Category Archives: Film Review

NICOLAS WINDING REFN’S BRONSON — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Bronson was the film that brought director Nicolas Winding Refn and actor Tom Hardy into my cinematic sights, and since then, I’ve followed both artists with intense fervor and anticipation. This film is like nothing else I’ve ever seen, and even if it blends elements from other films within its framework, the overall originality of the entire endeavor is wild to watch unfold. The film uses a highly stylized structure consisting of surrealistic performance art, abrupt flashbacks, and jarring tonal shifts which makes sense given the extremely heightened aesthetic. Hardy stars as real life British convict Charlie Bronson, aka, The Most Violent British Criminal Ever, a man given to massive fits of rage and stunning moments of primal, animalistic physical violence. The film is a crazy, bloody, kinky kaleidoscope of his oversized life, showing him in an out of the slammer, trying to adjust to the outside world, falling in love, getting mixed up with a variety of wacky side characters, and always spinning back on Bronson’s violent tendencies in almost every situation that he faced. Hardy is extraordinary, giving quite literally one of the best performances I’ve ever seen from any actor in any film. This is a forcefully bizarre movie, and he carries the entire thing, appearing in almost every scene, and letting it all hang out (literally and metaphorically), giving a ferocious performance of astonishing energy and personal chaos. His character is so unpredictable and so unstable that the viewer is constantly left to wonder what will happen next. All of the supporting performances are stellar and help contribute to the zany mood of the entire piece.

And then there’s the eccentric, eclectic soundtrack, featuring numerous classical opera pieces, as well as stuff from The Pet Shop Boys, Doris Day, and David Cassidy, all of which adds to the dense sonic layers of the soundtrack. I love how Refn brilliant subverts your expectations at almost every turn with this perverse movie. He knows you’ve seen other prison films and biopics, and I love how he defiantly refuses to play anything safe in this movie, which is probably the best overall piece of work in his already sensational career. He downplays the customary visual language of this particular genre, going for something more aggressively stylish and baroque than usual, and I love how he’s constantly undermining the inherent masculinity of Bronson as a character and the thugs that he encountered. The way Refn views his psychologically complex lead character suggests that he’s both in awe of Bronson, and totally in fear of him. Macho posturing is elegantly skewered all throughout, with the interesting layer of homosexual social commentary thrown in to spice things up, and also demonstrating the interesting duality to Bronson’s unique persona. Refn is constantly provoking his audience with every film he makes, always throwing multiple layers at you, and it seems to be his M.O. as a filmmaker to challenge whatever genre he’s working in, and it’s going to be extremely exciting to see how he develops as a filmmaker.

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DAVID AYER’S FURY — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Fury is a reminder of how hellish life must’ve been like for guys suffering through tank warfare during WWII. This is another film that’s been making the HD movie channel rounds of late, and I always stop on it for a few beats, because it thoroughly kicks ass at almost every opportunity. Embracing the gung-ho spirit of old-school Hollywood action flicks, writer/director David Ayer has considerably upped his game as a big league filmmaker with this ruggedly fashioned, butt-kicking trudge through the rain-soaked and bombed-out battlefields and cities of late WWII combat in Germany. The film carried the hardened spirit of a late-era John Wayne movie or something that Fuller or Peckinpah would have fancied, with just as much anti-war sentiment as pro-American image making. The Americans are good and Nazis are bad – it’s the same template Hollywood has used for eons, and for good reason: Who doesn’t like some dead Nazis? This is a purposefully blunt and graphically violent combat picture that, while stopping from time to time for a moment of reflection (the scene at the dinner table with the women is the best in the film), is mainly about how awful war truly is, and how utterly unnerving it must’ve been to be in one of those Sherman tanks.

Brad Pitt can do no wrong – he’s our Movie Star of the Moment and he owns this picture. Here, he’s gruff and grizzled, leading a surly band of supporting actors (Shia LeBeouf as the introspective one; Michael Pena as the wise-ass; Logan Lerman as the rookie; and a skeevy Jon Bernthal as the potentially unstable wild card), and he completely carries the film on his manly shoulders. Lerman shines as the rookie gunner who needs to learn quick how to adapt, there’s fine supporting work from LaBeouf and the rangy Pena, but it’s Bernthal (the numerous scene stealer from The Wolf of Wall Street) who makes the biggest impression playing an emotionally broken, simple-minded, shell of a man who has seen too much combat for one lifetime.

