It’s remarkable to consider the elements that went into the production of Robert Altman’s The Player, the 1992 adaptation of Michael Tolkin’s incendiary novel from 1988 about the bitter grist mill that is Hollywood. Here was a hot screenplay, written by Tolkin himself, that quite literally took the fiercest of aims at itself with a toughness not seen since Alexander Mackendrick’s The Sweet Smell of Success in 1957. That Hollywood would want to get fifteen feet of it was surprising. That the project would fall into Altman’s lap as he was hazily stumbling out of a decade-long exile in the show business wilderness on the shoulders of his triumphant Vincent & Theo, a miniseries made for British television in 1990 that was then edited and released to stateside theatrical audiences to some of Altman’s best notices in years, was unthinkable. That Altman would use the project with maximum glee to give both fingers to Hollywood with the loudest “fuck you” that he could muster was glorious. That Hollywood participated in and loved him for it, showering him with the kind of accolades and support not felt since about 1975 was as heartwarming as it was puzzling. After all, Altman used the film to charge them with being shallow, amoral phonies and they responded with “we know; welcome to director’s heaven.” For after The Player, Altman was never starved of a juicy theatrical project with A-listers champing at the bit to work with him. As Harvey Keitel’s character said in Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians “Boy, I tell you there is no business like the show business.”

One of Altman’s greatest films, The Player is, on the surface, a neo-noir involving studio executive, Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), who, after receiving a litany of anonymous, threatening postcards from a writer he once brushed off, accidentally kills an idealistic screenwriter (Vincent D’Onofrio) who Mill believes to be the originator of the postcards. Mill then does his damndest to avoid suspicion and arrest by members of the Pasadena police department (Whoopi Goldberg and Lyle Lovett) while reckoning with the fact that his his position at the studio is in continuous jeopardy due to internal politics.

I say The Player is a neo-noir because the film is awash in both references to shadowy crime films of the past (posters of Laura, The Big House, and Niagara decorate the offices of the unnamed studio in which Griffin toils) and in the attitudes of its characters, most especially studio security chief, Walter Stuckel (Fred Ward), who doesn’t seem to care that movies were made after 1958. Mill himself is not a man who’s been wrongly accused but more like a Colombo antagonist, dipping and ducking the cops while drawing the worst kind of attention to himself by brazenly dating the dead man’s girlfriend (a fantastic Greta Scacchi).

This is a strong film made stronger by the details. Not only is the main story of the beleaguered executive utterly compelling, the studio politics swirling about are fascinating, revealing an industry not to terribly different from any other despite its high-powered glitz. Gina Gershon’s ambitious assistant is an easy character to miss on a first watch but a real joy to observe on repeat viewings as she slyly moves with the winds of corporate change. Like the best of Altman’s work, this film has a life beyond its central story. The movie’s color palate, captured brilliantly by cinematographer Jean Lepine, gets darker and darker as the film goes on and as the characters become more and more corrupted. When Robbins and Scacchi beat retreat to a desert hot springs, they wander about as if they are in a Stygian hell, both of them sweating profusely during a sexual encounter and then, in the bright daylight and finding themselves both morally compromised, they relax in a vat of mud. Even therapeutic measures taken by the characters look dirty and unclean.

And if one thinks the film is just aimed at the upper crust of Hollywood, it should be mentioned that The Player spares absolutely nobody. Even writers are portrayed as pretentious, failed artists who cannot reconcile the fact that Hollywood is a machine that produces content that might accidentally stumble into being art; folks perpetually screaming into a void about quality, grit, and realism in a sausage factory.

Ten years after the alumnus of the New Hollywood movement had mostly become for-hire workhorses in an industry overtaken by corporations and accountants, the Hollywood in The Player is bursting at the seams with buzzy soothsayers who spend their days reducing movies down to one sentence and twisting them in the lights of various movie stars to see just how much money could be made with the right alignment. They’re able to pinpoint what makes money and what doesn’t by dispassionately rattling off a litany of attributes necessary for a film to be successful as if it were second nature.

