I can’t imagine what a challenge it must be to write, direct and star in your own feature debut, there are so many ways it can go wrong from being just too ambitious an undertaking to a scattershot vanity project, but Carlson Young blasts into the scene with her striking new film The Blazing World, as assured, unique and breathtaking embark on a creative journey in cinema as I’ve ever seen. The film opens with two twin sisters playing in the woods near a lavish house, while their troubled parents (Dermot Mulroney & Vinessa Shaw) have a ferocious domestic dispute within, interrupted by a fatal tragedy befalling one of their daughters, an event that will haunt the family forever and cause the grown up girl (Young) to be propelled in a hallucinatory, surreal, otherworldly voyage into dimensions of the soul and spirit worlds to work through the pain, mental turmoil and anguished memory from that time. This is a strange, disorienting film but Young commands the narrative so that as weird as it gets, it only skirts that realms of outright incomprehensible arthouse tendencies and still has roots in what feels… I don’t want to say ‘commercial’, but let’s go with ‘accessible.’ It’s still bizarre as all hell though, in the best possible way, a vividly prismatic burst of visual inspiration, deep fluttering colours and puzzling, baroque subconscious imagery, I was reminded of Tarsem Singh’s The Cell in both style and structure. As Young’s protagonist arrives for a visit at the family home for the first time in years she finds mom a despairing mess and dad a tornado of alcoholic depression, but that isn’t all she finds. A menacing supernatural stranger played by the one and only Udo Kier appears, beckoning her down a metaphysical rabbit hole into the netherworlds beyond waking life, a constantly shifting dream state of astral projection where she must face the memories that have haunted her for years, confront the tormented dream egos of her parents and even face her own sister eventually. It’s a darkly dazzling journey beyond time, thought and consciousnesses and who better than the always captivating Kier to host it, he rips into this role with a seething, wide eyed malevolence and Young, as both his actor and scene partner, lets him do some wild, intense stuff and go to some places I’ve never seen from him before. The stylistically audacious world she plunges into is brought to life by impossibly detailed production design, like a fine abstract painting with potent life breathed into it, a fearsome, dark fairytale musical score by Isom Innis with some effective classical music choices and incisive, alluring sound design. Young commands it all with unbelievable skill so early in the game, as an actor she has a sensitive heart and smouldering vulnerability hanging on every syllable, completely believable as this character. As a filmmaker she clearly shows she’s in love with her medium and has been influenced by some of the most striking artists, while boldly finding her own voice and presenting a debut that’s overflowing with lush creativity and a strong beating heart which, when you consider the amount of triple-threat labour and creativity has gone into it, is a staggering first time effort. Highly recommended, one of the most unique films this year.
Cold In July is a fairly ambiguous title that’s just this side of sinister but could mean anything. To writer director team Jim Mickle and Nick Damici, it means an unbearably intense mystery about fathers and sons, evil rearing it’s head in small town America, noir, perhaps the first buddy flick with three leads and a beautifully crafted 80’s aesthetic complete with an electronic John Carpenter style score that makes the film.
Michael ‘Dexter’ C. Hall plays a somewhat meek family man who accidentally shoots a prowler in his living room one summer night. Case closed? Not really, as it seems the burglar has a father (Sam Shepherd) who comes looking for answers. This guy is both a veteran and an ex con though, which makes him about the hardest piece of work you could find, but… soon it’s apparent that something isn’t quite right. The county Sheriff (Damici also doubles as a very fine actor) is clearly not being straight with Hall, dodging specific questions and veiling the truth. Eventually there’s an uneasy truce between Hall and Shepherd as they try to smoke out a deep set conspiracy, but things *really* kick into high gear with the arrival of Don Johnson’s Jim Bob Luke, a private detective with attitude to spare who blasts into the narrative in a giant red Cadillac convertible that becomes its own character and signifies a certain liveliness for the second two acts.
One of the coolest things about this one is that it’s billed as a mystery, which it lives up to and then some. From where it starts out as a nightmarish home invasion thriller to the levels of truth uncovered in the final act is quite the journey, an unpredictable journey that gets shockingly dark and perverse yet always retains a sense of humour, is constantly exciting and atmospheric. It always helps when the characters you take a trip like this with are engaging, and the dynamic between the three is something special. Hall is innocent enough until the darkness shows up at his door, Shepherd is the man of few words and lots of action, a cantankerous, difficult man whose moral compass eventually comes brutally into the forefront. Johnson straight up steals the show though, Jim Bob may well be his best character and even though the guy is kind of larger than life and ridiculous, he still fits within the narrative and Don makes him a tangible human being underneath the gloss and bluster. Watch for Wyatt Russell (Kurt’s kid), Happy Anderson, Lenny Flaherty and Vinessa Shaw. The original score by Jeff Grace is so damn good and carries this story nervously scene to scene with nerve shattering tension and those classic electronic synth tones that are coming back in such a big way. This was kind of overlooked on release but stands as tall as any big budget Hollywood crime thriller I’ve seen, and taller than many. Mickle keeps the direction tight and streamlined but allows for moments of character while keeping the story hurtling along with terrific momentum. Great film.
