Tag Archives: Ben Foster

Mind At War: Nate’s Top Ten Films on Mental Illness

The subject of mental illness is one that’s close and important to me as I myself am one of the afflicted, and it’s impossible to ignore that the treatment of it by Hollywood, particularly in formative years, hasn’t been so apt. Don’t get me wrong, I love stuff like Me, Myself & Irene or Split as entertainment but in terms of accurately representing the conditions that beset human beings, they haven’t been so hot. There are those films and filmmakers out there that strive to educate and enlighten or even just to craft an effective thriller or comedy and still stay true to real life, doing important work for the collective awareness and making terrific art/entertainment in one shot. Here are my personal top ten favourites!

10. Geoffrey Sax’s Frankie & Alice

Multiple personality disorders are popular in Hollywood but there’s a tendency to mock, sensationalize or tell a ‘real life’ story that’s later proved as fraud. This one showcases Halle Berry in a galvanizing dual performance as a go-go dancer afflicted by two very different internal identities and finding her life in splinters as a result. When a kind, compassionate psychiatrist (Stellan Skarsgard) makes it his mission to help her get back on track it becomes apparent just how challenging and horrific it must be to endure such a thing.

9. Dito Montiel’s Man Down

I heard this one sold one single theatrical ticket in the UK and didn’t fare much better here, getting squeaked into a quiet streaming release. It’s too bad because it is one haunting drama about PTSD featuring an implosive, incredibly intense performance from Shia LaBeouf as an ex marine who can’t psychologically reconcile his experience and is lost amongst his own trauma. Terrific work from Kate Mara as his wife and Gary Oldman as an army counsellor too.

8. James Mangold’s Girl Interrupted

Likely the most accessible and mainstream story on this list, Mangold’s look at a mental care facility for girls in the 60’s gets a superficial rep in some circles but I find it to be every bit the rewarding drama, ensemble piece and explorative journey that those who champion it say. Winona Ryder plays a wayward girl whose self destructive behaviour lands her there but it’s Angelina Jolie as a fellow patient diagnosed with borderline personality disorder that both anchors the film and provides it with a wildly unpredictable streak.

7. Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island

This is of course a big old elaborate mystery film with a gigantic cast, many red herrings, tons of subplots and all kinds of stylistic fanfare. But if you look past all that there’s a harrowing and very realistic portrait of minds irreparably damaged, between Leo Dicaprio’s PTSD afflicted ex soldier and Michelle Williams in a haunting turn as his deeply sick wife. The film overall is a tantalizing guessing game and broadly covers the thriller board but the final act brings it right down to earth for a grounded, grim finale showcasing the brutal honesty of these illnesses and the heart wrenching tragedy they beget.

6. Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King

Robin Williams gives one of his best performances as Parry, a once successful professor of medieval history who lost his mind following the death of his wife and now wanders the streets of NYC, homeless. Jeff Bridges is the radio DJ who befriends and tries to understand him and their relationship carries the film. So to does Gilliam’s knack for surreal visual storytelling, letting these fantastical creations run wild and giving us a glimpse into Parry’s damaged but fascinating mind.

5. Brad Anderson’s The Machinist

Christian Bale’s Trevor Reznik hasn’t slept in a year. Guilt, extreme weight loss and delusions are just the start of his problems. This is billed as and feels like a thriller but I think that’s deliberate on director Anderson’s part to put us in the hot seat next to Trevor, to make us feel the same paranoia and delusions of persecution he does. The atmosphere here is almost suffocating, the score a muted tangle of busted nerves and Bale’s performance something just this side of unearthly. When it all comes together and we see why he is the way he is it’s deeply sad but makes a kind of terrible sense and gives the film a final stab of emotional weight.

4. Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace

PTSD is only vaguely hinted at in this beautiful father daughter drama but it’s there in every frame, in every mannerism of Ben Fosters masterful performance. Him and newcomer Thomasin Mackenzie achingly display a family dynamic that has been set off balance by his illness, and the wedge it has driven both between them and between him and ever living a normal life again. This is a restrained yet heartbreaking film that gently unpacks its themes with kindness and compassion, letting a devastating final scene bring the whole point home heavily but somehow lightly in the same note.

