John Singleton’s Rosewood is a partly fictionalized, greatly dramatized retelling of one of the largest lynchings and subsequent conflicts in American history. The time is 1923, the place is Rosewood, a small southern town populated largely by African communities. When borderline insane local housewife Fanny (Catherine Kellner) is caught in the midst of a violent sexual fling, a young black man accidentally stumbles upon the scene. Being the crazy bitch she is, she melodramatically pins it on him, inciting the wrath of the town. The real culprit was of course a white dude, played briefly by Robert Patrick before fleeing the county for good. Because of this selfish misdirection, every white man and his mother now wants the boy hung, and it escalates with the speed of a prairie fire until a full scale race war rages through Rosewood. A lone mercenary called Mann (Ving Rhames) happens to be around and lends his quickdraw talents to the townsfolk who are being hunted. The sheriff (Michael Rooker) is somewhat of a pushover, and unable to quell the mob anyway, especially when it’s led by a rabid Bruce McGill, who is scary and then some. The only white boy who has anything but ropes or torches to offer these poor folks is a kindly store owner played by Jon Voight, who shelters a group of them on his property, much to the mob’s anger. Voight’s character is odd; when we meet him he is in heated coitus with one of his shopkeeps, a young African girl. It’s later revealed that she’s afraid of him. Despite this dark piece of his arc, Singleton treats him as a hero, begging the question, were there scenes cut that elaborated on his relationship with her? Such imbalances in tone can be found in the story as well: much of the film is treated with a combination of severe melodrama and true crime drama, speckled here and there with jarring little bits of pulp that feel like they’re from a Django type flick. Wouldn’t have been the narrative mix I would have used, but perhaps Singleton’s hand slipped and too much of an aspect fell in which he only ever meant as a subtle garnish. Nevertheless, it’s very solidly made, wherever it sits on the genre map, with all the actors, particularly the African townsfolk, shining nicely. It’s disturbing as well, with the black body count reaching sickening heights and the racist fever at a vicious spike in temperature. It’s a scary scenario when the hunters greatly outnumber the hunted, and mass deaths are imminent, especially when such anger is involved. Sympathy is earned in spades from the viewer, as well as the urge to look away at least a few different times. I haven’t done my research on the real story so I couldn’t tell you where it falls on the authenticity charts, but I suspect a great deal of it has been exaggerated for effect and impact. In that, it succeeds, if faltering in tone a few times to puzzle the viewer, before getting back on track.
Green Room has the same vicious, simplistic edge to it that director Jeremy Saulnier’s 2011 thriller Blue Ruin had, but sharpened and honed to near perfection this time around. This is one grim thriller, a claustrophobic little odyssey of desperate violence that’s thick with a sick, overwhelming atmosphere that isn’t for the faint of anything. A big part of what makes it work so well is the fact that it makes sense, in terms of scene to scene actions and character motivations. These aren’t cardboard horror protagonists darting through a predetermined rat maze of a narrative, these are real humans in a deadly situation who act accordingly, with both purpouse and realism. Atmosphere was a huge part of Blue Ruin, and now again Saulnier weaves a tense auditory cloak that puts the characters in the hot seat of danger and the audience in conniptions of suspense. It’s a situation straight out of a seething nightmare: a down and out punk band led by Anton Yelchin are on a dead end tour, severely strapped for cash and getting desperate. When a vague buddy hooks them up with a rural gig, they jump at the chance, until they find out they’re playing for a clubhouse full of angry neo nazi skinheads in a backwoods bar. Everything is going marginally well (as well as coexisting with nazis for a set could go, I suppose) until a member of their group accidentally witnesses one of these freaks brutally slaughter a girl, suddenly branding them all as witnesses. With nowhere to go, the band barricades themselves into the green room and descends into a collective panic as the reality of their situation sets in. Outside, an armada of furious Aryan psychopaths prepares to siege the bar and kill them, led by the clubhouse owner, Darcy (a wicked, malevolent Patrick Stewart, loving every second of a rare villain role). The film clocks in at a scalpel sliced 90 minutes, with not a second wasted on anything that doesn’t propel the story forward with the momentum of a machete ripping through bone. These dudes are out to get them at any cost, and the band in turn are whipped into an adrenaline overdrive of base survival instinct, using anything they can to dispatch their tormentors and escape. Yelchin does an excellent job of making their plight feel uncannily real, the terror emanating from every pore until there’s none left, and empty, deadly resolve sets in. Imogen Poots is great as one of the clubhouse girls, a no nonsense spitfire with revenge on the brain and the will to make it happen. Stewart chomps at the bit with an eerie calm and articulate, insidious presence, a genius casting decision and a joy to see in menacing action. I’m curious to see how much farther Saulnier can push the envelope with his next film, which I’ve heard will be the last entry in this episodic trilogy. This one shows us what a real thriller is, one that pumps your pulse to a boiling point and makes you glad there are filmmakers out there with the balls and creative know-how to make something like this happen. Just bring a thick skin, there’s a ton of graphic and very realistic looking violence. Unbelievably terrific stuff.