The measured, gritty cinematography by Roman Vasyanov made excellent use of the claustrophobic confines of the tank interiors and favored clear spatial geography over frenetic shaky-cam aesthetics, while the bombed-out, lived-in production design went a long way in creating a dangerous, volatile atmosphere. Fury is muddy, gray, damp, and messy, always tense which can be a hard thing to sustain, and focused on presenting a mostly unrelenting narrative that bows to Hollywood conventions from time to time but still stays true and honest to what it would have been like to be in this horrific situation. My one complaint might be the slightly overbearing musical score; sometimes less is more but I get what Ayer was going for – maximum, direct impact. I also appreciated the refreshing lack of noticeable CGI. While not an earth-shattering entry into the war genre, Fury is dependable, entertaining, and effectively brutal when it comes to showcasing the bloody battles that tank operators went through. The ending doesn’t go all Hollywood which was also a plus, and while one might question the final outcome slightly, it makes enough sense within the scenario that Ayer created while still leaving you with enough of a lump in your throat. “They’re young. And alive.”

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CRIMSON PEAK: A REVIEW BY TIM FUGLEI

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The new, final trailer for Star Wars:  The Force Awakens currently has Geek Nation enthralled, and few fantasy fans of a certain age range (say, 6 to 80) can think about much else between now and Christmas, but another giant in the genre field has a new film out, just in time for Halloween, that should make those whose tastes tilt into all things horror feel a warm tingle and a pleasant chill.  Guillermo del Toro, the Mexican fantasy master, here again has followed a pattern familiar to his devoted followers:  One project gets within a hair’s length of life only to wither away, so he quickly pivots and creates something different, new, wholly beholden to his obsessions, and largely satisfying, assuming expectations are calibrated accordingly.  His adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At The Mountains Of Madness seemed all but ready to shoot three years ago, but then the studio support disappeared and the bottom fell out.  Del Toro then managed a neat trick, reviving the spirit of another faded dream project (Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein) to fuse with his own original story of gothic mystery, the evocative and lovingly crafted Crimson Peak.

With its R rating and mist-shrouded spirits on full display in the advertising campaign, you can’t help but be surprised to find Crimson Peak is a restrained and often familiar story—especially if you know the many movies that the filmmaker gladly nods to, from Hitchcock’s Rebecca to Wise’s The Haunting to any number of other entries (even the relatively recent Angels and Insects gets a significant shout out or two).  The film is at once refreshing and staid, as the patience to settle into a story long on character and short on gore is an almost striking change of pace from most modern horror entries, yet as the yarn unravels you can’t help but be left with the desire for an unexpected twist or a truly shocking scare.  Neither of the latter are in evidence here.  I won’t lie—you will be exposed to several standard jump scares, although even in that department del Toro seems less interested in yanking the viewer around in their seat unexpectedly and more dedicated to giving them a bloody nostalgia bath.

And there is blood red, crimson more specifically, around ever dark corner of the film, from the delicious oak interiors of high society Buffalo NY to the oozing red clay that Tom Hiddleston’s Thomas Sharpe is quietly desperate to mine from his property in England, the last sliver of hope he has to continue a once-successful family name.  We come to meet Sharpe when he solicits the support of wealthy American developer Carter Cushing, whose daughter Edith (Mia Wasikowska) is the hero of the tale.  A frustrated writer of gothic ghost stories inspired by her deceased mother’s foreboding spectral visitations, she serves as a plucky and talented stand in for some of del Toro’s favorite writers–an early exchange with a petty social rival is telling, when she compares Edith to “Jane Austen, who died alone.”  Edith shoots back, “I’d rather die like Mary Shelley, as a widow.”  We also meet Sharpe’s sister Lucille, played with a coolly contained lunacy by Jessica Chastain, whose pitch black period costumes and demeanor leave little to the imagination as to what role she’ll play in the proceedings.  Thomas and Edith fall into a forbidden yet clearly telegraphed love, and Edith, heir to a fortune, finds herself across the pond in the dilapidated and almost ridiculously creepy Allerdale Hall.  Del Toro saves his best production design for the mansion, with archways lined with knifelike appendages, a ceiling with a rotted hole that doesn’t merit the attention of the maintenance crew due to the atmospherically convenient falling leaves and/or snow in the main hall it provides, and, of course, restless spirits with tales to tell.  Edith is quickly sucked into the mysteries and madness of the manse, known as Crimson Peak due to the red clay that seeps into the snow around the place during the winter.  Without spoiling the details, things are actually quite as they seem—supernatural, deadly, and dangerous to both the new and longstanding inhabitants of this mad circle.  Fans of previous del Toro ghost story success The Devil’s Backbone will find some familiar notes being struck as the finale unfolds with plenty more blood and a now-standard but welcome reversal of the age old “damsel in distress rescued by the handsome hero” trope.

