I’ve always thought that Ridley Scott’s G.I. Jane is the movie Michael Bay made in another reality where he matured a little more. I mean that as a compliment to Sir Ridley and the film. The crisp, aesthetically lighted style has Bay written all over it, but it’s employed alongside a human story of one girl facing some truly daunting odds. Demi Moore plays Jordan O Neill, a determind, plucky individual who has her mind and heart set on going through the infamous Navy SEAL training, making her the first woman to undertake the task. She just wants to do her training like the rest of her peers, but unfortunately her situation comes with a tirade of media attention and notoriety, something which she never signed on for. Corrupt politician Theodore Hayes (the late Daniel Von Bargen smarming it up) wants to ruin her, and he’s at odds with a pushy Senator (Anne Bancroft is as stiff and sour as the glass of kentucky mash she constantly pulls from). Meanwhile, Moore begins her training, thrown in with a bunch of testosterone fuelled dudes, rabid dogs who don’t react well to a girl in their midst. Her instructors do their best, but she meets quite the adversary in Master Chief James Urgayle (Viggo Mortensen) a no nonsense guy with a razor sharp intellect and a personality to fuel it. Mortensen gets to do something really special with the role. Where other drill instructors in film are somewhat caricatures, monstrous, profane loud-mouths with all the depth of a wood plank, Urgayle has a metallic edge that encases real human qualities beneath. Mortensen latches on to that right off the bat, blessing the film with a fully three dimensional person. The cast is great as well, with work from Kevin Gage, David Warshofsky, Jason Beghe, Morris Chestnut, Jim Caviesel and the legendary Scott Wilson who is mint as the cranky base commander. His dialogue is straight out of a Mamet script and Wilson bites down hard, especially in a scene where he verbally owns Bancroft. Moore is combustible, lacing her take no prisoners attitude with the grace and power of her femininity. She’s also in wicked shape too, her physique a reflection of both Jordan’s commitment to her goal and Demi’s steadfast need to tell the best possible story. This one is far better than some critics would have you believe, with a story arc both suited to the character and theme. It’s also just plain powerhouse filmmaking that chimes in on all the right notes. Awesome stuff.
Cool World is known, by those few who may be aware of its existence, as the ‘other’ film in which live action characters inhabit the same realm as cartoons. The more famous one of course is Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a glorious gem of a film that gets the acclaim, notoriety and long lasting attention, as it well should. (We won’t speak of a third one involving a certain moose and squirrel that really does earn it’s bad rap). Cool World is somewhat maligned as the black sheep of the two, and in some people’s eyes (Ebert laid a stern smackdown on it) downright hated on. It’s no doubt very different from Roger Rabbit, which is admittedly the better film and the easier one to like and relate to. But this one is brilliant in its own right, at least for me. I love the way it uses a sombre tone with its human creations to throw a unique light on them as soon as the Toons show up. It’s quaint and wonderfully inaccessible, with some scenes existing purely of a need to showcase a stream of consciousness type style that doesn’t so much halt the proceedings, as give them their own surreal flavor. Brad Pitt is Frank Harris, victim of a jarring post war tragedy and thrown headlong into the cartoon world, eventually finding himself a Detective in their realm. Outside in our world, lonely cartoonist Jack Deebs (Gabriel Byrne is a sly choice for the role) falls in love with one of his creations, a blonde bombshell named Holli Would (voiced and later played in the flesh by Kim Basinger). Holli is as devious as she is gorgeous, and works to use Jack’s attraction to her as a conduit to escape into our world. Pretty soon a deafening cacophany of cartoon creatures in all shapes, sizes and colours floods out of their dimension and into ours, creating quite the cosmic mess for Pitt to clean up. It’s fun without being too zany, the overblown fuss of the Toons contrasted by a glum human world, reeling from the war and unexpecting of such an event to unfold. Granted, the meshing of the two dimensions isn’t given the precise, big budget fanfare and cutting edge methods of Roger Rabbit, but the world building and special effects here are still pure enchantment and offer a dazzling level of entertainment. Pitt is stoic with flinty sparks of boyish charm, Byrne hilariously plays it dead straight, and Basinger is dead friggin sexy. She steals the show especially as Holli in human form, having a ball with the bubbly bimbo trying to keep a straight face in the real world. The Toons in general really are a diverse bunch, ranging from animals to inanimate objects to tiny little formless cutesy blobs and everything in between, filling their frames with a chaotic, detailed miasma worthy of Studio Ghibli. Lot of hate floating around for this one. You won’t find any from me, I love the film, and accept it for the adult friendly, experimental oddity it is. Great stuff.
