John Travolta is balls deep in the direct to video phase of his career and sadly can’t quite churn out as interesting, varied and increasingly bizarre entries like his buddy Nic Cage, most of his B stuff is pretty gnarly (Gotti Omggg). However, there’s a few that are somewhat charming and Trading Paint is one of them. Riffing on stuff like Days Of Thunder we see John play an ageing stock car racing guru whose glory days seem to be behind him. His son is into racing but instead of following in pops’s footsteps he’s taken up oaths with a far richer, more well connected racing promotor played by the great Michael Madsen, who is unfortunately a bit of a dickhead. This spurs dad into getting back into the game, and he’s supported by his lovely girlfriend (Shania Twain, of all people), and adorable best friend (Kevin Dunn, most excellent as ever) who he once saved from a fishing related alligator attack that took the poor guy’s leg but gave them their steadfast friendship (no I’m not making this up). This is laidback, low budget, all American schmaltz as only the DTV facet of the US film industry can provide, but you know what it really isn’t that bad when you consider the competition, especially where Travolta’s script choices are concerned. The racing scenes are modest, down to earth and tactile, the narrative and runtime blessedly short and swift. The film genuinely shines in a few specific areas: we get to see a truly captivating confrontation scene between Travolta and Madsen that is very well acted by both and probably the closest thing we’ll ever get to seeing that Vega Brothers Tarantino film we’ve been promised for so many years. Also, the relationship dynamic between Travolta’s self deprecating borderline old timer, Twain’s supportive and absolutely wonderful girlfriend and Dunn’s blustery, salt of the earth BFF is truly, legitimately sweet and endearing and provides the film with actual heart that so many of this type just seem so tone deaf with. It’s not a great film but it’s not a bad one either, worth it for the cast and the leisurely downtime these actors just get to chill and have fun with.
How bad could your first day on the job as a cop go? For Jamie Lee Curtis in Kathryn Bigelow’s Blue Steel, pretty damn bad. Before the title was a Ben Stiller fourth wall break it was a sexy, simmering, extremely violent psycho thriller from Bigelow, who was always way better back in the day when she focused on gritty genre films and not the politico-war stuff she’s known for today.
Curtis is a rookie cop who finds herself in a tense stand-off with a convenience store robber (Tom Sizemore, fired up in one of his first gigs). When the guy won’t back down she’s forced to shoot him, case closed. Right? Nah. First of all, her superiors take harsh disciplinary actions instead of giving her the medal she deserves, but there was also someone else there that night, a posh stockbroker (Ron Silver) who witnessed the whole thing, and something about the violence and potency in the air just kind of makes him lose his shit. He somehow got ahold of her gun, has been carving her name into the bullets and shooting people all over town, making it look like she’s out there playing vigilante. The captain (Kevin Dunn, always welcome) and the DA (Richard Jenkins, also always welcome) are furious and blame her for inciting this whole hellish series of events. But soon he’s insinuated his way into her life and she finds herself in a steamy affair with him, unbeknownst that he’s the lunatic that’s been circling her for days like a hungry wolf. There’s also another fellow cop, a hard nosed detective played by Clancy Brown, who she *also* starts up a torrid affair with and naturally that doesn’t end well. It’s nice to see Brown in a non-villain role for once and especially as the romantic lead, of sorts anyways. Elizabeth Pena shows up as well, as do Louise Fletcher and Philip Bosco as her troubled parents.
This is a gritty, bloody, scary piece of filmmaking and I can see why it turned many viewers off. There’s a kinky psychosexual vibe running through it like a perverse current of deviant energy and delirious, trashy abandon. Curtis is tough but vulnerable as well, no stranger to playing the lone girl stalked by an unrelenting, spectral madman. Silver is an actor who is no longer with us (remember him as the evil senator in TimeCop?) and it’s a shame because he was a real treasure. This has to be his best turn and he’s eerily on point in showing how a mind can deteriorate and turn sick after witnessing trauma. There’s an ‘unstoppable killer’ vibe to his action and pursuit scenes but he also gives the quieter moments a terrifying humanity as a guy who maybe doesn’t even know what he wants or isn’t in control anymore, it’s deeply disturbing work. Bigelow is just so good at staging practical action scenes and makes the chases, gunfights and jump scares supremely effective while maintaining a shadowy, blue tinged nocturnal palette that’s decidedly noirish and feels like an outright horror film in many instances. A real forgotten classic.
