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Michael Bay’s The Rock

Who loves Michael Bay’s The Rock? I think a better question is who doesn’t. It was one of my first introductions to the action genre as a kid and I sat there in Saturday morning disbelief at just what was possible in the realms of cinema. Alcatraz Island, nuclear warheads filled with horrific poison gas, Nicolas Cage in charismatic goofball mode, Sean Connery basically reprising his 007 role one last time, a rogues gallery of gnarly character actors all hamming it up to high heaven, a score from Hans Zimmer that soars and invoked both emotion and adrenaline, what’s there not to fall in love with.

The plot here is besides the point: angry rogue military general Ed Harris takes Alcatraz hostage, threatens to launch warheads across harbour into crowded San Fran. Chemistry guru Nic Cage, ex MI6 super-spy Sean Connery and a team of Navy Seals covertly lead a siege on the rock to stop him. Many guns are fired, a lot of shit blows up and endless one liners are uttered. That’s the nutshell version though, the actual experience is something blissful and perfectly pitched in terms of the recipe for a great action film. Connery is intense yet somehow laid back and steals the show as the pissed off, blacklisted agent who really doesn’t care about the threat towards the city, or at least pretends not to. Cage, whether strumming his guitar, banging his super hot Italian American wife (Vanessa Marcel) or referencing Elton John right before killing a bad guy, is comic dynamite and a source of desperate, scenery chewing energy that somehow works despite how ridiculous his performance is (it’s like the antithesis of his work in Con Air, the sister film to this). What I love about Harris’s villain here is that, unlike many huge budget action flicks, you actually care about this guy and what he wants, despite the extreme measures he’s gone to get them. He’s calm, resolute and sorrowful and not much about his performance suggests an antagonist except for the situation the character is written into and it’s an interesting, thoughtful choice for the film’s baddie. The real nasty characters are the mercenaries he hires to carry out his mission, who include the more subdued likes of David Morse and John C. McGinley, the less subdued Bokeem Woodbine and Gregory Sorlader and the positively psychotic Tony Todd as Captain Darrow, the last guy you’d want on either side of the moral fence as his seems to be absent. On the other side of the action we get John Spencer as a cranky FBI bigwig, legendary Michael Biehn as the Seal commando, always awesome William Forsythe as the one FBI agent with a brain in his head and cameos from Pat Skipper, Claire Forlani, Danny Nucci, Tom Towles, Jim Caviesel, Stanley Anderson, Raymond Cruz, Xander Berkeley, Philip Baker Hall and Stuart Wilson.

From the moment Harris’s team steals the rockets to the explosive sequence where Cage flags down the military in a sly Platoon reference, this thing fires with everything it’s got. Connery’s escape and car chase through the streets of San Fran goes on needlessly long and exists only for the purpose of an action sequence, making it all the more awesome. Harris and Biehn’s utterly badass stare down and frantic chicken fight over who will order a stand-down first always gets me. It’s such a well made action film that even the Bay haters sound like ignoramuses when they bash it. Roger Ebert, who has routinely torn Bay new assholes over the years in his reviews, loved it. Zimmer’s theme is the perfect symphony for fighter jets, commandos, yellow hummers’ (“You shtole my humvee!”), trolley cars, assault weapons and high powered rockets to thunder across the harbour in spectacular fashion. The Rock rocks.

-Nate Hill

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B Movie Glory: Hard Cash

Hard Cash, aka Run For The Money in some regions, is a silly piece of junk, with its low budget passport grasped firmly in hand. Every actor doing the hammy shtick, every pulp B movie cliche present and accounted for. Christian Slater seems to have peppered his career with a bunch of such flicks, and he’s front and centre here as the Robin Hood-esque leader of a buncha’ thieves. He’s a bit of a legend, and goes for one job too many, a job that lands corrupt, scheming FBI Agent Val Kilmer straight in his lap when he lifts some marked bills. Kilmer wants it only to take them down, but a giant piece of the loot for himself and basically is just a greedy bastard, while Slater wants to break even and get away with his crew. It’s okay-ish stuff, decidedly low brow but that’s the arena. Kilmer is actually really fun in a candid, often improvised take, and his description of himself when he gets to little sleep is priceless. The cast is fairly strong, with work from Bokeem Woodbine, Sara Downing, Vincent Laresca, Balthazar Getty, Daryl Hannah, William Forsythe as a nastily racist fence and the late Verne ‘Mini Me’ Troyer as Slater’s most valuable lil’ asset as he can fit in tight spaces the rest of the crew can’t. It’s breezy trash, decent enough for what it is.

