House Of Sand And Fog is an emotional thunderclap in ways you won’t see coming, leaving the viewer gutted after a finale that feels spare and detached yet wracked with emotion in the same moment. You feel haunted after witnessing the story unfold, and I was particularly affected by Ben Kingsley’s determind, tender performance for days after my viewing of the film. He plays an Iranian man, a proud man who was a Colonel in the air force in his home country, and has been forced to work construction labor jobs in America to support his family, and to keep up the appearances of their lifestyle. When neglected taxes force a troubled woman (Jennifer Connelly) out of the house she grew up in, Kingsley sees an opportunity to buy the the property for a fraction of what it’s worth, essentially leaving Connelly homeless. She has a history of alcoholism and instability, and this unfortunate situation really worsens her condition, leading to angry and confrontational behaviour towards Kingsley. He has no ill will towards her, he’s simply trying to make a better life for his family whom he loves very much. His wife (Shohreh Aghdashloo) is still very much rooted in Iranian culture, and much of what’s going on goes over her head. There’s also a cop (Ron Eldard) who strikes up a reckless romance with Connelly and tries to strong arm Kingsley into selling the house back to her, pretty much reasoning with his dick instead of his brain. This is a film that refuses to take a side, showing us unblinking and compassionate views of both people within the conflict, and never lifting a judging eyebrow. It’s a sad, sad turn of events and the film wants to show us the tragedy, but it does so with the utmost care, and always has a loving hand in presenting it’s two lead characters. Connelly is heartbreaking, showing us the burning humiliation that frays her spirit to the last sinew. Kingsley is flat out brilliant in the kind of performance that holds up for decades to come. He rightly won an Oscar for his galvanizing turn that breaks hearts and opens tear ducts. Ron Eldard is the only piece that doesn’t fit, because he’s usually not fund in this type of stuff. He’s really talented as an offbeat character actor, but just seems out of place here playing it straight, and it also doesn’t help that his character is just damn unlikable. Aghdashloo is the third leg of the acting table, and her work earned her an Oscar as well, she is plain superb. Be careful of what mood you’re in when you give this one a go, it’s pretty devastating. It’s also powerful cinema, and a story that could happen to anyone, anywhere in the world, giving us something real to latch onto and connect with.
Ah yes, the 90’s version of Judge Dredd, featuring a hopped up Sylvester Stallone as the titular comic book lawman. There is so much hate floating around for this flick that I feel like radios have picked up some of it right out of the air. There used to be a lot more loathing, but then the 2013 version graced our presence, and it was so good, so true to the source material and such a kick ass flick that the collective bad taste left the fan’s mouths, leaving this version somewhat forgotten and to many people, for good reason. But.. but… bear with me for just a moment, readers, and I’ll tell you why it’s not as bad as it’s utterly poopy reputation. Yes it’s silly, overblown, altogether ridiculous and Stallone takes off his helmet to yell about the law a lot. Basically pretty far from the source material and weird enough to raise eyebrows in many others, and prompt the torch and pitchfork routine from fans of the comic series. But it’s also a huge absurdist sci fi spectacle that will blow up your screen with its massive cast, opulent and decadent special effects and thundering, often incomprehensible plot. It’s in most ways the exact opposite of the 2013 version, all the fat that was trimmed off of that sleek, streamlined vehicle is left to dangle here, resulting in a chaotic mess that looks like a highway pileup between Blade Runner, Aliens and some Roger Corman abomination. But.. is it terribly unwatchable? Not in the least, or at least not to me. Like the highway pileup, it’s so off the rails that we can’t help but gawk in awe, and if we’re not some comic book fan who is already spiritually offended to the core by it, even enjoy that madness and lack of any rhyme or reason in it. Stallone uses his bulk to inhabit the character, and infuses a level of stagnant processed cheese to his dialogue that would be distracting if it weren’t for the electric blue contact lenses he sports the whole time, which look like traffic lights designed by Aqua Man. He’s embroiled in one convoluted mess of a plotline involving a former sibling (a hammy Armand Assante with the same weird eyes). Joan Chen and Diane Lane fill out the chick department, the former being some kind of cohort to Assante, and the latter a fellow judge alongside Dredd. Dredd has two superiors, the noble and righteous “” (Max Von Sydow in the closest thing he’ll ever make to a B-movie), and the treacherous Griffin (a seething, unbridled Jurgen Prochnow). The cast is stacked from top to