If Quentin Tarantino has achieved anything in his love letters to the spaghetti western genre, it’s his notable subtraction of the noodles from aforementioned dish, leaving decadent swaths of scarlet marinara sauce to be flung about the screen as blazing bullets rock various characters to their bones, sending blood all over the place in quantities that defy physics or biology. He did it with Django, and he does it again with The Hateful Eight, a somber, simmering snow opera that fell just south of winning me over entirely. Don’t get me wrong: there’s much merit to be found here, and as usual QT has a solid gold ear for dialogue that is as pleasing to the ear as Ennio Morricone’s unusually restrained, palm sweating score. He also shows his uncanny knack for chasing awesome actors out of the woodwork and casting them in his films. In his attempts to resurrect 70mm panavision he has achieved undisputed success. I’m also a sucker for both Agatha Christie style mysteries and snowbound locations (and what locations!!), both of which are in abundance here. And yet.. something just didn’t quite click for me, story wise. Perhaps it’s the fact that trailers had worked my imagination up to imposible heights of intrigue that couldn’t be brought to the table with this tale. In that regard, I suppose it’s my own fault. In any case, the eventual revelations just didn’t feel as profound and fitting after having sat through the endless, tantalizing set up. But oh, what a set up. QT deliberately marinates his characters in a stew of unease and malcontent, each player a grizzled picture of vague evil intent, firing missiles of distrust and loathing at one another until the ill will is as thick as the snow drifts they fight through. In the throes of a gathering blizzard, bounty hunter John ‘The Hangman’ Ruth (Kurt Russell in a sly nod of the head to beloved R.J. Macready, only saltier and far meaner) leads shackled prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh in the best performance of the film) to the town of Red Rock, to be hung. Along the way, and with much chatter, he picks up two stragglers: pissy fellow hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L.Jackson) and one Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins). They arrive at Minnie’s Haberdashery, an oasis in the sea of winter, where four other undesirables have already shacked up in refuge: Owaldo Mobrey (Tim Roth earns his keep and then some) a self proclaimed hangman with some serious pep in his step, crusty confederate Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), Bob the Mexican (Demian Bichir is restrained comic perfection) and dangerous looking cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen, that gravel voiced wildcat, is always awesome). They all hunker down to ride out the storm and quickly begin to realize that one or more amongst them isn’t who they say they are, and there’s devilry afoot. Sound intriguing? It did to me too, and I can’t say much about what exactly let me down without giving stuff away, but it just felt like such a pedestrian knockoff of a second act after the absolute slow burning joy of a guessing game which preceded it. Maybe it’s a bit like a Christmas present: you spend months in a giddy daze wondering what you’ll get, you get there christmas morning and there your present is: shiny, gleaming and filled with endless possibility, but unmistakably shaped by your specific anticipation of what lays within. You open your present… and there it is, mystery evaporated, no longer a present but an actual object, or in this case a story that you must wrestle with to appease the lingering wonder of what you expected, as opposed to what you got. I know it’s too much to expect every film to be that perfect christmas present that is as satisfying wrapped as unwrapped, but with QT’s stuff I feel I always act that way a bit, having pictured my definitive version of the films before having seen them, and feelng somewhat underwhelmed. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it: It’s chock full of macabre surprises, earnest performances and expectedly nasty violence. Jennifer Jason Leigh owns as Daisy, a frothing feral beast. Leigh has no shortage of courage in taking on courageous, unflattering roles, and she dives right into this one with fists and teeth clenched, eyes narrowed and a steely will to survive. It’s truly a blessing to see her on the big screen again and I hope to see more in the future. There’s one casting decision which almost ruined the last act for me. I won’t spoil it here but the ‘actor’ in question is so unbelievably untalented and sticks out like ten sore thumbs in his ineptitude, really making me wonder about QT’s sanity. The rest of the cast makes up for it in spades though, particularly Madsen, Roth and Russell. Goggins also gets loads to do and does it with grinning flair that would make Boyd Crowder proud. The cinematography by legendary Robert Richardson is staggeringly beautiful. The wintry Vistas sweep by in splendor, eventually moving inward to the firelit cabin where everything has a burnished, lived-in texture that’s transfixing to look at. If only the story had the weight and impact I was expecting, I could have given this glowing accolades, but there’s always next time. Gorgeous Tarantino outing with a cast that chomps at the bit relentlessly, and although it ultimately falls short, it’s quite the piece of cinema all the same.
