Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead have consistently been putting out wild, innovative and boundlessly creative ideas into cinema including Lovecraftian romance, esoteric doomsday cults, otherworldly time loops and more. What’s so great about their work is that along with these very grand, high concept SciFi ideas they always have the right application of atmosphere and tone as well as extremely believable, well written characters to back it up and with their newest film Synchronic they just may have outdone themselves. Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan play two New Orleans EMT’s who are also steadfast besties, their bromance banter a huge asset to this story. They seem to be getting a lot of disturbing calls lately, of people injured or hurt very badly after taking a mysterious experimental street drug called Synchronic, which is available in Vape form at various stores. It’s basically a synthetic DMT compound that acts on the pineal gland to provide unnervingly vivid hallucinations, but what really happens is that for the duration of the high, you quite literally go backwards in time to a random period of history, could be five years ago, could be five thousand years ago. This powerful but dangerous ability is the lynchpin of a story that involves these two characters as Dornan struggles with family issues, Mackie wrestles with a terminal illness diagnosis and the drug itself comes into play in ways you might not expect. Both actors are terrific especially when onscreen together, with Mackie being the standout and taking full blooded advantage of the deep, ponderous and soulful writing. What really makes the film sing is the synergistic flow of atmosphere, music and special effects for the trips back in time and there are several breathtaking set pieces including a Spanish conquistador in a damp bayou, a hellish picture of the New Orleans harbour on fire sometime around the civil war and an absolutely stunning trip back to the ice age. These sequences feel fully realized, immersive and tactile and where other films would take a high tech gadgetry approach to time travel, this one uses the onset of the drug’s effect in an eerie, elemental biochemistry fashion to transport us into the film’s realm. Moorehead and Benson floored me with their 2015 film Spring (couldn’t recommend it enough) and then their follow up The Endless left me a bit underwhelmed but for me this is them roaring back into cinematic innovation on all levels with a wondrously moody, unbelievably creative SciFi that’s sure to become a classic. Brilliant film.
It’s interesting to me how the best Disney films, or at least the ones that I connect with most anyways, don’t get talked about too much. Atlantis: The Lost Empire is always one I was kind of dimly aware of, I had the McDonald’s toys as a kid even though I never saw the film and always thought of it as just another rote Princess storyline from the studio. How wrong I was. This is an absolutely sensational SciFi adventure fantasy on all levels, boundlessly imaginative, strikingly mature as far as Disney goes and the kind of intricately designed experience you can get lost in. In the early 1900’s young scholar Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox in a lovely, exuberant turn) dreams of finding the lost city of Atlantis as his peers and superiors at the Smithsonian mock his efforts. When an eccentric and very rich tycoon (the late John Mahoney) agrees to fund an elaborate deep sea exploration with Milo spearheading the research aspect, it’s off to the races as a beautifully designed mega-craft descends into the Atlantic Ocean with our hero and a whole team of ragtag experts, grunts and grease monkeys onboard. The film is very realistic and fair with its characters and we get an entire fleet of fascinating individuals including an African American former civil war surgeon (Phil Morris) with indigenous roots, a cantankerous cook (Jim Varney), a Mediterranean explosives guru, a vivacious French geologist and the crew’s mercurial captain Rourke, given the commanding, affable yet vaguely menacing voice of James Garner who does a terrific job of the villainous arc. There is a Princess here but she isn’t doe eyed, sing-songy or cloying for romance every second. Her name is Kida (voiced wonderfully by Cree Summer), she’s the daughter of the Atlantean King (Leonard Nimoy, of all people) and she’s assured, strong willed and cares deeply for the plight of her race, who have fallen on hard times. There are eventual romantic sparks between her and Milo but they feel organic, earned and born out of a genuine, character development based relationship as the two get to know each other and she shows him around her striking world. The visual design and animation here is something else, even before we see Atlantis there’s a steampunk vibe to their equipment and vessel, and when we see the otherworldly biodiversity, detailed architectural splendour and tattoos/costume design it’s an atmosphere like no other. Not to mention the ballistic gong show of a climax, born out of capitalist fuelled betrayal, the very fate of Atlantis and every living thing in it at stake. This isn’t your average Disney flick and while there are the usual beats like comic relief and romance etc, it all feels far more down to earth than I’m used to from this kind of output. I’m reminded of another Disney one that has a similarly grounded, spectacularly imagined world, the wonderful Treasure Planet. I think the studio has never been as good or as inspired as their work with that one and now Atlantis too, it has to be up there as my favourite.
