Idle Hands (1999)

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When you’re about my age (none of your business) you’ll have a memory of your younger days, when you had a shelf full of “sure thing” videos. When you had a group of friends over, and the Pinot Grigio was flowing freely, and you needed a film that wouldn’t challenge you too much, but was fun and entertaining. We’re talking “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, “The Terminator”, “Commando”, a few Jackie Chan films, maybe “The Story Of Ricky” if you were a bold bunch. You get the idea, and I’m sure you’ve all got your own personal choices. Anyway, “Idle Hands” was on that shelf for me, and it’s been an age since I saw it. I could have probably done a review from memory, but my good lady wife fancied watching it, so here we are!

Devon Sawa, most recently seen chewing the scenery as a bad-turned-good-turned-bad agent in “Nikita”, is Anton, a teenage stoner. Happy enough to sit around and watch TV, get high and do pretty much nothing else, a dropped notebook allows him to talk to his neighbour, played by Jessica Alba at her most ludicrously perfect, before some scumbag agent persuaded her to drop 20 lbs. He is supported in his endeavours by his friends Mick and Pnub, Seth Green and Elden Henson.
 
Anton doesn’t realise his parents are both dead, murdered in the film’s opening scene by an unseen force, but one which managed to write “I’m under the bed” in glow-in-the-dark paint on the ceiling. But when his hand starts trying to kill people around him…basically, it’s some sort of demonic possession which only affects really lazy people, and this brings in Debi LeCure, the wiccan hunter of this evil, and another neighbour, Randy, a slightly-gone-to-seed heavy metal fan who spends most of his day caring for his beautiful 4×4 and is the town’s expert on all things Dark, given he likes the music of the devil (a quite clever conceit for exceptionally lazy stoners such as the stars of this film).
 
There are very very few horror-comedies that manage to be both scary and funny. This isn’t one of them, and definitely falls on the comedy side of things. When Mick and Pnub come back from the dead as zombies, the stakes change from low to non-existent, and the actual deaths of characters are just brushed off as minor inconveniences. If you wonder what I’m going on about, wait til the end of the film and spend a few minutes just thinking of the actual real-life trouble that Anton will be in when the dust settles, and how remarkably calm everyone appears to be about it.
 
Which is one of the problems of being older. Film concepts and ideas that seemed fun as a miserable kid in my early 20s are significantly different when I’m a happily married man in my late 30s. When they’re wrecking Anton’s house, I kept going “someone’s going to have to clean that up”, then laughing at the pathetic wreck of my life. But it’s been an interesting lesson of how films don’t change, but our perceptions of them do.

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It’s beginning to sound like I didn’t enjoy this film, which is absolutely not the case. It’s not a classic, by any stretch, but it’s always fun and while the characters seem pretty broad at times (Mick and Pnub adapt remarkably well to being dead, for one thing) you can’t help but like them. Anyway, chances are if you’re a reader of this site then you’ll have seen this film and won’t need me wittering on about it. Relish the bright green-and-red classic horror lighting system, try not to sweat the details too much and you’ll have a great time.

Idle Hands on IMDB
Buy Idle Hands [DVD] [1999]

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The Saint (1997)

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Directed by: Phillip Noyce

Val Kilmer’s film career in the nineties is very much a game of two halves. Some standout performances in ‘Tombstone’, ‘The Doors’ and ‘Heat’, and obvious flops ‘The Island of Doctor Moreau’, ‘The Ghost and the Darkness’ and ‘At First Sight’. Handsome and charismatic Kilmer could’ve potentially been a consistent leading man, but instead he fell away and escaped to a ranch where he shot bison and looked through a telescope for intruders who might be stealing his crops. As the star of Cruise rose, Kilmer disappeared into the Supporting Actor abyss.

‘The Saint’ made loadsa money at the Box Office, but it isn’t talked about much nowadays. This is despite Val Kilmer’s YouTubeable multitude of accents. See, Kilmer isn’t just a master of disguise here; he also can do a South African accent voice that is worse than Leo’s in ‘Blood Diamond’.

