Adam Sandler’s career is composed of a few key elements: unfunny trash, comedy gold and a small handful of serious dramas. Anger Management falls into the second category and is an absolute blast but it’s mostly thanks to a batshit crazy, scene stealing virtuoso Jack Nicholson rather than anything Sandler does. It doesn’t hurt that the film is packed to the brim with hilarious cameos and supporting talent as well. Sandler is Dave Buznik, a meek businessman who gets walked all over by his toad of a boss (Kurt Fuller) and constantly reminded by his girlfriend (Marisa Tomei, about a hundred acres out of his league) to stand up for himself. After finally losing his cool (sort of) on a plane he gets slapped with a court order to do twenty hours of anger management treatment under the deranged supervision of unconventional therapist Dr. Buddy Rydell (Nicholson). Rydell is a thoroughly weird dude who insinuates himself into Dave’s life, hits on his girl, frequently loses his cool and displays a near constant stream of bizarre, inexplicable behaviour. There’s a reason for all that, revealed in the film’s monumentally implausible twist that falls apart under any scrutinizing back down the chain of events in this narrative, but this isn’t the type of film to nitpick like that. Nicholson is a goddamn treat here and gets so many wacky moments I wish the film was more centred on him, he’s hilarious to watch whether having a volcanic tantrum and launching his plate of breakfast against a wall, forcing Sandler to sing ‘I Feel Pretty’ from West Side Story or obliterating some poor dude’s car with a baseball bat just because he boxed him into a parking spot. The ironic thing about Sandler is that he’s touted as a comedian but he’s just not funny, and the appeal from any film he stars in always comes from the other actors in it who steal it from him without fail. There’s quite a few here including Heather Graham, Allen Covert, a hotheaded John Turturro, Luis Guzman, Krista Allen and January Jones as a pair of rambunctious lesbian porn stars, Kevin Nealon, Rudy Giuliani, Derek Jeter, John C. Reilly, Harry Dean Stanton and Woody Harrelson in a hysterical encore cameo as a transvestite named Galaxia. The film works with its manic energy, hectic ensemble cast and Nicholson’s dysfunctional tirade of a performance, and is one of the funniest comedies I’ve seen recently.
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.
I feel like the one thing to take away from Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic is that the war on drugs isn’t working in any sense. That’s the short answer, but at nearly three hours runtime, Soderbergh isn’t interested in any kind of short answers, let alone clean cut, definitive or resolute ones that help anyone sleep at night. It’s a sprawling, complex international labyrinth of a film that scans every faction from the loftiest echelons of American politics to the poorest slums of Mexico, not necessarily looking for answers but digging up new questions and conundrums. In Washington, the president elects a straightforward family man (Michael Douglas) as the new drug czar and face of the crusade, except that his daughter (Erika Christensen) is knee-deep in hard drug addiction and heading down a dark path. Across the border, a Mexican cop (Benicio Del Toro, fantastic) tries to prevent corruption from eating away at his country and the soul of his partner. Back stateside, two undercover narcs (Luis Guzman and Don Cheadle) prep a captured mid level smuggler (Miguel Ferrer stealing scenes like nobody’s business) to testify against the higher ups. The wife (Catherine Zeta Jones) of an imprisoned kingpin (Steven Bauer, sadly only glimpsed briefly) deals with her husband’s enemies while his slick dick lawyer (Dennis Quaid) eyes her up for the taking. A scary Mexican military General (Tomas Milian) fights drug running for his own mystery goal, and many other stories play out both in the US and Mexico. Soderbergh gets together a treasure chest of cameos and supporting talent that includes the likes of Clifton Collins Jr., Emilio Riveria, Topher Grace, Peter Riegart, James Brolin, Albert Finney, Marisol Padilla Sanchez, Viola Davis, John Slattery, Yul Vasquez, Jack Conley, Benjamin Bratt, Salma Hayek and more. This isn’t a tunnel vision action flick or even your garden variety ensemble crime piece, there’s a distracted, fractured feel to the narrative that no doubt mirrors the very difficult nature of how this all works. Opinions and alliances shift, people die, others prosper and it all kind of seems for nought, except that almighty dollar. Del Toro and Douglas fare best in terms of bearing witness to it all; both are changed men by the time their final scenes roll around and the arcs come full circle. They anchor the vast network of people from respective sides of the border, showing the multilayered damage that such a problem, and the ‘war’ against it unleashes. Endlessly fascinating film.
