Guy Ritchie’s Rocknrolla was the third British crime comedy caper for the director, and it could have easily been the misstep that signaled him wearing out his welcome. Happily I can tell you that it’s a winner, and although not as cracking as Lock Stock or Snatch, it sinks into its own distinct groove that’s fairly removed from it’s two predecessors. Once again we are treated to the life and times of a bunch of hoods and gangsters in London, but not the grungy, back alley soup kitchen London that we’re used to from Ritchie. No, this is a glistening, prosperous London, filled with real estate money ripe for the taking and developers making underhanded deals with shady businessmen. The climate has definitely changed in Ritchie’s aesthetic, but the characters remain the same, just as witty, eccentric and chock full of piss and vinegar. The story centers around the wild bunch, a cozy little clan of East end petty thieves led by One Two (Gerard Butler) and Mumbles (Idris Elba). Their third musketeer is Handsome Bob, played by a hilarious Tom Hardy who has a secret up his sleeve that spills out in what is the most adorable scene Ritchie has ever written. The gang is hired by a mysterious chick (Thandie Newton) to rob some dudes, and that’s where the trouble starts. Elsewhere in town, arch gangster Lenny Cole (a frothing Tom Wilkinson) negotiates a land deal with dangerous russian billionaire Uri (Karel Roden switches up his trademark psychosis for smooth talking menace here) that hinges on a missing painting. Lenny dispatches his right hand bloke Archie (Mark Strong, subtly trolling us) to find it along with his rock star nephew Johnny Quid. Got that? Nevermind, half the fun is the how and not the why of Ritchie’s stories, and I find it best to just let the flow of it wash over you as opposed to thinking out each detail and missing the sideshow. Toby Kebbell is off the hook as Quid, a wiry stick of dynamite and a comic force to be reckoned with, truly the most exciting performance of the film. Ritchie has a knack for bringing out the funny side in actors, even ones that aren’t usually the type to make you laugh. Strong is terrific, with a few carefully timed moments of sheer hilarity that deftly make you forget how dangerous he is. Ludacris and Jeremy Piven are fun, if a bit out of place as two event promoters. Butler and Elba have an easy-peasy rapport that’s light, friendly and believable. Wilkinson dances between alpha assuredness and aging buffoonry nicely, always commanding the scene and oddly reminding me of Mr. Magoo. There’s a playful tone to this one, glitzy and celebratory in places where Snatch was grim and sketchy, and the whole affair feels like a new years party with a bunch of old friends. Watch for cameos from Matt King, Nonzo Anonzie, Jimi Mistry, Mundungus Fletcher and Gemma Arterton. Very fun stuff.
Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element is what you get when you give a massive budget to a director who has an otherworldly flair for imagination and a creative pulse that doesn’t subside for one single second. It’s one of the best sci fi films ever made, a pure intergalactic rush of absurdist qualities anchored by a solid blueprint that’s both akin to and far removed from countless space movies out there. The surprise, and what works so well, comes from Besson and his team crafting a warped and almost Dr. Seussical world that dabbles in cartoonish territory, boggles the eyes endlessly and continually assures you that anything goes in terms of style and tone. It’s an all timer for me, a blast of zany ideas, lovable characters (even the villains are teddy bears to me), a celebration of off the cuff production design and a goddamn certified barrel of fun. Most who read this will know the plot inside out and up and down, but we all know how much I love babbling on about actors and events, so bear with moi. There’s an adorable prologue (“Aziz, light!!!!”) In which an alien race called the Mondosheewans arrive on earth to remove a sacred and very powerful item from an Egyptian pyramid. They resemble shambling steam punk Volkswagen beetles, and are a force of good. This takes place in the 1800’s, and before you can say Luke Perry, we’ve flashed forward to a dazzling futuristic New York City where the events that came before come full circle. Self depracating cabbie Corben Dallas (Bruce Willis) has a day of unending bad luck, until a gorgeous humanoid being named Leeloo (Milla Jovovich was my first cinematic crush in this role ♡) literally falls into his lap, or rather, crashes through the roof of his cab and incites a high speed chase in hover cars, a fantastic sequence, I might add. It turns out this slender, orange deadlocked babe is the human manifestation of the coveted artifact that the Mondosheewans took into their possession. Willis and Jovovich have an