There’s no way around the fact that Ghost Rider is a garbage film, from Nick Cage’s ridiculous Yu Gi Oh haircut to Wes Bentley’s faux Dracula bad guy to the unpolished screensaver special effects to yet another creepy case of him getting blessed with a love interest half his age, this time poor Eva Mendes. When it comes to the Ghost Rider aesthetic, PG-13 theme park flash like this is the wrong way to go, it needs something grittier like the Nick Cave/John Hillcoat touch (not even the reliably edgy Neveldine/Taylor could save the sequel, but that’s a story for another day). That all said, there’s a few key elements that I love about this film and two actors in particular who do a bang up job and really deserved a better film than they got. Cage plays Johnny Blaze, a motorbike stunt demon who grew up in a circus and made a deal with the devil (Peter Fonda) to save his dying father (Brett Cullen), a deal with fine print that dictates his soul remains prisoner and he must serve out a very long time bounty hunting runaways for the big guy. Later in life he becomes the legendary Ghost Rider, a big bad biker with a chain whip, flaming skull and leather metal-head outfit, tasked with bringing down renegade demon Blackheart (Bentley) and juggling his awkward romance with Mendes and friendship with fellow rider Donal Logue. This is all a lot less cool than it sounds and all the scenes of him as the rider that are supposed to be awesome are just… not. Now this isn’t one of those ones where the good qualities redeem the film, it’s just too silly and far gone, but they are there and are noticeable, starting with Fonda’s absolutely rock ‘n roll performance as Mephistopheles, a silk voiced, well dressed manipulator who commands the screen and to this day is one of the most fun film versions of the Devil I’ve ever seen. He’s accompanied by a fantastic, sinister low level music cue from composer Christopher Young that sets the mood perfectly. You also get Sam Elliott as former ghost rider and mentor to Johnny in another one of his brilliant, charismatic cowboy turns that the film hardly deserves, but his scenes sure pick up on the gravity that Sam exudes wherever he goes. That’s about all the film has to offer in the realm of quality. There’s an opening credit sequence set to an instrumental version of Ghost Riders In The Sky with POV shot of a bike careening through a racecourse that’s kind of cool. Mostly though this is one big flaming sinking ship and just made me wish for a less cartoonish prequel starring Elliott’s Rider and Fonda’s deliciously evil Satan. Next time.
The first film I thought of while the early moments of Tiger Mountain played before me was THX 1138. This was a trip, dragged forcefully against one’s will and plunged into a murky pond which is a kind of metaphoric representation of being removed from the light and air and smothered by naked oppression and placed under the rule of the hive mind. And it is a mesmerizing submersion into these terrifying depths that are as much about the myth of control as they are the misuse of it. Another part of the allure for me to tackle this movie is the treat of seeing Bill Paxton back on the screen. I remember watching Edge of Tomorrow and delighted in his presence – a kind of measured version of his character from Weird Science. The man was talented – even though he made it all look far too easy. But as I spoke to Tom Huckabee, (Paxton’s longtime friend and collaborator) I quickly was made to understand that this easy-chair nature I’d seen and enjoyed in Paxton was in fact a ruse. Turn’s out Bill was a lot more Near Dark than most people really knew.
Tiger Mountain is a passion project that has survived because of the enthusiasm shared by two buddy’s who were looking for a way into the movie business. It is a product of it’s time, topical to that period and perhaps in some ways even more relevant as a kind of looking glass held up to the world of today, indeed more so than it was then. The journey has taken since 1974 to come before an audience at last in the best and most complete version of the film that exists. It is a picture that has crossed continents and indeed space and time to arrive like some strange and miraculous time capsule which stands as an epitaph to the exuberance of youth and a yearning for greater self expression. So this is the first time since 1983 that you’ll have to witness this compelling cinema experience influenced by William Burroughs – which is then counter balanced with the writings of Valerie Solanas. Portions of text coming from a Burroughs’s novella whose title had already been taken by a chap named Ridley Scott.