Steve Miner’s Warlock is billed as a horror film but it looks, feels and works better as a sort of time travel adventure deal. There are elements of horror, and the sequel (which I’ll review next) definitely dabbles in horror more hardcore but this is a rollicking, spirited jaunt from 1600’s New England through space and time to 1990’s L.A. as a hyperactive witch hunter (Richard E. Grant) pursued a dangerous supernatural sorcerer (Julian Sands) before he can collect enough dark magic to unleash the apocalypse or… something. It doesn’t matter what your specifics are when your effects, journey and overall atmosphere are this much fun. Sands is mercurial, devilish and relentless as the Warlock and he carefully walks a tightrope between being an unstoppable, faceless force of evil like some horror boogeymen and having his own unique charisma and panache, like others. Grant is ridiculously fun as the initially boorish, then gradually likeable and by the third act downright adorable witch hunter, sporting a coat right out of The Revenant and a mullet that Chuck Norris would be jealous of. Also he’s called “Giles Redferne,” which might be the coolest name ever in cinema, and he sure lives up to it. He meets a bubbly 90’s valley girl who has no interest joining forces with him until the Warlock puts a nasty aging spell on her and then, well, you can imagine. The effects are naturally of the 90’s variety but they have their own kitschy charm, especially during a hilariously shocking sequence where Sands literally kills a child and uses its blood for a flying potion so he can become a cruise missile and engage Redferne in a raucous highway car/flying Warlock chase. This is a fun one with elements of horror, dark comedy and swashbuckling tinged adventure all at play.
Return To Oz is not a film that’s held in very high regard at all but after watching it I have to say I’m a huge fan and that, whether anyone wants to admit it or not, it’s far closer to the source material than The Wizard Of Oz ever was. Here’s the thing: L. Frank Baum wrote an entire opus of Oz novels, fourteen to be exact. They were incredibly strange, terminally bizarre otherworldly fables with borderline dream/nightmare logic and a nebulous ecosystem of odd, surreal nonsensicality that was a world you could get lost in. While Wizard Of Oz is a lovely film with its classic musical numbers, doe eyed, iconoclastic turn from Judy Garland and turned darker, more menacing aspects into more accessible sensibilities, I’ve got to be honest as a childhood fan of the books and say I prefer Return because it feels more akin to Baum’s vernacular, intangible aesthetic and topsy-turvy world building. Additionally, Dorothy in the books was supposed to be between the ages eight to twelve and while seventeen year old Garland was wonderful in the role, Fairuza Balk at age ten fits the character more congruently and she’s terrific in a debut role that’s a perfect precursor to her own career full of edgy, intense and very ‘Oz-esque’ acting creations of her own. Dorothy returns to Oz in far less of a spectacle than the tornado before, and finds it conquered and ruled over by a tyrant called the Gnome King (Nicol Williamson). Dorothy must battle his minions as well as an evil witch named Thrombi (Jean Marsh, also effective as the evil witch in Willow). She’s helped by a new host of fantastical beings including clockwork robot Tik Tok, Jack Pumpkinhead, a talking chicken, a sentient Moose head and others while her old friends the Lion, Scarecrow and Tin Man remain largely in captivity but make some comforting cameos later on in the film. This is one of those blessed 80’s children’s fantasy films that isn’t afraid to get dark, genuinely menacing and has an overall edge and bite to its narrative and tone, which the books had as well. The special effects are utterly spellbinding from shifting rock faces, a flying couch, the gnome king’s fearsomely gigantic final form and all manner of phantasmagorical eye candy. Balk is wonderful as Dorothy and even at an early age it’s easy to see why she went on to become such an accomplished actress and beloved cult film star. As someone who cherished the books as a kid I have to say this is as close as it’s ever come; Baum’s stories were meant to be illogical, disorienting dark fantasies full of subconscious imagery and dreamlike storytelling, not syrupy Hollywood musicals that took all that edgy atmosphere and filtered it through a golden age, tame prism of sunny optimism. That’s not to say I don’t like Wizard Of Oz, it’s a fine film for what it is and a cherished classic to many, it’s just that if we’re acknowledging and paying tribute to the extensive lore behind it all, Return To Oz it’s where it’s at and I would have loved to see a continuing series with Balk as Dorothy again.