immediate exasperated chemistry that practically leaps off the screen as giddily as your heart does whenever they’re seen together. They’re one of the cutest couples in history, and soon embark on a wild adventure to prevent mass destruction at the hands of a giant ball of pure evil that threatens earth (and no I didn’t make that up). Also threatening them is Jean Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (wish that was my name), played by Gary Oldman in a preening, gaudy display of theatrical evil that must be seen to be believed. Zorg is an arrogent megalomaniac who basically runs the city, out to find the ancient stones that are the key to stopping that malevolent force that hangs out just outside of earth’s atmosphere. This is the only film that can claim it has a scene where pure evil itself calls up Gary Oldman on the phone for a chat, which has to be some kind of achievment. There’s a gaggle of incredible actors running around as well, including Bilbo Ba-, I mean Ian Holm as Father Cornelius, a priest of an ancient order sworn to protect Leeloo, the president of the united states (Tiny Lister, once again I’m not making this up), a hapless general (John Neville), a tweaked out petty thief (Mathieu Kassovitz in a scene of pure WTF), Brion James, Lee Evans, and Chris Tucker. Oh good lord Chris Tucker. I don’t know how the guy has the energy, but he keeps it in mania mode as Ruby Rod, a flagrantly horny loudmouth prima donna radio DJ that tags along with Corben for a few gunfights and explosions and shrieks like a banshee all the while. Willis has never been as amiable as he is here, it’s as if John McClane wandered into an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and decided to have some fun. Truly a great protagonist. You will fall deeply in love with Milla as Leeloo. Her lithe physicality, unearthly dialect that she actually learned in full for the film, striking naivete and burgeoning compassion all make her one of the most unique and mesmerizing heroines to ever exist in a film. Oldman mugs, chews scenery like a bulldog, prances about like he’s in a grade school play, and is a sheer diabolical delight. The scene where he demonstrates the ‘swiss army gun’ for his dimwitted extraterrestrial cohorts is time capsule worthy, as is the entire film. Besson directs and stages his world with a reckless abandon that plays like a watercolor painting of pure expression. If there’s an idea someone had, it ended up in this film no matter how outlandish and random it is. That’s the kind of carefree artistic qualities that all movies should have; a willingness to be silly, to be crazy, to step outside the box and then trample on it whilst hurling confetti all about the place. This film is a shining example of that, and stands out as not only one of my favourite films of all time, but one of the best ever made. Big BADABOOM.
Wes Craven’s Dracula 2000 is one of those horror flicks that proudly slaps his name over the title like he runs the show, when in fact he’s only participating under a vague executive producer credit. Now that we’ve got that little detail out of the way we can talk about what a thoroughly awesome movie it is, and how the haters can go suck it. It’s a high concept slice of bloody fun and has easily one of the best pairings of an actor with the Dracula mythos ever: Gerard Butler. He’s young and lean here, before he turned into a tank later in his career, and he makes one hell of a kick ass Dracula. The story is too good to be true: a team of arch criminals, led by Omar Epps and also including Hyde from That 70’s Show (lol) break into the European mansion of Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (Christopher Plummer) and steal the heavy duty coffin which he has stashed in his basement and used to contain Vladdy for over a hundred years. Helsing has always used a compound derived from his blood to keep himself alive all that time and ensure that he never gets loose. The burglars have no idea what they’re on for, and pretty soon Butler is loose and ready to get freaky, tearing apart their getaway plane and running off into the chaotic streets of New Orleans during Mardi Gras. He’s searching for a girl (Justine Waddell) to have sex with her and fulfill some horrific prophecy (nice little nod to End Of Days there). Dracula, Mardi Gras, Gerard Butler, Christopher Plummer; four ingredients to pretty much ensure your movie is gonna rock. Plummer makes one of the best onscreen Van Helsings in my books, rivaled only perhaps by Anthony Hopkins. Butler is a sleek, hip and sensual Dracula, playing the role to the bloody hilt and sedimenting a really cool rendition of the character, with a surprising twist ending that adds some depth to the guy. Watch for work from Jennifer Esposito, Sean Patrick Thomas, Shane West, Lochlyn Munro and Nathan Fillion as well.