The cast is game, the sets are exquisite and there’s barely a shot to be found in Crimson Peak that won’t entrance the eye.  The CG spirits are a solid step above most such things found in the digitized age of horror thanks to del Toro’s deft directorial decisions, either in sound design, visual conception or placement in the frame, but ultimately don’t raise the viewer’s blood pressure above what a strong appreciation for the care that went into bringing them to life on celluloid would merit.  Ultimately, that’s the impression we’re left with as the credits roll—a talented filmmaker, beloved to genre fans around the world, putting together a love letter to some of his favorite early films and stories, but never quite transcending the realm of tribute with the innovation on display in earlier films such as the authentically haunting Devil’s Backbone and the periodically transcendent Pan’s Labyrinth.  It’s a delight to have Guillermo del Toro swimming in the darker corners of his obsessions yet again, where he clearly feels the most comfortable, but next time out it would be refreshing to see him rely more on his mad imagination than his esteemed influences.

ALEXANDER PAYNE’S NEBRASKA — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Simple. Sly. Subtle. Sensational. I’ve run out of words that begin with the letter “S” that describe Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. This film keeps popping up on EPIX HD and every time I notice that it’s on I end up watching it from wherever it’s at in the narrative. The colorized version was an interesting experiment, and I can see why Payne would be interested in trying to see how the film would play in a desaturated color zone, but this film truly feels as if it’s living in black and white; there was no other option. I’ve loved every movie that Payne has put his name on – everything always feels just right, as if there were no other options for him (it’s a very similar feeling I get while watching work from the Coen brothers). Bruce Dern breaks your heart slowly and deceptively in the lead role of a lifetime, June Squibb stole every single scene that she appeared in, and Will Forte hit notes of surprising emotional depth that I didn’t know were in him as a performer. This is the sort of movie that might hit home too hard for some people; as always, Payne wraps his dark story with an abundance of dry humor, this time courtesy of debut screenwriter Bob Nelson, whose sardonic touch fits perfectly with the shivery, monochromatic cinematography of long-time Payne collaborator Phedon Papamichael. Bleak yet filled with lots of heart, achingly sad yet strangely upbeat, honest when it needs to be, and frequently laugh-out-loud-funny, this is yet another small gem from one of America’s best and most consistent filmmakers.

CARY FUKUNAGA’S BEASTS OF NO NATION — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Cary Fukunaga’s African child soldier drama Beasts of No Nation is tough-medicine cinema, yet most definitely not the film I was expecting. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it in one way or another after viewing it last weekend, and it’s a film I’m likely to revisit rather soon, thanks to Netflix running it as a streaming option on their site (Landmark Theaters, the only chain that’s theatrically presenting the film, doesn’t operate in my area). In Beasts of No Nation, it’s the sheer force of the filmmaking that immediately struck me; it’s clear that Fukunaga is an admirer and student of Mann and Malick, as his film echoes both Heat and The Thin Red Line on more than one occasion, be it from a sonic or image standpoint. The film is violent, but not as violent as you might expect, and I’m wondering if the film should have been even more upfront and explicit with its atrocities, but I think it’s the artistic subversion from the expected norm that is most startling during the film’s numerous sequences of bloody carnage and combat. And make no mistake – you’re definitely treated to some disturbing moments of emotional and physical abuse – it’s just handled in a more experiential manner. In a sense, Fukunaga has made an existential journey film starring an eight year old, and as such, there are sequences that feel incredibly impressionistic at times, literally like seeing life and all of the horrors that it can offer through the fleeting glimpses of a person too young to fully comprehend all of the details. My parents are here one minute…and gone the next. I’m all alone in the jungle…until I’m not. There’s someone here who wants to take care of me…but I don’t truly understand the methods to his madness. Fukunaga explores the notion of lost generations, children stripped of their familial identities, never to have them returned to any sort of normalcy.

