Death Race 2 is one of those sequels that is a little more colorful and off the wall than the first one, and less gloomy. Death Race tried a bit too hard to play it straight and serious, and while still a gnarly flick, I personally have to give the edge to this one simply for coming a little closer to the trashy mark that the genre begs for. Any franchise with a title like Death Race has just got to have a touch of camp, some balls out B-movie action and a good dose of pulp. This one is actually a prequel, now that I think about it, taking place in the same penitentiary that the first film did, a year or so before Jason Statham’s arrival. It follows the origin of Carl Lucas (Luke Goss), who would go on to be the masked driver known as Frankenstein in the original film. Lucas starts out as a getaway driver and thief for ruthless mobster Marcus Kane (Sean Bean). When a heist gone wrong lands him in Terminal Island prison, he’s introduced to ‘Death Match’, bloody gladiatorial fare instigated by a random prison fight caught on camera and broadcasted online. The prison warden Weyland (Ving Rhames) has his moral doubts, but in swoops opportunistic corporation head September Jones (Lauren Cohan) with a sociopathic agenda to turn simple combat events into all out vehicular warfare, with state of the art machines and artillery, all privately funded. Since this genre exists in a world without anyone, government or other, to protest, Death Race is born. The rules go that if you win a certain amount of races, you go free. Kane has his own plans on the outside though, making a pretty penny off of Lucas and his driving, cruelly trying to keep him inside. Bean is a cut and dry psycho as Kane, relishing in the kind of nasty arch villain skin that action films have to offer. Goss has always had a heart and level of gravitas along with his physical intensity (his villain in Blade 2 is still legendary), which he brings out in Lucas. Danny Trejo comes along for the ride as Goldberg, Lucas’s mechanic. The first Death Race was solid, but a bit monochrome in the personality department. This one lets its freak flag fly, getting down and dirty with the bone crunching violence, and thundering motor mayhem. It sinks a level below the first one, which is sometimes a great thing for a particular franchise. It knows how over the top it needs to be, and is all the better for it.
David Lynch’s big screen prequel/sequel to his television phenomenon Twin Peaks departs from the shows light, kooky and benignly eccentric sensibilities. It starts at the more surreal, dark atmosphere which sometimes materialized in the show, especially in the last episode, and plunges headlong down a rabbit hole of sex, murder, mysteries, federal agents, parallel universes, psychological torment, otherworldly spirits, supernatural phenomena, incest, more cups of coffee (Im not even kidding, there’s a scene where a stressed out looking Harry Dean Stanton makes a ‘cup of good morning America’), and above all, Laura Palmer. The beautiful, mysterious homecoming queen we only saw as a corpse in the series comes to wild, screaming life in this film, and what a performance from the gifted Sheryl Lee. She perfectly captures the menace, hurt, confusion, hope, torment and wild desperation of Laura, in a towering, stunning performance. Ray Wise is equally magnificent as Leland Palmer. Angelo Badalamenti switches up the tone as well, letting the beautiful Laura theme and the classic Twin Peaks tones only play in limited, selective fashion. His theme for the film is a powerfully dark, otherworldly melody which lulls you right into the film’s deep velvet grasp and haunts you in ways you can’t describe. The angel of the Roadhouse, Julee Cruise, gets another tune to croon as well, and it might just be my favourite of the bunch. Laura tearfully looks on as Cruise intones ‘Questions In A World Of Blue’, a transfixing lament that seems to be meant for her alone. Lynch is a true master of the subtle touch, and you’d have to read many an online forum as well as watch the film and the show several times to pick up on all the hidden implications and shrouded ideas that aren’t readily presented to you in a traditional narrative. That inaccessibility and refusal to play by the rules by serving things straight up is difficult for many people to get their heads around. To me though it’s such a fascinating way to tell a story. He doesn’t necessarily leave everything open to interpretation, he just hides the answers in a bewitching blanket of surreality, subtlety