Great retelling, or rather addition to the legend, held up by Butler.
Many cinephiles view director Stephen Sommers as the cinematic equivalent of Satan, and with everything that has gone horribly wrong with Hollywood blockbuster films. And, to be fair, with films like Van Helsing (2004) and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009) on a not-too impressive resume (in fact, looking over his filmography, there’s only one film of his I like), he’s hardly a filmmaker one equates with quality, but I will admit to being quite fond of The Mummy (1999). As far as Indiana Jones rip-offs go, it is pretty good. If that sounds like faint praise, I don’t mean it to be as Sommers’ film is actually a lot of fun and entertaining as hell.
The movie is the very popular re-imagining of the old Boris Karloff classic and would go on to spawn two inferior sequels and transform Brendan Fraser into a bonafide leading man. Up to that point he had a reputation for starring in forgettable comedies like Encino Man (1992), The Scout (1994), and Airheads (1994). With The Mummy, he demonstrated some serious action film chops with a hint of romantic leading man qualities that were complimented by his knack for comedy, thankfully doled out in relative moderation this time. The end result is a satisfying popcorn movie with no other agenda than to entertain.
It’s 1923 and the French Foreign Legion engage the Medjai, descendents of Pharaoh Seti I, in battle at the legendary Hamunaptra, the City of the Dead. When his superior officer deserts, Rick O’Connell (Fraser) finds himself in charge, much to his chagrin. It certainly is an exciting way to introduce our leading man as he and his fellow soldiers attempt to stand their ground on the city walls as the Medjai attack in wave after wave. Brendan Fraser shows some decent action movie skills as his character valiantly tries to stay alive despite being overwhelmed by superior numbers and abandoned by his cowardly sidekick (and comic relief) Beni (Kevin J. O’Connor). Rick narrowly escapes and runs off into the desert where the Medjai leave him to die.
Three years later in Cairo, we meet bookish librarian Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) at the Museum of Antiquities as she single-handedly manages to topple over a room full of towering bookcases like dominoes when she attempts to shelve a book. It’s a cute bit of slapstick that establishes Evelyn as one of the most not-so graceful people on the planet. With her hair tied up and sporting a thick-rimmed pair of glasses, the movie’s greatest special effect may be trying to convince us that the gorgeous Rachel Weisz is a socially awkward bookworm (yeah, right). Evelyn’s application to bigger and better things has been rejected yet again because she doesn’t have enough field experience. Along comes her older ne’er-do-well brother Jonathan (John Hannah) who has discovered a trinket at an archaeological dig in Thebes. Inside it contains a map to the mythic Hamunaptra, the place where the earliest Pharaohs are said to have hidden the wealth of Egypt. No one has ever found it and naturally Evelyn’s boss scoffs at the notion of its very existence.
It turns out that Jonathan actually stole the map from Rick who is rotting away in prison. Jonathan and Evelyn pay him a visit and he agrees to tell them where the City of the Dead is located but only if they free him. They do (and just in the nick of time) and set out for the site with a rival expedition of American fortune hunters also looking for it. As luck would have it, they are led by Beni, setting up a personal rivalry between him and Rick. Both groups arrive at the City of the Dead and split up, each looking for treasure. However, the American fortune seekers uncover a curse that condemns their party to death.
Meanwhile, Rick and Evelyn uncover the coffin of Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo), the ruler of Hamunaptra and who carried on a forbidden affair with Seti I’s wife Princess Anck-su-namun (Patricia Velasquez). He was buried alive for his indiscretions while she killed herself. Evelyn unlocks the legendary Book of the Dead and reads from it, unwittingly resurrecting Imhotep who proceeds to kidnap Evelyn with the intention of sacrificing her so that his lover will also come back to life. It’s up to Rick, Jonathan and Ardeth Bey (Oded Fehr), the enigmatic leader of the Medjai, to stop Imhotep.