Due to its extensive roster of incredible cameos, The Player also now functions as a Hollywood graveyard in perpetual motion, both literally and figuratively. On one hand, each year seems to bring the end of one of the many faces seen on the margins or in the cast of The Player and, as of this writing, the light of the seemingly indestructible star that was Dean Stockwell is the most recent to go dark. Julia Roberts, a fresh-faced talent when cameras rolled on this film is now a long-time vet, replaced many times over by Americans Sweetheart. Bruce Willis, such an A-list action star that his name and appearance is a running gag in the film, is now relegated to tongue-in-cheek action films for the AARP set. The specific brand of Hollywood that was in flux in 1992 is, in the waning days of 2021, a thing of the past.

And, of course, no conversation about The Player can occur without the mention of its breathtaking, staggeringly choreographed, eight and a half minute opening shot. To give some kind of measure to the difficulty in getting the shot from its opening image to ending on a cryptic postcard message that is read by the audience between two slats in a set of Venetian blinds, pulling it off in one take is like diving off the edge of the Grand Canyon in the hopes that you’ll stick the landing in an area with the circumference of a shot glass. And the self reflexive nature of the shot is stunning. Buck Henry shows up in the shot to pitch The Graduate Part II just as a conversation about Julian Temple’s long take in Absolute Beginners is referenced; Henry himself having participated in Temple’s “one-take” piece in Aria, an omnibus film from 1987 to which Altman also contributed. This is a movie about movies and, moreover, Altman always wants you to be aware of that. Before the action even begins and the first onscreen credit is witnessed, Altman allows his voice and the slate marker to be heard and witnessed, all in front of a tapestry of a filmmaker in action. We’re always looking through the looking glass that’s three panes deep.

And what we see is Hollywood as a poisonous food chain perpetually getting fatter, more desensitized, sleazier, and more desperate as the times change. “Movies… now more than ever” is the motto of Griffin’s studio that’s on the hamster wheel that will inevitably break down and will likely someday be swallowed by a giant whale. What more imagination can be expected from a place where decisions are made by a guy who, when told of a movie idea about a planet with two suns, automatically wants to know who plays the sons?

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

Don Mancini’s Curse Of Chucky

Curse Of Chucky, although the beginning of a fascinating chapter in the legacy, feels almost a bit in stasis, or rather kind of still trapped in the cloud of exhaust left behind by the rip roaring double feature of Bride and Seed, which are pretty hard to top. The cool thing about this one is that Brad Dourif not only gets to voice Chucky but also play Charles Lee Ray once again in some stylish flashbacks to the 80’s, where we see him involved in the lives of a Chicago family whose young daughter grows up to be our protagonist, a wheelchair bound, traumatized girl named Nica, played by Dourif’s own daughter Fiona who has amassed a cult filmography and rogues gallery of villains these days that is almost as prolific and impressive as her dad’s. Nica lives in a freaky old house with her ailing mother (Chantel Quesnelle) until a family tragedy heralds the arrival of both her domineering, sleazy sister (Danielle Bisutti) and Chucky himself, disguised in his formerly benign looking self and playing the waiting game until he can spring to action. This is a fun entry, but it doesn’t quite have the same deranged wind in its sails as the previous two and sometimes feels a bit… stuck in airy passages where not much happens. When it gets going though it’s damn good, there’s some great use of movement in the stalking/kills and it’s a treat to watch an apparently unblemished, fresh faced Chucky doll slowly lose the fake face revealing that torn up, scarred rubber nightmare of a face beneath. Plus Fiona Dourif is a huge asset to the franchise, she’s got the same high-wire intensity and demonic charisma as her dad, talent definitely runs in that family and I love her character here. Fun stuff.

