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.
Video games, weed, Kung fu monkeys, lions, immature man children, sweet old ladies, topless chicks, toilet humour, Grandma’s Boy has it all and has to be one of the funniest films ever made, provided all that and more is your thing. Produced by Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison label and starring many of his seemingly inexhaustible entourage, this is one comedy that knows how to cut loose, party the fuck up and kick back for ninety minutes of stoned, drunken, nerdy blissful mayhem. Allen Covert (he was the homeless bum turned caddy in Happy Gilmore) is 35 year old video game tester Alex, who hits rock bottom after being evicted by his asshole landlord (Rob Schneider in Eastern European mode). With nowhere to go he moves in with his lovable grandma (Doris Roberts) and her two friends, potty mouthed tart Shirley Jones and drugged out kook Shirley Knight. The plot here is pretty loose and that kind of leaves breathing room for various set pieces, comedic bits and one massive house party where grandma gets royally stoned. The cast is stacked with recognizable talent including the always lovely Linda Cardellini as a foxy new colleague Alex crushes on, Nick Swardson, Jonah Hill, Kevin Nealon, Peter Dante, Joel David Moore as a terminally awkward video game coder and David Spade as the world’s sassiest vegan restaurant waiter. I mean some would call this lowbrow trash and I won’t argue but if your brain is in the right spot it’s a relentlessly funny film that hardly lets you breathe between laughing. Doris Roberts has so much fun in the role and knows how to send up her own image, Cardellini is just so damn adorable in anything, Nealon has a blast as their hippy dippy CEO and the whole thing is packed with inspiration, from chimpanzee karate fights to dance dance revolution showdowns to a thirteen hour titty sucking marathon that serves as Jonah Hill’s initiation into the industry of sorts. Don’t bring your brain to this one, just come ready to chill with these childish video game stoner idiots for a while and you’ll be hugely rewarded.
There was no other artist on the planet like Tony Scott. Behind that epic cigar and under that iconic sun bleached pink cap there resided an intense desire to blast celluloid with a distinct visual aesthetic and brand cinema forever with pictures that exploded out of the mould, caught the projector on fire and often inspired quite divisive reactions. Why have one steadicam stationed at a traditional angle when you can have multiple cameras on all kinds of rigs panning, gliding and pirouetting all over the place? Why use generic colour timing templates when you can saturate the absolute fuck out of every frame, sprinkle in the grain and turn up the yellows until you scorch your irises? Why employ pedestrian editing when you can zip, zoom, use jagged swaths of movement, arbitrary subtitles and hurtling fast motion to tell your story? Tony has a huge bag of tricks that was constantly evolving over the course of his career, and for anybody who could both catch up to him and appreciate the aesthetic he left us a wealth of cinematic treasure behind after his tragic and untimely death. These are my top ten personal favourite of his films!
10. The Hire: Beat The Devil
This is one in many short films sponsored by BMW, all featuring Clive Owen as a 007-esque getaway driver for hire at the wheel of a Beamer. Scott’s entry definitely leads the pack though, get this: The legendary James Brown (James Brown playing himself) has made a deal with The Devil (Gary Oldman) for fame and fortune and now that old age has struck he wishes to renegotiate. How to settle matters? Brown and Owen in the Beamer race Devil and his trusty butler/driver (Danny freakin Trejo) along the Vegas strip at sunrise. Oh yeah and Marilyn Manson makes a hysterical cameo too. It’s a balls out fucking freaky wild ride with Oldman making scary, flamboyant work of ol’ scratch and Scott amping up the stylistics to near excess. Favourite scene: that Manson cameo, man. So funny.
9. Spy Game
Robert Redford and Brad Pitt headline this highly kinetic tale of espionage, mentorship, loyalty and resilience while Tony fires up what little action there is terrifically. It’s interesting because this isn’t an action film, it’s got depth and personality, the visual tone serving the affecting central relationship well. Favourite scene: Brad and Robert argue morality atop a Berlin apartment rooftop, Brad loses his cool and whips a chair off the edge as Scott’s cameras dutifully circle them like restless seagulls.
