I’ve had some gnarly camping trips into the Canadian wilderness myself, but none so brutal, backbreaking and harrowing as the Ontario expedition that five bickering middle aged doctors embark on in Rituals, a punishingly intense, staggeringly effective thriller that despite a low budget, is about as high impact as possible. The cast is headed up by the late great Hal Holbrook and Lawrence Dane, two pack leaders in a team of five career medical professionals who are so far from the white coats and fluorescent lit hallways they usually no doubt inhabit, on a ruthless trek through the harshest terrain made all the more strenuous by the fact that they are being tracked, hunted and terrorized by an unseen individual who knows the region, and the psychological complexity of predator vs prey, far better than these fellows. This obviously has a Deliverance vibe on paper but not only is it a far stronger film than that (Boorman’s piece is a tad over-celebrated in my book), it isn’t just that tired old ‘big city blowhards tormented by inbred backwood yahoos’, there’s an actual believable reason why this person has targeted them, revealed bit by bit as their heinous ordeal unfolds. What also makes this so effective is the writing and performances; every character is fully fleshed out and feels like a real human being instead of a token archetype of your classic group dynamic, thanks to a script that has both compassion and condemnation for its characters in the same complex stroke. These are genuine human beings and the actors, Holbrook and Dane in particular, play them uncannily well in perhaps the performances of their careers. Not to mention the lush, lake speckled Northern Ontario scenery that abruptly turns stark, threatening and very Mordor-esque later on in the third act to mirror the increasingly hopeless plight of the men wandering through this desolate and unforgiving realm. This is an exceptional film, with a few damaged reels (VHS lines and cigarette burns lovingly dot the celluloid landscape) and Shudder has done a great job restoring what it could into Blu Ray quality while retaining a frayed, Grindhouse visual aesthetic at the same time. Highly, highly recommended.
Sean Penn’s Into The Wild is ostensibly about a young college grad who abandons societal norms, traditional Western aspirations and archetypal beats to live first on the road and eventually in the wilderness, but that’s really only the framework for something more elemental and profound. What I got out of it, thanks to meditative filmmaking and an ensemble cast for the ages, was a quiet, studious anthropologist’s discourse on how many different human beings conform to, tear free from or abide just outside what society deems ‘normal’ or ‘allowed.’ Emile Hirsch’s Christopher McCandless is perhaps the most extreme and outright noticeable example within the cast of characters, a young boy just starting out in life who has decided to flip the proverbial table and rewrite the collective standards of living in our world to suit his strikingly literate, ambitiously philosophical nature. This is one of those films where the main character is on a journey and meets/interacts with many varied, interesting folk along the way. Penn loves to use this motif (check out his masterpiece The Pledge for quite a different version of the idea), is terrific with ensemble casts and many actors of considerable talent thankfully flock to work in his pictures. Christopher’s parents are played by Marcia Gay Harden and a heartbreaking William Hurt, two actors who have never been pinned down into playing one role or typecast, both very clearly the materialistic, compassionate yet volcanically dysfunctional proud suburban parents. Jena Malone is Christopher’s supportive, loving sister and from these relatives he sets out on a cross country journey with Alaska as his endgame, and meets a host of people who could be a collective time capsule of late 80’s/early 90’s Americana. Vince Vaughn is a rowdy farming magnate who takes Christopher in, gives him work and a boisterous big brother presence, for awhile. Kristen Stewart is the teenaged hippie girl he finds romance with in a wistful trailer commune… for awhile. Signe Egholm Olsen and Thure Lindhart are two effervescent European backpackers he shares a watering hole with.. for like ten minutes. Hal Holbrook will break your heart into pieces as a fatherly widower with a tragic past who gives him shelter and paternal companionship.. for a brief time. The running theme here is that Christopher never stays anywhere for long and it soon becomes clear that some human beings, himself included, were simply meant to roam restlessly until their soul finds a place it can be at peace. My favourite among his interactions is that with an ageing hippie couple played by the wonderful Catherine Keener and someone called Brian Dierker, who I’ve never heard of before but makes a striking impression. They’re a loving pair with tragedy in their past who find kinship and parental caring for Christopher, and I felt like if there was one place or group of people on his journey he may have ended up staying with permanently, it would have been them. We all know how this film turns out and what the story tells us, but for me it was a beautifully episodic, sweepingly melodious exploration of human beings and how they interact, migrate about the landscape and find their own customs, relationships and purposes with the lives given to them. There’s a montage right near the end where as we witness Christopher arrive at the final beat of his arc, we also see everyone he met and cared about in life at the exact same moment in time elsewhere, each in various snapshots of joy, anguish, libation or introspection. It’s a brilliantly edited sequence because it sews the final stitches together in a thread of human experiences the film gifts us, and I’ve seldom felt more connected to the “connectedness” of human beings overall than I did in this beautiful sequence. This is a masterpiece, and I won’t even go into the brilliant album composed by Eddie Vedder because we’d be here all day.