-Nate Hill

B Movie Glory: Midnight In The Switchgrass

Today on what is Bruce Willis up to in the B-movie lane we have Midnight In The Switchgrass (isn’t that a cool title though?), a moody, subdued southern gothic potboiler by way of a serial killer procedural that I actually really enjoyed. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still DTV, it’s low budget and rough around the edges but a genuine effort was made here by first time director Randall Emmett, a truly impressive cast is assembled, all of whom are clearly having fun and a mood is established through soundtrack, suspense and down to earth writing that cannot be written off as simply B grade trash. Somewhere along the desolate Florida interstate a nasty serial killer is kidnapping women, murdering them and dumping their bodies. Various factions of law enforcement are desperately trying to stop him including two world weary FBI agents (Willis & Megan Fox) and one undeterred state police rogue (Emile Hirsch) who has been looking for this monster for some years. The killer is played by Lukas Haas which isn’t really a spoiler since the trailers reveal that fact, he’s a real formidable, despicable force here, made all the more sickening by the fact that he has a wife and young daughter of his own who, by default, are constantly at risk of him having a full meltdown. Fox is terrific here, the more assertive of the pair, she has great chemistry with Willis and some sharply delivered lines that illustrate her character. She has a few scenes with musical artist Machine Gun Kelly (now her real life boyfriend), playing a violent, trash-bag motel pimp who once saw the killer briefly and is therefore an asset to the case, as hard to control as he is, he crackles with a sleazy, downtrodden volatility. Hirsch is so intense, fired up and doggedly earnest it sometimes feels like he’ll jump out of the screen, run around your living room and knock over the furniture, I miss when he was in the spotlight and he’s very good here. As for the film, it all depends on how you look at it. Yes, Willis has fallen from grace, admittedly he doesn’t get much to do here beyond an extended cameo and naturally this comes nowhere close to his iconic films we’re all used to, but as a brooding, atmospheric, slightly run of the mill yet still distinctive and ever so slightly horror tinged procedural thriller you can certainly do a *lot* worse. There are some mournful, melancholic soundtrack choices with beautifully sung lyrics and titles like “No Time Left”, “Maybe Heaven” and “Are You Washed In The Blood” that are used strategically at key moments and just add so much personality and emotion to the story. So, it ain’t high pedigree cinema, but in my eyes it is a commendable genre effort that held my attention, had some nice cinematic flourishes, a brutally suspenseful final act, a cast worth clapping for and lyrical atmospheric tension that I really connected with.

-Nate Hill

B Movie Glory: Discarnate aka Shapeshifter

I didn’t expect much from Discarnate (aka Shapeshifter in some dvd regions), a super low budget supernatural horror I only really watched for Thomas Kretschmann, an actor I greatly admire. The is squarely B grade territory but at least it made a commendable effort and is quite enjoyable, for what it is. Kretschmann, getting to play a good guy and lead role for once, plays a paranormal scientist whose son was once snatched in the night and killed by some kind of terrifying inter-dimensional being. He organizes a sort of scientific seance, using the powers of an untested chemical serum that works on the pineal gland, propelling the perception of whoever takes it partly into the spirit realms that exist within ours, but are usually invisible. He also hires a medium (Nadine Velasquez) to oversee the experiment and a bunch of chatty science undergrads and stages the whole thing in a dilapidated house just outside LA, in hopes to lure this thing back from the netherworld and get some long awaited revenge. Of course the entire thing goes disastrously, the being shows up and starts attacking everyone one by one, messing up the fabric of reality and causing a whole lot of confusion. Problem is, he didn’t inform anyone what’s really going on and they all just think they’re part of a slightly less than routine drug trial, because they’d never have agreed to this other idea, let alone believe him. So everyone but him is totally unprepared for the arrival of this creature, to its advantage. The special effects for this thing are cool, if a bit under-lit. The being is a grotesque, inky black slimy mess of muddy features, gaping orifices and arachnid like physicality, able to change its form and mimic those it devours somewhat, and there’s a folklore based backstory for it I enjoyed too. This isn’t anything memorable or noteworthy but it does make an effort, has a fascinating premise, and the monster is a good one.

