David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (such beautifully deliberate typos) blends the director’s trademark kinky, drippy body horror with a tactile, analog virtual reality aesthetic that is one of his most fun, freaky and mind warping SciFi horror outings I’ve seen. Jennifer Jason Leigh is an edgy, uncompromising, fearless actress who has made it her personal mission to work with some of the wildest, weirdest filmmakers out there including Tarantino, Paul Verhoeven, The Coens, The Safdies, Charlie Kaufman, Brad Anderson and of course David Lynch. Her collaboration with Cronenberg provides us with fascinating protagonist Allegra Keller, a futuristic video game designer who Leigh imbues with a wistful, detached-from-reality aura, a girl who got lost in the virtual world and is only half present in any given scene. Allegra is the target of corporate assassins out to plunder her tech, so she’s on the run with a low level marketing schmuck (Jude Law) from her firm, hiding out in a backwoods motel. Her only choice is to play her own game with this underling in order to find out if it’s damaged or not, and here the film veers into unsteady narrative territory as reality bends and all sense of linear cohesion is thrown to the wind for some truly trippy mind-games. They encounter other players personified by a rogues gallery of Cronenberg regulars like Sarah Polley, Ian Holm, Callum Keith Rennie, Don Mckellar, Christopher Eccleston and Willem Dafoe as a nasty, treacherous gas station attendant whose name is literally… Gas. The film is a sort of paranoid, uneasy game of virtual Russian roulette to see who’s who, who’s not who they say they are, what’s real, what’s not and who is going to end up dead or insane from playing this very dangerous game for too long, and goddamn is it ever fun until it’s last, ruthless, kick in the nuts final beat before the credits. Leigh is wonderful and adds a deliriously sexual connotation to the already very sexual, body penetrating nature of the tech used for gameplay, she puts her sly, playful yet shady smile to great effect and it’s one of the best actor/director collabs with Conenberg I’ve seen since Jeff Goldblum for The Fly. The special effects are excellent too, all kinds of gorgeously grotesque organ mimicking tubes, fleshy portals and genitalia reminiscent weaponry that will have all the parents in the audience getting uncomfortable. It’s a great picture, the mix of virtual paranoia, worlds within games within worlds and freaky, glistening practical viscera is a delicious flavour and one of my favourite cinematic recipes yet from our Canadian master of the macabre. Great film.
Ian Holm was one of those impossibly talented, incredibly adaptable, classically Shakespearean trained thespians who stood out and rocked any role given to him with wit, grace, nobility and utmost class. He had a comprehensive command over dialogue and never *ever* just repeated what the script said flatly or histrionically but always gave it flair, flourish, deep meaning and always gave the viewer the impression that what he’s saying is organic, urgent and full of life. He has passed away now at age 88 but he had a legendary run in Hollywood across many genres, working with countless prolific directors on very very special films where he was always a ray of light and talent each time. Here are my personal top ten of his performances!
10. NapoleonBonaparte in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits
Ian played Napoleon multiple times in his career but the loopy, verbosely Gallic take on the legendary conquerer here has to be my top pick. He’s off the wall, a little crazy and power drunk from just winning a war, and spends most of his appearance bellowing loudly, swilling wine and abruptly falling asleep, it’s a tongue in cheek sendup of history that he has a lot of fun with.
9. Mr. Kurtzman in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil
It’s a small role as the main character’s boss but he nails the manic satire of bureaucratic institutions perfectly. Kurtzman is the kind of under qualified, good natured nitwit who has not a clue what his role or responsibilities are really about and skips his way through the workday with cheerful indifference.
8. Terry Rapson in Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow
The obligatory ‘disaster movie scientist who no one listens to but of course is correct in his calculations,’ Ian makes Terry a convincing meteorological guru who gravely (but not without humour) heralds the incoming weather cataclysm with gravity and believable sincerity.
7. Skinner in Disney/Pixar’s Ratatouille
I can picture Ian jumping, hopping and running amok in the voiceover recording booth for this insanely exuberant villain role as the nasty, pretentious hack head chef of a prestigious Paris restaurant who makes trouble for everybody. His French accent is a beauteous, stylistically bonkers creation and the sheer verve and piss-ant tenacity he puts forth into the performance is commendable.
6. Pod Clock in BBC’s The Borrowers
This lovely television adaptation of Mary Norton’s beloved book series will always have a special place in my heart. Holm gives wonderful work playing the patriarch of the pint sized Clock family, tiny humans who live secretly amongst us and scavenge our everyday objects to survive. One particular moment stands out as he gives a heartfelt monologue to his daughter Arietty (Rebecca Callard) about a pet beetle he once had when he was young to console her during a sad time.
