Jason Krawczyk’s He Never Died

Henry Rollins screams out energetically from the not so subtle DVD artwork of He Never Died making the film appear to be a loud, obnoxious “rocker does a horror flick” type deal. I mean, it is technically that but Rollins is a great actor independent of his musical career and this film is far quieter, more muted and meandering than that melodramatic, operatic poster seems. Henry is Jack, a tired, very stoic and reserved fellow who, as we gradually learn, is in fact some sort of immortal angel, demon or other biblical figure who has been obligated to walk the earth since the very dawn of time, forced to feed on humans to retain his life force. These days he hangs around nocturnal Toronto doing not much of anything except attending an all night diner where the waitress (Kate Greenhouse) flirts with him, protecting the daughter (Jordan Todosey) of a former (brief) flame from dark forces, employing a hospital intern (Booboo Stewart) who provides him with blood bags and generally just moping about trying to kill time until a life resolution he’s not sure will ever come. Most of the people in his life aren’t content with leaving him alone though, so we have a series of darkly comic, noir tinged misadventures when several mob factions target him for murky reasons, he plays a lot of bingo, beats up a lot of dudes, tries his best to protect the waitress and his friend’s kid if only by default or boredom and just sort of… exists at a dull roar. Rollins is such an interesting dude in terms of character and charisma, not to mention that imposing hewn granite frame and intense obsidian glare. He adopts a hilariously stoic persona here, absolutely unflappably impassive until he gets to the end of his rope and sparks fly, it’s a terrific performance and one of the rare showcase lead roles he’s been gifted. Like I said, this isn’t at all like the posters suggest, it’s a lot more like a laidback ‘hang out’ type film with just a vague flavour of horror and a zig-zaggy feel to it that’s a lot of fun, provided you’re in the mood for something mellow, loose and experimental that doesn’t have very high plot ambitions and is more content to cruise along in neutral with the occasional blast of nitrous when it’s characters feel like getting frisky. Good times.

-Nate Hill

David Lynch’s Lost Highway

High beams pierce a nocturnal interstate as David Bowie’s ‘I’m Deranged’ eerily cuts through a still night and we realize that David Lynch’s Lost Highway isn’t going to be your average road trip, let alone overall viewing experience. This is a fuzzy, feverish portrait of a fractured mind attempting to make sense of extremely distressing circumstances that are both alienating and possibly self inflicted. Lynch is always keen on probing the murky cerebral waters which border on potentially paranormal occurrences, and the often frustrating line, or lack thereof, which is drawn in, around and between these two aspects. Psychological terror, ambiguous scenes that leave you scratching your head once you’ve caught your breath, identity crisis, elliptical narratives that leave us haunted and wanting more are all tools in his bag, ones he’s employed countless times throughout his monolithic career. Usually he implements that in an esoteric, earthy way, but there’s something cold, clinical and unsettlingly voyeuristic about this that somewhat separates it from a lot of other stuff he’s done. The term ‘Lynchian’ in itself has become its own genre, there’s no debating that anymore. It’s usually within this self made realm that he explores, but it’s almost like with this one he went in with a mindset to play around with a sordid, almost De Palma-esque style of genre, and then inject it with his trademark eerie weirdness, in this case to great effect.

Bill Pullman stars as jazz trumpet player Fred, spending his nights belting out unnerving solos in smoky clubs. Pullman is an all American prototype, seen in a lot of generic, regular Joe roles. Observing him venture into sketchy material is jarring and super effective (see his career best work in David’s daughter Jen Lynch’s Surveillance for an even better example of this). He and his gorgeous wife Alice (Patricia Arquette) wake up one ominous morning to discover a packaged video tape on their doorstep, the contents of which show someone breaking into their house and filming them while they sleep. They feel both horrified and violated, and call the police who prove to be just south of useful. From there things get terrifically weird. Fred attends a party where he meets the Mystery Man (Robert Blake) who plays a mean spirited magic trick on him that will have your skin crawling out the door. This was one of Blake’s last two roles before the unfortunate incident that cut his career painfully short, but he’s perfect for Lynch’s stable and eats up the frames he inhabits, a pasty faced ghoul with beady black jewel eyes and a piercing laugh that will stain your dreams. Before he knows it, Fred wakes up and is accused for his own wife’s murder, whisked away to a dank death row cell, plummeting the film into a new segment, Lynch’s way of letting us know this isn’t going to be an easy watch.

