The submarine film seems to have died off a little bit since semi recent entries like Kathryn Bigelow’s K-19 and Tony Scott’s Crimson Tide, which is why it’s nice to see an effort like Phantom come along. Spare, streamlined and straight to the point, it chronicles the fate of a Soviet submarine crew tasked with transporting a deadly nuclear missile during the Cold War, and the dangerous KGB stowaway who will stop at nothing to gain control of the ship and hijack the warhead. Now, this is one of those films set in Russia but with an all American, English speaking cast, so as long as you can get past that without whining, you’ll enjoy it. What a cast it is though!! Ed Harris brings grizzled nobility to the role of the captain, handpicked for this mission by unseen forces who know of his disgraced past and are betting on him to fail. David Duchovny has always had a bit of slimy, subversive danger to his aura, and he’s in full blown wrecking ball mode as the ruthless rogue agent bent on seizing the vessel and no doubt causing all kinds of global problems in the process. William Fichtner is a supporting standout (when is he not?) as Harris’s resilient second in command, and the crew is populated recognizable faces including Jason Beghe, Jonathan Schaech, Dagmara Dominzyck, Kip Pardee and Sean Patrick Flanery. Throw in an intense cameo from Lance Henriksen and you’ve got one hell of a lineup of heavy hitters onscreen. The intrigue is somewhat cloaked, and the mutiny goes both ways, accented by plenty of palm sweating scenes of suspense, a mandatory staple in any submarine film. Lower budget, yes, but centered on story and character as opposed to action, and notable for a surprisingly esoteric end sequence that I did not expect. Recommended.
There’s always those films that get buried under a landslide of terrible reviews upon release, prompting me to avoid seeing them, and to wait a while down the line, sometimes years, to take a peek. I was so excited for Disney’s The Lone Ranger, being a die hard fan of both Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp’s monolithic work on Pirates Of The Caribbean, and just a lover of all this western, as well as the old television serial. The film came out, was met with an uproar of negative buzz, I went “well, shit”, and swiftly forgot it even existed. The other day I give it a watch, and would now like to pull a Jay and Silent Bob, save up cash for flights and tour the continent beating up every critic I can find in the phone book. I was whisked away like it was the first Pirates film all over again, the swash, buckle and spectacle needed for a rousing adventure picture all firmly present and hurtling along like the numerous speeding locomotives populating the action set pieces. Obviously the material has been vividly revamped from the fairly benign black and white stories of the tv show, especially when you have a circus ringmaster like Verbinski at the reigns, the guy just loves to throw everything he has into the action, packed with dense choreography and fluid camerawork that never ceases to amaze. Johnny Depp loves to steal the show with theatrical prancing and garish, peacock like costumes, and he kind of takes center stage as Tonto, the loyal sidekick to the Lone Ranger, who is given a decidedly roguish, unstable and altogether eccentric edge that the series never had, but I consider it a welcome addition to a character who always seemed one note in the past. Armie Hammer has a rock solid visage with two electric blue eyes peeking out of that iconic leather strap mask. It’s an origin story of sorts, chronicling Reid’s journey to visit his legendary lawman brother (James Badge Dale) and family in the small town West. Also arriving, however, is ruthless butcher and psychopathic outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) at the behest of opportunistic railroad tycoon Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson). Tempers flare and violence erupts, and before you know it Reid is without a family, left for dead in the desert and befriended by Tonto, who himself is a tragic loner in a way. Revenge is on the minds of both, as they venture on a journey to find Cavendish and his men, discover what slimy Cole is up to and bring order to the west, one silver bullet at a time (actually there’s only one silver bullet used in the entire film, but let’s not get technical). Now, I’ll admit that the middle of the film meanders and drags quite a bit, half losing my interest until the intrigue steps up a notch. A sequence where the pair visit a circus brothel run by a take no shit Helena Bonham Carter seems like unnecessary dead weight and could have been heavily trimmed, as could other scenes in that area that just aren’t needed and might have been excised to make the film more streamlined. It’s no matter though, because soon we are back in the saddle for a jaw dropping third act full of gunfights, train destruction and unreal stunts that seem like the sister story to Pirates, some of the action often directly mimicing parts from those films. Depp is like fifty, and still scampers around like a squirrel, it’s a sight to see. Fichtner is a world class act, his mouth permanently gashed into a gruesome snarl, the threat of violence oozing from his pores and following him like a cloud. Wilkinson can take on any role, period, and he’s in full on asshole mode, Cole is a solid gold prick and a villain of the highest order. Barry Pepper has a nice bit as a cavalry honcho who never seems to quite know what’s going on (it’s perpetual chaos), watch for Stephen Root and Ruth Wilson as Reid’s sister in law who ends up… well you’ll see. It’s fairly dark and bloody for a Disney film as well, there’s a grisly Temple Of Doom style moment and attention is paid towards America’s very dark past with the indigenous people, which is strong stuff indeed for a kid orientated film. Nothing compares to the flat out blissful adrenaline during the final action sequence though. That classic William Tell overture thunders up alongside two careening trains and your tv will struggle to keep up with such spectacle, it’s really the most fun the film has and a dizzyingly crowd pleasing sequence. All of this is told by an elderly Tonto in a museum exhibit, to a young boy who dreams of the west. A ghost from the past, part comic relief and part noble warrior, Tonto is a strange character indeed, and the old version of him has a glassy eyed reverence for his adventures before, the last one alive to remember. Many a review will tell you how bad this film is, but not mine. I found myself in pure enjoyment for the better part of it, and would gladly watch again.