One of the things that makes The Mummy work is the chemistry between Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. At first, Evelyn sees Rick as an uncouth mercenary and he sees her as a naive stuffed shirt. But the more time they spend together, especially in death-defying situations, the more they grow to admire and respect one another. The two actors handle this development quite well and certainly make for an attractive couple with Fraser’s matinee idol good looks and Weisz’s beautiful appearance – a little something for everyone. They manage to transcend the predictable screenplay and often clichéd dialogue through the sheer force of their natural charisma. This is readily apparent in the campfire scene where one-night Rick teaches Evelyn a bit about hand-to-hand combat even though she’s had a little too much to drink. She ends up passing out just before they kiss, much to his bemusement. There’s a bit of an old school Hollywood vibe to this scene and to how these actors approach their respective roles that works.
As far as Indiana Jones clones go, Rick doesn’t quite bring the slight air of danger that Harrison Ford brought to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), the most obvious influence on The Mummy. Not to mention, Fraser has more hulking boyish good looks as opposed to Ford’s roguish charm. Also, Fraser relies more on comedy than Ford but as far as action-oriented treasure hunters go, you could do worse than Rick O’Connell. Fraser hasn’t really been able to capitalize on the success of this film, appearing in several generic children’s adventure films – although, he showed some promise co-starring with Michael Caine in an adaptation of The Quiet American (2002).
While Evelyn is certainly not as feisty and as capable as Marion in Raiders, she has more of an arc as she goes from sheltered academic to damsel in distress to experienced adventurer. At the time, Weisz was known for appearing in small, independent films and the success of The Mummy would launch her into the A-list stratosphere. She has fared the best of the cast, appearing in delightful romantic comedies like About a Boy (2002) and Definitely, Maybe (2008), and winning an Academy Award for her excellent work in The Constant Gardener (2005).
Sommers handles the action sequences with refreshing simplicity (something that would be absent from his subsequent films). We always know what’s going on and where everyone is. He clearly took notes while watching Raiders and manages to capture its flair for 1930 cliffhanger serials. The Medjai siege on the boat to Hamunaptra early on in the movie is particularly exciting and well-staged, evoking a real Indy Jones vibe.
As with so many big budget tent-pole movies for Hollywood studios, The Mummy was a project that gestated for years and went through many hands before it wound up with Sommers. This new version’s origins lie with producer James Jacks who decided in 1992 to update the original film for the 1990s. He struck a deal with Universal Pictures who agreed to back it but only on a budget around $10 million. Jacks remembered that the studio “essentially wanted a low-budget horror franchise.” To this end, he hired filmmaker/writer Clive Barker whose version was about the head of a contemporary art museum built like a pyramid. The man was actually a cultist trying to reanimate mummies. Jacks described it as “dark, sexual and filled mysticism.” Sadly, after several meetings, Barker and Universal lost interest in the project and parted ways.
Once Barker was off the project, George Romero was brought in and he wanted to make a zombie-style horror film along the lines of his legendary feature film debut, Night of the Living Dead (1968). However, Jacks and the studio wanted to make a mainstream film and felt that Romero’s vision was too scary. Next up was Joe Dante with a contemporary reincarnation tale with elements of a love story starring Daniel-Day Lewis as a brooding Mummy. John Sayles even co-wrote the script but Universal was only willing to spend $15 million on his vision. Jacks then offered the project to Mick Garris and also Wes Craven, both of whom passed.
In 1997, Stephen Sommers contacted Jacks with his take on The Mummy “as a kind of Indiana Jones or Jason and the Argonauts with the mummy as the creature giving the hero a hard time.” He saw the original film when he was only 8-years-old and with his version wanted to recreate the things he liked about it only on a bigger scale. He had wanted in on the project since 1993 but other writers or directors were always involved. Seizing a window of opportunity, he prepared an 18-page pitch to Universal. As luck would have it (for Sommers, that is), the studio had taken a bath on Babe: Pig in the City (1998) and in response, decided to revisit its successful franchises from the 1930s. Executives were so thrilled with Sommers’ concept for The Mummy that they increased the budget from $15 million to a staggering $80 million. Once he got the gig, he spent six months researching the film and then eight weeks writing the screenplay.
