DENIS VILLENEUVE’S SICARIO — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

2Conceived with an incredible sense of grim fatalism and a cynical worldview that feels both refreshingly honest and tack-sharp, Denis Villeneuve’s utterly masterful Mexican drug cartel thriller Sicario is a feast for the senses while never skimping on introspective character beats and pulse-pounding action. Written with obvious research and keen intelligence by Taylor Sheridan, the film rarely feels “American,” in the sense that it offers up a damning portrait of a literal hell on earth (in this case Juarez, Mexico) and plunges the viewer head-first into disturbingly violent areas of society without ever pulling any punches; it’s a kindred spirit to something like Sean Ellis’ gripping Metro Manila and the absurdly underrated Miss Bala from director Gerardo Naranjo, two recent foreign thrillers that make mincemeat of the stateside competition. In Sicario, Villeneuve continues his red-hot-streak after Incendies, Enemy, and Prisoners (still need to see Polytechnique), and in tandem with the incomparable cinematographer Roger Deakins, has crafted an immersive topical thriller that stings with believability, inevitability, and a guiding sense of logical, clear-cut storytelling. It’s also the most tension-packed film I’ve seen in a theater since No Country for Old Men; at no point could I ever guess what was coming next and the level of atmospheric dread on display due to the insane sound design and haunting visuals kept me literally on edge for two hours.

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I had heard it mentioned recently on the internets that the film was a cross between Zero Dark Thirty and Traffic, and that’s not too far off – it’s as accomplished as both of those fantastic pieces of work, and while indebted to them in some ways, Sicario is its own, visceral animal from the very first frame. Emily Blunt, as usual, is tough as nails as an Arizona FBI/SWAT member drafted by some hush-hush superiors to tag along on a covert mission in Mexico to eliminate a major drug dealer. Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro are her mysterious handlers, who aren’t interested in providing too much background on their employers or their ultimate end-games; both actors are incredible, with Del Toro dropping an Oscar worthy performance that cuts hard both emotionally and physically. The numerous action scenes sizzle with bloody ferocity, never going over the top or reveling in the carnage, but being upfront about the damage that bullets will do to the human body. This is a dark, disturbing, totally nihilistic movie that’s not interested in being your friend or making you smile. It’s about something real and current and important and Villeneuve is too smart a filmmaker to start preaching or moralizing. It is what it is – and in this world – nobody is going home happy. And then there’s the film’s final shot, which implies so much without having to speak a word. I can’t wait to see this film again and again and again and again.

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MILE HIGH HORROR FILM FESTIVAL DOUBLE FEATURE: THE DESCENT WITH DIRECTOR NEIL MARSHALL/THE SHINING WITH JOE TURKEL AND LISA & LOUISE BURNS

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The schedule for the 2015 Mile High Horror Film Festival is bursting with quality programming all day and deep into the night, but a double feature on Friday afternoon/evening was my primary target as soon as I viewed the calendar:  The Descent with director Neil Marshall in attendance, and The Shining with Joe Turkel (Lloyd The Bartender) and Lisa and Louise Burns (The Grady Daughters) conducting a Q&A session prior to the show.  Arguably the best horror film of the 2000s followed by arguably the greatest horror film of all time, with these creative forces behind them in the house?  No question I’d be at both, and each was fantastic.  The Descent and The Shining have important similarities, such as masterful senses of tension and locations that are crucial to the proceedings, but couldn’t be more different otherwise—a monster movie enclosed in darkness, gore and stone versus a brightly lit ghost story floating through spacious, impeccable halls.   A naturalistic, tough and large female ensemble; a stylized nightmare with few (living) souls inhabiting it.  Still, the two stand on equal footing because the purity of vision in each is unquestionable, and not a moment is wasted in taking the viewer on their respective dark journeys.