A great deal of humour comes from Kilmer’s accents. There are significant portions of dialogue during his seduction of Russell which is inaudible Afrikaans. Then comes his campy Austro/German Airport voice he uses to meet Tretiak and his son in an Airport, a funny Australian accent (up there with Quentin’s in ‘Django Unchained’) and his generic Latin America voice which reminds me of Fred Armisen’s Venezuelan diplomat character from ‘Parks and Recreation’.

I have vague memories of watching repeats of the sixties TV version of ‘The Saint’ starring Roger Moore, but I can’t recall much of Moore’s portrayal of Templar. It’s like the other day, I was talking to a friend about ‘Bergerac’, and hummed the theme tune, yet I couldn’t think of anything that happened in any of the many episodes I sat through.

After establishing that Simon Templar named himself after surviving abuse in a Catholic Orphanage during the film’s opening scene, we see the sneaky thief steal a microchip from a Russian Olirgarch called Tretiak. Think Roman Abramovich, but with a bigger ego. Tretiak wants to rule Russia and gets so carried away in his impassioned political rally that Val Kilmer sneaks in, but luckily Tretiak’s greasy cane carrying son Ilya catches him in the act.

Tretiak is able to contact Simon, who evidently doesn’t cover his tracks too well, and applauds him for his daringness. He offers Simon a job – to acquire a cold chemical formula that is being developed by an American chemist called Emma Russell (Elisabeth Shue). Getting hold of the formula would make Tretiak billions and allow him to control the distribution of energy in Russia.

Since the timid Russell is likely a virgin who has devoted all her life to the wrong kinds of chemistry, Templar is able to snare her by posing as Jim Morrison with a South African accent. But first he does a bit of reconnaissance on Russell by breaking into her Oxford based apartment. He noticed that her Father had long hair and looked like the lizard king. Templar buys her expensive wine, whispers a few lines of poetry and takes her to bed.

Tretiak tracks down Simon and sends his son and a few machine gun carrying goons across to Oxford to get the formula and take care of the thief. The film then gets crazy as Emma Russell, with the help of Scotland Yard is able to locate the surprisingly easily traceable Simon Templar in Moscow. This plays right into Ilya’s hands and a game of cat and mouse ensues.

The love story between Templar and Russell makes ‘The Saint’ quite similar to ‘Romancing the Stone’ or ‘Jewel of the Nile’, Kilmer and Shue have good chemistry and their romantic adventure is quite the romp. Setting the film in Russia falls in with the post-Cold War films such as ‘GoldenEye’, ‘The Jackal’ and ‘The Peacemaker’ which paints the former Soviet Union as a volatile melting pot waiting to explode. There is a ‘From Russia with Love’ joke that could be made here, but I’ll resist. ‘The Saint’ will adequately kill a couple of otherwise tedious afternoon hours.

– RJW
7/10

The Saint on IMDB
Buy The Saint [DVD] [1997]

Deep Blue Sea (1999)

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1999 is seen as something of a golden year for film, we were adorned with modern classics such as American Beauty, Eyes Wide Shut, Fight Club, The Green Mile, Magnolia, The Straight Story and Man on the Moon with other, more left-field titles also serving up consistently strong content such as Arlington Road, Being John Malkovich, Buena Vista Social Club, The Virgin Suicides, The Boondock Saints, Office Space and Mystery Men. We were also given multiple enduring genre game-changers like The Blair Witch Project, The Matrix and The Sixth Sense which brings me nicely to one of my guilty pleasures of ’99, Deep Blue Sea.

’90s Hollywood action hack Renny Harlin (born Lauri Mauritz Harjola) was one of the top studio go-to-guys for middle budget actioners in the last decade of creative freedom in film before the bean counters took over. He was entrusted with the second instalment of the Die Hard (1990) franchise, worked with Shane Black on The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), oversaw John Lithgow overpowering Sylvester Stallone with a headlock in Cliffhanger (1993) and is responsible for the biggest box-office flop of all time, Cutthroat Island (1995).

Harlin then decided to wave the 20th century goodbye with an elaborate science-fiction/horror/action hybrid starring an ensemble cast made up of Tom Jane (in one of his earliest leading roles), Saffron Burrows, Michael Rapaport, Stellan Skarsgard, Samuel L. Jackson, pop-rapper Ladies Love Cool James and some genetically engineered CGI sharks.

