Tag Archives: Carla Gugino

Netflix’s The Haunting Of Bly Manor

Stunning. Sensational. Complex. Deeply heartbreaking. Surprisingly romantic. The creators of The Haunting Of Hill House have done it agin with The Haunting Of Bly Manor, a lush, emotional, Victorian Gothic puzzle box of human drama, tragedy, memories that won’t die and yes, horror too although there’s less of it this time round. As one character remarks, “this is a love story, not a ghost story.” It’s true, and while Netflix hasn’t marketed it as such, if you go in expecting a romantic tragedy instead of full on horror like Hill House (think Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak) you’ll absorb the material with a clearer, fairer palette.

Our story starts as young American nanny Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti) journeys from London to Bly Manor in the countryside, hired by nervous, boozy Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas, dutifully flaunting a posh dialect he’s clearly worked hard on) to look after his young niece Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) and nephew Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth). Henry keeps well clear of Bly and the two children, content to wallow in his fancy London office, always at the bottom of a bottle for painful reasons we later are privy too. There she meets various complicated and, well written and flawlessly acted characters including tomboy gardener Jamie (Amelia Eve), stoic housekeeper Mrs. Grose (T’Nia Miller), lovable cook Owen (Rahul Kohli) and the black sheep among them, Henry’s shady, maladjusted valet Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson Cohen). Bly Manor itself, referred to in baroquely quaint terms by several characters as “a great good place,” is a world away from the omnipresent shadows, oppressive blue hued austerity of Hill House. Bly is rich, ornate, painted in deep chestnut browns, opulent dollhouse purples (the 80’s setting is proudly reflected in colour here) and the grounds adorned in brilliant green topiary, verdant meadows and beautiful rose gardens.

Now, my favourite part: the story. As told by a mysterious, wistfully mournful narrator played by the always brilliant Carla Gugino, this is a very dense, layered arrangement of interweaving love stories and subsequent tragedies, several ghosts and a host of human beings who all feel real, full of life and vitality and whose pain is shared greatly by the audience because of how excellently character development is cultivated, performance is calibrated and episodes are spun together on a loom of effortlessly fluid storytelling. Pedretti is a wonder as Dani, luminous and charismatic but one can see in her wide, drawn eyes and flighty mannerisms she has a painful past. Past and memory are important themes here, and every character, even the one painted as a flagrant villain, has something in their past that haunts them, causes them pain and dictates the choices they make in our narrative. Thomas is achingly restrained as Uncle Henry, Kohli raw and potent especially in an affecting campfire monologue that encapsulates everything we know, feel and wonder about life and death in one pure utterance. The two children are superb in quite difficult roles that require them to change tone, pitch and mood quite frequently. This story reminded me of those staircases in Harry Potter that continually shift their angles and pitch people out into unfamiliar hallways without warning. This narrative does the same for its characters, trapping them in ‘tucked away’ memories that seem arbitrary at first until you realize it’s for them to come to some realization or epiphany. I love that sort of reality melding, spaced out storytelling that uses memory and the mind in a literal sense and setting, it’s used to fantastic effect here and the story, while structured similarly as Hill House, is its own nesting doll narrative full of complexity and shifting components. Is it scary? Well, aside from a few effectively chilly moments no, not really, and nothing comes close to some of the skin crawling sequences in Hill House. But like I said, it’s more of a human story with life in its veins, and the most disturbing, distressing elements are the emotional rigours these human beings must endure, the torment that memory can inflict, the potent pain of a deep heartbreak, the deep wounds that grief imprints on one’s soul and the ways in which some may find redemption and others… not so much. It’s a tough, emotionally devastating tale and especially so for those who feel deeply and get invested in story and character, it takes its toll. But it’s a gorgeous, challenging, complex, beautifully rewarding experience in the same token, and I’m grateful to Mike Flanagan & Co for doing something equally as spellbinding as Hill House, yet cut from a different sort of cloth altogether. If this were a nine hour film (which is how I recommend you view, it demands to be binged in rapturous immersion) it would be my number one of the year.

