Category Archives: Film Review

Bille August’s Smilla’s Sense Of Snow

Smilla’s Sense Of Snow begins with a specific inciting event: a young Inuit boy plummets off the roof of a multi storey building in Copenhagen, to his death. The only person who seems to care is Smilla (Julia Ormond), a girl who lives in the complex, is half Inuit herself and did her best to take care of the poor kid when his mother drowned in alcoholism. From there the film spirals into curious, unexpected thriller elements that seem to have left many viewers baffled (reviews over time haven’t been so kind), but it’s the uniqueness of this story that appeals to me, the way we find ourself wondering how such a simple and straightforward incident can lead to the kind of sequences you’d find in a Bond film. That’s the mark of an absorbing thriller, no matter how ‘out there’ people complain it is. Smilla deliberately cloaks herself in a facade of coldness not dissimilar from the snowy northern landscape around her and comes across as initially unpleasant, but when we see how far she’s willing to go and what she will risk to uncover the truth around the boy’s death, we realize there’s a heart in there and Ormond creates a mesmerizing protagonist. There is indeed a clandestine web of secrets, coverups and conspiracies revolving around the whole thing, and it’s great fun watching her follow the breadcrumb trail to where it all leads. She’s a withdrawn, introverted person, and these qualities don’t lend themselves to hands on detective work, but therein lies the gold mine of character development for her as she discovers perhaps one of the most bizarre string of events I’ve seen in a thriller. The supporting cast is full of gems, starting with Gabriel Byrne as her neighbour and love interest, just darkly charismatic enough to suggest that he may not be who he says he is. The late great Robert Loggia makes a stern but soulful appearance as her powerful father, who pulls some strings to help her out. Soon she’s led to a shadowy scientist (Richard ‘OG Dumbledore’ Harris) with ties to it all, and other appearances from Jurgen Vogel, David Hayman, Bob ‘Clever Girl’ Peck, Vanessa Redgrave, Ona Fletcher, Tom Wilkinson, a quick cameo from one of the Doctor Who actors and an excellent Jim Broadbent in full exposition mode. The eventual premise here is set up in an arresting prologue concerning a lone Inuit hunter observing a meteor fall to earth and cause an almighty mess on the tundra, serving to inform us right off the bat that although this film initially sets off on the trajectory of a straightforward murder mystery, there will be elements of the fantastical. Said elements proved to be either too far out there or too removed from the grounded opening for people to grasp hold of, but not me. I love the journey this one takes, I love the heroine we get to take it with, I’m awed by the stunning arctic photography every time and the story always draws me in. Great film.

-Nate Hill

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Lasse Hallstrom’s Something To Talk About

Julia Roberts has many notorious pop culture hits under her belt, all of which become memorable for a reason: they’re flashy, relatable, well made crowd pleasers like Erin Brockovich or Pretty Woman. But that irresistible charm (if you’re a fan of hers) was also put to great use in some quieter, more challenging and less accessible pieces like Lasse Hallstrom’s Something To Talk About, an interpersonal dramedy that explores the relationship between her and her husband (Dennis Quaid) in the aftermath of him cheating on her. She comes from a big family, has headstrong parents (Robert Duvall and Gena Rowlands) who have an influential role in her life and a fiery, fiercely protective older sister (Kyra Sedgwick is fantastic) who literally kicks Quaid in the nuts when she finds out. Now, this is a 90’s film and doesn’t have the same perspective on life we now know today, so her frustration, anger and outrage at her husband’s infidelity isn’t taken as seriously as it could be right off the bat. Duvall is more worried how it may be bad for business than any emotional toll it will take on his daughter, while she simply wants to be heard and allowed to be pissed off at the guy. Her husband reacts with a sheepish wounded animal tactic that wears off when he realizes his wife is smarter than that, and Quaid handles the arc carefully and humbly. It’s basically about the snowball effect an affair can have in a close quarters family situation, and while I enjoyed some of the laughs provided by Roberts deliberately exposing other sneaky cheaters in their tight knit community, I connected most when the film focused on her as a woman wronged, and a woman who’s not afraid to stand up for herself, even if it means stirring shit up royally. She’s a movie star with a mile wide smile and people know her as such, but I think that the high profile roles sometimes have us forgetting what an absolute diamond of an actress she is as well, and small, character driven pieces like this serve well to remind. She rocks it here, and is supported by all around her including Muse Watson, Brett Cullen and Haley Aull as their intuitive daughter. A treasure.

