Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate

If you ditch the idea that Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate is a remake of the 60’s Frank Sinatra flick, you’ll have a much better time watching it without those strings attached (Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris is similarly panned by the misguided hordes). Demme’s version is a new adaptation of the novel by Richard Condon, and in my eyes the far superior thriller. Given a charged military twist, deeply disturbing psychological angles and the powerhouse acting juice of leads Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber and a staggeringly good Meryl Streep, this is where the buck stops with political thrillers. Demme’s narrative is a thickly laced web of secrets, mind manipulation, lies and corruption that isn’t always apparent or clear, given the unreliable, ruptured psyche of ex gulf war soldier Ben Marco (Washington). He’s shellshocked, but not in the traditional sense, and somehow feels as if something went very, very wrong with his unit following a deadly skirmish in the Middle East. His former fellow soldier and friend Raymond Prentiss Shaw (Schreiber) is up for senate election, fiercely prodded and chaperoned by his mad dog of a mother Eleanor (Streep). Everyone from their unit has either wound up dead or suffering from terrifying nightmares, psychosis and brain trauma they can’t explain. It’s up to Ben to trust his dodgy memories, leading him out of the dark and finding what really happened before a vague impending disaster that is Demme’s fulcrum upon which ample, nerve annihilating suspense is built around. Washington is his usual quietly implosive self and makes unnerving work of getting us to believe he’s in real psychological stress but somehow lucid. Streep is the ultimate mommy from hell, and despite the script getting near maniacal with her arc at times, she always sells it as a rogue extremist who only sees her side of the arena and will do literally anything for her son, no matter what the cost to country, colleagues or even herself. They’re joined by an impressive league of supporting talent including Bruno Ganz, Miguel Ferrer, Ted Levine, the sinister Simon McBurney, Ann Dowd, Charles Napier, José Pablo Castillo, Bill Irwin, Al Franken, Zelijko Ivanek, Roger Corman (!), Obba Babarundé, Jude Ciccolela, Dean Stockwell, Tracey Walter, Sydney Lumet (!!) and more. There’s really terrific work from Jeffrey Wright as another troubled former soldier, Kimberly Elise as a fed tracking Ben’s movements who catches feels for him, Jon Voight as a suspicious rival candidate to Shaw and Vera Farmiga as his daughter. What. A. Cast. This was one of the first R rated films I was ever allowed to see in theatres and as such the chills haven’t quite left my spine every time I go in for a revisit. It almost reaches horror movie levels of fright and nightmarish, half remembered atrocities that taint the senate election like political voodoo and give the proceedings a dark, very uneasy atmosphere. Demme goes for a big scope here with a huge cast, large scale story and high impact set pieces, but at its heart it’s a very tense, inward focused story that shows the sickness in power and just what some people are willing to do to get ahead. Like I said, forget the Sinatra version and watch this as it’s own film, it’s an incredibly special, affecting experience onscreen and you won’t find a freakier political thriller.

