Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

The first time I saw Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (when it first came out) it was lost on me, I felt detached from it, unable to connect and, dare I say, bored. That’s what revisits are for though and the second time I found rich psychological detail, achingly beautiful character relationships, beautifully burnished cinematography and one tantalizing Rubik’s cube of a narrative that, yes, is still tough for me to comprehensively understand but is rich in treasures of emotional depth, poetic tragedy and minuscule splashes of darkest humour amongst the sardonic helpings of dry espionage. Gary Oldman is sly and terrific in a study of low key tenacity as George Smiley, a veteran MI6 bigwig tasked by twitchy Mission Control (John Hurt, brilliant as ever) to find a decades long Soviet mole amidst their ranks. It could be one of a few higher ups, played by the prolific likes of Ciaran Hinds, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, David Dencik and others. It proves to be quite the hurdle as this traitor has burrowed himself so deeply within their ranks that he himself is perhaps confused what side he belongs to anymore. Smiley uses a rookie field operative (Benedict Cumberbatch, excellent) to sniff around and is carefully watched by a regional honcho played by Simon McBurney, a very unsettling little fellow who can turn the simple act of buttering dry toast into a devilish interrogation tactic and is the last dude you want to be ‘carefully watched’ by. The great Mark Strong has a wonderful extended bit as a long burned out former operative with deep ties to MI6 and a haunted past, his arc is very special here. My favourite aspect of the film has to be Tom Hardy as a double agent who falls hard for a mysterious Russian girl (Svetlana Khodvhenkova) he’s surveilling. He’s the perfectly tragic example of a hopeless romantic who discovers he’s gravely in the wrong line of work and wants out before it’s too late. All of these characters move about greyest London and other parts of Europe like chess pieces, and indeed the metaphor becomes literal when Hurt’s Control uses an actual chessboard to illustrate to Smiley just who he’s dealing with and how formidable each potential opponent might just be. The film is grey, drab, washed out, lived in and wearily opaque to evoke a paranoid, sad postwar setting but despite the inherent gloom drenching everything I found the aesthetic to be quite strikingly beautiful. Same goes for the themes and emotional content: these opaque characters hold their emotions close to the chest and as such appear icy, ambiguous and heartless yet it’s beneath that the we see their humanity, not in dialogue or direct action but in glances, quiet moments, slow revelations and half noticed interactions between words. Oldman, Strong, Firth and Hardy are the four standouts in an impossibly well tailored cast of deep cut talents, they’re the four legs of the table to watch for in order to ascertain the strange elixir of this film’s essence and get the most of it. Just don’t expect to absorb everything the first time round, this is a deeply layered, multifaceted, strange beast of a film that likely takes many viewings (this was only my second) to fully settle in. See if you can catch references to everything from John Carpenter’s The Thing to 007 to the Coen Brothers to even the bible while also soaking up the pure class and originality it possesses all its own. Great film.

-Nate Hill

American Grotesqueries: Engaging with The Birth of a Nation in Times of Crisis

Watching The Birth of a Nation as George Floyd’s funeral unfolds on national news is just asking for an incendiary response, not only from the public, but from within the soul. There were several times when I felt so appalled, totally disgusted, tempted to just turn it off and return another time, maybe in like a decade. For a brief moment, my power even went out, as if a sign from the heavens. I had to face a few internal questions as I continued forward: Should I be doing this? Is this really the right thing to do right now? By the end, I was sold — sold not on the fact that watching The Birth of a Nation at this point in our nation’s time is a dangerous idea, but that not watching The Birth of a Nation at this point in our nation’s time is actually the dangerous option. We can’t censor the past under any circumstances; we have to confront these kinds of things and, surely enough, time will be our great decider (and no, I’m not talking about Confederate statues — tear them down, please, with fury and might). In this case, time doesn’t do a thing. This is, tragically, as timeless a film as has ever been born from the cinematic expression, wholly and uniquely American in all its grotesque, reprehensible glory. 

It is categorically impossible to engage with Birth of a Nation in a truly positive sense, despite D.W. Griffith’s absolute genius. The irony runs red in the fact that this — this, of all the films out there — helped to establish our modern, matured cinematic language of sweeping camerawork, intimate close-ups, cross-cut parallel action sequences, and more. What’s alarming is that Birth of a Nation’s cultural contribution extends even further beyond the cinematic landscape and into the political sphere. In 1915, this was absurdly, radically popular, bringing in audiences in swaths unlike any film that came before it and rekindling the burning crosses of the KKK. One can’t simply defend it as a product of its time. Griffith knew exactly what he was doing in adapting Thomas Dixon Jr.’s novel, The Clansman. At the same time that he was forging a new mode of storytelling, he was also provoking the masses with a deeply malicious intent. 

