I’ve always thought of this as the Oliver Stone Movie that the man never made. It has the sordid, excessive sleaziness of U Turn, and the studious inquisition into true crime and intriguing Americana that he showed us in JFK. Both films explore the violence and ugliness that peppers American history in different ways, the brash and the academic which often exist in opposite poles colliding in Wonderland, a wholeheartedly nasty account of a stomach churning multiple murder involving one of the most infamous porn stars who ever lived, John Holmes (Val Kilmer). I don’t know what the real Holmes was like (besides tell rumours of his anaconda cock), but the version we see here is a sniveling, unrepentant scumbag who is very hard to empathize with unless you flip the nihilism switch on in your brain and lose yourself in it. The film follows his association with a group of fellow undesirables, interested only in furthering their own drug habits by any means necessary, legal or otherwise. John is late in bis career and on the cusp of being a washout, his underage girlfriend (Kate Bosworth) pretty much the only friend he has in the world. He spends his days getting involved in all kinds of smutty business, along with a crew of fellow junkies led by loose cannon Josh Lucas, grim biker Dylan McDermott and timid Tim Blake Nelson. When they collectively catch wind of the wealth of one of John’s acquaintances, a dangerous club owning mobster (Eric Bogosian in full psycho mode), the dollar signs swirl in their already dilated pupils. After an ill advised robbery, Bogosian reacts with all the wrath of the Israeli mafia, fuelled by his personal vendetta, brutally slaughtering each and every one of John’s gang, letting him live as a branded snitch. The film is based on notoriously grisly crime scene photos which can be seen online, laying speculation on Holmes’s part in the killings, and spinning a sinfully chaotic, noisy web of pulpy hijinks surrounding the case. The film is told from two different perspectives, a fractured narrative laid down by Kilmer and McDermott in respective and very different summaries of the event. Ted Levine and Franky G. play the two detectives who take it all in and work the case, and the excellent M.C. Gainey plays a veteran ex cop who they bring simply because he’s the only familiar face which skittish Holmes will open up to. This is an ugly, nasty film and I won’t pretend it doesn’t get very gratuitous both in dialogue and action. It goes the extra mile of obscenity and then some in its efforts to make us squirm, but every time I pondered the necessity of such sustained atrocities, I reminded myself that in real life there’s even more of such stuff, and the film is just trying to hit the themes of decay home hard, albeit with a sledgehammer, not a whiffle ball bat in this case. Kilmer is fidgety brilliance as Holmes, a severely damaged dude who hangs onto the last strand of our sympathy by the wounded dog whine in his voice alone. The only time I felt anything for the dude is when he visits his estranged ex wife (a flat out fantastic Lisa Kudrow, cast against type and nailing it) and we see flickers of a dignity in him that’s long since been consumed by darkness. One of his best roles for sure. Watch for further work from Michael Pitt, Louis Lombardi, Janeane Garofalo, Scoot Mcnairy, Christina Applegate, Faizon Love, Chris Ellis, Paris Hilton and Natasha Gregson Warner too. This one is like Boogie Nights, Rashomon and Natural Born Killers tossed in together on spin dry. It’s a wicked concoction, but you’ll need to bring a strong stomach and the foreknowledge that you’re going to be spending two hours with some of the most deplorable human beings this planet has to offer. The silver lining is you get to see it all play out in killer style, smoky and evocative 1970’s cinematography and dedicated thespians branding each scene with their own lunacy. Tough to swallow, but great stuff.
