Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club is every bit as dazzling, chaotic and decadent as one might imagine the roaring twenties would have been. it’s set in and revolves around the titular jazz club, conducting a boisterous, kaleidoscope study of the various dames, dapper gents, hoodlums, harlots and musicians who called it home. Among them are would be gangster Dixie Dwyer (a slick Richard Gere), Sandman Williams (Gregory Hines), a young Bumpy Johnson (Laurence Fishburne) and renowned psychopathic mobster Dutch Schultz (a ferocious James Remar). Coppola wisely ducks a routine plot line in favor of a helter skelter, raucous cascade of delirious partying, violence and steamy romance, a stylistic choice almost reminiscent of Robert Altman. Characters come and go, fight and feud, drink and dance and generally keep up the kind of manic energy and pizazz that only the 20’s could sustain. The cast is positively stacked, so watch for appearances from Nicolas Case, Bob Hoskins, Diane Lane, John P. Ryan, James Russo, Fred Gwynne, Allen Garfield, Ed O Ross, Diane Venora, Woody Strode, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Cobbs, Sofia Coppola and singer Tom Waits as Irving Stark, the club’s owner. It’s a messily woven tapestry of crime and excess held together by brief encounters, hot blooded conflict and that ever present jazz music which fuels the characters along with the perpetual haze of booze and cigarette smoke. Good times.
The one great benefit that any film based on a Stephen King story has is just that: it’s based on a Stephen King story. The guy is just such a prodigy of fiction that even if the film version of one of his books doesn’t deliver, one can still see the brilliant blueprint lurking beneath the frames. When the filmmakers are successful, however, we get a visually stimulating project founded on the tale he has weaved to support all the other elements. Hearts In Atlantis is based on an anthology volume of his, and in fact the story the film follows isn’t even called that, it’s actually ‘Low Men In Yellow Coats’. I can see why the director went with Hearts In Atlantis though, as it’s much more akin to the ethereal, sentimental tone he was going for, and less of an ominous hook. The story itself follows a mysterious man named Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins), a recent tenant in the home of young Bobby Garfield (Anton Yelchin) and his wayward mother (a miscast Hope Davis). The setting is Midwestern America, in the dead heat of a 1950’s summer. Bobby spends his days cavorting in the local woodlands with his fastest of friends, Carole (Mika Boorem) and Sully (Will Rothhaar). He takes a shine to Ted though, who pays him a dollar a week to read to him, and warns him of shadowy ‘low men’, threatening figures who doggedly pursue him for nasty reasons. Ted becomes a father figure for young Bobby, whose mother has questionable ideas about not only raising a son, but taking care of her own affairs. Now the film may seem a bit thinly plotted to some, and there’s a reason for that. This story is actually a tiny fragment in a much larger tale, King’s magnum opus The Dark Tower. Ted and Bobby have important parts to play in that saga, in which the events of this film are but a sentence long. Some viewers may feel slighted by a lack of context, but the filmmakers here still find a way to make this its own story, crafting a touching coming of age story melded with whispers of otherworldly intrigue. The fusion of beguiling nostalgia and the vague menace that advances on Bobby and Ted makes for a unique tone, something just south of a thriller which can’t quite be pinned down by genre labels. Hopkins can be both terrifying and tender depending on the role. Here he is kindness incarnate as a man whose worldly intuition goes beyond telekinesis into the kind of qualities reserved for the best and brightest. Yelchin and Boorem, who would star alongside each other again a few years later in the lacklustre Along Came A Spider, are the superb heart of the film. Yelchin has shown a constant progression of strongly realized, believable work and the quality of his craft can be traced back to this stunning genesis role. Boorem is highly underused these days, and one need only watch her light up the screen with emotional sincerity in this to see why she should be working far more. There’s neat supporting work from Tom Bower, Celia Weston, Alan Tudyuk and David Morse as an older version of Bobby who yearns for days gone by. I found myself deeply enjoying this one whilst constantly drawing back to the knowledge and context I have for it via The Dark Tower, but the film on it’s own is enough to provide a rewarding experience for anyone who isn’t familiar with the multiverse. Amid King’s favourite topics and settings are Midwest adolescence, idiosyncratic nooks of Americana and the ever present supernatural aspect, dynamics which Hearts In Atlantis gives us aplenty, along with an open invitation to explore the universe farther, should one want to venture along the path to the Tower. I’d recommend it.