The film’s own popularity was boosted by Griffith’s outrage over the controversial reaction to his racist movie. “How dare the NAACP challenge my film?” he seems to ask, declaring in a title card at the beginning of the movie that censorship is not to be feared, as if those who tried to ban the film simply couldn’t handle the truth. What truth does Griffith propose, exactly? A foul defamation of history, attempting to recreate two eras of the American past — the Civil War and the Reconstruction, split in two by an incredible sequence featuring the assassination of Abraham Lincoln — placing them solely in the hands of soured Southern loss. 

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Griffith twists and manipulates logic, situating Birth of a Nation’s message in an anti-war context, while seeking to declare war on the truth itself. Ku Klux Klan members are heroic in this setting, galloping in on horses to the tune of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” to save white femininity from the degradation of the recently freed black savages. It’s hardly anything but antagonizing, unlike Griffith’s own gravesite, which sits just outside of the city in which I live on a long country road, modest and cozy in its simplicity when you visit it, but brooding an insidious notion just below the soil.

It is actually, perhaps, irresponsible not to approach this kind of material right now, given that it’s as prescient as ever. The irony behind Griffith’s opening title screed against “censorship” is that it’s the only subtextual notion from the film that should be embraced. Do not sweep something as ugly as this under a rug of revisionism, despite the fact that it tries to do the same. Do not be afraid of a film like this. Face it. Engage with it. Critique it. Unleash your anger and frustrations upon it. After all, as America slowly reveals itself as a failed experiment, one that might just be irredeemable and irreparable, it’s our job as cinephiles to trace back our own passions and see just exactly where things may have gone wrong in our own medium, to understand that even our most beloved pastime’s functional nature was founded on a ground of anti-blackness.


Tyler Harris is a film critic, English teacher, and former theater manager from Louisville, Kentucky. His passionate love for cinema keeps him in tune with his writing.

Film Review: Abel Ferrara’s TOMMASO

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There is a beautiful sadness within Abel Ferrara’s latest feature, TOMMASO, starring Willem Dafoe in their fifth collaboration. It’s about the isolation of sobriety, as well as maturity; growing old alone while facing a never-ending and losing battle with fighting your own past.

The picture is a softer version of DANGEROUS GAME, wherein Harvey Keitel played the fictionalized version of Ferrara, the film also borrows the light and vulnerable aesthetic of 4:44, along with Ferrara’s newfound fascination with multimedia that is a conduit to offbeat pop culture. This may be Ferrara’s most direct play at his version of Fellini’s 8 1/2 but isn’t as nearly coarse or dark as his first attempt with DANGEROUS GAME. And while the film does feel very personal, and very true – it also feels like a spiritual successor of Ferrara’s apocalypse film 4:44, which also featured Dafoe.

Tommaso' Review: A Sober, but Not Serene, Life - The New York Times

In TOMMASO, Dafoe plays a gentler version of Ferrara, a filmmaker living in Rome (much like Ferrara) who is trying to formulate his next film, while trying to conquer the demons of his past, while navigating the uncharted parental waters with his very young partner and their daughter (both played by Ferrara’s real-life wife and daughter). Dafoe is just terrific, delivering his finest performance that most will not see, he is spellbinding. Dafoe is perhaps the only actor who can sink into a role like that of Tommaso, and then be seen in AQUAMAN, and then a Disney film, and then working with Lars von Trier – he’s an actor that doesn’t have or would make use of any typecast; he’s boundless and a welcome presence whenever he is seen.

It’s striking to see Ferrara bring such a gentle tone to a film that still works within his authorship: redemption with a dash of Catholic guilt. The film continues Ferrara’s new trajectory of his filmography, not just a transition to digital filmmaking, but also the less transgressive and angsty nature of his most seminal films. It’s a hard film to watch at times, but that’s part of what makes it so effortlessly beautiful. The film is quietly angry, where Dafoe’s character is six years sober, and has nowhere to channel all that rage – the angst of sobriety.

Willem Dafoe Talks Tommaso, Kissing His Friend's Wife & Yoga ...

The fabulous boutique label, Kino Lorber, has released this film on their relatively new streaming service, KinoNow, which offers up a lot of their titles to own and/or rent and of course a standard subscription service to their streaming catalog.