Fred wakes up sometime later… And isn’t Fred anymore. He’s a young dude with amnesia who’s been missing for a while, played by the edgy Balthazar Getty. It’s a stark narrative left turn, a stinging reminder that from there on in, we’re in for some nasty antics with no light at the end of the tunnel. Getty is released from prison, since he’s not Pullman who they arrested to begin with. From there he gets entangled in one hot mess involving a volatile gangster porno king (Robert Loggia), his seductive wife (also Patricia Arquette) and the ever present Mystery Man who lurks over both planes of the film’s narrative like a malicious puppeteer. I’m trying to be deliberately vague about the plot (lord knows Lynch did as well), both to not spoil any surprises for you, and partly because after many viewings, I’m still not sure exactly what it means for myself. It’s a great big clusterfuck of extremely disturbing sequences, surreal passages of auditory and visual madness and a frothing undercurrent of atmosphere that constantly pulls on your sleeve to remind you that something is terribly wrong, but never gives you the solace of telling you what that something is. Traumatic viewing to say the least.

Lynch assembles an extraterrestrial supporting cast including Michael Massee, Jack Nance, Natasha Gregson Warner, Marilyn Manson, Henry Rollins, Mink Stole, Jack Kehler, Giovanni Ribisi, Richard Pryor and the one and only Gary Busey (when Gary is one of the calmest, sanest people in your film you know you’ve driven off the cliff). Some highlights for me are anything to do with Blake’s paralyzing spectre of a character who is one of the best Lynch creations ever, Loggia intimidating an obnoxious driver is priceless and the closest the film gets to comedy, and the final twenty minutes where the lines of reality, fantasy and the jagged planes of perception within the characters minds collide, providing us with a creepy non-resolution, part of what makes the entire show so memorable and affecting. A classic that begs countless revisits before it can fully cast all aspects of its spell on you, and one of Lynch’s unsung best.

-Nate Hill

William Gibson’s Johnny Mnemonic

Keanu Reeves can somehow make almost any story, no matter how ridiculous, seem sober and coherent, but Johnny Mnemonic kind of takes the cake. A weird, messy, hyperactive fusion of classical cyber punk elements and 90’s B movie sensibilities (Ice T cements that vibe early on) it’s not a good film but certainly an interesting one that makes a loony impression. Reeves is Johnny, a data courier in a world of trafficked information stored in people’s brains, wanted by all sorts of undesirables including the Yakuza, surrounded by a a throbbing underground rock soundtrack and more cacophonous screensaver special effects than The Lawnmower Man. Reeves looks slick as ever and treats the material with due diligence, but the best and most effective performance comes from Dolph Lundgren as an aggressive freak dubbed the Street Preacher, a platitude spouting baddie who is endlessly fun to watch and stands as one of the actor’s best and most idiosyncratic creations. Henry ‘scream my lines’ Rollins cements the rock vibe as a weirdo doctor who tinkers with Johnny’s brain some, Dina Meyer plays his sidekick and pseudo love interest, and watch for Udo Kier as a corrupt diva of a nightclub owner. This film is fun enough from some angles, but for a SciFi film revolving around intel stored in one’s brain, the whole thing is pretty fucking brainless. There’s cool exposition detailing how Johnny needs to wipe certain chunks of memory like his childhood to make room for more bytes of black market info, but it’s never really shown how this affects his character. The whole thing is a blast of arbitrary, technicolour sound and fury that doesn’t really sit still long enough to think much on what it’s about, which is fine I suppose if all you want is fireworks. I will give it props for some inventive production design and gorgeous costumes though, but too little too late. One scene in particular kind of sums it all up, with Johnny having a full on emotional meltdown temper tantrum in some back alley over the fact that he doesn’t get to spend nights in a five star hotel with top class hookers. One could almost see his exasperation mirroring Reeves at having to play part in something so silly as this. Chill out Keanu, only four more years to go until you headline one of the best, most influential science fiction films ever made.

