Kathryn Bigelow’s The Weight Of Water

I love Kathryn Bigelow’s early films from the 80’s and 90’s, she’s such a fantastic storyteller when she sticks to genre stuff, but I’m not quite sure what went down with The Weight Of Water, a muddy, confusing doldrum of a thriller that drifts by heading nowhere, with no real rush to get there either. I’m assuming there’s a level of clarity and coherence in the source novel by Anita Shreve that just didn’t translate onto the screen too well, but what the film lacks in discernible themes and substance it at least makes up for a bit in the production design and visual department. Two stories unfold simultaneously here: sometime in the 1800’s, restless housewife (Sarah Polley is all kinds of creepy) lusts for her brother in a rural township on the blustery New Hampshire Coast. A mysterious stranger (Ciaran Hinds) enters their lives and bears witness to a violent, romantically motivated double ax murder that culminates in a freakish storm and ends their story, becoming infamous throughout the centuries to follow. Meanwhile in present day, a keen photojournalist (Catherine McCormack) peruses that very same coast on a yacht, researching the long past events that led to the horrible crime. She’s joined by her listless husband (Sean Penn), his brother (Josh Lucas) and foxy girlfriend (Elizabeth Hurley). They start to forge an equally tense romantic triangle that is somehow supposed to mirror the past in profound or symbolic ways but doesn’t feel like anything deeper than narrative coincidence. The two stories have little to do with each other beyond happenstance and are constantly at odds in tone and intent. The Sarah Polley one works better but only just, having a more specific atmospheric mood, also because she’s just a terrific actress who puts on a dangerous, unnervingly introverted show. I’d like to read the novel one day and see if there’s more to be found there or some lynchpin of content that missed the boat from paper to celluloid, but as it stands this film is a hollow blast of nothing, and the only weight to be found is in the title.

-Nate Hill

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Roger Donaldson’s Species

Roger Donaldson’s Species is a trash infused Sci Fi horror yarn that’s clearly inspired by stuff like Alien and Body Snatchers right down to the scaly, jagged title font, but oh man did they ever take the silly, run of the mill route here. Scientists including Alfred Molina and Ben Kingsley have successfully moulded human and extraterrestrial DNA sequences to create a hybrid creature called Sil, but as in any film like this it soon becomes apparent how ill advised such an experiment will come to be. Sil, played by an excellent Michelle Williams at preteen level and later by eye catching supermodel Natasha Henstridge, is an endlessly fascinating character with so much potential, but this being nothing more than a Schlocky B flick elevated oh so slightly by the presence of an ensemble cast with considerable pedigree, she is sadly relegated to pedestrian movie monster archetype, and the premise falls short of fruition as a result. Using the seductive powers of her human form (Henstridge is a babe) she evades recapture and seeks an earthling mate to perpetuate her species and probably cause a full scale invasion via systemic procreation, while the doctors and a team of experts including zoological guru Forest Whitaker and big game hunters Michael Madsen and Marg Helgenberger pursue her all over a metropolitan area while she looks for Mr. Perfect to make slimy babies with. Sex is treated in a very lurid, shallow and unpleasant way here, like with the budget and firepower behind a film this big you’d expect a modicum of maturity and respect for the female form, but they’ve thoroughly exploited the concept to sickening levels that probably looked fun on paper, but don’t translate very nicely on screen. Worth it for Sil, for both Williams’ and Henstridge’s take on the character and to think about what might have been had they written her character with more class, care and depth, but other than that this is just cheeseball slime without a brain or heartbeat. Followed by two sequels that pretty much go the same route of disappointment.

-Nate Hill

The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs

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The mere mention of Joel and Ethan Coen conjures many glowing descriptors:  Auteurs, legends, geniuses.  I’d add one more that gets overlooked—survivors.  Talented directors who cut their teeth in the 80s and 90s continuing to find budgets and put out quality release after quality release in this day and age are sadly few and far between.  Some, like David Cronenberg, have become cinematic guns for hire on other people’s ideas; others, such as John Dahl and Michael Lehmann, went the route of studio hand television episode directing long ago.  Then we have the Coens, whose legacy is firmly cemented as they write and direct their original scripts and get wide release for them around the world.  It’s worth noting the uniqueness of this situation, and perhaps worth a head scratch too as we see them boiling down their talents to the small screen for Netflix.  Brief theatrical release aside, most viewers will experience The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs in the comfort of their living rooms, which might feel odd for these powerhouse filmmakers until you actually watch the thing.  Anthologized into six standalone stories set firmly in the Western genre, it’s clear that the Coen Brothers are playing with the modern form of delivering (and binging) episodic content in one lump sum; The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs is Joel and Ethan’s first and perhaps only season drop, and it’s a damn good one.