“Bitches, leave!!” I direct that sentiment towards anyone out there who thinks the remake of Robocop can hold a candle to Paul Verhoeven’s brilliant, incredibly graphic and bitingly satirical 1987 classic. Everything that was special and amazing about the original was absolutely pissed on with the remake, and it kills me that I run into people my age these days who aren’t even aware that the remake IS a remake, and think it’s the original Robocop. Ugh. Get out. No, this is the real, steel deal, accented by Verhoeven’s blunt approach to characterization and overly ultraviolent, near Cronenberg-esque flair for carnage. Peter Weller only gets to act as regular joe police officer Alex Murphy for a brief and chaotic prologue, but makes the most of it with his deadpan delivery and piercing gaze. Murphy is assigned to a precinct in the heart of Old Detroit, a district so corrupt, rotten and infested with crime it literally resembles a war zone, and cops wear heavy riot gear on their beat. Paired Nancy Allen, he beelines it for a suspicious truck leaving the scene of a heist. Only one problem: this particular truck happens to belong to evil arch criminal Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and his merry band of psychopaths, who are armed to the teeth with heavy artillery. Cornered in a warehouse, Murphy is brutally, and I mean fucking brutally dispatched by Boddicker and his gang, shredded by a hail of gunfire that turns him into raw hamburger meat. What’s left of him is quickly swooped up by corporate, and used in a high tech, absolutely silly program run by coked up suited opportunist Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer). His idea has gotten in the way of nefarious plans put in motion by the top dog of the company, a maniac named Dick Jones played by Ronny Cox in a frighteningly funny turn that makes you terrified in between fits of giggles. Once Murphy has been through Morton’s wringer, Robocop emerges, an epic, unstoppable android enforcer who lays waste to criminal scum all over town, until traces of Murphy’s consciousness bubble up past the circuit boards and he gets his own agenda. Jones is determind to take him down, along with Morton, undermining The Old Man (Daniel O’Herlihy), the acting CEO. For a film called Robocop that came out in 1987 you’d think were in for a cut and dry action cheese fest. Not with Verhoeven at the helm. The Dutch madman is never one to play it safe (a refreshing trait among European directors) and pulls out all the stops here for a bloody good time that pauses ever so slightly to nudge you with its cynical side that just loves to bash social convention into oblivion. The effects are so 80’s you’ll swoon, especially when Jones’s own robo creation shows up in clanking, drunken stop motion that you can practically reach out and touch. Smith is a homicidal wonder as Boddicker, the smarmy fury and unrestrained behaviour hijacking every scene he’s in. Leland Palmer himself, Ray Wise plays Leon Nash, his equally dastardly second in command, and a host of gnarly character actors back them up, all of which have curiously guest starred on Fox’s 24 at various points in time, including Weller too. The level of fucks given with this film goes into the negative region of the thermometer, and to this day few studio films have been able to boast such disregard for discretion or lay claim to a sheer love of bombastic villains, a blatant lack of subtlety and a willingness to take things to cinematic infinity, beyond and back again just so they can throw a few more bullets into the mix. Accept no substitutes.
A Broken Life stars Tom Sizemore as a hopelessly depressed dude who has the notion of killing himself, after he spends a whole day going around to visit the various people in his life, tie off loose ends, make amends and right some wrongs. It’s a concept that could get silly, theatrical and self indulgent, but it’s handled swimmingly enough here, mostly thanks to Sizemore’s honest work that doesn’t really mug for emotional payoff or squeeze pathos where there’s nothing to mine. This is probably because he’s usually the hoped up maniac who is putting other people in the morgue, and like I always say, casting actors against type brings out the best intuitive nature. He’s also the lead, which means he gets to bring more than just a supporting dose of his power here, assisting the film greatly. He’s joined by his assistant (Corey Sevier), who records the whole thing on a video camera, adding to the already indie flavor. His adventures include a visit to his old boss (Saul Rubinek) who mistreated him years earlier. Sizemore and Rubinek have faced off before in Tony Scott’s True Romance, in kinetic fashion. Here they’re just as electric, but reign it in a bit as the material requires, crafting one of the film’s most effective scenes. Other ventures include a reunion with his estranged ex wife (Cynthia Dale), and frequent run ins with a sagely homeless man (Ving Rhames) who spouts a lot of benevolent wisdom that seems to be profound and nonsensical all at once. These type of films either work or they don’t, plain and simple. They’re either giant mopey ego balloons or terrific little eleventh hour character studies that come from a place of honesty. This one has a few off key notes of the former, but fpr the most part glides smoothly along the tracks of the latter category, thanks to Sizemore’s committed performance.