and dream logic, challenging the viewer to think using the unconscious mind and intuition to feel your way through the story, as opposed to tallying up facts and plot turns to analytically arrive at your cinematic destination. Perhaps this is why he meticulously oversees many of the DVD releases for his films, leaving out scene selections and unnecessary bells and whistles. The story matters most to him, in singular, unbroken form, a segment of his soul encapsulated on film in one cohesive effort, like a dream caught unawares by the lens. Fire Walk With Me was unfairly bashed, booed and downright critically clobbered for its stark and outright changes from the shows lighter tones, as well as its leaving out of some of the more popular characters that fans loved. Although this is jarring, I feel like Lynch has distilled all the elements in the show that mattered the most to him, and woven a gorgeous, seductive tapestry of pure Twin Peaks ‘feel’ and spectacle, as a loving gift to the fans who truly get it and are open to the wilder ideas explored briefly in the show. The film expands greatly on the ominous Black Lodge, and it’s dwelling spirits, including the strange Tremonds, the one armed Mike, and the little red suited Man From Another Place. The killer demon Bob is very prevalent in this film, and if you thought he was scary in the show, well.. His scenes in this are downright soul shatteringly. Moira Kelly makes a softer, doe eyed version of Donna Hayward, which I quite liked. Miguel Ferrer returns as the cynical wise-ass Albert, Lynch as the hard of hearing FBI boss Gordon Cole, as well as Heather Graham, Grace Zabriskie, Eric DaRe, Madchen Amick, Peggy Lipton, etc. Newcomers to the Twin Peaks mythology are great as well, including Chris Isaak and Kiefer Sutherland as more FBI agents investigating the case of Teresa Banks in Deer Meadow, Jurgen Prochnow as a trapped soul in the spirit world, and a confused looking David Bowie as an agent who has been mired in the time bending fog of the spirit world long enough to render him brain fried. It’s a love letter to the fans, really, but one that doesn’t compromise an inch and is every ounce a Lynch picture, capturing the director at his most creative adventurous. He strives to plumb the depths of human behaviour and the forces beyond our perceptions which govern and influence from other planes. Seeing these tricky themes explored so rawly in a film based upon a TV show that had heavy roots soap opera and an often lighthearted tone only garnished with the disturbing elements in the film can be hard to swallow, which is no doubt the reason for the sour reception upon release. The film has stood the test of time and aged wonderfully though, seen by many grateful, loving fans as a dark dream straight from the heart, and a perfect film. If one is willing to accept the changes in tone and ambiguous, challenging nature of Lynch’s storytelling (which I love!) then Fire Walk With Me is a sumptuous, gorgeous looking, vital piece of the Twin Peaks world, and in my mind Lynch’s masterpiece.
I love The Island, because it breaks ranks from Michael Bay’s mostly uniform career and gives us entertainment where story is as important as action, which can’t be said for most of his films. Don’t get me wrong, I love his destructive maelstrom of a career to bits (except Transformers and Pain & Gain. Those are shameful.), it’s just nice to get a movie from him with something to latch onto besides just… boom crash smash. His visual setups are like fire dancing on the retinas, but with The Island we get to see what’s behind those eyes and actually get a concept to explore along with our helping of razzle dazzle. Now this type of story has been done before, in stuff like Logan’s Run or the lesser known Clonus Horror, and obviously this time around the story is jazzed by a considerable amount of chromed up energy and adrenaline. In the far future, a group of people are kept inside a gargantuan facility and told that the world’s population has been nearly wiped out by a contamination. Only one untainted zone remains: The Island. It’s a place where some take off to, after winning a much touted ‘lottery’ that allows them access. Only, they aren’t going to any such place at all. They are selected based on the need for organs, spare biological matter and baby carriers for their human counterparts, the rich and affluent. They’re dormant cattle, so to speak, clones awaiting empty promises. Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) is one such individual, a curious fellow who first suspects something is wrong with their utopian existence, and once confirmed knows he needs to get out. Dragging along his friend Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson) he makes a harebrained run for it, escaping the facility and venturing into the world outside, which is anything but contaminated. I like what Bay did with the production design; Things aren’t too wacky or space agey, and more or less that same as now, but accents like flying motorbikes or massive additions to existing skyscrapers let us know how brave of a new world it is. Lincoln and Jordan suffer considerable culture shock as they flee, and it’s amusing to see the childish way they react to simple things like a telephone, or ordering drinks at a bar. The facility’s Director, an arrogant son of a bitch named Dr. Merrick (Sean Bean) sends a team of off the books ex special forces dudes after them, led by Laurent (Djimon Hounsou gets the best moments out of the film, the only actor who can stop the momentum dead in its tracks with his soulful performance). From there a lot of it is a deafening roar filled with chases, car crashes, fights and a spectacular highway chase that will wake up the tenants both above and below your apartment. Yes, Bay just can’t help throwing in colossal action scenes where they aren’t particularly needed, and complain if you must, but if it’s really that much of a wrench in your enjoyment of the actual story going on around it, then use such interludes for a bathroom break or to go apologize to the neighbors for the racket your speakers are kicking up. You can only hope for Bay to reign it in so much, the dude just loves his action. Ask him to direct a Jane Austen adaptation and you can bet your hat he’d throw in a fireball or two in just for good measure. It’s his passion, and I don’t resent people for what they love to do. In any case it’s a terrifically fun piece. McGregor and Johansson are pitch perfect, as they begin to clue in about the world around them, lashing out in anger over what’s being done to them and becoming quite resourceful. Bean resists the label of villain with his performance, branding Merrick as an idealist whose breakthrough blinded him into extremism, from which there is no turning back. Steve Buscemi shows up bearing kindly comic relief as a tech worker who assists in their escape. Michael Clarke Duncan is very affecting in one scene as a clone who finds out the truth the worst way possible. There’s also work from Shawnee Smith, Chris Ellis, Max Baker, Glenn Morshower and an incredibly bizarre cameo from an uncredited Kim Coates. Steve Jablonsky composes what I believe to be his finest, most stirring work and the best score to date in a Bay flick, adding to the sweeping scope and pure cinematic current that this one soars on. One of my favourites, highly recommended.
Buckle up and watch built badass Carl Weathers head down under to take on vicious Australian criminals in Hurricane Smith, a blast of saxophone laced, trashy 80’s cheese that hits every beloved cliche in perfect chiming key. Weathers is an valued staple to the action genre, a memorable part of Predator and of course his thundering turn as Apollo Creed in the Rocky films. Along with his obvious commanding physicality, he has a likeability that lends itself nicely when it comes to playing heroes out for retribution. His character got the nickname Hurricane after he pulled a friend out of a falling building during the titular meterological event, cementing him as a tough guy worthy of carrying a ninety minute action flick on his shoulders. Hurricane is off to Australia, in search of his sister who has recently gone missing. He stumbles right into the midst of a hornet’s nest of a criminal organization, led by Charlie O Dowd (Jurgen Prochnow), a stunningly evil pimp and drug runner. Prochnow loves to paint his villains in broad, garish strokes and he downright outdoes himself here, careening through a performance of wanton carnage and positively dripping malice. Hurricane is a massive thorn in his side, dismantling his operation in every attempt to learn what happened to his sister. He gets romantically involved with a kindly hooker (Cassandra Delany) leading to the obligatory 80’s slow dance sex scene that everyone waits for in these type of flicks. There’s bullets, car chases, an action scene on a helicopter and all kinds of trademark B movie lunacy. Weathers makes a damn good hero. Prochnow is one hell of a wicked villain. Fun stuff.
