Undercover Blues is about as light, breezy and fluffed out as a film can get, to its own detriment in fact. I love a good lighthearted comedy but unfortunately this one tries to be so carefree and leisurely that it comes across as… well just that, something that feels like it’s trying too hard to achieve it’s vibe instead of just naturally arriving there. Dennis Quaid and Kathleen Turner play former spies who are on vacation in New Orleans, trying to escape the espionage life for awhile so they can raise their baby. When a chance encounter with a hopeless mugger named ‘Muerte’ (Stanley Tucci in a performance that has to be seen to be believed) puts them in the spotlight of their former boss (Richard Jenkins) they are tasked with finding and taking down an easily distracted Euro-trash villainess (Fiona Shaw) who is selling plutonium rods to terrorists.. that’s the loose version anyways, the film doesn’t really have much of a grasp on the reins of its own plot. Pretty soon two dogged detectives are after them, played by Obba Babatunde and the always scene stealing Larry Miller who is doing a voice/accent here that is so bizarre he sounds like he walked out of the looney toons. There really isn’t too much romantic chemistry between Quaid and Turner save for one brief scene and for all their cavalier swashbuckling and attempts at charisma they seem curiously lifeless. Tucci is anything but though as this ridiculous petty criminal, barking out childish threats with a priceless Spanish accent and spicing up the proceedings with his coked up manic energy. Watch for familiar faces including Tom Arnold, Jan Triska, Marshall Bell, Dennis Lipscomb, Saul Rubinek, Chris Ellis, Olek Krupa and a very young Dave Chapelle. I wish I liked this more but it just didn’t have substance or anything to grab ahold of. It’s fine to have easy breezy, fluffy action comedies but there’s still gotta be an interesting story, strong character dynamics and a genuine sense of danger or I’ll just lose interest. This was a great big meh. If you want to see how an effective lighthearted New Orleans caper with Quaid is done, check out The Big Easy with him and Ellen Barkin, an absolutely wonderful romance cop flick that feels genuinely laidback without having to try SO damn hard to convince us it is, like this pot of watered down gumbo.
I hate to be that guy that always champions universally reviled films as actually being pretty good, but I have to be honest in my reviews and I really don’t see the big issue with 1998’s The Avengers, but keep in mind I’ve never seen a single episode of the original 60’s tv series. This was some seriously fun, albeit chaotic and unfocused 90’s big budget retro espionage silliness that might not be the most amazing thing, but definitely entertained me for what it has to offer. In this iteration the roles of dapper super spies Emma Peel and John Steed go to Uma Thurman and Ralph Fiennes, who both look damn sexy in the costumes and have cutesy chemistry with each other that was endearing, they’re an interesting mix and they haven’t done a film together since but I enjoyed the flavour that their pairing projected. They work for an appropriately arch government agency called ‘The Agency,’ run by two veteran cranks given the code names ‘Mother’ and ‘Father.’ The sheepish gimmick of casting Jim Broadbent as Mother and Fiona Shaw as Father is a an amusing if thinly conceived running joke that serves as a cheeky litmus test for the film’s overall saucy sense of humour. Our two heroes must do battle with Sean Connery’s Sir August De Wynter, a de facto Bond villain and all around nut-job who wants to hold the entire world ransom by controlling the weather with a giant machine he’s designed. Cue rampant meteorological destruction in London, elaborate set pieces, glib line delivery and all the big budget production design you can shake a jewel encrusted cane at. Speaking of that, I don’t care what you think of the film itself, there’s just no denying the positively stunning set design, costuming and overall visual flair… this is one seriously good looking movie, starting with its cast. Fiennes rocks that pinstripe suit to the fucking nines, while Thurman has maybe never been sexier in her skinny leather catsuit. Connery has this Burt Reynolds thing going on with his hair which oddly suits him, and speaking of suits he goes through one impressive range of wardrobe bedazzlement here, showing up in everything from full highland regalia complete with a kilt to a Snow White n’ silver custom job to a full on teddy bear costume when he arbitrarily decides to hold a teddy bear board meeting with his nefarious cronies all done up like plush toys. He gets priceless dialogue too, including precious barbs like “rain or shine, all is mine” and seems to be having a right hammy blast with the character. Shaw and Broadbent are old pros and have fun chewing scenery with droll, proverbially plummy cutlery and the cast includes the likes of the lovely Carmen Ejogo, Eileen Atkins as a charming old granny who wastes baddies with a WWII era sub-machine gun, John Wood, Patrick McNee as an accidental invisible man, Keeley Hawes and Eddie Izzard in a Paul McCartney wig who gets one solitary line of dialogue, but I suppose if you’re only gonna give that dude one line it might as well be the film’s single PG-13 F bomb. Ok so this isn’t the greatest movie ever made but it’s most definitely not as bad as the reputation would have you believe, I think the mob mentality snowballed a tad there. Sure it’s inane as all hell, there’s visible editing issues and it doesn’t flow as well as other films of its ilk but hell, if you look up eye candy in the cinematic dictionary you’ll find the drop dead dime-piece of a poster gleaming back at you. Production design, costumes and big sexy action set pieces certainly don’t save a film or shunt it into annals of pedigree but they can certainly make one well worth watching, and on that front I wasn’t disappointed, not even a bit. Sift through the bad press and make your own decisions on film, you’ll be surprised what you find yourself enjoying.