What is it about heroes like Hercules that endure? They come and go throughout the years in so many incarnations; transforming with the times while still remaining timeless. And who among you does not long for the power of a God at your fingertips…or to wield ancient and powerful weapons, to strike with the might of great Zeus’s thunderbolts, into the dark hearts of those angry Gods and vengeful outcasts, mythical colossus’s, woken titans….?
This is the cinema of the legendary Son-of-God, and just like peanut butter he comes in oily and dry, crunchy and smooth. From Reeves to The Rock, the man and his name that has ascended to the heavens, where the stars spell out his glory are always adventures worth going the distance for. So when I first saw Kevin Sorbo take up the mantle, here again came a joyous and wonder-dipped slice of a pie that I had not tasted since that marvelous, though short-lived series, Wizards and Warriors. Here we would trek on the heels of the champion of Olympus on a regular basis, through the ancient worlds and ancient wonders, discovering forgotten realms and the magic that dwelt there.
Through the classics to the contemporaries, from the unintentionally funny to the down-right awesome, Hercules put enough of a hit on me, if I were a bear…I might have been launched into orbit…but seriously, I dig the cat enough to want to write my own private blended drink of a tale, that saw the man loose his strength because of his father’s mortal fornications and thus is forced to take on an attacking other-worldly titan…with a shotgun. But…I stress this was not conceived to mock or denigrate the character. It was written with tremendous affection. Because, for my money, a good Hercules story dances that fine line between the wondrous and the wacky…that just below that surface veneer of cinematic insanity there is in fact…brilliance.
So who better to sit down with for a chat with than one of the longest serving performers to ever carry the role through many a legendary journey. Kevin Sorbo would, as the fates would have it, turn out to become a real life Hercules. He is a man who has been on his own private odyssey, and it was by far, more arduous than anything he ever put on screen. Sorbo , however, in a fashion similar to the hero he portrayed, lived to fight another day and has gone on seemingly possessed with God-like strength and determination and has become not only an endearing screen icon, but a prolific producer, writer and director.
When the hour cometh the hero shall be tested, and there, at the glorious moment, in that final stillness be found triumphant or wanting. These are the marks of few, the bold…those that will be marked by the lights of distant stars. So it was cool indeed to chat with the Legendary Hercules. Unfortunately, as I had hoped, I can’t present to recording as, because of a technical issue, it is not of sufficient quality. So I have taken the time to go through and transcribe what remains…though I regret that some has been saved only in my memory. Still…the journey continues…
Ladies and Gentleman, boys and girls of all ages…I give you the mighty, Kevin Sorbo…
KH: You came from Minnesota originally?
KH: What was it, during your early days there, that lead on the crazy adventures you’ve been on ever since?
KS: Well…it probably started when I was this eight year old kid, and my Mom would watch the old matinee movies with Katherine Hepburn and Cary grant…just all the people from the golden age era, and I loved those movies, and I went to the Guthrie Theatre, a famous theatre in Minneapolis, and a lot of Hollywood shows come there, or they start there. Then I remember going to a play in New York, The Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare. Now, I don’t know what they were talking about, I was eleven, but I remember being mesmerized by these actors on stage, and it wasn’t long after that I went to my parent and told them I was going to be an actor. But I was a closet thespian because I was also a jock, and we used to make fun of guys in the theatre being jocks ’cause you know I played American football, baseball, basketball…took up golf…love the game of golf and I still play it to this day…so I didn’t really do anything about the acting till I got through college, feeling that peer pressure…but the seed was planted so…I knew that was the road I was gonna take some day.
KH: See if you can tell me where this line comes from…ready?
KS: (laughter) Okay.
KH: This ain’t Jim Beam!
KS: Arh…I did a Jim Beam commercial back in 1992, down in New Zealand. I get down there and I was in Auckland and got see some of the surrounding beaches and stuff, and thought it would be really cool to come down here to see this country more…of course I got Hercules a year later and I ended up coming back to New Zealand for seven years so…be careful what you wish for (laughter) …no, I love it down there…but that little commercial got me fan mail for like five years…I got more fan mail from that commercial than I did for Hercules. (laughter) But it was interesting they chose do it that spot in new Zealand when there are plenty of places in Texas that would be considered a redneck bar…which they were trying to reproduce. But then the guys from Jim beam told that because of the campaign there sales had gone up 80%, I said you guys owe me a little more more money ’cause I’d rather be paid by percentage…
KH: They thought you’d be happy with a lifetime supply of Jim Beam?
