Tag Archives: cinema

William Gibson’s Johnny Mnemonic

Keanu Reeves can somehow make almost any story, no matter how ridiculous, seem sober and coherent, but Johnny Mnemonic kind of takes the cake. A weird, messy, hyperactive fusion of classical cyber punk elements and 90’s B movie sensibilities (Ice T cements that vibe early on) it’s not a good film but certainly an interesting one that makes a loony impression. Reeves is Johnny, a data courier in a world of trafficked information stored in people’s brains, wanted by all sorts of undesirables including the Yakuza, surrounded by a a throbbing underground rock soundtrack and more cacophonous screensaver special effects than The Lawnmower Man. Reeves looks slick as ever and treats the material with due diligence, but the best and most effective performance comes from Dolph Lundgren as an aggressive freak dubbed the Street Preacher, a platitude spouting baddie who is endlessly fun to watch and stands as one of the actor’s best and most idiosyncratic creations. Henry ‘scream my lines’ Rollins cements the rock vibe as a weirdo doctor who tinkers with Johnny’s brain some, Dina Meyer plays his sidekick and pseudo love interest, and watch for Udo Kier as a corrupt diva of a nightclub owner. This film is fun enough from some angles, but for a SciFi film revolving around intel stored in one’s brain, the whole thing is pretty fucking brainless. There’s cool exposition detailing how Johnny needs to wipe certain chunks of memory like his childhood to make room for more bytes of black market info, but it’s never really shown how this affects his character. The whole thing is a blast of arbitrary, technicolour sound and fury that doesn’t really sit still long enough to think much on what it’s about, which is fine I suppose if all you want is fireworks. I will give it props for some inventive production design and gorgeous costumes though, but too little too late. One scene in particular kind of sums it all up, with Johnny having a full on emotional meltdown temper tantrum in some back alley over the fact that he doesn’t get to spend nights in a five star hotel with top class hookers. One could almost see his exasperation mirroring Reeves at having to play part in something so silly as this. Chill out Keanu, only four more years to go until you headline one of the best, most influential science fiction films ever made.

-Nate Hill

Advertisements

Roger Donaldson’s White Sands

Somewhere out there in the gypsum dunes of New Mexico there’s White Sands, a long lost, slightly unfinished yet captivating neo-noir about small town law enforcement, big time gun runners and everyone else who gets caught up in between. Willem Dafoe is Ray, a bored rural sheriff who sees a way out of the dusty hum drum when an apparent smuggler turns up dead on his watch out there in the national park, prompting him to steal the guy’s identity and dive headlong into the illicit arms business with no real crash course or idea of what he’s doing. A risky move that propels the film down an exciting, sexy, ambient journey of untrustworthy alliances, atmospheric shootouts and a dangerously charming Mickey Rourke as Lennox, the kind of reptilian criminal who’s so good at seducing you into the lifestyle that you don’t realize you’re in the snake pit until it’s almost too late. Dafoe and Rourke have shared the screen aplenty before and while my favourite team up has to be their cartel duo in Robert Rodriguez’s Once Upon A Time In Mexico, this film certainly takes second place honours. They just work so well on camera together, a shaky bromance built on Ray’s deception and Lennox’s unpredictable penchant for violence that proves electric as the narrative weaves around them. The always phenomenal Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio plays an underworld connection who Ray unwisely gets steamy with in probably one of the hottest sex scenes of the 90’s and a complete false advertisement for the success rate of getting it on in the shower. Samuel L. Jackson has a fantastic early career villain role as the kind of corrupt FBI agent in whom it’s very unwise to place trust, and watch for others including the great Maura Tierney, M. Emmett Walsh, James Rebhorn, Beth Grant, Miguel Sandoval, Jack Kehler, Mimi Rogers and a sneaky unbilled double cameo from Fred Dalton Thompson and the inimitable John P. Ryan as slick arms dealers. The setting of White Sands park plays such a role in atmosphere here; the ghostly sight of white sand dunes brings about the thought that something is out of place, rare in nature and the same can be said for Dafoe’s affable sheriff thrown into a mixing pot of big city psychos and genuine menace, a fish out of water shtick that pulls you in the more accustomed to this netherworld the man gets. How about that knockout original score from Patrick O’Hearn too, who only composed for a handful of things since, it’s a hazy, melodic set that suggests both the beauty and danger lurking out there in the Sands, especially in the simmering climax where several characters meet poetically grisly fates. I do have a few minor issues with this film, it could have been at least fifteen minutes longer and rounded out the epilogue with Dafoe’s arc clearer, it almost feels like there’s a missing reel or some editing glitch that marred the final product just a tad, but it doesn’t hurt the film too much overall. This is a lost classic for me, a gorgeously specific film noir with some of my favourite actors giving some of their most fun, playful work, the aforementioned score and some cinematography that won’t quit. Great film.