3. David Cronenberg’s Spider

Ralph Fiennes give a focused, intense turn as the titular individual, a man released from a mental care facility and relegated to a London halfway house where all the scrambled and tumultuous memories of his past come tumbling down through the scattered web of his broken mind and into the present. Recollections of his parents (Gabriel Byrne and Miranda Richardson) are somehow shrouded from himself, by himself and as he tirelessly works to regain his sanity, he slips further away from it. Cronenberg uses shadows, dimly lit alleys and creaky, barren rooms to show how this character has been cast away from his own perception and wanders about like a lost soul.

2. Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy

The life and times of Beach Boys pioneer Brian Wilson are explored here, namely at two important junctures in his life. Paul Dano plays him younger, at the height of fame and success but poised on the cusp of a psychotic breakdown after stress and an unhealthy relationship with his abusive father (Bill Camp) reach a fever pitch. Decades later John Cusack embodies a much older Wilson, stuck under the tyrannical yoke of an evil, manipulative psychiatrist (Paul Giamatti) until he meets the love of his life (Elizabeth Banks) and a chance at a fresh start along with her. The scene of Dano putting recording headphones over his ears and closing his eyes in horror as he hears voices is one of the most brutally honest and realistic depictions of auditory hallucinations you can find in film. Wilson had a rough life and the film makes that very clear but it’s never ever sensationalist or exploitive and overall has a message about love, light and working endlessly to overcome any demons or struggles thrown into your path.

1. Kasi Lemmons’ The Caveman’s Valentine

Samuel L. Jackson gives a career best as schizophrenic former musician Romulus, a man afflicted by terrible hallucinations and delusions to the point that when he discovers a genuine murder conspiracy no one, including his police officer daughter (Aunjanue Ellis) believes him. This film is driven by a fascinating mystery narrative that takes Romulus from his cave in Central Park into the pretentious New York art world and beyond to find a killer. At heart though director Lemmons let’s it m be a serious minded exploration of what it must be like to live like that, to be constantly sabotaged by your own mind. Jackson’s brilliant performance and Lemmons effective use of surreal, mesmerizing imagery give us a compassionate, dynamic window into this man’s mind and in turn a unique, thought provoking piece of cinema.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more content!

-Nate Hill

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Christian Alvert’s Pandorum

I can understand that a bleak, disturbing SciFi horror like Pandorum didn’t connect well with Hollywood audiences or generate a lot of income, but it’s a shame because it weaves an intelligent, beautifully shot, truly scary dark dream of psychological paranoia, freaky ideas and tense, claustrophobic set pieces. Helmed by Christian Alvert, a German director best known for unconventional horror films, this was never going to be a flashy, familiar feeling big budget thing, which many probably didn’t expect. Ben Foster and Dennis Quaid are Payton and Bower, two astronauts who awaken on a giant derelict spaceship with severe amnesia and the unsettling feeling that their mission has gone horribly wrong. After a bit of exploring they find out just *how* wrong. Terrifying, monstrous humanoid creatures hunt any survivors through dim, clanging corridors that echo Ridley Scott’s Alien. Payton encounters two initially hostile nomads (Antje Traue and Cung Le) who he must band together with. Somewhere deep inside the ship, the reactor starts to fail. Another mentally unstable survivor (Cam Gigandet) is found by Quaid and starts to dangerously unravel. Gradually the secrets of what happened are revealed along with the reason for the presence of these creatures, which I won’t call aliens because they’re not. This is brutal, grim stuff that isn’t light watching or easy on the senses, it’s a skin crawling deep space nightmare of a film and a tough piece, no kidding. But it’s smart, tightly wound storytelling with fantastic acting (especially Quaid who rarely gets to go this bonkers crazy) and a plot that races along like some intergalactic nightmare until the final revelation, a thunderclap that lets us breathe again for the first time in over an hour. The title itself refers to a fictional psychotic disorder in which one believes the mission is cursed and becomes a delusional nut-job with destructive behaviour, the mental byproduct of extended space travel. This ties neatly into the very real dangers aboard the ship as reality shifts for these characters and their narratives become unreliable. A brilliant piece of SciFi horror filmmaking, a film that still hasn’t gotten its proper due. Get the Blu Ray, it looks fresh, crisp and darkly dazzling.