KS: There it is. (laughter)
KH: But we should talk about that briefly because you are a bit of an ANZAC, having spent a number of years in Australia as well as New Zealand, and, as you mentioned in your email prior to our chat…it was like a second home to you…?
KS: I actually was in Australia for two year. Back in 1986…I went to Sydney to shoot a commercial at Bells beach and I ended up staying, and my agent in Los Angeles flipped out, and I said to him, I’ve wanted to come to Australia since I was twelve years old and now I’m here I want to see it. I went to Melbourne as well…I lived at Bondi beach…I’ve been down there for Comic con’s in Brisbane and Townsville, Perth…so I’ve been there a lot and I’m in talks right now with a production company down there to come and shoot another one…so we have a TV series that we could be shooting down there in the future…
KH: Splendid…well done. We’ll it will be nice to have you back…yet again.
KS: I’m looking forward to it.
KH: Awesome. So, moving right along…are the rumors true, because the internet should always be questioned and never taken for granted, that you were just beat out, by a nose, for Lois and Clark and The X Files?
KS: With the X Files it was more like I was in the final six, not the last three. With playing Superman though, I did test for that. Both Dean and I tested with Teri Hatcher and I go the the part…so I went out, celebrated, next morning I get a phone call and they say, “We’re going with Dean Cain!” So, that’s the nature of the business…but Dean’s a good friend of mine and for him it was meant to be…but…three months later, I got Hercules, so Dean was like, “You got the most watched TV show in the world and I got cancelled after three seasons.” But, it is what it is.
KH: Exactly. But…do you think you would have liked to have played Superman?
KS: Oh I think I would have enjoyed it…but Dean was right for the part…I think was better at the alter ego part of Superman, rather than the actual Superman. Would I have liked it…sure…but I was pretty happy doing Hercules so…
KH: Well Hercules takes up a massive chunk of your early career. You were in New Zealand doing crossovers with Xena…
KS: Xena didn’t exist when we started. We did five two hour movies, and by the end of that season two, they introduced that character not knowing it would become a spin-off, that’s how that came about, and with the son of Hercules in season five, it would be twenty year old Ryan Gosling playing me so…
KH: There you go. But in the midst of all this, the dark clouds of tragedy move in, it was between seasons four and five…you were doing press at the time for KULL the Conqueror and you had a series of four strokes?
KS: An aneurysm went to my left sub clavicle, that effected strength in my shoulders, balance, I was getting bumps and bruises…I loved working with the stunt team down there…so I blew it off. I went back to the States, my doctor found a lump, he thought it might be cancer and wanted to do a biopsy, I had the first stroke and then three on the way to the hospital, it affected things like my speech and took a long time to recover but I wrote a book, True Strength, back in 2012, and it allowed me to do things that I wouldn’t have done like public speaking which I still do on the subject. Of course I did return to Hercules, but it was in a limited capacity and then came Andromeda and that was like the third year of recovery and I was starting to feel recovered.
KH: I was a fan of you as Hercules, but being a life-long aficionado of Robert E. Howard…now…of course Schwarzenegger made Conan his own and brought that character into public consciousness, but Kull never as much, yet, we got a Kull movie…tell us what making that was like?
KS: Well Kull was the last novel Howard wrote before he blew his brains out so….you know….the original script was very dark, though the rewrites didn’t help. Conan was a brooding anti-hero where Kull was more able to articulate his thoughts. And I fought for him to use the battle axe as opposed to a sword…Conan was all about his sword but if you look at the art work inspired by Howard’s books, a majority of his warrior heroes carried axes. We shot for three weeks in Croatia on that movie. There were a lot of people that worked on it that had worked on the Conan films and it was well directed by John Nicolella, who has sadly passed away. It was fun a to a big budget action film…went to the big premiere in DC…it’s always a thrill.
KH: I can only imagine. So lets talk about TV, you’ve had such a variety of roles on the small screen. Andromeda was another big chunk of your career…tells of the journey from sword and sandals, so-to-speak, to the space and far-flung stars?
KS: I always was a big believer in the message Roddenberry was trying to put out there with these stories of humanity no merely being envoys for our race but far-reaching students of the vastness and complexity of our galaxy…but you know…when you spend a big chunk of time on one show and then on another…it still strikes me as delightful that, when I go to conventions, you’ll have your die-hard Hercules and your die-hard Andromeda fans…and never the twain shall meet…but that’s okay…that’s why variety is essential in entertainment…there’s something for everybody.