L. Jackson plays Russell Franklin, a corporate executive whose company is bankrolling an ocean based science lab called ‘The Aquatica Project’ in the hope of finding a cure for alzheimer’s disease by testing on sharks. Aquatica is headed up by ambitious scientist Dr. Susan McAlester (a pouting Saffron Burrows) and the sharks are kept in touch by good-at-heart criminal Carter Blake (Tom Jane) who is made to herd the underwater predators as part of his parole conditions.

It turns out Burrows has been using illegal made-up sciency stuff on the sharks which increase their brain capacity making them capable of hunting in packs and also gives them the super-power of swimming backwards (there’s even a collective gasp among the cast when this is first noticed). Cue an underwater Frankenstein rollercoaster ride of creation rebelling against creator which starts with Stellan Skarsgard having his arm bitten off by one of the test subjects and then, while being airlifted to a chopper the unlucky Swede’s rescue is first scuppered by adverse weather conditions and finally (and fatally) by the leader shark who slams him into the main window, thus breaking it and securing entry to the facility.

Australian screenwriter Duncan Kennedy was inspired to write Deep Blue Sea by witnessing firsthand “the horrific effects of a shark attack” on a beach near his home which onset a recurring nightmare of “being in a passageway with sharks that could read his mind”. The only way Kennedy saw fit to alleviate his subconscious mind of those terrible dreams was to thrash out the basic plot of what would eventually evolve into Deep Blue Sea. He also noted that Harlin wanted to go one better than Jaws which has a 25 foot killer shark so the big one in Deep Blue Sea reaches a length of 26 foot. Take that Spielberg.

In a neat and surprising twist the film’s biggest star is killed off about halfway through while delivering a rousing speech proving that Deep Blue Sea is much more than just a standard-fare guessing game of who gets got and in what order, in fact Deep Blue Sea showcases a broad range of technical competencies that made the Finnish filmmaker such a highly-rated genre director throughout the decade. Bonus points too for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo from Ronny Cox as the head of the corporation behind it all.

Like most of Harlin’s previous work it’s packed full of slick, suspenseful build-up and thoughtful and wholly original action set-pieces, in one scene he even manages to blow-up water which even his closest challenger for ridiculous action sequences, John Woo, never achieved and he blends the serious with a good dose of humour as one of the clever sharks turns on an oven that LL Cool J is hiding in reminiscent of old Looney Tunes cartoons. Harlin plays it straight throughout the film no matter how ridiculous it gets (and it gets very bloody ridiculous) and it’s this tongue-in-cheek approach that appeals to me kind of like a subtle, marine version of Police Squad but without the Zucker’s zany humour. One feels it could’ve too easily descended into farcical parody territory had he taken a lighter route.

This film along with countless others throughout the 90s emphasises just how much filmmakers were getting away with and how big budgets were being blown on any and every idea no matter how far-fetched, fantastic or just plain weird they were. However coming into the following decade Renny Harlin soon fell out of favour in Hollywood, maybe this simply coincided with the belt tightening of the 2000s or maybe it’s just because he was making tosh like Deep Blue Sea.

– Greg Foster

Deep Blue Sea on IMDB
Buy Deep Blue Sea [1999] [DVD]

Nick of Time (1995)

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Directed by: John Badham

‘Nick of Time’ killed John Badham’s career as a Hollywood director. It wasn’t his last film, that honour fell to a film that starred Jason Patric film about Art forgery called ‘Incognito’, released the same year as Patric’s leading man aspirations died with ‘Speed II: Cruise Control’ (somehow Patric conspired to display less on screen charisma than Keanu Reeves). Badham made some bad choices, but he surpassed many people’s expectations by directing a disco movie starring John Travolta, an early eighties movie about computer hacking, and a film about a police helicopter pilot who suffers from post-traumatic sense disorder. Most of those ideas sounded bad on paper, yet somehow they were critically well received and smashed it at the box office.

It seemed there was a preoccupation in the nineties with trying to move cinema forwards, by looking backwards. ‘Nick of Time’ takes place in real time, inspired by classics from the fifties such as ‘High Noon’ and ’12 Angry Men’. The difference in this film is that it opens with a farfetched kidnapping involving a driveling accountant and his young daughter and the action mostly takes place within a soulless gigantic hotel with a surprisingly limited amount of rouge carpeted conference rooms. Everything screams dull.

