Category Archives: Film Review

Gary Fleder’s Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead

The 90’s was a heyday of hard boiled, ultraviolent film noir, a ripple effect that can undeniably be traced back to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, however it’s silly to say that they all are derived from that film, because plenty of them have their own distinct groove and flavour. One such flick is Gary Fleder’s Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead, a mouthful of a title that serves as harbinger to one of the most idiosyncratic, verbally flamboyant scripts Hollywood ever produced, penned by Scott Rosenberg. They scored the cast to back it up too, for a beautifully melodramatic neo-noir pulp opus that should be as legendary as any of the household name films to come out of that era. Andy Garcia is the definition of slick as Jimmy The Saint, an ex mobster on the straight and narrow who’s pulled back into the game by The Man With The Plan (Christopher Walken) his former employer and the most dangerous crime boss in all the land. Hired to scare the piss-ant boyfriend who stole Walken’s son’s girl, Jimmy rounds up a crew that shouldn’t be trusted to watch a junkyard. Pieces (Christopher Lloyd, brilliant) is a diseased old porn shop owner, Easy Wind (Bill Nunn), tough guy with a heart of gold Big Bear Franchise (William Forsythe) and Critical Bill (Treat Williams) the psychopathic wild card who uses his day job at a mortuary as an anger outlet by pummelling the corpses like punching bags. Of course they royally fuck up the job, and Walken places scary, symbolic ‘hits’ on each of them. The clock ticks as they all try to either leave town or face the music, but Jimmy is the one with something to lose as he’s fallen in love with elegant, posh rich girl Dagney (Gabrielle Anwar). The script could have easily gone for just colourful carnage and glib posturing, but there’s real, palpable gravitas to the character relations, especially between Jimmy and Walken, who’s history is hinted at and brought to complex life by the two pros. This is Walken at his weirdest and wildest, confined to a spooky wheelchair and locked up in a guarded, dimly lit estate like Count Dracula. There’s a touching subplot involving wayward hooker Lucinda (Fairuza Balk, always terrific) that brings out the dormant humanity in hardened Jimmy. The cast here really is a marvel, and includes Don Cheadle and Glenn Plummer as a couple of loudmouth criminals, Jack Warden, Jenny McCarthy, Tiny Lister, Marshall Bell, Bill Cobbs, Michael Nicolosi, and Steve Buscemi as a freaky hitman named Mr. Shhhh, because he shoots first and doesn’t ask any questions at all. The dialogue is unique and flows from the actors like urban Shakespeare, it’s one of the coolest scripts ever written, and serves not just to be slick for the sake of it, but use jive and jargon to bring forth character naturally, and effortlessly provide buoyancy to the story. One of the great hidden gems out there. Boat Drinks.


The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

2007.  Directed by Andrew Dominik.

Hypnotic, quiet, and dangerous, Andrew Dominik’s masterpiece, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an epic deconstruction of the Western and a bold commentary on America’s celebrity obsession.

Robert Ford is a 19 year old hanger-on to the legendary James Gang.  In the wake of their last heist, he slowly inserts himself into James’s family, beginning an intricate relationship in which both James and Ford recognize the threat in the other man.   As the decidedly non-glamorous violence begins to fray James’s already unhinged mind, Ford seizes the opportunity for glory, not fully understanding the ramifications of his deed until staring into his own, personal oblivion.

Casey Affleck delivers the performance of a lifetime as Ford.  His grasp of the homoerotic undertones and soul crushing evolution of Ford is so exposed that he almost evokes pity for his treachery.  The scene in which James takes his guns off is riveting.  Affleck’s expression is pained orgasmic relief, while Brad Pitt’s Jesse James’s nihilistic embrace is flawless.  Pitt portrays James as a near psychopath, barely held together by his wife and children.  These two actors are muted lightning anytime they are together, playing a dangerous game in which every expression, every gesture has malicious designs.

The supporting cast is a knockout.   Sam Shephard, Jeremy Renner, Mary-Louise Parker, Paul Schneider, Garrett Dillahunt, James Carville, Zooey Deschanel, Ted Levine, and Michael Parks are all solid, each of them outlaws in their own right.  Sam Rockwell as Ford’s brother is gripping in his display of all consuming guilt.