The late Tony Scott and Denzel Washington collaborated on five films, the second last of which is underrated sci fi thriller Deja Vu. It contains Scott’s trademark visual style, all skitchy sketchy frames, deliriously rapid editing and deep, gorgeously saturated colours that pisses a lot of people off in its garish, flippant aesthetic. I for one love his style, and here he is coming down off the high that was his masterpiece, Domino, exercising restraint that was no doubt mandated by the studio bigwigs. Nevertheless, the same unmistakably heightened forces of filmmaking that flow through the veins of this crackling thriller can be found in most of his work, just in smaller doses here. The film tackles a lot in its unassuming narrative, from terrorist bombing, an elliptical story that’s put in an otherworldly trance by a plot point involving a high tech time travel capability, and a surprisingly heartfelt undercurrant that somewhat sneaks up on you. During a captivating opening credit sequence, we see a horrific explosion onboard a navy transport ferry in the New Orleans harbour, killing over five hundred people including women and children. ATF Agent Doug Carlin (Washington) is called in to investigate, and before long his cunning intuition catches the eye of FBI Agent Pryzwara (an unusually calm Val Kilmer) who is spearheading a very hush hush investigative technique that’s being used to track the terrorist in the days leading up to the incident. What Kilmer doesn’t tell him is the mind-bending metaphysical implications of it, but keener Denzel gets wise to their act, and throws himself headlong into a quest to stop the bomber, save the mysterious Claire (Paula Patton, just phenomenal) who was murdered and has ties to the event, and reverse time. Denzel is an implosive wrecking ball of determination, his ingenuity and reserve made me wonder why Carlins career aspirations stopped short of the ATF. I don’t know why Patton isn’t in more films (she recently starred alongside Denzel again in the super fun 2 Guns), she brings a battered resilience to her work, and is a radiant beauty to boot. Peppy gerbil Adam Goldberg is the obligatory one liner spewing techie who’s got more going on than his exterior may read, and Bruce Greenwood is all stern bluster as the FBI honcho in charge. This film doesn’t often come up in discussions of either Denzel’s or Scott’s greatest hits, but it’s ripe for rediscovery and praise. Propulsive action, far fetched sci fi intrigue that’s hard to digest and follow, yet simultaneously wicked fun, and like I said before an emotional core that takes you by surprise. There’s a sentence that I internally intone to myself whenever I see a film, or aspects within a film that fire up my adrenal glands, tear ducts or simply rouse my soul. Be it a banger of an action sequence, a romance that hits all the right notes, a good old fashioned fantastical invention or visual flights of fantasy that stir wonder within me. That sentence is “This is why I watch movies”. I get no greater pleasure in my cinematic escapades than being able to say that to myself as my heart pumps to the tune of whatever grand spectacle I’m witnessing before me onscreen. I can tell you, the sentence was uttered while watching this one, and now that I think of it, pretty much every film in Scott’s portfolio. Highly recommended.
I used to own a copy of Richard Rush’s Color Of Night, and I could kick myself in the teeth for ever pawning it in times of financial despair. It’s one of the steamiest, wackiest and most ludicrous erotic thrillers that the 90’s has to offer. I’m not kidding, this one navigates its way to the edge of the map of believability and logic, and with a knowing wink, dives headlong right off the edge of it into realms of sweaty, sexy excess, characters so strange they seem to be from a looney toons episode directed by David Lynch, and a preposterous story that has to be seen to be disbelieved. That’s not to say I don’t like it; I love the hot mess and yearn for a re-watch, just as soon as I track down a dvd. Bruce Willis eases into the erotic tropes with gusto that would make Michael Douglas proud, playing color blind psychiatrist Bill Capa who gets a nerve shake-up when a distraught female patient (Kathleen Wilhouette in a cameo of gushing melodrama) takes a suicidal swan dive out of his forty story office to the NYC streets below. Soon after, he’s tasked with taking over a support group previously run by a colleague (Scott Bakula) who was murdered under mysterious circumstances. The group is populated by several oddball weirdos, one of whom may be the one who offed the good doctor Bakula. There’s tortured ex cop Buck (Lance Henriksen, always welcome and one of the only performers who takes things seriously here), OCD weasel Clark (Brad Dourif) and a host of others, all competing as to who can be the strangest red herring in the proceedings. Capa soon finds himself sexually involved with the impossibly sultry Rose (Jane March). And when I say sexually, I. Mean. Sexually. It’s hard to reach the clawing levels of heightened on-screen copulation that this baby throws at us without slipping into outright parody, and indeed sometimes it feels like we’re watching the 9/12 Weeks spoof scene in Hot Shots Part 1. It helps though, that March is breathtakingly sexy and spends a solid slice of the film absolutely in the nude, and slathered with all kinds of fluids, bodily and other. What doesn’t help? Willis’s grizzly bear fur coat of a torso and the moment where he bears his wee willy winker dinker in naked glory, making sure that anyone who didn’t quite get that image burned into their retinas with a similar scene in Pulp Fiction gets a glorious second chance here. Oh goody. Anyways, between bouts of feral coitus, Willis and March navigate treacherous waters to smoke the killer out and save their skins. They also get bothered by a bumbling detective (vivacious Ruben Blades) that would make Columbo proud. Supporting work is also provided by Kevin J. O Connor, Shirley Knight, Erick Avari, Eric Lasalle and Lesley Ann Warren who add extra incredulity to gild the already silly tone. It’s large. It’s loud. It’s oiled up. It’s a really unbelievable piece of violent eroticism, and despite everything… I loves me some Color Of Night.