Neil Marshall’s The Descent is celebrating its 10 year anniversary, and one could see the pride and enthusiasm the filmmaker still has for discussing this gem by his effusive Q&A immediately following a fully attended afternoon screening.  He started by addressing the “alternative ending” controversy, stating that the UK received the real finale so he wasn’t as worried about its reception overseas, and the test screenings indicated US general audiences preferred something more upbeat, so he allowed Lionsgate to show the truncated cut here with the condition that they gave it the widest release possible, ultimately on over 2,000 screens.  He also pointed out that his original vision is the happy one; Sarah’s ending up with her daughter (played by Marshall’s niece) was the only version of peace she would ever find.

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The director continued by discussing the origins of the story and its early reception.  He originally wanted to expand an earlier student film revolving around space zombies called Brain Death into a feature, but was told it would be too expensive at a meeting to pitch producers and was asked to come up with something else.  Remembering a challenge he’d heard in the press about his debut, Dog Soldiers, not being scary enough, he determined to make the scariest film he could imagine, got on a train immediately after said meeting and let his mind wander.  By the time he’d returned home several hours later, he’d figured out a little-used location in horror to exploit with a cast almost completely devoid of testosterone.  The script felt more like a novel as he quickly entered extended sequences of little to no dialogue, and the stark descriptions within scared everyone who read it.  One of his producers labeled it “too relentless!” and asked him to let them out of the cave; Marshall’s response?  “They didn’t get to leave the boat in Jaws!  They didn’t get to walk away from The Nostromo in Alien!”  He knew keeping the heroes trapped was key.

A brief discussion of the technical details revealed a fun anecdote or two, including the time one of the “crawlers,” as he referred to them, sprained his ankle on set and was taken to the emergency room—in full costume.  Marshall continues to be proud that barely any CGI was used, not to mention the fact that they’d built sets so effective the viewer couldn’t tell the entire film was shot on sound stages at Pinewood Studios with a few exteriors shot in Scotland (apparently real caves fill with fog fast when humans are around and the slippery surfaces ensure repeated, dangerous falls).  He even pointed out a variety of obscure references to be found in the film, some as subtle as a shot of a sleeping Beth with her arm over her head nodding to Deliverance.  When asked if Alfred Hitchcock’s influential hand could be felt anywhere on The Descent,  Marshall balked at the notion yet then teased the audience that the next film he’s working on is his “Hitchcock Homage,” but spilled no further beans.  For broad influences he called John Carpenter the biggest and mentioned The Thing, Alien, Deliverance and The Shining as specific touchstones.

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Turning to that particular Kubrick masterpiece, the MHHFF and Alamo Drafthouse Littleton pulled out all the stops to celebrate the picture and set the mood for a 35mm projection with several cast members in attendance to discuss the famous filmmaker and their memories of the production.  Initial events, including several twin-themed dance partners interspersed throughout the crowd and a Redrum cake that doesn’t belong on any child’s birthday table, gave way to the honored guests of the evening.  Joe Turkel, spry and clearly excited for his chance to discuss fellow Brooklyn kid and longtime friend Stanley, was joined by Lisa and Louise Burns, the British twins who interestingly played sisters of different ages in their indelible, iconic scenes as the Grady girls.  Joe was quick to point out that he’s the rare actor who appeared in three Kubrick productions (the others being The Killing and Paths of Glory), and often mentioned how he and the director bonded over their love of the Yankees and Joe DiMaggio, the latter having passed away a day after Kubrick himself did.  Turkel also pointed out the ‘director’s bible’ that Stanley had with him on all three sets where they worked together, in increasingly dog-eared, underlined and battered form, a text by the great Russian filmmaker Vsevolod Pudovkin called Pudovkin on Film. He went on to describe the director’s demeanor as always quiet and respectful, but yes, famously thorough and prone to many takes.  He claimed the shot of Jack Nicholson walking past strewn-about balloons and entering The Gold Room with a ghostly party in full swing was done no less than 180 times.  As Kubrick asked for each new take, the camera angle or lens or lighting would always be slightly altered.  Turkel once asked him, “Are you ever satisfied with just one take?”  Kubrick smirked and responded “Oh yes!  Many times!”