Nothing says the 90’s like Virtuosity, a big hunk of circuit board sleaze and cheese that is so of it’s time that it’s hard to watch it these days without believing it to be some kind of spoof. Re-reading that sentence it sounds like I was making some kind of underhanded compliment, which I suppose is a better outcome for a film to arrive at than some. It could have gotten stale or dated in a bad way. Well it’s definitely not stale (it is dated though), in fact it’s one of the liveliest flicks from back then, thanks mostly to a ballistic characterization from Russell Crowe. Crowe is Sid.6, a virtual reality program molded from the personalities of several different serial killers and designed to basically wreak havoc. This is exactly what happens when he escapes, or rather is let out by one of the maniacs at the research centre (Stephen Spinella). Sid is now flesh, blood and roughly 200 pounds of extremely skilled, remorseless killing material, running wild in the unsuspecting streets. The head of the Institute (William Forsythe) has the brilliant idea to recruit ex-cop whack job Parker Barnes (Denzel Washington) to hunt Sid down and destroy him. Barnes has a bleak history with artificial intelligence, one that has left him with a cybernetic replacement arm and a huge chip on his shoulder. This is one mean, mean spirited film, as we are subjected to a manic Crowe as tortures, murders and maims innocent civilians with a grinning cavalier cadence the Joker would applaud. He’s off his nut here, something which clumsy bruiser Crowe rarely gets to do, so it’s a rare and extreme outing for him. Washington is perpetually angry, ill adjusted and violent here, and the lengths he goes to destroy Sid are almost as bad as his quarry’s homicidal antics. The cast is stacked with genre favourites, so watch for Costas Mandylor, Kevin J. O’Connor, Louise Fletcher, Kelly Lynch, Traci Lords and a weaselly William Fichtner. The special effects… well what can I say, this was the 90’s and they look like a computer game that’s been drenched in battery acid, then souped up with caffeine. There’s brief homages to video games in fact, and the opener where Crowe is still inside the program is fairly creative. I don’t know if the creators of the film were trying to say something about the dangers of virtual reality, but whatever it was, it’s sort of lost in a hurricane of unpleasent shenanigans that are admittedly entertaining. One thing that’s evident is that anyone who makes a computer program with the persona of one, let alone a handful of murderers is just begging for an incident. I suppose that’s the point here though, the catalyst for the whole deal. Crowe and Washington are great though, both down and dirtier than their characters in the next royal rumble they’d share, Ridley Scott’s American Gangster. Fun stuff, if you have a strong gag reflex and don’t take yourself too seriously.
Continuing his string of paycheck movies, Drive Angry (2011) is actually closer to the gonzo Nicolas Cage of old than the diluted actor we’ve come to expect in films like Next (2007) and Knowing (2009). With Drive Angry, he’s made a full-on, balls-out cult film that flopped spectacularly at the box office and was trashed by the critics. It has all the necessary ingredients of cult status: loads of ultraviolence, nudity, lots of cussing, and all kinds of character actors chewing up the scenery. The film is the brainchild of Patrick Lussier and Todd Farmer, the former, a B-horror director responsible for efforts like Dracula III: Legacy (2005) and My Bloody Valentine 3D (2009). While the latter film was an unnecessary remake of the 1980’s Canadian slasher film of the same name, it did hint at the garish excesses Lussier was capable of and has finally delivered with Drive Angry.
The film begins with John Milton (Nicolas Cage) literally escaping from hell in a badass muscle car. He is trying to avenge his daughter’s murder and rescue her kidnapped baby from Jonah King (Billy Burke), the sadistic leader of a satanic cult. In the first five minutes, Milton totals a pick-up truck with three flunkies in a way that is so gloriously and stylishly over-the-top that it would make Robert Rodriguez green with envy. While his film Machete (2010) paid homage to exploitation films, Drive Angry is one, only with A-list talent. Milton crosses paths with Piper (Amber Heard), a tough ex-waitress who has recently broken up with her deadbeat boyfriend (Todd Farmer in a cameo). Hot on their trail is a man known only as the Accountant (William Fichtner), a dapper minion from Hell come to bring Milton back.
Inspired by another cartoonish action film, Shoot ‘Em Up (2007), Drive Angry also features a gun battle while the protagonist is having sex only captured in slow motion and cheekily scored to “You Want the Candy” by the Raveonettes. While excessively violent and gory, the action sequences are all so overtly stylish that they can’t be taken too seriously. This film is akin to a blood-drenched, R-rated cartoon. The violence isn’t cruel and mean-spirited like in a torture porn horror film, but rather gleefully petulant like the guys who orchestrated all of this mayhem grew up reading Fangoria in the ‘80s.
