I love The Island, because it breaks ranks from Michael Bay’s mostly uniform career and gives us entertainment where story is as important as action, which can’t be said for most of his films. Don’t get me wrong, I love his destructive maelstrom of a career to bits (except Transformers and Pain & Gain. Those are shameful.), it’s just nice to get a movie from him with something to latch onto besides just… boom crash smash. His visual setups are like fire dancing on the retinas, but with The Island we get to see what’s behind those eyes and actually get a concept to explore along with our helping of razzle dazzle. Now this type of story has been done before, in stuff like Logan’s Run or the lesser known Clonus Horror, and obviously this time around the story is jazzed by a considerable amount of chromed up energy and adrenaline. In the far future, a group of people are kept inside a gargantuan facility and told that the world’s population has been nearly wiped out by a contamination. Only one untainted zone remains: The Island. It’s a place where some take off to, after winning a much touted ‘lottery’ that allows them access. Only, they aren’t going to any such place at all. They are selected based on the need for organs, spare biological matter and baby carriers for their human counterparts, the rich and affluent. They’re dormant cattle, so to speak, clones awaiting empty promises. Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) is one such individual, a curious fellow who first suspects something is wrong with their utopian existence, and once confirmed knows he needs to get out. Dragging along his friend Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson) he makes a harebrained run for it, escaping the facility and venturing into the world outside, which is anything but contaminated. I like what Bay did with the production design; Things aren’t too wacky or space agey, and more or less that same as now, but accents like flying motorbikes or massive additions to existing skyscrapers let us know how brave of a new world it is. Lincoln and Jordan suffer considerable culture shock as they flee, and it’s amusing to see the childish way they react to simple things like a telephone, or ordering drinks at a bar. The facility’s Director, an arrogant son of a bitch named Dr. Merrick (Sean Bean) sends a team of off the books ex special forces dudes after them, led by Laurent (Djimon Hounsou gets the best moments out of the film, the only actor who can stop the momentum dead in its tracks with his soulful performance). From there a lot of it is a deafening roar filled with chases, car crashes, fights and a spectacular highway chase that will wake up the tenants both above and below your apartment. Yes, Bay just can’t help throwing in colossal action scenes where they aren’t particularly needed, and complain if you must, but if it’s really that much of a wrench in your enjoyment of the actual story going on around it, then use such interludes for a bathroom break or to go apologize to the neighbors for the racket your speakers are kicking up. You can only hope for Bay to reign it in so much, the dude just loves his action. Ask him to direct a Jane Austen adaptation and you can bet your hat he’d throw in a fireball or two in just for good measure. It’s his passion, and I don’t resent people for what they love to do. In any case it’s a terrifically fun piece. McGregor and Johansson are pitch perfect, as they begin to clue in about the world around them, lashing out in anger over what’s being done to them and becoming quite resourceful. Bean resists the label of villain with his performance, branding Merrick as an idealist whose breakthrough blinded him into extremism, from which there is no turning back. Steve Buscemi shows up bearing kindly comic relief as a tech worker who assists in their escape. Michael Clarke Duncan is very affecting in one scene as a clone who finds out the truth the worst way possible. There’s also work from Shawnee Smith, Chris Ellis, Max Baker, Glenn Morshower and an incredibly bizarre cameo from an uncredited Kim Coates. Steve Jablonsky composes what I believe to be his finest, most stirring work and the best score to date in a Bay flick, adding to the sweeping scope and pure cinematic current that this one soars on. One of my favourites, highly recommended.
Buckle up and watch built badass Carl Weathers head down under to take on vicious Australian criminals in Hurricane Smith, a blast of saxophone laced, trashy 80’s cheese that hits every beloved cliche in perfect chiming key. Weathers is an valued staple to the action genre, a memorable part of Predator and of course his thundering turn as Apollo Creed in the Rocky films. Along with his obvious commanding physicality, he has a likeability that lends itself nicely when it comes to playing heroes out for retribution. His character got the nickname Hurricane after he pulled a friend out of a falling building during the titular meterological event, cementing him as a tough guy worthy of carrying a ninety minute action flick on his shoulders. Hurricane is off to Australia, in search of his sister who has recently gone missing. He stumbles right into the midst of a hornet’s nest of a criminal organization, led by Charlie O Dowd (Jurgen Prochnow), a stunningly evil pimp and drug runner. Prochnow loves to paint his villains in broad, garish strokes and he downright outdoes himself here, careening through a performance of wanton carnage and positively dripping malice. Hurricane is a massive thorn in his side, dismantling his operation in every attempt to learn what happened to his sister. He gets romantically involved with a kindly hooker (Cassandra Delany) leading to the obligatory 80’s slow dance sex scene that everyone waits for in these type of flicks. There’s bullets, car chases, an action scene on a helicopter and all kinds of trademark B movie lunacy. Weathers makes a damn good hero. Prochnow is one hell of a wicked villain. Fun stuff.