Before there were snakes on a plane, there was a charming serial killer named Ryan Weaver (Ray Liotta). We meet Ryan as he’s about to go on a blind date with a cutie, and he seems like your average sweet guy. The scene plays out in romcom mode… until a SWAT team led by a veteran detective (Hector Elizondo) busts in and arrests Weaver, apparantly just minutes in time. We then learn that Weaver is an extremely dangerous Ted Bundy type of dude who suckers women in with his flashy grin and good looks, only to murder them soon after. With the big bad wolf now in chains, Elizondo can rest easy, as it becomes clear he has been hunting him for some years now. The last step: transporting him by plane to the state where he will be tried and senteanced. Naturally, every security protocol is rigidly in effect, right down to Elizondo stubbornly accompanying the flight. And, naturally, Weaver finds a harebrained way to break his shackles and terrorize the nearest thing to him, which in this case happens to be a gorgeous flight attendant (Lauren Holly). Now they’re 30,000 feet in the air with not a cop in sight but the aging Elizondo, and Weaver free to roam about as he pleases, teasing and taunting Holly with both mirth and menace. The film hinges on an actor’s ability to be convincing, and Liotta is downright perfect in the role. He’s played so many nut jobs and angry lunatics he could do it in his sleep by now, yet he still manages to give each baddie their own unique flavor and flourish. He is downright scary here, geniunly winning you over with his dapper gentleman act, then pouncing like a lion. He’s a one man Con Air, and means business, piloting the movie with a sure hand and leading man talents. I consider this one of the great overlooked thrillers of the 90’s, and certainly my favourite one set on a plane. Watch for appearances from Rachel Ticotin, Ben Cross, Jeffrey Demunn and Brendan Gleeson. Now there’s two sequels: one with Tom Berenger and Jennifer Beals, which I still have to see, and another called ‘Turbulence 3: Heavy Metal’, which is a demented little shit of a flick with Rutger Hauer and Gabrielle Anwar. Neither have Liotta on their side, but the third is worth a watch just for its unintentional hilarity. This first one is the real deal, though.
Battle For Terra is right up there with Titan AE as one of the most underrated animated films out there. It was shunted to the area off the beaten path of the genre, released quietly and inconspicuously back in 2009, sneaking just past people’s radar. Not mine. I waited eagerly for a theatrical release, which never came, and grabbed the dvd as soon as it hit shelves. It’s a dazzling science fiction parable not unlike Avatar, but a little softer, reverent and easy on the pyrotechnics. The story takes place some years after the remainder of the human race has been left to wander the stars in a giant spaceship called The Ark, left homeless after devastating the resources of earth, and three subsequent planets after. Soon they set their sights on a newfound world they dub Terra. Terra is populated by a peaceful alien race who spend most of their time in harmony, studying their heritage and bettering their existence. They now face annihilation, however, as the humans wish to settle, mine resources and deeply unbalance their way of life. One young Terran girl named Nala (Evan Rachel Wood) is a plucky young inventress and wonderer who finds one of the human astronauts (Luke Wilson) crash landed and stranded in her neck of the woods. They form a bond which may turn out to be the only way to find peace between humanity and the population of Terra. The story is wonderful, universal and carried out in a childlike manner full of earnestness that anyone can relate too. The Terrans resemble something like upright tadpoles crossed with sock puppets, and are fascinating to look upon. More interesting still is the natural world they inhabit; they sort of swim/glide through their thick atmosphere, and coexist with the many strange creatures and bioluminescence around them, including gigantic blue whale type things that fly around with them. I’m describing this to try and impart to you the level of thought and detail which went into creating this world, so you can see how high the filmmakers have jacked up the stakes in attempt to let you see the length humans will blindly go to further their survival, without voluntary compromise. The world the Terrans live on is a lush paradise in perfect balance, and the humans aboard The Ark, no matter how desperate, threaten it. They are led by stern General Hammer (Brian Cox), who is an antagonist, but not a villain in the least, a determind leader who will go to extremes to protect his people if his lack of empathy is allowed to go unchecked. The supporting cast is stacked high with incredible talent, and one can practice ones skill for identifying voices by listening for Danny Glover, Ron Perlman, Danny Trejo, Justin Long, Rosanna Arquette, David Cross, Beverly D’Angelo, Chris Evans, James Garner, Mark Hamill, Amanda Peet and Dennis Quaid. What a lineup. Imagination, storytelling ambition and visual genius govern this overlooked piece, and anyone who is a fan of animation (which is brilliant here, I might add) or science fiction needs to take a look.