-Nate Hill

In Memory of Robert Forster: Nate’s Top Ten Performances

Robert Forster passed away yesterday and the realms of Hollywood, television, exploitation and indie features will never be the same. This was a guy you knew even if you didn’t know his name, a pillar of supporting performances for decades, a man who radiated talent and charisma even if he was only onscreen for three minutes of any given production. My buddy saw him in an airport once but couldn’t think of his name for months and it drove us both nuts for awhile. He described the fellow as a “world weary detective type with kind eyes and a vaguely sad demeanour.” We eventually figured out who he meant when I kept showing him a rogues gallery of IMDb profile pictures to try and solve the conundrum, but my point is that this was a guy whose essence and persona just sticks with you no matter the role or project. I will miss him dearly and revisit many of his excellent performances again but for now here are my top ten favourite:

10. Steve Yendel in the Nelms Brothers’ Small Town Crime

The ultimate pissed off dad, Steve takes quirky revenge on the assholes who killed his daughter in this violent but good natured black comedy, teaming up with a persnickety pimp (Clifton Collins jr) for some off the books war games. “I wanna tie them to the back of my Bentley, drag them around a bit.” His delivery of that pithy little sentiment is both droll and priceless.

9. Marshall Sisco in ABC’s Karen Sisco

Not the first Elmore Leonard adaptation on this list sees him playing father, mentor and friend to Carla Gugino’s badass federal Marshall Karen Sisco in this televised version. Dennis Farina and Jennifer Lopez played these roles in Steven Soderbergh’s Out Of Sight and rocked it but Robert and Carla find their own laidback, easygoing groove and have terrific chemistry. Word of warning though this show was never released onto DVD and is absent from any streaming services anywhere (which someone should really do something about) so basically your only hope is chopped up versions on YouTube.

8. Burt in Elizabeth Chomko’s What They Had

Forster frequently finds himself in gritty genre stuff so I always get in line when he does something gentler like this hilarious and heartbreaking family drama. He’s brilliant here as a patriarch whose wife (Blythe Danner) is slipping into dementia. He’s nonchalant about it while his kids (Hilary Swank and Michael Shannon) unravel. His refusal to admit that she’s slowly losing herself is sort of sad and funny at the same time and the performance is perfectly pitched between the two.

7. Detective Murphy in Paul McGuigan’s Lucky Number Slevin

His character here is only onscreen for a minute or two but he’s got the biggest monologue in a film already thick with dense dialogue, and the dump truck level of exposition he delivers is something to see as he nails it while giving his idiosyncratic NYC cop role attitude to spare even though none of the dialogue is even about him. If you’ve seen the film you know what a brilliant, labyrinthine house of twists it is and he gets to impart the final wisdom that brings the narrative home, subsequently leaving a lasting impression amidst many other quirky performances.

6. Detective Harry McKnight in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr

Another quick cameo but one of the finest moments of eerie gravitas in the film. As a horrific limo crash kicks off the films inciting incident, Harry and his partner (Brent Briscoe, another Lynch favourite who is no longer with us) stand by the roadside and look out over the nocturnal LA dreamscape, wondering just what happened. The quiet, contemplative look in his eyes suggests many mysteries to come without saying anything, and his scene remains one of the films most atmospheric and memorable.

5. Arthur Petrelli in NBC’s Heroes

He always rocked the kinder roles but did some wicked nasty villain turns too, here playing the utterly evil and sociopathic ringleader of the troubled Petrelli clan. Not above terrorizing and murdering his own family for incredibly nefarious gains, he heads up the mysterious corporation that is pretty much responsible for most of the shitty things that happen on the show. Underplaying for chilling effect, he was essentially the big bad of the entire series run and wielded it wonderfully.

4. Scott Thorson in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants

Another aging family man looking after an ill wife, he plays father in law to George Clooney’s grieving real estate tycoon in a wonderfully emotional and intimate interpersonal drama. He doesn’t approve of his son in law and makes it very clear in a series of wry commentaries that lead to a confrontation that the actor gives the power of an open wound.

3. Sheriff Frank Truman in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return

Taking over the character in spirit from Michael Ontkean but also playing a new rendition of the upright lawman archetype, Robert plays Frank as a straight arrow who has begun to dim and get a bit weary. He’s a thoughtful man, a tired husband and you can sense a spiritual crisis in him when things begin to get weird because this is Twin Peaks and they inevitably must. One of my favourite scenes in the entire Peaks saga is a pine rimmed computer popping out of his desk so he can skype Doc Hayward (Warren Frost) on his fishing trip about vital information and share pleasantries while he’s at it. It’s such a lovely scene full of light and goodness, Robert’s contribution to the Peaks world is really something special.

