Vampires in the old west!! I’m surprised that Ubisoft’s Darkwatch: Curse Of The West has never been made into a movie because it’s the perfect concept. Kind of like Van Helsing by way of Priest, you play as Jericho Cross (Christopher Corey Smith), a late 19th century outlaw on the American frontier who has been turned into a vampire and seeks bloody, bullet ridden revenge against those who made him what he is and any of their underlings, of which there are a staggering amount and variety. This is one stylish motherfucker of a game, both in terms of cutscenes and gameplay. There’s a slick, moonlight drenched, silver glinted hue to everything and a decidedly steampunk flair to weaponry and costumes, not to mention enough gore to please any horror hound. Jericho is joined by the badass, Catwoman-esque Tala, an antiheroine voiced by Rose McGowan back when she was awesome and not all batshit crazy like these days, relishing hard boiled lines like “I’ve always gone for the tall, dark and bloodthirsty type,” she really adds a lot of personality and dialogue whereas Jericho is a man of few words and a whole lot of shooting. There’s a ton of monstrous creatures, flying beasties and even great big fatso things that spew corrosive bile at you. The weapons are steampunk too, with double barrel chrome beauties, crossbows, powerful sidearm pistols and one mean motherfucker of a train mounted Gatling gun. One of the best action/horror games for PS2 console.
Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror reminds me of a raucous house party where everyone shows up in costume ready to fuck shit up; there’s a huge ensemble of partygoers, some true blue old friends you haven’t seen in years, some fresh new faces and even some people outside the gaggle of usual suspects you’d usually find at this type of thing. Everyone involved ditches their professional personas and gets down n’ dirty for change, inhibitions gone and ready to not take anything too seriously for a bit. In paying loving tribute to the 70’s Grindhouse exploitation they grew up with Rodriguez and pal Tarantino produced decidedly different tales on the aesthetic for their double feature and although Quentin’s is probably the better film when you look at the big picture, Robert’s is arguably the more entertaining one.
This is a zombie flick of sorts, employing the simple premise of a US county afflicted by a killer virus accidentally unleashed by Sayid from LOST, here playing a weirdo scientist who collects dude’s testicles in a jar. Pretty soon the horrifically gooey infection spreads into the nearby towns and causes the kind of wanton, disorganized chaos that only the best B movies have to offer. Rose McGowan (before she went all psycho feminist on us) is killer good and super hot as Cherry Darling, a go-go dancer who doesn’t let the loss of her leg stop her from being an absolute badass, hooking up a high powered machine gun to assist in killing zombies. She’s joined by many including badass gunslinger El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), the grizzled local Sheriff (Michael Biehn), a BBQ slinging old salt (Jeff Fahey), the local doctor (Marley Shelton) Texas Ranger Earl McGraw (Michael Parks), Fergie from The Black Eyed Peas and more. The framework of the film is essentially just a loose blueprint for bloody mayhem to ensue and the huge cast to all get their moments of inspired insanity. Bruce Willis has a deranged cameo as an army lieutenant who claims to have killed Bin Laden before swelling into a gargantuan behemoth zombie and exploding, so there’s that. Tarantino himself shows up as ‘Rapist #1’ and almost gets to live up to that name before his junk literally melts off in the film’s most inspired gross out moment. My favourite aside from Biehn and Fahey (who are epic) might be Josh Brolin, poised right before his legendary Hollywood comeback and playing the psychotic Doc Block here, an initial family man who loses it and becomes a raving lunatic before he’s even bitten by a zombie. This is pure aged cheddar through and through, and unrepentant bloodbath that finds the cheap vibe it’s going for in paying tribute to the old Grindhouse flicks of yore.
Death Proof is regarded as the weakest link in Quentin Tarantino’s work, but in a career so consistently awesome does that really matter much? It might be weirdly paced and the inherent schlock in trying to recreate the Grindhouse aesthetic makes it hard to take seriously but it’s still a sterling flick in my book and one fucking wild ride at the movies.