Before John Carpenter’s Halloween, there was Black Christmas, and no it’s not a Tyler Perry holiday special. It’s a slick little slasher set in a 1970’s sorority house during Christmas break, when many of the girls have gone home. Suddenly mysterious phone calls start to plague the ones still there, and one by one a murderous, unseen prowler starts to murder them. The phone calls themselves aren’t overly threatening, but instead sound like the nonsensical babbling of someone who is a couple reindeer short of a sleigh, making them all the scarier. I remember watching this years ago and being far more creeped out at the phone calls rather than the actual murders. That is a perfect example of using atmosphere to get under your audience’s skin rather than straight up gore, and a testament to the fright films of the 70’s and 80’s, which really seemed to have all the atmosphere vs. gore dials in the right positions. This positively drips with tension and ambience. The silences in between screams are almost deafening in their vacuous anticipation of terror to come, and strange as it sounds, there’s actually a nice Christmas-y feeling in places where the fear hasn’t yet struck, despite it being a horror movie. Olivia Hussey plays Jess, the main target of the killer with appropriate wide eyed intensity, Margot Kidder is briefly seen as the house mother, and horror regular John Saxon shows up as a suspicious Police Chief as well. I’d say this one achieves a state of suspense and atmosphere that can step up to the same plate as Halloween any day, it’s just a little overlooked I suppose. The house they are in is the perfect setting, a sprawling Yuletide manor of creaky hallways, desolated basements, dark, dingy attic space and an uneasy thrum of awaiting gloom that gives the words Silent Night a new meaning. The poor girls just never know when a shrill telephone ring will slice through the eerie corridors, forcing them to answer it and hear an unnerving voice warble out “It’s me, Billy” on the other end.
PS: avoid the remake at all costs. It takes everything that was creepy and restrained about this classic and turns it into a disgusting nightmare.
Edward Zwick’s Legends Of The Fall is sweeping Hollywood grandeur at its finest. It’s a raging typhoon, one part family high drama, one part war film, wrapped in a nostalgic, old world romance that hearkens back to the golden age of cinema. It’s an epic as only the pictures can show us, blowing a gust of storytelling wind at us and depositing us on the endless plains of the 1900’s, in the monumental Rocky Mountains of Montana. The story focuses on Colonel William Ludlow (Anthony Hopkins, gnarled nobility incarnate), living with his three sons in the desolation of an old world making way for a new, as the four of them deal with love, loss, war, nature and interpersonal conflict in a story that plumbs the chasms of human nature and spits out characters that bleed raw feeling, reach out to one another in the clamour of a nation only just being formed (like the land itself), and clash in tragic harmony, spanning years in their lives and showing us desperation, grief and brotherhood. Brad Pitt, in the fiercest performance I’ve ever seen him muster, plays Tristan, Ludlow’s half Native son with a wild streak a mile long and a kinship with the tangled wilderness he calls home. Aiden Quinn plays the middle brother Alfred, a reserved, analytical type. When their younger brother Samuel (Henry Thomas), arrives home with his beautiful fiancé Susannah (Julia Ormond) sparks fly between her and Tristan, and an immediate rift is formed in the family that Ormond sees all too well, but cannot deny her love for Pitt. Samuel is a fragile, easily traumatized man, and when the boys are driven from their lands to fight in the war, it dampens his soul with a ruining force of horror that leaves him scarred forever. Tristan, being almost animalistic at heart, sinks into the carnage of combat with the keen resilience of a wolf, and is transformed in a different fashion. This to me is the penultimate sequence of the film, as it strays from the picturesque grandeur of their life before, removed from the world of conflict, into the sheer reality that befalls a country in formation, representing a loss of innocence so to speak. Neither of them are the same after that, and the cracks in their brotherhood only etch further after tragedy befalls Susannah, blackening their idealistic home life as well and tainting the memory with aching sadness. Tristan tries to move on, either to wrap the hurt in a cloak of new events, or because his instinctual nature spurs him on, but he almost seems to be cursed, and more hardships step into his path as well. I don’t want to deter you from seeing this by laying all this doom and gloom into my review, because it’s actually a very beautiful film to see unfolding, it just deals with incredibly tragic subject matter that will leave you breathless with tears, like Titanic, or Romeo & Juliet. Pitt.. What can I say. He’s outstanding, giving Tristan the fearsome gaze of a wounded animal, and the love struck longing that’s shot down by fate, turning him into a prisoner of his own ephemeral love for those who are taken from him. It’s my second favourite of his roles (it’s hard to top Twelve Monkeys) and he shines in it like a silver star over the Montana horizon. Montana itself basically screams to be pored over by a camera, and the cinematography will make you feel every gust of mountain air and gasp at the looming crags and sun dappled glades that leap out from your screen at you. It’s one of the last of a dying breed: the romantic epic. Like Titanic, or Gone With The Wind and Doctor Zhievago before it, it posses that untouchably bold quality that showcases emotion, tragic happenstance and deep longing all set in a breathtaking setting that is meant to move and astonish you. A classic.
