawke sort of tags along in befuddled, brainless complicity. Naturally the heist itself goes just about as wrong as it can go and results in (this isn’t a spoiler it’s in the trailer) the gunshot wounding of their mother (Rosemary Harris) thanks to the incompetence of a hapless small time hoodlum (Brian F. O’Byrne) that Hawke hires to do his dirty work in an act of despicable cowardice. Their father (Albert Finney in a towering performance and the finest work of the film) is very clearly still in love with her and starts to unravel, and it becomes clear he always loved her over his own children, a gnawing thorn in the side of their overall dynamic that was just waiting for a traumatic event to rear its head in. The film skips around in time as we see the events leading up to the heist itself, each character’s desperate situation reaching a breaking point that leads to such an extreme decision, spearheaded by Hoffman’s impossibly bitter character, a fellow who is so uncomfortable in his own skin he even makes a seemingly lighthearted sex scene with Tomei come across as uncomfortable. The actors are all terrific with Finney being the standout as the furious, heartbroken and vengeful father who seems like he never wanted to be a father to begin with, just a husband. The supporting cast has some excellent cameos including Leonardo Cimino, Amy Ryan and Michael Shannon as a violent ex-con who muscles in on their lives. This is a great film with terrifically developed character dynamics, a crisp, well oiled storytelling vernacular and a refreshingly earthen portrait of lower middle class shenanigans that few films capture with authenticity, and naturally Lumet’s by now second nature knack for expressing the spirit of NYC, this time in deglamorized boroughs not usually focused on in cinema. It’s a great film, it’s just not a nice one and you’ll feel like shit after, there’s no other way to slice it.
Many werewolf films take place in the woods, mountains or various other rugged and elemental vistas that are inherently threatening and suit the mythos. But what about the urban jungle? How many werewolf films can you think of that place their action in a big city? Wolfen is one that does this and as such stands out in the genre for being a moody, eerie inner city horror about a gruff, unfriendly NYC police detective (Albert Finney) chasing down mysterious murderous hoodlums who he soon realizes are some kind of lycanthropic shapeshifters straight out of a Native legend. This leads him on a hushed yet bloody and quite atmospheric hunt through some of New York’s shadiest areas, made all the more spooky by the presence of these ferocious and quite stealthy cryptid hybrids. He’s helped and hindered by many in one eclectic cast that includes Diane Venora, James Tolkan, Rino Thunder, Edward James Olmos, Gregory Hines as a slick streetwise colleague, a very drunk and very brief Tom Waits and Tom Noonan as an ill fated ‘expert.’ This isn’t a very loud, snazzy or schlocky horror flick and in fact if memory serves it’s more of a mood piece type thing than any sort of thriller or shocker. Finney is sombre, muted, hard to read and even vaguely menacing, while the cast around him are sly, eccentric and always seem like they know more than they’re letting on. The werewolf attacks are hazy, dreamlike and terrifying in an otherworldly sort of way while still retaining enough gore and gristle, the special effects for the creatures themselves wonderful and the use of real wolves (or dogs, perhaps) adds to the earthen, folky aura that collides fascinatingly with this urban aesthetic. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this (a rewatch is no doubt imminent) and I can’t recall everything except that it’s one strikingly distinctive, unique and very immersive big city horror cop flick amalgamation that is well worth checking out.
