Category Archives: Film Review

Sergio Corbucci’s DJANGO

There is an inherent perversion that comes with Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 masterpiece, DJANGO, that is incredibly alluring. The coffin dragging masochistic antihero saves a women in distress, only to bring her to a town in deep dilapidation that is the battleground between Mexican federales and a group of red hooded Christian zealots. The film has an innate ability to transcend the norms of cinematic violence, sexual liberation, and religious faux pas to create a truly unique film that not only acts as a genre setter, but a template for the “hero” to come up victorious yet still accrue the vengeance of his previous transgressions.

Franco Nero’s performance as the mysterious stranger is a revelation. He’s part Paul Newman with his steely blue eyes and movie star looks and part Clint Eastwood with his ominous presence that is a visual embodiment of the shadow of an axe that looms. He gives a command performance that is filled with a confidence that can dwarf mostly any performance it is stacked up against. Nero’s economy of movement is mesmerizing as he fills the frame with his stoically soft and strategic physicality.

The film intentionally leaves little to the imagination. The violence is projected right on screen, forcing the audience to be culprits in the tale of bloody revenge and sacrifice. The shock value of the film, while tame by current standards remain a stark reality of what pushing cinematic boundaries used to be. The film is not self righteous or heavy handed in its messaging. It is solely an entertaining film that operates in extreme shades of grey that tiers off its villains, uniting its world to overcome the overarching villain of oppression coddled by greed.

Luis Bacalov’s score and title theme, which has populated many Tarantino films and used as the title theme for DJANGO UNCHAINED, is as big a star of the picture as Nero and Corbucci’s visceral brutality towards its characters. The main theme is triumphant and empowering, yet the trials Django has to endure are a combination of wrong place at the wrong time and acting as swift and appropriate justice to those who are on the opposite side of his post Civil War machine gun.

The narrative capsizes in the final act by stripping Django of his ability and forces not only the hero, but the audience as well, into a tense and ultimately rewarding showdown in a graveyard. The film’s ultraviolence and commentary is not for everyone, but one of the purposes of its existence is to invert and pervert the heroes journey. While the viewer is unaware of Django’s previous encounters and misgivings; what is certain is that he’s a force to be reckon with and one of the most dangerous and satisfying lone wolves to be on screen.

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Tony Scott’s Domino

Domino is Tony Scott’s fire roasted, charbroiled, turbo charged masterpiece. I’ve seen it over fifty times and every time I seem to enjoy it more. It’s pure unfiltered Scott, free from the nagging pressures of the studio, financed by his own company, a loving treatise of pure style and breakneck kamikaze energy that doesn’t let you breathe for a second. It’s loosely based on the life of Hollywood baby turned rough and tumble bounty hunter Domino Harvey (Keira Knightley), daughter of actor Laurence Harvey. She leaves the 90210 world of rich snobs and gilded mansions to pursue a grittier path, in the form of restless underground law enforcement. Now, the film sheepishly admits it’s not entirely based on a true story before the credits even start, so as long as you know that much of it is fantasy going in, you won’t feel cheated. Knightley is a pissed off, sparking roman candle in the role of her career, shedding the dainty image and going full furious grunge, giving Domino an alternative edge and damaged pathos that fuels much of the film’s kinetic energy. Mickey Rourke plays her grizzled boss Ed Moseby, a veteran bounty hunter with a trail of violence behind him, who’s weary and tough in equal parts. Rourke fires on all cylinders, giving some of his simultaneously hilarious, heartbreaking, badass and best work. Edgar Ramiraz plays scrappy Choco, third musketeer and eventual lover to Domino with fiery Latin charisma. Christopher Walken, weird mode fully activated, waltzes in as a reality TV producer with the attention span of a ferret on chrystal meth, Mena Suvari as his squirrelly assistant, Lucy Liu as a prim, OCD afflicted federal agent who verbally spars with Knightley in flash forwards, Delroy Lindo is excellent as their bail bondsman handler Claremont Williams, and there’s scuzzy work from Dale Dickey, Lew Temple, Macy Gray, Monique, Dabney Coleman, Jacqueline Bisset, Jerry Springer and more. Just to sample some of the esoteric weirdness that goes hand in hand with the hard boiled crime elements, Tom Waits has a beautifully perplexing cameo as a spiritual wanderer who has a mysterious meeting with Domino and her friends in the Mojave desert, imparting some prophetic truth to them that only Scott and the sand dunes are in on. This is the kind of film that grabs you by the collar and hurls you down an asphalt horizon of hallucinatory camera work, brings you an intricate, lurid story of true crime gone wrong, and a balls to the wall depiction of life at its fastest, wildest and most out of control, as only the maestro of such things, Scott, can bring you. Domino, at least in this film, lives a crazy life that culminates in a hellish Mexican standoff and subsequent shootout atop a Space Needle-esque Vegas casino, a fitting way for a Scott film to come full circle and certainly not the first time he’s ended one in that situation. He uses cinematic magic to create visual poetry here, his sucker punch editing, nebulous display of scorched out colours, thunderous symphony of sound design and hectic, buzzing aesthetic isn’t for everyone but it’s something truly unforgettable and a style wholly his own, I truly miss the guy and believe he was one of maybe the ten best filmmakers to ever work in Hollywood. This is by far his best film, definitely his most personal and also the most arresting vision he’s ever sculpted, it will leave you haunted, pummelled, fired up and deliciously puzzled. Domino ironically says in voiceover near the end, “I’ll never tell you what it all meant”. Scott tells you, in his own special way, and if you’re tuned in to his otherworldly frequency you’ll treasure this masterwork as much as I do, and will continue to for years to come.

