Okay I know I always say that guilty pleasures don’t exist for me and I wholeheartedly own my tastes in film without a shred of winking irony and for the most part that’s true… but there *are* a few that kinda fall into the ‘sheepish enjoyment’ realm despite me being well aware that they’re dumb as shit, the Jennifer Garner Elektra film being one of them. I know one is a mess but it just somehow keeps me glued every time and I don’t even know why, but it might start with Garner, who I loved in the Daredevil movie and is just as hot and engaging here reprising the role sometime after, or before Daredevil.. I’m not sure which because she totally died in that one but this also doesn’t really have a ‘prequel feel so who tf knows, really. She’s in exile or something in a remote location, a location that just happens to really be the Sea-to-Sky/Salish coast area of BC where I’m from and all that lush PNW cinematography is probably an atmospheric contributor to why I enjoy this. So what’s the story? She’s in exile sort of, but uses her badass pseudo supernatural warrior skills to protect a father and daughter (Goran Visnjic and Kirsten Zien) from a horde of X-Men type assassins dispatched to kill them by.. I don’t even remember. They’re a weird bunch, one can morph into animals, another dude has tattoos that kinda come to life and help him fight, that type of shit. And that’s basically the story but honestly you could watch this on mute and just appreciate the scenery and strange, colourful CGI visuals with your own choice of music and you’d probably get more out of it. Terence Stamp shows up as blind martial arts guru Stick, a character played far more satisfyingly by Scott Glenn in Netflix’s Daredevil effort but Stamp is cool just for showing up so why not. Honestly my favourite part is a moody prologue where Elektra storms the well guarded mansion stronghold of some Bond villain type dude named DeMarco played by Jason Isaacs, and takes him out, it has a cool video game cutscene feel. Isaacs inexplicably does a lot of random two second cameos in huge budget Hollywood stuff (Resident Evil, Grindhouse, Abduction, Fury etc), it’s become an aesthetic in itself just to see him show up briefly and either get shot or walk out of the scene again randomly, so that’s always fun. I can’t really explain my fondness for this one other than the loose jumble of attributes I’ve listed above, but I’ve seen it a bunch of times, I remember every set piece and Canadian wilderness shot, yet I couldn’t begin to tell you what it’s specifically about in comic book lore terms. Still a fun one though.
Terence Malick has gone through a fascinating evolutionary path, from the hazy, formative Days Of Heaven and Badlands spanning out to the free flowing, elemental and incredibly lyrical aesthetic he owns these days. Most of his films I’ve tried since Tree Of Life have kind of been lost on me; they’ve struck me as Malick playing in the artistic sandbox with literal handfuls of A list cameos but in experimenting loosely he lost a sense of narrative that was necessary as well. I was pleased to find that his newest film A Hidden Life progresses away from that and shows the most considerable growth in him as an artist I’ve seen since the leap from The New World to Tree Of Life. A Hidden Life contains a carefully distilled symbiotic dance between Malick’s newfound, esoteric style of filmmaking and telling of a linear, structured story with dialogue and beats, the result is something wholly fulfilling and transcendent. This is a simple story one one Austrian farmer named Franz Jägerstetter (August Diehl, so evil and malicious in Inglorious Basterds it’s hard to believe it’s the same actor playing this gentle, compassionate soul) who refuses against all coercion, peer pressure and principle to go along with Hitler’s reich or anything it stands for. This naturally causes him and his family no end of trouble until he reaches a nexus of his own making and his choices lead him down a path from which there is no return. Now we all know that gorgeous, pristine widescreen cinematography is a given in any Malick film but I can say most assuredly that this one has the absolute best and most drop dead gorgeous photography of anything he’s ever done. His images sweep over the Austrian hills, craggy mountains and misty glens with a movement and life force independent of simple camera work, and the sense of place, time and feeling instilled deep within the viewer is unparalleled. Later scenes in Berlin have a sort of regal, magisterial reverence to them, with ornate chapels midway through being painted and an over elaborate courthouse where Franz meets his ultimate fate. Austrian actress Valerie Pachner is unbelievably striking as Franz’s wife Fani, a fiercely protective, strong spirited woman who doesn’t always understand her husband’s defiance (same goes for me) but stands with him nonetheless. The strongest aspects of the film are carefully shot, almost holy sequences of day to day farm life in the Austrian countryside, filled with the same impossible beauty and studious observance we remember from Tree Of Life. We never even see the atrocities of war that Franz defies, and there’s scarcely a violent moment in the film save for his mistreatments in military prison. But through the simple act of watching this small village, it’s children, elders, tradesman, see these souls live through routine and love one another we get the sense of exactly what is at stake and what Franz is fighting for, despite never observing actual conflict. With Tree Of Life Malick searched the heavens for the same patterns of life and kinship he saw within one 1950’s American family, and drew forth wonders of filmmaking. And now with A Hidden Life he shows us one tiny Austrian village observed with all the detail and resonance one might see in the cosmos and asks us decide for ourselves as just how valuable such a place is, and what an act like Franz’s does in the long run to preserve it. Phenomenal film.