It’s no surprise that Idris Elba is startling and fantastic as the corrupt ring-leader of the child soldiers, and it’s truly scary to watch him operate in this film. From one moment to the next, you can never truly predict his behavior, and the way Elba interacts with the children has a stinging realism that makes the film’s most harrowing moments all the more potent. Child actor Abraham Attah, making his feature film debut as Agu, is nothing short of spectacular, but not in the traditional sense of what you expect from a movie star or even an amateur phenomenon; he has the smarts, the poise, and seemingly the understanding of the material to make the toughest scenes in the film all the more challenging and rewarding to observe. Shot on location in Africa, this film has a fevered, nightmarish quality, with many of Fukunaga’s lush and beautiful images (he also operated as his own cinematographer) leaving a lasting impact that will be hard to shake for days. From the sight of grenades being duct taped into the mouths of prisoners to the surreal moments with the burning embers of tree branches that have been blasted by rockets from helicopters, Beasts of No Nation envelopes the viewer with a tactile sense of place and unnerving atmosphere, with gun shots consistently heard off in the distance, and bullets casually flying overhead. Dan Romer’s dynamic soundtrack builds to some nearly overwhelming crescendos of orchestral music, while the fluid editing keeps the two hour and 15 minute runtime moving at a very fast clip without ever feeling rushed. This isn’t a film to watch and immediately snap off a quick judgement; it needs to marinate and simmer and become fully processed after viewing, as it’s a film that dares to look at a subject that we only get soundbytes of from our meaningless mainstream news cycle. There’s also a faint whiff of racism in that Fukunaga was reportedly turned down by every major studio, with only Netflix having the temerity to finance and release this long-in-the-coming work of punishing art. Beasts of No Nation finished on a note that I never expected, and offers a journey of purposefully draining dramatics in an effort to shock and rattle the viewer. Ignoring this film shouldn’t be an option.

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DUNCAN JONES’ MOON — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Duncan Jones’ smashing directorial debut Moon, which he co-wrote with Nathan Parker, is exactly my type of science fiction film — thoughtful, stylish, mind-bending, narratively challenging, and totally consuming on both an emotional and aesthetic level. Sam Rockwell, easily one of our finest working actors, delivered what amounts to likely the top performance of his sterling career, portraying a worker-bee situated on the far side of the Moon, working to harvest a helium-based energy source which is being sent back to Earth to be used by its inhabitants as the planet is suffering from an oil crisis. But when something truly life-changing happens to Rockwell during his three-year stint all alone in space, the film takes on a sinister sense of misdirection, enveloping the audience in a story of a man losing his grip on his own sanity, with detours into cosmic introspection as well as the expected genre based thrills that have been slyly upended in most instances. Kevin Spacey’s creepy and dry voice work as Rockwell’s “trusted” robot companion GERTY was certainly indebted to the HAL character in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Jones was too smart to attempt any sort of rip-off; his mechanical creation is certainly its own thing and the final act contains more than one surprise which I’d never reveal in a review. Following it’s premiere at the 2009 Sundance film festival, Moon received a very limited theatrical release before becoming an immediate cult item on DVD and Blu-ray, and it’s easy to see why — it’s the type of film that’s more interested in brainy ideas than empty, flashy action, with notions about identity and humanity and loneliness on full display, while fusing together an exciting, beat-the-clock scenario that plays out with escalating tension while never sacrificing anything in the intelligence department. The fact that this film only cost $5 million is staggering; massive kudos to production designer Tony Noble and cinematographer Gary Shaw for crafting a film that looks 10X bigger and fancier than its actual budget. Clint Mansell’s riveting score is also a major plus; he’s easily one of the finest film composers currently crafting music.

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STEPHEN FREARS’ THE HI-LO COUNTRY — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

2The Hi-Lo Country is a very unique film, totally under the radar (where’s the Blu-ray?!), made with supreme skill and confidence by an eclectic group of collaborators, and anchored by two fantastic performances by Woody Harrelson and the eternally undervalued Billy Crudup. Set in post-WWII New Mexico, it’s a cowboy film, it’s a Western, it’s a family drama, it’s a romance, and there are more than a few grace notes contained in Walon Green’s poetic screenplay (based on the novel by Max Evans) which provides a lyrical sense of love and sweep for the time period and dusty locations. Directed with a classical sense of proportion and clear-eyed dramatics by the gifted British director Stephen Frears, the film also boasts Martin Scorsese as a “Presenter,” further adding to the name-brand quality of the filmmaking team. The stellar supporting cast includes Patricia Arquette as the woman who falls in love with both of the leads, a crusty Sam Elliot as the chief antagonist who feels right at home in this material, a baby-faced Penelope Cruz in one of her first English-language feature films, and the distinctive actor Cole Hauser in an early (and possibly best) performance as a sketchy acquaintance of both Harrelson and Crudup. Carter Burwell’s familiar orchestral notes lend an interesting aural texture to the film, with Oliver Stapleton’s honeyed and golden widescreen cinematography made excellent use of the vistas and endless desert and open-plain landscape. The film was barely released back in late 1998 (it grossed $166,000!), and curiously, critical reception was more mixed than might have been expected. But over the years, it’s been a film that’s always enticed me back for revisits; there’s just something so different and offbeat about this movie, which while trading off of expected conventions (both visually and narratively), feels like few other modern genre pieces that I can think of. This film is the very definition of a small gem, a work that’s begging to be re-discovered by a more appreciative audience.

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