-Nate Hill

The Fugitive

What motifs, when implemented well, make for an effective thriller? The wrongly accused man whom no one believes, the dogged pursuer who engages in ruthless indifference, the chaotic statewide manhunt, the methodical quest to clear one’s name, the righteous anger when the time for confrontation arrives. The Fugitive employs all of these and more almost effortlessly, and is as close to a perfect thriller as I can think of. It’s not just that the film is so exciting every step of the way, not just that the stunts are pulled off flawlessly or that every cog in the story’s mechanism turns believably, its simply that Harrison Ford plays Dr. Richard Kimble as so relatable, so likeable and engaging that all the stuff I mentioned before, whether or not executed well, actually matters. The lynchpin scene that hooks us in occurs early on when a dipshit Chicago police detective (Ron Dean, who would go on to get shot in the face by Harvey Dent later in his career) bluntly interrogates Kimble after his wife is found murdered. Ford plays it it straight up, his raw reaction at being accused of something so unthinkable sears the screen, and as he pounds the table and pleads with them to “find this man”, we are immediately and unconditionally on his side, a lot to pull off in one scene but Ford is up to it and this may be his best performance ever. After that it’s a careening adrenaline rush of a chase film as the prison bus Kimble is on is hit by a speeding train, one of the finest pieces of blow-shit-up staging I’ve ever seen, propelling the man on a relentless ditch effort to find the mysterious one armed man who actually killed his wife (a far too short lived Sela Ward) and exact retribution. Tommy Lee Jones is a walking stick of C4 as US Marshal Sam Gerard, it isn’t so much his job to track down Kimble as it is his compulsion, the man is a calculating force of nature. Although put in Kimble’s path as the obstacle, the script treats him and his team with respect and intelligence, they’re not just mindless drones to keep plot and action sailing but fully formed human beings who start to unravel the mystery right alongside the good doctor. The film hurtles along from stunt to crash to chase to brutal fistfight and these sequences have since become iconic, especially that fiery sonic boom of a crash and the legendary standoff between Ford and Jones set in a storm drain leading off of a raging river dam hundreds of feet below. Everything just works in this film; Ford supplies charisma, subtle humour and inspires empathy all while kicking serious ass and evading capture in ways that would make Jason Bourne jealous, Jones chews scenery in the best way possible and is every bit the worthy adversary and eventual sympathizer, while Jeroen Krabbe, L. Scott Caldwell, Daniel Roebuck, Joe Pantoliano, Andreas Katsulas, Tom Wood, Richard Rhiele, Nick Searcy and Jane Lynch all provide excellent work. Julianne Moore shows up in what appears at first to be a cameo as a suspicious nurse, but she was originally written in for a larger role as a new love interest for Kimble. The film cut her scenes and abandoned this subplot, a very wise move as it would have cheapened his arc and gone the cliche route. Simply put, this is a classic and a textbook example of the magic possible in the action/adventure/thriller genres. Brilliant.