I love those films that revolve around a feverish, high profile celebrity boxing match, whether the stakes are placed on the fight itself or on the characters spectating. There’s a sense of intrigue and danger to that kind of sporting event that makes for great mood setting and story establishment. In Brian De Palma’s Snake Eyes, Nicolas Cage and Gary Sinise find themselves pulled into a shadowy assignation attempt on the life of the Secretary of Defense as a fight rages just past ringside in Atlantic City (Vegas Lite).
The character dynamic between the two actors here is superb; Cage is Santoro, a cheerfully corrupt detective who dresses like a pimp, ruthlessly schmoozes his way into profitable exchanges and has hopes of one day being the mayor simply due to the fact that he’s well connected. Sinise is Commander Dunne and couldn’t be cut from a more different cloth, he’s a buttoned down, modest, even toned military man who resents Santoro for being such a merciless showboat but has reconciled that with the fact that they grew up together. After the chaotic assignation, they’re tasked with interviewing any and all witnesses and let me tell you in an arena that crowded and fired up, this is no easy task. Stan Shaw (remember him from Fried Green Tomatoes?) is terrific as Lincoln Tyler, the hulking prizefighter who clearly knows something based on the dark, sheepish looks he casts around when being interrogated. Others involved include Carla Gugino as a mysterious operative, John Heard as a fast talking politician, Kevin Dunn, Michael Rispoli, Luis Guzman, Mike Starr, Peter McRobbie, Tamara Tunie and more.
I’ve heard claims that this film builds into a third act that’s bombastic and ridiculous, but hello people, this is a Brian De Palma film and the guy is in love with overblown sensationalism. That’s not to say he doesn’t have tact or skill in building slow suspense either. He has a way with long, uneasy tracking shots (I’ve always thought he’d be a great helmer for a Michael Myers Halloween film) as characters pursue each other through detailed, densely populated environments. There’s an extended sequence set in a hotel here where a baddie searches for a witness with cold resolve that’s among the best thriller set pieces I’ve seen anywhere. Of course it gets kind of WTF in the third act but I love that turn of events just as much, it adds a level of political paranoia that rises above simply a few people conspiring to take out a leader they don’t like, and the fun is in watching each hilarious new piece of the puzzle land with a boom n’ crash. I’ll tell you one thing, although I could have guessed early on who the mastermind behind all this hubbub is, I would have *never* in a million years guessed why or how it plays out or the reasons behind the whole thing, and you have to give De Palma and screenwriter David Koepp mad props for pulling that off. Plus the thing just has energy, adrenaline, personality and fucking awesome visual panache to spare. Great film.
Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers. Fuck yeah. What a blast. I often refer to Dante as ‘The Toymaker’, as each and every one of his films (save for one political satire that only I saw anyways) has fantastical animatronic effects, plenty of creatures and no shortage of whimsy. The guy lives to make genre bliss, and you can always count on monsters, whacked out sci-fi or Tim Burton esque horror elements in his work. Here, it’s a bunch of action figures implanted with AI chips that make them fast, sentient, highly trained and very dangerous. The main story arc is something we’ve seen a zillion times: nerdy kid (Gregory Smith) looks for a way to win over girl of his dreams (Kirsten Dunst) and climb out of the beta pit. His cranky father (Kevin “lemme see that chainsaw for a second” Dunn, priceless here) owns a toy store, when he’s not terrorizing his insufferable neighbour (the late Phil Hartman) with power tools. Simultaneously, two super geeks (Jay Mohr and David Cross) over at a giant toy conglomerate ‘accidentally’ put military grade computer chips into two separate toy prototype lines which are, naturally, sent on over to small town suburbia, specifically Dunn’s store. This is all while the company’s arrogant CEO (Denis Leary) is too busy strutting around in a huff to watch his guys more closely. It’s a familiar series of events, until the toys come to life and start wreaking havoc, which is where the innovation really kicks in. The main threat is a deranged, pint sized band of commandos led by Chip Hazard (I can picture Tommy Lee Jones in the recording studio barking out lines in his pyjamas), who literally just want to blow shit up and cause widespread chaos. The voice talent they’ve amassed here is staggering, with the talents of old school tough guys Jim Brown, Bruce Dern, Clint Walker, Ernest Borgnine and George Kennedy as Hazard’s gonzo unit. A much more sane band of mythical creatures also shows up, led by dog/elf thing Archer (Frank Langhella) as well as an eyeball on a stick (Jim Cummings) and a dopey Frankenstein hybrid (Michael McKean). They’re more peaceful, but immediately become the main target of Chip and Co., which causes enough of a skirmish to level city blocks. The real mad genius shows up when a group of pseudo Barbie dolls (the ‘Cindy Doll’) are reanimated by Chip’s team and start causing homicidal shenanigans, bald giggling lunatic chicks given the unsettling valley girl vocal talents of Christina Ricci and Sarah Michelle Gellar, both providing auditory nightmare fuel with their work. Roger Ebert thought this was too mean and violent to be a family film, and fair enough, but I really view it as a noisy, nihilistic black comedy that just happens to hide in the structure of a kids film. It’s no walk in the park, Chip’s boys see to it that it gets as shocking and messed up as one can without pushing that PG-13 rating, and that’s where the fun comes from. The special effects are really where it shines though, as they should in any film about a multitude of toys that come alive. The only thing missing is a cameo from The Indian In The Cupboard to lodge a Tomahawk in Tommy’s head and even the odds for Archer’s team. Perhaps in the sequel.
