Some independent films are just so amazing, heartfelt and original it pains me they’ve never found a larger audience or made a bigger splash. Dennis Brooks’ Goodnight Joseph Parker has the kind of script, acting and execution that would probably have attracted Oscar attention had it been done on a bigger budget or had more marketing, but this thing is a barebones indie despite having a fairly well known cast and remains to this day a long buried treasure. Somewhere in New Jersey is a run down, behind the times bar run by Charlie (Paul Sorvino), staffed by waitress Rita (Debi Mazar) and frequented by drunkard Frankie (Richard Edson). This is a humdrum, low income barfly existence in a part of town that never changes save to continue to its own beat, until estranged regular Joey Parker (Nick Chinlund) returns to town in a “900 dolla’ suit” with tales of making it big and going on Jay Leno soon. His return sparks many feelings and long repressed things from the past, in paternal Charlie, in Rita who has always loved him and local junkie Muriel (Kim Dickens) who he loves and foolishly plans to propose to with all his new flash and swagger to back him up. But flash and swagger is what barely masks the pain, sadness and regret in all these characters, that and the booze they constantly swill. This isn’t so much a story as it is a quick snapshot of collective lifestyles in the Jersey area, but even though it’s a ‘small’ story, the emotions and character dynamics couldn’t feel more immediate or affecting. Chinlund is one of the most underrated actors of his generation, mostly saddled with supporting villain roles in his career, but when he’s given a lead like this he really and truly shines. Joey is a man who lives in his ego and when he’s forced to shed it, to confront himself and where he stands in his old community, well Nick’s performance is something to see. Sorvino has always been one of the greats and he’s heartbreaking here as a man who constantly tried to do the right thing and is haunted by the consequences, it’s a manic, playful, compassionate and comedic bit of acting genius. Mazar is another one who constantly gets stuck the ‘snarky bitch’ character and for sure she’s great at that, but give her some breathing room, let her play a more sensitive type girl and just watch what she can do, her work is spellbinding here. As if all that talent isn’t enough we also get a recurring cameo from Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler as a sleazy, hyperactive ladies man who runs in and out of the plot like a tornado. In the credits it says this film is ‘inspired by the music of Tom Waits’ and indeed he can be heard rasping away on the soundtrack faintly from time to time. The film really captures the day in, day out nature of this part of town, and the human beings whose drink, laugh, fight and live within it. It takes place over the course of one night and the following day only, but in that window of time I felt all the joys, sorrows, triumphs, downfalls, regrets, passions and hopes in this group of scrappy individuals and cared for each one deeply. Brilliant piece of filmmaking.
There was no other artist on the planet like Tony Scott. Behind that epic cigar and under that iconic sun bleached pink cap there resided an intense desire to blast celluloid with a distinct visual aesthetic and brand cinema forever with pictures that exploded out of the mould, caught the projector on fire and often inspired quite divisive reactions. Why have one steadicam stationed at a traditional angle when you can have multiple cameras on all kinds of rigs panning, gliding and pirouetting all over the place? Why use generic colour timing templates when you can saturate the absolute fuck out of every frame, sprinkle in the grain and turn up the yellows until you scorch your irises? Why employ pedestrian editing when you can zip, zoom, use jagged swaths of movement, arbitrary subtitles and hurtling fast motion to tell your story? Tony has a huge bag of tricks that was constantly evolving over the course of his career, and for anybody who could both catch up to him and appreciate the aesthetic he left us a wealth of cinematic treasure behind after his tragic and untimely death. These are my top ten personal favourite of his films!
10. The Hire: Beat The Devil
This is one in many short films sponsored by BMW, all featuring Clive Owen as a 007-esque getaway driver for hire at the wheel of a Beamer. Scott’s entry definitely leads the pack though, get this: The legendary James Brown (James Brown playing himself) has made a deal with The Devil (Gary Oldman) for fame and fortune and now that old age has struck he wishes to renegotiate. How to settle matters? Brown and Owen in the Beamer race Devil and his trusty butler/driver (Danny freakin Trejo) along the Vegas strip at sunrise. Oh yeah and Marilyn Manson makes a hysterical cameo too. It’s a balls out fucking freaky wild ride with Oldman making scary, flamboyant work of ol’ scratch and Scott amping up the stylistics to near excess. Favourite scene: that Manson cameo, man. So funny.