Few supernatural horror films tap into the abstract realm of the unconscious quite as effectively as Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder. There’s a select group out there who have done it as well (Tarsem Singh with The Cell, Hellraiser and Silent Hill come to mind), but there’s just such an abundance of generic, or ‘vanilla’ horror out there. It’s not that that kind of stuff isn’t great, I just like to see something strive for a little more, stylistically speaking, go for something truly elemental and out of the box in its attempts to elicit fright. This one engraves nightmares of an inexplicable variety into your perception, images and sounds made all the more disturbing by the fact that we never really know what is going on with our protagonist, a Viet Nam vet named Jacob (Tim Robbins), a decent dude with a sketchy past who spends his days as a postal worker in NYC. Jacob is plagued by waking nightmares, visions of demons, confusing allusions to his past and a son (a pre Home Alone Macauley Culkin) who may have died, or never existed at all, all combined with a general sense of dread that almost seems to crawl out of the screen and choke the viewer. Jacob is dating a co worker (RIP Elizabeth Pena), who isn’t equipped to deal with whatever is going on with him, and his only friend seems to be his doting chiropractor Louis, played by an excellent Danny Aiello in a performance that is a ray of kindness and light in an otherwise ice cold atmospheric palette. Jacob begins to suspect that he and his platoon may have been victims of illegal weapons gas testing, and are now suffering the psychological fallout, or perhaps that his plight goes much deeper than that. It’s a disorienting state of mind for him, and in turn puts the viewer in a similar daze of eeriness and uncertainty, with not a concrete clue or answer in sight until the film reaches its devastating final moments. Ving Rhames, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Eriq La Salle and Matt Craven are just as haunted as his fellow Nam buddies, Jason Alexander has an energetic bit as a lawyer, and watch for Kyle Gass, Orson Bean and Lewis Black in early smaller roles. This film has put a hazy emotional and visual filter over my perception for years, and each time I give it another visit I get goosebumps from the horrors within, especially on a crisp recent blu Ray. There’s one sequence in particular which I won’t spoil with details, except to say it should be front and centre on the demo reel for the entire horror genre in cinema, a harrowing journey into a hellishly creative interzone of undefinable fear that still serves as the blueprint for some of my bad dreams to this day. A fright flick classic.
The River Murders is a fairly entertaining thriller vehicle for Ray Liotta that tries hard to be in the same grisly territory as stuff like Sev7n, and winds up looking pretty silly in its efforts. It takes place on a rural community in the Midwest, where a serial killer is leaving bodies for authorities to find. Detective Jack Verdon (Liotta) does some digging and finds that that himself and the killer may have met before in the past, making it personal. This causes unrest for both the department and Verdon’s mental state, prompting the arrival of an overzealous Federal agent (Christian Slater, annoying as hell here), and the concern of his captain (Ving Rhames). It’s fun watching Liotta spin out of control, and the film climaxes with reasonable intensity, but showcases nothing unique or noteworthy. Raymond J. Barry has a nice bit as Liotta’s father too.
The Tournament is just about as awesome as action movies can get, and just about as bloody too. I love films involving assassins, contests, games, violence and such. The Running Man was clearly a huge influence on this one, right down to the inclusion of a larger than life game show host, here played by Liam Cunningham. Liam plays a shadowy nut job named Powers, and every four years he arranges an elaborate and incredibly destructive Olympic games for contract killers and psychos alike. Every time he hosts it in a new city, using hidden cameras and explaining away the damage with disasters and attacks. If this sounds so very 80’s, it is. We’re in throwback city here, with a touch of modern tone not unlike Joe Carnahan’s Smokin Aces. The reigning champion is Joshua Harlow (Ving Rhames), a brutal warrior who has been coaxed back into the game with revenge on his mind. Each assassin is fitted with a tracking device so they can track each other, an idea which goes haywire when a civilian accidentally gets stuck with one and ends up in the cross hairs. The civilian in question is a drunken priest (lol) played by Robert Carlyle, who has no idea what’s going on and suddenly has a dwindling life expectancy. He catches a break when a lethal but sympathetic female competitor (beauty queen Kelly Hu is an angel of physicality) takes pity and decides to help him out. They’ve got quite an armada to cut through though, including a rowdy cockney whacko (Craig Conway) a parkour master (Sebastian Foucan), an ex Spetsnaz freak (Scott Adkins) with a habit of blowing shit up left right and center, and lastly a Texan pretty boy lunatic played cheerfully by Ian Somerhalder. He’s so evil they just had to include a bit where he shoots a stray dog in the face without batting a perfect eyelash (animal lovers, you’ve been forewarned). All this mayhem is taken in by Powers and his sickening audience of wealthy kingpins, who sit in a great big boardroom and bet on the outcome of the carnage. Cunningham is a blast of devilish charm as Powers, an amoral villain of dark showmanship and sociopathic class. Between exploding heads, grenades ripping through the streets of London, frenetic hand to hand combat, colorful personalities, over the top depictions of bad human behavior and a general sense of hedonistic, slash and burn glee, this is one for the books.