Faster is an action film with an eerie aura and a darkly unnerving bite to it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s action through and through, a genre effort right to its marrow. And yet, there’s something oddly esoteric about it, an obvious extra effort put in by the filmmakers, namely first time action director George Tillman, to give every character an off kilter, bizarre cadence to ensure we won’t forget them. There’s clichés, no doubt, but they’re eclipsed by the strange, full moon weirdness of the rogues running about the film’s story. Dwayne Johnson fires up a furious protagonist in his first action role after a long and ridiculous stint in insufferable family comedies. He plays a quiet, hulking dude known only as Driver, reluctantly released from prison by a watchful Warden (Tom Berenger). Upon exiting the gate, he runs. And runs. And runs. He arrives at a small town junkyard where he tears a tarp of a vintage Chevelle which seems to be left there for him like a care package. From there he launches a bloody crusade of revenge that knows neither mercy nor discretion, and whose reasons we are only slowly allowed to know. He’s a one man wrecking ball, the murders piling up before we really have any idea what this guy is about. He’s been greatly wronged in the past, the culprits of which should all be running scared, as he comes looking for them one by one and with the juggernaut pace of a boulder tumbling down a mountain. Pretty soon there’s two cops on his trail, intrepid Cicero (Carla Gugino) and mopey sleazeball ‘Cop’ (Billy Bob Thornton), a dilapidated piece of work who mainlines heroin and clearly has a murky past. Soon there’s one hell of a hitman (Oliver Jackson Cohen) skulking around looking for Driver, an extreme sports enthusiast who has ‘beaten yoga’ and is avidly looking for the next big thrill. Johnson jumps from one ultra violent encounter to the next with all the corrosive ferocity of the grim reaper, tallying up the corpses until we’re all but sure he’s an inhuman elimination machine. Then.. the film curveballs us and throws a glint of humanity into the mix with some late third act emotion that only goes to show the filmmakers set out with more than a one track mind. Driver has been unspeakably betrayed, and his rampage is undeniably justified, but there’s a complexity to his quest that he didn’t see coming, and neither did those of us who expected pure action without a moral conundrum in sight. I say good on it for grasping something besides the thrills. A terrific cast populates the almost Oliver Stone – esque proceedings, including Maggie Grace, Moon Bloodgood, Mike Epps, Jennifer Carpenter (always superb), Matt Gerald, Xander Berkeley, Buzz Belmondo, Courtney Gains and more. It’s got the depth of a well written graphic novel and a level of thought out characterization that heaps of stale action entries wish they possessed.
If an eighth grade class raided their parents liquor cabinet, passed around a bottle, got good and loaded and took it upon themselves to make their own version of every 90’s action cliche, it would look something like Ticker, a wonderfully inept mad bomber tale that starts at rock bottom and cheerfully drills farther down, as well as into critics collective patience, it seems. It’s silly clunky and all over the place, but there’s a scrappy likeability to its amalgamated stew of genre tropes, masculine posturing and endless explosions. The bomber in question is Alex Swan (Dennis Hopper), a homicidal Irish extremist intent on making life hard for the San Francisco bomb squad, led by explosives expert Frank Glass (a laughably zen Steven Seagal). Hero cop Ray Nettles (Tom Sizemore) previously lost a partner to bombers and has a big score to settle with Swan. And so it goes. Bombs go off. Cops argue. They chase Hopper, who eludes them until the next set of fireworks destroy a wall glass panels or a bridge. Sizemore is surprisingly sedated, not seizing the opportunity to use his lead role as an excuse to tear through scenery like a bulldozer, as is usually his speciality. Seagal is so silly, his intended gravitas landing with all the profundity of an SNL skit. Hopper is demented, even more so than in Speed, and the rental fee is worth it just to hear his perplexing, absolutely wretched Irish accent. Not since Tommy Lee Jones in Blown Away have I laughed that hard at an actor butchering the dialect to high heaven. There’s appearances from Nas, Jaime Pressley, Kevin Gage and the always awesome Peter Greene as ana a-hole fellow cop that hounds Sizemore any chance he gets. Quite the cast, and in a perfect world the film they wander through would match their talent. I watched this with the same morbid curiosity that the bystanders gawking at the resulting destruction of one of Hopper’s bombs no doubt had: incredulity and the inability to look away for missing a moment of a disaster unfolding in front of you.