Hit & Run was a huge blast, and the key ingredient that makes it work so well is the real life couple dynamic of Dax Shepard and Kristen Bell, who keep the relationship banter fresh, realistic and adorable. This is a passion project for Shepherd, he writes, directs and stars in the kind of scrappy, bawdy highway car chase crime caper that feels cut from the same cloth as stuff like Vanishing Point, Smokey & The Bandit, Cannonball Run and old McQueen/Reynolds muscle car fluff. They also pulled it off on a budget of two million and most of that went to securing music rights, so what we have onscreen is a barebones, character driven, practical effects based screwball action comedy that just hits the spot. Shepherd is Charles Bronson, (picked for the famous British delinquent inmate, not the tough guy movie star) his chosen name in the witness protection program after testifying against his former bank robbing crew whom he was getaway driver for. When his wife gets a hotshot job in LA he’s forced to rear his head, her asshole ex boyfriend (Lex Luthor from Smallville) stalks them along the highway, they’re also pursued by his clumsy dipshit federal marshal case worker (Tom Arnold) and soon his old partner (Bradley Cooper) catches wind and it’s all one ridiculously cluttered, madcap extended chase sequence that’s is somehow totally nuts yet follows a cohesive plot in the same breath. Dax and Kristen anchor it, you can tell they are together in real life because sparks literally fly in any dialogue scene scripted or improvised, and there’s a ton of the latter speckled throughout the film. Tom Arnold does his wacky klutz routine, sometimes to effect and sometimes seeming just like a prop that trips over other props. Bradley Cooper steals the fucking show with greasy dreadlocks, a volatile bitch of a girlfriend (Joy Bryant) and enough homicidal attitude to spare, whether violently berating a guy twice his size for buying cheap dog food or lamenting the fact that he got ‘butt fucked’ in jail, after which Dax and Kristen have a guessing marathon as to the ethnicity of his rapist in the films funniest sequence. There’s colourful supporting work from Kristen Chenowith, David Koechner, Ryan Hansen, Beau Bridges and a couple juicy last minute cameos from big names I won’t spoil. This is easy breezy R rated comedy fun at its best with a fast, loose and organic feel, it barrels by briskly, brings tons of laughs and even gets a few quick sweet moments in too. Good stuff.