The Big Empty is a quirky, off kilter little flick that packs a backpack full of borrowed elements from the Coen brothers and David Lynch, before embarking on a perplexing outing into the Twilight Zone. That’s not to say it rips any of these artists off, and indeed it’s got a style and cadence all its own. It just loves other oddballs before it and wants to wear it’s influences proudly. Everyone’s favourite lovable schlub Jon Favreau plays John Person, a flailing, out of work actor. He’s presented with a dodgy proposition by his whacko neighbour Neely (eternally bug eyed Bud Cort). Transport a mysterious blue briefcase to a remote town in the Mojave Desert called Baker. There he will meet a much talked about, little seen individual called The Cowboy (Sean Bean), who will take the case off his hands. He agrees, as he must in order for us to have a film to watch, and heads out to the back end of nowhere. In any respectable piece like this, the town our hero visits must be populated by weirdos, eccentrics, dead ends, missed encounters and an abiding, ever present atmosphere of anomalous peculiarity. Right on time, he meets a host of charming characters, including Grace (Joey Lauren Adams), her sensual daughter Ruthie (Rachel Leigh Cook), Indian Bob (Gary Farmer), grouchy FBI Agent Banks (Kelsey Grammar), and a bunch of others including Daryl Hannah, Melora Walters, Jon Gries, Brent Briscoe, Adam Beach and Danny Trejo. He’s led from one head scratching interaction to the other, each step of the way proving to be a step behind the elusive Cowboy, with no form of coherence appearing to ease poor John’s bafflement. I was reminded of Jim Jarmusch, particularly his masterpiece Dead Man, perhaps because Gary Farmer appears in both, but most likely mainly due to the fact that both films follow a hapless Joe on a journey that doesn’t seem to be going much of anyplace, but holds interest simply by being bizarre enough. Favreau is the only one that doesn’t fit, the outsider whose laid back suburban affability creates friction with almost every individual he meets, all who seem to have wandered in from the outer limits of some other dimension. Sean Bean is relaxed, mercurial with just a dash of danger as The Cowboy, quite possibly the strangest person John meets. The film has unexpected jabs of humour too, which occasionally breach the surface of its tongue in cheek veneer of inaccessibility. Upon meeting Indian Bob, John inquires: “Are you Bob The Indian?”. Bob jovially retorts “No, I’m Lawrence the fuckin Arabian.” Gary Farmer brings the same cloudy, sardonic cheek he brought to the role of Nobody the Indian in Jarmusch’s Dead Man, which had much the same type humour as this one: little moments of hilarity buried like treasures amongst the abnormal. Sometimes I muse that films like these which seem to really go nowhere in high style are there simply to give your brain a workout in odd areas that it wouldn’t normally play in. Set up a voyage like this, lead the audience down a yellow brick road and arrive at.. well basically nowhere in particular, just to chuckle at your efforts to figure it all out, jab you in the ribs and say “Don’t take this shit too seriously, man!”. Or maybe not. Maybe there’s deeper meaning behind the meandering, that will reveal some holy significance. This one, though, I doubt it. It’s pure playtime.