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The soft-spoken Burns sisters didn’t have the same relationship with Kubrick but, like Turkel, had many memories of the director being warm, friendly and accommodating, even during the lengthy portions of their work.  They didn’t have a specific take count on any of their scenes, but recalled that his getting the single shot he ended up using of their bloody bodies in the hallway took three full days, during which they were awfully cold.  Kubrick personally went and retrieved a space heater for them when they complained, and when their birthday arrived he halted the shoot for several hours in order to throw them a proper party, wherein he presented them with an autograph book filled in by cast and crew.  Speaking further about the director’s personality and demeanor, Turkel insisted he was a plain-spoken kid from Brooklyn (he preferred everyone call him Stanley, not Mr. Kubrick, not Stan) who wasn’t a hermit but understood his celebrity would require him to be increasingly beholden to anyone he met, so he chose to limit how many new people he brought into his life.  Discussing the film itself, Lisa and Louise didn’t actually see it until they were in their 20s, and due to UK censorship the version they saw was a full half hour shorter than what audiences in other countries enjoyed.  Turkel pointed out how strange this was considering The Shining is far from a violent picture; outside of Nicholson’s brutal ax murder of Scatman Crothers’ Dick Halloran, there is almost no physical conflict portrayed.  As a result, the Burns sisters didn’t realize what a horrifying picture it was until much later.  Joe Turkel claimed to have only seen it 5 or 6 times, but said his enjoyment deepens with each viewing.  He took a quick shot at the original author’s negative take on the film and the resulting 1990s television miniseries version, which in his words “bombed” by not focusing on the psychological horror that Kubrick presented in masterful form.  The actor then shared two quick stories, one about how he and a friend ran into a struggling Nicholson at the horse races in 1961, when that performer was considering leaving Los Angeles and returning to New York City but stayed after Turkel’s friend repaid Nicholson some money he owed him with their gambling winnings (“I saved his career!”), and another about his last day on set.  Insisting Stanley was a warm man but not prone to physical contact, he walked up to Turkel, put his hand on the actor’s shoulder and said “you know, so far you’re the best thing in this movie.”  Joe Turkel responded by saying “Thanks Stanley—so don’t wait another 40 fucking years to cast me again!”  Kubrick smiled, walked away, and that was the last time the two spoke.

Finally, the 35mm print rolled for the audience, and as with most great films it felt like a first viewing all over again to share the experience with an anonymous audience in the dark.  On a quick personal note, I must recommend that if any organization such as the Mile High Horror Film Festival or the Alamo Drafthouse gives you the opportunity to enjoy either of these films in a theater, take advantage of it.  The Descent’s darkness flows off the screen and effectively envelops you, and The Shining’s still-stunning sound design, visuals and atmosphere trap you, the viewer, in the Overlook Hotel just as it did Danny and his family all those years ago.  Seeing the two films this past Friday with these talented artists present to tell their stories made for a unique, revelatory and unforgettable day for the horror fans in attendance.

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Dead Man- A review by Nate Hill

Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man is a truly one of a kind film, a film that I have been entranced for over a decade by, and constantly revisit it’s haunting beauty, poetic absurdities and stark, gorgeous black and white cinematography (holla to Robby Muller). Johnny Depp basically plays a meek, downtrodden east coast boy mired in a wild, violent and confusing journey through a western outpost town and after a love triangle ends in murder, possibly his own, he embarks on a strange, spiritual walk through a Pacific Northwest netherworld of pine trees, outlaw bounty hunters, and oddball characters, led by a Native named Nobody (the excellent Gary Farmer). Is he dead? Was he even there to begin with? Jarmusch abandons logic for an expressionist approach, and the film ends up as a hypnotic tone poem and visual palette of events that don’t really make sense, and may frustrate some. But to those open to its idiosyncratic writing and determined, enigmatic style, oh what a film it is. The cast is absolutely to die for. Depp is incredible in the best performance of his extremely uneven career. The character arc he inhabits here is wonderful, taking a feeble, checkered suited mess of a man and morphing him into a ghostly, predatorial, terrifying wilderness archetypal bandit, a force of nature among the trees and mountains. Haunted eyes, quick draw kill streak, moody contemplation, it really is his finest work. Michael Wincott steals his scenes as a chatty assassin and Lance Henriksen is scary as hell, playing a hired killer who “fucked his parents, then cooked them up and ate them.” (Don’t ask, just go with the film’s demented flow). Gabriel Byrne, Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton, Robert Mitchum, Milli Avital, John Hurt and an especially weird Crispin Glover all nail their cameos, and Neil Young’s beautiful, melodic, elemental score is the beating heart of the film. Dead Man isn’t a traditional film in any sense, and in fact seems to take place in a cliché free, bizarro alternate western dream universe where the rules don’t apply, but all the beauty, mysticism and rugged frontier intrigue of the genre still remain. Fine with me. One of my all time favourites.

