Harold Ramis’s The Ice Harvest is one of my favourite Christmas films and completely overlooked for the dry, sardonic black comedy gold that it is. It’s one of those dour, gloomy Christmas films where not only do things not go the protagonist’s way, but pretty much spiral out of control for everyone else too and the festive setting serves as an ironic lacing to the wry, nihilistic and comically violent story. John Cusack is laconic boozehound mob lawyer Charlie, who has just embezzled his gangster boss for a couple million, with the help of his scheming guttersnipe of a partner Vic (Billy Bob Thornton at his utmost sleaziest). That’s the jumping point for a deliciously warped, noirish descent into deranged family values, deadpan interactions, double crosses and drunken shenanigans, and really is there any other way to spend Christmas Eve? There’s a femme fatale in stripper Renata (Connie Nielsen, rawr), the specifics of whose loyalties remains gleefully ambiguous until later on, a titty bar bouncer (Ned Bellamy) with serious anger issues, a nasty thug (Mike Starr) dispatched to kill them and the vengeful big city kingpin who has been swindled, played by a blustery, cheerfully psychotic Randy Quaid. Speaking of scene stealing, Oliver Platt does an encore as Charlie’s best friend who is now married to his bitch of an ex wife, the impromptu Christmas dinner scene the entire family shares is some kind of fucking demented, mean spirited comedic genius (“Turkey Lurkey!”). It’s interesting because there is not one single redeemable character in the film, they’re all a bunch of conning, backstabbing, murdering, ill adjusted, jaded criminals and severe alcoholics, especially Cusack, who downs enough bourbon throughout the whole night that it’s a wonder he can stand up for the third act. But somehow… somehow there’s a strange likability to these poor souls, trapped in a perpetually snowy Wichita Kansas trying to outsmart, outgun and out-drink each other. Morality rears it’s head but once among the gunplay and verbal sparring, when Charlie imparts a parable to Platt regarding his two uncles, one of whom was a standup guy and died early and the other a scumbag that lived a long life. His point being that it doesn’t matter what we do in the service of morality because it could all end tomorrow, nothing even matters so why waste time trying to be good and get off the naughty list? I enjoy that cheeky justification, and what better time for it than Christmas? A classic for me.
Cat’s Eye is Stephen King’s stab at the Twilight Zone, anthology formula, and a damn fine one at that. Just this side of horror, it’s a trio of weird and wacky tales as seen through the eyes of a meandering stray cat who manages to get itself tangled up in each thread. I’ve always marvelled at how they get animals to behave or sit still long enough to do a take and make it look realistic, but I guess that’s why they’re the movie magicians. This kitty fared well and even has a recognizable little personality of it’s own as it navigates each freaky scenario. The first segment sees a jittery James Woods enlist the help of an unorthodox ‘Doctor’ (Alan King knows just how over the top this satirical fare needs to be and goes there) and his… interesting methods of helping people to quit smoking. I won’t say more but this first third of the film feels the most like Twilight Zone in it’s borderline surreal mentality, and is a lot of fun. The middle segment is a hard boiled, vertigo inducing tale of a whacked out gangster (serial scenery chewer Kenneth McMillan in top form), tormenting his wife’s lover (Airplane’s Robert Hayes) in a Las Vegas high rise, whilst the cat looks on and contributes it’s own helping to the mischief. The third story sees an adorable Drew Barrymore adopt the poor stray, only for it to have to fight off a vicious little goblin thing that’s taken up residence in her room. This one is the most simplistic and closest to horror one finds in these three stories, and while a bit underwritten when compare to the others, is definitely the most visually engaging. All together they’re classic warped King, set to a hazy Alan Silvestri score and supported by a screenplay by the King himself. Great stuff.