-Nate Hill

Being Hal: An Interview with Amy Scott by Kent Hill

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There is no denying that a good percentage of the films we count today as iconic, came from the 70’s. With the birth of the easy riders and raging bulls, it would be the first and last time filmmakers would enjoy true creative freedom, as well as being able to present personalized films to the movie-loving audience at large.

Now. When we think of the 70’s, the new Hollywood, there are the usual suspects that come to mind. But, there is a name that, for whatever reason, has been absent from the list when it leaks from the tongues of cineastes the world over. That name is the name of Hal Ashby. One of the great individualists to come out of his era, Ashby’s cinema is at once quietly profound and intensely calm. He was an artist that saw the world for what is was – in its entire obnoxious, absurdist best, Ashby captured the beautiful frailty of the moment, no matter how strange, or violent, or sensual, or funny.

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Still, with all the freedom they enjoyed, the filmmakers of the 70’s were far from immune from the ‘tampering of the suits’. Ashby, like his contemporaries, raged against the ludicrous interference and mindless nitpicking of the powers that control the content that comes to a cinema near you. And, in fighting for his vision, he was labelled troublesome, rendered weary and eventually would succumb to a career that watched him bravely, and perhaps at times foolishly, burn the candle at both ends.

Amy Scott has produced, at last, the grand portrait of a man who made some of the defining films of his generation – or any generation from that matter. With the blessing of Ashby’s estate she as unearthed a veritable trove of Ashby gold, from letters to recordings of the man himself – telling it like it is, or was, or perhaps someday will be.

Hal is a documentary that has been on the road to find out. I for one can’t wait for you to see it – I for one, am just glad it’s out…

WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE:

http://hal.oscilloscope.net/

https://www.facebook.com/halashbymovie/

Florent-Emil Siri’s Hostage

Hostage isn’t just another Bruce Willis action movie. It is that, but a lot more and told in a unique, frightening way that evokes both horror films, impressionistic art and a European style of filmmaking. It’s frequently more intense than your usual Willis shoot em up too, the violence has a much more horrific impact and happens on a smaller, more intimate scale while the explosions take a backseat. Willis plays hostage negotiator Jeff Talley, a man who is haunted by a hair raising incident with a situation he failed to diffuse, as we see in a bleak, visceral prologue that lets us know exactly how grim and bereft of one liners the rest of the film will be. Relocated to small town California with his wife (Serena Scott Thomas) and daughter (Rumer Willis, Bruce’s own daughter with Demi Moore), he seeks the quiet life, but naturally trouble begins to follow him in a spiralling set of dark turns and unfortunate events that lead to the case of his career and the night from hell. On a routine B&E call, Talley discovers that three white trash punks have taken over the home of businessman Kevin Pollak and his two children. Two of them are twitchy petty thieves (Marshall Allman and the reliably intense Jonathan Tucker) and are just out for valuables, but the third (Ben Foster, scary as fucking shit) is a sociopathic monster capable of terrible things, and the situation escalates from there. Little does anyone know, Pollak is involved in something far more dangerous than any of this, and soon a shadowy covert boogeyman called The Watchmen (Kim Coates, managing to still be terrifying behind a ski mask the whole time) has kidnaped Talley’s family as brutal leverage. It’s an intricate web of danger, heroics and violence that erupts like a flash-bang grenade and hits hard. Willis has never been better, you can see the open wounds in his soul bared through his eyes, and feel the weight of the situation crushing him as he races to find a solution. Pollak’s mansion feels like a labyrinthine death trap as the world’s most elaborate security system descends on those inside and shuts them in. Michelle Horn and Jimmy Bennett are terrific as Pollak’s resourceful kids, dealing with Foster’s unpredictable psychopath as best they can. The mood here is dour, savage and dark, with Willis’s fallen saint of a cop anchoring it all, it’s really some his finest work. There’s an austere score by Alexandre Desplat that accents the action with thumping passages in great sweeping master shots, and spikes the scenes of claustrophobia inside the house with uncomfortable rhythms. Director Florent-Emil Siri plays with an unconventional, surprisingly artistic palette and makes what could have been another routine action film seems somehow special, in all the right ways. One of my top Willis flicks, both in terms of his work and the overall film.