Nicolas Cage has been on a seemingly never-ending rampage of starring roles in some… odd flicks post mid 2000’s, and it can seem like kind of a quagmire to navigate through them without landing yourself a turd (one day I’ll do a comprehensive flow chart so everyone knows which ones to avoid). There are some pretty great films scattered throughout though, and Scott Walkers’s The Frozen Ground is one I’ve always enjoyed and wish it got a little more hype. Cage ditches the crazy and seems down to earth here in a stone cold, somber tale based on the hunt and capture of Alaska serial killer Robert Hansen, here played by John Cusack in his nastiest, most skin crawling role. Cage is Robert Halcombe, a real life state trooper who bonded with a teenage sex worker (Vanessa Hudgens) who once escaped Hansen’s clutches and tries to track the guy down, as well as prove that he’s the monster killing girls out there on the tundra. What ensues is a gritty, episodic police procedural that earns the 1970’s cop thriller vibe it’s going for, showcases stunning and eerie Alaskan photography and tells a powerful, suspenseful and at times repellant story. Cage is earnest and relatable,
Cusack is despicable without getting campy or going over the top, an everyday monster whose laid back facade make the darkness just below even scarier when we’re forced to be privy to his crimes, filmed with raw frankness. Most impressive though is Vanessa Hudgens, who I didn’t pay much attention to until this, but gives a visceral portrait of fear and determination, believable every step of the way. There’s a galaxy of supporting work from Dean Norris, Brad William Henke, Michael McGrady, Kevin Dunn, Jodi Lyn O’Keefe, Matt Gerald, Radha Mitchell and 50 Cent as a pimp with a mullet (lol). It works as a moody thriller, a docudrama and mutual character study of Cage and Hudgen’s roles, as well as being scary in the right places.
Stir Of Echoes is not outright horror, not plain old thriller but rests somewhere in between, a nerve frying festival of suspense and the type of scares which send those lovely shivers down your spine. Kevin Bacon plays Tom Witzky, an ordinary dude who agrees to be hypnotized, just for funsies, by his sister in law (Illeanna Douglas). As soon as he’s under, he’s subjected to a terrifying and confusion vision that suggests violent torment. It turns out that he’s one of the fabled ‘one percent’ of humans who are so succeptible to hypnotism that they unwittingly soak up other psychic energies in their vicinity. Something, or someone from the other side has found him and latched on, which is bad news for him and us, as we get to sit through several sequences that will cause you to need new pants. The initial vision is nothing outright or discernable; just images and abstract impressions that eventually serve as clues. That’s what makes it so creepy though. Someone being murdered is someone being murdered, but specific, harrowing little glimpses unnerve us all the more in their fleeting nature. Reminds me of that infamous videotape from The Ring in it’s style. Tom finds himself trying to solve a murder mystery, never sure whether the forces guiding him are on his side or pose a threat, always hit with a sense of dread upon turning every corner. This is the only kind of horror that actually scares me, in the true sense of the concept. Creeping, uneasy and subtle, where anything could be haunted and the scares aren’t predictable. What’s more, it’s a smartly written, tightly paced, remarkably well made film. One of the best paranormal thrillers out there, plain and simple. There’s a sequel with Rob Lowe (of all people lol), but I’ve avoided it thus far, it looks kind of cheap. Stick with this original fright fest, it holds up wonderfully.