Year after year I keep coming back to Keith Gordon’s Waking The Dead, a spellbinding, haunting political romance with supernatural undertones and a dreamlike atmosphere that sustains attentions for the duration of a love story unlike any other. The film is virtually unheard of and fairly hard to find, I feel like it was intended as a much bigger release and meant to gain notoriety for years to come, but one of the studios involved either shut down or went bankrupt and as a result the film has been snowed over and left in obscurity. While somewhat a shame, I kind of like it’s hidden gem status, a buried treasure of a story waiting to be discovered and recommended to new viewers. Billy Crudup and Jennifer Connelly have never been better as Fielding Pierce and Sarah Williams, two star crossed lovers who couldn’t be cut from more different cloth. He’s an upstanding potential congressman who leans towards conservatism, she’s a fiery activist who champions the downtrodden and wants nothing to do with the system that’s grooming him for power. The film opens with a stab to the heart as he observes news footage of her death in South America, and right away it’s made clear that this will be a fractured, bittersweet romance told out of space and time. There’s always that one girl you can’t let go or shake the memory of, and as he goes about his political campaign sometime in the 80’s, he’s haunted by her memory to the point where he believes he sees her everywhere, like a ghost refusing to rest. Is he projecting his unresolved heartbreak into waking dreams of her? Did she somehow survive after all and has now resurfaced? The film approaches this dilemma in a solemn, slightly ambiguous way, never giving the viewer what they want but somehow feeling satisfactory in the resolution, albeit devastating to the emotions once we become invested. Speaking of that, we get to know them through interspersed flashbacks to the late 60’s as they meet, fall in love and experience their radically different views as obstacles in the relationship. The film posits that no matter how different or from opposite sides of the tracks two people are, if the love is there then it’s simply there, and sometimes not even death can have anything to say about it. Crudup and Connelly are knockouts here in two of the most overlooked performances of the century, playing these two as intelligent, fiercely independent beings who know that finding each other has changed the both of them forever in ways they’ve still yet to experience. They circle each other like two stars and are surrounded by a galaxy of perfectly pitched supporting talent including Janet McTeer as his worried sister, Stanley Anderson as his compassionate father, Paul Hipp as his wayward brother who hopes to gain a green card for his Korean girlfriend (Sandra Oh), Hal Holbrook, John Carroll Lynch, Molly Parker and uh… Ed Harris too, who Skypes in a bafflingly brief cameo. The film opens with Joni Mitchell’s A Case Of You, closes with Peter Gabriel’s Mercy Streets and is filled to the brim with an elemental original score by TomAndAndy that is at once spooky, unconventional and ethereal. This is one of the ultimate love stories, a tragedy gilded by ghostly implications, anchored by the two brilliant lead performances that inhabit a slightly monochrome, gorgeously black and white-esque visual realm and tell a story for the ages of love found, lost and remembered again. One of the all time ‘best films you’ve never seen’ films and I really hope it gets more traction and love as the years continue.
Daniel Alfredson’s Blackway (aka Go With Me) is a bizarre disaster that would have made for a cool flick if… well if it didn’t turn out so darn shitty. I suppose you could blame editing, there’s elements that work, some decent performances and genuinely terrific photography but I’m not sure what they were going for in terms of tone and story because it’s an unholy mess. Anthony Hopkins is always a welcome presence, but he has a silly habit of sleepwalking through roles that he’s clearly only taken on to grab a buck (that twitter video of him spazzing out to music in his living room had more charisma than he musters up here), and although he never fully phones it in, there’s a somewhat listless lack of clarity in a lot of his later career work, this included. He plays an ex logger here with tragedy in his past, living the quiet life in the Pacific Northwest, until trouble brews in his small lumber town. Julia Stiles plays a new waitress in town who catches the eye of titular Blackway (Ray Liotta) an ex cop turned powerful crime lord with a hefty anger problem, violent tendencies and an overall scary reputation. He stalks, harasses and won’t leave the poor girl alone, and since he owns the pitiful excuse of a local police force there’s not much she can do but run and seek help elsewhere, supplied by Hopkins and a few of his pals including Alexander Ludwig and Hal Holbrook. If I was a powerful producer with the clout to green-light projects and you pitched me a noir-esque stalker thriller with Hopkins, Liotta and Stiles set in the Northwest I’d chuck my wallet at you and give my blessings. I’d later learn a hard lesson though, because as well as this looks on paper, or rather the alluring one sheet and exciting trailer, it really tanks and blows just about all of its potential. Stiles is always fantastic, she’s one of my favourites and can do no wrong in my book, she shines here. Liotta is a master actor and does a truly terrifying villain turn but he’s sort of in the wrong film. He has a big city gangster vibe that’s decidedly urban and bereft of the rustic trappings you need to pull off a mythic mountain man kingpin, and as such he feels out of place despite his great talents and considerable efforts. There’s a few decent set pieces like a face off at Blackway’s backroads whorehouse, but this thing is paced so oddly it’s hard to keep up or care. Alfredson is an accomplished filmmaker who gave us the original Lisbeth Salander trilogy, but I think he tried too hard to make this into something of an art film or really mean something when in reality there’s nothing more than a painfully average thriller. Worth it for the actors and the drop dead gorgeous scenery (I will forever be a sucker for films shot and set in this region), but other than that it’s a big swing and a bigger miss.
