I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with April Mullen’s Wander and my hopes may have not been that high just based on reviews but I honestly loved this wild, scrappy, unconventional, ‘pulp arthouse’, sociopolitically conscious bauble of a film so much. Many won’t vibe with it and that’s okay because it’s supremely weird, visually stylish and kinetic in the fashion that filmmakers like Tony Scott and Oliver Stone traffic in and, quite frankly, all over the place in terms of tone, editing and plot to the point that many viewers will feel assaulted by commotion. I love it for all the reasons mentioned because my tastes always gravitate towards the wild, wooly, artsy and just plain strange. Aaron Eckart and Tommy Lee Jones give perhaps the two performances of their career that are most… ‘unlike their essence’, playing a couple of crusty, paranoid conspiracy theorists who run a tinfoil hat podcast from their dusty trailer. One night a distraught mother calls into their show claiming her daughter was kidnapped by shadowy government factions and corrupt law enforcement and enlists their help, so they pack up and venture out to Wander, NM, a literal one horse town with a nervous sheriff (Raymond Cruz) who knows more than he lets on and a mysterious cowgirl (Kathryn Winnick) who lurks about the place. Eckhart’s character has a lot to contend with beyond the task at hand, he’s ridden with PTSD from a former accident that killed his daughter and left his wife in brain damaged catatonia. Their investigation leads them to some pretty disturbing revelations that I won’t spoil here but there’s an interesting psychological juxtaposition between what’s really going on and what’s a facet of their already fractured collective mental states. Eckhart is wonderfully intense, barking and growling out his lines with the ferocity set on low burn and looking frantic as a wild animal, while Jones is the cunning old dog who is marginally more put together and tries to steady his pal but is still completely out of it himself. Heather Graham gives a wonderfully soulful supporting performance as a good friend of Eckhart’s who does her best to help him through what’s going on. What I really loved about this film is how many tones and styles tributary together for an often raucous but incredibly singular experience. The film opens with a preface paying respect to indigenous and all peoples of colour who have been displaced and mistreated along many borders and immediately begins with a jarring prologue as a Native woman flees unseen forces in a speeding car. Director April Mullens uses elaborate, tricky, swooping, unbelievably dynamic camera movements and chopper/drone shots to bring the story to life in an immersive and breathtaking way, and the musical talent of Canadian indigenous artist Jeremy Dutcher adds haunting atmospherics to the soundscape. This film is a lot of things, and it will no doubt be too much, or too ‘out there’ for many but it’s right up my dusty backcountry alley. Bizarre, confounding, melodic, emotional, frightening, it’s altogether like nothing I’ve seen and truly one for the books.
It always amazes me when a first time writer/director scores an all out, diamond encrusted A-list cast that would make the top dog filmmakers in Hollywood jealous, but it often results in a scantly marketed film that no one really ends up seeing but just happens to have a huge star studded ensemble in a quiet, curious independent piece that few are aware of. Such is the case in Joshua Michael Stern’s NeverWas, a beautiful modern fairytale that slipped under the radar back in the mid 2000’s but is ripe for rediscovery. Aaron Eckhart plays a rookie psychiatrist who expresses interest in working at a troubled mental health facility in rural BC, Canada, an institution where his mentally ill father (Nick Nolte) lived at years before. He was once a great children’s author who wrote about a magical kingdom called NeverWas and built a considerable legacy around his books, before becoming sadly unstable and being committed. Eckhart’s character wishes to find out wheat happened years before and treat some of these people now attending the facility, while the somewhat skeptical director (a sly William Hurt) doesn’t have high hopes for the program overall. Things get interesting when delusional patient Gabriel (Ian McKellen) starts mentioning NeverWas in his group sessions and believes it to be real, and Eckhart to be somehow connected to the legacy. What is he on about, why does he express a desire to break out and return to a place he calls his ‘kingdom’, and what’s his connection to the long gone father? McKellen is wonderful in the role, fiercely passionate and charismatic while showing heartbreaking undertones of some past trauma he can’t articulate yet needs to work through with this fantastical delusions. Nolte gives a mini powerhouse performance in just flashbacks alone and is incredibly affecting, while the late great Brittany Murphy is cast refreshingly against type as a local naturalist who expresses interest in this unusual situation. The cast is so blinged out that even the smallest roles have been given to someone super recognizable and so we get to see people like Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming, Michael Moriarty, Bill Bellamy and Vera Farmiga show up and not necessarily have much to do character wise other than simply bless the production with their attendance. The lush Canadian setting provides a gorgeous atmosphere for this strange, quaint and very personal story to unfold, anchored by McKellen in a superb, emotionally rich portrayal that he sticks with and lands with a final beat to the arc that cuts right to the essential. The film also managed to score Philip Glass for its original score (Candyman, Tales From The Loop, The Hours) a man whose unmistakable compositions always provide an auditory heart and propellant momentum, his work adding a lot to the overall experience here. The very definition of a hidden gem and well worth seeking out for the unbelievable cast and unique, touching story.