I wasn’t around for the Grindhouse era but it seems to me like Quentin and Robert Rodriguez only partially aped the vibe and sort of trail blazed through their own stuff instead of sticking strictly to routine like, say, Hobo With A Shotgun did. It’s a good thing too, because you wouldn’t want two creative wellsprings like these filmmakers limited to doing something that’s cheap to its bones and has little innovation. As such (with QT’s half of the double bill anyways) we get something that’s a healthy compromise of balls out Mad Max style vehicular bedlam and leisurely paced, character heavy interludes of dialogue, which is of course his trademark. There are an absolute ton of characters here, but naturally the one that showboats across centre stage is Kurt Russell’s Stuntman Mike, a charming but sadistic serial killer who mows down and decimates innocent women in his souped up Dodge Charger. That of course fills up the back half of the film, while initially we are treated to a solid chunk that sees different groups of girls bicker, banter, discourse on everything from John Hughes’ films to the benefits and drawbacks of being a semi-famous radio DJ and generally have a good time. Usually when you think of showcase Tarantino dialogue and characters this film wouldn’t enter the running, and I’m not sure why, he writes some of the most wonderful parts here and these gals positively act the pants off of them to the point that when the highway mayhem kicks in, you’re almost disappointed that the round table discussions and quirky friendships are done with. Russell is absolute perfection and seems born to play this peculiar villain. He’s so charming that bad vibes aren’t even perceived, and even later when he gets downright psychotic there’s this fourth wall breaking sheepishness that gets chuckles instead of screams, especially in the end when he turns into a big baby. My favourite of the gals has to be Vanessa Ferlito as sultry Arlene, Rosario Dawson as tomboyish Abernathy, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as sensitive Lee and Sydney Tamiia Poitier as aforementioned DJ Jungle Julia. Others are fantastic too including Jordan Ladd, Zoe Bell, Tracie Thomas, Marcy Harriell, Helen Kim, Tina Rodriguez and Rose McGowan as angelic Pam, who squares off against Mike in both the funniest and scariest sequence of the film. Watch for cameos from several of the Inglorious Basterds as well as a brief turn from Texas Ranger Earl McGraw (Michael Parks).
The film consists mostly of two things: girls hanging around in apartments, cars and bars talking and beautiful old muscle cars playing havoc along the interstate. When you have Quentin at the helm providing pages of wonderful dialogue and overseeing practical effects based car chases, it makes for something endlessly fun. I saw this as a double bill alongside Rodriguez’s sometimes fun, often lame Planet Terror and viewed together is enough content to melt both brain and eyeballs, especially when you consider that they each have generous runtimes. This is the better of the two films and I think they should be viewed separately as their own entity. Not the weakest thing Quentin has done (Hateful Eight bears that crown for me) and so much more fun than people remember or give it credit for.
Henry Selick’s wacktastic, surreal Monkeybone is off its head, and while it never quite coalesces into something wholly memorable, the images and impressions on parade are not something easily shaken. To start with, the visual production design is so detailed and thoroughly deranged it deserves it’s own art gallery after the fact. Selick, the other half of the creative team behind Nightmare Before Christmas, create’s here what is maybe one of the most unsettling, eye popping mood boards in any film of the century. It’s just just in keeping us awake with the storytelling that he falters somewhat, not enough to sink the ship, but enough that not a lot of people remember or revere this film these days, which is a shame because it’s quite an achievement in areas. Brendan Fraser, who seems to actively seek out oddball scripts, plays cartoonist Stu Smiley, who goes into a coma, gets sent to a place called Downtown where the veggies go until they either croak or wake up, and is put in jeopardy once someone has the idea to pull the plug on him. His loving girlfriend (Bridget Fonda, who I wish was still in the acting game) waits for him, while his newest creation, a little plush horn-ball named Monkeybone, gets a little too sentient and tries to steal his body, which has a certain organ he wasn’t endowed with on the drawing board. The story is too weird and raunchy for kids, and falls into the Roger Rabbit/Cool World arena of adult oriented fare that still has a childlike sensibility. Downtown is essentially a haunted DisneyLand astral plane, a reject realm where ghosts, ghouls and monsters with disturbing anatomy roam free and feed on nightmares, siphoned from the psyched of those upstairs stuck in comas. Weird enough for you? You don’t know the half of it. The nightmare scenes are shot in stark black and white and have a genuinely subconscious, tuned in vibe to them that actually feels like one does in dreams, not an easy aura to pin down onscreen. Fraser does a wicked job, especially when the monkey hijacks his body upstairs and starts prancing around like a mental patient, it’s an inspired bit of physical comedy from the man who brought us George Of The Jungle. Monkeybone is apparently played by none other than John Turturro, but his voice is so tripped out on helium effects it’s fairly unrecognizable. The film gets downright hilarious when Stu follows the scamp back up in the avatar of a corpse with a broken neck (bravo to Chris Kattan), a dementedly genius sequence. There’s cameos and vaudeville supporting turns galore, including Rose McGowan as a sexy cat/human hybrid, Bob Odenkirk, Thomas Haden Church, Giancarlo Esposito, Lisa Zane, and Whoopi Goldberg as Death, a sly meta rework on her Ghost character. The film is at it’s best when it focuses on Downtown, which really is a vibrant atmosphere to hang around in, always an odd mutant creature to look at or a morbid one liner for chuckles. The stuff back on earth can be fun too but really doesn’t pick up until Kattan comes roaring in and steals the climax with his bobble-head gymnastic fanfare. If only this had been a little more in terms of story and character, it could have matched it’s truly impressive visual scope. As it is, it’s worth it just to see how weird and surreal mainstream movies can get when they want to.