When it came time to cast Rick O’Connell, Jacks offered the role to Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, and Ben Affleck but they were either not interested or too busy. Jacks and Sommers were impressed with the box office receipts from George of the Jungle (1997) and cast Brendan Fraser as a result. The actor was drawn to the project because he was looking for an action film and liked the idea that Universal was reinventing one of its properties from the 1930s. For the character, he drew inspiration from the likes of Robin Hood, Buck Rogers and Sinbad. Most importantly, he understood that Rick was the kind of character who didn’t “take himself too seriously, otherwise the audience can’t go on that journey with him.”
The Mummy was shot over three months in Morocco and not in Egypt because of the unstable political conditions there. They also had the official support of the Moroccan army. In a reassuring touch, the cast had kidnapping insurance taken out on them. In addition, the cast and crew had to deal with blinding sandstorms and bad-tempered camels. The production had wranglers on set to catch snakes, scorpions and spiders at the end of every shooting day. This still didn’t prevent many crew members from being airlifted out after being bitten. Everyone also had to worry about dehydration when filming moved to the Sahara Desert. The production’s medical team ended up creating a beverage that the cast and crew had to drink every two hours.
Looking back, whatever good will Sommers garnered with The Mummy, he has subsequently pissed it all away with The Mummy Returns (2001), which reduced the number of quiet moments that developed the characters and told the story in the first movie in favor of wall-to-wall frenetic action and the addition of a bratty child (Rick and Evelyn’s offspring, natch) into the mix. Sommers didn’t return for the third and most disappointing installment (neither did Weisz) which is just as well. The damage had already been done with The Mummy Returns but the first movie is still a rousing, entertaining ride.
As much of a goof as Steven Seagal is these days, he does have a few very solid and badass flicks from back in the day, the best of which is probably Out For Justice. There’s a whole pile of his flicks out there both new and old, and you have to know how to approach this particular minefield. There’s a bunch that are awesome (Under Siege, The Glimmer Man, Above The Law) and an even bigger bunch that stink to high hell (literally anything after 1999). You can’t go wrong with this one though. It’s a violent, nasty gut punch of criminal activity set on the very mean streets of NYC. Seagal is pathetic in the sense that he doesn’t even realize that every single film he does is stolen from under his very nose by the villain, both in terms of acting and character. I rent a Seagal flick not for Seagal, but for whatever grizzled character actor plays his nemesis, and here that slot is thoroughly rattled by a psychotic William Forsythe. Seagal plays NYC cop Gino, who is on the hunt for the killer of a childhood friend, perpetrated by unhinged lunatic Richie Madano (Forsythe), a maverick of a villain who constantly eludes Gino and plays a deadly, reckless game until he is finally caught up with. Forsythe is a juggernaut, whether trash talking his own henchman and kicking the shit out of them or taking road rage to a whole new level when he shoots a mouthy motorist in the head for looking at him the wrong way. He’s the homicidal life of the party here, and Seagal struggles to live up to his talent, which he can only do via his undeniable physicality. Gina Gershon has a sheepish, slutty bit as Richie’s sister, and watch for Jerry Orbach doing his thing as well. About as awesome a flick as you’ll find in Seagal’s career, and a total blast.