John Carpenter’s The Fog is such a great campfire ghost story that it literally starts off with a campfire of its own, told by wistful sea captain John Houseman in a role that feels like it was meant for Donald Pleasance. He spookily regales a bunch of youngsters one cold coastal night: Long ago, a mysterious schooner crashed against the rocky landscape of Antonio Bay in a dense fog, for reasons slowly made clear. A century or so later, the fog returns, and those onboard come with it seeking revenge. Speaking of the coast, that vast, gorgeous California shoreline is a perfect backdrop and character all it’s own in Carpenter’s tale, the title credit appears over a picturesque beach, setting the ambience of the seaside region perfectly. Carpenter always values atmosphere and suspense above all else, his films have some of the most delicious slow burn setups out there, and the ethereal first act before the fog even shows up is one of the best extended sequences he’s ever done. As far as plot and character goes, the film has a cool Robert Altman vibe to its ensemble, from Hal Holbrook’s nervous priest, Jamie Lee Curtis’s plucky hitchhiking artist, Adrienne Barbeau’s sultry radio DJ and more, they all work in round-table fashion to get their stories across. They and others find themselves suddenly stranded in the approaching haze and hunted by silent, sword wielding zombie pirates who are more than a little pissed off that their boat crashed. The real treasure here is Carpenter’s original score, one in a long line of brilliant compositions. The main theme is a restless, jangly electronic cadence that feels both melodic and laced with doom, while quieter synth chords are infused with church bell cues elsewhere to bring the soundscape alive as only Carpenter can. This is a brilliant horror film, my third favourite Carpenter after Halloween and The Thing, and never fails to be as effective, chilling or beautiful to behold with each revisit as it was the first time I saw it.
John Madden’s Killshot went through the ninth ring of production hell before it was finally released in 07 or so, after like three years of gathering dust on the shelf. The resulting film didn’t win anyone over who waited all that time with baited breath, because you can see the cuts, chops and gaps in story where it’s been muddled around with, no doubt by the fuckwit studio. I still love it, flaws and all. Based on an Elmore Leonard tale (you can never go wrong with his work, it’s a sombre tale of psychopaths, assassins and one hapless estranged couple (Thomas Jane & Diane Lane) caught in between. When legendary native american hitman Arman ‘The Blackbird’ Degas (Mickey Rourke) botches a job for the Toronto mafia, he’s forced on the run, and hides out with aimless young lunatic
criminal Ritchie Nix (Joseph Gordon Levitt), who somewhat reminds him of a litte brother he lost years before. Rourke pulls off the native angle quite well, and shows vague glimpses of a humanity that was once there and has long since been buried in violence. When Jane and Lane accidentally witness him murder someone, he won’t let it go, pursuing them beyond rationality or reason, even to his own end. Levitt never gets to play the wild card, and he rocks his redneck sociopath brat role with scary aplomb. Rosario Dawson has an odd appearance as Ritchie’s girlfriend, an elvis fan who is seemingly a little bit challenged upstairs. Watch for a cameo from Hal Holbrook as a crusty old mobster too. You’ll just have to imagine the federal agent character played by Johnny Knoxville though, because he never made it into the film and can now only be seen in ages old trailers that were a false start. Despite it’s issues, I find it to be an atmospheric little pulp outing that does have the classic Leonard feel, a hard bitten, cold-hearted turn from Rourke that’s one of his best characters in recent years, and a mean, unforgiving narrative set in picturesque northern Canada. Give it a shot, it deserves way more love than its received so far.