Usually American Horror Story is the first thing that comes to mind when you bring up ‘anthology horror series’ and I won’t get into my many issues with that mess of a show overall in this review but it amazes me more people aren’t aware of SyFy’s far superior Channel Zero, a flat out spectacular, mind blowing, thematically rich, devilishly scary, heart achingly beautiful and uniquely crafted quartet of seasons, each based (sometimes loosely, other times more directly) on popular internet ‘creepypasta’ stories. I debated doing four separate reviews for each of these seasons but I’d honestly end up spoiling too much so I’ll do four modest paragraphs here followed by a quick closing blurb:
Season one is called Candle Cove and it’s the weakest but still a wicked story, and if you know the creepypasta it’s based on you’ll know it’s about a mysterious kid’s TV show broadcast from a scrambled signal that plagued the minds of many youngsters in Iron Hill, Ohio and is always accompanied by gruesome child murders whenever it pops up on the air. One stoic child psychologist (Paul Schneider curiously underplays this role to the point of entropy yet still pulls it off somehow) returns home to this town and unravels the dark supernatural secret. This goes to some surreal places and is kind of like the warmup round for the next three seasons, which ditch the compass of convention and head straight off the map. Nods to Silent Hill permeate a super spooky environment and we get the unfortunate privilege of crossing paths with a monster made entirely of human teeth, a sight I won’t soon forget. A great dry run that isn’t perfect and stands as the least effective season yet still makes an impression.
Round two is my favourite, called ‘No End House’ and provides us exactly that, a notorious haunted house that attracts the hardcore crowd only to psychologically decimate them with horrors of the mind. One grieving daughter (Amy Forsyth) ventures in with a group of friends and because she is still mourning the loss of her father (the great John Carroll Lynch), the house takes full advantage of that and torments her no end. Reality shifts, time bends and the show runners really make it clear here they aren’t interested in telling generic stories here but rather going way outside the box. Forsyth and Lynch are utterly brilliant here as the father and daughter, bravely exploring themes of grief, suicide, sacrifice, the human soul and what it means to be a being on our plane versus one in the world the No End House has created.
Season 3 is called Butcher’s Block, it goes grand and baroque without losing sight of the intimate and personal, while also seems to have both the highest budget and conceptual ambitions of the four. The Block is one of many poor neighbourhoods in the US, struck by poverty and socioeconomic doldrums. Now it’s residents find themselves plagued by… something far worse, something with ties to former meat packing magnate Joseph Peach (Rutger Hauer is terrifyingly charismatic in one of his few gigs before he passed away) and his eerily aristocratic clan. Two troubled sisters (Olivia Luccardi and Holland Roden, both incredible) running from a past fraught with trauma and mental illness move into the area to recover and immediately find themselves pulled into this grim, diabolical and otherworldly story that starts with mystery staircases appearing in the woods on the outskirts of town and ends somewhere beyond time and space that I couldn’t possibly describe. Just a heads up this season will be tough for some viewers as it takes real world afflictions and turns them into surreal, trauma inspired monsters that literally chase our heroines around (keep an eye out for the schizophrenia entity that is now scarred into my mind forever). There’s also glorious Grand Guignol, grisly body horror, heartbreaking personal dilemmas played out against surreal backdrops and themes of class warfare and the invisibility and exploitation of poorer factions of society, prayed upon by those with wealth and extreme power. It’s certainly the most visually striking and ambitious season.
Season 4 is evocatively titled The Dream Door and is without a doubt the scariest of the four, as well as psychologically and thematically rewarding just like 2 and 3. The door in question is a mysterious portal found by newlyweds Jillian and Tom (Maria Sten and Brandon Scott) deep in their basement, with no known origin. When finally opened, out bounds a contortionist clown named Pretzel Jack who is one of the most fear inducing, eccentric, fascinating, hilarious and all round unique characters I’ve ever seen put to film. I won’t spoil his origins or why he was down there to begin with but this story has one hell of a cool premise, just as surreal as ever as it explores conjuring ones emotions into physical form, extensions of human subconscious into earthly beings, creatures from alternate dimensions and how our traumas leak into the real world, via metaphor or literal clashes with loved ones around us. Sten is phenomenal and I hope to see more of her around, she approaches the material with the kind emotional clarity often not actively put into horror protagonists.