-Nate Hill

John Huston’s THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING

John Huston’s THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING is a cinematic feat. It’s a remarkable fable, tracking two adventures who trek deep into a dangerous land with the design of ruling a region where white men have not set foot since Alexander the Great. The film encompasses engrossing performances, a tremendous score, a taut script, and awe inspiring photography all engineered and guided by Huston, one of cinemas filmmaking titans.

Sean Connery and Michael Caine headline the film as a pair of former British soldiers whose exploratory ambitions are offset by their primal brutality yet softened by their chemistry and wry offbeat humor. Christopher Plummer is the narrative anchor of the film, he acts as the narrator as well as the audience to Caine retelling his adventure with Connery. The two of them are a remarkable pair in the film, they bring their pre-existing screen personas and mesh them together and fuse a relationship that grows and blossoms throughout the film, until they reach their breaking point and bid one another an emotional farewell.

The picture is more than just an exhilarating adventure, it morphs into a cautionary tale of demigods and false prophets; the dark desire of man to transcend into a God. Caine and Connery propel the film forward, their performances are as raw as they are touching. Yet what truly makes this film remarkable is that it exists in a period of film where epics were truly epic. It’s shot on tangible locations, it is populated with indigenous people playing indigenous people; an air of authenticity is created and immediately accepted by the audience.

The craftsmanship of the film cannot be understated. The practicality is wonderful, from the sets to the costumes and beyond. The locations are as exotic as they are ominous; spanning sandy dunes and tribal villages to the vast snowy mountains, to their endgame – a civilization untouched by the outside world for centuries, a beautifully dilapidated holy site filled with treasure and dangerous mystique.

While the story is fun and entertaining, it cascades into a heartbreaking and bittersweet ending as the rise and fall of the pair’s conquest quickly erodes into a breathtaking climax where ramifications of greed and lust for power comes full circle and the characters are dealt with not just appropriately but poetically as well. THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING is that underappreciated Hollywood epic that somehow found a way during the counterculture and rage against the machine films of the 70s.

Barry Levinson’s Bandits

Every once in a while a quirky indie style film slips through the studio system disguised as a star powered blockbuster, and usually isn’t met with the best reception. Such is the case with Barry Levinson’s Bandits, a buddy crime flick by way of an oddball love triangle marketed as Elmore Leonard/Tarantino type fare but emerging as something way more stream of consciousness and weird. Bruce Willis and Billy Bob Thornton play two slippery, bickering bank robbers who bust out of prison using a cement truck (that’s a new one) and continue their nationwide spree of larceny and mayhem, but none of that is even close to as violent or intense as it sounds. There’s a schoolboy charm to these two and every hostage they take, every bank they knock over is a breeze, feeling like a pleasant, quaint experience. Eventually a bored housewife (Cate Blanchett) tags along and they both fall for her, causing friction in a few ways. The three actors are perfect for each other; Willis is the cocky ladies man who has tunnel vision and doesn’t think too hard or too far ahead, Thornton ditches his usual alpha male snake shtick for a jittery, sweet natured hypochondriac fellow and their camaraderie is irresistible. Blanchett is never not in top form and it’s easy to see how a girl like her could stray into their lives, eventually becoming very important to both. Now, anyone looking for taut action scenes, an intricate plot or specifically verbose, showboaty dialogue will be disappointed. As penned by Twin Peaks writer Harley Peyton, most of the character interaction has a spontaneous, free flowing aesthetic and feels improvised half the time, which I loved. As for plot, the bank robber framework simply serves to see these guys meander around beautiful Oregon hanging out and talking with each other, with only a few succinct, clear cut set pieces. This is a film about what happens in between the action scenes or the robberies, about quiet situational humour, quirky romance and organic conversation. It’s tough to adjust to and nothing about the DVD artwork suggests how odd and airy the film will be, but if that’s your bag then you’ll love it. It drags a tad in the third act but pulls together nicely for a cheeky resolution to their story, and is overall an enchanting piece of comedic crime by way of impromptu theatrics. Loved it.