-Nate Hill

Don Mancini’s Seed Of Chucky

In Don Mancini’s Seed Of Chucky, Brad Dourif and Jennifer Tilly’s demon doll couple unleash their spawn on the world, although the resulting progeny isn’t as… ill adjusted as it’s messed up parents, at least initially anyways. This is the most demented, hilarious film in the canon and although it’s not quite as coherent or witty as Bride before it, still holds second place for me, if on nothing but sheer shock value and WTF pedigree alone. The film blasts off the screen and into the real world, giving Tilly a chance to send up her own slutty image and play herself for a good portion, as she stars in a Chucky iteration and vies desperately for a role as the Virgin Mary in a biblical character study directed, of all people, by hip hop artist Redman, also playing himself. Over in the UK (don’t ask me how it got there) Chucky’s androgynous child (voiced wistfully by Pippin from Lord Of The Rings) has never met his parents until he sees the fake versions on TMZ, journeys to the states and resurrects them for real, so these characters exist for real and fake in the world and it all makes your brain melt a bit. This is a deranged vision, I appreciated Tilly’s willingness to go full bugnuts and make fun of herself very, very savagely. Chucky and Tiffany fight over both the gender and murderous ambitions of their kid, who isn’t sure whether he or she is a he or she and whether he or she wants to be a benign, gentle spirit or a prolific, Fisher-Price mass murderer like mommy and daddy. Got all that? It doesn’t matter, as long as you’re willing to go along for the ride and have some fun, which the films offers in spades, and I haven’t even mentioned John Waters as a sleazebag paparazzi photographer who catches Chucky in, shall we say, a *very* private moment. The franchise has come a far cry from the simple, effective notion of a possessed doll hunting a kid and killing anyone who stands in his way, but the snowball trajectory from that to this mad world, meta, loopy universe chapter of the legacy is something to behold, and of each new interlude, the creative energy, madcap vibes and brazen storytelling of Bride and Seed are my favourite so far. Join me next time when we look at the next two, which couldn’t be more different.

-Nate Hill

Shawn Crahan’s Officer Downe

Officer Downe is one of those hyper violent, weirdly sleazy, in your face trashy midnight madness flicks that although I couldn’t in good faith recommend to most people, it definitely leaves an impression on the nervous system, if not altogether frying it to a crisp. Based on a graphic novel, it tells of hotshot inner city cop Officer Downe (Kim Coates), a legendary crime fighter in a borough so ridden with filth and scum it’s amazing the infrastructure hasn’t just completely collapsed. Downe has one key skill in getting his job done: he can’t be killed. Well, he technically can, but each time he’s shot to shreds, eviscerated by explosives or mauled by careening vehicles he’s resurrected in the secret labs below the police precinct using bizarre necromancy and mad science only to fight, die and live all over again. This talent makes him the target of a whole galaxy of increasingly weirder criminal factions including animal mask wearing kingpins called the Fortune 500, a Kung fu supervillain called Zen Master Flash (Sona Eyambe) and a cabal of murderous, voodoo wielding, arms dealing nuns led by the always awesome Alison Lohman, who had prior been laying low for a while and chooses quite the random project in which to make her comeback. Downe is watched over by a team of beat cops hired to babysit and clean up after him, and so the broad, crazy, cacophonous story goes. Coates is a hell of an actor, he’s always been one of my favourites and he tears into this role with a campy ferocity and deadpan humour that’s a lot of fun, plus it’s nice to see a guy like him who has compiled an impressive career in supporting turns get a juicy comic book lead role. At some points it feels like the story is a bit too much about the human cops tailing him, none of whom are interesting characters, when it probably should have been more about him. The film feels like this furiously deranged mix of Sin City, Robocop, Maniac Cop and Hobo With A Shotgun all stuffed in a blender and served up on a shoestring budget, take it or leave it. Many will hate it, it’s wantonly trashy, so silly it’ll melt brains and so hyperkinetic in visual and editing techniques it’ll explode eyeballs, but there’s a feverish manic energy I appreciated, and Coates does give it his all and is clearly having a fuck load of fun in this role.