9. Spy Game
Robert Redford and Brad Pitt headline this highly kinetic tale of espionage, mentorship, loyalty and resilience while Tony fires up what little action there is terrifically. It’s interesting because this isn’t an action film, it’s got depth and personality, the visual tone serving the affecting central relationship well. Favourite scene: Brad and Robert argue morality atop a Berlin apartment rooftop, Brad loses his cool and whips a chair off the edge as Scott’s cameras dutifully circle them like restless seagulls.
8. The Last Boy Scout
A tumultuous production ultimately led to the first in the ‘unofficial L.A. Noir buddy action comedy trilogy’ written Shane Black, to be followed up years later with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys. Tony lends his sun soaked grunge to this tale of an ex football pro (Damon Wayans) and a disgraced Secret service agent turned PI (Bruce Willis) navigating a dangerous underworld conspiracy while trying to put up with each other. This is one hilarious, high powered ride with super nasty villains, a terrific supporting turn from Danielle Harris as Willis’s rebellious daughter and a playfully sadistic streak to the intrigue. Favourite scene: the shocking opening sequence set during a rain soaked NFL game gives new meaning to going the extra mile for that touchdown and sets the gritty, sarcastic tone well.
This exciting riff on the runaway train shtick sees railway workers Denzel Washington and Chris Pine try and prevent a renegade unmanned locomotive from crashing in a densely populated area, causing cataclysm. Tony keeps the pulses racing and the action almost literally nonstop in his final film before passing. Favourite scene: the hair raising climax.
6. Crimson Tide
Denzel again! He goes head to head with Gene Hackman in this explosive submarine picture with uncredited writing from Quentin Tarantino and fantastic supporting work from James Gandolfini, Viggo Mortensen and others. Tony loved wide, expansive settings to play in but he works just as terrifically in a confined space here, letting the energy reaching a boiling point. Favourite scene: a fierce verbal battle of wills between Hackman and Washington over a tense mess hall dinner.
5. Déjà Vu
Time travel gets a twist in this trippy, exciting and surprisingly emotional tale of one ATF agent (who else but Denzel??) using a state of the art SciFi technique to take down a dangerous terrorist (Jim Caviesel). Scott uses many elements played both backwards and forwards to keep interests locked and please the crowd. Favourite scene: When all is said and done Washington shares a final moment with a witness (Paula Patton) that calls back to earlier moments of the film and caps this story off nicely.
4. Enemy Of The State
Chase thriller, espionage intrigue, mob war-games, Gene Hackman basically reprising his role from Coppola’s The Conversation, a trademark Mexican stand-off shootout, this prophetic, endlessly exciting film has it all. Will Smith and Hackman team up awesomely in this fast paced, prescient, frequently scary and rousing thriller that has a cast you won’t believe, some showcase explosions and enough excitement to go round.
3. Man On Fire
Denzel Washington’s Creasy is the titular incendiary avenger in this south of the border tale of revenge, kidnapping, redemption, cruelty and corruption. It’s a startling film and the first one that felt like Scott’s specific calling card style had been fully formed and delivered to us in a package that many (including those pesky critics) weren’t ready for. Grainy, choppy, putting us right in the passenger seat with Creasy and his sketchy frame of mind, this one is a master stroke of filmmaking.
2. True Romance
This would be first on the list if it were a singularly ‘Tony’ film but it’s just as much Quentin Tarantino’s show and as such is kind of a two man dance, not to mention the legendary ensemble cast. Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette are an early 90’s Bonnie & Clyde on the run from just about every nasty villain you could think of in this cult classic that just gets better every time you watch it (I’m well over a hundred views myself).
This just has to be Tony’s masterpiece, and he crafts it without compromise or apology. With a framework loosely based on real life bounty hunter Domino Harvey, he boldly hurtles towards the asphalt horizon with this hyperactive, unique, mescaline soaked, badass adrenaline rush that is an experience like no other. Critics pissed on it but fuck them, it’s a gem, really, a visual and auditory juggernaut that doesn’t just light up your TV screen but pretty much makes a break for your circulatory system and bounces around your veins for two hours. This is the one I’ll always remember Scott for.
What’s your favourite movie version of Dracula? For me its always been Francis Ford Coppola’s lavish, eccentric, audacious and full bodied telling of Bram Stoker’s book, brought to life fiercely and passionately by Gary Oldman in what has to be one of his best works. This may be an unpopular choice among the older generation of folks who love this story/character but the old black and whites just don’t do it for me like this one does. Lugosi and Lee had their day but in my eyes Oldman freshness and innovation in his headlong portrait of supernatural evil ravaged by centuries old heartbreak, a romantic angle that wasn’t in the book or most previous adaptations of it but adds a dimension the story never knew it needed.