-Nate Hill

Robert Zemeckis’s Contact

Robert Zemeckis’s Contact is a periodically good film that suffers from over-length, clutter and sideshow syndrome, as in it doesn’t trust itself to stick to the effective core story without throwing in all sorts of other hoo-hah just for for the sheer hell of it. At two and a half hours it feels more stretched than Bilbo did before leaving the Shire, and would have been way better off slicing out a good half hour to streamline. What does work is really captivating though, especially a fantastic Jodie Foster in a performance of striking determination as a woman who never loses the sense of wonder she had as a child, and strives to make contact with anyone that may be out there in the vast universe. Of course her efforts meet budget cuts, skepticism and sneers from the government and fellow colleagues like Tom Skeritt’s prestigious researcher, a sadly one note character whose allegiance turns on a dime when she actually receives a message from a faraway galaxy. Speaking of one note characters, get a load of chest puffing James Woods as an obnoxious NSA prick with all the depth a kitchen sink has to offer. John Hurt fares better as an eccentric billionaire who offers Foster funding and support, as does always terrific David Morse as her father. Matthew McConaughey is sorely miscast as a spiritual man and love interest, William Fichtner is excellent as her loyal colleague and friend, Jena Malone great as nine year old Jodie Foster, while Jake Busey, Angela Bassett and a whole armada of unnecessary tabloid celebrity cameos show up too, leading right up to Bill Clinton, who I’m convinced is an alien himself. The thing is, so much of the film is just commotion and nonsense, geared towards wowing audiences instead of trusting the fact that they’ll be at ease with just Foster’s story, which is the connective tissue. The elaborate and drawn construction of a machine based on alien blueprints, pesky religious extremists, theological fanfare that falls flat and incessant faux tv newsreel footage that buzzes around like unwanted house flies and kills the atmosphere, there’s too much in the way. My favourite scene of the film takes place somewhere deep in the universe Foster has travelled to through a wormhole, in which a mysterious being tells her that “human beings are capable of such beautiful dreams, and such terrible nightmares”, a sentiment that parts the clouds and gives the story clarity, as does her arc, relationship with her father and desire to know what’s out there, who we are as a race and where we came from, and it’s in that wonder that the film finds its strength. Much of the rest is just lame earthbound noise.

-Nate Hill

Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report

Few films successfully balance story, character, emotion, action and special effects on a scale as grand as Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, which I saw for the first time last night and am still reeling from. It’s brilliant, intelligent science fiction, a labyrinthine murder mystery, complex detective story and a thunderous action movie all rolled together in a perfectly pitched recipe, probably as close to flawless as you can find. Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, Spielberg world-builds fantastically around the concept of ‘Pre-Cogs’, neurologically damaged clairvoyants who can predict murders before they happen and have been put to work in Washington DC of 2054, where Lexus hover cars jet along vertical freeways, mad doctors replace eyeballs in a grimy shanty town flophouses, holograms dance about and there hasn’t been a single murder in six years, which is all about to change. It’s a startlingly complex, succinct version of the future where every bell and whistle serves the story instead of being simple gaudy arbitration to flaunt the studio’s money showboating across the screen. Tom Cruise gives a focused, implosive turn as John Anderton, chief of the high tech PreCrime unit, tasked with taking the PreCog’s readings and implementing force to ensure that these future murders never take place, that is until his very own name comes down the tube and he’s propelled on an odyssey to clear his name, smoke out elusive corruption and put ghosts of the past to rest in several different cases. Talk about an eclectic cast of actors supporting him, with standouts including Max Von Sydow as the grandfatherly director of the program, Lois Smith as an eccentric botanist with ties to the past, Kathryn Morris as Anderson’s intuitive ex wife, Colin Farrell as a sharp federal agent who both hinders and helps Anderton’s cause, Peter Stormare positively devouring scenery as aforementioned mad doctor, Tim Blake Nelson as a chatty prison warden, Neal McDonough and Patrick Kilpatrick as fellow PreCrime cops and Samantha Morton who almost walks off with the film in an arresting portrayal of angelic, animalistic PreCog Agatha, whose gifted brain holds power to unlock the past. The central mystery of the film is deep, broad and filled with hairpin turns you don’t see coming, it’s noirish in the way it unfolds but slick and streamlined in design, like all the best retro futurism I can think of, this now included. Better still is the fierce, uncompromising emotional centre where it finds gravity, particularly in a heartbreaking scene where Agatha enlightens John and his wife to their own pain, hers and that of those in the past she is trying to find retribution for, it’s a devastating sequence of blunt truth and unfiltered compassion that resonates beautifully from Morton, Cruise and Morris who all nail it. What more can I say? Roger Ebert said it best when he wrote that this film reminds us why we go to the movies in the first place, and I agree. I was attentive, rose up to met the narrative with my focus and always felt entertained by both the large scale fireworks and careful mechanization of story. Masterpiece.

-Nate Hill