2. Jake Nyman in Paul Chort’s American Perkekt

This is a weird one but essential because the director wrote this role specifically for Forster and he’s absolutely fucking terrifying in it. Jake is a psychiatrist, or says he is anyways, but he’s on a demented road trip where every decision is determined by the flip of a coin, and with each flip he seems to lose his grip on sanity a bit more. The final act sees him completely go over the edge and terrorize a drifter (Fairuza Balk) into submission. It’s a very strange film with many characters and has that oddball ‘psycho indie road flick’ vibe but his performance is the sickened heart of it and he really lets that ripcord of uninhibited mania go.

1. Max Cherry in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown

The crown jewel of his career saw Tarantino revive his Hollywood career to play bail bondsman Max, a keen Everyman who is deeply in love with Jackie (Pam Grier) from the moment he lays eyes on her and determined to help her escape homicidal gun runner Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson). The pacing of both the film and particularly his performance really sells this story, you can watch the wheels turning as he observes characters around him interact, and the blossoming look of adoration on his face when he sees Jackie for the first time is truly remarkable.

Thanks for reading and please feel free to share your favourites from Robert’s fantastic career!

-Nate Hill

Michael Caton-Jones’s This Boy’s Life

Michael Caton-Jones’s This Boy’s Life is based on a true story of abuse, of which there are thousands every year, many heard and many unheard. This one doesn’t end up as bad as some or as good as others but I liked that it didn’t make the abuse a centrepiece for the film and rather used it to show a fascinating character dynamic between 50’s teenager Tobias (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his nasty stepfather Dwight (Robert DeNiro). Tobias and his mother (Ellen Barkin) come from a free spirited background, abandoned by his birth father and left to roam the States looking for a new provider. She meets and marries Dwight pretty quick, and Tobias also figures out what he’s made of real quick too. Dwight is a nasty, bitter, violent, pathetic piece of human garbage whose self esteem is so low he’s just gotta take it out on others around him, often in a cartoonish way. He’s the type of guy that if you fronted on him in a bar or he got in your grille, you’d just laugh and brush him off rather than fight because you just feel sorry for the guy. Tobias is a teenager though and can’t actually stand up to him in a brawl, making him a prime target for years of physical and psychological abuse which his mom refuses to be a referee. This isn’t a sad or depressing film because we realize that this can’t go on forever, the real life man it’s based on grew up to be a successful professor of literature and the film is never downbeat, just desperate. This is Leo’s debut lead role and he kills it, finding that anger and resilience that will go on to be building blocks in his now legendary career. DeNiro is very anti DeNiro here if you catch my drift. Used to playing extroverted alpha males, he switches it up for an extroverted weasel who thinks he’s hot shit. The only thing I would have eighty-sixed is the Fargo style Minnesota accent he tries on for size as it doesn’t suit him and he’s never been an accent savvy actor. Watch for an uncomfortable appearance from Chris Cooper as well as striking early career work from Carla Gugino, Tobey McGuire and Eliza Dushku who is so young here she’s unrecognizable. This film feels loose and episodic at times but remember these are someone’s memories here and those can be tricky, illusory beasts. I love the way it feels, like several slices of life during adolescence, a point where life can be at its most tempestuous and confusing, therefore making for excellent material. Set in the lush Pacific Northwest and attuned with production design that is studious to the 50’s aesthetic, this is a great film for any actor to find their debut in.

-Nate Hill

Brian De Palma’s Snake Eyes

I love those films that revolve around a feverish, high profile celebrity boxing match, whether the stakes are placed on the fight itself or on the characters spectating. There’s a sense of intrigue and danger to that kind of sporting event that makes for great mood setting and story establishment. In Brian De Palma’s Snake Eyes, Nicolas Cage and Gary Sinise find themselves pulled into a shadowy assignation attempt on the life of the Secretary of Defense as a fight rages just past ringside in Atlantic City (Vegas Lite).