This 4K transfer is beautiful and the journey, although sold as the brainwashing of an American draft dodger by militant feminists in order to assassinate the Welsh minister of prostitution, Tiger Mountain is an experience, a fascinating making-of tale to hear and a parable of sorts which speaks of the possibilities that growth and recognition are always achievable as long as art is never abandoned.
Tom Huckabee is a writer, director, producer with over 40 years experience in entertainment. As a student at UT Austin he studied under Tom Schatz, Loren Bivens, and Edward Dymytryk, directed “The Death of Jim Morrison,” nominated for a student academy award, and “Taking Tiger Mountain,” starring Bill Paxton and co-written by William S. Burroughs. He has been a staff producer at Landmark Theaters, a writer of non-fiction TV for Disney and Discovery, a story analyst for 21st Century Films, and a staff researcher for The History Channel’s Modern Marvels. In 1987 he produced and co-wrote “Martini Ranch’s Reach,” a long-form music video directed by James Cameron, starring Kathryn Bigelow, Bill Paxton, Phil Granger, Bud Cort, Judge Reinhold and much of the cast from “Near Dark” and “Aliens.” In 1997, he was associate producer of post-production and music supervisor for “Traveller,” starring Paxton, Mark Wahlberg, and Julianna Margulies. From 1998 – 2001, he was vice president of American Entertainment, underwritten by Walt Disney Studios, where he created and/or oversaw development of feature projects with Touchstone, Universal, Imagine, Image Movers, HBO, Sony, and Revolution Studios. In 2001 he executive-produced Paxton’s directorial debut, Frailty, starring Paxton, Powers Boothe and Matthew McConaughey. Also in 2001, he produced and directed a live event, Arthur C. Clarke: Beyond 2001 at the Playboy Mansion, featuring James Cameron, Patrick Stewart, Morgan Freeman, and Buzz Aldrin, He was an uncredited script consultant on Twister, Mighty Joe Young, Vertical Limit, U-571, Thunderbirds, The Greatest Game Ever Played, and The Colony and a quality control supervisor for Lucasfilm (1990-2004), working on films by Ron Howard, Michael Mann, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Kathryn Bigelow, etc.. In 2005 he was a producer/writer on 75 episodes of National Lampoon’s An Eye for an Eye. In 2007 he was the artistic director for the first annual Lone Star International Film Festival. His sophomore feature Carried Away (2010) won three first place festival awards and is available on Amazon Instant View. Recently, he directed the documentary short “Confessions of an Ecstasy Advocate,” story-edited Ghostbreakers, a 20-part syndicated TV series starring Joey Greco, set to debut in 2016 on The Family Channel, co produced The Starck Club, a documentary feature and The Price, a drama starring Randy Travis and James Dupre. In 2014-15, he was the artistic director of the Wildcatter Exhange literary festival, while his short film “The Death of Jim Morrison” (retitled “Death of a Rock Star”) was included in the omnibus package, Jonathan Demme Presents Made in Texas, which premiered opening night 2015 at SXSW and is distributed by UT Press. He teaches screenwriting workshops and offers a wide-range of freelance development services. Upcoming projects include feature films Hate Crimes, ReCharge!, and The Attachment, full length stage plays, Dr. Zombi, PhD and The Reversible Cords; and Great Lives, a live theater festival of one-person historical shows.