-Nate Hill

Hans Petter Moland’s Cold Pursuit

Cold Pursuit won’t be what audiences are expecting it to be, and these days in Hollywood, that’s a really good thing. There’s a whole string of Liam Neeson genre films since Taken that for the most part are generic vehicles for him to run around in and beat people up. Fortunately, every so often one breaks the mould and turns out to be a fresh, distinguished animal from the rest of the pack, and this is one of them. Yes it’s about a snow plow driver in a small mountain town whose son is murdered by drug dealers. Yes, Neeson plays him as the lone man who takes his revenge in a series of violent encounters and action sequences. But that’s just the blueprint, and honestly director Hans Petter Moland, remaking his own 2014 film, seems far more interested in showing us the casual eccentricities and personal lives of all of these characters, particularly the dealers, than focusing on action alone. Neeson’s initial rampage causes quite a bunch of confusion in the ranks when the local outfit mistakes his mayhem for the actions of a rival Native American gang from Denver, and that’s when the snow really hits the fan. Tom Bateman is a coked up dervish as Viking, head of the local boys, the kind of guy who caps off his own people before breakfast and encourages his son to hit bullies back harder, ‘just for starters.’ The Native American dealers are my favourite part, adding a mystic deadpan quality and distinct class that makes the film seem just this side of a regular action flick. Tom Jackson is charismatic and scary as their leader White Bull, and Raoul Trujillo does a hilarious turn as Thorpe, his second in command. Emmy Rossum is good but slightly underused as an enthusiastic local cop, while John Doman gets a few of the film’s funniest scenes as her less enthusiastic partner. It’s terrific to see the great William Forsythe on the big screen again as Neeson’s ex criminal brother Wingman, an old dog who knows the ropes and seems both worried and amused at his brother’s drastic actions. Speaking of underused though, they’ve thrown Laura Dern a thankless role as Neeson’s wife who simply disappears from the plot like halfway through. A little Dern goes a long way, but she’s given almost nothing to do here. As Liam picks these guys off one by one and they all wonder just what the shit is happening, I found myself much more entertained by the precious little sideshow moments concerning all the criminals, narrative excursions that take huge liberties with the film’s pacing, a choice that I have no problem with. Viking has intense squabbles with his ex wife (Wind River’s Julia Jones) over their son’s ridiculous diet, Thorpe and his crew have a hilarious interaction with a hotel clerk who uses the word ‘reservation’ in a context that makes for the funniest joke in the film, and one of Viking’s boys has interesting ideas about how to bang hotel maids. My favourite is when the film stops dead in its tracks to show White Bull and his guys simply playing in the snow, watching skiers practice and getting one of their guys to hang-glide off the mountain. It’s that sense of playfulness, the care in stepping off the beaten path and giving us something we don’t often see in Hollywood films that sets this aside and makes it something special. It doesn’t particularly work as a thriller because it’s too funny, and won’t land with an emotional impact for the same reason. That doesn’t matter much though, because it’s just fine as a screwy black comedy full of really interesting side characters, offbeat situational comedy and high spirited, naturalistic comedic timing. A barrel of fun if you’re tuned into the abstract frequency. One last thought: I really wish they’d kept the title ‘Hard Powder’ instead of the much less tongue in cheek Cold Pursuit, which feels too run of the mill for a film this idiosyncratic.

-Nate Hill

Ghost Rider

There’s no way around the fact that Ghost Rider is a garbage film, from Nick Cage’s ridiculous Yu Gi Oh haircut to Wes Bentley’s faux Dracula bad guy to the unpolished screensaver special effects to yet another creepy case of him getting blessed with a love interest half his age, this time poor Eva Mendes. When it comes to the Ghost Rider aesthetic, PG-13 theme park flash like this is the wrong way to go, it needs something grittier like the Nick Cave/John Hillcoat touch (not even the reliably edgy Neveldine/Taylor could save the sequel, but that’s a story for another day). That all said, there’s a few key elements that I love about this film and two actors in particular who do a bang up job and really deserved a better film than they got. Cage plays Johnny Blaze, a motorbike stunt demon who grew up in a circus and made a deal with the devil (Peter Fonda) to save his dying father (Brett Cullen), a deal with fine print that dictates his soul remains prisoner and he must serve out a very long time bounty hunting runaways for the big guy. Later in life he becomes the legendary Ghost Rider, a big bad biker with a chain whip, flaming skull and leather metal-head outfit, tasked with bringing down renegade demon Blackheart (Bentley) and juggling his awkward romance with Mendes and friendship with fellow rider Donal Logue. This is all a lot less cool than it sounds and all the scenes of him as the rider that are supposed to be awesome are just… not. Now this isn’t one of those ones where the good qualities redeem the film, it’s just too silly and far gone, but they are there and are noticeable, starting with Fonda’s absolutely rock ‘n roll performance as Mephistopheles, a silk voiced, well dressed manipulator who commands the screen and to this day is one of the most fun film versions of the Devil I’ve ever seen. He’s accompanied by a fantastic, sinister low level music cue from composer Christopher Young that sets the mood perfectly. You also get Sam Elliott as former ghost rider and mentor to Johnny in another one of his brilliant, charismatic cowboy turns that the film hardly deserves, but his scenes sure pick up on the gravity that Sam exudes wherever he goes. That’s about all the film has to offer in the realm of quality. There’s an opening credit sequence set to an instrumental version of Ghost Riders In The Sky with POV shot of a bike careening through a racecourse that’s kind of cool. Mostly though this is one big flaming sinking ship and just made me wish for a less cartoonish prequel starring Elliott’s Rider and Fonda’s deliciously evil Satan. Next time.