There are so many ideas, myths, motifs, vignettes, episodes, characters and ideas swirling around in Tim Burton’s Big Fish it almost feels like several movies collided together to make their own sweet, sunny mixture and I love that feeling. It’s like a postcard perfect funhouse where you never know what you might get and some people saw a pacing problem or lack of focus in that regard but for me it’s this wonderful wellspring of creativity, visual audacity and fairytale lyricism. It’s also told from the perspective of a rascal who is notorious for making up wild stories so the narratively kaleidoscopic nature of the film seems very appropriate. Edward Bloom is one of the strangest Tim Burton characters to ever grace the screen, a magnetic individual played as a young man by beaming, idealistic Ewan McGregor and as an old fellow by wisecracking, lovable Albert Finney. Edward loves to tell stories, larger than life anecdotal adventures that he regaled his young son with throughout childhood, stories that couldn’t possibly be true.. right? As Edward grows up he leaves a town that just wasn’t big enough for him and meets many wonderful and strange characters along the way including a giant (Matthew McGrory), a poet turned bank robber (Steve Buscemi), a mermaid (Bevin Kaye), a reclusive witch (Helena Bonham Carter) a circus ringmaster (Danny Devito, scene stealing like nobody’s business) with a supernatural secret and eventually the love of his life Sandra, played as a young woman by the excellent Alison Lohman (whatever happened to her?) and later by Jessica Lange. The story finds an emotional core in the relationship between Edward and his son Will (Billy Crudup), a realist who resents being brought up amidst a bunch of tall tales and just wants, along with his wife (Marion Cotillard, lovely), to finally get to know his father as he is passing of terminal illness. The stories are besides the point here and as one character notes, at some point a man becomes the legends he tells simply by embodying them, and when it comes time for the narrative to tell us whether or not these tales are even true it hardly matters because the film has been so honest with us in the human connections we see unfolding. This film sits apart in Burton’s career because of how emotionally affecting it is, not largely focused on effects and makeup like he often chooses but crafted with its heart firmly planted on a bedrock of believable humanity. There’s whimsy, style and special effects galore mind you, all excellently, wonderfully done.. but the core of what makes this film so special lies in the final twenty minutes or so where we see a rich, cathartic final act that always brings me to tears. Edward Bloom may have told wild tales his whole life and Will must reconcile that they were just a part of who his father was, and that the greatest story in his life was the family he raised. It’s a beautiful, oddball, postcard pretty, occasionally surreal yet ultimately down to earth and deeply felt piece of storytelling.
I feel like Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride doesn’t get nearly enough love and praise for what a wonderful film it is. The acclaim and lasting impression really stuck to Burton and Henry Selick’s A Nightmare Before Christmas and rightly so, but this is every bit as inspired, packed with catchy tunes, casted with beloved actors and filled with gorgeous stop motion splendour. Plus it’s the keystone Johnny Depp/Helena Bonham Carter outing for me because even though we only get their voices the animation is tailored to each respective essence and we feel their physical presences heavily in spirit.
Depp voices Victor Van Dort, a spindly, nervous creation who’s about to be pressured into one of those delightful old arranged Victorian marriages by his domineering parents (Tracey Ullman and Paul Whitehouse). The bride to be is Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson) and wouldn’t you know it they actually do fall in love despite circumstances, which is a nice subvert of the trope that I enjoyed. There’s always gotta be a third though and she arrives in the form of the titular Corpse Bride (Bonham Carter), a deceased girl brought back to life when Victor practices his vows in the local cemetery. This sets in motion a chain of fantastical, macabre, adorable and altogether brilliant set pieces, musical numbers, fight scenes, rich and thoughtful character relations and visual genius like a big old animated Halloween parade.
The cast is stacked too, full of beloved Burton regulars like Albert Finney and Joanna Lumley as Victoria’s crusty, aristocratic parents, Christopher Lee as a cantankerous undead vicar, Richard E. Grant, Michael Gough, Deep Roy and Danny Elfman himself as a rambunctious spooky skeleton called Bonejangles who fronts an undead jazz band. Hell there’s even a worm that looks and sound like the great Peter Lorre which I couldn’t tell if was done deliberately but if so bravo. This thing doesn’t even breach ninety minutes but it’s so full of life, death, colour, incident, song, music, dance and joy that it seems way longer than it actually is. It’s also got a grounded maturity in the way we see this completely ridiculous yet somehow very touching love triangle unfold, and by the end you really feel for Carter’s Corpse Bride and empathize with her situation. A technical marvel, a beautifully told tale and one of Burton’s very best.
I’ve said before in reviews that it’s pretty much impossible to pick a favourite from the initial trilogy of Bourne films, and I stand by that. They’re somehow completely their own thing as separate entries and also a synergistic entity together as well, using Moby’s propulsive song Extreme Ways to jet into each new chapter.
