They don’t make em like this anymore, and that goes for both the protagonists of Joe Begos’s VFW and the film itself. Coated in 16mm grain, dripping with gorgeous, driving 80’s style synth music and packed wall to wall with excessively gory, blood soaked extreme violence, this film feels like the old school right to the bone. Set in a particularly nasty urban hell where the opioid crisis has reached a breaking point, a group of tough, battle hardened Nam and Korea veterans fight til the death to protect their local VFW hall and drinking spot from a gang of evil marauding drug psychos out to get their stolen product back. It’s a barebones siege thriller infused with schlock from one angle but there’s a deeper level, care and attention paid to each of these characters, wonderful dialogue that has the scent of improvisation and super game performances from these familiar faces of the VHS golden age of genre filmmaking. Stephen Lang (Tombstone, The Hard Way, Manhunter) heads up the pack as ringleader and Fred is joined by beloved familiar faces including blaxploitation icon Fred Williamson (From Dusk Till Dawn, MASH, Vigilante), Martin Kove (The Karate Kid, Rambo II, Death Race 2000), George Wendt (Fletch, House, Space Truckers), William Sadler (Die Hard 2, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, The Shawshank Redemption) and David Patrick Kelly (Twin Peaks, 48 Hrs, The Crow). These guys are totems of a bygone era in terms of themselves and the characters they get to play. They all got their start in the industry back around the 70’s and 80’ when the age of VHS was just getting underway, and as such represent a time when you’d walk into a video store and see the horror/action sections adorned with countless titles just like this one. In the film itself they play these veterans with a strong sense of brotherhood, camaraderie and community, the kind I imagine you could only get from serving together or simply knowing what it’s like to be in the shit. The film shows a reverence for these old dudes as they fiercely rage against the dying of the light and lament a large portion of the younger generation lost to drugs. It’s also just a kickass fucking horror fest with retro sensibilities, a Wild Bunch meets John Carpenter with a dash of Panos Cosmatos kinda vibe. My favourite film so far this year and highly recommended, provided this aesthetic is your thing.
David Lynch’s Wild At Heart can be given the nutshell description of ‘Lynch does Bonnie & Clyde’, but that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of this twisted, surreal, beautifully scarring piece of bizarro cinema cunningly disguised as a love story. It is a love story, first and foremost, but that’s also only a blueprint onto which all sorts of other dreams, visions and nightmares are painted. It’s very, *very* loosely on a book by Barry Gifford, but what Lynch whips up makes the source material seem grey and unrecognizable in comparison. Gifford’s book is the black and white prologue to The Wizard Of Oz and Lynch’s version is the dazzling yet unnerving technicolour dream world that follows, and indeed he uses imagery and gives shout outs to that film any chance he gets here. Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern are Sailor Ripley and Lula Pace Fortune, lovers on the run from the Deep South and Lula’s tyrannical monster of a mother Marietta, played by Diane Ladd in an Oscar nominated turn that doesn’t just chew scenery but devours it with the force of an imploding neutron star that eats galaxies. Marietta is intent on keeping the two of them apart for reasons slowly and subtly unveiled, and she sends everyone and their mother after them including mopey private detective Johnnie Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton) and dangerous mobster Marcellos Santos (the late great J.E. Freeman). Sailor and Lula’s journey is a deranged yellow brick road through 50’s infused Americana, perverse apparitions abound and literally almost everyone they meet ranges from deeply disturbed to outright psychotic to marginally quirky. Santos sends a cabal of weirdo assassins headed up by ghoulish sadist Perdita Durango (Grace Zabriskie in a pants shittingly scary performance) and her cronies (David Patrick Kelly and Calvin Lockhart). In Texas they run into reptilian scumbag Bobby Peru, brought to life by Willem Dafoe in a skin crawling portrait of sexual menace and warped glee that would scare off Frank Booth. Lula tells tales of her delusional cousin Dell (Crispin Glover) putting cockroaches on his anus and of being raped at age thirteen by her father’s business friend (actually shown in a brief but upsetting cutaway). Why all this unpleasantness, you ask? Well… I