-Nate Hill

SBIFF: Sam Elliot on his first Oscar nomination and being texting buddies with Bradley Cooper.

34th Santa Barbara International Film Festival -Virtuosos Award Presented By UGG
Photo Credit: Getty Images for SBIFF

“I’m most intrigued by how you remember all that shit? It is just astounding to me,” joked Sam Elliot with his token southern drawl to TMC’s Dave Karger who moderated the Virtuoso awards at the 34th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Elliot, along with John David Washington, Claire Foy, Richard E. Grant and many more were honored with the prestigious award as the awards season campaign comes to a close. Elliot was the flagship honoree, saving his Q&A for last.

“He’s the most brilliant director I’ve ever worked with,” he said speaking of Bradley Cooper, who after their initial meeting, became text message buddies and that is how the two communicated all the way up until filming. Elliot was concerned that he was going to be unable to film his role in A Star is Born, due to his commitment to Netflix’s The Ranch, a four-camera sitcom that is filmed before a live audience that has a lot of moving pieces. Elliot expressed his concern to Cooper via text message and Cooper instantly replied: “I’m not going to let you go. We are going to work it out.”

Filming for The Ranch ended on a Wednesday and the following Friday Cooper arranged for a set to be constructed in the parking lot of the Greek Theatre in LA, where they filmed their first scene together, the emotional brother v brother moment where Cooper punches Elliot and knocks him to the ground. Elliot did not once say “Lady Gaga”, instead he referred to her as “Stefani” and spoke of her very affectionately.

34th Santa Barbara International Film Festival -Virtuosos Award Presented By UGG
Photo Credit: Getty Images for SBIFF

The first time he saw the film in its full cut was at its premiere in Toronto, recalling how he was weeping throughout the film and was surprised at how much screen time he had in the final cut because when he had seen the rough cuts prior, his role was reduced substantially. Backstage, before the Q&A at TIFF, Stefani came up to him and asked if he was okay because he was still crying because he was so affected by the film.

“I’ve wanted this for so long,” Elliot candidly said about his first Academy Award nomination as the audience of over two thousand people erupted in thunderous applause. “Awards are great. Awards are a wonderful thing, but it’s all about the work.” Elliot turns his phone off at night and was awakened by his wife, Kathrine Ross, at seven-thirty in the morning the day nominations were announced. When asked by the moderator what it was like for his wife to be the one to tell him, Elliot instantly responded, “it was pretty cool.”

At the close of the evening, Elliot was asked what film came out this year that he thought that everyone should see, after thinking for a moment he said Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman and said that the film is very important and more relevant now than the period for which it took place. He was also asked what accent he thinks would be impossible for him to do, where he quickly quipped “anything that isn’t a south-western accent.”

 

34th Santa Barbara International Film Festival -Virtuosos Award Presented By UGG
SANTA BARBARA, CA – FEBRUARY 05: Sam Elliot speaks onstage at the Virtuosos Award Presented By UGG during the 34th Santa Barbara International Film Festival at Arlington Theatre on February 5, 2019 in Santa Barbara, California. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for SBIFF)

Sam Elliot is effortlessly cool. He’s been a cinematic mainstay for five decades. He’s been a lifeguard, the President’s chief of staff, and countless cowboys and military brass. After all this time Elliot has been awarded a Screen Actors Guild and Academy Award nomination for his finest role to date. He may not win the gold, and that is okay because Sam Elliot will always be Sam Elliot.