8. The Last Boy Scout
A tumultuous production ultimately led to the first in the ‘unofficial L.A. Noir buddy action comedy trilogy’ written Shane Black, to be followed up years later with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys. Tony lends his sun soaked grunge to this tale of an ex football pro (Damon Wayans) and a disgraced Secret service agent turned PI (Bruce Willis) navigating a dangerous underworld conspiracy while trying to put up with each other. This is one hilarious, high powered ride with super nasty villains, a terrific supporting turn from Danielle Harris as Willis’s rebellious daughter and a playfully sadistic streak to the intrigue. Favourite scene: the shocking opening sequence set during a rain soaked NFL game gives new meaning to going the extra mile for that touchdown and sets the gritty, sarcastic tone well.
This exciting riff on the runaway train shtick sees railway workers Denzel Washington and Chris Pine try and prevent a renegade unmanned locomotive from crashing in a densely populated area, causing cataclysm. Tony keeps the pulses racing and the action almost literally nonstop in his final film before passing. Favourite scene: the hair raising climax.
6. Crimson Tide
Denzel again! He goes head to head with Gene Hackman in this explosive submarine picture with uncredited writing from Quentin Tarantino and fantastic supporting work from James Gandolfini, Viggo Mortensen and others. Tony loved wide, expansive settings to play in but he works just as terrifically in a confined space here, letting the energy reaching a boiling point. Favourite scene: a fierce verbal battle of wills between Hackman and Washington over a tense mess hall dinner.
5. Déjà Vu
Time travel gets a twist in this trippy, exciting and surprisingly emotional tale of one ATF agent (who else but Denzel??) using a state of the art SciFi technique to take down a dangerous terrorist (Jim Caviesel). Scott uses many elements played both backwards and forwards to keep interests locked and please the crowd. Favourite scene: When all is said and done Washington shares a final moment with a witness (Paula Patton) that calls back to earlier moments of the film and caps this story off nicely.
4. Enemy Of The State
Chase thriller, espionage intrigue, mob war-games, Gene Hackman basically reprising his role from Coppola’s The Conversation, a trademark Mexican stand-off shootout, this prophetic, endlessly exciting film has it all. Will Smith and Hackman team up awesomely in this fast paced, prescient, frequently scary and rousing thriller that has a cast you won’t believe, some showcase explosions and enough excitement to go round.
3. Man On Fire
Denzel Washington’s Creasy is the titular incendiary avenger in this south of the border tale of revenge, kidnapping, redemption, cruelty and corruption. It’s a startling film and the first one that felt like Scott’s specific calling card style had been fully formed and delivered to us in a package that many (including those pesky critics) weren’t ready for. Grainy, choppy, putting us right in the passenger seat with Creasy and his sketchy frame of mind, this one is a master stroke of filmmaking.
2. True Romance
This would be first on the list if it were a singularly ‘Tony’ film but it’s just as much Quentin Tarantino’s show and as such is kind of a two man dance, not to mention the legendary ensemble cast. Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette are an early 90’s Bonnie & Clyde on the run from just about every nasty villain you could think of in this cult classic that just gets better every time you watch it (I’m well over a hundred views myself).
This just has to be Tony’s masterpiece, and he crafts it without compromise or apology. With a framework loosely based on real life bounty hunter Domino Harvey, he boldly hurtles towards the asphalt horizon with this hyperactive, unique, mescaline soaked, badass adrenaline rush that is an experience like no other. Critics pissed on it but fuck them, it’s a gem, really, a visual and auditory juggernaut that doesn’t just light up your TV screen but pretty much makes a break for your circulatory system and bounces around your veins for two hours. This is the one I’ll always remember Scott for.