bottom, including a rowdy turn from James Remar who sets the tone early on as a rebellious warlord who is set straight by Dredd. Rob Schneider has an odd habit of following Stallone around in films where his presence is wholly not needed (see Demolition Man as well), playing a weaselly little criminal who pops up whenever we’re off marveling at some other silly character, plot turn or risible costume choice. Scott Wilson also has an unbilled bit as Pa Angel, a desert dwelling cannibal patriarch, and when one views his scenery chomping cameo, although no doubt awesome, it’s easy to see why he had his name removed from the credits. The whole thing is a delightful disaster that shouldn’t prompt reactions of hate, at least from the more rational minded crowd. Yeah its not the best, or even all that good, but it’s worth a look just for the sake of morbid curiosity, and to see an entire filmmaking, acting and special effects team strive way too hard and throw everything into the mix, forgetting that less is more as they pull the ripcord of excess. Sure I’m generous, but I’d rather be puzzled and amused rather than bitter and cynical when a lot of work still went into this and me as an average joe has no right to bring down artists when my greatest life accomplishments so far are riding a bike with no hands while I have a beer in one and check my phone in the other. Such silliness is what we find in this movie, and I gotta say I was tickled by it.
Quentin Tarantino’s career has been vividly defined by all the beloved qualities which we hold dear in film: visuality, music, dialogue, emotion, conflict and especially character. His films contain some of the most captivating, idiosyncratic and unique people to ever grace the screen, played by an incredible lineup of actors, some of which he would go on to use time and time again. Below you will find my personal top ten picks from the rogues gallery of individuals who have appeared in his stories. Please keep in mind these are characters from films he has both written and directed only, not just ones he has written. Enjoy, and if you do, please share!
10. Zed, played by Peter Greene in Pulp Fiction.
Greene refused this part multiple times, causing Tarantino to hunt him down like a dog and basically beg him to play the role. When the director has a face in mind for a role and won’t quit like that, you’d better believe he’s gonna make magic with it if he ever manages to sway the actor. He does, and so does Greene, an actor with a distinct, sinister look who plays the absolute hell out of the character, spinning a small supporting turn into one of the most terrifying movie villains ever, and certainly the scariest character in Tarantino’s career. Everyone’s favourite redneck rapist sheriff, Greene leaves quite the unsettling impression with his work.
9. Texas Ranger Earl McGraw, played by. Michael Parks in Kill Bill, Grindhouse and From Dusk Till Dawn
Tarantino casted underrated acting chameleon Parks as this character several times, each appearance resulting in pure gold. My personal favourite has to his bit in Kill Bill Volume 1, where he’s called to the El Paso wedding chapel massacre. Parks can literally play any part thrown his way, be it melodramatic French Canadian drug runner, neo-nazi hit man or the laconic southwestern lawman archetype, which he nails down to the detailed mannerisms here. McGraw is a lynchpin of Tarantino lore and an absolute pleasure to see every time he pops up.
8. Captain Koons, played by Christopher Walken in Pulp Fiction
Walken balances weirdness and gravity like no other, often blurring the lines between the two to amusing and touching effect. When given what is perhaps the juiciest monologue ever written by Tarantino, Walken gives us a mesmerizing account of his time in the war, and his efforts to protect a coveted family heirloom which he then presents, with much ceremony, to a young Butch Coolidge. The film halts the momentum dead in its tracks to allow Walken to do his thing, completely off the leash and inhabiting his own special corner of the beloved film. He’s unforgettable, and makes a two minute appearance speak the volumes of eons.
7. Bill, played by David Carradine in Kill Bill
There’s a scene in Kill Bill Volume 2 where Uma Thurman discovers Bill waiting for her outside the wedding chapel, playing his pan flute. There’s an epic passage of Morricone music, and he looks her dead in the eye. Upon reviewing a rough cut, Tarantino turned to Carradine and said “I think this is your best moment of the film.” Carradine’s response was, “Hell, I think it’s the best moment of my whole career!.” Bill is a mythic, titular antagonist who is built up no end for the duration of the films, the ultimate badass villain, and when the climax arrives in the eleventh hour, Tarantino writes an exodus for the character that is far more personal, emotional and grounded than I imagine anyone saw coming. It’s a gift to Carradine and fans alike, a villain with depth and purpose who exists in a surreal comic book world where the people couldn’t be more human or real. Carradine purrs his way through the role of his career and on into legend.