Coppola makes production design the star of this beauty, beginning with a fearsome prologue showing Oldman’s Transylvanian knight and how the man became a dark prince of vampires, before shifting the action to Victorian London. Dracula is searching for the spirit of his long dead wife who just happens to have been reincarnated as Mina Harker (Winona Ryder). People start turning up dead all over town though and Mina’s friend Lucy (Sadie Frost in an uncelebrated encore performance) has restless dreams, waking night terrors and finally goes full on vamp. This prompts the arrival of Anthony Hopkins’ hilariously blustery, borderline senile Abraham Van Helsing and the beginning of a bloody fight to save Mina, her husband Jonathan (Yes Keanu Reeves tried on a British accent but we’re not discussing that here) and most of London.
Stoker’s book is mostly made up of journal entries, letters and other written correspondence and as such the film has an episodic pace to it, but what really makes it flow are costume design, music and the wonderful performances from the varied, eclectic cast. Oldman is sensational and can almost be said to play multiple characters because of how different each manifestation of Dracula is. He finds sadistic evil in the character and accents it with love that still simmers on the back burner, spinning the character into something, dare we say, sympathetic. Ryder is terrific, her doe eyed naïveté suiting the gradually emerging horror nicely. Other excellent work comes from Richard E. Grant, Cary Elwes, Monica Bellucci, Billy Campbell and Tom Waits in a deranged showstopper of a turn as the lunatic Renfield. Costume designer Eiko Ishioka outdoes herself here with the kind of work that begs for Blu Ray action, showing Dracula in several getups from creepy old Count to full on From Dusk Till Dawn style monster, Oldman embodying each one with grace and style. Composer Wojciech Kilar turns in a portentous rumble of a score that fires up the baroque horror elements but also finds the aching romantic notes in the eye of the orchestral hurricane.
My favourite scene of the film isn’t even in the realm of horror; Dracula and Mina share a moment together with one of his wolves who he has momentarily tamed. She strokes the beasts fur in awe while he looks at her in mournful adoration and quietly says “He likes you.” Oldman finds wonderful opposites to the character in this moment and becomes something so much more than the campy monster that Hollywood has envisioned this character as before. There’s a gentle tenderness to this scene and it’s contradictory elements like that that make it stand out and accent the horror with immediacy. Masterpiece.
Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish is a gorgeous, star studded look at street hoodlums of the 1950’s through a strange, dreamlike prism of off kilter dialogue and mesmerizing characterization. It’s based on a book by S.E. Hinton, who also wrote The Outsiders, which Coppola adapted as well, this one is a bit of a different animal. Where one might expect a grounded, topical, straightforward script and narrative, we’re instead treated to a lyrical, dense and almost experimental tone. Characters exude archetypal charisma that is stunningly thrown off balance by the poetic, otherworldly dialogue that’s at times almost inaccessible, but always feels intuitively… right somehow. It’s as if The Outsiders went to sleep and had a dream, functioning on a similar yet highly unconscious plane. Once you get accustomed to such an aesthetic, it’s a film to draw you in and give you poetic dreams of your own. Young Matt Dillon is Rusty Ryan, a naive upstart with dreams of notoriety in the worn doldrums of his urban sprawl neighbourhood. He lives under the intense reputation of his older brother, known only as The Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke). Rourke is at the peak of his moody blues James Dean phase here, and commands the screen with a laid back abandon and smirking charm. He gets romantically involved with angelic local beauty Patty (young Diane Lane, stunning), and deals with his loveable deadbeat father (Dennis Hopper). The scenes between Hopper, Dillon and Rourke have an easy swing to them, and the three inhabit a lived in dynamic that strengthens their characters, individually and as a group. Rourke is under the suspicious eye of robotic, violent local cop Patterson (William Smith), who is just waiting for him to step out of line. Dillon and his thug pals, including Nicolas Cage, Chris Penn and Vincent Spano, daydream their days away pining for the oft talked about days when gang warfare was commonplace. There’s a splendid supporting cast including Laurence Fishburne, Sofia Coppola, Diana Scarwid and Tom Waits, mumbling sweet existential nothing’s to themselves in the local diner, the silent streets and other beautifully shot locations. The film is shot in wistful black and whites with the vivid exception of the titular rumble fish, who appear in vibrant hues to accent their metaphorical presence. The film exists in a realm of heightened emotions where the characters all seem to be a little larger than life, but nevertheless human. There’s a gorgeous, entrancing surreality to it too, a free flowing, dreamy vibe of chrome on asphalt, lazy afternoons and long glances at pretty girls in windows. An unconventional masterpiece.