In most movies The Devil is a dude, but what if ol’ scratch appeared as a super attractive girl, namely Elizabeth Hurley? The power of persuasion would be given a significant boost as it does for Brendan Fraser’s Elliott, a hapless schmuck with no friends and no girlfriend. Harold Ramis’s Bedazzled is a lighthearted, irrelevant piece of leisure that doesn’t take itself too seriously or think too hard about its central premise, and nor should the viewer. Fraser is a whirlwind of physical comedy, beginning Elliot’s arc as one of those horrifically animated dweebs who everyone in the workplace avoids. When Hurley’s smokin’ hot Satan tags him as the perfect sap, he’s given seven wishes in exchange for his soul and the opportunity to win over a colleague (Frances O’Connor) who he has always loved. Cue a series of increasingly hysterical vignettes in which he tries his best to distill just what it is that girls find attractive while Hurley keeps cleverly sabotaging his efforts and making things go wrong, sardonically commenting on his plight from a female perspective. This is a very entertaining experience because Fraser, ever a cartoonish comic dynamo, gets to play like seven different characters including a ‘sensitive’ ginger, a flamboyant intellectual, Colombian drug lord and, my favourite, a seven foot tall NBA player complete with white dude black guy hair. There’s also a sweet, happy last minute ending that some say is tacked on but honestly Elliott, despite being a bit of a doorknob, is an ultimately very sweet guy who learns along the way exactly what the would might be and that it ain’t worth trading for nothing, he kind of deserves a a kickback after all that. I’m aware this is a remake and haven’t seen the 60’s version but will get to it, but found this quite the fun film!
The Farrelly Brothers have always intentionally made comedies that walk an ever so fine line between being mean and good natured, whether it’s delightfully offensive (Me Myself & Irene) or benignly reined in (Stuck On You). They just understand and have this certain symbiosis with off colour humour and the fact that most of the films would be boycotted out of the theatres in this age of hysterical hyper sensitivity is a fair reminder that jokes are just jokes, everything is fair game or nothing is fair game and hey, fat jokes are just plain hilarious in the right dosage. Shallow Hal was a pleasant surprise for me, it’s their most compassionate and mature film while still retaining that edge where you’re not sure if they’re laughing at the disabled, blind, fat, deaf or what have you or with them. They’re laughing with them.
Jack Black is Hal, a man whose dying father (Bruce McGill) imparted words of wisdom to him on his deathbed at the age of nine, telling him to never ‘settle for average poon tang’ and always go for ‘hot young tail.’ Well you can imagine how that could fuck with someone’s head at that age and as such he grows up into a superficial snob who looks at women with skin deep lenses and has no use for anything but physical attraction. After he’s stuck in an elevator with self help guru Tony Robbins (self help guru Tony Robbins) and given a little hypnotic boost he can now only see inner beauty in anyone he looks at, and vice versa. When he meets three hundred pound Rosemary (Gwyneth Paltrow) he perceives a slim supermodel type while everyone around him can behold the real thing. It’s a tricky concept that you shouldn’t put too much thought into lest you think too hard and logic sets in but it’s a breezy film that is more interested in the implications of its concept rather than semantics.
Black is good enough in his first big time starring role and the Farrelly’s populate the film with an ever eclectic bunch of people like Joe Viterelli, Susan Ward, Kyle Gass and Jason Alexander as Hal’s asshole buddy who..ah… well I won’t spoil it but it’s a classic Farrelly sight gag. It’s actually Paltrow that grounds this thing though, the film has great compassion for her character despite ruthlessly making fun of her the whole time and like I said it’s a very fine line but it somehow works. She’s very aware of her weight, her situation and even cracks self deprecating jokes. She’s smart, funny, caring, compassionate and the film asks you to see those qualities set apart from her physical appearance. The best scene in the film sees Hal visit a children’s burn ward for the second time. Of course the first time he went he couldn’t see their obvious scars and as such treated them as he would any other adorable kid. When the spell Robbins put on him is lifted and he can see everything again a small girl who he played with last time approaches him and wonders why he hasn’t visited since. Of course he can see her scars now and doesn’t immediately recognize her, but when she reminds him of her name and he does… well it’s the sweetest, most honest moment of the film and hits the main point home hard. (Also the only time in any Farrelly film I’ve teared up by the way, but shhh). So the film has this irreverence that’s always there in their work, this cheerful aim to make fun of things you’re ‘not supposed to laugh’ at. Anything out there is to laugh at though and that’s just the way the world works. The film understands this as well as compassion, perspective, understanding, character while still being an off the wall, bonkers comedy and I loved it for that.