DJ Caruso’s The Salton Sea is a brilliant piece of filmmaking, a fascinating hybrid between go-for-broke, tweaked out drug cinema, bloody, violent crime revenge thriller and moody, jazz soaked neo-noir, with a central performance from a committed Val Kilmer that goes waist deep in all three. I would say that it was ahead of its time and for that reason didn’t quite fully find its audience, but upon years of reflection I think it’s just such a specific piece that one has to be tuned in just right, and invest enough attention to appreciate it, the first time anyways. Kilmer is washed out meth head snitch Danny Parker, playing both sides of the narcotics game in hazy LA. Or is he trumpet player Tom Van Allen, haunted by past tragedy? The first half of the film sees him awash in an endless cycle of drug fuelled debauchery, stuck in a tireless set of hijinks with his tweaked out ‘friends’ (Adam Goldberg, Peter Saarsgard and more), and habitually snitching out dealers to two very corrupt cops (Doug Hutchison and Anthony Lapaglia, both royally sleazy). The second half shows us why, what dark passage of events led him to the lifestyle and the cursed trajectory he finds himself on in the final act. Kilmer is a restless fallen angel in the role, a man with secrets that the film respects by taking its time unfolding and not revealing too much too soon (avoid any trailers). His Danny even begs the audience to stick around, promising us there’s more to his story than rampant substance abuse. The cast is thick with talent, including Danny Trejo, R. Lee Ermey, Chandra West, B.D. Wong, Shirley Knight, Luis Guzman, Meat Loaf, Deborah Kara Unger and a crazed, memorable Glenn Plummer. The scene stealer award has to go to thespian Vincent D’Onofrio though as one of the antagonists, a terrifying drug baron called Pooh Bear because he railed so much blow they had to cut off his nose and replace it with a disturbing prosthetic. His favourite pastimes include reenacting the Kennedy assassination with pigeons and an air rifle, smoking crack to yodel music CD’s and setting a rabid badger called ‘Captain Striving’ loose on the genitals of disloyal employees. The film finds a demented dark humour in him and many other characters, but the other side of that coin is the emotional turbulence and tragic resonance to Kilmer’s arc, two conflicting energies that seem to somehow coexist beautifully. The score by Thomas Newton is noirish and sad, with strains that sound almost like heavenly choirs too, giving the city of angels a half lit, otherworldly quality. The title is important; the Salton Sea represents three key elements to the film. The incident that spurs Kilmer down the rabbit hole takes place right near the picturesque titular place, but it also represents both the sea of excess and scum that Danny basks in, and the ocean of anguish, regret and sadness that engulfs Tom. A brilliant piece.
1996‘s The Substitute thought of arming schoolteachers with guns a few decades before the thought crossed Trump’s mind, thank you very much, and in movie-land at least it was somewhat successful. Of course, Tom Berenger is the teacher in question here, and he also happens to be a highly trained mercenary who’s just trying to protect his teacher girlfriend (Heat’s Diane Venora) from a raging band of psychotic cholo gangbangers led by Marc Anthony, of all people. It’s a silly premise given all the cheesy bells and whistles the 90’s had to offer, and could almost be considered a cult classic these days. Berenger’s Shale leads a colourful team of badasses including Raymond ‘Tuco’ Cruz (wearing a manbun before it was cool), Richard Brooks, Luis Guzman and volatile William Forsythe, back from a botched mission in Cuba and ready for the next one in urban high school territory. A few forged papers later, he’s a legitimized teacher who steps in for Venora and discreetly investigates who’s responsible for viciously attacking her and running drugs through the school. Not so discreet is the multitude of high powered shootouts that he finds himself in, eventually backed up by his men. I know this is an action film but so frequent are the bullet ridden dust ups that they kind of drown out some of the attempted social satire in deafening commotion. I enjoyed Ernie Hudson’s high school principal who moonlights as a nasty arch villain running the drug syndicate (of course it’s the principal) and Glenn Plummer’s heroic but short lived teacher who’s on Shale’s side of the moral compass. Marc Anthony has always been an incredible actor (see Man On Fire and Bringing Out The Dead) whose talents behind the camera exceed those in the recording studio, and he makes a wicked little street-shit scumbag here. A little less gunplay and a bit more pithy dialogue and tongue in cheek locking horns would have suited this one. Otherwise, it’s a neat little picture. I can’t speak for the sequels that find Treat Williams stepping in for Berenger, but who knows. Oh wow, I just googled it and there’s *three* more sequels with Williams. Not since Michael Gross in Tremors has an actor hijacked a franchise out of the original star’s hands.