Domino is Tony Scott’s fire roasted, charbroiled, turbo charged masterpiece. I’ve seen it over fifty times and every time I seem to enjoy it more. It’s pure unfiltered Scott, free from the nagging pressures of the studio, financed by his own company, a loving treatise of pure style and breakneck kamikaze energy that doesn’t let you breathe for a second. It’s loosely based on the life of Hollywood baby turned rough and tumble bounty hunter Domino Harvey (Keira Knightley), daughter of actor Laurence Harvey. She leaves the 90210 world of rich snobs and gilded mansions to pursue a grittier path, in the form of restless underground law enforcement. Now, the film sheepishly admits it’s not entirely based on a true story before the credits even start, so as long as you know that much of it is fantasy going in, you won’t feel cheated. Knightley is a pissed off, sparking roman candle in the role of her career, shedding the dainty image and going full furious grunge, giving Domino an alternative edge and damaged pathos that fuels much of the film’s kinetic energy. Mickey Rourke plays her grizzled boss Ed Moseby, a veteran bounty hunter with a trail of violence behind him, who’s weary and tough in equal parts. Rourke fires on all cylinders, giving some of his simultaneously hilarious, heartbreaking, badass and best work. Edgar Ramiraz plays scrappy Choco, third musketeer and eventual lover to Domino with fiery Latin charisma. Christopher Walken, weird mode fully activated, waltzes in as a reality TV producer with the attention span of a ferret on chrystal meth, Mena Suvari as his squirrelly assistant, Lucy Liu as a prim, OCD afflicted federal agent who verbally spars with Knightley in flash forwards, Delroy Lindo is excellent as their bail bondsman handler Claremont Williams, and there’s scuzzy work from Dale Dickey, Lew Temple, Macy Gray, Monique, Dabney Coleman, Jacqueline Bisset, Jerry Springer and more. Just to sample some of the esoteric weirdness that goes hand in hand with the hard boiled crime elements, Tom Waits has a beautifully perplexing cameo as a spiritual wanderer who has a mysterious meeting with Domino and her friends in the Mojave desert, imparting some prophetic truth to them that only Scott and the sand dunes are in on. This is the kind of film that grabs you by the collar and hurls you down an asphalt horizon of hallucinatory camera work, brings you an intricate, lurid story of true crime gone wrong, and a balls to the wall depiction of life at its fastest, wildest and most out of control, as only the maestro of such things, Scott, can bring you. Domino, at least in this film, lives a crazy life that culminates in a hellish Mexican standoff and subsequent shootout atop a Space Needle-esque Vegas casino, a fitting way for a Scott film to come full circle and certainly not the first time he’s ended one in that situation. He uses cinematic magic to create visual poetry here, his sucker punch editing, nebulous display of scorched out colours, thunderous symphony of sound design and hectic, buzzing aesthetic isn’t for everyone but it’s something truly unforgettable and a style wholly his own, I truly miss the guy and believe he was one of maybe the ten best filmmakers to ever work in Hollywood. This is by far his best film, definitely his most personal and also the most arresting vision he’s ever sculpted, it will leave you haunted, pummelled, fired up and deliciously puzzled. Domino ironically says in voiceover near the end, “I’ll never tell you what it all meant”. Scott tells you, in his own special way, and if you’re tuned in to his otherworldly frequency you’ll treasure this masterwork as much as I do, and will continue to for years to come.