The Big Empty is a quirky, off kilter little flick that packs a backpack full of borrowed elements from the Coen brothers and David Lynch, before embarking on a perplexing outing into the Twilight Zone. That’s not to say it rips any of these artists off, and indeed it’s got a style and cadence all its own. It just loves other oddballs before it and wants to wear it’s influences proudly. Everyone’s favourite lovable schlub Jon Favreau plays John Person, a flailing, out of work actor. He’s presented with a dodgy proposition by his whacko neighbour Neely (eternally bug eyed Bud Cort). Transport a mysterious blue briefcase to a remote town in the Mojave Desert called Baker. There he will meet a much talked about, little seen individual called The Cowboy (Sean Bean), who will take the case off his hands. He agrees, as he must in order for us to have a film to watch, and heads out to the back end of nowhere. In any respectable piece like this, the town our hero visits must be populated by weirdos, eccentrics, dead ends, missed encounters and an abiding, ever present atmosphere of anomalous peculiarity. Right on time, he meets a host of charming characters, including Grace (Joey Lauren Adams), her sensual daughter Ruthie (Rachel Leigh Cook), Indian Bob (Gary Farmer), grouchy FBI Agent Banks (Kelsey Grammar), and a bunch of others including Daryl Hannah, Melora Walters, Jon Gries, Brent Briscoe, Adam Beach and Danny Trejo. He’s led from one head scratching interaction to the other, each step of the way proving to be a step behind the elusive Cowboy, with no form of coherence appearing to ease poor John’s bafflement. I was reminded of Jim Jarmusch, particularly his masterpiece Dead Man, perhaps because Gary Farmer appears in both, but most likely mainly due to the fact that both films follow a hapless Joe on a journey that doesn’t seem to be going much of anyplace, but holds interest simply by being bizarre enough. Favreau is the only one that doesn’t fit, the outsider whose laid back suburban affability creates friction with almost every individual he meets, all who seem to have wandered in from the outer limits of some other dimension. Sean Bean is relaxed, mercurial with just a dash of danger as The Cowboy, quite possibly the strangest person John meets. The film has unexpected jabs of humour too, which occasionally breach the surface of its tongue in cheek veneer of inaccessibility. Upon meeting Indian Bob, John inquires: “Are you Bob The Indian?”. Bob jovially retorts “No, I’m Lawrence the fuckin Arabian.” Gary Farmer brings the same cloudy, sardonic cheek he brought to the role of Nobody the Indian in Jarmusch’s Dead Man, which had much the same type humour as this one: little moments of hilarity buried like treasures amongst the abnormal. Sometimes I muse that films like these which seem to really go nowhere in high style are there simply to give your brain a workout in odd areas that it wouldn’t normally play in. Set up a voyage like this, lead the audience down a yellow brick road and arrive at.. well basically nowhere in particular, just to chuckle at your efforts to figure it all out, jab you in the ribs and say “Don’t take this shit too seriously, man!”. Or maybe not. Maybe there’s deeper meaning behind the meandering, that will reveal some holy significance. This one, though, I doubt it. It’s pure playtime.
