Review: Punisher War Zone (2008)

Shame this idiosyncratic, female-directed, action/horror superhero movie didn’t make money, because … well that sentence speaks for itself.

Director Lexi Alexander and Screenwriters Matt Holloway and Nick Santora understand that the Punisher and heroes of his ilk – tortured antiheroes with simple motives – should basically be grounding forces in a movie like this, not the central focus. So, instead, most of the film deals with the villains – Dominic West’s (impressively ugly) Jigsaw and his brother, Doug Hutchinson’s Looney Bin Jim, who have this delightful warm dynamic. My favourite scene in the film is where Looney Bin Jim tells his brother that he “won’t ever have to see [his] reflection again.” And then he throws his body into every mirror in a hotel lobby. That’s nuts, but it’s also really sweet.

Everyone is playing way big here (save, strangely, for Wayne Knight, who brings a lot of pathos into the corners), which is the right choice for Alexander’s brand of hyper-unreality. This is the perfect empty neon sleaze, all night time, all backlit, all blood-soaked alleyways. It’s all so wonderfully tacky – like the montage of our villains gathering up allies in front of a projected American Flag, perverting Patton, obviously, but also calling to mind Blow Out. Everyone is a cartoon, but they’re all extremely endearing cartoons – West and Hutchinson are so ridiculous and awful that they become loveable. When the Punisher starts picking people off (in various gory fashions), it’s kind of scary and kind of weighty, because he’s literally killing off the life that surrounds his solemn centre. This is a goofy film, but one that doesn’t quite lose its edge.

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Review: Ghost in the Shell (2017)

So immaculately designed to be of a future aesthetic that really hasn’t existed since the late 90s that it’s hard for me not to at least fall a little under its spell. Johansson brings a Deneuve-like blankness to the role that’s perfect for the role, recalling her amazing work in Under the Skin. As a person who never really cared for the original anime’s goofy sci-fi, philosophical speeches, this one’s purely superficial interest in those aspects worked for me. It moves like the original never did, probably because this is an action movie, first and foremost.

As for the whitewashing controversy – well, yeah, it’s still fucked at a very basic level. However, I was surprised to find that the writers had at least attempted a justification for it, a justification which has thematic threads throughout the script. Whether or not this was a post-controversy rationalisation, the choice the filmmaker’s make is purposeful and almost works. Ghost in the Shell attempts to be a commentary on a post-nationalist, globalised culture – one that informs its very production and the way film distribution is changing day to day. Is globalisation the result of the still lingering tendrils of imperialism? What will be its effect on the future? These are the questions that the film raises when it reveals the origin/rationale for The Major’s race.

Now, the big problem with this approach is that the film doesn’t actually make a statement regarding those questions. There’s no opinion posited, even though it feints at the obvious negative. And so it ends up feeling half-assed, insensitive. Which, I guess actually plays into the heart of its explorations.

Review: Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012)

“There is no end.”

A feral, feverish nightmare of a film that is well worth your time.

The first hour is basically just abstraction, speeding through the suggestion of plot rather that a real thing. Then, it becomes a nonstop brutal whirlwind of action, so vicious and surreal that it’s both darkly comic and terrifying.  It’s essentially a horror film, bringing up questions of free will and identity – are you the product of your choices?  What if your choices were illusions, a series of pieces set from the start? If you are without choice, if you have no input on where you end up, are you really anything other than a vessel for others?

When Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning finally reaches its conclusion in a fight with a phantom-like, face-painted Jean Claude Van Damme, it feels less like a release and more like a quiet failure, the only victory in the fact that no one has to kill anyone for at least a little while.

This film will haunt me.

Review: Dog Eat Dog (2016)

“Let me ask you a question: do you think I look like Humphrey Bogart?”

Three ex-cons – semi cool and collected Troy (Nicolas Cage); hulking, semi-intelligent Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook); and lunatic with a heart of pitiable hope Mad Dog (Willem Dafoe) – are hired to kidnap a baby for ransom. Things quickly go to hell.

Paul Schrader injects Dog Eat Dog with a a wild, kinetic energy that throws the entire film off balance, vacillating from tense crime thriller to slacker comedy to hyper-aware black comedy. His directorial decisions seem entirely motivated by the question of ‘Would this be cool?’ rather than any sense of character psychology. And that’s OK. In fact, it’s kind of awesome.

I never thought I’d describe a film that opens with Willem Dafoe murdering his girlfriend and her pre-teen daughter as ‘wacky’, but here I am. It’s wacky. In fact, that opening scene acts as a weird homage to Hype William’s Belly. A strip club scene is shot in black and white for no real reason. Schrader throws in coloured distortions, similar to techniques Nicholas Ray used in We Can’t Go Home Again. The last scene is bathed in a ridiculous amount of neon fog. Schrader even has a hard to describe but nuts iris-gun barrel follow the bullet shot.

The performances roll with this style, Dafoe and Cage in particular clearly having a blast. Dafoe somehow makes a sociopath sympathetic by making him hilariously pitiable and stupid, while Cage slowly descends into a bizarro fantasy land where he starts doing a Humphrey Bogart impression and it’s my favourite thing I’ve seen this year.