-Nate Hill

Brian Taylor’s Mom & Dad

I read an article a while back saying that at the premiere of Brian Taylor’s Mom & Dad, the director attended the screening and prefaced it by saying that his film has “mental problems.” Well… he wasn’t wrong. Taylor is one half of the Neveldine/Taylor genre filmmaking team, a blitzkrieg duo responsible for both of the Crank movies, plus Gamer, and if you’ve seen any of those you’ll have an idea of the way their sense of humour slants towards the bizarre. With this one it kind of trundles headlong into willfully fucked up territory though, and before you know what’s happened, it’s scant 86 minute runtime is up and you’re left there in the dust, feeling somewhat violated. The concept is blunt and visceral: everywhere, all at once, the nurturing instinct in parents is savagely reversed and they immediately start to murder their own children. Only their children, mind you, and with a disturbing lucidity that I couldn’t decide whether to laugh at or get spine chills from. An amped up Nicolas Cage and Selma Blair play your average upper middle class parental unit, and the film mainly focuses on their eventual snap, and a subsequent tooth & nail fight to snuff out their poor son and daughter (Anne Winters and Zackary Arthur). That’s pretty much the film, although for such a seemingly simple concept within a short piece it somehow manages still clearly articulate its narrative amidst the ruckus and even comment on something deeper than it’s 70’s Midnite Movie veneer initially suggests. Cage treats this as the ultimate midlife crisis, and indeed his acting these days is more gonzo than ever. He’s got a mental breakdown midway through the film and before the killer epidemic even breaks out that is so over the top it reaches a kind of feverish harmony, not to mention appearing scarily un-faked on the actor’s part. Though quick and fierce, the film could have still tightened the pace a bit in the opener and extended the super violent, Home Alone-esque second act a smidge, but oh well. Watching Cage and Blair overact to the heavens as they try and kill their own kids with every household item they can grab including a meat tenderizing hammer (ouch) and a Sawzall (“Sawzall… saws…. all…”) hits some blissfully transcendent notes, if you have the twisted mind to stomach it. There’s a scene that will test boundaries though and walks a fine line between crazy and flat out uncalled for (one of my friends walked out of the room in disgust), but hey, that’s the kind of stuff this director is known for, so try and roll with it. Things get really bizarre when Cage’s own parents show up to add to the cluster-fuck, his demonic veteran daddy personified briefly and perfectly by a ferocious Lance Henriksen. Accompanied by a sketchy, warped and nerve-shredding score and some off kilter editing, this will either be your thing or it won’t, there’s just no middle-ground in an arena this fucked up. Good luck.