John Dahl’s Unforgettable plays around with a trippy high concept premise in which people’s memories can be accessed by using an experimental, controversial drug. Ray Liotta plays the troubled Doctor whose wife has been recently murdered. He desperately reaches out to the scientist (Linda Fiorentino) who synthesized the compound, and the two set out to use it unofficially, in order to retain his wife’s dying moments, see them for himself and establish who her killer is. The serum takes its toll on his already stressed mind though, and soon he’s questioning his own reality, his trust levels towards those around him dropping considerably. Director Dahl is beyond proficient when it comes to thrillers, usually taking on crime pieces with a noirish vibe. Here he tries his hand at science fiction, coexisting with a classic whodunit narrative, and the result is quite good. Liotta relies on the information that his detective friend (Peter Coyote) gives him, and combined with the knowledge he absorbs from his deceased wife’s brain, begins to piece the puzzle together. There’s also a troublesome detective played by Christopher Mcdonald he must deal with, and a violent thug (Kim Coates) involved as well. Liotta is usually tough, capable and would normally be found playing one of the two cops, but the doctor on the run without a lot of tactical skill suits him and allows the guy some work other than just cops or psychos. Watch for work from David Paymer, Kim Cattrall, William B. Davis, Callum Keith Rennie and Garwin Sanford as well. The premise may be too farfetched for some folks, but for others with imagination it’ll be a blast. It’s also fairly violent and graphic, which may seem gratuitous for such a cerebral outing, but I find it gives it a stylistic edge and raises the stakes, just like Total Recall. Great flick. Not Total Recall, I mean this one. Well Total Recall too, obviously. Yeesh.
No Escape is the type of flick that Stallone or Schwarzenegger would have headlined, had it been given a higher budget and major studios presence. It’s almost better that it didn’t, because instead we got a scrappy little post apocalyptic actioner starring a cheeky, roughneck Ray Liotta, who you just can never say no to when he shows up. He plays J.T. Robbins here, an army official who’s been disgraced and stripped of his title following an incident involving a superior officer. He’s being shipped off to Absolon, a remote island that’s been fashioned into a massive prison for convicts who are never to be released. Two groups of prisoners inhabit Absolon: a piratical group of violent miscreants led by flamboyant Walter Marek (Stuart Wilson commands attention with his uproariously weird performance), and a peaceful tribe of hut dwellers, presided over by father (Lance Henriksen). Robbins wants only to escape, a prospect that has been fervently shot down in his face by Absolon’s overbearing Warden (Michael Lerner). Using his military cunning and inherent brute force, he tries to start a war between the two factions and raise enough of a commotion to make a break for it. What he doesn’t count on is his fondness for the people within Father’s group, and his eventual need to get some of the, out as well. It’s pure aged mid 90’s dystopian action cheese, and a delight for any lovers of the gourmet dish. Liotta is strong, silent and nasty when provoked, a great antihero. Henriksen is unusually compassionate and reserved, and Wilson struts around without any inhibitions, wearing his best grade school play face chomping scenery like a wildebeest. Watch for work from Kevin Dillon, Ian McNeice and Ernie Hudson as well. A lighthearted romp with its heart in the right place and the competence to back it up.
Cop Car is the sort of callous thriller that socks you right in the gut, then kicks you in the nuts before you’ve had a chance to grab a breath. It’s premise is simple: on the quiet plains of rural Colorado, two young lads wander about aimlessly, practicing their cuss words and trying to impress one another with various mischief. All of a sudden they stumble on a seemingly abandoned cop car in a secluded glen. What do they do? They do what any respectable, rational one of us would, of course. They steal the thing and careen about across the terrain, before taking off down the highway. It’s just their luck that the vehicle happens to belong to Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon) an evil son of a bitch who’s just about as far from the law as one can get. He was out there doing dark deeds in the bush, and arrives back to find his cruiser gone, reacting with an amusing fight or flight tantrum not unlike that of a cornered coyote. Bacon has a canine look to him as well, amplified by the fact that he’s in his late 50’s and is looking all brittle and scary as hell these days. He panics and goes on a mad yet calculated hunt to find the car before his dirty little secrets are flung about the county and his jig is up. Employing MacGyver worthy tricks, chilling cruelty and a bone rattling, hyena esque cackle, he hunts the two youngsters down relentlessly, and they elude him through sheer dumb luck. Speaking of dumb, the kids are remarkably stupid even for ten year olds, and it’s tough for the film to draw forth any sympathy from us by any means other than the fact that they are children, run disastrously amok. They’re forced not only to deal with Bacon, but a sleazeball who they find bloodied up in his trunk, played by the ever entertaining Shea Wigham. He has an exchange of dialogue with the boys that will seperate those with a dark, messed up sense of humour from those without, and I was laughing up a storm. The film reminded me of similarly vehicular themed thrillers like The Hitcher and Duel, and can certainly be put on that same pedestal of quality. Blood, burnt rubber, sweat and tears abound here, and what’s more, the thing makes sense in its turn of events. So many thrillers erupt into bombastic and unbelievable plot turns that serve shock value or simply exist to be a showcase piece for the trailer. This one gallops along a series of events that are stacked up like a nasty Jacob’s Ladder of fate, each step of the way a logical piece of the story, nothing brashly jumping at us or taking us out of the story. Admirable traits, not found too often these days. Watch for Camryn Manheim and an invisible Kyra Sedgwick as well. A lean, mean little flick, guaranteed to raise a pulse and steal a few well earned, guilty grins from you, as well as impress you with it’s competence in execution, and restraint in keeping things fast, to the point and mean to the core.