And through it all, through the nasty core of nihilism at its centre, is a resolutely goofy sense of humour. From an emotional flashback consisting of these men squirting mustard on each other to Mad Dog burying a body while using the language of self-actualisation, Dog Eat Dog allows itself to bask in a sort of juvenile abandon, no care for reality or consistency, just having the time of its life before its characters probably go back in the can.

To make my case, I present this exchange:

Troy: “What’s that thing you put in a baby’s mouth to shut him up?”
Mad Dog, sincerely and confused: “A dick?”
Troy: “No.”

Review: Out of Sight (1998)

“It’s not a game. Not something you play.”

This is the sexiest film I’ve ever seen. It’s so smooth, so playfully edited, so sharply written, and so, so, so full of gorgeous people smirking at each other.

George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez play a bank robber and his chasing federal agent who somehow end up falling for each other. Around them is a genuinely clever and funny crime story (courtesy of novelist Elmore Leonard and screenwriter Scott Frank).

I could talk about the wonderful, post-Pulp Fiction structure or the performances, each and every one of which gets a great moment to shine. I could talk about a lot, but I won’t, because nothing more needs to be said than a mere mentioning of the centrepiece scene.

Clooney and Lopez meet at a bar in the middle of a snow storm, and they talk. They try to ignore their situation. And suddenly, he touches her hand on a glass of whiskey, and the actions begins flipping between them at the bar and them later, as they undress. Back and forth, back and forth, chronology as a flirtatious acknowledgement of their time-stopping chemistry. It’s fucking masterful, honestly, worthy of admission alone, maybe the best edited scene I have ever witnessed. That scene is all that matters.

The two most beautiful people on the planet undressing over a glass of whiskey-shaded romance.

Review: Black Caesar (1973)

“Did you know a man’s beard keeps right on growing, even after he’s dead?”

Larry Cohen applies his weirdo wit to the blaxploitation picture and comes away with something far more tragic and complex than I was expecting.

It starts with an act of racially motivated violence against a young Tommy Gibbs by a cop. Thrown down the stairs, beaten to hell, slurs slung, Gibbs is left within an inch of his life. Cut to years later, and Gibbs, now played with significant jaw by Fred Williamson, has put himself on the path to become the head of the NYC crime life. He fights the police, he destroys the Italian mob, he brings his harlem gang to the top. At first, we wonder if Gibbs has created his identity out of that moment from his childhood: that moment of racial injustice.

But Cohen and Williamson don’t allow us such an easy answer. They show Gibbs not as a symbol of righteous vengeance, but instead something much more complicated. We see him being cruel and sadistic. We see him harm his friends. We see him rape his wife. We see him re-create his own childhood act of violence on a friend.

And now Cohen forces us to wonder again: what if Gibbs didn’t create his identity out of a moment of injustice? What if he took his trauma and remembered it as an act of primeval force?

What if his trauma has manifested itself as the very principle of violence upon his soul?

That’s where Cohen is able to impart true power, true tragedy. This is a story of a man forged out of hell, and his inability to see his own inherent vice. It earns the Shakespearean namesake of its title. It damn near ripped my heart out, managing to create sympathy in a truly despicable character.

On top of that, Black Caesar is wildly entertaining. The set-pieces here are destructive and thrilling – a late game taxi chase is especially inventive and crazy. And its ending is a perfect pay off. It’s a sloppy explosion of revenge and pain, the perfect encapsulation of the complexity of this amazing film.

Review: Street of No Return (1989)

(In a squeaky rasp), “I’m just gonna change your voice a little.”

This isn’t a qualitatively ‘great’ film – it has too much dead air, not enough coverage, and faulty sound mixing – but it has Samuel Fuller’s wild bastard spirit all over it, so even in its faults I have found something powerful and wonderful despite itself.

What is essentially a standard, grungy VHS revenge tale is told so strangely, with so many off beats, weird tangents, and startling grace notes that I found it immensely moving. It feels like a ghost’s exploitation movie bashed up sideways by Fuller’s irrepressible spirit. This is clearly a last film – but it’s a last gasp of wild manic genius.

Keith Carradine stars as a Neil Diamon-esque rock star who falls for the wrong girl and has his throat slashed by the mob. Now an alcoholic bum with a squeaky rasp, all he wants is some booze – and maybe his girl, too.

This is a film that opens with a dude getting hit in the face with a hammer during a race riot – a riot that is eventually revealed to have been incited in the service of a real estate scam. This is a film that explains two characters’ histories with a jarring cut to a woman riding a horse wearing only a thong. This is a film with a grenade vs knife battle on a deserted ship. A film where a climactic shootout ends with a shot to the crotch. Where every set fills empty, save for the sleaze. Where a camera whips around a room to catch glimpses of nudity, again and again. Where Keith Carradine has a fucking earring.

But this is also a film carried by real and beautiful emotion. One that can end with two characters, reunited after hell, simply walking down the street together – and that moment can feel like the most beautiful thing in the world.

Samuel Fuller, you great old lunatic, you’re my goddamn hero.

“How long have you been a homicidal bum?”