-Nate Hill

Ted Demme’s Life

Ted Demme’s Life is a hard one to classify or box into genres, which may have been why it didn’t do all that great at the box office and subsequently slipped through the cracks, a result that often befalls ambitious, unique films that people aren’t ready to surrender to. Part comedy, part tragedy, all drama infused with just a bit of whimsy, it’s a brilliant piece and one of the most underrated outings from both of it’s high profile stars, Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence. It seems fitting that the two lively, cartoonish cowboys of comedy should share the screen, and it’s lucky they got such a wicked script. In the roaring twenties, Murphy is smooth talking petty thief Ray, Lawrence is hapless, hot blooded bank teller Claude, and the pair couldn’t be more suited or dysfunctional towards each other. Brought together for an ill fated moonshine run bankrolled by a nasty NYC Gangster (Rick James), things go wrong in the most auspicious of places a black man could find himself during that time: Mississippi. Framed for the murder of a local conman (Clarence Williams III) by a psychotic, corrupt Sheriff (Ned Vaughn), they’re given life in prison by the judge, and this is where their peculiar adventure really begins. Put under the supervision of a violent but oddly sympathetic corrections officer played awesomely by Nick Cassavetes, the two wrongfully convicted, hard-luck fellows spend their entire adult life and most of the twentieth century incarcerated… and that’s the film. Squabbling year by year, making a whole host of friends out of their fellow convicts and never losing their sense of humour, it’s the one of the strangest narratives I’ve seen, and somehow works wonders in keeping us glued to the screen. Supporting the two leads is a legendary ensemble including Ned Beatty as warm hearted superintendent, Anthony Anderson, Bernie Mac, Bokeem Woodbine, Barry Shabaka Henley, Heavy D, Don Harvey, Noah Emmerich, Obba Babatundé, Sanaa Latham, R. Lee Ermey and more. Murphy and Lawrence have never been better, shining through Rick Baker’s wicked old age makeup in the latter portion of the film, and letting the organic outrage and frustration towards their situation pepper the many instances of humour, accenting everything with their friendship, which is the core element really. The film’s title, simple as it, has a few meanings, at least for me. Life as in ‘life in prison’, in it’s most literal and outright sense. Life as in ‘well tough shit, that’s life and it ain’t always pretty,’ another reality shared with us by the story. But really it’s something more oblique, the closest form of explanation I can give being ‘life happens.’ There’s no real social issues explored here, no heavy handed agenda (had the film been released in this day and age, that would have almost certainly been a different story), no real message, we just see these events befall the two men. They roll with each new development, they adapt and adjust, they learn, they live. In a medium that’s always being plumbed and mined for deeper meanings, subtext and allegories, it’s nice to see a picture that serves up the human condition without all those lofty bells and whistles. Their story is random, awkward, unpredictable, never short on irony, seldom fair, often tragic, and ever forward moving. That’s Life.

-Nate Hill

3000 Miles To Graceland


If I believed in guilty pleasures, which I don’t, 3000 Miles To Graceland would constitute as one, but I’m a pretty open book, avid fan of all sorts of films, and I either like something or I don’t, there’s no special category for things I’m too embarrassed to say I enjoy. This film is the very definition of unbridled fun, and greases up a pair Hollywood leading men stars for two of the meanest, sleaziest, down n’ dirtiest roles of their careers. Elvis is the name of the game here, pretty much every character spending the film in King costumes of varied colour and style, gathering in Vegas for one bloody shit show of a casino heist, then gloriously double crossing each other and running off into the desert with their ill gotten loot. Kevin Costner is demented brilliance as Murphy, a bad tempered, psychotic criminal who may literally be Presley’s long lost bastard child. Costner rarely gets to cut loose and grime it up like this and he milks every hair-gel soaked, chromed up second of it. He’s at odds with former partner in crime Zane, played with cold, sociopathic grace by Kurt Russell. It’s a hoot watching these two tough guys go to war on each other in high style, killing everything else that moves and seriously not giving one ounce of fucks the whole time. That’s pretty much all there is in terms of plot: a heist, and then one long, violent extended chase scene punctuated by character’s deaths every few miles. David Arquette, Ice T, Christian Slater and Bokeem Woodbine play their short lived cohorts, and they’re also pursued by a few wise-ass federal agents (Thomas Haden Church and Kevin Pollak) who are always one step behind. It’s the Kurt and Kevin show all the way though, and they both let it rip, two antagonists out to get each other in the worst ways, leaving a spectacular trail of wanton carnage and deliberate collateral damage in their sequin strewn wake. A total blast. 

-Nate Hill

Back to Graceland: An Interview with Demian Lichtenstein by Kent Hill

If you have seen the restored Lawrence of Arabia then there’s a chance you’ve seen the extras on the second disc? One such extra is an interview with Spielberg, in which he recounts sitting down with David Lean for a screening of the film. As they watched, Lean provided what Spielberg describes as a ‘live’ director’s commentary, pontificating about all aspects of the production while the pair sat through the movie.

Now Spielberg himself doesn’t do commentaries, but a lot of directors do. Of course I have a list of films that to date, do not boast a commentary track which I wish, so badly, that they did. Near the top of that list are a pair of movies that stick out. One is John Milius’s Farewell to the King and the other is Demian Lichtenstein’s 3000 Miles to Graceland.