5. Liam Casey in Sydney Lumet’s Night Falls On Manhattan
Ian isn’t the obvious choice to play an NYC police detective but Lumet’s supremely underrated crime saga sees him spectacularly portray a very conflicted officer and father who finds himself deep in a morally complex web of corruption. You get the sense that this really is a man who set out with the best intentions, for himself, his son (Andy Garcia) and his longtime partner (James Gandolfini) and you can really feel the hurt, deep regret and profound conflict resonating from his performance. Plus he rocks the Brooklyn accent like nobody’s business.
4. Sir William Gull in The Hughes Brothers’ From Hell
I can’t really nail this blurb without wading into spoilers so be warned past this point! Ian brings a deliciously delicate, elegantly malevolent energy to Gull, an aristocratic medical practitioner who, yes, is in fact infamous serial killer Jack The Ripper himself as well. When the final act rolls in his eyes literally go all black like a shark’s and he proclaims with deadly soft spoken maliciousness: “One day men will look back and say that I gave birth to the Twentieth Century.” It’s enough to get us shaking in our boots and a terrifyingly intense villainous turn.
3. Ash in Ridley Scott’s Alien
The ultimate android with an ulterior motive, Ash is a quiet, observant and ruthlessly pragmatic creature by design. He holds the company’s interests above all and when his treachery leads to his end he ironically wishes his crew mates good luck before checking out. It’s perhaps his most iconic role and certainly one of his best.
2. Vito Cornelius in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element
He brings a wonderful, theatrical physicality and exuberance to the role here, a priest of an ancient order tasked with literally helping to save the world. There’s a realistic familial dynamic between him, his twitchy assistant (Charlie Creed Miles), Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich that makes for one of the most engaging, winning troupe of protagonists in film.
1. Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit
This is the treasured, cherished favourite for me. He brings such warmth, haunting complexity and kindhearted humour to Bilbo that I couldn’t imagine any other actor in the role, and even Martin Freeman, although terrific, didn’t hold a candle to the essence Ian brought to this classic Tolkien character. I can quote every line verbatim, picture every mannerism in my head and often find myself walking or biking somewhere and I’ll softly sing “The Road Goes Ever On” in my head and imagine Ian’s Bilbo joining in with me. The road does go ever on and Ian has taken it over the hill and past the horizon into his next great adventure. Thank you for Bilbo and Godspeed on your journey Sir.
As a huge Terry Gilliam fan I’m embarrassed to say that I only saw his most celebrated film, Brazil, for the first time a few nights ago. I guess with some filmmakers we just unconsciously save the best for last in their canon? Anyways, thoughts: There are two visual aesthetics here that struck me, existing in a cacophonous plane of many sights, sounds, colours and spectacle. On the one hand you have the angular, grey, needlessly cluttered and perpetually chaotic business style world of the future, packed with asinine bureaucratic incident, excessive consumerism and, uh, a whole fucking shit load of ducts, snaking hither and thither to seemingly represent the kind of mental fog and psychological stress that living in a city choking on its own infrastructure might afflict one with. That is is the world for Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a put-upon peon of big business stuck in en endless, mad-dash hamster wheel of empty procedural diarrhea.
But there is another world for Sam, and another aesthetic for the film too. It shows up in periodic dream sequences and couldn’t be more different than his waking existence. Here he is free amongst an endless sea of clouds that promise freedom, gifted with Da Vinci esque winged contraptions and left to soar around the blessed blue. Here a beautiful goddess (Kim Griest) beams out at him from a veil of heavenly gauze like the Venus De Milo or any number of girls from a Renaissance painting. Unfortunately this dream world is just that: a phantasmic apparition not of his waking life, until he begins to see the girl from that realm in the real world, driving a hilariously oversized big rig truck no less.