don’t know, but Lynch seems to and he isn’t sharing the coordinates of his moral compass with anyone, he’s simply storytelling and holding nothing back of the weird or wild variety. Amongst all the violence and monstrosity there’s an undercurrent of tenderness and love that pulses via Sailor and Lula’s relationship, cultivated in an ebb and flow tide of simple, candid pillow talk and unbridled passionate sex that mirrors their frequent and feverish visits to sweaty dance clubs. This is their story, and every ghost, goblin and witch they meet along the way is simply a dark passenger or otherworldly day player in their tale, plus they often make for hilariously off colour vignettes, like Jack Nance’s deranged 00 Spool or Freddie Jones’s gnomish pigeon expert. My favourite sequence is a sobering, haunted diversion off the side of a freeway where they discover a distraught girl (Sherilyn ‘Audrey Horne’ Fenn) rambling through a bout of brain trauma from a car accident. Angelo Badalamenti’s score sings through this to the point of chills, as it does throughout the film. Also traversing down this dark yellow brick road are William Morgan Sheppard, Frances Bay, musician John Lurie, Nicholas Love, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Frank Collison, Ed Wright, Isabella Rossellini and Sheryl ‘Laura Palmer’ Lee herself as Glenda the Good Witch. As proclaimed by Lula at one point, “this whole world is wild at heart and weird on top..” It is indeed, and we’re lucky to have a filmmaker like Lynch to do his part in keeping it that way by making unique, bizarre films like this to remind us just what is possible in cinema with a little invention, a whole lot of colour, splashes of horror and a love of storytelling. Maybe not Lynch’s most prolific or instantly recognizable work, but a full on classic for me and high up on his filmography list.
John Wick: Chapter 2 expands nicely on a mythology that we caught a glimpse of from behind the shadowy curtain of assassin’s anthropology in the first film, a fantastic meld of stylish world building and hyper violent, stunts driven action that saw Keanu Reeves come blasting back onto the big screen in probably the best role so far of his career. Chapter 2 has one big challenge to face though: the first one was driven by the fact that those fuckers killed his dog, and the man’s subsequent bloodlust over it. That was the crux, the catalyst, the reason we cheered so loudly each time he maimed or mauled someone. Now, I don’t need an excuse like that to watch an antihero slaughter people, but some might, and the dog thing just propelled him forward faster and furious…er. What’s the catalyst here? Well, they destroy his house. Not quite the emotional kick in the nuts you get from seeing a beagle murdered, but it seems to be enough to light Wick’s fuse again, so there you go. He’s faced with a figure from his past here, some fruitcake of an Italian mobster (Ricardo Scamarcio) who wants him to come out of retirement and kill his powerful sister (Claudia Geroni) to ensure his seat at a revered council table of international crime figures. It’s basically John Wick’s Eurotrip, as he treks across the pond to kill more goons and thoroughly destroy more night clubs and other such convenient set pieces than you can shake a stick at, before returning back to New York for an ultra-violent third act. John Leguizamo, the always awesome Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, Bridget Moynahan and David Patrick Kelly all reprise their wicked cool roles, whilst Common, Ruby Rose, Peter Serafinowicz and Franco Nero create new characters that flesh out this fascinating world of killer’s mythology even further. The film is special though for two important reunions for Reeves that give wonderful callbacks to earlier in his career: the prologue sees Wick ferociously reclaim his stolen car from Abram Tasarov (Peter Stormare) the more gregarious brother of Viggo, villain from the first film. Reeves and Stormare played Constantine and Lucifer in the underrated 2005 comic book adaptation, where they faced off with just as much menace and charisma we see in their little bit here. It’s also a reunion for Neo and Morpheus, because Laurence Fishburne shows up as the godlike Bowery King, a rooftop dwelling, pigeon keeping derelict who runs a vast crime syndicate that all disguise themselves as dishevelled hobos. It’s wonderful references like these that pack the pedigree with solid gold and moments to remember, not to mention it’s just a worthy sequel, a slam bang screamer of an action flick and a great time all round. Bring on Chapter 3, and I request an Al Pacino villain turn so we can get nostalgic for The Devil’s Advocate all over again.