Paul Greengrass’s The Bourne Ultimatum brings Matt Damon’s arc as super-spy spy to a gong show of a close in New York City after breathless jaunts through London and Madrid. By this time Bourne has had so much trauma inflicted on him and lost so much that he’s almost in devil-may-care mode, but something in him senses that despite recalling a whole bunch lost memory, there’s still a few pieces of the puzzle that need to fall into place, starting with the interrogation of an ill fated British reporter (Paddy Considine). This puts corrupt wings of the CIA onto his trail once again, with evil David Strathairn filling in for evil Brian Cox and evil Chris Cooper before him. It’s a vicious cycle of selfish, narcissistic shirt tuckers trying to cover their asses while innocent people all over the globe die needlessly, and Bourne’s mounting anger has never been more understandable than here. Joan Allen returns as stern but sympathetic Pam Landy, Scott Glenn brings leathery charm as the agency’s duplicitous director and watch for Corey Johnson, Daniel Bruhl, Albert Finney and Edgar Ramirez as a rival asset dispatched to hunt him who is the first of his kind to show a glimmer of humanity. Julia Stiles also returns as Nicky Parsons, an integral person in the saga, her work in all three films is underrated as a restless portrait of guilt over past actions and patient resolve to do better with each new decision, I wish she’d get more complex roles like this because she’s so great.
Greengrass got a lot more kinetic and hyped up (the shaky cam is a turn off for some) than Doug Liman did with Identity, the first chapter. The hectic vibe serves to illustrate Bourne’s stormy, frayed mental climate and works for me, as does Damon’s ferocious performance. The stunt work and action set pieces are flat out spectacular, especially the explosive bike derby in Spain and the tense cell phone tag sequence in London’s crowded financial district. Like I said I can’t really pick a favourite, this is as close to a completely cohesive trilogy you can get, but this one was my dad’s top pick of the three so I suppose it has that edge going for it. As far as the other two that exist outside this trilogy… that’s a story for a far less glowing review. Ultimatum, however, is solid gold.
I feel like the one thing to take away from Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic is that the war on drugs isn’t working in any sense. That’s the short answer, but at nearly three hours runtime, Soderbergh isn’t interested in any kind of short answers, let alone clean cut, definitive or resolute ones that help anyone sleep at night. It’s a sprawling, complex international labyrinth of a film that scans every faction from the loftiest echelons of American politics to the poorest slums of Mexico, not necessarily looking for answers but digging up new questions and conundrums. In Washington, the president elects a straightforward family man (Michael Douglas) as the new drug czar and face of the crusade, except that his daughter (Erika Christensen) is knee-deep in hard drug addiction and heading down a dark path. Across the border, a Mexican cop (Benicio Del Toro, fantastic) tries to prevent corruption from eating away at his country and the soul of his partner. Back stateside, two undercover narcs (Luis Guzman and Don Cheadle) prep a captured mid level smuggler (Miguel Ferrer stealing scenes like nobody’s business) to testify against the higher ups. The wife (Catherine Zeta Jones) of an imprisoned kingpin (Steven Bauer, sadly only glimpsed briefly) deals with her husband’s enemies while his slick dick lawyer (Dennis Quaid) eyes her up for the taking. A scary Mexican military General (Tomas Milian) fights drug running for his own mystery goal, and many other stories play out both in the US and Mexico. Soderbergh gets together a treasure chest of cameos and supporting talent that includes the likes of Clifton Collins Jr., Emilio Riveria, Topher Grace, Peter Riegart, James Brolin, Albert Finney, Marisol Padilla Sanchez, Viola Davis, John Slattery, Yul Vasquez, Jack Conley, Benjamin Bratt, Salma Hayek and more. This isn’t a tunnel vision action flick or even your garden variety ensemble crime piece, there’s a distracted, fractured feel to the narrative that no doubt mirrors the very difficult nature of how this all works. Opinions and alliances shift, people die, others prosper and it all kind of seems for nought, except that almighty dollar. Del Toro and Douglas fare best in terms of bearing witness to it all; both are changed men by the time their final scenes roll around and the arcs come full circle. They anchor the vast network of people from respective sides of the border, showing the multilayered damage that such a problem, and the ‘war’ against it unleashes. Endlessly fascinating film.
Those learning the craft of film-making nowadays shall have little to no experience with cutting film the old fashioned way. True – it was timing consuming, sometimes messy and fraught with peril – depending on your mastery. It was, however, also romantic. The trims at your feet, the smell of celluloid, the tactile nature of editing a movie . . . one splice at a time.
Mick’s a gentleman, aside from being and exceptional craftsman, and please do check out all the great work he is doing over at his family owned and operated venture Sprocket Rocket Soho. Mick is continuing to contribute, educate and bring together all those with a passion for telling stories via the moving image.