I’m not sure why a gorgeous, thrilling horror/western/adventure like Ron Howard’s The Missing didn’t win over audiences as much as it should have upon release, but it’s one of my favourite in the genre, the best film overall from Howard (IMHO) who has always felt like an uneven, ‘play it safe’ Hollywood filmmaker to me and one of my go-to films to revisit. This films plays it anything but safe, blanketing a very personal, desperate set of protagonists and their struggles with a cloak of menace, mysticism and marauding danger around every corner of a threatening New Mexico brush-scape. Cate Blanchett gives one of her most raw, affecting turns as single rancher and single mother Magdalena Gillekson, a woman with a great deal of trauma in her past who is simply trying to live the isolated homesteader life and raise her two daughters (Jenna Boyd and Evan Rachel Wood) right, with the help of her friend, ranch-hand and sometimes lover Brake (Aaron Eckhart). Their lives are first upheaved with the reappearance of her ne’er do well father Samuel (Tommy Lee Jones), a halfbreed nomad who is disgraced most people in his past, and then with the arrival of a terrifying witch-doctor (Eric Schweig) who kidnaps her eldest daughter and makes off with his gang of Apache and white human traffickers towards the Mexican border to sell her and a whole bunch of other girls they’ve taken. So begins a journey of reconnaissance, rescue and reconciliation as Magdalena, Samuel and the younger daughter voyage across wintry plains of New Mexico into barren badlands to square off with this evil cabal of predatory psychopaths and return the stolen girls to their homes. These two characters that Blanchett and Jones play fascinate me; she’s cold, bitter and has clearly been robbed of some of her humanity in the past. He’s an outcast loner with a life story so dysfunctional that his Native name literally translates into English as ‘shit for luck.’ Their struggle to salvage any kind of father daughter relationship between them is almost as daunting as the brutal rescue mission they undertake, and the narrative pays just as much careful attention to character development and human interaction as it does to action and violence. Schweig is utterly despicable as the evil Apache shaman, a hateful, volatile, ugly as fuck rotten bastard monster who haunts the film like the very wind over the terrain itself with his unholy magic spells and sudden outbursts of shocking violence. The supporting cast is full of rich talent including Elizabeth Moss, Steve Reeves, Jay Tavare, Ray McKinnon, Max Perlich, Simon Baker, Clint Howard and a surprise cameo from Val Kilmer. As good as everyone is overall, my favourite performance of the film goes to Jenna Boyd as the youngest daughter.. it’s hard enough to find child actors who will be able to to the minimal amount of believable emotion in a role like this, but she is uncannily talented and her potent terror, fierce resilience and undimmed love for her mother and sister woven into her work simply knocked me flat. The late James Horner composes a score that tops the list of prolific work from him for me, an ambient collection of classic yet somehow eerie western motifs that play along the sideline for the first two acts and then swell with orchestral release later when the finale rolls around. Cinematographer Salvatore Totino makes spooky use of the wide open vistas, craggy, labyrinthine geological structures and captures the rugged natural beauty of the region splendidly. I wish Howard would do more edgy, off the beaten path and thoroughly dark pieces of work like this because for my money he’s never been better. Perhaps that’s why this wasn’t received so well though, it’s a harrowing far cry from what we’re used to seeing in Hollywood westerns, full of black magic, dark deeds, horrifying imagery and bloody, unforgiving violence. It has a soul too though, present in the bittersweet relationship between its main characters and the ruthless resolve they fuel in each other to seek retribution against the forces of darkness at their door. This is a great film and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, I think it was just either misunderstood, ahead of its time or people simply couldn’t reconcile the heavier aspects. I’ve recently acquired the only existing Blu Ray put out by Shout Factory which is an absolutely gorgeous release that includes an extended version with twenty minutes more footage that enriches and deepens this story wonderfully. One of the best films of the last two decades.