Tony Scott’s Unstoppable was the maverick’s last directorial outing before his heartbreaking and untimely death. It’s ironic because the film’s title is a descriptive term I would have applied to the man’s career, life and approach to filmmaking. But it was not to be. This is some swan song of a film to go out on though, a pleasing juggernaut of an action drama that greases the tracks and goes full steam ahead. Any film about trains run amok will inevitably be compared to the 1984 masterpiece Runaway Train, and although this one is vastly different in both story and tone, they just seem to be sister films. The mournful, resolute nature of Jon Voight’s character in it just seems to echo the sadness surrounding this film, and the fact that it was Tony’s last. But that’s just my strange intuition talking. The film itself isn’t really melancholy or downbeat, in fact it focuses largely on human triumph in the face of gross error. There is in fact a runaway train on the loose here, but the stakes are upped when we find out that it’s packed to the brim with highly toxic and flammable chemicals, and hurtling unchecked towards a densely populated metropolitan area. Denzel Washington is the Everyman veteran railroad worker, in danger of having his job devoured by greedy corporate development and ready to have a meltdown. Chris Pine is the hothead rookie swaggering through his first month on throb, and together they have to deal with the disaster, and prevent any further outcome. Rosario Dawson is the frantic control station operator, trying to coach two other workers (Lew Temple & Ethan Suplee) and help as best she can. Kevin Dunn is the abrasive company CEO, unwilling to get his hands dirty and callously looking for the first readily available solution, even if it results in mild casualties that he doesn’t have to witness. It’s all been done before, no doubt, but not by Scott, and you can never write off a formula, trope or act n cliche as dead until the maverick has had a good crack at it. The scenes involving the train are breathless and edited with a glass shard explosiveness, never to shaky or chaotic, always in control and bursting from the frames like the speeding locomotive they encompass. Look out for Jeff Wincott as Pine’s older brother, as well as Kevin Corrigan, T.J. Miller and David Warshofsky as well. It’s not a bad little flick for a director to put the final seal on his career with, and stands as a wrecking ball of an action flick. I just wish we got to see more from the guy. RIP Tony.
Fire With Fire is one in a long string of recent direct to video flicks that Bruce Wilis seems oddly intent on appearing in. Some are cool (Catch 44), some are halfassed (The Prince) and some are just plain poo (Set Up). This one falls in the first category. It’s an overblown and unbelievable little thriller but it has a great cast on it’s side, and when you score Vincent Donofrio for your villain role, you’ll always at least have some merit. The story is pure B movie: a studly firefighter (Josh Dumahel) ends up seeing something he shouldn’t and gets on the wrong side of a vicious neo nazi psychopath (Donofrio) and his crew. Just his luck though, as his foxy girlfriend (Rosario Dawson) happens to be an FBI agent working on a task force headed up by a gruff senior operative (Bruce Willis). Willis has been trying to nail Donofrio and his gang for years, and he finally has a handy little firefighter witness to testify. Donofrio won’t stop though, making their lives hell as he shakes their shit up right left and center. He’s a hell of an actor, especially when playing the baddie (his turns in The Cell, Daredevil, The Salton Sea and Men In Black are legendary), and this loose cannon weirdo white supremacist nut job is one more to add to the canon. Duhamel does his classic laid back pretty boy thing, Dawson is tough and oh so attractive as always, and Willis dials up the grumpy metre for a nice little jaded turn that i actually really enjoyed. Vinnie Jones lends his mug to the role of second in command, 50 Cent shows up (wherever Willis and Deniro go in B movie land, he unnervingly seems to tag along), and watch for more work from Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson, Julian McMahon, Richard Schiff, Arie Verveen and Kevin Dunn. I like the chaotic formula employed here: a bunch of characters running around, large cast, flashy violent spectacle, flamboyant villain. It almost seems like a 70’s genre piece, and I’d love to have seen a hand drawn, retro style poster with a bunch of stuff sprawled together in a mural like those old school flicks used to do. It sure would beat the generic, vanilla design they went with and I feel like the film deserves more. Great stuff.