There are a few films Kevin Costner has done in which he has really been allowed and been willing to test the boundaries of what is usually expected from him in a role. 3,000 Miles To Graceland and Eastwood’s A Perfect World are fine examples. Perhaps the finest though is Mr. Brooks, a dark tale that showcases the actor in a terrifying turn and the last type of role you would picture for him on paper. Opposites are paramount in acting and cinema as a whole, and it’s that type of contrarian casting choice that can lead to a performer’s finest hours. In this case it’s certainly one of Kevin’s best outings, and casts him in a frightening new light, or should I say dark. Here he is Earl Brooks, husband, father, businessman and all round stand up guy. Except fpr the fact that he moonlights as a methodical and psychopathic serial killer. He sees it as an affliction, and is almost ashamed of it, whether by a tiny flicker of a soul he may have, or simply by the standards impressed onto society. He’s efficient, cold and hopelessly addicted to the act of murder. His alter ego, or ‘dark passenger’ as the scholars say, is a cynical persona called Marshall, brought to life by a scary William Hurt. “Why do you fight it, Earl?” he drawls in that committed, laconic snarl that only Hurt can do. There’s shades of his character from Cronenberg’s A History Of Violence here, affirming my belief that Hurt is a pure acting prodigy and masterful of both the light and the dark within his craft. Earl has a daughter too (Danielle Panabaker) who he has worrisome thoughts about, and a picture perfect wife (Marg Helgenberger). One can’t keep the turbulent nightlife of the serial killer a secret for one’s entire life though, and pretty soon people start to catch on. A nosy Nelly (Dane Cook) catches a whiff of Earl’s crimes and lives to wish he hadn’t, and a keen Detective (Demi Moore) begins to piece the puzzle together as well. Earl is as clever as he is murderous though, covering his work and tying off loose ends with gut churning gusto. Costner carries the film terrifically, a man who is at once both uncomfortable in his own skin yet fits it like a glove when the camera dutifully bears witness to his killings. He’s like a tiger who really can’t change his stripes but wants to shield them from the judgment of others, and of course his own persecution. The scenes of murder are skin crawling in their frank, fly-on-the-wall nature, no slasher cinematics or gimmicky set ups here, just the icy horror of a predator extinguishing human life to sate the beast, and the nightmarish inevitability of death. Those scenes paint Earl in a horrific light, but the film doesn’t try to convince us he’s a monster using any usual methods, it just presents to us this man, his acts and his life surrounding them, without discernable condoning or condemning. It’s cold, it’s clinical and it’s one of the best serial killer flicks out there.
Ahh, Peter Berg’s The Rundown. What a sun soaked galavant of action fun, a purely cinematic exercise in excitement and joyous fun, a rollicking genre exercise that’s free from the rides of intellectual expectation. No, it’s nothing but playtime here, and one of the rare cases where a PG-13 rating actually doesn’t hurt an action film. It’s so lighthearted and affable that the extra bloody punch of an R rating probably would have been a jarring, unnecessary distraction and offset it’s tone. For the record, you will almost never hear me advocate that in this genre, but I suppose every issues has its extreme exceptions. Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson plays Beck, a rough and tumble dude who coyly disguises the title of bounty hunter by calling himself a ‘retrieval expert’. He’s essentially a big teddy bear with the ability to rip out your stuffing and kick the ever loving shit out of anyone whose demise will earn him a pay cheque. He doesn’t like using guns, and every cent he makes goes towards a dream of opening up his own restaurant. Pretty much the most adorable action hero you can imagine. He is sent by an Miami crime lord (William Lucking hamming it up royally) to retrieve his wayward son (Sean William Scott) who has run off to an unspecified tropical country. Beck jumps a plane and runs off to said country to give us one of the most pleasently riotous action/comedy/adventure of the 00’s. His pursuit of Scott leads him to endless picturesque jungles, horny baboons, invincible native Kung fi warriors and more. Scott turns out to be an elusive wise – ass who is nothing but calamity for both Beck and himself. The scenes where they try the dodgy local fruit are rewind worthy. He really shines here, bringing the same burn-down-the-house attitude he did as Stiffler. There’s also a priceless artifact that everyone is trying to retrieve, including a tough local bartender (Rosario Dawson). There’s also a villain, as there must be in any action film, a bugnuts local tyrant named Hatcher played by the one and only Christopher Walken. Hatcher is a wonderful Walken creation whose attempted menace is constantly undone by his penchent for silliness, a winning combination that super-charges every scene he gets. That lanky Scotsman Ewan Bremer is wicked funny as a deranged bush pilot who assists Beck in unintelligible endearance. Hearing him vivaciously recite Dylan Thomas’s ‘Dying Of The Light’ right before a big old gunfight kicks off is absolute gold. Dwayne makes nice work of the action hero archetype, bringing an almost adolescent buoyancy to his vibe that he may even have not seen coming when he got into the craft. There’s a surprise cameo from a genre titan early on in the film that is essentially a passing of the torch symbol, so eyes should be kept peeled. Director Berg knows how to wow an audience in many a genre, this being my favourite excursion of his thus far. It’s loud, scenic, unapologetic and has fun six ways to fucking Sunday.