Surrounded by all of this garish style and crazed violence, Nicolas Cage wisely underplays his role, going for the calm, collected man of action. He’s matched up perfectly with the always watchable William Fichtner who seems to be channeling Christopher Walken with his wonderfully eccentric performance. He looks to be having an absolute blast with this role and steals every scene he’s in with his unfailingly polite yet very lethal character. Billy Burke is suitably sinister as a religious fanatic and the beautiful Amber Heard holds her own as a two-fisted, curse-like-a-sailor sidekick to Cage’s undead avenger. David Morse even shows up using his considerable skill as an actor to make a chunk of exposition dialogue palatable.
Drive Angry has everything you could want from a trashy action film: cool muscle cars, over-the-top shoot-outs, larger than life baddies, and a cool good guy with a mission. All of this is handled ably by Lussier in what is easily his most accomplished film to date. He gleefully sticks a middle finger in the face of political correctness with a film that is more entertaining than it had any right to be. Cage needs to do more films like this and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009), which harken back to the eccentric characters he played early on in his career.
People rag on What’s The Worst That Could Happen all the time. Let em, and screw em while we’re at it. Implausible? Yes. Silly? Yup. Ridiculous? Oh yes. Funny? You bet your ass. It’s one of those lighthearted Martin Lawrence comedies like Blue Streak or National Security, tripping along an alleyway of lowbrow humour and bawdy antics that you just can’t stay mad at, like a friend who does something really dumb and follows up with something that cracks a grin on your face. Lawrence also has the luck to be paired with Danny Devito here, who is funny even when he isn’t trying to be. Lawrence plays Kevin, a cocky cat burglar who bungles the wrong dude when he breaks into the not so vacant summer home of sleazy billionaire Max Fairbanks (Devito). Max catches him red handed, holds him at gunpoint and convinces the cops that a family heirloom ring on Kevin’s finger is part of the stolen goods, adding insult to arrest. That dick move launches an ego fuelled battle of wills as these two morons find more and more elaborate ways to incite each other’s wrath. They each have a little armada who back them up when they aren’t questioning their every idiotic movie. Kevin has his gorgeous girlfriend (Carmen Ejogo has sadly made a career of being underused), his partner Berger (John Leguizamo plays around with accents like you ain’t never seen) who is the Dumber to his Dumb, and his sassy handler (Bernie Mac). Max is hounded by his witchy wife (Nora Dunn), shunned by his much abused attorney (a dry, delightful Richard Schiff), pawned over by his mistress (Glenne Headly) and secretly lusted for by his chief of security (you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Larry Miller do his thang here). Max and Kevin are engaging arch enemies, with Lawrence mugging for face time a tad too much, and Devito perfectly settled into his shtick as always. I must make note of probably the best performance of the film, from William Fichtner as a flamboyantly gay police detective who hounds all parties involved. He’s one part frightening with a side of classy charm, subverting his usual weirdo tough guy image for something even weirder and totally out there. Watch for Lenny Clarke and Siobhan Hogan as as pair of squabbling fellow burglars, and work from Cam Neely, Kevin Chapman and Garry Shandling as well. It’s a screwball caper. I love it. Many don’t. They can suck it. Check ‘er out and make up your own mind.
Passion Of Mind is a little seen fantasy romance tale that stars Demi Moore as a woman named Marie, essentially living double lives in a way. She lives and works in New York, and is as ordinary as any other woman in the world, but when she goes to sleep she wakes up to another life in the French countryside, with another job and children who aren’t in New York. She lives a day in the French life, goes to sleep, wakes up back in the New York life and lives for another day before going to sleep and back again. And so it goes. Is one life a dream? Or both? Is she imagining things, or stuck in some rift? To complicate things, as always happens in film, there are two men, one for each life. Aaron (William Fichtner) is a kind, caring businessman in the New York life who she begins a relationship with. In France she meets compassionate, romantic William (Stellen Skarsgard) who she also begins to fall for. Quite the predicament, no? If the premise sounds familiar to you, here’s why: there was a short lived NBC drama called Awake which ran for one season, starred Jason Isaacs and had the exact same setup. Now while the show obviously borrowed it’s central plotline from this film, it’s no big deal because it’s such a great idea it deserves more than just one shot. The film is quiet, pleasent and sweet, never really taking steps to explain it’s concept but simply letting it’s characters live within it in perplexed, whimsical harmony. Moore has an inherent sweetness to her and she’s wonderful here. One might think a protagonist who is put through a scenario would be confused, stressed out and damaged. Moore plays it her own way, as she always had. Her character is enchanted by her situation, if a little wary. Skarsgard and Fichtner are left field choices for romantic leads, as both are kind of considered character actors with stark, specific looks. Both play it straight here and their casting helps the film loads. Marie has two separate therapists, each from one of the lives (an element which the NBC show used as well), played by Joss Ackland and Peter Riegart. It’s not to serious, not too fluffy, just the right kind of low key romance with an imaginitive streak and a high concept that fits neatly into the story.