Wake In Fright is like one of those clammy nightmares where you are stuck in some godawful place full of ugliness and depravity, and try as you might, you simply can’t escape or outrun the horror around you. Such is the plight of John (Gary Bond) a schoolteacher in a desolate county of the Australian outback, on his way to Sydney for a little R&R on winter break. His journey takes him to a pit stop in Bundanyabba, an ass backwards mining town in the middle of the middle of nowhere. He stops by the bar, where the leathery sheriff (Chips Rafferty) offers to buy him a beer. And another. And another. And another. You see, the Yabba is such an isolated doldrum of a place that it’s inhabitants resort to extreme alcoholism on a daily and nightly basis, which combined with their sun baked brains leads to some harrowing displays of excessive and whacked out behaviour, that poor John comes face to face with. It’s funny that his last name is Bond, because he has the air of sophistication akin to our dear old 007, and it clashes with these yowling yokels like baking soda and petrified vinegar. His composure starts to creak as each pint of lager cascades it’s way down his esophagus, until the line between civilization and primal Instinct starts to scare him. But is it too late by then? He somewhat befriends Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence) a raging drunkard who hangs around with a group who do nothing but drink, howl like lunatics, fight and hunt kangaroos. Pleasence is transfixing as a once cultured man of medicine whose soul has been drenched in the endless consumption of beer and calcified by the mad, acrid sun, until the whites of his eyes begin to reveal the decay beneath. The scenes of alcohol drinking in this film are staggering, frequent and very, very disturbing. The lonliness has bred this behaviour and these people know nothing else but inebriation and idle time wasting, their lives reduced to one long episodic bout of day drinking and nocturnal revelry. John veers eerily close to falling directly in line with them and going to far down that path, especially during a nighttime kangaroo hunt that serves as some perverted form of an initiation ritual. I must warn you: not only are the hunting scenes very, very graphic, but they’re completely un-staged. The adage “it’s just a movie” doesn’t apply to these sequences, and the carnage we see unfold is horrifying geniune. The hunts were supervised by the Australian government and conducted in an overpopulated area by experts. None of that makes them any easier to watch. This film serves as an anthropological treatise on what happens to human beings who live in the farthest and most remote corners of the world, left to their own devices by seclusion and time, relegated to near animalistic states that to them is just another day in the Yabba. Billed as a horror film, but the horror comes solely from the human elements, which to me is always far scarier. Deliverence ain’t got nothing on this baby, and we’re lucky we even got to see it at all. Some years after the film’s bitterly received release (Australians were pissed at the depiction of their people, and probably stung deep by the truth of it) it disappeared so far into obscurity that all prints seemed to be gone, and the consensus was that it was lost forever. One day the editor was cleaning his garage on the very day he was going to liquidate everything he didn’t need, and found a single print. This was nearly twenty years after the film’s release, and today you can watch it on netflix Canada. Quite the story, quite the film. Just strap on a thick skin, it’s a sweaty, dusty, boozy rollercoaster that dips to the very rock bottom of the human condition.
Before the Wachowskis rocketed into the stratosphere of cinema with their big budget world building and brilliant, lofty ideas, they made Bound, a down n’ dirty, kinky little slice of mob pulp that’s as much fun as it is sexy, potent and dangerous. Gina Gershon plays Corky, a hard nosed opportunist with a keen eye for making money and a fondness for beautiful women. Jennifer Tilly is Violet, the bored wife of weaselly gangster Ceasar (a lively Joe Pantoliano), who has just come into a whole wacky of shady cash via his employer Mickey, played by one of the great character actors of his generation, John P. Ryan, who is sadly no longer with us. Ceasar has been given the money to launder, but Violet has other plans that involve double crossing him and making off with it. When she happens to wander into the gay bar that Corky frequents, sparks fly. And I really mean it, for soon enough the two are in bed together for one of the single most hot and heavy sex scenes you will ever see in a film. Seriously, you’ll want to open some windows for this baby. As soon as Corky gets wind of the money, the plot simmers as everyone makes a discreet mad dash for riches and no one is sure who is screwing over who. Gershon is tough, sexy as hell and leaves a faint trace of vulnerability in her excellent performance. Tilly is crafty and secretive, deliberately making people underestimate her until it’s too late. This was Ryan’s last film role, and he makes the most of it as a salty old thug with a dash of class, a touch of kindness and the unnerving tendancy to snap at the drop of a hat. Christopher Meloni is hilariously pathetic as his second in command who irritates everyone around him, especially Ceasar, who has a scary little temper of his own. One senses real danger for our two female leads, because despite the somewhat playful and often satirical tone towards tell gangsters, the Wachowskis have still fashioned them to be formidable and cruel, a wise tonal choice that grounds the viewer and distills geniune suspense. The characters are all brilliantly written and realized, so if you read this review thinking this was a trashy little lowbrow affair, it’s not. It’s It’s a real world tale that just so happens to take place in a lurid part of movie town, and contains one scorcher of a lesbian love affair that is as affecting in dialogue and body language as it is with sex. A special film, and not one to be missed.