I’m usually a nut for anything that Steven Soderbergh has made, but Side Effects was a big ol’ dud. I think it had something to do with expectations, really; I was sold on a smart, scary psychological thriller that explored the unnerving fallout behaviour of trial drugs and shady products snuck into consumerism by Big Pharma. What I got turned out to be a lurid, trashy exercise in deception and Basic Instinct shenanigans, the kind of back end to a film you’d find Eric Roberts or Mark Harmon starring in on HBO back in the day. Not that that’s a bad thing per se, it was just definitely not what I expected from a filmmaker as thoughtful as Soderbergh, but I guess this was his playful side taking over the wheel in the third act. Rooney Mara plays a young woman whose husband (Channing Tatum) has just been released from prison, an event which seems to coincide with her recent depression and suicidal behaviour. Her psychiatrist (Jude Law) prescribes her an experimental new drug, likely not yet even approved by the FDA, and things go from bad to worse when she kills hubby in a freaky sleepwalking episode. The drug is shelved, Law is disgraced, the trial stops right there. End of story, right? I wish. The good doctor just has an inkling that something else is going on, something involving both Mara and another shady practitioner played by Catherine Zeta Jones. If I had some idea going in that this was inevitably going to ditch the ideas it claimed to be making a film about and get cheap and sleazy I might have been more receptive, but as is the plot gets so steamy and ridiculous I couldn’t believe I was watching the same film that I started out with. There’s a few twists too many, a lack of believable character action and and a kinky subplot that had me laughing, and not in the good way either. Hard to say much more without spoiling it, but it’s one outlandish turn of events, like a car on the way to a college conference that suddenly veers off an exit to the strip club without warning. I expected more from everyone involved.
Call me crazy but after finally daring to watch it, I can’t say I’m one of the many people who think that Corky Romano is one of the worst films ever made. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a solid fucking toilet destroying turd of a film, thoroughly shitty no doubt, and yet… I laughed. A lot. I’m still trying to figure out if the laughs were ironic, genuine or spurred on by the eight plus beers in my system, but irregardless, I can’t say it wasn’t a good time. Chris Kattan is one of those actors like Rob Schneider, Seth Green or David Spade who are in what I call the ‘mosquito category.’ They can’t act, they’re not really that funny and they seem to exist for no reason other than to buzz around like vermin. As twitchy, dysfunctional mafia brat Corky Romano, Kattan is admittedly his annoying self but he nails a few laughs nicely, and lands one big one spectacularly involving cocaine and schoolchildren. His mobster dad (Peter Falk and his loopy eyes) is about to be testified against by a mysterious informant, so his two volatile brothers (Chris Penn and Peter Berg) and uncle (Fred Ward, slumming it and loving it) hatch a cockamamie plan to send him in to the Bureau as a fake Fed and destroy evidence. If you’re wondering why, or how this is a good plan, don’t bother. The film’s haphazard script is like several post-it notes drunkenly stuck on a fridge, and instead of coherency in plot we get an insane parade of slapstick shenanigans and situational comedy masquerading as a story. Saddled with a stern FBI boss (Shaft himself, Richard Roundtree), a foxy partner (Vinessa Shaw) and jealous bureau cohorts, it’s a laundry list of fuckups, arbitrary car chases, third grade level humour and unapologetic what-have-ya. This came out in 2001 and it’s funny to see how much times have changed and people’s tolerance for certain types of humour have dried up, they use words and scenarios here that would have the film swiftly boycotted these days, but it’s refreshing to watch older films where they didn’t have to tiptoe on eggshells quite as much. What else is there to say, really? This is a wantonly childish display of bottom feeding comedy, and the immature man-child in me found it to be a fucking laugh riot. Uneven, sure. All over the place, definitely. But funny as all hell in fits and starts.
Side Effects is a slick, smart, and deceptively layered thriller from Steven Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns, who before this under the radar gem crafted the irreverent comedic masterwork The Informant! Side Effects is an extremely stylish head game that loves toying with the audience at all times, and it also happens to be very sexy, which is something that Soderbergh isn’t routinely known for; this is one of the more juicy and nervy offerings from this most eclectic filmmaker. Rooney Mara was absolutely terrific (not to mention disturbingly hot) and Jude Law was the perfect chump to get pulled into her web of potential deceit with possibly dangerous ramifications. The entire cast shines due to an unpredictable narrative that makes your head spin during the final reel, and as usual for Soderbergh, the film is just as interesting for what it doesn’t do than for what it does do. Upending conventions is Soderbergh’s typical stock in trade, and while this film was marketed as one thing, it really was something totally different than what had been suggested or what might be expected. This is one to watch again and again in order to fully appreciate all of the cinematic sleight of hand on display; it’s Soderbergh’s ode to Hitchcock. Also, Vinessa Shaw, as usual, was fantastic – she needs more work!