PTS Presents ARTISAN WORKBENCH with WADE EASTWOOD

WADE EASTWOOD POWERCAST

MI5-09932RcPodcasting Them Softly presents an explosive chat with Stunt Coordinator and Second Unit Director Wade Eastwood! Wade has an extensive list of credits on some of the biggest blockbusters of the last 15 years, including the latest Mission: Impossible entry, Rogue Nation, the upcoming James Bond adventure Spectre, 2014’s Interstellar, Godzilla, and Edge of Tomorrow, and numerous other high-throttle action films that have featured some of the most dynamic stunt work in modern cinema history. A true dare-devil at heart (he’s also a stunt driver and performer), we had a great time chatting with Wade, and we hope you enjoy!

ALFONSO CUARON’S CHILDREN OF MEN — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Prophetic. Speculative. Provocative. Chilling. Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men is one of the best films of my lifetime, a totally immersive experience where ideas and action coexist in an effort to tell a deeply human and thoroughly harrowing story of mankind’s last hope for survival. Clive Owen was fantastic in the leading role of a lifetime, while the supporting cast including a stony Michael Caine, a mysterious Julianne Moore, the shifty Chiwetel Ejiofor, the slimy Danny Huston, and the scene-stealing Peter Mullan all get a chance to shine. The blunt, forceful, incredibly streamlined screenplay (by four credited writers) is all forward narrative momentum, while Cuarón and cinematographer of the century Emmanuel Lubezki plunge the viewer into the middle of any number of violent spectacles, including large scale military battled, close-quarters combat, and vehicular mayhem, all shot with a constantly roving camera that’s prone to some very, very long and elaborate sequences without any noticeable edits. The film is a technical knock-out, a marvel on a story level, and it’s a total embarrassment that one of the most ambitious and challenging action pictures ever made wasn’t given any Academy recognition. Cuarón would later get his trophy for his spectacular thrill-ride direction on Gravity, and while that film is certainly accomplished in ways that very few other movies have ever been, Children of Men is an absolute all-timer, and a reminder that big, bold ideas can still intermingle with overwhelmingly visceral action.

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MILE HIGH HORROR FILM FESTIVAL WORLD PREMIERE: EVEN LAMBS HAVE TEETH

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The 2015 Mile High Horror Film Festival kicked off yesterday with a real treat (including a few tricks) for fans—the world theatrical premiere of Even Lambs Have Teeth, a modestly budgeted joint US/Canadian production that follows the adventures of two young women who become entangled with a corrupt town and its evil pastimes.  Stars Kirsten Prout, Tiera Skovbye, Garrett Black and Jameson Parker were in attendance, along with producers Adrian Salpeter and Elizabeth Levine.  The actors themselves had not seen the finished product and in fact had only viewed snippets here and there since the quick shoot completed last November outside of Vancouver, BC, so it was a first viewing for practically everyone in the packed crowd at the Alamo Drafthouse Littleton.