-Nate Hill

Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace

Debra Granik‘s Leave No Trace is the most important film about post traumatic stress disorder I’ve ever seen, and a potent, timely and very frank father daughter story that will leave you reeling in the final frames. Not that it’s cloying or melodramatic either. On the contrary, Granik, who made waves with Winter’s Bone some years back, chooses to tell her story in a spare, hushed, realistic manner that at first seems to keep you at a bit of a distance, but before you realize it you’re drawn right in. This immersive story sees Ben Foster as a haunted veteran suffering from PTSD who has chosen to raise his daughter (Thomasin Mackenzie) in the wilderness of Oregon, just outside Portland, living off of the land and keeping mostly to themselves. This is a haven until social services gets wind of their situation and makes every effort to relocate and integrate them back into society, something which Foster’s character just can’t seem to do anymore. Moving from county to county, always on the run from something he can’t even put into words, holding onto his daughter because she’s the only one he has left, this is the life of someone who has been broken and forgotten by most, and it’s tough to see. I read that in pre-production Foster and Granik workshopped the script to remove almost forty percent of the dialogue, to let the silences in between words do the talking. A wise move. Him and Mackenzie are so good you believe them as family for real, seemingly tuned into each other on an elemental level, these are the two best performances I’ve seen from anyone so far this year. They meet many folks on their journey along the Pacific Northwest belt of Oregon and Washington (cue lush,

gorgeous cinematography captured by Michael McDonough), and the one running theme that comes across is compassion. Everyone they meet, from the Oregon social services bureau to an RV park full of quiet, peaceful folk, everyone shows them kindness and tries to understand their plight as best as they can. I’d like to believe that human beings are inherently good, and clearly Granik shares this hope here, with an intimate realism in every character interaction and the direction to anchor every actor, from the two leads right down to the bit players, in something believable and very much human the way we’re used to outside the cinema. PTSD is not in the forefront here either, not used as an emotional device or explored in an analytical manner, it’s subtly hinted at and the most we ever see is the mannerisms playing at the corners of Foster’s eyes, and his blunt inability to exist in a societal way anymore, which eventually drives a heartbreaking wedge between him and his daughter, laid bare in an ending scene that affects to the core and is the gold standard of what acting could, and should be. Other fine work can be found all over in the people they meet along their way, including a kindly farmer (Jeff Kober) who runs a homestay program, a sympathetic ex army medic () and the owner of a Washington RV Park (the great Dale Dickey, who also stole scenes in Winter’s Bone). This film starts out slow, comes on strong and the end will leave you tearful, ponderous about the situation of so many in their country afflicted by this condition, hopeful that family bonds can provide a modicum of healing, and altogether fulfilled in terms of story and atmosphere. One of the year’s best so far.

-Nate Hill

Scott Cooper’s Hostiles

Scott Cooper’s Hostiles is beautifully shot, competently staged, well produced, acted and scored, but there’s a certain depth, development and complexity lacking, and I lay the blame on script, which seems a little south of the polished stage, with one foot still rooted in the blueprint phase. It’s a shame because the actors are game to give the film all they’ve got, but the script handed to them just isn’t on par with their efforts. Christian Bale is implosive as ever in one of his best performances as Blocker, a decorated civil war vet who has spent a great portion of his career heavily involved in the war and genocide against Native American tribes, and as such has become a hard, mean and brittle tempered creature. It’s fascinating to observe how someone like him, who does have a decent soul deep down, can be turned so backwards and hateful in circumstances like that, another theme the film doesn’t quite follow through with. Blocker is tasked with one last mission before semi-early retirement: Escort legendary Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi, excellent as ever) and his kin from Arizona back to his home in Montana to live out his remaining years. Blocker bristles at the thought, but when his salty superior officer (Stephen Lang) threatens his pension, he begrudgingly saddles up. The film then showcases their journey, several hardships and skirmishes they find themselves in, all to fertilize the eventual bond and understanding formed between the two groups and their decision to work as a unit, and even respect each other. Here’s the problem: the script isn’t deep or thoughtful enough to make any of these arcs believable. The Native characters are painfully underdeveloped, particularly Yellow Hawk’s son and his wife, played by Adam Beach and Qorianka Kilcher, two actors more than capable of handing in great work when the material comes their way. The one thing that does work and is probably the best quality that film has is a character played by Rosamund Pike, a frontier farmer whose entire family is slaughtered by vicious Comanches in the film’s arresting opening scene. She joins Bale’s company, and Pike plays her with harrowing sadness, terrifying vengeful poise and gives one of the most realistic, un-cinematic portraits of grief I’ve ever seen. Come awards season next year, she should be a front runner. The film almost doesn’t deserve her sterling subplot, but it does it’s best, and reaches some heights here and there. Bale’s company is played by a reliable troupe including upright Jesse Plemons, melancholic Rory Cochrane and grizzled Peter Mullan. Also appearing is western veteran Scott Wilson in a brutal last minute cameo, always nice to see him still in the game. There’s an unbalanced focus between the soldiers and the natives, who I wanted to learn more about but were left as mainly tagalong bystanders with scant dialogue. When Bale’s arc reaches it’s final stages, I felt slightly cheated by everything that came before: I didn’t quite believe that what he’d been through was enough to sway over two decades of hate and prejudice, and once again the fault lies with script. A little more care, preparation and editing could have turned this from a good film into one for the ages.