The character dynamic between the two actors here is superb; Cage is Santoro, a cheerfully corrupt detective who dresses like a pimp, ruthlessly schmoozes his way into profitable exchanges and has hopes of one day being the mayor simply due to the fact that he’s well connected. Sinise is Commander Dunne and couldn’t be cut from a more different cloth, he’s a buttoned down, modest, even toned military man who resents Santoro for being such a merciless showboat but has reconciled that with the fact that they grew up together. After the chaotic assignation, they’re tasked with interviewing any and all witnesses and let me tell you in an arena that crowded and fired up, this is no easy task. Stan Shaw (remember him from Fried Green Tomatoes?) is terrific as Lincoln Tyler, the hulking prizefighter who clearly knows something based on the dark, sheepish looks he casts around when being interrogated. Others involved include Carla Gugino as a mysterious operative, John Heard as a fast talking politician, Kevin Dunn, Michael Rispoli, Luis Guzman, Mike Starr, Peter McRobbie, Tamara Tunie and more.

I’ve heard claims that this film builds into a third act that’s bombastic and ridiculous, but hello people, this is a Brian De Palma film and the guy is in love with overblown sensationalism. That’s not to say he doesn’t have tact or skill in building slow suspense either. He has a way with long, uneasy tracking shots (I’ve always thought he’d be a great helmer for a Michael Myers Halloween film) as characters pursue each other through detailed, densely populated environments. There’s an extended sequence set in a hotel here where a baddie searches for a witness with cold resolve that’s among the best thriller set pieces I’ve seen anywhere. Of course it gets kind of WTF in the third act but I love that turn of events just as much, it adds a level of political paranoia that rises above simply a few people conspiring to take out a leader they don’t like, and the fun is in watching each hilarious new piece of the puzzle land with a boom n’ crash. I’ll tell you one thing, although I could have guessed early on who the mastermind behind all this hubbub is, I would have *never* in a million years guessed why or how it plays out or the reasons behind the whole thing, and you have to give De Palma and screenwriter David Koepp mad props for pulling that off. Plus the thing just has energy, adrenaline, personality and fucking awesome visual panache to spare. Great film.

-Nate Hill

Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting Of Hill House

Netflix has been knocking it out of the park with their originals this year, and Mike Flanagan’s Haunting Of Hill House is no exception. Flanagan is the man behind 2013’s brilliant psychological opus Oculus and last year’s stellar Stephen King adaptation of Gerald’s Game, he’s been cutting his teeth and proving solid mettle in the horror genre for years now, and with this one he’s given the freedom of long form storytelling to give us a supremely chilling, deeply depressing yet surprisingly cathartic and effective piece of frightmare bliss than any horror fan will love. Based on a book by Shirley Jackson, I can’t speak for faithfulness to source material here but I can say that this is powerful, thoughtful and frequently terrifying stuff, a haunted house tale interwoven with rich, deep family drama and complicated psychological aspects that makes for an invigorating, if nerve exhausting experience.

From the first night the Crain family moves into vast, ornate Hill House mansion right up until the final, fateful night Mr. Crain packs up his five children and flees the estate without Mrs. Crain, they are relentlessly plagued by ghosts, spectres, bumps in the night, haunting visions and things you can’t even describe. The film flashes back between the children’s stressful childhood having to spend a year or so in the house, and to the present time where they have somewhat gone their separate ways and all have inner demons to face, stemming right back to their experience there. Did their mother really get overtaken by malevolent spirits, or did she simply lose mind? Why didn’t their father tell them anything about what he saw in the mysterious red room moments before he evacuated them in a panic? What was real and what wasn’t? Will they be able to overcome the residual trauma of these painful, scarring events and carry on into the light of their adult lives, or will the darkness envelop them as it did their poor mother? It’s a complex, dense story that goes way beyond simple haunted house motifs and cuts a direct line to the essential using the blueprint of a horror film, and that makes it something special.

Flanagan is fascinated by themes of mental illness and the ambiguity that lies there, and as he did with Oculus, he makes it a little bit tough to see where the vague line between psychosis and actual supernatural forces is drawn, letting the audience ponder what is actually real to some degree. Certainly the house is haunted for real, it’s too convenient that an entire seven person family would show symptoms that extreme, but how much did the house really do, and how much is in the shattered perceptions of these tormented folks? I love the complexity and challenges we get as a viewer there and can’t wait to see what Flanagan does next in his career to build upon these themes.