-Nate Hill

Keith Gordon’s Waking The Dead

Year after year I keep coming back to Keith Gordon’s Waking The Dead, a spellbinding, haunting political romance with supernatural undertones and a dreamlike atmosphere that sustains attentions for the duration of a love story unlike any other. The film is virtually unheard of and fairly hard to find, I feel like it was intended as a much bigger release and meant to gain notoriety for years to come, but one of the studios involved either shut down or went bankrupt and as a result the film has been snowed over and left in obscurity. While somewhat a shame, I kind of like it’s hidden gem status, a buried treasure of a story waiting to be discovered and recommended to new viewers. Billy Crudup and Jennifer Connelly have never been better as Fielding Pierce and Sarah Williams, two star crossed lovers who couldn’t be cut from more different cloth. He’s an upstanding potential congressman who leans towards conservatism, she’s a fiery activist who champions the downtrodden and wants nothing to do with the system that’s grooming him for power. The film opens with a stab to the heart as he observes news footage of her death in South America, and right away it’s made clear that this will be a fractured, bittersweet romance told out of space and time. There’s always that one girl you can’t let go or shake the memory of, and as he goes about his political campaign sometime in the 80’s, he’s haunted by her memory to the point where he believes he sees her everywhere, like a ghost refusing to rest. Is he projecting his unresolved heartbreak into waking dreams of her? Did she somehow survive after all and has now resurfaced? The film approaches this dilemma in a solemn, slightly ambiguous way, never giving the viewer what they want but somehow feeling satisfactory in the resolution, albeit devastating to the emotions once we become invested. Speaking of that, we get to know them through interspersed flashbacks to the late 60’s as they meet, fall in love and experience their radically different views as obstacles in the relationship. The film posits that no matter how different or from opposite sides of the tracks two people are, if the love is there then it’s simply there, and sometimes not even death can have anything to say about it. Crudup and Connelly are knockouts here in two of the most overlooked performances of the century, playing these two as intelligent, fiercely independent beings who know that finding each other has changed the both of them forever in ways they’ve still yet to experience. They circle each other like two stars and are surrounded by a galaxy of perfectly pitched supporting talent including Janet McTeer as his worried sister, Stanley Anderson as his compassionate father, Paul Hipp as his wayward brother who hopes to gain a green card for his Korean girlfriend (Sandra Oh), Hal Holbrook, John Carroll Lynch, Molly Parker and uh… Ed Harris too, who Skypes in a bafflingly brief cameo. The film opens with Joni Mitchell’s A Case Of You, closes with Peter Gabriel’s Mercy Streets and is filled to the brim with an elemental original score by TomAndAndy that is at once spooky, unconventional and ethereal. This is one of the ultimate love stories, a tragedy gilded by ghostly implications, anchored by the two brilliant lead performances that inhabit a slightly monochrome, gorgeously black and white-esque visual realm and tell a story for the ages of love found, lost and remembered again. One of the all time ‘best films you’ve never seen’ films and I really hope it gets more traction and love as the years continue.