E. Elias Merhige’s Suspect Zero is an interesting piece for me. Although it’s almost universally looked at as a failure, a shell of what it could have been, I’m crazy about it the way it is and think they did a fantastic job. It has a bit of a muddy past: Zak Penn wrote the script back in the 90’s, after which it gained much interest from the likes of Tom Cruise, Ben Affleck and others. It took until 2004 to finally get the film made, resulting in a version that many frown upon and consider a shitty film. Balls to them.
This is a grim, eerie serial killer chiller with an atmosphere thick enough to slice with a razor, and one extremely unsettling lead performance from a haggard, haunted Ben Kingsley. He plays Benjamin O Ryan, an ex FBI agent. Or is he? He’s efficiently hunting down and murdering random people (or are they?), leaving vicious visual calling cards and deliberately leaving victims lying on state lines to ensure the Bureau’s involvement. In particular he takes a shine to raw boned Agent Mackleway (Aaron Eckhart), leaving specific clues for him. O Ryan employs a metaphysical method of finding his victims, using an old psychic technique from a scrapped program the feds once explored. This gives extreme stylist Merhige a reason to throw sketchy, disconcerting images, sounds and editing into the fray, providing a visually and aurally chafing experience. Merhige is infamous for making the surreal, experimental shocker ‘Begotten’, and he brings the same stark, discomforting qualities to the proceedings here. I’m reminded of another experimental director who brought a near elemental aesthetic to an otherwise grounded serial killer flick: Tarsem Singh with his brilliant psychological fantasy ‘The Cell’. Suspect Zero is the grimy, fragmentary cousin to The Cell’s grandiose beauty. There’s also traces of Sev7n, Silence Of The Lambs, Millennium and more, yet the film finds its own groove and never sinks into derivative gestures. Composer Clint Mansell ditches his trademark celestial tones for something truly unique, a dread soaked nightmarish lullaby that gives the film an otherworldly tone to linger in dreams.
From Kingsley’s unnerving introduction hunting down a stranger on the interstate to his haunted, sympathetic final moments you get a feel for this extreme character that only this actor can give, infusing O Ryan with a zen like resolve that’s perforated by the psychological damage within. Eckart shows brittle desperation and blesses his performance with a touch of noir, which is appropriate to the film. Harry Lennix, Kevin Chamberlain, Frank Collison, William Mapother, famed writer Robert Towne and Carrie Anne Moss all give great work too. If you can forgive a few instances of murky plotting and one or two cheap plot turns, you’ll hopefully enjoy this as much as I do. It really deserves better attention and praise than it has gotten so far.
You know the funny thing about The Wicker Man is that I actually found it really scary and disturbing. This was when I saw it at a younger age and the film has now since become a legend among legends among bad movies, something people use for meme stock, draw examples from on how to make a wretched flick or put on simply to laugh and throw rotting produce at. But there was just something about helpless Nic Cage stuck on Bowen Island (lol) with a bunch of creepy cult chicks who resent a man being on their turf and some fucked up rituals that he gets to witness first hand that. The isolation and hopelessness of this scenario really got to me but I’m not sure if it would still have the same effect, it’s been over a decade. In any case this is a shit film, full of bizarre performances and not even just Cage either. He plays a cop looking for an alleged missing girl on the island, on which his ex wife (Kate Beahan) coincidently also lives. There’s obviously some foul play around and he becomes consistently more frustrated, freaked out and lets his inner Cage come out to play. Ellen Burstyn must have not had her reading glasses on when passed the script because she’s actually trying here as the affable but slightly sinister matriarch of these neo-pagan kooks. Others are played by solid actresses like Leelee Sobieski, Frances Conroy, Mary Black and Molly Parker but none make impressions beyond caricature. I’ll tell you who I do remember though is James Franco and Aaron Eckhart in virtual walk on bits, it’s bizarre seeing them in roles so tiny, Aaron as a random diner patron and James as some off duty Sheriff. Wonder what the story behind the scenes is there, maybe they both had a multi picture deal, both saw the dumpster fire on the horizon and loopholed their way into inconspicuous participation. This film is a mess and ends in an unpleasant, bloody cascade of ugliness and violence, but it’s also hilarious in how heavy handed and tone deaf Cage’s performance is. He spends much of it simply running around the island in a suit yelling at people. Everyone always goes on about the “not the bees!!” scene and it is admittedly gold, but my favourite moment has to be when Cage, finally good and fed up with everything, calmly marches into a room, stares one of the sisters straight in the eye and spectacularly one punches her out cold. It’s an out of left field moment of volcanic hilarity worth a few rewinds or immortalization in GIF format.