Johnny Depp plays the accountant Gene Watson, and he plays it dry. Depp works best as a charismatic lead, or when mimicking Hunter S. Thompson, playing an everyman figure doesn’t feel comfortable, and Depp’s uncomfortable performance reflects that. Watson and his daughter Lynn arrive in LA by train. Lynn looks out of the window and sees vagabonds duking it out trackside as their train pulls in. When they wander into the station an annoyance on skates buzzes around, this bozo tries to take Lynn’s teddy bear. Yes, all the petty crooks in LA want is cuddly toys.

This is witnessed by Mr Smith (Christopher Walken) and Ms. Jones (Liz from Nip/Tuck) who seem to be plotting some kind of abduction, surveying the train station for their target. They see Watson and his daughter as perfect for their master plan. They wander over to the father and daughter, flash a police badge and somehow manage to bundle them both into a van. Ms. Jones and Lynn sit in the back; Mr Smith and Watson sit in the front. Watson is told by Mr Smith that unless he kills somebody for him his daughter will be killed. Watson is given a gun, some bullets and a manila envelope containing a picture of the person he must kill. He’s then given a time limit and a venue where this person is to be found, which is the Bonaventure Hotel.

Watson’s target is Governor Grant, a friendly faced politician who happens to be holding her campaign speeches at the hotel. Trying to get help appears impossible for Watson, as Mr Smith tracks his every move, waiting in every corner, following him to the toilet. The man can’t even shit himself in peace. Watson discovers something is amiss, and realizes that shooting Grant is actually easy, because it seems everyone around the campaign wants her to die. It’s a conspiracy dagnabbit!

You could compare this film to ‘Phone Booth’ in that an average pen pusher gets thrown into a situation way beyond his capabilities. Despite there being appears more at stake here, in the sense that Watson is on a suicide mission and his daughter’s, and indeed the Governer’s life is on the line there appears a distinct lack of urgency and throughout the film the supposedly sinister Mr Smith, a man very much on a deadline, is extremely generous with his time.

– RJW
4/10

Nick of Time on IMDB
Buy Nick Of Time [DVD] [1996]

The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996)

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I’m at quite a loss on how to approach The Island of Dr. Moreau from a critical viewpoint in fact I’m at a loss on how to explain it at all. It’s the most jaw-dropping example of a large studio budget being wasted on nothing more than fireworks and egos with the actual production of a film being nothing but an after thought. I think the simplest and sanest thing to do would be to just describe the utterly mystifying bat-shittery as it happens and to provide a bit of a back story too.

If you’re familiar with the H.G. Wells book of the same name, and on which this is based, then you’ll get the basics of the narrative and that the titular doctor is a Nobel prize winning geneticist who has been chased from his homeland for certain nutty professor type crimes in which he can now indulge himself away from prying eyes and that will unfold spectacularly in the next 93 minutes (the gore was removed to achieve a box-office friendly PG-13 rating but a 100 minute director’s cut was later released restoring it back to an R).

The film opens with an overhead long shot of a dinghy floating aimlessly in a vast ocean in which three men are fighting under the supervision of David Thewlis’s apocalyptic sounding voiceover explaining that the quarrel is over the one remaining water canteen. After a minute or two of fisticuffs the extras who aren’t David Thewlis tumble into the sea and are eaten by a shark. Seriously. Thewlis is then saved by a ship that just happens to contain Val Kilmer and they’re taken to an island where the story can…err… properly begin.

Before we get stuck into the main course I’d like to digress and mention that this film has a healthy mix of then A-list stars, Marlon Brando as the mad doctor, Val Kilmer as Moreau’s drug addled assistant Montgomery & David Thewlis as Edward Douglas (a last minute replacement for the ship-jumping Rob Morrow who in turn replaced the petulant Val Kilmer from his original casting as Douglas) and character actors Ron Perlman as a blind sheep man & Temuera Morrison as a wolf in a tux, creature costumes were designed and created by the remarkable Stan Winston and, most bafflingly, it was directed by John Frankenheimer. This is the man who made Ronin, The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May and, his masterpiece (and one of my personal favourites), Seconds.