I like examining films about political corruption from decades ago that, if anything, were somewhat ahead of their time and are more potent these days in the age of the internet and social media. Rod Lurie’s The Contender is no exception, and looks at abuse of power by those with a lot of it to wield, and the frequently used and very bratty tactic of bringing up events from people’s past to run smear campaigns on the eve of elections, a dirty trick used heavily by both sides of any power struggle. Joan Allen is fantastic as a US Senator who is a strong candidate for Vice President until a fiery, amoral asshole of a rival played by Gary Oldman digs up dirt from her college days and threatens to derail the whole thing. This is a political drama and as such the script (courtesy of Lurie himself) has a whole truck of bells, whistles and supporting characters to give the film flourish, but at heart it’s a fascinating moral dilemma revolving around Allen and Oldman. The attack on her is vicious, below the belt slander and although not unfounded, it’s unwarranted by someone who is supposed to represent and uphold integrity with their position. The plot thickens when she discovers secrets of her own regarding his character and past, and struggles in herself whether to use this information to bring him down like he did to her, or rise above it and use other less sensationalist strategies to beat him. Her quandary culminates in a decision that many, including myself, would find fairly frustrating given the gauntlet of degradation she’s forced to walk through as a result of Oldman’s actions. That decision may not be what we want to happen emotionally as an audience based on what we’ve seen and felt, but it’s easy to remove ourselves and see why she does this, and view the example she has set for peers by making the hardest of calls. It’s mature, difficult storytelling and I’d forgotten what a thoughtful, prescient film this is. Many people from both sides of America’s divided masses and political parties could learn a thing or two from this story. Allen never overplays the role and uses that quiet observance she’s so good with to bring us closer to her character. Oldman is decked out in a strange curly wig and looks nothing like the sneering shark he becomes when he opens his mouth, it’s an interesting visual character choice. Jeff Bridges plays the President (I’d vote for him IRL) and the cast is stocked with excellent talent including Sam Elliott, Christian Slater, Saul Rubinek, Philip Baker Hall, Mariel Hemingway, Kathryn Morris and William L. Petersen. Great film, and gets more important as each year passes.
My first thought a few moments after seeing Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born: Isn’t it so cool that one of the most poignant scenes in cinema this year is shared between Lady Gaga and Sam Elliott, two artists who couldn’t be more far flung from each other or born of different backgrounds within the industries. That’s a testament to the eclectic cast Cooper has rallied for this absolute fucking diamond of a film and as assured a director’s debut as ever. Filled with many more poignant scenes, instant classic songs, heartbreak that will have you bawling, beautiful direction, believable characters, naturalistic free flowing writing and at least three mega Oscar worthy performances, this is the best film of the year so far and will no doubt sweep said awards.
This story dates back a few versions to the 50’s, but Cooper makes the story seem so fresh and organic that one can hardly even call it a remake, especially when you consider how much brand new, totally inspired music composed and sang live. Cooper is Jackson Maine, an Eddie Vedder-esque rocker who discovers and falls in love with Lady Gaga’s Ally, a young waitress with the voice of an angel and a firebrand of a personality. While her star is on the rise with songwriting, performance and poise, Jack’s is falling from the heavens of fame due to alcoholism and drug addiction, fast approaching the nadir and eventual exodus of his career. Cooper and Gaga have chemistry that fills up every frame until it leaps off the screen, a warm, conflicted and symbiotic relationship blossoms, is put to the rest and weathers a very heavy storm as Jack drifts in a sea of his demons, struggling to hold on. They both give the kind of immersive performances that some actors strive their whole career towards; watching the film I believed that here was Ally and Jackson onscreen, two fully formed, human characters and not simply Cooper and Gaga in their respective roles. Their voices are magic too, especially in an earth shattering duet of one of Ally’s original compositions, a gorgeous tune that practically demands the Oscar for original song.
Cooper has carefully chosen his supporting cast and the result is some moving, interesting work from a troupe who are all cast refreshingly against type. I can’t speak highly enough of Sam Elliott’s work here as Jack’s older brother Bobby, a stormy yet compassionate fellow, this film gives the quintessential cowboy something to actually do with his role, the result being the best, most vulnerable work I’ve ever seen from the guy. Andrew Dice Clay is resurrected to play Ally’s father and brings both warmth and jovial comic relief, Dave Chapelle has a brief but very sweet bit as Jack’s friend and voice of reason. Even the smaller roles are brought to life well, from Greg Grunberg as Jack’s trusty driver to character actor Ron Rifkin, excellent as a kindly rehab counsellor.