Perhaps the film is as close as we’ll come to a spiritual cousin to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return, another example of aged cinematic masters continuing to operate at the height of their powers on the dime of a television network.  The Coen Brothers set about seducing the viewer quickly with a pair of vignettes that lean heavily on slapstick violence and their trademark flowery/folksy dialogue, first with Buster himself, played to perfection by cast regular Tim Blake Nelson, followed by James Franco’s snakebit bank robber going through any number of bad day scenarios.  We don’t come to realize how dark the ruminations on mortality and the brutality of the wild west we’ve just seen are, thanks to the glib delivery, until the third story, Meal Ticket, takes us through a wintry treatise on art versus commerce that may be one of the bleakest stories Joel and Ethan have ever given us.  The legendary Tom Waits, a rare treat on the screen, shows up as a persnickety prospector looking for the big score, and then we’re treated to an elegant and ultimately elegiac trip up the Oregon Trail with a young lady in search of her purpose and destiny.  Finally, a twilight stagecoach ride finds a philosophically disparate bunch traveling to Fort Morgan, or perhaps someplace more menacing.  While ostensibly stand alone, each tale takes a varying angle on the savagery of the era, so they ultimately play off each other in a typically beautiful, morose Coen Brothers symphony.

As we’ve seen with their previous dips into the genre, the Coen Brothers exhibit a love for every aspect of Westerns that’s evident in every frame of The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs—the gorgeous scenery, iconic performances, suspenseful excitement and epic romances of films past are less nodded to than embraced in a warm two and a half hour hug.  The very game cast, peppered with familiar faces and new ones, turns in excellent work at every turn, eliciting in equal part laughs, gasps and even tears.  Longtime Coen production composer Carter Burwell provides a lush score, and Inside Llewyn David lenser Bruno Delbonnel executes Joel and Ethan’s exacting standards for impeccable visuals with gusto.  Outside of Noah Hawley’s surprisingly well done ongoing riff on the Coen Brothers’ career with FX’s Fargo, seeing the original indie masters themselves slum on the small screen never seemed like a possibility, and certainly not an inevitability.  Fortunately this likely one-off with Netflix serves as a reminder that Joel and Ethan Coen remain successful survivors in an ever changing film and television environment because their canon, like the Western itself, remains an American classic.

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Jeffrey Reiner’s Trouble Bound

Trouble Bound is like a low rent, dysfunctional, meandering Bonnie & Clyde, a laid back crime drama with a dry wit and slight romantic angle, and while it can’t really focus on any of the above aspects either individually or as a group, it still sort of has a lost puppy charm to it, thanks in part to Michael Madsen and Patricia Arquette in engaging performances as our leads. It’s a kind of ‘lovers on the run surrounded by crime’ thing like Tony Scott’s True Romance or Lynch’s Wild At Heart but they only really had enough money and creative juice for a half mast little exercise like this. Madsen plays a thief fresh out of prison trying to go straight, until a gaggle of thugs he used to take up with plant a dead body in the trunk of his car before he takes off. Then they decide they need it back, and start following him all over the country. Meanwhile he picks up Arquette, who is the daughter of a mafia kingpin and wants vague revenge on someone for needlessly complicated reasons. It’s all a bit over elaborate for something of this girth, the strongest element being the chemistry between Madsen and Arquette that’s somewhere south of charming, as they grow on each other while keeping that edge between them. Billy Bob Thornton is hilarious as one of the buffoonish thieves pursuing him, and there’s scattershot work from Paul Ben Victor, Gregory Sporlader, Mark Pellegrino and Seymour Cassell. Entertaining enough and a good time if you’re a fan of the leads, both of whom I love a lot. Kino Lorber released a DVD at some point, which is no doubt the way to find this as the relic of a disc I rented years ago had more grain than a box of shredded wheat.