6. Budd, played by Michael Madsen in Kill Bill
Tarantino brings out the best in Madsen, a purely charismatic dude who unfortunately makes a lot on unwatchable junky poo movies these days, squandering his obvious talent. This is is shining hour, playing Budd as a bitter backwater kid and younger sibling, nearing the end of his road and fermenting in bitter loneliness way out in the California desert. Madsen channels tough guys of the golden age as Budd, a rotten son of a bitch with a glint of humanity showing through his booze-dimmed eyes.
5. Hans Landa, played by Christoph Waltz in Inglorious Basterds
Quite possibly the most entertaining villain in Tarantino’s work, due the the exuberant and absolutely committed performance of Waltz, in a trailblazing turn that would put him on the map in a big way. Beaming from ear to ear in almost every scene with a charming grin that dissipates occasionally, showing traces of the spider beneath, he’s a wonder in the role, a nazi A-hole rotten straight to the core. He doesn’t even possess any constitution or debt of faith in the cause which his smartly emblazoned SS uniform advertises; he’s in it for himself only, which is one more despicable quality to add to the list of traits one might use to define him. Perhaps the biggest Basterd of them all, and a joy to watch.
4. Vincent Vega, played by John Travolta in Pulp Fiction
Pulp Fiction kickstarted Travolta’s career back into gear in a huge way, and it’s easy to see why as we watch his Elvis-esque slickster prance about the screen with effortless, heroin addled coolness and one hell of a dance sequence. His hair deserves its own spinoff film, he steals scenes by simply laying low and playing the dude with flair that never makes itself overly known.
3. Mr. Blonde, payed by Michael Madsen in Reservoir Dogs
A stone cold psycho to the bone, Madsen relishes in brining this cop killing sadist to life, and dancing his way through one of the most iconic Tarantino scenes to date. Madsen has a rumbling threat to his work, a paced, portentous vibe that suggests the onset of a dangerous storm, but always seems to veer on the edge. With Mr. Blonde he crosses that line and shows us what a true madman looks like, without even raising his voice above a willowy growl. A class act in violent behaviour that laced with the blackest humour that we feel bad for laughing at. Mr. Blonde all the way.
2. Jules Winnfield, played by Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction
A rain of hellfire awaits any viewer who has the privilege of seeing Jackson bellow forth biblical fury in his first collaboration with Tarantino. He’s the life of the party in Pulp Fiction, an articulate, relentless loudmouth with a character arc that amusingly negates his belligerent nature and makes Jules all the more fascinating for it. Jack sonics at his most magnetic when he’s in Tarantino films, and this is mile zero, baby. Not for a second does the spark leave his eye, or the threat of violence evaporate from his wake. Criminals who ruminate on life, love and cunnilingus have become a goldmine for writers post Tarantino, and one which he only mined the first nuggets of. Jackson is ground zero for the character type, and fires it up in a way which none of us will ever forget.
1. The Bride a.k.a. Beatrix Kiddo, played by Uma Thurman in Kill Bill
Tarantino’s muse has been Uma Thurman since the days of Pulp Fiction, and here he writes a titanic revenge epic in which the actress gets to bare her claws and sink her teeth into the single most affecting and arrest in female role that he has ever written, also forging the best, or at least my favourite performance from any actor or actress in his films. The Bride is the revenge archetype, an angry blonde angel forsaken by her lover and dead set on a bloody warpath. Tarantino isn’t above writing in moments of stirring emotion, including the final twenty minutes of Volume two which is Thurman’s showcase piece as an actress and an achingly appropriate send-off for The Bride, as well as the one which she deserves.
Thanks for reading, more to come!