TOMMASO is a great film by a great filmmaker. It isn’t just a vanity piece. Ferrara is showcasing that he still is a flagship mainstay of not just independent cinema, but cinema in general. He’s a brilliant filmmaker that operates on the edges of the film; he may forgo power drills, dirty cops, and crack pipes as he enters a new decade, but he hasn’t lost his punch. The film is funny, sad, romantic, and sexy. It’s tender and angry, all the things that are life.

“I was just on my way out!” Remembering Voyage of the Rock Aliens with Michael Berryman by Kent Hill

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For those who were there…we can all remember a time when cynicism was nowhere to be found regarding our cinematic adventuring. Even during the age which saw the birth of the event picture; there were still fertile grounds from which material, attempting to ride the coattails of popular genre could grow into something that was more an mere homage. Indeed, it may very well have been just another amalgam of concepts, already witnessed by inquisitive travelers on the beaten track; the low-budget, video store self-fillers that are now, in some cases lost to history. Still, these movies were crafted with charm, professionalism and good intentions. No one sets out to make a bad movie, and the giants of the industry, no matter their field of expertise, all played in the same sandbox at one time or another – a pit rich with invention, ripe with interpretation and deep with heart.

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So we come to the splendid curiosity which is: Voyage of the Rock Aliens – which is at once a musical, comedy, adventure, romance which doesn’t scrimp on the flavors you know and love when it blitzes together, forming a cocktail of joyous absurdity.

In brief: A group of music loving aliens are traveling through the galaxy, exploring and researching different forms of life and rock ‘n’ roll. After their on-board A.I. robot companion, 1359 (voiced by none other than Peter Cullin) chills out to a music video, featuring one of the film’s main theme songs featuring star Pia Zadora and a character named Rain, played by Jermaine Jackson, who take on a band of biker-nun looking cats, only to end with Zadora leaving Jackson in the dust as she takes off on the horse she rode in on. (This completely bizarre segue almost gives the entire plot of the film away, but, since you probably haven’t seen it…you’re safe.)

The aliens decide to focus their attention on the planet Earth. Soon after entering our world they meet Dee Dee (Zadora) and her boyfriend Frankie (Nightbreed’s Craig Sheffer) and his band, The Pack. These cats are gang-bangers from the eighties trapped stylistically in the fifties, and there is no shortage of that era’s nostalgia which seems to blend easily with the techno-pop styling of the Rock Aliens…?

Mysteriously it all turns out well. Frankie doesn’t want his band singing without him, so it is odd that we never get to see how devastating a musical talent Frankie actually is “with” the band. He does however manage to snag  himself a solo, show-stopping number which shows us how much Frankie identifies with big cats (specifically a panther) – but I won’t spoil that one.

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It is a wild old tale, with all the talent and experience you could want both in front and behind the camera. For a film buried so deep in the 80’s VHS jungle, VOTRA had some impressive people working on it, for instance Director James Fargo had directed everyone from Chuck Norris (Forced Vengeance) to Clint Eastwood (Every which way but Loose); Gilbert Taylor was the director of photography on Star Wars and the film’s editor Malcolm Campbell worked with John Landis at the height of his powers. Yes everyone from Oscar winners (Ruth Gordon)  to horror film icons. That’s right, horror icons. The film stars the man who knows that the hills have eyes, Michael Berryman, as an escaping inmate from the Speelburgh State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Simply known as Chainsaw, Berryman is an amazing screen presence with comedy, terror and a beautiful moment of tenderness at his command.

OKAY! So, if I haven’t tantalized your taste buds sufficiently to want to go and check this baby out, we have Chainsaw himself, Michael Berryman, who kindly offered me a fistful of remembrances of a movie I believe should be a cinematic audience sing-along spectacular of Rocky Horror proportions.

Some will look upon Rock Aliens as everything that was wrong with the eighties. But, instead of counting cinema sins why not, I challenge you, to embrace the warmth by the vintage hearth in which burns this vibrant flame, the quintessence of what our innocent youth saw as an excellent adventure…well before the music of Wyld Stallyns aligned the planets in universal harmony.

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KH: First allow me to thank you sir. It is gracious indeed for such an iconic performer of your calibre to grant us your time.

MB: A pleasure…

KH: So, you were once an inmate at the SPEELBERGH STATE HOSPITAL FOR THE CRIMINALLY INSANE?