No other film has grown on me quite the way Martin McDonough’s Seven Psychopaths has. Initially disarming in expectations versus result, this isn’t just your average black comedy, there’s wonderfully subversive meta-narrative twists and it has something subtly acidic to say about the development and treatment of genre screenplays in the Hollywood of today, which wasn’t the approach I was expecting prior to seeing it for the first time. That and it’s straight up one of the funniest fucking things I’ve ever seen. Less serious and emotional than McDonough’s masterpiece of a debut In Bruges, the tone here is about as deadpan as it gets, with Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken as Billy and Hans, two LA oddballs who make a living snatching people’s dogs and collecting the reward money later. Inevitably they grab the wrong guy’s dog who just happens to be unhinged gangster Charlie (Woody Harrelson), sparking a brutally violent wild goose chase all over LA and the surrounding area. It sounds like you know what you’re gonna get, right? Not really, for you see they’re joined by boozy, neurotic screenwriter Marty (Colin Farrell) who is trying to pen a script of his own titled ‘7 Psychopaths’, which not only becomes a running joke, but also provides aside vignettes and even heavily influences the plight of our three heroes in the ‘real world.’ Hans is a quiet, compassionate pacifist and Walken plays him against type, very understated. Farrell’s Marty is a hilarious, anxious wreck who orders six beers at noon and tears his hair out both from writer’s block and the unpredictable behaviour of Rockwell’s Billy, who is a blisteringly funny, antagonistic weirdo that should be on medication but has instead been let off the leash for what is probably the best and definitely the funniest performance the actor has ever given. Harrelson plays it loopy as a guy who’ll blow your head off without twitching an eye but bawls like a toddler when no one can find his silly shit-zu for him. They’re joined by Abbie Cornish and Olga Kurylenko who don’t have much to do (also a meta joke later on) as well as Zeljiko Ivanek, Kevin Corrigan, Linda Bright Clay, Michael Stuhlburg, Michael Pitt, Harry Dean Stanton, all giving lovely work. Tom Waits is as great as you’d expect Tom Waits to be as ex-serial killer Zachariah, who carries his pet bunny rabbit around and tells harrowing tales from years before. The real hero here is McDonough’s brilliant script, and I love how it ducks the limbo bar of Hollywood writing standards and aims for something just left of left field. Farrell says it best himself when he laments “I don’t want it to be all violence and action though, it should be a set up for an out and out revenge flick and the heroes should just drive off into the desert and talk for the rest of the movie…” then he, Rockwell and Walken do just exactly that, for a time anyways until Harrelson catches up with them and the final confrontation gets skewered by McDonough and his refusal to play it straight too. We need more writers like him in Tinseltown, and although I wasn’t so much a fan of his newest Three Billboards one, Bruges and Psychopaths have already been minted as classics for me, two of the best this century.
How to even approach Francis Ford Coppola’s Twixt. For a guy whose career has spanned decades from golden age Hollywood to contemporary and etched out a few mile markers that have practically defined the medium, this is definitely both the odd duck and black sheep of the man’s career. There’s no way around it either so I’ll be blunt: it’s kind of a mess. But it’s an intermittently breathtaking mess, like someone spilt a can of turgid motor oil in their garage, but a few gold and silver flakes of airbrush paint snuck into the oozing puddle. There’s a noticeable Stephen King vibe here, with flippant Val Kilmer as horror novelist Hall Baltimore, struck with writer’s block and hiding out in a creepy Midwest town to try and get the creative juices flowing. There’s murder afoot there, in more ways than one, and soon he’s visited by the ghost of a girl (Elle Fanning, darkly ethereal) who guides him along a chain of memories that recall missing children from the past. The town’s gruff, obnoxious Sheriff (Bruce Dern) doesn’t appreciate Hall nosing around his neck of the woods and harasses him at every turn. There’s Skype seasons with his wife (Joanne Whalley, Killer’s real life ex) that feel suspiciously improvised, an appearance by Edgar Allen Poe himself (Ben Chaplin) and creaky narration from none other than Tom Waits. Ultimately it doesn’t really connect, and feels so fascinated by itself that it fails to coherently tell us the tale in a way that sticks. What does take hold, however, are some truly gorgeous and striking visuals, lit by stark silver moonlight, accented by crimson blood and brought to unholy life by tactile, riveting slow motion, like a dream sequence in which Kilmer observes a group of ghost children frolicking on an eerie riverbank. Much of it feels subconscious and free form or lifted out of an Evanescence music video, but it’s beautiful nonetheless. It just needs the focus of the script to properly come across as a whole story, which, sadly, it mostly doesn’t have. Fanning makes the biggest impression as the ghostly waif, peering off the film’s poster and promising a poetic spook show, which… we kind of get. This has been seen as a shrill blast of emptiness by many critics, but there’s some fun to be had, and plenty of gothic eye candy to feast on, even if the brain goes hungry.