William Peter Blatty’s The Excorcist III is my favourite in the series, and if that leaves some people aghast with disbelief, I’ll still hold my stance. Don’t get me wrong, the first film is a classic of atmospheric dread, the sequel is a psychedelic oddity that’s also very underrated, but there’s something about this one that just sat better with me than any of the others, including the two prequels with Stellen Skarsgard. This one deviates from the pattern as well as lifts the focus from Linda Blair’s character, paving a cool new story for itself and breaking new ground. It’s also got one of the single most terrifying moments I’ve ever seen on film, orchestrated perfectly enough to give a good dose of goosebumps to the strongest of spines. The immortal and always excellent George C. Scott plays Kinderman, a police lieutenant who is on the trail of a bloodthirsty serial murderer nicknamed The Gemini Killer. The killer himself has actually been long deceased, but uncanny similarities in the current crimes have freaked the police right out, and so he follows the clues to a foreboding psychiatric facility. It soon becomes clear that there’s something very mysterious going on, and something very wrong with the patients. Skittish Dr. Temple (Scott Wilson) seems to know what’s going on, but also seems not to, or to be too scared to divulge anything. A terrifying patient named James Venuman (Brad Dourif is so scary you’ll want to hide behind the couch) seems to contain something malevolent inside him, his ravings making eerie sense to the detective. There’s a few surprise cameos from veterans of the franchise, as well as work from Ed Flanders, Nicol Williamson and, believe it or not, an appearance from Fabio, of all people. The atmosphere is so thick you could choke on it, the dread hanging in the air like clammy mist, helped in part by the disturbing choice of location, Dourif’s sheer ghoul act and cinematographer Gerry Fisher’s camera, which lurks along walls and corridors and turns the facility into a haunted house, and our nerves into a jittering mess. Underrated as both a standalone fright flick and as an entry in the Excorcist series. Top notch creepfest.
Michael Cimino’s Year Of The Dragon is a visceral blast of pure Americana as only the man could bring us. It kills me that he suffered through that whole Heaven’s Gate fiasco (which is actually a really good movie, but that’s another story and argument entirely) because it extinguished any hopes of him making future films, and in doing so the studios effectively committed genocide against their own. Sure the guy was crazy as hell, but damn could he ever make a great film. This one is one of the most criminally overlooked cop flicks of all time, partly due to Cimino’s scorching direction and partly due to a a performance of monolithic grittiness from Mickey Rourke as Captain Stanley White, the cop who won’t stop. White is fresh out of Nam and mad as hell, launching a unilateral crusade of racist violence and self righteous fury against the Chinese crime syndicate in New York City, particularly a young upstart in their organization named Joey Thai (John Lone). Thai is as ruthless as White is determind, and the two clash in ugly spectacle, causing leagues of collateral damage on either side and inciting them both to roar towards an inevitable, bloody conclusion. Thai’s elderly superiors warn him of men like White, men who are fuelled purely by anger, bitterness and nothing else, smelling the fire and brimstone in the air and wisely stepping out of the way. Thai is of a younger, more petulant generation and foolishly decides to meet the beast head on by essentially kicking the hornet’s nest. White is warned by his caring wife (Caroline Kava) and fellow cop and friend Lou (Raymond J. Barry is excellent, firing Rourke up further with his work) not to mess with such a dangerous crowd. He has a volatile relationship with a beautiful Chinese American reporter (Arianne is the only weak link in the acting chain) who puts herself on the line for him by digging around in dangerous corners. The intensity level of this film is something straight from the adrenal gland; even in episodic scenes of introspect we feel the hum of the character’s emotions, and when the conflict starts again, which it does in fast and furious amounts, the actors are simply in overdrive. Rourke has never been better than he was in the 80’s, it was just his zenith of power. This isn’t a role that gets a lot of recognition, but along with Angel Heart, Rumble Fish and Pope Of Greenwich Village, I think it’s his best. He puts so much of himself into Stanley White that the edges which separate performer from performance begin to blur and waver, until we are locked into his work on a level that goes beyond passive consumption of art and elicits something reflective in us. Not to sound too hippie dippy about it, but the guy is just that fucking good. On the calmer side of the coin, John Lone brings both evil and elegance to Joey, a slick surface charm that’s constantly disturbed by Rourke’s hostility, leading to an eventual meltdown that’s very cool to see in Lone’s expert hands. This is one for the ages and should be in the same pantheon with all timers like Heat, Serpico, The French Connection and others. Rourke fires on all cylinders, as do his colleagues of the craft, and Cimino sits cackling at the switchboard with a mad calm, yanking all the right levers in a frenzy of unhinged genius. Not to be missed.