There’s nothing quite like the sight of Will Smith armed with a high powered rifle, dog at his side, left completely and utterly alone in a deserted metropolis to scavenge, wander and roar down an empty main drag in abandoned super cars. This is an applicable film right now because that’s kind of how I’ve felt being downtown at work these days, minus the dog and super cars. Smith is Robert Neville, the last man alive on Manhattan Island, or so he thinks. By day he wanders around, searches for food and keeps himself occupied, by night he barricades himself inside a modest fortress while the rest of NYC comes crawling out, now turned into savage marauding zombies by a mysterious virus. Robert tried his best to contact anyone who might be out there by radio and tirelessly works in his lab searching for a cure. This is a strange rhythm that continues for the first half of the film or so until the inevitable progression of a Hollywood narrative interrupts it. I kind of have a love hate relationship with this film, in the sense that I love it for some aspects but not so much others. The first portion of the film is one of the most effective uses of immersive atmosphere and drawing the viewer in I’ve ever seen. Seeing this in iMax back in the day I really felt like I was there with Robert, felt that isolation, despair, restlessness end even blessed solitude at certain moments. It’s a sensational way to open your story, but then as soon as other human characters are added later on, the vacuum like aura is yanked away and it becomes kind of… I dunno, routine. You’ve gotta be a pretty special post apocalyptic film to trick your audience into not only believing the premise but imagining themselves in it, and at the outset they more than succeed. It’s just later on the illusion foibles and loses us a bit. That and the dodgy CGI used on the zombies who are scary no doubt but still a bit rough in the FX department, but hey this was 2007 and Weta was busy working on King Kong so what can you do. I nitpick here and that shouldn’t suggest I don’t love this film, because I do. I just believe a piece that leaps out of the gate so effectively, so convincingly should keep up that lightning in a bottle magic for the whole duration, but that’s just me. It does have one of the single most heartbreaking scenes cinema has to offer, acted flawlessly enough by Smith to leave any badass viewer bawling. Anyone reading this who’s seen the film will know. Oh, and there’s also a weird Batman Vs. Superman poster in Times Square, I’m not sure what the deal is with that but it seems odd for 2007 considering that film wasn’t even made until 2015, no? Maybe there’s some cool time travel trivia to the making of this one.
Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa is a stunning film, an enigmatic jewel that doesn’t reveal any of its secrets or intent after the first five minutes, half hour or even mid point but rather let’s the passage of time, the sense of place, the richness of character and mesmeric atmosphere draw the viewer in. Bob Hoskins is George in another one of his ferocious bulldog performances, but this time around there’s a roughly sculpted emotional climate he’s cultivating too. George is an ex con who has drifted off his path in life, and after being released from prison has no idea where to turn. An old mob contact sets him up as driver and protector to high class call girl Simone (Cathy Tyson) and the two of them get on thunderously at first, until he gradually falls madly in love. She is a cipher, and Tyson plays her with a counterintuitive, flint-spark resilience. What’s she looking for as she scans the inky black London streets with an uncommonly focused gaze? I won’t spoil the surprise, but this narrative unfolds organically, at its own pace and with a deep feel for London as both a city and a primordial habitat. Michael Caine is deliciously vile as the horrid porn kingpin Mortwell, a selfish sociopath whose path George and Simone must cross on their own. You can’t quite pin this one down in any one genre and therein lies the magic that is a Jordan film. His work is always illusory yet somehow so specific but never tethered to any one thing you could describe in a few sentences. He makes films less from a genre perspective and more from a life perspective. There’s romance here to be sure, but not in the way one might think and the film’s violent conclusion set in seaside Brighton might leave you just as confused and heartbroken as some of its characters. There’s droll comedy too in episodic interactions between George and his chum Thomas, played by the great Robbie Coltrane in the kind of jovially cherubic turn that only he can pull off. There’s danger, loneliness, joy, monsters, corruption, redemption, love, hurt and more, all gilded by achingly beautiful cinematography drenched in West End neon, a Michael Kamen score that hits every note from jazz to a horror theme style jangle, of all things. I don’t know what else to say except experience this slice of life on celluloid for yourself, because it’s something truly special and not to really be put into words. Magnificent film.