Tim Burton’s Batman Returns is my second favourite Batman movie thus far. It’s pretty underrated, stylishly cheeky and full of ornate, wonderfully oppressive, melancholic set design and drips with a gothic sensability that only Burton included in his versions, and seems to be missing from the franchise these days. It’s dark, comical and just a little bit campy, always a winning combination. Michael Keaton steps back into the batsuit for a second time, and he’s even more somber and downbeat than in Burton’s original 1989 film. Keaton is so talented, and one only needs to look at his zany work in Beetlejuice and compare it to the heft and restraint he shows as the caped crusader to see this. Here he’s faced with a snowy, blackened and endlessly corrupt Gotham City, this time under siege from three wildly different villains. Danny Devito plays Oswald Cobblepot, a.k.a. The Penguin, in what is probably the most outlandish character in the otherwise grim film. He’s a bad tempered, knobbly little gremlin, encased in sallow makeup and sporting disgusting, pasty little flippers. It’s hard to tell it’s even Devito at all until that little smart ass mouth opens up to hurl calculated obscenities at anyone and everyone. He aims to be mayor, and only in freaky deaky Gotham would a plan like that ever be taken seriously, from a sewer dwelling, animalistic mobster with an army of clowns following him. Christopher Walken plays evil, ghoulish Max Schreck, an amoral monster of a businessman with nefarious plans of his own, and a haircut that would make Andy Warhol run for cover. Last and most memorable is Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle, Schreck’s awkward, meek secretary who eventually becomes Catwoman. And what a Catwoman she is. Forget Anne Hathaway, Julie Newmar take a number, and we won’t even mention Halle Berry. No one played the pussy quite like Pfeiffer. She’s got a shiny, skin tight outfit with the body to match, a sassy, sexy attitude, a whip smart mouth on her and just a hint of psychosis, making her my favourite film incarnation of the character. “Meow” she purrs sensually as an incendiary bomb detonates behind her. Damn. They all get wrapped up in various schemes and scams. Penguin wants ultimate power, which apparantly involves kidnapping a bunch of infants. Schreck wants ruthless progress to tear Old Gotham up in worship of the almighty dollar, and Catwoman is content to slash and burn everyone’s plans, until she gets a bit of a smolder in her eye for Batman, providing some electric sexual tension between the two of them that’s a highlight of the film. Neither of them are sure whether they want to kiss or kill, fight or fuck the other, and it’s devilishly entertaining watching them hash out their hormones in naughty little action sequences and slow, slinky intimate scenes, involving both Bruce and Selina as well as their feral alter egos. Their chemistry revolves at the center of the piece, with all manner of circus sideshow madness happening around them. Pat Hingle and Michael Gough diligently put in work as Commissioner Gordon and Alfred Pennyworth, with Doug Jones, Michael Murphy, Andrew Bryarniarski and Paul Reubens rounding out the roster. Burton outdid himself with style on this one, his trademark eye for loving detail laboriously employed here to the point where it surpasses the artistry of a comic book and starts to look like some mad dream of Vincent Price. He dipped his toe in the water of the Batman universe with his first outing. Here he plunges headlong into it and fully commits to a style and tone that’s distilled to a satisfactory point that he wasn’t quite at with Batman 1989. A treasure in the franchise, and a wicked fun film at that.