-Nate Hill

Renny Harlin’s The Long Kiss Goodnight

If you’re suffering from a deficiency of satisfying action in your action movies (a common ailment these days) then Renny Harlin’s The Long Kiss Goodnight is just the pill. Harlin loves his practical combat scenes, death defying stunt work and blunt, frank violence without frenetic movement or trickery, and what he pulls off here is what the genre should be. Working from a screenplay by Shane Black, the pairing is kind of a delirious match made in heaven for fans of either artistic maverick. All of Black’s favourite motifs run amok here: stingingly funny verbal beatdowns, sharp and culturally aware characters, a Christmas setting, children in extreme danger, you name it. Geena Davis pulls a Jason Bourne as amnesiac schoolteacher and loving mother Samantha Cain, whose violent past comes back to haunt her in several ways when she discovers she’s actually a maladjusted CIA assassin named Charley Baltimore. The bad guys come fast and heavy at her, including perky Craig Bierko as a terrifying yet somehow hilarious sociopathic freak, David Morse as a vengeful former target and lovable Brian Cox as her dodgy ex handler. She’s aided by a fast talking, slightly seedy private investigator played memorably by Samuel L. Jackson, and the whole pack of them prance through this terrifically entertaining spy yarn with enthusiasm and old school Hollywood charm. The action scenes are so brazen and willfully cinematic they’re almost comical, but that’s Harlin and I love the guy to bits, the genre just wouldn’t be the same without him. The very first encounter Sam has with massive thug One Eyed Jack (Joseph McKenna) is showcase material, I’ve never seen a shotgun do to a wall what Renny stages here, but it works in fully charged, high comic book fashion. It’s popcorn bliss, a buddy flick, a mystery, a rollicking black comedy, a great spy flick and a treatise on what action films should be all about. Fucking great stuff. Chefs do that!

-Nate Hill

The Glimmer Man

Steven Seagal, eh. The guy has had one rocky road of a career ranging from great stuff to wilful self parody to full on lazy garbage, but The Glimmer Man has to be one of my favourites, and one that doesn’t get mentioned too often. A spooky urban buddy cop flick, it sees Seagal as an esoteric NYC detective and Keenan Ivory Wayans as his more traditionalist partner, the two of them hunting down a ruthless serial killer nicknamed The Family Man. After they arrest and gun down a disturbed suspect (Stephen Tobolowsky is creepy as fuck) who seems like a surefire culprit, the case goes deeper and they uncover a net of corruption, cover ups and further villains including Johnny Strong, Bob Gunton and a smarmy Brian Cox, naturally named Mr. Smith. The dynamic between Seagal and Wayans works well enough, but what I really like is that this is less centred on constant action as with many Seagal flicks, and rather has a slower, sort of horror/thriller pace instead, with a neat ‘big city thriller meets big time killer’ vibe like Seven. The atmosphere is dark, hellish and free of any heavy camp too, just focused on producing a twisted, gory tale. Love Seagal’s jacket by the way, looks like he stole drapes from an old age home and stitched them up for new threads.

-Nate Hill

Louis Leterrier’s Unleashed

The rumour mill recently informed me that Jet Li is going through some rough health issues lately, so let’s send loving thoughts his way and take a look back it one of his best, Louis Leterrier’s Unleashed, aka Danny The Dog. Scripted by Luc Besson, this is a gruesomely entertaining fight club style action gong show set in Glasgow’s shady underground, co-starring the late Bob Hoskins as Bart, a maniacal mobster with a serious god complex. Li is Danny, the orphan he has raised basically as a dog and transformed into a vicious killing machine who does his bidding. Bart straps a metallic collar on him that keeps him docile, but when he needs someone taken care of, that collar comes and fuck… better hope you’re nowhere within Danny’s vicinity because he basically lays waste to anything that moves. The film is chock full of absolutely breathless, tooth and nail action sequences with a washed out, desaturated visual flourish that’s edgy and menacing. Eventually Danny runs away, then the film takes a softer tone when he’s given shelter and companionship from a blind piano tuner (Morgan Freeman hiding behind Stevie Wonder shades) and his daughter (Kerry Condon), this is where his dormant humanity is awakened and he’s essentially given both something to live for and stakes to finally stand up to Bart’s cruelty. Hoskins goes for broke and plays it like a dog more than Li does really, snarling and setting ferocious Danny on anyone who looks at him wrong. The Glasgow criminal underworld has a snazzy, stylish way about it here, each new adversary Danny goes up against seems to have leapt in from a comic book and the fights are detailed, elaborate and grisly as all hell. The film is strongest when Li breaks out the choreography and takes on hordes of monstrous thugs, while getting to show off his subtler, softer side in between. I hear he’s going to appear in the new live action remake of Mulan next year, it will be nice to see him on the big screen again and I wish him easy recovery from whatever he is dealing with.

-Nate Hill

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