So much for modest paragraphs. Anyways, bottom line and the reason I’m writing a mammoth review of this thing with a bunch of fanfare: this is the best horror television show I’ve ever seen, and that’s coming from someone who raved about Stranger Things, fell in love with Haunting Of Hill House, championed The Alienist, recommended The Terror and pined for more Hannibal. Channel Zero did more for me than any of those, as incredible as they are and I’m not even sure exactly why but the best I can do is a concoction of three elements: 1) the kind of unconventional, outside the box surreal storytelling that is like protein for my senses and few mainstream shows (outside of someone like David Lynch) are even allowed to attempt. 2) the fact that these are all based on urban myths and reflect that ethos in tone and mood which in turn elevated fear and 3) the horror comes not only from gore, creeping ghosts or the supernatural (of which there are plenty, not to worry) but is primarily born of character, psychology, human afflictions and characters relationships to each other. It’s an unbeatable mixture and makes for something so special I might even order a DVD set, which I almost never do with shows I know will be streaming on and off indefinitely. Masterpiece.
The judicial system has never been played so hard as it has by Anthony Hopkins in Gregory Hoblit’s Fracture, a thriller that’s written, acted and directed to high heavens but scored into oblivion. I’m not kidding, a hotshot courtroom gig of this caliber should sound great but the musical composition here by the Brothers Danna makes it sound like a TV movie and really doesn’t do it any favours. Odd, when you consider the fact that they are Oscar winners for previous scoring work. Hopkins is the murderous rich prick who shoots his wife (an underused Embeth Davidz) in the face when he finds out she’s having an affair with a cop (Billy Burke). Then in a spectacularly nasty move, he sets it up so the detective is first on scene to find her just so the old bastard can see the look on his face. After that, no one seems to be able to make the case stick to him, and it’s passed off to young hotshot prosecutor Ryan Gosling, who underestimates the sheer diabolical resolve of Hopkins and sails straight into his net. It’s pretty preposterous and overblown in terms of what’s allowed, not allowed and plausible in events surrounding such a high profile court case (why would they let him so close to his comatose wife right after such a suspicious acquittal?), but employ suspension of disbelief and this vicious little narrative is a lot of fun. Hopkins has a ball with this role, relishing the moment every time he royally fucks someone over and cooking up a stinging blend of laconic sociopathy and bubbling mirth. Hoblit gathers an impressive supporting cast including perennial silver-fox David Strathairn, Bob Gunton, Fiona Shaw, Cliff Curtis, Xander Berkeley, Zoe Kazan and slinky Rosamund Pike as a love interest from a rival firm. It’s a bit of a shame because the script, performances and story are all very well orchestrated, but the score and certain details just seem glossed over when there could have been more grit and depth. Those lacking elements give it an airy feeling of incompleteness where it should have been deeper and tighter drawn.
No other film simultaneously reaches as far as it can to the heavens and remains as grounded in inwardness as Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life, an experience that isn’t so much a film as it is a meditative, open ended question, a quiet and gentle nudge that reminds to remember and revere how miraculous life is in the simple fact that it even exists. It also tries to discern what makes a life, from the individual to the human race to the very cosmos around us all, and isn’t something to be even approached in traditional critical analysis. Malick directs Jessica Chastain, Brad Pitt, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan through a series of fly-on-the-wall vignettes in hazy, comforting 1950’s Americana. They are every white picket fence Midwest family. Pitt is firm, strict and fearless in raising his sons with the lessons given to him as a boy, Chastain is warm, compassionate and intuitive, two energies that visibly shape the boys into young men. Decades later, Sean Penn plays the older version of one of them, and ponders on his youthful years as he goes about adult life in an introspective trance. And.. that’s the film. In writing, anyways. What’s special about it can’t really be described, you just have to see and hear it, which is the same for all films, I suppose, but this one really immerses you in something deeply felt. Using emotionally affecting classical music and employing unbelievable visual camera work, Malick sets up time and place like no other filmmaker, making the streets, sun dappled backyards, tree lined laneways and beckoning house interiors come alive in a way that stirs up memories long buried for many who had childhoods just like this. On a grander scale, he also explores the universe in a mid-film sequence that had some walking out of theatres but is really an inspired bit, a time rift to rival the bone toss in Kubrick’s 2001. Malick’s aesthetic isn’t for everyone, you kind of either tune into it wholly or you’re left cold and adrift, but here he spins up something to be marvelled at, his own treatise on human life and the realms around it, both distant and close. A masterpiece, no review I write could properly impart my love for this one, it’s an important, vital film to be absorbed with focus and vulnerability, and thought upon deeply after.