Night Trap is so old, obscure and out of print that I had to order an Amazon copy just to make sure it was even real, and not some dream I had as a kid. It’s real enough, and a glorious helping of low budget supernatural tomfoolery at that, with two charismatic character actors headlining. Robert Davi, in a rare lead role, plays a headstrong New Orleans cop who is hunting down a serial killer (Michael Ironside) that appears to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for invincibility and a host of freaky deaky evil superpowers. Davi’s father was also a cop who pursued Ironside, and the monster likes to taunt both of them, leaving a trail of bodies in the hectic celebration of Mardi Gras. There’s a million of these type of movies, and they’re all across the board in terms of quality. It comes down to script and actors, really, as there’s never enough money to make any real visual magic. This one has a mile wide mean streak though, Ironside’s villain is a full on moustache twirling, nightmarish fiend and the veteran tough guy plays him as such. Matched against Davi, another notorious badass, it’s a B movie royal rumble that hits high notes of intensity, schlock and pulpy, violent delirium in all the right cues. Fun stuff if you’re a fan of these actors, and can actually locate a copy.
I’m not too sure just how much of Kill The Irishman is based in actual truth, but if even half of what we see on screen did happen, that is some pretty impressive shit. The film focuses on the life of Danny Greene (a bulked, sturdy Ray Stevenson), who was an Irish American mobster working out of Cleveland back in the 70’s, a guy who seems to have caused quite a stir of chaos amongst organized crime back then. Getting a leg up from the longshoreman’s union, Danny quickly rose to power alongside several other key figures including numbers man John Nardi (Vincent D’Onofrio), enforcer Joe Manditski (Val Kilmer) and nasty kingpin Shondor Birns (Christopher Walken). It seems it all went south pretty quick though, because before he knew it he was at odds with Birns, and dodging multiple brash assassination attempts coming at him from all directions. What’s remarkable about Danny’s story is his sterling resilience: something like over a dozen attempts were made on his life and the darn mick just kept on going, even taunting the underworld between car bomb blasts and raucous shoot outs. Of course, such a life alienates him from his wife (Linda Cardellini) and puts him in perpetual crosshairs, but Stevenson plays it casually cavalier, a gentleman gangster who really cares not for the danger he’s wading into, and treads lightly amongst the mess, making me wonder if the real Greene had such an attitude and the sheer luck to back it up. Walken is quiet and dangerous in a somewhat underplayed role, but he is entertaining doing anything, so it’s all good. The cast is enormous, and includes the like of Vinnie Jones as a bruiser of an Irish street soldier, Robert Davi in an explosive third act cameo as a lethal specialist brought in to neutralize Danny, and your usual kennel of Italian American character actors like Mike Starr, Bob Gunton, Tony Lo Bianco, Steve Schirippa, Paul Sorvino and others. It’s loud, fast paced and ever so slightly tongue in cheek. As a crime drama it works great, could have been slightly longer, but Stevenson keeps things moving briskly with his affable, hyperactive performance and it goes with out saying that the rest of them provide excellent supporting work.
I tend to actively avoid Steven Seagal films like the plague, and realize intermittently that I do in fact enjoy certain ones from back in the day. He’s made a ton of trash, no doubt, but the clouds part every now and again, for select occasions like Under Siege, The Glimmer Man, Above The Law, Fire Down Below and the snowbound On Deadly Ground. The main marvel in this one is an incredibly hammy Michael Caine as the mustache twirling villain, a Big Oil maniac who has his amoral sights set on sacred land belonging to Inuit tribesman. Seagal plays yet another martial arts trained badass who takes it upon himself to bring down Caine, his nefarious capitalist plans and the violent mercenaries he has hired to wipe the land of indigenous natives. It’s as silly as silly can be, right down to him falling in love with a beautiful Inuit girl (Joan Chen, actually Chinese), but enjoyable on its own terms when you look at the solid choreography, stunts and impressive location work. Also, the roster of villains is too good to pass up, starting with Caine’s outright, wanton psychopath. We’re also treated to the Sergeant himself, R. Lee Ermey as a merc with a particularly salty attitude, John C. McGinley over-playing one of his patented schoolyard bullies, and even Billy Bob Thornton shows up, adding to the sleaze factor. Watch for cameos from Mike Starr, Michael Jai White and an unbilled Louise Fletcher as well. Seagal directed this himself, so it’s essentially one big vanity piece where he gets to play Dances With Wolves for a couple hours, but the trick is to see the unintentional comedy in that and enjoy it. Seagal is one of those goofs who I am not a ashamed to say I am laughing at, not with. Caine is the real prize here, and his merry band of assholes. An action flick is only as good as it’s antagonist, and this guy is bad to the bone in hilariously over the top ways. A big dumb flick, nothing more, nothing le- well maybe a little less in places, but fun in other spots nonetheless.