Christian Alvert’s Pandorum

I can understand that a bleak, disturbing SciFi horror like Pandorum didn’t connect well with Hollywood audiences or generate a lot of income, but it’s a shame because it weaves an intelligent, beautifully shot, truly scary dark dream of psychological paranoia, freaky ideas and tense, claustrophobic set pieces. Helmed by Christian Alvert, a German director best known for unconventional horror films, this was never going to be a flashy, familiar feeling big budget thing, which many probably didn’t expect. Ben Foster and Dennis Quaid are Payton and Bower, two astronauts who awaken on a giant derelict spaceship with severe amnesia and the unsettling feeling that their mission has gone horribly wrong. After a bit of exploring they find out just *how* wrong. Terrifying, monstrous humanoid creatures hunt any survivors through dim, clanging corridors that echo Ridley Scott’s Alien. Payton encounters two initially hostile nomads (Antje Traue and Cung Le) who he must band together with. Somewhere deep inside the ship, the reactor starts to fail. Another mentally unstable survivor (Cam Gigandet) is found by Quaid and starts to dangerously unravel. Gradually the secrets of what happened are revealed along with the reason for the presence of these creatures, which I won’t call aliens because they’re not. This is brutal, grim stuff that isn’t light watching or easy on the senses, it’s a skin crawling deep space nightmare of a film and a tough piece, no kidding. But it’s smart, tightly wound storytelling with fantastic acting (especially Quaid who rarely gets to go this bonkers crazy) and a plot that races along like some intergalactic nightmare until the final revelation, a thunderclap that lets us breathe again for the first time in over an hour. The title itself refers to a fictional psychotic disorder in which one believes the mission is cursed and becomes a delusional nut-job with destructive behaviour, the mental byproduct of extended space travel. This ties neatly into the very real dangers aboard the ship as reality shifts for these characters and their narratives become unreliable. A brilliant piece of SciFi horror filmmaking, a film that still hasn’t gotten its proper due. Get the Blu Ray, it looks fresh, crisp and darkly dazzling.

-Nate Hill

SBIFF: Glenn Close on The Wife, Fatal Attraction, and Bill Hurt.

34th Santa Barbara International Film Festival - Maltin Modern Master Award Honoring Glenn Close
Roger Durling, Glenn Close, and Leonard Maltin. Photo Credit: Getty Images for SBIFF.

 

Bounding across the stage during Leonard Maltin’s marvelous career-spanning discussion with Glenn Close was Sir Pip Close, the most adorable Havanese you have ever seen who, without question, stole the show. He also has his own Instagram account. Moments prior Sir Pip and Close draped in a crimson coat spent their time with each member of the press, speaking of her current film The Wife which bestowed to her numerous awards (the Golden Globe, SAG) and her seventh Academy Award nomination. Both on the carpet and with Malden, she spoke fondly of her bountiful career that is richly stocked with colorful and daring performances.

“Babe, I’m a whore,” Close giggled while recounting what Michael Douglas said to her when she lobbied for the original ending of Fatal Attraction to not be reshot and screamed at him; demanding to know what he would do in her situation. The film, but more importantly the character of Alex Frost, is important to her. She spoke at length about the deep backstory of abuse and incest that Close created for Frost, not only explaining but sympathizing with the characters motivation.

34th Santa Barbara International Film Festival - Maltin Modern Master Award Honoring Glenn Close
Photo Credit: Getty Images for SBIFF.

The World According to Garp was her first “big break”, which led to her being instantly cast in Lawrence Kasdan’s magnificent The Big Chill. There, is where her relationship with Bill (William) Hurt grew into an everlasting friendship (Close would later seek Bill’s counsel regarding the ending to Fatal Attraction being reshot) and made note of how she had dated Kevin Kline, and how he was then dating William Hurt’s ex-wife, Mary Beth Hurt which led to the reason for her not getting cast in the role of Sarah, Kline’s onscreen wife and central hub of the film. Most of the cast had been friends prior to filming, but she said it was Kasdan’s month-long rehearsal where the entire cast shared a house in Atlanta is what truly attributed to the ensemble’s chemistry.

She has always believed in the medium of television, stating it was something that Judi Dench and Maggie Smith took seriously in the UK, appearing on numerous BBC specials. Sarah, Plain and Tall (her first behind the scenes production), The West Wing, The Shield are all miniseries and television shows that she had appeared on, but it was not until FX’s Damages where Close made her mark. It not only was a show with two female leads but also reunited her with Bill Hurt. The show had a rabid fanbase, and when FX canceled it after the third season, diehard fans petitioned and then the series found a second life as a DirectTV exclusive for two more seasons.

Albert Nobbs was her passion project, taking nearly twenty years to get off the ground and for cameras to start rolling. Same can be said for her current film, The Wife co-staring Johnathan Pryce, but the limbo period wasn’t as long for her personally, she had only been attached to the project for five years. She absolutely loved working with Pryce, called him one of her finest acting partners, and how much he believed in the film.

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Photo Credit: Getty Images for SBIFF

As she accepted her Maltin Modern Master Award from Roger Durling, an admirable stand-in for Jeff Bridges who could not make the event, gave an impassioned speech that touched Close in a beautiful moment of many that night. As Close accepted her award and was midway through her speech, Sir Pip Close once again found his way to the middle of the stage and began to roll around and scratch his back. Close began to laugh and said that Sir Pip did the same thing during the filming of the Nobel Peace Prize scene in The Wife. As the final days of Oscar season come to a close, Glenn Close is on her way of finally taking home the gold on the seventh nomination for a performance that is very quiet, very subdued yet it is a wonderful showboat of a performance from one of cinemas finest actors.