KH: My sister wanted me to ask you about a film of yours she enjoyed…Never Cry Werewolf?
KS: (laughter) Yeah…that was done up in Toronto and I gotta say that was a blast doing that one. It was one of those cases where….I get so many offers to do parts….and it was a small part, I think they sent me the twenty pages of script that I was in…these independent producers have their stock stable of crew and its a matter of go in and shoot and move on to the next…but I honestly have so many projects of my own, as well, that I’m working on, I have a slate of five films, features…some I’m in some I’m producing, I’m off to do a civil war movie and then after that I’m going to England to film a Charles Dickens adaptation…
KH: Wow….you’re no slouch mate. Don’t let them tell you you’re not on top of your game…and how you do it all is a mystery to me, for sure and certain. But…among your TV credits I know and have seen the episode you did of Murder She Wrote, you’re a part of the glorious group of performers that garnered a guest spot on Murder She Wrote. What was that experience like?
KS: It was a great experience. We shot on the Universal lot and I was able to meet Angela Lansbury and her Husband….and, one thing I found out later is that Angela had apparently been checking me out, to see what kind of a character I was during set-ups before she introduced herself which I thought was sweet and funny, but again I had a great time. Angela is a true professional and a legend, I mean, I saw her again when she was touring around with a theatre production, you know, so many years later…that’s impressive to me.
KH: Yes, the lady indeed is an absolute treasure. But, another of your credits I wanted to ask you was advertised at the end of one of my favorite films The Sword and The Sorcerer, but it would take Albert Pyun another 30 years to finally give us Tales of an Ancient Empire?
KS: Well when we filmed initially we only shot part…like fifty percent of the movie so I knew it was going to take time for them to gather the rest of the film, which sometimes happens on independent productions, but I loved the role, I loved the script…but it was the first thing I was ever involved in where they ran out of money and had to shut down at the time. But I can see the ambition and how it was part of a much larger story, on a Lord of the Rings type of canvas, there would have been a bigger world on display had the budget been there, but my character was kind of a shady, jerk, womanizer…which was fun to play. But I know Albert has had a lot of health issues lately…and it’s been a while since we’ve spoken…but he was a great guy…I wish him all the best with the struggles he’s going through, being someone who has had debilitating health issues…I pray for him.
KH: Tell us about your part in The Kings of Mykonos?
KS: Oh that was a great location, shooting on the sunny island of Mykonos. I played this American guy with a bad Italian accent who was very popular with the ladies (laughter)…it was just fun you know…we had a good time…a lot of laughs on the set. I know that film did really well, especially in your and in European regions. It came out on DVD over here, but sadly never got a theatrical release.
KH: I thought you were great in it…you have the comedic touch…which you did get a chance to showcase again in a little film called Meet the Spartans?
KS: I remember I had a meetings, and they were four hours apart in Hollywood, and 300 was screening, so with the time in between meetings, I went to a matinee and I thought, this is the perfect movie to spoof, so eventually when the part came around I jumped at it, playing the lieutenant to King Leonidas. It was great, there was the opportunity to improvise and in some cases they used those takes where we just riffing on each rather than what was scripted…the key to a good a parody is not just poking fun but presenting the futility of the situations sometimes…I know that I sound like a broken record but again…it was a lot of fun to do.
KH: Did you ever consider spoofing Hercules in a similar fashion…’cause got your story. Hercules with a Shotgun. A retired Hercules has been stripped of his God-like strength because Zeus has been kicked out of Olympus by his wife for philandering constantly with mortal woman. Thus the son of Zeus is forced to take on a monstrous titan with nothing but a shotgun?
KS: Hey…get it funded and we’ll talk.
KH: No sweat…I’ll get the money in the bank and have my people call your people.
KS: Well I don’t have an agent any more so just get in touch with me.
KH: No worries…I’ll find someone to pick up the cheque and I’ll give you a bell.
KS: Sounds great.
KH: Well Kevin…been awesome to chat to you mate, I better let you get on ’cause I know the bases are loaded.
KS: Yeah I’m actually off to Oxford on Monday to finish up a documentary so…there’s always something going on. Your listens can of course keep up with it all on my official Facebook page and my official website: http://www.kevinsorbo.net/ , and thank you for the conversation Kent and a big G’day to all the folks there Down Under…a great place on this Earth.