Now the big question: Is it scary? Oh my yes. I’m not easily rattled by horror but this has some of the most blood freezing moments of inspired ghostly terror I’ve seen, and a few that made me walk away and go find one of the cats or the dog to hold as I made the well thought out decision to watch most of this at night while I was alone in the house. From a scuttling zombie in a dumb waiter shaft, floating spirits that roam hallways peering in doors and looking under beds, the freaky ass ‘Bent Neck Lady’, giant dogs and all sorts of other stuff, this house is packed to the brim with terror. It’s also relentless, like you don’t even get that much of a break between scares and before the family can launch another heated, dramatic argument there’s already some leering ghoul or screeching apparition on their heels, even when they’re grown up and far from the house. They’re well staged, unexpected scares too, some of them reaching that chilling point where you genuinely wish you didn’t see what you just saw because you know you’ll lose sleep.

The cast is carefully chosen and all give beautiful work, but the standout has to be Carla Gugino in a difficult role as Mrs. Crain, loving mother, troubled woman and fallen angel. Carla did a showstopper in Flanagan’s Gerald’s Game last year and tops it here with an intense, passionate turn that echoes Jack Torrence while showing the aching confusion of a broken mind in crystal clear fashion. Henry Thomas does his best as Mr. Crain but they saddled him with unnatural blue contact lenses that make him look more like one of the ghosts than a human father, while Timothy Hutton fares excellently as the older version of him. The children are all vividly drawn, both in childhood and grown up later, brought to life by a talented bunch including Michael Huisman, McKenna Grace, Violet McGraw, Victoria Pedretti, Lulu Wilson, Julian Hilliard, Oliver Jackson Cohen, Elizabeth Reeser, Kate Siegel and Paxton Singleton.

Flanagan has shown true innovation here as a storyteller, deliberately editing together the narrative like a fractured patchwork quilt of scenes, starting some and doubling back to them a few episodes later so they tie in a certain way and show you a new angle on a character you wouldn’t have surmised, bringing things from a tactical, developed slow burn to a hair raising all out finale that shows us every ghost the house has to offer, but more importantly those that exist in the psyche of each family member, and the relationship between them. Cinematographer Michael Fimognari strives to use cuts seldom and hold the shots as long as possible, creating some dynamic, flowing camera work that captures things succinctly without any frenetic nonsense or hectic motion. The show samples everything from David Lynch style sound design, Stanley Kubrick visuals a lá The Shining, The Conjuring esque retro vibes, Stephen King trippy cerebral narratives and more, but it’s definitely a distinct piece all its own, from an original voice of horror that disarms, affects and scares no end. This is the kind of horror I love seeing, where the scares are used to illuminate and say something about the characters, because if you don’t care about them once the ghosts start coming out, well then the story has lost you in cheap parlour tricks. Flanagan knows this, and doesn’t let anyone off easy with his arresting, unexpected story. Brilliant stuff.

-Nate Hill

David S. Goyer’s The Unborn

There’s a lot of ideas running around in David S. Goyer’s The Unborn, ideas that a terrific cast do their best with but ultimately this was one big WTF of a letdown, a boring waste of time that deserved better execution than it got. It’s essentially another Exorcist retread, given a twist, with Odette Yustman (whatever happened to her? She was sort of like Megan Fox Lite) playing a girl who is tormented by something called a Dybbuk, some sort of mythological Jewish entity but also just a fancy way of saying demon. It has something to do with her unborn twin who never made it past utero, her institutionalized mother (Carla Cugino, wasted in a heavily cut role) as well as history dating back to Joseph ‘Angel of Death’ Mengele, the infamous Nazi surgeon who had an obsession with twins, a theme that also plays on here. This thing haunts and eventually possesses her, until she finds help from two priests played by Gary Oldman and Idris Elba, in roles beneath their talent. There’s one nicely written scene where she and her boyfriend (Cam Gigandet, who can’t act to save his life) ponder the universe and all its terrors while in bed that would have been better brought to life by different actors. Various scenes show her interaction with her loving father (James Remar), but they’re underdeveloped and feel edited. Mostly it’s just her running from freaky scuttling apparitions, loose plot threads hanging about like wires in an abandoned warehouse and just.. bleh. There’s definitely something there in terms of brainstorming script ideas, but they screwed it up big time by making a haphazard, boring, generically glossy PG-13 dud instead of putting some actual style, personality and genuinely frightening elements in. Big ol’ missed opportunity. It’s a shame, because there’s some neat, spooky special effects thrown at the wall here that deserve a better film, and I’d expect better from Goyer too. Oh well.