Guns, Girls And Gambling is an absolute doozy of a film. The term ‘so bad it’s good’ was invented for slapdash mockeries such as this, and with every stylistic cliche and ridiculous tactic, it owns the moniker vigorously. The filmmakers are obvious disciples of the neo noir crime thriller, as we see countless hard boiled walking stereotypes prance across the screen. Whenever a character shows up, a garish font announces them in writing below, which is crime genre 101. This happens so many goddamn times though, that eventually I felt like I was watching Mel Brooks’s attempt at a heist flick. It’s silly beyond words, derivitive enough to give you the onset of dementia and admirably dumb. But… I still had fun, at least in parts of it. It concerns the theft of a priceless Native American artifact from a tribal casino. The perpetrators? A gang of Elvis impersonators with, let’s say, interesting characteristics. There’s gay Elvis (Chris Kattan), midget Elvis (Tony Cox), Asian Elvis (Anthony Wong) and Gary Oldman Elvis, played by Gary Oldman who looks like he was dared into taking the role at a frat party. The bumbling Elvises break ranks post heist and the plot thickens, or should I say befuddles, with the arrival of every kooky, sassy assassin and archetype under the sun. Now from what I could make out: Christian Slater plays a dude called John Smith, a ‘wrong place at the wrong time’ type of guy who is swept up into the intrigue and is in way over head. He’s pursued by all kinds of unsavory people, and joined by the girl next door (Heather Roop). There’s The Cowboy (a salty Jeff Fahey), a gunslinging hitman who claims to never miss but literally misses upon firing the first bullet. The Indian (Matthew Willig) is a hulking tomahawk sporting badass. The Chief (Gordon Tootoosis) is the casino owner, muscling in on everyone to get back his artifact. The Sheriff (Dane Cook) is a corrupt lawman out for anything worth a buck. Best of the bunch is a snarling Powers Boothe as The Rancher, a good ol’ southern gangster who languishes in a white limo longer than the cast list of this movie, chewing scenery as vigorously as his cigar. There’s also a sexy blonde assassin called The Blonde (Helena Mattson) who wanders around quoting Poe right before she blasts people’s heads off. Its inane, mind numbing eye candy, with a cast that seems to have been blackmailed into participation. There’s even a last minute twist ending that seems to have wandered in from a much more serious film. It’s quite literally one of the most stupefyingly odd flicks I’ve ever seen. It’s earnestness in aping countless Pulp Fiction style films before it is beyond amusing, and the only thing that will make you laugh harder is how spectacularly and epically it flounders. It’s truly B movie gold, and one that demands a watch simply because it’s a sideshow unto itself.
Ca$h has an obnoxiously tongue in cheek title, and a premise that could have easily run off the rails into the silly zone. But rejoice: It knows how to create a tense, unpredictable environment accented by the slightest bits of naturally occurring humour here and there, a winning combination indeed. Sean Bean doesn’t often get a movie to himself, or at least get to play the lead. Here’s he’s the top dog, and while most would argue that he’s the antagonist as well, I’m in the opposite corner on that one. Yes he’s a criminal, yes he goes to extreme lengths to get his money back, but he’s a rigidly disciplined and staunchly fair bloke, driven by a set of principles and operational tics that reek of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and trust me, it takes one to know one. Oh, and he gets to play identical twins as well, pulling a Parent Trap and acting opposite himself which is a delight to see. When reckless career criminal Reese Kubrick (Bean) dicks up a robbery, loses a bunch of money and gets apprehended, a young couple think they have hit the jackpot. Played by Chris Hemsworth and Victoria Profeta, they find the money and make that fateful cinematic mistake of trying to keep it for themselves. Before they know it, Reese’s brother Pyke (also Bean) comes looking for them, and believe me when I say that this guy is a dude who finds what he’s looking for. Fast. The young couple has already begun to indulge, and as Pyke barges into their lives he finds a great deal of the amount spent. He then buckles down and calmly, coolly forces them to come up with every remaining cent of the ‘deficit’, as he calls it, even if it means doing a bit of illegal stuff themselves. Bean has a ball as the icy cool, ruthlessly efficiant prick who plays hardball with a glint in his eye. He’s karma manifest, a very real and very dangerous metaphor for the perilous risk of excessive currency and ill gotten gains. It’s a terrific role for him, both in the moments of dangerous serenity and the few rare instances where he loses his cool streak, which sting like daggers. Hemsworth and Profeta play their standard roles very nicely. An arbitrary bit of fun: the actor Glenn Plummer shows up for a hysterical cameo as a dude named, I shit you not, Glenn The Plumber, who receives a whollop of a verbal beatdown from Bean that serves as the film’s most lighthearted moment, and is a riot for anyone who gets the reference. Snuck into limited DVD release back in 2010, this one deserves more than the small shelf space it’s gotten. Fun stuff.