-Nate Hill

Advertisements

Antoine Fuqua’s The Equalizer

If you compare Antoine Fuqua’s The Equalizer to the original tv series from back in the 80’s, it’s almost comical how little they have to do with each other, besides the vague theme of vigilantism. All good though because the film amps up the creaky old serial into a maniacally pulpy, hard R rated, ultraviolent, near B movie that’s given some real class by Denzel Washington, whose gravity makes all the wanton violence seem somehow rational. Fuqua is an intense filmmaker though and he firmly stamps his stylistic brand of kinetic mayhem onto this film so hard that by the time the bombastic warehouse set finale rolls around, it seems hella over the top. Denzel is Robert McCall, a quiet, cultured fellow who just happens to be a scary, highly skilled ex government spook with a heart of gold. When a troubled young prostitute (Chloe Grace Moretz) gets in deep with the reliably psychotic Russian mob, he sees something in her that makes him step up to the occasion and quite literally lay waste to their entire organization with every means of his disposable. It’s kind of like what he did to get Dakota Fanning out of the crosshairs in Tony Scott’s Man On Fire, except less fire and more Bourne-esque hand to hand combat and tactical ingenuity. He’s basically invincible to the point where even a terrifying Vor lieutenant (Marton Csokas knowingly dialing up the camp dial) can’t even put a stop to his righteous rampage. There’s a bond between him and Moretz that needs to be there to soften the blow of the extremes he goes to, and the two actors have a great chemistry in their scenes. David Harbour steals scenes as a sheepishly corrupt Boston cop who get amusingly exasperated when McCall puts the hurt on him and the whole operation. Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo have painfully brief cameos as government officials from his past, Justified’s Johnny Neumier is nasty as the abusive russkie pimp who is the first of many tough guys to fall under his hand, and Johnny Messner has a short lived cameo as a thug who grossly underestimates him. This is kind of a ridiculous film at its core, the earnest elements hilariously clashing with a hyper violent pulse that at times reaches Hobo With A Shotgun style heights. But Denzel is ever the actor’s actor and sells the flourish with his grim resolve. A fun ass flick for what it is, and I’m curious to check out the sequel this year. Oh, and there’s a cameo from that Insta-idiot Dan Bilzerian too that almost cements a tongue in cheek self aware vibe on the film’s part.

-Nate Hill

Bob Rafelson’s Blood & Wine

Bob Rafelson’s BLOOD & WINE operates as the capstone at the end of a neo-noir resurgence in the 90s. Cut from the same whiskey and blood-soaked cloth as James Foley’s AFTER DARK, MY SWEET and CITY OF INDUSTRY the hard-lined revenge vehicle for Harvey Keitel; BLOOD & WINE is about lust, greed, and revenge set in the smoky backrooms and emptiness of decaying wealth.

Image may contain: one or more people and closeup

Rafelson assembles a marvelous cast that is able to navigate in and out of the faux royalty and seedy underbelly of Miami. Jack Nicholson, in his fifth and more than likely final collaboration with Rafelson, plays Alex who is a high-end wine salesman with maxed out credit cards and a marriage that is imploding. Nicholson brings gravitas and menace and he transitions it in a very low key way, he’s a stalled out businessman and worn out salesman who is looking for a way out.

Stephen Dorff and Judy Davis are his packaged deal, makeshift family. Dorff as his stepson, and Davis his codeine induced wife who is self-medicating her way through the last rung of their marriage. Jennifer Lopez, in one of her earliest performance, plays the love interest to both Nicholson and Dorff, which creates a rather rich and perverse subplot.

Image may contain: 2 people, outdoor

Michael Caine gives one of his most underappreciated performances as Victor, a tuberculosis-ridden master thief who pairs with Nicholson to rob his most affluent wine client. Caine is remarkable in this picture, playing a man with little left to lose, who springs to life with terrifying intermittent bursts of rage who refuses to die without pulling others down to Hell with him.

Rafelson, whose career never quite rebounded from his landmark 70s pictures, constructs a very moody and treacherous film that lives in a world of double and triple crossing, a film plentiful of smoke absorbed pastels and cutthroat men navigating a world that has left them behind. The film can be frustrating for some because the ax never falls from the shadow, it stays in its place the entire film, even though the final frame. Which is the trick of the film, the ax doesn’t fall, it stays tightly in its place, and allows the story to continue even after it is over.

Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line

There’s a scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill 2 where Michael Madsen’s Budd lays down the sword rhetoric: “If you’re gonna compared a sword made by Hattori Hanzo, you compare it to every other sword ever made, that wasn’t made by Hattori Hanzo.” I’d like to augment that slightly in the case of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line and say, “If you’re gonna compare The Thin Red Line, you compare it to every other war movie ever made that *isn’t* The Thin Red Line.” That’s not to say its better than all the rest or on any kind of quality pedestal, it’s just simply unlike every other war film out there, and that differentiation makes it an incredibly special picture. Why, you ask? Because it takes a ponderous, meditative approach to a very hectic horrific period in history, and takes the time to explore the effects of conflict on both humanity and nature, as well as how all those forces go hand in hand. What other war film does that? Malick uses a poets eye and a lyricist’s approach to show the Guadalcanal siege, a horrific battle in which lives were lost on both sides and the countryside ravaged by the fires of war. To say that this film is an ensemble piece would be an understatement; practically all of Hollywood and their mother have parts in this, from the front and centre players right down to cameos and even a few appearances that never made it into the final cut (which I’m still bitter about). The two central performances come from Jim Caviesel and Sean Penn as Pvt. Welsh and Sgt. Witt. Welsh is a compassionate, thoughtful man who seems primally uncomfortable in a soldiers uniform, and shirks the materialistic horror and industrialist grind of war to seek something more esoteric, a reason for being amongst the horror. Witt is a hard, cold man who sees no spiritual light at the end of the tunnel and does his job with grim resolve, scarcely pausing to contemplate anything but the next plan of action. These two are archetypes, different forces that play in each of us and, variations of which, are how we deal with something as incomparable as a world war. Around them swirl an endless sea of famous faces and other characters doing the best they can in the chaos, or simply getting lost in it. Nick Nolte as a gloomy Colonel displays fire and brimstone externally, but his inner monologue (a constant with Malick) shows us a roiling torment. A captain under his command (Elias Koteas) has an emotional crisis and disobeys orders to send his men to their death when thunderously pressured by Nolte. Koteas vividly shows us the heartbreak and confusion of a man who is ready to break, and gives arguably the best performance of the film. Woody Harrelson accidentally blows a chunk of his ass off with a grenade, John Cusack climbs the military rank with his tactics, John Savage wanders around in a daze as a sadly shell shocked soldier, Ben Chaplin pines for his lost love (Miranda Otto) and the jaw dropping supporting cast includes (deep breath now) Jared Leto, Nick Stahl, Tim Blake Nelson, Thomas Jane, Dash Mihok, Michael Mcgrady, John C. Reilly, Adrien Brody, Mark Boone Jr, Don Harvey, Arie Verveen, Donal Logue, John Travolta and a brief George Clooney. There’s a whole bunch who were inexplicably cut from scenes too including Bill Pullman, Gary Oldman and Mickey Rourke. Rourke’s scene can be found, in pieces, on YouTube and it’s worth a search to see him play a haunted sniper. Hans Zimmer doles out musical genius as usual, with a mournfully angelic score that laments the process of war, particularly in scenes where Caviesel connects with the natives in the region, as well as a soul shattering ambush on the Japanese encampment that is not a sequence that ten year old Nate has been able to forget since I saw it and the hairs on my neck stood up. This is a diversion from most war films; Malick always has a dreamy filter over every story he weaves: exposition is scant, atmosphere matters above all else and the forces of music and visual direction almost always supersede dialogue, excepting inner thoughts from the characters. If you take that very specific yet loose and ethereal aesthetic and plug it into the machinations of a war picture, the result is as disturbing as it is breathtakingly beautiful, because you are seeing these events through a lens not usually brandished in the genre, and the consequences of war seem somehow more urgent and cataclysmic. Malick knows this, and keeps that tempo up for the entire near three hour runtime, giving us nothing short of a classic.