-Nate Hill

B Movie Glory- Rise: Blood Hunter

Rise: Blood Hunter is what you get when you take the sexy female vampire Underworld shtick and suck all the moody, gothic stylistics out of it, leaving something that doesn’t quite have an aesthetic it’s own at all, and feels awkward. It does have one thing going for it though: Lucy Liu. She gives Kate Beckinsale a run for her money in terms of physicality, sex appeal and stunt work, but it’s too bad she wasn’t given a film that rose up to meet her talent. She plays a reporter here who wakes up on a morgue slab one day and realizes she’s been turned into a vampire by the very same satanic cult that she had prior been investigating. Loaded with souped up powers, she begins a bloody journey to exact revenge on them one by one and put a stop to their nocturnal shenanigans. There’s a subplot involving a cop (Michael Chicklis) who’s looking for his missing sister, but ultimately it’s a series of violent, dimly lit confrontations as Liu hunts the cult down to their nasty leader (James D’Arcy is a bit too pretty boy for such a built up villain. There’s supporting work from Holt Mccallany, Carla Gugino and random cameos from Nick Lachey, Marilyn Manson and the great Robert Forster who’s talent is wasted on a bit part that any extra could have done in their sleep. You’ve gotta hand it to Liu, she’s a fountain of star-power and presence, but not even she could carry this beyond SyFy’s movie of the week syndrome.

-Nate Hill

Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game


Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game is exactly what horror/thrillers should aspire to be: devilishly well written, engagingly acted, crisply directed and scary enough to wake the dead. Presented on the Netflix platform with their trademark lack of marketing (they tend to hurl out content willy nilly, sans fanfare), it’s just shown up and is already one of the best horror films I’ve seen all year. Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood give encore performances and the best work of their careers as a couple who make their way to a cottage in the country, trying to spice up the ol’ marriage. When Brucie has a nice heart attack mid-foreplay (he popped a few of those magic blue pills), Carla is stuck handcuffed to the bed in the middle of nowhere, with no one for company except a mangy stray dog that begins to take chunks out of dead Bruce. So begins a fiercely internal, visceral psychological survival story, a brutal chamber piece that delves into her twisted childhood, troubled marriage and churns forth a tale to curl the pain on the cabin walls. There’s hallucinations, inner monologues, squirm-inducing gore, elliptical mind games and a pseudo-twist ending that had me shuddering into the couch. Gugino has never been more intense, believable or varied in her work, turning this character into something potent and tangible, bringing her past trauma and fight for survival to screaming life. Greenwood is smart, witty and so darkly funny it’s tough now to picture him as the stoic, emotionally shut off archetype he usually has embodied before this film. Additional work from ET’s now eerily grown up Henry Thomas and Twin Peak’s ginormous Carel Stryucken (terrifying here) adds class and distinction. The show belongs to Carla and Bruce, and what a show they put on, feasting on the rich, textured dialogue and playing sandbox in the story that uses depth, character and genuine menace to lasso us right in. In a year that’s seen at least one King novel unforgivably bastardized, and one other given the solid yet flawed and incomplete treatment, it’s reassuring to find one that comes up pretty much perfect in every way. Kudos to Netflix, the two leads and everyone else involved. 
-Nate Hill

Scott Frank’s The Lookout


Scott Frank’s The Lookout is a film where every turn of plot, exchange of dialogue, set piece and stylistic choice just seems to mesh flawlessly, resulting in a package that’s nearly as perfect as you can get. Part psychological character study, part crime thriller, sewn together lovingly by threads of brilliantly written, intelligent interpersonal drama that seems lived in, the writer never uses the pen to pander nor patronize, but provides well drawn, realistic human beings who sound like actual people and not archetypes dwelling within the pages, never fully realized. Joseph Gordon Levitt plays Chris Pratt (not actual Chris Pratt lol) a young hotshot who becomes the victim of his own cocky, self destructive behaviour. After a horrific car accident that was entirely his fault, his girlfriend is left maimed and he a busted up shell of his former self, saddled with bushels of brain damage and the inability to cohesively live his day to day life the way he did before. It’s some sort of synapse frying neurological scarring that’s never fully explained, but the symptoms are clearly and fascinatingly outlined in a way that no other film has really tried before. He’s left somewhat adrift in life, naively attracted to his foxy psychiatrist (Carla Gugino), misunderstood by his parents (Bruce McGill & Alberta Watson), and cared for by his eccentric, blind and motor-mouthed roommate (Jeff Daniels, a standout as always). He happens to be from a small midwestern town though, and in movie land these burgs are almost always filled with schemes, heists, double crosses and feed store robberies. ‘Bro seduced’ by an equally suave and shady dude (Matthew Goode, whose work here lives up to that surname and then some), Chris is shanghaied into assisting in the hold up of the very bank he works at, and soon the kind of hell that would make the Coen brothers applaud breaks loose. Everything makes sense though, the jigsaw pieces of the narrative nestling flush against one another, not a beat feeling out of place or in danger of derailing the whole thing. That’s not the easiest thing to achieve, especially in a taught running time that clocks in under two hours and still manages to feel substantial. Levitt is terrific, a guy who used to be in control, used to be revered as the alpha who takes care of things, his condition worsened by the knowledge that people know full well how broken he is. The stakes are inherently high when someone that set back by life must navigate their way through the complex ins and outs of pulling off a bank heist. One hell of a film.  