KH: Best wishes with all you got going mate…an maybe we’ll catch you back in this neighborhood some day soon…?
There is a filmmaker working in Hollywood right now, who is out to show the big boys that you don’t need hundreds of millions of dollars to make the movies you want to make.Shahin Sean Solimon is the man behind the movement. Together with his talented group of like-minded artists, he is forging new waves to achieve epic results without the big budget price tag.
“If I inspire some thirteen year old kid somewhere to pursue his or her dreams as I have, no matter what the nay-sayers say, I’ve done my job.”
And getting the job done is exactly what Shahin has been doing. Beginning with his first feature Djinn, Based on ancient middle eastern fairy tales written thousands of years ago, and passed down from generation to generation, Shahin crafted luscious, fantastical realms along with a pure and moving tale love and destiny.
With his second film he took it to the next level, conjuring the days of high adventure and summoning cinema which brings to mind the heady days of Ray Harryhausen with: Sinbad: The Fifth Voyage. When the Sultan’s first born is taken by an evil sorcerer, Sinbad is tasked with traveling to a desert of magic and creatures to save her. Add into this the talents of Patrick Stewart (X-Men, Star Trek: The Next Generation), who offered his distinct vocal styling as the films narrator.
Now, for the next big thing. In his third feature Nebulous Dark, Shahin is tackling the sci-fi and post-apocalyptic genres with one mighty stroke. It is yet another epic waiting in the wings from Solimon, who used the production, not just to make an awesome movie, but to continue to hone and harsness the ever-growing cache of cinematic artistry he has at his disposal.
There seems to be no end to his creativity or his ability to realize his visions. I thoroughly enjoyed chatting with this talented filmmaker who is, without a doubt, taking the bull by the horns and making the movies he wants to make.
“My inspiration as an artist is not about money, or fame…but about trying to project imagination, show a different perspective of life, and simply entertain.”
And entertaining us is what he has done and will, I believe, continue to do.
for more on the Cinema of Solimon, follow this link:
As a huge Terry Gilliam fan I’m embarrassed to say that I only saw his most celebrated film, Brazil, for the first time a few nights ago. I guess with some filmmakers we just unconsciously save the best for last in their canon? Anyways, thoughts: There are two visual aesthetics here that struck me, existing in a cacophonous plane of many sights, sounds, colours and spectacle. On the one hand you have the angular, grey, needlessly cluttered and perpetually chaotic business style world of the future, packed with asinine bureaucratic incident, excessive consumerism and, uh, a whole fucking shit load of ducts, snaking hither and thither to seemingly represent the kind of mental fog and psychological stress that living in a city choking on its own infrastructure might afflict one with. That is is the world for Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a put-upon peon of big business stuck in en endless, mad-dash hamster wheel of empty procedural diarrhea.
But there is another world for Sam, and another aesthetic for the film too. It shows up in periodic dream sequences and couldn’t be more different than his waking existence. Here he is free amongst an endless sea of clouds that promise freedom, gifted with Da Vinci esque winged contraptions and left to soar around the blessed blue. Here a beautiful goddess (Kim Griest) beams out at him from a veil of heavenly gauze like the Venus De Milo or any number of girls from a Renaissance painting. Unfortunately this dream world is just that: a phantasmic apparition not of his waking life, until he begins to see the girl from that realm in the real world, driving a hilariously oversized big rig truck no less.
It’s at that point that Sam’s world begins to get dangerous for him, the blurring of lines between fantasy and reality as well as this good natured desire to rectify the world’s most cataclysmic clerical error (that damn fly), seeing him go from mild mannered cog in the machine proverbial fly in the ointment, the stick which unknowingly lodges itself in the gears of the system and causes a hysterical meltdown. Along the way he meets many others including an opportunist colleague (Gilliam regular Michael Palin), his plastic surgery addicted mommy (Katherine Helmond), a shady corporate maintenance man (Bob Hoskins, looking more like Super Mario here than he did in the *actual* Super Mario film), his hyper anxious supervisor (Ian Holm) and a renegade duct repairman played by Robert DeNiro in a sly turn of antiestablishment derring do. So, overall? Folks are right for dubbing this Gilliam’s masterpiece, and while my heart will always call his 12 Monkeys my personal favourite, I just can’t argue that this isn’t his best film overall. It’s a sprawling canvas of ideas, nightmarish imagery, hope for escape that keeps getting quashed and reignited with each narrative beat, rib jabbing dark humour that calls Python to mind, jaw dropping production design and the kind of story that draws you right into this topsy-turvy realm. Sam exists in two worlds, as does the film, and the haunting fun is in seeing them crash, collide and each vie for presidency over one soul. Absolutely brilliant film.