Podcasting Them Softly is thrilled to present a discussion with screenwriter Todd Komarnicki, whose new film, Sully, from director Clint Eastwood, lands in theaters this weekend! This was an enormous treat to speak with Todd about his writing process, the development of the film, his experiences with the cast and crew, and this rather miraculous true story in general. And as fans of Clint Eastwood in general, it was fascinating to find out more about the legendary director and how he operates. Todd’s other writing credits include the James Foley thriller Perfect Stranger, and he was one of the producers of the blockbuster holiday classic Elf. He’s also prepping a project as both writer and director called The God Four, with Michael Douglas, Jai Courtney (Suicide Squad), Natalie Dormer (The Counselor), and Brenton Thwaites (Son Of A Gun). We hope you enjoy!
Ron Howard usually plays it both straight and safe, never taking too many risks, never siding too much with abstraction or grey areas, and over the years this has made me somewhat of a non fan. Not a hater, simply seldom blown away or challenged by his work. With The Missing, however, he strayed from the path and brought us a dark, threatening picture of life on the frontier in all its brutal, treacherous glory. With the success of last year’s brilliant Bone Tomahawk, I couldn’t help but be reminded of this beauty, as there are elements of horror and evil dancing on a thread with origin points in both films. Different altogether, but from the same elemental stew and highly reminiscent of each other. Cate Blanchett is hard bitten single mother Magdalena, trying her best to raise two daughters (Evan Rachel Wood and the excellent Jenna Boyd) with only the help of her sturdy farmhand (Aaron Eckhart). One misty night, someone or something snatches Wood right out of her bed and disappears into the wilderness with her. Magdalena is raw and determined, launching a desperate search across woods and plains to find her kin. Joining her is her half breed injun father Samuel, played by an eerily convincing Tommy Lee Jones. Samuel left her years before and only re-emerges in her life for fear of being punished for forsaking his family in the beyond. Gradually he turns around and a bond is formed through the crisis, an arc which Jones nails like the pro he is. It turns out they are tracking a group of despicable human traffickers who take girls and sell them across the border into sex slavery. They are led by a mysterious witchdoctor (Eric Schweig) whose tactics border on voodoo prowess. It’s scary stuff, never outright horror, but sure aims for that with its hazy nocturnal atmosphere in which any denizen of the night could be poised behind the next thicket or cluster of trees, ready to pounce. Blanchett is tough as nails, a terrific female protagonist blessed with a mother’s love and a winchester to back it up. Jones is gruff and badass, believable as a native american and treated as a well rounded character seeking redemption in his twilight years. There’s also fine work from Steve Reevis, Clint Howard, Elizabeth Moss and a cool cameo from Val Kilmer as a sergeant who helps them out. My favourite Ron Howard film by far. Just a mean, dark genre piece that aims to thrill and chill in equal measures and comes up aces.
Thursday is one of the great forgotten neo-noir comedies of the 90’s, floating on the wake of everything from Tarantino to Verhoeven. It’s almost impossible to find these days (I watched an old youtube version years ago), but worth hunting down for its vehement hedonism, mean spirited dark humour and cast members who take a walk down the dark end of the street, and clearly have fun with the shamelessly disgusting material. There’s a spirited willingness to be nasty, a bottom feeding urban sleaziness that almost reminded me of Wayne Kramer’s Running Scared, or Joe Carnahan’s Stretch. Thomas Jane, riding the wave of a supporting role in Face/Off, plays Casey, an ex drug dealer trying to go straight and adopt a child with his wife (Paula Mitchell). Suddenly his old buddy Nick (a ferocious Aaron Eckhart) blows back into his life with big ideas and an even bigger amount of heroin he stole from god knows where. This sets off a wild and exceedingly weird chain of events including convenience store robbery, murder, a psycho named Billy (James LeGros) with a penchant for elaborate torture, a kinky femme fatale (Paulina Porizkova) and a scary rogue cop (Mickey Rourke). It’s a big bloody hot mess, but a brilliant one that nails the feverish tone of stuff like Natural Born Killers, a complete disregard for discretion or moderation, tossing everyone and everything into the fire until the audience feels like they need a big collective shower. Eckhart is a treat to watch, taunting the laid back Jane with a knowing glee, waiting for that inevitable revert to bis old, crazy self. Rourke is relegated to what is essentially an extended cameo, but he makes the most of it with quiet tension and the menace of a junkyard dog. This film has what is probably the weirdest sex scene I’ve seen, which the youtube version won’t show (being the sicko that I am, I had to track it down elsewhere). Brutally reckless stuff, and a howl if this is your type of thing. Watch for a brief and hilarious cameo from Michael Jeter.