-Nate Hill

Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival

Every few years, if we’re lucky, we get a science fiction movie as good as Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, a cosmic miracle of a film. Built around the ages old trope of aliens invading earth, and even throwing shout outs to sci fi flicks of yore (Robert Zemeckis’s Contact, Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day to name a few), it ultimately is completely it’s own thing and there has never been anything quite like it ever before in the genre, or in Big Hollywood. Villeneuve, whether working in crime, thriller or mind-fuck territory, has always proudly broke the mold and blasted new crevices into seemingly charted out tonal territory. It’s only fitting that a SciFi outing from him is something remarkable, and he terraforms the genre to incredible thematic plateaus here. Amy Adams is reliably terrific as a linguistics guru brought in by the government to try and communicate with a mysterious race of extraterrestrials, shadowy beings who have illegally parked their mammoth, monolithic ships systematically all over the globe. What do they want? Why are they her? Tensions rise when the military (Forest Whitaker gives the obligatory general role his trademark brand of implosive compassion) and the CIA (Michael Stuhlburg does paranoia to a turn) butt heads over what to do, while a snarky mathematician (Jeremy Renner, excellent) has his own ideas. Adams develops an inspired way of both understanding these beings via their unique brand of written language and imparting to them our English words, or at least a variation. The scenes inside their ship are so haunting and atmospheric we get the sense this is real footage we’re sneaking a peek at, and the government may bust in and raid our TV room any moment. The beings themselves are a visually intriguing bunch, like dreamy space elephant/whale/spiders who evoke a strange, genuinely alien aura. But time is running out, and if Adams can’t make both their language and intentions clear, the big guns of fear and ignorance threaten to come out and play. The film has an important, uplifting message that communication should always supersede violence, a hard truth but a necessary one. My favourite aspect of this film is its elliptical final act, and anyone who has already seen it knows what I’m talking about. Much of the film, although artistic, is straightforward, but Villeneuve really plumbs the fathoms of human consciousness and pulls forth ideas that not only are rarely explored this maturely onscreen, are also very difficult to understand in linear, analytical fashion. It’s this drive to push his audience, to dole out just as much brain and soul candy as eye candy into our cinematic trick or treat bags that’s the reason he’s such an important, landmark filmmaker, and it’s a joy to see such films take centre stage at the multiplex. With key supporting work from the great Tzi Ma and a ghostly original score by the late maestro Johan Johansson that eerily inhabits the film like an alien force all its own, every individual and element involved combine to give this film something special and rare: a genuine sense of wonder.

-Nate Hill

DJ Caruso’s The Salton Sea

DJ Caruso’s The Salton Sea is a brilliant piece of filmmaking, a fascinating hybrid between go-for-broke, tweaked out drug cinema, bloody, violent crime revenge thriller and moody, jazz soaked neo-noir, with a central performance from a committed Val Kilmer that goes waist deep in all three. I would say that it was ahead of its time and for that reason didn’t quite fully find its audience, but upon years of reflection I think it’s just such a specific piece that one has to be tuned in just right, and invest enough attention to appreciate it, the first time anyways. Kilmer is washed out meth head snitch Danny Parker, playing both sides of the narcotics game in hazy LA. Or is he trumpet player Tom Van Allen, haunted by past tragedy? The first half of the film sees him awash in an endless cycle of drug fuelled debauchery, stuck in a tireless set of hijinks with his tweaked out ‘friends’ (Adam Goldberg, Peter Saarsgard and more), and habitually snitching out dealers to two very corrupt cops (Doug Hutchison and Anthony Lapaglia, both royally sleazy). The second half shows us why, what dark passage of events led him to the lifestyle and the cursed trajectory he finds himself on in the final act. Kilmer is a restless fallen angel in the role, a man with secrets that the film respects by taking its time unfolding and not revealing too much too soon (avoid any trailers). His Danny even begs the audience to stick around, promising us there’s more to his story than rampant substance abuse. The cast is thick with talent, including Danny Trejo, R. Lee Ermey, Chandra West, B.D. Wong, Shirley Knight, Luis Guzman, Meat Loaf, Deborah Kara Unger and a crazed, memorable Glenn Plummer. The scene stealer award has to go to thespian Vincent D’Onofrio though as one of the antagonists, a terrifying drug baron called Pooh Bear because he railed so much blow they had to cut off his nose and replace it with a disturbing prosthetic. His favourite pastimes include reenacting the Kennedy assassination with pigeons and an air rifle, smoking crack to yodel music CD’s and setting a rabid badger called ‘Captain Striving’ loose on the genitals of disloyal employees. The film finds a demented dark humour in him and many other characters, but the other side of that coin is the emotional turbulence and tragic resonance to Kilmer’s arc, two conflicting energies that seem to somehow coexist beautifully. The score by Thomas Newton is noirish and sad, with strains that sound almost like heavenly choirs too, giving the city of angels a half lit, otherworldly quality. The title is important; the Salton Sea represents three key elements to the film. The incident that spurs Kilmer down the rabbit hole takes place right near the picturesque titular place, but it also represents both the sea of excess and scum that Danny basks in, and the ocean of anguish, regret and sadness that engulfs Tom. A brilliant piece.