-Nate Hill

The Punisher (2004)

There’s several movie versions of Marvel’s The Punisher, which these days are pretty much eclipsed by Netflix’s take-no-prisoners, balls out long form adaptation, but the film ones are still out there, if only for variety. By several I mean three, which some might not be aware of. Dolph Lundgren made an effort back in the 90’s which looks cool, but I’ve yet to see. Ray Stevenson most recently took up the mantle for a jagged edged, jarringly violent and dismal toned entry, which is worth a look. My favourite has to be the Thomas Jane one though, by far the most ‘hollywood’, high profile stab at the mythology, slightly silly in places, dementedly weird in others, a well casted, oddly pitched vehicle that is somehow the most fun of the trio of flicks. Jane, at least in the looks department, is the closest you’ll find to the Frank Castle of the comics, a rock-jawed, all American tragic antihero turned mass murderer. The story he finds himself in… well, it’s a little stuffed with itself, subplots dangling from it like entrails and far too many characters running about, but oh well. Jane’s Castle watches his wife (sadly short lived Samantha Mathis) and family massacred in the film’s opening, at the hands of melodramatic mobster Howard Saint, played by John Travolta, who’s determined to steal every scene whether anyone likes it or not. Forced into hiding, Frank eventually becomes the angry Punisher, a vigilante dressed like a jock in a school shooter Halloween costume, now on a path to wipe out Saint and his whole freaky entourage, which includes consigliere Will Patton, sporting some icky extra curricular activities. He also shacks up with sexy Rebecca Romjin and her two apparent roommates Ben Foster and comedian John Pinette, when he needs to dodge Travolta’s onslaught of colourful assassins. Well, he only *literally* shacks up with Romjin, but you get the idea. Speaking of assassins, there’s some really cool supporting villains dispatched by Saint. Castle is unprepared when an eight foot tall, mute Russian goon in Where’s Waldo inspired attire busts down his door looking for blood. My favourite has to be Harry Heck though, a contract killer so similar to Johnny Cash that for years after watching this I legit thought they somehow convinced the man in black himself to do an epic cameo. It’s actually a country singer named Mark Collie, but oh well, the guy composes a twangy guitar accompanied vocal for every target he’s assigned, which he croons out to them before getting violent, and that’s a fuckin wicked comic book villain in anyone’s books, whether or not the character actually appeared in the ones this film is based on (I’m guilty of never reading them). This film is fun because of it’s arch, broad strokes approach, especially with Travolta’s over the top take, Laura Harring as his emotional wife, whose fault it is that the whole massacre in the opening happens to begin with. That opening is ruthless, exploitive and doesn’t hold most of anything off camera, a good setup for revenge (or,sorry, ‘punishment’) in any pulp comic book scenario. Jane holds his own, and even popped up again years later to do a pseudo sequel in short film form called ‘Punisher: Dirty Laundry’, which is so good it almost blows this one out of the water. Here you’ll find a movie that’s not quite as resigned to it’s unpleasantness as the Warzone one (which really gets messed up), but still knows how to pack a mean punch, when it’s not too tied up with itself.

-Nate Hill