Sinner is a 2007 indie buried in the depths of obscurity, and defined by its very bold choice to cast an actor in the lead role whose career so far has been so different from the type of character he plays here, it’s a true blessing for fans to see him in this new light. The actor in question is Nick Chinlund, a rough looking bruiser with a filmography almost entirely made up of villainous creeps, grizzled detectives and other assorted hardcases (see Con Air, Training Day, The X Files and The Chronicles Of Riddick for his most critically celebrated work). Here he drops every trait he’s been known for, playing small town catholic priest Anthony Romano, a man with a troubled past and an almost bankrupt parish who is facing an internal crisis, only made worse by the arrival of skanky grifter Lil (Georgina Cates) who preys on celibate priests, amongst other bottom-feeding life choices. After an incident involving Romano’s lecherous fellow preacher, he allows Lil to take refuge from the police in his rectory, against better judgment. She’s a nasty piece of work at first and Cates’s performance is far too over the top, only simmering down to meet the character arc in the script long after it calls for action, making her work too little, too late, yet still rather affecting. Chinlund is nothing short of mesmerizing, giving Romano the internal conflict and vulnerability the character deserves, which is not an easy task when one considers the complex nature of the writing. Underrated doesn’t begin to describe this actor, and lately I’ve been sad to see he hasn’t been given many roles that are worthy of his talent. I’ve searched far and wide for Sinner many years, finally finding an amazon seller who would send me a copy. I loved it, and it made me so happy to see Chinlund get the kind of role that goes against the grain of much of his work. Romano uses the sort of golf as a release from priestly and personal hardships, the script using lots of golfer’s lingo as sly similes for his personal issues. Tagging along with him is his scrappy and seemingly imaginary Caddy, played by Brad Dourif. Dourif can make any role, and I mean any, into pure magic with his dedication to the craft. Seeing him and Chinlund share a few wonderful scenes with bushels of chemistry was a nerd’s dream come true for me, and part of the reason I searched so long for a copy of this film. For casuals this may be a bit offbeat to really sink into, but for fans of the actors and idiosyncratic indie flicks, this is a bona fide goldmine.
Clay Pigeons is one of the odder films floating around out there, but it’s a damn good time at the movies. It fits into a subgenre that I have lovingly dub as ‘desert noir’, other prime examples being Oliver Stone’s U Turn and John Dahl’s Red Rock West. Intrigue and murder abound under a sun soaked, parchment dry landscape in these types of films, always with a healthy helping of dark humour and unsettling, psychopathic characters running around, perpetually up to no good. Joaquin Phoenix (adding to the U Turn vibe) plays Clay, a good guy who seems to have a real problem with bad luck. He finds out his friend has killed himself, which seems to be the first swirl in a spooky spiral of trouble that veers towards him like a dust devil. Soon nosy FBI agent Dale Shelby (reliably perky Janeane Garofalo) comes to town, turning her attention towards him. Dan Mooney (ever great Scott Wilson stealing scenes with perched stealth) is Clay’s friend and the town Sheriff, also on the lookout for clues. These two are the least of his worries though, as the worst is yet to come with the arrival of charming serial killer Lester Long (Vince Vaughn). This is my favourite Vince Vaughn performance because he shows his versatility with the brittle, lightning quick turns of personality injected into Lester. One minute he’s your best buddy and a lovable loudmouth, the next a coiled viper with untold violence beneath the jovial exterior. They always say serial killers are charmers, and Vince Vaughn takes that sentiment, dances around you in circles with it and then proceeds to strangle you with it when you least expect it. So yeah. The bodies pile up and no one seems to be able to tie them to anyone. Lester treats everyone like his best friend until they’re too comfortable to see the blind side coming, and poor Phoenix wanders around looking disshvelled and stressed out. It’s good fun all the way through, doing a nice see-saw rhythm between quaint, cartoonish antics and a grim, scary turn of events. Underrated and more than worth your time.