-Nate Hill

Zach Snyder’s Sucker Punch

I’m already giggling picturing the cries of protest that will rise up when I post this review, but the hell with it, I really like Zach Snyder’s Sucker Punch. I never deliberately play the contrarian, I just seem to often gravitate towards films that have been maligned by the masses, and I can’t really help it. Now, in this film’s case, a few of the many and varied negative criticisms are somewhat warranted, yet blown out of proportion when you really take a good look at the story. The film is pure style, and although Zachary might have let his imagination run a little wild and clutter the whole affair with fanboy fantasies and video game visuals, there is a clear and discernible story beneath if one cares to look. Now, the only way that story is entirely comprehended is by watching the extended director’s cut, which includes an absolutely crucial, pivotal scene that’s should have never, ever ended up on the editing room floor for the theatrical version. Seriously, they we’re straight up asking for hostility and confusion by not keeping it in every cut of the film, it’s just common sense. Speaking of story, here we go: the film opens in breathless style and classic patented Snyder slo mo, with young Baby Doll (Emily Browning) trying to save her little sister from their tyrannically abusive stepfather. Outsmarted and shipped off to an austere mental institution, her journey is a sad, surreal and somewhat befuddling one, but there’s a method to the madness that might not be clear with only one viewing of the film. The asylum she is sent to is plagued by a sinister orderly (Oscar Isaac) who is abusing the girls in his care, and as a result, Baby Doll channels such horrors into a grandiose set of fantasy worlds, the base of which rests on a burlesque style brothel where she and others work for volatile pimp Blue (also Isaac). Joined by Amber (Jamie Chung), Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jena Malone) and Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), she blocks out the reality of what is happening and replaces the details of an elaborate, systematic escape attempt with impossibly epic, highly stylized adventures, each of a different theme or set in a vaguely familiar period of history. Battling medieval dragons, giant samurai golems with mini-guns, WWI zombie hordes in a gaunt, bombed out European landscape, it’s all a detailed rush of sound and fury that hits you like a ton of bricks, and although is far too much for the film to handle and still get its point across, it’s completely dazzling stuff, especially on Blu ray. Guided by a mysterious Wise Man (a kickass, rootin tootin Scott Glenn) who shows up in a different get up each time and mentored by brothel Madam of sorts Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino), each setting holds the key to move along a certain cog in their plan, correlating back down the line of delusions straight to the asylum, if a little tenuously. Now it all hinges on the arrival of the High Roller (Jon Hamm), a rich playboy who has come to the brothel to see Baby Doll dance, and probably more. Here’s where they fucked up royally: The scene I mentioned earlier is a monologue from him that is pretty much one of the most important parts of the film, capping off both realities beautifully, and without it, not only is Hamm relegated to basically a walk on extra, the entire final punch of the climax is rendered lost and neutered, not too mention quite uncomfortable in a sense. Whoever was in charge of that particular piece of the editing should be tarred, feathered and run off the studio lot by teamsters. With the scene left in on the extended version, however, the story is given both point and purpose, feeling like a complete vision with a little weight to go along with it’s Hindenburg sized bag of visual tricks. Not Snyder’s best for sure, but it’s in no way close to the turkey some people will have you believe it is. Whiners. Style over substance? Yes, I’ll definitely concede there’s an imbalance, but don’t try and tell me the whole thing is bereft of substance at all, because that is a lazily researched argument. The soundtrack is a treasure chest, I might add, with beautiful covers of Sweet Dreams and Sing Me To Sleep sung by Browning herself. 

-Nate Hill