Guns, Girls And Gambling is an absolute doozy of a film. The term ‘so bad it’s good’ was invented for slapdash mockeries such as this, and with every stylistic cliche and ridiculous tactic, it owns the moniker vigorously. The filmmakers are obvious disciples of the neo noir crime thriller, as we see countless hard boiled walking stereotypes prance across the screen. Whenever a character shows up, a garish font announces them in writing below, which is crime genre 101. This happens so many goddamn times though, that eventually I felt like I was watching Mel Brooks’s attempt at a heist flick. It’s silly beyond words, derivitive enough to give you the onset of dementia and admirably dumb. But… I still had fun, at least in parts of it. It concerns the theft of a priceless Native American artifact from a tribal casino. The perpetrators? A gang of Elvis impersonators with, let’s say, interesting characteristics. There’s gay Elvis (Chris Kattan), midget Elvis (Tony Cox), Asian Elvis (Anthony Wong) and Gary Oldman Elvis, played by Gary Oldman who looks like he was dared into taking the role at a frat party. The bumbling Elvises break ranks post heist and the plot thickens, or should I say befuddles, with the arrival of every kooky, sassy assassin and archetype under the sun. Now from what I could make out: Christian Slater plays a dude called John Smith, a ‘wrong place at the wrong time’ type of guy who is swept up into the intrigue and is in way over head. He’s pursued by all kinds of unsavory people, and joined by the girl next door (Heather Roop). There’s The Cowboy (a salty Jeff Fahey), a gunslinging hitman who claims to never miss but literally misses upon firing the first bullet. The Indian (Matthew Willig) is a hulking tomahawk sporting badass. The Chief (Gordon Tootoosis) is the casino owner, muscling in on everyone to get back his artifact. The Sheriff (Dane Cook) is a corrupt lawman out for anything worth a buck. Best of the bunch is a snarling Powers Boothe as The Rancher, a good ol’ southern gangster who languishes in a white limo longer than the cast list of this movie, chewing scenery as vigorously as his cigar. There’s also a sexy blonde assassin called The Blonde (Helena Mattson) who wanders around quoting Poe right before she blasts people’s heads off. Its inane, mind numbing eye candy, with a cast that seems to have been blackmailed into participation. There’s even a last minute twist ending that seems to have wandered in from a much more serious film. It’s quite literally one of the most stupefyingly odd flicks I’ve ever seen. It’s earnestness in aping countless Pulp Fiction style films before it is beyond amusing, and the only thing that will make you laugh harder is how spectacularly and epically it flounders. It’s truly B movie gold, and one that demands a watch simply because it’s a sideshow unto itself.
Ca$h has an obnoxiously tongue in cheek title, and a premise that could have easily run off the rails into the silly zone. But rejoice: It knows how to create a tense, unpredictable environment accented by the slightest bits of naturally occurring humour here and there, a winning combination indeed. Sean Bean doesn’t often get a movie to himself, or at least get to play the lead. Here’s he’s the top dog, and while most would argue that he’s the antagonist as well, I’m in the opposite corner on that one. Yes he’s a criminal, yes he goes to extreme lengths to get his money back, but he’s a rigidly disciplined and staunchly fair bloke, driven by a set of principles and operational tics that reek of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and trust me, it takes one to know one. Oh, and he gets to play identical twins as well, pulling a Parent Trap and acting opposite himself which is a delight to see. When reckless career criminal Reese Kubrick (Bean) dicks up a robbery, loses a bunch of money and gets apprehended, a young couple think they have hit the jackpot. Played by Chris Hemsworth and Victoria Profeta, they find the money and make that fateful cinematic mistake of trying to keep it for themselves. Before they know it, Reese’s brother Pyke (also Bean) comes looking for them, and believe me when I say that this guy is a dude who finds what he’s looking for. Fast. The young couple has already begun to indulge, and as Pyke barges into their lives he finds a great deal of the amount spent. He then buckles down and calmly, coolly forces them to come up with every remaining cent of the ‘deficit’, as he calls it, even if it means doing a bit of illegal stuff themselves. Bean has a ball as the icy cool, ruthlessly efficiant prick who plays hardball with a glint in his eye. He’s karma manifest, a very real and very dangerous metaphor for the perilous risk of excessive currency and ill gotten gains. It’s a terrific role for him, both in the moments of dangerous serenity and the few rare instances where he loses his cool streak, which sting like daggers. Hemsworth and Profeta play their standard roles very nicely. An arbitrary bit of fun: the actor Glenn Plummer shows up for a hysterical cameo as a dude named, I shit you not, Glenn The Plumber, who receives a whollop of a verbal beatdown from Bean that serves as the film’s most lighthearted moment, and is a riot for anyone who gets the reference. Snuck into limited DVD release back in 2010, this one deserves more than the small shelf space it’s gotten. Fun stuff.
“Some will fly, some will fall..”
Snow Angels is an agonizing film to put yourself through, as it determinedly focuses on two people who are losing track of their path in life. Their emotional and psychological clarity is dimming, blinded by possible mental illness and lingering tragedy, mentally snowed in, so to speak, like the ironically idyllic Midwestern town they call home. Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell are Annie and Glenn, a couple wading through a bitter separation that is taking a damaging toll on their little daughter (Gracie Hudson). Glenn embarrassingly clings to Annie and what they had, leaning on the crutch of alcohol and making a pitiable fool of himself. Annie is lost and fragile, unsure of appropriate action at this particular crossroads in life. Their story is laced with that of other residents in the town, and you’ll be pleased to know it’s not all doom and gloom: a budding romance plays out with the talents of Michael Angarano and the wonderful Olivia Thirlby. There’s also work from Griffin Dunne, Nicky Katt and the excellent Tom Noonan in an extended cameo that bookends the film’s enigmatic emotional climate. Rockwell seeths with regret and heartache, lashing out passively at first until his behaviour becomes very destructive to himself and those around them. Beckinsale has never been better, downplaying Annie by bottling up her feelings, and letting them corrosive erupt in a third act of unimaginable tragedy that demands courage and compassion from the viewer. A highly complex, grounding story of lives gone off track and the not always so simple way in which we humans conduct ourselves with each other. A must see.