-Nate Hill

Bille August’s Smilla’s Sense Of Snow

Smilla’s Sense Of Snow begins with a specific inciting event: a young Inuit boy plummets off the roof of a multi storey building in Copenhagen, to his death. The only person who seems to care is Smilla (Julia Ormond), a girl who lives in the complex, is half Inuit herself and did her best to take care of the poor kid when his mother drowned in alcoholism. From there the film spirals into curious, unexpected thriller elements that seem to have left many viewers baffled (reviews over time haven’t been so kind), but it’s the uniqueness of this story that appeals to me, the way we find ourself wondering how such a simple and straightforward incident can lead to the kind of sequences you’d find in a Bond film. That’s the mark of an absorbing thriller, no matter how ‘out there’ people complain it is. Smilla deliberately cloaks herself in a facade of coldness not dissimilar from the snowy northern landscape around her and comes across as initially unpleasant, but when we see how far she’s willing to go and what she will risk to uncover the truth around the boy’s death, we realize there’s a heart in there and Ormond creates a mesmerizing protagonist. There is indeed a clandestine web of secrets, coverups and conspiracies revolving around the whole thing, and it’s great fun watching her follow the breadcrumb trail to where it all leads. She’s a withdrawn, introverted person, and these qualities don’t lend themselves to hands on detective work, but therein lies the gold mine of character development for her as she discovers perhaps one of the most bizarre string of events I’ve seen in a thriller. The supporting cast is full of gems, starting with Gabriel Byrne as her neighbour and love interest, just darkly charismatic enough to suggest that he may not be who he says he is. The late great Robert Loggia makes a stern but soulful appearance as her powerful father, who pulls some strings to help her out. Soon she’s led to a shadowy scientist (Richard ‘OG Dumbledore’ Harris) with ties to it all, and other appearances from Jurgen Vogel, David Hayman, Bob ‘Clever Girl’ Peck, Vanessa Redgrave, Ona Fletcher, Tom Wilkinson, a quick cameo from one of the Doctor Who actors and an excellent Jim Broadbent in full exposition mode. The eventual premise here is set up in an arresting prologue concerning a lone Inuit hunter observing a meteor fall to earth and cause an almighty mess on the tundra, serving to inform us right off the bat that although this film initially sets off on the trajectory of a straightforward murder mystery, there will be elements of the fantastical. Said elements proved to be either too far out there or too removed from the grounded opening for people to grasp hold of, but not me. I love the journey this one takes, I love the heroine we get to take it with, I’m awed by the stunning arctic photography every time and the story always draws me in. Great film.

-Nate Hill

Lasse Hallstrom’s Something To Talk About

Julia Roberts has many notorious pop culture hits under her belt, all of which become memorable for a reason: they’re flashy, relatable, well made crowd pleasers like Erin Brockovich or Pretty Woman. But that irresistible charm (if you’re a fan of hers) was also put to great use in some quieter, more challenging and less accessible pieces like Lasse Hallstrom’s Something To Talk About, an interpersonal dramedy that explores the relationship between her and her husband (Dennis Quaid) in the aftermath of him cheating on her. She comes from a big family, has headstrong parents (Robert Duvall and Gena Rowlands) who have an influential role in her life and a fiery, fiercely protective older sister (Kyra Sedgwick is fantastic) who literally kicks Quaid in the nuts when she finds out. Now, this is a 90’s film and doesn’t have the same perspective on life we now know today, so her frustration, anger and outrage at her husband’s infidelity isn’t taken as seriously as it could be right off the bat. Duvall is more worried how it may be bad for business than any emotional toll it will take on his daughter, while she simply wants to be heard and allowed to be pissed off at the guy. Her husband reacts with a sheepish wounded animal tactic that wears off when he realizes his wife is smarter than that, and Quaid handles the arc carefully and humbly. It’s basically about the snowball effect an affair can have in a close quarters family situation, and while I enjoyed some of the laughs provided by Roberts deliberately exposing other sneaky cheaters in their tight knit community, I connected most when the film focused on her as a woman wronged, and a woman who’s not afraid to stand up for herself, even if it means stirring shit up royally. She’s a movie star with a mile wide smile and people know her as such, but I think that the high profile roles sometimes have us forgetting what an absolute diamond of an actress she is as well, and small, character driven pieces like this serve well to remind. She rocks it here, and is supported by all around her including Muse Watson, Brett Cullen and Haley Aull as their intuitive daughter. A treasure.