The holiday season’s best role model for children and adults alike makes a triumphantly sleazy comeback in Bad Santa 2, and I can honestly say this is one of those rare anomalous occurrences where the sequel outdoes its predecessor in almost every way. Where the first film was scummy, this one is scummier, the profanity nearly tripled and all manner of disgusting debauchery and deplorable behaviour dialled way past what we’re used to. Now a lot of folks will claim overkill, but honestly what’s the point in making a film like this if you don’t go for broke and puke up every last little cuss word and anal joke that comes to mind, particularly when it’s the sequel we’re talking about here. Billy Bob Thornton reprises what feels like his signature role, a piss poor excuse for a human named Willie Stoke, lowlife alcoholic dirtbag safecracker who masquerades as a department store Santa to rob malls blind, along with his flippant midget partner Marcus (ebony Oompa Loompa Tony Cox). This year they’ve taken a pickaxe to rock bottom and sunk even lower, aiming for a children’s charity reputed to rake in the Yuletide dough. Willie gets a surprise visit from his Ma though, an equally bitter, reprehensible diesel dyke piece of work played by Kathy Bates. You gotta hand it to the Bates-ter; this could have easily been a glorified cameo amped up just for trailers, but no, she goes all in and the extra mile to create a truly rotten bitch who almost…almost makes Willie the slightest bit sympathetic. This is one dirty, dirty film, one that milks it’s R rating like a two dollar hooker’s teat, so much so that it garnered the coveted 18a rating here in Canadian theatres, a medal not given out too lightly these days by our alarmingly lenient government. Nothing is sacred here, and I wouldn’t have it any other way in a film called Bad Santa. Christina Hendricks shits all over her classy image as the head of the charity, a slut in prudes clothing who just can’t help but play it dirty with Willie. The aptly named Thurman Murman (Vancouver’s own Brett Kelly) also makes a return, his stairs even farther away from the attic as he gets older. Replace holiday cheer with delightfully deviant black comedy, and loads of it, and you get a nasty, hedonistic little stocking stuffer like this. Just tread lightly if you can’t handle this type of humour, because it will tear you a new one.
I’ve been ragging a lot on Cuba Gooding Jr. The past few reviews, so I’ll go easy and speak about a good one instead. Wrong Turn At Tahoe has a script that should have been given the royal treatment; it’s wise, brutal, thought provoking and very violent, with many sets of morals clashing against each other in true crime genre style. It didn’t get a huge budget or a lot of marketing, but what it did get was a renakably good cast of actors who really give the written word it’s justice, telling a age old story dangerous people who inhabit the crime ridden frays of both society and cinema. Cuba plays Joshua, a low level mafia enforcer who works for Vincent (Miguel Ferrer), a ruthless mid level mobster who runs his operations with an OCD iron fist. He also rescued Joshua from a crack house when he was a young’in, forging a father son bond that runs deeper than terms of employment. When a weaselly informant tells them that local drug runner Frankie Tahoe (Noel Gugliemi, reliably scary) has it in for them, Vincent brashly retaliates first by viciously killing him. That’s where the shit starts to get deep. Frankie was an employee of Nino (Harvey Keitel) that most powerful crime boss on the west coast and not a man to cross. Nino Wants hefty payment for the loss of Frankie, who was a good operative. Vincent, being the proud and belligerent son of a bitch that he is, bluntly refuses. So begins a bloody, near Shakespearean gang war in which both sides rack up heavy losses and the phrase ‘crime doesn’t pay’ collects it’s due. All parties were inevitably headed to a bitter end whether or not the Tahoe incident occurred, and I think the writer simply used that inciting incident as an example of many ways in which a life like that will always end up at a dead end. The writing is superb, especially for Gooding, Keitel and Ferrer, a vicious triangle indeed, all at the top of their game and then some. Johnny Messner is great as Gooding’s cohort who can’t keep his mouth shit, and watch for Mike Starr, Leonor Varela, Paul Sampson and Louis Mandylor too. Dark deeds, unexpected betrayal, self destructive ego, combustible machismo and ironic twists of fate are explored here in a script the remains as one of my favourite of that year. Really excellent stuff.