I’d love to have been in the studio executives office to hear the pitch for Bubble Boy: “Okay so basically Jake Gyllenhaal is this kid who lives in a plastic bubble, he’s on a road trip and there’s also a travelling freak show owned by Mini Me from Austin Powers, a singing cult led by Fabio, Asian mud wrestling, twin incontinent geriatric pilots named Pippy and Pappy, a motorcycle gang headed up by Danny Trejo, an Indian who drives a food truck serving ‘Ice cream… and curry’” …if I were the exec in charge I’d have no choice but to green light the thing just for the balls they had to bring it to me. Like how do you say no to all that? Real talk though, this film was actually pretty special, and I mean that sincerely. Yes, it’s this kind of surreal, John Waters-esque parade of uproarious and seemingly arbitrary commotion anchored only by Gyllenhaal’s naive, oddball hero but there’s a message sewn into all that madness too that’s actually really sweet and astute. Born without a self generated immune system, Bubble Boy is kept at home in a pristine plastic environment by his overbearing, Jesus freak mom (Swoosie Kurtz), until he falls in love with the girl next door (Marley Shelton). When she runs off with plans to marry a preening douchebag (Dave Sheridan), he constructs that amazing bubble suit and and it’s off on a bizarre cross country race to find her and fix the misunderstandings of their relationship before she gets married. Things get a little… random along the way and his mom takes hot pursuit with his dad (John Carroll Lynch, excellent) in tow. It may all seem like noise and confusion but there’s a real theme of escaping one’s own personal prison going on beneath the surface. Gyllenhaal has left his eternal quarantine and headed out into the great unknown but in a sense each character he meets is in their own bubble of sorts, stunted by belief, circumstance, past trauma or just lunacy. Trejo is terrific as the rambunctious biker who pines for his lost love and will do anything for Bubble Boy, who he considers his ‘Vato.’ The circus show and all its members (which include the varied likes of Matthew McGrory and Lester ‘Beetlejuice’ Green) are a self ostracized bunch who don’t value their own worth until put to the test. Hell, even a cross country bus ticket vendor played by Zach Galifinakis sits resolute and awkward inside his booth, perplexed at sights he observes around him and unable to engage with the world. When mom catches up to Bubble Boy just when he’s about to reach Niagara Falls and wants to yank him home, Carroll Lynch as his dad gets the subtly subversive, beautiful line of dialogue: “What if Neil Armstrong travelled all that way just to *not* walk on the moon.” This is a balls out comedy peppered with delightfully weird shit but it’s also a film about questioning one’s reality, breaking boundaries imposed by whatever system governs you and finding a place in this world, which I promise you is far more strange than anything any screenwriter could ever dream up. Absolutely great film.
My expectations weren’t super high for Joe Dirt and they were not only met but surpassed. This is one charming, hilarious, comfortingly juvenile exercise in spoofing the Mountain Dew monster truck crowd and I loved it to bits. Usually when I see David Spade onscreen I ball up my fists and get ready to swing but here he makes sly work of a good natured simpleton with the world’s most epic mullet. Joe was left at the Grand Canyon when he was eight years old by his dummy parents, and has been wondering the States ever since, looking for them. He explains all this in flashbacks and regales an incredibly cynical radio DJ (Dennis Miller) with his adventures with all the strange people he meets, and let me tell you that strange is a fucking understatement. He befriends a mega hottie (Brittany Daniels) who is head over heels for him while he’s too oblivious to notice. He joins forces with a Native American entrepreneur (Adam Beach) who sells fireworks but not the kind that anyone wants to buy. He shacks up with a bubblegum blonde babe (Jaime Pressley) who may or may not be his long lost sister, which is an extra turn-on for him. Christopher Walken steals the goddamn show (as he always does) as Clem, a janitorial kingpin with serious dance moves and the absolute funniest line in the film, you’ll know the one I’m talking about. Other memorable and very hyperactive work is put forth by Erik Per Sullivan, Caroline Aaron, Fred Ward, Tyler Mane, Richard Rhiele, Eddie Money, Carson Daly, Kevin Nealon, Joe Don Baker, Rosanna Arquette and, uh, Kid Rock just for the hell of it. This is about as silly as comedies get and I laughed like a loon almost the whole way through. Spade makes a great underdog hero in a story that puts him through a ringer of alienation, loneliness and embarrassment but ultimately gives him the happy ending he deserves and the overall narrative is quite sweet. Great film.