-Nate Hill

Hans Petter Moland’s Cold Pursuit

Cold Pursuit won’t be what audiences are expecting it to be, and these days in Hollywood, that’s a really good thing. There’s a whole string of Liam Neeson genre films since Taken that for the most part are generic vehicles for him to run around in and beat people up. Fortunately, every so often one breaks the mould and turns out to be a fresh, distinguished animal from the rest of the pack, and this is one of them. Yes it’s about a snow plow driver in a small mountain town whose son is murdered by drug dealers. Yes, Neeson plays him as the lone man who takes his revenge in a series of violent encounters and action sequences. But that’s just the blueprint, and honestly director Hans Petter Moland, remaking his own 2014 film, seems far more interested in showing us the casual eccentricities and personal lives of all of these characters, particularly the dealers, than focusing on action alone. Neeson’s initial rampage causes quite a bunch of confusion in the ranks when the local outfit mistakes his mayhem for the actions of a rival Native American gang from Denver, and that’s when the snow really hits the fan. Tom Bateman is a coked up dervish as Viking, head of the local boys, the kind of guy who caps off his own people before breakfast and encourages his son to hit bullies back harder, ‘just for starters.’ The Native American dealers are my favourite part, adding a mystic deadpan quality and distinct class that makes the film seem just this side of a regular action flick. Tom Jackson is charismatic and scary as their leader White Bull, and Raoul Trujillo does a hilarious turn as Thorpe, his second in command. Emmy Rossum is good but slightly underused as an enthusiastic local cop, while John Doman gets a few of the film’s funniest scenes as her less enthusiastic partner. It’s terrific to see the great William Forsythe on the big screen again as Neeson’s ex criminal brother Wingman, an old dog who knows the ropes and seems both worried and amused at his brother’s drastic actions. Speaking of underused though, they’ve thrown Laura Dern a thankless role as Neeson’s wife who simply disappears from the plot like halfway through. A little Dern goes a long way, but she’s given almost nothing to do here. As Liam picks these guys off one by one and they all wonder just what the shit is happening, I found myself much more entertained by the precious little sideshow moments concerning all the criminals, narrative excursions that take huge liberties with the film’s pacing, a choice that I have no problem with. Viking has intense squabbles with his ex wife (Wind River’s Julia Jones) over their son’s ridiculous diet, Thorpe and his crew have a hilarious interaction with a hotel clerk who uses the word ‘reservation’ in a context that makes for the funniest joke in the film, and one of Viking’s boys has interesting ideas about how to bang hotel maids. My favourite is when the film stops dead in its tracks to show White Bull and his guys simply playing in the snow, watching skiers practice and getting one of their guys to hang-glide off the mountain. It’s that sense of playfulness, the care in stepping off the beaten path and giving us something we don’t often see in Hollywood films that sets this aside and makes it something special. It doesn’t particularly work as a thriller because it’s too funny, and won’t land with an emotional impact for the same reason. That doesn’t matter much though, because it’s just fine as a screwy black comedy full of really interesting side characters, offbeat situational comedy and high spirited, naturalistic comedic timing. A barrel of fun if you’re tuned into the abstract frequency. One last thought: I really wish they’d kept the title ‘Hard Powder’ instead of the much less tongue in cheek Cold Pursuit, which feels too run of the mill for a film this idiosyncratic.

-Nate Hill

Ghost Rider

There’s no way around the fact that Ghost Rider is a garbage film, from Nick Cage’s ridiculous Yu Gi Oh haircut to Wes Bentley’s faux Dracula bad guy to the unpolished screensaver special effects to yet another creepy case of him getting blessed with a love interest half his age, this time poor Eva Mendes. When it comes to the Ghost Rider aesthetic, PG-13 theme park flash like this is the wrong way to go, it needs something grittier like the Nick Cave/John Hillcoat touch (not even the reliably edgy Neveldine/Taylor could save the sequel, but that’s a story for another day). That all said, there’s a few key elements that I love about this film and two actors in particular who do a bang up job and really deserved a better film than they got. Cage plays Johnny Blaze, a motorbike stunt demon who grew up in a circus and made a deal with the devil (Peter Fonda) to save his dying father (Brett Cullen), a deal with fine print that dictates his soul remains prisoner and he must serve out a very long time bounty hunting runaways for the big guy. Later in life he becomes the legendary Ghost Rider, a big bad biker with a chain whip, flaming skull and leather metal-head outfit, tasked with bringing down renegade demon Blackheart (Bentley) and juggling his awkward romance with Mendes and friendship with fellow rider Donal Logue. This is all a lot less cool than it sounds and all the scenes of him as the rider that are supposed to be awesome are just… not. Now this isn’t one of those ones where the good qualities redeem the film, it’s just too silly and far gone, but they are there and are noticeable, starting with Fonda’s absolutely rock ‘n roll performance as Mephistopheles, a silk voiced, well dressed manipulator who commands the screen and to this day is one of the most fun film versions of the Devil I’ve ever seen. He’s accompanied by a fantastic, sinister low level music cue from composer Christopher Young that sets the mood perfectly. You also get Sam Elliott as former ghost rider and mentor to Johnny in another one of his brilliant, charismatic cowboy turns that the film hardly deserves, but his scenes sure pick up on the gravity that Sam exudes wherever he goes. That’s about all the film has to offer in the realm of quality. There’s an opening credit sequence set to an instrumental version of Ghost Riders In The Sky with POV shot of a bike careening through a racecourse that’s kind of cool. Mostly though this is one big flaming sinking ship and just made me wish for a less cartoonish prequel starring Elliott’s Rider and Fonda’s deliciously evil Satan. Next time.

-Nate Hill