“Let us go then, you and I,
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.”
This excerpt from the poem ‘The Love Of J. Alfred Prufrock’ by Eliot is our theme for a film called Till Human Voices wake us, a film I’ve owned on dvd for almost two years and only got around to watching last night. I have a whole gigantic stack of films that number in the hundreds which I still have to conquer. Some are dodgy movies and risky looking indie muck that I picked up because they have an actor or actress I really love. Some end up being absolute gems that I wish I got around to far, far sooner. This is one of those. It’s such a beautiful story, an atmospheric, airy glance into grief, regret, life after death, guilt and redemption. It stars Guy Pearce as Sam, an emotionally constrained professor of psychology who travels back to his town of origin in eerie, ambient Australia to bury his recently deceased father. The very moment he arrives he is flooded with memories both glad and sad, permeated deep to his core by a past that he perhaps purposefully numbed over with time and tide, revisiting the lost events of a youth painted by wonder and first love, and tainted by aching tragedy. We see in flashbacks his younger self (Lindley Joiner) barely a teenager in the lonely rural outback. He spent his days back then with his beautiful friend Sylvie (Brooke Harmon), and the two fall deeply, sublimely in love in that affectionate way that only two youngsters who are both experiencing it for the first time can profess. Tragedy strikes though, resulting in Sylvie’s death and Sam’s withdrawal from his life in the that town, and eventual flight from Australia, not to return until over a decade later, much older yet still plagued by the loss. Upon returning, he meets a mysterious girl named Ruby (Helena Bonham Carter) who he saves from jumping off a bridge. All she can remember is her name. Nothing else like who she is or what she was doing up there. Sam takes her in and tries to help her figure out who she is, and perhaps unbeknownst to him, who he is these days as well. Together they meander through meadows memories, exploring each other’s thoughts, perceptions and feelings, gradually coming to some third act revelations that really shouldn’t come as a surprise to any viewer with an ounce of intuition. The surprise comes not in being taken off guard by plot turns, because I certainly wasn’t. No, the film never sets out to try and surprise you, and guessing what’s going on before any reveal I suspect was part of its plan. What it floored me with, though, is the level of emotion and heights of pure crestfallen sadness that we need to sit through. I say need because this is a film about coming to terms with ones own past, hard parts and all. Sam has bottled up the loss of Sylvie for quite some time, and his character arc lets it all tumble out in some scenes that hit hard. It’s never ugly or despairing though, and gracefully makes itself only as sorrowful as it needs to be. Pearce and Carter are painfully good in the leads, quietly devastating work for both. It’s Harmon and Joiner who complete the song as young Sylvie and young Sam though, two young actors who are uncommonly good on camera and vastly skilled at imparting the raw, reckless and romantic nature of youth, particularly discovering love for the first time, and subsequently losing it in heartbreak that strikes far too soon, like an early summer storm. This is one I’m imagining not too many people have heard of, and one I might have gone a few more years without seeing if I hadn’t randomly decided to watch it last night. I’m glad I did, and you should too.