-Nate Hill

Ronny Yu’s Bride Of Chucky

Ronny Yu’s Bride Of Chucky is the point where the franchise deliberately goes off the rails and reinvents itself into something demented, meta, and completely inspired. Chucky gets a new look here, I mean you can’t really kill the little bastard but his visceral encounter with the wind fan in part 3 has left him quite a sight, all metal stitches, stark patches of sewn on hair and jagged scars adorning his plastic visage. He’s brought back to life by trailer park dwelling mega-psycho ditzy maven Tiffany (Jennifer Tilly), an aggressive groupie and former girlfriend of Charles Lee Ray’s, resurrecting him with more voodoo and, once it’s apparent that these two had a more troubling, dysfunctional relationship than Harley Quinn and The Joker, eventually trapped in a female bride doll of her own, bonded to Chucky in kinky rubber wedlock complete with a hilariously sincere sex scene. They hit the road looking to find a secret amulet in Ray’s grave that can give them both human bodies, piggybacking in the van of a teenage runaway couple (Katherine Heigl & Nick Stabile) escaping the girl’s nasty army colonel daddy (the late John Ritter). The plot is framework for one hell of a bunch of kills, jokes, bickering, heavy metal soundtrack choices and dark humour, this is by and far the best film in the canon for me, and Tilly is a big part of why it works so well, she’s the wild card element that turns a well established slasher formula into something that transcends its own blueprint and becomes just… wild. Director Ronny Yu also helmed the awesome Freddy Vs. Jason, another slasher reworking for two legendary franchises that has the same loopy, infectiously fun meta energy, metal music and inventive, vivid flesh and blood opening credit graphic design. The kills are unbelievable and one cheekily references another beloved slasher icon, the gore is cartoonish yet still ruthless and the overall vibe is one of utter devilish revelry. Such a fun time and the harbinger of a new, crazier, bloodier era in the series.

-Nate Hill

Carlson Young’s The Blazing World

I can’t imagine what a challenge it must be to write, direct and star in your own feature debut, there are so many ways it can go wrong from being just too ambitious an undertaking to a scattershot vanity project, but Carlson Young blasts into the scene with her striking new film The Blazing World, as assured, unique and breathtaking embark on a creative journey in cinema as I’ve ever seen. The film opens with two twin sisters playing in the woods near a lavish house, while their troubled parents (Dermot Mulroney & Vinessa Shaw) have a ferocious domestic dispute within, interrupted by a fatal tragedy befalling one of their daughters, an event that will haunt the family forever and cause the grown up girl (Young) to be propelled in a hallucinatory, surreal, otherworldly voyage into dimensions of the soul and spirit worlds to work through the pain, mental turmoil and anguished memory from that time. This is a strange, disorienting film but Young commands the narrative so that as weird as it gets, it only skirts that realms of outright incomprehensible arthouse tendencies and still has roots in what feels… I don’t want to say ‘commercial’, but let’s go with ‘accessible.’ It’s still bizarre as all hell though, in the best possible way, a vividly prismatic burst of visual inspiration, deep fluttering colours and puzzling, baroque subconscious imagery, I was reminded of Tarsem Singh’s The Cell in both style and structure. As Young’s protagonist arrives for a visit at the family home for the first time in years she finds mom a despairing mess and dad a tornado of alcoholic depression, but that isn’t all she finds. A menacing supernatural stranger played by the one and only Udo Kier appears, beckoning her down a metaphysical rabbit hole into the netherworlds beyond waking life, a constantly shifting dream state of astral projection where she must face the memories that have haunted her for years, confront the tormented dream egos of her parents and even face her own sister eventually. It’s a darkly dazzling journey beyond time, thought and consciousnesses and who better than the always captivating Kier to host it, he rips into this role with a seething, wide eyed malevolence and Young, as both his actor and scene partner, lets him do some wild, intense stuff and go to some places I’ve never seen from him before. The stylistically audacious world she plunges into is brought to life by impossibly detailed production design, like a fine abstract painting with potent life breathed into it, a fearsome, dark fairytale musical score by Isom Innis with some effective classical music choices and incisive, alluring sound design. Young commands it all with unbelievable skill so early in the game, as an actor she has a sensitive heart and smouldering vulnerability hanging on every syllable, completely believable as this character. As a filmmaker she clearly shows she’s in love with her medium and has been influenced by some of the most striking artists, while boldly finding her own voice and presenting a debut that’s overflowing with lush creativity and a strong beating heart which, when you consider the amount of triple-threat labour and creativity has gone into it, is a staggering first time effort. Highly recommended, one of the most unique films this year.