Wedlock is one of those shamelessly trashy B-movie romps that the 80’s proudly churned out in droves for our viewing pleasure. Some are shitty and enjoyable, some are just shitty, and some are solid gems, provided you’ve been schooled a bit in this particular, acquired taste of an arena. I spent a lot of my teenage years being a scholar in this sort of lovable junk, so I have plenty of ancient data in my mental hard drive to dust off for the old blog-ski. Rutger made quite a few ventures into this field (come to think of it most of my favourite actors have. Wonder what that says about my taste lol). He’s got genre written all over his acting style, and loves to play broad characters in stylized fare. Here he plays Frank Warren, an amiable jewel thief who is betrayed in an opening sequence heist by his dodgy partner Sam (James Remar), and rowdy girlfriend Noelle (Josie Packard- I mean Joan Chen). He’s sent to an amusingly ‘futuristic’ penitentiary where they implement prisoners with a unique system: each prisoner is fitted with a collar, each collar has a twin collar, and if the two get several miles apart, both detonate rigged explosives and messily decapitate the pair of unlucky inmates. They are not aware who has their twin collar, making escape a risky notion indeed. It’s exactly the type of high concept buffoonery that trademarks these type of outings, and it’s played for both suspense and laughs very nicely. Frank escapes, dragging along the woman who wears the twin collar (Mimi Rogers), pursued hotly by Sam and Noelle who want to find the diamonds that he hid shortly before his arrest. It’s a prison flick, it’s a chase flick, with its own kooky, offbeat sense of style. Hauer is usually so intense he looks like he’s gonna implode in on himself, but here he gives a very laid back, slight and funny performance, which gives the film it’s refreshingly upbeat feel. Remar and Chen are bouncing balls of energy as the dastardly couple out to ice Frank, riffing off each other and cheerfully chewing scenery. Watch out for an early career appearance from Danny Trejo, as well as work from Glenn Plummer and Stepehn Tobolowsky as a hard ass warden who gets the best line of the film: “You non-conformists are all the same”. That alone encapsulates the irreverent, tongue in cheek tone that’s a nice switch from the usually dank, oppressive atmosphere that second tier action flicks often get saddled with. Oh, and I want the number of Hauer’s wardrobe outfitter; those fluffy, technicolor wool sweaters are a sideshow unto themselves.
Before Nicholas Winding Refn blew up into the big time with intense, stylish stuff like Bronson, Drive and Valhalla Rising, and after he made his bloody emergence into cinema with Pusher, he made another film that no one seems to remember or even even like all that much. It’s easy to see why Fear X wasn’t that well received or remembered: it’s choppy and confusing, even by Refn’s terms, and doesn’t pull it’s third act into a cohesive resolution, instead favoring a disconcertingly surreal descent into subconscious, abstract imagery, which we all know (the careers of Lynch and others are examples) is an aesthetic not always absorbed by the most open of minds when it comes to the masses. Now that we got that out of the way, here’s my take. I adore the film. It’s a skitchy Midwestern nightmare that starts of gently gnawing at the fringes of your perception with a sense of dread that’s intangible in its possibility, an outcome as vast and unknowable as the desolate prairie setting that calls to mind the fear and degradation of Fargo without an ounce of its good humour, black or otherwise. John Turturro inhabits this setting with a twitchy, anxious aura, suggesting a haunted mindscape beneath those famous curls. And well he should be haunted, considering his wife recently disappeared without a trace. For him, not knowing what happened is worse than any kind of grisly answer, for its a sick hollowness that chokes out any room for him to grieve. He works by day as a mall security guard, busting shoplifters and scanning snowy surveillance screens to distract himself. Then, his co-worker (Stephen Eric Mcintyre) hands him a videotape that may contain answers and be the first breadcrumb in a trail leading to his wife’s killer, and possibly his solace. In a lot of films and shows like these, the protagonist ventures to a small town with sordid secrets simmering just beneath the crust of the cheerful looking pie held by the pretty waitress at the local diner. Some artists find their own groove without riffing on other’s work too much, and some fall flat-footed into derivitive motions. Refn is bold yet subtle in his direction once Turturro arrives in the town, and casts a deceptively innocuous yet insidiously creepy spell over the proceedings. It’s essentially where the film really exits utero and manifests, the danger before that was only glimpsed on the horizon now a very real possibility, like waking up from a bad dream into a worse reality. Turturro is met with cold stares and grim greetings, especially by a deputy who becomes predatory upon seeing part of the clues he has brought with him, vaguely tied to a local resident. From there he is led to a suspicious Sheriff (James Remar), and the sheriff’s wife (Deborah Kara Unger). Remar may have been involved in his wife’s death, and he plays with the curtain of his performance wonderfully, pulling it back ever so slightly in scenes with Unger (some of his best work) and stirring up confusion while menacing