MB: Yes, I was a patient at Speelbergh State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.  I had been a wood-cutter and chainsaw expert for many years before this film. Nobody knew this until I spoke up when I am to saw around one of the aliens. There was a 4×8 sheet of sheetrock between me and the other actor. He was to stand still while a real chainsaw cut around him.  I was asked to perform this feet. I refused. I told my director that if the actor moved, he could be fatally harmed. I asked that we use a green screen. The actor was ok with a chainsaw cutting around him through plasterboard. No way was I going to do this. So, they had a grip/prop manager do the sawing. Now I watched as he assembled a 4 cubic inch chainsaw and as he prepared to start the engine, I told him: ‘Do not pull the lanyard. If you do, the chain will jump from the bar, wrap around your wrist and sever your hand…you have put the chain on backwards!’ He then asked me to fix this mess. I secured the chain and wished him good luck as I walked over to the camera to witness an amazingly dangerous stunt. It was successful and we moved on.

KH: If you can recall, what did you think of Edward Gold’s script when you first read it?

MB: Edward Gold wrote a script that was, in my observation, a straight forward comedy/musical. I read it and found the references to E.T. and such to be ‘tongue-in-cheek’ humor. This film was designed to entertain, help you laugh, and the entire family could enjoy a great experience.

KH: You were just on your way out. I have had the privilege of having a former co-star of yours as a guest, Vernon Wells. When I spoke to Vernon, we talked about how (for a time) he hated the fact that he was type-cast. When Voyage of the Rock Aliens came along and you were tapped for the role of Chainsaw, were you content to play the part knowing you were perhaps cast as Vernon had been to be merely an incarnation of former characters?

MB: I was unaware of Vernon’s type casting…however, since I was in ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’, it seemed to fit that I play Chainsaw. I found it to be fun.

KH: You pass beneath the window of Academy Award winner Ruth Gordon after a Schwarzenegger Commando-style shopping spree for guns and grenades and such with Wallace Merck’s Breather, did you get to meet or chill out with Ms. Gordon or any other members of the eclectic cast?

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MB: I found Ruth Gordon to be an honest and total professional actor. She had the moxy that she was known for. It was sweet to watch her as our sheriff.

KH: Tell us about your battle with the Lake Creature?

MB: The battle with the Lake creature was simple, as I had to cut his tip off and then bubbles emerged…sweet and child-like.

KH: In the midst of the music and mayhem, you have a rather poignant and touching scene with Alison La Placa’s Diane in which she helps you fix your beloved chainsaw. It is capped with a moment of smouldering intensity on your behalf when you say, “For me,” allowing her to be the one to fire up the chainsaw following her service?

MB: Alison was a delight to work with during that scene…we had a sweet time with it. Chainsaw moved on and he leaves his ‘Excalibur’ behind! The passage through the portal expressed a positive exchange with her character and mine. We both made the decision to have her fire up the saw and discover a new beginning for us both. She was joy to work with.

KH: Do you think Diane and Chainsaw lived happily ever after, there relationship evolved after the two of you went for that walk?

MB: Of course, Chainsaw and Diane lived happily…forever!!       

KH: If you have any fond remembrances of tales from production, what would they be?

MB: One day we were at Stone Mountain. Pia’s husband arrived in a Bentley and had her try on 2 different mink stoles…some people mumbled about this but I saw her and him to be in an honest exchange…it was no one’s business but their’s. I found Pia to be a true professional and hard worker. She had no attitude or ego to complicate the day’s work. I was pleased to watch her performance. The shoot was a delight in every way.

KH: Thank you Mr. Berryman. From this fan of yours and the gloriously, toe-tapping, insane splendour that is Voyage of the Rock Aliens…I thank you again.

MB: Kent…Great memories! …Stay safe.

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Voyage of the Rock Aliens Patrick Byrnes Rhema Urinal

 

The Cinema of Solimon by Kent Hill

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There is a filmmaker working in Hollywood right now, who is out to show the big boys that you don’t need hundreds of millions of dollars to make the movies you want to make.Shahin Sean Solimon is the man behind the movement. Together with his talented group of like-minded artists, he is forging new waves to achieve epic results without the big budget price tag.

“If I inspire some thirteen year old kid somewhere to pursue his or her dreams as I have, no matter what the nay-sayers say, I’ve done my job.”

And getting the job done is exactly what Shahin has been doing.  Beginning with his first feature Djinn, Based on ancient middle eastern fairy tales written thousands of years ago, and passed down from generation to generation, Shahin crafted luscious, fantastical realms along with a pure and moving tale love and destiny.