-Nate Hill

The Wicker Man (1973)

I got a chance to see the original 1973 Wicker Man for the first time recently and it’s every bit the freaky, messed up yet beautifully made folk horror nightmare I’d heard it was, I loved it to pieces. See the thing is the very words ‘wicker’ and ‘man’ put together in a sentence these days just evokes the mental image of Nicolas Cage with a beehive on his face, such is the pop culture absorption and frenzied notoriety of the much spat upon remake which, without going into too much diversion here, I think is actually a really good film. This one is too, in many different ways, it feels like the folk horror benchmark and I can see it’s cultural influence on much horror material in decades to come. It stars The Equalizer himself, Edward Woodward, as a London inspector sent to a wee tiny island off the coast in search of a missing girl, with not much of anything to go on in terms of intel except just that, a missing girl and a name. I’d be suspicious af, but he plows right into their earthen hippie community, pagan customs and frankly downright hilarious pageantry looking royally out of place with his crisp, chromed policeman’s uniform in such a colourful, wreath adorned, elemental backdrop. I enjoyed his ongoing abject horror at the local’s embracement of free love, loose values and rejection of staunch Christianity, the film is very… of its time and those certainly wouldn’t be things anyone would care about today but it’s fascinating to see how much of a big deal narrow-minded Christianity was for a lot of silly people back when. The film of course circles an ending that’s become legendary, where the titular wicker gentleman makes his appearance and everything kind of collectively goes bonkers for a finale that will wake the gods. Christopher Lee is at once amusing, endearing, charismatically sinister and somehow just a bit eccentric as the sort of “homestead regal” Lord Summerisle, the ringleader and pater manifest of this island dwelling bunch of cult loonies, it’s one of his best, and most entertaining performances, especially when he dons a great big wig for the final hoo-hah that is prophetic in a way, as he’d rock the exact same look decades later as Saruman in Lord Of The Rings. This film is a blast, full of strange editing, spooky music and eerie vocals that show up when you least expect them and a terrific ensemble cast that all do a splendid job of scaring the piss out of this poor, buttoned down big city copper with their collective antics, often funny, frequently frightening, consistently off the wall and always just what you’d expect a weird, island-bound, nature worshipping cult to act like. Excellent film.

Nate Hill

Child’s Play 3

Child’s Play 3 is the last of the films that focuses primarily on Chucky’s relentless pursuit of Andy’s soul, before the franchise reinvents itself and goes completely cuckoo bananas in the best way possible, but I’m getting ahead of myself. This is a solid entry, taking place a few odd years after the second film, with a teenage Andy (Justin Whalen, with heavy young Eddie Furlong vibes) yanked out of the foster care system and shipped off to military school. Chucky is still somehow back from the dead once again, resurrected in a slick opening credit sequence that features “plastic anatomy regrowth” effects that look like they inspired Brandon Cronenberg for some of the gooier stuff he put into his film Possessor. Now, military school is never a fun place to be in movies and I imagine it wouldn’t be very great in real life either, Andy has it tough because this particular venture is run by a power mad wannabe hairdresser sergeant played by Andy Robinson, who is great at being an absolutely unhinged loony, as we know from his turn as the zodiac killer in Dirty Harry. The rest of his fellow boot campers aren’t so nice either, apart from one girl (Perrey Reeves from Entourage, lovely here) who takes a shine to him until inevitable romantic sparks fly for a winning couple dynamic. Chucky arrives on scene after brutally butchering the amoral CEO of the toy company (Peter Haskell) that made his perennial rubber avatar and promptly but stealthily murders a garbage truck driver, arousing Andy’s suspicions that he’s finally tracked him down once again. The kills here and general arc at the military camp are fun enough, with the eventual villain’s confrontation between him and Robinson’s certifiable big boss a delirious, diabolically suspenseful set piece involving the world’s most disastrous botched straight razor shave. The film kicks into spectacular gear for the finale though, set in a giant abandoned amusement park in the nearby area, a hectic, hallucinatory howl of a showdown complete with underground roller coasters, tons of multicoloured lighting and acres of billowing dry ice, it’s a huge stylistic exhale after the drab visual palette of the military academy and lets Chucky and those trying to end him truly go nuts and play around with space, lighting and effects. It also has a ruthless send-off for this demon dolly involving some sort of giant industrial fan with big sharp blades, it’s a satisfyingly gory final death (of many this little fucker has bounced back from) for him and a nice cap off the last of the “Chucky vs. Andy” films in the canon, before new territories are charted. Great stuff.

Nate Hill