To this day it still amazes me how under appreciated and misunderstood Alien Resurrection is. The four films in the series are a quartet of vastly different stories, due to the fact that the torch was passed to four very diverse directors over the course of the legacy. Ridley Scott crafted a tense, claustrophobic catalyst. James Cameron made a rootin, tootin Wild Bunch set in a galaxy far far away where no one can hear you scream. David Fincher gave us an odd, inaccessibly disturbing thriller where the real monsters lurked inside the humans, literally. French Maestro Jean-Pierre Jeunet, best known for his own charmingly surreal quartet of distinctly European wonders Amelie, A Very Long Engagement, City Of Lost Children and Delicatessen, made the final film in the franchise. I once saw a post on IMDB which prompted users to describe each of the Alien films in one word. The one response that stuck with me was: Alien-suspense, Aliens-action, Alien3-unpleasant and Alien Resurrection-weird. Is this accurate? Depends on your opinion of the series. Resurrection is my second favourite, after Aliens. To some it was weird, to many a failure, but to me it’s a bona fide, rip roaring odyssey of gorgeous, gory design and offbeat ideas fleshed out by an absolutely legendary cast, headed up by Sigourney Weaver as Ripley. Two hundred years after she died, she is cloned using parts of the Xenomorph’s DNA, and kept sequestered on a titanic pseudo military ship run by whackos who have never heard of a certain expression involving curiosity and a cat. She awakens, the alien genes giving her a decidedly heightened awareness which Weaver plays with giddy, sinister glee. This ain’t the stalwart Ripley we are used to. Her eyes dance with an unearthly fire that pronounces ‘here be dragons’, in the spaces beyond science that humans foolishly venture into. The station is run by creepy, power hungry Dr. Mason Wren (underrated J.E. Freeman is almost ickier than the monsters themselves), and his sidekick Gediman, played by Brad Dourif in his final form, resembling a demented Pokemon who also raises more goosebumps than the aliens. The good doctor has commissioned a ragtag troupe of space pirates to bring him kidnapped humans in cryogenic sleep to be forcefully impregnated with alien fetuses. Lovely, right? This is where it gets interesting. Joss Whedon penned the script, and the crew of intergalactic badasses in this film are in fact the prototype for his endlessly successful TV series Firefly. Now, he claims that everything about the tone, delivery and execution of this film is wrong, and that the end result butchered his work. Here’s my take: I’ve seen Firefly. It’s good. But the team of space pirates in this movie are eternally more fascinating and worth spending time with. I feel that he really abandoned part of a great premise here, opting for a chipper, watered down version of a vision which presented itself to him and begged for further exploration. Firefly is fun, and it’s characters are a veritable Partridge Family of interplanetary characters to chill with, but it lacks the steel edged nastiness and grit that he began with here. Michael Wincott is a blast as the captain, Frank Elgyn, in a role that’s cut entirely too short but is aces while it lasts. Ron Perlman is a primate on earth and proves the same in space as Johner, the lovable lug of the crew. Gary Dourdan, the only black dude I know with blue eyes is Christie, with more than a few high powered tricks up his sleeves. Jeunet disciple Dominique Pinon plays wheelchair bound Riess, a tougher cookie than one might imagine. Lastly, Winona Ryder is Call, a doll with a pixie cut who takes an immediate shine to Ripley, leading them both to dark and dangerous places. Dan Hedaya makes lively work of Perez, the military honcho in charge, with Raymond Cruz, Kim Flowers and a shrieking Leland Orser rounding out the dream cast. As one might expect, all hell breaks loose in outer space as the creatures breed and hunt anything in their proximity. This provides loose cannon Jeunet with reason to fire off many a special effect that will give your gag reflex a workout and your pulse a solid pounding. There’s seriously gnarly stuff here, especially near the end with a certain fucking monster of an alien hybrid that acts as pure nightmare fuel while also being a bucket of fun at the same time. One of Whedon’s complaints was that his lighthearted script was given the heavy treatment, which obviously clashed with the vision he had. Fair enough. It was his baby after all. But for me though, it works bettering he ever planned. The characters maintain a sense of gallows humour laced with very real danger, garnished with cheeky levity in the face of unimaginable horror. That’s a good recipe to follow in any book I can think of. This one is ripe for redemption, certainly in the eyes of many who panned it upon release, and always ready for a revisit from myself.