The always mysterious Nick Cave partnered with fellow Bad Seeds member Warren Ellis to create an engrossing, and haunting score that compliments the existential symmetry to near perfection.  Patricia Norris’s costume design is yet another pristine component of Dominick’s charade.   This is a film that is lived in and used up.   The legends of the dying west are real and flawed, hiding their weaknesses behind fancy cravats and sterling watch chains.  Janice Blackie-Goodine’s set decoration is meticulous, faithfully cataloging the world that was for the lost souls that wander throughout.

All of these elements are a distant second to Richard Deakins’s transcendent cinematography.  Using a variety of lighting to create authentic, blurred edges, while simultaneously capturing the natural beauty of the Western Canadian landscape that was used for the film.  The train sequence is a miracle to behold.   Deakins’s esoteric approach to the use of light has to be witnessed in order to fully understand how special his work on this film is.

Dominik’s command of these powerful tools is almost to good to be true.  His script takes its time, examining each theme with endless scrutiny.  The cost of fame is the center of the wheel, while celebrity idolatry, forbidden love, and mental illness are the spokes that move Dominik’s dark epiphany to it’s quiet conclusion.  The narration of Hugh Ross is another elegant nail in the romanticized American West’s coffin.  What begins as a thorough examination of the end of Jesse James unrepentant existence ends as a footnote in an era where popular opinion made devils into legends and cowardice into a matter of intent and opportunity.

Available now for digital streaming, and running at a colossal 160 minutes, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an entrancing addition to the Western genre.  A revisionist epic on the surface, this more of an experience than a film.   It demands patience and thoughtful examination of it’s subject matter, which provides a visually poetic meditation on so-called heroes and those who blindly worship them.

Highly.  Highly Recommend.

-Kyle Jonathan

John Carpenter’s Escape From New York

John Carpenter’s Escape From New York is lean mean, brawny and one of the director’s best efforts, one of his leaps into non horror territory and a high concept, exploitation template that has become so iconic that he’s had to sue one production for literally copying and pasting. More iconic still is growling Snake Plissken, a nasty, uncooperative, maladjusted piece of work that has calcified into both a genre titan and one of Kurt Russell’s most instantly recognizable, badass characters. Plissken is basically a villain transplanted into the protagonist’s seat, where he gets to shake up the formula and push the boundaries of being an antihero nicely. By now everyone knows the story. The President (Donald Pleasence) ejects out of Air Force One and crash lands in futuristic NYC, now a giant penitentiary housing unwanted criminals from all over, cordoned off from the rest of the world. Snake is sent in by General Hauk (Lee Van Cleef is a sadistic snake in his own right) as a ‘fight fire with fire’ ditch effort, given twenty four hours to retrieve POTUS at an extraction point and implanted with a microchip that will blow him into hamburger helper if he doesn’t make his deadline. Cue explosions, car chases, wicked stunts and set pieces galore, done in Carpenter’s careful, tactile, authentic and slightly non-Hollywood manner. The guy just has a knack for taking formulaic premises and giving them a just-south-of-normal spin, his own flavour and one that makes cult classics that are built to last. Adrienne Barbeau, Isaac Hayes, Ernest Borgnine, freaky Frank Doubleday, Charles Cyphers, Tom Atkins and good old Harry Dean Stanton all provide standout support. My favourite aspect of the film is the original score, composed by Carpenter himself, of course. It’s a spooky, atmospheric riff that’s akin to the music in The Thing, and just has this synth-y way about it that transports you to the specific time and place of the film flawlessly, it’s a showcase example of an auditory mood board. No remake could ever touch this, it’s too idiosyncratic and special to be updated, and the sooner studios realize their never ending goose chase to capture lightning in a bottle twice is a fool’s errand, the sooner we’ll get back on track and make original contemporary films that will becomes genre classics in the future, just like this. I love Plissken’s final act of brutal rebellion, a reminder that this is not a nice guy we’re dealing with here, but one who plays by his own rules and shirks the standards, much like Carpenter himself. I imagine Plissken’s reaction to news of a remake would be similar, if not more hotheaded, than that final, lethal sleight of hand prank he pulls on a government that stabs him in the back. Solid gold.