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With his second film he took it to the next level, conjuring the days of high adventure and summoning cinema which brings to mind the heady days of Ray Harryhausen with: Sinbad: The Fifth Voyage. When the Sultan’s first born is taken by an evil sorcerer, Sinbad is tasked with traveling to a desert of magic and creatures to save her. Add into this the talents of Patrick Stewart (X-Men, Star Trek: The Next Generation), who offered his distinct vocal styling as the films narrator.

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Now, for the next big thing. In his third feature Nebulous Dark, Shahin is tackling the sci-fi and post-apocalyptic genres with one mighty stroke. It is yet another epic waiting in the wings from Solimon, who used the production, not just to make an awesome movie, but to continue to hone and harsness the ever-growing cache of cinematic artistry he has at his disposal.

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There seems to be no end to his creativity or his ability to realize his visions. I thoroughly enjoyed chatting with this talented filmmaker who is, without a doubt, taking the bull by the horns and making the movies he wants to make.

“My inspiration as an artist is not about money, or fame…but about trying to project imagination, show a different perspective of life, and simply entertain.”

And entertaining us is what he has done and will, I believe, continue to do.

for more on the Cinema of Solimon, follow this link:

https://shahin-sean-solimon.com/

The very best in Horror Anthology: SyFy’s Channel Zero

Usually American Horror Story is the first thing that comes to mind when you bring up ‘anthology horror series’ and I won’t get into my many issues with that mess of a show overall in this review but it amazes me more people aren’t aware of SyFy’s far superior Channel Zero, a flat out spectacular, mind blowing, thematically rich, devilishly scary, heart achingly beautiful and uniquely crafted quartet of seasons, each based (sometimes loosely, other times more directly) on popular internet ‘creepypasta’ stories. I debated doing four separate reviews for each of these seasons but I’d honestly end up spoiling too much so I’ll do four modest paragraphs here followed by a quick closing blurb:

Season one is called Candle Cove and it’s the weakest but still a wicked story, and if you know the creepypasta it’s based on you’ll know it’s about a mysterious kid’s TV show broadcast from a scrambled signal that plagued the minds of many youngsters in Iron Hill, Ohio and is always accompanied by gruesome child murders whenever it pops up on the air. One stoic child psychologist (Paul Schneider curiously underplays this role to the point of entropy yet still pulls it off somehow) returns home to this town and unravels the dark supernatural secret. This goes to some surreal places and is kind of like the warmup round for the next three seasons, which ditch the compass of convention and head straight off the map. Nods to Silent Hill permeate a super spooky environment and we get the unfortunate privilege of crossing paths with a monster made entirely of human teeth, a sight I won’t soon forget. A great dry run that isn’t perfect and stands as the least effective season yet still makes an impression.

Round two is my favourite, called ‘No End House’ and provides us exactly that, a notorious haunted house that attracts the hardcore crowd only to psychologically decimate them with horrors of the mind. One grieving daughter (Amy Forsyth) ventures in with a group of friends and because she is still mourning the loss of her father (the great John Carroll Lynch), the house takes full advantage of that and torments her no end. Reality shifts, time bends and the show runners really make it clear here they aren’t interested in telling generic stories here but rather going way outside the box. Forsyth and Lynch are utterly brilliant here as the father and daughter, bravely exploring themes of grief, suicide, sacrifice, the human soul and what it means to be a being on our plane versus one in the world the No End House has created.

Season 3 is called Butcher’s Block, it goes grand and baroque without losing sight of the intimate and personal, while also seems to have both the highest budget and conceptual ambitions of the four. The Block is one of many poor neighbourhoods in the US, struck by poverty and socioeconomic doldrums. Now it’s residents find themselves plagued by… something far worse, something with ties to former meat packing magnate Joseph Peach (Rutger Hauer is terrifyingly charismatic in one of his few gigs before he passed away) and his eerily aristocratic clan. Two troubled sisters (Olivia Luccardi and Holland Roden, both incredible) running from a past fraught with trauma and mental illness move into the area to recover and immediately find themselves pulled into this grim, diabolical and otherworldly story that starts with mystery staircases appearing in the woods on the outskirts of town and ends somewhere beyond time and space that I couldn’t possibly describe. Just a heads up this season will be tough for some viewers as it takes real world afflictions and turns them into surreal, trauma inspired monsters that literally chase our heroines around (keep an eye out for the schizophrenia entity that is now scarred into my mind forever). There’s also glorious Grand Guignol, grisly body horror, heartbreaking personal dilemmas played out against surreal backdrops and themes of class warfare and the invisibility and exploitation of poorer factions of society, prayed upon by those with wealth and extreme power. It’s certainly the most visually striking and ambitious season.