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The story is a simple, dark tale, with a pair of fun loving friends preparing to go work on a Community Supported Agriculture farm in rural Washington State to earn enough money for a blowout shopping weekend in New York City.  Not surprisingly, the plan goes awry almost immediately as the sexually adventurous Sloane (Prout) convinces the more conservative Katie (Skovbye) to catch a ride to the farm with a couple of handsome young strangers who promptly take them on a nightmarish detour.  The following horrors and the road to revenge/redemption the women find themselves on will bring to mind many touchstones of the genre that horror fans will be familiar with:  I Spit On Your Grave, Last House On The Left, and even Deliverance were mentioned by the post-screening panel, as well as The Deer Hunter and Kill Bill.  While this all sounds familiar—and make no mistake, many elements of the film are—the material is consistently elevated by strong performances across the board, both by the female leads and their antagonists.  Sloane and Katy are instantly likeable and relatable, which puts you firmly next to them whether they’re locked in a storage crate or piloting a pickup on a lengthy parade of revenge around the countryside.  The autumnal menace of the Pacific Northwest that’s been used to such great effect in everything from Twin Peaks to The X-Files is on full display throughout, and writer/director Terry Miles always has a creepy villain, a trope-flipping jolt, a dash of humor or a gonzo explosion of violence waiting around the corner—often all in the same scene.

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During the Q&A session following the screening, we learned that this is Miles’ first horror film, he’s usually been associated with more straightforward drama productions.  It shows in his handling of the characters, who always feel genuine no matter what their particular motivations are.  It was a tight three week shoot in drizzly, cold weather with few Hollywood perks on hand, but the cast bonded quickly (perhaps despite themselves;  Prout and Skovbye initially hated each other but that faded fast and they now appear to be the best of friends) and supported each other through some difficult scenes.  It was roughly shot backwards chronologically so the women were allowed to develop a sense of empowerment before undergoing the damaging sequences in the first half of the film, although to the filmmakers’ credit those scenes are often underplayed and left to the imagination.   There is a distinct sense that there was no desire to do too deep of a dive into the violent onscreen character humiliation seen in the likes of Hostel and several other previously mentioned films.  Producers Adrian Salpeter and Elizabeth Levine shared some insight into independent movie production, stating that horror is a great genre to work in because it translates around the world much better than others such as comedy, hence an easier sell to investors and distributors.  As final advice to any filmmakers impressed by the results of this small production, Levine said “start with $20,000 and a great group of loyal people, and go to work!”  All in all, a promising work from a young group of talented people.

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Follow Even Lambs Have Teeth on Twitter at @lambshaveteeth

MICHAEL MANN’S THE INSIDER — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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While his 1995 crime epic Heat will likely always be my “favorite” film by master filmmaker Michael Mann, his 1999 journalism thriller The Insider is likely his “best” overall theatrical effort. Simply by virtue of avoiding any sense of melodrama (no matter how rarefied as in Heat or Miami Vice) and making a film as good, or nearly as good, as Alan J. Pakula’s immortal classic All The President’s Men, The Insider stands as one of the most underrated movies ever to have been bestowed with nine Academy Award nominations (it won nothing). Mann’s usual brilliant sense of place and atmosphere is on firm display here, with Dante Spinotti’s elegantly stylish 2.35:1 cinematography maximizing space within the frame, with certain camera moves meant to dive deep into the consciousness of the characters within any given scene. The emotional and informational depth to the screenplay, co-written by Mann and the estimable Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, The Good Shepherd), is staggering to behold, as it’s the rare drama where everything is motivated by intelligent, dramatic discourse and plausible actions and situations rather than the cheap demands of plot or genre conventions. Al Pacino was terrific here, subverting expectations to a certain degree, reteaming with Mann a few years after their iconic work on Heat. But it’s the Russell Crowe show all the way, and in The Insider, this tremendous actor delivered the best performance of his impressive career, painting a portrait of a morally and spiritually conflicted man who had to face some serious personal challenges in order to get his life back on track. The dynamite supporting cast includes one of my personal favorite scene stealers Bruce McGill (show-stopping moments during the deposition sequence!), Colm Feore, Diane Venora, Christopher Plummer, Michael Gambon, Philip Baker Hall, Debi Mazar, Stephen Tobolowsky, Lindsay Crouse, Gina Gershon, Rip Torn, Michael Paul Chan, Wings Hauser, and Nester Serrano. The haunting and introspective score from Lisa Gerard and Pieter Bourke is classic Mann, perfectly complimenting Spinotti’s lucid and mobile images, which feel as if they’re always searching for thematic truth, while the various key characters consistently stare down their own existentialism in hopes of finding catharsis.

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