Dean Koontz’s Phantoms is one of those that I was really stoked on for years and would recommend at the drop of a hat… until I got around to reading the book. Koontz’s novel is brilliantly paced nocturnal nightmare fuel, detailed, imaginative and specific in it’s thrills and chills. This film is a brisk, truncated version of that story, not only that but it takes severe liberties and deviates quite a bit from the tale, resulting in a film that bears little resemblance to the book. It’s good on it’s own, for sure, atmospheric and freaky on terms that don’t include the big picture, but when seated alongside the novel it pales like the large number of paralyzed corpses that pop up all over an eerie abandoned village somewhere in the Midwest. Two sisters (Joanna Going and Rose McGowan) drive into town expecting to visit kindly relatives, and find only death and desertion instead. They wander about, plagued by visions and radios that play spooky old timey music of their own accord, spine tingling in this context. The only townsfolk they find are starched cadavers, killed by some unseen force that watches, waits and refuses to be defined. It’s in this first act that the film is scariest, achieving impressive levels of dread through isolation and uncertainty. As soon as Sheriff Ben Affleck and his shitkicking deputies shows up, the effect dims a bit and degenerates into schlocky survivalist gimmicks, still entertaining yet not as effective as the opening. Things get downright silly when the FBI delegates a crusty old professor of cryptozoology or some such farfetched endeavour (a peppy Peter O’ Toole) to come on over to town, analyze the mystical menace and.. well that’s about it from him. Clandestine hazmat teams are dispatched, Body Snatchers/The Thing homages ooze all over the place and the film putts along in standard horror gear, never getting near to as good as it was in the first twenty minutes or so, let alone the quality of the book. Liev Schreiber is memorable as one of Affleck’s boys who goes a little nutty, Bo Hopkins and Robert Knepper score points in cameos as cheeky G-Men, and there’s work from Clifton Powell Nicky Katt. For what it is it ain’t bad, just expect to be a little deflated if you watch this first and then go check out the book, because there’s no kind comparison to make.
I’ve never seen any of the original Conan films with Ahnuld (I know, get the torches and pitchforks), so I don’t really have anything to compare Marcus Nispel’s remake to, but on it’s own I found it to be a solid, servicable sword and sandal outing with a welcome hard R rating and some neat work from legendary actors. Jason Momoa was fresh of his Game Of Thrones stint, jumping right into a very similar role as iconic Conan, a musclebound soldier of fortune on a grisly quest to exact revenge against warlord who decimated his village when he was but a pup. Momoa exudes a different aura than I imagine Schwarzenegger must have, a stoic, silent tunnel vision style as opposed to posing theatrically. It works, but it’s a new Conan from the one I’ve seen in many a trailer and snippet on tv, that’s for sure. My favourite part of the film is the extended prologue, which just somehow feels like the most grounded part, whereas everything else is almost cartoonish, reminding me of stuff like The Mummy. The opening is terrific though, introducing us to a young Conan (Leo Howard) and his father Corin (Ron Perlman, who else?), living in their nomadic village on the edge of nowhere. Enter tyrannical villain Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) and his super freaky daughter Marique (Ivana Staneva), played later down the line by Rose McGowan, before she got all lame on us. Laying waste to Conan’s home and killing countless people including Corin, he is left to breed fearsome vengeance for years, until he sets out into the wide world on a journey to find Zym and mess him up real good. The story is standard, the action is well staged by Nispel, who has a golden eye for spectacularly orchestrated displays of violence in his films, and pulls no punches here. He also casts roles on the nose, and has for years. Lang is in overdrive, practically frothing at the mouth and turning Zym into something scary indeed. McGowan is straight out of a Takahashi Miike film, all bone white hissing snarls and needle sharp appendages, a hellcat with supreme bloodlust that you just don’t want to encounter. Momoa has the brawn for Conan, but a few extra syllables of dialogue wouldn’t have hurt, if only to round the guy out some more and give Jason something to say, which he rarely gets to do in his work it seems. I think parts of the film, especially the finale, were somewhat ruined for me by the catastrophically bad 3D they used (when oh when will they learn with the damned 3D), so I feel like a Blu Ray revisit is nigh, in which I can fully appreciate some of the set pieces without being reminded of a popup book. It’s a good time at the movies, but like I said, I have nothing to compare it to as far as Conan goes.