But now for something really cool.

At the close of 2016 I had the chance to chat with Demian, and what eventuated was quite extraordinary. I was working my way through my questions when, all of a sudden, Demian started to unload his fantastic tales from the production, and it just kept getting better. As I listened, I imagined Spielberg listening to Lean, receiving first-hand all of those astonishing insights, and here I was in a similar situation getting the good oil on the production of Graceland.

It has become a cult film with the passage of time, but there remains no chance of Demian ever being gifted the ability to go back in and retool his movie. Perhaps in some small way set certain things to right.

I was tired when we spoke, it was 3am here Down Under, but, by the time we were through, I was energized and so sat back and re-watched 3000 Miles to Graceland with fresh eyes. Demian’s stories swirled in my head. When we were talking, just when I thought it was over, he went on. I received scene-specific commentary and even insights into scenes that were written but never shot.

It was a genuine thrill, along with being a great and one of the most surprising interviews I’ve ever done.

3000 Miles to Graceland is out there waiting for you to watch it again or to discover it for the first time. It makes me proud as a fan to think that this interview may serve as the bonus material we never received. A director’s commentary of a splendidly intricate and playfully unique movie with great anecdotes, favorite scenes and even deleted scenes in the form of unrealized story elements.

So, for all you fans and even the first-timers, the journey of 3000 Miles back to Graceland begins here, for your listening pleasure.

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Riddick: A Review by Nate Hill 

Being a huge fan of the two previous Riddick films, I was overjoyed to hear that Vin Diesel would be raiding his own couch for change to save up in order to make this R rated follow up, still helmed by David Twohy. It’s reassuring that in a franchise with more than a few haters, Diesel has the passion and ambition for his character to go out of his way in bringing this to fans. Not to mention what a kick ass, gnarly little space yarn it turned out to be. Pitch Black was a claustrophobic horror fest set on a single harsh world, and The Chronicles Of Riddick opened up into a vast galactic space opera. This one reigns it in closer again (partly because of budget, I would imagine) and gets back to the roots established in Pitch Black. After defeating the Necromongers and becoming their King, Riddick is betrayed and sent into exile by the treacherous Lord Vaako (Karl Urban in a brief but memorable reprisal). Cast out into the stars with a ship running low on fuel, he finds himself marooned on a small, deadly planet that’s more challenging than any other he has found himself on (and if you remember, he has been to some hellish little nooks in the past). This world is a dry, acrid rock where every form of wildlife seems to be incredibly lethal, and out to get him. The first half of the film is pure genius, and consists of Riddick playing Survivorman with his environment, battling aliens and elements and befriending a small hell-pup type doggo that grows up into a teeth and claw ridden killing machine that is at one point referred to as a ‘dingo dango thing’. This is where it’s at for the film, and as soon as the more generic second half arrives, the air gets a bit stale, but it’s still heaps of fun. After mastering the terrain and ingeniously dispatching a snakelike alien that seems to have wandered right in from Wolfgang Petersen’s Enemy Mine (practical effects POWER), he encounters trouble of the human variety, in the form of bounty hunters. Two teams of outlaws have arrived to claim him: the stern Boss Johns (Matt Nable) who has an old bone to pick with Riddick, and the psychotic A-hole Santana (Jordi Molla, who I think of as the Latin Gary Oldman). They bicker a whole bunch on who gets the prize, unknowingly being infiltrated and messed up by the guy before they’ve barely landed. Katee Sackhoff is nutso awesome as Dahl, a lesbo tough chick who legit has the line “I don’t fuck guys, but occasionally I fuck them up.” Soon there’s more charming wildlife, this time in droves of shrieking reptilian predators who intend to see each of them, Riddick included, dead. This forces an amusingly unstable team-up from all forces to battle the uglies and escape this godforsaken place. It’s giddy sci-fi pulp good times, and benefits from its hard R rating, something which the other two films never had on their side. Diesel was born to play Riddick, the growling teddy bear, and I hope he gets to continue wearing the goggles for more of these movies, indefinitely if possible. A hell of a great time.