K-Pax is a beautifully told, warmhearted film that despite being mildly frustrating in it’s persistent ambiguity, is no doubt a better film for never really drawing a line and stepping to one side of it. Kevin Spacey is charming and sad as a mysterious man called Prot. Prot lives in a psychiatric ward and claims to be from a distant planet (named K Pax, naturally) in a faraway galaxy. Jeff Bridges plays the kindly therapist assigned to take care of him and eventually coach him out of his delusions. But are they delusions? Prot boasts uncanny, impossible knowledge of the solar systems and beyond, and won’t budge on a single detail of his story, which is not characteristic of someone suffering mental illness. Is Prot really who he says he is, or simply a man with a past so deeply traumatic that he’s spun this web of science fiction around his pain and nestled into it like a cosmic comfort blanket? This is where the film refuses to delineate or choose, which is either it’s one fallacy or it’s strongest, bravest creative quality, I haven’t decided yet. It’s interesting that they’ve casted Bridges because there’s a noticeable vibe akin to John Carpenter’s Starman here, which he starred in. Spacey and him are pure magic, navigating their scenes of dialogue like a dance of light, showing kindness and compassion in a situation that breeds confusion and fear. The supporting cast is peppered with talent including David Patrick Kelly, Mary McCormack, Aaron Paul, Alfre Woodward and Bill Lucking, but it’s Bridges and Spacey’s show all the way, and they turn the script they’re given into spun gold. Not to mention the crisp, brilliantly lit cinematography courtesy of John Mathieson as well. It’s one thing to come across intelligent science fiction, but when a film has the emotional heft to back up the tech and brains, you get the whole package, and this one delivers.
The reason John Wick works so well is a flawless mix of simplicity, earnestness and passion. The premise is a familiar one, and nearly identical to countless other slam bang action flicks out there, a simple and well travelled formula. It’s in the absolutely stylish, classy and distinct execution that it finds its uniqueness. The filmmakers (Chad Sahelski and Derek Kolstad) are stuntmen themselves, and therefore know what is needed to make a successful action film: well staged action. The terrific atmosphere that tagged along is a bonus and goes to further prove these guys have serious talent. They also care, want to have fun and want their film to exist within a memorable universe, and this all shows. An action film would be nothing without it’s star, and Keanu Reeves comes busting out of the gate in full rampaging glory as the titular ex-super hitman John Wick, an expert operative who can do things with guns that would make Neo nervous. John is grieving the death of his wife (the lovely Bridget Moynahan) and taking care of the puppy she left behind to console him, living the quiet life as it were, or at least as quiet as life can get for an ex mob assassin. Wick manages to chill out for a bit with the doggo, but that all ends when his path crosses with that of a spoiled mafia brat (Alfie Allen, played an even nastier snot rag than he did in Game Of Thrones) who steals his car and kills the poor pupper. This really lights Wick’s fuse, gives his brutal talents a new lease on life and throws him headlong back into the dangerous and often eccentric realm of covert contract killers. Allen was the son of a powerful, loose cannon Russian kingpin (Michael Nyqvist in a mirthful blend of funny, scary and just plain exasperated), and now John is at odds with hordes of his underlings and a few former associates who want his head. That’s pretty much all there is in terms of plot, but the film soars on the wings of propulsive, meticulously choreographed action and positively drips with cool, it’s main asset found in Reeves, who is an absolute boss in the role. Sporting a tailored suit, fiery attitude and lethal reflexes, John punches, kicks, stabs and shoots his way through endless unfortunate adversaries, seeming to be both fallible human and invincible archangel of destruction simultaneously. It’s the perfect role for him, a comeback of sorts and just a rip snortin action hero you can get riled up for. There’s attention to detail paid to his world too, the clandestine realm of killers given a mythology, currency and protocol all its own and perfectly original. Adding to the already impossible levels of class are a perfectly chosen roster of supporting talent too. John Leguizamo makes a peppy cameo as a cranky auto fence, Willem Dafoe plays a morally vague fellow hitman, watch for Lance Reddick, David Patrick Kelly, Daniel Bernhardt, Dean Winters, Adrienne Palicki and the always awesome Ian McShane as the suave proprietor of The Continental, a posh hotel that caters only to assassins. All characters encounter John Wick at some point and in some capacity, but Wick himself is the constant, the raw element which drives this film forward with the force of a stampeding bull, scarcely hesitating to breathe or seek medical attention on his quest for carnage. Reeves sells the character and then some, headlining one of the most flat out spectacular action films of the last decade.