Cooper should be proud of his work onscreen, and prouder still of that behind the camera. There is no showboating, no gimmickry, no bells and whistles or arbitration in his direction here, he’s crafted a passionate, heartbreaking, streamlined and beautifully character driven piece of work, full to the brim with love, music, conflict and ideas without seeming overstuffed or cacophonous. Coasting on the heights of the original music, sailing through the rivers of torment and turmoil between the two characters and walking the paths they walk through their relationship, Cooper’s eye captures this tale adeptly, doing things with the camera that seem fresh and different but never taking us out of the story. This is a film that will no doubt go down in history and, despite being one of several iterations, become a classic in cinema for generations to come.
There’s a reason they never adapted another novel in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series past the initial stab at The Golden Compass, and it’s the same infuriating reason why many adaptations of children’s and young adult novels fail: lack of appropriate atmosphere and true menace found in the source material. Everytime Hollywood comes along and decides to try their luck at a beloved series for youngsters or young adults, they feel this feverish need to shine it up with a candy colored, over lit vibe that leaves much of the darker elements by the wayside and as a result their final product feels neutered and bereft of any weight, stakes or attention to detail. Spiderwick. Skellig. Eragon. Hell, even Narnia only made it by the skin of its teeth, blasting out of the gate with a flawless entry, only to peter off into sequels afflicted by the very symptoms I outlined above, and not even make it to the end of the saga at that. Now don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t happen to every series they try to adapt, but to enough of them that it’s a problem, especially when a darkly creative, eerie and unique tale like this gets turned into a glossy, pandering misfire. It’s sad because some of the elements of a good film are in place, starting with casting. Dakota Blue Richards is on-the-nose perfect as Lyra, the adventurous heroine who gets swept away on a menacing voyage to arctic lands and beyond. She lives in a curious parallel universe where every human is forever accompanied by a ‘Daemon’, essentially a piece of their soul that takes animal form, and never the two shall separate. Lyra’s uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) is an explorer who has returned from the north lands with tales of a mysterious phenomenon called ‘dust’, a powerful substance purported to be able to unlock other worlds and dimensions. Lyra is curious at first and then nervous when she meets icy Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) a prim socialite with a devious agenda involving children that have gone missing in the city. She has a facility on the tundra where scary research and very bad experiments are conducted. Now in the books the descriptions and eventual confrontation with this would make your hair turn white. Pullman imparts it with weight and true blood freezing horror. The filmmakers *deliberatly* tone it down and castrate it, leaving anyone who was a fan of the series in total disgust. It just doesn’t have the same dark, otherworldly atmosphere it did on the pages, it feels too bright, chipper and lacking any real wonder. It does have some wicked visuals going for it in places, such as the two rival talking bears, voiced with baritone boom by Ian McKellen and Ian McShane, the landscape of the north as seen from the hot air balloon of grizzled sky-cowboy Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott), and others. Eva Green also scores well as elemental witch Serafina Pekkala, but then she’s incapable of giving a bad performance anyhow. Scattered supporting cast includes Kathy Bates, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Courtney, Simon Mcburney, Derek Jacobi, as well, an impressive lineup all in all, but one that deserves a far better film for their talent. It’s just misguided and tone deaf. It may have been a series for adolescents, but the themes, implications and scenarios found in those books are harrowing, complex, very mature and not to be taken lightly, let alone given the full on Harry Potter theme park treatment. Shame, really, and a giant missed opportunity. Perhaps someday soon a network will get the rights and turn this tale into a film or tv show worthy of His Dark Materials.