Turturro. It’s an unheralded best from him and a rare occasion where he gets to be subtle and eerie, as opposed to his usual brash, cocky characters. Unger is similar to Remar in the sense that she has made a point over the course of her career in picking obscure, challenging and unique roles to play. In playing a couple here they feel kind of star-crossed just by the nature of their careers, fed by their smoldering chemistry. The film proceeds like any thriller would, with only intangible hints at the weirdness to come, until the last half of the third act, where it abandons logic completely and dives headlong into a dreamlike abyss of surreality, without a readily discernable warning or narrative signpost. Is Turturro unstable? Or is it Remar? Or are events just taking a turn fpr the supernatural as a result of the town messing with people’s psyches, a la The Shining? We will never know, and honestly I doubt Refn did, or ever will either. It’s him in the sandbox, free from logic or consequence, and hate it with all your might if you wish, but you can’t deny it’s a psychologically galvanizing experience that toys with your perception and spooks to the core. The film deals with themes of not knowing, and open ended tragedy masked by confusion and spiraling ‘what ifs’. Perhaps Refn implemented all the metaphysical hoo-hah as an extreme metaphor for Turturro’s consciousness, fractured and torn by the absence of resolution to the point of madness. Or maybe Refn just likes making weird shit. That’s the eternal debate with artists like him and Lynch: do they have some plan, a secret marauders map to the strangeness that they present to us on screen which only they are privy too, or are they simply making it up as they go along, hurling paint at the canvas until they are satisfied with the result, regardless of comprehending it? We’ll never know, and that for me is the beauty of it. With Fear X Refn crafts a polarizing thriller that is the very proto – example of ‘love it or hate it’. It’s definitely not for everyone. But love it or hate it, there’s no escaping it’s power.
Penthouse North is a vicious little 90’s inspired slice of thriller fun, which sadly seems to have gained zero marketing and promotion, so unless it catches your eye on US Netflix or Shaw On Demand (which is where I watched it), you’ll prolly never even know you missed it. It’s nothing groundbreaking, and sometimes is very predictable, but as I found myself calling plot twists on the dime, and figuring out story beats before they happened, I didn’t find myself frustrated or feeling cheated out. I got a burst of nostalgia for the 80’s/90’s time period when these type of thrillers were in full bloom. Michelle Monaghan throws herself into the role of Sara, an ex-war photojournalist who was blinded in an incident. She lives in an ornate NYC penthouse with her boyfriend now, only just beginning to adjust to her new condition and emerge from reclusiveness. On New Year’s Eve, that auspicious time of year that buzzes with possibility, trouble comes knocking in the form of homicidal criminals in search of something hidden within the apartment. We are then treated to the archetypal game of cat and mouse as she fights tooth and nail for her survival. The film benefits greatly from a frenzied performance from Michael Keaton as Hollander, the lead criminal and a real piece of work. Keaton rarely plays in the bad guy arena (check out Pacific Heights for a more restrained yet equally dastardly turn), but he’s got a reptilian ferocity that’s equally scary and amusing, sometimes both at once. His Hollander is a royal prick, and oodles of fun to watch. Mark Mancini composes a solid score of jangly apprehension, and the film makes great use of its setting, with several clammy moments that didn’t sit well with my fear of heights. Good stuff.
John Hillcoat’s Triple 9. Bloody. Nasty. Blistering. Nihilistic. And surprisingly deft in its presentation of character. The only clear cut, out and out protagonist is Casey Affleck’s Marcus Allen, a young detective with a wife and kid, brutally unaware that he’s been targeted by a group of stunningly dirty cops and a few ex special forces hardcases to bite the dust in a planned homicide, sparking an ‘officer down’ over the airwaves to distract the force from what’s really going down. With the exception of his straight arrow heroics, the entire rest of the cast is a snake pit of depraved, slimy, reprehensible degenerates, populating a decayed, gang infested Atlanta where the cops are just as likely to empty a clip into your skull as the cholos. Chiwetel Efjor plays Atwood, leader of a most unfortunate crew of misfits who are forced to perform near suicidal heists for tyrannical Israeli-Russian mafia bitch Irena (a bleach blond, terrifying Kate Winslet). Their newest venture is so impossible that they’re attempting to use a slain officer as a ditch effort to get their stake. Of course it all goes to high hell, as we’ve come to expect and love in these type of films, with bullets, profanity, self destructive behaviour and wanton violence languishing all over the screen in glorious excess. Efjor is crackling good, showing brief glimpses of humanity in a dude who has lost his soul down a deep dark well, a caged animal fighting tooth and nail to no avail. The rest of his crew spend the film savagely trying to out – sleaze each other, and I mean that in the best way possible. They are really a bunch of snot rags, and this is a group of outstanding actors having bushels of fun