F. Gary Gray’s A Man Apart

F. Gary Gray’s A Man Apart isn’t exactly the glowing pinnacle of Vin Diesel’s varied career so far, but it sure as hell isn’t one of the lower points either (I reserve that label for garbage like The Pacifier). A scrappy, brutally violent revenge flick, Vin is cast here as Sean Vetter, moody DEA badass who decides to take on the Mexican cartels almost singlehandedly when they wipe out his family. He drags his partner (Larenz Tate) into going rogue and before he knows it the cartels have dispatched a few colourful contract killers his way including Joker-esque Hollywood Jack (Timothy Olyphant), ruthless cowboy Pomona Joe (Jeff Kober), psychotic Hondo (character actor Marco Rodriguez) and others. Despite heavy reshoots and re-edits, this just works as a dark, entertaining piece of action pulp. Diesel is appropriately fuming as a guy with nothing to lose who is capable of horrific violence at the drop of a hat and has long since broken free of the constraints of his badge, it’s a nice no holds barred turn from the actor. Director Gray has an extensive, impressive resume in the action/crime genre, having helmed everything from The Italian Job to cult classic Friday to one of the Fast & Furious films. A Man Apart certainly isn’t his calling card or most prolific effort, and it has its issues, but I admire how down and dirty it gets, it’s like a 70’s Clint Eastwood flick that is so violent and industrial strength rough that it almost feels like an exploitation film. Fun stuff.

-Nate Hill

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David R. Ellis’ Cellular

Remember when cell phones were just that, phones and not the pocket computers of today? Cellular remembers, and did a bang up job of crafting a thriller around the concept back in 2004 when the age of the smartphone had yet to enter and we still had those glorious Nokia flippers. Based on a story by B-Movie guru Larry Cohen, it’s a breakneck paced, Bourne-lite action flick that works surprisingly well and offers engaging work from a young Chris Evans, a frantic Kim Basinger, a lovably intrepid William H. Macy and an especially nasty Jason Statham. Basinger is a Santa Monica housewife kidnapped by Statham and his band of thugs for reasons slowly revealed. Keeping her in a locked attic, he makes a violent ceremony of busting up the landline phone with a baseball bat, so naturally when she tries to dial what’s left of it in a panic, there a ghost of a signal and she’s able to make one random call. Evans’ beach bum college kid picks up the other line and is caught up in the intrigue, staging an impromptu search and rescue for her with the help of Macy’s dogged detective. It works well thanks to taut pacing, convincing performances (especially Statham) and editing that jars yet keeps it fluid. The main quartet are supported by the likes of Eric Christian Olsen, Noah Emmerich, Richard Burgi, Al Sapienza, Lin Shaye and Jessica Biel, but I gotta give a shoutout to Suits’ Rick Hoffman in a precious cameo as the world’s most obnoxious lawyer, who finds himself at the wrong end of a carjacking on Evans’ part, fuck can that guy ever mug the camera and effortlessly play for laughs. Cohen also wrote the story that ended up being Joel Schumacher’s Phonebooth, intending it to be the antithesis of that single location premise, the two films work nicely as a double feature tied together by similar concepts. It’s nice to see Statham in a straight up, no nonsense villain role, his stoic glowering and brutal physicality goes a long way in drumming up palpable menace. Further personality is given by a slick remix of Nina Simone’s Sinner Man worked in over the credits, too. Fun stuff.

-Nate Hill

Actor’s Spotlight with DAVID CLENNON

Clennon 1

We have a very special guest, someone who needs no introduction. Our latest addition to the Actor’s Spotlight series is Emmy Award-winning actor, David Clennon. Mr. Clennon has a career spanning decades, working with such auteurs as Bob Fosse, Bob Rafelson, Phillip Kaufman, Stephen Gaghan, David Fincher, Paul Schrader, and John Sayles. He’s collaborated twice with Clint Eastwood, three times with Hal Ashby, and four times with Costa-Gavras. David memorably starred as Palmer in John Carpenter’s horror classic THE THING. He is also no stranger to television, with many featured roles in HOUSE OF CARDS, E.R., THE WEST WING, THIRTYSOMETHING, HBO’s seminal AIDS drama …AND THE BAND PLAYED ON, and an Emmy winning turn on HBO’s DREAM ON. Mr. Clennon’s most recent projects are the CBS drama series CODE BLACK, joining the new season as Colonel Martin Willis, as well as Joseph Culp’s new film, WELCOME TO THE MEN’S GROUP where he stars along with Stephen Tobolowski and Timothy Bottoms. The film is now On Demand.