It’s at that point that Sam’s world begins to get dangerous for him, the blurring of lines between fantasy and reality as well as this good natured desire to rectify the world’s most cataclysmic clerical error (that damn fly), seeing him go from mild mannered cog in the machine proverbial fly in the ointment, the stick which unknowingly lodges itself in the gears of the system and causes a hysterical meltdown. Along the way he meets many others including an opportunist colleague (Gilliam regular Michael Palin), his plastic surgery addicted mommy (Katherine Helmond), a shady corporate maintenance man (Bob Hoskins, looking more like Super Mario here than he did in the *actual* Super Mario film), his hyper anxious supervisor (Ian Holm) and a renegade duct repairman played by Robert DeNiro in a sly turn of antiestablishment derring do. So, overall? Folks are right for dubbing this Gilliam’s masterpiece, and while my heart will always call his 12 Monkeys my personal favourite, I just can’t argue that this isn’t his best film overall. It’s a sprawling canvas of ideas, nightmarish imagery, hope for escape that keeps getting quashed and reignited with each narrative beat, rib jabbing dark humour that calls Python to mind, jaw dropping production design and the kind of story that draws you right into this topsy-turvy realm. Sam exists in two worlds, as does the film, and the haunting fun is in seeing them crash, collide and each vie for presidency over one soul. Absolutely brilliant film.
The Hughes Brothers’ From Hell is one one of the most opulently stylish horror films out there, and despite being a bit melodramatic in areas, it boasts a grim, severely menacing atmosphere which is mandatory considering it focuses on the Jack The Ripper murders in Victorian era London. Based on a drab graphic novel by the great Alan Moore, The Hughes have amped up both suspense and passion and could be accused of Hollywood-izing Moore’s work too much, but the guy just doesn’t write very adaptable material and some liberties have to be taken to make watchable films. This one works better on its own terms, a dark, blood soaked detective story starring Johnny Depp as Frederick Abberline, a brilliant opium addicted Scotland Yard inspector out to nab the Ripper, with the help of his trusty boss Sgt. Godley, played by a scene stealing Robbie ‘Hagrid’ Coltrane. As we all know, the Ripper murders were never really solved, so naturally here a fictitious conspiracy is whipped up, full of intrigue and corruption, but as many cluttered subplots there are flying about, the film’s strength lies in the eerie murders carried out in nocturnal London, and Depp’s very strong performance as the drugged out cop who won’t quit. Supporting work comes from lovely Heather Graham as prostitute and love interest Mary Kelly, Ian Holm as London’s top medical consultant as well as Jason Flemyng, Ian Richardson, Katrin Cartlidge, Ian McNeice, Sophia Myles, Dominic Cooper and scene stealer David Schofield as an evil East End pimp. Some of the fat could have been trimmed here to make this a shorter, more streamlined experience, but the visual element is so damn good that at the same time one can’t get enough of the lavish production design. This one succeeds in creating a lived in London with dimension and scope, as well as staging a very effective sense of dread and danger lurking around every corner of every cobblestone alleyway, the atmosphere is just unreal, as well as the supremely graphic gore that lets us plainly know that the Ripper wasn’t just messing about, he was an actual monster. Great stuff.
Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow is one of those textbook disaster flicks where every recognizable element is in full swing: determined scientist, sure of his curveball theories that no one else buys, saddled with a dysfunctional family and a clock that’s quickly ticking down towards some looming cataclysm, in this case severely bat tempered weather. It’s cliche after cliche, but this is one of the ones that works, and I have a theory why. These days it seems like the formula for the disaster film is pretty dead, or at least doesn’t carry the same magic it did throughout the 90’s and early 00’s.
Stuff like San Andreas, 2012, Geostorm (shudder) just feel dead on arrival, and instead we go back and revisit things like Armageddon, Independence Day, and for me, ones like this. There’s a quality, a feel for time and place that got lost somewhere along the way as time passed in Hollywood, and this is one of the last few that serve as a milestone as to where that happened. The first half or so is cracking stuff, followed by a slightly underwhelming final act. Dennis Quaid is the scientist who gets all in a huff about an extreme weather front that’s apparently barrelling towards the east coast, threatening to give the whole region one wet day in the park. There’s an exaggerated halfwit Vice President (Kenneth Welsh) who scoffs at him, an excitable veteran professor (Bilbo Baggins) who eagerly supports him, and an estranged family right in the storm’s crosshairs who he must rescue. The special effects are neat when the maelstrom slams into New York like a battering ram, pushing over buildings with walls of water and chucking hurricanes all about the place. Quaid’s wife (Sela Ward) and wayward son (Jake Gyllenhaal) are of course stuck in this mess, as he races to find out what’s causing it, and how to escape. The initial scenes where it arrives are big screen magic, especially when Gyllenhaal’s girlfriend (Emmy Rossum) is chased down main street by a raging typhoon and barely scapes into a building, a breathless showcase moment for the film. The second half where the storm levels off isn’t as engaging, despite attempts to throw in extra excitement, such as wolves, which I still can’t quite figure out the origin of, despite watching the film a few times now. Holed up inside a library, it’s a long waiting game in the cold dark where the writing and character development is spread a bit thin for the time they have to kill, but what can you expect here. Should have thrown in a T Tex or some ice dragons to distract us from sparse scripting. Still, the film gets that initial buildup deliciously right, the nervous windup to all out chaos, the editing between different characters and where they are when the monsoon shows up, and enough panicky surviving to make us thankful for that cozy couch and home theatre system all the more. One of the last of the finest, in terms the genre.
Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element is what you get when you give a massive budget to a director who has an otherworldly flair for imagination and a creative pulse that doesn’t subside for one single second. It’s one of the best sci fi films ever made, a pure intergalactic rush of absurdist qualities anchored by a solid blueprint that’s both akin to and far removed from countless space movies out there. The surprise, and what works so well, comes from Besson and his team crafting a warped and almost Dr. Seussical world that dabbles in cartoonish territory, boggles the eyes endlessly and continually assures you that anything goes in terms of style and tone. It’s an all timer for me, a blast of zany ideas, lovable characters (even the villains are teddy bears to me), a celebration of off the cuff production design and a goddamn certified barrel of fun. Most who read this will know the plot inside out and up and down, but we all know how much I love babbling on about actors and events, so bear with moi. There’s an adorable prologue (“Aziz, light!!!!”) In which an alien race called the Mondosheewans arrive on earth to remove a sacred and very powerful item from an Egyptian pyramid. They resemble shambling steam punk Volkswagen beetles, and are a force of good. This takes place in the 1800’s, and before you can say Luke Perry, we’ve flashed forward to a dazzling futuristic New York City where the events that came before come full circle. Self depracating cabbie Corben Dallas (Bruce Willis) has a day of unending bad luck, until a gorgeous humanoid being named Leeloo (Milla Jovovich was my first cinematic crush in this role ♡) literally falls into his lap, or rather, crashes through the roof of his cab and incites a high speed chase in hover cars, a fantastic sequence, I might add. It turns out this slender, orange deadlocked babe is the human manifestation of the coveted artifact that the Mondosheewans took into their possession. Willis and Jovovich have an immediate exasperated chemistry that practically leaps off the screen as giddily as your heart does whenever they’re seen together. They’re one of the cutest couples in history, and soon embark on a wild adventure to prevent mass destruction at the hands of a giant ball of pure evil that threatens earth (and no I didn’t make that up). Also threatening them is Jean Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (wish that was my name), played by Gary Oldman in a preening, gaudy display of theatrical evil that must be seen to be believed. Zorg is an arrogent megalomaniac who basically runs the city, out to find the ancient stones that are the key to stopping that malevolent force that hangs out just outside of earth’s atmosphere. This is the only film that can claim it has a scene where pure evil itself calls up Gary Oldman on the phone for a chat, which has to be some kind of achievment. There’s a gaggle of incredible actors running around as well, including Bilbo Ba-, I mean Ian Holm as Father Cornelius, a priest of an ancient order sworn to protect Leeloo, the president of the united states (Tiny Lister, once again I’m not making this up), a hapless general (John Neville), a tweaked out petty thief (Mathieu Kassovitz in a scene of pure WTF), Brion James, Lee Evans, and Chris Tucker. Oh good lord Chris Tucker. I don’t know how the guy has the energy, but he keeps it in mania mode as Ruby Rod, a flagrantly horny loudmouth prima donna radio DJ that tags along with Corben for a few gunfights and explosions and shrieks like a banshee all the while. Willis has never been as amiable as he is here, it’s as if John McClane wandered into an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and decided to have some fun. Truly a great protagonist. You will fall deeply in love with Milla as Leeloo. Her lithe physicality, unearthly dialect that she actually learned in full for the film, striking naivete and burgeoning compassion all make her one of the most unique and mesmerizing heroines to ever exist in a film. Oldman mugs, chews scenery like a bulldog, prances about like he’s in a grade school play, and is a sheer diabolical delight. The scene where he demonstrates the ‘swiss army gun’ for his dimwitted extraterrestrial cohorts is time capsule worthy, as is the entire film. Besson directs and stages his world with a reckless abandon that plays like a watercolor painting of pure expression. If there’s an idea someone had, it ended up in this film no matter how outlandish and random it is. That’s the kind of carefree artistic qualities that all movies should have; a willingness to be silly, to be crazy, to step outside the box and then trample on it whilst hurling confetti all about the place. This film is a shining example of that, and stands out as not only one of my favourite films of all time, but one of the best ever made. Big BADABOOM.