Season 4 is evocatively titled The Dream Door and is without a doubt the scariest of the four, as well as psychologically and thematically rewarding just like 2 and 3. The door in question is a mysterious portal found by newlyweds Jillian and Tom (Maria Sten and Brandon Scott) deep in their basement, with no known origin. When finally opened, out bounds a contortionist clown named Pretzel Jack who is one of the most fear inducing, eccentric, fascinating, hilarious and all round unique characters I’ve ever seen put to film. I won’t spoil his origins or why he was down there to begin with but this story has one hell of a cool premise, just as surreal as ever as it explores conjuring ones emotions into physical form, extensions of human subconscious into earthly beings, creatures from alternate dimensions and how our traumas leak into the real world, via metaphor or literal clashes with loved ones around us. Sten is phenomenal and I hope to see more of her around, she approaches the material with the kind emotional clarity often not actively put into horror protagonists.

So much for modest paragraphs. Anyways, bottom line and the reason I’m writing a mammoth review of this thing with a bunch of fanfare: this is the best horror television show I’ve ever seen, and that’s coming from someone who raved about Stranger Things, fell in love with Haunting Of Hill House, championed The Alienist, recommended The Terror and pined for more Hannibal. Channel Zero did more for me than any of those, as incredible as they are and I’m not even sure exactly why but the best I can do is a concoction of three elements: 1) the kind of unconventional, outside the box surreal storytelling that is like protein for my senses and few mainstream shows (outside of someone like David Lynch) are even allowed to attempt. 2) the fact that these are all based on urban myths and reflect that ethos in tone and mood which in turn elevated fear and 3) the horror comes not only from gore, creeping ghosts or the supernatural (of which there are plenty, not to worry) but is primarily born of character, psychology, human afflictions and characters relationships to each other. It’s an unbeatable mixture and makes for something so special I might even order a DVD set, which I almost never do with shows I know will be streaming on and off indefinitely. Masterpiece.

-Nate Hill

Film Review: Derek Wayne Johnson’s 40 Years of Rocky: The Birth of a Classic

40 YEARS OF ROCKY: THE BIRTH OF A CLASSIC — Epic Documentary ...

Filmmaker Derek Wayne Johnson delivers a beautiful tribute to cinema’s most beloved underdog movie.

What more can be said about Sylvester Stallone’s most seminal film and character, Rocky? Well – a lot. Filmmaker Derek Wayne Johnson, the man behind John G. Avildsen King of the Underdogs and Stallone: Frank, That Is has crafted a beautiful showboat of a film that solidifies Rocky’s place alongside Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and James Bond as being not just an important part of modern cinema, but more-so showcasing how Rocky has become a significant part of American culture, conveying how an underdog was able to make the greatest underdog story of all time.

The film, with its very lean runtime of just 30 minutes, is patched together with home movies, behind the scenes footage and rehearsal footage shot by John G. Avildsen, as well as on-set footage that was found in the basement of Troma Entertainment by Rocky’s production manager Lloyd Kaufman almost 40 years after it was shot. Most of this footage has been seen on DVD and Blu-Ray special features, but Johnson’s new documentary includes some snippets of never before seen home movies from Avildsen’s personal collection. Along with Stallone’s steadfast narration, the viewer is able to take a closer look behind the making of one of the greatest films of all time. It is a thrilling experience, watching unseen footage, along with hearing a very intimate recount from Stallone, who is unseen, just heard as the 8mm film flickers across the screen.

Johnson, who didn’t just direct but also produced, assembles a very poignant and remarkably touching tribute to the film, allowing the audience a glimmer inside the intimate home movies of Avildsen, who was able to capture the vulnerabilities of Stallone and company through fantastic behind the scenes footage. Greg Sims, Johnson’s musical partner, was able to produce a remarkable score that finds its own voice to guide the audience through the picture, without retreading Bill Conti or any of the popular music featured in the franchise.