-Nate Hill

BlacKkKlansman with Ron Stallworth

blackkklansman

Spike Lee’s return from the relative wastelands of Hollywood hired gun director culminates with his latest film, the extremely timely and satisfying BlacKkKlansman, based on the true story of Ron Stallworth. The first African American officer to join the Colorado Springs Police Force in the 1970s, he somewhat inadvertently stumbled into an undercover operation into a small but dedicated batch of Ku Klux Klan members.  As Stallworth himself told it at a special screening at the Alamo Drafthouse Denver, he almost destroyed the investigation from the get-go by using his real name when he first decided to contact the group and impersonate a Caucasian when speaking with them over the phone.  Still, he hatched a plan with a Jewish officer nicknamed Flip to show up for physical meetings to put forward a white face to attach to “Ron Stallworth,” and the result was a unique takedown of this vile organization that would see the two rise to the attention and affection of none other than Grand Wizard David Duke himself.  Lee’s film demonstrates his wide ranging power as a masterful, confident director: It’s a clinic on tone, skipping effortlessly from comedy to drama, suspense to action, all with a laser hot gaze on the broken racial past and present America carries around like a foul albatross.

Ironically, Stallworth almost killed the project before it got off the ground with a hilarious and awkward first meeting with Lee.  Having seen the book’s adaptation to film fall through several times prior, he was heartened when Jordan Peele signed on to direct.  Then Peele reached out to say he’d decided to produce it instead, which left Ron crestfallen until the filmmaker said “and Spike Lee’s gonna direct.”  Ron and his wife flew out to New York and found themselves at 40 Acres And A Mule headquarters, ready to meet one of their heroes.  When Spike stepped out of his office, Stallworth said “man, you’re a little guy!”  Lee pivoted and walked back in, shutting the door behind him.  Soon the two came to bond over their lack of social filters, and everything was back on track.  Stallworth had always wanted his favorite actor, Denzel Washington, to play him in the film, but Denzel’s 62 years didn’t quite match up with a rookie cop role.  As the policeman noted, it wasn’t settling to instead see his son, John David Washington, land the role; it’s a true breakout for an up and coming actor we’ll be seeing plenty more of in the years to come.  You’ll hear echoes of his father’s cadences on the regular, but John David more than holds his own in a complex portrayal of a man trying to do the right thing while alienating his community thanks to the badge he carries.  Adam Driver also does fine work as his partner in snookering the racists, and their story underscores the important notion of allies in the war against prejudice and hate that Lee weaves in and out of the story, all the way up to the final, somewhat controversial shot of the film.  Those who feel Lee’s other work can put whites at arm’s length should be heartened here; it’s all hands on deck time, and the good guys can come in all shapes, sizes, and colors.

BlacKkKlansman brought swoons to the Cannes Film Festival this past May, receiving an unprecedented 6 ½ minute standing ovation as well as the Grand Prix Award.  Stallworth said John David Washington smiled and waved on the red carpet afterwards, but crumpled into a ball of tears once they reached the limousine. Ron’s wife noted they were actually more pleased with its win of the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, a social justice focused body comprised of clergy from around the globe that noted the film was “a wake-up call about continuing racism not only in the USA, but for the wider world”, which “condemns the misappropriation of religion in the cause of hatred.” Coming on the heels of these heady victories, Stallworth said to Lee and Washington something about their chances for Oscar gold.  Both the director and star howled that “you never say the word out loud, you’ll jinx it!” Then they jumped out of their chairs and started doing a dance in a circle to ward off 30+ years of bad Academy Award luck.  Based on the audience response—truly, there was laughter and tears in equal measure—Spike may want to dust off his tuxedo and book a spring trip to Los Angeles.  BlacKkKlansman is a triumph of cinema that stands tall next to his best work, and the best that American cinema has to offer in any year.

RonStallworth

Advertisements