being irredeemable bad boys. Anthony Mackie is walking C-4 as Efjor’s right hand, a guy rotten to the marrow with moral conflict. Norman Reedus leaks grease as an ex special ops prick and their getaway driver. I didn’t think Aaron Paul could be anymore despicable than in breaking bad, but somehow manages it here, playing a dude so grungy you’ll squirm. It’s Clifton Collins Jr. who scores the points though. He hasn’t had a great role in years and he comes out blazing as the icy sociopath of the group. Then there’s Woody Harrelson. Oh, Woody. He’s clearly having a ball as Affleck’s stoner uncle and high ranking cop. He spends the entire film ripped off his gourd on joint after joint, and take it from me, he knows how to play stoned impeccably. Despite the laconic bumbling, he shows that fire and ferocity we’ve come to know from him in brief unmistakable flashes, especially where it matters. Throw in Teresa Palmer as Affleck’s loving wife and Gal Gadot in full slut mode and you’ve got a cast for the time capsule. Hillcoat wastes not a second in propelling his narrative forward with the force of a bulldozer, giving us minute moments of respite amongst the surging monsoon of bloodshed and dirty deeds. Composer Atticus Ross whips up a foreboding, hair raising war cry of a score that kicks in from the first frame and doesn’t quit till the last shell casing has hit the ground. The only misstep the film makes is killing off its best actor way too early on, vut its not enough to be an actual concern or hurt it overall. If sickeningly satisfying ballets of blood, broken limbs and morally bankrupt people engaging in all kinds of giddily fun criminal activities are your thing, this is a great way to kick off the year, cinematically speaking. Hell even if it’s not your thing go check it out. It’ll shake your shit up and then some.
Joe Wright’s Hanna started as a Vancouver Film School script, funded through grants that would make it the catalyst for the positively unique, incendiary action fairy tale that it is today. It’s crowd pleasing without any superficiality, straight to the point without being over serious, and is made with a slick, vibrant aesthetic that will have your pulse dancing a jig in time with the thumping score by The Chemical Brothers. I held off on seeing this one for years after its initial release, jaded by the prospect of another ‘killer genetically altered female assassin’ flick. One night I finally caved and took a peek on Netflix. I then kicked myself hard for not taking notice sooner, purely on the notion that I wouldn’t dig it based on its formula. I suppose I learnt a little ‘book by its cover’ lesson there, as I was completely enamoured with the film and have seen it at least ten times since then. The tired ingredients of any old formula can be whipped up into a tantalizing new recipe, providing all those involved have the commitment and passion. The filmmakers of Hanna go for broke with one of the best thrillers in years. Saoirse Ronan is an explosive, feral waif as the titular hero, raised in isolation by her badass ex CIA father Erik Heller (underrated Aussie Eric Bana nails the German accent to a T). They reside in the frozen tundras of Lapland, where Erik trains her in the ways of a warrior, instilling survivalism in both physical and intellectual measures, preparing her for their inevitable separation. An enemy from Erik’s past surfaces in the form of evil CIA witch Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett practically breathes fire with a naughty southern accent and a red hairdo that looks acidic to the touch), and both Hanna and him are forced to run, separated from each other. She escapes from a remote facility and begins her journey across Europe, befriended by a lovable squabbling family of travellers, igniting a yearning for companionship in her that Ronan expertly shows the camera. Wiegler enlists the slimy help of a euro trash club owner who moonlights as some sort of freelance über villain (Tom Hollander almost walks away with the movie as the psychopathic, bleached blonde pervo Deutsch-bag) who relentlessly pursues Hanna along with his neo nazi skinhead henchman. The thing about this film is that it’s all been done before, but they find a way to make it fresh, exciting and strike chords which simply haven’t been hit in this sub genre before, providing a film experience that really sticks. Ronan has never been more virile and effective, also proving a mastery of the German accent and embodying Hanna with intense physicality that’s achingly punctuated by a gradual awakening as a person as well. Impressive balance is shown in her character arc, through writing and stunt work alike. This is the first movie to be scored by The Chemical Brothers, and damn I hope we get more. They belt out a technicolor rhapsody of electric music that flows beautifully with the story, hitting every beat, ramping up suspense when needed, being surprisingly weird at times and kicking around your head long after the credits roll. The actors are all easy listening with the dialogue, never feeling forced or making us doubt for a minute that these aren’t real people engaged in genuine interaction. The film neither drags nor rushes, arriving at its often grisly, sometimes touching and always entertaining conclusions exactly when it needs to. It shows uncanny intuition with its pacing, an absence of the need to show off with unnecessary fights or effects which don’t serve the story, and above all a keen desire to entertain us. Terrific stuff.