I’ve never seen The Phantom Of The Opera on stage, so so I have nothing to really compare Joel Shumacher’s 2004 cinematic vision to, but I know that it was one of the most glorious and formative theatre going experiences for me, so much so that I think I probably went and saw the thing like eight times when it came out. I had never heard a single of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music before then and had not a clue as to what the story was. My extant of Phantom knowledge at that point was only of a chalky faced, emaciated Lon Chaney Jr. skulking around a silent black and white frame.
I was cosmically blown away by the magic of it, the story, the songs, the rich production design and especially the two elemental lead performances from Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum. Again, no idea how the stage actors compare to these two, but Gerard and Emmy’s take on the Phantom and Christine are now scorched into my psyche as the definitive versions. Butler nails the formula perfectly: scary when he needs to be, tender when he wants to be and always a formidable force of dark romanticism and tragic damnation. Rossum is like an angelic comet as Christine Daae, with the best singing voice of the cast and a presence that will bring the viewer to tears and make you instantly fall in love with her.
Christine works in the prestigious Opera Populaire as a chorus girl, until she is shunted into the limelight when their prima donna of a star singer (a flat out brilliant Minnie Driver) walks off in a huff. Rossum then proceeds to move heaven and earth with her rendition of ‘Think Of Me’, accompanied by some of the most incredible camera work I’ve seen, sweeping through the elegant halls along with her crystal clear voice.
The mysterious Phantom watches her from dark alcoves and hidden buttresses, entranced by her talent and brimming with love sickness. He has love in him no doubt, but we all know there is hate there too, catalyzed by an unfortunate deformation and a cruel past that has left him in exile. He basically runs the show from the shadows though, with utmost class and heaps of theatrical menace.
Christine also has eyes for her childhood friend Raoul (Patrick Wilson). Wilson is the only player who seems a bit out of his depth, perhaps because he hadn’t yet found the assurance in stride and charisma he has in his roles these days. Miranda Richardson is excellent as ever in an understated turn as Christine’s aunt and teacher. Jennifer Ellison is her friend and fellow singer Meg. Ciaran Hinds and Simon Callow are inspired as the comic relief duo who purchases the opera house, and watch for Kevin R. McNally as well.
Every song is a winner, every frame composed of grandiose ambition and every ounce of vocal strength thrown forth by the cast, particularly Rossum and Butler who go a mile and then some, holding their own individual presence as well as pulling off the sorrowful chemistry between the Phantom and Christine. There’s a few key sequences that should go down in the history books on how to stage a scene, including a dazzling masquerade ball, a wintry swordfight in a cemetery, the aforementioned Think Of Me, and my personal favourite: a mournful black and white prologue set decades after the story, kicking the film off with a rousing flourish of motion and music. I’m sure there are scores of people who swear by the stage production and want nothing to do with this, or simply weren’t wowed to the levels I was. That’s fine. For me though, I don’t see any version ever topping this jewel of a film, and the classic two disc dvd sits proudly on my shelf, daring any other rendition, cinematic or otherwise to give it a run for it’s money.