Rocky is just one of those films that has grown a legacy onto itself – everyone knows who Rocky is, yet not many know the pain and triumph it took to get the film made, or how the film had revolutionized filmmaking by the invention of the Steadicam by Garrett Brown that has since become a mainstay in filmmaking.  Derek Wayne Johnson outdoes himself with this film and has become an artist who, with each new film, grows as a filmmaker, creating an objective view of whatever subject undercard matter he chooses to tackle, yet allows the audience a very intimate look into the world of film, and in particular those who sacrificed everything to tell their stories the way they needed to tell them. If 40 Years of Rocky: The Birth of a Classic tells us anything, it is that Rocky isn’t just a film or a character Sylvester Stallone wrote and played, Rocky has become a part of American culture – world culture; and that we all have a Rocky inside of us, and between Stallone’s words and Avildsen’s footage, what Derek Wayne Johnson is telling us is to embrace that part of ourselves, and champion our own underdog.

40 Years of Rocky: The Birth of a Classic is available for preorder on Amazon and iTunes.

Adam McKay’s The Other Guys

I don’t know what it is about Adam McKay’s The Other Guys but it’s one of those comedies I’ve seen literally over fifty times and it’s never not funny, in fact it gets even more fucking hilarious with each new viewing. It’s essentially a sendup of the buddy cop genre starring a perpetually cranky Mark Wahlberg and a half mad Will Ferrell, but it’s also so much more than that in ways you don’t initially see coming. I think it’s the lack of script and encouragement from everyone involved to rely on loopy improvisation that works so well for me here.. it’s like for every scene they tossed away all the scripted takes, kept all the ‘end of the shooting day giggles’ material and deranged bloopers and just loaded that shit up into the final cut, which is a stroke of mad scientist genius. Wahlberg and Ferrell are Allen and Terry, two hapless NYPD detectives constantly living under the shadow of a couple hotshot alpha badasses played briefly by Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson until.. well let’s just say they get their moment to shine, as Ice-T dryly narrates the action when he feels the need to pipe in. They get involved in an impossibly intricate conspiracy involving diamond heists, a corrupt hedge fund guru (Steve Coogan almost walks off with the film), an Aussie private security prick (Ray Stevenson, priceless), the power-ball lottery and so much convolution that it’s taken me this many viewings to get that yes, it indeed does have a plot that makes sense when you work it all out but that’s besides the point anyways. It’s almost like Naked Gun level shenanigans where it doesn’t quite take place in the real world but an almost surreal comedic version of it. Just beholding Allen and Terry play ‘Bad Cop Bad Cop,’ get their car hijacked by a coven of perverted homeless dudes called ‘Dirty Mike & The Boys,’ recount Allen’s life as a college pimp, the precinct goons convincing Allen to do a ‘Desk Pop’ and so much more is enough to realize that you’re not in Buddy Comedy Kansas anymore and you’re gonna see some shit that defies genre expectations. I love when Steve Coogan is like “I’ll give you each a million dollars to let me go, and it’s not a bribe.” Ferrell retorts: “Of course it’s a bribe, you’re offering us money to not do our jobs”. Coogan looks him dead in the eye and sincerely reiterates: “It’s not a bribe.” Fucking gets me every time man. The cast is peppered with so many effective oddball performances I couldn’t mention them all here but be on the lookout for Eva Mandes, Rob Riggle, Josef Sommer, Brett Gelman, Derek Jeter, Damon Wayans, Bobby Cannavale, Anne Heche, Andy Buckley, Natalie Zea, Brooke Shields, Rosie Perez and more. Best of all has to be Michael Keaton as their police captain, a loopy fellow who also works at Bed, Bath & Beyond for some reason and quotes TLC songs multiple times throughout the film but pretends he has no idea who they are, it’s a brilliant bit of knowingly subtle supporting work that also gets me every time, as does the film overall. This one just exists outside the box and does it’s own thing, getting abstract, bizarre and frequently ‘WTF’ to the point it feels like something by SNL at their absolute weirdest or… I don’t even know what to compare McKay’s aesthetic to, but I’ll say that this is likely in the top ten funniest comedies I’ve ever seen. Aim for the bushes!