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Frankenheimer’s involvement was induced after the original director Richard Stanley was relieved of his duties by New Line studio execs who were worried about escalating costs and his lack of overall competency after seeing dailies of Kilmer prancing about on set while he was supposed to be filming his lines (Kilmer had tried to leave the project but the studio put him on ‘contract lockdown’). Stanley would go on to burn all notes and papers from pre-production just to annoy the new regime and even threatened to torch the set, he did manage to sneak back in and, with help from disillusioned crew members, appears on film as a ‘melted bulldog’. The new incumbent would then hire his own screenwriter, Ron Hutchinson, to change the complexity of the story to his own vision and away from the awful original script but these re-writes would happen daily and on set much to the chagrin of the cast with Thewlis commenting “We would get pages and pages every day, and you’d read them and think “Well, these are shit as well.” And Brando, not being able to keep up with the constant revisions, would wear a radio ear-piece that would inadvertently tune in to police frequencies. While filming a particular scene it’s claimed he shouted “There’s been a robbery at Woolworth’s!”

Brando’s ego by this point was so large that nobody, including Frankenheimer, would dare say no to him or question any of his incredulous decisions. In one scene he wears an ice bucket as a hat simply because he was bored and he also demanded that a midget appear in every one of his scenes even wearing the same outfits. There’s a ludicrous scene where they serenade each other on the ivories with the midget’s little piano sitting on top of Brando’s grand piano. Brando’s entrance sees him arrive in a Guerilla-esque pope mobile, waving majestically at his populace while dressed in a large white cassock with his veiled face covered in flour and his lips and teeth smeared with lipstick. His wardrobe had a colourful, calypso theme throughout like he’d raided Whoopi Goldberg’s laundry basket with the addition of interchangeable extravagant headwear and beaded jewellery. Such a fall from grace for a once proud Hollywood legend is compounded in his death scene where he’s eaten by a hyena wearing Converse sneakers.

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Val Kilmer wasn’t a stranger to inexplicable behaviour either. He would insist on wearing odd garments randomly placed around his body like a blue scarf on his arm that he refused to take off until he stopped getting attention for it. He also didn’t turn up for the first two days of filming with his agent boasting “You always lose the first two days of a Val Kilmer movie.” It’s thought that Frankenheimer was bought onto the project with the hopes that he’d whip Kilmer into shape but that wasn’t to be, after wrapping the final shoot he ordered his crew “Get that bastard off my set”. The two leads didn’t get on from the outset and Kilmer was even spiteful enough to mimic Brando’s slurry speech both on and off camera throughout the entirety of the shoot. In fact, Kilmer’s acting is basically non-existent, he takes long pauses mid way through sentences and sometimes just stares blankly into the camera, there’s something quite homo-erotic about his ‘performance’ too most notable in scenes shared with Thewlis.

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That kind of sums it up really as the actual film itself feels incidental to the titanic battle of egos waged in the background and probably rightly so, it’s an utter mess of such magnitude that it surprises me it was finished and even got a cinema release at all but for the sake or good order I’ll try tie up the plot. After seeing his wolf friend die while on trial for killing a rabbit, the sport-shoe wearing hyena rips out the controlling chip which all ‘man-beasts’ have installed as a disciplinal measure and rallies the other grotesque inhabitants to form a militia and over-throw Moreau’s benevolent reign. Plenty of tiresome and poorly conceived sequences then follow mumbling and jumbling their way through to the contrite ending including a supposed exposition scene at a dinner table where Brando is just talking and talking, guffing volumes of nonsensical babble which serve more to confuse than to progress and there’s plenty more Val looking either bored or mischievous and adlibbing lines like “I wanna go to dog heaven”.

I’ve never been so aghast at a studio production, this fails so spectacularly on every level that it had me going through an emotional smorgasbord of negativity which I’m still finding difficult to negotiate and untangle like a big sticky web of shit. It’s the background to The Island of Dr. Moreau which lends it a slight semblance of charm and urges the curiosity of at least one viewing but most bafflingly it did manage to cover its budget on box-office receipts when essentially it was just one big snooker-loopy, dirty-laundry exposing, Hollywood squabble.

– Greg Foster

The Island of Dr. Moreau on IMDB
Read HG Well’s The Island of Dr Moreau (Penguin Classics)
Buy The Island Of Dr. Moreau [DVD] [1996]