Death Proof is… not the best flick in Quentin Tarantino’s career so far, but an entertaining little ride through the B movie corn nonetheless. It’s Quentin playing in the sandbox, and although he tends to fling it about too energetically in spots, and dawdle around listlessly in others, one can forgive such pacing issues when you consider how much fun it is for the most part. It also helps that his Grindhouse effort is heaps better than his pal Robert Rodriguez’s painfully lame Planet Terror, but that’s a whole other chestnut. Death Proof works mostly thanks to the bubbly, endlessly sexy performances from an extensive roster of irrisistable cbicks, and one gleefully evil bit of work from genre legend Kurt Russell, having a devilish blast as Stuntman Mike, a psychopath who batters helpless chicks to death as he rattles them around in his specially rigged vintage muscle car, primed for murder and ready to burn rubber straight to the ER. A fair chunk of the film is spent simply observing these girls talking, bickering, socializing and indulging in idiosyncratic pop culture banter that’s a facet of the Q Man himself. He loves to project his own affinities onto the written page and use them as backbones for his characters, and although that may be one of the core elements of screenwriting in itself, it’s always a little more pronounced with QT. Writers are books, but he is a popup book, always a tad more garish than the rest of the kids on the playground. I don’t wanna say that such lenghthy swaths of running time spent on girls chilling out isn’t fun (it’s captivating, especially with this bunch), but it is essential to the Grindhouse vibe they set out to emulate? A minor quibble, but a quibble all the same. To their credit, the girls are simply terrific. The first bunch include Rose McGowan’s angelic and short lived Pam, Sydney Poitier’s spunky radio DJ Jungle Julia, and Vanessa Ferlito’s wiseass Latina. The first act sees them run into Stuntman Mike in a roadhouse bar owned by Tarantino himself, who just can’t resist casting himself in his own shit lol. Oh well, at least he didn’t try an Australian accent this time around. The second time act we meet Rosario Dawson, stuntwoman Zoe Bell and cutesy pie Mary Elizabeth Winstead, all in the crosshairs of Mike’s radar, but this time he may be in way over his greaser hairdoed head. The vehicular mayhem is traditionalist and non CGI, and quite honestly a spectucalr firework show of blood, glass, metal and scorched asphalt. I just wish there was more of it, man. Sure, the character building with the gals is awesome, but it eclipses the action in gross proportion. A little balance between talky talky and vroom vroom would have been appreciated. Russell is a hoot in a role that was originally going to be played by Mickey Rourke. He just has that knowing gleam in his eye and good ol’ boy charm that makes it work so well, especially in a naughty little fourth wall break that shows you just how much Mike enjoys his sick little game of bumper cars. There’s characters that bleed in from Rodriguez’s side of the fence, including Michael Parks as the seemingly immortal Texas Ranger Earl Mcgraw, and Marley Shelton as his daughter. It’s a valiant effort, with plenty of Mad Max style merit and a seriously smoking lineup of luscious ladies. I just feel like he over fed certain ingredients to the pot when cooking this one up, and neglected others in areas. Still though, even average Tarantino is brilliant, and this one glows, if for a few dull spots.
Agatha Christie takes a trip to the Pacific Northwest in The Last Stop, a chilly little indie B movie in which we have the pleasure of watching Adam Beach and Rose McGowan try to smoke out a killer amidst a group of people stranded in a remote motel during a blinding snowstorm. A welcome setup for intrigue indeed, if you’re into cozying up to these actors for a tense little 90 minute guessing game packed with just the right amounts of cheesiness and tension. Beach plays a local Sheriff who is stuck at the establishment while its Proprietor (the great Jurgen Prochnow, refreshingly cast against type) struggles with a guest overload as the storm gathers steam. Beach’s old flame (the ever alluring McGowan) has resurfaced in his life with little explanation. There’s also an obnoxious hustler (Callum Keith Rennie) a sleazy would be cowboy (Winston Reckert) and other disconcerting weirdos lurking about. Some are red herrings, some simply filler for the narrative, and all are entertaining, whether intentionally or not. The plot meanders in snowy, typically nonsensical b-movie form until it pulls itself together for a very grounded finale that seems misplaced given what came before, but welcome all the same. McGowan could dub a Korean pop song and still be riveting, and it kills me she isn’t in more stuff, but she’s made it clear that acting was never her first love. Nevertheless she’s great as both the most mysterious and fascinating character. Shades of The Hateful Eight, Eye See You with Stallone, and many a snowbound mystery. Fun stuff.