It’s amazing what you can do with a low budget, especially when all you’ve got to blow is thirty grand, but Jordan Downey works small scale magic with The Head Hunter, an inventive, atmospheric Viking era horror story that is one of the most creatively entertaining films I’ve seen so far this year.
In the vein of stuff like Willow and The 13th Warrior, here we see a misty, desolate Nordic landscape (actually Portugal) and the fearsome warrior (Christopher Rygh) who wanders through it in spectral, gaunt armour, always on the hunt for hordes of mythical ghosts, goblins and werewolves, a bounty hunter of sorts who displays the heads of his quarries as trophies on the wall of his forest abode. The only creature he hasn’t yet slain is the one that killed his young daughter (Cora Kaufman) years before, and it’s his brutal purpose in life to hunt this thing down over foggy mountains, through dark caves and have his vengeance. There’s an inspired sense of detail here and much of the first half we simply see his routine in studious fashion, going out to kill these beasts (mostly offscreen, as budget permits), coming home all shredded up (thank god for gooey prosthetic effects) and using a homemade magic potion to regenerative damaged tissue and heal himself. I’ve read reviews saying this is boring or slow or goes nowhere but those critics have their heads in the sand, because these extended sequences are terrific for setting up character, getting a sense for the space and time around him and treating ourselves to the lovingly handcrafted production design, from ancient manuscripts he studies to the varied heads piked up on his living room wall. When the action and horror does come later it all pays off because we’ve sat with this guy for a while, learnt his ways and are ready to see how he handles things when they go haywire. They do, but I won’t spoil the fun because there’s a few delicious twists, tons of creepy horror action and even a few genuinely poignant moments too.
This thing has an estimated budget of thirty grand, and runs for just over an hour, falling short of being an actual feature, but I know from experience just how tough it is to make a low budget work. My friends and I made a sweet horror film once that had a budget of 5 grand and the resulting product was only like eight minutes long, so I feel their pain. It’s especially apparent in horror because you need all these gory effects, costumes and exotic sets and whatnot, so it can be tough. The constraints are obvious here but I think that what Downey has accomplished with what he had is phenomenal. The setting looks beautifully eerie, atmospheric and well lit, the creature effects are earthy, elemental and refreshingly old school, the score by Nick Soole is most excellent in setting mood and the two actors playing the warrior and his daughter knock it out of the park. This was a bit less grimly serious than I pictured going in, more supernatural and fantastical than I anticipated, but once you adjust to the tone it works really well. Think more Army Of Darkness than Pathfinder but less silly and you’ll have some idea, but really this thing is fairly unique and on its own level. Plus, it isn’t a sequel, remake, reimagining or prequel, it’s an original script! How about that! Great stuff all in all, one of my favourites of the year so far.
The middle chapter in any trilogy has the unfortunate luck of being an oasis interlude that by definition can’t have an opening or a conclusion, because a hunk of story came before it and, naturally, there’s more to come after. However in the case of Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers, it adapts and adjusts that malady by finding it’s own groove with a surging forward momentum that is removed from the episodic nature of both Fellowship and Return Of The King. It’s not my personal favourite of the three (Fellowship holds that trophy on sheer potent nostalgia alone) but to me it’s the most unique in the sense that *because* it has no bookend on either side of its narrative, it ironically feels like the most independent chapter.
There’s a restless surge of movement from every side of the action here; Frodo and Sam are uneasily led by Gollum through a haunted, labyrinthine marsh ever closer to the acrid peaks of Mordor. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli furiously race to save the entire population of Rohan from devastation at the hands of Saruman, the good wizard who went about as bad as you can go, and his manipulative lackey Wormtongue. Merry and Pippin are whisked away on the shoulders of Ent elder Treebeard on an endless hike through Fangorn Forest, and eventually Isengard itself. Even Gandalf doesn’t get a sit-down or a smoke break, propelled on a dizzying battle with the Balrog and thrown right back into the struggle for Middle Earth with Tim for nought but a wardrobe update and hair dye. It’s that movement, the ever forward rhythm that sets this one apart and emphasizes what a truly massive journey this whole story is. Fellowship had dreamy interludes in Rivendell, whimsical leisure time spent in The Shire and near constant time to reflect and sit down for these characters, and Return had… six different endings that broke the pace. Two Towers begins with fiery chaos in Moria, holds that note throughout and finishes literal moments after the thunderclap battle of Helms Deep, which is still just an incredible piece of large scale filmmaking.