Catch WELCOME TO THE MEN’S GROUP from your favorite streaming provider below:

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John Flynn’s Lock Up

John Flynn’s Lock Up is a great early Sylvester Stallone prison flick, back in the late 80’s heyday of the action genre where envelopes were pushed, no punches were pulled and rough, brutal scripts were green-lit on the daily. Stallone plays Frank Leone, a genuinely likeable guy who has a few weeks left on a sentence that resulted from a trumped up charge to begin with, and he’s ready to get out. Donald Sutherland’s Drumgool, the new warden, has other plans though, as the two of them have a rocky past and he has nothing but contempt for Frank. This spurs an onslaught of ruthless, bloody prison violence, yard fights, shankings, betrayal and riots as sneering sociopath Sutherland does his best to ensure that Stallone never again breathes free air. The film is so charged up and cold blooded it’s almost comical at times, but always enjoyable and hard hitting. Director Flynn is responsible for stuff like the Steven Seagal bone cruncher Out For Justice and notorious 70’s exploitation flick Rolling Thunder, so grit and machismo are par for the course and then some. Sutherland just goes above and beyond as Drumgool, it’s one of the great under-sung villain performances in the genre, the guy is fucking evil personified and the legendary actor eats up every frame of screentime, demolishing scene partners left and right with that leering glare and slate granite drawl. John Amos scores as the incredibly stoic captain of the guard, there’s great work from Sonny Landham, Darlene Fluegel, Frank McRae, Larry Romano, Danny Trejo and a stunning film debut by Tom Sizemore, already a scene stealer as a fast talking con who plays sidekick to Stallone. You won’t often hear this mentioned in the prison flick round table discussion but it’s really one of the best out there, rough and ready to brawl, with a galvanized steel veneer over the fight sequences, hard bitten performances, nice moments of fleeting humour and no shortage of breathless, pulverizing violence.

-Nate Hill

Henry Selick’s James & The Giant Peach

Henry Selick’s James & The Giant Peach is one of those films I watched so many times and at such an impressionable age that it’s been sort of seared into my consciousness like an especially vivid dream. It’s also one of the few adaptations of a book by beloved author Roald Dahl that really captures the magic of the source material. I can think of this and maybe one other film version of his stories that have anything close to that demented whimsical aura his writing had, he’s a bit like Dr. Seuss in the sense that what he did was so specific and special that it’s almost futile to even try to faithfully adapt it. The story is unmistakable: young orphan James (Paul Terry) is out in the care of abusive relatives Aunt Spiker (Joanna Lumley) and and Aunt Sponge (Miriam Margoyles), horrible, ugly old cows who mistreat him day and night. One day a mysterious Old Man (Pete Postlethwaite, charismatic and well casted) gives him a little bag of magic radioactive rice kernels, which turn a nearby peach into a gargantuan hideout in which he finds some unlikely friends. Earthworm (David Thewlis), Centipede (a feisty Richard Dreyfus), Spider (Susan Sarandon), Gloworm (Margoyles in a dual role), Grasshopper (Simon Callow) and Ladybug (Jane Leeves) form up the boy’s entomological posse as they roll the giant peach down into the sea and embark on a musically surreal adventure that includes seagulls, undead arctic pirates, a massive storm, musical numbers and one pissed off steam punk mecha-Shark. Selick uses the the same jaw dropping, gorgeous stop motion animation he employed in A Nightmare Before Christmas, and the result is tactile, textured visuals that give all the animated scenes bizarro world realism, I’m not sure if there’s a Blu Ray out there but there really ought to be. This is one visually spectacular piece with a real sense of wonder and playfulness, and although it deviates from the book a fair bit, it still somehow does Dahl proud in terms of style and tone. A treasure .

-Nate Hill

Paul Schrader’s Forever Mine

Paul Schrader’s Forever Mine is a melodramatic romantic revenge thriller that never truly coalesces into something great, but has elements which work nicely. We get two really great lead performances from Gretchen Mol and Ray Liotta, and one from Joseph Fiennes that isn’t as committed, or maybe it’s just that I’m not a fan of his and always feel that he’s mis-casted. Fiennes is the cabana boy working the beaches who falls in love with Mol, the much younger wife of Liotta’s shady, volatile politician. Jealousy roars into play, violence rears it’s head and tragedy looms when the affair becomes a full blown love triangle. Liotta is a dangerous man with powerful friends and he soon fixes it so the two of them can never see each other again, on top of having him viciously scarred. Flash forward a decade or so, Fiennes has become something of a shady businessman himself, and has returned seeking payback on ol’ angry Liotta. The one giant misstep in the script here is assuming that no one would recognize him simply because he’s become rich, cultured and suave, I mean it’s still the exact same guy in the flesh, Liotta and his ilk seem to buy the ruse, but it just doesn’t sell. It’s all very mirthless and operatic, so much so that it reminds me of Tony Scott’s Revenge which is the ultimate noir soap opera, but it works here and there. Liotta and Mol simmer off the screen but like I said above, Fiennes is just an awkward foot and doesn’t seem to work for me wherever I see him. The film’s strongest point lies in its last sixty seconds or so, when the whole thing wraps up in a melancholic vignette of tandem narration from him and Mol, a beautifully spoken and edited sequence that’s brief but truly affecting, poetic and heartbreaking. A so-so film.