-Nate Hill

The Farrelly Brothers Dumb & Dumber To

I might catch some royal shit for this, but I loved Dumb & Dumber To, the Farrelly Brother’s decade’s later follow up to pretty much one of the best comedies of all time. It’s different; meaner, raunchier, a tad more meta and way less down to earth than its predecessor, it seems to be almost universally projectile vomited upon by critics and loyal fans alike. Fuck em if they can’t take a joke, because there’s no arguing that this one isn’t funny. In bad taste? Sure, but so was the original in its own 90’s way. Less charming? Maybe, but suck it up. Discontinuous to the nature of the leads in the original? Granted,

but it’s been like twenty years and the filmmakers/actors have changed as artists. Bereft entirely of valuable, effective humour? Not a chance. Just be thankful we got something to erase the pungent memory of Dumb & Dumberer, a prequel wholly undeserving of the legacy’s name. Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels are a little older and a little more leathery, but they’re still Harry and Lloyd, the two dim witted pioneers of mid 99’s gross out humour and buddy comedy shtick, resurrected for a brand new adventure. After a prologue where Harry rescues Lloyd from a care facility (that catheter is a wince moment), they’re off to find Harry’s daughter (Rachel Melvin) who he spawned with the notorious Freida Feltcher, brought to life by none other than Kathleen Turner in full hoe mode, she’s a face I haven’t seen in movies for years. There’s a half baked crime melodrama unfolding around them just like in the first one, and just like then, they’re too dumb to get what’s going on, a running joke that villains Laurie Holden and Rob Riggle (doing a double shift) carry amiably enough, but they’re no Joe Mental or Nicholas Andre, let’s be real. The highlight for me was when Harry and Lloyd bumble their way onstage at a TED Talk-esque (updating set pieces for a new millennium) as judges, and hurl moronic criticism at every invention that graces the desk. It’s not the same as the original but it’s been years, after all. The Farrelly’s have always been about distasteful, raunchy, whacked out humour that aims low and beats the laughs out of you, which is exactly what I found to be on display here. Vastly undervalued.

-Nate Hill

Alex Garland’s Annihilation

Alex Garland’s Annihilation is a stunning, incredible, awe inspiring and strikingly unique piece of work. It’s the kind of film that has you leaving the theatre and wanting to run up to strangers on the street passing by, shout how great it is in their faces and promptly buy them a ticket of their own. It’s reassuring that smart, dazzling big budget science fiction still thrives in Hollywood, and projects like this build upon and terraform the preexisting genre to produce things previously unseen, stories that wear their influences upon their sleeve whilst simultaneously hitting you as something you’ve never conceived in your wildest fever dreams. It’s also not the film you might be expecting from trailers and descriptions so far, in the best possible way. Is it about a team that heads off into a strange, quarantined area to investigate a possible extraterrestrial presence? Yes, but not really. Is it a clever blend of Alien-esque horror and trippy, delirious cosmic futurism? Sort of, but that’s just the tip of a very large, very deep iceberg surrounded by a wall of scintillating effervescence dubbed ‘The Shimmer’ by wary scientists and the military. It’s into this enshrouded no man’s land that biologist Natalie Portman and a team of professionals with nothing to lose venture, and where the film really kicks off. Every character has some kind of inner trauma which has caused them to self destruct in their own ways, an unnerving theme that Garland holds up to his audience like a prism and explores with equal scrutiny. Portman has never been better, changed by the disappearance of her soldier husband (Oscar Isaac) and eerily drawn to The Shimmer. Jennifer Jason Leigh is Ventress, coldly stoic and freakily collected as team leader. Tessa Thompson caught my eyes with her fiery work in both Westworld and Thor: Ragnorak, she’s purely haunting here as the detached, withdrawn and highly intuitive Josie, nailing her final scene with earth shattering poise. Gina Rodriguez burst onto the scene with her excellent work in Deepwater Horizon and is pure dynamite here as Josie, the emotional firebrand of their troupe, giving the character’s eventual meltdown scene a remarkably authentic edge. These four actresses pull the tapestry of the film’s narrative together with their collective and individual work ; they’re nothing short of superb. Garland has found a way to express otherworldly phenomena in an artistic and scientific way that no other filmmaker has yet achieved. The images are breathtaking, the visual effects beyond top tier, the ideas are ambitious and reach full on for the stars, and the whole deal should be the gold standard of genre films at the multiplex. I’ll say no more, and let you discover it for yourself. Oh but I have to mention Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s score, an indescribable auditory experience that reaches dreamy levels of expressive percussion in the third act. Ok, I’m done, just go see it right now.