-Nate Hill

Michael Bay’s Bad Boys II

Michael Bay is a great filmmaker and Bad Boys II is a masterpiece, one of the best action movies ever made. I know there are those out there who have nothing but contempt for Bay and his balls out, blitzkrieg blockbusters, and that’s okay. But there’s also those of us who recognize that the guy just has bushels of talent when it comes to staging breathtakingly explosive, propulsive large scale action sequences. I’ll concede that he has been perpetually slumming it in Transformers-ville for ten punishing years, but honestly I think that’s just to harvest dollars from the Asian box office overseas, because that’s where those big dumb flicks are most popular.

Bay’s core filmography is legendary, and while I’d be hard pressed to pick a favourite, I’d say Bad Boys II if you held a gun to my head, definitely because of aforementioned action sequences but also it’s just one of the funniest fucking things I’ve ever seen, thanks to the combustible camaraderie between Martin Lawrence, Will Smith and a host of scene stealing others. This film is insane in all the best possible ways, it starts at brutal excess and only escalates from there until taste, shame and any other employments of restraint have been pummelled by a beautifully un-PC masterwork of ultra-violence, cheerful profanity, unabashed nihilism and enough Miami gunplay to constitute a civil war.

While Bay’s first Bad Boys was a great time, it was kind of like pre-drinks at buddy’s place before really getting the night underway, and II is the penthouse party that blows the lid off of everything, gets the cops called and shuts down the entire block. Smith and Lawrence’s Mike Lowry and Marcus Burnett kick off the proceedings by noisily barrelling through a KKK rally in the Everglades which results in Marcus getting accidentally shot through the ass cheek by his own partner, going on to be a priceless running joke. Then it’s on to take down simultaneously terrifying and hilarious Cuban drug baron Johnny Tapia, played by Jordi Molla in a performance so manic and unhinged that to me he represents the Spanish Gary Oldman. This results in a deafening, barnstorming tirade of extended car chases, ferocious shootouts, almost horror movie level carnage, excessive drug consumption and so much bickering between our two leads that we begin to wonder what was improv and what was scripted, but I suspect it was mostly the former. Bruckheimer seriously just threw paint at the wall here and let Bay set fire to it, this has to be one of the most precious, time capsule worthy, fucked up blockbusters that has ever come down the Hollywood assembly line. Gabrielle Union has never been sexier and holds her own as Marcus’s DEA sister, Bay favourite Peter Stormare hams it up almost as much as he did in Armageddon as an unstable Russian gangster and the cast is insane with memorable work from Michael Shannon, Yul Vasquez, Teresa Randle, Oleg Taktarov, Jon Seda, Antoni Carone, Henry Rollins and more. A huge shout-out to Joe Pantoliano as their stressed out Captain, he reaches levels of exasperation that I didn’t think were possible, and the scene where Marcus shows up in his living room fucked up on ecstasy is one of the most indescribably great comedic moments of the millennium, played to the hilt by all three actors.

From drug infested Miami Beach nightclubs to all out warfare on the highway overpasses to attitude filled family pool parties at Marcus’s crib to a thrilling showdown outside Tapia’s Cuban mansion and everything in between, Bay pretty much set the bar for the R rated action comedy, and set it pretty fucking high. Critics like Ebert hate this one because it overflows with unpleasantness, excess and mean spirited humour, and hey who am I to argue. If your sense of humour is tuned in to this kind of stuff then you’ll dig it, if not then it won’t be your bag, it’s very much an early 00’s film and most of it sadly wouldn’t even come close to being green-lit in today’s big budget world. I love this crazy ass film to pieces, it’s showcase Bay, hallmark Bruckheimer, the comedic pinnacle of both Smith and Lawrence’s careers (“Big fuckin eyes, but a nice fuckin fish!!”) and a milestone in the action genre. Woosahh.

-Nate Hill