I’ve always enjoyed John Frankenheimer’s Reindeer Games, despite its chilly critical reputation. It’s a sleazy, nihilistic piece of ultra violent, stylized Christmas noir populated by mean, nasty characters who navigate deliciously convoluted plot turns, double crosses and backwoods criminal enterprise. Ben Affleck plays a hapless ex con having the worst Christmas of his life when his attempts to pose as a murdered cellmate (James Frain) and meet up with the guy’s sexy pen pal (Charlize Theron is next level hot in this) don’t quite go as smoothly as envisioned. He unwittingly gets caught up in a botched casino robbery orchestrated by her volatile career criminal brother (Gary Sinise) and his crew of murderous miscreants. This sets in motion an impossibly elaborate parade of shifting loyalties, multiple seductions on Theron’s part, inventive ways to murder people, Santas with guns, shootouts, chases and car explosions. Much of it is admittedly ridiculous and overblown but it’s never not fun, plus the Grinchy, misanthropic attitude and maladjusted vibe is somehow so infectious. Sinise’s merry little gang are brought to life by recognizable character faces like Donal Logue, Clarence Williams III and Danny Trejo, all charismatic and evil to the bone like a bunch of warped Christmas elves. The late great Dennis Farina plays an obstinate casino owner who makes the heist difficult for everyone, and Isaac Hayes has a bizarre cameo as an inmate who thinks there’s monsters in the prison food and causes an almighty ruckus. Affleck is a mopey guttersnipe here, a ‘wrong place wrong time’ sap who learns to cultivate a badass edge and deal with the kind of psychos he’s up against. Sinise is reliably violent and dangerous, but Theron really steals the show as a crafty, manipulative femme fatale whose true nature is cleverly hidden under a smokescreen of faux intentions. This isn’t an especially classy thriller, doesn’t set any new standards or anything, but what it does do is provide a nut punch of lowbrow thrills, lurid melodrama and bloody action to meet your masochistic Yuletide needs. Great stuff.
John Carpenter’s Escape From New York is lean mean, brawny and one of the director’s best efforts, one of his leaps into non horror territory and a high concept, exploitation template that has become so iconic that he’s had to sue one production for literally copying and pasting. More iconic still is growling Snake Plissken, a nasty, uncooperative, maladjusted piece of work that has calcified into both a genre titan and one of Kurt Russell’s most instantly recognizable, badass characters. Plissken is basically a villain transplanted into the protagonist’s seat, where he gets to shake up the formula and push the boundaries of being an antihero nicely. By now everyone knows the story. The President (Donald Pleasence) ejects out of Air Force One and crash lands in futuristic NYC, now a giant penitentiary housing unwanted criminals from all over, cordoned off from the rest of the world. Snake is sent in by General Hauk (Lee Van Cleef is a sadistic snake in his own right) as a ‘fight fire with fire’ ditch effort, given twenty four hours to retrieve POTUS at an extraction point and implanted with a microchip that will blow him into hamburger helper if he doesn’t make his deadline. Cue explosions, car chases, wicked stunts and set pieces galore, done in Carpenter’s careful, tactile, authentic and slightly non-Hollywood manner. The guy just has a knack for taking formulaic premises and giving them a just-south-of-normal spin, his own flavour and one that makes cult classics that are built to last. Adrienne Barbeau, Isaac Hayes, Ernest Borgnine, freaky Frank Doubleday, Charles Cyphers, Tom Atkins and good old Harry Dean Stanton all provide standout support. My favourite aspect of the film is the original score, composed by Carpenter himself, of course. It’s a spooky, atmospheric riff that’s akin to the music in The Thing, and just has this synth-y way about it that transports you to the specific time and place of the film flawlessly, it’s a showcase example of an auditory mood board. No remake could ever touch this, it’s too idiosyncratic and special to be updated, and the sooner studios realize their never ending goose chase to capture lightning in a bottle twice is a fool’s errand, the sooner we’ll get back on track and make original contemporary films that will becomes genre classics in the future, just like this. I love Plissken’s final act of brutal rebellion, a reminder that this is not a nice guy we’re dealing with here, but one who plays by his own rules and shirks the standards, much like Carpenter himself. I imagine Plissken’s reaction to news of a remake would be similar, if not more hotheaded, than that final, lethal sleight of hand prank he pulls on a government that stabs him in the back. Solid gold.
“It’s high noon at the far end of the universe”, the dvd poster of Oblivion states. Years before the underrated Cowboys & Aliens came out, Oblivion came along, and it’s definitely gives the concept a better, and quirkier run for its money. Granted it’s essentially a B movie, and it’s meagre budget shows to the point where it looks like a grade school play. But therein lies it’s charm. It’s got a cast of supremely wacky old west stereotypes played by some surprising, familiar genre faces who you’d never thought to be seen rough housing together in the same flick. It also has some lovingly crafted, creaky stop motion animation that calls Harryhausen to mind and brings to life some super weird alien hybrid thingies that look almost Henson-esque as well. When a lone spaceship lands on the outskirts of an intergalactic desert town, it’s occupant brings trouble along with him. He’s a nasty, one eyed reptilian alien gunslinger named RedEye, played by the inimitable Andrew Divoff. He growling, bad tempered son of a bitch, and his first order of business is to ruthlessly slay the town’s sheriff, and claim it for himself. What he doesn’t count on is the Sheriff’s son (Richard Joseph Paul), a prospector who soon returns to Oblivion looking for answers, along with his Native friend Buteo (the late great Jimmie F. Skaggs). All kinds of townsfolk end up in the crossfire, including drunken Doc Valentine (a priceless George Takei), slinky brothel owner Miss Kitty (Julie Newmar), a cyborg police deputy (Meg Foster), a pawnbroker (Isaac Hayes) and the town’s elegant undertaker, played by Carol Struckyen who some may remember as the giant from Twin Peaks. RedEye has a smoking hot henchwoman and girlfriend named Lash, played by B movie scream queen Musetta Vander, who gets the vibe they’re going for here and sinks her teeth into the material with admirable abandon. The film sticks to its guns despite being obviously silly and somewhat falling apart in a climax that oddly is too darkly shot to make out properly. What it lacks in resources it makes up for in imagination, which it has in spades. Alien scorpions, cyborg deputies, leather clad babes are but a few of the genre mashing treats to be found here. Great stuff. Oh and check out the sequel as well, called Oblivion 2: Backlash, it’s a nice companion piece.