Talk about laidback and low key. I knew by the trailers that Clint Eastwood’s The Mule wasn’t going to be an outright thriller or anything intense despite the subject matter but I really appreciated how wistful, elegiac and at ease with itself this film was. Eastwood is knocking at 90’s door and is still spry as a sprite, once again taking both acting and directing duties in the story of Earl Stone, an elderly horticulturalist turned drug mule for the Mexican cartel. Earl is an egocentric social butterfly who could never seem to find time for his family or put them before his needs. His wife (Dianne Wiest) resents him, his daughter (Alison Eastwood) full on abhors him for missing her wedding. Only his granddaughter (Taissa Farmiga keeps getting more fantastic with each new role) holds out hope and still welcomes him with open arms. He’s all but broke when his garden centre is foreclosed upon, until a chance meeting puts him in touch with underworld operatives and before he knows it he’s ferrying lump sums of narcotics across the states for very dangerous people. This character fascinated me because even when he gets this extremely lucrative opportunity that allows him to partly buy his way back into his family’s life, he doesn’t understand or ignores the fact that if they knew where he got all this money from he’d be more in the doghouse with them than when he started off. This is essentially a story about a guy who never took responsibility, who never took life seriously enough to have a proper legacy until he gets an eleventh hour chance to do so. There’s a workaholic DEA agent played excellently by Bradley Cooper and they share a few chance encounters that capture the essence of this story nicely. They’re two men on opposite ends of the law and very different places in their life who are nonetheless able to share a few moments, enlighten each other’s perspectives and be all the wiser because of it. I loved this story because it ably showed how even in one’s twilight years when one is *still* making mistakes, it’s not too late to reconcile or turn it all around. Great film.
Making films about mental illness is always tricky because of how sensitive, subjective and all too easily misunderstood and misrepresented the subject matter can be. Take one wrong turn and your script can be hokey, let one performance have an ill advised timbre and the whole thing feels hollow and under researched. With all that in mind I can say that Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter is one of the most moving, mature, heartbreaking and realistic portraits of an ailment I’ve ever seen, not to mention an overall superb piece of filmmaking.
Michael Shannon shines bright in another deeply felt, wonderful performance as Curtis, a blue collar Ohio family man with a loving wife (the always amazing Jessica Chastain) and deaf daughter (Tova Stewart). He has what his best friend (Shea Wigham, seriously is this guy even capable of a wrong note? He rocks) describes as a “good life”, until things go wrong. One day Curtis begins to have dark, threatening and very realistic nightmares. He imagines massive, menacing lightning storms on the horizon that begin to rain a thick, oily substance and his reality becomes an anxiety laced, constant source of panic. How does one deal with it? Well in a lesser film things might become rote or sensationalistic but instead we see him visit his estranged mother who was once diagnosed with schizophrenia, pick up books at the library to understand mental illness and rationally try to process his dreams. But his delusions are strong, and soon he has spent money his family doesn’t have on feverishly landscaping a tornado shelter into his property to weather the oncoming storm, a storm that seems to exist only for him and causes anger and confusion from his wife.
There’s always two sides of the coin in stories like this, the literal and what’s perceived internally by the protagonist. Certainly in many cases it’s up for debate what’s really going on but for me this was a story of him losing his grip on reality, teetering on the edge of a psychotic break and honestly what better use of metaphor for that than a giant incoming storm? There are two scenes that stand out to me as some of the best directed, acted and overall crafted sequences I’ve ever seen in cinema. The first takes place at a company lunch for Curtis’s job, where he and Wigham get into a heated argument and it escalates into him having a full blown, wide eyed meltdown, ranting like someone who’s lost it which, naturally, he almost has. It’s painful because his wife and daughter are standing right there and this is hard for them to see but what lifts the scene up is instead of her storming out, retorting or going numb she simply walks over to him, puts her hand on his face and tries to comfort him, to calm him down. Talk about using one’s intuition in a scenario like that. The other is the final scene of the film which I can’t say much about without spoilers but it’s a brilliant way of illustrating acceptance, understanding and the willingness to move forward when a family member becomes ill and needs love and support. I could go on for paragraphs about this one but I’ll close in saying that few films approach this material with the tact, careful imagination and reverence for humanity that we see here. Masterpiece.