-Nate Hill

Nicolas Roeg’s Eureka

Nicolas Roeg’s Eureka is one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen, and I mean that in more of a disturbing way as opposed to a compliment. It’s a story that could have been given the straight n’ narrow Hollywood biopic treatment, and instead plays like the loudest, most disconcerting fever dream you’ve ever had, and you find yourself wondering how such a straightforward story can just seem so *odd*. A lurid meditation on greed and a balls-out cautionary tale for people who think that money can buy happiness, most of it focuses on Gene Hackman’s stubborn prospector Jack McCann, who after striking gold in a melodramatic Yukon set prologue, retires to his own Caribbean island to languish in riches. Life is anything but happy for him though, as his troublesome daughter (Theresa Russell) has brought along her scheming boyfriend (Rutger Hauer), who clashes with McCann right off the bat. Hauer is a no good schmooze with his hands in a bunch of dirty pies, Russell is headstrong and belligerent, and soon McCann becomes paranoid, angry, volatile and wrapped up in his own deluded mind. It also doesn’t help that a crime syndicate from Miami wants to build a casino on his island, an idea he abhors. They’re headed up by Joe Pesci and Mickey Rourke, two memorable faces who are ultimately eclipsed by the volcanically intense and overbearing performances from our three leads. This is an ugly, brutal picture of human beings at their utter nadir of social interaction and mental well being, a swirling maelstrom of malcontent that circles the toilet boil and plummets down the drain to a graphically violent conclusion from which there is no respite or glimmer of catharsis. I kind of get what Roeg was going for, but he’s so tonally off kilter and tries to hammer it home with such pulverizing, unnecessary force that we feel too shellshocked to get any sort of real message from the thing. The acting is quite impressive though, credit where credit is due. Hackman has never been more terrifying, Hauer is sleaze served a la flambé and Russell has a staggering courtroom monologue that should be in record books for most lines memorized in a single take, not to mention be up for acting awards all over the board. Bring a strong set of nerves to this one, and be prepared for little payoff after you sit through the depravity it has to offer.

-Nate Hill

B Movie Glory: Stranger By Night

Stranger By Night is an all but forgotten cop thriller starring Steven Bauer, a charismatic actor who, after a showcase role in Brian DePalma’s Scarface and a handful of other prolific 90’s appearances, fell from grace into the netherworld of direct to video releases, like so many other former heavy hitters. This one sits above the bilge water because of a uniquely psychological angle towards the ‘killer terrorizing an urban neighbourhood’ motif, a great central performance from him and some memorable scenes. Bauer his precinct are looking for a murderer, but the kick is that he has a sketchy mental mindset, experienced weird blackouts, fits of rage an missing hours, which not only makes tracking down any suspects difficult, but always puts the crosshairs of suspicion on him. He’s an unreliable protagonist who means well but keeps getting sabotaged by his own demons, a theme played up nicely. The story involving the killer is fairly run of the mill, but anything to do with his character developments is cool stuff, especially in an introspective conversational has with his father (J.J. Johnston). There’s another cop played by the great Michael Parks, but the underwritten role is wasted on an actor meant to shine, but at least the production benefits from his credit. This one is low key, but I enjoyed the exploration in character for Bauer, as well as a hectic opening montage that sets the maniacal tone.

-Nate Hill