No one does the breezy, goodnatured crime drama like Steven Soderbergh, and after rewatching his 1998 romantic caper Out Of Sight, I’ve realized it’s my favourite of his films by a mile. The easygoing love story between George Clooney’s hapless career criminal Jack Foley and Jennifer Lopez’s feisty federal Marshall Karen Sisco is a pairing for the ages, and the two not only smoulder up the screen with their obvious presence, but have effortless chemistry in spades and know how to sell the romance until you feel that tug on the ol’ heartstrings when the stakes are raised. It doesn’t hurt that cinematographer Elliott Davis beautifully frames each encounter with them, the best being a gorgeous airport dinner where the two croon out Elmore Leonard’s savoury, measured dialogue against a snow laden Tarmac outside, the perfect romantic ambience. Foley is a trouble magnet, embroiled in scheme after scheme with his older, wiser partner Buddy (Ving Rhames). After their dipshit pal Glen (a stoned Steve Zahn) gets them mixed up in a plot to rob a pompous Wall Street millionaire (Albert Brooks) via some truly nasty jailbird thugs from their collective past (Don Cheadle provides the film’s only true dose of menace amongst the charm), all hell breaks loose and against odds, Jack and Karen find themselves falling in love. Elmore Leonard’s scripts always seem to find their way to great directors (Barry Sonnenfield made magic with Get Shorty), richly varied casts (Jackie Brown is an ensemble for the time capsule) and end up as films that are simply timeless. Dennis Farina mellows out as Karen’s concerned ex-cop father, Luis Guzman does his grimy cholo rat shtick, and watch for Catherine Keener, Nancy Allen, Isiaah Washington, Paul Calderon, Viola Davis, an uncredited Michael Keaton playing none other than his Jackie Brown character (an Elmore Leonard cinematic universe!) and a surprise cameo right at the end that I won’t spoil except to say it sets up any potential sequels nicely. The whole deal rests on Lopez and Clooney’s shoulders though, and they’re nothing short of mesmerizing. It’s a rag tale romance, classy but down to earth, two beautiful souls from very opposite sides of the tracks who generate sparks and circle each other like cosmic magnets. Stuck together in the trunk of a speeding car, they discuss life, love and films, reminding us that no romance is alike to another and the best way to start off something like that is perhaps on the wrong foot and in the least imagined circumstances possible. Like any love story it knows that a pinch of sadness is necessary to balance the bittersweet recipe and tweak our emotions just right. A career best for George, Jennifer and Steven and a film worthy of classic status.
Philip Noyce’s The Bone Collector augments it’s atmosphere in the obvious hopes of evoking memories of David Fincher’s Sev7n (It’s even got an actor who also appeared in that film) which for the most part it nicely does. Story wise, however, it’s got entirely it’s own thing going on and follows the ever popular path of the serial killer whodunit. In this almost audience interactive sub-genre, we are routinely presented with a host of different characters, some following archetype and others not so much. The identity of the killer could literally be anyone we see onscreen at any time, even down to a tiny character who maybe shows up in one small scene. Then it’s up to the viewer to race the protagonist towards a correct conclusion, a game which I’ve never been all that good at lol. This time it’s Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie who step up to the batters’s plate, hunting a very nasty individual who kidnaps people in locked taxi cabs and leaves them to die in various sadistic ways. Washington plays renowned criminal profiler and ex cop Lincoln Rhyme, left paralyzed from the neck down and bereft of any will to live following an accident. When his old cop buddy (Ed O Neil) shows up and pleads him to take a gander at the case files of the new killer, he reluctantly dusts off the old instincts and goes on the hunt. Problem is, he’s a turnip from the neck down and needs an avatar with whom he has a rapport with and can carry out the leg work, so to speak. He takes a shine to young patrol woman Amelia Donaghy (Jolie) who is showing early signs of the same forensic brilliance after she responds to the scene of one of the murders. She becomes an extension of him, and together they work to smoke out the killer and put a stop to his crimes, also bringing some kind of peace to Rhyme’s restless mind in the same stroke. They are hassled by the world’s most belligerent and obnoxious Police Captain (Michael Rooker in full on asshole mode) and helped by Rhyme’s kindly nurse assistant (a very good Queen Latifah). There’s also work from Bobby Cannavle, Leland Orser, Luis Guzman, Mike Mcglone and David Warshofsky too. Noyce is a solid and very slick director (he did wonderful work in the Jack Ryan franchise, as well as the very underrated The Saint), gamely shunting his aesthetic into the serial killer vs. Detective corner. It’s a decidedly grisly affair, despite the glossy sheen and big names, and almost veers into outright horror in places, but is always kept in line by the excellent chemistry and friendship between Jolie and Washington, who are both great on their own and as a team. Good stuff.