-Nate Hill

Tim Burton’s Big Fish

There are so many ideas, myths, motifs, vignettes, episodes, characters and ideas swirling around in Tim Burton’s Big Fish it almost feels like several movies collided together to make their own sweet, sunny mixture and I love that feeling. It’s like a postcard perfect funhouse where you never know what you might get and some people saw a pacing problem or lack of focus in that regard but for me it’s this wonderful wellspring of creativity, visual audacity and fairytale lyricism. It’s also told from the perspective of a rascal who is notorious for making up wild stories so the narratively kaleidoscopic nature of the film seems very appropriate. Edward Bloom is one of the strangest Tim Burton characters to ever grace the screen, a magnetic individual played as a young man by beaming, idealistic Ewan McGregor and as an old fellow by wisecracking, lovable Albert Finney. Edward loves to tell stories, larger than life anecdotal adventures that he regaled his young son with throughout childhood, stories that couldn’t possibly be true.. right? As Edward grows up he leaves a town that just wasn’t big enough for him and meets many wonderful and strange characters along the way including a giant (Matthew McGrory), a poet turned bank robber (Steve Buscemi), a mermaid (Bevin Kaye), a reclusive witch (Helena Bonham Carter) a circus ringmaster (Danny Devito, scene stealing like nobody’s business) with a supernatural secret and eventually the love of his life Sandra, played as a young woman by the excellent Alison Lohman (whatever happened to her?) and later by Jessica Lange. The story finds an emotional core in the relationship between Edward and his son Will (Billy Crudup), a realist who resents being brought up amidst a bunch of tall tales and just wants, along with his wife (Marion Cotillard, lovely), to finally get to know his father as he is passing of terminal illness. The stories are besides the point here and as one character notes, at some point a man becomes the legends he tells simply by embodying them, and when it comes time for the narrative to tell us whether or not these tales are even true it hardly matters because the film has been so honest with us in the human connections we see unfolding. This film sits apart in Burton’s career because of how emotionally affecting it is, not largely focused on effects and makeup like he often chooses but crafted with its heart firmly planted on a bedrock of believable humanity. There’s whimsy, style and special effects galore mind you, all excellently, wonderfully done.. but the core of what makes this film so special lies in the final twenty minutes or so where we see a rich, cathartic final act that always brings me to tears. Edward Bloom may have told wild tales his whole life and Will must reconcile that they were just a part of who his father was, and that the greatest story in his life was the family he raised. It’s a beautiful, oddball, postcard pretty, occasionally surreal yet ultimately down to earth and deeply felt piece of storytelling.

-Nate Hill

Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller

In Robert Altman‘s stunning, dreamily haunting piece of anti western melancholia McCabe & Mrs. Miller, two lost souls wander out from unseen former lives into the rugged, barely tamed Canadian Pacific Northwest and attempt to carve out their slice of enterprise from a vast, unforgiving environment. Warren Beatty’s John McCabe is a shrewd yet caustic entrepreneur whose sense of romanticism is dwindling like the stars at dawn, a man who plans to capitalize on the wants and desires of the townsfolk of frontier settlement Presbyterian Church by tent-poling a successful local whorehouse. Julie Christie’s Constance Miller is a forlorn, sharp tongued opportunist bereft of any wistful innocence, her piercing, deep set blue eyes peering out from a thicket of gingerbread curls, scanning the horizon for lucrative endeavours. Both of them seem to arrive in the Northwest as if from another dimension; no backstory save for unfounded rumours, no goals except for capitalist monopoly and no sense of wonder or lyricism save for the few shiny flecks that haven’t been rinded down by the harshness of their lives, like mountains plundered for precious gold until not but scant flakes remain amongst weathered, weary crags. They team up as any person with a good head for business will concede to do, and before they know it they’re making a pretty penny… until big money mining interests try to muscle them out. Altman shows here how capitalism was a precursor to violence and corruption even in the early days of this continent and is successful in getting across his themes but for me the real treasures of this film lie in cinematography, tangible sense of character and mood. Christie and Beatty probably give career best performances as two hardened pioneers of commerce who collectively arrive at the end of each of their respective journeys in the saddest, mournfully poetic fashions imaginable. I wish I knew these two individuals before the world made them the way they are and the snowdrifts settled into the final acts of their arc because they’re two wonderful, well rounded and unique characters. Filling out a solid supporting cast are the likes of the late Rene Auberjonois, Keith Carradine, William Devane, John Schlick, Michael Murphy, a very young Shelley Duvall and more. Altman uses unbelievably evocative wilderness photography to tell story and several aching, poignant songs by Leonard Cohen to bookend his film. It’s tough to capture the essence of this thing in a review, one has to let it wash over you, let it murmur in your ear for two hours as wood doors slam, horse drawn carriages trundle through muddy streets, wind whispers through tree lines, characters move in and out with organic disorganization like moths to and from firelight and McCabe & Mrs. Miller’s sad, introspective, beautifully ponderous story plays out. Sensational film.

-Nate Hill