There are two main film versions based on the life of infamous outlaw Wyatt Earp: a serious, sombre one with Kevin Costner (and a whole lot of others), and a rolkicking circus sideshow starring Kurt Russell, bedazzled with a jaw dropping supporting cast that doesn’t quit. Both films are great, but if you held a six shooter to my head and demanded a preference, I’d have to give Tombstone the edge. It’s just too much fun, one wild screamer from start to finish, filled with swashbuckling deeds, evil outlaws and bawdy gunfights galore. It should have been called It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World In The Wild West. Kurt Russell is in mustache mode again here, but looks younger and leaner than last year’s western double feature his mutton chops starred in. Along with his brothers Virgil (Sam Elliott) and Norman (Bill Paxton) he arrives in Tombstone with a life of law enforcement in his dust and designs on retirement and relaxation. He gets pretty much the opposite though, when every lowlife bandit and villain in the area comes crawling out of the woodwork to give him trouble. Michael Biehn is the worst of them as crazy eyed Johnny Ringo, a deadly smart and ruthless killer, and Powers Boothe hams it up terrifically as drunken scoundrel Curly Bill Brocius. They are the two main causes of grief for the Earps, backed up by all sorts of goons including Michael Rooker, Billy Bob Thornton and a petulant Stephen Lang as Ike Clanton. Russell is joined by an off the wall Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday, the wheezy southern prince with a silver tongue that’s constantly fuelled by booze. He gives the best work of the film, and it’s fascinating to compare it to its counterpart, Dennis Quaid’s turn in the other version. Theres also great work from Billy Zane, Dana Delaney, Thomas Haden Church, Paula Malcomson, Tomas Arana, Johanna Pacula, Paul Ben Victor, Robert John Burke, John Corbett, Terry O Quinn, Robert Mitcham and even Charlton Heston good lawd what a cast. The standoffs, both verbal and physical, are a thing of beauty and the reason we go to the movies. Of all the westerns out there, this has just got to be the most fun. It’s constantly alive, there’s always something going on, a cheeky glint in its eye and a vitality in every corner of every frame, like a kid that won’t sit still. Russell is a champ as Earp, a no nonsense killer, plain and simple, but a man of both style and charisma, two weapons that are equally as important as his side arms. Kilmer gets all the best lines and goes to town with his portrayal, creating electric tension whenever he faces off with Biehn, who is equally mesmerizing in a more intense way. The three of them kill it, and along with the howling mess hall of a supporting cast, make this simply the liveliest western I’ve ever seen in the genre.
Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep is a powerful, smart, grounded drama revolving around the seriousness of one’s actions, the consequences they may make even decades down the road, and the lengths that some people will go to put things right. Redford has shown only improvement throughout his career, and has been really awesome as of late (All Is Lost was a favourite for me) and he directs here with as much confidence and empathy as he puts into his performance. He plays Nick Sloan, a former underground activist who was involved in a tragic accident as a result of his protesting, and branded a domestic terrorist. He went into hiding for nearly 30 years, until an intrepid journalist (Shia Lebeouf) uncovers traces of his tracks, and he’s forced to go on the run, leaving his young daughter with his brother (Chris Cooper). Lebeouf suspects his agenda is to do more than just hide, and indefinitely stay on the run. A federal agent (Terrence Howard) makes it his tunnel vision mission to find him. Sloan’s agenda only gradually becomes clear to us, as he navigates a tricky, treacherous web of former acquaintances, trying to locate his former lover and fellow activist (Julie Christie, phenomenal in a comeback of sorts). Old wounds are slashed open, the law closes in, and Nick wrestles with the notion that despite the good he tried to do in his idealistic youth, he is indirectly responsible for bloodshed. It’s enthralling to watch Redford play this man in his twilight years trying to put things right, waist deep in decades of acting experience, supported by an amazing script and a supporting cast that you couldn’t dream up . There’s memorable appearances from Stanley Tucci, Richard Jenkins, Brit Marling, Stephen Root, Susan Sarandon, Anna Kendrick, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Elliott, Susan Hogan and Nick Nolte, all in top form. For a thriller that takes itself seriously, takes its time building character and suspense, and sets itself in a realistic, believable tale that completely engrosses you, look no furthe