This one also introduced two of my absolute favourite characters in the whole trilogy, Theoden king of Rohan and his warrior niece Eowyn. Played by Bernard Hill and Miranda Otto, these two performances just sing through the whole film, drawing sympathies not just for Rohan but the entire human race, it’s struggle and earning every cheer out loud moment. The whole conflict with Rohan, despite again not being the inciting event in the war for Middle Earth or even the final battle, feels very immediate and important thanks to Hill, Otto, everyone involved and the monumental special effects involved in bringing the terrifying Uruk Hai army to life. There’s a tactile use of CGI that’s almost subtle enough to blend in with the real world elements, and despite being made like almost two decades ago, they still hold up and eclipse other similar efforts in more recent years, especially with the battle, Treebeard and poor Gollum who still looks fantastic. The stuff with Frodo is less compelling, or at least to me, I’ve always found in the latter two films that his trajectory gets increasingly dark, horrific and suffocating and find myself counting down the seconds until we rejoin the others. I suppose that’s the point as he is carrying that terrible Ring, but nevertheless, always tough to make palatable.
The climactic battle that goes on for nearly fifteen minutes, the incredibly cathartic siege of the trees on Isengard, the hair raising Warg attack, Gandalf’s final boss battle with the Balrog, Eomer (Karl Urban, a study in badassery) and his company massacring the Uruk war party, all are standout moments and fantastic pieces of cinema. But there are a few moments that are always present and important in my mind when watching this film: As a small village in Rohan is plundered by marauding orcs, a desperate mother sends her two (Robyn Malcolm) sends her two children ahead of her on horseback, and nothing is more heartbreaking or immediate than this parting. Later on, Theoden stands by the grace of his son and weeps against a twilit sky while Gandalf looks on in sorrow and utters words of comfort. Elsewhere, Frodo, despite being under the malicious influence of the Ring, takes pity on Gollum and treats him with compassion even though the creature has a track record of nasty behaviour. It’s the little moments like these that ground the story in emotion, create a stirring palette for the characters to interact in and make the battle scenes count for something.
There’s always those films whose reputation is more widely known than themselves, where the stormy production or behind the scenes drama caused such a ruckus and eclipsed the final product, creating negative buzz whether or not the film is good. John McTiernan’s The 13th Warrior is one of those, I haven’t read up exactly on what went wrong but I’ve always felt the film that was born out of whatever trouble there was is an excellent one.
Antonio Banderas stars as an unconventional version of the badass hero we’re used to, one who starts off as anything but that and has to earn his way to glory. He plays a Persian poet sometime around 900AD, a man who is sent away for macking on the sultan’s wife and captured by a roving band of Vikings. They are amassing an army of elite specialist warriors to bring back home in the north in order to defeat a near indestructible menace that is moving in on their land. Banderas finds himself caught up in the war, alone with the tribe and forced grab a sword, find his courage and take a few swings at this fearsome enemy. The plot is fairly simple stuff but it’s atmosphere and character development that win the day here, as well as epic production design. Banderas starts off as basically a pampered court jester who the Norsemen mock and ridicule, until he learns their ways and a bond of brotherhood forms, an arc from both parties that is handled with dignity and heart. The enemy they fight are an unseen horror who burn, kill and eat everything in their path, there’s a sense of genuine fear and threat when they show up and the battles are staged with smoke, mist and fire for ultimate atmospheric effect. A highlight is when they raid underground caverns used to hide out in via ships and you really get a sense of setting as well as budget on display. Banderas is supported by various people including Vladimir Kulich as the heroic Buliwyf, Diane Venora, Tony Curran, Richard Bremmer, Sven Wollter and a very brief Omar Sharif.
People can talk shit about this one all they want but I really feel like they’re thinking of the troubled production instead of the film itself and need to get their heads out of the sand, and refocus their gaze. This may be a fairly scrappy flick but it’s simply not a bad film. Banderas is a solid lead, there’s a tactile sense of wonder to the settings, both southern and northern and McTiernan mounts the sieges, battles, massacres and poetic revelry assuredly. Great film.