-Nate Hill

The Light, The Dark & the souls in between: A review of FX’s Fargo by Nate Hill

Series creator Noah Hawley had the daunting task of taking Fargo, one of the most iconic Coen Brothers films, and turning it into a long form piece of television storytelling for FX. That’s the nutshell version anyways, what he was really up against was a gaggle of rabid Coen acolytes who wanted networks nowhere near the shining legacy of the film, which has gone platinum as a highlight in the Brother’s career. How did he and his team do? Well, better than the Coens themselves did, which may stand as a controversial opinion, but if you’re as big a fan of the show’s brilliant three season run as I am then you’ll agree.

The Coen’s designed the blueprint, if you will, while Hawley & Co. take that template and positively run wild with it. It’s an anthology piece where each season focuses on another bunch of ne’er do well characters who are connected sometimes loosely and sometimes in ways that floor you later on. Yes, all the tropes we love are there: thick blizzards of blinding snow, murder most foul, dark comedy and those hysterically quaint Minnesota accents that seem to be pulled right out of Tolkien’s The Shire in some odd way. But Hawley digs deeper, and for all it’s grounded noir, homicidal schemes and materialistic flash, his Fargo mines for esoteric gold and to me ultimately is about beings of light and dark waging war over human souls on our plane. This is of course my own intuitive theory and is evident sometimes more often than others within the show, but it’s hard not to see when you look at both how cheerfully angelic some of the good, kind folks are here and how fitfully, deliciously self aware the evil ones are, like it’s less their nature to be despicably destructive as much as it is simply their job.

The first and strongest season sees Billy Bob Thornton’s sagely psychopath Lorne Malvo blow into town on a whim and stir up a brew of horrors almost by accident or out of sheer boredom, pushing the already unstable nebbish Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) to ongoing acts of unspeakable destruction. A smart cop (Allison Tolman), another slightly less smart cop (Colin Hanks) and others fight the good fight to root out evil and stop Malvo’s unholy snowball effect of mayhem and restore order. This one works the best as a stand-alone, wraps up the loose ends most satisfyingly and holds as the showcase chunk the show has to offer. The second season is brilliant but less focused, flashing back to the snowy 70’s to chronicle Sheriff Lou Solverson’s (Patrick Wilson, also played by a stoic Keith Carradine in S1) battle against the brutal Gerhardt crime family when they’re turf skirmish with a big city syndicate erupts into all out warfare and the bodies begin piling up. What this season lacks in pacing and a clearly painted main villain it makes up for in spectacle, there’s a vast ensemble cast and lush period production design for a visual element that won’t quit. Zahn Mclarnon excels as Hanzee Dent, a troubled First Nations assassin who struggles with being a lone outsider and feels a moral crisis at the penultimate moment, Jeffrey Donovan is enthusiastically nasty as Dodd, the misogynistic elder brother of the Gerhardt clan, while Bokeem Woodbine is the slick city slicker encroaching on his territory. Season 3 unfolds on a smaller scale, back to the grassroots procedural drama that leads to heinous unlawful doings. Ewan McGregor does double duties as two twin brothers in a hateful feud, one of which finds himself in the ravenous maw of terrifying V.M. Varga (David Thewlis in a career best), a demonic opportunist out to cause bureaucratic anarchy within the ranks with his army of underworld goons. Local cop Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon) tries to fit the pieces together and a mysterious messianic nomad (Twin Peaks’ Ray Wise) presides over the whole debacle with laconic benevolence. That’s the tip of the iceberg really, and vivid impressions are made by a beautifully chosen, star studded cast that includes Oliver Platt, Adam Goldberg, Stephen Root, Bob Odenkirk, Shawn Doyle, Ted Danson, Nick Offerman, Jean Smart, Kieran Culkin, Michael Hogan, Jennifer Copping, Brad Garrett, Russell Harvard, Scott Hylands, Frances Fisher, Francesca Eastwood, Fred Melamed, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Cristin Milioti, Angus Sampson, Michael Stuhlbarg, Goran Bogdan, Shea Wigham, Mary McDonnell, Key & Peele, DJ Qualls, Scoot Mcnairy, Mackenzie Grey, Wayne Duvall and Bruce Campbell in a cameo as Ronald Reagan.

Each of the three seasons is a dense, meticulously woven patchwork quilt of violence, mistaken identity, literary references, surreal allegorical imagery, unpredictable plot turns, monsters, and mayhem, each with its own unmistakable style and atmosphere. Much of the storytelling is filled with things that seem like planted arbitration, like UFO sightings or cutaways to other vignettes, but they’re there to gild the tales with further eccentricity and for you to make of them what you will, as much of it is never explained or totally elaborated on, which I appreciate. With each episode there’s a lot more going on than what’s in the main arc, these are stories to be savoured and scrutinized for clues and references, of which there are many subtle callbacks to the Coen’s other work, it’s fun to notice and tally them up. The themes of light and dark are ever present through the entire run though, as if we’re privy to a never ending battle of forces wrapped in a cluster of crime stories centred around snowy Minnesota and surrounding areas. I’m not sure whether they plan to go ahead with a fourth season and I’d welcome it, but as it stands this is a beautifully made trilogy, with fantastic writing that practically feeds the brain like prosaic protein, a cast that’s to die for and narratives that truly take you on harrowing, hilarious adventures. You betcha.

-Nate Hill

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